On Becoming a Reader

It took me a long time to convince myself I was a writer, but I’ve been a reader from the age of nine. I can remember the precise moment when I became one.

To be honest, I may have been ten years old (moments don’t have to be pinned down to the calendar). I was sitting on the front porch of our house in Dallas surrounded by holly bushes, probably in the spring or fall since the weather was neither too hot nor too cold. I was reading a book. I liked to read, but wasn’t necessarily a reader. C. S. Lewis (An Experiment in Criticism) says that while most people can read, true readers are rare. Those who will pick up a book for entertainment might just as easily find their entertainment at the cinema or music hall (he was writing in the 1940s), and in his experience, they were the majority. At that age I, too, saw reading as one of my entertainment options. I picked up the book, not vice-versa.

My parents had bought me a membership in the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club, and the book in my hands was that month’s selection. I had liked almost all my book club books, so I started this one with pleasant expectations, even though it was a bit hard to get into. “This is the story of a Polish family, and of what happened to them during the Second World War and immediately afterwards. Their home was in a suburb of Warsaw, where the father, Joseph Balicki, was headmaster of a primary school. He and his Swiss wife Margrit had three children. In early 1940, the year when the Nazis took Joseph away to prison, Ruth the eldest was nearly thirteen, Edek was eleven, and their fair-haired Bronia three.”

Right there, in the first paragraph, I was eons away from a front porch in Texas. The wording is straightforward, but mined with terms like suburb, headmaster, eldest, fair-haired–nobody in my family talked that way, and the Scottish author had more surprises in store. What’s a “queue”? Or a “lorry”? The first four chapters broke a cardinal rule of children’s literature: you’re supposed to begin with the protagonist, who has to be a kid. Instead, I learned how Joseph Balicki escapes from his prison camp after two years and made his way back to Warsaw, which by now has been bombed into a pile of rubble. Where’s his wife and children? A neighbor tells him that some time after his arrest Margrit was also taken by the Nazis, who blew up his house that same night. Ruth, Edek, and Bronia are probably dead. His best option is to go to his wife’s home in Switzerland, where they had planned to meet if they were ever separated. But Joseph can’t stop hoping that his children are still alive.

Finally, in Chapter Five, a kid! A half-wild street boy hugging a cat, who identifies himself only as Jan. Joseph, who’s finally ready to leave for Switzerland, gives the boy a token that he found in the wreck of his house. It’s a silver letter-opener, shaped like a sword. If Jan should ever meet his children, he’s to show them the sword and tell them to join their father (mother too, we hope) in Switzerland. Then he hops a train, and the very next chapter takes us back to the night the Balicki house was blown up, and the children forced to take care of themselves.

The story is based on true events, and the very first page hints that the family will be reunited, so where’s the suspense? Chiefly in how they’re reunited, and how their character develops along the way. For it’s ultimately a story about how faith perseveres.

The author’s prose is spare and direct and perfect for the narrative, which has to move quickly. Yet not too quickly to experience a full range of emotion from dull defeat to absolute ecstasy. Before long, I was hooked: Edek is captured and taken to Germany as slave-labor. After some time Ruth takes in Jan, discovers the sword, makes a plan. Poland is freed from Germany, Warsaw occupied by the Russians, Edek is tracked to a refugee camp in Posen where Ruth determines they must go before heading to Switzerland. But in Posen they learn that Edek has run away. And here’s the moment I became a reader:

Bitterly disappointed, Ruth takes Jan and Bronia to an outdoor soup kitchen crowded with refugees. A cheerful cook is ladling out soup to a line of starving children. Soon after Jan gets his, he trips over a rock and the food spills on the ground. At the sight of it, order breaks down–from all directions, children dive for a few scraps of meat and potato. Ruth dives in too, frantic that little Bronia will be trampled: “She had reached blindly for the food and caught only a hand. For some reason or other she clung on to the hand, and when everyone about her had got up and her hair was free she had not let go. Then she looked to see whose hand it was, and it was Edek’s.”

If I had encountered the book as an adult I would probably have seen this coming. But I was only nine or ten, not yet aware of how stories are structured, and I was pierced through. The “ah!” that takes us through a painting or phrase of music struck me then, and it was due not just to the story but to the words, the deliberate shaping of language and narrative that had picked me up and carried me this far. If I had seen it as a movie, or heard it told, it wouldn’t have had the same effect.

We’re all vulnerable to something, whether music or art or dance or sailing or building or even NASCAR racing–something takes us through the surface of the day and pins us to eternity, just for a moment. Some books have done that to me, and that’s how I know I’m a reader.

Oh yes, the book.  Still in print the last I heard, under a new title: Escape From Warsaw, by Ian Serraillier.  Originally published as The Silver Sword.  It’s on my shelf.


5 Responses to “On Becoming a Reader”

  1. Laurice Cox Says:

    Wow! I want to read it! My husband said just a couple of days ago that he missed me reading aloud to the family when we were homeschooling. I have been thinking about renewing the practice. I’ll check out the bookstore today for Escape from Warsaw! One of our favorite read-alouds was North to Freedom by Anne Holm, ten times better than the movie entitled “I Am David” made from the book.

  2. Karen Slaten Says:

    Enjoyed your post. I’m passing it on to Mandie. Her imagination was captured by The Diary of Anne Frank when she was in grade school. It has evolved into a great love of reading and history, so much so that she is a history major. She even won a scholarship from a paper on the Holocaust. Her instructor marveled that a freshman could write what he described as a graduate level paper. I asked her if she informed him that she had been preparing for that paper ever since she was in grade school!

  3. Renee Mathis Says:

    Oh welcome to the blogging world! I am so excited about being able to keep up with you here. Tea is brewing and I’m settling in…


  4. Kasia/Kate Says:

    Thank you Janie!!! This is what I needed!!! I will try to find this book and read it.

  5. Styling Librarian Saturday Book Share: Interview and Somebody on this Bus is Going to be Famous | The Styling Librarian Says:

    […] that I can remember actually shaking me with the power of a story. (I wrote about that experience here.) Interesting that the word “sword” appears in both titles, but not significant of […]

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