I met my first friends in stories. Brown Bear, the Rainbow Fish, Tigger. In fact, I gargled the word Pooh on repeat as a baby. (Not to be confused with the renowned brown emoji.) Winnie tagged along a few months later.
As I grew up, so did my playmates. Junie B. Jones, Morgan Le Fay, High King Peter the Magnificent. Don’t worry: I had real friends, too. Fictional friends like to introduce readers to their linguistic fathers and mothers. And so I met Peter’s creator, C. S. Lewis, in high school.
It was Lewis who said, “Nothing, I suspect, is more astonishing in any man’s life than the discovery that there do exist people very, very like himself.”1 Friendship shocks us as does crisp ocean water: plans for adventure fast eclipse initial surprise.
But the beaches are closed, and quarantine both stops new relationships from forming and halts our normal hangouts. Many feel very, very alone.
What if, while we lovingly refrain from seeing “real” people, we dedicate a piece of quarantine to making new friends in old stories? The stay-at-home order ushers in unforeseen free hours to befriend, as well as learn from, strangers. They lodge in books.
Meet a few of the page-encrusted friends I’ve made over the years. If you truly want to get to know them, to sit beneath their tales’ teaching, I encourage you to visit the italicized address.
1. Marie-Laure LeBlanc, from All the Light We Cannot See (Doerr)
Marie-Laure is a Van Gogh painting. Not really, but for how little she speaks throughout the story, somehow she still pops, clear as a yellow pastel. What stands out about her is neither her blindness nor the poignant suffering she experiences during the German occupation of France. No. I adore Marie-Laure for the way she squeezes her circumstance for all its worth. She touches, tastes, smells, and hears what most miss. I overlook these senses less because of her.
2. Christopher Boone, from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Haddon)
Christopher Boone is an antisocial Jimmy Neutron. He’s brilliant, and he bites off more than a bit of mischief. Many readers think he struggles to relate to others because of an unspecified disability. That’s part of it, but relationships are not roundabouts. The other characters likewise bristle at him. Since meeting Christopher, I better temper the way I react to people who are unlike myself.
3. Jeremiah Land, from Peace Like a River (Enger)
Jeremiah Land is a paper cut — the good kind. There is such a thing! Stay with me. Like his biblical namesake, Jeremiah knows suffering. Though pain frequents his life, present faith and future hope acknowledge the visitor like a teacher does a paper cut. “All is well,” we think. There is yet (God’s) work to do.
4. Bilbo Baggins, from The Hobbit (Tolkien)
Bilbo Baggins is a dusty recipe, the kind that’s been splattered with sauce and folded every which way. He’s a must-have when it comes to Middle Earth. Did you know that when you type t-h-e h-o-b-b-i-t into Google, the movie (not the book) populates almost every link? Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy it. Compared to the book, though, the film operates like Zoom. It’s just not the same, especially when it comes to learning bravery from Bilbo.
5. Lucie Manette, from A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)
Lucie Manette is the friend who does your dishes. While the French Revolution drives most to swivel-eyed selfishness, she bleeds serene sacrifice. How I cringe, breath choppy, whenever I have not planned to serve another but am asked to serve another. Am I being forced — or granted? Gifted? Entrusted? “The latter,” says Lucie.
1 Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Boston, Mariner Books, 1955.