Home

The Pushcart War

2 Comments

Pushcart WarThe Pushcart War
by Jean Merrill

This is an oldie-but-goodie, a great favorite of my childhood. I remember reading it aloud with my sister during a backyard campout one summer night, shooing away the moths and mosquitoes flitting between the flashlight bulb and the page. It’s short enough to read the entire thing in an evening, and it’s pure pleasure, taking me back to the cheerful reading days of girlhood.

It’s the story of how the New York City pushcart peddlers realized that they were being bullied out of their traditional place in city life by the growth of modern traffic, especially by the increasing size and aggressiveness of mammoth trucks. The pushcarts are taking the blame for the city’s traffic ills, charged with being slow and obstructive. How are the pushcart peddlers to make the public see that the trucks, not the pushcarts, are the cause of the traffic jams?

The underdogs launch a clever war of public relations on the behemoths. Their chosen weapon — a pea-shooter whose peas have been spiked with pins. Their targets — the tires of the trucks. When hundreds of disabled trucks have tied up the city’s traffic, while hundreds of pushcarts are merrily weaving through the traffic jams to do business as usual, it seems that the war is won. But the truckers still have a few dirty tricks up their sleeves, and the story has quite a few twists and turns before the satisfying conclusion.

It’s always good rousing fun to read a story in which merry little underdogs beat their giant enemies with cleverness and perseverance. It’s even better when the story has a good heart and a warm kindness all through it. The truck drivers are mostly ordinary Joes who don’t mean to do any harm, just trying to make a living, and simply blind to the fact that they are part of the problem. Many of them come to realize that the peddlers are making a valid point, and to even laugh at themselves. The two true baddies in the story — the power-hungry trucking tycoon Louie Livergreen and the violent-tempered road rage trucker Albert P. Mack — are the exceptions.

It’s easy to become fond of the other characters — the feisty old apple peddler General Anna and the Pushcart King Maxie Hammerman, the inept comic villain Big Moe and the beleaguered Police Commissioner, movie star Wanda Gambling and the besieged Mr. and Mrs. Posey in their pea packaging plant. The book is a comedy, so the characters are quick light sketches without personal depth, but all are lively and funny.

In a book with an admittedly silly plot and simple characters, there must be something to account for my delight in this story as a child, and for the fact that it still can make me smile today. The sense that it’s a kind of fantastic fable, that’s part of it. Obviously it’s a fable about war, disguised as comic slapstick. It begins with a mock “Foreword by Professor Lyman Cumberly of New York University, author of The Large Object Theory of History” —

It is very important to the peace of the world that we understand how wars begin. Unfortunately, most of our modern wars are too big for the average person even to begin to understand. They take place on five continents at once. One has to study geography for twenty years just to locate the battlefields. They involve hundreds of armies, thousands of officers, millions of soldiers, and weapons so complicated that even the generals do not understand how they work. The extraordinary thing about the Pushcart War is that a child of six will grasp at once precisely how the weapons worked. The Pushcart War is the only recent war of which this can be said. The result is that we have been having more and more wars simply because the whole procedure is so complicated that peace-loving people give up trying to understand what is going on.

Beneath all the silliness, there are issues worth thinking about. The pushcart peddlers are trying their best to fight a just war, and in their own way they address many issues that are worth thinking about. The pacifist Mr. Jerusalem raises the thorny question of whether it is right to shoot pins into the tires of truck drivers who have never personally harmed him. “There are not troubles enough in the world? Why should I make more?” he wonders. The swaggering hot dog peddler Harry must be reined in by the other peddlers when he takes aim, not at tires, but at people. Threatening to confiscate his pea-shooter, General Anna warns him firmly, “We are not shooting at innocent people. That will only make trouble.” War is not presented as a thing admirable or glorious in itself, but as a reluctant choice that may sometimes be forced upon people who are under such pressure that they see no other option. But as the peddlers insist, if a war is to be fought at all, it must be a last resort, and it must do as little harm as possible.

When the pea-shooter campaign must be called off, after the arrest of Frank the flower peddler and the raid on Posey’s Pea Plant, the pushcart peddlers are forbidden to carry their weapons on the streets under penalty of law. They turn to the tactics of protest, a confrontational march through the streets, a demonstration to say “We are still here”, abiding by the law while simultaneously challenging it. When this book was written, in 1964, the use of public demonstration was a tactic at the forefront of the civil rights movement, from lunch counters to bus stations, and only a year later would come the great march from Selma to Montgomery. The danger faced by the people who marched in real-life protests was reflected in the children’s book, as Mack the trucker deliberately drives his rig head-on into the marching peddlers. The many real-life civil rights protesters who went willingly to jail for the cause also had their counterpart in this book, as Frank goes cheerfully to jail with his head held high, taking the rap for 18,000 flat tires so that the other peddlers will be free to carry on the fight.

So did a a silly slapstick children’s book sow seeds of serious real-life issues in my young thoughts, all the while making me laugh. Good enough reason to revisit this little story once in a while.

Advertisements

The Age of Miracles — a fresh thought

Leave a comment

Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker

It’s time for the annual If All Rochester Read the Same Book event. The 2015 choice turns out to be a book that I’ve already read; — in fact, I wrote about it here on this blog in December 2012.  I’m not going to post about it in detail again. But I’ve just done a quick re-read of it, so as to have it fresh in mind when I go to the library lecture later this week. And this time around, the book is mixed in my thoughts with other books I’ve read more recently.

Over at LibriVox, I’ve recently worked on a project about the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and another about the Deepwater Horizon Oil SpillAmong my recent library books has been the novel Station Eleven, set in a world devastated by a pandemic, and Curse of the Narrows, a history of the 1917 Halifax Explosion. So many disasters rattling around in my head.

Reading through Age Of Miracles, this time what struck me most were a few brief passing remarks about disasters, and the usual methods of preparing for them and responding to them.

We were Californians and thus accustomed to the motions of the earth. We understood the ground could shift and shudder. We kept batteries in our flashlights and gallons of water in our closets.  … We were well practiced at crawling beneath tabletops, and we knew to beware of flying glass. … But we Californians were no more prepared for this particular calamity than those who had built their homes on more stable ground.

I remember watching Mr. Valencia next door fill up his garage with stacks of canned food and bottled water, as if preparing, it now seems to me, for a disaster much more minor.

The disasters we read about, or see in movies, have a short and finite arc. This thing happens. When it’s over — which is within thus much time — it’s over. Then we get on with cleaning up and starting afresh. Or, in apocalyptic stories, everything is lost, and that’s that, story over. But one way or the other, the outcome is known soon. Hurricane, tsunami, tornado. Earthquake, explosion, massacre. Pandemic, social collapse, end of the world.

But in Age of Miracles, that quick arc of disaster is frustratingly absent. Flashlight batteries and bottled water aren’t needed. There isn’t a day when we wake to find that it’s all over, and we can start rebuilding — or a day when everything comes to a sudden and crashing end. Disconcertingly, in this book, the downward spiral begins imperceptibly and continues indefinitely. If this is a natural disaster, how do we know when it’s finished, when we can return to the stability of “normal”?  If this is the end of the world, it’s not going to finish playing out for a few more generations.  In the meantime, we can’t hurry anxiously to the closing page. What can we do but just keep on living, as enthusiastically and creatively as we ever did before, in the midst of an endlessly drawn-out end.

The end of the world doesn’t let us see it coming. It looks like ordinary daily life, as the years pass, as the decades pass, as the generations pass. But people have to live, somehow, in the meantime. And living well still matters. What is “living well”, though? Maybe it’s simply realizing that the end is never really the end, that each ordinary day since we first began is still going on as it always did, one breath at a time.

Near the end of the book is one paragraph that seems to say it as well as anything. —

We carried on. We persisted even as most of the experts gave us only a few more years to live. We told stories and we fell in love. We fought and we forgave. Some still hoped the world might right itself. Babies continued to be born.

Miss Pym Disposes

Leave a comment

Miss Pym Disposes etcMiss Pym Disposes
by Josephine Tey

I always thought it was a pity that there are only a small handful of mystery novels by the wonderfully quirky and unique Tey. I can’t pigeonhole her into any standard category. What she writes aren’t strictly detective stories, nor really always even mysteries in a strict sense. Three of her best are in this volume — But then, her other “best” are not in this volume — or maybe they’re all the best —

Anyway, I’ve been re-reading Miss Pym Disposes, and remembering all over again how much I enjoy a Tey novel.  If I’d never read any of them, I suppose I’d find the bare description of this one unpromising. Miss Pym, the author of a popular book on psychology, is a guest at a school run by an old friend. The school is a specialized college for sports trainers, physical therapists, orthopedic clinicians, and others studying for careers that deal with the human body without being directly in the traditional fields of the M. D. Amid classes on Anatomy, Physiology, Kinesiology, and Pathology, Miss Pym has been invited to give a few lectures on Psychology. She finds the atmosphere of the school an interesting cross-section of human personality, a field for her to study, and settles in to observe the teachers, students, and other visitors. For about three-quarters of the book, that’s all that’s going on — simply a detailed study of the personalities in this college as they play off each other in the small jostlings of daily life.

Only near the very end does it gradually dawn on Miss Pym that the tragic accidental death of a student may not have been entirely an accident. At that point, the horror of the situation overshadows her. How could it be, that in this sunny, healthy, ordinary school setting, so much envy, jealousy, and ambition may have led one student to a reckless act that cost another girl’s life? But the evidence is so slight, the possibility that death wasn’t the intended result, the possibility that she is entirely mistaken and the whole thing really was an accident after all — these doubts and dilemmas keep Miss Pym in a turmoil as the story nears its end. Finally, when Miss Pym has done the best she could, certain that she knows what happened and that she understands why, confident that she has arranged a solution which may save a tortured soul — then, in the last two pages of the book, in a twist of viewpoint which twists the reader along with Miss Pym, comes the realization that nothing is what it had seemed. Miss Pym understands suddenly that she had misunderstood the whole thing.

She would give up lecturing on psychology. What did she know about psychology anyhow? As a psychologist she was a first-rate teacher of French. She could write a book about character as betrayed by facial characteristics. At least she had been right about that. Mostly.

Yet the interesting thing about this book is that the observations of people and their characteristics, the dissection of what makes them tick, are so intelligently noticed and considered all through. There is a sense in which Miss Pym is a fine psychologist, in her own way. If there is a warning here, it’s certainly not a warning against observing people, or drawing conclusions from what we observe. But in the end, it is a warning not to place absolute confidence in the rightness of our own conclusions to the point that we feel empowered to “play God”, because we are also as human and fallible as those we are observing.  One of the most interesting conversations in the book takes place between Miss Pym and a young man visiting his girl at the school, and that conversation is what always ends up sticking in my memory every time I finish this book.

“I have to do something that is right,” she said slowly, “and I’m afraid of the consequences.”
“Consequences to you?”
“No. To other people.”
“Never mind; do it.”
Miss Pym put plates of cakes on a tray. “You see, the proper thing is not necessarily the right thing. Or do I mean the opposite?”
“I’m not sure that I know what you mean at all.”
“Well — there are those awful dilemmas about whom would you save. You know. If you knew that by saving a person from the top of a snow slide you would start an avalanche that would destroy a village, would you do it? That sort of thing.”
“Of course I would do it.”
“You would?”
“The avalanche might bury a village without killing a cat — shall I put some sandwiches on that tray? — so you would be one life to the good.”
“You would always do the right thing, and let the consequences take care of themselves?”
“That’s about it.”
“It is certainly the simplest. In fact I think it’s too simple.”
“Unless you plan to play God, one has to take the simple way.”

The world is never a simple place — and people are not simple to understand. But once we begin seeing the complexity of it all, we could be overwhelmed and afraid to make any move at all for fear of the unfathomable potential repercussions. What else can we do, confronted with the dizzying confusion of life, but try to walk a straight path as simply as we can see the way, and leave the rest to God?

Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper

Leave a comment

Sam PatchSam Patch, the Famous Jumper
by Paul Johnson

Sam Patch is one of those local legends that’s just there, part of our early childhood storytelling world, like Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed. Whether he was real or not wasn’t really important. In the case of Sam Patch, we were assured that he was indeed real, since he was buried in the little cemetery in our neighborhood. Okay, so there was a real Sam Patch. But were all the stories about him true? Did that matter? He was a bit of local “color” — something that made our local lore unique.

A couple of months ago, we heard a talk about Sam at the neighborhood library branch, setting the stories in historical reality.  The circus-like character with the swashbuckling costume and the pet bear and the showy leaps, the character he presented on posters to advertise his famous jumps over waterfalls, was only the performance persona. Behind the costume and props and performances was a former mule spinner from the tough working class world of the early industrial mills of New England and New Jersey. The librarian recommended this book for those who wanted to know more.

The world of that early industrial revolution fills the background of this book. The mills pulled in the wives and children of down-on-their-luck farmers from the stony soil of little New England farms. The Patch family had seen its fortunes rise and fall over the course of recent generations, from comfortable Yankee respectability, through bankruptcy, through numerous relocations, to the abandonment of the family by Sam’s father. The mills offered a job with wearily long hours and restrictive setting, but the advantage of a steady income. Sam was at work in a mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, at the age of eight.

By the time he was twenty, Sam was a boss spinner, the first American to hold a position usually filled by English spinners. In the 1820’s, the industrial looms used in these early mills weren’t as fully automated as they were later to become. In addition to the many unskilled jobs, the factory also needed skilled men to regulate the machines, to make sure the threads didn’t snap or tangle due to too tight or too loose a tension. The boss spinners knew their business, and they knew their value to the owners of the mills. Among the workers, they had high social standing. At the same time, to the owners and the others in the owners’ social world, the boss spinners still ranked as workers. There was a tension at work in this new industrial society, and Sam Patch would have been in the middle of it all.

He began jumping over waterfalls as part of a community of daredevil workers, young men showing off and letting off steam. They jumped as a sort of braggadocio, as a way of asserting themselves and winning applause, as an act of adventure and danger in a restricted life. But there was another element, too, which Sam soon tapped into. The public access to common land was being set against the increasing enclosures and privatization of land by the mill owners and the wealthy. Sam jumped waterfalls as a way of thumbing his nose, drawing attention to this “unauthorized” use of the public space. Sam’s jumps, first in Pawtucket and then in Paterson, New Jersey, became public entertainment that drew the attention and the applause away from the officially-approved social doings arranged by the community leaders.

Sam’s transition to public celebrity was a strange one for that period. Today, we are so accustomed to people who are famous simply for being famous that such celebrity is taken for granted. Sam Patch was one of America’s first celebrity daredevils, the 1820’s equivalent of Harry Houdini or Evel Knievel. His stardom shot unexpectedly across the media world of his day with his jumps at Niagara Falls. By this time, he had developed the flair of public performance that we associate with him, the colorful advertising posters, the iconic costume with the red sash, the curiosity of his pet black bear cub, everything that made the announcement of a Sam Patch Jump into a carnival event.

His fatal jump here in Rochester, at the High Falls of the Genesee River,  was the sudden end of this brief flash of celebrity. It was a sadly meaningless death, a daredevil act that served no real purpose. People didn’t know what to make of it in terms of meaning. Those who saw their complicity as onlookers felt guilty for their part in encouraging the rashness to continue. Those who had always preached against encouraging this madness saw Sam’s death as the evidence that they had been right.

But to Sam himself, a millworker who had briefly shot across public awareness and then disappeared like a falling star, what had it all been about? Was it the act of the mill boy looking for applause from his working comrades? Was it an act of social protest, a thumbing of the nose to the powers that were changing the world? Was it the act of a circus performer relishing the attraction of an audience all around him as he gave them a show?

Well, whatever he meant, he’s buried in a little cemetery in a corner of one city that has adopted him in death as one of us, making him a permanent legendary character, a story in children’s lore, sandwiched between Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed.

Station Eleven

Leave a comment

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel

Something a bit different, for a change. This novel is set in a not-too-distant future after a pandemic has reduced the world’s population so dramatically that our technology-based society has given way to a simpler subsistence existence.  Yet the whole point of the story is that subsistence is never enough. Human beings always have a longing inside us for meaningful creativity. And so, through the small roadside villages of survivors, there travels a symphony orchestra and theatrical troupe.

The plot of this book meanders back and forth in time, all over the globe, and through a wide collection of loosely-connected lives. There isn’t really a tightly organized plot, in the end. What stays in my mind isn’t the specific details of who did what when, but rather an overall impression of an idea, lit up in flashes of remembered passing encounters.

In the pre-pandemic world, so technological and frenetic and confusing, the creative impulse and the search for meaning were always there, but they were often difficult to see clearly in all the bustle of other activity. A businesswoman writing comic-book novels as her outlet for something in her that needed expression. A bored paparazzo, seeking a more purposeful life as a medic. An actor who has been trapped in his role as a movie star, trying to get back to the art he first had loved on a stage.

During the years after the collapse, it seemed at first as though a stripped-down basic survival was the only life to be lived. But humans can’t live that way. And so, all around, the activities that make us truly human begin to happen. Musicians pick up their instruments. Actors take to the stage. In one town, a man starts writing and distributing a newspaper. A community living in an abandoned airport terminal sets aside one room as a history museum. A musician turns to writing a play. If it’s impossible to live without food and water and air, then it’s also impossible to live without something more than all that. If we are made in the image of a creator God, then we must be creators, too, somehow.

At the end of the book, there is a suggestion that someone, in a distant settlement, has re-started technology. There are electric lights out there. At first, we are leery of this development, remembering the frenetic technological life that crowded creativity and pushed it into sidelines. But on second thought, we remember that for some person, this electrical experimentation was also a form of creative exploration. And we remember that a new generation has grown up in the twenty years since the old world collapsed. We assume that they will simply copy the world we once knew. But why should they? More likely that they will follow a new path of their own. Maybe the new society will use technology differently. After all, the human race has rediscovered the pleasures of creative endeavor in a more bare-bones world. With that memory so fresh and near, something interesting is bound to result.

The Good Thief

Leave a comment

Good ThiefThe Good Thief
by Hannah Tinti

My sister always used to send me souvenirs evocative of the places she visited — pressed sagebrush from Anasazi, shells from Vero Beach, a jar of water from the Seine. On her first trip to Ireland, maybe 15 years ago, she sent me a stone that she picked up on the shores of Lough Leane, a gray stone with a white seam encircling it. About ten years afterwards, I read The Good Thief for the first time. To the boys in this book, collecting pebbles in Saint Anthony’s orphanage, a stone encircled by a white ring is considered a wishing stone. I still have my Irish wishing stone sitting on the ledge of a bookshelf in my bedroom. Now, whenever I look at it, it makes me think not only of my sister and of Ireland, but also of this book that I love so well, and of all the thoughts it brings to my mind.

The plot and storytelling style are reminiscent of Dickens or Stevenson, two authors who have always been favorites with me. Tinti tells of Ren, a New England orphan boy in some unnamed year and town of the early 19th century. Ren has always lived with the monks of Saint Anthony’s since he was abandoned at their gate as a baby. His odds of ever being adopted are small, because he is missing a hand, lost in some unknown accident of his infancy. One day, a man claiming to be his older brother arrives to take him away, with a story of parents massacred in the same Indian attack that cut off Ren’s hand. Once Ren begins his travels with Benjamin Nab, however, and hears in rapid succession several other versions of his past, he realizes that Benjamin is a con man and thief, a teller of lies to suit any occasion, and that the story of their common family is a complete fiction. Benjamin chose Ren because his missing hand makes him a very effective “prop” in various con jobs, eliciting sympathy from Benjamin’s marks and suckers. Joined by Benjamin’s alcoholic buddy Tom, the trio set off across the New England countryside to live by lying, stealing, and swindling, with some turns into patent medicine sales and finally grave-robbing and body-snatching.

All of this makes the book sound dark and depressing, imprisoning a reader in the worst side of human nature. But surprisingly, it’s exactly the opposite. The mood of the book is one of buoyancy, of something eternally struggling to rise up out of the darkness into the light. It seems to affirm that the worth of every person, no matter how damaged and broken by the world, is beyond destruction, lying in a place that can always be seen by eyes that look with compassion and humility. Friendship and love can open closed doors, pity and loyalty can light the dark places, repentance and forgiveness can heal deep wounds. When I get to the end of this book, every time I’ve read it, I feel lifted up to see the bigger picture, above the dark details that tangle my feet and make me stumble.

There’s a scene in this book that took my breath away the first time I read it, and it still rings true. Ren has been invited to climb up the chimney to the hut on the roof, where the landlady’s bitter brother, a dwarf, lives a hermit’s life. When he arrives on the roof, Ren can see the entire town and surrounding countryside, including the places with dark memories.

The air was clearer here, the taste not as rancid as on the street. Ren thought of all he had done since he had left Saint Anthony’s, every step that had brought him to this place. Spread out before him, both the town and his own past seemed less frightening. Everything was better, Ren realized, when you looked down on it from above.

One of the recurring references in the novel is to the legend of Saint Anthony, finder of what is lost, who climbed towards wisdom and perspective from his perch in a tree. Ren’s lost past, his missing hand, his search for family, all connect with that hunger to find the lost. But also, there’s a sense of people themselves being lost. There is the lost-ness of their landlady Mrs. Sands, deaf and widowed, still listening for her husband buried under the earth in a mine collapse. There is the lost-ness of her brother the dwarf, rejected by society, rejecting society in turn. There’s the lostness of Dolly, a murderer-for-hire who can’t believe that he was made for anything but killing, buried alive only to be resurrected bewilderingly by grave-robbers. There’s the lost-ness of the mousetrap-factory girls, unwanted orphans whose lives seem made for nothing but daily labor at the assembly line. There’s the lost-ness of Tom, unable to escape the guilt for his friend’s suicide, lost in alcohol and cynicism. There’s the lost-ness of Benjamin, an always-chameleon, living so many lies and tall tales that his real self is so far buried as to almost no longer exist.

What does it take for all the lost people to stop being lost? What is it that finds us and saves us? I see two different answers running through the book, like two strands that twist together. One is human connection. At one point, Benjamin tells Ren, “You just can’t go around taking care of people. They’ll grow to depend on you, and then you won’t be able to leave them when you have to.” So many of the characters in this book have cast themselves adrift from other people as a sort of self-protection. Yet the more they separate themselves, thinking to be safer, the more lost and vulnerable they become. Only when they reach out to one another, open their eyes and see, listen and care, do they find the healing that had been eluding them in their self-sufficiency. Ren accepts responsibility for Dolly, Mrs Sands for her brother and for her tenants, Ren and Dolly for Mrs Sands when she is sick. When Tom brings Ren’s two friends Brom and Ichy from the orphanage and announces himself their new father, he is reconnecting with the human race in a life-giving plunge. When the mousetrap girl Ren had known only as “the harelip” risks herself to rescue him, Ren sees her as a person for the first time, and asks her name — Jenny.

The other strand of the life-saving rope in this book is repentance. When we see with new eyes, realize that we have done something wrong, and openly confess it, we are liberated from a prison. Truth does, indeed, set us free. When Ren abandoned Dolly in the graveyard after the bothched grave-robbery, he felt guilty about it. Yet the next time he met Dolly, he first attempted to explain, to excuse himself, to win Dolly’s forgiveness without confessing himself wrong. Dolly remained distant, until Ren suddenly surrendered to the truth. “You’re right. I left you. I’m sorry.” Those simple words were the words of healing. Similarly, when Mrs Sands returns from the hospital to find her house a wreck, when she begins lambasting them all with her broom, Ren’s first reaction is to skip away, to avoid punishment, to offer excuses. But when at last, he knelt before her and accepted the broom-lashing, apologizing and promising to stay and put the house to rights, there was also a sense of a relationship being put to rights.

In the end, Ren does find his family — but not the family he was looking for. The owner of the mousetrap factory had devoted his energy to ridding the world of unwanted creatures, but here we see the unwanted ones, the people the world had rejected as misfits, accepting and protecting each other. Tom, Brom and Ichy, Mrs Sands and her brother, Jenny and the other mousetrap girls, Dolly — even the resistant Benjamin who continues his flight out of the story — all the people Ren has accepted as dependents, all the people he has allowed himself to be dependent on — all the people he can’t just leave behind — are his family.

I’ve loved this book since I first read it, and tomorrow night I’ll finally get to discuss it with others who have read it, as the women of my book club have made it this month’s choice. Looking forward to seeing what fresh insights they will give me.

Pepper and Salt

Leave a comment

pepper_and_salt_1405_largePepper and Salt
by Howard Pyle

This latest LibriVox audiobook release is one I’m particularly excited about, because it was a duet between me and my dad. Listening to my dad read aloud has been part of my life for over 50 years. I hope to go on hearing him read aloud for at least a couple of decades yet. It wouldn’t be Christmas in this house without his annual reading of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

These days, his voice can’t keep going the way it did when he was younger, through chapter after chapter. Poems, though, are still short enough for him to handle without going hoarse. When this project came along, it was simply perfect for us to share. It was an old childhood favorite, bringing back memories of long-ago read-alouds, It had both stories and poems, something for each of us to read. “Made for us, Daddy!” — And off we went!

The old-fashioned poems, with their slightly tongue-in-cheek morals, called out all my dad’s histrionic gusto, his old theatricality. He was certainly channelling the spirit of Vincent Crummles as he read these. Especially the somewhat shocking Tale of An Innocent Little Lamb and Four Wicked Wolves. He crunched that one with a grin.

Far away in distant parts of the country, where we have never seen them, are my dad’s great-grandchildren. Now there’s a way for them to hear his voice, to listen to him read aloud to them, as he used to read to their mother and grandmother, their aunt and great-aunts. There’s a satisfaction in getting this little project out into the world which is deeper than the slightness of the material itself. It’s a little Victorian children’s book, that’s all. But it’s also a link to a long family memory.

Older Entries