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December 11, 2012

Carla Buckley: Long Ago and Far Away

Posted by tom

Carla Buckley didn’t have the typical Christmas most children grow up knowing, as she spent her childhood in Africa and Southeast Asia without a speck of snow around. Soon after unwrapping Laura Ingalls Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS, Carla fell in love with the pioneer world to which it transported her. But it was THE LONGEST WINTER, in the same Little House on the Prairie series, that inspired her debut novel, THE THINGS THAT KEEP US HERE. Carla's second book, INVISIBLE, is now in stores.

I grew up in Africa and Southeast Asia, where my father did consulting work for foreign governments. What I remember from that time were the steady drums that awoke me first thing in the morning, the monsoons that swept across the jungles, the deadly snakes that lived under the pool and came out promptly at 6pm, the sweet coffee in tiny plastic bags pedaled around the streets by merchants, the window-shaped hole my parents cut in the wall of our rental house so that my brother could share the air conditioning from my and my sister’s room. And I also remember the Christmases.

My mother was determined that we should have normal holidays, or as normal as she could make them, and so we had roasted turkey --- at least, I think it was turkey --- tinsel, and an Advent calendar. She unearthed dead, sparsely branched evergreens from who-knows-where and spray-painted them green. And then there were the gifts that magically appeared beneath their stiff branches. One year, I unwrapped Laura Ingalls Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS and immediately began reading, transported to a far-off land that I couldn’t even imagine. The Ingalls family had real evergreen trees covered in real snow. For Christmas, they each got an orange in their Christmas stocking. A single orange! Already that day I had eaten a papaya with lime, a bowl of pineapple, and several mangos, but now I longed for that perfect orange. Little Laura got a book --- Lord Alfred Tennyson’s THE LOTUS EATERS, which was, of all things, a book of poetry. My parents had to drag me to the dinner table that night, and I couldn’t eat quickly enough, eager to return to that brave Wisconsin family so alone in the world, and so determined to carve out their piece of it.

Imagine my joy when I learned this was only the first book in a series. I read them all, and loved them to varying degrees, but my favorite by far was THE LONG WINTER, in which a series of blizzards traps the Ingalls family within their cabin for months, with no hope of rescue. I couldn’t turn pages fast enough. And when it came time for me to write my own first book, maybe it’s no coincidence that I chose to talk about a family trapped in their house over one long, terrible winter, with no one but themselves to rely upon.

Years later, my sister gave my young daughter a collection of Laura Ingalls Wilder books. My daughter and I curled up together to read, and I was amazed to find that all the things I’d loved about Wilder’s stories remained as fresh and strong as ever: the love this family feels for another, their sheer grit, their willingness to work hard, and, above all, their determination to find joy in the smallest thing. Maybe my daughter wasn’t as mesmerized by that Christmas orange, but she was deeply moved by Mary’s going blind, and for weeks, tied bandannas around her face to try and imagine what it must feel like not to see.

My mother’s long gone but in this way she lives on in, through the books she gave me that told me something about who she was, and that she always knew exactly what kind of books I would most love. Years from now, I picture my children sitting down to read one of their favorite childhood books with their own children. I’d like to think that my daughters would pull out LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS. The one my son might pick? CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS AND THE PERILOUS PLOT OF PROFESSOR POOPYPANTS. But that’s another story.