Showing posts with label Laura Ingalls Wilder. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Laura Ingalls Wilder. Show all posts

Sunday, 15 July 2007

A Thimble Summer and the Winter of a Reviewer’s Discontent

Elizabeth Enright’s Newbery medal-winning Thimble Summer is very much a book of its time — but please don’t take this to mean that I think it any sort of literal or reliable picture of farm life in the thirties, or indeed of life anywhere, at any time. This book isn’t so much a reflection of its time as a reaction to it. It’s a simple, sunny book. A ten-year-old Wisconsin farm girl named Garnet Linden cavorts through a summer and some mild adventures on her family farm. Garnet finds a silver thimble while playing by the river. A short drought is broken by rainfall. Garnet visits her friend Citronella’s grandmother and hears her stories of olden times. A migrant orphan boy, Eric, appears on her farm and finds work and a home with the Lindens. Garnet and Citronella get locked in the town library overnight. The Lindens get a government loan or grant to build the new barn they need. Garnet runs away from the farm to go to a nearby town for the day. Garnet’s family attend the local fall fair, where Garnet exhibits her pet pig and eats a lot of ice cream. And Garnet sees the finding of the thimble as the catalyst of all this and claims that it’s magical.

I was going to complain about the utter lack of depth in this book, but then when I began to think about the era in which this book was published, read and lauded, the very simplicity and the facility of the plot, theme, and characterizations began to take on a new meaning. After all, Thimble Summer won the Newbery Medal in 1939, the same year as the premiere of The Wizard of Oz, a movie in which another ten-year-old farm girl (or as Hollywood would have it, a sixteen-year-old actress in a chest-flattening corset) has magical adventures. The thirties, as everyone knows, were a time of widespread unemployment, bankruptcies, drought, poverty, hunger, war, and escalating international tensions. The American film industry did very well in the thirties because everyone wanted to escape from their problems for a few hours. And then too, although grim social realism had become a considerable force in contemporary literature, it had not yet breached children’s books. Adults of the thirties may have been reading Of Mice and Men (published in 1937), or The Grapes of Wrath (published in 1940), but they were giving their children Thimble Summer, or at most Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series (published in the thirties and forties and five times named Newbery Honor books).

Thimble Summer, accordingly, might have seemed a very pleasant bit of escapism to a city child who never got enough to eat nor had any place to swim. To a child on an actual, drought-ridden farm the book might seem like something best dropped in the path of the nearest combine. All right, perhaps I am exaggerating. A farm child aware of the schism between this book and his or her own reality would not have dared risk damage to the family combine.

Elizabeth Enright’s “authenticity” was praised in reviews. The New York Times Book Review claimed the book had “the flavor of real life… expressed with charm and humor.” I will go so far as to say that the setting does have a certain naturalness and realism. The Linden family’s standard of living is somewhat true to what a successful farm family’s would have been in the thirties. Garnet more or less lives in a single pair of overalls chopped off above the knee, and her pleasures are very elemental ones. Enright includes descriptive details of weathered mailboxes that lean upon each other, and of 20–year-old Ford trucks that go 15 miles an hour, and sensual descriptions of rain and heat. The larger, grimmer reality is acknowledged only fleetingly. Eric, who has lived a knockabout life travelling in boxcars and supporting himself by whatever work he can find, tells the Lindens they don’t know what real drought is and that he wants to stay in fertile Wisconsin and someday buy his own farm there.

Everything works out for the best in Garnet’s little world. When the crops on her farm are badly in need of rain, they get it just in time to avoid failure. When her brother chastises her for causing an (easily correctable) mishap during threshing, she runs away for the afternoon to have fun by herself. When she accidentally spends her bus fare, she hitchhikes. When she hitchhikes she is picked up by kindly strangers. It’s not surprising that Enright should have had this idyllic, superficially realistic concept of farm life. She did spend her summers on a farm in Wisconsin, but the farm was owned by her uncle, Frank Lloyd Wright. Farming may have been a financially viable proposition for Lloyd Wright, but it certainly didn’t need to be.

Enright’s idealized notion of farm life is even evident in the illustrations, which Enright also drew. They are simple (and dismayingly amateurish for a professional illustrator who studied at New York’s Parsons School of Design) line drawings, and the coloured illustrations are in pastel and bright colours without shading or perspective. Garnet’s body is impossibly streamlined, and her little friend Citronella, who is described as fat, is only slightly more realistically curvy. In one picture which shows Garnet and her brother Jay running through a cabbage patch, their feet don’t appear to be touching the ground, and the cabbages look more like very large roses.

I’m certainly not saying that every novel should be grimly realistic, because that is one bleak prospect, especially for children’s books. Good books in the romantic tradition, and books that are just fun, are something to cherish. But this book is somehow not enjoyable enough to be really fun. It’s just… blandly pleasant and conventional in a way that is no longer admired in literature. There’s really nothing remarkable about it, and in trying to figure out how it could have been upgraded to stellar, I’ve settled on picking at its lack of depth and realism. L.M. Montgomery defended her romantic style of fiction by saying that rose gardens are just as real as pigsties, and she was perfectly right, but a novel that is too sweet and light is just as flawed as one that is too monotonously dreary. Enright could have learned a few things from Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter — and unacknowledged co-writer — Rose Wilder Lane. The Wilders fictionalized Laura’s childhood, and they had to take out some details that would have made the book too dark, but one of the best things about the Little House books is their sure balance between realistic portrayal of some extremely harsh situations and the positive aspects of Laura’s life. The books never gloss over the horrendous dangers and privations of frontier life, but the realism doesn’t weigh too heavily on the book. A child reading these books can enjoy Laura’s tilts with Nellie Oleson, and feel her pleasure in a new calico dress or ripe plums, and also her feel her fear of wolves or worry about Pa being missing during a blizzard. An adult reading the series can enjoy these things as well, but also has a deeper awareness of narrowness of the margin of survival for the Ingalls family. When you’re a child it sounds like fun to wake up with a foot of snow on your bed. When you’re over 30, not so much. An adult has a much better appreciation of what it would have meant for Charles Ingalls to leave his wife and children with little money and food and walk several hundred miles in worn-out boots to search for work, and of the courage Caroline Ingalls showed when she spent a three-day blizzard playing games with her little daughters knowing full well that her husband (and sole economic support) could be lying dead out in the storm.

I still enjoy the Little House books almost as much (if in a different way) as I did as a child. I probably would have enjoyed Thimble Summer if I’d read it when I was seven or eight and hadn’t grown up on a farm. But this kind of limited appeal is the hallmark of a limited book, not of a good one.

Monday, 25 December 2006

A Reader's Digest Christmas, Digested

I've been meaning to write a special Christmas-themed review about O. Henry's The Gifts of the Magi and four of his other short stories, but since I am now at my parents' place for Christmas and I cleverly left the O. Henry book at my own home in Toronto, I'll have to fall back on reviewing something from my parents' bookshelves.

So, I've unearthed a somewhat battered, Reader's Digest-produced copy of A Family's Christmas, copyright 1984. And I'm actually disposed to be more gentle with it than I would have been to The Gifts of the Magi. But please don't take this as some sort of endorsement of Reader's Digest.

Reader's Digest was always in my home as I grew up because my father subscribed to it, and it does seem to me to be a sort of yardstick to my development as a reader, the equivalent of old pencil marks on a wall being used to gauge a child's height. When I first began to read it at about eight, I read just the jokes. Then, perhaps a year later, I began to read the lighter articles. Then I began to read whatever articles interested me, and by twelve or so I was reading the entire magazine. At fourteen I beguiled away a good portion of a case of mono by reading ten years' worth of back issues. (I always remember my illnesses by my reading material, and have fond memories of the time I escaped from the miseries of a 2002 bout with Influenza A into a thick, small-print collection of Sherlock Holmes stories.) At fifteen I began to notice, as with an outgrown, outworn piece of clothing, the shortcomings of Reader's Digest, and consequently read it less and less. By the age of seventeen, I had stopped reading it all together, and now can't bear to read it at all. So, now, revisiting A Family Christmas as an adult, I'm pleasantly surprised to find that the book I enjoyed so much as a ten-year-old still has some merit.

The book opens with an essay written by the excellent Jessamyn West. (Not, you understand, the living and equally excellent Jessamyn West, librarian and moderator, but the late and excellent Jessamyn West, Quaker writer.) West muses about her Christmas memories, and it's enjoyable reading, though I would enjoy it more if I didn't have to worry that Reader's Digest editors have gutted the piece — or as they call it, "condensed" it. The first time I ever read an original version of something I had only previously read as a Reader's Digest version I realized how cheated I had been, and it is this more than anything that destroyed my enjoyment of Reader's Digest materials. If the piece has been gutted, the editors certainly chose to leave in West's slightly didactic conclusion about the "heart-warmth" and religious meaning of Christmas. I can't help but suspect it would have seemed less preachy in the original form, as West, a woman who helped her own sister euthanize herself, had a very nuanced belief system and no tendency at all to proselytize.

Paging on, we enter a section called "Christmas Customs and Crafts". This section features pieces about the origin and practice of different Christmas customs followed by instructions for making your own Christmas paraphernalia. For instance, the first custom discussed is the Christmas tree. Origin of the custom, historical and present-day variations, a cute anecdote about Theodore Roosevelt's son's scheme to subvert his conservationist father's decree that there would be no White House Christmas tree, quotes from A.E. Housman, reproductions of works by Norman Rockwell, and Grandma Moses, pictures of antique ornaments, illustrations of various kinds of pine trees. Quite readable. Immediately following it we have instructions on how to make tree ornaments out of wood shavings, which look lovely. Then instructions on how to make Ecuadorian star ornaments out of yarn and foil covered squares. They're done in garish colours and look none too attractive in the book, but the crafter in me is thinking perhaps the idea has some potential...

Moving on more rapidly, there are pieces on creches, Christmas stockings, toys, Christmas cards, Christmas greens, and Santa Claus, and these are followed, respectively, by instructions on making one's own cornhusk creche, knitted Aran stockings, Cinderella doll and wooden wagon, Christmas cards, pine cone wreath and Advent wreath, and "Santa's dream dollhouse". Which I must admit mostly look attractive and damn tempting to me as a knitter, sewer, and person who loves to make things, and there's something to be said for a company that can produce crafts which still look good over twenty years later. The picture of a brooding Santa peering around a tree while a little girl plays happily with the dollhouse does look a little iffy, however.

Then we come to the "Christmas in the Kitchen" section. James Beard's Christmas recollections, and four separate menus for Christmas meals. Also a cookie section, featuring a photo of a pink-cheeked grandma happily making cookies with two children at her kitchen table. Grandma's pink cheeks are a little too obviously rouged, and there's no way any baker could possibly work on such crowded surface as her kitchen table, but we'll let that pass. The recipes certainly look good, but I'm already feeling sated on my mother's cooking, so I'll just move on to the next section.

Paging on, we find the section I remember the best, a collection of Christmas stories, which as always with Reader's Digest selections, range from the very good to the horrendous, and, as with West's piece, I cannot fully enjoy any of them for fear they have been gutted.

I would place the first story, "A Miserable, Merry Christmas" in the "very good" category. Lincoln Steffens tells the story of the boyhood Christmas he told his parents that he wanted "a pony or nothing" for Christmas, and how he awoke to find Christmas morning to find he'd been taken at his word. Steffens, so Wikipedia claims, is known for remarking, upon his return from a 1921 visit to the Soviet Union, that he "has been over into the future and it works", but let us leave that aside and give him credit for at least understanding his own past, and presenting us with an evocative representation of a childhood experience, with its wild expectations and painful hopes and sudden plunges from joy to misery and back again.

Next we find the lyrics for "Go Tell It On The Mountain". I'd say this was public domain (read: "free") filler and am musing on whether in today's cultural climate the Reader's Digest editors would still chose to subtitle the lyrics "American Black Spiritual".

On page 148, Selma Lagerlof's "The Legend of the Christmas Rose" begins, a mystical tale of monks and robbers and a forest that blooms and is visited by angels every Christmas. It's not bad, and it does achieve that certain flavour of a tale that has been passed down orally from generation to generation.

Next is Valentine Davies' "Miracle on 34th Street". I read this story before ever knowing about the movie. Now that I know about the movie and have skimmed over the story again, I found myself wondering if the story was the "fictionalization" of the movie — fiction written from the screen play. Such fictionalizations are usually flat and mechanical, like this story. Upon looking it up, I find the movie was made from the "novel". Since the story in the Reader's Digest book is just 35 pages long, I suspect the story has been stripped to the bare bones. It's hardly fair to assess it in this state.

Norah Lofts's "The Lord of Misrule" follows "Miracle on 34th Street". In medieval times, a minstrel and a penniless girl of good family fall in love. They know they would never be allowed even to speak together under ordinary circumstances, but when the minstrel is named Lord of Misrule they seize their chance. It's a good story, and is well told.

Then we come to "Mr. Edward Meets Santa Claus", as excerpted from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. Not a bad story, nor badly written. And, of course, it's imbued by all those values Reader's Digest and Wilder's libertarian daughter Rose Wilder Lane (who heavily edited and rewrote her mother's work) hold so dear — the bonds of family and friendship, and hardy self-reliance.

Next is Pearl S. Buck's "Christmas Day in the Morning", the story of an elderly man's memories of a boyhood Christmas surprise for his father. More about the bonds of family and love, but the story has a dark vein, because it more than hints at the loneliness of an elderly couple whose children are busy with their own lives.

Then we read Kay Thompson's "Eloise at Christmastime". Somehow even at ten I never cared for this story. I don't think I really had the patience to read it properly. I always liked a good story, and this one is short on actual narrative and long on nonsense rhymes and whimsy.

On to Frank R. Stockton's "Old Applejoy's Ghost". The ghost of a man from the eighteenth century pulls some strings to manage a Christmas and other matters for his great-granddaughter. It's not literature by any means, but it's readable enough.

Then we find Edna St. Vincent Millay's "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver", which is supposed to be among the best of Millay's work. I hope this isn't the case. "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver" is maudlin, subscribes to the awful mother-reverence that was far too prevalent in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, and is barely above doggerel.

Next is "Christmas Every Day" by William Dean Howells. A little girl gets her wish and has Christmas every day for a year. I hope it's not just my love for nineteenth century children's and pulp fiction speaking when I say I really like this one. I suppose it's supposed to be a morality lesson instructing little girls in the dangers of greed, but to my mind it's just as much about the excesses of Christmas and how once a year is as much Christmas as anyone can bear, and this subtext amuses me no end.

Finally, we come to "A Conversation About Christmas", by Dylan Thomas. A Welsh man describes his boyhood Christmasses to a small boy. It's a poetic piece about the nature of nostalgia.

We finish with more public domain filler — a poem from Tennyson, and then "A Christmas Prayer Book", which is a few pages of short poems and readings from various sources.

As you can tell from my description, it's a reasonably enjoyable, worthwhile book on the whole. The problems I have with it, and with Reader's Digest materials in general, are like unto the problem I have with Christmas as a whole. I don't like the painful contrast between the ideal presented as reality and the actual reality, the saccharine feel-good vibe, the unreasonable, unrealistic expectations nearly everyone develops and is subjected to. I don't like the nostalgia that laces its way through everything. The lament for "how things used to be" is literally everywhere in this book, even in the medieval-era The Lord of Misrule. But then Christmas, like such "family oriented" materials as this book, are not things that can or should be experienced every day. Perhaps they are well enough in their place.

I'll just say then, that I hope we all enjoy Christmas, and all such artificially sweet fare, on our own terms, and then enjoy equally our return to a more holistic way of living and perceiving.