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Black Lamb


Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.


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Memorable Miss Osborne

June 1st, 2003


To single out one book, any more than a whole library’s worth of them, as being of most influence on one’s development — as reader, writer, and human being — is like having to list your favorite kisses from an unforgettable lover.

But I can simplify the process by counting on one hand the books which, read before age twenty, had such a powerful effect on me that the impressions remain vividly: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (which I found in my Southern grandmother’s house when I was eleven and read without stopping over the course of two days and a night); Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz (the copy given to my mother by her analyst, who curiously thought Zelda’s unhappy story would make inspiring material for my mother’s own recovery from a nervous breakdown); Ferdinand Mayr-Ofen’s The Tragic Idealist (a life of so-called Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, which set me on course for studying and writing historical biographies and put me in love with the handsome young monarch pictured in the frontispiece); and Dame Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (which, with West’s painter’s eye and composer’s ear for coloring and orchestrating ideas and images to produce breathtakingly beautiful moods and insights, had a huge influence on my own writing style).

Yet it was a children’s book, not quite fit for the above list of masterworks, that made the greatest, longest-lasting impression: Wilson Gage’s Miss Osborne-the-Mop.

This 1963 story about a mop brought magically to life by two children, Jody and Dill, to become a sort of adorable Über-nanny, was published a year before my birth, so when I found it in our school library in second grade it was already almost a decade old. As nearly as I can recall, the cover bore a drawing of an upended mop that looked like a wild-haired but well-meaning old lady, with bright, curious eyes and a loopy smile, which is what drew me to it (I’m one of those bibliophiles who does occasionally judge a tome by its cover).

The story enchanted me. In our house, not only did our parents encourage us to keen over deceased pets with all the drama normally reserved for near and dear humankind, but when we assumed that inanimate objects had life in them — feelings, ideas, fears — we were not disabused of the notion. This meant that before I went to school every morning, I tucked an assorted stuffed menagerie comfortably against my pillows and kissed them all goodbye, and if I happened to knock one of them off the bed in the process, or forgot to bid them farewell, I could hardly concentrate at school; it was just as if I had injured a real creature.

Thus Miss Osborne was tailor-made for me. I reveled in the adventures she guided her children through, like a Mary Poppins of the broom-closet, and even dreamed about her, wishing I had a non-human friend like her. To my mind this meant someone I could trust not to betray me or throw my love back in my face — something that happened in the schoolyard at least once a day, for I was an unpopular child who, tragically, was wont to conceive affection for his tormentors.

Ironically, my reaction to Miss Osborne-the-Mop proved to make me even less popular than I already was, because at the end of the Osbornian adventures, just when I fancied that perhaps all would live happily ever after, Miss Osborne came to grief. Like any ordinary mop-stick, she broke, and with her dying words she asked the children to bury her in a tree, that she might return to the substance whence she came. I reached this passage while sitting in class, and I burst into tears.

In my small town grade school, we still had old wooden flip-top desks, replete with smudge-rimmed holes where inkwells had once been. I remember thinking, “I have never cried in class,” which upset me even more because I could not control myself, and a few of the other kids had noticed and were, as usual, giggling and making fun. So I lifted the wooden lid of the desk and sobbed behind it, feeling that the world had ended, and at the same time rapt with the ecstasy that something outside myself had reached in and shaken my heart to its very roots. I now realize that this was the very first time I had ever cried over a book, a reaction by which I still judge the quality of most things that matter in life. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Book Issue, Books and Authors, Menzies | Link to this Entry


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