A November morning, and I was eleven years old. Home with the flu, coughing, sleeping, drinking tea with honey and lemon. Open, on the bed next to me, a weathered and ancient book: The Knave of Diamonds, by the largely forgotten author Ethel M. Dell.
This was not really a book aimed at eleven year old boys.
I was sleeping in this room so my coughing wouldn’t keep my brother awake. He had early band practice, and because he was a special little flower, we dared not impair his precious sleep. So, I was banished to this weird, cluttered, other room to sleep, the one with the rickety narrow shelf containing books from my mom’s childhood – books like this one. Boredom had impelled me to reach out the ten inches to my left and see what the book was all about.
I had chosen this particular book at random. The Way of An Eagle and The Lamp in the Desert were two other titles I remember being there — there had to be at least ten others.
Opening up that book was like entering some kind of anti-boy counter-culture. It seemed to be (and I’m going from memory, here) an endless cavalcade of girls flirting with boys while attending costume balls. However – and this was the dramatic part, I think – as the heroine flirted, she was torn between poles of worry: that she was perhaps being too girlish or maybe trying too hard to be grown up. The whole thing was completely incomprehensible to me at that age. I remember reading its opening chapters, turning pages, vainly hoping for a super-hero to appear or there to be a crime that needed an eleven year old detective to solve.
I won’t keep you in suspense: I never finished the book. I decided that coughing was a more interesting way pass to time.
My mom loved those books – in fact, she still does, at age eighty-five – but the romantic sensibility they embodied was a complete cipher to me. Nothing actually seemed to happen in the book — at least, nothing in the eyes of a boy the age I was.
I asked my mom, just last year, on the phone, what exactly it was that she loved so much about those books. She said:
“Well, you have to remember that we were genuinely poor and owned nothing… in her books, there was this entire world of romance, and intrigue, and riches… I remember that I read my first one when I was thirteen; my oldest sister* gave it to me the day she and your uncle moved away… they are silly books, I know, but, I still think of them as the greatest books in the world… think of it this way: I couldn’t change one thing about the world I actually lived in, but I could escape it, through those books, and live in a better one… one where I was not surrounded by squalor or worried about my dad’s drinking or where we’d get our next meal… or if we’d even get a next meal.”
Escape: it means everything to people who are imprisoned.
By the way, if you were to look up the (very successful in her lifetime) author of the aforementioned book, you would find that she was critically pilloried in her day for the twin crimes of writing escapist literature and making a good living at it. The critical mind has not changed much in the last hundred or so years.
I take the contrarian view, however: to me, escape is one of the greatest things the arts can, or ever could, offer. If literature always reflected life “as it is”, it would mean, for some readers, no chance of any kind to escape whatever prison they find themselves in. In 1945, at age 13, my mom didn’t need “The Grapes of Wrath” — she pretty much had the Great Depression thing down — she needed something to take her away from her life. I’m grateful that she was able to find escape through books like The Knave of Diamonds.
So: for all of you authors and illustrators of children’s books, read at bedsides all over the world; for all you writers of westerns, and detective stories, and romances, that take people away for a while from whatever stresses they face; for all of you people who make a movie, or a television show, or anything else that’s there simply to entertain people — for all of you and to all of you, I offer thanks. You may never get critical recognition, but you touch people’s lives – sometimes, you even change them, like that thirteen year old girl in upstate New York back in 1945, reading about girls attending balls, who dreamed of leaving poverty, and gradually and eventually did.
Speaking of escape, in a future blog post: how I escaped that horrible room.
* My mom was the thirteenth of fifteen children, and her oldest sister (my Aunt Grace) was twenty-eight years older than her. Aunt Grace probably got the book when it was new; before the depression, the family wasn’t as poor.
For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.