Materialistic or Spiritual?

A wonderful man belongs to my writers’ group.  He’s a retired cop from Milwaukee, AND he teaches philosophy.  He’s writing a memoir about the experiences he had on the force from the time he was young and inexperienced to the time he retired, and his stories go from laugh out loud to deadly serious.  I love listening to him read when it’s his turn to share.

Since he has a philosophical bent, he told me that he believes most modern literature is materialistic, not spiritual.  I replied that I wasn’t sure I agreed with that.  But when he asked me why, I had a harder time coming up with an answer.  I’m not a fast thinker.  I have to ponder ideas and sort them.  But after pondering away, I haven’t changed my mind.  Maybe that’s because of the reading material I choose.

I read predominately mysteries, but I intersperse them with other genres.  And here’s what I think and the authors who’ve made me think it:

First, I don’t necessarily equate the spiritual with religion, just as I don’t necessarily equate justice with the law.  To me, being a spiritual person equates with trying to find the greatest good in ourselves, the divine.  And I’ll be honest.  I struggle with that, because I’m never sure exactly what I believe that means.  Anyway, here are my thoughts about the spiritual in literature:

I’ve only read two William Kent Krueger mystery/thrillers featuring Cork O’Connor–Iron Lake and Boundary Waters–but Cork wrestles with doing the right thing and balancing his Native American culture and beliefs with his Irish-Catholic upbringing.  Indian mysticism flavors everything in the stories.  Nature plays a powerful force.  The books are as much about Cork’s character as they are about surviving and catching the bad guys.

I’m a fan of Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby historical mysteries.  Kiera Darby survived a horrible first marriage.  In the 1830s, husbands OWNED their wives.  They could abuse them nearly any way they chose.  Sebastian Gage’s mother married beneath her, a commoner, and her family taunted and ridiculed young Sebastian.  When Kiera and Sebastian meet and fall in love, they both struggle to overcome their pasts and to treat those they meet, even their servants, even people who have wronged them, with respect.  They work to rise above the harsh lessons they’ve endured in life.  The quality of a person matters more to them than titles or wealth.  Is that a spiritual journey?  It feels like one to me.

But I’ve read lots of books where a plot revolves around people trying to find answers and overcoming their faults and shortcomings even while the main plot might rotate around a murder or romance.  M.L. Rigdon’s The Gracarin is a fantasy where the warrior Torak rules a country whose religion is based on nature and music, harmony, and where women are treated as equals.  He forms an alliance with another country that has a more structured religion, but the leaders of both worlds abhor debauchery, cruelty, and excess. They join forces to conquer the corrupt rulers of the wharf.  In many urban fantasies, the theme is good vs. evil.  Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels series has an over arcing story question of Kate battling her father, who wants power for power’s sake.   Kate often doubts herself and her choices, which makes her journey all the more real.  Many mysteries star protagonists who try not to be stained by the bad people they battle.  They try not to stoop to their enemies’ levels.

In an extreme example, in Mark Lawrence’s fantasy, PRINCE OF THORNS, Jorg watched enemies kill his mother and young brother before they leave him for dead.  Worse, when he’s rescued and his father, the king, learns what has happened, he chooses not to go to war over the incident.  It would be too costly.  Angry and disillusioned, Jorg runs away and joins a band of ruffian misfits.  While he’s away, the king remarries, and when his new bride has a son, the king–his own father–wants Jorg dead.  Jorg does despicable things in the book, but it’s hard to hate him, because everyone else is worse, even the peasants.  Their hate is selfish and random.  Jorg’s enemies kill for land or profit, but Jorg kills to build an army strong enough to ultimately make him a ruler.  And he swears he’ll be a good one.  He has a conscience and a code of ethics, but they’re brutal by any standards.  But then, so are the times.  Jorg’s far from the spiritual journey most think of, but his struggles are real and beg the question: Does the end ever justify the means?  Everything in Jorg’s world is relative.  Does that preclude his journey from being spiritual?

I still don’t know if I have an answer to my friend’s question.  It’s possible I’m too practical to be philosophical.  Can a person be idealistic and practical at the same time?  I’m not sure.  But it was fun to consider the books I’ve read in a different light.  Any opinions you’d like to share?

 

 

Setting

I just finished reading Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger.  He’s a celebrated writer, but that’s not why I bought his book.  I bought it because I met him at Magna cum Murder and he impressed me.  When I listened to him on panels, he gave serious, thoughtful ideas and answers, but he didn’t seem to take himself too seriously.  And he writes mysteries.  I like mysteries.

Iron Lake isn’t the usual type of book I read.  The hero, Cork O’Connor, is flawed with plenty of baggage.  He was the town’s sheriff until he panicked and shot a man not once, which was necessary, but six times because he couldn’t quit pulling the trigger.  His career would have survived that, because he was good at what he did.  But he was a Democrat in a Republican area, and the crooked Republican judge wanted him out, so did the crooked Republican editor of the local newspaper.  Politics can get ugly.  For Cork, it meant he went from being a sheriff to flipping burgers.  On top of that, a year later, his wife asked him to move out of the house he’d grown up in.  Okay, enough said.  The man had had a few rough years with no fairy godmother coming to his rescue.  I usually avoid books like that.  I’m glad I read this one.

Indian lore adds a strong flavor to the story.  Cork is part Irish, part Anishinaabe Indian, and Aurora, Minnesota is home to enough Anishinaabe to let them open their own casino.  The story takes place in December, and the reader never forgets that Minnesota is REALLY cold in winter.  As a matter of fact, the frozen ground and the frozen lake become almost a character in the book.  So does the Windigo–an Indian legend that calls to its chosen victim when the winds howl and the weather goes crazy.

The Indian mystiques and freezing weather wrap the entire story in their embrace to set an eerie undertone.  So does the understated writing.  Sparse, but telling dialogue.  Things left unsaid.  Blatant lies that flow like honey.  The antagonists and villains are exceptionally well done.  But every part of the story is flavored by the snow and ice and cold.  It fits the grim deaths and greed, the cold-hearted characters who drive the plot.

If cozies are usually set in small towns to add warmth and familiarity, suspense does well with hostile environments–big cities, dark alleys, brooding skies.  Or secluded small towns like Aurora, where the winds whip across the frozen lake and Windigos stalk you in the snowy thickets.

There were times that I wondered why Cork made some of the choices he did, but he was always trying to do the right thing.  And I admired him for that.  All in all, I not only enjoyed Iron Lake, but Krueger’s skillful writing often caught my attention and made me think of how I could make my own writing better.  It’s a good book to study for style.  And it’s a great book to read for setting.

Happy Writing!