‘The door banged open. A boy and a girl shot out the opening, shoes slamming across the deck boards, blond hair flying behind their backs. The girl, ten, ran to the shed, around the back to the corner where the fence met. A barrage of barking greeted her. The neighbor’s dog charged the fence, growling and throwing its bulk against the boards. She ignored the beast, and scurried up the fence, stood on the top, and reached out with her arms, stretching, placing hands on the roof. One hundred and fifty pounds of Newfoundland leapt, slobbering its rage as it sought the little girl. She jumped. Her sneakers hit the side of the shed, and she held herself for a moment, then hoisted herself onto the roof. She smirked at the dog named Slugger. He had been trying to eat her for years.
As she reached for a flimsy branch, the dog ran back and forth, barking at the child. The branch sagged with her weight, and she stepped onto to another that was two feet away. Slugger leapt and snarled, willing the child to fall, but her hands and feet were sure and she shimmied along the branch. Her little brother followed. The two children climbed, up and up, a maze of redwood branches. Forty feet to the top. They perched on a narrow branch where the needles were scarce and a break in the thin branches offered a view of the bay, over the hillside and all around. On New Year’s and 4th of July, they climbed up in the dark to watch fireworks from the vantage point.
When they caught their breath, they descended, swiftly. One branch after another, a blur of movement, like squirrels chasing each other over a tree, spiraling downwards. The girl hopped to the shed and ran to the peak of the roof. A moment’s breath, a thrill down her spine, and she ran along the peak, towards the edge, as fast as her feet would go, and jumped. Momentum carried her out; for a moment, she flew, and gravity pulled her down. Some ten feet. She landed and rolled and laughed, and her brother followed, trying to outdistance her. He did. She frowned. This would not do. She couldn’t be outdone. The little girl ran back to the fence to climb and jump again.’
A ten year-old girl climbing a forty-foot tall tree and then doing a running jump off of a ten-foot roof? Fact or fiction? Impossible, you say?
I’ve noticed a current trend of disbelief regarding what is possible, and what is not in fiction. I’m certainly not immune to it. I found myself shaking my head when a character held her breath for five minutes in one book series. But the truth is, fact IS stranger than fiction. The current Guinness World Record for holding your breath underwater is twenty-two minutes. Now that is unbelievable.
So why, in an era where Youtube videos feature amazing feats of human endurance, agility, and sheer insanity, do we, as readers, have trouble believing the mundane in fiction? Is it because readers put themselves into the story and are limited by what they themselves can do? I can’t think of another reason.
I had a discussion in one bookclub with a reader who felt that the female protagonist in a book could not climb a sturdy bookshelf because rock climbing was not invented until the 1920’s. Erm… OK. In my own mystery series, my female protagonist grew up sailing. She climbed masts at sea (like this fellow at the 0:30 second mark), and snuck out of the house to roam mountainsides and climb rocks. And now, in her twenties, finds climbing sturdy cast iron drain pipes a simple matter. Really, those things are practically built like ladders.
None of this seems far-fetched to me, but that might be because the scene at the beginning was from my own childhood. The girl was me. And that roof jumping routine was tame. My brothers and I climbed and jumped off everything. We saw everything as a challenge that had to be conquered: chains, poles, fences, roofs. We hung upside down from tree branches, jumped fences from swings, flew off eight stairs on rollerblades, whizzed down double diamond runs on skis, and in the summer, we snuck into schools and climbed onto the roofs. (I can only imagine what my childhood would have been like if Youtube was around and we had watched Parkour videos.)
In my twenties, I took up indoor rockclimbing and when I was bored at work, I’d climb door jams and onto the roof to clean the skylights. And while having kids has made me more cautious, and less nimble, I’m still surprised to meet someone who can’t climb a ladder onto a roof. But then I have to remind myself that not everyone is naturally coordinated and in this safety-conscious society, even the simplest things are considered dangerous.
There’s a kind of warped view of the past generation, too. We constantly see images of prim, proper, Victorian ladies sitting down for a dainty afternoon tea. We never see a corseted woman balancing across a ladder over an alpine gorge. We forget that safety harness and ropes weren’t routinely used in construction, even on skyscrapers. Or that 10 year-old little girls did the Charleston without a harness on top of a biplane in the 20s when ‘Windwalking’ was the big craze. We forget about all the chimney sweeps who took steel brushes to the knees and elbows of six year-old children and forced them to climb up the inside of chimneys to clean.
So the next time you come across something that you think is an unbelievable feat of climbing, jumping, or survival in a fictional book—remember that humans are amazing and versatile, and there is probably a Youtube video of someone doing that very thing… only way better.
I’ll just leave you all with this video of a baby climbing a rock wall.