Historical Fiction

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

Novels Written in Epistolary Format:The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The_Guernsey_Literary_and_Potato_Peel_Pie_SocietyRecently, I found “a window into reality” by means of the novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a heart-warming novel written in epistolary form (written correspondence between the book’s characters). The setting is the Channel Island of Guernsey immediately following World War Two. Novelist Mary Ann Shaffer, an American from Martinsburg, West Virginia, first encountered Guernsey on a vacation trip. She fell in love with its charming beauty and discovered that, shockingly, this small piece of British soil was occupied for five horrific years by the Nazis.

Shaffer thoroughly researched this dark period in the history of the Channel Islands and the result is this eye-opening account of the oppression that the Guernsey islanders experienced under the cruel hand of the Third Reich. Mixed in with the bitter tragedy is plenty of humor, however. The Guersney Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (GLAPPPS) began as a cover for an illegal pig roast which some islanders didn’t want the Nazis to discover. The plot develops as the main character, Juliet Ashton, known in London as a light-hearted journalist, seeks a new book idea. Juliet has just experienced her first literary success with the publication of Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War (a collection of her weekly newspaper columns written during the war).

What begins as a self-centered career opportunity to observe and write about the Guernsey islanders becomes much more as Juliet’s heart is drawn irresistibly into the lives of the unlikely comrades of the GLAPPPS. The book includes letters from numerous members of the Society to Juliet describing the wrenching deprivation, starvation conditions, and mistreatment during the occupation. The quirky characters and sense of community pour off the pages of the letters, as do the sweetness of loving sacrifice and romance.

Author Mary Ann Shaffer lived much of her life as a librarian and editor. This is her first (and last) novel. The book still needed revisions when Mary Ann became terminally ill. Annie Barrows, the author’s niece, stepped in to finish the manuscript for the publisher. Sadly, Ms. Shaffer passed away in February 2008 at the age of 73 – able only to see the publication of her novel in England; not in the United States. Ms. Barrows describes her aunt’s choice of the letter form for her novel:

“My aunt thought it would be easy and those are the types of books she liked to read. We loved reading people’s letters and diaries. I think we were born snoops. And of course, writing the book did not turn out to be easy.” (The Journal [Martinsburg, West Virginia] August 2008)

guernsey #6Another notable epistolary novel is 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 written. In 2009, Focus on the Family produced a wonderful Radio Theatre edition of The Screwtape Letters with the vocal talents of Andy Serkis (Gollum).

Guernsey #3On a more light-hearted note, the children’s book, Little Wolf’s Book of Badness (the first book in a series by Ian Whybrow) is a collection of hilariously misspelled and illustrated letters home from a well-behaved little wolf cub who is sent away on purpose to become “bad” – as wolves should be – at Cunning College for Brute Beasts under the tutelage of Uncle Bigbad.

In addition, non-fiction books that are records of written correspondence are another excellent way to see into the lives of people. I recently re-read a novel published in 1970 which chronicles twenty years of actual correspondence between New York screenwriter Helene Hanff and the London antiquarian bookstore staff members who helped her find out-of-print books. 84, Charing Cross Road is full of humor and pathos.guernsey #5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My renewed interest in epistolary books also reminds me to read my Bible epistles as letters. They were composed to someone and I dearly wish we had access to some of the answers the biblical authors must have received. For example, the apostle Paul’s response from his letter to the Philippians (Chapter 4) may have run something like:

“Dearest Paul, Euodia and I have made up and have started a weaving business together… Love, Syntyche”.

 

 

Categories: Historical Fiction, Humorous, Inspiration, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 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

City of Tranquil Light – Summer Reading Favorite

city of tranquil light 4Summer reading is a very special type of experience because it often takes places out of doors, on a beach or a porch swing. Often we allow ourselves a larger allocation of time to read during this season, giving ourselves a little break from the hard work ethic of the school year and the full calendar of goals and achievements.

So that means we need some rich reading options and I have one to recommend: City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell, first published in 2010. I blogged on this novel eighteen months ago, but if you missed it here is another chance.

A former Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University, Bo Caldwell demonstrates her ability to provide a fulfilling sensory experience as she recreates a slice of place and time in early twentieth-century China. The two thousand-year-old dynasty is crumbling and civil war rocks the county. Into this turmoil steps a set of unmarried mid-western Mennonite missionaries, Will and Katherine, who are each determined to give their skills and their hearts to the people of China.

They are the good kind of missionaries with the respect for their adopted country that is the foundation of true service: “Katherine, there are practices in this country that you will dislike, I assure you. But some of these we must accept as they are. We are here to offer the gift of faith, not to remake their way of life, even when the change seems necessary and right. It is a question of choosing your battles. Remember that we are guests, and uninvited ones at that.” (Will Kiehn)

Caldwell thoroughly researched the history of her grandparents’ lives as missionaries, as well as this historical period in China, and that background gives this fictional story a realism in its setting and a high level of tragedy in its plot line.

Poignantly, Caldwell describes the resultant suffering as the Communists defeat the Imperial government. Will and Katherine marry and then align wholeheartedly with their Chinese friends to endure this troubled period in an ancient and beautiful land. The opening chapters detail the couple’s initial meeting, but the majority of the book takes place as they walk out their married life together.

In my opinion, this novel satisfies the avid historical fiction reader, the romantic, those who love beautiful prose, and the reader searching for an inspirational story. In the novel, Will reflects on his long life “When I was twenty-one and on my way to China, I tried to envision my life there. I saw myself preaching to huge gatherings of people, baptizing eager new converts, working with my brothers in Christ to improve their lives. I did not foresee the hardships and dangers that lay ahead: the loss of one so precious, the slow and painful deprivation of drought and famine, the continual peril of violence, the devastation of war, the threat to my own dear wife. Again and again we were saved by the people we came to help and carried through by the Lord we had come to serve. I am amazed at His faithfulness; even now our lives there fill me with awe.” (p. 9)

Bo Caldwell

Bo Caldwell

 

 

 

 

Categories: Chick lit, Historical Fiction, Inspiration, Romantic Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A Free Man of Color: A Historical Mystery

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I often blog on a series of novels because I fall in love with the protagonist and want to follow him or her for as many books as the author produces which is the case with Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January mysteries. However, the atmospheric and accurately researched setting grabbed my attention just as powerfully and has not let go, even after thirteen novels.

Barbara Hambly, a contemporary American author living in California, effectively brings the reader into antebellum New Orleans.  (I had to look up the definition of antebellum: “occurring in the southern U.S. during the time before the American Civil War”.  My study of history was limited in my student days, so I enjoy being educated by A Free Man of Color.)

Benjamin January, a young widower, makes his way home from Paris after the death from cholera of his Moroccan wife, Ayasha.  1833 in New Orleans offers very different opportunities for a free man of color; January’s medical training in Paris is discounted in his hometown and he resorts to earning a living solely from his piano performances and music lessons. His options narrow to playing for society occasions and the first mystery begins with the violent death of an octoroon mistress at an opulent Mardi Gras ball where January has been hired to perform. (octoroon: term of the time period that referred to a person with one-eighth African ancestry).

The city of New Orleans in this time period is exotic and decadent, a strange world, alien and fascinating. The nuanced social order, like a caste system, ranges from black slaves at the low end up to free colored. Benjamin January was not born free; instead he was the offspring of slaves on a Louisiana cane plantation who, when still a child, received his freedom in conjunction with his mother’s purchase and freedom. She became a placée (a status at the time somewhere between wife and mistress with legal obligations between a white man and a woman of color). January’s mother’s new status included the boon of her child receiving a classical education in Paris, and training as a surgeon and a musician.

Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, oil painting by Agostino Brunias, Dominica, c.1764-1796.

Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, oil painting by Agostino Brunias, Dominica, c.1764-1796.

January may be free, but his situation remains extremely precarious; he carries his free papers in his shoe when he lives his own home, and leaves another set in a safe deposit box.  He faces daily terror that he will be “sold down the river” with no one to vouch for him. This horrifying reality is depicted graphically in the 2014 movie Twelve Years a Slave based on Solomon Northrup’s biography of the same name.  “In New Orleans he was a man of color, an uneasy sojourner in a world increasingly American, hostile, and white. But he was what he was.” (A Free Man of Color)

In this first Benjamin January story, the entrenched and complex Creole social order of 1830’s New Orleans has been upset by the flood of uncultured Americans who, after the Louisiana Purchase, arrive to stake their claim to what they see as “new lands”. In A Free Man of Color, January discovers an unlikely ally in his elusive search for justice for the murdered courtesan, in the form a sympathetic (and unwashed) American – Lieutenant Abishag Shaw of the New Orleans Guards -whose keen sense of fairness matches January’s and pits them against both societal forces and pure evil.

The Benjamin January mysteries in order of publication: A Free Man of Color (1998), Fever Season (1999), Graveyard Dust (2000), Sold Down the River (2001), Die Upon a Kiss (2002), Wet Grave (2003), Days of the Dead (2004), Dead Water (2005), Dead and Buried (2010), The Shirt on His Back (2011), Ran Away (2011), Good Man Friday (2013), Crimson Angel (2014). Settings in later books include the worlds of Mexico, the American Frontier, Washington, D.C., and Haiti.

Barbara Hambly’s novels give us a refreshingly intricate and evocative set of American mystery stories crafted by a contemporary author. Although I am an avid mystery novel fan, I do not like them indiscriminately and acknowledge that my tastes run more toward British mysteries written in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s by such authors as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, and Ellis Peters. These British mysteries offer rich English language and complex plots and are set in England in places and times that are foreign to me.

 

Categories: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Newbery Medal – Creative Children’s Literature

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In 1922, the Newbery Award became the first children’s book award in the world.  Named for 18th-century English bookseller John Newbery, the award fulfills the following purpose: “to encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels.”

A valuable aspect of the award is the honor it gives librarians, recognizing their life work to serve children’s reading interests. The panel of judges is made up of children’s librarians from pubic and private schools (members of the American Library Association). They choose the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year. Although only a single book wins each year, several runners-up, listed as “Newberry Honor Books”, receive high marks and embossed seals on their covers as well.

The focus of the award – “original and creative work” – highlights two values I personally esteem in literature.   Writers and book publishers inundate children with copycat stories that get churned out in an attempt to follow the popularity flow. Movie producers often pursue the same “follow the leader” strategy to insure high box office sales in the film medium. In contrast, the Newbery Medal offers originality.

The first winner of the Newbery Medal was a history book, The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Next up was the whimsical fantasy,The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting that won in 1923. Two stories which are more current and accessible due to recent book-to-movie efforts are the 1999 Winner: Holes by Louis Sachar and the 2004 Winner: The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo.

I recently re-read the 1972 Newbery winner, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM by Robert C. O’Brien. This fantasy tale brings the reader into the lives of lab rats who escape their scientist captors and seek to establish their own society, one built upon self-reliance. The central tenet of their Great “Plan” is to live without stealing, unlike their rat ancestors.Mrs. Frisby

Mild-mannered Mrs. Frisby, the widow of lab mouse, Jonathan Frisby, steers her difficult course by the compass of familial love and finds unlikely allies in the rats of NIHM.

Mr. O’Brien wove a fantasy story that charms more than it scares the young reader. The author died only a few years after the publication of Mrs. Frisby, which makes me wonder what more he would have written given the opportunity. The ending of the book left me with several questions: What happened to the rats of NIMH; did they make a success of their new home in Thorn Valley? Did the Frisby mouse children grow up to do great exploits like their heroic father?

As I researched the Newbery Award for this blog post, I read the list of 92 winners out loud to my teen daughters and was chagrined to find that they only recognized 10% of the books on the list. I myself have missed out on numerous titles since I only read the Newbery books that were published when I was a child and then later those winners promoted on homeschool curriculum book lists.

Better get cracking!

Check out link to the Newbery list and send me a comment with your favorite winner! I would like to send out a prize – my first ever on pineneedlesandpapertrails- to the reader with the most Newbery titles read, so shoot me a total (honor system).

Update:  Winner Winner Chicken Dinner to blogger Susan Lea  of http://mimiswardrobe.wordpress.com who has read 76 of these titles!  Wow! Here is her response to this contest:  “I have read (or at least have them in our kids’ library) 76 of them. I noticed that there were several winners for Laura Ingalls Wilder, Susan Cook, and Madeline L’Engle. All of their books are favorites of mine, but my very favorite from that list has to be Forgotten Daughter by Caroline Snedeker. I imagine it’s one of the least-known (and hard to find), but I fell in love with it as a high school student, and my copy is highly-prized and will never be lent out! ”

http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/newberymedal/newberyhonors/newberymedal

http://ww.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/newberymedal/newberymedal

Categories: Children's Books, Classics, Fantasy, Girl Fiction, Historical Fiction, Humorous, Inspiration, Read Aloud, Uncategorized, young adult fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Return to Me: The Bible Comes Alive

I am a Bible reader. The Book of Books amazes and delights me with its inspiring psalms, challenging prophesies, and historical tales. It is a wonderful anthology of literature. Last year, I bought a One Year Chronological Bible (Tyndale House). It groups Bible books by their historical context and gave me a better understanding of how it all fits together.

Another tool to bring the Bible to life is reading well-researched historical fiction set in Biblical time periods. I read about Christian author Lynn Austin’s most recent novel Return to Me (published in September 2013 by Bethany House) from a literary blog I followed, “By the Book”: http://rbclibrary.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/book-review-return-to-me/
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In this first installment of “The Restoration Chronicles”, Austin takes the events of the Biblical books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Zechariah and develops a detailed, authentic story of the return of the Jews to Jerusalem after a seventy-year captivity in Babylon (539 B.C.) Iddo is a survivor of the siege of Jerusalem and has terrible nightmares of his ordeal as a young child watching his loved ones die of starvation or by the sword.

After seventy years in Babylon, Iddo takes the opportunity offered by Cyrus the Persian, the new tolerant ruler of the Empire, to return with his wife and grandson, Zechariah to Israel to rebuild the Jewish temple and settle once more in his homeland. What follows is a pilgrimage of faith and restoration for Iddo and his family that is fraught with resistance from within and without.

This is not the first effort to recreate Biblical stories for the eight-time Christy award-winning author. Austin’s twin interests in history and archaeology launched her on a five-book series in 2005 that begins during the reign of Judah’s Kings Ahaz and Hezekiah as the Assyrian Empire is rampaging through the Middle East (732 B.C.). (“Chronicles of the Kings”: Gods and Kings, Strength of His Hands, Song of Redemption, Faith of My Fathers, and Among the Gods). In my opinion, the author’s graduate studies in Biblical Backgrounds and Archaeology and her travels to Israel lend authenticity to her novels. For more about the author, explore her website: http://www.lynnaustin.org

My research for this blog post lead me to some new options for biblical historical fiction: Sons of Encouragement by Francine Rivers, 2011, Tyndale House. In this all-in-one collection, Rivers illuminates the lives of Aaron, Caleb, Jonathan, Amos, and Silas—and shows how they acted in the shadow of God’s chosen leaders.” (christianbook.com). Another new novel, When Jesus Wept by Bodie Thoene, 2013, Zondervan Publishing looks at the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through the eyes of his friend Lazarus of Bethany.

Through historical fiction, ancient characters take on flesh and blood and move off the pages and into our imagination, all with the result of inspiring us to know God more personally. How has the Bible come alive for you?

The Bible for Children:
Although many authors seek to expose young children to the Bible with wonderful editions complete with illustrations and easily understood prose, my personal favorite is The Children’s Bible in 365 Stories by Mary Batchelor. This book, published in 1995 by David C. Cook Publishers, offers much more than the handful of stories retold in Sunday School of Jonah and the Whale and David and Goliath.

Categories: Classics, Historical Fiction, Inspiration, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

True Romance: “Tales of London”

I avoid romance novels, for the most part, because they disappoint me.  They are too shallow, too sexy, or too predictable, but that magnetic pull toward romantic stories still exerts its influence on me no matter how disgruntled I become, and now I can say I have found an author who writes this type of fiction well.

Lawana Blackwell sets her “Tales of London” novels in late 19th century England, and follows multiple characters over an extended period of time: The Maiden of Mayfair (2001), Catherine’s Heart (2002), and Leading Lady (2004) published by Bethany House.

I read the novels in order and accepted each chronological jump forward, becoming emotionally engaged with the new characters in each subsequent book while enjoying the cameo appearances of earlier protagonists.  What helped me track with the changes in time and character was the fact that Mrs. Blackwell maintains continuity with the same London setting and extended family.

Also, I found the stories satisfying in their complexity and length (each novel weighs in at over four hundred pages).  Plots go far beyond the simplistic “boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy marries girl”.  (Oh, did I mention? There are no sex scenes – hurrah!) In contrast, characters live within their communities and pursue various life choices.  Issues of personal identity, vocation and calling, emotional wholeness, family bonds, and childrearing add richness to the romantic story lines.

In addition, Mrs. Blackwell expertly weaves cautionary tales into her novels that I didn’t find too heavy-handed. Stalking, obsessive love, and emotional neediness are themes that should be addressed when developing stories around relationships. I even found myself empathizing with certain missteps made by characters that paralleled my own relationship errors.

I found an example of this depth of insight into love relationships in Catherine’s Heart, the second in the series. The leading man breaks two very important factors in “true love”: !) he is physically attracted to his fiancee, but then finds himself drawn to another woman who crosses his path and doesn’t resist that temptation. 2) this “Mr. Wrong” doesn’t embrace the core life interests of his lady love, and doesn’t share a mutual life purpose or “mission” with her.

On the surface, we may enjoy reading about or watching the intense experience of first attraction and falling in love, but, in my opinion, what is more satisfying is seeing love unfold with a worthy man who truly loves a deserving woman.  He doesn’t even need to be “indecently gorgeous”, to borrow Daphne de Luce’s description from The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag.  But we know he must be good, strong, protective, and kind which goes for the leading lady in romantic stories, too.)romance novels

Romantic comedies and “chick lit” will always be with us because the human heart longs for stories that show the fulfillment of our deepest desire that two people will find and value each other and experience a lasting love. Lawana Blackwell gives that to us in the context of historical fiction set in 1800s England, but still appealing to the modern woman.

An additional note about the author: Lawana Blackwell came late to fiction writing, after years of teaching and community service.  I find her story inspiring, probably because, I, too, am a middle-aged woman who has yet to achieve my writing dreams. Her author profile on http://www.cbd.com chronicles the start of her writing career: “Life begins at 40—or so they say. Such was the case for the literary life of Lawana Blackwell. Writing had been a dream, simmering like a big pot of stew on the back burner of her existence for years. As she faced the milestone of her 40th birthday, she began asking herself when “one day” would finally arrive. Suddenly it became clear to her that she had been procrastinating all that time out of fear of failure.”

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Categories: Chick lit, Girl Fiction, Historical Fiction, Inspiration, Romantic Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments