Small and Simple

I’m excited to post another book review full of Lee Ann’s wit and wisdom!

“Fall of Icarus” by Breughel

Today I blog about a book that reminded me of a paper I wrote about a poem about a painting about the Greek myth about Icarus.

Icarus’s father built him wings so he could fly out of Crete. But the sun melted the wings, and Icarus died. Pieter Breughel painted the story…sort of. “Fall of Icarus” depicts a peaceful harbor and diligent peasants. Off to the right, if you look closely, you can see Icarus’s tiny white legs disappearing into the shadowy sea. W. H. Auden wrote a poem about the painting, observing that, as one man tried to touch the sun and fell to a tragic death, most people didn’t notice because they were “eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”

For some reason, the poem riled me up. I remember passionately arguing that dully walking along was just as beautiful and noble, in its own way, as trying to touch the sun.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t right about Auden’s intentions, but I got a good grade.

Anyway, Connie Willis’s two-volume time travel novel, Blackout and All Clear, reminded me of all that. Three historians from 2060 visiting England during World War II are supposed to observe dispassionately. In fact, the laws of time travel say they cannot change history. But the bombing raids are not coming on schedule, and the time travel portals are failing to open. Worse, the historians keep saving people who aren’t “supposed” to live. Are they stuck in 1940? Have they fatally altered history? Have they messed up time itself?

It’s huge. Willis acknowledges it’s really one book, split into two volumes. Sometimes it felt like I was living the London Blitz or the Battle of Dunkirk in real time. As in most Connie Willis books, odd little people keep popping up, with personal agendas or quirks that maddeningly hinder the characters’ Larger Goals.

But while living through the blackouts and shortages and bombings with those quirky, ordinary, resourceful people, I started to root, not just for their survival, but for their success at dully walking along. I wanted the girls who had been duchesses before the war to successfully mend the dress for the dance, after driving ambulances and assisting in amputations all day. I wanted the people huddling in the subway during the Blitz to successfully stage their play. I wanted the orphaned pickpocket hellions to find a safe, loving home. At the end of all 1158 pages, I felt like I’d courageously walked along through everyday life, with bombs falling and fires burning, and helped the British people win World War II. The book’s science and morality affirms that the dully walking along is the nobility.

You can preserve a lot of peaches in the time it takes to read these books. But if you live in uncertain times, where chaos reigns and the rules keep changing, these books might affirm that your simple and sometimes dull steps mean something—or possibly everything.

Reviewed by Lee Ann Setzer.

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