A Taste Of Blackberries: Only The Goofs Die Young

Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the feature in which we give a wrinkled look at the books we loved as youth. This week, Lizzie Skurnick rereads Doris Buchanan Smith's A Taste of Blackberries', which gave readers everywhere a fear of hives.

In the children's literature pantheon of those who die too soon, there are two major types: the beautiful snoot who's killed off so that her uglier friend can guiltily brood forever upon her own ugliness and jealousy, and a vibrant being who helps a timid friend get bolder just in time to die in some typical act of heedlessness. (Fine Lines readers will here recall Bridge to Terabithia, as well as Constance C. Greene's Beat the Turtle Drum, in which a horse-tamer plunges off a tree to her end.) But I was introduced to death in the late 70s through Doris Buchanan Smith's A Taste of Blackberries, which for some time served as the semester's literary selection for 7-year-olds in my part of the country. (It was a kind of amuse-bouche for a main course of strangulation in Of Mice and Men.) And through the intervening decades, Buchanan's gentle, juice-stained depiction of early tragedy has, for me, set a standard neither Oprah pick nor Pen/Faulkner has ever faintly rivaled.

Young Jamie is the kind of friend who darts into a neighbor's garden to steal apples, hitches a ride in a car with a stranger, and pokes a stick right into a bee hive (more on that later). Though his best friend the narrator is, after all, the narrator, we never do find out his name. (Or do we? He's called "Chicken" by Jamie; "Honey," "Sweetie" or "Darling" — as in "Jamie is dead, darling" — by everyone else in the narrative.) But Jamie pays heavily for having top billing, as he's killed off just a few pages into the book when he pokes a stick into an underground beehive (see above), gets stung by the swarm of bees and goes into anaphylactic shock, then is left behind to die by our nameless narrator who assumes he is only fooling around, as usual.

After Jamie's death, the bulk of the narrative is taken up by our narrator's learning to cope, which actually follows the stages of grief from anger ("Jamie is a freak") to denial ("It seemed as long as I acted like Jamie wasn't dead, he wouldn't be dead anymore") to acceptance ("I cried and cried and cried"). Lying in a bath, the narrator tries to make soap lather to bring life back to Jamie; wandering in his neighbor's garden, he feels bad about trespassing. Looking at Jamie's younger sister, he decides he has to be a big brother for her now, and picks a bunch of blackberries for Jamie's mother, who says kindly that she'll bake them in a pie — an act that allows the narrator to release his guilt and run to play with the other neighborhood kids, who have been playing "'May I', but in hushed tones, because of Jamie."

When I was 7, these scenes, most of which barely span a hundred words, seemed vast swaths of narrative. I think that was less because I was a slow reader than because Buchanan so successfully rendered the way the smallest act in childhood takes on monumental significance — not only, of course, a death, but far smaller crimes, like stealing an apple, or triumphs, like figuring out how to string a tin-can phone across two windows (my friend and I never quite managed that one). In the world of a child, placing a flashlight up to your chin to make a spooky face can loom far larger in the memory than a tragic death, and while I remembered the narrator being frightened about wandering into Mrs. Mullins' garden without asking, I had forgotten entirely that as Jamie writhed on the ground, our protagonist left him to eat a popsicle.

I was going to have this Fine Lines focus heavily on the fine pencil illustrations of A Taste of Blackberries, which are so intrinsically connected to the book's quiet, melancholy power. But I moved this week, and unfortunately left my 1973 edition in some presently inaccessible pile. (That's what I get for being old and forgetful.) Instead I have the 1988 version, which seems to have mainly updated the illustrations in order to fit the hairstyles to that era. In the picture in the 70s edition, Jamie's mother has long straight hair parted in the middle and is wearing jeans and a loose shirt. Standing at her kitchen's screen door, she cups the narrator's chin with a kind of pre-Reagan-era intensity. Our 1988 mom has Farrah waves and a mom-like sweater, and her front door is graced with a nice plant. You can analyze which one is on the right side of history. Either way, Buchanan Smith is on the right side of childhood.

• • • • •

Ladies, it is less than T-minus 2 weeks to the publication of Shelf Discovery, and I could not be more in denial about it! I am completely lathering my chin up while everyone else goes to the funeral! However, there are going to be various items of publicity as well as various events to attend! If you want to know about them, you can do the following:

Friend me on FACEBOOK, where a cover gallery resides and people have made FUN YA QUIZZES;
Friend me on GOODREADS, where I am ignoring the 7893 books I would have to add to be accurate;
Visit me at HARPERCOLLINS, which has a fun template I fiddled with for an hour;
Follow me on TWITTER, which I don't understand but am trying to;
Sign up for my MAILING LIST, which will alert you to everything you need to know;
Go to LIZZIESKURNICK.COM, which will launch shortly and also have everything you need to know and is TO BOOT BEAUTEOUS thanks to my wonderful designer.

You can also PRE-ORDER THE BOOK! I just got it in the mail the other day and it is very pretty.

All of you giveaway winners, your books are coming. All of you quiz creators, send me your addresses. You can still win a book AUTOMATICALLY by creating a quiz on Facebook! (This is because I really just like having an excuse to take those quizzes.) Write me at jezziefinelines@gmail.com with all other demands/queries/items of information. Watched nephew today for three hours and am exhausted — how do you working moms do it? Respect! xoxoxo lizzie

A Taste Of Blackberries