Saturday, May 07, 2011


There are certain things I do—or should I say don’t do—for the sake of my hope: I don’t spend much time griping in groups of cynical people; I don’t watch the late night news before bed; I don’t read books that predict a terrible future—not usually anyway. But last week—when the mailman delivered the CD copy of Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, the CD packaged tidily by someone at the CNIB Library in Toronto, a scary book tucked snug and secure in an envelope bearing my name, I crushed the impulse to return the thing, and waited for the final act of reading to begin.
The first act of reading On The Beach opened in the mid 1960’s, opened in the aisles that separated the stacks of braille volumes that comprised the tiny library at the Jericho Hill School for the Blind in Vancouver. Braille had opened a new world for me, a world where I could browse a colleciton of—let’s be generous here—a hundred books and think I had the key to the knowledge of the world. On The Beach was on one of those shelves, three thick braillle volumes comprised it, I think. I would wander among the stacks, touching all the titles, pulling out the books, reading the first page. On The Beach, they said, was a book about the death of the human race after a nuclear war. Fifty times I put the book back on the shelf. Twice I checked it out and read the first 5 pages, the way you read the first five of so many books, over and over, starting over each time and never going forward—never breaking through. On The Beach was still on the shelves when I left Jericho in 1968. What happened to its fine braille volumes, and all the others that I did read, is something I have never found out. Thus ended the opening act, the act of not reading Nevil Shute’s On The Beach.
Still, I never forgot about that book, never felt quite comfortable with the failure of courage that kept me from finishing it. I have a friend who works tirelessly for disarmament and the advent of peace to replace the habit of war. He is The Honourable Douglas Roche In recognition of his efforts as a statesman, activist and author, he has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. “Surely,” I said, taking myself in hand, “Surely if Doug could stick with the cause all these years, advocating and educating an apathetic public in times of relative peace and times of relative fear, surely you, Wendy, could summon the courage to read one hope-sucking, fear-raising book. After all, that book only describes a predicted disastrous future that didn’t come to pass--a terrible chain of events that started in 1961 and ended definitively in 1963. If you’d bothered to read beyond the first 5 pages back in the library at Jericho Hill, you’d have known that the time had already come and gone. Read the book, Wendy, for Doug, and get it over with.”
I started slowly, carefully, picking at it the way you pick at a hot potato. Would I send it back unread? Would I justify my actions by saying I had no need to read a book that would scare me half to death? For a while it appeared that this would be the story. This is no way to make it past the first 5 pages of a hope-sucking book.
Then Friday came—that was yesterday--a day off—a day for catching up on things. “What did you do with your Friday off?” David asked when he got home from work.
“Not much,” I said. As for the truth, well, I got up early and read On The Beach after breakfast and after coffee and after lunch and after the mid-afternoon break. I interrupted the reading briefly for some conversations and a few chores and I read it while I waited for supper to cook. By suppertime I was done.
As for today, Saturday, well, I’m still here, here with mixed feelings, trying to sort them out on a keyboard. I don’t know what I would have said of the book had I read it back in the days of early adolescence. I wanted then to grow up happy, to have a life, to find a husband, to have some children, to work at something I would love. I didn’t want to contemplate a future in which these things could not come to me.
Today—a woman who has all these things and more--I ponder the hope-sucking book Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute published back in 1957. I poke at it, dig in it—mining its depths for hope. The hope, of course, is there. It’s there all right, just where I’d expect to find it, in the people. Shute was a wise man when it came to writing a story. Somehow he knew that if you set up a bad enough situation, you don’t need any antagonistic characters. You can make them all lovable, put them through the paces of daily life and still have a great story. Here they are, lovable characters in Australia, a country where no shots were fired, a place unsullied by bombs. Here they are, accepting some responsibility for not acting to stop the war, waiting to die in a world where we cannot stop the air from circulating, from bringing on its breezes the dust that killed the people of the northern hemisphere. Here they are, calculating the time left to them, and wondering what to do while they wait.
And what do they do while they wait? They make new friends. They take care of each other. They encourage each other. They buy gifts. They go home to be with the ones they love. In honour of hope Shute seems to be promising that if the worst happens, the best of humanity will rise to the occasion. And I like that.
Tomorrow will be Sunday. The next day will be Monday. Something unusual may happen to scare me. Maybe the days will be ordinary. But something has been gained. Now, more than ever, I am grateful to Doug Roche for his efforts to prevent the worst from happening.

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