Earlier this week, I was listening to Michael Ian Black’s podcast, How To Be Amazing. His guest was Pamela Paul, who is the editor of the New York Times Book Review. I was stunned to find out that she’d just written a memoir called My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. What is this memoir about? The books she’s read through the years and what she was doing at the time she read them? I was like, “What? You can write a memoir about the books you love, as long as you include in a snippet about what you were doing while you were reading these books in another book and call it a memoir?”
I was flabbergasted. Unlike Ms. Paul, though, I have not kept a diary of what I was doing at the time I read every book I ever laid my hands on, so I don’t think I’ll be able to write a memoir about the books I love. Instead, I’ll blog about the first book I remember reading that ripped my guts out. This book was Toby Tyler, Or Ten Weeks with a Circus, written by James Otis.
As many of you know, I was born and raised in a violent religious cult in a small town in East Texas. Because my toady of a father, who was also a brute, worked for the cult as a teacher at both its unaccredited first-through-twelfth grades Imperial School and its equally unaccredited Ambassador College, he didn’t bring in a lot of money. While the cult’s leader made sure he and his cronies partook of all the money they could wheedle out of their deluded followers, lower-echelon workers like my father didn’t always get paid. Because my angry, vengeful mother stayed home, as all mothers were instructed to do as they must not offend God, she brought in no money, either. She spent her forced mommy time taking out her anger at being locked up in crappy rent homes on me and my younger brother.
Because there was seldom enough money to buy food and keep the lights on, Dad took to gardening and Mom would can whatever vegetables he grew. Any books in the house were either textbooks Dad brought home from Imperial or Ambassador, or they were hand-me-down books other cult parents had given to our family after their kids were no longer interested in them.
This is how I got my hands on Toby Tyler, which tells the story of a ten-year-old orphan who runs away from a horrid foster home to join a traveling circus. Toby thought the circus would be magical and was willing to work hard in the circus so that he could have a home away from the one he considered hell.
I hated circuses. After my father bought a small black-and-white TV when I was almost six, I remember turning my head away whenever a movie or show included a circus scene. Once, a small-time circus came to a nearby town and when my parents decided to go, they were more than a little peeved that they’d spent money on a ticket for a daughter who either closed her eyes or looked away from the circus, so as not to see the horror that everyone else found so enchanting.
Therefore, when I read the synopsis on the back cover of Toby Tyler, I wasn’t sure I’d like the book. But, living in a world of violence, I was down with Toby’s deep desire to run away. I would lie in bed at night and dream about being magically whisked away from my prison in a cult in a tiny, hot, humid, regressive town in Texas. And let’s face it, beggars can’t be choosy about the books they read, especially when they’re young girls being beaten on a daily basis, with a few extra whoopings thrown in because her father believed the cult leader when he preached that women would always lead men astray, unless they were kept close at hand by either their fathers or their husbands. After all, we had vaginas. More dangerous than the atomic bomb. So, I decided to read Toby Tyler.
At first, everything at the circus seemed fine to Toby. He earned money selling popcorn and lemonade and becomes best friends with a chimpanzee named Mr. Stubbs. But soon, Toby learns that his new employer, the man who runs the circus, is a cruel tyrant and Toby finds himself the victim of innumerable beatings. Again, I could relate as not only did my parents beat me daily, especially Dad, but when I got to Imperial School, I got beatings constantly through the first three years of school. In the fourth grade, I managed to get hit only once and after a nice fifth-grade teacher not only didn’t hit me, but was nice to me, I thought things had changed.
But I soon found out that my too-short-of-a-fifth-grade year was an aberration when I reached sixth grade and found myself the target of an angry misogynist who said that I needed to be “brought down a peg or two because I was too smart for a girl.”
Just like Toby, I had been lulled into thinking things had gotten better. I had even had a few laughs in fifth grade, just like Toby did with some of the people in the circus. Toby even got to be a hero when he rescued some of the circus animals after they accidentally get loose. All the stray kitties I had brought home found their death at the hands of my father.
Toby finally realizes that he needs to run away from the circus just as he ran to the circus for escape. I knew that feeling, as well, but was also wise enough to know that as a young girl, I had nowhere to run. So I calmed myself by hiding in the pages of book, just as I was doing while reading Toby Tyler. Somehow I’d imagined a happy ending. So, I was stunned when the story tells of the owner of the circus trying to shoot Toby while he was running away with his beloved Mr. Stubbs. However, it was not Toby that found himself dead. It was Mr. Stubbs, Toby’s best friend.
To this day, decades later, I can remember bursting into tears and sobbing. I kept re-reading the part where Mr. Stubbs died, hoping I’d misread what had happened, but I hadn’t. I was so upset, I couldn’t finish the book (I would finish it later). At that time, all I could do was just lie on my bed, all curled up, crying and crying, not sure if I was crying more for Toby and Mr. Stubbs or myself.
Other books have made me cry since that first Mr. Stubbs sob out, but I’ll talk about them in future blogs. In fact, I’ll talk about a lot of books in my blogs. I hope you join me.
Do you remember the first book that made you cry?