Tuesday, March 31, 2020

March Wrap Up

Well, the world may be falling apart at the seams, but all this social distancing gave me a whole lot of reading time this month. I finished a total of 16 books, which is pretty close to being a record for me. Here's the rundown:

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I Will Always Write Back by Caitlyn Alifirenka and Martin Ganda
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
The Deep by Rivers Solomon
The Undoing of Thistle Tate by Katelyn Detweiler
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontё
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder

My best read of the month was my nonfiction pick, I Will Always Write Back. I really enjoyed reading about the relationship between Caitlyn and Martin and I got a very close look at what living in poverty is like. Something about this story was just so pure and engaging. I really enjoyed reading it and I know it's going to stick in my brain for a long time.

My most disappointing read was The Deep by Rivers Solomon. While I appreciated the themes that the novel was tackling, I was never able to emotionally engage with it.

My big accomplishment of the month was reading the entire Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I normally love classic children's literature, but I was often bored by these. They were quite sweet, and I understand the nostalgia many readers feel for them, but I ended up enjoying them a lot less than I thought I would. They weren't bad by any means, but they weren't engaging to me as an adult reader.

I have another ambitious TBR planned for April. I didn't pick a large amount of books, but there are some long ones in here that might take a while to get through. Here's the plan:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky
Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser
The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

I have more time that usual to read, so I'm hoping to maybe squish in a few extras towards the end of the month. Moby Dick is worrying me though, I have feeling that one will eat up a lot of days. In any case, I'm excited to tackle another month's reading and knock more books off my challenges.

The Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder: Books 5-9

This week, my journey through the Little House series continued. This post will be all about my feelings on the second half of the series, books five through nine.

By the Shores of Silver Lake picks up a few years after the ending of book four. Misfortune has visited the family in the interim. Their farm was only able to turn out a few small, poor harvests of wheat after the grasshopper devastation of the previous year, and Laura's older sister Mary has gone blind after a bout of scarlet fever. On a happier note, a new baby has joined the family, another little girl named Grace.

As the story begins, Pa is presented with a job opportunity to work as a bookkeeper for a railroad camp in the Dakota Territory. It's the best offer he's likely to get for a steady job, so the family packs up and moves once again to Silver Lake in South Dakota. Pa does his bookkeeping more or less successfully, and Ma and the girls help out cooking meals for the railroad workers. When the company breaks for winter, the family spends the long. cold season there alone until spring arrives and Pa can stake a claim on a some land nearby. Their goal is to become homesteaders, and start over with a new house and a little livestock operation. Their plans, however, are put in danger when hundreds of other settlers arrive in a great land rush, each hoping to get a piece of the vast, empty prairie for themselves. Pa must work quickly and cleverly to beat the crowds and secure his family's future.

Up until this point, I had generally felt like each book in the series had gotten slightly better as I went along. Here, however, that trend stopped. By the Shores of Silver Lake simply did not have enough plot to make an entertaining story. Very little happens aside from the family waiting to be able to claim their land, and many of the complications and conflicts that do appear feel like rehashes of moments from earlier books. I think Wilder knew about this lack of content, because she added a lot of filler here, mostly in the form of Pa singing way more songs than usual. Pa and his fiddle are a staple of the series, and each novel so far has contained a handful of sections where song lyrics and scenes of singing and dancing are featured. Here, however, there are many more songs than usual, and the scenes including grew boring quickly.

Pa continued to irk me as well, with his constant restlessness and poor decision-making. I noticed Ma being a bit more annoyed with him in this novel too, saying a few times that she didn't want to move or wishing they were back in Plum Creek. I know these stories are based on Wilder's real childhood; I'm often finding myself wondering how much of the family's struggles were softened for young audiences. I can't imagine Ma and Pa didn't fight about some of his decisions. If not, Ma's a much more patient woman than I am. On that note, I also can't imagine that Mary was so calm and accepting of losing her sight, but Mary's always been portrayed as the "good" child, so this fit right in with her character here.

As usual, there were some elements of this novel that have not aged well. Ma still hates the Native Americans, although there aren't very many of them in this story, so the topic doesn't come up much. There is also a mixed race character that everyone insists on calling a "half-breed," even though he is actually a great friend of the family. In comparison with the other books though, this is one of the less problematic ones.

I did appreciate a few aspects of this book. More of Laura's personality started coming out here. She's always been headstrong and adventurous, but here we started to see other aspects of her personality emerge. She's turning out to be restless and a true nature lover, like Pa, and is struggling with her mother's ambitions for her to be a teacher. She doesn't want to teach at all, but feels duty-bound to follow Ma's wishes. I'm interested to see how she handles this as she grows older. I also liked getting a little glimpse of Almanzo at the end of this book, as he drove by Laura's wagon at the very end of the story. I'm interested to read on and see how they end up meeting for real.

The Long Winter picks up a few months or so after the end of the previous book. The Wilder family is living in their claim shanty on their new homestead, and Pa has been working through the summer to harvest a massive crop of hay with his new mowing machine. The machine was an important investment for his land, but it was expensive. He hasn't been able to build a proper house for the family yet because all of his money and attention have been focused on turning a profit with the hay.

As the story begins, an early and brutally cold winter sets in. As their tar paper shanty house is unsuitable for extreme weather conditions, the family is forced to relocate to the nearby town of De Smet. They move into Pa's little rental property that he built at the end of By the Shores of Silver Lake to wait out the season. As the winter gets going in earnest, the town is constantly bombarded by fierce blizzards that last for days. Temperatures reach as low as minus forty degrees, making it nearly impossible to go outside. The train, which is the town's only connection to the more settled parts of the country, is unable to deliver any goods, so the town begins to run dangerously low on necessities like coal and food. With the stores empty and hunting impossible, the Ingalls are forced to survive on bread and an ever-dwindling supply of potatoes. They run out of fuel for their stove, and are forced to burn Pa's hay harvest to keep warm. As the winter stretches through May and April, almost every family in the town is on the brink of either starvation or about to freeze to death.

Just as things are looking desperate, hope arrives in the form of Almanzo Wilder. Almanzo, who has moved to South Dakota and claimed a homestead of his own, has been living in De Smet with his brother Royal just down the road from the Ingalls. Being both rich and clever, the boys have not been hurting for food at all. Just like in Farmer Boy, their food situation is suspiciously plentiful, and they have a seemingly unlimited supply of pancakes, molasses, and bacon to eat. Almanzo has even managed to completely preserve the seed wheat he brought with him to plant in the spring, a feat that no one else has been able to accomplish in the horrible weather.

As the season drags on and on, he begins to fear for this wheat. He knows it is the only large supply of food left in the whole town. He doesn't want to end up selling it to the townspeople, but he also doesn't want to see everyone starve. To save both his wheat and the people, he sets out on a dangerous journey to purchase some other wheat from a homesteader rumored to have some laid by about twenty miles away. The journey is incredibly risky, but he sets out across the frozen prairie anyway, with the hopes of the Ingalls family, and the whole town, riding on him.

I feel a little bit split on this novel. For the most part, I really enjoyed it. It's a true survival story with extremely high stakes for the family. They very nearly starve during this winter, and the way Wilder writes about the extreme cold and dwindling supplies was disturbing and engaging. These are very wholesome, loving characters that readers have followed for five previous books by this point, and to see them brought so low is jarring. This was definitely one of the better entries in the series.

What I didn't like as much in this story was Almanzo's storyline. He takes a big risk to try and save the town, which is admirable, but at the same time, he takes this risk to preserve his own wealth. He could have easily fed the town his own seed wheat to get them through until the spring thaw, but instead, he chose to take a treacherous forty mile round trip journey to convince another homesteader to do it instead. Does this make him a hero? It probably makes him a distinctly American hero - one that's always looking out for the bottom line. Something about the whole setup felt wrong to me, although I can't really criticize Wilder's portrayal of it. The story is based on her real life, after all. This is probably exactly what happened in reality. There were a few other moments where capitalism prevailed in a strange way over people's genuine need to survive, and the more I think about it, the stranger a lot of the plot towards the end of the novel seems to me. 

As with most of the other books, there were a few red flag sentences. Enjoy two examples:
"[Ma] did not like to see women working in the fields. Only foreigners did that. Ma and her girls were Americans, above doing men's work."
"'What Indian?' Ma asked [Pa]. She looked as if she were smelling the smell of an Indian whenever she said the word. Ma despised Indians. She was afraid of them too."
It wasn't as bad as Little House on the Prairie though, so that's something.

On the whole, The Long Winter is a solid entry in the series and one of my favorites so far. The seriousness of the plot and the survival aspects of the story were engaging and enjoyable. I'm glad that the series is becoming more mature and complex as it goes on. I'm interested to see where Laura heads next from here.

Little Town on the Prairie picks up a few months after the previous book, with the Ingalls family happily settled on their homestead right outside of De Smet, South Dakota. The family has finally saved enough money to send Mary off to a college for the blind, and much of the beginning section of the novel concerns the preparations for that and seeing her off. Her education will take seven years to complete, and the family does not expect to see her very much throughout that time, so it's an emotional farewell.

After Mary leaves, the story shifts to Laura's studies. She knows that in order to keep paying Mary's college tuition, she will need to finish her education and get a teaching certificate next year, when she turns sixteen. Her additional income will be essential to securing Mary's place at school. Laura still doesn't want to be a teacher, but she loves her sister deeply and is willing to make the sacrifice so that Mary can get the education she has always dreamed of.

As winter approaches, the family chooses to move back to the town for a few months, just to be on the safe side in case of another bad season. They return to Pa's little rental property, where they spent the long winter of the last book. As first, Laura is dreading living in De Smet again. She gets anxious in crowds and much prefers life on the wide open prairie. However, after she settles in, she begins to enjoy it. She makes some new friends, excels in her lessons, and starts taking an interest in the social scene. A few conflicts arise with an insufferable classmate and an inept teacher, but many good things happen as well, like the new "Literaries" that she gets to attend with her friends and family and the big school exhibition, where she gets a chance to demonstrate her learning in front of the whole town. Even more exciting, she starts to receive some attention from Almanzo Wilder, who is starting to show a curiously friendly interest in her.

Much like The Long Winter, I enjoyed this novel. There wasn't as much suspense in this plot, but Laura's increased social interactions helped to make it an interesting read. I enjoyed seeing what school was like in this time period, and I liked seeing Nellie Oleson, previously introduced in On the Banks of Plum Creek come back on the scene. She's a terribly snotty bully, and an interesting foil for Laura. Seeing the very beginnings of Almanzo and Laura's relationship was cute as well, even if the age difference is a little bit awkward. In this novel, Laura is fifteen and Almanzo is around twenty. I suppose this kind of age difference wasn't such a big deal back in the 1800s, but it's definitely uncomfortable for a modern reader to experience.

Also uncomfortable is the actual minstrel show that the town puts on for their last Literary gathering. Throughout my reviews of this series, I've been sure to mention the bits and pieces that haven't aged well. Usually these amount to a few offhand comments that are quickly forgotten. This, however, was the worst thing so far. Pa and a few other townsfolk put on blackface makeup, dance around, and sing a song about "darkies" while the rest of the residents look on and laugh hysterically. There's even a truly embarrassing illustration of it included in the text, which I don't feel comfortable including here, but is easily found on Google, if you are curious. It's a definite low point in an otherwise sweet children's story.

Aside from that, this was one of the better books in the series. The end of the novel deals with Laura working towards her teaching certificate, and as a teacher myself, I'm interested to see how this plays into the next story in the series.

These Happy Golden Years picks up directly after Little Town on the Prairie, with Laura getting her teaching certificate and heading off to her first teaching job. Her assignment is in a town twelve miles away, meaning that she will have to live in there for the duration of her term, which is two months long. She ends up disliking the school, but she is saved from abject misery by Almanzo Wilder, who arrives with his horses to ferry Laura home each weekend. It is here that their relationship, which had it roots in the previous book, really begins to flourish.

After that teaching assignment ends, Laura returns home. Her rides with Almanzo, however, continue and they come to know each other quite well. As the year moves forward, she goes through a few different teaching posts and other work opportunities, which allow her to put away enough money to keep her sister Mary in college, and even pay for her to come visit some summers. As is usual in a Little House book, various meals, customs, holidays, and social events take place and are lovingly described. By the end of the novel, Laura and Almanzo's friendship has deepened into love and they get ready to build a life together.

This was an extremely sweet novel, and I did enjoy it even though not much happens in it. The main focus of the story was the romance between Laura and Almanzo, and Laura's transition to the working world. Laura's courtship is incredibly G-rated, and mostly consists of going on long buggy rides during which no one says very much. Even so, it was adorable and I was glad to see them settle down together. Laura's growing independence was interesting to see as well. As a teacher, she earns quite a bit of money in this book--more than her Pa is ever able to scrape together at one time. She never ends up loving teaching, but she does a competent job with it and sticks with it long enough to help support her family. She really comes into her own in this story, and having stuck with her throughout the books since she was five, it was pretty satisfying to see.

Even better, there were no minstrel shows or overtly racist sentiments in this novel, so there wasn't much to uncomfortably overlook while reading. At one point, Laura says she does not support women's rights and would never want the right to vote, but hey, that's not an unusual opinion for the time period. At least she insisted that the word "obey" be taken out of her marriage vows.

So, I did like this novel. At this point however, I have Little House fatigue. I am ready for this series to be over. Luckily, I'm onto the last book now, and it's a short one.

*This review will contain spoilers*

The First Four Years is a little bit different from the rest of the Little House books. As the introduction in the front of my edition explained, this novel was written by Wilder in the late 1940s, but she did not complete or revise it before her death. As such, it is shorter and different in tone than previous books in the series. Also, some details don't match up between this book and the earlier ones and some story threads are forgotten. This is a draft of a story and it reads like a draft.

The plot concerns Laura and Almanzo's first four years of marriage together. The beginning of the story is a recap of how they decide to marry, their small ceremony, and Laura's first day in their new little house. This was all previously detailed in These Happy Golden Years, but it is described differently here. Its tone is less much less sweet, and Laura expresses the opinion before agreeing to marriage that she does not want to marry a farmer because they are always dependent on uncontrollable factors like weather and are constantly being taken advantage of by businessmen. She also wants to push back their wedding date to be able to collect her last paycheck from teaching and spend it on clothes. These are both jarringly different details that don't match up with her behavior and actions in the previous book. In any case, Almanzo asks her to let him spend three years trying to make the farm work. If he can't make it successful in that amount of time, then he will move onto something else. Laura agrees.

Unfortunately for them, the next three years are not successful. Bad weather decimates their wheat crop every year, their tree claim fails to thrive, and natural disasters like tornadoes and wildfires destroy their land and farm buildings. Laura contracts diptheria and becomes very ill. She has a baby that dies as an infant. She has a bizarre interaction with a Native American that tries to break into her house, steal her things, and take her as his "squaw" (she gets him to leave by slapping him in the face). Each year, Almanzo has an excuse for their misfortunes and a plan to turn everything around for the next year. Usually, these plans involve going into debt to purchase tools and farming equipment that they can't afford. He manages to beg another year of trying to farm from Laura, which she grants. That year also doesn't go well. Laura worries about money a lot and is constantly trying to calculate their expenses and potential profits in her head. When the fourth year is up, Laura essentially gives up on her ultimatum and just lets Almanzo do what he wants with the farm, deciding that she doesn't mind the farm life so much after all, even though all of her experiences with it have been terrible so far.

There are a few nice bits in the story too. Laura and Almanzo have a baby that lives, Rose Wilder, and she brings a lot of joy to the family. There are also some cute animals that join the household, which lighten the mood. Overall, however, the signature sweetness of the series is absent here, completely swallowed in one misery after another. Gone is Almanzo's capability as a saavy businessman and farmer, and gone is Laura's enthusiasm for the pioneer lifestyle. She doesn't enjoy keeping house, which is a big turnaround from previous novels which lovingly describe all sorts of recipes, handicrafts, cleaning routines, and farm tasks. This is a Little House book with all the life sucked right out of it. It's probably a much more realistic view of Wilder's experiences, and the fact that it is so gloomy makes you wonder how happy she truly was all along in her real life.

Due to its unfinished nature, I would barely even count The First Four Years as the true conclusion to the series. Readers would do well to end their experience with These Happy Golden Years, but I'm pretty sure that anyone patient enough to read through those eight novels isn't going to stop without reading this last one. It's a sad ending though.

So now that I have officially read all the books in the Little House series, I can honestly say that I did not enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I went into my reading with a little bit of nostalgia stored up for the first few books in the series, but that was not enough to make me fall in love with them as a modern reader. That's not to say that I disliked the books. On the contrary, I thought they were very sweet and quite an interesting look at what life what like for the pioneers that struck out on the prairie in the 1800s. Not enough happened in them for me to become totally lost in the story, but as a historical curiosity, they were interesting.

Overall, I would rate the series a 3 out of 5 stars. I would also warn modern readers that there are several passages in these that haven't aged well. Parents that choose to introduce these to their children should be prepared to talk about the past atrocities committed against Native Americans and the history of blackface, just to keep their kids from developing any outdated ideas about history. Contrary to what the back of these books tell you, they are not timeless stories, especially if you are a person of color.

Here's my final ranking of how much I enjoyed each book, from favorite to least favorite:

1. The Long Winter
2. On the Banks of Plum Creek
3. Little Town on the Prairie
4. These Happy Golden Years
5. Little House on the Prairie
6. Farmer Boy
7. Little House in the Big Woods
8. By the Shores of Silver Lake
9. The First Four Years

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#25 on my list): 70/100 

Total Books Read in 2020: 30

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder: Books 1-4

There are a small handful of chapter books that I remember reading with my mom as a kid, and the Little House books are among those. We read Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie together, and I remember being fascinated by little Laura's pioneer life. I owned more books in the series, and I tried making my way through them multiple times on my own, but I lacked the stamina to stick with them back when I was in elementary school. 

I've always wanted to go back and actually finish them all, so I included them in my Classics Club Challenge. There are nine books in the original series, but I counted them as one entry on my list. With my school closed for the foreseeable future due to the Coronavirus, I figured that now was as good a time as any to power through them. As most of these books are quite short, I'm going to combine my reflections on them. This post will cover books one through four.

Little House in the Big Woods focuses on Laura Ingall's early childhood in the Wisconsin wilderness in 1871. Laura is only five years old at this time, and she lives with her Ma and Pa, her older sister Mary, and her baby sister Caroline. There isn't much of a plot in this novel; it mostly just goes through a year of her life in the woods. Her family's seasonal tasks and traditions are described as they work hard to run their little farming household. Activities like cooking, farming, hunting, and holiday gatherings fill the pages and paint the reader a picture of what life was like for a pioneer family in the 19th century.

This story is truly for very young readers. There is no drama or suspense, and nothing bad happens in it. Laura and her family live a very idyllic life, despite how hard they have to work each day. An atmosphere of wonder and love fills the text, and Laura's childlike fascination with everything from nature to chores to a new doll is fairly charming. Wilder's writing is simple and clear, and very quick to get through. This is the kind of book that is meant to be read out loud with a child, a chapter at a time before bed.

As this book isn't for adult readers, it feels strange to criticize it for not having an engaging plot, so I will refrain from going too deep into that. Its appeal definitely rests on nostalgia for older audiences. If I were reading this for the first time right now, I would not have enjoyed it. As it was, I thought this was a pleasant, but boring read that is clearly meant for little ones. On that note, though, I don't think modern children would fall in love with this the same way so many readers did in the past. Parts of it haven't aged particularly well. The gender roles are rigid, there are a few passages praising tiny waists and blonde hair for women, corporal punishment is used a few times, and, at one point, Pa entertains the family with a problematic song about a "darkey" named Uncle Ned. It's not quite fair to judge an older work by modern standards, of course, but I'm not sure this is the best choice for young kids anymore.

Imagine this: You are eight years old. You live on a farm with your family in the 1860s. It is your first year of school in a one-room schoolhouse, and the winter term has started. You generally like school well enough, but you are afraid to go these days. Five older boys from a bad section of town have started attending class, and they have a history of ruining school for everyone. Every year, they are disrespectful to the teacher until the teacher tries to give them a consequence. Once the teacher confronts them, they beat the teacher up. In response, the teachers quit, the school year ends, and the town must scramble to find a new teacher for the next year. This has happened every year for the past two years. Last year, the teacher ended up dying from the injuries he sustained at the hands of the boys.

This is why you are afraid to go to class. You like your teacher, and don't want to see him get beaten to death in front of you. You ask your father to do something about this, and his response is that "The teacher knows what he signed up for. Let him handle it himself." You feel helpless and sick as you go into school the next day.

As you feared, the boys are up to their old tricks in class. They return late from recess, and the teacher attempts to punish them. They crack their knuckles and charge the teacher, ready to beat him. The teacher, however, has a trick up his sleeve. He pulls a fifteen foot long ox whip out of his desk drawer and begins whipping the lead boy with it. The boy falls, screams, and begins to cry. He begs the teacher to stop, but the teacher continues to whip him. The boy's shirt is ripped and his arms are bloody. His four friends, terrified, escape through a window as the teacher whips the boy until he falls out of the door, which he slams and locks behind him. The teacher has won. Your school is safe. Your classmates cheer and rush home to tell their parents the good news. Thus begins Farmer Boy, the beloved children's classic novel and second book in the Little House series.

You honestly could have picked my jaw up off the floor after I read that. For a series known to be wholesome and mild, this was a startling plot element, to say the least. Maybe this hit me harder because I am a teacher, but I don't even have the words to express how puzzled and disturbed I was by this event. This surely can't be normal for this time period, right? These boys murdered someone and no one seemed to care! Why does no one talk about this when discussing this book?

Anyway, aside from this bizarre beginning, the rest of the story is a blandly pleasant account of young Almanzo Wilder's life on his family's farm in New York. Laura and the rest of the gang from Little House in the Big Woods aren't in this novel. Instead, it focuses entirely on the life of the man who will grow up to become Laura's husband. Much like the first book in the series though, there isn't much of a plot here; it follows the family through the course of a year and shows all of the different work that goes into running a household. Even at his young age, Almanzo is responsible for a myriad of chores involving livestock, farming, and food preparation. His biggest wish is to help his father train colts, but he is not allowed to try that task until he is older. In the meantime, he works hard to help his family and eats as much as he can in the hopes of speeding up his growing process.

Speaking of eating, descriptions of food take up an inordinate amount of space in this novel. The food on Almanzo's table is delicious and unlimited. He always has pockets full of cake, pie, cookies, and doughnuts. Multiple courses are served at each meal and everyone can eat as much as they want. It's seems like an unrealistic amount, but I'm not sure how much food would actually be served in a well-to-do, hardworking farm household in this time, so I can't be sure if it is or not. In any case, reading this will definitely make you hungry.

Overall, I liked Farmer Boy about as much as I like Little House in the Big Woods. It was a little bit boring and a little bit charming. Much like with the first book in the series, I think it relies on nostalgia for its enduring popularity. I can't see a lot of new young readers picking this up without a lot of parental influence. Parts of this haven't aged particularly well either - there is a lot of talk in this one about what is "boy's work" versus "girl's work," but I know those attitudes are accurate for their time period. There is also a very odd scene where a Native American competes alongside horses in a horse race and runs a mile in two minutes and forty seconds, tying the winning horse (yikes). However, at its heart, it's a sweet little story (teacher murdering aside) showing a peek of what life was like in the past.

Little House on the Prairie is probably the most well-known book in the Little House series, thanks to the TV show from the 1970s. My mom was a fan of it, which is why she introduced me to the books as a kid. This novel goes back to the Ingalls family (Pa, Ma. Mary, Laura, and baby Caroline), and rejoins them as they contemplate moving away from their little house in the Wisconsin wilderness.

As the story begins, Pa Ingalls decides that his corner of the woods has become too crowded. He has heard of wide open land and lots of opportunities on the Kansas prairie, so he packs everyone up into a covered wagon and they set off on a journey to find a new home. After traveling for hundreds of miles, Pa finds the perfect place and sets up a home there. The plot is told from Laura's point of view and follows the family as they build a house from the ground up and get used to prairie life.

There is a little bit more of a story contained in this entry to the series, as the family is working towards a goal of establishing themselves in their new home. They have also settled on Native American territory and the tensions between the white settlers and the natives form a big part of the end of the novel. There is more suspense and drama here to enjoy, but even so, this is still a book for very young readers. The majority of the plot focuses on home building, hunting, cooking, chores, and family life, and most of it is extremely wholesome.

What is not wholesome, however, is the depiction of the Native Americans throughout the story. Obviously, the time period in which this was written accounts for this, but parents who choose to read this novel with their children in modern times must be prepared to have a discussion about its content.  The Native Americans are routinely described using animalistic terms and stereotypes. A few characters are shown to be very prejudiced against them, with a few even going so far as to say that, "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." There is a general attitude of superiority on the part of the white characters as well; Ma regards the Native Americans with fear and loathing, and Pa, who is generally very friendly with his native neighbors, talks about how white people who will farm have a right to claim Indian territory. Even compared to the first two books in the series, this one has aged very poorly. The nostalgia for the TV series and people's fond memories of their childhood reading, however, make that an unpopular sentiment.

Those issues aside, I did enjoy Little House on the Prairie more than the previous two Little House books. It had more of a story to get into, and it was interesting to see what pioneer life was like. Most of it was very sweet and it had a pleasantly adventurous vibe. It does end with Pa pulling up stakes and moving again, so I'm interested to see how the family's adventures continue into book four.

On the Banks of Plum Creek picks up with the Ingalls family moving to a new home. Once Pa learned that the government was about to kick him out of his little house on the prairie because he built it on Native American land, he packed up the family once more to search for greener pastures. After another long journey in their covered wagon, the family settles on Plum Creek in Minnesota and starts setting up a new home.

The scenery in Plum Creek is beautiful, and little Laura loves playing on the grassy prairie and swimming in the creek. At first they live in a little dugout house on a piece of land that Pa trades his wagon for, but soon he borrows some money and builds a proper wooden house. As this location is within walking distance of a town, Laura and Mary start attending church and school for the first time and have to navigate social relationships with other kids.

Things start off well at first, but as the seasons change, some big problems emerge. A plague of grasshoppers destroys all the family's crops, and then an absolutely brutal winter puts everyone into danger of freezing. As the family struggles through a punishing year, they must find ways to stay positive and establish a successful home.

I think this book is the strongest in the series so far. There is more of a consistent plot, and it feels like things are actually happening in this story. The stakes were high in many scenes and there were a handful of very suspenseful moments. The chapters that dealt with the grasshoppers were particularly disturbing. The way Wilder describes them crawling all over everything and swarming into the Ingalls' house had me cringing. As an added bonus, there wasn't a bunch of objectionable content in this one either.

I started to glimpse a little more emotional complexity here are well. As the story is told from Laura's perspective, she often doesn't think to question anything her parents tell her. She views the world through her young, innocent eyes, and is content with very simple pleasures in life. Here though, as she is getting a little older, she is starting to notice more. She worries more in this book, takes on more responsibilities, and recognizes when her mother is trying to hide her emotions. I am hoping that as the books go on and Laura grows, the complexity will continue to increase.

While there were a lot of things I enjoyed about this entry to the series, I did start taking an active dislike to Pa here. I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to feel this way as a reader or not. Laura certainly thinks the world of him in the story. As an adult reader though, it's obvious that this man makes a lot of dangerous mistakes. For example, deciding to move away from his family, settling on Native American territory, and planting a ton of crops during something the locals called "grasshopper weather" all turn out terribly for the whole family. At one point, he even gets himself lost in a blizzard for three days and has to eat the children's Christmas candy to survive. I felt bad for poor Ma, who continues to go along with his overly ambitious and poorly researched plans only to end up struggling, often alone, to raise the girls and run the household while he scrambles to clean up his messes. He's one of those people who is always looking ahead for the next big opportunity, instead of appreciating what he already has. Thinking back, it's clear that the family has moved steadily downhill ever since leaving Wisconsin. Yet, everyone still acts as if he hung the moon. It's annoying to read, but I am actually really curious to see if he finally manages to make good decisions in the upcoming books.

So now that I have finished the first four books, I am almost halfway through the series. Each one has been a little bit better than the last. On the whole though, I am not enjoying them as much as I did when I was younger. They aren't bad by any means, but they also aren't as interesting as I'd hoped they would be. Regardless, I'm happy to continue on with the series and see how the family ends up. I will cover books five through nine in my next post.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#25 on my list): 69/100 

Total Books Read in 2020: 25

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

I can't exactly remember why I initially placed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall onto my Classics Club list. It was most likely because I am a fan of the Brontë sisters and just wanted to read more from them. When I was making my Back to the Classics selections for this year, I needed a classic with a place in the title, and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly. I knew absolutely nothing about the plot when I started, but I had heard enough positive things from other bloggers over the course of the past few years that I was looking forward to it anyway. It sounds strange to say this of a novel that was published in the 1840s, but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is kind of trendy at the moment. Lots of other readers chose to include this one on their Back to the Classics lists this year, so I was excited to see what all the fuss was about.

The plot of this story is conveyed through a series of letters from a man named Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law. Through his correspondence, Gilbert tells the story of his relationship with the beautiful Helen Graham, the new tenant of Wildfell Hall, an old manor home located in his neighborhood. Mrs. Graham is a young widow, and has been trying to keep to herself with her young son, Arthur, and to make a living as an artist. She is unable to keep a low profile for long, however, as her neighbors begin to introduce themselves and seek her company. Not wishing to be rude, Mrs. Graham starts to form some tentative friendships with others in the neighborhood, including Gilbert, who takes quite a shine to her innate kindness and intelligence. Eventually, he starts to fall in love with her, and it is clear she has feelings for him as well, but she continually resists his advances for reasons she won't explain.

Mrs. Graham's refusal to enter into a relationship with Gilbert is far from the only mysterious thing about her. As the neighbors begin to socialize more with her, other oddities begin to emerge. She sells her paintings under an assumed name, she refuses to let little Arthur out of her sight, and she has an unusually strong aversion to alcohol. These little quirks start to breed rumors throughout the neighborhood, and pretty soon the town is convinced that she is hiding a terrible secret, like maybe she was never married in the first place, or maybe she is lying about who the child's true father is. Gilbert, still ardently in love with her, refuses to believe the gossip and confronts her directly. In explanation, Mrs. Graham gives Gilbert her personal diary, which recounts her painful past. By reading its lengthy entries, Gilbert uncovers an intriguing story full of pain, bravery, and love.

This novel was surprisingly good, and I ended up enjoying it more than a lot of the other classics I have tried recently. Brontë's writing style is easy to read and full of beautiful imagery. Wildfell Hall felt appropriately dark and moody, and the many outdoor scenes felt lush and full of life. The characters were also well-developed; the main characters each had distinct personalities and the minor characters were entertaining. The cast of villains was especially enjoyable here. Brontë is excellent at creating absolute boorish heels and describing their behavior realistically. I got to the point where I was swearing at characters in my head while reading, so I was definitely into the plot.

Aside from having a very engaging story on its own, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was also interesting in a historical sense. Brontë's exploration of how a woman was supposed to behave in a marriage in the 1800s was fascinating and more than a little disturbing. Mrs. Graham's experience with the institution was less than ideal, but the expectation for her was to quietly endure it to avoid a scandal. To leave or divorce would be socially ruinous to both her and her son. She was essentially imprisoned for life as soon as she took her vows, even though her marriage became intolerable. In order to save herself, she had to get creative and violate social conventions, and I enjoyed reading about how she went rogue to try and better her situation. I wasn't the biggest fan of some of the decisions she made towards the end of the story, but given the time period of the writing, I understand why Brontë had her make those decisions.

The only aspect of the novel that I didn't like was its length and slow pacing. At almost 500 pages, this is a long read, and sections of it definitely felt repetitive. Mrs. Graham's diary, in particular, went on for hundreds of pages and included more detail than I thought was necessary. I understand why Brontë probably wrote at such length in this section; she wanted to give so many examples of the unhappiness in Mrs. Graham's marriage that her conservative audience wouldn't be offended by the character's unorthodox behavior later on. Modern audiences today would not need so much convincing. Aside from the overabundance of information on Mrs. Graham's life, though, I don't have much to criticize. It was a good story and I liked reading it.

Now that I am finished reading, I can completely understand why so many readers like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It's extremely readable with a compelling storyline and a very tough, admirable heroine. I think this work holds up in comparison with her sisters' heavy hitters, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and is an excellent choice for anyone with a fondness for books set in the Victorian Era. This was definitely one of my favorites from my list so far and I'm quite glad to have picked it up.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2020 (A Classic with a Place in the Title): 6/12
Classics Club (#52 on my list): 69/100 

Total Books Read in 2020: 21

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Undoing of Thistle Tate by Katelyn Detweiler

I continued my little break from the classics this week with The Undoing of Thistle Tate, a young adult contemporary novel I've had sitting on my shelf for a while now. I initially picked it up on a Barnes and Noble run based on the summary on the inside flap. With my school cancelled for the next two weeks due to the Coronavirus, I found myself with an excess of reading time and figured that now was as good a time as any to pick it up.

The plot follows the eponymous Thistle Tate, a seventeen-year-old author living with her dad in Philadelphia. She has rocketed to international fame with the "Lemonade Skies" series of young adult fantasy novels. She has authored two books in the series so far and is currently working on the third and final one. Both her age and the quality of her book have won her thousands of fans and earned her plenty of money. There is one problem though. She isn't the one actually writing the books. Her whole life is a lie.

Thistle is very uncomfortable with the lie, and longs for the final book in her series to be released so that she can go off to college and start living a normal, low-profile life. However, things veer off course when the real writer of the books suffers a serious injury and is unable to finish the manuscript of the novel. Thistle is left with an increasingly impatient publishing team who can't understand why she is taking so long to finish. To complicate matters further, she starts a romantic relationship with her oldest friend and neighbor, Liam, which starts to sour surprisingly fast. Thistle told him about the true author of the books long ago, and he begins to pressure her to come clean about everything. Thistle is afraid to do this. There might be legal consequences for the deception, and the fallout online from her fans would surely ruin her life. Stuck in her lie and completely miserable, she must decide how to proceed. Should she find a way to continue the lie, or risk telling the truth?

This summary is very bare-bones, because to go into more detail would necessarily spoil some of the reveals, and I enjoyed this story enough that I don't want to do that. I was consistently engaged in this novel throughout my reading, but how much I truly liked it really sneaked up on me. I knew that I had actually grown quite attacked to Thistle once I started getting angry on her behalf at the way certain characters were treating her. This is not just a story about a girl who lied about something big. It is a story about how girls are often asked to sacrifice their well-being to serve the needs of others. How they are often asked to provide support or care at the expense of what is best for them, and the terrible emotional toll that takes. Thistle is asked to take on this lie to make someone else feel better, and she feels so guilty about the prospect of saying no that she agrees to something that she knows is wrong and that she is very uncomfortable with. As a people-pleaser myself, I understand this pressure, and it was interesting to see a young adult novel take this idea on. I enjoyed watching her character grow and change as she dealt with the fallout of her decision to lie.

I also really enjoyed the ending of this novel, which was great because it was not completely perfect. Several characters in this novel behave badly, and their actions are not all forgiven by the end. The situation has a satisfying conclusion, but does not tie up every single thread neatly, which I thought was fairly realistic. Well, at least as realistic as a young adult novel can reasonably get, anyway. Thistle's emotions consistently felt genuine as well. There were definitely teenage dramatics included, and too much weight placed on romantic relationships, but that makes sense for a character that is seventeen years old. I thought the author did a nice job of creating a believable young girl, and I liked following her journey.

I ended up finishing this story in two days, and I mostly enjoyed my experience. The pacing in the middle felt a bit slow, and I didn't really connect with the romantic elements (typical for me and young adult novels), but I liked the main story enough to still really like the book as a whole. This is the kind of book I will definitely recommend to some of my upper level readers, as it has enough drama to keep them engaged and themes that are worth exploring. This was a surprising little gem to get lost in during my unexpected quarantine, and honestly, that's exactly what I needed at the moment. 

Challenge Tally
Total Books Read in 2020: 20

The Deep by Rivers Solomon

I decided to take a short break from classics this month with a few contemporary novels, starting with The Deep, by Rivers Solomon. I first heard about this novella through Goodreads, and was very intrigued by the summary. Any book about mermaids is going to catch my attention because, as uncool as it is, Disney's The Little Mermaid has given me a lifelong fascination with these creatures. What can I say? I was a 90s kid. The last time I read a book about mermaids, however, it didn't go so well. I was hoping for a more successful experience this time around.

The plot follows a young mermaid, or wajinru, as this novella calls them, named Yetu. She has been selected to be the memory keeper for her community, meaning that all the memories of her people's origin and experiences are stored inside her head. These are very painful memories. The wajinru were born from the bodies of pregnant African slaves thrown overboard from slave ships. By keeping the memories of these terrible times confined to one individual's head, the rest of the group is free from the heavy weight of this knowledge.

Once a year, Yetu leads a ceremony called the Remembering, in which she releases the memories back to the wajinru for three days. In this way, everyone retains a tenuous grasp on their history, and Yetu gets a short time to be free from the constant pressure of carrying the difficult memories around all the time. As the story begins, Yetu is on the eve of hosting another Remembering, but things aren't going well. She's been struggling mightily with the knowledge of the wajinru's past, and often gets lost in the nightmarish memories stored in her head. She is having trouble differentiating between the past and the present, and feels like the memories are going to kill her. In a moment of desperation, she starts the ceremony, releases the memories to her people, and then bolts.

Yetu injures herself in her wild escape and washes up in a tide pool somewhere far from her people. She winds up making friends with a few curious humans who befriend her and bring her food while she recovers. One of these humans, Oori, becomes especially close with her and challenges her ideas about the importance of embracing her history. Yetu is plagued with guilt and indecision over her actions. She knows that the wajinru back home are not equipped to have complete access to the memories of their history, and will most likely die without her there to regulate their exposure to it. At the same time, she believes that she will probably not survive from much longer if she takes the memories back. She must decide whether to go back to her people and doom herself, or to abandon her community to the pain of their past.

The Deep had a really interesting concept, but I think its execution never quite lived up to its ideas. That's not to say that I disliked the book; it was perfectly fine. It just never managed to reach me on the emotional level that it was clearly going for. I didn't really connect with Yetu, and while her story was interesting, it was thin, even for a novella. Most of the plot takes place with her recovering in the tide pool where she alternates flirting with Oori with agonizing about whether or not to go back to her people, and this did get tiresome quickly.

Not much attention is paid to world-building here, which makes complete sense; this is a novella, after all, and Rivers Solomon is clearly more interested in their themes than in their setting. This isn't necessarily a flaw, but it doesn't align with my preferences for reading science fiction or fantasy novels. I enjoy learning about the details of the fictional worlds I encounter, and something feels like it's missing when this element is absent. So, the hazy, half-explained process behind the birth of the mermaids and how their society worked wasn't fully satisfying to me. There was, however, an extremely awkward scene discussing how the mermaids mate with each other that gave me more information than I needed to know. So, I can't say there weren't any details given, just not the ones I wanted.

The themes were where Solomon focused most of their attention, and accordingly, they were strong. This story asks some interesting questions about the idea of generational trauma. How much should one embrace a painful past? What do you gain from remembering it? What do you lose if you choose to leave it behind? Yetu is caught between remembering everything about the wajinru's past or remembering nothing. Readers won't face such a black and white version of this problem, but many will face the question of how much attention to pay to a difficult ancestral history. This is a question I can't relate to on a personal level, but there is definitely value for me in thinking about this difficulty, and the effect it might have on others around me. 

Ultimately, I was a bit disappointed in The Deep, but I did still like it. I felt like it could have been stronger than it was, but it was mildly enjoyable nonetheless. It was definitely a unique little read, with an interesting concept, great representation, and deep themes. I think I am still searching for my perfect mermaid book, but this is a good choice for anyone interested in the idea of generational trauma and enjoys character-driven science fiction.  

Challenge Tally
Total Books Read in 2020: 19

Friday, March 13, 2020

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Willa Cather is one of those authors that never quite landed on my radar. I never had to read any of her work growing up, and I didn't know anything about her writing. I basically just knew her name and a few of her titles, and that was it. I happened to pick up O Pioneers! back when I was in high school, when I was buying up any classics I could get cheaply, but I never ended up actually reading it. That means that it's been sitting on my shelf for at least ten years (shameful, I know). I put it on my Classics Club list a few years ago, but that's all the interaction I've had with the book since I bought it. Lately, I've seen Cather's work recommended on a few of the classics blogs I follow, so I put O Pioneers! on my Back to the Classics List as my "Classic by a Female Author" selection. I decided to finally sit down and read it this month.

The story follows a young woman named Alexandra Bergson who lives on the Nebraska prairie with her parents and three brothers in the early 1900s. Trying to run a farm on the prairie is difficult, and everyone who has settled in the area is struggling to make ends meet. Many of the family's neighbors have given up on the land and moved elsewhere, but Alexandra's father is determined to try and hang on. At the beginning of the story, however, his health fails him and he passes away. He leaves the management of the farm to Alexandra, as she is better suited for the business end of things than her brothers.

In the next sections of the novel, time moves forward. The farm ends up flourishing under Alexandra's management, and she has become well-respected in the community. Her relationships with her brothers, friends, and neighbors form the rest of the story, with different characters taking turns as the focus of the narration. One of these characters is her youngest brother, Emil, whom Alexandra dearly loves and is supporting through school. He is grateful for her attention, but finds himself unhappy in life. He is in love with Marie, a neighbor, but she is already married to a pessimistic man with a violent temper named Frank Shabata. Marie feels the same way towards Emil, and they do a bit of sneaking around together, but Emil knows it is wrong and feels quite guilty about it.

Another character we follow is Carl Linstrum, a young man that grew up on a neighboring farm. His family moved away during the bad farming years, but he has always had feelings for Alexandra. He visits occasionally, but refuses to try and start a relationship with her until he has become more successful in life. Alexandra's other brothers, Lou and Oscar, catch onto his plans and aren't pleased with the idea of their sister marrying. They feel that would complicate how much of the farm they stand to inherit. Their feelings are deeply hurtful to Alexandra, and cause a rift in the family.

The interactions between all of these characters connect to form a miniature saga chronicling the successes and failures of the little Nebraska community. There's lots of drama involved in the tale, with several ups and downs along the way. It's a difficult one to summarize, as it follows many different story threads, but what ties everything together is the beautiful prairie and everyone's relationship to it. Some love the land and some hate it. It's effect on everyone is tremendous.

The novel is quite short at only 169 pages, and it's a relatively quick one to finish. Cather's writing is undeniably beautiful, and her loving descriptions of the land are a pleasure to read. I found myself wanting to run a farm in Nebraska once I was finished. I was reminded a little bit of John Steinbeck, and how his writing about California feels almost spiritual; it was very similar here. It is clear that Cather feels a strong connection to the prairie. It is essentially another character in the novel.

As I read, I found myself really enjoying Alexandra. She was a strong, tough woman, who was unafraid to take control of the farm. She succeeds through her own persistence and good sense and takes care of her brothers in the process. For the most part, the fact that she is taking on a traditionally male role isn't the main focus of the story. The community accepts her and recognizes her abilities, which was refreshing to read. A lot of times, if a classic novel features a character acting outside their traditional gender role, that's all any of the other characters talk about. Here, however, outside of a few rude comments thrown at her from her brother, Alexandra is allowed to just do her thing without it being a big conflict in the story. I appreciated seeing a competent woman who was allowed to be competent.

Things took a turn for me, however, at the end of the novel. The last section of the story, a mere fifteen pages, took a turn that I didn't understand. Alexandra, who up until this point had been a steady, logical type of character, interprets an event from the text in a way that completely baffled me. Her reaction didn't align with the image I had of the character and was disappointing, to say the least. It relied heavily on negative female stereotypes, which perhaps make sense for the time period, but did not make sense for a character who defied so many negative female stereotypes herself throughout the text. To give details about the specifics of this event would be too much of a spoiler, but it did drop down this book from a five star read to a three star for me. I truly enjoyed the vast majority of what I read, but the ending didn't not make sense to me and I was unable to connect with it.

That being said, I did like Cather's writing style and I'm still interested in giving some of her other novels a chance. It was just such a shame that I disliked the ending of this one as much as I did. O Pioneers! was on track to be a favorite until those last few pages. Regardless, I am happy that I got a chance to read something by a new-to-me author and I'm even happier to be able to cross some more books off my challenge lists.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2020 (Classic by a Female Author): 5/12
Classics Club (#75 on my list): 68/100 

Total Books Read in 2020: 18

I Will Always Write Back by Caitlyn Alifirenka and Martin Ganda

I decided on I Will Always Write Back for my nonfiction book for March. This is another one of the young adult nonfiction novels that my students were offered as part of our literary nonfiction unit. However, unlike Hey Kiddo and They Called Us Enemy, almost none of my kids have tried picking this one up. I'm pretty sure I know why--it's 400 pages long. Something that long seems impossible to most eighth graders, so they don't even consider trying it. I had a feeling it was going to be a good one though, so I decided to read it myself.

The novel follows two teenagers, Caitlyn and Martin, who became pen pals through a school assignment in the 90s. Caitlyn lives in a small town in Pennsylvania with her parents and older brother. She comes from an upper middle class background and is pretty popular in school. She does well enough academically, but isn't exactly a star student. However, when her 7th grade teacher introduces an international pen pal assignment, she is intrigued. She chooses to send a letter to Zimbabwe, a country she had never head of before. She writes a short message introducing herself, turns it in, and waits for a response.

In Zimbabwe, Martin is the lucky student selected to receive Caitlyn's letter. He is the top student in his class, and his education is extremely important to him. He lives with his parents and four other siblings in a single room. To say they are living in poverty is an understatement. The economic situation in Zimbabwe is rapidly deteriorating and money is a constant worry for his family. He doesn't share this with Caitlyn in his first letter, however. He is thrilled to have a new American friend and responds to her letter with some basic information about himself and his family.

From that point on, Caitlyn and Martin continue to exchange letters. Their correspondence extends far beyond the expectations of their school assignment and their friendship deepens until they begin to consider each other as brother and sister. Eventually, Martin shares more information about his family's struggles, and Caitlyn and her family begin to assist them financially. They keep Martin in school, pay the family's rent, and send them clothing and other helpful supplies. Eventually, they work to try and bring him to America for college. Their friendship changes the lives of everyone in their families for the better. I Will Always Write Back is an inspiring and highly engaging story about the power of kindness and friendship.

I know that the summary of the novel might not sound all that interesting, but this was one of the most pure and heartwarming stories I have ever read. The chapters alternate back and forth between Caitlyn and Martin, and both of their voices are a pleasure to experience. Some of the chapters contain excerpts from their actual letters, and others are simply explanations of what was going on in their lives at the time. Both narrators are successful in writing in a way that is understandable to teen readers today, and the examples they show of generosity and respect for each other are worthy of admiration. Their friendship is deep and true, and it was lovely to watch it develop.

Aside from the excellent themes running throughout the story, readers can learn a lot about what living in true poverty is like. It is common knowledge that life in developing countries is difficult, but to see what Martin endured was truly eye-opening. He never had enough to eat, didn't own a pair of real shoes, and sometimes had to resort to writing his letters to Caitlyn on the back of food wrappers, since he didn't always have access to paper. At one point, Caitlyn randomly sends him a dollar in the mail, just so he could see what American currency looked like, and it bought weeks worth of groceries for his family. It is this contrast between what is normal for Caitlyn and what is normal for Martin which was very illuminating. Little things that almost everyone takes for granted, like photographs, postage stamps, and t-shirts were complete luxuries for Martin and his family. He was so grateful to receive everything Caitlyn sent, because he had so little of his own. It was both sad and sweet to see his reactions, and it was interesting to explore what his day-to-day existence was like. 

I Will Always Write Back is definitely a new favorite nonfiction read for me. It is a wonderful story with a lot of heart. In a world where the news is dominated by one infuriating story after another, it was very refreshing to read something featuring nice people treating each other well. I've been trying to push it more to my students and encourage them to pick it up, despite its length. It teaches a wonderful lesson about how friendship can change lives, and makes people appreciate what they have a little bit more, which are both things that everyone needs to hear more about.

Challenge Tally
True Books 2020: 6/14

Total Books Read in 2020: 17

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote three children's classics that are still beloved by people today: The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. When I was putting my Classics Club list together three years ago, Little Lord Fauntleroy was the only one of those three I hadn't read. Accordingly, I put it on my list. I made it a part of my Then Versus Now Challenge this year, and it also fit in with the "Classic with a Person's Name in the Title" prompt for the Back to the Classics Challenge, so I decided to give it a shot this month. I was interested to see how it compared to Burnett's other work and to see if it would become another favorite children's classic for me.

The plot follows a little boy named Cedric Errol, who is growing up in New York with his beloved mother. His father, the third son of an English earl, died a few years prior, but Cedric hasn't let that dim his light. He is an utterly winsome little boy, with a head full of blonde curls and a kind, friendly manner. He makes friends everywhere he goes and is adored by everyone he meets. His mother has raised him to be a little gentleman, and he fits that description perfectly.

His fortunes take an unexpected turn at the start of the story when he receives the startling news that both of his father's brothers have died, leaving no children to inherit the earl's lands and title. Cedric is now a little lord, and stands to inherit Dorincourt Castle, a vast estate in England. His grandfather sends for him and his mother to come live with him, so that he can take charge of Cedric's education. At once, Cedric and his mother sail across the Atlantic to begin a new life as English nobles.

Cedric's grandfather, John Arthur Molyneux Errol, is a cranky old man plagued by gout. He is known for his stingy ways and short temper. He hates Americans, and thus, he hates Cedric's mother and isn't predisposed too kindly towards Cedric either. He has sent for the boy only out of necessity; he wants to have some influence over the person who will inherit his estate, and this is his only remaining heir. However, when he first meets his grandson, he can't help but start falling in love with him. Cedric believes the best about his grandfather, as he does about everyone, and this innocent belief in his inherent goodness begins to work its magic upon the earl, pushing him to start becoming the kind and generous man that Cedric believes him to be.

Little Lord Fauntleroy is a very sweet story, but it is paper-thin. It's a slim little volume, and there are very few plot events to fill its pages. That's not to say it's bad--it's just shallow. I did enjoy reading about Cedric very much. Burnett's characterization of him is utterly adorable and his faith in the goodness of the people around him was refreshing to see. After a while though, I started to wish there was more going on. Most of the tension in the story comes from the earl's refusal to acknowledge Cedric's mother, who he believes is little more than an American, money-grubbing opportunist. She is also characterized by Burnett as an impossibly good and lovable person, so the reader roots for the earl to come around and become friendly with her. It's very obvious throughout the text that this is where things are headed, so it's not a very suspenseful story element. Aside from a last minute twist thrown in right at the end that is resolved by an extremely unlikely coincidence, there is little to hang onto.

Despite that, I did like watching the earl change under the influence of Cedric's goodness. The trope of grumpy old men being charmed by cute kids generally plays well with me. I loved it in Heidi and I liked it well enough here too. I think it's true that seeing kindness is very inspiring; watching someone be good to others motivates us to do the same. I enjoyed reading about the earl gradually shifting his opinions and attitude and trying to live up to the image that Cedric had of him.

So, while there were definitely elements of this story that I liked, in comparison to The Secret Garden, this novel doesn't really come close. It's a charming little read, but its lack of a story limited how much I could get into it. I'm still glad to have given it a shot though, because now I have experienced Burnett's three biggest novels. It didn't become a new favorite, but I enjoyed the journey.

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 6/27
Classics Club (#23 on my list): 67/100 

Total Books Read in 2020: 16