Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

I finished reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (published in  1876) to the Rigdons last week.  I accidentally called the book “Som Tawyer” once, a slip-up which brought the house down (elementary-aged kids are an easy crowd), so we referred to the book as such forever after.  Do I really need to give a plot summary of Som Tawyer?  The idea fills me with antsy-ness and boredom. 

Instead, some thoughts about our time in the book:

1.)    We dragged out Som Tawyer a little too long due to some holiday travelling interruptions.  This is usually the kiss of death with challenging literature. Momentum is key.  In fact, if you ever find yourself desiring to quit a book that you feel you should be enjoying with your kids, try committing to reading every day instead of letting it sprawl over weeks and weeks.  In this case, however, the Rigdons truly loved the story and had no trouble jumping back after multiple hiatuses.  I, on the other hand, felt like we lost a little something by breaking the flow.


2.)    I had to introduce the “N” word to my kids.  They had never heard it, and they did not understand how such a strange-sounding, nonsense word could be used as a verbal weapon of hatred.  We talked about Twain’s decision to use the word and worked through some of the implications.  If a writer creates a sympathetic, racist character, does it always mean the writer is a racist?  What is the difference between a racist person who writes books, a mean, racist character, an ignorant, racist character, and a racist book? How can we tell what we’re dealing with as readers?  I generally don’t censor books that I read aloud.  I’ve taught my kids a couple of curse words because the expletives came up in books we were reading, and I opted for a Grand Reveal (and discussion) rather than bastardizing the text and substituting a discordant Oh, phooey or something.  However, I couldn’t read the N word in the dialogue portions of Som Tawyer without clearing my throat, pausing, lowering my voice, and pronouncing it with nerdy, Minnesotan precision.  My kids would sit up straight and look at me with cocked heads like parakeets, confused by the broken cadence. So after a couple of tries, I substituted it for something else.  I felt weird reading the word and weird changing the word.  Weird, weird, weird.  What am I going to do when we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is up next?  The N-word usage is more ubiquitous in that one.  I don’t know.


3.)    We laughed and laughed throughout the book. My kids have already tucked Som Tawyer into the Super Hilarious Books file in their minds.  We doubled-back and reread many sections for sheer funniness.  However, my 11 year old daughter said, “There is something sad about Huck, though.”  And of course there is something sad about Huck, and to my mind, the whole novel Som Tawyer is mere preamble to Huckleberry Finn, which is the meatier, more shredding book by far. 


4.)    Twain’s sarcastic treatment of Christianity made me feel heavy this time through the book.  Not because I mind exposing my kids to atheistic thinking—on the contrary, I am a Christian mom who intentionally uses books to introduce and explore different philosophical paradigms.  Aren’t I progressive???  Nope.  More conservative than your great-grandma.  But Twain’s religious critiques (coming out of Tom’s mouth) didn’t sound as funny and thoughtful to me as they did when I read the book as a non-Mom.  They sounded sour and aggressive and made me want to stare out the window in silence.    


Read it or don’t read it.  But, come on--read it.  I mean, of course.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit

Last night, I finished reading The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit aloud to my kids.  I skipped The Phoenix and the Carpet in the Five Children series even though we own it.  I thought we’d get a little saturated with the series before it was over, and I wanted to read Amulet because it dealt with ancient cultures, and we are studying ancient cultures this cycle in Classical Conversations.

I liked Amulet for all the same reasons I liked Five Children.  The narrative voice was funnily distinct and—in this book—a little more thoughtful.  We found ourselves soberly nodding along with Nesbit when she said things like,
“But when [the children’s father] was gone [to be a war correspondent], everyone felt as if it had been trying not to cry all its life, and that it must cry now, if it died for it.  So they cried.” 

Felt as if it had been trying not to cry all its life... Yes, we’d all had that feeling.  That swollen bubble of sucked-in pain in the heart and throat.  The feeling that you’re ruining yourself permanently by keeping a normal look on your face.  We went on and on, rolling the idea around like a cherry cough drop.  You can imagine.

I love a good, sad line in a book.  It’s like running your tongue over a mouth sore or tapping on a bruise. 

In this book, the children discover a magic amulet that will give them their “hearts’ desire” if they can travel through time and find its missing half.  They enlist the aid of the psammead (the wish-granting sand fairy from the previous book) and of a learned gentleman boarder living upstairs.  With their help, the children zigzag throughout various ancient cultures and times—Egypt, Babylon, Rome—and hunt for the missing piece of the charm. 

As we read, we tried to identify and place the bits of true history that popped up, so that was fun. Funnish.  However, this book isn’t the kind of historical fiction that doubles as a stout history lesson.  More’s the pity, because everything I know about history I learned from historical fiction.  Historical fiction is like hiding broccoli in a bite of cheese.  But this book is light on historical facts, sprinkling them in like paprika to flavor the plot.  I’m always looking for ways to make novels count as an entire curriculum out of laziness, so I couldn’t help but resent this book just a tish for being an historical lightweight. 

I got kind of bogged down with the old, British schoolyard colloquialisms in this book. The kids’ taunts to each other, for instance, were so obscure and unfamiliar that I wasn’t sure how to make my voice sound while reading the dialogue.  Funny?  Mean?  Sad?  Anyway.  It made my brain hurt, but it wasn’t enough to cause my kids to lose interest.  They loved the book.  At the end, the children have to say goodbye to the psammead. 

“The psammead swelled itself up, turned its long snail’s eyes in one last lingering look at Anthea—a loving look, she always said, and thought—and—vanished.”

As I read this, I glanced up and saw Clara holding her hands to her cheeks, her face blanched with grief.  I had to swallow a laugh because, really, my kids are a boiled down version of me when it comes to their sprawling capacities for tragic feelings.  Good luck with that, kids.  Mommy’s sorry.

One other thing:  The children in the book use incorrect grammar sometimes. 

Ex: “It’s them!” cried Robert, and a thrill ran through four hearts.

It’s them.  Did Nesbit do that to make the kids sound realistic?  I’ve always imagined that well-bred children in England in 1906 used correct grammar, carried along by the culture, as it were.  You see incorrect usage all the time in contemporary books in both narrative and dialogue, but I assume this is because no one knows how to speak correctly, and editors don't want to alienate the audience.  Or creative license, or what-have-you.  But in a book written in 1906, what can it all mean?

This is how I spend my precious time, thinking about these things.

Anyway, another good, old book.  Give it a chance.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit

We just finished reading Five Children and It by E. Nesbit.  This book was first published in 1902.  I found three of the Five Children books in a secondhand bookstore in Charlottesville, VA. I love the shop so much.  It is everything a used bookstore should be—well-stocked, as quiet as the inside of a closed coffin, orderly, inexpensive.
The shopkeeper is gentle and serene, and she reminds me of my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Jorgenson—statuesque and placid, understated. A slim ring on the left hand, gold filigree earrings peeking through her hair like tints, clean nails with no polish. Her hair hangs in a shiny sheet to her chin.  She smells good—like clean, not like money.  She has foreign currency taped to her cash register because the coins and bills are “interesting and beautiful.” I always feel complicated around her, with my gooped-on eye makeup, my jangling earrings, my deranged zeal for her books, my intense personality humming like a frequency--a high whine that can be felt rather than heard.  (You think I don’t know?  I do know).  I look into her bovine eyes as I stack my books on her counter, and I just want to crawl in her lap and tell her all my problems and make promises about improving myself—about toning it down, and I mean it this time. 
Charlottesville is a beautiful place in general, and once we saw Dave Matthews corralling his children in an ice cream shop downtown as we all stood in line.  Later, my husband and I—both moderate DMB fans—tried to whip up some enthusiasm by cranking up “Satellite” from Under the Table and Dreaming in the car on the ride home.  This is the guy we met, kids!  This guy singing!  Our children were nonplussed.  

Our nine-year-old, Clara, said (and I quote) "Please turn down the chaos.  I'm trying to read."  Nerds, the lot of them.

Their reaction was contrasted with the one they gave the time we saw Andrew Pudewa give a talk on Classical Education in a Modern Age.  As they waited in line to meet him, they could do nothing but wipe their sweaty, itchy palms on their jeans, pace, and mentally plan their greeting to him.  He’s the guy on your DVDs, mom!  HE’S THE GUY!  (Don’t be fooled.  I was equally verklempt).  You might be a homeschooler if...

Back to E. Nesbit.  E. Nesbit was a woman, but I always forget this when I read her books because she sounds just like a man to me.  Not just any man.  This man:

I recently learned that C.S. Lewis considered E. Nesbit a key writing influence.  I like how I wrote that.  It sounds like I recently learned this fact as a result of hunting through some archives in a stately old library, when in reality, I read it on E. Nesbit’s Wiki page five seconds ago.  It gave me some satisfaction, however, because I have always said to myself, “She sounds so C.S. Lewisy...”  And now we know why.

In this book, five children discover a magic sand fairy—a Psammead—in a sandy chalk pit while vacationing in the English countryside.  The sand fairy is a crusty, unobliging little guy, but he is beholden to grant them one wish a day.  The children compile their mental resources to come up with wishes, but the task proves more difficult than they imagine.  Time after time, they fail to foresee the hidden implications of their wishes to be beautiful, rich, grown up.  The narrative voice is hilarious.  Nesbit refers to herself as the writer throughout the story, discussing her limitations as a storyteller and the way she knows kids are going to misinterpret what she is saying, etc.  The Rigdons were twisty with glee at the way she called attention to herself and threatened to burn away the magic shroud of story.  They sensed that her technique was irreverent?  provocative?  I don’t know a good word.  Shady.  Humorously shady.  Like a bad but fun babysitter who lets you make prank calls and eat junk.

Several people have asked me for book recommendations for read alouds, and I never know if the books I like will be crowd-pleasers for other families.  But this book will be.  You’ll like it.  If you like C.S. Lewis’s style (and if you homeschool, I know you do, because reading the Narnia books and loving them is part of the Homeschool Secret Handshake without which we do not let you in), you’ll dig E. Nesbit.  We're currently reading another Nesbit book at The Rigdons' request.  I wanted to read Black Beauty next.  But no.  The Story of the Amulet it is.

Gore Vidal wrote about her in the December 1965 issue of The New York Review of Books.  You are welcome to read his essay, but I forbid you to prefer it over this blog post.  Now go buy some Nesbit from my kindergarten-teacher-shopkeeper.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Rainbow Valley by L. M. Montgomery

After Frankenstein, the kids and I needed to cleanse our palates with some sunshine and rainbows.  We decided to resume L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series we’d begun last summer.  We had read Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, and Anne of Windy Poplars.  Technically, we should’ve read Anne’s House of Dreams next, but I wasn’t in the mood. Rainbow Valley, though the seventh book in the series, was published fifth, so I felt the choice to read it next was respectable.  

I love L.M. Montgomery.  Much of my twelfth year of life was spent emerging from an emotional chrysalis wherein I was indistinct from Anne. We were one, she and I. 

I thought her thoughts. 

I loved her man. 

It was a dark day when I woke up and realized I was just a girl with big bangs living in Minnesota in the 1980s.  And Gilbert...but no.  I won’t go back.

A few words about L.M. Montgomery:  One, I recently learned that she published the first of the Anne series when she was 34.  I will be 33 in October, so this tidbit brought me low.  Imagine coughing out Anne of Green Gables at the dewy, impressionable age of 34.  One hardly counts as an adult at that age.  One cannot be expected to produce greatness.  One is too busy dealing with one’s three children and cutting open one’s proverbial veins in order to nourish them in the ways of great thinkers to put pen to paper.  Wait.  What are we talking about?  Back to Maud.
Two, in 2008, the story broke that Maud very likely committed suicide, and that an overdose and not a coronary thrombosis killed her in April of 1942.  I bring this up for two reasons.  A.) Why should I bear it alone?  B.) I felt a sad surge of understanding.  Here and there, her writing opens up to reveal potholes of cold disappointment with God—more in Rainbow Valley than in any other of her novels. I always suspected there was more rattling around in the expanse of her heart than poesy and mirth.  I like her better for it, though my mind loops dismally around the notion of her suicide like a person with a lock-checking disorder.   What? After Anne, she what? How, after Anne? Again, from the top:  What?

Rainbow Valley (published in 1939) tells the story of Anne’s and Gilbert’s children—primarily the oldest four—and their spirited dealings with the nearby children of the local manse.   When the manse children happen upon a platinum-haired, light-eyed waif in an old barn, they open their homes and hearts to uncouth, irreverent Mary Vance.  Mary swaggers around, mangling the truth and causing trouble while simultaneously musing about the inscrutability of the Divine in a way that captures the ethos of the west during the decade leading up to World War I.   My son, Jack, felt that there was a dose of Davy from Anne of Avonlea in the character of Mary Vance—if Davy were crossed with something more aggressive and annoying.  I thought this was an interesting observation because Davy, too, pondered the painful mysteries of God’s ways and delivered them with the jolly directness of a scrappy, enterprising orphan.  The critique of Christianity, if there is one (and I think there is), lies under layers of childishness, ignorance, confusion, and funny sass.  It’s difficult to make out, and it is difficult to know exactly what it means coming from the pen of a Presbyterian minister’s wife.  The Rigdons and I had a whale of a time picking through the many references to God, human suffering, Christian culture and denominationalism, etc.  And by “The Rigdons and I,” I mean I.  The kids were beating their heads against my pine headboard and begging me to get back to the story.

Where is the sunshine, where are the rainbows, you ask?  The book is full of funny dialogue, childish mischief, and small acts of heroism.  L. M. Montgomery writes the sweet, jumbled minds of children better than anyone, and my kids loved it.  Ten zillion stars.  Read the whole set.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

So, Frankenstein.  We finished it. 

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816 as part of a ghost story contest between herself, her step-sister Claire, her hubs Percy Shelley, Byron (as in Lord Byron), and Byron’s doctor.  Don’t know how Claire and the doctor managed to weasel their way into that group.  In introducing the book to my kids, I played up these facts:  A) The book was written by a woman, and B) the story is essentially a ghoulish campfire tale.  The Rigdons were jazzed from go—clearly energized by the thought that I must be getting soft in my old age since I was allowing them to slum with subject matter a la R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps.

Frankenstein is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus.”  I started to explain about the myth of Prometheus, but my daughter, Madeline, interrupted and claimed to know.  She cleared her throat and said, “Prometheus was a magicky guy who created people out of clay, and he gave them the gift of fire, and this bugged Zeus—Mom, Zeus is a god—so Zeus sent an eagle to eat his liver, only his liver grew back every day. So, you know.  He never got done with the pain. That’s basically the whole problem.”  (I don’t know how she knows about this particular myth.  She said she “read about it at Barnes and Noble.”  Honey, thank you for homeschooling yourself so Mommy can rest.  Keep up the good work.  PS:  I know about Zeus).

The book opens with a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost.  In it, Adam asks God the following:

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my Clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me, or here place
In this delicious Garden?...”

 I read the quote three times, offering no explanation.  I wanted to see if my non-native language-of-literature speakers would be able to decode it.  My eight year old son, Jack, summed it up:  “It’s a person saying to God ‘did I ask you to make me and put me in this garden?’” 

How ‘bout them apples?!  Hee--eey!  Hoo--ooh!

But then I was like Who do you think is saying it—what person did God place in a garden? You know...he was married to ‘Eve’?  And Jack pinched the top of his nose and was like Aw man, what was that guy’s name again....?  And then I felt subdued.  Note to self:  Read Genesis to the kiddies again.

Frankenstein is an epistolary novel, and it opens with a letter from Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville.  Walton is a young man looking for adventure, and while on an Arctic seafaring exploration, he rescues a seriously bedraggled Victor Frankenstein from a piece of floating ice. Walton and his crew nurse Frankenstein back to quasi-health, and in the course of time, Walton hears Frankenstein’s strange, sad tale—the details of which Walton recounts to his sister in a series of letters. 

Turns out, Victor Frankenstein is a scientist whose love of “natural philosophy” and desire for personal glory have fueled him to pursue the creation of a “rational creature” akin to man and to imbue him with “animation,” or the spark of life.  Walton learns that Frankenstein has assembled a big, old, ugly humanish body from pieces of corpses he got from raiding graves.  Frankenstein admits that he grossed himself out doing this, but he was driven by a fevered passion that he couldn’t control.  Exactly how he brought the patchwork body to life, he won’t say, lest anyone copy his method and bring upon themselves the misery he has endured as a result of his creation. 

When my nine year old daughter, Clara, heard this, she muttered, “Well, that’s cheap.”

Yes, yes it is cheap.  Cheap storytelling.  Not that I’ll hear a word against the book from you, young lady.

Somehow, Frankenstein is unprepared for the horror that he feels upon seeing his “monster” awaken.  The Rigdons’ disdain for Frankenstein on this point was palpable. They really let the epithets fly. Moron!  Jerk!  Weakling!  Butt-Butt-Face!  One of the fun parts about character analysis for my children is that I allow them to say every mean thing about a disappointing character that they want to say to real people but can’t.  It’s cathartic.  Anyway, Frankenstein wigs out and leaves his infant-minded creature alone in the city.

Later in the book, Frankenstein describes an encounter he has with the monster when they meet up in an icy mountain cave.  The monster explains his feelings of abandonment and confusion at being so categorically rejected by his creator.  The description of his inner transformation from a lover of virtue to a vehicle of viciousness is haunting and, I thought, a contemporary picture of what happens when children are unloved.

“...[I] bore a hell within me; and, finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin."

At this, Jack hung his head with the campy dejection of a sad mime on a New York street corner and said, “I am feeling very angry.  To the monster, Frankenstein was like a mother and God. And what if your mother and God did not love you because you were ugly? That would be the terriblest thing.”

Madeline was also moved:  “Ugliness is alarming, and that is the truth.  But you should never, ever make something you aren’t willing to love.”  My heart was too big for my chest.  Oh, the sweet profundity.

Clara added softly:  “...I hate the Monster’s skinny black lips.  I just don’t know why he has to have those lips...”

Madeline gave Clara a stern look:  “Well, Frankenstein should make himself stare at the Monster’s lips until they no longer have any effect on him.  That’s what I’d do, and that’s what you’d do.”

Twisted and bruised by repeated rejection, the monster becomes a “monster on the inside”—giving himself over to murderous behavior that is as ugly as his face.  He dedicates his life to subjecting his maker to the same despair and loss that he has experienced. 

I have to stop, because this is already too long for a blog post, and you and I both know you started skimming a long time ago.  If I had more time, I’d regale you with our discussions about 19th century Romanticism, and existential despair, and all the many allusions to Paradise Lost.  I’d tell you about how we constantly tallied up how many “layers deep in story” we were (the monster is telling a story to Frankenstein who is telling a story to Walton who is telling a story to Margaret, and Mary Shelley is telling *that whole story* to us and right now, we are in God’s mind, characters in *His* story...).   It was wonderful.  I love this book, and I will never forget the sweet hours I spent soaking in it with my babies.  I give it five thousand stars.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

In Defense of Hard Books

I decided to follow Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  I had read the book twice before, and I expected it to be challenging, although in all honesty, I had forgotten just how dense and layered it is.  No question:  This book was over my children’s heads.  It was too hard, if perfect understanding were our goal.  So why did I bother muddling through it?  In fact, why bother with the hard books in elementary school?  Don’t we want to foster a love of reading in kids by allowing them to dive in and out of easy books like slick seals in a climate-controlled, predator-free tank at the zoo? You know—get them hooked.  Reading is fun!  Kind of like a little TV in your mind! Why not save the dry stuff for high school? 

I could be wrong, but here is why I approach reading the way I do.  Well, the actual reason is because I am the kind of homeschooler who does what she feels like doing and then scrambles to find reasons to support it.  I’m a big reader, and I always knew I’d have a bibliophilistic homeschool and that—let’s be frank—we’d read books Mommy likes. And Mommy likes the hard stuff.  (Read into that what you will).  But I have scraped together another reason for giving hard books a chance.
Without further ado.
A few months ago, I was sitting in an Aveda salon getting my hair returned to its (as far as you know) natural  dark chestnut color.  The woman working on my hair was a glossy Latina with large, almond eyes.  She was beautiful in a Disney princess way with waist-length hair and a dewy coffee complexion. I started talking to her about her life, and in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, we were BFFs.  In response to my assault of personal questions, she told me the story of how she came to learn English after moving to the USA from a tiny, poor town in rural Mexico. 

She described giving cheap haircuts at The Hair Cuttery in north Richmond and listening to the incomprehensible chatter of English around her.  She said she understood one or two words at first, mostly English vocabulary words she’d learned in school.  As weeks passed, she learned more words pertaining to her trade because these words were important to her, words like keratin, cuticle, and protein.  Before long, she could understand the gist of most conversations she overheard, although she still lacked the ability to create the sentences herself. At home, when no one was watching, she would say phrases and sentences to herself in the mirror, practicing until she matched the speed and inflection she heard around her.  At the time of our conversation, she was five years into her journey to English fluency, and I felt no barrier to communication at all.  She even laughed at all my jokes, which were intended, as usual, to amuse only those with keen, nuanced wits and the most highly-developed vocabularies (just go with it).  
My point:  My Aveda girl is fluent, and she got that way by listening in on other people’s conversations while she trimmed bangs and waxed eyebrows.  She wanted to participate in the story around her, so she paid attention and learned to imitate the words and patterns.  No question:  Initially, the conversations were over her head.  They were too hard, if perfect understanding were her goal.  (Don’t you love my poignant parallelism?  I am like a black preacher, minus the stirring content).  Aveda girl let herself marinate in the language, grabbing what she could, feeling her understanding expand. 

I believe that children become fluent in the language of English literature in the same way that people pick up foreign languages—by listening, fighting for snippets of understanding, getting the gist of paragraphs even if the vocabulary is a bit over their heads.  Because I want my children to be fluent in the language of John Milton, William Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot, I insist that they “overhear” the great conversations of classic literature.  I read over their heads on purpose.  I do it all the livelong day. (Anything to avoid getting off the couch).  In fact, I rarely ever read a book to them that they would choose to read on their own at their current ages.  It's a mean little rule I have.

Upon the first reading of Frankenstein, my eight year old son was able to ferret out the plot, even though I am certain many of the individual sentences were almost exclusively comprised of words he couldn’t define.  His ear adapted to the cadences of nineteenth century writing, just as my Aveda girl’s ear adapted to southern American English, with all its colloquialisms, diphthongs, and obscurities.  The truth is, it is not difficult to sift through dense language and extract the plot of a story.  We all have an ear for stories.  Stories follow patterns, and children are particularly adept at sniffing out what’s going on.  Ever had one of your children listen in on your side of a phone conversation that was intended for your older sister’s ears only just to have him give you a devastatingly accurate play-by-play of the conversation later on?  Yeah, me neither. But it has happened to a friend, which is how I know.

Of course, understanding the plot of a great story is only the beginning of unpacking its value, but it is a good first goal.  When we read Frankenstein, or Treasure Island, or Tom Sawyer, or even Anne of Green Gables or The Hobbit, we are seeking to answer the question “And then what happened...?”  We may define some words, explore some themes, but we’re in it for the story for now.  There will be time to analyze, dissect, and criticize the great stories later.  In the meantime, I want my kids to be fluent in the language so that, someday, they can join the conversation.
Review of Frankenstein up next.  For real this time.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Rascal by Sterling North

This review is a re-post from my old book blog.  I'm buying myself time, as my review of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a little more involved.  Stay tuned, however. It is coming soon to a theater near you.  Perhaps it is a good time for me to clarify what I mean when I say I review old books. This is what 'old' means for our purposes:  old means quite a bit older than I am.  As a result, I am always--by definition--nowhere near old.  Sterling North was born in 1906; hence, I'm including this review of his boyhood memoir, Rascal.  I read it to my children awhile ago.  Maybe months, maybe a couple of years.  Who can keep track?  I am a stay-at-home mom.  A day is a week is a month is a year is a lifetime.

Here's a picture of Sterling North, looking not-that-old-at-all.  How cute is he?

In Rascal, North recalls his adventures raising an orphaned raccoon kit near Lake Koshkonong in the backwoods of Wisconsin during World War I. The narrative unfolds with a kind of unhurried chronology, winding along the months of one calendar year. North's impish raccoon, Rascal, is the source of many charming and funny anecdotes; however, the book's themes broaden, touching on naturalism, death (both private death, as Sterling processes the loss of his mother and national bereavement, as he matures against the backdrop of war), loyalty, abandonment, and love.

North describes his affection for Rascal with aching detail. The warmth and fervor that mark North's allegiance to Rascal contrast with the diplomatic detachment he shows when describing his father's benign neglect and intellectual absorption. We see North stumbling toward adulthood, clinging to the companionship of a wild animal as his father leaves him alone for weeks at a time. As spring approaches and Rascal begins to grow discontent with captivity, we see the fruit of North's stout, selfless love and his tender rationality.

The language in the book is rich, stately, and evocative. We read it slowly, pausing to supply definitions and to marinate in the spare imagery. I appreciated North's cheerful tenacity as a boy. He set a good example for taking joy in hard, creative work. Also, the World War I references are colorful and illustrative of the period. My nine year old made several historical connections as we read. I highly recommend dusting off this 1964 Newbery Winner. 

PS:  Isn't it weird that the word 'Newbery' has only one r?  Doesn't it bug your eyes?  No?  Okay.

PPS:  Ever wonder what it takes to win a Newbery Medal?  Check this out.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

I just finished reading Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson aloud to my kids. I had no interest in the book beyond the fact that it is a classic that I hadn’t read, and it promised to be full of the kind of deviance and hijinks that my children usually appreciate in a story.  According to my mentor, the Internet, Treasure Island was first published as a book in 1883.  Prior to that, it was serialized. Stevenson—by that time tubercular and weak--wrote the story in order to amuse his stepson, Lloyd, while convalescing at a health resort in the Swiss Alps.  I thought that was kind of cozy and tragic, and I hearkened back to the image of wheezy Robert cuddled up with little Lloyd, the Alps hulking in the background, to fuel myself along. 
I don’t love adventure stories.  Within the genre of adventure stories, I particularly dislike seafaring adventure stories because I don’t understand most of the technical jargon and I never feel sure of what is going on.  I felt daunted by Treasure Island because of all the ship-lingo, but a friend of mine recently told me that he’d read it for “personal development.”  I am flinchy about being left behind in these readerly ways, so I resolved to read it, Googling my way along if need be.

Need did be, as it turned out.  If you ever need to know what a spit, a keel, or a coxswain is, please feel free to ask me.

The story opens in an inn—the ‘Admiral Benbow’--in a port town in England.  A couple and their kid, Jim Hawkins, own the place.  As you may recall, a rum-guzzling creeper takes up residence at the inn.  His name is Billy Bones, and he skulks around, boozing it up and terrorizing the locals and singing fifteen men on the dead men’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, and—of course--Jim’s dad is super sick, so the family can’t afford to kick Billy Bones out.
[insert sad chord]. 

Regularly, Billy Bones is beset by dark paranoia regarding a one-legged man, and during these episodes, he beseeches Jim to help him keep watch lest the dangerous peg-leg discover his whereabouts and steal his treasure.   I forgot to mention: Billy Bones has a treasure chest in his room.  But you knew this without my having to tell because you saw Muppet Treasure Island, same as I did. 

Billy Bones drinks like a fish and generally abuses himself, and the one-legged man may, or may not, pay him a visit.  Don’t want to ruin it for you. Before long, fate intervenes, and Jim Hawkins finds himself in possession of a treasure map formerly belonging to Billy Bones.  Although he is young and inexperienced, he joins a crew of seasoned sailors who embark on a quest to find the booty.  A booty call, in the literal sense.  Hahahaoooohkay.  However, all is not what it seems aboard the Hispaniola, and Jim discovers that more is at stake than hidden treasure!
[insert scary chord}.

Treasure Island is a slim book, and it took us about one week to finish.  The Rigdons loved it—thought it was hilarious and delightfully nerve-wracking—and they were sorry to see it end. They said it put them in the mood to watch Swiss Family Robinson.  So there you have it.  I am happy to check it off my list.  Happy reading to you all.