Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Hero's Tale

Earlier this month my daughter had to write a poem for her English class about a 20th century hero. Her assignment got me thinking about heroism and courage.

I suppose it is not surprising that I am fascinated by the concept of heroism in all of its complexities. Much has been written in scholarly circles about the nature and expression of valor from sociological and psychological perspectives, disciplines which comprise my own professional and academic background. But my fascination with heroism dates to a very young age--no surprise there, either, given that tales of courage dominate children's literature. I've gravitated to reading about accounts of bravery ever since, courage on scales both large and small. I bear witness to bravery by regularly reading accounts about the ordinary women who chose to became part of the Resistance during the German occupation of France in WWII. Some 230 were sent to Auschwitz et al as political prisoners and less than 50 survived that ordeal. I've also been reading about Elizabeth Keckley, who was infamous in her time because of her well-intentioned but ill-advised book describing her years working as modiste to Mary Todd Lincoln. She is worthy of admiration for having determinedly worked to purchase her own freedom from slavery, for establishing a successful business as an independent woman of color during a time when this was exceedingly difficult, and for founding the charitable Contraband Relief Association to aid newly emancipated people of color. And through the news aggregating powers of Facebook, I've recently marveled at the inspiring stories of women like Caroline Valenta, Ellie Beinhorn, Sarah “Madam C.J.” Walker, Elizabeth Eckford, and Alice Evans.  All kinds of bravery there.

But that there are so many stories that I don't know about, so many heroes whose good deeds go unnoticed. I think it is harder to define courage than its opposite, cowardice, for bravery is a complicated thing. Still, I find it ironic that for a trait so universally valued, courage and heroism are not universally displayed. Why aren't there more heroes if we so admire the trait? Leaving aside dramatic and unusual circumstances that aren't part of most everyday experiences, I would argue that heroism involves more than conscious choice. I think some people are simply made differently, are hard-wired to take more risks and to be braver than others. I'm not saying that nurture can't overcome nature, or that biology is destiny. But social science research has shown us that there are personality factors (a strong sense of autonomy, higher level of risk-taking, strong valuation of social responsibility, limited tolerance for authoritarianism, and strong empathic and altruistic moral reasoning levels) that are correlated with heroism. I think some people have those qualities in more abundance than others, and display them more readily. The read of us are left to be inspired, and to aspire.

We like to think big with our heroes, so chronicles abound with stories of the leaders and warriors who have made an indelible mark on history. During the hullabaloo that characterized the turn of the century, back when we were partying like it was 1999 (which wasn't hard to do since it WAS 1999), news outlets abounded with lists of 20th century heroes and icons. There were the predictable laudable politicians, military and civil rights leaders, sports figures and record-setters. But there were also shout-outs given to scientists, teachers, and ordinary laborers; to individuals who lived with physical and psychological obstacles; and to poets and writers and musicians and artists who pushed the edges of our collective expression and perception. Thank goodness for that, because I find that the older I get, the less I am drawn to the stories of those who have achieved the most and the more I am drawn to those whose quieter, smaller stories have the most to teach.

Most of us circle outside the invisible doors of a Hall of Fame peopled by anonymous, unheralded actors. We feel the weight of their heroism as aspiration, but don't know the details. For every hero who has risen above his or her instincts for self-preservation to distinguished actions in moments of crisis, there are countless individuals who are heroes simply for being there, for continuing, for their determination to "keep on keeping on" in the face of adversity. These are our quiet, every-day heroes, and their stories resonate loudly for me.

I suppose any school-girl essay on the nature of heroism is bound to reach this same point of lauding unknown, unsung heroes. But aside from being prompted by my daughter's essay topic, I have an especial reason for thinking about this concept.

The world lost a talented writer by the name of Gail Frazer earlier this month. Gail, who wrote under the pen name of Margaret Frazer, died on February 4 2013 after a twenty year struggle with breast cancer.

Yes, you read that right, 20 years. How does one survive with breast cancer for twenty years? Medical specifics aside, in Gail Frazer's case it seems that writing was the best medicine. She wrote, and she wrote, and she wrote. I suspect it is no exaggeration to state that story-telling helped to keep her alive. As a reader, I can attest that Gail's exercise of her craft was meticulous and fearless. Her magnificent characterizations, her relentless attention to detail and ability to make reading it fun, and her unstinting dedication to historical integrity elevated her to the status of Literary Hero for me.

Gail Frazer may be the best best-selling, award-winning writer of mysteries and historical fiction that you've never heard of. You should remedy that, although I will warn you that it can be difficult to find some of her older books since they are not currently in print. Still, make the effort. The character of Dame Frevisse, despite never having been physically described in the 17 books plus some short stories that made up her series, remains vividly and vibrantly imprinted in my mind's eye because of Gail Frazer's skill in breathing literary life into Frevisse's fictional soul. The itinerant actor Joliffe is the fictional guy I'd most like to meet from the Middle Ages. I want to be a student of Bishop Pecock's. Oh, and her portrayal of Henry VI simultaneously broke my heart and chilled me to the bone.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Gail Frazer in person, but we corresponded online occasionally after I was 'introduced' to her and her writing by Sharon Kay Penman (whose beautiful memorial to Gail can be found HERE). Gail and I connected over a mutual appreciation of her work, of theater, and of a love of the 15th century in which most of her stories were set. We commiserated from time to time over authors in the field who were less writers of historical fiction than of historical fantasy and for whom that distinction was lost, much to the detriment of an undiscerning readership.

I never got around to telling Gail Frazer how much I enjoyed her last book, Circle of Witches and I am sorry for that because I understand that it was the literary child of her heart, a book she returned to time and again in an effort to get it just right. I'd approached reading that book with some trepidation since it was outside the era that I usually like to immerse myself in when reading fiction. To say I am still haunted by the story she crafted would be an understatement; Circle of Witches epitomizes the rich, complex characterizations and descriptions that Gail was so skilled at creating. She created a tale in which her constants of an abiding love of People and of Place motivate and inspire.

Gail didn't run out of stories to tell but her body was exhausted. She wrote a series of essays in the final months of her life about her experiences, found on her webpage interspersed with other entries beginning HERE. I saw Gail as a Literary Hero but she also inspired me with her steadfastness and strength of spirit when navigating a health care delivery system that all too often places diagnosis first, patient second. Should I ever face a serious health crisis, I hope that I will have the grace and determination that Gail did, always persevering and continuing Onward.

I've lost more than my fair share of friends to various maladies and diseases that cheated us of growing old together. I'm not happy about losing another one. I am, however, glad that Gail Frazer is beyond pain's reach now. Her son wrote that she was at peace and comfortable at the end. I hope that their memories of a life well-lived and of stories well-told can provide comfort for her loved ones during this saddest of times.

So if I had to do my daughter's assignment today, I'd choose to write about Gail Frazer. I don't wish to overstate our relationship; I was a friendly fan, not a soul-friend or confidante. But I respected her enormously, and I will miss her. She was heroic in the way she lived her life and faced her death.

"Let the wagons roll!"

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