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Monday, July 22, 2013


by Tessa Gray

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Although there’s some debate as to who said this (Socrates or Thoreau), this quote remains one of my all-time favorites. I firmly believe that most individuals continuously re-examine their lives, and books play an important role in reshaping us. And to take this a step further, I propose that well-written books sometimes change the course of our lives.

When I was around seven years old, I detested fairy tales. That intense dislike probably stemmed from a troubled childhood. Shifted between foster homes more often than I care to admit, I had little time for make believe stories; I was far too busy trying to figure out real life. I learned early on that nothing comes easily. For that reason, I fell in love with author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. 

For those of you who’ve read the Little House on the Prairie series, you know that those frigid winter settings Wilder paints strike a chord, particularly if you’re from Minnesota, like I was. 

For the Ingalls family, life could often be brutal, and I identified with that. I found myself rooting for this tight-knit family, cheering right along with them as they struggled, rejoicing when the crops came in that year, or when Pa got a well-paying job. And, of course, there was the fact that Laura sometimes struggled in school and was far from perfect-unlike her sister, Mary.

The summer I turned nine, my situation shifted when a foster family took me in and made the decision to raise me permanently. Once the dust settled and I didn’t have to change schools every year, I began to feel like a pretty normal kid. My taste in reading shifted, and I found myself drawn to books that were somewhat lighter. 

The Trixie Belden stories by Julie Campbell became my favorites. Trixie and her sidekick, Honey, experienced adventures most girls during the 1960’s only dreamed about. Although I don’t recall many of the storylines for this series, I know that those two girls often made me laugh. Whenever we drove into our small town of Osseo, I always made a beeline to the local library to check out more Trixie Belden books. 

When those notorious Trixie Belden paper dolls came out, I was the first girl in the neighborhood to own them and quickly began creating even more Trixie Belden adventures with my Trixie and Honey paper dolls.  

Eventually, of course, I moved on to romance novels. Truth be told, I’d never been exposed to a romance novel since no one in my very conservative, religious family ever owned one. But one hot summer day, all that changed. I’d just graduated from high school and was working at a Target store when one of the employees (who just so happened to also be a classmate of mine) introduced me to a novel called Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. We were breaking for lunch when Sheryl reached into her purse, handing me the novel she’d kept hidden from everyone. It took me most of the summer to finish the book because I didn’t have the nerve to take it home, fearful my family would catch me with it. Sheryl would fish it out of her purse when we went on break, and I’d pick up where I’d left off the previous day.

While I can’t say this is a favorite novel, for me, it represented the fact that the world could be an evil place. I realized that I was a grownup now who would be heading off to college without my foster parents to shelter me from the evils of the world, and frankly, I was scared.

I don’t know if any of you have ever been influenced by a novel you didn’t particularly like, but I was profoundly affected by this one. My biological family, unlike the foster family I lived with, was extremely dysfunctional and self-destructive, so I did understand the consequences of making bad choices. But truth be told, it was this novel about three women being led down an endless spiral of self-destruction that drove it all home-propelling me into taking charge of my life. Up until that time, I don’t know that I gave much thought to how negatively poor choices can impact a life, but after reading Valley of the Dolls, I was more determined than ever to make decisions that were wise and would lead to a happy ending.

My taste in books during college probably most closely reflects what I enjoy reading at the present time. I adore strong, compelling characters that stand up and fight for what they believe in. In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, lawyer Atticus Finch fits the bill. 

Part of my fascination with this book stemmed from the fact I’d never been south of the Mason Dixon Line but had spent the majority of my childhood in the North. Frankly, we didn’t have any African American students in my high school, and I don’t believe I’d ever been exposed to racism. When Atticus lost the court case, I suffered right along with him, angry at the injustice of it all. But through it all I learned that although our world is far from perfect, we all play an important part in trying to create a kinder, gentler world-one which we can be proud of.

To Kill a Mockingbird  is a “must read” in many school districts, and after reading it, I began planning which books I could use in my classroom as tools for teaching some of life’s most important lessons. It truly shaped the way I teach.

It wasn’t until my own two children grew fairly self-reliant that I actually began reading novels on a regular basis. I’d finally reached a point in my life where I’d achieved many of my own personal goals and allowed myself the luxury of escaping through a good, old-fashioned romance novel. I settled on many books by writers such as Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown, and Fern Michaels, enjoying the storylines immensely.

Author Debbie Macomber wrote a book called Dakota Home and for me, that book would forever change the way I viewed characters in romance novels. In the prologue, hero Jeb McKenna loses his leg in a farming accident. After reading that short prologue, I remember leaning back in my chair, wondering how in the world this author would manage to make an actual hero out of a guy with one leg. It’s a judgmental thought, mind you, but I’m being honest here.

The book was written in 2000, before our country went to war and we learned to deal more openly with people who’d lost limbs. By the middle of this book, I’d fallen in love with this hero and spent many sleepless nights thinking about him. This book was part of my evolution and I found myself drawn to characters with angst, enormous flaws, and lots of grit. I continue to marvel at how skillfully Ms Macomber wove together this cast of characters from a small, fictitious town.

On a personal note, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend many of Ms Macomber’s book signings and at one of them, she wrote a special message to my mother-in-one. My mother-in-law shared this special inscription with many of her friends until the end of her life. How special it is when authors take that extra time to make someone happy. The characters in Debbie Macomber’s novels are kind and gracious, and I suspect they’re drawn straight from the heart.

Firefly Lane by author Kristin Hannah is a beautifully written women’s fiction novel about the journey of two best friends. Like many readers who’ve reached a milestone, we often become not only reflective about our lives but begin moving away from situations and circumstances that don’t bring out the best in us. In other words, we become much more selective. It’s another part, I believe, of our complete evolution as women.

Ms. Hannah’s lush descriptions of the Pacific Northwest with settings so real you can actually feel the ocean waves wash over your legs are a huge draw for readers; coupled with the fact that her characters are flawed, gritty, and often full of angst. 

The most surprising thing about this novel is that one friend disapproves of the other’s choice in men, and yet, the women learn to live with it. Many friendships have broken up over this, but not the deep and abiding friendship between Kate Mularkey and Tully Hart. It’s a great summer read that I highly recommend.         
The cast of characters writers create often greatly impacts us. I attended a writing workshop sponsored by the school district I taught in a number of years ago. We sat in groups, reading the poem Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar. One of the teachers became very emotional when we got to the part about the bird beating its wings against a cage, longing for freedom. Suddenly, her eyes welled up with tears as she confessed to everyone at the table that she’d been in a loveless marriage for years with a husband who controlled her every move. She announced that the poem had caused her to step back and take a hard look at her life. We shed many tears together and when all was said and done, she headed home to tell her husband that the marriage was over.

                 Sympathy – by Paul Laurence Dunbar
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opens,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals--
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting--
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore--
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings--
I know why the caged bird sings!
I often find myself wondering if the author of this beautiful poem had any idea how impactful his writing truly was. It’s mind-boggling that the power of words can impact a life so profoundly as it did this woman’s. In the grand scheme of things, I suspect that’s all we really want as readers-to find our true, authentic self through the writings of others. I suspect as most of you read, your own life stories have a great deal to do with the books you choose to read. Read what you enjoy, read what helps you become the very best person you can be, and above all else, share with everyone you know the impact a book has had on your life.hlse again with a keener sting— he beats his wing!
Author Tessa Gray

If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, Tessa Gray plans to live her second life in the tiny, west Texas town of Alpine, getting to know the locals. After attending the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine, she’s chosen this location for her “Dreamcatcher” series. The first book in this series, LAST CHANCE TEXAS, was released in December 2012 and is available in electronic format. Having written for nearly nine years, she’s completed eleven novels. In addition to writing, Tessa spends a large chunk of her time singing and quilting. She resides on a three acre plot in Fairview with her husband of thirty-eight years, Jim, four dogs, and two miniature donkeys.

The amazon link to LAST CHANCE TEXAS is:

The amazon link to TEXAS SUNSET is:
Both books are also available in print, as well as e-book versions.

Find out more about Tessa Gray at her website:
TesssaGrayBooks (Twitter)


  1. Tessa, lovely post. Books have definitely had a profound effect on you, each in a positive way. I've enjoyed all of the books you mentioned, but can't say I considered how they influenced my life. Something I should probably ponder. Thank you for sharing with us. ;-)

  2. so glad I checked my twitter and noticed you're blogging today! -

    Now I have to go back and pull out some of my favorite oldies -

    keep up the great words of wisdom and your lovely books!

  3. I loved many of the same books growing up. During a very stress-filled time in my adult life I floundered around trying to find books that would take me away like those childhood stories did. I read mysteries and spy books, biographies and histories, but finally found the most enjoyment in romance novels. Thanks for a lovely post.

  4. Wonderful post, Tessa! You took me back to so many of the books I've loved. I've pulled out a few now to re-read.

    Keep up the great work!


  5. How right you are that books profoundly affect our lives. I became each favorite character I met in a childhood book until moving on to a new role model in the next story. Daydreaming that I was that "girl of the week" let me play out all kinds of life possibilities. You've given me something to think about . . . until I get caught in the life of my next book character.

  6. Tessa, this is one of my favorite articles. Thanks so much for sharing. Those same books affected my life. Aren't we lucky to be readers as well as writers?

  7. Great post!! I loved The Little House on the Prairie books. I enjoyed Debbie Macomber books and I loved Kristan Hannah Firefly Lane. But my favorite romance novel will always be The Flame and The Flower. It was my first true romance and it's been my favorite for years.

    Books profoundly affect our lives. I was reading a book in the hospital once and it gave me the courage to leave my husband. No, he didn't beat me and it took me several more years to give up on the marriage, but I identified with the character and thought it was time to go.

    Great post!

  8. Funny how we learn a lot of what NOT to do from characters in books, saving ourselves a lot of heartache. I learned a lot from Judy Blume books - both her ones for young girls and her ones for women (such as "Wifey"). Great post, Tessa!


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