My family treasures library books. In My Music Man I wrote about how, as our family prepared to evacuate our Eastern Oregon LaGrande home because of a 1972 wildfire, Mom insisted we gather the library books hiding in the crevices of our home together with cherished family photo albums. (Okay, there was that one other time . . . see Tips for reading in the bath (or how to avoid fines and electrocution).
Hmm. Perhaps now isn’t the time to ask Mom about the library book I now hold in my hands – a copy of the The Little House written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton? Inside its front cover is pasted a pocket stamped both Wilsonville Grade School and West Linn School Library, both stamps blackened out by marker. The pocket still holds a card hosting several names and dates, the last entry dated January 20, 1972. I’d really like to know– was the library book simply misplaced and forgotten or was it a conniving act of outright thievery? Or, being the eternal optimist, I wonder if the school simply no longer wanted it, offering give-aways to relieve burgeoning shelves and make space for newer titles?
The Little House illustrates the passing of time to a small, quaint house illustrated to remind us of a kind neighbor. Perhaps the author’s intention, as quoted by Martha Oakes, curator of the Cape Ann Museum several years ago, was for a book that “… shows that even if perhaps the worst thing in your life happened, that your house got swallowed up by the big city, [that] time can go on and you can recover.”
Oh, how differently one book can affect us depending on when we read it. Not long ago I found this with Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, its impact on me so different in this sixth decade of life than when I was barely twenty-one. The children books I most adored during childhood strike me today as sentimental and cozy, even if I must forgive dated language, stereotypes and misconceptions. Yet, my memory of how The Little House made me feel before is quite different than when I reread it a few days ago. During my reread, as the little house became surrounded by the lights and clamor of the developing city, I felt devastated. She was forgotten. And while I did discern the subtle beauty of her being discovered by the house owner’s great-great-granddaughter to be relocated to a quiet spot, I could only reminisce about our Willamette Valley – places once quietly oozing nature’s bounty. Perhaps my reaction was amplified by the recent bulldozing of a quaint home in our town –a house that also once sat quietly on a peaceful hillside abutting today’s Salamo Road, reminding us of the time when a narrow curvy road preceded today’s Safeway and subdivisions, only a few Christmas tree and blueberry farms dotting the hillside, surrounded by space. And quiet.
Maybe my reaction last week illustrates the passing of my own time. I did adore The Little House and its illustrations when I was young. My own daughters read this same (stolen?) copy with their Gaga, my mom. Two years ago when Mom moved from her assisted living apartment into an adult care home I rescued many books, painstakingly deciding which to give away, which to keep. Since then The Little House had rested unnoticed on my bedroom book shelf between Pelle’s New Suit and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. Other books from long ago have traveled off the shelf to make appearances as we read to Mom, some of them exuding treasured inscriptions of dearest birthday and Christmas wishes.
But now I can’t help but wonder about this library copy – in 1972 Mom would have recently finished her teaching stint at the still private kindergarten in Wilsonville’s Methodist Church, now a McMenamin’s Pub (see: From Methodism to McMenamins), to teach Head Start in neighboring Tualatin prior to us moving to LaGrande. Did she or one of my siblings or I merely forget to return it? Was it discarded by the library? If only our dear Wilsonville School librarian Betty Plant was still around to answer such a question.
Virginia Lee Burton wrote and illustrated seven children’s books, including Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939), and The Little House (1943), which won the Caldecott Medal. She also illustrated six books by other authors. She was born in 1909 and died in 1968 at the age of 59, my age today. Ms. Burton is said to have based The Little House on her own little house, surrounded by a field of daisies and apple trees. She was also said to contend the story not to be a critique of urban sprawl but instead to help convey the passing of time to younger readers.
And so, I read The Little House again this afternoon to Mom. As I opened the cover and explained to Mom about the library card she asked me what they might do to her for still holding onto this book? I reminded her 1970 was fifty years ago and that certainly nobody would care anymore. She laughed heartily – how I savor these laughs! I read it slowly this time, tracing with my finger and describing details in the illustrations that she cannot see. I remembered distinctly how the pictured scenes made me feel before – skating on the pond during winter and swimming in the summer, picking apples and climbing trees. It all came back to me, boldly. And yes, as I snuggle into a winter full of beauty and sadness, pain and joy, I am reminded so well of the passage of time. Sad and beautiful in this life we experience together and apart, day by day.