Awhile back, my Facebook status read: “As a nephew raised by an uncle, I'm always moved when I remember how many heroes in literature, commercial or otherwise, were also brought up by uncles: Harry Potter to Frodo. Role models from non-traditional families. I think I'm in good company. (Don't worry; we only had a one-story house...).”
That last part in the parentheses really confused people. My apologies: I intended to reference the fact that Harry Potter’s uncle wasn’t the best, per se, and had locked him under the stairs in his house. My uncle U.L. didn’t do that because he was a very good uncle who would never do that. Also, as stated above, we only had a one-story house.
I imagine you’re still a bit confused. That’s ok, keep reading. It’s about to make a whole lot of sense.
First, a preface: I read Frye Gaillard’s The Books That Mattered, and then, I wrote an essay about a book that mattered to me (this is because it was an MFA assignment during my time at Spalding) and I found myself a bit teared up when I came back across that essay and read it again. I’d forgotten how many different pieces of myself I’d left in between the pages of the many books I read growing up in a single-uncle household. And how emotional it is to this day when I pick up any one of those books, flip it open, and find a twelve-year old version of myself on page 23 of The Prince and the Pauper, or my sixteen-year-old self on the last few pages of The Time Machine, or me at twenty-four on Chapter 8 of The Hobbit. Old friends, indeed. They’re often much more than that, though. They’re scrapbooks and secret hide-aways, especially so for a bright, young kid confused and searching for answers.
But I think the question that initiated the assignment in the first place is still a very important one to be asked: What book(s) matter(s) to you, and why is that?
Below is my answer. What’s yours?
It begins with Mrs. Ruth Stringer. My seventh grade Social Studies and Civics teacher. She took prayer requests before beginning each lesson. She believed in cursive handwriting. She used the word 'accoutrement' in every other sentence. She wanted oranges, not apples. She despised mechanical pencils, and once, when I was out sick for a week with pneumonia, showed up at my house, her arms burdened with the knowledge that I had not received under her instruction that week due to my illness.
I heard her talking in the kitchen to my great-uncle, the man who took me in when my parents abandoned me. He was, of course, grateful and thanked her more than once. It's hard being an only parent, especially when you have no children except someone else's. A distance is always present in those houses. It's not the intention, naturally; rather, it's as if an apology has hidden itself in a closet, or beneath a kitchen cabinet, or behind a curtain. You know it's there as much as you know it's not your apology to make. It'll be years before you realize that it's also an apology you would never get. That mother, that father, that apology: they've all become legends of the living room, stories you're not brave enough to hear.
So you don't listen. You read. You wonder what it would be like to live in a book, where if nothing else, as a character you would know where your place was, where you belonged, that you were needed. That the story you're becoming mattered.
You read. You read. You read. Searching, waiting, reading. And suddenly, those things that only happen in books, that favor of fortune to the Hero, happens to you and you look down, begrudgingly, at the pile of homework that Mrs. Stringer has hand-delivered to you and you notice, there, on the top of the textbook, a smaller book, a paperback book, and at first you groan, thinking it's more homework.
But an envelope sticks out from its pages, a card. You pull it out, feeling strange to have been so singled out by a teacher--having not been entirely sure she didn't live under her desk, having never seen outside the classroom--and you read the card, so carefully inked with her delicate penmanship.
"Kris, after you've finished reading Chapter 5 and answering its questions, you may take a break to start this book. It is not for homework. It is just for you. I hope you will read it?"
A question mark. Not a period. She's drawn a beautiful question mark, its belly-curve of forehead rising above and dangling over the word "it." A random thing to remember; though, I believe that question mark is the reason I read the book at all. A question gave me options. A yes. A no. Even a maybe, a half-hearted gesture to read, an attempt and nothing else and because of her question mark, there could be no guilt about not finishing it.
I turned and picked up the book. A second layer of tape along the spine, a repair; a corner at the top missing. It had obviously been much appreciated by another reader.
And then the title.
I read the title. And then I read it again. And again. I think I must have stared at that title for a hundred minutes.
The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis.
I read it front to back that night. And started again the following morning. A story about an uncle and a nephew. I don't think I ever did the homework. At least, I don't remember doing it. Not that Chapter 5, anyway. I had my own Chapter 5. Finally. I had a place, my own place, my own book to live fully in. I reread it every year -- she never asked for it back -- that's the truth, but in a thousand other ways, I could say with just a tinge more honesty that I don't believe I've ever put it down.
T.K. Lee is an award-winning poet, dramatist, and an all-around great nephew, who teaches in the MFA program at The W. His short story "Awake" won first-place in the 2017 William Faulkner Literary Competition. He calls Starkville his home.