Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Book, a Tree and Adolescence

Yesterday I wrote about the loss of a middle school librarian in our town and Tom mentioned it today in his blog along with a wonderful story about Harper Lee's struggle to write To Kill a Mockingbird--if that isn't a middle school book memory nothing is.

I spent every summer of my childhood in Hopkinsville, Kentucky with my grandparents. There was nowhere I would have rather been in the whole world during those years and I can still conjure up the gentle scents and soft southern voices.

The summer between 6th and 7th grade--1971--I spent a lot of time in the notch of a tree in the front yard high above whatever chaos my brother and cousin were hatching. In my leafy hideaway, I ate delicious juicy ripe plums, played with the calico cat that would sometimes join me and read.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird 3 times that summer.

Whether or not that is why I am a lawyer today, I don't really know but I always give Harper Lee the credit.

Hopkinsville in 1971 was not exactly Maycomb, Alabama during the Depression but it wasn't hard to make the leap in my imagination. From my perch in the tree, I could see a lot of people coming and going on the road and the world just beyond my grandparents' home where the folks that worked in the big houses lived.

It would be impossible to choose a favorite part of To Kill a Mockingbird, but one part that I think about almost every day and use in my professional life is where Atticus sets himself up in a chair outside of the jail because he heard that there might be trouble. Scout, Jem and Dill sneak over in the night and see the mob approaching the jail bent on lynching Tom Robinson. Scout runs to her father and faces the mob recognizing one of the men and in her innocent and trusting conversation with him, reminds him and all of the men of who they are.

What are some of the books that shaped you?

15 comments:

TheElementary said...

This is not just a grand memory you recorded but a lovely review of the book. The book both scared me with its tension and made me very sad.
I could just see you up in that tree! This was a particularly vivid post.
I was probably influenced by Nancy Drew, and everything by Enid Blyton. Adventure stories. I'll have to think about that some more. Thanks for the reminder :)

Beth said...

I could have guessed Nancy Drew. I find that almost all of my favorite women enjoyed Nancy Drew. I almost use it for a litmus test on friendship, but not quite.

andrea_frets said...

More recently, Kite Runner has opened my world and led me to explore writers of Middle Eastern descent. Lately, I can't get enough of middle eastern culture and it's opened my eyes to fascinating and rich culture.

Beth said...

oh that is a good one, Andrea. Have you read Reading Lolita in Tehran?

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Beth, my father was an oppressive man. He could be an ogre, dominant and abusive. However, there were also good qualities about him, too. For one, he loved to read and pushed us towards books. Unfortunately, my father didn’t do anything gently. It turned me off to reading and I would refuse to read, even when he made us sit in a room with him and read silently to ourselves from whatever book we each held. In my stubbornness I faked reading. I would turn the page every couple of minutes as if I had been soaking it all in but I didn’t read a word.

I’m not sure when, but I had to look up something in his copy of Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett when I was still young enough to be impressionable. When I opened the book and went in search of what I was looking for, words flew by me like dreams and I was stunned and suddenly in love with the written word. In that book I could see what all the great men and women in history had written and/or said and their words and thoughts were intoxicating.

But having fallen head over heels for this book and the brilliance it contained, I could not give my father the satisfaction of knowing this. We were at war with each, he and I, as he was with most of his children. And so I would wait for him to go out and I would steal the book off the shelf and plunge into its pages. Here Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman and Plato and Roosevelt and Shakespeare and Tennyson came to life. When he’d return home and pull into the driveway I would dash to put the book back on the shelf above his bedroom doorway and retreat quickly to my room, or turn on the television, so that he would never know.

After my father’s funeral a month ago, his nine children gathered in his house and were allowed to grab some things. One of my brothers got my father’s car. Another got his television. Many grabbed photographs. I grabbed that old copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I have another copy, the most recent one, but there’s just something right about that old one sitting here, side-by-side with Atticus on my desk, both watching me write.

(Sorry for the length.)

Beth said...

Tom, what a great story. I remember discovering Bartlett's too and what a feeling of wonder it was. Don't ever apologize about length.

The Texican said...

I started school before I was six and was probably not ready to take on the task. I struggled with being left handed and also with reading. Once I learned to read, I liked it. My mother was a voracious reader. We had sets of Louisa Mae Alcott, Mark Twain, The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. When we were high school age, mother required us to read during the summers. She wanted us to read biographies of famous people. I went to the library and checked out the Life of John Dillenger. Not exactly what she had in mind. She took it and read it herself and checked out some more appropriate books for me. :o)

beckie said...

I was in 5th grade when I discovered reading. The books that could transport you to another place and time. I remember 'For Whom the Bell Tolls'. I loved the story and how Hemingway drew me in with his words. Of course I read all the Nancy Drew mysteries, Alcott's Little Women and Little Men. We didn't have a very big library in that small school, but the books were good ones and I think I read everyone. In high school, I learned History was just like reading a good novel. English was a favorite also because of the required reading. My 2 daughters are great readers as are 5 of the 7 granddaughters, the other 2 being to young to read. But they love being read to.I have read To Kill a Mockingbird numerous times and each time find something new. Rereading special books is like visiting with old friends. Thanks for the chance to think about them once again.

Beth said...

Texican, I love that you checked out a biography of John Dillinger. How funny, you gave that sweet mother of yours a run for her money.

Beckie, it sounds like you and your daughters and granddaughters know how to dive into the wonders that books hold.

The Texican said...

Thanks for correcting my spelling Beth. Once you hit publish and push your thoughts into cyber-space you are left with the option to trash the comment and start over or just look ignorant. I chose the latter to save time. Story of my life.

stamperdad said...

I just recently watched the movie again with Gregory Peck and found it just as fascinating now as many years ago.

What is really amazing to me is the fact that Ms Lee never wrote another book. I heard that she was recently interviewed for the first time in many years.

Steve Davis

beth said...

Beth - thanks for supporting the Maida Vale record - I'm glad you like it!!!

FYI, I read you daily but don't often comment. I loved this last post, too; my 16-year old is reading 'To Kill A Mockingbird' right now and has commented several times on what a great book it is. I think I'll give it a re-read.

Me? I loved Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden as a child. When I hit high school and discovered literature like 'Mockingbird', I was captivated. I've never stopped reading...

Ruth said...

Books were my life when I was growing up as we never had TV at home. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird from the first time I read it for school in Grade 9. I remember writing a very passionate essay, incorporating my thoughts on the apartheid in South Africa which I had grown up with. The movie is well done. There are few movies I enjoy as well as the book.

Kathiesbirds said...

Beth, what an excellent post. I loved reading about this memory. I frequently spent my time and babysititng money on books. I loved horses at the time and suscribed to a horse book club. I still have all those books, Including "My Friend Flicka", "Thunderhead" and "The Green Grass of Wyoming." I loved Nancy Drew Books and "My Side of the Mountain." My mother also bought a set of enclyclopeidas which my brothers, sister and I would read just for fun!

rach :) said...

A Wrinkle in Time series and the Meet the Austin's series, both by Madeline L'Engle. I associated so strongly with Meg, and to this day, references to the stories send me rushing back.