Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Childhood Redux

My name is Katie and I am a reading nerd. As far back as I can remember, I have been more likely to stay in on a Saturday night with a thick book rather than go out dancing or some other such nonsense. After my parents put me to bed, I would lay on the floor and read by the light coming from the door crack. At family gatherings my relatives only saw the cover of whatever book I was reading at the time, my face firmly inserted between its pages for the duration of the festivities. Therefore, I am fully qualified to tell you about Three Books from Childhood that You’ve Forgotten About. I, of course, have not forgotten them, and still pick them up when I am feeling particularly nostalgic, when the challenges of reading “adult” writers like Don Delillo or John Irving get to be a little too much for me, and I crave something simpler, or when I want to curl up under the blankets and disappear for a while.

1. The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. My copy of The Westing Game is wrinkled and warped, as a result of being dropped in the tub. It’s not that kind of book, though. The story is a classic murder-mystery in the tradition of CLUE or Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians: a group of strangers in an apartment building all find out they are heirs to Sam Westing’s fortune, but only the winner of the Westing Game, a twisted, secret-clue-laden maze whose rules are outlined in Westing’s will, will get the money. Of course, you the reader have all the clues in front of you, so you have a chance to “win” before any of the characters do… I couldn’t do it my first read, so I wish you luck. The characters themselves are fascinating: a Polish secretary who fakes a wasting disease, a beautiful young bride-to-be who looks eerily like Westing’s dead daughter (oooh…chills), a spastic delivery boy who turns out to be a … wait, I’m not going to give it all away, you’ll have to find that, and the rest of the secrets, out for yourself.

2. My Side of the Mountain, by ¬¬¬Jean Craighead George. For a long time, I dreamed of living like Sam, the protagonist. Fed up with his boring suburban life, Sam runs away to the Catskill Mountains. He lives in a hollowed-out tree trunk, befriends a hawk, and survives through his common sense (along with a couple of trips to the “wilderness” section of the closest library). The book describes in intricate detail how to tan leather, which plants are edible, and what it is like to live through a winter without the comforts of heat and insulation. Having just gotten the electric bill, I am thinking that this might not be such a far out idea. Although I have not read the other two books in the trilogy (On the Far Side of the Mountain, and Frightful’s Mountain, in order), the effect of this book was strong enough to have me dreaming of living alone in the forest well into my teenage years, when I should have been dreaming of boys and makeup. So go ahead, escape suburbia, expand your world, and get wild…maybe even turn off the heat.

3. The Wonderful O, by James Thurber. I’d suggest you find a copy of this book, whether from the library, used book store, Ebay, or yard sale (unfortunately, it’s out of print) and read it right away. While it may seem like a child’s fantasy book, rich with wordplay and rhyme, this story has a deeper political and cultural message that is important in today‘s unstable society. And it has pirates! Consider this: what would you do if you were outlawed to use the letter O? For one thing, “outlawed” would be “utlawed,” loses it’s power, doesn’t it? And that’s just a letter…consider the loss we’d feel when other things might be (or already have been, perhaps) taken away. This is the question Thurber presents in his book, and his answer is a stunning one: we can live without opals, owls, or oaks, but we will not allow a tyrant to take away our hope, love, valor, or the most important “O” of all…and if you don’t know what it is, you’ll have to read to find out.

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