My first memory is of my mother’s forefinger skimming beneath the words, “Once upon a time, in a faraway land, lived a beautiful princess named Snow White. She had skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony.” In that moment, I fell in love with words, and I have never fallen out of it.
Growing up I lived on a boat, a 75-foot fish tender named the Celtic, which spent her winters tied up to the old fuel dock in Seldovia. It was low tide that Monday night the October I was seven years old, when my mother dragged me up the forty-two foot ladder to the dock and down the boardwalk to the city hall building. In the basement of the building was one small, musty room, crammed with shelves jammed with books. In the center of the room was a desk piled high with still more books, and at this desk sat a woman. She was small and slender, and wore a flowered house dress with a lace-edged apron over it. Her graying hair was pinned up in soft curls, and her shrewd blue eyes looked at me over the tops of half glasses.
Her name was Susan Bloch English. Her grandfather, Adam Bloch, had settled in Seldovia in 1884. She was the postmistress. She also founded the Seldovia Public Library, and for many years she alone kept it going. It was open once a week, on Monday nights, for three hours, seven to ten. Because there were so few books, each patron could check out only four at a time.
That October evening, my mother introduced me to Susan, said that I was reading on my own and that I seemed to have moved beyond picture books. Susan looked me over and said, “Well, Joan, why don’t we try her on some Nancy Drew?”
Half an hour later I was curled up in the chart room bunk, open to the first page of The Clue in the Old Stagecoach. I finished The Hidden Staircase after dinner the next night.
Mom said, “Maybe we’d better check out four books next time.” Susan agreed, and because I was such a fast reader she broke her own rule and let me check out eight books at once.
Miles Harvey writes of librarians that in “Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures alike, those who toiled at the shelves were often bestowed with a proud, even soldierly title: Keeper of the Books.” That was Susan, my Keeper of the Books. I lived for Monday night, and Susan, and what was waiting for me on her shelves.
I read everything, in bulk, indiscriminately, whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I went to school with Anne in Avonlea and Laura in De Smet and Karen in Cougar Canyon. I ran away from Mrs. Monday’s boarding house with Nancy and Plum, and with Ben and Penny and Nick on the Hardalee. I climbed the Matterhorn with Richard Halliburton, I flew the Atlantic with Charles Lindbergh, and I traveled to Europe with Cornelia Otis Skinner. I fought for the Venus Republic alongside Don Harvey, and I traveled Middle Earth with Bilbo and Frodo.
At the age of eight I set sail from my home port in a one-room library in a tiny Alaskan town on a voyage of discovery into astonishing seas both real and imagined, and my life was all the richer for it. I know now that one of the greatest gifts I was ever given was the freedom to discover this for myself.