While cleaning up one Saturday, I rediscover an old book that’s been sitting on the family shelves since forever.
A Child’s Life of Christ has never interested me, but I stop to examine it this time because its obviously been well read by someone. I always thought it belonged to my mother, but discover it’s older than that. Inside is a dedication page dated 1904 and it is made out to the three young Gillespie boys — Harold, Ray and Percy. It’s a Christmas gift from their mother — the boys would have been nine, seven and five years old — the family would have been settled in Durban for only four years. They must have been doing well to afford such a thick, handsome book.
The cover is heavily embossed and soberly religious, but as I leaf through the stories, I begin to see the appeal of this book for little boys. The engravings inside are rich with exotic plants — palm trees grow next to cactus and oleanders in full bloom. Desert landscapes, walled cities and vaulted temples provide backdrops for camel trains, merchants and dusty mobs. Ancient kings pose with chins on their fists, Israelites crowd together, robes and keffiyeh billowing in the desert winds. This isn’t a book full of bible stories, it’s an adventure book (although the author dutifully delivers morals and counsels his young readers against certain thoughts and deeds). I read a couple of pages then a few of the chapters.
The Plot: There is this youth who grows up thinking he is just an ordinary boy, but he discovers one day from an eccentric wise man that he is not ordinary at all — he is the Chosen One. He meets other young men, they band together. Some evil people are trying to kill him, other people tell him he is their hope. He performs miracles but has dark days too …
Hmmm, sounds very similar to a book I read to my children when they were young.
The Child’s Life of Christ was probably well-read for a number of reasons: it was a gift, it was a form of religious teaching for the children, it would have been a wonderful source of stories during long winters, and they likely did not own many books. And that got me wondering — how many books would a homesteading family like the Gillespie’s have owned? What other kinds of books might Harold have read as he grew up?
Ten years after the Christmas present was given, a rural survey was carried out by the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. In it they thoroughly documented the agricultural, educational, religious and social lives of the people in the valley — including the reading habits of the locals. Of the families surveyed, the average number of books owned was only ten to twelve. The survey noted that many farmers were not book-lovers (but read newspapers and rural interest journals). It was also mentioned that books owned by families were shared with others. Lending libraries were set up in a couple of communities but not in Durban. So even in 1914, with local communities far more established than in 1904, books and stories were not so plentiful.
Books and the stories in them are what we build our dreams on as children. They are how we take our first steps out into the wider world; they challenge us to live like the heroes within and to stand up to villains wherever they may be. I know they have an enormous impact over our thinking and who we aspire to be.
I’m searching for Harold’s influences — where he grew up, the conditions in which he grew up, what shaped him to bring him to his decisions and his fate. Could this book have been a factor?