The Books That Find Us

Sycamore Row

Sometimes I close my eyes and picture an armada of books on the move.  I see them sprout tiny legs and creep stealthily, maybe a little blindly, forward.  The wind might lift their covers, riffle their pages, but they keep on going.  They’re looking for the people who should read them.

I find that  books too often jump into my arms and cling, whether at library, used book store, or Big National Book Store chain. It’s like those sweet little sprouted legs have suction cups on their flexible feet.  They leap; they fwwwwockk themselves onto my forearm; I just can’t shake them loose, and so they come home with me.  I put them on the bottom of the Waiting Pile, and then I read through to find them.

Then sometimes, people recommend books. I always take that seriously: if someone goes out of their way to tell me I ought to read a book, she or he has probably been profoundly moved by it.  So when my niece messages, “Have you read Gone Girl? I was surprised at how good it was.  Read it before you see the movie!”, I add Gone Girl to my reading list.  I just ordered two books from the Big National Book Store Chain because blogging buddies said they were amazing reads.  (I’m not sure why, but I have to wait until February 3rd, 2015, for them to ship; maybe I ordered currently non-existent paperback copies?  At any rate, I have compelling reading to anticipate next year!)

And sometimes, too, people actually take the time and the trouble to physically loan me the book, an unsolicited act of sharing.  I take that even more seriously than a recommendation: this book spoke something to the reader–a reader who is dear to me.  That dear reader thought I would hear the message, too, and so they made sure I had a copy of the book in hand. It could be a deep, compelling message; it could be just a wonderful, fun read. Whatever, he or she saw something in that book he or she thought I’d see, too.

That’s why, right now, I am reading Sycamore Row, by John Grisham.  My friend and colleague Kelly read it, mentioned how much she’d enjoyed it, and then sent it to me in one of those intercampus mail envelopes.  What a nice surprise, in the midst of a stack of applications, time sheets, dolorous financial memos, professional junk mail, and fund raising reminders, to find a book in my mail cubby.

I think the only other Grisham novel I’ve read is the one about the fading football player who goes to play in Italy.  And, wait–maybe one other: is there one about a Christmas train?

Those were both reads from years past, but I remember enjoying them very much.  However, Grisham is famous for his legal action thrillers, and those I hadn’t read. Sycamore Row is definitely a legal action thriller.

Jake Brigance is the protagonist–and how can I not like a hero called Jake Brigance?  Somehow the name says sturdy but sexy, ethical but just a little bit…oh, pirate-y, maybe.




Anyway.  Jake is an honest young lawyer in a small Mississippi town–it’s called Clanton, and as I immerse myself into the reading, I discover that Jake has won a famous and controversial case that brought him head to head with the Klan.  The case in Sycamore Row is a civil one, but it has clear racial overtones–a cranky white millionaire, Seth Hubbard, has left the bulk of his fortune to Lettie, his black housekeeper.  His two children get nothing.  His mysterious brother, Ancil, if found, will get five percent–and five percent of 24 million could be a substantial chunk.

Of course, the sharks are circling: everyone wants a piece of Seth’s fortune. And many of the sharks want to discredit Lettie.

And where is that brother? We know that something bad happened when Seth and Ancil were very young. What could it be, and how could it affect the strange will Seth wrote the day before his death? Oh, it’s kind of scrumptious, the twisting of this plot.

I like Jake and his teacher wife Carla; they have a sweet daughter named Hannah, and they live in a spare rental because those Klan members burned their painstakingly restored Victorian house down three years before.  Jake and Carla  have struggled through the losses a high profile, controversial case brings; the promise of more and better cases didn’t quite materialize.  So, when Seth’s handwritten will arrives in Jake’s mailbox, specifying that no lawyer but he can carry this forth, it seems like a godsend.

It’s a good read.  There are the sympathetic protagonists, including the worthy Lettie and her good daughter Portia, and there’s Lettie’s skunk of a husband.  There are villains, and there are flawed and unlikely, but likable, supporters.  I am three fourths of the way through the book, and there have been enough surprises to keep it from being predictable.

I really love pondering why this book spoke so loudly, was so much fun, for Kelly.  She’s definitely a champion for people who might not have had a fair shake. Sycamore Row’s theme–Jake fighting for the rights of someone ‘greater society’ seems to disdain–lines up nicely with the way Kelly lives her life.  There’s the intrigue–that’s just plain fun–Kelly and I have shared a laugh over intriguing developments more than once.  There’s the romance of it, the chance that the good guys will triumph, and good people will finally get the rewards due them.  Underneath a practical and pragmatic exterior, I suspect Kelly harbors the heart of a true romantic.  I can picture her suggesting we give a hard-trier one more chance, let him or her have the opportunity for proof or redemption.

All of that echoes in the book. And it makes the experience of reading it much richer and much more fun.

And–isn’t it odd?  In the wings I have another book, loaned to me by Susan: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin.  This is non-fiction; it’s a candidate to be the book Susan and her committee will select as the common read for a new honors program at our little college.  And the roots of its telling are in rural Mississippi, too; the framework of the story a friendship between two boys of different races; the tension the result of a tragic and terribly troubling unsolved crime.

Funny that the two books that crawled onto my shelf via friends and colleagues have such similar themes.  I’m just New Age-y enough to think that’s probably not a coincidence, that there’s some voice here to which I very much need to listen.  So I’ll finish Grisham and pick up Franklin’s book, trying to keep all sensors open, to absorb and to ponder.  There’s a message here I need to hear.

In this era of floods of words, competing messages, battering rams of information, I like to think that there are filters, gates, that allow the words we need to find us when we need to hear them.  That may be fanciful; I don’t know.  But it will not hurt to plum the books that find me for the wisdom that inspired them.  Or to thank the friends who pointed them my way for the opportunity to ponder.


2 thoughts on “The Books That Find Us

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