Friday, March 31, 2006

Great Books: Anne And the Sand Dobbies

I just reread a favorite book from my childhood, Anne and the Sand Dobbies, written by John Coburn and published by Seabury Press in 1964.

It's the story of an eleven year-old boy whose baby sister dies, and then his beloved dog Bonnie dies.

Death is treated as a painful reality, but not something that totally incapacitates us or our families. The family in this story is real and lovely: they argue, they eat meals together, they talk in the car, they go to church. They summer on Cape Cod. The mother goes into the hospital for two weeks and the kids eat cereal every night, but they're fine. The community is a quiet and real support. Throughout all the sorrow, the narrator feels safe. He is treated as a human being for whom sorrow and death will be part of life, and is not coddled and protected by his parents. It's a very refreshing depiction of family life, or should I say, the way family life should be.

The language is a bit dated (e.g., the 16 year old son says, "Golly" and "Beats me" a lot) but the treatment of death and community is wonderful, refreshing, and emotionally moving without being the least bit sentimental.

I think this book had a huge influence on me as a child. It must have. I read it and re-read it but I hadn't remembered at all that this was a story about a Christian family who goes to church and talks about their beliefs and struggles with their skepticism. There are wonderful conversations in the book about what happens to the soul after we die, and it's all grounded in humanistic concerns and beautifully simple. The parents tell the kids that Anne will be cremated with a loving, no-nonsense honesty that a lot of today's parents might find inspiring. When the baby dies, there's just a family being very sad and questioning God together. No one has a nervous breakdown or an existential crisis. They are eminently decent to one another. the doctor makes house calls. Their minister gives an amazing homily during the interment of the ashes which goes, in part:

"Now I want to say just one word. This is a terrible thing -- for a lovely two-year-old girl to die. She never hurt anybody; she didn't do anything but bring pleasure to people; and she did it simply because she was...

"I don't like it. You don't like it. Nobody likes it. We all really hate it. We hate death. I'd like to tell God where to get off for letting this happen. Maybe you already have. I hope you have.

"But once you've done that, then what are you going to do next? You're not God. We're not God. You can tell him to go to the devil, but he's still God. God is God. He just is. Even if he didn't do anything, he is everything. He's the very ground we walk on and live in. He's the air we breathe. He's the height and the depths. Right down to the bottom of us, he is there. He is. ... Wherever we are, he is. Wherever life is, he is. And -- this is the point I want to make -- wherever death is, he is too.

"So what can you do -- the only thing you can do -- is to give him your life and to give him your death. So give him Anne -- her life and her death -- freely, willingly and gladly, if you can do it. She's with him. She is in him, and she is all right. Anybody with God is all right. So don't try to hang onto her. You don't own her. She's God's. You can't hold her. What you can do is to give her to God. And if you can do it gracefully, so much the better.

"And if you do, that's when somehow she comes back to live with you. I don't know why this is so, but she becomes a part of you and of life through her death, even more somehow than when she did things in her life here. So if you possibly can, give her freely to God. Then you'll be able to have her to live with you as you never had before.

"I think that this is simply the way life is. I'm not trying to argue; I'm not trying to persuade anybody; I'm just trying to describe the way things are. This is the way I see it."

"When we respond to love -- especially when we let it control us -- then we belong to that world where God is in absolute control. And the way he extends his control on the earth is as we love one another and offer ourselves to his control. So when we offer Anne to God, we can believe that Jesus says 'All is well with Anne' because we know that all is well with people who are with him. We then can get on with our primary business, which is living right here and being ourselves right here and trying to love a little bit better than we have before.... So let us get on with living and loving, which is the business of life, and thank God for everything. Especially Anne."

It's a honey of a book. I've found a few copies by googling it. You can, too.


Blogger Jess said...

I have to find this!!! What fantastic writing. I love it when an author can really make you HEAR how someone says something, rather than just looking at it on the page.


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