“Emily Dickinson is the perfect thing to hand to a 16-year old girl,” advised fellow blogger lynchlibrarian recently. What is it about Emily? Indeed, I was 16 when I purchased my paperback copy of her complete works (at the local Borders bookstore, my idea of the cool hangout spot), and I vividly remember discussing “Success is counted sweetest” in my high school’s U.S. Literature class. Certainly I considered her words earlier and later in life, though not by much: an eager seventh grade teacher chalked “I never saw a moor” on the board for the daily quote; in my second year of college, fellow English majors and I spent the better part of a class dissecting the differences between her 1859 and 1861 versions of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” (the power — of a dash!).
So what is it about Emily that resonates during young adulthood? While increasingly introspective teens may be intrigued by her famously reclusive habits, it’s her words that truly inspire. At a time when teenagers feel pulled between their past and future selves, her voice simultaneously offers innocence and wisdom. As they encounter the terribly great problems of the world and personal decisions to make, her subject matter rings with the impossible brightness and darkness of life’s great questions. Through succinct, tender verses, Emily provides young people with a “nugget of pure truth” to grasp in their hands and hearts. (My Virginia Woolf obsession came later in life.)
If young people miss out on enthusiastic teachers reading Emily’s poetry aloud, I’m happy to know they may also discover her in the pages of fiction. Jacqueline Woodson’s beloved Feathers (Putnam, 2007) perfectly pairs “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” with a story that examines the power of friendship over divisions and discrimination during the 1970s, a fragile, precariously hopeful time in our nation’s history. What a perfect story for a 12-year-old.
For older readers, Kathryn Burak’s novel Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things (Roaring Book Press, 2012) explores Emily’s darker side. After experiencing personal tragedy, Claire and her father attempt to start fresh by moving to Amherst, Massachusetts, the home of Emily Dickinson. Claire is a poet herself and finds herself drawn to Emily’s words, rich with poignant examinations of death, and to Emily’s house, now of course a museum where Emily’s personal belongings are artfully arranged for tourists to view. As if in a creative trance, she breaks in, night after night, to write while wearing Emily’s white dress — until the day the college-aged student teacher Tate discovers her. Instantly linked by this strangely intimate crime, they run, stealing the dress in the process. Burak’s poetry is the star of this novel, both in the actual verses Claire writes — the portals by which she gradually shares the tragic details of her past — and in the crisp, shimmering prose of Claire’s narration:
The smell of snow on the winter air fades. I take a deep breath. I smell paper. Here I have the cool, clean feeling of paper, too.
I am so glad to get away. To be in Emily Dickinson’s house.
With a frigate like this book, the reader will certainly agree.