40 Days of Book Praise, Day 24

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 24, Helen of Troy by Margaret George

helen-of-troy

What is beauty without love? What is marriage without passion? What is battle without a prize? These are questions a reader might ask after reading this account of and by Helen of Troy, whose perfect face launched a thousand ships—a thousand battle ships, that is, heading from Sparta to Troy to separate her from her lover, Paris, and return her home.

This ambitious retelling of the Helen of Troy tale is long (600 pages) and populated with familiar names from Greek mythology: Paris, Aeneas, Priam, Ajax, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Menelaus. It includes classic scenes from literature: the whisking of Helen onto a ship to escape from Sparta; the trick of the Trojan horse; the tribute to the incorruptible warrior Hector. But this novel is not a lesson from a school book, and it is not a fairy tale with no connection to reality. If not for the famous names, and the presence of gods and goddesses, Helen’s plight could be stripped down to a commonplace family drama: The foolish younger brother of a well-to-do family runs off with a married woman, and her outraged husband follows and demands her return to him and their child. In this telling, that simplification makes this a story of woman torn by her choices and a destiny she cannot control. Helen is full of pathos. From birth, her beauty was so great, she herself called it terrifying. She is protected from view—even mirrors—as a child, and then bartered off to marriage with a powerful but emotionally distant man. She meets his opposite—Paris—because they have been set up by vengeful gods and goddesses. They are powerless not to fall in love. Nevertheless, they do and it is real to them. Helen’s sincerity is evident, and so is her growing horror at what their love means for Troy and Sparta.

Why is Helen of Troy a good read for women? The Helen story is big and sprawling, and the body count from the Trojan War is high. As with all stories of war, it leads to the inevitable question: Was it worth it? This is the cautionary question anyone—man or woman—might ask before trading a comfortable, placid marriage for a passionate affair of the heart. Helen’s helplessness at her own fate, her inability to control neither her love nor her despair at what it wrought, makes her beauty a curse and her story a compelling read.

Two Moon Shots and a Trojan Horse Chaser

Unless you spent this past week in a coma, under a rock, in a subterranean cave hidden under the sea, you heard about two moon-related news stories: the passing of astronaut Neil Armstrong and Prince Harry’s naughty party in Vegas.

If you think it disrespectful to connect these stories through a cheap pun about “moon shots,” bear with me. I believe that hurtling through space in a souped-up tin can, landing on a distant celestial object, and going out for a stroll with nothing but a puffy suit to protect you, was such a brave act–and the man who did it was such an outstanding human being–both the act and the man can stand a little ribbing. Continue reading “Two Moon Shots and a Trojan Horse Chaser”

Officer Heck? Yeah!

Over the weekend, I had a fun little discussion with my pals at How Many Pages Did You Write Today? about character names. We tossed out ways to find good names (baby name books, spam files, newspaper stories) and how a character’s name may reveal something about the person. In the course of the discussion, I mentioned my character name pet peeve.

My character name pet peeve is the cop named Mike.

Mike must be the go-to name when inventing a police character because I run across fictional Officer Mikes all the time. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Following the idea that a name tells about the character, the abundance of Officer Mikes make sense, in that the patron saint of police officers is Saint Michael the Archangel.

St. Michael the Archangel is usually depicted with wings, a sword, and holding scales of justice. If you are raised as a Roman Catholic, you are taught this is because Michael is the sworn enemy of Satan and the leader of the Army of God. He is one of the angels present at the hour of death to protect the souls of the dying. On Judgment Day, Michael weighs a person’s record of good deeds. He is a guardian and protector of the Catholic Church.

Add all of that up–sword, scales, guardian, protector–and no wonder a child named Michael might grow up to be a cop. It may be a chicken and egg kind of thing–the classic self-fulfilling prophecy–and this is why I see so many manuscripts with Mikes running around protecting and serving.

But maybe it’s time to give Officer Mike a rest. I’d like to propose a new go-to name for cops.

Heck.

Heck? Officer Heck? Are you laughing? Rolling your eyes?

Think about Sheriff Heck Tate, as portrayed by the character actor Frank Overton in the 1962 film, To Kill A Mockingbird.

In Harper Lee’s novel, Heck Tate doesn’t get a lot of page time. When he does appear, his actions are pivotal. It is Heck Tate who brings Tom Robinson to the next county to await trial, which shows how well the small town sheriff understands the mood and prejudices of the citizens in his jurisdiction.

It is Heck Tate who arrives with Atticus Finch when a mad dog is in the street. In this scene, Heck Tate acknowledges who is the better shot and asks Atticus to take down the dog. He puts aside whatever macho pride or male ego he may possess when he hands over that shotgun. He even teases Jem that didn’t he know his father was the best shot in Maycomb County–an important moment that lets the son see his father as an autonomous man, not just as a parent, for the first time.

It is Heck Tate who ultimately exercises what modern law enforcement calls officer discretion. Sheriff Tate has lived in Maycomb all of his life. He knows everyone in town. He obviously knows how to read a crime scene, even when his witnesses are an unconscious boy with a broken arm; a grown man hidden away for so long, he’s become mute; a scared little girl in a ham costume; and a dead man on the ground.

It is Heck Tate who knows what limelight would do to a shy fella like Boo Radley, and so it is Sheriff Heck Tate who fulfills his duty to protect Maycomb’s mockingbird.

“I may not be much, Mr. Finch, but I’m still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife.”

Let the dead bury the dead, is Heck Tate’s advice. Wise words, right? I wonder if this level of officer discretion would be possible today, or if Heck Tate would be the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation by the time the credits rolled?

But I digress.

If St. Michael the Archangel made Mike a good name for cops, Heck is no slouch in the meaning department. I will be a little presumptive here and assume Harper Lee meant Heck as a shortened form of Hector.

The name Hector is Greek. It means “holding fast.” In mythology, Hector was a fearless warrior prince, the older brother of Paris. Hector’s death during the Battle of Troy was a terrible blow to the Trojans, not only because he was a brave and fierce fighter, but because Hector was wholly honorable. After Hector was killed, Achilles, who killed him, dragged Hector’s body behind his chariot for twelve days in an attempt to shame and humiliate the noble Trojan prince, but even the gods admired Hector. They took pity on him in death and protected his body from abuse.

Eventually, the Trojan War was halted for twelve days so that the people of Troy could serve Hector with proper funeral rites. He is remembered in art and literature as one of the Nine Worthies.

Today, when a police officer dies in the line of duty, legions of his fellow officers participate in public, traditional funerals meant to honor the fallen officer for making the ultimate sacrifice. I don’t know that this tradition goes back to the mythology of Hector, but it seems right.

So, Officer Heck. A fierce fighter whose name means “holding fast.” A person infused with honor. Someone prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. I would feel safe with such a man protecting my town. 

You?