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  • Paul Cumbo

The Idea Conundrum: When did Finny Fall out of the Tree?


This is a recurring discussion in my English class. It's a little different each year, but it is always the same question: When is fiction?

This time, I asked my tenth graders: When did Finny fall out of the tree? It was a reference to A Separate Peace. Answers were predictable: "Around 1942 or something." "During the summer session." "In the first few chapters."

All correct. But all wrong, too. Right? Because Finny never fell out of the tree. The book is fiction. So there was no Finny, and there was no tree.

Except there is, and there was, and he did, or how the hell are we talking about this? We can all recall the moment it happened. And so can our parents and grandparents who read that book, too. So John Knowles created Finny and the tree incident when he sat down to write A Separate Peace. And Finny has been falling out of that tree, time and again, since that time. He never did fall, but he always will be falling and always will have fallen.

Except when my son picks up A Separate Peace for the first time, Finny will not yet have fallen out of the tree. Not for him. Until Finny does, in which case my son will have this incident to talk about, and it will be the same incident that people have been talking about in classrooms over and over again.

Same for every work of fiction. Fiction isn't then or in the future. It's always in the present, I suppose. It's always in the present, even if it's written in the past. Because Finny only exists when we are reading about him or thinking about him. And not only to us: to all the others who have.

Ideas.

Books.

Wow.

What story will always be in the present tense for you?

#JohnKnowles #ASeparatePeace #time #reality

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