Once while at university, I got an essay back from a professor that I was particularly pleased with.  So pleased, that I can’t even remember what the thing was about.  But I do remember that the grade was not what I had anticipated, and I particularly remember the professors brief comment: “Your perfume is somewhat uneven.”

Of course, I was enraged.  Not only did this professor not recognize my obvious brilliance, but then he dared to comment on my perfume.  Which, by the way, was the classic, and not the least offensive scent of Exclamation.  As if my perfume were any of his business.  “Maybe,” I thought, “if he weren’t so busy complaining about perfume, he might have taken the time to read what I wrote.”

After I had stomped back to my apartment and described this gross injustice, my roommate said, “Huh, that’s weird.  Can I see the comment.”  And after a couple of minutes she discerned, quite properly ,that what my prof, quite correctly, had said was, “Your performance is a little uneven.” Oh.  For me, that was a great lesson in interpretation. Jumping the gun because you don’t like what is said (and I didn’t like that grade) might lead you to misjudge both the truth and yourself.

In David Adams Richards’s novel, Principles to Live By (2016), John Delano, a police officer, once so celebrated that he was made a special envoy to the United Nations, but now regarded as a conservative reactionary, is sent an anonymous letter asking him to investigate the disappearance of a young boy from a foster home many years previous. unknownTracking down leads from what is such a “cold case” that it was never officially reported, while fighting against the invested interests that will serve to lose if Delano discovers what has happened to the boy, takes Delano from St. John, New Brunswick, all the way to Rwanda where he once travelled while with the U.N. Traversing space and time, Delano eventually discovers that the young boy who disappeared is Jack Forrest, the child of a Canadian family that he had tried to save during the Rwandan genocide.

 Part of the difficulty that Delano faces in attempting to persuade others of the viability of his leads and of the case itself is that much of his evidence—a marble, a piece of chalk, a button—depends on his speculations derived from reading between the lines of what has been said, and thinking about particular details in light of a much broader picture, a picture that is informed by an account of human nature and that of the divine that is generally rejected by everyone he needs to convince. Nonetheless, Delano, who believes that finding this boy is his duty, perseveres, trusting that even the smallest pieces of evidence are participant in a larger truth, and having faith that even if he cannot “prove” what he knows, that eventually this truth will become manifest.

In the character of Delano, Richards provides his readers with an example of how they must proceed when reading his books. Understanding any great piece of literature requires the kind of skills of a detective like Delano.  Like a detective, a reader who seeks to discern meaning in a work of literature has to piece together not merely what characters did or intended, but also allow for the possibility that behind the particular plot lines there is a philosophic account guiding or governing the whole. Like Delano, there is no way to ever definitely “prove” one’s case, as a good work of literature is open to multiple layers of interpretation. One can merely speculate on the basis of the evidence presented, revisit and revisit the text from a wide vantage point, hope to not have missed anything essential, and proceed in a reciprocated spirit of good will, trusting that the author crafted his work with an intent to reveal something of vital import to those who open its pages.

Part of the reason that Jack Forrest goes missing for so many years is that no one believes that his story is true. Instead, traumatized from his time in Rwanda, when Jack shows up in New Brunswick with no memory of even his last name and only vague memories of Africa, no one believes him when he says he arrived on a plane and that someone was supposed to meet him at the airport. Instead, “the only notable fact about him,” they decide, “is he is great at making up stories.”[1] The implication being, of course, that works of fiction—stories—are by and large disconnected from any essential truth. Having received an anonymous letter with a story about a disappeared youth, Delano, alternatively, takes it seriously. While perhaps an incomplete picture or one that is shaded by the perspective of the man who wrote it, Delano believes that the story might speak to some true event, and, wider, that whatever happened the day Jack Forrest disappeared, might be revelatory of wider concerns, even shedding light on what principles one might live by.

[1] David Adams Richards, Principles to Live By (Toronto: Double Day Canada, 2016), 2.