Thursday, January 26, 2012

The World of Books

How Historical Fiction Opened Up the World of Reading to Me

About a month ago, I found an interesting book on the library shelf titled The Most Wonderful Books: Writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading. It is a collection of writings from authors about the books that led them to read and write. Although I'm a bit embarrassed to say I didn't make it past the Introduction before I had to return the book, the Introduction was so insightful, leading me pleasantly down memory lane to think of the books that first changed my perception on reading, that it was worth reading in and of itself.

I remember listening to my mother read from the Western novel The Virginian. I’d watch her laugh and nod her head, comprehending things that I was barely able to grasp through my constant questioning. “Why doesn’t he speak up?" I'd ask. "Why doesn’t he draw his gun and just shoot Trampas? Why did telling such a high tale win him the admiration of his fellow brothers?”

Lots of discussion between my mother and I came from reading that book together and it became my favorite book from that time on. I would return to it five, six, seven times or more to re-read it. Each time at a new age and stage in life, I would comprehend more, and my admiration of the Virginian's character would grow as did my maturity. That book was the gateway into reading for me.

There were others, too, that sparked the reader and writer in me. One of those groundbreaking books was The Cabin Faced West, a historical fiction chapter book, relating the tale of a young girl growing up in the wilderness of the Western frontier and yearning for a friend in the large, lonely land. Given family responsibilities that she must prove herself capable of, she blossoms somewhere between childhood and maturity.

I would fancy myself as her and play dress-up. I colored, folded and glued paper together to create an old-fashioned looking diary as I thought she had. Then I’d sit, looking wistfully into the distance of a wild frontier in my imagination and then, suddenly, out of the dust a handsome, strong army officer (George Washington himself!) would come riding up on his horse and be my hero for the day.

In high school, I feel blessed to have had a curriculum that blended history and literature into one course, taking me on epic history lessons through novels such as The Red Badge of Courage, Rifles for Watie and The Virginian.

Good literature is that which stirs the storyteller in us. There was the Dear America series, fictional diaries of children from different historic time periods. Those life-like diaries brought American history to life. They brought out the writer in me, inspiring my hand to compose my own story of a pilgrim named Hope Fortune on board the Mayflower, who glimpsed America for the first time with both fear and excitement and prayed that the omen of hope in her name would take root in her soul, too.

I have often found myself in the characters who are formed by his or her natural surroundings, the landscape of place.

In novels such as My Antonia and The Virginian, characters enter the American western frontier, where their human spirit is tested by severe weather and famine, icy winters, loneliness, rustic living, dangerous wild animals and other difficulties. They are wiser because of their pilgrimage through the landscape, and they emerge more beautiful, more enduring, more truthfully human.

Which books opened up new worlds for you? What book or genre was it that changed your whole outlook on literature and made you fall in love – maybe for the first time – with reading?