Our recent "Why the Novel Matters" contest brought home to us how amazing you all are. So to celebrate, we thought today we would post the winning essay, Vila Ginge
rich's Taking Flight. Here it is:
The novel has always mattered to me.
As a child, I climbed the Swiss Alps with Heidi and discovered England in The Secret Garden. I tied my braids with red ribbon like Spanish girls in picture books, or wrapped them in a crown like the heroine in Kirsten Saves the Day. With no television or computer games, my sisters and I rode bikes on the driveway and pretended to go to Bethlehem- the only foreign city I was sure of, thanks to our Bible storybook.
s raised me in a tidy Kansas town, north of Wichita and miles from anywhere significant. Long afternoons gazing at wheat fields made me conscious of my smallness and I hoped someday to escape, to soar over those prairies and find newfangled things.
On Sundays I sat with my friends near the front of the sanctuary, hands folded but eyes glazing as I found pictures in the wood grain of the pulpit- exotic things like donkeys and camels and palm trees. After school I devoured The Diary of Anne Frank with my peanut butter and jelly, went to sleep to the tune of waves off The Island of Blue Dolphins.
My earliest dreams sprouted from books and a rare airport trip, where my stomach ached w
ith longing as stewardesses clicked past, pulling their rolling bags.
Someday, I would be a stewardess and pull a bag with wheels.
I read more and my dream changed: I would be a detective like Nancy Drew. Later I combined Cherry Ames, Jungle Nurse with Little Women and altered my dream again. This one stuck and all through my teens, I wanted to be a journalist in Africa.
Then reality hit, with a thud like a Twain in our library drop-box. Detective? Journalist? Those weren’t career paths for Plain girls. I could be a teacher, a nurse, or a homemaker.
led the seed-dream, but seedlings die hard.
I followed the acceptable path: taught school, married young. My husband had no interest in travel but I swaggered through France with The Count of Monte Cristo and toured London with David Copperfield.
Every time a jet flew over, I wished I was on it and every time I walked through an airport, my stomach hurt like it did as a child. But now I knew better. Girls like me didn’t go places. They put down roots like cottonwoods and learned to bend without breaking like wheat on the plains.
Then one startling day my husband mentioned mission work. Our church needed volunteers for its humanitarian program; maybe we should give some time to help ot
hers. It happened so slowly I scarcely realized it- here a comment, there a question- and when we submitted our application, I was as stunned as anyone.
Suddenly my wheat field exploded into fireworks.
But the mission board would probably send us to a local post, supervising hurricane clean up or a guesthouse.
They would, probably.
They sent us to Romania, within reach of the galaxy that was Europe. Other missionaries prepared for foreign service by getting shots and learning to cut hair but I read every library book that mentioned this new country of ours.
And then I climbed on that jet and glided away.
I soaked Romania in, walked the streets, spent evenings on our balcony and afternoons in the park. We explored from the brooding forests of Dracula, to the banks of the Blue Danube, to the quiet hometown of Elie Wiesel, and the quaint, overlooked country wedged in our hearts.
But that was not all. Oh no, it was not all.
Hungary and Ukraine became old friends and Anna Karenina and The Singing Tree grew real. There were other trips - a layover in James Joyce’s Ireland, a drive through Sherlock Holmes’ Bavaria, a glimpse of The Scarlet Pimpernel’s France.
Then we crossed the Adriatic by ferry and I blinked back tears as the lights of Italy approached. Kansas seemed far away but the girl with braids did a victory dance under the cottonwood.
Italy meant Venice and gondolas. It meant the Coliseum, a million crooked streets, and a new pasta dish every day. It meant The Voice in the Wind and The Last Days of Pompeii.
It meant everything.
And now, I truly believe there will be more. Once a book plants a seed, it grows, and once you come unstuck, there’s no tying you. My wheat field is a runway and the brown-haired girl pulls a suitcase with wheels.
I love how Vila wove the many novels of her childhood and youth into the essay, and tied it into the path the Lord has placed her on. We have a tendency to think, "I'm just a Plain girl (or a small-town girl, or a girl with no notable roots or possibilities) and that limits my potential." But God has other ideas entirely! He has grand plans for his daughters, and they often coincide with our own dreams. And that's because Philippians 2:13 (one of my very favorite Scriptures) is so true: For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." He gives us the desires in the first place, then makes a way for them to be fulfilled.
Why is Vila's essay so satisfying to the reader? Because it taps into universal, almost mythic themes with which we are born: yearning dreams, the inherent plainness of us all, the full-circle of the quest, the delight in the redemption of our dreams.
Her imagery is vivid and not overwrought, her command of the essay form is that of someone practiced and intentional.
Vila, you deserved to win this contest! And you should begin (and I suspect you have already begun) to write a novel. Yours will matter.