« Back to National Winners

Letters About Literature National Winners 2006

National Winner, Level 2: Sophia Harrington

Dear Peter Jenkins,

Some books just jump into your life. I don't know how Walk Across America came into mine so the only explanation is that it jumped, jumped right there into my un-expecting arms. And believe me, I'm glad it did.

I was in a second hand shop looking at books to buy for our summer vacation and of all of them my mom had picked this one. I put the book back on the shelf and walked away. Ten minutes later, I was back to the same book, it had drawn me like a magnet. Why? Absolutely nothing was great about it and it didn't seem to catch my eye at all. Something must have caught though because before I knew it, I had paid for the book and was heading for the door.

Walking across the country was an experience and a half. Though my legs were not aching and a dog not at my heels, I collected every experience like it was my own. You made sure I was next to you, not going too fast or too slow. I didn't just look at a black family sitting on a porch, a picture of the South; I lived, breathed, ate and even went to church with them. I learned the ways of a lone mountain man and his trust for no one but me. I saw him fall down and cry; tasted his mutton stew. Mr. Jenkins, your words and descriptions led me by the hand and helped me live the lives of those I had never met.

The book I read was not a travel guide, or even a wannabe travel guide. It was the real deal and it poured like rich dark molasses from your very own soul. As you covered each mile, you faced a new emotional challenge, encountering new faces and trying to discover every life that was different than your own. Sometimes you didn't fit in. When you lived on the farming commune, the independent, carefree Peter Jenkins that I had come to know was hurting and suffocating in the sea of sameness that enveloped him. As a reader, this experience and others showed me where your heart was, how you felt about life and where you might head next. It helped me too. By making connections to your experiences, I better understood my own values.

Paperback drugstore novels are so tragic and heartbreaking but in the end you know that they always turn out to be beautiful and pleasing. Your experiences were like one novel after the other. Families are poor but turn to each other for love. Rundown country stores attract the world's most eclectic characters. Everything fits together like a puzzle. That puzzle is not headline America, it's the country made up of everyday citizens that love to play cards, take pride in their day job at the carwash, and use engine parts as lawn decorations; it's real.

After I had removed my last pair of walking shoes, I knew that this was the real America. Whether it is harsh or beautiful and maybe a little out there, it's the truth. The plain truth is what counts the most. Through truthful experiences and detailed writing, you showed me the most undressed and honest parts of my very own homeland.

Sophia Harrington
West Hartford, Connecticut