Melanie (Lamb) Faithful checked out a copy of “Little Men” from the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library when she was 11 years old. The book, written by Louisa May Alcott, had a due date of July 31, 1969.

But the library wouldn’t see that book again for nearly 52 years when it arrived in the mail in April, postmarked from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Faithful lives.

That’s because Faithful finally worked up the courage to mail back the book that had changed her life more than half a century past its due date.

THE SEQUEL

Faithful had just finished fifth grade when she checked out a copy of “Little Men.” It soon became one of her favorite childhood books and would alter the way she saw the world.

Faithful had read “Little Women” and adored it. So naturally, she wanted to read the sequel so she could find out more about what happens to the story’s main character, Jo, and her kids.

In “Little Men,” which takes place in the 1800s, Jo follows her writing dreams, marries a professor, and together they start a school together for their children.

It all struck home for Faithful, who comes from a conservative southern Baptist background. She hung on to every word. She loved school, and loved how the book talked about education. Her mom graduated from high school, but her dad did not.

“They encouraged me to read and things, but education wasn’t important to them as it was to me,” Faithful said.

THE BEGINNING

For her, “Little Men,” and the whole Alcott series, was like a window into a different world — a world she wanted for her own life.

“It showed me that there are girls like you,” Faithful said. “And there were girls like you in the 1800s. You can read, and you can write and you can choose what you want to do and have a career and still have kids and live in a way that’s so different from what you know.”

The book made such an impact on the 11-year-old Faithful that when it came time to return it, she simply couldn’t give it back.

“It’s one of those formative things that as a child, when you’re growing up and you’re figuring out who you’re going to be,” she said. “Are you going to be exactly like your parents or is there another way of being in the world?”

ON THE ROAD

The book’s due date came and went. Faithful put “Little Men” on her bookshelf, hidden in plain sight among her other books. Her parents never noticed.

Two years later, when Faithful was 13, her family moved to Tennessee. The book went with her.

By that time, Faithful reasoned it was too late to return it. Plus, she was afraid of what would happen if she tried to return it. Would the library be mad? Would she owe a lot of money? Would she get in trouble with her parents?

She didn’t want to find out.

Today, the library doesn’t charge fines for overdue children’s books, junior high books or young adult books. In 1969, Faithful would have only paid no more than $5 in fines, but she didn’t know that. Even if she had, $5 is a lot of money to a kid, Faithful said.

“There is no question how much I love this book,” she said. “And I didn’t want to give it up. But I also knew the longer I held it, the more I owed. I wasn’t being very rational about it. It’s so funny, because when you’re a kid and you don’t have a lot of money and your parents don’t have a lot of money, those things loom large.”

For the next 50 years, “Little Men” traveled with Faithful any time she moved. She’d pack it up, take it out, and display it on the bookshelf in her new home.

And every time she packed it, she wondered if she should mail it back. The guilt would weigh on her, but she still couldn’t bear to return it.

“I would think, ‘You know, you should send that back,’” Faithful said. “And then I had that way of a child, like I did something wrong. It’s that southern Baptist upbringing. I was like, ‘I stole that book, but I still love it.’”

LETTING GO

But earlier this year, Faithful, now 63, was going through some of her belongings. Her mom had died a few years earlier, and it had taken a long time for Faithful to go through her things. It inspired her to be more conscious of how much stuff she had accumulated over her own lifetime.

When sorting through her books, she looked down and saw the cover of “Little Men,” which she had checked out from Kokomo’s library so long ago.

“I looked at that and I was like, ‘You know, it’s truly time to let it go,’” she said. “I’m retired now. I can do this.”

She even decided to write the library a generous check to cover her late fees.

“It wouldn’t cover what my entire fee would be if they had compound interest from 1969, but maybe it’ll keep them from being mad at me,” she laughed.

Still, she hesitated. After all, her love of books and reading had ended up forming the trajectory of her life. Faithful worked in publishing for most of her career, and she had coordinated book promotions and book sales. She’s also written poetry for years.

Then the hesitation passed. She came to the conclusion it was time to finally return the book.

On April 7, she packed it up, along with a note and the check to the Friends of the Library, and mailed it off to Kokomo.

SHARED CUSTODY

The library received the unexpected package on April 23, along with the note.

“I’m of a certain age where holding onto possessions is not as important as holding onto memories,” Faithful said in the note. “I have beautiful memories of Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy, and I’m compelled to return this book to its rightful owners. Thank you for allowing me to share custody with you.”

Faithful said she anticipated the library might get a good laugh out of all of it. She just hoped they wouldn’t be annoyed.

They weren’t. In fact, they were thrilled. The library posted about it on Facebook, along with a photo of the note and of the inside book cover with the due date.

Lisa Fipps, director of marketing at Kokomo-Howard County Public Library, said they were so excited not because Faithful had returned the book, but because of what she said in her note.

“We love that books have this life-altering ability,” Fipps said. “ … If this book means so much to you that you’re going to carry it around from Indiana to Tennessee to New Mexico, and it’s going to guide your life and help you make decisions that make you who you are and you become this amazing person, it’s worth it.”

THE BIG PICTURE

Fipps said she even loves the fact that the 11-year-old Faithful stole the book that meant so much to her. In reality, the library never even knew it was gone due to cataloguing changes over the years.

“I mean, to me, yeah we had to take a loss on it, but in reality we didn’t, the community didn’t and the world didn’t,” she said. “To me, that’s the big picture of it all.”

Fipps said that in the last year, around 4,000 items were checked out from the library, but not returned during that time frame. Sometimes a book might arrive in their drop box that’s several years past due. But not 52 years. She said that’s the longest overdue book she’s ever seen returned.

“She could’ve gotten away with it,” Fipps laughed.

Now that “Little Men” is back at the library, it’s likely that the Friends of the Library will sell it at one of their book sales. Fipps said she hopes she will be the one able to purchase it from them.

“It’s just one of the best marketing stories I’ve been able to tell about the importance and long-lasting impact of books and reading,” she said. “I can’t imagine not keeping it.”

And although Faithful doesn’t have the book anymore, the impact it had on her life will never leave her, she said. The book may be returned, but the inspiration and hope it gave her is something she’ll hold onto the rest of her life.

“I feel really grateful that the library was so understanding and enthusiastic about my connection,” Faithful said. “They helped me as a child, and they boosted me in my 60’s.”

Kelly Lafferty Gerber can be reached at 765-454-8597, by email at kelly.lafferty@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @KLaffGerber.

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