Review: “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry”

I like fairy tales. I also like fairy tales re-imagined, but not all of them. For instance, I hated Gregory McGuire’s “Wicked.” I thought it disrespected Baum’s innocent vision of Oz, though obviously I am in the minority, and Gregory McGuire is now a rich man. On the other hand, I loved McGuire’s “Lost,” which skillfully weaves together Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” shades of Jack the Ripper, and some other goodies into a gripping ghost story.

“My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry,” by Fredrik Backman, is a rare jewel. It is a fairy story that combines several related fairy stories and reveals the truth behind them. And it’s completely original, in that it doesn’t rehash older source material. (Not that I’m saying it’s wrong to rehash source material. What would we do without it?)

Elsa, our protagonist, is seven years old and precocious, but I am happy to say she is precocious in a believable, seven-year-old way. Her grandmother is a character, to put it mildly. Among other things, Elsa’s grandmother has taught her a secret language and told her stories of the several kingdoms of the Land of Almost-Awake. Her grandmother is her super-hero, and Elsa adores her. In fact, Granny is Elsa’s only friend, because Elsa doesn’t think much of the kids at school who don’t understand great literature. Like “Harry Potter.” And Marvel Comics.

Elsa, her mother, her grandmother, and her stepfather live in a kind of a boarding house. Some of the tenants are very much in full view, like Britt-Marie, who bosses everyone around about signs in the laundry room and strollers in the stairwell. Others are never seen, including the mysterious “Our Friend,” as Granny refers to him. Elsa’s mother works all the time, her remarried father is not a strong presence, and she resents her stepfather. Her grandmother is her rock.

And then Granny dies. But before she does, she asks Elsa to deliver a letter. Elsa does, and sets off a chain of events that reveal the true nature both of Granny’s stories and of the people in Elsa’s life. Bit by bit, she comes to understand who these people are and how they came to be who they are. She also discovers her grandmother’s hidden connection to every soul in the boarding house.

Elsa eventually discovers a mother who loves her unconditionally, a stepfather who’s actually okay, and a father who turns out to be important after all. She even makes a friend. She learns some things about adults that in the end, she knows she just has to forgive.

While the protagonist of “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” is a child, this is not a children’s story. The heartache and sadness are all-too-poignant, and the adults’ stories are, well, adult. The story is about a child finding her way through the complexities of life by relying on herself and her memories of her grandmother. She learns the truth behind the tales, and adult truth is sometimes difficult and scary.

Fortunately, there is enough humor in Elsa’s take on things that the book never becomes dreary—and I was pleased that the humor never condescended, even though the lead character is a child.

I had a hard time deciding whether to categorize “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” as a fantasy or mainstream, even though the only fantasy elements in the story are Granny’s stories. It’s a fairy tale, but although it has a happy ending, it is a realistic ending. Granny doesn’t come back to life. Britt-Marie was never a princess. “Our Friend” is not really a wurse from the Land of Almost-Awake. And yet, the fantasy carries the story. Read it and decide for yourself.

 

The Price of Freedom Isn’t Free

“The price of freedom isn’t free.” That’s a saying that ex-service people are fond of using, especially when they are in a more-righteous-than-thou mood. I’m grateful to those who have served, but more than a little put off by this, as in the former client who had an American flag the size of a tennis court in his office. I remarked on it, and he snapped at

 

me, “The price of freedom isn’t free, y’know!” As if I had claimed the opposite for some reason.

As it happens, he was right, but for reasons other than his pride in military service. Yes, the military does the government’s bidding here and abroad, but it isn’t the military that defends the rights and freedoms of American citizens.

It’s American citizens.

And we haven’t been doing a very good job of it over the past four decades. When the Reagan Administration struck down the FCC Fairness Doctrine, there wasn’t a great deal of pushback. The Fairness Doctrine required that if, for example, a broadcaster aired 15 minutes of liberal information or editorial content, they must balance it with 15 minutes of conservative content on the same subject.

Prior to the elimination of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, we didn’t have Fox News. Or ClearChannel. Or Breitbart. Or Rush Limbaugh. Or Alex Jones. Sure, those folks were out there, but they didn’t have a 24/7, 52-week media platform from which to propagate lies and disinformation. As a result, the country has become increasingly polarized as about one-third of the population has willingly walled themselves off from reality to marinate in the “information” they want to hear, as opposed to the truth.

The citizens should have taken to the streets when Citizens United was passed into law. But we didn’t. Citizens United, in brief, changed the status of corporations to people, allowing them to donate money to political campaigns and deeply influence the politics of the country.

The problem is, corporations aren’t people. They don’t act in the interests of the people, they act in the interests of corporations. So if our current laws and policies reflect little to negative concern for the wellbeing of actual human beings, that’s why. The laws weren’t passed for our benefit.

Voter suppression has always been a problem in this country, as certain groups strive to maintain power by excluding others from the political table. However, there are individuals and organizations that are deeply committed to preventing people of color, poor people, and liberals from voting. Here are just a few of the techniques deployed during the 2016 election:

  • Using a voting software program called CrossCheck, allegedly to prevent voter fraud, but in reality designed to throw qualified voters off the rolls when said voters tend to be in the undesired categories. Twenty-eight states used CrossCheck in 2016, throwing literally hundreds of thousands of registered voters off the rolls. Most of these voters were people of color, poor, young (likely to be liberal), or liberal.
  • Voter caging—requiring voters to verify their mailing addresses by sending them small postcards covered with tiny type that often are overlooked as junk mail. Failure to respond resulted in being eliminated from the rolls. These postcards, need I say, were mailed to communities whose residents are poor and/or minority.
  • Voter ID laws—requiring a state-issued ID to vote, which disadvantages poor people in particular as it requires them to travel to the DMV and pay for the ID.
  • Gerrymandering—this is an old (the term was first used in 1812) but successful technique that involves drawing up voting districts that concentrate conservative voters across as many districts as possible to create a conservative majority. (It could work both ways, but it’s mostly Republicans who do this.)
  • Mailing false voting information. Postcards with incorrect information on when and where to vote are mailed into districts with minority populations.
  • Poll closures. Polling places are strategically shut down or closed early in —you guessed it­—poor and minority neighborhoods.

As the Tea Party diligently worked to put whackadoodle candidates in positions of power all across the country, we liberals patiently waited for the checks and balances we’ve been told about to kick in.

Well, guess what? They didn’t.

Turns out you actually have to DO something for the checks and balances to work. As in protest, resist, rock the boat, take to the streets, speak out. As a result, the United States is no longer a beacon of freedom to the world. We are a third-rate developed country. We used to be number one in infant mortality survival, health care, human rights, education, income per capita, equitable distribution of wealth, etc., etc. None of that is true anymore. We’re just another corporate-owned, corrupt, greedy banana republic with an insane tinpot dictator at the helm, masses of increasingly poor citizens, viciously oppressed minorities, and an educational system that turns out ignorant, entitled mistakes like Donald J. Trump and company.

On the other hand, the United States has achieved primacy in many key areas. We are number one in percentage of our population in jail. We are also number one in how quickly we force new parents to return to work. The U.S. spends more per capita on healthcare than any other country (might have something to do with our abysmal healthcare statistics), despite the fact we get less than anybody else for the money. We also have the highest rate of gun ownership in the world and—surprise!—one of the highest rates of gun violence in the world.

Friends, we did not get here due to the enmity of foreign powers. No one attacked us to shove us down the scale of decency and freedom to occupy a position just under Slovakia. We did it to ourselves through irresponsible legislation, punitive laws, favoring corporate rights over human rights, pandering to religious interests (read Christian here), and failing to create an environment where education—the real kind, where you learn how to think—can flourish. And most of it came about because corrupt and greedy people want more money, and they’re not at all reluctant to take it out of your wallet.

The price of freedom isn’t free. We have to work constantly to deserve that freedom. When we see something like the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, or the passage of an insanely wrong law, we have to step up and work to overcome. I used to think that eternal vigilance was just a fancy patriotic way of describing our military. No, eternal vigilance is what we owe ourselves, our families, our communities and our country to prevent the enemies of freedom from invading the halls of power from within.

Let this be the last gasp of oligarchical power, corruption, and bigotry in this country. Let it be the last spasm of hatred for the poor, disadvantaged, minorities and women. Let it be the last of untrammeled corporate greed in this country. Stay awake, be vigilant, question everything. And let freedom ring again.