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Can Books Get Us Through These Hard Times?

Can Books Get Us Through These Hard Times?

Editor’s Note: Kerry Arquette’s book of poems, War Cries: Unheard Voices, Unmarked Graves is now available here.

Trump’s comments throughout his campaign dehumanized Muslims, undocumented immigrants, women, members of the LGBT community, African Americans, war veterans, scientists, doctors, Iowans, the disabled, and many others. With the precision of a surgeon, he divided the American “us” into a new order of American “us” and “them.” Or perhaps he merely pulled off the bandages to expose a lesion that has been festering, and rotting for decades and beyond. Whether Trump’s comments were intended simply as a strategy to divide the populous in order to conquer his opponent is open to speculation. Whatever his reasoning, Trump has been voted President and, some might advise, that it is in our best interests as a nation to put the ugliness behind us and to support the new administration. That will be very difficult to do.

What is done cannot be undone. Friends and neighbors who we believed we knew, now seem like strangers. When casting their vote for Trump it seems that they cast their vote for his opinions—they backed up his perceptions that devalue select groups of people.

If we are to come together again, sharing a common continent, a common government, common educational goals, common morals and values, we must affirm our shared human qualities. We are wired with the same circuitry. Love, anger, passion, fear, desire, aspiration, depression, joy, insecurity, ego, ambition, daring, courage, regret, empathy, pride, regret, stubbornness, superstition, imagination, idealism, arrogance, vulnerability and hundreds of other traits are core to our condition. Those who cannot relate to others because they perceive them as different and therefore less worthy need to pick up a book.

A good book invites a reader into the mind and heart of the characters. Want to know why somebody embraces a grueling and frightening journey across desert and unfamiliar land to cross the border into America as an illegal Mexican immigrant? Pick up Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail by Ruben Martinez (Metropolitan Books).

Don’t understand what it is like to be looked at with hostility and hatred simply because you choose to wear a headscarf? Read Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age (Simon & Schuster).

Can’t comprehend the absolute horror of being sexually assaulted in America? Open the pages of The Hunting Ground: The Inside Story of Sexual Assault on American College Campuses by Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering, and Constance Matthiessen (Skyhorse Publishing Inc.).

When you hit a wall of understanding and simply can’t fathom how somebody comes to a place, believes in a concept, embraces a destiny…read on.

I didn’t intend for the release of my book War Cries: Unheard Voices, Unmarked Graves (Open Books) to coincide with the upheaval in our nation, however I believe that the timing is fortuitous.

I hold the strong belief that if we step into the shoes of book characters we grow as humans. War Cries exposes the thoughts of those caught up in WWII in Europe. Yes, there are traditional “heroes”—the resistance fighter, the righteous who hide Jews, the brave children who try to save those they love, the woman who claims a lost child as her own though it costs her her life—but there are also characters who we could easily discount as villains. How interesting that once we get to know them we find it less easy to do so. These malefactors—German soldiers, Hitler Youth, a pregnant 12-year-old Nazi sympathizer, a Jewish camp kappo who reigns abuse on other prisoners, a child who adores Dr. Mengele although he uses her and her twin for his experiments, a Jewish camp prisoner who becomes the lover and falls in love with the camp commandant, a misogynistic ghetto guard, a rabbi who chooses not to tell his congregants the truth, a priest who does not step forward to take the place of a condemned man (although one of his colleagues does just that), a village beauty who allows German soldiers to wine and dine her despite the anti-Nazi sentiments of her neighbors, a scorned lover who turns in her ex to the authorities, and many more—are simply humans caught up in situations they were unprepared for. They truly believe they are making the best (perhaps only) choices available. And based upon their personalities and backgrounds, they are.

I wonder if the fates of the Voices in War Cries: Unheard Voices, Unmarked Graves might have been different if Hitler hadn’t ordered the burning of books in 1933.

When he did so he was intent on destroying the spread of ideas that might be contrary to those espoused by his regime and to negate the importance of academics and free thought. The—perhaps unconsidered—outcome of the book burning was to shut down an avenue through which German citizens might have nurtured their ability to understand and relate to those whose experiences were different from their own.

This is not to say that understanding other humans equals the embracing of repugnant ideas. I find it impossible to embrace the positions of Trump supporters who advocate mass deportations, denial of dignity to Muslims, or the acceptance of sexual assault on women. I do not advocate the dissolution of manners or acts of disrespect toward our citizens. I do pursue an understanding of people who hold very different values than my own. To not do so, only widens the chasm between us.

My fear is that once the breach is too wide, coming together again—which would be a hope for a united America—will be impossible in my lifetime.

Kerry Arquette
Kerry Arquette

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