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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Ongoing Issue of Context

Speaking With Your Readers Is Always Useful

One of the values of being on vacation around friends is that the age of kids you are around gets shuffled. At home in the suburbs, school and activities dominate so much that I mainly meet kids similar in age to mine — with a sprinkling of older and younger siblings here and there. That means I rarely speak with local teenagers. But here we are among families that we know through a lattice of friendships, and thus there are more teenagers. A couple of months ago we attended the bas mitzvah of one girl who is 12, not quite a teenager but very close, and quite smart. In fact it was the very best such event I have ever attended (including my own bat mitzvah about which I will write some other time). And that is because rather than reciting some better or worse speech (as one generally hears) she actually conducted a discussion with us, the audience, about the meaning of the portion of the Torah she had studied. There was a real exchange of beliefs, and she showed her maturity by being able to officiate at the ebb and flow of views.

So here I was sitting with this bright, alert, 7th grader and I asked her what she knew about Joe McCarthy — nothing; about Communism — was that related to the Cultural Revolution, she asked. I probed a bit and soon realized that she had read Red Scarf Girl in class. Communism, thus, was this bad thing in China that had something to do with the Cultural Revolution. This response put the whole matter of context for a book on McCarthyism in a new light. I realized that it is not merely the particular facts about Joe, or the specific Cold War environment in which he came to power, that kids needed to know. Rather it is the entire weight and meaning of the idea of Communism itself. I realized that, to my readers, the Free World vs Iron Curtain issue is like talking about the iconoclastic movement in Byzantium — of great importance to scholars, entirely invisible to the average readers. 

I realized that, for adults, writing about McCarthy and McCarthyism is a matter of reminding them of issues and experiences they half know already — providing some new insight that illuminates what is dimly known. For adults the problem is to create any identification, any attachment, at all. And then, having established a field of interest, to begin to fill in the specifics. 

One more valuable lesson this smart young woman taught me.