Christmas in Cornwall, 1789

From Winston Graham’s second Poldark novel, Demelza:

“It was a fine night and an hour before Sawle Church choir had been up to the door singing carols. Demelza had never had much to do with religion but she still said the prayers her mother taught her, adding a postscript of her own to keep them abreast of the times; and at Christmas she had always felt an inward impulse to go to church. Something in the ancient wisdom of the story and the fey beauty of the carols tugged at her emotions; and with a suitable invitation she would have been willing to join the choir. She specially wanted to help them this evening, hearing their depleted voices struggling through ‘Remember, O thou Man’. But even her enjoyment of the two carols was a little spoiled by anxiety as to how she had best behave when they knocked on the door. She sent Jane Gimlett for the cakes she had made that afternoon and took down a couple of bottles of canary wine from Ross’s cupboard.

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Demelza nervously gave them all a drink and took one herself; she would almost sooner have entertained Sir Hugh Bodrogan than these humble choristers; at least she knew where where she was with him. She pressed cakes upon them and refilled their glasses and when they rose to go she gave them a handful of silver—about nine shillings in all—and the carolers crowded out into the misty moonlit night, flushed and merry and opulent. There they gathered round the lantern and gave her one more carol for luck before filing off up the valley towards Grambler.”

Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight

I finally read this justly famous and best-selling dog story, and the first surprise was the title. It’s not “Lassie, come home!”, a plea or a command for Lassie to return to home and hearth, as I always thought it was. Instead, “Lassie Come-Home” is a nickname for the faithful collie who does return home, through many miles and obstacles, from the highlands of Scotland all the way back to the Yorkshire country family in the south of England who were her original masters. Lassie is a “come-home dog” in the Yorkshire vernacular.

Perhaps Lassie Come-Home is the template for many books that came after: The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford, A Dog’s Way Home by Bobbie Pyron, and other stories of faithful dogs and other animals finding their way home after a series of adventures and difficulties. Or maybe the plot mirrors Black Beauty and other earlier books that show faithful animals making their way back home to the owners they love. Lassie’s journey home is certainly an adventurous one.

The author note in the back of my book says:

“Lassie first appeared in a short story published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1938. The story was so popular that Mr. Knight expanded it into a full-length book, which was published in 1940 and instantly became a best-seller. In 1942 the MGM movie based on the book launched the career of Elizabeth Taylor.”

All those survivors of economic depression and war-weary readers and movie-goers most likely needed a hopeful story about overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, the kind of victory through suffering that is depicted in Lassie Come-Home. The story itself is pretty incredible: a dog somehow finds his way home form Scotland to Yorkshire, 400 miles as the crow flies or over 1000 miles with the obstacles such as lakes and rivers that Lassie has to skirt around or find a way over.

Eric Knight was born in England (in the Yorkshire country that her writes about), came to the United States as a teenager, and died in an airplane crash while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II—but not before giving us this classic dog story. It’s well-written, hopeful, and —-spoiler here—the dog doesn’t die!

A Traveller in Time by Allison Uttley

If ever the term “time slip” applied to a book, it’s this one: Penelope Taberner Cameron slips in and out of two time periods, the twentieth century and the late sixteenth century, like butter slipping about on a plate. She never knows exactly when or how she will slip out of her own time at Thackers, the Derbyshire farm that belongs to her great aunt and uncle, and into another time, the time of Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, and the Spanish Armada. And no one in either period seems to worry too much about Penelope’s odd absences and re-appearances. It’s a sort of ghostly time travel, although it’s clear that Penelope never becomes a “ghost” in either time that she visits.

This British classic was published in 1939, and the pacing and language reflect the publishing date. Penelope’s adventures, and indeed her personality, are rather languid and slow-moving, even though the excitement of a plot to rescue Mary Queen of Scots from her English captivity does something to enliven the novel. A lot of time is spent describing farm life in the 1930’s as Penelope and her sister and brother come to spend their summer holiday, and then an even longer term, with Aunt Tissie and Uncle Barnabas. Then, there’s also a lot of description of what it was like to live in Elizabethan England. I can see how some children and teens would grow impatient with all of the descriptive passages, but I loved it all, as well as the historical aspects of the novel.

There was a BBC series of five episodes made in 1978 based on this book by Ms. Uttley, but it’s not widely available outside of Britain. Alison Uttley was also a prolific author of very popular books for younger children in England, including a series of books about Sam Pig and another about Little Grey Rabbit.

Wikipedia contrasts time slip novels like A Traveller in Time, where the protagonist has no control or agency in going from one time to another, and time travel books, in which characters use a device like a time machine or a magic talisman to make the time travel happen. Even with time travel books, however, the device often gets lost or malfunctions, leaving the characters marooned in another time period. In Traveller in Time, Penelope worries about getting stuck in the 1500’s, and at one climactic point she almost dies while she’s visiting the sixteenth century, an event which she thinks would surely cause her to also die in the twentieth century. Time slipping and time traveling is fun to read about, but I think it would make my head hurt if it actually happened to me.

If you could time slip or time travel, what time period would you like to visit? What is your favorite time slip or time travel book? (Mine are the Connie Willis books: The Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear.)

The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett

Published in 1937, The Family From One End Street and Some of Their Adventures by author/illustrator Eve Garnett broke new ground by detailing the joys and sometimes misadventures of a large working class British family. “Mrs. Ruggles was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman.” (A dustman for us Americans who don’t collect “dust” or rubbish is a garbage collector.) The Ruggles family consists of Rosie and Jo, the parents, and seven children: Lily Rose, Kate, the twins James and John, little Jo, Peg, and baby William. “The neighbors pities Jo and Rosie for having such a large family and called it ‘Victorian’; but the Dustman and his wife were proud of their numerous girls and boys, all-growing-up-fine-and-strong-one-behind-the-other-like-steps-in-a-ladder-and-able-to-wear-each-others-clothes-right-down-to-the-baby . . .”

From the beginning chapter that introduces the family and tells about how all the children were born and named to the concluding chapter in which the entire family takes a much-anticipated bank holiday in London, the story is a very British, very enjoyable look at a happy family. Tolstoy said that happy families are all alike, implying that they are not very interesting, but the Ruggleses are generally happy and fun to read about. The language is both British and somewhat dated, but an intelligent eleven year old should be able to puzzle it out, even an American child. And these are poor/lower class children of the 1930’s, loved but not hovered over, so they do things like stowaway on a boat or take a ride with a wealthy couple in a motorcar or try to help with the ironing—with disastrous results. Each child gets his or her own story or chapter in the book, vignettes that distinguish the children from one another and let readers follow along on their various and sundry adventures. The book would make a lovely read aloud, as long as the reader could do a proper British accent.

Speaking of British accents and the like, The Family From One End Street won the Carnegie Medal in 1937 for the children’s book of most outstanding literary quality published in the UK. It is an outstanding book, but its award as a sort of “book of the year” for British children in 1937 illustrates the problem with choosing the best books in the moment, before time and thoughtful appreciation and criticism have been brought to bear upon the staying power and literary quality of a given year’s crop of titles.

Also published in Britain in 1937? The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien.

The Poet and the Vampyre by Andrew McConnell Stott

The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew McConnell Stott.

What sad, dissipated, lost, and horrible people! This book is about the Shelleys, Percy Bysshe and Mary, Mary’s step-sister, Claire, Lord Byron, and for some reason, Byron’s erstwhile doctor, John Polidori. It’s mostly about the summer of 1816, when Lord Byron and the Shelley ménage and Doctor Polidori were all in Geneva, hanging out and being sad, dissipated, lost, and horrible. Oh, and they also decided to enliven a rainy day by competing to see who could write the best horror story. Mary “won” because she was the only one who finished and published her story, Frankenstein. Polidori wrote something called The Vampyre, too, but it may or may not have been mostly plagiarized from Lord Byron

Percy and Mary were on the run from Mary’s family, unmarried and plagued by debt. They had been together for two years by the summer of 1816 and had a son, William, but they believed in “free love” and therefore were not married. There were persistent rumors that Claire, who ran away with them when they first eloped, was also Percy Shelley’s lover. However, according to this book, Claire only had eyes for Lord Byron, and she was probably already pregnant with Byron’s child when the Byron contingent and the Shelley group met up in Geneva in May of 1816. If it all sounds complicated and rather tawdry, it was.

The Poet and the Vampyre is chronologically scattered, maybe because the Shelleys and Lord Byron and Claire and Polidori led such nomadic and convoluted lives. Lord Byron was also “on the run” in 1816, escaping from his estranged wife and tattered reputation in England. He took up with Claire mostly because she kept throwing her self at him, and he had no power or reason or moral principles to make him resist. Then, there’s a baby, and Byron wants to ignore it, ignore Claire and forget the spring and summer interlude with her ever happened. The narrative keeps going back and forth between Byron’s former life in England and his rise to fame, the Shelleys and Claire and their former lives in England before the great elopement, John Polidori’s history and current situation as Byron’s personal doctor, all of the mess they made of their lives after the summer in Geneva, and various and sundry other anecdotes and historical notes that the author decides to throw in here and there.

The book could have been much better organized, and I never did understand why Polidori was even a focus of the story. Maybe the author felt sorry for him because at the time Mr. Polidori felt ignored and overlooked by the great poets, Byron and Shelley. Since the Romantic poets were so very confessional and personal in their poetry, it makes since to read about their actual lives. Unfortunately, reading about the casual cruelty and lack of any moral standard that Shelley and especially Byron exhibited in their personal lives makes me not want to read their poetry at all. Ever.

I would suggest reading the poetry on its own merits and knowing as little about the poets as possible. That method of literary engagement might mean that you interpret some of the poems of Byron and Shelley in a way that they weren’t meant, but at least you would skip the scandal and gossip and general nastiness. I did find out that Mr. Polidori was the uncle of the Pre-Raphaelite poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti. Interesting, but again I’m not sure it’s terribly significant that the Rossettis had an uncle who was Lord Byron’s personal doctor for a few months.

Christmas in Canterbury, England, 1067

Juliana, the protagonist of the novel The Striped Ships by Eloise McGraw, is exiled from her comfortable home in Winchester by the coming of the Norman invaders to Saxon England. On the morning after St. Nicholas’ Day, she is sleeping in the priory almshouse when she is awakened by bells:

“She was awakened by St. Savior’s bell, loud and close across the road, ringing, she thought at first, for nocturns. But it was, too wild, too loud, too erratic—as if the ringer had tugged hard and frantically, then fled—and there was a growing hubbub of voices outside, in the lane. Around her, others were rousing, scrambling up to cluster around the unshuttered window—and beyond their heads, beyond the black silhouette of the priory walls, she saw the red glow lighting the skies.

There was a fire—a big fire—in the monastery, it might be in St. Savior’s itself. She stumbled to her feet, pushed her way out of the house. She reached the lane just as the bell ceased, and the north tower, which she could see now bathed in flames, above the dark wall, collapsed, with a terrifying, fluttering roar and a final jangle of noise. Wild with panic for Wulfric, she ran, heedless, for the main gate, found the gatehouse aflame, and turned back to run the other way, to the small gate by the cellarer’s storehouse, which stood open, with figures crowding out through it, hampering her as she struggled past. Inside the walls, monks, guests, novices, schoolboys, ran in every direction, black shapes against the garish sky.”

This episode in Canterbury’s history did happen:

The cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1067, a year after the Norman Conquest. Rebuilding began in 1070 under the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc (1070–77). He cleared the ruins and reconstructed the cathedral to a design based closely on that of the Abbey of St. Etienne in Caen, where he had previously been abbot, using stone brought from France. The new church, its central axis about 5m south of that of its predecessor, was a cruciform building, with an aisled nave of nine bays, a pair of towers at the west end, aiseless transepts with apsidal chapels, a low crossing tower, and a short choir ending in three apses. It was dedicated in 1077. Wikipedia, Canterbury Cathedral

Eloise Jarvis McGraw was a prolific author of children’s fiction, often historical fiction, including The Golden Goblet, Mara Daughter of the Nile, Moccasin Trail, The Seventeenth Swap, and many others. Her books are full of vivid, rounded characters and rich historical details that make the stories she tells come alive. My children especially enjoyed Moccasin Trail when I read it aloud to them many years ago, and I plan to read this medieval tale featuring William the Conqueror and the Bayeux Tapestry, Striped Ships, as soon as I can.

The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett

The Ringed Castle, Book Five in the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.
Checkmate, Book Six in the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.

I can’t believe I read the whole thing, but I’m glad I did. I began reading this six volume series back in December 2013 with Game of Kings, the first book in the series. In this novel, a young Francis Crawford of Lymond, second son of a nobleman and landowner in fourteenth century Scotland, cavorts and carouses his way through wartorn southern Scotland and back and forth across the border with the enemy, England. Francis is a giddy young man with a facile and garrulous tongue, but also a leader in war and romance, with an undercurrent of danger and subversive rebellion running through his character. He’s a medieval/renaissance Scottish James Bond, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Scarlet Pimpernel all rolled into one.

Queen’s Play and The Disorderly Knights deal with Lymond’s adventures in France and around and about the Mediterranean as he serves and politics the king of France, Henri II, the child Mary of Scotland, later to become Mary Queen of Scots, and the Knights of Malta or the Knights Hospitaliers. After a stirring and tragic (for Lymond’s inamorata, Oonagh O’Dwyer) escape from the Turkish invaders in Tripoli, Lymond and his second in command, Gabriel, both return to Scotland where Lymond puts together a small private army, trained in all of arts of war and intended to keep the peace along the Scottish border.

If you’ve made it this far in the series, you’re sure to be hooked by this time, and the fourth book is the climax of the entire story, with a rather infamous human chess game forming the centerpiece of the action. In Pawn in Frankincense, Francis Crawford is at his most vulnerable and his most deadly. The chess game in the seraglio in Istanbul is unforgettable.

Books Five and Six are the ones I read this month as I made my impromptu trip to literary Scotland. In The Ringed Castle, Crawford of Lymond has exiled himself to Russia, the backside of the world in this time period and the land ruled by Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich, later known as Ivan the Terrible. In this half-barbarian court of a half-mad tsar, Lymond becomes the Voevoda Bolshoi, supreme commander and advisor to Tsar Ivan. In the meantime, back in England, Phillipa, the teenager that Lymond married in in Book Four, only in outward form in order to save her good name and protect her and her mission, is serving in the court of Mary I (Bloody Mary) and investigating Lymond’s mirky and mysterious past and family background.

Checkmate brings everything in the first five books to a satisfying close, well, almost everything. With a great many starts and stops, hesitations and false starts, triumphs and tragedies, Francis Crawford of Lymond finally meets his destiny, finds his true parents and heritage, and becomes the man he was meant to be. If you have never read these books and you want to, I would recommend that you plan for a marathon reading of all six books in order over the course of a month or more and that you have an English dictionary and a French-speaking translator nearby at all times. A working knowledge of Spanish, Russian, Gaelic, and Scots dialect would come in handy also.

I have a theory that, after the events of these six books were finished, Francis Crawford of Lymond became the actual secret author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

Come With Me to . . . by Gloria Fowler

Come With Me to Paris by Gloria Fowler. Illustrated by Min Heo.
Come With Me to New York by Gloria Fowler. Illustrated by Min Heo.

“Min Heo is an illustrator and recent graduate of the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. She lives and works in the San Francisco Bay area of Northern California.” (From Amazon)

The illustrations are what create interest in this series of books exploring the world’s cities. We have Paris and New York, soon to be joined in July, 2016 by a book entitled Come With Me to London. The pictures are simple, yet colorful and intriguing. If you like the cover illustration, you’ll get more similar pictures inside each book.

The text is rhyming, and although the rhythm or scansion is really off in most of the mostly four line poems that describe each site in either Paris or New York, they are readable, short and to the point. Again, I think the pictures are the focal point anyway. For example:

Along the Seine,
Where the bridges do cross;
From Pont Neuf, make a wish,
With a coin we can toss.

(I’ve no idea why there’s a semicolon after the word “cross” in that one?) It annoys me that the poetry is so poor, but the pictures make up for the lack of rhythm.

In Paris, we get a picture and verse for the Eiffel Tower, the Palais Garnier, the Louvre, Sacré-Coeur, Sainte-Chapelle, Notre Dame, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Arc de Triomphe, Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and several other sites. For New York City, there are visits to Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, the Natural History Museum, the Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park Zoo, Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building, Times Square, and more.

If you’re taking a trip to either city, or to London in the future, these exciting picture books would be a good accompaniment to your vacation. Or if you live in New York or Paris, your child might enjoy getting to know the city through one of these books and then visiting the places that are featured.

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.

Baker’s Dozen: Books to Read for my Around the World Project

I’m planning a new project for 2016, an expansion of my Africa Project. This one is an around the world project in which I hope to read at least one children’s book from or related to each nation of the world. Some countries are easier than others to find books, available in English and written by a citizen of that country. I may have to settle for folktales retold by American or Births authors from some countries or even for books that are simply set in the target country, preferably written by someone who has at least visited the particular setting in the book.

So, here is the page for my Around the World Reading Project. Do you have any suggestions to add to my project list, especially for those countries for which I have no books listed? The books must be for children, available in English (translation or original) in the United States, and preferably written in and popular in the country of origin.

Here are thirteen of the books I already chose that I am planning to read this year:

Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall. (Australia)

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. (Canada)

Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson. (Finland)

The Horse Without a Head by Paul Berna. (France)

The Adventures of Maya the Bee by Waldemar Bonsels, 1912. (Germany)

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. (India)

The Shadow of Ghadames by Joelle Stolz. (Libya)

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer. (American author) (Mozambique)

The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. (Netherlands)

Platero y yo by Juan Jimenez. (Spain)

The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. (Sweden)

Go Ahead, Secret Seven by Enid Blyton. (England)

Jamela’s Dress by Niki Daly. (South Africa)

I chose these particular books from the list mostly because I have them or have access to them. Have you read any of them? Any recommended or not?