Sing Down the Moon

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.

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The Bradshaw Variations

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.

Ireland

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.

Different

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.

Evening on Calais Beach

IT is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder–everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouch’d by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

–by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

I’ve been missing the gentleness of life lately. When is the last time I had a really gentle thought? When have the conversations in our house been quiet and peaceful, completely lacking in sarcasm or discontent? Why don’t I have these moments of calm, holy times quiet as a Nun, when the gentleness of heaven broods o’er the sea? We went to a small beach today, just to do something different. The girls enjoyed playing in the sand, but I was uptight because one of them waded too far and got water in her rain boots, and my son laid around on the merry-go-round, clearly not enjoying himself.

If the second part of the poem is correct (and I don’t think the theology is quite right), then my lack of feeling gentle does not mean God’s gentleness is far from me. It seems as if I constantly have to be reminded that God doesn’t leave me alone. He’s there, even when I don’t think He is. Well, then. I go through these ungentle stages of life. But the higher reality is always there, always gentle, always brooding o’er my present time.

From the Wiseblood Books Weblog

It is Wiseblood Books’ fourth anniversary. This small Christian press published my book of short stories, A Flower in the Heart of the Painting. The editor, Joshua Hren, wrote a nice article on Wiseblood Books Weblog. Here is an interesting bit:

And yet Flannery O’Connor, in spite of her crutches, gave us legs to stand on. She gave us, in spite of her bad eyesight, a vision. She raised some crucial problems: in literary works written in a world that lives as though God is dead, do we need to shout so that the deaf can hear, draw large and startling figures so that the blind can see? Does not grace feel like violence, sometimes, and is not fiction particularly capable of dramatizing the awful conversions that can come of such disruption? Certain things have changed a great deal since O’Connor’s time. And yet things have largely stayed the same. When we try to say “God” in contemporary fiction, should we fake a sneeze at the same time? Lest it actually sound as though we were narrating some of the eternal questions of religion—of the nature of grace acting upon human life, of the problem of suffering, of the sacramental dimensions of nature, of conversion—even here in the Year of Our Lord 2017.

I really don’t like Flannery O’Connor’s writing much, but I don’t like to admit it because she is Christian and writer at the same time. Plus famous! And not sappy romantic. I like what Dr. Hren has to say about her work… do her figures have to be startling so the people in this world, with their eyes covered up to all mention of Christianity, are forced to see Christian truth? Maybe so. Sadly so. And I hope it’s not always so. I hope mainstream fiction can embrace thoughtful Christian truth in a more subtle way without being pushed aside as “too preachy” or “old-fashioned.” Until then, there’s Wiseblood Books. Perhaps it’s not mainstream, but it is an outlet for Christian literature.

This weblog article makes it sound as if Wiseblood Books publishes all Catholic literature. I just wanted to add that my book adopts my Protestant worldview, as does the book of short stories by Robert Vander Lugt, also published by Wiseblood.

When I Was Young In The Mountains

When I was young in the mountains, we sat on the porch swing in the evenings, and Grandfather sharpened my pencils with his pocketknife. Grandmother sometimes shelled beans and sometimes braided my hair. The dogs lay around us, and the stars sparkled in the sky.

— from When I Was Young In The Mountains by Cynthia Rylant, illus. by Diane Goode (1982)

This beautiful picture book is very calming with its rhythmical repetition, its mellow pictures, and its description of a simple, old-fashioned mountain life. The theme of contentment builds through the pages, and I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book about contentment before.* It’s refreshing and thought-provoking at the same time.

My youngest daughter and I read this book as part of our Five In A Row curriculum this week. We made a graph, counting different things in the illustrations. We talked about contentment, but my little talk seemed completely insignificant. The book speaks for itself. We looked at pictures of the Appalachian Mountains, and that was lovely. Did you know there are Green Mountains and White Mountains? We ran across a picture of a Mohican longhouse, and that was interesting. We also talked about food and good nutrition, making a placemat to remind my snacky daughter that vegetables and fruit are important, too. My daughter enjoyed the picture of Mr. and Mrs. Crawford, who looked alike. She’d cover up the bun in Mrs. Crawford’s hair and say, “Now she’s Mr. Crawford.” Such lovely, happy people in this book.

*I’ve  just now thought of another book about contentment: The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. But that was a bull. It’s easier for a bull to be content than a person.