My parents were lovers of books. Dad especially was a voracious reader. He would often keep two or three books going on at once. Mom’s appetite for books was more perfunctory. She enjoyed stories and had a collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, which were popular back in the late sixties. She ordered a book for me, “Great Stories for Young Readers”.
My book was thick as a Bible, with a red hardcover, and probably had a jacket at one point. The long list of illustrious authors included Ian Fleming, Nathanial Hawthorne, James Thurber, Laura Ingalls-Wilder, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling. Some of the stories were from old folklore, like Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill. The color illustrations were varied and entrancing.
Like many other treasured items from my childhood, this book is long gone. But it recently occurred to me that maybe I could find it on Amazon.
My hunch paid off, and I was excited to be able to order a copy. When it arrived, the binding was broken, but it was otherwise in good shape. The look and feel of it was so familiar, and in the moment I handled it, I realized I must have read this book many times.
One story, in particular, had stuck with me all these years. When I opened the book and flipped through the pages, it was the first one that I looked for: “A White Heron”, by Sarah Orne Jewett.
This Maine author, I have since learned, was born around 1850 and lived her whole life in New England. She never married, but developed a friendship with a married couple and when the husband died, the wife moved in with her. There is some speculation about whether Jewett was a lesbian. Who cares? The sad part is that she was paralyzed in a carriage accident, which ended her writing career. She died of stroke a few years later. She lived only into middle age.
I opened the book to this story and when I started reading, I realized why it had so resounded with me.
A shy little girl, Sylvia, spends the summer on a farm with her aunt. She has a love for the woods and a way with animals, coaxing wild birds and squirrels to eat from her hand. She is from a large, boisterous family and has a fear of people, but she meets a young ornithologist in the woods who wins her over with his friendly nature. His knowledge of the habits of birds is like a magnet to her. He is her first crush. But he wants her to lead him to the nest of the white heron, so he can shoot it and stuff it for his collection.
Sylvia’s face was like a pale star, if one had seen it from the ground, when the last thorny bough was past, and she stood trembling and tired but wholly triumphant, high in the tree-top. Yes, there was the sea with the dawning sun making a golden dazzle over it, and toward that glorious east flew two hawks with slow-moving pinions. How low they looked in the air from that height when one had only seen them before far up, and dark against the blue sky. Their gray feathers were as soft as moths; they seemed only a little way from the tree, and Sylvia felt as if she too could go flying away among the clouds. Westward, the woodlands and farms reached miles and miles into the distance; here and there were church steeples, and white villages, truly it was a vast and awesome world.
Reading this gorgeous prose makes me wish that parents would make their kids put video games away, and give them a book instead. Maybe the collective lack of empathy is due in part to the collective death of reading. How better to understand the insight of another, than to see the world through the pen of an eloquent writer?
I hope all parents read to their kids.
Great Stories for Young Readers is available on Amazon.com.