Author Helen Winslow Black: My High School Literary Loves

As part of a series of recommendations from authors, we’re hearing from Helen Winslow Black who has published a gripping novel, Seven Blackbirds.    First, a little background on Helen: Helen lives in Portland, Oregon with five children and one neurotic cat. Her humor collection “Mother’s Day Out” is forthcoming from Four Elk Press in 2014.

Introduction:  Fourscore and seven years ago, before the invention of tiny portable electronic gaming devices, many of us spent our formative years reading books. I read over a hundred a year, a count made possible by my sister, who steered me by the elbow as we walked to and from school twice a day, which might make her the world’s first official Designated Driver.  By high school I was inhaling a lot of light fare (Rumer Godden, Dorothy Sayers, James Herriot, Margery Sharp) but also had first dates with many truly great authors, dates that blossomed into life-long affairs. In no particular order, here is my top ten (or so) list of high school literary loves. I hope you love them too!

Arthur Rubinstein, My Young Years

This delightful autobiography earned Rubinstein a spot on my Top Ten Musician Date List. The only other pianist there is 
Chico Marx.

Carson McCullers, Member of the Wedding
Two things made a profound impact on me at fifteen when I visited my \sister at Indiana University. One was hearing classical guitarist Julian Bream in concert. The other was reading this book on the train to Bloomington. Read it and then watch Julie Harris’s breathtakingly virtuosic performance as 12-year-old Frankie in the 1952 movie.

Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
Here’s one Midwesterner who’s read every single one of Lewis’s novels, even the bad ones (this isn’t one of them). Now that I think about it, he should be read in American History classes...this is in no way meant to be disparaging. Elmer Gantry had me spontaneously delivering revival sermons all around the house junior year, much to the hilarity of all within earshot.

Vanity Fair, by William Thackeray. 
Absolutely yummy. I snuck it into my pack for a family camping trip. The compact paperback with tiny print maximized word density and made the cut for the 30-lb. pack limit imposed by my dad. It held me for four days in the high country.  Thoroughly entertaining at any elevation, and definitely a flashlight read (you can’t put it down at lights out).

Mark Twain, Puddin’head Wilson
If you want to have fun, read Twain. You’ll also become culturally literate in the U.S. of A.  And learn how to write dialogue in an unstrained fashion, if that is your wont. Since I couldn’t list “everything he wrote,” I picked Puddin’head for nostalgic reasons: Baby #1 (Swoosh) was affectionately nicknamed after this title character. His other newborn nickname I will refrain from mentioning so he doesn’t get back at me with an embarrassing comment while on the air at his campus radio station.

Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, by Gerald Durrell. 
This warm, colorful, and delightfully funny little book by British zoologist Gerald is the first I read in his series recounting his ex-pat childhood in  Corfu in the  1930’s with widowed mother and  three wacky teenage siblings, one of  whom just happens to be....yes, you guessed it! That future towering literary icon, Lawrence.

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
An extraordinary  work and my first introduction to one of my favorite authors. I remember it was winter. I was too old for sledding.  The cat was nestled in the small of my back.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Dickens’ rich and varied universe has informed my every waking moment since adolescence, which goes far to explain my Apparently Eccentric Knowledge Base (and penchant for capitalization?) and my nerdy high school rep. O the humanity! How can I choose one title over another? I’m opting for Pip and Joe Gargery, because I love them so...and Miss Havisham is a great Halloween dress-up (Miss O. won the contest in eighth grade with an old lacy curtain that reached to her sneaker-tops, Sparkles gets it next)...and because it’s a good starter Dickens. I slapped it on Puddinhead’s summer reading list after he graduated from 8th grade and come August what should he see on the book list for freshman honors English? I ask you. Am I psychic or what. I’m still milking that one with this kid.

George Eliot, The Mill on The Floss.  
“Magsie!” Need I say more?  I truly revere  this author.  And I’m just thinking….it’s great to be a female writer in the 21st century Who in the world would buy chick lit from, say, “Horace” Black?

Evan Connell, Mrs. Bridge 
As you can see I was pretty steeped in the 19th-century as a young before I ever met the contemporary “Everymen” of Cheever, Updike and Ford, it was quite uncanny to discover this author’s series of vignettes about a suburban Kansas City wife and mother in the 1930’s and ‘40’s . I could hear the conversation ringing in my ears, almost literally.

Once a required sophomore read, “Cry” has been superseded by more contemporary entrants in the general category of social consciousness. It should return. What fascinated this fifteen-year-old most was the effect of Paton’s style--his style ,in and of itself--on the story, lending immense and gently-gathering force to already powerful content. The distinctively South African elimination of quotation marks  was new to me too. It strips dialogue of clutter, rendering brutality and kindness, justice and injustice, with unvarnished clarity.

Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side
Nelson Algren/He’s our man/Nobody gets away with/What he can!

ALSO: Henry James, Portrait of a Lady; Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence; William Dean Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes. Okay, I’ve been been cheating but I’m trying to make up for it here by crunching my favorite 19th-century drawing room novels into one entry. Does that work? There are some folks you cjust can’t leave out, even if it means cutting the lemon bars in half and watering down the sherry. Each of these was the first I read of an author whose entire oeuvre I later went on to consume. 
p.s. Note how you can do with books what you cannot do with chocolate. 
p.p.s. Since Twain has been dead for some time I will have to take up the standard for Howells, which I do with enthusiasm.

Disclaimer: The fact that so many of the books  I’ve chosen appear to have been made into movies is unintentional and simply  indicates my Incredibly Good Taste. Thank you Carla!

Find Helen online at

Her books are available here:

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