A great writer friend called this weekend, excited about writing a piece about a trip down memory lane. Her first job was at a Carnegie library in her Southern hometown. The Carnegie libraries were wonderful gifts from a wealthy benefactor. What a treasured windfall for impoverished regions: a beautiful brick library filled with first-rate books.
This of course spun me down my own memory lane trip. Many, in speaking of their Southern towns and cities, say: 'We've got everything. It may not be top level, but we've got it.' In my rural south, we didn't have much of anything. Not even enough people to warrant a free brick library. What we did have was the Horseshoe Bend Regional Library Bookmobile. It pulled up every Thursday in front of the WPA era rock building that housed the Extension Service and 4-H Club. Miss Evie Wade, the retired and beloved 2nd Grade teacher who had taught every kid in the southern part of the county for the last 50 years, sat at a desk in the room where the books were shelved. She would call your mama in her thick genteel Georgia accent if you did not return a book on time.
The 4-H Club and the Horseshoe Bend Regional Library Bookmobile were the sum total of offerings for us rural kids for the entire long stretch of hot summer. For 4-H Club, the summer offered time to fill up the pages of a record book, a ledger type affair where 4-Hers recorded all the work they had accomplished for whatever projects they had signed up for. I despised sewing and anything requiring me to sit still for very long. In a desperate move, with nothing at all appealing to me in the 'girl' category, I signed up for Food Preservation. Surely, I thought, I could do that. My mother, delighted, supplied me with a stove-top pressure canner and what seemed to me a half ton of fresh green rattlesnake snap beans bought from local farmers. Snap beans--for those of you unknowledgable in the rules of pressure canning--require a gazillion minutes at the highest pressure. This means to process green beans the stove had to be turned up on highest heat and the pressure canner meter's needle monitored carefully. If the needle was too low, the temperature would not have been sustained long enough so that six months later the family might die of botulism. If the needle moved too high into the RED ZONE, the pressure canner might blow up, leaving the kitchen in shambles and me in a burn unit. I was 10 years old.
So my memory of the entire summer is this. In the mornings I would wash green beans and worry over them, making sure all the troublesome strings were removed before I snapped them ready for the sterilized canning jars. Then later in the afternoon in the un-airconditioned July Deep South kitchen, I scooted the kitchen stool just as far away from the stove as I could and still be able to see the position of the meter's needle. There, perched on the stool, I greedily read every Laura Ingalls Wilder book I could lay my hands on, all the way from childhood in the deep pioneer woods, to the prairie days, to the wonderful These Happy Golden Years when she became a happily married young woman. I read other books as well, lots of them, and magazines like American Girl and The Saturday Evening Post and The Atlantic. I read grown up books, too: The Hounds of the Baskervilles, collections of horror stories involving ghost ships in the Atlantic, and several books I knew I was not supposed to be reading. The ghost books made me shudder cold as sweat tickled down my back. Fortunately my busy mother trusted me to sit there and can beans and dutifully record the amount in my record book and pretty much left me alone as long as I did not blow up the kitchen or seriously injure myself.
Recently I heard the wonderful poet Louie Skipper describe the state library in Montgomery where his working mother parked him when she had to go to the state capitol for meetings. I at first was envious when I heard this and all the incredible books he read at such an early age.
But Laura Ingalls Wilder was probably the right choice for me at the time. She made being a pioneer girl seem exciting and glamorous. Eating roasted pig parts and swimming in ponds and getting leeches: I could relate. She made it seem normal to be a girl who loved to run wild in the woods.