The Reading Promise came to me by way of my mother’s recommendation, and she brought it to my attention first with the story of the author’s name, Alice Ozma. Her name adapted from her two middle names, Ozma explains herself by saying, “My parents made a deal that my mother could pick the first names of girls and my father could pick the middle names, and vice versa, so Alice and Ozma are his doing . . . My father wanted to name me after strong females in literature.” Given that my own parents had come to a similar arrangement, with similar conclusions, I could see why my mother thought I’d be interested in this book. And of course, the book itself is the memoir of a girl who was read to by her father every night for nine years (called ‘The Streak’). Spoilers to follow…
Being that The Reading Promise is nonfiction, I’m put in a difficult position. I don’t like Alice’s father, an elementary school children’s librarian. As my mother put it, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, he’s a librarian (I have something of a soft spot where that’s concerned) and an enthusiastic devourer and pusher of books for and to children, something of which I wholly approve. On the other hand, to me, he never comes off as a particularly good father. He’s very awkward, does not like to be touched, does not enjoy confrontation. His interactions with younger daughter Alice are largely framed around Read Hot, their nightly reading sessions. Throughout the book, Alice is confronted with all kinds of unfortunate, not uncommon problems: the death of a beloved fish, her parents’ divorce, the death of her grandfather, some unusual childhood fears. Faced with every one of these problems, her father is only capable of offering a simple solution, and when that doesn’t work, he offers her, “Well, the heck with you.” Alice is a sensitive, intelligent child (though one has to take into consideration that older, present day Alice is painting younger, past Alice with a biased brush – one of the many difficulties of nonfiction vs. fiction) and when her father can’t understand her, he just kind of dismisses her. We’re treated periodically to exchanges such as this, where Alice is contemplating her name change from Kristen to Alice Ozma, and asks her father:
“Do you think it is something I have to grow into? Like long hair?”
I hadn’t cut my hair in a year, and though the length seemed appropriate, it didn’t look quite right on my head. He wrinkled his eyebrows and made a face like he was blowing out a candle.
“Are you serious about this hair thing? You look like a swamp creature.”
It was lucky that I had decent self-esteem.
“Or do you remember the movie Attack of the Killer Shrews, where they used dogs with carpets on their backs as the monsters? That it sort of what it looks like.”
Yes, that self-esteem really came in handy.
I guess it’s a situation where actions speak louder than words. Alice goes on to say how he’s beloved by the children who frequent his library. While his marriage to Alice’s mother failed, he does go on to date, including a long-term relationship. Even the cat (the unfortunately-named Rabbi) likes him, and the affection of cats is notoriously hard-won.
I think Alice’s dad is not a very good father, but that’s not very fair of me, is it? He’s a real person, presented in a very limited context. I don’t know him the way Alice does, obviously, and she seems to think he’s a good father, so who am I to judge? That’s one of the things that makes me prefer fiction, because if this man was a fictional character, it wouldn’t make me feel guilty for disliking him. There’s a lot to think about regarding characterization in there. We have approximately the same amount of space to make judgements about the people in this book as we do in any of the books Alice and her father read. In those fiction books, we can say definitively whether or not we like a character. But because these aren’t characters, they’re people, we have all the judgements we can’t make, because this is only a snippet of their lives.
I can see why my mother wanted me to read this: it did remind me of my own childhood, being read to by my father, though we stopped long before it was time for me to go to college. Which is really the point, the lovely story of a young girl and her dad struggling through the hardships of life and the perils of getting older, bonding together through a mutual love of books. That’s beautiful. And, I think it’s worth saying, it’s probably the lesson Alice Ozma’s dad would teach her, that you can’t let bad characters get in the way of a good story.