The summer just before I turned eleven years old, I first read Burroughs and Baum. That's William Burroughs: author of Junkie and Naked Lunch. And L. Frank Baum: author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz books.
When I was ten, we moved from San Francisco to Larkspur, a small town in Marin County which had yet to become the cutesy "historic" village it is today. That first year -- my fifth grade year -- I didn't make friends. The adjustment from city to suburb, from child to preteen, hit me brutally hard. I retreated into myself, talked to myself, spent much of the year "sick" and at home, and lived in a fantasy world. Then fifth grade ended and there was summer. Summer is really long when you're a child.
That summer just before I turned eleven I was in a 'tween stage, deeply aware of my disappearing childhood, itchy like a snake before it sheds. And I registered this itchiness as boredom.
I was bored. Deeply, profoundly bored, filled with lassitude, nothing to do bored. BORED in all caps and italics. A desperate kind of bored that made me pace in discomfort even as my limbs felt like I was swimming in molasses, the kind of bored I've rarely been since.
We had no TV. I had no friends. I hated the heat. I hated to swim.
So I read.
My parents house, an old summer cottage in the woods, was packed with books haphazardly stacked on bookshelves in almost every room, and they were all accessible to me. I sat in my treehouse and read. I sat on the couch and read. When we went to my cousin's softball games I lay on a blanket in the grass, ignoring the game, and read.
I was already a reader, but that summer I read all day. I read through meals. I read into the night. I read fast, I gobbled. I filled myself with words. One day I read seven books.
I reread my childhood favorites: my picture books; all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books; and The Little Prince and Charlotte's Web for the gazillionth time. I reread all the Betsy, Tacy, and Tibs books. I read adult books: the original Dracula, which gave me nightmares; Olive Shreiner's Story of an African Farm. I read Stanislovsky and Shakespeare and Moby Dick... not with great depth (how much depth can you have at age ten?) and with a lot of skimming, but I turned the pages and lost myself in the stories. Chekov. Jack London. Sister Carrie. Kate Seredy.
Of all those stories, places, people, the books that affected me most were Burroughs and Baum.
I found, on my parents' brick and board bookshelves in the living room, the original Ace Double version from 1953 of Junkie by William Burroughs, writing as William Lee. That cover with the man choking the blonde (forcing her to shoot up?) shocked and intrigued me. Again and again I came back to this semi-autobiographical tale of addicts and brutal sex and rats.
And then I boomeranged to Oz.
Once I got started on the Oz books, all forty of them, the fourteen by L. Frank Baum, the twenty-six by the other "Royal Historians," I didn't stop until I'd read them all. I took out the 10 book limit from the tiny Larkspur library on the corner of Magnolia and King then walked up the 139 stairs to Walnut Avenue, down the block, and then though the run-wild almost acre of land to my house, and I went to Oz.
Oz was where I wanted to live.
Those books, dating from the earliest of 1900 through the 1960s, presented the kind of world I wanted. I believed in Oz. I took at face value Baum's claim that Oz was there, somewhere, findable. That he was merely writing a history of the Kingdom.
Seems like an odd combination for a child, really -- Burroughs and Baum. But each of them were creating -- or documenting -- worlds so far from my own "boring" existence, each so foreign to me: the seedy underworld of heroin addicts in late 1940s New York; the pure fantasy, colors, flavors, talking animals, and magic of Oz.
Each of them represented part of what I was torn between -- the magical elements of childhood, the dark underworld of seedy sexuality I saw in my future. Each of them, Burroughs and Baum, was writing about escape. Escape through heroin. Escape through a hole in the ground to Oz.
And there I was, living in a place I didn't want to live, in a family with untalked about tensions, facing a dismal sixth grade year in a school I didn't like, with kids who thought I was weird, in a body about to change. There I was -- in need, desperate need, of escape.
Burroughs and Baum offered escape.
And isn't that what summer reading is for?
The above is an entry into Redroom.com's Summer Book Giveaway. I wasn't planning on participating, but it was an intriguing topic, and once I started thinking about it, I kinda got into it.
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