Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Magic Skates and Stories

by Rachael Phillips
Hans Brinker, the young Dutch hero in Mary Mapes Dodge's nineteenth-century children's novel, and I shared a common grief. Neither of us could afford the beautiful ice skates our hearts craved.
Family illness and poverty forced Hans to use clumsy wooden skates. Because of my family's tight budget, I wore hideous brown rental skates that, in my fourteen-year-old mind, certified me as an eternal member of Plumbers on Ice. Chunking and clumping around the city skating rink, I longed for sleek white skates that would magically morph me into Olympian Peggy Fleming. Wearing them, I would spin into an alternative universe where all that was wrong with my world would go right. There I would skate like a champion, never making an ignominious landing on my rump again. Even my zits would fade away.
Unlike Hans Brinker, I found my fairytale skates under our Christmas tree, and my family went skating that evening. Will I ever forget that enchanted black velvet night when the new skates cast a spell on my oversized feet and long wooden-puppet legs? As God cheered and threw silver confetti from the heavens, I glided, spun, even leaped and landed, moving in perfect synch with Peggy (who just happened to drop in).
For many of us, a good story acts like my Christmas ice skates. Reading a riveting novel rescues us from the everyday take-out-the-garbage aspects of life and sends us to imaginary kingdoms without limits. Cynics might question the dermatological benefits derived from using new skates ("Your zits went away? Oh, please!")--or reading a fascinating story. Still, both passions encourage healthy self-forgetfulness. Yet they dare us to be better than we are. As a child, I devoured Hans Brinker, reading it several times. Although dripping with summertime sweat, I lived thousands of miles away in his world, skimming over frozen canals, consumed with Hans' longing to win the silver skates--and challenged by his willingness to sacrifice his own desire to help someone else.
Cranky joints, a high insurance deductible, and the fact I type for a living have curbed my skating. But enthralling stories still send my heart twirling, swirling, and soaring. If we writers can produce novels that bless others in a similar way, even Peggy Fleming in her prime couldn't match the heights to which we can leap.
How about you? Any stories you've read or written, past or present, sent you soaring?


  1. When I was eleven and living in Scotland, we spent our Christmas holiday on the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides. Across the road from where we were staying was a "beach" covered with large bolders with flat tops. I had been reading "Little Women" at the time, and I pretended that each bolder was a different department in the store where Meg, Beth, Amy, and I (Jo, of course) went to buy Christmas presents.

    That Christmas the deaconess on Tiree gave me a book called "Princess Prunella" by Katharine Oldmeadow, and I still have it. I feel sorry for anyone without an active imagination and a love of reading, so those are the two things I wish for you this Christmas.

  2. Kathryn, So nice to know there were other imaginative little kids around when I was growing up! I went through a Laura Ingalls Wilder phase. I made myself a sunbonnet and wore it while I hoed the little garden I planted, lost in the 1870s.

  3. Rachael, I had a Laura sunbonnet too! and braids!

  4. LOL! I wore braids, too, Anne. I wonder how many thousands of little girls have lost themselves in Little House in the Woods or On the Banks of Plum Creek?

    Kathryn, I did the Little Women thing, too! I even wore a hair net as I trailed around the house in one of my mom's skirts.