“The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast, and you miss all you are travelling for.” – American author Louis L’Amour
I was caught off guard last week when I saw the news that the American Jewish writer E.L. Konigsburg had died. She was 83. Death jars because it seems so final, the very end of the trail. I don’t know about you, but it makes me sit up, and remember. Especially now after my dad passed on last summer.
Back when she was an aspiring writer, Konigsburg penned – when authors still used pens! — a novel that won her the 1968 Newbery Medal for the best American children’s book of the year. Recently it was named one of the ‘Top 100 Chapter Books’ of all time by the School Library Journal.
The book was From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I remember it not because I read it. It was read to me and my classmates by my well-liked Grade 5 ‘literature arts’ teacher in the early ’70s. I distinctly remember sitting transfixed in my desk as my teacher gazed out the window into the empty schoolyard before launching into a thrilling narration of the exploits of young Claudia Kincaid and her even younger brother Jamie. These two kids had the nerve to run away from home and hide out in the washrooms and exhibits of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art overnight! After sleeping in an antique bed, while avoiding the security guards, they blended into visiting school groups during the day. It didn’t take long before they were busy investigating a mysterious Renaissance-like angelic statue the museum had recently purchased — from the narrator, as it turned out, the enigmatic Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
Why has this memory stuck with me so vividly I wonder? It must have been the similar ages of the characters with my own, but it was also the thrill of risks not taken in my own life, but explored so well in story. Have you a favourite story read to you in elementary school?
Another book by Konigsburg that we have in the library’s collection is The View from Saturday.
As I was saying my dad, Norman Penner, passed on. He was 82. He spent many fruitful years as a teacher-librarian and independent book store owner in Saskatchewan and Alberta, while raising a family of 3 with my mom. He loved reading, and listening to people’s stories, among other pursuits.
After his death, a generous and thoughtful friend gave a donation – through the Friends of the Library – in my dad’s honour. He presented me with a bookplate sticker to place in a library book of my choosing! After a long period of indecision I decided on Education of a Wandering Man, the autobiography by Louis L’Amour, one of my dad’s favourite authors. (L’Amour was a prolific American Western writer who had at the time of his death in 1988 had an amazing 105 works in print.)
So I walked up to the Millennium Library’s fourth floor biography section, found the book, and holding back a tear, placed the sticker on the title page. I returned the book to its rightful place on the shelf, and there, right beside, was a familiar title, Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. I stared in amazement. ‘Travelling Mercies’ is the title of a little personal essay I am writing about my trip to Alberta last year that includes thoughts about my dad and his passing. The trip had been a meaningful time of reflection, connection with family and old friends, and unusual experiences of accompaniment.
Seeing the book with that title (which includes the author’s reflections of her own dad’s passing!) beside the book I had chosen gave me a shiver down my spine. What were the odds? What is the meaning of this syncronicity? Whatever its means I’m glad it happened. I think my dad would have loved the story of the bookplate, my friend’s generosity, and the stories contained in the books themselves. He loved hearing stories, and I guess, so do I.