Riding into history

I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning wheel we must all learn to ride, or fall into oblivion and despair.  –Frances Willard

Election Day is almost upon us.  I think the only thing that everyone can agree on is that it’s all been very interesting.  I thought about voting early, but I must admit that I really love voting on Election Day.  Whenever I enter the voting booth, I say a little prayer of thanks to the generations of women that made it possible for me to exercise that privilege.  1920 really wasn’t that long ago–when my grandmother was born, women were still 13 years away from gaining suffrage.  And yet, people don’t seem to know much about suffragists, even though their work directly affects so many of us.

Bicycle MadnessI’m not sure how Bicycle Madness by Jane Kurtz ended up on my to-read list.  But I moved it to the top when we started planning a bicycle event at the Village.  And even though it didn’t affect plans at work, I’m so glad that I finally read it.  All the pieces fit together for a practically perfect work of historical fiction.

Lillie has just moved to a new house.  She no longer lives next door to her best friend, but now she lives next door to Frances Willard.  Frances Willard is one of those remarkable 19th century women that not a lot of people know about.  Suffragist, teacher, temperance advocate, labor rights advocate, and more.  Oh, and bicyclist.  Bicycles gave women a measure of freedom that they hadn’t had before–they could get places more quickly without having to hitch a wagon.

Lillie meets Frances as she’s trying to learn how to ride.  But why would Frances want to learn how to ride?  She said:

For three reasons.  First, my love of adventure has been pushed underground too long and now it is bubbling up.  Second, a bicycle is a powerful tool that will be under my foot. . . Last, but not least, I shall do it because a good many people think I cannot at my age.

How can you not fall in love with Frances Willard?  Gladys (the bicycle!) is quite the challenge, but as Frances learns about the bicycle, Lillie learns more about other points of view.  Lillie is absolutely charming, and the story feels completely natural.  So often when you throw in a real historical figure into fiction, it doesn’t work.  This does.  There are other deeper threads woven into the story too–suffrage, of course.  But also labor rights.  And how to move on after the death of a parent.  It’s a beautiful, well-crafted story.

One of my favorite parts of Kurtz’s writing is the way she uses late 19th century language and slang.  Lillie’s voice feels historical, but not in a stuffy way.  All the details feel natural–Kurtz’s priority seems to be a good story, though she’s certainly opening up lots of moments for teaching along the way.  How much did I love this book?  Enough that I downloaded the inspiration of this book, Frances Willard’s account of learning to ride a bike, A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle.  Haven’t read it yet, but I’ll get to it one of these days.

So, as we deal with all this election madness, might I recommend taking a few moments to learn a bit more about one of the suffragists that made it possible for everyone to be able to vote?  Might I suggest Frances Willard?

Things that make me happy. . .

Staying up past midnight, finishing one of the best books I’ve read all year.  And did I mention that it’s historical fiction?  Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein probably has a very long wait-list at the library (it took me months to get it), but it’s so worth the wait.  British women in World War II–pilots, spies, Nazis, friendship, and some remarkable writing.  The story will take your breath away.  And though it’s not based on a true story, there were plenty of women like Maddie and Julia that served.

Discovering that editors are currently hard at work, getting Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first book, her never published memoir, ready for publication.  Even better: there’s a blog chronicling the work!  The South Dakota Historical Society Press is currently working on transcribing Wilder’s handwritten manuscript.  They’ve spent time at the museum in Mansfield (still one of my favorite author-related museums).  This is good, good stuff, and I’m looking forward to following the blog–and reading the original when it comes out.  The rumors I’ve heard about it is that it’s a much harsher look at her early life, which may cause some fans to be up in arms (much like the way folks reacted when L. M. Montgomery’s journals were published and fans discovered that her life wasn’t all sunshine and roses).  But from a scholarship perspective, we need these kinds of writings to go hand in hand with the fiction we love.

Realizing that I’m going to have to reread Little Women for work purposes.  And bits of Little House.  And possibly Five Little Peppers and How they Grew.  And who knows what else.  Two different fall projects (one on children and work, one of the Civil War in fiction) require such sacrifices.  It’s a hard life.

For better or worse, these are my people

Past Perfect Some books are a pretty easy sell for me.  A YA romance set in a living history museum?  The only shock here is that it was published last fall, and I’m just now getting to it.  Leila Sales’ Past Perfect is absolutely delightful.  Now, it might not be as funny to non-history nerds, but I was laughing hysterically by page 2 and giggling throughout.

One of my favorite parts of my job is the junior historian program.  Right now, I have around 30 kids, ages 11 to 18, that are choosing to spend their spare time hanging out with me at the Village.  This book is all about the teen junior interpreters, who happen to be at war with the other living history museum across the street.  They are colonials, and those other guys are Civil War re-enactors.  Of course, there’s also forbidden romance, some museum politics, and ice cream.  Lots of ice cream. 

Chelsea, the main character, doesn’t want to admit that she’s totally hooked on all of this (she would have rather spent the summer working at the mall, in air conditioning), but history is part of her blood.  My favorite parts, obviously, are the parts about working at a museum.  I’ve known tourists (called moderners here-the one part of the book that just felt odd to me) exactly like the ones portrayed.  I kept thinking about my kids while I was reading about these fictional kids.  To the best of my knowledge, we haven’t had any actual romances at the Village, but there have been some crushes.  We definitely have some kids that are classic history nerds, some that really just want to dress up and create a character, and some that have been raised in the living history world.  But all my kids are there because they want to be, and that’s one of the things I liked most about this book–all the characters loved what they did (even if they did it for different reasons), and they were proud of what they did.  There was no shame in spending your summer in colonial dress. 

There are so many passages I want to share with you, enough that I worry about copyright infringement or something along those lines.  But I still have to share a few bits.

From the very beginning, when Chelsea is describing the types of people that work at places like Colonial Essex Village

Type one: history nerds.  People who memorized all the battles of the Revolutionary War by age ten; who can, and will, tell you how many casualties were sustained at Bunker Hill; who hotly debate the virtures of bayonets over pistols.  They are mostly pale-skinned, reedy, acne-scarred boys in glasses (unless they can’t find a pair of historically accurate glasses and are forced to get contacts).  I don’t know if they were born so unappealing, and turned to history for companionship because they realized they were too grotesque to attract real-life friends or if their love of history came first, and maybe they could have turned out hot, but invested all their energy in watching twelve-hour documentaries about battleships.  It’s a chicken-or-egg type of question.

Or this, on the top questions from visitors:

1.  “Where’s the bathroom?”

This is far and away the most common question.  You don’t actually need any sort of historical knowledge to work at Essex.  You just have to know where the nearest toilet is.

And then later, in that same chapter:

These are pretty much the only questions people ask Colonials.  If they want you to tell them anything else, just make it up.  They will believe you, because you are wearing a costume.

This is not a book that will change your life, but I’m still recommending it to just about everyone I know.  It’s so rare for history museums to be portrayed in popular culture, much less living history museums.  And it’s pretty accurate–from the employees and volunteers that are obsessed with historic details to the weird questions visitors ask.  I have met, at one time or another, every single character in this book.  Of course, they have a much, much larger staff than we do and there are no conversations about budget cuts and declining visitation.  But I can live with that–and most teens wouldn’t know anything about budgets anyway.  It’s a book that’s funny without being mean–she makes jokes about this crazy world, but they were al jokes we’ve made before.  And though Chelsea does something very damaging to the museum across the street, well, it’s the kind of scandal that does happen in the museum world.

The author biography on the back flap mentions that Sales spent some time as an interpreter on Boston’s Freedom Trail.  It shows, and I think that’s part of the reason this book works so well.  Sales has been a part of this world, but she can also separate herself enough to find the humor in all of it.  Because let’s face it: little about my workplace is ordinary.

Bonus: after checking the author’s website, I discovered that you can read Past Perfect online for free through the end of February.  Go!  Enjoy!

Story first, history second

Perhaps I was a wee bit prejudiced as I started reading.  Friends that I trusted had very mixed reviews, but I didn’t quite believe them.  After all, the book had won the 2011 Newbery award.  And it was set in 1936, flashing back to 1917 and 1918.  Quite possibly one of my favorite time periods.  I should have loved Moon Over Manifest, but generally speaking, the friends were right.  I became annoyed within the first 50 pages, and downright upset not long after.  And I continue to be puzzled as to how this book rose to the top of children’s fiction in 2011.

Moon Over ManifestFor those not familiar with the book, it’s the story of a 12 year old girl, sent to a small town in Kansas in 1936.  During her summer there, she uncovers the town’s past, with frequent shifts in narrative to 1917 and 1918.    Abilene is a lovely little girl, but she doesn’t have as strong a voice as many other narrators in similar books.  But this wasn’t what bothered me.  What bothered me was the history.

I’ve talked before about the historical fiction trap that so many modern writers fall into: that habit of trying to pull as many historical threads into a story as possible.  You know, to teach children about the past.  It very, very rarely works, and usually annoys folks that have any knowledge about the period in question (The Hope Chest springs to mind).  But very, very rarely does a book inspire me to scurry over to google to check facts in the middle of a chapter.  Here’s the sentence that did that: “Alcohol was against the law then as much as it was in 1917, but folks could usually get a bottle of the stuff here or there.”  Now, I had just finished Ken Burns’ new documentary, Prohibition, and I was pretty sure that the 18th Amendment wasn’t passed until 1920, but FDR had repealed it in 1933.  Some quick checking revealed that Kansas didn’t repeal until 1948.  Plus, prohibition laws got started in Kansas in the 1880s, and the “Bone Dry Act” passed in 1917.  In going back through the book before starting this post, I did see a mention of the Bone Dry Act that I had forgotten about that occurred earlier in the book than the above sentence.  Technically, everything Vanderpool wrote is perfectly correct.  But it clashed with everything in my fairly well-educated historical head, and I just couldn’t get over it.  And I don’t recall anything being said that might have explained that Kansas was different from other states.  And the prohibition thread is a pretty important one for the story.  We’re not talking about a minor, nit-picky detail.

So what does it matter?  After all, the target market for this book isn’t public historians in their 30s.  It’s kids that have probably never heard of prohibition.  They’re not going to be confused by the timeline the way that I was.  I guess my annoyance happens on a couple of different levels.  First, this confusion could very easily have been solved.  Abilene had traveled throughout the country and was new to Kansas.  Couldn’t she have made a comment or asked a question about Shady and his still?  A brief explanation, and the story continues.  Problem solved!  And yet, not even the author’s note (which is quite possibly one of the weirdest author notes ever) mentions the fact that Kansas was one of the last states to repeal prohibition.  I just don’t know how that wasn’t mentioned somewhere. 

But my real issue is this: generally speaking, we as a society are not very well educated about the past.  Whenever I ponder historical accuracy issues in films or books, I tend to look at the big picture.  If the big ideas–the things that people will actually remember a few months after they’ve read the book or seen the movie–are correct, I’m okay.  If people won’t be completely confused if they look something up later, I’m okay.  But I don’t think that tenet holds true for this book.  I must have looked up Kansas liquor laws three or four times while I read this book.  Kind of interrupts the narrative flow, don’t you think?  And can you imagine trying to teach this book?

My other issue with this book is that it seems to have taken every big historical headline from 1917/1918 and made sure the issue happens in that tiny town.  The immigration stuff totally made sense, and I was happy to the stuff about the relationship between the town and its people.  (It made me think of Thurber, TX, a very similiar town).  But throwing in the KKK?  Technically, the KKK did revive itself in 1915, but it wasn’t a huge thing again until after WWI–the whole soldiers coming back and wanting a better life thing caused a bit of strife.  And I don’t think this small incident did anything to move the story along.

And of course, there’s WWI drama, a brief visit from Woodrow Wilson, war deaths, and the big 1918 flu epidemic is foreshadowed for almost the whole book and then barely discussed.  It’s just all a very strange mish-mash of history.

Honestly, I think this would have been a stronger, tighter book if the flashback portions of the book were set in the 1920s.  Yes, much of the WWI stuff would be left out, but the flow of the narrative would have worked better.  And timeline issues would have been solved. 

The best historical fiction are the works that put the story first and history second.  And yes, I’m saying this as a historian.  But I’m saying this as a historian that wants people to like history and get wrapped up in it, and books like this just won’t do it.  The narrative is the important thing, and the history behind it just deepens the story.  In this book–and there’s nothing I’ve found either in the author’s note or on her website to contradict this–she found some cool tidbits about the past and then built a story around it.  And it just doesn’t work for me at all.

What if?

Many moons ago (11 years ago, to be exact.  Good lord, how time flies!), I was an intern at the Women’s Museum.  Part of my job was to process the many, many loans–it’s a non-collecting institution so every artifact on display had to come from somewhere else.  I have many, many stories about that summer and the artifacts I got to care for (with white gloves, of course), including Edith Head’s Oscar and Eleanor Roosevelt’s knitting needles.  But I was already interested in movie history and Eleanor Roosevelt was already on my top 10 list of favorite historical people.  One artifact, though, sparked a new interest: a parachute.  It was in almost backpack form, and it was heavy.  It was worn by a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), and I tried to put my brain around carrying a load like that.  It was hard to imagine.  Though I’ve never done much research on the WASP, whenever I see mention of it, a little bell goes off in my head.

The main archives for the WASP program are held at Texas Women’s University(http://www.twu.edu/library/wasp.asp), which is located about an hour north of Dallas.  I’ve been to that archives a few times, researching various things relating to women and war.  They have a permanent exhibit relating to the WASP and have an extensive oral history collection.  It’s all very, very amazing.

FlygirlSo, I was happy to hear about Sherri Smith’s Flygirl and even happier to see that it was getting rave reviews.  It’s one of those stories that should be better known.  The WASP story is a great one–flying seems so “easy” now–we forget how daring those early pilots were.  And then, I discovered that the main character, Ida Mae Jones, was African American and decided to pass as white in order to serve her country.

Sherri Smith tells us in the afterword that there’s no evidence that anyone like Ida Mae served as a WASP.  But here’s the thing: this story could have been told just as easily with a white woman as the main character.  And it still would have been a good story.  Making Ida Mae African American adds wonderful layers of complexity and opens up all sorts of room for big ideas.  What is race?  Could you deny your identity for something you believe in?  Does Ida Mae have a place in the post-war America?

I admit that my list so far of kidlit history is dominated by white protagonists.  And history in general, especially public history, is still dominated by a white narrative.  I could go into some of the many, many reasons public history is both ahead and behind of broadening that narrative, but this isn’t the place to do that.  Suffice it to say that a big part of the reason I love this book is that it takes a story that doesn’t have to be about race and makes it about race.  We know non-white women served.  Here’s some brief biographical information on Hazel Ah Ying (http://www.twu.edu/library/wasp/wasppdf/Lee.pdf) and Maggie Gee (http://www.twu.edu/library/wasp/wasppdf/GeeM.pdf), two Asian pilots that served.  Smith had the courage to ask the question: “What if?” and answered it with her novel. 

Smith also had the courage to end Ida Mae’s story with a big question mark.  There’s no real place for Ida Mae after the war and whatever she chooses, she’ll have to deny a big part of herself.  There are no easy answers for her.  It’s powerful stuff to think about.

A new kind of historical fiction?

It’s not often that there’s a great, free, literary event in Dallas.  I still think longingly of my days in Raleigh, when I was just 10 minutes away from one of the best indie bookstores in the US.  I went to author events all the time–Sue Monk Kidd, Linda Sue Park (right after she won the Newbery for A Single Shard), Adriana Trigianni, Susan Vreeland and probably a few I’m forgetting.  Here in Dallas, the best authors come to town through the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts and Letters Live Series.  I have heard some great authors through that, including David Sedaris, but tickets run about $30 each, which can really add up.  And when you’re used to free.  .  . Well, perhaps I am spoiled.  I do know that I’m on a budget.

At any rate, when I realized that the DMA was putting on a new festival, BookSmart that focused on children’s literature and was free, I was intrigued.  When I saw the line-up, I was really intrigued and rather impressed.  Rick Riordan.  Norton Juster.  Jerry Pinkney.  David Wiesner.  Laurie Halse Anderson.

Because of things I had to get done on Saturday, I decided to focus on attending Anderson’s talk.  I had heard Riordan speak at the Texas Book Festival, right after The Lightning Thief was published and before he was a kidlit rock star.  And I knew that things would be a bit crowded, and I hate huge crowds.  Though when there are huge crowds because of a Book, well, that does make me happy.

I read Anderson’s Chains  back in 2008.  I didn’t love it, but I do think this was tempered in part because I adored The Astonishing Life of Octavian NothingThe two books are both telling that same complicated story of slavery during the Revolution in the North, and I think M. T. Anderson did a better job with that story.  But I was still really curious to hear Laurie Anderson’s thoughts on writing historical fiction for teens.

While I was standing in line, I was really pleased and surprised to see one of my educator friends in line too.  We had no idea that we both were huge YA literature fans.  And then I was really pleased to see two of my junior historians, who I ended up sitting with.  Isabel and I had talked about Fever 1793 (which I haven’t read) before, and she’s a big fan.  It was kinda nice to sit next to a young person who was just really, really excited to hear one of her favorite authors.  I didn’t get that opportunity much as a kid, since most of my favorites died long before I was born (ahhh, the trials of being a fan of kidlit history. . .)

Anderson is an absolutely charming speaker–funny and witty and passionate.  You don’t always get that.  You can tell that she loves teens and she gets them.  Like many fans of history, her interest began when she was a child–lots of family reunions and lots of family stories.  She grew up knowing who her people were and how they fit in the bigger story.  And she mentioned reading Little House. . .

Some paraphrased quotes from her talk (I could only scribble so fast!):

“I love our history and we do such a bad job teaching it.  Tell a good story and they’ll remember.  Throw in some action.  Have you ever noticed how bloodthirsty 6th graders are?”  Anderson was specifically talking about Fever 1793.  Isabel giggled and whispered “That’s when I read that book!” 

On Chains and Forge: “Slavery is American history.  It’s our original sin.  We must look at history honestly.”  She then said that if she was ever crowned a priness, she would want a big old elephant on her crown.  And her gravestone to read: “Queen of the Elephant in the Room”  I like this about her.  A Lot.  And she takes her research seriously.  My favorite story: she dressed as the soldiers at Valley Forge dressed and then took a walk in the snow.  A long walk.  Her husband thought she was crazy and kept begging her to stop.  But she then understood how blood footprints in the snow were possible.

I have mixed emotions on the last bit though.  She doesn’t call her books historical fiction, but rather historical thrillers.  Because as she put it: “Children have been scarred by Johnny Tremain and my brother Sam needs to die.”  It made me laugh, and I do agree that those books aren’t the best to inspire a long-lasting love of history.  My feelings about historical fiction are complicated–there’s so much more bad than good.  But I don’t think calling the books “thrillers” and putting lots of action and blood is quite the answer either.  On the other hand, if it gets kids interested and semi-knowledgable about our complicated past, well, I can’t complain too loudly.

So, here’s the thing: after hearing her speak, I like Laurie Halse Anderson a lot more and am willing to give her other books a try.  She’s fighting the good fight, so to speak.  And really, we need all the help we can get in building a historical literate public.

For those of you who have read her books, what do you think?  Is historical fiction so bad?  Are “historical thrillers” a better path for teens?  Do we need a new genre of historical fiction?

PS  After posting this, I kept thinking about what really bothered me about the phrase “historical thriller.”  As I was trying to sleep, it came to me:  First and foremost, I am a historian.  I believe there is enough action and adventure in history for anyone.  Embellishment just isn’t necessary.

It all reminds me a bit of an interview with Mel Gibson, right after The Patriot came out.  In it, the interviewer said “Some people have taken you to task for historical accuracies in the film.”  Mel:  “Well, if we had been completely historically accurate, it would have been the most boring movie in history.”

My reaction to that: “You’re talking about the f*&^%! American Revolution!!  That’s not boring at all!”  And that’s exactly when I lost all respect for Mel Gibson.

A few more like her. . .

Though I have a lot of issues with most modern historical fiction, there are a few authors that I just trust.  Richard Peck.  Christopher Paul Curtis.  Karen Hesse. 

Out of the DustI first became familiar with her through Out of the Dust, a book that ultimately won the Newbery.  If I ever taught the 1930s, this book would be required reading.  Nothing else sums up the Dust Bowl so eloquently and movingly.  There are images in that book that will never with you.  Read it with The Worst Hard Time (a non-fiction book about the people who stayed in Oklahoma) and you’ll be terrified every time a bit of dust blows in the wind.

WitnessLater, I read Witness, which is also a harrowing tale.  It’s about the KKK in Vermont.  So often, people assume that the KKK was only an issue in the deep south.  Did you know Dallas was home to the largest KKK chapter in the nation in the 1920s?  Part of what makes Witness so good is that it takes this complex history, a history that is usually simplified for fictional purproses, and keeps it just as complex.  Hesse said the following about the process of writing this book: My gut knotted as I wrote from the point of view of characters whose lives were rooted in bigotry. But there were also narrators who made my heart soar. Disabling my censor, allowing each character to speak his or her mind, I have, in WITNESS, attempted to piece together a mosaic of a community giving birth to its conscience.

Brooklyn BridgeSo, I was kinda excited when I picked up Brooklyn Bridge.  Though not as tough a story, it’s still a wonderful peak at immigrant life in New York at the turn of the last century.  Joe’s parents have just created the Teddy Bear (yes, that teddy bear!) and life has gotten busier than ever.  All he wants to do is go to Coney Island, but everyone is too busy working.  Through in some wonderful aunts, a library in a window, and the children under the bridge, and it makes for a wonderful book.  Though the story of the children under the bridge doesn’t connect with Joe’s story until the end, I loved the contrast between Joe’s life and theirs.  This is what happened to kids and young adults when we had no social services. 

Karen Hesse remains one of those authors I just trust.  She doesn’t dumb it down.  She tackles the tough issues with confidence.  We could use a few more writers like her.

A Politically Incorrect Confession

I have never been a fan of Native American history.  It’s not the guilt over how we stole their land and slaughtered them, whether by disease or guns.  No, it’s really just that I am not an outdoorsy person.  And living off the land has never been something that interested me.  I admire that some tribes use every bit of an animal, know the medicinal qualities of plants, and can track animals, but I’m not really interested.

159666For years, Louise Erdrich’s 1999 novel, The Birchbark House has been held up as a counterpoint to the more frequently assigned Little House on the Prairie as a way to get the other side of the frontier story in kids’ minds.  In fact, in an interview Erdrich said “I loved the Little House books and the specificity of daly detail, the earthy substance of the food, work, the repetitions and the growth that make family.  I get crazy when I read about pioneers moving forward into ’empty’ territory.  They were moving into somebody else’s house, home, hearth, and beloved yard.”  So though Erdrich’s books may have been a partial response to Wilder, I think it does a great disservice to only think about Omakayas v. Laura.

The Birchbark House is the story of one year, 1847, and the life of one family, members of the Ojibwa tribe.  They live near Lake Superior.  I will admit that it took me several days to get into this book, and I kept getting distracted by other things.  But Omakayas really started to grow on me–she’s in the process of discovering her place in the world, a truly universal story.  And the chapter about smallpox took my breath away.  We modern folks forget how truly terrifying disease was, and Erdrich, though also a modern person, does an amazing job of capturing the fear.  Check out this passage, early in the chapter:

It was hearing of his death in hushed tones, though, the next day, that we would always recall.  The report of it.  For the horror flooded swiftly from house to house, lodge to lodge.

He died of smallpox.

Although the visitor’s body was taken to the farthest end of the island, although everything he’d touched was burned, including the lodge he’d stayed in and the blankets he wore, although the generous family who let him in purified themselves in the sweat lodge, burned all of their belongings, and threw themselves upon the mercy of the missions, fear abounded in the settlement.  Had the visitor left another, more horrible visitor behind?  Sickness?  Death? (p. 142-143)

When I finished this book this afternoon, I realized to my surprise that I really liked it.  The characters felt natural, not forced as so often happens in historical fiction.  Erdrich did base this novel on her ancestors, and the connection shows.   The illustrations, done by the author, are charming and add so much to the book.  Lots of good detail, and there’s a natural, wonderful flow to the story.

Am I now a fan of Native American history?  Not really, but I am a fan of Omakayas and her story.  But I suppose that’s a start.

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?

Let me count the ways. . . In love with Calpurnia Tate

As a public historian in Texas, there are certain subjects that you just have to deal with on a regular basis.  The Alamo.  Cowboys.  The frontier.  I have attended conferences where it feels like every single session is pre-1900 history and mostly about the Texas Revolution.  These are all fine topics for historical study, but I must admit: they bore me.  It’s just all been done Too Much. 

Now, try finding engaging history for kids that’s about Texas but not about the above subjects.  It’s hard—really, really hard.  Though we certainly have frontier-y stuff at the museum, it’s not the majority of the museum.  Our earliest structure dates to 1847, after our Republic days were over.  We’re really all about that shift from rural to urban that begins to happen around the turn-of-the-century.  But it’s so hard to find good books that talk about this time period for children.  So, I borrow from other states like Minnesota (Betsy-Tacy) and Utah (The Great Brain).  And it works, but it’s not Texas.  And I am a bit biased about Texas.

The Evolution of Calpurnia TateWhen I first heard about The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, I was intrigued but cautious.  The jacket copy reads “The summer of 1899 is hot in Calpurnia’s sleepy Texas town, and there aren’t a lot of good ways to stay cool.”  I become more intrigued–something set at the turn of the century?  Seriously?  But will it actually be any good?  There are so many pitfalls in historical fiction.  So many ways in which I could be disappointed.    But I had heard good things from people I trusted.  It became our museum book club’s first selection (partially at my insistence, but they agreed!)  So I started to read.

Folks, I am completely head over heels in love with Calpurnia.  It is an almost perfect work of historical fiction.  Calpurnia becomes curious about the world around her–in particular, the grasshoppers.  Her curiosity takes her to the library for Origin of the Species, and the librarian refuses to give it to her.  And then she realizes that right under her nose is another naturalist/scientist–her grandfather.  Together, they explore the land, make observations, continue experiments with pecan liquor (this really made me giggle), and discover what just might be an unknown species of plant.  In the mean time, there’s a lot of humor, a wonderful family, and great historical details.  The kinds of little things that thrill me in so much of kidlit history–Calpurnia’s first experience with coca-cola, the first car seen in that tiny town, the first telephone.  These are the kind of details that aren’t Big Events–like, say, The Fall of the Alamo–but are events that readers are much more likely to connect to.  And possibly fall in love.

But the reason why I am still so thrilled about this book, even though I finished it over a week ago, is that it is a wonderful introduction to some of the key ideas of women’s history.  Unlike some other books (that post is linked to above), this book sums up the challenges of being a woman at the turn of the century without being heavy-handed about it.  There is Calpurnia’s mother–who with seven children and a large household to manage–is known to take more than a few swigs a day of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, “known to be the Best Blood Purifier for Women” and also known to be mostly alcohol.  But if I had seven kids and was stuck in a small town in Central Texas during a drought. . . yep, I’d be drinking something as well.  There’s Lula, Calpurnia’s best friend, who is really good at all the “womanly skills” such as sewing and cooking and such.  Lula does not understand Calpurnia’s interest in bugs and such–and only slightly understands why three of Calpurnia’s brothers always want to walk her home (another giggle scene).

But most of all, there’s Calpurnia.  She realizes she wants to be a scientist.  She very timidly begins to express this idea to some, but not all.  Meanwhile, her mother is upping the lessons on sewing and knitting and cooking, which frustrates Calpurnia to no end.  But she does it, because she knows she has to, even as she begs to spend more time with her Grandfather.  She thinks, rather hopes, that her parents understand.  At Christmas, she writes:

I peeled back the stiff paper to reveal the word Science printed in curlicues.

“Oh,” I exclaimed.  Such magnificence!  But even better than the solid reality of the book in my hand was the gladsome fact that my mother and father at last understood the kind of nourishment I needed to survive.  I beamed at my parents with excitement.  They smiled and nodded.  I ripped the paper off to reveal the whole title:  The Science of Housewifery.

“Oh!” I stared in befuddlement.  It made no sense to me.  What could it mean?  Was the writing even English?  The Science of Housewifery, by Mrs. Josiah Jarvis.  This couldn’t be right.  My hands turned to wood. . .

Conversation trailed off, and the room became silent except for the monotonous thwacking of J. B. riding his rocking horse in the corner.  All eyes were on me.  . . .

She said, “What do you say, Calpurnia?”

What does Calpurnia say?  What could I say?  That I wanted to throw the book–no better than kindling–into the fireplace?  That I wanted to scream at the unfairness of it all?  That at that moment I could have done violence, that I could have punched them all in the face?  Even Granddaddy.  Yes, even him.  Encouraging me the way he had, knowing that there was no new century for me, no new life for this girl.  My life sentence had been delivered by my parents.

 Calpurnia’s eyes open to the world around her, but her world hasn’t changed.  She’s caught between what she wants to be and what she is expected to be.  Like most women that came of age during that time period.  The ending is not wrapped up in a pretty bow–Calpurnia is frustrated.  There’s no afterword, fast-forwarding a few years to show her at the University.  Her life is in flux.  She accepts her path, but is not resigned to it.  She accepts it because she doesn’t have much choice.

So often, in historical fiction with a “spunky” or “modern” heroine, the heroine winds up defying the odds.  She’s one of the ones that breaks through all of those historical barriers.  With Calpurnia, you just don’t know what happens to her.  And I love that.  That uncertainty can start such wonderful conversations about college education for women, suffrage, careers, etc.  In a way that kids can hopefully connect with, without such topics being an Issue that requires a Historical Note.  So yeah, I love this book and would love it even if it wasn’t set in Fentress, Texas.  But that setting is a wonderful, delightful bonus.

So, Jacqueline Kelly, I know you’re still basking in the glow of the Newbery Honor Award.  And I’m thrilled for you!  But get back to work and keep writing.  We need more books like this.  They don’t have to be about Calpurnia (and a big part of me hopes that things are left ambiguous).  But we need more historical fiction like this.  A lot more.