Have you seen the television program Making of a Murderer? I haven’t, but my co-workers and I were discussing what it means to get “the truth.” The program contains real footage from the interrogation of a man who was arrested for two crimes, decades apart. The scenes are both gripping and heartbreaking.
Those of us who hadn’t followed the case when it happened in 2003 are in suspense about the result for Avery, the man in question. We quickly realize the question isn’t: was Avery exonerated of these charges, but what is the truth? In this case, we may never know.
The conversation reminded me of a novel I just finished, The Light Between Oceans, where we, the readers, do know the truth. A lighthouse keeper, named Tom Sherbourne, and his wife, are living on a remote island off the coast of Australia. One day a boat washes ashore with a man, dead on arrival, and his infant daughter, who is alive. Tom and his wife decide to keep the baby and raise her as their own. (I’m not giving anything away that isn’t revealed on the jacket copy.) Of course the implications of this decision are far-reaching and disastrous for many people. No one escapes with a clean conscience and no one knows the full story, yet everyone wants redemption. What is so compelling about the novel is that it never makes a judgment on the characters. It doesn’t it try to convince you that what they did was acceptable or not. You’re only presented with the facts of why they did it. The story simply asks you to meet the characters where they are with an open mind.
The Light Between Oceans is the first novel or narrative nonfiction I’ve read in quite a while that evokes my sympathy for all the characters, even if I don’t agree with their actions. I understand the situation from every angle. I get it, and I get them. This is why fiction can be truer than reality. In fiction—in good fiction—a character’s motivations stem from his or her truth. In life, we often don’t know “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson said that fiction reveals the truth that reality obscures. When a character’s actions lack sufficient motivation, something doesn’t ring true for me. When they do, I connect in a meaningful way, even though the people aren’t real.
This is what I wanted to write about today as my first post in a monthly series looking at why we read, how we can use storytelling to spread compassion, and the implication of what we read in a larger context.
What do you think fiction and creative storytelling can teach us about life and truth?
Have a great weekend, everyone!