An American Childhood

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Childsplay was published in 1961. It was Eda Lord’s first novel, though now it would probably be called a memoir, and is an account of her childhood (the first-person narrator is unnamed), starting in 1911 when she was 4 and ending in 1917. The first and last chapters are set in Evanston, Illinois, where Eda’s formidable, regal grandmother lived; the rest takes place in the wilds of Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Eda was born in Durango, Mexico, where her father owned silver mines, and they – Eda, her father, her stepbrother Jimmy and her part-Cherokee stepmother Motheranne – were constantly on the move from one mining venture to another. ‘Moving every year made it natural for me to reckon not by when but where,’ she wrote. ‘My past was a geography and happened in places like layers in a cake . . .’

I was 11 when I first read Childsplay. Its urbane, spare style and the atmosphere it created – even the typeface in our Simon and Schuster edition was exotically American and the title had a lower-case c – were irresistible, so different from my sheltered London life in the 1950s and ’60s. (A reviewer said, ‘Here is a writer who uses language as if it had just been invented . . . no self-pity, no sentimentality, no vulgarity.’) Eda and her partner Sybille Bedford were regular visitors to my parents’ flat in Marylebone, for Eda and my father had known each other in Paris and Berlin in the 1930s.

Sybille was less appealing to me. She was preoccupied with import- ant things and spoke fast and nervily. She was very fair with weak eyes and wore a green sun visor and dull men’s clothes. Reading Childsplay, however, added layers to my fondness for elegant Eda, who was more fun. She had a soft face, deeply lined, and a husky American voice, and she smoked a lot. In an armchair in our sitting- room, her long legs in dark stockings, she drank black Nescafé from a thermos provided by my mother. Later I fo

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About the contributor

Markie Robson-Scott is a freelance writer who has worked on many magazines and newspapers including Harpers & Queen, Vogue and the Guardian. She finds that the letters written to her father by his friends in the 1930s are a continuing source of surprise and fascination.

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