If you like Little House: The Older (Golden) Years of Laura . . .

For the month of July, I’m planning a series of posts about readalikes: what to read (or what to suggest to your favorite child reader) when you’ve read all of your favorite author’s books or all of the books of a certain genre that you know of, and you don’t know what to read next.

On Saturday we talked about Little House (Laura Ingalls Wilder) readalike books for middle grade readers; today I have some prairie and frontier fiction for middle school, high school and even adult readers.

The Jumping-Off Place by Marian Hurd McNeely. Becky, Dick, Phil, and Joan, orphaned brothers and sisters, work hard to retain their Uncle Jim’s homestead in Tripp County, South Dakota at the turn of the century, early 1900’s. This book won a Newbery Honor in 1930, around the same time that the Little House books were being published, but it’s not nearly as well known. I put it here in this post for older children and teens because it’s a little darker in tone than the Little House books. A baby dies of snakebite; some homesteaders go hungry; life is hard. But the children/young people survive and thrive with grit and determination.

Patricia Beatty’s historical heroines are usually strong, spunky, and full of life and mischief. Often her novels have themes related to women’s rights, women’s suffrage, and feminism. These have a much more comical, individualistic, and adventurous tone to them than the Little House series, and they’re written for twelve year olds and older.
A selection of some of my favorite frontier fiction titles by Patricia Beatty:
That’s One Ornery Orphan. In Texas in the 1870’s orphan Hallie Lee Baker tries to get herself adopted, but her plan go awry.
Just Some Weeds from the Wilderness. In Oregon in 1873, Adelina Westlake, with the help of her niece Lucinda, goes into business, unheard of for a well-bred female, to save her family from financial ruin.
Something to Shout About. Thirteen year old Hope Foster and her family become the new residents of a new town in 1875: Ottenberg in Montana Territory.
How Many Miles to Sundown? Beeler Quimey and her pet longhorn, Travis, travel with brother Leo and another boy, Nate through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in the 1880’s.
By Crumbs It’s Mine. In 1882, thirteen year old Damaris and her family are traveling through Arizona territory in hopes of settling somewhere when her father catches gold fever and deserts the family for the gold fields of California. When Damaris accidentally becomes a hotel owner, the family calls on Aunt Willa to help.
Bonanza Girl. Ann Katie Scott and her mother move to a mining boom-town in Idaho Territory and begin to make a living by opening a restaurant.But how will they survive if the gold gives out?
The Nickel-Plated Beauty. In Washington state in 1886, the Kimballs order their mother a new, shiny, nickel-plated cookstove for Christmas. They keep their plan a secret and spend half the year working to try to pay for the beautiful new stove.
Hail Columbia! In 1893, Louisa’s Aunt Columbia bring her suffragette and other political ideas to the frontier in Astoria, Oregon.
O The Red Rose Tree. Also set in 1893, but back in Washington state, this novel features four thirteen year old girls trying to help an old woman complete her special quilt pattern.
Eight Mules from Monterey. In 1916, Fayette and her librarian mother try to bring library services by mule to the people living in and around Monterrey, California.

When Molly Was a Harvey Girl by Frances M. Wood. Molly pretends to be eighteen years old so that she can get a job as a Harvey girl at the famous Harvey House restaurant.

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson. The orphaned sixteen year old Hattie Brooks decides to leave Iowa and move to Vida, Montana, to prove up on her late uncle’s homestead claim. In Montana in 1918, Hattie finds adventure, hardship, and family.
Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson. In this sequel to Hattie Big Sky, Hattie wants to follow in the footsteps of Nellie Bly and become a real newspaper reporter.

If you’ve tried all of these and the ones in the previous Little House readalike post and you still want more, let me know in the comments. I can probably come up with a few more authors and books to sate your appetite for girls and families in historical frontier fiction.

Up Periscope by Robb White

According to Jan Bloom’s Who Should We Then Read, Volume 2, author Robb White’s books are “high action, well-written adventure yarns peopled with realistically drawn, likable characters in plausible yet exciting situations.” This particular yarn is a World War II submarine adventure that takes place in the South Pacific. Kenneth Braden, lieutenant (junior grade), U.S. Naval Reserve, volunteers for an unnamed job while he’s in Underwater Demolition School, and he soon finds himself in Hawaii, Pearl Harbor, talking to an admiral about doing something “hard, lonely, and dangerous” somewhere in the Pacific. Ken can take the job or back out. Of course, he decides to go for it.

I won’t spoil the story by telling what Ken’s job entails, but it does involve a great deal of time on a submarine. Both Ken and the readers of the novel learn a lot about submarines by the time the story is over. I knew almost nothing about submarines and submarine warfare when I started reading, and now I know . . . a little, not because there’s only a little information in the book, but mostly because I could only take in and assimilate so much. Readers who are really interested in submarine warfare will find the story absorbing and informative, and I assume the details are accurate since Mr. White served in the U.S. Navy himself during World War II. Suffice it to say I enjoyed this action tale, and World War II buffs or submarine aficionados will enjoy it even more than I did.

Apparently, the book was popular in its time, or else Robb White had connections in Hollywood. The novel was published in 1956, and it was made into a movie, starring James Garner, in 1959. White’s memoir, Our Virgin Island, about the Pacific island he and his wife bought for $60.00 and lived on before the war, was filmed as Virgin Island in 1958. The movie starred John Cassavetes, Sidney Poitier, and Ruby Dee. (White did write for Hollywood, so I guess he had connections.)

The author is just about as fascinating as his novel. He was born in the Philippines, a missionary kid. He learned to sail at an early age, graduated from the Naval Academy, and loved the sea. But he also wanted to be a writer, and he wrote magazine articles, screenplays, three memoirs, and more than twenty novels. His novels were mostly marketed to what we would now call the young adult market, but Up Periscope at least is not about teens, but rather adult men, fighting in an adult war. The only reason it might be considered a “children’s” or “young adult” novel as far as I can see is that there is a distinct lack of bad language and sexual content, a welcome relief from modern young adult novels. I counted only one “damn”, and on the flip side, several instances in which the men pray in a very natural, fox-hole way for God to save them from impending death. There is some war nastiness and violence, but that’s to be expected in a war novel. I think anyone over the age of twelve or thirteen could appreciate this thrilling story of espionage and submarine derring-do.

Only a couple of Robb White’s books remain in print; the rest are available at wildly varying prices from Amazon or other used book sellers. On the basis of just having read this one (and Jan Bloom’s recommendation) I would recommend his novels for your World War II-obsessed readers, and I would be quite interested in reading Mr. White’s three memoirs: Privateer’s Bay, Our Virgin Island, and Two on the Isle.

Frederica by Georgette Heyer

Best Regency romance ever with strong characters and witty and slangy repartee. I liked the romantic leads quite a bit, and I even felt sympathy for the ingenue parts, played by Frederica’s sister Charis and her crush. Oh, I just had a thought: this book would translate into a K-drama quite nicely.

The male lead of the novel, the Marquess of Alverstoke, is thirty-seven years old, rich, cold-hearted, uninterested in marriage, and unwilling to become involved in the lives and fortunes of his various relatives. However, Miss Frederica Merryville, a distant country cousin, breaks through his defenses without even meaning to do so. By the end of the novel, of course, Alverstoke and Frederica are in love and well on their way to becoming a “good match.”

I’ve been reading several of Gerogette Heyer’s Regency and other romance novels, and I find them of uneven quality. They are rather predictable, but the journey to the happy, married ending is rather fun, IF I like the characters from near the beginning. On the other hand, as in The Devil’s Cub, if the characters are unbelievable or unlikeable in the extreme, displaying the worst characteristics of the time period and culture, then it’s hard to develop much sympathy for them or interest in their eventual fate.

So far, here are the best and worst of Ms. Heyer’s oeuvre, in my opinion:

Best: Frederica, The Grand Sophy, Lady of Quality

Worst: The Devil’s Cub and perhaps by extension, These Old Shades, which is about the parents of Vidal from The Devil’s Cub. I didn’t like Vidal nor his parents in the latter book, so I doubt I would develop much affection for the Alistair family by reading These Old Shades.

Still planning to read: Cotillion, Venetia, The Convenient Marriage.

Any others you recommend I seek out?

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

As I was reading this book, I remember thinking, “This story reminds me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Then, I went to Goodreads to log the book as having been read, and there I discovered that several other people noticed the similarities to Conrad’s classic story. Perhaps Ms. Patchett intended to follow after Conrad, in a feminist, post-colonial setting along the Amazon rather than the Congo. At any rate, she did have a harder time taking her characters into the unknown. With our twenty-first century technology, we at least think we know everyone and everything and can communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

“I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of cellphones. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of Google, in which all factual information is available to all characters. So I have to stand on my head to contrive a plot in which the characters lose their cellphone and are separated from technology.” Ann Patchett interviewed in The Washington Post, June 17, 2011.

So, Ms. Patchett’s protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, turns out to be particularly absent-minded and tech-averse, unable to hang onto her cell phone or make it work for any length of time. Accept that plot/character device and go on.

Dr. Annick Swenson is working, in the heart of the Amazon jungle, on a fertility drug that will revolutionize the world, if it can be brought to market. The trouble is that Dr. Swenson can’t be bothered to communicate with the pharmaceutical company that is sponsoring her work and that hopes to make a fortune by selling her discovery. The company has already sent one person down to Brazil to find out what’s going on, Anders Eckman. But he’s disappeared, reported dead. Now, they want Dr. Marina Singh, a researcher who worked with Eckman, to go to Brazil, find out exactly what happened to her friend and colleague Anders Eckman, and bring back a firm timetable for the completion of research on the fertility drug.

Dr. Singh, of course, finds that getting in touch with her old professor, Dr. Swenson, is not as easy or uncomplicated as it looked to be from far away in good old Minnesota. And once she does arrive at Dr. Swenson’s camp among the Lakashi people, Marina Singh is embroiled in a web of competing interests and secrets and lies that threatens to keep her in the Amazon jungle for the rest of her life or perhaps end her life prematurely, as happened to her colleague, Dr. Eckman.

Some of the episodes and plot developments in the book certainly stretched my credulity and my ability to suspend disbelief, but to list these rather unbelievable coincidences and character actions would be to spoil some of the “wonder” of the story. As a reader either you decide to go with it, or you put it down. I read to the end, and although I didn’t like certain aspects of the ending very much, I still found that the book gave me much to think about:

Would it be a good thing to have a drug that enabled women to continue to have children into their fifties and sixties and beyond? Why is it that women lose their fertility in their mid-forties? Would women’s lives be improved by such a drug? Would the children who resulted from such an innovation be better off or worse of than children who are conceived and raised while the parents, especially the mother, are relatively young?

Is it really important to protect “native” cultures from the influence of modern Western culture? How important? Should we withhold what we consider to be life-enhancing technology and medicine from those native peoples in the interest of protecting their way of life? Does this novel perpetuate the myth of the “noble savage” living in a sort of paradise and the intrusive white colonialists coming to despoil and exploit those indigenous peoples? Or is it a myth?

What does this book have to say about our current Western cultural habit of putting off child-bearing to farther and farther into a woman’s life span? Is this a good idea, and should we change our biology, our biological clock so to speak, to accommodate the choice to delay child-bearing, if we can? When we abort our babies and use contraception to avoid conceiving them and delay marriage, are we doing anything different from the people in the book who work to extend women’s fertility and child-bearing years into old age?

I didn’t really like the ambiguity of the ending in this novel, but I suppose it was necessary to make it a “literary” novel. I’m low-brow enough to like all of my loose ends tied and questions answered at the end of a book, but I know that’s not necessarily in vogue in literary circles.

Fans of Patchett’s other novels, of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness will probably find State of Wonder to be to their taste as well.

Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer

Set in the late eighteenth century and originally published in 1932, this book has a lot of conflicting cultural mores and values to balance, and I’m just not sure it works in the feminist-imbued twenty-first century. A virtuous young lady, Mary Challoner, disguises herself as her sister who has a date to run away with the rakish and self indulgent Dominic Alistair, Marquis of Vidal (Vidal for short). In the first chapter Vidal very casually murders a would-be highway robber and leaves the body lying in the middle of the road because he’s too lazy to dispose of it. Then he wounds his opponent in a duel, leaves him for dead, and rushes off to arrange his assignation with Mary’s feckless and gullible sister, Sophia. So, Mary, to save her sister, runs away with Vidal, reveals herself after a while, and hopes that Vidal will lose interest in ruining Sophia. Instead, Vidal decides to abduct Mary out of spite, and he comes close to attempted rape until Mary shoots him in the arm with a pistol.

After all of that set-up, we’re supposed to believe that Vidal is just a misunderstood “bad boy”, kind of a Rhett Butler character, and Mary is just the girl to take him in hand and tame him. Oh, and we know that he’s really a good guy deep down inside because when Mary gets seasick while crossing the Channel with her abductor, Vidal fetches a basin for her to throw up into. By the time they get to France, they are in love with each other although neither one is aware of the other’s regard, and all that remains is for them to discover their mutual admiration, soothe and get the approval of the parents on both sides of the match, assuage Sophia’s wounded pride, and save Mary’s reputation and honor.

I’m just not buying. Vidal never does come across as a good character, although Mary thinks he is. If she marries him, Mary Challoner is in for a rude awakening when he murders a servant someday for polishing his boots the wrong way or tells her that he didn’t know that she would mind his having a mistress on the side. Vidal is not shown to be misunderstood or misjudged, but rather he is absolved of all responsibility and guilt for no discernible reason. He’s actually a cad and a murderer. And if there is such a thing as slut-shaming, Sophia is a victim; it’s said to be justifiable to abduct her because she’s a naive but willing runaway. However, Mary is supposed to be honorable and a cut above her sister because she would never really run away to Paris with Vidal; it’s all a horrible misunderstanding, an adventure, and an accident.

What with the male-female double standard for marital and sexual behavior in the 1930’s and the class distinctions for what is honorable and moral behavior in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this romance is a hot mess. Honorable, decent girls shouldn’t fall in love with their would-be abductors and rapists, and if they do they can expect trouble in the subsequent marriage. As for Vidal, he doesn’t deserve a wife or a mistress, and I don’t believe his protestations of innocence and undying affection for Mary.

The spectacle of the various characters in the novel chasing one another all over France is somewhat entertaining, but othe wise this novel is both infuriating and forgettable. I’ve liked some other Heyer Regency romances, but I’d recommend giving this one a pass.

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 Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas

It’s the 1930’s, the depths of the Great Depression, and the farms of Harveyville, Kansas are drying up. No rain. No money. Very little work. And the crops are burning in the fields.

The Persian Pickle Club are a group of ladies who meet together to quilt. They work together, share quilt pieces, read together, gossip a little, and keep each other’s secrets. Twenty-something farm wife Queenie Bean is happy to welcome the newest member of the Persian Pickles, Rita Ritter, who has come to Harveyville with her husband, Tom. Tom is home from the city to work on the family farm, and his new wife is about Queenie’s age and a big city girl. So, Queen decides that she and Rita will be best friends.

As the story progresses, it turns into a murder mystery, and newcomer Rita is determined to double as detective and journalist, crack the murder case, and write it up for the near-by town’s newspaper. Rita and Tom both want to get out of Harveyville and back to the big city, while Queenie loves farm life, is content to let sleeping dogs lie as far as the murder is concerned, and just wants a friend and a little rain.

I’m not thinking that The Persian Pickle Club breaks any new ground in the genres of historical fiction or murder mysteries, but it’s a good solid read for quilters, cosy mystery fans, and readers who remember or want to experience a taste of the Depression era.

Sandra Dallas is the author of fifteen adult novels, two young reader novels, and ten nonfiction books. I read her children’s book Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky in 2015, and I added another of her books to my TBR list, Prayers for Sale, from this recommendation at Small World Reads. I think I’d like to explore more of Ms. Dallas’s work. Anyone else have a book by Sandra Dallas to recommend?

The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

Before Verity . . . there was Julie.

Billed as a prequel to the popular spy thriller Code Name Verity, The Pearl Thief, set in Scotland and featuring a fifteen year old Julie/Verity, is a coming of age exploration of gender, identity, and bisexuality encased in a murder mystery. Of those three elements—setting, theme, and genre—only two were at all appealing to me. All of the cross-dressing and lesbian awakening stuff which tried to make itself part of the overall theme of confronting prejudice and unkindness instead made me wish the mystery itself were more compelling so that I could skip over the same-sex and opposite-sex kisses and gropings and at least enjoy the plot.

I found it difficult to believe that Julie, an upper class young lady home for the summer from finishing school, could really do the things she did with no compunction or misgivings, no voices in her head screaming that the choices she was making were wrong. She seduces an older man, shares a steamy kiss with a saucy maid while Julie is disguised as a boy, and has an intimate interlude with another girlfriend, all without much inner doubt or moral reflection. There were hints of Julie’s confused sexuality in Code Name Verity, but the hints remained just that and were easily ignored or skipped over. In this one, with a much younger Julie, the intimations have magnified backwards and become blatant and irritating, distractions from a mystery about stolen pearls and attempted murder. However, the mystery isn’t that compelling either.

Anyway, there you have it. The story in this one is subordinate to the message: travelers (gypsies), the disabled and disfigured, and LGBT persons all have to deal with prejudice and misunderstanding, but it’s easier to explore your bisexual impulses because that’s a choice that can all be kept secret and mostly unacknowledged. It’s not a particularly appealing message.

I really liked Code Name Verity, appreciated Rose Under Fire, and enjoyed Black Dove White Raven, but I thought this latest novel by Wein was a dud.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Here are my thoughts from 2014 on the book called The Circle, soon to be released as a motion picture. Perhaps the movie will fill out the characters and retain the thought-provoking ideas.

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Are you afraid of the continued encroachment of Big Government and Big Business and Big Internet on the privacy of individuals? Are you worried about the implications of surveillance drones, cashless business models, data-mining, and internet search engines that seem to be more and more ubiquitous and indispensable to more and more people? Have you opted out of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+ and all other social media sites because you want to keep your self to yourself?

If you answered yes to all three questions, you don’t need to read The Circle, but you’ll probably want to read it because you’ll find your own opinions about privacy, the internet, and our own Brave New World, validated and extended in this fictional dsytopia where “The Circle” of everyone knowing everything about everyone is almost complete. If Eldest Daughter wanted to win her friends over to her way of thinking about what the internet is doing to humans and to their social abilities and to their privacy rights, she would give a copy of The Circle to each of them with an admonition to read at their own risk.

Scary stuff. It’s somewhat unbelievable that the main character, a young college graduate named Mae, is so gullible as to never really question, even once, the vast internet conspiracy (or benevolent business model) that is called The Circle in this story. In fact, Mae is a frustrating character, so blind to the consequences of her actions and to the implications of a society built on the concept of complete and total transparency, as to be rather mindless. However, this book isn’t about either plot or characters: it’s about propaganda. It’s about what living a virtual life in a virtual world with social media as our most vital connection could do to us. Have we become, or are we in danger of becoming, rather mindless ourselves? Are we willing to give up all of our freedom for the sake of safety and security? Could our private lives and our independent judgment be taken away, or could we be induced to give them away, piece by piece, for a mess of pottage?

SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT!

If you believe these central organizing “truths” of The Circle, read The Circle and think about the real implications of a world that is totally and mandatorily transparent. If you believe that Google and Facebook and Twitter are the opiates of the masses, and that 1984 is closer than we think, read The Circle and be vindicated. If you’re philosophically opposed to agitprop and think you already know all about the message Mr. Eggers has to preach, skip it.

Bottom line: flat characters, improbable plot and characterizations, thought-provoking message.

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Cleophas and Elizabeth Visit Easter Sunrise Service

We have a tradition in our church of having Biblical characters visit our Easter sunrise service in the park. This year Cleophas and his wife, Elizabeth, from Emmaus told us about their encounter with the resurrected Christ.

First Person Drama, written by Pastor Bob DeGray and performed by John Bauer and Zion Early. Based on the story of the meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35.