Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How It All Began

I just finished reading How It All Began by Penelope Lively, an adult work of fiction that examines how one person's misfortune can snowball and affect others who are only tangentially connected. The novel begins with elderly Charlotte Rainsford knocked down by a mugger. From this incident, the lives of seven people, some complete strangers, are dramatically altered. It's a engrossing book, and wonderfully crafted by its British author, who also writes for children. Her The Ghost of Thomas Kempe won the Carnegie Medal in 1973.

One of the storylines has Charlotte, now recuperating at her daughter's house, teaching an immigrant from Eastern Europe how to read so he can get a better job. A retired English teacher, at first Charlotte has little success. When she learns of Anton's love of story and that he enjoyed reading novels in his native language, she throws away the clunky school texts meant for adult learners, and places Where the Wild Things Are in his hands. Although he struggles through the picture book, he's delighted by it. As the lessons progress, Charlotte feeds him How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen (new to me! It's by the great Russell Hoban.), Charlotte's Web, and The Finn Family Moomintroll.

As Anton plows through each book, pushed forward to find out what happens next, he has the following insight, so well-expressed I want to share it in its entirety:

"This increasing facility, this breakthrough, reminded him of childhood, of that extraordinary realization that all those black marks on the page could speak, that they were words, language, that they related to what came out of people's mouths, out of his own mouth. This time round, the black marks of another language began at last to make sense, to leap from obscurity, to tell a story. It was though you broke into a new world, were handed a passport to another country."

Wonderful stuff, and a wonderful book.  


  1. I keep a list of quotes about books and reading for future use at the head of my Saturday Review of Books each week. So I "borrowed" this one to add to my list. Reading really is like that: an opener of doors.

  2. Thanks for this! Just placed it on hold and am looking forward to reading it.

  3. I love the quote about reading, and the premise of the whole book, how one life can affect another, sounds like something I'd like to read.