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Scottish Chiefs and the Morning After

Last night, after grieving over the news and the state of our country, I took up my book and began to read. After all, it’s what I do. When times are bad or times are good, I read. I had already decided on a journey to Scotland for the month of May, and Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter was the first book on my mental list.

I began reading:

“Bright was the summer of 1296. The war which had desolated Scotland was then at an end. Ambition seemed satiated; and the vanquished, after having passed under the yoke of their enemy, concluded they might wear their chains in peace. Such were the hopes of those Scottish nobleman who, early in the preceding spring, had signed the bond of submission to a ruthless conqueror, purchasing life at the price of all that makes life estimable,—liberty and honor.

Prior to this act of vassalage, Edward I., king of England, had entered Scotland at the head of an immense army. He seized Berwick by stratagem; laid the country in ashes; and on the field of Dunbar, forced the Scottish king and his nobles to acknowledge him their liege lord.

But while the courts of Edward, or of his representatives, were crowded by the humbled Scots, the spirit of one brave man remained unsubdued. Disgusted alike at the facility with which the sovereign of a warlike nation could resign his people and his crown into the hands of a treacherous invader, and at the pusillanimity of the nobles who had ratified the sacrifice, William Wallace retired to the glen of Ellerslie. Withdrawn from the world, he hoped to avoid the sight of oppressions he could not redress, and the endurance of injuries beyond his power to avenge.

Thus checked at the opening of life in the career of glory that was his passion, he repressed the eager aspirations of his mind, and strove to acquire that resignation to inevitable evils which alone could reconcile him to forego the promises of his youth, and enable him to view with patience the humiliation of Scotland, which blighted her honor, and consigned her sons to degradation or obscurity. The latter was the choice of Wallace. Too noble to bend his spirit to the usurper, too honest to affect submission, he resigned himself to the only way left of maintaining the independence of a true Scot; and giving up the world at once, all the ambitions of youth became extinguished in his breast. Scotland seemed proud of her chains. Not to share in such debasement seemed all that was now in his power.

The analogy is not perfect. We’ve submitted, not to a foreign invader, but to our very own pet demagogue. But the “degradation”, “pusillanimity”, “resignation”, and “inevitable evils” are all dismayingly familiar. I pray that I can view with patience the humiliation, blighted honor, and debasement that are imminent, indeed already at hand.

Wallace was not allowed his self-imposed exile for long. I doubt that those of us eschew the choice between the Demagogue and the other dishonest Democrat will be left alone for long either. We can enjoy our liberty while the summer lasts and hope to come back to fight again.

May in Scotland

I’ve decided, in honor of the musical theater production, based on George MacDonald’s romance novel Malcolm (aka The Fisherman’s Lady), that my girls are involved in this month, to make a quick, imaginary visit to Scotland during the merry month of May. I thought I’d link to some old posts about books set in Scotland and read a few new ones.

First the old:
Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf. I just read and posted about this picture book a couple of weeks ago.
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley. Also a recent read, this novel is 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.
Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett.
Queen’s Play by Dorothy Dunnett.
The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett.

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett.
Rescuing Seneca Crane by Susan Runholt.
The Island of Mad Scientists by Howard Whitehouse.
Hamish McBeth mysteries by M.C. Beaton.
The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith.
Caledonia, Legend of the Celtic Stone: An Epic Saga of Scotland and her People by Michael Phillips.
44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith.

I’d like to read some of the books from this list during May and post about them for my hurried trip to Scotland:
Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter.
Mrs. Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson.
The King’s Swift Rider by Mollie Hunter.
The Fields of Bannockburn by Donna Fletcher Crow.
Martin Farrell by Janni Howker.
Waverley by Sir Walter Scott.
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott.
Valiant Minstrel: The Story of Harry Lauder by Gladys Malvern. Sir Harry Lauder was a vaudeville singer and comedian from Scotland.
Malcolm, or The Fisherman’s Lady by George MacDonald.
The Marquis’ Secret by George MacDonald.
Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald.
How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman.
The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett. I’d like to finish this fifth book in the Lymond Chronicles, but my huge city library system doesn’t have this one. I may have to actually purchase it.
Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett. And the sixth and final book in the series.
The Hornet’s Nest by Sally Watson.
The Anatomist’s Wife by Anna Lee Huber.
The King’s Swift Rider by Mollie Hunter.
Scottish Seas by Douglas M. Jones III.
The Flowers of the Field by Elizabeth Byrd.
In Freedom’s Cause: A Story of Wallace and Bruce by GA Henty.

Then, here are some Scottish flavored books I’ve read but not reviewed here at Semicolon. I remember all of these as books I would recommend:
Immortal Queen by Elizabeth Byrd. Historical romance about Mary, Queen of Scots.
The Iron Lance by Stephen Lawhead.
The 39 Steps by John Buchan.
Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush by Ian MacLaren.. A collection of stories of church life in a glen called Drumtochty in Scotland in the 1800’s. Recommended.
The Little Minister by J.M. Barrie. I get this one mixed up in my head with the Bonnie Brier Bush because both are set in rural Scotland among church people, and both are good. Also recommended.
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald.
The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald.
The Queen’s Own Fool by Jane Yolen. Mary, Queen of Scots again.

Recommended by other friends and bloggers:
The Tartan Pimpernel by Donald Caskie. Reviewed by Barbara at Stray Thoughts.
Robert Burns’ poetry, highlighted at Stray Thoughts.
Thistle and Thyme by Sorche Nic Leodhas. I actually have this collection of Scottish folktales in my library, and I must read it this month.
Heather and Broom by Sorche Nic Leodhas.
Claymore and Kilt : Tales of Scottish Kings and Castles by Sorche Nic Leodhas.
The Scotswoman by Inglis Fletcher.
Guns in the Heather by Lockhart Amerman.
The Gardener’s Grandchildren by Barbara Willard.
Duncan’s War (Crown and Covenant #1) by Douglas Bond.
Outlaws of Ravenhurst by M. Imelda Wallace.
Quest for a Maid by Frances May Hendry.
Little House in the Highlands by Melissa Wiley.

Movies set in Scotland:
Brigadooon. I like this one partly because of Gene Kelly, partly because it takes place in Scotland, and partly because Eldest Daughter was in a local production of Brigadoon several years ago.
Stone of Destiny. Recommended by HG at The Common Room. I enjoyed this movie based on a true incident in 1950 when four Scots student stole the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey and returned it to Scotland from whence it came back in the thirteenth century.
Braveheart. William Wallace and all that jazz.

Scots poetry:
Young Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott.
From Marmion by Sir Walter Scott.
My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns.
In the Prospect of Death by Robert Burns.
Lament for Culloden by Robert Burns.
Beneath the Cross of Jesus by Elizabeth Clephane.
O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go by George Matheson.

If you have anything posted at your blog that tastes of Scottish heritage or culture, let me know, and I’ll add a link to your book review or post in this round-up of all things Scots. Or if you have a book or even a movie to recommend, leave me a comment. I’ll keep this post on the front page during May, and I’ll be adding to it as my journey progresses. You are welcome to travel to Scotland with me this month, and we will see what there is to see.

Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf

Alastair Roderick Craigellachie Dalhousie Gowan Donnybristle MacMac, aka Wee Gillis, doesn’t know which he wants to be: a Lowlander like his mother’s relations, calling cows, or a Highlander like his father’s relatives, stalking stags. He tries both out, but in the end he turns out to be something else entirely.

This picture book by Munro Leaf was published in 1938, two years after Leaf’s most famous picture book, The Story of Ferdinand. Both book share a common illustrator, Robert Lawson, and similar protagonists, seeking their identity. Ferdinand must decide what kind of bull he is, and Wee Gillis must choose how and where he will be a Scotsman. Lawson’s illustrations, black and white pen-and-ink, complement the story and its setting in Scotland with memorable, detailed facial features and clothing for Wee Gillis and all of his relatives.

Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson were in fact friends before Ferdinand was published in 1936, and Leaf actually wrote The Story of Ferdinand “on a whim in an afternoon in 1935, largely to provide his friend, illustrator Robert Lawson (then relatively unknown) a forum in which to showcase his talents.” Lawson went on to illustrate many more books, two others with Munro Leaf as author, The Story of Simpson and Sampson and an edition of Aesop’s Fables. Mr. Lawson also illustrated another book in 1938 that won a Newbery Honor in 1939, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater.

The details are what make this picture book stand the test of time: a picture of Wee Gillis yelling through the fog, Wee Gillis’s absurdly long name, the alliterative fun of “calling cows” and “stalking stags”, and the tempestuous tantrum that Wee Gillis’s uncles throw when trying to persuade him to choose either the Highlands or the Lowlands for his home. And of course the theme/plot of finding a way to reconcile both halves of your heritage and still become uniquely yourself is always timely.

Read to your primary and preschool age children and then, listen to some bagpipe music together:

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.

A Year of Borrowed Men by Michelle Barker

1944. Not all World War 2 stories, even those about prisoners, are about concentration camps and horror and death. Even those stories that exist in the shadow of death and destruction can be human and hopeful. A Year of Borrowed Men is one such hopeful war story about kindness and friendship.

Seven yer old Gerda’s father and brother have been “borrowed” by the German military to fight in the war. But the farm where Gerda and her mother and her four brothers and sisters live is necessary to the war effort, too. So the Nazi government sends three French prisoners of war to Gerda’s farm to help with the farm work.

The German families who were hosting the French prisoners were under strict orders not to treat them as family members or even as valued workers, but rather the prisoners were to be used as slave labor to support the German war effort and the feed the populace. However, Gerda’s mother tells her that the French men are only borrowed, that someday they will return to France, and in the meantime they are to be respected and well-treated. The growing friendship between little Gerda and the French prisoners demonstrates the possibility that even in a time of oppression, humanity can bloom.

The illustrations in this Canadian import are beautifully evocative of a rural island of peace in the midst of war. Renne Benoit, the illustrator, lives in Ontario, Canada, and the pictures remind me a little of photographs I have seen of the Canadian prairies, although the book is set in Germany. The watercolor and colored pencil illustrations are also quite similar in style to Renee Graef’s illustrations for the Little House picture books. If you like those pictures of cozy farm life, you’ll probably appreciate those found in The Year of Borrowed Men.

The story is based on the World War 2 experiences of the author’s mother. An afterword at the end of the book informs the reader that little Gerda, Ms. Barker’s mother, never saw her father and brother return from the war. She also never again saw the three Frenchmen who worked the farm after war was over, but she did remember the French “borrowed men” with fondness as “fruende” or “amis”.

I am pleased to add this picture book to the World War 2 section of my library as it gives a different perspective on the war and its many stories.

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.

The Bomber’s Moon by Betty Vander Els

This fictional treatment of missionary children escaping World War II China reads almost like a memoir. In a brief search on the internet, I couldn’t find any information about the author, Betty Vander Els, but I would almost bet that this story is a fictionalized version of her own experiences or those of a very close friend. In the book in 1942 “Ruth”, about eleven years old, and her younger brother, Simeon, are sent away to an emergency boarding school for missionary kids so that they won’t end up in the concentration camp of Weihsien, captured by the approaching Japanese. However, their emergency school site is no safer from Japanese bombing raids than their homes were, and so the children are evacuated over the Himalayas to Calcutta.

The contrast between the children’s petty day-to-day concerns and the enormous events that are happening around them is one focus of this book. Ruth considers herself to be a naughty girl. She gets spanked (or strapped as the book calls it) a lot. But her infractions seem petty and inconsequential, too, for the most part: wandering away from the group, forgetting responsibilities, being disrespectful to teachers. Ruth’s concerns are to survive school and her nemesis, Miss Elson, and to take care of Simeon as her parents have charged her to do. The book paints a vivid picture of what it must have been like to see the war and its effects from a child’s point of view.

Ruth is a bit of an annoying child. She calls Simeon “dope” and “dummy” and “cowardly custard” and other such epithets frequently. She does forget to do her work, and she and her friend Anne play tricks on the teachers and band together to outwit the other children and get their own way. However, at the same time Ruth is quite concerned about taking care of Simeon, and she tries to teach him to be tough and to stand up to hardship. Simeon and his friend, Paul, are both daydreamers and and imaginers who run away, get lost, and find themselves in trouble with alarming frequency. And ever in the background and on the periphery of the children’s lives, there are Japanese bombers, American flyers, Chinese children, and Indian amahs. The setting is both exotic and dangerous, and Ruth and Simeon sashay through all the danger and foreign cultures with style and childlike confidence. In short, they act like children.

There’s a sequel (that I haven’t read) with the same characters called Leaving Point: “Home from boarding school to spend Christmas with their missionary parents, fourteen-year-old Ruth and her brothers find that the Communist Revolution has brought about many changes and new restrictions that complicate Ruth’s growing friendship with a young Chinese girl who may not be what she seems.” (Goodreads)

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.

Kiffe, Kiffe Tomorrow by Faiza Guene

I have finally made some progress on my Around the World project, a project with a goal of reading a children’s book from each and every nation of the world. I may have cheated here, however, since the book is not really Algerian but rather Parisian, but since it’s my own project I get to make up the rules.

Kiffe, Kiffe Tomorrow is a book set in Paris, written by a Frenchwoman of Algerian descent whose parents were immigrants to France from Algeria. Ms. Guene writes in the voice of her protagonist, Doria, perhaps from experience: the back cover of my book says that Faiza Guene “grew up in the public housing projects of Pantin, outside Paris.” It’s voice that that’s almost unrelentingly pessimistic and depressed. Daria’s father has deserted them and gone back to Morocco to re-marry, since Daria, a girl, is the only child her mother has been able to give her father, a traditional Arabic Muslim who wants a son above all. Fifteen year old Daria feels unloved and unwanted and unmoored. Her mother is struggling with a bad job, illiteracy, and the loss of her husband. Daria herself struggles in school and tries to find some sort of dream or role model to hold onto, but mostly fails. Or the dreams and the people she looks up to fail her. Either way, it’s a bad life, and in some ways it gets worse as the book progresses. Daria flunks out of school and is sent to a vocational high school. Her real-life crush turns out to be a drug dealer who’s too old for her anyway, and she finds out that her TV-crush is gay. Her dreams are unrealistic and mostly unachievable. One day she’s going to become a film star, the next a politician. Then, she wants to marry a rich guy who will take her out of the poverty she lives in. Or she thinks she might win the lottery.

The ending is ambiguous. Daria might make it out of the projects—or she might not. The title of the book reflects this ambiguity. Kiffe, Kiffe comes from the Arabic term kif-kif, meaning same old, same old. But it’s combined in Daria’s made up phrasing with the French verb kiffer which means to really like something or someone. So, kiffe, kiffe tomorrow indicates that Daria’s life may be the same old rut of poverty and failed dreams, or it may happen (tomorrow) that she finds something or someone she really likes to rescue her from her fate.

I can’t imagine that anyone, even a teen from the slums who identifies with Daria and her unrelenting unhappiness and cynicism, would read this book for enjoyment. However, it does end with a little ray of hope, and the narrative painted a realistic picture of the attitude and the actions that a life of poverty can engender in a young teenager who is trying desperately to find some sort of meaning and vision for her life. I didn’t like Daria very much, but I understood a little of why she thought the way she did. Perhaps reading this book will help me have a little more empathy for the people I come across who are trying to grow up and to climb out of poverty.

I don’t think I learned much about Algeria, however, or about Algerian children’s literature. The book is set, as I said, in Paris, and although the author is of Algerian parentage, she chose to send Daria’s father back to Morocco, not Algeria. I suppose I learned a bit about North African immigrants living in France. Anybody know of any children’s books actually from Algeria?

The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson

This Australian classic won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Award for Book of the Year in 1974, and its author, Patricia Wrightson, is the only Australian author to have been awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for lasting contributions to children’s literature. I found a copy of The Nargun and the Stars in the multitude of books that were donated to my library from a local private school’s discard pile, and I read it to see if it would be a good addition to my own library.

It’s a dark and perhaps humanistic, or even pagan, book, but I would say that it’s pagan in the sense of drawing on pre-Christian era mythology, in this case the mythology of the Australian aboriginal peoples. Just as C.S. Lewis drew on both Greek and Norse mythology for his depiction of Narnia and as Tolkien drew from Norse, Saxon, and Celtic myths to create the creatures and world of Middle Earth, Ms. Wrightson used the Australian aboriginal myths and legends to tell a story that speaks into our own time.

The novel begins and ends with the Nargun, a stone and earth creature, full of hunger and anger and “slow, monstrous coldness”. Over centuries, or millennia, the Nargun slowly moved across the Australian landscape and settles into Wongadilla, a place in the mountains of southern Australia.

The actual story takes place in the 1970’s, when the book was written and published. Simon, an orphan, comes to live with his second cousins, brother and sister Charlie and Edie, on a sheep run in Wongadilla. Simon begins to explore the strange place where he has landed, so to speak, and he finds and gets to know odd and mythical creatures in the swamps and forests and caves of Wongadilla. However, it is the Nargun that is a threat to the sheep ranch, to the humans who live there, and even to the Potkoorak of the swamp and the Turongs of the forest. Charlie and Edie and Simon become a family and a team as they work together to understand and to defeat the impersonal but powerful malevolence of the Nargun.

I can see why this book won the acclaim that it did. The writing is quite beautiful and evocative, and I am sure that the atmosphere of this book will become a part of my mental concept of Australia and all things Australian. The Nargun and the Stars won’t be a book for everyone. It might give some children (or adults) nightmares, and some parents could object to the idea that the evil Nargun is only confined by the end of the book and only by means of completely human ingenuity, but not finally defeated or destroyed. However, that ending reminds me of the book of Revelation (which I doubt was the author’s intent) when Satan himself is chained for 1000 years (Revelation 20). Perhaps the Nargun, from Australian aboriginal mythology, is really a demon, or at least that’s way I thought of it as I read.

According to Gunai/Kurnai tribal legends, the Nargun is a fierce half-human half-stone creature that lived in the Den of Nargun, a cave under a rock overhang behind a small waterfall in the Mitchell River National Park, Victoria, Australia. Aboriginal legend describes the Nargun as a beast that was all stone except for its hands, arms and breast. The fierce creature would drag unwary travellers into its den, and any weapon directed against it would be turned back on its owner.

As Shakespeare so aptly said via Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Stories like The Nargun and the Stars serve to remind us in our materialistic and naturalistic philosophical world that we don’t have it all figured out and that there are all sorts of “dragons” and enemies that have yet to be finally defeated and destroyed.

This novel also reminded me of G.K. Chesterton and his observation to the effect that “fairy tales do not tell children the dragons (Nargun) exist. Children already know that dragons (Nargun) exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons (Nargun) can be killed (or at least chained).”

One more impression: there is a definite affinity between The Nargun and the Stars and N.D. Wilson’s The Boys of Blur. If you liked Wilson’s take-off on Beowulf, I’d recommend Ms. Wrightson’s fantasy/horror story of Australian monsters and heroes.