Saturday, April 30, 2011

My Own Two Feet

I finished Beverly Cleary's second memoir, My Own Two Feet, and I loved it. I'm going to buy it for myself and other people too. I love YA, I read tons of YA, but I don't entirely understand why this book was published as YA. It's the story of Cleary's life after her high school graduation (from Grant High School in Portland!), through her two years at junior college (free!) in California; then two years at "Cal" (now Berkeley); library school at UW in Seattle; a year working as a children's librarian in Yakima, Washington; and her jobs during WWII running first the library at Camp Knight, and then the library at the Oakland Area Station Hospital (previously a hotel she'd gone dancing at when at Cal). The memoir ends shortly after the war does, with Beverly settled as a housewife, first in Oakland then in Berkeley ("I told Clarence I wanted to move to Berkeley. Now."), and finally making herself write. She's always wanted to be a writer, but realizes she never knew what she'd write about. So settled after the war, she remembers "the procession of nonreading boys who had come to the library once a week when I was a children's librarian, boys who wanted books about 'kids like us.'" Henry Huggins comes out of this, and the book ends with Cleary depositing her first advance royalty check.

Over the course of the book, she also marries Clarence Cleary, works as Christmas help at the Sather Gate Book Shop in Berkeley, and when she's working in Yakima, she lives in a boarding house with a bunch of old men, who take turns picking her up at work on the evenings when she has to work at the library until 9.

Clarence's boardinghouse room at Cal is later Dustin Hoffman's college room in The Graduate.

Cleary has a moment in library school when she finally gets the glasses she's known she needed for years, but her mother told her to drop out of college instead (apparently glasses are so horrible? Her mom is weird), so she went without. "When I put on glasses and walked out onto the street, I walked into a new world. I could see individual bricks on buildings, street signs were suddenly legible, lines on the sidewalk were sharper."

In Yakima, she is confused when children call her "Stir," but another library employee explains that the Catholic school kids are "in the habit of addressing their teachers as 'Ster, short for 'Sister.'"

During the war, when working at Camp Knight, she notes that
Men from big cities spoke contemptuously of "those farmers" and looked down on fresh-faced small-town boys from the Midwest who saw war as an adventure. This did not sit well with me, once a farmer's daughter, and I finally snapped at one man, "You eat, don't you?" After a moment of startled silence, he said apologetically, "I never thought of it that way."

There are so many anecdotes and details in this book that I loved. When running the army hospital library, Cleary orders The Impatient Virgin, Tawny, and other books by Donald Henderson Clark, "an author I had never heard of," often requested by enlisted men who "pounce" on these titles, "usually saying, 'I didn't think you would have these.'" The Multnomah County Library doesn't have anything by him, but I'll track something down--I'm curious now.

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