I’m reading “The Valiant Nellie McClung, a Christmas gift. I’m well acquainted with this Canadian icon, I’ve written about her in this space before. What I’m struck with in this reading, is the timelessness of her writing. So timeless, in fact, that some sixty years after her death my local newspaper is re-running some of her columns and they are very popular, not just from an historic point of view but from a current one.
What makes her still relevant? It’s her ability to hit upon universal truths. Language changes, styles change, manners change, but when Mrs. McClung writes about war, her words ring true for any conflict. “War is not only a waste of things we can see and touch, but makes heavy inroads on the invisible and intangible things of the spirit.” When she speaks of the struggle of good over evil, that struggle is relevant in any age. “The power of evil . . . now stands before us in tanks that belch fire, in planes that drop bombs on hospitals and schools, in grasping bloodstained hands, ready to strangle the innocent and throttle our liberties.” McClung was writing about WWII but her words could apply to Syria, or Sudan, or Somalia today. Even when she writes of domestic things, she calls to the heart of all of us who long for home. “I began to feel at home as soon as I walked up the gangplank.”
So, apart from my admiration for the woman, why am I telling you about Nellie McClung’s writing today? Because all writers, whatever their time, whatever their genre, strive to tap into that universal truth, that notion that crosses the ages. The theme of star-crossed lovers has been explored from Shakespeare to Hardy to Bernstein. Sibling rivalry is a story as old as Cain and Abel. For romance writers, we often explore such truths as the need to belong, the desire for family, the longing for justice. Note this is not the same as genre tropes such as reunion stories, secret babies or runaway brides. A truth is much deeper and more profound than a genre convention.
Nellie McClung was a woman of strong faith. Her words and actions were shaped by her Christian beliefs and her unwavering belief in Christian democracy. Her tireless championing of women and children and all those who suffered under the existing power structure stemmed from those convictions. I believe that is one reason her writings still resonate. Not only are her themes universally true, they are true to her.
As story-tellers today, we must remember to be true to ourselves in our fiction. No matter the current “hot” topic, if the writer dislikes vampires, she will not be successful as an author of vampire stories. If she hates small towns, then setting a tale of family and church and community in a small town will ring false to readers. An old adage for authors is “write what you know.” I suggest “write what you believe.”