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Monthly Archives: March 2014

Big Classic on the American Prairie

Little House BooksOnce upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs

The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads.There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.

I love this opening. Ernest Hemingway would love this opening. Heck, Hemingway would love this book. For all I know he may have read it. If he did, I’m sure he smiled.

The above sentences introduce the reader to a series of true American classics, the “Little House” series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. That’s right, “Little House on the Prairie” was not a single book but the second in a series of nine books about growing up in the American pioneer days. More than just books for young people, these books are considered by many to be valuable records of an important time in our nation’s history.

I’ve wanted to read these books for many years but put off starting until I had all nine volumes. Then a couple of weeks or so back, while browsing around one of our favorite thrift stores, I came across the reason I frequent such places. Sitting on a shelf in the children’s book section was a brand new boxed set of all nine “Little House” books put out by Scholastic Inc. I mean the paperback spines weren’t even creased! The price: $3.99. After I put my eyes back in my skull, I grabbed the set and hugged it to my chest.

So far I’ve read the first two books: “Little House in the Big Woods” and “Little House on the Prairie.” In straightforward, efficient prose, Laura tells the story of what it was like growing up in the late 1800s with her Ma and Pa and sisters, Mary and Baby Carrie. These books aren’t about plotting and characterization but rather they are the treasured recollections of a young girl plainly told. The chapters are connected episodes explaining what living on the nation’s frontier was like, including descriptions of the many skills they possessed and the labors they performed to get through the seasons, especially the long winters.

And, yes, you do get to know the characters, but they are revealed by their actions and responses to the situations they find themselves in. Very much like the way one comes to know a person in everyday life. Pa is confident in his abilities, possesses a joy for life and a deep love of his family. And he’s pretty good with a fiddle too. Ma is more subdued, an excellent cook, gardener, seamstress, and calm as a rock in the face of trials and unexpected encounters with bears. Mary, the older sister, is the good little girl, never raising a fuss. Of course, Laura is the one who’s curious about everything and willing to challenge Ma and Pa’s boundaries to find out what’s going on. And Baby Carrie is . . . well, a baby.

Though the chapters are episodic, they aren’t disjointed. The thread of a frontier life remembered connects them to each other and to the reader in a way that mere fiction seldom accomplishes. As I read each chapter, the more I kept in mind that these were Laura’s actual memories the more affecting her descriptions became. Whether because of encounters with Indians, prairie fires racing toward the house, the dangers of digging a well or of dealing with wolves or bears, one comes to realize that each day was truly an adventure for these brave families who chose to move westward. Even something seemingly as simple as Pa going to town could be cause for anxiety:

Before dawn, Pa went away. When Laura and Mary woke, he was gone and everything was empty and lonely. It was not as though Pa had only gone hunting. He was going to town, and he would not be back for four long days.

The simplicity and directness of Laura’s words convey a sense of vulnerability that’s hard to match.

I’ll be starting the third book, “Farmer Boy,” soon and I’ll do a review of that and a few more as I read them. But do yourself a favor and get these books and read them. Read them for yourself and to your children. They are true American classics and remind us of how the American character was formed and what it is that makes this country and its people something special. It is so important that we keep these memories alive, both for ourselves and, even more so, for our young.

 

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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Book Hunting, Book Review, Children's Books, History

 

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Dancing with Historian

How do ideas or people change the world? How long does it take for major changes in worldviews to take place?Desire of the Everlasting Hills

These questions are explored, in a circling manner, by Thomas Cahill in his book “Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus,” (Nan A. Talese/Anchor Books Edition, 2001). This is the third in his Hinges of History series, preceded by “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” and “The Gifts of the Jews,” both of which I’ve reviewed here.

Cahill is a marvelous historical writer, making the story of Western civilization and culture a fascinating one. But here he takes on a new task, that of interpreter of the basic writings of the New Testament, meaning the gospels and letters of St. Paul. While he does a good, workmanlike job of it, there are fewer of those sparkling “Aha!” moments than in his previous works.

He starts off well, setting the scene for the reader by a whirlwind review of the four hundred years or so before Jesus was born. Beginning with Alexander the Great and moving up to the Roman occupation of Judea, Cahill gives us a pretty clear picture of the world Jesus came into, including an important fact that we don’t often think about; in the ancient world, the warrior was the role model, the icon that the people looked up to and physical might, whether expressed individually or militarily, was the expected norm in world affairs.

It was into this worldview that the Prince of Peace came. The central part of the book explores the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, the Jesus of the apostle Paul and the Jesus of John’s gospel. While Cahill gives us some nifty wordplay here, his observations are not stunningly original and can be easily found in other sources. Honestly, based on the subtitle of the book, “The World Before and After Jesus,” I was expecting more of a survey of Western history after Jesus’ resurrection rather than a summary of the gospels and guesses about their authors.

But here’s my biggest disappointment with this book, and it’s a big one. The author never directly addresses the resurrection of Jesus. He briefly approaches the miracles, and in typical historian fashion leaves them alone with the statement that the witnesses certainly believed they happened. Yet the biggest, world-changing miracle of all he dances around, circling it warily lest he approach it directly and perhaps offend any scholars or skeptics in the audience. Cahill fails to play his biggest card in explaining why the world is a different place today. I’d even go as far as to say that without Jesus’ resurrection the subtitle of this book would be unnecessary.

What’s funny is that it seems fairly clear that Mr. Cahill is himself a believer. In the book’s final section he writes glowingly about how Christ’s true followers are making a difference in today’s world, focusing particularly on a little known Italian group called the Community of Sant’Egidio. Their efforts are truly worthy of the attention he pays them. Yet all the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul couldn’t have brought them into beingĀ  without the resurrection.

If Thomas Cahill didn’t understand this right from the start, I don’t know why he wrote this book.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2014 in Book Review

 

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