My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

(*WARNING: the following contains spoilers for Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner)

By now you should have read through chapter twelve of The Kite Runner. And please don’t tell me you’ve read when you haven’t. I’ve been doing this a long time and I can tell, especially with this book which contains so many deftly plotted twists it’s like riding a roller coaster. The only way to miss those scenes is if you’re not riding the coaster.

So let’s review. When our first-person narrator Amir begins speaking to us in chapter one, December 2001, he is 38 and living in San Francisco. Earlier that summer, family friend Rahim Khan called from Pakistan, ending with a peculiar invocation that “there is a way to be good again” (2). We know neither what that “way” is, nor what Amir references as his “past of unatoned sins” (1). However, Rahim’s comment suggests he knows Amir’s secret,  and is therefore offering Amir a way to vanquish the guilt he’s carried since childhood. Within this brief exchange lies Amir’s central conflict–The sin he committed at age twelve–and his central goal–The opportunity to atone for it.  Amir’s struggle with both influences events and determines his character arc, which is the process through which characters change in response to events and decisions. 

As readers, we can learn from characters’ struggles much the same way we learn from observing people in the real world. Those lessons are themes: messages or understandings about human experience that transcend literature. It’s why we can find works written centuries ago relevant today. We discussed that idea Week 5. Week 6, we discussed the concept of ghosts: experiences and observations that shape real and fictional people, determining, in part, how and why they react to external stimuli. Amir’s ghost is his fraught relationship with Baba, his father. He longs for Baba’s respect and notice, and will do almost anything to earn it. Don’t remember? Please check your notes before we move on.

No questions? 

Good. 

Because if you missed any of our earlier discussions, you won’t understand Amir’s betrayal of Hassan in chapter seven and why it matters–not only in the book but in the real world you and I occupy. This betrayal is the sin to which Amir alludes in chapter one: In March 1975, twelve-year-old Amir wins the kite tournament by cutting the string of his final competitor. Eleven-year-old Hassan, who earlier defended Amir from a trio of vicious bullies with his slingshot, is his partner and a remarkably skilled kite runner. He promises to retrieve the trophy kite but takes far too long to return, leading Amir to search for him among the streets of their Kabul neighborhood. Assef and his thugs, the trio from years past, have trapped Hassan in an alleyway and demand he hand over the blue kite or pay a price. When he refuses, Assef decides to teach “the Hazara” a lesson, payback for his perceived humiliation at Hassan’s hand. Assef is a pedophile and a sociopath and “not entirely sane” (38), and he rapes Hassan while Wali and Kamal hold him down and Amir watches, paralyzed, before deciding to run away.

Did you get that last bit? 

Amir decides to run away. He recognizes he has a choice: He can defend Hassan as Hassan has always defended him, or he can run.  He chooses to run. Amir is a coward, you see, and Amir really wants the kite. He wants to parade it before his father as evidence of his worth. He longs for Baba’s love and respect. And although Hassan calls Amir friend, he calls “Hassan…the price [he has] to pay, the lamb [he has ] to slay, to win Baba” (77). 

When I read The Kite Runner  for the first time, this is the point at which I really wanted to throw the book. This is the scene that kept me from sleeping. How could Amir do such a thing? Yes, Amir. I was more troubled by Amir than Assef because Amir knows better, Amir knows he should do something to help Hassan, yet Amir does nothing–not even console the traumatized Hassan when the two reunite shortly after the attack. He pretends it never happened, walks home with the kite, and allows Baba’s congratulatory embrace to wipe his conscience and memory clean.

Except it doesn’t. 

Shame and guilt continue to clamor, and in chapter nine  a desperate Amir tells a series of lies that causes Hassan and Ali to leave Baba’s employ forever. However, neither absence nor time nor emigrating to the US keeps the memory of that day buried. Remember the first line of the book? “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day at the age of twelve…. Looking back now, I realize I’ve been peeking into that deserted alley for the past twenty-six years” (1).

Hindsight, Amir reminds us, is twenty-twenty. 

Just ask my 90-year-old mother-in-law. 

March 19, she decided to clean the top of her fridge. 

By standing on a wood chair. 

In nylon socks. 

She lost her balance, fell, hit her head on the kitchen floor, and was hospitalized for a month. Doctors did not expect her to survive, but she did. Now, instead of an independent life in her own home, she lives in what used to be our guest room, six hours away from everything familiar except us.

Every day, she relieves the moments leading up to her fall and curses herself for a fool.

She’s not a fool, but her choice was foolish. Her choice not only changed her life forever, it changed ours. Her memory is spotty, her hearing worse.  She needs help with steps, with bathing, with dressing. She can’t prepare meals, and eats and sleeps on a schedule vastly different from our own. Much of that care falls to me because she is a woman and only feels comfortable with a woman’s care. 

I understand, and I want her to be comfortable. However, my daily to-do list grows impossibly long,  solitude increasingly scarce. I am cranky and tired and nearly out of patience, but my husband–who I’ve said sometimes knows me better than I know myself–sees me struggle and boots me from the house with instructions to take a long, meandering walk. So I do, and when I return my equilibrium has been restored.

So what’s the point of my story, you ask? What does my life have to do with Amir’s?

And what does any of this have to do with your lives right here, right now?

This: 

No choice exists in a vacuum. 

Often, when we choose for ourselves, we choose for others. Sometimes with disastrous, irrevocable consequences. None of us chose to incite a pandemic, to lose our jobs, to be trapped in our homes, stripped of milestones and the comforts of physical community.  Yet here we all are–same storm, different boats–because someone somewhere set these events in motion. Just imagine our right-now world had that “someone” chose differently. 

Would our world be better? Or worse? What about our individual lives?

We don’t know. We can’t know. 

And therein lies a significant part of the novel’s theme: Making decisions based on the perspective that our choices have no impact on others is not merely selfish but dangerous. When Amir chooses Baba over Hassan, cowardice over action, he sets into motion a series of events with profound implications for characters we’ve met and characters we have yet to meet–including those yet to be born. When my husband and I chose to move his mother into our home, we changed our son and daughter’s lives. I know what I want to teach them through this experience, but I wonder, What exactly will they learn?  

I don’t know. I can’t know.

But I can try to choose wisely.

I think Baba would agree. Shortly after twenty-year-old Amir meets the woman who will become his wife, he recalls snippets of gossip circulating like a virus and asks Baba what he knows of her. Baba explains she had a prior relationship after which no suitors would call, adding, “It may be unfair, but what happens in a few days, sometimes even a single day, can change the course of a whole lifetime” (142). Here Baba refers to negative choices. However, the same can be said for positive choices, even seemingly random ones, yes? 

Yes.

Eventually Amir’s story will end. So too will our quarantine and its merciless barrage of bad news. But every day, one choice at a time, you and I write its story. You and I create the world our children’s children will inherit.

What do you want that world to look like when this one passes?

Think about that as you continue reading. Next week, chapters 13-17. And you might want to buckle up–the ride’s about to get even more intense.

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