When I was a child, I had trouble choosing books…and it occurs to me I still do. I think then, as now, it was because I felt overwhelmed by the wide array of possibilities. There were just too many titles from which to choose. And it wasn’t a decision to be made casually, because I had discovered early on that books could exert a great deal of power over me, and just as a good one could draw me into its story and transport me to another time and place, the wrong one could infect my mood like a hard-to-shake bad dream.
I remember, for example, reading a book about a family of dolls who were lost on an island, and it was dark and creepy, the dolls far from home and wandering, disoriented, in a shadowy forest. Although I didn’t particularly care for the dolls, who seemed wooden and false, I felt lost and disoriented with them. I plodded through the book anyway, but I hated every moment of it.
In general, I preferred real life to fantasy, and I liked things that were written in a straight-forward style, not too challenging. I was easily distracted, lazy, and frivolous. Some of my happiest reading binges involved comic books and candy. (Twenty cents could buy a comic plus two nickel candy bars. Heaven was cheap in those days.)
But I discovered a fondness for biography, and I came upon a dependable collection in the school library called the Landmark series, which served up children’s versions of the tales of Dolly Madison, Davy Crockett, Betsy Ross, and various others…most of them white and patriotic, of unquestionable virtue, and responsible in some way for founding or expanding our nation. In general, I seem to have preferred stories about women, and I was particularly fascinated by Amelia Earhart and her mysterious disappearance. But I was also enamored of Abraham Lincoln, who is still as dear to me as if I’d known him in real life. I remember crying when I read about his assassination, and hoping maybe I’d meet him in heaven someday. (In my defense, I was only about eight years old.)
And yet, of all the biographies I read during my biography spree, the one I recall most vividly was Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross. I remember it not so much for the details about Clara Barton’s life, but for its telling of her death. It was 1912, and she was in her 90s, bedridden with pneumonia. In her final moments she perhaps imagined herself to be once more on the Civil War battlefields, tending to the wounded, and she struggled to sit up, while “tender hands” restrained her. Nearly sixty years after reading this book, I thought I could still remember the last lines:
“Let me go!” she cried. “Let me go!”
And she was gone.
Now that, I thought, is good writing! It was melodramatic and morbid, and I was deeply moved. It made me sad, but in an inspiring way, and although I had no inclinations toward nursing, I thought maybe someday I could be a writer.
Clearly those lines had significance to me if I could still recite them decades later, but I recently became curious about whether I was remembering them correctly. And because we live in a time when we can do this, I searched online and found a used copy of the book, which was published in 1955. Days later, it was in my hands: