The chicken pox made a reader out of me.
My Mom got me through that pesky childhood illness by reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books aloud one chapter at a time as I lay on the couch. The stories of Laura and her pioneer family on the American Prairies intrigued me.
The Long Winter in particular astonished me. All winter the blizzards raged. Every time the men almost got the railroad pass shoveled open, it snowed again.
I didn’t know anyone who had almost starved, or who had to keep grinding wheat in a coffee grinder to make one small loaf of bread, or who twisted hay into sticks all day to keep a fire burning after the coal ran out and the supply train couldn’t get through.
After I got over the chicken pox, I read these books for myself. My Mom bought them as newly re-released hardcovers published by Harper, with illustrations by Garth Williams. I loved the “truth” of their fictionalized version of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood. I still have a 1953 edition of Little Town on the Prairie, with my name, Susan Clemmer, written in it in my handwriting in pencil.
During my late elementary and junior high school years, I decompressed from the school day by losing myself in books in the rocking chair by the dining room window. In high school I happily devoured – late into the night – the classics assigned by our zealous English teachers at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School. In college I majored in English.
After college I landed a job as a book buyer for Provident Bookstores in Ontario, part of a chain of stores owned by the Mennonite Church. I lapped up the advance copies of novels by Margaret Laurence and other CanLit greats of the 1970s, educating myself in the fiction of my adopted homeland.
During those young adult years I was testing my relationship to the spiritual and cultural community which had birthed and nourished me. As a Mennonite, I found parallels between my struggles for identity and direction and those of the young protagonists in the novels of the Jewish writer Chaim Potok.
I loved The Chosen (1967), with its depiction of two teenage boys – Danny Saunders, the son of the Rebbe in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn in the l940s, and Reuven Malter, whose father eventually works to set up the secular state of Israel. Danny believes he’s called to be a psychologist rather than his father’s successor; it takes years for his father to be able to see Danny as “a tzaddick for the world.”
I entered into their struggles as a Mennonite leaving a traditional community, marrying a draft resister and beginning to find my way back to a Mennonite expression that fit for me.
Forty years later, I still regularly immerse myself in fiction. It’s one of the ways I recharge as an introvert. I’m drawn to rich evocative writing, believable but not simplistic plots, and resilient characters. Well-written fiction which takes off from a historical incident or movement especially appeals to me.
In my reading I like to ferret out themes of self-knowledge, grace, forgiveness and hope, but I don’t want to be hit over the head with them!
Questions for Reflection:
Does reading nourish your spirit? If so, what place do fiction and memoir have in your reading diet? In what ways – if at all – do they restore your soul?
Next week: Childhood Hymns Re-purposed