BOOKS – AND WALKS — THAT MADE ME A WRITER – by Hesh Kestin
From the time I could walk I accompanied my father on his visits to the Brooklyn Public Library branch a mile from our home. The old man loved libraries, had worked in one at the University of Warsaw during his bohemian days when, in the months before the Nazis onslaught –he escaped on the last ship out of the free port of Danzig—he wrote poetry and tried to get on at one of the Polish capital’s Yiddish papers. Though he was fluent in half a dozen languages, literary English was not one of them. Our Saturday morning jaunts to this particular library branch –another was closer— were no escape from my father’s linguistic ghetto. The branch at Glenmore and Watkins held one of the largest collections of Yiddish books in the city, possibly the country.
My father was limited to withdrawing six books at a time –as a child I could take out four more. Thus in taking me along the old man could have ten books to read during the week. A child follows parental cues. It did not take me long to cut him back to six.
An early reader, I skipped picture books entirely and moved immediately to juvenile fiction. Early on there was Freddy the Pig, a sophisticated series of 25 novels by the urbane Walter R. Brooks and delightfully illustrated by Kurt Wiese. This was followed by Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price /Centerburg series of ten books, and that by an entire herd of 20 Black Stallion novels by Walter Farley, a lesser writer but one who understood boys, and then by the wonderful Don Camillo books of Giovanni Guareschi, in which an Italian priest and the town’s Communist mayor duke it out in a kind of good-natured version of the same ideological nightmare that only a decade earlier had managed to destroy much of Europe, in the process sending my father to America. Three of the Guareschi titles were available in English when I was a child (another two would be published later). Though the Don Camillo stories were written for adults, their charming simplicity was such that I devoured them in fourth grade.
Now, as a young boy in the countryside of north Poland my father had ridden horses, but beyond the odd dray that still survived in the city streets I had seen equines only in the westerns that were often shown at the Loew’s Premiere Theater across the street from our cramped apartment. As to pigs, never mind talking porkers with a sense of irony that made George Burns seem lame, this was not a subject that came up in conversation in a traditional Jewish home: bacon never appeared on our table. To us the/ cuchifritos/ on display at the local Puerto Rican shops –ears, snouts and trotters– could just as well have been shrunken heads. Regarding Homer Price, it was true he was a boy my age, but he lived in a bucolic Ohio hamlet that was as culturally detached from the Brownsville-East New York section of Brooklyn as I was from the original Homer: the boys I ran with were Jews, blacks, Puerto Ricans, Italians and Ukrainians –a microcosm of the neighborhood itself, not Centerburg but Minorityville. Concerning Don Camillo, sure I had Italian friends, and my father had flirted with communism as a youth in Europe. But that was it.
Perhaps this very unfamiliarity was why the old man interrogated me every week on what I was reading. He was as curious about other people’s lives as I was. On our walks to and from the library he revealed an intense curiosity about Freddy the Pig, Homer Price, the Black Stallion, and Don Camillio. Over time he slowly shifted the conversation not to what –but how. How were the characters presented, how much tension was there in the telling, what had the author done that was unique? How would I have told the story?
The question of authorship raised a question I had not considered: Were these stories and the characters in them actually created by a single human being? To make sure I understood, my father made it a point to ask me who had written this book or that. One day he suggested that whenever I cited a title I should always add “by….”
By the time I was nine we were deep into literary criticism, a cross-generational, cross-cultural approach that can best be understood by my father’s throwaway remark that “In literature a horse is never merely a horse.” By then I had managed to convince the librarians that I “needed” more than four books a week, and so back and forth we marched, every Saturday, in sun, rain and snow, each of us carrying our six-book limit, both of us arguing structure, character and nuance as though the noisy urban streets around us were not only silent but hardly seemed to exist. What had started with a talking pig, an Italian priest, a mid-western boy and a wild black horse would eventually make me what I was to become.