As a seven-year-old child I read On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In between reading and sleeping, I haunted the woods behind our Grand Falls-Windsor home. There was a big rock where my friends and I played house, but most importantly there was the pond where we played “On the Banks of Plum Creek.”
My fascination with nature was largely borne of this book. Near that tiny pond I sometimes frolicked alone among the rushes, breaking them off and blowing bubbles at insects through the hollow stems; during that magical time, I was Laura in the 1860s. I had found a way to live history.
After work this past Tuesday I went to the library and checked out that old favourite to read with my daughter.
I’ve always reverently drawn in a breath of spicy old book smell upon entering my library – I have entered this space the same way for at least thirty-five years now. On Tuesday, though, I really thought about that breath and I saw that, to me, the library had always been more than a place to house books.
On Tuesday I walked to the shelf where On the Banks of Plum Creek was. It was the same copy I had cherished so many years ago. I found myself staring at the check-out cards in the back of the book. I could see date stamps from 1981 and 1982 and 1983, and I knew that many of those stamps were placed at my request, because as a child I returned to this book at least four times a year.
The book has not changed a bit. Laura, clad in her homespun dress, is still jumping in the prairie grass, and Jack the dog is still lying in the cool under the wagon, and the creek is trickling placidly by the little dug-out where Ma and Mary wait. Every night, my daughter and I talk about the cover as we get ready to read, and I marvel at her little hands touching the same smooth pages mine did so many years ago.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had that experience. The time-worn copy of Old Yeller I borrowed from my library time and again as a child is the same copy my eldest son read when he was eight. This sad book was his first literary love, and he read parts of it to his brother on our family vacation that year. I watched them in wonder, as their eyes raced across the same printed words mine had, when I was small.
Time loops on itself, generation to generation, with the love of a good book.
When I was playing behind our house as a child, it was effortless to assume the role of shopkeeper or orphan, washing girl or pirate, pioneer or robber. Through visits to my library, I was exposed to the complete works of Charles Dickens, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl.
I read all the Emily of New Moon and Anne of Green Gables books, The Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Treasure Island, The Call of the Wild, Black Beauty, Bridge to Terabithia and dozens more. Because of all the reading I did I actually thought I had visited numerous places I hadn’t. I remember realizing at about the age of fifteen that I really had never been to London or, in fact, any part of Europe at all. Likewise, I thought I had been to the Yukon during the gold rush but upon reflection I realized I had not.
When you read about a time or a place enough, you really do think that you had been there. Or, at the very least, you learn a lot about it.
As I grew a little older, I became fascinated with myths and legends of aboriginal peoples. Then I read stories of colonialism and conquest, and I grieved the losses of First Nations people while reading on my flat rock in the woods. Sometimes, in those woods, I took off my shoes and padded around with socks as moccasins. I believed I could feel the spirits of the Beothuck people, and I agonized over their fate at the hands of our forefathers.
Shortly after, I moved on to a survey of the Canadian canon – everything from Stephen Leacock to Farley Mowat. Then came Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Carol Shields, Alice Monroe – I was captivated by the works of these strong Canadian female authors. Throughout my twenties I could always count on my library to provide all the new Newfoundland literature on offer – among others, Donna Morrissey, Wayne Johnston and Michael Crummey produced much-loved classics during this time.
When I returned home from university for my first visit, I went to my library. I remember feeling ironic as I ran into my high school English teacher between the book stacks and informed him that I was now working on a degree in English. I do not think he was very impressed and, indeed, there are many of us who have studied English simply because we love to read and write, but I am so glad that I did.
But it was only this past Tuesday, as I gazed at On the Banks of Plum Creek with the new knowledge that over half of our province’s libraries would be closed, that I realized how much my library had meant to me as a developing reader and citizen of the world.
If one has read widely, she has been exposed to all the joys and trials of the human condition. Want to develop imagination, creativity and empathy in children? Read to them. Bring them to book-rich places from a young age and nourish their minds and spirits. Put real books in their hands and talk about the pictures. Use stories and art and poetry and music and characters and fresh air and the natural world to teach – it is the best way. For small children, it may be the only way to live and learn history.
I was fortunate to have a library in my town and parents who valued reading and education. Every child should be so fortunate. We cannot afford to build new libraries. We cannot even refurbish the ones we have. But perhaps we could find a way to just keep them open.
Yes, I have read so much that sometimes the line between reality and fantasy is blurred for me. But I also think that I have read enough to know that occasionally – not often enough, but occasionally – backward-thinking decisions are reversed.
Article by Janine Taylor-Cutting