Stories communicate information, and stories within stories accomplish the same. In Rena Rossner’s The Light of the Midnight Stars and Trung Le Nguyen’s The Magic Fish, stories play an important part in the lives of the characters, and therefore are important to us, the reader.
The Light of the Midnight Stars follows three sisters, descendants of King Solomon, who flee persecution and attempt to begin new lives. Before and after they leave, stories play important roles in their lives, first as lessons, and then as ways to communicate their struggles with others. The book itself appears as an unknown narrator writing a fairy tale, with the actual chapters filling in the details.
The Magic Fish accomplishes much of the same. Tiến’s family fled Vietnam as refugees. Together, he and his mother read fairy tales in English while Tiến tries to navigate language barriers to tell his parents that he’s gay. The book switches from the present to stories, supplementing the characters’ lives.
In both books, the idea of changing stories appears to characters in need of different endings. In The Light of the Midnight Stars, one of the characters, Sarah, tells the story of her life, of the loss of her fiancé, concluding the story with herself in permanent mourning, always waiting for him. Another character, whose story seems to condemn her to always wander in search of love, reminds her that the story isn’t fixed, that “[she] may not be able to change how it begins, but [she] can change how it ends” (Rossner 293). And Sarah does, in a way, even though she is trapped in many ways, with few options, she manages to make her story her own.
In The Magic Fish, Tiến’s mother, Helen, hears a story from her aunt, one that she’d heard before and forgotten. When the story is over, she asks her aunt whether this is the story’s real ending. Her aunt replies that “It’s an old, old story. Details change…And now this story is ours” (Nguyen 184). This sentiment carries the story to its end, where Helen uses another fairy tale to express her love and acceptance of her son.
The stories of the past inform these stories of the future as well. Helen remembers fleeing Vietnam while listening to a fairy tale where the character flees home as well. Her past is part of her, something that affects her, that is still present in her life even if she is in the process of changing. The sisters in The Light of the Midnight Stars are Jewish and grew up with stories based on their religion. There are a few stories that continue to appear throughout the novel, stories that the sisters feel particularly connected to, but their meanings change as the sisters’ lives change. No story, it seems, is completely immutable; their facts remain the same, but their meanings change and evolve along with the people they affect. It seems it isn’t just the ending that changes, even if the other differences are subtle. People are constantly evolving, and so should our literature, our stories.
It’s hard to see this potential in a book sometimes, I think, where it’s bound together in a particular order, with a clear beginning and ending where the writing stops, but if we were to ask a thousand people about the same book, we would see its various meanings, that it isn’t set in stone. Books can change, even if this change isn’t outwardly visible, so why can’t we?
Why stories, though? Is it the lessons they hold, their universality? In The Magic Fish we see two versions of a Cinderella-esque story, similar messages with different content and context. We tell stories all the time, even if they are just about buying bread or stubbing your toe. We put in words what we feel, piece together our thoughts. Maybe that’s why we use stories, because they are representations of emotion, a way to express feelings that we wouldn’t otherwise know how to say. And I suppose that’s why it’s important that they are flexible, that they represent us, because they are containers for our thoughts, guides to our futures, but hopefully not cages.