The Book That Reached into the Switchboard of My Mind and Flipped Everything On

Once upon a time, when I was young and bright and full of juice, I wrote without ceasing. I was in college then—impulsive, moody, often brokenhearted, hungry for knowledge and in love with the world. I wrote poetry, short stories, and two novels. They were, I will freely admit now, uniformly terrible. Still. I felt I couldn’t write them fast enough. There wasn’t enough paper. There wasn’t enough ink. There weren’t enough midnight hours. And I thought it would never stop.

And then it did. Just like that. I entered my twenties and discovered that I had nothing, nothing to say. The well had simply dried up, and all the fields were barren. So it goes, I told myself. I guess I’m not a writer. So I did other things instead—specifically, I became restless. Took weird jobs around the country. Janitorial work in Virginia. Phone book delivery in Florida. Wildland firefighting in Washington. Dull-eyed office drudgery in Oregon. And then teaching in Minnesota. I worked as an activist. Worked with homeless youth. Read a lot. Went to graduate school. Fell in love. Got married. Had a kid at twenty-five. Then another at twenty-eight.

And when I was thirty I had my third. A colicky baby—my only boy—and an impressive handful. Red-faced raging. Often inconsolable. My beloved firemonster. The only time that child was still was when he was napping, and because of his often-upset tummy, he did best when he napped on my body, as I lounged on the couch. Since I couldn’t move very far, it meant that I had a lot of time to read. And so I read a lot. I took the kids every week to the library and came home with two tall stacks—one for me and one for the children—and we plowed through the lot of them.

And then I read The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich.

I had read her books before—indeed, two of them were required reading at my high school. And I loved her work, because how could one not? I loved her intelligence and her sentences so sharp they cut your fingers. I loved her clear-eyed peering into the deepest places in her characters, and her commitment to being this writer telling these stories. I admired the hell out of her.

But this book. This book.

I read it the first time, quickly and breathlessly. I read it like I was dying of hunger and this was the only possible food. And when I finished—and I remember this very clearly—I sat on the couch, leaning back on the cushions, staring at the crown molding, utterly spent and astonished. The baby slept. The older children played with the dog—an ancient Blue Heeler who served as our nanny (and she was excellent at it, by the way). I opened back up to page one, and started again.

The second time I read it felt like a fever dream. Again I moved quickly. Again I felt myself transported—both in the story and out. I wrapped each sentence around my shoulders like a blanket. Each character whispered, their lips brushing my ear. Each character put their hands on my skin. I still feel those fingerprints, all these years later. I finished. The baby slept. The children played. I started again.

The third time, I read it slowly. Often out loud. I tried to figure out what it was, exactly, that the author was doing. I thought about rhythm and moment. I thought about the ways each character reveals themselves. I examined the seams, the joists, the scars. When I went to bed the night I finished the third read, I put the book under my pillow. I couldn’t let it go.

The next morning, I woke up early, before anyone else was up. My house was cold. I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders. I found a notebook. I found a pen. And I wrote a story—the first one since the day I had stopped—about a girl who walked to the edge of a lake and became a fish. I didn’t mean to write it. I didn’t even know it was coming. It just poured out, like water. And the water has poured ever since.

Look, I am not a writer like Louise Erdrich, and I never will be. Our books will never be on the same lists, nor will they sit on the same shelves. She is, fundamentally and forever, a miracle of a writer. But I will always credit her for writing the book that shook me, that woke me, that reached into my brain to where my sleeping writer-self lay, and gave it a good shake. Thank you, Ms. Erdrich. Thank you for that marvelous book. I am grateful forever.

Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories Kelly BarnhillKelly Barnhill is the author of the new collection Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, and four novels, most recently The Girl Who Drank the Moon, winner of the 2017 John Newbery Medal for the year’s most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. She is also the winner of a World Fantasy Award and a Parents’ Choice Gold Award. She has been a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, the NCTE Charlotte Huck Award, the SFWA Andre Norton Award, and the PEN/USA literary prize.


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