Mademoiselle Misfortune Carol Ryrie Brink (1935)

“What’s the child looking at,” asked Miss Weatherwax?
“Oh, everything!,” said Alice. “It’s all so beautiful!…If you’ve never seen it before, you ought to take a long, long look. You’ll never see it just this way again.”

…said the little old American woman, “That’s right, I’ll never see it again for the first time, will I? Well, Alice, let’s stare.”

I gave this book 5 stars. I am not sure it deserves that many. Not that the book was bad, but it was a bit fluffy and short on any real complication. However, this year has shown me that I sometimes need fluff and a sweet, happy reading experience with characters whose evolution is optimistic and positive.

The story takes place in France with the close knit Moreau family. Alice Moreau is 14 years old and the oldest of six girls. Her brother Edward, the oldest and the only boy, is often her foil for excursions and attention. He is to follow in their father’s footsteps as a diplomat for the French government, although he is unhappy as he has no choice in the matter. Alice is looking for her place in the world frustrated that Edward is the child her father chooses when he and Madame Moreau attend cultural and social events and who has seen more of life than she has.

But that all changes when a short, older female ball of fire descends on the family. Miss Weatherwax is the sister of Monsieur Moreau’s great friend, John Weatherwax, a well-known American explorer and authority on the Incas. They met when Moreau was sent to Peru. Weatherwax has died and his sister, who spent her entire life looking after her brother’s finances and other details leaving him free to travel, has never left the States herself. Now it is her time for adventures and exploring and it seemed obvious that she should begin her explorations in France and with the family of John’s old friend. However, she has given the Moreaus no advance warning.

Miss Weatherwax does not speak French, but the Moreau children are fluent in English due to their father having been educated in England. The children are not terribly fond of English but their father forces them to speak, especially at mealtimes. After Monsieur and Madame Moreau visit Miss Weatherwax’s hotel for dinner, she invites them to the Paris opera with the stipulation they bring one of the girls. Alice is thrilled that she, not Edward, is finally the chosen one and is in blissful heaven as she prepares for what she hopes is a special experience.

mmisfortune2.jpeg
In the middle of the Grand Escalier de l’Opera Miss Weatherwax and Alice stared and stared.

Alice shines in diplomacy herself as she navigates poor Miss Weatherwax through the rites of the box seat after a kerfuffle ensues with another opera goer. Alice translates between the angry seasoned Frenchman and the naive American spinster and manages to smooth out if not a lasting peace, at least a temporary armistice for the duration of the evening. It is obvious to Miss Weatherwax Alice is the perfect traveling companion for the trip she has planned to the French Riviera.

They set off on an unforgettable trip full of danger, intrigue, a foiled kidnap plot and further diplomatic trials. Alice comes into her own not only as a diplomat in her own right, but develops detective skills, rescues a precious cat, foils and solves a kidnapping and spins stories for her sisters back home. This is a coming of age story not just for Alice and Edward, but for the entire Moreau and Weatherwax families. The perfectly resolved ending gave each and every one everything they wanted!


“The Six Misfortunes I call them,” said Madame Toussaint. “Six daughters! Six misfortunes, if you wish to have my opinion of the matter!”

[Alice and Miss Weatherwax] left their packing and went to stand for a few moments on the balcony overlooking the sea. A long shining path of moonlight spread out before them on the water, and Alice said, “That is our road, Mademoiselle. It’s all shiny and bright, and all the things that both of us have missed will be on it.”

Carol Ryrie Brink (December 28, 1895 – August 15, 1981) is best known for her frontier historical novel Caddie Woodlawn, which won the Newbery Medal in 1936.


Title: Mademoiselle Misfortune
Author: Carol Ryrie Brink
Publisher: The Macmillan Company
Date: 1935
Device: Hardcover
Pages: 267


Challenge: Classic Club

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.”)

 

 

What I am Reading in March (and it’s not what I thought)!

Two things happened over the last week that completely derailed my carefully planned out reading life for the next several months: I wrote up my review of L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, and had to admit the pull of images and text from my reading of The War of the Worlds has not and will not stop.

Firstly, I just have to know more about the woman, L. M. Montgomery. While I enjoyed the Anne of Green Gables series, The Emily books really struck home for me. But there is something about The Blue Castle that is calling me to learn more about Montgomery herself. So, I decided I will read one more novel, The Story Girl, since she said it was her best work (and although she was still a fairly young writer when she said that, I wonder if she ever changed her mind?). Then I will spend a month, either April or May, concentrating on her letters and journals and maybe a biography or two. I am not sure what I am looking for, but this desire to know more has become too insistent to ignore.

Secondly, more H. G. Wells? This attraction totally blind-sided me. Although The War of the Worlds is on my Classics Club reading list it wasn’t something I planned on reading so soon after joining up. It happened to fall on my list as the January Spin #11. And if they had chosen another number….?!

But I loved it! I can honestly say I was enthralled, sucked in, drawn along with the Narrator in each twist and turn of his journey. The narrative was so good, the social commentary on how a catastrophe affects people, fascinating. The scenes of Martian destruction created pictures in my mind I can’t forget. So, yes, I decided to read more this month. I never considered myself to be a science fiction kind of a gal…I blame good writing!

My projected reading list for March, which I am declaring “My March Month of (Mostly) Sci Fi” looks like this:

H. G. Wells:
The Invisible Man
The Time Machine
The Island of Dr. Moreau

About Wells:
H. G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, by Michael Sherborne
Aspects of a Life, by Anthony West (Wells’ son)

Jules Verne:
Journey to the Center of the Earth (Wells’ contemporary)

(And thank you to Jo Wass for suggestions for this reading list).

Little Women, because I must stay on some kind of track for the Classics Club and to better participate in Susan Bailey’s wonderful blog, Louisa May Alcott is my Passion. I have a feeling somewhere down the road I will have a Louisa May Alcott month, but let’s stay on the topics at hand for now 🙂

I am also reading some nonfiction as well as one book each for my reading challenges, which I am behind on. Can I catch up? Can I do it all?

March will be a verrrrry interesting month!

 

The Blue Castle, L.M. Montgomery (1926)

My Edition:bluecastle
Title: The Blue Castle
Author: L. M. Montgomery
Publisher: Feedbooks
Device: Kindle Fire
Year: 1926
Pages: 248
For a plot summary

The moment when a woman realizes that she has nothing to live for—neither love, duty, purpose nor hope—holds for her the bitterness of death.[i]

You see—I’ve never had any real life…I’ve just –breathed. Every door has always been shut to me.[ii]


Valancy Stirling is 29 years old and miserable. Unmarried, without prospects and living at home as women designated to “hopeless old maidenhood” are, she lives a controlled and conventional life under the thumb of her mother, her relatives, her own fears about life and the strict moral and cultural constrictions that rule every part of her inner and outer life.

“The greatest happiness,” said Valancy, “is to sneeze when you want to.” [iii]

Each day is monotonously the same. She eats the same thing for breakfast (even though she hates oatmeal), she knits with her mother and Cousin Stickles every evening (even though she hates that) and every word or action is rated and criticized by her clan. She is not even permitted to be alone in her room except when she sleeps, because people who want to be alone, could only be alone for some sinister purpose,” says her mother.[iv]

However, while words and actions can be controlled, dreams can’t. Valancy has an escape hatch, called the Blue Castle where she is queen. Each night, lying in bed, she flees to the Blue Castle from her futile, dreary world. Here, in this colorfully decorated, sensual home that she has created herself she is a beautiful woman with many suitors, who come and go at her whim. She can say and do what she wants without objection.

Against this somber backdrop that purports to last forever, “we are horribly long-lived,” [v] Valancy laments, is a very real fear about her health. The pain around her heart has gotten worse and is now accompanied by dizzy spells and shortness of breath. Without telling her meddlesome family, she finds her own way to the doctor and is examined. Weeks later, the diagnosis comes to her in the form of a letter: she has a terminal heart ailment and has between a few months to a year to live and must live a quiet moderate life until the end. So much for those health genes.

I’ve been trying to please other people all my life and failed…After this I shall please myself. I shall never pretend anything again. I’ve breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretenses and evasions all my life. What a luxury it will be to tell the truth! I may not be able to do much that I want to do but I won’t do another thing that I don’t want to do. Mother can pout for weeks—I shan’t worry over it.[vi]

With this prognosis, Valancy lets loose! Her pent up rage and emotions drive her to break all the rules of verbal conduct. She cannot keep her mouth shut for anyone. She tells her mother exactly what she thinks, pokes fun at her relatives who have been poking fun at her all her life and even swears, causing her surprised family to believe she is mad.

Breaking the taboo against leaving home as an unmarried woman she moves into the house of Cecilia Gay, an old friend who is dying of a lung disease who now lives with her father, is shocking enough. After her friend dies, realizing she cannot give up the freedom of being out of her family home, she asks Barney Snaith, a man she has gotten to know while caring for Cissy, to marry her. She tells him about her heart condition, so the marriage will only be for short while. He agrees and they marry, which pushes her family over the edge.

My Thoughts

Valancy Stirling has a lot in common with Montgomery’s other heroines, Anne Shirley and Emily Byrd Starr. They are similarly brought up in strict, conventional homes, surrounded by elders who toe the moral and cultural lines of the day. When these young women are ‘too emotional’ and speak their thoughts and feelings too freely or bristle against duties they don’t believe in or can’t accept, they are punished for acting out of the norm and breaking long-held rules. Yet, they push on, unwilling to give up on their dreams and a life that matters

Valancy is also a product of that liminal state of the older unmarried woman who though chronologically is an adult is still seen as a child due to her lack of a husband. There is no place for her in a society that only gives women worth and status by the luck of having a husband.

As only one of two novels by L.M. Montgomery purportedly geared to adults, I would have to disagree. This is a novel of a woman breaking free from the confines of a narrow world view in order to discover what is truly right for her. She breaks through her fears of safety and security to walk off into the unknown. She literally finds her voice and her own moral compass. I think this book is perfect for adolescent girls, who could benefit from Valancy’s journey.

I have read a reasonable amount of L. M. Montgomery’s work now and I would like to know about her own life. Because of the similarity in the lives of these three protagonists, I would like to know if they mirrored L.M. Montgomery’s in any way. Who kept her down? When did she feel she had to keep her dreams quiet? And how did she break free? Or did she?

It was so easy to defy once you got started. The first step was the only one that really counted.[vii]

____________

[i] 5.
[ii] 125.
[iii] 65.
[iv] 3.
[v] 5.
[vi] 51.
[vii] 82.

This book is on my Classics Club list