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The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

I don’t really want to summarize the plot of this novel because for me it wasn’t about the plot. In fact, as an older teen or an adult reads the book, he or she can pretty well predict what’s going to happen to fourteen year old Joan as she goes from life on the farm to the big city of Baltimore to escape her father and find a new life for herself in 1911. Her only real knowledge of life comes from a few chance remarks from her beloved teacher, Miss Chandler, and from the three novels that Miss Chandler gave her: Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Just think what your ideas about how the world works would be if you had grown up rather isolated on a farm with an emotionally abusive father, a devoted but sickly mother, and those three novels to inform your views. I haven’t read Dombey and Son, but I can easily imagine the romantic excesses that Jane Eyre and Ivanhoe might lead one to commit. And Joan is just the sort of strong, passionate, naive girl to get her self into quite a bit of trouble, well-meaning but a bull in a china closet.

The Hired Girl is a diary novel; Ms. Schlitz allows us to see into the mind and motivations of a fourteen year old Catholic housemaid in a Jewish household in the early part of the twentieth century. And the author gets Joan’s voice just right. I really believed in this innocent but intelligent girl, hard-working, trying to become a “refined lady”, confident yet dangerously naive. She reminded me of Jo March, without the nervous energy of a March daughter, or Anne Shirley with a somewhat harder road to hoe. Joan, who calls herself “Janet” to disguise her identity, lucks out in that she gets a job with a kind, rich Jewish family, but she does not get a Matthew or a Marilla to adopt her and treat her as a daughter, although she almost gets a substitute father and mother in her employer and the elderly housekeeper that she works with. She also, like Anne, lets her passionate nature and impulsivity get her into a lot of scrapes, but Joan/Janet’s scrapes are quite a bit more serious and even dangerous than Anne’s ever were. (That’s why the book is for older teens, at least the age of the main character or older.)

And yet the book is funny. I laughed out loud sometimes at Joan’s artlessness and enthusiasm. And I became very anxious when I saw the direction in which her decisions were taking her. It’s a direction that the reader will know is bound to lead to disaster, even though Joan, caught up in imagining herself as the heroine of one of her favorite novels, is oblivious to the impending ruin that her innocence and ignorance are inviting. The juxtaposition of Joan’s rather immature but devoted Catholicism and the sophisticated, ingrained Judaism of her employer’s family was quite well-written and so intriguing. Not many writers can write religion and religious differences both convincingly and respectfully.

I can only imagine the skill and hard work that were required for Ms. Schlitz to pull this novel together, make its voice, that of a fourteen year old innocent, true and convincing, and still show the reader what is going on behind the scenes, in the minds and decisions of the other characters in the novel. I’d recommend The Hired Girl to mature teens and adults. Anyone who’s ready for Jane Eyre should be ready for this one, too, although I suppose an argument could be made that fourteen year old Joan wasn’t quite ready to really understand and interpret Jane Eyre in all its full meaning. It’s an interesting question. What novel(s) could Miss Chandler have given Joan that would have better prepared her for living as a hired girl in the city? (Not that Miss Chandler knew that Joan would be running away to the city.)

Maybe she should have read Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, published in 1900, as a sort of cautionary tale. Or Madame Bovary. But maybe the lessons of those adult novels would have gone right over her head.

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

The Winter Sea is a novel of historical fiction set before, during and after the Jacobite attempted restoration in 1715 of James III of England and James VIII of Scotland, the Pretender, to the throne of Scotland, recently merged with, or sold to, the English government, much to the dismay of some Scots. A twenty-first century author, Carrie McClelland, is writing a book about Sophia Paterson, an 18th century ancestress of hers who lived during the Jacobite uprising. Both women find romance as their memories become intertwined.

What I liked:

Set in Scotland. What’s not to like about Scotland? Oh, if only all men were born with a Scots accent. But then I suppose it wouldn’t be so appealing, just normal.

The historical information. Granted there’s a lot of telling. Instead of having the characters in the thick of the action as James Stuart, the Pretender, tries to reclaim the throne of Scotland and England from his sister Anne, they are mostly on the sidelines. Watching and waiting are the occupations of the 18th century heroine, Sophia, and researching and channeling dead voices take up almost all of the days and nights of the author, Carrie McClelland, who is writing about Sophia and her adventures. Nevertheless, there’s a great deal of history in the book, and I liked that aspect.

The genealogy angle. The two intertwined stories that make up this romance novel are all about history and the main present day character’s genealogy. In fact, Sophia and others in the past turn out to be related to the author, Carrie, who is writing a historical novel. Yes, it gets a tad confusing, just as real genealogical research does, but I enjoyed all the who’s-related-to-whom stuff.

What I disliked:

Bed before wed. As in most romance novels (and movies) of the twenty-first century variety, the author/heroine and her hero/love interest are abed together before the ink can dry on the page telling of their mutual attraction. I find this disheartening, but at least the reader is spared a graphic description of their sexual adventures. This issue is one major reason I do not read romance novels, not even historical romance novels which might appeal to me because of the history. The historical pair are sorta, kinda married before they engage in marital relations, but only just barely. At least there’s a commitment between the two.

Male possessiveness. Both of the male leads tell their respective inamoratas: “you were mine from the moment I met you”, or something to that effect. And both are fond giving orders and expecting them to be obeyed, even though Carrie, at least, is described as an “independent woman.” I didn’t like the possessiveness that Grant and Moray exhibited.

Florid writing. Romances tend toward purple prose, which is another reason I don’t usually care for them. Here’s a mild example from this novel, chosen at random: “For that swirling moment, all she felt was him—his warmth, his touch, his strength, and when he raised his head she rocked towards him, helplessly off balance.”

So, you can probably judge from all that to-and-fro whether or not this historical fiction novel is for you. If so, enjoy. If not, but you still want some 18th century England/Scotland setting historical fiction, try:

The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. by William Makepeace Thackeray. 1691-1718. England.
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott. 1715-1719. Scotland and England.
Devil Water by Anya Seton. 1715-17??. England and America.
The Sound of Coaches by Leon Garfield. England.
Smith: The Story of a Pickpocket by Leon Garfield. England.
Waverley by Sir Walter Scott. 1745. Scotland.
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. 1750’s. Scotland.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. 1750’s. England and the ocean-sea.
Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. 1789. South Seas.
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forrester. 1793.

Or, if you just want something set in Scotland, I can recommend:

Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett.
44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith.
The 39 Steps by John Buchan.
Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter.
Mrs. Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson.
The King’s Swift Rider by Mollie Hunter.
Immortal Queen by Elizabeth Byrd.
The Iron Lance by Stephen Lawhead.
The Fields of Bannockburn by Donna Fletcher Crow.

The Hawk and the Dove by Penelope Wilcock

It was Easter, two years after Father Peregrine had come to be their abbott. Easter, the greatest feast of the Christian year, and all the local people had come up to the abbey, and the guest house was full of pilgrims come to celebrate the feast of the Resurrection. So many people, so many processions, so much music! So many preparations to be made by the singers, the readers, those who served at the altar and those served in the guest house, not to mention those who worked in the kitchens and the stables. The abbey was bursting with guests, neighbors, relatives, and strangers.

The Easter Vigil was mysterious and beautiful, with the imagery of fire and water and the Paschal candle lit in the great, vaulted dimness of the abbey church. Brother Gilbert the precentor’s voice mounted joyfully in the triumphant beauty of the Exultet; all the bells rang out for the risen Lord, and the voices of the choirboys from the abbey school soared with heart-breaking loveliness in the music declaring the risen life of Jesus. Easter Day itself was radiant with sunshine for once, as well as celebration. Oh, the joyful splendor of a church crammed full of people, a thundering of voices singing, ‘Credo –I believe.’

In The Hawk and the Dove by Penelope Wilcock, an English mother tells her daughters, especially her fifteen-going-on-grown-up daughter Melissa, stories about their long ago ancestor, the abbot of a Benedictine abbey, and the monks under his care. The stories are deceptively simple and quotidian: stories of forgiveness asked and given, monks who are injured and need healing, others who don’t fit into the abbey life and must learn to do so. However, these are the same issues that Melissa, her mother and sisters must deal with in daily family life, and they’re the same things we try to iron out and work through here at Semicolon House.

In the other two books in the trilogy, the brothers of St. Alcuin monastery continue to work together and grow in community. They also grow older and must confront the difficulties that old age brings in its train. In fact, the third book in the series is about death and dying and living with serious impairments —all to the glory of God. It’s quite timely in these days of “death with diginity” and compassion redefined as hurrying the dying into death, but it may be a bit too much for children. Again, I think the entire family will enjoy at least the first two books in the trilogy.

A few more excerpts:

“Theodore saw his hopes of a new beginning turn to ashes in the miserable discovery that even men who had given their whole lives to follow Christ could be irritable, sharp-tongued, and hasty.” How many new Christians upon becoming involved in a church have stumbled over that particular realization? Monasteries, and churches, are simply places for imperfect people to come and begin to learn to serve and show kindness and love, not places where the already perfected live in flawless harmony.

Fifteen year old Melissa to her teacher in English class: “Mother says, that love is only true love when it shows itself in fidelity, —ummmm, faithfulness. She says if a person has the feeling of love, but no faithfulness, his love is just self-indulgent sentimentality. And that’s what Shelley was like, isn’t it? He wrote fine peoms to his wife and his lovers, but he wasn’t a faithful man. So how can his poetry about love be worth anything if his love in real life wasn’t worth anything?” From the mouths of babes, can an untrue person write truly? Can he write true poetry that he hasn’t lived in some fashion, however imperfectly?

“Mother said these stories were true, and I never knew her tell a lie . . . but then you could never be quite sure what she meant by “truth”; fact didn’t always come into it.”

I assure you that the stories in Ms. Wilcock’s Hawk and the Dove trilogy are quite true —as fiction sometimes is.

Web of Traitors by Geoffrey Trease

A mysterious plot to overthrow the democracy of Athens is foiled by young Alexis and his friend Corinna. The story includes appearances by Socrates, Plato and Xenophon, competition at the annual Athenian drama festival, and an exciting torch race through the countryside near Athens. Alexis, the Athenian second son of an Athenian nobleman, and Corinna, alien daughter of a cook and innkeeper, form an unlikely friendship when they meet out in the country near Alexis’s father’s farm. And the two of them discover that that the Spartans are in league with an exiled Athenian traitor to overthrow the Council and install themselves as dictators.

Subtitled “An Adventure Story of Ancient Athens” and originally published in England as The Crown of Violet in 1952, Web of Traitors is a good accompaniment to the study of ancient Greece in history. The student who reads this “adventure story” will be introduced to Athenian theater and sport, to the rivalry between Athens and Sparta, and to the culture and customs of Athens. However, this novel is not just a history book in disguise. The characters are fun and fresh and believable, and the story itself is intriguing enough to hold the interest of middle school readers, even of those who go into the novel with very little knowledge of interest in ancient Athens.

According to Jan Bloom’s author guide, Who Then Should We Read?, Geoffrey Trease, a British children’s author with a background in the classics and in theater, “once commented that he could write about any period if he could figure out what made those people laugh.” He wrote more than fifty historical novels for middle grade and young adult readers, set in all different time periods from the Athens of Socrates and Plato to the time of Shakespeare (Cue for Treason) to the French revolution (Victory at Valmy). His novels are said to combine historical accuracy, adventure, and a love of drama to make great reads.

Here are a few of Trease’s novels, along with the setting of each, that I would like to read and to own for my library:

Message to Hadrian: Roman Britain.
Escape to King Alfred: Ninth century during the reign of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex.
Cue for Treason: Shakespeare’s England. I already own this one and plan to read it next.
The Silken Secret: Eighteenth century London and the beginnings of silk manufacture in England.
Victory at Valmy: French Revolution.
The Iron Tsar: St. Petersburg during the reign of Czar Nicholas I.
The White Nights of St. Petersburg: 1916, the Russian Revolution.
No Boats on Bannermere: contemporary with publication in the 1940’s.

In fact, I’m excited about reading as many of the books of Geoffrey Trease as I can get my hands on. I like this first book of his that I’ve read far better than I enjoyed the few books by G.A. Henty that I’ve read. Henty is popular among homeschoolers, but I think for exciting and informative historical fiction, I may decide that Trease is better.

Silence Over Dunkerque by John Tunis

Mr. Tunis was known as “the inventor of the modern sports story.” He wrote numerous sports novels featuring young baseball players and young football players, but her did not consider himself a “children’s writer”, even though his publishers insisted on marketing his books to young people. Since there was no separate “young adult” publishing sector at the time that Tunis wrote his books, they were sold to children and teens and adults. The books mostly feature high school and college age, sometimes even older, protagonists.

In fact, Silence Over Dunkerque, is not a sports story and is mostly about Sergeant George Williams, member of the British Expeditionary Force and his escape from occupied France during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Since he has fourteen year old twin sons back home in England, Sergeant Williams is obviously older than the average Tunis protagonist, and though the story also features a fourteen year old French girl, Giselle, and also the twins to some extent, Sergeant Williams is the main character and the anchor for the story.

Silence Over Dunkerque was published in 1962, and it’s not quite as fast-paced as a more contemporary YA novel might be. Sergeant Williams is caught in the maelstrom of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, and he has adventures—escape from the Germans, a failed attempt to evacuate from the beach, encountering Nazi patrols, the capture of a German parachuter—but these adventures are interspersed between times of waiting in long lines on the beach, hiding out in a French farmhouse, hiking across enemy territory, rowing tediously across the Channel.

And there’s a dog. Sergeant Williams befriends an abandoned dog in a small French village on his way to Dunkirk. The dog tenaciously follows Sergeant Williams through all his journey across France and even across the Channel, and Williams comes to appreciate the dog’s loyalty and protective instincts. The dog, the twins, Sergeant Williams’ wife searching for him on the beach at Dover day after day, Sergeant Williams’ companion in his adventures, Three Fingers Brown, all add to the human interest of a story that is essentially a humanization of an episode in World War II history: Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk evacuation.

World War II history buffs and general history buffs (like me) will enjoy the novel and appreciate the ebbs and flows of plot and action and the sturdy prose of a sportswriter turned novelist. Recommended.

If you’re interested in a list of other books and movies about Operation Dynamo, the evacuation at Dunkirk, check out this post about Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose.

Historical Fiction and Nonfiction: Seventeenth Century Europe

Last week I reviewed several books set during World War War II. This week my book travels have taken me to seventeenth century Europe. I haven’t read every single one of the following books, but I can generally recommend either the book or the author.

What have you read that is set in seventeenth century Europe, either England or the continent? About Puritans, Cavaliers, Cromwell, the two Charleses and two Jameses, Louis XIII and Louis XIV, the Sun King, metaphysical poets, English civil war, philosophy, pirates, astronomy, physics, fables(La Fontaine) and fairy tales(Perrault), slavery, and religious upheaval?

Children’s and Young Adult Fiction:
The Dark Frigate by Charles Boardman Hawes. c.1630. England. Newbery Award book.
I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino. Early 1600’s. Spain. Newbery Award book about the painter Diego Velasquez and his slave and friend, Juan de Pareja.
Down Ryton Water by E.R. Gaggin. 1620. Half in Europe, and half in the New World. The book gives a good picture of life for the Pilgrims in England and in Holland before their removal to the New World. Newbery Honor book.
The Walls of Cartagena by Julia Durango. 1639. Cartagena, Colombia. Reviewed at Book Nut.
Campion Towers by John and Patricia Beatty. 1640’s. England. A Puritan girl, Penitence, is transplanted from New England to the England of Cromwell and Charles II.
The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat. 1647. England. The four Royalist Beverley children are orphaned during the English civil war, and they hide from the Roundheads in the New Forest where they learn to live off the land.
Lark by Sally Watson. 1651. England. Lark is a pert, lively, likable girl who, rather than marry her unpleasant Puritan cousin, runs away from home.
Cast Off by Eve Yohalem. 1663. Amsterdam to the East Indies.
The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands. 1665. London, England. Apothecaries being targeted in London.
A Parcel of Patterns by Jill Paton Walsh. 1665. Village of Eyam, Derbyshire, England. The plague quarantines an entire village.
Master Cornhill by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. 1665-1666. London, England. An orphan boy lives through the Great Fire of London.
Pirate Royal by John and Patricia Beatty. 167?. London, Bristol, Cuba, Jamaica, Venezuela. Young Anthony Grey is kidnapped from a Boston tavern and impressed into service with the notorious pirate Henry Morgan.
Huguenot Garden by Douglas M. Jones III. 1685. La Rochelle, France.

Adult Fiction:
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. 1625. Mostly France and sometimes England.
The Child from the Sea by Elizabeth Goudge. 16??. The love story of Lucy Walter and Charles II.
The King’s General by Daphne duMaurier. 1642-1656. Devon/Cornwall, England during the English Civil War.
The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliffe. 1642-1656. England during the English Civil War.
Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas. 1645-1650. France.
The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later by Alexandre Dumas. 1660-1667. France. (includes Louise de la Vallière, and The Man in the Iron Mask.)
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. 1665-1666. England.
Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne duMaurier. c.1670. Cornwall, England.
Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini. 1685-1688. England and Barbados.
The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. by William Makepeace Thackeray. 1691-1718. England.

Children’s and Young Adult Nonfiction:
Along Came Galileo by Jeanne Bendick. 1564-1642. Italy.
A Piece of the Mountain: The Story of Blaise Pascal by Joyce McPherson. 1623-1662. France.
The Flight and Adventures of Charles II by Charles Norman. 1642-1688. England.
The Ocean of Truth: The Story of Sir Isaac Newton by Joyce McPherson. 1643-1727. England.

Adult Nonfiction:
A Coffin for King Charles: The Trial and Execution of Charles I by C.V. Wedgwood. 1648-1649. England.
The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. 1691. Paris, France.
Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees by Peter Kreeft. Blaise Pascal, philosopher and mathematician, lived from 1623 to 1662.
The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton.
Religio Medici by Thomas Browne. 1652.

Seventeenth Century Poets:
George Herbert
John Donne
Richard Lovelace
John Milton
Henry Vaughan
Isaac Watts
Jean de la Fontaine.

We Never Stood Alone by Bob DeGray

If you like both World War II fiction and Christian fiction, We Never Stood Alone should be your next read, for sure. My pastor wrote the book, so maybe I’m prejudiced, but I found it absorbing, impeccably researched, and also full of spiritual and practical truth. I certainly can’t say all three of those things about many books that I read.

The novel is set in the fictional village of Stokely on the Thames River in south central England in 1939 as war clouds loom on the horizon. Free Church pastor Lloyd Robins, worrying over the continual drumbeat of bad news from the continent and the ringing in his bad ear, is trying to remain faithful to the Lord he came to know in the last war and hopeful in the face of the coming storm. His wife, Annie, is his support, but she has her own struggles and storms to walk through. Both Lloyd and Annie, as well as the other members of Stokely Free Church, must learn to sense the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as they necessarily depend on Him in a time of profound danger and uncertainty.

Yes, there are those many, many other members of Stokely Free Church and other inhabitants of the village of Stokely. You almost need a list of characters to keep them all straight, and obliging author that he is, Mr. DeGray has provided just such a list on his blog, World War 2 Christian Fiction. Consult the list when you read, as needed.

When I read good books, I am usually reminded of other good books or movies or even TV series. We Never Stood Alone reminded me both of Downton Abbey and of Jan Karon’s Mitford/Father Tim books. The Downton Abbey connection is, of course, found in the sheer British-ness of the setting and characters as well as the intertwined stories of all the village people in community. Community is a central theme of the book as is the daily efficacy of prayer and Scripture, two Christian disciplines which also intertwine to keep us in community and in Christ’s presence. In this theme of Christian community among broken and average people, the village and people of Stokely in We Never Stood Alone most resemble Jan Karon’s Mitford community of normal, everyday people in the process of being transformed by a loving and immanent God.

To learn more about the book or the author or both, visit the author’s website, ww2christianfiction.com.

To purchase your copy, either as an ebook or in print, try Amazon.

Black Dove White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Emilia and Teo have always lived unorthodox lives in a free-spirited and unconventional family. Emilia’s Momma is a pilot and a barnstorming performer, as is Teo’s mom, Delia. The two pilots travel the country and perform together as the Black Dove and the White Raven, since Momma Rhoda Menotti is white while Delia is black. Papa Menotti is an Italian aviator, but Emilia and her mom haven’t seen him since Em was a baby. Theo’s father is Ethiopian, and he died in France when the two children were infants. So, Teo and Em have grown up together as brother and sister.

Delia’s dream is for all of them to move to Ethiopia where Teo can grow up without the prejudice and racism that is prevalent in the U.S. in the 1930’s. When tragedy strikes, derailing the dream, the little family is more determined than ever to fly away to Ethiopia, even though things in Africa aren’t all good. Slavery is still legal, although restricted, in Ethiopia, and the European powers of France, Britain, and Italy are squabbling over who will influence and exercise power in the kingdom ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie.

This historical novel, by the author of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, was riveting. It’s mostly set in a place I know very little about, Ethiopia, and chronicles events that I knew nothing about. Mussolini’s troops used mustard gas in 1936 on Ethiopian soldiers armed with only spears and on civilians? Emperor Haile Selassie himself fought the Italians, shooting at their planes from the ground? Eight black American aviators tried to go to Ethiopia as military support for the Ethiopians during the Italian invasion, but the U.S. would not approve their passports? There’s lots of other history embedded in the story, but aside from that, it’s just a fine tale of adventure and friendship and war and flying and growing up.

Some of the religious and political ideas of the main characters are debatable, to say the least. But that display of odd and varying opinions and beliefs just made me want to meet the characters in the book and talk to them and really understand their beliefs and attitudes, especially in regard to Christianity, better. Momma Rhoda Menotti grew up in a Quaker family, and her attitude toward marriage and religion is liberal and far from orthodox. Teo finds meaning in the liturgy and practices of the Ethiopian Coptic Church as he watches it in Ethiopia, but he realizes that the Ethiopian church is not his church, since he is really an American despite his having an Ethiopian father. Em is not very religious at all, but she has the best lines in the book in regard to religion, telling Teo when he is having a superstitious moment of blaming himself and God for bad things that happen, “God works through us. Through people doing the right thing. Through you. Through Momma giving you her gas mask and covering you up.” She’s acquired sort of a Quaker/Inner Light attitude toward God and religion.

Anyway, it’s a good book with much fodder for discussion. It’s billed as a YA fiction, but I think it’s essentially an adult book, aside from the fact that the two narrators and protagonists are in their late teens. Certainly, adults, both young and old, can enjoy this between-the-wars story of friendship and resilience.

The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge

The Dean’s Watch may very well be the best book I read this year. I can’t imagine any modern book outshining this lovely tale of the friendship between a cathedral dean and an atheist watchmaker.

Isaac Peabody, horologist and master craftsman, had any belief in God taken away from him early in life by his abusive clerical father. Dean Adam Ayscough holds a deep love for the people of the mid-nineteenth century town where he ministers, but he is unable to express his care for the community or for individuals because his shy, gruff manner and his deteriorating hearing separate him from the people he is called to pastor. When Dean Ayscough and clock and watchmaker Peabody meet and begin a tentative friendship, both men cannot predict that their short but rich time together will change an entire city as well as their own lives and legacies.

Elizabeth Goudge is a fine writer. Reading one of her novels takes a certain mood and patience since she was not, as far as I can tell, at all influenced by the press for unremitting action in novels that comes from our immersion in television and movies and the “hurry up and tell me what happened” attitude that can rule our reading nowadays. The Dean’s Watch moves slowly, inexorably toward a very satisfying conclusion, and I am impelled by the pace of the novel to slow down myself and savor every word.

I really think the best thing I can do to give you a taste of what I’m talking about is to, well, give you a taste.

Deceptively simple observations are one of Ms. Goudge’s specialties:

“The reasons for seclusion were many. One should find out why a man is alone before one lets him alone, for he may not want to be alone. This he had not done.”

“That sky was enough to make a man imagine anything, it was in itself so unbelievable.”

“The contemplation of sunsets and vegetable matter has its serene pleasure, and involves no personal exertion, but I think that is not what you want in your old age.”

“What harm unpurified and undisciplined human love could do. He believed it must pass through death before it could entirely bless.”

“Why do I demand certainty? That is not faith. Why do I want to understand? How can I understand this great web of sin and ugliness and love and suffering and joy and life and death when I don’t understand the little tangle of good and evil that is myself?”

Miss Montague is an elderly spinster, lame as a result of a childhood accident and never loved or cherished by her family as a child. But she finds a vocation as she expends herself in love for the people whom God has placed in her way:

“She never knew what put it into her head that she, unloved, should love. Religion for her parents, and therefore for their children, was not much more than a formality and it had not occurred to her to pray about her problem, and yet from somewhere the idea came. . . Could loving be a life’s work? Could it be a career like marriage or nursing the sick or going on stage? Could it be adventure?”

“So she took a vow to love. Millions before her had taken the same simple vow but she was different from the majority because she kept her vow, kept it even after she had discovered the cost of simplicity. Until now she had only read her Bible as a pious exercise, but now she read it as an engineer reads a blueprint and a traveler a map, unemotionally because she was not emotional, but with a profound concentration because her life depended on it.”

Isaac Peabody cannot believe in a fatherly God of love because he has only known a father who acted in cruelty and contempt. So Dean Ayscough tells him:

“Believe instead in Love. It is my faith that Love shaped the universe as you shape your clocks, delighting in creation. I believe that just as you wish to give me your clock in love, refusing payment, so God loves me and gave Himself for me. That is my faith. I cannot presume to force it upon you, I can only ask you in friendship to consider it.”

“Whatever had made the Dean take such a fancy to him, a cowardly, selfish, obstinate, ugly old fellow like him? He would never understand it. He took the piece of paper out of his pocket and looked at that too. Faith in God. God. A word he had always refused. But the Dean had said, put the word love in its place.”

And to top it all off, Dean Ayscough has a butler, Garland, who reminds me of Downton Abbey’s Carson, or perhaps The Dowager Countess’s Spratt, velly, velly British and dignified and protective. I highly recommend The Dean’s Watch, when you’re ready to slow down and enjoy the roses of thoughtful, unhurried prose and insight into the depths of the spiritual lives of a small cast of rather extraordinary quotidian characters.

Master Cornhill by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Eloise Jarvis McGraw is the author of three other books that we have either read, or read aloud, in out homeschool in connection with out history studies. Her historical fiction for middle grade readers is challenging, with complex characters and vivi depictions of time and place. The Golden Goblet and Mara, Daughter of the Nile are set in ancient Egypt, and Moccasin Trail is a story of the American West and the trappers and adventurers who opened up the frontier in the early nineteenth century.

Master Cornhill is set in a very specific time and place: London in 1665-1666. The Great Plague in the summer of 1665 drives eleven year old Michael Cornhill from his home with loving foster parents in London to live in the countryside with not-so-loving Puritan friends. When the danger of the plague dies down, Michael takes the opportunity to return to london, alone, even though he knows that his foster parents are probably dead. What he doesn’t realize is that the friends and neighbors that he relies on to take him in and get him started on a path toward a trade or an education are also all gone, victims of the plague. Michael finds himself alone, an orphan with no skills to sell and no money to keep himself fed and clothed.

The story is about how Michael finds friends who help him, how he manages to weather difficult circumstances such as impressment for the Dutch War and the Great Fire of London, and most of all, how he finds direction and a purpose for his life. The atmosphere and buildings and culture of seventeenth century London come alive in this beautifully written story, from the gangs of soldiers impressing all available men into the King’s navy to fight the Dutch to St. Paul’s Cathedral where the business of London is conducted in the nooks and crannies of the great church courtyard to London Bridge lined with houses and shops to the Great Fire itself in September 1666. Ms. McGraw makes history relevant and interesting to readers of the twenty-first century by following an eleven year old boy from 400 years ago as he finds friends and allies in the streets of London. I could imagine my children in Michael’s place, and although it was a dangerous life, Michael survives, by the grace of God and by the innocence and persistence with which he faces his new circumstances.

Ms. McGraw’s books are probably better read aloud to middle grade to junior high students, since she doesn’t pander to the controlled vocabulary or the push for perpetual motion and action in contemporary fiction for children. Motivated readers who enjoy history can read it on their own, there is a lot of period detail and slang that will trip some readers up and enthrall others. Count me in the enthralled group.

I looked on Amazon for a good nonfiction “living book” about the Great Fire of London, but I didn’t really find anything that looked very readable. G.A. Henty has a book about the Great Fire, When London Burned: a Story of Restoration Times and the Great Fire, but I find his books rather hit or miss. Some are good enough, and others are too long, too preachy, and/or too slow, even for me. I recommend Master Cornhill for a good introduction to the time period and to the event.

Then, you could read an excerpt from Pepys’ Diary, where he tells about his experience during the Great Fire.

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Five Things That Made Me Smile on February 11-12, 2015:
1. I got a compliment on one of my grown children, something I knew but was glad to hear that others recognize.

2. I was asked to speak at a local homeschool “expo” in May and give a forty-five minute workshop on “living books” (like Master Cornhill) and reading aloud as the backbone of homeschooling. I’m really excited to have this opportunity to share my love of excellent books with an audience of new and sometimes struggling homeschoolers. My themes so far: “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” and “Build your family culture around books.”

3. I am learning the value and discipline of silence. Enough said.

4. Betsy-Bee will be sixteen years old tomorrow. What a blessing she is!

5. This blog post by Bible study leader Beth Moore: It’s Prayer. That’s the thing.

“It’s time we quit falling asleep in prayer. It’s time we quit practicing a prayer routine that bores us to tears. It’s time our quiet times ceased to be quiet. There are battles to be won. Works to be done. The kinds which only come through prayer, prayer, and more prayer.”