Reading “The Shawl”

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of coming of age narratives—mostly from Coming of Age in the 21st Century, an anthology I would recommend to anyone interested in the topic. One story that really stands out for me is “The Shawl” by Louise Erdrich (you can download a pdf of it here). I’m definitely including it in the Dealing with Parents and the Past workshop within my Coming of Age program and I’ll probably teach it in the Critical Approaches to the ‘Family’ program that I’m developing. What really struck me about the story was how the narrator (and the reader does not immediately know that he is also the protagonist) manages to turn a traumatic family story—one that carries the tremendous weight of myth—into a narrative of heroic martyrdom. In the process, the protagonist also succeeds in redefining his relationship to his abusive, alcoholic father, who is all but destroyed by that past.

As a student of literature I had long been wary of book clubs or any forum where the discussion of texts was rooted in the personal experience of readers. It’s just not done in the academy, just as philosophical texts are never presented as self-help manuals (shudder). But then I got the opportunity to co-facilitate a bilingual book club through the New York Council for the Humanities and I realized that the literary and the personal can dovetail without reducing the former to a mere therapeutic tool.

In the context of youth development I find it completely appropriate to approach “The Shawl” as a piece of literature that facilitates personal explorations of family troubles and parent-child relationships, and I believe that this can be done by alerting participants to the literary devices within the text that help convey its lesson. Take the titular shawl, which provides an occasion for readers to follow a central image and chart its transformation. It begins as the shawl that keeps a young girl warm on a cold, dark night as she is taken away by her mother from her father and brother. The next time we see it, we (along with the girl’s father and brother) find it in rags. The boy does not yet understand that his sister has died at the jaws of wolves, though the father mourns her and resents his wife even more for sacrificing their child. In the second half of the story the brother has grown up to become the narrator’s father. During one of his alcoholic stupors he gets into a fight with his son, who manages to overpower him. To wipe up the blood the son reaches for the nearest piece of cloth he could find: a rag which was once a blanket or a shawl, and which his father always kept nearby. As the son dabs his wounds the father reveals that he once had a sister who was believed to have been thrown to the wolves by their mother as she fled from her husband, their father. The son takes in the story and reacts in a surprising and powerful way: he tells his father that in their culture it is wrong to keep the clothing of the dead and that he must burn the remnants of his sister’s shawl. What’s more, he suggests that the young girl might very well have made the decision to offer herself to the wolves since their mother was nursing their youngest sibling at the time. The narrator thereby transforms what had once been a symbol of trauma to one of heroism. He transforms his young aunt from victim to agent. The ending gives readers hope that the protagonist will be able to break the cycle of pain that had haunted two previous generations of men in his family.

It would be a very useful exercise to ask workshops participants how they imagine the narrator could transform his own history of pain: the abuse that he suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father. This way they can practice the skill of interpreting a situation from a completely different perspective, not by denying the existence of pain or violence, but by empathizing with the other people involved.

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