Banned Books Week: The Witch of Blackbird Pond

My Edition:witchblackbird
Title: The Witch of Blackbird Pond
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Publisher: Dell Yearling
Device: Trade paper
Year: 1958
Pages: 249
For a plot summary

I have chosen three young adult classics to read for Banned Books Week and one to review: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, A Wrinkle in Time and The Bridge to Terabithia. Each have been continually challenged or banned by parents and educational organizations since their dates of publication.

I have to say right off the mark this kind of behavior fascinates me. I grew up in a reading household where I freely took books off shelves at home and at my grandparents’ houses and I do not remember my parents ever telling me I couldn’t read something. My relationship with my parents was very open and no question, either personal or educational, was ever off limits. So I suppose if I read something that bothered me, I’d ask them. But I remember discussions, not banning. This is all to say my comments below question the reasons why The Witch of Blackbird Pond is a challenged book.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is set in the late 1600s and tells the story of Kit, who grew up a carefree young girl on a wealthy plantation in Barbados. When she is suddenly orphaned, she sails to Wethersfield, Connecticut to live with her mother’s sister, her husband and their two daughters in their strict Puritan home. She is not used to doing chores and the work of a homestead, nor is she used to the stifled way of thinking which makes her feel like an outsider. She befriends the widow Hannah Tupper, an old Quaker woman shunned by the locals, who lives alone at the edge of the Great Meadow and who understands Kit’s feeling of estrangement. Her home becomes Kit’s refuge. But when the town’s children begin to fall ill, Hannah is accused of casting a spell on them and the townspeople come to take her away. Kit overhears their plans and runs to save Hannah, only to be accused of witchcraft herself.

The trial is harrowing because, once suspicion has been cast, enough townspeople are riled up sufficiently to press the officials “to deal with the witches” and as history has shown, the outcome is never good for the accused. In Hannah’s case, she was already under a great deal of suspicion just for being a Quaker, who didn’t go to (the Puritan) Meeting each week and who kept to herself. But in actuality, it was the townspeople who kept away from her, who never made an effort to know her, which allowed their imagination to fester. If they had visited, they would have seen her like Kit did, a kindhearted old lady who liked company, could spin a neat flax thread and made delicious corn and blueberry muffins.

Kit’s accusations were a little more complicated besides being “guilty” of associating with the Widow Tupper. There was the incident in the river, witnessed by several people of the town, when she jumped into the water to rescue a little girl’s doll. Though swimming was perfectly acceptable in Barbados, in the Colonies one of the tests for women accused of witchcraft was to see if they could float. Only if they sank did that prove their innocence. But the biggest charge against Kit was discovered in a child’s hornbook, where her name was written multiple times and was believed to be the spell or incantation that made the children sick. Fortunately, this was resolved when the little girl came forward to describe how Kit taught her how to write her name by writing it out so she could copy it. She proved right there in front of the officials she was a masterful copier, because her hand looked just like Kit’s. This emboldened some of the townspeople to come to the women’s defense and the charges against them were dropped.

This book has been challenged for promoting witchcraft and violence. But the real threat should be that it promotes ignorance, prejudice and gossip mongering. Ironically, there is no actual witchcraft in the book. It is only in the perceived notion that an old woman alone, living on the edge of town with a cat (that is not even black, btw) must be up to no good. And that when disease breaks out among the town’s children, suspicion turns on this outsider; a condition the town made itself by shunning her in the first place. The dangers of gossip, estrangement, ignorance, and beliefs about a person where there is no proof, not witchcraft, are the real lessons of the book.

And violence? The townspeople came after Hannah and burned down her home and tried to kill her cat. Instead of wanting to ban this book for violence, isn’t this another lesson of how ignorance and prejudice can get out of hand? Once you shun a neighbor and cast her as an outsider who is “not like us,” you can make her responsible for anything.

This book was published in 1958, and it is remarkable or maybe somewhat sad that it still has a message for us today. We live in a world that still practices hate mongering, racism, the shunning of people because of their “lifestyle” or culture, of people who would rather take a video than stop the crime, and there are people and institutions who have turned gossip into an art form. Is any of this productive? Does it moves us forward as a people? Far from being a book that should be banned, The Witch of Blackbird Pond needs to be read and studied for its timely lessons for young people and adults alike.

(Elizabeth George Speare was an award-winning writer of historical fiction for young people. She won the Newberry Medal for both The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Bronze Bow, which takes place during the time of Jesus. Her attention to the details of daily life draw you into the world of her characters and the history they are living.

She is famously quoted after receiving an award,  “I believe that all of us who are concerned with children are committed to the salvaging of Love and Honor and Duty.”)

 

 

Perceiving the Equinox

lorraines1

In Southern California, we don’t feel the seasons as dramatically as those in other parts of the country and we often have to rely on the calendar to tell us when a season changes. Over the weekend it suddenly got chilly and Saturday morning was foggy, but this week it is warm again and somewhat steamy and we are still walking around in shorts and flip flops and I am wearing my big, silly hat:

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Big hat, beach-biker, Laurie

But we do have one thing in common with everyone else in the Northern Hemisphere, after the Autumnal Equinox sunlight will lessen and darkness will increase. And for the briefest of moments tomorrow, worldwide, the light and the dark will stand in perfect and equal proportion.

Is this moment perceptible? What if we could feel the instant of the equality of light and dark?

If we equated this balance to ourselves, would we feel at perfect peace with all the things that war in our in mind, the personal, the emotional, the professional, the spiritual?

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A local cormorant showing off her balancing skills.

Would we feel in that smallest measure of time that everything about ourselves and our lives was manageable?

And if so, what if we could string out that result into hours or days or for the rest of our life?

In my city, that moment will arrive at 7:21am (PDT). This website will help you find your exact time.

 

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion (2006)

My Edition:yearmagicalthinking
Title: The Year of Magical Thinking
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Vintage International (Random House)
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2006
Pages: 227
For a plot summary

 

I like Joan Didion’s work, but when this was originally released my best friend was dying and I just couldn’t touch it. Even though the book wasn’t about cancer, I didn’t want to read about death, as if doing so would be a jinx. And ha! now I understand that was MY bit of magical thinking.

“You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”[i]

On December 30, 2003, as John Dunne was drinking Scotch and talking to his wife as she made them dinner, he had a massive heart attack.

Didion kept notes as a way to chronicle the many stages of grief she experienced during that first year after her husband’s death. I want to say right away this is not a depressing book. There are many moments of humor as is common even in the most grievous of situations. Instead, she chronicles the large and small thoughts and experiences as she tries to come to terms with his death.

The crazy thoughts that run through her mind ask—“could I have prevented his death in some way? Or could he? Were there clues to this impending tragedy that we both missed?”

~When John asked that they move back to New York City, she put him off, but if she hadn’t would that have affected his heart?

~If she alerted him to studies about the efficacy of low dose aspirin would that have saved him (even though she knew he was on the more powerful anticoagulant Coumadin)?

~In that last conversation before dinner he asked if the drink she made him was with single malt Scotch or the other Scotch, “because I don’t think you should mix them.” Did she miss the meaning there?

~Was he trying to tell her something a few years ago when he wondered if they were frittering away their lives and not really living?

“As I recall this I realize how open we are to the persistent messages that we can avert death.”[ii]

In the end, her grief turns to mourning as this first year passes into the second. Already some aspects of her husband are fading and she thinks of this as a betrayal. But she has to go on. She is still here.

Remembering bits of a conversation when they were swimming to a cave where the tide had to be just right to swim in, John said, “You have to feel the swell change. You have to go with the change.”[iii]

_____________

[i] p. 3.
[ii] p. 206.
[iii] p. 227.

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

My Edition:herland.jpeg
Title: Herland
Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Publisher: Dover Publications
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1915
Pages: 124
For a plot summary

There was no accepted standard of what was ‘manly and what was ‘womanly.’…When Jeff said to Celis, “Women should not carry anything…they are not built for heavy work. Celis looked out across the fields to where some women were working, building a new bit of wall out of large stones; looked back at the nearest town with its woman-built houses; down at the smooth, hard road they were walking on; and then at the little basket he had taken from her. “I don’t understand, are the women in your country so weak that they could not carry such a thing as that?[i]

 

I was so disappointed by Edward Bellamy’s depiction of women in his utopian novel, Looking Backward, that I found myself pining for a more positive view. I remembered I had Herland on my shelf and pulled it off only to find in the introduction the author was inspired by Bellamy! Charlotte Perkins Gilman was already known for her autobiographical, The Yellow Wallpaper, which exposed the chilling and harrowing methods of the ‘rest cure’ forced on some women when depression and the inability to cope made living impossible. Surely, she had a more affirmative and supportive concept about women in her utopia?

Happily for me, Herland presents a stable and progressive environment, a well-planned framework for a new way of life. The novel, in a parallel to Looking Backward, is based around conversations, in this case, between the three male explorers and their three female teachers.

The plot is simple enough. Three young men, Terry the rich boy, Van the sociologist and Jeff the doctor and friends since college have joined an expedition somewhere in Central or South America, the exact location is not made clear, where the native guides tell tales of a land of women high up in the mountains where there are no men or male children. One of the guides shows them a piece of cloth made with extraordinary skill that looks nothing like the work of local people. The three men vow to come back and find this land which they do a year later.

And the tales they heard are true. It IS a land of women, who have created a country of beauty, peace, culture and education without the aid of men. And poor Terry, who is certain the women have been waiting centuries for him spends the entire trip trying to prove it, but to no avail. Van and Jeff are eager to learn and understand the history and society of the country and it is through conversations with their three teachers, Zava, Moadine and Somel that we learn how the land came to be.

Two thousand years ago, after a series of wars, though they built fortresses and had skilled warriors, the men were unable to stave off attacks from other tribes and all were killed. This left women, young girls and old slave women as the only inhabitants when the final blow, a volcanic outburst, sealed off the pass below and penned them up against the mountains. There was no escape. After the initial despair where some women suggested suicide, the majority made the decision to live. The slave women taught them invaluable skills and they learned to work the tools and equipment of various trades. They had records and archives with their history, which they learned and added to as the centuries went by.

But the question had to be asked: if there were no men for two thousand years, how did they populate? For about 10 years after they were sealed in by the volcano, the remaining women plucked up the courage to plan a future as best they could. They cleaned up the land by working together and grew strong and wise and more and more mutually attached, until a miracle occurred: one young woman bore a girl child… a direct gift from the gods, they believed. She bore four more—all girls. The miracle continued as each woman, upon reaching the age of 25, bore her first child, until she, too, had five. But as the centuries passed and overpopulation threatened the land, the process settled on one child a piece.

“Babies are raised communally after a year spent with their mother, though even then, the mother is never far from her child. School and education is an environment calculated to allow the riches, freest growth….”[ii]

The children grow up in a system of education that draws out their talents and abilities to things they love and are good at so when they enter the work force work is a delight and a joyous contribution to the nation. This notion that education is for discovering what we’re good at and love is like Bellamy’s system, except that his excludes women, whose highest contribution to society is to procreate, with ‘careers’ only auxiliary, not part of the needs of the nation.

I should mention here that in Herland, motherhood, too, is lauded as the supreme achievement with babies loved and adored by the whole community. However, it is acknowledged that not every woman will have or want to have a child, a decision that is honored and respected. In Bellamy’s new world as in his real 19th century world, a woman who does not want to have children is looked on with derision, even suspicion.

It may be that Gilman’s perspective on motherhood is also a reflection of her ideas about women and work and the insistence that women have choices over their life. This may have also been a reaction against the criticism Gilman received when she gave up her daughter to be raised by her first husband so she could concentrate on her work. He remarried her best friend and the three were close, but the act of voluntarily giving up her child for such a “selfish” reason was looked upon as extremely “umotherly.”

Gilman also explores femininity in Herland. The women here are not ‘feminine’ in the way Terry, Van and Jeff are accustomed. It is confusing enough for them that society functions just fine in every area without men and Gilman uses this as a platform to explore this new womanhood. The three are educated about Herland for months together and individually by their three teachers, Zava, Moadine and Somel, whom they affectionately call “The Colonels.” The lack of sexual dynamics and their notions of femininity are confusing to the men. That the women of Herland created a land of peace and plenty, built streets and edifices, figured out food sources and methods of feeding 3 million people, developed laws and education without the guidance and organization skills of men, is an almost impossible concept for Terry, Van and Jeff.

Van: “Here you have human beings…but what we were slow in understanding was how these ultra-women, inheriting only from women, had eliminated not only certain masculine characteristics…but so much of what we had always thought essentially feminine….The tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out. These stalwart virgins had no men to fear and therefore no need of protection.”

Terry, with sarcasm, “It’s likely women—just a pack of women—would have hung together like that! We all know women can’t organize—that they scrap like anything—are frightfully jealous.”

Jeff: “But these New Ladies didn’t have anyone to be jealous of, remember?”[iii]

What a blow to Terry who is observing a land where he is not needed and that frankly works better without men!

And in fact, Terry, the prized catch of manhood in his former life has the most difficult time. I think Gilman uses him to illustrate every sexist and chauvinistic word men ever said about women! Even after the men are accepted into society, learn the language and are educated on the history of the county, Terry refuses to accept that a country can actually exist without men and that in truth, the women MUST have been waiting just for him. As imagined, he causes the most problems, cannot accept what he sees and longs to get home to ‘real women.’ In a remarkable observation Van says, “those feminine charms we are so fond of are not feminine at all but mere reflected masculinity—developed to please us because they had to please us and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process.”[iv]

Gilman explores many aspects of society, including religion

…they had a clear established connection between everything they did—and God. Their cleanliness, their health, their exquisite order, the rich peaceful beauty of the whole land, the happiness of the children, and above all the constant progress they made—all this was their religion….They applied their mind to the thought of God, and worked out the theory that such an inner power demanded outward expression. They lived as if God was real and at work within them.[v]

And relationships, because of course, there is romance! But between whom and whether they stay in Herland would be a spoiler, so you’ll have to read the book to find out. Hint: Poor Terry….

That this beautiful, stable, evolving world exists because women are cooperative with each other, that they are smart, are able to take their talents and abilities both physical and mental to their highest potential, have created culture and art is what Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writer and feminist, was working for in 19th/20th century America. It is hard to remember women once had to fight for the right to be smart and capable, to freely take their talents and abilities as far as they could, to create whatever kind of life they wanted.

It makes me laugh, knowing all I do now, to think of us three boys—nothing else, three audacious impertinent boys—butting into an unknown country without any sort of a guard or defense. We seemed to think that if there were men we could fight them, and if there were only women—why, they would be no obstacles at all.[vi]

Was Herland a reaction to Looking Backward? Or Gilman’s singular attempt to design a world where women were not only safe from the violence of men, they were also physically competent and smart and educated enough to build and care for their own society? Looking forward, taking the best from both, they have the potential to create a good decent society where each person is valued for their individuality, yet part of the whole.

___________
[i] p. 79.
[ii] p. 87.
[iii] p. 49-50.
[iv] p. 50
[v] p. 8.
[vi] p. 18.

 

Book Challenges and Read-a-thons Fall 2016

I have been book blogging one year today! It is a remarkable community to learn and share with. One of the ways I have benefited personally is having joined book challenges and readathons where I have discovered new authors and titles. I had no idea of the diversity and number of these. In fact, I think there must be a challenge or readathon for every taste or genre or event imaginable!

When I first started blogging last year I discovered R.I.P. too late to join and totally missed Banned Books Week, but kept them in my sights for this year. Like I need another challenge or 5 with all I have to do in my life, I did indeed sign up for 5.

Even if you are not a book blogger, but like to read these group events are a wonderful way to find people you may have a lot in common with and books you might otherwise have never heard. That was certainly true for me as I was researching titles for the 1947 club. Yes, a book challenge of reading books published in the year 1947. I told you🙂

I may not get through all the books, but here is my wishlist for these challenges: Click on the hot links for more information and to sign up!

R.I.P (R.eaders I.imbibing P.eril) XI, September 1-October 31 2016.
Read horror, ghost, vampire, mystery, thriller. Multiple levels of participation. Read one book or lots. Watch movies or read short stories.

~The Case of Charles Dexter Ward-HP Lovecraft
~Frankenstein-Mary Shelley
~Several short stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, including Carmilla, Green Tea, Schalken the Painter
~Elizabeth Gaskell, The Old Nurses Story
~Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children-Ransom Riggs
~The Haunting of Hill House-Shirley Jackson. One of my favorite films (the original, of course), which I will watch again. I have never read the book.
~I discovered I have a copy of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula which I will also watch

Banned Books Week, September 25-October 1 2016
Celebrated internationally, read or become familiar with titles that have been banned in the past or are being challenged now. I am participating in an event hosted by Little Book Owl.

~The Witch of Blackbird Pond-Elizabeth George Speare
banned for promoting violence and witchcraft
~A Wrinkle in Time-Madeleine L’Engle
one of the most frequently banned books of all time
~The Giver-Lois Lowry
banned for violence, language, objectionable themes. From an adult point of view, without taking into consideration the point of the book at what happens in a society without choices in life.
~Bridge to Terebithia-Katherine Paterson
banned for language, religion, sad ending (“the idea that a book is depressing or upsetting is often used as a rationale for wanting a book banned. “)

The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event during LGBT History Month October 1-31 2016. Hosted by Roof Beam Reader. Fiction, nonfiction, sci fi, poetry, plays, audio books. I’m reading a mix of fiction and non.

~Well of Loneliness-Radclyffe Hall
~Santa Olivia-Jacqueline Carey
~Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home-Leah Lax
~Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How it Can Revitalize Christianity-Rev Elizabeth N. Edman
~The Picture of Dorian Gray-Oscar Wilde

The 1947 Club October 10-16 2016
Hosted by Stuck in a Book read anything published in 1947!

~A Girl in Winter-Philip Larkin
~One Fine Day-Mollie Panter-Downs
~The Slaves of Solitude-Patrick Hamilton
~Final Curtain-Ngaio Marsh

Witch Week October 31-November 6 2016
Hosted by Lory at The Emerald City Book Review, read about witches or anything magical or fantasy. And enjoy a group reading of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

~Something Wicked This Way Comes-Ray Bradbury
~Witch of Blackbird Pond-
Elizabeth George Speare
~House Witch-
Katie Schickel
~Girl who Drank the Moon-
Kelly Regan Barnhill

Ok, bye. I’d better get a crackin’🙂

 

 

Book Finds!

The main branch of my city library is huge. It has several floors of library books, a cafe on the bottom floor and theaters for plays and films. It also has a stellar used book department with clean books in great shape in all the various categories. But its claim to fame, in my opinion, is the ‘Vintage Books’ section. Donated mostly from estate sales, there are amazing finds here. There might be a first edition of something, but mainly they are just old books or classics in hardcover or well-known books in their time, 1900-1950, that I have heard of but never read.

Yesterday, I had an exceptionally fruitful excursion that cost me only $5.75!

 

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The Year of Magical Thinking
, Joan Didion
I have read very little by Didion, but this title always intrigued me: struggling through grief and heartbreak after the deaths of a husband and daughter.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I was so happy to find a good copy of this. Molly Guptill Manning wrote about this book in her excellent, When Books Went to War. One of the ways publishers supported the war effort was to publish classic books in thin, small editions that could fit in a back pocket. Soldiers wrote to Betty Smith saying this book made them think of their hometowns.

The Paris Sketch Book, William Thackeray
Holy cow, folks…complete with illustrations by the author. I would love to know about the person in whose collection this was.

thackeray.jpeg

How to Astonish the French–An English Family in the Tuileries.


Summer
, Edith Wharton
An important work of Wharton’s; it is an honest look at a young woman’s sexual awakening.

 

The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton
One of my reading interests is religion and spirituality. I especially enjoy reading books about spiritual journeys and faith struggles. Regardless of the particular religion or spiritual path, I can relate and feel kinship.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harold Bloom, Ed.
Now that I have read several major works by Hawthorne, I was interested in this critical analysis of his work.

 

The Bostonians, Henry James
Oh, this reminds me of college literary courses! And it’s been that long since I read it. It was published in magazine installments before it came out in book form a few years before Edward Bellamy’s, Looking Backward (set in Boston), which I just reviewed, so the title caught my eye.

 

The Scarlet Pimpernel, Emmuska Orczy
Confession: I am a product of Saturday morning Looney Tunes and like many kids of that generation, my first exposure to classic literature and classical music was from those cartoons (and Ed Sullivan, but that is a post for another day)! Elmer Fudd is forever seared in my mind as he sings The Ride of the Valkyries and I can still see Daffy Duck sword fighting as The Scarlet Pumpernickel. Alas, it is time I read the actual classic.

 

Colonial Folkways, Charles M. Andrews
This slim volume was written in 1919 and describes daily life in colonial America. The subject interests me and I enjoy seeing how historians through the decades view their subject.

 

The Telltale Heart and other Writings, Edgar Allan Poe
I don’t have any works by Poe at the moment and wanted something for any ‘Scary October’ readathons.

 

The Winter of our Discontent, John Steinbeck
If I say I have never read a Steinbeck, can I still say I am a reader?; that I love old books? And yes, I have yet to read The Grapes of Wrath. I think I need a ‘California readathon’🙂

 

My sister is delivering to me a new bookcase this weekend. When she first offered it I was sure there would be a lot of empty space…

Looking Backward 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy (1888)

My Edition:lookingbackward
Title: Looking Backward
Author: Edward Bellamy
Publisher: A Signet Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1888
Pages: 222
For a plot summary

 

In your day, riches debauched one class with idleness of mind and body, while poverty sapped the vitality of the masses by overwork, bad food, and pestilent homes…Instead of these maleficent circumstances, all now enjoy the most favorable conditions of physical life; the young are carefully nurtured and studiously cared for; the labor which is required of all is limited to the period of greatest bodily vigor, and is never excessive; care for one’s self and one’s family, anxiety as to livelihood, the strain of a ceaseless battle for life—all these influences, which once did so much to wreck the minds and bodies of men and women, are known no more.[i]

Julian West is a young well-to-do Bostonian with a good life and marriage on the horizon. Living in luxury on the accumulated wealth of his great grandfather, his only pursuit as he tells it is on “the pleasures and refinements of life.” Typically, for a man of his social status, “he is supported by the labor of others and does no service in return,”[ii] which is the way his parents and grandparents before him lived.

There is only one chink in his otherwise comfortable and rich life: his insomnia is so bad he has to enlist the help of the mesmerist Dr. Pillsbury, who comes to his home some nights and hypnotizes him to fall asleep. While the procedure is complicated, the waking up process is not, so Dr. Pillsbury has taught West’s man-servant that procedure and is instructed to wake him up the next morning. On that fateful night of May 30, 1887, something goes awry and the servant does not or cannot wake him up. As West slowly comes to, he finds it is not the next morning, but 113 years later and is found fully intact and functioning in his bedroom by the present occupants of the house after a rainstorm flooded their basement crumbling away the walls of a previous building housing James West’s bedroom.

Looking Backward, is basically a long conversation between James West and Dr. and Mrs. Leete and their daughter Edith as they orient West into the America of the year 2000. Only a few generations away from West’s time, their education has given them knowledge enough to understand the Boston of the 19th century and compare the great changes in governance, education, employment and vision that West will find in 20th century Boston. The book is a primer, from Edward Bellamy’s point of view on how to create a just, economically equal, safe and well-mannered society. While there are a few excursions to eating establishments and to product distribution centers, most of the book takes place in the Leete home between the Dr. and Mr. West.

West learns of the bloodless economic revolution that occurred shortly after he went to sleep where the nation took over all means and manner of the production of goods and services, doing away with small businesses and large corporations, which only engendered competition, waste, and the great divide between rich and poor. Now, society is run by the people, with total financial equality as the hallmark of the new system. There IS no rich or poor, since each citizen is paid exactly the same amount, no matter their occupation. The class divide, the bane of all societies that causes the greatest imbalance of power has now been done away with. Therefore, there is no crime, since no one has less than his or her neighbor; no poverty, because regardless of occupation each is given a living wage; no feeling of alienation because all people and occupations are valued. Some features of this new society:

Education-teachers and parents observe a child’s talents from an early age so they can guide him or her into their chosen occupation.

Employment-everyone enters the work force at age 24 and retires at 45 and is on call for emergencies until 55, when their work life is over and leisure life begins.

Money-There is no physical money. Instead, everyone is issued a credit card that is filled each year. At every purchase the cost of the item is debited from the card.

Goods-clothing or furniture is stocked at distribution centers in each ward (neighborhood). There is enough stock for everyone, because no one over buys in this society where the desire for wealth or ostentation by material possessions no longer exists.

Dinner-each ward has a restaurant building, where every family has their own dining room. Minor meals are taken at home.

Domestic servants have been done away with, as has most household work. Clothes are washed at public laundries and mended at public shops, and electricity takes the place of lighting fires and lamps. Houses are no larger than needed and furnished with simplicity, which make them easy to keep up.

Technological advances-during rain storms a waterproof sheet is let down covering sidewalks so people can walk to dinner or shopping without an umbrella; music is piped into bedrooms and living rooms with the press of a screw.

Political parties during West’s time tried to right the unequal wrongs, but were not strong enough to change the whole of society, since their focus on class discrepancies was too narrow. Once a higher ethical basis for the rearrangement of industry and society was recognized the national party rose up. Taking that name to nationalize the functions of production and distribution, moved Americans into a union, a family with a common life; the most patriotic of parties, raising patriotism from instinct to devotion “by making the native land truly a father-land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.”[iii]

The book has much to offer as a construction of the ideal state for that time. I say, “for that time,” because it fails on the role of women. Granted, Bellamy was writing in the late 1880s and gender binary ruled the day. Still, this is a book about the future. He couldn’t use his imagination and take the present day women’s reformers and suffrage movement to their obvious next level? Instead, he kept women in their proverbial place using the same attitudes about their physical and emotional sphere as they did in the 1880s. Only men rise to a higher consciousness in his future while women are only thrown a bone: they are ‘permitted’ to work, but only amongst themselves and as an allied force not integral to the actual importance of society. Continues Dr. Leete:

Under no circumstances is a woman permitted to follow any employment not perfectly adapted, both as to kind and degree of labor, to her sex. Moreover, the hours of women’s work are considerably shorter than those of men, more frequent vacations are granted, and the most careful provision is made for rest when needed. The men of this day so well appreciate that they owe to the beauty and grace of women the chief zest of their lives and their main incentive to effort, that they permit them to work at all only because it is fully understood that a certain regular requirement of labor, of a sort adapted to their powers, is well for body and mind, during the period of maximum physical vigor. [iv]

And just when I thought Bellamy was advanced for his day by at least acknowledging the innate desire of women to contribute to society through work, my hopes were soon dashed when through Dr. Leete he says:

In your day there was no career for women except in an unnatural rivalry with men. We have given them a world of their own, with its emulations, ambitions and careers, and I assure you they are very happy. Women are a very happy race nowadays, as compared with what they ever were before in the world’s history, and their power of giving happiness to men has been of course increased in proportion.[v] * (See below)

Ah, the old ‘separate but equal’ was alive and well in the year 2000.

This is a short book, but is packed with political and social theory. The flimsy tale of James West’s arrival in the future is a device for Edward Bellamy’s dissertation on the perfect and just society. Due to this main objective, however, the book is short on a wider picture of his future world, for example there is no discussion on modes of transportation, what entertainment looks like, what is the style of dress for men and women, and so forth. I realize Bellamy is not a science fiction writer, but a little more creativity would have enhanced the story.

As it was, Looking Backward made a huge impact on many people and at its publication the book sold some 200,000 copies. By the end of the 19th century, it had sold more copies than any other book published in America besides Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The utopian society created by Edward Bellamy struck a chord and a movement was started to spread the ideas of his book. When Bellamy was asked for his blessing on these clubs and the ‘Bellamyites’ he wrote: “Go ahead by all means and do it if you can find anyone to associate with. No doubt eventually the formation of such Nationalist Clubs or associations among our sympathizers all over the country will be a proper measure and it is fitting that Boston should lead off in this movement.”

Although the movement all but vanished by 1900, at its height at least 165 Nationalist Clubs existed  all over the United States.

__________

*Similarly, Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Blythedale Romance, published in 1852, decided his utopia would keep its gender boundaries in the area of work when Zenobia declares, “we women will take the domestic and indoor part of the business, as a matter of course. To bake, to boil, to roast, to fry, to stew,–to wash, and iron, and scrub, and sweep,–these, I suppose must be feminine occupations, for the present. By and by perhaps when our individual adaptations begin to develop themselves, it may be that some of us who wear the petticoat will go a-field, and leave the weaker brethren to take our places in the kitchen” (pp. 43-44). Written 45 years later, Edward Bellamy’s women sure didn’t move very far.

[i] P. 146.
[ii] P. 6.
iii] P. 166.
[iv] P. 167-168.
[v] P. 170.

 

This book qualifies for my Classics Club Reading List, Back to the Classics and Reading New England.

Rock People

I am back in San Diego, house sitting,  through next week. It is a regular menagerie around here with two dogs, three cats, a turtle, a spider and fish. Paging Dr. Doolittle!

One of my favorite hiking spots here is in Mission Trails Regional Park. Inside the visitor center is a sculpture called, Heritage. The first time I saw it I had come from walking the long road that divides the park. I’d noticed how the rocks and boulders faced each other across the peaks, with South Fortuna, the most prominent on this side of the park with its wide promontory of tall boulders, greeting visitors as they entered.

southfortuna

South Fortuna

In the sculpture, the faces and bodies of aged Native Americans are carved out of boulders. They are at once, FROM the boulders and ARE the boulders. And that is why the boulder outcropping of South Fortuna draws me: they aren’t just rocks, they are Rock People, the Ancestors of the Kumeyaay, the indigenous people of this land.

rockpeople

 

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It is easy to imagine in the tall, flat rocks and boulders the Old Ones of this region, looking out across their land to what was, looking for their people, missing the acknowledgement and reverence they were once given, their presence remembered and acknowledge as the inhabitants moved through their day.

What do they watch for now, these sentries, guarding their ancestral home? I hope, from their tall perch, they see other people enjoying and benefiting from this beautiful open space, and happy their sacred land is appreciated.

 

sfortuna.jpeg

Climbing the Ancestors

Hawks and crows use their ‘heads’ as perches, smaller birds and animals use their nooks and crannies as living spaces. Some humans climb them or walk on them. Do the ancestors mind? Is it desecration to use a boulder like that? If one only stands and looks is that better than one who walks on it? Or is just the fact that whatever we do on this land without destroying it, enough?

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Grinding rock

Even if there is no conscious appreciation by most of the people who daily walk and bike the trails or the weekend climbers or the campers or noon-time picnickers, they are choosing to do their activities in the shadow of Fortuna, of Fortune and Luck. I would think the climbers, especially, would be appreciative!

This morning I stood for a long while watching this mountain from the road. Besides the birds, I could hear ruffling in the bushes close to me, see streaks of reptile zip across sfortuna2.jpegthe small rocks and I saw how plants grow out of tiny cracks on a boulder’s surface. But I also found myself breathing deeply the scents of the outdoors, of bushes and flowers and leaves reminding me where I was at that moment.

A woman asked me what I was looking at. She had come up the road with her dog dragging her from side to side as he picked up scents. I pointed to the hawks and crows flying above and perching on top of the boulders. She seemed surprised at that, but not enough to stop and gaze for herself. No matter. She was enjoying her trail workout and happy to share it with her dog. A legitimate way to use and appreciate the place.

Aware or not, the Rock People watch. May we honor the memory of their people and their land.

 

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Rock People have families

The Blithedale Romance, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1852)

My Edition:Blithedale
Title: The Blithedale Romance
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: W.W. Norton and Company
Device: paper book
Year: 1852
Pages: 251
For a plot summary

 

It was our purpose…to give up whatever we had heretofore attained, for the sake of showing mankind the example of a life governed by other than the false and cruel principles on which human society has all along been based.[i]

 

The Blithedale Romance is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s not so thinly based autobiographical account of his 8 months at Brook Farm, a socialist utopian community outside of Boston. The narrator is Miles Coverdale, a writer, who approaches this experiment with the expectation that the natural country air and physical labor of farm work will aid the writing projects he expects to do at night. And while we certainly get an idea of the workings of a utopian community, Hawthorne chooses to tell this story with that on the periphery.

Instead, The Blithedale Romance turns out to be more of a mystery novel centering on three characters Coverdale meets at the farm. The philanthropy-obsessed Hollingsworth who envisions building an institution for the reform of criminals on the Blithedale property; strong maternal Zenobia, whose early groundedness belies a future of intrigue and tragedy; and the wraith-like Priscilla who might not be of this world. Her entrance one night, unannounced, with the only goal that she is to serve Zenobia stymies everyone. Zenobia, is startled, but accepts this action as another sign underscoring the mystery of the romance of Blithedale.

Three quarters of the novel is about these three and their cryptic connections to each other that manifest as they busily pursue their utopian dreams. Their secret pasts and surprising familial connections are uncovered, one sinks further into insanity and sadly another commits suicide; strangers slink around the woods to ask questions first about Zenobia, then about Priscilla only to disappear; Zenobia tells the spell-binding story of the mysterious Veiled Lady, Coverdale almost dies of the flu and the city-slicker-turned-farmers almost ruin the community’s first seed-planting. So much for the peaceful pastoral life of a utopian society.

In fact, I was disappointed that Hawthorne told of his adventures in this way. I was hoping for more daily life, success and failures, the philosophical dream versus the reality of life, in utopia. I am with Henry James who although praised the novel also commented, “[I would] have liked to see the story concern itself more with the little community.”[ii]

While the stories of Zenobia, Hollingsworth and Priscilla are gripping at times and filled with pathos at others, they could have existed in myriad other settings removed from Blithedale farm. If Coverdale is a thinly disguised Hawthorne, am I to believe these characters and their trials and tribulations were HIS main focus? Ah well, I don’t like reviews that bemoan a book for not being about something else, so I will look for other sources about Brook Farm and its community.

On the positive side, Hawthorne IS a master at drawing fully formed characters, so in that regard, this novel does not disappoint. With all the shady folks moving in and out, the tale of the Veiled Lady, suspicious motivations and coincidental happenings, The Blithedale Romance would be a perfect read during the scary month of October!

_________

[i] p. 46
[ii] p. 14.

 

This book qualifies for Reading New England Challenge and my Classics Club book list.

 

Confessions of a Political Junkie

Dear Readers,

I am deep in American political convention politics at the moment and my earbuds are stuck in every digital device I own.

I am neglecting my blog and your comments and I apologize.

But I cannot get enough of these crazy times, the highs and lows, the embarrassments, the joys and the amazement of our complicated political process. And the fact that history is being made in yet another election cycle!

Yet, if it wasn’t for the group reading of George Eliot’s Middlemarch and the oddly fascinating Blithedale Romance, by Nathaniel Hawthorne for needed breaks from the insanity, I would be…well insane by now.

pollaurie2
I hope to have two blog posts next week to make up for my absence, so we’ll see how that goes. On the other hand, I may need to check into a sanatorium, instead.

November cannot get here fast enough!