Saturday, November 29, 2003

Three Wonderful Writers

Today is the birthday of three writers who created children's classics (along with a lot of other favorites).

1832: Louisa May Alcott
1898: CS Lewis
1918: Madeleine L'Engle

Tomorrow is Mark Twain's birthday; he was three years younger than Alcott. Hmm. They must have met. He lived in Hartford, after all, though that may have been after her death. She knew every literary figure in New England, plus plenty of visiting writers. Imagine going to a party to meet, say, Oscar Wilde and the author of Jo's Boys. She grew up knowing all the Concord writers -- Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne. But what she did was extraordinary.

Alcott was one of the first people to write honestly about children's lives -- both the rages and the love. There are nasty siblings and good siblings in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, but no indication that the ideal Rivers family ever descended to the nastiness of the Reed children. Anyone who has had siblings knows that rivalry and even soricidal violence do happen. Some of us are lucky enough to know that the bond of sisterhood also entails great love and loyalty.

Yes, Little Women is preachy. That's fine by me, since it's one of the books that raised me. CS Lewis was another of my literary parents. Not the Narnia books, which I didn't read until I was 14. But I had the first two books of the SF trilogy from the day I turned 7. It took me another seven years to find the third book. I read and reread Screwtape from the time I was 12 or so, and I'd read all his major works by the time I was 16. Not only did Lewis give me a kind of morality, he taught me ways of thinking -- and that thinking, reading, writing could be godly. A welcome antidote to the attitude of my home church, which was that there's only one Book that matters.

[My God, how the books of those years *marked* me. The essays in WH Auden's The Dyer's Hand, which I found in seventh grade, helped shape the way I think. I read and reread in those days, ravenous for new ideas. The memory of reading Dylan Thomas for the first time is physical, three-dimensional -- the spring sunlight in the seventh-grade classroom, my seat by the wall switch, myself reading transfixed until I had swallowed them all. Like drinking honey, I thought then.

I still remember finding my copy of Again, Dangerous Visions in a used bookstore in Scranton. I was 14 and fresh from an appointment with my orthodontist. The book was on the bottom shelf; I sat on the floor and thumbed through it until "When It Changed" caught my eye. I read the story right there, on the floor, and cried unashamed. I bought it for a quarter, and the book traveled with me to college, all the apartments, all the houses, and came with me here to California. The bookstore, which also sold guns, is long gone; the building now houses the real estate office where I signed the papers selling the last house my ex-husband and I owned together.]

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time I read in fifth or sixth grade, and I still remember the electric thrill of its ending. But, though Meg is a strong heroine, it did not speak to my condition. (Reading about one more goddamned happy family wasn't going to be any help to me then. ) Later, though, I read her adult novels and her nonfiction, and these I have found extraordinarily beautiful and moving. Through her I discovered Soror Mariana Alcoforado, who (possibly) wrote The Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun. And she is the author of one of my favorite quotations: There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of deepest messages of the incarnation. Her combination of deep faith, awareness of the world, and unflinching honesty have made her work important to me. But in an adult way -- that's different.

Louisa May Alcott and CS Lewis freed me to be a writer. In some sense, they are my literary parents. Happy birthday, then, to a loving mother and father. I hope my work touches even one life as yours has touched mine.

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