Big Red-Cedar Sanderson
Sometimes when you go back and re-read a book you can see the bones. Both my First Reader and I loved anything by Jim Kjelgaard when we were growing up – the wonders of public libraries, that childhoods separated by 20 years could supply the same books to be read and adored. I brought home copies of Big Red and Irish Red from a recent used-bookstore foray, and while I was making a stack on the bed of to-read books, he came in and saw Big Red. His eyes lit up, and he wordlessly snagged it out of the pile. I laughed, talked to him for a minute about the children’s book(s) I’ve been contemplating writing (for my mother and son, which is funny but really works). He went back to the office, I curled up with Agatha Christie and my sore throat (I binge-read when I’m not feeling well) and forgot about it.
In the morning, though, he waved the book at me. “You know, I have remembered why I liked this so much as a boy.”
It turns out that, much like myself, he’d grown up knowing people who lived like the main character in the book and his father do. Odd jobs, hunting, fishing, trapping… it seems an idyllic existence to a child of a certain age and temperament. Both of us, it turned out, had tried our hands at trapping. Him for mink and muskrat, me for ermine and fox in the Alaskan wilderness. We never had much luck, and wet boots from slipping in the creek weren’t exactly fun, but there was a connection to the land we shared.
It seems to be a lost thing, now. Where once you could find folks who didn’t hold with a regular job, who could exist with the work of their two hands and the plenty of the land, now… Now, if you find someone living homeless, it’s likely under a bridge and with drug problems. We neither of us have our rose-colored glasses on when it comes to looking at the past. There were miserable existences that centered around finding enough to eat, and heat in the winter. I well know the effort you can pour into making enough wood for the stove happen, not to mention the garden and hunting for the family’s meat. It’s not easy.
But there’s an allure to it. To going out and getting it yourself, doing what needs to be done, and not worrying about a boss, or regulations, or… One of my favorite books on a similar theme and written in a similar time period is Gene Stratton Porter’s The Harvester. It’s not about farming, but a man who cultivates medicinal herbs and sells them to companies back-East who use them in medicines. By the standards of the day, he makes good money with the delicate niche harvest he cultivates. And the book is a sweet romance, if rather improbable when viewed through modern eyes. I still really love it.
Neither book rings as true now as it did then, for several reasons. We are further from the ages we were then, having grown from child to looking at ‘old’ with wary eyes. We are further from the Land than we were, and at that, I am closer than most, as I will still forage for wild things to eat when practical, not out of need, but because I enjoy it. When I discovered we had wild onions in our yard, for instance, I was overjoyed (I’d never lived where there were wild alliums before). But how many modern Americans would even entertain this as a possibility?
Another thing that has changed is attitudes towards sex. The First Reader remembered the main character to be perhaps 12-14 years old, and was slightly incredulous on re-reading and discovering the lad in the book to be 17. Seventeen, and not in the slightest interested in girls, his world revolved around a dog. It would stretch credibility in a modern novel, yes. The Harvester is about grown adults, who are all tension and blushes over a kiss. Sweet… and so far we have come from that time and place.
But no matter how much distance there is between our fondness then-and-now, the books are still worth reading. I plan to give the Kjelgaard books to my son when we’ve read them, to hopefully inspire another generation. And as we read them, we look back, and remember ourselves as we once were. There is still a lot of value in the old stories, they capture a picture of what once was an ideal. We shouldn’t entirely lose sight of that.