Friday, October 19, 2012

Top Ten Characters Who Influenced Me

For more than a decade of my life, I would set aside time each summer to read Two Moons in August by Martha Brooks. Of course, as a self-professed bookworm, I read numerous novels during the summers of my formative years. But this one in particular made it into my repertoire every year from the time I was 12 until I was well out of college. Two Moons in August tells the story of Sidonie Fallows and her bittersweet life in the weeks leading up to her 16th birthday. The setting is a richly-drawn, rural neighborhood in Canada's Qu'Appelle Valley, where a tuberculosis sanitarium is the only source of business. Sidonie's summer is quiet, as her father works 14-hour days and her mother died not a year before, and her only companions are her mercurial older sister, Bobbi, and Bobbi's paramour, Phil. Though Sidonie meets a new boy on her street, Kieran, and her life is predictably more exciting in the flush of first infatuation, the story doesn't make the fledgling romance its center focus. Rather, the author emphasizes Sidonie's emotional fragility and the shattered nature of her grieving family.

I was utterly obsessed with this book when I first read it as a pre-teen, and it's largely because I felt so connected to Sidonie. Her detailed observations -- like the warmth of a lake under the summer sun or the mealiness of a plum past its prime -- felt like my observations. She hung out with her cat, I hung out with my cat. We both had naturally curly hair that we detested. We both loved to read and think. And we had the same birthday. I think I revisited that book every year not only because I loved the evocative, descriptive writing, but also because I needed to check in with an old friend. I don't re-read Two Moons in August every year anymore, but when I do pick it up, I know Sidonie's mannerisms, clever sense of humor, and hijinks as well as I know any of my friends.

In honor of Sidonie, I want to highlight her and nine other protagonists or characters who are, essentially, a part of who I am. In no particular order:

1. Sidonie Fallows, Two Moons in August. I related to Sidonie's frank commentary ("Don't believe what anybody tells you; naturally curly hair is a royal pain"), her pervasive gloom ("I feel sad and lonely, as though something has just been pulled from deep inside"), and all of her observations about the things around her.

2. Charlie Brown. Don't laugh. I read dozens (maybe hundreds?) of Schulze comics as a kid, and I always sympathized with poor, beleaguered Charlie Brown. Rats!

3. Elsha, Winter of Fire by Sherryl Jordan. This was the first fantasy book I really loved. Elsha was fierce, damaged, and gifted. She was not afraid to confront authority and to push her own limits and those of the people around her. People called her "Firebrand." I wanted to be as dynamic and strong as Elsha.

4. Claudia Kishi, The Babysitters Club by Ann M. Martin. Go ahead and mark this one in the frivolous column if you must, but Claudia made an indelible impact on my young self. (And hey, I never professed to have been a literature scholar at age 10.) With her cracked-out clothing choices (see this link for inspired Halloween ideas) and artistic sensibilities, Claudia was the cool older sister I never had. Plus, she had hiding places for junk food all over her room. I would have tried that, but I was actually allowed to have junk food. (Thanks Mom and Dad!)

5. Hazel, Watership Down by Richard Adams. Level-headed, calm under pressure, and faithful, Hazel was a wonderful blueprint for how to be awesome, whether you're a human or a rabbit. I think the fact that I was tremendously moved by The Velveteen Rabbit also contributed to my utter adoration of Hazel.

6. Dickon, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I used to want to grow up and marry Dickon. Perhaps this subconsciously influenced my decision to marry a kind, green-thumbed fellow with an uncommon name?

7. Frankie Addams, The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. I associate Frankie somewhat with Sidonie, even though their regions are completely different. They're both thoughtful loners coming of age in the mid-century, and each narrator manages to infuse mundane details with a melancholy flavor. Frankie's tireless search for self within her own gangly repression of adolescence is evocative and poignant.

8. Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Oh, Jane. Plain yet bewitching. Repressed yet feisty. Reserved yet witty. She was an exercise in dichotomy, which was just what I needed in a character when I first read this at age 15. Jane will always, always be with me.

9. Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. I couldn't leave 'ol Tom off this list, now could I? Tom was the ideal example of pastoral mischievousness, as frustrating as he was loveable, and well on his way to being a gentleman. 

10. Daniel Ross, The Castaway by Arthur Roth. I was OBSESSED with this book as a child. I must have read it at least a dozen times, never tiring of the adventure story that follows the resourceful and unflagging Daniel, stranded on a rocky island and missing his hometown love with the crooked front tooth. Daniel was my Robinson Crusoe. (A book that my grandfather frequently encouraged me to read but I never got around to doing, because, well, I was so busy reading The Castaway.)

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