Show, Don’t Tell
I picked up a 1996 Newberry Honor Book after reading an interview with the author who had just published a fourth book in the series begun with The Thief (Megan Whalen Turner, Greenwillow, 1996.) Not a very inspired title, I thought, and the cover art on my library-borrowed edition gave nothing away. I got drowsy reading three successive nights in a row, forcing myself to make it through to the chapters’ ends before turning off my light. And I rarely get drowsy reading. Still, I liked some of the quirks of the main character, and the book had been given a prestigious award, right?
I’m glad I stuck with it.
This is a story where things that you learn at the book’s end force you to reconsider (and in my case, re-read) everything you thought you’d understood. The technique, done poorly, can antagonize even the most generous reader. But I don’t think you’ll feel angry at Turner for holding out on you. The great thing about telling the story this way is that you learn who the protagonist is even when you don’t know what he is. (I’m sooooo avoiding a major spoiler here, trust me.) This writer understands the value of showing over telling.
As I re-read some of the early chapters that I’d found “slow,” I began to notice the art in Turner’s showing. Rather than tell us that the thief, Gen, is a handsome, rogue-ish fellow, Turner gives us a scene in which Gen charms the innkeeper, earning her smile where others in Gen’s group earn her scorn. The interaction between innkeeper and thief further shows us important character traits. Gen speaks gently when he learns her son is in prison. He’s insufferably haughty towards his fellows when she brings Gen, and only Gen, a lunch for the road. Now, it would have been so easy to just say on the first page that the thief’s a fellow who behaves kindly towards the down-trodden, but acts arrogantly around those who think too well of themselves.
The author holds her cards close, showing us Gen’s behavior in an array of testing situations which allow Gen to learn what he’s really made of. And we learn right alongside him. The author’s gamble pays off; The Thief is a great coming-of-age read.
I highly recommend The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, the next two books in the series. Have a box of tissues at hand or something you won’t regret breaking when you throw it. (Let your knowledge of yourself direct you.) As for me, I’m off to the bookstore for the fourth in the series.