On the TV screen an armor-clad Alice wields the vorpal sword as tall as she is against the massive dragon beast of the Jabberwock. The beast smashes through stone pillars without pause as it streams toward her across the dark checkerboard battlefield of Wonderland. The playing-card soldiers of the Red Queen clash in battle with the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, and the fierce tiny Dormouse. The Jabberwock looms above Alice, its scaly snout gaping, its snaky appendages waving.
“Is this fiction?” our 6-year-old granddaughter asks, voice tinged with a bit more than academic curiosity.
Thanks to the fabulous Ms. Greenman, first-grade teacher at the excellent Grandville, Mich., public school Fiona attends, we had been having conversations all year that made glad my writer/English teacher/grandma heart.
“If you’re reading a book and it has pictures of animals and their insides and all their bones, then it’s non-fiction,” she informed me on one occasion. On another: “Stories have to have problems.”
At the moment, as the enormous terrifying problem of the story slithered closer and closer, Fiona continued to grapple with her question. Onscreen the Jabberwock feinted to the left and Alice parried, slicing off a sizable snaky appendage.
“Fiction,” Fiona cried triumphantly. “This is fiction because if she cut off that much of it, it wouldn’t still be alive.”
And on the screen, it was still alive and still menacing. But for Fiona, critical thinking had saved the day as much as had the vorpal sword. She was watching fiction. Whew.
I loved that moment. I loved seeing her mind work, loved seeing her take a subject so close to my heart –literature – and use it to make sense of her world. I loved that default of magic alive in her. It accepted Tim Burton’s “Wonderland,” peopled by a talking rabbit in a waistcoat, a villainous big-headed queen, an army of playing-card soldiers, and only questioned it when the really scary stuff started.
I loved the confident, consummate childishness of her reasoning. And “childish” here is not at all a negative. I mean it in the sense St. Paul did when he spoke to the Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Would it were really that easy in the real, adult world to always sort fiction from non-fiction, to relax into the comfort of knowing the Jabberwock’s scaly tentacles will not come snaking out from under our beds. To put fears away as childish.
But the scary truth is, the Jabberwock lives. Not the voice of the turtle, but the Red Queen’s shrill cry of “Off with her head!” is heard in our land. We need Alice and her vorpal sword. Bad things are happening.
The Jabberwock of greed stalks the land. We can see its insides and all its bones, and it is non-fiction.
“Half of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef has died since 2016 in a catastrophic bleaching event exacerbated by acidification,” according to Dr. James B. McClintock, an endowed professor of polar and marine biology and author of “Lost Antarctica.” In a recent op-ed column he discussed the ramifications of “the Trump administration’s plan to weaken fuel economy standards to levels that give even the auto industry pause.”
Protection for 1,000-plus species of migratory birds that has been in place for a hundred years will be decimated by “the Trump administration’s drive to remove ‘unnecessary’ regulatory ‘burdens’ on the energy industry,” former deputy secretaries at the U.S. Department of the Interior David J. Hayes and Lynn Scarlett point out in a recent New York Times column.
Wilderness threatened by mining, streams choked by the trash of trashing our planet – these are scary things. And we haven’t even gotten to the people stuff yet.
I’m not going to mention education or immigration or the working poor. But I am going to think for one moment about one single person. A person I love who has faced a deadly illness, who needed medication and surgery and health care to live. Perhaps you know someone in a similar situation. Someone you love. Perhaps you think about what would happen if that pre-existing condition cost them their health insurance.
At the end of the battle in Wonderland, the playing-card soldiers tell the Red Queen they will serve her no more. And Alice slays the Jabberwock with her vorpal sword.
We each have a vorpal sword. It’s called a vote.
Pen Campbell lives in Benton Harbor.