Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
Ballantine Books, January 2014, 496 pages
My commute to and from work is lengthy. I mostly fill the time spent in the car listening to audiobooks, especially those written for children. I like to stay up-to-date on what my students are reading, and listening to a book can be a very different experience than reading it. For one, you cannot rush ahead to see what happens next, something I do often when reading a book I am enjoying. Most of the time I have to read a book twice to really appreciate it, because I gobbled it up too fast the first time. When listening to an audiobook, you can only go as fast as the narrator. I remember books better when listening to it, the images vivid in my minds eye, and I find it passes the time with purpose.
I recently finished listening to Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan. It caught my eye in the adult audiobook section of the library, and I am glad I picked it up. The story is about Fanny Osbourne and her relationship with the author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s clear the author did her research about Stevenson’s life, as it follows their journey back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean finding suitable homes where Stevenson’s lifelong lung ailment could be mediated. Each place they visit inspires his next creation. When Fanny and Louis meet, they are both penniless, Louis just a novice travel essayist. Their passion for life and words brings them together, and creates a bond that probably kept Stevenson alive to write his greatest novels.
His devotion to his wife was only surpassed by his devotion to his work. Horan has created a window into the mind of a writer that anyone who has ever yearned to get something down on paper will understand.
At one point, Louis is considering lecturing at a local college if his health will permit it. He takes on a young pupil, a neighbor who is a great fan of his work, and gives her a lesson on writing. Although he could have offered the lesson with more tact, his advice is true.
“The English language is old… But a good writer owns every word he puts on paper because he makes it new and fresh, you see. It must be precise, though. Precision is everything. Why? Because words have power – to inspire or embarrass, or even to kill.”
There was a terrible pause, and Fanny prayed for some gentler encouragement.
“Adelaide. You must promise me you will never, ever write anything this dreadful again.”
When Fanny berates him for being so harsh with their young friend, he counters that she will go back and make her essay twice as good as it was before, because she is a writer, and that’s what writers do.
The narrator, Kirsten Potter, tells the story eloquently, without languishing over every word. She balances humor with the poetic fancies of the characters’ language. After seventeen hours, I felt as if I knew the characters intimately.
Although this book is out of my usual reading repertoire, with a preference towards science fiction and fantasy over historical fiction, I was deeply moved and motivated by this work. Any writer or aspiring writer would be able to appreciate the drive Stevenson had to write, and the words that kept him alive.
Have you read a book or seen a movie about a famous writer’s life? How did that writer’s story surprise or inspire you?