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Reading in the desert

04.19.09 | book review | 25 Comments

This week I read a book that made me want to get down on my knees and give thanks that I know how to read. That there are women and men who sit down to put words on paper. That I have the time and thought and leisure to read. That I am a woman and a mother and a wife to the sweet man beside me on the bed right now. I have not felt so consumed by a novel since I was in my adolescence, and there has not been a single day since I learned to read that I have not read something.

This something, however, has my heart full and my eyes overflowing (again) in the shower before church.

It’s not the greatest book ever, I suppose. The naive (but surprisingly enlightened) narrator reminds me of Huck Finn, and perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch for a seventeen-year-old girl living in frontier times. There’s a lot of death and a lot of melodrama, and if I hadn’t been expecting the ending to end as it did, I would have hunted down Nancy E. Turner and scalped her like I was an Apache for letting that happen to my characters.

It also reminds me of Anne of Green Gables (her “unrealized” desire for self-improvement) and the latter books in the Little House on the Prairie series, though they can never compete with historical events seen through a modern, more contemplative and searing lens.

It was the sort of story that had me forgetting it was between the pages of a book except that I had to turn down nearly every other page (sorry, Marcy) to mark a passage I want to come back to. It was one of those books, the first in too long, where I find myself flying in a million directions when it is done. Part of me wants to sit and savor it, part of me wants to write something of my own, and part of me wants to go suck the marrow out of life and my kids because life is fragile and utterly glorious.

It makes me ashamed of all my faults: my impatience, my discontent, my coveting and jealousy and selfish ambitions, my fear of sounding less than educated and brilliant in my writing. It makes me grateful for all the grace and good people who are in my life. It makes me vow to work harder and complain less.

And I can’t think about it without a welling up inside.

One of my favorite things is to read books in the locations where they’re set. The only thing better than escaping into the world of a book is to escape mentally at the same time that physically you’re exploring to. I read Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile while cruising down the Nile, Jane Austen in Bath, Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark while in a motorhome between Colorado and New York City, Elizabeth Peter’s Night Train to Memphis while not far from there (Egypt, not Tennessee),and Romeo and Juliet while sleeping in a 16th century palazzo-turned-youth-hostel in Verona. Someday I’d like to read Death in Kenya on the plains of the Rift Valley, and a Susan Napier romance while backpacking in New Zealand.

these-is-my-wordsThis week I read These is My Words: the Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine 1881-1901, Arizona Territories (a novel) as we camped on the Utah-Arizona border with my parents;  the girls had Spring Break, and we were hoping to find warmer weather. There are many things about camping that I don’t like: the dirt, the gargantuan task of packing and unpacking, and the dirt. Camping is good for returning your settings to default, though, and the view, all that nature crap, is probably worth the dirt. I’m always surprised at how important the weather is; when you’re camping, if it’s cold outside, you are cold.

So I sat in our tent, reading, on a sleeping bag, on an air mattress, and I realized I couldn’t whine about the sand in my teeth or my nose that was cold all night or the kids who fought for thirty endless minutes before settling down to sleep and then had to be tucked back in their sleeping bags every few hours. It’s a bit surreal to read about pioneer ladies who ate only if they worked from sunup to sundown and survived only if they were a faster shot than the bandits when you’re out in the wilderness playing at rustic. Almost feels disrespectful that we would try to recreate (in some small way) the circumstances of life that made living a century ago such a peril. Yet we were safe, and stuffed with food, and only 7 miles by pretty good road to a brand new Walmart.

On Friday we hiked to Native American rock paintings and were actually in Arizona for an hour at Glitter Gulch, which should not be confused with the strip of topless casinos in Las Vegas, but is actually an almost-mined vein of gypsum selenite crystal on BLM land. Sally said, “I cannot believe this stuff is worthless; it is magnificently beautiful.”

When I was a kid, the luxury of reading a book all in one sitting was something I took for granted. Reading These is My Words interspersed with outdoor ventures and teaching Susan to play Concentration, Go Fish, and Old Maid with our new Dora the Explorer cards might have been frustrating for the interruptions, but the book packs such a lot into its pages, and contains such beautiful (not sickly-sweet or ranty) meditations on motherhood, that I didn’t mind (much) having to spread it out over three whole days.

I don’t want to give any of it away, but I want to give you some taste of it. Near the beginning, the narrator’s best friend’s sister is raped on the trail. The friend’s family are Quakers, and Ulyssa submits without fuss (it isn’t told graphically; I’ll let Sally read this book when she’s 14 or so). Sarah runs back to the wagon and gets her gun and shoots the bastards dead (sorry Mom, if that isn’t an appropriate use of that word, I don’t know what is) before they can get the other sisters. The Quaker family, including the best friend Savannah, shun Sarah and Sarah mourns their friendship. A week or so later, Sarah is supposed to butcher a chicken for dinner:

As I lay that chicken down she stretched out her neck and calmly laid her head on the wood making little cooing sounds. I lifted the hatchet and shook her. Fight back, chicken, I said. Then I hollered at it, fight back, chicken! In a minute I was yelling Fight back Ulyssa! Fight back Ulyssa! over and over like a lunatic.

I was standing there shaking all over and crying out and I could not chop that chicken to save my life. Suddenly over my shoulder I hear these words in Savannah’s voice, Well, you are WRONG, Papa! and then Savannah is there and taking the chicken and the hatchet from me. Everyone has circled around me while I was crying. Savannah says, I’ll do it for you, it’s all right, then she bursts into tears and drops the hatchet and the chicken and throws her arms around me and we both cry to beat all.

Harland took to chasing that chicken to have her for lunch and calling out come here, little Drumsticks, and we all smiled for the first time in many, many days (18-19).

In short: beg, borrow, or steal a copy of These is My Words. You’ll thank me later, even if you don’t read it while camping in the desert.

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