Overcoming ‘Defiance’

Iola Reads has announced its Young Adult Selection for 2020 is "Defiance" by Valerie Hobbs. It tells the story of an unlikely friendship developed between a boy with cancer, an elderly ex-poet and a tired old cow.

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October 23, 2020 - 3:59 PM

Yellow tubs with copies of the fall Iola Reads novel are located in various businesses around Iola. Photo by Tim Stauffer / Iola Register

Iola Reads, a collaboration between Iola Public Library, USD 257 and the Bowlus Fine Arts Center, has announced its Young Adult Selection 2020, “Defiance” by Valerie Hobbs.

In the 14 years of the program, this is its first without events, book groups, or a visit from the author. The Covid-19 pandemic put an obvious hitch in those plans. Nonetheless, Iola Reads chairman Deb Greenwall, notes, “We hope this is a way to bring our community together through a book and for a cause even when we cannot physically gather together.”

A sign on the Bowlus Fine Arts Center’s lawn promotes cancer awareness Photo by PHOTO COURTESY OF DEB GREENWALL

Iola Reads is steered by a 15-member committee and funded by the Sleeper Family Trust and Helen Gates Whitehead Trust. They’ve distributed over 600 copies of “Defiance” to the public library, school libraries and various businesses around Iola in their signature yellow tubs. Community members are encouraged to take a copy and pass it on to someone else when finished. Otherwise, if you’d like to keep one for yourself, a $2 donation to Iola Reads is appreciated. 

“Defiance” centers on 11-year-old Toby Steiner. He and his mother have escaped the city for the summer, holed up in the country in a pine cabin. Everything Toby does — riding a bike, gardening, astronomy — is an attempt to forget his recent painful cancer treatment. To his great irritation, all his mother can seem to do is remind him of it.

On an early morning bike ride, Toby discovers an aged and fatigued cow. Angered by the cow’s precarious condition, he approaches the farmhouse only to be scared off the porch by a shotgun blast. 

So begins Toby’s friendship with Pearl, a 94-year-old ex-poet, if there is such a thing. Feeble and suffering from macular degeneration, Pearl and Toby strike up a deal: Toby helps her around the house, and Pearl provides the judgement-free company Toby craves.

It works for a while, the two of them shut off from the world’s hurry. But both harbor secrets, and their escape can only last so long. Pearl ignores the calls of her concerned daughters, and Toby has discovered his cancer has returned but refuses to tell his parents.

Large posters placed at local schools and Iola Public Library, above, prompt readers to dedicate the book “Defiance” to someone in their lives battling cancer. Photo by Tim Stauffer / Iola Register

What happens next is a poignant, thoughtful exploration of what it means to be alive. Pearl’s ghosts are in her past: a husband’s tragic death, a career cut short. Toby’s demons lie in the road ahead; his greatest fear is a return to the children’s hospital for a second round of cancer treatment. Both of them learn to conquer their demons with grace and poise, to the reader’s delight, thanks to the help of the very same cow, named Blossom, that brought Toby to Pearl in the first place.

At first, both Pearl and Toby understand freedom as the absence of obligations, the cutting of ties from the people and things that tether us to this world. The fewer things you are responsible for, the freer you are, it seems to be.

But as the novel develops, and as Toby in particular discovers how deeply he is loved, freedom changes. It becomes something deeper. Freedom, we see, is only really found in love. When we love truly, when we love the whole person in front of us, warts and all, and when others see and love us for who we are, then we truly are free. Love gifts us a chance to overcome life’s pains, not flee from them. It is a precious gift indeed. 

“DEFIANCE” is a wonderful book. A quick read, it pulls no punches and moves quickly, deferring to its place in the young adult genre, but it’s a novel with something to offer readers of all ages.

It’s also timely. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Iola Reads hopes “Defiance” will help raise attention about all types of cancer. The group has wrapped lamp posts around Iola’s square in lavender ribbons in recognition of all cancers. They are also encouraging everyone to wear lavender on Oct. 29 for a “Wear Lavender for Cancer Awareness” Day. 

Yet the book seems appropriate to read now for another reason. As Iola Reads Chairman Deb Greenwall said, the battles Toby and Pearl face are likely to resonate with many of us rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ribbons around Iola’s square encourage community members to wear lavender on Oct. 29 for a “Wear Lavender for Cancer Awareness Day.” Photo by PHOTO COURTESY OF DEB GREENWALL / Iola Register

“There are kids — and adults, too — who are dealing with a lot of hard stuff right now. We felt it was right to select a book where the main character is struggling. Kids can relate to that,” said Greenwall. “We felt it was a powerful book to suggest how to deal with those things and that there’s still hope. We can find joy in hard things.”

That “Defiance” mirror the struggles of our present moment seems almost an accident of fate, as the Iola Reads committee selected the novel as their fall 2020 book well before the pandemic arrived. Originally, Greenwall said, “We selected the book because we wanted people to have more of an awareness of cancer and disabilities. As it comes about, it’s really struck with what we’re dealing with now: how to deal with hard things.” 

INDEED, life is tough for a lot of people right now. Whether it’s cancer, the pandemic or the division wrought by a particularly nasty election season, “Defiance” is a welcome reminder of the power of love and friendship.

That seems to be what’s motivating Greenwall right now. “We can’t be together physically right now. We can’t hug each other and associate, and that’s been a really hard thing to deal with,” said Greenwall. “But if we can come together with a purpose and find a way to do something that binds us together and makes us feel part of a community,” then Iola Reads will have accomplished its goal with “Defiance.” 

AND AS IF managing a community book project amidst a pandemic weren’t enough, Iola Reads is trying something else new this year. Because the protagonist battles cancer, the committee is inviting everyone to read the book and then dedicate it to someone fighting cancer in their life. Large posters with “I read this book for…” are at the library and Iola schools so people can write the name of a special someone fighting cancer. You can also take a selfie with that name written on a piece of paper and post it on the Iola Reads Facebook page.

When stopping by the library earlier this week to see their poster, I wrote a name on the poster, adding one more to the dozen or so already there. Pam Holland, a long-time employee of the Register, began her battle with cancer last year. I’ve often been a little wary, embarrassed even, to ask her about the details of her treatments. But I know she’s been an inspiration of mine — and to many of us here at the paper — with her strength, humor and grace in dealing with her pain. I read “Defiance” for Pam. 

Iola Reads is on a mission: to use literature to remind us of how others have changed our lives, how we are bound to others and how we can come together. Join it! 

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