A writer's death, a new President, and a good book

It might seem contrived to consider John Updike’s death in relation to the inauguration of President Barack Obama. After all, Updike’s great subject was, I suppose, infidelity among among white New Englanders of the upper middle class, and that’s undeniably a bit remote from the Obama story.

(I haven’t read The Coup, Updike’s rarely mentioned 1978 novel about Africa, which has indeed been cited as worth reading with Obama’s biography in mind.)

Still, the news of Updike’s death, and all the tributes that have poured out since, have frequently called to my mind his beguiling poetry book “A Child’s Calendar,” and I’ve thought what a timely book for children it is to open in this first month of the first year of the Obama era.

Updike offers a poem for every month, tracing the cycle of seasons in a place obviously like the New England towns he knew best. The first stanza, from “January,” goes:

The days are short,
The sun a spark
Hung thin between
The dark and dark…”

It remains that good throughout. The whole effect is classic and universal, yet light and American too. I like the reference in “May” to a dad watching baseball on TV, and, in “August,” to the pavement wearing “Popsicle stains.” It’s no less timeless for being of an era.

What makes me think of Obama in particular is this. Although Updike’s verses were first published in 1965, the edition I read to my daughter is the 1999 Alfred A. Knopf reprint, with fresh illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman, an award-winning artist who passed away in 2004.

She shows us an interracial family living through Updike’s idyllic year: black kids and white kids sitting together “snipping, snipping” construction paper hearts in February; a black boy standing eating an ice cream cone on the veranda of a quintessential Vermont country store on a May afternoon; in November, a white mom carrying in the turkey on a platter behind a black child trusted with the covered vegetable dish.

The images show race not mattering at all. No doubt this message was very consciously conjured by the illustrator, though there’s no sign it was on Updike’s mind when he wrote the poems. Yet the pictures complement his vision: he was writing from an awareness of the cycles of nature and traditions of families, both of which can, when properly tended to, bring people together and banish bitterness.

To me, this is a very fine book for children, and of course their lucky parents, at a moment when we are hopeful about this sort of thing.