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Like looking through someone's picture window at night
on March 10, 2001
The first time I read An American Childhood I was so thrilled I wanted everyone I knew to read it too. It is one of the handful of books that I will keep on the bookshelf by my bed for the rest of my life. (That shelf also includes Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.)
An American Childhood was an eye opener for me and gave me pause to look back at my own childhood to see what I could see. I reread this periodically and enjoy the clarity with which Ms. Dillard writes about her memories of the start of life, the beginning of thought, the thrill of realizations when first made, and the excitement of knowing that life is ahead and it's up to the one who is living to get on with it. She sets up a scene and relates her feelings as she was living through it. A vivid memory for her is running with a friend through the backyards of her neighborhood chased by a man who was furious with them for thowing snowballs at his car. "It was an immense discovery, pounding into my hot head with every sliding, joyous step, that this ordinary adult evidently knew what I thought only children who trained at football knew: that you have to fling yourself at what you're doing, you have to point yourself, forget yourself, aim, dive." She seems to have learned lessons early that it takes many of us several decades to internalize.
One day she ran down a busy sidewalk, arms flailing, pretending to herself she might just be able to take off into flight. "I was too aware to do this, and had done it anyway. What could touch me now? For what were the people on Penn Avenue to me, or what was I to myself, really, but a witness to any boldness I could muster..."
Her use of language is unexpected and sparkling and her ability to listen to how others sound, most notably her parents, allows you to be there in the room with them all, listening too. She is able to capture a person's look with a few careful words. "Father snapped his fingers and wandered, tall and loose-limbed, over the house." And the chapter on learning to tell jokes is perfect at showing the private life of a single family - not to mention, it's just plain hilarious! "Our parents would sooner have left us out of Christmas than leave us out of a joke. They explained a joke to us while they were still laughing at it; they tore a still-kicking joke apart, so we could see how it worked...People who said, 'I can never remember jokes,' were like people who said, obliviously, 'I can never remember names,' or 'I don't bathe.'"
This book takes you to a specific place at a specific time, and also into the heart of childhood at any place or time. You read it and you can, for a while, throw off the sentimentalized vision of "youth" that you have drawn over the past, and instead remember how it actually was to grow up as a human being.