Thursday, May 9, 2013

Third Culture Books

It was inevitable that I ended up studying Library Science.  I have loved books since the dawn of (my) time.  When I was in 5th grade, I pasted call numbers on the spines of the books in my room and made little pockets inside to keep a record of people who might want to “borrow” them.  I don’t think anyone ever visited my homemade lending library, but I was nonetheless prepared.  My mother must have instilled my love for books somehow; she was always reading, and our family bookshelves were filled with classics.  For some strange reason I was compelled to climb up in a tree behind our house with my favorite book, perhaps seeking solitude or to commune with nature.  After I was espied by the neighborhood bully, he taunted me: "Liz climbs trees and read books!"

 When we moved to Japan when I was five, Mom set out to immerse me in the culture.  I had picture books about “Urashima Taro the Japanese fisherman who rescued a turtle, visited the sea god and returned to find that three hundred years had passed.  There was the story of “Kintaro," the young dragon slayer, and Momontaro who came to his elderly parents by way of a peach pit.  Hans Christian Anderson was boring compared to the Japanese.  

The Five Chinese Brothers was a favorite (not Japanese, but Asian) although in later years it was excoriated for promoting Asian stereotypes.  The Story About Ping was another classic set in China.  I guess Mom wanted me to love Asia as much as she did. 

Don’t even make me think about the book “Hachiko” about the dog that meets his dead master’s train every day, waiting for him to return until he (the dog) died of old age.  I get choked up just thinking about it.  I happened to catch a sappy Lifetime movie once, loosely based on the original Japanese story.  Richard Gere played the master, and George Castanza Jason Alexander was a shop owner near the train station.  I found myself sitting on the floor blubbering and sobbing in front of the TV.  Good grief. 

There was the story about the little girl who had survived the atomic bombing at Hiroshima, only to die of leukemia.  There is a Japanese legend that folding 1000 origami cranes would make a wish come true.  This girl’s classmates tried (in vain) to save her life by doing so.  I learned very early the meaning of heartbreak. (And I can still fold a perfect crane).  

I had a book about an orphaned Japanese girl who was sent to live in New York City.  I don’t remember thinking too much about it when I was little, but the back-story must have been interesting.  Why would a small Japanese girl be sent to an old lady’s brownstone in Brooklyn?  Maybe there was a tragic love story, perhaps a marriage between an American soldier and a Japanese geisha?  For the life of me I can’t remember the name of the book, but I can still see the cover and the illustrations.  The girl goes to public school and is taunted about her Asian eyes, but eventually comes to befriend her classmates.  I'm sure the book is at mom’s house somewhere. 

When I was in the third grade, we lived in Westport, Connecticut, where I attended Saugatuck Elementary School.  It was the quintessential "little red schoolhouse" with creaky wooden floors and a real bell in a steeple.  There was a book fair once, and Hardie Gramatky, of "Little Toot" fame, was there, in person signing copies of "Little Toot on the Grand Canal".  I still have my copy, signed by Gramatky himself, with a little ink illustration of the little tugboat.

In Brussels I was in a fairly serious car accident when I was 11.  (I wrote about it here).  I was at a slumber party thrown by a classmate, and the girl’s governess drove us all to the movies. On the way home there was a terrible collision.  I was in the hospital for a week with a concussion (so THAT is my problem!) and mom brought me a copy of “Little Lord Fauntleroy” that I devoured to pass the time.  It was in this book that I learned what gout was, and came to realize that, Holy Cow, too many children’s stories are just plain tragic. The poor kid lost his beloved mother and was sent to live with his crotchety old grandfather, the formidable Lord of the Manor, who didn’t like the boy at first because his disowned daughter had married beneath her.  It wasn’t long after that that I read “The Little Princess” about the little English girl whose wealthy father is killed in the Boer War and she is banished to live in an attic because the family fortune is gone.  It all made my life seem a little more tolerable in light of these sad stories. 

Mom used to go to London with her friends for ladies’ weekends.  She brought me copies of the Little House on the Prairie books from W H Smith, the series my 6th grade teacher had introduced to me.  I think I have read the entire collection more than 20 times.  I was devastated to learn that Laura had died almost ten years before I was born, as I wanted so badly to meet her (as if that would happen!)  The stories were enchanting.  Many years later, in my early 20’s, mom and I took a road trip to Mansfield, Missouri, to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder home and museum.  Even as an adult (well, chronologically anyway) I cherished those stories and marveled at being in the same place where Laura had once lived.

Maybe it was the long hours spent alone as we traveled to new places, moved into new houses, when the new friends hadn’t been made yet, or the long Pacific crossings on a ship before the invention of the VCR or the video game.  I’m not sure exactly what makes a young girl a voracious reader, but it sure happened to me.  Books were my passport to other worlds; an introduction to many of the cultures in which I found myself living.  Books were a panacea, as they helped me escape the grief that comes with so many transitions and changes.  They were my safe haven, to which I could run while my own reality was filled with flux and inconstancy. 

Some women collect shoes.  I collect books.  

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