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An Inspirational '40s Memoir Returns
Bridget Kinsella -- 7/31/00

"I have an island in the palm of my right hand."

Thus begins The Little Locksmith: A Memoir by Katharine Butler Hathaway, a book that, when it was published in 1943, the New York Times proclaimed "could not have come into being without great living and without great suffering and without great spirit behind it." Decades after the book vanished, and nearly a decade after author Alix Kates Shulman brought the critically acclaimed memoir of a girl's triumph over deformity to the attention of Feminist Press publisher Florence Howe, the small press has brought it back into print this month and is pleased with the response.

Sure, the numbers are small--a 3,000 first printing and a 4,000 second in progress--but with bookseller support, Feminist Press marketing manager Lisa London said she thinks this title has the potential to take off. The book has found favor with NPR's Maureen Corrigan, who featured it on Fresh Air, and it is a Booksense 76 pick for July/August. But when it comes to support for The Little Locksmith, no one compares to Paul Ingram of Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City.

"It's my favorite book of the year," Ingram told PW. Since BookExpo, when Ingram planted himself in the Feminist Press booth and made himself a living billboard for the book, it has been his mission to get the word out about Hathaway. "It's a post-therapy book but written pre-therapy," he said.

"Ever since I read it, it's nudged all other books from my mind," Corrigan said on FreshAir.

Katherine Butler was born with tuberculosis of the spine and spent 10 years strapped to a contraption that was supposed to prevent her from turning into a hunchback, like the little locksmith who did odd jobs around her parents' house. Released at age 15, only to discover she d s indeed have the deformity whose name she wishes not to use and that she is only about the size of a 10-year-old, Hathaway g s on to live a thoughtful, fulfilling, inspiring life, in which she cherishes writing most of all. She died at the age of 52, shortly before her memoir was published.

Shulman, who wrote a foreword for the Feminist Press edition, stumbled upon Hathaway's incredible story through a used copy of The Little Locksmith her daughter picked up for pocket change at St. Mark's Bookshop in New York City. Immediately she wanted to share it.

Feminist Press editor Sara Cahill told PW it took years to track down Hathaway's heirs. Then they had to be sold on the press. "She didn't call herself a feminist," said Cahill. Eventually, she said, they saw that the press was dedicated to restoring women's voices and signed on wholeheartedly. The result is the reprint of a book that if the author were still alive, Oprah would be all over--at least according to Cahill and Ingram.

Aside from being a title he genuinely loves, Ingram told PW that The Little Locksmith comes at a time when books about the disabled are just starting to take off. "With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, people are feeling better about themselves, and they want to speak out," he said. "In the next five years, disability will be what gay was 10 years ago. This is the next place to go in terms of a group that hasn't been heard yet."

Even so, Ingram and other fans of The Little Locksmith do not wish to brand it simply as a memoir of a disabled person. "I've never read the work of a more passionate observer and lover of life," Ingram wrote on Booksense.com, "both the one she noticed outside and the inner one."
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