School goes better with read-aloud books. We get our other subjects done, too, but the read-aloud books are the heart of our learning. Sometimes the books are assigned from our history unit study, and other times I pick books somewhat randomly from the library. The book we finished today was one I’d never read before, but it was in the Newbery Award section of the library, so I gave it a try.
The book is Incident at Hawk’s Hill by Allan W. Eckert, 1971. I’m not going to pull a quote because it’s all so intimately intertwined. In fact, if I had to describe this book in one word, it would be “close.” This is a psychological thriller for children. The reader becomes psychologically close to a female badger in the prairies of Canada, and the reader also becomes psychologically close to a small six-year-old boy who gets along with animals better than humans. There are parts where the closeness is almost too much. When a character is stuttering with emotion, it’s pretty difficult to keep myself from crying as well. And when the contents of the badger’s lunch is described in great detail, it’s gross. Yet, I’m not complaining. It’s a unique book with great characters, and even the villain isn’t two-dimensional. Plus, it has lots of great nature lore, and it could be read for science class. I know much more about badgers now than I did before.
Hmm. I wonder which book we should read now?
The human face does not always reflect the beauty that may repose in the soul.
— from Shannon by Frank Delaney (2009)
Also, the weakness of the title character in this book–Robert Shannon–does not reflect the quiet strength that runs through this story. Robert Shannon was a young priest, a chaplain in the US Marines during WWI, and he came home damaged, a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. As a questionably-unwise part of his treatment he is sent alone to Ireland, his homeland, to search out his ancestors. His journey takes him up and down the banks of the swiftly-flowing Shannon River.
I love the slow way the book moves forward, accelerating as Robert himself heals. There are scary war scenes I don’t appreciate much (especially right before bedtime), and the politics of the Catholic Church isn’t something I care much for, but the characters themselves are fabulously complex and richly drawn.
This is my second Delaney book, and while I don’t think I can read two in a row (they are a slow sort of book that need time to settle), I’m definitely open to reading more someday.
On a Christmassy note, doesn’t the above quote work well for baby Jesus? Lots of beauty there even though He probably looked like an ordinary wrinkly-red baby. The quote also makes me think of Mary treasuring up these things in her heart. Are the things I treasure up beautiful? Do I keep lovely things stored up inside? I should work on that more!
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.