Sunday, May 5, 2013

Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth and Me, memories from childhood, and a salute to a great writer

A few years ago, I was preparing for a Perth Writers’ Festival panel session about favourite books from childhood. (Here is a link to an article on the session.) I recall I was remembering fondly my obsession with Enid Blyton and her Famous Five series, when I was hit by an unexpected flashback.

I suddenly saw a much younger me, perhaps ten or eleven, plucking a purple hardback from the shelves of my local library. The book was Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth and Me by E.L. Konigsburg (published in the states and elsewhere as Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth).
I had totally forgotten about this book, but as soon as I had this recollection, I remembered the experience of reading it all so vividly. I recalled how much I loved this particular story, how it spoke to me at the time, how I longed for a friend to pretend to be a witch with, to make potions with and to chant around a magic circle.

Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth and Me was unlike any other book I had read, and I have no idea why I picked it up. Maybe the pretty purple colour of the cover attracted me, maybe the names intrigued – I suspect I would have had no idea who Hecate and Macbeth were. I certainly didn’t know that it was an award-winner: a Newbery Honour Book and ALA Notable Book, that it was the first book written by Konigsburg, who would go on to become one of the most celebrated and loved contemporary American writers for children and young adults. And I wouldn’t have thought that forty years later, on hearing of the passing of this wonderful writer, on April 20 (aged 83) the much older Sue would immediately order a copy of this book and read it once again in salute to this great writer.

And my rereading didn’t disappoint or tarnish my recollection. Instead, it enhanced it. It brought a warm smile to my lips as I recalled the things that charmed me as a child, and the adult me was intrigued at how I would have identified with the character of Elizabeth – there were many similarities: smallest in class, new girl at school, no siblings at home – and I am sure I would have found Elizabeth’s Saturday meetings with Jennifer tantalisingly daring.

First published in 1967, the book certainly showed its age with references to being excited at pretending to smoke menthol cigarettes, being smacked and the like, but I could forgive those. And the writer in me was able to admire the way Konigsburg wrote deeply from within her child character’s point of view and how cleverly she had cast the adult world to the periphery of the story. The story is quite slim, but masterfully layered; the relationship between Elizabeth and the domineering Jennifer is a complex one, and it was terrific to witness the growth in Elizabeth over the course of the story. 

There were certainly many lessons for me in revisiting this book.

I plan to dig out and read or reread more of Konigsburg’s work over the coming months – and I’m hoping that some of her storytelling gift, her wisdom, wit and insight will rub off along the way.

Vale E.L. Konigsburg.

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