Best Books I read in 2019

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the twelve best books I read in 2019. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, by Stuart Hall
You might think that this collection of talks given at Harvard in 1994 by Stuart Hall couldn’t be relevant 25 years later, but nothing could be more germane to what is happening today. Hall, a prominent intellectual and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, examines the three words in his subtitle and how their meanings—how we understand them—have changed over time.

2. The Book of Emma Reyes, by Emma Reyes
Reyes, who died in 2003 at the age of 84, lived in Paris where she was known as an artist, friends with Sartre, Frido Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. She was also known as a fascinating storyteller, full of stories of her childhood in Colombia. The translator Daniel Alarcón says in his introduction, “Her vision is acute, detailed, remorseless, and true. There is no self-pity, only wonder, and that tone, so delicate and subtle, is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement.”

3. The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. DuBois
DuBois presents a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

4. Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

5. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin
If you haven’t read this classic, stop right now and go read it. Came out in 1969? No problem: it couldn’t be more relevant to today. Don’t like science fiction? Won’t matter; there aren’t any space battles or robots; just beings you will recognise going about their lives. And any initial questions you might have about the culture you’re reading about are exactly the point.

6. A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry
I had read some of Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, so I was not surprised that one of the big ideas explored in this his second novel is our relationship with the land. Reading this story set in the small town of Port William, Kentucky in 1944, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar to most of us today.

7. All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski
To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed. Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate.

8. The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield
Hirshfield is one of my favorite poets, and I welcomed the opportunity to reread this early (1994) collection of hers. The poems in this book hold mysteries that, like koans, can leave me pondering a few lines for days.

9. Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser
A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. I’d never read the Little House books, so I caught up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced and immensely readable account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

10. The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez
Nunez’s new novel, winner of the 2018 National Book Award, is a quiet and intelligent story of friendship, love and despair, tackling the questions most of us wrestle with at various times in our lives: Should I change my life? Is it worth going on as I have?

11. The Overstory, by Richard Powers
This popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel left me with a combination of enchantment and disappointment. It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees. What I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story.

12. Memento Mori, by Charles Coe
Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet. The poems in this book celebrate ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight. They are the poems of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

What were the best books you read last year?

In This Grave Hour, by Jacqueline Winspear

maisie

As I’ve mentioned before here and here, I’m a fan of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. Besides liking psychologist/investigator Maisie herself a lot—she combines integrity with intelligence, a strong work ethic with a warm heart—I especially like the way Winspear includes the historical context. As the author says:

I wanted to focus on the impact of extraordinary times on the lives of ordinary people. And I wanted to use the mystery to give form to the journey through chaos to resolution—or not, as the case may be.

When we first met Maisie, she was rebuilding her life after serving as a nurse in the front lines of WWI. This installment, the 13th, begins with Neville Chamberlain solemnly declaring the start of WWII.

Echoes of WWI and its long tail of consequences pervade this story as Maisie tries to find the assassin of a former Belgian refugee before he or she kills again. As several characters remark, who would take a life at a time when there is so much fear of the killing to come? And why would anyone want to kill this harmless man?

I am reading the books in order; some I’ve read before but I wanted to fit them into the larger framework. It’s been said that a series is like a television show, with each book equating to an episode. The struggle for the writer is to include enough information that a new reader won’t be lost without boring someone who’s read the other books.

It’s a little hard for me to judge, since I’m not coming to it as a newbie, but I think this book would work as a stand-alone. Winspear adds just a sentence or two of background as needed. However, I think the reading experience is considerably deepened by having read the previous books. Most of the characters have appeared before, so prior knowledge helps you better understand their actions and reactions. Plus your emotional commitment to the characters is much greater. For example, some of the children you’ve seen tumbling about like puppies are now old enough to fight in the war.

There are some new characters here as well as old familiars. Among them are Anna, a little girl who has been evacuated from London along with the other “Operation Pied Piper” evacuees, but who has no papers. No one knows who she is and she herself refuses to speak, just as she refuses to let go of her small case and gas mask.

Anna and two other children are billeted at Maisie’s home in Kent. Maisie, who lost her husband and baby only three years previously, finds her heart turning toward the child even as those around her warn that she will only be hurt again when the girl returns to her family.

Maisie also becomes involved in the families of other former Belgian refugees as she pursues the killer, even as their former country faces new devastation.

The threads of the story are tightly woven. What makes a person kill? What makes a family, holds it together, and releases it? How does the past continue to shape the present?

I only have one quibble with this book. Maisie repeatedly uses the expression “It begs the question . . . “ incorrectly. She means “It raises the question . . . “ Where was Winspear’s editor? This common error stood out like a starburst in the midst of the otherwise delightful prose.

The perspective of ordinary people during this liminal time, when war has been declared but the fighting not yet begun, is fascinating. One mother travels with great hardship to Kent to reclaim her sons and take them back to London, even though the schools are closed, even though bombs are expected to fall. But who can imagine bombing before it happens? What parent can bear to put their children on a train to some unknown place with unknown people? I don’t know if I could have done it.

Chaos may not always be resolved, though some small part of it may be. We do what we can.

Have you read any of the Maisie Dobbs books?

Tracks in the Snow, by Wong Herbert Yee

tracks

I’ve been reading a lot of picture books lately since I’ve been babysitting for a two-year-old. We’ve both fallen in love with this one. It starts with a child looking out the window at the snow and wondering what made the tracks there, and where the tracks go.

They (I’m deliberately using the plural because the child is not named and is not obviously a particular gender—part of the book’s charm) put on boots, coat and mittens (a skill my young friend has been working on recently) and go outside.

Following the tracks, the child wanders through typical landmarks for a little one: a garden gate, woods, some rocks and over a small footbridge. As they meander, they are shadowed by various animals: a squirrel, rabbit, fox, deer. The child considers what could have made the tracks: a duck? a woodchuck? a hippopotamus?

As you might have guessed, they follow the tracks all the way back to their own house and realise they themselves made these tracks the previous day.

This is a quiet book, like the snow’s hush, full of curiosity and imagination. The gentle illustrations are minimal, almost suggestions, yet they capture a child’s body language beautifully. Being snowy landscapes, of course there’s lots of white space.

In my opinion, the best picture books tell a story and, indeed, even in this brief text we have a full story. The protagonist is the child; the problem is to solve the mystery of the tracks. The antagonist is more abstract: ignorance, what we don’t know, the impenetrability of the world.

I remember as a preschooler being terrified by the vast sea of things I didn’t know. I knew my house and yard. I knew my block, more or less. But everything beyond that was a blank, simply inscrutable. For all I knew, there could be dragons. If I wandered off my block, how would I find my way back home?

Solving these mysteries, mapping out the nearby streets a little at a time, became my ambition. I think it’s partly why I enjoyed being a mechanic and then an engineer: understanding how cars and computers work. I never liked black boxes, those enigmatic spots in a flowchart labeled “Here the magic happens”.

So in this brief tale, I see not only an outward journey for our protagonist—following the tracks, answering the question—but an inner journey to satisfy that yearning to explore the world and begin to comprehend its mysteries.

What picture book have you read that you particularly enjoyed?

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite

my sister

Don’t be put off by the title of this brief but powerful debut novel. I myself hesitated, wondering if it would be sardonic humor or a grotesque butchers’ ball, but was persuaded to read it by one of my book clubs. I’m glad I did!

This is the story of two sisters. In the first chapter Korede, our narrator, gets a call from her younger sister, the beautiful and pampered Ayoola, asking for Korede’s help in cleaning up after her latest murder. This is the third one, leading Korede to note that her sister has now met the definition of a serial killer.

Not that Ayoola believes she’s a murderer. No, these are boyfriends who threatened her in some way and she pulled her knife in self-defense. The knife was their abusive father’s proudest possession which Ayoola helped herself to after their father’s untimely death.

Despite the title and this first chapter, the story is very much grounded in Korede’s everyday life. It’s more about family dynamics and personal worldviews than about violence. As one person in my book club said, “. . . there are rich veins to mine when you take ordinary, commonplace conflicts and amplify them to the extreme.”

So far from resenting her sister’s favored status, Korede has made it her mission to protect Ayoola, though of course we only get this through Korede’s eyes so she could be deceiving herself or us. But the crisis comes when the handsome young doctor at the hospital where Korede works, the doctor she has been trying to attract, catches sight of her irresistable sister. Should she warn him? Or will she continue to enable her sister?

The Nigerian author is also a poet, so it’s not surprising that she brings a poet’s use of compression and white space to this novel. What is astonishing is how effective it is. Each short chapter burns with purpose. There are no subplots or plot layers to distract us. Characters other than her sister and the young doctor are not presented as complex, which makes sense because we see them only through Korede’s eyes and she is focused, laser-like, on the two of them. As another person in my book club said, “For that reason [her succinct prose], the story delivered a sense of smooth, inexorable movement toward its resolution.”

Korede’s deadpan voice gives us her character: practical, straight-forward, a little OCD about cleaning. Eventually we begin to question her reliability. Was the father’s death an accident? Isn’t her protectiveness toward Ayoola laced with some other emotions? Does she care more about the idea of protecting her sister than for Ayoola herself?

There is good, if understated, use of symbolism and setting. Korede keeps coming back to the idea of the third bridge under which the sisters disposed of the body in the first chapter. The bridge isn’t described; it’s more the idea of it. I’ve mentioned the knife as a symbol, but there are others, such as the use of flowers and the bleach Korede uses to clean up the blood.

There are glimpses throughout the novel of conditions in Nigeria, such as an interaction with the blatantly corrupt police at one point, or the accepted patriarchal system. Also, a third person in my book club mentioned that “ . . . there’s a whole genre of Nigerian films that feature over-the-top, comedic violence, with the strength of the family prevailing in the end.” This idea gives me a different perspective on the novel and how it fits within its cultural context. From within my own context, though, I saw the humor but concentrated on the co-dependency of the sisters and Korede’s ethical dilemma.

Expanding further, while ostensibly about the relationship between the two sisters, the story can also be read as a comment on today’s inequality: the gap between the pampered one-percenters, so entitled that they can lie, abuse and rape with impunity, and the rest of us, beaten down by the treadmill of getting by while we labor to provide their goods and services. Since they pay almost nothing in taxes, with miniscule tax rates and generous offshore hideaways, the tax burden is left to us.

However you read this story, you’ll find much to think about and discuss with friends.

What would you recommend as a good book club choice?

The Silence of the Sea, by Yrsa Sigursdardóttir

silence

In the middle of a cold night, a luxury yacht appears in Reykjavik harbor on schedule, but instead of slowing down it plows into a pier. When the security guard and three customs officials board her, they find no one on board. There is no sign of the captain, two crewmen and the young couple with two small children who had set off from Lisbon a few days earlier.

As a lawyer, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is subsequently hired by the elderly parents of the husband. The youngest daughter had been left in their care, now apparently an orphan. The grandparents need to establish that the couple is dead so that the little girl’s future can be secured. They also fear that the authorities will take the girl away from them, saying they were too old and not well off enough to care for her. Apparently this is common practice in Iceland. The grandparents hoped that the life insurance would at least do away with one factor.

The atmosphere is suitably chilling, calling up echoes of other ghost ships such as the Mary Celeste. or is there a more rational explanation for what went on and if there could be survivors somewhere. The chapters alternate between Thóra’s efforts to discover what happened, belated accompanied by a police investigation, and a narrative of what happened on the yacht through the eyes of Ægir, the young husband.

Thóra must assemble as much documentation as possible to persuade the insurance company that the whole thing is not a scam perpetrated by Ægir and his wife, who have jumped ship somewhere and gone off to lead a new life. One would think that the youngest daughter as a hostage left behind, not to mention the missing crew, would be enough to end that line of enquiry, but apparently not.

Although the book is described as “A Thriller” on the front cover, I found the pace, especially in Thóra’s chapters measured, more befitting the PI/police procedural genre that it fits. Meanwhile the initial sense of unease in the yacht chapters accelerates gradually as their situation worsens. This adept handling of pacing is one of the things I appreciated most about the book.

One thing that struck me as unrealistic from the beginning is the behavior of Bella, the receptionist. Thóra and her partner Bragi in the law practice have five employees; the only one we meet is Bella who not only damages office equipment, insults Thóra and tries to sabotage her, but also spends her days using the firm’s computer and limited internet resources for her own personal purposes. Then she blackmails Thóra by refusing to tell her information she’d been asked to dig up unless Thóra pays for higher internet capacity, something the partners had decided they couldn’t afford. That’s when I almost put down the book. She is so astonishingly awful. Who would keep an employee like that? Though it’s possible there’s something I don’t understand about the Icelandic culture that would explain it.

I was also confused about Thóra’s home life. I haven’t read the previous books in the series, but a man named Matthew is introduced as her partner, which I at first took to mean another business partner as well as her significant other. It’s not clear what his profession is; at first I thought banker, but later she seems to refer to him as a doctor. Then there are a three children living with them, two of whom are apparently teenagers who have a baby. It took me way too long to untangle the relationships. This is the kind of information that should be completely clear, even in a series book, and not make us have to reread several times to sort out.

This is a minor quibble, though. Overall, I thought the book presented an intriguing mystery set in a country I’m eager to visit. The ending was abrupt but believable, though it left a couple of unresolved questions. Thóra is an interesting protagonist. I admired the fluidity of the way the people on the ship were presented; their twists and turns increased the suspense. I especially liked the way Sigursdardóttir used our bemused fascination with ghost ships to add to the creepy atmosphere.

Have you read a book set in Iceland?

A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry

Berry

A recent post on Writer Unboxed by Kathleen McCleary looked at what kind of book prompts a really good discussion by readers and book clubs. The first quality mentioned was that such books “deal with big themes that are at the heart of human experience.” That certainly describes this gorgeous novel.

I had read some of Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, so I was not surprised that one of the big ideas explored in this his second novel is our relationship with the land. Reading this story set in the small town of Port William, Kentucky in 1944, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar to most of us today.

The story is centered on Mat Feltner, a farmer like his father and grandfather before him, but includes a wide cast of characters, some of them eccentric but all of them deeply human. As it begins, Mat and three other men are playing cards in a store left empty when the son of one of them went off to war. It’s early March, a quiet time in the life of a farmer. Mat has just learned that his son Virgil, his and Margaret’s only child, is missing in action.

As spring turns to summer and then into fall, Mat must make place in his consciousness, in his plans and expectations, for the possibility that Virgil might not return. Interwoven with Mat’s story are those of others in the town: Virgil’s pregnant wife Hannah, Burley Coulter who has lost one nephew in the war and just seen off the other to boot camp, Old Jack Beecham who cannot work his land anymore and has been moved into town and an unwelcome retirement, Jayber Crow who lives above his barbershop in a room full of books, to name just a few.

Berry writes with the poet’s eye for beauty and ear for music. While this novel is a realistic portrayal of country life, it occasionally drifts naturally into lyricism, perhaps a description that is achingly beautiful, or a moment of insight that raises the story to a greater sphere. Mat, wakeful in the night, hears the first stirrings of morning:

And Mat’s mind would return like a ghost to his body, leaving its uncertain questionings, the conjectures and absences it had wandered among. He felt himself shaped again, weighty, among the intimate clear objects of his days: the spacious dawn-filled plainly furnished old room; the leaves of the fern on the windowsill, in which the greenness appeared suddenly to have woken up, the shadows hanging over the pot rim as if peeled downward by the light; his clothes lying on the chair at the foot of the bed. And he would turn to these things gladly—as if, out of the unknowing magnitude that surrounded and diminished it, he took back his life.

Another big idea that Berry explores is what is the purpose of our lives? What do we hope to accomplish? What does death mean? What is left after we die? And nested within those intersecting ideas is the notion of work. This to me was the most striking part of the book, this description of what it means to work every day. I loved the way he describes the rhythms of work within the day, across the year. Here’s Mat trimming his apple trees:

He likes this work—the look of his hands moving and choosing, correcting, among the tangle, the wild good health of the branches. The orchard is one of the works of his life, one of the most satisfying ones. From its young hesitant beginnings it has taken possession of the plot, become a landmark. There has never been any income from it except for the fruit, with which Matt provisions his own table and which the neighbors are made welcome to pick. He has a greater intimacy with what he grows for his own use than what he grows for the market. The orchard lights and shapes one of the deepest enclosures of his mind, his monument to the ground.

And here is Mat’s brother Earnest, going back to work after a short rest:

The day and the work are established around him again. He goes on, deeper in, with a kind of excitement growing in him, a kind of hunger for what it’s possible to do before night. It becomes easier to go on than to stop. The afternoon settles into its passing, less pleasant than the morning but more forceful, more gathered into itself, the impetus and urging of it building tighter and higher.

While my experience working on a farm was brief, I still recognise these same rhythms in my days working in an office or laboratory, and at home writing. I know Mat’s satisfaction in the competence and skill that comes with experience. And even more than that, I recognise the uses of work, the benefits beyond the completed project. In all my years of reading, I have rarely found this theme explored, much less embodied as well as it is here.

This is one book that I never wanted to end. I consciously slowed down my reading to savor every sentence. My only consolation is that Berry’s other novels are apparently about the people in this town.

What have you gained from the work you do, beyond a paycheck or a finished product?

Murder in the Bastille, by Cara Black

cara black

I’ve written before about Black’s series set in Paris featuring private investigator Aimée Leduc. After the shocking death of her father, a police detective, she decided that she would stay away from crime-solving; she and her partner René would only provide information security services, such as computer forensics and corporate security. However, when Aimée stumbles into a murder investigation, she can’t help but be drawn in.

One of the pleasures of this series is the setting. Each installment takes place in a different neighborhood, or arrondissement, of Paris. Here, it is the Bastille, known to many of us because of the famous prison. Once a working class neighborhood, it’s now a gentrified area with the Opera Bastille, fancy restaurants and nightclubs. However, there is still a maze of old passages, back alleys and inner courtyards, the home of furniture makers since the 12th century. Now, apparently, these mostly house trendy shops, but in 1994, the time of this story, some older businesses still held on.

In this, the fourth book in the series, she wears a new—supposedly one-of-a-kind—Chinese silk jacket to dinner only to find the woman sitting next to her wearing the same jacket. The woman appears afraid and forgets her cell phone when she leaves. When Aimée takes it up to the maître d’, it rings and she answers it. The person mistakes her for the owner of the phone and implores her to show up at a planned assignation. Aimée goes there, expecting to find the woman but instead is brutally attacked in the dark Passage Boule Blanche.

Found by René, she awakens to learn that damage from the beating has blinded her, though it is not known if this is temporary or permanent. Even worse, the woman wearing the same jacket was killed in a nearby street. Now she must help Loic Bellan, the distracted policeman in charge of the investigation, solve the crime before the murderer silences her.

As a reader what I most enjoyed was René’s expanded role. Preferring always to work at a computer, his partner’s blindness forces him to take on some of her investigative activities, a prospect which terrifies and excites him in equal measure.

As a writer what I most enjoyed about the book was the intimate experience of sudden blindness. The author has thrown herself heart and soul into Aimée’s emotional and practical struggles, ranging from despair to pride to the craving for a cigarette. I have no idea how accurate the treatments and expectations for the blind might have been at that time, only that Aimée’s emotions rang true to me.

What I can say, as an information security engineer and analyst myself, is that the technology side of the story is accurate. Some readers have complained that the technology used in the story didn’t exist in 1994, but they are wrong. Not only were Aimée and René, by virtue of their profession, working with cutting edge equipment and software, but the technologies described in this story were in common usage in certain arenas in the U.S. and even more so in Europe.

I don’t know Paris and have only schoolgirl French, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the descriptions and the various French phrases scattered through the book. I can only say that I enjoyed them and hope someday to visit Paris, seeing it not just through the eyes of a tourist but through the gritty lens Cara Black’s books have given me.

Have you been to Paris? Which arrondissement did you stay in?

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

overstory

I read this popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel a few months ago but wanted to let it sit for a while before blogging about it. I needed to sort out the emotions it left me with: a combination of enchantment and disappointment.

It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees.

Writers are told to avoid polemics, to get down off our soapboxes, or we risk annoying or alienating readers. I don’t think anyone could question the wondrous greatness of trees or their life going on independently of us, yet Powers avoids the trap of dogma by giving us their side of the story through those of his characters, their resistance, their devotion, their sacrifice.

I didn’t need convincing. I’ve had a deep emotional attachment to trees since earliest childhood, counting some among my best friends. Nor did the rest of my book club, all of us already in love with trees, living as we do in the Green Mountains. Yet we all struggled with the beginning of the book, unable to remember the characters after each was introduced in the first section, having to flip back to remind ourselves.

We were also disappointed—while profoundly moved—by the ending. I try not to give away endings, so I’ll just echo the assertion of writing master Donald Maass that we want stories that reflect reality; he says, “the truth is that while we may live in a bleak world we are not empty inside.” Here, the enigmatic ending left us debating this idea.

The baffling prologue was enough to make me put the book down several times before reluctantly reading on for the sake of my book club. As it turns out, it doesn’t reflect the book as a whole. You can safely skip it.

Otherwise, the writing is often is enchanting. Eventually the characters became distinct and memorable but always the events and descriptions kept me reading.

Now the linden, it turns out, is a radical tree, as different from an oak as a woman is from a man. It’s the bee tree, the tree of peace, whose tonics and teas can cure every kind of tension and anxiety.

Powers also brings devastating psychological insight to his characters. One, a man who has lived a life considered normal for a middle-class American man, says: “I’ve been a man who happily confuses the agreed-upon for the actual.” A brilliant description that could fit quite a few people I know.

But what I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story, surely another meaning of the title, which the author uses as a synonym for trees’ canopy. By telling the world’s story through those of nine characters, Powers has chosen the most effective way to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. As writing master Lisa Cron has memorably described stories have been our means of survival since the earliest days. Stories are how we learn and the best way for us to remember.

My book club discussed the concept of forest bathing, the idea of destressing and even healing by walking through the woods, agreeing that we all had been doing this long before the term was coined. We hoped that this novel would increase awareness of and activism to protect the natural world, especially our beloved trees.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

PF+Pulitzer+sticker

A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. As I mentioned before, I’d never read the Little House books, so I’ve been catching up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

That is not a criticism of Wilder. She was writing for children and wanted to spare them the most devastating details. She was also writing to memorialise her parents, her father in particular, so of course she managed the details to show them in a good light.

For example, one thing that was obvious to me reading the books as an adult, even without Fraser’s clarification, was that Wilder’s father was not above stealing, as when he knowingly tried to homestead on land that belonged to the Osage. He was also terribly reckless, constantly dragging the family away from security to chase a dream of a self-sufficient farm far from other people.

Fraser makes clear the near impossibility of achieving that dream, given the lack of federal programs at the time, the uncertain and often disastrous natural conditions—drought, storms, locusts—and the unsuitable land set aside for homesteaders. There is much here for us to consider looking at today’s situation: ongoing ecological damage that has put us on the edge of another Dust Bowl, the difficulty of making a small farm work even with boutique vegetables and the growth of farmers’ markets, and the near takeover of agriculture by enormous farms run by corporate agribusinesses with large federal handouts.

Yet, as the book’s subtitle, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, asserts, that image of the self-sufficient pioneer pulling himself up by his bootstraps is a big part of the U.S.’s mythology. Much of the credit for that goes to Wilder’s books, as Fraser’s account shows.

As an adult, however, I could glean even from Wilder’s idealised stories that the family often depended on the help of others. The truth is even more substantial, not only during Wilder’s childhood, but even as an adult when she somehow didn’t see the hypocrisy of decrying government assistance while receiving federal money herself. Just as many of the people today who hate the government are the ones themselves receiving the most assistance.

Before reading Fraser’s book, I was unaware of the influence of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, on the books and on her mother. It was Lane, already a journalist, although one who larded her stories with fictional elements, who pushed her mother to write the books. It was Lane who first edited them, with the two wrangling over changes. Lane also wrote her own books, appropriating some of her mother’s stories and penning a thinly-veiled Mommy Dearest novel.

Fraser treats Lane fairly, acknowledging her strengths while not hesitating to point out her weaknesses. She presents her as emotionally unstable, with several nervous breakdowns, and increasingly prone to paranoid conspiracy theories. Lane was part of the triumvirate of Founding Mothers of the Libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. She also pushed her mother to join her in her angry rants against the government, adding political screeds to some of her mother’s later books.

Of course, we are still struggling with the effects of Lane’s work. Many of today’s politicians criminalise the poor, condemning them for needing assistance. Many demand that the federal government be downsized, if not disbanded, while living high on the hog on federal money themselves, ignoring the hypocrisy. An egregious example is Maryland Republican Andy Harris who campaigned on doing away with the Affordable Health Care Act, which would take away heath care from up to 10 million citizens, complaining when elected that his taxpayer-funded health care wouldn’t take effect for a month.

It is no wonder that during the Great Depression and WWII people flocked to Wilder’s simple tales of a loving family, enduring hard times together, as embodied by a line from a hymn that recurs in the books: “We are all here.”

The Little House books are lovely fairy tales for children, but not something to base a nation on. However, even if we question the myth of a self-sufficient, rugged individual, many of us today embrace other values extolled in Wilder’s books: the importance of family, being happy with simple things, pulling together and being brave when things go wrong.

Even if you’ve never read the children’s books, this biography is essential to understand how we in the U.S. have gotten to where we are today.

What book have you read that illuminated an historical era and its effects on us today?

Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

little-house-prairie

I never read these books as a child, being too busy with fairy tales and Arthurian stories, and never saw the television series. However, Caroline Fraser’s biography of Wilder, Prairie Fires, came highly recommended to me, so I thought I’d better catch up on these children’s books.

In this, the third book in the loosely autobiographical series, Laura and her family leave their beloved Wisconsin house in the big woods, described in the first book, and set out for Kansas. The experience of traveling in a covered wagon is vividly conveyed, seen from young Laura’s perspective, though the discomforts are minimised. Laura, her older sister Mary, and baby Carrie get restless sitting in the wagon all day, and Laura worries about the dog Jack who has to run the whole way, but she’s also fascinated by all she sees and comforted by the sound of the horses feeding as she goes to sleep.

As in the other books, the small family encounters hazards and setback, but Ma and Pa can always be relied upon to keep the girls safe and feeeling loved. Eventually they find themselves on an open, seemingly uninhabited prairie near Independence, Kansas. The descriptions of the grasslands—their shy colors and scents, their creatures and breezes—show a genuine love of this land.

Reading this book as an adult gives me a curious double perspective. I know too well the ecological damage done by farmers like Pa plowing up the fragile prairie. I know too much about blatant lies of the government and railroads that lured homesteaders onto lands not appropriate for wheat farming, and of course about the injustice and genocide visited upon the Osages who in fact inhabited this land.

There has been some outcry about the depiction of the Osages in these books, but at least in this one I found it pretty even-handed. Remember that it is from a child’s point of view, one who knows nothing of the larger picture or the history. When the Native Americans do turn up on their seasonal migration, Ma and some of the other nearby homesteaders are afraid of them, but Pa treats them as neighbors, with courtesy and respect. Young Laura describes the ones she actually meets as beautiful and awe-inspiring.

I also know too much about poverty, and do not take at face value the nostalgic recreation of life in a one-room cabin with sometimes only potatoes for dinner. If I’d read this book as a young child, in a bedroom well-stocked with toys and books, nourished on three balanced meals a day, I wonder how I would have reacted to young Laura’s blissful descriptions of her single doll, a rag doll made by Ma, and the comfort of a single potato or turnip for dinner and Pa’s fiddle afterwards.

As an adult, I was fascinated with her detailed description of the house Pa built: the way he notched the logs, put on the roof, built the door, and crafted leather hinges for it. Laura’s childish pursuits are charming, but what captured me was Ma and Pa’s endless toil, the heartbreak of lost harvests, the impossibility of breaking even.

It was not a simpler time; it was an infinitely more difficult time. I’ve chopped wood for winter fuel and washed clothes with a washboard. I’ve tried to live off what I can raise. The hardships of frontier life, of homesteading don’t seem romantic to me. Perhaps they might have if I’d read these books as a child, unaware of all that was being glossed over.

Have you read or reread a children’s book that seems different to you as an adult?