I've been reading novels for almost as long as I have been reading. Of course, like most early readers, I started with picture books, but it wasn't long before I was reading My Friend Flicka and Black Beauty. I loved horses, even though I was the least horsey girl around, never having even gotten on top of even a pony. I read whatever I could find in the house, digging under my mother's bed for the good stuff, big thick novels that taught me about adult life. I moved through the local library shelves like some kind of starving person, and just kept going until here I am now, an English teacher, a writer, reading and writing for a living. I've had many love affairs with novels, work that has sung to me long after I've finished reading: Pride and Prejudice, Beloved, The World According to Garp, Dream Boy, The Temple of My Familiar, The Mists of Avalon, The Great Gatsby. I've loved them all, and I really can't pick a favorite between these.
However, early on, at some point along this reading journey, I came across the novels by Ruth M. Arthur. She's mostly out of print now, which is a shame. I recently reread my favorite novel of hers, and when I was through, I did an amazon search on her work, finding that most were simply being sold used. A shame, really, as her novels speak so well to girls, especially. Her stories are historical and geographical and full of magic.
My favorite novel, one I've thought about since reading it sometime in the late sixties, is a YA novel entitled A Candle in Her Room. The main character--or the character whose story frames the story--is Melissa Mansell. The story is set at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. She and her two sister and parents have moved to an old house in Pembrokeshire. The family leaves London, settles in the old house, and the story begins. One sister, Judith--always different--finds a doll named Dido that casts a spell on her, turning her from her sisters and parents and moving the plot forward. Ultimately, Meilssa has a strange accident, leaving her unable to walk. Judith runs off with Melissa's love Carew and marries him, and years later, she and her daughter Dilys return to Pembrokeshire, Carew now dead, killed in WWI.
Dido is an evil doll, a horrible creature who effects the entire family. Dilys grows up with a horrible mother and her loving aunt. We are now again in the time of war, and Dilys ends up leaving her home, suffering under the Nazis, and by the end of the story, Judith is dead, and Melissa is being haunted by the vision of a young girl. The girl turns out to be Nina, Dilys' daughter, whom Melissa finds and brings home. Of course, Nina finds Dido, but she manages to overcome the doll's horrible spell, burns Dido in a fire, and life can finally go on.
When I first read this novel, I didn't know about Dido and her love affair with Aeneas, the way she flung herself into a fire to kill herself. I hadn't read any Gothic novels, knowing that a big old house in England and a ghostly haunting were part of the Gothic package. What I did know was that I was an older sister and that there were things about my sisters I didn't understand. I understood that family life is complicated and that people have secrets. While the setting was romantic and craggy and full of waves and salt and sand--though we end up confronting WWII and its horrors--I was with Melissa, the sister who stayed behind because she had no choice, the sister who was haunted by the past. That I somehow understood.
This is a lovely story, one with redemption but one with evil, something that all children understand. It had hope and it had despair, and I already knew about both.
I keep my copy of A Candle in Her Room, knowing that it resonated with me then, taught me then, a little piece of me in the story despite the fact that the writer could have known nothing about me as she wrote. But a good writer knows the effect on the audience, knows that the story will sing and sing loud.
Causes Jessica Inclán Supports
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