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Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon

The first book I read in 2015 was Jan Karon’s Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good, in which Dooley and Lace finally become engaged to be married. My first book of 2016 was Come Rain or Come Shine, the story of Dooley’s and Lace’s wedding. And to top that bit of serendipity off, we celebrated our own family wedding on January 2, 2016 when my beautiful Dancer Daughter married her loving groom, The Beast (nickname given in all respect as appropriate nomenclature).

If you don’t know who Dooley and Lace are, you should hie yourself immediately to a library or bookstore and pick up the first of Jan Karon’s Mitford books, At Home in Mitford. You have a feast ahead of you. Come back when you’ve finished book #12, and I’ll whet your appetite, if it needs any whetting, for a book about a not-so-fairy-tale, but still very happy, wedding.

Come Rain or Come Shine is the 13th book in the series, and it’s a very satisfying read, especially for a mom who is still recovering from marrying off her first child to be married. (Only seven more to go.) There are lots of secrets and glitches and interruptions and surprises, including a very unexpected guest who crashes the wedding, but they do get married. Dooley and Lace become Mr. and Mrs. Kavanaugh.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“He and Lace and everybody else had done all in their power to keep it simple. They made their own invitations, saved a ton by not having a caterer or a tuxedo rental or an over-the-top bride’s dress to drag around in the chicken manure. What happened to their laid-back country wedding where people could chill out, relax, no problem? Okay, so maybe there was no such thing as a laid-back wedding, no matter how hard you tried.”

Our family motto, decided today:
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:12.

“He had prayed in cathedrals and at the bedsides of two or three bishops, but never with more to give thanks for than this day, in this generous place where they were celebrating a marriage, a child, a new home, family ties, a new business, the completion of academic studies, and of course, all those further, though often unseen, blessings bestowed by Almighty God made known through Jesus Christ. . . ‘Almighty God.” He cleared his throat, concerned that he may choke up. Then again, how could he not?”

“Love, cherish, honor, keep. A handful! Honey Herschel hoped these kids had thought it over carefully, but even if they had, they would still not have a clue. You never had a clue about anything till it happened and you learned the truth about yourself.”

“We might say that a good marriage is a contest of generosities. How wonderful that it’s possible to ensure our own happiness by seeking the happiness of another. Is it our job to make the beloved happy? It is not. The other person always has a choice. It is our job to generously outdo, no matter what, and discover that the prize in this contest of generosity is more love.”

I’m gonna love you, like nobody’s loved you
Come rain or come shine
High as a mountain, deep as a river
Come rain or come shine
I guess when you met me
It was just one of those things
But don’t you ever bet me
‘Cause I’m gonna be true if you let me
You’re gonna love me, like nobody’s loved me
Come rain or come shine
We’ll be happy together, unhappy together
Now won’t that be just fine
The days may be cloudy or sunny
We’re in or out of the money
But I’m with you always
I’m with you rain or shine.

Christmas in an English village, 1974

The Christmas Mouse: A Story by Miss Read.

“The Christmas tree, dressed the night before by Jane and Frances—with many squeals of delight—stood on the side table. This table, spangled with stars and tinsel, displayed the Victorian fairy doll, three inches high, which had once adorned the Christmas trees of Mrs. Berry’s childhood. The doll’s tiny wax face was brown with age but still bore that sweet expression which the child had imagined was an angel’s. Sprigs of holly were tucked behind the picture frames, and a spray of mistletoe hung where the oil lamp had once swung from the central beam over the dining table.

Mrs. Berry leaned back in her chair and surveyed it all with satisfaction. It looked splendid and there was very little more to be done to the preparations in the kitchen. The turkey was stuffed, the potatoes peeled. The Christmas pudding had been made in November and stood ready on the shelf to be plunged into the steamer tomorrow morning. Mince pies waited in the tin, and a splendid Christmas cake, iced and decorated by Mrs. Berry herself, would grace the table tomorrow.”

Dora Saint, aka Miss Read, was a former schoolteacher who wrote novels of English country life, set in the fictional villages of Thrush Green and Fairacre. Village School, her first novel, was published in 1955, and Miss Read continued to write, with more than thirty books published, until her retirement in 1996. Miss Read/Dora Saint died in 2012.

The Christmas Mouse is a 172 page Christmas novelette set in the nearby village of Shepherd’s Cross. It is also available as one of three stories in the book, Christmas at Fairacre. The Miss Read stories and novels are a perfect fit for the Jan Karon fans, among I number myself and many of my friends, especially those who are also Anglophiles. Miss Read writes gentle tales of small town people going about their daily business with grace and dignity.

In this Christmas story, Mrs. Berry and her daughter Mary, both widowed, are preparing for Christmas with Mary’s two young daughters, Jane and Frances. There is a spiritual component to the story, as Mrs. Berry prays and hopes for Mary’s recovery from the tragic loss of her husband, Bertie, in an automobile accident. As the little family receives two unexpected “guests” on Christmas Eve, and an unexpected invitation, Mary begins to open her heart to wonder and even joy.

The theme of this story can be summed up in these words from Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

It’s a good truth to be reminded of at Christmas time.

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.

Booker Prize Longlist

The Booker Prize, awarded in England, used to be limited to authors of the British persuasion, including authors from Commonwealth countries all over the world. Now, it’s open to U.S. authors, too, and five of the twelve authors on the prize’s longlist this year are American. Here’s the list:

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg.
The Green Road by Anne Enright
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
The Chimes by Anna Smaill
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Of the twelve books listed, I’ve only read one, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. I didn’t like it as much as I did the first two books in the series, Gilead and Home, maybe because I found it more difficult to identify with or sympathize with the fiercely independent Lila. Her demons are not my demons, whereas pastor John Ames, the elderly man reviewing his life for evidence of its faithfulness and meaning, is a man after my own heart. And sometimes I think I know Glory Boughton of Home, albeit I am married with eight children whilst she was a spinster. The story of the elder brother in the prodigal son parable has alway been a poignant and tragic reminder of how I can miss the Father’s love while living in His very house.

I looked up the remaining eleven books on Amazon, and honestly, not one of them was appealing enough for me to add it to my ever-growing TBR list. There were lots of books with multiple narrators, lots of family dysfunction, some “experimental” stuff that I’m pretty sure I would not understand or appreciate. Maybe I’ve “outgrown” contemporary literary fiction, or regressed, or something.

Damerosehay novels by Elizabeth Goudge

The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge.
Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge.
The Heart of the Family by Elizabeth Goudge.

I read these three related novels in the wrong order. I read Pilgrim’s Inn and reviewed it before I read The Bird in the Tree, the book that begins the saga of the Eliot family and their association with the house, Damerosehay. Then I found a mass market paperback copy of The Heart of the Family at a thrift store for 50 cents, and I brought it home and read it. Each of the three books in the ongoing story was a delight, a joy, and a wonder. I now want to re-read them all in the correct order, just to see what I missed the first time through. But I think I’ll wait a year or so, maybe read them in the winter rather than in the summer, just to see if that changes my appreciation of these novels or my thoughts and feelings about them.

The Bird in the Tree is the story of a man, David Eliot, who has fallen in love with his uncle’s young wife. The wife, Nadine, also loves David Eliot passionately and her own husband, George Eliot, not at all. Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, there are children: sensitive Ben, rambunctious Tommy, and shy diminutive four year old Caroline. And also there is Lucilla Eliot, matriarch of the family, to consider. Lucilla has made the country home, Damrosehay, a sanctuary and a place of community for the Eliots and those who love them. Lucilla, with the help of her spinster daughter Margaret, raised David after the death of his parents during The Great War. And Lucilla will not be pleased with the idea that David and Nadine plan to disregard family ties, tradition, morality, and the children, to follow their own hearts in consummating this love of a lifetime.

Elizabeth Goudge shows how this new “freedom to be true to one’s own heart” is not so new, after all. We hope to call the old adultery and sexual immorality by new names such as “truth” and “beauty” and free love and thereby make them palatable and without negative consequences for family unity and especially for the children. One of the reasons I love this trilogy is that each book, in its own narrative way, shows the falsity of that lie. Sin, whether we call it sin or whether we call it freedom and truth, has its consequences, and the only way to live through the consequences is to accept the suffering and offer it up to God as prayer and sacrifice.

I wrote about Pilgrim’s Inn here. Such a wonderful and romantic story, in the best sense of the latter word. Goudge does not gloss over the difficulties, treacheries, and tragedies inherent in the best of families and the best of marriages. In fact The Heart of the Family makes those deep sorrows vividly clear, and I was reminded that there are many hurts and betrayals that are never completely healed this side of heaven. We fail one another abominably. But one can, with God’s grace and assistance, create a sort of a respite or a haven of home and family to help encourage the weak, cast down the proud, and heal the broken-hearted. I am always interested in the idea (and the ideal) of family and community and how to make those healing connections happen in our very imperfect and broken lives.

I do think the first two books of the trilogy are the best, with the third book trying to say too much with too little story. None of these books is filled with action: people go for walks and drives, have lovely philosophical and theological conversations, make decisions in the middle of the night, and visit each other in the day. They drink a lot of tea, of course, since this is set in merrie old England. Yet some how all the descriptive passages and the long conversational interludes work for the most part. However, I would warn readers that in the third book, The Heart of the Family, Ms. Goudge becomes a little too philosophical/mystical/esoteric for even my tastes. And I like all those things. Nevertheless, if I just kept reading, the story came back and the characters said and did interesting and thought-provoking things, and my own interest in the the novel was renewed.

I highly recommend this series of novels, as well as The Dean’s Watch, The Rosemary Tree, Green Dolphin Street, and Gentian Hill, all novels that I have read and enjoyed by this author. I do believe that this is my Year of Elizabeth Goudge, and I plan to read her children’s book, The Little White Horse, next. Elizabeth Goudge’s writing reminds me a little bit of Madeleine L’Engle’s adult novels, which is high praise for me since Ms. L’Engle is one of my favorites.

In case any of the rest of you want to go on a Goudge binge:
Another review of the trilogy at ShelfLove.
Review of Island Magic by Goudge at Worthwhile Books.
Review of I Saw Three Ships by Elizabeth GOudge (a Christmas story) at Worthwhile Books.
The Valley of Song, recommended at Charlotte’s Library.
Little White Horse, recommended by Amy at Hope Is the Word.
Janet at Across the Page on The Little White Horse.
The Scent of Water, reviewed by Janet at Across the Page.
The Dean’s Watch, also at Across the Page.

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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.

Echoes of Eden by Jerram Barrs

All things were created by God, through Him and for His glory.

We have no ideas of own. We are not original creators, ex nihilo, but rather as C.S. Lewis put it, “sub-creators”, dependent on the work of others and even more on the work of God in His creation. All of our ideas and artistic endeavors are either approximations or distortions of the thoughts and the artistry of God: this includes Romantic poetry, Middle Earth and hobbits, rap music, Monet’s water lilies, ballet, and any other artistic works you might imagine or remember experiencing.

These are the basic ideas I got from reading Mr. Barrs’ excellent book on a Christian approach to the arts, particularly literature. Jerram Barrs is “the founder and resident scholar of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he teaches apologetics and outreach as professor of Christianity and contemporary culture. He and his wife also served on staff at English L’Abri for many years.” The book begins with general principles for appreciating and evaluating art, and then goes on to deal specifically with five famous authors and their works: Shakespeare, Tolkien, C.s. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, and Jane Austen. If you are interested in approaching any or all of these authors’ works from a Christian literary perspective, Echoes of Eden will be quite helpful in focusing your attention on the important aspects of how these authors glorify God in their writing.

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.”