“What happens to the children?” Dr. Jesus Montaño asked this question as part of the opening to his lecture which took place Monday morning in the rare books room of Van Wylen Library. “I’m serious,” he continued when nobody answered, “what happens to the children?”
The answer to this question is, in one sense, simple when one reads Station Eleven. Children, even ones growing up in a world ravaged by a pandemic and its resultant chaos, will eventually grow up and inherit the world they are left. They will inherit the land itself and whatever resources they can glean from it; they will inherit cherished tokens and names from their family. Perhaps most importantly, though, they will inherit a collective memory of the world and people that came before them.
“Memory is foundational to our identities,” Dr. Christiana Salah said in the opening of her discussion of The Giver, this year’s middle-grade novel, on Wednesday evening in Howard Miller Public Library. Memory serves as a mirror through which we see and construct the image and narrative we present; it is how we come to know ourselves. Memory has another purpose, too. It is closely tied to our emotions; it allows us to feel. When Dr. Salah asked the audience to name something which seemed good about the community depicted in the story (where nobody except The Giver has any memory of a world different than the one in which they live), one young reader murmured, “there’s no pain.” The community of The Giver is made up of children who weren’t told of all they had lost, and while, as the reader correctly said, they feel no pain, the loss of collective memory, of emotion and identity, seems almost more grievous. Dr. Salah pointed this out and ended her talk by sharing that Lowry wrote The Giver “for all the children to whom we entrust the future,” and that the novel holds a powerful message for them. It says that willful ignorance is not a solution, and that anybody, at any age, can have an impact on the world.
When we take this message and look back to Station Eleven, the question shifts from “what happens to the children?” to “what do we pass on to the children?” Throughout the novel, we see two different answers. Either leave them this collective memory and tell them what has been lost, or don’t. The reader hears of children who don’t know that the world was ever different from the way they know it; they don’t know that cars used to run, that swimming pools used to be filled with water, that credit cards were used daily. For some, the memory of the old world, the world that was lost, is unknown, because someone else deemed it too painful to remember.
Station Eleven acts as a reminder, too, that memory takes form in stories. Clark’s Museum of Civilization begins the process of bringing forward and preserving the recollection of the old world, making sure that the past is not rendered obsolete. But the objects showcased are just that: objects. Without the stories and experiences behind them, anchoring them to the present, they are meaningless. It is talking about the past, sharing anecdotes and narratives, that keeps the memory alive.
When I first heard these two lectures, I thought I was in a unique position as a twenty-one-year-old college student; I thought it was something special that I could count myself both as a child to whom the world is entrusted and an adult who bears some of the responsibility of passing that world along. But after a day of reflection, I realized that is not the case: I share this position with every other person in this world. How often do we speak of children, of what they will grow up with, what we must give them? We forget that we do not inherit the world or the future in one instance, or with one experience, but we receive it gradually and continuously with every story we collect, every memory we hear. What is more, we do our part to pass it on from the day we learn to speak, as we tell our own stories and share our experiences with others. We are all, in a sense, the children to whom the future is entrusted, and we hand part of it off each and every day.
Contributed by Annika Gidley
Annika is a senior at Hope College, studying English and Spanish, and this year’s NEA Big Read Lakeshore student intern. When not at the library or talking about Harry Potter, you can find her at a local coffee shop or the nearest Big Read event.