Originally posted in June, 2006
Only Opal: The Diary of a Young Girl, adapted by Jane Boulton, illustrated by Barbara Cooney.
I put this book on hold at the library after reading a review of it—somewhere. I couldn’t remember where. After I read it to my girls, I had to Google it because I needed to know a) whom to thank for steering me toward it and b) if other mothers were writing about the thing that pierced my heart about this book.
When the blogsearch landed on Karen Edmisten I thought: Well, of COURSE.
This heartbreakingly beautiful picture book is based on the diary of a young girl named Opal Whitely, a turn-of-the-century child whose parents died and left her to be bounced from one lumber camp to the next in the care of cold and uncaring foster parents. Opal’s surviving record of her very early days is a stunning portrait of a tender, hopeful spirit clinging to every tiny shred of beauty to be found in a grim world. A dark-eyed mouse lives in her pocket; a tall, straight-backed tree offers her strength and support. Opal has no one to love her, so she pours out her own love upon the calf in the field, even though her kind attentions earn her harsh words from the nameless woman who houses her (and works her half to death).
That the foster mother is nameless is telling: Opal is overflowing with names for the creatures she loves. As Karen Edmisten writes,
“Opal finds solace and beauty in nature and in the books her parents left her. From these books, she discovers names for her friends: her pet mouse becomes Felix Mendelssohn, her calf is Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her favorite tree is christened Michael Raphael.”
And that’s the thing that so moved me—and frightened me, in a way—about this book. Did little Opal encountered the composer, the poet, and the archangels on her own in the books her parents left behind, or were their names already familiar to her because she had learned them at her mama’s knee? I can imagine the young mother in the lumber camp, reciting poetry to her tiny daughter; a father humming snatches of a Mendelssohn melody he caught in a drawing room somewhere far away.
Am I just projecting? Is it that I read poetry—some of the very same poems, no doubt—to my own children, and their father the classical music buff plays them symphonies (very loudly) and waxes enthusiastic about the talents of certain composers? Does Only Opal pierce my heart because my children have learned about St. Michael and St. Raphael at my knee, and seeing this delicate child left abandoned to callous strangers reminds me that we are none of us guaranteed the chance to nurture our little ones all the way to adulthood? Suppose (I don’t like to suppose it) something were to happen, and Scott and I were gone. Have we planted enough fruit-bearing seeds in the children’s hearts to nourish them through whatever trials life might hold for them?
I came away from Only Opal feeling profoundly grateful for the time we have had thus far, and for the freedom we have had to make the most of that time. Thankful for the books that have shaped our days together: the many, many mornings we have spent curled up over a volume of poetry and the evenings when I had to shout “Pass the salt” over the crescendo of a Shostakovich symphony. I cannot imagine a scenario in which my children had no one to love them but a ragged little field mouse, but surely there will be times of distress or loss in their lives sooner or later. I cannot protect them from that. What I can do, what I must do, is bequeath to them a store of treasures—the fine music, the fine words, the fine and glorious tenets of our faith—that will sustain them through the unknowns that lie ahead.