Saturday, April 17, 2010

Oz and Beyond

When I was seven years old I began to disappear into books.  My mother described herself for years afterwards, wandering through the house calling me, while I somehow made myself both deaf and invisible with a book open in front of me.  I didn't hear her and she didn't see me.  I actually wasn't there.  I was in Oz.

The Oz books were the first written stories to claim me.  On the last Saturday of every month my father would haul me across town (Washington, DC at the time) to Woodward and Lothrop, an old-style department store with a bookshop in it.  Along one long, low, kid's-height shelf were arrayed all the chronicles of Oz.  I spent my entire month's allowance on one of them, and then I was lost to the world.  When I finished that month's book I'd choose at random one I'd already read, and dive back in.  All I needed to be perfectly happy was a tornado to pick me up and take me there.

But then something happened that I later came to regard as interesting.  I found that I liked some of the books much more than others, and that the ones I most enjoyed had one thing in common.  They were all written by L. Frank Baum.  Baum, I would learn later, created Oz and wrote the first in the series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, plus about a dozen more.  The Oz books I disliked most were written by Ruth Plumly Thompson, and the ones I disliked slightly less were by Jack Snow.  Both Thompson and Snow had contributed to the series after Baum's death.

This puzzled the seven- or eight-year-old me.  All three writers were telling stories about the same place, and often with the same characters.  Why did I like one better than the others?  I finally decided it was tone: Miss Thompson (as she styled herself) was like the aunt who tells a child a story not because she likes stories but in order to get to the moral.  Jack Snow reminded me of several men I had observed at my parents' many parties who had a few doubles and got loud,  These men were occasionally funny and occasionally interesting, but always loud.  Mr. Snow, I realized with the blind snobbery of the very young, was not in the same social class as Mr. Baum.

I had unknowingly become a critic as well as a reader.

When I was twelve we moved back to California.  One day when I was home alone I went to my mother's bookcase and pulled down the fattest book I could find.  It was by a woman (which almost put me off, after Ruth Plumly Thompson) but I opened it anyway and read, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but . . . ."  That was it; I was gone for five days.  My mother swore she walked past me several times while I was stretched on the living room couch, and never once saw me, until she finally did and gave me a swat to get my attention so she could demand to know where I'd been.  I told her I'd been on the couch.  But, of course, I hadn't. I'd been in Atlanta and at Tara, hanging with Scarlett and Melanie and Rhett and that  pill, Ashley.  (When, years later, I saw the movie, I couldn't believe the perfection of the casting.  I think "Gone With the Wind" and "The Maltese Falcon" must be the two best-cast films in history.)

I had no way of knowing, when I fell under the spell of those books, that I was essentially setting my path in life -- that I'd spend at least as much of my time inside books as I would in the "real" world, whatever that is, and that I would end up making books as well as reading them.  If I were ever to write an autobiography, I would say that my life changed forever when I was seven and the Land of Oz opened itself to me and made me aware that the world of the imagination was as real as, and infinitely richer than, the world of school and weekends.

I'm reminded of all this by yet another book, a real dazzler, the most enjoyable and magical memoir I've read in years.  The Tender Bar, by J.R. Mohringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the story of a boy whose life was shaped by a bar and the people in it -- mostly men, since his father was an absentee.  The writing, as befits the story of a boy who learns to love words, is as simple and austerely beautiful as Shaker furniture.  At one point, seeking to help his single mother make ends meet, JR -- the boy -- takes a job in a bookstore located in a mostly abandoned mall, where Bill and Bud, the managers, quickly ascertain that JR has read nothing -- in fact, he thinks the book he was reading in school at the time was called Scarlett's Letter. A routine is quickly established:

"On Friday afternoons, Bill and Bud would quiz me about what I'd read that week in school.  They would then cluck with disgust and take me around the bookstore, filling a shopping bag with books.  'Every book is a miracle,' Bill said.  'Every book represents a moment when someone sat quietly -- and that quiet is part of the miracle, make no mistake -- and tried to tell the rest of us a story.'  Bud could talk ceaselessly about the hope of books, the promise of books.  He said it was no accident that a book opened just like a door."

I've been blessed to have opened a great many of those doors.  To tell the truth, I can't imagine what my life would have been if I hadn't.

And I know that I'm sort of off-topic here, but what's happening in Thailand right now is too heartbreaking to write about, so I'm doing what I always do.  I'm taking refuge in books.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Hi Tim,

    I'm guessing you wrote this.

    That was a very touching story, I loved it.


  2. Thanks, Susie -- I did, and now I've signed it. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. As you take refuge in books now to escape, for a little while, what is happening in Thailand, you are doing what readers have always done when events become overwhelming.

    Children, as well as adults, take refuge in books when real life is too sad, too lonely, too frightening,too painful. This anodyne is not just curative for adults; the healing power may only last as long as the moments that are stolen for reading but, at least for those moments, what is too much to contemplate is pushed aside and replaced by respite from the forces that cannot be controlled.

    The safety that comes from that escape into a book is the single best argument for literacy that I can think of. A seven year-old who can't help his mother when she is being abused by his father can fall into a book like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE where a little boy controls the monsters in his life. A girl who feels different, confused, and misunderstood can discover her soul mate in Ramona Quimby. A CATCHER IN THE RYE is a classic because what teenager hasn't thought of running away and being the author of his own destiny? And what reader of any age wouldn't dive into a wardrobe that transported him to Narnia?

    The crowd that doesn't read but loves to be read to, repeatedly asks for the same books night after night. They need their lives to be predictable so they can feel safe and the repetition of a book they love provides them with the sense that at least some things are right in the world.

    Children pretend to read long before they can when they take a much-loved book and recite from memory the words they have heard so often. From that they discover the clues that lead to breaking the code and the reading of words emerges. When children take a picture book and make up a story from the visual evidence, they are moving from magical thinking into the magic of their creativity and imagination. Take that child to an art museum, and if you're lucky, she will let you see the pictures through her eyes.

    Children who are read to generally become readers. Readers are never bored. My kids thought a trip to a bookstore was a trip to Aladdin's cave. The books traveled from room to room as each became interested in what another had found good enough to bring home. As adults, they are still passing books around.

    My kids loved the L. Frank Baum books and couldn't understand why they weren't on every school's bookshelves.

    Did you take a flashlight and a book to bed? I did. My kids read in a bedroom closet or on the floor on the side of the bed I couldn't see from the door. I have always envied their ability to read in a moving car. I love traveling to New York or DC by train for all the reading time the trips provide.

    When I was in the fourth grade I read a book about Mary, Queen of Scots. From that moment I was hooked on history. Good historical fiction teaches and fires up the imagination.

    I hope things resolve soon in Thailand so that you don't have to read to escape instead of reading for the pure joy of it.


  4. I remember to this day a teenage night when I read cover to cover, until the very wee hours, On The Beach by Nevil Schute. The nuclear holocaust was enveloping the world, and Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa were still unaffected, although that status was slowly changing. When I eventually turned off the light, I was resigned to the fact that I was about to die.

    The book was written in 1957 and set after World War III in 1963.

  5. Beth, in THE TENDER BAR, Bud goes on to say that, no matter what kind of chaos rules in one's world, one's mind is always one's own, and "that by choosing books, the right books, and reading them carefully, I could always retain control of at least that one thing."

    Stan -- "On the Beach" did it for me, too. I figured mass death was inevitable, even if you lived in Australia. It wasn't until later that I began to think that people who live in Australia should be spared death because of all they've already gone through.

    No nasty cards or letters, please. That was written to give a laugh to one specific person who is currently trapped Down Under and would trade his soul in a shot to get back to SE Asia.

  6. I don't know where to start--this post has me completely trapped! From your adventures in books to your comments on classic movie casting, I totally agree.

    The first book I remember carrying me away was 'The Witch of Blackbird Pond' by Elizabeth George Spear. When I was a little bit older, 'Gone With the Wind' took me away as well.

    I didn't have anything to run away from, but I certainly found magical places to run TO.

    I also wanted to say how much I enjoyed your book, 'A Nail Through the Heart.' I finished it last week and am looking forward to the rest in the series. You really carried me away--to Thailand, and, sometimes, to places I didn't want to go. But you did it well, VERY well.


  7. Oh-I forgot to add--I updated your author page on Shelfari:

    It just used information from your website, but if would be a good idea for you to check it out and make sure everything you want out there is, well, out there!


  8. Well, Michelle, thanks in triplicate -- for liking the post, for liking NAIL, and for giving me a presence on Shelfari, which I will join today. That was an extremely nice thing to do.

    By the way, NAIL is the darkest book in the series, in terms of content. As you saw, I was trying to introduce Bangkok as a morally equivocal environment (I really think clear-cut distinctions between right and wrong are a luxury of the well-fed) and I wanted to write a book in which the murderers were innocent and the victims were guilty. That meant that the victims had to have done some pretty dreadful stuff -- and, in the book, they do.

    The other three aren't quite so dark.

    Thanks again, and I hope you enjoy them.

  9. Tim,
    Poignant piece. It's remarkably fitting in my life right now as I am currently reading The Wizard of Oz to my boys in Star Park in Coronado. Baum's former home is on Star Park Circle. As I read about the greatest journey in American literature, I take fine moments to watch my boys' eyes widen as they glance at the pale yellow house and realize they are truly close to Oz.

  10. Hi, Carrie, and great to hear from you. Lucky you, reading The Wizard of Oz to kids. I love to read aloud but haven't got kids to read to. Poor me -- it's the only real regret of my life.

    Hope all is well with you.

  11. Tim- You commented on my blog, Southern City Mysteries, about the darkness of NAIL. That is a very strong way to begin a series, and I see why you did that. You really gave Rafferty a strong adversary in Bangkok. Once again, I look forward to more of your books.


  12. Tim, a beautiful post, like all your writing. I read (and loved) THE WIZARD OF OZ when I was quite young, but I didn't realize there were others in the series until I was an adult, but you captured it perfectly the way I was transported through CALL OF THE WILD, FURY, THE SILVER SWORD, and of course, the Anne of Green Gables books and the lovely books by Louisa May Alcott.

    When I was a preschooler (3-5), I'd go shopping with my family. It was a more innocent time, and while they would shop, I would sit on the bottom shelf of the children's book section and read Little Golden Books until it was time to leave.