The Little Locksmith

The Little Locksmith 

By Katherine Butler Hathaway 
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner  

    Nothing gives a book new life so much as being certified as having been "before its time." If a book was so clever, the thinking goes, as to speak particularly to our contemporary literary preoccupations, we should be
slighting ourselves in not celebrating its virtues.  Such reintroductions to society require the services of a chaperone, a noted contemporary author or scholar, to explain to the general reader why the book hits such a modern note.  
    The Little Locksmith, by Katherine Butler Hathaway can boast, in its new edition from The Feminist Press, the services of not one but two noted contemporary chaperones, Alix Kates Shulman and
Nancy Mairs.   The reason for this unusual attention is that The Little Locksmith touches upon two hot commodities in the contemporary literary scene, frankly told memoirs, hence Schulman, and writing about the body, hence Mairs. 
    The Little Locksmith is a memoir of a particular period in its author's life. Butler Hathaway was engaged in a normal, vibrant childhood when, at the age of five, she was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis. She spent the next ten years strapped to a board, with a harness and a halter around her neck, lying sideways in bed.  Amazingly, Butler Hathaway's childhood had an almost idyllic quality to it. Her parents maintained around her a warm, creative and extremely sheltered environment. Her three siblings made Katherine's room the center of the house, one filled with poetry, art, and other intellectual pursuits.
    At night, however, she experienced a kind of sleepless horror, her mind pinioned within the shelterless abyss of endless time and space, which she describes in a manner fascinatingly similar to H.P. Lovecraft. "If only I
could could wipe out forever that unlucky day when my mind roamed too far. Such was the underlying sense of cosmic woe and cosmic disaster that curdled the joy of my childhood."
    When Katherine emerged from her "treatment" at 15 she looked in the mirror to find that "I had turned out after all, like the little locksmith-oh not so bad, nearly-but enough like the little locksmith to be called by that
same word (humpback)."
    Butler Hathaway's exquisite memoir confronts a remarkable array of issues, spiritual transformation, physical transcendence, and the relationship of artistry to circumstance, among them. Its contemporary relevance to memoir and writing about the body are only coincidental to a book of such sublime
depth and breath.
    One could even invoke a regional element, for the book centers around Butler Hathaway's purchase of a rambling old house in Castine Maine in the 1920's. Yet the sparkling and affectionate portrait of Maine is simply
another happy attribute of a book whose primary virtue is an exceptional intellectual honesty, combined with an acuteness of perception, which renders complex thought processes as concretely before the reader as any
simple physical landscape could be drawn or described.
    Ultimately The Little Locksmith is an important book for a timeless rather than a contemporary reason, because it powerfully speaks to the reader's own interior world, both in and of itself and in its relations to exterior relationships.