Two from the Trail: A Walk in the Woods and Wild

Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Broadway Books, 1998)

Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf, 2012)

 

At about the same time in the mid-nineties, two very different people — a successful, 44-year-old author and family man, and a 26-year-old aspiring writer “with a hole in her heart” — decided to take a hike: a long hike, using two of the longest footpaths in the country. Through their accounts, published almost 15 years apart, we learn about the transformative power of simply taking a walk. By relinquishing the possessions that usually weigh us down, we have an chance to experience nature and ourselves without intermediaries. Even in our tech-obsessed culture, this is clearly a topic that fascinates us — both books were bestsellers and are currently being made into Hollywood movies. What’s the draw?

Bryson is well known as a humorist, and A Walk in the Woods is most often remembered and recommended as a funny book. There are indeed many hilarious moments, often involving his not-exactly-fit friend Stephen Katz. Katz is not perhaps the person one would choose to take along on such an adventure, being prone to throwing away important items from his pack to lighten it, getting lost, and being completely dismissive of the serious danger of bear trouble, but as he bumbles along he becomes dear to us. In his struggle to throw off an addiction, he reminds us that small acts of bravery can be meaningful, and that sometimes facing our demons means just putting one foot in front of the other. Since these are two middle-aged men traveling together, this emotional subtext is not overtly displayed, and never becomes annoyingly maudlin, but it adds poignancy and purpose to the book. (Bryson dedicated it “To Katz, of course.”)

In addition to making us laugh, A Walk in the Woods also lives up to its subtitle Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, bringing us insights into the history, geology, and ecology of the area covered by the trail, as well as the past, present and future of the trail itself. It’s not always a happy story, since human exploitation and greed are decimating the forests Bryson walked through to such an extent that they may soon be gone. But it’s information everyone should know, and when it’s delivered in such a lucid, readable way, there’s no excuse not to.

Bryson never set out to be a “through hiker,” though he memorably describes some of the many who attempt this achievement and the few who actually accomplish it. After a section describing the all-important gear acquisition phase and the first weeks on the trail in Georgia with Katz, the narrative breaks up somewhat, as Bryson has to return home to family and work obligations. He does short hikes or day trips to other sections of the trail, mostly alone, and brings in more of his research and reflections. At the end the pair team up again to try to make it through Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness, but the spell has  somehow been broken. Some have found the book disappointing on these counts, but that’s just the way circumstances shaped the experience, and to me doesn’t detract from its interest.

Having myself struggled up a near-vertical mile or so of the AT this summer, without even having to carry a load, I’m quite impressed by what Bryson and Katz managed to achieve in midlife, even if they hiked only a fraction of the complete trail. And I’m definitely in awe of Cheryl Strayed’s walk of over 1000 miles with a pack nicknamed Monster. (Ever the humble one, she says, “If I could do it, anybody can.” Um…maybe.) Wild starts in mid-journey with an arresting image: Strayed losing one of her boots as it accidentally falls off a mountain, and angrily flinging the other after it. How did she get to this point and how on earth is she going to get out of it?

To answer this question, Strayed moves back and forth between descriptions of her months on the trail, and the circumstances in her life that led up to her decision to pack up Monster and go. Hammered by the sudden death of her mother from cancer, the collapse of her marriage, and a nascent heroin addiction, she took up the trail less as the result of a conscious decision than through a blind instinct for the kind of experience that would enable her to move forward in life. Without training or any particular aptitude as a long-distance hiker, and with a much-too-heavy pack and too-small boots, she nevertheless keeps going through her own doubts, fears, and ineptitude as well as external dangers. Wild is definitely not a how-to manual for walking the PCT — unlike Strayed, one might want to learn how to read a compass first, and not be quite so cavalier about the dangers of a woman hiking alone — but I found it funny, harrowing, and heart-wrenching by turns.

Even as both narratives are grounded in very practical matters — finding food, avoiding bears and rattlesnakes, what to do when your boots make your toenails fall off — there’s something in this picture of staying on the trail because one has no other choice, because one has to in order to survive, that is true to a very profound aspect of the human spirit, and to all of our journeys whatever form they may take. No wonder these books resonate with so many readers. I’m grateful to both writers for taking us along with them on their walks, and sharing their trials and triumphs; even if I never spend a month or a week on the trail, I feel as though I learned something important there.

Review copy source: E-books from library

A Song of Second Chances: A Solitary Blue

Cynthia Voigt, A Solitary Blue (1983)

I owe Cynthia Voigt an apology. When she won the Newbery Medal for Dicey’s Song in 1983, beating out my favorite book at the time (The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley), I retaliated by refusing to read it or any others in what came to be an acclaimed seven-book cycle about the Tillerman family and their friends. But when A Solitary Blue, the follow-up to Dicey’s Song, came again to my attention through the Phoenix Award list, I thought I would give it another chance after 30 years. And I found that the award committee has a point: this is a beautifully written, deeply affecting book, with much insight into the painful process of loving and accepting one another and ourselves, while knowing when and how to walk away from unhealthy relationships.
To be fair, I doubt I would have enjoyed or appreciated it as a teenager. At the time, McKinley’s thrilling tale of adventure and magic in the desert was exactly what I wanted, not a slowly-paced story about a boy abandoned by his mother and learning to understand and live with a distant father. So maybe it’s a good thing I waited until now.

As a parent myself, I was already engaged–to the point of anger–from the first page, when seven-year-old Jeff Greene reads a letter from his mother telling him that she has to leave him in order to help other people, and stifles his tears because his father, whom he calls The Professor, doesn’t like emotion. How could they do that to him? Wouldn’t he be completely messed up?

Over the course of the novel, we find out how they could do that to him: how Jeff’s mother, Melody, could be so selfish and self-deluded as to think she could pick up and drop a child at her own convenience, and how his father could deeply care for his son and yet be so ignorant of children’s needs as to neglect him almost to death. The Professor actually learns from his experiences, and his gradual growing into relationship with his son is moving and real. Melody, on the other hand, is basically pure evil: a modern-day witch holding out a poisoned apple of false love to Jeff. We gain insight into the way her twisted mind works, but not into how she got that way, or into some remnants of humanity in her that we might be able to sympathize with. This one-sidedness creates a flaw in what is otherwise a rich portrayal of character and emotion.

Of course, Jeff himself is the core of the novel, and as we live through his experiences (which do mess him up quite thoroughly), we grow to know and love him in his weakness and his strength. How he finds healing and redemption in the face of serious challenges, finding his way from desperate isolation to community, is a quietly compelling tale. The setting, which moves from Baltimore to South Carolina to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, comes to life through Voigt’s carefully crafted prose, and the natural world holds a strong presence in Jeff’s healing process.

Another element is his relationship with Dicey Tillerman, who comes into the story only near the end, another wounded soul struggling toward the light. Without any gooey sentimentality, it becomes clear that she is important to Jeff and that their friendship will develop further. Her story is more fully told in the earlier and later books in the cycle, which I’ll be sure to seek out now.

A Solitary Blue reminded me that real literature has no age limits. A book that is right for one person at age 14 may be right for another at age 44. Though we tend to want to label books by age or genre, or simply as being “not for me,” when we set aside our prejudices we can make some wonderful discoveries. This was one for me.

Classics Club List #2
2003 Phoenix Award Honor Book

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A Regency Sketchbook: Mrs Hurst Dancing

For my next (and possibly last) Austen in August contribution, I wanted to let readers know about a lovely book I chanced upon through this post at Charlotte’s Library: Mrs Hurst Dancing and Other Scenes from Regency Life, 1812-1823 (Victor Gollancz, 1981). This reproduction of two volumes of sketchbooks by a young lady of Jane Austen’s era provides an unusual glimpse into the daily life of an English country house of modest size.

The artist, Diana Sperling (about whom little is known, and who apparently abandoned art upon her marriage in 1834), has a delightfully unconventional and unstuffy approach to her sketches of family and friends. Slippery grass, recalcitrant donkeys, electrifying machines, lovelorn brothers, pesky flies that need to be “murdered” by maids standing on windowsills — these are just some of the subjects that inspired her, with charming results.

Diana’s artistic gifts are of the naive variety; her figures are not anatomically convincing, and she tends to make their faces very small and hide them behind large hats. But the liveliness and sheer fun of her compositions makes up for this. An introduction by Gordon Mingay gives the historical context, with brief notes opposite each picture (reproduced at their original size, and, as in the sketchbooks, on the right side of each spread).

We often read in nineteenth-century novels about young ladies industriously drawing and sketching. Here is a rare opportunity to see what a talented member of this legion of amateur artists produced, and to experience some of the forgotten details of their lives. Mrs Hurst Dancing is out of print, but used copies can be fairly inexpensive; check your library, too. For anyone interested in the era, it’s really worth seeking out.

 

Partial and Prejudiced: Austen’s History of England

Jane Austen, The History of England

Austen juvenilia historySomeone gave me this little booklet years ago, but I’d never actually read it. I decided that Austen in August was the perfect occasion — I don’t have time to read lots of full-length novels at the moment, but a sixteen-page pamphlet is manageable. And I’m glad I finally cracked it open — it’s a delightful glimpse into Austen’s early creative work.

Dedicated to her beloved older sister Cassandra, who also provided the illustrations, this history is a comic parody of the ponderous tomes that were foisted upon the young in the eighteenth century. Consisting of a series of brief characterizations of the English monarchs from Henry IV to Elizabeth I, it reveals the author as a fanatical champion of the Stuart cause and of the executed Mary Queen of Scots. Pulling no punches, she describes herself from the outset as “a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian,” thus slyly suggesting that perhaps some published historians should confess themselves the same.

Austen sometimes imitates the style of an unintelligent student’s essay, as she makes remarks like “Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for,” and describes Lady Jane Grey as being “famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting.” Since their father ran a sort of informal boys’ boarding school in their home, the girls must have been very familiar with this sort of production.

At other times, Austen reveals flashes of the dry wit that would characterize her mature novels, as when she says of Henry VIII that “little can be said in his Vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of Time has been of infinite use to the Landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing so.” Here we can distinctly hear the voice that she would later hone and refine, tempering the edge of her satire but keeping its brilliance.

Jane Cassandra Austen notebook
Villanous Elizabeth, saintly Mary

As I learned from my recent reading of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, this was one of the pieces that Austen copied into three vellum notebooks as a young girl (the History was written when she was just fifteen). Volume the Second, which contains the History of England and several other works, is now in the British Library, and through their virtual gallery you can view the original text here. It’s a priceless opportunity to be able to experience the energy and flow of the author’s handwriting, as well as the original colored drawings, though seeing the real thing would be even better.

In The Real Jane Austen, Paula Byrne points out that several of the portraits of the English monarchs are similar in appearance to Jane Austen’s relatives with the same names. Could it be, she suggests, that the heroine of the piece, the saintly Mary Queen of Scots, is a portrait of the author? It’s an intriguing idea, but even if we can never be sure what Jane Austen looked like, in The History of England we do have a clear window into the young author’s mind.

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Looking for Jane: The Real Jane Austen

Paula Byrne, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (2013)

Austen biography Paula ByrneWhen we enter a preserved old house, objects are what we see. These paintings, cushions, scribbled notes, and scraps of lace are what are left to us as our link to the past. It can be a challenge to make the imaginative leap that brings the dead artifact to life, drawing out something of the living meaning it once had for the people who formerly handled and viewed it.

In The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things Paula Byrne takes up this challenge, with admirable results. She does not seek to write yet another conventional biography of the elusive author, weaving together the available evidence (not very abundant) with biographical speculation to create a coherent cradle-to-grave narrative. Rather, she takes eighteen “small things” that formed part of Austen’s world, and uses them as the starting point for thematic essays that illuminate aspects of that world.

Though the essays take us on a very roughly chronological path, there are so many diversions along the way that it would be advisable to read a more traditional biography first, for orientation. With some dates under your belt, you are then free to range among the objects on display — an east Indian shawl, a vellum notebook — and explore how their history and significance connects with Austen’s life and work.

Byrne is concerned to dispel some of the myths that have grown up around the author, starting with the family-sanctioned biography by her nephew. In the place of the Victorian picture of a prudish, home-bound spinster scribbling away in a corner she gives us a theater-loving, relatively well-traveled woman who knew the facts of life and was aware of the political issues of the day. Byrne frequently departs from her main subject to discuss the people, places, and events that surrounded her. The result is a wide-ranging, eclectic, and always engaging picture not just of Jane Austen but of her whole social milieu at the turn of the nineteenth century.

While obviously it’s not the purpose of such a book to eschew anachronisms entirely, it is more pleasant if the language harmonizes with that of its subject. In general Byrne does fairly well, but there are some modern missteps, as when Jane’s naval brothers “didn’t make it” to their father’s funeral. Also jarring are the moments when Byrne leaps to conclusions for which there is really no concrete evidence: that Austen was afraid of childbirth, for example. She makes some confident pronouncements that evaporate on closer examination, as when she states of one of Austen’s favorite authors, Fanny Burney: “Without her, it would not have been possible for Jane Austen to reject the convention that a heroine must be beautiful.” Why on earth not? An attentive editor could have smoothed out some of these rough spots, so it’s a pity they remain.

If you can cope with these drawbacks, there is still much fascinating information here, presented in an entertaining and largely intellectually respectable way. Laying claim to “the real Jane Austen” is pretty ambitious, but by anchoring her book in real, tangible things, Byrne at least gives us a new angle on the author, her creative process, and the world she inhabited.

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Victoriana, Early and Late: Coronation Summer and Drawn from Memory

Angela Thirkell, Coronation Summer (1937)

Ernest Shepard, Drawn from Memory (1957)

Angela Thirkell comedyBy chance, I recently picked up two books that happened to be set at the beginning and near the end of Victoria’s reign. One was fiction, one non, but both were entertaining glimpses of that endlessly fascinating era.

It all started because my library didn’t have any of the Barsetshire novels by Angela Thirkell that I wanted, but they did have Coronation Summer, her early novel of the weeks surrounding Victoria’s coronation, which sounded delicious. The somewhat elaborate conceit is that when the pseudonymous Ingoldsby Legends come out, a young woman who thinks they are by a real acquaintance of hers reads a satirical poem about the coronation, and takes it at face value. This inspires her to remember how she and her best friend went to London for the event, which had proved to be a turning point in their personal lives as well as that of the nation.

The period pastiche was well done and often very amusing. I was impressed by Thirkell’s ability to imitate Victorian diction, while smiling at her sly references to other authors (and I’m sure there are many others that I missed). This is a very literate book, unlike many of the neo-Victorian and Regency novels that are being churned out today. However, I had a hard time warming up to the narrator, who is an empty-headed girl, thoughtlessly cruel to her servants, with nothing on her mind but suitors and the social whirl. As a side character to poke fun at she would have been perfect, but as the main character she was lacking in sympathetic qualities. Her romance was dull, not only because it was a foregone conclusion — the main story is told as a reminiscence after her marriage — but because the young man in question had almost no personality; his rival, a ridiculous dandy, was more interesting though no more likeable. One could perhaps detect some subtle social commentary in there, but mainly the book seemed a waste of good writing on such (to me) unworthy characters.

(By the way, if you pick up Coronation Summer hoping to have a ringside view of the actual coronation itself, you’ll be disappointed — only the men of the story attend and our female narrator is just waiting outside while the event takes place.)

Shepard drawing sketch
A sketch by Shepard

I then turned to a book from the other end of Victoria’s reign, Drawn from Memory, which I was pleased to discover was in my library after I read a highly laudatory post over at The Captive Reader. This is a memoir by the artist most famous for his illustrations of Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, though his main work was as a political cartoonist for Punch. Here are his amazingly detailed reminiscences, from seventy years later, of an upper-middle-class London boyhood. Shepard was seven years old in the year of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, and gives a memorable account of the festivities from the point of view of a small boy. Other episodes include a holiday at a farm, family theatrics, and a first visit to a pantomime. Scenes involving a household of eminently Victorian aunts provide comic highlights.

The drawings plentifully scattered throughout are of course delightful, and a few samples of work done at this early age are astoundingly accomplished, fully justifying Shepard’s father’s opinion that his son should be an artist (although he himself wanted to be something a bit more exciting). There’s no need to tie the episodes together with any kind of unified plot, as the reader is happily led along from picture to picture.

Knowledge of the sorrow and death to come later in life does not overshadow the childish joys recorded in these pages, but a few indications of what is to come give Shepard’s sunny memories increased poignancy. For anyone interested in the period, or simply in revisiting the lost world of childhood, Drawn from Memory is an unqualified pleasure.

Links
Review of Drawn from Memory at The Captive Reader 

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Five of a Kind: All-of-a-Kind Family

Sydney Taylor, All-of-a-Kind Family (1951)

Sydney Tayor family story

I don’t know why I never read All-of-a-Kind Family when growing up, but I was reminded that I needed to thanks to The Midnight Garden’s Classic MG/YA Readalong. I was very glad to finally get to know this beloved account of five girls growing up in a Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century.

Often compared to other period family stories like Little Women and Little House on the Prairie, All-of-a-Kind Family has far less conflict than either. The girls get scarlet fever, but nobody dies; there are no wolves, panthers or bears to menace their cozy home. Each chapter is a small domestic drama centering around incidents that may seem trivial to an adult — a lost library book, a trip to the beach, a search for a birthday present for Papa — yet are exactly the kinds of events that loom large in the life of a sheltered child. With her loving descriptions of festivals such as Purim and Passover, and of settings from street markets to Coney Island, Taylor brings us into the heart of a Jewish family with sensitivity and grace, and evokes a vanished way of life that was full of poverty and hardship but also rich in warmth and human connection.

There is little indication of the social struggles going on in the wider world. It’s stated several times that the family is poor, but though their food is simple they don’t go hungry, and they enjoy penny candy and special Sabbath meals. They don’t complain about the hand-me-down clothes that make them “all of a kind,” or about having to all sleep in one room. Unlike Jo March and Laura Ingalls, they seldom long for things they cannot have. Under the wise guidance of ever-serene Mama and hardworking Papa, they live contentedly and unquestioningly, and larger troubles of prejudice, class consciousness, or impending war do not disturb them. Occasionally the adults’ perspective is taken, with its heavier load of cares and responsibilities, but the focus is still on problems of the home (getting the girls to do their chores, or dealing with a spell of contrariness). In this small-scale narrative, it’s the details of daily life that fascinate.

In real life, Sydney Taylor was the middle child, “Sarah,” of the book (she changed her name as a teenager). She originally told these stories of her childhood to her own daughter, who was a lonely only child, then wrote them down and forgot about the manuscript until her husband submitted it for a literary award. It won the award, and the rest is history.

Written simply and unpretentiously, without literary flourishes but with a storyteller’s sure sense for the ear of her child audience, All-of-a-Kind Family retains its appeal for a new generation of readers. The four sequels have just been taken up this year by the new Lizzie Skurnick Books imprint, which is a good thing — once you’ve met this family you won’t want to say goodbye.

Links:
60th Anniversary article in The Tablet
An article by Lizzie Skurnick 

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A Reader’s Journey: My Life in Middlemarch

Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (2014)

 

criticism biography literature

Why aren’t there more books like this? Rebecca Mead takes us on a deeply personal, yet wide-ranging tour of one of her life’s touchstones, Middlemarch by George Eliot. In the process we learn about Eliot’s own life and times, gaining insights into the origins of the book’s characters and themes, and into how a great book can transform and teach us.

Mead does not erase herself from the book, unlike literary critics or biographers who try to achieve “objectivity” (impossible, yet expected) in their works. She tells us what aspects of the book had significance for her and how those changed through her life; she takes us along with her as she visits Eliot-related sites and people, giving us not only facts but her emotional response to the experience of trying to connect with the past. Yet she does not turn the book into a narcissistic exercise, a “this book is really all about me” kind of narrative. The focus remains firmly on Middlemarch, throwing more light upon this great novel so that in turn it can illuminate our own lives even more.

An experienced journalist, Mead is skilled at linking her thoughts and observations and creating connections between ideas. She organizes the book by naming her eight chapters after the eight parts of Eliot’s original novel, which bear titles like “Old and Young,” “Waiting for Death,” “Two Temptations.” She expertly crafts each piece to touch on relevant themes — how the unmarriageable Eliot found love and fulfillment with George Lewes; her relationship with her three stepsons; a somewhat creepy epistolary pursuit by a persistent fan — interspersed with Mead’s own experiences with love, family, and literary endeavor. It all flows easily and readably, concealing the craft that went into making a book that plays so many roles into a seamless whole.

If you’ve read and loved Middlemarch, or even if you haven’t, you’ll find much to enjoy in this book, which celebrates and brings greater understanding to our love of reading. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

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Delighting in Absurdities: Barchester Towers

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (1857)

Barsetshire novels classic TrollopeFor me, the key to Barchester Towers was found near the end, in this passage:

The sorrows of our heroes and heroines, they are your delight, oh public! Their sorrows, or their sins, or their absurdities; not their virtues, good sense, and consequent rewards. 

Indeed, Trollope’s gift lies in creating errant and uncongenial characters who nevertheless delight us, making us laugh in recognition of follies and foibles that persist to this day — in our neighbors, at least, if we be not honest enough to see them in ourselves.

I don’t necessarily agree that virtue and good sense can never be interesting in fiction, but it’s certainly true that the sympathetic and right-minded characters in this novel — noble Mr. Arabin, poor misunderstood Eleanor Bold, humble Mr. Harding — form only a rather drab background against which the others — slimy social-climbing clergyman Mr. Slope, crippled femme fatale Signora Neroni, the spineless Bishop Proudie, and the immortal, indomitable Mrs. Proudie, to name but a few — play out their comedy composed of “sorrows, sins, and absurdities.”

The main plot of Barchester Towers can be told fairly briefly. When a new bishop is appointed in the cathedral town of Barchester, and brings new notions to town along with his attendant chaplain (Slope) and a wife who is the real power behind the throne, it quickly leads to “war” with the established clergy. In his efforts to gain more power and influence in the diocese, Slope starts to wangle a choice appointment for a crony of his — but he discovers that Eleanor Bold, daughter of the man who formerly held the place* and has a moral right to it, is a rich widow as well as a lovely young woman. He abruptly shifts tactics, trying to woo the widow by soliciting the appointment for her father, which leads to further complications and his own inevitable downfall.

It takes about 500 pages to get there, though, and readers with little patience for drawn-out character histories, conflicts based in long-outdated social hierarchies, or frequent authorial digressions, will not make it far into BT. If you lack such patience, however, what are you doing reading a nineteenth century novel? Trollope’s novel rests comfortably within the conventions of the day, and he knows them well, even halting his narrative periodically to poke fun at them. He reassures us that Eleanor will not marry Mr. Slope, and advises us that creating suspense is not a proper function for a novel; in the passage just following the one quoted above, he tells us that happy endings are really terribly boring, but he’s going to give us one, because that’s what we demand of him. This meta-fictional touch may amuse or annoy you, depending on your temperament, but it also is part of what gives the reassuring sense that normality is going to return to Barchester in the end. There’s an author in charge of it all, and he won’t let us down.

Trollope’s observant eye, which captures the perfect bit of dialogue or action to reveal a character’s inner essence, is what makes reading all those pages worthwhile. He’s particularly good at portraying the clash of different personalities, as when Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie memorably come up against one another. In between the bits of action, with wickedly delicious turns of phrase, he skewers various aspects of human nature:

No experience of what goes on in the world, no reading of history, no observation of life, has any effect in teaching the truth. Men of fifty don’t dance mazurkas, being generally too fat and wheezy; nor do they sit for the hour together on river banks at their mistresses’ feet, being somewhat afraid of rheumatism. But for real true love, love at first sight, love to devotion, love that robs a man of his sleep, love that “will gaze an eagle blind,” love that “will hear the lowest sound when the suspicious tread of theft is stopped,” love that is “like a Hercules, still climbing trees in the Hesperides” — we believe the best age is from forty-five to seventy; up to that, men are generally given to mere flirting.

Still, I wonder if Trollope ever succeeded in creating a sympathetic character who was as fascinating as the subjects of his ridicule. I confess to feeling somewhat distanced from the comedy of Barchester Towers — though I found it entertaining, it didn’t touch me deeply, or move me with more than a mild interest in the fates of most of its characters. This is perhaps a judgment on me rather than the book, but Trollope and I haven’t quite made the connection yet. I’m willing to give the other Barsetshire novels a try, though, and see where they may take me.

* See Trollope’s previous novel The Warden for more information.

A few links of note:
Essay on Trollope and the Clergy from the Trollope Society
Review from Catherine Pope 
Reading Barsetshire at The Captive Reader

Review copy source: Print book from library
Classics Club List #11

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The Magic of Friendship: Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth

E.L. Konigsburg, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (1967)

Konigsburg children's classic friendshipRealizing that I’ve read many, but not all, of E.L. Konigsburg’s fantastically-titled novels, I’ve decided to try to read all fourteen of them in publication order…no deadline. If you’ve any interest in reading along, let me know!

First up is Jennifer, Hecate (etc.), a book that I loved as a child. I identified with the protagonist and narrator, fifth-grader Elizabeth, because I also had trouble making friends after moving to a new town. Unlike her, though, I was not lucky enough to meet the mysterious and fascinating Jennifer, who may or may not be a witch. Elizabeth’s apprenticeship in witchcraft, and its transformation into true friendship, is the central thread of the story.

I accepted the “magical” elements without question as a child; they were simply a source of excitement and mystery. As an adult, though, I found myself pondering the role of witchcraft in the book. For some readers, it may seem strange or alarming that Elizabeth so unhesitatingly accepts Jennifer’s dictates (which, in spite of her admiration for the evil witches of Macbeth, are relatively harmless and often quite funny). But when a person feels powerless against some aspect of fate, it’s tempting to think that destiny can be changed through inner training; this is what Jennifer is actually offering to Elizabeth. I think that both girls actually know that their “magic” goals can’t come to fruition, but as sometimes happens in childhood, they become trapped in the play and don’t know how to get out of it. Konigsburg resolves this problem in a somewhat awkward and abrupt way, but the underlying truth of it remains.

In fact, there is more to this brief story than meets the eye. Barely mentioned in the text (though clear from Konigsburg’s illustrations) is the fact that Elizabeth is white and Jennifer is black, possibly the only black child in the entire school. Elizabeth has been lonely for a couple of months; how long has Jennifer been alone and friendless? What has she had to endure, that has caused her to find refuge in arcane knowledge and esoteric rituals? These questions are never overtly stated or even hinted at, but at the book’s publication in 1967 they would perhaps come more readily to mind than today. Even now, they form a powerful subtext that makes it a real achievement when the girls are finally able to drop their assumed roles and just be ordinary friends.

Though it’s dated in many ways, from children curtsying at the Halloween assembly to mothers unquestioningly supplying raw eggs in milkshakes, what keeps this book timeless is that Konigsburg understands children. She knows their sufferings and their sources of pleasure, their pettiness and their magnanimity, their vulnerability and their resilience. She also knows that they love to laugh, and her idiosyncratic sense of humor is one of the great pleasures of this book. Even when writing about a difficult subject, Konigsburg never loses her sense of hope and trust in the possibilities of the human spirit. That’s why I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her work, and discovering more of her insights into the journey of growing up.

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