Island of the Blue Dolphins

Monday, August 31, 2009

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Scott O'Dell, 1960

Hardcore. That's what Scott O'Dell's classic book is. I remembered that it was about a girl living alone on an island, and a lot of the book is Robinson Crusoe stuff. I had forgotten that stuff included building walls to keep out vicious dogs, designing, building and testing weapons to hunt food and defend herself, and struggling alone with illness.

The story is based loosely on a real woman who lived alone on the island of San Nicholas off the California coast for 18 years. Sadly, we know very little for sure about her, because by the time she was taken off the island, no one else remained who spoke her language, she died soon after arriving in California, (probably from diseases she had no immunity to,) and her artifacts were lost in the San Fransisco earthquake. So O'Dell is imagining what her life may have been like. It is perhaps not surprising that the lone male author in the group of girls books I've read here wrote the most violent book, but her life is presented in such a matter of fact way, that it never felt exploitative to me.

Karana is a strong, highly self-sufficient girl. She tames several different types of animals in an effort to hold off loneliness, and providing for herself and her small wild family takes up most of her time. We follow her as she becomes more proficient in her hunting, improves her weapons, and uses extra time to expand her wardrobe.

This is all after the initial chapters, which detail her life before the tragedies with Aleut hunters that decimate the tribe and lead to her being left on the island, after she swears to kill the pack of wild dogs in revenge for the death of her brother.

O'Dell does romanticize her plight somewhat by the end. It is implied that she regrets leaving the simple life on the island when she is finally taken off, but that it is worth it to be among other people again.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Caddie Woodlawn

Monday, August 24, 2009

Caddie Woodlawn
Carol Ryrie Brink, 1935

Caddie Woodlawn is seen by some (according to the quote on the back) as a sort of antidote to Little House on the Prairie. And the contrasts are interesting. I enjoyed the book maybe a bit less than I remember enjoying it as a girl, but it's a sweet story about a pioneer girl, presented as a series of life events. (I was always a huge sucker for a good pioneer girl story.)

Caddie, unlike any of the other girls I've looked at recently, is a confirmed tomboy. It's explained that her father encouraged her to be so to enhance her health. Okay theory to me. So the arc of the book of course includes Caddie deciding that maybe it's time to learn to be feminine. My initial reaction is: well, if you must.

However, there is a memorable chapter in which Caddie begins to learn to quilt, and her brothers decide that if it's good enough for the sister they've played with all their lives, then they're going to learn too. The story of Caddie growing up is in fact nicely balanced with both masculine and feminine pursuits. (I loved the chapter in which her father teaches her to fix clocks.)

This book is also written much more like a story (rather than a history) than Little House, and there's a good reason. Carol Ryrie Brink based her book on the life of her grandmother, as told in stories to her as a child. In the preface to the edition I had, she writes that her grandmother was still alive when the book was being written, that she asked her questions about many things, and quotes her grandmother as finding the book very true to her family. Whether or not every event was based on a true account, it, alone among the girls books so far, was being written as a historical novel by someone who had not lived in that time.

I find the following information fascinating:
Caddie Woodlawn: published 1935 about 1860s Author 40
Little House: published 1932, 1935 about 1868, 1870 Author 65, 68
Little Women: published 1868-9, about 1860s Author 36
Anne of Green Gables: published 1908 about 1900s Author 34

Brink is writing about pioneer life from the perspective of a relatively modern woman. So of course she mostly extols the virtues of Caddie's tomboy ways, and her heroine gets to go on a breakneck horse ride to head off a fight between the local Indians and the townspeople.

Also of note, the death of Abraham Lincoln is touched on as an important time for the family. Louisa May Alcott, who was writing directly after the Civil War, (in which she served as a nurse,) doesn't even mention directly what side of the war the father in Little Women is fighting on. She was living it, Brink has the luxury of looking back though history.

Now, it's not entirely progressive writing. There's some unfortunate dialogue due to the fact that the Indians and the settlers don't really share a language. But, even though she was writing at the same time as Laura Ingalls Wilder, about the same period, the tone of the books is very different. Caddie Woodlawn is probably better written from the point of view of novel construction. However, the main differences are those between an older woman looking back, reconstructing (and partially fictionalizing) her own childhood, and a younger woman looking back on a time she never really knew. This makes Caddie Woodlawn a rousing read, but Little House feels more real.

 2 Stars - An Okay Book

Little Women

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Little Women (Parts 1 and 2)
Louisa May Alcott, 1868, 1869

While prettily written at times, I just could not get into Little Women. The style is so completely presentational, and so completely sugar-dipped in overtly Christian morality. Upon my describing what I disliked about it, Erin commented that it could have been written specifically NOT for me.

(If references to teaching little girls to love God don't cause you to break out in hives, your mileage may vary.)

The author is constantly reminding you of the main characteristic she has assigned to each girl, not necessarily by having them act in a particular way, but either having them talk about the fact that one is selfish, or vain, or tomboyish, etc. or by constantly describing them in that way.

Re-skimming the beginning, I might have initially been too harsh on the writing. It sometimes has a lovely lilt to it, but there are still enough wince-worthy turns of phrase to put me off. Personally, I just couldn't get past the premise. 'Poor (not really) little girls learn to be virtuous and at peace with their largely unfulfilling lives;' does not exactly make riveting reading. There is an odd disconnect with the constant claims of poverty, as well.

Perhaps it was more obvious to me, coming straight here off of Little House on the Prairie, but these are still upper middle class girls. The scale of their poverty is fairly relative, and they only seem to be 'poor' when it's important to the plot, or the situation. The two elder sisters work out of the house, but they also have a cook/servant/"friend", (who speaks in an unfortunately dated patois). They complain mightily about having no new clothes to wear to the party, but they are still invited to the fancy party.

I can't actually dismiss this work, though, because I did find sections compelling, and maybe in the way the author actually meant. It's very hard to judge from this distance Alcott's opinion of her own work, although she is quoted as thinking it “moral pap for the young”. She was an abolitionist, and suffragette, and wrote piles of adult romance/thriller pieces. The same kind of pieces that Jo, in the pages of Little Women, is writing when she is described as follows:
"unconsciously, she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman's character."

It is the disconnect between what Alcott may have thought, and what is openly put on the pages of Little Women that I find so interesting. One scene which struck me greatly occurs early on: Jo is struggling with her temper (in a situation which any creative person would think she had every right to be angry), and her mother tells her:

"Don't cry so bitterly, but remember this day, and resolve with all your soul that you will never know another like it. Jo, dear, we all have our temptations, some far greater than yours, and it often takes us all our lives to conquer them. You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it."

"Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!" And for the moment Jo forgot remorse in surprise.

"I've been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so."

I am angry nearly every day of my life. What a way to live!

Why is she angry? I mean, there is the anger at stupidity in government or larger authority, the resentment of unfair treatment, the quick irritation at casual cruelty. An article at Jezebel speculates that she is angry that her husband lost all their money. To me this reads like the repression of a fundamental frustration at life. The idea of constantly being angry, and constantly suppressing it. Not dealing with it, not acting to reduce the circumstances that incite it, just suppressing it, to me is repugnant.

Of course, it's not feminine to be angry.

Later in this chapter, the mother credits her husband for helping her control herself, and recommends Jo look to God, described as "the Friend who always welcomes every child with a love stronger than that of any father, tenderer than that of any mother." Gag me.

So, obviously I have personal issues, which are somewhat incompatible with this book's style. I try to take historical books in their own context, try not to project too much of a modern sensibility onto them. I just couldn't here. Yes, these girls are not overtly oppressed, and Jo struggles vocally, if not actually, with issues of the rights of women. Even though they end up jolly enough with their lot, becoming a dutiful wife, a charitable lady, poetically dead, and a schoolmistress/author, I can't make the leap to say that makes their story a triumph.

I'll leave you with a few more quotes from the chapter (in the second half) which Professor Bhear shames Jo into only writing pieces with overt morals.

Jo's writing 'harms' her:
"...much describing of other people's passions and feelings set her to studying and speculating about her own,-a morbid amusement, in which healthy young minds do not voluntarily indulge. Wrong-doing always brings its own punishment; and when Jo most needed hers, she got it."
In their discussion which follows he maligns people who write sensational stories as harmful, while pretending he doesn't suspect she's been doing just that. Afterward:
While these internal revolutions were going on, her external life had been as busy and uneventful as usual, and if she sometimes looked serious or a little sad no one observed it but Professor Bhaer. He did it so quietly that Jo never knew he was watching to see if she would accept and profit by his reproof, but she stood the test, and he was satisfied, for though no words passed between them, he knew that she had given up writing. Not only did he guess it by the fact that the second finger of her right hand was no longer inky, but she spent her evenings downstairs now, was met no more among newspaper offices, and studied with a dogged patience, which assured him that she was bent on occupying her mind with something useful, if not pleasant.
Later, she marries him.

PS: Wikipedia reports: Alcott later wrote, "Jo should have remained a literary spinster, but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn't dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her".

Um... Okay...

1 Star - Didn't Like It.

Anne of Green Gables

Monday, August 10, 2009

Anne of Green Gables
1908, Lucy Maud Montgomery

I'm surprised how much I remember about a book, that to my recollection, I have never read before. I was quite young when the acclaimed 1985 TV movie came out, but I remember seeing bits of it over the years. My mom really liked the spin-off series, Avonlea (Road to Avonlea outside the US), and we watched it together when I was younger. A few weeks ago I might not have been able to rattle off character names, but could have given you the most iconic scenes off the top of my head (Lily Maid boat ride, and ridgepole walk).

So reading through the actual text has been less like hearing a new story, and more like rediscovering a story I always knew. This sense is helped along by the feeling that I should have read, and loved, this book as a child. Overall I love the story, the style of writing, the sly understated humor.

The writing occasionally lapses into omniscient narrator syndrome, which is striking only because most of it just follows the characters from their perspectives. There is no moralizing, just what one or another character thinks and does. Anne is certainly of the opinion that it is hard to be good, and no mater how she tries, she's dreadfully wicked. After all, adults keep telling her so.

Anne soaks up everything around her. She wants the latest fashions, laments her hair color, understands "good" behavior, and even though she is very smart, she only slowly learns that she can't trust everything she hears from adults.

I do find in Anne, as she says, a 'kindred spirit', and it makes me all the sadder that it took me so long to really meet her. I had a friend in grade school who loved this book, and from her I learned the meaning of "bosom friend" and the romance of Anne's trip down the river as the lily maid.

Growing up is a central chord in Anne of Green Gables, and I wonder if reading it as a young girl, I might have gloried along with Anne in her growing up. She becomes less flighty, more driven, happier and more mellow, and gains the approval of her peers. Reading it now, one of the things I feel in those scenes is the sense of loss, when Anne muses that once you're old enough to wear your hair up, own fashionable dresses or sleep in guest rooms, it never seems as exciting as you thought it would be. That's not to say that there aren't more adult pleasures to be had, only that they are different, and there is no going back.

About the end: I'm not sure that I would have understood it as a child. The idea that Anne would give up her ambition, alter her career path, to help Marilla, may have seemed weird to young me, reader mostly of "epic destiny" style books. Or I may have seen it through the "romance" of the earlier parts of the book. It's terribly romantic to imagine yourself as Cinderella when all you really have to do is clean your room. However, the contrast between the her early romantic ideas of being a martyr, and the simple choice Anne makes to help support her adoptive mother is strong. She takes a temporary step back from one potential ambition, to seek one closer to home. (If you read the further books, she does eventually get off to college as she wished.)

In all, a beautiful meditation on friends, loving life and the glories of each day.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book