The Book Barrel by Beth Claycomb
There’s a farm in South Dakota where the most magical books can be found. In an abandoned house. In a feed barrel.
This fantastical place of books is where I grew up. It was pastoral, located right along the Belle Fourche River with walleye fishing, a horse to ride, and barn cats. Many, many mean barn cats.
However, the spot with the best memories was the ramshackle building in the backyard that had been the original farm house. We called it The Old House because it was older than the house we lived in and because we weren’t that creative.
During the summer months, The Old House stayed in constant use. My cousins and siblings played school in there (I was always the teacher), Little House on the Prairie (I was always Laura), and The Dukes of Hazzard (I was always Daisy). There was even an old sink in the kitchen for when we played house. I’m pretty sure the attic was haunted too. And the best part of The Old House was the book barrel.
It sat in a corner of The Old House–just a feed barrel, clean and steel-lidded so mice wouldn’t gnaw the pages of the library discards inside. We all knew barn cats were lousy literacy advocates.
We couldn’t just dig in whenever we wanted to. Dad was the only one who could get the spring-locking ring off the barrel. So when summer came and the days were longer, we’d beg Dad to join us in The Old House and open up the barrel. It was the thrill of the unexpected, a grab bag. What would we take back to the house with us this time? Visiting the book barrel seemed more of an adventure than anything Little Half-Pint or Daisy Duke ever did.
The titles weren’t very exotic or varied, but that didn’t matter. Mostly our choices were out-of-print nature books and Nancy Drew classics. Every child needs to read The Mystery of the Old Clock! I clearly remember there was a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There was an entire set of Thornton W. Burrgess animal stories. One of my favorite books ever, Loblolly Farm by Madye Lee Chastain, came out of that barrel.
I’d take my new-to-me book back to the house, anticipating a late night of reading by flashlight. Oh how delicious!
Those days are gone now. I’m living in Colorado with a husband and an eight-year-old son, but there’s no Old House in my subdivision. I don’t have a book barrel and, to be honest, I hadn’t thought about that thing in years.
Then last autumn, my dad passed away. The farm was leased and my mom moved to town. All of these changes got me thinking of memories from my childhood. That’s when I remembered the book barrel and the magical summer trips to dig up treasure.
Like a lot of things from my childhood, the book barrel is something my son will never experience. He won’t live a farm-kid life or play in The Old House with his cousins. Not having a book barrel is just one more thing my son will miss out on, right? Poor city boy, I thought. At least he doesn’t have to deal with mean barn cats.
Then a postcard with this information came in the mail:
Fall Friends of the Library Book Sale
And this conversation occurred:
Son: Are we going to the book sale?
Me: Sure. What kind of books are you looking for? Something special?
Son: Books about plants. Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes. How many days until we go?
Me: Two weeks. It’s like a treasure hunt, isn’t it?
Amid the long tables covered in books, my son found a Garfield book and two Calvin and Hobbes comics. As we walked out to the parking lot, he hugged his new-to-him books to his chest. That night he read past his bedtime, eating popcorn and laughing. To my ears, it sounded delicious.
Later I pondered how maybe my son has a book barrel after all. Sometimes it’s the hunt for a book that makes it so special.
I guess magical books aren’t just found in South Dakota.
Beth Claycomb has been a teacher for 17 years. Currently she teaches language arts to 7th graders. Originally from the Black Hills, she now lives in Colorado with her husband and son. Right now she’s knee-deep in NaNoWriMo. Please send her good, creative vibes. Find her on twitter at @bgclaycomb.