I just started to read a book called Cowboys and Indians by Gordon Sinclair Jr. It is the story of the killing of J. J. Harper in Winnipeg back in 1988. J. J. Harper was an aboriginal leader. He died after a policeman shot him. The case was national news and resulted in a special inquiry.
I’ve thought I should read this book for some time, but put it off for years. I went to school with Rob Cross, the policeman who shot J. J. Harper. I didn’t know him well. I can only remember talking to him once.
It is a new and strange experience to come across people I know when I read a book. That never happened to me before. Cross’ wife was in my class in junior high school. The author interviewed another person I knew. It also turned out that J. J. Harper went to the same high school I did. Although, he had graduated by the time I started there. I find this story very disturbing.
One of the reasons I read books like this is to get a better understanding of people, so I can use it in my own writing. When you know the people involved, it is much easier to empathise with their feelings. It makes me very uncomfortable when I read this book. I worry that I might trivialize people’s emotions.
That empathy for the real people makes a true story so much more compelling than any work of fiction can. Many years ago, I, like millions of others, sat for hours and watched O. J. Simpson drive along a freeway. I would never do that for a fictional character.
How can fiction compete with reality? I believe that the real story can be too painful for many people to contemplate. In my own work, it is easier for me to write a fictional version of a story than to relate the true story. I suspect that it is in this ability to create a distance from the full intensity of emotion where fiction has its value.
Most of us as children played games like “cops and robbers” and “cowboys and Indians”. These games allowed us to experience the idea of conflict with out the danger of conflict. Fiction allows us the same opportunity with a wider variety of experiences. We can watch a detective show and get an understanding of what it is like, but then within minutes, we can move on to other things. If we were involved with a similar event in the real world, it might take us years or decades to recover.