It’s odd to me how much news now comes to me via my RSS reader, and how much more quickly I thus learn of things than I might otherwise. Just now I learned from Monica Edinger that Diana Wynne Jones has died. I never got around to writing her a letter to tell her how grateful I am to her work, and thus, as so often happens, I am doing so now, after her death.
What’s funniest in a way is that I’ve actually read very little of her. She was was prolific — books and series and more books and books tangentially related to various series and their worlds — but I have read only a handful of them. But those few are books I have come back to again and again and again.
My grandmother gave me a copy of Charmed Life once when I was sick. I was sick quite a lot as a kid, and I was home by myself all day and would grow terribly bored. Any book that could pull me out of that into another world was a charm indeed, and that book I particularly loved — the setting of the old castle, the jewelry that screamed its enchantment, the sense of trying to shield people from a fate that can’t be denied — it was all wonderful.
A year or so later, my mother and I picked up a copy of Fire and Hemlock from B. Dalton, of all places, which had a huge display of the paperback. It had the most garishly godawful cover — at some point I folded a piece of math homework around it to make a cover for the thing because I was so sick of looking at it. And I looked at it a lot, because I reread this book all the time. I read it every finals week during junior high, and those are perhaps my clearest and best memories of times with it. I was the in the midst of the ages that Polly is in the book then, and I was living in a place I hated, and the people I liked best in the world were musicians, as the other most important character in the book is. And I loved my grandmother more than almost anyone else in the world, and I loved the grandmother in the book, too.
It’s a retelling of Tam Lin (and oh how I love retellings of Tam Lin), and it is about magic and friendship and love and good and evil and spells. It’s got a lot going for it, then, if you like that sort of thing. But the scene I always looked forward to the most, and that I still replay in my head from time to time, is one where Polly is lost in the streets of Bristol, having been dropped off at the train station by her father, who hasn’t bothered to see if she has money for a ticket home. She has, perhaps magically, been drawn to a building where a quartet is rehearsing — her friend Thomas Lynn, and the three other members, and they take her in and give her food and coffee and then, apologetically, go on with their rehearsal, but they don’t need to apologize, because really it is a private concert, just for her.
“If you could hear lime juice, it would sound like violins,” Polly thinks. I can see that basement as surely as if I’d been there, and I go there in memory the way I go to places I’ve really been. But of course I have really been there: that is what books do. And I will remain grateful to Diana Wynne Jones for providing me with such a place for as long as I live.