By Judi Moreillon, Texas Woman’s University, Texas Ambassador for USBBY
Karlijn Stoffels tells the story of two characters, Mee and Mitou, both born into difficult circumstances in relationship to their special storytelling gifts. As each one travels on a hero’s journey, readers grow more and more certain that their meeting is inevitable. Yet, Mee and Mitou are so different that one wonders if a fairy-tale ending is possible for the “singer of sorrows” and the girl with a sunny outlook on life.
The son of illiterate deaf-mute parents, Mee learns sign language before he learns to sing stories. Mee’s schoolmaster helps him develop his voice, and the boy teaches singing to younger students. When his father dies, Mee goes to work in the fields every day after school. His love for his mother keeps him happy and everyone in the community, birds and people, enjoy his singing. But when his mother dies, too, Mee leaves home and becomes the “singer of sorrows.” At sickbeds and funerals, after floods and mining disasters, Mee sings the stories of the lives of the departed while he heals the suffering of those they left behind.
Born on the same day as Mee, Mitou is the daughter of abusive parents. She shuns words. At age four, Mitou picks up the accordion and uses music to drown out her parents’ arguing. Despite her circumstances and her self-imposed silence, Mitou is a cheerful child. When she turns twelve, she suddenly decides to speak and sets her heart to singing and playing her accordion to help people forget their worries—to be joyful. When Mitou hears about Mee, she sets off to find him.
Throughout Heartsinger, a story translated from Dutch, Stoffels uses motifs found in fairy tales: places, characters, objects, actions, and style. Heartsinger begins with a description of Mee’s childhood home—small, shabby, with crocked shutters and peeling paint. In Heartsinger, the heroes do not return to their natal homes. Both characters leave these “bad” places and arrive at their heart’s desire, paradise, at the end of the story. Both Mee and Mitou are heroes who develop their character over the course of their journeys. The stories Mee and Mitou tell, sing, and play are the objects in the story that seem to be “ordinary” but carry within them magical powers. Along their paths toward one another, Mee and Mitou meet others who need and appreciate their help. They develop their skills as healers through storytelling and in the end, realize their own powers and their limitations. The author presents stories within the story as interchapters in order to explain the back stories of the people Mee and Mitou meet along their paths. These stories also explain how these two predestined lovers will eventually arrive in the same place at the same time to jointly put their divergent skills to use.
One of the stories within the story in Heartsinger, “The King’s Daughter,” binds the two hero’s journeys together—and after all, in fairy tales there is always a Princess. As a result of being neglected by her parents, Princess Esperanza, (Her name means “hope” in Spanish), is unable to form relationships. The Princess is in dire need of healing—of both her heart and her soul. She turns away suitor after suitor and spends her time staring into a mirror, searching for herself. Who will see her pain? Who will heal her?
Jungian psychoanalyst and poet Clarissa Pinkola Estés wrote this: “Stories are medicine… They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act anything—we need only listen. The remedies for repair or reclamation of any lost psychic drive are contained in stories. Stories engender the excitement, sadness, questions, longings, and understandings that spontaneously bring the archetype… back to the surface” (15-16). In her book, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Estés retells the story of “The Seal Maiden,” in which the female archetype must reclaim her soul in order to awaken from her psychic slumber—in order to return “home” to herself. This, too, is the story of “The King’s Daughter.” When Mee and Mitou apply their contrasting storytelling gifts to the Princess Esperanza’s loss of self, the young woman opens her heart to self-love, which makes loving another possible.
In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal, author, trained pediatrician, and professor of medicine Rachel Naomi Remen recounts her own and other healthcare professionals’ stories about the healing process from the perspectives of patients, their families, and their caregivers. Through these stories, Remen tells truths about the emotional and spiritual needs of people who are suffering and the needs of their grieving families and friends. One story that stands out for me is about a cancer patient who stopped chemotherapy treatment but wanted to continue visiting with his doctor—simply to talk. His doctor did not understand, dismissed the patient’s request, and missed an opportunity to share the depth of his compassion with this dying man.
Remen writes that people are born for a single purpose: to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better. Can hearing, reading, and sharing stories help us grow in wisdom? Can stories help us learn to love better? I think that characters in Stoffels’ Heartsinger and the people at Remen’s kitchen table believe that stories can do these things. What is your experience? Are there works of traditional literature or other genres that have taught you how to cope with life and living? Are their stories that have healed your heart and soul when you needed their medicine? What is the role of story in your life, the life of your family or your classroom, library, or school? What healing stories do you tell yourself or tell others?
Next Week: Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballentine, 1992. Print.
Remen, Rachel Naomi. Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal. 10th anniversary edition. New York: Riverhead, 2006. Print.
Stoffels, Karlijn. Heartsinger. Trans. Laura Watkinson. New York: Arthur Levine/Scholastic, 2006/2009. Print.
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