Responsible To Our Time

Oprah Winfrey on a magazine cover is no story. She’s been seen on more than a few checkout lane glossies. But her appearance on the Spring 1997 edition of Publishers Weekly, complete with a cover picture and lead article titled "The Oprah Effect: TV’s Premier Talk Show Host Puts Books Over the Top," is worth closer examination.

Have you heard that being named the Oprah bookclub selection means an added sale of more than 800,000 copies for those fortunate authors? The English teacher in me balks at the notion of Oprah as arbiter of literary taste. But some other part of me must grudgingly acknowledge that her selections have been pretty good. Who can complain about Toni Morrison or Jane Hamilton? And take, for example, her recent choice of Ursula Hegi’s novel, Stones From the River, a book you can now buy at grocery stores, sporting an orange label reading "As Seen on TV."

I didn’t expect to like this book. I admit the opening line is first-rate: "As a child Trudi Montag thought everyone knew what went on inside others." But the second sentence underscores Trudi’s difference, and the second paragraph makes clear that Trudi is a dwarf. After a few pages of absorbing the emotion of her desperate desire to grow, imagining her as she dangles from door frames trying to stretch her stubborn body, listening to her prayers to a silent God, I began to wonder if 500 pages of this would be manageable.

But then the spell kicked in; I was submerged in the story of Burgdorf, Germany, in that ’20s and ’30s high-stepping march toward the Nazi horror. And I revisited the power of that opening line as Trudi Montag introduced me to the people of her small town, as she explored what was going on inside others and herself. I became fascinated with the many stories of heroism or betrayal scattered through Trudi Montag’s circle of friends and acquaintances.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1998
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