Friday, April 22, 2005

Out of the past

Here's a good exercise in reading: Seek out a crucial book from your childhood. Read it. The greater the distance between the book and you, the more interesting the reading will be.

I've done such reading a number of times, most meaningfully with two formative books. I discovered Clifford Hicks' novel Alvin's Secret Code (1963) in the Boro Park branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in (I think) fourth grade and borrowed it endlessly (thanks, Library!). I bought Jay Bennett's novel Deathman, Do Not Follow Me (1968) in a Scholastic paperback edition in junior high school. I never went for the "classics" of children's literature; my choices were all my own.

Clifford Hicks' novel tells the story of Alvin Fernald, who gets interested in codes and ends up cracking a coded message from the Civil War era (which leads to a buried treasure). In Jay Bennett's novel, high-school student Danny Morgan discovers a forged painting in the Brooklyn Museum. A psychologist might say that I was given to reading about characters who were a little older than me and had more interesting lives. I can't argue. Nor can I remember whether it was my boyhood fascination with codes that sparked my interest in Alvin or vice versa.

I got curious about Alvin in 1997 and borrowed a copy from my public library. In 2003 I somehow remembered Deathman and got a copy through interlibrary loan. (I now have my own copies via Advanced Book Exchange.)

What I found remarkable when I went back to Alvin's Secret Code was that while the plot had long disappeared from my memory, words and sentences and details were still vivid and familiar to me:

Alvin Fernald had a warm, tingly feeling smack in the middle of his stomach.
That sentence describes Alvin's anticipation on Friday afternoon before school's out. I liked everything about it when I was a kid, and still do.
Not even the gray clouds that scudded across the sky, low and threatening with the approach of winter, bothered him.
I loved scudded.
SERIOUS MILLY HIDING THURSDAY.
That's part of the coded message that Alvin's best friend Shoie finds crumpled up in the gutter. I knew a Milly in grade school, which might help to explain my fascination with that sentence. "SERIOUS MILLY HIDING THURSDAY" may have been my first exposure to language-poetry.
He hunched his shoulders inside his jacket and jammed his hands into his pockets to keep them warm.
I loved hunched and jammed.
Sitting down on the curb, he dug through his jacket pockets until he found the stub of a pencil.
I loved dug and stub, and I must have wished that my pockets were as deep as Alvin's.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that reading and rereading Alvin's Secret Code instilled in me a deep love of language. The only comparable childhood experience I can remember is my fascination with the word apoplexy when I read Treasure Island for school in sixth grade.

Jay Bennett's Deathman, Do Not Follow Me has stuck with me in different ways, not so much in words and phrases but in pieces of dialogue and the novel's wintry, ominous atmosphere. As with Alvin, the plot had vanished, but other things remained. Here's Danny with his friend George:
"Soon be winter," George said.

"It will," Danny nodded.

"Feel a cold one coming on. A real cold one."

Danny thought of the expense of a new overcoat and didn't say anything. He would try to get through this winter with his old one but he was sure his mother wouldn't like it. Even though they needed the money, she wouldn't like it.

"Feel it in my bones," George said.
And when the two race through Prospect Park:
They held up quarters to the lamplight, and the silver coins shone and sparkled and almost laughed aloud.
These passages (and I could add another half-dozen) may not look like great writing in any obvious way, but that they came back to me after so many years says something remarkable about Jay Bennett's ability to be evocative and, well, memorable.

A final thing to do: If the authors of your favorite childhood books are living, write to them (real letters if possible, not email) and tell them what their books meant to you. (Start by looking online and in Contemporary Authors.) I was lucky enough to be able to write to and receive replies from Clifford Hicks (in 1997, when he was in his late seventies) and Jay Bennett (in 2003, when was 91, via his son). Telling these writers what their books meant (and mean) to me was like paying a large and longstanding debt.

Related posts
Clifford B. Hicks (1920–2010)
Clifford Hicks’s new Alvin Fernald novel
Jay Bennett (1912–2009)

comments: 5

Kelley Dupuis said...

I also read "Deathman, Do Not Follow Me" when I was in junior high school. I guess I read it, at age 13, because I found the title intriguing. I couldn't remember the author's name, was glad to find the information on your blog. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I got to meet Clifford Hicks as a child. He came to our school and I was one of the children chosen to have an "interview" him. Just meeting a 'real author' meant alot to me. Wow, this guy wrote this book!

Jamie said...

For some reason, this book also comes back to me at random. Just popped into my head today and I googled it to find this blogpost. Glad I'm not alone out there.

I remember very little of the book in specific, but like you, recall the atmospheric impact of it.

Now I'm gonna have to buy it.

tarpo said...

Love the memories of Alvins Secret Code. First time I read it I found a ripped up old copy in my elementary school library.. I don't even recall it having a cover. I loved it but forgot about it for years until I found a (sadly unpurchased) copy at a book sale. Such a fun book. I need to get myself a copy at this point just to re-read it and get it back onto my bookshelf

Michael Leddy said...

You’ll like knowing that the new paperback preserves all details of the original text — nothing has been updated.