Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Reading to Escape, part 3: Transported Beyond the Tomball Library

The Tomball library was a block and a half from our house, which for this indoor child felt like 10 miles when I walked there in the summer heat. This new location was completed when I was in elementary school, and I remember going to the opening reception, at which I wanted to pick up more cookies than was polite. They were small cookies, and until Mother hiss-whispered, “Sarah!, that’s too many!” at me, nobody had spelled out that it was impolite to put more than 2 on your little fancy napkin. (Guess I should have figured that out by the size of the napkin, but I never scored high at spatial relations.)

The high-ceilinged, well-chilled building was huge compared with the old library that had been crammed into a little frame house and had a couple of roaring window units that probably could hardly keep the humidity out of the books. This new library probably wasn’t as big as I remember because it only had 2 toilets total, one for men and one for women. The bathrooms impressed me too, because they were new and large with echoey tiles on the floor and walls, but my sister ruined that for me when she said sister-snidely after one library visit, “I could hear you singing in there.”

In the first year or two the books rattled around on all the new shelves, but I liked that because the volume and density of the books felt less intimidating to little me.

I usually went right to the youth section, except for occasional detours for a couple of feel-good favorites from the children’s section. (There was one I really loved about a hamster or some other rodent, I can’t remember which, that took his lunch to school, a lunch that included bread & jelly and a boiled egg and salt, and he ate on a paper placemat…never mind.)

Gradually I ran out of material and bravely (guiltily) ventured into the adult section. It seemed huge, and once I found Harold Robbins I tended to stick with that aisle. I picked up best sellers and then looked for others by the same authors, but it took awhile before I really browsed much beyond Robbins and Victoria Holt (whose Gothic romances balanced Robbins’ smut nicely). When I went too far afield I always seemed to make direct eye contact with a nonfiction book about The Devil that my brother Dave had read a couple of years before, which (both the book cover and his having read the book, and I think he read it twice, looking for more meaning) both impressed and scared me. My dad had asked him if it was any good and Dave said something both dismissive and inconclusive that, as usual, intimidated me Dave-style.

I used the periodicals section if I had to do a school project , but since I got so stressed out over homework (I had trouble rewording factual sentences from National Geographic without plagiarization terrors) and I was grossed out by the scratched, sticky protective magazine covers on Time and similar magazines, if I was over there on a non-homework day, I was probably just sitting in a chair with a hardback book, feebly trying to make this my home away from home.

Near the seating area were revolving racks of skinny, tousled-edge romance novels with lurid red covers toward which I somehow had an innate snobbery. I don’t know what made me pick up one – supreme Tomball ennui, probably, and it was probably during yet another long summer. I don’t even think I surveyed the selection on the rack, I just grabbed one with dismissive wrist posture and thought I could glance at a couple of pages, put it back – after a mental checkmark, I have checked these out – and keep feeling superior.

I’m not even sure I took a bathroom or water break – I sat there and finished the book. Probably took me at least 3 hours. I had felt bits of romantic giddiness before but not the swoon that sweeps up through your whole body. Yes, I had been swept away by the book and would have liked to be swept up by the male lead character. Of course he would have terrified/ignored me in real life but the point was, I had been taken completely out of my real life, but taken someplace that felt intensely real, or at least I really wanted to be in that place, which at that town in that year was almost the same thing.

The book had what for several years was my favorite plot (yes, I now see psycho-sexual-social problems with it), marriage of convenience followed by love. (And some of the Harlequin and/or Silhouette romances, at least in the late 1970s/early 1980s, had forced marital consummation, very disturbing by modern standards.) I think this one was set in South Africa, even more exotic than the Australian ones I later grew addicted to, both types generated by foreign writers documenting their experience and their fantasies. Later my preferences transitioned, I am proud to say, to men and women who were platonic friends or stated enemies first and transitioned to romance, or who were consciously attracted to each other early on but then got blocked by situations of varying credibility. (The preferred modernistic version would be women less dominated by the men, both man and woman dominated by the power of their love.)

I also later discovered a Dutch Harlequin author whose men were at least highly educated (usually doctors) and gentlemanly, and not abusive unless you would consider a blunt marriage proposal after absolutely no verbal foreplay (and/or what Americans call “dating”) to be abusive – the men were not critical but neither were they flattering to the women, and the heroines were rarely pretty and slim…while the men were always tall, strong and wealthy. Often widowers with kids…confirmed bachelors…yep, marriages made in heaven – but somehow the author made it all gel, at least for 20-something Sarah.

Anyway, back to my Tomball Library breakthrough…the setting was exotic, the heroine was short and hen-like (think Jane Eyre) and the man was powerful and enigmatic – they lived on a farm but it was quite successful, more of a ranch, and the setting was exotic enough (African hills in the distance, employees of varied colors) to provide escape from Tomball, which of course was rural in its own right. I think there were some incidental issues with stepkids and an old girlfriend of the husband, standard stuff but new to me since this was my first Harlequin (wow!, hard to remember that freshness). I was a virgin reader, and this book was just comfortable enough that flat-chested, shy me didn’t feel horribly intimidated by it, but sweeping enough that I felt blessedly carried somewhere.

Afterward I walked back home, floating on a cloud of swoon, and for reasons I can barely remember felt compelled to share my discovery with my new stepmother. Disclaimer: I know she tried and/or wanted to be a good parent to me, but we were such different people and my first mother had been so different… I can’t remember (maybe I don’t want to know) whether I was so excited by my discovery of Harlequins that I just wanted to share it with the family matriarch, or whether I more simply (?) wanted to let her know where I had been for 4 hours.

Ooooommmmmppppphhhhhh. She said in a very critical tone something about how I didn’t need to spend all day reading. Somehow I took this as a criticism of sensuality and escape (which concept was worse?) and not just a criticism of time away from chores (which we both knew I would probably not have been doing anyway).

More to the disclaimer: She was very driven for all her working years – she had 6 kids and her first husband had died suddenly, then she threw herself into a church secretarial job, working many hours as secretary, church daycare assistant, doing church cleaning and other duties. (Work equals virtue, right?) I have only seen her read books in the last few years, and sadly she may have waited to be a reader until her comprehension had already diminished.

But back in the 1970s, she was probably wanting to help me out of my introversion and social discomfort, and didn’t always know a better way to do that than criticizing my solitary activities. In a way her critical speech was a good thing for me since I needed signs to help me understand that, well, frankly, this woman was not my mother and I would need to look elsewhere for Sarah-centric mothering, or learn to do self-comfort, haha at that developmental age – yep, both scenarios were problematic, but at least during the next few years when I continued to defer to my stepmother I had the reminder to brace for criticism (or to blame myself if I hadn’t braced…well, everybody who goes to therapy has some kind of trigger, I had many).

AND, YES…maybe the adjudged criticisms, my guilt about Harlequins, made them sweeter to read.


I didn’t have access to Harlequins at my first college in Santa Fe – gosh, I stood out at that highbrow place for even having a tiny TV set, but I read my copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss’ “The Flame and the Flower” over and over. And I watched All My Children almost every day between classes…and the school library’s idea of fiction was Gertrude Stein (as a modern writer). Which I checked out, but couldn’t read. I left that worthy school at the end of the semester. (I would love to be there now! As a full-time student, studying the classics in seminar fashion, like the ancients – what’s not to love about that, when you are middle aged and more confident in yourself.)

In my next college in Georgetown (Texas, not the East Coast), I worked my way through the Harlequins at the city library, which didn’t take long, and then bought more at the grocery store. One of my favorite non-Harlequin library books from the tiny town library (I think it was on Main Street), was one I have never seen or heard of anywhere else, the second novel from Kathleen Winsor, whose first book was mega-breakthrough “Forever Amber” (notable in the 1940s for its length and sexuality), which I never read. Her second one was about the difficulties of being a writer with a first bestselling book, which I saw as a roadmap for…something.

After moving to Dallas I checked out Harlequins from 3 different libraries, bought them at the grocery store, and at a small used bookstore - a place so small and friendly that when I told the manager I was writing my own formula romance (which Harlequin turned down, as they should have, it was not worthy) she immediately said they could have a signing party for me, and seemed to believe in me as a professional.

Years later I found out that the same store was soon after bought by my recently-rediscovered childhood friend Henry and his wonderful partner Jeff, who turned it into a gift shop, which probably made more money than the bookstore ever did. When I saw from the sign that the store had stopped selling books I probably never walked in it again, so it took me another 2 decades to reunite with Henry. (But he is kind of the platonic Love of My Life, so there!)


Bitsy Bobbins said...

The hamster book? It's "Bread and Jam for Frances." Frances had a whole series of book, but "Bread and Jam" was my favorite, too. And they were badgers, I believe.

I absolutely loved the Tomball library. I loved the smell of it, I loved the Loch Ness monster books. I especially loved that the same woman who gave me my first library card when I was 5 was the SAME WOMAN who gave me my library card when I was living there with my grandparents, 14 years later. When they were temporarily housed in the old Perry's, right next to Kleins.

I miss the old libraries. The new one at the college is pretty, but it's not "home." But such has gone the entire town. :-(

SarahBowie said...

Love this comment! THANK YOU. Yes, Bread & Jam for Frances.

Zan said...


Anonymous said...

Loved your post. Especially "and once I found Harold Robbins I tended to stick with that aisle." Our blog is a great resource for fresh information on Harold and his novels from his widow, Jann. Would love to hear your feedback!