Search This Blog

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reading My Grandmothers

Part One:

I don't actually know what my grandmothers read when they were girls, or adults. If I saw either of them more than a handful of times in my life, I don't remember. We were, and are, a peripatetic family with scant overlaps between geography and generation. To help me understand the influences that shaped my grandmothers, I want to read books that they might have read, see words and learn stories that might have helped shape them as my childhood reading shaped me.. But figuring out what those books are could be difficult.

Although I've sought out some 'early' books for children, such as E. Nesbit and Lucy Maude Montgomery, I'm not at all sure I've covered anything either of my grandmothers would have read. My godmother, the youngest daughter of my English grandmother, sent me my first copies of Little Women, Five Little Peppers, and Heidi, though, so maybe I have, without realizing it, joined a century-long chain of women related by both blood and books. But how would I know?

What books did they learn first to read? To what books did they turn for escape? What information do I have as a starting point?

One grandmother died when I was a child, not quite before I learned to read but long before I began to wonder what other people were reading. She was born in 1892 in England; in middle age, after World War 2, she immigrated to Canada, living mainly in small towns around the Prairies and eventually dying in northern Alberta. When I was around ten years old, she came to visit for several weeks; I felt I knew her after that but she died not many months later. It was impractical to take me along to her funeral, half a country away. Any books among her deathbed possessions were dispersed.

My other grandmother, born in 1904, lived well into my adulthood but I hardly knew her. Most of her life was spent in the same farmhouse, only a few miles from the land on which her father settled a farm. As a farm wife looking after a large family, garden and livestock, she likely had little time for reading. During our rare visits I never saw her with a book in her hands. The only ones I ever found in her house were mainstream novels from the 1950's, left behind from my mother's adolescence. Not that reading Pearl S. Buck wasn't a gateway to a wider world, but it did not leave any connections to that grandmother.

My grandmothers' childhood reading was unlikely to have covered all the same books, or maybe any at all, due to geography and patterns of human settlement.

My English grandmother attended a school in Hammersmith, which by then was functionally part of the city of London, England. Her immediate environs had been continuously settled for hundreds of years and contained any number of well-staffed schools for both boys and girls, many purpose-built of stone and brick construction, as well as lending libraries, bookstores, and a substantially literate population.

My Scottish-Canadian grandmother went to a new-built one-room schoolhouse, isolated on the prairies near Melfort, Saskatchewan. Melfort at the time had a population of around five hundred people, including a fair number of older settlers whose literacy was limited to the signing of their name. The school would have had maybe twenty students. Her first teacher was a Mr. John Houston. Although I cannot say with any certainty that he never expanded his pupils' reading opportunities beyond the provided textbooks, it is unlikely he was well versed in the current state of literature for girls.

 This question needs more exploration. When I have some likely titles in hand, or possibly just some concrete information from the surviving children of those deceased grandmothers, I'll post on this subject again.

No comments:

Post a Comment