Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

I've been trying (off and on) to read through all the Newbery Award winning books. It's been fun, and I've actually been pleasantly surprised by the high quality and sentiment that I've found in many of the recent winners. But I'm going to say right up front that many of the Newbery Award winners of the 70s and 80s just don't impress me. Julie of the Wolves was the medal winner in 1973. And while I assent that the book is a fascinating story, and very well written, it's just not inspiring. But please hear me out because I do think this is a good book and worthy of a read. I just wouldn't put it on an Absolutely Must Read list. 

Now, of course, there are plenty of award-winning stories that I don't find inspiring, but as I've read more and more, I've noticed general trends over the years. (And since the Newbery Awards are given each year to books that came out the previous year, it's easy to see general shifts as styles coming in and out of vogue.) The vogue for many of the 60s, 70s, and 80s books seems to be a writing style focused on realism--the sort of realism that tries to relate to people instead of inspire them. I have nothing against being realistic per se, but a story can be both realistic and inspiring, and I think those are the ones worthy of a "most significant contribution to children's literature" award. 

Julie of the Wolves is written in this "realistic" style. Though, it hardly deals in normal everyday life, and it's impossible to say how truly realistic it truly is, since it's a story about a young Eskimo girl who gets lost in the wild and survives by insinuating herself into a small wolf pack. The survival story is fascinating, and the reader gets to see much of Miyax's ingenuity and good humor. (Miyax is her Eskimo name, while "Julie" is her assumed English name.) She watches carefully and patiently, and learns her surroundings in the vast wilderness until by a combination of wisdom, chance, and cleverness, she is able to sustain herself. The story gives a good flavor of the lifestyle of the old-school native Alaskans, and the Americanization of many of these Indians. It also briefly mentions the very prevalent problem of alcohol abuse in the northern villages. All of these I can vouch for being fairly accurate, not from personal experience, but from my own father's stories. (Who travels around and works in many of these villages.) 

In the middle of the book, we have a flashback, explaining why she ran away into the middle of this wilderness. Aside from the beautiful way that Miyax delights in the wilderness and in her own ability to survive, there is much sadness in this story. Miyax was taken away from her father to be put in a school. She was "married" at thirteen to the sun of a drunkard. Then she subsequently ran away from this arrangement...when she got lost in the wild. On the other side, when she comes out of the wild and finds her father again, the reunion is singularly disappointing. He remarried (his first wife having died) an American woman who wants her to speak English and put her in school again. 

These last circumstances are not necessarily bad, but they're sad when contrasted with how much Miyax had grown to appreciate the knowledge and wisdom that the ancient Eskimo's passed down. The reader does not see Miyax praised or congratulated for her fortitude and capabilities. All we see is that she arrives home, eager to share her new found skills, and she is merely asked to act like a "normal" American girl. First this offends her, and she leaves her father's house. But, unaccountably, she changes her mind, is somehow reconciled to the fact that "the hour of the wolf and of the Eskimo is over" and returns again. As I said, it's a fascinating book, but hardly inspiring. 

However, I can give a few good reasons for reading the book: 1) the descriptions of the Eskimo lifestyle are fascinating and full of the wonder and ingenuity involved in "living off the land." (This was one of my favorite parts about the book.) 2) The writing is excellent and succinct, and the descriptions are often poignant or full of good humor. And 3) the "real life" elements in the book, while sad, present some important questions that are good to discuss with school children.

(The book, by the way, is categorized as being for ages 10 and up, which I would certainly corroborate in light of the potential questions and discussions about the story.) 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book Review: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis

I can hardly think of a culture more different from modern America than that of 1920s central China which Elizabeth Lewis presents in Young FuAnd yet, for all the differences, Young Fu is a teenage boy who faces hardship, peer pressure, and the result of his foolish decisions. He is also ambitious, works hard, and humbly accepts correction to please his superiors. 

In this other, very foreign culture, Young Fu moves with his mother from the violent and war torn countryside to the city of Chungking. There in the city, many people live in squalor, eating (with little variation) a penny's worth of rice a day. There, a "Beggar's Guild" and "Thieve's Guild" demand money from the tradespeople in exchange for a promise that they would not be molested. There, coup after military coup ravages the city as soldiers steal food and supplies from the people, and murder the citizens at a whim. And there, Young Fu plans to make his fortune. 

All of these aspects of the city and Young Fu's life are incomprehensible to the modern American reader...except for the last. Children in every culture dream of their futures and desire to make a name for themselves. Anyone could appreciate Young Fu's ingenuity and hard work. And even if they don't share it, they would recognize that Young Fu's passion for learning was significant in his success.

Of course, as the American welfare society has developed, there is less need for ambition to work hard and "rise above" a current situation. After all, why work when you can live fairly comfortably on someone else's dime? Young Fu did not have this option. But in the book, we see the rise of Communist sentiment, and Young Fu experiences firsthand the damage it can do to society and businesses. But Young Fu had no sympathy with these new and radical ideas. His ambition and hard work was unique even in his day. His character, while not exactly a "hero" figure, is not just someone to relate to, he is a figure to inspire the reader to a better and more fruitful life. 

One thing that inspired me was Young Fu's amazing humility. Make no mistake, he had plenty of pride and thought quite well of himself and his abilities. But there are several occasions when he makes foolish decisions, with serious consequences that affected not only himself but also his mother and his kind employer, Tang Coppersmith. In these circumstances, he faced a dilemma: should he cover up his mistake and try to fix it on his own; or should he confess it and lose the respect the he had worked so hard to earn? Each time, Young Fu decides that the safer option was to speak the truth, apologize, and work hard to make it up. This humility earned him extra work but he also gained much respect and the friendship of his elders. 

This would have been an excellent book for me to read as a child, and I will certainly make sure that all of our children read it! It's a quick and exciting read, with good themes of honesty, hard work, and respect for others. And what's more, it's a culturally accurate historical novel that provides a little glimpse into Chinese life in the 1920s. It's never a bad thing for children to realize that the world is full of people who live very different lives...but who are also very alike in the most essential ways. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Book Review: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink

I remember my dad reading this book to us when my brother and I were young--young enough to share a bedroom. Suffice it to say that it was a long time ago. I fought with, and adored, my brother in those years. I was something of a tomboy, and proud of it too. So when my dad read Caddie Woodlawn, it delighted me so much that I remembered my delight years and years later, even when I couldn't remember anything of the story. 

I bought the book at a sale not long ago on the strength of that memory, and only in the last few days have I accomplished the re-reading that has been waiting the last twenty years. And I was not disappointed! 

Caddie Woodlawn is a book that will certainly delight both boys and girls. It has everything in its favor. For one, it is based off of a true story--the story of the author's grandmother, Caddie Woodhouse Watkins. And that fact alone makes many elements of the tale even more exciting, even though we don't know which parts of the story were "true" or "embellished". The exciting escapades of the children are more daring; their friendship with the Indians is more unusual; their favorite dog walking from St. Louis to the wilds of Wisconsin is more incredible; and the surprising truth about their father's past is more astonishing, simply because of the possibility that they might actually have happened to the author's grandmother. 

Then, there's the delightful character of Caddie. She's a tomboy for sure. With her, Tom and Warren, the two brothers on either side of her in age-rank, formed such an inseparable triumvirate that when Caddie (finally) started being interested in house work, the boys followed suite. They learned to quilt and cook and keep house with her, assuming that nothing Caddie did was too "girly" for them! She was quick, vivacious, and full of daring. But it's clear that she is compassionate as well, which is just as winsome as her courage. On one occasion, she has a silver dollar all to herself and spends it all on the lonely half-Indian children who lost their mother. Through the story she also gradually notices and has more sympathy with her younger sister, Hattie, whom she had always previously regarded as nothing more than a nuisance.  

Throughout the book, there are many good episodes to provoke thought or conversation about right and wrong, bravery versus disobedience, generosity versus "wisdom", and in general, what it means to be part of an American family. Without being preachy, the themes of hard work, learning, independence, sacrifice, and camaraderie are apparent in each chapter. It's a great book. I heartily recommend it, and I definitely won't be waiting another twenty years for the next re-read! 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Kate Miller 47: And the two shall become...Three!

Writing happens a lot less frequently when there's a newborn to take care of! But here, at long last, is the birth episode. I have a couple more planned, so don't say goodbye to Kate Miller quite yet!

47. And the two shall become...three! (Sept 4, 2013)
By the time they reached the hospital, Kate’s contractions were coming quickly, every five minutes or less. She practiced her breathing exercises, focusing on breathing in and out, directing her thoughts away from the vice grip on her back that tightened with every contraction.
They took her into a room with another girl in curtained off section, gave her a moment to change into a hospital gown, and then asked for her information. Kate felt rushed and awkward, having to pause in the middle of giving her phone or social security numbers to lean over the on the bed and breath deeply whenever a contraction would come. Well, I’m glad they’re not going to have to induce labor! she thought to herself with only a small pittance of relief. Relief right now would look more like sleeping on her stomach for about a year.
After moving to her own room, the doctor measured her and pronounced that she was at 2 centimeters. Kate was alarmed. That’s IT?! she thought, aghast, after laboring all day I’m only at 2? Her eyes widened with worry as she realized she was only 20 percent of the way to delivery. Two hours later, the contractions were rolling one after another, like waves hitting her back on each side in an ever tightening vice grip. After being measured again (this time at 4cm), she took Mister’s hand. He was tired and distressed, seeing Kate hurting and not being able to help. Beforehand, they had talked about trying to avoid medication--especially an epidural, considering Kate’s extreme antipathy toward needles. But with each contraction, Kate felt that with one more, she must either vomit or faint. So after a moment of talking, they decided to change their plans and get the epidural. Needles were the least of Kate’s worries at the moment, and considering how much longer the labor was bound to last, getting some rest through the night would be essential for their general sanity.
In a matter of minutes, the anesthesiologist came and hooked Kate up to the medication. The pain ebbed away to a warm numbness. Not completely numb, as Kate had expected. She could still feel pressure, and the muscles contracting, but the pain was gone, and she could relax. What’s more, Mister, who she now noticed was looking haggard, could stop worrying and get some rest. It was almost surreal how relaxed she was. But she didn’t have a choice. Her legs felt too heavy to move--she could only barely slide them up and down in the bed. She couldn’t lift herself up or roll over. So, she lay in bed, relished her lack of pain, and read her book: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, which Mister had recommended to her. She didn’t usually read books of that sort, but she appreciated its unique style, and Dillard’s experiences inspired her to write with more purpose and dedication.
She read. She looked around the shadowy room, considering the subtleties of colors in dim lighting. She watched Mister sleeping in the reclining chair by her bed. And she slept herself, but fitfully, interrupted every fifteen minutes by the squeezing and beeping of a blood pressure cuff digging into her left arm. The nurse was always and ever kind, helpful, and prompt. She tried, but failed, to mute the blood pressure machine. She had two boys of her own, one just starting high school. Kate sighed at the passing of time. Her own son was only hours away from starting his life in the world and she knew that it would seem but a breath’s worth of time before he would be in high school himself.
At ten o’ clock the next morning, Theodore James Miller was born. He came out quiet, and nestled snugly on Kate’s chest for a few quiet minutes, but proved that he had a more than adequate voice when the doctor took him for poking and prodding. He had a full head of dark silky hair, and the most adorable little button nose. Mister was by her side the whole time. When the doctor handed Theo to him, his eyes glowed with pride and joy. He and Kate shared a long look and remembered the wonder of the ultrasound many months before. “We have a son.” Kate said again with a smile, and added with a small laugh at the wonder of it, “We’re three of us now!”