Recently, an elementary school student was taking out a book in one of the school libraries where I work.

“I’ve read this one before,” he said, reflectively. “But it was a while back. I don’t really remember it.”

“I had a few books that I read over and over again when I was your age,” I said. “Like ‘Harriet the Spy.’”

“And Harry Potter?”

I smiled, touched. “Well, Harry Potter wasn’t around when I was a kid, but I bet I would have read those books again if they had been.”

I can’t say for sure why this student wanted to reread his book. But I remember well why I regularly returned to Louise Fitzhugh’s story of a precocious wannabe writer. I wanted to live in Harriet Welsch’s world.

She lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but it wasn’t the locale that particularly interested me (although I did think living in a brownstone would be cool). It was the fact that Harriet had a spy route. She kept notes on several different people, observing them on a regular basis. Harriet also kept notes on her friends and classmates, which eventually got her in trouble.

My family lived on the edge of a small town. The people behind us grew pumpkins for market. Beyond the next street was an expansive salt marsh. The town reservoir was across the street, with a Girl Scout camp down the road.

I had few spying opportunities. All I could do was keep a journal of sorts and revisit Harriet.

What was I looking for? I loved books and writing, and so I related to a peer who was pursuing the dream. But I also felt transported to a place of busy, noisy streets, populated by strange and quirky characters. Many young people find refuge from the travails of childhood in fantasy, where characters use magic or their superpowers to solve problems. It’s interesting to me, as an adult, that I turned to realistic fiction instead.

I would have preferred to live closer to my elementary school, which was located about a mile away in the oldest part of town: “the village.” There, the 18th and 19th century houses were closer together, the streets narrower, than in my neighborhood. The students who lived in the village could go home for lunch and walk to school. It was far from the Upper East Side, but it definitely had spy-route potential.

Since one of my mantras is “so many books, so little time,” I seldom reread books nowadays. I pick up “Walden” every few years. Thoreau cuts to the core of what’s important in life, and I need the reminder. I’ve revisited “1984” twice since Donald J. Trump was elected. And recently, after watching the first two seasons of the television adaptation, I began another journey through “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Why do I turn to dystopia to deal with my dismay over current events in this country? Shouldn’t I want to spend more time by that pond in Concord? I compare it to the need to stick your tongue in the place where a tooth used to be. It hurts, but it’s bizarrely comforting.

The tooth is gone; in both “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” freedom is gone. From Orwell, I take away the horror of a fictional world where truth is malleable. Or, should I say, even more flexible than some are trying to make it now, in the real world. Last week, when Republicans on the House Oversight Committee, one after another, called witness Michael Cohen a liar, I just shook my head. They thought that, if they kept repeating themselves, the epithet would have to stick. But I think many Americans are tiring of such efforts, and the politicians just ended up looking foolish. Which is better than dangerous, anyway.

Margaret Atwood’s novel is all about reproductive rights, and thus more timely than ever. Dystopian literature, by definition, takes future possibilities beyond the pale. Still, the foundations of Gilead — the country that has essentially replaced the U.S. in “The Handmaid’s Tale” — are out there, in a quiet movement among women who believe it’s their duty to bear numerous children, stay home to take care of them and defer to their husbands. Considering our current hateful climate, is a society that calls gays “gender traitors” so hard to imagine?

As I write this, it occurs to me that it may be time to return to Harriet for a while. She inspired me to watch and listen and to use what I learned to try to make sense of the world. Harriet was fearless and attentive. These are all qualities I should reinforce right now.

And then, come spring, I think I’ll return to the pond in Concord, to remember this: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

 

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].

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