In 1973, I read a book that influenced my life — “Them” by Joyce Carol Oates. Yesterday, while immersed in Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming,” memories of that novel’s impact on me resurfaced.
That year, my senior year in high school, I was busy thinking about my future, exploring colleges and applying to those schools that were most attractive to me. In her senior year, Michelle Obama was doing the same. Like her, I had worked hard in high school, receiving good grades and being involved in many activities. And although she, an African American growing up in urban Chicago, and me, a WASP growing up in suburban Connecticut, were different in so many ways, we were the same in one: Our guidance counselors, assuming they were being helpful, had suggested we aim lower when it came to selecting a college to attend.
Obama writes, “Her judgment was as swift as it was dismissive, probably based on a quick-glance calculus involving my grades and test scores. It was some version, I imagine, of what this woman did all day long and with practiced efficiency, telling seniors where they did and didn’t belong. I doubt she gave our conversation another thought … failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result. And for me, it felt like that’s exactly what she was planting — a suggestion of failure long before I’d even tried to succeed.”
Unlike Michelle Obama, who rejected her counselor’s advice and applied to Princeton University, I believed my guidance counselor and steered away from elite colleges that my family had attended — Dartmouth, Smith, Amherst. Instead, I found my way to Kirkland, a little college in upstate New York that valued more than my SAT scores.
When I interviewed, the admissions officer hardly looked at my transcript, instead asking me what book I had read recently that had had a huge impact. I shared with her “Them,” a haunting novel about racial tensions in Detroit. She practically jumped out of her seat, as this was the same book she had just finished reading. Our interview went much longer than expected; several weeks later, I received my acceptance letter with a glowing personal note from the interviewer. Kirkland proved to be a perfect fit for me. It was a school that supported its students to aim high and to pursue their dreams, whether it was acing organic chemistry or creating the perfect piece of pottery. Unlike my high school guidance counselor, my professors at Kirkland believed in me.
Books have saved my sanity this winter as I recover from a broken ankle and grow tired of the snow and cold. My physical world has shrunk. I now occupy only a few rooms in our small house. Meanwhile, reading has allowed me to feel the expanse of the world. Hampton Side’s riveting history of one winter’s battle during the Korean War, “On Desperate Ground,” sent me in search of more blankets, a hot cup of tea and a first aid kit, in awe of those Marines who survived the battle at the freezing cold reservoir.
Brian Doyle’s novel, “Chicago,” is a love letter to that city told by a wonderful storyteller.
“The Girl from Oto” by Amy Maroney sent me back to the Pyrenees mountains in the 15th century, then transported me forward to that same place in our time.
I visited Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood for 436 pages when I read Maxwell King’s biography of Fred Rogers, and traveled across England and beyond with the novel “The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.” Now, I’m immersed in two books about remarkable women — Obama’s “Becoming,” and a biography of Frances Perkins, who served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945 (the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet) and was a confidant and advisor to FDR.
Another memoir is next up for me — Pam Royes’ “Temperance Creek,” the Hood River Library’s choice for its 2019 “Hood River Reads” series. (Events take place throughout the county for the next month.) I first read this book in 2016, steered to it by my sister, a writer and close friend of Royes’. Of the book, Oregon author Craig Lesley writes, “Temperance Creek is a compelling memoir about love, courage and transformation. Pamela Royes deftly chronicles her journey from a suburban college student to a ‘wild woman,’ from hippie to sheepherder to outlaw … Along the way, she bravely confronts rattlesnakes, cougars, bears and a bullet wound to her thigh, while learning the complex tasks of sheepherding from her partner, the intrepid Skip.”
This is a book about adventure, but it’s also a love story — not just for a man, but also for the eastern Oregon wilderness and its communities, where Royes still calls home.
For a complete list of activities celebrating “Temperance Creek,” and to pick up your free copy of the book, stop by any of the Hood River library branches. Royes will be in Hood River April 13-14.