by Sarah Albrecht
Occasionally I like being startled. Not the jumping-out-from-behind-the-door heart attack kind, but the anomaly kind of startled, the “it’s not what I expected” startled. My kids are on spring break so we went to the zoo yesterday and I got startled several times.
There was the gibbon that clambered down the fence and stuck her hand out at us, calmly waiting for a slice of the cutie clementines we were snacking on. The gibbon’s hand was long and slender, held horizontally and cupping in towards the fence. There was the fact that zebras are endangered. After seeing running herds of zebras on nature shows, I was sure zebras could never be endangered. There was the plethora of three-inch Madagascar cockroaches hiding beneath a strip of bark that seemed too small to conceal so many bugs, and there were the hot pink ibises roosting in the trees. I never thought large pink birds would roost; I always thought they spent their lives standing in shallow pools on one leg.
Once in awhile I’m startled by literature, too, although I think it’s harder to do when you lose the visual element. However it can be delightful when it happens. I’m not sure Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax mystery series qualifies as literature, but I do enjoy the elements of startlement (new word?) Gilman comes up with, like Mrs. Pollifax’s pith helmet; its slender red feather goes awry and helps a desperate colleague find her in a crowd. Eoin Colfer startled me by making me like his twelve-year-old protagonist Artemis Fowl, even though he’s an evil genius. Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody continues to startle me even after re-reading the books several times. I think it’s the quirky characters that do it, like sprinkling a little pepper into the stew to zip it up.
In writing too much startling, like too much pepper, wouldn’t be palatable, but just the right amount—perfect.