Recently, the writer Jewell Parker Rhodes made a post on Goodreads about having just read The Witch at Blackburn Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. Since this was one of my favorite books when I was a girl I commented on her post and Ms. Rhodes responded that the book held up pretty well even after all these years and was a wonderful commentary on prejudice. I remember reading that book and it made me think about other books I loved when I was young.
In The Witch at Blackburn Pond I had my first understanding of the craziness of religious prejudice. In school we'd heard about the Puritans but not about how merciless and humorless they were. But in this book a young woman, raised in the Caribbean, now an orphan had to come to Connecticut to live with her aunt and uncle who were strict, dry, joyless Puritans. Young Kit has been raised in a much freer culture where she learned to swim and dance and enjoy the natural world, all of which is regarded as potentially demonic by her new fundamentalist community. Eventually Kit meets and befriends and old Quaker woman who is regarded as a witch by the community.
As a girl I remember the outrage I felt at the injustice and intolerance of the Puritan community. I think it was my first understanding of how merciless and unjust some people could be in the name of beliefs that were, to my young mind, the opposite of what God intended for his children. That book has stayed with me over the years and I think it is time to re-read it.
Another favorite from that period of my life was Gene Stratton-Porter's A Girl of the Limberlost. It is the story of young Elnora Comstock whose widowed mother is so angry and bitter over the loss of her husband that she neglects her daughter shamefully. This results in Elnora being ridiculed and harassed by the girls in school because she has shabby clothes and pitiful lunches and cannot participate in the activities most girls do. But Elnora has a secret treasure, a wooden chest deep in the limberlost forest where she keeps rare butterflies that she finds in the swamp and sells to help improve her life. I remember loving this story and dreaming of that secret chest (left to her by a man named Freckles who once lived in the Limberlost). I can still recall scenes from that book in vivid detail and, because I grew up surrounded by woods that I knew in intimate detail, I often imagined that somewhere in my woodlands there was a secret trunk full of treasures waiting for me, too.
I loved Little Women, I read it over and over, and also Jane Eyre. I think I was always attracted to stories about girls in impoverished circumstances who overcame great odds through their own ingenuity and cleverness. One of the books I remember well, however, I can't remember the name of. It was a collection of short stories but each of them concerned the famous (in Pennsylvania where I grew up) Russian prince and priest Father Demetrius Gallitzin. All were set in the Loretto, PA area during the time that Prince Gallitzin lived and worked there and all were about poor people whose lives he touched.
The story that stands out most in my mind was about a girl from a poor family who was very very beautiful but also very poor. She was an accomplished seamstress and sewed for other people saving the scraps of fabric to make things for her own family. The book was in the library at Queen of the World School where I was a student and I remember taking it out several times just to read that story and its descriptions of the gowns she made. I wonder if I'll ever discover the name of the book and find a copy of it.
I'm very glad Jewell Parker Rhodes made her post because it brought back a lot of treasured memories. I have to add that I read all three of Ms. Rhodes' books about Marie Laveau and loved them, too. Books have always shaped my life and it is a delight to remember the early influences of my writing life. I hope I find that Prince Gallitzin one some day. You never know.
Thanks for reading.