Book Review: Lark Rise

Lark Rise is the first book in a semi-autobiographical trilogy by Flora Thompson about her childhood in an English hamlet in the later 1800s. She writes some forty years later, looking back on a quiet, pastoral life that was later marked by great changes. Nowadays, the three books (Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, and Candleford Green) are usually published together under the title Lark Rise to Candleford.

This first book has no real overarching plot. It’s more a series of vignettes about life in those times: how the women kept house, traveling visitors from puppeteers to peddlers, how the squire and rector and their families were viewed, harvest traditions and celebrations, how school was conducted, etc. Often one individual or family’s story would be told as an example of the topic being described. Throughout the book we see some scenes or stories though the eyes of Laura, a young girl based on Thompson.

Thompson does not paint the village, the people, or the times as idyllic. The folks were poor but proud, hard-working, and mostly unsentimental. But they had their foibles, individually and collectively.

One aspect that was particularly interesting to me was that most families had several (as many as ten or twelve) children in a two-bedroom house. To ease the food supply and create more space, young girls were sent to “service” in another town as young as eleven. Mrs. Thompson detailed how girls began and then rose through the ranks from the lowest maid, sending home much-needed money and cast-off clothing from their employers (which meant hamlet fashion was just a season or two behind the cities, but the ladies didn’t mind).

One sad story had to do with a older man who was so ill, he could no longer live alone. His neighbors helped as much as possible, sending him food and such. But their houses were full and the coffers empty. The only option was the workhouse infirmary. “But they made one terrible mistake. They were dealing with a man of intelligence and spirit, and they treated him as they might have done one in the extreme of senile decay.” The doctor made arrangements without consulting the man, and came to his house to take him for “a drive.” “As soon as he realized where he was being taken, the old soldier, the independent old bachelor, the kind family friend, collapsed and cried like a child” and died six weeks later.

I enjoyed hearing how some of the women worked to brighten up their poor homes: “A well-whitened hearth, a home-made rag rug in bright colours, and a few geraniums on the window sill would cost nothing, but make a great difference to the general effect.”

The villagers, sadly, didn’t value “book learning” much. What little I’ve found about Thompson says she was largely self-taught. “She [his mother] hoped Edmund would not turn out to be clever. Brains were no good to a working man; they only made him discontented and saucy and lose his jobs.”

This aptly described an acidic postman: “So he went on, always leaving a sting behind, a gloomy, grumpy old man who seemed to resent having to serve such humble people.” Haven’t you known people like that, who always “leave a sting behind”?

This book wasn’t riveting, except for a few of the stories. But overall was a pleasant read. I hope the next two books have more of a plot to them, but I look forward to finding out more about Laura either way. I think the next book takes her to her first employment in a post office. After I read all three, I look forward to viewing the series made for TV based on the books.

I’ve had the trilogy bound together into one hefty volume for some years. But I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Karen Cass and dipped back into the book to look more closely at some of the quotes.

Coping and Ministering in Isolation

Blessed is the man who trusts the Lord, floruishing even in droughtAs soon as Arthur and Wilda Mathews arrived, they knew something was wrong. The Chinese church in Hwangyuan, China, had asked them to come and minister in 1950. But now the church leaders seemed strained. The Mathews soon learned that the area had fallen to Communism, and association with white missionaries was a detriment to the Chinese Christians.

The Mathews thought it best, then, to leave. But a capricious Chinese official would not grant their exit visas. The money from the Mathews’ mission came through this official, who then made Arthur wait, grovel, and ask repeatedly for the needed funds. The official only gave them a fraction of what they were due. He also slowly tightened the restraints on the Mathews. First, they could not have the building belonging to the mission. Then they could not evangelize or participate in ministry. Then, a short while later, they could not leave their premises except to draw water, buy food, and gather materials for a fire. And finally, they were not allowed to speak to other Chinese.

The Matthews’ story is told in the book Green Leaf in Drought by Isobel Kuhn, which I reviewed a few years ago here. Their story came back to mind in our current situation. They were isolated for different reasons than we are. We’re not suffering persecution, being spied on by people who would benefit from betraying us, or starved out by petty power-mongers. But they did wonder: how in the world could they be a testimony when they couldn’t even speak to people?

What was there inside these walls to do? It just seemed as if every time they tried to engage in any Christian service, they were knocked flat! Life’s accustomed joys were slowly drying up; but the trees of the Lord have a secret supply.

The title and theme of the book come from Jeremiah 17:8:

But most amazing of all was their spiritual vigor. Whence came it? Not from themselves: no human being could go through such sufferings and come out so sweet and cheerful.

As I was in a small prayer meeting one morning one prayed thus: “O Lord, keep their leaf green in times of drought!”

I knew in a moment that this was the answer. Jeremiah 17: 8: He shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.

That was it! There was an unseen Source of secret nourishment, which the communists could not find and from which they could not cut them off.

This is the story of that secret Source. To add another book to the many telling of trials under communist pressure is not necessary and is not our purpose.
But to tell of the secret Source by which a tree can put forth green leaves when all others around are dried up and dying from the drought—that is timeless. That is needed by all of us. Your drought may not be caused by communism, but the cause of the drying up of life’s joys is incidental. When they dry up—is there, can we find, a secret Source of nourishment that the deadly drought cannot reach?

Here are a few ways that Source helped them cope:

Resting in God’s sovereignty. They wrestled with “Ifs”—if the Chinese church had not asked them to come, if they could have gotten word to them before they came, if this or that had or hadn’t happened. They kept coming back to the fact that God orchestrates our steps.

They fed their souls truth. They regularly read God’s Word and Christian authors. They found help in something Andrew Murray had written (though Isobel doesn’t quote the source):

1. Say, He brought me here. It is by His will I am in this strait place and in that fact I will rest.
2. He will keep me here in His love and give me grace to behave as His child.
3. Then He will make the trial a blessing, teaching me the lessons He intends for me to learn.
4. In His good time He can bring me out again—how and when He knows.
So let me say, I am (1) here by God’s appointment; (2) in His keeping; (3) under His training; (4) for His time.

Before Easter, 1952, Wilda

set herself to study the resurrection story and the resurrection life. As she came to the part that Peter played in the courtyard of the high priest’s palace she suddenly felt heart-condemned. She had not said, I know Him not, but she had no joy. She was not bitter, but she was frustrated and restless. Her opportunity to witness to the Chinese eyes around them that she did know the Lord and that He was satisfying her drought—had she shown that? If not, wasn’t that denying the Lord before man? On her knees before Him she confessed it as such, and the result was a glorious Easter.

They learned to delight in God’s will. While studying Ephesians 5:10, Arthur was arrested by the phrase “learn in your own experience what is fully pleasing to the Lord.”

A few nights later it came to Arthur like a flash: the Son had left heaven, not [just] submitting to the will of God, but delighting in it. Up to now they had been submitting; rather feverishly submitting because they felt they should press His promises. “Lord, why dost thou delay? We could be out spear-heading advance into new mission fields! Open the door now, Lord!” They had been acting like servants who don’t want to do it but have to, because they can’t get out of it. What a different attitude was the Son’s! There came a day in June when together Arthur and Wilda knelt before the Lord and abandoned themselves to live on in that stinted little kitchen as long as He wished them to. And the peace of God poured in like a flood bringing such joy as they had not known before.

Arthur later wrote of this experience to supporters and concluded:

So we came to see that God wanted us to will with Him to stay put; not to desire to run away as quickly as we could persuade Him to let us … It was natural that we should go from there to cry with David, I Delight to do thy will, O my God (Psalm 40: 8)…So we are no longer stupid bullocks being driven or dragged unwillingly along a distasteful road; but sons, cooperating wholeheartedly with our Father…

They endured, trusting God was working through their trials. Arthur wrote, “These trials of faith are to give us patience, for patience can only be worked as faith goes into the Pressure Chamber. To pull out because the pressure is laid on, and to start fretting would be to lose all the good He has in this for us.”

And these are ways God worked through their ministry and testimony even when they were silenced:

The words, actions, and touch expressed earlier were remembered. Their first few weeks in Hwangyuan, Arthur had been able to preach and Wilda had been able to go with the pastor’s wife to minister to the women.

Little did she guess that her loving words and smiles those days were to be the only direct ministry she was to have among them. But it was enough to show the women and girls of Hwangyuan that the white woman in their midst was there to love them.

Those were the days of the touch of the hand, the loving concern in the eyes, the simple testimony of the voice. They would not be forgotten later on when the government forbade it.

People saw God’s provision in their need. Isobel refers often to what she called the Feather Curtain of God, based on Psalm 91:4a: “He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust.” Story after story relates God’s perfect timing and loving care in supplying their needs.

All the courtyard had heard when the father ordered the milk for the little one to be discontinued for lack of funds; yet that very evening, they not only sang, but the song of praise had an exultant ring in it! (No one knew of Ben’s secret gift.) And the next day the old Tibetan lady was recalled and the milk money was there! Had it fallen from heaven? It most certainly had not come in by the door—that they knew. Did the God of Elijah really live? What more potent message could God have given these people?

People saw them endure the same trials they were experiencing. “The message above all others which the Chinese church needed was to see that truth lived out under circumstances equally harrowing as their own.”

[Arthur wrote} “Then Christmas night, another kind of gift, from the One whose birthday it was. This is what happened. Timothy [the spy] away, the local shepherd voluntarily came to the door to wish us Merry Christmas, and to tell us that the church was packed with outsiders and the few believers, who were met together for singing and the Christmas message.”

What had packed that church with heathen, living under communism? What we lack and lose and suffer are our most prized facilities for bringing home to the hearts of this people the glorious gospel of the grace of God. They had seen green leaves in a time of drought; they themselves were dried up to the point of cracking. What made these Christians able to stay uncomplaining, smiling above their patched clothes, and despite their growing thinness? How did they stay alive when Felix had done his best to starve them? They knew the power of Felix. This was the service which God had planned for His children when He deliberately brought their feet into the net.

In another section:

Was the Chinese Christian falsely accused? So were Arthur and Wilda Mathews. Was he persecuted? So were they. Was he attacked by sickness and bereavement without much medical aid? So were they. Was he laughed at? jeered at? constantly humiliated? So were they. Was he tantalized by specious promises of release? So were they. Was he forced to do menial work, thought very degrading? Much more Arthur Mathews…

And yet as trial piled upon trial; as the ground (their human comforts) grew so parched with drought that it threatened to crack open, their leaf was still green. Every evening the sound of singing and praise to their Lord ascended…Their clothes grew ragged, and their food became so poor that the Chinese themselves were moved with pity. Yet still these missionaries sang on and taught their patched-clothes baby: “In heavenly love abiding, No change my heart shall fear,” until she could sing it too.

Eventually Arthur and a coworker were the very last China Inland Mission members to be evacuated out of China after the Bamboo Curtain fell. Wilda and their little daughter, Lilah, had been sent out a short time earlier. But they all left behind with the Chinese church, the CIM family, and everyone who has read their story a testimony of God’s grace and provision.

Isobel concludes: “But who knows when the drought is going to strike us also? Is it possible for any Christian to put forth green leaves when all he enjoys in this life is drying up around him?” Yes. God’s promises are still true. May He keep our leaves green and flourishing for His glory.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Global Blogging, Senior Salon, Hearth and Soul,
Tell His Story, Purposeful Faith, Happy Now, InstaEncouragement,
Anchored Abode, Recharge Wednesday, Worth Beyond Rubies,
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Quarterly Reading Update

My long-time blog friend, Susanne, is hosting a quarterly get-together to set and discuss reading goals. Her second-quarter post is here.

As I mentioned in my first quarter reading list, most of my reading choices come from the Back to the Classics Challenge and two reading challenges encouraging us to read what we already own. I supplement those with other books depending on the season or my interests. Sometimes I want to get in on a new book as soon as it is released.

The classics I finished this quarter are:

The first two were on my first-quarter list. Doctor Thorne was not, but it did count for the classics challenge. Larkrise to Candleford by Flora Thompson was also on my list: I am listening to the first book in that series now. So I’m pretty much on point with classics.

Books from my TBR stash or list that I finished:

Fiction:

Nonfiction:

The starred items were on my first-quarter goal list. I had not planned on Wiersbe’s two books, though I’ve had them for a long time. I didn’t complete two on the original list, but with these two instead, I feel good about meeting my goals. I’ve finished one other that I have mixed emotions about and haven’t decided whether to review.

Another I read that I had not originally planned on was Old Town in the Green Groves by Cynthia Rylant, about the “lost years” of the Little House books, borrowed from the library.

Although I enjoyed all of these, probably Doctor Thorne and The Last Castle were my favorites.

For next quarter:

Classics: I’ll finish Lark Rise by Flora Thompson, but I’ll hold off on the rest of the trilogy until after I do a little more work on the Back to the Classics Challenge. I’d also like to read more of Trollope’s Barsetshire series, but will wait for the same reason. I’m undecided about which category to tackle next. Tarissa at In the Bookcase hosts the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge in June, so I plan to read Eight Cousins and possibly Rose in Bloom for that.

From my TBR piles:

I think I’ll hold off on the Anne Lindbergh book from last quarter’s list. I want to read it. But it’s a hefty one, and I’m just not quite in the mood for it now. But I’ll look forward to:

Fiction:

  • The One True Love of Alice Ann by Eva Marie Everson (moved from last quarter’s list)
  • Castle on the Rise by Kristy Cambron (currently reading)
  • A Portrait of Marguerite by Kate Lloyd (currently reading)
  • The Space Between Words by Michelle Phoenix
  • The Dwelling Place by Elizabeth Musser

Nonfiction:

  • The Women of Easter: Encounter the Savior with Mary of Bethany, Mary of Nazareth, and Mary Magdalene by Liz Curtis Higgs (currently reading)
  • Breaking Anxiety’s Grip: How to Reclaim the Peace God Promises by Dr. Michelle Bengston (currently reading)
  • Be Rich (Ephesians) Gaining the Things That Money Can’t Buy by Warren Wiersbe

That’s not enough for three months, but I have stacks of TBR books on my shelves and in my Kindle app to choose from.

What are you reading next?

 

 

Book Review: The Last Castle

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan is about the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC, and the people involved with it. I wanted this book first of all because the Biltmore has been a favorite place to visit. But Denise’s previous book, The Girls of Atomic City, about the rising up of the Secret City of Oak Ridge, TN during WWII, was so well done and enjoyable, I knew she would do an equally good job with the Biltmore’s history.

George Washington Vanderbilt’s grandfather, Cornelius, made his fortune in the railroads. He also had Grand Central Station built. I was thankful I had read Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age last year, because that book covers this era. The old-family-money folks, the Four Hundred, as they were called, looked down on the new-money people like Cornelius Vanderbilt. Cornelius himself was rather rough around the edges.

But by George’s time, the family members were accepted in society. His two older brothers took over the family business, but George had no interest in it. He was introverted and liked reading, travel, and art. He kept record of the books he read and, as an adult, “averaged eighty-one books a year” (p. 126).

Diary entries from when George was thirteen years old reveal him to be a penitent, thoughtful young man: “I read my Bible this morning and began Isaiah and I think that was what made me feel so happy through the day. . . I have been reading a book this afternoon from which I ought to learn a very useful lesson of truth and gaining control over my temper, but I can do nothing without God’s help because if I rely on my own resolution I am sure to fail. . . . I don’t think I have spent today as I should have done. I have trusted too much in my own ability and not enough in Jesus (p. 12).

At age twenty-five, George visited the Asheville, NC, area with his mother, who was recovering from malaria. George himself did not have a robust constitution, and tuberculosis was a feared disease at the time. Asheville had several “breathing porches” for those wanting fresh mountain air. When George saw Mt. Pisgah, he fell in love with the area. It was common for prominent NY families to have summer homes, and George decided this was the place for his. He began quietly buying tracts of land.

Construction began in 1889. George hired famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to construct a home out of Indiana limestone to look like a French chateau. Frederick Law Olmsted , who constructed Central Park in NY, supervised the grounds. The land had been severely depleted, and Olmsted “was not impressed.” But he did a masterful job, considering not only what the landscape needed at the time, but how it would grow in the next hundred years.

George opened the home to family and friends in 1895, but it was far from finished. Construction went on for anther five years, but some parts of the house were still unfinished when George died.

George was still a bachelor until age thirty-five. I enjoyed hearing how George’s sisters encouraged one of his friends to arrange time for George and Edith Stuyvesant Dresser to have time alone together while on a ship to Paris. Edith was from one of the “four hundred” families, but both her parents had died and the family’s funds had greatly dwindled.

George and Edith were married in 1898. Their only child, Cornelia, was born in 1900.

Edith was the perfect choice for George’s wife and the lady of Biltmore. She “strode deftly between these two worlds, one of Victorian elegance, the other of rugged mountain simplicity. She may have appeared to live the life of the elite, but to those beyond the iron gates of the estate, Edith quickly emerged as one who was decidedly of the people” (p. 156).

George had plans for the estate to become self-sustaining. That didn’t happen for decades, but he started a dairy, was responsible for the first forestry school, and had several other plans for a working estate.

George and Edith were both involved in numerous charitable endeavors. George built a village for estate workers and funded the building, upkeep, and personnel of All Souls Episcopal Church. Edith not only provided funds but actively participated in several endeavors in the area.

Though George Vanderbilt was not a statesman, his contributions to history, culture, and forestry cannot be denied as he employed some of the greatest minds behind America’s civic, private, and untamed places. Though Edith was not the wife of a president, her tireless efforts in the community changed many a life; ensured the education of those with limited access to school, books, and teachers; and fostered craftsmanship and self-sufficiency (p. 302).

Sadly, George died fairly young, at age 51, after an appendectomy. The estate cost a great deal of money to keep up. Edith sold land to create the Pisgah National Forest, eventually sold off Biltmore Industries, and took various measures to preserve George’s dream.

In 1930, Cornelia and her then husband, John Cecil, opened the house to the public. It still took several years before the estate became truly self-sufficient and then started turning a profit. The Cecils divorced, with John staying in the bachelor’s wing of the estate and Cornelia selling out her portion. The house eventually came to George’s youngest grandson, William Cecil. George’s great-grandson was the current CEO at the time the book was written. Over time, the Cecil family added new features (a winery, inn, Antler Village, etc.).

The Biltmore is still privately owned. “Private ownership means that the estate receives no government grants, nor is it eligible for any associated not-for-profit tax breaks. Property and inheritance taxes remain a financial hurdle to be cleared” (p. 298).

The book goes on to tell what happened with each of the family members and many of their friends, the effects of the Depression, WWII (the Biltmore secretly stored art from Washington, DC, in case of attack on the capital), a record-setting destructive flood, and changes of times and tastes. If you’re familiar with Downton Abbey, one of the overarching themes of the show was the family’s adjustment to the major changes of the times. Those associated with the Biltmore faced these changes, too, from Gilded Age opulence to the Progressive Era and Arts and Crafts movement. “The artificial would soon give way to the natural; that which was of the elite, would soon be of the people” (p. 156). A caption under one picture of the house says, “No home in the United States has ever come close to beating the size of the 175,000-square-foot Biltmore House. But its greatest achievement may well be the fact that it has survived into the twenty-first century while other Gilded Age masterpieces have long since disappeared.”

There are so many other tidbits from the book I’d love to share (the effects of the estate on the area, a number of authors associated with Asheville, Cornelia’s life, the associations with the Grove Park Inn, which we have visited several times, and so much more.) But this post is quite long already.

I wish we could have gotten to know a bit more about the Vanderbilt family member’s personalities: Denise wished that, too, but there were not many diaries or personal letters to draw from.

My only small disappointment with the book is the cover. While the Biltmore is glorious at night, a daytime shot with the hills behind, the esplanade in front, and the grounds is so much prettier.

Denise has done tremendous amounts of research—there are over 50 pages of end notes. Yet she has managed to weave all this detail into a flowing and fascinating story.

One of the things I love about the Biltmore is that the whole house is a work of art. Every aspect was crafted with thought and taste. And, as Denise says:

Though it may be necessary to look past a sea of Bermuda shorts and ball caps and navigate legions of audio-tour zombies, a walk through the house today can transport you. . . . Walking the halls of Biltmore House for a day is a journey back in time (p. 297).

If you have an interest in the Biltmore House, the Vanderbilts, or this time in history, you’ll love The Last Castle.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

 

Book Review: Doctor Thorne

Doctor Thorne by Anthony TrollopeIn Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, the title character is a country doctor in a little English village. He had never married, but he had taken in his niece, Mary, when she was a child. She was the offspring of his ne’er-do-well brother and a girl in the village. His brother had been killed by the brother of the girl he seduced, and that girl, Mary’s mother, moved to America. Because Mary was with a caretaker and then away at school, by the time she came to Doctor Thorne’s home, no one made the connection between her and Thorne’s brother.

The leading family in the area were the Greshams of Greshamsbury. The squire and the doctor were good friends. Lady Gresham had come from a more highborn family and thus had lofty ideas of rank, birth, and privilege. Against her better judgment, she allowed Mary Thorne to come to her home to be taught with and to play with her daughters. Lady Gresham did not know Mary’s birth status, but even the niece of a country doctor was not the sort of person she would have preferred her children to be close to. But Mary was a good girl, and the squire in particular loved having her.

The Greshams had one son, Frank. By the time Frank came of age, his father’s debts had greatly reduced the estate. The only hope for the family’s financial survival was for Frank to marry money. But—Frank had fallen in love with Mary. He claimed he didn’t need the estate; he would learn a profession. His parents, his mother in particular, chalked his attitude up to immaturity and schemed to keep him and Mary apart.

Meanwhile, Roger Scatcherd, Mary’s unknown uncle who had killed her father, had served time for manslaughter. When he was released from prison, his skill and knowledge with railroads made him a lot of money. He eventually became a baronet. But now he was stuck between two classes. The lower classes with whom he would have formerly associated now saw him as above them. But the high society looked down on him as below them, even though he had more money than most of them. His besetting sin was drinking alcohol, which ruined his heath. Unfortunately, his son was following in his father’s footsteps.

Other subplots include Frank’s sisters’ romantic encounters, an election between Scatcherd and Frank’s sister’s beau, a wealthy and unconventional American girl who comes to visit, and an ongoing feud between Dr. Thorne and the elite doctors in nearby Barchester.

This book is the third in Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series. I haven’t read the other books in the series, or anything else by Trollope. I became aware of this story while looking for something to watch while riding my exercise bike. I discovered a series on Amazon Prime developed by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame. I enjoyed the series so much, I soon sought out the audiobook.

In Fellowes’ series, he introduces and closes each installment in a cozy wing chair by a fireplace. Trollope’s narration seemed to me to be in a similar style, as if he were sitting across from the reader while telling this story. I don’t know if that image was in my mind because of the series, or if Fellowes felt the same way about Trollope’s writing.

I love the way Trollope addresses the reader throughout the story.

As Dr Thorne is our hero—or I should rather say my hero, a privilege of selecting for themselves in this respect being left to all my readers—and as Miss Mary Thorne is to be our heroine, a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to any one, it is necessary that they shall be introduced and explained and described in a proper, formal manner. I quite feel that an apology is due for beginning a novel with two long dull chapters full of description. I am perfectly aware of the danger of such a course. In so doing I sin against the golden rule which requires us all to put our best foot foremost, the wisdom of which is fully recognised by novelists, myself among the number. It can hardly be expected that any one will consent to go through with a fiction that offers so little of allurement in its first pages; but twist it as I will I cannot do otherwise. I find that I cannot make poor Mr Gresham hem and haw and turn himself uneasily in his arm-chair in a natural manner till I have said why he is uneasy. I cannot bring in my doctor speaking his mind freely among the bigwigs till I have explained that it is in accordance with his usual character to do so. This is unartistic on my part, and shows want of imagination as well as want of skill. Whether or not I can atone for these faults by straightforward, simple, plain story-telling—that, indeed, is very doubtful.

Another favorite line:

What had he not done for her, that uncle of hers, who had been more loving to her than any father! How was he, too, to be paid? Paid, indeed! Love can only be paid in its own coin: it knows of no other legal tender.

As I watched the series, I felt it had elements of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. The TV series was fairly predictable, but still enjoyable. The book, of course, is much more nuanced.

My only complaint is that there seemed to be a good bit of repetition: some of the same points of conversation seemed to come up several times, sometimes with the same people.

But overall, I loved the book and want to read the rest of the Chronicles of Barsetshire.

I listened to the audiobook superbly narrated by David Shaw-Parker.

Here’s a trailer for the TV series:

Have you read anything by Trollope? What did you think?

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

 

 

Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge Wrap-up for 2020

The end of February closes the Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge. I hope you had fun with it, and I look forward to hearing about what you read!

A week from today I’ll use random.org to draw a name from the comments on this post to win either The Little House Cookbook compiled by Barbara M. Walker, Laura’s Album: A Remembrance Scrapbook of Laura Ingalls Wilder by William Anderson, The Little House Coloring Book, or a similarly-priced book related to Laura. A week should give some who are still reading time to finish up and post. You don’t have to have a blog to participate: you can tell us what you read in the comments here. If you have a blog, you can either let us know what you read in the comments or share the links back to any reviews or challenge-related posts from your blog or even from Goodreads if you review books there. Due to shipping costs, I’m afraid I can only ship to those in the US.

I only read one book this year: Old Town in the Green Groves by Cynthia Rylant about the two years Laura left out of the Little House Books.

Old Town in the Green Groves about Laura Lingalls Wilder's lost years
The book I had originally planned to read was actually about Little Women rather than Little House, so I’ll save it for Tarissa’s Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge in June.

As I mentioned earlier this year, this will be the last Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge hosted here, for a number of reasons. Thanks so much to those who have participated at any point during the last nine years. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed delving into books by and about Laura, discussing them with you, and hearing what you’ve read.

Remember, leave a comment on this post about what you read or did for the challenge before Saturday of next week to be eligible for the drawing.

Update: The winner is Tarissa! Congratulations!

Book Review: Old Town in the Green Groves

Laura Ingalls Wilder originally wrote out the story of her life in Pioneer Girl. When that manuscript was rejected several times, acting upon suggestions from editors, Laura reframed her narrative into a story for children about a pioneer family traveling west (p. 31). She left out a year that the family traveled back east due to the grasshopper infestations that twice ruined their crops and hopes in Plum Creek, although she had told of it in Pioneer Girl. Pamela Smith’s Hill’s notes on this section in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography says:

She deliberately chose not to depict this part of her family’s experiences in her fiction. “It is a story in itself,” Wilder explained to Lane in 1937, “but does not belong in the picture I am making of the [fictional Ingalls] family (LIW tp RWL, [Dec. 1937 or Jan. 1938], Box 13, file 193, Lane Papers). Moving the fictional family east and not west would have undermined Wilder’s optimistic portrait of their resilient pioneer spirit. Furthermore, her experiences in Burr Oak were more urban, gritty, even edgy. Although Wilder introduced some adult ideas and themes into her later novels, she waited until the fictional family had moved west once more into Dakota Territory, where her main character was a more mature adolescent. Wilder herself was just nine years old when the family moved to Burr Oak (p. 95, note 99).

I’ve seen some criticism of Laura for leaving out the events that take place in Burr Oak. But I would defend her decision for several reasons. Everything I have read about memoirs and autobiographies says you can’t share everything. She did include this era in her original autobiography. The Little House books were fictionalized, focusing on the life and progress of a pioneer family. The time in Burr Oak might have seemed a stop or even a setback to the action. Plus the family’s proximity to a saloon and the unsavory behavior they saw and heard might not have seemed suitable to an audience of children at the rime she was writing.

Old Town in the Green Groves about Laura Lingalls Wilder's lost yearsBut readers are curious about the “lost years” in the LH narrative. So Cynthia Rylant was asked to write what was known about the family’s story during this period in the style of the LH books. Her book is Old Town in the Green Groves.

The story begins back in Plum Creek, where the family contentedly moved from their winter rental house back to their farm. Baby brother Freddie was born. Ma was severely ill for a while, but recovered. Then the second wave of grasshoppers returned and destroyed everything growing. Pa declared he’d had enough of the “blasted country.” He had debts to pay, and the crop that would have paid them was ruined. Pa sold the farm to pay off the debts and lined up a job at a hotel in Burr Oak in Iowa.

On the way, the family stayed with their aunt and uncle and cousins, Peter and Eliza Ingalls and their children. They helped in various ways around the farm until ready to move on. Sadly, brother Freddie died there.

One chapter describes meeting with a kind beekeeper who was also planning to move since the bees couldn’t thrive without flowers. (Hill’s note on p. 96 of her book says Charles and this beekeeper kept in touch with each other for years).

When they arrived in Burr Oak, they lived above the hotel. Life was hectic: Ma helped with cooking and cleaning, and the girls all had to help, too. The saloon next door was loud, people were constantly coming in and out. Laura missed the quiet of her home and the prairie.

The book goes on to describe the various people they encountered and things that happened in Burr Oak before they decided to head west again.

I think Rylant did a good job. Just glancing over this section again in Pioneer Girl, I can see how Rylant took the narrative and fleshed it out. It’s more or less in the style of the LH books, but it’s not Laura: it couldn’t be.

I was glad to see the illustrations by Jim LaMarche in my library copy were also similar to the Garth William’s illustrations of the Little House.books. Like the words, they were not quite the same, but they seemed a similar style and spirit.

The book cover shown above is the one on my library copy. I’ve seen another illustrated cover here that makes Laura seem a little older and a photographed cover here that I didn’t care for at all.

I share my friend Ann‘s concern over the placement of the book on the back cover. The top says “Read all the Little House books.” The covers of all the books are shown, with this book set in-between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. I’m assuming this was done to show that the action in this book takes place between those two. But, as fine as this book is, I would regard it as supplemental and wouldn’t include it as part of the set or as one of the LH books.

Though this book describes some of the hard times the family went through, it also shares their resilience and hope. It’s a good story in its own right, but especially for fans of the Little House books.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: The Words Between Us

In Erin Bartels’ novel, The Words Between Us, Robin Dickinson is a loner who runs a used book shop in Michigan. Only her party-girl friend, Sarah, knows Robin’s real last name is Windsor and her father was a U. S. Senator tried and found guilty for murder and treason. Robin’s mother was implicated as well, and both parents have been in prison for eighteen years. Robin hasn’t seen either of them in all that time.

The book opens on the day Robin’s father is scheduled for execution. Robin just tries to get through the day and avoid the news when she gets a surprise package in the mail: a book from the only other person who knew her secret and betrayed her: Peter.

Robin had met Peter when she first moved to the area after her parents’ arrest to stay with her grandmother. He found out she liked to read. His mother had died a year ago and his father had boxed up all her books. Peter was reading them one by one in her honor. He offered to loan them to Robin, and she repaid him with a poem. They were heading toward a high school romance until a crisis resulted in Peter’s betrayal. Now, after having no contact in eighteen years, he sent her a copy of the first book he had loaned to her. Why? How did he know she was here?

The chapters alternate back and forth between “Then” and “Now” as Robin’s story unfolds.

In some ways, this is a story of how people survive excruciating pain. In others ways, it’s a story of judgments and misconceptions. Even when we think we have a “right” to our opinions about others, sometimes we’re wrong. It has elements of mystery and suspense. Ultimately, it’s a story about words and their effect, as the title says.

As the gorgeous cover indicates, there are a multitude of literary references.

Robin spends a lot of time thinking of the meaning of death, that indefinable something that’s missing life. Pondering a dissected frog and dead goldfish, Robin muses: “Always a body, but with something missing, something twisted out of order. It was that off bit that made me wonder. What was really missing other than breath? Because it wasn’t just that.” She notices that same absence in an old house. And later, she realizes even some books do not live:

Most of these books are not alive. They have not stood the passage of time.

They do not still burn in the hearts of those who have read them. It’s unlikely any of those readers could pull the names of the protagonists from memory. They are merely inert paper and ink, and I doubt very much they could live again.

I know why some books live on forever while others struggle for breath, forgotten on shelves and in basements. the authors . . . hadn’t bled. They hadn’t cut themselves open and given up a part of themselves that they would dearly miss. They hadn’t lost anything in the writing. That’s the difference between the books that I could never aptly explain to Dawt Pi and the ones I let The Professor [a parrot] shred. That’s the difference between the dead and the living.

Was that also what made a person or a bird or a frog alive? Was there a part of God’s heart that animated each otherwise insignificant part of the world? Had he given something up in creating me?

A couple of other quotes from the book:

Sometimes we’re handed adversity for our own good, so we’ll grow. Just because something’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting for.

There are many types of quiet. The quiet when you first open a book and prepare yourself to enter a story. The quiet of the seed underground, waiting for spring. The quiet that follows the moment the past rips through time to invade the present.

I couldn’t remember who recommended this book to me, but I had thought it was Christian fiction. Yet I didn’t see much of anything connected to faith at first besides a couple of references, so I thought I was mistaken:

“God loves you, Robin. I pray for you—every day.” I can’t answer her without releasing the tears that are swiftly building up behind my eyes like a river behind a dam. I wish I was so sure that God looked at me with anything but fathomless disappointment.

Because of all the people I know, she’s the only one who has ever made me wonder if perhaps God must be real despite everything.

But by the end, Robin opens up to the possibility of faith in a God who loves her. So there’s a faith element, but it’s not heavy-handed.

I enjoyed Robin’s story and journey.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

 

Book Review: Hard Times

In Charles Dickens’ book, Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind is a member of Parliament who also runs a school. His philosophy of education emphasizes pure fact: no fancy, no imagination, not even any morality. He discovers one poor student in the school Sissy, who can’t seem to learn her facts. When he goes to talk to her father, he discovers that her father had worked in the circus but has mysteriously left. So he offers to take Cissy in to help care for his near-invalid wife if she promises never to return to the circus.

Gradgrind’s own children have been raised according to his philosophy at home. Both his oldest two, Louisa and Tom, are rather bored. The implications of their education play out differently for each of them.

Gradgrind’s close friend, Josiah Bounderby, is a blustery self-made man who boasts of his rise from “street kid” to a successful banker. He eventually takes on Tom as an apprentice and married Louisa. Louisa has no love for Bounderby, but as her father presents the facts of the case, marriage seems reasonable.

In another area of town lives Stephen Blackpool, one of what Bounderby calls “hands”—common workmen. Stephen was 40, but “looked older, but he had had a hard life” with seemingly all thorns and no roses. “He was a good power-loom weaver, and a man of perfect integrity” though not particularly intelligent.

Eventually Stephen’s path crosses that of the other characters and reasons for his hard life become known. His refusal to go in with the unionists gets him in trouble with them and Bounderby. When he leaves to find work elsewhere, he’s framed for a bank robbery.

Usually when I start a classic novel, I get some background information about it first. I didn’t this time: I just let the story draw me in. I wondered who would advocate a “just facts” education and why. After reading the book, I learned that a philosophy called Utilitarianism was going around at the time. You can read more about it at Wikipedia if you’re interested. Louisa’s path follows that of the son of one of Utilitarianism’s advocates, who felt he was emotionally stunted as a result of his upbringing. Tom’s maturity and character was stunted, too, but in a different way. Perhaps it’s better to say he was more warped than stunted.

The two most highly moral, compassionate, and common-sense characters, Sissy and Stephen, were not raised in this philosophy, and eventually they show some of the others a different way. Some of the characters end up sadder but wiser, “making .. facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope, and Charity.” Dickens almost portrays all the poor as virtuous and the rich and powerful as corrupt, but he makes the characters complicated enough that they don’t fall into stereotypes. As he often writes not only for social awareness, but for social change, he appeals to the reader that “It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not.”

This is the shortest of Dickens’ novels and the only one not to have any scenes in London. This is his tenth novel and, like most of his others, first appeared in serial form. He infuses the story with his characteristic humor, pathos, and memorable characters and descriptions and keeps the reader thinking long after the book ends.

I listened to the audiobook, nicely read by Peter Batchelor, and read parts on the Project Gutenberg copy online here.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: Off the Clock

Laura Vanderkam’s subtitle for her book, Off the Clock, aptly sums up the book’s takeaway: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.

The title comes from that euphoric feeling we get when we clock out from work.

Laura’s curiosity was piqued when she started a phone interview with a busy executive with the promise that she wouldn’t take much of her time. Her interviewee responded that she had all the time in the world. Most people aren’t so open-ended or relaxed about other people’s requests for their time.

Laura conducted a time-perception study, asking people to keep records of how they spend their time and then asking them questions about how they felt about the time in question. The book refers back to these studies, pulls from other time management experts, and shares examples from the lives of everyday people “with full lives who nonetheless see time as abundant” (p. 16). Laura has not filled the pages with excessive, minute, rigid rules for a particular system: she groups her findings under seven broad categories.

The first is “Tend your garden.” Here she does ask readers to keep track of their time for two weeks (which I confess I have not done yet…).

Being off the clock implies time freedom, yet time freedom stems from time discipline. You must know where the time goes in order to transcend the ceaseless ticking (p. 4).

Such a record opens our eyes up how we really use our time as opposed to how we think we do. Laura thought she worked 50 hours a week. Her records showed that her work week was closer to 40 hours most of the time. So she had to figure out what happened to that other ten hours. Some tasks, like loading the dishwasher, seemed to take great chunks of time but actually only took a few minutes, relieving her dread of that task. As the title of this chapter implies, once we’re aware of how we actually use our time, we can make decisions and weed out anything not useful.

A second principle is “Make life memorable.” The days that feel lost are those where we do the same routines over and over. Vacations or special days make time seem fuller. We can’t vacation every day, so Laura encourages small steps to make memorable moments in our days: taking a different route to work, visiting an anticipated exhibit, talking to a new coworker or neighbor, etc. One interesting fact here is that our “anticipating self” and “remembering self” focus on the memorable aspects of our plans. The “experiencing self” in the present is the one to see the obstacles and talk itself out of anything new: It’s raining; The kids are fighting; I’d rather go home and watch TV.

Conscious fun takes effort. This seeming paradox—Why should fun be work?—stops us in our tracks. So we overindulge in effortless fun (scrolling through Instagram . . .) It is the effortful fun that makes today different, and makes today land in memory. You don’t say “Where did the time go?” when you remember where the time went (p. 75).

Principle three is “Don’t fill time.” Allow for some white space. “With every activity ask this question: What is my purpose here?” (p. 96). See what you can eliminate or consolidate.

Strategizing boosts efficiency; planning your toughest work for the time when you have the most energy means a task might take one hour instead of two (p. 93).

Four: “Linger.” “Find ways to savor the savor of time where [you] currently are” (p. 119). “Consciously lingering in a pleasurable downtime reminds us that we have downtime. And that can make us feel like we have more time than when we let it slip through our hands” (p. 134).

Five: “Invest in your happiness,” time, resources, and when possible, finances. That may mean moving closer to work to avoid a commute you hate, hiring a lawn service (or neighbor boy) if you don’t like yard work, etc. Treat yourself—not extravagantly, but with a few set-side moments to read a book, savoring your favorite beverage while watching the sunrise, etc. Do what’s most important first.

Feeling harried and rushed is associated with feeling like you lack the time for the things you want to do. Doing what matters first opens up the time (p. 150).

I’ll just mention the last two: “Let it go”—when your schedule doesn’t work out like you want, just do the best with what you have (neat story about an artist here) and “People are a good use of time.” That last statement is what attracted me most to the book and made me want to read it.

Laura expands on and illustrates these principles from real life. Besides benefiting from the quotes and principles mentioned, I appreciated that Laura dealt in common-sense broad principles rather than a rigid system and that her examples came from home and family as well as work and career. This is a great book for learning how to “feel less busy while getting more done.” Highly recommended.

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