Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Door in the Wall

This extraordinary book was written and illustrated by Marguerite de Angeli, whose personal story is also, in its own way, rather extraordinary. After completing one year of high school Ms. de Angeli dropped out in order to become a choral singer and soloist for various churches throughout Philadelphia. She met her husband, a violinist, and after they married she devoted herself to the raising of their six children.

Ms. De Angeli began as an illustrator of a Sunday school newspaper and did not try her hand at writing until the middle of her life. In a short introduction to The Door in the Wall her son writes, “Her sense of wonder and modesty about her talent were things that lent her work such charm, in both the text and the illustrations, and her love of people, especially children, is evident throughout.”

Indeed, The Door in the Wall is the story of a child - a young boy named John, of noble birth, who is made a cripple by the plague before his dream of becoming a knight can be fulfilled. With his parent's away in service to the King and Queen, John is taken in by the local monastery to be cared for by the monks.

For much of the book he is preoccupied with his handicap and its shattering effect on his dream.

“What think you Brother Luke," he asks in a moment of despair, "shall my legs ever straighten?”

“God alone knows whether thou’lt straighten or no," says the monk. "I know not. But this I tell thee. …It is better to have crooked legs than a crooked spirit.”

And that, in essence, is the theme of this book: Ms. De Angeli deftly illustrates the point that having character is more important than getting what we want; and that character is achieved - not in spite of the pain in our lives, but through it.

Pain is the instrument; and the result can be beautiful. In contrast, to achieve one's dream at the expense of attaining character is the greatest tragedy of all.

The book also tacitly conveys the tremendous difference that one individual can have in the life of another. It is Brother Luke who perseveres in reaching out to young John, urging him to "look for the door in the wall which no one can shut" (Revelation 3.8), which is another way of encouraging him to look for some means of thriving within the confines of his limitations. He may not be able to walk, but he can learn to carve wood, to swim, and to read.

In this way John's handicap teaches him to focus his attention on what he can do - which is quite a lot.

Slowly, very slowly, he begins to learn self-discipline, patience, and perseverence. And in the end John, the cripple, turns out to be a hero, soaring to heights he might never have reached if the events of his life had transpired differently.

When he is finally reunited with his father, he garners the strength to ask the question that has been burning in his soul for months: “Father, mind you not that I must go thus, always bent over, and with these crutches to walk?”

His father becomes suddenly grave and, resting his hands on his son's shoulders, says, “The courage you have shown, the craftsmanship proven by the harp, and the spirit in your singing all make so bright a light that I cannot see whether or no your legs are crooked.”

Perhaps the great irony of this book is that it is written for an audience of children. For it contains truths that many a grown up (like myself) would be privileged to fully grasp.

1 comment:

Lindsay said...

I taught this book at Cornerstone...LOVE IT!! It will definitely be part of the 6th grade curriculum!! :)