Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Back to School: THE BEST LAID PLANS . . . Bringing THE PULL OF GRAVITY into your classroom

Back to School? Teach OF MICE AND MEN?
Looking for a contemporary companion?
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BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN THE PULL OF GRAVITY AND OF MICE AND MEN:   People often ask why I incorporated John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men into my contemporary young adult novel, The Pull of Gravity. The short answer is that it was part intention, and part serendipity.
The Pull of Gravity follows teens Nick Gardner and Jaycee Amato who, armed only with the wisdom of Yoda, a rare first-edition copy of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and the vaguest of plans, embark on a secret road trip to try to keep a promise to the Scoot, their dying friend.
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With the words “vaguest of plans,” those familiar with Of Mice & Men will already recognize a glaring connection between the works: In both stories, plans go awry, and, in the course of the unraveling, Nick and Jaycee (like Lennie and George) learn some valuable, if at times painful, life lessons.
Intention vs. serendipity.
When I started writing The Pull of Gravity, I knew first and foremost that I wanted to write a character-driven piece, the ilk of which I read as a kid from the likes of Zindel, Blume, Konigsburg. To me, character-driven means that the characters are *the* reason you want to know the story, and not the other way around, with the plot driving the story. As Nick and Jaycee formed on the page, I thought, ‘how better to see if Jaycee is as persuasive and intriguing as I want her to be (and the chemistry between the two teens as real as I hope), than by seeing if she can *sell* the merits of an often-taught work of classic literature to Nick, a 15-yr old boy.’ Hence, the muse-driven idea of incorporating a classic novel into my debut was born.
But which piece of classic literature to choose? That is where intention factored in, and the connections between The Pull of Gravity and Of Mice and Men began to take shape.
No alt text provided for this imageWhy Of Mice and Men?
The main reason I chose Of Mice and Men was for the theme of friendship that reverberates through it. Indeed, the ending of Of Mice and Men may contain the ultimate act of friendship to be found in modern literature. Likewise, friendship is the main theme in The Pull of Gravity. Nick and Jaycee need each other, and their friendship buoys them through a time of change, heartache and pain.
I’ve also attempted to keep some structural similarities between the pieces. Of Mice & Men is a short work of fiction – a novella at 107 pages. George and Lennie’s story takes place over a mere four days. They set out on a Thursday and the story concludes on a Sunday.
While The Pull of Gravity is a longer work at 208 pages, the time frame of the story is brief, and the main part of Nick and Jaycee’s journey, to wit, their time in Rochester, NY, also unfolds Thursday through Sunday.
When I go into classrooms, I love to talk to students about how Steinbeck was able to create so much empathy for, and connection to, his characters in the space of so little time (and so few words) – the reader gets to know George and Lennie and, more importantly, to care about them, in not much more than a mere breath.
Similarly, Nick and Jaycee’s relationship unfolds quickly; they become important to one another – and, I hope to the reader— over a brief period.
Other Common Themes
- The American Dream (“Everybody Wants a Place of their Own”). Both The Pull of Gravity and Of Mice and Men deal with the desire to attain the American Dream: work that is bearable (if not more) and a small patch of land that feels like home. In The Pull of Gravity, Nick’s father is unable to attain this goal, to balance metropolitan career aspirations with his family’s move to the suburbs, which is one of the failures that spurs the main action of the book. Similarly, Jaycee is relegated to her mother’s new husband’s gaudy house, and, moreso, to the fluffy pink bedroom of the new husband’s daughter that will never feel like home.
Disability
Of Mice and Men illuminates the prejudices suffered by Lennie because of his mental disability, but also the challenges for George, his friend, in trying to care for him. In The Pull of Gravity, the Scoot has a physical, rather than mental, disability, and while he doesn’t suffer the direct prejudices Lennie does, Nick – just like George with Lennie – grapples with his role as a loyal friend versus obligated caretaker. Of course, ultimately, his love and loyalty shine.
Loss & Loneliness
The Pull of Gravity opens with this quote from Of Mice and Men:
“Lennie broke in. ‘But not us! An’ why? Because…because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.’ He laughed delightedly.”
This quote epitomizes the friendship theme that resonates through both stories. Without each other, George and Lennie have no one. Similarly, Jaycee and Nick experience a lack of fitting in, connecting, feeling grounded in their own lives, until they find one another.
Of course, the counters to friendship are loneliness and loss, and these themes also run through both stories. George and Lennie have suffered loss when we first meet them, and, once at the farm, there is the loss of Candy’s dog, of Lennie’s puppy, of Curly’s wife, and ultimately each other. In The Pull of Gravity Nick, Jaycee and the Scoot all suffer loss (whether temporary or permanent), of family structure, of innocence, and of friendship. It is a bond they have in common and that, ultimately, brings them closer together.
*this 2011 essay written with the generous assistance of Paul W. Hankins.

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