Saturday, February 28, 2015

Inch Fifty-One: Nostalgic Reading Revisited.

Two weeks ago I wrote that I was waiting for two books from my past to arrive in the mail.

Well, they arrived and I read them. 

I was pleasantly surprised at how well one has held up over the decades and absolutely aghast at the tone, content, and context of the other, and even more aghast at my fourteen-year-old self for being so oblivious at the time.

But the quotes first, the quotes that were still lingering in my brain after 45 years. I was close on both. The lines from An Empty Spoon were "Eliot was wrong. It's January that's the cruelest month. No vacations in sight, dark mornings and cold days. It was an endless month." (Note: this memoir is set in 1966-1968—pre-Martin Luther King Day.)

And I was only off by 120 miles on the end line of Dave's Song. Kate runs out the door rejoicing that Dave has come for her with his stereo in the back of the truck blasting "Suzanne," rejoicing that her "world has turned...and Cleveland was suddenly just another dot on the map." 

So which one stood my test of time and which one didn't?

The novel held up. Dave's Song is 45 years old and still reads sweetly and humorously and pointedly. (The author Robert McKay had a major sub-story going on about respecting the natural world and supporting local agriculture which I had forgotten.) At age 59, I know now that Kates are legion—not planning on going to college, planning for what was then called secretarial work—and while Lone Wolf Daves are less plentiful, they are out there too.

I found myself wanting a sequel to Dave's Song as I reread it so many years later. I want to know what became of Kate and Dave. Did he win the scholarship to Ohio State? Did Kate wait for him to come back? Did he come back or did he move on? Kate and Dave would now be in their 60s and I want to know whether their high school romance made it 40 some years down the road. Did they still consider "Suzanne" their song and play it on YouTube every year on their anniversary? 

That is my test of good fiction: I care about the characters enough to wonder what becomes of them. And Dave's Song met that test easily.

The memoir, An Empty Spoon, is what failed so spectacularly. I finished it the same evening it arrived and Warren asked me about it.

I exploded. "The author is privileged and elitist and entitled and racist! And she is so proud of her shallow liberal leanings as she trashes her fellow teachers that she can't see that she's as bigoted as they are, only they're more open about it! And she's a lousy teacher to boot and even admits she doesn't care!"

 In Dave's Song, Kate's mother makes the comment that she likes Dave, and Kate responds that he is unpredictable. "When he pulls his hand out of his pocket you never know whether he's going to show you a baby chicken or a fist full of knuckles." Warren has to feel the same way: he never knows what he's going to get when he asks my opinion of a book.

If Sunny Decker, the memoirist, had not spent every other page preening about how cool and with it and enlightened she was, I might not be so harsh on her. But she was so smug about how great she was (even when she was putting herself down for her lack of interest in teaching, presumably so the reader could protest "no, you're great!") and how she and she alone "got" the racial divide (the kids didn't, her fellow teachers didn't) that I just wanted to smack her. Even for the times, Decker is insufferable. For example, she had a long labored explanation of why it upset and offended her when the students wanted to be called "black" instead of "Negro." (She herself used the phrases "colored" and "Negro" almost interchangeably, although she tended to use "colored" when she was being more personal.) She was upset because she knew their desired name was only a reaction to what she insisted was the shallow and unsustainable black movement of the late 60s. It was not because she was racist, oh no, no, no, just far wiser and more mature than those high school kids. Decker denigrates afros, Malcolm X, every kid who can't read (blaming that on "cutesy elementary school teachers"), and every kid who doesn't worship her, which is pretty much most of them. 

So what was I thinking that this book held such a powerful sway over me?

I think it was the overlay of young teacher teaching in difficult circumstances. I never felt drawn to the inner city but I was drawn to Appalachia, and knew my destiny was somewhere in a remote holler where, like Decker, I'd bring great literature and empathy to a group of poor, deserving students just waiting to be enlightened. Surely that was why I read Catherine Marshall's Christy some hundred plus times and a fair portion of Jesse Stuart's works during those same years.  

I hope, had I stayed the course, I would have been a far more competent and far less arrogant teacher than Decker. (And that any memoir I wrote would have been far better reading.)

I admit I wonder what ever became of Sunny Decker, not because I care about her but because I hope at some point in her life she realized just how terrible her book was and how shallow and immature and egotistical she was. Did Decker ever gain enough insight to smack her forehead and exclaim "my god, what an arrogant, elitist, little jerk I was!" and atone for her ways? Or does she to this day (she would be in her early 70s by now) pull out her little book and caress its cover, working mention of it into every conversation she can? 

Did she vote for Obama?

You go back to your past and delve into that book again that you once read numerous times but had not opened in years—a lifetime ago, a different person ago. That's different from rereading books that you never abandoned along the way. I have read and reread Little Women for the last half century, and when I reread it, I read in the present, not as the 10 year old or the teen or the young adult I once was. I've never had a disconnect from that book. Rereading An Empty Spoon and Dave's Song, I didn't feel 14 again, but it was more of a look backwards than I had thought possible. As I had speculated in my earlier post, these books gave me a glimpse into that long ago April I was, and that was enough. 


see you there! said...

Interesting report on looking back. You made me want to google Decker to see what became of her. The only book (title) that sticks out for me as a teen is "Forever Amber". It was actually banned in some cities and girls passed it around in a home made brown paper bag book jacket. Ah the thrill.


Laurie said...

You've got me pondering if there are books I'd want to revisit. I rarely read a book more than once. The Secret Garden was one of the few I remember reading several times. Interesting how perspective can change over the years.