by Jim Lang
A lighter topic for a Sunday morning…
One of the joys of teaching writing and literature is watching students develop a love for reading. I was fortunate to have teachers and parents who guided me toward a love of great books early in my life. I try to do the same for my students, and I am fortunate to work with colleagues who do the same.
I’ve been thinking lately about the literary heroes who shaped my life through books.
To me, a literary hero is a character from a work of fiction who displays admirable qualities that make that character unique and special. Some are normal people. Others are supernatural or superhuman in their abilities. All, however, are characters who have stayed with me and made me think about the kind of person I want to be.
So, my top 10 literary heroes:
10. Ma Joad (The Grapes of Wrath): The backbone of the Joad family from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Ma displays strength, fierce determination, and love for her family that makes Steinbeck’s classic a memorable favorite from my high school years. Steinbeck’s book was one of the first to challenge my own views of the world while helping me appreciate the strength of a fictional character.
9. Winston Smith (1984): There’s something about Winston’s fight to rebel against the tyranny of a corrupt state that has always seems uniquely heroic and tragic to me. George Orwell’s 1984 has always been one of my favorite novels to teach and discuss with students, and each time I do, I gain new insight into Winston’s character and Orwell’s message, which seems more prevalent today than ever before.
8. Jim (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn): Another favorite from high school, Mark Twain uses Jim, an escaped slave, as the moral center of his American classic. Jim’s loyalty, forgiveness, humility, and good heart place him among the noblest of characters in fiction.
7. Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games trilogy): She’s strong, independent, courageous, and, perhaps most importantly, honorably fights for causes greater than her own self interests. I had to include her on my list because she is the best example of why I love teaching literature so much — because I first met her and learned about her adventures from my students. Plus, she stands in stark contrast to some of the weak and whiny female characters in other modern YA novels (yes, Bella Swan, I’m talking about you…).
6. Howard Roark (The Fountainhead): If you had told me a month ago that I would include Ayn Rand’s fiercely independent protagonist on this list, I would have laughed at you, then hurled Rand’s 700-page monstrosity-of-a-novel at your head. But a strange thing happened as I discussed Howard with my AP students — they helped me appreciate and admire him more than I ever thought I would. He’s sneaky like that. He makes the reader slowly see the world through his eyes. Howard’s stubborn refusal to compromise his own integrity is a quality we need far more of in today’s world. And I owe my new respect for his character and Rand’s book to the students in my first and third-hour classes.
5. Harry Potter (Harry Potter series): I am an admittedly quirky reader. I don’t like to begin a series until it’s completed and I have all of the answers neatly sitting on my shelf ready for me to discover. While the rest of the free world was growing up with Harry Potter, I patiently waited until all seven of J.K Rowling’s novels were published, then bought the entire set and devoured them faster than a Dementor can devour your soul. So, my experience with Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest of the Hogwarts crew was different than most readers’. To this day, while I am enchanted by the intricate world of magic and good versus evil that Rowling creates, Harry Potter the character stands out to me because throughout the series, he remains so uniquely human. He is uncertain, confused, afraid, and humble, yet bravely fights for the greater good anyway. To me, Harry’s heroism is defined more by his humanity than his sorcery.
4. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie’s mystery series): The clever Belgian detective is a throwback to my teenage years. I owe my love for Agatha Christie to Anne Malone, a kind middle school teacher who handed me a copy of Murder on the Orient Express and forever hooked me on mysteries. Poirot, who used logic, an ability to get people to talk, and his “little grey cells” to solve mysteries, has always been a favorite because he’s so damn smart. Each Agatha Christie mystery was an intricate puzzle for me to solve. Moreover, Poirot represents the lasting impact a teacher can have on a student’s reading and life. To this day, Poirot remains among my favorite childhood characters, and my love for Poirot certainly led to my love for…
3. Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch (Michael Connelly’s mystery series): Let me say this clearly — the heroic-yet-deeply-flawed homicide detective is the best crime solver and most interesting character in crime fiction today. I can thank my mom for getting me addicted to Connelly’s mysteries, which include a whole world of uniquely-flawed-but-incredibly-fascinating characters whose lives somehow all intersect. Bosch is no saint, but his desires to overcome his own ghosts, challenge the system, relentlessly discover the truth, and help others make him heroic. Connelly is a gifted story teller who somehow always manages to surprise me. If you are not reading his mysteries, you should. Begin with The Black Echo and read them in order.
2. Batman: Those who know me well knew this was coming. Yes, the first literary hero to grab me and make me think was the Dark Knight. As a kid, I often escaped to the world of comic books, and Batman was always the character who stood out to me the most. Superman has his powers, Green Lantern has his ring, and Spider-man can crawl up walls thanks to a freak accident, but Batman is just a man who overcomes a childhood tragedy to fight evil using his own bravery, intelligence, and ability to outwit the villain. Plus, he has the most demented, outrageous rogues’ gallery ever. Who couldn’t simultaneously love and hate the Joker? To me, though, Batman’s heroism is reflected in his use of his own personal tragedy to fight for something good and decent for others. He’s also a reminder that for some readers, some of the best stories can be in graphic novels.
And my greatest literary hero?
1. Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird): From the super hero to the most human hero, Harper Lee’s Southern attorney and father stands as the model of integrity and heroism largely due to his eloquent advice to his children, Scout and Jem: “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” It is Atticus’s quiet bravery, belief in a noble cause, devotion to his children, and selflessness in the face of hatred that define him as the ultimate literary hero. He serves as a reminder that despite our seemingly insurmountable problems, it is still possible to shape a better world for our children if we reject violence and hatred and look for the common humanity in each other. Certainly our world today could use more heroes like Atticus Finch.
So, these are my literary heroes. My hope as a teacher is that my students find their own.
Who have I left off the list?
Which literary heroes are on your list?
Let us all know in the comments section.
Have a great week.