Julia Spencer-Fleming is an Agatha, Anthony, Barry, Dilys, Gumshoe and Macavity Award winner, as well as the author of the bestselling mystery series featuring Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne and Reverend Clare Fergusson. In her latest installment of the series, THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS, Russ and Clare are called to the scene of a raging fire that quickly becomes a double homicide and kidnapping. As the days and hours tick by, they fight personal and professional battles that will change their lives forever. In her Holiday Author Blog, Julia talks about how books were a luxury she could barely afford in her childhood, and how one Christmas her mother surprised her with more literary treasures than she could have possibly imagined.
We were poor, to begin with. There was no doubt about that, although like children in Edwardian novels, we didn't realize we were poor. We lived in our very own house, furnished with hand-me-downs and yard sale finds and jumbles of silverware and dishes we carried home from auctions. We lived in the heart of a small village in the piedmont of the Adirondacks, surrounded by hills and dairy farms and other poor people who didn't know they were poor.
I walked to the central school, a half mile with my best friend Penny and my little sister tagging behind with her best friend. When our brother started kindergarten, we had to keep an eye on him and hold his hand, because it was always snowy in the winter, always long icicles hanging from the triangular eaves of the houses, frills of snow turning porch woodwork to lace. We walked between canyons of snow, home to school, school to the general store, where you could buy candy and long johns and wrapping paper, then up the hill to my grandmother's house, which had been her mother's and her grandmother's before her. I left the best for the last, on the way back home: the library.
The Free Library sat in a house that had been donated several generations before, next to the fire department founded by my great-great grandfather. I went five days a week when I could, taking out stacks of books, reading and returning in a constant stream of fictional delight. The problem was, I read too much. I had worked my way through the long chapter books of the children’s section, the two shelves of teen fiction, and had begun haunting the adult room, which worried the volunteer librarians. They would never refuse to check me out, but they would call my mother to let her know what I was bringing home. (I was, in fact, looking for salacious material, but in a confused and overly-literate way; one winter I read all of THE SCARLET LETTER, convinced there must be some naughty parts in there somewhere.)
We had books of our own, of course, although not as many as I would have liked. A lifetime of moving from army post to army post meant that old toys, overgrown clothing and previously read books got left behind. Settled in my mother's hometown, we started to accumulate books again: from those jumble boxes at auctions, from the library sale, rarely, from the Scholastic book fair. The best, most magical place for books was The Owl Pen, a hard-to-find country barn with thousands upon thousands of used books. I could spend hours among its stacks agonizing over the one or two I could afford to buy.
But it was December, and the Owl Pen was closed until May, and I was 13 with few prospects of getting books for Christmas. My mother drove to her substitute teaching job with her windows open; the heater didn't work and the freezing air kept the windshield from steaming up. I didn't expect her to go to a new bookstore, in the same way I didn't expect her to take us to the movies or the Toys for Joy store --- these were Things We Didn't Do.
Instead, we had get-togethers with friends and family, pulled taffy, strung popcorn for the tree and went caroling to our neighbors, who would patiently stand in the cold to be serenaded by a pack of giggling eighth graders. We had a real tree, chopped down by my uncle, and beneath it, presents wrapped in recycled paper and the Sunday comics. One great blocky package, a grocery sack inverted over another, had my name on it. Christmas morning. I unwrapped lemon scent, and a wooden pegboard game, and double-layer mittens knitted by my grandmother. There were other gifts --- none I can remember almost 40 years later --- and then, finally, the last gift. I lifted the brown paper bag off and looked inside.
Books. Not one, or three, or five, but a dozen, 15, 20 books. Histories and story collections and classics and essays, with thin paper dust jackets or deeply embossed covers. My mother had collected them over the summer at the Owl Pen, hiding them away for the long winter nights. I was speechless at the extravagance --- we never bought more than one or two books. My mother, who in later years urged me to write fiction, smiled. “Do you like them?”
It wasn't until I was much older when I came across the quote attributed to Erasmus: When I have a little money, I buy books, and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes. The Christmas I was 13, I lived it. Our car still had no heater, and my boots and parka were hand-me-downs, but in our tiny town, I, with my bag of 20 books, was rich.