Christmas in Toronto, Canada, c.1937

Jane of Lantern Hill is one of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s lesser-known stories. (Ms. Montgomery is, of course, the author of the Anne of Green Gables books as wells the series about Emily of New Moon.) Jane of Lantern Hill tells the story of a girl, Victoria Jane Stuart, who finds out at the age of ten that her father is not dead as she had presumed, and soon after that Jane is compelled to go and visit for the summer with the father she never knew on Prince Edward Island.

This Christmas passage comes from late in the story when Jane is back in Toronto but has grown to know and love her estranged father very much:

The week before Christmas Jane bought the materials for a fruit-cake out of the money dad had given her and compounded it in the kitchen. Then she expressed it to dad.She did not ask anyone’s permission for all this—just went ahead and did it. Mary held her tongue and grandmother knew nothing about it. But Jane would have sent it just the same if she had.
One thing made Christmas Day memorable for Jane that year. Just after breakfast Frank came in to say that long distance was calling Miss Victoria. Jane went to the hall with a puzzled look . . . who on earth could be calling her on long distance? She lifted the receiver to her ear.
“Lantern Hill calling Superior Jane! Merry Christmas and thanks for that cake,” said dad’s voice as distinctly as if he were in the same room.
“Dad!” Jane gasped. “Where are you?”
“Here at Lantern Hill. This is my Christmas present to you, Janelet. Three minutes over a thousand miles.”
Probably no two people ever crammed more into three minutes. When Jane went back to the dining room, her cheeks were crimson and her eyes glowed like jewels.

I do think that perhaps this L.M. Montgomery book, one I don’t remember ever reading, will be my first read of 2018. Skimming it was a delight, and I’m fairly sure that reading the story properly will be quite a good way to start the new year.

I wish my copy were this Virago edition. I love the cover on edition pictured above.

New York Herald Tribune Spring Book Festival Awards

In 1937 two awards of $250 each were established by the New York Herald-Tribune for the best books for younger children and for older children published between January and June. In 1941 the system of awards was revised. Three awards, of $200.00 each, were given to the best books in the following three classes: young children, middle-age children, and other children. Each year a jury, composed of distinguished experts in the field of juvenile literature, was chosen to make the selections.

1937 Seven Simeons, by Boris Artzybasheff. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Viking.)

The Smuggler’s Sloop, by Robb White III. For older children. Illustrated by Andrew Wyeth. (Little.)

1938 The Hobbit, by J. R. Tolkien. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Houghton.)

The Iron Duke, by John R. Tunis. For older children. Illustrated by Johari Bull. (Harcourt)

1939 The Story of Horace, by Alice M. Coats. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Coward.)

The Hired Man’s Elephant, by Phil Stong. For older children. Illustrated by Doris Lee. (Dodd.)

1940 That Mario, by Lucy Herndon Crockett. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Holt)

Cap’n Ezra, Privateer, by James D. Adams. For older children. Illustrated by I. B. Hazelton. (Harcourt.)

1941 In My Mother’s House, by Ann Nolan Clark. For younger children. Illustrated by Velino Herrera. (Viking.)

Pete by Tom Robinson. For middle-age children. Illustrated by Morgan Dennis. (Viking.)

Clara Barton, by Mildren Mastin Pace. For older children. (Scribner.)

1942 Mr. Tootwhistle’s Invention, by Peter Wells. For younger children.
Illustrated by the author. (Winston.)

I Have Just Begun to Fight: The Story of John Paul Jones, by
Commander Edward Ellsberg. For middle-age children. Illustrated
by Gerald Foster. (Dodd.)

None But the Brave, by Rosamond Van der Zee Marshall. For
older children. Illustrated by Gregor Duncan. (Houghton.)

1943 Five Golden Wrens, by Hugh Troy. For younger children. Illus-
trated by the author. (Oxford.)

These Happy Golden Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. For middle-
age children. Illustrated by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle.

Patterns on the Wall, by Elizabeth Yates. For older children.

1944 A Ring and a Riddle, by M. Ilm and E. Segal. For younger children.
Illustrated by Vera Bock. (Lippincott)

They Put Out to Sea, by Roger Duvoisln. For middle-age children.
Illustrated by the author. (Knopf.)

Storm Canvas, by Armstrong Sperry, For older children. Illustrated
by the author. (Winston.)

1945 Little People in a Big Country, by Norma Cohn. For younger children. Illustrated by Tashkent Children’s Art Training Center in Soviet Uzbekistan. (Oxford.)

Gulf Stream by Ruth Brindze. Illustrated by Helene Carter. For middle-age children., (Vanguard.)

Sandy, by Elizabeth Janet Gray. For older children. (Viking.)

1946 Farm Stories. Award divided between Gustaf Tenggren, illustrator, and Kathryn and Byron Jackson, authors. For younger children. (Simon & Schuster.)

The Thirteenth Stone, by Jean Bothwell, illustrated by Margaret Ayer. For middle-age children. (Harcourt)

The Quest of the Golden Condor, by Clayton Knight. Illustrated by the author. For older children. (Knopf.)

Other than The Hobbit and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years, has anyone read or reviewed any of these prize-winning books? I know of the authors Jean Bothwell, Elizabeth Janet Grey, Armstrong Sperry, Roger Duvoisin, Elizabeth Yates, John Tunis, and Ann Nolan Clark, but not these particular books of theirs.

The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway

The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway. “For readers of Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat comes the inspirational, untold story of impoverished children who transformed themselves into world-class swimmers.”

The author, Julie Checkoway, is a National Endowment for the Arts individual artist grant recipient and a journalist for the New York Times and other respected publications. She chose a really good and inspiring Olympic story, from poverty in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii to Olympic glory in the swimming pool. However, the execution and the storytelling just weren’t up to par.

I read the entire book, and I’m glad I know the story of these swimming champions from Hawaii and their eccentric Japanese-American coach. However, I feel that the same story in the hands of a Laura Hillenbrand or John Krakauer could have been so much better. I never really understood what motivated the non-swimming coach, Soichi Sakamoto, to spend so much time and energy teaching a bunch of kids to swim competitively. Although Sakamoto is the central character in the book, he remains an enigma throughout, with a shadowy and stereotypical Japanese inscrutability. And when Ms. Checkoway moves the focus to other characters, one of the kid swimmers in training or the famous Hawaiian veteran swimmer Duke Kahanamoku or Sakamoto’s wife, that focus is still soft and indistinct. I never felt I knew any of these people or what they lived for.

Another problem with the story is the lack of suspense or dramatic tension. Almost anyone reading would know that the Hawaiian swimmers’ dreams of going to the Olympics in 1940, and Japan’s dreams of hosting the 1940 Olympics, were doomed by World War II. The only suspense that remains for us is to watch and read about how the characters in the book find out that that there will be no Olympics in 1940 nor in 1944. And after the war, the focus changes again to a new generation of swimmers who didn’t have to train in a sugar ditch and who are more “normal” and middle class and therefore less compelling and interesting than the original group of come-from-behind swimmers who somehow managed to learn to swim and win national championships in spite of their poverty-stricken beginnings.

I think Ms. Checkoway tried to to flesh out her characters and make them more knowable and therefore more interesting, but unfortunately, probably because of a dearth of people to interview almost eighty years after the fact, she often speculates or imagines what the thoughts and feelings of her characters might have been. As I just did. I really don’t know why the author couldn’t or didn’t find out more about what her characters were thinking and feeling, but I assume it was a lack of access to interviews of the characters themselves. Ms. Checkoway makes these sort of assumptions throughout the book, and I didn’t always agree with her imaginary attribution of feelings and thoughts to the people she writes about.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown are still the gold standard for Olympic narrative nonfiction. This book, while it has its moments, doesn’t even medal. Do you have nominations for the bronze medal in this genre?

FDR and the American Crisis by Albert Marrin

History professor Albert Marrin has been writing nonfiction narrative history for quite a while: his first book for young adults was Overlord: D Day and the Invasion of Europe, which was published in 1982. He has written more than thirty history narratives for children and young adults, including Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy, a National Book Award finalist.

In his latest book, Marrin returns to the World War II era and to the Great Depression and to the president who shepherded America through both of those crises, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR was a complicated character, and Mr. Marrin presents him—warts, strengths, and all—in the context of the events and attitudes of his time. FDR and The American Crisis is, above all, a comprehensive and balanced vision of Roosevelt, what he did for the United States and what he did to change the country, for better and for worse.

In addition to my appreciation for its even-handedness, I was most impressed with the personal tone of Mr. Marrin’s very detailed, yet broad, narrative. Mr. Marrin is 79 years old. Born in 1936, he actually remembers some of the events of Roosevelt’s presidency and of the second World War. And he’s not afraid to gently insert himself into the narrative with an “I remember” or a “we all wonder if” statement. In addition, Marrin isn’t reluctant to share his own informed opinion when it’s appropriate:

“Critics branded Hoover a ‘do-nothing’ president who let Americans suffer due to his commitment to old-fashioned ideas. It is untrue.”

“The media developed a teenager’s crush on the Red Army.”

“Convinced of his own virtue and wisdom, he (FDR) thought too highly of his personal charm and powers of persuasion. He misjudged the murderous Stalin.”

“Those who praised him (FDR) as a saintly miracle worker are as wrong as those who bitterly cursed him as a monster.”

Bottom line, I learned a lot from reading FDR and the American Crisis—and I learned it in a throughly pleasant and absorbing read. Mr. Marrin once said in an interview, “Kids are very bright. I’m not going to write down. If anything, I’ll have them read up to me.” This book is not dumbed down, nor is it a breezy hagiography of a famous president. Any high school, or even college, student looking for both an in-depth and readable introduction to FDR and his presidency could not do better than to read Mr. Marrin’s book first.

Setting: 1936-39, Just Before the War

A friend of ours is writing a book of stories set in a small English village just before World War II, and I’m reading The Last Lion, the second volume of a three volume biography of Winston CHurchill, about the years from 1932-1940. So I’m particularly interested in the time period right now, especially in Europe and Asia. (I didn’t include books set in the United States during the 1930’s.) Do you have any recommended additions to this list?

Spanish Civil War:
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Nonfiction.
Life and Death of a Spanish Town by Elliot Paul. Fiction.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Fiction.
Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom. Fiction. Semicolon review here.

Sino-Japanese War and The Nanjing Massacre:
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. Fiction. Semicolon review here.
When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro. Fiction. Semicolon review here.
Living Soldiers by Ishikawa Tatsuzo. Fiction.
Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin, reviewed at Semicolon. Fiction.
The Devil of Nanking by Mo Hayder. Fiction. Reviewed by Nicola at Back to Books.
The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. Nonfiction.
Dragon Seed by Pearl S. Buck. Fiction.

The Kindertransport, 1938-39:
Sisterland by Linda Newbery. YA fiction.
Far to Go by Alison Pick. Fiction.

Stalinist Russia, Before the War:
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler.
Sashenka: A Novel by Simon Montefiore.

Britain, Before the War:
Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson. Fiction.
A Blunt Instrument and No Wind of Blame by Georgette Heyer. Fiction.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Fiction.
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940 by William Manchester. Nonfiction.
Several Agatha Christie mysteries take place during this time period, titles too numerous to mention.

Continental Europe, Before the War
Pied Piper by Nevil Shute.

Chinese History in Fiction and Nonfiction

I read two books back to back that shed some light on the vicissitudes of Chinese life and history: Fortunate Sons by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller and Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin.

Fortunate Sons is the nonfiction title, subtitled The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization. It’s about an educational experiment that took place starting in 1872 in which groups of boys from China were sent to New England to be educated in the ways of Western thinking and inventions and technology. The goal was to train leaders for China who would bring the Chinese out of their technological deficit and their impotence in the face of Western weaponry and warfare.

In spite of the fact that the boys were called home early, before most of them were able to complete their university education, many of the young men who returned to China after receiving an American education were able to serve their native country effectively and with great loyalty. Sometimes their gifts were under-appreciated and under-utilized given the chaotic state of Chinese politics in the early twentieth century. However, some of the CHinese Educational Mission graduates were given great responsibility in bringing China into the modern age in the areas of railroads, diplomacy, and warfare in particular.

Unfortunately, I had trouble remembering which boy was which as I read the book. What with American nicknames like “Jimmy” and “By-Jinks Johnnie” as well as Chinese names, such as Yung Wing and Yung Liang and Chen Duyong and Liang Dunyan, that all started to sound alike to my untrained American ears, I was confused most of the time about who was whom. A list of the boys with their Chinese names, American nicknames, and one distinguishing fact about each would have been quite helpful. Nevertheless, I do recommend the book for those who are interested in modern Chinese history.

As usual, I learned more from the fiction book that I read set in 1937-1940 China called Nanjing Requiem than I did from the nonfiction book. This novel is another one of those memoir-ish fictional treatments, based on the life and experiences of a real person, specifically the life of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary and the dean of Jinling Women’s College in Nanjing, China. If you’ve read anything about China and World War II, you’ve heard of the Rape of Nanjing. This story brings the Japanese occupation and pillage of Nanjing to life, but in an understated, almost documentary sort of writing style. The violence and the horror are there, and the author’s style, using a fictional Chinese narrator to tell the story of Ms. Vautrin’s courage and her eventual mental collapse, makes the barbarity of the events in the novel even more vivid because Ha Jin leaves much to the imagination. Then, there are the moral dilemmas of war and dealing with the enemy on behalf of the helpless and sometimes thankless Chinese refugees who become Ms. Vautrin’s responsibility. No one, including Minnie Vautrin, especially Ms. Vautrin, escapes the horrible repercussions of decisions made under the pressure of sometimes choosing between evil and more evil.

For those who are interested in the true story of Minnie Vautrin and the Rape of Nanjing, this video is a dramatization of material from the diaries of Minnie Vautrin, presented as a mock trial for war crimes committed during the Nanjing occupation. This video is a fictional presentation, not a real trial. The real Minnie Vautrin died in 1941.

I noticed as I read Nanjing Requiem how the characters in the novel spoke and thought about revenge on the Japanese for the atrocities they committed and how they wondered why God did not act to bring justice and vengeance down upon the Japanese army and upon the Japanese people for allowing such wickedness to proceed unchecked. I couldn’t help thinking about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few years after the Rape of Nanking. Although I don’t believe that God sanctioned the bombing of those Japanese cites in retribution for the Rape of Nanjing and other Japanese war crimes, I do believe that evil begets evil. And sometimes the innocent pay for the sins of their fathers and others.

1937: Books and Literature

The first issue of Look magazine goes on sale in the United States.

Newbery Medal for children’s literature: Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer.

Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: A Further Range by Robert Frost.

Pulitzer Prize for the Novel: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

Published in 1937:
Dumb Witness, Death on the Nile, and Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie.
Out of Africa by Isak Dineson.
To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway. More about Hemingway.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
Life and Death of a Spanish Town by Elliot Paul.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. I was blogging through The Hobbit earlier this year as Z-baby and I were reading it aloud, but I only made it through chapter seven with the blog entries. Z-baby and I finished the entire book and enjoyed it very much.

1937: Events and Inventions

January, 1937. Leading Communists go on trial in Russia, accused of Trotskyism and participating in a plot to overthrow Stalin and his government. The Soviet Union finally executes thirty-one people for Trotskyism. In August, Stain continues The Great Purge in which hundreds of thousands of political opponents, peasants, writers, artists, intellectuals, Trotskyites, and military leaders are killed for disagreeing with or offending Stalin in some way.

February, 1937. Spanish Civil War. Battle of Jarama: Nationalist (Franco’s fascist Falangists) and government (Republican and Communist) troops fight to a stalemate. Italian troops and German tanks help the Nationalists. British, Irish, Balkan, French and Belgian volunteers fight in support of the Republican government.

April 26, 1937. German planes bomb Guernica, Spain in support of Francisco Franco’s Nationalists, killing 200 to 300 civilians. The Spanish Republican government commissions Pablo Picasso to create this large mural for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exposition in June, 1937.

'Le fameux Guernica (1937) de Pablo Picasso au musée Reine Sofia à Madrid' photo (c) 2011, Tab59 - license:

May 6, 1937. The German airship Hindenburg explodes on its approach to Lakehurst Field, NJ after a transatlantic flight from Frankfort, Germany. 35 of the 97 passengers and crew on board die in the explosion.

'Golden Gate Bridge' photo (c) 2007, Salim Virji - license: 27-28, 1937. Golden Gate Bridge opens to pedestrian traffic, creating a vital link between San Francisco and Marin County. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushes a button in Washington, D.C., signaling the start of vehicle traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge. At 1.7 miles the bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the world in 1937.

May 28, 1937. Neville Chamberlain becomes Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

June 3, 1937. Wallis Simpson marries the Duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII of the United Kingdom, in France.

July 2, 1937. Amelia Earhart disappears after taking off from New Guinea during her attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world.

July 7, 1937. Japanese troops open fire on a Chinese patrol outside the Chinese capital, Peking (Beijing). The Japanese claim the Chinese provoked the exchange of fire, but the Chinese are claiming a Japanese invasion. This incident begins the Second Sino-Japanese War as Japan attempts to take over mainland China. By the end of 1937, Japan will control most of the coastal cities of China, including Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Nanjing, and others.

December 13, 1937. The city of Nanjing, China falls to the Japanese invaders. Up to 300,000 Chinese are brutally murdered by the Japanese army in the Nanking Massacre or the Rape of Nanjing during the next six months of Japanese control.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Pearl and May Chin are sisters, growing up in Shanghai, 1937. The two young ladies are also Beautiful Girls, a phrase that carries a specific denotation in the modern, cosmopolitan culture of Westernized Shanghai. Pearl and May are models whose portraits sell everything from cigarettes to soap. The girls are living a fast, sophisticated, and carefree life, when suddenly everything changes. The girls’ father owes money to the mob, and in order to pay them he arranges a complicated deal that involves arranged marriages for his daughters to two Chinese boys from San Francisco that they’ve never met. And at the same time the Japanese army is sweeping over northern China, headed for Shanghai. Chiang Kai Shek and his Chinese nationalists are opposing the Japanese, and the two forces meet on the streets of Shanghai.

This first part of the book was illustrative of fact that at the same time that huge historical events are taking place, individuals are playing out their own dramas. May and Pearl hardly notice the advance of the Japanese army at first; they are too caught up in their own battle with their father. Then, they realize that their American husbands may be their only ticket to escape the horrors of war and the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and surrounding areas.

Most of the rest of the story deals with May and Pearl and their relationship as sisters and their adjustment to living in a new place and a new culture. The Chinese are not particularly welcome in pre-WW2 San Francisco. There is much bigotry to endure or overcome, and many decisions must be made about how to handle encounters with the U.S. government and with non-Chinese neighbors and citizens. But the center of the story always comes back to the relationship between May and Pearl. Are they rivals or best friends? Or both? How can the two sisters see each other’s faults and shortcomings so clearly and still remain the central source of love and support for one another?

The book made me think not so much of my own sister, although we are good friends, as it did of my children and their relationships. Sometimes they exhibit the same jealousies and misunderstandings that May and Pearl have, but at the same time I see them being fiercely protective and defensive of one another. I do believe that some of my children are each other’s best friends, and that makes me happy, even when it involves a closeness that can see and exploit the other’s weaknesses. The sister/sister relationship in particular is fraught with peril, but also can be rewarding and full of joy. On whom can you depend if not your sister?

Shanghai Girls was a moving look at a pair of Chinese sisters and their perilous journey to America and also to true sisterhood. I enjoyed the trip.

What some other bloggers thought about Shanghai Girls:

Dawn at She Is Too Fond of Books: “The fictional Pearl and May, like many actual Chinese in America during this period, endured. Shanghai Girls is a work of historical fiction that both entertains and teaches.”

A Book a Week: “The sisters in Shanghai Girls have a relationship that is clichéd and predictable. The dialogue is almost painfully banal. Yet the settings (1930’s Shanghai, 1940’s and ‘50’s Los Angeles) are great, very evocative and filled with detail.”

Darlene at Peeking Between the Pages: “I have to say that Shanghai Girls really ends in the middle of nowhere. I was shocked when I got to the last page as I still expected more story but that leads me to believe there will be a sequel and that I’m looking forward to.”

Kailana/Kelly at The Written Wordhas a joint review with Marg of The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader. Good discussion there, and their review confirms that there is supposed to be a sequel.

Advanced Reading Survey: The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang

I’ve decided that on Mondays I’m going to revisit the books I read for a course in college called Advanced Reading Survey, taught by the eminent scholar and lovable professor, Dr. Huff. I’m not going to re-read all the books and poems I read for that course, probably more than fifty, but I am going to post to Semicolon the entries in the reading journal that I was required to keep for that class because I think that my entries on these works of literature may be of interest to readers here and because I’m afraid that the thirty year old spiral notebook in which I wrote these entries may fall apart ere long. I may offer my more mature perspective on the books, too, if I remember enough about them to do so.

Lin Yutang, or Lin Yu-t’ang, was a Chinese American author born in China and educated in Christian schools there. He later moved to New York and still later to Singapore. He also moved from a childhood immersed in Christianity to a sort of joyful paganism and then back to a deep commitment to Christ and to the church. At the time that his most famous book of essays, The Importance of Living, was written (1937), Mr. Lin was in the happy Chinese pagan chapter of his life. He later wrote another book, From Pagan to Christian, in 1959 that detailed his return to Christianity and the reasons for it. Lin Yutang was a best-selling author, and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature several times in the 1970’s. He is said to have been a writer who bridged Eastern and Western cultures. Oh, and he also invented and patented a Chinese typewriter.

“Somehow the human mind is forever elusive, uncatchable, and unpredictable and manages to wriggle out of mechanistic laws or a materialistic dialectic that crazy psychologists and unmarried economists are trying to impose upon him.”

“The world, I believe, is far too serious, and being far too serious, it has need of a wise and merry philosophy.”

“A plan that is sure to be carried out to its last detail already loses interest for me.”

“Somewhere in our adult life, our sentimental nature is killed, strangled, chilled, or atrophied by an unkind surrounding, largely through our own fault in neglecting to keep it alive or our failure to keep clear of such surroundings.”

“No one should aim at writing immortal poetry, one should learn the writing of poems merely as a way to record a meaningful moment, a personal mood, or to help the enjoyment of Nature.”

“Scholars who are worth anything at all never know what is called “a hard grind” or what “bitter study” means. They merely love books and read on because they cannot help themselves.”

“Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”

I really would like to re-read Mr. Lin’s essays on living a good and wise and simplified life. Maybe when I simplify my life . . .