A little while ago, in our critique group, after Ellen Howard read the third-to-last chapter of a new novel, some of us began speculating about how it might end. We were hoping that things would come out well for Ellen’s protagonist, eleven-year-old Hallie. Somebody suggested that Hallie might get back with her father; somebody else suggested that the nice parents of Hallie’s new best friend might adopt her. Ellen smiled and didn’t say much for a while, then she said, “I don’t think those endings would be very believable. Sometimes it’s the character who needs to change, and not the situation.”
Ellen’s wisdom never fails. I remembered something I had read in Tony Hillerman’s novel, Sacred Clowns. Jim Chee is explaining a Navajo term, hozho:
“The way he understood hozho was hard to put into words. ‘I’ll use an example. Terrible drought, crops dead, sheep dying. Spring dried out. No water. The Hopi, or the Christian, maybe the Moslem, they pray for rain. The Navajo has the proper ceremony done to restore himself to harmony with the drought.’”
I love that.
I am reminded, too, of a conversation I once had with Katherine Paterson about The Great Gilly Hopkins. I told her how devastated I was when I found out that Gilly wouldn’t be allowed to stay with her foster mother, Trotter. I didn’t articulate very well how deeply the end of the novel had moved me, and I can’t remember Paterson’s exact words in reply, but I think the gist of it was that it was time for Gilly to move on to new challenges and that, though it wouldn’t be easy, she has more growing to do on her journey.
In our culture it seems so important to be “a winner.” Maybe in every culture, I don’t know. “Loser” is one of the worst things you can call somebody. But one of the realities of childhood is that kids have to accommodate themselves to having limited power. So instead of always patching up our fictional worlds to suit our child protagonists, we might consider a hozho ending—one in which we allow our characters to grow to the point where they can somehow put themselves in harmony with a world in which things don’t always go their way.