Now, while I am a self-identified sci-fi/fantasy geek, I actually have to shamefully admit that I have never actually read any of her novels. But her death fills me with sadness, as she was part and parcel to an amazing memory I hold from my younger years. It's an embarrassing story, and directly due to that, I clearly must write it here.
When I was in 6th grade, just starting out in Junior High School, I had befriended a pair of 7th graders named Jules and JulieAnna. They lived directly across the street from one another in Brooklyn, and were basically attached by the hip. Jules was wise beyond her years, always thinking and seemed to have both eyes set to the future. JulieAnna was the eccentric one, wild red hair, thin as a board, always getting herself into funny situations out of pure innocence that others would be embarrassed by, but she would just stride through them laughing her way. In Sandman parlance, Jules was Death, JulieAnna was Delirium. (One vivid memory burned in my mind was a subway trip to the Met, and somehow her shoe wound up in someone else's hand, and there she was traipsing around the subway car barefoot.) (Of course that's a vivid memory...)
Anyway, Jules and JulieAnna were huge fans of the Dragonriders of Pern. They would talk endlessly about dragons, and holds, and the boys in the books that they were in love with. They spoke about it so vividly... in present tense. It was probably my first encounter with true fandom... how they brought these characters and places to life. They would sit me down and show me the Pern atlas book, describing to me all of the places in the books, swooning over the beauty and the magical nature of it. I listed to it all with rapt attention... sucked in due to their obvious love for this artificial world.
Yet in the back of my mind, something was a bit off about the tellings. I slowly realized that JulieAnna was completely enraptured by the Pern world. Her voice would take on more than excitement... there was hope in her voice... expectation... as if this world would suddenly escape from the pages and come to life. And Jules was the story weaver, subtly feeding into JulieAnna's obsession and speaking about Pern as if it was fact. It was never, "the books say this about this hold." It was "oh, and the hold looks like this, and these people lived there, and this dragon was so beautiful!" All present tense, making the words come to life.
I think I avoided reading the actual books because it would ruin the magic of their versions of the world of Pern! I was swept off my feet, hanging on every word that Jules uttered, and sharing in the pervasive delight emanating from JulieAnna. They had me... hook, line, and sinker.
This went on for months.
I went over to Jules' house one afternoon, and found her consoling JulieAnna who was in her arms, sobbing almost uncontrollably. Her mother had ignored her once again, choosing to leave for the weekend with her boyfriend, leaving JulieAnna all alone with an empty refrigerator and little money. Sadly, this happened often. Jules was rocking JulieAnna in her arms, whispering to her sweet things... I was struggling to hear them... and then I caught a few words.
"When we are home on Pern, you will be able to forget them forever."
I think I was leafing through a book at the time, which quickly fell out of my hands hitting the floor, matched by my jaw. The next hour or so is a blur in my mind. The girls explained to me in rapid, hushed voices that Pern was real, that the books Anne McCaffrey had penned were actually chronicles sold to the public as fiction, but in reality described a true world. They spoke about it with such passion, such intensity...
...that I believed every word that escaped their lips.
Jules was actually from Pern. Somehow "shipwrecked" in Brooklyn, waiting for her family to come retrieve her. JulieAnna was her friend and connection with this world. And when Jules' true family came, she would rescue JulieAnna from her horrible home and take her with her to Pern.
I was the first person they had ever shared this secret with, and as such, special enough to be invited along.
Here is the part of the story where I reiterate (in a doomed-to-fail effort to somehow stem some of the embarrassment that will undoubtedly come my way) that I was in 6th grade. 12 years old, puberty kicking in hard, two amazing, intelligent, older girls had taken me into their world, and here I was listening to a tale of a beautiful world and a potential escape from the drab Brooklyn junior high world I was mired in.
Suffice to say, I was now convinced of my destiny to become a Dragonrider of Pern. Having not even gazed at a single page of Dragonflight, I was ecstatic about my new future life on Pern with two of the most beautiful and amazing girls I had ever come across. I thanked them profusely... and...
...and ran home to tell my mother the good news. Only to meet shock, dismay, and threats of a psychiatrist.
So, there were a few stressful days in my household, as my mother repeatedly tried to convince me that I was living in a fantasy world, and me arguing back how my friends are so amazing and she should be proud of her future Dragonrider and I'd always come back to visit.
Finally, after four days of Pern-obsessed insanity, Jules grabbed me for a walk, saying she needed to come clean about something. She admitted to me how Pern is of course just a fantasy world from a series of fantasy novels, and that she was not Jules of Pern, but instead Jules of East 16th Street.
Jules had conjured up this world and all its magic because she wanted to give JulieAnna something new to focus on. The poor girl had so much suffering living in her home, almost forgotten and certainly neglected, that Jules took the girl under her wing and decided to create something else for her to believe in. She filled JulieAnna's life with hope, instead of dread, borrowing off McCaffrey's words to escape the doldrums on life on Earth.
Two years later, this was all a wonderful story to look back on for all three of us. JulieAnna had shed the fantasy life and lived squarely on Earth, and Jules reverted back to just being Jules.
Still to this day, I have never read a single word of the Dragonriders of Pern... never thought I really needed to after my flight of fancy. But I do thank Anne McCaffrey for providing my friend escape when she most needed it.