Monday, January 18, 2010

"Begin Again"

When John D MacDonald was twelve, he became severely ill. What began as a case of scarlet fever developed into mastoiditis, which was a leading cause of child mortality in the days before antibiotics. He was bedridden for a full year, and it was there that he developed his love for books, at first with his mother reading to him, later reading on his own. It was a life-changing experience, and it turned an average boy into an introverted bookworm. "I entertained myself by exercise of imagination," he recalled later.

That experience is almost certainly the inspiration for "Begin Again," a brief short story he wrote in 1947. It was published in the November issue of Liberty magazine that year and is one of his earliest mainstream pieces to see print. A poignant, bittersweet tale of merely 1,800 words, it draws not only on his childhood illness for inspiration, but also on the cold and distant relationship he had with his father.

Young Robert is confined to his bed for something more serious than mastoiditis: he has contracted polio, an illness that is never specifically spelled out but is obvious nonetheless. He adapts to life in bed rather easily. "It wasn't hard, really... every day was long, but not too long, when you learned how to make little things last." Robert's daily highlight is the moment his father comes home, when dad comes into his room before dinner and asks how he is doing, joking and laughing with him. One day he comes home with "a big board, wax paper, some glass cement, and two boxes of kitchen matches with the heads removed." Robert can now fill his day building a fort, complete with walls, windows and buildings inside. This, his father explains, is something his own father did with him when he was sick in bed. Robert will work on it during the day and when dad comes home, they will work together before dinner. "Then, when you're well," the father explains "we'll take the whole works out into the back yard and be Indians setting fire to the fort. You ought to see one burn!"
Robert is ecstatic and works feverishly on the project.

When it is time for Robert to be fitted with a leg brace, MacDonald writes some beautiful third-person subjective prose:

"He was shy about his leg, it looked so awfully thin, like one of the matches, but they didn't seem to notice how thin it was. They made measurements and came back two days later and fitted the brace to the thin leg, telling his mother something about 'Merely the problem of getting used to it' ... When his father saw the shiny brace of metal and leather and padding, he got a funny tight expression around his nose and mouth, as though he were about to sneeze."

The work on the fort continues, with Robert painting the walls and adding grass, even cutting windowpanes out of wax paper. Then one day his father comes home and joyfully announces, "Kid, it looks like today's the day." It changes everything.

MacDonald's mainstream fiction -- at least in the short form -- has been virtually ignored by every one of his biographers. Both Hugh Merrill and Ed Hirshberg mention it only in passing, and it was rarely discussed even in the pages of the JDM Bibliophile, a journal dedicated to the author's work. It's a shame, because some of that work, not just the stories MacDonald included in End of the Tiger and S*E*V*E*N, are stunning. "Begin Again" is beautifully written and deserves an audience.

At least the editors of Liberty liked it. They included it in a 1966 paperback anthology titled Famous Short Short Stories, and dug it up for the Winter 1973 issue of their "nostalgia version" of the periodical, Liberty Then and Now Magazine. It was also reprinted in the February 1969 issue of Pageant magazine.

Anyone wishing to read the story can do so -- for free -- via Google Books, by clicking here.

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