Review 1559: In the Rocky Mountains

Quite a few years ago, I bought an old 19th-century boys’ adventure book, On the Banks of the Amazon by W. H. G. Kingston. In reading it, I was struck by its combination of adventure, interesting information about plants, animals and natives of the area, and engraved illustrations. As a result, I put together a small collection of these books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, trying to find ones in the Our Boys’ Select Library edition of the first one.  (In case you’re wondering why there is a ship and a lion on the cover of a book about the Rockies, they all have the same cover.) I intended to read them all but never got to any of the others. Then when we moved to Washington, they got lost.

That was four years ago, and a few months ago my husband finally unearthed them from an unpacked box of his books. He brought In the Rocky Mountains up to show me, and I decided to read it.

Before the action of this book, Ralph and his sister Clarise were on their way west with their parents to start a new life, but both their parents died en route. Their wagon train was rescued by a group of men, and one of them turned out to be their Uncle Jeff, who had gone west years before and not been heard of again. Now, Ralph and Clarice, Clarice’s servant Rachel, and Uncle Jeff and his men live on a commodious ranch in the foothills of the Rockies, and Uncle Jeff and his men help supply settlers coming through the nearby pass.

A friendly native named Winnemak comes to warn them that a large band of “Arapahas” (by which I assume he means Arapahos) and Apaches have banded together (did they ever, I wonder) and plan to attack their compound. At first, Uncle Jeff is unworried, but the ranchers, along with a small group of cavalry, are overcome and must flee into the wilderness.

Most of this action is designed to lead us to Yellowstone, for the pass to the fort is overtaken by the enemy, so Ralph and his companions must go north, where they end up stranded for the winter in Yellowstone Valley. This leads us into descriptions of the wonders of Yellowstone.

This novel was published in 1901, a good 20 years after the other one I read, and I fear it isn’t quite as good. For one thing, although I try not to judge books by their times, there is a good deal more judgmental treatment of the indigenous peoples than in the book about the Amazon even though it is mixed with having some “good” native characters (which is of course defined by their friendliness to the “harmless” whites). It also expresses an uncritical affirmation of Manifest Destiny, containing a statement (sorry, I didn’t mark the passage to be able to quote directly) that the white men were doing nothing more than trying to get themselves some land when viciously attacked by the natives.

Okay, so maybe all that is to be expected, as well as the stereotypical treatment of the African-American servant and the Irish and German soldiers. On the other hand, the friendly natives express themselves in fluent and educated English, which is surprising for this book, with the exception of saying “Ugh!” as a greeting. (Did they really do that, do you think?)

A fairly minor error is made in illustrating and naming various deer Ralph sees. He talks about seeing wapiti, which is another name for elk, but the illustration is more like a standard deer. Then he clearly describes and illustrates a moose but calls it an elk. Oh dear. As far as I know, those names are not interchangeable. (A friend tells me now that this may be a mismatch between American names for these animals and British ones; however, the book is set in the U. S., so I think it should use the American names.)

I think the thing that for me interfered most with this adventure was a strong Christian message that comes through especially at the end. Ralph and Clarice convert Winnemak from his wicked ways, with no acknowledgment that these peoples have their own beliefs and religion that are just as valid, and Winnemak becomes a missionary. Ugh, as they (don’t) say. I can only suspect that as Kingston got older, he felt compelled to add a moral message. I don’t remember anything like that in On the Banks of the Amazon and I hope I don’t see it in the others, which I still intend to read.

I wrote my review a few months ago, and since then I read an old copy of Walter Scott’s The Talisman, also marketed as a boys’ book and published in 1907. I was really interested to notice in the advertising pages at the back of the book a title In the Heart of the Rockies by G. A. Henty, which appears to have at least a partially identical plot to W. H. G. Kingston’s book only calls its hero Tom instead of Ralph. I looked to see if the names were pseudonyms of the same writer, and they were not. The Kingston book was published a few years before the Henty book, so I’m wondering if a little plagiarism wasn’t going on.

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Review 1456: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

I cribbed part of the title of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day for my weekly personal blog, and then I thought maybe I should read it. I bought a copy for my great nephew’s sixth birthday.

It’s a really cute book, amusing for parents and something most kids can relate to as everything goes wrong for Alexander. He doesn’t get a toy in his cereal box and his brothers do, his teacher doesn’t like his art (an invisible castle), he gets in trouble for something his brother starts, and so on. Things that can make a kid miserable.

The art by Ray Cruz is good, too. This is a fun book for parents and offers a talking point for kids.

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Review 1419: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy

I picked up The Penderwicks to give to my eleven-year-old great niece, so I thought I’d read it first. It’s a realistic story about a family on vacation, and I thought it made a nice change from a lot of the less realistic children’s fiction.

The Penderwicks are four sisters, their widowed father, and a dog named Hound. Rosalind is 12, a thoughtful, responsible, child; Skye, 11, is hot tempered and hasty; Jane, 10, is dreamy and wants to be a writer; and Batty, 4, is shy and always wears butterfly wings.

The Penderwicks lose their Cape Cod cottage that they always rent for the summer, but they find a cottage in the Berkshires. It is part of an estate called Arundel.

They find Arundel beautiful, but the owner, Mrs. Tipton, doesn’t want the children in her garden. Rosalind gets a crush on a nice teenage gardener named Cagney. Skye and Jane meet Jeffrey, Mrs. Tipton’s son.

The bulk of the story centers around Jeffrey, whose mother thinks the girls are a bad influence and wants to send Jeffrey to military school. Jeffrey himself wants to study music.

I found this story amusing and sometimes touching. Its characters are likable and believable. This book is the first in a series, and I’m interested to see if my great niece likes it.

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Review 1349: I Took the Moon for a Walk

Cover for I Took the Moon for a WalkI Took the Moon for a Walk is an adorable book with beautiful, retro illustrations for preschool children or early readers. A little boy takes the moon for a walk, helping it over church spires and so on, until it is time for bed.

I bought this book for my great nephew, because I was struck by the gorgeous illustrations, but the text is nice as well. A lovely book.

The last couple of pages, after the story is finished, include information about the moon, what it’s made of and its phases, and about animals that are out at night.

picture from the book
The moon got scared . . .

Day 1291: Through the Looking Glass: Further Adventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature

Cover for Through the Looking GlassThis book sounded interesting to me, but I did not realize it was a collection of Selma G. Lanes’s essays on various topics related to children’s literature. Lanes herself was a writer about children’s literature, as well as an editor, critic, and essayist. Although Lanes writes in the introduction about the tendency for publishers to look for marketable books rather than good ones, the essays largely deal with a more congenial time for children’s literature, the 1970’s.

This collection includes reviews, obituaries, and opinion pieces on such topics as whether children’s books are literature, what constitutes a great children’s book, and whether the pursuit of political correctness can go too far. These topics are interesting, but because most of the essays are from the 1970’s, some of them seem dated. Lanes also is nostalgic for the works of an earlier time, many of which I’m not familiar with.

A final essay about J. K. Rowling written in 2004 brings us more up to date as does the introduction. Still, a reader looking for good reading for a child (and sometimes an adult) can get some ideas, albeit older ones, from this book.

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Day 1256: Bridge to Terabithia

Cover for Bridge to TerabithiaI read Bridge to Terabithia for the 1977 club (but forgot about it when I was posting for the club). It has become a classic book for preteens since its publication, but it was written after my time as a child, so I never read it before.

Jess is a ten-year-old boy from a poor rural family in, perhaps, Virginia or Maryland. He comes from a family of sisters, and his father works all the time, so he often feels isolated. It is almost time for school to start, and he has been practicing running all summer so he can win the races at recess.

A family moves in nearby, and he hopes they have a boy his age, but all they have is a girl, Leslie. She seems to be disposed to be friendly, but he has no use for a girl.

Then, at the races, when is ready to show everyone how fast he is, someone beats him. It’s Leslie.

Leslie and Jess become friends and create an imaginary world for themselves in a shack across the creek. The world is called Terabithia, and you can only get to it by swinging on a rope across the creek.

This is the kind of children’s book that has more to offer children than adults. I couldn’t help comparing it to The Secret Garden, which does a wonderful job of describing the garden, making it seem like a wonderland. There is no such magical description in this novel, which is more matter-of-fact, so it’s hard to understand the fascination of the kids’ made-up world. However, the novel did get me to cry without being manipulative. It deals with death and handles the subject very well.

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Day 1231: The Tiger Rising

Last year I gave my ten-year-old niece three books by Kate Di Camillo, and her face lit right up. This year, I got her The Tiger Rises and read it to see what was so great about Di Camillo.

Rob is an unhappy 12-year-old, used to being bullied on the bus and not allowed by his father to mention his dead mother. One day when he is exploring the woods near the motel where he lives, he finds a tiger in a cage.

The next day, he meets Sistine, a new girl in school. Sistine is angry since the breakup of her parents’ marriage. Rob takes her to see the tiger, and she immediately decides they should let it loose.

I am sure there are elements in this novel that would interest children, but it doesn’t have much to offer adults. It provides a shocking but unconvincingly easy solution to the characters’ problems. And really, what kind of a good solution is going to come from a tiger in a cage?

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Day 1175: Anne of Avonlea

Cover for Anne of AvonleaA while back, some bloggers were having an Anne of Green Gables reading challenge. That led me to reread Anne of Green Gables, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well it held up for adults. Other bloggers went ahead and read the entire series.

I don’t think I read the entire series when I was a girl, but I know I read up through the time when Anne married Gilbert, so I’m guessing I read three or four books back then. When I ran across a copy of Anne of Avonlea, the second book in the series, I decided to give it a try as an adult.

In this book, Anne is sixteen and just about to begin her career as a schoolteacher in Avonlea. Most of her old friends are also teachers at nearby schools. The novel follows her adventures during the next two years as she teaches, makes new friends, and begins to grow up a little. She and Marilla also take on the upbringing of two six-year-old distant cousins of Marilla, Davey and Dora.

I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy this book as much. The dreamy, romantic Anne, with all her comments about fairies and so on isn’t as convincing as an older girl. The novel relies for humor mostly on the comments of Anne’s students and the misbehavior of Davey. I found the first a little cloying, and I couldn’t help comparing the second to a similar situation in A Girl of the Limberlost, which is handled much better. I have to admit to not developing any feelings for any of these children, whereas Anne as a child was very sympathetic.

Finally, there’s not much of a sense of plot to this novel. It is almost as if, in these transitional years, Montgomery didn’t know what to do with Anne. The most dramatic events center around her friend, Miss Lavendar Lewis, but they are predictable. I think this is a book that adolescent or pre-adolescent girls might love, but it holds little attraction for me.

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Day 1157: This Is a Poem That Heals Fish

Cover for This Is a Poem That Heals FishI read about This Is a Poem That Heals Fish on Brain Pickings and had to have it for my great nephew. It was difficult to find a copy (but no longer is).

Lolo at the bicycle shop

The book has a simple story. Arthur’s fish Leon is bored almost to death. When Arthur asks his mother what to do, she says, “Hurry, give him a poem!”

So, Arthur spends the rest of the book trying to find out what a poem is, getting advice from various people and animals in the neighborhood. For example, Lolo at the bicycle shop says “A poem, Arthur, is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.” From everyone’s comments, Arthur makes his own poem at the end of the book.

This is a lovely book, with beautiful, modern illustrations and ideas that make you ponder. Although I am giving it to a four-year-old, I think it could be appreciated by any age.

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Day 946: The Story of the Treasure Seekers

Cover for The Story of the Treasure SeekersA while back, I read E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children. Although I liked it well enough, I did not find it as delightful as the book I’m reviewing today, The Story of the Treasure Seekers. This first novel of Nesbit’s is about the Bastable children, Alice, Dicky, Dora, Horace Octavius (known as H. O.), and Oswald. The narrator keeps his identity secret, but we can tell fairly soon that it’s Oswald.

The Bastable’s mother died not long ago, and the children are vaguely aware that their father is having financial problems. He has removed them from school, and the house isn’t nicely kept up. So, the children have a council, and they each come up with a plan for finding treasure.

The novel is about what happens as the children try to raise money, their plans ranging from holding up people on the common to dowsing for gold. The novel is very funny, I think even more for adults than for children. Children will enjoy the kid’s adventures, but adults can understand an entire additional layer of information that the children in the book don’t, for example, that the Robber they find in their father’s study is probably not a Robber.

The naivety of the narration lends this novel a charm and humor that a straightforward third-person narrative would not. This is a lovely, funny book.

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