The Power of Goodness: Art and Stories for a Culture of Peace
Reviewed by Dave Austin
Edited by Nadine Hoover, forewords by Pete Seeger and Musa Akhmadov. Conscience Studio, 2016. 120 pages, $20/paperback. Recommended for all ages.
The Power of Goodness is a remarkable anthology of stories collected in the mid-1990s in Chechnya and Russia during the Russian invasion of that country, interspersed with stories from the United States and Europe from the period during and after World War II. The stories are illustrated with beautiful and moving artwork by young people from around the world.
The history behind this collection is in itself a labor of love and a demonstration of the power of the human spirit in the face of war and despair. The book is the result of the work of American and Russian Quakers (and others), based on teacher Janet Riley’s use of the Quaker anthology Lighting Candles in the Dark with her English conversation students in Russia. Her students’ responses to the stories in that collection were supplemented by stories by Chechen students, and the project took off from there. The original version of this text, in Chechen and Russian, has been used in hundreds of classrooms across that region for years. Do not skip editor Nadine Hoover’s preface to the book for the details.
Some of these stories are only a page in length, others run to seven or eight pages; all are short and lyrical, like poems. And as with poetry, the economy of language in each story adds to its emotional power. There are stories of compassion and empathy, reconciliation and redemption, understanding and cooperation. There are stories by the well-known, such as Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and American Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin, and others by the everyday survivors and witnesses of war who chose to tell their stories for this anthology.
Yevtushenko’s contribution is very short—less than a full page in length—and it appears early in the book. It serves as a perfect example of what this collection is all about. “Mercy: A Poet’s Memory” recalls the time in 1944 when the young Yevtushenko returned to Moscow with his mother and witnessed a parade of thousands of German POW’s being marched through the streets. The Russian people were now face to face with their enemies, the soldiers who had invaded and devastated their country. Hate should have filled their hearts, but when they saw the filthy, bloodied, injured men, they saw not enemies but human beings. Some in the crowd even offered the prisoners some of what little food they had.
Because “they were people.”
The artwork that illustrates these stories—some simple crayon drawings by very young children, some complex digital pieces by young adults—is what make this book so memorable. The stories are personal and emotional, but it’s the artwork that really enhances and provides the book with its power. It’s fascinating to see how these young people interpreted what they read through their art, and the variety of styles and interpretations is striking.
Marketed primarily as a book for young people, The Power of Goodness is a book for everyone. It would be especially useful as the basis of a First-day school program for meetings, and Friends who are educators will find it to be an invaluable classroom resource (I was inventing lesson plans based on it in my head as I read it).
As I write this review, the photo of a five-year-old boy from Aleppo, Syria, who was pulled from his bombed-out apartment building seconds before the picture was taken, has gone viral around the world. Every day we are faced with the question of how, if at all, we can somehow cure our world of the disease of violence. How can we create a “culture of peace”? Is such a culture even possible, given all the centuries of violence and killing that have come before? As Friends, we must believe that such a world is possible. Hope itself is the beginning of change. There is hope within these stories and pictures. The conversations that should come from them are good places to start.