Sometimes now in dreams, I am back in the Amazon jungles, moving along dark green trails loud with birdsong and the growls of jaguars. I'm looking for my parents. They might be beyond the Swamp of Death or the Moving Mountain or the Underground River.
And then I am awake, breathing heavily. And I know where I have been. I have been again in the world revealed to me in the first book I ever read: Bomba the Jungle Boy at the Giant Cataract, or Chief Nascanora and His Captives. It was one of a series of books for boys published in the '20s and '30s, written by Roy Rockwood. I have my copy now, for which I paid five cents in a used bookstore, and it still fills me with shameful pleasure.
In some ways, the shame is obvious. The Bomba books are dirty with the racism of their time. The boy is white, living in a shack with an old naturalist named Cody Casson, whose mind is full of blank spaces. Bomba has no memory of his parents but knows he has "white blood." The souls of the dark-skinned people he encounters are asleep. And so on.
But reading that first book in a Brooklyn tenement in 1945, I didn't see any of this. I was 10. What I cared about were Bomba's quests, which drove the series of books, and the astonishing velocity of the narrative.
Today, when I am stuck in my own writing, I take down my copy. I open the book, read a few pages and know again why I became a writer.
Hamill's most recent book is North River.
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