October 21, 2009

Important Books

I was listening to a radio show about books that changed people’s lives. The interviews were funny, profound, moving, and interesting. It made me wonder whether there was a book that had changed my own life. I’m not sure I could name one but there are three books that have somehow have stayed with me from childhood.

One is a book I first heard when my mother read it to her fourth grade classroom after lunch. It was a small school with one teacher per grade so I was in her class, that year and the next in a different school. Every day, she read to us. Some of the kids listened, some put their heads down on the hard wooden desks and had a nap, some probably daydreamed about being somewhere other than school with its smell of banana oil, chalk dust, and warm sweaty children. But I listened to the stories. One of the books she read to us was On to Oregon by Honore Morrow. It is the story of a 12 or 13 year old boy and his family who set out to travel cross-country in a covered wagon. I can’t remember now if they were part of a wagon train or not, but at some point they ended up traveling alone, and both parents died. The boy, John, got his brothers and sisters over the mountains and finally to Oregon. It was a story of hardship and heroism, of stunning self-sufficiency. And I loved it.

The second book was one I read myself: The Boxcar Children. I don’t remember much about the specifics, except that a group of orphaned children basically lived on their own in an abandoned boxcar, foraging for food, furnishing the place, and supporting themselves. They made a home in the boxcar, cooked their food, and stayed together. It is the kind of thing that was perhaps plausible in the 1920s or 1930s when the book was written but certainly not now. I was fascinated by their self-reliance, their ability to function in a world with no adults. The story is kind of a precursor to Charlie Brown, where the children are the major characters and the adults are shadowy figures whose unintelligible words float over the children's heads while they live their own full and wonderful world with its own woes and drama.

The last book was one I kept checked out of the county library for weeks at a time. Lucky Mrs. Ticklefeather (which I remember as Mrs. Ticklefeather and Puffin Paul) was a most unlikely book to catch the fancy of a child growing up on a farm. The lead character was “a very thin old lady with a good sized feather in her hat” who lived in a high-rise apartment – something I had never seen in my whole life. She had been married (Mrs.) but there was no Mr. Ticklefeather. Instead, she lived with a puffin – another thing I had never seen. “Mrs. Ticklefeather and Paul were very fond of each other.” And she was also very fond of sunflowers. So one day Paul set out to get her a sunflower. She was distressed about his absence and called the police to find him. The story is all about the search for Paul, culminating in his rescue from certain death – holding a sunflower in his puffin beak -- by the police officer. All is happy at the end is when Paul returns home with the sunflower, and he and Mrs. Ticklefeather are reunited.

What made me love this story so much that even today I am occasionally referred to in my family as “Mrs. Ticklefeather?” I’m not sure. It is interesting to me, in retrospect, that the woman lives on her own in a city (as I do), is closely connected to the police (as I am), cherishes a non-human creature (in my case, Mr. Manny), and considers herself very, very, very, very lucky. Maybe this little book is not one that changed my life so much as one that foretold important pieces of it. And it is especially wonderful that my mother searched for years for a copy for me so that now I can read it any time I want without having to check it our from the county library. Lucky Mrs. Ticklefeather indeed!

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