Going to someone else’s family cottage in Ontario is like a trip in a time machine. I always see things from my own long-lost family cottage: rust-coloured coffee mugs and hideous floral plates, CorningWare, Reader’s Digest Condensed books in maroon leather-look covers, and the 1942 Simon & Shuster edition of War and Peace. I’ve seen that faded red cover next to so many cans of Off that I’ve come to think of it as the Cottage Edition.
From the time I graduated from Trixie Beldon mysteries until I went to university, I would finish my stack of library books at our cottage (“camp,” we call it there) and then turn to my favourite condensed books:
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. This novel gave me nightmares for years: rambling houses high up in the hills, with a sinister yellow light in the tower window, would send out an inexorable, implacable evil that always found me. It was what Jackson didn’t tell us that frightened me most (I was particularly creeped out by Hugh Crane’s decision to make every angle in the house just slightly off). I also loved Jackson’s sparse style. The opening paragraph still haunts me: “and whatever walked there, walked alone.” Words learned: ectoplasm, yardarm, katydids.
An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden. I loved the fiercely determined Lovejoy Mason, abandoned by her glamorous mother, living with a struggling chef and his worried wife in post-war London. Godden’s novel has such strong characters and vivid details that I can still see Lovejoy asleep on the stairs (while her mother entertains a gentleman caller in the bedroom), and the crimson plate the chef served strawberries on, and the flowers that Lovejoy made grow in her Italian garden in the ruins. Words learned: coloratura, alyssum, Angelica Kauffman.
Onions in the Stew by Betty MacDonald. I read this book so often that lines of it are still permanently burned into my mind. I loved it because it was funny, but also because I too wanted to live on a rain-soaked island in Puget Sound and burn creosote logs on the beach and take the ferry home. Words learned: geoduck, seawall, Monte Cristo sandwiches.
The first two novels sit (in uncondensed form) on my shelf. On the last weekend of summer, I am tempted by them again.I never did read War and Peace.