Month: February 2011

To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

It’s always good to have an excuse to read a Persephone, so thanks to Claire and Verity for Persephone Reading Weekend! And thanks too to Ellen, a dear reader of my blog, who lent me a Persephone to read as I am far from my own collection and the Persephone shop. I have been wanting to read To Bed With Grand Music since it came out, as the very subversive depiction of wartime life intrigued me immensely; no charity bazaars and ration queues and cheery keep the home fires burning spirit are found within the pages of this rather incendiary novel, which will forever have me doubting the rose tinted view of women in wartime that I had previously believed so fervently.

The novel opens with Deborah Robertson and her husband Graham lying in bed the night before Graham is to be shipped off to a cushy office job in Cairo. The likelihood is that Graham will be gone for at least three or four years, and the thought of abstinence for such a length of time is intolerable for him. As such, he promises Deborah that though he may have sex with other women, he won’t truly be unfaithful to her, as he couldn’t possibly fall in love with anyone else. Deborah accepts this, but promises that she will be faithful on all fronts, as she has their little boy Timmy to think of, and she expects that home and hearth will fill her hours tolerably until Graham returns. However, life with Timmy and the housekeeper in a sleepy Hampshire village soon becomes deathly dull for Deborah, who feels taunted by Graham’s jealousy inducing letters of high jinks in Cairo. Deborah decides that she will be a better mother by keeping busy and getting a job to help the war effort. Though her first attempt fails due to her missing Timmy, soon, with her sly and pragmatic mother’s support, she heads off to London to do an office job in the War Office. Little Timmy is left at home with Mrs Chalmers, the elderly housekeeper, and Deborah moves in with her racy old Slade school friend, Mady, whose marriage is all but over and lives a life of glamour and genteel debauchery behind the blackout curtains of wartime London.

At first, after a one night stand she feels sickened by, Deborah sticks to her principles and stays in every night, refusing Mady’s invitations to dinner and parties with handsome men. She lives for the weekend to go home to her little boy, who is increasingly growing apart from her. Eventually, Deborah is swayed by the charms of an American, Joe, whose pregnant wife has asked him not to cheapen their marriage by sleeping with just anyone, and whose feelings about infidelity match Deborah’s own. As long as they don’t fall in love, they are just two people who love their spouses, fulfilling their sexual desires. However, before long, the lines get muddied, and Deborah is being showered with expensive gifts, far beyond Graham has ever had the power to give. Used to the constant attention and companionship, when things end with Joe, she moves on to Sheldon, and then to Pierre, who Deborah asks to teach her how to be a good mistress. It is at this point that Deborah changes from being a naive, lonely woman desperate for companionship and becomes a calculating sexual predator, seeking to charm and seduce any man who comes her way. Her behaviour becomes more and more shocking up until the spectacular end, when it seems that Deborah really does not have any redeeming characteristics about her whatsoever, and her moral compass appears to have become completely and utterly shattered.

Deborah is very much an anti-heroine, a woman whose lack of maternal instincts and predatory, fickle nature would cause many a woman to raise her hackles. She is near impossible to like, identify with, or sympathise with, and her selfishness and lack of conscience are very shocking to read about. She cheerfully lies to Graham, to her son, to her friends, to her mother; she will do anything to get what she wants. However, Deborah is, thanks to Laski’s excellent characterisation, far more three dimensional than a stock pantomime villain. One sentence in this book struck me more than any other – when Deborah reveals to one of her men that she is but 24. That’s the same age as me. If I had been married at 21, become a mother at 22, and left by my husband at 24, stuck in a cottage in the middle of nowhere with no-one but a toddler and an elderly housekeeper for company, I’d be miserable, restless and open to the temptations of glamour and male attention promised by a single life in London too.

Deborah seems so adult that it’s easy to forget that she is a mere child, really. She is naive, easily led, and far too restless to have settled down so young. Her rather odious mother, who is hardly moral or full of motherly affection and wisdom, encourages Deborah’s behaviour by packing her off to London with nary a backwards glance, despite knowing full well what her daughter is like. She has offered little support or company while Deborah has been alone without Graham, and makes no attempt to help Deborah find fulfilment within the domestic sphere. Deborah has no friends, no parental guiding hand, and no-one to turn to except Mady and her string of male admirers. I gathered from Deborah’s rather stuffy and arms-lengthish relationship with her mother that she had never really felt loved by her, and her aborted time of freedom in London to study at the Slade, which ended with her very early and rushed marriage to Graham, who was not the man of riches and glamour she had dreamed of marrying, meant that she didn’t get the opportunity to achieve any of the things she had wanted to for herself. Motherhood and the cares of hearth and home clearly stifled her and made her feel lonely and isolated, and when her opportunity came to live a little, and make the most of the beauty she was blessed with, I don’t really blame her for wanting to take every advantage of it.

By the end, granted, Deborah has become intolerably selfish, greedy and callous, used to the glamorous and commitment free life of a girl about town. However, her transformation is, in some ways, understandable; so trapped was she by the early responsibilities of house, husband and child, that she is terrified at the thought of being confined in the role of wife and mother forevermore, and so she rebels against it as fiercely as she can. While there is no excuse for infidelity and for virtually abandoning your child, at the same time, Deborah is an example of what the limited roles for women and the pressure to marry early during this period could cause. The fact that Deborah would rather spend all night out partying and wake up with a stranger rather than be with her husband and child seems abhorrent, but then we must remember that she is only 24, and already condemned to a life she neither has an aptitude or an enjoyment for. If I consider my life, now, at the same age; living alone in New York, free to do as I please, I can’t imagine having to be responsible for a child and settled with a husband. I’m nowhere near ready for such commitments, and far too selfish to have to submit my desires to the needs of someone else. Deborah is the same, but she didn’t have the option to live as I do. Luckily, with the clocks fast forward to 70 years from when To Bed With Grand Music is set, society no longer compels women to marry young and have no life outside of the home. I am free to fulfil myself how I wish, but Deborah wasn’t, until the war gave her a fresh chance at striking out and fulfilling her desires. Deborah’s desires and behaviour may not be morally right, but they are, to me, anyway, somewhat understandable. Unlike other reviewers, I didn’t find Deborah completely and utterly abhorrent. I felt very sorry for her, in fact. If only she had been born a few decades later, I think she would have had a much happier life.

Also, much is not said in this novel; we never hear about what Graham has been up to in Cairo, and Deborah’s letters, filled with lies, are much the same as Graham’s. Deborah is probably not the only one in their relationship who has been unfaithful, and Graham has hardly had a hard time of it, being billetted to a rowdy and fun loving camp in cosmopolitan Cairo, well out of any danger. Even so, it always seems that female infidelity is more shocking and frowned upon than male; male infidelity is almost expected, and brushed to one side, whereas women who stray are branded as harlots. Graham tells Deborah he will sleep around as if it is an accepted fact that men have ‘needs’ and women don’t; this ridiculous and sexist attitude is, I think, played with quite well by Laski. Graham should be the villain of the piece; he intends from the start to be unfaithful to his wife, whereas Deborah has every intention to remain faithful to her husband. However, we only get to see Deborah’s experiences, whereas Graham’s are reduced to the odd brief letter, behind which any number of lies and infidelities could be hidden. As such, Deborah becomes a paragon of vice and Graham becomes the wronged husband, even though really, he has probably wronged his wife just as much. However, because Deborah is a woman, and a mother, we detest her for her behaviour, and manage to completely excuse the midnight prowlings of poor cuckolded Graham. Interesting, isn’t it?

No matter where you stand on the issue of Deborah’s character, this is an absolutely fascinating, brilliantly written portrayal of a completely different side of wartime life, and Marghanita Laski proves herself once again to be an absolutely phenomenal story teller. Why her books fell out of print, I cannot understand. This has become one of my favourite Persephones; complex, thought provoking, subversive and fascinating, I couldn’t put it down. Read it!

A Persephone for Every Occassion

Hurrah! It’s Persephone Reading Week! Thanks Claire and Verity! I’ve already read my Persephone for the weekend and my review will be appearing at some point over the next couple of days!

There are now nearly 100 Persephones to choose from; a practically impossible task, therefore, to pick the one you most want to read at the right moment. I’ve compiled a little list of my recommendations for different moods; hopefully some of you might find it useful this weekend!

What to read when you’re:

Down in the dumps

An obvious, but necessary choice: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, without a doubt. You can’t possibly feel sad after reading about Miss Pettigrew’s transformation from lonely, down on her luck nursery maid to glamorous, gorgeous and confident lady about town. In just twenty four hours, Miss Pettigrew’s life has been changed forever, and her story shows that no cause is ever hopeless, and it is never too late to achieve your dreams. Reading this is like dancing on clouds of candy floss while chocolate buttons rain down on you – it’s a magnificently frothy, lightweight, feel good book that will put a smile on your face and sweeten your mood. What’s not to like?

Stuck indoors on a rainy day:

This happens a lot in England, so I know of what I speak. When it’s wet and grey and depressing outside for the fifth day in a row and you really can’t be bothered to face getting soaked through and faff about with an umbrella, then the sofa becomes your dearest friend, accompanied, of course, with a Persephone, to make you forget those grey skies outside your window. The perfect choice for such days is the lovely A Fortnight in September; it might only be two weeks in Bognor (which isn’t as bad as it sounds, I spent a lovely week there once!), but the simple joy and release the  Stevens family find in getting away from their humdrum suburban lives is wonderfully inspiring and heartwarming. It’s pure sunshine for the soul!

Are feeling rubbish at everything:

We all have those days when we feel like a complete and utter failure at life. You oversleep, you miss the train, you’re late for work, you press ‘reply to all’ by mistake, are wearing a hopelessly unflattering outfit, have nothing in the fridge for dinner, and it’s probably raining as well, just to rub things in. Rather than reaching for the ice cream (or really, let’s face it, a bottle of wine), Miss Buncle’s Book can be a great antidote to feelings of total inadequacy. Everyone thought Miss Buncle was a silly old woman and laughed at her – she proved them wrong by writing a bestseller and landing a husband to boot! Miss Buncle is nothing special – she’s just a good hearted woman with a cash flow problem, and she makes the best of what she has and does a very good job of it too. She’s the perfect inspiration for those days when you are feeling less than mediocre.

Need to be reminded that there is good in the world:

Modern life can get you down. It’s a tough world out there, and sometimes, especially when you’re crammed underneath someone’s armpit on the tube/subway, it can all get a bit much. Enter Greenery Street. Greenery Street is one of the most joy filled, positive books I’ve read. It focuses on the wonderful, beautiful things of life; it’s about young newlyweds, freshfaced, hopeful, and in love, and it will restore your faith in humanity and buoy you up with joy. Greenery Street always reminds me that life is good, really, despite all of the rubbish and sadness we often have to put up with. The simple pleasure Ian and Felicity take in each other is so truly lovely, and the feeling I get when I’m reading it is akin to letting go of one hundred colourful balloons and watching them go floating off into the sky; my soul is uplifted.

Are feeling homesick for England:

For those of us Brits who have somehow found ourselves washed up far from the shores of our beloved green and pleasant land, or for those who are simply Anglophiles and long for the damp drizzly island I call home, sometimes you need a healthy dose of quintessential Britishness that won’t be satisfied by just having a cup of tea and a biscuit. On such occassions, you need to reach for a Dorothy Whipple novel. Filled with the uniquely sooty streets of Northern manufacturing towns, rolling hills, stiff upper lips and class divides, they are everything you need to make you feel right at home. Dorothy Whipple’s novels are fantastic microcosms of English life, populated by practical, stoical heroes and heroines, who keep calm and carry on in the face of life’s troubles. I can’t possibly pick a favourite; you must read them all and decide for yourself.

Are in the mood for something a bit different:

So much of modern fiction can begin to feel samey and contrived. Sometimes you want to read something that will genuinely take your breath away, and make you look amazingly intelligent in front of fellow commuters. Fidelity and Brook Evans are rather underread Persephones that left me speechless, shattered and in complete and utter awe. Filled with the sort of heart rending pain and spectacular characters that aren’t written about any more, they are true gems, and perfect for when you’re in a reading rut.

Need some more drama in your life:

Feeling humdrum? You need The Shuttle; pure and simple Victorian melodrama filled with pantomime villains, damsels in distress, spunky heroines and fainting fits aplenty. You can’t fail to enjoy this ripping page turner that paints a fascinating picture of the turn of the century vogue for impoverished English aristocrats to marry American heiresses, and the questionable coincidences and dastardly rakes will have your blood pressure rising and creative juices flowing in no time!

Want to get lost in another world:

Sometimes we all need an escape, and we can’t always afford a holiday. A book can bridge the gap nicely, and The Children who Lived in a Barn really does transport you back in time and into the lives of the Dunnett children, who are forced to live without their missing parents for a summer. Their quaint speech, detailed descriptions of village and domestic life in the 1950′s, and wonderful efficiency that only children brought up in simpler, more austere times could have, will sweep you far and away into another world, and leave you desperate to build a haybox. If you want to know what I’m talking about, you’d better read it!

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

This is one of the books for my Reading America project; a project I’m not doing a particularly good job at sticking to as I keep going off on tangents (mainly pioneer related), but nevertheless, I am slowly but surely making my way through the list. Ellen Foster, I had heard, was a particularly good account of an unconventional Southern childhood, with a genuine and haunting voice of an eleven year old girl narrating the tale of an alcoholic, abusive father, a dead mother, an unsympathetic family, and a hopeful ending. I was excited to read it, especially as I enjoyed Kaye Gibbons’ novel Sights Unseen a few months ago, and from the start, the voice of Ellen; spunky, brave, forthright, pragmatic, far too grown up for her age, yet touchingly naive, drew me in completely to her story.

Ellen lives with her parents in a tumbledown house in the South. Her mother, from a distinguished, wealthy family, married ‘down’, to a farmer who quickly became dependent on alcohol, and abusive to boot. Ellen’s mother has a weak heart, and can’t cope with the stress and anguish of her husband’s continual abuse. At the beginning of the book, she dies, of what is implied to be an overdose, and Ellen is left alone to live with her father, who couldn’t care less that Ellen is there. Ellen manages to feed and clothe herself through the money she takes from her father, but after he starts to sexually abuse her during drunken rampages with his friends, she flees the house to seek refuge with her mother’s sister. Unwanted there, she then moves on to her grandmother, who also doesn’t want her, and blames her for her daughter’s death. After her grandmother dies, Ellen is taken in by her mother’s other sister, but the grudging care given to her by her selfish aunt soon leads Ellen to find a new mother who will love her and give her the home and family she has longed for, and in this woman, who is no relation to her, she finds what she has spent her short life searching for.

Interspersed within this plot of Ellen searching for a family is her experience of watching the life of another, loving, family; that of her younger friend Starletta. Starletta is black and in a newly desegregated America, racism is still very much a reality. While Ellen loves Starletta and is embraced warmly by her sympathetic parents, she still thinks of them as dirty and won’t eat in their house or sleep there. Her childish ignorance is evident through these attitudes, clearly picked up from the adults around her, and which she has not yet had an opportunity to weigh and measure for herself.  Despite her racist attitude and her often vitriolic thoughts about her father and mother’s family, Ellen is still affectionate, passionate, wise and determined, and a wonderful character who comes to life through the clever use of language; I really felt that I was listening to the voice of a largely uneducated 11 year old, whose life had been too filled with pain and disappointment, forcing her into a sometimes frighteningly mature outlook on life, tinged with a heartbreaking childish naivety that gives her the vulnerability she tries so hard not to show.

You know from the start that all will turn out fine for Ellen, as the narrative isn’t linear and jumps forward and back in time, with Ellen reminiscing about how she came to be with her ‘New Mama’ and become part of the ‘Foster Family’. However, it is the journey of Ellen’s life, of what she learns, of what she experiences, and what she takes from it, that provides the interest. Only 120-odd pages, it’s a very quick glimpse into a life I wish no child would have to experience, and its brevity gives it both a breathless, childish feel, but also an air of lightweight insignificance. For, as much as I loved Ellen’s voice, I didn’t think the book itself was particularly good. Chosen for Oprah’s book club and lauded as an American classic, I had expectations that such a slim novel filled largely with cliches and not enough character development could ever fulfil. Compared to Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, Ellen Foster just doesn’t hold a candle to two such prominent and iconic accounts of childhood. What particularly annoyed me was the completely unnecessary and cliched inclusion of Starletta; the issue of race felt tacked on for the mere purpose of showing that this was a novel set in the South and that Racism Is Wrong, and Gibbons’ stereotyped depiction of the simple yet good hearted Black people felt trite and uncomfortable.

Obviously, for a book written through the eyes of a child, not all the characters are going to be developed, not everything is going to make sense, and behaviours will appear exaggerated or incomprehensible, as they would be to an eleven year old. There also, perhaps, can be little plot or ‘point’; this is Ellen’s story of her journey to find a family, and as she is only 11, her life is far from complete. However, Ellen doesn’t grow or change much over the course of the novel, and her ‘revelation’ about her racist attitudes at the end felt wholly out of place, and a rushed attempt to bring ‘closure’ to a novel that could never really offer any, for Ellen’s life and struggles are far from over. As such I was left wondering what exactly Gibbons had been trying to say through Ellen Foster, and what she wanted to achieve; I just didn’t ‘get’ it. This is rare for me; I can usually find meaning and point in most novels, but like Sights Unseen, this felt largely aimless, which I found disconcerting, and ultimately, unsatisfying.

It’s an odd book, really; half accomplished and wonderful, and half a soggy mess of cliches and indecision. Despite my misgivings, I still enjoyed the experience of reading this, and I wouldn’t recommend that you not read it. I would, however, advise that you go in with caution. Perhaps lowered expectations might enhance the reading experience somewhat. My thanks must also go to a dear reader of my blog who sent me his own lovely edition of this; it was much appreciated!

Writing the Self

I went to a fascinating exhibition at the Morgan Library last weekend, on the subject of the Diary. The curators of the exhibition have pulled together a selection of diaries, spanning three centuries, mostly of famous literary and artistic individuals, but also of unknown people, inviting the viewer to consider the purpose of diaries. They raise the questions of how and why we write about ourselves, and who we are writing for, when we are writing a seemingly ‘private’ document. Diaries are written for a number of purposes; for posterity, for clarity, for organisation, for discipline, for emotional release, for self expression, to name a few. However, the question of whether we really consider them private is a matter for discussion; some of the diaries on display were collaborative, such as the Hawthorne family’s, and others were written by literary heavyweights who knew their diaries would one day be of public interest. Some were published during their author’s lifetimes, such as Anais Nin’s candid writings, and Thoreau’s reflections on his life at Walden Pond, and others, long after their deaths, such as Samuel Pepys’. The most interesting thing for me was how blogs were raised in the exhibition as a new form of diary for the modern age, and that the willingness of people to publish their innermost thoughts for the world to see, rather than keeping it private within the pages of a notebook, demonstrates a societal change in our notions of what is private and what is public.

When I first started this blog, I didn’t think for a minute that anyone would ever read it apart from me and a few friends. I started it for two reasons – to get back into the swing of writing semi- creatively, and to keep a track of the books I was reading and what I thought of them. I didn’t intend it to be personal, and I didn’t particularly want it to be. I’m naturally a rather private person, and while I am very open with those who are closest to me, the thought of baring my soul online never appealed. However, I noticed that as I wrote my reviews of books, more and more of the real life me I never intended to reveal was becoming evident through the views I expressed and the things I picked out as having meaning to me within the pages of the books I was reading. Looking back over nearly two years’ worth of book reviews, I can understand exactly what I was going through in my personal life through the way I have written about certain books. The things that struck me, the memories they evoked, the emotions they brought forth, all give a rounded picture of me and my life, frozen in time, if you look hard enough. I discovered that I can’t write dispassionately, or impersonally, as much as I originally thought I was going to.

As such, I don’t think it’s possible to be impersonal; everything we express, whether vocally or on paper, is a reflection of our mind and hearts at a particular moment in time, and how we react and what we find significance in speaks volumes about our personalities and opinions and state of mind, whether we’re writing about books or politics or cooking or crafts. And really, do we want to live in an impersonal world, anyway? By depersonalising life, by saying things such as ‘it’s not personal, it’s business’, by spouting vitriol at strangers on the internet, by stereotyping and reducing people to statistics,  we dehumanise and we make it acceptable to treat others with disrespect and callousness and violence. That’s why I have grown to enjoy making my blog more personal, by letting people see the person behind the words on the screen. The world isn’t made of machines, it’s made of people. A chance to glimpse inside minds, and hearts, and souls, to learn more about other people’s ways of life, their passions, their interests, their beliefs, and so on, helps us all to become better, and more considerate people, I think. It’s inspiring.

That’s exactly what the exhibition at the Morgan was; inspiring. Reading the hopes and dreams and loves and losses and just plain everyday details of everyday lives of anonymous strangers and famous faces alike made me realise that underneath it all, we are all the same, and our lives have infinite possibilities. No matter where we are from, what age we are, what religious beliefs we hold, what morals we have, we are all, fundamentally, people. If blogs are the new way for us to chronicle our thoughts, then I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be personal in a public sphere. By blogging, we are helping to re-personalise a world that is rapidly becoming impersonal, and that can surely only be a positive development. I think, obviously, you can be too personal, and you have to be mindful of personal safety, but within these boundaries, a lot of good can come from sharing your life with other people; understanding and appreciating the lives and views of those who are different from ourselves is vital if we are to solve the myriad of problems our world is currently facing. My ‘book blog’ has evolved from that impersonal chronicle of book reviews I started many months ago and has become a diary of sorts, chronicling my adventures around the world alongside the books that I read, and laying bare my musings on life and the universe. I still keep a paper diary that is highly personal and is for my eyes only – primarily because I find it useful to have an emotional outlet, as writing things down helps me to rationalise and work through problems I am facing, and to be able to look back and see how far I have come over the years- but my electronic blog is just as important to me. By publishing what I write, it forces me to think more carefully about who I am and why I am who I am, and through that process, I think it is even helping me to become a better person, in many ways.

Writing the self is always going to be a topic fraught with difficulty, with conflicting agendas and questions of authenticity. Even when we write for our eyes only, are we truly as honest as we can possibly be, or is there always an element of presenting the best version of ourselves, the version that we wouldn’t mind others reading about, if our words get caught in the wrong hands? Online this becomes an even more important issue; we can easily suppress those less than sanitary parts of our lives, gloss over the difficulties, and only write about the good things, only post those photographs that show us from our best angles. There is always, I think, a certain element of fiction, or performance, even in a diary, and this was evident in some of the diaries that were on display at the Morgan; events exaggerated, conversations elaborated, impressions coloured in a little more extravagantly than the sepia tones of real life. This is the same on our blogs; who posts about the cake that didn’t rise, the stomach upsets suffered on the perfect holiday, the colossal amount of debt they have taken on in order to buy that picture perfect house? As much as we do say, there is also a lot that we don’t, and idealising our lives is something that certainly isn’t new; it’s been going on since writing about the self began.

Even so, writing about our innermost lives seems to be an enduring and essential part of the human experience, as we all strive to make sense of what goes on inside of us, and to find inspiration in the lives and thoughts of others. As the world is changing and technology advances, access to people’s private thoughts is becoming ever easier. Do we want to embrace this, or run from it? Are there some things we should keep private? Does too much disclosure turn you off? I’d love to read your thoughts.

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Moving from the isolated plains of Kansas to the abundant farms and busy towns of upstate New York, Laura Ingalls Wilder uses the delightful Farmer Boy to tell the story of her husband Almanzo Wilder’s childhood. Almanzo’s life could not have been more different from Laura’s. His parents were wealthy and successful farmers, and had a large, warm, comfortable house not far from the large town of Malone. Almanzo grew up alongside his elder siblings Royal, Eliza Jane and Alice, and they had a wonderful, rambunctious childhood on the farm, where there was always plenty to eat, plenty to do, and plenty of adventures to have. Life with the Wilders is described beautifully, and it is a testament to how close Laura and Almanzo must have been that she can tell her husband’s story so evocatively.

Almanzo is a terrific character, and a perfectly realised nine year old boy. Always starving hungry, always teasing his sisters, and always desperate to do the things his parents tell him he is not old enough to do yet, he comes effortlessly to life on the page. He loves farm life, and he adores the animals he is given to look after. He has his own two calves, Star and Bright, and it is his job to train them so that they can respond to direction and pull a sled. Time spent at school is torture for Almanzo, when he just wants to be out in the fresh air with the animals, training them and proving to his father that he is old enough and responsible enough to be given his own colt to break. Having his own colt is Almanzo’s dearest dream and throughout the whole book he is learning the lessons he needs to learn in order to develop the maturity, patience and discipline to be given such a heavy responsibility.

Life on the farm is busy and there are a constant round of season specific chores to carry out. When the book opens, it is winter, and the cold is almost unbearable. However, no one can afford to spend all day keeping warm indoors. After school, Almanzo and Royal must go out and do the chores, making sure that the animals are fed, warm and clean. They are rewarded by the colossal feasts their mother cooks every night for dinner; roasted meats, stews, sweet and savoury pies, creamy mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables are heaped on the table, ready to fill the hungry young bellies. The amount of food Almanzo manages to pack away astounded me! Not content with a full plate of dinner, he easily devours three slices of pie for his pudding, and then, when the family retire to the warm and cosy firelit parlour, he continues to eat; apples, apple cider and popcorn are all provided to munch on as they read together until bedtime. This is NOT the book to read on an empty stomach! This abundance of food was a huge change from the sparse diet the Ingalls ate on the prairie; Laura was lucky if she got beans and salt pork for dinner, whereas Almanzo has the pick of an entire farm’s worth of produce, and he is never in danger of going without.

Almanzo’s parents are wise and forthright and don’t spare their children the realities of farming life. Everyone has their responsibilites, and Alice and Eliza Jane and Mother have just as many chores to do as their male relatives. They believe in learning through doing, and Almanzo and Royal are regularly let off school in order to help with big jobs, like cutting ice from the pond to keep for the summer, threshing, harvesting and hauling logs. Almanzo gets into many a scrape, but by making mistakes and being foolish he learns that he needs to be careful and responsible in order to be trusted and to get the job done. He nearly falls into the pond when he is not paying attention, and nearly gets crushed by a log, but he gets up again each time, and his father’s stern but loving encouragement gives him the confidence to keep trying to get things right. His battle to get Star and Bright to haul lumber was particularly endearing; I loved how his father rode past him when he saw he had fallen into a ditch with the two wayward calves, refusing to give him help because he knew that Almanzo needed to learn how to resolve his own difficulties if he was going to become a good farmer.

It’s not all hard work and no play for Almanzo and his siblings, however; as hard as they work on the farm, they are also given plenty of opportunities to enjoy themselves. The big county fair was a particularly enjoyable episode, when Almanzo enters his specially cultivated pumpkin to win the top prize, and Christmas was also delightful, when the rowdy and competitive cousins come over from town, food is even more lavish than usual and the thrilled Wilder children come tumbling downstairs at 3.30am to rouse their parents and open their presents and all they are greeted with is a stern but kindly ‘children, have you thought to look at the clock?’. Toboganning is of particular enjoyment in the snow, and in the summer, the children delight in running around barefoot in the fields and eating their weight in watermelons. It sounds like an absolutely charmed existence, despite the cold weather, the often hard labour, and the difficulties that occasionally crop up, like when an early frost comes and it’s all hands on deck to save the crops before the sun comes up. Almanzo’s parents are loving and wise, and bring their children up to value what they have, understand the merits of hard work, and appreciate the worth of money. They are proud of their farm and their home, and while the younger generation seem to have their heads turned towards the more modern and productive way of life in the towns and cities, they are keen to instil a sense of pride and respect in the land and being self reliant. At the end, Almanzo’s choice between pursuing a town or country future exemplifies the changing attitudes towards rural livelihoods and the easier, less labour intensive urban way of life; modernisation is coming, even as Laura’s family are living a simple and, perhaps to the Wilders, incomprehensibly backwards, way of life on the prairie.

On the surface this is a charming and beautifully told tale of a rural childhood, but between the lines there is a different story. The world is modernising, and the increasing growth of towns and the opportunities available for work within them are drawing more and more of the younger generations away from the farms their fathers and grandfathers started. The conflict between the traditionally raised Wilders and their city raised cousins, who wear store bought rather than hand made clothes, and get given nickels to buy trivial things, demonstrate the rapidly changing values and aspirations of society as urbanisation increases. A theme I particularly enjoyed was Almanzo’s mother’s role in the family; like the pioneer women I read about in Joanna Stratton’s book, she plays a vital part in the economics of the home as well as fulfilling the traditional function of wife, mother and homemaker. The butter she makes brings in as much money as her husband’s potato crop, and without her culinary skills, the family would not have the harvested food she uses a variety of ways to preserve to eat all throughout the barren, freezing winter. She has just as much a say in the way things are done as her husband, and their equal, affectionate and respectful relationship was very interesting to read about in a pre feminist age. Not all Victorian women were angels in the house after all.

So, another wonderful read that educated and entertained me. I love how much I have gained from reading these so called simple children’s books. They are showing me so much about American history and the values young Americans were brought up with over a century ago. The greatest joy is that there are so many more books to come; I am waiting for my copy of On the Banks of Plum Creek to arrive, to take me back to the prairies and the story of the Ingalls family…I can’t wait!