Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Esperanza Rising*

Esperanza is the Spanish word for hope, so it’s easy to deduce from the title Esperanza Rising that the story will be, well, hopeful. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. . . . right? Unfortunately, in this day and age, nothing is that cut-and-dry. There’s always a cynic. (Gee, that was a very cynical thing to say.)

The phrase “happily ever after” either makes you leap for joy, or makes you cringe. Maybe a little of both.

What is a happy ending? To me, a happy ending is one that does not make you a cynic. Under that definition, even some sad endings can qualify. Also under that definition, even some so-called “happy” endings DON’T qualify. So don’t think I’m trying to say that all stories should end in “happily ever after.”

So, let’s define “happy.” Off the top of my head, I can think of these categories of what, to me, qualifies as a happy ending.

Bittersweet: A Tale of Two Cities, Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, Titanic

Inspirational: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, sports movies like Rudy or Remember the Titans

Happily ever after: Cinderella, Pride and Prejudice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

“Life goes on”: Charlotte’s Web, Tuck Everlasting

Cinderella is usually the model people use when discussing happy endings, and I think that is because the story is often used on both sides of the debate. On one hand, Cinderella is considered the ultimate happily ever after, but on the flip side, Cinderella is an example of a “bad” happy ending. The example of Cinderella is proof to me of how optimists see the world one way and cynics another. I can usually tell a cynic from an optimist depending on if they like or dislike the Cinderella story.

I like to think of Cinderella’s cynics as ugly-stepsister-caricature types who are so jealous of Cinderella’s beauty, long-suffering, kindness, friendships, and good fortune that their only excuse is that Cinderella is an impossible standard (because they are inferior themselves). I see more good than bad. But that’s just me.

The sad part is, cynics use Cinderella as a blanket excuse to reject all happily ever afters. But not every happy ending follows the Cinderella model, as I’ve pointed out. Hope, esperanza, is the common thread. Cynicism seems to me to be the lazy way out the more I read. A cynical ending is simply one where the author didn’t go far enough to discover the hope, and if he had gone just a little bit farther, he might have found it. Happy endings are tough to find and to pull off, but well worth the payoff.

And so I leave you with this book recommendation, Esperanza Rising, a riches-to-rags story that is like Cinderella in reverse. I promise there will be a happy ending, but you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out what kind of happy it is.

*Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan is about a girl from a well-to-do Mexican family who is forced to move to America and become a field worker in California after a devastating family tragedy.

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