Sunday, March 31, 2019

Newbery Award Challenge - 1980s

If I am completely honest with myself I am ready for the end of this Newbery book endeavor.
It has been a totally worthwhile pursuit, don't misunderstand, but never the less I'm eager to be free of the confines of it, eager for absolute reading freedom.  There are so many books I want to read and never enough time.  I don't want to feel obligated.
That said, I am not so over the project as to abandon it by any means, but I will rejoice when it draws to a close.  67 books down, 28 to go.  I also fully expect the more recent decades to move a little quicker.
My favorite book from the 1980s selections would have to be The Hero and the Crown, though the Lincoln biography runs a tight second.  Only two had I read previously--Sarah, Plain and Tall and A Visit to William Blake's Inn.
1980 - A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-1832 by Joan W. Blos
This seems the sort of book I'd have loved as a child--early American history, journal format, female protagonist--but I must admit I found it only okay as an adult.  I did enjoy all the scenes of a homespun, simple life though--maple sugar season, hand piecing a quilt, and so on.  The book follows two years in the life of Catherine, a teenage farm girl, as she grows and learns through life's triumphs and trials.  It is a fairly classic coming-of-age saga, with a strong undercurant of religious upbringing.  Catherine is exposed to the harsh realities of death and loss, as well as slavery and how this intersects with justice and doing what is right...even when it is the hard thing to do.  Catherine's father remarries and she is forced to adapt to life with a new mother-figure when she's been pretty much in charge of the household for much of her life. Her mother died shortly after childbirth--as did the much desired son she bore.  Really, there isn't a tremendous amount of action to the book.  It is sweet enough, but not terribly remarkable in my assessment.  Even the moral challenges surrounding her helping a runaway slave were pretty mild as far as drama goes.  I was sad about Cassie.  The teacher almost gets fired for using an anti-slavery newspaper in the classroom.  I guess that was pretty exciting, in context.  One quote from the newspaper that appealed to me:  "Our country is the world...our countrymen all mankind."

A few other tidbits that caught my notice:
Cider is the drink of choice, appropriate given the timeframe of the story, and it is always spelled "cyder."  That was a new spelling for me.
When doing some quilting the older girls are held to "the rule of twelve full stitches to the inch."  As a modern seamstress I can't really imagine all the teeny-tiny stitches it would take to complete a project like that.
I also had a head-shake when Catherine's (male) friend says how lucky the girls are that they don't have to struggle to learn how to do math like he does.  ...since girls didn't need to know how to do math, I guess, and why weight them down with such "useless" education.
1981 - Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
I enjoyed Jacob Have I Loved, though it sure had a strange ending.  I was satisfied with the ending though, despite the symbolic weirdness.  The title is a reference to a biblical verse (Romans 9:13) pertaining to the twins Jacob and Esau.  Twins are a recurring theme from beginning to end.  Sara Louise--the main character--is the older twin sister of Caroline.  "Wheeze," as Sara Louise is generally called, feels forever in the shadow of her delicate, musically-gifted, blonde twin.  Her parents says that, unlike Caroline, Wheeze has never caused them a moments worry or concern.  She is strong, smart, healthy, and independent.  However Sara Louise wishes for her parent's to worry over her even a little bit as she sees that as a symbol of their love for her.  "Didn't they know that worry proved you care?" She thinks they love Caroline more.  At one point she even declares (internally) that she hates Caroline and she is plagued by dreams of hurting--even killing-- Caroline.  Hate of any kind is held to be a terrible sin in her strict Methodist upbringing and she struggles with the shame and guilt of her feelings.

Wheeze is a sort of stand-in for the son her father always wanted, quickly taking to the crab and oyster work that sustains the family, but is generally considered to be men's work.  She loves working the water alongside her dad--and takes pride in contributing to the family's finances-- as she know exactly how she fits into the scheme of things on the water whereas in other parts of her life it is less clear. That seemed a parallel with A Gathering of Days--farmers and fisherman needed sons to help earn their living through their labors.  In both stories a daughter must step up and help even though it defies convention.  I learned quite a few terms from island/fishing life--progging, tump, sook, and so on.  Life on the island is absolutely linked to the ocean--from her storms to her creatures.  It even provides their expressions, for example saying someone blushes "the color of  a steamed crab."  A common exclamation on the island is, "Oh, my blessed," which is new to me.  They take swear words very seriously on the island and I guess that is as risque as most are willing to go.  That and, "Well, fiddles."

The religious aspects are a critical foundation to the whole story in many ways.    This is especially true for Sara Louise as her grandmother lives in the family home and is quite the zealot--progressively more so as she falls into senility.  Basically everyone who lives on the island is a Methodist and so the community is governed by religious law almost as much as civil law.  There is no work done on the Sabbath, nor listening to the radio or playing games.  There are no public displays of affection--except for Caroline who kisses their father on the dock, much to the general embarrassment nor any alcohol on the island save for cooking sherry.  Sara Louise quietly flouts many of the minor prohibitions though--listening to the radio on low, for example.

There are few different strands of drama woven throughout the story--a hurricane that reeks destruction, hard times financially, World War II, the return of a wayward islander, and the crazy cat lady. Hirim Wallace left the island in shame as a young man.  After entertaining the notion he might be a spy Sara Louise and her friend Call befriend the him upon his return.  Call, who doesn't have any sort of father-figure aside from Sara Louise's, takes to the newcomer quite willingly while for Wheeze it is rather begrudgingly--though, in a bizarre twist, she eventually falls in love with him even though he's old enough to be her Grandpa.  Grandma calls him a heathen since he doesn't go to church.  The two kids, eventually joined by Caroline much to Wheeze's chagrin, help Hirim renovate the Wallace family home that had been abandoned decades earlier bringing it back to a livable condition.  They call him the Captain because any man over 50 years of age who owns his own boats gets the title of captain by island tradition.

Hirim knew Trudy Braxton back when they were both young.  Now, in her advanced years, Auntie Braxton is the village crazy lady.  "Crazy people who are judged to be harmless are allowed an enormous amount of freedom ordinary people are denied."  When Trudy falls ill it comes out that she has been sharing her (pungent) home with 16 (almost wild) cats and no one has the desire or means to take care of them all.  I was horrified at the scene in which Wheeze, Call, and the Captain lure the cats into burlap bags and then set out in the boat to toss them into the ocean.  The Captain argues this is the only humane thing to do to the half-starved creatures.  Horrified barely covers it actually.  I flipped the pages mentally screaming, "Are they really going to drown 16 cats in this children's book?!?!?"  In the end Caroline devise a clever, though dishonest, way to dupe the neighbors into each taking one of the cats.  Sara Louise doesn't appreciate the way Caroline is inserting herself into their trio.  Of course, she also didn't like how readily Call took to Hirim either.  Change is hard and changes in relationships can be even harder--this comes through at the end with dramatic fanfare when Call returns from the war.

It was a lively story populated by interesting characters in a setting I am not familiar with much at all.  I quite liked it.
1982 - A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers by Nancy Willard
Confession:  I don't know anything about William Blake.  Honestly, I am not sure I'd ever heard of him before coming across this book a few years ago.  I wasn't sure, as a result, if I'd much enjoy this book.  And I can't say I loved it, but it had its moments.  In many ways it reminded me of Shel Silverstein, being a collection of nonsense poetry with lot of silly characters, whimsy, and animals featured throughout.  I enjoyed it reasonably well and it was a very fast read being just 45 pages.  Interestingly A Visit to William Blake's Inn won the Newbery Award and was also a Caldecott Honor book.  I enjoyed the pictures as much or more so than the words...so I can see why it was in the running for both contests.  I quite enjoyed the style of the illustrations, especially the King of Cats eating breakfast, Blake leading a walk across the Milky Way, and of the Wonderful Car.

I took only a few notes as a I read, but my favorite was a line from the poem The Marmalade Man Makes a Dance to Mend Us:  "Dancing starts where fighting ends."

I also jotted down a stanza from Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way:

He inquired, "Is everyone ready?
The night is uncommonly cold.
We'll start on our journey as children,
but I fear we will finish it old."

Isn't that a fantastic conceptualization of life?!  I love it and read it several times over and over to myself before copying it down into my diary.

Lastly, I got a smile from the poem The Tiger Asks Blake for a a Bedtime Story which included a twist on the classic Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep bedtime prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep
with bear and rabbit, bird and sheep.
If I should dream before I wake,
may I dream of William Blake.
1983 - Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voigt
Dicey's Song is actually the second book in the Tillerman Cycle series of books.  I didn't read the first book and rather wish I had since I enjoyed this one so much and I could tell I was missing a lot of backstory.  Part way through Dicey's Song I had to read the Wikipedia page for the first book so I could better understand the family history that is alluded to in Dicey's Song.  The series--Dicey's Song being no exception--is all about the bonds of family, for better and, sometimes, for worse.  For example, Dicey's parents never married despite having four kid.  Momma had seen how unhappy her own parents had been in their marriage and so didn't want to ever get married herself.

Dicey and her three siblings are abandoned--separately--by both their parents and at the start of the book are settling into life with their maternal Grandmother.  Gram is viewed as eccentric, to say the least, by her community.  She prefers being barefoot and wearing loose flowing garb.  She is outspoken and occasionally a bit remote.  Gram had grown used to living alone after her children left home never to return and her husband died.  (This is something I'd like to know more about, actually, why the kids left and never came back, but that must be in a different book.)  Suddenly Gram has a houseful of children--sad, troubled, determined children.

Gram, like all the Tillermans, is proud and self-reliant.  She likes to keep her emotions, fears, and poverty to herself.  However her grandchildren's appearance in her life helps her realizes that she must reach out to others even if she doesn't like it--for help, for love.  This same goes for all the children as they adjust to life without their mentally ill, but beloved Momma.  Their mother is in a catatonic state in a mental hospital with a grim prognosis throughout the book.

There was some great points to ponder on the balancing act of life--holding on to that which you cherish and letting go of that which you cherish.  Dicey, following her mother's death, has an especially hard time coming to grips with this seeming contradiction.  "You tell me to let go.  But you told me to reach out, you told me to hold on.  How can I do all those things together?  Gram?"  This was really moving to me.  I can struggle with clinging to the past, fighting to hold on to things that need to be let go.  Sometimes it is hard to tell which is the right thing--to keep fighting or to be free.

Music is a lovely thread that runs through the whole story.  The family befriends the local music teacher--who sees the budding talent in Dicey's younger sister.  Their reaching out to Mr. Lingerle turns out to be critical.  As does Dicey's friendship with the guitar-toting, bicycle-riding Jeff.  There are heart-warming scenes in the book where the family sing and play piano together.  I know it is hokey, but I am nostalgic for a time when family music sessions took the place of watching TV together.

Dicey has to act as the mother for her siblings during the summer of their abandonment, as they travel cross country to find a new home with their mother's relations.  (Again, this is all in a different book of the saga.)  As such, she has a bit of a hard time accepting that she doesn't have to be in charge of everything.  The other children start to ask Gram for help with homework or permission to go out to play with friends.  In some ways Dicey like the wildness and empowerment of living out, of being Them-Versus-the-World.  Then, even she starts to rely on Gram for guidance.  When they go to Boston to bring home Momma, Dicey perceives her grandma as knowing exactly what to do.  "But you knew how to do everything," she tells her Gram, to which Gram replies, "I knew how to do nothing...I just did everything.  There's a difference."  This made me think of something I recently told a friend about how one never knows what they're capable of until they have to be.  Adversity elevates people.  That folks rise to the occasion and do was is needed.  I've witnessed this many a time.  Even Dicey had already done that, actually, stepping up to the daunting task of keeping her family together and finding them a new place to call home.
1984 - Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
This is a story told in the form of letters and diary entries from a grade-school boy named Leigh.  At the start of the story he is doing homework by mailing off a series of questions to his favorite author, Boyd Henshaw.  Mr. Henshaw turns the tables on him though and replies with a list of questions of his own.  He also encourages Leigh to start a diary if he wants to be an author when he grows up.  Writing and listening are stressed as very important practice for achieving this dream.  Leigh obliges, very grudgingly at first, but then with real interest and enthusiasm.  During the course of the book Leigh's parents get divorced and he and his mother move to a new town and a new school.  The upheaval is hard for Leigh, well, for everyone really.  Honestly though, it wasn't a terribly exceptional book.  It was an easy and enjoyable read, but nothing that made me stop in my tracks.  It did make me glad that even though my parent's got divorced I never hated them about it.  I always knew they loved me and that it wasn't my fault.  I also never had to be away from either of them since they stayed in the same town.  The story did make me grateful for that.

There were a few little appealing trivialities that I'll mention.  Like how all the old people on the block had cats instead of dogs, much to Leigh's chagrin.  Leigh is a dog person and has a pup named Bandit.

His dad is a long haul trucker and one day mentioned he's got a load of tomatoes "grown specially so they are so strong they won't squash when loaded....may not taste like much, but they don't squash."  This is the way modern agriculture/food works and I like that it is mentioned, however briefly, in the story.

Leigh is very defensive about his name, too, both in how it is pronounced wrong a lot and that it is often mistaken for being a girl's name.  My niece is named Keleigh and people often enough mispronounce or misspell it since they're used to the more plain-as-a-post version of the name Kelly/Keleigh.  Even I was opposed to it when Sarah suggested it since I figured Kel would have to correct folks her whole life.  It is an homage to my eldest sister though so Keleigh it is!

There was a brief moment where I really, really hoped for the happy ending--that Bonnie and Bill would remarry and they'd live happily ever after--but the actual ending, as it was written, is probably more honest.  More real.  It is a good ending, all things considered.
1985 - The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
I thoroughly enjoyed The Hero and the Crown, yet again proving that I like the fantasy genre.  It was a really dramatic saga with royalty and magic and dragons, starring a strong female lead named Aerin.  I read it really quickly in my eagerness to find out how it would end--I mean, it is a safe assumption that Good/Light will prevail over Evil/Dark in these sort of stories, but... a lot can happen along the way--and boy, does it!

Aerin is known for her "fiercely curly" and "flame-colored" hair as well as the fact that her mother was considered to be a witch who traveled from the North and seduced the widowed King of Damar.  The people think that she ensnared the king with some sort of magical spell--though Aerin's nursemaid, Teka, is quick to point out that love is its own kind of magic spell.  The witchwoman died shortly after giving birth to Aerin and the sol (their word for princess, basically) has never been accepted by the Damarians.  So much so, in fact, that I learned a new word from this book: morganatic.  The King's marriage to Aerin's mom was recorded by the priests as a morganatic marriage with the result that Aerin--though the King's only child--is not eligible to rule her country.  Her (male) cousin Tor is next in line instead.  Tor and Aerin have a very close relationship though Aerin remains bafflingly oblivious as Tor's feelings develop into romantic love for her.  She sees Tor's love for her as the same as "a farmer's son's love for his pet chicken."  (Isn't that a fantastic turn of phrase?) The Damarians are aware of Tor falling for Aerin though and it makes them very nervous since they distrust "the witchwoman's daughter" and don't like seeing history repeat itself.  Their distrust only increases as "demon mischief" pervades their northern neighbors and leads to conflict and battle.  King Arlbeth increasingly fears that the Hero's Crown, the lost and magically powerful crown of Damar, has fallen into the hands of those making trouble in the north.

Within the castle, too, there is mischief as Aerin's (female) cousin Galanna is quite a pain and seems to live to stir up drama in the royal court.  She is put out that Tor loves Aerin instead of her and that she had to "settle" for marrying the second-sola instead.  She is a very disagreeable character and actually almost gets Aerin killed when she badgers her into eating surka leaves to prove herself worthy.  See, surka is plant that only the royals are supposed to be able to eat without dying.  Aerin eats too much and spends two years recovering--equine therapy with her father's retired and lame war horse, Talat, is major part of her recovery.  They don't call it equine therapy, but that is what it is.  She finally "sweats out" the last of the surka's effects while learning swordplay from Tor.

While she is convalescing Aerin comes across book which contained a recipe for a substance that will protect against dragon fire.  This concoction of roots and herbs was called kennet, but no one had been able to get it to work.  It seems to be one of those Grandma-style recipes though (A few cups of this, a pinch of that, add some it this until it looks right) so Aerin spends literal years perfecting it--making one minor alteration at a time and keeping meticulous notes--but, in the end, the recipe does work.  This leads Aerin to built a very unconventional reputation for herself as a "dragon killer."  This is pretty awesome really because she is so unhappy in the "swarming" castle and she has no hope of acceptance from her people for being conventional and she can't aspire to take up the crown after her father.  Dragon killing gives her purpose and, slowly, endears her to the common people, if not the royal court.

The dragons of the day are about the size of dogs and are regarded as vermin.  They have wings, but they're too small for flight and are only used in territorial and courtship displays.  Occasionally one of these dragons will come out of the forest and reek havoc in the countryside villages until a team of dragon killers can be dispatched to kill the dragon.  There are old myths and rumors about dragons that could fly and that were so large they'd blot out the sun with their wings as they passed overhead.  Aerin reads about these in the same book where she finds the kennet recipe and the author seems very certain that at least one of these giant dragons has survived and is in hiding.  Eventually this proves to be the case and Aerin attempts to slay it by herself.  A horrific battle ensues and it is only by desperate luck, really, that Aerin and Talat return.   They actually linger near the dead dragon for a length of time as Aerin is in no condition to travel.  "She slept, or fainted again, drifting back and forth across the boundary of selfhood."

When Talat and Aerin do finally return they are in a very sorry state and the healers are at a loss and so Aerin lingers half dead in her bed.  Eventually a series of dream-visions motivates Aerin to seek out a mage living in the mountains who heals her with a bath and guided journey into a magical lake.  The mage, Luthe, inadvertently makes her "not quite mortal" in the process of saving her life though.  She stays with him for a long while and he teaches her a lot--about magic, about her country, and about herself.  This includes why her mother fled the north and a prophecy that involves Aerin.  They actually fall in love, but both know she must return to fulfill her destiny and return the Hero's Crown to her people.  Which she does.  In a truly crazy, magical, time traveling, animal assisted way.  On her way to the tower of the dark wizard who has the Hero's Crown she picks up a herd of giant cats (folstza) and dogs (yerigs).  I quite liked that bit, especially the cats, though the giant furry companions made most people in the story understandably nervous.

There were several swell vocab words and phrases which caught my eye:  There was when Aerin was called a "shameless hoyden" meaning she was an unabashed, boisterous girl.  This term delighted me and brought to mind my exuberantly boisterous friend Hannah and myself.  "Gainsay" means to dispute or deny.  The nasty Galanna gives someone the evil eye which is described as "Galanna's basilisk glare."  This pleased me as I was reading Harry Potter simultaneously and the basilisk's glare is a major component of the Chamber of Secrets.  I also learned the expression "her heart was in her mouth" meaning she was really nervous or anxious.  I like that one.  The hair color thing was interesting, too.  Aerin was the only redhead in the whole country, everyone else was brunette.  Luthe was blonde.

Luthe added a real bittersweet point in the story.  He is too wise for his own good, really, having lived so long.  He prefers to cloister himself in the mountain home as a result.  He loves Aerin and Aerin loves him and yet they must wait at least a lifetime to be together.  It is epically romantic, I guess, but also epically heartbreaking.
1986 - Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
I fell in love with Sarah, Plain and Tall through the Glenn Close movie of the same name.  My mom liked it and we watched it many-a-time together in my youth.  As long as I can remember I've always been fascinated with early American farm stories.  I was working at the library when it came to my attention that the movies were based on books.  I read Sarah, Plain and Tall for the first time in 2012.  It is such a tiny book to have transitioned to a full-length movie.  I quite like the story in book form, too.  Sarah is a wonderful character--a relatively free and feisty spirited woman for her time which, of course, appeals to me greatly.

The story centers around a young widowed farmer named Jacob and his children, Anna and Caleb.  Their mother died the day after Caleb was born with the result that Anna remembers and misses her while Caleb longs for memories of her.  He makes his sister tell him about their mom with regularity--how she sang all the time, what she said when Caleb was born, and how their Papa was different when Mama was still around.  Anna had to step into the role of mother and housekeeper at an exceptionally early age.

Jacob decides to put out a newspaper advertisement for a wife and mother.  Sarah replies from her home along the coast of Maine to express her interest.  Her brother, whom she's been living with, is getting married and Sarah can tell she must find a new life for herself when her sister-in-law moves in to make the home her own.  I loved that in Sarah's initial letter of interest she closes with the line:  "Do you have an opinion on cats?  I have one."  Also that she is forthright with the fact she is not "mild mannered."  She agrees to take the train to Kansas for a 30 day trial run.  She is not sure about being separated from the sea she loves to dearly and the family cannot be certain she will agree with them either--though the kids sure seem keen from the very moment Sarah's arrival is mentioned.

The whole thing is just a little unfathomable to me.   On both ends--sending off for a stranger to come marry you or answering such an ad. Yet happily, in this story, it works out.  Sarah's spirit is appreciated by the children and, more surprising, by Jacob, too.  Though it also gives them all plenty to fret about.  For example, Sarah's insistence on learning to drive the wagon and go to town alone makes the children, Caleb especially, stricken with the thought Sarah is going to leave them.  Caleb spends the entire book reading Sarah for signs that she will stay and mentioning them to his sister--like when Sarah say "our dune" or talks about drying flowers to have around in the winter.  Anna's feelings are slightly more complicated since she actually does remember her mom, but she is still pleased about all the things Sarah adds to the household from the practical, like baking bread and making stew, to the matters of the heart.

I loved the little hints about Sarah's life by the seas.  She talks about all the colors of the ocean quite a bit.  She has three unmarried aunts that "wear silk dresses and no shoes."  She says "ayuh" instead of yes and says it is typical in Maine.  In a sweet bonding moment the family all take to saying ayuh--Papa even says that he will say ayuh when the preacher asks if he will marry Sarah.  Jacob is very sweet with Sarah, as she adjusts to life with them.  He picks her flowers, slides down the "dune" of hay, and buries a dead lamb that is distressing for her.  He also starts to sing again, much to Caleb's delight.  Aside from being overly sentimental about the animals (just as I would be, for the record) Sarah takes to the farm work and is a tremendous asset, helping fix the roof alongside Jacob, say, in advance of a major storm.  Though even here she causes a little bit of a stir as she does the carpentry work wearing a pair of Jacob's overalls saying "This woman does," when Caleb remarks that "women don't wear overalls."  She loves the sheep and names three after her aunts.  She misses the ocean and swimming and so turns the cow pond into a swimming hole much to the children's surprise.  And the cows' too, I suppose.

One of my favorite parts was the words of wisdom that Sarah receives from Maggie who also came to a neighboring farm as a mail order bride from Tennessee.  She comes to visit Sarah, bringing her flowers to plant because she says "You must have a garden.  Wherever you are."  I had to smile and agree with that notion.  They talk about what they miss (the hills and the sea) and who they miss (Sarah is deeply missing her brother, William).  They watch the menfolk working in the field and the chickens in the yard.  Maggie tells Sarah that "There are always things to miss...no matter where you are."  I thought this was beautifully and perhaps even tragically true.  I miss my sisters so much, say, but I don't want to move where they are because I'd miss Matt's family and being closer to my parents.  I love the desert, but if I moved there I'd miss Yellowstone.  There is no ideal.  There are pros and cons to everything.

Lastly, I thoroughly enjoyed how much Sarah loves her cat, Seal.  When Jacob tells her that the cat would be "good in the barn...for mice," Sarah just  smiles and replies, "She'll be good in the house, too."  She is clearly my kind of people.
1987 - The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
I found The Whipping Boy to be a rather swell little story.  I'd never heard of it before, but it was funny and lively and made me eager to see how it would all turn out in the end.  That's always a positive indicator of an engaging story for me.  The book centers around a very spoiled prince--Prince Brat, as he is commonly known--and his Whipping Boy, Jemmy.  See, in this kingdom it is "forbidden to spank, thrash, cuff, smack, or whip a prince," so they utilize a stand-in for any punishments earned by Prince Brat.  Jemmy takes the whippings in his place.  As the nickname might imply Prince Brat is a terrible, rotten little boy who always gets his way--in large part because he bears no repercussions.  Jemmy longs for his "ragged but carefree" days living as an orphan on the street that is how bad things are.  And then they get worse because Prince Brat decides to run away and makes Jemmy come along to carry his stuff.

Jemmy is astonished at the idea of a prince running away since he seems to lead a life of idle luxury.  It turns out, as the story progresses though, that the life of a prince might be much less ideal than Jemmy thought.  Prince Brat complains of being kept "clean and starched as a pillowcase" and thinks the king doesn't even notice him, which might be why he acts out so much...a classic case of acting out for attention.

Once the two boys are out of the safety of the royal court though they rather quickly get lost in the foggy forest and cross paths with two well-known bandits.  The bandits equally quickly hatch a scheme to ransom the prince back to the king for a fortune.  Prince Brat never bothered to learn reading or writing though because he assumed there'd always be someone to do it for him and so when Jemmy (who paid attention during the prince's tutoring sessions) writes the ransom note (the "scribblement") the robbers decide the boys must have done a swap--and that Jemmy is really the prince and Prince Brat is a lowly Whipping Boy.  This, leads to some comedic situations in which Prince Brat gets a well-deserved taste of his own medicine.  Of course, while the scenes may be amusing for the reader they were dead serious for the characters.  I mean, they're young boys being held against their will by known murderers.

For most of the book Jemmy is trying to contrive an escape from the prince and his life in the royal court which he finds so stifling.  He wants to go back to the streets, live in the big brick sewers, and be a rat catcher like his dad had been.  As the story plays out though Jemmy realizes that for all its shortcomings he's learned a lot at the castle.  He's be exposed to things like books and manners, warm beds and good food, and realizes that in the end he can't got back to his old life now. He hadn't "been aware of his own ignorance before," and now he is.  It is a little Pandora's Box-like and something I can appreciate.  There is no un-knowing.  There is no going back.

After a chance encounter with the "hot potato man" and a girl with her dancing bear, Petunia, who are all heading to the Fair things turn out okay for the two boys and after a visit to the Fair themselves they end up back at the castle safe and sound--and better off than when they left for all the ups and downs of their adventure.  They found friendship together which improves both their lives considerably.  Prince Brat also has some self-reflection that leaves him decidedly less bratty.  And then the king says next time they run away he wants to go, too.  I loved that.  Responsibility and power go together and in many ways the king is less free than a peasant.  It was a very enjoyable story.
1988 - Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman
Abraham Lincoln was one of the first presidents I knew anything about--him and George Washington, I suppose.  The story of Lincoln's life is a pretty compelling one, if you ask me.  From a simple birth in a rough cabin to a critical presidency the kept baby America from splitting into two countries...it is a pretty crazy life path.  I picked up quite a bit of new info from this photobiography though, especially about his early life and young adulthood.  I loved all the photos.  I'd never seen so many pictures of a beardless Abraham Lincoln!  He was, it turns out, the first bearded president of the United States.  I love that claim to fame.  There was a four photo spread highlighting the growth of his beard that I've shown to at least a half-dozen people.
I also absolutely delighted in an anecdote about how, as a book-loving young farm boy, Abraham Lincoln would leave a book at the end of a furrow as he worked the fields so that he could read a page or two while he waited for the horses to catch their breath or rest a minute at the end of the furrow.  This reminded me so much of something I would do.   It was probably my favorite personal story from the book.

Abe Lincoln didn't really like being called "Abe."  That was one of the first funfacts I picked up.  He was known and liked because of his wit, jokes, and storytelling though he was also known for pensive, depressive moods.  He was shrewd, but also superstitious.  He was a beautiful writer and the book included the earliest known example of his writing:

Abraham Lincoln
his hand and pen
he will be good but
god knows When

Even when he moved to the White House Lincoln retained his inviting folksy, countryboy manner--asking people to "stay a spell," for example.  This sort of thing bothered his wife who was of a more elevated social class.  In fact, her family refused the idea of Mary marrying Lincoln (who they called a "social climber") and the couple were kept apart for more than a year.  After they finally did marry they'd go on to have four sons, two of which would die young.  These tragedies were the personal backdrop to the larger national tragedy that would play out over the course of the Lincoln presidency.  Neither parent would ever fully recover from these unexpected losses.  I think it would be rather easy to make the argument that our country has never fully recovered from the tragedy of the Civil War either.
And, oh!  Oh!  What a tragedy.  How retched.  Those photos--fields of the dead and utter destruction ("total war")--were hard to take with my tender heart.  History is brutal.  One photo of a boy in uniform stopped me.  Edwin Tennison couldn't have been older than my nephew and had been killed in July 1862.  Looking into his eyes was haunting.  He was just a boy (though I try to keep in mind that he was closer to middle age for his time). It made my heart ache.  I am sure he was fighting for what he believed in.  I hope he died happy or proud, even if it strikes me as a terrible loss.  The author did a pretty good job, I thought, of expressing the conflict as being different things to different people.  For some the war was centered around the moral issue of slavery.  For others it was about preserving a way of life and traditions.  Some were motivated by patriotism.  Some by economics.  For some it was something else entirely, politically or personally motivated.  For many, including Lincoln, it seems the reasons changed as the conflict and dialogue evolved.

This sounds stupid to say, but I was totally caught off guard and heartbroken by Lincoln's assassination.  I guess I was just so glad about the official end of the Civil War that I got relieved, a false sense of security...even though I knew it would happen.  I didn't realize it would happen so soon though...  As an 8th grader I went on a school trip to the east coast--D.C. and NYC primarily--and I got to visit both Ford's Theater and the house nearby where a mortally wounded Lincoln was taken after being shot.  I recall it feeling surreal--"He was right there in the box just watching a play...that's the bed where he lay dying... crazy."  It is always bizarre and beautiful to realize that one stands in the exact footprint of history, separated only by time.  I couldn't help but ponder at length what might have been, had Lincoln been allowed to live and carry out his vision of the reformation.

The book ended with a swell selection of excerpts from Lincoln, including:

"The better part of one's life consists in his friendships."

"Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing."

"Fellow-Citizens, I presume you all know who I am. I am humble Abraham Lincoln. I have been solicited by many friends to become a candidate for the Legislature. My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman's dance. I am in favor of a national bank. I am in favor of the internal improvement system, and a high protective tariff. These are my sentiments and political principles. If elected, I shall be thankful; if not it will be all the same."

"He who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave."

“Writing, the art of communicating thoughts to the mind through the eye, is the great invention of the world...enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space.”

That last one seemed particularly appropriate.  Here I am, more than 150 years after his death, moved--moved to tears, in fact--by his life and his words.  What a flawed, but fabulous human being.  I sure wish John Wilkes Booth had missed his mark.
1989 - Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman
This is a unique little poetry book.  It is written for two readers, and really, to be read aloud.  There are parts that Reader One says and then Reader Two and they go back and forth taking turns and then there are lines they say together.  It was sort of like singing a duet and the best poems in the collection brought to mind rounds.  I always love singing in rounds.  Knowing Matt (a) dislikes reading aloud and (b) dislikes poetry I figured I wouldn't ask him to read it with me.  I meant to ask Val when she was visiting and forgot...so, in the end, I read along to this youtube video.  It is the entire book though, for reasons of their own, the readers switched up the sequence of the poems.  My favorite was probably Whirligig Beatles, but I also really enjoyed The Moth's Serenade, The Digger Wasp,Water Striders, and Honeybees.
All the poems were about insects and many were accompanied by black and white illustrations.  Sometimes they spread over the page in a apt and entertaining way, like with the Whirligig Beatles.  The poems were really sensitive to the bug, showing them just living their lives, doing what they do.  This isn't something I see a lot and I rather appreciated it.  For example, The Digger Wasp is about the unconditional love of a parent.   I quite appreciated the whole book actually.
I am super-duper excited to have hit the 1990s at last.  The first book of the '90s is one I know and love from my schooldays even.  I suspect there will be a lot more of that from here on out.
All photos--except the three from the books themselves-- are from the St. Patty's Day weekend--March 14th-18th.  Val and I coordinated a trip back home to visit for a long weekend--watched Meagan pierce Alli's ears, built a fire at Sundheim, music, games, kiddos, tiny airplanes, shuffleboard on Josh's table at the brewery, and on and on with the good times.

7 comments:

  1. I did like that stanza about aging, too! Reading all those books AND reviewing them is certainly an undertaking! I can see why you'll be relieved to finish.

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    1. I suppose that IS a factor--the reflection and review writing phase.

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  2. Robin McKinley wrote other books, too - Beauty, a Retelling of Beauty and the Beast, is something I remember loving when I was in middle school.

    I probably wouldn't know about William Blake if I didn't have an English degree :)

    Love that you're doing this project.

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    1. I just submitted a request for that McKinley book. Thanks for mentioning it. I'd never heard of her before this endeavor.

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    2. Did I ever tell you how much I ADORED the retelling of Beauty and the Beast?!?! Thanks for the recommendation, Margo!

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  3. What an AMAZING project!
    ~Have a lovely day!

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    1. Thanks! It has been immensely interesting for me.

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Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas. I value the advice and friendship that you share with me!