This will be my final post in a place that has meant a lot to me as a mother, a writer, and a reader, so please forgive my wordiness. Now is my last hurrah, and then it’s time for me to move on to other wordy things.
I haven’t written here in a very long time. Though there has always been plenty to say, there hasn’t always been the time to say it. In the spring, I was a juror for a literary award, and had to make my way through boxes of books. Nellie was curious about this process, and frequently checked my stack of top picks to see how my choices had shifted. Even though she is someone who doesn’t like to pick favourites, she gave good advice. When she saw that a certain book had hovered near the top of the pile for a solid couple of weeks, she asked, “Will that one win?” And I sighed and said that the book really was exceptional, but that the person had won so many awards already. She said (not having read the jurors’ guidelines!) “You can’t go by that, Mom. You just have to pick the best story.”
By Mother’s Day I was still wading through the boxes, and as one of my gifts Nellie made me a tiny modeling clay replica of another book that had stayed near the top of the pile. It seemed a symbolic kind of gift — one that showed she knew what books meant to me. I thought they must mean a lot to her, too, in order to recognize that.
Weeks later Nellie and I talked it over, and agreed the author might like the little replica, so we mailed it off to her, and it was warmly received. I love that Nellie is aware not just of books but of the people who write them — partly, I’m sure, because her mom is an author. (A friend of mine is a midwife, and her daughter recently asked if Labour Day was a day for delivering babies.)
All summer, Nellie has been reading The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley, in which Daphne and Sabrina discover that their ancestors’ famous fairy-tale book was really a history book, and the characters in it (a magical race called the Everafters) are still alive and causing all kinds of trouble. When we visited a friend’s cottage in July, Nellie brought the first in the series for her book-loving friend Frannie to read, and over the course of our stay, the girls read, and jumped on the trampoline, and read, and swam, and read, and cooked pancakes, and read, and read, and read.
There was a time not so long ago when I fretted Nellie wouldn’t read on her own because I had read so much to her, but those worries were misguided. I think her love of stories is so deeply entrenched that it’s part of her now. Though I will still be vigilant. I can see how easy it is nowadays to be drawn away from the written word and seduced by constantly evolving, eye-popping, mind-boggling technology. Nellie got an IPod this summer — to the great reluctance of her very low-tech parents — and I worried she would quickly become one of those many sad zombies we see with gaze glued to minuscule screen, missing the world around. But again my worries were unfounded. Nellie read more this summer than she ever has — and she cartwheeled, and she did underwater somersaults, and she picked wild blueberries, and she spotted skunks and woodpeckers and foxes and blue jays and rabbits and even a deer.
What would Laura Ingalls Wilder make of all that, topped off by Pottermore and Itunes?
While Nellie’s been reading on her own, we’ve also continued reading together. We’re a few books into the Little House series, books I loved as a child, but which are sometimes shocking to me now, in the way that so-called Indians are described as “wild men,” their faces “bold and fierce and terrible.” Ma, in particular, is blatantly racist. These passages are difficult to navigate, but I try to do so with a minimum of editing and a lot of discussion. Why is Ma so fearful of the Indians? How can she be a good person and say such cruel things? How do you think the Indians feel about the Ingalls family? How would you feel if strangers came into your neighbourhood and took over the place as theirs? (Jeremy Adam Smith’s article “How to Really Read Racist Books to Your Kids” at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre offers some interesting insight here. He writes, “We have to ask our children to adopt fairness to all people as a goal, and to call out unfairness when we encounter it in one of their books, movies… or inside ourselves. Research says the more explicit we are with children about that struggle, the better.”)
Of course there are simpler questions that arise in our readings too — what’s a trundle bed? What’s calico? How do horses know how to swim? The Little House books are about a way of life so different from ours that even mealtime and springtime and bedtime make for scintillating reading. This summer we’ve lived in the Big Woods with the Ingalls family, and smoked deer meat in a hollow-log smokehouse. We’ve churned butter with them, and added bright carroty milk to colour the butter yellow. We’ve traveled across the prairie with them in a covered wagon, cried when the dog Jack was lost crossing a river; cried again when he returned, worn out and starving; and we’ve dug a well, and nearly lost a man down inside it, and built a log house from scratch, then laid in bed and listened to the wolves howling all around.
That’s the wonder of good books: they take you places you couldn’t otherwise go. You’re propped up on pillows with your cool sheet pulled over you, but all the while you’re traveling, and your world is expanding, and your mind is filling with answers to questions and new questions that spin out from those answers. Like when Laura lies awake at the end of the first book, trying to find her place in the expanse. She listens to the wind moving through the big woods, and to the sound of Pa’s fiddle, and to his voice singing about auld lang syne — “the days of a long time ago,” Pa told her. And as she drifted off to sleep, she thought, “‘This is now.’ She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
And “now” seems the right time to close this final post on a blog I began when Nellie first started to recognize clumps of letters as words. These days when I pull her door closed at night, I leave the light on, and a book is propped open before her. As Betty Smith wrote of Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, “From that time on, the world was hers for the reading.”
Thank you for reading along with Nellie and me.