Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Caddie Woodlawn": A Review

Illustration by Trina Schart Hyman, c. 1973

Carol Ryrie Brink wrote both Caddie Woodlawn and Magical Melons (the latter being episodes she couldn’t fit into the former) about her grandmother’s girlhood during the early days of Wisconsin, when girls were expected to be ladies and Indians were expected to be bloodthirsty, white-scalping menaces.  Caddie proves both assumptions wrong. 

Because she was a sickly child, Mr. Woodlawn has decreed that Caddie be allowed to run wild in the great outdoors for the sake of her constitution.  The story starts with tomboy Caddie out-misbehaving her roughhousing brothers, much to the distress of her mother and more orderly older sister.  Egged on by her prankster Uncle Edmund and antagonized by her snobbish cousin from the East Coast, Annabelle, Caddie doesn’t always act like the hero of the story, often behaving more naughty than noble. 

One characteristic about Caddie, however, sets her apart, and that is her generosity and open-heartedness.  She shows unbigoted kindness to Native Americans throughout the story, whether it be buying provisions for orphaned half-caste schoolboys with her prized silver dollar or preventing an ethnic war between the local Indian tribe and her white neighbors. 

Another important theme in Caddie Woodlawn is the characters’ identity as Americans.  Mr. Woodlawn is an immigrant from England, an heir disowned by his noble class who has adopted the United States as his home and has carved out a place for himself independent of family ties and fortune.  The family is given the choice between that freedom and the inheritance that is theirs by right, echoing the choice Caddie herself is posed when she must decide whether to cling to her wild wanderings or forsake them to take on more adult responsibilities.  The two choices and their outcomes are not necessarily the same.

The end of the story, then, isn’t just about Caddie.  It’s about the entire Woodlawn family: their loves and losses, their trials and triumphs, and their unflinching fight for survival in a world of uncertainty.  That uncertainty endures to this day, and that’s why Caddie Woodlawn endures as a significant piece of children’s literature.      

Suggested Reading Age: 8+

Parental Notes: Caddie’s attitude is not always noble, as I mentioned, and some children might be more prone to following her prank-playing example, rather than be warned by the consequences and punishments she must endure.  Another concern is the underlying threat of violence from (or against) the Indians.  Scalping is often mentioned, and so might scare some children.

Availability: As I usually do when such an opportunity is available, I recommend the version illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.  Additionally, there is a movie adaptation which is generally faithful to the book’s plot.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Keeping the Book Alive

For some people, e-readers such as Nook, Kindle, or iPad are the Future of Reading. Bibliophilia meets Technophilia. No more heavy books to lug around when/if you travel.  No more need to have a lamp keeping your bedmate awake while you read into the wee hours of the night. The opportunity to shop online for new books from the comfort of apparently a beach chair (usually the commercials show such e-reader users on a beach) rather than have to go out to a bookstore or library. And rather than taking up loads of space with books, you have one single rectangular device which holds all those books in compact neatness for your reading pleasure.

All of these points are valid. In fact, the last reason—space—is why I personally “caved” and got a Kindle Keyboard (sorry, touchscreen smudges would be the bane of my existence) almost a year ago.  My e-reader library is limited to books I want to own, but which I wouldn’t mind having in paperback (a list which is incredibly short in comparison to books I require and demand to be hardcover with gilt binding). Philosophy books, 19th-20th Century “penny dreadfuls,” and Ancient Greek plays are included. 

Yet while e-readers offer a new frontier for book lovers, I understand the pensive suspicion—even outright animosity—a lot of book lovers hold for this “new-fangled technology.”  First, the attitude of the e-reader proponents seems in their commercials to be “we’re better than books” or “this will replace books,” all of which is DOWNRIGHT HERESY! to bibliophiles. Then we have the name “Kindle.” Anyone who weeps themselves into a frothy rage at the mere mention of the name “Savanarola” or other historical accounts of book burnings immediately demands “WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU GOING TO KINDLE?!” and then imagining Kindle salespeople taking a lighter and aerosol can to their precious bookshelves. To make things worse, the newest version is called “Kindle FIRE” (never a good word to use around nervous book-lovers. “Nook” is a better name, denoting a sort of curled up fetal position that is a traditional reading pose.

Then there is the entire tactile book experience for which e-readers cannot really compensate:

-     The smell of books, as I mentioned in a previous post, is an alluring factor which even e-reader manufacturers acknowledge and try to replicate with all sorts of “book perfumes.”

-     The very “heft” of books is important, even if it means one can’t carry an entire library to the beach.* How else can you feel the satisfying sensation of turning a leaf of paper, its pulpy texture rubbing under your fingertips as you have finished a page and begin a new one?  Clicking a “next” button or rubbing your finger ("Ew! Smudge! Get it off!  Get it off!") isn’t quite the same.

-     Lastly, the fate of the art of bookmarks hangs in the balance! And I have so many that are just plain gorgeous and asking to be used! Even if you see what percentage of a book you have completed on an e-reader, it cannot compare to the satisfaction of closing a book around a slip of paper, looking at the top of your book and seeing how much further you have delved into its pages.

Actor and author Stephen Fry has said that “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.” I take one issue with this statement’s validity, and it is this: people don’t have chronic neuroses about going into a cramped e-reader like they are with elevators.** Stairs must always stay “in fashion” because the alternative of a world filled with elevators and demon-possessed down-escalators is a horror beyond imagining.

But as for me, I think that good ol’ fashioned, in-person books will never go completely out of style.  They might become rarer, more expensive, and book dealers will become more elusive.  But perhaps becoming more rare will force book manufacturers to provide better products (not pocket paperbacks which fall apart during the first read), and the dealers of such newly improved tomes will be revered as keepers of a most ancient and wondrous culture of reading.

*The beach, by the way, is a terrible place to take a book if you want to keep it in good shape. Even if you manage not to drop it in the water, you at the very least risk getting sea-spray in it, and most definitely will get sand in between the pages.  Ugh. By all means take your e-reader there.

** By the way, why did a British guy call it an “elevator” and not a “lift”? Am I the only one who wonders about this? 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"Peter and Wendy": A Review

Illustration by Trina Schart Hyman, 1980
"All children, except one, grow up. [...]
You always know after you are two. 
Two is the beginning of the end." 
~ Peter and Wendy, by J.M. Barrie, opening paragraph

One hardly needs to introduce, synopsize, or discuss the coming-of-age symbolism of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (or, to differentiate the novel from the play of the same name, Peter and Wendy).  One doesn’t need to go into the history of the book, how it was first a play, or the origins of the story, since Finding Neverland informs us adequately of the author’s inspiration. 

So why even review it?  If all that I could say upon the topic has been said numerous times before, why clutter up the vast expanse of the internet with worn-out reviews.

Because it's great, that’s why. 

Why, after all, does everyone know the story of Peter Pan—even if they haven’t read it—except for the simple reason that it is wonderful?  The story, like many classic Children’s Literature, speaks to us even after we are grown (which we all know we must do, after we are two) because it is about childhood, and adulthood, and the painful process of leaving one and entering another. 

Peter, is a symbol of childhood in all its “heartlessness” and carefree vivacity.  People have only seen the Disney cartoon may be shocked at how Barrie portrays children as heartless.  This doesn’t mean the children don’t have feelings.  It means that they are absorbed in their own feelings so much that they lack the complex ability to empathize with others.  This phenomena is connected to Piaget’s Preoperational Stage in Developmental Psychology…which coincidentally is the only part of that college course I remember.

The other children of the book—Wendy, John, Michael, and the Lost Boys—eventually grow out of this “heartlessness”, but in order to do that they have to grow.  Peter Pan, on the other hand, doesn’t grow up, and therefore never sheds his egocentrism (“O the cleverness of me!”).

What might also shock new readers of the novel is the persona of the narrator. Nowadays people aren’t used to the narrator directly addressing them, or suddenly switching to present-tense to describe a scene as if the narrator were taking the reader by the hand and leading them to peek around the corner at events as they unfold.  And modern readers are certainly not used to the third-person narrator having a mind of his own, voicing opinions and killing off pirates on a whim to demonstrate how ruthless and evil Captain Hook can be.  Barrie employs all these unfamiliar narrative techniques—and probably more—throughout his novel.  Peter Pan is heartless, and the narrator reflects that.  The darkness that sometimes infiltrates the story reflects the darkness of having childhood ripped forcibly from the characters by the mere ongoing of time, and those character being burdened by acquiring complex emotional maturity, such as empathy and the knowledge of their own mortality. 

But Peter and Wendy ends with hope.  If every child must grow out of that magical state that defines childhood, that doesn’t mean that the magic dies.  It gets passed from one generation to another, and the magic will continue, “as long as children are young and and heartless.”

Suggested Reading Age: 8+

Parental Notes: Captain Hook is not nearly so silly as in the Disney animation.  In his first scene he disembowels one of his lackeys.  Also, Tinker Bell isn’t the sweet fairy that launched an entire spinoff franchise: she’s a vain thing with a tendency to swear. 

Availability: Peter and Wendy is available free on Kindle but is worth investing in a hardcover copy.  This novel has lent itself to some gorgeous illustrators from which you can choose, such as Arthur Rackham and  Trina Schart Hyman.   

Further Notes: If you’re looking for a good adaptation, skip the animated 1953 movie and go for the 2003 live-action movie starring Jeremy Sumpter.  Jason Isaacs’ portrayal of Jas. Hook is a wonderful thing to behold.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Inscriptions of Book-Owners Past

Having acquired most of my current book collection from public library used sales, garage sales, rummage sales, etc., a lot of my books hold secrets of their previous owners. Bookmarks (or slips of paper such as receipts doubling as bookmarks), free bookplates (I received about a dozen complimentary Ex Libris stickers for never joining the Readers Digest Book Club), and inscriptions of strangers’ names are among the surprises I’ve found in used books.

Whenever I receive a book as a gift (which is quite often…although not as often as I would like…hint hint), I like to ask the giver to inscribe my name, their name, and the date on the front page for posterity. It seems a shame, then, that there are so many used books which once belonged to someone else whose name is now meaningless to me. 

Part of me views these books as MINE, since I paid for them (and they were most likely donated to the library booksale of the owner’s free will). But another part of me can’t help but feel I am a mere curator of lost possessions, a foster-owner of orphaned tomes.

So in honor of those readers who came before me, here is a list of (some) of the inscriptions found inside the covers of my library. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and also to protect me from having to return any books, should a reader recognize his name and want his copy of Silas Marner back.*

  • The Princess by Tennyson: From Wave (?) 1888
  • Caesar’s Gallic War: $2.45 Marquette U. Book Store
  • Minor Victorian Poets: Novel = attempts to develop character.  3+4 chap of Thorundyke (?)
  • The Works of Dumas: 25 C.
  • Milton’s Complete Poems: DCC Library Acc# 3224
  • Silas Marner: Jane Jones 1912 from George
  • A Child’s History of EnglandMerry Christmas from Auntie Dec 25 1902
  • The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Frederick W. Rockford  February, 1940
  • Idylls of the King: Steve Riley from “Skipper” Christmas 1946
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Happy Birthday, Tom!  I hope you like these books as much as I do!  These are some of my favorites!  Ann and John
And probably the saddest, most beautiful inscription, from Tennyson’s Poems:
 (A pressed flower was right inside the cover; I’m not sure what type it is, but it’s a light pink)
Miss Moller A. Gibson, compliments of J.P.S. (this was in pencil, and then the handwriting changes and the rest is written with an old-fashioned ink pen)
In loving remembrance of dear sister Mary who esteemed you as one of her dear friends.
Grand Blanc
June 1st 1901

For further reading of other people’s private thoughts, try looking into The Book Inscription Project’s website.

When doing my personal research for this post, I found that mostly older books had more than a name written on the flyleaf. This is a shame. Books leave their marks on us, there is no reason why we shouldn’t reciprocate, even in a small way. So I challenge you: look at your own bookshelves.  Are there any remnants of readers past in your used books? And next time you give someone a book as a gift, what words will you share just inside the front cover?

*Finders keepers, losers weepers.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Borders in memoriam

Say what one will about the shortcomings that led to its eventual downfall, to me Borders Books will always be a fond memory in my life as a young reader.  I know that a lot of bibliophiles avoid "big chain bookstores" such as Borders and Barnes and Noble, preferring instead to patronize a favorite small bookstore-cafe.  But for me, Borders was My Store.  And now it is gone.

A lot of my personal purchases were not, what could normally be assumed, the great literature that most book collectors seek while on a shopping spree.  Rather, I tended to collect the "coffee table" books that were set out on tables in front of the cashier counter--no doubt strategically tempting impulse buys.  Yet I am no impulse buyer when it comes to books, and would go to these tables first in search of my intended quarry: ancient history and mythology books with full-page color photographs. 

Don't worry: I got plenty of fiction books from Borders, too.  I would request specific titles (and specific illustrators and cover art...a persnicketyness that hasn't faded with age, obviously) for gifts.  It's a family tradition to receive one beautiful hardcover copy of a classic or otherwise much-loved book for birthdays or Christmas.  In the case of acquiring series of books (The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance) it was possible to know what one was getting for the next four years' worth of holidays.  And most of these books were purchased from Borders Books. 

For my family, an outing to a bookstore is like a trip to a theme park: a big deal.  So it was a MONUMENTAL deal when we heard the tragic news of Borders' closing.  It was like going to a wake shopping there one last time.  We went well before all the merchandise (and furniture and light fixtures) was sold off, but even at that early stage of liquidation the store was in a sad state of disarray, with the unsettling atmosphere of a carcass being picked over. 

Shopping at a favorite store for the last time is a strange sensation of frenzy mixed with nostalgia, mourning mingled with sweeter memories of better times.  One knows that whatever the purchase, that item will forevermore be a souvenir and therefore must be selected with the utmost care and deliberation.

For Borders Books, that last purchase was Jack London: Tales of the North, a collection of his complete novels (including White Fang, Call of the Wild, and my personal favorite The Sea Wolf) and 15 short stories, all with the original illustrations (naturally!).  I also bought some Cavallini & Co. Typewriter Ex Libris Bookplates, which I immediately placed in the following books I'd acquired at Borders:

  • The Odyssey (Homer)
  • The Aeneid (Virgil)
  • Beowulf (Anon.)
  • The Killer Angels (Michael Shaara)
  • The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien)
  • The Little House Books (Laura Ingalls Wilder)
  • The Time Traveller Series (Linda Buckley-Archer)
  • The Squire's Tales (by Gerald Morris)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte)
  • Shirley (Charlotte Bronte)
  • Barnaby Rudge (Charles Dickens)
  • Nickolas Nickelby (Charles Dickens)
  • Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose (Wallace Stevens)
  • The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Guess.)
  • T.S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-50 (The Best Poet Ever.)
  • An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary (E.A. Wallis Budge)
  • The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (Cottrell and Storia)
  • Ancient Civilizations (edited by Professor Gregory Woolf)
  • Mythology (edited by C. Scott Littleton)
  • The Encyclopedia of Ancient Myths and Culture
  • Ancient Egypt (Oakes and Gahlin)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia (the first four, by C.S. Lewis)
  • Calvin and Hobbes (eight of the books, by Bill Watterson)
  • Freckles (Gene Stratton Porter)
  • The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
  • Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie)
  • Tales of the North (Jack London.)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A confession...except I'm not really ashamed of it


So I was trying to decide which of my books to read next (I’m approximately 60% through the volumes on my shelves) and I came across a collection of works by Rudyard Kipling, most famous for The Jungle Book and Just So Stories. My mom had found this collection at a used booksale (why I wasn’t with her at such a glorious event is beyond imagination) and like the good enabler she is bought it for me. 

Anyway I took it off the shelf to consider whether I should start reading it immediately or save it for a special reading occasion.  Sometimes feeling the “heft” of a book…it’s weight, its solidity, its gilt binding….

But where was I? 

Oh yeah, then I sniffed it.  To my delight, it smells like India.  Not that I’ve ever personally been to India, but it sure smells like the restaurants and other global import stores.  Like humidity and spices.  So it smells like what my concept of India is.

So yes, I am a book-sniffer.  Unashamedly so.  When I pick up a book to buy, I usually make a quick pass of it under my nose.

It’s like testing a good cigar.  Stop judging!

P.S.  Smoking cigars and anything else is hazardous to your health.  The worst risk you run by sniffing books is maybe having a severe allergic reaction to mold or inhaling some kind of mutagen spore that will cause you to fluoresce at night.  Which would be awesome and you know it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Reviewing Rudyard Kipling's "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi"

Indian Gray Mongoose

This is the epic story of a brave mongoose protecting his adopted human family against the evil machinations of a family of cobras.  I borrowed Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 short story, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, when I was about eight years old.  I read it every night before bed, by the light of the hallway coming into my dark bedroom.  (If I had known about the convention about making a tent out of sheets and reading by flashlight, I would’ve followed tradition.)

In the story, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a baby mongoose taken from his family by a flood, and rescued and nursed back to health by an English family.  This sort of thing was probably what made me like the book so much as a child: I always loved animals and wished I could adopt live ones as pets.  Even today if a waterlogged orphan mongoose showed up on my front porch I wouldn’t hesitate in taking it in and giving it a saucer of milk.

The English family is new to these foreign wilds, and there are dangers here behind every blade of grass, mostly in the form of snakes.  Although he is barely out of infancy, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi has a mongoose’s hunting instincts and soon repays his family by protecting their young son from a poisonous snake.  But as with every hero’s rite of passage, our young mongoose’s prowess at killing snakes makes him enemies: two Indian Cobras, Nag and Nagaina, have been living in the deserted bungalow, and know that the English intruders will soon kill them if they don’t make a preemptive strike.  Again it is Rikki-Tikki-Tavi that saves the day.  

Some critics of the Politically Correct Mindset tend to dismiss Kipling as an imperialist puppet of the British Raj, perpetuating racist stereotypes of Indians by his writing.  Such works as The White Man’s Burden (which treats other ethnicities as subordinates or immature cultures compared to European) tend to back up their criticisms.  But Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in many ways contradicts the idea that Europeans are superior caretakers of the earth.  True, he is rescued by the English family, and true, the villains are “native” cobras who must be killed for the safety of the European invaders.  But the hero here is a native as well, and the English family is presented consistently as requiring his protection. 

In the end, though, I don’t think Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a political fable underscoring imperialist ideals.  You certainly can’t enjoy it if you do impose that interpretation.  Instead, I think it’s a story of good verses evil, peopled (and “animaled”) with the creatures Kipling would have known well from living in India.  Any story where good triumphs over evil is an epic, even if it only takes eleven or so pages in the telling. 

Suggested Reading Age: 8+

Parental Notices:  If your child has a snake phobia, this book is tragically not for them.  If for some reason they have a mongoose phobia, then maybe a therapist is in order.

Availability: In addition to being sold separately, Rikki Tikki Tavi is often included in a collection along with The Jungle Book and  other short stories like The White Seal.  It is also available free on Kindle.

Other Notes: In real life, mongooses really do “duel” cobras, as several videos on YouTube such as this will attest.  Also there is a surprisingly accurate animated adaptation (by Tom and Jerry’s Chuck Jones of all people) which is worth checking out.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

How to Survive if You're in a Mystery Novel

How to Survive if You’re a Character in a Sherlock Holmes Adventure:

1.      Hire Sherlock Holmes. 

2.      OR hire Scotland Yard.  They will then go to Sherlock Holmes.

3.      Hide in the Diogenes Club until case is solved.

How to Survive if You’re a Character in an Agatha Christie Murder Mystery:*

·         Be the detective.  A professional detective.  Not one of those, “Oh I think I can figure this out” side characters.  Those amateurs usually get a letter opener at the base of their skull because they think they can privately question the murderer without repercussions.  This is not some sort of freakish form of entertainment, people!  Stop treating it as such!

·         Be a policeman.  Most policemen in Christie take statements and collect their scene-of-the-crime evidence, then spend the rest of the book in their offices having conversations amongst themselves as a form of exposition of the plot so far for those readers not paying attention.

·         Be a love interest.  This can get tricky though, since you’re not safe if you’re a) married or b) engaged at the beginning of the book.  In order to almost certainly survive you must fall in love during the course of the investigation.  Forget that romance in the face of murder, lies, and impending death of others surrounds you.  Disregard the possibility that your love interest could very well be the culprit.  As long as you follow these you almost certainly will survive to end up engaged or at least leaving the reader without doubt that  a long and happy marriage is imminent.

·         Don’t be the murderer.  Yeah, seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it?  Being the murderer should keep you from being murdered yourself, since you start out on the offensive, as it were.  But then some old biddy with knitting needles, or a weirdo eggheaded Belgian, will find you out and then the policemen will pour out of their office and come for you, and you know that means the noose. 

*We cannot guarantee that these measures are 100% accurate.  Let’s face it: Christie cheats.

How to Survive if You’re a Character in a Nero Wolfe Mystery:

1.      Don’t hire Nero Wolfe.

2.      Move out of New York City.

3.      Enjoy your life.

How to Survive if You're a character in a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler Mystery:

1.      Accept that you’re pretty much toast. 

2.      Try to do some of the things on your bucket list before someone rubs you out.

3.      If by some odd fluke you DO survive, try to move to another genre.  Maybe a nice copy of Cat in the Hat.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Reviewing Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows"

"One does not argue with The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character. We can't criticize it, because it is criticizing us.  As I wrote once: It is a Household Book; a book which everybody in the household loves, and quotes continually; a book which is read aloud to every new guest and is regarded as the touchstone of his worth."
~ A.A. Milne

C.S. Lewis once said that “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” By extension, a children’s story that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike is the definition of a good children’s story. And when you look up that definition in the dictionary, a cover photo of The Wind in the Willows is at the top of the entry. 

Grahame’s 1908 story of semi-anthropomorphic animals—and by that I mean: they wear clothes but still live in burrows—seems simple, and yet there is a level of sophistication that sets it apart from other cutesy animal books. 

The story starts with The Mole, sick of his mundane underground home, abandoning his spring-cleaning for the sun and fresh air of the riverbank. Immediately the reader is attached to Moley because anyone can relate to his situation (who hasn’t been stuck inside doing chores on a beautiful sunny day?). Then the Mole meets the Rat, who is specifically a River Rat, complete with boat and wicker picnic basket. Ratty becomes a sort of volunteer tour-guide of the World Above for the na├»ve Mole, who moves in with him along the riverbank. Joining them on their adventures is Mr. Badger, whose antisocial exterior gives lie to the warmth and wisdom he holds for his true friends. 

Then there is Mr. Toad: the amazing, marvelous, ingenious, magnanimous…and completely foolish Mr. Toad of Toad Hall. Rich, spoiled, self-centered (though it must be admitted not selfish…he loves to share is adventures with his friends), Toad brings in most of the conflict of the story when he takes up the “mania” of automobiles. Crashing car after car, Toady gets an intervention from his three friends, relapses with a vengeance, steals a car, and gets thrown in prison…and that’s only halfway through the book!

The storyline itself is almost episodic in nature, switching back and forth between Toady’s irresponsible and disastrous exploits and the other creature’s more subdued, often poignant vignettes: Moley’s homesickness for his own humble hole in the ground. Ratty questioning his “sedentary” life along the riverbank and deciding to go to sea. The encounter with Pan.  The vague threat of the unknown in the Wild Wood. Even Toad’s struggle to shed his egocentricity and pride teach us something of ourselves—in Toady’s case, maybe stuff we didn’t really want to know about ourselves! Although these characters are animals, we human readers connect to them on an equal footing.

One image I find particularly resonant is the River itself. Ratty’s river. For some reason, both when it was read to me as a child, and when I reread it myself as an adult, I felt that Ratty’s love of the River was like a symbol of my love for reading. This is the kind of thing the Rat says in Chapter 1: The River Bank:

‘It’s the only thing,’ said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. 'Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing--absolutely nothing--half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. [...] In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.’ 

Reading is a way of traveling from the snugness of your sofa-cushions, to places that don’t even exist. When you set the book aside, there is sometimes a jarring effect, like when you heave yourself out of a pool after swimming a while. 

Suggested Reading Age: As soon as possible.

Parental Notice: Some “villain” animals and the Wild Woods might be too scary for toddlers

Availability: While you can find a free Kindle edition of The Wind in the Willows here, it does not include Ernest H. Shepard’s original illustrations, which is a travesty in my humble opinion. Besides, this is the sort of book that you want to have in hardcopy, hard cover, with a dust jacket, in case there’s some sort of power outage emergency which renders Kindles useless. Don’t lose your copy of Wind in the Willows when disaster strikes! Buy a good copy, like mine. You won't regret it.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Character Comparison between Jim Hawkins and Harvey Cheyne, Jr.

When setting out to write a character comparison of the fictional captains in nautical fiction, one of the first books that came to mind, by virtue of its title alone, was Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling. The book isn’t about a Crazy Captain, however, as much as it is about the Boy Coming of Age at Sea. The protagonist is Harvey Cheyne, Jr., a spoiled teenaged son of rich socialites. When he’s saved from drowning by the We’re Here, he’s forced to become part of the crew until the next time they come into port.  His experiences give him the opportunity to get past his sense of entitlement and pride in his possessions, and to mature into true self-confidence so that by the time he actually makes it home, his parents don’t recognize the overindulged and petty son he used to be.

Both Captains Courageous and Treasure Island have an environment of seafaring, and both have young protagonists who come of age in that environment. The captain of the We’re Here, Disko Troop, doesn’t have much in common with Long John Silver—unless it’s the fact that both have unusual names. 

But as I said, the main comparison to be made is between Jim Hawkins and Harvey Cheyne Jr. The two protagonists are both young boys with a lot to learn. Jim longed for and sought adventure, whereas Harvey was happy and complacent with his life of luxury, and was (almost literally) thrown into adventure kicking and screaming. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

When the Sidekick Tells the Story: Two Vernean Narrators for the Price of One

As I was making a mental list of narrators who are actually the sidekicks, I thought of the sidekicks of heroes in series of stories surrounding them. To round out this series of entries, however, I’m going to depart from that pattern to talk about two narrators of two distinct novels by one author, Jules Verne. 

Illustration by Edouard Riou, 1864
The first character is the easiest to peg as a sidekick: the narrator of A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Axel—whose name has been “translated” to Harry in some English versions for inexplicable reasons since Axel is a cooler name—the nephew of the actual hero of the story, his absent-minded genius uncle Lidenbrock (or Hardwigg). 

Dragged not across, but through the globe, Axel spends most of his time complaining about how hanging out with his sweetheart/cousin Graubin (Gretchen…actually I approve of this change) would be way more interesting than traveling to Iceland, climbing Mt. Sneffels, spelunking into volcanic tubes, navigating coal mines and caves and under oceans, and finding an entire self-contained eco-system including a sea and underground sun, just to name a few of the wonders Axel fails to appreciate.

Meanwhile Professor Lidenbrock is very smart, possibly insane, and provides much-needed exposition about geology and other science-y things, which our narrator usefully doesn’t have a clue about. If Axel was a colleague of the professor rather than his ignorant nephew, Verne wouldn’t have had the excuse to explain to the readers all the science needed to understand the plot. 
Illustration by Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou, engraved by Hildibrand, 1871

The second Vernean Narrator is the narrator of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Professor Pierre Aronnax. Here, instead of having an ignorant character narrate, Verne “cuts out the middleman” and lets an expert do the talking. Yet I still consider Aronnax to be a sidekick, and that’s because the hero of this story is also the villain. 

That’s right. I’m talking about Captain Nemo.

Admittedly this designation is debatable. Captain Nemo is the villain. He takes the main good guys captive and tries to keep them that way for the rest of their natural lives. He is a pirate and terrorizes various sea-vessels with his pre-submarine, the Nautilus.  By all rights and purposes, Aronnax—who is moral as well as smart—should be the hero. 

However he never quite makes it there, in my estimation. Most of what he discusses while he plans to escape is not how he is planning to escape, but how he’s trying to understand the inner workings of Nemo’s mind. And let’s not forget Nemo’s heroic actions that make painting him as a villain so difficult: he keeps the good guys captive…after he saves them from drowning.  He terrorizes ships and steals sunken treasure…then turns around and gives away his spoils like a Robin Hood of the Seven Seas. 

The reason I'm discussing these two narrators together is to show the contrast: 
  •  A reluctant, cynical nephew chronicling a great adventure of an eager heroic professor
  •  An idealistic professor chronicling the jaded crusade of a cynical, villainous captain
Axel doesn’t really want to be a part of Professor Lidenbrock’s adventure. Professor Aronnax, although not a willing participant at first, can’t help but be fascinated by Captain Nemo’s adventures.  Perhaps the link lies in that, no matter who is leading the way, the call of adventure turns out to be an irresistible lure to even the most reluctant of individuals.