June 18, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Elizabeth Garber
It was the first day of summer vacation, about 1960, the end of third grade. I sat in the small rocking chair next to a bookcase in the dining room in our old Victorian house. I saw a faded blue bound book with a title that tempted me. I Capture the Castle. The house was quiet. My brothers were napping. I must have begged off my nap, which was rare because my mother always told me “You, of all people, need so much sleep or you are not good for anything.” I usually read through naps, perfecting my face to look asleep if my mother passed by, ready to slip my book out from under the covers. But that day the house was quiet and it was mine. I remember the light coming in the windows and stretching across the floor where my brothers’ wooden blocks spread over the floor.
I pulled the book from the shelf of grown-up books, and opened to a drawing of a kitchen in an old castle. I knew the book was too old for me, but I wanted to read it so much. It was about a girl writing in a journal. She started: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it: the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I was padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cozy.”
I loved English words like tea-cozy. The narrator was a writer, and I’d begun my first journal. She was sitting in such an unusual way, like someone I’d be a friend with. But at that moment a spindly spider crawled out of the arched space between the sewn binding and the cloth spine and headed down the page. His fine legs like cactus spines tiptoed over the words I wanted to read. I slammed the book shut and threw it down on the floor. My heart pounded. I quickly picked up the book with my fingertips; afraid the spider would pull himself out between the pages and crawl on my hand. I shoved the book back on the shelf, my happiness slammed in with the spider.
I glanced sadly at the book for years, remembering the spider. Even when we moved years later to a modern glass house, the book stayed out of reach.
When I was sixteen, on a quiet afternoon when I was desperate for a book, I glanced at the book shelves, and remembered. I took the fade blue book and opened carefully. The husk of the spider slid off the page. I sat down and as I began to read, the book became mine, written by a girl who wrote in journals. It was perfect. She was me.
I couldn’t bear to let the book leave my bedside table. I’d turn on my side before falling asleep and glance at that book. As if the secret of me was inside. I didn’t believe anyone knew me well enough that I could trust them read the book. It would reveal too much about who I really was.
A year later, I knew I’d truly fallen in love with my first boyfriend when I realized I had to lend him the book. But it was such a risk. Would he understand?
Elizabeth says I have to read a book she loves. She holds the faded book to her chest before placing it in my hands. She’s excited and nervous. I don’t really get how a book written in the 1930’s or something in England could be too revealing for her to share. I smile and reassure her. But I hope I’ll like the book.
Kids at school think we’re kind of weird cause we’re so into books, but that’s part of why I fell in love with her. In English class, we competed over Drieser’s American Tragedy in English class. We’d meet at our lockers to compare pages read. One day she crowed, “I got to page 580!”
I grinned, “Sorry kiddo, I’m at 614.”
So I read I Capture the Castle. In the first paragraph there’s this girl writing in her journal. Her name’s Cassandra. I get right from the start why so many things are perfect for Elizabeth: a long elegant name with no nickname, the narrator is quirky and funny yet insecure about whether her poetry’s any good, and she’s absolutely determined to write everything in her journal. Elizabeth says she finally found someone really like her even though Cassandra’s going on about tea time, and dying dresses with green dye, and exploring the castle. The voice starts to become Elizabeth’s voice, as if I can imagine her writing it.
After a while, the novel becomes a kind of comedy of errors, mistaken identities and hiding under bear skins, all quite light, but through it all the narrator is determined to do the right thing. She works so hard to keep the family together and to understand everyone, and to bring out the best in their crazy father, always hoping that he’ll get better. In contrast to Elizabeth’s dad who keeps getting worse and angrier. The book is a comedy, and the book’s dad actually comes through in the end.
Is this what Elizabeth is hoping, that her dad will get better, and is this really why this is her favorite book, even though she thinks it’s because the heroine writes in a journal?
When I hand back the book, her eyes are so vulnerable. I say, “Yes, the book is perfect. You are Cassandra.” And she cries.
Elizabeth W. Garber is the author of Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter (2018), and four books of poetry. Three poems have been read on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Low Residency Program. She was awarded writing fellowships at Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Jentel Artist Residency Program in Wyoming. She is currently pitching her new memoir, Not As Lost As I Thought: The True Story of a Girl at Sea, about when she was eighteen, attended a hippie high school on a derelict square rigger and encountered pirates, avoided a near sinking, was held hostage in Panama, and broke free from tyranny at home. More at: www.elizabethgarber.com.