Joyce Hinnefeld


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Stranger

On Sunday I had the privilege and pleasure of taking part in Julie Maloney's WOMEN READING ALOUD series at the Bernardsville, NJ Public Library. It was a terrific afternoon, spent responding to great questions from Julie and from the smart, engaged audience members who turned out to talk about writing on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

One topic that was particularly interesting in this context was the idea of "the stranger" in my novel Stranger Here Below (there in the title and epigraph, in all the references to "pilgrims and strangers" in old hymns, in Maze's names for her newborn twins in 1968, in Camus's The Stranger, which Daniel and Mary Elizabeth discuss in a coffee shop one night instead of joining Maze and Harris at a country dance). Driving into Bernardsville that afternoon, I'd noticed signs in a number of front yards like the one I've included here, declaring (in bold purple type), "Strangers? Not in my schools!"

I was curious about these signs, as were a number of other folks in the audience that afternoon. Madelyn English, the Library's Adult Programming Coordinator, explained that the signs were actually in reference to a cost-cutting measure proposed by the local school board: outsourcing of jobs like those of bus drivers, custodians, and classroom aides to an outside company (instead of hiring local residents and paying for their benefits). Suddenly the signs seemed much less xenophobic and ominous--even like they might be expressing a position I could support.

But I don't know nearly enough to claim any kind of position, of support or otherwise, on this issue, which is apparently coming up in a number of suburban New Jersey school districts. (I tried to do a little Internet searching to learn more but ended up reading a really unfocused and increasingly angry exchange of comments on a blog that kind of scared me.)

But it says something about the power of words--both to represent and to misrepresent our deeply held positions--when you read signs like these. What does the word "stranger" mean to you? And what do you think when you read "Not in my schools!"

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