Sunday, April 23, 2017

World Book Night: Touchstone novels.

Happy World Book Night! This is a UK celebration, but I don't think anyone would complain about people in the United States participating. One of the suggested activities is to recommend a book that has made a difference to you. Not one to do things by halves, here are four novels that resonated with me during various periods in my life.

My first touchstone book was Heidi by Johanna Spyri. The edition I owned looked like this -- it was an abridged version that I received for Christmas from a relative when I was little. This book may be responsible for my obsession with craggy mountains -- as well as my interest in tiny houses, come to think of it. I was enchanted by the account of Heidi living with the Alm-Uncle in his alpine hut. I was especially enchanted with the description of Heidi's bed in that hut. The Alm-Uncle beds her down in the hayloft. One day I did my best to recreate it by tucking in my quilt along the end of my own bed. I didn't have any hay to use as a mattress, though, which was disappointing -- and anyway Mom, who wasn't charmed, made me take it apart.

Later on in elementary school, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott became my favorite novel. Again, I had an abridged version, with only the first half of the book. I was shocked later to discover that there was more to the story -- not only did Meg marry John and have two kids, but Amy ended up marrying Laurie, Jo marries a German professor, and -- most heart-wrenching of all -- Beth died.

Sorry for the spoilers. I thought it would be okay, as the book's been out for almost 150 years.

Anyway, that was my favorite novel until, in eighth grade, I read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Her sister's novel Wuthering Heights is read more often in school, but Jane's story resonated more deeply with teenaged me -- the tragic heroine, the star-crossed lovers, the brooding Mr. Rochester. I deeply felt the injustices the world handed to poor Jane. And then to snatch her chance at love away from her! And how selfless she was, to give so much of her inheritance to the Riverses! I found it fascinating that the most recent movie version, with Mia Wasikowska as Jane, dropped the unlikely coincidence that Jane and the Riverses are related. It did stretch credulity -- even more so than Rochester's eerie cry across the moors that sends her running back to him in the end.

The cover of my paperback copy looked like this -- so very 1970s! -- and I read the scenes between Jane and Rochester so many times that the book fell open at the juicy bits by itself. And all that angst cost just 50 cents!

And then, in the early 1980s, I found The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, the epic fantasy series by Stephen R. Donaldson. I was working at my first radio job in LaPorte, Indiana, when I checked the first trilogy out of the library, and devoured them. Covenant is the quintessential anti-hero -- he's a leper, which was incurable back then, and the disease shatters his life. Somehow he's transported to a magical Land where his leprosy is cured and he's hailed as a hero reborn. Or maybe not. Covenant is faced with a dilemma -- not whether the Land is real, but whether, in the end, it matters.


Covenant's moral quandary resonated with me as a young adult, and gave me a framework for making ethical decisions. What Covenant learns is that no matter how unbelievable the situation you find yourself in, the most important thing is to be true to yourself.

Little did I know how much of an impact that series would have on my life. In 2000, while idly searching the web, I came across several sites dedicated to the series -- including one called Kevinswatch.com. I considered that site my home on the internet for more than fifteen years. Thanks to the Watch, I've met people from across the United States and around the world, many of them in person -- including the author.

Which books are your touchstones? I'd love to hear about them.

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These bloggy touchstones have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
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