Posts Tagged ‘Children’s Fiction’

the wonderful adventures of nils selma lagerlof 001The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf ~ 1906. This edition: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1950. Illustrated by H. Baumhauer. Hardcover. 294 pages.

My rating: 10/10

My biggest regret upon turning the last page of this book is that I did not discover it when my children were in the midst of the read-aloud years. They would have loved it, voraciously appreciative little listeners that they were.

It has everything – a magical transformation (as punishment for a misdeed), a quest for redemption, animals wild and tame, a deeply dastardly villain, continual and varied adventures, restrained amounts of sentimentality, and absolutely painless lectures on natural history, geography and Swedish folk legends.

Hey, homeschooling parents – take a look! The cross-curricular connections are many and quite brilliant. And I think it would be hugely enjoyable for the reader-alouder as well.

Fourteen-year-old farm boy Nils is beloved by his hard-working parents but also a huge disappointment to them. He neglects his chores, he lies, he torments the animals, and he dodges going to church. What will become of him, they sigh to each other in sorrow? Will he ever see the error of his ways?

Apparently not, but fate takes a hand when Nils offends the farmstead elf, who then transforms Nils into tiny elf-size himself. As Nils runs hither and yon about the farmyard in absolute distress, he realizes that he can now understand the language of the animals. They in turn are pleased to see that their tormentor has had his comeuppance, and let him know a few home truths about their views on his past behaviour.

Nils is at first shocked and resentful, but then as the true consequences of his fourteen years of misbehaviour become clear, he experiences something of an epiphany. “I am sorry!” he cries. “Please forgive me!” But the animals ignore his pleas.

As Nils mourns his sad fate, a flock of wild geese fly over, and the farm’s big white gander, stirred to wanderlust by their call, rouses himself up and prepares to take flight. Nils, with his newly aroused conscience, immediately grasps what a tragedy the loss of the gander would be for his parents, and leaps onto the gander’s back in an attempt to hold him back. The gander – very predictably, as we already know what is going to happen – manages to take flight with Nils on his back, and we are off on the wonderful adventures promised in the title.

This book is a marvelous series of dramatic vignettes, tied together by Nils’ desire to redeem himself so he may break the elf’s curse and be returned to human size, and by his acquisition of a mortal enemy who follows him over sea and land, Smirre Fox.

Even without an audience of enthralled young listeners, I found this book immensely appealing as a private read-to-my-adult-self story. Selma Lagerlöf avoid excessive sentimentality, and while she makes it obvious that Nils is being taught a lesson and that he is working towards repentance to his parents, to the animal world, and ultimately to God (for Nils’ previous neglect of religious observances), she never preaches. The morals are discussed, and then let go – the reader is given the respect by the author that he or she will “get it” without being pounded over the head by repetition. And Nils is believably far from perfect, even after his epiphany, and lapses from grace frequently, usually with bitter consequences to himself and to others, though occasionally an outside party will intervene just as things seem to be going most desperately awry.

Smirre Fox is a gloriously frightening villain, almost supernatural in his powers as he follows the flight of the wild geese, and the sense of danger that we feel for Nils and his companions is intensely real throughout.

This books transcends its origins – it is a very Swedish book, and I feared would be a bit unrelatable to the non-Scandinavian reader – and its age – it is well over one hundred years old – to be fresh and engaging. While there are the expected styles and attitudes of its era of writing, it is a very worthwhile read for anyone at all interested in the “fairy tale transformation” type of genre. This is decidedly a classic.

Oh, and the ending is not what one would expect, leaving us still in mid-air, as it were, though with some good clues as to the final resolution to Nils’ greater quest for redemption.

I loved this one, and will be saving it for my (at this point extremely hypothetical) grandchildren.

One last note. I would hesitate to give this to a youngish child to read to himself/herself. Though the interest level I anticipate would be from 5 or 6 years of age through the primary years, the text would be hard going for such a young reader, what with the general old-fashioned phrasings and grammar and the many Swedish place and character names and terms. There is a handy glossary of pronunciation in the back of the Dent edition, and it would be well to refer to that before starting on your read-aloud.

wonderful adventures of Nils selma lagerlof illustr h baumhauer 001

The illustrations in my 1950 Dent edition are by H. Baumhauer, and add a pleasant touch to the story. I would think that the variety of illustrators is vast, as this book has had countless editions over the past century, so it would be well worth the effort to investigate if possible before purchasing a copy to share with your child(ren)-in-question to make sure you find a nicely-illustrated one.

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just so stories rudyard kipling folio ed 001Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling ~ 1902. This edition: The Folio Society, 1991. Illustrated by Rudyard Kipling. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Having been familiar with the most popular of these stories since childhood – The Elephant’s Child standing out in my memory, for it was read aloud to me a great number of times; I can clearly hear in my head the words “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River” deliciously rolled out in all their alliterative glory in my mother’s quietly precise voice – I of course acquired a volume to read to my own wee children.

And not just any old edition, but this deluxe Folio Society version, complete with the author’s original illustrations, chatty descriptions of the drawings, and abysmally cringe-inducing poems. And obviously unexpurgated, too, which I discovered as I read them aloud, requiring some think-fast editing to deal with little things such as this passage, from How the Leopard Got his Spots. Rolling along nicely, we all are, until we reach the last line in this passage, and oh, golly! – now how to slide through that one?! The clever reader-alouder  becomes adept at looking a little way ahead and editing on the fly after one or two experiences like this.

…Zebra moved away to some little thorn-bushes where the sunlight fell all stripy, and Giraffe moved off to some tallish trees where the shadows fell all blotchy.

‘Now watch,’ said the Zebra and the Giraffe. ‘This is the way it’s done. One—two—three! And where’s your breakfast?’

Leopard stared, and Ethiopian stared, but all they could see were stripy shadows and blotched shadows in the forest, but never a sign of Zebra and Giraffe. They had just walked off and hidden themselves in the shadowy forest.

‘Hi! Hi!’ said the Ethiopian. ‘That’s a trick worth learning. Take a lesson by it, Leopard. You show up in this dark place like a bar of soap in a coal-scuttle.’

‘Ho! Ho!’ said the Leopard. ‘Would it surprise you very much to know that you show up in this dark place like a mustard-plaster on a sack of coals?’

‘Well, calling names won’t catch dinner,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘The long and the little of it is that we don’t match our backgrounds. I’m going to take Baviaan’s advice. He told me I ought to change; and as I’ve nothing to change except my skin I’m going to change that.’

‘What to?’ said the Leopard, tremendously excited.

‘To a nice working blackish-brownish colour, with a little purple in it, and touches of slaty-blue. It will be the very thing for hiding in hollows and behind trees.’

So he changed his skin then and there, and the Leopard was more excited than ever; he had never seen a man change his skin before.

‘But what about me?’ he said, when the Ethiopian had worked his last little finger into his fine new black skin.

‘You take Baviaan’s advice too. He told you to go into spots.’

‘So I did,’ said the Leopard. ‘I went into other spots as fast as I could. I went into this spot with you, and a lot of good it has done me.’

‘Oh,’ said the Ethiopian, ‘Baviaan didn’t mean spots in South Africa. He meant spots on your skin.’

‘What’s the use of that?’ said the Leopard.

‘Think of Giraffe,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘Or if you prefer stripes, think of Zebra. The find their spots and stripes give them perfect satisfaction.’

‘Umm,’ said the Leopard. ‘I wouldn’t look like Zebra—not for ever so.’

‘Well, make up your mind,’ said the Ethiopian, ‘because I’d hate to go hunting without you, but I must if you insist on looking like a sun-flower against a tarred fence.’

‘I’ll take spots, then,’ said the Leopard; ‘but don’t make ’em too vulgar-big. I wouldn’t look like Giraffe—not for ever so.’

‘I’ll make ’em with the tips of my fingers,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘There’s plenty of black left on my skin still. Stand over!’

Then the Ethiopian put his five fingers close together (there was plenty of black left on his new skin still) and pressed them all over the Leopard, and wherever the five fingers touched they left five little black marks, all close together. You can see them on any Leopard’s skin you like, Best Beloved. Sometimes the fingers slipped and the marks got a little blurred; but if you look closely at any Leopard now you will see that there are always five spots—off five fat black finger-tips.

‘Now you are a beauty!’ said the Ethiopian. ‘You can lie out on the bare ground and look like a heap of pebbles. You can lie out on the naked rocks and look like a piece of pudding-stone. You can lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunshine sifting through the leaves; and you can lie right across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular. Think of that and purr!’

‘But if I’m all this,’ said the Leopard, ‘why didn’t you go spotty too?’

‘Oh, plain black’s best for a nigger,’ said the Ethiopian…

So racist bits aside – and there are a few here and there in many of the stories, in a very era-expected sort of way – these have become so much a part of our popular culture with their instantly recognizable tag lines that they are well worth passing along to children and grandchildren.

Rudyard Kipling and his eldest daughter (his "Best Beloved" first child) Josephine, at the time of the writing of the first of the Just So stories.

Rudyard Kipling and his eldest daughter (his “Best Beloved” first child) Josephine, at the time of the writing of the first of the Just So stories.

The Just So stories were originally written for Kipling’s young daughter Josephine, who died of pneumonia at the tragically tender age of seven in 1899; several years later the stories, which had been published singly from 1897 onward, were assembled into this collection. They are written as scripted read-aloud narratives; one can hear an avuncular fatherly voice rolling them out; the repetition and slangy contractions are distinctive and memorable, though sometimes a bit hard to read out loud with a straight face and sober tone.

A few of the stories are over-long and rather hard going; this is a collection which requires some serious editing if being shared with a young audience, but it rewards the older reader’s full attention once the little ones have left the room, for its period atmosphere and the vision it gives of the time when the stories were written. Lift a sardonic eyebrow over the worst of the politically incorrect bits, but spare a thought too for the all-too-common sorrow of the bereaved parent; Kipling’s “O Best Beloved” small daughter is a ghostly presence throughout.

  • How the Whale got his Throat ~ Never swallow whole a ship-wrecked Mariner, for he may be a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.
  • How the Camel Got his Hump ~ An awful warning to the perpetually scornful, especially those who reside where magic-making Djinn reside. Your “Humph!” may turn into a Horrible Hump, claims our narrator.
  • How the Rhinoceros got his Skin ~ The tale of the cake-loving Parsee, who favours hat which reflects the rays of the sun in more-than-oriental-splendour, and his perfect revenge on the thieving rhinoceros. (One of our favourites.)
  • How the Leopard got his Spots ~ See the excerpt above. A rather glorious tale, but requiring of the parental edit here and there. And I must warn you that if you have the Kipling illustrated version, he comments regarding the illustration that “The Ethiopian was really a negro, and so his name was Sambo.” (!)
  • The Elephant’s Child ~ My childhood favourite, what with the elephant’s child getting his revenge on all of his spanking multi-species relatives. A slightly annoying repetition of ” ‘satiable curtiosity” (yes, the misspelling is deliberate) challenges the reader throughout, but as a treat one gets to roll out “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo” just as many times.
  • The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo ~ Yellow-Dog Dingo is fated to chase Kangaroo, and Kangaroo had to run and run and run. Neither could stop, they simply “had to!” The moral: Those who wish to be really and truly popular and wonderfully run after may rue their desire.
  • The Beginning of the Armadilloes ~ This was one that was something of a miss. An Amazonian turtle and hedgehog confound a predacious Jaguar by morphing into armadilloes.
  • How the First Letter was Written ~ A Primitive father and daughter – very early Britons indeed – originate hieroglyphic writing, with hilariously confusing consequences.
  • How the Alphabet was Made ~ An extension of the previous story, with detailed descriptions of how the letters of the alphabet were made. Sad to say, perhaps, too long and descriptive. We all lost interest in this one, and as a read-aloud it was a dismal failure, clever illustrations to no avail.
  • The Crab that Played with the Sea ~ A crabby King Crab plays hob with sea levels to the great detriment of all seashore and ocean creatures. The Great Magician disciplines the Crab, and turns responsibility for the rise and fall over to the Moon. A rather good “origin tale”.
  • The Cat that Walked by Himself ~ Our absolute favourite. This was one I read out loud over and over and over. “I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me…” Only to give in to the warmth of the fire and the bowl of milk from the Wife of his Enemy at the end, while still reserving his aloofness, at the cost of  eternal feuding with Man and Dog.
  • The Butterfly that Stamped ~ Written with an eye to the adult audience, Kipling spins a rather preachy homily about how to keep your wife under proper control, with the help of a handy Djinn.
  • The Tabu Tale ~ The father-daughter of First Letter and Alphabet returns with a moralistic lecture on the benefits of growing up, and related responsibilities.
One of the author's much-annotated illustrations for How the Whale got his Throat.

One of the author’s much-annotated illustrations for How the Whale got his Throat.

The illustrations in the Folio Edition of Just So Stories are a delightful addition, but the author’s poetry, of which the following is one of the less objectionable examples, not so much. Just couldn’t get through these with a straight face, and they engendered a certain amount of critical sneering, kiddies and grown-ups of this family alike.

The Camel’s hump is an ugly lump
Which well you may see at the Zoo;
But uglier yet is the hump we get
From having too little to do.

Kiddies and grown-ups too-oo-oo,
If we haven’t enough to do-oo-oo,
We get the hump—
Cameelious hump—
The hump that is black and blue!

We climb out of bed with a frouzly head
And a snarly-yarly voice.
We shiver and scowl and we grunt and we growl
At our bath and our boots and our toys;

And there ought to be a corner for me
(And I know there is one for you)
When we get the hump—
Cameelious hump—
The hump that is black and blue!

The cure for this ill is not to sit still,
Or frowst with a book by the fire;
But to take a large hoe and a shovel also,
And dig till you gently perspire;

And then you will find that the sun and the wind,
And the Djinn of the Garden too,
Have lifted the hump—
The horrible hump—
The hump that is black and blue!

I get it as well as you-oo-oo—
If I haven’t enough to do-oo-oo—
We all get hump—
Cameelious hump—
Kiddies and grown-ups too!

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understood betsy dorothy canfield 001

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield ~ 1916. This edition: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. Illustrated by Catherine Barnes. Hardcover. 213 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This is a charming juvenile novel written by Dorothy Canfield Fisher after she had become deeply interested in Maria Montessori’s innovative theories of child rearing and education while on a visit to Italy. The Montessori Method stressed self determination and self regulation in all aspects of a child’s life, and operated under the assumption that if given access to a suitable space with appropriate materials, tools, toys and books, a child would develop a high degree of self motivation and a natural sense of order.

Since Dorothy Canfield was already very involved in women’s rights and educational reform, the Montessori philosophy meshed well with her other interests, and Understood Betsy, which can be read simply as an amusing story, can also be interpreted as an enthusiastic promotion of allowing a child to self-educate and self-regulate, while under a benevolent hands-off adult mentorship.

Little Elizabeth Ann is orphaned at the tender age of six months, and is eagerly adopted by an aunt and great-aunt, Frances and Harriet. Younger Aunt Frances in particular becomes completely wrapped up in mothering the child, lavishing all of her vast reserves of unused adoration on Elizabeth Ann’s tiny person.

 As soon as the baby came there to live, Aunt Frances stopped reading novels and magazines, and re-read one book after another which told her how to bring up children. And she joined a Mothers’ Club which met once a week. And she took a correspondence course in mothercraft from a school in Chicago which teaches that business by mail. So you can see that by the time Elizabeth Ann was nine years old Aunt Frances must have known all that anybody can know about how to bring up children. And Elizabeth Ann got the benefit of it all.

She and her Aunt Frances were simply inseparable. Aunt Frances shared in all Elizabeth Ann’s doings and even in all her thoughts. She was especially anxious to share all the little girl’s thoughts, because she felt that the trouble with most children is that they are not understood, and she was determined that she would thoroughly understand Elizabeth Ann down to the bottom of her little mind. Aunt Frances (down in the bottom of her own mind) thought that her mother had never really understood her, and she meant to do better by Elizabeth Ann. She also loved the little girl with all her heart, and longed, above everything in the world, to protect her from all harm and to keep her happy and strong. and well.

Aunt Frances is well meaning, but her technique is more than questionable.

Aunt Frances was afraid of a great many things herself, and she knew how to sympathize with timidity. She was always quick to reassure the little girl with all her might and main whenever there was anything to fear. When they were out walking (Aunt Frances took her out for a walk up one block and down another every single day, no matter how tired the music lessons had made her), the aunt’s eyes were always on the alert to avoid anything which might frighten Elizabeth Ann. If a big dog trotted by, Aunt Frances always said, hastily: “There, there, dear! That’s a nice doggie, I’m sure. I don’t believe he ever bites little girls. … mercy! Elizabeth Ann, don’t go near him! … Here, darling, just get on the other side of Aunt Frances if he scares you so” (by that time Elizabeth Ann was always pretty well scared), “and perhaps we’d better just turn this corner and walk in the other direction.” If by any chance the dog went in that direction too, Aunt Frances became a prodigy of valiant protection, putting the shivering little girl behind her, threatening the animal with her umbrella, and saying in a trembling voice, “Go away, sir! Go away!”

Or if it thundered and lightened, Aunt Frances always dropped everything she might be doing and held Elizabeth Ann tightly in her arms until it was all over. And at night—Elizabeth Ann did not sleep very well—when the little girl woke up screaming with a bad dream, it was always dear Aunt Frances who came to her bedside, a warm wrapper over her nightgown so that she need not hurry back to her own room, a candle lighting up her tired, kind face. She always took the little girl into her thin arms and held her close against her thin breast. “Tell Aunt Frances all about your naughty dream, darling,” she would murmur, “so’s to get it off your mind!”

She had read in her books that you can tell a great deal about children’s inner lives by analyzing their dreams…

Well, as you  can see from this lengthy excerpt, Aunt Frances is well on her way to creating something of a monster, if timid, terrified, hapless Elizabeth Ann could be labelled with such a horrific term. But things are about to change.

Aunt Harriet takes ill; Aunt Frances must accompany her to a warm climate; there will be no time to spare for or a place to keep Elizabeth Ann. So off in haste she is sent to another branch of the family, efficiently turned away – so much fuss, having to suddenly take on an extra child! – and helter-skelter put on a train to remote Vermont, to be cared for by the country family connections at Putney Farm.

Now Elizabeth Ann is well aware that Aunts Harriet and Frances have always held the Putney relations in deep scorn – such common folk, with no understanding for children – and to think that they had originally wanted to adopt her!

But they (Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances) thought that they chiefly desired to save dear Edward’s child from the other kin, especially from the Putney cousins, who had written down from their Vermont farm that they would be glad to take the little girl into their family. But “anything but the Putneys!” said Aunt Harriet, a great many times. They were related only by marriage to her, and she had her own opinion of them as a stiffnecked, cold-hearted, undemonstrative, and hard set of New Englanders. “I boarded near them one summer when you were a baby, Frances, and I shall never forget the way they were treating some children visiting there! … Oh, no, I don’t mean they abused them or beat them … but such lack of sympathy, such perfect indifference to the sacred sensitiveness of child-life, such a starving of the child-heart … No, I shall never forget it! They had chores to do … as though they had been hired men!”

Aunt Harriet never meant to say any of this when Elizabeth Ann could hear, but the little girl’s ears were as sharp as little girls’ ears always are, and long before she was nine she knew all about the opinion Aunt Harriet had of the Putneys. She did not know, to be sure, what “chores” were, but she took it confidently from Aunt Harriet’s voice that they were something very, very dreadful.

Elizabeth Ann is about to find out what chores are all about.

Needless to say her transformation from wimpy Elizabeth Ann to sturdy, competent Betsy begins at once. She’s not even at the farmhouse yet before Uncle Henry takes her in hand, by giving her the reins of the team and letting her worry out the techniques of guiding the steady farm horses along the quiet road. I need not go into details, only to say that immediately upon arrival at the farm the child learns to dress herself, comb her own hair, cook, milk a cow, and become wonderfully useful to have about, rather than a “charge”. And there are kittens and maple sugaring time and tug-of-wars at her tiny one-room school, best friends and a trip to the fair all of the usual rural delights to go along with the endless round of chores which make up farm life. And then Aunt Frances shows up to collect her former charge…

A sweetly old-fashioned sort of tale, with the lessons very evident but very easy to swallow. Dorothy Canfield treats her readers as if they too are sensible souls, and complicit in the process of salvaging Betsy from her disastrous first nine years of life, while never outright condemning the well-meaning Frances.

There is a lot of quiet humour in this short tale, and it is not at all a chore for an adult to read. In fact, it is a very nice read-aloud, suitable for the younger set, I would think ages up to 9 or 10 or so. (Older children might find it a mite too mild, and the tone just a bit too old-fashioned.) Betsy is a likeable heroine and as we follow her story we rejoice in her happy transformation.

Readers of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s much more complex and serious adult novels may enjoy this quick side trip into childhood; a visit as crisply refreshing as its nostalgic Vermont country setting.

And here it is at Gutenberg, though it is very easy to find in book form, too, being almost continuously in print for the hundred or so years since its first publication.

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield

The Putney clan - Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann - with Betsy, illustration by Ada C. Williamson, from the Gutenberg transcription.

The Putney clan – Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann – with Betsy, illustration by Ada C. Williamson, from the Gutenberg transcription.

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And the last late reviews from February of 2013.

*****

the little bookroom eleanor farjeonThe Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon ~ 1955

This edition: New York Review Books, 2003. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-590170-489. 336 pages.

My rating: 8/10

A collection of twenty-seven delicately written fairy tales. Aimed at the younger crowd, but possibly more suited to real appreciation by adults. A few are slight, gentle and – in the very best sense of the word – childish, but others are rich in their imagery and complexity. The stories were selected by Eleanor Farjeon herself, and are deliciously and perfectly illustrated by the one and only Edward Ardizzone. Rumer Godden’s Afterword is a lovingly worded compliment to the author.

My own pretty well grown children are sadly long past the stage of being read to, but I am keeping this one close by both for personal pleasure and perhaps to one day share with as yet theoretical grandchildren.

sensible kate doris gatesSensible Kate by Doris Gates ~ 1943

This edition: Viking Press, 1969. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Doris Gates is perhaps best known for her Newbery Award runner-up children’s novel Blue Willow, as well as the widely read Little Vic, both viewed as important early examples of “realistic problem fiction” for young readers, not a genre I am particularly fond of as a rule, but which is perfectly acceptable when the characters and their story are over-emphasized over the “problem”. Doris Gates gets a pass; these are “real” novels no matter how they’re categorized.

Sensible Kate was Gates’ third novel, and it is a pleasant example of children’s literature of its era, with the young heroine facing her rather daunting challenges with good expectations of positive outcomes. The Kate of the novel is a likeable girl, flawed enough to be realistic, but with a solid core of goodness which makes her most appealing.

Kate has been an orphan as long as she can remember, and has been cared for by various “shiftless” relatives since babyhood. Now the relatives have decided to move out of the state, and they have decided to turn Kate over to the county relief office. Kate is placed as a foster child with an elderly couple, The Tuttles, and she soon makes herself beloved of them and many others whom she meets, including a young married couple, both artists, who are the very reverse of sensible in their daily affairs, and who are most appreciative of Kate’s practical talents.

A sweet but never saccharine story, with some interesting characters and scenarios which lift it a little over the average for its vintage and genre. Possibly one might pick up on the lightest shade of Anne of Green Gables, what with the red-haired heroine being an orphan and going off to live with an elderly couple, but the parallel ends right there. Kate is most certainly no Anne, and her creator has not attempted to model her so.

people who knock on the door patricia highsmithPeople Who Knock on the Door by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1983

This edition: Penguin, 1983. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-006741-8. 356 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

A rather unusual book, a noir almost-thriller with some odd twists, including a subplot involving a teenage girl’s abortion. Despite its date of publication, it seems to be set in the 1950s, and has a decidedly vintage feel to it. This is the first Patricia Highsmith book I’ve ever read, though I’ve seen several of the movie adaptations of her work, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and of course the Venetian-set Talented Mr. Ripley, so the dark psychological elements in this one came as no surprise.

Here we have a normal middle-class family, the Aldermans, with an insurance-salesman father, stay-at-home mother volunteering a few days a week at a children’s hospital, and teenagers Arthur and younger Robbie. Arthur is getting ready to go to college, has a satisfactorily active love life, and he is poised to get on with his life when his whole world takes a sickening lurch.

Robbie falls ill with a mysterious infection and is suddenly on the verge of death. The doctors turn away in dismissal – the boy is going to die –  but Mr. Armstrong refuses to give up hope, and prays diligently to God for a miracle. Robbie recovers, and the previously un-religious father is so moved by the experience that he embraces religion and joins a highly evangelistic Christian sect. Mrs. Armstrong and Arthur view this at first with mildly perturbed eyes, but Robbie fully embraces his father’s new-found faith, with eventual horrifying consequences.

A can’t-look-away, exceedingly uncomfortable depiction of a dysfunctional family and its twisted disintegration, with none of the characters completely faultless, including our pseudo-hero Arthur, the closest thing to a chief protagonist in this tense tale.

 the wedding of zein tayeb salihThe Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih ~ 1968

This edition: New York Review Books, 2009. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-59017-342-8. 120 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Two short stories and a short novella – the title story – by the late Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, set in the country around the northern Nile .

The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid speaks to the importance of tradition, and to the quiet resistance of the people of the Sudanese country to outside influences.

A Handful of Dates concerns a young boy who becomes aware for the first time of the realities of rich and poor, and the role his grandfather has played in a neighbour losing his inheritance.

The Wedding of Zein concerns an unlikely hero, a physically deformed “village idiot” (for want of a better term), who insistently falls in love with one after another village maiden, only to be disappointed as they always marry someone else. Imagine then the shock of everyone when it is announced that Zein has at last found a prospective wife, and an unexpectedly wise and beautiful one at that.

This book gives a diverting glimpse into an unfamiliar world, and the stories are told with clarity and understated, rather sly humour. A short but worthwhile collection.

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Worthy of note this morning is the release of the Nominees for Canada’s annual GG Literary Awards, and an interesting line-up it is. Being a bit behind the curve regarding new releases in general, the only one of these I’ve had a glance at is this one:

Cover: Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page by Sandra DjwaJourney with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page

by Sandra Djwa, nominated in Non-Fiction

Here’s the link to the full list.

 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award Nominees

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where the lilies bloom vera bill cleaver 001Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera and Bill Cleaver ~ 1969. This edition: Scholastic, 1974. Paperback. 175 pages.

My rating: Oh, gosh. This is a hard one. The writing is unique and enjoyable to read; the heroine’s voice is individualistic and uniquely portrayed. But the plot is where I held my head in agony. I get that this is a book aimed at the children’s/teens’ market, and therefore perhaps to be expected to be slightly simplified, but the plot was so full of holes that I kept stopping and going “What…???!!!” But the poignant bits were genuinely heartbreaking, and the story as a whole just might have happened. Just maybe…

Okay, I need to commit myself to a rating. How about an 8/10, with reservations. If a bit better developed and with more attention to plausibility, this one could well have been worth a 9 or even a 10 from me.

This is basically one of those bleak Appalachian stories all about abject poverty and fiercely stubborn people living in various degrees of squalor among fabulous natural beauty. And, predictably, we are taken behind the superficial vision of “dirty hillbillies” to see into the glorious nobility of the characters’ souls.

I am sincere in putting forth a rather cynical generalization of this type of fiction, which was abundant in the 1960s and 1970s, at least in the juvenile novels I was finding in my school library. There seemed to be a certain trend to showing all of the dreary details in kid-lit, with an amazingly strong hero, or, more frequently, a heroine, overcoming all sorts of obstacles and ending the book staring off into the gleaming sunrise (metaphorically speaking) of a better future. Hyper-realism combined with a fairytale ending. (“Did we play upon your deepest emotions, young reader? Well, here’s a nice resolution to make it all better.”) However, as the next development in youth fiction of the 1970s, 1980s and beyond was of brutally unrelieved bleak endings, I guess the “happy” fabrications are a mite easier to handle.

So here we have a family of five people living in a tired shack on twenty acres of share-cropped land in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. Widowed Roy Luther, patriarch of the family, is seriously ailing. About to die, in fact. Before he does, in a heart-rending episode, he makes his four children promise that they will bury him in a hand-dug grave, not inform anyone of his demise, and take care of each other. They are not to accept charity from anyone, and the eldest daughter, eighteen-year-old Devola, described as “cloudy-headed” (quite obviously mentally handicapped to a certain degree), beautiful in appearance and childishly happy in nature, is not to marry the wicked landlord, one Kiser Pease, who is actively pursuing her.

Fourteen-year-old Mary Call Luther is our narrator, and the heroine of this dramatic novel of survival.

Roy Luther has made me promise him some things:

When the time comes, which he hopes will be in his sleep, I am to let him go on as quietly as he can, without any wailing or fussing. I am not to call any doctor or allow anyone else to call one. If it happens at night I am to wait until morning before I tell the others: I am not to send for the preacher or undertaker. The preacher has a mighty voice in these mountains but he expects to be paid for his wisdom. And the undertaker, for all his hushed, liquid speakings of how paltry his tariff will be, can be ill-humoured and short-tempered when the time comes to divvy up as we found out in the case of Cosby Luther, my maternal parent, who died of the fever four years ago.

So it is that Roy Luther has requisitioned me to give him a simple, homemade burial when the time comes. After I am sure his heart and breathing have stopped, I am to wrap him in an old, clean sheet and take him to his final resting place, which will be within a stand of black spruce up on Old Joshua. We have not talked about how I am to get him there. Were you to ask Roy Luther it would shame him to have to say aloud that it will have to be in Romey’s wagon and he’d have to say what for me to do with the feet which will surely drag because the vehicle is but a toy.

Quite a charge for a fourteen-year-old; as Devola is incapable of taking charge, and the other children are even younger than Mary Call. Brother Romey is only ten, and smallest sister Ima Dean six.

From the tragedy of a slowly dying father, the story turns to farce with the discovery of Kiser Pease in a state of sickness alone in his house; the siblings decide to try some home remedies out on him, immersing him in a bathtub full of stewed onions to break his fever. Holding Kiser hostage in his weakened state, Mary Call forces him to sign a paper giving the Luthers the title to their farm, which he does with surprising meekness.

Roy Luther lingers on, and the children turn to wildcrafting to make grocery money.  Wildcrafting, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is the gathering of wild plants, generally for medicinal purposes. The Appalachians are a rich hunting ground for this purpose – ginseng, goldenseal, witch hazel and mayapple are just a few of the wild herbs fetching high prices at the drug store in the nearby settlement.

Roy dies and is buried by Mary and Romey in the most brutally poignant episode in this emotional little story; I swear a tear or two formed in my own eyes as I read this part. But the children soldier on, pretending to everyone that their father is still alive, and preparing as best they can for the fast-approaching cold time.

Disaster after disaster strikes the diminished family; winter is barely survived; but with spring a series of unlikely events brings a positive conclusion of sorts to this saga of endurance.

All in all, a decent enough fiction for the pre-teen to adult readership. Abandon your sense of disbelief at the first page, and just let yourself go; it’s the easiest way to get through this one, believe me.

If presenting this to your children as a novel study or social studies curriculum supplement, there are some truly interesting features in the story. The wildcrafting parts are based on fact, and would, to my mind, be the most valuable episodes to emphasize and research further. As for Appalachian life, I am of the opinion that this is a highly dramatized version. There is no real sense of a specific time period; one could assume the story is set in some time from the 1940s up until the 1950s or 60s. There is electricity, radios, freezers, cars, and tractors, but people are still farming with mules as well, and ignorance and superstition are rampant.

I have mixed feelings about this now-classic drama. Some parts are strong and beautifully written; other elements, such as the aforementioned shaky plotting, leave me at a complete loss.

I will be watching for other titles by this husband-and-wife team. I’ve recently read a later novel of theirs, Hazel Rye, and found it intriguing. Like Where the Lilies Bloom, a bit “light” despite the serious themes addressed, but with a certain charm and appeal, and containing passages that stay with one long after the book is reshelved.

Where the Lilies Bloom was also made into a movie in 1974, which I have not seen. The stills included in this copy of the novel show a rather inspired casting, going by appearances alone, though it appears that the movie plot differs somewhat from that of the book. The actress playing Mary Call Luther, Julie Gholson, looks perfect for her role, and the other children appear suitably cast as well. If you’ve seen this movie, or, better yet, read the story, I’d be interested in your own reactions.

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akaval james houston cover 1 001Akavak: An Eskimo Journey by James Houston ~ 1968. This edition: Longmans Canada Limited, 1968. Hardcover. 80 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Akavak is a slight but punchy short novel from Canadian artist and writer James Houston. Akavak was Houston’s fourth published fictional work, preceded by the award-winning Tikta’liktak in 1965, as well as The Eagle Mask (1966) and The White Archer (1967). Aimed at a youth readership, Houston’s short juvenile novels garnered high praise for their depictions of pre-European contact  Eskimo (as the Inuit were called at that time) and Indian (First Nations) life. Houston went on to write and illustrate a number of other juvenile adventure novels, most set in contemporary times, as well as several ambitious and well-received adult novels, all set in the North, and frequently featuring strong Inuit and First Nations characters.

In Akavak, a fourteen-year-old Inuit boy (Akavak) is asked to accompany his grandfather on a perilous journey along the coastline in order to fulfill the elderly man’s final wish, to see his beloved brother one more time before it is too late. Warned by his father that though Grandfather is still a master traveller and skilled hunter he occasionally shows flawed judgement due to his great age, Akavak must assess his grandfather’s moods and instructions as the journey proceeds, and find tactful ways to prevent the old man from putting himself and Akavak in danger.

At first the journey goes well, but soon a series of increasingly serious disasters threatens the expedition, and Akavak’s and Grandfather’s very survival; Akavak must finally take the lead and make some difficult decisions. The two ultimately attain their destination, but the ending of the story is bittersweet.

akavak james houston illust 2 001Well depicted details of traditional Inuit skills, as well as a compelling storyline make this novel a good read-alone or read-aloud for primary and intermediate grades, and it will work well as part of a Canadian/Arctic/Inuit Life social studies/humanities unit. The novel is set pre-European-contact (or perhaps in an isolated location); while there is a slightly educational tone to a few of the author’s explanations of customs or habits, the story is very respectful of Inuit culture without over-emphasizing its “exotic” nature to readers not of the North.

James Houston was a talented artist; while not meaning to downplay the vigorous story, I have to say that for me the illustrations are perhaps the best part of this short novel. Simplistic charcoal drawings, they brilliantly capture mood and movement, and are detailed enough to provide a clear picture of the places and people of Houston’s dramatic tale.

akavak james houston illust 1 001The story itself provides not much in the way of surprises; the adventuring pair overcome their frequent setbacks with predictable success. There is a very real sense of the peril that they find themselves in; Houston, though allowing the titular hero to attain his goal in the end, never guarantees a happy ending to any of the incidents he depicts, adding a dash of plausibility to a highly dramatized adventure story.

I would think that ages 8 to 12 or so would enjoy this story as a read-alone; add a few years onto each end of that range if using as a read-aloud. There are no chapter breaks, but I would suggest that it be broken into perhaps three or four sections if reading aloud, though an ambitious and well-seasoned narrator with an attentive audience could probably pull it off in less.

Akavak has been continually reprinted in numerous editions throughout the years, and so should be fairly easy to find in most Canadian library systems, or through the second-hand book trade.

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