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Finding joy and exploring a museum

Near the beginning of Katherine Center’s novel What You Wish For (St. Martin’s Press, 2020, 309 pages), school librarian Samantha Casey suffers an attack of epilepsy while driving and runs her car into the side of a 7-Eleven. She suffers bruises and requires stitches for her cuts, but she is chiefly distraught at the return of her epilepsy after so many years.

When the principal of the school, Max Kempner, who is her best friend and a sort of father figure to Sam — everyone at the school adores this man — visits her at home, he gives her some advice that becomes the theme of this sweet novel:

“Okay. Listen close. Pay attention to the things that connect you to joy.” 

It wasn’t what I expected him to say. I leaned away and turned to frown at him. “What does joy have to do with anything?”

“Joy is important.”

Was it? “I don’t know. Not having car accidents is important. Joy seems pretty expendable.”

But Max just smiled. “It’s one of the secrets of life that no one ever tells you. Joy cures everything.”

Max then goes on to tell Sam that joy is an antidote for fear, anger, boredom, and sorrow, and that while we can’t make ourselves feel joyful, we can do something joyful: “You can hug somebody. Or crank up the radio. Or watch a funny movie. Or tickle someone. Or lip-synch your favorite song. Or buy the person behind you at Starbucks a coffee. Or wear flower hat to work.” 

When Max dies of a heart attack at his 60th birthday party — no spoiler alert needed, this happens in Chapter One — the board replaces him with Duncan Carpenter, a teacher Sam had known and loved from afar several years earlier. She is both thrilled and apprehensive about Duncan’s arrival, remembering him as one of the finest teachers she’d ever known, a goofy man who won the hearts of his students and his co-workers with his juggling, handstands, eccentric outfits, and made-up games and parties. She’s also afraid, however, that he’s married by now with children to the woman he was dating when Sam resigned and took the job at the Kempner School in Galveston, Texas.

But the Duncan she knew has disappeared. The new Duncan Carpenter wears a three-piece suit, never smiles or makes jokes, and is determined to radically transform the school, seemingly obsessed with security, locking the place down during the day, hiring more guards, repainting the hallways and classrooms a dismal gray, canceling all field trips, and making life miserable for teachers and students. By his memoranda —and there are lots of these — he sucks the joy out of the school.

And once Sam discovers the reason for this behavior — to say more would damage the story — she, Max’s wife Babette, and Sam’s best friend Alice put their heads together and concoct a plan centered on joy to help Max rediscover himself and how to truly live.

Do they succeed?

You’ll need to read the book to find out.

But likely, many of you need to read What You Wish for the same reason I did. In our troubled times, joy sometimes seems a commodity in short supply. The COVID-19 virus, the lockdowns, the closed schools and churches, the violent unrest in some of our cities: every day the headlines bring gloom and darkness. The masks we wear have a depressing effect on all of us. When’s the last time you got a smile from a grocery store clerk?

Katherine Center’s book is a gentle but powerful reminder that we possess the power to seek out joy, if only by force of will. Love, true love, Sam tells us, “is only for the brave,” and she would say the same thing of joy. As we watch Sam and Duncan fight for love and joy, they inspire us to do the same ourselves.

If you’re in the pits, if you’re feeling lower than an ant’s belly, or if you just want a good story filled with light rather than darkness, pick up a copy of What You Wish For.

•••

And now for a complete change of direction.

Maybe you’re a homeschool dad looking to teach your children some history. Maybe you’re a mom in charge of your children’s distance learning through a public or private school. Or maybe you’re a history buff always looking to explore new material.

Let me point you to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas (www.pacificwarmuseum.org).

This one-of-a-kind museum contains tens of thousands of artifacts from our war against the Japanese in the Pacific, live demonstrations, and additional thousands of letters, journals, and oral histories in its archives collection. 

And here’s the good news: you don’t have to travel to Fredericksburg to partake of these treasures. On the museum’s site, students will find lesson plans, lectures and discussions, and even distance learning classes. Visitors to the site can listen to oral histories of those who fought in the war or served on the home front, watch numerous videos, and absorb the enormity of a war fought over the world’s largest ocean. 

I’d never heard of this museum until a friend and editor suggested I research it, and as I explored that site, The National Museum of the Pacific War blew me away. Take a look and see what you think.

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, Amanda Bell and Dust On Their Wings, and two works of nonfiction, Learning As I Go and Movies Make the Man. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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