“The Diamond Mines Again”

little princess cover

Copious tears shed this afternoon. We read the chapter in A Little Princess when Sara learns her father has died and left her a penniless orphan without a friend or relative in the world. And then we had a long discussion about why things are sad and why books can make us cry.

Bella sobs and sobs as if her heart is breaking. She needed many tissues. At one point she had a terrible coughing fit. “Is it real?” she asked, “Is he really dead?” Sophie is more philosophical, pondering and wondering. No tears, just questions. She’s puzzled by Bella’s strong reaction. I don’t think Sophie is really cold, though she is less sensitive than Bella in some ways. But I’m not sure how well Sophie is following the story, her attention wanders at times, sometimes she’s giggling with Ben or playing she isn’t rapt like Bella. So maybe she’s just not quite getting it.

When Bella started sobbing I felt almost cruel. And wondered if I should have suggested the book, no matter that it’s my favorite. I know she’ll survive, but oh the pity of it, those sobs.

And Bella says something about the poor ones being the good ones. And quotes the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit and blessed are those who mourn. Oh she’s thinking deeply she is.

Bella also said something about how the death of Sara’s father is like the death of Aslan. And Bella is already consoling herself, knowing that the story will go on and get better.

I was thinking about this death and Aslan’s. It is a sort of crucifixion. Sara’s loss of her father is a moment at the foot of the cross complete with mockery and disdain from the unkind Miss Minchin.

And then I’ve been discussing the book on Facebook with a friend who saw the movie first then read the book. She liked the movie ending better. Sara reunited with her father who, it turns out, isn’t really dead after all. And of course I prefer the book, I was in love with the book long before I saw the movie. But I wonder if the book had been written that way if it would have become my favorite.

Is it precisely because of the loss of her father that this is one of my favorites? Sara’s story has become such a part of who I am, how I see the world. but would I have loved it had it been one of those stories where everything turns out all right in the end after all? I’m not sure. It often seems that my favorite stories are the ones that acknowledge the brokenness of this world, that this is a vale of tears, that some hurts aren’t, won’t, can’t be magically healed. Some losses aren’t made up this side of heaven. And this book was one of my first introductions to that deep truth.

I think it has made me more resilient, living this story over and over, sobbing in my room in the middle of the night over the sadness of it all. I think some of the strength I got from Sara is the strength that carried me through my miscarriage. This life is a vale of tears and we are all called to bear our crosses gracefully and with dignity. And death is a parting, a sadness. And even Jesus wept when confronted with the body of his dead friend Lazarus and his grieving sisters. And Sara does carry her cross so beautifully. Yes, it is a lesser consolation when she finds a new home, a new adopted family. It is less perfect than getting her father back. And yet I also see it as a greater story in a way, a story about love and the need to take in the orphan, to give not only physical shelter and food, but also to fulfill the needs of the orphan’s heart: the need for love. I felt like the Hollywood ending kind of missed the point of the original story, it’s a cheaper feel-good moment that doesn’t have the bittersweet and thus to me it feels phony. It doesn’t trust the audience to be happy for Sara in her adopted place. Funny, I think most of my favorite heroines are orphans.

For me one of the big points of the story is that we can still find happiness even after a loss. Even when those we love are taken away, life goes on. We can find other loves, we can make a life. It doesn’t mean the hole left by the beloved person’s death ever goes away, but it is possible to be a whole person even when you are an orphan.

It is true that Sara manages to be dignified in all circumstances, to be just as graceful and generous and selfless as a poor beggar as she was when a rich heiress. Still, to me it’s not just Sara’s dignity that makes her a great heroine, it’s also her resilience. And yes somehow it always mattered to me that she didn’t get her father back. Just as Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid doesn’t get the prince or get to return to her life in the sea. Some losses are true losses and no amount of storybook magic can undo them. And that’s ok. It’s ok to be sad because Sara’s father died far away in India and she never got to see him again. I was so mad when I saw the movie because it was as if they were saying that it wasn’t ok. That it’s not ok that she found peace after he died. It felt like such a lie. It is a lie. Because this world is full of orphans none of whom are going to have their parents reappear at the end of the movie.

Anyway, maybe when we finish the novel I’ll ask Bella if she thinks it would be better with the movie ending.

8 Responses to “The Diamond Mines Again”

  1. Enbrethiliel October 17, 2013 at 4:12 am #

    +JMJ+

    I believe there are two movie adaptations in which Sara gets her father back. The pretty but mediocre one with Liesel Matthews and the cutesy, saccharine one with Shirley Temple. I agree with you that they totally miss the point of carrying on despite suffering and loss.

    Bella seems to have that talent of tapping into the underground rivers of wisdom which flow within good books. You’re making me want to reread A Little Princess with both of you!

    • Melanie Bettinelli October 17, 2013 at 11:27 pm #

      E,
      I believe you are right. I know I’ve seen the Shirley Temple one, which actually except for the ending wasn’t too bad. Though Shirley really is nothing at all like Sara. I can’t recall if I’ve seen the other. I think I have, but it would have been ages ago. Or maybe I decided against it because I didn’t want to know what they did to it.

      Bella does seem to go deep. It’s rather awesome to see her pondering and puzzling. And then to overhear snippets of things as she works them out, as she rehearses and plays them. (The other day I heard her in her room playing with Sophie and it sounded like she was narrating Peter’s fight with Miraz in Prince Caspian. I later asked her about it and it turns out they were playing their Cars game and the cars were watching a movie version of Prince Caspian. I’m still scratching my head over that one.) I’m really amazed at her attention span– can’t believe we’re still reading The Golden Fleece– and her love for the hard stories. I’m thinking we might even try to tackle Beowulf. First a children’s version and then maybe listen to Seamus Heaney read his translation. I still can’t believe my great luck– grace, really I should say– in having a daughter who is such a book fiend.

      Yes, you should join us. Come read A Little Princess. Today we were in the attic with Ermengarde and Bella was so happy that Sara’s fate is not nearly as harsh as it could have been. Oh for friendship!

      • Enbrethiliel October 24, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

        +JMJ+

        Hello again, Melanie! I’ve been reading very slowly–for although I theoretically have a lot of free time, I only whip A Little Princess out during my lunch break–and I’ve just finished the chapter in which Sara is mistaken for a beggar girl. And it got me wondering about the “Montmorency family.” They’d be great in a spin-off, I think, but they are not typical Burnett characters!

        How far along are you and Bella?

        • Melanie Bettinelli October 24, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

          We just finished Chapter 10 in which the Indian gentleman moves next door. So we’re only a chapter ahead of you.

          I do love the Montmorency family. It would be lovely to read a spin off, to find out more about their lives. With the extreme popularity of spin offs of Jane Austen etc, it’s almost hard to believe that no one has started writing sequels and prequels to classic children’s novels.

  2. Stephanie October 17, 2013 at 6:07 am #

    Love your reflection on The little princess and suffering in children’s novels. The book I wept over as a child was Good Wives when Beth died. I loved the March girls and in a private way felt they were as close as sisters. I identified hugely with Meg and Jo, the mistakes they made and pickles they got themselves in. Their learning became my learning. I could hardly forgive Amy for years- she burned Jo’s book and got to go to Europe with Aunt March! It was when I was older and was impressed in spite of myself at the character she showed in the difficulties in putting on the Art Show I began to like her a bit better. A tiny bit of me is still cool that married Laurie. But Beth was my favourite and I loved her. Even now thinking about how she got weaker and the needle grew too heavy makes my throat tighten. One of the most heart-breaking depictions in fiction. But I would never want it changed or happy-fied. It is deeply true as it is and speaks of the depths of grief when there is deep true love.

    • Melanie Bettinelli October 17, 2013 at 11:29 pm #

      Oh yes. I cried over Beth too. Though Jo was always my favorite. And Meg too. I think I’m going to wait on them for a little longer for Bella. Somehow the time doesn’t seem exactly right, though I’m not sure why. I pick books based on hunches and instinct.

  3. Ellie October 17, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

    Oh I hated the movie!

    Sara’s father dies; and Ruby dies in the Anne of Green Gables books; and Beth dies. Changing that in a film version cheats the story, the author, and the readers/viewers.

    I first read A Little Princess when I was eight, Little Women the following year …. Death had already entered my life because I had a little brother who had died, and I knew four other little girls who had also lost little brothers. To me, these books became immediate treasures because they were so **real** for me.

    • Melanie Bettinelli October 17, 2013 at 11:32 pm #

      It’s funny how much Ruby’s death affected me. She is such a sad figure, and yet at the end strangely, wistfully hopeful as well. She has that gift of clarity at the end.

      During our conversation about death and sadness I was able to talk a little bit with the girls about how I cried when we lost Francis. It was good to be able to share that grief with them a bit. I want that story to be a part of their stories and yet I don’t want to impose too much on them. Another lovely thing about book, how the stories help us to understand our own stories.

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