MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Literature is one way to understand war and the deep conflicts that arise in a society at war. While it's too soon for literature from the Iraq War, novelist Alice McDermott suggests that one book, written about the first World War, sheds light on present events. Here's her choice for our series You Must Read This.
ALICE McDERMOTT: Last spring, when I assigned Catherine Ann Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider to my graduate students at Johns Hopkins University, one young woman brought to class a beautiful, hardbound edition of the 1939 work. She had found it online, she explained, a library reject. She opened the book to show us the single word, discard, stamped on the first page, beneath it another stamp that said low demand.
I haven't been punched in the stomach since the roughhousing days with my brothers, but I recognize the pain. The three short novels that make up Pale Horse, Pale Rider ask the three questions that the critic Mark Schorer says humankind has always asked. What were we? What are we? What will we be?
Old Morality addresses the first of these, a coming of age story. Noon Wine shows how the easygoing past can be transformed in an instant into a terrible present. But it is where we find ourselves in this century that makes the title story of Porter's collection one that must be read.
Porter's heroine in Pale Horse, Pale Rider is Miranda, a young woman working for a newspaper in Denver, Colorado. It is 1918, in the midst of both the first World War and the influenza epidemic. Funeral processions pass regularly through the streets, but Miranda is falling in love with a young soldier. Porter writes that Miranda is determined not to disturb the radiance which played and darted about the simple and lovely miracle of being two persons named Adam and Miranda, 24-years-old each, alive and on earth at the same moment.
But there is always the war, the war, the War to end War, war for democracy, for humanity, a safe world forever and ever. The worst of the war is the fear and suspicion, Miranda tells Adam. The people who look as if they had, as she says, pulled down the shutters over their minds and their hearts, ready to leap if you make one gesture or say one word they do not understand instantly. It's the skulking about and the lying. It's what war does to the mind and the heart. What were we? What are we? What will we be?
There is enough intelligence, wit, heartache, profundity and marvelous prose in Pale Horse, Pale Rider to have kept demand for it high, even across the seven decades since it was first published, but apparently those enduring qualities have proved insufficient. Let me add then relevance to our time as a recommendation. It is the very recommendation I would have offered 35 years ago when Vietnam was our war for democracy, when this short novel opened my eyes to the simple and lovely miracle of being alive.
Katherine Anne Porter herself wrote that the arts are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away. We discard voices such as hers at our peril.
BLOCK: Alice McDermott won the National Book Award for Charming Billy. Her latest novel is After This. You can check out another essay in our series, Lawrence Wright's essay about George Orwell, at our Web site, NPR.org.