Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Yeller" Gets the Blue Ribbon

I was asked by a social network group that I frequent what book had affected me most in my life.  This is normally the sort of question that I leap at, but something told me to hold back.  Yes, the immediate thought was to answer reflexively, as several titles came to mind in an instant.

I have loved to read for most of my life.  Three or four years back, I challenged myself to read 150 books over twelve months.  I was not exactly disappointed when the count petered out at 132.  Still, just picking the best book I read that year would be next to impossible.  When you add another four-plus decades, it seemed ridiculous to name just one. 

There was the Winnie the Pooh volume without color illustrations (mere line drawings!) that was my introduction to the post-storybook world.  I recall sitting with my legs dangling over the side of an easy chair in the living room, immersed in the doings of the fine folk of Hundred Acre Wood while my brother and cousins played outside, probably wondering where in the hell I had gone.  A.A. Milne booked my ticket. 

One book I read as a school assignment when I was fourteen made a reappearance.  Likely distracted by new curves in an angora sweater, Steinbeck’s “Winter of Our Discontent” passed through my head and was spilled out onto the essay test in ninth-grade English class, but little of it stayed in my gray matter.  Re-reading it at the age of forty made me ask myself how I had missed the ruthless ambition that hid behind the storekeeper’s smile.

A few years ago, I re-read “The Gospel According to Saint Luke” and was blown away by the simple eloquence of the words attributed to Jesus, revolutionary concepts explained to the common man, concepts that are still debated endlessly even as they are the central tenets for many people’s day-to-day lives.  Even Lebowski would agree with me when I say Jesus was a righteous dude.

A more contemporary entry would be “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr, who cemented an attraction to historical fiction I’d first found in Gore Vidal’s Hollywood and Washington novels.  The way in which Carr made turn-of-the-century New York come to life with all of its sights and smells while still fleshing out the humanity of characters as outsized as Theodore Roosevelt stunned me and gave me a whole new perspective on what a mystery could be. 

Any of those choices could have been a good answer.  I loved them and they shaped me.  I was trying to decide which one I would write about when I took out the recycling today at the library.  It’s funny, because today is the day that the fundraising arm of the library goes through the book donations and decides which ones to keep and which ones to toss.  I always take a look at what’s on top, just in case there’s a treasure waiting to be found.  Today, I didn’t do that.  I just tossed the paper and cardboard onto the heap without a look, regretting it instantly.  After I’d emptied my barrel, I moved the papers around a bit to look at the books that had landed on top.  It was not only the book I choose to site as my greatest influence, it was one that took me back to another time.

It was “Old Yeller”, by Fred Gipson.  The discarded paperback I’d found had the same cover as the one my mother read to my brother and I, one chapter a night until the story was through.  We laughed when Little Arliss threw rocks at people and seethed with anger at the laziness of old Bud Searcy, who found no task too great to place on his granddaughter Liz’beth’s yoke.  And of course, we cried when Old Yeller died.  Not just my brother and I, but my mother, too.

Was that the day I saw the power the written word had?  That love and hate and hilarity could arise from the page and cause people to feel something?  I can’t say for sure, but the feeling that went through me at the moment I pulled that book out of the dumpster was akin to finding the Ark of the Covenant.  I kept it.  Its bindery is weak, its pages yellowed, but in that handful of paper is the power to tell another boy about the things that may be demanded of you as a boy struggling to become a man.

It’s been forty years since I heard the story for the first time, but it remains as much a part of me as my social security number and my ATM code.  A simple “boy and his dog” story that came, not just for a visit, but to stay.  I owe Fred Gipson for writing the words, I owe my mother for reading them, hell, I owe Ben Franklin for his innovations to the printing press.  Even now, in the computer age, I owe you for reading this.

It’s possible I’ve spent the last three decades trying to recreate the feeling I got when my mother tearfully shared Old Yeller’s fate.  I don’t just want you to read…I want you to feel.    

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