The Book of Small

IMG_0875When I told my friend and former VCFA colleague Sarah Ellis that I was moving to Victoria, she gave me a copy of The Book of Small by Emily Carr. In her introduction to this 2004 edition (the book was first published in 1942) Sarah writes:

One of Carr’s greatest accomplishments in The Book of Small lies in her ability to express the visceral and transcendent joy of a small child, “boiling over like the jam kettle.”

Of the city itself, Emily Carr wrote:

Victoria stood like a gawky girl, waiting, waiting to be a grown-up city.

I enjoyed my first reading of the book, its droll commentary and the clever device by which the writer fictionalizes her own life. But it has taken me some time to read it as a story map of a place I am learning to call home.

Now the landscape is starting to glimmer through for me. The nine o’clock gun at Esquimalt. Fort Street and James’ Bay and Dallas Road. They’re all still here but now that I know them a little better I can see glimpses of their past as well. Childhood perspectives on people and events give the book its sense of a deeply felt yet impulsive reaction to the world.

The house was the wide, sitting sort. Vines and creepers tied it down to the ground.

Passages like that allow The Book of Small to rise above its occasionally archaic viewpoint. A few chapters read awkwardly through a 21st century lens—“green little Chinese boys for servants…” Shuffling Chinamen and squatting Indians. The elusive Oriental. The sort of thing gets under my skin but I have learned to set it aside when I’m reading across the borders of time.

Her overall perceptions remain remarkably astute—now I see what she means by that little aside on the gawky city. A city with a small-town feel to it, still torn between past and present, and still, perhaps, waiting to be grown-up.

The Case for Rereading

Remember when you were little and every book demanded to be read and then reread? A million times? What was that all about? Margaret Hunsberger writes about rereading as holding repeated conversations with a text.

IMG_0320Here’s what I’m rereading now.

I first read Diane Ackerman’s book more than ten years ago, and every time I return to it I get something new. I have changed, after all, since that last read, so the text takes on new meanings each time. Take a look at Ackerman’s wonderful books for young readers as well.

Sue Silverman’s marvelous guide to writing memoir is worth rereading many times even if you have no intention of ever writing in this genre. All writers dig into the past, after all. It’s the stuff we have to work with. The emotions we once felt, the experiences we can remember, the memories that haunt us–they offer us windows on everything else. On this third read, Sue speaks to me more clearly than she did before. I am in a kind of sisterhood with her because she has spoken to me before and I have chosen to return to continue that conversation.

Emily Carr’s a relatively new find for me. A year ago, Sarah Ellis gave me a beautiful little book written by this spunky Victoria, BC woman, an intense and passionate artist, writer, a border-crosser if ever there was one. In The Book of Small, Carr looks back upon her childhood in what was once a frontier town. It’s like taking historical maps and laying them out over present-day spaces. The past glimmers through and illuminates the here and now.

I will never be able to read everything on my list. Not if I live to be a hundred, not even assuming that I’ll retain enough brain to keep on reading. But rereading…that grounds me in who I am and promises new understandings that I can’t yet imagine, much in the way that revision sheds new light on a murky early draft. First reads are a different kind of delight, but save some time to revisit old friends.