One of the best books ever written in the English language is Dickens’ story of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. You can disagree with me if you want, but you'll never persuade me to change my mind. I first read it in 6th grade, horrified by Madame Defarge, seated at the foot of the guillotine, knitting and knitting, splashed over and over in blood and gore from decapitated heads rolling at her feet, day after day endlessly knitting a secret list of those doomed to die as traitors of the French people. My heart broke at the cruelty of a young child run over by an aristocrat’s racing carriage. The only reaction --he cursed the boy for being in his way. The sweet, delicate nature of Lucie Manette blew like a rose-scented breeze over the squalid atmosphere. Is it any surprise Charles Darnay became the hero of my young dreams? Or that Sydney Carton’s final sacrifice and dying utterance thrilled me for years? (OK. It still does.)
The thing is, other than the gruesome details and high romance of those few characters, I really had no idea what was going on. Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety were vaguely familiar, but didn’t interest me one bit. I skipped huge portions of text while searching for the names of my favorite characters so I could just read those parts. So I missed a lot -- I did know that A Tale of Two Cities was a sweeping adventure full of pathos, tragedy and romance. And I knew I wanted to read it again. The next time I picked up Dickens’ tale I had the basic plot down so I understood more of what was happening, read more slowly and picked some of the subtleties. By the third reading the phrases were coming alive, and the depth and scope of the book became clear. But it definitely took time.
My summer between seventh and eighth grade I picked a two volume set of Les Miserables from Grandad’s shelves. Don’t ask me why. I think I was impressed by the size and red leather binding. Not to mention the mysterious title. It was definitely a grown-up book. And, oh, poor Jean Valjean, suffering for 17 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Fortunately he’s taken in by a kindly bishop, who lies to keep him from returning to prison for stealing again. He promises to go straight, and go straight he does, becoming an inventor and the mayor of Montreuil, rescuing Fantine from imprisonment for prostitution and saving her daughter Cosette from abuse. During all of this time, the relentless Inspector Javert doggedly pursues Valjean for theft. All of that, and I still had another volume to go!
I wanted to ‘get’ this book, but it was too much for me. Part way through the first volume Valjean changed his name and went into hiding. His new name? Madeleine. My brain turned to mush trying to remember that no, Madeleine and Montreuil were not women, nor was Fantine someone’s last name. To top it all off, by the end of the first volume it seemed that almost all of the characters I’d been following were dead. I read half-heartedly to the end, unable when I finished to give any but the most basic explanation of plot. Who could blame me -- Les Miserables is hardly Middle School reading. When I heard they’d made a musical of it, I was flabbergasted. Singing bishops and police officers? Betrayed women and dying prostitutes? I couldn’t imagine how in the world could they hope to portray that sprawling story in a stage play. I still don’t know because I haven’t seen it yet. At least I’ll have some idea what’s going on, though, having waded through it once. And I have put Les Miserables on my read-again list. I just need to find it in bigger print!
Those Middle School years -- we called it Junior High back in the old days -- were a time of adventurous reading for me. The Three Musketeers, Wuthering Heights, The Leatherstocking Tales, everything by Sir Walter Scott I could get my hands on …. I know I didn’t understand all I was reading. I raced through one story to get to another. But you know what? I don’t think that was a bad thing. I developed a taste for great literature -- good writing, real characters and excellent plotting. I learned not to be afraid of thick books, or writers with names I couldn’t pronounce. Most of all, every time I encountered these books somewhere else they were already friends. I didn’t have to figure out who was who and what in the world they were talking about at the same time I took true/false and short answer tests too. I got the chance to fall in love first. Even if I didn’t know what was going on.
Read Well, Friend
Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
The Leatherstocking Tales, James Fenimore Cooper