05/16/2012 01:34 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

My Family And 'Jane Eyre'

The leather-bound copy of Jane Eyre sits on my bookcase, amidst the others I've collected over the years, a library to which I return, as both reader and writer, time and again.

Alphabetized newer paper and hardbacks stand alongside older novels, dating to the early 1900s, handed down through generations of my family, pages puckered slightly from contact with water--tears, rain from a day outdoors when the weather changed quickly, who can say? Books with history, the history of the readers--my grandmother and mother--who forgot their difficult lives while immersed in the ivory pages.

Precisely how Jane Eyre came into my grandmother's hands is the subject of debate, as were so many things in the Weatherill family. She may have borrowed, and never returned, it from her grandmother, Frances, writing her name, Esther Archer, on the flyleaf.

She needed something to belong to her, that wouldn't disappoint or abandon her. In her mind, she was Jane Eyre, orphaned, misunderstood, a character in her very own Pacific Northwest gothic. Book tucked under her arm, she'd climbed the tree at the edge of the property near Shelton, Washington, where her older sister, Ruth, who was afraid of heights, couldn't reach her. (She probably had another bruise on her forehead from a hairbrush fight they'd had that morning.)

She called it her Scottish tree, in honor of her deceased father; he'd died of a heart attack, her mother of appendicitis not long before. We're Welsh, not Scottish, you idiot, Ruth yelled from the base of the tree, contentious as ever, even in matters of ancestry. They were born in America, but the connections to their British Isles past, their blood, mattered, even then. Ruth was beautiful. Ruth was smart. Ruth was always right.

Then there was my grandmother, the chubby, flame-haired, unruly younger sister who didn't know how to behave, her younger brother, too. Too much like her father; that's what happens when you marry into trade, Frances said. He wasn't a gentleman. He didn't come from money. Frances, matriarch supreme, still played by the old rules, even though the family had left England for America years before.

Not that the proud Weatherills had money either, not anymore, their fortune and position in society gone. Having been a lady in waiting to Queen Victoria, as Frances was, didn't matter in Shelton. The only things she had left was a sense of entitlement, and a husband who drank too much.

It was the summer Frances sent my grandmother and her brother to live with different relatives; only Ruth remained. My grandmother, feeling the sting of rejection, slipped Jane Eyre into the bottom of her carpetbag. A rattling truck waited for her by the gate, driven by a man she'd never met, a man who had married a distant cousin and later paid my grandmother little mind except at night while his wife slept.

Sometimes, after he'd gone, she held the book to her chest. Perhaps she would become a teacher and travel to a faraway place and live a different sort of life, like Jane did. She tried to tell her cousin about the abuse, but she blamed her and sent my grandmother back to Frances. Let the nuns deal with you, Frances said, and shipped her off to convent school in Portland, Oregon. To my grandmother's surprise, the saints seemed sympathetic; they'd been through worse versions of hell than she had. Grateful for some degree of stability and understanding, she converted before graduation.

Marriage at 17 followed, her new home a cabin in the woods not far from where she grew up. Her first child drowned in a well a year later. Another child, my mother, was born, to replace the one who had been lost. Maybe my grandmother wanted a Rochester. She got my grandfather instead, a man as reserved as she was voluble. They bitterly divorced when my mother was six, at a time when Catholics never separated. My grandmother went to work as a secretary, acquiring more books for her growing library, the classics she would have read if she'd gone to college: Steinbeck, Dickens, Buck, Tolstoy, Maugham, Dostoevsky.

My mother was a latchkey child, cooking for herself, keeping house. She took custody of Jane Eyre and all the wisdom and promise it held. She too saw a version of herself on its pages, a child alone much of the time, abused by a babysitter, judged by a severe nun, who wouldn't let her read her valedictorian speech at her eighth grade graduation because of her questionable background. She began to assemble a her own library, Little Women being a favorite, evidence of a complete, loving family, she hoped to have some day.

My grandmother gave her books every holiday, and she carried on the tradition with me. My mother had a keen literary eye: the work of Joan Aiken (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, A Wrinkle in Time), stories childhood peril and redemption.

But it's that early edition of Jane Eyre that's most precious to me, its haunting, otherworldly atmosphere and sense of loss inspiring, in part, my most recent work, The Cottage at Glass Beach.

Novels like Jane Eyre present a rare opportunity to see ourselves, and the world around us, more clearly, offering escape from our daily lives and hope for the future. That simple, slender volume isn't just a classic story; it contains the sum of its readers' lives, a journey that continues with every hand that turns the page.