Bold journeys, different voices

I stayed up late last night and finished it, enjoying it just like guilty pleasure it is–Diana Gabaldon’s Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. And while the ending IS an ending,– and that’s all I’ll say, considering the fact that some may be planning on reading it in days to come,– let me just add that the ending opens us right up to the possibility of book number eight.

They’re really kind of amazing, Gabaldon’s books; the detail is meticulous, and she moves us smoothly between cultures and epochs. As the series grew, she began writing from more than one point of view; we don’t just get the story from Claire’s eyes. We might be seeing the world through the aristocratic eyes of a valiant gay 18th century peer of the realm, or we could be seeing the world as Jamie’s bastard son Willie sees it, trying to balance his adopted peer of the realm status with the reality of being the braw son of a braw man. We could be seeing things through Brianna’s eyes, in 1980, as she wrestles with parenting and the sticky problem of being a tough, leader-ly woman in a Scottish town that doesn’t seem too welcoming of a boss that’s a lassie.

The historic detail; the intricate medical scenes, as Claire uses 18th century tools and 20th century know-how; Gabaldon weaves all that into a coherent and compelling narrative with luscious love scenes. She’s a wizard with words and imagery, as magical as her stories. It’s a wonderful thing, it really is.

But I have to admit that I rushed through the last 200 pages so I could get to a book I bought for $1.88, free shipping, on Amazon.com.

That book is Laura Z: A Life, and it’s the autobiography of Laura Z Hobson.

My parents, inveterate junk-salers, especially after my dad retired on disability in his 50’s, brought home all kinds of treasures from garage sales and junk shops. And usually among the treasures were books. We were all inveterate readers, and we’d paw through the boxes, each looking for the thing–adventure, sci fi, military, whatever,–that called us. I was completely undiscerning at the time; I read whatever was there, read while eating, while ironing (ironing was my never-ending, dreaded job), while riding in the car. I read hundreds of Reader’s Digest condensed books, gaining familiarity with condensed versions of a wide range of authors and a shallow range of scientific fact and theory. I read like a smoker smokes, not always with enjoyment, but with a kind of urgent necessity.

And once in a while, a book would blossom into a revelation, and I would slow down, lose time, and know what it was like to be fully engaged in a world of someone else’s creation.

That was what happened to me when I found Hobson’s First Papers in a musty box of books, sat down and started reading it right then, threw myself into the 500 page world Hobson shared with me. I thought then that the little paperback with its tattered cover was the best book I’ve ever read; when the paperback finally fell apart, I replaced it with a hardcover, and that travels with me wherever I move. I re-read it every five years or so, and it is still just darned wonderful.

I loved First Papers, back in my girlhood days in the 1970’s, because it was the story of a family that was different and unafraid to live the life of the mind. I loved it because the characters were odd and hare-brained and sometimes mean to each other, but they blundered forward. I loved it because it ploughed up the earth of the USA in the early 20th century to reveal things I hadn’t considered, and the way it sometimes turned over ugly, stinking things I didn’t really want to see–or smell. But while the book baldly shows us tragedy and bigotry, I think its underlying theme is hope.

Fee, of course, was the character with whom I identified, an ungainly, awkward girl who blossoms into a unique and beautiful and ethical woman—the ugly duckling story, right? And surely, I hoped, that will also happen to me…

But I felt too the pain that Alexandra felt, when no one noticed or appreciated her wonderful gifts; she labored under the high beams of her husband’s genius. That Stefan, her erratic, irascible, brilliant man, is the one who sees it, who gets her a place where her voice can be heard, is such a tender thing from a man who can hardly be described as tender.

There are really bad people in this book, and there are shallow, weak ones. There is desperate deep pain, and there is tragedy. But there is always, also, that moment after I thought it was all just lost, the moment when the body twitches, and we find a pulse, and we know there’s a chance…Beaten, battered, eyes wide open, this entity will still move on into the future.

Obviously, this was a book that made a huge impression. Oddly, it did not propel me to find other books by Hobson; I think the universe she created in First Papers was so complete and so self-contained that I didn’t need to hear her voice anywhere else.

It was only many years later that I discovered The Gentlemen’s Agreement, that I watched Carole Burnett lumbering pregnantly into her secret city hidey-hole in Nine Months, that I read Hobson’s fictionalized account of raising a son in twentieth century United States and then realizing that beloved boy is gay. Her books bashed into hard subjects, taboo subjects, full on; they head butted sacred cows, and both parties came away dazed.

Why don’t we remember Laura Z more?

I’ve always wanted to read her autobiography, and something spurred me to find it this summer. When the local library didn’t have it, I tried the university library system. When that yielded no results, I turned to the Big Book Store; even that was a non-starter.

But thank goodness for the Internet, for the riches provided by Amazon.com. Because here it is, with Laura Z’s lofty photo portrait on the back, arms crossed, expression aloof and a little challenging. I took a preview plunge this morning, and there, right in the first chapter, she starts to talk about First Papers, says that the character of Stephan Ivarin was just like her father…and was just like she wanted her father to be.

I can’t wait to read more…but that pesky old job beckons; there are things to be done before the house has had its morning settle and I can go off to work clear-minded. There’s a little dog who needs a walk; a dear young man who needs a little help planning his day.

But here is how fervent I am: my husband and I have plans to take a dinner cruise on the Lorena tonight, a paddle-wheeler on the Muskingum River that offers not just river breezes and a floating view of familiar scenes, but a prime rib dinner served on board. And I am looking at the weather report, at the threat of thunderstorms and thinking, hopefully, “Maybe we’ll get rained out.”

I have a picture of myself curled up in the favorite reading chair–the one we all fight over–in the living room, wrapped in my BookWoman throw, getting to know Laura Z.

Whether I ride the river tonight or spend the evening with rain punctuating my reading, I know I’ll end the day with Laura Z, learning about the woman behind the bold voice that, for me, opened up a world.

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