More Real Than Real

November 30, 2007

One summer, when I was a kid (maybe seven, or eight) I read Fred Gipson’s 1956 classic Old Yeller. I hadn’t seen the movie version. (Come to think of it, I never did see it.) When I got to the end, when Travis Coates has to shoot his beloved dog, I cried and cried.

That same summer, I also read a book that had just come out in paperback, Born Free, Joy Adamson’s real-life memoir of her experiences in Africa with a lion cub named Elsa. The movie had not yet been made, nor the Oscar-winning theme song yet written. (And interestingly, I have also avoided ever seeing that movie, too.) At the end of that book, as a postscript, the author notes that Elsa died.

I remember closing the book and realizing with a stunned shock that I hadn’t shed a single tear. Why not?

At the tender age of eight (or seven), I was kind of freaked out at my lack of response. Here I’d wept and wept over the death of a dog who I knew was a complete fiction, an invention of the author’s imagination. And now, faced with a description of the real, actual, nonfictional death of a real animal whose entire life I had just read about, I was unmoved.

My mom helped me figure this out: it was the story-telling. I don’t have a copy of Born Free, but my recollection is that Elsa’s death was reported in a brief epilogue, a line or two that seemed almost an afterthought. “A few days later, Elsa died in the bush.” No details, and no reactions noted. When Gipson describes the death of Old Yeller, it’s similarly brief, almost telegraphic, but bursting with pathos and feeling, told from the boy Travis’s point of view.

Son of a gun, I’m tearing up right now, remembering it. And the dog wasn’t even real. Or was he? Thinking back on the scene stirs resonant chords: other pets I’ve owned who’ve died; people I’ve known who’ve died; and for that matter, pets and people who haven’t died, but those I simply love. The events of Gipson’s tale might be fictional, but the feelings he evokes circle back and embrace events and characters as real as can be, making them even more real.

That’s what great story-telling is: not real, realer than real.

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