For over 20 years, I kept a journal. I started in my early teens and stopped at around 40. These assorted notebooks fill a large wooden box, and my will specifies that the box and contents, if still around, are to be burned upon my death, and I AM NOT KIDDING.
These journals are often tales of woe. But they are also filled with the story of my life, and I’ve forgotten almost all of it. So I’ve got a big project: read them and then burn them myself. I’m a packrat, a minor hoarder, and I’m being driven out of the house by the piles of stuff (mostly music, musical instruments, and books) everywhere. (The red diary on the left is 1962. The red one on the right is 1984. There are many, many more.)
Segue. Last week I attended the Globe-Horn Book Awards ceremony (http://www.hbook.com/category/news/boston-globe-horn-book-awards/), an event I always enjoy when I can go. Often, the speeches are quite moving, and I love sharing the chance to celebrate good books. In preparation, I read most of the winners and honor books, and there’s one I want to talk about here: LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM, by Mal Peet. Why? Many reasons. First, Peet is a brilliant writer—full of intelligence. Further, it’s a tragic love story with a strong political element. And here’s where I connect this to my journals: Peet weaves in the tension-filled events of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
October, 1962. Fifty years ago this month. Yes, my children, I was alive then, and I could already walk, talk, and write. Inspired, I dared to enter the messy back room and open the box of journals, where I found my own entries from that week, when I was scared out of mind. We all were; the world has never come closer to an all-out nuclear war. I lived in Washington, DC: ground zero. I knew exactly how far radiation would spread, how long it would linger, how many people would die in the first blast, and how many would rot from radiation poisoning.
(An estimate of the size of the damage caused by the 16kt and 22kt Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A modern ‘hydrogen bomb’ would be tens of times more powerful and cause similar levels of damage at 2-5 times the distance. Source: Wikipedia)
Part of Peet’s book pulls back to an omniscient voice for historical truth. The madness of Curtis LeMay, the backroom deals, the hysteria and fear, and the minute-by-minute face-off between two men (Khrushchev and Kennedy) who were mad enough to consider blowing up the planet to avoid backing down. Who would blink first?
Last week, I was delighted to join Mal and Elspeth Peet for dinner right here in Plainfield, center of the known world, because they were visiting dear friends of ours. So I brought my journal and read the relevant pages aloud and everyone suffered along for a few minutes. Here are my 1962 words. “There’s a group of girls forming in school who don’t want to die virgins.” And guess what Frankie, one of the main characters, says in LIFE? “I absolutely refuse to die a virgin.” Fiction imitates life imitates fiction imitates life…
This is exactly what we mean when we talk about authenticity, truth, honesty in fiction. Peet time-traveled and got under the skin of a girl decades younger than he is now, and he inhabited her fully enough to quote from my own journal, which of course he had never seen. I am in awe. This is the deep imagination of a confident writer at work.
Do you keep or have you kept a journal? Do you have a similar story? Tell all!
*Two more recommended YA/children’s novels that also include the Cuban missile crisis: Tim Wynne-Jones, Rex Zero and the End of the World, and David Almond, The Fire Eaters.