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Four boxes filled with books

On a cold winter evening some years ago, my uncle brought us quite a gift: four cardboard boxes filled with books. He worked as a janitor, and part of his job was disposing of trash in an incinerator. That day the boxes, discards from the old Duluth Junior College that closed decades before, arrived on the loading dock. A kind man, my uncle thought of us. He knew how we loved to read and called my mother. Did we want them? We did!

It had been a pretty exciting winter for the LeGardes. We had moved into our house a few months earlier, from the country into town, and so much was new and exciting: we were close enough to get to school and the library fairly easily, there was a small mom-and-pop grocery store just blocks away and the neighborhood was full of kids. President Kennedy had just been inaugurated; most households had televisions and could watch him and his large extended family on the news.  Our mother, who was expecting, had just learned that she would have twins shortly. We were all very excited anyway, and then my uncle called about the boxes of books!

The evening was cold and in order to not waste heat from the furnace (a coal furnace with a rather modern, labor-saving electric stoker) we kept closing the front door between our dad’s and uncle’s trips as they carried in the heavy boxes of books. We waited until they had finished, then our mother opened the first box and lifted out book after book, setting them on the floor next to where she sat.

It was like Christmas!  The books were, actually, old, from the 1920s and 1930s. They were not children’s books, but that didn’t matter. It was like a library had moved into our house. Where had those boxes been sitting all those years, we wondered, and how did they end up as trash to be incinerated?

Most of the books were biographies and histories, with a few novels and miscellaneous nonfiction. Our mother paged through some of the fiction and our dad took a few out that had descriptive (too much for kids) battle scenes from World War I. Because we were small (at 10, I was the oldest) we really couldn’t read or understand most of them. But we had great fun all that winter and long after that: We lined them up, arranged and rearranged them by size, color, author. We loved playing library (the books still had the pockets and checkout cards inside the front covers). And because I was a girl who loved to read and loved books, I tried out many.  My favorites had to do with the Russian Revolution: the biography of a girl who had been raised as a princess; a novel about a debutante who was “presented” to royal society and became an inadvertent royalist caught up in the revolution. I enjoyed etiquette books (how to set a formal table in 1925), an American college girl’s junior year “abroad” (as she called going to Europe) and a canoe trip with Native people up north.

Some of those books were in pretty poor shape when we got them, but we took care of them and they were around for years. If I were to go back home to look I wouldn’t be surprised to find a number of those familiar old friends waiting to be read again. We felt rich, having our very own library (like the Russian princess, or the Kennedys, I imagined), and really our lives had become richer because of the quick thinking of a young guy, our uncle, loading trash onto a flatbed on a cold winter afternoon.

Linda Legarde Grover

Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.