By William Shelton • October 27, 2022
For those who love to read it is often easy to coax out of them the "genesis story" for their passion for the printed word. Perhaps it was a special teacher in school who unlocked the gate of the secret garden of literature for them, but more often than not, it was a parent or grandparent, as it was for me.
It was not my larger than life, MGM casting-call cowboy father who first placed books in my hand, but my mother, and for a very specific reason. For her, reading was an all-consuming love affair, and any moment spent not reading was an irretrievable hour lost. Her five children always asserted that her poor cooking was the direct result of more attention being paid to the book in hand than the contents of the pot. Neither was driving the car an exception. Therefore, it was expedient to teach me to read at an early age so that while she drove, I could be her 1970s version of an audiobook. If her driving seemed erratic, it was not from lack of skill, but more often the result of her leaning over the backseat to help spell a word or navigate my way through a difficult passage.
Her taste in reading was as erratic as her ever questing mind searching new topics to explore. Therefore, with the careening maroon Buick lending an atmosphere of adventure, by the age of ten, I had read the following books:
Sybil by Flora Schreiber
This frightening tale of dissociative identity disorder, written by Flora Schreiber, haunts me still. Based upon the real-life diagnosis and treatment of "Sybil Dorsett," who allegedly had seventeen distinct personalities, the novel recounts her path to acceptance, and recognition of the trauma which she suffered at the hands of her mother as a child. Many elements of the story, the playing of the piano while Sybil was tortured, her desperate attempt to save the doomed kittens, and the horrors which took place in the green kitchen, can never be forgotten once read. We walk hand in hand with Sybil on her journey to peace as she gets to know each of her many faces.
Blackwater by Michael McDowell
This collection of novellas remains among my favorite books. Stephen King said of the author, Michael McDowell, that he was the finest writer of paperback books in America. Tabitha King completed McDowell's last novel, after his untimely death in 1999. Blackwater follows three generations of a wealthy family in south Alabama. The backdrop is pure, quaint Americana, with the characters blithely unaware that a hideous creature has crawled from the river bottom to live among them. Disguised as a beautiful red-haired woman, this reptilian evil-doer feasts upon the servants, and sacrifices children to her river gods, guiding the Caskey family to greater riches, while also plotting the doom of the entire town. From the same man who wrote the screenplay for Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the novelization of the film, Clue, Blackwater is full both of nostalgia and terror.
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
Often called Australia's version of Gone With The Wind, the novel The Thorn Birds is a sweeping epic of forbidden love, the iron will of the female protagonist, and an Outback adventure novel, rolled into one. Based upon the legend of the thorn bird, in which the best of life is only bought at the cost of great pain, the novel is heart wrenching and inspiring. Would we the reader dare make the same sacrifices for our desires, could we endure such tragedy and still be victorious? Colleen McCullough creates characters worthy of grand opera for their strength, wickedness, endearing weaknesses, and tragic fate, each relatable despite all of their flaws.
Testimony of Two Men by Taylor Caldwell
Like most of the works of Caldwell, this is a historical novel of character study. Set in the year 1901, it is the tale of a physician recently acquitted for the charge of performing an abortion on his late wife. A small-town drama full of intrigue, romance, and murder, we the readers get to know the population of this Pennsylvania hamlet as well as our own neighbors. Dr. Jonathan Ferrier is the loveable rogue so popular in fiction. Like an Agatha Christie novel, the true murderer of his wife is not discovered until the final chapter, leaving the readers to guess: was it his indolent and charming brother, the Senator plotting world war in the name of national empire, or the local robber-baron so corrupt that the stench of evil surrounds him like an aura? A page turner which as a reader I revisit time and time again, even though the denouement is well known to me.
Forty years later, our tradition of reading continues, but under different circumstances. Now in her eighties, her vision taxed beyond the ability to read, and dementia having robbed her of any recognition of who I am, my mother faithfully awaits each Sunday when I arrive at her care facility, book under arm, to spend the afternoon reading to her. Though I never know how closely she is following what I read, no lapse in pronunciation is ever missed, and she is swift to set me right.
For the love of reading, which has been the most steadfast of companions, I owe her a debt which cannot be paid. Bless you, Mama.