The First 39 Pages By Cheryl Hughes
Every year around Christmas, I get myself a present. It’s usually a book. I start shopping about the first week of December, and I’ve usually chosen it by the third week of December, so I can make sure it has arrived by Christmas. This year, however, I started shopping in November, because I was shopping for a book I wasn’t sure I could find; and even if I could find it, I wasn’t sure I could afford it. The book was RUN AWAY HOME, by Elizabeth Coatsworth.
RUN AWAY HOME was published in 1942 as a sixth-grade reader for middle school students. Our fifth-grade class read it in 1965, at Mt. Washington, in Bullet County, Kentucky. We were supposed to read a different book that year, but our teacher, Ms. Anderson, decided she didn’t care for that one and searched high and low until she came up with enough copies of RUN AWAY HOME for each of us. (Sadly enough, Ms. Anderson’s personal preference wouldn’t even be considered by today’s academia.)
In my search for the book, I found 100-dollar first editions and 75-dollar good condition editions, and finally a 19-dollar edition with some crayon marks on one page, but generally in good, readable condition. I didn’t have to have one in pristine condition, I just wanted to read the story again, so I went with the 19-dollar edition. According to the inside cover, the book had been a reader at Crestview School in Granite District 1, on 2100 East Lincoln Lane, and it had been issued to David H., Jamie R., David B., Jeff W., and Craig J. (one of whom wrote on page 31 in green crayon) in 1965, the same year I read the book. A quick Google search revealed that the school still stands in the very same location in Holladay, Utah.
RUN AWAY HOME is the story of a family, living in Maine, who decides to move across the country to Washington State. The move is sparked by the father’s inability to find enough work to feed his family. A relative In Washington State offers the dad work on his apple farm. The decision is made to sell off what property and personal possessions the family owns in order to buy a small travel trailer they can hook to the family car in order to make the trek across the country as inexpensively as possible.
There are two things in this book that struck me as pointedly different from the books my daughters (now 38 and 34 years old) read as children, and the literature my granddaughter, age 8 years, currently reads. RUN AWAY HOME, like all readers of that era, contains a word list, a glossary and a pronunciation guide at the back of the book. Our spelling words were taken from the word list and we were expected to know how to pronounce and define every word in the glossary. I know that seems like a tall order for a fifth-grader, but that’s just the way it was in my childhood.
The second thing that struck me as different from the literature of my children’s and granddaughter’s eras, is the story line of RUN AWAY HOME. In the first 39 pages, the father is struggling to feed his family; one of the older children is nearly struck by a tree he is felling with an axe; a horse pulling a sled falls through thin ice on a pond and nearly drowns; and the children are told a story about an Eskimo family stranded on an ice floe who have to eat their dogs to keep from starving to death before they are rescued by a sealing ship returning from the Arctic. My granddaughter had a meltdown over the cat getting electrocuted in “Christmas Vacation.” I’m not so sure she could handle the dog-eating story.
It was a different time in which people my age lived as children. Very little effort was made to protect us from the harshness of life. We lived on farms. We saw life and death every day. The adults in our lives would have dealt us a disservice to pretend everything was always going to turn out alright. By the fifth grade, I knew everything wouldn’t always work out the way I wanted it to. So did David H., Jamie R., David B., Jeff W., and Craig J.; albeit one set of parents should have taught their son not to write in school-issued sixth-grade readers with green crayons.