Resilience at the Heart of a Story

2020-06-15T10:26:12-07:00June 15th, 2020|

Guest blog by Shelley Blanton-Stroud

I’ve always been drawn to the topic of resilience—it’s the heart of my family’s origin
story.

I grew up in Bakersfield, California, surrounded by grannies, grandpas, aunts, uncles,
and cousins, whose shared history was a Route 66 migration out of Texas and
Oklahoma during the 1930s and 40s Dust Bowl, when nearly-biblical drought combined with
failed farming practices to make the land go barren. This was my family’s slice of the
Great Depression.

Grown-up talk around plates of Thanksgiving turkey often turned on that escape from
dried-up farmland, villainous bankers, untrustworthy government, toward California,
where orchards were said to overflow with oranges and there was a fair paycheck for
every hard worker.

Conditions were not as advertised.

More people looked for work than found it. And when they did get the golden chance to
pick Central Valley cotton or potatoes, they found themselves forced to accept unfair
payment for backbreaking labor. Bosses had them over a barrel—work for pennies or
no beans in the pot. Add to that the hatred they often felt from the citizens of the towns
whose roadsides they camped on. These, of course, are all conditions experienced by
many migrant farmworkers today.

The Central Valley of my childhood was filled with descendants of people who lived
through this time, on one side of the paycheck or the other. Looking around, it became
clear that some of them seemed to have been made gritty by that shared history, while
others were permanently harmed, physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially. Why, I
wondered. Why does tragedy and hardship make some people stronger and debilitate
others?

This question is at the heart of my Depression-era novel, Copy Boy.

To prepare to write it, I immersed myself in books that looked at resilience in that time
and place. I continue to gravitate to books that deal with resilience even now. Here are a
few I recommend.

For me, the godfather of resilience literature is Viktor Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning.
In half of this slim volume, he tells in clear, simple, deeply-moving language, what
happened in his five years in Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps, focusing on his
struggle to find reasons to live. In the other half, he describes the philosophy he
developed as a result of this experience, that man’s deepest urge is to search for
meaning and purpose. He suggests that such a quest makes it possible not only to
survive, but sometimes to thrive in terrible circumstances.

Linda Gordon’s Dorothea Lange, A Life Beyond Limits is a fascinating biography. She
details how Works Progress Administration documentary photographer Lange
developed as a world-class artist—you’ll recognize her famous Migrant Mother, Nipomo
—in spite of suffering from lifelong, painful side effects of polio. In fact, it is implied, her
excellence was not in spite of her polio, but, partly, because of it.

I’ve recently read and loved an advance reader copy of Gretchen Cherington’s memoir,
Poetic License (coming in August 2020). In the beginning, it seems to be a fascinating
story of the charms of growing up in an iconic literary household. (Her father was
Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award-winning poet Richard Eberhart.) But as the
story progresses, we see the story as something else. Cherington must choose whether
to maintain her family’s literary mythology, silencing her own voice, or to tell the truth,
publicly, about being sexually violated in that home. Cherington shows how hard it is to
speak out, and how right. She benefits from that struggle.

In Ashley Sweeney’s historical novel, Answer Creek, we meet protagonist, 19-year-old
Ada. She’s a member of the historic Donner Party. In Sweeney’s sensitive hands we
learn how, having made their famous, fateful decision, Ada and her group is stuck in
Truckee for a blizzard-filled winter, forced to consider extreme choices to survive.
Sweeney has based this story on impeccable research, putting the reader in the
position of asking timely questions—What can we do to survive? How do we make our
choices? Is sheer survival the only relevant goal?

In her novel Luz (out June 9), author Debra Thomas tells the story of Alma, who relies
on natural strength and determination as she journeys to the United States to find her
missing migrant farmworker father. Alma and the reader must ask what price she is
willing to pay to complete this quest. Thomas suggests that every journey requires
courage and resilience—especially those involving great risk—but the true test is
whether the traveler arrives at the story’s end with tenderness and humanity intact.

Shelley Blanton-Stroud is the author of novel Copy Boy (She Writes Press, June 2020).
Blanton-Stroud grew up in Bakersfield, California, the daughter of Dust Bowl immigrants
who lived in Federal work camps made famous by Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Her
novel is set in the Great Depression and features the lives of Okie field workers, in
particular a girl who has to become a boy to get work. Blanton-Stroud teaches college
writing at Sacramento State and consults with writers in the energy industry. She codirects
Stories on Stage Sacramento, where actors perform the stories of established
and emerging authors, and serves on the advisory board of 916 Ink, an arts-based
creative writing nonprofit for children. She has also served on the Writers’ Advisory
Board for the Belize Writers’ Conference. Visit her website at shelleyblantonstroud.com

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