Saturday, January 05, 2013

broken hearts and lost love

My daughter's heart got broken yesterday.

I've been watching the past several weeks as she has fallen in love, and it really has been a sight to see. It started out as a mild curiosity that I unwittingly encouraged. I've known the object of her affection longer than she has, and when I've spoken of it, I have spoken only with the utmost regard and respect. That was enough. Her curiosity got the better of her before long, and she decided to check things out.

It was love at first sight.

Rachel is only 10, maybe a little young for a book the size and depth of "Les Misérables," but I've learned to trust my children's judgment on what they're capable of. Every morning for the past month, I have watched as she walks into school, the book tucked under one arm.

The sight of Rachel lugging an unabridged hardback copy of "Les Misérables" around the school quickly became iconic. Staff who never had her for a class asked me what book she was reading that was bigger than she was. They were amazed to hear not only that she would tackle a book so epic but also that she understood it.

And understand it she did. As she read, Rachel got caught up in the story. She groaned with good humor when she read Victor Hugo's 52-page essay on the Battle of Waterloo that is as fascinating as it is irrelevant to the story. (Just wait until you get to the chapter on the sewers, I told her.) She grieved for Fantine, hated the impassioned coldness of Javert, loathed the Thenardiers, and loved that brisk autumn evening when Valjean came to rescue Cosette.

Her experience with "Les Misérables" came to a cruel and premature end on Friday. When I arrived at the school to pick her up, I found Rachel distraught and almost in tears. "Les Misérables" was gone. She had left the book in its accustomed place during the school day, and now it was gone. She and the teacher had checked around the classroom and around the school, but they couldn't find it anywhere.

At first I thought she was upset because she had lost a book of mine, and I tried to console her. "It's all right," I told her, and I meant it. "I bought it 20 years ago at a used bookstore for seven bucks. It's not like it's your great-grandfather's second-edition copy of 'Moby Dick.' If it doesn't show up, we can find a new one."

Later, I realized how badly I had misread the situation. To me, "Les Misérables" was a book, a phenomenal book even; but to Rachel, reading it was a nearly religious experience. We could find another copy of the book, even the same edition, but it wouldn't be the same.

This wasn't just a book that Rachel had fallen in love with; it was a book that she had fallen into. The dust jacket was battered and worn, its edges frayed from being carted around every day for a month. For weeks she had taken every moment she could spare, and she had spent them all on reading that book. She had discovered the humanity of every character she had encountered, and established a connection with each one. Like the Velveteen rabbit, this book had become real.

And then it had disappeared. It was brutal. I had bought the book, but on Friday afternoon I realized that it wasn't mine anymore. Rachel had established a claim on the book and loved it right from under me. It's her book, through and through.

There is another possibility, though I prefer not to think about it. It's possible that one of the other students took it, out of spite. Every school has bullies, and Rachel has had problems with a few classmates over the past year.

But everyone in that school knows how much Ruth has been enjoying that book, and the thought that someone could be so deliberately cruel to another child is one I hate.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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