72. Prince Rupert, 1960: A Book in a Day
August ended, and the summer holidays, and I had to move out of the dynamite shack in the Boneyard. My father brought us into Prince Rupert, to the rooms above the Grand Café again, to enroll me in school. School was Roosevelt School up on the hill.
I suppose 1960 was technically a return to Roosevelt because of a vague, brief stint there in 1958 when I was living with my grandfather. It still felt like a new school to me. But it featured one thing unusual in practically any school I attended: I had a friend already there, David, my friend from the Grand.
But before school began, there was a little space at the beginning of September where my father and I rented a plain little room above the Grand and cozied in there. We had gone to the library on the occasion I remember, and I spent probably most of the day afterwards in our room lying on the bed beside my father reading one of the books I had brought back, a fairy story. My father was reading too, I know not what. When I finally put the book down I had done something I never had before. It was the first time I ever read a book in a day.
That occasion has always been important to me. The book itself was less auspicious. My day of reading left me feeling vaguely ill.
The book I read that day was Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. Kingsley was a Victorian clergyman and his book, after a long successful run, has recently fallen out of fashion for being, among other things, wildly racist. I was too naïve to notice the racism at 10 years old. The entire fairyland that Kingsley created felt ugly to me.
Two particular passages remained with me over time. In one our orphan hero, Jack, by then a water baby, has a pebble placed in his mouth instead of candy by a fairy. It was well-deserved punishment, the fairy makes clear. She hated having to do it. There is a long explanation in the book about how it all was completely just.
Yet it still felt mean to me.
The second passage featured turnip-headed people frantically and worrisomely seeking to learn, but with the information sweating out of their heads almost as soon as they acquired it. This was a neurological nightmare suitable for a clinical study by Oliver Sacks, but it just felt like an unaddressed evil in a book where every transgression otherwise found a punishment.
Reading The Water Babies as an adult, I could see why it would trouble me as a child. I had traveled alone many times by that era of my childhood. It would have been easy for me to identify with Jack, the orphan hero. But when Jack enters fairyland as a water baby, he enters a land where every crime, prank and misdemeanor is punished, often with torture, sometimes with poisoning, always with a lecture, and where love is clearly, explicitly conditional love. Here the fairies carry whips, extract teeth without anesthetic, torment, torture, and see all, know all to a degree that would make Big Brother envious. Charles Kingsley’s fairyland is a purgatory for drowned children and orphans.
I know fairyland. I knew fairyland already well by then. Fairy stories can be primal and violent. Grimm’s stories are often grim. But the moral sadism of The Water Babies would have run contrary to every value my indigenous upbringing had taught to me. That is surely why it turned my 10-year-old stomach sour.
And yet, as bad a book as Charles Kingsley’s fairy tale is and was, it was still a marker. I date my intellectual awakening to the day I read it. It was that day, lying on a bed beside my father in a room above the Grand Café, that I became a scholar.