There Is No Frigate Like a Book

Although books were not plentiful in Appalachian homes during the ’30s and ’40s, the Anderson household owned a few. We had a dictionary, a one volume encyclopedia and an agriculture yearbook that we kept on the table my Dad built for the living room of our log cabin home. He even carved out a set of bookends to contain them. This table served as our homework station where we could study under the light of a kerosene lamp. We also had Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs from which most of our “shopping” was done. There were monthly magazines as well: Good Housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, The Southern Agriculturist and The Farm Journal. In my preschool days I liked to look at the pictures in all of these and to imagine how it would be to read the words.

Sometimes Mildred would find stories to read to Garnetta and me. I particularly remember when “Pinocchio” and “Snow White” were printed in monthly installments in Good Housekeeping. They were accompanied by imaginative illustrations. These continued stories always stopped at an exciting point, making it difficult for us to wait for the next month’s edition.

When we were preschoolers the catalogs provided endless hours of entertainment for Garnetta and me, particularly in winter. Momma would sometimes put both of us in Daddy’s big rocking chair and give us a catalog. She might put a half-gallon jar of sour cream beside us, so that as we rocked the cream would be churned to butter. We rocked and looked at the catalog until one or both of us fell asleep.

While we were preschoolers, the rocking chair and catalogs were our baby-sitters during cold late fall days when Momma would help Daddy with the corn-shucking. She would tuck us in with a warm blanket and warn me, the oldest, not to get out of the chair until she returned. Often Garnetta would go to sleep, but not me; I was left “in charge.” During these times I could feel the loneliness of the house around me, quiet except for the measured “tick-tock” of the clock on the wall. The clock became my companion, keeping vigil over us as it counted the minutes until I would see a shadow move into the light that streaked under the door, letting me know that Momma was coming back.

Garnetta and I would often pretend to read to each other, making up sentences about the magazine pictures. Then one September they told me that I was old enough to go to Major School with Mildred. At last, I could exchange make-believe reading for the real thing. I was given a book of my own and the printed words began to make sense. How well I remember that book! The first page had a picture of a Scottish Terrier in a pet shop window. My teacher helped me read the story and I read it over and over:


Happy said, “Bow-wow.
I want to run.
I want to jump.
I want to play.”

On the next page a little boy was looking at the dog in the window:


Billy saw Happy.
Happy said “Bow-wow.
I want to run.
I want to jump.
I want to play.”

The story, with a picture, continued on the next page with Billy enthusiastically telling his mother about the dog as she was preparing dinner:

Billy ran to Mother.
“Oh Mother,” he said, “I saw a dog.
I saw a little dog. His name is Happy.
He wants to run.
He wants to jump.
He wants to play.”

In the picture on the following page Billy was running to his father, who was relaxing after his busy day at work, wearing a white shirt and tie and reading the paper. I could almost feel Billy’s excitement as he told his father about the dog in the pet store window. His father added two more sentences to the story, “A birthday is coming. A birthday is coming soon.” Would Billy get the dog on his birthday? Yes, he did, just as the beginning reader hoped. By then I was reading independently, sounding out new words for myself as I read more adventures of Billy and Happy in the stories that followed. Thus began my enthusiasm for books and reading.

The Elson-Gray Basic Reading Series was used in our school, taking us through every grade level. The books had a black cover with a green stripe down the left side and orange lettering indicating the year of study. Each level was an adventure to me as I moved from one grade to another. My daily lesson consisted of reading to my teacher each story in succession, although I always read well ahead of the assignments on my own time.

I remember one particular story in the third grade reader about a boy and a squirrel. As the boy walked to school each day he watched the squirrel scampering in the trees along the pleasant urban street. The squirrel waited for the boy each morning, looking for the nuts or popcorn the boy always brought him. Then one day the boy brought the squirrel a green gumdrop. The squirrel liked the gumdrop more than all the other goodies the boy had brought him. He waited expectantly every day for another. When he finally did get another, he did what any wise squirrel would do. He buried it, so that he could grow a gumdrop tree and have an endless supply of the sweet treats.

The pictures and the stories in those reading books told of another time in our nation’s history when streets were friendly and children could walk them without fear of danger lurking behind a tree or cruising along the street looking to do them harm. It was a time when children could ride bikes and fly kites without an accompanying adult to insure their safety.

The stories usually had their setting in towns or cities. This alone gave me something to think about, because all I knew were farms and country roads. I learned that there was a life where Dads went to work dressed up and came home in time to play with their children. This was far different from the life I knew, where Dads always wore overalls and came home at dusk smelling of sweat, covered with field dirt and grime, and too tired for games. And there were children somewhere who didn’t spend their summers working in the fields. Thus the books opened up to me not only the excitement of reading but the knowledge of another life different from my own.

On the back cover of the Elson-Gray books was a small symbol of the publishers, Gates and Huber. It featured a green path leading through half-open orange-colored double gates. I was fascinated by that picture and I built a fantasy in my mind about it. Surely the gates led into a wonderful place of endless stories where a child might go to spend hours in a make-believe world. I made a calamitous error one day when I mentioned this to Garnetta, who was just beginning to read. She told my older sisters and they laughed at such a silly idea. It was only the logo of the publishers! I was embarrassed and angry but I don’t know if it was because I was being made fun of, or if it was because my fantasy had been destroyed. Maybe a bit of both.

Through grade three, I studied Reading, Writing, Spelling and beginning Arithmetic. In the fourth grade, English, Virginia History and Geography were added. I felt quite grown-up when I began to study these advanced subjects. I was especially excited about English.

The introduction to the fourth grade English book intrigued me. It included a poem that I liked and immediately memorized:

Take some little words,
Place them in a row,
Soon you’ll have a pretty story
Made before you know.
Tales of houses and hills,
Butterflies and birds,
Anything at all you will,
Made from little words.*

I began to make up stories in my mind as I went about the chores at home, sometimes becoming so involved with them that I didn’t give adequate attention to the task at hand. My parents would often chide me for daydreaming. I never wrote anything down or told my imaginations for fear that someone would laugh at them.

Although English and Reading were my favorite subjects, I liked the others, too. Our history text was A History of Virginia for Boys and Girls. It had maroon covers with a picture of the landing at Jamestown on the front. The first chapter began: “On a day in May in the year 1607 three little ships came sailing up the broad river.” The river, of course, was later named the James River (for King James) and the ships were bringing the first permanent English settlers to America to begin at Jamestown. The compelling account of this settlement introduced such historic greats as Capt. John Smith, Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe.

In the chapters that followed, I learned of other early American heroes from Virginia: George Washington, the father of our country; Thomas Jefferson, whose writing skills produced the Declaration of Independence; Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame; James Madison, whose persistence earned for him the title “Father of the Constitution;” Henry Clay, who helped shape the growing nation with his ability to bring factions together through compromise; and John Marshall, “the Great Chief Justice.” I learned that Virginia produced four of the first five presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. We studied about these heroes under a large portrait of George Washington. This, and the flag we pledged our allegiance to each morning, were the only adornments on the bare walls of the classroom. Virginians are a proud lot, perhaps with some justification, but as I learned from our geography study of the other forty-seven states, each one has its own intriguing story. (Alaska and Hawaii were added to the union in 1959.)

The Geography books were oversized and difficult to carry home and back each day. There were two. The red one was studied in grades four and five, and the green one in grades six and seven. These books introduced students first to other states in our great country and then they carried us to other lands and introduced us to cultures, climates and terrain vastly different from our own.

There were subjects that weren’t so exciting to me. For example, I don’t remember the arithmetic books at all. Could that be because arithmetic was a difficult subject for me? Spelling books were dark green and very thin, consisting only of a word list for each week. Our teacher could be as creative as she wished with the word lists. She liked to have us use the words in sentences, and we often reviewed all the words we had studied to date with spelling bees.

My first teacher was Miss Margaret Owen, who taught me through the fourth grade. She had the rare ability to make written words come alive. She often read to us or told us stories. She was a gifted storyteller and would hold us spellbound. Our favorite story was about a boy named Donald and his daring adventures with an alligator. Each time she told it she added a new episode. Other favorites we often asked her to repeat were the stories of Joseph, David the shepherd boy, and Shadrach, Meshach and Abedgego from the Bible.

Miss Owen gently guided, and sometimes nudged us, as we entered the world of words. The only time I can remember that she reprimanded me was when I deliberately ignored the directions on a coloring sheet. I was to read the directions and color the picture accordingly. I had a new box of crayons with some exciting new colors. I read, “Color the boy’s overalls blue.” I did that, and moved to the next, “Color the boy’s shirt blue.” I looked at the choices of color that I had and decided the boy would look better if he was wearing a shirt of a contrasting color. So I chose one of the new colors. It was a shade of yellow much like the color of prepared mustard. I followed the other directions as written: color the duckling yellow, color the tree green, etc. I felt rather pleased with my creativity until Miss Owen came to check my work. Her red pencil reinforced her stern observation that I hadn’t followed directions. Thus I learned that creativity may have its place, but it must not override responsibility.

Major School’s library was a bookcase with five or six shelves and glass doors. On top was a box for depositing the cards from the books we checked out. Students were encouraged to check out books and read when we had spare time. I read all of the books, some several times, with the exception of two that didn’t appeal to me—Jules Vernes’ Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Robert Lewis Stephenson’s Kidnapped. Among my favorites were a series of books about the adventures of twins, including The American Twins of the Revolution and The Indian Twins. Others in the series featured twins of other nations. However, the books I liked best were the those written by Gene Stratton Porter, particularly Laddie. Miss Porter was a prolific writer of the early 1900’s. Two of her other books were in our library, Her Father’s Daughter and The Girl of the Limberlost.

I read books from the school, but I also became the proud owner of some of my own. At the end of each year Miss Owen would award books to the students who had perfect attendance. I sometimes went to school sick so that I wouldn’t miss out on getting one. I received classics such as Pollyanna, Little Women, and The Swiss Family Robinson.

My sisters and I handled our school books with care because they weren’t easy to come by. Unlike today, our parents had to purchase them from the School Board in Independence. Money was scarce in those days and trips to Independence were difficult because we had to hire someone with a car to drive us. Sometimes we could buy some of the books from students in grades above us. In our family, our books were handed down to the next in line, provided the school board hadn’t upgraded the curriculum.

Some students with less appreciation for books often wrote cute sayings in theirs. We would laugh at the things they wrote, but we wouldn’t have done it ourselves. A popular one was a warning to a would-be book thief:

Don’t steal this book for fear of shame,
For in it is the owner’s name,
If you do, on judgment day the Lord will say,
“Where is the book you took away?”
And if you say, “I do not know,”
The Lord will say “Step down below.”

Frequently written was a teaser that began on a page early in the book, “If my sweetheart’s name you wish to find, look on page 29.” On page twenty-nine, one would find, “If my sweetheart’s name you do not see, look on page 33,” and on it would go through the book. The Anderson girls didn’t write in their books, or lay them open, face down, or dog-ear pages.

Of all the books I studied in high school at Oak Hill Academy, my favorites were the “Literature and Life” series. In them I learned to appreciate the literary works of England as well as America. I learned of Chaucer and the imaginative pilgrims he created in Canterbury Tales, then of others who came after him. I was introduced to Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, John Milton, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and others. Both English and American literature were taught by “Miss Ruth” Echols, who taught the subjects as if she knew the writers personally. I had some favorites, especially among American poets: Robert Frost, William Cullen Bryant, Sidney Lanier, and Walt Whitman were among those whose works I read over and over. Of course we studied prose, but it was the poetry that interested me most.

We studied both ancient and modern history in high school, although more history has been made since I closed the last of those books than all that was recorded in them. In the summer of 1945, when I was fourteen years old, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, ending World War II. Franklin Roosevelt, the only president I had ever known, had died suddenly a few months before, leaving the ending of the war and the rebuilding to Vice-President Harry Truman. Looking back over almost 60 years, I view those events, important as they were in my young life, as merely the beginning edge of modern history.

The foreword of the World History book which I studied as a high school freshman began: “Time is. Man marches on.” Mankind has marched forward at a dizzying pace since those early post-World War II days. So has my life and my adventures with books. I have traveled from Billy and Happy through college and seminary, returning at last to where I started—reading children’s books. This time around I was reading to my first-born, Jonathan. He and I spent many delightful hours reading. We had access to the public library when we lived in Magee, Mississippi, and to a bookmobile in Jackson. We would often return from the library or bookmobile with arm loads of books to spend the entire afternoon reading. In Atlanta we often visited the Lakewood Public Library. After one of those trips Orrin and I discovered that four-and-a half year old Jon could read. When we arrived home that evening, I told him that I would read to him after I had put baby Bryan to bed. While waiting for me, Jon sat on his bed and read one of the books he had selected, I Want to Be a Fireman, for himself.

Jon’s early reading reinforced to me the importance of reading to children. Later, I read to Bryan, and much later, to my grandchildren, Sarah, Aubrey and Kevin. Some of my most pleasant memories of times with all of them were spent with books, proving the wisdom and insight that Emily Dickinson (Massachusetts, 1830-1886) had when she wrote:

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry—
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll,
How frugal is the chariot
That bears the human soul!

July, 2004

*”Magic” by Annette Wynne