Book Review: The Ringmaster’s Wife

Ringmaster's WifeKristy Cambron’s The Ringmaster’s Wife is set in the 1920s Jazz Age. Mable Burton came from humble beginnings on a farm in Ohio. She wanted more out of life, so she went to work at the Chicago World’s Fair, carrying with her a cigar box of clippings she had collected to inspire her dreams. She met John Ringling of the Ringling Brothers circus, and eventually they married.

Lady Rosamund Easling was an earl’s daughter whose life was more or less arranged for her without consultation as to her desires. Her parents were arranging and preparing for her engagement and marriage to a man she didn’t love, and worst of all, her father was selling her beloved horse, Ingenue, a gift from her deceased brother. When offered a chance to travel to America, Rosamund took it, eventually becoming the star bareback rider for the circus.

It’s interesting that the two women came from opposite ends of the economic and social spectrum, so to speak, but both were motivated to break out of the life that was expected of them. Mable and John were real people; Rosamund and Colin, the man in charge of everything under John, were fictional. Mable didn’t set out to become rich, but she adapted well to her new lifestyle without letting it go to her head. She and John loved Venice, so when they built their home, Ca’ d’ Zan (House of John), in Florida, Mable oversaw every aspect of it and included a lot of Venetian inspiration. They had grand parties with guests like the mayor and the Ziegfelds. After I read the book, I went back to reread Susanne’s review, and saw a comment there that Kristy had a video of a tour of the house, so I looked and found this. (That’s just the first floor: there is another for the second floor and one for the circus train cars I haven’t watched yet) It was fascinating to see, having just read the book.

In the book, though, Mable was known more for her quiet wisdom. She didn’t “dip her oar” in John’s business, but she extended her influence when she thought it appropriate, like accosting the boy who pickpocketed her husband and, seeing the potential in him, encouraging him to work for the circus (I don’t know if the pickpocket incident was real). Likewise when Rosamund was “just” a beginning performer, Mabel took time to encourage her.

I wondered what inspired Kristy to write about Mable and this era (both her previous books were set in WWII, but this and the next one are set in the Jazz Age). I didn’t find anything on that exactly, but in trying to find that out I did find this interview with her about the book.

There were a lot of behind-the-scenes looks at how a circus works, and a lot of mention of the circus workers as a family. Every family will have its squabbles, though, and there is some dissension among some on a couple of issues. But I think the main thrust of the book is the sacrifice and joy involved in chasing one’s dreams.

My only criticism was that the back-and-forth timelines got a little confusing at times, even though the date is at the beginning of every chapter.

My favorite line: “Home can move. As long as your heart goes with it.”

Genre: Historical inspirational fiction
Potential objectionable elements: None
My rating: 8 out of 10



Book Review: How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth

In How to Read the BibleHow to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart attempt to help the reader understand and interpret the Bible with particular consideration of the genre of each book. They explain that the “Its” of the title is deliberate, rather than “It Is,” saying, “‘Its’ is a deliberate wordplay that works only when it appears without the apostrophe; and in the end our own emphasis lies with this possessive. Scripture is God’s Word, and we want people to read it because of its great value to them. And if they do it ‘for all it’s worth,’ hopefully they will also find its worth.”

The first chapter covers general principles for reading and understanding the Bible: exegesis, “the careful, systematic study of Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning,” which involves learning “to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text,” questions of context (historical and literary) and content; interpretation, and hermeneutics, learning “to hear that same meaning in the variety of new or different contexts of our own day.” They insist, several times over, that we must understand what the text meant to the original readers before attempting to apply it to ourselves.

The concern of the scholar is primarily with what the text meant; the concern of the layperson is usually with what it means. The believing scholar insists that we must have both. Reading the Bible with an eye only to its meaning for us can lead to a great deal of nonsense as well as to every imaginable kind of error—because it lacks controls. Fortunately, most believers are blessed with at least a measure of that most important of all hermeneutical skills—common sense.

Whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an interpreter. That is, most of us assume as we read that we also understand what we read. We also tend to think that our understanding is the same thing as the Holy Spirit’s or human author’s intent. However, we invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas. Sometimes what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text.

Let it be said at the outset—and repeated throughout—that the aim of good interpretation is not uniqueness; one is not trying to discover what no one else has ever seen before. Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to “outclever” the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deeply buried truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias). Unique interpretations are usually wrong. This is not to say that the correct understanding of a text may not often seem unique to someone who hears it for the first time. But it is to say that uniqueness is not the aim of our task. The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the “plain meaning of the text.”

Because the Bible is God’s Word, it has eternal relevance; it speaks to all humankind, in every age and in every culture.

The second chapter deals with the different translations of the Bible. You may not agree with the one they feel is best (I later learned one of them was on the translation committee for it), but this chapter will help you appreciate the difficulties involved in translating and the reasons there are so many translations, but will also reassure you that we have a few today that are especially accurate and trustworthy. There are a number of considerations, but the main differences in translations are those which use formal equivalence, “the attempt to keep as close to the ‘form’ of the Hebrew or Greek, both words and grammar, as can be conveniently put into understandable English”; functional equivalence, “the attempt to keep the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek but to put their words and idioms into what would be the normal way of saying the same thing in English” at the time of the translation, and free translation (or paraphrase), which is more concerned about translating the ideas rather than the “exact words of the original.”

The problem with a “free” translation, on the other hand, especially for study purposes, is that the translator updates the original author too much…On the one hand, these renditions often have especially fresh and vivid ways of expressing some old truths and have thus each served to stimulate contemporary Christians to take a fresh look at their Bibles. On the other hand, such a “translation” often comes very close to being a commentary, but without other options made available to the reader. Therefore, as stimulating as these can sometimes be, they are never intended to be a person’s only Bible; and the reader needs constantly to check particularly eye-catching moments against a true translation or a commentary to make sure that not too much freedom has been taken.

The rest of the book’s chapters discuss the different genres of literature in the Bible: epistles, narratives, Acts, the gospels, parables, the law, the prophets, the psalms, wisdom literature (Job, Proverbs, Song of Solomon), and Revelation.  They apply the principles they discussed in Chapter 1 to each and also discuss their forms and the particular difficulties or concerns in reading and interpreting each one. For instance, concerning the epistles, the authors  “offer the following guidelines, therefore, for distinguishing between items that are culturally relative on the one hand and those that transcend their original setting on the other hand and are thus normative for all Christians of all times.” Of the OT narratives, they say:

Our concern in this chapter is to guide you toward a good understanding of how Hebrew narrative “works,” so that you may read your Bibles more knowledgeably and with greater appreciation for God’s story. Unfortunately, failure to understand both the reason for and the character of Hebrew narrative has caused many Christians in the past to read the Old Testament story very poorly. If you are a Christian, the Old Testament is your spiritual history. The promises and calling of God to Israel are your historical promises and calling. Yet, in our experience, people force incorrect interpretations and applications on narrative portions of the Bible as much as or more than they do on any other parts. The intended value and meaning are replaced with ideas read into rather than out of the text.

Old Testament narratives are not allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings…[and] are not intended to teach moral lessons. The purpose of the various individual narratives is to tell what God did in the history of Israel…

However, even though [they] do not teach directly, they often illustrate what is taught explicitly and categorically everywhere.

One crucial thing to keep in mind as you read any Hebrew narrative is the presence of God in the narrative. In any biblical narrative, God is the ultimate character, the supreme hero of the story.

Even though the chapters on the different genres make up the bulk of the book and I have multitudes of places marked in them, for the sake of space and time I’ll stop there.

They have an appendix for “The Evaluation and Use of Commentaries” and their recommendations for good ones.

Overall, though I would not agree with every little point, I found the book very helpful. Though there is value in reading it through as a whole, I think there would be more value in reading the chapter on a particular genre just before reading that genre, and I may try to do that, or at least refresh myself on some of the applicable points, on starting a new genre in my own reading.

The authors are scholars who try very hard to make their points readable and understandable to the average layperson, and they mostly succeed. I don’t know if this is a book I would give to a brand new Christian right off the bat, though. It might be overwhelming, like trying to get a sip from a fire hydrant. But maybe not. Maybe it would help people get off on the right foot.

One frustration was that the authors often referred to what they called “How to 2” for further reading or for information they evidently didn’t want to reprint here. Since this is a third edition of the book, I thought they were referencing the second edition, and wondered why they didn’t just include that information here. But as I reread the first part, “How to 2” is referring to a different book of theirs, How to Read the Bible Book by Book.

I got this book on a Kindle sale because I had seen it referred to often, and it happened to be the third edition, which apparently is no longer available in the Kindle format. There is now a fourth edition, though, available both for print and ebook form.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Literary Musing Monday)






Book Review: Traces of Guilt

Traces of GuiltIn Traces of Guilt by Dee Henderson, Evie Blackwell is an Illinois State Police detective helping test out the possibility of a new task force dedicated to reexamining cold cases. To that end she comes to small town Carin. The disappearance of a policeman and his family  as well as the disappearance of a small girl have been unsolved for years. A fresh pair of eyes and an objective point of view should aid in coming up with new angles and questions and hopefully new trails of evidence to solve the case.

Evie’s primary contact is Gabriel Thane, Carin’s sheriff. He makes sure she has everything she needs, from case files to work space to food, answers questions, and considers possibilities of the cases with her. He loves his job, the town, and his close-knit family.

Meanwhile Gabriel’s brother, Josh, receives news that an old friend – in fact, the only girl he ever had feelings for – is coming back to town and will need his help. Learning what she needs and the reason for it is gut-wrenching, but he and his whole family are willing to help, and he hopes he can begin to reestablish a relationship with her.

Ann and Paul Falcon of Dee’s earlier book Full Disclosure make appearances here: Ann is something of the connector for various people in the story. I don’t remember if Gabriel was in any of Dee’s earlier books or not, but here they have a full-fledged working relationship and history. A few other characters from Dee’s most recent books are referenced as well.

The suspense in this story is not that of mile-a-minute action or edge-of-your-seat expectation: it’s more the suspense of puzzle-solving as Evie tugs on different threads to see which one unravels the case.

An attraction is growing between Evie and Gabriel, but they wonder if any kind of romance can thrive between a self-professed “woman of no small ambitions” and a small town sheriff committed to the area.

I always enjoy Dee, and this book is no exception. The cases themselves were intriguing, and I imagine a real-life cold case investigator would have to do much of what Evie did, examining evidence, coming up with and running down leads  that don’t end up anywhere but that tip off other details or questions, before something leads to the right outcome.

I appreciate that the Christianity in the book is neither subtle or blatant. Characters do normal Christian things like pray and talk about spiritual issues, but they don’t preach at each other or the reader.

Evie receives a tantalizing offer near the end of the book, one that contributes to fulfilling her ambitions but does nothing to resolve her personal life. But this book is evidently the first in a series, with a sequel due out in May, so we’ll see where her next steps take her.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Literary Musing Monday)



Book Review: Uncle Tom or New Negro?: African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and UP FROM SLAVERY 100 Years Later

booker-wAround 20 years ago when we lived in the Atlanta area, twice our home school group had Booker T. Washington’s granddaughter as a guest speaker. I’m sorry to say that I can’t remember her name or what she spoke about, but I do remember very much enjoying hearing her. Washington’s Up From Slavery was one of several books in the back of my mind to be read some time, and for whatever reason, I decided the time was now. As I searched for an audiobook version, I came across Uncle Tom or New Negro?: African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and UP FROM SLAVERY 100 Years Later, edited by Rebecca Carroll.

I mentioned when I reviewed Uncle Tom’s Cabin that I was surprised when I heard “Uncle Tom” used as a derogatory term, because my pastor had called him “the kind of Christian you always wanted to be.” One reason I was motivated to read the book, besides its being one of many classics I wanted to catch up with, was to discover just who Uncle Tom was and why there could be two such opposite opinions of him. After reading the book, I felt he was a Christian character trying to live out Jesus’s command to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) in some of the worst circumstances ever. But unfortunately that came across to some as weakness or passivity or kowtowing to his master. When I reviewed Roots I contrasted Kunta Kinte a bit with Uncle Tom and theorized that the former is regarded as heroic, as opposed to Tom, because he was angry, fought against his circumstances as much as he could, and when he got too comfortable, hated himself for it.

I was similarly astonished when I saw this title referring to Booker T. Washington as an “Uncle Tom,” thinking, “Isn’t his the quintessential American success story? Why would anyone refer to him in a derogatory way?”

Well, Rebecca Carroll tries to cover that in her book. She writes in the introduction:

My goal with this particular project was to find out, if possible, who Booker T. Washington was and moreover, to find out if talking with contemporary black figures about him might do one or all of several things: reflect the impact that Washington has had on black people throughout history; invoke closer scrutiny of a man already quite scrutinized (by those who actually know who he is to begin with); help a younger generation of black Americans understand the ways in which we often create and then tear down our black historical leaders all by ourselves; and simply serve as a reintroduction to Washington’s classic autobiography, Up from Slavery, which appears in its entirety following the interview portion of the book.

The first part of the book contains essays by twenty African-Americans successful in various walks of life: politics, education, music, industry, law, films, business, writing, and others. Some are very pro-Washington, some are very against him (using words like “evil” and “buffoon”), and a great many have mixed thoughts about him.

The second part of the book contains the text of Washington’s Up From Slavery which I am going to discuss first.

Up From Slavery

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in the late 1850s. He lived with his mother, brother, and sister in a slave cabin on a plantation where his mother was the cook. She had very little time or opportunity for instructing her children. They were put to work at the earliest possible age. He knew almost nothing about his father. The black children were not schooled, but on occasion when he carried his mistresses’ books to the school door, “The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression on me, and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.”

He discusses the news about the Civil War filtering into their community and his mother’s fervent prayers that Lincoln would be successful. One day all the slaves were called to assemble before the big house, and a stranger read the Emancipation Proclamation and told them they were free. “For some minutes there was great rejoicing, and thanksgiving, and wild scenes of ecstasy,” but “by the time they returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children seemed to take possession of them…In a few hours the great questions with which the Anglo-Saxon race had been grappling for centuries had been thrown upon these people to be solved…questions of home, a living, the rearing of children, education, citizenship, and the establishment and support of churches.” Some of the older people contracted to stay on with their former masters.

Booker’s step-father had belonged to different owners, and he sent for the family to join him in Malden, West Virginia. He worked in the salt mines and had Booker and his brother work with him. Booker had a thirst for learning, and when someone came to town with some degree of education, the folks contracted with him to teach the children (and adults as well who wanted to learn) and took turns boarding him. But Booker’s step-father wanted him to continue working in the salt mines, one of the “keenest disappointments” of his life. After a while he arranged with the teacher to have lessons at night, and during some months of the year he  was allowed to go to day school for a few hours in the middle of the work day. After some time he had to begin work in the coal mines, a dangerous and scary place. But there he overheard talk of a school for colored people in Virginia and the opportunity for students to work in exchange for some of the costs of their learning (he used black, Negro, and colored interchangeably; I’m using whatever word he used in the context of what I am quoting). Immediately he “was on fire with one ambition” to go to that school, Hampton Institute, even though at the time he knew nothing else about it. An opening became available in the household of the owner of the mines, so his mother applied for him to work there, and he was hired. He came to regard the lessons he learned there “as valuable to me as any education I have ever gotten anywhere since.”

He was still set on going to Hampton, though. Some considered it a “wild goose chase” while others sympathized and even helped in whatever way they could. It’s hard to imagine a boy making his way alone 500 miles with very little money, riding the train sometimes, “begging rides in both wagons and cars” other times, finding himself unwelcome in hotels due to his skin color, sleeping under a sidewalk in one city, finding work for a few days to finance the rest of his trip. When he arrived in a bedraggled state after traveling the way he had to, it can be imagined what the teacher interviewing him might have thought. She asked him to clean a room, and his work at the mine owner’s home stood him in good stead. He cleaned it several times over and passed his unusual entrance exam.

He worked his way through for several years, learning not only much he wanted to know educationally, but also hitherto unknown aspects of life like regular bathing, brushing teeth, and sleeping between sheets. He found many there to learn from in both knowledge and example, particularly General Armstrong, the principal.

After graduating and teaching at home for a while and then back at Hampton, he was recommended by Armstrong to take on the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He developed it from the ground up and worked there the next 30 years. It’s amazing that they had any students remain in the first few years, conditions were so primitive.

One policy with which several students and parents disagreed was that every student was required to work in various capacities on campus. They planted vegetables, built the buildings, the furniture, did the laundry, eventually learned brickmasonry and all manner of other work. There were several reasons for this. He doesn’t mention that this was less expensive than hiring the work out, but it seems like it had to have been a factor since money was at a premium. But mainly his philosophy was that there is dignity in honest labor, and he didn’t want students to lose sight of that in their aspirations. One of his most famous sayings is, “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” Many understandably thought an education would give them a life of ease, but he wanted them to appreciate the value of hard work and its rewards. Plus he wanted the students to lean a trade they could rely on as well as teaching them self-help and self-reliance.

There is so much that could be said both of his education and his efforts and philosophy at Tuskegee, but this review is long already and there is much I still want to say.

He had to spend much of his time traveling and speaking to raise funds for the school. From his student days he developed a growing skill and reputation as a speaker among both black and white audiences . Eventually he had opportunity to speak at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1985, which thrust him into national attention and proved to be a historical moment. He writes of the pressure he was under both due to his own busyness plus the diverse audience he would be addressing. A farmer told him, “Washington, you have spoken before the Northern white people, the Negroes in the South, and to us country white people in the South; but in Atlanta, to-morrow, you will have before you the Northern whites, the Southern whites, and the Negroes all together. I am afraid that you have got yourself into a tight place.” Booker added, “This farmer diagnosed the situation correctly, but his frank words did not add anything to my comfort.”

Reviews were mixed. One newspaper reported, “It is the first time that a Negro has made a speech in the South on any important occasion before an audience composed of white men and women. It electrified the audience, and the response was as if it had come from the throat of a whirlwind.” Many people across the country who heard of it thought highly of the speech and speaker. A lot of other black leaders at the time disagreed with parts of it (more on that later.)

He goes on to tell of his family (he was married three times: his first two wives passed away. He had three children), of receiving an honorary doctorate from Harvard, a trip to Europe paid for and urged on him by friends, further work at Tuskegee, a visit to the school from the Present of the United States. He continued to receive invitations to speak but tried to keep them balanced and secondary to his work at the school. At the time of this writing he had been working at Tuskegee for 20 years.

He speaks of accolades he received at the end, but not, I don’t think, at least, to glorify himself. I think he included it to show how far the black race had come since the days of slavery. He mentions in one place while on a ship to Europe that he was reading Frederick Douglass’s account of traveling in the same way and being told he had to stay below deck. Washington contrasted that with the cordial way he was treated to show the difference a relatively few years had made.

I enjoyed reading his account and can’t help but admire his initiative and diligence. He worked hard all his life, whether in the fields, the mines, the classroom, or behind the lectern. He was highly optimistic, perhaps overly so (more on that later).  I’m very glad to have gotten to know him better in his own words.

Uncle Tom or New Negro?

At first I wondered why Carroll put the commentaries before the reprint of Up From Slavery, but I ended up being glad she did, because I could then keep those comments in mind as I read. Most of them agreed that Washington’s success and drive were impressive. Some, as I said, had high opinions of him and his legacy.

The differences of opinion come in a few areas.

1. Some felt that he de-emphasized higher education for black people. Others said that he wanted them to be able to pursue any avenue of education they desired eventually, but that, right out of slavery, they needed practical training first. He says:

[While some] “could locate the Desert of Sahara or the capital of China on an artificial globe, I found out that the girls could not locate the proper places for the knives and forks on an actual dinner-table, or the places on which the bread and meat should be set.

I had to summon a good deal of courage to take a student who had been studying cube root and “banking and discount,” and explain to him that the wisest thing for him to do first was thoroughly to master the multiplication table.

One of the saddest things I saw during the month of travel which I have described was a young man, who had attended some high school, sitting down in a one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in studying a French grammar.

He believed the need for other kinds of education would come eventually.

The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race. One man may go into a community prepared to supply the people there with an analysis of Greek sentences. The community may not at that time be prepared for, or feel the need of, Greek analysis, but it may feel its need of bricks and houses and wagons. If the man can supply the need for those, then, it will lead eventually to a demand for the first product, and with the demand will come the ability to appreciate it and to profit by it.

One of the commentators pointed out that he did teach literacy as well as vocational skills, and that would spread as students went home or pursued jobs and taught others as well.

2. He did not feel that politics was the way to advance the causes of his people, and some disagreed with that. Some felt his desire not to agitate for political rights was indicative of passivity or kowtowing to the whites in control. He felt that, instead of demanding rights, they should learn and grow and develop skills to prove that they were worthy; others said they shouldn’t have to prove their worthiness. Some of his comments in this:

I tried to emphasize the fact that while the Negro should not be deprived by unfair means of the franchise, political agitation alone would not save him, and that back of the ballot he must have property, industry, skill, economy, intelligence, and character, and that no race without these elements could permanently succeed.

My own belief is…that the time will come when the Negro in the South will be accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to. I think, though, that the opportunity to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to the Negro by the Southern white people themselves, and that they will protect him in the exercise of those rights. Just as soon as the South gets over the old feeling that it is being forced by “foreigners,” or “aliens,” to do something which it does not want to do, I believe that the change in the direction that I have indicated is going to begin. In fact, there are indications that it is already beginning in a slight degree.

I believe it is the duty of the Negro—as the greater part of the race is already doing—to deport himself modestly in regard to political claims, depending upon the slow but sure influences that proceed from the possession of property, intelligence, and high character for the full recognition of his political rights. I think that the according of the full exercise of political rights is going to be a matter of natural, slow growth, not an over-night, gourd-vine affair

His views on political involvement may have been shaped as well by the fact that in his experience, some of the first blacks to hold offices weren’t qualified to do so yet. He writes that early on, “I saw coloured men who were members of the state legislatures, and county officers, who, in some cases, could not read or write, and whose morals were as weak as their education.” He also said:

I felt that the Reconstruction policy, so far as it related to my race, was in a large measure on a false foundation, was artificial and forced. In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to help white men into office, and that there was an element in the North which wanted to punish the Southern white men by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites. I felt that the Negro would be the one to suffer for this in the end. Besides, the general political agitation drew the attention of our people away from the more fundamental matters of perfecting themselves in the industries at their doors and in securing property.

3. His Atlanta Exposition speech was objected to by some due to his urge for cooperation rather than agitation. The following section from it, especially the last sentence, seemed to raise the most negative reaction:

As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defence of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

This site has the text of the speech, more information about it, and a partial recording of it, the only recording of Washington’s voice.

4. Another quote of his that many object to is “Notwithstanding the cruel wrongs inflicted upon us, the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did. The hurtful influences of the institution were not by any means confined to the Negro.” But taken in context, he explains that he means that the slaves were trained to work hard, to get by with little, and had been taught skills that they could then use to find jobs, all of which helped them in the next steps of managing life after slavery. Conversely, the plantations owners, by and large, had deemed physical labor as “a badge of degradation, of inferiority,” and their children had often not been taught any skills, even basic cooking or caring for a home. Some got into severe financial straits after slavery ended.

5. Another quote that flummoxes some is, “As a rule, not only did the members of my race entertain no feelings of bitterness against the whites before and during the war, but there are many instances of Negroes tenderly caring for their former masters and mistresses who for some reason have become poor and dependent since the war.” Other accounts of slaves do express bitterness. But in another place in the book where he makes a similar assertion, he adds the qualifier that lack of bitterness was true “where the Negro was treated with anything like decency.”

6. There is a lot of discussion, comparison, and contrast between Washington and his contemporary W. E. B. DuBois, much more than I can touch on in this already-long post. One person described them as the “vocational tech guy” and the “art intellectual guy,” but it wasn’t that simple. In one of the essays, James Clingman says:

I feel that this idea of Washington as a sellout, which I find among mostly older folks, is not based on any real facts but more so on word of mouth. There is this division between the older folks—and I’m talking fifty years and up—and the younger folks on the subject of Washington, particularly in relation to Du Bois. I wrote a paper a few years ago in which I suggested that we had made a mistake in forcing ourselves to choose between these two black men. We should have taken the best from both of them. Older folks say about Washington, “Oh, he was an Uncle Tom, he was a sellout,” but they don’t even know the things that he did behind the scenes, particularly in regard to supporting some of the activities and strategies of Du Bois.

7. Many of them commented that you have to take Washington in the context of his times. He describes being present at an incident where there was physical conflict between blacks and the Ku Klux Klan, about a hundred on each side, and the white people were even attacking other whites who were trying to help the blacks. Though he didn’t seem to live in in a lifelong fear of the Klan, he does admit that “the acts of these lawless bands made a great impression on me.” (Inexplicably, he wrote later that “To-day there are no such organizations in the South, and the fact that such ever existed is almost forgotten by both races. There are few places in the South now where public sentiment would permit such organizations to exist.” I don’t know if the Klan went through a period of decline and activity when he wrote that, but unfortunately they are still around.) It’s understandable that being a witness to that kind of conflict and animosity, plus the realization that black people were outnumbered, would affect his views of how black people should go about gaining their footing as a people. But I don’t think he was primarily motivated by fear. He wanted the races to cooperate and be friends and felt that “forcing” change would only cause bad feelings.

8 Some objected to his asking for and taking money from white people for his school. Others pointed out that black people didn’t have money then to contribute, and that even the NAACP received contributions from white people.

One of the commentators asserted that you can’t really know Washington and his philosophies without reading all of his books, and that’s a fair statement. But both parts of this book were quite helpful in understanding him as a person and his continuing influence even today. I think he and those who opposed him in the black community ultimately wanted the same things, but had different philosophies of how to go about it. I have wondered if any of his philosophies would have been different if he had lived in the 1950s or 1960s. I don’t think that he would ever have advocated militancy, but I think maybe he would have recognized by that time that some things would not change without political intervention and new laws.

During election seasons I’ve always chafed at comments or speculations about “the black vote,” “the women’s vote,” “the Hispanic vote,” etc., as if everyone in those categories thought and voted exactly alike. The first part of this book is a demonstration that all African-Americans don’t think just alike. The commentaries were enlightening to me in many ways. I was a child during the 60s in a nonpolitical family, our schools were integrated and we interacted fairly easily, so I was pretty much unaware of a lot that was going on in the larger world until I became an adult. Though of course I’ve become more informed and aware since then, a lot of the discussion was new and eye-opening to me.

I think that words like “evil” and “buffoon” certainly don’t apply to Washington, nor do accusations that he “got drunk on the fawning of white people” or said primarily what they wanted to hear. Most of the writers were much more generous than that, even while not agreeing with everything about him.

Again, there is so much more that could be said about both parts of this book, and so many more quotes that I have marked than I can share. But both parts were enlightening, informative, and helpful.

Genre: Non-fiction
Objectionable elements: A smattering of words like “damn” and “hell” in the first part of the book, a couple of vulgar and profane references in chapter 17.
My rating: 9 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Literary Musing Monday)












The Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge Wrap-up 2017

It’s the last day of February and so it is time to wrap up our Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge. If you’ve read anything by, about, or related to Laura this month, please share it with us in the comments. You can share a link back to your book reviews, or if you’ve written a wrap-up post, you can link back to that. If you don’t have a blog, just share in the comments what you read and your thoughts about it. We’d also love to hear if you’ve done any “Little House” related activities.

I like to have some sort of drawing to offer a prize concluding the challenge, so I am offering one winner the choice of:

The Little House Cookbook compiled by Barbara M. Walker


Laura’s Album: A Remembrance Scrapbook of Laura Ingalls Wilder by William Anderson

If neither of those suits you, I can substitute a similarly-priced Laura book of your choice. To be eligible, leave a comment on this post by next Tuesday (March 7) telling us what you read for this challenge. I’ll choose a name through a week from today to give everyone time to get their last books and posts finished.

I’m afraid I can’t send the books outside of the USA due to shipping costs, but if you live outside of the US, I could send an equivalent Amazon gift certificate if you’re able to use it where you are.

Personally, I read and reviewed These Happy Golden Years, covering her first teaching experiences and courtship with Almanzo, and The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook, which includes recipes from the scrapbook cookbook she assembled as an adult as well as photos of her Rocky Ridge home and interesting facts about her life. I also celebrated her 150th birthday with fun facts, quotes, and links related to her as well as Apple Upside Down Cake made from her cookbook

Thanks for participating! I hope you enjoyed your time “on the prairie” this month. It always leaves me with renewed admiration for our forebears and renewed thankfulness that I live in the times I do.

Update: The drawing is completed: the winner is Laura! Congratulations!



What’s On Your Nightstand: February 2017

What's On Your NightstandThe folks at 5 Minutes For Books host What’s On Your Nightstand? the last Tuesday of each month in which we can share about the books we have been reading and/or plan to read.

We have an excuse in February for saying it felt like a short while since the last Nightstand.  I’m posting mine a day early since tomorrow I am posting a wrap-up for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge.

Since last time I have completed:

The Tidewater Sisters by Lisa Wingate, reviewed here. In this novella postlude to The Prayer Box, Tandi Jo is preparing for her wedding when she receives notification that she’s being sued over property that she doesn’t even own. She has to face some situations and people from her past, including her scheming sister. Short but good.

Two Roads Home by Deborah Raney, reviewed here. Jesse’s outgoing nature is sometimes mistaken as flirting, which backfires on him when a colleague takes it the wrong way. Jesse tries to protect his family and job but wonders whether this is a signal that some things need to change. Good.

12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, reviewed here. Northup’s story of being a free man deceived and then kidnapped into slavery on a trip to the South, his experiences, and his rescue. Riveting.

The Story Girl by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Carrie’s  L. M. Montgomery Reading Challenge, reviewed here. The adventures of a group of children on Prince Edward Isle. Not thrilled with it overall but liked parts of it.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook, reviewed here. Some of Laura’s recipes as well as photos and tidbits of her adult life and home. Very enjoyable.

These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge, reviewed here. This covers the time from Laura’s fifteenth year to her wedding, including her first teaching assignments and courtship with Almanzo. Loved it.

Uncle Tom or New Negro?: African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and UP FROM SLAVERY 100 Years Later, edited by Rebecca Carroll. I had been looking to read Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington and stumbled across this book, which includes the text of that book as well as commentary from 20 black leaders on his life and legacy. Just finished it this morning – hope to review it soon.

I’m currently reading:

How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart

Spiritual Mothering: The Titus 2 Design for Women Mentoring Women by Susan Hunt

Traces of Guilt by Dee Henderson

The Ringmaster’s Wife by Kristy Cambron

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Up Next:

A Place of Quiet Rest by Nancy Leigh DeMoss

The Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay

Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More by Karen Swallow Prior and Eric Metaxas

When Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Refused to Give Up by Jamie Janosz

How about you? What’s on your nightstand?

A word about “negative” book reviews

img_1931I’ve seen more than one blogger say that if they can’t write a positive review about a book, they just don’t write one. And I can appreciate that. But while I don’t want to come across as unduly critical and nitpicky, I think it’s important to be honest and disclose when a book has issues. Here are a few reasons why:

I appreciate honest reviews myself. A number of times I’ve gotten a book due to rave reviews from a blogger only to be surprised by a sexual scene or something a little off. When I look at Amazon reviews of a book, I look at a couple of the positive and a couple of the negative. Granted, some of the negative reviews there are ridiculous, but even that gives me an indication that if that’s the only bad thing someone has to say about a book, then it’s likely to be ok. On the other hand, I’ve saved myself the exposure to a sexual scene by reading some of those reviews.

Since readers have told me they have bought books based on my recommendations, I feel a responsibility for how I present them. Several readers have told me they appreciate my book reviews for that reason: they have a good idea what they’ll be getting into if they pick up a book I have reviewed. I would feel awful if someone read a book I recommended and then came back to me dismayed because they ran into something objectionable.

But I also like to be honest in my reviews in the hopes that the author will take it as a constructive criticism. I know most authors won’t see my reviews, though I have heard from a handful. And I have seen some authors’ blogs where they brush off any kind of criticism. In fact, one Christian author I don’t read any more due to sexual scenes in her books had a post expressing woundedness over the criticism she was receiving instead of taking it to heart. I don’t know why she feels compelled to be so explicit in books that are otherwise very good, but you’d think that, since readers object to it and she’s losing readers because of it, she’d scale it back a bit. Maybe she has more readers who say they like it.

If I were an author, I’d want to know if readers thought part of my book dragged in places or didn’t make sense or whatever. Hopefully most of those issues would have been worked out by having people read and critique the book before publication. But if any remained, I’d want to know to improve my future writing.

I tend to be a bit harder on Christian fiction, for a number of reasons. Books written for the King (which Christian fiction should ultimately be) are held to a higher standard. I’ve heard people summarily dismiss Christian fiction as being poorly written. I have to smile when they say that about all Christian fiction, because I think to myself, “You haven’t read it all.” There is some poorly written Christian fiction, but I wouldn’t say the percentages are higher for this genre than any other. Nevertheless, because I have heard it so criticized, I want it to shine and be the best it can be and prove the naysayers wrong. Also, since Christian fiction portrays spiritual truth to some degree, it needs to be in line with the Bible, or else it is not truly Christian fiction. I know there are some areas of controversy in Christendom, and I don’t have an issue with a different opinion in most of those cases. But when it comes to bedrock inarguable truth, like who Jesus is and how one comes to know Him, whatever a book shares about that needs to be clear. I said before in The Gospel and Christian Fiction that I don’t feel every Christian book necessarily has to have a conversion scene or to fully present the gospel, but whatever it does say needs to be clear and accurate.

And, obviously, Christian fiction should be the one place Christians can be assured of clean reading. That doesn’t mean there should be no sin in a book, as I said in Edgy Christian Fiction. You don’t have a plot without conflict and you generally don’t have conflict without sin. But how it’s presented makes a lot of difference.

No one likes everything about every book. When I read blogs whose book reviews are constantly filled with gushy praise, it makes me a little suspicious, especially if they disclose they’re getting their books for free in exchange for a review. It sounds like they’ve found a way to support their habit. I know that’s not always the case: some people are just naturally more effusive than I am. But I have gotten books based on those kinds of recommendations only to be disappointed.

I do generally avoid books that I don’t think I am going to like in the first place. That’s one reason I don’t usually accept unsolicited books for review. I get requests from time to time based on the fact that I write about books a lot, and at first I would check the sample chapter or link provided, and most of the time they’d be pretty awful. I’m not going to accept a book like that and then have to write negatively about it (besides already having plenty of books stacked up to read anyway).

So I am expecting to like most books I read and fully planning to write a positive review. But if I come across something that jars for some reason, I am not going to “trash” the book or the author, but I’ll likely mention it. Not every little thing: for instance, in one book recently, the author kept describing a certain expression by saying that the space between the person’s eyes narrowed. And I tried to picture what that would look like, and wondered if people could actually do that. It struck me as odd, especially as the author used that phrase several times over. If I were asked to critique a book, I’d mention something like that. But in a general review, that kind of thing doesn’t affect the overall quality of the story, so I don’t see a need to mention it.

My reviews here are different from what I’d write if I were writing for a magazine or newspaper. Those would be a lot more concise. Here, I’m reviewing the book but I am also writing down what I thought about it while it is on my mind so I can remind myself if I come back to it later.

Even in mentioning problems in a book, I try to express that in a civil way without sounding like I am just trashing the book or author. I have seen Amazon and Goodread reviews that would make an author cry for good reason. There is no need to be hurtful and go into attack mode.

I’ve also read reviews at these other places that reveal that the reviewer just didn’t “get” something about the book, and their negative opinion is based on a misunderstanding. I hope that is not the case with my reviews, but as I am human, it’s very possible. I do welcome different opinions.

So that’s why I sometimes mention negative features of a book. I don’t read with red correcting pen in hand just looking for things to disagree with, but if something stands out that I think affects the quality of the book, or that I think would be detrimental to readers, I’ll mention it in, I hope, as kind a manner as possible. Sometimes explaining that takes a bit more space than the good things I want to bring out about the book, but, unless the negative is really bad, I hope to portray the book in its best possible light.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday)