I had to crack every word one by one

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings
by Sue Monk Kidd

It is a while since I have been so thoroughly engrossed by a book, to the point where no matter where I was, day or night, I wanted nothing more than to be reading this book. Which of course means that it was over far too soon. So this definitely comes under the category of A Good Read.

It’s the fictionalised story of real-life anti-slavery campaigner Sarah Grimké, who was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, in a slave-owning family. But it’s also the story of the (almost entirely fictional) slave girl Hetty who was given to Sarah as a birthday present when she turned 11. The two girls take turns at telling the story, painting two lives closely linked and yet starkly different.

“The skies were bright cerulean, teeming with ferocious winds, spilling mallards and wood drakes from the clouds. Up and down the lanes, the fences were bright with yellow jasmine, its musk a sweet, choking smoke. I rode with the same drunk sensuality with which I had reclined in the copper tub, riding till the light smeared, returning with the falling dark.”

Sarah is the middle daughter (there are also several brothers – her mother is…prolific) and while considered a little plain and too intelligent for her own good, it is her wilfulness and ambition that get her in trouble. As a child she dreams of becoming the first female lawyer and devours the books that her father (a powerful legislator) secretly allows her until he realises that she is taking her dream seriously. When he shoots down that dream, it takes her many years to find another way to do something about the issue nearest to her heart – abolition of slavery.

Hetty, or Handful as she is known among the slaves, might have been happy with her lot – the cruelties of Mrs Grimké, or Missus, notwithstanding – were it not for her mother Charlotte who harbours such hatred of her lot that she devises small revenges against her owners and plots their eventual escape. Handful is practical and in many ways protected by Sarah, but between Charlotte’s unhappiness and Sarah’s abolitionist leanings, she catches the bug – the yearning for freedom.

“The man’s writing looked like scribble. I had to crack every word one by one and pick out the sound the way we cracked blue crabs in the fall and picked out the meat till our fingers bled. The words came lumps at a time.”

The other major character is Nina, Sarah’s youngest sister, who is in many ways a daughter to her. They are so close that it is never clear whether Nina’s small revolutions – from refusing baptism to writing anti-slavery pamphlets – are entirely her own, or the influence of Sarah. She’s an interesting character because she is more beautiful, more determined, more confident than Sarah, and yet it is Sarah’s lead that she follows.

I think it’s important that Kidd chose Sarah to narrate the story, not Nina, because Sarah is undoubtedly more troubled. She suffers from a stammer and, after the dream to become a lawyer is snatched away, never again feels that confidence in her abilities. She fervently feels that slavery is wrong (in fact, the day that she is given Handful she tries to grant her freedom, but of course that isn’t allowed) and more than that, she feels that women and coloured people are equal to white men in the eyes of God, but for much of her life she feels helpless to do anything about those beliefs.

“They say in extreme moments time will slow, returning to its unmoving core, and standing there, it seemed as if everything stopped. Within the stillness, I felt the old, irrepressible ache to know what my point in the world might be. I felt the longing more solemnly than anything I’d ever felt.”

What I thought was wonderful about this book was that it isn’t an anti-slavery treatise (after all, I think we all know these days that slavery is bad, we don’t need persuading), it’s a warm engaging story full of characters painted in all sorts of shades of grey. And there’s action and adventure too, from the terrible punishments meted out to slaves to a planned slave revolution. But there’s also romance, broken hearts, social faux pas and outright castigation. There are complicated relationships between people and there are terrible decisions that have to be made.

I also appreciated that the publishers have included quite a long author’s note at the end detailing Kidd’s historical research, including where she did and didn’t deviate from history in her fiction.

Clearly, I outright loved this book. I now plan to look out all Kidd’s previous works and hope that it all lives up to this high standard.

Published January 2014 by Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

It’s a queer thing, people always moving west

These Happy Golden YearsThese Happy Golden Years
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Here I am already, at the end of the Little House series. I guess that’s how you can tell they’re strictly children’s books, the way I got through seven of them so quickly! Despite a rocky start, I enjoyed the series overall and am a little sad to have reached the end.

The previous book, Little Town on the Prairie, ended with Laura being offered a three-month teaching job, aged just 15. She knew she had to accept it because she desperately wants to help with the fees to keep Mary at the college for the blind, but this teaching post is in midwinter at a town 12 miles away from her home in De Smet, so she will have to live with strangers. And she’s so young still, she doesn’t even know how to teach.

This book picks up just a few days later, with Laura being driven by Pa to her new job. I would be fascinated to know how accurately this reflects the author’s real-life experience because this first job is not a happy one. Laura must teach children who are her own age or older and who don’t recognise her authority. But even worse than that, she must stay with a couple who argue constantly, the wife of whom makes it clear she resents having Laura there. It is an intensely uncomfortable situation.

The light in the darkness is that every Friday afternoon, Almanzo Wilder turns up with his sleigh to take her home to her family for the weekend. No-one has asked him to do this, and Laura is so grateful to be able to see her family, albeit briefly, that for the first few weekends she doesn’t question it, though she feels awkward not knowing what to talk about for the long journey each way. Eventually, she figures out that Almanzo likes her like that and has an interesting reaction.

This book really is all about watching Laura grow up, from 15 to 18, from that first teaching post to accepting any job she is offered to help Mary out, from being nervous of Almanzo’s interest in her to requiting it. After those first few months, there isn’t much that’s negative, but I still found this book deeply touching. I was caught up emotionally in Laura’s story and related to her in many ways, as she worries about being quieter than other girls, and therefore less interesting. But of course Almanzo likes her for her wild spirit and sense of adventure, which he shares. It seems the name “Wilder” was a bit of nominative determinism!

I really do feel like the Little House characters have become friends and I’m sure I will come back to them in the future. It’s also made me want to go back to the series that I loved when I was young – Anne of Green Gables. But maybe I should make a dent in the TBR before I embark on that!

“‘It’s a queer thing,’ said Pa. ‘People always moving west. Out here it is like the edge of a wave, when a river’s rising. They come and they go, back and forth, but all the time the bulk of them keep moving on west.'”

Published 1943 by Harper & Brothers.

Source: Google Books

The silence was as terrible as cold is

The Long Winter

The Long Winter
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Appropriately, I read the majority of this book on a cold, windy November day, feeling increasingly grateful for central heating and a cupboard well stocked with teabags. Before I carry on, this is book 6 in the Little House series, so this may contain spoilers for the previous titles.

No sooner have the Ingalls family installed themselves in their claim shanty (their littlest house yet) on their brand new Dakota farm that they hope will be their last home, than what should come along but a prediction (and early signs of) a seven-month extra-harsh winter. The shanty is far from weather-proof and they haven’t been able to grow themselves a winter store of supplies yet, so there’s nothing for it but to move into the nearby new town (De Smet) where Pa owns a store building they can live in. The store building is weather-proof and just over the road from shops that can sell them supplies as they need them. And there’s a school in town, so Laura and not-so-little-anymore sister Carrie can go to school and make new friends.

The bulk of the story to this book is: really bad winter, poor family barely scrapes through. But it’s actually pretty gripping. Wilder tells us how monotonous it got eating nothing but potatoes and brown bread and desperately trying to eke out the kerosene by using the lamplight as little as possible, but she doesn’t repeat these details more often than needed.

One way that she manages to bulk out the narrative is by adding in the Wilder brothers as new characters. Obviously we all know that Almanzo Wilder is going to wind up marrying Laura Ingalls – it’s right there in her name on the cover of the book, after all! But I still found it odd that after four books written from the perspective of Laura, we now have scenes following Almanzo’s story, scenes Laura isn’t in at all. The thing is, the narrative is third person, not first, but it’s most definitely not omniscient. We only ever, before this book at least, experience events as Laura experienced them. So, for instance, when Pa meets an Indian when he’s out hunting the panther in Little House on the Prairie, we only hear that story as Pa recounts it to the family when he gets home. But now we get scenes of Almanzo and his brother Royal cooking pancakes and making plans for their own homestead, next door to the Ingalls’ new land. Perhaps if I hadn’t skipped book 2, Farmer Boy, which is about Almanzo’s childhood, this would have been less strange. I’ll probably go back to it.

Incidentally, much is made in this book of Almanzo being 19 years old, which means that he has lied to the officials to make a land claim because the rules say he’d have to be 21. But in real life Almanzo was 24 at this point. Wikipedia suggests this change was made so that the age gap between Laura and Almanzo is only 5 years, which would be more palatable to 20th-century readers than the true gap of 10 years once their romance gets going in later books. Personally I think knowing they were happily married for several decades, until Almanzo’s death, negates any question about the age gap being inappropriate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the same concern would be raised by a publisher today.

“Everything was still. No wind stirred the grey-bleached grass and no birds were on the water or in the sky. The lake faintly lapped at the rim of that stillness. Laura looked at Pa and she knew he was listening too. The silence was as terrible as cold is. It was stronger than any sound. It could stop the water’s lapping and the thin, faint ringing in Laura’s ears. The silence was no sound, no movement, no thing; that was its terror.”

Published 1940 by Harper & Brothers.

Source: Google Books.

Cold purple shadows rose in the east

By the Shores of Silver Lake

By the Shores of Silver Lake
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I may have been sold on this book by the section where Ma mourns the lack of trees on the prairie. I do love me some trees. This is book 5 in the Little House series, by the way, so this may contain spoilers if you haven’t read them.

Laura’s getting all grown up! I almost don’t want to carry on with the series now, but leave them all here, with 13-year-old Laura interested in that Wilder boy only for his beautiful horse. Wilder has apparently skipped the few years her family spent running a hotel in Iowa so that her fictional age and real-life age finally match up. This might be because she had a baby brother who died during that time, which isn’t exactly kids’ book material. Or it might be because living in an established town and running a hotel doesn’t fit the pioneer theme of the series.

Despite skipping over the baby brother, this book has a pretty depressing opening. Obviously bad stuff does happen in life and Wilder chose not to omit all of it from the books, so she threw it all into the opening chapters of this volume (or that’s how it felt reading it). The first chapter is actually a bit of a catch-up because a couple of years have passed since the end of On the Banks of Plum Creek. Carrie is no longer a baby, but now there’s new baby Grace. And they’ve all had scarlet fever, which has caused Mary to lose her sight, so Laura must be Mary’s eyes. (This is actually rather well dealt with and reminded me a lot of the Helen Keller book I read recently.)

Once again Pa has itchy feet. He wants to go out west but Ma will only agree to go where there will be a school nearby, so they head to Dakota, where a new town is planned for the following spring on the path of a railroad that’s under construction.

I enjoyed the children riding on a train for the first time, and the combination of excitement and fear that came with that. I liked the interactions with some very different people – the construction crews and fellow would-be settlers are a wilder lot than the townfolk they’ve left behind in Plum Creek.

In this book I really felt how much this series is teaching me about the history of the USA. It is so strange to be sat here in a house that’s older than the town the Ingalls family helped to create, back in 1879. Obviously this is a children’s book so it doesn’t go into the politics of the population boom in Dakota, or the question of it being a territory rather than a state, but the fact that I have gone and looked up that history says something about Wilder’s ability to drop in just enough detail to pique interest. Some details might well be coloured by hindsight – did Pa really talk about how all the buffalo are gone because white men have come and shot them all? Or is that 20th century Laura Ingalls Wilder speaking? But really I don’t mind that and it’s interesting to see what Wilder does choose to comment on.

On reflection, a lot happens in this book. It meets the same criteria as Plum Creek, in that it’s well written but also has plenty of story and isn’t hideously racist. There is actually a slightly dodgy character who’s half American Indian but he’s Pa’s friend and Laura really likes him so Ma’s distrust passes as just one character being racist, rather than Wilder herself.

“The sun sank. A ball of pulsing, liquid light, it sank in clouds of crimson and silver. Cold purple shadows rose in the east, crept slowly across the prairie, then rose in heights on heights of darkness from which the stars swung low and bright.”

Published 1939 by Harper & Brothers.

Source: Google Books.

There was only the enormous, empty prairie

Little House on the Prairie

Little House on the Prairie
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Strictly this is the third Little House book, but book 2 (Farmer Boy) is actually about Wilder’s husband’s childhood, not her own, so I thought I’d skip that one for now and follow the Ingalls family story.

This is pretty different from the first Little House book. From the first page there’s loads happening, with lots of genuinely fraught moments. The Ingalls family are travelling out west in a covered wagon because Indian land in Kansas is being opened up to settlers.

Now, this is the part I have a problem with politically, because the American Indians (the Osage tribe) are being moved on by the US government and their homeland handed out free to anyone who comes and stakes a claim. I know hindsight is a fine thing and all, but it’s not like the settlers don’t know the situation. In fact, they have – knowingly – jumped the gun and turned up before the deal is final and the American Indian have been moved on, because that way they can claim the best plot of land. But that means they have some trouble to deal with – they’re in the middle of nowhere, and the American Indian aren’t too happy with the presence of these settlers and don’t seem to speak English, so communication is fraught.

However, despite my political feelings (and they weren’t helped by the racism), this was a much more enjoyable read than Little House in the Big Woods. There’s a clear story arc, with difficulties overcome, character growth and then that crushing (though possibly redemptive) ending (I won’t spoil it for those who don’t know but you can fairly easily look it up if you’re curious). It felt better written and Wikipedia suggests that Wilder did more research for this book than the rest, because she was actually only 2–3 when she lived in Kansas, not the 6–7 depicted, but she wanted to get the details right. Which I found surprising, because the descriptions of the prairie itself were so evocative, they felt like the words of someone who really knew and loved that landscape.

“There was only the enormous, empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising. And on the whole enormous prairie there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there.”

It was also kinda fun discussing the book with Tim, who read this about 25 years ago yet remembers it surprisingly well! I’ll continue reading and reviewing the series over the next couple of weeks.

Published 1935 by Harper and Brothers.

Source: I think this was a present, but I’m not 100% sure as I didn’t write in the book at the time.

Cosy and comfortable in their little house

Little House in the Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I didn’t read the Little House books growing up, nor did I watch the Little House on the Prairie TV show, but they are referenced so often and are clearly so beloved that I thought it was about time to rectify the situation. Also, thanks to a bit of a mini lupus flare I’ve been struggling a bit with reading lately so I thought it might not hurt to try a few children’s books!

At this point I have read three of the series and I must admit it took me a while (a book and a half) to be won over but I am now engrossed and want to read the rest of the original Wilder books. I am intrigued by the decisions she made about which parts of her life to write about (albeit fictionalised) and which facts to retain, change or drop entirely. No doubt her publisher had some part in these decisions, but she was also apparently heavily influenced by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who was already a successful writer herself when she persuaded her mother to write down some of her stories of childhood.

On reflection, this first book paints the picture that appeals to me the most. But I am predisposed to like woods (I grew up in the Forest of Dean). The life of the Ingalls family (Ma Caroline, Pa Charles, big sister Mary, baby sister Carrie and Laura – aged five – plus their bulldog Jack) sounds idyllic, in a basic, rustic kind of way. They live, as the title suggests, in the middle of the woods in Wisconsin, with Laura’s grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins all within a few miles in the same woodland. They have a small garden and raise animals or hunt for their meat. They make a little money from selling animal pelts to buy the few things they need that they can’t provide for themselves.

Not a lot happens and, while it’s fun to learn how maple syrup tapping works or how Pa makes his bullets, this book wasn’t especially gripping. It must have been less idyllic than described or the family would never have left, but nothing in this book gives you a clue as to what was wrong with this life. (I suppose you might suggest the lack of schools or the opportunity to make a little more money, but neither of those is any more available in their next home.) The writing is also a little simplistic – of the three Little House books I’ve read so far this was the one that felt most clearly like a children’s book. Ingalls referring to herself in the third person, as Laura, also threw me at first, but I guess that’s just a clear marker that this is fictionalised.

“They were cosy and comfortable in their little house made of logs, with the snow drifted around it and the wind crying because it could not get in by the fire.”

Remembering how long ago these books were written, and how much longer again it is since the time in which they’re set (1868 onward), I’ve tried not to judge them on things like gender politics and racism, but as you’ll see from my mini reviews through the next couple of weeks, there are some things I just couldn’t ignore!

Published 1932 by Harper and Brothers.

Source: Project Gutenberg Canada.