I’ve read three good books recently that share a common thread: they were all inspired by tragic real-life events:
The first, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, is straight journalism. The author, Sheri Fink, won a Pulitzer for her 2009 investigation of what happened at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center in the five days following Hurricane Katrina. The floodwaters rose and the generators failed, but it took five days to evacuate all the patients. 45 didn’t make it out alive, and 23 of the deaths were ruled “suspicious.” This book expands on that series.
The first half is a timeline of the first five days; the second half untangles the ensuing lawsuits and criminal investigations which sought to determine if doctors euthanized their patients in Katrina’s aftermath. I wanted to weep for humanity halfway through the book; I expect that’s a typical response. It’s a brilliant book.
The Goldfinch was one of the most buzzworthy books of 2013, finding its way onto numerous best-of-the-year list despite its late October publication. The (784 page!) story begins with a terrorist attack: an explosion at The Met that kills 13-year-old Theo Decker’s mother and forever changes his life.
The novel takes on an epic feel as it winds and twists through New York City, then Vegas, then Amsterdam. I would have given it up during the dark and depressing Vegas sojourn if I hadn’t read that The Goldfinch was Donna Tartt’s artistic response to 9/11. I’m not certain that’s even true, yet framing it that way fundamentally changed the way I read the book, and kept me from abandoning it during the unrelentingly gritty middle.
R. J. Palacio told NPR that the plot for Wonder–about a ten-year-old with a severe facial deformity–came to her after a heartbreaking encounter at an ice cream shop six years ago. Palacio and her kids sat down next to a little girl with a severe facial deformity, and her three-year-old cried in fear, so Palacio instinctively grabbed her child and whisked her away.
Afterwards, Palacio was disappointed with the way she’d acted and the behavior she’d modeled for her kids. She knew what she wished she’d done differently, but it was too late. The encounter got her thinking about what it must be like to “have to face a world every day that doesn’t know how to face you back,” and she started writing her novel that night.
Since I’ve read these books, I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between loss and art, and trying to remember other great books I’ve read that have been inspired by tragic events. Into Thin Air springs immediately to mind, as does Wave, which many of you recommended on your best of 2013 lists. I’m sure there are dozen, if not hundreds, more.
Have you read a great book that’s been inspired by tragedy? Tell us about it in comments.