The other day my sister, a teacher, was trying to help a student fill out some form or other. The form asked for Date of Birth. The girl knew her birthday, but the idea of a birth date, a specific day of a specific year, had her baffled. “The day you were born,” my sister said, a little exasperated, “what year was that?”
The little girl was exasperated herself. She gave my sister a squint and, teeth clenched, said, “A little baby don’t know what year it is.”
When I sat down to write The Charlatan’s Boy, the first sentence I wrote turned out to be the first sentence of the finished product: “I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born.” Grady, the narrator, is grappling with the same epistemological dilemma that was troubling my sister’s student. Anything you think you know about your birth, your origins, is something you got second-hand. Somebody has to tell you where you came from and how you got here. Grady’s troubles stem from the fact that the one person he knows who might be able to tell him anything about his origins is a liar and a fraud.
The seed from which The Charlatan’s Boy grew was a story a friend told me some twenty years ago. His grandmother grew up in California to a Scots father and a German mother. She was pretty typical California girl, but there was one unusual thing about her: she dreamed of kangaroos. She had never seen one in her waking life. There were no kangaroos in the wilds of California, of course, and there was no zoo in her little town. Did she see them in books? Perhaps–except that the first time she saw a kangaroo in a book, she recognized it from her dreams.
When the girl had grown into a woman, she learned some secrets about herself. She wasn’t a California native. As it turned out, she was born in Australia. And her mother wasn’t her mother. The “mother” had been the girl’s nanny in Australia. When the little girl was only two or three, the nanny ran off her employer (a Scotsman who had immigrated to Australia with his wife), and they took the girl with them. They started over in California, telling the girl nothing about her origins. She dreamt of kangaroos because she had seen kangaroos in an earlier life she couldn’t remember.
That story fascinated me from the first day I heard it. The girl had a clue to her origins, but in the end she couldn’t really know where she came from unless somebody told her. Identity isn’t just something that comes from inside us. We get our names from somebody else. I pondered this business for many years, and eventually my ponderings became The Charlatan’s Boy.
Bonus Story: My grandfather, Abe Ross, Jr., used to say that his parents didn’t name him. They called him Abe Junior until he was old enough to talk, then they asked him what he wanted to be named. “Abe Junior’s fine,” the toddler said. “I’ve been answering to it all my life anyway.”
Great stories, Jonathan! It’s remarkable how significant names are. I guess the secularly trained linguist in me would add the caveat that names, like all language, are no more than arbitrary speech-sounds that we assign to things. But the spiritually awake part of me would counter that a deeper, truer reality lies nested within all the phonemes and graphemes that comprise human languages. The great mystery of communication is one that transcends its constituent parts, just as love transcends biochemical triggers.
I should probably stop before I go off the philosophical deep end. Anyway, my point was that these are good stories. 🙂
luaphacim, I took a few linguistics courses in college. I really did enjoy it, but I also had some mixed feelings about the discipline. “We murder to dissect,” as Wordsworth said…It’s true that language is arbitrary speech-sounds assigned to things, but to paraphrase The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, that’s only what language is made of, not what it is. Which is what you were saying…
Man, I’m no literarianologist, but Grady’s story engaged me from the first sentence. I trusted that boy and believed in his heart the whole book. Just hearing that first line makes me want to read it again.
It always amazes me how much kids subconsciously remember from their earliest years. When we lived in the Philippines, my younger sister learned Tagolog before she was four. She lost it when we returned to the States, but when she visited the Philippines as a teenager she found she could understand conversations, even though she couldn’t translate directly.
The concept of names and how they influence us interests me, too. We chose our kids’ names very deliberately (we had to like the meaning as well as the the sound). Our kids love to hear what their names mean, and when we pray with them, we tend to tie in the meaning of their names and how God can use it. The craziest thing is that as they get older, we see many traits in them that relate to their names. So is that nature or nurture?
Loren, now you’re making me wish we hadn’t named our kids Cringer and Jezebel.
This is the makings for a good APF…I know my son Connivey would be happy to participate. As would his sisters, Blubbery and Gossipina.
You truly are evil.:)
…And these remind me of the names we’ve been finding in The Little Pilgrim’s Progress that we just started reading: Obstinate, Worldly, Pliable….
Ha! That’ll teach me to get all serious in a comment 🙂 !
Loren, it didn’t occur to me how I might be taking away from your thoughtful comment. (Aaron, on the other hand, probably just didn’t care). I’d be interested to hear more about your deliberation with regard to your kids’ names. And how they are growing into their names.
When I was in college, one of the wide receivers on the football team–and one of the fastest people on campus–was named Freddie Burns. I loved the fact that his name was a complete sentence, and, what’s more, a sentence that described him.
No offense taken 🙂 . I thought it was funny.
Names are strange creatures. A Japanese friend of mine who taught a college Japanese class told me one day of a student in her class who had just changed her name to “Felony.” My friend thought perhaps she had misunderstood the English, but she double-checked with the girl and sure enough…it was “Felony.” We always wondered if the girl actually knew what her name meant!