What makes reading such a wonderful experience? What makes people want to pick up a book or a Kindle and spend hours of their time turning pages and absorbing the words written there?
Well, one of the joys of reading is getting so involved in the times and places and lives of the characters that your surroundings disappear and you are transported away. If you are a true reader, you have met characters who take root in your heart and become real. Some become like good friends. Others are so evil that you feel something in your gut when their names are mentioned. In some extraordinary cases you find yourself wondering what those folks are up to today.
Another pull of reading comes from words and ideas that reach the soul. You read something so beautiful that you have to reread the sentence again and read it aloud to someone else. You find yourself wanting to highlight or write “YES!” in the margins. You find yourself thinking that you would love to have the chance to spend time with the author who seems to know your thoughts. Holden Caulfield, the main character in J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, said, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
If you’ve never experienced the joys of reading like this, I’m really sorry that you haven’t. But, as I always told my students, it doesn’t mean you don’t like to read. It means you haven’t found the right book, the right author.
One of the authors who took me to a wonderful time and place, who introduced me to wonderful people I wanted to know, and who I wanted a chance to be friends with was Dorothea Benton Frank.
I first met her work while on vacation. My friend and I were vacationing in Charleston, South Carolina. As usual we went looking for independent bookstores as we explored the area and I discovered a book called Sullivan’s Island by a Lowcountry author on display in one store. I have always been drawn to Southern storytellers and the bookseller spoke highly of the book, so it found its way back to the hotel with me. That evening I dipped my toes into the waters off Sullivan’s Island and was immediately hooked on Dorothea Benton Frank’s writing. I was feeling her descriptions and characters especially being in Charleston. And then I was reeled in hook, line, and sinker when the main characters went to dinner in a restaurant I had eaten in the night before. Recognizing places is just too much fun and makes it all seem so real and true.
That lucky selection of a book on vacation that was purchased primarily because it was about an area I was visiting and written by an author from the Lowcountry was just the opening of a door to a wonderful world I’ve inhabited ever since. I traveled from Sullivan’s Island to the Isle of Palms on to Shem Creek and Pawley’s Island. I met Christmas Pearl, The Last Original Wife, and The Hurricane Sisters. I spent All Summer Long and came back to the Same Beach, Next Year, and looked forward to doing so for many years to come. Alas, Dottie Frank died following summer last year so there won’t be continued new adventures, but I can always revisit these old friends. (I just had a wonderful surprise as I was looking up something on her books, there is still one more to come!)
These books have similar characters and settings. They are often referred to as Lowcountry Tales and some see them as a series. However, the books don’t have to be read in order. They can stand alone, but there is a joy in reading them in the order they were published. Once you’ve read Sullivan’s Island and you move on to reading Isle of Palms, you will find the characters from the first book popping up to make an appearance. They aren’t main characters. You don’t need to know anything about them from their story. But when they pop up and you think, “Hey, I know them! They’re old friends” you feel like an insider.
I think that feeling of “Hey, I know them! They’re old friends” is also what makes me so love these novels. The characters are good, decent people who have some troubles, who struggle with a situation, or who have lived through disappointment. They work through things, meet friends and lovers, and rely on old friends. They could be you, your friends, or your neighbors. They are lovely realistic characters who, like their creator, seem to be someone you want to know and befriend.
I had the joy of meeting and having lunch with Dorothea Frank one day and meeting her did not disappoint. She was the speaker at an event sponsored by Aaron’s Book Store in Lititz, PA. My friend and I arrived early at the venue. The doors were unlocked so we wandered in. The organizers were lovely and welcomed us even though they weren’t quite ready and we were early. As we tried to stay out of the way, a lovely woman called to us, “Please, come over here and sit with me.” And with those words, I met Dorothea Benton Frank, had lunch with her, and hung on every word of her remarks to the crowd that day. I have a picture with her that I treasure. And I found that day that my original feeling about her was right. We could have been friends.
If you’ve never met Dorothea Benton Frank’s characters and been pulled in by one of her stories, you are in for a real treat. Pick her up on Sullivan’s Island and enjoy the trip.
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