The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman

The blurb says that this story is “set in 1949 and tak[es] inspiration from E.B. White’s Stuart Little.” The mouse hero Stuart Little is certainly mentioned repeatedly and is an important role model for the mice in the story. However, even though she is not mentioned, the human fictional heroine Little Orphan Annie certainly must have been lurking in the background as an influence for the author of this orphan tale. Kirkus Reviews says the story is surely a tribute to Paul Gallico’s The Abandoned, a story I’m not familiar with although I know the author (The Poseidon Adventure, Mrs. ‘arris Goes to Paris). The plot also echoed Aesop’s fable of The Lion and the Mouse. So it’s a story of many sources and influences.

Cherry Street Children’s Home is the domicile of about thirty some odd orphans, including ten year old Caro McKay. Caro is not very pretty, and she has a severely scarred right hand from the house fire that took her mother’s life. Caro knows that her mother’s death was her fault, and she tries every day to make up for her cowardice in not saving her mother from the fire by being “too good, too studious, too obedient, too nice.” The orphanage director, Mrs. George, depends on Caro to keep the peace and to be a good influence on the other orphans.

Meanwhile, in “mouse territory” behind the baseboards and under the floors, a whole colony of mice forage for food, care for their families, watch for predators, and steal art. Art has become very important to this particular mouse colony, and the postage stamps that the Official Art Thief takes from the orphanage director’s desk adorn the walls of mouse territory and bring to the mice a sense of wonder.

When Mary Mouse, art thief, and Caro McKay, model orphan, meet, they immediately form a bond that transcends their inability to communicate completely. And when Caro helps Mary escape from the dreaded predator Gallico the cat, then Mary knows that she must return the favor by helping Caro, even though Caro doesn’t know the danger she faces.

I thought this story was a delight. The point of view alternates between that of Caro and her mouse friends, and both vantage points feel spot on and give the reader a different perspective on events in the story. The plot moves along at a good clip, but each development fits into a pleasing whole as Caro discovers her true self in terms of “a new story, a true story.” The villains get their just deserts, and the book ends with lasting friendships and more stories. What more could one ask for?

The Orphan and the Mouse would be an excellent read aloud book. Fans of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little, Beverly Cleary’s Ralph S. Mouse, or Kate diCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux should enjoy this book as another tale in that same classic tradition.

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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen

Snow in Summer: Fairest of Them All by Jane Yolen.

The mountains of West Virginia are the setting for this disturbing, yet riveting, retelling of the story of Snow White and her wicked stepmother. (The cover, by the way, is beautiful, but it doesn’t look like West Virginia, c.1949 at all, does it?) In this version, Snow in Summer is known as Summer to her mother, her cousin Jane, and the rest of her family. But her new stepmother, the witch, calls her Snow. Suffice it to say that this story won’t do anything to repair the reputation and public image of stepmothers in general.

The entire book walks just on the edge of plausibility. Could all of episodes in the book be real events, just sometimes interpreted by Snow in Summer as evil magic? Are a talking mirror and a bewitched father just too much to attribute to anything but sorcery and witchcraft? The story also includes a snake-handling, strychnine swallowing religious cult, green garden “magic”, and a murdering lecherous boy named Hunter. It’s reminiscent of some of the stories that take place in Storybrooke, Maine on the TV show Once Upon a Time, mostly just this side of magical, but tipping over into the inexplicable and downright creepy every so often.

I’d recommend the book for girls ages 13 and older who like a good fairy tale rendering. There’s too much “girly-stuff” in the book for most adolescent boys, and the book includes scenes of abuse and attempted assault (not graphic, but very real and scary) that might be disturbing to younger readers.

1949: Events and Inventions

January, 1949. New micro-groove 45-rpm records are invented in the United States.

March 18, 1949. NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is formed by agreement between twelve countries: the United States, Britain, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. The purpose of the alliance is “mutual defense in response to an attack by any external party.” NATO is primarily a response to the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe and the growing perceived threat from the Soviet Union. The North Atlantic Treaty is actually signed on April 4th.

'Ireland as seen by NASA Earth Observatory' photo (c) 2005, Irish Typepad - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/April, 1949. The newly proclaimed Republic of Ireland (not including Northern Ireland) leaves the United Kingdom Commonwealth.

May 12, 1949. The Soviet Union lifts its blockade of Berlin.

May 23, 1949. Dr. Konrad Adenauer becomes the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). West Germany consists of the American, French, and British zones of occupation, but not the Soviet zone of occupation which is formed by Stalin into a communist state called the German Democratic Republic in October.

July, 1949. The Pope declares that supporters of communism will be excommunicated from the faith as communists and social democrats vie for political control in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

August 29, 1949. The USSR tests its first atomic bomb, built partly as a result of secrets stolen from the U.S. nuclear program. Klaus Fuchs, a German-British theoretical physicist and atomic spy, is convicted in 1950 of supplying information from the American, British and Canadian atomic bomb research (the Manhattan Project) to the USSR.

October 1, 1949. Mao Zedong declares the civil war in China to be over and the new People’s Republic of China to be the legitimate government of the country. Nationalist Chinese, led by Chiang Kai-shek, are not welcome as part of Mao’s new republic and will be expelled from mainland China to the island of Taiwan.

'Bali Indonesia' photo (c) 2010, John Y. Can - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/October 16, 1949. The Greek civil war, which began in 1944 when the Nazi army pulled out of Greece, is over. The Greeks have defeated Communist guerrilla fighters to establish a democratic government, but the war has left the country bitterly divided still because of the atrocities committed by both sides during the civil war.

December, 1949. Queen Juliana of the Netherlands grant Indonesia, formerly the Dutch East Indies, independence and sovereignty. Sukarno is elected president of the Republic of Indonesia.

100 Movies of Summer: Adam’s Rib (1949)

Director: George Cukor
Writers: Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin
Starring, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

Brown Bear Daughter says: Good movie. Very feminist, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the feminism was sort of undermined in the end when Spencer Tracy fakes tears in order to get Katherine Hepburn back, saying later that he only did what all women do. Ehhh.. I guess I think the wife (the one on trial) was sort of crazy, and I don’t believe that someone of the male sex is actually more likely to be exonerated from such a crime.

Mom says: Not bad, but I think neither the feminists nor the traditional marriage crowd would be completely pleased with this story of husband and wife who are both lawyers litigating against one another in the same court case. She says the woman who shot her adulterous husband should be acquitted because a man who did the same thing to his wife and her lover would be exonerated. He says the law is the law, and people shouldn’t be allowed to go around waving and shooting loaded guns at each other. I’m on his side.

However, when the characters in the film go on to argue about the nature of marriage itself, I’m not so sure I’m with Mr. Tracy/Assistant DA Adam Bonner nor with Ms. Hepburn/Amanda Bonner. He says something to the effect that marriage is not meant to be a competition and implies that defense attorney Bonner isn’t “fighting fair.” She says at the end of the movie that “there’s no difference between the sexes. Men, women, the same.” Nonsense. If it’s legal and the judge allows it, it’s fair in the courtroom. And of course there’s a huge difference between the sexes, thank the Lord.

According to IMDB, the movie screenplay was “inspired by the real-life story of husband-and-wife lawyers William Dwight Whitney and Dorothy Whitney, who represented Raymond Massey and his ex-wife Adrienne Allen in their divorce. After the Massey divorce was over, the Whitneys divorced each other and married the respective Masseys.” Adam’s Rib is comedy, so you can guess that the ending

IMDB link to Adam’s RIb

Vittoria Cottage by D.E. Stevenson

I’ve had several reading bloggers recommend the books of author D.E. Stevenson, an author I’d never heard of until I began reading blog reviews. So, when I was at the library the other day and happened upon a shelf of books by Ms. Stevenson, I decided to try one out. (Note: this is how publicity-via-blog works with me. A title or an author sits in the back of my mind until I decide one day to check it out of the library or buy it at the bookstore. This process may take a while.)

Anyway, Vittoria Cottage was first published in 1949, and it’s set in about that time period, post-WW II, in rural/village England. The setting and characters remind me a lot of Angela Thirkell’s (Semicolon mini-reviews of Private Enterprise and County Chonicle by Thirkell). In this particular book, Caroline Dering, a widow, lives in the village of Ashbridge in a cottage she inherited from her husband’s family. As the story progresses, various romantic entanglements come and go for Caroline’s children, James, Leda, and Bobbi, and for Caroline herself. The novel revolves around the characters rather than plot. The plot is fairly predictable, but the characters’ actions, feelings, and reactions are not so much so.

The fun part is that I know people just like those in the book. Leda is the chronic grumbler who thinks she will pleased and happy if this or that relationship works out or if she can just attend this or that event or travel or stay home or something. But everyone around her knows that nothing will really make her happy or make her stop complaining; it’s become a habit. Caroline is the peace-making mother who knows deep down inside that she doesn’t have the right words to make everything right for her grown children, but she wants so much to see them happy that she keeps on trying anyway. And although I identify with Caroline’s time of life (I, too, have adult children whom I would like to see make good decisions), I am more like Caroline’s sister, Harriet, an actress who says what she thinks and d–n the consequences. And everybody else in the family had better be ready to hear the truth as Harriet sees it!

Nevertheless, Vittoria Cottage is a gentle story. Even Harriet never becomes too painfully forthright. The family in the story love one another in spite of all their faults, and the ending is a model of sacrificial love between two sisters. Vitoria Cottage takes the reader back to a time in which daily life was hard in some ways, what with rationing and post-war regulations and a general shortage of almost everything, but in which life was also simpler and more, well, agreeable and gentle and village-like. It’s a time we can never return to really, but it’s nice to visit in a book.

If you read D.E. Stevenson and enjoy her books, you may want to visit the following blogs that project the same sense of community and simple living in a bygone era:

Coffee, Tea Books and Me by Brenda: A sojourner who desires to walk in the path God leads each day… who loves her family, books, coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon. (I think Brenda is one of the people who recommended Ms. Stevenson’s books.)

As I See It Now by Debra: I am the annoying happy homemaker type (and proud of it) who enjoys writing about her adventures with a husband and two cats in the empty nest phase of life.

Christmas in Independence, Missouri, 1949

On December 24, 1949, President Harry Truman sent Christmas greetings to the nation by radio from his home in Independence, Missouri:

Once more I have come out to Independence to celebrate Christmas with my family. We are back among old friends and neighbors around our own fireside. . . . Let us not on this Christmas, in our enjoyment of the abundance with which Providence has endowed us, forget those who, because of the cruelty of war, have no shelter–those multitudes for whom, in the phrase of historic irony, there is no room in the inn.

In this blessed season, let not blind passion darken our counsels. We shall not solve a moral question by dodging it. We can scarcely hope to have a full Christmas if we turn a deaf ear to the suffering of even the least of Christ’s little ones.

Since returning home, I have been reading again in our family Bible some of the passages which foretold this night. It was that grand old seer Isaiah who prophesied in the Old Testament the sublime event which found fulfillment almost 2,000 years ago. Just as Isaiah foresaw the coming of Christ, so another battler for the Lord, St. Paul, summed up the law and the prophets in a glorification of love which he exalts even above both faith and hope.

We miss the spirit of Christmas if we consider the Incarnation as an indistinct and doubtful, far-off event unrelated to our present problems. We miss the purport of Christ’s birth if we do not accept it as a living link which joins us together in spirit as children of the ever-living and true God. In love alone–the love of God and the love of man–will be found the solution of all the ills which afflict the world today. Slowly, sometimes painfully, but always with increasing purpose, emerges the great message of christianity: only with wisdom comes joy, and with greatness comes love.

In the spirit of the Christ Child–as little children with joy in our hearts and peace in our souls–let us, as a nation, dedicate ourselves anew to the love of our fellowmen. In such a dedication we shall find the message of the Child of Bethlehem, the real meaning of Christmas.
Taken from The American Patriot’s Almanac, compiled by William J. Bennett and John T.E. Cribb. Semicolon review here.

Read the entire speech.