To single out one book, any more than a whole library’s worth of them, as being of most influence on one’s development is like having to list your favorite kisses from an unforgettable lover.
I can simplify the process by counting on one hand the books which, read before the age of eighteen, had such powerful effect on me that they somehow have gone on living in my brain, though said brain has no clear memory of hundreds of other books which have recently passed through. (I exaggerate... somewhat.) They were hardly children's books, but then, I was never really a child: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, which I found in my Southern grandmother’s house when I was eleven and read without stopping over the course of two days and a night; Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz, a copy of which was given to my mother by her analyst; and Ferdinand Mayr-Ofen’s The Tragic Idealist, a life of so-called Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, which set me on course for studying and writing historical biographies and put me in love with the handsome but doomed young monarch pictured in the frontispiece.
And while it may not seem quite fit for the above list, the book out of all this youthful reading that made the greatest, longest-lasting impression on me was Wilson Gage’s Miss Osborne-the-Mop.
This 1963 story about a mop brought magically to life by two children, Jody and Dill, to become a sort of adorable über-nanny, was published a year before my birth, so when I found it in our school library in second grade it was almost a decade old. As nearly as I can recall, the cover bore a drawing of an upended mop that looked very like a wild-haired but well meaning old lady, with bright, curious eyes and a loopy smile.
The story enchanted me. In our house, not only did our parents encourage us to keen over deceased pets with all the drama normally reserved for near and dear humankind, but when we assumed that inanimate objects had life in them—feelings, ideas, fears—we were not disabused of the notion. This meant that before I went to school every morning, I tucked my assorted stuffed menagerie comfortably against my pillows and kissed them all goodbye, and if I happened to knock one of them off the bed in the process, or forgot to bid them farewell, I could hardly concentrate at school. It was as if I had injured a living creature.
Thus Miss Osborne was tailor-made for me. I reveled in the adventures she guided her charges through, like a Mary Poppins of the broom closet, and even dreamed about her, wishing I had a non-human friend like her. To my mind this meant someone I could trust not to betray me or throw my love back in my face—something that happened in the schoolyard at least once a day. I was, after all, that unpopular child who tragically is wont to conceive affection for his tormentors, thereby increasing the torment.
Ironically, my reaction to Miss Osborne-the-Mop proved to make me even less popular than I already was. At the end of the Osbornian adventures, when I fancied that everyone might just live happily ever after, Miss Osborne came to grief. Like any ordinary mop-stick, she broke, and with her dying words she asked the children to place her in a tree so that she could return to the substance from whence she came. I reached this passage while sitting in class, and I remember I burst into tears.
In my small-town grade school we still had old wooden flip-top desks, replete with smudge-rimmed holes where ink bottles had once been. I remember thinking, “I have never cried in class,” which upset me even more because I could not control myself. A few of the other kids had noticed and were, as usual, giggling. So I lifted the wooden lid of the desk and sobbed behind it, feeling that the world had ended, but at the same time was rapt with the ecstasy that something outside myself had reached in and shaken my heart to its very roots. I realize now that this was the first time I had ever cried over a book. It's a reaction by which I still judge the quality of most things that matter in life.