Friday Fiction: Optimism Not Despair by Alex Snider

The death of Jack Layton this week has shaken me to the core like many Canadians; the loss is so tremendous and overwhelming considering the success of the last election. He spent 30 years in politics as the underdog, getting tonnes accomplished from the back-benches; it staggers the mind to think of what he would have accomplished as the leader of the opposition. It's just really not fucking fair.

In these days of grief and frustration, the importance of his last words to Canada truly shine through: "Friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair." Tattoo that on your brain; live by it. The world may not magically improve because you're thinking happy thoughts but your life probably will and well, you only live once — make it a good one.

This Friday Fiction, I've wracked my brain for some books that I think Jack would approve of for their portrayal of the strength of the human spirit and it's capacity for kindness and goodness. Each book features characters searching for better lives, for answers to life's "big questions", for love and compassion and understanding. Each book arcs from beginning to end, from despair to optimism. 'Twas no easy feat given my proclivity for dark and depressing with a hint of humour novels, but I did it! Please send cookies!

The Color Purple by Alice Walker -- Good enough for Oprah, good enough for you. 'Nuff said (I have to say "'nuff said" is one of my favourite sounding phrases in the world, next to "stuck in my craw"; it makes me giggle like a school boy). Just kidding! Not nearly 'nuff said! (I think it's the uff sound and the casualness -- winning combination.) How is this not the epitome of Jack's quote? These women are raped and beaten and raped and sold and have their children stolen and are shamed and just brutalized at every turn. But, by the end what do they do? They look around at what they have in their lives that is good, they forgive and they move on! They see the bright side, the silver lining, the open window by the closed door, they make lemonade! Powerful stuff, people. This is what the human spirit is capable of.

The Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun -- Should be called "Now That's How You Homestead Without Losin' an Eye!" (or an arm or a life). Somehow manages to get through 500+ pages with the family intact, food on the table and the family farm successful -- without being cloying or too Coehlo. Sidestep the ugly racism towards the Sami people (it's about his art not his person!) and you've got yourself a very inspiring read that will leave you itching to homestead in Norway.

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexsander Solzhenitsyn -- Despite the unending days of hard labour, of unbearable cold, of hostile guards and the reality that he very well may just die in the camp, it's a good day for Ivan when he gets a second bowl of grey gruel. Take notes, everyone.

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham -- I love Somerset Maugham. So much so that if I were to marry a wealthy and handsome tall, blond investment banker and we lived in NYC and vacationed in Martha's Vineyard I'd probably name our child Somerset (not sure girl or boy child, when I started this run-on sentence I thought "definitely boy" but now... maybe a girl? Argh, I don't know! Maybe just left it up to the fates and which ever came first?). But yes, the Painted Veil... Kitty is a shallow little jerk who cheats on Edward Norton, a boring bacteriologist, with some other more exciting guy who obviously breaks her heart. Then Ed and Kitty move to the tiny town of cholera in inland China where Kitty becomes a saint who baths cholera-diseased orphans and suddenly loves her husband who's name is actually Walter (he just played Edward Norton on TV in the movies). Tragedy strikes (probably because Kitty is now a saint, good things just don't happen to saints) but luckily Kitty's strength of character and hope and love and optimism will get her through. Fin.

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck -- How could I not talk about GoW??? I mean, I practically squeeze it into every other Friday Fiction and this time it's actually relevant! The Joads keep going. They keep looking for a better life after death (not as in after-life but as in their loved ones die and the living keep on truckin'. Literally); they keep looking for a better life after they're exploited; after they lose members of their family; after run-ins with the law; after disappointments and traumas; after starvation. Their desire for a better life never wavers in the face of adversity, in fact it only gets stronger. Human nature can be a beautiful thing.

Get stronger everyone! Get happier and more hopeful and always be optimistic! I love you!

Photo: Tributes to Jack Layton outside City Hall, by Adam Bunch

Alex Snider is a Toronto-based writer, a Contributing Editor for the Little Red Umbrella and the co-creator of the What Fresh Hell Is This? blog, which is where a version of this post originally appeared. You can read the rest of her posts here.


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