Re-reading a Favorite Book from First Grade
By Jeff Salter
At some point during the spring (probably) of 2019, one of my Facebook friends asked: “What is the first book you remember reading?” That’s a tough question for me to answer because I can’t recall ever being without a book. As I cogitated on that matter, however, my mind eventually took me back to a memory from my first grade year, 1956-57, at the small public library on Boston Street in Downtown Covington LA.
During that year, my dad took our only family car – a 1952 Plymouth station wagon – each day to Mandeville, where he worked as Protestant Chaplain at Southeast Louisiana [Mental] Hospital. Without a vehicle, my mom would pull a little red wagon into town, do the shopping and errands, and return with our groceries, supplies, and books from what must have been weekly stops at the little library.
The specific memory that was tickling my brain was me standing near the library’s front door, waiting on Mom and my siblings to complete their transactions so we could begin our walk home – about five or six blocks from there, I believe – and me holding the book I was impatient to begin reading. That book was about a boy and a bear.
Well, folks, you can imagine there have been more than a handful of books about a boy and a bear that could have been in that public library. My task in 2019 was to figure out which book it had been. I no longer remember my specific search pattern, but I think I recalled vaguely that “my” book possibly had won some kind of award. I must have poked around with search terms and somehow stumbled onto the answer: the 1953 Caldecott Medal winner was “The Biggest Bear” by Lynd Ward.
Once I tracked down the cover, its artwork triggered immediate recognition. But I had absolutely no recollection of the story itself. So, naturally, I had to acquire a copy. I’ve forgotten what I paid or where I located it (probably Amazon).
Since I had no recollection (whatsoever) of the story itself, re-reading it after 63 years was quite an experience. You could tell by the cover that the boy and the massive bear were best buddies, but that was all. Inside, with the full page illustrations and just a sentence or two of text facing each, the story unfolds. [SPOILER ALERT]
Little Johnny Orchard goes hunting for a bear so his family can “keep up” with their neighbors — almost all of whom have a bearskin nailed to their barns to dry (and cure).
Johnny comes back with a bear, all right, but it’s not dead… and it’s not even grown — it’s a helpless little orphaned cub.
Needless to say, Johnny is allowed to keep that little cub, who gets into all sorts of mischief. The bigger he gets, the more serious the mischief. Finally, the bear – grown into a massive adult – has caused so much trouble that the neighbors come to the Orchard house with an ultimatum: either the Orchards take care of their bear… or the neighbors will settle things their own way.
Sadly, Johnny explains things to the bear and tries three different methods of getting the bear out of that area permanently. But each time, the bear returns to the Orchard farm to be with Johnny.
Johnny’s folks lay down the law — the bear must be put down. Bravely, Johnny takes the bear into the woods with the intention of dispatching it. But before he can do so, the bear sniffs the bait in a bear trap (cage) and runs headlong into it… taking Johnny with him. Now, both are trapped inside the cage.
Soon, three rangers show up and explain they’d been trapping bears to send to a city zoo. In the zoo, they explain, the bear will be well fed and comfortable… and Johnny can visit any time he likes.
In the mid-1950s, it satisfied my childish sensibilities that a zoo was a proper place for bear that had been so tamed that it couldn’t hunt for his own food in the wild. But as a grown-up nearing age 70 (at that point), I was greatly saddened to imagine Johnny’s massive bear living in a tiny cage in a zoo. Oh well.
I wish Lynd Ward were still alive and could re-write those final few pages. I’d like to see the bear in a wildlife preserve where he could roam and hunt and live like a bear… and not like an exhibit in a tiny cage of concrete and iron bars. My grandkids were already too old to be “read to” by the time I acquire this book, but if I get a chance to read it to my great-grandchildren, I think I’ll affix my own ending to the story… in place of Ward’s final two pages.
What about YOU? Any books from your childhood that you remember so fondly that you’d like to read them again?
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Some of my earlier musings on versions of this topic:
[JLS # 530]