Saturday, April 20, 2013

With a High Heart - by Adele de Leeuw

In honor of National Bookmobile Day (April 17) BookRiot posted reviews of "5 Great Books about Bookmobiles". I couldn't resist this title, and the fact that I found it in the very library where I work seemed to be destiny. I've always been fond of bookmobiles, and there are still a few around even in the 21st century. I got my first library card from the Baltimore County Public Library Bookmobile in the early 1970s. I thought it was much better than my older sister's card, which came from the Catonsville Branch Library, because mine had a blue star stamped on it, whereas hers had a boring old black star. There is a certain romance about bookmobiles, and this book is a romance novel about a bookmobile.

Poor Anne McLane was so counting on being assigned to the oh-so-modern Claremont Library for her summer library work experience, after all she was the star student. How could Miss Pruitt have given that cushy assignment to mousey Sophie Whitcomb, while she (Anne) is exiled to Kenyon County Library? But it seems wise Miss Pruitt knew what she was doing. Not only did Anne learn a heck of a lot more about running a library than she bargained for, how else would she have ever met dapper Matt England, the smart young farmer, if the bookmobile she was assigned to drive had not broken down near his property? She also saves a drowning child, mollifies a bitter blind man, saves the day when she keeps an event from cancellation, and otherwise keeps the dreams of the citizens of Kenyon County alive - all this in the space of one very hot summer, whew! Likewise, Sophie's assignment brings her out of her shell.

This book was written in 1945 and certainly gives a great sense of the times. War rationing is an issue when the bookmobile is threatened with a cut in gas and tire rations, which would have prevented the satellite stations from receiving their books. Beyond this though, is a clear subtext about women's roles, even working women. There is no judgement about Rilla, who is only working in the library until her soldier fiance returns home so she can marry him. Her co-workers do seem unsympathetic to her, though, when his daily letters stop coming, which makes her pretty (understandably) grouchy. When she receives word that Dill has been killed they offer "mute and awkward sympathy", and suggest that she keep working!  Indeed, there are several passages that suggest that women should remain "cheerful" and even decorative, even in the face of adversity. The book opens with this description of the aforementioned Sophie Whitcomb, who actually has the nickname "the Mouse"
she was so mousy...[d]un-colored hair and gray tweeds and no make-up whatsoever were bad enough (emphasis mine)..she tiptoed down corridors and spoke in a subdued voice that sounded half-frightened, and she was apologetic and effacing when she should have been vigorous and prominent
The book makes evident when it is appropriate to be vigorous and prominent (for instance to save the bookmobile) but it just as evident when a woman should keep her opinions to herself. Anne's dissatisfaction with her work assignment is obvious to those around her and she is given a dressing down by Matt when when he notices that she doesn't seem thrilled with her assignment, and suggests she go about it "with a high heart". Of course Anne must eat crow in the end, when it turns out he was absolutely right.

It is also evident that anyone can learn to do the job of a librarian (which after all is women's work), as Ada Howland, former actress, tells Anne
...when they started the Library...I just jumped at the chance of being in charge. Of course I didn't know a thing about books; but I was a great reader and was terribly fond of them, and no one else seemed to have the time, and the salary was so tiny...
This short passage hits two hot buttons for me: a myth that all it takes is a love of books to be a librarian (especially interesting in a book about a library school student); and a sad truth that the salaries remain small (after all it is women's work).

I think my favorite "library lesson" though was when young Anne learns that Carrie Newton, the flighty librarian at the Gansville station has an "unorthodox" system for identifying books that would never fly in her library school classes. "Systems have to be invented by somebody, and I might as well have my own" Newton tells the whippersnapper, wanna-be librarian. Anne not only comes to realize that the system does have a certain charm, but that there are some things can't be taught in the classroom. Those instructors sure can be anal retentive, can't they?

Beyond bookmobiles, some Latin American Countries have found other innovative ways to deliver books to off-the-beaten-path villages. Find out about the Biblioburro and the Bibliolancha.

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