Sunday, January 18, 2015

Merry Days of Childhood and Others

My poor sad readers. My sympathies to all of you and the loss that you must have felt, because I read Abbie Farwell Brown's The Christmas Angel and forgot to review it in my last blog. How did none of you clamor to ask me my thoughts and opinions on this middling tale of holiday orphans? Maybe you knew already. Maybe you already read The Christmas Angel and you sadly shake your head and wonder what kind of a derisive, vulgar old maid I will turn out to be every time I utter a "fiddlesticks." That's Miss Terry's swear word. 

 Miss Terry is spending Christmas evening sorting through a box of the quaint old toys that she and her brother used to play with when they were children, and when I say sorting, I mean burning them in the fireplace. Burning her childhood memories becomes tedious and Miss Terry devises an experiment: She will put each toy on the sidewalk and watch what happens to it. She appears to be in New York circa 1910 so there's ample foot traffic: "... a good many people passing, but they seemed too preoccupied to glance down at the sidewalk. They were nearly all hurrying in one direction. Some were running in the middle of the street. 'They are in a great hurry,' sniffed Miss Terry disdainfully. 'One would think they had something really important on hand. I suppose they are going to hear the singing. Fiddlestick!'"

Miss Terry is, of course, hiding behind the curtains waiting for someone to notice her Jack-in-the-box. Finally, two Jewish boys pick it up and beginning brawling for the owning of it. Miss Terry, thoroughly disgusted with humanity, sets out a manky Noah's ark. It's soon spotted by a poor mother with two ragged children they make to grab it, but a rich woman in a fur coat swoops it up and won't let the poor family have it. A Canton flannel dog, the Flanton dog, is seized by a child who is so excited he runs into the road and gets hit by a car, and Miss Terry's old doll is picked up by a little girl who perceives it's accidentally been left on the doorstep by its owner and that she, the little girl is stealing it. She steals it anyway. Miss Terry, her suspicions confirmed, makes to burn the Christmas angel that used to sit atop the Christmas tree when she and Tom were little. She and Tom don't talk anymore because he was a Christmas jerk once upon a time but he wrote her a letter last week... She sets the angel on the mantelpiece and everything goes wuzzy. In a Dickensian way, the Christmas angel speaks to her and shows her what has happened to all her toys. The Jewish boys fought over Jack because they both wanted the honor of presenting it to a little invalid child; the rich woman's child died recently and she had a temporary fit of hating all surviving children but repented and gave the poor family a Christmas dinner; the car accident had the double effect of humanizing the driver and helping the poor child and his mother financially; and the little girl wrestled with her conscience and decided to bring her found doll back to its own little girl, Miss Angelina Terry, as the tag on its neck said, the very next day. Her parents were dead, you see, so she had nothing nice of her own and wanted a doll so badly, although this wasn't hers to keep.

"'Will she bring it back?' asked Miss Terry eagerly, when once more she found herself under the gaze of the Christmas Angel. He nodded brightly.

'To-morrow morning you will see," he said. "It will prove that all I have shown you is really true.'"

In anticipation, Miss Terry orders a fine Christmas dinner, reconciles with Tom, adopts the girl, and never says "fiddlestick" again. There's nothing like a sweet Christmas story with orphans as presents. Reading stories like this, you can see where the modern "orphan crisis" myth has its origins. Pity, by 1910 advances in public health, a consistent policy of keeping bastard babies with their mothers, and rising wages already had cut the number of darling orphans wandering the streets, although Charles Loring Brace's orphan train continued running 'til 1929 in the last decades he was mostly shipping babies. Aside from fantastical elements, A Christmas Angel is sweet and could be read at Christmas next year.

On another topic entirely, 1916 and All That isn't entirely all that. "A history from back then until right now," by C.M. Boylan, it fits right on the bookshelf between other tomes of historical parody like 1066 and All That and America: The Book, but 1916 isn't all that funny, not even the parts about the potato famine.

Two books that also aren't worth mentioning at great length are The Story of My Childhood by Clara Barton and Memories of Childhood's Slavery Days by Annie L. Burton. I listened to these both on Librivox while I was doing Christmas iStore. Ms. Barton wrote her memoirs of childhood as an elderly woman after schoolchildren wrote to her persistently asking her about her younger days. Mrs. Burton wrote her memoirs while attending a night school in Boston. Ms. Barton's stories are all about growing up as the oops child of a prosperous New England farm family and being taught everything by four siblings who were already teenage schoolteachers. Mrs. Burton had worse origins, obviously. She still had time to roughhouse in the woods and poke at interesting things with sticks, but she didn't have any food. All the slaves left the plantation during the Civil War, including Mrs. Burton's mother, who went to set up a better life for her children, and Mrs. Burton and her siblings remained in the big house for a year until her mother came back for them. Ms. Barton attended the Civil War and says she would rather face the cannons at Antietam again than speak at public meeting. Mrs. Burton tells about the first night in her mother's cabin with a small hoe cake to divide between mother, a brother and a sister, and some other children, when a white woman and her children knocked cautiously at the door and asked if they could stay the night, because they are displaced by the war. Mother shares the hoe cake and young Annie is happy when they go so she won't have to share her food again. Meanwhile, Clara Barton's friend's horse runs away. Mrs. Burton grows up and moves north, works a series of jobs, and opens a couple restaurants. There's not a lot of childhood or slavery here and the books falls to a litany of employers. Ms. Barton's keeps the anecdotes coming. Being forbidden to ice skate, fever, crippling shyness. In the end, one of the leading lights of American phrenology stays at her parents' house while he's on the New England lecture circuit and he tells Mrs. Baron, "Clara will never stick up for herself, but she'll stick up for other people. Get her a school." So Ms. Barton is quickly trained up as a school teacher and rousingly successful at it. Founding the Red Cross isn't mentioned at all. Both books are worth the two hours it takes to listen to each of them.

I'm still floundering about in the beginning of Discworld and I finally got to Interesting Times which is fabbity fab fab fab. It's one of the ones with the wizards and I haven't gotten into those so much. It's the sequel to Sourcery, which I haven't read. In this one, Rincewind is requested on the Counterweight Continent (which bears a striking resemblance to Asia) and becomes unwillingly embroiled in a Red revolution. The title comes from a local curse, "May you live in interesting times."

Next up: matriculating men and multiple meanings of masculinity.