The Bit I Remember

Egyptian dogs


For about a century people have said that the climactic pages of Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompei are as tense and exciting as the rest is pompous and overwrought, to which I will agree.

The first time someone mentioned this idea, what popped into my mind was The Twilight Barking in the otherwise fairly forgettable The Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith. The book is fairly slight, a quick read for kids—I zoomed through it in half an afternoon when I was ten, when it first came out.

What was invisible then makes kind of painful reading now: not just the somewhat coy conceit that humans are owned by their animals (even a kid knows that no animal would pick the appallingly abusive owners one sees too often on one’s block) but that the dogs are married, the female dogs weak and dependent on their males. Some of those long-eyelashed female dogs don’t even have names besides ‘Missus’ but they sure do love being the equivalent of fifties housewives in a saccharine way that one seldom actually saw in real fifties housewives, except on TV and movies.

All that fell away like chaff, as time went by. The only part of the story that lingered over all these years was the Twilight Barking, a wonderful scene in which the animals pass on news and calls for help. This spirited banding together was an exhilarating and inspiring example of strength overcoming power.

I felt the same way about “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter in The Wind in the Willows, a book that was supposed to delight children, but which frustrated visual me because I couldn’t see why animals dressed like people and had kitchens in animal dens, or how Mr. Toad could drive a car—was it a life-sized car, in which case, how did he manage the wheel? Or was it a toad-sized car, in which case, how did he avoid being squashed by human vehicles? I spend most of my read immensely frustrated until I got to that chapter, with its glimpse of the numinous.

In that particular case, I was delighted to find others who’d felt the same. One of my best memories of Mythcon was Dawn Fandom, when Glen GoodKnight, the founder, read that chapter to us as the sun came up over the summery garden at the Claremont Colleges.

Is there any scene or chapter of an otherwise unmemorable book that lingers for you?



The Bit I Remember — 17 Comments

  1. As much as I relish well-done action scenes and suspense, what sticks with me are quiet, meaningful moments of interaction between characters I love, sharing a meal for instance or a conversation as they walk through the woods.

    • Yes! I think of those as character moments; they don’t work if the narrative voice is too heavy-handed with Moments Of Happiness Before Doom Strikes. It’s the moments that drop a trapdoor into understanding, even a tiny thing: this character, this time.

      BTW still doing strategic info gathering re Tuesday. Stand by for Launch Time!

  2. I think the things that linger in a meaningful way are (no surprises, I guess) things that have resonated with something I’ve thought or felt, or that have provoked me to think or feel something new, or that have clarified something for me, or that have been astonishingly beautiful or powerful (or horrible).

    I really liked Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Green-sky books, and lots about them stuck with me, but the first thing that jumps to mind right now is Raamo’s younger sister spilling the beans to him about illusion–how kids are taught to fake the spirit arts. He never was taught it because he maintained his spirit ability. He’d always thought of himself as being mediocre, and yet it turns out that all those people who were better than him were actually faking it.

    That scene stuck in my head because it was the first time I’d read, as a kid, a description of a cheating system where the teachers aid and abet the kids in the cheating–everyone’s doing it but no one want to acknowledge it because to acknowledge it will mean acknowledging a truth about the society that no one wants to acknowledge. That’s a complicated concept; I had never really thought about it before then.

  3. I often remember quotes from books I’ve reread — and I’ll quote them at appropriate times, hoping someone else remembers.

    Like, “I’m pouting, do I look like I’m pouting?” “You look like you have gas.” (Or something really similar.) From one of the Black Jewels books, I think it’s Dreams Made Flesh.

    Or, “Fear is good. It means you’re paying attention.” From one of the Keladry books, I think it’s Squire.

  4. This kind of thing made me realize that China Mieville’s Embassytown had made a much bigger impression on me than I’d thought. Six months after I read it, it came up in conversation and I was able to rattle off several phrases that were important to the book (“the girl who was kept in the dark and ate what was given to her” and “Before the humans came we didn’t speak so much of certain things. Before the humans came we didn’t speak so much. Before the humans came we didn’t speak.”) without even thinking about it.

  5. Actually the 101 Dalmatians was one of my favorite books that I read early in English back when we first arrived in the West, and one of my very FEW re-reads ever (normally I never re-read anything) — I read it over and over and over again… I have no memory of the Twilight Barking, what I remember, with a mind-blowing child’s awe, was the “miracle” in the church, the dog-shaped “seats” or pews in the church, and the final glorious homecoming. Loved that book, but for completely different reasons, and was never bothered by any of the details you bring up. 🙂

  6. Servus oida!
    101 Dalmatians used to be my favorite Disney movie (next to other obviously sexist and/or racist films such as Lady and the Tramp, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame). I’ve never read the book though and didn’t know that there was a book until I watched the movie one day to write about the societal structure of the film for my Gender Studies class. (The teacher gave me a C on that particular assignment because she didn’t think the Disney movies with animals depicted as having a culture identical to humans was as relevant to the topic as Disney movies about people.)

    There’s a particular cheap, mass-produced paperback romance about an Irish woman being sold to Vikings for a crime she did not commit that I read one day between my mid-terms. I don’t remember much from the plot line other than the scene when the woman’s little sister–also sold to vikings somehow. . .but I don’t remember why, drowned in a freezing lake and the woman’s sorrow and frustration were just so overwhelming. It was one of the only good scenes in the book. I also remember the “juicy” parts of the novel that were supposed to be the reason why the book was written were quick and lacking any detail that set the desired mood the reader was supposed to experience. I don’t even remember the title of the book.

      • As far as the teacher is concerned, she got in trouble later that semester for asking us why we were all so “f***** lazy”.

        Some of the historical elements within the cheap romance book also linger. (Like how viking servants had to wear iron collars. . .that was one detail of the viking life I had no clue about.)

  7. Thanks for the interesting question. I remember reading Robert Heinlein’s “The Day After Tomorrow” as a teen and loving the quasi-science about it (rays that do all sorts of magical stuff). I reread it a couple of years ago when I recommended it to my teenage son and found that it was ruined by the racial views.

    Two other books came to mind when I read Sherwood’s post, for completely different reasons. “The Sherwood Ring” (a delightful YA fantasy that deserves to stay in print. Forever.) for a scene in the middle of the book, where the heroine has been captured during the Revolutionary War by an English spy with whom she is reluctantly falling in love, and has to figure out how to escape. The other is “Lord of the Flies.” I was so caught up in the brutal world the boys had created, that when adult suddenly appeared on the scene and saw only dirty little boys playing with sticks, it completely shocked me. It was like a pitcherful of cold water had been thrown at me.