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'But Hate Dies Every Minute'

I'm a big fan of the Little Free Library movement -- an initiative to put small caches of books and other printed materials, free for the taking (permanently or temporarily), in neighborhoods.

There is a Little Free Library right around the corner from me, and over the three(ish) years it's been in place, I've made use of it often, whether to add to my home library or to offload books I've finished. Now, not everything in the LFL is to my taste -- yeah, I'll pass on the romance novels and high-end cookbooks, thanks -- but often enough I'll see at least one book I want to take home.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, there was a copy of William Saroyan's The Human Comedy.

I read the book in either late high school or early college, and I honestly can't remember if this was a class assignment or my own inclination. What I do recall is being quite impressed and moved by it, and every now and then over the years some little tidbit from its pages would flit through my mind. So when I saw the copy in my local LFL, I snapped it right up.

The story is set in the fictional small town Ithaca, Calif., during World War II and centers on the interconnected lives of several characters, particularly the McCauley family: Katie, whose husband has been killed in the war and whose eldest son is on his way there, and her three other children, Bess, Homer and Ulysses.

Saroyan had originally written The Human Comedy as a film script for MGM, but when he was dropped from the project he quickly novelized it, just before the movie came out (no, I haven't seen it. Yet).

While the narrative shifts among various people and places in Ithaca, a lot of action centers around the town's telegraph office where 14-year-old Homer works as a messenger, and interacts with the elderly owner and telegraph operator Mr. Grogan, and the manager Thomas Spangler. All too often, Homer has the unenviable job of delivering telegrams from the War Department to families informing them of a loved one's death, and then has to deal with their responses.

It's an unimaginable burden for a boy still grappling with the loss of his father and only now beginning to see that the adult world is an awfully complicated -- and pretty screwed up -- place. Not to mention he's got his first crush, on a girl who seems pretty far out of his league. Yet Homer shows no small degree of resilience, and demonstrates a capacity to manage uncomfortable situations. You can't help but hope the kid catches a break.

Of course, there are lots of people in Ithaca who are struggling in one way or another, as a consequence of personal or familial situations or larger-scale events like the Depression, as well as the war. Yet they hang in there, whether through faith, stubbornness, or relationships and routines that provide comfort. And sometimes they offer -- or receive -- wonderful, simple words of reassurance that insist, despite so much evidence to the contrary, things will be OK.

Katie: "I don't expect you to understand anything I'm telling you. But I know you will remember this—that nothing good ever ends. If it did, there would be no people in the world—no life at all, anywhere. And the world is full of people and full of wonderful life."

Mr. Grogan: "Nobody dies for nothing. They die seeking grace, seeking to be immortal, seeking truth and justice. And one day, that great body of man—all of us, every last one of us—shall reach home, shall have grace, shall be immortal, and this wonderful evil world shall be a place of decency and goodness among men."

Thomas Spangler: "The person of a man may leave—or be taken away—but the best part of a good man stays. It stays forever. Love is immortal and makes all things immortal. But hate dies every minute."

Out of context, you may find these quotes schmaltzy, incredibly naive and unsophisticated. Or they might make you nostalgic and yearn for what seemed to be a simpler time (which it probably wasn't, not even in real-life versions of Ithaca, Calif.). But there is such an all-abiding love and hope for humanity in those words, and in others throughout the book, and 81 years later, they sure are a pleasure to behold. Well done, Mr. Saroyan -- who, by the way, wound up winning the Academy Award for Best Story.

Oh, and I think I'll be holding onto this book for a while. But don't worry: I'll make sure to replenish my local LFL appropriately.

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