I taught myself to read at four or five. The book was called, I think, “Henry the Helicopter”; there’s an image in memory of calling out “Mom, what’s this word: ‘T H E’?” from my upstairs bedroom in the house we moved out of before I was six.
By the time I was eight, many more books and stories had entered my experience. Three in particular stand out; I read each one many times, and have never forgotten them.
Each of those three started something. Each one set me on a path that has continued over the intervening sixty+plus years. I’d even say that each one generated a new version of myself; all three of which have lived together ever since, sharing my thoughts, my spirit, my sensibilities.
The first one was Dickon Among the Indians. It started me on a lifelong absorption in tribes, cultures, religions and their stories and their agents. I’ll say more about that later.
The second one was Stratosphere Jim and his Flying Fortress. This was crude science fiction. Four years later, when I encountered the real thing in writers like Asimov, Heinlein, and Arthur Clarke, they felt familiar. For me, at the time, SJFF was my first thrilling adventure story, a Star Wars for the late 40’s.
The third one was Pilgrim’s Progress. The path that this set me on eventually became philosophy and literature. Of course, the religious concepts were familiar to me, even at eight; but the story seemed a little odd.
I read it with curiosity and bewilderment. I had the vocabulary (or acquired it on the fly, from context), the bare facility with reading, and plenty of imagination. But I had only eight years experience of being human.
We were not well-to-do. We lived on forty-four acres at the dead end of what, three miles to the west, was the main street of the town. Our nearest neighbor was a little over half a mile away. There were my parents and us five siblings, I being the middle. Grandma, in decline, had come to live with us a couple of years earlier, and would move in another year to a rest home in Grand Rapids.
My mother’s father had been a pastor — we referred to them as “domine” — of the Dutch Reformed Church. I knew him only through the library of books we inherited after his death, in 1917, of influenza. These included some large sets: I remember two or three dozen volumes of 19th-century poets, a dozen of European history, a six-volume set of myths and legends from Greece and Rome.
The Pilgrim’s Progress must have come to us from him, the Reverend Meengs. It was a late 19th-century edition, with many illustrations which had evidently been collected from a variety of earlier printings and publishers. They were a wildly diverse set; I wasted a lot of effort trying to reconcile discrepancies in their presentation of Christian, his companions, and the geography of his journey.
Well, what, really, did I absorb from John Bunyan? Surprisingly, not much in the way of religion. Which brings us back to DAI .
Dickon Among the Indians was fire-damaged: the dust jacket was missing, and the covers were warped, the spine discolored. My brother Phil, seven years older than I, had bought it at a flea market. (He was also my source for Stratosphere Jim and his Flying Fortress.)
DAI was a window into another kind of life, another way of living, speaking, learning, and even worshipping.
It’s been said that to really know one’s own native language, one has to acquire a second one. That’s what Dickon did for me: I understood, reading it, that the religion of my family and of the surrounding community — its services, offices, institutions, and creeds — constituted a vocabulary of conventions for addressing whatever in human experience was divine. And I came to understand that the Delaware Indians Dickon lived among in the book used another set of such idioms.
Of course I could not have said this at the time. I simply enjoyed being with Dickon, among the Indians. But the position I’m articulating here was pretty well established in my thinking by the time I reached high school. And all of that had started with my reflecting on Dickon Among the Indians.