Still on my bookshelf are books that I loved as a child: . . . And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold, The Fur Person by May Sarton, and Asian stories. But one day in my teen years I came across a book my mother purchased for herself, by a man everyone in town knew. Some books have an inexplicable pull on us because of what they teach us, and this is one in my life.
John Leggett worked in Boston in the 1950s and 1960s before moving back to New York City and a job in publishing; he had always wanted to write. He and his wife were well known in the small town where I grew up. They and their three sons lived a few houses away from us, and my best friend at the time babysat for the boys. Sometimes, usually in the summer, I kept her company. We walked to the small beach nearby, or passed a quiet afternoon at home. I don’t remember the boys being particularly rambunctious.
His second novel, The Gloucester Branch, published in 1964, was read by all in town largely because of its local setting. I had read his first book some years earlier, much to my mother’s dismay, and expected to like his second. I already knew I wanted to be a writer, and had already published one essay. I was only months away from writing my first short story.
The first news I had of Leggett’s second book was a spirited discussion among my parents’ friends about the title. One insisted it was bad because no one outside of the Boston area would recognize it. The Gloucester branch was the name of the B&M line that ran out to Cape Ann. The debate raged. Next came the characterization of the protagonist’s wife. I can still hear one woman saying, “That’s Mary to a tee. Why didn’t he disguise her better?” All of this whetted my appetite for the novel, and I dove in. I recognized the house the fictional family lived in, the streets they walked, even some of the minor characters (or so I thought). I read avidly from page one to the end.
Most writers I’ve talked to mention a well-known title or author as seminal in their development, usually someone I’ve read or at least heard of. When I think back, of course I can list numerous titles by important writers that swept me away, inspired me, and linger even now. So why do I remember a little-known writer of the last century? Why not remember another, better-known book of the same period: To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Herzog (1964), Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), or any of the classics I read during that decade?
John Leggett never achieved great fame, though he ran the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa and mentored a long list of award-winning writers. From there he moved on to California to become head of another writing program. He never became a household name outside of my hometown.
But in reading his novel The Gloucester Branch, I could see exactly what he had done, how he had taken real life and reshaped it, added twists and enhanced details to layer on meaning where there had been none or only the dull quotidian. I recognized the details, understood the changes he wrought, and appreciated the result. No other work of fiction had given me the same insight perhaps because no other had been so transparent in its reshaping of reality into story. Many books inspired me to write, tell a better story, or invent a richer character. But only one opened the window onto the simple transformations made by a writer’s mind.