Let me tell you about the three linear feet of frayed hardbacks in one of my bookcases. I call it Quinda’s shelf.
Quinda, you see, was my mother. And her love for books and reading fell happily down to yours truly. So did this little collection that she chose to keep from the thousands of titles that she read in her lifetime.
I set myself a goal, some years back, to read those volumes that ended up with me. One reason was I thought it would be interesting to explore some different narrative voices of other eras, stories set in bygone days, and written according to the conventions and moral guidelines of those times. The other reason was of a more personal nature. My mother was sick for much of my childhood and adolescence, and she died when I was barely out of my teens and stationed overseas in the army. So I hoped that reading the books that made enough of an impression on her for her to keep them would help me know her better. None of them are important literary epics; they were simply things that caught her fancy.
One of my favorites is New Song in a Strange Land, (Houghton Mifflin:1948), Esther Warner’s memoir of moving to Africa with her husband when he was named manager of a rubber tree plantation owned by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.
Sounds downright fascinating, doesn’t it?
But it is. I’ve taught some workshops on memoir writing since I read that little book, and I always put Mrs. Warner’s opening paragraph in front of my students.
“As I approached my house in Liberia for the first time,” she wrote, “it looked to me like a giant animal that had crept out of the bush. Against the backdrop of low hills and jungle, it reached high and anticipatory on its front legs, ready to jump.” In that first glimpse of her writer’s voice and her setting, this talented wordsmith employed an old trick: she showed us one thing by showing us something completely different. Those front legs on that house turn out to be brick piers, and the house, which will be ground zero for her story, is instantly visible and alive for the reader, who is probably sufficiently hooked to keep reading.
It certainly hooked this reader, and I enjoyed every page of it.
Which wasn’t the case, unfortunately, for London Pride, a 1941 novel by Phyllis Bottome. It’s a predictable tale of two children left to wander around in London during the German blitz, rattling off Cockney dialect so exaggerated that it’s very nearly a foreign language.
It was intended at least partly as propaganda, I’m guessing, tugging at the heartstrings of American readers to make them jump into the already raging world war. But I doubt that this slight yarn had much of an impact. No matter; Pearl Harbor was attacked shortly after London Pride was published in the States, and no more encouragement was required.
A couple of other wartime novels are on Quinda’s shelf. The Journey Home, by Zelda Poppin (I swear I didn’t make these names up), is about a soldier returning home at the end of the war. So is Glory for Me, a verse novel by McKinley Kantor which is by far the better of the two. It’s a compelling tale of three soldiers who have to adjust to civilian life again, and was made into an outstanding movie, “The Best Years of Our Lives”, which won seven Academy Awards in 1946, including Best Picture.
I enjoyed Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams (1944), who stole his title from Hamlet. It had a beautiful, scheming heroine who was easy to hate, and that’s always fun. And Amaru: a Romance of the South Seas by Robert Dean Frisbie (1945) was interesting. It’s one tart little tale, I can tell you, with Polynesian girls and lusty tribesmen running rampant on sun-splashed shores.
But I could have done without several other books that are completely outdated, and understandably out of print. The jacket blurb for A Fair Wind Home by Ruth Moore (1953) says “finally the author of Candlemas Bay has written her first historical novel.” And, after reading it, I’m betting it was her last.
I enjoyed the project, and at the very least I now can say that I’ve read Poppin, Bottomes and Frisbie. Not many people can say that.
The whole experience was also helpful to me as a writer, seeing how skillful authors told their stories and how bad writers missed the mark in theirs.
And turning all those pages – faded and brittle now – that my mother once turned when they were crisp and white felt good, and right.