Okay. You’ve put in a long, hard day (sometimes without a whole lot to show for) and you’re feeling drained. You need a good diversion, something pleasant and relaxing to take your mind off work and deadlines, bills to pay, and emails or voice mails that need answering. You kick back in your chair, beverage in hand, and turn on the TV. And what do you get? 24-hour news, yucky news. Loud and crass commercials. Sex and violence dramas.
It’s no surprise then that I’ve lately found myself yearning for simpler days. Just for a brief respite in the evening, long enough for my mind to quiet down before bedtime. And so I couldn’t believe my good luck when by chance I ran across a special friend from childhood that had been part of many wonderful memories I still cherish. Five lost decades just evaporated into thin air as if by magic, and I’ve been happily revisiting with my old chum every evening since.
You see, the special friend I’ve carried in my heart all these years is one of the first books I was able to finish on my own soon after I had learned to read. It was a translated copy of a children’s book by the beloved nineteenth-century French author Hector Malot, titled Sans Famille (“Without a Family”). It’s the story of an eight-year-old orphan boy who was ripped from his foster mother’s arms and sold by her heartless husband to a traveling artist with a troupe of performing dogs and monkey. The old artist loved the boy like his own blood and taught him to read and to play music and sing. Rain, snow or shine, the troupe wandered from village to village all around the country (France) and beyond (England, Switzerland), encountering all kinds of people along the way and weathering one adventure after another until—well, I won’t spoil the ending for you in case you may want to check it out some day. Suffice it to say it’s got all the ingredients for a fantastic story: love, friendship, loyalty, travel, mystery and intrigue, and adorable animals. I can’t recall how many times I reread that book from cover to cover through my years in elementary school.
It so happened I was browsing a Kindle book list one recent evening when I stumbled across a 1916 American translation of Sans Famille, called Nobody’s Boy. Out of curiosity, I downloaded it, not suspecting for a minute I would soon be swept up in the adventures of Rémi, the orphan boy, and his animal friends, all over again. It’s mind-boggling how much of it I still remembered all these years later. And not only the story, but also the feelings and emotions that it arose in me as a young child. It might have been my imagination afterwards but I’d swear I slept better—more happily and restfully—on those few nights after reading my childhood book again. The colorful illustration above is from a Japanese reprint, and even though it’s not the same as the cover of my early copy, it captures well the joyful spirit of the book.
And now, dear reader, would you care to share some of your special friends from your early years?