How Pamela Dean changed (and also saved) my life.
I don't think it's any secret that I am a voracious reader. I read constantly. My friend Michelle has commented on more than one occasion that she, as a lifelong reader, is still amazed by the way she'll turn her back for thirty seconds, look back, and find me with my nose in a book. Since I grew up very poor, I also grew up a voracious re-reader; my favorite books were likely to be read five, ten, twenty times before I moved on, and I still go back to them. There aren't many new books added to that shelf these days—I finally have more than I can read—but when I need a friend, those favorites are always there.
When I was fourteen, I read Pamela Dean's Tam Lin for the first through fifth times.
Tam Lin is based on the ballad (which I was already enamored of, and would become obsessed with somewhere between readings three and five), but only very loosely so; it shares a structure, and not the details. It's about a girl named Janet, who loves to read, and goes to college, where she can read as much as she wants. It's about growing up and growing older and how those aren't always the same things, and it's about the things she does while she's at school, about falling in and out of love, and Shakespeare, and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and festive elephants, and pink curtains, and growing apart, and oh, right, the Queen of Faerie and the Tithe to Hell.
The main character, Janet, was everything I wanted to grow up to be. She was strong and smart and living in a world where the magic was subtle enough that I could see myself in her. She loved all the books I loved, and she wrote poetry constantly. It was because of this book that I wrote a sonnet a day every day for my entire high school career. Some of them were terrible, and some of them were just technically clean without being anything more than homework I had set for myself...but all of them taught me about word choice and meaning what you said, and they sparked a lifelong love of structured poetry.
Books were my salvation when I was a teenager (they still are, although I've gotten better about knowing how to save myself), but very few of them had real people doing things I could relate to and understand. Not like Janet. She was flawed and fallible and exactly what I needed, and better still, she gave my friends and I access to concepts like saying something when you needed help, and knowing that phrase would get you what you needed instantly, no questions asked. Because we thought we were being terribly clever, we used the phrase "pink curtains," which had been adopted for that purpose by Janet and her friends.
When I was sixteen, I decided I was done. I was out of cope. I was finished. I took myself and my favorite book (not Tam Lin, IT, by Stephen King) and went to a place and did a thing, and it was supposed to make me not have to exist anymore. And somewhere in the middle of the thing, I changed my mind. I literally started thinking about the characters in the books I loved, and how disappointed in me they would be, and how they wouldn't do this to themselves. They had more important things to do than die, and maybe so did I.
I went to a pay phone. I called a friend. I told her it was pink curtains, and she came and got me, and she did not judge, and she did not yell, and she helped me, because we had a framework for friends who would do that. That, like so much else that was good in our lives, we had learned from a book. From this book.
I still love T.S. Eliot and I still write sonnets and I went to college as a folklore major partially because I wanted to read, and study "Tam Lin," and be Janet Carter for a little while. Tam Lin influenced so much of who I grew up to be...and it helped me know that I could ask for help. So it's part of why I was able to grow up at all.
I love this book so much. I always will.
You should read it.