Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare published 1958 and winner of the 1959 Newbery Medal is one of the novels I chose for my 2018 Classic's Club Challenge.  It's a well written historical children's novel set in the late 1600's.  The book left me with a desire to learn more about Puritan New England.  More generally it's a novel about standing up for what's right and standing by those who are under attack.  In that sense the book is timeless.

When The Witch of Blackbird Pond begins Kit (Katherine) Tyler is sailing from her home in sunny Barbados to the colder and more austere community of Wethersfield Connecticut.  Kit is 15 and she will be living with her Aunt Rachel, Uncle Matthew and their teenage daughters Judith and Mercy. The year is 1685 and Kit, a bright and free spirited young woman, soon realizes she has made a mistake leaving Barbados.  She knows it even before the boat docks.  A young child, Prudence, loses her doll when it falls off the ship into the water.  Kit jumps in to the water to retrieve the doll causing a comotion.  The passengers are scandalized and Prudence's mother Goodwife Cruff is particularly outraged.  She is the villain of this novel and she will later lead the charge in accusing young Kit Tyler and Kit's elderly friend Hannah Tupper of witchcraft.

Before that happens though we are introduced to Kit's Aunt Rachel a good woman who is kind to Kit.  Her husband Matthew in comparison is a strict and dour man who no one in the family challenges. Rachel and Matthew's teenage daughters, kindhearted Mercy who befriends Kit and though Mercy is disabled she never complains and looks at the bright side of things.  Her sister Judith in contrast is quite vain and resentful when things don't go her way. There is John Holbrook who is studying for the ministry, a young man who when he reads the bible leaves those around him comforted rather than trembling.  Judith tells Kit that she has "set her cap" for John but it's Mercy he loves.  Kit also has a young fellow she is interested in, Nathaniel Eaton, the son of the Captain of the Dolphin the ship that brought Kit to Wethersfield.

So there are a number of balls juggling in this novel and the author does a good job of explaining the history of that time period and day to day life for Puritans.   The heart of the story for me is Kit's relationship with the elderly widow Hannah Tupper who lives alone in a one room cottage by the meadow with her cats.  The town's people say she is a witch (the witch of Blackbird Pond) and at first Kit is afraid as well.  But in reality Hannah is a Quaker woman and in the 17th century Quakers who came to New England seeking freedom of religion ended up being jailed banished and even hanged by the Puritan Community for practicing their faith.  Hannah's husband Thomas died years ago and she is lonely.  Kit is lonely as well and Hannah and Kit enjoy tneir time together sipping tea and eating blueberry cakes and talking about life.  But this idealic situation cannot last forever.  An illness sweeps over Wethersfield, people are sick and some have died and fingers point to Hannah Tupper and Kit Tyler.  A trial takes place and I will leave it there so as not to give too much of the story away.

I enjoyed the Witch of Blackbird Pond although I have to be honest and say that throughout the reading of this novel I was thinking of another children's classic I read a few years ago, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (Newbery Medal 1944) and for me Johnny Tremain is the better book.  Johnny is the same age as Kit and yet Johnny Tremain is a much more complex character who doesn't start off admirable but through an accident the plans he had for his life have to change drastically and though its not easy you see him gradually rebuild his life and join in the cause for American Independence.  Kit on the other hand is admirable right from the start when she jumps off the boat into the freezing water to save a young girl's doll.  There isn't much growth potential for Kit because there is nothing to improve.  And yet maybe I'm not the best judge because this book was written for children ages 9 to 13.  And so for those who are in their early teens I do recommend The Witch of Blackbird Pond and check out Johnny Tremain as well.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Glittering Images by Susan Howatch

Many years ago I discovered Susan Howatch's excellent Starbridge Series of novels.  Six books which tell the story of the Church of England during the mid twentieth century (1937 - 1960's).  Each novel takes place in the fictional Cathedral town of Starbridge.  I read the first novel in the series Glittering Images published 1987 over 20 years ago and now having reread Glittering Images I continue to marvel at how good it is and this time I vow to complete the entire Starbridge Series.

When Glittering Images begins the year is 1937 and the House of Lords has taken up Mr. A. P. Herbert's Marriage Bill which seeks to extend the reasons for granting a divorce.  Only a year prior Edward VIII abdicated the English throne to marry the divorced Mrs Simpson.  The Anglican Church didn't come out well in the Abdication crisis and Dr. William Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been afraid to take a position for or against the Marriage Bill.  The fiery and charasmatic Bishop Alex Jardine of Starbridge believes the divorce laws should be more liberal and publicly criticizes Archbishop Lang for his silence.  Lang is furious and tells his young assistant, Reverened Dr Charles Ashworth:

"Jardine's attack was quite inexcusable ... after all I was in the most unenviable position.  I couldn't condone any relaxation of the divorce law; that would have been morally repugnant to me.  On the other hand if I had openly opposed all change there would have been much damaging criticism of the church ...Yet the Bishop of Starbridge has the insufferable insolence not only to accuse me of "sitting on the fence" -- what a vulgar phrase! -- but to advocate that multiple grounds for divorce are compatible with Christian teaching!  No doubt one shouldn't expect too much of someone who's clearly very far from being a gentleman, but Jardine has behaved with gross disloyalty to me personally and with gross indifference to the welfare of the Church".

The Archbishop of Canterbury also wonders why Bishop Jardine was so eager for the Marriage Bill to pass?  Rumors are that Bishop Jardine's marriage is not a happy one.  The Jardines have been employing for years a young attractive woman by the name of Lyle Christie who serves as Mrs Jardine's assistant but is something going on between Bishop Jardine and Miss Christie?  Are they having an affair?  Archbishop Lang sends Dr. Charles Ashworth, a rising young cleric in the Anglican Church, to Starbridge to find out (under the pretense of doing research for a book) if the rumors of an affair are true.

Dr. Ashworth upon arrival at Starbridge immediately becomes involved in the Jardine household which proves to be a big mistake.  He decides without even knowing if the rumors are true to rescue Miss Christie from the grip of Bishop Jardine.  Dr Ashworth decides this because after knowing Miss Christie for only three days that he is in love with her though she has given him no encouragement.  But another reason Dr. Ashworth needs the rumors to be true is because if behind the "glittering image" Bishop Jardine is in reality a flawed and sinful man then maybe Charles Ashworth can forgive himself for his own feelings of unworthiness to serve God, an unworthiness stemming from his childhood and the guilt he still feels over his wife's death seven years prior.  We learn early in the book that Dr. Ashworth though only 37 is a widower.  His wife was killed in a tragic auto accident.  She was pregnant with their first child.  Dr Ashworth has not remarried and though it appears that he has moved on, achieving great success as he rises high in the Anglican church he is a troubled man.  The trip to Starbridge will be a life changing experience for Dr Ashworth who narrates the book and all of the characters involved are in for a rude awakening.

I submit that if Jane Austen wrre alive she would enjoy the Starbridge Series and Anthony Trollope would have also recognized and appreciated these novels.  I realize that's high praise but Glittering Images warrants it and I am already looking forward to book two in the series, Glamerous Powers.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy and Healthy New Year!

I am in the process of reading my next book which I am enjoying and I hope to have a review up in about a week.  In the meantime I want to wish everyone who has been nice enough to read my reviews a sincere thank you and a very Happy and Healthy New Year.  I particularly wish good health to everyone which is the most important.

Life has been tough for me these past few years since I moved to Florida but there have been good things too and I put creating this blog at the top of the list of good things.  First, this book blog has given me a real sense of accomplishment because I don't follow through on projects but I have kept this site up since 2015.  My book blog has forced me to read classics (Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Stranger, My Antonia, North and South, Pere Goriot) that I would otherwise have never gotten around to reading.  In the past I had a tendency to read about 50 or 60 pages of a novel and put it down eager to be on to the next book.  This site has changed all that since I would never review a book that I haven't finished.

I have also discovered or had recommended to me some great mystery novelists Lawrence Block, Donna Leon, Linda Castillo and its comforting to know that these wonderful authors and their novels will be there as back up when I get into a reading slump. Finally I have found that reviewing books and keeping a blog can clue you in to who your favorite writers are, your favorite genres and time periods.  I know for me there is nothing like a good mystery series.  And in terms of authors, countries and their time periods I have become a big fan of 19th Century British literature and the Brontes in particular.  As G. K. Chesterson wrote: "what the Brontes really brought into fiction was the blast of the mysticism of the North ... the strong winds and sterile places, the old tyranny of barons and the new and blacker tyranny of manufacturers".  He got it right.  That's what I love about the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell too.

But I digress and so let me end by saying I would advise anyone who is thinking about starting a blog to do so.  You can write about any topic: books, movies, life, politics, music, film, TV, religion, you name it.  It's whatever you are passionate about.  One thing I would advise though is that whatever you wish to blog about, don't get hung up on the quality of the writing.  I tried to keep a journal for years and could never get past the first few entrys before I would become obsessed by the thought that I could have said it better.  And so that's another New Year's Resolution.  I'll try going forward to write well but the most important thing is to enjoy the reading experience and accurately write down what I thought of the book and how it made me feel.

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!