Dear Friend of Colonus:
Popularly we accept that children’s books are illustrated, are expected to come with illustration, indeed, the illustration may not just carry the story, it may be the story. Growing up in Spokane during the ’50s, illustration meant the work of Paul Frame. I have to admit that as a boy, I could never penetrate the strange dialect Mark Twain employed to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But I would spend so many hours with the illustrated edition produced by the Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wisconsin, that I literally wore out the book turning the pages to look at Paul Frame’s illustrations of the story. The book’s spine began to unravel under the pressure of my examination.
I remember the terrible picture of Huck and his Pap who, bearded, lying in haggard filth upon the floor of their hut, his jug of whiskey before him, was pointing that accusatory finger against Huck. Huck, his head down, leaned back against a stool with hands in insouciant pockets. But the really cool thing about this scene was that when I turned a few pages, there were Huck and Jim away and alone in a cave. And when I turned a few more pages, there was the river, and they were free.
I remember standing in a bookstore in the airport in Minneapolis in the spring of 2005. I was on my way to the Cleveland Clinic for a radical prostatectomy, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer. I was contemplating the fact that I might not survive the surgery.
If there was one book that I could read before I died…well, perhaps, I thought, I am literally picking it now. I was thinking about my grade school—I liked the nuns. I didn’t have a Mary McCarthy childhood. The nuns were really pretty good to me. They all liked that story about St. Peter at the golden gate, had us visualize what we would say about our lives to entice him to open that gate, let us come in and be with Jesus and the angels and all the saints.
But the best stories are the ones that are modified just a little. The way one of the nuns told this story was that we all had a book that we carried with us which St. Peter would read—and this was the excruciating part—while we sat silent. I didn’t much care for this version. As a boy, I liked the version of the other nuns in which we could prepare that pretty complicated speech which I constantly rehearsed.
In any case, the nun who told the story which employed the book as a heuristic device used a puppy as the protagonist. Now, more than fifty years later, it is obvious why a book had to be part of the version of the story that involved the puppy—puppies after all cannot speak in their defense. But then with our six or seven year old minds we were rather easy marks for the suspension of disbelief. And this nun was a true raconteur, could take us through the pages of the puppy’s book better than any graphic novel of today.
She would turn the pages in our minds, and I mean, this was a really bad puppy. You cannot imagine the things that he had chewed up, the kittens with whom he had fought, the yarn with which he had interfered, his yappings perhaps soon to be infernal, his disobedience. These pages, she said, were all dark and ugly. They were black.
Gosh, this is terrible, I remember thinking. It sounds just like me. “Until,” she said, and these are pretty much her exact words, “St. Peter turned the last page. And this page was different. It was all golden. And do you know why that was?”
No, I don’t, I remember thinking, and I imagine all the rest of the kids were thinking the same thing because we were all so quiet, and even little Jim Canning, who knew everything all the time and didn’t mind telling you, so that even then it was obvious he would become a lawyer—well he didn’t know, either.
“Because he was sorry,” the nun said. “And then St. Peter opened the gate, and let the puppy into heaven.”
This story would leave me with a very simple feeling about God, and who She must be, and what it is that is required of us at the end of our lives. I developed the feeling that when we read a book, the soul of the author enters ours, that we carry all these souls of writers within us, and that when we stand before the gates of heaven, God Herself, not St. Peter, comes down to interview us. What She is looking for is the totality of our lives, and She judges this by the company we have kept, the writers whom we have chosen to read, those souls who have entered ours.
In the Minneapolis airport, I chose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I was fifty-seven, and still I had never read it. I would finish the book before my surgery, because if I died, it was the book I wanted on my lips when I met God. It was my way of telling Her that I was sorry.
It is only obvious to me now as I write these words, that my choice was more than a nostalgia; it was a tending toward Ithaca. Paul Frame died on November 11, 1994. He was eighty years old. I never met him, but fifty years after I viewed his drawings, ten years after he had died, his drawings for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn exerted such a tidal pull that my choice for that last book was inevitable. It was a going home.
Truman Capote said once that you know when a story has been told right when you can’t imagine its being told in any other way. I would say the same thing about the illustrations in a book. When you view The Night Country by Loren Eiseley as illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher, I don’t believe you can imagine Eiseley’s work in any other manner, in a way separate from Fisher’s drawing.
And so when I was contemplating illustrating Angie Sarich’s Leaving Parma, I was looking for, first of all, an artist, someone who would internalize her book, and then interpret it, someone who could give the reader, not divertissement or distraction, but a personal vision. As Fisher was committed to Eiseley’s words, I wanted an artist committed to Sarich’s words.
Of course words are important to a writer; they are the proverbial stock and trade. But in Angie Sarich’s writing, there is a kind of vocabulary of grief which she uses to attempt to make sense out of the losses that we suffer throughout our lives. We are left with a kind of feeling that the words themselves provide a sort of dictionary of solace for all those plague years we ourselves must endure. I found in Valen an artist who could make in his drawings this kind of connection with the author’s words.
He proposed a series of drawings governed by the concept that Angie was using words to recreate past experience. “Simple enough,” he said, but I was intrigued by the notion. As the editor, I picked the scenes from the book to be illustrated, and the words. I placed only two restrictions on the artist’s creativity. First, he could not change the words. They had to remain the literal words of the writer. Secondly, he actually had to draw the illustrations.
For me, not as the editor, but as the reader, the fusion of the art and the writing in Leaving Parma leaves me with the same feeling that I had when I was looking at Paul Frame’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and reading Leonard Everett Fisher’s The Night Country. As a reader and an editor, I believe that great illustration remains always inseparable from a great book.
Thank you for reading,
Editor, Colonus Publishing, Inc.