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Lisa Ohlen Harris

Against Sentimentality

A truth-telling memoir.

Nine months before Joe Wilkins was born, his parents briefly escaped the harsh, arid landscape of Eastern Montana, known as the "Big Dry," for an idyllic camping trip. His mother tells of fishing and swimming in the clear lake, of late nights around the campfire. This is an origin story replete with a mess of trout and a cooler of Rainier beer. And, reminiscent of another origin story, the couple finds their garden "crawling with rattlesnakes. Snakes sliding through the tall grass, snakes curled in the outhouse, snakes draped like question marks across the rocks." His father sliced off snakes' heads with a shovel; his mother carried a stick to fling snakes out of her path. Decapitated snakes were piled away from the camp to keep the flies and stench at bay.

Wilkins ponders why his mother's storytelling includes the snakes. Why not tell of the sweetness and leave out the shadow? Because, he realizes, "To tell the story without snakes would be dishonest. Snakes complicate and foreshadow, shift like a crawling wind, hide in plain sight." This young family will grow—they will receive a longed for second son and later, a daughter. Their joy will be full—until, years later, sorrow overtakes them. The children will be left fatherless. Clearly, this origin story must be told with snakes.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how a Christian worldview can exist in writing that is not necessarily Christian, while our own literature often lacks the bite and angst our worldview ought to embrace. Flannery O'Connor observes, in "The Church and the Fiction Writer," that many readers of faith prefer to enter into a false world of simplicity—with an overemphasis on innocence. O'Connor writes, "We lost our innocence in the Fall and our return to it is through the Redemption, which was brought about by Christ's death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process ...

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