When I was a kid, I read this one book.
Oh, all right, Sherlock Hemlock: I read about 4,000 books.
Approximately 3,800 of those reading experiences have fallen into the crevasse carved into my brain that night in college when I drank too much Jagermeister. Fortunately, I still carry the imprint of the other 200 books (only 93 of which were written by that cranky Laura Ingalls Wilder and her enabler daughter Rose).
To this day, I adore the Betsy/Tacy/Tib series and wish I could take to my bed with “the grippe” and a pompadour. To this day, I remember the heft of The Velveteen Rabbit, and I particularly like that my memory of the story stalls out when the rabbit is tossed into the fire and doesn’t extend to the arrival of that improbable Nursery Magic Fairy who turns shabby toys into real bunnies after all!!!! To this day, I remember clutching Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret to my already-increasing bust with disbelief and then hiding its horny older sister, Forever, under the covers as I whipped through its illicit pages (characters had the sex in it, and they weren’t even married to other people yet).
I’m currently reliving my childhood reading of Island of the Blue Dolphins, as I lead the girls in my daughter’s class in discussion of it each week. Mostly, the girls’ book club is gratifying to me because I’m, like, so sure I would have had astute things to contribute to the discussion in 4th grade, such as ”Wow. I would never kill a cormorant, just to make a skirt. That’s so harsh. Why doesn’t she just make a decorative shawl out of otter pelts and have it double as a mini-skirt when she goes out clubbing in that scary Black Cave of That Ancestors that has all those creepy skeletons in it?”
Even more strongly, I remember laying under the desk that held my Billy Joel-laden turntable while reading The Good Earth. Then again. Then 16 more times. Interspersed between readings of Pearl S. Buck were readings of Gone With The Wind. Then again. Then 26 more times.
And that was fifth grade.
Sometime around fifth grade, I also read a book that still haunts my imagination: The Girl Who Owned a City, by O.T. Nelson. Researching it now, I learn that the book contains the tenets of Ayn Rand’s theories of Objectivism (explained by the Wikipoodle as: “the advocacy of reason, individualism, the market economy and the failure of government coercion,” a definition I supply for those of you who never read The Fountainhead in high school and therefore never acted all pretentious and pompous for about four months afterwards–and then there’s the part the Wikipoodle doesn’t cough up: despite the fact that such poseurs didn’t really understand everything Howard Roark was so moody about, they remained certain that they’d stumbled across the sole intelligent creed ever put to paper, yet even as they held themselves above the ignorant masses and scoffed at the plebes’ ignorance, they pronounced the author’s name “Ann” instead of “Ein”). Interestingly, I never picked up on the Objectivism in The Girl Who Owned a City, probably because I was 10 and am kind of dim and had never heard of it and was too distracted by the notion of a virus that killed all the adults in the world (But where did their corpses go, I ask you, O.T. Nelson? Where did their corpses go?).
Even without detecting the underlying political message of the book, I was transported by its premise. Indeed, all the adults have died. Fortunately, even in their absence, electrical power plants continue to work (So, um, readers who work at power plants? Maybe quit, ’cause, clearly, you don’t really do much). Despite there being light, the kids of the world, especially in the neighborhood of one 10-year-old named Lisa, quickly turn to gangs and warfare and fighting over food. Lisa emerges as a “leader”–if “didactic dictator” is your definition of leadership, although I suppose unreasonable and selfish are instrumental traits to success in a post-apocalyptic society, so if you see a bomb falling, run real fast to the nearest Trump Tower and yell “Take me to The Donald!”
Anyhow, eventually Lisa takes her gang, whom we readers are rooting for (Well played, O.T. Well played), and builds a Kingdom of Happiness in the local high school. She turns the place into a fortress, and they start growing their own food, and then the rival gang leader shoots her in the arm, and then the whole thing ends on an uplifting note, with the implication that Lisa will lead her minions to safe and productive lives under her watch.
Until she turns 12, I suppose.
Then the Kingdom of Happiness is going to need a new leader. And they won’t even be able to bury or burn or eat Lisa’s corpse, what with there not being one. At least they can not find her corpse with the aid of fully-powered 100-watt bulbs, though.
And here’s the thing, and I’m sorry to get honest and straightforward on you at this late point: this post is actually just supposed to tell you about my amazing Christmas Eve, except when I sat down to type, I realized the amazingness of my Christmas Eve needed the preamble of a backstory about how I read books as a kid and this one book in particular.
So now you know enough to understand why, when I laced up my hiking boots during a snowstorm on Christmas Eve and stepped outside for Walkies in the darkness,
I felt like Lisa.
Except with boobies and a mommy.
The clacking world had gone still and silent–hunkering down, staying off the slippery roads, opening presents with family, watching Charlie Brown. I stepped off the porch and was immediately enveloped by the sensation of being the only person left alive on the planet.
I waded through the drifts and slush, feeling my heels rub against the stiffness of my boots, my glasses fogging with drops of precipitation. Obscured vision closed me even more inside myself, inside a place where it was quiet. Peaceful.
I walked for an hour:
No car lights dilated my pupils. No tires splashed past me. No dog walkers grunted hello.
Christmas decorations sparkled on every block. There wasn’t a corpse in sight.
And I was all alone, smiling, humming, owning my city of solitude.