“Ladies and gentlemen, the management of Baskerville Arena is proud to welcome you to the opening night of Blades and Satin in this, their eighth fabulous year!”
Charlene heard the loudspeaker boom across the crowd from her place just outside the ice arena, and also heard Doug’s voice behind her say, “Yeah, the management is falling all over themselves to be proud of us.”
“Have faith, young man.”
“I’m older than you by two years, don’t call me young. And who is encouraging who tonight?”
Are we not writing anymore? Oh well, if he was nervous or distracted she couldn’t exactly blame him, could she? Not when she was trying to keep up conversation just to avoid thinking about that crowd. Maybe there were less people than usual—Elizabeth certainly seemed to think so—but it felt to Charlene like all of New Hampshire had turned out to watch her make a fool of herself.
So, she talked to Doug in hopes of not thinking about it too much. At least he was still willing to read. “It’s not too late to run off to Scotland, is it?”
Maybe he had just been distracted, because this time he kept the pad and pulled her pen out of her fingers. “Of course not—just as long as you let me come with you.” He showed her this, waited for her smile, and then kept writing. “Seriously, think how much Anya and Bruce and Sarah are counting on you. How would they feel?”
Sarah… Charlene still hated herself for that night. And what was worse, Sarah had apparently taken her very seriously.
Just as she thought this, the girl herself came out of the dressing room, ready to swing out for ice duty as soon as the first act was completed. Charlene saw her and smiled at her, and Sarah returned her smile and a hug…but all she said was, “Hey, um, good luck.”
Then she walked to the other side of the room, to peek out of the curtains—speaking to no-one.
I’ve ruined her. I’ve killed her spirit.
“She okay? That’s the least I’ve ever heard her say to anybody.”
Charlene closed her eyes and felt like crying. And I can’t even think about it now, because I have to go out and skate and make stupid Blades and Satin into gold again. She wanted to hate Elizabeth for it all…but Auntie Liz hadn’t made her yell at Sarah.
The Ice Queen made a quick appearance just then. Auntie Liz had given them all their official Pep Talk only minutes before. “I expect your very best. Our futures depend on it.” She had spoken as if to the whole troupe but had met Charlene’s eyes alone. She had that same look when she flitted out from the warm-up room to where Charlene, Sarah and Doug were waiting by the ice.
Then the first performance started, and from that point on, during the thirty-five minutes until her first entrance, Charlene could think of nothing besides the first turn of her dance with Doug, and the jump that came after, and the spin after that…she went over the two dances easily a hundred times.
Sometime during the hundredth-and-first Melanie swept by to take the ice for her first dance, and try as hard as she might, Charlene could not get the girl to meet her eyes. Darn it all…
She didn’t realize Doug was right behind her until he put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “It’s not your fault,” he whispered. When his hand started sliding down her arm, she didn’t stop it, and liked the feeling when his hand intertwined with hers. Charlene let herself lean into his comforting frame for a minute. I can do this.
Just because I’ve made every other mistake possible doesn’t mean I can’t be a star tonight.
People are counting on me.
Melanie’s time came and went, and then suddenly the BallBoys had finished their first performance, and as they came in the Perkins children and Sarah went out, to flit around on Ice Duty. People brought flowers to throw to the performers they liked—it seemed to be tradition—and even the manly BallBoys received their share.
The five minutes this took seemed somehow to be an eternity and to also take no time at all. When she came back, Sarah gave Charlene a quick smile as she passed, and a “good luck.”
Doug, as a returning skater, got to take the ice first, be announced and slide maybe halfway to center ice under pretty fair applause. Then the spotlight switched back to where Charlene would appear, and she knew it was finally time.
Daringly, she swung out from the boards to take the ice with both feet, in a dramatic fashion, and during the split second she was in mid-air, Charlene was overcome with the dreadful feeling that she had forgotten something.
She figured out what when her feet hit the ice, and instead of gracefully sailing over to her partner, she fell smack! on her face in front of God and everybody.
My sheaths! The plastic guards on her skate blades, the pink ones that let her walk around off the ice…she had forgotten to remove them. There Charlene was, flat on the ice with thousands of people watching. Her face burning, her mind yammering at her for forgetting something so simple and looking like an idiot, Charlene frantically yanked the pink sheaths off and threw them back where she had come from.
She knew Elizabeth was watching, somewhere. Knew the woman was now sure that it had all been a mistake, that Charlene was going to ruin everything…
For half of forever, Charlene felt the cold ice under her fingers, and her burning face hidden away from the audience. I can’t do this. Fat, traitorous tears squeezed out of her eyes, and she was sure everyone in the arena thought she was a complete failure.
She did get up, somehow, and skate with flaming face over to where Doug was, and—bless them—the audience applauded her courage more than they laughed at her mistake. I can do this. I can do this.
Oh, God, I’m scared. Charlene couldn’t look at Doug, afraid that he would be mad with her, or worse, laughing at her. When she did meet his eyes, just after they had begun, she couldn’t read the expression on his face. He’s mad. I just know it.
They danced together, close and then apart, as they told the story of a suitor pursuing his love. He held her in his arms, then she pulled away, and then they were close once more. All of her rhythms were just a bit off, everything she had to do was out of sync, was wrong…
Somewhere in mid-dance, at a point when she and Douglas met at one corner of the arena and glided together across the face of the ice, staying lovers-close for a good ten seconds, he got the chance to whisper in her ear. “Char, I’m sorry that happened—but don’t give up on me, you know you can do this!”
I’m so sorry, Doug…I don’t belong out here. This was all a mistake.
I’ve ruined everything.
It wasn’t even over. Try as she might, Charlene couldn’t get any rhythm going, couldn’t even remember what came next or how that spin would work, the harder she tried the worse it all was.
Then came the final jump, the triple Lutz that she and Doug would hit together, side by side, and come back to earth, sweep into a quarter turn and stop, right on cue with the music. The moment came, and Charlene dug in to lift off, but like everything else she had done in the past four minutes something was wrong, her balance was off, and she could feel it even as she went skyward.
I’m going to crash.
It was worse than that.
Not every skater could dance with a partner, especially the difficult kind of skating Charlene and Doug had been practicing—and in the beginning of her practice, she and Doug had done this jump five, ten feet apart so that any mistake one made wouldn’t affect the other. Since she had gotten used to working with him, they had moved closer and closer, until they jumped less than a foot apart.
It was beautiful when it worked, which it had hundreds of times.
At some point in her second turn, Charlene’s hand, flung out instinctively to try and get her balance back, smacked Doug right in the chest hard enough to knock him sideways.
They both crashed to the ice at the same moment, Doug landing on his side while Charlene fell on her face for the second time in five minutes. She heard a collective gasp from the audience over the music, and for a split second cared for nothing but whether or not Doug was hurt.
Nothing could be done but to scramble to their feet, which both did, and they got into position about a half-second late for the musical hit. The lights came up, and the audience clapped halfheartedly. Nobody cheered or threw any flowers. Charlene left the ice as fast as she could. She didn’t bother with her stupid pink blade sheaths but viciously pulled the laces free on her skates, yanked them off and ran in stocking feet away from the questions, from the pity of her fellow skaters, from Doug’s “Char—Charlene?”, from everything.
She sat in her tiny dressing room and wept. Out of shame, out of pain—that second fall had hurt—out of sheer embarrassment she wept, wishing everyone would leave her alone, wishing someone would come and make it all okay, and wondering how long before Elizabeth barged in and killed her for ruining everything.
Charlene knew she wasn’t alone when a hand set down on top of hers. “Char, are you okay?”
It was dear Sarah, her eyes full of concern. No, sweetheart, your cousin Charlene is not okay.
Once again, Charlene was grateful for the excuse of her voice—there were questions she should be asking, like Is everyone mad or Did they all laugh at me or Is she going to kill me but she just didn’t want to and knew Sarah wouldn’t push her. In fact, Sarah didn’t say anything more, but sat next to her on the wooden bench and hugged her tightly.
Suddenly Charlene remembered that her skating for the night wasn’t over—or at least, wasn’t supposed to be. She could imagine Elizabeth’s frantic work, getting something else in place of her second dance with Doug. Maybe Melanie will go out there with him. She deserves that.
Maybe everybody was busy—nobody else came to see her. There were only a few minutes when the BallBoys were out on the ice that Sarah could be there with her, and that time passed quickly. Sarah heard some musical cue in the distance, and stiffened, realizing that she had to leave. “Char, I’ve gotta—I mean-” she looked so frustrated, trying not to say too much.
God, let me fix this, at least, please! Charlene grabbed her cousin’s hand, and quickly found her pad.
“Sarah, what I said to you the other night—I was wrong. I was angry, and hurt, and I took it out on you but you did nothing wrong. Nothing wrong. I was an idiot and I didn’t mean what I said. Please don’t let my being a jerk keep you from being your wonderful self, okay?”
The girl had to read fast, her time was almost up and Charlene knew Sarah didn’t want to upset her mother. I don’t think she’d notice, kiddo, not after what I’ve done tonight. But the girl read the words, and something in her face lightened. Charlene didn’t want to get her hopes up, but maybe…
Sarah stepped away, then turned back, looked at the ground, then up at her cousin. “Thanks.” She looked like she wanted to say more, but didn’t, just a last tiny smile and she was out the door.
Charlene could feel the tears returning. I’ve ruined her too. Sarah, I’m so sorry, please…but she knew it was much too late. She could hear the audience applauding and hoped her cousin would get out to her Ice Duty on time and not get in trouble.
It was time for Doug’s solo skate, and Charlene wished him well. Without me you should be able to shine—like usual. She knew she was drowning in self-pity, but she just didn’t care.
When the door opened next, Charlene figured it would be Elizabeth this time, but the head that peeked around the corner had short blonde hair, if the same green eyes as her mother. Her cousin didn’t come into the room, just looked at her, a whole load of emotions running across her face.
Finally, she whispered, “I’m so sorry,” and disappeared.
Well. What did that mean?
She hates me but she still loves me, I guess.
Charlene hardly had time to think about it before the door opened again—and third time was the charm; Elizabeth Oakshue. Charlene braced herself.
The Ice Queen looked both upset and strangely triumphant. Like she wanted me to succeed and wanted me to fail. Well, either way she should be happy, right? She had a feeling it was just the opposite.
“Are you all right?”
Charlene nodded, and mouthed “I’m sorry,” but Elizabeth wasn’t paying attention. “It’s my fault, really. I should have known you weren’t up to it. I’m sorry I put you through all that.”
Wondering how exactly she should feel, Charlene realized that she didn’t know. Wasn’t it a good thing that Auntie Liz was apologizing, that nobody was blaming her—at the moment, at least—for ruining everything?
“Melanie will skate with Doug for his final—I know she can handle it.” If this was meant as an insult it didn’t sound like it, just ever-efficient-Elizabethan policy. “Well. I must talk to my daughter.” And she was gone.
So, they were going to blame insufficient talent, or stage fright, and let her off the hook. I guess that’s the easy way to go. Except that she didn’t like it. She knew, Charlene knew she had what it took, knew that this first false start was mostly just bad luck and nerves.
Yet behind that, she was still deeply frightened. Of the crowd, of failure…of going back out there again. Now’s my chance, I can put all this nonsense behind me. I was never meant to skate like this.
If nobody else had come in, if Charlene had been left to herself, everything might have ended there.
“Have you heard this crap the Ice Queen’s come up with?”
It was Doug, fresh from his second dance, breathing heavily and sweating. How her scared heart leaped when she saw him. He searched her eyes. “Tell me you’re going on with me in a few minutes.”
Charlene looked down.
“Hey! No way, uh-uh. You’ve come way too far to quit now—Charlene, look at me.”
I can’t, Doug, I can’t do this.
“Obviously you have heard this crap Elizabeth’s come up with, but she can go to hell as far as I’m concerned.” That was surprising enough that Charlene did finally look up, and Doug was serious. “Charlene, I’m not going back on that ice without you.”
He really means it. Doug still trusted her talents, her right to be there, even if Elizabeth didn’t. Who was right?
Deep down, Charlene knew one thing for certain: Elizabeth couldn’t keep her off the ice any more than Doug could make her get back on. Either way, Charlene Oakshue had to decide.
The music for the BallBoys’ last number was about half done. She was running out of time.
But I’m still so scared. The crowd is still out there.
He looked at her, waiting, and although it surprised her, he was smiling. “I know you can do this.”
I know you can do this. Those words echoed inside her. Someone else had said the same thing, had given her the strength to try again, someone…she had forgotten.
Suddenly new light broke over Charlene’s whole world, and she grabbed for her notepad.
“Doug, do you believe in heaven?”
If he questioned where she was going, he didn’t say it. “Absolutely.”
“Do you think my father is watching?”
Doug blinked hard, bit his lip, and held her hand tightly. “How could he possibly miss your big night?”
He was right. She knew it, somehow. And I can do this.
If I do it for him.
Her decision was made, just like that. Charlene nodded at her partner and let him lead her out to the rink’s edge once again, as the BallBoys swept off the ice to enormous applause. While Sarah and the little Perkinses went out to do their bit, Charlene looked around for her older cousin. I’ve got to let Melanie know, at least, that I’m still going to go on. Even as she looked she found herself hoping that this wouldn’t make things worse. Mel was waiting by the ice too, and when they made eye contact, the younger girl’s face visibly relaxed, and she walked over quickly.
“You look like you’re gonna give it another chance.”
Charlene nodded at her cousin.
Melanie didn’t exactly smile at her, her eyes were still pained and hurt deep inside, but she did nod back, and grab her shoulder for a brief moment. “You can do it.” Then she disappeared.
I stopped up Sarah’s voice and turned Melanie against me, but at least they both think I can skate.
Queen Elizabeth appeared out of nowhere, her face a blank mask. “Someone want to explain things to me?”
Douglas didn’t back down. “She can do this. Just watch.” His tone refused further argument. For her part, Elizabeth did no more than raise her sculpted eyebrows and step back, leaving them free to take the ice. By now Charlene was not surprised that she couldn’t read her aunt’s emotions at all.
It was time. The girl quickly laced up her skates, took Doug’s hand, and went back out there.
They swept into their positions to only scattered applause; apparently the audience had completely given up on her. Fine by me. I’m not skating for any of you.
Even as she got into her position, and waited for the first beat of the music, Charlene let her mind drift back to the way her father had smelled, to the feel of his strong hands on her shoulders as they skated the length of Watson’s Pond, to the sound of his laughter…and without having to work very hard at it, she really could feel him. Somehow…
They were watching her.
This is for you both. She raised her arms into position and then the music came, and—thank you, God—it really worked. Through the first turn, and into the pirouette, and out again, gaining speed for the first jump, Charlene felt all of the tension, all of the fear, all of the people watching melt away. All that was left was herself, her partner, and those loving eyes. Daddy…
Charlene skated as well as she ever had in her life. Douglas, seemingly inspired by her transformation, was that much sharper, that much more passionate in his own movements, and together they jumped higher, spun faster, and worked as a better team than ever before. The four-and-a-half minutes passed by in a wonderful blur. Charlene’s heart had not felt so full of joy in a very long time, and she could just feel that they really were watching, somewhere…even as she began her final spin, where she tucked her feet in close and raised her arms and spun until she was just a shimmer on the ice, the tears poured from her eyes. Tears of joy and sorrow, the force of her spin carried them straight to the side of her face and away, to fall scattered about her on the ice like shining stars.
Then the moment in the music came, and she and Doug stopped right in time and on cue, and the audience erupted. They doubled their normal efforts to make up for what they had withheld before. Charlene joined her partner for the bows they truly deserved and accepted a huge bouquet of roses that someone had thrown to the ice, brought to her by a beaming Sarah.
Doug made it off the ice first, but she went straight to him, to hold him for a precious stolen moment, before anyone else had the chance to get to them and offer congratulations.
Sarah was the first to reach them, and while Charlene wouldn’t have thought her own spirits could lift any further, the first sentence out of her cousin’s mouth proved her wrong.
“Charlene oh my goodness, after that first dance I was so worried for you, but you did it, and then you and Douggie, that was just amazing, I mean I can’t put it into words, you were better than we’ve ever seen you out there before—and by the way I guess I forgot to ask with all the business lately, but are you two like, going out or something?”
Oh, God…thank you. Thank you! Apparently, Sarah really would be okay after all.
Charlene’s eyes sought and found Melanie and could read her lips over the still roaring crowd. “Not bad, cousin.” Seeking for and finding her cousin’s hand, she squeezed—and Melanie didn’t pull away as quickly as she might have.
Amidst congratulations from BallBoys and Perkinses and Rustikovs, Charlene still felt the absence of Aunt Elizabeth, but for once Charlene didn’t care. She knew she had done better than expected, better than she could have believed…and it was wonderful.
At some point, she couldn’t remember when but somewhere while she and Doug were winning back the crowd, Charlene had realized one thing for sure.
She and Melanie needed to have a very long talk, and maybe Elizabeth was hidden behind her high walls again, but for better or for worse, she had found her family.
While the rest of the show flowed around her, Charlene Oakshue stood quietly watching from rink side, remembering her father and mother…and for that time, at least, she was completely and utterly happy.
When the setting sun filtered through the tall oak trees to caress the ice of Watson’s Pond, the whole world became golden.
It was easily the little boy’s favorite place in all the world, as him sparkling white ice-skates carried him along, and his father’s strong arms encircled him and kept him safe.
They spun and danced and skated together, and he often looked up to see laughter in his father’s brown eyes. The child’s mother was there as well, and sometimes she would join them and all three would skate together. Sometimes, even, the little boy would watch as his father and mother skated side by side, and he knew that everything was okay with the world.
And if he were very lucky, the child always hoped, the sun might not go down at all but set the ice to sparkling fire, as they danced across it forever…
I can remember the guy with the jetpack touching down in the LA Coliseum during the opening ceremonies for the 1984 summer Olympics. (I was five.) Last night I listened to Scotty Hamilton briefly reminisce about the gold medal he won on ice skates earlier that year—which I don’t know that I remember but bet anything I saw happen. I do feel like I remember seeing his very first nobody-ever-did-this-before ice-skating backflip.
So yeah, I grew up loving the Olympics, and ice skating. As a family we watched Scott and Hamill, Stojko and Yamaguchi, Harding and Kerrigan and Baiul and Boitano…and so writing a book centered on the ice was a foregone conclusion, one might think.
Strangely, though, I had no plans for one. However, some of the projects I’ve been most passionate about have brought themselves to my attention, rather than making me go after them. (See Symphony Alexandra’s Author’s Note maybe a couple years from now.)
In my love letter to myself at the end of The Kid, I talked about the vague childhood moment when I thought about “what if somebody hit the winning World Series home run and then didn’t run the bases?” which was the seed that eventually led to that whole book. With The Silent Skater, it’s much the same—though the journey was a bit longer, I can tell you exactly where I was, and almost exactly when, I was introduced to Charlene.
Given my 80s childhood and appreciation of ice skating, it’s probably not much of a surprise that I adored the Mighty Ducks movies. When the Anaheim team adopted the name for real, I was very excited—even requesting (and receiving) an official Mighty Ducks ballcap for Christmas. When the third and final installment (at least until the inevitable reboot, am I right?) came out in 1996, I was out of high school, into community college and there wasn’t nothin’ keeping me from going to an afternoon movie. By myself, which is how I saw most movies back then (story for another book) but I will never forget the drive home from the Elvis Cinema in Arvada, Colorado. Because my Muse smacked me upside the head as I pulled out onto Sheridan, and by the time I parked the car in front of the house on Decatur, I knew I was going to write a story about a young girl without a voice who found an ice-skating troupe.
And ‘story’ it definitely was: the first go-round, titled “Rink Princess,” was begun and done within one spiral notebook, 93 pages’ worth which would probably be about 60 children’s book pages. The first type-up, which almost always ends up longer as I flesh out characters and dialogue, is about 86 children’s book pages, or half of The Indian in the Cupboard or The Secret Language.
Both of which I would recommend far more highly than ”Rink Princess,” even after a second swing at the material.
A brief summary, mostly because the similarities and differences seem striking to me; in the first chapter, a thirteen-year-old girl is handed off by foster parents who don’t much care for her to a van full of kids headed for an orphanage; she escapes (easily and immediately), finds her way onto a westbound train (easily and virtually immediately), finds a beagle puppy somehow, meets Douglas Fields, joins Blades and Satin (easily and conveniently, as her otherwise unseen father taught her how to skate like a pro) and after some minor trials and troubles eventually Charlene takes over for Elizabeth Oakshue in the all-important “Can the show survive” performance when the kind, matronly leader/owner breaks her ankle, turning in a triumphant performance.
That’s the basic plot.
I thought briefly about including some or all of the original work here, but after reading the last few pages a moment ago—I like you, and hopefully the ending you just read left you with a warm feeling; I’d hate to take that away.
Because “Rink Princess” is not well-written. There are a couple moments that I’m proud of, and which have survived more than twenty years of revisions and rewrites to the book you’re holding now (Chapter Five’s several page description of Charlene’s first Blades and Satin performance in particular), but for some reason—the “just dumped by first girlfriend and will never find another” place I was in emotionally, perhaps—life for Charlene, in that first attempt, is almost magically easy.
There’s an old saying about good storytelling that’s been attributed to everyone from Nabokov to Spielberg. To paraphrase: “get your character up a tree, then throw rocks at them.” In Charlene’s case it was more of a shrub, and then I lobbed some Nerf balls. Yes, she was an orphan and a runaway, but there’s no danger on the journey; she’s immediately welcomed into the B&S family, Melanie (originally Melissa, then changed halfway through first writing, God alone knows why) is unfailingly kind…there are three moments of conflict in the whole piece. 1—“Oh no, Elizabeth’s broken her ankle!” which is immediately resolved by Charlene taking her place; 2—“What if Charlene can’t do the necessary triple axel?” (awfully ambitious for a fourteen-year-old who just started skating professional, but never mind) which is immediately resolved when oh wait, she can; and 3—Elizabeth trying to force Charlene to speak, which is resolved within literally two pages after Doug, who sees it happen, rebukes her and sends her to make it right and she immediately does. And Charlene immediately forgives her.
Almost as if I couldn’t stand the thought of any harm coming to Charlene. Mel gives her a gold necklace, they’re such immediate sisters. No romance triangle between all the teenagers, no skating troupe arguments, Elizabeth and Melanie have sweet heart-to-heart talks…it’s Village of the Happy People.
Which is fabulous when it happens in real life, and terrible in print. My two-year-old’s reading books with more conflict. Never mind that he’s reading them upside-down. Charlene has nothing at stake, nothing she can lose. Neither does anybody else.
To put it another way, writing workshops will talk about Man versus. That’s where the conflict comes in—Man vs. Man; Man vs. Technology; Man vs Himself.
“Rink Princess” was Man vs… well nothing, really.
I’m thankful it didn’t stop there. Back then I had to write a first draft just to figure out what story I wanted to tell, and then I would start all over, new spiral notebook and everything, to get the real thing on paper. And the second round was a vast improvement.
Suddenly Charlene is kin to Elizabeth and Melanie—in fact they are her only family. Sarah (originally Karen) is no longer the oldest Perkins child, she’s the unknown Oakshue. The story has always been about family, and now Charlene has one to lose. Mel is into Doug, who is into Charlene. Blades and Satin is in danger.
And Elizabeth Oakshue stopped being a one-dimensional fairy godmother and blossomed into an actual character, one with a hopefully understandable and relatable reason to mistrust, dislike…even hate her only niece.
Some things didn’t change: Old Coondog Perkins and his bear costume; Karen/Sarah’s run-on sentences; Melanie being the first one who offered to “talk” to Charlene on her level; Elizabeth trying to force words out of Charlene to “fix” her. And apologizing for her mistake later.
The most important parts of Charlene, that have never wavered for a moment since she first tapped me on the shoulder; her love of the ice and her silence. She was nine, then thirteen, then sixteen, then nineteen. (As extra-poignant as it was for her to ‘celebrate’ her sixteenth birthday alone in that opening chapter, I realized the budding relationship with Doug bordered on creepy, so she aged appropriately.) She was a helpless orphan child runaway at first; now she’s a competent (if lonely) orphan-adult.
But in every version, since the very beginning, Charlene had those custom skates and her silence. And even that wasn’t a problem in the first version; besides Queen Elizabeth’s attempt to break through that barrier, the most Charlene got was an odd look. I even made sure Mel gave her a gold necklace with an ice-skate pendant on it specifically so that when Charlene needed to tell Douglas, out on the ice, that she couldn’t do the triple-axel, she had a way to scratch it out. No way was I going to allow her handicap to cause her any trouble.
Of course, when I started writing down what really happened, I finally started to understand what it’s like being in Charlene’s world. There were so many times she needed to communicate with someone, and I became frustrated trying to figure out how. In the Oakshue backyard, when Melanie won’t look at her, refuses to let Charlene communicate? I was furious with Melanie for that. I’ve struggled in my own life at times feeling like my words don’t matter to someone—I hate that feeling, and I have much less of a challenge in communication than Charlene.
But challenge or not, frustrated or not, it was crucial to the story. To her story.
I feel like there are a zillion examples of what I call the Magic Cure: somebody important to the plot, often a main character, has “never” done something. Spoken, often. Smiled. Danced. Solved for X. Whatever.
Then the writer shows how everything is better when this same character suddenly magically breaks through their barrier. “Oh—he’s never done that, not since the accident!” And there is great rejoicing.
In the past six weeks, as I blew the dust off the Oakshues and started finishing this twenty-two-year project, I ran across four (four!) random examples of what I’m talking about: in the excellent Stephen King novel The Stand, he has a boy suddenly speaking who “never talks.” (at least he didn’t pull the same stunt with Nick Andros!) In wonderful childhood favorite Me and My Little Brain, a young character who has “never spoken” since the death of his parents suddenly finds his voice (and it’s a wonderful scene, don’t get me wrong.) In similarly wonderful childhood favorite Alvin’s Secret Code, a little boy is so traumatized by the bad guy that he never speaks. Until “Finally one morning, months later, his voice returned as suddenly as it had vanished, and he told them everything that had happened.” In a Teen Titans comic from the 80s we find a nursing home resident who “hasn’t spoken in 10 years,” who, of course, starts jabbering away two panels after our heroes arrive.
And then there’s: “Before the trip had started, Jen had explained that her brother had never talked in his life. He wasn’t mute, he had just never spoken.” Three pages later… “When he saw Shawn he shouted, ‘Jen! Shawn!’ and ran over to them. They embraced the boy before they even realized what had happened. ‘Those...those were the first words that he’s ever said in his entire life!’ Jen exclaimed.”
So yeah…this one was me. I was thirteen, but still, it’s an early writing attempt that makes “Rink Princess” look like To Kill a Mockingbird. And is an excellent stamp on the point—it’s a trope, having a character who has “never” done something important do that thing, whatever it is (nine times out of ten it’s speech) and then we know everything is good. And please don’t get me wrong, it can be used to great effect.
But sometimes it’s just lazy, thirteen-year-old writing. “Ta-da! Everything’s fixed now. We can all feel good about ourselves!”
I can’t even claim that I discarded the trope when it came to Charlene. Because it was never, never a consideration. When she first tapped me on the shoulder and said, “This is my story,” she did so without speaking; and while it took Elizabeth forever to get it, she finally figured out what Sarah never doubted: there’s nothing wrong with Charlene. Sure, yes, there are parts of her that don’t work like they’re supposed to. (I’ve worn glasses since I was 6; there are parts of me that don’t work like they’re supposed to. And by the way, if I could be referred to as ‘20/20 challenged’ instead of ‘nearsighted,’ I’d really appreciate it.)
But Charlene’s not broken. Not in any of the places that truly matter.
“Aah,” you might be saying to yourself. “I get it—she never spoke because you’re making a point about people.”
Nope. If you get that from the reading it’s not going to hurt my feelings, it’s a point I would have liked to have made. But the reason, the only reason, why Charlene is silent is because when I asked her what happened when she was nineteen, what you have in your hands is the story she told me. If the story had been different, the book would be different. Simple as that.
Couple of hopefully interesting side notes: from the “Rink Princess” start in 1996 to the almost-the-same-as-what-you-have-in-your-hands 2008 version, the idea of a whole ice-dancing show seemed a bit implausible; I somehow forgot about the Scott Hamilton extravaganzas of my youth (not to mention “Disney on Ice.”)
So, it was very encouraging to me when I ran across the 1954 film “Circus on Ice” and realized that real life was far more fantastic and bizarre than anything I had written. I highly recommend YouTubing “MST3K Circus on Ice” if you’re in the mood for a few laughs.
In addition, while I was editing this book over the holidays, as well as the “never talks” examples from earlier, I just happened (don’t you love how life throws things at you right when you need them? I love when God does that) across a Batman comic, also from the 50s, where the dynamic duo foils a gang of jewel thieves in the middle of an ice ballet. I’ve always said, if it’s good enough for Batman, it’s good enough for me. (And how many comic fans out there noticed the DC reference in the names of the BallBoys, huh?)
Doug’s car, that Charlene refers to as the “American Beater”? That would be the car I was driving when I wrote the book, with a driver’s side door a different color than the rest of the car and everything. The Mustang that Charlene buys herself shortly thereafter—my dad has that car to this day.
Oh, and Doug’s nickname for Charlene? Cricket? They let me throw that in from my own life—long ago I christened a girlfriend with that name for that same reason, and Doug didn’t mind letting me use it; it was like something he would have done anyway.
If this makes the writing process sound like I’m not so much creating the story as somehow peeking into the parallel universe where Blades and Satin exists and writing down what I see, well…it is kinda like that. For me, anyway. I swear, sometimes something happens in the story that I never expected. That I don’t feel like was my idea at all.
Like Charlene herself—she was always an orphan, and always silent. And I suppose I had to get “Rink Princess”, the Village of the Happy People version of her story, out of my system in order to see the real tree I would have to put her in, with some fairly sharp stones in my hand. Which wasn’t easy—The Kid was one level of difficult; I really like Bruce Stiller.
I love Charlene Oakshue. And every time she was frustrated, I was frustrated. Every time she felt rejected, I felt rejected. When she spins, in the last scene, with the tears…I cry reading that. Every time. Had to take several run-ups just to get the audio recording completed.
But that’s writing. And love, now that I think about it.
Fun note to end on: the morning I wrote this, I spoke to one of my dearest friends, Elsa Wolff, who currently has laryngitis. She (very, very softly) said she had tried to make herself understood at the grocery store, and the helpful clerk had assumed she was deaf and started signing to her.
And I had to laugh, like she intended—something about that seemed so familiar…
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