Saturday, June 15, 2013

In Which I Read Short Books


If J.K. Rowling hadn't written Harry Potter, would I have read what I read these last few months? Would “young adult” literature be the purview of children? Would I be forced, through my own ignorance, to read adult fiction? Jo created a new genre: good books that appeal to children and adults. There were thousands of good chapter books before 1997, but they were for children, and the only adults who read them were teachers and librarians. But now we can have a teen book about forced mass murder (Hunger Games) or rape (Speak) or more rape (Nicholas Dane) or meth (Crank) and it's okay because the majority of people who are going to read them are grown-ups anyway. But maybe sometimes an adult, a person, a reader, doesn't want the issues and the angst and the pain. Maybe they want simple, every day problems. Maybe humor and character development are all-important. Maybe good fiction has no age. Maybe I'm reading books for second graders. With pictures. And big print. Maybe Lulu and the Duck in the Park is literature. Actually, I know it is:

Getting Class Three past the climbing wall without anyone climbing, and the candy shop without anyone darting in, and the lake without anyone getting wet, was the hardest part of Mrs. Holidy's week.
Getting them back to school again, wet-haired, starving, and weighed down by soggy swimming bags, was nearly impossible.
Mrs. Holiday didn't even try”

Lulu is great. It does lack a little something, namely words of three or more syllables. That said, I managed to read it in an hour and a half, so someone who reads at normal speed could do it in forty-five minutes.

Lulu and the Duck in the Park is the first in a series, followed up by Lulu and the Dog by the Sea, which I also have out from the library. Hilary McKay, my favorite living author, has teen books out as well and I love them dearly. Lulu is fantastic for the reading level that it is. I would gladly quickly read more of these. The titular duck lives in the park, you see, and Lulu and the rest of Class Three go past the park every Tuesday on their way to the town swimming pool (which may be heated by dead people ), and stop in the park afterwards to have a shivery bite. On this particular Tuesday, a stupid man lets his dogs off leash in the park and the dogs run amuck and terrorize the nesting ducks in front of third graders. Miss Holiday is calming the children when Lulu sees an egg rolling down the hill. She picks it up, puts it in her sweater, and the rest is spoilers.

One thing to mention is that Lulu is black. She is not, of course, an African-American, but an Afro-British person. It's nice to note one more character in the handful of books starring kids of African descent that aren't about slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. (Not that there's anything wrong with those, but would we white people like to be represented exclusively in books about, say, the Revolutionary War and the Roosevelt presidency?) I have a very short running list in my head: Drita, My Homegirl; The Kane Chronicles; Dear America: Color Me Dark; The True Meaning of Smekday, and The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm.

So I am reading like a child, and the nice librarian let me into the children's stacks downtown (actually, they probably let me in because I'm not a child). I was there to pick up Call Me Heller, That's My Name by Stella Pevsner, more on that later, but, as I was in the Ps, I was distracted by the Soup books. Soup, Soup and Me and the other eleven, presumably good, books in the series by Robert Newton Peck (not to be confused with Richard Peck) are based on the author's own Vermont childhood during the Depression. However, by the fourteenth Soup book, Robert Newton Peck had clearly run out of small town Vermont memories to write about and Soup 1776 is set in a chaos. Soup 1776 rips off plot from the previous books and haphazardly recombines it to make a nonsensical mush. The main bent of Soup 1776 is that July 4th is approaching and Soup and Rob have volunteered to write the pageant script. Learning, Vermont, we learn, was the site of a Revolutionary War boondoggle led by Disability Learning, who is meant to have cowarded out of a battle. However, Soup and Rob meet an old recluse called Insanity Wacko, who tells them that he, Sanity Wacko, had a grandfather who was one of Ability Learning's soldiers and that Ability saved the lives of patriot soldiers by not getting involved in a skirmish for which they were unmatched. And then there are the local Indians, the Wahooligans: their leader Sitting Duck with his daughter Wet Blanket. Yes, this was funny several decades ago. In the pageant, the fat town nurse plays Bold Beaver and and Soup plays Spreadeagle. Peck is using his children's novel as a soapbox on which to complain about political correctness because, as his Professor P. H. Dee puts it, “Like any academic, I ignore factual trivia in order to be politically correct.” In 2013 I'm reading a book set in the 1930's ripping on the political trends of 1994. Soup 1776 is terrible, but it's the last in the series and Robert Newton Peck was certainly having his brain addled by his hemorrhoids when he wrote it. I will forget I ever read this, and keep my fond memories of my brother and me rolling on the floor laughing while my dad read us the Soup books when we were kids. I know Soup 1776 is stand-alone bad because I also have fond memories of reading a few of the earlier Soups when they came into work last year.

Speaking of memories, remember when Laura Ingalls Wilder was running around the sod house barefoot and a plague of locusts descended on her and ate all Pa's wheat fields and he had to walk east looking for work? It wasn't just her. Rocky Mountain Locusts destroyed fields in Minnesota, Iowa, Dakota Territory, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Manitoba, and there's a book about it: Harvest of Grief: Grasshopper Plagues and Public Assistance in Minnesota 1873-78 by Annette Atkins. The hoppers descended, some farms were ruined, while others were randomly untouched. Harvest of Grief focuses on public policy response to the plagues in Minnesota, Minnesota being a very important state. Initially, most aid to farmers and others came from private donations locally and nationally. Governor Cushman K. Davis did allocate some, little precedented, state relief in 1874. In 1875 John S. Pillsbury was elected governor and his response to the grasshopper plague perfectly exemplifies ideas about the undeserving versus the deserving poor. Distributing aid to those begging for it would lead to “The demoralization of a class fully capable of self-support...” To quote Ms. Atkins, “Too often state help did not reach those he called 'the most worthy recipients' whom he defined as unwilling to ask for help.” Anyone requesting state aid was thus undeserving of assistance, while the deserving poor were to proud to request any help and thus went on with undetected dignity. Seizing his contradiction by the horns, Governor Pillsbury went on a winter fact-finding mission around the state and was humbled by the desperate and uncomplaining farmers. Pillsbury gave his own coat to a man who had none and walked back to town uncoated. Opinions confirmed, Governor Pillsbury signed a bill offering a loan of up to $25 in seed wheat and a postponement of property taxes to affected counties. Aid did get to some farmers; some, like the Wilders, packed up and left; others suffered through in hunger and cold until the grasshoppers mysteriously stopped. Honestly, the only comprehensive and lasting legislation of any particular help to anyone during the grasshopper plagues was an overhaul of the US Department of Entomology, which went from pure cataloging to studying the effects of insects. The Rocky Mountain Locust is extinct now and I don't regret that.

I said in a previous blog that A Fair Barbarian is my second favorite Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, and it continues to be, because A Lady of Quality... What the hell was that all about? Let me tell you. Spoilers ahead:

Sir Geoffrey's wife is dying giving birth to the third surviving child of ten while Sir Geoffrey is out hunting like the terrible husband he is and the useless midwife is off getting rags and the mother, in her last breath attempts to smother the infant, but she lives and becomes a lusty howling child named Clorinda, who grows up getting her own way with the coarse servants and stable boys and can sit astride a horse by the time she's six, when she toddles boldly outside and her favorite horse is gone from the stable and the grooms tell her “the big man took it,” meaning her father, who has never seen her, and little Clorinda tracks him down and horsewhips him and he is delighted by his strong little daughter and raises her as an uncouth boy, until she decides to start being a lady on her fifteenth birthday at which point Sir John Oxen, a rake, falls in lust with her and they have a scandalous affair, with letters and not touching, that could still ruin her if it was brought to light, but then she marries a kind old duke who dies within the year, leaving her money, so that she is rich and beautiful and lives in mourning with her subservient sister Ann, until His Lord of Osmonde proposes to her and they are to be married, until Sir John Oxen follows her home and starts making trouble in her parlor and Clorinda goes into a rage and accidentally hits him on the temple with a weighted horsewhip and he falls down dead, so she drags him into the deepest cellar and has it walled up “for the damp,” and she marries His Lord of Osmonde and seeks out, for charity, all the na├»ve country girls whom Sir John Oxen ruined, and Ann dies, revealing that she knew about the accidental murder, and everyone else lives long and begets lusty children who do not, thankfully, get their own sequels, although His Lord of Osmonde has a self-titled book about his side of the courtship.

When subservient sister Ann was watching her sister from behind a curtain at a party and His Lord of Osmonde struck up a conversation with her, and then the manslaughter happened, I thought that A Lady of Quality was going to go all of Tess of the D'Ubervilles and Ann would marry His Lord of Osmonde after Clorinda's execution. But, no, nothing happened. The book just went on, describing Clorinda and her imperious manner and proud carriage and eventual happy death by old age.  FHB may have been short on money when she wrote this.

Next on blog: The Magician's Elephant and The Fifth Elephant.