Vacation Reading

This post was started in the midst of my recent vacation, but then there were internet connection issues and piles of stuff to go through when I got back to Texas and, well, you know how it is. 

Part of my trip was spent at a friend’s house who is also a big kid lit fan.  She had stacks of books scattered throughout her adorable 1930s apartment (did I mention the doorknobs?  Quite possibly the cutest doorknobs ever!).  There are certain advantages to spending a few days with a fellow kidlit fan. 

#1–There are definitely more than a few conversations about books. 

#2–She has lots and lots of books, many of which are either on my mental or actual goodreads to-read list.  I think this has been the most I’ve read on a vacation in a very long time. 

The first night I was there, I picked up When the Sirens Wailed by Noel Streatfeild.  Streatfeild is best known for her Shoe books, but she wrote so much more.  I’ve now read most of her semi-autobiographical books, including A Vicarage Family and On TourWhen the Sirens Wailed is about three children who are evacuated during the Blitz in World War II.  Though it’s definitely not my favorite Streatfeild, there are many things that I loved about it.  First, and I think most importantly, this book is about a poor family.  They’re barely making it–a simple thing like figuring out what to put their few things in for the journey is a very big deal. A complete meal or some candy is also a very big deal.   And though its subtle, you kinda get the parent’s frustration at the government assuming that all families had suitcases for everyone.  There are plenty of little details about rationing and food.  And when the kids return to London, the terror during the bombing feels infinitely real.  Published decades after the war, this is one of the last books Streatfeild published.  According to the brief blurb at the back, this book is partially based on “the vivid memories of her own experiences in the Women’s Voluntary Service.”

As soon as I finished Sirens, I realized that Wendy just might have Return to Gone-Away, a book my library doesn’t have (shame on them!).  After some intense searching, I found it and gulped it down.  This has got to be one of the ultimate fantasy novels for folks who love old houses.  Treasures abound inside!  Kids get stuck in a dumbwaiter (just like Katie John–is there a book featuring an old house where kids don’t get stuck in the dumbwaiter?).  Major decorating decisions are made.  And practically speaking, enough antique furniture and jewels are found to finance the whole thing.  (Jealous!  All we found was a very scary tissue box cover and a fabulous 1948 phone book).

As someone who is regularly fighting to preserve the old and unique, books like this make me extremely happy.  Every single person is in love with the Villa Caprice.  They work really hard at it and live with the quirks.  It just makes me very satisfied.  How I wish I was reading this in the spring of 2009, as I was renovating my own house.  Or even better–that I had read it as a kid and these books had been a part of my life for decades.

My final book during my sojurn at Wendy’s was The Keeping Days by Norma Johnston.  I ended up with very mixed feelings.  I know it’s based on the author’s grandmother’s life, but at the same time, it feels way too modern.  It’s almost issue-y.  But it was refreshing to have another book about the past where everything isn’t perfect–there’s anger and frustration.  I get so tired of the “rosy glow” of history–the people who say “I wish I lived back then.”   And it always seems like a lot of these folks’ ideas about the past are based on books–you know, the ones that leave out the not so good stuff.

I rounded out my kidlit vacation reading with the second half of the Octavian Nothing opus by M. T. Anderson.  This is one of those books that takes a bit of effort to get into, but once you’re there. . .  These two novels are quite possibly some of the best modern historical fiction I’ve read in a very long time.  Anderson explores all the complexities of race and the American Revolution through the very real eyes of Octavian.  This isn’t one of my favorite eras of history, but I recommend these books without reservation.  Skip Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains (also about slaves in the time of the Revolution) and focus your attention on the other Anderson.

I also scored more than a few books at various antique shops and used book stores throughout the midwest.  Methinks it’s time to revisit Beverly Cleary later this summer. . .

What are you reading on summer vacation?

Idol or friend?

As a kid, my focus was always on the stories.  Eventually, I figured out that some of my favorite authors had careers beyond the books I loved so much.  Or that their lives were very different from what I imagined based on their novels.  But no matter what, they were my literary idols.

My love for L. M. Montgomery was growing just as the scholarship was taking off.  Volume 1 of the journals had been published in 1985, and I received my copy in 1993 (I was 13.  Yes, I’ve been a nerd for a very long time).  I think by then I had read a biography or two, so knew that Montgomery’s life wasn’t all sweetness and light.  But the journals were still a bit of a shock.  Part of me admired her more–there are few hints of the darkness in her novels.  But another part of me realized that I probably wouldn’t have been friends with her if our paths had happened to cross.  You know, if I lived in Canada 100 years ago. . .

I’m not saying that I feel a need to be a kindred spirit with the writers I love.  But some of these writers feel so familiar and cozy, even though I’ve only “met” this one side of their life or career.  I want to know more, but it always changes the relationship a bit.

File:Louisa May Alcott.jpgI hadn’t realized that Louisa May Alcott did anything besides write children’s novels until college.  And suddenly, she was in my American Lit class and I was reading a story called “Transcendental Wild Oats.”  In the last couple of years, I’ve read a lot more of her other writing–Hospital Sketches, a few other essays, etc.  My admiration for her has only grown.  Personally, I don’t think any of Alcott’s children’s books can be fully appreciated by the average fan without taking her extraordinary life story into account.  But I don’t think this is necessarily true of Montgomery.  Sure, it’s important for scholars to dissect these intricacies of life and fiction, but I’m not sure how much more I personally get out of her stories by knowing the larger context of Montgomery’s life.

Elizabeth EnrightOne of the great things about this blog for me personally is that it is forcing me (well, force may be a bit strong of a word) to re-read books or try ones that have been on The List for a long time.  I’ve mentioned several times that I am completely head over heels in love with Elizabeth Enright and the Melendy family.  A friend who is also on the Elizabeth Enright bandwagon offered to lend me Doublefields, a combination memoir/short story collection by Enright.

I was almost nervous when I picked it up.  My love of her is new and strong–I’ve now read most of her kidlit (Thimble Summer  and all the Melendy books) and really, really liked them.  But what if that didn’t transfer to the rest of the work?  Would I be disappointed?

Umm, no.  The memoir section was fabulous. I saw traces of the Melendys in her life, and her personality really seemed to come through.  I could be completely wrong, but I think the two of us would have a great afternoon together, talking and laughing.  I think I could have been friends with Elizabeth Enright.  We have the same philosophies about kids.  Her childhood was different than most, but not heartbreaking like Montgomery’s.  She’s someone I would love to have gotten to know.

I don’t feel that way about all of the authors I love.  Most of them, I am perfectly content to love them from afar.  But, if time were not a limitation, I would be writing lots and lots of fan letters to Enright, begging her to come to my house for tea or wine.  My fan letters to Montgomery and Alcott would be very, very different.  Plenty of admiration, but not offerings of friendship.

Are there authors you wish you could be friends with?  Or is this my own strange fantasy world?

For fans of Gone-Away Lake

Today, while doing incredibly domestic things like reorganizing my kitchen cabinets, I listed again to this episode of This American Life.

In “The House on Loon Lake,” a couple of kids find an abandoned house in the woods.  Inside, it’s filled with stuff–from food still  in the cupboard to letters to clothing.  Along the way, the kids bring their parents to see.  They return again and again.  And then the house is gone.  But the questions of what happened to this family and this house remain.

As I listened, I couldn’t help but think of Gone-Away Lake.  Both stories feature kids finding something abandoned, yet full of stories. It’s a summer adventure, one in which other grown-ups are brought into only relunctantly.   But Gone-Away Lake ultimately has a happy ending.  And Loon Lake just breaks your heart.  But it’s still a story worth checking out.

Cold and hot

16085217When thinking about extreme weather, the kidlit fan naturally turns to The Long Winter.  The story of one of the worst winters ever just doesn’t seem to lose its appeal.  I know plenty of people that pick it up and reread whenever they’re snowbound.  Chapter titles like “We’ll Weather the Blast,” “Cold and Dark,” and “Not Really Hungry,” probably put any current snowstorms in perspective.  The imagery of it all–the snow taller than your head, twisting hay for fuel, and storms that seem to come out of nowhere and never end certainly stuck with me.  But I can’t understand cold like Wilder describes.  Check out this description:

It was terribly cold outside the bedcovers.  But the roaring and shrilling of the storm would not let Laura sleep again.  The frosted nails in the roof above her were like white teeth.  She lay under them only a few minutes before she followed Ma downstairs.

The fire was burning brightly in the cookstove, and in the front room the heater’s side was red-hot, but still the rooms were cold and so dark that it did not seem to be datytime.

Laura broke the ice on the water in the water pail.

Ice!  Inside the house!  Yikes!  But I’m a Texas girl, so the idea of snow over my head and temps of 40 below are just hard for me to really comprehend.  It almost doesn’t seem real, though I know it was–and still is.

However, last night, while reading Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright there was a description of summer’s heat that I definitely understood.  At the very beginning, the oppressive heat is a presence: “Garnet thought this must be the hottest day that had ever been in the world.”  With a temperature of 110, I have felt her pain (unlike the 40 below above).  Later, in the same chapter, there is this (another bedroom related scene):

Garnet said good night and tiptoed up the stairs to her room under the eaves.  It was so hot there that the candle in its holder had swooned till it was bent double. . . . Garnet blew out the candles and lay down.  It was too hot even for a sheet.  She lay there, wet with perspiration, feeling the heat like heavy blankets and listening to the soft thunder, the empty thunder, that brought no rain.

This is weather I know.  And though I thank God every summer day for the miracle of air conditioning, I have certainly experienced heat like this.  One summer, we returned from a glorious vacation in Colorado (where the high had been about 75) to a house with no air conditioning.  That was the summer it didn’t dip below 90 at night for a month.   It was a very rude return.

There’s a list of questions that we get over and over again at the museum.  One of them is “What did they do before air conditioning?”  (for some reason, heat is never really a question here in Texas!)  When I’m feeling sarcastic, I say “They were hot.”  And though that’s true, you see some of the common ways of coping in Thimble Summer.  They go swimming, they do as many chores as possible in the morning, they cook less.  And when the rain finally comes–they enjoy it and get thoroughly soaked!

A lot of writers gloss over the weather and nature descriptions.  And quite frankly, I’m one of those readers that usually skims over such descriptions.  But when it comes to weather extremes, sometimes you pause just a minute to shiver with the cold or wipe your brow from the heat.  But then, it’s on to the rest of the story.

Any other memorable extreme weather moments in kidlit?

My new favorite family, the Melendys

There was a time, not so very long ago, when I was not familiar with the Melendy family.  Sure, I had heard them mentioned by friends, and they sounded like a nice enough family.  But my life, I thought, was full.  Ooops.

The Saturdays (Melendy Family)For those that don’t know about the Melendys, they are the center of a series of four books by Elizabeth Enright: The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two.  Frankly, part of my intrigue was also based on the fact that Enright is a neice of Frank Lloyd Wright.  But though these books have been mentioned to me with loving affection for years, I just had never gotten around to reading them (curses to the too-long to-read list!) 

And then I finally read Gone-Away Lake and fell in love.  So, it seemed only natural to eventually get to the Melendy family.  I spent a good chunk of New Year’s Eve reading The Saturdays.  I was almost (but not really. . .) disappointed when my friend finally arrived that night.  I finished it the next day.  This past weekend, I dived into The Four-Story Mistake.  I am still waiting on the library to send me the last two.  A dear friend has also lent Doublefields, which is a memoir/short story combo.  So yes, Enright is about to become a much bigger part of this blog.

Here are just a few of the things I love about these books:

1.  The kids feel infinitely real.  I have known kids like Oliver.  And Mona and Rush and Randy.

2.  Everybody needs a Cuffy in their life.  My grandmother lived with us throughout my childhood, and she and Cuffy definitely share some similiarities.

3.  Their adventures!!  Randy discovers that an “old Elephant” actually has a story worth hearing–and is a good friend to have.  Oliver runs away to the circus (sorta).   They put on shows!

4.  They have fabulous homes.  First, a brownstone with an amazing attic.  Then, the Four-Story Mistake, complete with a secret room.  They summer at a light house.

5.  The books are downright funny.  And charming.  And the writing is simply luminous.

There’s so much more, but I have a feeling I’ll be referring to these books often.

From a history perspective, they’re set right in the midst of WWII.  Even better, they were published during the war, so Enright isn’t writing with the gift of hindsight.  In The Saturdays (published in 1941), Hitler is definitely on their minds and they’re definitely aware of what’s going on in the world.  At one point, Randy asks Cuffy: “What was it like when the world was peaceful, Cuffy?’ ‘Ah,’ said Cuffy, coming up again.  ‘It seemed like a lovely world; anyway on top where it showed.  But it didn’t last long.”

The Four-Story MistakeBy The Four-Story Mistake (published 1942), the war is, as expected, a much bigger part of their lives.  The kids decide to put on a play to raise money for war bonds.  Mona has a complete plan of things they can do to help–save paper and metal, practice first aid (this part made me giggle a bit), knit, and buy Defense Bonds.  Of course, with not much allowance, they have to do something extra special to raise the money.  Even after the Big Show (which is a delightful success!), the bond issue comes up again and again as the kids end up with extra jobs–and the cash to buy more bonds.

But what’s so wonderful about all of this (from the history nerd perspective) is that there is no explanatory note about what a war bond is at the back of the book.  There are no extra insertions of the authorial voice to explain what’s going on.  This was a current book, and the first crop of readers knew exactly what was going on.  And yes, the cynic in me thinks that perhaps “The Show” chapter was put in there to be inspirational for young readers during the war.  However, the me that in the crush phase of a new literary relationship is pretty sure that’s not the case at all.  But even if it was, it’s done so well and so smoothly that it’s not the slightest bit jarring or preachy.  These books are wonderful examples of those books that are published as contemporary and survive to become historical.

Sheer magic

The other night, I fell in love with two kids named Portia and Julian.  They’re cousins and just happen to discover this lake that is no more, the wonderful, old, abandoned houses that surround it, and two quirky siblings that can’t quite let go of the past.

And as I was reading, I kept trying to figure out how I could write about it here.  Because it is so different from what I’ve been writing about, and it feels too soon to go off-roading in this blog.  And then I thought, well, the book is definitely set in the 1950s and published in 1957, so it fits there.  But there really aren’t that many details about life in the 1950s.  (Though I did love the little brother that was constantly playing space explorer–very 1950s!) And then I realized: at its heart, Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright is all about appreciating and loving the past.  And isn’t that what kidlit history is all about?

For me, this read as one of my ultimate wish fulfillment books.  If I had read this as a child (rather than a 30-year-old well in touch with her inner child), I know I would have read it to pieces.  Two cousins are out exploring during their summer when they discover a swamp, surrounded by abandoned houses.  It was once a lake-side vacation spot for the wealthy, and now are ruins.  Even better, they meet two siblings, Minnehaha and Pindar who grew up there and returned as adults.  The story is magical and delightful and just funny.  The kids seem so real.

But the part that thrills the history nerd in me is their love of the old houses and the stuff inside them.  And they love the old-fashioned quirks of Minnehaha and Pindar.  These characters could have so easily become carciatures–Min in her ancient clothing and Pin with his Machine.  There is no “this old stuff is awful”  They don’t make fun of any of it–they embrace it and love it and make it better.  And they find such cool things–the antique/junk hunter in me was very jealous.  Can you imagine going through a attic filled of stuff that hasn’t been touched in decades? 

All of their adventures and their care in restoring a piece of it makes history very cool.  It’s all a big adventure!  It seems like often history or old stuff is usually looked down on in children’s books (I still get upset that the history teacher at Hogwarts is a ghost.  Like wizard history wouldn’t be the coolest thing ever?)  And though I don’t think readers will learn much history by reading Gone-Away Lake, I think they will appreciate it much more.  And that makes me very, very happy.

Of course, what I really want to do is find my very own Gone-Away Lake.  With a Villa Caprice to buy, restore and love.  Anyone want to help me search?