Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge 2018 Winner

Congratulations to Rebekah for winning the Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge this year! Thanks to all of those who participated. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did! I already have plans for next year!


Book Review: Little Blog on the Prairie

Little Blog  Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell wasn’t on my radar at all, but the title caught my eye while I was passing through the YA section in the library.

The premise: Gen comes from a modern family where each member tends to operate mostly apart from the others. Gen’s mom, a “Little House on the Prairie addict,” decides the whole family would benefit from a vacation to “Camp Frontier,” where everyone is supposed to live like it’s 1890.

No one else in the family is happy about it. Gen only acquiesces when her mom shows her a new cell phone and tells her she can have it when they get back from vacation. But Gen smuggles the phone into camp with her, and when she can find some privacy, she texts her two best friends about how horrible everything is. The friends make a blog out of her texts, which then goes viral, which brings a news crew out to see what’s going on.

Some reviewers objected to Gen’s sarcastic, whiny attitude, but I think they missed the point that she changes during the course of the book. She realizes at one point that her attitude is ruining the experience for her mother, who had looked forward to it. She finds there is satisfaction in seeing the results of hard work. She comes to find that hastily sent words made public can come back to haunt her. It takes the family a long time, but they do learn the value of pulling together and enjoying each other’s company. But the author isn’t saying that going back to a “simpler” time is the answer to modern problems: first of all, they weren’t so simple, and second of all, people without modern conveniences had personal and family issues, too.

Gen is just finishing eighth grade as the book begins, so in my book she’s too young to be kissing a guy near the end and having him tell her that her dress is sexy. There’s mention of an obscene gesture coming from a younger girl. It’s written from a modern secular viewpoint. So for all those reasons I don’t know that I would give the book to a young teen, at least not without some discussion about those and Gen’s attitude. But it does bring out some timeless truths without being heavy-handed about it.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

Book Review: Trust: A Godly Woman’s Adornment

TrustTrust: A Godly Woman’s Adornment by Lydia Brownback is one of a series of “on the go” devotionals for women: small, relatively short books focusing on one main topic.

After an introduction titled “Why Women Fear,” Lydia deals with various aspects of battling fear and anxiety. Each chapter is just two, sometimes three pages long, making it very easy to grab a “nugget” to carry with you through the day.

To give you just a taste, some of the chapter titles are:

The What-If Woman
A Phobic’s Only Reemedy
False Security
Resting on Self-Righteousness
Afraid of the Pain
Whose Fault Is Our Fear?
Control Freaks
The Path to Healing
A Fence Against Fear

And some of the quotes that stood out to me:

The only thing big enough to conquer this kind of fear is God, who rules every detail of every day of your life. Rest assured that nothing can touch you apart from your heavenly Father’s permission. Out of his love for you, he is well able to prevent the thing you are so afraid of, and out of that same love he might allow it. Either way, whatever happens, he only allows what is going to work for your eternal happiness and blessing and his glory (p. 26).

God wants more than our symptom relief. He desires to get at the core of what underlies our fears, which, at the deepest level, have to do with our relationship to him (p. 27).

God allows us to experience fear at times to help us recognize our false foundations, things on which we are resting our security that have no more strength to support us than a mound of whipped cream (p. 28).

God often acts contrary to how we think a good God should act. The answer we think we need seems so logical and clear to our way of thinking, yet God does not provide it. That is where faith comes in. Real faith isn’t the belief that God will do a particular thing; real faith is the conviction that God is good, no matter what he does and however he chooses to answer our prayers (p. 30).

We care much less about long-term results and the glory of God than we do about simply feeling better (p. 48).

“I’d never put my child through what God is doing to me.” But God is a wiser parent than we could ever be. He places us in situations that provoke us, not to cause us to doubt but to strengthen us against our doubts” (p. 72).

God let [Jonah] go his own way, as he does with us when we insist on running our own show; but because God is merciful, he will make sure that any way we take away from him doesn’t work out so well (p. 79).

That very thing you want God to fix may be his instrument to teach you first to depend on him rather than on yourself or on peaceful circumstances (p. 90).

Rather than take God at his word, they just looked at the difficulties. Rather than doubt their own viewpoint, they doubted God’s (p. 97).

The devil is stronger and smarter than we are; so arguing with him won’t help us very much and can actually enhance our difficulty. Jesus has provided us with the way to resist…there are Scripture passages to refute every one of [the devil’s] lies. Immersing ourselves in the Bible is one of the primary ways we keep, or guard, our hearts (p. 130).

This book is a treasure that I am pretty sure I will revisit often. In addition, this experience with Lydia’s book makes me want to check out her others as well.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge 2018 Wrap-up

It’s the end of February and that means the end of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge for this year!

A week from today I’ll use to draw a name from the comments on this post to win either The Little House Cookbook compiled by Barbara M. Walker or Laura’s Album: A Remembrance Scrapbook of Laura Ingalls Wilder by William Anderson, or a similarly-priced book related to Laura. A week should give some of us who are still reading time to finish up and post about our reading. You don’t have to have a blog to participate: you can tell us what you read in the comments here. If you have a blog, you can either let us know what you read in the comments or share the links back to any reviews or challenge-related posts from your blog or even from Goodreads if you review books there.

Before I go any further, I need to apologize for something. I had created a book list of books by, about, or somehow related to Laura. Some of them I had not read but had heard about or seen. Two of them turned out to have objectionable content. I have removed them from that list, and I feel terrible that some of you chose those books, probably because of seeing them on that list. I am going to be much more careful about that in the future, and, once again, I sincerely apologize for having books with serious problems on a recommended book list here.

For my own part, I did have to lay aside one I was reading: Death On the Prairie by Kathleen Ernst. It’s a modern-day mystery involving a quilt that might have been owned by Laura, might even have been made by Laura, being given to a historic museum curator named Chloe. She decides to go with her sister, with whom she had not been close lately, on a tour of all the Laura historical sites to consult with others and see if she can find out more information plus, as per the owner’s wishes, decide which of those sites to donate the quilt to. But early on a mysterious death occurs at the first site, which I assume later on is discovered to be a murder, and that somehow involves Chloe. I was irritated by some bad language (damns and hells), and then bothered by some vulgar words, and finally an appearance of the “f” word caused me to shut the book and give up on it. But it wasn’t grabbing me anyway. The writing was a little juvenile in places (one example: “Oh-boy-oh-boy-oh-boy! Chloe thought with giddy glee,” p. 6) and not great in others (“Something quivered beneath Chloe’s ribs, as if one of her heart-strings had been plucked,” p. 8). And, then, it was inaccurate in at least one place: when Chloe visits the site in Burr Oak, Iowa, the tour guide tells them this segment in the Ingalls’ life, where they manage a hotel next to a saloon, is neither in the books nor the TV series. It’s not in the LH books, but it is in the TV series, in season 5. The town is called Winoka there rather than Burr Oak, and the Dakota Hotel rather than the Masters Hotel, and the timing may have been different, but they are definitely helping in a hotel next to a saloon. Anyway, for all of those reasons and a couple more, the story just wasn’t grabbing me, but the language was “the last straw” that made me put it down. It’s too bad, because it sounded like it would have been good. Most of the reviews I’ve seen are positive, so a lot of other people liked it better than I did.

Other than that, for this year’s challenge I read:

The First Four Years by Laura, about her first four years of marriage. The manuscript was found among her papers after her death and published later after Rose’s death. They had quite a rough go of it at first, but in true pioneer spirit they summon the strength to persevere. I quite enjoyed rereading this.

I looked through several of the My First Little House books, designed for 4-8-year-olds. I have not reviewed them nor had a chance to show them to Timothy, but Rebekah has an excellent review here (where I first learned of them!) They are gorgeous, illustrated by Jody Wheeler and Renee Graf, “inspired by the work of Garth Williams with his permission.” I am so glad they kept with a similar style of the books that many of us grew up with. I have not read each of the thirteen books word for word yet, but from what I did read and what Rebekah said, they seem to follow the books very closely, except, of course, for being condensed and adapted for a younger child.

I’m still working on Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell. This was not at all on my radar, but I just happened to notice it while passing through the children’s section of the library. It’s more YA than a children’s book, though, recommended for ages 12 and up. It’s about a modern-day family with several issues going for an extended “Camp Frontier,” where they are supposed to live like they did in the 1890s. The kids, of course, are not excited. The main character, Gen, manages to smuggle in a cell phone, where she texts about the experience to her friends, who put the texts on a blog which then goes viral. There’s a requisite mean girl and cute guy, along with a goth friend and several other characters. So far this seems pretty good – I hope it continues to be! I’ll review it in full when I am done. It’s not really directly related to LIW so far except to reference her a couple of times, like the mom in the family having been “a Laura Ingalls Wilder addict.” (Update: my review is here.)

So that’s my Laura reading this year. 🙂 A few years ago, I thought I might end the challenge with the last book in the LH series, but I have found more LIW books that I want to read, so we’ll look forward to continuing on next year!

In the meantime, I am looking forward to finding out what you read and what you thought about it!

What’s On Your Nightstand: February 2018

Nightstand82The 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.

It’s always nice when the fourth Tuesday occurs near the actual end of the month. It’s hard to believe we’re 1/6 through 2018 already! Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Since last time I have completed:

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, reviewed here, including a discussion of the “magic” in the book.

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, reviewed here. Not my favorite of his books, but it’s still a classic after all these years, so probably others like it more than I did.

The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay, reviewed here. A fun Austen-themed vacation turns strange when one of the guests loses her memory and thinks she is actually from that era.

The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder, reviewed here. Laura and Almanzo’s marriage got off to a rough start with illnesses, crop failure, and debt, but they found the courage and strength to go on.

Trust: A Godly Woman’s Adornment by Lydia Brownback. I just finished this and hope to review it soon. Excellent.

I had to lay aside Death On the Prairie by Kathleen Ernst, a modern mystery set around some of the places Laura lived and involving a quilt that may have been hers. I’ll say more about it tomorrow for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge wrap-up, but the main problem was bad language, though the story itself wasn’t grabbing me anyway.

I’m currently reading:

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (This may be my biggest surprise book of the year! It’s quite good!)

Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell, about a modern family with problems going to a “Camp Frontier.” Good so far.

Up Next:

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

He Fell in Love With His Wife by Edward Payson Roe

Sins of the Past by Dee Henderson, Dani Pettrey, and Lynette Eason

Going Like Sixty by Richard Armour

Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything by Anne Bogel

Happy reading!

Book Review: The First Four Years

One time when Laura Ingalls Wilder was asked why she didn’t write more books, she replied that the money she received from them cost her more in taxes. “She never found taxes on those who had labored their way to prosperity to be an incentive for even more labor.” But another time she said that if she wrote more, she’d have to get into some of the sad times of her life (I Remember Laura by Stephen W. Hines, pp. 102, 97, and 122).

The First Four Years was not originally part of the little House series, according to the introduction. The manuscript was found among Laura’s papers when she passed away, written on the same kind of tablets on which she had written her other books. Her daughter, Rose, entrusted it to her friend and heir Roger Lea MacBride. After Rose passed away, Roger met with Laura’s editors, and they discussed and thought over the issue and decided that, considering what Laura, Rose, and Laura’s fans would want, the manuscript should be published as is.

A fairly short book at 134 pages, it’s also straightforward, and it’s easy to imagine that Laura would have filled in and fleshed it out a bit more than this first draft. But it is still a great story, covering the first four years Laura and Almanzo were married.

They had a rough go of it those years, and I imagine this is what Laura was alluding to when she talked about getting into the sad times of her life.

The story opens just before their wedding, with Laura saying she didn’t want to marry a farmer. She did want to marry Almanzo, however, so she encouraged him to do something else for a living. After debating about the problems and benefits of farming, Almanzo proposed that they give it a three year trial, and Laura agreed.

They had a very simple ceremony, no honeymoon, and on Laura’s second day of marriage, she had to make a meal for all the threshers who came to help with that work. But she was happy to be in her own home. “Laura found doing work alone very different from helping Ma. But it was part of her job and she must do it, though she did hate the smell of hot lard, and the site of so much fresh meat ruined her appetite for any of it” (p. 30).

They enjoyed horseback riding in the warmer evenings and sitting by the fire on cold ones. They dealt with larger dangers of Indians and blizzards and smaller domestic ones of neighbors borrowing and not returning equipment. Soon baby Rose came to them, and Laura discovered “there was a good deal to taking care of babies” (p. 75).

But trials came, too – lost crops, against which they had borrowed money, diphtheria for Laura, a stroke for Almanzo, the loss of another baby, fire, ever-present debt.

Though these things took their toll, and they grieved, there was nothing else to do but pick up and go on. Almanzo seemed characterized by optimism, and though Laura struggled wondering how everything was ever going to work out, eventually she concluded “it would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely she felt her spirit rising for the struggle” (p. 133).

Once again I marvel at that pioneer spirit. Any one of these trials would send a modern person into depression and counseling for years (please know that I am not making light of depression or the need for counselors). How did people cope then with so much loss? It seems it was just accepted as a part of life. Everyone had struggles, not just the Wilders. Has our relative ease weakened us? I don’t know. But here and there we still find those whose “spirits rise for the struggle,” who overcome overwhelming odds.

I’m so thankful this book was found and published. I enjoyed the peek into Laura and Almanzo’s first years and am inspired by their example.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne opens in Hamburg in 1863, where Professor Otto Lidenbrock has just come home with a prized Icelandic runic manuscript which he is eagerly showing to his uninterested (but pretending to be interested) nephew, Axel, who is also his ward and assistant. The professor’s enthusiasm is diverted, however, when an old piece of paper falls out of the book and is discovered to have a message in code from “Arne Saknussemm!…another Icelander, a savant of the sixteenth century, a celebrated alchemist.” After hours of trying to decipher the code, and asserting that neither he nor anyone else in the house will eat until they have figured it out, he darts out of the room in frustration. Axel works on it a bit, and, to his own surprise, figures out the message – but then determines that his uncle will never know it lest he act upon it. Suffering from hunger, however, Axel finally yields the message, which is:

“Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jokul of Sneffels, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth; which I have done, Arne Saknussemm.”

And act upon it the professor does, immediately preparing for himself and Axel to go explore an extinct volcano called Sneffels (or Snæfell) in Iceland. Part of the professor’s interest is his regard for Saknussemm, but in addition there is a raging controversy about whether the center of the Earth is cold or hot, and this will be his chance to prove his thinking is right. They hire a quiet but handy hunter named Han as a guide, and their adventure begins, fraught with both excitement and danger.

My thoughts:

I have to admit I didn’t like this story nearly as well as the two other Verne books I have read, Around the World in 80 Days and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I think part of it was that the scientific aspect was so improbable, but also the characters don’t change or grow much at all. There is some suspense in determining whether the Professor is an intrepid explorer contrasted with Axel’s neurotic cowardice, or whether Axel’s is the voice of reason vainly opposing the professor as a mad scientist. I did read somewhere that Axel is a teenager, which would make his behavior make more sense, but I tried to find that in the book and couldn’t locate it.

I listened to the audiobook pretty well read by Derek Perkins. My only quibble is that even though Axel is the narrator of the story, Mr. Perkins uses a different voices for him as the narrator or the character, when they should sound the same. The German accent only comes out when Axel the character is speaking.

I looked through the Project Gutenberg version online while searching for Axel’s age, and was surprised by some subtle humor I had missed in the recording. Usually it’s just the opposite: usually I catch nuances in listening that I miss while reading. I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this book, but if I ever do, I’ll read it next time and see if that makes a difference.

There are a variety of translations of this book, and one, for some reason, changes the names of the professor to Hardwigg and Axel to Harry or Henry and rewrites portions of the book. I’d avoid that one. Wikipedia has information on other translations as does this post.

I also would not have considered this a children’s book, and Common Sense Media says, “Verne was writing in an earlier era for a mostly adult audience, presumed, if they were literate enough to be reading novels for pleasure, to be very well educated. The vocabulary is advanced, the descriptions lengthy, and the scientific and literary references removed from the experience of most young readers. Experienced teens will enjoy it, and younger experienced listeners may enjoy hearing it read by an adult with the patience to stop often for explanations.” However, Wikipedia says it was originally published in a boys’ magazine.

Wikipedia also says, “The genre of subterranean fiction already existed long before Verne. However, the present book considerably added to its popularity and influenced later such writings. For example, Edgar Rice Burroughs explicitly acknowledged Verne’s influence on his own Pellucidar series.” So it has its place in literary history, and it was probably a lot more believable then, or, if nor believable, at least enjoyed as an adventure story.

Have you or your children ever read Journey to the Center of the Earth? What did you think of it?

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


Laudable Linkage


I found a lot of good reads the last week or so:

On Blind Faith and God.

Why You Desperately Need the Holy Spirit , HT to Challies.

The Power of De-Conversion Stories: How Jen Hatmaker is Trying to Change Minds About the Bible, HT to Challies.

Who Is the God of Mormonism?, HT to Challies.“One thing you’ll discover as you’re talking with your Mormon (LDS) friends is that though we use the same terms, we often mean very different things. Mormons have different definitions of Gospel, repentance, salvation, grace, Hell, and nearly every term you’ll be using in your conversation.”

5 Things That People Who Are Dying Want You to Know, by Kerry Egan, HT to Lisa.

How to Choose Worship Songs. Yes, to all the points mentioned here.

My Son, Withhold Judgment, HT to Challies.There are some times we need to act quickly; there are other times to realize we don’t know all the facts and need to wait.

How Do I Fight Pride When Competing in School, Business, and Sports? HT to True Woman.  “If we are better in some subject than someone else, God made us better. And his reasons for doing so are not pride and boasting and elitism. His reason for doing so is that we might use our competencies for the good of others.”

If God Doesn’t Heal You, HT to True Woman. “Although God can heal us, we must never presume that he must.”

The Why of Encouragement.

Why Do I Believe in Credobaptism, HT to Challies.

Why Young Christians Need Old Books, HT to True Woman.

In Defense of Evangelicals Who Support Trump, HT to Proclaim and Defend. Interesting, whichever side you’re on. Not written by an evangelical but by a Jew who acknowledges that “It is usually easier for an outsider to defend a person or a group that is attacked than for the person or group.” As he also says, “Character is a complex issue.” I’m not willing to say it’s not a factor at all – far from it, and I don’t think he’s saying that, either – but it’s true that some people with awful personal lives can be good leaders. But if we acknowledge that on one side of the ballot, we need to concede it for the other as well.

Growing Old Graciously, HT to Challies.”I don’t know everything, but what I do know, I can share.”

The Benefits of Listening to the Elderly, HT to Challies. “Why might the Lord, in his grace, cause the aged to repeat themselves as they do? What is the Lord showing us through it? Rather than rolling our eyes or thinking ‘Here goes Grandma again,’ what can be gained from these times?”

When I Give a Book.

On Writing Books and Getting Published, HT to Challies.

The Incredible “Mehness” Of Social Media, HT to Challies. An aspect we don’t often think of. Even if much of what we do there is harmless or even interesting, how does that impact our everyday lives and responsibilities? Do those things impact those with whom we have to do or take our attention away from them?

Ideas For Things to Do On a Snow Day, HT to Story Warren.

And in the “Seriously?” category: There’s a Reason using a Period In a Text Makes You Sound Angry, HT to Lisa. I never knew this was an issue – and it shouldn’t be. A period is just the end of a sentence, not the end of a conversation or an indicator of anger, disinterest, or insincerity.

Hope you have a fine Saturday!

(Links do not imply 100% endorsement.)

Book Review: The Austen Escape

Austen Escape The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay finds lifelong friends going on vacation to a manor in Bath, England, for a Jane Austen-themed experience. Mary Davies, from whose point of view the story is told, is an engineer, not a Romantic. In fact, all her mother’s Austen books were given to her friend, Isabel Dwyer, who is lively, vivacious, and well-versed in all things Austen. Isabel has some sharp edges, though, and the two friends have been somewhat on the outs for a time. But Isabel begs/drags/insists that Mary go, and as so often happen, Mary concedes.

While at this Austen experience, guests are to choose a character from one of Austen’s books to portray and to dress in Regency outfits provided by the manor. There are a few rough spots until Isabel has some sort of mental issue, forgets who she is, and believes she really is the character she’s portraying.  She’s actually much easier to get along with, though, and some things come out that help Mary put together some of the issues that they’ve had. On the other hand, other issues concerning the guy Mary is interested in come out as well, leaving her feeling betrayed.

My thoughts:

The lost memory issue is mentioned on the back of the book, and I wondered how the author was going to pull that off when it seems likely someone in that condition would be taken to the hospital immediately. But the explanation for why they stay on at the manor seemed plausible. I also had a hard time figuring Isabel out when some times she seemed like Mary’s best-ever friend, and other times she seemed condescending and even haughty. I thought perhaps the back-and-forth was going to be a precursor or related to whatever caused the memory loss. That did not turn out to be the case, at least not directly, but it was explained eventually.

I have read all of Reay’s books and enjoyed them to varying degrees, but I have to confess, this is not a favorite. The premise sounded fun – how great would it be to actually go on an Austen-themed vacation like this?! And all of Reay’s books have a plethora of literary allusions, fun for any reader of classics. Obviously the ones this time were all connected to Austen books.

Two themes in the book have to do with various ways people “escape,” and with vision – lack of seeing things clearly, etc.

But the writing this time just seemed — maybe a little uneven to me. I don’t know quite how to put my finger on it. I didn’t “get” a key factor until the discussion questions after the book, which was probably my own fault.

And then, Reay’s first book was definitely in the Christian or at least inspirational fiction category, but it seems her later books get further away from that category. I don’t recall anything relating at all to Christianity or faith in this book, though it’s possible it’s there and I have forgotten it. But if it’s there, it’s small. Maybe this is meant as a general fiction or romance, I am not sure. There was a comment between Mary and her boyfriend about her chest that totally didn’t need to be there – though it was mild compared to secular standards. And there was a fair bit of alcohol consumption – I know there are Christians with varying degrees of conviction about this issue, and I know alcohol was consumed in the Austen books, but it just seemed like that element was detrimental to me personally.

But all in all it’s an enjoyable story, especially as things come together in the end, and as the discussion questions pulled more of the story together for me.

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

Book Review: The Secret Garden and a Discussion of Magic in Children’s Books

Secret Garden I have mixed emotions about The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I’ll explain why in a moment.

The story opens with nine-year-old Mary Lennox in India with her family. Her father “had held a position under the English government and had always been busy and ill himself, and her mother had been a great beauty who cared only to go to parties and amuse herself with gay people. She had not wanted a little girl at all,” so Mary was left to the care of her Ayah. So as not to bother Mary’s mother and get in trouble, the Ayah and other servants gave Mary her way in everything, leading to her becoming “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.”

A cholera outbreak took her Ayah, both parents, and several others, and everyone else fled the compound, leaving Mary alone and forgotten until some officers discovered her. She was sent to Yorkshire, England, to stay with her mother’s brother, her only relative, Archibald Craven at Misselthwaite Manor. Mr. Craven had a crooked back and had been in deep mourning for the ten years since his wife died. Mary did not meet him for a long time, as he traveled frequently, so she was taken care of primarily by a housemaid named Martha.

No one had thought to provide Mary with books or anything to do. She was strongly instructed not to poke around in the house, rumored to have 100 rooms. Martha encouraged her to go outside, pointing the way to the gardens and mentioning that there was one that had been locked up for ten years. It had been Mrs. Craven’s personal garden, but her husband had it locked up after she died.

That piqued Mary’s curiosity, and, as the title indicates, she does eventually find the garden. And what’s more, she discovers an unexpected person living in another part of the house.

My thoughts:

The story itself is a sweet, cozy, Victorian English tale. It’s not hard to see the symbolism between Mary and the friends she discovers bringing this garden back to life, weeding it, and tending it, and Mary and another orphan’s need for weeding and tending themselves. The story unfolds in a nice way and some of the characters are treasures: Ben Weatherstaff, the gruff gardener who helps Mary make friends with a robin; kindly Dickon, Martha’s brother, who has a way with animals; Mrs. Sowerby, Dickon’s warm and practical mother. I loved Mary’s transformation. The ending is perfect, just the way you’d want a book like this to end.

My mixed emotions are due to the book’s use of magic. Now, magic can mean different things in different books. I wrote some years ago about wrestling with this and concluding that fairy tale magic is not the same thing as the occult (real witches are not warty little old ladies who turn people into frogs). C. S. Lewis uses “magic” as a symbol for God’s ways. When my kids were little, one library haul yielded two books about magic carpets. In one, the “magic carpet” was a rug that the mom and child sat on to read books together – harmless and sweet. The other was a dreadful New Age tale complete with a message from a spirit guide in the back! So when magic comes up in a book, first I have to discern what the author meant by it and how the concept is portrayed.

The gust of wind that revealed the garden door was “a Magic moment.” I didn’t think much about that at first, but more and more as the story went on, Magic was given the credit for many things, until at last the children actually perform an incantation asking Magic (always capitalized) to come and do what they want. Mention is make of tales of Magic Mary heard about in India and the work of fakirs there. As the children themselves ponder what Magic is, one suggests it’s the dead mother of one of them, “lookin’ after Mester Colin, same as all mothers do when they’re took out o’ th’ world.” Other conversations attribute it to some kind of life force, the same thing that makes the flowers grow.

 I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us—like electricity and horses and steam. When Mary found this garden it looked quite dead…Then something began pushing things up out of the soil, and making things out of nothing. One day things weren’t there and another they were. I had never watched things before and it made me feel very curious. Scientific people are always curious and I am going to be scientific. I keep saying to myself, ‘What is it? What is it?’ It’s something. It can’t be nothing! I don’t know its name so I call it Magic…Sometimes since I’ve been in the garden I’ve looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something were pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden–in all the places. The Magic in this garden has made me stand up and know I am going to live to be a man. I am going to make the scientific experiment of trying to get some and put it in myself and make it push and draw me and make me strong. I don’t know how to do it but I think that if you keep thinking about it and calling it perhaps it will come. Perhaps that is the first baby way to get it. When I was going to try to stand that first time Mary kept saying to herself as fast as she could, ‘You can do it! You can do it!’ and I did. I had to try myself at the same time, of course, but her Magic helped me—and so did Dickon’s. Every morning and evening and as often in the daytime as I can remember I am going to say, ‘Magic is in me! Magic is making me well! I am going to be as strong as Dickon, as strong as Dickon!’ And you must all do it, too.

When Ben Weatherstaff suggests they sing the Doxology, one of them says, “’It is a very nice song…I like it. Perhaps it means just what I mean when I want to shout out that I am thankful to the Magic.’ He stopped and thought in a puzzled way. ‘Perhaps they are both the same thing. How can we know the exact names of everything?’”

Then when Dickon’s mother is asked whether she believes in Magic, she says:

I never knowed it by that name but what does th’ name matter? I warrant they call it a different name i’ France an’ a different one i’ Germany. Th’ same things as set th’ seeds swellin’ an’ th’ sun shinin’ made a well lad an’ it’s th’ Good Thing. It isn’t like us poor fools as think it matters if us is called out of our names. Th’ Big Good Thing doesn’t stop to worry, bless thee. It goes on makin’ worlds by th’ million–worlds like us. Never thee stop believin’ in th’ Big Good Thing an’ knowin’ th’ world’s full of it–an’ call it what tha’ likes. Tha’ wert singin’ to it when I come into th’ garden…Th’ Magic listened when tha’ sung th’ Doxology. It would ha’ listened to anything tha’d sung. It was th’ joy that mattered. Eh! Lad, lad, what’s names to th’ Joy Maker.

As I read and was trying to discern how to take the Magic in this book, I figured it would be best first to see if I could find out what the author meant by Magic. Wikipedia says, “In the early 1880s [Burnett] became interested in Christian Science as well as Spiritualism and Theosophy.” Sparknotes says “throughout the novel, the idea of magic is heavily inflected by the tenets of both Christian Science and New Thought.” Part of the latter is the idea of “mind over matter,” the thought that repeating something over and over, as the children do in their chanting, can make it become real. Also, near the end of the book, the author writes:

One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric batteries—as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live.

So long as Mistress Mary’s mind was full of disagreeable thoughts about her dislikes and sour opinions of people and her determination not to be pleased by or interested in anything, she was a yellow-faced, sickly, bored and wretched child. Circumstances, however, were very kind to her, though she was not at all aware of it. They began to push her about for her own good. When her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids, with springtime and with secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his “creatures,” there was no room left for the disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired.

There’s a sense in which it’s true that both positive and negative thoughts can affect one’s outlook and even one’s health. But it’s possible to take that philosophy too far. SparkNotes goes on to say:

One of the book’s underlying themes is the way in which happiness begets happiness, and misery begets only more of itself….The source of this notion can again be found in Burnett’s fascination with the New Thought and Christian Science movements, which held that one must think only positive thoughts if one wants good things to happen. The fact that this idea is patently false miraculously did nothing to deter its adherents. Dickon’s remark that “the springtime would be better [for Colin] than doctor’s stuff” provides another instance of Christian Scientist tenets in the novel. Christian Science, as a philosophy, disapproves of medical intervention: no disease is truly corporeal (caused by the body), but is in fact the result of morbid and negative thinking. Colin must have contact with the life of the world if he is to go on living, because this contact will dispel his thoughts of death: Dickon (guided by Burnett’s Christian Scientist beliefs) says that Colin “oughtn’t to lie there thinking [of death and illness]… No lad could get well as thought them sorts of things.” The fact that Colin’s fury at Ben Weatherstaff provides him with sufficient strength to stand reinforces the notion that his previous inability to do so was entirely a product of his negative thinking. It also underlines the idea that if one only wishes to overcome one’s illness, one can. Negative thoughts are the human error to be found at the root of all disease; one must therefore force out ugly thoughts with agreeable ones, for “two things cannot be in one place.” This notion is responsible for both Colin and Mary’s wondrous metamorphoses. Once they are thinking of the garden and nature, of Dickon and of their own blossoming friendship, they can no longer concern themselves with their own contrariness or with the fear of becoming a hunchback and dying an early death. Instead, they become normal, healthy children, full of dreams of the future. This questionable (and inarguably syrupy) goal is given inane epigraphic expression in the phrase “Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.”

So there is a sense in which you could think of the Magic in the book as “positive thinking” or the same force that makes the plants grow. Or, as this writer did, you could see it as pluralism, wanting to lump all of these philosophies in with Christianity as if they are the same thing, when they’re not. Knowing more of Burnett’s background and philosophy makes me wary. I don’t know if I would read this to my children, if they were still young enough to read to: we’d at least have to discuss some of these issues as we read.

There is also a bit of colonialism, I guess you’d call it, in the book, with Mary being disdainful of the Indian servants and seeing them always as only servants, and Martha’s ignorance in calling them “blacks.”

A brief biography of the author, unusual in audiobooks, mentions that “Later in life, reporters criticized her lifestyle, and turned public sentiment against her.” But it doesn’t say what exactly they criticized, so I don’t know if it was her philosophies or the fact that she was divorced or something else.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Josephine Bailey and also looked up some passages in a library copy and on Project Gutenberg.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carol’s Books You Loved, Literary Musing Monday)