During the first scene of The Book Club Play, characters Ana, Rob, Will, Jen, and Lily respond to a question that immediately sheds a light on their love for literature and the power of the written word: What book had the deepest impact on you, when you were young? We here at the literary office decided to pose that question on the Arena Stage staff and post the stories about their childhood favorites on Stage Banter. Check out the first blog by Associate Artistic Director David Dower and look for many more to come. And remember to share the childhood book(s) that had the deepest impact on you in the comments section!
I grew up without a television, so reading was a big part of my childhood. In the beginning, my mother read to us. A lot. The three of us kids were five years apart in age, so she'd have to read things that could hold all of us. The Winnie the Pooh books were a hit and those characters have stayed with me my whole life. I still see them as they were drawn in the original illustrations, never as the characters were translated to screen or plush toy world. (What was that color that Pooh became at the hands of Disney, by the way?) The biggest impression from those years, though, was made by The Narnia Chronicles. I want to believe now that I was always Peter, though I confess a certain tendency toward Edmund in my grumpy moments and I fully understood why he was so easily seduced by cake. There's a lot of the 'middle child' in him that I recognize. When I conjure an image of the character of Susan, it is my older sister at that age then. Lucy has my younger brother's blond head, trundling walk and easy, loping grin. I still carry a sense of the possibility of other realms where I could do heroic things, and frequently when I'm hiking on my own I'll slip through a door at the back of my imagination to some adventure or other. The older I got, the more mundane the realms I'd find in the wardrobe, unfortunately, but the adventures are no less vivid there. From those years I also carry The Box Car Children, and when we played together around our New Hampshire farm, brother, sister and I would sometimes become the Alden children.
My solo adventures in reading were informed by the rural nature of our lives. I devoured Jack London books. Call of the Wild! White Fang! I read Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain over and over, and whenever our family would take our annual hiking vacation in the White Mountains I'd walk well ahead and in those days I could easily return to the book in my mind. Being that young and walking seemingly alone with a week's worth of pack on my back, I'd meet all sorts of interesting hikers and let them believe I was by myself and self-sufficient in these mountains. Then, at some point, I read The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. I wish now I could remember when and why, because that book shaped me in every possible way. I knew I was an American when I read that book and that the country was large and complex and troubled and that there were good fights and they needed to be fought. When, after college, I wound up in Southern California it seemed to make sense, to be a journey's end not a new beginning. Somewhere in junior high school I read The Drifters, James Michener's opus of hippies and the Vietnam war era. I felt certain I was reading about my future, and when I got on a bus in Jamestown, NY the day after graduating from high school, for a four-day ride to Mexico City, I was finally arriving at that life. Though he'd written of Spain and Portugal, and though the Vietnam war was finally over, I felt certain of what I would find there. And to some extent I did. A three-day trip to Veracruz for Carnaval, sleeping on the beach under the stars with friends from La Escuela Para Extranjeros at UNAM, was straight out of the book. One American, a Norwegian, a French woman, and an Israeli on a road trip in a VW bug.
I guess the thing about reading and the books that dug most deeply into my bones is that they let me know about the world as I was going to find it. In some way, it made the unfolding adventures all seem familiar. We moved so often, and I continued to move when I was on my own, but I never found myself in an entirely foreign land because reading had already taken me there and shown me around.