When I went back through my book journal looking for this year’s reading highlights, a diverse foursome stood out, and I thought, Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. I’m not a singsongy person, but the monkey mind loves patterns.
The something old was my re-read of an old favorite, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. This was my third time, occasioned by an invitation from my local indie bookstore to lead a book club on my favorite novel. Crossing to Safety is the story of two couples, their lifelong marriages and friendship, and it takes a clear-eyed look at how our strengths and foibles become more forgiving and more brittle over the decades. It’s brilliant, more so each time I read it. This time I treasured the voice and dry humor of the narrator poking fun at the champagne bubbliness of his own youth — hoo hoo, ha ha — naïve to the hardship up ahead.
Something new was The Light Between Oceans, a summer debut by Australian writer M.L. Stedman. I’ve been a bit of a zealot for this book while on book tour and probably should be on commission, because when I give my elevator pitch, the audience sighs with that reader-hunger that must be appeased. I tell them this: It’s set on a tiny island in 1920s Australia, and its sole inhabitants — a lighthouse keeper and his wife — have been unable to have children. One day a rowboat washes ashore with a dead man and a live baby. What to do? Report the child, or raise her as their own? The decision the couple makes that day reverberates through the decades, and through the lives of others. It’s the kind of novel I love because it involves a moral choice where there is no clear right or wrong, no clear path of lesser harm.
Borrowed is a bit of a stretch, but work with me here. My pediatrician told me recently about a little-known and out-of-print children’s novella by Faulkner called The Wishing Tree. My first thought was, What would Faulkner have to say to kids? That when you mimic the help, it’s important to get the dialect right? That you shouldn’t drink while doing your homework, only after you’re done?
Intrigued, I tracked down a used copy online. The Alice-in-Wonderlandesque story is in classic Faulker terroritory, a sloshing bouillabaisse of race, relationships, and social class but served up in kiddie bowls. It hints at many of the themes and characters to come in his later work, The Sound and the Fury, which I borrowed from the library to refresh my memory. The strong doomed sister. The disgruntled black maid carrying the weight of the world and none of the family’s respect. The menacing jaybirds, always swooping. No Dick and Jane.
I decided to read The Wishing Tree to my kids anyway and they loved it, along with the controversial way it found its way to publication some 40 years after it was written: first as a gift to an eight-year-old girl whose mom he wanted to marry, then to three other kids, including a girl dying of cancer. Each thought he’d written it only for him or her, and were in for a rude awakening when the first girl published it after Faulkner’s death.
Blue is how Salvage the Bones made me feel, the blue of neglected children and spurned love and rushing hurricane stormwater before it goes brown in its race through dirt lots of Mississippi. This is the Katrina most people didn’t hear about, put to merciless fiction by Jesmyn Ward. In her hands, four siblings’ fierce bickery loyalty is the closest thing to unconditional love, and a teen’s dedication to his fighter of a pit bull and her pups is as close as it gets to salvation.
This audiobook kicked my tail clear from Kansas City to Minneapolis to Chicago, where I bought a paper copy to finish on the flight home. Because I love a book that beats me up a little, makes the monkey mind sit still and show respect.
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