The brilliant and passionate Laurie Halse Anderson retweeted a provocative question: “what is the most moving moment in children’s literature? Before I peeked at the responses, I thought of my own answer…maybe the horrifying moment In Book Thief when Leisel loses everyone and everything in a bombing attack. We, the readers, had been amply warned of this moment, but it still was a pain in my heart.
After I framed my own answer, I read others’. Giving Tree? Yes, that is a moment of sacrifice, unappreciated. Charlotte’s Web? Heartbreaking yet uplifting. Then I read several answers the same…Beth’s death in Little Women. I recently reread Little Women and was as captivated this time as I had been when I read it as a girl.
These other answers reminded me of a rare and precious moment of bonding over books with my mother and my sister. Mom and I were the readers. Mama thought she’d invented the phrase, ‘absorbing the love of reading through mother’s milk,’ but I discovered John Steinbeck had beat us to it. Mama and I read together, we read separately. She and Dad always had books in their hands. I sneaked a copy of Peyton Place from the bookshelf, but I’m sure Mama knew I had it.
She despaired when I read cheap romance paperbacks: Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, and the like, but even then, I knew it was reading that was the key, not what was read. I read about Cherry, I read the great books my mom suggested. I read. I read omnivorously, haunting the library bookmobile when it stopped right by my house every week, all summer. I had to be reminded that the room had gotten dark while I was reading and I needed to turn on a light. I read while I did chores. I read.
Mama and I shared the love of several books: Little Women and Jane Eyre were our two favorites. I still have a cherished cameo she bought me in England that reminded her of Jane.
My sister, Jamie, was a rebel. If I loved to read, she would avoid it for more active pursuits. When I took choir, she chose clarinet. Where I was quiet and introspective, she was a planner and a mover. At less than five feet tall, she is still one of the most formidable people I know. My children learned to mind Aunt Jamie, because the consequences could be grave. Jamie could and can organize huge projects with ease, and bend everyone to her will.
But back to Little Women. One summer Mama and I badgered Jamie to read the book so we could all talk about it…our own little family book club. She dutifully plowed through it, showing a cooperative attitude. We would check in on her progress from time to time.
Our dad was a junior high principal (OUR junior high principal!! Just hold that image for a moment!!), and he worked every day throughout the summer…probably unpaid. I can remember him creating master schedules on huge pages he’d taped together. He draped the pages over the piano bench, the only surface long enough! Daddy came home for lunch during the summers, and it was always a highlight for us all…he ate his soup and we all visited about our day. Very domestic.
One day, Daddy came home and Jamie snapped at him over something. We were all taken aback. Daddy and Jamie adored each other. They never were cross with each other…I often envied that sweet relationship. I think we all stared at her goggle-eyed. Daddy said something in the way of correcting her behavior, and she blew up at him. For nothing. Daddy’s temper was hard to arouse. But when it was, he could bellow with what we called, “The Principal’s Voice.” It was loud and deep. It commanded immediate obedience. It could stop the biggest-baddest kid in school. Our goal in life was to never hear the principal’s voice in our house, and here it was, aimed at Jamie! Daddy snarled a bit more and tried to eat his soup.
I suddenly realized and whispered to Mama: “Beth just died!” We shuttled Dad out the door, promising that everything would be better in the afternoon, and turned as one to Jamie.
“Beth died, didn’t she?” I can remember Jamie’s stricken face, her tears, my mom’s tears, my tears. He hugged and cried. Then we dried our eyes and talked about the book and how it touched us. Beth, the sweet, the perfect. The one who deserved nothing but the best. And instead, Beth dies, leaving us all bereft.
As I reread the book, I remembered this moment…the power of books to bond. The power of books to make us see life and death. The power of books to help us live different lives, in different times and places.
Mama and Jamie, we weren’t the only ones crushed by that moment in the book.