Tuesday, April 17, 2018

'On the Banks of Plum Creek' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of April.
*    *    *
Based on the real-life adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek is the Newbery Honor-winning fourth book in the Little House series, which has captivated generations of readers. This edition features the classic black-and-white artwork from Garth Williams.

The adventures of Laura Ingalls and her family continue as they leave their little house on the prairie and travel in their covered wagon to Minnesota. They settle into a house made of sod on the banks of beautiful Plum Creek. Soon Pa builds them a sturdier house, with real glass windows and a hinged door. Laura and Mary go to school, help with the chores around the house, and fish in the creek. Pa’s fiddle lulls them all to sleep at the end of the day. But then disaster strikes—on top of a terrible blizzard, a grasshopper infestation devours their wheat crop. Now the family must work harder than ever to overcome these challenges.
We catch up the with the Ingalls family for their very next move after leaving Indian Territory, where they might have just escaped with their lives. (See Little House on the Prairie.) Pa's newest big idea is to settle in Minnesota and harvest a fine crop of wheat, which he's certain will bring them unprecedented wealth. Their list of dreams keeps being added to. It includes a new buggy, fine horses, silk dresses and candy every day. Also salt pork, gravy and fresh beef for regular meals. It's great fun to have all this to look forward to from their temporary home, a dugout in the ground.

Pa gets so excited that he starts borrowing money before he even harvests the wheat, to have some luxuries early. They purchase Sam and David, their beautiful horses, along with lumber to build their best house yet. Pa really splashes out to add metal door hinges, shingles, glass windows, china door knobs, and the boss of all cook stoves to surprise Ma. He says, 'Don't worry about the expense. Just look through the glass at that wheat field.' And Laura thinks how brilliant it is that they have the wonderful house just because the wheat is growing.

The girls start school for the first time. I remember being aghast as a kid that 9-year-old Mary and 8-year-old Laura could hardly read at all. Literacy snuck up on me from a very early age, and the same thing happened with my kids, who we homeschooled. (In all honesty, I can't say I taught them much before they were off on their own.) This re-read of Plum Creek shows that it was less to do with any fault in Pa and Ma as role models, and more to do with complete lack of opportunities to read. They owned just a handful of adult books and lived in a world with no sign posts, newspapers, adverts or computers. When you're not inundated unconsciously with letters and words almost every waking moment, you don't read. This speaks as much about our era as theirs.

How sad to think that Ma had only one novel to tide her over through the years. I haven't read Millbank but hope it was good, because they had to get a lot of mileage out of it. They obviously did. It turns out Laura knew swaths off by heart, just from hearing Ma read it to Pa.

777072In spite of lack of the written word, there was plenty of opportunity to learn good life lessons. The creek in which Laura almost drowned taught her that some things just can't be controlled, and an old badger possibly saved her life. Because, 'once you begin being naughty, it is easier to go on and on, and sooner or later something dreadful happens.'

Laura's descriptive writing skills bring the books alive. Nobody gives nature personality the way she does. For example, the storm 'seemed angry' that they'd managed to fetch two loads of wood behind its back. After a much needed rainfall, 'the air was cool and the earth was damp and grateful.' And in a terrible three-day blizzard, 'the voices in the storm howled and giggled and shrieked.' It's so subtle, but she makes features of the great outdoors seem like extra characters, without us even realising.

My very favourites are the bits that simply highlight the joy of being alive. The best happiness is in simple pleasures, after all.

We see it in insects. 'Bees and hornets stood thick along the cracks (in the plums) sucking up the juices with all their might. Their scaly tails wiggled with joy.'

And it's the same with dogs. 'Jack looked up at Laura and a waggle went from his neck to his stubby tail.' 

And with people. 'Pa was sitting on the wagon seat. His face was one big shining of joy.'

But life has its fair share of heartache too. The wheat field becomes a loss, when a plague of grasshoppers of biblical proportions show up. They really show the power in numbers, but you feel like wringing their millions of rotten little necks, one after the other. I was so sorry for Pa, to have to walk hundreds of miles in his shabby old boots to earn enough money to pay back what he owed. At this stage, readers might start thinking, 'I hope this poor man's hopes and dreams won't be crushed near the end of every book.' But he's a product of his times, and knows how to take the bad with the good. 'There's no use protesting. What must be done is best done cheerfully.' Another one of his ideas he couldn't quite pull off, just like the move to Indian territory.

There are great descriptions of the town, which seem like a pioneer village in action. I used to adore the chapter with the Christmas tree in the church. (More about that incident here.) And we're introduced to Laura's nemesis Nellie Oleson, one of the snobbiest, brattiest girls in literature. (See my list of famous mean girls.)

We get to take in our fill of lazy summer holiday incidents, with the swimming hole, the creek bank, the dusty tablelands and the ripe plums. Let's soak in the sunshine while we can, because The Long Winter isn't too far off. But just before that, and next up will be By the Shores of Silver Lake.


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

'Anna Karenina' by Leo Tolstoy

Acclaimed by many as the world's greatest novel, Anna Karenin provides a vast panorama of contemporary life in Russia and of humanity in general. In it Tolstoy uses his intense imaginative insight to create some of the most memorable characters in literature. Anna is a sophisticated woman who abandons her empty existence as the wife of Karenin and turns to Count Vronsky to fulfil her passionate nature - with tragic consequences. Levin is a reflection of Tolstoy himself, often expressing the author's own views and convictions.

Throughout, Tolstoy points no moral, merely inviting us not to judge but to watch. As Rosemary Edmonds comments, 'He leaves the shifting patterns of the kaleidoscope to bring home the meaning of the brooding words following the title, 'Vengeance is mine, and I will repay.

To start off with, this is my choice for the Book in Translation in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. I'd never read any Russian literature before beginning these challenges, and I'm loving it.

It's taken me well over a month to read and process, but it's been worth every second, and I was sorry it wasn't even longer. It's sad that I let intimidation get the better of me for so many years, but I thought I had good reason. A massive epic about a tragic love affair that drags on for almost 1000 pages didn't sound like much fun. But references to it have popped up so often in other novels, from characters who have loved it. Name dropping and fandom within fiction is always very hard to resist. Then I found out that in 2007, Times magazine deemed it the greatest book ever written. Well, that was it, I felt motivated to at least give it a try.

The first thing you might notice, if you stop to tally them all, is that there's about 230 chapters. Don't let that put you off, because they're all fairly short and easy to power through. It might be a meaty book, but it's not heavy. The characters are all so relatable, and many-faceted, I could easily blow this review into several pages, but thought I'd better focus mostly on Anna this time round. Other characters will definitely get their turn down the track. (Especially Levin, my favourite.)

Anna starts off as the woman who has everything going for her. Great beauty, a friendly manner that bubbles over with merriment and life, a highly respected husband and a sweet 8-year-old son. She also has a knack with small talk that makes whoever she's talking to feel special. When her brother Stepan's marriage seems heading for the rocks, she's the person he calls on to smooth things over with his wife, Dolly.

Then happy Anna meets Count Alexey Vronsky during her visit, and suddenly all she has is no longer enough. Practically overnight, her husband becomes a repulsive bore, and her social life is tedious and false. All she can think about is this gorgeous man who pursues her and fascinates her. (Those people and things haven't really changed at all, of course. It's just her attitude about them.)

I think there are two main ways readers can approach this novel, depending on how the main character strikes them. 1) Anna is a woman of personal integrity who refuses to live a lie. She realises that life is too short not to make a desperate bid for personal fulfillment and joy. She has the guts to reject the falseness and artificiality pressing her in from all sides, and take a stand for true love, even though she gets shunned by society and branded an immoral woman for doing so. 2) Anna is a selfish rebel who brings trouble upon herself and grief on those closest to her, all because she turns her back on the good in her life, without seeing it as such. Basically, she ditches her husband because someone hotter comes along. She demands freedom and acceptance without considering the claims of those who are made miserable in the process.

Readers on those opposing sides might as well be reading a different novel from each other. Many of us understand both points of view and fall somewhere in the middle. I was interested to see where Tolstoy would take the consequences of Anna's decision to leave her husband and son. To me, his story shows that making an attempt to bulldoze every obstacle in the path of your desires creates its own problems. When trying to design your perfect life involves breaking established 'rules' and upsetting others, all sorts of unforeseen problems pop out.

Anna's admirers might explain her slide into paranoia by blaming society's treatment of her. She'd sacrificed her son and her good name. Vronsky was all she had left, so naturally she was desperate to cling to him. But her critics could argue there's more to it than this. I imagine a hidden fear of some sort of karma or retribution might haunt Anna. Deep down, she can't shake off the sense that she did the dirty on her husband and son, so feelings of guilt and shame keep her edgy and wear her down. Since she's deserted those she should hold most dear, she's more likely to be alert for signs of similar behaviour in others.

Especially Vronsky, who was her partner in crime, so to speak. He left Kitty, his former love, to chase Anna, so what's to stop him from a repeat performance? Anna knows he had no scruples in his pursuit of her, so therefore no matter how well he treats her, she can't shake her concept of him as a person she can't trust. It's easy to understand why his personal history is always at the front of Anna's mind.

There was all sorts of negative psychology going on. Both Anna and Vronsky walk around with the attitude, 'Look at all I've given up for you.' That exerts a sort of 'You owe me,' pressure which isn't the best glue for a relationship. I wasn't a Vronsky fan at the start, for breezing in to wreck a family, just because he fell for a married woman. He regards Karenin, her husband, as a pig or dog sullying up the waters he wanted to enjoy himself! Well, who'd have guessed that getting exactly what he wanted would turn back to bite him on the butt? By the end, I even felt sorry for him.

Anna's predicament makes her impossible to please, as her dealings with her husband proves. When Karenin lashes out at her, she loathes him. Yet when he has a change of heart and chooses forgiveness, she hates him still, for showing her up! The poor guy can't win. When he finally asks, 'Look, what do you want from me?' she finds it impossible to answer. She wants both Vronsky and her son, Seryozha, yet they're mutually exclusive, because for Seryozha to live with his mother and Vronsky would ruin his future social and career prospects. So no wonder Anna's frustration helps change her personality. But it's for the reader to decide to what extent she's responsible for it.

Although I've padded this review out with talk of Anna and Vronsky, their shenanigans alone wouldn't have held me for 900+ pages. Other characters are really the ones who kept me hooked, especially Levin, Kitty, and Dolly who I'll discuss in more detail in other blog posts.

15823480But just as a teaser, Kitty is the girl who fancied herself in love with Vronsky, and refused a heartfelt marriage proposal from Levin. Then when Vronsky jilts her to chase Anna, Kitty realises that she loved Levin all along. She considers her life in ruins, because she'd told him, 'It can never be.' And he's a humble, self-effacing fellow who'd laid everything on the line to propose to her. Now he's retreated back to his home in the country, to handle his rejection with grace and peace. I kept turning the pages for more of the terrific chemistry from these two, whether they're together or apart.

Perhaps a good quote to end with is Vronsky's, 'I can give up anything for Anna, but not my manly independence.' Little does he know that Anna will demand this along with everything else. I see why this book is loved by many people, from highbrow, literary types all the way down to normal folk like me. There's lots of reflection about politics, economics and philosophy, and different readers may take it all on board differently, but there's more than enough for us all to mull over in our own particular way. 

On the whole, I get the strong impression that Leo Tolstoy really wasn't in favour of people leaving their spouse when someone hotter comes along. Yet at the same time, his sympathy for Anna and lack of condemnation shines through. I've heard several suggestions that Anna Karenina is the sort of novel that may help reveal the meaning of life. If that's true, I wouldn't be surprised if there are as many interpretations as there are readers. But I'm happy to go with Levin's conclusion, that overthinking it only brings misery, and we're probably wisest when we do our simple daily tasks with the knowledge that we'll never fathom the heart of God, who makes everything tick.


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Enchantments and Depression

One of the best things about reading novels is occasional sudden insights into issues that might crop up in our own lives. While non-fiction delivers straight talk about how we should tweak our thoughts and behaviour, fiction has a more indirect way of inviting us to make the connections ourselves. Not only is it potentially easier to swallow, but might even stick with us for longer.

For example, fantasy stories often present magical enchantments, and one day it dawned on me how very similar they may be to normal human depression and anxiety. Both grip our minds with half-truths and distortions, and send us spiraling into morbid ruts.

In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the entire household staff of politician Sir Walter Pole was under a fairy enchantment, and nobody had a clue. There were elusive strains of music and occasional peals of faraway bells. Some of the servants tried to describe their feelings to Stephen Black, the butler, and here's what he managed to piece together. 'The effect of the fairy bells was to bring vividly to mind everyone they'd ever known who had died, all the good things they'd ever lost, and every bad thing which had ever happened to them. Consequently they had become dejected and low, and their lives were not worth living.'

We readers nod along and think, 'It's no wonder they're feeling blue, when their minds are being manipulated like this.' We know just what's going on later, when hero magician Jonathan Strange has a close call himself, almost falling victim to the weird but compelling fairy music. It almost defeated him at the level of his thoughts. Here's how the book expresses it.

'He heard music that described his whole life, and realised for the first time how full of sadness his existence was. He knew now that every angry thought he had ever had was justified, and that every generous thought was misplaced.' Wow, I've had similar moods to that, haven't you?

Luckily, poor Jonathan twigged what was happening in some lucid edge of his mind, and managed to claw himself back to straight thinking in the nick of time. On the spot, he disputed the intrusive thoughts and acknowledged that while they were attacking his mind, he didn't have to own them. Next he replaced them with more wholesome thoughts of his choice, which strengthened with focus. He remembered his wife, Arabella, and her excellent mental qualities that attracted him to her. He loved her ability to find charm and wit in the most commonplace situations, and this sort of healthy thinking turned out to be an effective antidote against the bad fairy charm.

One author who knows all about depression is J.K. Rowling, who has explained how she drew upon her own horrific experience to create the menacing dementors, whose effect on everyone is to create a sick chill and suck every trace of happiness from any by-stander, to the extent of sucking their souls outright with the 'dementor's kiss.'

Harry Potter fans will surely also remember poor Ron's plight in The Deathly Hallows, when he takes his turn to wear the dreadful horcrux locket around his neck. He seems to be particularly susceptible to its influence of despair and hopelessness, to the extent that he bails out of their mission, tells Harry and Hermione where to go and storms off! Of course he comes to his senses the moment he's away from it and manages to return to his friends. But the horcrux fights dirty to the bitter end, taunting Ron with terrible twisted images about his own worth and everyone else's rock bottom opinions of him. It's all noxious garbage, but the scary thing is that Ron knows he was harboring germs of those sad reflections, and the enchantment in the horcrux managed to hone into them and exaggerate them into something malicious and potentially soul-crushing. His simple impulse is to stand around listening, but he must heed Harry's shout to, 'Kill it! Kill it!' These supreme moments are the way a great story can help us slay our own monsters too.

Our books offer hope that we can deal with our personal monsters in the way these great characters deal with their enchantments. Imagine if we could just slay the crazy 'all or nothing' thinking that makes us consider ourselves losers, and the fearful catastrophising, second-guessing, and misfortune telling. What if we could crush those erroneous conclusions that would have us assume that everything we don't like is a personal affront against us, and the distorted negatives which seem to make it all but impossible to acknowledge positives in our lives. I've harboured all of these at different times. It's wonderful to think that good fiction, as well as merely entertaining us, offers a possible way out of bad thinking traps. It challenges us to replace bad thoughts with better ones, and dispute them as if they're just the sort of pesky fairy enchantments that fictional characters must face.

It's not easy, but our beloved stories give us no illusions that it will be. The only effective way to repel dementors and cast a protective Patronus charm is to instantly summon your happiest memories, when you felt on top of the world. Even though you're quaking with terror as the horrible creatures are swooping down on you, and upbeat thoughts seem light years away, if you do manage they'll surely be forced to flee. I love the challenge.

You might also enjoy, Reading with Depression and Melancholia, the happy side of sadness.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

'Green Valley' by Meredith Resce


Emily Wallace has been given a choice. Either she obeys her father'swishes and marries the elderly widower, or she will be sent to live with her aunt in Australia. Even with the tales of wild animals and convicts, Emily chooses to sail to this unknown and untamed land. She simply cannot marry the cruel and arrogant Lord.Colin Shore has never met anyone so beautiful before. The moment he first saw Lady Emily Wallace at the dock he fell in love with her. But he would never presume that she would be part of his life. After all, she was a Lady and he was only a farmer.

It's the second in the Green Valley series, recently re-released for its twentieth anniversary. Readers of The Manse will remember Colin Shore as the teenager who had to assume full responsibility of his family's farm after his father's untimely death. Now he's all grown up, still working hard, and bickering with his sisters in his downtime. The tiny house is hardly large enough to hold them all, and he can't wait for them to leave home. He longs for the day when they're some other guys' responsibility, and wouldn't dream of courting a girl himself, and adding more drama to the already crammed household.

Meanwhile over in England, Lady Emily Wallace has been resisting the force of her father and brother to marry the foreboding Lord Derickson, who's 60 years old, while she's not yet 17. Her only way to escape their pressure is to cave in to their threats to send her to Australia to live with her aunt Vera, which they never expected she'd choose as the better option. Once there, it doesn't take Lady Emily long to single out the man of her dreams; no prize for guessing who. But she just won't accept it when her new neighbours try to explain that they are at opposite ends of the social spectrum, which makes a union impossible. In her eyes, Colin is a respectable man with land of his own.

There is always a good blend of comedy, adventure and social commentary in the Green Valley stories, which makes them an interesting read. One of my favourite aspects of this one is Emily's spirit. She's a strong, determined character in an era of strict social manners, yet never sacrifices her politeness. There's a great section where she sets out to prove her own worth, but it's the opposite to how many other stories are written. It reminds me of an inverted 'My Fair Lady', which could only work in the Aussie colonial era. Rather than attempting to raise her class, Emily aims to show that she can lower hers, to match the energy and courage of any hard-working farmer's wife.

The confusion of people's roles in this time and place comes through clear. Although British settlers attempt to cling to the social hierarchy which is all they've ever known, they are also coping with unprecedented changes, such as a labourer's freedom to earn enough to purchase land and be independent. In this transition sort of stage, settlers wanted to embrace change and stay put at the same time.

I like it when authors can wrap their minds around a characteristic way of thought from a bygone era, so that it is woven into the plot. With the steady action, combined with colourful descriptions of the Australian bush, it's easy to see why many readers have kept on with this series, wanting to see what'll happen to future generations. In Green Valley, seemingly hopeless situations are worked out quite credibly, to romance lovers' satisfaction.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

'All Passion Spent' by Vita Sackville-West

In 1860, as a young girl of 17, Lady Slane nurtures a secret, burning ambition—to become an artist. She becomes, instead, the wife of a great statesman and the mother of six children. Seventy years later, released by widowhood, and to the dismay of her pompous children, she abandons the family home for a tiny house in Hampstead. Here she recollects the dreams of youth, and revels in her newfound freedom with her odd assortment of companions: Genoux, her French maid; Mr. Bucktrout, her house agent; and a coffin maker who pictures people dead in order to reveal their true characters. And then there's Mr. FitzGeorge, an eccentric millionaire who met and loved her in India when she was young and very lovely. It is here in this world of her own that she finds a passion that comes only with the freedom to choose, and it is this, her greatest gift, that she passes on to the only one who can understand its value.

First published in 1931, Vita Sackville-West's masterpiece is the fictional companion to her great friend Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.

This is a thought-provoking story for anyone who wants to give themselves permission to live a simple, humble, contemplative life. Platitudes such as 'step out of your comfort zone' are so prevalent, we tend to take them on board as dogma without ever thinking about them. This story is all about asking, 'Hey, why should I step out?' Lady Slane is one person who realises that since life is so short, her comfort zone is the most appealing place to live. Her given name is Deborah, but nobody has used it for years. After a lifetime of doing what society expects of her, she makes a decision to retire from the public eye and live in a small house, out of the spotlight.

At the start, her husband, Henry Lyulph Holland, the first earl of Slane, has just passed away, aged 94. He was a former Prime Minister and Viceroy of India with an illustrious list of achievements and excellent reputation. Now that he's gone, his older children, senior citizens and big advocates of productive lives, assume that their gentle and pliable mother will be passed around between their homes. But the 88-year-old has other ideas.

Lady Slane realises that in all the hustle and bustle of helping her family look good, she's sacrificed many parts of her own true nature, including time to contemplate. 'In contemplation she could pierce to a happier life more truly than her children, who reckoned things by results and activities.' She and her maid,Genoux, realise their calm, new routine is more than enough, punctuated by small interests such as leisurely strolls and the arrival of tradesmen and parcels of books. 'Of such small things was her life now made.' It sounds pretty nice to me, and I kept scribbling down supportive quotes of her chosen lifestyle. 'She'd had enough in her life, of people whose worldly status was their passport to admission.'

I didn't give the nod to everything. Some of her musings made me a bit sad, such as thinking back on her husband and children as 'obstacles' that kept her from her true self. That's a hard word to use in this context, for innocent kids. She was the one who caved in to pressure to bring them up in a way the world would approve, but then decides she doesn't gel with the hoop-jumping people they grew into. Well, she helped shape them that way. I can't help feeling that when they grew up, she was treating them the same way they treated her, by thinking harsh things about them and not extending grace, since they were acting the best way they knew how, just like her. And sometimes when she made decisions just to annoy them, I wondered if she was such a nice, innocent little old lady after all.

Most readers would probably agree that the renewal of Lady Slane's friendship with Colonel FitzGeorge is one of the book's highlights, even though she barely remembered their mutual past to start with. Two people who briefly cross paths in their twenties now touch base almost sixty years later, and take up where they left off. I love how he reflects that the beauty in her face has changed, developing into something richer and deeper than youthful beauty.

In fact all the characters are elderly, with one notable exception towards the end. Some of Lady Slane's children are grandparents themselves, and Edith, the 'baby sister' is 60. She's an interesting character with an independent thought life I would have liked to see more of. Mr Bucktrout, Lady Slane's old landlord, is also quite a character on her own wavelength, and some of his quotes are the ones I liked most.

* Repose is one of the most important things, and yet how few people achieve it.
* My principle has always been that it's better to please one person a great deal than please a number of persons a little.
* I have given a great deal of offense in my life, but not one offensive instance do I repent.
* Although one cannot create an atmosphere, one can at least safeguard it against disturbances.

Maybe sticking to our decisions to live the gentle, quiet lives we dream of, instead of jumping through hoops, is really a bold leap out of the comfort zone of public approval. Insisting on your right to enjoy a passive, relaxed and unheralded life may take courage, in the face of criticism and rejection. What an irony that going with the flow, and taking the path of least resistance, may be the biggest energy sapper after all. I'm not going to wait until I'm old to heed Lady Slane's lesson.


Friday, March 16, 2018

'Farmer Boy' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of March.

Growing up on his family's farm in New York, Almanzo Wilder wishes for just one thing--his very own horse. But Father doesn't yet trust him with such a big responsibility. Almanzo needs to prove himself--but how?

It's the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's husband Almanzo when he was a boy. To sum up my feelings in a sentence, nothing beats sitting down to relax with a good book and read about others' hard work. I'd guess it was originally written as a companion to Laura's first book, Little House in the Big Woods, because it covers a year in the life of a family, following the cycles of the four seasons. But unlike the restless, roving Pa Ingalls, the Wilders had a flourishing, commercial farm. They weren't moving anywhere, and wouldn't want to!

One thing that stands out about James Wilder's farm is the huge variety. No specialisation for this man, he had all sorts going. Horses, cattle, sheep, potatoes, other veggies, cereal crops, orchards, you name it. I'm sure farms like his are almost extinct now. In modern times, people are seduced by the greater efficiency of growing or raising just one thing, and the profits that follow. Indeed, smaller hobby farmers can't compete with the produce of mass producers on the market. But I wonder if there's a high cost of soil depletion and healthy nutrient loss from overdoing it with a single commodity. It's sad to think that we're being led by the almighty dollar to our detriment, and that farms like the Wilders' no longer operate.

What pros they were too. Everything from their farm was naturally the very best. Not just any old sheep, but prize merinos. Also high pedigree Morgan horses, top quality potatoes, and super creamy butter that speaks for itself. No wonder the Wilders were highly respected in their community, and naturally reserved the best stables at church.

Almanzo makes a likable little hero, and his love for horses and food cannot be beaten. The story shows this boy going crazy about either one or the other.

To me, the horses come across fairly edgy and keyed up. Father wouldn't let his nine-year-old son near them, for fear that he'd teach them undesirable habits unwittingly. He was always dropping remarks like, 'One little mistake will ruin a fine colt.' They sound a bit like children. They'll pick up bad habits in a flash from some ratbag who's just mucking around, while good traits from someone with their best interests at heart are harder to stick. But young Almanzo decides that these high-maintenance critters are his delight.

8252His other passion is food, and the amount he manages to stuff into his mouth during this story is astounding, but Mother keeps it coming. A typical winter breakfast, for example, seemed to be pancakes, sausage cakes, oatmeal, fried potato, buckwheat cakes, doughnuts, jellies and jam. They have my admiration for keeping up the pace day after day, when our morning ritual is pouring a bowl of cereal. Reading this book might even be a good strike in the war against junk food. If you start off feeling sorry for the Wilder kids for not having Mars Bars and McDonalds, you might well end up feeling jealous instead, because of the delicious turnovers and doughnuts we can read about but not taste.

It's a lovely picture of a boy with a healthy role model in his father, who he adores. James gives Almanzo a heavy dose of the Protestant Work Ethic, making sure his son knows that money = hard work. 'Any time you want to spend a nickel, stop and think how much work it takes to earn a dollar.' He also scoffs at time saving devices which may compromise quality, because 'all it saves is time. And what good is time with nothing to do?' It sinks in too. One the third day of the County Fair, the young boy decides with no prompting that he's had an overload of leisure and just wants to get back to work.

There are several interesting snippets. How about the Indian at the County Fair, who jumped onto the race track and kept up with the horses? The story tells us that he ran a two minute, forty second mile, and even Father was impressed. Well, I'd hope so, because if it's true, the guy smashed Sir Roger Bannister's four minute mile several decades before it was even set! Even in 1954, many people called a four minute mile a physically impossible feat. And today the current record stands at three minutes and 43 seconds.This shows that nameless wonders and unsung heroes pop up in every generation. Unless Almanzo remembered it with boyish exaggeration and told Laura, who took it on face value and wrote it down. But I prefer to believe the tale about that freakishly fast Indian runner. (Even though my family say it's absolutely impossible.)

Readers who work in the retail industry should get ready to be challenged. Almanzo's big brother Royal decides to be a store keeper, because he's over all the demands of farm work. It makes sense to me. He's a young man who's familiar with farming and knows what he's talking about, so it's not an uninformed whim on his part. Yet his parents think he's selling himself short, and their main reason for idolising their hard lifestyle comes back to their notion of freedom and independence.

They can't stand the thought of having to kowtow to customers and keep everyone happy, whether they like them or not. We're told, 'If Father goes out of his way to please anyone, it's only because he wants to.' He himself puts it this way. 'You work hard but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come.' (Only the weather, the seasons, the hands of the clock and the demands of a crowd of animals are allowed to do that, but somehow James Wilder doesn't mind being pushed around by these things so much. But to me it shows that nobody is truly 'free', unless it's to choose who, or what will be our master.)

Mother knows exactly how to respond to Mr Paddock's generous offer to train Almanzo to be a wheelwright. 'Why would Almanzo want to live in town and cater to the whims of every Tom, Dick and Harry?' Poor Mr Paddock will have to look for another apprentice.

'Mother' is one of my favourite characters. The story doesn't even give her name, but a wiki search tells me it was Angeline. What a fantastic lady, proving that feminine skills are a super strength. She blitzes everything, from her wonderful cooking and awesome loom weaving to her way of speaking her mind and bartering with tradesmen. I love how she and her husband come across as partners, each upholding their own equally important end of home and farm. But most of all, I love how she liberates other females not to scoff at the domestic arts, as a life pursuit. Nobody could possibly look at Angeline Wilder and call her work drudgery. What a woman. 

Another theme that keeps popping up is the true value of anyone's work or decisions being revealed in time. When lazy farmers scatter seed haphazardly so they can call it a day, their sloppiness will be obvious to everyone a few months later. In one of my favourite chapters, Almanzo decides to sneak some homemade toffee to his pet piglet, Lucy, but everyone finds out when her teeth get stuck together, and they have to pin her down so Royal can dislodge it. Oh oh, even loyal sister Alice is shocked that Almanzo would waste their sweets on a pig.

On the whole, Father is very matter-of-fact about the test of time, even regarding those he's most proud of.
Liveryman: That's a smart boy of yours.
Father: Time will show. Many a good beginning makes a bad ending. It remains to be seen how he turns out in the long run.

History showed his son suffered many tough times and hard knocks in the years ahead of him, with moments of heartache that might have broken his father's heart to see. But Almanzo came through with his faith, and his good, gentle character intact, so I'm sure James would have been perfectly satisfied with the way he turned out.

Next up will be On the Banks of Plum Creek


Read more about Almanzo here on this post about book boyfriends

Monday, March 12, 2018

We don't have to tackle Mount Everest

I was studying this huge mountain with my younger son. It's so impressive, being the world's tallest, at 8848 metres high. Apparently it still grows by about 0.25 inches each year, even at 60 million years old. It was first identified by a British survey team lead by George Everest in 1841, but not until 1953 did anyone manage to reach the summit. It was achieved by Sir Edmund Hillary from New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide, making them instantly famous.

I applaud Junko Tabei, the first female to reach the top, not to mention Miura Yiuchiro, the oldest person to reach the top, aged 80, in May 2013. South Australia's Flinders Ranges' Mount Remarkable was almost too much for me, at 960 metres, and I was a fraction of the age. Over time, thousands of people have tried to reach the top of Everest, and many nameless folk have died making the attempt, in the name of thrill seeking or notoriety. My nephew's karate sensei climbed part of it. Even though he has the fitness level of an Olympic athlete, he didn't even attempt to make it all the way up. He told stories about the thinness of the atmosphere, and the many stops they would make just to get their breath back and conquer altitude sickness. Something about a challenge of that magnitude appeals to the adventurous streak that lies buried in all of us, some deeper than others.

Yet it would seem that, from space, it's a different story. From a vantage point of such magnitude, Mount Everest is merely part and parcel of the crust of the earth. In fact, it was even surprisingly difficult to single out. Russian cosmonaut, Valentin Lebedev, said, 'How many people dream of conquering Everest so they can look down from it, yet for us up above, it was difficult to locate.'

This God's eye perspective, so to speak, makes me feel peaceful, although I had to think about it to figure out why. It's to do with the fact that it is we humans who label things with significance and importance, by deeming them big or impressive from our vantage point. As it's not at all the same for God, we needn't worry about buying into all those competitions for status.

We make Everests out of so many things. Humans are those who spread the illusion that certain lines of work are far more illustrious than others, and that achieving celebrity-hood or stardom in some field is the pinnacle to strive for. I now like to think that from a lofty enough heavenly perspective, all the good we do just becomes part of the earth's fabric. That means we don't really have to bust our boilers, burst our blood vessels and strain our Type A personalities to impress people walking around down here, who share our limited focus.

Imagine some member of the angelic host whose vantage point is more like that of Lebedev and his fellow astronauts, saying, "Mother Teresa and Billy Graham have done wonderful things, but so have millions of others. It's just part of the total of what love-driven servants are doing everywhere. Look at Jane Doe, caring for her sick mother and working hard as a single parent to support her son through college. Or Joe Blogs the bus driver, sticking to road rules and greeting all his passengers cheerfully, day after day. It's all one and the same, and we love it."

If we've ever been afraid of never hearing, 'Well done, good and faithful servant,' thinking our work is too little or measly to justify the space we take, it might be time to get over our Mount Everest syndrome. When I finish writing this blog post, I'm going to go and clean my kitchen, have a walk with my son, and help my daughter prepare some food for her youth group. Later I'll work on a couple of book reviews. I'll have to remind myself that even though these things aren't Mount Everest, they are all adding to crust of love-driven deeds that makes the earth a great place to live. If we tend to get discouraged because we think we're not making a ripple, then maybe it's a sign that we should stop thinking in terms of being considered remarkable or measuring up to some standard.