Friday, December 17, 2004

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Marley's Ghost. Ebenezer Scrooge visited by a ghost. Colour illustration from 'A Christmas Carol in prose. Being a Ghost-story of Christmas', by Charles Dickens, With illustrations by John Leech. Public Domain

A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens is a classic Christmas story and a classic ghost story combined. It tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and is set on Christmas Eve in London, England. Scrooge is a grumpy, old miser who doesn’t like Christmas. His nephew Fred invites him to celebrate Christmas dinner with his family, but Scrooge turns him down. Later, Scrooge refuses to donate to help the poor and shuns a boy singing a Christmas carol. Scrooge doesn’t even want to give his hardworking clerk, Bob Cratchit, the day off for Christmas.

That night, Scrooge receives a visit from the ghost of Jacob Marley, his old business partner who died seven years prior. Marley is doomed to wander the Earth without rest or peace. He has a chain around his waist and must drag along “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.” Marley’s ghost warns Scrooge that he has a chance of escaping this same fate and that he will be haunted by three spirits in the coming hours. Marley’s warning comes true, and Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come.

Although I was well familiar with the overall story of A Christmas Carol, having seen so many versions of it on television, I had never read the book before. I enjoyed the descriptions of the ghosts, especially the Ghost of Christmas Past. Scrooge's fear was so natural as the ghosts forced him to revisit his old memories, to view current happenings, and to see what could happen in the future. I read the story with excitement and apprehension although I already knew the ending, and it was a fun book to read.

In seeing Scrooge’s past along with him, the reader and Scrooge can see the accumulation of choices he made that resulted in his "Bah Humbug!" persona. Dickens crafted Scrooge as a multi-dimensional character. Scrooge’s experiences with the ghosts make him change his ways to be a kinder, better man. The story is such a nice example of the goodness that the spirit (or rather Spirits) of Christmas can inspire.

Purchase and read books by Charles Dickens:

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Great Expectations by Charles Dickens David Copperfield by Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens


Tuesday, December 7, 2004

House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

House Made of Dawn (1968) by N. Scott Momaday tells the story of Abel, a young American Indian. The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. The story begins in 1945 when Abel returns home after fighting in World War II. He arrives at a reservation in Walatowa, New Mexico to stay with his grandfather, Francisco.

During his time there, Abel has an affair with a woman named Angela after chopping wood for her. During a ceremony on the feast of Santiago, an albino smears Abel with a rooster’s blood. Later, Abel drinks with the elders, and then he murders the albino. Abel is sent to prison.

Seven years later, Abel is released from prison and put under the watch of the Indian Relocation program in Los Angeles. This section of the story is told from Abel’s point of view. Abel becomes friends with Ben Benally, an American Indian who has adapted to relocation. During his time in Los Angeles, Abel has a romantic relationship with a social worker named Milly. This section ends when Abel is beaten up and left for dead on the beach by unknown attackers.

In the next section, Ben describes Abel’s problems drinking and how he lost his job. This narrative is the easiest part to read. Ben often makes guesses about Abel’s motivations or gives clues that explain Abel’s behaviors. This section of the novel also fills in the gaps in Abel's narrative. Ben and Abel make a pact to meet again on the land and to sing the ceremonial song "House Made of Dawn." After a fight with Ben, Abel leaves. He returns three days later, badly beaten. After a short time, Abel leaves Los Angeles to return to Walatowa where his grandfather is near death. When Francisco dies, Abel prepares his body and runs the "race of the dead."

House Made of Dawn has a complicated, non-linear narrative structure. The present, past, myths, and storytelling blend together in the tale. The story juxtaposes the purity of the land with industrialization, and it contrasts Abel’s silence with the verboseness of white men in Los Angeles. In certain sections, the narrative has a sense of verbal sparseness. Momaday conveys Abel’s profound lack of place in this unique and important story.

Purchase and read books by N. Scott Momaday:

House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday The Way to Rainy Mountain


Tuesday, November 9, 2004

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was published in September 2003. It's the story of Henry, a time-traveling librarian. He involuntarily hops from one place and time to another. As an older man, Henry visits the past and meets his wife, Clare, as a young girl. While Clare knows Henry from her girlhood on and meets him during different stages of her life, Henry first meets Clare in his mid-twenties. The concept may seem confusing at first, but the book does not take too long to get into. The time and date reference points at the start of each section keep the reader oriented.

If I were writing this review immediately after finishing the book, then I think I would have focused on my interest in the plot. I felt compelled to know what happened in the story. I felt driven to read because of the foreshadowing throughout the book. Since I’ve waited a little while to write down my thoughts, I’ve had some time to think over other aspects of the book and areas where it could have been better. I think the story would make a fun movie, perhaps a better movie than a book.

While the concept of watching a romantic couple cope with Henry’s disorder could have been fascinating, none of the characters were as well-drawn as they could have been. The original premise was not carried out to the full potential because I didn’t feel empathy for either of the main characters. The plot drove the story much more than character development. Sometimes while reading, I would mistake Henry’s narration for Clare’s, or vice versa. Most of the time, the two main characters felt interchangeable. The supporting characters: Gomez, Ingrid, Charisse, and family members all could have been better developed to contribute more to the story.

Another major problem is that Henry is depicted as “good,” while his motivations towards Clare are more manipulative than loving. While he may believe that they are meant to be together, she only feels that way about him because a future version of him has visited her repeatedly (from the age of 6) and told her that they will marry. What is Clare’s choice in this when Henry declares her future is determined?

At the end of the story, Henry could have let Clare go on with her life, but he gives her the hope of seeing him once more. As a reader, I was saddened to think of her waiting alone just to catch a glimpse of him again. It’s not clear why Clare is in love with Henry; is it because she feels she has to be? The author spent far too much time focusing on their great sex life (often crudely described in extensive detail), but there should have been something more that held them together.

As a reader, I felt manipulated into having sympathy for the characters. Clare has, not one, but seven miscarriages, before finally having a daughter. Meanwhile, Henry relives his mother’s car accident and decapitation again and again, and loses his feet to frostbite. I felt toyed with after all that. I would have been thrilled had the book ended with Ingrid shooting Henry, which would have had some meaning. Instead, Henry’s death was foreshadowed for the last third of the book, and it was an accident that made little sense.

What I felt left with was a good, engrossing read. While not liking the characters, I still couldn’t put the book down. At the same time, I am left with mixed feelings because something was missing, and I know the book could have been a great one.

Purchase and read books by Audrey Niffenegger:

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger


Thursday, November 4, 2004

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a dystopia written in 1985 that magnifies and exaggerates social trends to a dangerous end. This book was very difficult for me to read, but I am so glad that I read it. It’s a story every woman should read. It will chill you; it will scare you; it will make sure you don’t take anything for granted.

The protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale is named Offred. She is a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. Her sole duty is to bear the offspring of the Commander. Women are not allowed to have money or hold jobs, and they have designated duties based on their fertility. Once Offred had a job and a family, but after a political coup, she was separated from them, and her life was changed forever. The reader follows Offred’s experiences, shares her memories, and tries from her limited perspective to find some hope to hang on to.

Purchase and read books by Margaret Atwood:

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood The Testaments by Margaret Atwood


Tuesday, October 5, 2004

On Fortune's Wheel by Cynthia Voigt

On Fortune's Wheel by Cynthia Voigt

On Fortune's Wheel (1990) by Cynthia Voigt is the second novel in her Kingdom series, which is set in the medieval period. It’s the story of Birle, a headstrong young girl who is the daughter of an innkeeper. To escape her life at the inn, Birle has promised to marry a huntsman named Muir. Though her parents believe Birle is making a poor choice, she takes longer to realize it.

Birle’s adventure begins when she hears a noise outside and rushes out to stop a thief. This thief is actually a young Lord named Orien, who is escaping from his family. Orien and Birle are swept off together to a new land, and they are captured, separated, and enslaved. Birle is sold to a philosopher; she does the housework and helps the philosopher with his book on herbs and medicines. Meanwhile, Orien’s owners are not as kind. Birle tries to plan their escape home.

The story takes place a generation after Voigt’s Jackaroo, a book I read years ago. I did not realize that Voigt had written other novels set in “the Kingdom.” In all, these books include: 1) Jackaroo, 2) On Fortune's Wheel, 3) The Wings of a Falcon, and 4) Elske.

The Kingdom series was since re-published with new titles: Jackaroo was re-published as The Tale of Gwyn, On Fortune's Wheel was re-published The Tale of Birle, The Wings of a Falcon was re-published as The Tale of Oriel, and Elske was re-published as The Tale of Elske.

On Fortune’s Wheel is a quick read and a good young adult story. Birle grows up through her adventures into a strong, steady, and decisive woman.

Purchase and read books in the Kingdom series by Cynthia Voigt:

Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt On Fortune's Wheel by Cynthia Voigt The Wings of a Falcon by Cynthia Voigt Elske by Cynthia Voigt


Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story by Henry James, which was originally published in 1898. The novel opens with a group of friends who are telling ghost stories. After hearing a ghost story involving a child, a man named Douglas proposes to tell the group a true story about two children. Douglas asks the party to wait for a manuscript to be delivered to him. He explains that the story was written by a woman who was once his sister’s governess and that it describes events in her life. Douglas was in love with the governess. She is now dead, but members of the group realize that Douglas still has strong feelings for her.

Days later, the manuscript arrives, and the story begins. The entire story is told from the point of view of the Bly governess. Because of this narrative construction, the reader must evaluate the honesty of the story. It reminded me of the narration of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

The governess takes a job caring for two children at Bly. The one condition of her job is that she must never speak to the Master of the house about the children, who are his niece and nephew, Flora and Miles. The governess agrees to these bizarre conditions and falls in love at first sight with the Master. She befriends Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper.

When ten-year-old Miles is expelled from school, he joins his eight-year-old sister at home. Soon, strange events begin occurring. The governess sees two ghosts, Peter Quint (the former gardener) and Miss Jessel (the former governess). The governess takes it upon herself to protect the children from the ghosts and believes the ghosts and children are communicating with one another. But through her actions, will the governess help or hurt the children?

I think the greatness of this story is how mysteriously vague it is. It left me with so many questions. Is the governess crazy? Are the children crazy or possessed? Are there really ghosts? When the governess speaks to the children, do they know which "he" and "she" the governess is asking them about, and vice versa? I wondered if the characters understood one another, and how much of the conversations were one-sided. The governess makes many presumptions. For instance, she never asks why Miles was expelled from school. At first, the governess believes Miles is an angel and then she later thinks he’s a demon, but how much did the boy’s behavior really change?

Looking back, most of the motivations, especially those of the children are coaxed. For instance, at the lake, is Flora really possessed and ugly, or is she just scared of her freakish and unrelenting governess? The children may be biding their time until their Uncle arrives, thinking that the governess mails their letters and that he's busy. Meanwhile, the governess has hoarded their letters.

I wondered how the governess identified the ghosts. Mrs. Grose recognized Peter Quint upon hearing his description, but the governess pounced on the idea and furthered it rapidly. The governess also leapt at the idea of Miss Jessel being one of the ghosts with little rationale. One thing that I found odd was the episode involving crying on the steps. The governess first sees Miss Jessel cry there, and later she cries in the same location. What did this repetition mean? Was it to show how similar Miss Jessel and governess were in temperament and position, or did it serve some other purpose? Is Miss Jessel simply the governess's idea of herself or what she could become?

The governess's love of the Master is also inexplicable. Does she truly feel his love is reciprocated through his disinterest? Does Mrs. Grose understand that the governess is in love with the Master? In addition, the governess was so worried about Miss Jessel and Peter Quint controlling the children, but she did the same thing. The governess was definitely strange, but it's impossible to argue that the children were not. They were equally strange.

In the closing scene, did either Miles or the governess name Miss Jessel? I wasn't sure who said it. The use of "he" and "she" leave almost any scenario possible.

After I finished the novel, I came up with a strange idea in trying to connect the prologue to the main story. I began wondering if Miles was really Douglas and if Miles did not die at the story’s conclusion. I went back to the prologue and re-read it. I was surprised that there was no return to the story-telling group at the end of the story, and instead, the tale just ended. Douglas's description gives the impression that he was in love with the governess, putting his impartiality into question. He mentioned that the woman was his younger sister's governess, which made me wonder if his younger sister was Flora and if he was still-alive Miles. Of course, I may be over-reaching. The main purpose of the prologue may have been to put distance between the reader and the governess, and the use of the manuscript could have been a contrivance to tell such a long story.

Another thing puzzled me about the governess. After such a horrid experience, would she really want to seek a new position as a governess ever again? I surely wouldn't. I wonder also at the conditions the governess agreed to. She committed to go to an isolated house and raise two children she had never seen without ever being able to contact their only relation. Why would someone agree to that?

In reading theories online, one reader said that they believed that Mrs. Grose was in fact the children’s mother from an affair with the Uncle, and that the governess had taken control of the children from their mother by making her inferior in her own home. Stemming from this, it was suggested that Mrs. Grose was conniving to make the governess mad by planting ideas in her mind. Though I did not see this during my reading, I thought it was an interesting take.

The Turn of the Screw is one of those books that leaves you with many questions and an eerie feeling. It’s the type of book that demands re-reading.

Related Reviews:
Daisy Miller by Henry James
The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Purchase and read books by Henry James:

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James The Aspern Papers by Henry James Daisy Miller by Henry James The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James


Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Black and White Portrait of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, provided to the Nobel Foundation by U.S National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934) was a Spanish scientist. He made groundbreaking discoveries on the anatomy of the brain and nervous system. For his pioneering scientific research, Cajal received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906 with Camillo Golgi.

Three drawings by Santiago Ramon y Cajal, taken from the book Comparative study of the sensory areas of the human cortexPublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Three drawings by Santiago Ramon y Cajal from the book Comparative Study of the Sensory Areas of the Human Cortex (1899). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cajal made many beautiful and detailed studies of the microscopic structures of neurons and the brain. One example, shown above, are his detailed drawings showing a comparative study of the areas of the human cortex. The left panel shows the Nissl-stained visual cortex of a human adult. The middle panel shows the Nissl-stained motor cortex of a human adult. The right panel shows a Golgi-stained cortex of a 1 1/2-month-old infant.

Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal book cover

In Advice for a Young Investigator (1897), Santiago Ramon y Cajal provides encouragement for scientists, particularly new investigators. Many parts of the book were humorous, in particular the characterizations of scientists and the impediments in the way of scientific progress. Cajal wrote his advice for an audience of male scientists (he considers women helpmates). However, ignoring the sexism of the time, Cajal’s advice and teachings can be applied by women scientists too.

Purchase and read books by and about Santiago Ramon y Cajal:

Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal Comparative Study of the Sensory Areas of the Human Cortex by Santiago Ramón y Cajal The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal by Larry W. Swanson and Eric Newman The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal by Benjamin Ehrlich


Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Trumpeter Swan by Skylar Hansen

Photograph from The Trumpeter Swan: A White Perfection by Skylar Hansen

The Trumpeter Swan: A White Perfection (1984) is a book by Skylar Hansen about four trumpeter swan breeding pairs. The trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) is the largest waterfowl species in North America. Hansen observed and photographed the birds and their offspring for a year, paying particular attention to parenting behaviors and offspring survival.

The male swans are called "cobs," and the females are termed "pens." Although the birds once had a vast range that covered most of Canada and the northern United States, their breeding grounds are now localized in small regions. Once the cob and pen form pair bonds, the swans nest together for life. They form strong attachments to their nest sites and guard their nesting territory fiercely.

I hadn’t read a book about nature and wildlife for so long. This book reminded me of what I'd been missing. My favorite thing about the book was the photographs. The photos were all taken by the author, and they were striking and beautiful.

Purchase and read The Trumpeter Swan by Skylar Hansen:

The Trumpeter Swan by Skylar Hansen


Sunday, May 2, 2004

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) tells the story of two French missionary priests, Bishop Jean Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant, who aim to establish a Roman Catholic diocese in New Mexico. It is a work of historical fiction. Cather roughly based these characters on Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, and Joseph Projectus Machebeuf, the first Bishop of Denver.

Latour and Vaillant were childhood friends. In contrast to Latour, who is serious and introverted, Vaillant is charismatic and outgoing. Both men are deeply committed to their work. Latour and Vaillant are responsible for a vast area of the Southwest. There are no roads or trains in the region yet, and there is no set way to travel, which makes their journeys difficult. The two French priests face many adventures and challenges in their work. The men are isolated in their tasks and goals, and both Latour and Vaillant are admirable protagonists.

In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather depicts the vastness of the Southwest and its mix of different people, cultures, religions, and traditions. Cather’s writing allows you to feel as though you are in New Mexico, whether you have ever visited the region or not. There is deep symbolism in the novel. For example, characters depict the seven deadly sins in story form. Cather also inserts some historical characters in her narrative. For instance, she includes Kit Carson as a character.

Early on, Father Latour feels disconnected from the land in the southwest. He plants an orchard to feel at home. In his later years, he appreciates the wilderness itself, choosing to remain in New Mexico instead of returning to France to die. His crisis in faith is moving, as is his longing for his dear friend after Vaillant leaves Santa Fe. Through it all, Latour remains committed to his goal of building a cathedral as a mark upon the wilderness.

The novel is a beautiful story of friendship, devotion, goodness, and commitment to a higher purpose.

Favorite Quotes:
"'To fulfil the dreams of one's youth; that is the best that can happen to a man. No worldly success can take the place of that.'"

"A wave of feeling passed over his bronze features as he said slowly:
'My friend has come.'
That was all, but it was everything; welcome, confidence, appreciation."

"One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always."

"These raindrops, Father Latour kept thinking, were the shape of tadpoles, and they broke against his nose and cheeks, exploding with a splash, as if they were hollow and full of air."

" was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air."

"But Jean, who was at ease in society and always the flower of courtesy, could not form new ties. It had always been so. He was like that even as a boy; gracious to everyone, but known to a very few."

"'Once that kinship is there, time will only make it stronger.'"

"That air would disappear from the whole earth in time, perhaps; but long after his day. He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!"

Related Reviews:
A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Purchase and read books by Willa Cather:

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather A Lost Lady by Willa Cather O Pioneers! by Willa Cather


Thursday, April 8, 2004

In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway

1923 photograph of Ernest Hemingway, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Ernest Hemingway in 1923. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Published in 1924, In Our Time is a collection of Ernest Hemingway’s early short stories. Hemingway has a sharpness to his prose that is unlike that of any other writer. I enjoyed reading this collection of stories, but I am fonder of Hemingway’s novels.

Each chapter of the collection begins with a short, tumultuous sketch or vignette. Then a longer short story follows. Hemingway explained to Ezra Pound that the vignettes and stories were meant to be read together and that the full set was interconnected.

First edition cover of In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
First edition cover of In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway, published in New York in 1925, Public domain, via Wikipedia.

This collection introduces the reader to Nick Adams, a character that Hemingway follows through life and returns to in his later stories. Many of the stories and one sketch feature Nick Adams as the main character. It’s also worth noting that "A Very Short Story" contains the seed that germinated into Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms. My favorite of the stories in this collection was "The End of Something." It’s one of the Nick Adams stories, and it rang true to life.

The joy of reading Hemingway is the simplicity of his presentation and the fact that he doesn’t tell you what he means. The meaning is there, but only if you put the pieces together yourself.

Related Review:
The Dangerous Summer by Ernest Hemingway

Purchase and read books by Ernest Hemingway:

In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway Ernest Hemingway Boxed Set


Wednesday, March 31, 2004

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! (1913) tells the story of the Bergson family in Nebraska. The novel mainly focuses on Alexandra, the eldest child, and Emil, the youngest sibling. At the beginning of the story, Alexandra's father John Bergson is dying. John leaves his land in Alexandra's capable hands, and he wants his family to preserve what he worked for since leaving Sweden to immigrate to America. John considers his eldest sons, Oscar and Lou, to be less capable of managing the property than Alexandra. John has foresight. Over the course of the story, Alexandra repeatedly makes decisions that go against the norm that allow her family's farmland to prosper.

Alexandra has one friend who understands her named Carl Linstrum. When Carl’s family decides to leave Hanover after years of crop failures, Alexandra feels isolated. Later, Alexandra and her brothers divide the land evenly when her brothers marry. She continues to manage her own farm, which becomes the most prosperous on the Divide.

The narrative then skips ahead to sixteen years after Alexandra's father's death. Alexandra has the money to send Emil to college and she raised her younger brother without him ever having to toil on the land. Out of friendship, Alexandra has taken in Ivar, a Russian man that many consider crazy. Since the early days, Ivar advised Alexandra and helped her with the animals. Because of Ivar’s strong love of nature and life, he isolates himself from others and wishes to cause the least damage to the land. Ivar is one of the most interesting characters in the novel. Both he and Alexandra still recall the harsh realities of the land when they first arrived, while other characters seem ashamed of the memory and want to appear "civilized." Alexandra’s meddling brothers want her to send Ivar to an asylum, but she adamantly refuses.

Alexandra's neighbor is a pretty, Bohemian girl named Marie Shabata. Marie was introduced in the first chapter as a child who is Emil's age. She marries Frank, a difficult and brooding man, who is filled with jealousy. They live at the old Linstrum place. Marie tries to find brightness and happiness in what she sees, and Alexandra enjoys her company.

Carl Linstrum returns for a visit after many years away. Carl is mesmerized with Alexandra and is dissatisfied with his own life. As Carl and Alexandra grow closer, Oscar and Lou grow angry. They think that Carl wants Alexandra's land—land that they wrongfully consider theirs. Oscar and Lou believe that Alexandra should not marry at forty, and that she is a fool to let Carl hang around. Sadly, although Alexandra wants Carl to stay, he leaves for Alaska to win success there, and Alexandra is more alone than ever.

Still, Alexandra is more attached to the land than she is to any living person. She embodies the spirit of the pioneer and the land itself. These characteristics leave her ignorant to the emotions of those around her. She fails to see that Emil is deeply attracted to Marie and that Marie wants to reciprocate Emil’s feelings. Emil decides to leave for Mexico, in an attempt to escape his feelings, but while he is there, he writes letters to both Alexandra and Marie. Marie is struggling to hide herself from Emil's love for her. When Emil returns to Hanover a year later, he kisses Marie in the middle of a church crowd while everyone is in the dark. In stunning simplicity, no one notices anything has happened, though Marie and Emil’s worlds have shifted. Marie pleas with Emil to leave because she cannot live with him nearby. When Emil comes to say goodbye, he sees Marie under a white mulberry tree. Her husband Frank sees them together, and he shoots and kills them both in a terrifying and bloody scene.

Alexandra is shocked and lost. She dreams more often of a man of enormous strength who can pick her up and carry her over her fields. She resolves to try to help Frank who is now in prison, and surprisingly places more blame for the murder on her brother and Marie. She learns that Carl has returned upon hearing the news. At last, Carl and Alexandra decide to marry.

The novel entwines two stories into one. The underlying story is about Alexandra and the land and her determination. The second story is about Emil and Marie’s love for one another and its consequences. Cather has an understanding of how decisions have consequences. What is known and hidden in character’s hearts shines through in her portrayals. The story is harsh, true, and believable, and amid the land's richness, this book is a gem.

Favorite Quotes:

"It's by understanding me, and the boys, and mother, that you've helped me. I expect that is the only way one person ever really can help another."

"Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman."

"The grain is so heavy that it bends toward the blade and cuts like velvet."

" Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years."

"The veil that had hung uncertainly between them for so long was dissolved. Before she knew what she was doing, she had committed herself to that kiss that was at once a boy's and a man's, as timid as it was tender; so like Emil and so unlike any one else in the world. Not until it was over did she realize what it meant. And Emil, who had so often imagined the shock of this first kiss, was surprised at its gentleness and naturalness. It was like a sigh which they had breathed together; almost sorrowful, as if each were afraid of wakening something in the other."

"How terrible it was to love people when you could not really share their lives!"

Related Reviews:
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Purchase and read books by Willa Cather:

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather A Lost Lady by Willa Cather Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather


Saturday, March 27, 2004

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

Freckles (1904) by Gene Stratton-Porter is a moral tale combined with adventure and romance. Freckles is an orphan with only one hand. He arrives at the Limberlost swamp in Indiana to search for a job after leaving the Home, an orphanage in Chicago. His honesty and positive attitude earn him a job as the Limberlost guard for the lumber company. There, Freckles proves himself to be intelligent, strong, and diligent.

As Freckles guards the trees, he learns about the plants growing in the Limberlost and he befriends the animals living there. Freckles makes a “room” in the swamp, a closed garden where he spends time and stores his specimen case containing his treasures. One day, a beautiful girl peeks into his “room,” and Freckles falls in love with her. He calls her his “Swamp Angel.” He befriends the Bird Woman, the Angel’s friend, who takes photos of Freckles’s birds, which he calls “chickens.”

Freckles impresses those around him with his work ethic and good nature. His boss, McLean, treats Freckles as if he were his own son. He prepares to send Freckles to school after the timber gang arrives and Freckles’s guard duty ends. Mr. Duncan, who works for the lumber company, and his wife both love the affectionate boy. The Swamp Angel inspires Freckles in new ways, and we learn that he aspires to sing. He has a stunning voice.

Meanwhile, trouble brews for Freckles as a thief named Black Jack plans to steal trees. The pair fight with one another, and Freckles wins twice, but eventually Freckles is overpowered. The Angel saves Freckles as the thieves attempt to steal a valuable tree. Then later, a tree nearly falls on the Angel, and Freckles saves her, but he is severely hurt and hospitalized.

In the hospital, Freckles is dejected, feeling he will never be able to have the thing he truly wants–the Angel. She is of a higher class, and Freckles believes she deserves a better husband, one who is not nameless and missing a hand. Though the Angel tries to convince him that she loves him, Freckles refuses to believe that they can be together. He thinks of how he arrived at the Home, beaten and bloody, with his arm cut off. He wonders what parents could do that to their own son.

The Angel disagrees, telling him that his parents could never have done such things when Freckles has such a good heart. She aims to prove that he was loved and learns that he was the son of a Lord. Freckles’s parents died in a fire trying to save him, and he has a huge inheritance.

The story ends happily with this contrivance of the plot; however, I would have enjoyed it more had Freckles understood his self-worth was determined by himself, not by the discovery of his parents and high-class name.

Related Reviews:
A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter
At the Foot of the Rainbow by Gene Stratton-Porter

Purchase and read books by Gene Stratton-Porter:

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter At the Foot of the Rainbow by Gene Stratton-Porter A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter


Friday, March 12, 2004

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

Gene Stratton-Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) is a lovely tale of a girl named Elnora Comstock. Elnora is a headstrong, intelligent nature-lover. She is 16 years old at the beginning of the story and ages to around 23 by the end. The reader sympathizes for her in her early struggles to pay for school and to forgive her mother as well as in her later struggles in romance.

Elnora lives with her mother Katharine by the Limberlost swamp in Indiana. Her father drowned in the swamp before Elnora was born, and her mother shows her no affection. Katharine Comstock is an outstanding example of selfishness. She has a wicked, acidic tongue and sense of humor. Katharine idolizes her dead husband and blames Elnora for his death. Elnora reminds her mother of her father at times, making Katharine even more aloof from her child. At the same time, Katharine does not want anyone else to love Elnora either, so she jealously guards Elnora from her Aunt Maggie and Uncle Wesley. Maggie and Wesley give Elnora love and treat her with kindness.

Elnora must pay for her schooling, and she succeeds through her sheer determination in the face of adverse circumstances. She learns everything about the Limberlost. Elnora collects moths, butterflies, and Indian relics, and she studies the rare plants that grow there. She excels at playing the violin, like her father. Elnora pays her way through school by selling collections of moths to the Bird Lady. She ends up graduating first in her class.

One climax in the book occurs when Katharine finally realizes that her memory of her husband is false and that she has been needlessly punishing her daughter. Following this realization, Katharine’s transformation is remarkable. She changes from being an evil and misunderstood villainess to become the mother Elnora always dreamed of having. Understanding Katharine’s motivations is one of the highlights of the novel.

The latter part of the story involves Elnora’s attraction to Philip Ammon. Philip shares Elnora's love of nature, but he is engaged to another woman. Elnora is attracted to him, not in a romantic sense at first, but as a kindred friend who understands and shares her love for the environment. When Philip’s fiancée Edith Carr humiliates him at a ball, he thinks of Elnora in a new light, and he returns to the Limberlost to win her heart. Elnora is cautious because she doesn't know Edith’s side of the story. Through many twists and turns, Elnora and Philip end up together.

My favorite aspect of A Girl of the Limberlost is Porter’s keen understanding of nature. She portrays settings in a way that engrossed me as a reader. In reading this story, I was left with a vivid picture of the Limberlost.

Related Reviews:
Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
At the Foot of the Rainbow by Gene Stratton-Porter

Purchase and read books by Gene Stratton-Porter:

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter