Posts Tagged ‘Youth’

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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It’s always fascinating to read vintage books aimed at the youth market. The terms “literary snapshots” and “period pieces” apply particularly well to this widely varied genre, though more serious themes tend to be handled in a gentle way, obviously in order to cushion young minds from the harsher realities of the world they live in.

I recently read these two American “juveniles” from the many which have accumulated on our shelves in the past nineteen years of buying books for the younger members of the family, and while neither is an outstanding piece of fiction in any sense of the word, they are both rather interesting in what they have to say about the eras they were written in and about. Footnotes to the period, as it were, which is why I’m including them among the Century of Books fellowship.

*****

the black opal dorothy maywood bird 001The Black Opal by Dorothy Maywood Bird ~ 1949. This edition: Macmillan, 1962. (Ninth printing.) Hardcover. 202 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Surprisingly likeable was this rather hard to classify light novel, comprised as it was of equal parts college caper, highly contrived mystery, and blossoming romance. All right, maybe not that hard to classify! But the mixture works quite nicely, and the characters are highly appealing, and the whole thing is completely adorable. Decidedly a book aimed at the feminine readership of the junior high schools of its time.

Look, I even found an approving Kirkus review, from October of 1949:

When Laurel went off to the small coeducational college in Michigan which had been her great-great-grandmother’s alma mater, she expected it to be fun — and it was. What she didn’t know was that she would find herself up to the neck in a century old, unsolved murder mystery which was to give her the thrill of establishing the identity of the murdered man and his killer. The mystery theme is well-integrated and companions a satisfying modern college story of dates, term papers and strict house-mothers. There is not only the sinister black opal which Laurel unearths but also the exciting and sparkling diamond with which her One And Only ends the story. Maybe her solution will seem a trifle glib and maybe everything falls in place too smoothly, but no one will care for it is a nice, light entertaining tale with the virtue, highly to be prized, of not following an exact formula.

Laurel Stanwood has decided to do something a bit out of the norm. Instead of going with her high school friends to a college in her native Vermont, Laurel has chosen to attend a school, Colbert College, in far-off Michigan, a decision inspired by the fact that her Great-great-grandmother Caroline Hayes was a student of the precursor to the now co-educational facility, the Colbert Female Seminary, in 1846.

What follows is an absolutely typical account of lively college life. Laurel immediately makes two best friends, and immerses herself in a whirl of activity, where some serious studying is livened up by dramatic football games, campus socials, the ongoing “campus war” between the freshmen/juniors and sophomores/seniors, and some serious battling of the sexes via the two campus newspapers, the Colbert Feminist, under the editorial control of Laurel’s new friend Rue, and the Colbert Iconoclast, presided over by the woman-despising J. Swinton Towne. As an aspiring journalist, Laurel is immediately put to work gathering material for the Feminist; she has high hopes of finding a stunning “scoop” which will allow the Feminist to grind the Iconoclast‘s annoying pretensions to male superiority under its well-clad foot.

Lovely period details abound throughout this book, such as here where the girls are opening their mail at dinner time.

Laurel slit them open with her fork. The first, a circular, ordered her to make reservations at once for that Round-the-World Cruise she’d been eagerly awaiting since before the war. “Lapping waves,” it promised, “soft winds to caress your brow, nights full of wonder.” The second assured her that she could borrow up to three hundred dollars without embarrassing investigation and could pay it back in easy monthly installments. “Why be short?” it demanded. The third looked more hopeful, an expensive ivory envelope addressed in a feminine hand and postmarked Detroit. But the letter inside merely stated that if she planned to invest five hundred and fifty dollars in a genuine blue muskrat coat, she would do well to visit Compere’s Fur Salon first.

“Here’s a card from Mother,” Stacy giggled, “reminding me that if I want my duds to get into the Monday wash I can’t wait till Monday to mail them, and here’s a letter from Kent. Even if I didn’t recognize the scrawl, nobody else would have the nerve to start out ‘Dear Horseface.'”

Laundry sent home by mail for washing, stocking boxes to protect one’s cherished “nylons”, beau parlors to entertain your male guests in, telegrams sent with gay abandon in the same way teens today fire off texts to arrange their dates, having one’s hair washed once a week at the beauty parlor, Sadie Hawkin’s Day dances with both sexes in drag, apple cider socials, and a continual description of the most lovely-sounding clothes are happy period details. Laurel is continually sporting such gems as a “cherry flannel robe”(while filling out her college application form), “white wool gabardine suit” with a white chrysanthemum corsage (to attend a football game), “green silk raincoat” (actually that was Stacy’s, but it sounds quite sharp), “red cambric bolero edged in gold furniture braid” (for dressing up as a Spanish courtier on Sadie Hawkin’s Day), dungarees and sheepskin lined stadium boot (for winter hiking in the snow), a plaid gingham dress giving way to a “heliotrope spun rayon” (dressing for dinner, a must-do in the girl’s dormitory house), a beau’s “electric-blue loafer coat”, a friend’s “magenta taffeta with the bustle” prom dress, and Laurel’s own costume for the high point of the story, prom night topped off by discovery of the “Black Opal” mystery: mist-gray tulle with silver slippers and handbag, and a corsage of forget-me-nots, rosebuds and silver ribbon. Oh, swoon!

The girls, despite their life of strict midnight curfews and beau parlors, are given a wonderful amount of freedom; in most ways they are treated as completely competent adults and are left to sink or swim and make their own decisions in a way that many of the sheltered-but-socially-sophisticated teens of today would be most miffed to asked to do. Failed your Biology exam? Oh, well, guess you should have studied harder! No helicopter-parenting mom or dad in this 1940s’ world is about to confront the Biology prof to demand their pampered offspring’s mark be altered!

The historical murder mystery/mysterious gemstone plot, though prominent in the title and constantly referenced, is a very minor part of this happy little novel, though it forms a uniting thread throughout. It is the least well handled aspect of the book, being utterly predictable, totally fabricated out of unlikely coincidences, and not particularly believable even at its most detailed point. But this I completely forgave, because the rest of the story charmed me completely.

Dorothy Maywood Bird wrote two other similar novels, Granite Harbor and Mystery at Laughing Water, and I would be quietly pleased to get my hands on these at some point, for a little more travelling gently back in time.

*****

the year of the dream jane collier 001The Year of the Dream by Jane Collier ~ 1962. This edition: Funk & Wagnalls, 1962. Hardcover. Illustrated by E. Harper Johnson. 122 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

This one is aimed at a younger set, the elementary school ages. Another very predictable plot, with rather more cardboardish characters, but again an interesting period piece with some redeeming features.

A middle-class family of five – mother at home baking cookies, father a teacher, thirteen-year-old Dick, twelve-year-old Wendy and younger brother Beanie – have been summering at a lakeside cottage and messing about with rowboats for years. But this year it somehow doesn’t quite satisfy – “If only we had a boat of our own…!” And not just a rowboat, but a proper boat. A cabin cruiser, so Mom can come along and not miss her kitchen(!) – bright red flag, here – first hint of era-correct gender stereotype, but far from the last.

Anyway, it’s decided that this is just a dream, as Dad isn’t exactly wealthy, and even a cheap cabin cruiser would cost thousands to buy. Then a chance conversation puts the family on the track of a derelict boat to be sold as part of an estate settlement. For two thousand dollars they can have it. Lots of work would be needed, but the boat is essentially sound. But where to find the money?

Everyone chips in and the year progresses as the pennies and dollars start to flow into the boat fund. The family decides to holiday at home and put their vacation money in the fund. Dad quits smoking and takes on an evening job, Wendy gives up her riding lessons and takes on babysitting jobs, Dick decides to raise rats to sell for science experiments, and Beanie roams the neighbourhood with his wagon collecting old newspapers to sell for salvage prices – 75 cents per 100 pounds. Even Mom finds something to do – she goes back to work in a law office part time, asking Wendy to step up and help out more at home.

Domestic details of the early sixties include a gee-whiz!-isn’t-it-great! reliance on cake mixes, instant pudding, canned everything, and casseroles of frankfurters and beans. Mom pores over a book called Shipboard Menus, leaving the mechanical and construction details of boat refurbishment up to the menfolk.

The only person not thrilled with the family’s common goal and their pursuit of their dream is Mom’s older sister, Aunt Louise. Louise had raised her younger sister after they were orphaned, and has settled into a prudently conservative spinsterhood. She lives in an apartment above the card and gift shop she has established with persistent self-sacrifice and dogged determination, and though she is the epitome of a self-sufficient woman she is, paradoxically, absolutely livid with Dad for “allowing” Mom to work. Mom, on the other hand, decidedly blossoms as she goes back out into the world, which inspires an interesting line of thought in twelve-year-old Wendy, about who “Mother” really is, and how she appears to herself and to each individual in her family, and what her mother’s own dreams might be, the ones she calmly has put aside to dedicate herself to her family. Inklings of the consciousness-raising going on in the greater world of the 1950s and 60s.

The dream – the cabin cruiser – is tantalizingly close to becoming a reality when catastrophe strikes, as young Beanie is struck and severely injured by a hit-and-run driver as he plods along with a wagonload of newspapers. Everything turns upside down as priorities are instantly re-assessed, with the two older children readjusting their personal ambitions for the boat without a murmur, much to the surprise of the adults in their lives, who have rather assumed that there would be resistance to the idea of letting the dream die.

Expectedly clichéd is the ending, with everyone rallying around and “family comes first” the slogan of the day; my greatest disappointment (from an adult point of view) was the sudden windfall that allowed the dream a new life. Artistically speaking, the sacrifice would have made for a stronger ending, but thinking back to my own juvenile reading days, the happy ending would have been appreciated by my young self, so I’ll let it go.

These sorts of books were a dime a dozen back in my elementary school years, mild dramas with some sort of a message attached, and The Year of the Dream is neither exceptionally good nor dreadfully bad. It’s a very average example of the middle range of juvenile literature of its era, and as such is worthy of a nod of appreciation as it helps to embellish the background against which “better” and more “mature” and “literary” books are set.

**********

I wouldn’t say that Jane Collier’s The Year of the Dream is worth looking for – it’s very much a nonentity of a thing – but for those of you who enjoy “teen girl’s fiction” of the 1940s and early 50s, precursors to the “malt shop” genre, Dorothy Maywood Bird’s three novels may be of some interest.

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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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rebecca of sunnybrook farm kate douglas wiggin 001Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin ~ 1903. This edition: Grosset and Dunlap, circa 1920. Hardcover. 342 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I never read this venerable classic as a child, coming to it in young adulthood, but I enjoyed it when I did finally settle down to it. My tattered paperback copy was packed and unpacked over a number of moves until coming to rest at the back of the schoolroom bookshelf, where it still sits today. I hadn’t realized that my first copy was a quite highly edited one – “abridged for younger readers”, if one reads the fine print – until I stumbled upon this vintage hardcover, read it, and realized that there was more to the story than I had been aware of.

Not much more, really, mostly just an elaboration on the religion-related episodes, where Rebecca mulls over the appeal of the missionary life and discusses her faith at length, but it was satisfying to at last read the book as it originally appeared in print.

11-year-old Rebecca Rowena Randall (her late father was a devotee of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe) has been sent off to live with her two spinster aunts in Riverboro, as her widowed mother is having a difficult time making ends meet for herself and her seven children on mortgaged Sunnybrook Farm. And it’s interesting to note that though Rebecca identifies herself as coming from Sunnybrook Farm, and obviously has strong sentimental ties to her family home, we don’t get any further acquaintance with the place itself, with the action taking place almost exclusively in Rebecca’s new home.

Grim Aunt Miranda and quiet Aunt Jane are unprepared for the bouncing Rebecca as they had requested her sober older sister Hannah instead, but after the initial surprise all accept the situation and prepare in their various ways to make the best of it. This is the era of stern duty, after all.

Do I need to detail the escapades which Rebecca gets herself into and out of? It’s fairly standard stuff for this sort of novel, and anyone who is familiar with Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery and Jean Webster can fill in the blanks. Rebecca finds kindred spirits in an elderly childless couple to whom she can tell her woes when Aunt Miranda’s sharp tongue stings too much to bear, and she soon teams up with a best chum, in this case the blond and smiling Emma Jane Perkins, good natured foil to her more rambunctious and clever friend. The two attend the local one-room school together, have ins and outs with the other children, deal with the school’s Mean Girl, the cruelly named Minnie Smellie, and good-naturedly patronize the local ne’er-do-well family, the Simpsons, headed by the light-fingered Abner, master of the midnight visit and the subsequent “trading” of goods picked up from about the neighbourhood.

In a scenario which reminded me of the later Daddy-Long-Legs plot, the young Rebecca (she’s only eleven at the start of the story) meets a much older wealthy bachelor (Adam Ladd is thirty when he and Rebecca first meet), charms him with her childish prattle, and evokes feelings which grow into something much more mature in both parties. But that is looking far ahead, though hints are abundant from the first meeting that Adam and Rebecca have “special” feelings for each other, and of course nothing untoward happens, with Adam nobly refraining from romantic thoughts about his young protégé until she reaches college age. At which point, let’s see… he is thirty-eight and she is seventeen. This raises a bit of an “ick” response in modern-day me, but it seems perfectly acceptable to this time period’s novel writers, so I’ll just leave it right there, labelled prominently “Era Acceptable”.

Rebecca is a truly charming heroine with an innate dramatic bent which shows itself in her love of writing and music. As well as creating poetry and stories, Rebecca sings beautifully and later masters the piano, with the author being very clear that in all of these accomplishments her heroine has had to stringently apply herself to master the crafts and to polish her natural abilities, which I found nicely refreshing – too often our young protagonists blithely achieve lofty heights with surprising and unlikely ease.

Early on in the story I started thinking, “Hmm, this story seems just a bit familiar. Haven’t we met these people before on Prince Edward Island?” A quick internet search showed that I was not alone in this thought, though I was mildly surprised to realize that Rebecca was created first, with Anne following several years later. Check out this article, Mirror Images: Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, which is quite fascinating in its examination of parallels between the two iconic literary heroines.

Likeable as Rebecca is – and she is truly a winsome child – she never quite comes to life as does her younger literary sister Anne. Kate Douglas Wiggin seems to be standing just a little off in the distance in describing her creation’s thoughts and feelings; her rather stilted language and stock situations belonging more to the 19th Century, whereas Anne feels much more like a creature of the here and now.

A must-read for anyone at all interested in the time period and the vintage “youth fiction” genre; there is humor and irony galore to reward the adult reader of young Rebecca’s adventures, though I’m afraid a young reader of the 21st Century might bog down somewhat in all of the missionary subplot and the relative mildness of the “action”.

new chronicles of rebecca kate douglas wigginNew Chronicles of Rebecca by Kate Douglas Wiggin ~ 1907. This edition: Grosset and Dunlap, circa 1920. Hardcover278 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I was pleased to discover that there is a companion book to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, New Chronicles of Rebecca, published four years later, in 1907. It consists of a linked series of anecdotes enlarging upon and adding to the Rebecca saga, drawing on readerly familiarity with Rebecca’s original adventures, and giving many more details as to her life and some strong clues to her future.

Because of its anecdotal nature, this is much less of a stand-alone novel than the first Rebecca, but it is thus freed up to delve into some intriguing sidelines of life in Riverboro. We meet Emma Jane’s swain, Abijah Flagg, and hear his back story, as well as becoming more intimately acquainted with the Simpson clan. Though Rebecca is viewed primarily as a children’s story, it is very apparent in New Chronicles that the author is writing as well to the mature members of her readership, as a key plot concerns the common-law relationship of the Simpsons, and Rebecca’s part in awakening the feckless Abner to the wrong done to his “wife” (and mother of his children) by his neglect of the religious ceremony to legitimatize their relationship.

In another chapter, a young woman abandoned by her husband during her second pregnancy dies along with her newborn child, and the young Rebecca and Emma Jane have the distressing and quite graphically described experience of being left alone with the deceased while Emma’s father goes to fetch the neighbours. Luckily the now-motherless first child creates a diversion, and then a longer-term project as the girls decide to prevent young Jack’s disposal of to the poorhouse. The girls find him a foster mother and form a society of benevolent young “aunts” to oversee his amusement.

In general this is a mild addendum to the classic novel, but it adds enough to the overall portrait of Rebecca and her associates that it should really accompany the original as a required-reading companion volume.

A pleasant reading experience, both of these books. Though I warn you that you may look at Anne of Green Gables with new eyes on your next reading, and wonder just a bit how carefully L.M. Montgomery was examining K.D. Wiggin!

Here are both of the Rebecca books online at Project Gutenberg, along with numerous other examples of this prolific author’s work.

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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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Three unrelated novels which share the common theme of adolescent girls coping as best they can with circumstances beyond their control. Frost in May and The World My Wilderness are undeniably much stronger and deeper novels than In Spite of All Terror, which, though competently written, fits more appropriately into the “juvenile historical fiction” category, but I’ve grouped them together here.

frost in may antonia whiteFrost in May by Antonia White ~ 1933.

This edition: Virago, 1981. Introduction by Elizabeth Bowen, 1948. Softcover. ISBN: 0-919630-36-7. 221 pages.

My rating: 8/10

I have known Antonia White as the gifted translator of a number of Colette’s novels, but I hadn’t realized she was an author in her own right until Frost in May crossed my path in an always-worth-examining green-covered Virago edition.

The novel is autobiographical fiction, based on the author’s childhood experiences attending convent school, and was the first in an eventual series of four books following the same character from her ninth through twenty-third year. Following Frost in May are The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House, and Beyond the Glass, and together they give an account of Antonia White’s formative years, and the emotional turmoil which shaped her adult life. The “transgression” in Frost in May which resulted in the fictional Nanda being expelled from convent school is a genuine event, and the real Antonia was marked for life by it.

It is 1908, and nine-year-old Fernanda – Nanda – Grey is being sent to The Convent of the Five Wounds in London in order to immerse her fully in her new life as a dedicated Catholic child; her father’s conversion several years earlier and his fervent seeking after ways to prove his devotion to his new faith have overflowed into Nanda’s life. She worships her father and seeks to please him in every detail of her life, and though she is understandably wary of this new experience, she is prepared to embrace her life among the nuns with eager dedication, as much for his sake as for her own.

Her experience at first is beyond strange to her; being in some ways better than she had anticipated, but also frequently much more harsh. The strict hierarchy of boarding school life is exacerbated by the dictatorial conduct of the nuns. A few are gentle and benign, though even in the kindest the stern core of duty prevents too much softness from showing, several are judgemental, demanding, and deeply sarcastic, seeming to set their young charges up for continual failure, all in aid of “breaking their worldly spirit” in order to prepare them to fully bow down to God.

Nanda tries her best to fit into this new culture, and gets along quite well, though she is continually haunted by feelings of deep inadequacy, both because of her lowly status as a mere convert to the faith rather than a “born” Roman Catholic, and because of her lack of social status among the many wealthy and aristocratic students.

As the years go by, Nanda makes several close friends, though the nuns forbid “particular friendships”, and is well on her way to forming her own ideas as to her adopted religion and her personal relationship with it, when a tragic misunderstanding loses her both her place in the convent community and the love and respect of her adored father.

The novel is a cutting exposé of the hypocrisies of several of the main characters, including Nanda’s demanding father, and her vaguely inefficient mother, and the effect of those hypocrisies on the sensitive and deeply feeling Nanda. She faithfully seeks to please her superiors and to adapt to their wishes and demands, while continually mulling over her own place in the world, and the contradictions she observes.

Very well written, and provides a fascinating account of life in a particular type of convent school. Suitable for competent youthful readers, perhaps early teens and older, but definitely would be most appreciated by those old enough to look back on their own formative years and relate Nanda’s experiences to their own.

the world my wilderness dj rose macaulayThe World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay ~ 1950.

This edition: Collins, 1950. Hardcover. 253 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

This fabulous novel deserves more than the rudimentary review I am giving it here; I do believe it is one of the most beautifully written of all I’ve read so far this year. Rose Macaulay lets herself go with lushly vivid descriptions of the world just after the war. The bombed-our ruins of London are depicted in detailed clarity, and almost take precedence over the activities of the human characters, who move through their devastated physical habitat in a state of dazed shock from the brutalities they have seen and survived.

This is a bleakly realistic depiction of the aftermath of World War II and its effect on an expatriate teenager and her divided family, split between France and England. It moved me deeply, though the characters frequently acted in obviously fictional ways. What the author has to say about the effects of war on those who survived it is believably real.

17-year-old Barbary Denison is an English girl who has been raised for many years in France under the custody of her divorced mother and French stepfather. Under the confusion of the German Occupation, Barbary has run wild and has not-so-secretly joined up with an adolescent branch of the resistance – she and her younger half-brother have lived the lives of semi-feral children, and have witnessed and taken part in activities much too old for their tender years. After the war ends, Barbary’s stepfather is mysteriously drowned in the ocean near the family villa; possibly in retaliation for his unenthusiastic but undeniable cooperation with the Germans. Barbary’s mother, a hedonistic artist much more in love with her second husband than anyone fully realizes, emotionally draws away from her children, though Barbary in particular worships her mother with fervent dedication. When it is suggested that Barbary return to England to live with her father, her mother acquiesces with what seems like relief.

The culture shock which Barbary faces in post-war London society is sudden and severe. Her upper-class father has remarried and has a young son; Barbary views her stepmother with scorn and refuses to take any sort of interest in her younger half-brother. Her aunt and cousins are at first amused at her brusqueness and mildly sympathetic – they too have suffered in the war – but Barbary’s sullen refusal to adapt soon turns sympathy into bare tolerance. Barbary falls in with a group of young men who are living a precarious life amongst the bombed-out houses; they survive by petty thefts and view the London police as bitter enemies to be evaded at every turn. Barbary finds in this ragged outlaw world an echo of her wartime life in France, and she enters into a tenuous relationship with these new companions, hiding her activities from her father under guise of studying at the Slade School of Art. He in turn is unwilling to dig too deeply into his daughter’s private life, feeling that giving her space and time will ultimately win her affection.

Tragedy strikes, and Barbary is found out; the consequences of her double life and the bringing together of her estranged parents lead to unexpected revelations, though the reader has had inklings all along of secrets too terrible to be told.

I’ve described this novel as “bleak”, but don’t let that put you off. It’s definitely a worthwhile read, and Rose Macaulay’s satirical wit is in fine working order here. If you liked Crewe Train, or The Towers of Trebizond (which I’ve just finished – very good indeed!) you will be thrilled with The World My Wilderness.

in spite of all terror hester burton 001In Spite of All Terror by Hester Burton ~ 1968.

This edition: Oxford University Press, 1970. Softcover. ISBN: 19-272011-2. 150 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This next novel is a slight thing compared to the two that preceded it in this post, but it has its merits as well, as a piece of memorable historical fiction. The author has based the story on her own recollections of 1940, when she was a was a 27-year-old Oxford-educated school teacher watching the evacuation of thousands of schoolchildren to the English countryside in preparation for the anticipated bombing of London.

Child of the slums, orphaned fifteen-year-old Liz Hawtin is a scholarship student at a girls’ grammar school; her evacuation in 1939 to the village of Chiddingford is a welcome development, as it spells her escape from the cold and critical aunt who has reluctantly taken on her sister-in-law’s child.

Taken into an aristocratic family, Liz realizes that her own intellectual ability, which is seen as so superior and is so deeply resented by Aunt Ag back in Nile Street, is no more than mediocre compared to the standard set by the intellectual and accomplished Bruton family. Recovering from that humbling hit to her self-esteem, Liz slowly becomes an accepted and valued member of the family, and gains self-confidence and renewed ambition as she is introduced to the greater world beyond her narrow London bounds.

The climactic event of the novel is the evacuation of the Dunkirk soldiers, which Liz experiences from the English side of the Channel. The episodes concerning Dunkirk from the viewpoint of one of the Bruton sons, and descriptions of the Blitz in London are what makes this slightly clichéd book stand out; the scenes are well-described and memorable.

Reading this book, I realize yet again what a wonderful thing well-written juvenile historical fiction can be. For though we all know the basic facts of events such as Dunkirk, it is the creative retellings we read in the impressionable days of our youth which bring so many of these events to life, opening up our minds to future exploration of history both through “adult” fiction and through first person accounts which perhaps are a bit too frank and detailed for a youthful audience.

I also appreciated the author’s refusal to neatly tidy up Liz’s story at the end of the book; we see her poised at the start of the next year in her life, on New Year’s Eve on the brink of 1941, knowing full well that what comes next may be far more challenging than the year she has just come through.

Hester Burton wrote eighteen novels, mostly historical fiction for youth, and she was noted for her meticulous research and her undeniable story-telling abilities. In Spite of All Terror was her sixth book. A vintage author to keep an eye out for if you have history-savvy teens, and for yourself as well. This was a fast read at only 150 pages, but despite its not-too-bothersome flaws (it was a bit too neat and tidy on occasion) it kept me interested all the way through, with abundant period detail adding value to the tale.

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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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