Books that Built Us: ‘The Williamsburg Novels’ by Elswyth Thane

Sunday, February 18, 2018 - 5:37pm

I come from a thoroughly bookish family. Our relationships have always been mediated by the writers and stories we’ve handed over to each other like little pieces of ourselves, and sometimes I think that the most enduringly true things I know about these people whose lives are so tangled with mine are the books they’ve loved. As the youngest, I got everyone else’s literary hand-me-downs. When I was little, my brothers gave me “Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson,” stories that gave us a common language and fantasy worlds we could live in together.

When I was a teenager, my dad gave me “Pride and Prejudice,” and when I read it I saw the things he loved about it: The sublime order of a world with such pristine rules and manners, and, within that order, the chaotic hope of love. When I decided I wanted to be a writer myself, my mom gave me the writers I still consider my holy trinity: Alice Hoffman, Anne Tyler and Marisa de los Santos, whose stories give my world richness and texture. My mom is also the one who gave me “The Williamsburg Novels” by Elswyth Thane, our family heirloom.

I was maybe 14 at the time: cripplingly insecure, wild and determined to be misunderstood. My mom and I fought more than anything else, and I was convinced as only a teenager can be, without evidence or logic, that the world was ending before it had even begun. But when my mom gave me “Dawn’s Early Light,” the first in Thane’s series of seven novels, something shifted. The book was yellowed and falling apart at the seams, published in 1943 and long since out of print. It was written by a friend of my maternal great-grandmother, and passed down from my grandmother to my mom to me.

The story was instantly addictive, a mix of history, romance and adventure. The series follows each generation of two families, the Spragues and the Days, from the American Revolution all the way up until World War II, which was happening as the books were being written. They aren’t perfect by any means; even at 14, I was old enough to know that the pre-civil rights, pre-feminist portrait of the American South they offered was revisionistic at best and blatantly offensive at worst. But I was hooked, and I couldn’t be unhooked. The characters felt real to me, and in a way mythological, archetypes for the people I wanted to be and wanted to be with. The men were dashing, chivalrous, passionate; the women were precocious, brave and had moxie coming out of their ears. At 14, there was nothing I wanted in the world more than moxie. There’s nothing I want more now.

Just as the books drew generational lines through American history, they helped me find the thread between myself and the women who had come before me. I could picture Thane giving the books to my great-grandmother, a woman who was vivacious, popular and college-educated long before education for women was the norm. At the same time, she was also cold and sharp-edged, and probably wouldn’t have chosen motherhood if she had lived in an era that gave her that choice. I could picture the books moving through the hands of my grandmother, whose life was as marked by adventure and tragedy as any of the book’s characters, who I remember as unfailingly lovely.

More than anything, I could picture my mom reading the books at my age. She looks like me at 14, but brighter, prettier. She is as uncertain as me, and as lonely, and as hopeful. An only-child raised by a single mom, she dreams her way into this fiction of a big, devoted family of siblings and cousins, uncles and aunts, white Christmases. I like to think that when she met my dad a few years later, my mom saw in him the grand romance that she saw in the men of those books.

At 14, “The Williamsburg Novels” gave me a way to see my mom as more than the tense stranger she sometimes seemed. They gave me a way to see in her a shadow of myself, to see the ways we were both echoes of what had come before us. When she gave me those books, she gave me a piece of herself, a mythology that we and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers could all live inside together. Someday, I hope I have a daughter. When I give her these books, I hope that she sees in them all the women who love her.