Fictional characters aren’t meant to be role models. They make mistakes, sometimes big ones, and if they didn’t have some sort of Achilles heel, they wouldn’t be very interesting to read about. At least for me, when I read a book, if I don’t empathisize with a character, I am not as drawn in. Except for books by Gillian Flynn. Those suck me in even though almost all of the characters are despicable!
Sometimes I get lucky and really identify with a character, feeling like I know them or am them. The first time I can remember this really hitting me deeply was reading Wind in the Willows as a child and imaging myself as Mole. Not the jaunty Ratty or crazed Toad or wise Badger, but the loyal and kind-natured Mole, who shyly longed for adventures and didn’t always make the best choices but always meant well.
Then there was Harriet the Spy. Again, there were of course differences. I was no more a “tom boy” living in Manhattan with a nanny than I was a talking mole wearing a suit. But I was still her in my mind, clever (but not quite clever enough; things backfire) and misunderstood and nosy and I loved tomato sandwiches. I wouldn’t eat anything else for lunch during my Harriet phase.
I read and read Daddy Long-Legs over so many times, I could recite long bits by heart when I was a teenager. I still feel all warm and fuzzy just thinking about curling up in a chair with this book and losing myself in the letters Judy writes to her unknown guardian. She’s small and perky and sometimes unsure of herself. Her adventures in college were probably what inspired me to want to go to Mount Holyoke, which I didn’t get to do, but I had images of myself being a 1980s Judy Abbott there. By the way, don’t bother with the movie version. It bears no resemblence to the book. Do read the sequel, Dear Enemy.
I heard on an NPR story once that part of the appeal in fictional characters and seeing ourselves in them is that they can do the things we can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t. Like spying on people (Harriet) or having lovely romances (Judy, who I lived vicariously through during my lonely teen years) or hating everything (Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye) or saying smart-ass things to others or some of the horrible things Gillian Flynn’s characters do (just read the books).
I am going through this magical experience of losing myself in a character with Shelby Richmond, the central character in Alice Hoffman’s Faithful. I am a big Alice Hoffman fan. Bingeing on her books got me through a dark and cold Massachussetts winter (long story, but I hightailed it back to California after that one winter).
On the surface, Shelby and I don’t have a lot in common. She’s young and beautiful. I picture a Natalie Portman type in the lead role should it become a movie.
I’ve never shaved my head or deliberately cut myself. Shelby is very dark and moody. Not quite Gillian Flynn dark and moody, but still dark and moody. She’s brutally honest and sometimes reckless. She loves New York City, having grown up in the suburbs on Long Island. I tend to smiles and hugs and although I’ve visited New York, I feel no need to spend a lot of time there. She mostly eats Chinese takeout; not my thing.
So, why do I see myself in her? Early on in the story, she thinks about how much she prefers sad songs that dwell on lost loves and lost lives. That’s me! Okay, not enough evidence. That’s lots of people.
I never contemplated suicide, but I spent a few years not really living, hiding in my darkened den and drinking too much while watching The Food Network. Shelby spends 2 years isolating herself in her parent’s basement, smoking weed and watching American Idol. And how does she begin to rescue herself? By rescuing animals. Bingo!
She eventually volunteers at an animal shelter (see, what did I tell you?), knowing she needs to be with animals. She even applies to veterinary school, something I would be too scared to do but daydreamed about at some point (NPR may be on to something). She’s not a vegan, but I think Ms. Hoffman could’ve easily made Shelby a vegetarian, given her love for animals.
When people talk about doppelgängers, they usually mean a look-alike, an evil twin, or an almost ghostly apparition.
But doppelgänger can also refer to a person who is behaviorally like another person. When Shelby, feeling vengeful and bitter, wishes bad luck to her former boyfriend and is glad when it snows on his April wedding day to someone else, it reminds me of me wishing bad things on people who I’ve felt wronged by. Shelby loves animals and claims to hate people, but she takes soup to the homeless girl (who seems to be her doppelgänger) she often sees on the streets. She doesn’t have a lot of friends, but she is faithful to the ones she has. She learns to care for others and for herself. I haven’t finished the book, so I can’t say how I will feel about the ending or what path Shelby takes. But I am on the path with her.
I am a 54-year old educated white woman living in an upper-middle class neighborhood in a liberal city in Northern California. We were the first house on our street to have our Bernie Sanders 2016 yard sign in place. Our home is shared with a rescue dog and two rescue cats. I volunteer at an animal shelter. Until recently I worked at a major public university often referred to as Berzerkeley. I have been vegetarian since 1995, an aspirational vegan for the last year. I sometimes participate in animal rights protests. I am not considered weird in my world.
As a child in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia in the 1960s, my thoughts about food and animals were confused at best. I grew up in a household full of human children and non-human animals (of the dog and cat variety, with an occasional frog or turtle my brother brought home from the Fernbank Forest behind our house). What was unusual about our family in that time and place was the fact that we were being raised by a single working mother. We lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, went to good schools, and never felt we were deprived on anything materially. But we were the kids whose father died and whose mother didn’t have the time or inclination to cook.
My mother was not a natural or good cook. She never forced us to eat things we didn’t want to. Stories of children being forced to sit at the table until they ate their [insert hated food here] made me sad. I was the strange child who loved my fruits and vegetables. My memories of dinners at my grandmother Nana’s house are about big bowls of succulent green beans, corn on the cob, sliced summer tomatoes, and juicy peaches. I know she served meat, platters of fried chicken being her favorite. My mother wouldn’t eat chicken for years; as a child she visited her grandparents at their farm in Alabama and saw firsthand how the chickens got from the chicken yard to the frying pan. And she told us about it. And I’ve never forgotten. Nana always served leg of lamb with mint jelly for Easter. I wouldn’t eat the lamb, but I loved the mint jelly. It got melty and oozy and oddly delicious next to the hot green beans on the plate.
Our father was of French heritage from an old New Orleans family. He liked to eat what I think of as weird food, frog legs and snails being the ones that I was repelled by but fascinated by as well. Again, my mother told us the gruesome stories about how when she put the frog legs in the frying pan, they would jump out of the hot pan and land on the floor. Maybe there is a scientific explanation for this and maybe Mom was having us on, but the picture of something I never witnessed remains strong in my mind.
As with many children, my favorite books were ones that featured animals. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame is still one I re-read from time to time and holds a place of honor on my bookshelf. Did I connect Mr. Toad with the real amphibians my father supposedly ate or the ones that my brother kept in shoeboxes on the porch? Not that I remember. Did I connect Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White) to the bacon in the BLTs I liked up until I became obsessed with plain tomato sandwiches after reading Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh)? I’m pretty sure I didn’t.
I declared myself a vegetarian the first time in 1976 as a 15-year old high school sophomore living with my mother and stepfather at that time in a small town in the Nevada desert. This might have been normal for a teenager living in some places, but not in Gardnerville, a community of ranchers where 4-H was big in school. My friend Kara across the street kept horses, who I was afraid of at first, and sheep. In the pasture were 5 lambs, who grew up to be 5 large sheep. They had names. I thought they were the coolest pets! And then one day the sheep were no longer in the pasture, but cut up in packets in freezer. I never felt the same way about Kara again. Now she was the one who frightened me. I avoided the 4-H kids and spent a lot of time in the art classroom. I would do anything to avoid having to buy the school lunch. Tomato sandwiches and salted carrot sticks remained my reliable go-to lunch.
Then we moved to Sacramento, California, and I fit in a little better. My new friend Julie had a copy of Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet (1971). There was a vegetarian restaurant in our neighborhood. I left home and went to college the first time (it didn’t stick) in a small town on the Oregon border now famous for its Shakespeare theater. The food in the dorms was horrendous; I lived off of the salad bar and instead of gaining the “freshman 10” that is now the “freshman 15”, I lost that amount of weight. There was a food co-op, the first I’d ever been to, that smelled of cumin and faint vegetable rot. But I met a boy, a beautiful boy from another country where only poor people didn’t eat meat. I followed him halfway around the world, and gave up being vegetarian (although his family did still tease me about my “rabbity” way of preferring the salads and vegetables).
Not all things last. The boy and I are divorced, incompatible in ways beyond food choices. Some things do last. I returned to vegetarianism in 1995 after seeing the move Babe. Where I didn’t make the connection with Wilbur in my childhood, I made the connection with Babe in my adulthood. For some reason, I still didn’t make the connection to fish, and I had no idea of how the dairy industry treated animals, so I continued to eat fish and cheese and eggs. I always felt guilty about the fish, but I still ate their bodies on occasion. This all changed a year ago when I went to the 4th Annual Conscious Eating Conference. I had been exploring ideas around compassion and ethics, and was attracted to the program. I went on a whim, something to do on a Saturday. I haven’t eaten cheese or eggs or fish since, although I sometimes slip-up around milk in my coffee if there is not a non-dairy option available. My boyfriend is a firm lacto-ovo-pescatarian. I know animal activists who won’t share a table with non-vegans, but I don’t feel okay with that stance. And since I do most of the cooking and shopping, the fish and dairy are primarily consumed away from home. I also don’t try to make the dog and cats eat vegan. I still have leather and wool in my closet; I can’t bring myself to give away the shoes and coats and sweaters. I now buy vegan alternatives but still love that sweater I bought on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Norway and will not part with it.
I am still conflicted, albeit in smaller, more defined ways and I haven’t managed to bring myself to drinking black coffee (and forget giving up coffee). I still have a terrible sweet tooth, but thank goodness for vegan dark chocolate! There are vegan junk foods, so I don’t always manage a healthy diet. What has changed over time is my awareness and the increased ability to link my desire to not harm animals to my choices I make every day. And my comfort with saying “no bacon” when I order at restaurants. Here’s to you, Wilbur. I finally get it.
As I get older I get nostalgic for more and more things from my youth. There are certain books I carry in my heart; I read and reread them. Thinking about them brings back sense memories of the time and place in which I read them. The Wind in the Willows takes me back to the den in our house in Atlanta, in the green nubby-fabric wing chair, with our cat Whiskers and a sunbeam coming through the windows just so–it’s keeping me warm and cozy and I can see the little dust motes floating in the light. The Borrowers I associate with reading in bed; Mom would let me sleep in her bed when I was afraid to sleep in my own room. I read The Borrowers propped up on pillows while she read her book next to me.
In no particular order, here are some of the books that helped instill my deep loving of reading. Of course my mother gets credit too; she was a voracious reader and was very open minded about giving me free rein to decide what to read. There was a time when instead of an allowance, she would take me to buy a new book every week at Rich’s department store (now a Macy’s). The book section was directly across from the candy counter, so I would sometimes get a little bag “fruit slices” if I had been especially good that week. Many of the books, like The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, were already on our bookshelves.
The books that touched my heart and imagination:
Amelia Bedelia (by Peggy Parish, illustrated by Fritz Siebel, 1963)
Of course I have my own story that goes with this book. I forget what grade it was, but my best friend Leila Greiff and I used this book for a class project in which we were to present a book to the class. Leila played Amelia Bedelia, we made props (somewhere we managed to get a rubber chicken), I was the narrator, and I think my mother contributed one of her delicious lemon meringue pies. Our teacher liked it so much that she had us go with her to her university to present to a class she was taking. She played Mrs. Rogers (who gets to eat the pie).
The other thing I adored about this book is how it teaches about the different meanings of words and phrases, the concept of taking something literally (Mrts. Rogers did say to draw the drapes), and not to make assumptions. Bonus lesson: being a good cook goes a long way toward getting you approval!
The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (by Margaret Sidney, illustrated by Hermann Heyer, 1881)
As the youngest of 4 children in a house headed by our young, widowed mother, I was understandably drawn to any stories of hard-working widows and their spunky children. And there would pretty much always be a dog and a cat, too. Mrs. Pepper, called Mamsie by the children, works hard to make ends meet, with the help of the children Ben (Ebenezer), Polly (Mary), Joel, Davie, and little Phronsie (Saphronia). Joel is the one who always gets in trouble. Davie is the quiet one. Ben is ultra responsible. Polly is sweet and pretty and tries her hardest to help Mamsie. Phronsie is only 3 at the beginning of the book, but she’s a little blonde cherub who everyone adores, of course.
Little Women and Little Men (by Louisa May Alcott, 1868 and 1871)
These were in combination in a flip book; the bookshelf in my older sisters’ shared room contained a complete set of the Companion Library flip books, a set of children’s classics published in 1963. I’m pretty sure I read them all along the way, but this was my particular favorite.
In my usual way, I tried to assign a sister from Little Women to each of the Cottraux sisters. There are 3 of us, not 4, but it kind of works. Cathy was clearly Meg, the beauty, the eldest and the one most set on a life as a wife and mother. And Ellen was so obviously Jo, the smart, funny, irrepressible sister. My brother Steve didn’t really fit into my scheme here, but I doubt it bothered him. That leaves kind, shy, musical Beth and the artistic, spoiled youngest, Amy. Which am I? I think a bit of both. I’m not musical and of course I wasn’t sickly like Beth, but I hope I am not so thoughtless and narcissistic as Amy.
The Borrowers (by Mary Norton, illustrated by Beth Krush and Joel Krush, 1952)
This is the book that I read snuggled under the covers in Mom’s bed. I was afraid to sleep in my own room for some period. There was a metal fence post outside my window and a light somewhere glinted off of it at night. The twin gleams looked like eyes to me and even if I pulled down the shade I could see them through the gap. I would crawl in Mom’s bed, where the dog Tripp was always asleep too. It was probably kind of crowded but I only remember it being cozy and safe.
The Borrowers so spoke to my imagination. I wanted there to be a family of Borrowers like the Clock family–Pod, Homily and their daughter Arrietty–living under the floorboards of our house. Their matchbox beds and thread spool tables and their distrust of the “human beans” who they borrow from seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I hoped to see things that Borrowers could use slowly disappear from the house, but I never did find a family like the Clocks.
The Wind in the Willows (by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Paul Bransom, 1908)
Perhaps my favorite of all time, the adventures of Mole, Rat, Mr. Toad, Mr. Badger and the sporty Otter are at times sad, frightening, and heartwarming. Mr. Toad tends to get a lot of attention (as he would say is only right), but it was always Mole who tugged at my heart. He has a kind of innocence and a longing for something, but also a sense of nostalgia that make him so much more of a real character to me than the incredibly silly Mr. Toad.
Heidi (by Johanna Spyri, 1881; pictured 1929 edition translated by Philip Schuyler Allen and illustrated by Maginel Wright Enright)
Set in a place and time that I had no comprehension of, this children’s classic will forever be associated with the Swiss Alps in my mind. If I ever go there, I am sure I will be disappointed that it’s not all beautiful meadows, goats, and hay lofts. The first night Heidi is at her grandfather’s and makes a bed in the sweet-smelling hay and looks out at the stars; oh, I wanted to be Heidi. And I loved a cute dress with a pinafore back then. I would tuck my Crayons in the waistband and forget they were there and then they’d get run through the washer and dryer…Heidi would never do something so careless.
Daddy-Longlegs (written and illustrated by Jean Webster, 1912)
The letters of spunky orphan Jerusha Abbott, who calls herself Judy, to her anonymous benefactor who she nicknames Daddy-Longlegs, was probably the first book I read that really had a clear sense of romance (between people, not cartoon animals like Lady and the Tramp). Even though I know the book and its ending by heart, I’ve read it at least 50 times and it makes me happy every time. Her adventures at a women’s college also put the seed in my head that I wanted to go to Mount Holyoke to college when I was a teenager. That didn’t happen. And again, would 1970s-1980s Mount Holyoke have been remotely like the college depicted in early 1900s Daddy-Longlegs? I think not. But I can still wonder how different my life would’ve been if I had been able to follow that dream.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Tomorrow Will Be Better, and Joy in the Morning (by Betty Smith, 1943, 1947, and 1963)
I couldn’t choose one so I listed all three. There is a fourth book that Betty Smith wrote in 1958, Maggie Now, that I haven’t read. I’m not sure why! Much of her writing is based on her own life experiences. Side note: when she was a girl in the tenements of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it was a very poor, hard place. I wonder what she would think of the hipster culture there now.
Queenie Peavy (by Robert Burch, illustrated by Lerry Lazare, 1966)
I have a feeling this is one not so many people will be familiar with. Queenie is growing up in rural Georgia during the Depression; her father is in jail and her mother is always working at the local canning plant. Poor and with a chip on her shoulder, Queenie’s temper tends to get her into trouble. I remember being particularly struck by a scene in which there is very little to eat in the house; I had never thought before about children going hungry.
The Summer of the Swans (by Betsy Byars, illustrated by Ted CoConis, 1970)
Lest you think I only ever read really old books or books written about the past, I did read contemporary books as well. One of my favorites, probably attained on an aforementioned trip to Rich’s, was The Summer of the Swans, about sisters Wanda (19) and Sara (14) Godfrey, their brother Charlie (10), and dog Boysie (old). It’s essentially Sara’s coming of age story during a difficult summer. When mentally-challenged Charlie wanders off, Sara, as the one closest to him, must set aside her angst while learning about the nature of love and family. The illustration of Sara and Charlie also influenced my artistic sensibility.
Harriet the Spy (written and illustrated by Lousie Fitzhugh, 1964)
I still like to imagine I am Harriet. Among my takeaways from this book (maybe not what Louise Fitzhugh intended): a period when I wouldn’t take anything in my school lunch but tomato sandwiches, just like Harriet. And a to-this-day unaccomplished desire to try an “egg cream” in New York, which I understand contains neither eggs nor cream. I think a lot of people focus on Harriet as a spy, but what Harriet wanted was to be a writer and her spying was a way to fill her notebook with observances. You go, Harriet!
I could keep going (Nancy Drew, anyone?), but I’ll leave you with Harriet.