“Dicey looked out over the tall marsh grasses, blowing in the wind. If the wind blew, the grasses had to bend with it.”
I don’t remember the first time I read Cynthia Voigt. I do, however, remember what it was that I read. A book called Homecoming. A title that bore little resonance to my rural childhood, more concerned with ponies than proms, but it stayed with me for years. And it stayed with me in a particular kind of way; I would struggle to tell you much of the plot now other than a brief precis, but I would not struggle to talk to you about the way that book felt. Not how I felt when reading it, but the way that the book felt. Books hold a quality about themselves, a texture within. Some are spikey, some are loving, and some sing of endless blue skies and a country almost too rich and too big to be understood. America. A land I had not visited but could feel within these pages, an introduction to another world.
The notion that books can introduce you to another world is no new thing. It’s a phrase trotted out with regularity: “reading takes you to another world” and of course, that’s precisely what they do. We read to visit other worlds, to escape our own, to find that place at the end of the rainbow that gives us everything we want at that point in time. And as useful and valid as that is, there’s a problem with it. It suggests that the book itself is some sort of staging post; that the destination is not the page but rather that thing conjured from it.
I’m reaching towards reader response theory here, but I think only partially. Perhaps a better way to phrase it would be object theory, though I’m not even convinced that that’s a thing. I want to suggest that the codex, the physical book thing could be considered as the world itself; that the boundary between endpapers, the mark of ink on page, is another world. A space of richness, of quality, of texture.
An abuse of italics thus far, I grant, but one that has some intent. Italics indicate an emphasis, a pressure on the text, a push of that particular word into your senses. You read it differently. You can’t help it. It’s the same with anything that differs; I could have bolded or underlined, the effect would have been the same though, I grant, much less visually appealing. The sentence would flex and push at the edge of its space, the formatted word gaining an emphasis and a recognition beyond that of its peers. Texture. Sensation. A word given edge, flesh, life. But of course my argument so far rests on formatting. Artifice. An element of conjuring that is absent from the printed word.
And what else to do in such circumstances but to turn to literature? I look to the collection of Cynthia Voigt novels beside me, the novels that triggered this train of thought, and I pick up Come A Stranger. It’s a Teen Tracks edition from the eighties, and the state of it tells me that this was not well read. It was, I suspect, part of a collection. I found it in the charity shop alongside several others, and next to a handful of Sadlers Wells books by Lorna Hill. I have looked at enough second-hand books in my life to recognise the unusual, and that was.
I have also looked at enough second-hand books to know the ones I cannot leave behind.
I bought the Sadlers Wells to sell on, and I bought the Tillerman books to read and remember this author who had left such an indefinable, indelible mark upon me so many years ago. And when I read them, and wallowed in the newness of Come A Stranger, Sons From Afar, and Dicey’s Song, I realised that that mark was America. Americana. A world of summer camps, of porches and verandas, of stores. Stores! Such a specific, simple shift from a world of shops and markets. Stores. The roundness of it! The magic of it!
But that’s what Cynthia Voigt does, I think, she handles language as though she is casting a spell and there is magic in every syllable. And as I read and reread the Tillerman books, I began to wonder if this was the great American novel, hiding in plain sight under the anarchic liberty that that label of Young Adult can bring. Alison Lurie writes of such liberty in Don’t Tell The Grown-Ups, though her focus is much more on children’s literature, characterising it as a space of subversive freedom. And it is, it is , and I love it. But I do not see literature as a totality: something can be x but also y. Young adult literature can also be literary fiction, the Tillerman books are my great American novel.
I use that phrase loosely, I grant, but I use it deliberately. One narrative, a thread of surviving and growing and becoming that thing you are meant to be. Doing it even though the world might be against you at every step. Fighting for the freedom to figure out who you are, fighting with yourself, your family, your neighbourhood. Universal truths, at one level, but here – for me – peculiarly, particularly American. Much of that centres around Voigt’s skill with language, but also in her ability to let things happen. These are small books in some sense, intimate battles with the forces inside, but immense in others. Children finding families, people falling in and out of love, identities being made and shaped and cast in a sun-baked oven. Questions asked, and answers not always given. And that, perhaps, is it, right there. Voigt knows when to step back. She knows when to leave the answer unsaid, when to find the subtlety of the moment, the truth of the silence.
She is good at this, too good.
“I have the feeling that I know who I am, only I’m not anymore.”