Songs from the Silent Passage is a new collection of essays by various members of the Chrysostom Society (Eugene Peterson, Matthew Dickerson, Luci Shaw, and more) which explores the breadth and depth of Walt Wangerin Jr, a writer who has wandered through a passage and returned with news of a far country. In celebration of the book’s release, Matthew Dickerson sat down with Sara R. Danger to talk about Wangerin and his influence.
Sara R. Danger is Associate Professor of English at Valparaiso University in Indiana and one of the contributors to Songs from the Silent Passage. She has published articles on Victorian visual culture, writing by women, and literature for children. Her work has been greatly informed by her friendship with Walt and Thanne Wangerin and the many stories Walt has shared with her and her students over the years. She lives with her husband, Paul (longtime administrative assistant to Walt), and their two daughters, Ingrid and Greta. Sara is currently at work on In Their Own Words: Child Authors and the Nineteenth-Century Press, a book project which examines published works by child authors, including gift books, poetry, newspapers, and fantasies, produced between 1830 and 1880.
Matthew: Teaching at Valparaiso University, you’ve had the wonderful privilege of interacting with Walter Wangerin, Jr. at a personal level. Tell me about when you first met him.
Sara: I had a chance to hear Walt give a homily at the Chapel of the Resurrection, during the interview weekend for the Lilly Postdoctoral Fellowship, the program which brought me to Valpo. A few months later (and two days after moving to Valpo), I stood in the hot July sun watching my daughter, Maia, on the playground at Christ Lutheran Church, when I heard a familiar voice. I turned to see Walt, calling out to his grandchildren, who were running ahead of him toward the park. A bit later, we made introductions, and he proudly introduced me to his grandchildren, describing their personalities and interests as only a storyteller who loves language could. With this same storyteller’s eye and curiosity, he described the students and community of the university, while inviting me to share the story of what brought our family to Valparaiso. I remember marveling at how he spoke with the similar care and reverence toward his grandchildren (and me, a stranger) as he had shown toward an audience of hundreds just a few months earlier.
Matthew: Did your impression of him change over the years as you got to know him better?
Sara: Yes and no. From our first meeting until now, I have been impressed by the integrated, holistic identity which defines Walt’s writing and his life. Whether addressing theological issues or family life in his published works or speaking to university presidents or first-year college students, Walt stays true to who he is—teacher, husband, pastor, father, and child of God. Getting to know Walt—as well as important people in his life, including his wife, Thanne, his good friends, Fred Niedner and the late Eugene and Jan Peterson, his wonderful children, and his siblings—has revealed the radiant faith, friendships, and family that profoundly shape the writer and his work.
Over these past sixteen years, I have been surprised and delighted by Walt’s and Thanne’s radical generosity. For example, while I was in my first year as assistant professor, as he and Thanne were leaving a Bible study, he turned to me and announced, “By the way, I just turned in a glowing letter in support of your tenure.” Not only was this letter six years ahead of schedule, it was written without anyone’s bidding. This is just one example of the generosity Walt and Thanne shower over the communities of which they are a part. Over the years, I have also come to appreciate that his seriousness is balanced by wit and compassion; when he visits my classes, for instance, he arrives ten minutes early, looking around the classroom, with a probing, serious gaze. After a few minutes, he begins to speak, asking individuals their names, followed by seemingly random questions, such as: “Did you know that your hair is blue? You must really love that color, do you?” or “What is it that your shirt says? Could you explain that to me?” Within a few minutes, students have become far more relaxed and open as they take turns answering the writer’s observant, witty questions. His speaking style, which initially surprised me, now seems entirely consistent with the blissful reverie and reverence that infuses his writing.
Matthew: I think he has been a guest at some of your college classrooms. What did he tell your students? How did they respond to him?
Children are neither malleable innocents nor passive consumers, Walt argues; rather, they are meaning-makers, interpreters, and co-creators of stories. Sara R. Danger
Sara: Walt has been visiting my classes for over sixteen years, and in all that time, he has never lectured. Instead, he “shows” his audiences the power of stories through oral storytelling. His message—that stories have power to shape our lives—is one that we viscerally experience in and through his marvelous stories. As one student observed about his visit, “I could have listened to him all day.” Others are amazed to observe him (seemingly) effortlessly weaving together words and details into moving stories on the fly. As another student put it, “that was more meaningful than a movie. I have never had someone tell me a story that made me lose my sense of time before.” On several occasions, Walt has mentioned that he knows a story is working when the members of the audience stop fidgeting and become rapt in, what he calls, the “story experience.”
Matthew: What is your sale’s pitch on an elevator if you bumped into somebody who hadn’t read any of Wangerin’s works? What would you say to get them to pick up a piece of his writing? And what would you recommend?
Sara: I recommend Swallowing the Golden Stone, a collection of short stories and essays, which explore how stories indelibly shape human identity and community. The essays offer fascinating insights on adults’ ethical and aesthetic obligations to children while also detailing how children (including Walt’s younger self and his own children) experience story worlds. As such, he offers a vital corrective to much writing about children in which adults speak about and for children, with little or no regard for children’s agency and insights. Instead, Walt presents children as part of the continuum of human experience; he insists, throughout this collection, that stories exist as “living experiences” shaped as much by children’s imaginations as by the writer’s words. Children are neither malleable innocents nor passive consumers, Walt argues; rather, they are meaning-makers, interpreters, and co-creators of stories.