Last night, I was reading Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, and I had to stop. I’ve read the reviews, and I expect lifting spirits later in the story, but not yet. Eleanor’s loneliness, the cruelty of her past, and her confusion in the present could not take me to the sweet land of happy dreams I so needed.
I set Eleanor down and picked up Emilie Loring’s We Ride the Gale! Sonia Carson has her own, daunting problems–no job, ill health, an orphaned nephew to care for, and people who don’t believe her–but from the beginning, you feel her resilience.
“I’m awake,” she assured herself softly. “It is not a dream that I am here at Kingscourt and that Dicky’s future is secure. Something tells me, though, that there are still breakers ahead, big, white, smothering breakers. What of it?”
She raised herself on one elbow, flung up her other arm in theatrical imitation of Michael Farr.
“We ride the gale!”
With a laugh she put out the light and snuggled back among the pillows.
We Ride the Gale!
Thank you, Emilie Loring. When the chips are down, you’re the one I turn to.
Emilie Loring wrote her first novels at the end of World War I, when the grim realities of war produced a type of literature that was both disheartened and cynical. By the end of the Great Depression, much of modern literature seemed bent on “expressing man’s disgust with man.” J. Donald Adams, the longtime editor of the New York Times book review, reflected on the period in his book, The Shape of Books to Come (1945):
Our writers came not merely to question the meaning even of love, honor, loyalty, patriotism and every other manifestation of the spirit–they even came actively to distrust and to reject those qualities themselves… It seemed that all the most powerful writers… were bent on proving that life is a dark little pocket.
That wasn’t Emilie Loring’s take on it.
“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”
This adage is everywhere–on posters, mugs, jewelry, t-shirts, and the top of our day-planners. But an earlier form of the statement (ca. 1738!) better represents Emilie Loring:
“Let the wind blow east, west, north, or south, the immortal soul will take its flight to the destined point.”
Emilie Loring’s resilient optimism is the characteristic that most distinguishes her. Come what may, she was determined to stay on an optimistic course toward the best in life.
“Be honest, have you ever known gloom or depression to solve a problem? Problems aren’t solved that way. Instead it settles over one’s spirit like a fog and that fog attracts more fog and there you are in the middle of it groping for a way out, but if, instead, you keep in the sunlight of courage, even if a gale of misfortune blows you off your feet and whirls you along, at least you will have the thrill of seeing where you are going while you ride it.” Give Me One Summer, 1936
At any time in history, there are authors who sound the alarm, those who despair, instruct, repine, or inspire. What’s interesting to me is how one group of voices gets amplified, becomes the “zeitgeist,” the “defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history.” The period of The Waste Land, The Sun Also Rises and The Sound and the Fury also produced Here Comes the Sun! The Velveteen Rabbit and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
World War II produced the opposite literary response. The dark side of human nature was associated with the Nazis, “who have done their best to destroy the human spirit.” The conquering spirit was alight with ideals and determination. Adams wrote that it had taken two world wars, but negativity in American literature was giving way to “something better:”
I have the profound conviction that literature during the years immediately ahead will seek above all else to restore the dignity of the human spirit.
We will eventually be given in fiction as in biography, characters whom we can actually respect and admire.
Emilie Loring’s characters had always fit the bill.
“I have a firm conviction that a person can put through any worthy thing on which he is determined. How else do you account for the seeming miracles men got away with in the World War? The test is, how much do you want it? I’ve gone on that principle all my life, and it’s worked, I tell you, it’s worked!” The Trail of Conflict
Emilie Loring wasn’t alone. Optimistic writers were always there, and they had a loyal following among the public, if not among literary critics. Now, the spotlight of critical favor looked for something different and found it: heartening, inspiring stories.
The take-home, for me, is that optimism is a choice that is always available–and so is cynicism. My bookshelf of “Emilies” has kept me encouraged through the years, helped me to re-set my compass when I’ve gotten off course. Even their titles encourage: There Is Always Love, It’s a Great World! Today Is Yours, I Hear Adventure Calling.
Sometimes, we need a challenging book to open our eyes to something we’ve overlooked, to develop our empathy and challenge our thinking. Sometimes we need a book that engages our intellect and lifts our spirits, so we can face the world tomorrow with fresh courage and enthusiasm.
Emilie Loring’s books are ready and waiting, as they have been for nearly one hundred years. Thanks to new e-book editions, more readers will find her in the spotlight. It’s about time!
One ship drives east and another drives west
With the self-same winds that blow.
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tells us the way to go.
Like the winds of the sea are the winds of fate,
As we voyage along through life,
‘Tis the set of a soul
That decides its goal
And not the calm or the strife.
(Ella Wheeler Wilcox, 1910)
Happy Landings, everyone!
[Thanks to Garson O’Toole’s website, “Quote Investigator,” a wonderland of sourced histories for common quotations, for these versions of the popular quotation. Thank you, Mr. O’Toole!]