Memories of Back Home
Published on Friday, May 21, 2010 - 12:42pm
For our Great Coffee, Great Books book club selection this month we're reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society. I began reading it yesterday and fell so deeply in love that I made it halfway through the novel in an afternoon. Apart from the simple fact that reading letters is a quicker endeavor than reading a narrative story, the book struck a chord in me and I couldn't bear to put it down until I was falling asleep.
My family has lived here in America for nearly 400 years, and though they were English when they came here, we've not kept any ties to whatever distant family there may still be out there across the sea.
But it's not the blood-connection to the English that's resonating with me. It's the storytelling. The characters in Guernsey remind me so deeply of my family, and the way they tell a story, such that I want to hear every single detail. I want to hear how Elizabeth McKenna slapped Adelaide Addison across the face in the church, how they rendered pig fat into soap and how the ladies cried over it, and what a loving reunion it was when the children returned from the countryside and young Eli learned how to whittle animals, even though wood was a scarce commodity. It's the little stories of their lives that intrigue me.
But Guernsey isn't the only book that has caught me up like this. I fell in love with Lake Wobegone Days by Garrison Keillor when I was a teen. The quiet humor and the subtle pathos of the people living their lives out there in rural Minnesota was yet another tie to those stories my parents told me about their lives growing up in small towns in Ohio and Kentucky. That got me to start listening to the Prairie Home Companion on NPR and making an evening of a Saturday night with knitting, hot tea and colorful stories on the radio. Moments like that just warm my heart.
Other books that captured that spirit of downhome storytelling with a sense of humor were Ferrol Sams' book Run with the Horsemen about a boy growing up in rural Georgia. I read Horsemen around the same time as I read Wobegone, and they both tapped that same chord in me. Similarly, David Sedaris' short stories in Barrel Fever and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, about his wacky family in South Carolina, while more contemporary, also have that same evocative flavor. Though sad in their own way, the movies Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias also have that resonance, and I'll never forget the feeling I get when reading these books and watching these movies.
There's something about knowing the lives of the people around you, and the sheer joy that comes from hearing those tales. It's the best part of calling my mother, just to find out what's been going on in town and who got hit by a tractor, who's having a baby, who got mad at whom in church, what did my cousins down by the river do now. Though I've been gone from there nigh on 15 years, to hear my mother tell me those stories, it's like being right back there again. Sitting on the front porch swing, drinking sweet tea, waiting for grandma to make Sunday dinner after church and being there with the whole family. That's where these books take me. Right there.