Because suffering and general misery seem to be fairly common topics in the books English teachers assign as class readings the experience of reading these books can often be uncomfortable for the reader. The subject of whether serious topics improve the quality of literature or the role the reader should have in the analysis of said literature are far too large a topic for easy consideration but a focused reading of two texts can expose a great deal about what makes certain reading experiences uncomfortable. For students in Canada two books that often come up are the novel Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden and Frank McCourt’s Biography Angela’s Ashes so these texts make a solid basis for an examination of uncomfortable reading.
However for many readers these books will not feel equally uncomfortable. My discomfort in reaction to the events that Boyden is creating isn’t as simple as saying that I disliked the book, I enjoyed reading Through Black Spruce and thought that it raised interesting questions about the lasting legacy of Canadian policy about First Nations peoples. However my later reading Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes clarified for me what exactly I found so uncomfortable about reading Through Black Spruce.
Upon first reading both Through Black Spruce and Angela’s Ashes offer portrayals of events and situations that can make a reader uncomfortable. But for me the objectification of Annie’s heritage while she is working as a model and Will’s realization that he is as distant from his heritage in the forest as he was in the city feels much more uncomfortable of the way that Frank is humiliated in the his school. McCourt’s memoir is filled with suffering and abhorrent conditions that he grew up in and while I felt a great deal of sympathy for him and was impressed by how far he had clearly come but his book did not make me uncomfortable in the same way that Through Black Spruce did.This is not a matter of deciding which degradations are worse, these are different texts that are part of different genres which makes the already difficult task of evaluating wrongness nearly impossible
There are even some aspects of these two books that overlap, the representation of alcohol and addictions for example.
Frank McCourt lives with an alcoholic father and Angela’s Ashes offers the reader a view of the suffering that this caused within that family. On the other hand many of the characters in Through Black Spruce are addicts in their own right, Will in particular relies on alcohol to help him deal with the loss of his family and his conflict with Marius. Through Black Spruce offers insight into the reasons that drive a person to that level of addiction and the ways that they view their own substance use.
This is where the benefit of comparative literature becomes very obvious, it is one thing to analyse the impact of one book but when two texts are read in conversation with each other it expose the larger patterns and concerns that are important to readers and to society. When I read Angela’s Ashes I can see that it is not just the use of drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism that I find upsetting it is that the characters in Through Black Spruce are dealing with a legacy of oppression that limits their access to resources that may have kept them away from substances as a coping mechanism and as a middle class white person in Canada I feel like I am the other side of that legacy, and as such bear some level of responsibility for this situation. My reaction of ‘I am uncomfortable’ is more than I am uncomfortable it is a reaction to the social issues that are being presented and my own position of privilege.
Even the resolutions at the ends of these books are comparable in the ways that they bring closure to the conflicts of the book. Through Black Spruce ends as a Will and Annie are made strong by their families, once again connected to the heritage they had been searching for throughout the novel. Frank McCourt also finds his closure as he stands on a ship on the way to the United States, headed away from his family rather than towards this. These endings are over all quite uplifting even if they may be melancholy because of the events that proceeded them but they do not erase the uncomfortable feelings that the books brought up. When McCourts family drama, even affected as it is by complex politics, is placed beside the struggles of overcoming the systematic oppression of First Nations peoples it poses difficult questions to the reader about how the society that they are part of shaped the experiences of people like the ones they are reading about. I am uplifted by McCourt’s arrival in American because he is now in control of his own destiny but I am saddened by the family reunion in Through Black Spruce because I feel that I am part of the systems that took away the connections that the characters have finally managed to re-establish.
So when an English teacher assigns books like these ones, and asks students to compare situations and stories that seem to be separated in a myriad of different ways these are the kind of things that they want students to think about. Finding both books uncomfortable to read is fair but being uncomfortable about them both for different reasons is what makes reading them worth while. Those reasons are worth thinking about, writing about or at the very least bringing up in class so you can get some participation marks.