Mrs. Mike, by Benedict and Nancy Mars Freedman, was every bit as good as I remembered it, maybe better, and I hated to come to the last page, perfect as the ending was, but I’ll not give any of the story away—all the things that happen to young Kathy in the far Northwest or the life lessons the North teaches her. Instead I’ll content myself with quoting from a section of the book that has to do with the magic of reading.
Here’s the setup: A neighbor who has made a trip to Scotland (a story in itself, naturally) and brought back books offers Kathy her pick. She chooses, much to her husband’s incredulity, a three-volume work of Chinese history.
For weeks I lived in two worlds. I felt that if I stepped out of my door I would see, not the Alberta prairies, but the plains of Fukien. Jade and lotus and porcelain were words I murmured to myself while I worked. I cannot explain the overpowering fascination that dry, long-winded history had for me. Perhaps it was that so much time had passed since I had read any book. Perhaps it was the pictures of cloudy mountains and twisting rivers that rewakened [sic] the desire to wander in far places that always slept in me. Or perhaps the amazing people I could be while smoking meat and making soap.
One day I was the tyrant Shih Huang Ti, who built the Great Wall and burned the great books and in the end was laid to rest on a bronze map of the empire flowing with rivers of quicksilver. I ruled my brood with a strong hand that day and demanded of Mike an accounting of his actions as sternly as any monarch interviewing his chief general.
And the next day I might be a Taoist priest or a young beauty from Szechwan waiting to be married to the Crown Prince. But most of all I enjoyed playing the life of Yang Kuei-fei, a “subverter of Empires,” a charmer of princes, whose feet were washed by the Emperor, whose candy was fetched by an army from the other end of China, whose parrot was buried in a silver casket to the accompaniment of Buddhist hymns.
I was working fourteen hours a day, and it made it easier to fancy myself a silken favorite lounging in the royal summer pavilion and scattering jewelry on the floor that my courtiers might help adorn me.
It was my delight to imagine that outside my bedroom window spread the gardens of the Emperor’s summer palace. The rustling of the wind was to me the noise of the artificial brooks winding through a conventionalized landscape of miniature hills, set with marble benches and carved stone birds. The tall pines were stately pagodas, and Lesser Slave Lake was covered by lotus flowers. I was Yang Kuei-fei, imperial concubine, jeweled and scented, dressed in rich silks, surrounded by musicians and lantern-bearers, supping on jade-tinted fish, and casually listening to my praises sung by the revered poet Li Po....
Isn’t this double life of Kathy’s the perfectly and absolutely normal life of a reader? After all, for the past three days I have been living a second life in the wilds of the Northwest, in a time prior to my own birth, my husband an intrepid Mountie, our dog three-quarters wolf and the Northern Lights our ceiling. In short, Katherine Mary Flannigan’s daily life has been my escape fantasy.
Pioneer or princess? Explorer, inventor, Nobel prize winner? Who are you in your fantasy life, which is to say in your soul’s true and secret self? Sometimes I tell David, "I could have been a good Chinese peasant." Peasant, yes, but good? That's another question, isn't it?