Unexpected Fun With L. Jagi Lamplighter

If you were to walk through the forest and happen across a statue of a woman with feathered wings sitting in a clearing beside a long abandoned stone building, what would you think? Most likely you would assume you’d found an old church, long abandoned by its congregation. Perhaps you’d share a moment of comradery with the place’s guardian angel before continuing on your way. Regardless, you probably wouldn’t find that much out of place with it. 

When Rachel Griffon happens on such a scene at the beginning of The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffon that’s not at all how she reacts. 

Rachel has no idea what the statue is when she discovers it and that takes some real doing since she has a flawless memory and has read every travelog, adventure tale and bestiary in her grandfather’s library. Her grandfather was one of the foremost scholars in the World of the Wise, for him to not know something takes quite a bit of doing. It is the mystery of the winged woman, along with a dozen other small things, that forms the core of Rachel’s drive through the course of the story. She wants to know the secrets of the world. Then she wants to share them, for it’s the thrill of revelation that truly fascinates her. 

As a twelve year old girl, nearly thirteen, you might expect the secrets that most interest her to be of a particularly mundane variety. However, while some mundane middle school drama afflicts Rachel, it’s not the focus of the story. The Roanoke Academy of Magical Arts has a great deal more going on in its ancient hallways than just puberty driven angst. 

Anyone remotely familiar with the Harry Potter franchise will immediately understand the core premise of L. Jagi Lamplighter’s series. Rachel Griffon is newly enrolled in magic school and in the halls of that school she will find far more of an education in far more things than she expected. The hidden wizards of her world – the Wise – live far more complicated lives than she expected. Rachel herself isn’t quite what you’d expect of a Harry Potter knockoff. 

Now before I go on let me address that obvious issue you may be raising right now. “Nate,” you say, “middlegrade fantasy is a very worn out genre. How can you expect me to get invested in yet another tale of magical teenagers going to magic school?

I understand this objection. But Lamplighter brings a sense of myth that is badly lacking from a lot of middlegrade literature. Many books written for teens try to tap into the sense, so common in young people, that the world is new and undiscovered and everything that exists just came into existence moments ago. Lamplighter, on the other hand, presents us with a world that is ancient and shaped by strange forces that have left Rachel and her friends in very unenviable postions. Yet those forces are not all hostile or malevolent. Some of them are but most of them are just consequences of big decisions made ages ago, they are signposts of a history that must be understood and lived in by our heroes if they ever hope to make anythign of themselves or their world.

It’s a much stronger approach to worldbuilding and character growth than I’ve found in most middlegrade writing, and that alone makes it worthwhile. Add in the mysteries and character dynamics that Lamplighter does so well and you have a very strong read for just about any audience.

Back to our protagonist. She’s a well bred young woman with loving parents and a noble lineage. Magic was always something she knew of, while her mother held a fondness for the mundane people – the Unwary – that helps her keep a fairly nuanced perspective on the world around her. While a flawless memory helps her with the study of magic, she’s no great talent. Many of her peers pick up their lessons faster than she does. 

Rachel doesn’t even have a grand destiny laid out before her. Some of her friends are fated for heroics, but Rachel herself isn’t one of them. If she wishes to do some great thing for the world around her she’ll have to find that work and take it on herself. 

The conflicts at Roanoke are deeply steeped in the history and lore of Lamplighter’s world. As you might expect of a story starring someone who never forgets, connecting details of past events to unravel current problems is an ongoing theme in this story. Rachel delights in gathering facts, making connections and revealing her secrets at the right moment. We delight in seeing whether she’s chosen the right moment (which she does often) or if youth and naivety have deceived her and she’s misread the situation (which isn’t rare). 

Beneath all the flashy magic spells, shadows of old evils and standard schoolyard drama, however, Rachel faces deeper issues. One touch I really liked came in the third novel. After several weeks of chaos, emotional strain and traumatic events, Rachel finds herself on the verge of a very believable mental breakdown which is resolved, as so many things in her life, by the unexpected but totally coherent application of her flawless memories. It’s hard to describe more without spoiling the moment, so I’ll leave it at that – suffice it to say this is one of my favorite moments in the series so far. 

Another interesting deep current running through Lamplighter’s novels is the twin questions of purpose and allegiance. Rachel is constantly looking at her loyalties to friends and family and comparing them to her own wants and goals. She’s a very driven character, but also a very devoted one. Reconciling her strong sense of duty to principle and loyalty to others is difficult for her. Her principles are challenged and some are worn down in ways that don’t benefit her. Five novels in and Rachel still doesn’t have a clear cut, highest standard for her life. Yet. 

But there are hints. 

One of the greatest achievements Lamplighter reaches with her series is inviting the audience to share Rachel’s delight in knowing a secret. Yes, we follow her adventures and know many of the secrets she knows. However, things go a layer deeper than that. You remember our opening thought experiment, of finding a guardian angel by a ruined church? This is a secret we know that Rachel does not

There are other hints to that secret in the early pages of the first book. Rachel owns a model of broom known as a steeplechaser. However, no one knows the meaning of the word steeple. It’s an orphaned word, like saint, so old that its meaning is lost even though people still use it. And, of course, there is the familiar. All the students at Roanoke have familiars but Rachel’s roommate brought a particularly unusual one. A lion, miniaturized for convenience. A lion that talks to a raven on the windowsill in the middle of the night. Even among the Wise, even among the enhanced creatures known as familiars, animals don’t talk

But these two do. The lion isn’t supposed to be there, the raven says. He was called, the lion explains, and where he is called no earthly power can keep him from answering. Not even in a world where knowledge of him has been locked away. 

This is the secret we know, but Rachel does not. We know the Lion of Judah and we get to watch Rachel slowly discover him in spite of the painstaking efforts made to hide him from view. In spite of the fact that the lion here is behind enemy lines. In spite of all the other things clamoring for her attention. This part of Rachel’s story is what truly gripped me as I read Lamplighter’s books. It was a brilliant idea, executed in a way that did a wonderful job of holding my attention. If watching someone discover that secret seems like a worthwhile tale to you, I would highly recommend this tale. 

The Hyperions – Visuals and Story

I’ve gotten very invested in the methods of visual storytelling in the last couple of months. This isn’t just because I love comics and the methods of telling a story there, although that’s a part of it, but also because I’m trying to develop a better understanding of integrating descriptions into prose. I’ve repeatedly received feedback in the last few months from people wanting a better idea of what things look like. I’m not the best at describing the worlds my characters inhabit or what they look like and that’s a weakness I’m trying to overcome. Part of my approach to that is analyzing the visual storytelling of others. Putting things that work into words helps me put my own thoughts into words better, and that’s a big part of why I write essays like this. Hopefully reading them helps you folks, too. 

The most visually creative film I’ve watched in recent memory is The Hyperions, directed by Jon MacDonald. The Hyperions exists in a carefully recreated world of the late 1970s and features the retired scions of a superhero program. The titular Hyperions are an interesting combination of the traditional superhero and the Power Rangers. They wear spandex costumes with capes, like Superman. But their powers come from a bulky, wrist mounted device that relies on badges and tweaks their physiology rather than genetic mutations or magic. This blending of narrative and visuals from two very different sources is common throughout The Hyperions. 

The clearest example comes through the eyes of Professor Mandelbaum. 

The Professor is a classic emotionally distant, absentminded genius who never quite connected with the kids he gave superpowers to. His focus is very much on the future and the things he hopes to create. When he’s alone with his thoughts the world around Mandelbaum becomes animated – as in, it changes from what we see to actual, hand drawn animation. MacDonald apparently did this animation himself. It’s a brilliant touch to show just how much the Professor lapses into his own thoughts and his own world when he’s alone with his thoughts. It also helps us understand why he never quite connects with any of the people he cares about. They’re literally living in different worlds. 

While Mandlebaum is clearly based on Professor Xavier, the legendary leader of the X-Men, he has a large touch of the Power Rangers and tokusatsu as well. He has a mechanically augmented parrot with enhanced intelligence, much like the sidekicks of Power Ranger team founders. He’s out of touch with the modern world, which is more like a tokusatsu leader and less like Xavier. It’s an interesting balancing act, telegraphed by a number if visual design choices in his appearance and the things he creates.

The buildings the story takes place in also offer differing insights into the characters and how they’re related. Professor Mandlebaum’s mansion is a big building that manages to be both cluttered and empty at the same time. Outside of the Professor’s rooms, the mansion is a pretty impersonal place. There’s very few human touches. Instead there’s a lot of stuff scattered about, snacks or books or whatever else the Professor thinks will hold the interest of the youngsters he’s taken in. The Professor’s rooms, on the other hand, are very snug. His favorite chairs and books are there, in a space clearly optimized to be as close to the fantasies in his head as possible. It’s a place perfect for him, but difficult for others to make sense of at first. 

In contrast, the museum where Vista and Ansel spend most of the running time is very impersonal. It chronicles the lives of the Mandelbaums through a pane of glass, as if the people it immortalizes were bugs under a lens or actors on a stage. It reinforces the sense that Vista and Ansel are long removed from their lives as superheroes whether they like it or not. The mayhem unleashed there at the end of the film is a nice touch, emphasizing how that chapter of their lives is over. 

There are other little visual touches that are quite nice. Maya’s teleportation effect is animated, rather than some kind of 3D, computer generation effect, which makes the visual feel like a touch of Professor Mandlebaum’s world made real. This emphasizes the closeness between the two on top of being a perfect visual representation of what the Professor is hoping to accomplish. The talking bird character manages to look completely organic to the world it lives in, even though it’s also clearly a puppet effect lovingly brought to life by a dedicated member of the film crew. 

On top of that, painstaking care is taken in creating a world made entirely of parts from the late 1970s (outside of the obvious additions added by the nature of the story). This added touch of realism makes the more fantastical elements feel like they could be right out of that era, as if MacDonald is simply documenting a part of the era we were unaware of until The Hyperions was released. A lot of care went into making the visuals all feel organic. 

The Hyperions isn’t the best superhero film ever created but all the attention to detail in the way it tells the story lets MacDonald reach a conclusion that is particularly poignant. The film ends on a long shot of Vista going into her father’s office, a place that has been entirely for the Professor until now, and she sees it with new eyes. At first I thought this was a strange shot to end the film on. But as I ruminated on the film I came to realize this shot shows Vista becoming a part of her adopted father’s life in a way she wasn’t before. She understands parts of him she was too young and immature to appreciate when they parted ways but which she’s come to see more clearly now that she’s a mother herself. So she can enter her father’s place and feel at ease now, where she was clearly out of place before. A well done use of visual storytelling subtle enough that I might have missed it. 

You can’t make a perfect story entirely through visuals. You need good storytelling on other fronts to round it out. By the same token, good visual storytelling is an integral part of building a well-rounded story that speaks to the audience on all levels. I can’t point to any single story, film, comic or novel, that handles all of them perfectly. We have to examine stories that handle particular aspects of story well and The Hyperions handles the visual aspects quite well. If it’s a subject that has troubled you I would recommend giving it a look.

The Shiori Experience – Sight and Sound

There’s a longstanding tradition in the visual arts of trying to represent the invisible. Naoki Urosawa draws the feet and legs of people walking to represent a sense of purpose or determination. Bill Waterson drew uneven, exclamation mark-styled lines around his characters to represent excitement, surprise or anger. Superman is depicted like a strongman flexing every muscle at once to represent his power and resolute nature. These visual representations have been borrowed by many other visual artists in other mediums precisely because they are effective in their chosen goals. 

There is one area where these attempts to depict the invisible haven’t really found traction. Many illustrators have tried to depict music and its effect on those who hear it but so far there isn’t any one standout way to do it. One artist who has portrayed music with some success is Kazuya Machida, the author and artist of The Shiori Experience

The basic premise of The Shiori Experience is quite comedic. Shiori is a school music teacher who used to idolize her older brother, who was lead guitarist in a garage band. When Shiori’s brother tries to fund the production of his own album but gets ripped off his family is left in debt and he flees overseas to America to try and make his guitar legend there. Shiori gives up her love of rock and roll because her family turns on the medium. She still loves the guitar but she loves her family to the point she won’t push them by putting her love of rock and roll in front of them constantly. Until one night, at midnight on her 27th birthday, she meets the ghost of Jimi Hendrix at a crossroads. Jimi haunts Shiori and imbues her with some of his legendary guitar skill. In exchange, she must become a musical legend before her 27th year ends or she will join the 27 Club – the group of musicians who had the potential to change music forever but died at the age of 27. 

Jimi himself is a card carrying member of the club, of course. He hasn’t given up on creating new music so he’s returned to the mortal realm to find someone willing to make a deal with him. Shiori didn’t make a deal with him but he’s there for some reason and that means she has 365 days to become a rock legend or she’s doomed. There’s a lot of odd couple vibes to The Shiori Experience on top of the usual trials of a person reigniting their passion for a skill they let fall by the wayside for years. It’s a fun tale, although heavily reliant on tropes. 

But it’s the depiction of music on the comic page that really interests me. Manga has a long standing tradition of using visual metaphors in moments of strong emotional impact – crashing waves behind triumphant warriors, blooming flowers wreathing the objects of romantic affection, that kind of thing. Some of that is used in The Shiori Experience. For example, when a guitarist haunted by the ghost of Kurt Corbain meets Shiori and Hendrix the four of them engage in a guitar duel at an underground rock venue where their clashing riffs are depicted as waves crashing into each other. 

While this is very well trod ground in action manga, The Shiori Experience puts a new spin on it. The change from depicting a simple battle to a struggle between entertainers lets Machida recontextualize the metaphor. He does this by showing the waves sweeping the audience away

Many comics and manga try to show the input of music on the audience by illustrating their emotional reaction to it through expression or perhaps actions like dancing or crying. Machida shows the audience becoming a part of the metaphor. As the music surges between the dueling guitarists the audience swirls back and forth on the dance floor, caught in the maelstrom. It’s a brilliant use of established conventions in a new context to powerful effect. 

Machida’s use of visual storytelling doesn’t end there. When Shiori takes her band to a battle of the bands each song in their set is given a full, 38-40 page chapter to show us the impact of the band’s performance on the audience. It’s a very bold move, relying on purely visual storytelling to emphasize relationships between the performers and the audience. Two of the songs in Shiori’s set are classic rock songs, Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and The Monkee’s “Daydream Believer.” The other two are ‘original’ songs composed by Shiori and her band, songs we’ve never heard and have no canonical lyrics established in the manga. They exist only in our heads. Machida uses different approaches for each. 

The real songs are used to establish the rapport between the audience and the band, with the lyrics and the reactions to them showing how everyone in the venue is reacting in the same way. The only words in the chapters are the song lyrics – we get the rest entirely through expressions, motions and reactions. The two ‘original’ songs have no written words in their respective chapters at all. To get his point across in these chapters Machida relies even harder on visual language from action manga. 

The opening number uses what I call ‘team building’ metaphors, with the band member known as Prince (and clearly based on that Prince) leading the band in a song he composed to show off each of their strong points. As each one comes in we see the band building in a visual pyramid with the crowd surging towards the stage, reminiscent of tokusatsu costumed performers creating a dynamic pose as they make their entrances. If you’re not familiar with this style of Japanese storytelling, a small part of it has been imported under the brand Power Rangers. The language here is pretty simple: Shiori’s band is building to a high point. 

At the other end of the set, they perform “Jack In,” their other ‘original’ song. During this song Machida appropriates the visuals of ‘special attacks’ as often seen in battle manga. The audio input jack is a recurring visual metaphor in The Shiori Experience, used to symbolize the connection between Hendrix and Shiori, then later Shiori and her bandmates. But at this juncture we see audio jacks streaking from the stage and jacking into the heads and hearts of the audience as the music connects with them. 

This song is all about Shiori’s band versus the other bands they’re competing against. As the song builds to the climax of their set these audio jacks connect with the opposing band members in the audience, showing the moments they win over each of their rivals. Some are hit by the jacks right away, some even actively run into their paths while some drift around the venue until a particular moment in the music connects with then. One actively fights off connecting with the song, grabbing the jack sent his way and holding it in his hand until he relents and jacks in himself. Machida uses these metaphors because he doesn’t want this sequence to just be about the song or its effect on the audience. He wants to show the conflict between Shiori and her rivals, so he steals visuals from stories about physical conflict but adds just enough context to make it clear these are metaphors. 

It’s difficult to show something intangible in a visual medium. The Shiori Experience isn’t creating a definitive series of metaphors for music on the comic page like Superman or Waterson did. However Machida is innovating and working on the problem in ways few other artists are and that’s a great reason for anyone interested in visual storytelling to give it a look. 

The Universal Human Story

Believe it or not there is a story which you can tell about characters in any time period, of any social stand, in any place in the world, about people in just about any stage of life. This might sound like a bit of a stretch but believe me, it’s true. I know it’s true because it has been done. I don’t say this in the way Joseph Campbell talks about the Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’m talking about an actual story, with a prescribed set of events, that authors have read and then deliberately copied and adapted to narratives of their own. 

This story is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. 

There was a time where no TV show was complete until it had a Christmas Carol episode. Everything from The Flintstones to The Jetsons to The Muppets has tackled this basic narrative at least once. Something about Dickens’ basic narrative has such a broad appeal and universal applicability that English speaking culture developed a fascination with trying to retell the narrative that lasted all the way up to the end of the 20th century. What are the lessons we can draw from this? 

Well, first that simple motivations are the best. Ebenezer Scrooge was not driven by any kind of deep trauma or some kind of overly complex theory of society. He suffered abuse as a child, yes, but nothing outside the normal human experience. He had good friends, a sense of morality and goals beyond securing his own position. Unfortunately he gets distracted by very simple, understandable human motivations: a desire to increase his own wealth and standing. Stubborn pride. A desire to avoid falling back into a previous state that was terrible for him. 

These are very easy motivations to understand. Everyone has felt them at some point in their lives and, even if the exact situations Scrooge experiences haven’t happened to you, you can probably translate the basic sense of Scrooges experience to your own life. Some kind of disappointment from your family, friends you grow distant from and goals you get overly fascinated by. It’s very easy to start down the path to Scrooge, that’s part of what makes him a great character. 

The themes of A Christmas Carol are equally universal. Loneliness and obsession are things everyone have suffered and redemption from the shackles they put on us is something we’ve all fought against to some extent. It’s very tempting to lapse into some analysis of class dynamics or recovery from trauma when looking at Scrooge’s story. However these things are too specific, too bound in one time period or lifetime to allow the creation of a universal story. Dickens could and did write about themes of social status (it’s very prevalent in his work, actually) and traumatic events but comparing his work that touches on those issues to A Christmas Carol it really doesn’t look like that was what he was going for. He was examining the potential human cost for much more mundane, immediate decisions based in human nature, not class or trauma. 

The format of the story also allowed Dickens to explore these very human themes and motives to their very utmost. Scrooge doesn’t just explore his past, he sees where his actions ultimately lead him if he will not change. He will die alone and get buried, unmourned. Seeing these results through the eyes of a ghostly vision, brought by ghosts who have proven trustworthy in every aspect of life they’ve revealed to Scrooge before, removes some of the subjectivity from the situation.  

That’s not always a good thing to do in fiction but in A Christmas Carol the whole point is to show us an 18th century intervention where a person is slapped out of their obsessions to see where they stand in reality. The motif of supernatural visitations accomplishes that. And it doesn’t remove all of the ambiguity from the situation. Even now, it’s hard to say for sure that Scrooge actually saw ghosts and not a dream brought on by guilty conscience. Or undercooked potato. Whatever the source of the visions, the truth of the situation is found through the outcomes. Scrooge does turn his life around and it is better for him. 

It’s these simple themes and motivations, explored to the fullest extent, that makes Scrooge’s story so powerful and easy to apply to other characters regardless of time, place or society. Granted, a certain part of the enduring appeal of Dickens’ landmark story is his masterful prose. Neither can his piercing insight into human nature pass on to another author who is trying to transmute A Christmas Carol into a new form. The genius of Dickens was in large part in his execution of his stories. 

But he also knew how to tap into the universals of the human experience and nowhere do we see that more clearly than in A Christmas Carol. That is what has made Scrooge’s story so enduring, to the point we are still talking about it almost two hundred years later. There are not many stories this broad, this applicable and this compelling. Nor are universal stories the only good kinds of stories that exist. But when an author tells a story that everyone wants to retell in their own way they’ve tapped into something profound. And that’s something every author should try to understand, for their own edification if nothing else. 

Mary’s Wedding – Simple Excellence

I recently had the opportunity to go and take in a little theater. The name of the show was Mary’s Wedding by Stephen Massicotte and I went in with very few expectations. I’d never heard of the play and the description didn’t tell me much beyond it being set around World War I and the two actors portrayed a young couple in love. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence. I had confidence in the group producing the show, all for One Productions doesn’t go for saccharine stories after all, but I sat down in the theater with some reservations. 

I needn’t have worried. 

Before we break down the story itself let me say a few words of praise for the production itself. First, the cast of Jessica Munsie (Mary, Flowers) and Cooper Beer (Charlie) did fantastic work. Their performances were sincere, emotive and engaging. They studied horseback riding to add authenticity to some of their scenes and it showed. They had great chemistry with each other and the audience. The set was also perfect, built in two layers and full of props used in surprising and interesting ways. From the use of wheeled railings as doors and horses to the upper level’s many duties as hills, bridges and the deck of a ship, the minimalist set did everything it needed to and more without ever straining belief. 

Many people say seeing how a trick is done makes one appreciate it less. Mary’s Wedding is the kind of show that convinces me that the opposite is true. I caught a dozen little flourishes, like the causal setting of a hat on a platform as an actor walks around behind the stage, that speak to the practice, dedication and proficiency both actors developed while preparing for the show. It made me enjoy the performance more and not less. Well done, one and all. 

Now for the story itself. Mary’s Wedding focuses on the titular Mary as she dreams on the eve of her wedding. We are introduced to this dream by one of its chief figures: her sweetheart, Charlie. He tells us we are seeing a dream, and as it is a dream we must understand it follows its own logic and its own sense of time. It’s a great opening soliloquy, drawing from concepts we often see in Shakespeare and intended to lull the audience into the theater of the mind. Many plays do this, in one way or another, because the sets and costumes may be great but we know, deep down, they’re not real and the illusion of the stage is not as powerful as, say, that of the movie screen. 

A good storyteller knows how to weave the spell that creates this illusion of reality for audience and sometimes that’s as simple as asking them to step into the narrative with us. It’s a bold approach, and Massicotte deserves props for taking it. I know it worked for me. 

From this simple introduction a clap of thunder snaps us into the narrative itself – Charlie, seeking shelter from a thunderstorm and Mary calling out to him. This ominous opening gives way to Mary and Charlie’s first meeting, as they both hide from the rain in a barn. Mary is recently arrived in Canada from England, Charlie is a longtime resident of the area so they’ve never had opportunity to meet before. Mary helps Charlie overcome his fear of the thunder by coaxing him to recite poetry. Charlie only knows The Charge of the Light Brigade so that is what he quotes. 

This is when I realized this story didn’t have a happy ending. 

The dire stanzas of Tennyson’s poem weave throughout the play, a simple foreshadowing for a simple man. Charlie is like the cavaliers Tennyson describes – fixated on his duties and carrying them out. He knows things could end badly for him, but he presses forward regardless. This is contrasted with the poem Mary cites as something she has no wish to live out: The Lady of Shalott.

Subtlety, thy name is Stephen. 

All joking aside, these simple allusions give Mary’s Wedding a chance to weave these grandiose and romantic notions of duty and heartbreak into a very simple romance story. Mary and Charlie are from different worlds and different social standings but they fall in love. We see their relationship as it struggles to survive awkward meetings in the town streets, flubbed meetings with families and ultimately Charlie’s decision to join up and fight in the Great War in 1914. Interspersed with stories of the growing romance are stories of Charlie’s time in Europe, told to Mary through letters he sends home from the front. 

Both aspects are told in a blunt and straightforward way. This is not a Hollywood romance or war movie. Much of the pretense of such stories are stripped away, with Massicotte focusing on very realistic dialog and motivations for his characters. Charlie’s letters home sound very much like those I’ve read in compilations of first-hand accounts from any number of wars from the present day back to the American Civil War. Mary and Charlie’s relationship is free of flowery promises or generic statements of affection. 

Many stories could be fairly criticized for trying to characterize their protagonists using well know works of literature. But, while Massicotte is doing that in his script, he is also doing something a little more complicated than that. He is showing his characters use these poems to try and express themselves to each other. The Charge of the Light Brigade grapples with many philosophical questions that people think about but rarely try to articulate to each other. When forced to explain the horns of a dilemma like that which Tennyson describes, the average person will fail to put their thoughts into their own words. So, they turn to the poets. 

It is this, I think, that makes Mary’s Wedding work. It shows us simple, everyday people as they put their hand to every tool at their disposal to connect with each other and share their struggles. It’s an impressive achievement. 

The portrayal of Flowers, Charlie’s commanding officer during his time in Europe, is another fascinating device. Flowers is portrayed by the same actress who plays Mary. When Flowers and Charlie first meet Charlie is on the troop ship headed to Europe, smoking while watching the ocean at night. Flowers finds him and asks what he’s thinking about, to which Charlie admits he’s thinking about a girl back home. Flowers warns him not to do that, or soon enough he’ll be seeing her everywhere – which, of course, he already is. The close friendship the two develop is illuminating and powerful, and Jessica Munsie’s portrayal of Flowers was so excellent that I never confused her with Mary in my mind. It provides us a look at another side of Charlie, one we need to really appreciate before the story concludes or the conclusion will not be as powerful as it should be. 

Ultimately, Charlie never comes home. 

Charlie only lives in the dream, now, and soon enough Mary must wake up and continue on with her life. Her wedding day is coming. There is still a good life ahead of her, even with all the grief and regret that came from her parting with Charlie. That is the promise at the end of Mary’s Wedding. It’s a bittersweet ending, but the only ending their story could possibly have had. The thunder we heard at the beginning of the story is quiet now, and the rains have left poppies in their wake. And just like Mary, we must wake from the dream on that stage and leave Mary, Charlie and Flowers behind. 

As nearly as I can tell, while many of the events in Mary’s Wedding actually happened, Charlie and Mary were not real. Their story was a dream we shared for a moment. But we can carry that simple dream with us in our waking lives, a reminder that the peace we have was bought at great sacrifice. A reminder that after loss we can still carry on. Those simple messages are a powerful gift, and one I am grateful to have.