I’ve been rereading Elizabeth Goudge’s Herb of Grace, and one of the reasons I like it is because of the connection between the generations. The grandmother shares her wisdom, and she has collected that wisdom for the sake of her children and grandchildren, and they in turn respect or are aggravated by her, learning who they are in relation to her and in the process, in relation to the world. I’ve never had that experience, to be told I was like any relative, to be sorted into a group of people who were similar by personality or tastes. I like being able to immerse myself in the story, and for a while I can pretend I am part of the Eliot family.
One thing in particular that connects the family is how the grandmother has read The Wind in the Willows to her children, and to her grandchildren. This book is part of their family, part of their shared experience, and gives them a common vocabulary. When a new friend appears, part of the reason she is immediately accepted as a friend is because she speaks the same language, quoting from Kenneth Grahame’s book.
So that got me to thinking, what book would I want, if I had to pick and it didn’t just happen by chance, to be the book my family has in common? What book would be part of our family tradition?
My first pick would be The Swiss Family Robinson. I can’t even count how many times I read it as a child, how many passages are, if not memorized verbatim, stuck in my mind as visuals. I like the spirit of adventure, the honorable actions of the people, and I think it opens up the idea of optimism. Someone said it’s not a true adventure story, because whenever the family needs anything, there it is. But someone else (I wish I could remember who) said that isn’t that really what an adventure is like? You look around, and whatever there is, that is what you must use; the smallest things become treasures.
My second choice would be between The Scottish Chiefs and A Tale of Two Cities. I am beyond disappointed that I only discovered both of those books since high school. As a child, I would have read them over and over, and as an adult I find them adventure stories of the highest quality. The characters have honor, and the action is exciting, with plenty of romance.
Of course, The Wind in the Willows is clearly a good choice. I wouldn’t choose fantasy, though, because I find it hard to talk about fantasy books with people who don’t appreciate them. Magic and fairies and myth, I would love to have those in common in my family, but it’s not something you can choose to give someone; they have to find the books, and find the magic, for themselves.
I think it’s important to reread books, and to read aloud to children, and it does more than give them some family jokes and phrases that only they understand. It really gives you a chance to enter into the world, to become the character, and to allow the story to change you. You can read a book once and have it change you, but to read it only once doesn’t allow it to mold your character, or connect you to the generations who have read and loved it. And to read aloud is to share that story with someone else, helping them enter another world, another way of looking at the world. So if I have the chance, I’d like to read one of these books over and over to my family, as a mother and as a grandmother, and see the connections grow. It’s only by choosing not to share the stories that the connection is lost.