Yesterday we heard from Robin Antalek about a book that started a family tradition and today Rachael Herron, author of the forthcoming novel How to Knit a Love Song, and blogger/knitter extraordinaire at YarnAGoGo, shares with us the book she received one year from Santa that meant more than anything, and then changed everything. There are books I still remember opening on Christmas morning, and diving into later in the day, well sated with food and presents.
Little Women was the first book to both break my heart and fix it at the same time. I was eleven years old when I first received my very own copy from Santa. I’d already read it many times as a borrowed book from the library, and I’d written a plea to the North Pole for my very own copy. I loved the book, identifying with each character in turn. But while I knew that I’d probably grow up to be able to draw as beautifully as Amy, and to be as sensible as Meg, and to be as musically talented as poor, doomed Beth, I knew that most importantly, just like Jo, I’d scribble away until I published words that I could be proud of, never letting an idea as silly as love get in my way.
Now, of course, I’m an adult. My stick figures look like indecipherable runes. I’m not very sensible, especially when it comes to eating vegetables. While I can carry a tune, I’ve been trying to learn the ukulele for years, and I’m still not very good at it. But I can, and do, write, just like Jo March. But instead of writing with a fountain pen, eating apples in my garret with rats at my feet, I use my Mac laptop, drinking soy lattes in my office with cats on my lap.
I wonder how many authors would claim Jo March as their first inspiration. How many of us, as little girls, huddled under our covers, thinking, “Yes. That’s what I want.” We wanted to be her, to make those mistakes, and cut off our hair, and yell too loudly, and fall over in the snow. Okay, I was a romantic even then, and I wanted Laurie for myself, and I thought Jo was ridiculous to let him get away, but that was my own private criticism, and I was glad she got her own man in the end. (And oh, when Jo exclaimed, “John Brooke is acting dreadfully and Meg likes it!” what more thrilling words were there? Jo might have been horrified, but we were not. We loved that John had stolen that glove and Meg’s heart.)
I was old enough to crave that romance, but young enough to be desperately clinging to the idea of Santa Claus. I was the eldest of three girls, and I knew that if Santa wasn’t real, then there was no magic at all. And then I’d have to shield my sisters from that ugly truth, and that would be too hard. So at eleven (old enough to know better, perhaps), I still doggedly believed.
And when I unwrapped my present from Santa Claus, a gorgeous, illustrated copy of Little Women with full-color plates, I almost wept with happiness. Here, then, was proof that he existed. He’d answered my request! I turned the book over, and there, on the back, was the green price sticker from Magic Carpet Books, our local bookstore.
My heart plummeted. I felt ill. I peeled the sticker off in private. Maybe Santa just needed help, I told myself. Maybe he’d been really busy. Maybe Santa shopped locally.
It wasn’t until several weeks later that I got the courage to ask my mother outright if there was a Santa Claus, and even until that last moment, I wanted her to lie. Standing in the public library next to the adult periodicals, our voices low so that my sisters over in the kids’ section couldn’t hear us, she said kindly, “What do you think?”
“I think there’s no such thing.” I was bluffing. Come on, Mom. Tell me I’m wrong.
“I think you’re right.”
I nodded and said something like, “That’s what I thought. I won’t tell Christy and Bethany, though.”
It turned out both my sisters knew about the Santa-ruse at a much younger age. They were smarter than I was, and they still are. But that moment in the public library, surrounded by books, was the moment I threw myself into believing in a different kind of magic, instead. I chose to believe in romance. In writing. In making my own dreams come true.
And today love and books and laughter fill my life, and I don’t need a white-bearded guy in a red suit on a sleigh to fulfill my fantasies. I know how to fulfill my own. But I still like to reread Little Women every once in a while, just to remember what it felt like to learn that love comes packaged in the shape of a family, and Marmee always knows best.