Posts Tagged ‘Vintage’

I’m pushing forward with the Century of Books project and am attempting to clear the decks  – or would that be the desk? – for the next four and a half months’ strategic reading and reviewing, so these four books from the last month or two are getting the mini-review treatment. All deserve full posts of their own; I may well revisit them in future years. Though in the case of the three most well-known, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, and Marganita Laski’s Little Boy Lost, there has already been abundant discussion regarding their merits and literary and historical context. I might just concentrate my future efforts on the most obscure of these particular four, Christopher La Farge’s The Sudden Guest, which I have earmarked for a definite re-read.

west with the night beryl markham 1942West With the Night by Beryl Markham ~ 1942. This edition: Penguin, 1988. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-011539-0. 257 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

In a word: Lyrical

Beryl Markham was born in England and moved to Kenya with her parents when she was 4 years old. Her mother soon had enough of colonial life and returned to England. Small Beryl remained with her father, and grew up in a largely masculine atmosphere made up of her father’s aristocratic compatriots, visiting big game hunters, and the native farm workers and independent tribesmen.

A highly skilled horsewoman, Beryl became a licensed racehorse trainer in Nairobi at the age of 17, after her father’s farm was wiped out during a severe drought, and he gave her the choice of accompanying him to South America for a fresh start, or staying in Africa to go it alone.

Beryl chose Africa, this time and, ultimately, forever more, dying there in 1986 at the age of 84, still staunchly independent, still very much on her game.

Beryl Markham was introduced to flying by her friend and mentor Tom Black, and took to the air with the same innate skill as she dealt with horses. She eventually concentrated strictly on flying, working as a contract pilot in East Africa, and hobnobbing with the famous (notorious?) aristocratic expatriates making homes and lives in Kenya during the 1920s and 30s, including Karen Blixen, Karen’s lover Denys Finch-Hatton (whom Beryl had her own affair with), Baron Blixen himself (Beryl was his pilot during scouting trips for wild game), and others of that large-living “set”.

In 1936 Beryl set out to attempt a solo flight over the Atlantic, from England to New York. She only just made it across, as an iced-up fuel line forced her crash landing in a bog on Cape Breton. The semi-successful attempt brought Beryl Markham much fame; she continued on with her flying career, though she ended her days once again training African racehorses.

In 1942 West with the Night was published, to much acclaim. It is a memoir made up of chapter-length vignettes of Beryl’s childhood and her experiences with horses, and, most beautifully described, her experiences in the air, including an account of the Atlantic flight. The language is both elegant and heartfelt; I used the term “lyrical” to sum up this book, and that is exactly what this is. Really a stellar piece of work.

There has been much speculation as to who really wrote this book. Many have theorized that Beryl had at least some help with it. Her third husband, Raoul Schumacher, was a journalist who also worked as a ghostwriter; the noted aviator and writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry, another of Beryl’s lovers, had a similar writing style. No one knows for sure, as Beryl firmly maintained that the work was completely her own, though her compatriots were stunned when the book came out as they had never known Beryl to be anything of a writer, and she never produced anything after 1942’s West with the Night.

No matter. This is an elegant bit of memoir, well worth reading for the beauty of its prose, and for the portrait it paints of its twin subjects: the truly unique Beryl Markham and her lifelong strongest love, Africa.

sudden guest christopher la farge 1946 001The Sudden Guest by Christopher La Farge ~ 1946. This edition: Coward-McCann, 1946. Hardcover. 250 pages.

My rating: 7/10 for this first encounter, quite likely to be raised on a re-read.

In a phrase: Bitter musings of a self-centered spinster

Oh, golly, where to start with this one. I can’t quite remember where I got it; likely from Baker Books in Hope, B.C. I remember leafing through it in a bookstore, hesitating, and then deciding it was worth a gamble. Another small triumph of bookish good luck, as it is an intriguing thing, and well worth reading.

It is autumn of 1944, and sixty-year-old Miss Leckton maintains a summer house on the  Rhode Island shore; her primary home is her New York apartment. Living alone except for a middle-aged married couple who caretake for her, and a daily housekeeper, Miss Leckton has much time to spend in introspection, and what a lot of self-centered opinions she has assembled, to be sure.

Miss Leckton is supremely selfish and egotistical. She has cast off her closest relative, her niece Leah, due to Leah’s engagement to a young Jewish man. For Miss Leckton hates the Jews. (She muses that Hitler, for all his undoubted faults, has the right idea about suppressing them.)  She doesn’t think much of the Negroes, either, which makes thing a tiny bit awkward as her resident married couple, the Potters, are black. The local Rhode Islanders are beneath her notice, mere country bumpkins. One actually has a hard time identifying whom exactly Miss Leckton identifies with herself; she is that uncommon creature, “an island unto herself”, to paraphrase John Donne, who doesn’t appear to want or need anyone, and is steadfast in her self-superiority to everyone around her.

Now a hurricane is reported to be blowing in , and Miss Leckton is reluctantly preparing to batten down the hatches, so to speak, though she persists in thinking that the radio reports are over-hysterical. For hasn’t Rhode Island just barely recovered from a brutal storm, the hurricane of 1938? Another just wouldn’t be fair…

I will turn you over to the Kirkus review of 1946, which is quite a good summation of the style of The Sudden Guest, though the comparison to Rumer Godden’s Take Three Tenses is not entirely accurate, in my opinion. There are enough similarities in technique to let it stand, though.

An absorbing and compelling story — a psychological study of a selfish, ingrown old woman, who has to live through two hurricanes on the Rhode Island shore to learn that life demands human participation. La Farge has done a superb tour de force-it isn’t really a novel, though it has the ingredients, and he has used the technique of Rumer Godden’s Take Three Tenses – the story is told as a fugue. With the two storms (1938 and 1944) as protagonists, he telescopes two experiences, as Miss Leckton, vainly attempting to preserve a way of life that has no validity today, relives the invasion of uninvited guests in the earlier storm, in bitter contrast to her utter aloneness in this one. The thread of personalities that hold the pattern is her conflict with her young niece, who forces her out of her outmoded approach to life into a real world. There is a muted quality of suspended action in the present in strong contrast to the pace of memory in the past, with the motif of the storms accenting the drama.

I searched online for more mention of this unusual and well-written novel and found a really good review, including a creative analysis of what Christopher La Farge was really going on about – the American isolationism prior to the U.S.A.’s entry into World War II, and, to a lesser degree, Miss Leckton’s denial of her own “homoerotic feelings”. Check it out, at Relative Esoterica.

Check out this vintage cover: "Bohemian Life in a Wicked City"

Check out this vintage cover: “Bohemian Life in a Wicked City”

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood ~ 1945. This edition: Signet, 1956. Paperback. 168 pages.

My rating: 10/10

A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930)

From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied façades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scrollwork and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed…

Oh gosh. This was so good. So very, very good.

Why haven’t I read this before?

Perhaps because I have always associated it with the stage and film musicals titled, variously, I am a Camera and Cabaret (cue Liza Minnelli) which were inspired by the book, or rather by one episode early on featuring teenage not-very-good nightclub singer Sally Bowles and her apparent intention of sleeping with every man she comes across whom she thinks might possibly become a permanent patron.

But this book goes far beyond the tale of Sally Bowles, memorable though she is with her young-old jaded naivety and her chipped green nail polish and her heart-rending abortion scene.

Christopher Isherwood has fictionalized his own experience as an aspiring writer in 1930s’ Germany, where he made a sketchy sort of living teaching English to respectable young ladies while spending his free time hanging out with (and observing and recording the goings-on of) the artsy crowd and the cabaret performers and patrons of Berlin’s hectically gay (in every sense of both words) theatre and entertainment district.

Goodbye to Berlin is superbly written, deeply melancholy at its core, and only occasionally sexy. It’s a rather cerebral thing, thoughtful as well as charming and deeply disturbing, picturing as it does Berlin between the wars and the numerous characters doomed to all sorts of sad fates – at their own  hands as much as through falling afoul of the Nazi street patrollers.

Am I making Goodbye to Berlin seem gloomy? I hope not, because it isn’t. It is poignant, it is funny, it is occasionally tragic, but it is never dull, never gloomy. And Isherwood’s Sally Bowles – who is really something of a bit player in Goodbye to Berlin, appearing only in one episode of these linked vignettes – is a much different creature than that portrayed on stage and film.

The internet is seething with reviews of Goodbye to Berlin, if this very meager description makes you curious for more.

Christopher Isherwood, I apologize for my previous neglect. And I’m going to read much more by you in the future. This was excellent.

A must-read.

(Says me.)

little boy lost marghanita laski 1949 001Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski ~ 1949. This edition: Persephone Books, 2001. Afterword by Anne Sebba. Softcover. ISBN: 1-903155-177. 230 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

My feeling after reading: Conflicted

I had such high hopes for this novel, and for the most part they were met, but there was just a little something that didn’t sit quite right. Perhaps it was the ending, which I will not foreclose, merely to say that I thought the author could have held back the final episode which provides “proof” of the identity/non-identity of the lost child. It felt superfluous, as if Laski did not trust the reader decide for oneself what the “truth” was. Or, perhaps, to go forward not quite sure of that identity. Knowing one way or the other changed everything, to me, and oddly lessened the impact of what had gone on before.

Most mysterious I am sure this musing seems to those of you who have not already read this novel; those who have will know what I am going on about.

In the early days of World War II a British officer marries a Frenchwoman. A child is born, the Englishman must leave; the child and his mother stay in France. In 1942 the child’s mother, who is working with the Resistance, is killed by the Gestapo. The child is supposed to have been taken to safety by another young woman; on Christmas Day of 1943 the father learns that his son has been somehow lost; no one knows where the baby has been taken.

In 1945, with the war finally over, the father returns to France to seek out his child, whom he remembers only as a newborn infant. A child has been located who may be the lost John – “Jean” – but how can one be sure?

Well written, with nicely-maintained suspense and enough verisimilitude in the reactions of would-be father and might-be son to keep one fully engaged. I will need to re-read this one; perhaps I will come to feel that the author’s approach to the ending is artistically good, though my response this first time round was wary.

Interesting review here, at Stuck-in-a-Book; be sure to read the comments. No spoilers, which is beautifully courteous of everyone. 🙂 I must admit that my own easily-suppressed tears were those of annoyance at the last few lines, as I thought they weakened what had gone before.

But on the other hand…

You will just have to read it for yourself. And you really don’t want to know the ending before you read it; the suspense is what makes this one work so well.


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yours is the earth margaret vail 1944 dj front 001Yours is the Earth by Margaret Vail ~ 1944. This edition: Lippincott, 1944. Hardcover. 287 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Provenance: The Final Chapter, 1157A 3rd Ave., Prince George, B.C. – I have never walked out of this smallish but well-organized, eclectically stocked, jam-packed used book store empty-handed. If you’re ever in P.G., it’s very much worth a visit and a browse.

Yours is the Earth was a last-minute impulse buy earlier this year, a small triumph of instinct and luck over economy. As you can see, the cover isn’t terribly compelling – the “ringing, unforgettable testament of courage” and “Nazi hordes” references leading one to think that this may not be particularly well written, and perhaps slightly overwrought in tone.

If you think that (as I did) you’d be wrong; this is a remarkable work. It is very competently written for this sort of personal account, and though the author is exceedingly opinionated; she is never, ever hysterical or mawkish.

A compelling document of its time; very highly recommended for those interested in World War II and the German occupation of France. Yours is the Earth gives a unique perspective to what it was like to live in occupied France from a person of relative wealth, high social standing and, due to her American citizenship, considerable privilege with the German forces in the early war years, before the United States entered the conflict.

Margaret Vail was an American married to an aristocratic French landowner, Robert de Launay (“de Vigny” in the memoir; pseudonyms are used throughout, as the book was published while the war was still going on), and Margaret and Robert’s courtship and marriage is a fascinating story all on its own which is detailed in the early part of this book.

Robert was interned early in the German invasion; Margaret’s single-minded goals in the subsequent years were to secure the release and repatriation of her husband, to keep herself and her small daughter safe, and to preserve the family estates in as good a condition as possible. These last two were successful; the first never attained, which no doubt accounts for the occasionally bitter tone which permeates this memoir.

The memoir ends with several years of war yet to go; Robert is still in prison camp in Germany, and Margaret and her four-year-old daughter do leave France via a heroic alpine trek across the Pyrenees, as she has left her departure too late to be able to cross the French border in safety; American troops have been sent to participate in the invasion of North Africa and Americans still remaining in occupied France are being interned. Margaret and small Rose-Hélène spent the remaining war years in the United States, where Margaret wrote and published Yours is the Earth.

Here is an excerpt from Yours is the Earth. (Click on the image to enlarge it for reading.)

yours is the earth excerpt margaret vail 1944 001

Margaret’s hatred of the German race as a whole is utterly implacable, and this comes through loud and clear, though she does give the tiniest nod of grace to a German doctor who has occasion to treat her at one point.

The reader can frequently see the writer making what feels like a conscious effort to maintain an even-handed tone, making this something of a deliberately unemotional account, with Margaret reporting on her own harrowed feelings with analytical coolness and distance. This, to me, is the book’s one slight weakness. On the few occasions where she unbends and lets herself go she became a much more sympathetic narrator, and I cared much more deeply for her personal tribulations and her worries for her family.

I was very curious as to what the eventual outcome of Robert’s internment was to be, and I did find a snippet of information concerning the family’s post-war situation on the blog of a woman who corresponded with Margaret Vail for some years. Lindsley Rinard’s blog Literature and Life has several posts, here and here, concerning Margaret Vail’s memoir and Robert’s return.

Robert was released after five years in prison camp. Margaret and Rose-Hélène returned to France in time to greet him upon his return, and the family settled down on the family estate to put their lives back in order after the terrible disruption of the war.

In the great scheme of things and in comparison of what many others went through, one feels that these people were in general rather fortunate. As I have already said, this is a unique perspective not often seen, an account of someone who was placed in a rather good way to deal with the occupation of one’s homeland by a hostile force. Margaret Vail seized every advantage she could identify in her efforts to keep herself and her loved ones secure, though she never resorted to anything like “collaboration”, as so many others were moved by circumstances to do.

yours is the earth margaret vail 1944 back cover war bonds appea 001

From the back cover of the dust jacket of “Yours is the Earth”, a War Bonds appeal.



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As fleeting as poppy flowers, these too-fast-gone summer days...

As fleeting as poppy flowers, these too-fast-gone summer days…

Flipping the pages on the calendars this morning, several days past the turn into August, and rather in shock that we are in the eighth month of the year. What happened? Where did the time go?!

Looking over my Century of Books Project list of completed reads, it occurs to me that I may have to buckle down and do some more strategic reading to fill in some of the yawning gaps, namely those in the last three decades of my century, which I decided would cover the years 1900 to 1999. To date I have been reading largely at whim, with oodles of “double-up” years. It’s been fun, but now I need to get serious. 😉

By the numbers:

  • Years read and reviewed: 56/100
  • “Extra” books read/reviewed: 28
  • Grand total to date of Century reviews: 84
  • Century years left: 44
  • Months of 2014 left: 5/12
  • Books-per-month I need to read and review to meet my goal: 9-ish

I do have some qualifiers already read but not yet reviewed, which I haven’t counted, so the last number is not quite as scary as it could be. Though I have just completed my first re-read of the century, too much time having passed since the original reading to allow for a good post. (The Little Straw Wife, by Margaret Belle Houston, first read way back in February.)

And here they are - the first decade books, minus (The Wonderful Adventures of) Nils, who is unaccountably missing (maybe off on another adventure?) and is represented by the pseudo-Hummel boy-with-geese.

And here they are – the first decade books, minus (The Wonderful Adventures of) Nils, who is unaccountably missing (maybe off on another adventure?) and is represented by the pseudo-Hummel boy-with-geese.

I’ve finished one decade of the Century, 1900-1909, and a mostly pleasant one it was, too. A nice mix of classic children’s stories and vintage bestsellers and completely new-to-me discoveries. Here’s the briefly annotated list. (Scroll down for my “best” and “worst” awards.)

  • 1900 ~ Unleavened Bread by Robert Grant ~ My rating: 8/10. A self-centered, humourless and hypocritical woman claws her way to the society position she claims to be hers by right of birth. An interesting American novel which foreshadows similar works by Sinclair Lewis.
  • 1901 ~  My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin ~ My rating: 8.5/10. Teenage Sybylla struggles against an unkind fate, is wooed, and rejects conventional relationships with men, all set against the blazing background of Australia’s drought-stricken bush in New South Wales.
  • 1902 ~ Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling ~ My rating: 7.5/10. A collection on fables explaining how things got the way they are: the Whale with his baleen throat, the Camel with his hump, and the Alphabet’s origin, among others. Some are wonderful for reading out loud to the young ones, others are best enjoyed as interesting period pieces. Good reading for the adults of the family, if you are at all a Kipling aficionado
  • 1903 ~ Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin ~ My rating: 7.5/10. The classic juvenile novel about an eleven-year-old girl coming to live with two strict spinster aunts.
  • 1904 ~ The Treasure by Selma Lagerlöf  ~ My rating: 10/10.  An excellent short novella about love and revenge. A 16th Century Scandinavian winter setting and ghosts. Brrr.
  • 1905 ~ The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight  by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ My rating: 7.5/10. German Princess Priscilla escapes the courtly life with her elderly friend, the palace librarian. The two set up house in rural England, but soon run into unplanned-for difficulties. A witty light farce with a mildly predictable moral.
  • 1906 ~ The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett ~ My rating: 8.5/10. A gorgeous gothic thriller/romance following the varied adventures of two wealthy American sisters as they travel to England ten years apart. Gentle Rosy marries a wicked nobleman; ten years later her younger sister Betty mounts a rescue mission.
  • 1907 ~  New Chronicles of Rebecca by Kate Douglas Wiggin ~ My rating: 6.5/10. Further details on Riverboro life, with eventual strong hints as to the ongoing evolution of the relationship between Rebecca and much-older “friend” Adam Ladd.
  • 1908 ~ The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart ~ My rating: 5.5/10. Super-confusing and not very mysterious American country house mystery, salvaged somewhat by the amusing narrator, a middle-aged, opinionated, self-described spinster, Miss Rachel Innes. A classic of crime fiction which I’m happy to have ticked off the list, but this reading will likely do me for many years to come. Though I am still keen to read more of MRR’s mysteries; they are definitely enjoyable as well as slightly annoying.
  • 1909 ~ A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter ~ My rating: 6/10. Downtrodden but plucky half-orphan Elnora roams the Limberlost Swamp hunting leaves and bugs to finance her higher education.

And the bonus books:

  • 1903 ~ Also: Brewster’s Millions by Richard Greaves aka George Barr McCutcheon ~ My rating: 7.5/10. A young man inherits two fortunes, but under strange conditions. He must spend one million dollars – without divulging the existence of the second legacy, and under strict conditions – in order to inherit seven million. Needless to say, his friends think he has gone mad, and much hilarity ensues as they try to save Monty Brewster from himself.
  • 1904 ~ Also: Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson ~ My rating: 3.5/10. Thousands loved this when it was first published. One hundred and ten years later, I am less than impressed. An Amazonian jungle romantic tragedy between an aristocratic Venezuelan hiding out from the consequences of a failed political coup, and a mysterious “bird girl” who guards her section of the forest against all intruders.
  • 1904 ~ Also: Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter ~ My rating: 7.5/10. One-handed but plucky orphan Freckles wins hearts, vanquishes evildoers, and wins love while employed as a timber guard in the Limberlost Swamp.
  • 1905 ~ Also: The Orchid by Robert Grant ~ My rating: 6.5/10. A socialite sells her child to her first husband to finance her second marriage.
  • 1906 ~ Also: The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlof ~ My rating: 10/10. An appealing vintage children’s classic. Swedish farm boy Nils is transformed for his misdeeds into elf-size, and is now able to understand the speech of animals. His quest for redemption and a way to break the curse carries him over Sweden on the back of the farm’s white gander. A marvelous read-aloud, standing up well over a hundred years after its original publication.
  • 1908 ~ Also: The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies ~ My rating: 9/10. The famous poet’s early years as a tramp in Britain and North America.
  • 1908 ~ Also: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame ~ My rating: 10/10. Rat and Mole “messing about in boats”; Toad getting up to no good in his dreadfully large motorcar; Badger coming to everyone’s rescue; absolute bookish delight for adults and children alike.

Top 3 “I know I’ll read it again” Books:

  1. Unleavened Bread by Robert Grant ~ 1900.
  2. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin ~ 1903.
  3. The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight  by Elizabeth von Arnim  ~ 1905.

Melodrama Award:

  1. A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter ~ 1909, tied with Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson ~ 1904.
  2. Runner Up: Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter ~ 1904.

Hidden Gem Award:

  1. The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies ~ 1908, tied with My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin ~ 1901.
  2. Runner Up: The Treasure by Selma Lagerlof ~ 1904.

Great Big Disappointment:

  1. Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson ~ 1904.

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olivia o douglas dj 001Olivia by O. Douglas ~ 1912. Original title: Olivia in India: The Adventures of a Chota Miss Sahib. This edition: Nelson, 1950. Hardcover. 281 pages.

Provenance: Shepherd Books, Victoria B.C., September 2013.

My rating: 7/10

The first published work by Anna Buchan, written under her pen name O. Douglas.

This slight epistolary novel is based on Anna’s own 1907 voyage to India to visit her younger brother William; the characters “Olivia” and “Boggley” are obviously very lightly veiled depictions of Anna and William, and there is even a reference or two to another brother, “John”, who is a highly regarded novelist. John Buchan – of The Thirty-Nine Steps fame – was of course a very real person, and though “Olivia” throughout refers to her family name as “Douglas”, we can’t help but draw the simple conclusion that this is mostly autobiography, presented as fiction.

India in the years of the Raj has been so often and thoroughly documented both in fact and fiction that it exists in our readerly imaginations as a defined time and place with expected characters, settings and situations. Olivia does nothing to further illuminate any of this, merely laying down another layer of sepia-tinted varnish on an already-finished picture.

I found the book enjoyable enough in a mild way; in common with all of the author’s other novels the people are very believable, being a mixture of good and not so good, and the situations are realistically described. It differs from most of O Douglas’s later novels which have a traditional plot structure in that in this one nothing really happens, aside from the expected incidents of domestic adventure and foreign travel.

Olivia journeys about, sightseeing and marking time, all the while writing to an unnamed correspondent back home, whom we are able to identify early on as a person of potentially romantic interest. The nearest thing to a climax occurs at the very end of the book, when the correspondent is given a name, and Olivia commits herself so far as to accept his apparent proposal of an enlargement and formalization of their “friendship” when she returns to England.

Though it sounds as if I were damning this quiet book with faint praise, it wasn’t actually all that bad. The scenes throughout are engagingly described and occasional vignettes stand out, as when Olivia sees the Himalayas for the first time, after a less-than-comfortable train journey.

Here is a snippet from that journey, with these pages being representative of the style of narrative of the whole. (Click on image to enlarge.)

olivia o douglas excerpt 001

And there are enough references to the political situation and dreadful things going on all about – the poverty of much of the native population and certain of the lower class Europeans and Eurasians, the constant occurrence of sudden death from misadventure and virulent tropical diseases, the occasional “throwing of bombs” by radical demonstrators – to keep the tone from being at all saccharine.

Olivia herself has a rather snobbish attitude to anyone not of her class, race and religion – these being upper, Scottish, and Presbyterian – but she does recognize this tendency in herself and occasionally puts herself out to overcome her prejudices, though to the end of her travels she remains fastidiously suspicious of the natives of the country.

Very much a first book, but, to be fair, quite a good one. It held my interest throughout, though I am sure most of it will fade away quite quickly to join the rest of the era’s Anglo-Indian accounts of chirpy young Great Britain-ites off to visit the exotic Colonial Outposts, before it all fell apart.


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please don't eat the daisies jean kerr 001Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr ~ 1957. This edition: Doubleday, 1957. Illustrations by Carl Rose. Hardcover. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

I’ve had this book kicking around for years, as you can see from the sad state of its dust jacket pictured over there on the left (now covered with crinkly, shiny Brodart Just-a-Fold, one of my happier recent personal library improvement initiatives), and I re-read it with pleasure every so often. The only thing keeping it from a 10/10 rating is that it is too darned short; we never really get to settle down into it; it’s over and done with much too soon.

Jean Kerr lightly channels Shirley Jackson (the domestically-focussed SJ of Life Among the Savages versus the darker fictions, I hasten to add) and shines a cheerful and mildly sarcastic light on her own marriage and the goings-on of her four young sons.

Jean was always interested in the theatrical arts, and upon graduation from college, married one of her drama professors, Walter Kerr, who later became a prominent stage and film critic. The Kerrs dabbled in playwriting, producing a series of not terribly successful efforts, but having much more success with writing material for revues.

Jean Kerr did eventually have a hit, with the 1961 Broadway comedy Mary, Mary. She also wrote humorous essays which were published in various periodicals, such as the Ladies’ Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post. Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is a compilation of these essays, and was followed some years later by other collections: 1960’s The Snake Has All the Lines, 1970’s Penny Candy, and 1978’s How I Got to Be Perfect.

Somewhere in the middle of Daisies, the Kerrs buy a house. Not just any house, but an eccentrically designed and decorated Larchdale, New York mansion formerly owned by a compatriot of Henry Ford, one retired inventor, world traveller and stuff collector, Charles B. King. King incorporated such features into his “fairy tale home” such as carved ceiling beams and a dining room floor made of planks from a retired paddlewheel steam ship, the door of ST. Gabriel’s Church, a clock tower, and a thirty-two bell courtyard carillon (connected to a clock in said clock tower) which played the duet from Carmen every day at noon.

The Kerrs found the house bizarrely irresistible, and persisted in their efforts to buy it from the trustees of the King estate, who could not agree on a reasonable asking price, until a fire destroyed one of the wings, and the price dropped to a level the Kerrs could manage.

For anyone interested in taking a peek at the house of the book, here is a link to an article and a slide show of a tour of the building prepared when Jean Kerr’s sons put the building up for sale in 2003, after it had been in the family for 58 years:

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies caught the spotlight in 1960 as it was used as the basis of a romantic-comedy movie by the same name starring David Niven and Doris Day, and then a 1965-67 television sit-com based very loosely on the Kerr ménage and their unique home.

While I enjoy Jean Kerr’s on-page persona as a harassed mother of many (she eventually had six children, including one set of twins) I think my favourite essays in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies are the parodies of literary works. Stephen Vincent Benét’s sombre poem John Brown’s Body is presented as a readers’ theatre piece entitled Don Brown’s Body (starring Mike Hammer and set amongst the gangsters), while Francoise Sagan’s  A Certain Smile inspires Jean Kerr’s brutally funny mockery, Toujours tristesse. These two essays make the book for me; the Kerrs’ revues, if they were anything like these, must have been an absolute joy to attend.

A very clever lady, behind that “I’m just a harried mom who happens to write on the side” literary disguise.




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lady in waiting rory gallagher 001Lady in Waiting: An Intimate Journal of a Labor of Love by Rory Gallagher ~ 1943. This edition: Stephen Daye, 1943. Hardcover. 243 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

My oldest child turned twenty yesterday, and it gave me a surprisingly sharp shock to realize that two decades had passed since that white-knuckle after-midnight drive to the hospital an hour away where our first-born was ushered into the world in a memorable – at least to me! – fashion.

All those clichés are true, by the way, especially the one about the instant rush of love one feels upon holding your newborn child, and even more so the one about you never being free from a continual background hum of worry ever again. Not to mention the whole “time passing like the blink of a moment” thing…

So this book was an apt choice for some light reading last night, after the person-in-question casually breezed in to eat his cake, deposit his laundry in a heap beside the washing machine, and honour us with his welcome presence for a few days, before his next jaunt off into the wild blue yonder.

Oh, twenty…  For with all of the very reasonable angsty worries of today’s “young adults”, they still have that marvelous thing, youth itself, and that’s a rather grand advantage in the great scheme of things, thinks me from my middle-aged perspective.

Well, enough about my own Mother Musings, and on to Rory Gallagher’s. Lady in Waiting is a 1940s version of the Mommy-lit of today’s jogging-stroller set, though it concentrates solely on the nine months of expectation and comes to a screeching halt upon arrival of Baby.

It’s funny enough, though the author works a bit too hard here and there as she plays out every twinge for maximum laugh-appeal, but there are enough moments of genuinely relatable ironic glee to keep it on my too-good-to-part-with shelf. A period piece, most definitely. Set in the eastern United States, where the author lives (as her story opens) in a pleasant (rented) two-hundred-year-old rural home along the Saugatuck River, during the mid years of World War II, with the expected adventures of coping with less than satisfactory maids and other upper-middle-class domestic mini-crises.

And that is all I’ll be saying about it, but I will add in several random page scans, plus this archived newspaper article I found in my internet cruise looking for more on the author. (I didn’t find much – the Rory Gallagher most recognized by Google being the Irish folk-rock singer.)

From The Times Recorder, (apparently) someplace in Ohio, July 19, 1943:

“LADY IN WAITING” by Rory Gallagher (Stephen Daye; $2.50.) Apparently the first baby is an experience from which no parent ever recovers. Each thinks of it as a unique experience, even as he talks over the impending event with neighbors who undoubtedly are going through the same experience exactly..For all the conversation, it seems true that no woman has recently put down a day by day account of the mystical nine months–none until Rory Gallagher came along with her “Lady in Waiting.”

Just why the author chose to use a pseudonym is a little vague, and since she has put her neighbors and friends in under their correct names (including me) I see no reason why Rory Gallagher should not be identified as Mrs. Patrick Dolan, Ruthie for short. The Dolans lived a mile and a half down the Lyons road from us, in Weston, Conn., while all of the events of “Lady In Waiting” were laid. If I had time, I should write a book of my own on having a neighbor have a baby. It would be almost as funny as Ruthie’s.

For “Lady in Waiting” is funny as well as physiological. It is brash, too, and has a swing that is peculiarly like its author. Mrs. Dolan-Gallagher has a terrific sense of humor, which might seem odd to the superficial, because she happens to be half Scottish and half German. She is tall and slender, and this provided her first difficulty–she was afraid she would “show.” She did, eventually. I doubt whether anybody ever broke the news to papa from a sitting posture in a parking lot but Ruthie did. Most gals take the pills the doctor proffers, but Ruthie didn’t. Mama is presumably the second to know the news, but Ruthie’s mama was not. The business of the morning horrors, the strange yearnings and so forth usually run a pretty definite course –but Ruthie’s did not. Prospective mothers, as a rule, pick inconspicuous places for their fainting spells, but “Jake’s” mother chose a Philadelphia dinner table manned by various butlers and such. So the last, and exciting day. I don’t think old ladies in tippets will approve, but a lot of people will think “Lady in Waiting” a row.

And here is the Kirkus Review take, June 21, 1943

With the birth rate running a high fever, this just might catch on. (I)t is a nine months’ diary, composite of the trepidations, small concerns and humiliations, and its share of girlish laughter. Daily cares and changes; the husband’s refusal to consider her as fragile as she thinks he should; the monstrousness of the paraphernalia; the Mein Kampf between morning sickness and appetite; the bluff nonchalance of the doctor; the small worries and large; and finally the advent of Jake, with no trouble at all, just as friend husband is off to the wars. Light handling of prenatal preconceptions and preoccupations.

lady in waitng exerpt 2 rory gallagher 001

lady in waiting excerpt brory gallagher 1 001

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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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my mother in law celeste andrews seton 001My Mother-in-Law by Celeste Andrews Seton ~ 1954. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1954. Hardcover. 239 pages.

My rating: 8/10


Jay Gould died at his home at 579 Fifth Avenue, New York, in 1892. During his lifetime he amassed one of the largest fortunes in the United States. It is estimated that at one time his ownership of stocks and bonds in railways covering 18,000 miles of track, transatlantic cables, mining, land and industrial corporations, totaled over a thousand million dollars.

This story is based on the life of Jay Gould’s eldest daughter, Helen Gould Shepard. Her four adopted children agree that this book s an emotional and spiritual image of their foster-mother. They disagree, however, about some of the facts. Helen Anna says that the sweet peas did not win a prize at the flower show – the lilies did. Finley Jay says he doesn’t remember the flower show at all. Louis will not commit himself. Olivia says she is, frankly, a little fuzzy about it, but doesn’t see what difference it makes…

Attracted by its quietly elegant spine decoration, I pulled this slender hardcover off a crowded shelf in one of Vancouver several deluxe emporiums of used tomes, Lawrence Books (on the corner of Dunbar and 41st). Raising an eyebrow slightly at the pencilled price on the inner flyleaf – this is a store that thinks very highly of its dusty treasures, few bargains to be had here – I nevertheless was charmed enough by a few moments leafing through to add it to my small pile of promising finds.

Upon arriving home, My Mother-in-Law gravitated immediately to my bedside table, providing me with several late nights of soothing diversion during a hectic week full of all sorts of frantic activity.

The daughter-in-law who has penned this loving memoir first met her prospective husband while on vacation with her mother in the Adirondacks. Celeste finds the surprisingly accomplished Louis Seton less than forthcoming about his antecedents, but as she is twenty-one and nicely independent she abandons herself to the course of true love, eventually accepting Louis’ marriage proposal in a New York taxi. Only while preparing to break the news of her betrothal to her bemused parents – “Who is this Louis Seton, and why does his name sound vaguely familiar, even though we’ve never come across his parents in our society visits?” – does Louis rather shamefacedly spill the beans.

He is the foster-son of the richest woman in the United States, Helen Gould Shepard, eldest daughter of the incredibly rich “American robber baron” Jay Gould.

All right, then.

Celeste goes to meet her prospective in-laws with more than a little apprehension, and what she finds when she goes to that first afternoon tea is just a bit unnerving. Louis’ mother is, as Louis warns Celeste, perhaps a tiny bit eccentric.  Mother Shepard not only knows her Bible inside and out, she believes in it as the Literal Truth, and is prone to discuss it at any time, and to prescribe passages to memorize, which she will later examine her visitor upon. Celeste is put on the spot and manages to trot out the 23rd Psalm, the only Bible passage she knows by heart. Mother Shepard gently approves, but her mild manner does not mask her keen eye, and Celeste realizes that she had better brush up on her Bible reading, amongst other things.

Mother Shepard approves of Herbert Hoover – there is a huge jigsaw puzzle of his profile in a state of semi-completion in the parlour – and disapproves of communism. She sadly condemns Celeste’s alma mater, Smith College, as a hotbed of communist plotting: “They have parades there. By torchlight. And they don’t believe in God. It’s too bad…”

Celeste is presented with a peacock-feather quill pen and ordered to sign the massive guest book. She is plied with tea and avocado sandwiches, and watches in wonder as Mother Shepard feeds her Pekinese dog, Chinky, as he reclines on a velvet footstool. (Later we are to learn that this Chinky is merely one of a long line of identically named pets; as each expires from the effects of unsuitable diet and lack of exercise, another takes its place; the name stays the same while the actual dogs succeed each other, victims of a benignly intended but ultimately fatal pampering.)

Upon parting Celeste is presented with a huge corsage of white orchids, grown in one of the fabulous Shepard greenhouses, and she stumbles out into the real world feeling like she has been on another planet. But a most cozy and well-upholstered one, though there is something a bit tense in the atmosphere.

Helen Gould Shepard, unable to have children of her own, had adopted four foster children and raised them in her own unique manner. Though her generosity is boundless, the now-adult children are all still just a tiny bit terrified of their benevolent mother, whose ideas on child-rearing included “punishments” of memorizing poetry and foreign languages and operatic passages. Louis is most accomplished in all of these , as Celeste has already discovered, leading her to speculate uneasily upon the “naughtiness” of his childhood…

Though his foster-mother is exceedingly wealthy, Louis himself is not an heir to the Gould fortune, as Jay Gould’s will included a clause regarding the necessity for his ancestors to be “blood-issue”, but there does appear to be a substantial trust fund, easing Celeste and Louis’ setting up housekeeping in the darkest days of the Depression.

Many visits to the various Shepard residences follow in the years to come, and Celeste, while remaining slightly bemused at her mother-in-law’s thought processes, comes to love Mother Shepard deeply and to admire her sincere urges to do good, even while realizing that occasionally Mother Shepard’s philanthropies are subject to whim and arbitrary judgement.

This is an entertaining, kindly humorous and rather unusual memoir. It presents a one-of-a-kind picture of both a unique personality and of a way of life that was exclusive to only a very tiny percentage of the American population – the wealthiest of the exceedingly wealthy – in their specific moment in history.

Gorgeous endpaper illustrations show a map of Helen Gould Shepard's favourite "home", the family country estate of Lyndhurst. Small illustrations depict incidents described in the memoir: the nighttime procession of the entire household to see the fabulous night-blooming cereus in the conservatory; grubbing up dandelions in the lawn under Mother Shepard's watchful eye; going to church en masse packed into one of the nine Shepard motorcars; swimming in the Greek-columned pool, watched over by a full-time lifeguard, whose main claim to usefulness was that he had once rescued one of the many Chinkys from a watery death!

The delightful endpaper illustrations show a map of Helen Gould Shepard’s favourite “home”, the family country estate of Lyndhurst. Small illustrations depict incidents described in the memoir: the nighttime procession of the entire household to see the fabulous night-blooming cereus in the conservatory, grubbing up dandelions in the lawn under Mother Shepard’s watchful eye, going to church en masse packed into one of the nine Shepard motorcars, and swimming in the vast Greek-columned pool, watched over by a full-time lifeguard, whose main claim to fame was that he had once rescued one of the many Chinkys from a watery death!

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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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This is one of the most lovely book jackets I've ever seen, a wrap-around illustration by Antony Groves-Raines, from my 1965 Doubleday "Book Club Edition".

This is one of the more attractive vintage book jackets I’ve yet seen, a wrap-around illustration by Antony Groves-Raines, from my 1965 Doubleday “Book Club Edition”. This is the front.

And this is the bag. Try to imagine them together. I tried scanning it as one section, but my scanner is just a bit too small for the whole thing.

And this is the back. Try to imagine them together. I wanted to include it as one continuous illustration, but my scanner bed was just a bit too small for the whole thing.

How Far to Bethlehem? by Norah Lofts ~ 1964. This edition: Doubleday, 1965. Hardcover. 246 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

I’d decided to try to read some seasonal literature to go with the upcoming Christmas season, and what better way to start, I thought, than with this one, going right back to the source, as it were.

As you can see from my rating, it was an adequate though not an astounding success. I mildly enjoyed Norah Lofts’ attempt, but found that I could not fully enter into this creative re-imagining of the story of the birth of Christ, for reasons touched on below.

The narrative abruptly jumps around from character to character, which, though initially confusing, actually turned out to be a good thing, as the side characters were much the most interesting, with completely invented backstories, unlike Mary and Joseph, who were constrained by the traditional story.

We start out with the young Mary, imagined by Lofts as an enthusiastic lover of both lilies and donkeys – themes which tenaciously follow the girl throughout the tale – and the Annunciation, with the Angel Gabriel appearing to her and then to Joseph. Mary is portrayed as a very lovely, rather dreamy girl, much prone to episodes of introspection when she seems to be communicating with a greater power, which of course she is, if we accept her special status as Mother-of-God-to-be. She accepts the angel’s visit as the nebulous “big thing” she has been waiting for all of her life, and surrenders herself fully to her fate, though she has moments of great inner turmoil when she considers her baby’s eventual torment and death according to the ancient prophesies concerning the Messiah.

And this was were my first moments of readerly disconnect came in, as the author insisted on discussing the popularly accepted details of the end of Christ’s earthly life. It’s been a good many years since I attended a Bible Study class, but I don’t recall that much detail in the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah; it was all rather mysterious in a soothsayers’ sort of way, and didn’t really get in to details such as how long the Messiah would be here on earth for, or the manner of his demise, even that he would be born of a virgin. Mary and Joseph both discuss the role that the coming Messiah will play in sacrificing himself for mankind’s sins; the expectation among the Hebrews of the day was more in the nature of a military leader. Though it is lovely of the author to provide Mary with this insight, it didn’t feel all that convincing. And more was soon to come.

The three wise men/three kings share the spotlight with Mary, and they are imagined in rather untraditional ways, made possible because their mention in the actual Bible narrative is superficial at best, and their place in the Nativity story more folkloric than theologically based. In Lofts’ version, Melchior is a Korean astronomer, Gaspar is a Mongol chieftain, and Balthazar is a runaway African slave, and their coming together and subsequent travels make up the better part of the book. It generally works, and some of their escapades are nice little novellas all on their own.

Highlights toward the end of the book which I thought interesting and well written as the author rather let herself go away from the constraints of clinging to the skeleton of the Biblical framework were a visit by the three “kingly” travellers to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, and a night at a Roman military barracks; both episodes had some creative detailing which sparked them to life rather more than some of the other vignettes.

The innkeeper at Bethlehem gets his own mini-history as well, some of which was quite enthralling. In Norah’s imagination he is a Greek ex-sailor, and her description of his perilous voyage on a tin ship through the mist-shrouded ocean to the barbarous isles on the other side of the Pillars of Hercules was a fascinating and convincingly written inclusion which had me wanting more.

Her version of the shepherds was less than stellar, though. It felt highly contrived, with the chief shepherd being a grieving father of a son recently crucified by the Romans for a minor infraction; the author just wouldn’t quit with the meaningfulness of all of this, and it was another jarring note; much better if it would have been played a bit softer. Oh, and that very shepherd is represented as being the father of Lazurus, Martha and Mary – key players of an incident some years later in the New Testament narrative, and another glaring coincidence which annoyed the heck out of me by its total improbability. (If one can use “probable” in the context of any of the events in this re-imagined tale!)

Though there was much to like in this ambitious and creative retelling of the Nativity story, I found that the sections which worked well fictionally were overwhelmed by the less frequent but awkward attempts at bringing in Biblical quotations, and in the excessive use of coincidence in the creation of incidents. What might have been an excellent piece of creative fiction instead turned out to be a slightly off-key homage to a story we already know in its earlier form. The King James version very adequately stands alone and I would have been much happier if Norah Lofts had let herself go a little more and not tried to incorporate so much of the Gospel narrative in her own work.

Does that make any sort of sense? I mean, we already know how it goes, so letting the reader do the work in mentally making it click with the original would have worked, and given us the pleasure of the “Aha!” moment, instead of being bludgeoned by the exceedingly obvious “taken from the Bible” parts. And if one isn’t familiar with the original, it would be a more accessible read, and might well lead one to investigate the source. Perhaps?

I’m a bit grumpy about this, because some of this was, as I already said, quite excellent, and I felt cheated in that it all could have been that way.

Norah Lofts appears to be a firm believer in the Biblical versions of the Nativity which inspired her book, and one must respect that. This is an unusual novel, and rather brave in its attempt to fictionalize such an iconic religious tradition, while remaining true to the source. And her writing is always more than competent, and occasionally inspired.

Damning with faint praise, this feels like, but I could not completely give myself over to the tale, and I was fully willing to when I started. I do wonder how much having a previous knowledge of the King James version of the story influenced my reading pleasure, or lack thereof. While it definitely helped me to appreciate the author’s use of narrative nuances and connections between characters, it made me continually stop and try to make Norah Lofts’ version jive with my memory of what was contained in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I did come away with a strongish desire to reread the originals as a sort of refutation to Lofts’ tale, so I’m not quite sure if that is a point in favour or against How Far to Bethlehem?!

But please don’t let my personal response put you off giving this book a whirl. It is much beloved by Norah Lofts’ many dedicated followers for good reason, and it was definitely not at all a chore to read. I easily got over my annoyed moments and followed it through to the end; I will be keeping it around for future personal perusal, and because my mother enjoys reading it now and again.

But am I at least more in the Christmas mood now?

Honestly, not really. I think I need to revisit some old favourites, the Margot Benary-Isbert stories (The Ark, Rowan Farm and A Time to Love, all set in wartime and post-war Germany) and Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge, for its sweet Christmas-time finale. And of course Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, and Rumer Godden’s The Story of Holly and Ivy, from the children’s bookshelf of annual re-reads.

And Heavenali’s post on Christmassy books gives much scope for exploration of some titles I haven’t yet read, and reminded me of a few I’d forgotten, like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising.

Other Christmas reading suggestions always welcome!

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