Here’s my new favorite Thanksgiving book: The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower or John Howland’s Good Fortune by P.J. Lynch (2015). It’s a picture book with big, detailed, dramatic illustrations. It’s a history book with lots of great info about the Pilgrims, their voyage, their landing, and their community in the new land. It’s a story about one passenger of the Mayflower: young John Howland, indentured servant to John Carver. And yes, he did fall overboard. It gives perspective to the varying attitudes of those on the Mayflower – those committed to making a new place to live in the new land, and those there only because their work brought them there – and how those attitudes can change (or strengthen) under dire circumstances. My children also enjoyed this book; I caught them studying it later on their own.
Here’s an excerpt from near the beginning of the voyage:
“You’re the boy that runs the messages, ain’t you?”
“Yes, sir, I am…. John Howland’s my name….”
“Never mind that! Just get below and tell your boss that Bob Coppin – that’s me, the first mate – orders that the passengers are to keep down ‘tween decks now we’re under way. We’ll let you know when you can come up for air. And keep it quiet with all that praying!” With that, he stomped off, laughing.
“I’ll be pleased to take your message, Master Coppin,” I called after him. “You will find, sir, that we are a civil people, and we hope to give no offense to God or man. We hope only for a measure of civility in return!”
The first mate stopped laughing. He turned around and looked long and hard at me. Then he gave me a nod and said, “Right you are… Master Howland.”
The following excerpt is from a prose poem by Robert Bly entitled “Fall” (1962). It reminds me of the farm I grew up on, which is vastly different from the farm I now live on (even though I’m only a quarter-mile northwest). The seasons always seemed a little more pronounced on my dad’s farm. Here a woods to the west of the house blocks parts of the world.
The dusk has come, a glow in the west, as if seen through the isinglass on old coal stoves, and the cows stand around the barn door; now the farmer looks up at the paling sky reminding him of death, and in the fields the bones of the corn rustle faintly in the last wind, and the half moon stands in the south.
Now the lights from barn windows can be seen through bare trees.
The rhythms of this narrative poem soothe me. I love reading this poem out loud. The imagery here is also beautiful, and if not soothing, then exquisite. Enjoy. Read it out loud. Or whisper it.
Can it be the sun descending
O’er the level plain of water?
Or the Red Swan floating, flying,
Wounded by the magic arrow,
Staining all the waves with crimson,
With the crimson of its life-blood,
Filling all the air with splendor,
With the splendor of its plumage?
Yes; it is the sun descending,
Sinking down into the water;
All the sky is stained with purple,
All the water flushed with crimson!
No; it is the Red Swan floating,
Diving down beneath the water;
To the sky its wings are lifted,
With its blood the waves are reddened!
Over it the Star of Evening
Melts and trembles through the purple,
Hangs suspended in the twilight.
No; it is a bead of wampum
On the robes of the Great Spirit
As he passes through the twilight,
Walks in silence through the heavens.
— from The Song of Hiawatha by Henry W. Longfellow, 1855
That night we ate another cold supper, yet everyone was in good spirits. The white soldiers had searched the canyon and found no trace of us. We felt secure. We felt that in the morning they would ride away, leaving us in peace.
— from Sing Down the Moon by Scott O’Dell, 1970
My kids loved this story about a Navajo girl who was first captured by Spaniard slavers, escaped, and then had to leave her home with the rest of her people to go on the Long Walk to Fort Sumner, pushed there by the white soldiers.
The story of Native America is a tough one to tell, and I’m glad for books like this. I recently overheard a conversation complaining about the fishing and hunting rights modern-day Native Americans are given. The conversation went on to say that the Natives were in a war and had lost, so why should there be special privileges for them. I think at one time even I have thought this way.
But I am not so sure this war between the Natives and the white people was a win-or-lose war. I think it consisted of many promises and compromises and treaties broken by both sides. It was a war of greed and anger and pride, not really justice. The war itself was ugly. The people, all of them, white and red, are made in the image of God, and they contain beauty. So how, when I read a story of specific people, can I say they are bad or good? A job of fiction is to go beyond the facts of the stories and show us the people. Go beyond the bad to find the good. And that is what this book does.
I’ve been reading books by Rachel Cusk this summer. I’ve read four of them now, and The Bradshaw Variations (2009) has been the one I can actually say I liked. I enjoyed the other ones (Transit, Outline, and In the Country) and found them interesting, but I really like The Bradshaw Variations. So many characters to get to know! It’s about an extended family, and this family has its dysfunctionalities like all families do (if we’re honest about them). As I read this book, I found myself recognizing certain aspects of human nature… the things you don’t put into words or even thoughts until you see it spelled out in front of you. I love it when that happens!
It was hard for me to choose a quote because all the paragraphs seem so intertwined and connected to all the others, but here’s an example so you can get a taste of her writing style:
Often, on Sundays, Thomas and Tonie find themselves on their way to Laurier Drive, for in spite of the topiary and the Union Jacks drooping on their polished flagpoles, Howard and Claudia’s domain has the magnetism of cultural centrality. Usually, in the car, Tonie complains: she would like their own house to draw and pull the world to itself, or so she thinks. But she is often uneasy and out of sorts when they have visitors. It is this, Thomas supposes, that she is complaining about. She would like to be different, while not understanding precisely what the difference is.
I’m not the only one who wants but doesn’t want visitors in my house! And I also am vaguely aware of complaining about real things outside of myself, when really I know the problem is my own uncomfortable way of dealing with that thing. For example, because my husband is almost always working, people don’t invite us over for dinner. I never really figured out why it’s improper to invite the kids and I without my husband, but apparently it is. Even at potlucks, I sometimes get the suspicion that people wonder how I have the nerve to come without my husband. But anyway, I can feel mildly offended by this, and at the same time relieved. Because it means I don’t have to go to other people’s houses for dinner and try to uphold small talk around the table while attempting to eat the weird food that other people serve.
Thank you, Rachel Cusk, for giving me these moments of self-clarification.
A story has only one master – its narrator; he decides what he wants his story to do. I know, I have always known, what I want my stories to achieve – I want to make people believe. Believe what I tell. Believe in it. Believe me. Belief is the one effect I’m always looking for… I must believe ancient Ireland as I describe it. The swords really did ring loudly off the shields. And the armor surely gleamed in the sun.
— from Ireland by Frank Delaney, 2005
I enjoyed this long, meandering novel more for the storytelling aspect than for the Irish history. As one boy grows up and follows (or tries to follow) the career of the last traveling storyteller in Ireland, the stories he comes across, either from the storyteller himself or from the other people he comes in contact with, unravel the history of a country. A secret concerning the boy and the storyteller also builds until it is finally revealed at the end.
My favorite story in the book is about two monks who create the beginnings of a great illuminated gospel as part of a contest to see which monk should be the next Abbott. The two monks are so very kind and generous, and also very creative and good at their work. The voting of the best illuminated page at the end of the story turns out a tie because everyone voted twice. So the monks rule the abbey together.
This was a good find at the library. There are more by this author, so I might read another one someday when I’m in the mood for a long, rambling story.
I just finished reading a new book written by Sally Clarkson and her son Nathan (c. 2016). It is called Different and tells a non-chronological story of Nathan’s life and how Sally loved him. Nathan was different from his siblings and most of the other people he knew. In his teens he was diagnosed as OCD, ADHD and ODD.
I like the hope and realism and raw truth in this book. They had strong faith in God, but it wasn’t their faith that pulled them through difficulties. They homeschooled, but this isn’t really a homeschool success story. They talked to each other and were honest to each other, but even that didn’t solve problems. This book is about the way they lived. It isn’t really about what they did or how anything was fixed. It’s simply a story of God working in a life, a difficult life. We can all live, right? That’s the hope. Keep living, keep looking to see what God will do next.
Here’s a quote I like from a section where Sally is speaking, “I also realized that each of my children, especially Nathan, needed to feel that the foundation of our relationship was unconditional love and respect for his or her essential self. Home was my primary tool for conveying that truth to them. For Nathan, I wanted it to be a place where he could breathe out the pressure to perform, to conform, to always be ‘good’ when what was defined as good was almost impossible for him, as God made him, to conform to” (141).
Isn’t that what God does for us? He makes us a haven where we can just breathe and be the person He made us. The world has this idea of how I should act, but God knows me best. He has this unconditional love for me that I can just fall back on. The falling back part is difficult, I know. It’s difficult to become different from the world, even from family members who know me well, but being different from the way I am made is even more difficult, almost impossible.