By Ken Trainor
Writing about Mutiny on the Bounty last week [Happy endings sometimes take time, Viewpoints, Sept. 4] made me think about other books that were important to me growing up. I can't remember all the books I read between the ages of 8 and 14, but a few stand out.
Some of my best summer memories from the 1960s involve sitting on the screened front porch of our Gunderson four-square at the corner of Jackson and Elmwood and whiling away sultry July and August afternoons with books, Hawaiian Punch, and a bowl of potato chips, which grosses me out now but somehow I convinced myself the chips were good for me.
The reading on the other hand, was definitely good for me. As I grew older, I became more introverted and less social, but books made great companions. They were all about the past yet seemed to open windows to the future. Stuck in the present without much personal past but plenty of future ahead, anchored here in Oak Park, the middle class capital of the U.S., books provided glimpses of the wider world as I wondered about my eventual place in it. These were the precious years before life filled up with other involvements and interests.
Most of the books I read came from the Maze Branch Library, the literary treasure trove located at the corner of Gunderson Avenue and Harrison Street, overlooking the Eisenhower Expressway. This E.E. Roberts masterpiece, steeped in the benevolent spirit of Mrs. Adele Maze, who gave her heart, and finally her life, to this place (dying of a heart attack behind the front desk just a few years earlier) was a storybook setting for exploring storybooks.
Here I made the acquaintance of Dr. John Dolittle and his remarkable menagerie of feathered and furred friends — particularly the ancient parrot Polynesia, who taught him to converse with, and learn much from, non-humans. To the world, he appeared to "do little" in Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, but he was a passionate observer and student of his surroundings. This was how I wanted to live someday in my Puddleby-on-the-Eisenhower.
Hugh Lofting, I learned on Wikipedia, invented this quirky character in letters home from the foxholes of World War I. Fortunately, he survived and his first two books, The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts Never Before Printed (now that's a title) and The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (Newbery Medal winner), offered marvelous escapes to a parallel universe.
I also discovered the sports tales of John Tunis, best known for his baseball books (The Kid from Tomkinsville), but I was hooked by his stories about Indiana high school basketball — Yea! Wildcats! (described as "Hoosiers four decades before Hoosiers"), A City for Lincoln, and Go Team Go. Tunis was widely respected, I learned, because he wasn't afraid to confront social issues, particularly racism and anti-Semitism, as he did in his one and only football book, All-American. According to the remarkably lengthy Wikipedia entry on Tunis, his main character, Ronald Perry, a star player who leads his high school to a playoff appearance in spite of the prejudice he endures for being Jewish. But there's one catch: As Wikipedia puts it, "The team is invited only if they agree not to bring their one African-American player. Perry is the only one who objects to this, but his refusal eventually stirs other students and parents to protest as well."
The book was written in 1942, five years after a remarkably similar incident involving Oak Park and River Forest High School's star running back, Lewis Pope, who was forced to stay home when his undefeated, nationally-ranked team played Miami High School in the Orange Bowl. Though it doesn't say, the Oak Park incident, which received national attention, must have inspired this book.
Tunis' work reportedly also influenced such writers as Philip Roth (American Pastoral), Bernard Malamud (The Natural), and Mark Harris (Bang the Drum Slowly), who wrote three of our greatest novels about baseball.
Other gems that left their mark include Harold McCracken's The Great White Buffalo, a Native-American coming-of-age saga, which may have sparked my enduring interest in Native-American culture. McCracken, it turns out, was a fascinating character in his own right — an outdoorsman and Alaskan explorer who grew up in New York and later created and ran the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.
I also went through a period where I read every biography I could find in the Young Adult section, tales of men and women struggling, and ultimately realizing, their dreams. I read them to find out what it takes.
I didn't spend so much time at Maze because it was charming, though it was. I went because it was close to home and the library was one of the things I could do independently. Only later did I realize what a treasure I had available to me. Long before I discovered public television, I found my "Windows To The World" at Maze Branch Library.
But not entirely. In Ascension School's Great Books group, I encountered Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, with its remarkably realistic descriptions of Civil War battles (though he was born six years after the war). To a boy who grew up watching Westerns and World War II combat movies, this book did far more to get to the heart of cowardice and courage.
On the bookshelves at home, meanwhile, I found Walter Lord's A Night to Remember (about the sinking of the Titanic) and Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki (about crossing the Pacific Ocean on a raft), well-told, true-life adventures on the open seas, which, along with the Bounty trilogy, kept me riveted. I was enchanted by James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans — as much by N.C. Wyeth's gorgeous illustrations as the curious 18th-century narrative style. I still have that book.
And my parents subscribed to the Landmark book series, which included The Adventures of Ulysses, a respectful retelling of Homer's Odyssey. What a story — and what a metaphor for everyone's life journey.
I've always thought it would be fun to revisit the books of my youth, and in a way, I did that through Wikipedia. Reading about the books I read once upon a time was an adventure in itself.
I recommend this odyssey to all of you.