Last month my daughter told me she was searching for something new to read. My memory lit up like a Christmas tree as I thought of books from my childhood that might interest her. I requested several of them from the library, and picking them up felt like receiving a collection of nostalgic gifts.
Wouldn’t you know she didn’t open even one.
I couldn’t bring myself to return the books unread, so one by one, I reopened pages that seemed as connected to my past as any other memory. Homecoming...Bridge to Terabithia...Hatchet...Homesick...My Side of the Mountain...and...Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
And it’s funny. I noticed that aside from overwhelming nostalgia, I barely remembered the texts. I recalled my local children’s librarian commenting on how she had a very different experience as an adult with the books she first read at a young age.
But as I made my way through the short stack of childhood classics, I noted repeated themes and considered how they shaped my interests and the way I live my life. It could have happened the other way around. I could have already had the interests that attracted me to these books in the first place. But either way, noticing the connections drew these characters -- and the authors behind the stories -- even closer to my heart.
Dicey Tillerman (Homecoming) and Jess Aarons (Bridge to Terabithia) both have a love for running. Many of the stories (Homecoming, Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) involve survival strategies -- whether in the city or in the wilderness or in a hostile and segregated society. These stories value imagination and time spent in nature. They involve siblings relying on each other (Homecoming, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry), or kids relying on themselves (Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain). They all share a longing for home, for a new home or for a restored home.
At the end of several journeys, characters learn independence. They also learn how to be contributing members of a group. All of the characters draw closer to their families and see themselves more clearly as members of those families. Some of the characters are also challenged to question how they fit into society.
I’m not sure I picked up on the theme of community during my first reading of these stories. This time through though, I also paid attention to the changing attitudes of the societies the characters found themselves in...as well as those societies’ attitudes toward change. I read these stories in the context of time, noting their publication dates and the origins of their authors.
It’s funny how when you’re a child, the past constitutes anything that was yesterday or before. And today is the only today you know. To a child, the world is much more black and white.
As an adult I read these stories in the context of our living history, where even centuries produce very little change, and where most of us live in the gray.
Mildred D. Taylor based her work Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976) on her father’s memories from the Great Depression. She describes grownup issues like WWI and racism and reconstruction and the Civil War and slavery. But she presents them through a child’s eyes and through a child’s troubles. As Cassie Logan learns self-respect and independence, she also learns about expectations society forces upon her. The Logan children, like most children, spend a lot of time and energy into making friendships and trying to figure out what makes a good friend. They learn that their society has placed limits on who they can be friends with. Their dad describes the way things are. He adds that someday things may change, but that they haven’t yet.
“We Logans don’t have much to do with white folks. You know why? ‘Cause white folks mean trouble. You see blacks hanging ‘round with white, they’re headed for trouble. Maybe one day whites and blacks can be real friends, but right now the country ain’t built that way. Now you could be right ‘bout Jeremy making a much finer friend that T.J. ever will be. The trouble is, down here in Mississippi, it costs too much to find out….So I think you’d better not try.” (158)
I cried more and felt more indignation at the injustices in Taylor’s story than I remember feeling when I was a child. It may be that I have a better understanding of history now, or that I have a better understanding of how these issues are ongoing, how the roots of racism still flavor the culture of today. Or maybe it’s harder to read now through the lens of being a mother -- it’s so hard to explain injustice and crime to your kids. For example, after the Las Vegas shooting in the fall of 2017 my kids noticed that the flags in front of the schools were flying half mast. I decided to tell them why. They were quiet for a moment, and then my oldest son asked in a small voice, “Then Mommy, bad guys are real?” It was a moment of crushing reality.
Decades later, when the Logans are grown and when Sam Gribley from My Side of the Mountain (1959) runs away from NYC to live off the land in the Catskills, society still hasn’t changed. Toward the end of Jean Craighead George’s tale, Sam’s English Professor friend breaks the reality of it to him:
“Let’s face it, Thoreau; you can’t live in America today and be quietly different. If you are going to be different, you are going to stand out, and people are going to hear about you; and in your case, if they hear about you, they will remove you to the city or move to you and you won’t be different anymore.” (168)
These characters bravely fight for the change they can, even when you know it’s futile or slow-going. As Cassie’s father explains,
“I want these children to know we tried, and what we can’t do now, maybe one day they will.” (165)
These books also touch on the theme of learning to trust. Dicey Tillerman doesn’t trust policemen or any grownups; she finally takes a chance on a couple of college students and shares her story. Jess Aarons is taught not to trust rich people. Cassie Logan is taught not to trust white people; her brother is told not to be friends with them.
I think of this from a parent’s perspective now and realize that who we teach our kids to trust depends on our socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Take this example: if your child finds himself lost, who would you advise he seek out for help?
Would you buy him a smartwatch with texting/phone features to contact you directly and so circumvent the problem? Would you tell him to stay put where he is and that you will find him? Would you tell him to seek out a police officer or some other official in uniform? Or would you tell him to avoid the police?
The advice I’ve latched onto is to have your child memorize your phone number as soon as they are capable and then advise them to seek out a mother and ask if she can call home. In a recent discussion on safety, my family brainstormed where to go for help in different situations -- places like libraries, schools, and neighbors’ homes. And I did tell my kids they could speak to someone in uniform, like a policeman or fireman. (I am also preparing bright neon shirts with our phone numbers printed on them for our upcoming trip to Disney World.)
Now, to tie all of these themes together, I have a love for running...and for disaster films where characters have to work out how to survive in intense and ever-changing circumstances (2012 and The Day After Tomorrow are two all time favorites!). I remember trying to run away from home at least once...and not getting beyond the packing process (there was too much I wanted to bring with me!). I remember enjoying multi-day excursions into the Northern Wisconsin wilderness as part of overnight camp. And since then, I feel the restorative value of the great outdoors every time I getaway for a nature fix.
I have learned that I value having community around me. I want my own kids to have a better understanding and sensitivity for how communities form within the norms of society. I want to foster our imaginations to dream of how society still needs to change and then help work towards those goals. Then maybe someday my children will reread the books of their youth and see how far we’ve come.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.