My Feminist Winter, Part 2

Strong female character: check. World War I setting: check.  A little bit of romance: check. Suffrage movement: check. Honestly, for historical fiction, this is usually about all I need for a book to be a winner. It’s why I put Crossing Stones by Helen Frost on my to-read list so many years ago. But I deeply regret not getting to it sooner.

6458728

This is a book in verse, in the vein of Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust (God, I love that book). Usually, that’s not a huge selling point for me. I read fast–I don’t pause and analyze and reflect the way you should with poetry. And I confess that when I started reading Crossing Stones, I was reading for plot, not the beauty of the language. It’s told from the perspective of three teenagers–Muriel, her best friend and neighbor Emma, and her brother Ollie. For some reason, about 50 pages in, I flipped to the back and noticed an author’s note on the form of the poetry. People–if you read this book, read the author’s note first! It completely changed the way I thought about the book. Suddenly, it made sense why Muriel’s poems were shaped so differently than Ollie’s and Emma’s. So, I slowed down and let the beautiful words wash right over me.

Muriel is a woman who just isn’t sure. She’s not sure about the war. She’s not sure she wants to be a homemaker. She heads to DC to pick up her Aunt Vera who has been picketing for suffrage at the White House, jailed, and in the middle of a hunger strike. She finds herself joining the movement and thinking about other options for her life besides farm life.

And then. there is the thread of her little sister getting influenza. Remember folks, it’s 1918.

A side note: I’m in the middle of reading John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. It’s a little disturbing to read it in the midst of the worst flu season in years. And with the number killed and the horrible way they died, how do we not talk more about this moment in history?

Back to the story at hand: Muriel has just gotten back from DC, and she has a present for her little sister. She reads all of Anne of Green Gables at her sick sister’s bedside. And there is this moment that just brought tears to my eyes:

I stopped reading for a minute,

turned away, and she opened her eyes to ask

what happened next! I don’t know, Grace,

I’m reading it for the first time myself.

Mama said to wake her if there was any change,

but Grace insists, Keep reading, Muriel.

I think Anne really does like Gilbert, don’t you?

She keeps her eyes open, and I go on, as if

reading is breathing, and by reading I can

keep my sister breathing.

Honestly, it’s one of the best uses of another book in a book I’ve ever seen. But I may be biased since it’s Anne.

These are all characters that realize the world around them is changing, and they’re trying to figure out their place. I appreciated the hesitation and the fear and the questioning. Frost gracefully takes some of the big themes of 1917-1918 and weaves them together–suffrage, war, influenza, settlement houses. But it never feels forced. It’s easy enough to go to other sources to dig deeper on some of the topics, but not necessary. Her characterization is spot-on, and I never found myself thinking that Muriel was too modern.

I’ve always said that the story should come first in historical fiction, not the history. This is certainly a case where the words come before the history, but it still gives you plenty of history. I read this immediately after The Hired Girl and it was stunning how different the reading experience was. Refreshing, too. Frost hit all the right historical notes, but she also created deeply sympathetic characters–and to create them in so few words!

Definitely one of the best books I read last year. More of this, please.

Click here for My Feminist Winter, Part 1.

My Feminist Winter, Part 1

In this age of #metoo and constant headlines regarding sexual harassment, feminism isn’t quite the dirty word it used to be. Lately, several books I’ve read have approached feminism in some very different ways–usually successfully, but one not so much. Of course, it isn’t like my reading interests have taken a turn to feminism over the last several months. Since I could read, I’ve been reading books about strong girls and women. Women’s history has always been a passion of mine. But I have to admit that it’s kinda nice to see our ranks growing.

My feminist winter started with The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz. It came out a few years ago, and many trusted friends adored it. Several friends mentioned that it reminded them of Anne of Green Gables, which if you know anything about me, you know that’s one of my all time favorite books. So, my expectations were high.

25163300

Alas, I spent most of the book annoyed. Yes, Joan gets into scrapes. She craves books and opportunities for education. But I just didn’t like Joan. She serves in a Jewish household, and she almost immediately starts trying to convert them to Catholicism. She flirts with the sons of the house. And through all this, her employers make all kinds of accommodations for her, including ultimately sending her to a private school. It was all just too hard to believe.

The timeline of the book is only a few months, so I guess I shouldn’t expect too much character growth. But there seemed to be none. In all honesty, I think Joan felt very entitled to all of it–every adjustment made on her behalf, every acceptance of her truly bad behavior. And perhaps that’s why the comparison to Anne Shirley rankled so much. Anne never felt like she deserved any of the love given her by Diana and Marilla and Matthew. Though she earned her top of the class rankings and her entrance to Queens, I think she always held a bit of disbelief at her good fortune. Which is a big part of what makes  Anne so relateable still, 110 years after her debut.

I also felt that Schlitz missed some important historical opportunities. The movement of women into paid work outside of the home is such an important thread in women’s history. It started in the 1820s with the Lowell Mill Girls. It was hard, difficult work, but it was an opportunity to continue their education, earn their own money, and get off the farm. In the process, they were exposed to many different cultures and environments. One of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had at a historical site was at the Lowell Mills–I got to the museum when it opened (time was short!), and they asked if I’d like them to turn the machines on. There was a huge space and maybe a third of the machines (looms and more that I can’t remember) came on. The speed and the sound just took my breath away. And I started thinking about these young, young women who worked at those machines–and had probably never seen anything quite like it before.

Though this book takes place in 1910, I wish Schlitz had spent more time with Joan’s adjustment to a bustling city. It’s clear that Joan comes from a pretty small town. Where is the sense of wonder and amazement at the department store? The large buildings in Baltimore? When teaching people about the past, I think it’s important to get them to imagine the amazement at the many changes we take for granted today. At the museum where I work, we’re lucky enough to have both the log cabin the Miller family first lived in when they moved to Texas–as well as the giant mansion they built several years later. When working with kids, I always say “Imagine if that cabin was all you had ever known–and then you got to move into this house. What would it feel like?” Gets them every time. But I never felt that emotional pull of the wonder that real life Joans probably felt when they first arrived in the big city. Perhaps this is another effect of the sense of entitlement that Joan had.

One thing that Schlitz does very well is the portrayal of Joan’s mother. She married late in life, not for love but as the last remaining option. She encouraged her daughter to go to school. And most movingly, she tucked money into a doll’s skirt so that Joan would have a way to escape. The hard work of the farm ultimately killed her–a not uncommon story.

Though I understand why people liked this book so much, it wasn’t a book for me. I do applaud Schlitz for shining a light on this moment in history. And I loved that it was set in a Jewish household. Plenty of things to like, but not quite enough to love.

As I typed this, I realized I had a lot more to say than planned. So, call this the first of a three part series. Not bad, since I haven’t posted here in over a year. That darn job of mine keeps getting in the way of my hobbies! Look for part 2 soon.

 

My Year in Books

Since 2001 (holy crap–that’s 15 years!), I’ve kept a reading journal.  2001 was the year I graduated college, so it flows through that last year at Hendrix, into grad school, early working years, furlough years and now the executive director years.  Most likely, I’ll never again hit the highs of 2001 (116 books), aided in large part by a paper I wrote on the Dear America series. For many years, the written journal has been supplemented by Goodreads, where I also keep a pretty daunting To Read list.  You can find my complete list for 2016 here.

As I looked back at the books I ranked 5 stars, several things stood out. In what should be fairly obvious, almost all my favorites had some connection to history. There are two exceptions to that. Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, was a pick for my Forever Young Adult book club. I loved the characters and the very real consequences of awkward high school things in the age of social media. Another YA novel I loved was P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han–it’s far from perfect, but deeply satisfying. Sometimes, you just need a fluffy romance!

This year, I discovered a new author to keep my eye on. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson came out a few years ago, but I just got to it this year. Was so pleasantly surprised by this book! In 2016, she released The Summer Before the War, which is one of those books that hits all my buttons. World War I, independent woman, England. It’s really one of the best of that genre, and I’d put it right up against one of my all time favorites, Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery (though no WWI fiction will ever beat Rilla!)

The most gut-wrenching book I read this year was Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Listening to the audio book during a road trip seemed like a good idea at the time, but sobbing while on I-35 on a weekend makes driving difficult. I wrote about this book earlier this year.

After visiting Detroit in January last year for a program committee meeting for AASLH, I decided to follow up on two book recommendations before my return for the conference in September. Both landed on my 5 star list. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is a family saga of 20th century urban, African American Detroit. The family home is way upside down on the mortgage, and the large family deals with that reality in very different ways. I almost wish I had read this after The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroiby Thomas Sugrue, a non-fiction work that takes a look at how Detroit got to where it is today. Reading it through the lens of what’s happening in Dallas right now (and my own increasing knowledge about affordable housing) made it extra fascinating. Highly recommend reading these two books together–they’re ultimately telling the same story, but in very different ways.

Rounding out my Five Star list are The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks by James Anderson (a 1930s whodunit that is simply fun and clever), Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose (fascinating look at how Anne Frank became the phenomenon it still is today), The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant (a DHV book club pick that is an excellent coming of age, early 20th century history), and Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls (a fictionalized biography of the author’s grandmother).

Not a bad year at all–filled with plenty of strong women and a lot of history. Hope you also had an excellent year in books!

Mrs. Rachel Lynde Would Not Approve

When a favorite book is adapted for the screen, I try to keep an open mind. I really, really do. And there were reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the latest Anne of Green Gables movie. The casting of Anne was more age appropriate. It was filmed on Prince Edward Island. And the granddaughter of author L. M. Montgomery was involved.

ffff

But I was also smart. I knew I needed to watch with friends. And perhaps some sort of alcohol. On Saturday night, I made clam chowder and a few friends came over. Within the first few minutes, Ashley had already declared “Minus one point for Matthew falling into a puddle of manure!” Someone else declared “Half a point for it being filmed on PEI.” And then I said “Should we keep score? Do we even dare?”

For a little while, things were almost even. Not quite, but almost. And then it went straight downhill. At the end of the night, our score sheet read:

Points For: 14

Points Against: 317.5

So, what were our problems? In most cases, the casting and the characterizations just weren’t right. Matthew was too chatty and portrayed as a bumbling fool. Marilla was too soft. Anne was just way too happy. That streak of sadness and longing that is so critical to her character wasn’t there. Diana took the lead on the imagining (though she looked right.) Gilbert. Oh Gilbert. They lost 150 points for that casting decision. Rachel Lynde, Mrs. Barry, and Mr. Phillips were about the only casting decisions we thought they got right.

There were details that just weren’t right—and we can’t understand why certain changes were made. Sure, only a fan would be outraged that Anne told Marilla her parents died when she was five. But a key part of the books is that Anne had no memories of her parents, because they died when she was a few months old.

The pacing was very odd. We kept pausing and wondering how they were going to wrap things up in the time they had left. And then Anne suddenly fell through some ice and Matthew hopped on a sled to rescue her and we just lost it. At this point, I stopped the movie and got out the whiskey. I believe curse words were used. And one really shouldn’t curse while watching Anne. Rachel Lynde wouldn’t approve.

The movie ended with Matthew taking Anne back to the train station because the orphanage had found a better home for her—WHICH NEVER HAPPENED AND COMPLETELY CHANGES THE STORY. Rachel tells Marilla to chase after them. All are united in a hug and the credits roll.  Ummm, what? Of course, now that I’ve learned that they’ll be making 2 more movies, I sorta understand. But I’m still not happy.

My mom asked me if people would still recognize the story if they picked up the book. And the answer is probably yes. And she asked me if it was a good movie if I didn’t know the books so well. But I think the answer to that is no. So much cheese was crammed into a 90 minute movie. Parts of it was beautiful, but there was so little character growth. And Anne was just annoying.

I believe that classics like Anne are incredibly important, and movies can do so much to bring them to a wider audience. But please, for the love of God, respect the characters.

At the end of the movie, Ashley declared “I have to make sure my niece never sees this movie.” And then we popped in the Megan Follows version. Flawed though it is, our beloved characters are still recognizable. And I didn’t start cursing at Kevin Sullivan until the third Anne movie. . .

Making the hidden visible: World War II Fiction

There are certain periods in history that seem to get all the attention.  The pioneer experience. The Civil War. World War II. I’ve always enjoyed the less exposed parts of history more. My “preferred” war is World War 1, and the quantity of material centered around it pales in comparison to WWII.  Though I know there are many, many great stories about WWII, I’m rarely drawn to them.  However, I’ve read two WWII books in recent months that I adored.  Of course, both of them concern less visible parts of that well known story.

Because I’m friends with some of the organizers at the North Texas Teen Book Festival, I got roped into moderating two sessions.  One featured history.  Ruta Sepetys is an author that has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but knowing that she was a featured speaker at the luncheon as well as a likely candidate to be on my panel, pushed her to the top.

25614492I was able to get her most recent book, Salt to the Sea, on audio and listened to it during a long drive to Corpus Christi. All I really knew going in was that it was about the largest maritime disaster in history, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gusltoff.  It follows 4 young adults, struggling to outrun the advancing Russian army. The Wilhelm Gustloff offers a promise of freedom and a new life.  It’s a gripping, intense novel, and I had to think carefully about when to listen to it during my drive.  For the record: listening to the final chapters while heading north on I-35 in Sunday afternoon traffic is not recommended.

1955198

This afternoon, I finished an older novel, Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe, about her family’s exile to Siberia during WWII. Though the story of them suddenly being rounded up and piled into cattle cars was very familiar, the story of exile in Siberia was very different. When they were finally allowed to go back to Poland, Esther didn’t want to go–she had made a home in Siberia. And of course, home was now very different–almost their entire family that had stayed in Poland had died in concentration camps.

One of my questions for Ruta was about the piles of research that was necessary to write a book such as Salt to the Sea. Her answer surprised me: she wrote as she researched.  She was able to interview some survivors, and the story unfolded as she researched. I am baffled and amazed that she is able to do this.

Esther wrote her book based on her own memories, but published more than 20 years after the war.  One of my favorite tidbits in the book comes in the afterward. . .

The important thing about books such as these is they help make the hidden visible. You can’t tell every story in a classroom or a museum. But a book for every story?  That, perhaps, we can do.

 

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment

The Junior Historians at DHV are hard at work on a new exhibit for our school house.  Way back when we first starting talking about stories, we knew we had to include discipline.  One teen in particular was eager to research the subject!

She came up with some great text, but we knew we needed a visual.  There aren’t a lot of artifacts that are specific to school discipline, and that’s definitely something that probably wasn’t captured in a photograph. Someone else (not me!) said “why don’t we look at children’s literature and see what we can find?  And I think we know someone who has quite a collection. . .” All eyes turned to me.

So, the other night, I started looking through my books for photos of kids getting punished at school.  I was hoping to find an illustration of Amy March getting swatted after the pickled lime incident.

Illustration by  Elinore Blaisdell, 1946 edition

Illustration by Elinore Blaisdell, 1946 edition

And I wanted at least one illustration of someone writing lines on a blackboard.  Just when I had about given up hope, All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown by Sydney Taylor supplied the perfect little illustration in a chapter called “The Wrong Side of Bed”

Illustration by Beth and Joe Krush

Illustration by Beth and Joe Krush

And what school punishment discussion is complete with out some old-fashioned paddling?  The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald supplied this one–with a famous for other things illustrator to boot!

Illustration by Mercer Mayer

Illustration by Mercer Mayer

But in what should really be no surprise, I found a lot more illustrations of children misbehaving rather than getting punished.  After all, what’s more fun to illustrate?

There’s this great picture of Laura rocking her desk in Little Town on the Prairie.  

Illustration by Garth Williams

Illustration by Garth Williams

And I found two pictures of teachers dealing with mischief.  There’s this illustration from These Happy Golden Years

golden05132015

Illustration by Garth Williams

And this wonderful one from The Anne of Green Gables Diary, illustrating a scene from Anne of Avonlea.

Illustration by Wes Lowe  (1987)

Illustration by Wes Lowe (1987)

But I think it’s safe to say that one of the most frequently illustrated moments in all of classic 19th century children’s literature is that unforgettable moment when Anne breaks a slate over Gilbert’s head.  I actually found 6 illustrations of this incident in my collection, but one of them wouldn’t quite scan.  (And no, I will not answer the question of how many copies of Anne of Green Gables I own, though I will admit that it’s more than 6.) Which one is your favorite depiction?

Illustration by M. A. and W. A. J. Claus (1908)

Illustration by M. A. and W. A. J. Claus (1908)

Illustration by Troy Howell (1988)

Illustration by Troy Howell (1988)

Illustration by Wes Lowe (1987)

Illustration by Wes Lowe (1987)

Illustration by Laura Fernandez and Rick Jacobson (2000)

Illustration by Laura Fernandez and Rick Jacobson (2000)

Illustration by Sybil Tawse (1933)

Illustration by Sybil Tawse (1933)

It’s interesting to see how differently Gilbert is depicted–in some cases, he’s pretty defensive but in others, he’s completely surprised.  I also love the expressions on the other student’s faces.  I think my least favorite is the one from 1933–both look so passive, and Anne just looks mean, not angry.  My favorite is either the original illustration (I think they got Anne and Gilbert right) or the one from 1988.  Both also capture how fast that whole thing happened–I don’t think Anne really thought about it, she just did it.  Which is how so many students have gotten in trouble over the years.

Tomorrow, we’ll pick which illustrations go into the exhibit. I’m looking forward to a great discussion, both about these illustrations and the exhibit as a whole.

Filling a gap on the timeline

Dead End in NorveltIn anticipation of a solitary road trip, I headed to the library for an audio book.  Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos caught my eye, in part due to these lines in the description: “melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional.”  Now, this was something that would make the miles pass faster.

As luck would have it, the road trip got cancelled, so instead I listened to it in fits and bursts during my regular commutes and while cooking.  This is definitely not the best way to enjoy an audio book, and sometimes days would pass before I was able to listen to the next chapter.  And there were times that I really wished I had been reading it, as there were some really, really good lines about history.

Modern fictionalized autobiographies, books that carry on the traditions started by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ruth Sawyer, Carol Ryrie Brink and Maud Hart Lovelace, seem to be in short supply, but this book certainly fits the bill.  Jack Gantos grew up in a town with an unusual origin–Norvelt was a planned community, launched during the Depression as another relief organization.  Originally called Westmoreland Homesteads, town members later renamed it in honor of the woman who pushed this program through the legislature, Eleanor Roosevelt.  The book is just one important summer, a summer in which he’s grounded and becomes the official scribe for the obituary writer.  Miss Volker is a sheer delight–cranky and opinionated, but with a strong sense of history and her duty to pass that history on.  Her obituaries are truly a work of art.  As a historian, I loved watching the way she would weave past and present together.  At the same time, she was also a bit of a history preacher.  For example, there’s this great quote: “Be suspicious of history that is written by the conquerors.” Or this one: we have to save the history we have. You never know what small bit of it might change your life–or change the whole world.”

This book won the Newbery in 2012, and that award wasn’t well received by many critics.  I don’t pretend to be able to keep up with all the books in the running each year, so I won’t give an opinion on its worthiness.  Though this book wasn’t perfect, it does meet all my requirements for quality historical fiction.  It’s funny.  It has a good story.  It makes you want to find out more (I totally did some research on the history of Norvelt).  And it contains lots of details that you just might not include if your only knowledge of the time period was through research.  Do I think Jack will have the staying power of Laura and Betsy?  Probably not, but it was fun to get to know him.  And as a historian, it fills a great spot on the timeline of childhood during the 20th century.

With baby boomers’ strong tendency towards self reflection, I’m surprised that there aren’t more books like this being published.  Or perhaps I’m just missing them?  Who might be the next Laura or Betsy?  As technology marches on, childhood in the 1950s or 1960s is becoming more and more foreign, and it seems like this should be a booming sub-genre of children’s literature.  And honestly, after reading a lot of YA fantasy, it was a relief to be in a world for a while with no supernatural happenings.  Who else is writing fictionalized autobiographies for a young audience?  Is there a Laura for the mid-late 20th century waiting in the wings?