Today I’ve been reading an autobiography that reads like a novel and a novel that is a fictionalised biography.
The autobiography is William Woodruff’s The Road to Nab End. I’m loving this book and am amazed at the detail he could remember about his childhood. I was very interested in his family background. In 1906 his parents had emigrated from Blackburn to Fall River in Massachusetts, where his father worked in a cotton mill. Although he was doing well they returned to England in 1914. His father then joined up and went off to war, leaving his wife with three children to care for; when her savings ran out she was forced to work in the mills.
William was born in 1916. After the end of the war life was very different. His father came home disillusioned, a sick man, having been gassed at Ypres late in 1917, back to his job in the cotton mills. This book covers the period up to 1933, the poverty of Blackburn’s cotton workers, the local characters and their way of life. This morning I was reading about the General Strike of 1926 and was wondering how it affected my parents who were 12 at the time. William’s experience in Blackburn could have been similar to my father’s who lived about 30 miles south in Cheshire. Jumping forward in time William eventually moved to Florida, where he was a Graduate Research Professor until his retirement in 1996 – at the age of 80! He died last September in Florida. He continued his life story in Beyond Nab End.
I do like variety in my reading and this morning I also briefly picked up Blonde by Joyce Carole Oates. I only read The Prologue and the first chapter, The Kiss, of this fictionalised life of Marilyn Monroe. Oates’s portrait imagines Marilyn’s inner life and begins with a portrayal of Death, hurtling unexpectedly to 12305 Fifth Helena Drive, Brentwood, California on 3 August 1962. I was reminded of the character of Death in The Good Thief. This book is going to take me a while to read as it’s another mammoth novel of 738 pages. I might alternate my reading with Barbara Leaming’s biography, Marilyn Monroe to see how they compare.
No sooner do I think I have plenty of books to read and that I’ll concentrate on reading the books I already own than I go out looking for more. Nan over at Letters From a Hill Farm has far more resolve – she has decided not to buy any more books for a whole year and also not to borrow books either. Well I thought that was a good idea and maybe I should take it one month at a time and not buy any books, although I knew I would borrow books from the library. That thought soon deserted me; but at least I can comfort myself because I’d already identified the book I’ve now bought as one I’d planned to read this year.
It’s Eden’s Outcasts: the story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson and now of course I want to start reading it at once. The little I know of Louisa May is that she wrote some of my favourite childhood books – Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. I know even less about Bronson, her father, beyond the fact that he was a close friend of Emerson and Thoreau.
The only things that are holding me back from jumping straight into this book is that I’m already reading a few books – The Language of God: a Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis Collins, a book I started to read last year and stopped because I was finding it hard to follow. Collins is the head of the Human Genome Project and has “an unshakable faith in God”, but when he came to describing the Project, DNA and genomes he lost me. I do want to finish this book though and have started it again this year. In complete contrast I’m also reading The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris about the irrationality of all religious faiths.
But the book that has really grabbed my attention is The Road to Nab End: an Extraordinary Northern Childhood by William Woodruff. My friend, Margaret lent me this book saying that it’s a wonderful book and she is right. In some ways it reminds me of Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee, but this is about a Lancashire childhood, a life of poverty in Blackburn. I know it’s a clichÃ© but I really am finding hard to put this book down. It’s beautifully written, rich in description of both people and places and of the period. Woodruffe, an historian, was born in 1916 and lived in Blackburn until 1933.
So why when I went to the library yesterday did I pick up three more books? I returned a couple of books and then browsed the shelves to see if anything caught my eye. Of course there were many, but I restricted myself to three – An Imaginative Experience by Mary Wesley, even though her biography Wild Mary didn’t make me want to rush out and read her books this one was just sitting there as though it was waiting for me. The other two are Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by P G Wodehouse because I enjoyed Something Fresh and fancied a bit of humour and The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side by Agatha Christie, a great title taken from Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, and promising to be a satisfying murder mystery solved by Miss Marple.