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Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Sawyer’

 I admit it–my favorite part of Christmas just might be presents.  And it’s not so much the receiving (though don’t get me wrong–I do love receiving), but the giving.  It’s the joy in finding just the right thing, something that is more than the sum of its parts, and seeing the reaction when it hits its mark. 

Below, in no particular order, are some of my very favorite gift-giving incidents in kidlit history.  Most of them occur around Christmas, but not all of them.  Most of these scenes I first read as a child, and they certainly stuck in my head–particularly the first one. . . 

Puffed Sleeves!  Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.  Anne finally has a group of friends, but Matthew notices there’s something different between her and her friends: she’s not dressed like the other girls.  So, he does his very best to get her a fashionable dress for Christmas, first braving the store (and winding up with rakes and brown sugar) and then enlisting the help of Rachel Lynde.  And Anne’s reaction is wonderful to see:  “Breakfast seems so commonplace at such an exciting moment.  I’d rather feast my eyes on that dress.  I’m so glad that puffed sleeves are still fashionable.  It did seem to me that I’d never get over it if they went out before I had a dress with them.”

Why I love this scene:  First, what girl hasn’t wanted something fashionable, only to be denied because it’s not “practical”?  And then, lovely Matthew comes along and does it anyway.  Anne has been so lonely for so long, and Matthew’s gift is so thoughtful.  She was already a part of the family, but this is the first time she gets a gift where others are thinking of what she wants.  Quite a change for an orphan!  And yes, part of me still wants a dress with puffed sleeves.

The feast in A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett).  Though not a Christmas gift, I can’t help but include it.  Sara and Becky are in deep trouble, and the Magic won’t save them.  But they awaken one morning and the attic has been transformed: “In the grate there was a glowing, blazing fire; on the hob was a little brass kettle hissing and boiling; spread upon the floor was a thick, warm crimon rug; before the fire a folding chair, unfolded, and with cushions on it; by the chair a small white cloth, and upon it spread small covered dishes, a cup, a saucer, a teapot; on the bed were new warm coverings and a satin-covered down quilt; at the foot a curius wadded silk robe, a pair of quilted slipper and some books.  The room of her dream seemed changed into fairyland . . . ‘It does not–melt away.’”

Why I love this scene: On the magical level, this is right at the top.  Yummy food and beautiful things!  I am amazed that neither she nor Becky heard a thing, but then, I guess that’s part of the magic.  Another moment where an orphan realizes she’s not alone.  Plus, the makeover of the attic sounds delightful–it’s like an early home makeover show.

Jo’s HairLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Marmee must rush off to tend to their sick father.  Money is tight, and so Jo sells her hair.  She insists it was the best thing to do in the situation, but does confess: “I felt queer when I saw the dear old hair laid out on the table and felt only the short, rough ends on my head.  It almost seemed as if I’d an arm or a leg off.  The woman saw me look at it, and picked out a long lock for me to keep.  I’ll give it to you, Marmee, just to remember past glories by; for a crop is so comfortable I don’t think I shall ever have a mane again.”

Why I love this scene:  Yes, Jo makes a big sacrifice for her family.  But the real reason I love this scene is the series of exclamations from her family when she reveals her shorn head.  Best line in the book: “Oh Jo, how could you?  Your one beauty!”  Makes me laugh every time.  And could anyone but a sister get away with that?

The Brass BowlHeaven to Betsy by Maud Hart Lovelace.  Mrs. Ray falls in love with a brass bowl and insists that her husband buy it for her.  Mr. Ray keeps insisting that he would never give her such a gift.  The entire family visits the brass bowl and insists that it’s right for Mrs. Ray.  On Christmas Eve, he caves, but the bowl is gone.  Panic sets in.  But on Christmas morning, the brass bowl is there–because Mrs. Ray bought it for herself!

Why I love this scene:  There’s almost a domino effect as each family member becomes convinced that the Brass Bowl is the Perfect Gift.  But Mr. Ray stands strong–until that last minute Christmas Eve panic sets in.  I just love how Mrs. Ray takes matters into her own hands.  It’s a scene that makes me giggle and rings oh so true.  On this reread, I also couldn’t help but love the following lines:   “‘I have no intention of buying it,’ Mr. Ray answered.  ‘I’m going to gie you a personal present, not a house present.’  ‘I love this new house so much that it’s practically me.”  My sentiments exactly, Mrs. Ray.

As You Like It Besty and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace.  “It was proper for a boy to give a girl only books, flowers, or candy.  It would be proper for Betsy to give Joe nothing more.”  And so she purchases the red, limp-leather edition of As You Like It.  Alas, the course of true love never did run smooth.  Tony asks Betsy to the New Year’s Eve dance first, and Betsy and Joe fight over it: “Either you’re my girl or you’re not.”  He tosses her present at her.  She opens it and realizes it is the exact same edition of As You Like It.  “Inside he had written ‘We’ll fleet the time carelessly as the did in the golden world.’ But Betsy knew he had written that before he knew that she was going to the dance with Tony.  She put her face into her hands and began to cry.”

Why I love this scene:  Well, it’s certainly not because it’s as happy and joyful as some of the other gift giving scenes.  But for an old-fashioned romantic like me?  Well, it’s perfect.  Not quite on the level of the O. Henry story, “Gift of the Magi,” it still has to mean something extra special to give the exact same present to each other.  If nothing else, it’s another sign that Betsy and Joe are made for each other.

Trinket’s First Tree  Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer.  Lucinda realizes that her little friend Trinket has never had a Christmas tree.  And one can’t just have a tree–but a party and presents too.  So she works extra hard to earn money in December and invites the whole neighborhood to surprise Trinket.  She is completely captivated.  “There is always one Christmas that belongs to you more than any other–belongs by right of festival and those secret feelings that are never spoken aloud.  This Christmas belonged to Lucinda in that way, and I think it belonged to many of her friends.”

Why I love this scene:  Lucinda is only 10, and it may be a bit hard to believe that she’s so thoughtful.  But I love the way the ornaments are almost all handmade and everyone joins in.  And it’s so easy to imagine the look on Trinket’s face when she first sees the tree.  What magic!  It’s not so much the gift, but the experience–they’ve made a wonderful memory.

Mr. Edwards as Santa Claus Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  No snow and a practically flooding creek means that Santa won’t be able to get to the Ingalls family in time for Christmas.  Luckily, Mr. Edwards meets Santa in Independence and is able to bring the gifts after all.

Why I love this scene:  First, it’s really funny.  When you read again as an adult, you sense the worry that Ma and Pa have that Christmas won’t happen as planned for his kids.  And when Mr. Edwards arrives, the story is told with plenty of ( )s and interjections and questions–exactly the kind of questions any kid would ask about Santa.  For example, when Mr. Edwards says he meets Santa, Laura asks: “‘In the daytime?’ She hadn’t thought that anyone could see Santa Claus in the daytime.  No, Mr. Edwards said; it was night, but light shone out across the street from the saloons.”  Giggle.  The presents themselves are simple–a tin cup, peppermint candy, a heart-shaped cake, and a penny.  “Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.  There had never been such a Christmas.”  What puts this tale over the top for me though is Mr. Edwards–that man knows how to tell a story and keep kids believing in Santa.

Originally, I set out to find 10, but at 7, I ran out of steam.  Do you have a favorite scene that I’ve left out?  What is the greatest kidlit history gift of all time?

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Last spring, our exhibit was on domestic arts.  Specifically, quilts, gardening, and woodworking.  We were part of a larger collaboration, and museums throughout the city were doing various exhibits on quilts.  Now I like quilts as much as the next person, but when you have two years of meetings, they can get a little, shall we say, tired.  Besides, as some gushed about how wonderful quilts are, I kept thinking of Anne Shirley saying “There’s no scope for imagination in patchwork.”  And then I had other irreverent thoughts and had to fight making inappropriate facial expressions during a meeting.

So many of the other exhibits celebrated the artistry and dedication of quilters.  But we wanted to talk about that other part of quilting and domestic arts in the 19th century–the fact that sometimes you do things because you have to, not because you want to.  Part of our exhibit is a collection of what we call “quote cubes.”  One side has a question and the other 5 sides have quotes, sometimes sharing similar views and sometimes differing.  I knew that it was going to be hard to find lots of letters or diary entries complaining about sewing.  It seems that if things like that are mentioned in those kinds of accounts they’re usually bragging about their latest accomplishment, not whining about it.  Then I thought of who is most likely to complain–kids forced to do handwork, because it’s expected.  Because it’s what their mothers did.  Because their mothers need their help.  And where else can you get the voice of a child but in children’s literature?

After combing through several books, I found some wonderful quotes that help fight that stereotype of the 19th century–that all women sewed and that they all liked it.  Today, it seems that we are always insisting on our differences; we are not all the same.  But when we talk about the people of the past, they’re usually lumped together–huge generalizations and assumptions are made.  We have to have other voices in the mix–and these books are certainly one way to make the story richer.

Check out some of these quotes that we used in our exhibit:

“I know I don’t sew nicely–I’ll never, never sew nicely.  I wish I was in heaven and you and your everlasting sewing in hell, Aunt Emily!”  Lucinda did not intend this to be the damning thing it sounded.  She had wanted to place Aunt Emily and herself as far apart as possible.  –Ruth Sawyer, Roller Skates  (This is one of my very favorites!)

She believed the devil must have invented a needle.  From the moment you first learned to thread one, and knot the thread, it had you plagued to death.  She hated-hated-hated sewing-this kind of sewing!  — Lucinda in Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer

‘Golly!  I could do that, too!’ said Tom.  ‘Girls think they’re so smart with their tiny stitches.  Where’s a needle?’

‘Me too!’ said Warren, and before Clara knew what was happening to her precious quilt, the boys had taken possession, and the three erstwhile adventurers were making riotous scrolls and roses all over it.  –Caddie Woodlawn, Carol Ryrie Brink

There’s no scope for imagination in patchwork.  It’s just one little seam after another and you never seem to be getting anywhere.  –Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery

“Betsy,” scolded Carney, “you ought to learn to sew.”

“I despise sewing.  I’m going to buy my dresses in Paris.”

“But you ought to know how to embroider at least.  There’s so much sentiment in a gift you embroider. . . “

“Nobody would be glad to get anything I embroidered.”   –Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy was a Junior

‘How nice my handkerchiefs look, don’t they?  Hannah washed and ironed them for me, and I marked them all myself,’ said Beth, looking proudly at the somewhat uneven letters which had cost her such labor.  –Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

When some historians don’t like to use oral histories, I know it will be a long time before historians begin to consider these books as another kind of primary source.  But at my museum, we certainly do.  I know that Maud Hart Lovelace might not have ever had that exact conversation with her friends about sewing, but I have confidence that she certainly felt that way about sewing.  And she probably wasn’t the only one either.  But these voices addanother layer to quilts–you’re not just looking at the object, but you’re thinking more carefully about the people behind the object.  Did they enjoy their work?  Was it a burden?  Did they teach others?  How old were they when they began to sew?  Looking for these particular nuggets helped me to realize how rich in details these books are.  They’re a wonderful source, ready to be mined.

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