Archive for the ‘Persephone’ Category

Back in 2011, I read Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham and absolutely adored it.  In fact, I loved it so much that it made my Best Books of 2011 list.  And the first thing I thought when reading it was how perfect a choice it would be for Persephone Books.

Well, turns out they thought the same way.  Six years later, I am delighted to say that Persphone has just reissued the book and it is now readily available for all to enjoy!  Happy reading!


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hetty-dorvalMy first choice for this week’s 1947 Club was a patriotic one: Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson.  It has the honour of being the only Canadian novel so far to be reissued by Persephone books and has sat unread on my bookshelf for a shamefully long time.

The novella begins with the arrival of a beautiful and alluring young woman, Hetty Dorval, into the small town of Lytton, British Columbia, where twelve-year old Frances “Frankie” Burnaby lives on a nearby ranch with her parents.  For Frankie, Hetty is exotic – as is any new arrival in a small town – and endlessly fascinating.  When Hetty befriends her, it seems both wonderful to be acknowledged by such a person and uncomfortable, as Frankie is upset by Hetty’s request that she keep their visits a secret from everyone, including her parents, lest the locals view that as an invitation to come visit her too.  “Under a novel spell of beauty and singing and the excitement of a charm that was new”, Frankie agrees to keep the secret though, inevitably, it comes out.  And then her parents share with her the reason she cannot continue to see Hetty:

He found it difficult, I could see, to explain to me about ‘a woman of no reputation’. (‘Oh,’ I thought, sitting still and discreet like a bird that is alarmed, ‘I know, like Nella that went to stay with that rancher, and that woman with the funny hair!’ – we children just naturally heard and knew these things) and I learned that Hetty was ‘a woman of no reputation’.  Father stopped short there.  Apparently he could have said more.  In my own mind, seeing Hetty’s pure profile and her gentle smile, I said to myself that Father couldn’t have believed these things if he had seen her himself.  But a sick surprised feeling told me it might be true.

Frankie turns into quite the traveller as she ages, going first to a small boarding school in Vancouver (where her dorm room has a view across Stanley Park, which would be absolutely lovely), before crossing the Atlantic to attend school in England, followed by some time in Paris.  Across the years and the different settings, she and Hetty Dorval run into each other time and again and with each meeting – and with each learned piece of gossip helping Frankie to compose Hetty’s tawdry romantic back-story – Frankie’s view of the woman moves farther and farther away from her childhood infatuation.  By the story’s climax, when the widowed Hetty has wrapped herself around a dear friend of Frankie’s, Frankie can only see the shallow, manipulative woman who manoeuvres all situations to her advantage and cares nothing for the feelings of anyone but herself – an attitude which leads Hetty’s devoted nanny, who has cared for her and stayed with her since childhood, to a passionate and shocking outburst.

It is a very readable book, though I could do without some of the early descriptive passages about the scenery around Lytton.  Apparently, these appeal to many other readers.  Perhaps those readers have not had to wade through quite as much second-rate CanLit as we patriotically-obliged natives, where overly described scenery that adds very little to the story is de rigueur?  Regardless, it is a minor quibble.  Hetty Dorval is charmingly subtle and elegantly structured.  A very worthy first choice for the 1947 Club!


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I finished Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple earlier this week and realised that, though this is the fourth book I have read by Whipple, I’ve yet to review any of her works on this blog.  Now, part of this is explained by my relative indifference towards her writing – why spend time discussing an author whose works I find inoffensive but generally unremarkable and unmemorable? – but the main reason has been to avoid outing myself, as I have just done in the first half of this sentence, as a Persephone lover who does not love Dorothy Whipple.

There are things I like about Whipple; chiefly, her books’ ability to sell well for Persephone Books.  She is still, last I read, their top-selling author and as I have great respect for Persephone and wish them well in all things, I am delighted when they find a consistent revenue stream.  They are publishing their eight Whipple title later this year (Because of the Lockwoods) and I hope it sells as well for them as the rest have.

That said, I also completely understand the “Whipple line”, a concept used by Virago in their selection process to weed out sub-par writing.  As someone who for years had philosophical issues with Virago, this was actually the olive branch that made me begin to warm to them (I have thawed absolutely since they began reprinting Angela Thirkell’s novels).  Whipple can spin plots that are absorbing enough to while away a few desultory hours but her melodramas offer nothing challenging or even particularly satisfying.  They may begin enjoyably – I was having great fun when I started Someone at a Distance and even mid-way through it – but I always end them feel like Whipple has disappointed me.  This was especially true of Someone at a Distance, which turned so absurd and artificial that I was livid with Whipple by the end.  She chooses histrionics every time.  While some readers obviously respond to that level of drama, I find myself sighing with disappointment and now resignation.  I’ve learned to enjoy her novels as light, flimsy soap operas (The Priory was particularly good this way) but I want well-rounded characters and more complexity – particularly from her universally-flat male characters – than she is capable of offering.

All that said, her books aren’t awful (what a resounding endorsement).  They have their place in my reading diet and for this week, suffering from jet lag and adjusting to my work schedule after two weeks of blissful holidays, she was just the thing.

Greenbanks is the home of the Ashton family.  In 1909, when the novel begins, Louisa Ashton is a matriarch in her late fifties, with a philandering husband, three adult children living at home, and another three children married and off with families of their own.  She is also a dotting grandmother to Rachel, then just four.  There are other grandchildren but they are insignificant, both to the story and Lousia, frankly.  Rachel’s mother, Letty, is the only one of Louisa’s married children who lives near Greenbanks and so the two households meet often, especially with Rachel treating Greenbanks as a second home as the years go on.  Greenbanks, after all, with her doting grandmother and the allure of complete freedom, is far more attractive than her own home, with her timid mother and small-minded, petty father.

The book follows the Ashtons from 1909 to the mid-twenties.  Maybe.  There is a jarring miscalculation or typo when the book leaps forward in time: “It was six years since the war had ended and Rachel was now seventeen a half.”  This is an impressive ability indeed to halt the aging process, since Rachel was four in 1909.  Regardless, it takes us to some post-war period.  The Ashton family is intact though reduced in numbers from their pre-war strength.  More change is afoot, though: Louisa’s youngest daughter is trying to obtain a divorce from her husband after running away with another man; Rachel, grown into a clever and determined young woman, is eager to study at a university, despite her father’s disapproval; and Letty, Rachel’s mother, is coming close to reaching a breaking point after twenty-odd years of marriage to the rigid, unimaginative Ambrose.  Louisa, now a widow, has also brought a companion to live with her at Greenbanks: Kate Barlow, who, more than twenty years before, had an affair with a married local man, bore his child, and then disappeared in disgrace.

Whipple uses the novel to chronicle the social changes in England over this period, particularly in the lives of women.  I didn’t find her approach particularly compelling but, nonetheless, there is food for thought here.  Letty’s dissatisfaction with her husband and longing for adventure cannot help but bring to mind Lotty Wilkins from The Enchanted April (and remind this reader at least how much more skilled von Arnim was than Whipple at writing about women’s internal struggles).  Rachel’s plight, if it can be called anything so dramatic, is a quest for independence through education.  When she wins that (with relative ease), she finds herself in more conventional conflict with her parents – at least her father – over her choice of future husband.  I have to admit, I was a little in sympathy with her generally unsympathetic father here, though our reasons were very different.   Kate Barlow has probably the most interesting situation, though I think Whipple is clumsily heavy-handed in her writing here.  Kate is determined to punish herself for her ‘sin’, despite the welcome extended to her by everyone at Greenbanks and in the village.  She clings to her outsider status, happy to be a martyr and to reject the friendly overtures made to her.

Louisa, placid and pleasant, is the most frustrating aspect of this book, though others don’t agree.  Rachel of Book Snob, one of Whipple’s most articulate and devoted proponents, calls Greenbanks her favourite Whipple novel and sees Louisa “a remarkable matriarch, who radiates love and devotion”.  Well, she does radiate love and devotion, but what good does that do?  Louisa is a born homemaker, delighted with domestic comforts and happiest when she is at Greenbanks with her family.  But an ability to create a pretty home and preserve jam does not necessarily make you a good parent.  Just as Louisa was content to ignore her husband’s infidelities, never mentioning them though she was aware of them from the earliest days of her marriage, she keeps her own council about her children’s choices, never thinking to discuss their lives with them, even when some counselling from a loving mother might have helped prevent years of heartache.  Two of her daughters make unhappy marriages and one son becomes more hard-hearted with each passing year, while another, her over-indulged favourite, floats aimlessly through life.  Louisa loves and worries about them all but she also leaves them all, at times disastrously, to their own devices.  There is much unhappiness among the children of Greenbanks and some of that must be laid at Louisa’s door.  Love and kindness is only part of parenting – Louisa seems to avoid all of the difficult and unpleasant but nonetheless necessary bits.

Obviously, this was not the book to turn me into an adoring Whipple fan.  That said, it had its moments, just as Whipple has her place on my bookshelf.

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on-the-other-sideToday, continuing our week of World War Two diaries, we come to one of the most exciting and original offerings in the Persephone catalogue: On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg.

Born into a prosperous Hamburg family in 1879, Tilly (as Mathilde was known) had an upbringing suitable for the daughter of a prominent lawyer: she mastered “the gentle arts of music and painting, deportment and elocution, dancing and general social graces.”  She was sent to finishing school and in due time made her debut in Hamburg society as an accomplished and marriageable young lady.  So far, this sounds pretty standard for the daughter of the professional class and in fact identical to the upbringings of my great-grandmother and all my great-great-aunts.  But rather than settle down, Tilly convinced her parents to let her go to Italy to study singing and Italian.  There, she met and fell in love with a Dutch art historian and linguist, whom she married and had six children with (though one died in infancy).  It was an unhappy marriage (he sounds like the least-attractive Dutch person I’ve ever heard of) and the two separated during the First World War.  This history has little bearing on the book itself (aside from explaining the origins of the children to whom Tilly is writing) but I had to share it anyway.  Already her life would have made a good novel and she was just getting started.

By 1940 when these letters begin, Tilly was living in Hamburg with her second (and decidedly more stable) husband, Emil Wolff, a professor of English Language and Literature at Hamburg University.  Of her five children, only one was living in Germany.  Tightened censorship meant that she knew she could not write honestly to her children about her day-to-day life so she began these letters with the hope of sharing the truth with them once the war was over:

My beloved far-away children, everything I was not able to tell you in my letters during the first year of the war; was not allowed to say, because the censor waited only for an incautious word in order to stop a message from getting through to you, all this I will now put down on paper under the title “Letters that never reached them”; so that much later perhaps you will know what really happened, what we really felt like and why I had to reassure you repeatedly that the “organisation” was marvellous, that we were in the best of health and full of confidence. (10 October 1940)

There are hundreds of English diaries and memoirs about life during the war, countless entries and excerpts about normal life being disturbed by the Blitz and inconvenienced by rationing.  But, generally, life went on.  In fact, if you were really self-absorbed, you could pretty much act like there wasn’t even a war on.  When you start reading about life in Germany and its occupied neighbours, things get a lot more bleak.  Germans had been suffering under Hitler since 1933 but now, in addition to the fear and paranoia that had become commonplace for most citizens under the Nazis, there was the added horror of Allied bombings.  As sympathetic as I found Tilly, as much as I enjoyed her personality, it was her descriptions of these bombings and the resulting chaos that made this book so unique and memorable.

There is an excellent afterword by Christopher Beauman than summarizes the ongoing debate about the morality of the devastating Allied bombing strikes on German cities but it is Tilly’s powerful descriptions of living through the bombing raids that made the most impact on me:

I doubt whether there is a single undamaged city in the whole of Germany and most of them are sad ruins.  If one had a bird’s-eye view, one would see nothing but devastation, destroyed railway-lines, fields torn open by craters, burning factories and hordes of fleeing human beings.  A never-ending stream of fugitives is rolling from the east towards Berlin and Hamburg.  When they arrive, after days of toil in open farm carts through ice and snow, babies frozen to death at their mothers’ breasts, more bombs are showered on top of them.  It is unbelievably wretched and frightful.  (4 February 1945)

The July 1943 bombing of Hamburg was one of the largest raids of the entire war.  Over the course of several days, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people were killed.  (To put that in perspective, about 30,000 Londoners were killed during the Blitz – but those casualties were spread out over the ten months.)  With tens of thousands more injured and buildings and infrastructure destroyed, imagine the chaos of trying to live among that:

For days on end we have had a harmlessly blue and translucent sky above us, bringing out the colour of my gloxinias, red and white, growing in superb stillness on the balcony and hiding the ruins opposite, to the right and to the left.  But in all directions death and destruction are knotted together, ready to explode.  Can anyone fathom this?  I cannot.  There is hardly a town still left intact and yet one becomes indifferent even to these atrocious ravages, which must be beyond your powers of imagination.  For days we have had no water; everything is chipped and broken and frayed; travelling is out of the question; nothing can be bought; one simply vegetates.  Life would have no purpose at all if there weren’t books and human beings one loves, whose fate one worries about day and night. (7 August 1944)

Tilly and her husband were never members of the Nazi party (though Tilly’s ex-husband, the shifty Dutch fellow, was).  Hamburg, for centuries a free city, had a history of free-thinkers and opposition to the Nazi party, something that we’ll return to later this week when I talk about Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself.  But hating the Nazis, loathing all they stand for and all they do, is a far different thing from hating Germany.  Tilly struggled with the knowledge that the defeat of Hitler would also mean a crushing blow to her homeland:

…however much we strain with every nerve of our beings towards the downfall of our government, we still mourn most deeply the fate of our poor Germany.  It is as if the final bomb hit our very soul, killing the last vestige of joy and, hope.  Our beautiful and proud Germany has been crushed, ground into the earth and smashed into ruins, while millions sacrificed their lives and all our lovely towns and art treasures were destroyed.  And all this because of one man who had a lunatic vision of being “chosen by God”. (1 May 1945)

What was almost harder for Tilly than seeing Germany’s collapse – at least with that there was some hope of a better future – was seeing how completely her Anglophile husband’s affection for the English was erased.  She too cannot hold back her anger at times:

I do understand that W [Wolff, her husband] is deeply depressed, has little hope for his own particular world.  He was so passionately devoted to Great Britain and all it stood for.  Now he is disillusioned by the limitless arrogance and the dishonesty with which they treat us, proclaiming to the whole world that only Germany could have sunk so low in such abysmal cruelty and bestiality, that they themselves are pure and beyond reproach.  And who destroyed our beautiful cities, regardless of human life, of women, children or old people?  Who poured down poisonous phosphorous during the terror raids on unfortunate fugitives, driving them like living torches into the rivers?  Who dive-bombed harmless peasants, women and children, in low-level attacks, and machine-gunned the defenceless population?  Who was it, I ask you?  We are all the same, all equally guilty, and if my entire being was not straining towards a re-union with you, life would be nothing but torture and abhorrence. (17 May 1945)

Other reviewers (like Simon and Jane) have mentioned how this book gave them a new perspective on the war.  I find that intriguing since I certainly remember reading about life in the Reich and German-occupied lands during my school days.  I wonder if this is a cultural difference; it doesn’t seem likely to be a generational one since Simon and I are the same age.  Growing up in Canada, you are just as likely to have had relatives fighting for the Germans as for the Canadians or British.  At university, I used all of my electives (a pathetically small number spread between four years of finance, accounting, and marketing courses) to studying German and history – ideally, when possible, German history.  I started this way because I wanted to understand more what my grandparents’ lives must have been like under German occupation; I continued reading because I was fascinated.  I read dozens of diaries by women like Tilly, women who hated Hitler but loved Germany, who loved the English until they saw their families and cities destroyed by bombs, who, finally, exhaustedly, just dreamed of an end and a chance to start anew.  But so many of those diaries are not in print or translated so to have one like this – written with such poise by such a sympathetic  and articulate woman – so readily available is truly a gift.

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Bricks and MortarAfter reading Simon’s celebration of Persephone Books over at Vulpes Libris a couple of weeks ago, I realised a) how long it had been since I read one of those lovely dove-grey books and b) how much longer it had been since I actually reviewed one.  Determined to remedy both these lapses, I picked up Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton.

On the Persephone website, there is a sidebar with all the different categories that their books can be classed under.  Looking for a book about Career Women?  About Country Life?  About London, or Mothers, or Suffragettes?  They have you covered.  But out of the more than one hundred books they have published, only nine of the titles fall under the category of Books about Men.  Bricks and Mortar is one of these and follows the career and family life of a London architect over the course of forty years.

We meet aspiring architect Martin Lovell in Rome in 1892.  Young and awkward, he is no match for Lady Stapleford, an impoverished widow on the lookout for a respectable husband for her beautiful daughter, Letty.  It is a tiresome courtship for young Letty, being dragged around Rome to marvel at ruins when she would much rather escape the heat or enjoy a picnic, but soon enough matters are brought to a satisfactory conclusion: Martin, amazed at his good luck, finds himself married to the most beautiful girl in the world and Lady Stapleford finds herself rid of the expense of bringing her daughter out in society.  Letty, perhaps, is not so happy as the others but she is at least free of the mother who bullied and abused her.

The young Lovells head back to England and begin building their life together: Martin throws himself into his work, which he loves, and the small family grows to include first a daughter, Stacy, and then a son, Aubrey.  It does not take long for Martin to realise that his wife is not the kind of partner he would have hoped for – she shares none of his interests, is petty and fickle, and spoils her son while berating her daughter – but he makes the best of his life, delighting in his work and, eventually, in the company of his daughter.

Though Martin is doubtlessly our hero, he is a solid, steady man and the drama of the book comes from Stacy’s struggles to claim some independence and then happiness for herself.  A lively, intelligent girl, Stacy spends her childhood and young adulthood at war with her mother; much as her father may love her, he is too timid to be any sort of buffer between them.  She has dreams and passions that it takes her father years to recognize and at times it seems that her life may be destined to be an unhappy one.

I loved seeing Stacy through Martin’s eyes.  She is as close as he comes to having a soul mate, someone who understands him, loves him, and shares his interests, and yet, despite his affection for her and their closeness, he is still that rather simple man who Lady Stapleford seized on in Rome all those years ago, oblivious to people’s private struggles and motivations.  There is no one in the world he loves so well as Stacy and yet her actions come as a shock to him, though not perhaps to the reader.

The most steadfast relationship in Martin’s life is with his work and this passion is the source of most of the book’s best passages.  From his twenties until his sixties, his interest in architecture never fades.  He is always able to take pleasure in a well-designed structure, in taking over and fixing up homes of his own, and in travelling and seeing foreign styles of buildings.  He knows he will never be famous, never design anything that will be remembered, but that does not lessen his enthusiasm.  He has left his mark on the world and, what’s more, enjoyed every minute of it.

I found Bricks and Mortar both slyly funny and rather touching.  The male perspective is a refreshing change from Persephone’s usual female-centred offerings and an enjoyable addition to their catalogue of middlebrow domestic fiction.  After years of having it sit neglected on my shelf, I’m so glad that I finally read it.

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Persephone Spring

Sorting through the mammoth mail pile that accumulates during a holiday is rarely pleasant but this week it was a delight.  Amidst all the bills and bank statements and junk flyers were three items guaranteed to excite me: the two newest Persephone books (The Exiles Return and Heat Lightning) and the Persephone Biannually.  Now I just have to figure out which of these to read first!

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Princes in the LandSometimes, there is nothing better than starting a book with low expectations.  Everything I had heard about Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan had prepared me for a pretty awful book.  Well, it’s not awful.  It’s clearly not at the level of Hostages to Fortune, another Persephone title which deals with the same subject matter, but it is still a very interesting novel.  I may not have admired the writing and I am afraid the author wanted me to like the intolerable central character but, like most Persephone books, it gave me a lot to think about.

First published in 1938, Princes in the Land focuses on Patricia, a baron’s granddaughter who, after a privileged childhood, chooses to marry Hugh, a young academic.  Indulged by her grandfather and brought up to expect a future with servants to wait on her, Patricia has no idea how to run a home or take care of her husband.  It does not take long for difficulties to arise between the young couple, largely, it seems, because neither of them is at all capable of explaining how they feel to their spouse.  Watching the spirited, horse-mad Patricia try to tame herself to the domestic life is just as difficult for Hugh as it is for her:

In those early years, he was a difficult husband.  Poor but proud – so he thought – he was easily offended.  His Scots reserve involved them in innumerable misunderstandings.  He never said, ‘I hate your having to cook and push the pram.’  He said, ‘It would have been better for everyone if you had learned to cook instead of learning how to break horses.’…Though he must have known better, he persuaded himself into believing the handy old sophistry that women are adaptable and made no allowance for the fact that Patricia was tackling a job that she hadn’t been born or bred or trained for.

But, with time, Patricia learns how to be the kind of wife she thinks Hugh needs and, more importantly, learns how to be a mother to her three children.  As the novel begins, Patricia is proud of August, Giles and Nicola but as time progresses she realises how little she knows each of them.  August, the eldest, makes an awful marriage at a far too early age.  Giles joins the Oxford Group.  And Nicola breaks her mother’s heart by denying any interest in horses, far preferring motors.  As their true characters are revealed, Patricia is horrified by how different her children are from the people she thought them and by how little influence she seems to have on them, these children for whom she’s slaved all these years:

The kingdoms she had won for them they had rejected.  August with his shiny black bag and his bowler hat, his two pounds a week and his gimcrack villa; Giles dispensing God as a remedy for discontent, boredom or sex repression; Nicola without an idea in her head beyond combustion engines – these weren’t the children for whom she’d given up fun and friendship, worked, suffered, worried, taken thought, taken care, done without, suppressed, surrendered and seen her young self die. 

That, really, is the crux of the problem for me: Patricia’s feeling of resentment towards her family, this idea that they owe her something for the changes and sacrifices she has made over the years as she has aged from girl to wife to mother.  Patricia doesn’t push; she doesn’t attempt to control her children’s lives (though, frankly, a little more interference in August’s life would have probably been useful): she just sort of smoulders at them, feeling cheated and hard done by.  She is such a sour woman that it really isn’t a surprise that her children keep their distance from her.  They spend years trying to please her, showing her the sides of them they know she wants to see.  When they dare reveal their true selves they are greeted with nothing but dismay and contempt.

It is hard to take Patricia’s reaction to both Giles and Nicola’s “betrayals” too seriously.  Nicola’s case seems particularly inoffensive: however much you yourself may adore horses, your child not liking them is hardly the dramatic insult Patricia seems to think it.  I can understand her worry over Giles’ sudden religious mania but, again, there are worse fates.  Most of the novel is concerned with August’s fortunes and, there at least, I share Patricia’s concerns.  Having impregnated Gwen, a shopkeeper’s daughter several years older than himself, August thinks the honourable thing to do is to marry her (despite his parents’ reminders that this is really not necessary).  The marriage is not a good one and Patricia must watch as all the energy and vitality seeps out of her outdoorsy son after he and Gwen move to the London suburbs.

Cannan puts a lot of effort into making Gwen appear as unattractive and unsuitable as possible, giving her the kind of aspirational lower middle class tastes and behaviours sure to set Patricia’s teeth on edge.  If you are the kind of person who can’t stand snobs, you are going to loathe Patricia.  (Though I would first ask what you’re doing reading middlebrow 1930s fiction because, honestly, it’s all snobs, all the time.)  I tried so hard to maintain some sort of impartiality while reading these passages but I couldn’t do it: for once, I was in sympathy with Patricia.  I can withstand Gwen’s use of ‘pardon’ but how can you stand someone who buys matching furniture sets, actually likes suburban villas, and, worst of all, uses paper doilies?  It has been more than a month since I read this but I’m still shuddering over the horrible prospect of life with the soulless, materialistic Gwen.  Poor August.  That said, the energy Cannan expends in painting such a relentlessly negative portrait of Gwen and in detailing Patricia’s horrified response seems excessive.  These passages are straight melodrama really, without an ounce of humour – and if there is ever a time for humour, this would surely have been it.

Patricia is intolerable and the writing is mediocre but this is still an interesting book.  I am always intrigued by and love to read about the relationships between parents and their adult children, especially about mothers who must learn the limits of their influence and control.  Princes in the Land proves an excellent guide for what not to do.

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