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.