The Richness of Many Stories

Image taken from https://www.chimamanda.com/book/americanah/

We watched the opening salvo of The Great American Read on PBS. It caught me, snagged my imagination, demanded a response.

The next day, my son James and I stopped at our local library, and there, in a display right by the entranceway, was a stack of lists of the 100 Great American Read books. I picked one up and took it home. With a pink highlighter, I marked off all the books I’d read.

My total came to just a little over half. And there were books on the list I knew I’d never read: I am not called at all by 50 Shades of Grey, for instance, nor do I have a desire to read the Left Behind series. But I love the idea of a reading list made up by readers voting. Talk about your canon! These are books the dialogue is wrapping itself around. These are books real people are buying and borrowing, enjoying and critiquing, discussing and dissing.

I have a reading groove: I like stories of friendship and fellowship, of challenges met. I like it when people use ingenuity to tackle a problem. I like an ending where the knotty problem gets untangled, where things get figured out, especially when wit and courage come into play. I like it when the severed bonds are re-forged, and when the protagonist ends the struggle satisfied and enriched.

I find that same kind of story in many genres—from Outlander to The Help to Lord of the Rings. But reading the same kind of story, even with wildly different settings and characters shaped and framed in varied personas, just can’t be good for me. Bloggers like John Lauck (here’s a good example: https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/68849234/posts/17662) challenge me to leave my comfort zone and to engage with books that demand my attention while they stretch my boundaries.

Sometimes, I should read books that make me work a little.

I think The Great American Read is a great opportunity to make that kind of stretch in the community of others.

So, Let’s start with an ‘A’ book, I thought. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was the first book I chose.

***********

Americanah quickly drew me into to its protagonist’s, Ifemula’s, world.

Ifemula was a Nigerian girl, child of a working-class family, bright enough to go to the best school with the children of wealthy parents. The beginning of the novel links Ifemula and Obinze—Zed. (Ifemula, for intimate reasons, calls Obinze “Ceiling.”) Zed is the son of a university professor, and a lover of all things American.

Ironically, it is Ifemula who winds up studying in the States. Obinze goes to England and stays illegally, searching for a means to gain a visa. He is ejected; back in Nigeria, he creates a different life and becomes wealthy.

Ifemula earns a bachelor’s degree at an exclusive US school, suffers an assault, lets go the cord that connects her to Obinze.

She becomes a successful blogger. She loves a white American man; she loves a Black American man. She decides, finally, to go home to Nigeria.

The middle of the novel chronicles her separation from Obinze.

And then she goes home, and the connection is tenuously reforged. I waited, cautious and worried, to see if this connection would work or not.

I will not share other details of the story, which is wonderfully worth reading. I will say that it was different, plot-wise, than my usual read. It challenged me in many ways, and one big way was my perception of race. For Ifemula, race is not a construct until she comes to the United States. In Nigeria, she does not think of herself as ‘Black.’

I had to wrestle with that a bit.

And there are questions of loyalty, of integrity, of choice and its dangers—conflicts, really, that the book invites me to engage with.

Americanah challenged me to challenge my assumptions.

**************

I read up a little on the author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian native whose works have been translated into thirty or more languages and who has spoken all over the world. I started with her website (https://www.chimamanda.com/about-chimamanda/), and I traveled from there to her TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story#t-1100576).

In that talk, I found the hazy thoughts I’d been trying to articulate melded into clarity. There’s a danger in only reading a certain story; it’s the danger of a limited horizon, of a distorted understanding.

And that’s the value, I think, of The Great American Read: it dares us to lunge out of our comfortable grooves and to read a different story. It even gives us a place to discuss the daring reads we encounter.

I am alternating my reading this summer—a Great American Read book with one of the books waiting gamely on my shelves. I am excited at the different worlds I will encounter. I am glad to be part of the conversation. And I look forward to hearing from you, if you are talking part in that conversation, too.

Advertisements

The Books That We Are Drawn To: Childhood Trauma Stories Surface This Spring

Midnight, Sun

Sometimes it seems like books just arrive at the right time. It’s like they’re in the path and a Dyson-like whirlwind sucks them up, sorts them out, and sets the particular ones I should be reading in my lap.

And then I realize they intersect, or support, some issue that I’m struggling with, whether it’s on the surface or bubbling underneath.

That’s what happened in the last month or so, and the issue was childhood trauma.

*******

It’s not like I don’t have a healthy to-read stack, but I took my son to the library last month and there, in the “Quick Reads” section, was Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone. I’d been reading reviews: they were uniformly positive. I enjoyed The Nightingale. And I couldn’t believe a copy of this new, anticipated book was available, so I snapped it up and took it out. I shoved aside books that had been waiting patiently, and I read it.

The Great Alone is set in the 1970’s, when Leni, the main character, is a teen. All the carefully researched Seventies’ pop culture references in the novel rang true—the songs on the radio, the earth shoes on the feet, the jeans and army jackets and the war and the cigarette-smoking and the drinking and the art. I was Leni’s age during the time of Leni’s story, albeit in a very different place, and the pinging recognition drew me in.

And Leni grew up witnessing domestic violence. Her father, Ernt, came home from Viet Nam with medals and memories and deep, deep damage. He loved Leni’s mom, Cora, with a desperate love—he needed her, he said, to breathe,–but the black times would come, and he would berate her and he would beat her.

Cora could not leave him. She tried to explain it to her daughter; she tried to shelter her. But when they move into a tiny cabin in Alaska, way, way off the beaten trail, there is no shielding Leni from the dysfunction. Cora, finally, has to shield Leni from the violence she has borne alone, and the story swings into a whole new arc.

I read the book quickly, closed it, and took it back to the library, where I finally took out a book that I’d been seeing and wondering about for months. That was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. I took that home, too, and ignored the stack to read it.

Eleanor, in Honeyman’s break-out novel, is an odd, lonely, thirty-something; she lives in a spare depressing apartment and works at a job that supports but doesn’t challenge her. She is scarred, physically and emotionally. From the beginning, we know the main character had been in a fire as a child; we suspect the fire may have been partly her fault.

Eleanor has no friends, and the people at her job make fun of her. She knows it and doesn’t seem to care much; her life is structured around a schedule, drinking vodka to make the weekends go by, and perilous phone conversations with her toxic mother. But then things begin to change.

There’s a rock singer Eleanor decides she will pursue,–good husband material, she surmises, based on a quirk of his attire. She begins to think about buying new clothes, getting a haircut, going to clubs. On one of her outings, she sees a man collapse, and she reluctantly goes to help him, assisted by a nice but bumbling guy from the IT department at her work. That simple act sets things in motion, and Eleanor slowly encounters a network of people who care about her.

And she slowly turns to confront her past, too. It’s a catastrophic confrontation, but one that leads her out the other door, to a place where she can begin to really engage in life.

Eleanor’s story is set in Scotland, and that’s where my mother’s family came from, so again, I felt those recognition pings.

And when I took Eleanor back to the library, I had a reserve waiting for me: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. Lydia is another thirty-something protagonist, another under-employed woman, but one who loved her bookstore job. She was good at what she did; she had a following of quirky, gentle customers she calls “The Book frogs”—men released from prison or another institution who find solace and refuge at Bright ideas. Lydia welcomes them and connects with them and never condescends.

Joey is one of the Book Frogs, a sweet and gentle, just-beyond-boy, man who one night hangs himself from the upstairs ceiling at the store that nurtured him. He leaves messages in books for Lydia, a cryptic chain that leads her to Joey’s identity and to confronting the horror in her own past.

Lydia was the only survivor of a gruesome killing; she’d been spending the night at a friend’s when an intruder, armed with a hammer, entered the house. Lydia was able to make it to the kitchen sink; she crawled into the cabinet and hid. But her friend ran to see if her parents were okay; the three of them died in a bloody pile.

Lydia stayed under the sink until finally her father, the next morning, let himself into the house to find her. They left Denver and headed, literally, for the hills.

************

Three stories of childhood trauma; three protagonists stuck in lonely and less-than-fulfilling lives. Each finally reaches the point where she cannot run from her past any longer. The turn-around, the confrontation, is painful in each book; it exacts a toll. But afterward, each main character goes on to begin, tenuously at first, but with growing confidence and joy, a new life that includes family and friendships and, finally, fun.

**************

I had just finished Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore when my younger brother forwarded me a link to the paper for which he writes. And there, headlined, were the names of 42 priests who had been accused, by many more than one accuser, of abusing the young boys they had worked with. Prominent among the photos was one of the man who pastored our church—the man who heard our confessions and oversaw altar boys and bullied my mother into all kinds of volunteer roles.

I had heard rumors throughout the years about this man’s holy persona and real-life villainy—his hypocritical and systematic abuse of boys, from as young as seven to late teens, who were entrusted to him to be mentored and spiritually grounded. Seeing his photo, reading the truth was shocking.

And I wondered what those boys—men, now, many with families and respectable places in the community—suffered because of that childhood trauma.

*************

Then, straightening the living room, sorting through magazines, I came across “The Long Shadow,” an interview with Dr. Bruce Perry in the November 2016 issue of The Sun. Perry is an MD and a PhD in neuroscience; he made it his business to uncover what victims of childhood trauma bring with them into adulthood. I sat down and re-read the article.

Those victims, Dr. Perry says, are often stuck in fight-or-flight mode. They may turn to drugs or alcohol to help process or shut out the constant pain of remembering, the constant fear that, having happened once, it can happen again. They are often isolated. They are not open to new experiences. They may engage in risky, even violent behavior. Their brains, says Dr. Perry, are irrevocably, physically, changed by the trauma of childhood events.

***************

The books about trauma survivors. The revelation of childhood trauma inflected in my hometown. The article about the real-life, long-term, undeniable effects of childhood trauma. They all come to find me, like a parade, like a march: one after another after another.

I am not sure what to make of this. Maybe it is all just a fascinating coincidence. Maybe, without realizing, I was searching for reading on the topic. Maybe I am meant to be awakened, to walk in this world knowing what sufferers and survivors are going through. I feel raw and aware and not able to un-see the effects trauma inflicts on young and helpless victim.

Maybe I need to do something with this awareness, push to a new level, act in some constructive way to help the folks who trudge through lives with almost unbearable scars.

This is not comfortable knowledge to have, nor are these comfortable thoughts to entertain. But I am glad the books and articles found me, glad to have been opened to this sorrow. I will stay open; I will wait to see what transpires,–to see, maybe, if I am called to take a more active role. If, indeed, those books arrived at the right time, for the right reason, I think it will soon be clear.

 

 

 

 

 

A Different Kind of Capture

But the Mortmains aren’t really living in a marriage plot novel, as much as Cassandra likes to think that they are. They’re living in the intersection between a marriage plot novel and a modernist novel, and their story soon fractures in ways Cassandra doesn’t expect.

—-Constance Grady, Why I Capture the Castle has gained a secret cult of book lovers (https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/10/20/16503280/i-capture-the-castle-dodie-smith)

**********

It was the second available title from a list of five books I had titled “Books to Read” a long, long time ago. The first, Green Shadows, White Whale, was a novel about Ray Bradbury’s adventures, writing the screenplay to Moby Dick in Ireland.
This one, I Capture the Castle, is by Dodie Smith, and it’s about a rumpled and unusual family living in a moldering old castle in England.  Cassandra Mortmain shares her diary and journals with us in Dodie Smith’s book, which was first published in 1948. (The narrator of both books is a writer, both in early days; I’m guessing that’s what the list was all about—fictional books about writers).
 The novel is set in, mostly, an old castle in the English countryside, where the Mortmains live in poverty that is not genteel at all. They rent the castle. Well, they did when there was money; now, with the death of the landowner, they mostly squat. There are three Mortmain children, lovely Rose, down-to-earth Cassandra, and sharp, tough Thomas. Their mother is dead. Their father is a dreamy intellectual; his published book was celebrated as a gateway to modern thinking. But the royalties have dried up long since, and Mortmain spends most of his time locked up in a tower study, reading detective novels.
 He is married to Topaz, an artist and artist’s model, a beautiful, compassionate, new-agey sort of figure; she is someone who can make the best of any situation, scrounging food, clothes, and money to care for her stepchildren.
 But the stepkids are sick of poverty, of dinners of cold rice, of old, old clothes dyed green in a desperate attempt to look presentable. So when the new owners turn out to be eligible young men, Rose sets her cap for the elder, as determined on matrimony as any Austen heroine.
 The book reveals a different time, maybe a gateway time, when old English rules and mores are giving way, somewhat, to a more modern sensibility. It brings up all kinds of tough issues, in Cassandra’s keen and troubled voice: should one marry for money without love if it benefits one’s family? When does dreaming indifference turn into child neglect? What kinds of gifts are okay to accept?
 All through this quirky, offbeat book, I was dreading the pat ending, where people were neatly paired off and everyone lived happily ever after. It never came, and I was glad. The ending is hopeful but not expected.
 Dodie Smith is best known as the author of 101 Dalmations. She was born in Lancashire, England, the book’s bio tells me, and went on to be one of England’s most successful female dramatists. I Capture the Castle was an overnight success, and still has kind of a cult following (check out the article cited above.)
The book was made into a film in 2003, with a sterling cast including Bill Nighy, Rose Byrne, and Henry Cavill; it won awards, but reviews are mixed, and I look forward to seeing it. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0300015/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm)
I Capture the Castle was also a television feature presentation in 1954.
*************
Here’s my take on the title: Cassandra doesn’t take the castle by storm. She captures it with words, a bold, honest picture that isn’t always pretty.

Reading From a List Sent Forward

Bradbury

Sometimes it’s necessary to clean the work space, and then the universe rewards my efforts by sharing wonderful, forgotten things. This time I found a list—undated, but definitely my jotting—in an old notebook. (The back of the page had notes from a time, at work, when we were exploring best ways to embrace folks with disabilities, and that took place at least three years ago. So the list was vintage.)

“Books to look for,” I titled the list, and there were five entries. I don’t remember where the recommendations came from, or what linked them, or why I thought they might be important to me. But I had made the effort to write them down, and now I felt a need to honor a kind of promise to a previous self. I pulled up three library websites and went searching.

 

Book list

I’ll have to keep looking for three of the books (ThriftBooks and Half Price Books, here I come!) but I put Ray Bradbury’s Green Shadows, White Whale on reserve, along with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. That was on Monday. Jim and I do our Libraryville excursion on Thursdays, so I charged through the book I was reading in order to clear the decks—library books, of course, have deadlines and due dates that cannot be ignored.

And this weekend, reading Green Shadows, White Whale, I went back to the early 1950’s, and to Ireland, with Ray Bradbury.

The book was a surprise. I have often taught Bradbury’s short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains…” and years ago, working at a bookstore, I read Fahrenheit 451, and maybe,–I need to revisit to be sure,–The Martian Chronicles. I thought of Bradbury as strictly a sci-fi writer, so Green Shadows, White Whale took me by surprise.

The book is definitely labelled “novel”. So—fiction. But it’s autobiographical fiction, to be sure. As a young writer, not yet having hit his stride as far as public acclaim, Bradbury went to Ireland to write the screenplay for Huston’s Moby Dick. And that is exactly the premise of Green Shadows, White Whale.

The book is funny and unsparing—Hollywood types and Irish nationals come under the glare of Bradbury’s illuminated pen. He shows us every wart. (Once, in writing about a tiny Dublin beggar, so small he can pose as his sister’s starving baby, Bradbury has the main character swearing he will wait at least thirty years before revealing a word of the story, which takes place circa 1952. Green Shadows, White Whale was published in 1992.) But the spotlight is tempered by real liking.

The protagonist is clearly and regularly exasperated by his Hollywood colleagues and by the Irish folk (mostly men) he gathers with at the pub. But he likes them, too,–all of them. This narrator is genial and forgiving, coming into his own as both an artist and as a man.

Having read Green Shadows, White Whale, I want very much to go back and rediscover other Bradbury works—especially with a new television version of Fahrenheit 451 due out this year (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0360556/releaseinfo?ref_=tt_dt_dt). And I think that’s one measure of a good book: when I am done reading, I’m left wanting to find where else I can hear this writer’s voice.

Bradbury died in 2012, at the age of 91. His wife died in 2003; they had been married 57 years. They had four daughters, who survive. (In Green Shadows, White Whale, Bradbury’s protagonist avoids the romantic entanglement rife in the film community, and tells an Irish confidante that he does not want his wife to find any fault with his behavior during their long and necessary separation. Loyalty seems to have been an important virtue for the real-life author, too.)

He was an astoundingly prolific writer, Bradbury was, and his life and works are celebrated on his official website, www.radbradbury.com, which I drew on for the information shared here.

****************

And now, I am immersed in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and I’m wondering: did the list include fictional accounts of writers? Because Cassandra, in this offbeat tale by the author of 101 Dalmations, is a budding author in a ramshackle castle. But more on capturing the castle, and more on fictional writers, on another day, at another time.

Following Elizabeth Berg

Berg

I discovered Elizabeth Berg’s Durable Goods Early in the early 1990’s, a tough story of an Army brat, Katie Nash, who was twelve years old and lonely and a little bewildered. Spunky, too, though. I read it and enjoyed it.

I was at home then, for the most part—at home with a long-awaited toddler who was showing some signs of being a challenge. I gave up teaching to be an at-home mom, and I loved the being-at-home. But family finances implored, “A little work here, please?”

I thought perhaps I could earn some money writing, which was a long-held, hazily formed dream, anyway. So I got a copy of Writer’s Market, and I sent off several tentative essays, and to my surprise, some of them sold—for whopping fees like 15 or 25 dollars. And I applied for and was awarded a gig as a columnist for the local weekly paper. My first column, I remember, was about local female clergy on Valentine’s day.

So I was feeling a little like a journalist when I saw Berg’s article in a magazine I read, something like Family, I think, and I felt a little kinship there. She was definitely far down the path ahead of me; she was doing what I wanted to do. And then I found a new book she’d written, which had to do with losing a dear friend to cancer. It was a road I was traveling; I wrote her a note and told her the book had meant a lot.

She wrote back on stationery I might have picked out myself. Her note was gracious and kind.

*************

And life got busy. I went through a part-time gig at the local library and a year of providing day care at home before going back to earn my master’s when that toddler turned four. A graduate assistantship materialized; a college teaching gig (teaching the intro journalism class that none of the literary profs wanted to touch) fell into my lap.

Time ran very short. I gave up my weekly column. Little by little, I stopped sending out essays and articles; parenting, a thesis, teaching, and academic advising became my life. I took my dream of Being a Writer and buried it in a shallow grave, hoping the right time would come to resurrect it in the not-too-distant future. (And a little voice in my head told me I must not have wanted it so badly if it was that easy to put away.)

But Elizabeth Berg kept writing books, and I kept reading them, delighted whenever a new book appeared on the library shelf. Her main characters aged and matured, and I struggled to do the same.

By the time I was in my fifties, entrenched in a college career, Berg’s heroes were dealing with post-career issues, wrestling with loss and re-imagining themselves. I almost felt like my long struggle to grow up into a mindful, caring, effective adults was mirrored by the aging, and the challenges, and the joys, of the women in Berg’s books.

All of this is to say that, when I saw Arthur Truluv on the New Books shelf at the library, I took it home despite my towering stack of books to read.

Arthur Truluv, a sweet and hopeful story, begins and ends in a cemetery. Arthur goes there every day to visit Nola, his recently passed wife. Maddy goes there every day to escape the kids at school. They develop an unlikely friendship—the fragile old man, the glowering Goth girl—and that friendship turns them into family. And family is there when challenges smack your face.

A quick read, Arthur Truluv weaves loss and grief and hope together; it suggests that, no matter how bad things seem to be, there might be a next step that offers healing and growth and a good way forward. It suggests that the unconventional solution might just be the best one. I wasn’t at all disappointed; I enjoyed the book.

And doing a little research afterward, I discovered that Berg has a webpage (http://www.elizabeth-berg.net/) and a Facebook page, which I will follow. I’ll be aware when the next book comes out; Berg is pretty prolific, so it might not be too far away.

Meanwhile, I found a copy of her Dream Lover on the clearance shelf at a great used book store. Dream Lover is a departure—a historical novel about the author George Sand. It’s another vaguely mirror-type occurrence for me: I’ve discovered an unsung local woman, someone who flirted with fame in her own right and was the love of a famous author’s life, although she ultimately rejected him and followed another path. She deserves some notice, I think, and I’ve been puzzling about how one writes about a fascinating historical figure. Creative non-fiction? Factual essays? Short story or novel based in fact?

Berg is still and always far down the path ahead of me; I will be interested to clear the reading decks and dive into Dream Lover.

 

 

When the Place is the Most Important Character: Mary Ellen Chase’s Windswept

MEC Smith College Archives

The day was coming, nor was it far off, if he read the signs of the times aright, when, at least in America, it would be difficult to put down roots in any one place, roots sufficiently strong and deep to hold one against the fluctuations already apparent in the changing face of things. A man’s roots mattered, he thought, his identification with a given place which might well serve as an anchor to windward against the storms of time and chance.

Mary Ellen Chase, Windswept

**********

Mary Ellen Chase was firmly rooted in the wild coastal lands of Maine where she grew up, so maybe it’s no surprise that her three best-known novels, Mary Peters, Silas Crockett, and Windswept, are set there.

**********

I picked up Windswept out of curiosity when the campus library sent out an urgent call: American Lit stacks have been culled! Culled books in the back room. Those that no one takes will be discarded!  My heart did a little clench when I read that; as soon as I could, I hurried across campus.

“I’ll just look,” I promised myself. But it was too hard to leave those wonderful books to a potential trash-masher fate. I dragged two bulging bags back to my office, and then I toted them home and stacked them on the shelves.

Mary Ellen Chase’s name sounded so familiar. It felt like I’d read at least one of her books, but none of the titles pinged when I looked her up. (Maybe, it occurred to me, I read about her in Sylvia Plath’s biography—maybe she taught Plath at Smith?) I didn’t waste much time, though, figuring out that sense of familiarity. I put Windswept on top of the to-reads, and then I got pulled into the current of busy days.

Retirement opened a flood of reading time. I set a kind of pattern, alternated old books with new ones, and library books with owned ones. And it wasn’t long before I came to Windswept.

**********

Windswept is the story of the Marston family and how they established a stronghold on a wild piece of Maine coastal land. The characters are finely drawn; we know them, their loyalties and weaknesses, their strengths and their secrets. We see the decency; we rue the flaws. Chase unfolds three generations; she gives us the family and the people the family draws in.

But always, Windswept, the place, is the constant. People may travel, but its pull brings them back. It has a pulsing personality of its own. It brings solace, redemption, and joy. It is the site of unbearable tragedy.

**********

Once I thought I’d design a course based just on Ohio writers—and there are many. Mary Oliver, RL Stine, Sherwood Anderson, James Thurber. Margaret Haddix. Louis Bromfield, Jennifer Crusie, Toni Morrison. Jeff Smith. On and on the list goes, and it varies from realistic to science fiction and fantasy, from essays and novels to poetry and short stories and graphic fiction. A hotbed of writers, Ohio is.

And the question that fascinates me is how place affects and defines them. Chase hit place head-on; she made the Maine of her youth the setting for at least three of her major works. She wrote about her second home, England, specifically and thoughtfully. Some of Mary Oliver’s poetry leads us into the Ohio woods. Thurber talks to us about the clocks of Columbus. Anderson gives us a fictional Ohio town, with its supportive blessings and suffocating curses.

But is an author’s place there, even when the setting does not reflect it? Are there echoes of the sounds and smells and the feel of the earth beneath the feet of the land that shaped the writer’s thoughts?

And is place becoming, as Chase hints, way back in 1941, irrelevant as people become weedier, less perennial—as our roots burrow only shallowly, waiting and willing to be pulled up? “…at last in America,” she writes, “it would be difficult to put down roots sufficiently strong and deep to hold one against the fluctuations already apparent…”

What is lost, and what is gained, in literature and in life, as people grow more mobile and less planted?

***********

Windswept takes me back to something I never know—to a different time, to a life before the United States entered into the second world war. It goes back to a time before computers and cell phones, and to a time of intense connection with the home place and the home people. Windswept was worth the read; it’s a keeper that will stay on my shelves.

Books Were Her Superpower….

Anne McC

Anne MC Caffrey’s An Exchange of Gifts

*****

I couldn’t remember where it came from—Anne McCaffrey’s little book, An Exchange of Gifts. It still has its library spine tag; probably it came from one of those ‘fill a bag’ sales, here in town or when we were off on a book-searching adventure. Maybe Jim, who loves fantastic literature, scooped it up.

Maybe, having discovered McCaffrey when I was a young woman, having cut my teeth on A Wrinkle in Time, and on the idea that women can write sci-fi and fantasy really, really well, I grabbed that book. I read McCaffrey’s Pern series in my late teens and early twenties, watching for new books (and reading Katherine Kurtz’s Camber of Culdi books as consolation during the waiting times.)

However An Exchange of Gifts came to be on our shelves, it sat and waited there a long, long time. Then, this Christmas, a book-themed holiday for us, I happened on it, and thought it was perfect to display this December. I tucked it on the mantel, centered behind a hand-thrown plate from our new hometown and a silly Luci ornament. The comic icon is forever knee deep in a plastic vat of grapes in this iteration; Lucille Ball hailed from Jamestown, New York, where our oldest boy lives, and near to where we both grew up. The plate and the ornament seemed like nice holiday connections to our old world and our new…

And, because this Christmas WAS all about reading, one day, sitting in the chair by the fireplace, fuzzy-socked feet comfortably on the ottoman, putting down a book I’d just finished, I thought, “I should read that little McCaffrey book.”

So I did.

**************
It’s a sweet little story about a princess who’s not allowed to use her gift for gardening. Meanne can bring almost anything organic to life, given the right plants and the right, rich dirt. Gardening, she tells us, is her gift, and the way she talks about gifts reminds me of those memes on Facebook: What’s your superpower?

Maybe we don’t all have super powers. But I believe, like Meanne, that every one of us has at least one great gift waiting to be discovered and fully used and appreciated.

Meanne’s father and current stepmother—the King seems to marry quite frequently; no back story there—do not regard the coaxing of foodplants from the loamy soil as appropriate work for a princess. She can, they concede, nurture beautiful flowers—that’s something royal born ladies might be expected to do. Meanne seethes, her gift unwelcome, unappreciated, but she sustains until her father announces he’s arranged a marriage for her to an unknown baron.

And that’s when Meanne bolts. She steals a horse from her father’s stables, and sends it back home bearing a bloodied scrap of her gown. She flees to an old hunting lodge of her father’s, deep in a wood, far from prying eyes.

That’s where she meets Wisp, a cruelly battered slip of a young boy. Meanne’s botanical knowledge lets her heal his wounds, and Wisp helps Meanne survive in the forest. It takes a while, though, before she realizes what Wisp’s true gift is… and therein lies the tale.

Sweet and uplifting, An Exchange of Gifts was just the right read for a cold December afternoon, for a dreamy day ensconced by a fireplace offering flickering flames.

********
And within the lovely little story, the message is so right on target, so needed right now. And so universal. It’s our job, as learners, to unearth our gifts. We need to find what we are drawn to do, and what we do well, and we need to find ways to share that with the world.

As nurturers, we need to help those we teach and raise and train to find their great gifts, too. There’s one thing about consulting job prediction charts and recommending exploring, say, the health care field—there will always be jobs in THAT area, we intone, sensibly. It’s another to watch and look and learn about what a child or young adult loves. What is the thing that draws them in, that they spend hours doing, that gets them lost in a dreamworld, happy and fulfilled?

We need to help them recognize THAT thing; then we need to help them finds way to morph that into their life’s work. That could be compassionate care for others. But it could be, perhaps, sorting and saving things digitally, or something else entirely.

********
More and more often these days, I realize this is especially important for those folks on the fringes—people with autism, people with developmental disabilities, people who are mentally ill…people disenfranchised in whatever way. These are folks who are constantly reminded of their deficiencies. They are pushed aside and discounted.

But each of them I am convinced, has a beautiful gift to share.

********
Nice to think of those kinds of gifts during a holiday we all bemoan as numbingly commercial. Nice to have a copy of Anne McCaffrey’s little fable to remind me. She gave us books: her gift.