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Drew Shannon

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week, both teachers and students share their back to school stories in First Person.

I was in the middle of my Grade 12 year when I first learned who Philip Roth really was. It was Christmas break and the due date of my most daunting high-school essay loomed just beyond the holidays. Sitting by the pool of my grandparents’ condo in Boca Raton, Fla., I found myself staring blankly at the cover of a book I had selected at random from a list of 40 the week before.

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I sighed. In what had become a yearly occurrence, a teacher was once again forcing me to read a school book over my holiday time and I was not pleased. What I did not yet realize was how thoroughly American Pastoral, a 1997 retrospective on Vietnam-era America as shown through the decay of one man and his once-idyllic family, would come to influence my understanding of the world.

Irked, I opened to the first page of Roth’s Pulitzer prize-winning work. By midafternoon, I was about 300 pages in, no longer angry, and lulled into that deep internal rhythm that only starts ticking when one reads something indescribably good. All the sounds of my grandparents’ snowbird haven – the wheel-chair accessible pool, the splashing senior citizens, the whirring of CNN coming from the porches of surrounding duplexes – merged into white noise. The more those sounds faded into the background, the clearer my pictures of protagonist Seymour “Swede” Levov and his evolving home of Newark, N.J., became, and the more tragic his shortcomings, and those of his country, appeared.

I spent the entire day getting sunburnt on a chaise longue, reading about the character’s miraculous Swedish features in spite of his Jewish heritage; his football stardom in 1945 at Weequahic High School; his wayward, stuttering, anti-Vietnam War daughter; and his descent into his own insecurities. But, what I loved most about Roth’s writing was not the plot, it was the basic trueness that seemed to emanate from the reflections that surrounded each new development. Every idiosyncrasy of his characters, every line of dialogue, every perfect simile used to describe an action or a man or a community, created a world that was not only beautiful but, in some fictitious sense, filled with lessons and analyses that were utterly real.

I used the remainder of my vacation to comb through American Pastoral a second time, searching again for those little one-liners of narration that I wanted to commit to memory. My favourite line appears early, 21 pages in, and appears with such little literary pomp around it that it often goes unnoticed:

“The Swede,” narrator Nathan Zuckerman reflects, “was actually only another of our neighbourhood Seymours, whose forebears had been Solomons and Sauls and who themselves would beget Stephens who would in turn beget Shawns.”

I remember highlighting and earmarking that page while I lay curled up on the pull-out mattress in the living room of my grandparents' condo. Through the generational evolution of names, Roth had succinctly captured what I thought it meant (and still means) to assimilate into America. What it meant to melt into the Western pot, not only for Jews, but for all immigrant groups. I was simply stunned by how empirical an observation it was. It was certainly true for my own family, who had — in some cases literally — followed that poignant pattern of names, emblematic of our changing approaches to North American secular life.

I ended up writing my English essay on the ways in which the Swede’s processing of grief compared and contrasted with those of the American soldiers in Vietnam. But, in the two years since reading and rereading the book, I hardly ever find myself pondering the theory I ground out for school. Instead, my mind wanders, time and again, to that single line of the novel. Each time, I arrive at the conclusion that, in the lineup of names, I am a Shawn. I ask myself what my role must be as the faintest figure in that fading Jewish world that Roth described; whether my destiny is really just the sort of tumble toward an indifference about culture and heritage that he implied.

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As I scan my family history, I only ever find myself revisiting the stories of the Solomons and the Sauls and the Stephens that came before me. My quest to learn what it means to be a Shawn has, ironically, resulted in me writing pretty frequently about my grandparents and majoring in history at university. A fixation that evolved out of a lack of identity, then, has become part of my identity.

So, when Philip Roth died in June, I thought again about that humid Boca Raton morning, when I stared down at the cover of Roth’s novel and rolled my eyes. I silently thanked my English teacher and marveled at how I was able to forge my entire teenage person from one of Roth’s sentences. Perhaps there is no answer to Shawn-dom. Perhaps it is a condition that can never be rectified by some sort of dig through my family’s names and tongues and countries of birth, now buried in history. Maybe it was only part of a passing fact in the beginning of a book that was so obvious it could be mistaken as poignant. In any case, that line has made me think deeply and carefully over the past two years, at a time when my attention span otherwise strains to last through a full YouTube clip.

Out of the 40 works on the list in Grade 12 English, I am grateful to have randomly picked Roth’s. I feel lucky to have fallen into the one-line infinity located at the bottom of Page 21. I hope other students might one day discover similar lines over their own Christmas breaks, to which they will then cling for years to come.

In any book, by any writer, there are words that can lead to years of sporadic thought and analysis, words that will keep readers compulsively revisiting the past as we edge ourselves tentatively into the future.

Sarah Farb lives in Toronto.

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