About halfway through Helen Simonson's first novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, I felt the tug of a voice I thought I had silenced long ago. "Why are you wasting your time on a story," it said, and "Fiction is a waste of precious time" --- old questions that continue to taunt. After all, I should be learning something, right? I should be reading my Bible, right? Right. . . and wrong.
I pulled Leland Ryken's The Liberated Imagination off the bookshelf, a dogeared book worth every cent I spent on it and one that excels at answering these questions. There it is: "The function of the arts is to heighten our awareness and perception of life by making us vicariously live it." Ryken goes on to say that art partly functions as revelation, giving us a heightened "awareness of ourselves, of people, of the world, of God." It gives shape to our experiences. It posits universals of human experience in particulars of time and place that may not be familiar to us. Yes, I need to read my Bible but even more I need to read life through the lens of my Bible, its light refracted through the panes of stories told by others, stories in which I find myself and sometimes more powerfully by His hiddenness, God.
That's what happens in a good, true, and beautiful story like Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. A contemporary novel set in a small village in the south of England, it masterfully portrays the sights, sounds, and manners of an English village. The first unusual thing is that this is a novel that tells of a growing friendship and love between two elderly people. Not only that, they are from different social groups. Major Pettigrew is a retired military officer, widowed, a man with a sense of duty and obligation, and yet one wounded and left lonely by the deaths of his only brother and his wife, as well as by a son who seems to care only for money and status. Jasmina Ali is a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper, an outsider in a community that tolerates her and yet is increasingly uncomfortable with the relationship that threatens to test the social conventions of the community.
It's a slow build, as you might expect, and yet a rewarding one. In the process, we see the Major confront prejudice, his own and that of the community, and we watch him change, dropping a petty grudge he held against his father, learning to forgive his son, and reaching out to those in need. In what he learns, we learn too. We see ourselves. And that's what a good story can do.
The only unrealistic part of the story is the apparent ease with which Mrs. Ali and Major Pettigrew dispense with their significantly different religious backgrounds. They do not even have one significant discussion of the very different religious traditions they apparently hold to --- I say apparently because the depths of their convictions are unclear. There is mention of God and serious conversation about meaning that would seem to lead to discussion of the competing claims of Christianity and Islam. And yet it doesn't. This could reflect a naivety on the part of the author, a hope or belief that there's really not too much difference between the two religions at the end of the day. Or it could be that religion just isn't very important to the author and so she can't posit a story where it's important to the characters (unless you are an extreme believer, like Mrs. Ali's son.) For me, this the one unrealistic chord in an otherwise very believable story.
In the end, though, this doesn't mar a story that shows that no matter what deep-rooted prejudices you may have, no matter how you think your life is laid out for you, and no matter how set in your ways you may be, there is always hope. There can always be a "last stand." So when that voice begins to taunt again and argue the frivolity of reading fiction, I have an answer: It's helping me better understand myself, God, and others. It's building a better me. That's enough for me.