Shana Galen
Shana Galen


Historical Romance, Love, recommended reads, Shana Galen

I knew I would cry when I saw the film version of Les Miserables. I wept at the play when I saw it in London. I cry half the time I listen to the soundtrack.

Les mis

What I didn’t expect was to be moved beyond the sad stories of Fantine and Eponine and Jean Valjean. I didn’t expect for Victor Hugo’s theme to hit home.

Sometimes I think classic literature is wasted on the young. I’m a former high school English teacher, so I have led many young students through the perils of Shakespeare, Dickens, and their kin. I read the same books when I was in school, and what I found was that I appreciated and understood them so much better when I read them as an adult.

This is the way it was for Les Miserables as well. I read it in high school or as an undergrad in college, and I didn’t get it. I mean, I got it enough to write an essay about it. I got an A too, but I might owe that more to my writing ability than my insights. To me, the book was about a guy imprisoned for no good reason and the cop who seems to have nothing better to do than harass him.

But after I saw the movie a few weeks ago, I re-read the book, and I saw Hugo’s novel differently. It wasn’t a story about a convict. It was a story about revolution. Not the student revolution because those guys have it all wrong. The revolution was one of kindness and love. What really made a difference in the life of Jean Valjean, and subsequently Cosette and Marius and even Eponine, was the kindness shown to Valjean by that bishop. One man’s magnanimous gesture inspired another man to do the same for others.


I wish I had understood that as a young adult. I understand it now, and I often write about the poor and miserable (as much as one really can in a romance novel). In my forthcoming If You Give a Rake a Ruby, the heroine is from the slums of London and she would have had a life very much like the poor wretched souls on the streets of Hugo’s Paris.

Were there any novels you read as a young adult that you re-read later and experienced differently? Do you think forcing high school kids to read the classics turns them off to reading in general?


22 thoughts on “Let’s Start a Revolution

  1. Kathryn in Montreal says:

    I did read some classics that I enjoyed in high school, but for the most part it was a tough slog and I know I didn’t get everything I could have out of the read and the story. I am starting to re-read classics, and you’re right Shana, they are different, richer stories now.

    I don’t know that forcing kids to read classics turns them off reading, but perhaps I’m not the best person to comment as I have been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember and while there were books that I had to push through, they didn’t take away the pure enjoyment I get from reading. And you never know what book is going to resonate with any one person.

    1. Shana Shana says:

      Kathyrn, I think you make a great point. Every time I taught A TALE OF TWO CITIES, I had kids who just fell in love with it. Sometimes they will email me now (10 years later) and tell me they still remember reading it in my class.

  2. Mia Marlowe says:

    Les Mis is one of my all time favorites, in any format–book, play or movie. As far as themes go, I think the main thrust is the tension between grace and law. Jean Valjean discovers a life filled with love because he accepts forgiveness when the old priest “buys his soul for God” with the stolen silver. Javert strives for redemption but can never achieve it on his own merits. The man who was “born inside a jail” never knows freedom because he can’t accept or give forgiveness. And what a clear choice the librettist gives us for our own lives–“It is either Valjean or Javert.”

    1. Shana Shana says:

      Great analysis, Mia. It’s the same conflict in the Bible. Jesus is grace and the pharisees are law. They kept criticizing him for not following the law, and he kept saying grace was all they needed. You and I would have fun in a literature class.

  3. Kathleen OD says:

    I would have to say that some of the classics I read as young girl and re-read a few times in my later years is Little Woman and Anne of Green Gables..

    1. Shana Shana says:

      Anne of Green Gables is actually not as easy as I thought it was, Kathleen. I did not get it at all when I read it as a kid. I enjoyed it much more in my 20s.

  4. JenfromTexas says:

    I’ve never seen Les Miserables – that’s on my to-do list. And I think high school literature is hit or miss for a lot of people, but that some of it will stick. We read “Alas, Babylon” when in high school, and many of us still remember it. And you’re right about deeper writers, such as Shakespeare, because our understanding of the material deepens with our life experiences.

    1. Shana Shana says:

      That’s a good book, Jen. You should definitely see Les Mis. I think you’d enjoy it.

  5. julie says:

    it does, my daughter did several in college, and some turned her off for life. she said you either appreciate the writing, or so bored you want to say get a life

    1. Shana Shana says:

      That makes me sad, Julie. I definitely think everyone needs some exposure to the literature to be considered culturally educated, but maybe there should also be English classes featuring more “fun” literature. I took one of these and got to read Gone with the Wind and The Thorn Birds.

  6. catslady says:

    Oh, I’ve been saying the same thing about how kids learn things before they can understand them. Literature and history and even geography. How can you learn history when you haven’t really had any yet or geography when you haven’t left your hometown? And literature is everything rolled into one. I reread A Tale of Two Cities 3 times and I’m not usually a rereader. I read it first in 6th grade because it was in my schoolroom library, then in English class later but it wasn’t until later in life that it made sense to me. Isn’t it a shame that the time of your life that your brain is probably working it’s best is so young in life lol.

    1. Shana Shana says:

      So true, catslady! I think about this sometimes when my daughter asks me a question. She’ll say, “Where is DisneyWorld?” I say, “Florida.” “What is Florida?” And here we go. She doesn’t know what a state is or a country or where she lives in relation to the rest of the people in the country or the world. It’s sort of like that when you teach Shakespeare or Dickens to kids. You’re telling them about Florida when they don’t even know what street they live on.

  7. RobynDeHart RobynDeHart says:

    Yes, so very true. Les Mis is a beautiful story that still resonates today. For me it’s all about that one line (musical version) at the end… “To love another person is to see the face of God.” There’s so much in that one line, it’s perfect.

    1. Shana Shana says:

      Robyn, I had to sit in the theater and cry another 5 minutes after that last line. So beautiful.

  8. Quilt Lady says:

    Gone With the Wind I have re-read several times. I first read it in my early teens. I have the book of my keeper shelf right now.

    1. Shana Shana says:

      I’ve read it 3 or 4 times too, Quiltlady. The last time I read it was in grad school for a contemporary literature class. It was great every time.

  9. donna ann says:

    I started reading romances as a teenager back in the 80’s — the old bodice-rippers — & often reread them thru college & after when money & time where tight. I haven’t read any of them (though there is still a handful on my “keeper shelf”) in several years, but when I did, there tends to be a sense of nostalgia

    1. Shana Shana says:

      Donna Ann, I feel that way about my keeper romances too. Julie Garwood always makes me fee nostalgic.

  10. bn100 says:

    pride and prejudice
    don’t think it turns kids off; they probably want to find something else they want to read instead

    1. Shana Shana says:

      We certainly hope they read something else, bn100. I think they might just pick up a video game controller or TV remote.

  11. Ann s. says:

    I have always been a reader, but being “forced” to read the classics really expanded my interests as far as book choices. I can’t imagine not having read Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockinbird, Pride and Prejudice, just to name a few greats. I would never have picked these up if it weren’t for a few teachers.

    1. Shana Shana says:

      Ann, that’s why we keep teaching them. It’s a dilemma, but I agree that people need to be exposed.

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