Sunday, December 28, 2014

Book Review/Musings - From Little Houses to Little Women

A very sweet friend gave me a copy of From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood by Nancy McCabe (University of Missouri Press, 2014) for Christmas. It was high on my wish list, so I’m pleased as punch at receiving it. It is a more serious, thought-provoking look back to childhood favorites, and I would certainly recommend it.

McCabe explains in the Prologue that, as happens with so many of us, during her teenage years, she no longer experienced books the same way she had as a child. She lost the magic (my word, not hers) - that feeling of complete immersion and being the heroine, and the impression of possibilities that go along with such heroic identification (i.e., “I can do anything! I can be anything! I can be strong/smart/pretty! Etc.). 

Then one day in adulthood, events conspired to make McCabe realize that her decision to adopt her daughter could be traced back to a book she had read as a girl. Intrigued by this, she wondered how all the books she read back then led her to be the person she is with the life she has now. From Little Houses to Little Women is her account of her journey to find out.

Most, if not all, of the books McCabe discusses will be familiar to former child readers (and if you weren’t a reader with favorite books as a child, you probably wouldn’t pick up this book in the first place), but she brings out details we might not recall if we haven’t re-read them as adults ourselves. Don’t expect a joyful romp through the land of used-to-be, however. McCabe’s perspective was colored by the long illness and painful death of a close aunt - an aunt who was influential in her reading and her life - so a cloud of confusion, pain, and sadness hovers over many of her reminisces This makes the book less comforting than one might expect revisiting favorite characters would be, but more interesting with a unique perspective. 

The journey is external as well as internal: in addition to rereading the books to see what she brought forward with her, McCabe traveled to several of the authors’ homes, seeking to find how their lives informed their work - and ultimately her life.

McCabe seems to have been disappointed in many of her home site visits. This is partly due to either the commercialization some sites have embraced in their bid for tourist dollars or the converse problem of not having enough money to keep the site up properly, but more greatly due to the afore-mentioned aunt, who took McCabe on a similar trip shortly before her death. This previous trip’s influence caused McCabe to have an outlook much different than most people do on such expeditions (based on many conversations I’ve had with numerous other literary travelers). If her viewpoint is uncommon, it is all the more compelling.

Even though this is a memoir, it does not have an intimate feel. It’s much more analytical - which was the author’s purpose, after all. McCabe lets us figure it out with her along the journey, instead of filling us in after she does so herself, so readers become privy to her thoughts in what seems like real time. 

In the end, McCabe draws some interesting conclusions regarding how childhood books shape a person’s character - or, at least, how her favorite books as a girl impacted her own choices and values through life. The most interesting part to me was what she thought, as a young reader, the various authors were saying, versus what she now believes they were saying - and, related to that, the nuances she missed completely back then that now stand out. Some of these are similar to what I have experienced in re-reading childhood favorites, but many others are completely different. So, while McCabe reaches personal closure on her own quest, her book also raises some unwritten questions:

Do young readers pick up adult authors’ agendas, or does each child only see what they need or want at the time? Given such differences in viewpoint, how can we determine which books will have a more positive effect on a young person, or should we even try to do that? How does this affect the way authors of books for young readers approach their work (i.e., how can they make the point they want to make without “preaching”)? 

What do you think?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Gay Time

“This will make two evenings you've lost this week,” said Ma. “And tomorrow night there's church. We are living in such a whirl of gaiety lately that I declare—Was that a knock at the door?” ~Little Town on the Prairie

“Whirl of gaiety” is one of my favorite phrases from the Little House books, and lately it describes our calendar. It’s the season for gatherings of various sorts, after all. We attended one event Saturday morning that was especially enjoyable. It was an International Christmas celebration hosted by a local church. There was no sermon involved, however. Instead, we visited people of different nationalities—from Canada to Germany, Argentina to Ireland, Australia to Zimbabwe, and about a dozen other countries. They wore traditional dress of their country, and greeted us in their native language with the usual salutation used where they were from. Getting to meet people from other places and compare cultures is so interesting. It never fails to bring a new perspective on something. Many of them also had musical instruments from their country and played songs of their culture. Some played Christmas songs we were familiar with and we recognized the tune, but several were new to us, and very beautiful.

What could make such a morning even better? Food, of course! And there was a buffet of ethnic foods. I’m not even sure what all of it was, but it was almost all delicious. Some especially memorable dishes were the vegetable korma from India (I love Indian food, and everything on this buffet was authentic), enchiladas from Mexico (who doesn’t like Mexican food?), and a cabbage & carrot soup from Indonesia. That doesn’t sound particularly special, I know, but it had some sort of delectable spice, and the broth was silky smooth, and altogether it was sublime. There was also a dish—from Africa, but I can’t remember whether it was Ghana or Kenya; it was one of those—vegetables spiced with another unfamiliar but delicious flavor in a pastry pocket, that was scrumptious.

Of course I never even thought to take a picture! Maybe next year. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for this event again.