Disney cartoons didn’t cut it anymore.
Belle danced with Beast. Ariel sang to Eric. Jasmine and Aladdin took their magic carpet ride. A kid could re-watch those movies on VHS only so many times.
That’s when my mother introduced me to Mary Stewart. The few people familiar with the works of British novelist Mary Stewart know her by her popular Merlin trilogy. (The Crystal Cave is still on many middle school reading lists.) But those were not the novels my mother showed me after knocking on my door late one night.
“Shhhh!” Mom held a finger to her lips. “Follow me.”
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Off the overflowing bookshelf, my mother picked a book: Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart. The back cover declared it “romantic suspense.” The cover depicted a gothic French chateau and a scared, young governess and her charge running down a spooky hill. The cover promised mystery . . . and more importantly, romance!
“I read Mary Stewart when I was your age,” Mom told me. “I think you’ll like her.”
Then she walked me back to my bedroom and confiscated the flashlight I hid under my Little Mermaid pillow for late-night reading … unaware that I had a second, back-up flashlight waiting behind my Barbies.
I read Nine Coaches Waiting in two days. I quickly scarfed down the rest of Mary Stewart’s repertoire. While many books in the “romantic thriller” genre are not the most well written, Mary Stewart can write. Her heroines quote Shakespeare and Jane Austen. There are “big kid” vocabulary words sprinkled throughout. Yes, the stories may be a tad predictable if you’re aware of the gothic romance genre—the “cad” ends up being the “sweetheart” almost every time—but I didn’t care.
Mary Stewart took me on adventures—all her novels took place in Europe—and taught me lessons I had not yet learned. This Rough Magic explicated Shakespeare’s The Tempest for me before I was old enough to actually read Shakespeare. These pulp novels of my mother’s were turning me into quite the intellectual… and quite the romantic.
On my way home from school I’d recap for my mom the latest “plot twist.” As was common for the gothic genre, the man rescued the “too curious for her own good” heroine from whatever shenanigans she had stumbled upon, they solved the mystery, kissed, and all was happily ever after.
Sometimes there was a marriage proposal. Marriage, I quickly learned, was the happy ending. As I recapped yet another happy ending for my mother, she quickly pulled the car over in front of a grocery store.
“Can we buy Oreos?” I asked, hopeful.
“Emily,” she said, turning around to face me in the back seat, “I need to make sure you know that these books are fairytales. They aren’t real life.”
I was ten years old. I didn’t know what to say. I just wanted cookies.
“No man is going to rescue you. You have to be your own strong, independent woman.”
I was still confused. “Lucy found true love!” I shouted. “Max loves her and saved her.”
“You can find love, darling, but that’s not all there is to life. That’s not the happy ending.” Mom turned back and started the car. “You have to save yourself.”
That night I found on my pillow a gift from my mother: Gone With The Wind, a big red bow neatly wrapped around it. With all her gumption and grit, Scarlett O’Hara, my mother believed, was a far better role model for her young daughter.
Of course, Mom is right. Rereading those Mary Stewart novels now I giggle at how everything just magically “works out” for lucky Jenny Silver, Christy Mansel, and the other characters running amuck in Mary Stewart’s wonderful worlds. But just as we like to curl up in front of the television with a romantic comedy or watch an action flick with a big tub of movie theatre popcorn, sometimes a lady is in the mood for a bit of a fairytale.
Sometimes I want a bit of respite from rescuing myself. Sometimes I just want to watch two crazy lovebirds kiss, houses exploding all around them, and know that in the end, everything is going to be just fine.
What books were you introduced to as a child that fired up your love of reading? Tell us in a comment!