by Jane Rosenberg Laforge
Why do we tell each other stories? To instruct, entertain, enlighten, convince, or to heal? The healing power of stories is frequently overlooked but is as old as humanity. It’s also still a common therapeutic approach in counseling circles. Sharing one’s story with others in group therapy helps one recover from trauma and resist harmful behaviors. The act of sharing builds trust and community, and the troubled person can, in theory, better cope with his or her particular struggle. But it only works for people able to share their story. What if you cannot speak? Or what if no one wants to hear you?
Jane Rosenberg Laforge addresses the opposing powers of storytelling and silence in The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War. The story is based on Grimms’ “The Bearskin,” in which a man makes a Faustian deal to spend 7 years wearing a bear skin and living like a wild animal, after which the devil will grant him all the riches in the world. Laforge’s retelling is beautiful and subtle, in a narrative that presents mostly as historical fiction. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, the fantastic element is primarily the story (or stories) within the story—which in this case are a variety of fables and folk tales. Nevertheless, Laforge laces magic into the narrative, and when she finally reveals the fanciful, it’s transformative.
In the novel, an Irish concert pianist named Michael Sheehan fights in World War I trenches for the British while his countrymen fight in Dublin’s streets for their independence. Captured by the Germans behind enemy lines, Michael endures torture, starvation, and hard labor for the remainder of the war. Altogether, these experiences leave him a ruined pariah. With damaged hearing, vision, and hands, Michael cannot return to his career as a pianist, and suspected of desertion by the British and collusion by the Irish, he cannot find a home in either land. Hence, he survives as a beggar in the countryside. Then one day, the American writer Eva Williams rides her bicycle past him and decides to stop.
Michael is mute due to a self-imposed silence borne of the futility of self-defense. No one accepted his story, so he stopped trying to tell it. A professional storyteller, Eva does not stop talking. The child of confidence artists, she discovered the power of words early, but where her parents used them to deceive, Eva uses them to redeem. Redeeming Michael becomes her mission:
“I want to tell you something” she said. “And when I’m finished, I will leave you alone. But first, listen.” Outside the first movement of crickets could be detected, the initial preparations that their legs made with their wings and bodies…. Their song wove its way into the dark cottage as if it were yarn, loosely knotted by the frogs that had joined in with their hooks and stitching.
“I am listening with you, Mr. Sheehan,” Miss Williams said, because she realized that she would need these sounds to wrap the Hawkman in, as a man might use blinders or a blanket to lead a horse or some other petrified animal through fire or wind.
“I know of someone else like you,” Miss Williams began, and as she built this story for him, she reminded herself to keep making room for the sounds outside to enter: an owl whose call might darn a hole in the fabric of the darkness or the paws of shrews and hedgehogs against the dew and grasses. These sounds had to be made necessary for Mr. Sheehan again, if he was to rejoin Miss Williams in this life.
Laforge’s first book, The Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy | A Fantastical Memoir, also examines themes of deception, silence, truth, and the redemptive power of love in a multilayered narrative that switches between Laforge’s youth and a fantasy reminiscent of “The Goose Girl.” Both Princess and Hawkman depict a romance between a mute, damaged person and an articulate artist, but where Princess interleaves Laforge’s real life into fantasy, Hawkman weaves fable and fairy tales into historical fiction. In Princess, Laforge presents both narratives in chronological order. In Hawkman, she reveals Michael’s and Eva’s pasts as reminiscences relevant to current experience. Between the true stories that explain the scars each character bears, come the tales with the power to restore the true self.
Like Hawkman‘s Eva Williams, Laforge is gentle, literary, and rule-breaking. She uses omniscient narration in Hawkman, and the fluid transitions between different characters’ perceptions can be disconcerting to the modern reader used to third person limited. The narrative choice is, however, perfectly appropriate to a fairy tale. The deliberate pacing and looping chronology also don’t follow current conventions in fiction to maximize reader interest without really demanding their attention. This isn’t a shallow read for casual skimming between real-life demands. It’s a brilliant work of literary fiction best read in seclusion, away from the Internet and other focus-disruptors. Laforge’s prose is lyrical, deeply moving, and well worth a second read.