This is the second in a series. You can find the first part here.
by JANE HU
Innocence always calls mutely for protection, when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it; innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.
– The Quiet American
No one reads as voraciously, as indiscriminatingly, as generously as the young reader. They trample through books as they do through life, incautious and reckless. Young readers burn through serials, absorbing whatever comes across their way. The young are notoriously promiscuous, if unwittingly so. They inhale books, they devour them. There is no premeditation on whether what is read offers nutrients or sustenance — and if they encounter a text that does, they could still hardly begin to dissect how. I know this because I was once a young reader, though I’ve rather lost the talent for such narrative greed.
I had a lot of favorite books. To Kill a Mockingbird was the best book ever. East of Eden was the best book ever. Pride and Prejudice was the best book ever. The Fountainhead was the best book ever. The only book at home left unfinished was Robinson Crusoe, because I wasn’t a very clever young reader. I tore through the YA section that promised consistency through seriality: the Boxcar Children, Little House on the Prairie, the Narnia chronicles, a lot of R. L. Stine. Often I’d take books from racks that boasted shiny badges on their covers, guessing that the only difference between Ernest Hemingway and Kit Pearson were the sections they emerged from. See, they were both so effortless to read.
When did that oxymoronic Young Adult label come into categorical being? I remember beginning to notice how some titles were appended after a colon with: “A Novel.” The addendum cut a line to tell me all books are created equal, but some books are more equal than others. Oh whether Kansas or Eden, I wasn’t in it anymore, for novel-land smacked of pretention. A Novel sounds fleshed out and significant! A novel knows what it is. See? It’s telling you right on the cover.
As a slippery genre, these texts often feel as unsettled and uncertain as the readers that cathect to them. Coming of age narratives mean that, at the end, you’re still in the process of arriving. I don't know what coming of age really means — the phrase so vaguely significant that it feels almost embarrassed of its overwhelming implications. Perhaps because sex was something I neither knew of nor understood, though, whatever fiction I read as a girl could only cement my impulse toward romance.
In grad school, I read novels seemingly primed for the young reader — Austen, Dickens, Trollope’s serials. Moving through them now, however, involves a different type of vigorous attention. I take notes while reading Bleak House. With Austen’s and Trollope’s heroine, I wonder—over and over—at what point can you forgive her?
Ahem. Walk Two Moons is firmly told from the perspective of a thirteen year old girl, though, so I suspect my love for Gramps is tied to my love for her. Sal drives with her grandparents from Ohio to Idaho, looking for her mother who never came home. The book is a coming of age story that takes the trope of the road narrative to track the burgeoning independence of its female heroine.
That’s summarily what Walk Two Moons is, but what makes it my dearest categorically “Young Adult” text is how I can’t lose the sense of what Sharon Creech’s book was. It was the first book that made me cry, which was up to then a thing I didn’t know words could do. The line that did it:
“It’s okay,” I said. I sat down on the other side of the bed and held his hand. “This ain’t your marriage bed.”
About five minutes later, Gramps cleared his throat and said, “But it will have to do.”
I can only conjecture why my identification went immediately to an elderly man who had just lost his wife. Was I so motivated to look for romance that weeping pathos could be my only and immediate response to everything? Erotic narcissism seemed much less naïve — much less a selfish young person’s — than over-active bad empathy. If one grows up with their characters, than Gramps had let me overstep the processes of falling in love, having sex, having children, and landed me right in that overwhelming place where a full and lived life crystallizes upon the realization of its principle element. It promised that there would still be so much to lose.
If I read Creech’s book now for the first time, would I know sooner than Sal that her mother couldn’t return because of her own car accident? Could I gently let Sal know that her hypothesis of Mrs. Cadaver hiding dead bodies was a displacement of what Sal already knew?
Or would I still be like Sal, detached and hurt in my still-dreaming head because I had only known a world that wished to keep me safe. For all the pleasures afforded to the young reader, losing innocence and leaving Kansas (or Idaho) means escaping a world that has no future because it has always existed as an impossible past. Sal tells herself near the end of the book: “In the course of a lifetime, there were some things that mattered.” The sentence, in all its philosophical aspiration, says very little in itself, but so much about Sal. Her statement about a lifetime focuses on what has been even as Sal remains uncertain about what the anticipated subject — the thing “that mattered” — will be.
Jane Hu is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She twitters here, and you can find more of her writing here. She last wrote in these pages about leaving New York.
"Our Forever Is Now" - The River Has Many Voices (mp3)
"The Changes" - The River Has Many Voices (mp3)