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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Life Lived Forward and Understood Backward

A student from 1969 sent e-mail, said he likes my "childhood confessional." Mike D.'s comment recalled Susan Orlean's masterful, The Library Book, published last year. "Writing a book, just like building a library…is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory… saved somehow from the corrosive effect of time." Orlean's glance into her youthful past is what I experienced at the Fullerton Public Library.

In third through fifth grade, I would not have known the WPA funded the library in 1942. I only knew the library had free books and my house lacked them. The library granted autonomy and freedom. "Mom, I'm going to the library." By nine it was understood I could walk there alone. More division, however! Fullerton's library had two sides, a thick door between them, separating children and adults. If a driver's license was the teen rite of passage, an adult library card was mine.

I loved the building's Spanish architecture: its red tile roof, white-washed concrete walls, red tile floors. On warm summer days, I would slip from sandals, rest bare feet on the cold tiles, my arms on a solid table, its wood cool and inviting to touch. Such a reassuring feel of permanence there. And each June when school let out, I was at the library on Monday morning to begin the Summer Reading Program.

In my youth, Carolyn Johnson was the children's librarian and for decades after. A kind, soft-spoken woman, she allowed me to complete the reading program in a week, then gave me a new "adventure" map to begin again. I did this all summer. How many books could be checked out at a time? I only know I often read one book in the library so I could check out another for home. Susan Orlean has a memorable detail about Mylar book covers sticking to her thighs in a car ride home from the library. As I walked the mile home on hot summer days, protective plastic covers stuck to sweaty arms. What kid in the early 1950s had a backpack? Never used one in college either. But I was "evangelical about book ownership" by then, and still am.

"A place to soften solitude," Orlean said of her youthful library experience. I discovered this truth in fifth grade when Mother nearly died, her "expected" twins, two tumors the size of an orange and a grapefruit. My father, who worked for Sunkist Growers, gave no further explanation. But I was not to say anything to anyone. All my excitement became wordless silence. I still think of the 1950s as the age of baffling secrecy. Yet books told secrets that people did not voice. I lost count that year of how many times I read The Black Stallion Mysteries. What could be better than an island with a marvelous stallion as companion? In the series, Little House on the Prairie, I lived with Laura Wilder's family. If they survived The Longest Winter, I could, too.

In my youth and ever after, I experienced what Orlean describes as, "a library's simple unspoken promise… that stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past, and to what is still to come." Next time: Jack London's Call of the Wild.


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