Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in her Little House series, in 1932.  She was 65 and the Great Depression was devastating the country and the Wilder family as well.  There was also the deaths of Laura's mother Caroline and sister Mary a few years back and so as a way to remember happier times Wilder began jotting down memories of her midwestern childhood in the 1870's.  Those memories, with the editorial help of her daughter Rose, would eventually become the Little House books.

The Ingalls family were farmers and homesteaders.  Homesteading has been described as a life of complete self sufficiency.  You built your own log cabin, built the furniture, hunted and grew the food you ate.  There were rare trips to town miles away where you would barter with wheat, eggs, animal skins in exchange for fabric and maybe some store bought sugar you reserved for company.  All through the spring, summer and fall you had to prepare for winter when the animals would be in hibernation, nothing would grow and your nearest neighbors were miles away::

"Now the potatoes and carrots, the beets and turnips and cabbages were gathered and stored in the cellar, for freezing nights had come.  Onions were made into long ropes, braided together by their tops, and then were hung in the attic beside wreaths of red peppers strung on threads.  The pumpkins and the squashes were piled in orange and yellow and green heaps in the attic's corners.  The barrels of salted fish were in the pantry, and yellow cheeses were stacked on the pantry shelves ...often the wind howled outside with a cold and lonesome sound.  But in the attic, Laura and Mary played house with the squashes and the pumpkins, and everything was snug and cozy".  

In the evenings Charles Ingalls would play his fiddle and tell stories to Mary and Laura about when he was a boy growing up in the Big Woods.  The stories could be funny like the time Charles and his brothers were forbidden to play on Sunday but  when their father fell asleep they snuck out and piled onto the new sled which halfway down the hill ran under a pig scooping it up onto the sled.  The brothers and the pig which was afraid and squealing loudly flew past their house with their father outside and not happy.  Other times Charles' stories could be harrowing.  The time his own father rode home from town later than he should have and encountered a panther:

Grandpa leaned forward in the saddle and urged the horse to run faster.  The horse was running as fast as it could possibly run, and still the panther screamed close behind.  Then Grandpa caught a glimpse of it, as it leaped from treetop to treetop, almost overhead.  It was a huge black panther, leaping through the air like Black Susan leaping on a mouse.  It was many many times bigger than Black Susan.  It was so big that if it leaped on grandpa it could kill him with it's enormous, slashing claws and its long sharp teeth ... the panther did not scream any more.  Grandpa did not see it anymore.  But he knew that it was coming, leaping after him in the dark woods behind him.  At last the horse ran up to Grandpa's house.  Grandpa saw the panther springing.  Grandpa jumped off the horse, against the door.  He burst through the door and slammed it behind him". 

Most of the book is not so harrowing.  We learn about Laura's getting a doll for Christmas, the first doll she had ever owned, which she named Charlotte.  Mary and Laura were close but Laura was a bit jealous of Mary who always did what she was told and had beautiful blonde hair which Lauta envied.  Charles and Caroline worked from dawn to dusk with Charles hunting and harvesting the wheat and Caroline cooking, churning and mending.  Everything had to be made by scratch including cheese which was quite a procedure and then tnere are the descriptions of maple candy which involves hot maple syrup poured over snow.  That recipe I think I could manage.

Sometimes when you read a children's book as an adult you can be disappointed. This is not one of those times.  Little House in the Big Woods is a fascinating wonderfully written look at what life was like for 19th century homesteading families like the Ingalls.  I understand that future books in the series get even better and that's saying alot since this first effort is so good. 

Little House in the Big Woods is book six on my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge list (choose a classic of children's literature) hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate.  I have six more classics to complete by the end of the year and I am getting a little nervous but I don't regret taking the challenge.  I am reading some wonderful books this year and without the challenge who knows when I would have gotten around to them.

Monday, August 13, 2018

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

A few months ago, Ruthiella at Booked for Life (see the link to her very fine website at blogs I follow) reviewed A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters (Edith Mary Pargeter).  It's the first novel in her Brother Cadfael mystery series which I have been curious about for some time and thanks Ruthiella for giving me the push to finally start reading these books.

The Brother Cadfael mysteries take place in the UK during the 12th century.  Brother Cadfael is the amatuer sleuth tasked in each book with solving the crime.  Cadfael's path to the monastic life is unusual in that he spent his early years as a soldier and sailor.  As Ruthiella points out this gives him a wealth of knowledge and experience about human nature which serves him well as a detective.

And so when A Morbid Taste for Bones begins Brother Cadfael is tending his garden at Shrewsbury Abbey when Brother Columbanus falls ill.  Prior Robert instructs Brother Jerome to stay with Columbanus during the night and the next morning Brother Jerome reports that while he was watching over Brother Columbanus he fell asleep and a beautiful young woman named Winifred who was martyred many years ago appeared to him saying that if Brother Columbanus is taken to Gwytherin in North Wales where she is buried he will be cured.  When Brother Columbanus his health restored returns to the abbey after his trip to Gwytherin, Prior Robert is sure that it's a miracle and since the Shrewsbury Abbey, has no holy relics of their own, it's an answer to another prayer as well.

Prior Robert and his fellow monks including Brother Cadfael journey to Gwytherin to bring back to Shrewsbury the bones of St Winifred but the village of Gwytherin is not accomadating.  Rhisiart, the largest landowner in Gwytherin, feels that Winifred should stay put.  Prior Robert first tries bribery and then tries to instill guilt and fear into Rhisiart and the villagers but the answer is still no and then Rhisiart winds up dead.  Who killed him?  One of the monks from the Abbey?  Or did one of the villagers who might have had a prior gripe with Rhisiart do him in figuring that the commotion over St. Winifred would throw people off the scent.  Everyone that is except Brother Cadfael who along with the help of Rhisiart's daughter is determined to have Rhisiart's murder solved and the killer brought to justice.

I  did some research after I finished reading A Morbid Taste for Bones and discovered there really was a Shrewsbury Abbey and a Prior Robert who is credited in history with bringing the bones of St Winifred to Shrewsbury Abbey.  If I have gone on a bit about Prior Robert at the expense of Brother Cadfael it's because he was the charachter that most interested me.  A man of faith no doubt but also an ambitious self important man as well. The historical Prior Robert would eventually become the Abbot of Shrewsbury and so I hope in subsequent Brother Cadfael books he will continue to have a role to play.  I agree with Ruthiella that A Morbid Taste for Bones is a good start to what I predict will be an educational and enjoyable mystery series.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner published 1929 is book five on my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) - choose a classic that scares you.  I had heard that Faulkner wrote in a stream of consciousness style that would be hard to follow and The Sound and The Fury is indeed a difficult book to get through.  When that happens it's not a bad idea to check out Spark Notes.  They go through the novel with you chapter by chapter,  It made a difference.  Passages I couldn't comprehend before became clearer.  But it's still a difficult read.

The Sound and the Fury tells the tragic story of the Compson family.  The novel is set in Jefferson, Mississippi and takes place primarily during an Easter weekend in 1928.  Each of the first three chapters are narrated by a different Compson sibling, Benji, Quentin and Jason.  You are inside the thoughts of these brothers each of whom is obsessed by the memory of their sister Caddy who is at the heart of all that happens.

Benji who is mentally handicapped and who Caddy cared for, since their mother was incapable of doing so, still waits for his sister to return.  Quentin's chapter is set in 1910 during his first year at Harvard.  When Caddy gets pregnant, Quentin is devastated and in a bizzare attempt to protect his sister's honor he suggests that Caddy tell their parents that he is the father.  It's not true but in Quentin's mind letting people think it was incest would be preferable to Caddy being unmarried and pregnant.  Caddy nixes this idea and decides instead to marry a wealthy young man who has no idea the baby isn't his.  When he discovers the truth he divorces Caddy and she is disowned by her family.

In Jason's chapter we are once again in 1928.  Jason is a bitter, hateful man who blames Caddy because her husband had promised him a lucrative banking position years ago which fell through once Caddy's marriage ended.  When Caddy left home she gave her baby daughter Quentin (named in memory of her brother) to her parents to raise but when her father died, Jason became the head of the family.  Jason treats seventeen year old Quentin badly and has been pocketing the money tnat Caddy has been sending her daughter for years.

Dilsey the Compson family's cook and housekeeper is the focus of chapter four, the final chapter.  Dilsey has been caring for her own family and the Compsons practically her entire life and in chapter four we spend a day with Dilsey. It's Easter Sunday and the Compson family is in an uproar (let's just say that Caddy's daughter Quentin has had the last laugh on Jason).  As poor Benji sits in the kitchen upset by all the commotion, Dilsey decides to take him to church.  As Dilsey, her daughter, her grandson and Benji head to church Dilsey and her friends she meets along the way talk about the guest preacher from St Loiuis.  No one has heard him preach before but everyone is excited and there is a nice moment where the minister is preaching and Dilsey has her hand protectively on Benji's knee listening to the sermon.  Benjy is quiet too, no longer afraid and what Faulkner might be saying at the close of the book is that it's Dilsey's values that are the Southern traditions worth keeping.

But then again I don't think The Sound and the Fury can be summed up so succintly.  Truth be told I was lost a good part of the way through.  I was able to give a recounting of the plot thanks to Spark Notes and to properly review this book I would need to read it again more slowly and also read what the critics have said.  But lost as I was I could definitely sense The Sound and The Fury's greatness.  I would be open sometime in the future to giving this novel another go or maybe try another Faulkner novel that is a bit more accessible because he's worth the effort.