When I was in school I loved browsing the shelves in our school’s library looking for a great story to read. Sometimes I would find a story that took me to another time. Sometimes I would enter another world entirely. Other stories plopped me right in the middle of the real life of another person. When I read a story, I feel like I’m right there in the middle of the action. I’m excited when the characters have a happy ending; I mourn when a character dies. I learn from their mistakes and successes. This is the power of a good story.
There was a book on my school’s bookshelf that haunted me throughout my junior high and high school years. It was a gray, thick, paperback book with a picture of a sad little girl in tattered clothing on the cover. It was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Every time I came by it I plucked it from the shelf, turned it over in my hands, and put it back. It didn’t feel like the right time to read it. It frightened me in a way no other book ever has.
A few years ago I worked through a certification course and one of the books on the list to read was Les Miserables. I knew it was coming and every time I thought about having to read it butterflies fluttered in my stomach. It’s a big book, yes, but that wasn’t what intimidated me. There is something about some stories, a feeling that it’s more than just a story, like there’s an unseen power that reaches beyond mere entertainment.
From the first few pages I felt like I had embarked on a journey that would lead I knew not where. As the tale unfolded and I met each character in the midst of it, an unexplained sense of dread began to build. Something deeper than just the story was going on and I knew that this book would change me.
Most people have probably seen the movie musical based on the book so Fantine’s spiral into deplorable circumstances is well-known. This part of the story was difficult, but I managed to get through it without shedding any tears. Cosette’s ill-treatment by the Thenardiers made me angry, but I was able to control my response. On and on as the story continued my sense of dread continued to mount but I bravely forged on. It was Enjolras that made me crack. His brave stand and the inevitable result broke through the wall I had forged so many years ago as I gazed at the pitiful girl on the cover. From then on, I read with tears streaming. And then, Jean Valjean’s final scenes at the very end of the book left me broken. Even now as I write this I’m crying, not just in sadness, but with something that is so beautiful it is impossible to put it into words.
A few months after finishing the book, my husband and I saw the Broadway musical. When the curtain raised and Jean Valjean began his first song, the tears began again and didn’t stop until the show ended. I stood with the entire theater and applauded, unashamed by my emotional outpouring. It’s a powerful story and one that I hold in my mind and heart always.