I recently re-read Alice Munro’s story “Friend of My Youth,” about the sisters Flora and Ellie who are Cameronians, a “freak religion from Scotland” (p. 152). When Ellie is confined to her sick bed, Flora puts her sister to sleep by reading to her from old books of their faith, “all the stuff that was in their monstrous old religion” (p. 157). Sometimes those readings were leavened by stories about Scotland, about “urchins and comic grandmothers” (p. 157). The only title mentioned is Wee Macgregor, about a Glaswegian lad and his family narrated in Scots dialect by J.J. Ball. These mawkish tales were first published in the Glasgow Evening Times around the turn of the century then gathered in a small book. As I read about the few books Flora had on hand, I thought of my mother’s house and how an early impoverishment of books shapes minds and lives.
Then I turned to Richard Wright, an important twentieth-century African American writer, whose 1961 short story “The Man who was Almost a Man” contains another kind of paucity. The only intertext in this story is the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. Dave doesn’t have his own copy—he has to go to the local store and borrow the catalogue so he can pore over the pictures. It’s doubtful he can read. Getting a gun from the catalogue, thinks Dave, will make him a man. A persistent theme in Wright’s work is the black man’s struggle to be seen as fully human.
“Howdy, Dave! Whutcha want?”
“How yuh, Mistah Joe? Aw, Ah don wanna buy nothing. Ah jus wanted t see ef yuhd lemme look at tha catlog erwhile.”
“Sure! You wanna see it here?”
“Nawsuh. Ah wans t take it home wid me. Ah’ll bring it back termorrow when Ah come in from the fiels. ”
“You plannin on buying something?”
“Your ma lettin you have your own money now?”
“Shucks. Mistah Joe, Ahm gittin t be a man like anybody else!”
Joe laughed and wiped his greasy white face with a red bandanna.
“Whut you plannin on buyin?”
Dave looked at the floor, scratched his head, scratched his thigh, and smiled. Then he looked up shyly.
“Ah’ll tell yuh, Mistah Joe, ef yuh promise yuh won’t tell.”
“Waal, Ahma buy a gun.”
“A gun? Whut you want with a gun?”
“Ah wanna keep it.”
“You ain’t nothing but a boy. You don’t need a gun.”
“Aw, lemme have the catlog, Mistah Joe. Ah’Il bring it back.”
When Dave takes the catalogue home, his mother thinks it will provide toilet paper in the outhouse, but is quickly disabused of this notion. Dave pores over the pictures during dinner and is told to put the catalogue away. In John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath farm labourers are suspicious of the written word because it may be used to manipulate and deceive. And here, similarly, Dave’s parents see the catalogue as dangerous—putting ideas into their son’s head. All those glittery objects they cannot afford.
Dave gets his gun and of course the results are catastrophic.
What is it like to grow up where there are no books in the house? Where you have to borrow a catalogue from the corner store? Or perhaps there is only one book: the Bible. This poverty is hard for me to imagine. I grew up surrounded by books and received books for every birthday and Christmas as I was growing up.
However, my mother grew up in a strict German Lutheran home with seven siblings and no books save the Bible. Born in North Dakota in 1929, my mother Virginia was so grateful when one of her much older sisters—my Auntie Fran—gave her the gift of her first book when she was 7 or 8, Shaun O’Day of Ireland (1929). She remembers this gift fondly because it unlocked the door to literacy and a lifelong hunger for books and reading. She mentioned the book to me again when I visited her last Easter, and she is 87—so this is an indelible memory. Curiously, the author of Shaun O’Day is Madeline Brandeis, with the same spelling of Madeline that I use. Although my mother says she named me Madeline because she “liked the name,” I wonder if it was this author’s name—author of a treasured book—that partially inspired the choice?
The words and pictures in books might give people ideas about having a better life. My mother started reading about Shaun, imagined how life was in Ireland, and soon she had her eye on a different life. She left her parents’ farm in Lodi, California to move to LA and then to Berkeley. She met my dad on the Berkeley campus where she studied Art History and he studied Sociology. Both of them surrounded themselves with books, just as my sisters and I do. From scarcity to abundance.
If you have any ideas for future blogs on inter art/ intertext please use the comment section or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you for reading.
Munro, A. (1990). A friend of my youth. In L. Chalykoff, N. Gordon, & P. Lumsden (Eds), The Broadview introduction to literature: Short fiction (pp. 150-167). Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.
Note: I use APA here even though MLA is expected. I have used and taught APA for the last while (working in a School of Nursing), so I need to re-learn MLA now.