This last week I finished The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult. Here is a review of the book, and a dissection of how she uses flashbacks as a productive plot construct. I have tried not to reveal too much, but as a general warning, there may be spoilers in the post below.
The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult, is about Sage Singer, a baker who revels in the solitude of her job. Despite her general reclusiveness, Sage befriends 95-year-old Josef, a regular in the grief group she’s attended for three years and a man well known for the years of good he has done in their town. As their friendship grows, he reveals to her that he was a German Nazi SS Guard and he needs her, a jew, to not only forgive him but help him end his life. The shock and the stories his bold request unearth leads Sage down a path that will require her to determine whether redemption is possible, and who is worthy of forgiveness.
The raw emotions of “The Storyteller”, common in other works of this author, made me beautifully uncomfortable. She constructs a view of humanity for all that it is, and can be--all the good and all the bad. And isn’t that why her readers love her?
While The Storyteller is very similar to Jodi Picoult's other books in this way, I was impressed with how this story set itself apart. Where her other novels involve some sort of court drama, this novel’s lawful system takes a personal turn. Perhaps the most interesting differences lie in the uses of the story-within-a-story sprinkled in between chapters, and Jodi Picoult's use of major flashbacks spanning a large portion of the book.
The traditional advice for flashbacks is to keep it brief, keep it relevant, and keep it interesting. An ill-placed or drawn out flashback has the potential to stall the story and, as a consequence, bore the reader. Every time an author has to stop the story to give us a past experience, they have to weigh how important that information is. So why is it that, even though this starts out as Sage Singer’s story, do The Storyteller’s flashbacks work? They stay true to the other necessities of functional flashbacks--keep it relevant and keep it interesting.
In Sage’s conversations with Josef, flashbacks are used largely during a conversation for the sake of opening up. Even still, his flashbacks span a full chapter, if not more. This doesn’t bore the reader because Picoult made them relevant. Josef’s flashback explains who he was as a child that made him become the monster he would turn into as an adult, and how he personally viewed the crimes he committed. Though he recognized that the acts of murder were hard on his conscience, he also nonchalantly remarked that Auschwitz itself was a nice position because, on the job, he had access to a concert hall and a bar. The reader and Sage then share the confusion and seething anger that cries for justice. This compels Sage to do things she never would have done otherwise, namely question her grandmother about her past and break out of her reclusive nature to contact a Nazi Hunter.
By developing a clear motive for her antagonist through his thorough flashbacks, Jodi Picoult helps Sage and the reader consider the theme of the book on a deeper level. We can see the full breadth of his life, so we cannot say that someone is always evil, or that an evil person always does evil things. This leaves us to ask- if a person is not so black-and-white, should forgiveness and justice be? Without the flashback, we would have to lean solely on Sage’s written prejudices and reactions.
An even larger portion of the book is dedicated to the flashbacks of Sage’s grandmother. It is done in one long and gruesome section. There are no pauses, and there are no interjections. This functions because the plot is not slowed down but put on the complete hold. A story of this magnitude would and should take up the room, and hold importance above any other story.
As a writer, consider the weight your flashback holds. Minka didn’t tell her story for years, and when she did it came out like a flood. Does your character withhold any information from their own story? Do the other characters have to earn it? What does the information make them consider about themselves? How does it reflect your themes?
Through the whole middle of the book, we are led through Minka’s childhood in Poland, the events that come as her family is forced into the Lodz ghetto, and her experiences in Auschwitz. You can’t decide to forgive someone unless you understand what you’re forgiving them for. By giving the viewpoint of the sinner and the victim, we are able to make the journey alongside Sage as she tries to decide for herself if Josef’s extensive years trying to reform the man he was can ever be enough make up for the years Minka tried to forget the horror of her reality. Before Minka shared her story, the effects of Josef’s actions felt intangible, vague, and distant. It may have been easier to forgive him if Sage had only heard his side of things. But when it becomes personal, it’s harder to forgive.
Could it have been done another way?
As writers, it is important to examine why we want to include any particular flashback. We must be honest with ourselves in assessing if it’s too long, or if we can include that information any other way. The same could be asked about The Storyteller. If Josef and Minka’s stories are so vital, why not write the book about them in their own timeline? Couldn’t it still accomplish the same theme?
I think the reason why Sage’s timeline and her own personal story is important comes down to the reach of the consequence for such hefty wrongdoing. For Josef to put Minka through something so horrible, we can imagine that the effects spilled over into the way she lived her life after it was all said and done. It is one thing, though, to say this, and another to show it. We get a glimpse into the way Sage’s parents react when she decides to step away from the Jewish faith. Sage shares with us that her grandmother could never understand why her sisters and she would want to play in the gutter when they have a perfectly good sidewalk to walk on. The anecdotes that we glimpse because we can see through Sage’s eyes makes it clear that though the Holocaust may be over, and though Josef may have spent his whole life trying to become a better man, Minka will forever live with the physical and emotional scars he inflicted upon her. When grappling with a theme like redemption and forgiveness, it is foolish to think that one can look only at the direct consequences and not the far-reaching ones. Because of this, two timelines, and two central stories, are needed to do the question justice.
Would it have sufficed to have Minka explain the consequences and the scars she lives with instead of going to such lengths to share the brutal stories that lead up to them?
Minka spent her whole life keeping these stories to herself, which for good or for bad left a wall between her and her posterity. When Minka finally shared her stories, it allowed for a deeper connection between her and Sage.
Sage recalls a moment in her childhood where she sees Minka’s tattoo and the scars on her back, but Sage experiences a disconnect there, or at least an understanding that's only surface deep. To spend so much time in the flashback is to give weight to the events behind the scars and ultimately helps Sage confront the realities she's been allowed to ignore or the heritage she has taken for granted. To know her history, to know how hard her grandmother worked for basic human rights and the right to worship doesn’t really hold any significance to Sage until after her grandmother opens up. With it comes a new confidence in the respect Sage realizes she deserves, and her ability to let go of old hurts
When we share our vulnerabilities and our histories it does not benefit just us, and to write Minka’s stories that way would be to steal growing moments from both her and Sage.
Also, it’s important for Sage to have all the information since she is the one, in the end, who gets to decide whether Josef is worth forgiving. If she makes the decision without all the information, we are left to wonder if things would have been different. Even if the reader thinks they would make a different decision than Sage, we can at least understand because of the stories we heard alongside her.
In the end, I valued the depth the flashbacks brought to The Storyteller. They act as a productive plot construct because, despite the many rules Jodi Picoult breaks, she follows the most basic ones: Keep it relevant. Keep it interesting. Let it impact the characters and compel them to act. When used this way, flashbacks bring the readers into the journey, and as we turn the last page of the story, we are able to answer for ourselves if a man is able to change, and who deserves forgiveness.
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.