KOKOMO — 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.

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.

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?”

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.’”

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.

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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