I bought the book at the secondhand table of a church bazaar, almost 40 years ago; I’ll bet I paid a quarter. And I’m still not sure exactly what it was about that serious-looking, yellow-jacketed volume that caught the attention of an adolescent girl whose normal reading fare ran to romances and Nancy Drew. Consider: they were translated Italian stories, a decade or two old, set in an utterly alien post-war period and featuring such unusual characters as a hot-tempered Catholic priest, a not-unsympathetic Communist politician, and a talking Crucifix. It was the early 1970’s, and I was an unsubtle 12- or 13-year-old Protestant American kid. A bookworm, sure, but not widely read enough to get the cover blurb’s reference to the author as “an Italian James Thurber.” So I wonder why, after quickly glancing at the inside flap and turning a few pages, I didn’t just put it down and head to the cashier with my other, more predictable choice, Anne of Green Gables?
Maybe it was the pictures.
I don’t mean the back jacket photo of that hearty fellow with the great, old-fashioned mustachios; the author with the unpronounceable name. I mean the evocative little drawings made by that big-looking fellow: those tiny, winged figures — sometimes cherubic, sometimes mischievous, sometimes ever-so-serious — which appeared above each chapter heading. There was just something about them, and something attractive to me about the sort of book I imagined would include them, not to mention a writer who could draw them. And so I paid my twenty-five cents, took the book home, and entered The Little World of Don Camillo.
Well, I was as charmed by the book as I had been by the cartoons, but I had no way of knowing that there were other volumes, and it would be a few years before I ran into them in the grown-up fiction section of the public library. By that time, having lost track in a family move of my own secondhand copy of The Little World, I was quite eager to re-visit Don Camillo and his neighbors; and I’d say I became regular visitor after that, getting my fix (and coming to understand the stories better) every few years by checking out the public library’s entire Guareschi section at one go (the books were always on the shelf — I was amazed that I didn’t have more competition for them) and devouring them all over the course of a week or so.
One day, not long after college, I stumbled across a catalog offering an almost-comprehensive omnibus edition of the stories, and (needless to say) I bought it immediately. I still found them as delightful as ever, but I rather missed the feel of reading them out of those library books — well-used Farrar, Straus, & Co. editions, with broken bindings and cracking plastic protective jackets which proved that some previous generation of library patrons had known a good thing. Then, wouldn’t you know it, I began to see those old volumes turning up in library sales, pulled from the shelves for reasons of age or disuse (since I’d stopped my periodic mass borrowings, I guess). Except for a bibliophile’s nostalgia, I now had no reason to purchase them, so I mostly left them on the “for sale” racks, perhaps for some other curious adolescent (to whom “post-war” and “Thurber,” I reckon, would mean even less than they did to me) to pick up.