Wednesday, March 21, 2018

'All Passion Spent' by Vita Sackville-West

In 1860, as a young girl of 17, Lady Slane nurtures a secret, burning ambition—to become an artist. She becomes, instead, the wife of a great statesman and the mother of six children. Seventy years later, released by widowhood, and to the dismay of her pompous children, she abandons the family home for a tiny house in Hampstead. Here she recollects the dreams of youth, and revels in her newfound freedom with her odd assortment of companions: Genoux, her French maid; Mr. Bucktrout, her house agent; and a coffin maker who pictures people dead in order to reveal their true characters. And then there's Mr. FitzGeorge, an eccentric millionaire who met and loved her in India when she was young and very lovely. It is here in this world of her own that she finds a passion that comes only with the freedom to choose, and it is this, her greatest gift, that she passes on to the only one who can understand its value.

First published in 1931, Vita Sackville-West's masterpiece is the fictional companion to her great friend Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.

This is a thought-provoking story for anyone who wants to give themselves permission to live a simple, humble, contemplative life. Platitudes such as 'step out of your comfort zone' are so prevalent, we tend to take them on board as dogma without ever thinking about them. This story is all about asking, 'Hey, why should I step out?' Lady Slane is one person who realises that since life is so short, her comfort zone is the most appealing place to live. Her given name is Deborah, but nobody has used it for years. After a lifetime of doing what society expects of her, she makes a decision to retire from the public eye and live in a small house, out of the spotlight.

At the start, her husband, Henry Lyulph Holland, the first earl of Slane, has just passed away, aged 94. He was a former Prime Minister and Viceroy of India with an illustrious list of achievements and excellent reputation. Now that he's gone, his older children, senior citizens and big advocates of productive lives, assume that their gentle and pliable mother will be passed around between their homes. But the 88-year-old has other ideas.

Lady Slane realises that in all the hustle and bustle of helping her family look good, she's sacrificed many parts of her own true nature, including time to contemplate. 'In contemplation she could pierce to a happier life more truly than her children, who reckoned things by results and activities.' She and her maid,Genoux, realise their calm, new routine is more than enough, punctuated by small interests such as leisurely strolls and the arrival of tradesmen and parcels of books. 'Of such small things was her life now made.' It sounds pretty nice to me, and I kept scribbling down supportive quotes of her chosen lifestyle. 'She'd had enough in her life, of people whose worldly status was their passport to admission.'

I didn't give the nod to everything. Some of her musings made me a bit sad, such as thinking back on her husband and children as 'obstacles' that kept her from her true self. That's a hard word to use in this context, for innocent kids. She was the one who caved in to pressure to bring them up in a way the world would approve, but then decides she doesn't gel with the hoop-jumping people they grew into. Well, she helped shape them that way. I can't help feeling that when they grew up, she was treating them the same way they treated her, by thinking harsh things about them and not extending grace, since they were acting the best way they knew how, just like her. And sometimes when she made decisions just to annoy them, I wondered if she was such a nice, innocent little old lady after all.

Most readers would probably agree that the renewal of Lady Slane's friendship with Colonel FitzGeorge is one of the book's highlights, even though she barely remembered their mutual past to start with. Two people who briefly cross paths in their twenties now touch base almost sixty years later, and take up where they left off. I love how he reflects that the beauty in her face has changed, developing into something richer and deeper than youthful beauty.

In fact all the characters are elderly, with one notable exception towards the end. Some of Lady Slane's children are grandparents themselves, and Edith, the 'baby sister' is 60. She's an interesting character with an independent thought life I would have liked to see more of. Mr Bucktrout, Lady Slane's old landlord, is also quite a character on her own wavelength, and some of his quotes are the ones I liked most.

* Repose is one of the most important things, and yet how few people achieve it.
* My principle has always been that it's better to please one person a great deal than please a number of persons a little.
* I have given a great deal of offense in my life, but not one offensive instance do I repent.
* Although one cannot create an atmosphere, one can at least safeguard it against disturbances.

Maybe sticking to our decisions to live the gentle, quiet lives we dream of, instead of jumping through hoops, is really a bold leap out of the comfort zone of public approval. Insisting on your right to enjoy a passive, relaxed and unheralded life may take courage, in the face of criticism and rejection. What an irony that going with the flow, and taking the path of least resistance, may be the biggest energy sapper after all. I'm not going to wait until I'm old to heed Lady Slane's lesson.


Friday, March 16, 2018

'Farmer Boy' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of March.

Growing up on his family's farm in New York, Almanzo Wilder wishes for just one thing--his very own horse. But Father doesn't yet trust him with such a big responsibility. Almanzo needs to prove himself--but how?

It's the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's husband Almanzo when he was a boy. To sum up my feelings in a sentence, nothing beats sitting down to relax with a good book and read about others' hard work. I'd guess it was originally written as a companion to Laura's first book, Little House in the Big Woods, because it covers a year in the life of a family, following the cycles of the four seasons. But unlike the restless, roving Pa Ingalls, the Wilders had a flourishing, commercial farm. They weren't moving anywhere, and wouldn't want to!

One thing that stands out about James Wilder's farm is the huge variety. No specialisation for this man, he had all sorts going. Horses, cattle, sheep, potatoes, other veggies, cereal crops, orchards, you name it. I'm sure farms like his are almost extinct now. In modern times, people are seduced by the greater efficiency of growing or raising just one thing, and the profits that follow. Indeed, smaller hobby farmers can't compete with the produce of mass producers on the market. But I wonder if there's a high cost of soil depletion and healthy nutrient loss from overdoing it with a single commodity. It's sad to think that we're being led by the almighty dollar to our detriment, and that farms like the Wilders' no longer operate.

What pros they were too. Everything from their farm was naturally the very best. Not just any old sheep, but prize merinos. Also high pedigree Morgan horses, top quality potatoes, and super creamy butter that speaks for itself. No wonder the Wilders were highly respected in their community, and naturally reserved the best stables at church.

Almanzo makes a likable little hero, and his love for horses and food cannot be beaten. The story shows this boy going crazy about either one or the other.

To me, the horses come across fairly edgy and keyed up. Father wouldn't let his nine-year-old son near them, for fear that he'd teach them undesirable habits unwittingly. He was always dropping remarks like, 'One little mistake will ruin a fine colt.' They sound a bit like children. They'll pick up bad habits in a flash from some ratbag who's just mucking around, while good traits from someone with their best interests at heart are harder to stick. But young Almanzo decides that these high-maintenance critters are his delight.

8252His other passion is food, and the amount he manages to stuff into his mouth during this story is astounding, but Mother keeps it coming. A typical winter breakfast, for example, seemed to be pancakes, sausage cakes, oatmeal, fried potato, buckwheat cakes, doughnuts, jellies and jam. They have my admiration for keeping up the pace day after day, when our morning ritual is pouring a bowl of cereal. Reading this book might even be a good strike in the war against junk food. If you start off feeling sorry for the Wilder kids for not having Mars Bars and McDonalds, you might well end up feeling jealous instead, because of the delicious turnovers and doughnuts we can read about but not taste.

It's a lovely picture of a boy with a healthy role model in his father, who he adores. James gives Almanzo a heavy dose of the Protestant Work Ethic, making sure his son knows that money = hard work. 'Any time you want to spend a nickel, stop and think how much work it takes to earn a dollar.' He also scoffs at time saving devices which may compromise quality, because 'all it saves is time. And what good is time with nothing to do?' It sinks in too. One the third day of the County Fair, the young boy decides with no prompting that he's had an overload of leisure and just wants to get back to work.

There are several interesting snippets. How about the Indian at the County Fair, who jumped onto the race track and kept up with the horses? The story tells us that he ran a two minute, forty second mile, and even Father was impressed. Well, I'd hope so, because if it's true, the guy smashed Sir Roger Bannister's four minute mile several decades before it was even set! Even in 1954, many people called a four minute mile a physically impossible feat. And today the current record stands at three minutes and 43 seconds.This shows that nameless wonders and unsung heroes pop up in every generation. Unless Almanzo remembered it with boyish exaggeration and told Laura, who took it on face value and wrote it down. But I prefer to believe the tale about that freakishly fast Indian runner. (Even though my family say it's absolutely impossible.)

Readers who work in the retail industry should get ready to be challenged. Almanzo's big brother Royal decides to be a store keeper, because he's over all the demands of farm work. It makes sense to me. He's a young man who's familiar with farming and knows what he's talking about, so it's not an uninformed whim on his part. Yet his parents think he's selling himself short, and their main reason for idolising their hard lifestyle comes back to their notion of freedom and independence.

They can't stand the thought of having to kowtow to customers and keep everyone happy, whether they like them or not. We're told, 'If Father goes out of his way to please anyone, it's only because he wants to.' He himself puts it this way. 'You work hard but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come.' (Only the weather, the seasons, the hands of the clock and the demands of a crowd of animals are allowed to do that, but somehow James Wilder doesn't mind being pushed around by these things so much. But to me it shows that nobody is truly 'free', unless it's to choose who, or what will be our master.)

Mother knows exactly how to respond to Mr Paddock's generous offer to train Almanzo to be a wheelwright. 'Why would Almanzo want to live in town and cater to the whims of every Tom, Dick and Harry?' Poor Mr Paddock will have to look for another apprentice.

'Mother' is one of my favourite characters. The story doesn't even give her name, but a wiki search tells me it was Angeline. What a fantastic lady, proving that feminine skills are a super strength. She blitzes everything, from her wonderful cooking and awesome loom weaving to her way of speaking her mind and bartering with tradesmen. I love how she and her husband come across as partners, each upholding their own equally important end of home and farm. But most of all, I love how she liberates other females not to scoff at the domestic arts, as a life pursuit. Nobody could possibly look at Angeline Wilder and call her work drudgery. What a woman. 

Another theme that keeps popping up is the true value of anyone's work or decisions being revealed in time. When lazy farmers scatter seed haphazardly so they can call it a day, their sloppiness will be obvious to everyone a few months later. In one of my favourite chapters, Almanzo decides to sneak some homemade toffee to his pet piglet, Lucy, but everyone finds out when her teeth get stuck together, and they have to pin her down so Royal can dislodge it. Oh oh, even loyal sister Alice is shocked that Almanzo would waste their sweets on a pig.

On the whole, Father is very matter-of-fact about the test of time, even regarding those he's most proud of.
Liveryman: That's a smart boy of yours.
Father: Time will show. Many a good beginning makes a bad ending. It remains to be seen how he turns out in the long run.

History showed his son suffered many tough times and hard knocks in the years ahead of him, with moments of heartache that might have broken his father's heart to see. But Almanzo came through with his faith, and his good, gentle character intact, so I'm sure James would have been perfectly satisfied with the way he turned out.


Read more about Almanzo here on this post about book boyfriends

Monday, March 12, 2018

We don't have to tackle Mount Everest

I was studying this huge mountain with my younger son. It's so impressive, being the world's tallest, at 8848 metres high. Apparently it still grows by about 0.25 inches each year, even at 60 million years old. It was first identified by a British survey team lead by George Everest in 1841, but not until 1953 did anyone manage to reach the summit. It was achieved by Sir Edmund Hillary from New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide, making them instantly famous.

I applaud Junko Tabei, the first female to reach the top, not to mention Miura Yiuchiro, the oldest person to reach the top, aged 80, in May 2013. South Australia's Flinders Ranges' Mount Remarkable was almost too much for me, at 960 metres, and I was a fraction of the age. Over time, thousands of people have tried to reach the top of Everest, and many nameless folk have died making the attempt, in the name of thrill seeking or notoriety. My nephew's karate sensei climbed part of it. Even though he has the fitness level of an Olympic athlete, he didn't even attempt to make it all the way up. He told stories about the thinness of the atmosphere, and the many stops they would make just to get their breath back and conquer altitude sickness. Something about a challenge of that magnitude appeals to the adventurous streak that lies buried in all of us, some deeper than others.

Yet it would seem that, from space, it's a different story. From a vantage point of such magnitude, Mount Everest is merely part and parcel of the crust of the earth. In fact, it was even surprisingly difficult to single out. Russian cosmonaut, Valentin Lebedev, said, 'How many people dream of conquering Everest so they can look down from it, yet for us up above, it was difficult to locate.'

This God's eye perspective, so to speak, makes me feel peaceful, although I had to think about it to figure out why. It's to do with the fact that it is we humans who label things with significance and importance, by deeming them big or impressive from our vantage point. As it's not at all the same for God, we needn't worry about buying into all those competitions for status.

We make Everests out of so many things. Humans are those who spread the illusion that certain lines of work are far more illustrious than others, and that achieving celebrity-hood or stardom in some field is the pinnacle to strive for. I now like to think that from a lofty enough heavenly perspective, all the good we do just becomes part of the earth's fabric. That means we don't really have to bust our boilers, burst our blood vessels and strain our Type A personalities to impress people walking around down here, who share our limited focus.

Imagine some member of the angelic host whose vantage point is more like that of Lebedev and his fellow astronauts, saying, "Mother Teresa and Billy Graham have done wonderful things, but so have millions of others. It's just part of the total of what love-driven servants are doing everywhere. Look at Jane Doe, caring for her sick mother and working hard as a single parent to support her son through college. Or Joe Blogs the bus driver, sticking to road rules and greeting all his passengers cheerfully, day after day. It's all one and the same, and we love it."

If we've ever been afraid of never hearing, 'Well done, good and faithful servant,' thinking our work is too little or measly to justify the space we take, it might be time to get over our Mount Everest syndrome. When I finish writing this blog post, I'm going to go and clean my kitchen, have a walk with my son, and help my daughter prepare some food for her youth group. Later I'll work on a couple of book reviews. I'll have to remind myself that even though these things aren't Mount Everest, they are all adding to crust of love-driven deeds that makes the earth a great place to live. If we tend to get discouraged because we think we're not making a ripple, then maybe it's a sign that we should stop thinking in terms of being considered remarkable or measuring up to some standard. 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Several Super Scientists

I was thinking how scientist characters tend to draw us in through both books and screen. There's something appealing about their brilliant and inquiring minds. The stories in which they feature tend to have interesting subject matter, and maybe they make us feel a tad smarter ourselves by reading about them. Several of the examples that sprang to my mind are so personally appealing, I was on the verge of calling this list, 'sexy scientists'. Here they are.

I'll begin with the natural history dudes. These guys are really into flora and fauna.

The Blue CastleBarney Snaith
Arguably one of L.M. Montgomery's most successful and appealing heroes, he lives out in the forest and writes books about the great outdoors, using the pseudonym John Foster. Valancy Stirling has no idea that when she falls in love with Barney, she's also falling for her favourite author. He always makes an effort to throw her off the scent by criticising 'that writer' as a charlatan whenever he can. (My review is here.)

383206Roger Hamley 
This earthy young man delves into the world of nature to the extent that he knows it as well as his own face in the mirror. His family considers his passion a major time waster, until he gets sponsored to take a major expedition to Africa to study plants and critters. It's a huge deal in the Victorian era, when men like Charles Darwin are doing the same thing, and there's no guarantee that they'll return alive. (My review is here.)

Newt Scamander
The most famous naturalist of the magical world, he's also beloved by many muggles who think he's just gorgeous. He also wrote the  text book based on his fieldwork, Magical Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is used by all Hogwarts students in their studies.

19089Reverend Camden Farebrother 
More of a wannabe scientist than a legitimate one, this poor old pastor crams his study with samples beneath microscopes, because they really turn him on. Since his widowed mother and spinster sisters depend on him, he can't afford to indulge his passion full time. (My review is here.)
John Gould
This novel is really about his wife, but the birdman himself has plenty of appeal in a driven, fanatical sort of way. Based on real personal history, he brought his wife around the globe to Australia to help him indulge his passion for birds. He adores them enough to kill and stuff them in a flash, whenever he gets the chance. (My review is here.)

Next are the biological dudes who major on the human body, which makes them deliciously creepy when the story requires. 

35031085Victor Frankenstein
This handsome young genius manages to fulfil his dream of playing God. He stitches together a brand new human-like being from bits and pieces he digs up in graveyards, and somehow breathes life into it. But his astounding feat returns to haunt him. Full of anguish at having ever been created, the hideous monster strikes out against what his creator loves most in the world.

Tertius Lydgate
A new doctor in Middlemarch, the good-looking and earnest young man dreams of making amazing medical breakthroughs to help mankind. As a boy, he looked into a book of anatomy, and discovered his purpose in a flash. Yet he doesn't reckon upon small town prejudice. The people who are grossed out by his habit of examining dead bodies are just the start of all he has to deal with. (See my link to Farebrother, since they come from the same book.)
I'm going to call this young boy a scientist, although his peculiarity is more along the lines of a freaky gift. He can rip hearts out of living beings to animate dead ones for the short term. And believe it or not, there are times when Enoch's skill comes in very handy. (My review is here.)

Then there's the inventor type, or gadget guys, who make all sorts of weird, mechanical contraptions, that cause serious trouble and mayhem. The majority of those I thought of tend to be in sitcoms and movies rather than books. Maybe this is because their particular branch of science has the potential to be a good spectacle. 

Professor Wayne Szalinksy
His shrinking machine was a fabulous achievement, but something so dangerous shouldn't have been left lying around for unsuspecting family members to blunder into. What a mess! Also, he's a lesson to us all to never give up and assume failure prematurely. His lack of self confidence caused major trouble in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

Flint Lockwood
I love this geeky, awkward little dude from Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs. He lived a lonesome life, always at odds with his father and shunned by others. The machine he'd hoped would win him respect and fix all his social troubles ended up plunging him in boiling hot water.

The Professor
He can work wonders with a bit of primitive technology and whatever natural material is on hand, such as coconut shells. But it's never enough to get them all off the island! At least he was admired by lady viewers as the sexiest castaway, but didn't really have a lot of competition in Gilligan, the Skipper and Mr Howell.

The Time Traveller
A gentleman scientist from the Victorian era, he built the incredible machine which enabled him to visit many different time periods. Then he returns to his own era to wow gentry in their drawing rooms.
The Big Bang Theory
I'm drawing closer to my ultimate super scientist, but first I'll award the runners up. You've got to spare a thought for these wacky geeks; physicists Leonard and Sheldon, aerospace engineer Howard, and astrophysicist Raj. What they collectively lack in tact, social skills, and conventional coolness, they certainly make up for in brainy brilliance. (Incidentally, remember the episode where they get hold of the actual time machine, from the movie based on H.G. Wells' book?)

And now for the big drum roll for number One on my list...

Mark Watney
18007564I've got to make him tops because he's such an all-round legend. An astronaut botanist, he was abandoned on a mission to Mars by his fellow crew, who assumed he was dead. He manages to keep himself alive by drawing on all sorts of scientific disciplines which aren't even his specialties, such as Physics, Chemistry and Engineering. He's forced to snatch every bit of trivia floating through his head to become an instant expert, just to survive another day. And most amazing of all, he keeps his sense of humour intact throughout his whole ordeal. (My review is here.)

Did you notice the same concerning, in-your-face thing I did after my brainstorm? Without exception, all on my list are male. I guess that in the past, when several of the classics were written, science really was a male dominated field, but interestingly, the tradition has seemed to cling. Where are the Marie Curies, Rachel Carsons, Jane Goodalls and Dian Fosseys of fiction? I think I've set myself a really tricky challenge for a future post, and hope there are enough for a list. 

As usual, if you can think of any other examples you love, either male or female, please add them in the comments. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

'Breakfast at Tiffany's' by Truman Capote

In this seductive, wistful masterpiece, Truman Capote created a woman whose name has entered the American idiom and whose style is a part of the literary landscape. Holly Golightly knows that nothing bad can ever happen to you at Tiffany's; her poignancy, wit, and naΓ―vetΓ© continue to charm.

This is my choice for the 20th century classic category of the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.

It's set in a New York apartment block during the second World War. A young aspiring writer finds himself falling for a mystery girl who lives on the floor above his. But the charismatic Holly Golightly has secrets, two of which are brought to light during the course of the novel. And they are clearly intended to make the reader say, 'Whoa!'

Holly is THE character around which the book revolves. Others love or hate her, but nobody is indifferent. She's the sort of person who will impose on somebody, then get prickly when he shows a subsequent interest in her background. Others may resent that, but our smitten young narrator simply takes it as a challenge. To me,Truman Capote's writing style seems more noteworthy than the story itself. His sparing prose has plenty of clever imagery, and a skillful way of making us sense things that aren't stated outright.

For example, Holly is all about colour and movement. We deduce this from the way she dresses, her apartment's 'fly-by-night' look, and simply what she's written on her card, 'Holiday Golightly, travelling.' It all gives the impression that she's not static, but fluid verging on restless. And it's reinforced by a number of casual references all through, such as her avoidance of the zoo because she hates to see creatures caged. Capote pulls this off with a minimum of words, because the whole story is over in just 100 pages.

Some of the minor characters are summed up in one or two revealing sentences, or even just a phrase. Rusty Trawler, her paunchy, wealthy middle-aged admirer, is a 'preserved infant.' The Brazilian Jose seems as out of place in their company as 'a violin in a jazz band.' And Mag Wildwood is a 'triumph over ugliness' since she accentuates her supposed defects rather than hiding them. It's easy to admire the way Capote saves space on descriptions, yet still makes his point.

The title may be a bit misleading. I think there's something alluring about the mention of food on a cover. Maybe it gives the impression there'll be some homely warmth. Yet nobody in the novel has a meal at Tiffany's Department Store. Holly simply mentions it in passing as one of her aspirations.

But even that turns out to be one of Capote's quick, subtle hints about the flip sides of her character, especially when snippets of her background are revealed. Holly is a girl who has the drive to leave an undesirable situation in search of something better, and the simple opulence of a department store during the war, with luxuries she can't afford, is enough to be her guiding star. I think we're meant to think that she has plenty of drive and gumption, but also naive idealism.

It's one of those stories where the movie possibly surpasses the fame of the book, because the lead role is well cast. I've never even seen it, but it's hard not to picture Audrey Hepburn's pixie face and little black dress as I read, just through taking on the hype over the years. It sounds like Hepburn must have nailed the dual sides of Holly's character; coming across both determined and delicate just by being herself. Holly Golightly could be a hardened criminal, yet she might simply be an innocent girl, dragged into something over her head. I'm sure Hepburn's is the name that springs instantly to most people's minds when someone says, 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' even more than the author's. I put it to the test, and my family had never heard of Truman Capote.

Overall, I wasn't crazy about the plot. My favourite stories are usually longer, not so up-in-the-air, and not focused on just one character. 'Fred' reveals nothing about himself at all. Although he keeps repeating that it's not really about him, it might have been nice to at least know his name. As for Holly, well meh, I didn't get fond enough of the mystery girl to care much what happened to her when she made her secret disappearance. She's always condescending to the narrator, which grated on me. I wonder if I'm in the minority when I say I found the book pretty forgettable on the whole. The shortness is all that saved it from two stars, since it was too short to put aside. Sure, Capote's clever writing was good, but since he didn't intrigue me with his characters, then so what? If you want to give it a try, at least it'll be over quickly if you don't like it. I think the best character is the orange cat.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Taking a short break for moving

I'll be back blogging as soon as I can. Meanwhile, here's what we'll be occupied with for the next week or so. This is hard to believe, surrounded by boxes in our old home with cupboards empty, but next time you hear from me, we should be settled into our brand new home.

Looking forward to seeing you on the other side of the chaos here!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

'Little House on the Prairie' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of February.

*    *    *  

The adventures continue for Laura Ingalls and her family as they leave their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin and set out for the big skies of the Kansas Territory. They travel for many days in their covered wagon until they find the best spot to build their house. Soon they are planting and plowing, hunting wild ducks and turkeys, and gathering grass for their cows. Just when they begin to feel settled, they are caught in the middle of a dangerous conflict.

It's Laura's second book, in which she writes about another year in the life of her family. They are off in their covered wagon to settle in Indian Country, because the Big Woods are now too crowded for Pa. He's lured by the promise of a treeless, level country with thick wildlife, and she describes the fertile openness and solitude of the wide prairie beautifully. Their small family unit gets along well together, savouring the little things. When Ma presses each loaf of cornbread flat for the coals, Pa says he wants no other seasoning than her hand print :) And in return, she calls the comfort of the bed and rocking chair he makes her, 'almost sinful.' Getting squares of glass for their windows is cause for a family celebration, and the girls' joy knows no bounds when they get tin cups, candy canes, little cakes and coins for Christmas.

However, Laura continues her own private quest to match the perfection of Mary. When she feels shown-up, her natural instinct is still to lash out with a slap, but she's learned that's strictly forbidden. (See Little House in the Big Woods.) She decides to muster her willpower to compete instead, but it's a losing battle, because Mary has set the bar so high. For all her good intentions, poor Laura crashes and burns at times, such as the moment she yearns for Pa to bring her a little, black-eyed papoose.

But chinks in Mary's exemplary exterior show through in this book, proving that she's only human like the rest of us. A great example is her tendency to freeze up and become helpless whenever she's scared. Poor Mary.

77767 Heroes show up in the unlikeliest, most remote spots, including men who saved their lives outright. There's Dr Tan, the negro doctor who cured them from malaria, and Soldat du Chene, the tall, French-speaking Indian from the Osage tribe who talked thousands of others out of murdering the settlers. Pa himself always rises to the occasion, such as dragging unconscious Mr Scott from the bottom of the partially completed well. (Perhaps sinking to the occasion is more accurate in that example.) And one of my favourite heroes is Mr Edwards, the bachelor and legend who cared so much about making Christmas special for two little girls that he risked his life to swim across a raging creek to bring them presents from Santa.

But although it's another beautiful family tale, modern readers can't ignore the elephant in the room. The Ingalls family was involved in something pretty dodgy. The government had promised to clear the Indians out of their ancestral land to open it up for settlers, and Pa put up his hand to say, 'Yes please!' Arguably what he should have said was, 'No thanks, being part of something so unethical would hang heavily on my conscience for the rest of my life.'

He does come across as respectful of their culture and optimistic that they could all get along. He probably reasoned that they were all human, but that's like goldfish setting their aquarium among sharks because they're all fish, or canaries nesting among eagles because they're all birds. To imagine that two distinct communities with alien values and poles-apart cognitive habits can suddenly live side by side is a recipe for disaster. Even though Pa is careful to treat them courteously, there's always a sense that he's just waiting to be rid of them. 'Indians are always moved on,' he says. Or, 'They should have the sense to know when they're licked.'

I wonder if he ever considered how he'd feel if the Indians were given a mandate to lob in the middle of the Big Woods of Wisconsin and start pushing his extended family back. But failure to consider somebody else's former claim was characteristic of many nineteenth century settlers.

The voice of westernisation may be best expressed by their neighbour Mrs Scott. 'They won't do anything with the country themselves but roam around in it. It belongs to folks that'll farm it. That's only common sense and justice.' Even her assumption that farming is better for land over time than leaving it in its lush natural state is pure colonialism. It's easy to see why the Native Americans were incensed by this form of 'justice.'

So there's an ominous thread running through the whole story, all because the white settlers didn't 'Do unto others', although it never occurred to them that they should. The Ingalls' are living in the land of their fondest dreams, but have to put up with an Indian path running close by their house. Poor Jack the bulldog has to be permanently chained to the house, and Ma must get used to interlopers casually wandering into her home to steal whatever they please. Keeping important supplies in a padlocked cupboard is just a band-aid solution for the deeper, more sinister problem. There's always a sense that the uneasy truce won't last forever.

How frightening it was when the Indians' antagonism reached boiling point. The vulnerable Ingalls family sat in their tiny house surrounded by savage war cries, knowing full well how defenseless they'd be against a crowd of warriors bent on massacre. Six-year-old Laura remembered it like this. 'A nightmare is not so terrible as that night was. A nightmare is only a dream, and when it is worst you wake up. But this was real and Laura could not wake up.' She, Mary and Carrie would have been the most innocent victims had the worst occurred, as they were brought unwittingly to live there by the parents they trusted.

My heart ached for the terrible blow inflicted on Pa and Ma, when they were compelled to leave their nice little home with its freshly planted garden behind. For a man whose mottoes included, 'Better to be safe than sorry,' perhaps moving there in the first place wasn't one of Pa's finest ideas. But I'm sure they were well aware how lucky they were to have escaped with their lives. And their natural optimism is still shown to be firmly intact at the end.

Ma: A whole year gone, Charles.
Pa: What's a year amount to? We have all the time there is.

Next up will be Farmer Boy.