Jennie Shortridge was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and now lives in Seattle. She has three published novels: Riding with the Queen, Eating Heaven and Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe. Her fourth novel, When She Flew, will be released later this year. In this post Jennie remembers some favourite reading from her younger days.
Jennie Shortridge on some childhood favourites
Somehow, when the publishing gods smile down upon you and say 'yes' to a book you have written, the hordes - 'horde' being relative to sales figures, of course - descend upon you and want to know: 'What is your favourite book?' As though we somehow acquire taste with a small advance and inscrutable multi-page contract.
(This is not to suggest that the venerable Norm Geras [Steady on - Ed.] asks this question. He does not. He is absolutely a man of taste and provides writers with a forum for talking about books. Which I will do. Soon. I promise.)
Such questions elicit panic on my part. Will I choose something smart and worthy of a capital-A Author? I usually revert to my favourite books from late childhood/early adulthood, those that formed my decidedly liberal worldview and remain in my consciousness many decades after reading.
Being a western American, I almost always seize upon The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a fine answer, and indeed I loved it as a kid. Read today, of course, the new improved PC-me would be horrified by its racist language, but in the late 1960s the word 'nigger' wasn't yet the most taboo word in the English language. In fact, it rolled off the tongue of far too many of my relatives in Maryland, where I grew up. 'Eenie meenie minie moe, catch a...' Well, I learned eventually to use the word 'tiger' there as I became a sentient being and realized the ugliness a word can suggest, the power it has to demean and negate. As a ten-year-old, though, I loved Mark Twain and saw only the beauty of Huck and Jim's friendship in the story, the drama of their plight, and the wowie-factor of a kid travelling the country alone. I was inspired to be adventurous.
Another favourite was a dusty old hardcover found by my mother at a garage sale, entitled Maida's Little Shop, written by Inez Haynes Irwin in 1909. I loved Maida, the plucky little girl who couldn't walk but could run her own candy store, and all of her friends who gathered there. As with Huck, I'd now be mortified by the frequent use of the word 'cripple', and by the fact that her disability precluded her from an education, but my takeaway was simply the courage and tenacity of this girl. From that day forward, I wanted to have an enterprise all my own and to have her kind of independence.
My contemporary favourite was Berries Goodman, by Newberry Award–winning author Emily Cheney Neville. Though set in modern times, the story was as unfamiliar to me as both Huck's and Maida's had been: a boy who grows up in a New York City neighbourhood is suddenly transferred to the strange world of the suburbs. Being a solidly suburban kid myself, I found it eye-opening to see my world through the gaze of a wise and wisecracking urban boy, and to learn about the inherent discrimination I was living amidst. Indeed, a cross was once burned on our neighbour's lawn, the words 'nigger lover' scratched upon it. I heard only whispers about what it all might mean. The book was timely and I felt far more grown-up and world-weary after finishing it, and determined to be a force for good in the world.
Young adulthood, the Civil Rights movement, and my burgeoning feminism brought me to the female authors of that generation: Alice Walker offering a window into the black experience, Rita Mae Brown writing humanistic tales of lesbianism (before she went all 'kitty-mystery' on us), a young Barbara Kingsolver exploring the social mores of the American Southwest. I gobbled up all of their books and went further: Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Julia Alvarez. I was so white and so heterosexual and so ordinary but, by god, I was ready to fight for any cause, any time.
Now that I write novels, I find these voices filtering through, even though I write what may seem, on the surface, to be simple stories of contemporary characters dealing with contemporary problems and issues - not those of the 1960s or racism or sexism. But hang on; aren't we still dealing with all of our old issues, just as we deal with our personal demons from cradle to grave? Does a black American president negate the experience of today's young black men and Muslim citizens, who are still profiled, still vilified, still jailed unfairly? How have we allowed a significant percentage of our citizenry to be denied the right to marriage? Don't we still need voices - those of the past and present - to inspire people to strive for independence of thought, for justice and equality of all people?
Because categorization is king in the publishing world, and because my protagonists are female and my stories about interactions between people, my books are often labelled 'women's fiction', a term that, sadly, sounds pejorative, even to a feminist's ear. But my readers, those small hordes of women and - yes - men who ask what my favourite books are, seem to crave those voices in stories. I do what I can to give voice to Huck and Jim, to Maida and Berries and Scout and Atticus and Celie and Shug and las Mariposas. I hope my ten-year-old self would be proud.