We're grateful to Alice Hatcher, our Writer-in-Residence, for taking the time to submit this Love Letter. Bonus! It includes an excerpt from her book, The Wonder That Was Ours.
My novel The Wonder That Was Ours, set on a Caribbean island and narrated by a collective of cockroaches inhabiting the main character’s taxi, contains several flashbacks. One features my main character Wynston Cleave as a precocious and opinionated eleven-year old with an overweening curiosity about the United States, where his uncle has emigrated in search of work. The broken-down bicycle in the following excerpt enables Wynston to escape the confines of his village, visit the only library on his small island, and learn something about his uncle’s new life.
On Wynston’s eleventh birthday, Morris conceded victory to emphysema and wheeled his twenty-year-old bicycle to the Cleaves’ front stoop. A rusted one-speed contraption with bald tires, the bicycle carried Wynston, wobbling and elated, from Stokes Hill to Portsmouth’s one-room library, and into adolescence and intellectual maturity. Wynston spent five years’ worth of Saturdays poring through the abandoned books of British administrators and disintegrating Caribbean newspapers that, for years, we’d nibbled for want of less picked-over material on the library’s termite-riddled shelves. He sought out news of the United States, absorbing stories about Black Panthers, campus protests, and political assassinations, and as years passed, a hotel called Watergate and Americans dangling from helicopters in Saigon. In the afternoon, he’d leave the library with bloodshot eyes and ride around the island, refining his thoughts and rehearsing ethical debates with imagined adversaries. Hunched over books and crooked handlebars, he assumed the carriage of a brooding intellectual. Perpetually preoccupied, he ate sparingly. By the time he reached sixteen, his loose-fitting shirts hung awkwardly from his shoulders. He acquired a premature furrow between his eyebrows from squinting at faded newsprint.
“Look at him,” Topsy said one afternoon, as Wynston coasted to a stop in front of his house. “The youngest member of this island’s ‘intellectual avant-garde.’ That’s the phrase he used the other day.”
“The only member.” Morris gathered a pinch of snuff between his stiff fingers. “You could learn something from him.”
“He’ll be at his pulpit soon enough, telling us what to do.”
“My lectern,” Wynston said, sealing his own fate.
“Listen to him. The Professor.”
Bestowed in the presence of many, the title clung to its reluctant recipient. By the time Wynston took his first job, his friends and neighbors regularly addressed him as “Professor” with encouraging smiles or dismissive sneers, depending on their attitudes toward his erudition, or what some called his airs.
The subject of frequent ridicule, Wynston nevertheless perseveres in learning and retains, into his adulthood, the sense of wonder he felt as a child “flying down a road on a rusted bike overloaded with books, carried aloft by fantastic ideas.”
When I wrote this flashback, I was, in a sense, writing a love letter to libraries.
Like Wynston, I was an awkward kid; I was a chunky “tomboy” (in the parlance of the 1970s) who needed to believe there was a world beyond my school’s vicious playground. I also owned a rusted bike, a dented powder-blue Schwinn with worn brakes and dangerously misaligned handlebars.
Every Saturday, I biked five miles to my local public library.
There, I first read Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, a brilliant YA novel about a young girl who spies on her friends and neighbors, records her brutally honest observations in a notebook, and faces withering criticism when her classmates discover her journal. The book taught me about the need for kindness and the importance of contrition. By capturing Harriet’s joy as she documents the world around her, it also taught me that we are as alive as our thoughts, dreams, and curiosity about the world. In its celebration of a young girl’s creativity. Harriet the Spy provided a blueprint for my writing life.
My local library gave me the intellectual tools and creative inspiration I desperately needed growing up, amazingly for free.
When I ran my fingers over my library’s shelves, I always had the feeling of opening a buried treasure chest and sifting through an endless store of precious stones. The library was a magical place. It extended the promise of infinite discovery. As an adult, I appreciate more than ever libraries’ invaluable role in providing free resources to children and adults seeking knowledge, mentors, job skills, and safe spaces for discussion and reflection. At a time when almost everything has its price, libraries ensure that knowledge is freely accessible to all. In this sense, our public libraries play a critical role in our country’s civic culture and democracy. Believing that every child, and every adult, deserves an education, I’m thrilled to be Pima County Library’s current Writer-in-Residence. I have a wealth of resources at my disposal and, more importantly, an opportunity to give back to Pima County’s amazing public library.