"Later Lin understood about her grandmother not wanting to think about the past. Auntie, Grandmother's sister, told Lin how the old woman had been raped and left for dead, cut at the neck. Auntie said she found her, the woman's long hair red with blood all about her neck and shoulders. Auntie grabbed her and lifted her. 'You! Sister, wake up! You are breathing!' Auntie yelled. By some miracle, the artery was not cut, even though Grandmother thought she was dead, wished she was, and lay back weak and limp, but she was yelled into life by a woman almost too thin to have a voice.
"[I]t was why Grandmother always wore one of her two scarves. It was why here eyes saw only as far back as they would; not far. . . .
"Lin buried her head against her great-aunt's chest. 'Is it human?' Lin asked. 'To do that. Is it human?'
". . .'Yes. I think it is human. There is so much to a human.'
'Does it have to be?'
'I don't know.' She braided the child's hair. 'But that's enough for now. There's only so much a girl can hear.' Just then there was a gunshot in the distance.
"Later, when they were down in the reddish sand by the water, she held Lin and said, 'I'm sorry.' Crying.
"Lin studied her face, to see what she meant. She looked at her fine nose, her cheek that seemed dented, her eyes. Lin said, 'I know. You're sorry about humans.'
"Auntie nodded, hiding her face."
-Linda Hogan, The People of the Whale
I can barely begin to explain the beauty and the tragedy and the redemption of The People of the Whale. Reading it at times was like being inside the minds and hearts of people both magnificent as well as deeply wounded. This passage sums up one of the overarching themes of the book: the capacity for humans to hurt, torture, lie, and kill--each other, other creatures, nature, society--anything and everything around them. The depths of disgrace to which they can succumb when they are not whole; when they are lost and afraid and have traded in their hearts for a sense of personal survival or desire. It is tragic and terrible.
I too have questioned the ugliness that exists within humanity and even lamented being a part of a race with such a capacity for cruelty; so fallible; so easily broken and twisted and led astray.
In life, in this world, (and in The People of the Whale) alongside every act of disgrace there is also beauty. For every broken soul there are others working to rebuild; to strengthen; to teach. Just as the world is full of hatred and woundedness, it is also ripe with compassion and healing. And the horrors and glories of humanity are mingled together and twisted into our histories and our lives in ways that cannot be easily separated and explained. It is all too complex. Too intertwined. Too deeply connected in every aspect of life and our very beings. I wonder if it is even possible to delve deep enough into the human heart and spirit to comprehend the disparate halves of our being and the incongruencies of goodness and evil that are among us and within us.
Really and truly, "There is so much to a human." Beautiful and terrible. Miraculous and sorrowful. I don't really know what else to say about that. I don't know how to accept it, to live with it, to assimilate that reality into my understanding of the world. But I see it, constantly. And I know it is part of me too; that I contain both good and evil; that I have beauty, but also brokenness. In the end I just hope that we can find ways to bring all of that together; that we can heal those parts of us all that have suffered and unify our goodness and compassion and love. I think it is possible. I pray it is.
image: Linda Hogan