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When Words Come Alive

by Sheila Connolly

I complained last month about having no time to read, but lately I’ve realized that somehow I read a heck of a lot in my early years, and much of it really stayed with me. I find myself quoting unexpected odd bits from nineteenth century literature (it’s no wonder that people look at me strangely).

Sometimes there is no apparent logic to what got lodged in my memory. For example, the lines, “In a tearing hurry,/Yours ever, Laurie” have been rattling around my head for years. (In case you didn’t memorize the book, it’s from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, when Laurie, the rich boy in the neighborhood, writes Jo (the tomboy who was of course my idol) a quick note of invitation, and signs it thus. I remember reading the book when I was in fourth grade, recovering from the measles. Yes, of course I still have that copy.)

I could cite plenty of similar instances, but this quirk of memory really hit home to me when I visited our town’s newly acquired 18th-century house, home to a wealthy mill-owner’s family. Ben Franklin is said to have slept there. This was the house’s public debut, and at their first open house there were curious local citizens and costumed reenactors milling around the first-floor rooms. And I came face to face with Ichabod Crane.

No, not the delightful Englishman from the television series, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Washington Irving’s description in his story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (published in 1819). This gentleman was at least six inches taller than I was (and I’m close to six feet in shoes) and dressed in colonial garb, and Irving’s description sprang to my mind immediately.

I can’t remember when I read the story, but it was a very long time ago. And please let us gloss over the Disney cartoon version (made in 1949, before I was born). But my memory of the language Irving used was so strong that I felt compelled to look up his original description, and here it is:

[Crane] was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weathercock perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew.

That was the man who stood before me, in the flesh (well, to be fair, his eyes weren’t particularly glassy, but the rest worked), and the description came back to me all at once. He was even awkward and gregarious at the same time, in ways that I think Irving would recognize. He’d been living in the old house for years, as a sort of caretaker, and I think it had seeped into his bones. He even showed us a secret chamber hidden between the chimneys.

We as writers know that words matter. The thing is, we don’t always know which ones. Do you as readers skip over paragraphs of description or explanation? Which bits do you find boring? Or which ones grab you and drag you into the story, give you a snapshot view of a character that strikes a chord?

And which words from books have you cherished for years, words that live on in your memory?
[A totally irrelevant aside: Washington Irving lived in a delightful mansion (befitting his status as a famous writer!) in Tarrytown, New York. As it happens, two of my Irish great-aunts are buried in Tarrytown—it is rumored but not confirmed that one of them worked for the Rockefellers, who had a country home there. Ivisited once, but neglected to see the Irving house, which looks to be well worth the trip.]
Forgive me if I don’t answer your comments promptly. On Monday I will be returning from Malice Domestic, where I will be frolicking with other of the Wicked Cozies. Pictures to follow!



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