Mount TBR Checkpoint #1

First Quarter Check-in with the Mount TBR Challenge

I feel so behind with everything lately! My only defense is that we had such a dreary, wet winter here in Southern California that when it was all over, I just wanted to be outside; the sun was too distracting! Fortunately, all that rain did wonders for the drought we have been in and hopefully we will continue to conserve and use water responsibly.

Though my posts are a little less, still I feel I have made progress on my TBR pile.

Bev, of My Reader’s Block and the host of the Mount TBR Challenge, has asked us to check in on our progress and has these questions for us:

1.  How many miles up your mountain/number of books have you read?
I chose the beginner’s mountain, Pike’s Peak and I am proud to say I am half way there with 6 books read, to date.

2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:
A. Post a picture of your favorite cover so far.
This is no contest. The cover art from The Bronze Bow is beautiful.

bronzebow

B. Who has been your favorite character so far? And tell us why, if you like.
Hands down it has to be Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, because of her ability to see past the hardships of her reality into something better.

3. Have any of the books you read surprised you?
I had been wanting to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and it didn’t disappoint. I loved the historical aspect of the story, a true American immigrant tale, as well as the impact the book had on the public, especially that of soldiers who carried it with them into the trenches of WWII.
And I have to say, as absolutely depressing as Ethan Frome is, I could not help but admire Edith Wharton as a writer.

This is what I have read so far:

  1. Ruth Hall (1855), Fanny Fern
  2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), Betty Smith
  3. The Bronze Bow (1961), Elizabeth George Speare
  4. Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), E.M. Forster
  5. The Land of Little Rain (1903), Mary Austin
  6. Ethan Frome (1911), Edith Wharton

With a quarter of the way to go, I will not be surprised if I make up the next mountain. Unless, of course, we get more rain 🙂

The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare (1961)

My Edition:bronzebow
Title: The Bronze Bow
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1961
Pages: 254
Plot summary

 

“—He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.”

 

When I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond last year, Elizabeth George Speare drew me into 17th century colonial Connecticut by her attention to historical detail and engaging writing style. I would say Speare surpassed herself in The Bronze Bow set during the time of Jesus in 1st century Palestine. This is the story of tormented Daniel bar Jamin, a young renegade blacksmith whose hatred for the Roman occupation of his ancestral land fuels his every waking moment. Sold to an abusive blacksmith at age 13 when there wasn’t enough food for the family, he fled to the mountains above his town 5 years later and joined a group of like-minded warriors. He is now 18 and he and the other young men are restless to fight, but the leader of the group, Rosh, keeps putting them off sending them out only to raid the fields of their Jewish neighbors telling the young fighters they need to gather more men before they can take action against the Romans.

When word comes to Daniel that his grandmother is dying leaving his sister alone, he puts his warrior plans on hold and moves back into the city to take care of Leah. It has been five years since Daniel saw his sister and grandmother. When he knocks on the door Leah is cowering in a corner and he realizes at 15, she is still traumatized over the unbearable experience of watching their father die by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Daniel’s mother stayed with him on the hill and later died of exposure. Five-year old Leah escaped from a neighbor’s house and was found at the crosses for an undetermined length of time. But it was long enough to give her nightmares and a fear of all people.

The town’s blacksmith Simon, called the Zealot, tells Daniel he wants to leave his business and follow a new preacher named Jesus. He is not sure how long he will be gone, but tells Daniel he can use his shop, the tools and materials as his own and move into the house connected to it. After much persuasion and the kindness of neighbors who build her a litter, Leah is carried like a queen to her new home. Daniel attracts a wide clientele with the skills he perfected on the mountain and is able to provide good food and clothing for Leah for the first time in her life. He also begins recruiting a band of youth who are itching to fight the Romans who he hopes will strengthen Rosh’s group.

Meanwhile, Daniel has renewed a friendship with a boy he knew from school. When Joel and his sister Malthace hear about the warrior group they, too, want to fight. Boy, girl it doesn’t matter, they all want the Romans out! However, their family is moving to Capernaum and Joel is supposed to go away for rabbinical studies.

It is against this backdrop of violence and hatred that Daniel first hears Jesus speak. He is confused when Jesus addresses the crowd and talks about building the Kingdom of God, which is what he wants, but Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t seem to come with a war, so how would it get built? And Joel is confused because Jesus says things that don’t sound like a rabbi, “He practically said it was alright to eat without washing our hands. Perhaps it’s dangerous to even listen to him. And yet—.”

And yet, against everything Daniel and Joel have lived for, the righteous actions against the oppressor and the righteousness of the Law, they are at once drawn then repelled over and over by what Jesus says. The first crack in Daniel’s emotional armor comes when his friend Simon the Zealot, the former fighter for Israel has decided to give up his shop and everything else about his past life and follow Jesus. He tries to explain to Daniel what has changed, but Daniel is incensed.

“Supposed they put chains on all of you and drag you off to prison.”

“He [Jesus] says that the only chains that matter are fear and hate, because they chain our souls. If we do not hate anyone and do not fear anyone, then we are free.”

In the end, Daniel’s hate could not be sustained…

This novel is so rich in the details of 1st century daily life and Jewish ritual during the time of the Temple. Food, clothing, commerce and the different ways in which people react to the Roman occupation make this novel very realistic. Speare treats the complexity of feelings that Jesus’ words bring to the various characters with depth and honesty as they struggle to make sense of their long-held beliefs.

Speare won the 1962 Newbery Medal for The Bronze Bow, a young adult novel suitable for adults 🙂

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Classic Club, Back to the Classics, Mount TBR

 

Reading New England Challenge Wrap-Up

One of the highlights of my 2016 blogging year was participating in the Reading New England Challenge hosted by Lory of Emerald City Book Review. I read 12 books from specified categories, including one from each New England state.

I only started book blogging the previous September and was still getting the lay of book-blogging land when I saw the announcement for the challenge. I thought it would be a good way to read some classics I’d missed along the way.

I could not have chosen a better first challenge. Not only did I finally read Little Women and The House of the Seven Gables, I forced myself to read a horror novel and a book by someone I’d never heard about. I even bought a map of New England to track where the books were set!

One of the benefits of doing a challenge like this is being introduced to writers with whom you are unfamiliar.  If you were to tell me when I started one of my favorite experiences would be reading the aforementioned horror story, I would have called you daft. Or, that The Country of the Pointed Firs, a book by an author I’d never heard of would end up my favorite book of the challenge, I’d have been stunned. But both are true. I will be reading more of H.P. Lovecraft next year (during daylight hours, of course 🙂 ) and I have already read a short story by Sarah Orne Jewett (“A White Heron”) that was beautiful.

Other highlights for me: “Our Town,” Little Women, getting to know Nathaniel Hawthorne through The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, discovering one of my favorite films “The Haunting” was based on a book, The Haunting of Hill House and enjoying it as much as the film, and while I had mixed feelings about A Separate Peace I now know why a close co-worker finds it to be his favorite book.

 

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Thank you, Lory, for all the work you put into this. It was a great experience with lasting effects!

Here is what I read:

January: New Hampshire
A Separate Peace John Knowles

February: Fiction
The Blithedale Romance Nathaniel Hawthorne

March: Maine
The Country of the Pointed Firs Sarah Orne Jewett

April: Poetry and Drama
Our Town Thornton Wilder Thornton Wilder

May: Vermont
The Haunting of Hill House Shirley Jackson

June: Nonfiction
Hawthorne Henry James

July: Massachusetts
Little Women Louisa May Alcott

August: Children’s Books
The Witch of Blackbird Pond Elizabeth George Speare

September: Rhode Island
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward HP Lovecraft

October: Speculative Fiction and Mystery
Looking Backward Edward Bellamy

November: Connecticut
The Three Weissmanns of Westport Cathleen Schine

December: Readalong or free choice
Summer Edith Wharton

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.”)