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Monday, January 9, 2017

Don't Turn Your Back on Serendipity

She is not amused!

‘Serendipity’ is one of my names for Sarah. (A far less obvious endearment is Triceratops, and I am still amazed that someone guessed that right off in the bookstore one day when I mentioned I’d come up with another pet name for Sarah, along with Sarasota; Serafina; Che Sera, Sera, etc.) It was a happy accident indeed when we found her at the Cherryland Humane Society shelter south of Traverse City. We could not have planned a more congenial companion than she has been all these years.

Most of my reading proceeds by serendipity, as well -- unplanned for the most part. I did plenty of assigned reading in my many years of school, after all, and while not regretting those years (or those books), and while continuing to along with group choices in our reading circle (which is the self-assigned reading of the group), one of the joys of my time of life now is being open to accidental discoveries. For instance, I’ll think to myself that it’s about time to read another modern novel. Here’s an author completely unknown to me. What does the back cover have to say about the book?
On a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the twentieth century, Matthew and Callie Soames create a life for themselves and raise four headstrong daughters.
Well, that sounds promising. The little I’ve seen of Missouri when passing through was beautiful. I am one of three daughters: perhaps we should have been more “headstrong”? I enjoy reading of farm life, biographical or fictional. And so I open and begin to read The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton. The first chapter is comfortable, somewhat like the opening chapter in Little Women except that here the girls are grown up and only home on the parents’ farm for a summer visit. One of the highlights will be the evening flowering of the moonflower vine, so for that and for a picnic jaunt to cut down a bee tree, it seems all else must give way. Family priorities come across homey and simple. It looks as if living for a while in this book will be a pleasant, comforting escape from Michigan winter and general American political angst.

Further along, the sisters veer from their own assigned task, picking lettuce, to meander their way through the woods and down to the creek. There is time, Leonie tells the others, for her to catch a fish.
As they walked through the cornfield a freight train passed, a half mile beyond the creek, squeaking and laboring on its way to Renfro. 
 “See, I told you,” said Leonie. “There’s the Katy—it’s not three o’clock yet.”
Well, there’s a pleasant little surprise! David and I met the Katy train two years ago this coming April in Boonesville, Missouri, on our way back to Michigan from winter in Arizona, having gotten off the expressway for Paris.

Any novel presents surprises along the way, and so it is when an unexpected funeral prevents the bee tree expedition. Questions arise, too. Where is the fourth daughter during the annual summer reunion? Who are the absent husbands of two others, described only as a farmer and a mechanic? Only at the end of the first section of the book, “The Family,” do I turn back to read Jane Smiley’s introduction, telling me that after the “overture” of the first section I will meet with family secrets, sins, and tragedies. I close the book to read on the front cover “a rediscovered classic,” on the back the Chicago Tribune’s praise, “a distinguished achievement.” Well, I can’t say any of this is disappointing. On the contrary, it only whetted my appetite for the story to come. Seduced by the overture, there was no way I was going to leave without the experience of the entire symphony, and I spent most of Sunday in Missouri with the Soames family, people I’d never heard of two days before and am now very, very happy to have met.

“Do you have such-and-such?”

A common bookstore question, sometimes asked only a few feet past the door, and far too often a seeker receiving a negative response will turn back toward the door without coming another step in, saying apologetically, “I just thought I’d ask” (sometimes adding, “I just wanted to give you the business”). Well, I’ve been known to ask for specific titles and authors myself in other people’s bookstores. Of course! But to leave without even glancing at what’s on the shelves and tables? Other books in the same subject area or genre? The bookseller’s “Some of my favorites” shelf? The newly arrived used books?

I would not be so fastidious for quids! I’m sure that somewhere in Jane Austen there is a character who begins a line with something like “I would not be so fastidious as you are...,” but my aging brain has not yet turned up the character who uttered the line. Certainly, the line did not end with “for quids,” an Aussie expression I learned from a correspondent in New South Wales.

There’s another thing, I realize: The correspondence Kathy and I have enjoyed for six years began entirely by serendipity. Previous to its beginning, we had no idea of each other’s existence. She went looking online to locate an old beau, remembered the name of one of his college friends, searched online for that friend (David) and found me. I almost deleted her first message without opening it, not recognizing the sender, but I’m so glad I didn’t. We have shared so much over the years since that serendipitous beginning. Quite amazing, really.  I’m glad too that I did not pass up The Moonflower Vine because I’d never heard the name Jetta Carleton before. Say, I’ll bet Kathy would enjoy it, too!

A glance at the U.S. map shows how far Missouri is from Michigan, and a world map makes clear how far New South Wales, in Australia, is from both M-states. I love maps. Maps are magic. Lists can be magic, too. But maps and lists are not the territory, and sometimes there is no joy to compare with getting lost and being surprised.

Hint: There is more to Dog Ears Books than the dog.

When Sarah was a pup....


Kathy in Oz said...

Pamela, I wouldn't have missed our penfriend-ship for quids!

P. J. Grath said...

Me, either, Kathy! I was reading over old correspondence again last night, and David said to me with a smile, "You are a study in happiness!" So there, you see?

P. J. Grath said...

1/12/17 - FOUND THE QUOTE! How could I have forgotten? It's from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and it's Mr. Bingley who says, after Mr. Darcy says there isn't a girl handsome enough at the assembly to tempt him to dance, "I would not be so fastidious as you are,'' cried Bingley, ``for a kingdom! Upon my honour I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, as I have this evening; and there are several of them, you see, uncommonly pretty."