Recall Your First Library Book?
During the past two and a half weeks I’ve read two books, Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky and Shanghai Girls by Lisa See; and I watched the first episode of Ken Burns’ film series, The War.
Both books and the film series refer to events of World War II. I read these books because I just joined a local readers group that meets once a week at the local branch of our public library.
Suite Francaise taught me much about the French citizens’ reactions to German occupation, but the book’s author wrote the story in dispassionate tones. The reading group members’ comments regarding the book were far more interesting than the book itself.
Shanghai Girls bored hell out of me for the first fifty pages. Sounded like a chick book, a solid nominee for Oprah’s Book Club. Until, that is, the bombs began to fall. Japanese bombs and Chinese bombs. 1937. Chiang Kai-shek versus the Communists. The Monkey People and The Green Gang thugs. Body parts and curdled blood. Nightstools filled with shit and piss. The two Shanghai Girls are not “Beautiful Girls” any longer. Instead, they beat a path across the Chinese countryside, pushed inside a wheelbarrow, rather than drawn by a lower-class rickshaw puller. Raped, hunted and otherwise condemned to slavery of an Asian flavor.
All the way to Angel Island, off the coast near San Francisco, USA, labeled by the ignorant American masses as The Ellis Island of The West. Rather a prison than a point of entry, Alcatraz nearby and similar in fashion.
No longer a chick book. My lesson learned. I feel glad that I read long enough.
That evening I watched Episode One of Ken Burns’ The War. This story is not a record of one battle after another, not a general’s tale of strategies and counterattacks. Instead, this film allows the citizens of four American towns, spread across the nation and who lived through the war years, to offer their comments.
Much time is given to the stench of armed conflict on The Pacific Front. The Bataan Death March reminded me that the first book I signed out of my hometown local branch of the public library was titled We Were There At The Battle For Bataan.
Pink cinder-block building, around the corner from the police station and a red-brick City Hall that would make Thorton Wilder a happy man.
Young boy sitting on the carpeted floor. A bookcase three shelves high, non-fiction volumes on the bottom shelf. The boy’s a rejected mess inside himself, and so reading of different worlds revives the spirit his family tries to steal. He spies a series of books, all of whose titles begin with the words, We Were There. Why does he slip out the volume that speaks of a place with which he is unfamiliar? Who knows? Not I the old man version of this boy. Perhaps the dust jacket’s lurid painting finished in unreal, vivid colors attracts his glance. Better yet, maybe the depiction of two young and frightened children lures him. Or was his motivation involved with his father’s tales of World War II? He certainly did not understand that he, the son, was a child of that same war.
Whatever the reasons for piqued interest, the boy begins to read. Along the way, he pulls the book up close toward his nose and breathes in deep the scents of ink and paper; and forevermore he is a reader. Later on, although not much later, he will become a writer, as well.
There followed other books, of course. Biographies of Eli Whitney, Master Craftsman, so-called inventor of the cotton gin, a story the old man discovers was not true. The story he read of Thomas Edison, another fable that failed to mention Mr. Edison’s political associations, thank the Good Lord in whom the young boy and the old man never believed. Just give the both of them stories as gifts.
So I, the old man version of the boy, yesterday searched for, found and purchased a first-edition copy of that once treasured volume, We Were There At The Battle For Bataan; and I can hardly wait to read that same volume now more than half a century later.
Can you, reader, recall the first book you signed out of your local branch of the public library? If so, please write to me to mention both the title and the scenery that surrounds your story. I’m interested to hear from you.