Over the summer months I spent time sorting through books to give away, first to a library and then to a social service agency that helps teens by teaching them to run a book business. Inspired by the teens building a better future for themselves, I was curious about the books I'd read in my earliest years, before I reached teenage. I dug deeper into some old boxes, and was surprised at some of the finds.
In my early years, long before high school, I was completely entranced by Conrad Richter's saga of the settling of the wilderness in what we now call the Midwest. In a series of three books, The Trees, The Fields, and The Town, Richter traces the lives of a multi-generational family as they settle and expand. I have yet to meet anyone else who remembers these books but I loved them, and I can see their influence in a new series I'm working on. These books were published in 1940, 1945, and 1950, respectively, and I read them probably in the mid to late 1950s.
Also in the box was the first novel by John Leggett, a writer beloved of people north of Boston because he was one of our own. Wilder Stone launched his career, but his local fan club grew with the publication of his next book, The Gloucester Branch, which was set in my hometown and gave all of us something to talk about on rainy evenings. The first book came out in 1960, and I probably read it that year, and the second novel came out in 1964, and I know I read it within weeks of publication. These books are barely remembered now.
The third book brought back memories that have remained and taken on different shadings depending on the political climate. The Mind Alive by Harry and Bonaro Overstreet came out in 1954. The subtitle is "How to Keep Our Mental and Emotional Level High: How to Live so That Life Has Meaning." These two authors received blurbs for their other books from writers like Rollo May and Clifton Fadiman, which indicate their general rank in the world of books at that time. And yet what I remember best about that book is the inclusion of passages arguing against the Community party. They seemed irrelevant then and sad now.
I was a child during the McCarthy hearings, but I remember bits and pieces from that time. My uncle, a successful actor, went from Eugene O'Neill plays on Broadway to monster movies. When I asked my mother about it, she took a while to answer, but I got the idea. During the McCarthy era, it was very easy for people in the arts to be accused and found guilty without ever knowing what was happening. (Note the omission of a formal or specific accusation, which was common at the time.) My uncle found himself making Grade Z movies for a few years while he tried to undo the damage of a nameless accuser.
There's a story in this for sure. But mostly this foray into old boxes gives me a sense of history and how our thinking changes over time, something I hope to convey in my own stories. Learning to write honestly and without fear is always a challenge in any age, but it is salutary to sometimes look back and think about what our ancestors (or near relatives) had to cope with. I don't remember my uncle ever complaining, and he did recover his career after a while. I suppose the key is that he didn't give up, didn't cave, didn't take his eye off his goal--to have a long and successful career in the theater.
When I began this piece, I thought I'd end up talking about the influence of these early books on my thinking and writing, but instead I've ended up with a role model. I always loved my uncle, but I didn't think how hard some of his years must have been, and how proud I am to have known him.