Archive for the ‘Bess Streeter Aldrich’ Category

What an easy list to put together, after all! The hardest part was ranking them.

I simply scanned over my book reviews index, and these titles popped right out at me. Memorable for the most compelling reason I read – pure and simple enjoyment. My long-time favourites which I reviewed this year and which should really be included were left off the list, because if I noted those down there’d be no room for the marvelous new-to-me reads I discovered in 2012.

*****

BEST NEW-TO-ME READS 2012

Who could rank them?! Well, I’ll try.

A classic countdown, ending with the best of the best – the ones joining the favourites already resident on the “treasures” bookshelves.

Unapologetically “middlebrow”, most of my choices, I realize.

The jig is up. Barb is an unsophisticated reader at heart!

*****

10. Mother Mason (1916)

by Bess Streeter Aldrich

I know, I know – two titles by Aldrich are on my “Most Disappointing” list. But Mother Mason was marvelous, and I loved her. Molly Mason, happily married and with a normal, well-functioning, healthy, active family, is feeling jaded. So she runs away. But without telling anyone that that’s what she’s doing, and covering her tracks wonderfully well. She returns refreshed, to turn the narrative over to the rest of her family, though she remains in the picture, sending her family members off into the world and receiving them back with love, good humour and anything else they need when they return. A very sweet book; a happy hymn to domesticity at its best, with enough occasional real life angst to provide counterpoint. Nice.

9. Death and Resurrection (2011)

by R.A. MacAvoy

I deeply enjoy MacAvoy’s rather odd thrillers/sci fi/time shift/alternative reality/fantasy novels, and was thrilled to get my hands on this latest book, the first full-length new work the author has published in almost 20 years – she’s been otherwise occupied by dealing with some serious health issues, now happily manageable enough for a return to writing. MacAvoy’s new book is just as wonderfully off-key as her previous creations. I love how her mind works, though I experience quite a few “What did I just read?” moments when reading her stuff. Makes me pay attention!

Ewen Young is a pacifist Buddhist with a satisfying career as a painter, and absorbing side interests such as perfecting his kung fu technique and working with his twin sister’s psychiatric patients, and at a hospice for the terminally ill. When Ewen is inadvertently faced with a violent encounter with the murderers of his uncle, strange powers he never realized he had begin to develop. Factor  in a new friend and eventual love interest, veterinarian Susan Sundown, and her remarkable corpse-finding dog, Resurrection, and some decidedly dramatic encounters with the spirit world, and you have all the ingredients for a surreally mystical adventure. Friendship, love, and the importance of ancestors and family join death and resurrection as themes in this most unusual tale. Welcome back, Roberta Ann.

8. Parnassus on Wheels (1917)

by Christopher Morley

Another escaping homemaker, this one thirty-nine year old spinster Helen McGill, who decides to turn the tables on her rambling writer of a brother, much to his indignant dismay. A boisterous open road adventure with bookish interludes, and a most satisfactory ending for all concerned.

7. Fire and Hemlock (1985)

by Diana Wynne Jones

An intriguing reworking of the Tam Lin legend. Polly realizes she has two sets of memories, and that both of them are “real”.  DWJ at her strangely brilliant best.

And while we’re on the subject of Diana Wynne Jones, I’m going to add in another of hers as a sort of Honourable Mention: Archer’s Goon (1984). Gloriously funny. Don’t waste these on the younger set – read them yourselves, dear adults. Well, you could share. But don’t let their home on the Youth shelf at the library hinder your discovery of these perfectly strange and strangely attractive fantastic tales. Think of Neil Gaiman without the (occasionally) graphic sex and violence. Same sort of kinked sense of humour and weird appeal.

6. Miss Bun, the Baker’s Daughter (1939)

 and

Shoulder the Sky (1951)

by D.E. Stevenson

Two which tied for my so-far favourites (I’ve only sampled a few of her many books) by this new-to-me in 2012 by this vintage light romantic fiction writer. Both coincidentally have artistic backgrounds and sub-plots.

In Miss Bun, Sue Pringle takes on a job against her family’s wishes as a housekeeper to an artist and his wife; immediately upon Sue’s arrival the wife departs, leaving Sue in a rather compromising position, living alone with a married man. She refuses to abandon the most unworldly John Darnay, who is so focussed on his painting that he forgets that bills need to eventually be paid, let alone considering what the gossips may be whispering about his personal life. An unusual but perfectly satisfying romance ensues.

Shoulder the Sky takes place shortly after the ending of World War II. Newlyweds Rhoda and James Johnstone settle into an isolated farmhouse in Scotland to try their hand at sheep farming. Rhoda, a successful professional painter, is struggling with the dilemma of compromising her artistic calling with the new duties of wifehood. Her husband never puts a foot wrong, leaving Rhoda to work her priorities out for herself. Though things came together a little too smoothly at the end, I was left feeling that this was a most satisfactory novel, one which I can look forward to reading again.

5. All Passion Spent (1931)

by Vita Sackville-West

Elderly Lady Slane determines to spend her last days doing exactly as she pleases, in solitude in a rented house (well, she does keep her also-elderly maid), thereby setting her family in an uproar by her 11th hour stand for self-determination. This short episode ends in Lady Slane’s death, but it is not at all tragic; the escape allowed Lady Slane to find her place of peace with herself, and it also served as a catalyst for some similar actions by others. Definitely unusual, full of humour, and beautifully written.

4. A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (1987)

by Rumer Godden

A brilliant autobiography which reads like one of Godden’s novel, only way better, because she’s in full share-the-personal-details mode here, and there are pictures. Beautifully written and absolutely fascinating. Reading this breathed new appreciation into my reading of Godden’s fiction. Followed by a second volume, A House With Four Rooms (1989), but the first installment is head-and-shoulder above the other – much the best.

3. The Benefactress (1901)

by Elizabeth von Arnim.

Anna Estcourt, “on the shelf” as an unmarried young lady at the advanced age of twenty-five, unexpectedly inherits an uncle’s estate in Germany. Full of noble ideas, and relieved at being able to escape her life as a dependent and portionless poor relation – orphaned Anna lives with her elder brother and his high-strung and managing wife – Anna visits the estate and decides to stay there, to build a new life for herself, and to share her good fortune with some deserving ladies who have fallen on hard times. Needless to say, things do not go as planned. A quite wonderful book, clever and observant and often very funny; serious just when needed, too. Excellent.

2. The Proper Place (1926)

The Day of Small Things (1930)

 Jane’s Parlour (1937)

by O. Douglas

These novels about the Scottish Rutherfurd family belong together on the shelf. Of these The Proper Place is my definite favourite, but the others are also must-reads if one has become engrossed with the world of the stories, rural Scotland between the two world wars. What a pleasure to follow the quiet ways of  likeable protagonist Nicole Rutherfurd, her mother, the serene Lady Jane, and Nicole’s perennially dissatisfied cousin Barbara. At the beginning of The Proper Place the Rutherfurds are leaving their ancestral home; Lord Rutherfurd has died, and the family’s sons were lost in the war; it has become impossible for the surviving women to make ends meet as things are. So off they go to a smaller residence in a seaside town, where they create a new life for themselves, shaping themselves uncomplainingly to their diminished circumstances, except for Barbara, who connives to set herself back into the world she feels she deserves. Many “days of small things” make up these stories. I can’t put my finger on the “why” of their deep appeal – not much dramatic ever happens – but there it is – a perfectly believable world lovingly created and peopled by very human characters.

1.  The Flowering Thorn (1933)

 Four Gardens (1935)

by Margery Sharp

These were my decided winners – the ones which will remain on my shelves to be read and re-read over and over again through the years to come. The Flowering Thorn is the stronger work, but Four Gardens has that extra special something, too.

In The Flowering Thorn, twenty-nine-year-old socialite Lesley Frewen is starting to wonder if perhaps she is not a lovable person; she has plenty of acquaintances, and is often enough pursued by young men professing love, but those she views as emotional and intellectual equals treat her with perfect politeness and fall for other women. Acting on a strange impulse, Lesley one day offers to adopt a small orphaned boy, and then moves to the country with him, in order to reduce her expenses – her London budget, though perfectly managed, will not stretch to a second mouth to feed, and her elegant flat is in an adult-only enclave. Quickly dropped by her shallow city friends, Lesley sets herself to fulfill the silent bargain she has made with herself, to bring up young Patrick to independence and to preserve her personal standards. But as we all know, sometimes the way to find your heart’s desire is to stop searching for it, and Lesley’s stoicism is eventually rewarded in a number of deeply satisfying ways. An unsentimental tale about self-respect, and about love.

Caroline Smith has Four Gardens in her life. The first is the gone-to-seed wilderness surrounding a vacant estate house, where she finds romance for the first time. The next two are the gardens of her married life; the small backyard plot of her early married years, and the much grander grounds surrounding the country house which her husband purchases for her with the proceeds of his successful business planning. The fourth garden is the smallest and most makeshift – a few flowerpots on a rooftop, as Caroline’s circumstances become reduced after her husband’s death, and her fortunes turn full circle. A beautiful and unsentimental story about a woman’s progress throughout the inevitable changes and stages of her life – daughter-wife-mother-grandmother-widow. Clever and often amusing, with serious overtones that are never sad or depressing.

Margery Sharp was in absolutely perfect form with these two now almost unremembered books.

This is why I love “vintage”. I wish I owned a printing press – I’d love to share books like these with other readers who appreciate writerly craftsmanship, a well-turned phrase, and a quietly clever story. They don’t deserve the obscurity they’ve inevitably fallen into through the passage of time.

*****

So there we are – I’ve made it to midnight – the only one still awake in my house. I’m going to hit “Post”, then off to bed with me as well.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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Oh, such high hopes I had for these ones!

Reviews I’d read and the past experiences I’d had with some of these authors led me to believe I’d love these books. But for various reasons, these were the reads that failed to thrill to the expected levels in 2012.

(I’ve read much “worse” books this year, but in all of those cases I had no expectations of excellence, so the disappointment wasn’t so deeply felt.)

*****

MOST DISAPPOINTING READS 2012

In alphabetical order of author’s surname.

*****

1. A White Bird Flying (1931)

and

Miss Bishop (1933) 

by Bess Streeter Aldrich

A double whammy of disappointment from this author, whose mild historical romances I generally quite enjoy. Both of these books started off wonderfully well, but by midway through each I was thoroughly out of sympathy with the heroines, and their every thought and action served only to annoy.

Laura in White Bird Flying seriously over-estimated her artistic abilities, and when she did chuck her not-very-viable dream of becoming a writer (key requirement: you have to be able to write) to marry her long-suffering swain, she rather moped her way through her not-very-exciting married life in much the same way as she’s drooped through college. Perhaps if she’d dreamed less and applied herself more? A bit of a whiner, was Laura, with a strong sense of her own “specialness”.

Ella Bishop, of Miss Bishop, might as well have been walked around with a “kick me” sign taped to her back. Her continual self-sacrifice buys her a few moments of gratification here and there, and a public ovation when she’s turfed from her job at the worst possible moment, but she still ends up a penniless old maid, having given and given and given all her life with no return from her selfish hangers-on. The author seems to approve. I really wanted Miss Bishop to show some selfishness and gratify a few of her own deep down desires, instead of being such a darned good sport all the way through. This whole story just irritated me. Grrr.

2. The L-Shaped Room (1960)

and

The Backward Shadow (1970)

by Lynne Reid Banks

I so wanted to enjoy the story of Jane Graham, a very liberated young woman who forges ahead with her life regardless of the opinions of those around her. I should have liked her, I wanted to like her, but ultimately I came away feeling that she was a morbidly self-centered and stunningly rude little piece of work. I pity her poor kid. I couldn’t make it through the second book of the trilogy, and I can’t even recall the title of the third book. Seems to me it focusses on Jane’s difficulties with her child. No wonder; I’m sure the mother-child relationship is as dismally ill-fated as all of Jane’s other relationships.

Too unspeakably dreary.

(However, Stuck-in-a-book’s Simon liked this one a lot, so don’t take my word for it; please read what he has to say, too. Most of his reviews agreeably jive with my own opinions, but this was a rare exception.)

3. Adventures of a Botanist’s Wife (1952)

by Eleanor Bor

A promising-sounding memoir of travels throughout northern India in the 1930s and 40s. In reality, the writing was a bit flat, and not nearly as interesting as I’d hoped for. The author didn’t include nearly enough detail either about her own thoughts and feelings, or about the botanical and geographical wonders of the areas she was moving through. A chore to finish; I kept expecting it to pick up, but the narrative deteriorated as the book progressed. This one could have been so wonderful; a sad disappointment.

4. Pippa Passes (1994)

and

Cromartie v. The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India (1997)

by Rumer Godden

A pair of duds from veteran storyteller Godden. Written in the last years of her life, it is apparent that Godden’s stamina is failing in carrying these fictional ideas through to the higher level achieved by many of her earlier books. Moments of lovely writing, but generally not up to the standard I had hoped for from this master storyteller.

Pippa Passes concerns an impossibly gifted young dancer and singer and her trip to Venice with a ballet troupe. Previously sheltered and protected Pippa is ripe for romance – she attracts the amorous attentions of a dashing young gondolier and her lesbian ballet mistress. Unsatisfactory throughout; a sketchy sort of resolution which I cannot even really remember only a few months after my reading. That says it all. Godden was 87 when this one was published; I’m sure she felt tired; the story reads like she couldn’t really be bothered to refine her slight little romantic tale.

Cromartie vs. The God Shiva is also a disappointment, though a more ambitious, better-written story than the forgettable Pippa. A promising premise: a priceless statue of the god Shiva has surfaced in Toronto; it is believed to have been stolen from its niche in a temple alcove in a hotel on the Coromandel coast of India, with a clever replica substituted for the original. Romance, mystery, and tragic sudden death are all elements in this promising but shallow creation, the last published work by the veteran writer, who died shortly after its publication, at the venerable age of 90. Kudos to her for writing until the end, but sadly this last work is not up to the fine quality of many of her earlier novels.

5. The Middle Window (1935) 

by Elizabeth Goudge

One of Goudge’s very earliest published works – it was preceded by a forgettable (and forgotten) book of poetry, and the well-received Island Magic in 1934. The Middle Window is a sort of super-romantic Scottish ghost story, and it just didn’t come off the ground, atmosphere of Highland heather and noble-but-doomed ancestors notwithstanding. Lushly purple prose and terribly stereotypical characters, with a plot both predictable and outrageous in its premise. Some sort of weird reincarnation features strongly. Goudge herself blushingly dismisses this one in her own assessment of her works in her marvelous autobiography, The Joy of the Snow. Interesting only as a comparison to later books, to see how much better she could do once she found her stride. I’d heard it was pretty dire, but I’d hoped the panning comments were over-critical. They weren’t.

6. Mrs. de Winter (1993)

by Susan Hill

Contemporary “dark psychological thriller” writer Susan Hill takes a stab at a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Some things are best left alone. I wish I could erase this dreary piggyback-on-a-classic tale from my memory. What was I thinking, to read this? What was anyone thinking, to commission this train wreck – er – car crash – of a misguided pseudo-sequel? I hope Daphne puts a ghostly curse on Susan Hill for this defamation of her (du Maurier’s) characters. They might have some issues, but no one, not even fictional characters so firmly in the public domain as Max and his unnamed second wife, deserve to be tampered with like this. Ick.

7. The Honorary Patron (1987)

by Jack Hodgins

Hodgins is a very clever writer, but my own mind couldn’t quite stretch enough to take some of the mental steps needed to fully enter into the spirit of this ponderously gleeful “magical realism” word game. I definitely saw and smiled at the humour, appreciated what Hodgins was getting at with his sly digs and cynical speeches, but found it terribly hard to push my way through to the end. This wasn’t the happy diversion I’d been expecting.  Another time, maybe a deeper appreciation. Perhaps. But in 2012 at least, a personal disappointment.

8. Friends and Lovers (1947)

by Helen MacInnes

One of thriller-espionage-suspense writer MacInnes’s several straightforward romances – no guns, spys or dastardly Soviet plots in sight. I’d read and enjoyed a number of the thrillers, and one of the romances – Rest and be Thankful, so when Friends and Lovers crossed my path I quite eagerly snapped it up, took it home, and settled down for what I thought would be a good vintage read.

Two star-crossed lovers triumph over family roadblocks and challenging personal circumstances to eventually wed. Essentially humourless, this was a disappointing read, and not anywhere close to as entertaining as I’d hoped it would be. The hero was terribly, jealously chauvinistic; the heroine was ultimately spineless where her swain is concerned. I didn’t like or respect either of them by the end of the tale. The author was capable of greater things.

9. Kilmeny of the Orchard (1910)

and

A Tangled Web (1931)

by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Canadian literary icon Lucy Maud Montgomery has written some wonderfully entertaining books, but these two don’t count among them as far as I’m concerned.

Kilmeny presents an unbelievably lovely, incredibly musically talented, but vocally mute innocent country girl who is avidly pursued by the much more worldly Eric. A brooding Italian foster-brother acts as a rival in love. Aside from the rather creepy gleefulness with Eric displays upon his discovery of Kilmeny – “So young, so pure, so innocent – let me at her!” – the hateful prejudice the author displays towards the “tainted by his blood” Neil is exceedingly off-putting, even allowing for the era of the writing.

A Tangled Web concerns the internal struggles of a large family as each individual tries to prove worthy of inheriting a hideous heirloom – an old pottery jug. More dirty linen is displayed than I am interested in seeing; it could have been salvaged by better writing and non-sarcastic humor – both of which I know the author could have pulled off – but it missed the mark on all counts. I tried but couldn’t bring myself to even like most of the characters, and the author throws in a gratuitous racial slur on the last page which dropped this already B-grade novel more than a notch lower in my esteem.

10. The New Moon with the Old (1963)

by Dodie Smith

Yearning after a book of the same quality and deep appeal as my decided favourite read by this author, I Capture the Castle, I was ever so eager to experience some of her other quirky tales. And I was careful to ensure that before turning to the first page, my mind was consciously emptied of preconceptions and expectations, to be able to give New Moon a fair trial unshaded by the brilliant sun of Castle.

Even without a comparison to my favourite, The New Moon with the Old was not what I had hoped for.  Investment consultant (or something of the sort – I can’t quite remember the job description, just that there were clients and large sums of money involved) Rupert Carrington gambles and loses on an ambitious scheme involving his other people’s funds. He goes into hiding to escape prosecution, leaving his four offspring to fend for themselves with only a recently hired housekeeper to keep all of the practical wheels of a luxurious household running. Never having to have worked, and faced with the need to earn money to feed and clothe themselves, the four Carringtons – aged 14 into the early 20s – make forays into the larger world, taking on occupations as diverse as actress, novelist, composer and “mistress to a king”.  While not conventionally “successful”, all four land jam-side-up, being taken under the wings of various wealthy sponsors; swapping Daddy’s protection for the patronage of others.

I wasn’t so much shocked by the sexual/intellectual sellings-of-themselves most of the siblings indulged in, as by the ready acceptance of the father’s betrayal of the trust of his clients. This is never rectified; a skilful lawyer is obtained to get Rupert off the legal hook, and by the end all is looking potentially lovely in the Carrington garden. Cute characters and funny situations didn’t quite sugarcoat this one enough for me to swallow without gagging. Darn.

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the cutters bess streeter aldrichThe Cutters by Bess Streeter Aldrich ~ 1922. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1926. Hardcover. 276 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This novel bookends Mother Mason; both are episodic individual and family portraits; I read them back to back and there were decided similarities of style and content, though each book has enough variation to keep things fresh.

I rated Mother Mason higher; though The Cutters is a charming read as well. However, in this novel, the morals in the little stories within are laid on with a much broader brush.

Motherhood, Home, Family – yes – we understand their importance, dear author, to the fabric of a happy nation, but the insistence that these are the only things which bring fulfillment to a womanly heart jars a bit with our modern-day emancipated female reality!

A tiny bit preachy, and very much a period piece; most obvious perhaps in the chapter on alternative ways of child discipline which ends with the family’s mother soundly thrashing her two naughty sons, with the author’s blatant assumption that this will meet with her readers’ full approval!

*****

This novel depicts a short period in the life of the Cutter family of the fictional small town of Meadows in an unspecified mid-western U.S. state. Father Ed, a successful lawyer; Nell, a busy hausfrau; 12-year-old Josephine; Craig and Nicolas, 7 and 9; baby Leonard; and mild matriarch Grandma Cutter make up the seven points of the Cutter family star.

The time is the early years of the 1920s; the shadows of the coming Depression are faint but ominously lurking. The Cutters struggle financially, and much of Nell’s part of the narrative is driven by her wistful yearnings for things which she can’t quite afford. Her husband teases her with a running joke about champagne tastes on a beer budget; Nell inwardly bristles while admitting to herself that this is indeed one of her personal Waterloos.

The incidents which make up the book are mild and domestically based for the most part. A wealthy client and his wife come to stay for  a few days, throwing the Cutter household into turmoil top to bottom; The Woman’s Club invites a speaker on “Perfect Parenthood, or Trained Motherhood”, whose ideas Nell tries to emulate with less than stellar success; a decision to take a family “dream vacation” reveals some surprising preferences; Josephine’s schoolgirl crush disrupts her young world; Nell’s ambitions for a newer, better, bigger house look like they will finally be realized; Grandma Cutter looks forward to a reunion with all of her far-flung sons; Nell enters a contest to try to win some “easy money”.

Likeable characters; relatable situations, a lot of humour and some very wise words coming from unexpected quarters – Aldrich is truly in fine form here. She bobbles a bit with the last chapter, which jumps ahead several years to the time of Josephine’s wedding, and hurriedly fills us in on how everyone else is turning out. Aldrich didn’t need to do that; she could have left us in the here and now, and it would have been just fine, but I suspect she couldn’t quite resist tidying things up.

Though not quite up to its predecessor, Mother Mason, The Cutters is an ideal nostalgic comfort read. I liked it a lot.

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Mother Mason by Bess Streeter Aldrich ~ 1916. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1924. Hardcover. 269 pages.

My rating: 9/10. What a sweet book! A fast-reading pick-me-up, full of gentle humour and most likeable characters.

Reminiscent of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s early stories, in the very best way.

*****

Molly Mason sits down at her bedroom dressing table, feeling very much fat, fifty-two and fidgety. She can’t quite put her finger on the reason, though. Her life has evolved along pleasant lines; from humble beginnings her husband has progressed from clerkdom to bank president over the decades of their happy marriage. Molly’s five children, eleven-year-old Junior, sixteen-year-old Eleanor, twenty-one year old Marcia, twenty-two-year-old Katherine, and twenty-five-year-old Bob, are healthy, bright and brimful of fire and ambition in their various very individual ways. A girlhood friend, fallen on hard times, lives in as companion and paid household help; the two get along famously well. Her marriage is deeply happy in a quiet, contented way; her husband doesn’t say much but he’s always ready to support her when needed and obviously loves Molly deeply though undemonstratively.

A happy home life, no money worries, a respected social position, lots of useful and generally pleasant work to occupy her time and energy – what could possibly be causing Molly’s middle-aged angst? Could it be the constant demands on her time both in the family and the community? Complimentary though the people around her are of her constant contributions, Molly is tired of always being the dependable one without whom things just can’t seem to happen. She can’t help herself, though she knows she has a darned good life – right now she feels like running away.

So she does.

Upon her return from several days in the city, which she has spent in a hotel, dining out, visiting the theatre and art gallery and, very briefly, having a tiny bit of dental work done – her erstwhile reason for the trip, misrepresented by Molly as more complicated than it actually is to buy her the time away – she is greeted with a long list of the occasions she was supposed to preside over in her absence; they’ve all been rescheduled so she wouldn’t miss a single one. To do her credit, Molly Mason sees the humour, and ruefully laughs.

This is an example of the mild adventures described in this book. Each chapter follows a member of the Mason household as they face their particular challenges and find a happy resolution.

This is an appealingly written, cleverly humorous domestic drama. It may sound ho-hum described like that, but I found that I enjoyed it greatly. Bess Streeter Aldrich tends to deal with extended flashbacks and rushed narrative to get her characters from the start to the finish of their lives within the period of her books; this book is an exception. It is very much in the here and now, with all activity narrated in the present tense. And it works exceedingly well; a similar approach might have addressed some of the flaws in certain of her other books, which I felt packed too much time-gone-by into too small a narrative package.

A feel-good book, easily polished off in an evening or two. I would recommend it for the L.M. Montgomery fan, or anyone else needing a fictionally gentle trip back in time to an absolutely decent American small town, just post World War I.

The copyright date in this book, 1916, disagrees with the publishing date found elsewhere, usually 1924, which is the latest publication date in my edition, following 1916, 1918, 1919 and 1920; I then discovered that some of these chapters originally appeared as magazine stories, which would explain the episodic nature of the book.

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Miss Bishop by Bess Streeter Aldrich ~ 1933. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, circa 1940s. Hardcover. 337 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

This book started with such promise, and I raced through the first chapters happily, but as the story passed the midpoint I found I was losing my enthusiasm; something had changed. Now maybe that is just the author’s “genius”, in changing the mood to follow the life-path of the main character, Ella Bishop, from optimistic youth to dreary old age, but somehow I think that is too generous an assessment. I think rather that it is the author’s fault, in retelling her same old story with a different character. I thought that this book was very reminiscent of both A White Bird Flying, and Spring Comes On Forever, sharing the theme that “it is sad but noble to sacrifice your dreams as long as the sacrifice benefits the future generations”.

Miss Ella Bishop is one of the first class of students at the newly established Midwestern College in the growing town of Oak River, in an unspecified mid-western prairie state. The year is 1876, and the mood is of optimism and enthusiasm as progress strides across the prairie, bringing culture and higher education into the hitherto culturally isolated farming communities of the region.

Ella Bishop is that character beloved of novelists, the poor but bright and winsome orphan, or in this case, semi-orphan; Ella’s father has just died, and she and her ineffectual mother are just barely getting by; college fees are, as is the inevitable case in this genre, a challenge to meet. Ella of course does wonderfully well in college and graduates high in her class; she is now well-trained and ready to take on a job as a teacher, the only real choice of profession (other than shop clerk or seamstress) open to a young lady of her generation.

This was the best part of the book, in my opinion. The author captures wonderfully well the heady atmosphere of the new college and its small group of professors and students. The boys and girls attending the school are mostly children of immigrants, proud of their various distinctive heritages while identifying firmly as modern Americans. The glimpses into the homes and lives of the students, and the physical descriptions of the prairie in its state of being transformed into “civilization” are beautifully handled and a joy to read.

But all is not well in Ella Bishop’s world; her youthful optimism is about to take a hit. A bit of a heads-up here: there will be major spoilers in this review. If you are wanting to discover Ella’s trials and tribulations for yourself, it is time to click away. Otherwise, you’re going to get the condensed version of this soap opera of a tale.

Ella graduates and is offered a job teaching grammar at the selfsame college she has just been a student at; gratefully, she accepts; she is now able to support her frail mother, and teaching will do fine as an interesting occupation for the next year or two, until her true vocation comes along.

As well as she liked her teaching, – to have a husband and home and children, – these were better. These were the things for which her healthy young body and warm heart were intended. She knew.

Eventually Ella’s white knight trots into town. She meets young Delbert Thompson, a newly arrived junior partner in the town’s law. All is wonderful; the wedding date is set, the dress is being made, when into Ella’s shiny happy world a small dark shadow comes. An eighteen-year-old cousin has been orphaned and asks to come and stay for a while to get over her grief and plan her next move; young Amy has just found out that she is penniless as well as bereft of her parents. The perfumed note gives us our first inkling of disaster to come; Ella is mildly annoyed at having to give a thought to another body in the house just when she is getting ready to bring a new husband home, but she nobly does the right thing and welcomes Amy with cordiality and grace.

Oh no! Wrong thing to do! Amy is tiny and cute and flirtatious, and soon a circle of other girls’ beaux are attracted like bumbling moths to Amy’s bright little flame. Including Delbert. With the wedding mere weeks away, Amy sets her sights on her cousin’s attractive fiancé. Ella proudly refuses to interfere; the worst happens, and Delbert now “must” marry Amy, as he has fallen into the trap she has set baited with her delectable, willing little body. Off they go, leaving Ella in a state of despair. Going to her mother for comfort, that is denied to her as well, as her self-centered parent is so upset by the situation that Ella ends in burying her own emotions to administer to her mother’s hysteria. Better get used to it, Ella, it’s going to be the pattern of the rest of your sorry life.

Nine months later, in the depths of winter, a foreboding stranger appears, bearing a passionate letter from Delbert. He is on his deathbed; time is short; he begs Ella to come and see him. Off she goes, to find Delbert, as advertised, indeed on his deathbed from some unspecified illness. The highly pregnant Amy is creeping around helplessly; with his dying breath Delbert begs Ella to take Amy home with her and care for her until the child is born. “I’m ever so sorry, Ella, and it was such a mistake, but here we all are, and I’m counting on you…”

And Ella nobly steps up. Amy is rescued once again and brought back into the Bishop fold, where she promptly gives birth to a baby girl before blinking out of life herself a few hours later. And there is Ella, left holding the baby, child of her one true love and her deceptive cousin. What else to do but adopt the child as her own and lavish all her pent-up love on the helpless little thing? She even names the child, ever so predictably, “Hope”.

Ella divides her life into two; in one part she is the dedicated college teacher, loved and respected by students and fellow instructors; in the other she is the devoted surrogate mother to young Hope and the endlessly patient daughter to her increasingly needy mother. Luckily she has picked up a stalwart Danish girl even more selfless than herself to keep the home fires burning and the old lady and young girl cared for while Ella is out working to support them all. Stena has lost her own lover and baby, and is a godsend to the Bishop ménage, so grateful for a roof over her own head that she quickly becomes an indispensable member of the all-female household.

The years roll by, and Ella gets another chance at love when Professor John Stevens arrives to teach English literature. The two hit it off immediately; friendship warms to something much deeper, and all systems are “go” except for one small glitch – the pre-existing Mrs. Stevens, an unattractive, unintellectual, querulous kleptomaniac. Ella and John are tempted to ditch the unlucky Mrs. Stevens and take their true love elsewhere, but both decide to do the right thing, renouncing their passion unrequited. John moves on with his cranky wife, leaving Ella to take comfort in her role as noble teacher:

A flaming torch…meant to light the paths of boys and girls along the rugged way!

I was already teetering a bit about this story but this is where Aldrich finally lost me. The woman is a grammar teacher in a small prairie college. A grammar teacher. Useful enough, and with the power to inspire students to a great degree, but not really of flaming torch importance. Nice that she can embrace her vocation in place of her tragically doomed romantic life, but please. This pushes all of my cynical buttons; I figuratively roll my eyes and wish that Miss Bishop would just hop into bed with the Professor already and get it out of her system. But no, that would betray her pure life and her flaming dedication to her career. (Golly, am I overreacting here? Maybe. I liked Ella so much at the start of the story that I want her to get a bit of fun out of life, I think. But she keeps piling on self-denial after self-denial. She’s getting a bit inhuman in her steadfast nobility.)

The rest of the story I read in a state of “come on, what else can this poor old girl take?” And she does not disappoint.

Hope is duly launched, with several expensive (and ultimately wasted) years of college and a speedy marriage soon after, and Ella feels like she can concentrate on herself at long last. She plans a longed-for trip to Europe with her fellow professors, scrimps and saves, and is ready to go when her already fragile mother finally slips into full-blown dementia. Though the stalwart Stena is perfectly willing to take on full responsibility and encourages Ella to go, Ella decides to abandon her cherished travelling ambition to stay home on the off-chance that her mother will return, even briefly, to a state of lucidity. Doesn’t happen, and Mother Bishop lingers on, to die quietly some years later.

Ella sees one last chance, plans the European trip again, and is poised to go when Hope’s eighteen-year-old daughter Gretchen falls in love with a hopelessly unsuitable older married man. Ella gives over her savings so Gretchen can go to Europe and forget her lover; Gretchen comes back “cured” with an offhand “Thanks, Granny!” and finds a more available man to marry. It is at this point that Ella suddenly realizes that her earning years are coming to an end, and her savings are not what they should be; the expenses of caring for her mother, Stena’s wages, Hope’s college and Gretchen’s trip seemed like worthwhile expenditures at the time but one woman’s resources are decidedly limited.

Another blow falls. A restructuring takes place within the college. The instructors are asked to take a twenty percent pay cut. Ella soldiers on. And then Ella discovers that her bank is in difficulties, and she loses a portion of her meager remaining savings, and finds she will only be able to withdraw twelve percent of the remainder each year. Ella is now seventy, and had hoped to retire in some sort of comfort, but stark reality faces her; she must continue to work to live. “Only three more years,” she tells herself. “I’ll cut back, and scrimp and save, and get by somehow.”

But she won’t even have those three more years. Out-of-the-blue, a note arrives from the college president. Some changes in the faculty are being planned. Just a heads-up, Miss Bishop, that you might want to hand in your resignation before the college board meeting…

Yet again, Ella faces despair.

There was nothing now to look forward to – but death. Death! How little thought she had ever given to it! So full of living, – her hands so filled with duties, – she had existed only day-to-day, doing the hour’s tasks as well as she could.

But wait! – What about the Alumni banquet to close out the school year. Don’t you want to attend one last time, Miss Bishop? Reluctantly Ella decides she will close out her teaching career in style, so off she goes, to be greeted by a packed house and a ceremony of honour to recognize her lifetime of dedication to the college. Suddenly Ella sees her life in whole; the good and the bad laid out together; every sacrifice having its reason in the great scheme of things; her main importance being in furthering the ambitions of the coming generations. Tomorrow she will again be old and poor, but tonight she is being lauded, and that is enough reward…

*****

I found myself getting increasingly cynical, especially as first Hope and then Gretchen acted so selfishly in regards to their foster-mother and grandmother, taking heedlessly what she selflessly offered on the altar of youth’s desires’ (not needs, but desires) coming first. I felt like shaking Miss Bishop – “Be occasionally selfish, you fool!”

This book is lauded as a “salute to dedicated teachers”, and I get that, but by the end my overwhelming emotion was annoyance. And I’m all about “family first” and “sacrificing” for our children, having done my fair share of tamping down of own desires while raising babies and fully embracing the numerous challenges of motherhood, but there is a limit. Miss Bishop went past the reasonable point into martyr territory, and the author lauds her for it. To be fair, Ella herself in her musings at the end of the book recognizes that the larger picture was not evident to her at the time, that she just went on day-to-day, tackling each issue as she needed to, a very realistic assessment of how most of our lives work!

I’ve also heard this story referenced as the “female, American Mr. Chips“. Recently reread that one, too, and cynically thought James Hilton’s opus was a mite overrated, though when I first read it as a teen I mentally filed it as a pleasant enough story. Now, with many more years to my credit, my opinion is that both Mr. Chips and Miss Bishop were a bit too focussed on their school worlds at the expense of their inner lives. The authors excused their protagonists’ narrow lives by lauding their personal sacrifices for their students. Admirable in a way, but excessive, needless sacrifice is cloying in a fictional character after a certain point; the delicate balance between pleasant story and moral tale is compromised.

This is a rather crabby review, but it reflects my feeling in the here and now regarding the book in question. It might well be different at another time in my life! I would like to emphasize that there is much to admire in Aldrich’s writing, and she is highly regarded by many. She’s a great author for capturing the atmosphere of the times she writes about, and I definitely will continue to read her works as they cross my path. However, I think I might need to re-read A Lantern in Her Hand to see if it can restore my cheerfulness in regards to this author’s work. I feel like the über-predictable Miss Bishop rather let me down.

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A White Bird Flying by Bess Streeter Aldrich ~ 1931. This edition: Scholastic, 1964. Paperback. 318 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

American writer Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954) is likely best known for her popular novel, A Lantern in Her Hand, the story of Nebraska pioneer Abbie Deal. I had read and greatly enjoyed that novel, so was quite looking forward to reading A White Bird Flying, which follows Abbie’s granddaughter, Laura Deal, on her own coming-of-age journey.

I am sorry to say that strong Abbie’s granddaughter is a wishy-washy little thing, and that I was generally disappointed in this lightweight  novel. It reminded me of some of the more sentimental twaddle perpetrated by our iconic Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote in a similar time period and genre; much as I love some of her stronger novels, she was also capable of churning out some dreadful slush; ditto Aldrich.

The first part of the book is perhaps the strongest. Abbie Deal has died and been buried with due ceremony; young Laura stands in her beloved grandmother’s house a few days after the funeral, and tries to come to terms with death and what will happen next. Laura is a deeply emotional, imaginative child; at twelve she already aspires to one day be a writer, and she thinks in those terms.

She was half enjoying herself in an emotional way. There was a sort of gruesome ecstasy in making herself sad with memories. She would like to write about it. “The girl moved about from room to room, touching the things lovingly,” went through her mind. She was in one of those familiar moods when she looked upon life in a detached way as though she herself were not a part of it. She could never talk to anyone about it, but in some vague way she felt withdrawn from the world. She lived with people, but she was not one of them.

Perfectly captures the essence of an introspective adolescence.

Laura goes on her dreamy way, often at odds with her practical, striving mother who is often bewildered by her introverted, sentimental daughter. Laura continues to pursue her private ambition, turning out poems and stories and seeing the world through detached eyes.  She often thinks of her grandmother, and of how Abbie had given up her own ambitions to dedicate herself to full wife- and motherhood; Laura is appalled at the thought of a similar fate for herself and resolves to form her own life quite differently. She decides that she will turn her back on love, and particularly marriage; instead she will dedicate herself to her art and become truly fulfilled in a way a mere housewife can never attain.

Well, the inevitable happens. Laura dreams her way through college, and attracts the attention of a boy from her own home town, Allen Rinemiller, who has strong ambitions to improve the family farm with modern ideas, and has a rather interesting philosophy himself, which Laura scornfully dismisses.

Allen proposes; Laura naturally declines.

“…I can’t think of anything more prosaic than settling down here…and sort of letting the world go by.”

“I don’t call it letting the world go by,” he returned quickly. “I call it tackling a small piece of the world and making something of it. You admit Morton and his bride and all the rest of the old pioneers did a great thing when they crossed he river and started their settlements. You’ve said it was romantic and intensely interesting, and quite worthwhile. You think their own love lay at the bottom of their acts of courage and bravery. All right – did you ever stop to think that maybe we’re pioneers, too? Haven’t you the vision to see that? Why isn’t it something of pioneering that I’m trying to do? Agriculture in most quarters has been a hard, wearisome proposition…I’m pioneering, too – and a whole lot of other young fellows from colleges and universities, we have visions, too – a new outlook on the whole thing…We’re pioneering…starting a new class…the master farmers who are attempting to develop agriculture to the nth degree. Why couldn’t you enter into that in the same spirit your grandmother did? …Because you’re rooted in the soil, need you be a nonentity?”

Allen’s stirring words fall on deaf ears; Laura has already decided to pursue the celibate life, and has even promised her wealthy, childless aunt and uncle that she will remain unmarried and look after them as a daughter would, in return for inheriting their fortune, justifying this strangely unromantic and mercenary agreement by the excuse that it will allow her to pursue her writer’s career without worry and interruption.

The only fly in this particular ointment is that Laura is no prodigy; her talent is modest at best, as she is slowly beginning to realize.

The rest of the story follows its predictable-from-the-first-page path; no surprises here. Laura does marry Allen and dedicate herself to the farm; there are some tough years, but even through these Laura`s issues are not on par with those of her grandmother’s generation. Laura bemoans the fact that she cannot afford new curtains, and a new carpet, and a new dress; Abbie Deal dealt with life and death concerns and had a much more elemental notion of what the truly important things in life were than her grandchild ever faces up to.

I do get the feeling, however, that Aldrich portrays this dichotomy deliberately; the decadence of the descendents of the pioneers, though sympathetically portrayed, is a common undercurrent of her books I’ve read so far. She was obviously very interested in the generational and cultural shifts of the pioneer-to-modern era, and by and large captures the essence of the succeeding generations and their attitudes towards those who came before.

I will be reading more of this author’s works, as opportunity allows, though I doubt I will go to a lot of effort to seek them out. And while White Bird was not a particularly strong novel, it had its generally well-written and thoughtful moments, and I will overlook my vague annoyance at self-centered Laura and her self-created melodramas to classify it merely as a lesser entry into the long-respected Aldrich canon.

I am editing this review to add a Young Adult classification. It was re-published by Scholastic, after all, and the subject matter may be of interest to teenage readers, though I suspect many of them will be as annoyed at Laura as I am.

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Spring Came on Forever by Bess Streeter Aldrich ~ 1935. This edition: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1935. Hardcover. 333 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Nebraska writer Bess Streeter Aldrich, 1881-1954, was well-known for her portrayals of Mid-West American pioneer days. Her novels and short stories generally featured strong heroines who met adversity with grace and strength. Aldrich herself knew tribulation and great grief; widowed suddenly at 44 with a family of young children in the midst of the Great Depression, she supported her family with her writing.

Spring Came on Forever is a tale of missed chances and second choices. It follows star-crossed lovers Matthias Meier and Amalia Holmsdorfer as they fall in love, are separated by circumstance, and marry other people. Their descendents’ lives are eventually intertwined, bringing their youthful tragedy to a gently satisfying, much happier conclusion, though they themselves are not aware that they started the chain of events.

Aldrich excels at illustrating the march of progress through the years; her characters both embrace and lament time’s changes; the good and the bad are matter-of-factly portrayed.

An excerpt from the Vachel Lindsay poem The Chinese Nightingale gives the novel its title:

“Years on years I but half-remember…
Man is a torch, then ashes soon,
May and June, then dead December,
Dead December, then again June.
Who shall end my dream’s confusion?
Life is a loom, weaving illusion…
 
One thing, I remember:
Spring came on forever,
Spring came on forever,”
Said the Chinese nightingale.
 

Though often predictable and occasionally straying into melodrama, Aldrich’s novels are quiet works of everday people dealing with the everyday problems. Encouraging and supportive of the trials and rewards of wifehood and motherhood, her novels are as much loved by readers today as when they were published in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. While realistic regarding tragedy and disappointment, Aldrich always highlighted the deep and quiet joys of womanhood, and the inner rewards of “keeping on” through difficult times.

Spring definitely has some flaws as a literary work. The characters are sometimes a bit one-dimensional, and so much is packed into a relatively short story that the years whip by at lightning speed with only small vignettes to mark the many stages of the protagonists’ journeys. However, those vignettes are well presented enough to give us a clear understanding of events as they unfold; by the end of the novel the whole story is spread out before us in all its interweavings, rather like the patchwork quilts Amalia crafts with such care.

An old-fashioned writer of old-fashioned tales, Bess Streeter Aldrich’s often-poignant words still resonate today, particularily with those of us past our first youth and embroiled in our own family affairs. Not to everyone’s taste; a sophisticated modern reader may dismiss Aldrich’s sometimes dated style and storylines; but there are rewards hidden in the pages of her tales for those with the temperament to appreciate them.

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