Tricia Dower: True Confessions of a Clandestine Summer Reader
By age ten, I was traipsing home each New Jersey June with a list of required reading for the summer, pretending to be as vexed about it as the other kids. In truth I was keen for an excuse to hole up in my attic room away from my mother for whom the unabated sight of me on long summer days seemed to be cruel and unusual punishment: You’ve parted your hair like a cow path. Stop twitching your nose. Don’t slouch. You can’t come to the table looking like that.
While attacking the “approved” reading list, however, I was on full alert for signs said mother was outside—the squeak of the clothesline pulley, her exasperated “shoo-shoo” to rabbits in her raspberries. Then I’d steal down the stairs as furtively as Nancy Drew and into the living room where she kept novels on the top shelves of bookcases my father had built (with no help from his carpenter dad, he’d bitterly remind us). The shelves also held the Encyclopædia Britannica from Aak to Zylviec, Webster’s Unabridged with a broken spine, the Merck Manual, the Bible, kids’ books like The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and a gilt-edged collection of musty tomes with tissue-thin pages and dense type. I could have read any of those in the open with impunity but I was more interested in the books my mother said were not “appropriate” for me. I was sure they had S-E-X in them, something I’d been curious about ever since the school nurse had sent us girls home with a booklet called “Just Between Us.”
I don’t recall seeing anything remotely explicit in those novels or any others until I came across a brown-paper-covered Peyton Place years later when babysitting. Knowing now that my mother was drawn to church-sanctioned romantic tragedies, I probably found death, sacrifice and unrequited love in her books. I remember only one scene and it made my gut seize up in empathetic humiliation: a man tells a woman who loves him, “Go home and wash. You look like your armpits smell.”
Summer was also the time to visit friends who had the kind of comics banned from my house: those with lurid drawings of violent acts and pointy-breasted women.
I was drawn to war comics like GI Combat, particularly stories about how bad guys (the demonized Them) treated good guys (the virtuous Us) during World War II. The war had ended only seven years before I turned ten and the comics reflected still raw wounds in my country’s psyche. In one that gave me nightmares, a good guy POW sets out at midnight to kill the prison camp commandant. In addition to bad guys in towers with rat-a-tatting guns, half-starved Dobermans with slobbering mouths patrol the camp at night. The good guy clutches meat rations he and fellow prisoners have hoarded for this mission but the rations aren’t enough to keep the dogs at bay. In the final frames the good guy, dripping with blood, bursts through a door, knife in fist. A heavily inked GASP comes out of the commandant’s mouth: the prisoner’s lean body is raw and red, stripped of flesh he has obviously cut off to feed to the dogs.
I wasn’t supposed to read Tales From the Crypt and Haunt of Fear either. The stories I took to most were subtler in their depiction of horror than those about putrefying corpses. One that deeply affected me was about a rubbish collector children loved. He’d take them for rides on his horse-drawn wagon. (Just such a “junkman” lived a few blocks from our house.) The comic book parents didn’t like their kids hanging out with the junkman: such lowly, dirty work, and the flies! So they got together and made a plan. One Valentine’s Day they sent him cards, supposedly signed by their kids, with sentiments like: ‘Roses are red, violets are blue, your horse is disgusting and so are you.” For days after, no one saw the junkman. The children sobbed and wailed from missing him. Eventually the parents broke into the man’s house. It was spotless, of course, with china teacups and little doilies under everything. They found him hanging from rafters, the heartless valentines scattered on the floor below his (impossibly) swaying feet.
I’ve lived in Canada for decades now and a few years ago I came across the book Tsawalk, A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview. In it Dr. E. Richard Atleo, professor and hereditary chief of the Nuu-chah-nulth, an aboriginal nation on Vancouver Island, tells us that for his people “love and pain exist quite naturally, without contradiction, as a unity of expression.” A single word—pronounced yaw-uk-miss—encompasses both.
I didn’t know that word as a child and wouldn’t have been able to understand the concept of oneness it expresses. But through my clandestine summer reading I was beginning to see that love and pain sat next to each other. You might be as loveable as all get-out in your sincere, little heart. But if you were captured in war, expect no mercy. Whether you slouched, parted your hair all screwy, hauled junk for a living or looked like your armpits smelled, someone might not want you around. In that respect, adulthood was not going to be much different than being a child—an oddly comforting realization.
No point hurrying to grow up.
Tricia Dower is glad she doesn’t have to sneak around any more to read what she likes. She’s hooked on her post-executive second career as a writer and thrilled Penguin has just published her first novel, Stony River. Her short-story collection, Silent Girl (Inanna, 2008), was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. She won first prize for fiction in The Malahat Review’s 2010 Open Season Awards. Her short fiction also has appeared in The New Quarterly, Room of One’s Own, Hemispheres, Cicada, NEO and Big Muddy. A dual citizen of Canada and the United States, Dower lives and writes in Brentwood Bay, BC. Her website is www.triciadower.com.