Note: I was asked to write a blog post for Books@Work. They were especially interested in the fact that three different groups of people chose the same book to discuss. I quickly wrote a 2000+ word post for them which they cut dramatically. Here is my original post. Yes–it’s that great a book.
Blog post for Books@Work
I’ve been doing seminars at Books@Work for a couple of years now, and the book I’m using is Learning to Swim by Sara Henry. It is a great book, a rich book, and that is fortunate, because I’m doing it for the third time.
We offer the participants three choices in advance with a little write up of each book, and as a group they pick the one that sounds the most interesting. Henry’s book keeps winning, and I think I know why. Or at least, I know why I love it so much and why I am happy to now be reading it for the 5th time.
This is a book about change. I love books about transformation and protagonists who learn from their circumstances. My favorite genre is the mystery genre, and when people first hear me say that, they often assume I must be fascinated with murder: how it’s done and how to get away with it. Actually, that’s not particularly interesting to me at all. The reason I love mysteries is because murder changes people. In a murder investigation, secrets are revealed, even long held ones. People at the center of the mystery, either because they were somehow connected to the victim or victims, or because they are suspects, begin to question what they knew of the victim and what they themselves are capable of. And I mean that in the broadest sense.
In Learning to Swim, our protagonist, Troy, undergoes nearly an immediate change when she rescues a drowning child. (I hate spoilers, so I will try hard not to ruin anything for the person I hope will read this fantastic book. We find out about the drowning child in the first chapter.) The boy was deliberately thrown into the water with his arms tied, so this was attempted murder at the very least.
Troy is very happily single, childless, with friends kept at arms length. As she investigates, every aspect of her life changes. First, she realizes that in order to help the child, she needs to reach out to people, something she is quite uncomfortable with.
In my very first Books@Work seminar I ever led, I was surprised to find Troy’s asking a friend for help to be a bone of contention. One of the participants said that she would never tell her best friend such a secret. The argument in the seminar was about the legality and ethics of Troy’s actions. “I wouldn’t tell my best friend about what I had done!” This was immediately intriguing to me.
When I had read about Troy’s discussion with her friend, it never occurred to me that Troy shouldn’t have shared this. I wondered if the seminar participant, let’s call her Karen, thought that Troy might be enmeshing her friend in possible legal difficulties. “Karen, are you afraid for Troy’s friend, that she’ll get in trouble?” I decided to admire Karen for her concern.
“Hell no,” said Karen. “I wouldn’t trust my friend with that information!” Pandemonium. The questions I had prepared had been answered politely and had led to some interesting discussion, but this outburst stirred something in the crowd. Wow! I thought I’d capitalize on it, and now I was dying to hear what others believed.
There were seven of us that day. I went around the room, and we were relatively evenly split. A few of the women said, “Absolutely I’d tell my best friend. I tell her everything!” Others agreed with Karen. “I try not to let things that will get me into trouble out. It’s my own fault if something comes back on me.” I shared with them how fascinating this was to me. I have eight best friends. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but I can’t differentiate. I really do have eight best friends.) And it would never occur to me that I couldn’t tell them things, even if it might be a detriment to me. In fact, there have been times in my life when I hesitated to share, and, realizing that I was uncomfortable actually became a spur to sharing. I almost felt guilty in feeling that I couldn’t share.
Whatever these women felt though, this had become my favorite question: would you share this story with your best friend if you were Troy? And I continue to get great, heartfelt answers to this.
Another reason I love teaching at Books@Work is because of the following: sometimes I get to make participants cry. OK, I am partly kidding, but a good book can evoke strong emotion and great discussion. One of the issues explored in this book is that of having children, and what makes a good parent, and what makes a bad parent, and what makes a horrible parent. One of the sessions was very sparsely attended, and I asked about family in the book, and one of the women (Let’s call her Pat) burst into tears quite suddenly. We were all startled, and I quickly asked if she were all right. She explained that the book had really touched a nerve for her, in a mostly good way.
Pat told us that when she and her husband got married, one of the things they strongly agreed to was that they never wanted to have children. They had a really good marriage until one day, about five years into the marriage, she had an unexpected change of heart and suddenly, she wanted children. She couldn’t really explain it; she just really wanted kids. She hesitantly raised this with her husband, and he violently stated he didn’t want them, and this was their agreement and what was going on. She was devastated by this and began to think her intense desire would ruin their marriage.
She persisted though in this, and finally, many months later, he very grudgingly, gave in. She worried what a family would look like with a loving mother and a hesitant father. When her child was born though, it wasn’t long before her husband became a doting father, and they ended up with two more children and a strong, happy family. She is still so grateful for this drastic change in her life, and because of the story, kept thinking of her own circumstances and what might have happened if she hadn’t changed her mind and her husband’s.
I am so grateful to have heard this story.
The second time I led a seminar with this book, I was in a group of Hudson employees. Unlike my first group, this one was huge, with 21 participants. The first day, we had 19—missing were 2 people from the legal department.
One of the things I love about mystery novels is that they are filled with ethical dilemmas. In an amateur sleuth mystery, the protagonist has to make difficult choices, often because she isn’t in law enforcement or associated with legal industry. She often doesn’t know what she is “supposed” to do, and for someone like me, this is wonderful because it then becomes a matter of common sense and compassion. In Learning to Swim, Troy has to make a lot of critical decisions quickly and with faculties that aren’t at their best because she has been through traumatic events herself. This creates fertile ground for readers to ponder what they would have done or what Troy shouldn’t have done.
The group was evenly split over one such choice Troy made with a few of the participants quite angry at Troy. There was some fierce judgment cast against her, with me and a few others defending Troy. One of Troy’s opponents said that what Troy had done was against the law. We all attempted to figure out exactly what the law was, and sadly, our law experts were missing. One person who hated Troy said that at the next meeting we’d find out how wrong Troy was. We couldn’t wait to learn the truth.
At meeting number two, I was introduced to the law experts. We eagerly explained the conundrum, catching up the people who had missed the last session. People were literally at the edge of their seats wondering if the final nail would be put into Troy’s ethical coffin. The lead expert said, “The people who opposed Troy are right. What she did was legally wrong. Charges could be brought against her.” Let’s call the main person against Troy, Shelley. She had a large grin, and I imagined that if she weren’t so self-contained, she would have been pumping her fist in the air. I felt strangely decompressed and disappointed. But then the legal expert spoke again, “but if I were Troy…” no one spoke. No one even breathed, waiting to hear the final pronouncement, “I would have done the same thing.” Pandemonium! I loved that guy in that moment.
Another bone of contention with some in the Hudson group was the snooping that Troy did. A common complaint against amateur sleuth mysteries by those who don’t like them is that these detectives have to stoop to spying. In a police procedural, and in real life, police have to obtain warrants in order to search people’s premises. There is a measure of protection afforded to citizens to protect their privacy and property. Amateur sleuths don’t have this “luxury.” They have to seize opportunity when it comes, and therefore they break laws. Troy finds out all sorts of information by looking at computer emails, for example.
Most of us who love mysteries didn’t give this any thought. A few people in the seminar were quite upset about this and talked about violations of privacy and such. This then led to a discussion about at what point did they begin to disagree with Troy’s actions. This was fascinating. I made a chronological list of actions Troy took and then simply had people vote. Did she go to far with this first one? This second? This third? As I proceeded through the list, not surprisingly, fewer and fewer people supported her actions. Until this session, inured as I am to tropes in the mystery genre, apparently, it never occurred to me to question her actions. We then had a lively discussion because I asked people who allowed for most of Troy’s actions to defend her from those who thought even Troy’s first foray into privacy violation to be wrong. The debate was incredibly vigorous.
What was most fun though to me as observer, were what people considered wrong for Troy, but not for themselves. Jane, let’s call her, was very upset at even the most basic steps Troy took to sleuth, but then Jane surprised us all when she talked about how she came to divorce her husband. It turned out he had carried out an online romance with a couple of different people, later meeting them for regular rendezvous. Jane uncovered this by stealing her then husband’s password. She then arranged to meet the women pretending to be her husband, and she met with them! Jane was proud of these actions (and received quite a bit of attention from her fellow employees, two of whom stated they had done similar things in relationships though not going quite as far as Jane.) Yet Jane was one of those who vociferously opposed Tory’s actions. People are funny. And interesting.
Each time I read this book, I find myself identifying with Troy. In the first group, one of the women identified Troy as “childish” and “not ready for adulthood.” It was difficult for me to hear this. I loved Troy! In the second group, when someone attacked Troy’s character and I defended her, the person laughed. “I like Troy, Katherine! She’s just a character!” I realized at that moment how much I loved Troy, and how much I loved her life despite so many perceiving it as lacking. “I know, “ I said to the participant. “In so many ways, I am Troy, or wish I was.” Many of the participants smiled at that. I had discovered, in leading these seminars, just how much I often identify with protagonists and don’t see their flaws. This seminar allowed me to learn a bit more about myself.
We find out about ourselves and others when we read and when we share. I love learning why people identify with a character or don’t. I love hearing about ethical dilemmas and how others would resolve them. It is especially interesting to me when something I think is obvious isn’t to others, and vice-versa. We can’t help having some blinders on when we read, the blinders put on through our gender, race, class, geographical region, education, etc. Sharing with others is so interesting because it at least momentarily, if we are very lucky, allows us a glimpse into another’s thoughts and emotional processes. By doing that, we learn more about them, and hopefully, if we are having an interesting enough discussion about disparate issues, we learn that difference is as much fun and as intriguing as sharing the same values and ideas.