A couple of days after Thanksgiving, just minutes before I left to take the visiting half of my family back to the airport, my brother Nate pulled me aside. “Can I borrow Peace Like A River?” he begged. He needn’t have begged, because he knew I would instantly grin and agree. The mention of that book provokes a smile and glance between us that feels like the sharing of a happy secret. The story itself is plain enough; rather, it’s the memory of how we encountered it together that makes such a knowing between us.
One summer, when Nate and I were both home on break for a month of warm, mountain days, we decided to read a book aloud together. Our mornings were free and what better way could the first minutes of the summer days be spent than in rocking chairs on the front porch, coffee in hand, with a story to share? The tale we chose was Peace Like A River, the strange and wondrous account of a father’s remarkable journey in search of his absent, eldest son. The story is narrated by the asthmatic younger son, Reuben, whose boon companion in the family adventures is his younger sister Swede, whose talent as a cowboy poet makes for some of the best passages in the book.
The hours Nate and I spent experiencing that tale together created a space of imaginative fellowship that we will prize for the rest of our lives. Voicing the vivid characters, marveling at the word craft of the author, laughing at the fierce loves and wild creativity of Swede set us in a unique camaraderie of experience. We took a sort of road trip through a land of imagination, and the reactions we observed in each other, the beauty we encountered and the memories we made shaped our friendship, especially as siblings, in a life-long sort of way. So when Nate asked to borrow the book, I knew he wanted to share, not just the story, but the world, the truth, the joy we had discovered together. I scrambled to find my copy before we had to leave.
As I drove home from the airport later that day, I pondered the special power, the heightened delight of stories when they are shared. In the same way that a week’s visit at a friend’s home brings you closer than any number of coffee dates or bump-ins at church, the sharing of a story accelerates the comradeship of souls. When people inhabit a realm of imagination together, it is inevitable that a bit of their own imagination and spirit are revealed to the others who sojourn with them in that marvelous place. I think I am especially aware of this because of the way that stories have helped me to be close to my siblings, shaping our history, our memories, even the language we use to talk about life to this day.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a particular favorite. It’s not uncommon in my house to hear someone refer to Frodo, the elves, or Gandalf as part of a deep spiritual observation or to make a solid point. Middle Earth is talked about almost as if it were a real place. We think about ourselves and our lives in terms of “fellowship” and “quest,” and talk about making a Rivendell of our own. But other stories shaped us too; we talk about loving Aslan and God being “not a tame lion,” and the minute anyone brings up the subject of grace, the name of Jean Valjean is sure to follow (from Les Miserables , another family favorite.) The stories we shared provide our metaphors for living courageously and well.
When I think back over my childhood, I realize that many of my favorite memories come from the sharing of stories. My Dad reading Patricia St. John’s Treasures in the Snow aloud, we four kids piled all over the living room at night, drawing, fiddling, and inevitably begging for one more chapter. The sibling fit of Scottish enthusiasm during which we kids took it upon ourselves to read Stevenson’s Kidnapped aloud in the afternoons, and got swept into the drama of Jacobite Scotland. We’d finish our chapter and gulp the last cup of tea and head out for the mountains to enact the adventures we had just read aloud. The hot chocolate dates I made with my sister when she was just learning to read so that we could savor A Little Princess together. The countless books my Mom read aloud to us in mornings of study (that didn’t really feel like school at all), The Winter Cabin, The Trumpeter of Krakow, Rilla of Ingleside, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch. The stories we read within the community of family made a common thread of thought and viewpoint that I share with my siblings to this day.
As Christmas approaches and I once again front the tough but delightful task of finding worthy gifts for the people I love, I find that stories are foremost in my mind. Stories I shared with other beloved people, stories I hope to share with them, stories I hope they share with their children, or siblings, or loves. Because a story experienced together creates a small and vivid world of fellowship. Stories reveal the souls of those who share them and knit them together for life.
So. I’m curious. What were the stories you shared?
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S.D. Smith says
Thanks you, Sarah. This was lovely. I don’t do this enough, I think. Though, we just finished The Hobbit (earlier in the year) and (a few weeks ago) The Lord of the Rings, as a family. Wonderful memories, exactly as you say. I so very much agree with you. It’s really entering another reality for a while to inhabit a tale, and to do so together is such a bonding experience. Thanks for commending the virtues of this practice, makes me want to do it more with our kids.
S.D. Smith says
Thanks you. Nice.
Laura Peterson says
Absolutely love this post, Sarah. I think of my dad tearing up while reading James Herriot’s animal stories aloud to us before bedtime, and my mom pulling out The Polar Express and Owl Moon at Christmastime, and my sister and I reading parts of the last Harry Potter book out loud to each other while the other one ate dinner, because we had to share one copy. 🙂 Great memories.
Thank you for inviting us to share, Sarah.
This has been so much our family experience too. Read-alouds are such an important part of our shared history. My children, now in their late teens, still sometimes suggest we include a balloon with a basket of goodies for an ill friend – “because no one can be uncheered with a balloon” (referencing a ‘Winnie the Pooh’ story). The wonderful English children’s books of the Swallows and Amazon series are mentioned often when out on summer hiking holidays, and the nighttime creaking of trees in the wind, or a simple lunch of crusty bread and goat’s cheese takes us back to Heidi. Two beautiful stories that always bring us to a place of gratitude for what we have, and a desire to share, are Patricia Polacco’s ‘An Orange for Frankie’ and ‘Shoemaker Martin’ – illustrated by Bernadette Watts and based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. We still read them every Christmas season.
And now in my mid-late fifties, one of my most treasured memories is also of a parent (my mother) reading ‘Treasures of the Snow’ – I recall sitting with siblings at her feet, and like you, begging for more. (And yes, I read it aloud to mine.)
Mmm … you’ve brought up good memories, sitting gathered around for a story. My dad would read aloud from books like The Hobbit while my brother and I cleaned the kitchen. When we were little, we used to beg for tales of Peter and Penelope, Dad’s own stories of friendly monsters. At the holidays I think of our favorite Christmas movies like Holiday Inn that our family quotes year-round.
Kimberlee Conway Ireton says
Reading to my children is one of the best things about my life. Thank you for giving me a glimpse of the kind of siblings they might grow up to be. (I pray for closeness among them, and I hope that our daily read-aloud time will contribute to that as yours did to you and your siblings.)
This year, we’ve read so many wonderful books: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (we’re almost done: Frodo and Sam are standing together at the end of the world), Kate diCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant (so beautiful), Melissa Wiley’s The Prairie Thief (fun!), Little House in the Big Woods and on the Prairie (re-reads, both of them), the first four Betsy-Tacy books, Milly-Molly-Mandy, Winnie-the-Pooh and the House at Pooh Corner (I’ve lost count!), all of Robert McCloskey’s books (again), A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (and her more recent Christmas book, The Third Gift), The Moffats, and all manner of picture books, fairy tales, folk tales, Bible stories, and poetry.
I have a (more) complete list up on my blog, if you’re really interested 🙂
Carrie Givens says
We shared so many stories that it is hard to remember them all. My mom read to us at bedtime almost every night – and on long car rides, too. My sisters and I are spread out over 9 years, so there were stories that came around again and again – at the “right” age for each of us (but of course, we all listened in, even if we were “too young” or “too old”). The Little House on the Prairie series is one of those over and overs, and Narnia, of course. But there were others, like the Five Little Peppers and books by Rumer Godden and Patricia St. John. I find myself hesitant to re-read Treasures of the Snow because I’m not sure it can live up to my memories of it.
I think that those shared books are one of the reasons, despite the spread in our ages, that my sisters and I share close bonds. I’m glad to see both of them reading with their kids, at bed time, in the car…