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Fiction Advances Cultural Understanding: Recommendations from a Des Plaines Librarian

Amy Bloom, Amy Waldman wrote novels that increase our cultural awareness, according to Laura Adler, readers’ services assistant at the Des Plaines Public Library.

The following information was submitted by Laura Adler, readers’ services assistant at the Des Plaines Public Library.

An author I admire, Amy Bloom, once said that fiction writers who attempt to change public opinion or promote a cause with their work don't write good fiction. She's not alone in this belief, which is understandable: fiction paved with good intentions is often potholed with propaganda, and the reader’s journey is bumpy with authorial heavy-handedness.

That said, Bloom nevertheless wrote a short story called Silver Water that is not only brilliant but also highlights the heartbreaking and sometimes deadly consequences of our flawed healthcare system. This is not done by editorializing but through storytelling and complex characters. The character of Rose stops taking necessary medicine not because Bloom wanted to make a point about the healthcare system and pre-existing conditions, but as a consequence of all that has come before: that is, it’s an organic part of Bloom’s vivid and truthful story.

Thus this story that was not written to promote a cause in fact has a tremendous and potent side effect, however unintended; it increases readers’ awareness of those failed by our healthcare system and increases our capacity to care about people like Rose. The fact is, fiction can indeed change hearts and minds and increase our understanding of the world in the hands of gifted and subtle authors like Bloom, as well as one of my new favorite authors, Amy Waldman.

Like Amy Bloom, Amy Waldman, possesses the gift of sympathy; she enables readers to feel for and understand her characters, even characters we may strongly disagree with. One such character is Sean Gallagher in Waldman’s breakout novel, The Submission. Published in 2011, The Submission takes place in the aftermath of 9/11 and is told from multiple viewpoints, including that of Sean, the hotheaded brother of a fireman who died on 9/11.  Other richly drawn characters include two 9/11 widows, one wealthy and privileged, the other an impoverished illegal immigrant, as well as a gifted architect, Mo, who is the winner of a competition to design the 9/11 memorial. When it is learned that Mo, short for Mohammad, is an American Muslim, the memorial judging committee and others are caught up in a national debate in which emotions and personal agendas threaten to fragment a grieving country.

The Submission is a novel that could have been heavy-handed but isn’t as a consequence of Waldman’s understanding of character and her refusal to simplify complex issues. Subject matter that might feel exploitative in lesser hands is explored with grace and honesty, and the novel is a thought-provoking page-turner that enhances readers’ understanding of the book’s characters and consequently the world we live in.  For all these reasons and more, The Submission is a perfect fit with the Suburban Mosaic Book of the Year program, a suburban Illinois community reading program that seeks to foster cultural understanding and reduce prejudice through literature. Named the Suburban Mosaic’s 2012-2013 Book of the Year for adults, the Des Plaines Public Library has multiple copies of the book for checkout. 

The Suburban Mosaic also selects books of the year for teens and children. The teen selection is the best-selling Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green. The other titles are Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (for grades 5-8), How Tia Lola Learned to Teach (for grades 1-4), and Spork for pre-kindergarten readers.

To expand your world, check out one of the above titles for you or a young person at the Des Plaines Public Library.

To learn more about the Suburban Mosaic and other participating libraries and organizations, click here.

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