The holiday season finds me grateful for the profound reading experiences of childhood. Remember when reading a book was living the book? Certain books and authors left a mark on my reading, my writing, and my life. And for the reading of my childhood, I owe special gratitude to my great-aunt Mildred Campbell.
My grandfather’s baby sister Midge was small but mighty. She grew up on the family’s strawberry farm in Tennessee. Witty and determined, Mildred became a history professor at Vassar College. Her cozy house on College Avenue in Poughkeepsie was full of books─including a shelf for the Oxford English Dictionary. She loved books and words; talked a lot; read a lot; wrote a lot. Sleeping over was like spending the night in a library; breakfast was a solo story-teller’s convention. The preparation of eggs and English muffins (the extent of her culinary repertoire) required her full attention, then followed the leisurely morning in the sunny dining room drinking cup after cup of tea as Mildred held forth. Watching her eat was like watching Sisyphus eternally rolling his rock uphill: she would almost get a bite into her mouth, and then halt with the fork mid-air. Talking was more important than eating. I aspired to my idealized child’s vision of her scholar’s life. Presented with the perennial foolish grown-up’s conversation gambit, What do you want to be when you grow up? I answered, A historian. What exactly did a historian do? I wasn’t sure, but it involved living in a book-lined house drinking tea. Clearly the gig for me.
Every Christmas my brother and I each received a book, dated and inscribed “Merry Christmas, Aunt Mildred.” Sometimes the gift was a traditional classic, more often a recent book that would go on to become a classic. She claimed the choices were made for her by a wise clerk in the campus bookshop. Perhaps, but I know she deliberated, perusing the fly-leaf, reading the first pages, before executing her discerning decision. Over the years, Mildred gifted me with The Borrowers by Mary Norton, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, The Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. Great “juvenile fiction” is really just great fiction─stories of authentic characters coping with particular but universal dilemmas, inhabiting a fully described world.
Mildred was a serious scholar─her life’s work was a study of the English yeoman class─but she wasn’t a snob. She loved historical fiction, especially stories told from the point of view of an ordinary witness to important events (rather like her yeomen). She introduced me to the genre with Robert Lawson’s brilliant, and brilliantly funny, Ben and Me and Mr. Revere & I─colonial history as observed by Ben Franklin’s mouse and Paul Revere’s horse. And one of my favorites: Hitty Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field. Over the course of two hundred pages, Hitty, a wooden doll from Maine, travels the world during a century of momentous events.
I didn’t grow up to become a historian─though everywhere I’ve called home has been well-stocked with books and tea. No, I wasn’t suited for the real scholar’s life. Practicing psychotherapy and, more recently, writing fiction are the paths I chose, or the paths that chose me. Mildred would be pleased I’m writing again after a long interruption, and pleased my novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, is historical fiction told by an ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances. It would interest her that the story is inspired by a footnote to WWII history, the detainment of Japanese diplomats at a Pennsylvania resort hotel near our family’s summer home and her own father’s birthplace.
We write what we love to read, we read what we love to write, and perhaps we write for those we love. I miss Aunt Mildred, and I miss her well-chosen books. Now when books arrive in the mail for review, opening the package has a familiar tingle─like opening her gifts. And sometimes, it’s as though the publisher is my Aunt Mildred, sending along a well-realized historical novel, told somewhat slant from an unexpected point of view. Among the 2016 releases I enjoyed are Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning, a story of Thomas Jefferson and his families from the point of view of his daughter Martha; News of the World by Paulette Jiles, the post-Civil War journey of a child rescued from captivity among the Indians and the man charged with returning her to family; and Suzanne Joinson’s The Photographer’s Wife─a tale of a young girl in British occupied Jerusalem in the 1920’s, and the long-reaching ramifications twenty years later in England.
This holiday season, why not be your own Aunt Mildred? Visit a favorite independent bookshop and select something special─classic or contemporary. Inscribe it to yourself; take a break from festive frenzy, and read. And for a time, live in the story.