Archive for the ‘Children/Young Adult’ Category

Noah’s Ark – Currier & Ives

I have not one but two books for you today that are essentially biblical fan fiction.  Both Before the Flood by A.A. Milne and Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle are (as their titles might suggest) based on the story of Noah’s ark but that is all they have in common.

Before the Flood by A.A. Milne is a one-act play but not, I think, the kind of play most churches would pick to perform at any of their events, despite the biblical origins of the story.  Milne imagines the domestic affairs in Noah’s home in the months between him receiving his divine instructions to build the ark and the day when the rains begin.  The question hanging over them all – Noah’s wife, his three sons and their respective wives – is whether the floods will actually come and be quite as extreme as Noah has been ‘told’.  It can be quite amusing at times, as the family debates the ark-related logistics that Noah’s divine instructions do not account for: how can they bring all those animals on board and prevent the predators from eating their natural prey?  If the animals aren’t going to eat one another, what are they going to eat?  Does the family need to bring extra animals on board for catering purposes?  On the whole though, it is not the best of Milne’s work and easily my least favourite of his plays.  I only laughed once, when, after Noah tells his family that they will be the only ones to survive the coming flood, one of the sons turns to his wife and says “Aren’t you glad now that you married into this family?” (or words to that effect).   The book ends when the rain starts to fall, leaving the question of whether Noah is a prophet or a madman unanswered.

Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, on the other, leaves no doubt as to the veracity of Noah’s claims.  In fact, Noah is but a minor character and he and his ark are ignored for a large portion of the book.  The focus in this children’s book from 1986 is on the interaction between the earthly and divine in this imagined pre-flood world where angels walk among men.  As soon as I started reading, I remembered why I found this book so weirdly fascinating when I was young.  Not good, necessarily, but fascinating.  It is the fourth book in the “Time Quartet”, the series that begins with A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle’s most famous book, but it was the only one I ever felt compelled to reread.  The mechanics of L’Engle’s idea of time/space travel never appealed to me but seraphim and nephilim, for some reason, did.

Sandy and Dennys Murry, the teenage twins who find themselves transported back to (they eventually realise) biblical times after disturbing an experiment in their parents’ home lab, are not remotely interesting.  They are flat and really unbelievably stupid at times.  Stuck thousands of years out of their own time period, they are remarkably relaxed, even with their knowledge of what is about to happen.  Having befriended Noah and his family, they are perfectly content to work in the garden, help build the ark when the time comes, and pine after Noah’s youngest daughter, Yalith.  Yalith is far more developed than either of the boys – all the female characters are – but still not very compelling.  Still, she doesn’t need to be.  This is not a book that requires in-depth characterization.  Instead, we get to read a lot about sex, which some might find slightly surprising for such a religious book.  There is a worrying but not entirely consistent tendency to equate sexual promiscuity with evil but the real message is that sex is a good thing for those in a loving relationship (not necessarily marriage) and a lack of emotional involvement cheapens what should be an intimate experience between two people.  That, as well as a general opening of the twins’ minds to outlandish possibilities, seems to be the main lesson they learn over the course of the book.

Honestly, neither book is particularly excellent.  Many Waters can feel stilted in its need to over explain both its scientific and religious elements and Before the Flood, though it asks the questions any skeptic ponders while reading the story of Noah, does not do so with Milne’s usual energy and so the story drags along.  Both author’s approaches are interesting but their execution is lacklustre.

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When I was little – eight or nine years old maybe – I was utterly fascinated by the idea of one-room schoolhouses.  Reading Glengarry School Days by Ralph Connor, published in 1902 but more likely set during the 1870s of the author’s youth, reminded me very much of that old fascination.  Its schoolroom scenes have much in common with those from some of my favourite childhood books – L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series – but offer a decidedly and irresistibly male perspective on growing up.

Set in a rural farming community in Ontario, Glengarry School Days follows the adventures of the boys of Glengarry.  The existence of females other than mothers is acknowledged but not encouraged – the dark days of the Glengarry school include the period when two “girl” teachers reign over it – so instead we hear quite a lot about the boys’ games, their rivalries, their friendships and also their lives away from school, including both their chores and their hobbies.  It is an episodic book, each chapter standing alone, offering glimpses into Glengarry and its youth over a period of some years.

Though the book really centers around Hughie Murray, the minister’s son, I was most intrigued by Connor’s portrait of Thomas Finch, who is slightly older than Hughie but still a close friend.  A large and awkwardly-spoken boy at the beginning of the book, Thomas unexpectedly becomes Connor’s way of discussing masculinity.  Yes, Thomas is large and strong but when his mother falls ill with breast cancer, he is the one who does most of the caring for her, not his sister.  He is as “gentle as a woman” in nursing her and everyone in the community admires him for it.  He plays hockey and works the farm – very masculine pursuits – but at no time is that presented as being at odds with his nursing of his mother.  Connor doesn’t belabour the point – I have made more of it here than he does in the entire book – but I still think it is an important one: tenderness is just as natural an aspect of a man’s character as it is of a woman’s.

Ralph Connor was the penname for Charles Gordon, a Presbyterian/United Church minister, which explains why the book has such a strong moral tone – but not an unpleasant one.  I found it far more palatable than, say, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s or Louisa May Alcott’s books.   Hughie, for example, struggles with keeping secrets from his adored mother but rather than let things come to a dramatic crisis point, Connor lets Hughie work through his angst in a much more natural, internal way.  It felt true to the sort of dilemmas children do find themselves in and Hugh came off as a normal child who dearly loved his parents rather than a saintly one who would never sin again.

But the moral and religious strength of Glengarry is not limited to improving its boys; it also gets hold of Jack Craven, the last in a string of teachers the school has during the course of the book.  Craven comes to Glengarry after his wild ways get him thrown out of college – just the sort of reject who all too often was in charge of such rural schools.  He is not a natural teacher and prefers to follow his own preferences rather than any well-rounded lesson plan.  He also does not bother to discipline the children, though they come to love him and so a sort of discipline does develop.  Slowly, under the influence of his admiring pupils, Craven begins to feel the duty to reform.  But it is really Mrs Murray, the minister’s wife and Hughie’s mother, who inspires his transformation.  She is one of those perfect, saintly women who always say exactly the right thing and who, without a word of reproach, with only their consideration and support, can shame one into wanting to be a better man.  Such Madonna-like characters used to be very popular – especially as minister’s wives – and are now terribly unfashionable (for better or for worse).  Regardless of current standards of political correctness, it is under Mrs Murray’s influence that Jack Craven is inspired to evolve from rakish youth to theological student.

I really loved this book.  I loved the descriptions of meals that could rival even the dinners in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books; I loved the excitement of the students over the “treat” of a spelling match; I loved that it addressed – intelligently – some of the challenges about growing up and the urge that even the most polite children feel to rebel.  Mostly I just loved the fun of it, of getting a glimpse into a childhood that felt very real and very relatable but still very different from my own experiences growing up a hundred years later.

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When I was little, I used to write a lot of letters.  There were the usual ones to grandparents and pen pals but the bulk of my correspondence went to my favourite authors.  Almost any time I read and enjoyed a book, I would sit down and write to the author (provided they were living – though at my most fanciful stage there might have been some letters written to L.M. Montgomery that I saved in my diary).  I kept this up for two or three years, probably from the age of nine to eleven, encouraged and provided with stamps by my parents.  But no one – absolutely no one – received (and answered, it should be noted) more letters from me than Gordon Korman after I discovered his Bruno and Boots series that starts with This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!

There is something irresistible to a child about novels set at boarding schools.  There’s the Chalet School, there’s Hogwarts and, for me at least, there was always Macdonald Hall.  Located somewhere near Toronto, this fictitious boy’s school was the home for many years (and seven books) of Bruno Walton and Melvin “Boots” O’Neal.  When the series begins Bruno and Boots, best friends and roommates, are having a wonderful time until their headmaster Mr. Sturgeon (“The Fish”) decides to separate them after one too many of their spectacularly inventive pranks.  Bruno finds himself rooming with the brilliant but very odd Elmer Drimsdale while Boots is unfortunate enough to land with the snobbish hypochondriac, George Wexford-Smyth III.  Whatever it takes, the two boys vow, they will find a way of being reunited.

It is a slim book and the other characters aren’t as fully realised as later in the series but it is very well done.  Bruno and Boots’ plans – first to annoy their roommates into forcing another change, then to try to frame them for outrageous pranks – are simple but their tactics are typically original, from Bruno’s freeing of Elmer’s ant colony (wild creatures should not be caged, he explains) to Boots’ elaborate hoax convincing George that he is suffering from a rare and life-threatening illness that has infected half the school.  Through it all, there is The Fish, the omnipotent headmaster who has a far better sense of humour than he can allow the students to see.

Korman wrote This Can’t Ben Happening at Macdonald Hall! as an English assignment when he was twelve.  When I was ten that filled me with wonder.  Now it just makes me a bit depressed.  Bruno and Boots are loveable – as all harmless and good-natured pranksters are – and unforgettable but it was amazing to me how vivid and sympathetic some of the supporting characters are too, especially Elmer Drimsdale and The Fish.  The portrayal of Mr Sturgeon is surprisingly nuanced for an adolescent writer, capturing the adult sense of responsibility and discipline but also acknowledging the components of his personality he cannot share with the students, like his sense of humour and real affection for the boys.   But mostly I am impressed by the humour and the pacing – I find the jokes just as funny as an adult as I did when I was nine or ten and the story never lags.

I can think of countless other children’s and YA books that don’t come close to being this smart and I cannot think of any other fictional school which I would have been more excited to attend.  If only my gender hadn’t ruled me out for admission!  Though there was always something attractive about Miss Scrimmage’s School for Young Ladies, located directly across the road from Macdonald Hall, with its shotgun-wielding headmistress and innocent-looking schoolgirls whose pranks could best anything the boys ever concocted…

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Adaptations, be they for the stage or screen, of favourite books are tricky things.  In the hands of a bad writer, the results can be horrifying.  But in the hands of a good writer who loves the source material as much as his intended audience, the final product can be magical.  Case in point: Toad of Toad Hall by A.A. Milne, a stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved The Wind in the Willows from 1929.

I was pretty confident going into my reading of the play that Milne would not disappoint.  He seldom does and the fact that this is really the only one of his plays still regularly performed seemed promising.  By focusing on the exploits of Toad, somewhat at the expense of the other characters, he doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the book but he still comes out with a product that is delightfully entertaining and which entirely lives up to magnificent of Toad.  Indeed, it seems entirely natural to have Milne’s recognizable dialogue coming out of Toad’s mouth; they are a perfect match.

There was a moment of panic for me very early on in the play when I saw that Milne had changed Rat’s most famous, most quotable remark on the joys of boats to a much more generalised statement about the pleasures of river-side living:

There is nothing – absolute nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about by a river.

How could he do that?  How dare he?  But I was willing to overlook this travesty – if Kenneth Grahame could, then so could I – and the rest of the play was a joy.

The other animals that I love so much in the books are paid scant attention here.  The wonderful relationship between Rat and Mole is barely touched on and Badger – oh, what Milne has done to Badger!  Instead of the gentle but stern paternal figure I love so much in the book, here he is presented as a doddering old man, more interfering than guiding.  As he despairs over Toad’s recklessness (“Alack!  Alack!  O, hapless Toad!  O, ill-fated animal…I knew his father, I knew his grandfather, I knew his uncle, the Archdeacon”) he loses all the authority with which Graham invested him.  He has great comedic value but he is not my Badger.  Instead, he seems rather like Mr. Woodhouse, happiest when allowed to moan about the ills of the world and lament the dangerous behaviour of others.  His attempts to help Toad don’t seem to reflect any legitimate concern or affection for that poor misguided creature, just a feeling that he owes it to Toad’s ancestors.  It works very well but the change in characterization takes a bit of time to get used to.

Toad of Toad Hall, as the title suggests, focuses on the Toad-centred episodes from The Wind in the Willows.  One of the cleverest things Milne does is incorporate Toad’s story into scenes where he hadn’t originally played a part.  In the book, when Mole finds himself lost in the Wild Wood, his fear comes more from the strangeness of his surroundings than from any visible threat.  But here, Milne installs a chorus of ferrets, weasels and stoats – the fearsome residents of the Wild Wood – who emerge from the darkness to sing their hatred of Toad.  Their vicious curses and rhythmic chant of “Down with Toad” give a much more immediate sense of terror and, as far as the narrative is concerned, successfully establish our villains.  It is a brilliant addition and I can only imagine how effective it must be when staged.

The highlight of the play has to be the lengthy courtroom scene, where Toad is brought to justice for his reckless behaviour.  Here Milne gets creative, creating new dialogue and characters, and the result is delightfully entertaining.  It is also the scene that proves just how wonderfully suited Toad is to Milne’s clever and flippant dialogue.  On being accused on insulting a police offer by calling him “fat-face”, Toad is all innocence in a speech only Milne could have written:

TOAD.  I didn’t mean him any more than any one else.  I just murmured the expression to myself.  It’s a way I have.  I’m that sort of person.  I murmur things to myself.  It’s the result of a highly strung temperament and an artistic nature.

But, of course, Toad’s contrition vanishes the moment the sentence comes down and his arrogance – the thing that has most attracted readers to him for all these years – returns:

JUDGE. Any last words or valedictory utterances?

TOAD (boldly). Yes.

JUDGE (kindly). Well, well, what is it?

TOAD. Fat-face!

JUDGE (aghast) Fat-face?  ME?

TOAD (wildly). All of you!  All the whole lot of you!  All fat-faces!  I am Toad, the Terror of the Highway, Toad, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the Lone Trail, before whom all must vie way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night.  I am the Toad, the handsome, the popular, the successful Toad.  And what are you?  Just fat-faces.

Oh, Toad.

Part of the fun of reading adaptations is admiring (or, in less successful cases, critiquing) how they are done.  By choosing to centre the story on Toad, Milne sacrificed the more subtle elements of The Wind in the Willows but, given how difficult it would be to do justice to them, it seems a clever choice.  He certainly succeeded in creating an entertaining comedy about the exploits of Toad and I can only imagine how fun it must be to see this show performed.

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There have been many times in my life where I’ve thought that the world would be a better place if there were more Psmith books.  The four books P.G. Wodehouse gave us are not enough.  So imagine my delight when I picked up When Patty Went to College by Jean Webster and discovered that, miraculously, Webster had in her very first novel created in a female Psmith.

Published in 1903 (five years before Psmith made his first appearance), When Patty Went to College follows the irrepressible Patty Wyatt through her final year of college.  Though the school is “a modest and retiring institution craving only to be unmolested in its atmosphere of academic calm”, it is clear from Patty’s first appearance that she is incapable of adding to that calm.  She is a law entirely unto herself: clever, quick-witted, loathe to do any work she thinks she can avoid and unapologetically heedless of institutional rules (and other people’s property – especially the other girls’ reserves of alcohol).  When her roommate worries about changes Patty is proposing to make to their room and asks “Do you think they’d let us do it?” Patty scoffs at her friend’s conventionality: “It would never do to ask them.”  Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, except Patty rarely stoops to begging.  Instead she violates every rule her residence hall has – ripping up the carpet, studding the walls with hooks for curtains, painting the now-exposed floorboards – and when the despotic janitor uncovers the scene, charms him into not only waving the punishment she rightfully earned but also into setting up her illegal stove.  Psmith would applaud her as a true artist.

She is, like Psmith, given to making educational but condescending speeches for the benefit of her friends:

“When, as I say, you are out in the wide, wide world, making five-o’clock tea some afternoon for one of the young men popularly supposed to be there, who have dropped in to make an afternoon call – Do you follow me, young ladies, or do I speak too fast?  If, while you are engaged in conversation, the kettle should become too hot, do not put your finger in your mouth and shriek ‘Ouch!’ and coquettishly say to the young man, ‘You take it off,’ as might a young woman who has not enjoyed your advantages; but, rather, rise to the emergency; say to him calmly, ‘This kettle has become over-heated; may I trouble you to go into the hall and bring an umbrella?’ and when he returns you can hook it off gracefully and expeditiously as you have seen me do…”

But, again like Psmith, Patty does not always receive the attention or respect she feels such pearls of wisdom deserve.  As often as not, her friends tell her she is being insufferable, which is doubtlessly good for her character.

The book chronicles Patty’s (mis)adventures, as her need for excitement, penchant for invention, and aversion to hard work get her into one bind after the other.  In her fourth year, she has had time to study the ways of the college and its professors and knows exactly how to work each instructor to appear to best advantage in class.  For example:

Patty’s method in Romantic Poetry was to be very fresh on the first part of the lesson, catch the instructor’s eye early in the hour, make a brilliant recitation, and pass the remainder of the time in gentle meditation.

Occasionally though she forgets her own dictates.  This is when her genius for improvisation comes in.  She finds herself faking illness to get out of a test as well as physically hiding in class to avoid being called on by a favourite professor when she is unprepared.  She carries these schemes off beautifully – to the disgust of her friends – but inevitably feels compelled to confess her sins to her instructors, who are remarkably forgiving and admiring.  That again felt very Psmith-like: bad behaviour is always mitigated by honest contrition and charming apologies.

Still, she is a well-meaning young woman and when able to give assistance does her best.  She befriends a homesick freshman, encouraging the girl’s classmates to warm up to her as well, and when that girl does poorly on her exams, intervenes with the professors to prevent her from being kicked out.  There is nothing mean-spirited about Patty; she is always willing to put in the effort if she thinks the cause just.  There simply aren’t all that many instances where she feels the effort is worthwhile.

Rather disappointingly, the book ends on a moralising note.  Patty has skipped Sunday morning church service, preferring to spend the beautiful spring morning outside even though she has used up her allotted number of cuts for the term, but who should she run into but the bishop, who hurried away from the church as soon as he finished his sermon.  Patty, typically, confesses all, entirely unrepentant, and the two launch into a discussion of Patty’s character.  Patty, sighing heavily, finally admits that no, she really doesn’t want to be known as the woman who never tries, who resorts to “subterfuges and evasions” at every turn and, at the ripe old age of twenty-one, vows to turn over a new leaf.  It will doubtlessly make her a better person but a significantly less entertaining one.

Webster is rightly famous as the author of Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy; compared to those classics, When Patty Went to College is insignificant as anything except her first novel.  But it is fun.  Some of the episodes drag (mostly the ones that focus on Patty’s interactions with her friends rather than her professors) but there is something bold and winsome about Patty that triumphs even in these lacklustre outings.

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I reread Danny: The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl this afternoon for the first time in I don’t know how many years.  To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I read anything by Dahl and that upsets me a bit because when I was little, before I learned to read for myself, there was no author whose works were more familiar to me.  Before I came to know all the inhabitants of Avonlea intimately, before I had heard tell of the March sisters, even before I learned the directions to Neverland, I had half memorized (entirely memorized, in the case of Esio Trot) the works of Roald Dahl.

I don’t know why my father gravitated towards Dahl’s works.  Perhaps he had read James and the Giant Peach (published in 1961) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) in his childhood but our favourite books, the ones we went back to over and over and over again (like most children, I adored repetition), were books published when he was an adult and which we got to discover together: The BFG (1982), Esio Trot (1989), and Danny, the Champion of the World (1975).

Danny, for those who didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him either as children or adults, is a young boy who lives in a caravan with his father behind the filling station that his father owns and runs.  His mother died when he was only a few months old and so Danny’s entire life has revolved around his wonderful, amazing father.  He teaches Danny how to fix cars, showers him with love, and tells the best bedtime stories (including the story of the BFG).  Danny makes his feelings about his father quite clear from the beginning: “My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”

When he is nine years old, Danny learns his father’s deep, dark secret: he is a poacher.  Or rather, he was before Danny was born – having been trained by his own father – but, now that Danny is older, is hoping to take it up again.  Especially since the local landowner Mr Hazell, an odious nouveau riche type who guards his pheasants and sneers at the locals, so thoroughly deserves to have his birds poached.  Danny, like any young boy, is intrigued.  When his father decides, on the eve of the big hunt, that Mr Hazell really deserves to be embarrassed in front of all his rich and important guests who hate their host but come for the excellent shooting, it is Danny who comes up with the cunning scheme which, when successfully carried out, makes him the Pheasant Poaching Champion of the World.

Dahl knew what he was doing when writing for children.  There is the stereotypical bad guy – Mr Hazell – but I think part of what makes this book so clever is how Danny slowly learns more about all of the adults in his life, whether it be his father, the village doctor, the local policeman, or even the vicar’s wife!  When you are little, these figures seem so distant and unapproachable and Dahl captures the moment of transition perfectly, when the child awakens to the fact that adults are people too and surprisingly complex ones at that.

But really, this book is entirely about Danny and his father.  Danny’s father is the parent all children wish for at one time or another.  All his attention and all his love belongs to Danny.  He makes a wonderful cosy home for them, shares all he knows about the natural world with his inquisitive son, and, most of all, he is fun to be with.  He lets Danny drive cars around the filling station, lays out midnight feasts when they can’t sleep at night, and just enjoys himself to the fullest.  He is daring and enthusiastic – without being reckless – and never happier than when sharing an adventure with his son.

It is suiting then that my memories of this book are mostly of my father.  The story had faded in my mind – though I did remember Danny’s ingenious poaching plan in stunning detail – but I have never forgotten being tucked into bed and listening to my father read this to me.  And every time he read it, because my father is not the kind of man who can tell a story once if he can tell it a dozen times, he would tell me about his grandfather, who, before coming to Canada, was a gamekeeper on an estate in Berkshire, responsible for keeping poachers like Danny and his father away from the pheasants.  And then he would tell me about his own childhood summers spent staying on his grandfather’s farm and so my bedtime stories turned into tales worthy of Danny’s father and, like Danny, I hung on every word.

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Is there a cosier book in existence than The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame?  Written in 1908, the enviably close friendship between Rat and Mole, the comfortably paternal authority of Badger, and, most of all, the riotous adventures of Toad have been entertaining readers for over a century – though it was not, as A.A. Milne will remind you, as popular initially as it truly deserved to be.  Containing some of the most practical advice ever written down (‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats’), there are few reading experiences more comforting than opening the book for the umpteenth time on Mole’s spring cleaning, knowing that within a few lines he will abandon his whitewashing and head out into the wide world, where his soul mate the Water Rat awaits him.

This rereading was prompted by Alberto Manguel’s essay in the Summer 2012 issue of Slightly Foxed.  The friendship between Rat and Mole is the heart of the novel and, since there is no way that I could better Manguel’s description of it, I had to share his words:

Like Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Ishmael and Queequeg, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Rat and Mole reflect for each other discovered identities and contrasting views of the world.  Each one asserts for the other the better, livelier part of his character; each encourages the other to be his finer, brighter self.  Mole may be lost without Rat’s guidance but, without Mole’s adventurous spirit, Rat would remain withdrawn and far too removed from the world.  Together they build Arcadia out of their common surroundings…

It is an enviable relationship (as well as another reminder of how much I love Manguel).

In addition to creating such wonderful portraits of friendship (for, in addition to the complimentary relationship between Rat and Mole, there is the dependable support of Badger and the never-ending tolerance and protectiveness the other animals feel towards Toad), Grahame also wrote marvellous descriptions of the animals’ surroundings, particularly excelling at cosy interiors.  No where could be more perfectly suited to a snowy winter’s night than Badger’s home in the Wild Wood:

The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burnt a fire of logs, between two attractive chimney-corners tucked away in the wall, well out of any suspicion of draught.  A couple of high-backed settles, facing each other on either side of the fire, gave further sitting accommodation for the sociably disposed.  In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side.  At one end of it, where an armchair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger’s plain but ample supper.  Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs.  It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment.  The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.

The Wind in the Willows is thought of as a children’s book but I can’t believe that children get any more pleasure from it than adults.  Grahame’s writing is simple but deceptively so; some of his metaphors seem a bit beyond the scope of the average eight year old, though perfect for his or her parents:

Nature’s Grand Hotel has its Season, like the others.  As the guests one by one pack, pay, and depart, and the seats at the table-d’hôte shrink pitifully at each succeeding meal; as suites of rooms are closed, carpets taken up, and waiters sent away; those boarders who are staying on, en pension, until the next year’s full reopening, cannot help being somewhat affected by all these flittings and farewells, this eager discussion of plans, routes, and fresh quarters, this daily shrinkage in the stream of comradeship.

And Toad – what to say of him?  He is, quite simply, the most memorable thing in the entire book.  How enraging to have him as a friend but how delightful to have him as a character whose misadventures we can follow without feeling any of the responsibility for him that Rat, Mole, and Badger do.  His passion for motorcars, his jaunty outfits, and, most of all, his ego, make him one of the most unforgettable characters in literature.  Here is a toad completely assured of his place in the world and absolutely certain that the world – human and animal – exists simply to delight and entertain him.  Toad is a hedonist, always full of enthusiasm for some new scheme or another, heedless of any possible negative consequences.  This passionate nature gets him into more than a few scraps but, like his friends, the reader can’t help but love him.  He may be hopelessly impractical, reckless to the point of endangerment, and dreadfully superior but he is Toad.  And he composes quite delightful songs (on the topic of his own magnificent, naturally):

The world has held great Heroes,
As history books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad!

The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr Toad!

And so on…

The Wind in the Willows is the perfect before bed book, whether you’re reading it to someone else or just to yourself.  The chapters have definite endings; there are no messy cliffhangers leaving you uncomfortably anxious.  A number of the chapters can be read independent of the rest of the novel – particularly the adventures of Toad – which is, I suspect, how many readers choose to reread the book.  A.A. Milne, for instance, adored Toad’s bits so much so that he turned them into the play Toad of Toad Hall (which I currently have checked out from the library and am eager to read).  But, much as I love Toad, I could never do without Badger’s reassuring presence or the inspiring example of Rat and Mole, who together are able to embrace the world around them with a confidence they never could alone.  It is as close to perfect, I think, as a book can be.

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British “war guests” arriving in Montreal, 7 July 1940

I think I was eight when I first read The Guests of War Trilogy by Kit Pearson.  I can’t remember if I got the books from the school library or the public library, or even if I purchased them for myself (my parents’ book-buying ban having already been in place by then), but I do know that over the next four years I read them over and over again, absorbing every detail about the lives of Norah and Gavin Stokes, two English children evacuated to Canada during the Second World War. I loved these books.  I cried over them, I sighed over them, and I came away from them with a fascination for wartime social history which, as you well know, has stuck with me through the years.  I had been a bit scared to try them again as an adult – how could they possibly live up to my memories? – but am thrilled to report that I love them now just as much if not more than I did as I child.

The Sky is Falling (1989) begins in August 1940, when ten-year old Norah Stokes is having the best summer of her life.  The adults around her might be anxious about the aerial dogfights being waged in the skies above their Kentish village but for Norah and her friends the Battle of Britain is endlessly thrilling and they spend hours learning to identify all the different planes involved.  But Norah’s perfect summer is disrupted when her parents tell her that they have decided to send her and her five-year old brother Gavin to Canada as “war guests”.  For Norah who has joined her friends in reviling their classmates who have already been evacuated, it is a crushing blow.  She wants to stay in England, to take part in the war, not be sent away to safety like a coward.  But at ten, her opinion matters very little and soon she and Gavin are on a ship, bound for Canada.  Once they arrive they make their way to Toronto, where they are taken in by the wealthy, domineering widow Mrs. Florence Ogilvie and her timid middle-aged daughter, Mary.  Mrs Ogilvie had only wanted Gavin but was forced to take Norah as well, something Norah unfortunately overheard and instantly soured her against her new guardians.

The novel follows Norah’s unhappy first few months in Canada.  Norah is obnoxious, which is I think part of what I found so refreshing when I first read this as a child and what I still appreciate now.  As a reader, you feel her pain and anger and loneliness and can sympathize with her, but you still see how she is hurting those around her, especially Gavin.  Having been told by her parents to take special care of Gavin, Norah ignores him almost completely from the moment their journey begins.  At five, he is equally scared but much more adaptable and she lashes out at him when he begins to forget their family and home in England.  He is coddled by Mrs Ogilvie (Aunt Florence), who having lost her beloved son Hugh during the last war in thrilled to have a little boy in the house once more, and being kept so much in adult company is lonely.  Norah remains oblivious to his attempts to reach out to her, caught up in her own sorrow, and I think as an adult I feel the poignancy of those rebuffs even more than I did when I was younger.

Very, very slowly, Norah begins to find things that make life tolerable in Toronto.  She makes a few friends – one suitable, according to Aunt Florence, and one not – and finds a refuge at the public library, where the young librarian is only too happy to help an eager young reader find new books.  She worries constantly about her family in England, longing to return to them, but, finally, her tense relationship with Aunt Florence comes to a crisis point and a tentative peace in made between the strong-willed woman and the equally strong-willed girl.

My favourite book in the trilogy was always Looking at the Moon (1991) and my copy is ridiculously worn when compared to the other two books.  It is the most girly of the books, dealing with typically female coming of age rites like first love and periods, which is part of what fascinated me as a girl but mostly I adored the setting: the entire story takes place a Gairloch, the magical family cottage in Muskoka where days are spent swimming, sailing, and running around the island.

Set during the summer of 1943, Norah is now thirteen and has been in Canada for almost three years.  She has friends in Toronto, is settled into school and is doing well, and has atoned for the brief months she neglected Gavin after they first arrived.  She even gets along with Aunt Florence.  But as much as she loves Gairloch and adores being surrounded by her “cousins” there, the war and her family are constantly in her thoughts.  The contrast between her life and theirs weighs on her and, as always, she worries that Gavin is forgetting their parents and sisters.  But she is still a thirteen year old girl and her main worry that summer is her new love for nineteen-year old Andrew, one of the “cousins”.

Andrew is the family’s golden boy, the one who can do no wrong, the one who even Aunt Florence views as almost as perfect as her dearly loved Hugh.  He is smart and handsome, kind and obliging, and, as Norah learns, suffering under the weight of his family’s expectations.  As Norah gets to know Andrew better, he confides in her some of the things he cannot tell his family: his longing to be an actor, his fear of disappointing everyone, and his horror at the idea of being forced to kill people.  These conversations, though not the lover-like tête-à-têtes Norah likes to fantasize about, force her to reconsider her view of the war and her image of courage.

I was worried that reading this as an adult would reveal weaknesses I hadn’t seen as a child, but it did not.  Instead, I appreciated it even more, recognizing how perfectly Pearson captured the complexities of both Norah and Andrew, both of whom possess unusual maturity but also the typical contradictions and weaknesses of teenagers.  They feel spectacularly real to me.  And I don’t think I had ever fully appreciated the contrast Gairloch provides to the war-torn world.  It is the ultimate safe haven, where children and adults are free to play and relax and forget what is going on in Europe and Asia for as long as they can – until a letter comes from Norah and Gavin’s family or the rationed butter is all used up in one meal and reality intrudes once more.

The trilogy concludes in The Lights Go On Again (1993), which focuses on Gavin rather than Norah.  Beginning in late 1944 and stretching to the summer of 1945, the book focuses on Gavin’s reaction to the end of the war and the knowledge that he will soon have to return to a country and a family he doesn’t remember.  Norah he knows and loves but he can’t remember much of his mother or father, his two elder sisters, or his grandfather.  He has grown up in Toronto, sounds like a Canadian, and knows what it is like to live in a mansion in Rosedale, where there is always enough money for good clothes and endless numbers of toys.  He has enjoyed trips across the country and summers with the “cousins” at Gairloch.  He loves Aunt Florence and Aunt Mary and the thought of being sent away from them to stay with strangers, even his parents, fills him with dread.

Then the chance arrives for Aunt Florence to adopt him, for Gavin to stay in Canada forever, and he has to make the choice between the life he knows with people he loves and the unknown, where he ‘belongs’.  Norah is thrilled to be going home – five years in Canada has not dulled her longing for England – but Gavin is tortured by his conflicting loyalties.  To be separated from his sister is frightening, but how can he leave Aunt Florence and Aunt Mary, and all his friends at school, not to mention his dog Bos?

Even more than the other books, The Lights Go On Again focuses on the extreme differences between the Stokeses and the Ogilvies and the question of where is right for Norah and Gavin.  During the war, the Ogilvies offered safety but with it the kinds of opportunities Norah and Gavin would never have encountered even during peacetime in England.  They traded their lower middle class life in England for one of unusual privilege in Canada.  Now, they have the chance to retain all that – the promise of the best schools, a university education, and a portion of the Ogilvie estate when Aunt Florence dies – but what do they owe their family in England?  Is it better for Gavin to be with the people he already loves and who can offer him everything, or with the people he is related to but doesn’t remember?  The decision is easy for Norah, who has always viewed their stay in Canada as a sort of exile and prayed for the chance to return home, but Gavin, only ten years old, struggles to decide whether home means Canada or England.

Throughout the trilogy, Pearson does a wonderful job of balancing historical detail with universal childhood themes.  An eight-year old picking up the books for the first time might be most interested in Norah’s struggles at her new school, or Gavin’s experiences at the hands of a bully, but, like Gavin and Norah, can’t help but be touched by the details of the war that pervade each book.  This may be a young reader’s first brush with the Second World War, the way he or she first learns of wartime evacuees, rationing, prisoner of war camps, and V-2 rockets, and Pearson incorporates the details remarkably well – far less clumsily than most adult historical fiction writers, actually.  For me, this sparked a lifelong curiousity about wartime Britain that still drives much of my reading.  But, most importantly, these books left me with an appreciation and expectation of balanced storytelling.  Pearson does not tell simple stories and there is nothing simple about her characters, which is what makes these books just as satisfying to read now as when I first encountered them eighteen years ago.

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Last night with no book on the go, I picked up Peter Pan for the first time in years and read the first three perfect chapters before going to bed.  We all have our favourite opening lines but few (even my favourite “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”) match Barrie’s wonderful ”All children, except one, grow up.”  Is it possible to put the book down after reading that?  To not wonder who that one child is and why – and how – he doesn’t grow up?  In that one short sentence, in those six simple words, is the promise of the entire story: of Neverland and Captain Hook, of Tinker Bell and the Lost Boys, of all the extraordinary things that happen to the Darling children that every child and most adults wish would happen to them.  It is magic and it works just as well on me at twenty-six as it did at six.

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Having now read Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace, I can understand why it is such a beloved comfort read for many.  It is a story simply told and full of heart, a nostalgic, wholesome tale of an intelligent young woman’s struggles to build a rich, engaging life.  Emily Webster is one of the cleverest young women in Deep Valley but after graduation, when all her friends are heading off to university, Emily chooses to stay behind to care for the grandfather who has raised her since her parents’ death.  Without her childhood friends or the high school classes that brought her so much joy, Emily struggles.  She finds herself feeling isolated and depressed and, in the manner of all good children’s heroines, resolves to do something about that, to “muster her wits” as she calls it and create an exciting, enriching life.

The portion of the novel dealing with Emily’s difficulty in finding her place in Deep Valley as an adult, not a child, is fascinating.  A good section of the book is devoted to this and to her ensuing depression, happily for the reader if not Emily since this forms the most compelling, original portion of the novel.  Emily is conscious that she needs to change to stop her depression from worsening, but, for a long time, she struggles.  Lovelace has a rather perfect description of her feelings at this time that feels very true to the kind of oppression one feels when faced with depression, knowing that something needs to be done but not knowing how to do it:

‘A mood like this has to be fought.  It’s like an enemy with a gun,’ she told herself.  But she couldn’t seem to find a gun with which to fight.

Emily is a character any life-long reader can easily identify with.  She is intelligent and excited to learn but longs for other people who share her enthusiasm.  She was never the most popular girl in school, but she had friends and her debate team members, people who respected and admired her.  She was part of the school community and adored it.  Now, with all her friends gone, she is left with her grandfather and her books.  But even books aren’t enough: she doesn’t just want to read mindlessly but to debate ideas with others:

She did bring home books from the library, in armloads, replenishing them every two or three days.  She read avidly, indiscriminately, using them as an antidote for the pain in her heart.  But they didn’t help much.  There was no one to talk them over with.  They were almost as useless as the newspapers.

Cheerfully, though perhaps a touch unrealistically, it doesn’t take long for Emily to ‘muster her wits’.  Even before Thanksgiving, having spent on a few months without her high school friends, she has enacted a course of self-improvement and socialisation.  She starts a reading group with local women, returns to the piano lessons she had loved before school commitments forced her to abandon them, begins learning to dance, and befriends both a slightly older group of local young people and the Deep Valley Syrian community.  She still longs for more education and the friends who are away but as she becomes more and more absorbed in the work she has set for herself, she develops a busy, rewarding life that she is fully engaged in.

Emily’s relationship with the Syrian community is quite interesting and the novel’s most unique feature.  Having become intrigued by sociology and the ideal of social work while she was in high school, Emily is remarkably free of prejudices and it doesn’t take long for her to befriend a number of Syrian families and hatch plans to improve their lot.  Her first friends are a pair of young boys, Kalil and Yusef.  Cheerful, eager and polite, they become welcome visitors at her house, bringing joy to both Emily and her grandfather.  Yet the local boys tease and bully them.  Emily begins her efforts by bringing Kalil and Yusef together with a pair of American boys, forming a boys’ club that helps bridge the cultural divide.  After visiting Kalil and Yusef’s homes and seeing how little English the mothers’ in the community speak, living more isolated lives than their children and husbands, she also begins giving language classes. And she joins others in the Deep Valley community to advocate for adult education classes for the Syrians to help them adapt to their lives in America.  In doing so, she becomes close to Jed Wakeman, a young, new teacher at the high school.

Oh, Jed.  What to say?  The book’s illustrations of him as a slimmed-hipped, bowtie-wearing, bright-eyed all-American did not help at all.  He looked very good and very perfect but completely uninteresting, which is pretty much how he comes across in the text.  Their idyllic courtship is very reasonable, very logical and very boring.  Jed is too perfect, Emily’s mirror image rather than foil – they agree on everything.  He’s blandly inoffensive and serves mostly to support Emily’s growing confidence.  These aren’t bad things but I never got a sense of Jed as a person, just as a platform of ideas that match Emily’s.  Seemingly every time he appears, he’s introduced with some sort of reference to his stature (he’s large.  We get it) rather than anything related to his character.  He never develops enough to feel like a real person.  But, then again, Emily, though relatable, is pretty bland herself so there is a certain logic to their pairing.

Lovelace has an irritating inclination to drift into sickening nostalgic and/or patriotic passages that would have completely destroyed this book for me when I was younger and less tolerant than I am now.  The story was written in 1950 but set in 1912 and full of oh-so-conscious and unnecessarily detailed allusions to the fashions of the day.  I like hearing about a crisp shirtwaist or stylish sailor suit as much as the next girl, but there is a limit and it was quickly reached.  I suppose there is an audience who appreciates the unabashed flag-waving but, aside from pointing out Deep Valley’s fervent patriotism, it served no purpose.  It was generally not gracefully incorporated into the story and felt clunky and intrusive.

I don’t think I could face the Besty-Tacy books that Lovelace is famous for (the glimpse of Betsy here was more than enough for me) but I did quite enjoy this.  It’s not high-quality children’s literature but it is a very light, entertaining, wholesome story with fascinating central issues, Lovelace’s intelligent treatment of which should be enough to keep any adult reader engaged.  If the characters had been more complex and realistic, I’m sure I would have come away raving about it.  As is, it’s a book I’m now glad to say I own and which I’ll be happy to return to when I’m looking for an undemanding but thoughtful read.

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