Questing

I spent the summer I turned twelve doing four things: reading, keeping a journal of every book I read and film I saw, practicing my violin, and mowing the lawn while belting show tunes (secretly dreaming I’d be discovered by a talent agent over the drone of the mower).

The summer I turned twelve I also found the love of my life.

I ate books that summer. I devoured them. Unable to put down almost anything, I was in the lovely liminal place where Michael Crichton, Alexander Dumas and Nancy Drew were equally enchanting. In the throes of my new-found passion I perfected one-handed hair-washing and dishwasher-loading while tearing through damp and tattered pages.

And in my gluttony, I hit upon a novel that cracked open my heart with a terrible, awesome new power.

Most people follow such statements up with odes to Austen, Dickens, Alcott, Twain and fill-in-your-bildungsroman here.

Thematically I plead guilty, but to a book obscure.

 

quest for a maid

 

Ah, Quest for a Maid.

I 100% talked my dad into buying me this book in the grocery-store-turned-mega-book-retailer because of the cover.

It is possible 15% of that was down to the dramatic sea swell and the emotionally exhausted Face of Puberty. But it was at least 85% falling in love with that dress.

I began reading before we even exited the store and loved it wholeheartedly from the first chapter.

In a frenzy near the end, we were back at the book store  — there weren’t a lot of family friendly after dinner destinations in our town; we went to the book store a lot — and I didn’t want to take my 3-day old copy in with me and get in trouble/be caught shoplifting my own book. So I noted my page number in the backseat of the car, walked straight to the back of the store, pulled a clean copy off the shelf, and resumed reading at the little craft table in the kids area until it was time to get back in the car and pick up my own copy again.

It was the first book, but by no means the last, to be finished and then immediately begun again before I’d drawn a breath.

I’ll give you a quick run down:

This totally normal tomboy, Meg, from a little fishing village gets embroiled in all sorts of medieval politics and intrigue to save a child-queen on the way to her coronation. She is helped along by her betrothed (a little kid with a harelip; her dad and his dad make a pact about it when she saves the boy after he falls off the back of a beached whale. Obviously.) and her indefatigable semi-bodyguard (a swarthy teen boy, she saves his life when he gets framed for shoplifting and the village mob is going to cut off his hands or something fittingly oldy timey).

Also, Meg’s super-beautiful, intimidating sister is a mega-witch who helped assassinate the king. (Which is why this little girl is about to be queen.) It’s very dramatic and does this whole national-peril/family-loyalty dynamic parallel thing which got me in the feels waay more than Empire Strikes Back.

Pretty much the plot revolves around Meg saving everyone selflessly all of the time and being really confused about how much she is willing to be loyal to people she loves when life is perpetually in the gray area. Anyway, it all turns out fine and everyone loves her for it. Especially this boy, even though you could have knocked me over with a feather when he confesses it right at the end. (I didn’t see it coming in a million years and cried buckets of pearly, pubescent tears the first five time through that part.)

[Side note: the boy – Peem – is essentially the cloth from which every YA hero-boyfriend has been cut since. He’s her super loyal stoic lapdog (Peeta), who all the girls adore and fawn over and sacrifices himself to save people all the time (Gale), with a dark past and broody moods (that pouter from Divergent), and wicked generous and impossibly selfless (Gus — except the dying part).]

Anyway, it’s super-duper amazing and the best thing 12-year-old me could have ever read.

I wasn’t kidding when I said I flipped straight back to page 1 when it ended. I read it three times that summer.

I also tried to sew a dress like on the cover for my American girl doll (and accidentally sewed it to her soft, cottony body). And may or may not have assigned every song in Suzuki Book 5 for Violin to the sound track in an attempt to practice more — a pastoral theme and variations for the big climatic kiss (on repeat); the moody french song in A minor for the sister’s conniving witch-friend…

I loved it so much I read the cover clean off.

And it kept a hold on me for years. One summer in college I unearthed a copy in a Salvation Army in Alaska and spent the entire ride through Denali National Park rereading it instead of basking in majesty of the mountains. (I was and still am a total idiot about something things.)

This book was my coming-of-age in a nutshell, and if that was all it had ever been I wouldn’t have just spent 700 words telling you about it.

Because little did I know it has been stalking me ever since.

Did I know in my youth that this book which I loved with all my heart was set in Scotland? Did this contribute to my fascination with and eventual immigration to the romantic rugged coastlines in its pages, however subconsciously?

Did I realize it was the passionate love of this book and those like it that brought me to the children’s books world, agonizing night and day over making moments for other children as profound as that summer had been for me?

Did I know I would collaborate with the publishers who brought this book to light, and help them launch several new semi-mythological, semi-historical novel for this age group in the hopes of sparking future storytellers and story champions?

No.

I didn’t knowingly do any of those things.

I had no idea any of these strands were connected until a few years ago.

I came across my battered copy in my parents house and once again could have been knocked over with a feather. I hadn’t known as a teenager that this was a historical novel. (At my initial reading, I didn’t know there was a spectrum of reality in fiction yet.) I certainly hadn’t realized the Firth of Forth and the villages of Fife described in its pages were real places just outside of Edinburgh.

Pawing through my copy as an adult, I recognized huge swathes of historical and geographic detail that had meant nothing to me in my youth. And which hadn’t knowingly felt familiar when I’d traipsed Dunfermline, Inverkeithing and the Forth island paths myself years later.

Scotland really did have a king who died in a freak storm accident, and a little princess really was brought from Norway to be coronated thereafter.  The council at Scone Palace really did arrange a convoy, and the Maid of Norway was technically Scotland’s reigning queen until she died in a shipwreck on the way over (spoiler alert: in the book, Meg saves her too. Quelle suprise).

I wish I could say I had been poetically retracing Meg’s path, wiser and enriched when I visited Scone Palace or splashed in North Queenferry or did a million other things I did quite inadvertently in the years between.

I certainly didn’t realize as a reader that this book was one of the first Kelpies. Nor did I, as a literary-type grown-up promoting the Kelpies prize and its long standing tradition of Scottish children’s books know it had a hand in my own childhood 4,000 miles away.

If my life was a novel, the deep-seated desire to travel the world would have been born that summer. My life-long wish would come full circle on that beach, fulfilling the dream in the purer happiness of grace and wisdom after I magically launched or maybe wrote a book that would instill my fictional eldest child with their own dreams of distant horizons.

But I didn’t.

I did love the places and words in that story. I cherished them deeply, and still do.

And I did love the real places which inspired it.

But at the times I lived them, these events were distinctly separate. Maybe they are just part of a bigger story that doesn’t yet make sense even to me.

To know now how tightly knit the world can be is just confusing and grand.

If those strings were drawn together, it was by a hand greater than mine.

Sometimes loving what you love is enough of a journey. And sometime the map only makes sense in retrospect.

 

 

 

 

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