Monday, June 18, 2018

'The Long Winter' 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 June, which is winter for me in Australia, so I didn't mind rugging up warm to read this book.

*    *    *

The town of De Smet is hit with terrible, howling blizzards and Laura and her family must ration their food and coal. When the supply train doesn't arrive, Almanzo Wilder and his brother realize something must be done. 


MY THOUGHTS:
The title speaks volumes. At the start, Pa Ingalls thinks he's prepared for once in his life. He's had a history of being knocked down by sudden disasters such as prairie fires, grasshopper plagues and Indian rampages. This time he's decided to heed four warning signs that the coming winter will hit hard.

1) Muskrats are building the walls of their homes super thick.
2) Birds are flying south as fast as they can.
3) A couple of freak early blizzards have struck in October.
4) An elderly Indian man warns several fellows that a 'heap big snow' is in store for them.

Together, the four signs convince Pa to move his family from the new claim back to town, to weather the cold season. Living in a tight community with shops and a railway handy will guarantee a steady supply of provisions, right? Nope, not so simple, because the sheer magnitude of that harsh winter takes almost all the new settlers in town off guard. It turns out Pa's almost knocked out again, and Ma and the girls with him, as usual.

The blizzards are like vicious adversaries. They strike suddenly, last for days, obliterate everything in sight, and plunge temperatures far below zero degrees. They also occur back-to-back so often, there's barely time to draw a breath between them. Shops run out of groceries because trains can't make it through. No sooner is snow cleared from the tracks than there's a mountain of more. Several months straight of this push the Ingalls' and several others to the brink of starvation.

You can't help cheering them on when they improvise their own alternative sources of heat and light. There's no more coal, so Pa invents a method of twisting hay to use for fuel. The kerosene is through, so Ma makes a button lamp with the help of some axle grease and a strip of calico. Three cheers for team Ingalls, but unfortunately the blizzards have the upper hand when it comes to food, which is far harder to improvise.

Not everyone in town is equally disadvantaged. The Wilder brothers are confident their supplies will see them through, and hot pancakes with molasses and bacon become their staple. Sure, it might be a bit monotonous, but I can imagine my own boys being happy with delicious pancake stacks day after day, so I'm sure those two didn't mind at all. Almanzo even hides a stash of wheat which he intends to use for seed in the spring. But as winter wears on, he can't help sensing that some people won't make it unless someone does something drastic. There are rumours of a settler with an abundant wheat crop living miles out of town, so some daredevil will have to dash out between blizzards to find him and attempt to purchase some. Only then will it become life-saving wheat. Who better to take the risk than two fit young men like Almanzo and his friend, Cap Garland?

It's quite intriguing to see snippets of townsfolk who really lived. There's Mr Foster, who seems to bungle everything he touches, and the opportunist Mr Loftus, who intends to rip off starving people for all he can get. Then there's Mr Anderson, the settler who grew all that wheat. I hope he enjoyed his own company. And surely there were several people who weren't even mentioned. Cap Garland's family included his sister Florence, the school teacher, but did they have a mother? Did Mrs Garland attempt to stop Cap setting off on a rescue mission which might have cost him his life? Women like Ma wouldn't let their husbands go, so surely it'd hurt even more to let your teenage schoolboy son take the risk? I'm curious about this boy with the smile like the sun coming up at dawn, that changed everything. (Those are Laura's own words, which make it easy to wonder if she ever had a crush on him.)

The horses deserve a mention as some of the best characters too. Laura was good at writing animals, and they stand out with personalities of their own. First was Almanzo's fancy matched team. Prince went on the dangerous mission with him and Lady ran off with an antelope herd for a short time. She was adorable when she caught sight of Prince and Almanzo in the distance, and raced back to them. Then there was the Ingalls' horse, good old David, who Pa called more sensible than he believed a horse could possibly be. They all just happened to be caught in that terrible deadly winter, but did the best they could, and their humans would surely be nowhere without them. They deserve the mention as brave, unsung heroes. Of course there was also Sam the panicker, but hey, I can't blame him for freaking out. It takes all sorts.

There are always some cool lines in these stories, often from Pa, who is one of the best at one-liners. 'I beat the blizzard to the stable by the width of a gnat's eyebrow,' he says. And when Laura suggests he quit sugar to bring out the full flavor of his tea, he replies, 'A good, hot cup of tea brings out the flavor of the sugar, Half-Pint.' It made me laugh when he told Grace his nose was frozen, and Ma said, 'Stop worrying about your looks, Charles.'

The books in this series are all excellent, but this one has a sense of urgency and desperation all of its own. The stakes are so high, it reads like page-turning fiction, but all that happened was true. How amazing for 21st century readers like us to reflect that these people with no electricity in their homes sat through what was essentially a 7-month black-out in sub-freezing temperatures. Although there wasn't much natural light in the story, it throws heaps of light on the way some people were forced to live, and I love it. It's well worth a read, and as winter has set in here where I live, it was a good atmosphere to enjoy it.

Next up will be Little Town on the Prairie.

🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Guys with crazy, genetic diseases involving time



Time is perhaps the most fascinating and relentless force of all. It steadily changes each of us and eventually removes us from this earth's picture entirely. Nobody can speed it up or slow it down. The most we can do is create the illusion that we can, with expensive products, good food and strict exercise regimes. But we always succumb eventually, as it ticks steadily away, eroding us into faded, frail images of our former selves. Maybe that's why speculative stories about guys like these intrigue us, because they encourage us to ask, 'What if time behaved differently for us? What would be the ramifications of that?' It's interesting and fun that several authors have grappled with the same questions, and what they inflict on their poor heroes could be regarded as various medical conditions, enabling us to ponder some possible answers. Here goes. 

Tom Hazard (from How to Stop Time)
How to Stop TimeHe has a condition that causes him to age incredibly slowly, at the rate of one year for every 15. He's seen a lot of history in his life, meeting celebrities such as Shakespeare, Captain Cook and F. Scott Fitzgerald. This gives him plenty of insight for his current job as a High School History teacher, but Tom finds it hard to deal with the downside, which is outliving everyone he grows to care about. (My review is here.)

Benjamin Button (from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
I love the concept of poor Benjamin's tale. His life trajectory is the opposite to other people's. He's born as a haggard, grey-haired man and ages backward until his death from old age, as a new born baby. The image of how he and the love of his life face their final moments together is haunting; an elderly woman holding a helpless infant.

Henry de Tamble (from The Time Traveler's Wife)
The Time Traveler's WifeHis condition once saved his life as a 5-year-old, but he senses it will also be the death of him. Henry zips back and forth to different stages of his own future and past, with the inability to control when it will happen. His genetic clock randomly resets itself, often at extremely awkward moments. He always vanishes without a trace, leaving a pile of clothes behind on the floor, to appear entirely naked in another time frame. But he has the consolation of some interesting conversations with himself at different ages. To a certain extent, this gives him comforting insight into what lies ahead for him, but how terrifying for Henry when his future self no longer visits. (My review is here.)


Dorian Gray (from The Picture of Dorian Gray)
The Picture of Dorian GrayYou could say that his time condition didn't develop until his late teens or early twenties. This young man longed to trade places with his own portrait, because it would be so wonderful to stay gorgeous and young. Suddenly that's just what happens. The canvas bears the brunt of his hard living and bad choices, so Dorian hides it away in his attic. Meanwhile, everyone wonders how he manages to stay so ravishingly attractive. It's bound to catch up with him some time though, because that's the nature of time, and we know it'll hit hard when it does. (Here is my review.)

Tuck EverlastingJesse Tuck (from Tuck Everlasting) 
This teenager and his whole family could be said to have caught their time condition from contaminated water. There was evidently some sort of supernatural bug in the stream they drank from, which preserved them from the ravages of aging from then on. Further more, it fortified each of them so they were impossible to kill. So when Jesse visits the grave of his childhood sweetheart Winnie long after she's grown old and passed away, he's still the same handsome young man he was in the 1920's. Only his fashion sense has changed. His is perhaps the most tragic tale of all. For who would really want that sort of indestructible immortality?

What a wild ride it would be to get hold of all these stories and read them back to back. If you're like me, they might help make you content with your rapidly aging self. Perhaps ours is the best case scenario after all, because these guys' lives were fraught with too much difficulty and heartache by far. Would you trade places with any one of them? Perhaps I'll finish off with the legendary guy who represents what each of us have to put up with.

Father Time
Image result for father timeHe's not actually a mortal, but a personified picture of the passage of time in our lives. He's elderly and bearded because he's been around literally forever. His scythe and hour glass represent the one-way movement we all have to cope with. The young will grow old, but the old can't rejuvenate themselves and start over again. Presenting him in a human form like the rest of us is possibly apt, because it could be argued we all have a genetic condition regarding time, just like the guys on the list, which starts ticking away the moment we're born. We all know it's chronic and will turn out to be terminal, but compared to them, we wouldn't have it any other way.


You might enjoy my related list of Evergreen Children, those storybook kids who never grow up. It turns out there's a lot they can teach us.

There's also this reflection on the passage of time, featuring a wise and happy bunch named The Graveyard School.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The bad boys of David Copperfield

I've devoted this ramble to three villains of one particular book. While I was working on my review of David Copperfield, I realised that what I had to say about these guys would be enough to fill a blog post of its own. There was no way trying to squeeze them into the main review would do them justice. It makes sense that there's a trio of baddies, since the story is about one young man, and every person probably bumps into at least three antagonists during the course of his life. And since they each had their own unique agenda, I thought I'd set myself the challenge of ranking them from best to worst. Whether or not you agree with my order, here it is. 

James Steerforth
Oh, Steerforth, you were the total package. To know and love you was one and the same. We get lines like this. 'He went into Mr Barkis' room as if he were light and air, brightening and refreshing it as if he were healthy weather.' Steerforth, you had that effect everywhere, so why mess up your life with a horrible deed? I think we can work out a possible reason. He was the spoiled only child of a single mother who made it her sole purpose to smooth paths for her boy. She reminds me of that well-meaning person in the proverb, who carefully removes the cocoon to assist the emerging butterfly, stunting him in the process. Mrs Steerforth removed all need for ambition from James' life. He got preferential treatment wherever he went, for doing nothing.

We all benefit from the occasional struggle. A bit of resistance to stretch their wings against is good for young men's characters, but Steerforth grew up with none. Even his schoolmasters were given the rule to never rub him the wrong way. I believe seducing an engaged woman from a lower class was possibly the biggest challenge of his life. So if life keeps pouring you lemonade, you've got to look for your own lemons, just to break up the monotony. Perhaps being doted on actually brought out the badness in him. I actually felt sorry for him, especially when he was crying for help without knowing it. It happens every time he envies David's fresh naivety, and when he remarks, 'It would have been well for me to have a steadfast and judicious father.'

Steerforth appears far more gifted, worldly, admirable and superior to David on the surface, but a glimpse into their psyches shows that it's far better to be David, who was so easy to make happy, and full of gratitude to others. Steerforth says, 'I am heavy company for myself sometimes.' The dude who impresses and pleases everyone has no illusions about himself.

In our last glimpse of Steerforth, he pleads with David to remember him at his best. That comes easiest for me with this particular bad boy, who I consider as much victim as villain, although his harm was all so lovingly intended.

On to our second contender for worst villain in David Copperfield.

Uriah Heep    
Whoa, what a guy. Long before the extent of his sneaky, illegal machinations comes to light, we find Dickens using physical descriptions to set him up as an oily little creep. It was the mid-nineteenth century, and Uriah Heep comes across as snakier than Voldemort and froggier than Gollum, long before either of them were created. You can almost feel his clammy handshake. We can't hold all that against him, of course, but young Uriah turns out to be the king of all hypocrites. He's learned to put on a groveling, fawning, self-deprecating manner to people he resents, while the whole time he's plotting their downfall.

You can't help understanding his motivation when you consider his background. Uriah describes the shoddy treatment his family received from others just for being destitute. But his downfall is targeting people who never did him any personal harm, or wished ill for him at all. It's just because of their social positions and who they are. So if you compare him to Voldemort, his attitude was a bit like that of young Tom Riddle. Uriah was doing what many trouble-makers have done before and since; that is choosing to hate individuals not for who they are, but for what they represent in his own mind. Maybe he should've stepped back to consider, it was exactly what he was blaming them for doing with him.

If you know of the rock band 'Uriah Heep', it's cool to discover the inspiration for their name. Maybe not everyone knows this little bit of trivia. And I'm sure if he ever found out, our Uriah would say he feels honoured that they named themselves after him, since he's much too 'umble.

Now, the dubious drum roll for the worst character in David Copperfield.

Edward Murdstone

He didn't commit the classic crimes of the first two contenders, but in my books he's far nastier than the pair of them combined. At least they were aware of their own wrong-doing, but he has that lethal sort of piety that convinces him his cruelty is justified. He truly believes that bullying a young woman who adores him, and crushing the spirit of a little child is for their own good. The Murdstones of the world never seem to wake up to themselves. Even when Miss Betsey confronts him with his own depravity, it doesn't sink in. Years later, he's still justifying his actions and breaking the hearts of other innocent girls.

Perhaps many of the evil tyrants in history books and legend share Murdstone's qualities. It's his self-deluded zeal and hatred that makes him a dangerous man. He's never stopped from his destructive course, a chilling piece of realism I can't help taking to heart. While the Steerforths and Heeps of the world self-destruct, get caught or run out of steam, the Murdstones are still out there, twisting people's pliant natures, killing others by slow degrees, and doing untold harm while they believe they're doing good. Dickens could have written some just desserts for Murdstone, yet he didn't. I take that as a sober warning to be ever vigilant and on the lookout for his type.

So there you have them. Not only are they vastly dissimilar to each other, but they each present themselves to our hero David in a different guise. One comes across as a dear friend, one as a horrific bully and the third an enigma he finds hard to figure out for a very long time. If you've read David Copperfield, do you agree with the way I ranked this trio? Or have you any extra thoughts to add? After so long spent reading this book, I'm always up for a good discussion.