One year ago as the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize dinner in NYC approached, I was asked, along with the other six finalists for the prize, to write in response to this question: what was the first book you fell in love with? I thought immediately of this one. The article was published initially at LitHub, Dec. 2 2017.
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|"Robin shooteth his last shaft"|
None of the books I read as a child have survived to the present day. Late in her life my dear mother developed dementia and became a hoarder; everything I once possessed in the house where I grew up was carted to a toxic-waste dump by the county haz-mat crew. I suspect it would have been difficult to pick a favorite even if the books had survived: my sisters and I were voracious readers and were kept amply supplied by our Aunt Helene, a book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. Every Christmas she shipped us -- her poor relations -- a box of reviewer's copies of fiction and non-fiction titles, sometimes appropriate for children and sometimes less so. I recall a biography of mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a collection of Arthur Rackham's illustrations of wood sprites, and a how-to guide for making macramé clothing, with which I entertained a mild obsession. (Is there anyone left who knows what "macramé" is?...)
I don't know if The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was a gift from our aunt or if it had once been Daddy's own, but I suspect the latter. That's because we were not allowed to treat it with anything less than careful, clean-handed reverence. Our father was an artist: a creative misfit and traumatic brain injury survivor. All his life he maintained that his elder brother lured him on to the roof of Horace Mann Elementary School to fly a kite with the express intention of killing him, which was nearly the result. He treasured his Scribner's edition with Howard Pyle's intricate engravings; mostly what I remember from that book was the final illustration of a weakened Robin propped up on a pillow, drawing his bow in order to "shooteth his last shaft" through the open window. I pored over that picture, marveling at its tragic implications. That was my introduction to metaphor.
My father, while not comfortable in a traditional parenting role, nevertheless took pleasure in outfitting our childhoods with sublime props. He built a Sioux-style teepee large enough to accommodate us and our sleeping bags in the backyard on starlit nights, and during our Robin Hood period, crafted four beautiful bows and arrows by hand out of ash-wood, our names tooled on the grips. I would give anything to hold my bow in my hands today and "shooteth a shaft," but the bows went to the dump along with the books, the teepee and the macramé vests.
The story of Robin's merry band of men robbing the rich and giving to the poor is well-known; however, what I absorbed in powerfully affirming terms from this tale was not so much the noble aims of the band and its leader as much as their existence as outsiders, living in the woods far from the long arm of Nottingham's authority and its conventions. This was a state I could relate to, as did my sisters, and we clung to Robin Hood's alternate reality in order that, by identifying with outsiders, we felt less like outcasts. We were strange children, isolated by the circumstances of our parents' complicated relationships with their own families, their bizarre ideologies, and their decision to settle on a former cattle ranch in a house my father designed, where coyotes howled outside our windows at night and rattlesnakes occasionally curled up beneath our baseboard heaters. And then, regrettably, I wore those macramé creations to school, along with the lederhosen I acquired during my Heidi craze. Even without the lederhosen, classmates who heard me speak aloud asked me "what country do you come from?" Not surprisingly, my best friend in high school was the librarian, a wild Alabamian who once put a loaded Colt revolver in my hands and taught me to shoot the shit out of a Jeffrey pine. In her own way, I believe, she was teaching me that being strange might one day prove to be my salvation.
Growing up as an outsider has its advantages. When my husband and I decided to move to North Carolina from San Francisco two decades ago, everyone we knew told us we were crazy. (Years before, some of the same people told us we were crazy to marry each other.) But if you are not bound by convention, you are more willing to take risks. In my novel The Second Mrs. Hockaday, the protagonist Placidia Hockaday is asked to explain why she married Major Hockaday after knowing him for only two days, taking on the care of his child and his farm while the Civil War raged, stepping blithely into the abyss of the unknown. She replies to her cousin: "life is all about the leaps."
So it has been for me: an outsider still, but ready to leap, not knowing where I'll land.
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The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, adapted and illustrated by Howard Pyle, can be ordered online from a variety of sources.