Sunday, September 8, 2013

Captains & The Kings By Taylor Caldwell

Captains and the Kings is an amazing story of an Irish immigrant who discovers the dark side of America and himself.
Joseph Armagh arrives in America in 1854, an impoverished orphan with a younger brother and sister to provide for. In his drive to pursue success and money, Joseph makes powerful allies and enemies, practically alienates his family, and gets involved with conspiracies in his drive for success.
Caldwell tries to accomplish two things with Captains and the Kings and she does at least one very well. The first accomplishment that this book has is it tells a memorable sprawling story with fascinating characters. Standing at the center of this large cast is Armagh himself.
Joseph is an easy person to be fascinated with or drawn to, but not an easy person to like. He is a completely contradictory character. As he gets involved with dangerous circumstances like slave trading, bootlegging, and shady business deals, he wants more of what these people have to offer. He is a very dark character who scoffs at any hope or optimism. Joseph orders the death or disgrace of most enemies with very little conscience. He marries an unstable woman for position and ostracizes her in pursuit of another woman. He dominates his brother and sister and becomes furious when they begin lives of their own.
But Joseph is not a one-dimensional character. He is a very multi-faceted man with a bit of humanity that shows every once in awhile. He has a very romantic and chivalrous side which he shows in his scenes with Elizabeth, a vulnerable woman with a cruel husband.  At first dismissive of his children, he slowly begins to accept them and take pride in them up to the point where he tries to make his eldest son the first Catholic President of the United States (about 50 years before John F. Kennedy would do this in real life. One of the most touching scenes that shows Joseph’s better character is where he shows real regret in disgracing a senator, whom he realizes is a truly good man. Joseph isn’t aware of the ramifications of this moment until years later after he loses some family members.
Where Caldwell does not succeed so well is in wrapping his fascinating story around conspiracy theories, and offering them in real life.   Joseph comes into a world of The Committee of Foreign Relations; shadowy men who make decision that affect the world around them. While it is fascinating reading for a novel, Caldwell’s theories show a bit of paranoia, especially her introduction. Nothing kills a work of fiction faster than the writer insisting “these are based on actual events.” Conspiracy theories are great in many works of fiction, but become tiresome when repeated and believed in reality.
In the parameters of the novel however, these scenes are quite well written simply because of how Caldwell portrays the Committee members. Joseph and later his son, Rory, become involved in some chilling meetings where these men discuss upcoming world wars, stock market panics and crashes, and Communist uprisings in a nonchalant matter as though they were items on a shopping list. Unlike Joseph, the other members of the Committee of Foreign Relations aren’t near as defined or faceted but they aren’t supposed to be. They are neither good nor evil. They are more like living forces of nature that shape the world to fit their needs. Joseph despite all of his money, and cynicism is at heart a naive character and doesn’t truly realize how dangerous they can be until they turn on him and his son. That’s when he truly sees the darkness of these business acquaintances.
Related Links & Activity Suggestions
The Gilded Age- Much of the action of this book takes place during the Gilded Age, a time in post-Civil War America when industrialism was on a rise and millionaires and robber barons did whatever it took to make their money. This link is for the PBS American Experience special on Andrew Carnegie and the Gilded Age. What marks of the Gilded Age are featured in Captains and the Kings? What marks shape the current era that we live in? How would you want people to remember it?
Joseph P. Kennedy-Some believe that Captains and the Kings is a fictionalized account of the life of Joseph P. Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy family. This website explores “Old Joe’s” life and legacy towards his family as well as the experience of Irish immigrants in America. What similarities and difference can you find in the fictional, Armaghs vs. the real, Kennedys? What other immigrants have left their impact upon this country? What obstacles did they go through for their new life in America and their pursuit of the “American Dream?” What legacies did they leave behind for their descendants? What about your ancestors, what obstacles did they endure, stories did they remember, and what legacy did they leave behind for you?
Literary Discussion Questions
1.      Discuss Joseph’s character. What early events shaped the man that he would eventually become? Do you think that his cynical outlook makes him as smart and as worldly wise as he believes or do you believe that he is actually naive and more susceptible to temptation, why or why not?
2.      Discuss the way that Enfield Bassett’s curse plays into the events. Do you think that the curse is real or are Joseph’s later sufferings results from his own earlier actions and those of others? Do you think Joseph’s life was fated or do you think that things could have changed if circumstances had been different? Would his life had turned out differently, if for example, Sean and Mary Regina stayed with him when they were children, or Joseph had a kinder outlook on life, would he have ended up the same way?
Cover, LibraryThing

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Lolly Willowes, Or The Loving Huntsman By Sylvia Townsend Warner

cover, LibraryThing

Lolly Willowes, first published in 1926, is a little known classic, but deserves to be remembered as a well-written feminist parable of a middle-aged woman learning to embrace independence, her own identity, and paganism in the process.

Laura "Lolly" Willowes is the product of a stifling middle-class Edwardian upbringing. After her beloved, but stern father's death, Laura becomes shuffled between her siblings’ families who are alternately vain and foppish or rigid and uncompromising. To her nieces and nephews, she's nothing but strange spinster Aunt Lolly. To her siblings and in-laws, she is just an afterthought, someone to take up space in the spare room and awkwardly be introduced to at parties and family gatherings.


In almost supernatural coincidence (probably intentionally so considering later events), Laura finds a way out of her confining existence. She takes up residence in a small cottage in the Great Mop, a village near Cotswold, England, supplements her own income with creating herbs and potions, encounters some very eccentric friends including a mysterious figure that may or may not be the Devil, and learns to embrace witchcraft.


Lolly Willowes works well as the story of a woman finding her own individuality.  There are parts that don't work quite so well. One of Laura's nephews comes to live with her and wears out his welcome within the first few lines perhaps to remind Laura of her family looming over her, a constant presence in her life. While I enjoyed Laura's interest in witchcraft, I could have done without the link to Satan. That is more of the stuff of horror films and the witch trials and unnecessary in feminist literature.


However, the witch angle is mostly fascinating, partly because of the lack of theatrics making her decision to become a pagan as natural as the other choices she makes. A cat appears and though Laura is at first apprehensive that it is a minion of Satan; she is matter-of-fact as though it’s just the natural way of things. When she is invited to her first coven meeting, she is just as shy and as much a wallflower as at her family parties. She becomes a pagan, not through some magic spells, but because of her closeness to nature and for the freedom paganism provides for women.


Lolly Willowes is similar to the character that many of us knew and feared as a child, or that some of us were fascinated with and grew up to become: the strange woman who lives alone, the odd lady who talks to her animals as though they were children, who grows weird plants and herbs, and who never goes out except at night, the woman who is the stuff of rumors and gossip: the witch. Warner however does us a favor, by taking the reader into that character’s mind shows us the whys and how she became that way. Instead of giving us a hoary stereotype, Warner gives us a full and complete character, one in which we are proud to share with the journey towards her independence.


Related Links & Activity Suggestions

The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society-This website’s mission to “provide a wide readership and better understanding of Townsend Warner’s readings.” It includes a biography, bibliography, and an ongoing list of scholarly writings about her life and works. Has there ever been a little known book or author that you would like to tell the world about? How would you promote them? What would you want to say about them?


Witches in Pop Culture & Witches: Depiction through Art History  - These websites offer a few glimpses on the way witches have been portrayed through art, literature, film, and television. What other depictions can you think of? Compare these with how Warner views witches, how are they similar and how are they different? What about other supposedly frightening creatures such as vampires, zombies, werewolves, what noted portrayals are there? What do they have in common and how do they differ from each other?


Discussion Questions

1.      Discuss Laura’s life before and after her move to the Great Mop. How does moving to the country give Laura her freedom? What impact does it have on her family? How do you think Laura and her family will treat each other in the future?

2.       Analyze Laura’s interactions with witchcraft. What advantages does it give her? What questions does it answer for her? How does the treatment of witches differ in this than in stories like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown?” Do you think the authors’ genders may have made a difference in how Hawthorne and Warner wrote about the witches? Why or why not?


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Little Little By M.E. Kerr


 This is another book that has been a long-time favorite of mine, since I was in middle school. Little Little is a Young Adult novel that gives us a teen romance between two characters who are just as sharp, witty, and non-conformist now as they were thirty-one years ago in 1981 when the book was first published.
Little Little La Belle, a three foot, three inch tall high school senior is soon to turn eighteen and is contemplating her future. She lives in a  picture postcard upstate New York town with a  wealthy family of average sized parents and a younger sister. She is tired of her mother trying to fix her up with various little people who are "perfectly formed" or "p.f." and tired of her father not wanting to let her grow up at all. She plans a secret engagement with Knox "Little Lion" Lionel, a TV evangelist and fellow little person with a large following and an even larger ego. Things begin to go awry when she meets and forms a friendship and maybe more with Sydney Cinnamon, another little person who is to be her party's entertainment.
Sydney has some issues of his own. At three feet, four inches, Sydney has been starring as "The Roach," a TV mascot for a pest control company and has been hired to entertain at Little Little's upcoming birthday party. An orphan and high school dropout, he begins to fall for Little Little himself and vice versa. The two begin a romance based on their different outlooks and the difficulties that they experience of being short stature.
The book is very dated in some parts.Little Lion's career as a TV evangelist seems to be based upon real preachers from the '80s such as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker so the character seems a bit dated now. (However many of his conservative fundamentalist views still retain some of their prominence as does the discovery when his character is not all that he pretends to be). Little Little and Sydney go on one of their dates to a grindhouse movie theater which shows such B movie horror films as The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant and Curse of the Werewolf. However, M.E. Kerr has given the reader two strong characters through their humorous narration and their fresh outlooks on life.
In alternating first person chapters, Little Little and Sydney both give their views of the world with deft and witty narration that makes them memorable characters. In describing her younger sister Cowboy's various interests, Little Little observes: "It's hard to tell which one of us is most strange, me or Cowboy, though a dwarf will always look stranger anywhere."
Sydney also presents some clever insights, particularly about his fame as The Roach: "I decided to be something that people don't like instinctively and make them like it....If I'd been a vegetable, I'd have been a slimy piece of okra. If I'd been mail, I'd have been a circular addressed to 'Occupant.'"
Besides the narration, Sydney and Little Little become individuals describing their different experiences as little people. Little Little grew up with a normal sized family and has always been considered a town outsider; Sydney grew up in an orphans' home with other children with physical deformities; Little Little's first experience with other little people was when her grandfather took her to a meeting of The American Diminutives (TADS), a fictional organization that she and her family later join, mostly with the purpose of setting Little Little up with the male members. Sydney's first experience with other little people was when he went with the other orphans' home children to a theme park and saw various little people dressed as gnomes, foreshadowing his future working as an advertising mascot. Little Little is constantly described by the mother as "little, but p.f." but is tired of being treated as small doll by everyone around her especially her parents; Sydney often feels self-conscious about his hunched back, his overlong front tooth, and his short legs, but covers up his physical insecurities with one-liners and intelligence gleaned from reading various books about other people with physical abnormalities. In the differences in the two leads, M.E. Kerr shows that experiences can be different and even people in similar situations can be raised with completely different outlooks in life.
Above all, the book is about being an individual in a world that encourages conformity or as Sydney and Little Little describe, being oneself rather than being"Sara Lee" which means "Similar And Regular And Like Everyone Else." There are various moments that celebrate the characters' individuality such as Sydney and his friends' mock-Oscar award ceremony call "The Monsters" which awards are presented such as "Least Likely To Get Adopted" or "Most Likely To Scare Small Children." Little Little also proves her non-conformist nature in her arguments with her family including her blustering but well-meaning minister grandfather. When he tells her to "be a bush, if she cannot be a tree," she counters with "the idea of being a bush wasn't all that appealing and not for me, anyway, even if I was the best bush." Through Little Little and Sydney, Kerr seems to speak to every kid or adult who has ever been considered different by their peers and encourages them to embrace it and be themselves or as Sydney says "When I found out  I was a ball in a world of blocks, I decided that even if they didn't roll, I do. I decided to roll away, be whatever  I wanted to be."
 Links & Activity Suggestions
1. Little People of America- Here is the website for the real-life non-profit organization that provides support, resources, and information for little people. What other similar organizations are there that have encouraged diversity and provide support for others? What obstacles have people who are different have faced and how do these organizations help them? Have you ever volunteered for or have ever been a member of any of these type of organizations? What was the experience like?  Has there ever been a time when you were considered different, in what way?
2. TV Acres: Advertising Mascots-Sydney Cinnamon works as a mascot roach for a pest control company. This website explores some of the real-life commercial mascots and their impact on advertising including resources to several other advertising sites. What mascots do you remember? How did they portray their product? Why do you think advertisers choose mascots and why do people remember them so much? If you were going to make a commercial, what advertising mascot would you choose? What would they promote and how would they be like?
Literary Discussion Questions
1. Compare Little Little's upbringing with Sydney's. How were they different? How did they lead to the decisions that they have later made? What do you think that the advantages and disadvantages were Little Little's past with her parents and sister versus Sydney's past at the Twin Oaks Orphans' home? Do you think things would have been different if the situations had been reversed and Little Little was an orphan and Sydney was raised by his family? Why or why not?
2.  What are some of the difficulties that Little Little and Sydney had to cope with both physically and emotionally with as little people? How have they and the other characters, such as Little Lion and the other TADpoles adapted to their world? Why is it so important for some of the characters to fit in and be considered normal and why is it important for others like Sydney to embrace being considered outsiders? What does Sydney mean when he describes himself as a "ball in a world of blocks"?" How do Sydney and Little Little "roll" when others do not? Do you believe by the end of the book that they will continue to do so? Why or why not?

Friday, March 29, 2013

Alternate Presidents Edited By Mike Resnick



During the presidential elections, various people play the "what if" game. Armchair politicos often grumble, "If my president won, this country would be in better shape." Well Mike Resnick and various other science fiction authors took it upon themselves to ask the question "What if" the elections turned out differently. What if a defeated candidate won? What if a President's administration began earlier or later than what really happened? What would happen to the country, would it be better, worse, or stay the same? The questions are answered in Alternate Presidents.
History's losers are given the spotlight in this anthology by a group of very gifted science fiction authors that take this basic premise: what if the presidential elections that we know turned out differently? Some of the stories are disturbing, some satiric but all are fascinating, none more so than these  five  stories about would be Commanders of Chief finally given their chances in the Oval Office:

 Aaron Burr:"The War of '07" by Jayge Carr-Aaron Burr is known in history for two things-the infamous 1804 duel against Alexander Hamilton and for having a very shady personality that often put him at odds with the other Founding Fathers. Carr pushes Burr's presumed megalomania up to eleven in a Presidency in which he removes his enemies by questionable means, eradicates the African and Native American races, and creates a false war in which he emerges Supreme Commander. The final paragraphs give the story an eery sensibility as the United States devolves into the very thing they tried to break away from: a monarchy and in Burr's world a dictatorship.

Victoria Woodhull: "We Are Not Amused" by Laura Resnick-Among the would-be POTUS, the most interesting in both alternate and real history is Victoria Woodhull. In reality, the first female candidate in 1872, she was an advocate for "free love" and the legalization of prostitution and exposed the scandalous affairs of many including Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. In Resnick's saucy amusing story, Woodhull takes her free love stance to the White House. In a series of letters between President Woodhull and Queen Victoria, the Queen is shocked by the direction America takes under Woodhull's decisions: returning land to the Native Americans, women who cut their hair, wear short skirts, and talk openly about sex. Not to mention Woodhull herself who lives openly in the White House with her husband and lover! This story gives new meaning to the term "Victorian Era."

 Samuel J. Tilden: "I Shall Have A Flight To  Glory" by Michael P. Kube-McDowell- Probably none of the candidates in the anthology deserve to have their day in the sun more than Tilden. Winner of the popular vote in the 1876 election, some 20 disputed votes and a compromise to withdraw troops from Reconstruction-era South caused Tilden to concede to Rutherford B. Hayes. In McDowell's story, Tilden, in reality a reformer, embraces the corrupt political machine to take the 1880 election from James A. Garfield. The final pages show through the acquaintanceship between Garfield and one Charles Guiteau that sometimes fate cannot be escaped even in an alternate history.

 Thomas E. Dewey "No Other Choice" by Barbara DeLaPlace-Most famous in our timeline as the candidate against Harry Truman in the 1948 election, he also ran against Roosevelt in 1944. In this story, he wins the election because of concerns about Roosevelt's ill health. When Japanese officials remain unswayed by the atomic demonstration (a move that Truman in real life did not do) Dewey has to make the heartbreaking decision to drop the atom bomb on a much larger target than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many of DeLaPlace's words are moving as Dewey weighs the outcomes picturing the children on both sides who would suffer and how "he wished that he were someone else, anyone else."

 "Dispatches from the Revolution" By Pat Cadigan -While one would expect an alternate story about Robert Kennedy to explore his Presidency, Cadigan takes another approach to the idea. Instead she only gives Kennedy a temporary reprieve to escape Sirhan Sirhan's bullet in Los Angeles only to die with other political leaders in an explosion in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention protest. In a series of  thoughtful and engaging first-person narratives from activists in hiding, Cadigan tells of the fall out that results in a United States where segregation runs rampant, where libraries are audited for objectionable materials, where psychological tests are required to vote and for "conditional citizenship," and where passports are required to move from one state to another.

Other candidates are portrayed thoughtfully such as Benjamin Franklin, David R. Atchison, Belva Ann Lockwood, William Jennings Bryan, Robert LaFollette Sr., Huey Long, Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. In all of these tales, the authors gives a glimpse of a history that could have been and maye in some cases we should be glad that never was.

Related Links And Activity Suggestions

1. Alternate History Wiki- Alternate history is a popular sub-genre in science fiction in which someone takes a point in history and considers what would have happened if things turned out differently. Besides the Presidential elections what other turning points in history could have resulted in different endings? What other situations could have resulted and how could modern day be seen from that perspective?

2. The Living Room Candidate -Sometimes a Presidential campaign's success largely depends on how the candidate sells themselves. Look through these  Presidential campaign ads. How do they "sell" the candidate? What buzz words do they use to portray their choice as the best person for the job? What techniques do they use to make their point? How do they portray their opponent? What ads do you remember the most from previous campaigns? What images, words, or techniques do you remember the most about it? How would you advertise yourself as a candidate?

Literary Discussion Questions

1. These stories portray alternate versions of history. Choose one story from the set and compare it to the real events. What parallels to reality do you see? What historical figures that were prominent in the real happening also appear in the alternate version and how different is their role this time around? What do you think it means when some of the events stay the same or end up worse than before? What do you think the authors' message is in the story about history being immutable and unchangeable?

2. This anthology was published in 1992 and ends with a story about Michael Dukakis. How do you think future failed candidates would have been portrayed? What do you imagine stories about a second George H.W. Bush term, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, John McCain, or Mitt Romney would be like? What about perspectives on Vice-Presidents or other figures? How about a Dick Cheney administration? What if Sarah Palin or Hilary Rodham Clinton got the White House?How about other important recent political figures? How do you think real events would echo in the alternate versions?

Alternate Presidents cover courtesy of
Victoria Woodhull,Aaron Burr, Robert Kennedy courtesy of
Samuel J. Tilden and Thomas E. Dewey courtesy of

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
By Michael Chabon

When 17 year old, Sammy Klayman, later Clay, meets his Czech cousin Josef Kavalier, for the first time in 1939 Long Island, it's a match made in comic book heaven. Recently escaped from Prague during the Nazi oppression, Josef finds an immediate friend in Sammy as the two share mutual interests in common such as a love of magic and escape artists like Harry Houdini and an interest in drawing. The love of drawing turns into a career in the comic books industry as Sammy talks his way into getting the two a job in a novelty products-turned-comic book company.

The boys ultimately revitalize the comics industry with their characters The Escapist, a mysterious individual who with his group, The Sacred Golden Key conspire to help people escape from Nazi Germany and Luna Moth, a female librarian turned superhero. The two reach success but not without the usual problems and difficulties.

Josef falls in love with Rosa Saks a bohemian artist (and the inspiration for Luna Moth), while trying to help get his family out of Prague. Sammy meanwhile is struggling through the ashes of a failed literary career and discovers his own sexuality after falling in love with radio actor, Tracy Bacon.

This story is a superb work of historical fiction combining a history of the Golden Age of Comics with the harsh difficulties of WWII- Europe and America, and the comfortable ennui of post-War suburbia in the later chapters. Of particular notice in the book is the history of the Comic Books industry. All of the high points are there including the 1938 creation of Superman which was followed by various other superheroes many of whom like Supes are still around to this day to the 1954 Kefauver Senate Hearings in which comic books and graphic novels were cited as reasons for
juvenile delinquincy. Any comic book fan would delight in the references and cameos by some of the Golden Age greats as Jerry Siegal, Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, Stan Lee and many others. Joe and Sammy are themselves possible stand-ins for Superman's creators, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. Like Joe and Sammy they too were young Jewish teenagers when they created a character that had instant success and just like their fictional counterparts, they were swindled into selling the rights to their characters and being deprived of its residuals and royalties.

Joe and Sammy are wonderful characters throughout the book and their many struggles which make The Escapist's fights against Fascism seem minor by comparison. Joe is driven by his hatred of the Nazis and his motivation to rescue his family. The chapter when he discovers his little brother's fate and the chapters that follow are moving as they show a man who has reached his breaking point and teeters on the edge of sanity as he withdraws further into his fantasy world of magic and daring escapes.

Sammy too comes across as a strong character, particularly in his romantic scenes with Tracy Bacon. He is alternately flirtatious and charming with his lover and fearful of the consequences of being a homosexual, as in a striking scene when Sammy is a witness to an FBI raid at a gay club. This incident leads to years of self-denial and bitterness as he attempts to build a typical suburban life with Rosa leading only to frustration and despair.

Kavalier and Clay is the type of book that describes both a world of fantasy and a world of reality and describes them both very well.

 Further Links For Discussion and Activity Suggestions

The Hero Factory- Have you ever wanted to create a superhero of your own? What would it look like? What would be its special powers? Its strengths and weaknesses? Here's your chance. Create a superhero then share some ideas about their adventures, in a comic strip, or a video, or a story detailing their daring adventures. Have fun and be creative.

Digital Comics Museum-This website shows the real-life Escapists and Luna Moths, characters and comics that were created during the Golden Age of Comic Books. Most are in the public domain and can be downloaded. Look through various graphic novels and comic books. Who are some of your favorite characters? Who do they fight? What do you like about them? Do you have a particular favorite story or version of them, perhaps the film version? Why do people like these characters so much? What do they say about us? Share some of your insights about the world of comics.

Literary Discussion Questions

1. The most prominent theme in this book is the desire to escape. What do Joe and Sammy want to escape from? How does the Escapist help them escape their difficulties? Do they succeed in escaping or are they still trying? Why do people turn to escapist literature such as fantasy, romance, or science fiction? Have you ever escaped into a world of fiction? Why were you drawn to it?

2. What kind of heroes are The Escapist and Luna Moth? What are their abilities, their strengths, and weaknesses? How are they magnified in the characters of Joe, Sammy, and Rosa? Some people believe that when people write fiction, they are putting parts of themselves into the characters. Do you think this is true of Sammy and Joe, why or why not? How do the characters go through various changes through the years, what inspirations led to these changes?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sarum By Edward Rutherford

Sarum cover,


By Edward Rutherfurd

One of my favorite genres to read is historical fiction and in terms of historical fiction Edward Rutherfurd's novels could be considered the King (or technically the Prince since James Michener  is one of the originators of this
idea of big sprawling epics starring multi-generations).  While Philippa Gregory, Margaret George and others (all fine authors) are known for humanizing public figures such as royals, Rutherford takes the approach
of putting "regular people" in the center of epic events and how the average citizen was affected
by the changing times.

Rutherfurd's Sarum was the first in a long line of books detailing history through the eyes of several
generations. First published in 1987, the novel shows the history of England, particularly the history
of Sarum later known as Salisbury the home of Stonehenge through the eyes of several families from the Ice Age all the way up to 1985 during a ceremony honoring Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge.
Five families in particular share the spotlight:

The Wilsons-The first family first  mentioned during the Ice Age. Often described as fisher folk with very distinct long toes (Rutherfurd often gives families certain genetic traits that carry over the generations). They later have many relatives who scheme and bicker against other characters in attempts to climb higher in status, particularly during the Middle Ages when most of the Wilsons are seen as charismatic but manipulative figures.  Ultimately separating into two families, The Forests, wealthy titled landowners and the Wilsons, poorer seafaring relatives. They are present in nearly every chapter.

The Masons-A mostly working class family of skilled tradesmen. Making their debut in the Neolithic era, the Masons took part in building both Stonehenge and the Cathedral. They are also a very religious family having strident Protestants during the Tudor era, Methodists in the Victorian era, and Puritans during the English Civil War. From chapter two on, they are present in every chapter but some more than others.

The Porteus/Porters- Beginning during the Roman era, the Porteus are mostly well-off educated members who seek government administrative or Ecclesiastical positions in the Church. Very strident
law abiding members, they are very prominent in many of the chapters depicting the Roman era and the Middle Ages but begin to disappear towards the 17th century taking only minor roles in the final chapters.

The Shockleys-A mostly farming and business minded family that makes their debut during the Saxon invasion against the Vikings. Very ambitious, strong-willed souls they engage in centuries of rivalries with the Wilsons. They are also known for having members particularly the females who question society's rules and become involved in non-conformist ideals. From their debut on, they are prominent in nearly every chapter.

The Godfreys-A family that began during the Norman Conquest. Originally seen as the archetypal knights with strict moral codes, pilgrimages, and chivalric values, the generations fall further and further into poverty and disgrace until in one of the most heartbreaking scenes a young member in the Victorian era has to sell himself as a human scarecrow before being deported to Australia. More prominent in the Medieval and Renaissance-era chapters, they disappear after their member is transported.

In Rutherfurd's work, we see the world through the characters' eyes and what memorable events do the eyes see. Rutherfurd's talent for historic research is present throughout as he portrays these events which much accuracy and dedicated description. He also is good at portraying the little events of the era such as what happens when a young boy gets accused of killing a lord's deer when a yeoman is watching or the measures that many residents took to avoid catching the Bubonic Plague, which of course in many cases proved just as harmful as the plague itself.

Rutherfurd's details are well executed and his characters are good somewhat. They are memorable people facing these events and are affected by them. Some of the best scenes are these little moments with these ordinary people such as when a Shockley member is the lone survivor in his family of 20 after the Black Death. These are such moments that show the readers how these epic events affected even the most ordinary people better than any history text book ever could.

Sometimes the epic scope runs away with Rutherfurd and characters start to repeat themselves in almost comic ways. How many Wilsons or Forests are described as spider-like or how many Shockley women are referred to as tomboys and share a similar love of horseback riding? In Rutherfurd's later novels such as London and the Dublin Saga, he does a better job of capturing the various characters and making them stand out more on their own terms.  Still, it was an impressive debut on such a expansive epic subject that took a lot of research, a lot of dedication, and a lot of living history.


Links for Further Discussion And Activity Suggestions Family Tree - Who were some of your ancestors? How far back can you identify the previous generations? This activity could be the start of an ongoing treasure hunt in learning about your relatives and where you came from.

Time Capsules- Have you ever seen a time capsule being opened? They are often great ways people have marked important events for future generations to discover. What important events would you want people to know about fifty years from now? Any world events? What about important things in your local area? This link provides eight steps on how to create a time capsule. What would you put in yours?

Questions For Further Discussion

1. Sarum details historic events through they eyes of "common people," tradesmen, farmers, merchants, and religious figures, people who sometimes get overlooked in history accounts. How does this affect your reading? Do you think it's odd that familiar figures such as Kings and Queens or real-life historic figures such as Walter Raleigh, Wat Tyler, and the Duke of Wellington are only talked about but barely shown? How does this affect your perception of history? What important events do you remember happening in your lifetime? How would you describe them to future generations?

2. Sarum carries several themes of inescapable family ties throughout his works and this book is no exception. What characteristics or traits continue throughout the generations? How do the families change with the times or stay the same? Because these traits pop up in various generations, does that mean that the members are fated to carry the same cycles? Do they have choices in what they do or are they ruled by their ancestors' decisions? The last line in the book is "If he thought about the matter at all, he supposed at this place where the five rivers meet, life would go on as it had always done before." How do these words fit the tone and theme of the whole novel?



Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Oxford World's Classics)The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Though Anne Bronte isn't near as well known as her sisters, Charlotte and Emily, her book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall deserves to stand out as a classic alongside Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Personally, I liked Jane Eyre better, but found Tenant of Wildfell Hall a much better book than Wuthering Heights because I found Tenant's lead character a stronger protagonist and it made an interesting commentary to her sister's books.

Helen Graham-Huntington arrives in a village becoming the target of gossip and scandal among the locals. She also becomes the object of local landowner Gilbert Markham's affections. At first, he is enamored and jealous of the woman even attacking a man that he mistakes to be her lover. But then he learns of her story and becomes a better character defending her against attacks.

The middle half of the book which recounts Helen's story is better than the beginning. Here we find Helen, a passionate young woman determined to marry for love. What she gets instead is Arthur Huntington, a charismatic and brutal man who devolves into an abusive alcoholic.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has a very strong female lead with Helen. While she is in an impossible situation, she never allows herself to lose her resolve. She saves money and paints on the side to earn a living to leave. She lectures and protects her young son, hoping for him not to end up like his father. She also does what many women of her day would not do: she leaves him to start a new life. She is a much better character than either of her suitors, the abusive, Arthur and brash, Markham.

The other point of interest with Tenant is how it stands in relation to Anne's sister's works. While Charlotte and Emily Bronte's works are more Romantic and passionate in nature, Anne's appears to be more Realistic. In her writing Anne Bronte's characters live in dark creepy mansions in the country and have forbidden secrets but they still deal with real world problems, such as alcoholism, infidelity, divorce.It's almost as though Anne were saying "This is what really would happen if Cathy had married Heathcliff and lived all her life in isolation. It's not pretty is it?"

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall could stand to be a commentary on Anne's sister's books the Realism that contrasts with the Romance making a complete picture of the sisters' works and lives.


Link For Further Discussion And Activity Suggestions:

Click on the picture and the link to learn more about the "forgotten younger" Bronte sister and how she should be considered an equal to Emily and Charlotte in terms of writing. What topics do she and her sister write about? How are they similar and different? Imagine that you were the characters in one Bronte novel remarking on the behaviors of another? What would they say? Would they get along or not?

The Literary Gothic - The Bronte sisters are part of the Gothic literary genre. Read through the definition of gothic on this site. What are the Gothic properties in Tenant of Wildfell Hall? Whate does Gothic look like, sound like, or read like? How is that definition changed with such movements like "The Goth" subculture? What other literary movements are there and what works could be a representation of that specific movement?

Questions for Discussion:
1. Compare the three works by The Bronte sisters, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily. How is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall considered an answer to Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. How are the works similar and how are they different?

2. How does Helen's character change before she meets Arthur and after her marriage? How does she exhibit strength and weaknesses? Look at the final scenes with Arthur. Do you agree with her decision? Why or why not? Does she really show forgiveness? Why is that important for her?