Friday, May 12, 2006

Finding Amalgam

From Jacqueline

Every writer has a library they love, whether big or small, up-to-date-computerized or with creaky oak floorboards and a card file system. For me it was that tiny library in the town two miles away from my home in Kent, England. My mother and I used to walk to town every Saturday, my mother pushing my infant brother in one of those old-fashioned baby carriages with front wheels that were bigger than the back wheels. It had a grocery rack that was always filled with books, because my mother took the library order for the senior citizens in our small hamlet. I can trace my serious book habit back to that library and the piles of books we took to and fro every week. Since that time, wherever my travels have taken me, I have always sought out the local library - you can tell a lot about a place by the library.
At the end of April I was on a panel at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and before the event was thrilled to be taken on a private tour. Descending into the basement, I imagined librarians in times past tottering up and down those cast-iron spiral staircases, while books chugged back and forth on the old conveyer belt - an amazing piece of machinery, if ever I saw it - when requested by students and researchers who came from far and wide to use the reading room. I was told the story of one of the former librarians, who moved on to teach at a school in rural Nebraska several years ago. Not one child in that school had been out of town, and never expected to. So he set up a fundraising drive, everything from bake sales to sponsorship, and eventually there was enough money to bring the kids to DC. Apparently, when they entered the library, you could have heard a pin drop, as everyone looked up and marveled at the interior of the famous dome and the new world that had just opened up.

My next stop was Wilbraham in Massachusetts, a quintessential New England small town. My novel MAISIE DOBBS had been chosen for their first ever, "One Town, One Read," and I was met by Karen Demers who is responsible for outreach, events and other projects to generate community involvement in the library. Wait until you hear what this town did for MAISIE DOBBS! As we entered the town, there were large sandwich-board notices with my name and the book in very large letters. I was so surprised I could hardly speak. Karen pointed out the signs and went on to tell me what else had been going on. Since March they had organized a veritable festival of events, from cabaret nights where townspeople came to sing songs from World War 1 and the 1920's and 30's (when the book is set), to lectures about the time - professors have come in from UMass Amherst to talk about subjects such as the art of WW1 and the history of the era. As well as lapel pins and brochures, they'd had paper place mats printed with the first few pages of the book, for distribution to local restaurants so that everyone had a taste of the "One Town, One Read" special. To cap it all, the women were gathering to knit helmet warmers and socks for troops in Iraq (trust me, it can be nippy at night in the Middle East - I've been there!), just as they did almost 90 years ago when the first American soldiers left for the Western Front. That evening the library meeting room was packed when I gave my talk, and everyone kept thanking me for making the effort to come to Wilbraham. You could not have kept me away.

In his book, The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson returns to America after living most of his adult life in Britain. He came with the intention of traveling the length and breadth of his native land in search of what he called, "Amalgam" - a town that encompassed everything that was good about America. With all the darkness that seems to have enveloped the world and bears down us everyday on the TV news and in the press, I think I found Amalgam a couple of weeks ago. And I found it in two of America's libraries.


  1. Wonderful post, Jacqueline! I know my love of reading and all things book stem from my Saturday mornings spent in the library. My Mother would drop me off at the library and head off to the grocery story to do the weekly shopping ~ this, of course, was when it was safe to leave a six year old child unattended in a public place. I'd browse the stacks, select my books and head for the same chair in the corner and that's where she'd find me, several hours later, lost in other worlds. Thanks for reminding me of those lost hours when I discovered myself.

  2. What a gorgeous post, and YAY Wilbraham! How lovely--and they couldn't have picked a better book than MAISIE DOBBS (unless they'd gone with BIRDS OF A FEATHER or PARDONABLE LIES, of course) for One Town, One Read.

  3. What a wonderful and well-deserved honor, J. You make us proud!

  4. Thank you for your comments - I was so thrilled when I heard that Wilbraham had "adopted" my book - check this out, it's really fun:

  5. Jackie I've haven't read your Maisie Dobbs books but in two posts you have made me want to.