When Elspeth Huxley set off in an open cart "drawn by four whip-scarred little oxen and piled high with equipment and provisions," I went along too. Sprawled across my quilted bedcovers beneath glossy posters of David Cassidy and Mark Spitz, I had no connection to 1913 Nairobi, Kenya. But just past Page 1 a longing filled me to know the feel of a heavy skirt of khaki drill brushing my booted leg as I fastened a brimmed hat against the equatorial sun.
That day I set off down a dusty African road. "The oxen looked very thin and small for such a task but moved off with resignation, if not with speed, from the Norfolk hotel . . . . We were going to Thika, a name on a map where two rivers joined."
A name on a map where two rivers joined. Books for me have worked that way, taking the river of my actual life and joining it to a life I only dream about. The words on the page and the alter-life they describe give the conjoining currents a fixed point, a name. Here I sit scouring again my same paperback copy of The Flame Trees of Thika, now brindled with love and wear. Again I am in two places at once: nursing a sunburn and a persistent swimmer's ear in heat-wave 1970s suburbia, and setting off to a big-game station in colonial-era Kenya.
Other stories worked this way as well, creating a kind of geography in the mind as fixed as any familiar point in my neighborhood: Joseph Conrad's "cruising yawl," the infamous Nellie; Antoine de St. Exupéry's boa in the desert, or Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Aboard the Hispaniola, the clash between Jim Hawkins and Israel Hand is one I encountered breathlessly on a slatted wooden swing on our front porch in a driving rainstorm, my mother calling me to come in before I was struck by lightning. The storm faded but the dagger leveled at Jim remained.
Girls like me may have dreamed of becoming Jan or Marcia Brady, but the dream worlds fed to me from a Hollywood backlot turned out to be vaporous. Those that took up residence and live most vividly decades later are created with words, not images. Television gave me episodes, while a story well told gave me the whole world to which it belonged.
This is what C.S. Lewis called "redskinnery." A tale of danger, excitement, and "Red Indians" is not as enjoyable for its momentary suspense, he argued, as for "that whole world to which it belonged-the snow and the snow-shoes, beavers and canoes, warpaths and wigwams, and Hiawatha names."
In this year's special summer books issue we explore such stories starting, oddly enough, with graphic novels. The once obscure genre is making a comeback by creating whole new worlds for 21st century readers and portraying old worlds in fresh ways. As a high school friend told me, "They are like movies, only better."
A look at what young bookworms read most-take books by Lemony Snicket-are books that excel at creating worlds of their own. Likewise the books that will be read for years after the Iraq war is finally over will be those that make us feel we were there. And nothing is so rewarding as a book mapping the skeptic's culture in which we live and charting a sensible course through it. The book to which I refer, worth pouring over like an explorer with compass in hand (and preferably with friends inside and outside the church), is our first Book of the Year.
Sometime near the end of the century that began with Huxley at the Norfolk Hotel, I found myself standing outside it. The dusty road had become a paved and traffic-jammed thoroughfare, a weary cab driver had replaced the whip-scarred oxen, and I wore drab cargo pants instead of a skirt of khaki drill. The hotel was more worn than romantic. I dashed through its musty halls in search of an ATM or cashier's desk, needing desperately to change money to pay a long-suffering photographer on what actually had been a hot and dusty assignment. It was a quotidian encounter for one who dreamed of the place as long as I had. But it was never the Norfolk of 1998 that beckoned; it was the Norfolk of 1913, the one with Huxley, her mother, her piles of belongings, her oxen and the adventure awaiting in Thika. That was the one that lived for me.
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