Our booksellers at Inklings often review books for our local newspaper, The Yakima Herald Republic. We love the ability to “talk” to our community in this way, to invite people into the book world we inhabit daily. It is so rewarding to have a customer come in to request the book reviewed that week, brought to their awareness by one of our astute employees. The beauty of sharing this task is that the range of reading is amazing. Over the past weeks, we’ve reviewed this veritable cornucopia: The Black Count by Tom Reiss, In the After by Demitria Lunetta, Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky, The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, Jesus for President by Shane Clairborne, and Where Children Sleep by James Mollison.
A couple of the books listed above have “backlist” copyrights. While this does not diminish their value to us one iota, in the vigilant eyes of our newspaper editor, they are dated. In his ever-gracious manner, he has reminded us lately that he would like most of our reviews to cover “releases within, say, the last six months or so. Your folks do good work, and I don’t mean to quibble. Just a friendly reminder.” I know he is right. In the world of the book review, freshness counts. In the long view, however, there are no expiration dates on books.
Okay, they can be dated. They can reveal stereotypes, but we can use those to measure how much we’ve grown, or not. We can recognize current stereotypes that perhaps convict us and compel us to change. The places described have certainly changed, but their descriptions evoke nostalgia, or pique an interest in history. Roles, especially gender roles have changed dramatically, but good fiction can bring out the character’s heart. One glimpse at the good intent of a protagonist can cause us to pardon their naivete, insecurity, and even bigotry.
Such is the case with Betty Smith’s books. I’ve been a contestant in a Betty Smith book marathon lately. Our book club read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn last year, and we all loved it so much. Betty Smith’s easy prose really captures the life of a young girl in the 1920’s. Finishing the book was sad enough that we looked for another of Smith’s books and read Joy in the Morning, the obviously biographical novel of a young, idealistic couple trying to get by on a shoestring while he goes to law school and she tries to fit in on campus. Very intelligent, though lacking a high school education, young Annie audits classes and tries to fit in. Equally sad to read the last pages of this book, I looked for another Smith offering and through the wonder of Harper Perennial’s reprint, I found Maggie-Now.
The story of a young woman caught between the domineering men in her life as she grapples with the timeless issues of the young, this story of ambition, duty, and finding a place in the world was beautiful, yet painful. Maggie’s father, Pat, is a tough, Irish immigrant, made outwardly tough and bitter by his first experiences on the streets of New York. Pat is insecure, overbearing and dramatic, calling the priest for last rites regularly. Maggie-Now just longs to be a cherished wife and a loving mother, but is thrust into one of the roles very early, becoming the caretaker for her baby brother after her mother dies in childbirth. Pat leaves that entire parenting role to Maggie as he demands nearly as much attention as the boy. She carries out that nurturing with grace and selflessness.
When she meets and quickly marries Claude, a young man who seems to be all she has longed for, she starts hoping for a child of her own. While Maggie continues caring and coping with the life she has been given, Claude seems to be running from his past and literally disappears for months at a time. As Maggie realizes she may not know Claude at all, she continues to serve those around her, welcome Claude back repeatedly and care for foster children, never her own.
Betty Smith’s characters lived in Brooklyn a long time ago, but I can relate to them. Having come from an Irish heritage and married young, I could compare and contrast my life in a way that felt like a wonderful connection to the past. Reading these fictional accounts of daily life, of what they ate, how they talked, how they related to each other, the societal norms and mores, taught me more about the era than reading any history ever could.
With thousands of new books published each year, we are compelled by marketers to buy and read the latest and greatest, the most reviewed and revered. I don’t plan to stop reading reviews or making long lists of my newest favorites, but I’m glad my book group is open to seasoning our reading with the tasty, timeless old books, too.
Susan Richmond is the owner of Inklings Bookshop in Yakima, WA and serves on the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Board. With books, as with people, perhaps the old adage applies: “Make new friends, but keep the old; some are silver and the other gold.” Books have been Susan’s treasure since childhood, and she enjoys sharing her finds.