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.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

When is Propaganda Acceptable?

Is propaganda ever acceptable? I’ve been thinking about this the past several days, as I prepared a presentation I was asked to give for Veteran’s Day.

The word “propaganda” originated in the Catholic Church with a positive meaning. In 1622, Pope Gregory XV appointed a committee of cardinals to organize and oversee a system of establishing missions to “propagate the faith” to the heathen. The committee was called the propaganda. Eventually, the word came to mean the spreading of a message, instead of the spreaders themselves. Later still, the word began to have a negative connotation of spreading false information. 

The presentation was about General Douglas MacArthur and his activities in Japan. The Japanese people, for the most part, hold the General in high esteem for his accomplishments there. He did get a lot done, especially considering that he was working in a country American had just atom-bombed as an enemy. But it’s one thing to change systems (he rebuilt infrastructure, restored the economy, abolished monopolies, democratized the government, reassigned land...) and another to change hearts and attitudes. General MacArthur did both. He used written materials to accomplish the latter.

General Douglas MacArthur
The Allied Occupation, under the direction of MacArthur, censored all published material in Japan. They decided what could and could not be printed. All books that made the cut portrayed the idealized American way of life. The first book put out under the Occupation was The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Why, yes, I do tie everything in to LIW. Why do you ask?) The rest of her books followed, along with such titles as Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, the Nancy Drew mystery stories, and Gone with the Wind. The Little House books were most popular.

There were boys’ and men’s and women’s books, too, but most were girls’ books. Why? Because “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” MacArthur knew getting the young women who would be mothers of the next generation on his side was key in establishing a friendship between Japan and the U.S. He was right, and it worked. The outcome was positive, helping establish peace and friendship where enmity had existed. Did the end justify the means?

My old Webster’s Dictionary defines propaganda as “information, especially when biased in nature, used to promote a particular cause, and especially a political or religious view.” Logic informs us that any information used to promote a particular cause is by definition biased in nature, whether the cause is good or bad, and whether the information is true or false. So really, anytime we speak positively about something we like, or negatively about something we don’t, we are spreading propaganda. (Kinda makes me stop and think about what I’ve been spreading...)

So is it ever acceptable? My personal opinion is that true information is always acceptable. But that means the whole truth - not just the cherry-picked good parts we like. And since people don’t always agree on what’s true, everyone should be able to make up their own minds, from all available information. So I don’t have an issue with MacArthur distributing books promoting American values. The part that bothers me is the censoring of any other materials. What do you think? Did the end justify the means, or not?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A National Review!

I made a national magazine! My brother-in-law called to let me know that there's a short review of Little Lodges on the Prairie in the newest issue of the Scottish Rite Journal. How about that?

A Little Misinformation

 “What makes you think Laura Ingalls Wilder had anything to do with Freemasonry?” (This said with a sneer.)
“Who would want to know about Masons?” (This said with a shudder.)
 “The Ingalls weren’t in that! They were Christian!” (Emphatically.)

The reception of Little Lodges on the Prairie has been overwhelmingly positive, with almost no negative feedback. However, the above comments I received at recent signings show that there are some individuals who evidently are misinformed about Freemasonry, about Laura and her family, or about both.

What to do when this happens? Should I try to explain, to clear up misconceptions and prevent falsehoods from spreading further? Or should I avoid confrontation and just bid them a good day?

So far, my response has been varied. If they actually ask a question, I usually do answer, even when I think they don’t really want an answer. I keep it short and to the point: “The records of the Lodges and Chapters they joined.” “People wanting to know about the organization the Ingalls family were active in.”
If possible, I try to find a common ground: “You’re right - they were Christian.” Then the ball is in their court, to inquire further or leave.

In any case, I try to always leave them with this thought: Laura (or Ma, or any of the family) would not have been involved with a nefarious group that was opposed to their values of faith. Since they were active in Freemasonry and Eastern Star, what does that tell us about those organizations?

What are your thoughts on how (or even if) I should address such persons?