Magic in Brown Paper

I grew up on a small island in the Salish Sea. In the summers, which were usually dry and warm, I spent much of my time swimming, scrambling over oyster beaches and rocky islets, and washing the salt off in warm, calm lakes. In the winter, I walked or biked the wet roads around the village, played out on our verandah while listening to the pattering rain on our tin roof, and delightedly built indeterminate snow beings after the occasional, deeply welcome, snowfall. The island was peopled by an eclectic assortment of farmers, loggers, fisher folk and eccentrics, with a scattering of opportunists, snobs, artists, and the strangely weird (of course, kids’ assessments of who the really weird ones are frequently differ from their parents’, but that’s another story). For the most part, I found the island and my life there beautiful and complete, except for one thing: there was no library. Not even in our school. Neither of my parents were bookish, and, although my grandmother who lived with us read, her taste tended to the devout rather than the imaginative. When I was very small, she kindly read me stories from the Sunday School papers, which were fine, and I could persuade her on occasion to read out of a very old story book of my father’s, The Foxglove Story Book; one of its stories was about a fairy, which I would beg her to read again and again. I had an aunt in England who sent me British annuals every year at Christmas, and another who gave me a Nancy Drew every birthday. That was it. That and the backs of cereal boxes, a set of thirty year old Books of Knowledge, and purloined copies of my dad’s Star Weekly magazine. Until I discovered The Open Shelf.

Set up, I assume, by the Greater Victoria Public Library on Vancouver Island, the Open Shelf was a kind of outreach library: as soon as I found out about it, I joined. I received a catalogue of book titles, with very short, cryptic descriptions of the books; I would study it for hours, luxuriously agonizing over my choices, and then I would choose titles, up to six books at a time I believe, and mail in my request. A week or so later, the parcel of books, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, would arrive at our local post office, and I would find it waiting for me when I went to collect our mail. Those days were like Christmas Day and birthdays all in one. As soon as I got home I’d open my treasure and begin, hiding away under our stairway, or even under the kitchen table, immersing myself in all that glory.

Of course, not every book was an enchantment, but although a passionate reader, I wasn’t a particularly fastidious one (hence the cereal box reading), so I would plough on through both the good and the bad choices that I’d made. But every once in a while, the extraordinary would happen. A particular book would come my way that aligned itself to the deepest part of me; nothing felt more like real magic than that. One such book, however, entered my world through wonderful, ordinary human magic: it arrived from someone I never met, and whose name I do not know, someone who really paid attention to a young reader. One week, when I opened up my book parcel, I found a note from the librarian in charge of my account. One of the books that I had chosen was not available. However, she had taken the liberty of choosing another book for me, one that she liked very much. Because I lived by the water, and through consideration of my past book choices, she thought that I might enjoy it. Enjoy was an understatement. I breathed that book in till it felt like part of me. Fog Magic, by Julia Sauer, a 1943 Newbury Honor book, is about eleven year old Greta, who lives in a fishing village in Nova Scotia, where foggy days are considered a serious nuisance and a threat. Greta, however, is drawn to the mist, and one day she discovers why; it allows her entrance to Blue Cove, an old village which appears abandoned in sunlight, but which is magically transformed in the fog. This is the first book that I can remember that suggested that the imagined and the real are profoundly connected, that the natural world and the magical one are inextricably bound, and that they are transformed each by the other. It changed my life.

I’ve never thanked the lovely, thoughtful person who sent that book my way so many years ago; I wish I could. But whenever I talk to a child, especially about books, I try to keep in mind what was given to me when I received that note: respect, attention, consideration, and an encouraging generosity, from one reader to another.

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