A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier (2019)

And now for something entirely different!

singlethreadAs most of you know, this blog reflects a passion for classic literature–in particular, my love for the 19th and early 20th centuries knows no bounds. Every once in awhile, though, I read a review on someone’s blog of a more modern novel that for whatever reason piques my interest. When I read Sandra’s (A Corner of Cornwall) review of A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier, something compelled me to read it.

I enjoyed the book immensely. It was just what I’d hoped it would be as a respite and a calm pause to break the day to day turbulence of the news cycle that I often get caught up in. The book is a wonderful character driven account of a subset of people engaged in activities that were new to me and a main character whose emotional journey truly captivated me.

But I enjoyed this book so much more for two items in the story making me realize I probably would never have recognized them had I not started this blog. But first, a brief review.

A Single Thread is a simple story of a woman’s loss and grief and the will to find meaning in a life she otherwise never would have chosen. The book opens in 1932 and centers on Violet Speedwell, an English “surplus woman,” grieving the loss of her brother and fiancé who both died in the Great War. Like many women of a certain age whose prospects for marriage are minimal due to the number of men who died, she is finding it difficult to construct her future. She lives with her mother, herself grieving the loss of her son, and their relationship is difficult and strained. Violet puts in for a job transfer to the nearby cathedral town of Winchester, where she finds herself drawn to the community of embroidering women who make kneelers and seat cushions for the church, which she comes to see as a way for her posterity to be marked.

Violet embodies the great emotional and financial difficulties of these single women within a society that is not sure where they belong or how to treat them, as she struggles against village gossip, physical violence and familial ignorance. In the end, Violet, as we would say today, ‘finds her people’ in the most unlikely characters and creates a family support system that includes biological family and neighborhood friends. For a much more in depth and engaging review, please go to Sandra’s post.

As I read I was surprised by two references that brought to mind some of the reading and writing I have created on this blog as I pursue classic literature.

While I have never been to the city of Winchester, I am aware of a special object mentioned in the novel that it is known for that I recognized from my participation in Witch Week 2017. The theme for that year, “Dreams of Arthur,” gave me the idea to do a piece on King Arthur’s Round Table. A model of sorts exists in the Great Hall at Winchester Castle, believed to have been made in about the year 1290. The table top is 5.5 meters in diameter, weighing in at about 1200kg. It is without its table legs and hangs on the west wall. The artwork on the top dates later, to the reign of Henry VIII and shows a Tudor rose in the center and Henry as King Arthur surrounded by the 24 names of Arthur’s knights. When I saw it mentioned in the novel, with a bit of pride I realize my contribution to Witch Week gives me a secret connection to Winchester Cathedral and its Round Table, whether I have ever been there or not!

winchester

 

selborne

The second reference is to a book one of the characters is reading, Gilbert White’s, The Natural History of Selborne, that celebrates the natural world around the town. Last summer I saw it sitting on a bookstore shelf and found myself immersed in his descriptions of the animals and plants of Selborne and although here, too, is a place I have never been, I was drawn to it as I am with one of my favorite natural histories of a place (I also have never been to), Aldo Leopold’s, The Sand County Alamanc, a natural history around Leopold’s home in the state of Wisconsin. I bought the Selborne book laughing to myself at how odd I am, excited about my discovery and wondering if anyone had ever heard of it. Then to find it referenced in a contemporary novel, I was pleased, and the laugh was on me!

I don’t judge my interest in the past and whether or not it has relevance to anything important in the world or my life in the present. After all, I majored in Medieval history. And I don’t know why I am so drawn to the late 19th century now. But the pleasure of seeing these connections in my reading after over four years of concentrating on the classics, gives me a certain satisfaction that history is not a void, but full of threads that from time to time connect themselves into my present. And it is then I know all this immersing myself in a time period long gone is worth it.

_______________

Title: A Single Thread
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publisher: Viking
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2019
Pages: 336

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)

“Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated;…perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”
Mary Shelley

“Alas! I had turned loose into the world a depraved wretch, whose delight was in carnage and misery…”
Victor Frankenstein

 

frankensteinThe catalyst for Frankenstein Mary Shelley explains, is that she and her husband Percy were visiting the home of Lord Byron one dark and stormy night, when Byron laid down the challenge that each must tell a ghost story. Byron and Percy were able to create a story on the spot, but it took Mary a few days. In fact, she dreamed it. The result is one of the world’s most well-known classic tales of necromancy and Gothic story-telling.

As often happens when I read a classic novel that has seen countless film adaptations, I was very surprised that the book tackles far more than just the ‘monster parts.’  Shelley proposes thoughtful and deep topics and asks questions about personal responsibility, the quest for life’s purpose and leaves me wondering whether a monster has a soul?

Frankenstein is told as a story within a story by Robert Walton who is at sea and is corresponding with his sister, Margaret. But when the ship gets stuck in the ice floes of the Arctic, in the span of a few hours two very odd things happen. First, the crew spots a huge human-like creature driving a sledge with a pack of dogs passing at a distance. The next morning, they find another man, but more normal-looking, who is also driving a sledge, floating near them on the ice. He is near dead. The crew rescues him, revives him and while recuperating tells Walton how he came to be floundering on an ice floe in the middle of the Arctic. Walton records the tale for his sister in a journal. Frankenstein is the story of Victor Frankenstein, youthful scientist and budding necromancer whose interest in natural philosophy takes a turn from the traditional path of changing lead into gold to the perilous route toward creating life from death.

At university, Victor studies physiology, anatomy, the life process and the progression of death; he visits charnel houses and sees how the body corrupts and wastes away after the bloom of life.

After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter….It was already one in the morning….I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

After two years of working toward this goal of animating life from death Frankenstein succeeds. But instead of celebrating the work, he is horrified. He has created a creature, a monster. He cannot sleep for the nightmares that consume his waking and sleeping hours and falls into a many-month illness. From the very beginning that sparked the life of the monster, Victor is unable to accept responsibility for what he has created or the repercussions of the monster’s actions. This weakness in character will hound him for the rest of this life.

Meanwhile, the monster flees the town. He is a fully formed human-like man and as he roams the countryside coming into contact with people he not only sees, but feels their fear and disgust. He shows up near Victor’s home and kills his younger brother. Victor is still at university when he hears William has been murdered; he knows it is the monster. Unable to confess to the authorities what he knows for fear of being branded insane, he keeps quiet. An investigation and trial is held for the murder and through circumstantial evidence Justine, a trusted family servant of the Frankenstein’s is convicted of the crime and hanged. “The first hapless victims of my unhallowed arts.”

The monster is desperate for a place of refuge and finds it in an abandoned hovel near a cottage. The cottage is occupied by a brother, sister and their father. Through watching the interactions of the siblings as they care for their blind father he learns how they take care of one another, how they speak in kindness toward each other and what it means to be part of a family. Aware of his physical deformities he knows to keep out of sight, but he takes a chance on the father when the children are away during the day and forms a friendship with him. But the day comes when the children see him and the family flees the cottage. Brokenhearted, the monster understands his kindness or concern for others will always be outweighed by his physical appearance. There is no place on earth for him.

Where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses;…From my earliest remembrance I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I?

The monster finally confronts Frankenstein and describes his life, how he came to speak, to think, to understand society by watching this family. And now, by bitter experience he will never be able to live as they do, in a family or as a common man.

Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably  excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.

He pleads with Frankenstein to make him a companion like himself, so he can live as he sees others doing.

You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being….I now indulge in dreams of bliss that cannot be realized

What I ask of you is reasonable and moderate; I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself….we shall be monsters…Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless, and free from the misery I now feel.

The monster compels Frankenstein to this task and promises to live in secret, perpetrating no violence to any animal and away from any human contact.

Victor Frankenstein indeed created a monster, but what is amazing about this one is his heart, soul and intelligence. He has the potential to be every bit as kind and compassionate, moral and honest as any other man, yet he will never be accepted because of his physical appearance. No matter his good works or heroic deeds, his physical presentation will always negate his integrity.

My Thoughts

Victor Frankenstein turns his back on what he created. He abandons him on the first night, but once he hears his story, it is obvious this is a feeling, thinking human-type being, deserving of assistance, mercy and companionship. Would someone who created life really reject it like he did? The monster may be hideous to look at, but inside he is made like any other human being with the full capacity of feelings and outlook on life.

Would you reject a “nonperfect” child and would you expect it to fend for itself? Or is this something entirely different? Because the monster is not a helpless baby, but came into the world fully formed, who learned to speak, to cultivate his intelligence, to live in the world through observation, because he was made with wisdom already intact. Does he have a soul? He acts like it. He quickly becomes Victor’s intellectual equal. And Victor is given ample opportunity to make things right for him, instead he gives into fear.

Hounded for years by the being he created, Victor dies on the ship still unrepentant and without accepting any responsibility toward the monster; even as he lay dying he just wants the wretch dead.

The fate of the monster is sealed at Frankenstein’s death. Walton hears noises coming from the room where Frankenstein has died. He sees that it is the monster lamenting his existence that there will now never be redress against the man who created him.

Frankenstein forced him to a life of misery and neglect and now he will end his own on a “funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames….my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace….”Frankenstein1818.jepg

Shelley goes through such pains to tell the monster’s story and she imbues the creature with humanity and sympathy as with any other human being. She shows his compassion, his intelligence; he is creative, hard-working and capable of contributing positively to society. He develops the full capacity of feelings, agency and responsibility for others and this is to me the tragedy of Frankenstein and his monster.

Because the monster is a victim. And it is easy to interpret Frankenstein as a warning for these modern times as science advances toward cloning and other forms of creating genetically modified life. Can we use Frankenstein as a forewarning to illustrate imagination gone wrong, to get us to think about the results of such experimentation and to ask how and what we are responsible for when we take these steps? Is creation and human life about outward appearances as we go about creating perfect people? What do we owe to them when they turn out to be not so perfect?

Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings, who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion….When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.

___________________

 

Title: Frankenstein
Author: Mary Shelley
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1818
Pages: 185

Challenges: RIPXIV, Classics Club, Roof Beam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

I have observed that when I wore the semblance of Edward Hyde none could come near me at first without a visible misgiving of the flesh. This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde was pure evil.

 

drjekyllWhat a convoluted story! This door, that alleyway….Robert Louis Stevenson’s prose is almost as confusing as the story itself. And as a visual reader all the scenes look dark as if all of the action takes place at night, even the inside scenes.

While the first ¾ of this novella is hard to follow, the last quarter is quite profound and made me think of my own morality.

 

While I knew the basics of the story–a scientist creates a potion that turns him into an evil man–I was surprised that in the actual reading of the book that scientist was Dr. Jekyll. What I mean by that is having heard the story and seen the films, in reading the the actual book it was not immediately understood to me to be him. So, I liked that aspect of the mystery.

The story unfolds as a Mr. Utterson, a lawyer and close friend of Dr. Jekyll, first comes drjinto contract with Mr. Hyde while walking home one night. He witnesses a man and young girl collide in the street; he tramples her and continues on. Utterson goes after him, catches him and then forces him to make financial restitution to the girl and her family for her injuries. To make sure, he goes with the man to his home, waits there until he writes the check and waits at the back to make sure the check is good.  Mr. Hyde, who Utterson can see is deformed, stays curious about this mysterious man each time he passes his door.

Meanwhile Dr. Jekyll is becoming a recluse giving concern to Utterson who is used to seeing him often for dinner or drinks. As the keeper of Jekyll’s will he is worried at this odd behavior. His suspicions are heightened when, Poole, Jekyll’s long-time servant shows up at Uttersons’s home one night in great fear for his master. He says Dr. Jekyll is ill and spends all his time in the laboratory, but there is something else that has put all the servants in fear and would he please come immediately to the house? When he enters the home, the servants are convinced that although they only get a glimpse of Dr. Jekyll in his laboratory the man they see isn’t him. Although Utterson finds this unbelievable they are clearly in a panic and he is convinced to break down the door. Rushing in he sees a body on the floor. It is Mr. Hyde in his last gasp of life.

Dr. Jekyll Creates a Method of Dissociation

drj3As Utterson tries to process what he sees, he notices an envelope on the desk with this name on it. Inside are instructions from Dr. Jekyll dated that very day and state that Utterson must read the two letters enclosed before he does or thinks anything else. The first letter is from a mutual friend of Utterson’s and Jekyll, who writes about witnessing Dr. Jekyll’s change to Mr. Hyde. The second is Dr. Jekyll’s account of his life and his struggles at an early age with the duality of good and evil within himself and the experiments that culminated in the successful separation of the two and the creation of Mr. Hyde.

If each could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way…and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path…no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil….that in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling.

By finding the right combination of powders Dr. Jekyll had begun experimenting on himself until late one night as the nausea and aching subsided he sensed something strange and new. He felt younger, happier, more vital. He was Mr. Hyde.

“I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked…and the thought delighted me.”

A reverse mixture brings him back to Dr. Jekyll, but as time passes, he finds it harder to come back to his original self. He is horrified to realize he is becoming Mr. Hyde without taking the potion as if his evil nature is overpowering the good. As the influence of Hyde grows, Dr. Jekyll’s physical body declines. When Hyde beats a man to death, it becomes clear to Jekyll that there is only one way to stop Hyde–and therefore himself. This is the act by which he is discovered by Utterson.

My Thoughts

When I was a child, like many children, I had a “fall guy” or in this case two fall girls who I blamed for the bad things I did. Peggy and Shelly existed as my imaginary friends and though I talked to them and went on elaborate escapades with them I knew our association and my experience with them was in my mind and not in the real world. And although it sounded good at the time, it never worked to blame them for what I did. I grew out of a need for them at some point.

Whatever Stevenson is describing here with Dr. Jekyll’s dual nature might be more pathological than just some mean thoughts about the perceived unfair people or circumstances in life or an inability to take responsibility for our actions. I never wrestled with the kind of evil Jekyll does, but I hear every so often of a woman paying someone off to kill her husband or a man hiring someone to ‘get back’ at a person who wronged him. Most of us don’t ever go that far and are able to deal more responsibility with the negative parts of our nature.

And so I wonder about this story of Stevenson’s and what he is describing or warning us about? Is his Mr. Hyde living out a universal deep, dark fantasy over situations we believe we have no control? Is he describing the mind of a serial murderer or the mad scientist whose experiment has gone far beyond what he thought he was creating?

But is this also a cautionary tale about how one man deals with his negative passions, the dark thoughts that consume him and instead of facing whatever they are he acts them out not in a healthy way, but literally? Or maybe Dr. Jekyll is just plain crazy and Stevenson has illustrated the workings an insane mind.

Even if this is only a good fireside scary story, it sure made me think!

_________________

Title: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
Publisher: Bantam Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1886
Pages: 114

Challenges: #RIPXIV

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1878)

I feel that I am flying headlong over some precipice but must not even try to save myself. And I can’t…I have no wishes at all. . . except that everything were at an end.

 

annak.jpegOne of my biggest accomplishments this year is reading my first Russian novel. I am not sure what I feared all of these years, but it was unfounded. At over 800 pages Anna Karenina is full of unforgettable characters and their stories of triumph and tragedy. Though there were parts that felt a little tedious, especially the politically philosophical sections discussing the responsibility of land-owning aristocracy over the peasants, I was so engrossed I don’t think I skipped one word. That one of my favorite characters was part of these conversations, I plowed through.

While the action centers on three couples and includes the rites of courting, marriage and infidelity, the book is also about other kinds of relationships. The elite of the novel divide themselves into the city elite and country elite with high passions defending the perspective of each. There is the relationship some have with the Church and some who are disbelievers.  And in each character whether rich or poor, man or woman, government official or country land owner, they are fighting the relationship with the inner demons of their personal truth.

The action takes place during the 1870s and centers around the extramarital affair annak1between Anna Karenina and a young cavalry officer, Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky that scandalizes the community of Saint Petersburg when Anna makes the decision to make public this liaison by leaving her husband. The pair to flee to Italy and try in vain to live a normal life. Happiness eludes them and they return to Russia, where everything gets worse.

There are several parallel and revolving stories including Anna’s brother Prince Oblonsky and his wife, Dolly who themselves are dealing with an extramarital affair, his. Kitty, Dolly’s sister, is of marriageable age and is being courted by Konstantin Lëvin, a wealthy country landowner. Kitty has to work through her attraction to Vronsky, before she is able to accept Levin’s marriage proposal. Levin has issues with the management of his estate, because he is caught between the traditional feudalistic aspect of the landowner/peasant relationship and the new reforms that see workers as autonomous beings. He is also plagued by his struggle to accept Christianity, a necessity in order to marry.

There is so much going on in this novel that held my interest whether it was watching a character’s journey or enjoying the details of daily life; even the descriptions detailing the bureaucracy of the system of government at that time kept my attention.

In my edition, the front matter includes a three-page character list, with Russian names that are themselves long! I found that extremely intimidating wondering how I would keep everyone straight, but due to Tolstoy’s very well drawn characterizations and the themes that make up this book I needn’t have worried. And the struggles the characters go through hold interest in their universality: love and marriage; infidelity that is expected for men, but scandalous for women; the power of the Church in matters of relationships, raising of children and divorce; the issues of peasants rights at a time when a feudal society is changing.

I did not like Anna at first, because she had no guilt about her feelings toward Vronsky and how this affected her husband or child, especially after their affair came to light. But in a system that gives only the wronged party the power to divorce when feelings change in a relationship, leaving with your lover may be the only recourse. And as the pair try to live a normal life as a couple, it is clear they will never be free to do so, because her status makes her a pariah within the Russian expat communities in which they socialize.

Vronsky is able to move more freely through society. He considers Anna his wife and wants her to be treated as such. But in a society where female agency is not recognized, the act of leaving a husband and living with another man is shameful and their peers react accordingly. Vronksky sees their kind of relationship as a modern construction and believes in the sifting progress of “public opinion” regarding such relationships.

But he very soon noticed that though the great world was open to him personally, it was closed to Anna. As in the game of cat and mouse, the arms that were raised to allow him to get inside the circle were at once lowered to prevent Anna from entering.

Anna’s inability to move freely causes her great mental and spiritual pain, in part because her forced seclusion keeps them from forming a social life as a couple. Vronksy spends time with his friends and she fears he will tire of her, something his mother would like to see. As the months in this liminal state drag on, Anna’s anxiety over Vronsky’s willingness to stay with her reach a breaking point. After a heated argument, Anna is convinced he will leave her and as her mental state breaks down further thinks of suicide as her only relief. As one of the world’s classic novels and as the subject of many films Anna’s fate is well-known, but her end is still shocking.

Tolstoy illustrates his themes against a backdrop of a changing Russian sensibility in all areas of life. Levin, the land owner, is caught up in the new land reforms developing throughout Europe and there is a considerable amount of discussion over whether these reforms would work in Russia. Levin wants to understand the people who work his land and some poignant scenes include his working alongside them, experiencing the celebratory effects of physical labor and working communally. How different is his life compared to his friends in the city.

Levin: You can’t imagine how strange it all seems to me who live in the country…We try to get our hands into a state convenient to work with,…but here people purposely let their nails grow until they begin to curl,…we try to get over our meals as quickly as we can, so as to be able to get on with our work, here you and I try to make our meal last as long as possible….

Oblonsky: Of course, the aim of civilization is to enable us to get enjoyment out of everything.

annak2Levin is my favorite character, especially as he wrestles with his questions about the existence of God, a disbelief which concerns Kitty. The other characters seem to take the Church for granted whether they believe or not participating in its rites because ‘that’s just what one does.’ Levin is an agnostic struggling honestly with his disbelief. After a lightning storm catches Kitty and their son when they are outdoors their safe deliverance causes in him a change of heart in that he understands that he does believe at least in the goodness of God even though he will always have questions and may never feel as righteous as others. He understands that his belief cannot be reasoned out, but “I shall still pray, and my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.”

My Thoughts

There is no adequate way to write a blog post about this novel. From all the details of daily life–there is a lot of eating and different kinds of food in this book which I particularly enjoyed!–that show the corruption of those in government jobs, to the differences in the way city people live against those in the country who work the land, to the role of established Christianity in major life-cycle events and with those who struggle to believe.

It is easy to invest yourself in the outcome of each character’s story, because their struggles feel very present; they transcend time and place. Tolstoy manages to show the major issues that plague the personal, the political and spiritual are really universal and concern 21st century folk as they did in the 19th.

 

____________

Title: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1878
Pages: 806

Challenges: Readalong, winter 2019

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather (1913)

The land belongs to the future….We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it⁠—for a little while.

 

pioneersO Pioneers! tells the story of the Scandinavian, Bohemian and French immigrants who settled in the Nebraska prairies during the turn of the 20th century to farm, raise families and have the success impossible in the old country. But the land is harsh and uncooperative, the crops often fail and livestock die. Some families sell out and move to the city and some stay and try to tame the land. The Bergsons, who left Sweden 10 years prior, are one such family. As father Bergson is dying he gathers his children around him pleading with them to stay with the land; to follow the lead of their sister, Alexandra, to whom he leaves the farm and to make a go of it no matter what it takes.

But the difficulties aren’t only with the land. Alexandra is constantly fighting her brothers, Oscar and Lou, who see their neighbors leaving their farms and moving to the cities to work in factories.bohemians2.jpeg Alexandra will not give up on her promise to her father even when it looks grim. Drought and an unforgiving climate are not the only reason neighboring farms are failing; the tried and true methods of farming that worked in the old country are not relevant here. When Alexandra hears the communities “down river” are thriving she takes a trip to find out why. Upon her return she tells her brothers they have to sell their cattle and corn and buy up more land and they have to be open to innovation.

The rigidity in refusing to learn new farming methods as well as choosing different crops has raised another issue: gossip⁠—no one wants to make any innovation that their neighbor isn’t making. This fear of what others think affects many of the farmers including Oscar and Lou and they bring this up with regularity. But after her trip they see it is pointless to fight her; she has worked out all the financials and the new methods of tending the crops they will have to employ. Begrudgingly, Oscar and Lou accept Alexandra’s terms and after several years the farm is a great success

nebraskaplainsParallel to the growth and success of the land the people also flourish. The courtings, marriages and children populate the land along with the crops. Alexandra herself is like the generative force of nature, a divine spirit who resolves conflicts not only about the land, but with her neighbors. She sacrifices personal love and family for the greater love of honor to her father and for the greater good of the community.

Under Alexandra’s counsel the land and the people flourish. She doesn’t try to fight the land or to force certain crops, she tries to understand its needs. To see the land as it is and to not be afraid to go against the traditions of the past makes her land bloom. And this is how she is with her neighbors, a Mother Earth figure resolving arguments with compassion and understanding. Under her benevolent, but firm hand, the land and the people prosper.

Her face was so radiant…For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. The Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.

One of the engaging aspects of this novel is in the crafting of the characters⁠—the Bergson family and their friends and neighbors. They have an archetypal feel that gives this novel depth and a larger purpose.

  • Ivar the Fool, the solitary old man of odd habits and perhaps a little “touched in the head,” but whose knowledge of animal welfare is unsurpassed; his connection and ability to heal them is at once a boon to his neighbors as well as the source of their suspicion of him
  • Emil (Alexandra’s youngest brother) and Marie-the requisite Doomed Lovers
  • Oscar and Lou Bergson-the Evil Brothers, the naysayers, who want to undermine Alexandra’s success
  • Carl Linstrum-the childhood best friend who becomes the Delayed Love Interest
  • Alexandra-Demeter, the Great Goddess of the Harvest who brings fertility to the Earth
  • The Land-the Life Force, a sentient being that begs to be understood

The novel ends on a triumphal note, but not before a great tragedy occurs. Love and death are central themes in O Pioneers!

My Thoughts

The narrative describes many of the great themes in the settling of the US; immigration, taming the land, individual freedom and independence as well as the importance of community, love of tradition as well as innovation. Through the Bergsons and their neighbors the failures and successes of the immigrant families who made America, especially in this area of the country, are illustrated with a detailed and perceptive hand.

I found this book to be quite profound. The writing is spare, with a matter-of-fact style that is deep and poetic, but without sentimentality. For example, when Ivar discovers the bodies of Emil and Marie, above them

…two white butterflies from Frank’s alfalfa-field were fluttering in and out among the interlacing shadow; diving and soaring, now close together, now far apart; and in the long grass by the fence the last wild roses of the year opened their pink hearts to die. 

And the ending thus

Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!

I remember when I reviewed Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier and some of the commenters said they wished they hadn’t read the book, so they could read it again for the first time. I feel this way about O Pioneers! This is a multi-layered book with insights that continue long after reading. And for me a prose that sings to the love of Nature and the land that sustains us. This is reading as pleasurable as it can be.

_____________________________

Title: O Pioneers!
Author: Willa Cather
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1913
Pages: 309

Challenges: Classics Club, Back to the Classics

 

Washington Square, Henry James (1880)

Father: The principal thing that we know about this young man—leads us to suppose that, however much he may value your personal merits, he values your money more….If Morris Townsend has spent his own fortune in amusing himself, there is every reason to believe that he would spend yours.

Daughter: That is not the principal thing we know about him…He is kind, and generous, and true…and his fortune—his fortune that he spent—was very small!

 

washsquarebookCatherine Sloper is the only child of Dr. Austin Sloper, a well-respected physician among the upper classes of New York City. Mrs. Sloper died a week after giving birth to Catherine and left her a large inheritance. Upon Dr. Sloper’s death, her inheritance will greatly increase. In this lies the tension between the two.

When Catherine is 10 years old, Dr. Sloper’s widowed sister, Lavinia, comes to live with them as a companion and confidante to Catherine with the expressed mandate from Dr. Sloper that she “make a clever woman of her.” But that order is an utter failure and instead, Catherine grows into an extremely modest young woman with a dullness of wit and creativity. In social situations she prefers to lurk in the background which has given her a lack of romantic as well as general experience of the world.

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Washington Square Park, 1890

These character traits put off young men, even with the expectation of a large fortune, so Catherine is rarely courted. Disappointed that he produced an unremarkable child, her father acknowledges, at least, her faithfulness and affection to him. Catherine is not aware of the specifics of his disappointment, but makes up for what she feels by having developed the sense that all her decisions in life must please her father and in that sacrifice resides her own happiness.

But the unexpected happens when Catherine meets Morris Townsend, a friend of her cousin, who has recently returned from Europe. He begins courting her with Aunt Lavinia encouraging the couple to the irritation of Dr. Sloper. Townsend has no job, which is suspicious enough since he just returned from abroad. His intuition tells him not to trust Townsend, but Catherine has fallen in love.

Dr. Sloper is aware that his unworldly daughter would always be prey to fortune hunters, so it is with an eye trained to ferret out these deceivers that he sees Townsend. To prove his intuition, he goes to the home of Townsend’s sister, with whom he lives, and discovers not only did he spend what little inheritance he received from their parents in Europe he has no money or interest in getting a job. As poor as the widowed Mrs. Montgomery is, she supports him. After a difficult and lengthy conversation in which Dr. Sloper shares his reservations about his daughter marrying her brother, she acknowledges his fears and parts with these words, “Don’t let her marry him!”

When Dr.Sloper lays down the law that Catherine is not to marry Townsend, she is distraught. She cannot disappoint him and is convinced he just needs time to get to know Townsend. And so begins a battle of wills, a game cat and mouse over who will break first. Catherine’s duty to her father is just as strong as her desire for Townsend. In a bid to rid Catherine of her affection for Townsend Dr. Sloper takes her to Europe for an entire year. They rarely bring up Townsend’s name, but upon their return her father is stunned at her anxiousness to see him. When he threatens to disinherit her, leaving only her mother’s money if she marries him, she responds with, “if only you would get to know him…”

Would it help her father’s argument to tell Catherine of his conversation with Townsend’s sister and the true motive of his interest in her? It might, but he doesn’t. His pride dictates that Catherine’s duty and faithfulness to his wishes must be the only reason she gives up Townsend, not the evidence of an ulterior motive. To make matters worse and more complicated Townsend is persuaded by Aunt Lavinia to wait it out for she too believes Dr. Sloper only needs “to get to know you.” Townsend urges Catherine to elope, but she puts him off several times. Such an act is a betrayal of her father she could never commit. He has finally had enough of her hesitation and leaves her; whether for good, she is not sure.

My Thoughts

washsquare2If this sounds like a melodrama, you’d not be far off. In true Henry James fashion the reader is privy to all the internal strife and conversations each character experiences in his or her mind. This is a hallmark of any of his novels, long or short, and in this I am always reminded he is the younger brother of the great 19th century psychologist William James. But in this novella the mental processing works very well making this simple story richer, with the actors fully fleshed by their thoughts.

The narrative moves fast despite the psychological wrestling. This device may not be to every reader’s liking, but it gives a depth to a character’s internal process and struggles making their actions clear. There is never a doubt as to why a character in a James novel acts the way he or she does!

The obvious question is, of course, did Catherine marry Townsend or not? It took discipline not to jump to the end to find out. I was surprised!

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Title: Washington Square
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Bantam Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1880
Pages: 159

Challenges: My 2019 Author Reads

Nonfiction Friday-The Lost Words: A Spell Book, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, 2018

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Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed—fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker—gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren…all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.

 

LL2In the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary (OJD) over 40 words from the natural world were removed from the previous edition. New words added were those of technology. In response to this decision by the publishers, Oxford University Press (OUP), the writer Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris created The Lost Words: A Spell Book to conjure the words back into existence. It is a large picture book, with verse/rhyme/poetry that encourages the speaking out of the words and getting lost in the pictures.

Ivy

I am ivy, a real high-flyer.

Via bark and stone I scale tree and spire.

You call me ground-cover; I say sky-wire.

The editors at OUP justified their decision by saying these removals and additions reflect the world children live in now. But this choice begs the question, what are dictionaries for? If only to describe where children live, how do children see a world outside the one they inhabit?

The mental and physical (I would add creative and spiritual) benefits children receive from nature have been well-documented and the lack of this exposure even has a name: nature-deficit disorder. Adding words that have to do with technology, while removing the words that speak to a child’s natural environment was worrisome enough that it caused 28 well-known authors, nature experts and education specialists to sign a letter to OUP stating their concerns. The signatories included, Margaret Atwood, Sara Maitland, Helen Macdonald, Andrew Motion and Ruth Padel. The letter, in part:

“We recognise the need to introduce new words and to make room for them and do not intend to comment in detail on the choice of words added. However it is worrying that in contrast to those taken out, many are associated with the interior, solitary childhoods of today…The research evidence showing the links between natural play and wellbeing; and between disconnection from nature and social ills, is mounting.”

“The Oxford Dictionaries have a rightful authority and a leading place in cultural life. We believe the OJD should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends.”

Said Andrew Motion, former poet laureate [UK]: “by discarding so many country and landscape-words from their Junior Dictionary, OUP deny children a store of words that is marvellous for its own sake, but also a vital means of connection and understanding.

Lark

Little astronaut, where have you gone, and how is your
song still torrenting on?

Aren’t you short of breath as you climb higher up, up there
in the thin air, with your magical song still tumbling on?

Right now I need you, for my sadness has come again
and my heart grows flatter – so I’m coming to find
you by following your song,

Keeping on into deep space, past dying stars and
exploding suns, to where at last, little astronaut,
you sing your heart out at all dark matter.

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In its defense, the head of the children’s dictionaries said, “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance. That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed.”

Macfarlane countered, “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name. Do we want an alphabet for children that begins ‘A is for Acorn, B is for Buttercup, C is for Conker’; or one that begins ‘A is for Attachment, B is for Block-Graph, C is for Chatroom’?”

My Thoughts

I managed to find about 30 of the removed words.

acoLL8rn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, bramble, buttercup, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, herring, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mistletoe, mussel, nectar, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pasture, raven, starling, weasel, willow, wren

 

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Raven? They removed raven.

I am struck at the literary and cultural symbols here. Willows? The Wind in the Willows.  And raven; magical, terrifying and so much a part of horror and mystery books. Can you read Poe without knowing about such creatures? Then there are the trees of Britain beech, ash, hazel that feature in so much literature and poetry. And isn’t it a rite of passage when you know that a cygnet is a young swan? The significance goes on and what to make of it…?

As children become further estranged from the natural world what will that do for metaphor and simile? If you spend your days indoors and read, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and your idea of a summer’s day is talking on your Iphone or playing computer games, how do you understand Shakespeare’s meaning or other literature where the natural world is not personally experienced? Can you appreciate Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending if you have never seen or read of the heights to which larks can fly? Then there is newt. Oh, the spells that include “eye of newt!”

How will the nature-deficit disordered child read literature and understand their culture without being able to find definitions of words, or even know the words exist? Or am I going overboard?

 

Newt

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The too-cute newt

Newt, oh newt, you are too cute!”
Emoted the coot to the too-cute newt,

With your frilly back and your shiny suit
and your spotted skin so unhirsute!”

Too cute?!’ roared the newt to the
unastute coot. ‘With all this careless
talk of cute you bring me into
disrepute, for newts aren’t cute:
we’re kings of the pond, lions of the duckweed, dragons of the water;
albeit it’s true,’—he paused—‘minute.’

But that does come back to the reason we have dictionaries. Omitted words omit experiences, concepts, ways of seeing and understanding. Does language change, because our experience of the world changes? Or does our experience of the world change when we have no language for it? For gatekeepers such as editors of our great dictionaries, do they shape our world and those of our children by what words they keep in and those they leave out? Or are they just responding to the “signs of the time,” the priorities and lived experiences of our everyday lives and cut or add accordingly?

You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words—and it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and mind’s eye.

 

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Title: The Lost Words: A Spell Book
Author: Robert Macfarlane, Jackie Morris
Publisher: House of Anasi Press Inc.
Device: Harcover
Year: 2018
Pages: N/A