Classics

Lark Rise to Candleford: Food for the Soul

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I invite you to enjoy this guest post by my dear friend and college roommate, Wendy Robinson of Virginia:

Lark Rise to Candleford is part memoir, part history, and a lovely tale of growing up in the English countryside. The volume contains three books: Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, and Candleford Green.

The story celebrates all the tiny details of nature, first through a child’s eyes and later through those of a young woman. The author, Flora Thompson, relished and observed all the little things in the hedgerows, and in the woods, and in village life before the turn of the century. She understood this village life on an intimate level, both the harshness of poverty, having lived alongside it, and the beauty of its industrious, self-sufficient inhabitants, and she wrote beautiful descriptions of the surrounding landscapes and farms that tie the book together like a thread.

It begins in a hamlet called Lark Rise where a young girl named Laura lives with her brother in the ‘end house’:

“Looking at the hamlet from a distance, one house would have been seen, a little apart, and turning its back on its neighbors, as though about to run away into the fields. It was a small grey stone cottage, with a thatched roof, a green-painted door and a plum tree trained up the wall to the eaves.”

Laura’s world moves from this isolated hamlet to the larger town of Candleford and eventually to a village called Candleford Green as we see her become a young woman through the three stories.

This was a time when men worked on the land, sang at their work and, for the most part, enjoyed their labor:

“There was a good deal of outdoor singing in those days. Workmen sang at their jobs; men with horses and carts sang on the road … even the doctor and parson hummed a tune between their teeth. People were poorer and had not the comforts, amusements, or knowledge we have to-day; but they were happier. Which seems to suggest that happiness depends more upon the state of mind — and body, perhaps — than upon circumstances and events.”

For modern day readers it is a beautiful picture of life right on the edge of the Industrial Revolution. On this side of it, we see all that we have lost. For an older reader like myself it is to be reminded of my own grandmother’s stories from her childhood only a few decades removed from Laura’s. I was surprised to see that many of the songs and games the children played were the same ones Grandma taught us. She also told similar tales of the wild outdoor freedom and responsibilities (and dangers) that children enjoyed – and today’s children may never know. I was blessed to grow up in a small semi-rural town where it was safe to explore the woods and meadows, and I love this book because it took me back to those memories. In these living history essays, you may even be able to trace shades of the old ways through your own family’s story.

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George Vicat Cole “A Surrey Countryside”

The book brims with the domestic details of everyday life and vivid descriptions of the hamlet homes:

“Old Sally’s was a long, low, thatched cottage with diamond-paned windows winking under the eaves and a rustic porch smothered in honeysuckle.” Her kitchen: “…with pots & pans and a big red crockery water vessel at one end, and potatoes in sacks and peas and beans spread out to dry at the other. The apple crop was stored on racks suspended beneath the ceiling and bunches of herbs dangled below”

“Inside Freddy Ashley’s home all was peace and quiet and spotless purity. The walls were freshly whitewashed, the table and board floor were scrubbed to a pale straw colour… Freddy was helping his mother make biscuits, cutting the pastry she had rolled into shapes with a little tin cutter. Their two faces, both so plain and yet so pleasant, were close together above the pasteboard, and their two voices as they bade Laura come in and sit by the fire sounded like angels’ voices after the tumult outside. It was a brief glimpse into a different world from the one she was accustomed to, but the picture remained with her as something quiet and pure and lovely. She thought that the home at Nazareth must have been something like Freddy’s.”

The author’s descriptions of their vegetable and flower gardens are also charming and poignant:

“The garden was a large one … Nearer the cottage were fruit trees, then the yew hedge, close and solid as a wall, which sheltered the beehives and enclosed the flower garden, Sally had such flowers and all of them sweet-scented! It seemed as though all the roses in Lark Rise had gathered together in that one garden.”

“As well as their flower garden, the women cultivated a herb corner, stocked with thyme and parsley, and sage for cooking, rosemary to flavor the home-made lard, lavender to scent the best clothes…”

While the first book, Lark Rise, is full of images of everyday life, the second book, Over to Candleford, depicts how Laura’s world opens up when she begins to spend her summer holidays with her cousins in a neighboring town, eight miles away. The final book, Candleford Green, sees Laura off to her new life as an assistant in a village Post Office.

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first published in 1939

But Laura never loses her love for her humble upbringing or her heart for nature; she moves out into the world with youthful hope, never forgetting what it was to have her shoes ‘powdered yellow with buttercup pollen’, to see the copses full of bluebells and the water-meadows with cowslips or the warm-hearted faces of the people she knew. She carries the picture with her and is able to call up at will the beauty maybe only she recognized there.

Read it slowly, outside in the warm sunshine, where you can hear the wind in the trees and you may be able to catch a glimpse of it, too.

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Flora Thompson 1876-1947

“ Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford is a much-loved classic that has been read in various ways. For some it is an artless childhood memoir set in an Oxfordshire village in the 1880s. For others it is a lament for England’s peasantry, destroyed by mechanisation and modern farming. Richard Mabey’s expert, exploratory book sees it, rather, as a sophisticated work of fiction, part-fact, part-imagined, that was the crowning achievement of a self-taught working-class woman who transformed herself, by sheer determination, into a successful author. (“Dreams of the Good Life: The Life of Flora Thompson and the Creation of Lark Rise to Candleford by Richard Maybe”,  review  by John Carey, The Sunday Times, London, UK, February 23, 2014)

 

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Categories: British novels, Classics, Girl Fiction, Historical Fiction, Inspiration | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Silver Chair – A Newcomer Arrives in Narnia

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The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe may be the most familiar of the seven Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, but it is not necessarily the most thrilling. That honor belongs to The Silver Chair, the sixth book in chronological order, a tale of daring rescue, escape from man-eating giants, and being in over one’s head to fulfill a call.

In this Narnia adventure, the four Pevensies (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) have not been drawn by Aslan in His world; instead their unappealing cousin, Eustace Scrubb, enters the magical land with his classmate, Jill Pole. As you may know, Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader made a complete change and has become a new person. This has become evident to his school acquaintance, Jill, and is expressed by Eustace himself in the following humble and humorous fashion: “Then wash out last term if you can,” said Eustace. “I was different then, I was –gosh! What a little tick I was.”

This pair of unlikely heroes is joined by a new creature -one from C.S. Lewis’ fertile imagination, a Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum from Ettinsmore who is all gangly limbs and pessimistic predictions.

 

silver chair 4The trio’s impossible mission is to locate the missing Prince, heir to the throne of Narnia and son of the aged King Caspian.   But Rilian disappeared without a trace over ten years earlier and their quest is fraught with mystery and both subtle and horrifying dangers.

Jill Pole as a newcomer to Narnia has no experience with Aslan, the Lion who rules this world. He is not a tame lion and she knows this instinctively in her first face to face encounter with Aslan.  His prone and majestic form lies between her and the stream she so desperately needs to drink from:

“If you are thirsty, you may drink.” …and the voice was not like a man’s. It was deeper, wilder and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way.”

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer; “ I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

Once she approaches and drinks, Aslan gives her the instructions for the quest: “I lay on you this command, that you seek this lost prince until either you have found him and brought him to his father’s house else died in the attempt, or else gone back to your own world.”

Jill is given the responsibility to remember four signs to guide the rescuers in their quest. Aslan gives Jill a stern command: “Repeat the signs to remember them. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs.”

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As you might imagine, Jill does not have the maturity or faith to fulfill her duty and what happens next is a series of misadventures that ultimately lead them into great peril. Join Puddleglum, Eustace, and Jill as they encounter giants from the House of Harfang, the sinister Lady of the Green Kirtle, a mysterious knight in black armor, and gnomes from the Land of Bism.

I recommend the trade paperback edition (256 pages) published in 2000 by Harper Collins with its beautiful full color illustrations by Pauline Baynes.

The Narnia Chronicles in chronological order: The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, and The Last Battle.

The Silver Chair was originally published in 1953 and is 4th in publication order. The website http://www.narnia.com features an interview of C.S. Lewis’ step-son Douglas Gresham who gives an update about the movie version of The Silver Chair.

 

 

Categories: British novels, Children's Books, Christian Fiction, Classics, Fantasy, Humorous, Inspiration, Read Aloud, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Adventure on the High Seas: Horatio Hornblower saga

11334531-_uy200_Are you ready to enter the naval world of the Napoleonic Wars between England and France? Sea battles, duels of honor, consummate seamanship, and heroic deeds leap from the pages of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower saga.

It is 1793 and 17-year-old Horatio Hornblower is an untried lowly midshipman in Her Majesty’s Navy. His first adventures at sea, in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, quickly reveal his dauntless courage and lightning quick strategic thinking. In his eleven-volume saga, C.S. Forester develops this fascinating main character and reveals the complexity of French and British conflicts during the Napoleonic Wars. This complex yet compassionate character has endeared himself to many readers.

Written in the early part of the 20th century, how did C.S. Forester (1899-1966) reconstruct British naval life so realistically? The Library of Congress article on the author’s life offers an answer:

“In 1927, C.S. Forester purchased three volumes of The Naval Chronicle from 1790 to 1820. For the Chronicle, officers of the Royal Navy wrote articles on strategy, seamanship, gunnery, and other professional topics of interest to their colleagues. The Chronicle for those years covered the wars with Napoleon. Reading these volumes and traveling by freighter from California to Central America allowed the germination of the character Horatio Hornblower as a member of the Royal Navy in the late eighteenth century.

By the time Forester’s journey brought him home to England, the former medical student-turned-writer had plotted Beat to Quarters, and it was published in 1937. A Ship of the Line and Flying Colours were published soon after, and in 1939 all three appeared as Captain Horatio Hornblower. Forester’s interest in the Romantic period and the political and military maneuvers of the early 1800s continued, and the Hornblower saga was produced.

Subsequent volumes in the series were sequels to the original trilogy or filled in its gaps. The episodic quality of the novels is due partly to their having appeared serially in magazines, primarily the Saturday Evening Post.” https://www.loc.gov/nls/bibliographies/minibibs/horatio.html

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Reading historical novels set on the sea can be a challenge with so many unfamiliar, almost archaic, English words embedded in the text. However, it is possible to avoid referring to one’s dictionary when the reader’s “comprehending in context” skills are put to use. My 17-year-old daughter, Rachel, explained her ability to understand the first book’s language:

“Within the context it was like I was constantly learning the words, and it almost always made sense. I understood what the seaman was doing with the ship’s rope and which way the ship was moving. I loved this book because it was an unusual setting and the adventure was so delightful.”

In 1951, an original motion picture, Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring Gregory Peck, was produced. More recently (1998-2003) A & E created an 8-part series of the stories with Ioan Gruffudd, the British actor, cast as the beloved hero.

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The Hornblower Saga in chronological order: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Lieutenant Hornblower, Hornblower and the Hotspur, Hornblower During the Crisis, Hornblower and the Atropos, Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, Flying Colors, Commodore Hornblower, Lord Hornblower, and Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies.

 

Categories: British novels, Classics, Historical Fiction, Inspiration, Romantic Fiction, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

The Witch of Blackbird Pond – Historical fiction for young and old

witch of blackbird pond“No, writing is not lonely. It is a profession crowded with life and sound and color. I feel privileged to have had a share in it.” —Elizabeth George Speare

Elizabeth George Speare was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, on November 21, 1908 and lived all her life in New England. She described her early writing days and the development of her first novel, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (the 1959 Newbery Award winner):

I turned naturally to the things which had filled my days and thoughts and began to write magazine articles about family living. Then one day I stumbled on a true story from New England history with a character who seemed to me an ideal heroine. Though I had my first historical novel almost by accident it soon proved to be an absorbing hobby.” Elizabeth George Speare (1908-1994)

The result was a deeply layered reading experience with a vivid heroine, Kit Tyler, who is imperfect and endearing. In1687, Kit, an orphan, loses both home and guardian when her grandfather dies and his estate on the Caribbean island of Barbados defaults to his creditors. She must sail to Connecticut colony to live with her Aunt Rachel who has married a staunch Puritan, Matthew Wood.

On the voyage up the Atlantic seaboard, Kit makes friends with the sea captain’s son, Nat Eaton, as well as a serious young minister, John Holbrook, also heading for the same town. Later, William Ashby, son of the richest man in town becomes a suitor approved by Kit’s Uncle Matthew.

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I remember thoroughly enjoying the romance woven into the tale when I first read the novel as a young teen. Recently, when I read the book to my own daughters, I found myself using the story and its characters to give them a life lesson on finding a compatible marriage partner.

Despite the kindness of her relatives, willful, spoiled, lonesome Kit cannot seem to adjust to Puritan life and suffers greatly. She finds solace in the meadows outside the town, and soon meets Hannah, an old Quaker woman who has been ostracized for her different beliefs and lives a serene and misunderstood life far from the town and surrounding farms.

“Tis a strange thing, that the only friends I have I found in the same way, lying flat in the meadows, crying as if their hearts would break.” (Hannah)

While their friendship brings Kit much joy, it also later leads to peril as Kit is accused of witchcraft.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is not a historical lesson on 17th century witch hunts disguised as fiction. The setting and time period are well researched, but the complex plot and the characters’ growth brings this young adult novel to life and earns it my highest rating and recommendation for children 10 and older and adults who either missed it in their youth or want to re-read it.

Other young adult fiction titles by Elizabeth George Speare:

The Bronze Bow

The Sign of the Beaver

Calico Captive

Categories: Children's Books, Classics, Girl Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romantic Fiction, Uncategorized, young adult fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Plan Ahead for Summer Reading

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s almost summertime and I am pushing my “read more” agenda again! Here are some specific ideas for getting more from your reading this summer:

1) Read more – set higher personal reading goals! Summer reading is a special experience because is often takes place out of doors, on a beach or a porch swing. We can allow ourselves a large allocation of time to read during this season because our routine is changing as we welcome our children home from school and make vacation plans.

My goal: Read a minimum of an hour a day June -August.

2) Connect with others in your reading! Reading is not a solitary happening, but a satisfying conduit for building common experiences. Use your inner circle’s reading recommendations – children, spouses, parents, librarians, and friends. Target your children’s favorite book and watch their pleasure as you become familiar with the plots and characters they love.

My goal: Read The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

See! A boy is reading in this candid photo.

See! A boy is reading in this candid photo.

3) Stretch your mental muscles! All have the capacity to enjoy a classic book. Although there is no harm in seeking a “light” read; the mental challenge in reading classic literature propels you into new depths — past the shallow water of superficial plots and stereotypical characters.

My goal: Read The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

4) Re-read a childhood favorite! Go down memory lane and enjoy that classic children’s book again. Perhaps a family member might join you in this endeavor, but even when you read something independently, you can still take time to share excerpts that you felt most impacted by; whether it be humorous, serious, or touching.

My goal: Read Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne.4cd2e-the_sweetness_at_the_bottom_of_the_pie

5) Listen to an audio version of a book! On a family car trip or even during your mundane work commute, pop in an audio book and enjoy a good story as the miles roll by.  As a side effect, if your children are listening too, audio versions of books allow them to participate and experience literature above their own reading level.

My goal: Listen to the fourth book in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, I am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley (Book #1 is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – all the books are narrated splendidly by Jayne Entwhistle)

6) Be a good reading example to others! Maybe this summer is the time to read purely for enjoyment. Others watch what you do more than what you say, so if you especially want your spouse or children to pick up a book in their spare time, – to “read for pleasure” – as the phrase goes, then you must do the same.  Show them by example that reading isn’t always work!

My goal: to put up my feet in the daytime and read when the chores are not yet done.

7) Hit the library! Make use of your tax dollars and browse the local library for good ideas and free books to borrow. Library summer reading programs for kids and adults help direct our goals to increase reading with their prizes and recognition.

My goal: Sign us all up for the Dauphin County Library summer reading program on June 1st.

da69a-girl-reading1So, enjoy some special reading adventures this summer and please tell me about them!

Categories: Autobiography, Biography, British novels, Chick lit, Children's Books, Christian Fiction, Classics, Fantasy, Girl Fiction, Historical Fiction, Humorous, Inspiration, Mystery, Read Aloud, Romantic Fiction, Uncategorized, young adult fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Don’t Go Alone

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (African proverb)

Lord of the RingsThis is my 58th Pine needles and Paper trails blog post and I am finally writing about my favorite book of all time. Why did I put off publicly declaring my eternal love for the Lord of the Rings trilogy? Most likely because I was certain my limited vocabulary and imperfect writing could never do justice to J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece.

Here goes.

The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the trilogy entitled “The Lord of the Rings”, was first published in 1954 by J.R.R. Tolkien, a literary giant and a close friend of C.S. Lewis (“The Chronicles of Narnia”). These men produced fantasy stories that profoundly impacted their own generation and ours, and set the bar high for all fantasy writers who came after them.

If you enjoyed the movies directed by Peter Jackson, many more delights await you in the novels. In my opinion, the movies were brilliantly cast and filmed with breathtaking cinematography, but were disappointingly truncated because this tale is so intricate.

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Entire characters, locations, and action in the narrative were ruthlessly hacked off on the cinematic chopping block, never to be brought to life on the silver screen. I understand the filmmaker’s limitations. However, to honor Tolkien’s life work, we simply must read the entire narrative (or listen to an unabridged audio version).

I love the way Tolkien develops each character and shows the reader the complex relationships between them. One example of this rich character development is that the first “fellowship” in The Fellowship of the Ring consists of the hobbits who band together to take the Ring from its hidden life in the Shire to Rivendell to gain the wisdom of elves and men.

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Frodo Baggins, our unlikely hero, believes he must go alone and tries to sneak off on his journey, bravely risking his life. However, the original story directly contradicts the movie scenes because his hobbit friends conspire to help him: loyal Samwise (“Sam”) Gamgee and three other hobbits: Meriadoc (“Merry”) Brandybuck  , Peregrine (“Pippin”) Took, and Fredegar (“Fatty”) Bolger.

When Frodo discovers what his faithful friends have planned, he protests:

“’Sam!’ cried Frodo, feeling that amazement could go no further, and quite unable to decide whether he felt angry, amused, relieved, or merely foolish.

’Yes, sir!’ said Sam. ‘Begging your pardon, sir! But I meant no wrong to you, Mr. Frodo, nor to Mr. Gandalf for that matter, He has some sense, mind you; and when you said go alone, he said ‘no! take someone as you can trust.’

‘But it does not seem that I can trust anyone,’ said Frodo.

Sam looked at him unhappily. ‘ It all depends on what you want,’ put in Merry. ‘You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. Anyway: there it is. We know most of what Gandalf has told you. We know a good deal about the Ring. We are horribly afraid – be we are coming with you; or following you like hounds.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 118)

The hobbits hope to escape the terrifying Black Riders and arrive safely in the Elven sanctuary to bring the Ring of power to those who would form an effective plan to keep the weapon away from Sauron, the Dark Lord. “Fatty “ stays behind in the Shire to play his part in a less perilous way.

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I forewarned my teenaged daughter when she began reading the trilogy that Tolkien was given to lengthy descriptions of flora, fauna, rocks, paths and streams. I explained that the adventure was mostly lived out on foot and it took an excruciatingly long time to get from one location to another. This literary device communicates to the reader that the quest was arduous.  Unlike many modern novels, the protagonists sleep and eat and drink along the way, depicting the real pace of life and their human frailty.

If you decide to take on the challenge of reading the trilogy and “do the math”, roughly 400-500 pages per book times three novels, it will require a serious time commitment. Not to brag, but I have done so three times. I believe I am ready for my fourth; it’s just that wonderful.

My favorite edition of the trilogy was published in 2002 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The hardcover books boast beautiful color illustrations by Alan Lee who explained his artistic style:

“In illustrating The Lord of the Rings I allowed the landscapes to predominate. In some of the scenes the characters are so small they are barely discernible. This suited my own inclinations and my wish to avoid, as much as possible, interfering with the pictures being built up in the reader’s mind, which tends to be more closely focused on characters and their inter-relationships. I felt my task lay in shadowing the heroes on their epic quest, often at a distance, closing in on them at times of heightened emotion but avoiding trying to re-create the dramatic highpoints of the text.” Alan Lee

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The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien

Categories: British novels, Classics, Fantasy, Inspiration, Read Aloud, young adult fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Screwtape Letters – More from C.S. Lewis for Narnia Fans

screwtape 1C.S. Lewis may be best known for his seven children’s novels called The Chronicles of Narnia (which I adore by the way and have blogged on a few times already). However, another jewel in the crown of his literary and apologetic achievements is the notable epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters. Author C.S. Lewis masterfully composed letters from the fictional demon “Uncle Screwtape” to his nephew “Wormwood”. Screwtape offers diabolical advice on how to tempt Wormwood’s human assignment. Lewis writes letters solely from Screwtape’s perspective and cleverly alludes to what Wormwood has previously written.

Although the book was written for adults, teen readers may find themselves able to comprehend the underlying truths: “These letters from veteran devil Screwtape to his novice nephew Wormwood shed more humbling light on the spiritual weaknesses of people than they do on the state of supernatural beings. Wit and wisdom combine to aid us all to discern better the traps of the Evil One.” Honey for a Teen’s Heart by Barbara Hampton and Gladys Hunt

Our family enjoyed listening to the wonderful 2009 Focus on the Family Radio Theatre production of The Screwtape Letters with the vocal talents of Andy Serkis who played the character of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films.

One must continually keep in mind that C.S. Lewis’ used the irony of “hearing from a devil” to stir our minds and hearts to encounter old truths in a fresh way. Hopefully, the following excerpts of the wit and wisdom of C.S. Lewis may whet your appetite to read or re-read this classic. (Screwtape refers to God as “the Enemy” in all his letters):

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“At present the Enemy says ‘Mine’ of everything on the pedantic, legalistic ground that He made it: Our Father hopes in the end to say ‘Mine’ of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest.”

“All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged.”

“He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. In a word, the Future, is of all things, the thing least like eternity – for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.”

“The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriage are most likely.”

“Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground.”

“He would therefore have them continually concerned with eternity…or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.”

Several articles from C.S. Lewis aficionado, Brenton Dickieson of www.apilgriminnarnia.com offer a more in-depth look at the Scewtape Letters. http://apilgriminnarnia.com/2014/01/20/impossible-beauty/

Categories: British novels, Classics, Fantasy, Humorous, Inspiration, Read Aloud, young adult fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Enrich Your Christmas Season With Special Stories

Christmastime offers us more than scrambling for appropriate gifts for everyone and hurrying to get our homes decorated in time for holiday festivities. Our hearts long for meaning and heart-stirring stories to inspire and bring us together. Many movies provide spiritual and emotional sustenance, but books, too, turn our eyes toward deeper themes. Three of my favorites to share with my readers are The Gift of the Magi , How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and The Story of the Other Wise Man.

Gift of the Magi

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry is a short story set in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. A husband and wife are scraping by in their early years of marriage and seek to find a meaningful Christmas gift for each other. Money is certainly an object and there is literally not enough to buy even a single gift. Their story of sacrifice and generosity strips the gaudy materialism off American Christmas gift giving and shines a light into the heart of loving through sacrificial giving. Hopefully, O. Henry’s message will take the poor and rich on the same journey because it is not about “what’s in your wallet”, but about how one chooses to show love. Here is the ending, but I entreat you to read the story, too, to understand the profundity of this lovely language:

“The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”

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How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss is a well-known Christmas story that is only fifty-seven years old, but still resonates with us today as we face a holiday that is a very mixed bag of holy and holly. It is funny and outrageous and profound; within its pages hides the answer to what is wrong with us Americans at Christmastime.

It opens with the Grinch up on his solitary mountain looking down, literally and figuratively, on the Whos as they prepare to celebrate Christmas with traditional and extravagant noise, gifts, food, and singing. Dr Seuss masterfully captures so many of our Christmastime difficulties: too much feasting, too much spending, and too many social encounters, but he turns the problems on their heads and teaches us that the heart is at the center of the solution:

“And what happened then…? Well… in Who-ville they say that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day! And the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight, he whizzed with his load through the bright morning light and he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast! And he…. HE HIMSELF…! The Grinch carved the roast beast!”

When our hearts are ready to experience the good in Christmas then we can participate, like the Grinch did, in the joy: time with friends and family, generous giving that delights others, and fun in the traditions and events.

OtherWiseMan

The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke is an old story, originally published in 1895, with a deep moral theme summed up at the end of the book with a quote from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25:

“The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

The main character of Van Dyke’s fictional account is a fourth wise man, Artaban, who misses the rendezvous with his three friends as they set off on the arduous trek through the Arabian desert to the birthplace of the Messiah. Artaban also earnestly desires to follow the star and offer his valuable gifts, but is continually waylaid by the needs of desperate people and, in the end, gives away all the treasure that was meant for the Christ Child. This precious story is told with a Middle Eastern voice, eloquent and mystical, and would be best read to younger children due to its complex sentence structure and vocabulary. The poignant ending of Artaban’s pilgrimage imparts a message to us all that the seemingly unimportant aspects of our lives can be sacrifices to God.

I hope you can add a little deep and touching reading to your Christmas busyness.

Categories: Children's Books, Classics, Inspiration, Read Aloud | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Beatrix Potter: The Tale of Peter Rabbit … and His Many Friends

I think I must have English vocabulary on my mind since my children are in the SAT taking years. We have many resources to augment our own vocabularies and those of our kids. One such treasure trove is the work of Beatrix Potter. Over one hundred years ago, an English gentlewoman named Beatrix Potter pioneered in the field of children’s literature as both an artist and storyteller.  Miss Potter brought animal characters to life with exquisitely detailed watercolor illustrations that gave them unique anthropomorphic personalities and quaint, creative little outfits. Her stories pulse with gentle humor, vivid word choices, and complex plots, all of which are elements of children’s literature that we still need to treasure and emulate today.

Our children and children’s children will benefit from each tale with its moral lesson and rich English vocabulary. I chose my five favorites and furnish an illustration, quote, and moral lesson for each.

#1 The Tale of Peter Rabbit (published by Frederick Warne in 1902) – Peter disobeys his mother and ventures into Mr. McGregor’s garden to filch vegetables. The suspenseful chase through the garden patch is designed to strike terror into the heart of the child reader, but the intensity is mellowed by the help Peter receives from other animals, as well as his eventual escape.

Beatrix Potter #1 “Peter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself.”

Implore (v.): to make a very serious or emotional request to someone

Moral lesson: Listen to those wiser than we are about danger. Disobedience has consequences.

#2 The Tale of Jeremy Fisher (1906) – Jeremy Fisher the frog faces danger after he punts out on his lily pad boat to fish in his pond for minnows to offer to his dinner guests. A predatory trout swallows him whole but spits him out again after tasting his macintosh.

“And while Mr. Jeremy sat disconsolately on the edge of his boat – sucking his sore fingers and peering down into the water – a much worse thing happened; a really frightful thing it would have been, if Mr. Jeremy had not being wearing a macintosh!”

Disconsolately (adv.): dejectedly or in a downcast manner Beatrix Potter #2

Moral lesson: Dangers lurk, but we are often spared. Be careful when taking risks, think things through, and be grateful for the safety of home.

#3  The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910) – Mrs. Tittlemouse keeps an exceptionally tidy house as a result of her diligent, slightly obsessive effort. Her cleaning day is disrupted by several uninvited guests who dirty her house and cause her distress. After she shoos them out, the little mouse creates an environment in which to offer hospitality on her own terms, treating even her most impolite intruder with kindness.

“Mrs. Tittlemouse was a most terribly tidy particular little mouse, always sweeping and dusting the soft sandy floors.”

Particular (adj.): having very definite opinions about what is good or acceptable Moral lesson: Having boundaries in one’s personal space and with belongings is very important, yet one can set boundaries without being harsh or unkind.

Beatrix Potter #3 #4 The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908) – Jemima Puddle duck is very naive and foolishly trusts the “foxy gentleman” who offers to help her achieve her heart’s desire to lay and hatch her own eggs. (The farmer keeps taking them away.)  Jemima even allows the gentlemen with the whiskers to arrange a duck feather bed in his shed as her nest.

“He led the way to a very retired, dismal-looking house amongst the fox-gloves.”

Retired (adj.): secluded

“Jemima Puddle-duck was a simpleton: not even the mention of sage and onions made her suspicious.”

Simpleton (n.): a person lacking in common sense Moral lesson: Choose carefully who to trust and pay attention to warning signs of untrustworthiness in the behavior of others.Beatrix Potter #5

#5 The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies (1909) – Peter Rabbit’s cousin, Benjamin Bunny, grows into an irresponsible adult and starts a large family he cannot support.  Benjamin takes his hungry children to Mr. McGregor’s rubbish heap to eat a charity meal of old vegetables.  After the father and children fall asleep, Mr. McGregor discovers them and captures them to give to his wife as the ingredients for a rabbit pie. With the help of Mrs. Tittlemouse, they are rescued.

“They had a large family, and they were very improvident and cheerful.”

Improvident (adj.): not providing or saving for the future : not wise or sensible regarding money

“The little rabbits smiled sweetly in their sleep under the shower of grass; they did not awake because the lettuces had been so soporific.”

Soporific (adj.): causing or tending to cause sleep

Moral lesson: Being sensible about money and planning for the future have great value because irresponsibility has clear negative consequences. However, we often have second chances and the help of others even after we have made poor choices. Beatrix Potter #4

Did you receive an education from author Beatrix Potter in both imagination and English turns of phrase? I contend they are not out-dated, even though they may be old-fashioned. Let’s enjoy these timeless tales and pass them on to the next generation. I welcome your comments about your favorite Beatrix Potter stories and the lessons you see embedded in them.

I recently discovered Apply Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes and Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes, two little volumes of charming poems.

Movie Moment: I enjoyed the 2006 film, Miss Potter (PG), starring Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor about the author’s personal and professional life. Her love of the Lake District in England led to land conservation efforts that have preserved thousands of acres. All of Beatrix Potter’s cherished animal friends still have their holes, stream banks, forests, and meadows to inhabit.

Categories: Classics, Girl Fiction, Humorous, Inspiration, Read Aloud | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Cheaper By the Dozen – Quirky and Profound

cheaper by the dozen 3Cheaper By the Dozen, the memoirs of two of the twelve children born to Frank B. Gilbreth, Sr. (“Dad”) and Lillian Moller Gilbreth (“Mother”), was an instant hit upon its publication in 1948. Hollywood made a movie of the story shortly afterward, in 1950, starring Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy.

This true story weaves anecdotes of the quirky Gilbreth tribe together with an unmistakably strong cord of familial affection; “Dad” and “Mother” love each other unreservedly and welcome each new “model” with delight.   Even in the 1920s, a family with twelve children was an anomaly, but these parents eschewed convention, followed their hearts, and discovered creative ways to deflect the pitying or disapproving reactions of others.

According to Frank Jr.’s and Ernestine’s account, their mother and father jointly decided to have a large family – an even dozen, discussing it on their honeymoon and making a pact to try to achieve their goal. With no twins, “Mother” successfully gave birth to and raised their hoped-for dozen.

The stories inside the 180 pages of Cheaper By the Dozen, albeit full of wry humor, are inextricably linked to the Frank’s and Lillian’s professional contributions. In contrast, the modern movie, Cheaper By the Dozen, released in 2003, starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt, while charming, lacks the vital connection to the real-life parents who pioneered the field of motion study and engineering improvements; the modern movie dad is a football couch and the mother, an author, writes only about family life.

As a parent, “Dad” carried on the legacy of his own mother: “Dad’s mother, Grandma Gilbreth, believed that her children were fated to make important marks in the world and that her first responsibility was to educate them so they would be prepared for their rendezvous with destiny.” (Cheaper By the Dozen)

When financial privation steered young Frank away from his aspiration to attend MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), he made his own way, rising from bricklaying work to his eventual calling as an efficiency expert.

“Dad” couldn’t help but use his large family as a “laboratory” for his experiments in increasing productivity and making work easier. The most bizarre example included having his children’s tonsillectomies filmed to help improve surgical efficiency.

cheaper by the dozen 2

The adult children who authored Cheaper By the Dozen seemed fond and proud of their parents, taking all the idiosyncrasies in stride:

“Dad offered his services to President Woodrow Wilson at the start of World War I with the following telegram: ‘Arriving Washington 7:03 p.m. train. If you don’t know how to use me, I’ll tell you how.’”

“Mother was a Phi Beta Kappa and a psychology graduate of the University of California. In those days women who were scholars were viewed with some suspicion. When Mother and Dad were married, the Oakland paper said: ‘Although a graduate of the University of California, the bride is nonetheless an extremely attractive young woman.’”

In her autobiography As I Remember, Lillian described herself as “shy and bookish”, yet she was the perfect partner for brilliant and ambitious Frank. Anna M. Lewis describes young Lillian as having“ a knack for time management and organization that was beginning to show itself. She would carefully calculate how long the streetcar trip was from home to school.” (Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers)

The couple’s collaboration and mutual respect extended throughout their marriage. Frank convinced Lillian to get her doctorate in psychology after their first four children had been born.

SPOILER ALERT: The authors’ foreword in my edition of the novel warned me that tragedy loomed ahead for the family;  Frank died young, at age 55. The novel ends with this event and the heroic actions of his widow to carry the load of both their professional work and family life.

“Dad” had a bad heart and knowing his time was limited, set out to give his children the best home education possible. His was not a motivation of pure eccentricity, though many of his ideas seemed peculiar. “It was also why he had organized the house on an efficiency basis, so that it would operate smoothly without supervision; so that the older children would be responsible for the younger ones. He knew a load was going to be thrown on Mother, and he wanted to lessen it as much as he could.” (Cheaper By the Dozen)

After Frank’s death, Lillian continued to work in the industrial design field. In her research, she brought time motion and efficiency into the home and kitchen to find the one best way to perform household tasks. Among the many ideas Lillian implemented for aiding the handicapped, was a design of an ideal kitchen layout for the disabled homemaker or veteran. (Women of Steel and Stone)

cheaper by the dozen 1In later years, Lillian became a professor of management at Purdue University, received over twenty honorary degrees, and, above all, loved her family.

On the Dedication page of their heart-warming book, Frank Jr. and Ernestine offer a profound tribute to their parents:

“To Dad who only reared twelve children.“

“To Mother who reared twelve only children.”

The sequel, Belles On Their Toes, also authored by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, picks up with the family’s adventures after the death of their beloved “Dad”.

Categories: Autobiography, Biography, Children's Books, Classics, Humorous, Inspiration, young adult fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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