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Taking Comfort in a 'Four-Story' Escape

As my friends and family can tell you, I have a poor memory for my early childhood. That's because I had two: the actual childhood and the one spent inside books.

They both were equally real to me. For example, my third grade friends were Lizzie, Gwen and Julie. Lizzie played soccer. Gwen hated to write with very sharp pencils. Julie tucked her hair behind her ears.

And there were these third grade friends: Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver — the Melendy siblings, quirky children with quirky names. I loved them more than any of my real friends. And, I can tell you everything about them. They lived in a big, rambling house in the country. It had a cupola, a cellar, and a secret room. It sat in a yard with Norway spruces, two iron deer, and a brook lined with violets. Their house was called The Four-Story Mistake, which is also the name of the book by Elizabeth Enright in which I met them. She wrote three more about them.

I know how that sounds — loving characters in books more than my own friends, as though books represented, for my childhood self, simple escapism. Good literature should reflect real life with all its grit, loss, and ugliness, right? What did I have to escape from? I was healthy and bright, good at sports. My parents loved me. I had friends.

But I'm not sure there is anything simple about escaping into a book, even when you are eight years old. Ordinary life weighed heavy on me. An insomniac from the age of five, I would spend nights with my heart racing, wild with worry about infinity or the silent treatment Lizzie had doled out to me that day. I fretted about whether I would wake up one morning to discover that what I thought was my life was only a dream. I would check on my parents and sister every night for years, to see if they were still breathing. In school, I would blink repeatedly when I got upset and compulsively count every right angle in a room (windows, doors, desks, bulletin boards).

Enright, the author of The Four Story Mistake, is a writer who gives you an an entire, flesh-and-blood person in two sentences. Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver are utterly alive, and are complicated, but they are uncomplicatedly happy. They stage elaborate plays, ice skate at night, and collect scrap metal. Always together, always living with an abundant, freewheeling joy. They have reasons to worry — motherlessness, World War II — but they don't. When I was with them, I didn't either.

I see my childhood self so clearly now, because I have an eight-year-old son. He's beautiful, plays the piano and is a state champion swimmer. He's fiercely loved but worries about being drafted, about tornadoes, and death. He bites not only his nails but his knuckles. He experiences dazzling joy. But I hoped he'd be hardwired for lightness and ease, and he's not.

He reads the books other boys his age read — standard dark fantasy and science fiction. But I see him turn again and again to the easy, funny, and familiar. I know why. I know that escape doesn't always mean retreat or copping out, but healing and restoration, the soul taking care of itself. He is looking for his own Four-Story Mistake. I hope he finds it.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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