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.