Finding Meaning: Storytellers – Herman Wouk

By Skip Hellewell

I like books; always have. Invite me into your home and you’ll catch me surveying your library. Among my oddities is an inordinate fondness for storytellers. As a child, my parents subscribed to the “Readers Digest Condensed Books,” which I read avidly. My first year of high school was notable only for my discovery of the library, from which I devoured two or three books as a distraction from that school. My favorites often weren’t the author’s best-known work. Of Jack London, I most enjoyed “Sea Wolf.” Later I was fascinated by James Michener’s “Caravans,” a novel set in the Silk Roads that anciently linked East to West. With the passing of time, my interests turned from fiction to realism, but good storytelling remained a necessary art.

Did you notice the passing of Herman Wouk in his 104th year, over in Palm Springs? I first read his “Caine Mutiny” in one of those Readers Digest anthologies. “Marjorie Morningstar,” the coming of age of a beautiful Jewish girl caught between traditions of faith and her desire to be an actress, made a lasting impression. It was a break-through book for signaling mainstream interest in Jewish culture. No surprise that my bookshelf has well-read copies of Wouk’s WWII epics, “Winds of War,” and “War and Remembrance.”

Hearing of his death, and wanting more Wouk, I ordered his “Sailor and Fiddler, Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author.” The term “sailor” comes from his WWII Navy service on a destroyer—inspiration for “The Caine Mutiny,” which brought his first fame. “Fiddler” comes from “Fiddler on the Roof,” a story of faith and family as tradition confronts change. At the end of his life, Wouk recognized the fiddler Tevye as himself.

I had things to do last Saturday, but the requested book came and I settled down with Wouk. Lovely day. Wouk left a memorable quote about his craft: “…writing is a wonderful life, and no man who can live by it should ask for more.” He recognized the long odds that all artists face, and the role of chance for those who succeed. Wouk credited the support and guidance of his wife, Betty Sarah, for his success. When at dead ends on a book and depressed, her guidance was brisk, “Pull up your socks and start over.” In considering an autobiography, her response was candid, “You’re not that interesting a person.” But she was the force that enabled and guided his writing. Before her, he wrote jokes for radio shows.

Faith and family were central to Wouk’s work, and to his appeal as a storyteller. He reflected on a personal tragedy in words that any parent would understand. I went to the Beautiful Wife, to read for her what Wouk had written of their loss of a firstborn son, Abe: “[That] ‘very lively baby,’ grown to a sagacious little boy almost five, lovable and winsome beyond telling, drowned in [our] swimming pool. I have not written, nor will I, about this catastrophe, from which we never wholly recovered.”

There was a promise of release for Wouk from his life’s mourning. In telling of his wife’s passing, and foreseeing his own, he shared: “Her lifelong task done, she left me at ninety. I will join her in God’s good time, to rest on the other side of our firstborn son, Abe.” Storytelling was Wouk’s gift. His books were various, but his focus was always faith and family. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]


Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Calvary Chapel Seaside, 21540 Wesley Drive (Lang Park Community Center), 10:30 a.m.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 7 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish), 5:30 p.m. There are 8 a.m. masses on other days and Saturday 5:30 p.m. vigils.

St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 8:00 & 10:30 a.m.

Unitarian Universalist, 429 Cypress St., 10:30 a.m.

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