Monday, December 26, 2011

Lessons from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

If your memories of Little Women have been muddied by watching the movie version, I highly recommend a re-read! Far from the feminist and transcendentalist overtones of the movie, this well-loved classic by Louisa May Alcott extols the virtues of home and homemaking and a simple faith in and dependence on God that is quite refreshing. I also found several gems of wisdom for mothers both in Marmee's gentle dealings with her girls and advice to her grown daughters. While some might find the moralistic tone of this novel a bit overbearing, I, for one, don't mind a bit being reminded of the ideals and virtues of a distant generation.

After re-reading Little Women, I also read Little Men and Jo's Boys recently, both of which were new to me. I enjoyed getting an expanded knowledge of the March family, although the main characters of Little Women take a secondary role to the boys at Jo & Mr. Bhaer's school. There is more emphasis on women's rights in the younger generation, but it is well-balanced with the wisdom and training of older women in home duties, as a picture of Titus 2 in action. My only complaint is that Jo and Laurie's relationship seems a bit unusual as they get older and raise families side by side. I thought some of their interchanges a bit odd, or at least a bit too chummy for sister-in-law and brother-in-law, even if they had been the best of friends as children. Let's just say that Amy was very gracious - much more so than I could ever be in a similar situation!

Here are some of my favorite passages from Little Women:

"The patience and the humility of the face she loved so well was a better lesson to Jo than the wisest lecture, the sharpest reproof. She felt comforted at once by the sympathy and confidence given her; the knowledge that her mother had a fault like hers, and tried to mend it, made her own easier to bear and strengthened her resolution to cure it; though forty years seemed rather a long time to watch and pray, to a girl of fifteen." (83, such wisdom about confessing and battling sin, in this case anger, over a lifetime.)

"'I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved, and respected; to have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman; and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience...My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, -- marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting.'" (101)

"'I am quite satisfied with the experiment, and fancy that we shall not have to repeat it; only don't go to the other extreme, and delve like slaves. Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well.'" (121)

"To outsiders, the five energetic women seemed to rule the house, and so they did in many things; but the quiet scholar, sitting among his books, was still the head of the family, the household conscience, anchor, and comforter; for to him the busy, anxious women always turned in troublous times, finding him, in the truest sense of those sacred words, husband and father." (244, nary a bit of feminism there!)

"I also doubt if any young matron ever began life with so rich a supply of dusters, holders, and piece-bags...People who hire all these things done for them never know what they lose; for the homeliest tasks get beautified if loving hands do them..." (247-248, a good reminder for one not so fond of dusting!)

"'Laurie, my lad, if you ever want to indulge in this sort of thing, get one of those little girls to help you, and I shall be perfectly satisfied,' said Mr. Laurence,settling himself in his easy chair to rest, after the excitement of [Meg's wedding in] the morning.'
   'I'll do my best to gratify you, sir,' was Laurie's unusually dutiful reply, as he carefully unpinned the posy Jo had put in his button-hole." (260-261, see, it's not all moral instruction!)

"Mrs. March knew that experience was an excellent teacher, and when it was possible she left her children to learn alone the lessons which she would gladly have made easier, if they had not objected to taking advice as much as they did salts and senna." (266)

"'Never deceive him by look or word, Meg, and he will give you the confidence you deserve, the support you need. He has a temper, not like ours, -- one flash, and then all over, -- but the white, still anger, that is seldom stirred, but once kindled, is hard to quench. Be careful, very careful, not to wake this anger against yourself, for peace and happiness depend on keeping his respect. Watch yourself, be the first to ask pardon if you both err, and guard against the little piques, misunderstandings, and hasty words that often pave the way for bitter sorrow and regret.'" (287)

"'Because they are mean is no reason why I should be. I hate such things, and though I think I've a right to be hurt, I don't intend to show it. They will feel that more than angry speeches or huffy actions, won't they, Marmee?'
   'That's the right spirit, my dear; a kiss for a blow is always best, though it's not very easy to give it sometimes,' said her mother, with the air of one who had learned the difference between preaching and practising (sic)." (310)

"'Ah, Jo, mothers may differ in their management, but the hope is the same in all, -- the desire to see their children happy. Meg is so, and I am content with her success. You I leave to enjoy your liberty till you tire of it; for only then will you find that there is something sweeter. Amy is my chief care now, but her good sense will help her. For Beth, I indulge no hopes except that she may be well.'" (339)

"The conversation was miles beyond Jo's comprehension, but she enjoyed it, though Kant and Hegel were unknown gods, the Subjective and Objective unintelligible terms; and the only thing 'evolved from here inner consciousness,' was a bad headache after it was all over. It dawned upon her gradually that the world was being picked to pieces, and put together on new, and, according to the talkers, on infinitely better principles than before; that religion was in a fair way to be reasoned into nothingness, and intellect was to be the only God...[Mr. Bhaer] bore it as long as he could; but wen he was appealed to for an opinion, he blazed up wit honest indignation, and defended religion with all the eloquence of truth...He had a hard fight, for the wise men argued well; but he didn't know when he was beaten, and stood to his colors like a man. Somehow, as he talked, the world got right again to Jo; the old beliefs, that had lasted so long, seemed better than the new; God was not a blind force, and immortality was not a pretty fable, but a blessed fact. She felt as if she had solid ground under her feet again..." (361-362)

"[Beth] did not rebuke Jo with saintly speeches, only loved her better for her passionate affection, and clung more closely to the dear human love, from which our Father never means us to be weaned, but through which He draws us closer to Himself. She could not say, 'I'm glad to go,' for life was very sweet to her; she could only sob out, 'I try to be willing,' while she held fast to Jo, as the first bitter wave of this great sorrow broke over them together." (382-383)

"[Meg] was nervous and worn out with watching and worry, and in that unreasonable frame of mind which the best of mothers occasionally experience when domestic cares oppress them." (398)

[Marmee's advice to Meg as a young mother] "'I  nearly spoilt [Jo] by indulgence. You were poorly, and I worried about you till I fell sick myself. Then father came to the rescue, quietly managed everything, and made himself so helpful that I saw my mistake, and never have been able to get on without him since. That is the secret of our home happiness: he does not let business wean him from the little cares and duties that affect us all, and I try not to let domestic worries destroy my interest in his pursuits. We each do our part alone in many things, but at home we work together, always.'" (400-401)

"She had often said she wanted to do something splendid, no matter how hard; and now she had her wish, for what could be more beautiful than to devote her life to father and mother, trying to make home as happy to them as they had to her? And, if difficulties were necessary to increase the splendor of the effort, what could be harder for a restless, ambitious girl than to give up her own hopes, plans, and desires, and cheerfully live for others?" (445)

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

I read Jayber Crow earlier in 2011 and recorded my favorite passages, but nothing more. So in an effort to tie up loose ends, I'll just leave it as it stands and publish it.

"Sometimes I might take off a whole day to go fishing...always taking care to get back before six-thirty. Of course, if I didn't leave until after six-thirty in the evening, I had all night to get back. And since nobody was apt to want a haircut at six-thirty in the morning, I could stay away until the next evening. My clock said I would be back at six-thirty, but it didn't say what day. And sooner or later, until the last time, I always got back." (5)

"My relation to that place, my being in it and my absences from it, is the story of my life. That story has surprised me almost every day--but now, in the year 1986, so near the end, it seems not surprising at all but only a little strange, as if it all has happened to somebody younger." (12)

"There really was nobody else to do it [adopt him after the death of his parents], but she treated me like a prize she had won...I suppose Aunt Cordie and Uncle Othy had a store of affection laid away that they now brought out and applied to me. Later I would know how blessed I had been." (15)

"Back there at the beginning, as I see now, my life was all time and almost no memory. Though I knew early of death, it still seemed to be something that happened only to other people, and I stood in an unending river of time that would go on making the same changes and the same returns forever." (24)

"I'd had the idea, once, that if I could get the chance before I died I would read all the good books there were. Now I began to see that I wasn't apt to make it. This disappointed me, for I really wanted to read them all." (47)

"In most of them I saw the old division of body and soul that I had known at The Good Shepherd [Orphanage]. The same rift ran through everything at Pigeonville College; the only difference was that I was able to see it more clearly, and to wonder at it. Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins--hatred and anger and self-rightousness and even greed and lust--came from the soul. But these preachers...all though that the soul could do no wrong...and yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body." (49)

"'You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out--perhaps a little at a time.'" (54)

"Now I have had most of the life I am going to have, and I can see what it has been. I can remember those early years when it seemed to me I was cut completely adrift, and times when, looking back at earlier time, it seemed I had been wandering in the dark woods of error. But now it looks to me as though I was following a path that was laid out for me, unbroken, and maybe even as straight as possible, from one end to the other, and I have this feeling, which never leaves me anymore, that I have been led." (66)

"The Good Shepherd and Pigeonville Collee were trying to be the world of the past. The university was trying to be the world of the future, and maybe it has had a good deal to do with the world as it has turned out to be, but this has not been as big an improvement as the university expected. The university thought of itself as a a place of freedom for thought and study and experimentation, and maybe it was, in a way. But it was an island too, a floating or a flying island. It was preparing people from the world of the past for the world of the future, and what was missing was the world of the present, where every body was living its small, short, surprising, miserable, wonderful, blessed, damaged, only life." (70-71)

"Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there...Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led--make of that what you will." (133)

"And so the farm came under the influence of a new pattern, and this was the pattern of a fundamental disagreement such as it had never seen before. It was a disagreement about time and money and the use of the world." (186)

"She had come into her beauty. This was not the beauty of her youth and freshness, of which she had had a plenty. The beauty that I am speaking of now was that of a woman who has come into knowledge and into strength and who, knowing her hardships, trusts her strength and goes about her work even with a kind of happiness, serene somehow, and secure." (191)

"But thinking of Mattie's marriage, I saw too how a marriage, in bringing two people into each other's presence, must include loneliness and error. I imagined a moment when the husband and wife realize that their marriage includes their faults, that they do not perfect each other, and that in making their marriage they also fail it and must carry to the grave things they cannot give away." (194)

"But she loved him, however at odds with him she may have been, for however long. She remembered and kept treasured up her old feeling for him. She treasured up the knowledge that, though she was not happy, happiness existed. And so as Troy's character wore lower and more awry, her own grew straighter and brighter." (342)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Books Read in 2011

Edited 12/10/11 ~ Since life takes precedence over blogging, I've moved this list of my year to date reading to the top of the page. Maybe sometime I'll get back to recording my favorite quotations, but for now this is it.

This is my master list of books read in 2011. It will include not only those books that I read myself, but also the chapter books that I read aloud to my kids. If I tried to include all the picture books we read the list would be much too long, but I figure that children's chapter books, especially the classics that I like to read, can count for my reading list as well. Links will be to my reviews when applicable, though I've become quite the negligent book blogger of late.

  1. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1463 pages)
  2. Emily of New Moon by L. M. Montgomery (339 pages)
  3. Emily Climbs by L. M. Montgomery (325 pages)
  4. Emily's Quest by L. M. Montgomery (228 pages)
  5. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (534 pages)
  6. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (494 pages)
  7. A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley (391 pages)
  8. The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit (188 pages)
  9. The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame
  10. My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'Homme (304 pages)
  11. The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge (349 pages)
  12. The Monuments Men:Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter (450 pages)
  13. Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden
  14. Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling
  15. Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers
  16. Peter Pan and Wendy by J. M. Barrie
  17. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  18. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
  19. Dreams of Joy by Lisa See
  20. That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis
  21. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  22. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling
  23. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
  24. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
  25. Looking for God in Harry Potter by John Granger
  26. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
  27. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling
  28. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  29. St. Peter's Fair by Ellis Peters
  30. The Mystery of the Sea by Bram Stoker
  31. 84, Charing Cross Rd by Helene Hanff
  32. The Leper of Saint Giles by Ellis Peters
  33. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  34. Little Men by Louisa May Alcott
  35. Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame

The Reluctant DragonWell, if it took us more than two months to finish The Railway Children, which was time well-spent, we breezed through The Reluctant Dragon in a matter of days. My kids were engaged enough in the story to comment on how it differed from the old Disney animated version, to study the pencil-sketch illustrations intently, and to request it every night until we were through. Actually, I think my children will sit and listen to just about anything - at least they've never asked to quit reading a book and move on to another one, so that's probably no indication of a book's quality.

This is a short little book without chapters, but a little too long to finish in one sitting. I had to find some logical breaks to keep bedtime at a reasonable hour, much to the dismay of my daughter who asked, "Do we have to end with 'Goodnight' again?" There is a simple cast of characters: the dragon, an unnamed Boy, and St. George take center-stage, with a sheperd and his wife (the Boy's parents) in supporting roles and a host of villagers as extras. The sonnet-spouting dragon is clearly no threat to society, but the villagers have convinced themselves that he is a terrible menace and scourge upon their fair land. Meanwhile, the boy has befriended the dragon and feels that he must intervene when Saint George appears to fight the deadly beast. After explaining the dragon's true retiring nature and the exaggerations of the villagers, the boy introduces the knight to the dragon and helps them arrange things in an altogether satisfactory manner.

There's some subtle humor in this tale, as it obviously plays upon the classic formula of knights conquering dragons and rescuing fair maidens. A Princess is sadly missing, however, since the Boy couldn't arrange everything as the dragon and Saint George expected him to, especially when his mother was waiting up for him. It's all right as dragon stories go, though not nearly so adventurous as My Father's Dragon, nor so witty and charming as Grahame's classic The Wind in the Willows (linked to my reviews).

Read-Aloud Thursday at Hope Is the Word
Amy and her girls read The Reluctant Dragon earlier this year, and you can check out her Read Aloud Thursday review here. I'd like to see the illustrations in the volume that they read, and maybe we'll check it out again when we study Medieval history next year.

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

The Railway Children (Nesbit)We were introduced to The Railway Children through our first grade writing curriculum in January, but a series of illnesses made it difficult for me to read aloud for several weeks and we've only just finished it now in early March. To be quite honest, it was probably a bit advanced for my children, ages 7 and almost 4, but even if they didn't understand some of the quaint vocabulary and customs of English country life at the turn of the 20th century, they followed the action pretty well and at least grasped the main storyline.

I myself was rather indifferent about the story at first - it was charming in an old-fashioned sort of way and the children were realistically portrayed, not too perfect as to be unbelievable, but not so naughty as to be bad examples - until I reached the last two chapters. There I found two passages that were so full of truth, and so foreign to most everything you will find in modern children's literature, that I can and will wholeheartedly recommend this novel to every family concerned to instill biblical values in their children. Let me show you why. 

After Peter had been tormenting his sisters with talk of blood and bones, making them queasy while their new friend was having his broken leg set, the Doctor had a little talk with him:
  "'You'll excuse my shoving my oar in, won't you? But I should like to say something to you.'
  'Now for a rowing,' thought Peter, who had been wondering how it was that he had escaped one.
  'Something scientific,' added the Doctor. . .
  'Well,' said the Doctor, 'you know men have to do the work of the world and not be afraid of anything - so they have to be hardy and brave. But women have to take care of their babies and cuddle them and nurse them and be very patient and gentle.'
  'Yes,' said Peter, wondering what was coming next.
  'Well, then, you see. Boys and girls are only little men and women. And we are much harder and hardier than they are' - (Peter liked the 'we'. Perhaps the Doctor had known he would.) - 'and much stronger, and things that hurt them don't hurt us. You know you mustn't hit a girl -'
  'I should think not, indeed,' muttered Peter, indignantly.
  'Not even if she's your own sister. That's because girls are so much softer and weaker than we are; they have to be, you know,' he added, 'because if they weren't, it wouldn't be nice for the babies. And that's why all the animals are so good to the mother animals. They never fight them, you know.'
  'I know,' said Peter, interested; 'two buck rabbits will fight all day if you let them, but they won't hurt a doe.'
  'No; and quite wild beasts - lions and elephants - they're immensely gentle with the female beasts. And we've got to be, too.'
  'I see,' said Peter.
  'And their hearts are soft, too,' the Doctor went on, 'and things that we shouldn't think anything of hurt them dreadfully. So that a man has to be very careful, not only of his fists, but of his words. They're awfully brave, you know,' he went on. 'Think of Bobbie waiting alone in the tunnel with that poor chap. It's an odd thing - the softer and more easily hurt a woman is the better she can screw herself up to do what has to be done. I've seen some brave women - your mother's one,' he ended abruptly.
  'Yes,' said Peter.
  'Well, that's all; excuse my mentioning it. But nobody knows everything without being told. And you see what I mean, don't you?'
  'Yes,' said Peter. 'I'm sorry. There!'"

I don't think I've ever heard true chivalry and femininity expressed so well for a child's understanding, encouraging boys to be gentlemen and elevating a girl's softness and weakness not as disadvantages, but as being the best for the babies, just as God intended! These values have been all but lost in the cultural wars of feminism, so it is refreshing to find them stated so clearly and beautifully.

The other passage that I love so well expresses God's providence in an equally beautiful way, and again in language that makes it easy for a child to understand.

  "'I say,' said Peter, musingly, 'wouldn't it be jolly if we all were in a book and you were writing it? Then you could make all sorts of jolly things happen, and make Jim's leg get well at once and be all right tomorrow, and Father come home soon and -'
  'Do you miss your father very much?' Mother asked, rather coldly, Peter thought.
  'Awfully,' said Peter, briefly. . .'You see,' Peter went on slowly, 'you see, it's not only him being Father, but now he's away there's no other man in the house but me - that's why I want Jim to stay so frightfully much. Wouldn't you like to be writing that book with us all in it, Mother, and make Daddy come home soon?'
  Peter's mother put her arm round him suddenly, and hugged him in silence for a minute. Then she said:
  'Don't you think it's rather nice to think that we're in a book that God's writing? If I were writing a book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right - in the way that's best for us.'"

Read-Aloud Thursday at Hope Is the WordYes, I'm glad God is writing the book of our lives, and it is wonderful to find a story that communicates that truth and that will appeal to both boys and girls. We will be adding this to our own library soon, and I hope that both my daughter and son will pick it up to read on their own in a few more years.

Be sure to check out other Read Aloud Thursday posts at Hope is the Word.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Emily Climbs by L. M. Montgomery

Emily Climbs (Emily Novels)I probably would have called this book "Emily's School Days" if I had written it, but that just shows my lack of imagination, which of course precludes that I could even begin to write like L. M. Montgomery. Well, anyway. . . most of this books deals with Emily's three years of high school in the nearby town of Shrewsbury, three years in which she matures both as a young woman and a writer.

Emily is thrilled when Aunt Elizabeth finally concedes to let her continue her education, even if it does come with the stipulation that she not write any stories, but only what is true. If restraining her imagination, or at least the recording of her imaginative stories, seems difficult, it is only the beginning of the trials that await Emily. Instead of boarding with her friend Ilse, Emily must stay with Aunt Ruth, a straight-laced widow who is even more suspicious and aloof than Aunt Elizabeth had been. She repeatedly accuses Emily of being sly and deep and misunderstands even the most innocent of motives and mishaps. It is an unsympathetic environment, to say the least. Emily's friendship with Ilse encounters some bumps as she deals with the petty jealousies and mean tricks of other students. The "Murray pride" proves to be both a blessing and a curse, on the one hand helping her to rise above schoolgirl pranks, but on the other prolonging misunderstandings and giving Emily a sense of isolation.

Montgomery switches back and forth between a third-person narrative and first person accounts from Emily's journal, which gives the story a predominantly one-sided perspective. However, I wasn't annoyed by a first-person narrative as is so often the case, because Emily (or Montgomery, really) is such a storyteller that even her personal recollections do not descend into self-absorption. The only drawback that I noticed is that some characters were left largely undeveloped. Though Teddy was such an important part of her childhood, there is really only one scene were he figures prominently, very prominently, in this volume, and then he simply seems to fade into the background of Emily's scholastic and literary pursuits and a larger social scene. In keeping with the title, the prominent theme is that Emily Climbs the ladder of success as her passion for writing becomes recognized by others - first her teachers, then the community, and finally by editors and publishers.

As in Emily of New Moon (though I didn't mention these elements in my review) Montgomery gives us a mixed bag of faith, religion, and spirituality. Emily's delight in nature, which hints at a wonder in the world God created, is contrasted with the rigid piety of her relatives, which only results in severity in their own lives and for those with whom they interact. At thirteen, Emily explains these differences with the idea that people each have their own "Gods" as they see fit. "Everybody has a different God, I think. Aunt Ruth's, for instance, is one that punishes her enemies—sends 'judgments' on them. That seems to me to be about all the use He really is to her. Jim Cosgrain uses his to swear by. But Aunt Janey Milburn walks in the light of her God's countenance, every day, and shines with it" (13). Emily's God is one of the dew-laden sunrise as well as the violent storms, and her infectious delight in nature seem to indicate that Montgomery must have favored this view over stuffy high-church ideals, though she was a minister's wife herself. Going even one step further from orthodoxy, there is an element of mystery, bordering on spiritism, in each of the Emily books when Emily has an inexplicable vision that brings unknown things to light. Spiritism was nothing new in the early 20th century, so perhaps Montgomery included it just for the element of local color. At any rate, she doesn't dwell on it or belabor the point, and even Emily herself is uncomfortable with her "second-sight."

I have enjoyed all the Emily books, but I think this is my least favorite one, simply because teenage woes are often over-dramatized, and I'm, shall we say, over that at this stage of life. I really enjoyed Emily's thoughts on writing, however, and how her perspective is broadened by curbing her imagination and writing "just the facts, ma'am." Emily certainly does mature and learn much about herself in the three years of this story, but she also seems to come into her own in the inheritance of Murray traditions, some of which are quaint and resourceful and others - like the Murray pride - that are not always such admirable qualities. She makes a wise choice at the end, but she is still posed on the precipice of what she will become. So stay tuned for my thoughts on Emily's Quest in a few days.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Emily of New Moon by L. M. Montgomery

Emily of New Moon (Emily Novels)I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know another of L. M. Montgomery's delightful young heroines, Emily of New Moon. In fact, I only reluctantly put down Emily Climbs in order to write this review before the end of Carrie's L. M. Montgomery Challenge. Though I didn't get the whole series read during this challenge, I plan to finish the next two books soon and review them here, challenge or no.
L. M. Montgomery Reading Challenge
There will certainly be more L. M. Montgomery novels to choose from next year.

Of course, it is inevitable that one would compare Anne of Green Gables with Emily Byrd Starr, but I'm not ready to make a final decision on which is my favorite. I cannot read Anne without hearing the soundtrack and picturing the movie and the scenery of Prince Edward Island, all of which make me sigh and long to transplant myself there 100 years ago. It doesn't seem like there is quite the allure of the land in the Emily books, but maybe that is because Emily does not invent quite so many fanciful names for her surroundings. Emily is certainly creative, but her imagination is poured into the written word at a much earlier age than Anne. She clearly loves New Moon and the Blair Water and nature in general, but even her early attempts at poetry have a certain refinement that is quite different from Anne's romantic enthusiasm.

There are many similarities between characters and plot, of course. As Amy noted in her review of Magic for Marigold, many Montgomery novels could be summarized as an orphan with an (over)active imagination who overcomes obstacles of misunderstanding and various mishaps to find friendship, recognition, success, and eventually love. But even with these common features, Emily did not seem to me to be simply another version of Anne. Her personality is distinct; her passion is writing, not just imaginative names and enchanting phrases, and somehow this makes her a little less dramatic, I think. (I know Anne is a writer also, but it seems like this comes out later in the books, whereas Emily is almost inseparable from her blank books from the first.) She has a more reflective, less impulsive nature and is very astute in her first impressions and judgments of others. After being ill-used by one friend, she is a bit more reserved in her friendships, though that does not prevent her from forging strong bonds with a few chums: Ilse, a hot-tempered, but fiercely loyal girl of her age; Teddy, a gifted artist with an obsessively jealous mother; and Perry, the hired boy with aspirations of political grandeur.

I think the part that I like best, and which also sets this novel completely apart from Anne, is that her kindred spirit is an adult, and a man at that, but in Dean Priest, a schoolmate of her deceased father, Emily finds someone who understands her way of thinking and can further her imagination and education with stories of distant lands and myths of long ago. "In Dean Priest Emily found, for the first time since her father had died, a companion who could fully sympathize. She was always at her best with him, with a delightful feeling of being understood. To love is easy and therefore common - but to understand - how rare it is!" (272). In a modern novel such a friendship between a twelve-year-old girl and a thirty-six-year-old man would be suspect at best, and predatory at worst. But Montgomery pulls it off with innocence and propriety, and the subtle hints that Dean drops indicating his complete enchantment with Emily and hopes for when she is grown only make me want to keep reading to see how several overlapping love triangles will play out as Emily and her friends grow older.

And with that, I must get back to Emily Climbs!
Emily Climbs (Emily Novels)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Les Misérables (Signet Classics)I count it no small accomplishment to have read Les Misérables in 28 days - yes, all 1463 pages in just 4 weeks! Now, I must admit that I skimmed some of the more lengthy historical parts, but I did slough my way through 60+ pages on 19th century Parisian sewers. That's got to make up for skimming the parts I read ten years ago during my first attempt when I only made it about two-thirds of the way through the book.

There is so much that could be said about this novel, and I immensely enjoyed our book club discussion which delved into many and varied topics. Julia's insights into the lack of father figures was particularly insightful!

As for me, the characters are what make a great book, and Les Misérables has an amazing cast of characters that evoke a whole spectrum of emotions. The bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu, is inspiring and endearing. Jean Valjean is marvelous, complex, troubled, and above all good after the act of forgiveness and generosity that transformed him. Thenardier, well, he simply makes me shudder, and his wife is just as dreadful. Cosette and Eponine...I could go on and on...

But the main topic that I have debated myself is the idea of redemption in this novel. I think my expectations must have been too high to start with because I had been told that Les Misérables is the greatest story of redemption ever written, apart from the Bible, and I read it with that in view. I think I was looking for a more obvious correlation to the gospel, an actual spiritual redemption, not simply a moral one. But I suppose that was too much to expect from a story set in Roman Catholic Paris and from an author who rejected his Roman Catholic upbringing and called himself a freethinker.

Redemption is certainly a theme, but I must question if it is truly a Christian view of redemption since Christ is noticeably absent. Though the bishop's words certainly convey the idea "You were bought with a price..." (I Corinthians 6:20; 7:23), that price was paid by the bishop himself, and it is to him that Jean Valjean's thoughts always turn when he wrestles with difficult decisions about the right path to follow. This charge: "Do not forget, ever, that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man...Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying from you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God" (106) becomes the guiding force of Jean Valjean's life, but in the absence of the gospel - of a clear declaration that Christ died for you, now you must live for Him - Jean Valjean's goodness is only a compilation of merits accumulated to assuage his conscience and overcome the social stigma of a convict. Now it must be granted that such a view is in keeping with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church where redemption would be the process of a lifetime, a conjoining of the work of Christ with the works of man. This is understandable in the historical context of 19th century France, but while a works-based idea of redemption may be true to the historical context and setting of the novel, it simply is not the penultimate illustration of redemption since true redemption cannot be separated from the true and complete gospel.

Thus, my Protestant and Reformed sensibilities have a hard time applying the term "redemption" to the whole story. It could be construed as a story of sanctification, though there are theological difficulties with that, as well, given the Roman Catholic context of the novel (see above). But if we shift the focus from man to God, it becomes quite obvious (to me, at least) that Les Misérables is a story of providence. Maybe this was even Victor Hugo's intention. He writes, "This book is a drama whose first character is the Infinite. Man is the second" (509). At the very least a testimony to providence is the result he could not hide in spite of his vague deist ideas of God, for he crafts a story in which it is only too obvious that something, someONE is superintending all events, bringing the exact people and circumstances together at the right times to preserve life, to give second chances, and yes, to further moral redemption, even if not salvific.

Now I'd like to hear your thoughts on this. Have you always considered Les Misérables a story of redemption? Can you see how it is a story of providence from first to last? Whatever your opinion, I'm sure we can agree that Les Misérables remains one of the greatest novels of all time, unsurpassed in its depiction of the depths and the heights of human character. Even though its length is daunting, it was well-worth the time (which really didn't seem that long), and I hope to read it at least once per decade.

On a side note, aren't these original (1862) illustrations of Cosette and Gavroche by Emile Bayard amazing? I would love to see an edition that included all the original illustrations.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

L. M. Montgomery Challenge 2011

L. M. Montgomery Reading ChallengeI'm a little late to the party on this one because I was determined to finish Les Misérables before starting the L. M. Montgomery Challenge, hosted by Carrie at Reading to Know. While I am still processing my thoughts on Les Mis, I am prepared with the three Emily books already checked out from the library, overcoming at least one obstacle that stymied me last year. I would like to read all three - Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily's Quest - in the next 2 weeks, but we'll see how that goes. I'm looking forward to comparing Emily with Anne and getting to know another Montgomery character, as well as returning to the picturesque villages of Prince Edward Island. Maybe I'll check out the movies, as well, although I usually prefer to read than to watch.

Thank you, Carrie, for hosting this challenge again. Your enthusiasm is infectious, and if you ever plan a reader's tour of Prince Edward Island, I will be one of the first to sign up!