Amanda Johnston

Finding Friendship in Fiction

Amanda Johnston
Finding Friendship in Fiction

Her name was Laura, and she had a dog named Jack, a brindle bulldog that could swim a wild river and not drown. Laura lived in the Big Woods and on the prairie, in a shanty and a dugout, in town, and on the homestead. She worked alongside her pa in the fields and helped her sister Mary learn how to live again after scarlet fever took her sight. She loved her ma and her little sisters, and, once she was grown, she loved a man named Almanzo.

She was my first book friend.

I was eight years old, and Laura was the dearest friend I had. She and I spent most afternoons together. Sprawled out on the couch, I ate crackers while she told me her stories, page after page until homework time. It didn’t matter how many times she told me about the howling wolves or Pa’s big green book or the way the prairie grass blew in the wind, I kept listening. She told the best stories, Laura did.

Laura was the first in a long, ever-growing line of friends found in stories who helped me make sense of a very real world that often made little sense at all. One after the other, they have entered my life and become, for a season, the friend I needed to keep at it. Some have remained longer than others, just like flesh and blood friendships that wax and wane over time.

I often say book friends are the best kind. I believe this to be true only because of the Spirit’s ever-present willingness to humble me and help me see again. He is the One making sense of this very real world that often makes no sense at all. He gives me “the eyes to see,” as the prophets would say, through this peculiar community of friends gallivanting around in my imagination. Through the ones who are always here, even when my real friends are not.

One book friend, though, has stuck around far longer than all the others.

Grandmothers, Misfits, and Grace

A high school English teacher introduced me to Flannery O’Connor, and I hadn’t the slightest notion of what would come of our first meeting. A chatty Southern grandmother and a monkey in a chinaberry tree outside a BBQ joint in Georgia both amused me right up until the Misfit emerged from a stolen car to murder a family that made a fatal wrong turn.

The story made absolutely no sense at all, but I knew it meant something important and I never forgot it.

A couple of years later, I read Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel in my dorm room, and there she was again, Flannery O’Connor, precisely where I least expected to find her. Manning included a brief retelling of her story “Revelation,” and through it I realized that I was, to put it in biblical terms, the older brother in the parable of the prodigal sons.

“Revelation” undid me.

For the first time, I knew the depth of my own depravity.

The story’s protagonist, Ruby Turpin, haunted me for a decade. Through her smug moralist, Flannery O’Connor persistently refused to let me disremember the self-righteous bent of my heart. Round and round she came, taking me back to the scene of Ruby Turpin’s public humiliation. Then on down to the hog parlor to watch Ruby knot her fist and yell at God for daring to send her such a message. And then, finally, to see “a vast horde of souls...clean for the first time in their lives” on their way to heaven with me at the back of the line right alongside Ruby, my “virtues…burned away,” too.

Ruby Turpin’s timely appearances kept me in check when accountability was scarce. Of course, I know Flannery O’Connor wasn’t speaking to me from heaven. The lines kept arising in my mind not because of her doing, but because of the Spirit’s dauntless pursuit of me. He wouldn’t leave me alone.

Real Community Requires Risk

Accountability is one of the more difficult aspects of friendship. Simply put, it’s risky. We are an untrustworthy people, most of us. We don’t know what to say or do half the time, and in our clumsiness or forgetfulness, our ignorance or our pride, we make a mess of things.

Most of us react badly to accountability. We bristle, bow up inside, readying a defense. We do not like being told we are wrong, and why would we? I suspect that my defensiveness is the root of why I so often lack the accountability I need. Couple that defensiveness with my introvertedness, and I often walk through my days alone.

When I bristle and bow up inside, that’s when I hear her, though, the friend I’ve only met through her stories. I hear her words precisely the way I imagine they’re meant to be said, and my pride softens a little under her blunt, yet loving rebuke.

That is what a good book friend does.

She shows up at just the right moment and asks, “Who do you think you are?”

Or she whispers, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” her voice low but clear.

“She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

“He didn’t have to come in the first place.”

“It was at the bottom of the alley with its roots in the air.”

Or, most piercing of all, “Who’s there, I ast you?”

This is what a good book friend does. She rises up out of her stories to reorient your heart toward Christ, helping you remember who you are and who He is, unwilling to let you forget.

In the quiet, sacred space between the pages and my heart, I can welcome such rebuke as a kindness. I can own my faults without much risk.

I learn much about human friendship from a book friend, too. She cannot scoff at my frailty or walk away, stare at me idly, nor gossip or betray. I don’t have to worry about whether or not she will reply, because her words are ever present, wonderfully and disturbingly reliable, immutable, even. She is the proverbial “friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

My book friends, by some good gift, are always here, always ready and able to remind me one more time of the truth. When we meet, I have to lean in and listen, allow them to speak in order for me to know them. It’s a relationship built upon mutual humility and grace.

How precious would the body of Christ be if we were more like these book friends?

Amanda is a wife, mother of three, teacher, writer, and native Texan. She writes about the goodness of Christ to remind us to be glad in a world that is often harsh and unforgiving. Early morning walks with her black lab, Charley Waite, keep her eyes open to the beauty of Christ.