Comfort Novelist Since Twelve Years Old

February 02, 2020

We asked nine-time Universe attendee Sandy Bieler Rao of Camarillo, CA to tell us more about what draws her to Santa Cruz each summer. This Q&A is part of our new series highlighting members of the Dickens Project and Dickens Universe community.


What is your professional and/or personal background?

I am retired from being an involved, stay-at-home mom.  Which means, I was president of every PTA, elementary school to high school, on a hundred different school committees, served on dozens of special counsels,etc.  Also worked as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for foster youth.


How long have you been attending the Dickens Universe? 

This will be my 9th (not fully consecutive) year.


How did you discover Dickens Universe? 

I had a daughter who attended UCSC as well as my best and oldest friend who heard of it and told me about it.


What qualities of the Dickens Universe make you keep coming back?

The people and the immersion into the novels.  A unique experience for someone not in the academic world; to listen, to discuss, to consider, to dive deep into a book.  Ah, heaven.


*What was your first impression of the Dickens Universe?

My first impression: I found my peeps!


*Explain your connection and interest in Charles Dickens: 

Dickens has been my comfort novelist since I was 12 years old. I always find new things each time I read him, and am constantly amazed by Dickens’s abilityjust like Shakespeare’s to hold opposing ideas in his head and give them equal consideration. And, unlike in the real world, in Dickens’s world, poetic justice definitely reigns supreme: the good are rewarded, the bad are punished, and the world is righted by individual acts of merit.  Ah, if it were only so.


Do you have a favorite Dickens novel? 

I have always adored Bleak House.  However, after studying and re-reading Dombey and Son, that has become my new favorite since I believe it can definitely be hailed as the first feminist novel!


What are some other hobbies or activities you enjoy? 

I am part of a local SoCal political group called The ReSisters who are attempting to help enact common sense gun laws.  And to assist in defeating (crushing, annihilating, destroying and otherwise making it so that we never ever have to concern ourselves with him again) the current sorry excuse for a president.  I am also still involved in foster youth work.


*What are some of your favorite aspects of the Dickens Universe?

The fact that I do this every summer with at least my best friend and usually one or two or my adult daughters makes it an incredibly special summer tradition.  It’s a week set apart for just talking about a great book and being together with my favorite people. And then of course the professors, grad students, the other attendees, many of whom have become friends; the teas, the parties, the movies, the perfect idyllic setting, all add up to a dream week that I look forward to with great delight every year.  It feels like the best of college life with none of the stress or production requirements, and so allows me to re-experience a wonderful time of life where intellectual ideas and conversation are the meat and vegetables of every day. What a gift!  


*Would you like to share anything else about your experience with the Universe or otherwise?

I have supported and done some work with Jacqueline Barrios and the Foshay kids.  This has been truly inspiring for me. Besides being a spectacular teacher and having amazing students who remind me that our future is in the hands of caring, open, smart young folks, being a part of the reading marathons, the reading buddies, and the support for these students is a wonderful experience.  I was out of town much of this year and didn’t do any of the reading buddy work, but have found that Jacqueline’s students have consistently helped meprobably much more than I helped themto discover new modern meanings in the classic books we read together.  This is one of the really special parts of the Dickens Universe and I love the partnership!