Every once in a while, a book presents an insurmountable obstacle. Sometimes I see it coming, and sometimes it’s a total surprise.
A small English village; a stoic young headmistress. A cleaner with a conveniently bum leg, a drunken daddy, a mama with delusions of fashion. Gentle conflicts, warm friendships, and the cozy home-loving environment of the English countryside. Several years ago, I came across the Miss Read books, and they seemed like everything I could want in a comforting, gentle read. They seemed, in fact, like they might be very close to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books. I once devoured those books; I was delighted to have found something that might match up.
‘Miss Read’ was the pseudonym for Dora Jessie Saint (1913-2012), a schoolteacher, novelist, wife, and mother. Miss Saint began publishing in 1955 and continued until the mid-1990’s. She wrote two series of books. In the Fairacre novels, her pseudonym was also the narrator, a schoolteacher who is vitally involved in, yet maintains the perspective to sharply report on, village life. In the stories of Thrush Green, Saint adopts a third person narrator, and the series, it’s said, explores the foibles and exploits of another fictional English village.
I’ve been stockpiling the books for a couple of years now, picking them up on clearance racks and at library sales, holding them in reserve for a good snuggle-in-the-chair reading binge. And just this past week, Thanksgiving holidays providing time and nostalgia, I thought: it’s time. I’d challenged myself with some non-fiction and some novels that made me work, forced me to stretch. I thought I’d reward that effort with some books I could sink right into, letting myself wander in the quiet calm of a nicer time in a picturesque countryside.
Village School is the first book in the series, and it obligingly drew me in. I had taught, early on, in a parochial school, where we made do on a small budget–we found creative ways to get extra books and art supplies and fund field trips and young writers’ events, for instance. The school in Fairacre had much greater challenges: those teachers didn’t even have indoor plumbing. Nor did they have planning periods or a break when their classes went to ‘specials’. But clearly wonderful learning took place, and the atmosphere was one of love and compassion.
I found myself liking the acerbic Miss Read very much, and I rooted for her in her efforts to teach the yearning young son of the village drunk. I wanted her to succeed in her quest to get her class ready for the exams that would determine their next steps–a good secondary school or the technical school that was a warehouse for everyone else. I admired her deep regret for Miss Clare, her elderly teaching partner, who taught the infants. Miss Clare devoted her life to teaching until her health finally betrayed her. Both she and Miss Read were core-rocked when Miss Clare had to retire.
I LIKED Miss Read; I would have loved to meet her for coffee and discuss teaching philosophies, share techniques and favorite stories. I would have loved to visit that imaginary but very real village.
So I was completely flummoxed, when reading on page 145 about bright Cathy’s tireless quest to prepare for the placement exam, to find this sentence: If this was the way to get to Caxley High School with its untold joys and games, gymnastics, acting, and never-ending supply of library books, why, then she’d work like a nigger and get there!
Shock jangled down my spine, and I had to read the sentence again to see if that blatant use of a word I have trouble typing, even in a quote, was for real. And there it was, big as 16-print font in the large print edition I’d scored at the library’s buck-a-bag book sale. Its use was so matter-of-fact, so unapologetic, that I had to put the book down and wait for my reaction to settle. I had to think about this.
….about my beautiful biracial granddaughter, and how I would react if she ever had to deal with such nonchalantly commonplace racist language. I can’t read that book any more, I thought.
…about the times in which the book was published: 1955, the year, in fact, of my birth. Things were not very enlightened in 1955, of course; but the civil rights movement had begun, would gain leverage in the 60’s and 70’s; great change would happen. Could I read the book as an artifact of a less enlightened time? I thought that I might have to try.
I thought, too, about a graduate course I’d taken on Mark Twain–there were twelve students in that seminar, and one was a black man, Eric. And we were reading Huckleberry Finn, in which Twain exposes the narrowness and bigotry of the day by vivid use of dialogue, including derogatory terms. We could, none of us, bring ourselves to say those terms aloud, and finally, Eric exploded. “For God’s sake,” he said, “just read what it says! We’re reading a book; we have to be able to use the words and talk about them.”
Sheepishly, we tried, but it wasn’t easy, and so the discussions were often stilted and unsatisfying. We couldn’t get beyond the vocabulary and into the meaning.
Was the same thing at work in Miss Read’s book? I wondered. Was the offhand use of a term I found deeply offensive derailing my reading, keeping me from appreciating the content?
I tried to go back to the book, tried to be forgiving, but I found I just couldn’t engage.
The next day I met my friend Kim, a writer and a wordsmith and a crusader for all that is just, for coffee in her little town, a 45 minute drive from mine. My son James, who is autistic and literal and has a finely developed sense of right and wrong, joined us.
When everyone had their coffee and scones and muffins and sandwiches, we plunged into talk. Kim caught us up on mutual friends, and Jim reported on his job search, and we talked about writing and heroes and Kim’s health and then we got around–as we always do–to a discussion of books. I told them about that sentence, and I told them how hard I was finding it to read about that pleasant little village with any sense of pleasure.
There was a small silence.
“WHAT did the sentence say?” Kim asked, and I reluctantly repeated it one more time.
The two of them looked at me in shock, and then Jim said, “I know what I’d do. I’d get rid of that book. Racism isn’t okay just because it’s OLD.”
Kim, in her gentle but definitive way, agreed, and their reactions freed me to do something I was taught NEVER to do: give up on a book without finishing it.
Dora Jessie Saint was probably a well-meaning product of her times. Her work is likened to Jane Austen’s; she was recognized by her government for her contributions to literature. She certainly noticed people and observed life and created a quirky and believable English village.
The New York Times, in its 2012 obituary, said this of Mrs. Saint’s work: “There is ample humor, little real menace, no sex and not a jot of intemperate language.”
But I find that not to be true. The word ‘nigger’–used offhandedly and as an accepted term–seems very menacing to me–even more menacing, maybe, in its offhandedness than when used to shock or incite. Of course we belittle our neighbors this way, that says to me. It may only have happened once in all of Mrs. Saint’s book, but it poisoned them for me. I tried to read on, tried to read about the children she was teaching, but I could only think about the children she wasn’t. No little brown fictional faces in that school; no neighbors of color in that quaint village.
And I would term the N-word ‘intemperate language.’
Am I over-reacting? I don’t know, but I do know the charm and the pleasure of the books is completely lost. I turned 60 this year, a very good age, I think, but also an age for contemplation. And one of the things that occurs to me is that I have finite reading time. I am not going to spend that time reading books with language that makes me squirm.
I wish you joy in your reading, my friends!