The Power of a Private Library

The magic of a private library is something every child should experience. I had such a library when I was growing up. It was two book-lined shelves above the freezer deep in our basement. I was a farm kid born and raised near a small Northern Alberta town that for the longest time had no bookstore. We did, however, have a public library but the library would not “allow” farm kids to sign out books…because they might not return them on time due to the long drive and all a fact I still hold bitter in my heart.

So I pillaged my mother’s library, a spritely array of volumes from Reader’s Digest Book of the Month, garage sale treasures and old school texts.I remember them all clearly. And my mother never, ever censored what books I could and could not read (although sometimes she made a few “unavailable” for her adolescent daughter). Here are a few books that will always remind me of growing up on the farm:

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It was all about Jo. I was a tomboy; Jo was a tomboy. She was more a sister to me at times than my own two. At the time of “The Great Bang Massacre of ‘72, when my mom would take us to the neighbor lady to get our haircut (it wasn’t years later that I found out she wasn’t a certified hairdresser) my distress was minimized when I read of Jo cutting her beautiful long hair.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I used to go up to the stone pile atop the hill behind our house and read aloud Scarlett O’Hara’s dialogue…especially between her and Rhett. The “Old South” was the furthest thing away from my reality of Northern Alberta but that didn’t matter because there was Rhett. Rhett Butler was my first literary crush.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Who was the woman in the attic?  What was HER story? Is she a ghost?I couldn’t care less about Jane, I wanted to know about the crazy lady. It wasn’t years later until I read The Wide Sargasso Sea and found some possible answers.

I wanted to be just like Desiree in Annemarie Selinko’s novel Desiree. I wanted to grow up to be like with Desiree than I Jane. Desiree was precocious, she was a rule breaker, and she had caught the eye of young Napoleon. I was in these pages I got an understanding of what the grown-ups called “little man syndrome.” And Desiree could make quite the impression at a party smashing her glass splattering wine in a great arc across  Josephine’s white dress – a scene forever in my imagination even though I haven’t read the book in decades. (There is a new-ish 2010 edition out with a beautiful cover!)

The Happy Hooker by Xaviera Hollander…ok, I didn’t read a lot of this one. I think this book was making its way around the neighbourhood because the neighbor lady’s name was written on the front cover (come to think of  it may have been the name of lady that “cut” my hair!!). I would sneak down into the basement and sit on the freezer and read until I heard footsteps on the stairs which meant I could only read snatches at a time.  I knew it was salacious reading because I never took it out of the storage room. One day the book disappeared off the shelf. I have a feeling mom knew I was sneaking snippets of this text rather than sneaking cookies. (Side note: while discussing this post with friends I have since learned that they too covertly read Hollander’s memoir. Was it the taboo book of the 70’s that all adolescent girls wondered about? What was the book of the 80’s?)

Being able to escape into this little “two-shelf” library was especially important to me during junior high. It was a place where I could magically escape the melodrama and bullying that sometimes accompanies adolescence. I visited this library almost every week, replacing one book with the next. I so loved my mother for letting me have free access to everything and anything I wanted to read.

I wish every child to have such a place.

I could cry,

and laugh

and be scandalized

all atop that freezer,

book in one hand,

frozen cookie in the other.


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