Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Posts Tagged ‘redemption

Redemption, Tonya Harding, and Chris Nuttall’s newest novel, THE FAMILY SHAME

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Redemption. It’s one of the strongest words in the English language, or at least it should be. It means to be saved from sin, evil, or error. Or to save yourself from the past consequences of bad or immoral actions…or, perhaps, it means this:

Living. Learning. And improving yourself, because you can’t live with the person you used to be.

My friend Chris Nuttall wrote a book recently based around this theme called THE FAMILY SHAME, set in his Zero Enigma universe. (I was one of his editors, so I got to see the book early and often.) In it, young Isabella Rubén has lost everything she once had, all because she trusted the wrong person. She’s only twelve, but the person she trusted plotted treason against the powers-that-be, and Isabella knew about it — and didn’t say anything to her father, or anyone else. Worse yet, she actively collaborated with this person to commit treason, mostly because she saw it as her only reasonable way to obtain political power due to what amounts to her family’s benign neglect of her talents (she’s a female magician and her particular family can only be led by male magicians).


See, Isabella, in any other family, probably wouldn’t have done this. Every other family in the city of Shallot (where she’s from) picks their leader from everyone, male and female alike, based on a combination of magical and political ability. But her family, the Rubéns, don’t.

But she did it. She feels terrible about it, but she did it, and she can’t take that combination of deliberate non-action (in not telling her father or any of her teachers) plus actively aiding and abetting the treasonous older “friend” along the way.

And she is paying the price, as she has been exiled to Kirkhaven, an old, ramshackle estate about as far away from Shallot as you can get by horse. She’s also been told not to send letters to her father, mother, or brother, as she’s now “the family shame.”

So, not only has she lost everything — family, friends, wealth, schooling, political standing (which she did care about, even though she was only twelve as she was quite precocious in some ways) — she now has to deal with this ramshackle manor. Two adult magicians live there, Morag Rubén and Ira Rubén. (No, they’re not married to each other.) Morag is a cook, while Ira is a type of experimenter who admits he wants to find ways to make Dark-inflected spells work for good. And both of them, too, are exiles…

Did they want young Isabella around? The answer is a resounding “no.” But there she is, and now she has to figure out how to deal with them (not easy), how she’s going to continue her schooling independently (definitely not easy), and how she’s going to deal with the loneliness of this deserted, remote place (almost impossible). All while wrestling with the problems that brought her to this place, which she knows she created and cannot change.

When she manages to befriend a boy around her own age, Callam, her life starts to improve a little. But she has to keep the friendship secret, as she’s not supposed to leave the grounds, nor is he supposed to be on the grounds himself. (It’s a very innocent friendship, as is befitting for their respective ages.)

It’s getting to know Callam that helps to slowly but surely make Isabella realize just how badly she behaved before, and avow that she will find a way to do better.

I don’t want to give away the plot, so I’ll stop there with a plot summary. But I’ve given you this much because I wanted you to think about just how hard it’s going to be for Isabella to redeem herself in the eyes of society — and worse, how hard it’s going to be for Isabella, herself, to redeem herself in her own eyes.

Redemption, you see, is hard. People judge you by your past actions, and no matter what you do, no matter what you say, no matter how much you might apologize, and no matter how much you’ve actually changed, there are still going to be some people who will hate you, and not give the new version of you — the better version, the one tested in the fire — the time of day.

We see that in contemporary life every day.

One of the most current examples is that of figure skater Tonya Harding, who’s now nearly forty-eight years old. But when she was only twenty-four — in 1994 — she somehow failed to stop an attack on fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, then not quite twenty-five. Kerrigan was hit on the knee by thugs sent by Harding’s then-husband, and one of those thugs was Harding’s bodyguard. Harding, herself, was sentenced to probation, given community service, and ended up being banned for life by the United States Figure Skating Association.

What Harding did back then was awful. That she had a rotten childhood (she truly did), that she came from abject poverty (she did), that her husband was mean and abusive to her as far as the public could discern, and that figure skating was her one gift (she was the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition, and was known for her athleticism, her jumps, and her footwork passages) may ameliorate things slightly, but the fact remains that she could’ve apparently done something to keep Kerrigan from being harmed. (I must say “apparently” because the facts are not completely in evidence. What we know is that Harding took a plea deal.)

But did she deserve to be ostracized the rest of her life for this?

Is the assumption going to be that Harding can’t learn, can’t find a way to be a good person, and that it’s supposedly OK for her to never use her one, true gift ever again, even to teach young kids how to skate?

See, that’s the quandary my friend Chris’s protagonist Isabella is in, too. Isabella is a gifted magician, but she misused her magic and hurt people. She knows it was wrong. She has apologized (as Harding, back in 1994, 1995, and 1996, apologized multiple times to the best of my recollection). But she was ostracized, cast out, exiled.

Isabella does find redemption, or at least finds a way toward redemption.

I would like to think that Harding also has found some sort of redemption, too. (Being on TV’s Dancing with the Stars surely has given her an athletic outlet, and may help pay for her son’s education down the line for all I know.)

But what’s sad about the quest for redemption, and what’s sad in both cases I’ve discussed here, is that some people will never forgive you no matter what good you might do. And no matter how much you might’ve changed. And no matter how much you might want them to forgive you…they just won’t, and you have to learn to live with it.

That Harding still has people, even to this day, leave feces (yes, actual feces) on her doorstep or rude messages on her phone or random people on the street swearing a blue streak at her, twenty-four years later, illustrates just how hard it is to seek redemption, even if you do it privately and out of the public eye.

You pay a heavy price, when you do something wrong, bad, or something that society judges immoral or flat-out evil.

But you still have to learn to live with yourself and your talents, and use them to the best of your ability. Which is what I think Harding is trying to do, as the older, presumably wiser version of herself…and it assuredly is what the young Isabella Rubén is trying to do in THE FAMILY SHAME.

I’m proud to have edited Chris’s new novel, and I hope you will find it a fun read, as well as an instructive one.

And personally? I think redemption is definitely possible. I just wish people would learn to see others for who they are today, not for how they hurt them yesterday, or how bad they behaved the day before that (or twenty-four years ago). Don’t forget it, no, as that’s revisionist history and unnecessary. But do forgive, if you can, at least as far as to say, “If I lived that person’s life, I can’t say for certain I wouldn’t have done the same things.”

That is the best way to be a decent human being, bar none.

Following the Eleventh Commandment…

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As we get closer to the Christmas/Yuletide holiday season, I get more and more frustrated with this time of year.

(And yes, I admit it.)

I’m not into conspicuous consumption. (If you’ve read my blog for a while, you probably know this.) And all the commercials for stuff “You Must Buy Now (TM)” annoy the crapola out of me.

I’ve already said I believe in being around my friends and loved ones at this time of year, and that I prefer your presence over your presents. But I figured I’d go a little further today, and try to explain another thought that needs to be expressed: We have to try to follow the Eleventh Commandment a little better (that being “Love one another, as I have loved you,” uttered by Jesus the Christ).

This is a very tough commandment to follow, because it is not always easy to love each other, in this world. There are people, quite frankly, in this world that I cannot stand. (I know, I know — quelle the horror.) And yet, by just about every faith I know–Christianity, Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and yes, the Neo-Pagan community–we’re told to love them. (Or at least to do no harm to them, if we can’t love them. And most of the time in most faiths, you’re still supposed to try to love the unloveable even if it’s extremely difficult; doing no harm and letting them go their own way is only an intermediate step.)

As I said, there are some folks out there who are incredibly difficult to love.

So how are we supposed to go about loving them anyway?

I think, to start with, we need to try to check our prejudices at the door. Try to meet people where they are, and use your empathy as much as you possibly can.

Does this mean you should let others railroad you when you don’t agree with them? Oh, Hell no. But you should at least try to understand, if you can, when someone believes something different than you do. Because it seems to me that understanding someone else is the first step toward loving them…and we all have to start somewhere.

In addition, I wanted to add another thought I’ve had, that is probably only tangentially related.

Does anyone else feel that we’ve become a much less forgiving society, lately? And that we’ve stopped believing that people can change, people can improve, and people can–even if they’ve made horrible mistakes–redeem and improve themselves somehow?

It’s like, someone makes a mistake one day, and kisses someone he or she doesn’t know while drunk at a holiday party. The next day, that man (or woman) is hailed as a pervert, and rather than saying, “You need to drink less” or “Wow, you can’t hold your wine” or even “What were you thinking, when you kissed that person?,” you’re condemning that person.


I’m not the Higher Power, so I don’t believe I have the right to condemn anyone. (Sometimes this is hard to remember, granted.) And I try hard to remember that people can change; that nothing is cast in stone; that no one should believe that one mistake will define you the rest of your life and you’ll never, but never, get out from under it so you may as well stop trying.

That said, I’ve already pointed out that it’s hard to love someone who seems thoroughly unlovable. And that sometimes, the best you can do is leave them alone…and perhaps pray for their–or your–enlightenment, in order to find a way to follow the Eleventh Commandment a little better down the line.

Personally, I believe that if you’re going to follow the Eleventh Commandment, you should also do your best to give people second chances if warranted. (Again, don’t let yourself be treated like a pushover or a martyr. But do, please, believe that if someone’s trying, is doing his/her best to improve himself in various ways such as by going to counseling and seriously trying to figure himself/herself out, it’s not wrong to give someone at least one more try…and if it still doesn’t work, then you can step away and tell yourself, “Hey, I gave it my all, and sometimes it just doesn’t work.”)

So, it’s a work-in-progress, following the Eleventh Commandment. But I think it’s something you need to try to do, because it may make you a wiser, kinder person…and it also may make the holiday season a lot easier, besides. (Hey, one can only hope.)

Written by Barb Caffrey

December 16, 2017 at 8:13 pm

“Youngstown Boys” a Story of Hope, Redemption, and College Athletics

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Folks, over the past few weeks, I’ve been struggling with first something akin to strep throat, then a nasty sinus bug. While I’ve continued to edit and write as much as I can, I haven’t been able to be online much and I certainly haven’t been able to blog. It’s not a fun state to be in, to put it mildly.

What I do when I’m feeling like this is watch a lot of television. But in addition to watching the Milwaukee Brewers play baseball, which I do whether sick or well, I’ve been catching up with ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentaries. And one, in particular, I felt was quite memorable: Youngstown Boys.

Why? Well, this is a documentary of troubled running back Maurice Clarett, once of Ohio State University, and his college coach, Jim Tressel. Both were from Youngstown, Ohio (hence the name); both started at OSU at the same time. And while Tressel stayed involved in Clarett’s life, good things happened for both of them, culminating in a 14-0 season and a double-overtime win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl during the 2002 season.

Then Clarett ran into trouble. He’d gotten some help with getting a car and a cell phone. He admits to this in the film. The NCAA, in their infinite whatever, started an investigation — but before the NCAA could suspend Clarett, OSU suspended him instead . . . for the entire 2003 season.

And Tressel, the guy who had said he’d help Clarett when Tressel had recruited him, stood aside. (Possibly Tressel was in fear of losing his own job, or maybe Tressel just didn’t have the strength of character to intercede right then and there. But Tressel redeemed himself later on . . . more on that later.)

At this point, I was livid. I am a big proponent of players being paid, and think the way the NCAA forces athletes to live is utterly wrong. And the whole idea that a young man like Clarett, whose only goal in life was to play professional football, could get derailed like this was quite frustrating.

But it got worse. Clarett’s lawyers sued the NFL and tried to get him “draft-eligible,” as this was Clarett’s best shot at making a living. Clarett won his first-round court case, too . . . but lost later on.

So what’s a guy to do when he doesn’t have his scholarship, is poor, has tremendous athletic gifts, but has no direction? Clarett tried for a few years to ready himself for the NFL on his own, with indifferent success. And while Clarett was drafted by the Denver Broncos down the line, he never took so much as one snap in a preseason game before being let go by the Broncos.

After that, things just went into a downward spiral for Clarett. He ended up in prison, which could’ve broken him.

Instead, prison actually saved him — saved his life — as he started using his intelligence for good things. He started to read voraciously. He stayed in good contact with his girlfriend, calling her every day, and even started a blog (he’d read what he’d written to her, and she’d post it online). And he vowed to both redeem himself and to reform.

At this point, Tressel ran into trouble himself due to a recruiting scandal at OSU. Maybe because of this — the movie wasn’t clear — Tressel decided to involve himself again in Clarett’s life. And the two of them have become fast friends, working on behalf of improving other people’s lives. Reminding people that so long as you live, you can hope for better, dream of better — and you should do those very things no matter how badly the deck is stacked against you.

Mind, both of these men’s lives have not gone according to plan. Clarett, who had all the talent in the world to become a star running back in professional football, is now a motivational speaker and runs football camps. And Tressel, oddly enough, is now the President of Youngstown State University — a place where he won multiple national football championships at the I-AA level (now called the Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS) — and has retired from coaching college football.

But I venture to say that the detours both men’s lives have taken have made them better and stronger people. Clarett speaks to many, including former and current inmates, and his words have the ring of authority. He’s done some very strong and positive things since getting out of prison, and it’s possible that none of that would’ve happened if he hadn’t gotten into bad trouble — then clawed his way out of it. And Tressel is active in many charities and has stayed in contact with many of his former players, including a number of troubled ones, and his life has been deepened and broadened thereby also.

Youngstown Boys, in short, was a powerful film that affected me deeply.  It showed that no matter how long it takes, goals and dreams matter. Even if you don’t achieve one goal today, you can still achieve it tomorrow; even if you can’t do it tomorrow, you can do it the next day if you refuse to give up, you refuse to give in, and you refuse to take “no” for an answer.

I think many people — not just writers, editors, and musicians — can learn from these men. Because it shows that redemption is truly possible, and that you can, indeed, become a better and stronger person through adversity.


Quick note: I’ll be working on a couple of stories the rest of this week, so blog posts may be scarce. But I hope to finally get a review up of VICTORIES at Shiny Book Review later this week, so do stay tuned for that (computer connectivity problems kept me from it last week).