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, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)


Books you loved












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)




Book Review: These Happy Golden Years

happy-golden-yearsThese Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder covers the time when Laura, at age 15, starts teaching school, to the time of her marriage at age 18.

It’s incredible to us today to think of someone teaching at age 15, before they have even finished high school. I don’t think that was the usual course even then, but a need arose, and Laura had passed the teaching examination and was willing to go.

This term was one of the most difficult of her life. The school was twelve miles from her home, and she boarded with the superintendent. His wife was sullen, mostly silent, and seemed to resent Laura’s being there. Later Laura heard her complaining about everything, not just Laura, so she knew it was just that she was unhappy in general rather than just resenting Laura. The woman was probably clinically depressed from what I can ascertain. At one point in the middle of the night she threatened her husband with a knife, but he talked her down. The conditions of both the house and the school were fairly primitive. The walls and floor of the school had cracked through which the cold seeped in. Sometimes Laura let the students do their lessons around the stove. Laura never really liked teaching, but it was a way she could earn money to help keep Mary in the college for the blind.

She was concerned that her youth and small stature would be a problem in trying to teach and discipline students who were bigger and older than she was. And indeed it was, but her parents’ good advice and her own ingenuity helped her over those hurdles.

The only thing that made this time bearable was the fact that it was only for that one term, plus Almanzo Wilder came and picked her up every Friday afternoon, took her home, and brought her back every Sunday. When her students referred to him as her beau, she didn’t want him to get the wrong idea, and told him she was just riding with him to get home, not because she had any interest in him. She expected he wouldn’t keep coming after that, but he did.

Finally the term was over and she was back at home, attending her own classes, which she had been able to keep up with by studying on her own. On weekends a lot of the young people paired up to go sleighing around town. Laura was feeling lonely and out of it when Almanzo came and asked if she’d like to go with him. Thus started a habit that continued on, riding the sleigh in the winter and the buggy in the spring and summer. Laura was not afraid even when Almanzo was breaking new horses in with the buggy, and she had to jump in as Almanzo could only pause for a few seconds before the horses took off again.

She taught two more terms of school in different places, continued with her own schooling, helped at home. Mary came home for a couple of visits. I enjoyed seeing Carrie mature and the relationship between her and Laura grow, as well as the rejoicing in the family when any one of them received something or had a good opportunity. Pa would have liked to move the family on again where the land was less settled, but he didn’t. Her descriptions of a couple of dresses Ma made, with all the detail, layers, lining, and bustle, made me very glad that fashions have changed since that time!

Almanzo was a quiet, not pushy, but persistent suitor. Laura didn’t give him much encouragement, as he was ten years older. At one point when someone called Laura a young lady, “she was startled” and had not thought of herself in that way and “was not sure she liked” it. But when Nellie Oleson tried to horn her way in to his attentions, I think perhaps Laura understood then just how much she actually did care for Almanzo. In Pioneer Girl, she wrote that after he had been away for a few months, “I hadn’t known that I missed him, but it was good to see him again, gave me a homelike feeling.” The way they got engaged was both sweet and funny.

One of my favorite scenes in the book is when she’s admiring their new home, particularly the spaciousness and organization of the kitchen and pantry that he had crafted for her.

I very much enjoyed this reread of this book.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook

liw-cookbookWhen I saw The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook among the resources on Annette’s site, I had to look it up. Unfortunately, it’s out of print now, but used copies are available. I got mine for less than $4.

This is different from The Little House Cookbook, compiled by Barbara M. Walker, which shares recipes mentioned in the Little House books. This book was the result of finding Laura’s “home-made cookbook, waterlogged and wrinkled” “among reams of the yellowed papers that are a witness to her writing life” (p. vi).

Her cookbook was in the form of a scrapbook, which I enjoyed since I did mine that way as well. But hers was literally made of scraps. “The Wilders were extraordinary in their thrift and ingenious in recycling useful items. Laura’s cookbook exemplifies her careful economy…Recipes were pasted over pages of a cardboard-covered invoice book used by Almanzo while he was a fuel oil deliveryman in the early 1900s” (p. vii) as well as a calendar page and the back of letters. I tried writing notes on the backs of used paper in college, while money was extremely tight, and I couldn’t stand it. 🙂 It just seemed too confusing and messy. But for Laura this was probably a lifelong habit stemming from when they didn’t have money to get extra paper, or in some places where they lived when she was a child, there was no extra paper to be had.

It contains her owned penned recipes, “clippings from newspaper food columns or magazines,” meal ideas, “cooking advice from her mother…and daughter,” and even a tip about setting colors in cloth to avoid fading.

This cookbook doesn’t include the cooking advice or tips, but it does include several of Laura’s recipes, photos of Rocky Ridge farm, where Laura and Almanzo lived the bulk of their adult lives, by Leslie A. Kelly, and some commentary by Laura biographer William Anderson. I enjoyed seeing the photos of Laura’s home.

I even learned some things about Laura’s adult life that I hadn’t known before, like how she came to write columns for the Missouri Ruralist (its editor was a meeting where Laura was supposed to speak about raising poultry, which she had been asked to do because of her success in that endeavor. She could not attend but wrote out her speech to be read there.) Plus she took in boarders for a while (which they actually did portray in the “Little House: A New Beginning” TV series). The house had a lot of windows, and Laura would have “curtains hung straight at the sides, leaving the views undisturbed…’I don’t want curtains over my pictures'” she explained. Rose remarked, “She has windows everywhere, not only in her house but in her mind” (p. 144). She had a “behemoth” cookstove “circa 1905” which served her “for over a half-century” (p. 46). They later added a little electric stove for use for something quick or when it was too hot to use the cookstove, but she generally preferred the latter. In fact, the recipes had to be configured and tested in a modern kitchen for the book so they’d be more accessible to those who wanted to try them.

I also enjoyed learning a bit more about Almanzo.”While the careers of Laura and Rose brought renown to the Wilder name in journalism and literature, Almanzo was known as one of Wright County’s best farmers. Making Rocky Ridge farm productive was not an easy task; much of the land was stony and untillable. But Almanzo worked magic with the stubborn soil.” He was written up in the news for having a cow that produced “twenty-four pounds of milk at one milking,” “heads of wheat over seven inches long,” and a “fifteen-inch tomato.” He was both “a judge and a participant” in the Agricultural Stock Show and won many prizes (p. 56).

The recipes are primarily good old American cooking – meat loaf, chicken pie, chicken and dumplings, various side dishes, breads, desserts and beverages – with a few “adventurous” foreign-influenced dishes. Some of the entrees are not what we would call heart-healthy today. 🙂 But I have a few marked that I want to try, as well as a few from the different sections. The recipe she shared when asked for a favorite was her gingerbread, which I’d like to try some time, as well as Lemon Spice Puffs, Lemon Sticks, Whole Wheat Bread, Scalloped Corn Kansas, Farmhouse Stew, Gingernuts, and Applesauce Cake. The only one I have made so far is the Apple Upside Down Cake in her honor for her birthday.  I think I’ll leave the Liver Loaf, Chilled Meat Loaf, Glazed Beets, Dandelion Soup, and Lima Puree to others, though. 🙂

Reading her recipes while seeing photos of her home and hearing tidbits about her life was like a little visit with her. I think any Laura fan would like this book as well as anyone interested in vintage recipes.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: Two Roads Home

two-roads-homeTwo Roads Home by Deborah Raney is the second in her Chicory Inn series (the first was Home to Chicory Lane, reviewed last year). The series focuses on the Whitman family: empty nesters Grant and Audrey, who have turned their home into a bed and breakfast, and their four grown children and their families.

This second book focuses on oldest daughter Corinne, though all of the family is in the book. Corinne is married to Jesse, who has a good, well-paying job which allows her to comfortably stay home with their three daughters in a nice, big house. Jesse is very good-looking and very outgoing, and they’ve had talks about how sometimes women see his interactions as flirtations when he hasn’t meant them that way.

But on a business trip with a female colleague, it finally happens. He hasn’t led her on or flirted intentionally, but she acts towards him in ways that make him feel uncomfortable. When he confronts her and tells her that he is not interested and he is happily married, she turns the tables on him and files a a complaint with their boss against him for sexual harassment.

As Jesse and Corrine deal with the implications of this, several odd things begin to happen that make them realize that more than just Jesse’s job is under threat.

Part of the book reads like a mystery, but the part I liked best was the realistic interactions between family members. Though they all love God, they have misunderstandings or occasionally rub each other the wrong way, like we all do. Audrey wants to be the “quintessential grandmother,” but she feels her children don’t understand that running the inn is the equivalent of a full-time job. Two of the sisters’ housing situations is changing, one moving up and one moving down, and there are very human feelings portrayed there. Sometimes the siblings are too sensitive, sometimes not sensitive enough. I felt that their trying to work through these things in the best way was genuinely portrayed.

All in all it was a good read, and I am looking forward to the next in the series.

Genre: Christian fiction
Potential objectionable elements: The physical side of Jesse’s and Corinne’s marriage is mentioned a few times, but there is nothing explicit and no “steamy” scenes.
My rating: 9 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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