Out of tragedy

Out of tragedy

I’ve read three good books recently that share a common thread: they were all inspired by tragic real-life events:

Five Days at Memorial

Five Days at Memorial

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

The Goldfinch

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. 

P.S. I finally made an FAQ page. (What did I forget?) And good movies build empathy, too.

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  1. Definitely interesting. I’ve just started hearing about The Goldfinch, why is that? 700+ pages seems daunting at the moment. I loved Wonder and think it’s an absolute must-read for the human race.

    I just read a book based in the Civil War, the whole thing was so tragic I could barely get through it (My Name Is Mary Sutter). I’m thinking one book that’s really stuck with me is The Sparrow. Have you read it? It’s a sci-fi book about a journey of travel to a newly found planet and the tragic outcome, going back and forth between the actual events and the future trial of the lone survivor. While tragedy is painful to read about, it certainly builds interest. We’re all gawkers, aren’t we?

  2. Jillian Kay says:

    I have Five Days At Memorial on my to read list but I keep putting it off because I’m just not sure I can manage it. Unbroken would probably be a good example, and I liked Into Thin Air too.

  3. Jamie says:

    I have loved (and been horrified by) James Hornfischer’s WWII books (Ship of Ghosts, Neptune’s Inferno, Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors). All based on the very real suffering, trials and too often deaths of young American men, they were vivid, enlightening, and gave me much to think about.

    On a related note, I wept over One Second After, which is sort of the flip side of this subject – although a novel, it uses scientific and historical facts and realities to show what would happen to America in the event of an EMP attack. Sort of a foretaste of what that kind of tragedy would look like and entail.

    I’ve never read any of the books you listed above, but may have to check them out. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Jeannie says:

    I am just finishing Jerry Sittser’s A Grace Disguised, in which the author reflects on his journey after losing his wife, mother, and 4-year-old daughter in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. I had heard that it was one of the best books around on suffering and loss (I may have even seen it mentioned here at MMD?), and I can echo that; it’s excellent.

  5. Laura says:

    My problem with books (and movies) like this is that as I have gotten older, I’ve found it increasingly hard to shake the dark feelings that inevitably accompany reading them. I find they just leave me generally upset, so now I tend to completely avoid them even though I know they may be quality, and I don’t want to be someone who buries my head in the sand about life. Does anyone else struggle with this?

    • Jessica says:

      Yes. I feel like this too. A recent example was The Book Thief. I did end up reading and watching both but wondered to myself why I was putting myself through it. Another example could be the astronaut movie, it is Gravity ? It just looks sad.

    • Bobbi says:

      I was thinking about this just the other day after reading Anne’s post about “trigger books.” I read quite a lot of Holocaust literature when I was younger, both fiction and non-fiction. At some point I realized I was at saturation level and I just couldn’t take any more — I never did see “Schindler’s List” because of the subject matter. I wonder too: am I burying my head in the sand? Is it a weakness? I don’t know; still can’t read it.

      On the other hand, I did read “Five Days at Memorial” and while it was disturbing and saddened me deeply, I wasn’t oppressed as I had gotten to be with Holocaust stories. So maybe the answer is that it has to do with our individual “triggers.”

  6. All three of these books are on my to-read list! One of my favorite books that came from tragedy is My Sergei – the memoir of gold medal pairs skater Ekaterina Gordeeva. This is the love story between herself and her partner/husband who tragically died of a heart attack while practicing with Katya. They were my favorite skaters when I was a teenager – and I cry my way through the book each time I revisit it!

  7. Judy says:

    Siiiigh. I had signed on(mentally, if not literally) to Leigh Kramer’s Read what you have, no new books for February list. Here on day 10 is a book I must read, guess I’ll have to wait til March or admit I have no willpower. Five Days at Memorial is a must read for me. Two and a half years ago my middle child moved to Nola to go to law school, and in her time there she has fallen in love with the place, and moreover, the people. She says their stories get under your skin, and even though this one seems hard to bear, I think I need to read it. The stories she has relayed to me from those incarcerated are also hard to hear, especially the juveniles. Art can knock us off our pedestals, I think I know what I would do, and yet…Thanks for the heads-up on these challenging books.

  8. Jean says:

    Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain. Fiction but based on facts. Takes place in a small southern town in NC the 1960s. A new, young social worker becomes emotionally invested in the lives of her clients who are tenant farmers on a tobacco farm. It deals with the “Eugenics Program” that NC promoted from maybe the 1940s until mid 70s. Many other states also had this sort of “program”. Hard to believe this happened in the US. A very good read that pulls at your heart.
    Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan. Fiction based on fact. Three generations of women stay together one summer in their beachfront property in Maine. The 1942 Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire in Boston has a large influence on the plot. Unforgettable.

  9. bethany says:

    I love this list, Anne. I have a soft spot for art that’s born out of tragedy since it’s an experience I know so personally. I want to write a memoir about losing my mother to cancer, so I feel like my senses are always attuned to how other artists – writers, musicians, painters, etc. – express their grief through their work. When I reflect on the art (books, films, music, visual art, etc.) that I feel most drawn to, I find that a lot of them have to do with grief and surviving tragedy.

    My favorite recent nonfiction reads relating to this are Corrie Ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.” Another one is Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies.” It’s about faith, but her most compelling chapters are the ones in which she discusses faith through the lens of loss. I’ve her chapter “Dad,” where she finally comes to terms with her father’s death nearly 20 years after the fact, several times since I finished the book a month ago.

  10. Rebekah says:

    I was reading through the Harry Potter series last October when my 26 year old brother unexpectedly died. It was amazing seeing Harry go through the same emotions I was, especially at the beginning of Half Blood Prince. It added a whole other level to those books for me.

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