Small books about big wars

In the fall of 2011, my family and I made our first trip to Hawaii. In what should be no surprise, we made sure to make time for a visit to Pearl Harbor. My knowledge of World War II is probably deeper that the average bear, but I’m not even close to being an expert. Before visiting Pearl Harbor, I had never really considered the impact of that attack on civilian life in Hawaii. Their exhibit spaces made that abundantly clear, and I found myself thinking deeply about all that had to happen after the attack. And of course, the USS Arizona Memorial was incredibly moving, even though it was also incredibly crowded.

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Like any good museum professional/tourist, we made a lengthy stop in the museum store.  While there, I picked up this little book.

Dancing in Combat Boots

And then it sat in my to-read pile for two years.  And I felt bad when I finally read it, because it is a gem of a book.  Funke took real women and fictionalized their war stories.  She did an excellent job of choosing women from a variety of backgrounds that did a variety of things in a variety of locations.  At the back, there’s a paragraph about each woman’s real life, adding a few nuggets of details.  And the stories themselves are beautifully written.  I think my favorite was “Three Thousand Men.”  Attie sketched thousands of soldiers in their hospital beds in LA.  The story itself takes place in modern times, as Attie is trying to find a permanent home for her copies of the sketches.  Attie says towards the end of the story:

I’m not asking for recognition for myself.  But some of these boys never made it home.  Do you see?  There should be a place where their families can go to find these portraits.  There should be a way for people to see what we sacrificed in that war, a whole generation of men lost.  I didn’t paint anything else those four years.  I put all my energy into this.  Four or five sketches a day, and then I’d have to stop.  Your eyes can only take so much.  This was the most important work of my life.

There is also a story set on December 7, 1941 and the days following.  Newlywed Marjorie is living on base with her army husband.  The chaos of the attack is vividly brought to life as Marjorie flees with a neighbor, not knowing if or when she’ll see her home or husband again.  In huge, dramatic events like this, it’s sometimes the details that capture the imagination.  When Marjorie returns briefly to her home, she instantly notices the dirty dishes in the sink: “‘Never again will I leave dirty dishes in the sink,’ I promised myself.”

World War II is such a big story–just go to any bookstore and see how many books about the war span the shelves, especially compared to other wars or periods in history.  Is there a place for a small book of fictional stories about women on those shelves?  I would argue that books such as Dancing in Combat Boots give people something small enough to hold on to.  Shelf after shelf of fat books about military strategy, soldiers, the European Theater, the Pacific Theater, the homefront, and politics are going to intimidate a lot of people.  But by its very nature, fiction is less intimidating.  And when you have a book like this, one that has good, solid historical research behind it and tells engaging stories, you’re one step closer to teaching people about the past.

I’ve recently returned from a three week professional development seminar that was all about the place of history museums in the world around us.  We spent hours discussing history’s role in public life and ways to increase the relevance of history.  Some people argued that we have to teach the public more about the ways of doing history.  There was also a subtle undertone that fluffy, feel good history was something we should abandon–we must focus on the Seriousness of History.  I have always believed that you lure people in through their comfort zone, and then you push them a bit.  With that pushing, they may realize they’re ready for a deeper exploration of the past.

And that’s what books such as this do so well.  The look of the book is utterly charming, but inside are some difficult stories about the Japanese internment, sexism in the workplace, and the fears when a POW comes home.  And these stories certainly have inspired me to look again at the stories surrounding World War II.

On Slates

Around here, school is about to start.  This is quite evident with the flashing school zone lights, and the conversations among the younger set.  I spent Sunday night hanging out with two of my favorite girls, Grace and Sophie.  However, the usual “back to school” conversation took an unexpected turn.  Grace, now 11, started talking about boys.  It was a very long conversation.  Questions were posed such as “Would you rather be kissed by the dumbest boy you know?  Or a dumb boy you don’t know?”  “If a boy kissed you, would you faint from embarrassment?”  I also learned that Sophie had a pre-school boyfriend, who she kissed every day.  And Grace has her first official crush.  Luckily, she’s in that stage where she can still talk to him and not blush, but she’s also desperately hoping he doesn’t figure it out.

In the middle of all of this, I hopped up from the table and turned on my nook.  Since finishing up the Betsy-Tacy books, we’ve been reading Anne.  I have never before been so nervous introducing a book to kids before.  Anne is so near and dear to my heart.  What if they didn’t like her?  Before we read the first chapter, I told them that if they didn’t like it, I understood–that there were lots of other books I wanted to share.  As I started reading, I got more nervous.  It is a much harder read-aloud than Betsy–the rhythm and pacing are so different.  I also worried about the whole “are you going to send me back” part because these girls are also adopted.  I shouldn’t have worried.  Grace, Sophie and I are indeed kindred spirits and they really like Anne.

Anyway, back to my story.  I knew we were getting close to the wonderful scene in which Anne thwacked Gilbert with a slate.  But would we get to it tonight, after talking endlessly about the problems of liking boys?  Miracle of miracles, it was the next chapter!  What are the odds?  Life lessons through literature, handed to me on a silver platter!

So, we read about Gilbert teasing Anne.  And Anne setting Diana drunk.  And I was struck anew at how funny Montgomery is–and how true those scenes still are.  They totally got why Anne was so mad at Gilbert–and we talked about the deep desire to sometimes whack a boy with a book (not a slate.  I had to explain what a slate was.)  I watched as Sophie and Grace’s face lit up at the thought of hosting a friend without the parents around.  I’ve read this book so many times now that the lovely details often just wash over me.  As I stumble over some of Montgomery’s “poetical” words, laugh at the jokes, and watch the girls’ reaction as they hear this classic for the first time, it feels like a fresh, new book.

As they were going to bed, Sophie asked me: “Am I like Anne?”

My reply: “I think there’s a little Anne in all of us.  You’ve got a great imagination, you get into trouble sometimes, but you have a big heart.  Just like Anne.”

Road trip inspiration

Over the years, I’ve built a few vacations around visiting favorite literary sites.  There was the Prince Edward Island Trip in 2002.  Mankato in 2009 (which led to the genesis of this blog).  Mansfield and Hannibal in 2010.  Monterey in 2012 and 2013.

So, I’m very intrigued by the newish website, Placing Literature.  It’s a crowd-sourced project, inviting readers to place books on a map.  Right now, the map isn’t very full, and there aren’t a lot of likes on their facebook page yet (just over 150).  But what a fun, fascinating idea.  How great would it be to plot a road trip using this map?  And the books to read along your road trip?

I’ve written more than once about how much the power of place can add to the reading experience.  Looks like there are a few other folks that believe in the power of place.  Best wishes to them, and here’s hoping the project (and the map!) begins to grow rapidly.

The Orphan Club

I read an awful lot as a kid, but there are still plenty of books that I missed.  I’m starting to wonder if I had some sort of strange prejudice against girls named Betsy–after all, I didn’t discover Betsy Ray until college.  And only recently did I discover another delightful Betsy.

Understood BetsyUnderstood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (published in 1917) became a choice for the museum’s book club when I discovered that Fisher was a devotee of Maria Montessori’s ideas and had written the book to promote those ideas.  Our theme this year is “education” so it seemed like a good way to talk about the student experience during the early 20th century.  Montessori’s ideas were relatively new (and somewhat unpopular) in the United States in 1917.  I’ll admit–when I started reading, I expected it to be more than a wee bit preachy.   Instead, I found a thoroughly delightful addition to the “plucky orphan who finds a better home” genre.  If a reader didn’t know about the Montessori connection, they certainly wouldn’t guess that this is a book with an agenda.

Unlike many similar books, Betsy has a pretty good home at the opening of the book.  She is completely coddled by her Aunt Frances, a woman who might have been the very first helicopter parent.  When Aunt Frances’ mother becomes ill, Betsy is sent to the dreadful Putney cousins–a family that makes everyone do chores!  Think for themselves!  Learn by doing!  In a completely predictable turn of events, Betsy develops into a strong, confident young lady and ultimately continues to live with the Putney family.

During our book club discussion, we wondered some why this book wasn’t better known.  Though there seem to be plenty of folks incredibly nostalgic for this book, Betsy usually isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Anne Shirley, Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or even Pollyanna.  We came up with a couple of theories as to why.  One is that the most famous orphans weren’t created by American authors.  Another person suggested that it was because there is only one book about this Betsy.

But I wonder if part of it doesn’t have to do with the author herself.  Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote many, many books–some for children, some for adults.  She was much, much more than a writer–an activist, reformer, and all around fascinating lady.  I’m dumbfounded that there hasn’t been a full length biography of her since the one published just after her death in 1958.  In one of my favorite tidbits, she served on the Book of the Month selection committee for over 25 years.  Did her wide-ranging involvement mean that this charming part of her career was left in the dust?  Was it not significant enough?  And yet, the book has basically stayed in print all these years.  Nevertheless, out of our book club, there was only one person who had read it as a child.  And the only reason I knew about it was through my Betsy-Tacy friends.  But we all agreed that we would certainly hand Understood Betsy to a child who liked historical fiction.  It is perplexing how this book has both lasted, and yet been undercover.

Regardless, it’s always exciting to add another character to the orphan club in kidlit history.  There are an awful lot of members!

A Texas Twist

A gazillion years ago, I spent most of a semester reading the Dear America books.  Officially, it was for a grad school paper, but I was also kinda curious.  (I’ve now just spent 10 minutes looking for said paper, because I’m totally the kind of person to keep such things.  But I can’t find it anywhere.  And as it was at least 3 computers ago, I definitely don’t have a digital version.)  In the early 2000s, these books had just burst on the scene and were lauded as some magical device to get kids to like history.  After all, once you read the one about the Titanic, why wouldn’t you immediately go read about the Carlisle Indian School?

There are, of course, two flaws in this particular system.  One is that only true history nerds are going to read all of them, and most kids will probably pick and choose, based on the time periods they’re interested in.  The second is that all of them are written by different people, and some of them are a lot better than others.  What if a kid gets bogged down in one with a terrible plot, even though it’s good history?  Again, totally wishing I could find that paper so then I could quote some of the clever observations I made 10+ years ago.  (see, this obsession with kidlit history is long-standing!)

Get Along, Little Dogies: The Chisholm Trail Diary of Hallie Lou WellsAt any rate, I was reminded of that long ago paper a few weeks ago, when I finally read the first volume of the Lone Star Journals, Get Along, Little Dogies: The Chisholm Trail Diary of Hallie Lou Wells.  Unlike the Dear America series, these are all written by the same author, Lisa Waller Rogers.  But they’re definitely in a similar mold–a fictional diary with some additional background information at the end.  There are two others in the series–one about the Runaway Scrape after the fall of the Alamo and one about the Galveston Hurricane.  And, of course, even more importantly, they’re about my home state of Texas.

As you might suspect, Get Along, Little Dogies is about a girl who gets to go on a cattle drive.  She’s an accomplished horsewoman, kinda annoyed that she’s a girl, and eager for the adventure.  Along the way, they run into outlaws, Indians, and all the other things you might expect to happen in such a book.  It’s a good, quick read, and the supplemental information includes background on the Chisholm Trail, women on cattle drives (including one of my favorite Texas women, Lizzie Johnson Williams), and lots of photos.  My only quibble with this book is that Hallie found serious romance on the trail–and she’s only 14!  If I was a kid reading that, I would be horrified.  Heck, I’m a little concerned now.  I know girls certainly married that young, but I don’t think it happened as often as we assume.

These types of books will never be my favorite way of introducing history to kids, since so often they focus on historical objectives rather than a good story.  But it is refreshing to see a series for children featuring uniquely Texas stories.  I hope Rogers continues writing them–would love to see something on the oil boom at the turn of the century.  Now, there’s a rip-roaring tale!

The best medicine

Yesterday, I was walking down the back staircase at work, not paying too much attention to things.  After all, I’ve walked down that staircase thousands of times.  But this time, I missed a step and managed to do a wonderful job of spraining my ankle.

I’ve done this once before, about five years ago, in an equally boring way–I stepped off a porch wrong.  It’s the same ankle, and I headed home early to prop it up.  With my desk configuration, it’s really hard to both elevate the ankle and keep working.  Once I got home, I realized this was a perfect minor injury for a reader.  Sometimes when you have a cold, you don’t always feel like reading.  But with a sprained ankle, I just need to sit.  Which is ideal for reading!

I also started thinking about some of my favorite literary heroines and their ankle woes.  First to mind was Anne, though technically she broke her ankle.  Of course, her story is much better than mine–Josie Pye dared her to walk the ridge pole of a roof.  As Anne said,

I must do it.  My honor is at stake.  I shall walk that ridge pole, Diana, or perish in the attempt.

And though Anne got bored while she was laid up, it does appear she had a good time.  Mention is made of the many books and flowers and visitors she had.  And Anne, ever the optimist tells Marilla later:

“Everybody has been so good and kind, Marilla,” sighed Anne happily, on the day when she could first limp across the floor.  “It isn’t very pleasant to be laid up; but there is a bright side to it, Marilla.  You find out how many friends you have.”

Throughout the rest of the series, she refers to her weak ankle, talking in the later books about how it aches before it rains.  Totally understand, and I’ve only sprained mine.

Betsy Ray also had weak ankles.  In Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown she takes a tumble off a sled and sprains her ankle.  The boys bring her home, and she gets set up on a couch with a pillow under her foot.  I love this line “Betsy felt heroic.”  She also mentions the delight of two new books to amuse her while she’s injured.  And of course, out of this incident comes her famous, tragic tale of Flossie.  Years later, Betsy conveniently uses her weak ankle to avoid some awkward boy trouble.  It’s now swollen, and it takes her three times to remember to say “ouch” as her father examines it, but she still pulls the following ploy:

“I’d just as soon stay in bed.  I don’t feel very good.  Not too bad,” she added hastily, remembering Tacy’s party the following night.

Friends parade through her bedroom.  There is some flirting with boys.  Tempting treats are offered, and books are brought.  After all, she’s “sick” but not contagious!  And she milks it for all she’s worth.

So, yes, sprained ankles are most annoying, especially when your office is upstairs and your museum is on 13 acres.  But as far as minor illnesses or injuries go, it could be much worse.  Excuse me while I pick up my book and keep reading.  The ankle requires it!

A 20th Century Pioneer

In these days of an enormous to-read list on goodreads and an online library reserve system, I don’t spend a lot of time browsing the stacks any more.  Though I probably stop by the library about once a week, I truly get in and get out.  On Saturday, the same song was playing on the radio when I got back to the car!  But a few weeks ago, I felt like browsing.  My branch library is less than a year old, so browsing is a true pleasure–all the books are bright and shiny!  It was there that I found Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson.

207798Two things convinced me to check it out: a homestead story from 1918, past what people assume is the “pioneer” era and the fact that the book is based on the author’s family history.

Hattie is a wonderful character–just 16, she’s an orphan that has been shuffled from home to home.  Her aunt has found her a job at a boarding house, so tells Hattie that it’s time to quite school and move out.  And then a letter arrives–an uncle has died and left her his homestead, though she has to “prove up.”  So, she heads to Montana.

Those first few chapters about her life in Montana are amazing.  Here’s a girl that has left a community with running water, cars, and other “creature comforts” and is now living in a shack.  She is grateful that her aunt had refused to upgrade her stove, so she knows how to cook on a wood stove.  She arrives in the dead of winter–on the first morning, her hand freezes to the water pump.    Can you imagine going back in time that way?

In our tendency to generalize about the past, we forget how long the frontier era lasted, and how long it took for modern technology to reach all the corners of the United States.  I applaud this book for reminding us that the West wasn’t settled as soon as the Pa Ingalls decided to settle down.

Throughout the novel, Larson weaves in the bigger story of World War I (Hattie is writing a friend from school who is serving abroad) and anti-German sentiment (her closest friends are German).  It’s a solid, engaging novel and none of the extra bits of history seem tacked on.

Hattie also has a close, personal relationship with God.  When she’s alone, working her land, she talks to God and I’m so glad these conversations became a part of the novel.  I adore this passage:

To keep myself company, I’d taken to conducting chore-time conversations with God.  My self-imposed rule was that each conversation must start on a thankful note.  Sometimes that kept the discussion from really getting going.  I lifted my petticoat out of the wash basket.

“Lord, I do thank you for that warm wind and the promise of spring.” I bent for another clothespin to secure the petticoat.  “And I am very thankful that my wash load is small.”  Here I thought of Perilee, washing for her family of five.  “I count it a true blessing that there are no diapers in my wash.”  I shuddered to think of that.  “Now, you know I’ve been working on keeping a sunny lookout on life, but I must speak to you about Violet, who is more devil than cow.”

How can you not fall in love with a character that has that kind of spunk?

But there is one thing about this book that just breaks my heart.  It’s this passage, from the author’s bio:

Thanks to her eighth-grade teacher, Kirby Larson maintained a healthy lack of interest in history until she heard a snippet of a story about her great-grandmother’s homesteading by herself in eastern Montana.  Efforts to learn more about Hattie Wright’s homesteading felt like detective work; why hadn’t anyone told Kirby research could be this much fun?

Sigh.  I do wonder what this teacher did that turned her off so much.  But at least Larson shared her new-found love of history in a delightful book.  Hopefully, she’s been able to convert a few more folks into history lovers.