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A Novel Grows from a Young Girl’s Small-town Diary

Eight years ago when I was helping my parents clean out their attic, I came upon my childhood diary. It was in a musty, damp box, filled with scraps of paper once carefully cut from magazines showing spreads of photos of the Beatles, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the Vietnam War, and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Martin Luther King. The diary was small enough to fit into the palm of my hand and the little key that had opened it was missing, so I ended up cutting the strap that bound it shut. Each page was divided into a week’s worth of small entries. My child-scrawl had recorded the details of my days—a trip to the town pool, the visit of a neighbor, a day spent building a tree fort, an afternoon with my mother choosing fabric at the Five and Dime, the acquisition of a puppy. All the events of a small-town childhood.

Half way through the diary was an entry from a single day that took up four pages, nearly three weeks of entry space. While the page above is common of my earlier entries, this one began with the words, “Boom! and then it was over.” As I read the entry, I could see the event I’d written about—the bombing of our small town’s drug store. I’d been downtown with a friend when it had happened, and we had just missed being in the store. I’d turned away as we were about to go inside to sit at the soda fountain, and instead insisted on going into a building down the street. We’d come back outside onto the sidewalk a few minutes later to see the drugstore in flames.

Unlike the earlier pages, these pages were filled with details—the names of those who were in the store, the site of the flames, the conversations of those on the streets. Reading the entry years later, I could feel the young girl’s terror and sense how this moment was a turning point in her life. The diary ended abruptly after this entry, and the remaining pages were blank. I remembered that I had bought a larger notebook after that day, knowing that the few lines provided for each day’s entry were no longer enough.

Stumbling on the diary brought back everything back. That entry, in the rough writing of a child, had the power to recreate the wall of flames and my turning away from the store just minutes before the explosion. It stands as a testament to the power of language, which holds emotions, memory, and sensual experience, all that’s both intangible and vital to what it means to be human.

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