In middle school, I would come home and tell my parents about which book I was reading for class. It was wonderful to hear their interpretations of the readings, and I felt like it somehow bridged a gap between us. My father would tell funny stories about his teachers, like the way one of them would always drop her chalkboard eraser, or how another always pronounced library “li-berry.” I liked hearing about when they were my age. I liked that they already knew about 1984 and Lord of the Flies. There was something comforting in how we grew up on the same stories.
In my ninth grade class discussion of A Separate Peace, I found new meaning in a book that, at first glance, seemed fairly straightforward. I didn’t see the story clearly; when it came to mind, I saw one large, reverberating image of a teen-aged boy wiping sweaty, dirty palms on the outside of ruffled, grass-stained jeans. I saw other parts, too. I understood that summer embodied their youth, and winter was a coming of age. My teacher helped me to see deeper into the text, though. I learned from her that Finny’s death was a product of his attachment to his own innocence. It was a somber sort of revelation, only made more blunt by my own teetering position on the steps of childhood. For that reason I was – and always will remain – grateful to my teacher for those class discussions. But it wasn’t until I brought the discussion home that I felt like my appreciation for the story truly developed.
I remember mentioning the book passively, thinking to myself that my parents had probably never heard of it. After all, John Knowles was certainly a name I hadn’t been familiar with. I brought it up at the dinner table one night, while we were spinning fake spaghetti on our forks, and eating salad from the bag. With red sauce staining the corners of my mouth, I began to narrate our class discussions.
The book itself was wonderful to me, but as a 14-year-old girl at a public school, some of the experiences of the protagonist were difficult to put myself into. I wasn’t a 16-year old boy, and never would be. Thinking of it now, it’s like that excerpt from Zadie Smith’s “Occasional Essays,” where she describes how Janie’s character from Their Eyes Were Watching God made her a “sentimental fool.” Smith said of the story, “a sliver of it went straight to my soul.” She admitted that there was an “extraliterary” component to the text which grabbed her, and suspected it was her connection to the protagonist, a black woman as well. Along the same vein, I wondered if my experiences as a young girl hindered my ability to connect with the boys in A Separate Peace like that.
That night at the dinner table, I wiped my mouth with precision and spoke cautiously. I hollowed out my classmate’s observations, and made them my own. My father surprised me though. He remembered the story, and very well at that. I asked him what he had liked about it, and he told me plainly, “I relate to Gene; never being quite as good as Finny.” And though he didn’t say it then, I knew what he meant. My father grew up in a household of seven, and shared the attention of his parents with four siblings. He was the middle child in every sense, and I think he understood the feeling of jealousy, the feeling of having to compete with someone you love.
I remember how he described other parts of the book, and now it makes me think about spring a couple years back, when we visited his childhood home. It was the first time I’d seen Canastota without a sheet of snow covering the ground. My father showed me the rail tracks where he and his friends used to go biking, and where his older brother used to walk back from classes with him on their way home. It was by a thin strip of the Erie Canal which ran through their town, and once, when his brother decided to go out onto the ice, he fell in, all the way to the waist. As my father told me these stories, he was smiling, as if he were seeing them too. It was easy to walk around that tiny farm town in the springtime, and see Gene and the boys playing street baseball the way my father did. Or to see Finny climbing up that tree, much like my father’s best friend used to climb up to their neighbor’s roof. It’s easy to see Gene jumping into the Devon River, much like his brother slipped through the ice that day.
I was seeing my father’s childhood, and somehow that was helping me to see Gene’s more clearly. It was like this quilt of youthful jubilance and mischief, woven together with the needles of rivalry. My father has told me that his older brother graduated the class valedictorian. He was like Finny, the hero-athlete that Gene – or really, my father – idolized. And when my father went off to college, he purposefully chose business as a major, because that’s what his brother had chosen. Much like Gene, who didn’t just want to be better than Finny, but wanted to be him.
It wasn’t until several, several spaghetti dinners later, but I finally feel close to this book. My father felt connected to it, and that has made me love the story even more. Even though he sees himself as a Gene, I know him to be a true Finny. A Finny, who, somehow made it out, and hung to that goodness that usually gets left behind in the wake of adulthood. And I know now that a sliver of A Separate Peace has gone “straight to my soul.”
Samantha Bertolino is the Long River Review fundraising assistant and a poetry panel reader. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.