Thursday, September 10, 2009

You learn something every day

Elizabeth Zelvin

A hundred years ago—when my grandmother was 31 and my mother was 7—nobody had heard of lifelong learning. Learning was the task of the young, whether the subject matter was reading, writing, and arithmetic or the skills needed to raise a family and make a living. My immigrant grandmother raised her children and taught piano—not very well, according to a cousin who took lessons from her maybe 60 years ago. My mother, the American daughter, helped her father in his tailor shop (she always hated sewing but could do it very well indeed), went to law school, and eventually became a legal writer and editor.

Certainly, throughout their lives they had to cope with the new and unexpected. Between 1909 and 1969, when my grandmother died, the world changed enormously: from the Model T Ford to the Corvette, from early radio to TV, from polar exploration to men on the moon, from cotton and silk to nylon, from wood and metal to plastics. My mother, who lived till 1999, got to experience the women’s movement, computers, and a host of other changes. In fact, she was a pioneer lifelong learner, who went back to school in 1960 and earned a doctorate in political science in 1969.

Forty years ago, my mother was an anomaly. Today, we take it for granted that there is always more to learn and we’re never too old to learn it. For example, in the past quarter century, from ages 40 to 65, I’ve acquired all my clinical skills and knowledge as a therapist, mastered technology including the Internet, cell phones, digital cameras and photo editing software, and the GPS, as well as advanced fiction writing and editing skills.

It hardly needs stating that we all learn a lot of what we know from books. My husband and I both have an extensive knowledge of world history, his from history books and mine gleaned from novels. But along with the big stuff , books, especially novels, give us an infinite number of details, and you never know when one of them will come in handy.

For example, I’ve recently reread all the books in Sara Donati’s series of historical epics, set in the “endless forests” of upper New York State in the 18th and early 19th centuries, in anticipation of a new book coming out soon. The last one was set around the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. I already knew about the pirate (or privateer) Lafitte, the slave-holding free people of color in New Orleans, and the battle itself, though it was nice to get a refresher course, along with page-turning action and a deliciously romantic story.

But in the category of “you learn something every day,” I nominate a tidbit from the first book, Into the Wilderness. The main characters belong to a family that includes Mohawk Indians and the last of the Mohicans (literally: Hawkeye, borrowed from James Fenimore Cooper, becomes the heroine’s father-in-law), as well as English settlers. All of them have superb woodcraft, including the ability to move silently through the woods. What I didn’t know is how they do it: the secret is that they toe in. The day after I read that information, I had an opportunity to test it out. I went for a run on the beach, counting on the hard packed sand at the ocean’s edge to provide a good running surface. I was disappointed to find the wet sand softer than it looked. When I tried to run, I kept sinking in. So I tried toeing in. Sure enough, it kept me on the surface of the sand. My footprints looked a little funny, but I was able to run at least a couple of miles.

I’ve also been reading some of the Anthony nominees in anticipation of voting for the best at Bouchercon. Julie Hyzy’s State of the Onion is the first in a series about a young woman who works as a chef in the White House. There’s a charming moment between her and the fictional First Lady, when they concur that the best way to cut onions without crying is to choose a work surface right next to a stove with a burner turned on—and that both of them learned the trick from their mothers. My mother didn’t know that one—but it works, as I confirmed the next time I had to cut up an onion.

What can you teach us today that you learned unexpectedly by reading a novel?


Sheila Connolly said...

When I read Nathaniel Philbrick's book Mayflower, I was shocked at how quickly the settlers turned on the Indians. To the first arrivals they were saviors; to the next generation, they were inconveniently occupying (their) land that the expanding colonies wanted. I think my early education conveniently skipped that part.

Sandra Parshall said...

Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but I seldom trust anything I read in a novel. :-)

I can, however, tell you about the other writerly identity of "Sara Donati" -- that's a pseudonym for linguist Rosina Lippi-Green, whose ENGLISH WITH AN ACCENT will be valuable to anyone interested in the many variations of American speech. And under the name Rosina Lippi, she published a lovely literary novel titled HOMESTEAD in 1999. Her 2007 romance/chick lit, TIED TO THE TRACKS, was a misfire and unworthy of her talent, but in March of this year she published THE PAJAMA GIRLS OF LAMBERT SQUARE, a sweet book set in smalltown South Carolina with a cast of vivid characters. I knew Rosina on the old Literary/Writers/Authors Forums on Compuserve, before she sold her first novel.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Ohhh, is that why I saw your name in the Acknowledgments of one of the Wilderness books, Sandy. I've been meaning to ask you. (Doesn't everybody read the Acknowledgments to see if any of their friends are there?)

Sandra Parshall said...

I critiqued parts of the first Wilderness book. Rosina is a wonderful writer.