A Bold Anachronism Buddy’s Best-Loved Books

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Tree by Leaf

I advised a student—I’ll call her Kyra—at another school, in another town, many, many years ago. She was a bold anachronism.  She dressed in clothes that were vaguely ethnic, vaguely reminiscent of 1960’s–dirndl-y jumpers with turtlenecks, peasant skirts and loose flowing tops, polyester knit pants, slightly belled, with bulky, hand-knit sweaters.  Kyra’s mother was always after her to get some fun clothes, but she liked her well-worn outfits; her mom urged her to wear some fun shoes, but Kyra loved her T-strap, square-toed flats with their cushiony soles. She had them in six or seven colors and wore them year round.

Kyra had a round face and long, sometimes snaggly, curly dark hair. She had flaring, decided brows, and she had eyes that actually snapped.  I remember reading about a girl with black eyes that snapped, and thinking, “What exactly does THAT mean?”  But I understood after working with Kyra.  When she faced a frustrating puzzle, or something that made her angry, light flashed in her eyes–it really did.  And she would flip them rapidly open and closed, which added to–or maybe caused–the effect.

Kyra had a disability that caused some cognitive impairment–maybe dissonance is a better descriptor, cognitive dissonance,– but she was bright and artistically gifted.  She wanted to teach art to children with disabilities–children like the child she had once been–and the young program director boldly told her that, if Kyra would put in the time and do the work, he’d ensure she finished the program.

But the other students didn’t like Kyra–they found her ‘creepy.’  And Kyra had trouble getting along with her peers, and she couldn’t keep her mouth closed when she was in class.  She corrected her teachers.  If they didn’t fix their errors, she grew vociferous. More than once she was firmly ejected from a class.

Kyra antagonized everyone in the program, and her program director was told by his boss that Kyra had to go.

And so, he let her go.

First she was shocked, and then–eyes snapping!–she was very, very angry.  In the end, though, the program director prevailed.  Kyra did a degree in art, but not education, and left the school.  I left around the same time, and Kyra, via email, stayed in touch.  She would tell me about the things she was creating–mostly sculpted things from fabric, her favorite medium.  And she would tell me about the books she loved to read–her fabric art and her reading: those were her passions.

She loved Cynthia Voight’s books.  Over and over, she’d write me: You’ve GOT to read her books.

So, when I saw a copy of The Homecoming at a yard sale many years ago, I snapped it up.  I was out a mere 25 cents, and now I could honestly write Kyra and say, “Hey!  I got me a copy of that book you recommended.”

Meantime, I read lots of new books from the library, best-sellers or highly touted reads, enjoyable, blend-together kinds of books.  And then one day it happened I had nothing unread on hand besides The Homecoming, so I picked it up.  Lo and behold, I really enjoyed the story, which is about the perseverance of children and the abilities of hearts to change.  Dicey, the main character, is a worried, wise beyond her years, loner girl in charge of her younger siblings.  She has to move them, across long distances, to a place of safety and freedom.  Against all odds, she does.

Kyra was thrilled that I liked it, and immediately told me to read ALL of Cynthia Voight’s books–I wasn’t quite sure just what that meant,— and then Kyra began dropping out of contact for long periods–a year or more–at a time.  When I didn’t hear from Kyra, I didn’t really think about Cynthia Voight.  Once in a great while, she’d email me, usually with a lament: I can’t find half a yard of material to match the project I almost finished, she might write, and then I wouldn’t hear from her again for two seasons. My sister is getting married and I’m making her a quilt, she’d email, adding, She chose really stupid colors.

And then there would be silence for a year.

Then last month, at the Buck a Bag book sale, straightening tables, I picked up a copy of another book by Cynthia Voight, this one called Tree By Leaf.

Tree By Leaf takes place after World War I, and the protagonist, Clothilde, has a dearly loved father who returns from the war scarred and aching.  His face is so badly disfigured he goes to live in the boathouse.  He doesn’t want to frighten the children, especially baby Dierdre.

Clothilde’s brother, Nate, ditches the family, drawn inexorably to the wealth and status of his arrogant grandfather, and her mother retreats into vagueness and fantasy.  A tough summer for a young teenager, especially one with no friends and tons of responsibility. Clothilde believes she hears a voice, believes the voice grants her wishes, believes that the things she wishes for bring tragedy about.  But, perhaps, not all predictions HAVE to come true.

It’s a fey little book, one which rushes quickly through its story, and lands, kind of abruptly, with grown up Clothilde tying up the loose ends of the tale. It’s odd and it’s lonely, sort of, but it’s also a winsome and likable book. I had to think about it for a while after closing it up.

I got curious about Cynthia Voight; something about the way she wrote made me think she was born maybe at the turn of the century in a tiny British town named Little Foggy Bottom or something. Was she, maybe, one of those English blue stocking types born in the New Century, imported to the New World, and waiting themselves to become anachronisms? I looked her up on line, on her own website and on Wikipedia, and discovered she’s from the US.  She was born in 1942, attended Smith College, identifies herself as a loner but a family person, and she is the author of many, many books of an intriguing range of types.

I can see, I think, why her writing spoke so clearly to Kyra.  Voight’s female characters, at least in the two books I’ve read, are loners, a little hard to get along with, impulsive, unruly, and non-conformist. They have no friends of their own age; school is a tough go because of circumstances thrust on them.  They are, these two heroines I’ve met, themselves bold anachronisms.  But their hearts–oh, their hearts are strong and pure, and they win out. The endings of both books are very satisfying.

I bet Kyra likes a book with a prickly heroine who finds fulfilling life and exciting and comforting love. I’m hoping that’s the story she’s writing about herself, every day.

I’ll keep my eye out for more Cynthia Voight books, and I’ll read to see if all the heroines are such independent sorts.  I’ll read for the good stories this author seems to weave. And I’ll read so that, when Kyra emails me again, two months, ten months, twenty four months from now, and says, “Hello!  I finished a big project but now I can’t find the right kind of red material,” I can email back and say…”Speaking of RED material, guess what material I read?”

It might be a year or two before I get a response, but I know she’ll be tickled, Kyra will, that I’ve finally taken her good advice.

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