Isn’t that romantic?

The Minnesota Post recently made a list of best Dynamic Duos–in movies, literature, history, etc.  And on it, much to the pleasure of the Betsy-Tacy Society and other BT fans is Betsy and Joe as “Literary Romantic Couples”–alongside some couples that are definitely not found in children’s literature.

And though I certainly adore the fact that Betsy and Joe are listed–after all, the last chapter of Betsy and the Great World is one of the greatest romantic cliffhangers of all time, I can’t help but think of some of the other great couples of kidlit history.  In no particular order:

Ma and Pa Ingalls.  She follows him across the midwest, each time hoping for a better life, making homes in places that must have been very, very lonely.  Until she puts her foot down.  He plays his fiddle, makes jokes, and fiercely loves his family.  As a kid, they never would have been on the list.  As an adult, I admire how they stuck together, never argued in front of the kids, and both made compromises for each other.

Anne and Gilbert.  Though they ultimately became a somewhat boring couple in the later books, the early stuff is fabulous.  From the teasing and the competition to pushing each other when both have college dreams deferred, it’s an incredibly satisfying friendship–at least for Anne.  Gilbert loves her from the beginning, and it is sometimes very frustrating how long it takes Anne to see what’s right in front of her nose.  But he’s always there–rescuing her and waiting patiently. 

Betsy and Joe.  Though mentioned above, they deserve their own paragraph.  Betsy, daughter of one of the world’s greatest families, falls in love with orphan Joe.  And there are lots of adjustments to be made, mis-understandings, the usual heartache in young love.  But the misunderstanding almost kill the reader as they wait and wait for what has to happen.  And when it does!  Again, one of the best romantic cliffhangers and resolutions Ever.

Miss Allen, the Library Lady and Charlie.  The sisters of All-of-a-Kind Family already love the Library Lady, as she is the one with the books.  And Charlie is the mysterious peddler that works with their father who brings them treats.  By accident, the girls bring them together again–discovering  a tragic love story that was rightunder their noses.  So satisfying–and a wonderful realization of childhood fantasies.  What kid wouldn’t want to help out some of their favorite adults in that way?

Mary, Dickon and Colin.  Sometimes, love triangles happen.  And though the kids in The Secret Garden don’t really get to that part of life where romance really takes off, there is definitely some jealousy going on for Colin and Dickon.  Both fall in love with Mary, for very different reasons.  But perhaps the true romance here is the garden itself and the story behind it.  Sigh.

So, what am I leaving out?  Any other fabulous romances?  And another question: how did these stories shape your own childish thoughts about romance?

When I was a kid, reading through Montgomery, I had this idea that true romance took years to develop.  Seriously, how long did it take Anne and Gilbert to finally get together?  And then there’s the story of Leslie Moore–talk about depressing.  And all the other minor characters throughout her novels and short stories–people that had to wait 10, 20 years to be with the one they loved.  Yikes! 

Or what about the unfortunate idea that the man you’re really meant for will marry your sister?  I am still not over the whole Jo/Laurie/Amy thing.  Luckily, I had no sisters.

So while there are some great models, there are some truly frightening romantic scenarios in kidlit.  Perhaps I should blame my childhood reading on my very practical attitude towards romance.  Even as I continue to believe that my Joe is out there somewhere. . .

Happy New Year!

They spent the old year’s last hour quietly around the fire.  A few minutes before twelve, Captain Jim rose and opened the door.

“We must let the New Year in,” he said.

Outside was a fine blue night.  A sparkling ribbon of moonlight garlanded in the gulf.  Inside the bar the harbor shone like a pavement of pearl.  They stood before the door and waited–Captain Jim with his ripe, full experience, Marshall Elliott in his vigorous but empty middle life, Gilbert and Anne with their precious memories and exquisite hopes, Leslie with her record of starved years and her hopeless future.  The clock on the little shelf above the fireplace struck twelve.

“Welcome, New Year,” said Captain Jim, bowing low as the last stroke died away.  “I wish you all the best year of your lives.  I reckon that whatever the New Year brings us will be the best the Great Captain has for us–and somehow of other we’ll all make port in a good harbor.”  —“New Year’s Eve at the Light,” Anne’s House of Dreams, L. M. Montgomery

I have long loved this image of New Year’s Eve and have even been known to open the door at midnight.  It has all the qualities in a New Year’s Party that I look for–good friends, laughter and stories.  No fancy parties for me!

Here’s to a 2010 filled with lots of good books and good history.

Wanting to know more. . .

A big part of the intrigue with kidlit history is the idea that there’s always more to discover.  These favorite stories are based on something within the author’s life, which should make the biographer or historian tingle with anticipation.  But, because these were written for children, these authors are rarely given the same consideration that writers for adults receive.  It can be really hard to find more than basic biographical stats on many of these authors.  In my mind, there are different levels of biography–the very basics (usually just a few paragraphs), a full length study of the subject’s life with little to no historical context, and then a full, rich study of the subject’s life and times.  It’s become social history, not just biography.  Isn’t the saying “no man is an island”?  But it seems to me that many biographies (of anyone, not just writers) treat their subject as if that individual was only affected by their own actions and perhaps a few family members. 

I have yet to find a decent biography on Frances Hodgson Burnett, though based on the little bit I do know, it’s a great story.  There are lots of biographies on Laura Ingalls Wilder, but I’m not sure any of them have jumped to that final level of biography.  I’ve not seen anything significant on Sydney Taylor or Elizabeth Enright.  And though work has been done on Maud Hart Lovelace, none of it is what I would call biography.  Each of the recent non-fiction books focus on one part of her life, not the whole story.  And while Sharla Whale’s Betsy-Tacy Comanion is a commendable piece of research, it’s not even close to a biography.  The snarky part of me thinks it’s really just a collection of BT trivia.

Two exceptions for this lack of scholarly consideration for children’s authors are Louisa May Alcott and L. M. Montgomery.  In recent years, Alcott has finally become know for being more than just the writer of Little Women, but also part of one of the most interesting and intellectually well-connected families of the 19th century.  Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson is a stunning dual biography of Alcott and her father Bronson.  Bronson was a fascinating though frustrating man.  I’ve long been fascinated by how much happened in Concord in the mid-19th century, and this book help explains how it became such an intellectual hot spot.  This week, PBS’s series, American Masters, is featuring Alcott.  In Dallas, it’s airing on December 28 at 8 p.m.  No idea on where this particular documentary falls in the biography spectrum, but it’s probably worth a look, especially if you’re unfamiliar with Alcott’s work beyond Little Women.

Currently, I’m in the middle of one of the best biographies I’ve read in quite some time: Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio.  Montgomery scholars have a truly amazing cache of primary sources.  LMM kept a journal for most of her life (and constantly recopied and revised it).  They began publishing the volumes in the mid 1980s–I received my copy of Vol. 1 back in 1993.  (I was 14–yep, the nerdiness goes way back!)  Many, many biographies have been written.  Books of scholarly essays have been published.  Books of her letters have been published.  When I heard about the new biography, I figured I would probably read it eventually, but it wasn’t a huge priority.  After all, I’ve read more than a few biographies of LMM.  I’ve read 3 volumes of her journals.  I felt like there wasn’t too much more to learn.  But then I had a conversation with another LMM fan/scholar at a convention about the other Maud.  Kate told me it was the definitive biography, a must-read, and fabulous.  It took me a few months, but I finally followed her advice.  And now, I can barely put it down.

Rubio’s research is astounding.  She sets LMM’s life in context, her writing in context, and has remarkable insights into why LMM did what she did.  I have newfound respect for LMM’s grandmother.  I have more sympathy for her husband.  And I cannot wait to re-read all of LMM’s novels.  This is the kind of biography that more writers of children’s literature deserve.  Again, Rubio has it easier than many with the wealth of material.  However, she also gives LMM the respect she deserves–and the place she deserves in our society.

Frankly, I’m tired of these author’s stories being discounted because they only write for children.  Aren’t children the most important audience?  These stories have become a part of our lives and our psyches, because we read them when we were young.  They have shaped generations of young minds.  Isn’t it time we know more about what shaped them?

Excuse me, I have to get back to my book.

PS  If I’m missing any key and wonderful biographies of kidlit history authors, please let me know!

The best presents. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sparest of spare rooms

For the first time in my adult life, overnight guests can sleep somewhere besides the couch.  As a fairly new homeowner, I have a spare room!  With an extra bed!  However, as a fairly new homeowner, the bed is a hand-me-down and the mattress has certainly seen better days.  Buying a new mattress has been on the to-do list for months, but various financial setbacks have pushed it on down the list.  But I’ve had overnight guests anyway. . . and then I end up feeling bad because I know their bed is not comfortable.

I have finally starting digging out of my financial hole, so I’m thinking there might be mattress shopping this weekend.  As I was plotting out where to go, budget, and what to do about bedding (my comforter from college currently resides on the bed–and it’s not terrible, but it’s no longer me), I had a kidlit flash: Anne being told that she could sleep in a spare room. 

I’m sure you all remember the scene (and if you don’t, then you need to read Anne of Green Gables.  Go do it right now–I’ll still be here when you get back).  Anne is invited to attend a concert with Diana and spend the night.  As Anne is desperately trying to persuade Marilla she says: There’s just one more thing, Marilla. . . Mrs. Barry told Diana that we might sleep in the spare-room bed.  Think of the honour of your little Anne being put in the spare room bed.  This wasparerooms a very big deal.

And then, a classic Anne scrape (where it’s not really her fault, but really, could it have happened to anyone else?):  The two white-clad figures flew down the long room, through the spare-room door, and bounded on the bed at the same moment.  And then–something–moved beneath them, there was a gasp and a cry–and somebody said in muffled accents:

‘Mericful goodness!’

Anne and Diana were never able to tell just how they got off that bed and out of the room.

It is Aunt Josephine, a rich aunt, who has quite a temper.  Later, Anne apologizes in a way only she can, concluding with: And then we couldn’t sleep in the spare room after being promised.  I suppose you are used to sleeping in spare rooms.  But just imagine what you would feel like if you were a little orphan girl who had never had such an honor.  Anne and Aunt Josephine discover they are kindred spirits, and Aunt Josephine promises Anne: when you come to town you’re to visit me and I’ll put you in my very sparest spare-room bed to sleep.

When I first read this as a kid, the magic of the spare room really made an impression on me.  I had grown up in a house with a spare room.  Usually, when we traveled somewhere as a family, my parents were in a spare room (as the kid, I rarely was!).  A spare room was not unusual at all in my life, but it certainly was to Anne–which I think is part of the reason the scene stuck in my mind (that and the image of them jumping into bed with Aunt Josephine!).

In thinking about the homes we have at the Village, we really only have one house that features a “spare room.”  In one of our log houses, I always talk to kids about the idea that everyone lived in one big room–there were no separate rooms for children.  But there weren’t any separate rooms for guests either!  Even when the family moved on up (we have both their first Texas home–a one room log house and their second–which is much, much larger!), there was no spare room for guests.  Oh, we have a trundle bed underneath one of the beds, but not a whole room. 

Though I am by no means an expert on houses in the 19th century, it seems that spare rooms developed after two things happened.  1.  The frontier was settled, so supplies were more plentiful.  And the cost of construction went down.  2.  People had to be rich enough to be able to afford to have a spare room.  For decades, it was something only the rich could afford–and then, eventually, even the middle class could aspire to a spare room.  I wish I knew, when people were making choices about their houses, what the trends were.  A formal parlor or a spare room?  A dining room?  Some other special room?  What were the priorities?  Thinking of the two houses at the Village that are from around the turn of the century, both have dining rooms, a formal parlor, and a family parlor.  But only one has a spare room–and it’s not even the “richer” family.  But based on one little museum, I hate to make dramatic assumptions.

Anne was an orphan–she was poor and had been working in poor, crowded houses.  At the orphanage, her bed was one of many in a giant room.  So her thrill at being allowed in a spare room makes a lot more sense.  When she first arrives at Green Gables, the spare room is deemed to be too good for her.  Sleeping in a spare room was a sign that she had arrived–she was no longer thought of as an orphan first, but as a friend and honored guest.

And soon, my honored guests will be a bit more comfortable in my spare room.  Now, if I could just figure out what kind of bedding I want. . .

What have been your experiences with spare rooms?  And were they colored at all by Anne’s thrill?


This afternoon, whilIMG_2116e attempting to be domestic, I caught up with one of my favorite NPR programs, This American Life.  A few weeks ago, they aired a new episode called “The Book That Changed Your Life.”  How could I not listen?  The entire show was fantastic, but I was particularly intrigued by Act 4: Little Sod Houses for You and Me.  A longtime fan of the Little House books travels to De Smet for the first time.  She interviews locals, tours the homesites, and attends the annual pagent.  It was a vacation that sounds quite a bit like the type of vacation I take on a semi-regular basis.

And then I realized–one of the best parts of being a fan of kidlit history–these books that are based on the author’s life–is that you can see the “real” places.  It’s a very special way of connecting with fiction.  How much easier is it to picture Laura on the prairie after you yourself have been on the prairie?  How do Betsy and Tacy’s dinner on the bench change when you realize they had the best seat in the entire neighborhood?  How do Montgomery’s descriptions of the colors of PEI change when you’ve also seen the red roads and blue sea?  

When I was a kid, I begged and begged and begged to go to Prince Edward Island.  The love Montgomery has for this Island comes through so strongly in the books, I had to see what all the fuss was about.  There were multiple conversations about how to make the trip work, but PEI is a very long way from Texas.   My college graduation trip was to Boston, and we even tried to make it work from there, but it was still just too far.  But this did allow me to have one of my first real literary pilgrimages–we headed to Concord.  I dipped my feet in Walden Pond.  And Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women at a very tiny desk, was at the very top of my list of must-sees. 

Orchard House has a unique challenge when it comes to literary pilgrims–though Alcott set her classic at Orchard House, Beth died before the Alcott family ever moved in.  And for those that only know the fiction and not the history, it can come as a bit of a shock.  The tour guides do a wonderful job of pointing out the things that are “just like the book” and where history and fiction diverge.  I’ve been back one other time to Concord and toured Orchard House yet again.  The Alcotts are such an interesting family, and I’m glad that the site hasn’t fallen into the trap of being all Little Women all the time. 

The next summer, I found myself on Prince Edward Island with one of my dearest friends.  I had submitted a paper to a Montgomery conference, and it was accepted.  When we finally crossed the bridge from Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island (and I do mean finally–the trip did not have a smooth beginning!), chills ran up and down my spine.  We did all the expected Anne things–toured Green Gables (which felt odd–and far too commercial), saw the musical (can’t really recommend it), drank raspberry cordial.  But my favorite part of the trip was just driving the tiny country roads, walking along the ocean, and also seeing the Homestead.  The house where Montgomery grew up is no longer standing–all that’s left is the foundation.  And the views and the paths and the land where Montgomery became a writer.  This was my favorite spot on the Anne pilgrimage, and it was the spot where I felt closest to Montgomery’s stories.

Last summer, I headed to Mankato, Minnesota with a few hundred other fans to do all things Betsy-Tacy.  There were more than a few folks who got misty-eyed at seeing Betsy and Tacy’s house for the first time.  After all, these are places we’ve read about for years and there they are–three-dimensional and real and beautiful.  And they may not be quite what we pictured in our heads, but there’s a magic about seeing this place you’ve read about.  For the most moving spot was not Betsy’s house, but the Carnegie Library.  This was the spot where she really began growing up — she explored the world through the books in that library.  And walking up those stairs, just as Maud/Betsy did so many times, was extraordinary.

A few friends and I took a side trip to Walnut Grove.  Not much of Laura’s is left, but again, we had the land.  I waded in Plum Creek and looked out at the prairie.  Suddenly, it made much more sense that baby Grace got lost on the prairie–Texas prairie and Minnesota prairie are very, very different.  And I thought about those people, such as the Breswters, who could not be happy in such emptiness.

These literary pilgrimages will always be a part of my travel agendas.  In museum classes, we often talk about how important and special the “real thing” is.  How unexpectedly moving certain objects can be–such as Lincoln’s hat or George Washington’s desk or a slave’s shackles or Eleanor Roosevelt’s knitting needles (an object that moved me to tears once).  This conversation usually occurs while we’re talking about the future of museums–how the internet cannot replace the emotions that come with being in the same place with these truly special artifacts.  And I think these literary sites are a lot like that.  We’ve read about them and taken these characters into our hearts.  So to walk the same halls that these writers and their inspirations walked is a truly unforgettable experiences.  And so for those frew friends that thought I was beyond weird to be so excited about visiting Mankato or Concord or Cavendish or Walnut Grove, I say “perhaps it’s time you met my other friends, Betsy, Jo, Anne and Laura.”

What literary pilgrimages have you been on?  And where are you wanting to go?


Preserving these literary historic sites is not easy or cheap.  The following non-profits are doing all they can so we can continue to visit these magical sites.  If you’re a fan of any of these books, please consider supporting them:

Betsy-Tacy Society

Orchard House

Laura Ingalls Wilder Home (the Mansfield site–there are many Little House related sites, so I picked one)

L. M. Montgomery Institute (again, there are many Montgomery related sites on PEI, but the Institute is the center of scholarship)

Emotional history

Rilla of Ingleside


I finished my reread of Rilla of Ingleside the other night.  I’m not sure how many times I’ve read this book over the years, but it’s one that still gets me.  Every. Single. Time.

When I read, I’m not one to cry or even laugh out loud often.  I think part of it is that I read so quickly.  And for a long time, I rarely cried at movies.  Growing older has softened me up a bit, but I’m pretty sure Rilla was the first book that ever made me cry.  It may have been Walter’s death, but I’m also pretty sure it was the story of Dog Monday.

On this read, I teared up often.  When Jem enlisted.  When Jem came home and Dog Monday greeted him.  Strangely enough, not when Walter dies.  But the part that got me the most, the part where I had to reach over to my nightstand to find a kleenex, was when Bruce Meredith brought Anne the first mayflowers.  I can’t resist sharing the scene with you:

The mayflowers bloomed in the secret nooks of Rainbow Valley.  Rilla was watching for them.  Jem had once taken his mother the earliest mayflowers; Walter brought them to her when Jem was gone; last spring Shirley had sought them out for her; now, Rilla thought, she must take the boys’ place in this.  But before she had discovered any, Bruce Meredith came to Ingleside one twilight with his hands full of delicate pink sprays.  He stalked up the steps of the veranda and laid them on Mrs. Blythe’s lap.

“Because Shirley isn’t here to bring them,” he said in his funny, shy, blunt way.

“And you thought of this, you darling,” said Anne, her lips quivering, as she looked at the stocky, black-browed little chap, standing before her, with his hands thrust into his pockets.

“I wrote Jem today and told him not to worry ’bout you not getting your mayflowers,” said Bruce seriously, “’cause I’d see to that.  And I told him I would be ten pretty soon now, so it won’t be very long before I’ll be eighteen and then I’ll go to help him fight, and maybe let him come home for a rest while I took his place.”

So often, we grownups assume that children don’t really see the world around them.  I have long argued that children “get” a lot more than we give them credit for.  Bruce’s gesture and thoughtfulness were completely unexpected, but at ten, he definitely understands that this war has been going on for a while and there’s no sign of it ending.  And his willingness and confidence that he would go–in eight long years–just kills me. 

Though this is far from a perfect book, it’s the emotion of it all that made such an impact on my life.  You feel the ache and pain as the folks at home wait for news.  And though this book is largely about Rilla, it’s as much about Susan, the Blythe’s housekeeper.  I’ve always loved Susan, but I fell in love with her all over again in this read.  She went from only being concerned about her backyard to carefully studying the world situation.   I love that she kept asking how to pronounce these distant places as she struggled to keep track of troop movements.  As Dr. Blythe comments towards the end of the novel, “Susan, you’ve been a real brick.”

Part of the reason that kidlit history makes such an impact on our lives is this emotion.  There are so many wonderful stories in history–and there are also quite a few historians who, while fabulous researchers, can’t write in a way to attract a general audience.  Montgomery followed the war very closely–she agonized over the war news, as any reader of her published journals becomes keenly aware.  She began writing Rilla in March 1919–less than six months after armistice.  Though she never says it explicitly, I feel that she knew she was writing a history of the war years.  There is this journal entry, from March 1921:

Ewan said a letter had come from Stokes complaining that “Ingleside” was “too gloomy,” and wanting me to omit and tone down some of the shadows.  Also, subtly intimating that I had not “taffied up” the U.S. enough in regard to the war–this last being the real fault, though they did not like to say so bluntly.

Well, I didn’t and I won’t! 

In my opinion, Montgomery wrote one of the first histories of the war years.  She used her journals, she used first person accounts (many her own), she used news accounts to check her facts–she was a historian.  But I’m not sure how many see it as that.  All I know for sure is that if my first exposure to WWI had been in an average classroom, I wouldn’t be returning to it as a topic of interest over and over again. 

Have any of you had a similiar experience–where a book leads to a completely new interest? (historical or not!)

Piecing it together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening Shots. . .

For years now, I’ve had a strong interest in World War I.  Not the battles so much, but the social changes surrounding the Great War.  And I can place the blame firmly on Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery, since I certainly didn’t learn much about WWI in school.

I must have read Rilla for the first time shortly before the first Gulf War, because I certainly remember making all kinds of comparisons in my head about the two.  In my mind, this was the smallish thing that was going to turn into WWIII.  In a way, it almost has, since we’re still embroiled in the Middle East (but that’s all for someone else’s blog).

As I became more interested in history, I was always (and continue to be) surprised at how little mention is made of WWI in American history classes.  I know that much of this is because we really weren’t involved for very long, and a generation of young men wasn’t wiped out.  But I had grown up on Rilla, and it seemed to me that this was the war that had changed everything–when the 20th century had truly begun.  I remember being highly incensed during my US since 1875 class in college in which we spent about 15 minutes on WWI.  I made up for it later though, with my thesis that used the war years a centerpoint.  Since then, I’ve also done some research on Dallas clubwomen and their efforts during WWI.

The other night, I got out Rilla again, for the first time in years.  It was time to revisit PEI and figure out why I had never been able to let go of my interest in this war. 

For those that aren’t familiar with Rilla, this is the final book (chronologically, not the final book published) in the Anne series.  Though Anne is certainly in it, it’s really about Rilla and coming of age during the war years.  Somehow it’s always felt like a separate book from the rest of the Anne series, perhaps because there is such intrusion by the “real” world on the almost too perfect world of Avonlea and Glen St. Mary.

In fact, I was surprised at how quickly the war was mentioned.  On page 2: “There was a big, black headline on the front page of the Enterprise, stating that some Archduke Ferdinand or other had been assassinated at a place bearing the weird name of Sarajevo, but Susan tarried not over uninteresting, immaterial stuff like that; she was in quest of of something really vital.  Oh, here it was–“Jottings from Glen St. Mary.”  Ferdinand was killed on June 28, 1914. 

In the following pages, there is much foreshadowing about what is to come.  Gertrude Oliver, a family friend, has a terrifying dream that involves waves of blood lapping at the Ingleside porch.  But Rilla is a teenager, and much more focused on the possibilities of her first real dance and being considered a real “grown up.” 

I’ve always thought the scene where everyone learns that England declares war on Germany would make an excellent opening for a movie (we will not discuss the abomination of the 3rd Anne movie, set during WWI, except to say it was a truly horrible Anne movie and an almost equally bad WWI movie.  I might have thrown things at my television).  The scene is set at a lighthouse–crowds of young people are dancing the night away.  It’s Rilla’s first party, and she’s asked to dance over and over again, including by someone she just might have a long-time crush on.  And then: “There was a little disturbance among a group of boys crowded around the door; a young fellow pushed through and halted on the threshold, looking about him rather sombrely. . . . ‘Ask him —  ask him,’ she said feverishly to Allan Daly.  But somebody else had already asked him.  The room grew very silent all at once.  Outside the fiddler had stopped for a rest and there was silence there too.  Afar off they heard the low moan of the gulf–the presage of a storm already on its way up the Atlantic.  A girl’s laugh drifted up from the rocks and died away as if frightened out of existence by the sudden stillness.  ‘England declared war on Germany today,’ said Jack Elliot slowly.  ‘The news came by wire just as a I left town.'” 

And just like that, everything changes.  Some are thrilled at the prospect of war, others are terrified at what it could mean.  Many think that it will last just a few months.  Walter, Rilla’s brother argues: “Do you think a war for which Germany has been preparing for twenty years will be over in a few weeks?” said Walter passionately.  ‘This isn’t a paltry struggle in a Balkan corner, Harvey.  It is a death grapple.  Germany comes to conquer or die.”

In just a few pages, Montgomery outlines all the major themes that I’ve read over and over in my study of WWI–no one realizing how prepared Germany is and how unprepared England and France are.  Surprise that war is even possible in such a “modern” era.  Gender roles that emerge during war time.  And thus, I got hooked.

I’ll be spending some time on WWI in the coming weeks, looking at Rilla, but also looking at the final two books in the Betsy-Tacy series.  Are there any other children’s books that use WWI as a backdrop?

The Manifesto, so to speak

When I was a kid, I spent most of my time in the nineteenth century.  It all started with the Little House books.  My grandmother read them to me, and they became my very first chapter books that I could read all by myself.  From there, it was just a hop, skip and jump to Little Women, All-of-a-Kind Family, A Little Princess, and The Railway Children.  But I fell hard, really hard, for Anne Shirley.  This was in the late 1980s, when all of the books were being reissued.  Every time I went to the bookstore, I got to buy a new L. M. Montgomery book. 

Yet, there were so many things in those books that I just didn’t understand.  What was consumption and cholera?  Why were puffed-sleeves such a big deal?  What did the dresses look like?  And what did the food taste like?  Why was Sara Crewe in India?  When the Anne Treasury was published in the early 1990s, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Here, almost all of my burning questions were answered!

By the time I got to college, I was convinced that I was going to be an English major and one day write like Lucy Maud did.  Then, I got an internship at the Dallas Historical Society, going through their archives and writing educational curriculum.  It took me almost another year to admit that I was really a historian, which surprised me at the time.  Perhaps it shouldn’t have–I had already spent most of my childhood in the past.

As I began to dive into the study of history, I began to make all sorts of random connections between the history I was studying and the books I had loved as a child.  The most startling was during my History of Death in America class.  (yes, I took a death class.  It was awesome!).  We were reading Living in the Shadow of Death, about the 19th century experience of being a patient with consumption, or as we know it today, tuberculosis.  And I started thinking about Ruby Gillis.  A lot. For one of my mini-papers for the class, I wrote about Ruby’s experience, written when there were many more treatment options available, and how it took the classic literary portrayal of the disease and twisted it ever so slightly.  Eventually, this initial connection turned into a conference paper on the changes in how LMM portrayed consumption.  More importantly, it resulted in my first trip to Prince Edward Island.  Eventually, my paper was published in The Intimate Life of L. M. Montgomery, which was a whole other kind of thrill.

As I was working on the revisions to that paper, I realized that my paper didn’t exactly fit into normal categories–it wasn’t literary analysis, and it wasn’t a history paper.  It was a bit of both.

In my current job as a museum educator, I’m pulling children’s literature  in whenever and wherever I can.  When I redesigned our summer camp program, the most popular new camp was “Pages from the Past.”  Each day, we featured crafts and activities from a different classic children’s book, all set within the time period of the museum.  Little Women, Little House, Betsy-Tacy, All-of-a-Kind Family and Anne.  It was so much fun!  Using books that kids or adults are familiar with is a wonderful way to make connections with history. 

So this very long introduction leads up to where I was just over a month ago–sitting in a conference room at the Betsy-Tacy convention in Mankato, Minnesota.  I was listening to a presentation on the Syrian community in Mankato, something Maud wrote extensively about in her books.  One of the speaker’s sources, a history book, used Maud Hart Lovelace’s fictional stories as a source.  But then again, Lovelace isn’t purely fictional.

The following thought flew through my head: everything I really need to know about history, I learned through children’s literature. 

I realize this isn’t entirely true and there are all sorts of of caveats and exceptions and those things that historians love to do to make sure no one thinks we’re making a gross generalization. 

But there’s one key thing that all of the books that I loved so much have in common: they are either semi-autobiographical or they were written as contemporary and, over time, have become historical fiction.  Either way, they’re an important source in learning about history.  A source that most historians have ignored.  To me, they should be considered in much the way memoirs or oral history are considered–perhaps not true in every detail, but more true than not.  Even better, they give a voice to a group that are frequently left out in historical studies: chidren.

In talking to friends, most of whom would never consider them historians, they admit that they’ve learned all kinds of history from reading children’s literature.  Key incidents in a book become reference points for history.  But what are we learning?  And what’s the rest of the story?

That’s where this blog comes in: it’s a chance to explore the history in the books we love.  Perhaps dig a bit deeper into those stories we grew up with.

I’ve got a running list of topics and books to explore.  I do not plan on exploring contemporary historical fiction, though there are certainly some fine things being written today about the past.  Instead, I want to take a closer look at those books that are semi-autobiographical or have survived long enough to become historical fiction. 

So dear readers, what are some books you’d like to talk about?  Tidbits of history from them that have somehow lodged in your brain?  Let me know–I’m looking forward to the conversation!