On reading Hemingway with grandchildren

Last summer I read The Old Man and the Sea aloud with three of my grandchildren – twins Lucas and Ella, age 12, and Caleb, age 8. Though I thought the book might be a bit of a stretch for young children, it was certainly worth the effort. All three “loved the book,” a response not universal for Hemingway’s work.

The Old Man and the Sea (OM&S) was the first of Ernest Hemingway’s writings I read; I was in Grade 10 in Chicago Christian High School. I’m sure it captivated me because I’d been deep-sea fishing off Florida a couple of times before then and dreamed of catching a “bill fish” – if not an 18-foot black marlin, maybe a smaller blue or white or a spectacular sailfish. I remember crying after Santiago, struggling for days to land the giant, saw sharks, bite-by-bloody bite, reduce its magnificence, even in death, to a skeleton longer than his sturdy skiff.

Since then, I’ve read OM&S at least six times, not counting this summer’s two-week long adventure. My grandchildren, though, helped me dig deeper into my own love and appreciation for this novella that was the last significant piece of fiction Hemingway published before his suicide in Ketchum, Idaho on July 2, 1961. I still recall hearing the sad news that Sunday evening, the photo of Hemingway looking like the kind uncle he surely wasn’t. Yet he was deeply attractive to that 13-year old boy who caught bass, bullheads and perch on Lake Macatawa in Holland, Michigan during family holidays.

None of my grandkids, though, are nuts about fishing like I was, so they heard the story without prejudice, yet with significant understanding of Hemingway’s love of the chase and the catch.
Caleb: “I liked how Santiago respected the fish, but was sad that Santiago didn’t get back with anything but the skeleton.”

Lucas saw that Santiago “viewed the fish as an equal. It was his job to kill it, but if he had known the fish was such a big and good and graceful creature, I think he’d be less inclined to kill it.”

For her part, Ella was touched by how Santiago “encourages himself while he’s out in the boat and talks to the fish all the time, even thanking the fish during the fight.” On the boy and Santiago: “The scene near the end where the boy, Manolin, puts a blanket over Santiago still sticks with me. He loved the old man.”

Yet, like every Hemingway story or book that I know, death is the final and only winner, no matter how long, moving or ennobling the life leading to the end might be. Some critics draw parallels between Santiago and the fish as implicit references to Christ – his suffering, death. Yet not in this or any of Hemingway’s finely crafted stories is there any hope of resurrection, only destruction.

Though the kids absorbed and discerned some fine points in Hemingway’s profound, if sad, writing, his near-nihilistic perspective isn’t a model I hope they learned from two summer holiday weeks of bedtime reading.

Hemingway’s vision is captivating but ultimately leads to a despair, which perhaps contributed to his out-sized, often violent life and habits. His marriages were several and sad, except for the last. His fishing and hunting expeditions aimed at the kill – often multiple marlins or big game – not at the skill and joy of the chase. His end was tragic, violent, self-inflicted early that Sunday morning in the cottage in Ketchum, a natural paradise that embraced, but couldn’t heal the hell and pain of Hemingway’s life, especially his last decade.

Yet OM&S and much of his writing continue to draw readers more than five decades after his death. Of Hemingway’s death-filled writing, OM&S is perhaps the least cynical and outwardly despairing, inviting rereading, reflecting and more readings. Because the narrative pulls readers along, OM&S is surprisingly accessible to young readers, its final darkness disguised, but not hidden.

With its publication “Papa” Hemingway probably helped seal his 1954 award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. While sad, tragic, it is also a mature, mournful resignation to mortality; though not a paean to death and self-destruction, Hemingway offers no hope of anything Beyond. If nothing else – and there is much else – Christian readers can pore over Hemingway’s spare, controlled prose. Don’t wish he wrote happy endings. Instead, recognize the sad limits of lives lived movingly, portraying consciously only the mournfully empty present.

  • Jim is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor and missionary who now works for Resonate Global Mission ten hours a week as "Member Care Coordinator," which means "Pastor to Missionaries," because where lots of our missionaries work it's inadvisable to use pastor or missionary publicly. That cool job puts a framework to his week, keeps him in contact with hundreds of even cooler servants of Jesus all over the world, compels him to travel to visit them once in a while, though he connects with them via email and Zoom most of the time. The rest of the time Jim reads books--lots of free ones that he "pays for" with reviews. He was acclaimed President of Christian Courier Board of Directors while on his way to that meeting from a long ophthalmologist appointment. As long as God gives his wife Rose and him health, they ride a tandem bike around Niagara and other places in the bikeable months, paddle canoes and kayaks, visit children and grandchildren in the distant places they live because their parents provided them poor role models for stability of residence.

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