Beka Blog: Intermittent Literary Wanderlust

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Lad, A Dog

Lad Cover

When I was a child I read all of the dog and horse books in my school library. So did my friend, Kate Doyle. When I recently opened the copy of Lad, A Dog, from my bookshelf, I found Kate's name pasted inside the book. I realized that I must have borrowed this book from her sometime so far back that it must count as stealing at this point. Sorry, Kate. Luckily, we are still friends, and she is one of the few that, like me, read as many of Albert Payson Terhune's books as she could get hold of--we are talking circa fourth and fifth grade. Terhune published these books in the early half of the twentieth century, and we went to a school that had very old books on the shelves. Terhune lived on a farm in New Jersey back when it was still thought of as deep countryside, and he wrote beautifully about collie dogs. The lead character was Lad, and in the series came Lad's son, Wolf, and his wife, Lady--they were family to those who read these books. The dramas of the farm, and the collies, who were so intelligent and loyal and psychologically complex, were Jack London in New Jersey---but though any dog book fan has read White Fang, and The Call of the Wild, these books were domestic dramas rather than adventure stories. In some ways they succeeded because you could just barely imagine, from an apartment in New York City, that these dogs would have the same issues with you, if you were lucky enough to live in the county and raise collies. The books were old fashioned, and though I have never owned a collie dog, I notice the narrower skulls that have been bred for fashion since Terhune’s time, and when I lived for a short time in the country, I got a Border Collie pup who had a broad, intelligent forehead, like Lad's, and I thought of Terhune. The dogs were the stars of the show, and the "master" and "mistress" of the dogs were wallpaper compared to the main characters. I guess that is why we loved them. Honestly, we didn't care much about the humans in these books, and Kate had a collection of china dogs that we would play with for hours when we were children, pretending to rescue sheep, or fight off intruders, and somehow, one of these dogs would always come out a hero. It is important, it seems to me, to remember the hours spent playing with these little dogs. They were certainly more than toys to us. It was an ongoing story we returned to every day, inspired by Terhune, and the characters of the dogs he wrote about kept us playing hour after hour. We were trying out how we ourselves might behave if we had to rescue a flock of sheep on a hillside, or defend our family on "The Place." Would we be "noble"? Would we give in to our own fear? Lad showed us the way. There were many different endings to our games, and  for my part, though I tried my best to be be worthy of Lad, in the end, I was Wolf.

Lad, front piece

The Yellow Fairy Book

Yellow Fairy

When I was a child we had copies of the old Andrew Lang Fairy Tales in the house, along with the usual Brothers Grimm. Lang published twelve popular collections in the late nineteenth century, each of a different color. My sister and I had The Blue Fairy Book and The Yellow Fairy Book. They are a good size for reading aloud to children, hard covers about the size of an adult palm, with illustrations. The Yellow Fairy Book has an imprinted gold cover, with a barefoot fairy reaching up toward the sun, rays shimmering out. There is a bird flying up out of clouds and an incongruous rooster perched on a narrow tower in the lower right hand corner. The illustrated cover is embossed, a child can trace the lines with her finger, and touching it now, I can pretend to remember doing exactly this. The smell of the book is from a century ago, paper delicate as wings, formal black endpapers framing the stories and illustrations. In this collection is what Lang calls an Iroquois tale, "The Dead Wife," about a couple who live happily together, deep in the woods, far from the rest of the tribe.

"One day, when he was away hunting, the woman fell ill, and in a few days she died. Her husband grieved bitterly, and buried her in the house where she had passed her life; but as the time went on he felt so lonely without her that he made a wooden doll about her height and size for company, and dressed it in her clothes. He seated it in front of the fire, and tried to think he had his wife back again."

One year later the doll comes to life, lights a fire and cooks for the man, but she tells him that he may not touch her until they have seen the rest of the tribe. Two more years pass, and he asks her to come back with him to their original home, so that they can finally be rejoined as man and wife. They begin the six-day journey, but when they are one day away, a snowstorm comes and they stop to rest, make a fire and sleep their way through the snow.

"Then the heart of the man was greatly stirred, and he stretched out his arms to his wife, but she waved her hand and said, We have seen no one yet; it is too soon.  But he would not listen to her, and caught her to him, and behold! He was clasping the wooden doll."

It is the same lesson we have been taught again and again. It is Orpheus and Eurydice. There are limits to what love can do and grief can create. Death is the fact that longing cannot alter. My own husband was happily married for twenty years. He waited a full year after his wife's early death to consider another woman. It is both my fortune and my misfortune that I was the first he "stretched out his arms to." I have kept company for years now with her photographs, her paintings (they are both abstract painters), the objects she placed in her home. After two years he dismantled the memorial shrine in his living room. At three years he began to put away some of the photographs. At four years he gave away her clothes. At six years he buried her ashes.

I am not the timekeeper of his grief and neither of us resemble the people we were when we fell deeply in love for the first time. This is the landscape of his life, and I also have a past mapped with people and countries he has never known. I have been reading the autobiographical writings of Virginia Woolf, who lost her mother at thirteen and writes about that shocked, numb time. It took her until middle age to free herself of that beautiful ghost when she wrote To The Lighthouse, and only then, she writes, did she feel she could let go of her mother because she had imprinted and transformed her through words. I see myself as a fish in a stream; Woolf writes, deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream.

The books we read as children are maps for the people we are still becoming.

Books With Pictures

I’ve been thinking about books for hard times. It’s not only the political chaos, it is the personal as well. A friend went to the doctor because he felt exhausted, and was given less than a year to live. The ice is melting at the ends of the earth, and our coastal cities are heading underwater like Atlantis. The brain has a hard time wrapping itself around these things. You want distraction, but when you’re in shock you have no attention span. The friend who  was diagnosed wrote on Facebook:  “Can anyone suggest something good to read? All I can handle right now is Calvin and Hobbes. “

 A comic book seems like a good idea to me under the circumstances.   It’s a book with pictures, after all, and these are the very first books we held in our hands, puzzling at the shape of the letters and how easily they transformed in the mouths of grown ups into what we wanted most of all: a story.  The front piece of The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell, with “decorations” by Maurice Sendak reads:

“Say what you like, but such things do

happen—not often, but they do happen.”

It’s an invitation and a dare.  The pages of this small, nearly square book are thick like an artist’s sketchpad, and each chapter is divided by a drawing: a cliff with a cabin on the beach.  The sea with moon and clouds.  The characters in the book are a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx and finally a boy.  But there are no figures in any of the drawings.  They are places to enter, caves to peer into; there is a bow hanging from the branch of a tree for the reader to pick up and try for herself, the arrows are leaning against a log just below.  The book was published in 1965, at a time when traditional families were fracturing, and new ways of forming a family were being explored.  The Animal Family is a love story not only between the Hunter and the Mermaid, but between all of the different creatures that find their way home together.  As Jarrell writes, “The hunter and the mermaid were so different from each other that it seemed to them, finally, that they were exactly alike; they lived together and were happy.”  It is a book that offers not only escape but solace.  Each of the characters enters a world they have never known before, and there is an acceptance that much will never be understood.

When the lynx plays too rough the hunter tells him: ‘“Velvet paws!  Velvet paws!”  The Mermaid, who is learning the hunter’s language asks, “What’s velvet?”

‘“I don’t know,” the hunter said.  ‘But it’s what you say to a cat to get him to keep his claws in.  My mother used to say it on the boat.’  So the hunter said it and the mermaid and the lynx understood it, each in his own way—a little scrap of velvet there between the forest and the sea.”’

There are times when a book can be your home, a shell that you carry on your back.  A book with pictures is even better; you can build a whole landscape with that.  You are in some hard places, the waiting room at the hospital, the departure lounge at the airport on your way to something unimaginable, to name just a few.  But if you have the right book you can pitch a tent and build a fire, right there on the shore of disaster.

The Animal Family

(this post was adapted from a short essay originally published in Postroad magazine, as “The Animal Family”)

Swallows and Amazons

When I was a kid I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks every summer on the Southern Massachusetts coast, near where my father grew up, in Fall River. That's when I learned about "messing about with boats" as Ratty says in The Wind in the Willows, and could spend my time exploring a tidal river that leads to the sea, and has strong currents, tides and sandbars. This is also where I first read Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. This is the first book in a series about a group of English children who meet up in the summer and sail their small boats and have endless adventures. The larger family of four kids are the "Swallows" because their boat is named "Swallow" and the two sisters they meet are the "Amazons" (and yes, their boat was named "Amazon").  I loved this book and one of the best things about it was that it was part of a series, so once you got started there were many more adventures ahead. I was the kind of kid who practiced knots, learned how to splice rope and always carried a jack knife. I also made maps of our river, modeled on the one on the endpapers of Swallows and Amazons as well as some of the other books by Ransome. I wish that every one of my books had a map on the endpapers. So far, I haven't been able to fulfill that dream, but someday I hope I will. I did have a little boat that I could row, and then later, sail with my father and friends I met up with by the river every summer. I never became as good a sailor as the kids in the books, but I loved making maps. I would draw them on a sheet of plain paper, then dip the whole thing into a pan of cold black tea, to make it look like old parchment. Then I would sit out on the front porch and burn the edges, so it would look really old. There is something about mapping, and map making, and the books that I read as a child made their own maps inside of me. 

swallow map

True Confessions

kids bookshelf1

When I wake up in the middle of the night and can't fall back asleep, I reach for one of my oldest friends, a children's book. I have not packed away all the books from my childhood or my children's childhoods. I keep them in a book case not far from the bedroom door. I also read newer children's books, of course, as well as a nearly constant diet of literary fiction and nonfiction from the shifting pile next to the bed. But when I wake up at two or three in the morning and start to worry about all the things I have to do, and then worry even more about how tired I will be when I get up in the morning to try to actually do them all, I reach for a book where I already know the ending, and I know the cover and the illustrations as well as my favorite T shirt. Sometimes I just skip to my favorite chapter. It's comfort reading, and it has a more lasting effect than comfort food. I am doing something that often happens in some of my favorite children's books, finding a secret entrance to another time and place. But there's something more than escapism--these books have a deeply grounding solidity to them. They are the first books I stayed up late to finish when I was a child, or missed a stop on the bus because I was so caught up in Stuart Little trapped on the garbage barge, Laura in the great plains, Anne of Green Gables, the Borrowers, Pippi, Harriet, Reepicheep, Lad a Dog, Lightfoot the Deer and Whitefoot the Woodmouse. Those were books of my childhood, and some of them became the books of my own children's childhoods. My daughters, in turn, brought me to Harry Potter, and Lyra in the Golden Compass, Meggie in Inkheart and many others. Loyal friends who are still there for me in the middle of the night when the whole house is fast asleep and I feel like I will never sleep again. I've been thinking a lot about the books we grow up with now that I have written a book for children for the very first time. One thing I've been asked is was it "easier" or "harder" to write a book for children, and the answer is neither. It is as hard and easy as any book I've written, but there has been a lot of joy around the creation of this book and these characters. Another question I've been asked is whether I had to read a lot of children's books in order to prepare to write one. The truth is, I have never stopped reading them, and I never will.

Oral history project with mom


Very proud of my mom, Jean Valentine, a poet who recently recorded this oral history with the Woodberry Poetry Room while she was in residence at the MacDowell Colony. Link to listen here….

My first children’s book coming soon!

I’m thrilled to announce that my first children’s book, June Sparrow and the Million Dollar Penny, will be published on May 30th. Click for more info. here, and stay tuned for events, activities with kids, and more.

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