Writers provide us with some of the best moments of our lives. Sometimes they even change our lives. Yet they never know it.
Sure, once in a while they'll do a booksigning or speaking engagement and hear, "I love your books!" Every now and then the mail carrier brings a heartfelt letter of appreciation.
But in general that mysterious bond between writer and reader remains unspoken, with the writer sending out his or her "letters to the world" and the reader silently taking, but seldom giving back.
A few years ago I thought I might have the opportunity to give something back to an author whose work had meant a lot to me. Best known for her historical novel PRAIRIE SONGS, Pam Conrad was one of those authors who seemed capable of anything. In a career lasting less than a dozen years, she produced contemporary middle grade novels, ghost stories, picture books, young adult fiction (my favorites -- WHAT I DID FOR ROMAN and TAKING THE FERRY HOME), an adult novel, a biography, and the classroom Columbus Day staple, PEDRO'S JOURNAL.
In early 1995 I came across an autobiographical essay she'd written. Describing her childhood, Conrad said, "I used to be able to amuse myself with just two things -- a spalding and a deck of cards. Nanny had taught me to play solitaire and to build delicate castles of cards. During the summers I would get to go stay with Nanny for a week -- alone -- just me and her and PopPop. And all I'd need was a deck of cards and a spalding. And maybe a couple of books. My favorite books to read during those days were the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. There was also a book I will never forget, but have never been able to find again, called BALLET IN THE BARN."
Well, if there's one thing I'm good at, it's finding old books. And I thought it would be a wonderful surprise and tribute to Pam Conrad if I could track down a copy of this book and send it to her with a note saying how much her work had moved and inspired me.
I looked up BALLET IN THE BARN, learned the author's name was Regina J. Woody, and added the book to my "want list" -- a folded sheaf of papers I took to every used bookstore in town and later carried to New York where I checked the W-for-Woody section at the Strand and any other used bookstore I could find. Nearly every day I'd check the online used book sites to see if a copy was available, but never saw a single one listed. Ah well, I thought, it'll turn up someday. After all, Ms. Conrad's had discussed her recent, successful treatment for cancer and ended with the words, "As I write this I am only 47 -- not young to your way of thinking, I know, but I hope to live another 47 years. That's another lifetime -- plenty of time to tackle old ideas I've been mulling over and new ideas that keep popping up."
I figured that some time in the coming months or years -- in Pam Conrad's second lifetime -- I would find a copy of BALLET IN THE BARN for her.
A few months later, in early 1996, I opened the newspaper and saw the obituary. She barely made it to 48 -- her life ultimately as fragile as those "delicate castles of cards" she once built with her grandmother.
A dozen years have passed since then and would you believe I have still never seen a copy of BALLET IN THE BARN? I've occasionally seen it listed on-line at over $200 a copy. But I don't have an extra $200 -- and even if I did have that kind of money to honor Pam Conrad, it would probably be better spent as a donation to cancer research in her name. So instead I just keep on visiting used bookstores and checking out the W-for-Woody section. I know a copy will turn up one day for just a few bucks, and when it does, I'll donate it to the library where I work and instruct them to include a "In Memory of Pam Conrad" bookplate inside.
Yet she'll never know it.