Yours Is the Earth
I don’t intend to take you through my entire library, but one more book (till I think of another) deserves recognition. Again, it was a bargain book I picked up in San Francisco [another first edition, and so was Marquez’s].
This story covers an escape on foot over the Pyrenees Mountains during World War II, before America got into it. In Yours Is the Earth, Margaret Vail, an American married into the French landed gentry, stays in France as long as she dares, to be as close as possible to her husband Robert in a German prison camp. She waits so long to leave France, that her only way to escape is to travel on foot with her four-year-old daughter Rose-Hélène, across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, in a group of eight, with a guide.
When they rest for the night in the house of strangers, sitting by the fire and listening to their hosts and each other talk after Rose-Hélène is asleep, Vail hears the lady of the house say that the young man, who appears not so intelligent, is smart. “He has read that book over there,” she says. Margaret Vail wants to get out of her chair to see what the book’s title is but she is too tired to make the effort. She leaves the house the next morning, before day, and without learning what the title is.
Vail determines at that point she will return someday to that house in the Pyrenees, with her husband, to thank the people there more thoroughly for their kindness and help. She also wants to know the title of that book.
When I read this, perhaps ten years after Vail wrote it, I too wanted to know the title of that book. This wish nagged me so, I finally wrote to the author, in care of her publisher, to ask her the title. That began a most pleasant correspondence with an American lady in France, who had her husband back from the war, but who lived in a huge ancestral house on vast lands where everyone spoke French and some working on the estate could not even read their own language. Robert knew English because of his private schooling and Rose-Hélène grew up speaking both French and English equally well. Yet Vail was lonely for communication with a native of her own language. In her first letter to me she said she had not returned to the house in the mountains, and still didn’t know the title of the book, but she was planning to make that return journey, with Robert.
I’m sure she never did. If she had, during the years she wrote to me, she would have said so. We corresponded until one day her light blue, dark-blue-lined envelope with family crest arrived with an almost incomprehensible bit of scratch saying she’d had a stroke and could no longer write. I doubt she was able to make a trip to the mountains after that.
I did not have to travel to go back, for my return would have been entirely through Margaret Vail’s return. But I believe my need to know the book’s title was as great as hers. Her never satisfying her desire to know has not put closure to my frustration.