Thursday, April 18, 2013

Always Different, Always the Same

I had the opportunity earlier this week to speak at a once-a-month lunchtime program, co-sponsored by the DePauw University Library and the Putnam County Public Library, called "Books That Made a Difference." I shared the hour with P.T. Wilson, pastor of Gobin United Methodist Church, where I worship here in Greencastle (P.T. also serves as the university chaplain). Our charge: to talk about a book that had made a difference in our lives, and why. P.T. chose Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein.  I chose Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hard Lovelace.

I knew I would choose a children's book, because no books I've read as an adult have touched me as deeply and lastingly as the books I read as a child. Interestingly, P.T. first read Heinlein when he was ten. So we both chose to share a book we had loved in our childhood. The difference between the two of us is that he was reading a grown-up book when he was a child, and as as a grown-up I'm still reading (and writing) books for children.

In my remarks I singled out three things that gave the book its transformative power in my life:

1) It is the story of a girl's beginning to grow into her future career as an author. In the book, Betsy's parents come up with the idea of sending her on weekend excursions to Deep Valley's brand-new Carnegie library so she can read "the classics" rather than simply borrowing the hired girl's dime novels: "Betsy," her mother tells her, "it's a mistake for you to read that stuff. There's no great harm in it, but if you're going to be a writer you need to read good books. They train you to write, build up your mind." The best chapter in this wonderful book is Betsy's first outing downtown to the library, complete with lunch out on her own. Her father says, "Don't hurry home. Stay for a while. Browse around among the books. Every time you go you can take fifteen cents. At noon go over to Bierbauer's Bakery for a sandwich and milk and ice cream. Would you like that?" Oh, who wouldn't! By the end of the book Betsy has submitted her first story for rejection by the Ladies Home Journal and published her first poem in the local newspaper. She is on her way as a writer.

2) The book shows how creativity can be fostered within a loving, supportive community. While so many stories show the young artist as isolated and alienated, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown allows Betsy to develop her talents with the support of loving parents and friends. Throughout the series, all the characters have their dreams and goals affirmed, whether it's Betsy's writing, Julia's singing, or Carney and Bonnie's homemaking. 

3) The book, and the entire series, is suffused with kindness. The problems the characters face are small; the conflicts for the most part easily resolved; the books are filled with love and laughter. So Lovelace modeled for me as a future writer the possibility of creating lasting books built around a positive vision of humanity.

In his remarks about Stranger in a Strange Land, P.T. commented that he loves that he's read the book seven or eight times and each time finds something different. I replied that I love that I've read Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown dozens of times and each time it's the same. Whatever else is happening my my life, or my world, I can enter the space of this book where characters pursue their dreams with the caring support of those who love them. There is no place on earth that I would rather be.

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