Wednesday, July 05, 2006

BOOKS: Bewildered and Bewitched

Fellow patriots. A belated happy Canada / America / Granfalloon-of-Your-Choice Day to you and yours. May your flag always wave proudly and the ice in your mojito never melt.

Much as I'd love to say that Rusty and young Master Sam and I have been sequestered for the extra-long weekend with a two-four of Kokanee and a crate of illicit fireworks, the truth is much more mundane. Given that Rusty has been down with some kind of virus and Sam has been going through some x-treme teething lately (curse you and the horse you rode in on, molars), it was more like a four-day bender with a vat of Pepto Bismol, a bottle of infant Tylenol, and a tube of Orajel. (You wish you were me. I know you do.)

In the absence of a proper segue, let's just proceed to the bookish segment of this post, shall we?

Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell (#21)
I'm always blown away when people tell me that they have no memories of their early childhood. I'm, like, "Really? None at ALL? Not even ONE? Are you sure? How is this possible? What do you have in your brain where those memories should be?"

My earliest memory is from when I'm roughly two or two-and-a-half years old. I'm standing in my crib calling for my mom because my baby sister, DoppelSis, with whom I share a room, is crying. I'm not sure if I'm calling out of concern or just because I want her to shut up. Some memories are destined to be lost in the sands of time, I guess.

I also remember a time when I snuck into the laundry room and lifted the lid to the washing machine while the machine was running. An instant later, it started to rain right inside the room, which blew my three-year-old mind. Intellectually, of course, I know now that it wasn't raining inside the room, that it was just water spraying everywhere, but my visual memory will always be of the magical sight of rain falling from the ceiling.

Around the age of four, the memories really start heaping up.

During the spring that I turned four, there was massive flooding in the area of the Ottawa Valley that our farm was in. The floods took out the roads for regular vehicles, and families in low-lying areas had to evacuate. I remember being picked up -- along with my parents, sisters and brother -- by a hay wagon that was pulled by a pair of enormous horses. The wagon made the rounds of a bunch of farms, picking up more and more people. At points, the water was so deep that the horses had to swim. The wagon, being made of wood, floated, and water lapped right up against the edges. I remember the sensation as the wagon went from touching the ground to suddenly floating, the sudden inrush of weightlessness.

That summer, our cat killed a snake. We watched the battle, which felt like hours but was probably more like ten minutes, from a safe distance, not interfering because my father said it was only a garter snake. Our cat, whom I'd previously thought of as just another pet, was transformed into an epic hero.

Later that same year, I remember the time my older brother dared me to jump from one level of the hayloft to another. We were playing up near the top (yes, unsupervised; remember, this was the early 1970s, before safety was invented), and the next lowest level was about fifteen feet below. Trustingly (or idiotically, depending on what kind of spin you put on it), I jumped. The fall was long enough that I remember the sensation of freefall. And then I landed flat on my back and knocked the wind out of myself. If you think bales of hay are soft, you've never been dropped a full storey on to one. I was unhurt, probably due to the puffy one-piece snowsuit I was wearing, but the tragic flaw in our plan was that we hadn't factored in my escape route. I was too short to climb the ladder up and out of the hay-filled abyss, something my brother was in denial about. Accepting this fact meant that he'd have to go get our mother to rescue me. After much convincing on my part, he finally did. When I remember the fact that my extremely un-athletic mom was forced to not just climb down a sheer, vertical ladder, but then to climb back up again while carrying a four-year-old in one arm... well, it boggles the mind. Strangely, I don't remember being punished for this act of Fear Factor-esque adventuring, but I probably should have been.

The thing that strikes me about childhood memories is that there's an aura of magic or awe around most of them. I was rarely afraid as a child, but I was frequently dazzled or mystified. Obviously, this element is what gives these memories their sticking power. I'm sure that I had countless episodes of abject boredom, but I'm grateful that my brain has decided to let those moments go. I wish my adult memory behaved as admirably.

I think this is why I love children's books, or books written for adults that recapture the experience of childhood. They ignore the chaff that can clutter up grown-up fiction, and in a way, they feel realer than real. There's a straightforwardness and a heightened awareness that's like looking at a rain-splattered leaf through a magnifying glass on a sunny day. Things are bigger and brighter and shinier.

I've had this feeling while reading a few books. Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. Emma Richler's Feed My Dear Dogs. All of Lynda Barry's Marlys and Freddie collections. And most recently David Mitchell's Black Swan Green.

One of the things that unites all these books is that they're uncomfortable to read. They're filled with painful observations, and with cruel circumstances, and with confused reactions to those circumstances, all of which can break your heart for the characters.

But these stories are also filled with moments of magic and clarity that make me realize that when we achieve the rationality and sureness of adulthood, we lose the bewildered bewitchment of childhood, and that's a sad loss. The best we can do is try to recapture it in fleeting moments, so that we can at least appreciate what we once had.


Anonymous said...

This genre is a favorite of mine, too. Mary Carr's The Liar's Club is a good one, equally funny and painful. And when I was a kid, I loved the "Little Britches" series by Ralph Moody, a memoir about a family that moves from the East Coast to Colorado early in the 20th century. I remember being alternately horrified and convulsed over Moody's descriptions of having a huge splinter removed from his butt, and of breaking his toes. But I was really touched by his love for animals and his loving descriptions of them.

Hope everyone gets well soon at your place. I'm in the middle of a 48-hour bug and the Boy Robin keeps announcing solemnly, "I won't kiss Mommy because I don't want her germs-and-mumps to get all over me."

landismom said...

Oh, I'll definitely have to check this out--I read Cloud Atlas earlier this year, and just loved it.

Andi said...

You've revived my interest in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha! I missed out on reading it in a course I missed out on taking, but the title stuck with me. And based on this post I think it would be right up my alley.

Anonymous said...

Okay. I have to ask you.

Is the ending of Feed my dear dogs going to make me CRY? I had it out of the library and had to trick the librarian into letting me renew it a third time (I've been carrying it to and fro work and reading it at bus stops and so on) and now I'm really afraid the end will make me sad. Sister Crazy did that to me, and so did A Complicated Kindness although it is the best book I've read this year.

(So thank you for that! Also for recommending Canadian literature that isn't Margaret Atwood. Obviously you would, but I wouldn't otherwise know about it.)

Dave said...

I was trying to remember stories of my early childhood and I blanked out for, well, pretty much a whole day. After a great deal of intense concentration, I’ve finally remembered something (incidentally, I’ve now forgotten how to drive.)

I was five or six (sorry—that’s as far back as it goes) and I was at my grandparents’ place. For whatever reason, I decided that I needed to call my mom, even though she’d only dropped me off five minutes prior. The phone was mounted up on the wall, so I pulled one of the kitchen chairs over, climbed on top, and made like E.T. About thirty seconds into the call, the chair went out from under me. It wasn’t an especially tippy chair, I think I just found the perfectly wrong posture to stand in. Anyways, just like you, I still remember the sensation of the fall. The chair flew out to the right, my body went over to the left, and I came down on my skull. Everyone freaked out, I screamed a bunch: it was dramapoloza. Not so big a deal in the end, though; there was no serious or lasting damage to my already misshaped head. The best part is yet to come. It turned out I had a slight concussion, so the doctor told my parents they’d have to wake me up every half hour to make or else I might die (at least that’s how my brother explained it to me). That night, they try. Once. They shake me, they talk to me, but I just refuse to wake up. So they go back to bed.

Thanks for all that effort, guys.

kdmacken said...

On that vein, I just finished "The Divine Ryans" by Wayne Johnston and it was just excellent. I loved Paddy as well, and TDR put a refreshing and quirky spin on the genre. Darkness ensued. Really enjoyed it.