If you’ve been around a while you’ve probably seen me reference The Perilous Gard, a book I feel deeply connected to. This month’s essay combines that book with one of my personal wrestlings: How do we respond to something too big to fight?
I am very interested in those characters who are “stuck” with responding, because that’s where I live much of the time: I am faced with circumstances that are bigger than me, and the best I can hope for is that I find and climb on a sort of surfboard and ride the waves as they come. Preferably without wiping out.
When we’re in crisis mode, simply responding is pretty much the order of the day. Strategizing our way around a problem requires energy or clarity of thought that often is out of reach, and it turns out that’s the case for my favorite characters.
All my favorite characters are very much caught up in something bigger than them. Every one is much weaker than the forces arrayed against them, and barely keeping their heads above water, but I love them because they prove a match for those impossible odds—and that’s why I read!
One example: Kate Sutton.
In the young adult novel The Perilous Gard, Kate is sent by the Queen of England to the middle of nowhere. Kate is utterly alone, has no friends, and ends up trapped probably a mile underground.
My throat closes up in the cloying tightness of the memory.
Kate didn’t know if she’d ever see the light of day again. She was a slave, and the only moment of independent choice she had came at the opening of each day. She had a choice to receive or reject “the Cup,” which contained a drug that would bring an artificial delight and mute her senses to the suffering and isolation she endured. She chose to reject it.