Learning the Language of Books, Organically

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Tracy Dahlby. Copyright Rebecca Davis.

I started life as a sucker for adventure stories and nothing has really changed over the past sixty years. This is mainly the fault of my maternal grandmother, Alice Brasfield. A silver-haired old bird with a glittering eye, she spun such exciting stories about her life as a young outdoorswoman on British Columbia’s rugged coast a hundred years ago now that I not infrequently felt my head might explode.

My all-time favorite involved my mother, the loving but undisputed generalissimo of my childhood. In Alice’s story, however, she was a fumbling tyke with blond ringlets who, on a long-ago day at the edge of an icy fiord, came within a whisker of being snatched away by a giant Pacific octopus looking for his lunch. As horrifyingly delicious as that prospect was for a myth-hungry boy to contemplate, it was the story’s existential tentacle that grabbed me.

“Where’d I be if Mom had been eaten by that octopus?!” I still demand in memory, as Alice and I sit rocking in the dueling rocking chairs she kept in her parlor—and Alice still replies, eyes flashing with mirth, “You’d be up the creek without a paddle, that’s what, Mister!”

(Today, a photo of the octopus, stretched across a cabin wall, hangs a few feet from my writing desk in Austin, Texas, and I persist in retelling the story whenever the audience seems charitable.)

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Alice’s octopus. Copyright Tracy Dahlby.

So it was that Alice ensorcelled me with the powers of story. Her accounts threw back the tarp on a world of hidden dimensions; cosmic jokes; near misses; tragedies, both minor and major; and unlooked-for boons. The message: To see what’s really going in the world, you need look beyond what is easy to see to that which, when known, can’t be easily disregarded. Little wonder, I suppose, that after pursuing the long-distance reporter’s trade I’d write a book like “Into the Field: A Foreign Correspondent’s Notebook,” which seeks, in part, to inflict on young readers the same urge to act on wanderlust that Alice’s stories seeded in me.

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The Old Man and the Sea

Indeed, Alice’s presence closed the distance between our snug working-class world and a bigger, wilder, irresistible place that would otherwise have seemed beyond reach. When the good-bad 1958 movie version of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” eventually inspired me to read the “based-upon” book I not only acquired a lifelong love for Hemingway’s spare, descriptive lingo, but came to sense that Santiago the fisherman might be an alternate-universe Alice:

“The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert …. Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”

Yes, there they were, the ancient scars and the undefeated eyes. Alice, who had survived a gothic girlhood in Western Canada, most definitely had them. And so, in his inimitable way, did my great Uncle Ed.

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Tracy’s Grandmother Alice. Copyright Tracy Dahlby.

Growing up in England in the late 1800s, Ed Hornsby ran away to sea for the romance of the thing—only to cry himself to sleep night after night, as the ship pitched and rolled, and the face of his dear old mum floated behind his eyes. Yet Ed survived and in style. When I knew him he’d become a septuagenarian poster boy for joie de vivre, with a perpetual hop to his step and a charming little ditty on his tongue. His implied message—that adventure was survivable—was important for a mama’s boy like me because, really, how much adventure can you expect if you stick with hearth and home?

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Life and Ed proceeded to imitate art. In Conrad’s story “Youth,” Ed stepped spryly from the pages in the form of Captain Beard, master of the ill-fated Judea that carries the young Marlow to recoverable disaster and across the line into adulthood. Beard “had blue eyes in that old face of his, which were amazingly like a boy’s, with that candid expression some quite common men preserve to the end of their days by a rare internal gift of simplicity of heart and rectitude of soul.” I can’t vouch for the eye color, but otherwise Conrad had Ed down to a tee.

Conrad’s voice was just right, too. As if by an act of Victorian ventriloquism, he put into the mouths of his characters the kind of talk we now leave mainly to pop psychologists—the importance of honoring life’s stages and acting accordingly; advice that once came from elders we actually knew and respected. That authenticity came to my rescue when, a stressed-out and angry young thirty-something, I read “The Shadow-Line” for the first time and stopped short at the admonition on page one: “And the time, too, goes on—till one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.”

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The Shadow-Line

Numinous words! They carried a message I didn’t want to hear but I knew deep down to be true: Change your way of living in the world, Mister, if you want to keep your ship off the rocks. I changed course. Reading, it turned out, was not only entertaining and educational but had the power to guide you when guidance was most needed.

Well, you can read a dinghy full of books and stories in a lifetime and if you’re lucky a handful will tell you what you need to hear. That may explain why I’ve never stopped reading Hemingway or Conrad or other masters of the journey with a purpose. And I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t grateful for the good fortune of knowing a handful of ordinary people and extraordinary storytellers who delivered me into the hands of authors that would keep pointing the way toward the heart of things.

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Into the Field

Tracy Dahlby is professor and Frank A. Bennack, Jr. Chair in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He served as Tokyo bureau chief for Newsweek and the Washington Post, reported on Asia for National Geographic magazine, and has produced and directed historical documentaries for television. His most recent book is Into the Field:  A Foreign Correspondent’s Notebook (University of Texas Press, 2014). 

The photograph featured at the beginning of this post is of Tracy Dahlby’s Grandmother Alice, and is copyright of the author.