This is a long post. Possibly the longest blog post I've ever written. I assure you though, every word is worth it as I describe my encounter with a little piece of history. Please read on...
About five years ago I was a new stay at home mom looking for ways to fill the days with my little Henry. One of the things I did in those days was visit the library. Often. I sifted through books while he slept beside me in the car carrier or the stroller, hummed songs from the CD's I'd flip through, and show him bright pictures from all of the children's books that our local library held. One day, I saw a sign for a used book sale and decided to return for the event.
Used book sales at our library are not uncommon. As books are donated to the library, it is determined whether they will be put into circulation or used in the sale to help raise funds for the establishment. I'm sure books, movies, and music are also pulled out of circulation to be sold once they have become less popular and no longer warrant the valuable shelf space they once held. The finds at these sales are like those at any other tag sale - completely random and potentially treasure filled. As the old saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure, right? As a long time rummager and thrift/antique sale shopper I relished the opportunity to browse the collection and the possibility to bring home an item or two for our family while simultaneously supporting the library that had been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
I remember sifting through the cd's that day, picking up a few for myself and a few for a friend who is an avid music collector. I moved through the fiction and true crime books to the game manuals, as if I'd have any clue which of these manuals my husband could use in his gaming hobby. I believe I may have even called him to tell him of what I thought was an excellent discovery, only to be told no... wrong. He appreciates my efforts, but encourages me to spend my thrifting moments looking for things for myself as the varied worlds of gaming and the accessories they require are admittedly beyond my level of comprehension (and interest. Shhh! *wink*).
It was then as I was turning to leave that I saw an old copy of the book Les Miserables on a high shelf and paused to take a closer look. I was first introduced to "Les Mis" during my freshman year of high school. I was a member of the Treble Choir, and during open periods I would occasionally visit the choir room to do homework or visit with others. A Senior by the name of Andy Pick had the full London Cast recording of the musical on cassette (am I dating myself here?) and would play it repeatedly during these open periods. I fell in love with the music and the story, and by mid-year was begging him to make a copy for me. He reluctantly obliged (who wants to do ANY favors for a freshman!?) and I played those cassettes non-stop for the better part of the next three years. In no time at all, I had memorized the entire score and could easily sing along, word for word. It helped that I stayed in choir throughout high school and into adulthood and have often sang pieces and medleys from the show with these groups. Next came the Liam Neeson version of the movie (which I later caught on PBS). I was hooked. Victor Hugo spoke to my heart. When I fell in love for the first time, that music was there. When we broke up, it was also there. In hindsight I have a good laugh at how seriously I thought I understood each and every lyric as a teenager and how I believed they applied to the varied ins and outs of a day in the life of a teenage girl. I was so naïve, but that is how childhood should be, I suppose.
Given my history with the musical and the music and the message, you can imagine how excited I was to find this book at the library's used book sale. To say I was thrilled doesn't even begin to explain things. The book was situated with some other old books that were selling for quite a bit of money as far as used books go, so I was sure it would be out of my price range. I nearly walked away, but decided to take a peek and I was pleasantly surprised to find something in the range of about $3.00 listed as the price on a slip inside the front cover.
In addition to the price slip inside the front cover, I noticed there was also a typeset name plate noting that the book was from the "Private Library of William J. Palmer" with the date May 25, 1895 handwritten below it. I loved the thought that someone had handled this book over a century earlier, but didn't give the previous owner much thought beyond that general feeling of nostalgia. I remember that I brought the book home and did a quick Google search to try to determine a true value. Not because I necessarily wanted to turn a profit, but rather because I wanted to know what exactly it was I had found. I never found an exact match for the novel I held in my hand, but other similarly bound copies from roughly the same time period were selling for about $10-50. I slipped the book on the top shelf of one of the built-ins next to the fireplace and didn't give it another thought.
Fast forward to December 30th, 2012. My husband I and I were fortunate enough to get out of the house for the afternoon and take in a show. It was a no brainer for me that I'd see Les Mis as close to the release date as possible, but my husband who was never crazy about musical theatre was a tougher sell. The conversation went something like this:
Him: What should we see?
Me: Les Miserables! I *need* to see it. Do you mind?
Him: Ummm.... It's a musical.
Me: It is, but it's about the French Revolution!
Him: Really?! Ok!
Ladies, I do not condone this sort of manipulation to get what you want in life. But honestly, when you are married to a guy who is a European History buff and loves watching movies having to do with any sort of conflict or uprising throughout history, you play that to your advantage. No lies were told. The show is set during the revolution. There are battles. There's an uprising. Guns are fired. The barricade! It's all there. There is just some singing and some love thrown in, too. *grin*
Somewhere around the 90 minute mark, he leaned over to me in the theatre and whispered, "I thought you said this was about the French Revolution?!" To which I replied, "It totally is! That part is at the end." His response? "The END? I thought *this* was the end!" And then my inner self fell into a giggle fit, but I kept my composure on the outside. The things we do for love. Him for the love of me, me for the love of Les Mis, in this case. *grin*
A few days later, on January 2, 2013, our friends Julie and Ryan were visiting and we were talking about the movie and our thoughts about the film and how it compared to the stage production. I asked Julie, an avid reader, if she had ever read the story Victor Hugo wrote. She had not, and I noted that I hadn't either but that I had an old copy up on the shelf that I picked up several years earlier at one of the library's used book sales. Everyone was intrigued, so I pulled it down and handed it to Julie to look at. She paged through the book, reading passages as she went, and we commented on how different even those short snippets were from the story we knew and loved. As she was paging through the book, she mentioned that she had found a bookmark. I had never really looked through the book myself, but this wasn't surprising to me. I assumed it was a bookmark advertising the library's next sale, or some other flier from the library but as is true in most cases, my assumptions were wrong.
The bookmark Julie found was printed on a thin strip of white (now yellowed) ribbon and had been collected from the Soldiers and Sailors Association Reunion that had been held in Michigan in September of 1896. We were intrigued, and did a quick Google search to see what, if anything, the book might be worth now that the movie was out and receiving all the buzz of Hollywood. No exact matches for the edition were found, but other copies from the same time period were listed for anywhere between $15 and $5000. Of course everyone is excited when they see a number like $5000!
What?! No! Seriously? $5000?!
If you had a mic on the room at that moment, those are probably the only words you would have heard. *grin*
I have bought and sold enough items online though to know that just because a seller is asking $5000 does not mean an item is actually worth $5000. Nor, for that matter, that you will ever necessarily find a buyer to pay that amount even if - by some stroke of luck - it is appraised that high. I mentioned the nameplate in the front of the book and we talked a bit more about it before I moved it to my desk. Now that we had found that Soldiers and Sailors bookmark, the genealogist in me was itching to find out if I could learn more about the previous owner. He must have been a soldier (or a sailor). Had he been famous? Was there any information about him? I was hoping for information about who he fought for, maybe which battles... I figured he had to have had at least a little money to his name to afford this book complete with nameplate and the means with with to keep it in good condition. The words "From the Private Library of..." suggested to me that it was one of several, so maybe I'd come up with a match somehow. I am a fan of historical research, particularly familial research, and was ready for a good bit of digging to find a few possibilities, never thinking that I'd find a definite exact match. Maybe my little used book sale find meant something to someone? Maybe it was valuable. Thoughts turned to the debt we still juggle from the printing of Henry's bedtime stories and what a chunk the sale of this book could do to it...
Later that night after Jack was in bed, I sat down at my desk and turned to Google for some answers. I was looking through the book again and found a second ribbon - this one red - that read "Special Favours". It looked very much like the sort of ribbon that you see on floral arrangements at funerals. In fact, at first I thought that's what it was. But what an odd sentiment to put on funeral flowers, right? I set it aside. I had other things on my mind. I started to type "William J. Palmer Soldier" into the search window, and by the time I got to the third "l," Google was autofilling the search box with all kinds of matches from Colorado. I followed links to a Wiki article an academic paper and a fabulous article from Civil War Times magazine (if you read any of these three, let it be that one) and began to read and learn about this General from Colorado by way of Delaware that had the potential to change the course of history.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I read about his studies in Europe (+1 for plausible ownership - this General was clearly educated), his life after the war in the building of the rail road (+1 for plausible ownership - this General obviously had the means with which to maintain a private library) and his fierce stance in the abolitionist movement to free slaves (+1 for plausible ownership - Are you familiar with Les Mis? Come on! It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again!!! HELLO!). I was/am a tad excited, in case you're having trouble reading emotion in my words. *wink*
By the time I was done reading everything I could find on the internet, I was 99.9% certain I was holding a book that at one time belonged to a Civil War General, who also happened to be the founder of Colorado Springs, CO. General Palmer made his home in Colorado Springs near the base of the Garden of the Gods. I have been to the Garden of the Gods! I have walked where this man walked... and now I am likely holding his book.
I was awestruck.
But... Umm... Now what?
It occurred to me that I had no idea what to do with the information or where to go next. I sat the book aside once more and called our local Public Museum in the morning. I explained my situation and described the book and the ribbons found inside. The archivist was wonderful, and suggested some websites that I hadn't found in my own searches to determine the value of the book, and then also suggested contacting a museum in Colorado for more information. I set about visiting the links he mentioned but came up with the same results - no exact matches and a variety of prices from low to the $4000 range.
It was then that I called the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum and asked to speak to the archivist. I left a voice mail and waited. Then I realized I forgot to mention a few things and called again to leave another message but this time she answered. Don't you hate when you call someone fully intending to leave a message and then they answer? You may be laughing, but it's true. I stammered and explained myself and she was very sweet. I don't think she knew quite what to expect but when I said, "I believe I have General Palmer's copy of Les Miserables," (or some words similar to that) she gasped audibly. Leah went on to explain her excitement over this find because so many of the General's books that had been recovered had to do with science and engineering and rail road. Very few were pertaining to cultural arts. If I didn't know better, I'd swear she had tears in her eyes by the end of the conversation and before hanging up she said, "you just made my whole year!" *big grin* Seriously, the sweetest lady you'll ever talk to. I reminded her that it was only January 2nd, but she said it didn't matter. *more grins*
Leah couldn't give me a quote on the price of the book, but was able to provide the name of a man in Colorado Springs who could and also asked if I would consider donating the book to the museum to be part of the William J. Palmer collection there. She continued saying that she would love to see the hand writing in the book and could likely tell me whose writing it was if I would be interested in such information. I offered to send her photographs and we said our goodbyes.
I still had no idea what the book was worth, though both Leah and the archivist in Oshkosh alluded to the fact that those folks asking $4000 and up for their similar copies were very ambitious in their pricing. My thoughts at this point though turned from, "how much is this worth," to an overwhelming feeling that the book just needed to go home to Colorado Springs.
The following week I received a message from Leah confirming that the written date in the book was indeed written by General William J. Palmer. *goosebumps* I replied the following day to let her know of our decision to donate the book and asked but one request: if perhaps we could make this story known, and donate it in Henry's name, so as to bring attention to the Adventures of Henry children's book series we are selling to raise money for Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. We spoke a few more times after that, and though I'm not going to share all the details of our conversations as some included personal information on both our parts that I am not comfortable sharing in a public forum like this, I will say this: There is a reason I found this book. There is a reason it sat on my shelf for five years and further a reason that our paths crossed. I couldn't be happier with our decision to donate the book back to General Palmer's collection at CSPM. That is where it belongs.
I have spoken with a handful of news anchors and journalists in the past few days and while I have related our story and my desire to have it benefit others by way of Henry's stories, much of the focus of these interviews and news clips has been on the Les Mis book. I get that. It's a new movie, it has Oscar buzz, it's what people want to hear about. As I told Leah today, I can only put so much out there into the universe. If people pick up on it, great. If not, life goes on. I'm sad that so far Henry's story hasn't been incorporated, but I do understand that his books are not the focus here.
I wonder tonight if Victor Hugo realizes how many lives he has touched through the ages? I am but one fan. There have been countless others. To this day the words of Les Miserables move me. Words like, "even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise" are a part of my heart in ways I can't even describe. Losing a child is truly the darkest night. Waking the next day to the love and laughter of yet another child proves to me that God is still merciful and good. The sun still rises. Another quote I reflect on often from the musical when thinking about Henry and my grief journey is from Jean Valjean. "I gave my soul to God I know, I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone, he gave me strength to journey on."
I hope that in reading this or the other stories that have been printed and aired about it, something is taken away. If not a knowledge of my boy, then at least an appreciation for history and the many ways the stories and people of the past still touch our lives and lead our paths together today. Think about that for a minute. Perhaps something you are doing today will influence someone else 150 years from now. It boggles the mind if you let it.
I'll be buying a new copy of Les Miserables. I've read too many quotes from the book now... I need to read it all. Even if I do jokingly compare the size of Les Mis to that of the Bible, and don't read at a fraction of the speed I once did, some day I will finish it. It is too dear to my heart to ignore.