Wednesday, June 24, 2020

"Gone-Away Lake" And Books As Places To Escape To

Recently Jen Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page wrote about the gift of being able to go back to visit books, "no matter what happens in your regular life." Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright is one of a list of books she has revisited many times and reread this summer.

I certainly recognized that title, because it is a much-beloved--perhaps cult, in the good sense of the word?--book. I knew I'd written about Gone-Away Lake here at Original Content. It turns out that twelve years ago, I actually read it. It doesn't sound as if it was a big comfort read for me, but I did find it interesting, because the book was published (and a Newbery Honor book) in 1957. The child leads are from the 1950s, but the book also deals with a couple of older characters from an earlier period. In 2008 I said,

"There's nothing here that will provide a big, climactic scene or even much of a plot. Gone-Away Lake is just a lovely, elegant, atmospheric story about a really good summer.

Back in the 1950s it probably gave child readers a window into an earlier, more elegant time. What I find interesting about the book is that now, after all these years, it gives us a window into the 1950s." 

The book was contemporary, supposedly, at the time it was written. But because that was 50 years before the time I read it, it had become a sort of historical document.

"After reading Gone-Away Lake, I envision the 1950s as a time when young boys dressed up in flannel suits to travel by train. Their older sisters wore hats while traveling. Boys (but not girls) carried "killing jars" so they could off the various bugs they collected. (There's something you don't see often in kids' books these days.) My gut twisted up into knots when the kids decided they would keep Gone-Away a secret from Julian's parents because it was fun to have something just for themselves. But keeping secrets from your parents doesn't appear to have been dangerous back then. Nor was it dangerous to enter a stranger's ramshackle house. And nobody thought twice about elderly people squatting in abandoned houses because they didn't have the money to live anywhere else.

It was a different time. Not a better time. Not a worse time. Just different."

I can definitely see why someone today would want to spend some time reading something like Gone-Away Lake, why they would want to visit a different time.

When I have heard of the love for Gone-Away Lake, it's usually come from adult readers recalling having read the book. I don't know how twenty-first century children new to the book would feel about it. I hope Ms. Yingling sees this post and can offer some insight into today's young readers and Gone-Away.

Sadly, my own experience rereading beloved books has not gone well.

I've just learned that Elizabeth Enright was also a short story writer. New Yorker subscribers can access a couple of her stories from the 1950s at the magazine's website.


Jen Robinson said...

Thanks for writing about Gone-Away Lake, Gail! It's neat to see your perspective on it. I actually did try to read this aloud to my 10 year old. She was mildly annoyed by the gender roles (a bit of a hot button for her), but understood the context. She was completely unfazed by the notion of the kids going off on their own, going into the home of a stranger, etc. I think she's just read a lot of books, and accepts that a suspension of belief is often required vs. what one would really do today in practice. That said, we only got a few chapters in before she got bored, and I had to finish on my own. So, that's one data point suggesting that it doesn't hold up for modern kids.

I think when you love a book from childhood and re-read it over your lifetime, you can't possibly judge it objectively (and don't need to). The very familiarity is part of what you love about the book. Doesn't sound as if it was quite like that for you, but I hope there are books that do work that way for you.

Test said...

Thanks to previous librarians at my school, there were TWO copies of this title in my library, and no one every read them. There are no copies now. I can't get more than two girls a year to read Anne of Green Gables, and I lived and breathed it in middle school. I keep some Classics around for a "decades" project; Miracles on Maple Hill does okay, and Charlotte's Web has some staying power. When you think about it, even your own Happy Kid came out before any of my middle school students were even born! Back in the 1970s, when I was in middle school, the publishing world didn't print as many new titles, so reading older books was what we did. Very different today. As long as readers find their OWN favorite book that they want to reread, I'm okay with that.

Gail Gauthier said...

I've had such...meh...experiences (at best) rereading books I've liked from my past that I'm now taking what I call a zenny attitude toward reading. A favorite book is of the moment when I read it. I can't expect to repeat the experience.

Though I am still holding on to The Forsyte Saga I read in college, thinking that I'll reread that when I have time in old age. That's probably asking for trouble.