Authors: Elizabeth George
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Reluctant Book Fairy
For an entire generation, the story that follows could not be told. She who effected the vanishing of Langley, Washington's most famous citizen was still among the living and had the knowledge of exactly what she had done been revealed before this moment, there is little doubt that legions of the broken-hearted, the disenchanted, the disappointed, and the downright enraged would have ended up marching along the quiet street where she lived, bent upon violence. This, of course, would have followed whatever the aforementioned legions had done to a disused potting shed in the arboreal confines of Langley Cemetery, where the shape of a body on a moth-eaten blanket and a rotting first edition of an antique novel marked the spot of a deeply mourned departure. But now, at last, everything can be revealed. For all involved have finally passed, and no danger remains to anyone. Langley, Washington, has long since returned to the sleepy albeit lovely little village that has sat above the gleaming waters of Saratoga Passage for more than one hundred years. And what occurred there to its citizenry and to its gentle, well-meaning, but far too malleable librarian has been consigned to history.
Annapurna didn't start out her life intending to become a librarian. She also didn't start out her life intending to become a book fairy. Indeed, she didn't start out her life intending to become Annapurna. Instead she began her time on earth as Janet Shore in a very ordinary manner which, no matter how close the examination, would never suggest to anyone who was acquainted with her that she possessed powers beyond an average mortal's.
She was born at home in the village of Langley, which at that time was a little enclave of colorful cottages and, alas, perpetually dying businesses sitting high on a bluff on Whidbey Island. Above the strait that it overlooked, bald eagles flew and in this strait orcas and gray whales swam. Gold finches flashed the sunlight of their bodies in the air, swallows coursed joyously from the eaves of old storefronts, hummingbirds hovered before spikes of white quamash, and at just the right moment in just the right season, starlings swooped in great dancing clouds near the terminal where the ferries came and went. Here, hemlocks and firs soared into the heavens, rabbits openly munched unmolested in garden beds, raccoons were known to wander through the open hallways of the middle school in a search for discarded lunches, and deer high-stepped among the various cottages, decimating everything from tulips to topiaries.
In this pleasant place Janet Shore made her first appearance, born into a very ordinary family on a very ordinary day in a very ordinary house as her parents had eschewed hospitals for the birth of all their children and were not about to alter this course when Janetâchild number sixâcame along. Perhaps more observation during her birth would have told her parents of Janet's yet-to-be tested powers, but her parents were not the observant sort, nor were her four brothers and single sister, all of whom spent their mother's labor and subsequent delivery of the sixth bundle of Shore joy in the back yard of the family home where a search for forty dollars in dimesâprepared in advance by their wily fatherâwould end up producing only $39.90, no matter the length of time that they spent searching, which would be, naturally, quite considerable. Indeed, the five youngstersâaged three to ten yearsâhad actually managed to dislodge only $25.70 from the lawn, the vegetable beds, the compost heap, and the flower garden when their father emerged from the house to tell them that the Shore lineâhe had that kind of sense of humor, alasâhad been extended once again.
In very short order, they were introduced to Janet who was notâas you might well imagineânearly as interesting to them as the dimes that still lay unclaimed in the yard. And it must be admitted that as the years of Janet's childhood progressed, matters didn't alter much when it came to her relationship with her siblings. As for her parents, what can one say? They were back-to-the-landers who'd arrived on Whidbey Island to live a simple life described by hard work growing their own fruits and vegetables, raising goats for milk and cheese, practicing skilled carpentry for a local contractor (Dad) and establishing the village's recycling center, its thrift shop, and its food bank while simultaneously home schooling six children (Mom) and then blissfully producing two more (Mom and Dad together, of course). So in the midst of what was a busy life, if one child had a nature that was rather whimsical, as long as she didn't get underfoot or impede the daily progress of life among the Shores, chances were very good that she would remain largely unnoticed. Such was the case with Janet, who easily could have been lost in the shuffle entirely had she not possessed the weakest constitution of all the children.
Thus put to the question, Janet's parents would have noted only one characteristic about their sixth child that caused her to be modestly different from her brothers and sisters (those last two babies being girls, by the way). She was, unfortunately, a rather sickly sort, easily attacked by various viruses, bacteria, and germs, and in such a way that her childhood might best be described as one spent largely in bed with occasional forays into the real world where she would, in very short order, pick up another bug to fell her again.
Most children find imprisonment in a sick bed both trying and tiresome. Some childrenâ especially if they are one among manyâfind it comforting as they quickly surmise that the only moments that they will actually have the nurturing attention of their parents are those moments of illness. And a few children see the sickbed as a doorway to another world, brought to them courtesy of the dozens of books that one parent or the other rushes to the library to obtain, in the hope of keeping the invalid occupied.
As you have no doubt surmised, Janet was of this last small group. Influenza? Strep throat? Chicken pox? Measles? Mumps? The common cold? An undiagnosed ailment of one kind or another? These were greeted with such enthusiasm by the child Janet Shore that one might have concluded she was headed for lifelong hypochondria had one not known of her penchant for losing herself in stories. She began with fairy tales: the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson being her favorites. She went on to mythology, preferring the Romans over the Greeks. She dipped into Biblical picture books in her younger years, and she quickly moved on to
The Boxcar Children
and the Little House books, graduating from there to Nancy Drew's adventures as well as those of Trixie Belden, the Hardy Boys, and the Bobsey Twins, this last group unearthed from her grandmother's house in New Hampshire and sent along when it became apparent that Janet was sure to read the entire collection of children's books available at the village library before she was ten years old.
One reason for Janet's love of reading was, of course, the escape it provided from her constant illnesses and the additionally constant turmoil of living in a very small house with seven other children and two adults. The other reason for this love, however, had everything to do with Janet's talent, that very special quality in her possession that her busy parents had never had the opportunity to notice.
It is often said that individuals escape into books and what this means, of course, is that individuals escape their humdrum lives by sinking into the pages of a novel. But Janet Shore
into books to the fullest extent that that word can be used. Given a heart rending scene of emotion (Mary Ingalls going blind!), a thrilling adventure in a frightening cave (Tom, Huck, and Injun Joe!), a battle with pirates (Peter Pan and Captain Hook!), and our Janet was actually able to transport herself
the scene itself. And not as a passive observer, mind you, but rather as a full participant in the story. Thus the Mad Hatter and the March Hare served
tea along with Alice, and when the Prince presented the glass slipper to Cinderella, Janet was able to shove her aside and try the footwear on herself. That other Prince kissed
instead of Snow White and who can blame him since kissing Snow was so akin to smooching a corpse, and when Rapunzel lowered her hair, Janet climbed
to her rescuer before he could get a decent grip on the locks that would lead him to his love.
Can there be any doubt, then, why Janet Shore greeted her illnesses with the passion of a long lost love come to claim her hand? How could doubt exist in this situation? And it was all so easy to achieve in a household where one went largely unnoticed. Indeed, the very fact of Janet's near anonymity among her siblings allowed her hours and days in which to practice launching herself into novels when she was engaged in a battle with no illness at all. She learned that this required of her only three elements: a story that provided her with enchantment, excitement, terror, thrills, or any other physical or emotional connection to it; solitude to serve as a launching pad; and a tether that allowed her access back into the real world.
Two of these were easily come by. Becoming lost within and enthralled by a story was second nature to Janet, and using the family dog as a tether did not require a great deal of thought. Solitude was the tricky bit, but she finally managed to locate the perfect spot for this when she discovered that, tucked deep within the village's old and crumbling cemetery and just beyond the looming conifers that lined the far side of the area dedicated to the cremated citizens of Langley, an ancient potting shed had been long forgotten and nearly consumed by blackberry bushes, lichen, and moss. In this shed, carefully repaired as best she could to keep out the rain which was plentiful in this part of the world, Janet supplied herself with an ancient hook rug long ago made by one of her aunts, along with what surely was a third hand blanket purchased from the local thrift store, and a pillow pilfered from the hall closet in her parents' house, only disinterred when a relative came to visit and had to sleep on the couch. Supplied with these items of marginal comfort, Janet could retire to the cemetery and to her hidden spot as often as she liked, in the company of whatever rescue dog her family was currently sheltering. With the dog outside of the potting shed and Janet inside with his leash wrapped round her wrist, she was safely anchored to the real world, the dog dragging her back to it the moment his dinner hour rolled around. It was a foolproof way to experience life in the written world, and thus it served her several years.
Janet would no doubt have rested quietly with her talent had not a very silly argument about a Halloween pageant, Boo Radley, and Bob Ewell developed between her and her best friend Monie Reardon. A misreading of the climactic scene in that novel and its subsequent denouement had given Monie the impression that, just as Heck Tate slyly suggested, Bob Ewell had fallen upon his own knife. Nothing that Janet said to Monie could convince the girl of anything else. Even their seventh grade teacher Mrs. Neff could not convince Monie. For Monie was something of a black-and-white reader, and the subtleties of Heck Tate's suggestions and his references to the townspeople leaving grateful gifts on the Radley doorstep did not convince Monie that she was sadly mistaken about Bob Ewell's demise in the climax of the book. Thus, Janet decided to provide her with an experience to alter her viewpoint.
Janet wasn't certain that she could do this, however: to send someone other than herself into a piece of literature. But she discovered that the concentration she applied to her own literary travels worked just as well on others, if she rested the relevant book upon their chests, opened to the relevant scene. Then it was a matter of hands placed in the appropriate position, breathing slowed to a deep and steady pace, the repetition of
welcome me welcome me welcome me home
along with five other words whose revelation here would be far too dangerous to the reader of this tale, and with less than an eye blink the literary traveler would be gone. Which is to say that her soul and her mind and her experience would be gone. Her body would, of course, remain where it was, which in this case was the potting shed in the Langley cemetery near the cremation stones.