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Archive for the ‘Children/Young Adult’ Category

When I was little, there was nothing I liked more than a pioneer story.  Tales of families crossing the plains in their wagons, braving the elements, and relying on their wits and one another to get through the storms, blights, and assorted perils they faced.  The main way to feed this love was with endless rereadings of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books but there was a steady supply of mediocre imitations around, many of them from my father’s own childhood bookshelves.  And that is where I found The Children Who Stayed Alone by Bonnie Bess Worline, originally published in 1956 (as Sod House Adventure) but reissued in the mid-60s when my father was just the right age for tales of young pioneers.  Coincidentally, my mother was in fact a young pioneer at this same time but it meant something very different by then (although she looked adorable in her communist kerchief).

The title leaves little room for doubt about the book’s main event: with their father away getting supplies and their mother tending to a neighbour struggling with a hard labour, Phoebe and Hartley Dawson are left alone to take care for their five younger siblings.  A fierce storm arrives just after their mother’s departure and so they are left alone for several days to care for the children, tend the animals, and, most dramatically, care for the Native American woman and her sick child who have stumbled out of the storm into their little sod house.

For a child, it’s the ideal fantasy.  There’s nothing really scary happening and Phoebe and Hartley grow in confidence as they prove how well they can manage.  They also – Phoebe especially, to whom the bulk of the work falls – gain an appreciation for how hard their parents work to keep everything running smoothly.  The way this is presented can be cringingly didactic but great style isn’t a necessity for a genre of books aimed at ten-year-olds.

The bulk of the book covers the events of those few days alone and it’s a puzzle as to why Worline continued the story beyond that.  This has the flavour of a family story written out for a larger audience so I suspect she wanted to do justice to the loved ones who lived the events.  She follows them out of the cold winter into the hopeful spring and summer, which sees the family moving into a new wooden house, new neighbours settling where there had only been lonely prairie a year before, and the children preparing to start at the newly formed school, a scary prospect for kids who’ve never attended one.  And there is a happy if improbable reunion with the Native American woman whom they sheltered in the winter, whose father-in-law is the chief of the local tribe and who gives a grand and highly appreciated reward to his family’s young protectors.

For a book written in 1956, I was prepared for some outdated attitudes but was surprised by how well Worline’s tale has aged.  Obviously, the Native Americans are referred to as Indians, but not in any derogatory sense, and Mrs Dawson, even when she thinks they are launching a raid on her home and have captured her husband, remarks “Perhaps we have no right to the land.  I’ve never quite felt the Indians got a square deal.”  That is some impressive sang-froid.  Mr Dawson shows his own progressive values in his determination that all of his children, girls included, should go not just to school but also onto college.  He believes all of these young pioneers, regardless of gender, have a role to play for which college will help prepare them.  He is proud that their state has higher education for women and extorts Phoebe, shy and nervous about school, that she must:

…help this state grow into a good state to live in, a state that takes care of its people as a family takes care of its children.  I don’t know just how; but that is why I want you children to have the best education you can get, so you can find out how.

But let’s be honest: the greatest thing about reading these tales as an adult is hearing about the handsomely stocked pantries, winter feasts, and communal meals.  It’s all about the food and this book excelled at describing everything that was on the table.  When Phoebe and Hartley want to cheer up the younger children during the storm, they put together a party with freshly made popcorn, nuts, and taffy, which is as much a treat to pull and form into candy as it is to eat.  Phoebe admires the family pantry – full of potatoes, onions, dried and smoked meat, dried fruit, and preserves – all the more for remembering how bare it had been in earlier years, when crops had been poor and the family unprepared for what was needed to get them through the winter.  And when the Dawsons host neighbours from all around to help build their new house, the tables are fairly groaning with the massive spread laid out for the mid-day meal:

Besides the many varieties of corn and corn-meal dishes, there were bowls of Dutch cheese, deviled eggs and creamed hard-boiled eggs, wild greens wilted in bacon grease and hot vinegar, dried beef with hominy, sauerkraut, raw cabbage slaw, and many kinds of potato salad.

There were kettles of stewed chicken, cold roast pheasant and partridge, fried rabbit, and Mrs Pfitzer’s rabbit stew with dumplings which she had carried across the fields in a big iron kettle.  There was a kettle of boiled ham and beans, and a big baked ham.  The special treat of the Dawsons was roast lamb with fresh mint sauce from Mother’s mint bed.  There was wheat bread, and soda biscuits, real treats for everyone, and of course the butter Phoebe had churned the day before, and many kinds of jelly and preserves.  Last of all were the pies, dried apple and dried plum and dried peach; and gingerbread with a big bowl of whipped cream to spread on it, and Indian pudding, and thin, sweet pancakes spread with jam and rolled up while they were hot.

Reading these sorts of books as a child, back in the pre-internet days, I could only guess at what things like hominy, taffy, and creamed hard-boiled eggs were (I am still, internet-enabled though I am, confused about hominy).  But that was and is part of the fun.

This is not great literature and the children are nauseatingly good all of the time (all of it!  How is this possible?) but I still thoroughly enjoyed it and am delighted we’ve managed to hold onto my father’s copy for all these years.

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It is no great hardship to spend a summer in Vancouver but by the start of this month I was desperate for a change of scene.  Usually, I’d be heading off to hike in the Alps at this time of year but (with only minimal sobbing over the lack of European escapes in my future) instead I went to the beautiful Okanagan region of BC.  It’s famous for sunshine, hot summers, beautiful lakes, and wineries.  My brother moved there a few years ago with his family so it also has the added draw of an adorable niece and nephew to visit.

I was there for ten days, which was a welcome break from work after an intense summer.  My days were wonderfully undemanding, fitting in a hike each morning, a swim in the lake each afternoon, plenty of socially-distanced family visits in my brother’s backyard, home-cooked dinners with the amazing local produce, and LOTS of reading.  The smoke from the horrible American forest fires only drifted up during our last couple of days so for the most part I was able to sit on the deck of the house we were staying at and alternately read and gaze out at the beautiful lake view.

Here’s what kept me distracted in between swims:

Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes – It’s been years since I reread any of the Walsh family books from Keyes but this one is just as good as I remembered it.  Keyes is always funny but that doesn’t stop her from addressing dark topics, in this case drug addiction.  Rachel knows she doesn’t have a drug problem but her family is insistent about checking her into a treatment centre, dragging her back to Ireland from New York city after she ends up in hospital there.  There’s not much left for her in New York anyways, just a job she’s lost interest in, a best friend who does nothing anymore but criticize her, and a boyfriend who has just broken up with her.  In treatment she has the voyeuristic pleasure of hearing the stories of other patients, knowing that she’s an outsider in this world.  But of course she isn’t and her journey to realising what has happened to her life and how she’s impacted the people around her is so cleverly done.

Cutting Back by Leslie Buck – In the late 90s, Buck was running a successful pruning company in California when she decided to take a sabbatical and spend several months training with pruners in Kyoto.  It was clearly an interesting experience but Buck’s writing doesn’t particularly do it justice.

The Wish List by Sophia Money-Coutts – Absolute fluff, as is mandated for all heavy reading holidays.

Where the Hornbeam Grows by Beth Lynch – This was such a disappointment to me.  I’d heard about it on the Slightly Foxed podcast last year and was certain that the story of a woman moving to Switzerland and making a garden to help her feel at home would be just right for me.  Now, I can’t think of a single expat memoir where someone has had a positive experience moving to Switzerland but usually the main criticism is that it’s a boring place to live.  Lynch finds SO many more things to criticize and seems to find the entry country rather sinister in its determination to make her feel excluded.  Her combined naivety (as far as I can tell she didn’t bother to learn anything about the country before moving there) and sense of victimhood drove me absolutely mad.  I kept hoping this would get better, but it didn’t.  Even her enthusiastic plant descriptions (of which there are not enough) weren’t enough to redeem this for me.

Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O’Farrell – Unsurprisingly, this was truly excellent and is deserving of all the praise that is being heaped upon it.  I was initially resistant, thinking myself uninterested in anything about Shakespeare but O’Farrell handles him very cleverly.  He is such a minor character that he is never even named.  It is his wife’s story and it is her grief over their only son Hamnet’s death that dominates.  We see little of Shakespeare’s own reaction – but, knowing his plays, we already know how he dealt with it.  Darlene did a much better and thorough job of articulating her thoughts so I’d recommend reading her review.

A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore – Back to the fluffy reading.  This is the second in Dunmore’s “A League of Extraordinary Women” series of historical romance novels focused on a group of suffragists and I thought it a great improvement over the first book.

Cleopatra’s Sister by Penelope Lively – I read this for the first time back in 2016 and remembered it fondly but not, as it turned out, accurately (which is very suitable for a Lively book).  I remembered it as the story of Howard and Lucy, who meet when their plane is diverted to an African country where a coup has just occurred.  Held hostage by the new government, they find themselves – quickly, quietly, amazingly – falling in love.  And it is that story, but that only begins halfway through the book.

The first half is the story of their lives and all the quirks of fate that happened to them and others for them to eventually find themselves together in such extraordinary circumstances.  I loved it all the better for not having remembered it in detail.  Lively is always wont to muse on time and history, mischance and happenstance, and I love to watch her do it.

Once Upon an Eid edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed – a wonderfully varied collection of children’s stories about celebrating Eid.  I especially loved the stories about a refugee camp in Greece, a boy in Toronto learning to live up to his name, and a girl who, having always been defined by her identity as the only Muslim at her school, adjusts to not being an “only” when a new student arrives.

September by Rosamunde Pilcher – every vacation should feature a good family saga.  It was so satisfying to sink into Pilcher’s comfortable, genteel world and her idyllic rural Scottish setting.  She can be a very skilled writer and is especially good at slowly revealing characters’ stories, avoiding the temptation to overshare when they are introduced.  But…in the end, the female characters were so ornamental and inconsequential that it set my teeth on edge.  The only exceptions were those who were made sexless either by age or by their husband’s impotence.  They managed to be the most interesting characters, which shows what Pilcher was capable of.  But the younger women are constantly being described through the eyes of men and appraised based primarily on their appearances.  Which makes a kind of sense since they have nothing else to offer – none of them are educated or employed, even the girls in their late teens and early twenties.  The huge age gaps between couples are barely mentioned, only contributing to the feeling of separation between the genders.  For a book set in 1988, this all seems bizarre and part of a world that was already lost.  Despite the material attractions, it’s not a world I’d want to live in.

Indians on Vacation by Thomas King –  If I can’t travel abroad this year, at least I can read about those who can.  Bird and Mimi are visiting Europe to trace the postcards sent more than a hundred years before by Mimi’s uncle.  Bird and Mimi have their own identities to juggle – American-born Bird is half Cherokee and half Greek while Mimi is Canadian but introduces herself as Blackfoot, a distinction Bird reminds her that no one in Europe understands – but the most important distinction is Bird’s pessimism versus Mimi’s eternal optimism.  Bird, burnt out after years as a journalist, has fallen into a lethargy and is plagued by endless physical ailments.  He is not happy to be in Europe and reminds Mimi of this constantly:

I’m not sure why we travel.

The default response is that we travel in order to see new places, to meet new peoples, to broaden our understanding of the world.

Whereas I tend to see travel as punishment for those of us who can afford such mistakes.

I loved this far more than I expected to, finding it funny (Bird’s snarky asides and one liners are excellent) and poignant.  And the fact that the bulk of the book is set in Prague, my favourite and most familiar European city, didn’t hurt.

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After reading Anne of Green Gables in July, I was reminded of an eternal truth about books in a series: you can never read just one.  Or at least I can’t, particularly when it is this series which so dominated my childhood reading.  How could I leave Anne after just one book?  So I read on, quickly progressing through first Anne of Avonlea and then Anne of the Island.

Anne of Avonlea is an odd book or perhaps it is just a very typical second book, written in a rush to capitalise on the extraordinary success of Anne of Green Gables.  Published in 1909, only a year after Anne’s debut, Montgomery seems to have lost her sense of humour – and her sense of characterization.  When the first book ended, Anne was maturing and recognizing (with humour) her tendency towards indulging in overly dramatic flights of fancy.  In this book, she embraces those melodramatic tendencies wholeheartedly, becomes dreamier than ever without ever really coming back down to earth, and is insufferably condescending to her more prosaic friends.  She has relapsed to a stage which readers of the first book thought she had outgrown and no one benefits from it.  (There is a very good discussion of this in The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly.)

The book still has its moments but Montgomery, desperately short of plot ideas, covers by introducing new characters at every turn.  We meet Mr Harrison, a grouchy farmer with a foul-mouthed parrot; Davy and Dora, twin relatives who Marilla takes in after they are orphaned; Paul Irving, the most sickeningly sweet child ever written; and Miss Lavendar, who is even more prone to silly fantasies than Anne.  None of these count as improvements to Avonlea society, as far as I’m concerned.

As usual, it is Anne’s humblest adventures that are the most entertaining.  Montgomery writing about ethereal fantasies and really anything involving Paul Irving is insufferable.  Montgomery writing about village gossip is delightful.  The disastrous repainting of the church is one of the book’s greatest moments and Anne’s horror at having to strap one of her misbehaving students – and then find he respects her more for it, thereby crushing all her high ideals – is marvellous.  And these moments are made better because they offer not just Anne’s perspective but a whole array of them, from besotted but still level-headed Gilbert Blythe, from sharp tongued Rachel Lynde, and from quietly amused Marilla.

If Anne of Avonlea is both frustrating and disappointing, Anne of the Island, happily, is an entirely different experience.

Published in 1915, Montgomery has several years to figure out how to next approach Anne’s story (and to write many sentimental stories and novels to expunge her overly dramatic tendencies).  The result is the 2nd best book in the series and one of the most important books of my childhood.

The novel covers Anne’s four years of college, which takes her away from Avonlea and from Prince Edward Island entirely, over to Redmond College in Kingsport, Nova Scotia (a fictionalised version of Dalhousie University in Halifax, where Montgomery studied).  She is accompanied by some familiar faces, Charlie Sloane and Gilbert Blythe, and joins up with friends Priscilla Grant and Stella Maynard, who she met at teacher’s school in Anne of Green Gables.  And, most importantly, she makes two very important new friends over her four years: Philippa Gordon and Roy Gardner.

Roy Gardner enters Anne’s life during her third year of college, an answer to all of her romantic fantasies.  Having by this point survived – and rebuffed – multiple marriage proposals (most very easily, with due horror, but one with great pain) since none of the men matched her vision of a future husband, it is almost too perfect when Roy appears in the midst of a rainstorm, perfection made flesh:

Tall and handsome and distinguished-looking – dark, melancholy, inscrutable eyes – melting, musical, sympathetic voice – yes, the very hero of her dreams stood before her in the flesh. He could not have more closely resembled her ideal if he had been made to order.

But ideal men aren’t very interesting – a fact the reader recognizes long before Anne.  Roy is clearly a red herring but it is easy to understand why a wealthy, worldly, handsome man who adores her has so much appeal.  He is so far removed from the Avonlea boys she’s grown up with, although the Redmond girls seem to think the Avonlea boys have a certain appeal, especially handsome, intelligent, and determined Gilbert Blythe, now studying to become a doctor.  Really, there is no doubt that Anne and Gilbert will end up together but my god does Montgomery put her readers through an emotional rollercoaster before that happy ending comes.

The other character of note is the marvellous Philippa Gordon.  I loved everything about this book as a child but it has only been on rereading it as an adult that I’ve recognized how much Philippa enriches the story.  Philippa is a contradiction from her very first introduction: a beauty from a wealthy Nova Scotian family, she could have married well (to her choice of suitor – both Alec and Alonzo are waiting for her still) but chose instead to come and study mathematics at university.  Despite an active social schedule through all four years, Philippa handles her academics with aplomb and sits at the top of the class.  And, perhaps most importantly, she can do what Anne cannot do: acknowledge when she is wrong, recognize a chance at happiness, and go after it with all her considerable energy and determination.

Phil and Anne approach their romances from very different perspectives.  Anne has dreamed of her ideal man for years.  She knows just what he will look like, has devoted considerable time to composing his perfect speeches, and can envision an idyllic future spent staring into one another’s eyes.  For her, the idea that Roy Gardner, her fantasy made flesh, won’t be as satisfying a life partner as Gilbert Blythe, her intellectual equal who would rather work beside her than worship her, is one she fights against.  She has a fixed vision and it is one that she sticks to.  When she finally consults her heart, it is almost too late.

Phil, on the other hand, never believed in romance.  She believed in marriage, certainly, and expected that one day she would marry one of the rich young men from her social circle and settle down to a life like the one she’d always lived.  Her time at Redmond is her way of postponing – at least for four years – having to decide which of the interchangeable eligible young men she will accept.  She throws herself into university life and has a marvellous time.  But then something changes.  She meets Jonas Blake, an awkward young minister, and that’s it.  Jonas is exactly the sort of man Phil has always joked about not being tempted by – ugly, poor, and far from at ease in company – but she falls in love almost immediately.  And when Jonas doesn’t dare to think she could be interested in him, she makes it very clear that she is.  Phil, knowing what she wants, is not going to let her chance at happiness slip away.

Nor is she about to let Anne do the same.  Marilla and Rachel Lynde may want to tell Anne that she is making a mistake by rejecting Gilbert, but they don’t.  Phil, on the other hand, is more than ready to do so.  Repeatedly.  For years.  Phil is not afraid of a little blunt talking and I love her for it.  As a child who found Anne too whimsical and Diana too timid, Phil was the first Montgomery character – and one of the first literary characters – I ever truly identified with.  And that hasn’t change remotely in the 23 years that have passed since I first encountered her.

Anne of the Island isn’t quite as good as Anne of Green Gables but it is close.  I could write about it endlessly but I’ll save that for another day.  I’ve read it countless times already and I shall certainly return to it again.  And again.  And again…

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I don’t have any particularly strong memories of learning to read.  I read Lucy Mangan’s wonderful Bookworm earlier this year and marvelled at how well she can recall the books that made up her childhood.  For me, those memories are murkier.  I remember reading my first book by myself in Grade One (it was a very informative picture book about rabbits, cementing early my love of non-fiction) but things become hazy for a few years after that.  The Babysitter Club books were definitely involved and lots of fairy tales but the rest have been lost to time.  I don’t mind – it makes what came next stand out all the better.

When I was eight, I picked up Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery for the first time.  I had loved books before but reading hadn’t come to form part of my identity yet.  But I couldn’t put this book down.  I read it once, twice, three times and then went on to the sequels, which I read with equal intensity.  I spent the next two years reading and rereading everything Montgomery had every written – her novels, her short stories, and her diaries.  I fought with librarians in order to borrow books from the adult section of the library.  Any time I needed to do a presentation for school, she was my go-to subject.  I am not sure I have ever been as expert on any topic as I once was on Montgomery.

More than twenty years later, I am on my third or fourth editions of the books, having read my initial copies so often they fell apart (especially Anne of Green Gables and Anne of the Island).  But it had been a few years since I last read anything by her (the only book I’ve reviewed here is The Blue Castle, notable for the fact that every single person who commented on my review loves what I consider to be one of her more mediocre outputs) so, feeling like I’d been ignoring an old friend, I recently picked up Anne of Green Gables, her first and best book.

Published in 1908 but set thirty years earlier, the story of the orphaned Anne Shirley and her enthusiastic (and mistake-prone) approach to life was an immediate bestseller.  Though its heroine is an adolescent girl, the book was loved by its adult readers as much as by its youthful ones.  Young readers could delight in Anne’s imaginative whims and the scraps she got herself into; adults could enjoy Montgomery’s humorous treatment of her young heroine and the bemused exasperation of the adults who surround her.  And everyone could enjoy the happy story at the heart of the book.

For those not familiar with the story (who are you?  What is wrong with you?  Stop reading this immediately and go get a copy), the book begins with Matthew Cuthbert setting off from the home he shares with his sister, Marilla, wearing his good suit.  Their busy-body neighbour, Rachel Lynde, is immediately intrigued by this unusual behaviour and, upon investigation, is shocked to learn from Marilla that Matthew is off to pick up the orphaned boy they’re adopting to help out on the farm.  But Mrs Lynde is not half as surprised as Matthew and eventually Marilla when they discover a girl has been sent to them by mistake.  And not even a useful sort of girl but a thin, dreamy one who can’t seem to stop talking.  They have no use for a girl – especially one like Anne – but there’s something awfully winsome about her, despite her odd ways, and they find themselves keeping her.

The book follows the next few years of Anne’s life, as she makes friends in the small village of Avonlea, adjusts to life at the Cuthberts’ farm, Green Gables, and gets carried away by her imagination time and time again.  There is nothing very spectacular about the goings on; even the most dramatic moments – a deathly ill child, a sinking boat, a heart attack – are entirely plausible.  Which is part of how Montgomery creates the humour that fills the book – the juxtaposition of Anne’s romantic fantasies with the work-a-day world of Avonlea is even more amusing as an adult reader than it was as a child.  And what is particularly marvellous are the hysterics that Anne can (unintentionally) send adults into with her entirely earnest but extraordinarily dramatic pronouncements.  Thankfully, she has Marilla to help bind her to the earth, as she does when Anne is happily prophesizing her early death in the wake of being parted from her best friend, Diana:

“Diana and I had such an affecting farewell down by the spring.  It will be sacred in my memory forever.  I used the most pathetic language I could think of and said ‘thou’ and ‘thee.’  ‘Thou’ and ‘thee’ seem so much more romantic than ‘you.’  Diana gave me a lock of her hair and I’m going to sew it up in a little bag and wear it around my neck all my life.  Please see that it is buried with me, for I don’t believe I’ll live very long.  Perhaps when she sees me lying cold and dead before her Mrs Barry may feel remorse for what she has done and will let Diana come to my funeral.”

“I don’t think there is much fear of your dying of grief as long as you can talk, Anne,” said Marilla unsympathetically.

Anne is a redoubtable girl and, even when things go wrong (as they constantly do), her optimism cannot be extinguished:

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

“I’ll warrant you’ll make plenty in it,” said Marilla.  “I never saw your beat for making mistakes, Anne.”

“Yes, and well I know it,” admitted Anne mournfully.  “But have you ever noticed one encouraging thing about me, Marilla?  I never make the same mistake twice.”

“I don’t know as that’s much benefit when you’re always making new ones.”

“Oh, don’t you see, Marilla?  There must be a limit to the mistakes one person can make, and when I get to the end of them, then I’ll be through with them.  That’s a very comforting thought.”

Montgomery was an extraordinarily uneven writer and, to my way of thinking, there are only a few other of her books where she gets the balance of humour and sentiment exactly right (Anne of the Island being the only other one in the series where she manages this).  But here, she does.  And it’s wonderful.  Anne can have her flights of fancy but she is also able to be entirely practical, when needs must.  She knows, from her varied life prior to Green Gables, how to save an ailing baby’s life, how to work hard, and how to go after what she wants.

And what she wants, she decides early, is to be good at school and go on to teacher’s college and eventually university.  It’s a goal that finds her going up against her rival, Gilbert Blythe, over and over again in the fight for top marks but that is the only conflict.  Everyone else views her intelligence and scholarly ambitions as something to be extraordinarily proud of and, looking back, I think that was probably one of the most important things I took away from the series.  Education is an important and unquestioned part of Anne’s life throughout the early books.  It probably would have been just as important in mine regardless but it helped to have a literary idol who shared my love of school (and of being at the top of the class).

Rereading this as an adult, it’s also interesting to notice how vivid the adult female characters are compared to the male ones.  Matthew is lovely but he is quiet and retiring.  He adores Anne and all her energy but has none of his own.  Marilla, who is left to do the heavy lifting in raising Anne, is clearly the more dominant personality.  And Rachel Lynde, their neighbour and friend-of-sorts, is hardly a meek and obedient wife.  Her husband is mentioned only rarely and is generally being directed around by his very able wife, such as when Mrs Lynde decides to go to a political rally in town:

Mrs Rachel Lynde was a red-hot politician and couldn’t have believed that the political rally could be carried through without her, although she was on the opposite side of politics.  So she went to town and took her husband – Thomas would be useful in looking after the horse – and Marilla Cuthbert with her.

And even among Anne and her friends, the desirability of men is discussed skeptically from a young age.  Anne dreams of an exotic, mysterious stranger to whisk her away one day; her friend Jane has a more realistic view of marriage:

“Jane says she will devote her whole life to teaching, and never, never marry, because you are paid a salary for teaching, but a husband won’t pay you anything, and growls if you ask for a share in the egg and butter money.”

Sounds like Jane’s mother could do with some assertiveness training from Rachel Lynde.

Anne’s own early dealing with romantic gestures aren’t particularly positive.  After teasing her about her red hair, Gilbert Blythe, Avonlea’s favourite son, spends the next few years trying to get back into Anne’s good books.  He eventually manages it but has to endure years of snubs, including this particularly harsh one after the initial insult:

Once, when nobody was looking, Gilbert took from his desk a little pink candy heart with a gold motto on it, “You are sweet,” and slipped it under the curve of Anne’s arm.  Whereupon Anne arose, took the pink heart gingery between the tips of her fingers, dropped it on the floor, ground it to powder beneath her heel, and resumed her position without deigning to bestow a glance on Gilbert.

That is stone cold, Anne Shirley.  But mightily amusing.

Oh, I love it all so much.  I love how Anne’s schemes fly over the head of her very tolerant but not particularly imaginative best friend, Diana; how humorously Montgomery contrasts Anne’s romanticized language with the plainspokenness of everyone else in Avonlea; and how the universe always grants Anne a suitably unglamorous end when her imagination gets the best of her.  I love how Matthew and Marilla change and soften because of her, how Anne becomes calmer and more practical under their steady influence, and how everyone proves they are deserving of a second chance.  Most of all, I love its humour, I love its heart, and I love that I can very clearly see parts of it in the person I became.

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I finished reading The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam yesterday and it was perfect, as I have come to expect from her.  It was fluently, imaginatively written, full of haunting images and details I will not soon forget.  But there is one thing it is not: a children’s book.  And yet that is how it is marketed.

At its heart, there are two children (but child characters alone do not make a children’s book).  Bell Teesdale is eight when the book begins, a sensible country boy who, like the rest of his family, is pitching in with the haymaking on their Cumbrian farm.  Rain is expected so the family works through the day and into the moonlit night, to the despair of the London family renting the farmhouse next to the field.  A tractor circling outside their windows at midnight is not their idea of a relaxing summer holiday.  Tempers flare, words are exchanged, and both fathers are fuming by the time they go to bed.  But Harry, the London family’s very young son, and Bell subtly intervene and peace is made the next morning.

So begins the story of twenty years of friendship between the Teesdales and the Batemans, and most especially between Bell and Harry.  The entire Bateman family comes to love their country getaway, where Harry’s writer father comes to work during the school holidays, but Harry feels a particular bond with the place and is never happier than when exploring the fields, dales, and fells or communing with locals, like the egg-witch (whose story is one of my favourites) or the local chimney sweep.

Gardam is a master of the short story and while I always enjoy reading her stories, I sometimes feel frustrated by their brevity.  I want more!  Here, we have the perfect compromise: a collection of exquisitely composed stories all focused on the same people.  It’s not quite a novel – the stories jump about through the years and Gardam has no interest in explaining things the way she would do in a novel – but the satisfaction of getting to see lives progress and learn how things turn out for everyone as they age is absolutely here.

So why is it considered a children’s book?  A number of her early books are (this was published in 1981, relatively early in her career), but then again that classification seems to vary by publisher.  Some consider Bilgewater, A Long Way From Verona, and The Summer After the Funeral to be for younger readers, which I can somewhat understand.  Europa, who have been reissuing Gardam’s books over the past few years, consider those novels to be for adults and yet this collection they consider among her works for children.  I think that is stretching it.  It’s not inappropriate in anyway for a younger reader, it’s just written in a way I would think appeals to more mature readers.  A twelve-year old would be absolutely fine with it, but then twelve-year olds should be reading adult books and not children’s ones anyway.  The language, the sedate pacing, the frequent focus on adult concerns and thoughts, all seem to me to gear more towards an adult reader.  And Bell and Harry’s boyish activities seem perfectly tailored to the nostalgic adult reader who would like nothing more than to spend a summer day exploring abandoned mines or a winter’s one admiring extraordinarily icicles formed by a fierce, fast frost.

Regardless of your age, it’s a wonderful collection and, like Harry, I didn’t want my time there to end.

NOTE: Europa, despite their interesting classification of adult/children’s novels, having been doing great work reissuing Gardam’s older titles over the past few years.  The Hollow Land, Bilgewater, A Long Way From Verona, and a number of her other books are all currently available in excellent editions and all are well-worth reading.  She is a truly extraordinary writer.  And if you need more encouragement to get excited about Gardam, the Backlisted podcast did a wonderful episode on A Long Way From Verona that is well-worth a listen.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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An Old-Fashioned GirlLate on Christmas Day, I picked up An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott.  I’d just finished watching the excellent 1994 version of Little Women and was feeling deeply nostalgic for Alcott, whose books (both the good and the very, very bad) I’d devoured as a child.  I’ve never particularly liked Little Women and its sequels (the rare case of the movie being more palatable to me than the book) but I’ve held on to my favourite Alcott books into adulthood.  I revisit them occasionally but it had been a few years since my last Alcott encounter, when I reread (with some reservations) Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom.  On Christmas Day, I was in the mood for something old-fashioned and comforting and An Old-Fashioned Girl more than satisfied.  It, alongside L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books, is one of the rare volumes that delight me as much now as it did when I first read it twenty years ago.

The story begins when fourteen-year old Polly Milton comes to Boston to stay with her friend, sixteen-year old Fanny Shaw.  Though the two girls had become fast friends when they met the previous summer, Fanny’s city life is a surprise to country-bred Polly.  Polly is amazed by her friend’s grown-up ways and very grown-up clothes.  Amazed but, to Fanny’s bewilderment, not particularly envious.  Though younger than her friend, Polly is in no particular hurry to grow up.  Not if it means wearing fussy clothes, never being able to run or toboggan, or being too sophisticated to play with Fanny’s younger siblings, fourteen-year old Tom and six-year old Maud, or be petted by the very loveable Mr. Shaw and his sweet mother, known to all as Grandma.

This is familiar stuff for Alcott fans: she loved to moralise about the virtues of wholesome innocence versus the corrupting effects of high society and vanity.  She just didn’t always do so persuasively.  Why couldn’t Meg March have one fun, guilt-free evening of flirting and pretty dresses?  Why did Rose Campbell have to be so violent in her disdain for “fashionably fast girls”?  And, most melodramatically of all, why did Charlie Campbell have to die to prove his creator’s point that frivolous pursuits are poisonous?  She takes a thankfully less heavy-handed approach here and it makes for a much better book.  Polly may be a little more prim than her friend (as Grandma Shaw says, Polly hasn’t “yet learned that modesty has gone out of fashion”) but both girls are kind and loving and generous.  The important difference Alcott shows us is that Polly, by embracing her true age, is free to have more fun and develop more meaningful relationships than Fanny can experience in her guise as a proper young lady of fashion.   Polly need not substitute sweets for meals, gossip instead of learn while at school, squeeze and stuff herself into a decorative but impractical dress, or put on airs when introduced to a young man.  She eats well, moves freely, and is able to enjoy the company of everyone she meets, young or old, male or female.

On top of all this, Polly has a gift for living: she appreciates all the opportunities that come her way and, most of all, she values the people in her life.  In the first section of the book, that is her main value: she teaches the Shaw family to show their affection for one another.  They had been a loving family before but in a more distant, absentminded way.  The siblings squabbled, all three were relatively thoughtless when it came to their parents, and, with the exception of Tom, they took their grandmother for granted.  With Polly as a gentle example, Maud and Fanny find themselves spending more time with their grandmother, all three begin to think more about how to lighten their father’s cares, and they even attempt to make friends with one another (not always successfully, but they get credit for trying).

This first visit cements Polly’s friendship with the Shaw family.  Four years later, when the story resumes, the relationship is just as strong.  Now a young woman of twenty, Polly has moved to Boston, found a room in a boarding house, and is teaching music to help pay for her younger brother’s university education.  Her days are busy between her teaching and her new friendships, but not too busy to see her old friends.

Grown-up (or, given that they are all still very young, more grown-up) Polly, Tom, and Fanny are more interesting than they ever were as children, perhaps because they all have more problems.  Fanny is languishing at home, with no purpose and no prospective husband in sight; Polly is busy all the hours in the day, between her teaching, her charitable efforts, and her new friendships with other young, determined, independent women (a fascinating group, particularly when you consider that the book was published in 1870); and Tom, poor, loveable Tom, has, I’m sorry to say it, turned into a bit of a dandy.  He spends too much, doesn’t take his schooling at all seriously, and has gotten himself engaged to a singularly awful girl.  Tom has always been my favourite Alcott character, so kind and big-hearted but full of reassuringly human failings, that his struggles pain me as much as they do Polly.

After a number of ups and downs, there are happy endings for Polly, Fanny, and Tom (little Maud, however, gets completely betrayed by her creator and is sentenced to a life keeping house for her father).  I’ve read this book so many times I’ve lost count but this was the first reading where I really appreciated the strength of the romantic relationships Alcott creates.  Fanny’s match is somewhat fairytale-esque but Polly’s feels excitingly real.   So many books glamorize the idea of an alpha hero, someone to take charge of situations and, all too often, the heroine.  Here, we have instead a healthier, more equal model for a marriage: a true partnership between two young people, just starting their lives.  Even before their marriage, we see Polly comforting and advising her future husband, pushing back when she disagrees with or is disappointed in him.  Polly doesn’t choose a husband who is perfect or who can rescue her and solve all her financial concerns: she chooses one who she will work hard beside to build the life they want.  And that is a rather lovely, special thing to see.

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The Summer After the FuneralJust a quick review today of The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam, a slim novel that is just as entertaining, if not so well formed, as Gardam’s other works.

After her elderly father’s death, Athene Price and her two siblings are shuffled off out of sight for the summer.  Elder brother Sebastian heads north to what he has described to his family as a Buddhist retreat (it’s not), younger sister Phoebe (better known as Beams) is sent to join a sickeningly jolly family by the sea, and Athene herself is bounced from one middle-aged female acquaintance to another – or at least that is the plan.  Meanwhile, their mother bounds round the country in search of gentile employment (for, though written in 1973, the book is set between the wars), writing breezy and slightly bossy letters to her offspring to update them on her findings:

My darling Mim, say your prayers, not particularly for us for we have nothing to fear (see Matthew vi.28: lilies of the field) but for the poor people of Putney who are entirely without occupation other than stirring their tea about.  The streets round Larpent Avenue are utterly silent and everyone makes a great point of not knowing the people next door.  A curious Christianity and I have told both them and this curate and continue to do so.  They have not one word to say in reply.

Athene is a model of all the virtues, an ideal daughter and sister, as dependable and calm as she is beautiful.  Compared to her siblings, her summer plans seem quite boring: a few weeks with her godmother, then a family friend, and then an aunt.  All perfectly respectable and perfectly dull, especially compared to what her siblings have planned.  But, of course, things do not go quite as planned.  She does quite well at the lifeless hotel where she spends the first few weeks, a period enlivened only by glimpses of a handsome boy, but once she moves on to her next destination things go horribly awry.  The next few weeks see Athene running away and spending the night in the cottage of a middle-aged painter before holing up in an empty boys’ dormitory and falling in love with a married schoolmaster.  It is only when the summer draws to an end that others discover what an eventful time she has had and Athene herself finally begins to deal with the fallout from her father’s death.

The plot is a little too flimsy and sequential to be all that interesting and the character development is minimal.  What is so fun about this book is Gardam’s wonderful way of turning a phrase.  What style she has!  When discussing the oddness of Athene’s name, Gardam contrasts it with the names that were normal at the time “back when middle-class English females were called breezy, artless names that went well with tennis.”  I love that.  Gardam also momentarily abandons Athene’s adventures to check in with her siblings.  Though Sebastian’s narrative is pretty standard, Gardam allows herself a bit of a freer rein when it comes to Beams, letting us glimpse the young girl’s summer diary:

Part 1, Sub. Sect. 1. Page 1.

My name is Beams, short for Moonbeams (big glasses), Phoebe at the font.  Ugly as sin.  Alas for me.

I am at present staying in Wales with the Padshaws.  I care nothing for the Padshaws and the Padshaws care nothing for anybody.  What they care about – all they care about – is things like caulking, tacking and drying facilities.  They have a boat.  They worship this boat.  It is a most interesting thing to observe, this boat worship, and I have already made a small study of it anthropologically.  I intend to become a psychiatrist eventually but at present I am studying anthropology as I believe that psychiatrists get pressed for time.

I could happily devour an entire book written from Beams’ perspective.

Not a special book and not a memorable one, but still a very enjoyable read.

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A Long Way From VeronaWith the first line of A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam, published in 1971 but set during the Second World War, Jessica Vye introduces herself to the reader bluntly but honestly:  “I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine.”  This is not some mysterious Ada Doom-esque experience but it is one that has nonetheless changed her view of the world.  At the age of nine, Jessica, already of a literary bent, was told by an established author that she was a writer “BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT!”  Now, at twelve, she still has her calling in mind but she is also struggling with the usual angst of an adolescent girl.  And twelve, as I can certainly remember, is not a fun age to be:

“How old are you about?”

“Twelve.”

“Oh, you poor thing!  Are you indeed?  I really hated twelve – and thirteen.  And then somebody told me that it was all to do with growing.  It was all to do with my inside.  With my stomach I believe in some way.  I was so relieved.  I had thought I was growing unpleasant and starting to hate everyone, and I didn’t want to be that sort of person at all.”

Reassured in this way by one of teachers at her school (an eminently wise and useful sort of woman, obviously), Jessica can focus her worries instead on the other things that are wrong with her:

 

The point is this – in three parts.  Tripartite.  Viz:

1. I am not quite normal

2. I am not very popular

3. I am able to tell what people are thinking.

And I might add

4. I am terribly bad at keeping quiet when I have something on my mind because

5. I ABSOLUTELY ALWAYS AND INVARIABLY TELL THE TRUTH

All of these faults are, unsurprisingly, the things that make her such an attractive protagonist.  Jessica is observant and forthright and impolitely interested in many of the people she comes across, especially the inappropriate ones (who she has a talent for stumbling across).  She is not remotely as odd as she seems to think herself but she is a memorable individual, a winning mix of earnestness and enthusiasm.  She can be a little bit over dramatic (Anne Shirley, for one, would have enjoyed some of Jessica’s theatrical gestures) but mostly she is just eager for activity and experience – neither of which seems within her grasp, either at her stodgy school or at home, where her socialist schoolmaster-turned-clergyman father, lovely but exhausted mother, and younger brother interest her very little.

A sort of wildly inappropriate love interest in introduced for Jessica and he is perfect, though not for her, as Jessica quickly realises.  If I hadn’t already been adoring this book, the appearance of Christian, a surly fourteen-year old communist who Jessica meets while staying with his family (his father is a Dean), would have converted me.  He is beautiful  – Jessica thinks him as attractive as Rupert Brooke, who, having recently seen a photograph of him in a book, had previously been her male ideal – but awful.  Having asked Jessica’s parents’ permission to take her out, they embark on their memorable first outing – a trip to the local slums to educate Jessica on the plight of the poor.  This trips goes disastrously awry and it is PERFECTION.

It is such a delightfully-written book and I adored how very free and breezy Gardam’s writing was and how wonderfully direct Jessica was.  The entire time I was reading, I had that feeling of almost nervous excitement that comes over me whenever I find a new favourite author.  There is something so confident and intriguing about the way Gardam writes that I am always terribly excited to turn the page and see what else she has in store for the reader.

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Betsy's WeddingBetsy’s Wedding by Maud Hart Lovelace begins where Betsy and the Great World ended: it is September 1914 and Betsy is on a ship, coming back to America after having spent the last nine months touring Europe.  Waiting for her when she docks is Joe Willard, the boy she has loved since high school.  Their past quarrels are forgotten and, now assured on one another’s love, the two young people are only too eager to start their life together.  Less than a week later they are married and setting up house near Betsy’s family in Minneapolis.

The book covers the first few years of Betsy and Joe’s marriage, as Joe works and Betsy struggles to cook and keep house.  They have their family nearby and almost all of their friends have stayed in the area (Betsy has been reunited with her beloved “Crowd”, who she missed so much while in Europe) so most of the book is devoted to Joe and Betsy’s interactions with others.  This was my first introduction to Tacy, already married and, before the book is over, a mother of two, and to their other great friend, Tib, an outgoing German-American blonde whose speech is unnaturally peppered with German exclamations.  I suddenly felt very thankful that neither of them had featured in Betsy and the Great World.

After reading two other Maud Hart Lovelace books, I should have known not to expect any emotional depth but, even so, I was disappointed by how shallow this book was.  Betsy is full of resolutions when she gets married and, as she adjusts to married life, there are some fleeting reflections as she learns to adapt to life with Joe but, for the most part, any serious issue is ignored.  Betsy mentions a few times the desire for a child but, when none appears, no comment is made as to her disappointment.  Her writing career, which had been so important to her in previous books, is barely mentioned, except for when she turns down a writing job with the excuse “I already have a job…And it’s important, and very hard. It’s learning how to keep house.”  Instead of emotional development, we get an action-filled account of what is going on with Betsy’s Crowd.  Honestly, the two main challenges Betsy faces in this book are 1) learning how to cook (thank goodness she married a husband who knows how) and 2) finding a husband for her friend Tib, whose lack of interest in marriage shocks poor Betsy and Tacy:

“She isn’t even thinking about getting married!” Betsy cried.  “She goes out all the time but she doesn’t give a snap for the men.”

“When girls don’t marry young,” Tacy said profoundly, “they get fussier all the time.”

“That’s right.  You know the old saying about a girl going through the forest and throwing away all the straight sticks only to pick up a crooked one in the end.” Betsy looked wise as befitted an old married woman.

“There’s a lot of truth in that.”

“And Tib will soon be earning so much money that she won’t meet many men who earn as much money as she does.”

“That would be bad.”

“And then she’ll start driving around in her car, and getting more and more independent, and she won’t marry at all, maybe!  And then what will she do when she’s old?”

Lovelace is partially tongue-in-cheek here, but only partially.  There are dozens of things that mark this book as being of its time (1955) but none more than this.  If I had read this passage as an eight or nine year old, I would have thrown the book down in disgust and returned to the non-Stepford –esque heroines in my books from forty or fifty years earlier.

Having now read this, I think I can safely put my interest in the series to rest.  I have heard from a number of enthusiastic Betsy-Tacy fans since I started sampling Lovelace’s books but I am afraid I will never be able to count myself among their ranks.  Still, it was interesting to read a few books from the series and I had much more patience for them now that I would have if I’d come to them as a child.  I can at least understand their simple, nostalgic appeal, even if I don’t feel it.

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Betsy and the Great WorldI only discovered Maud Hart Lovelace after I started blogging.  Her Minnesota-set Betsy-Tacy series of children’s books have insipid titles that would have earned my contempt if anyone had tried to press them on me when I was young (Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, Heaven to Betsy, and Betsy Was a Junior) but she had so many fans in the book blogging world that I had to try her for myself.  I started with a non-Betsy-Tacy book (Emily of Deep Valley) and thought it was fine.  At the time, I remarked that I didn’t think, based on the brief glimpse of Betsy provided in Emily of Deep Valley, that I could face any of the books focused on her.  But then I found a copy of Betsy and the Great World for sale at the library for 50 cents and decided to take a chance.

After two years of university, Betsy Ray has had enough.  She convinces her parents that, as an aspiring writer, she is not getting a lot of value from her math and science classes.  They agree and instead offer up an education of a different sort: a year abroad, travelling in Europe.  (Note: this was not the offer my parents made to me whenever I complained about my university classes.  Tragically.)  Unsurprisingly, she is ecstatic and, in possession of a flashy wardrobe and lots of enthusiasm, she sets off for Europe.  It is January 1914, she is twenty-one years old, and the world seems full of possibilities.

The book follows Betsy through her shipboard adventures, her travels on the continent (Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France), and her arrival in England – just in time for war to be declared.  Through it all, she does her best to make new friends and keep up her writing even as she struggles with homesickness and a longing for Joe, the boyfriend she had parted from before leaving and is now fearful of having lost forever.

The highlights of the book for me were the descriptions of the places Betsy visits.  Betsy herself was wildly uninteresting but I loved hearing about her walks through Munich, her wanderings around Venice, and her instant love affair with London.  The only part of Betsy’s journey I did not enjoy was her brief stay in Oberammergau, where the piety of the citizens, many of them actors in the village’s famous Passion Play, was taken far too seriously by the young American (and her creator).

Though I developed absolutely no interest in or attachment to Betsy over the course of the novel, I was impressed by Lovelace’s descriptions of Betsy’s mood changes and the frequent waves of homesickness that plagued her.  Lovelace has a disarmingly honest was of talking about unpleasant or negative emotions (which were also a feature of Emily of Deep Valley).

But there were things that outweighed the honesty and the enchanting travel details: so much of the story is focused on Betsy’s new friendships (both platonic and romantic) and the episodic and repetitive nature of these relationships felt lazy.  Yes, Betsy seems to be a young woman who makes friends (and conquests) easily but I longed for some more substantial development.  Her need to surround herself with a group of people, to form a clique (or, in her words, a Crowd) in each new place, saddened me.  By the end of the book, Betsy has seen many places and had many wonderful experiences but it is not clear how much she has actually learned, particularly about herself.

There is one feature I cannot decide if I should classify as a positive or a negative: Betsy’s garish wardrobe.  Maud Hart Lovelace describes her heroine’s costumes in loving detail and the vast majority of them are awful – laughably so.  Betsy has a particular fondness for a red-green hat, worn with a pale green dress and a scarlet jacket.  There is also a matronly-sounding maroon silk evening dress.  And she wonders how people know she is an American even before she speaks!  The illustrations don’t help either, making her look either ten years behind the fashions or forty years ahead of them.

Clearly, this was not an instant favourite with me, though there is something intriguing about Lovelace’s writing, though it is very uneven.  I am even a little bit tempted to read the final Betsy-Tacy book, Betsy’s Wedding.  But while I can somewhat stomach grown-up Betsy, the idea of reading about her childhood escapades sends a shiver up my spine.  No.  Just…no.  I cannot face that.

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