Home and Family in Literature and Life

Do we ever really think about what first piques our interest in a particular subject? Whether it’s history or science or literature or society or food, we tend to generalize our initial interest in a topic or hobby – “it was in my early 20s” or “sometime in my youth” or “when I heard about it from a friend.” But do we really think through the very thing that truly led us to want to learn more, do more, and find more out about something that intrigued us? And do we stop to wonder why?

So you like military history; okay, what was it that first attracted you to it? Why? Was it because you have a personal connection to it, through your own experiences or via a family member or friend, or is it because of a particular incident in history that calls out to more strongly than others? Or say that you really got into sculpting. Is there a specific work or artist that inspired you? A reason you wanted to sit down and build something with your hands?

As I’ve spent the last two and a half years exploring what I want to do with my life and reflecting on my various interests and hobbies, I’ve noticed a few recurring themes and connections. I’ve especially noticed this when I think about my favorite books, authors, and stories over the years.

Jane Austen. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Lucy Maud Montgomery. Louisa May Alcott. Ginny Dye. Jan Karon.

Okay, they are all women writers. And with the exception of Karon’s Mitford series, they all wrote in or write about times past; “period” literature, as some may call it. We’ve got the Edwardian era, Civil War and beyond, pioneer times, and turn of the century and WWI. But it’s more than that – a lot more than that, I’ve recently realized. In all of these authors works, there is one thing that stands out loud and clear, when I really think about it: the importance of home and family.

It’s kind of an aha moment; these are two of the most important things in my own life, and two of the things I most enjoy writing about myself. A coincidence? Likely not.

As Janeites know all too well, Austen’s novels aren’t exactly filled with adventure and crazy plot twists. She used everyday happenings and personal dramas from the family home and that of close neighbors and friends to create witty, romantic, and realistic stories of life in Regency England. Laura Ingalls Wilder shared the mundane and sometimes frightening details of prairie life, as her family moved from house to house to house, but always making it home. Montgomery’s series about a lovable red-headed, precocious orphan girl named Anne who was adopted by an elderly couple on Canada’s Prince Edward Island is all about family and home. Alcott’s Little Women is based on her own family and their struggles in the mid-1800s New England, and her other books all have a strong sense of family, centering on spirited, smart, and self-reliant young women. Karon’s series about a small-town pastor shows us the comical, joyful, and sometimes sad lives of Father Tim and his friends in the quaint town of Mitford. And Ginny Dye’s historical fiction series, The Bregdan Chronicles, features an entire cast of fiercely loyal, passionate, and ambitious family members and friends – black and white, former slaves and masters – that continue to call a Virginia plantation home base even after the Civil War has ended.

I’d be silly to not also notice that all of these authors’ works intrigue me because of their portrayals of resilient, independent, ambitious, and compassionate women, with a drive to do something more and be something more in their world (in the Mitford series, this comes through with Father Tim’s wife, Cynthia). While they are all extremely devoted to their families and to creating a sense of home, wherever they are, they also feel a calling to explore beyond their boundaries — both physical, and the ones placed on them by society because they are women.

In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet knows she must marry, but she is not about to settle for the first man that shows her attention or that her mother sends her way. It takes time of course, but ultimately she chooses a man that will make her happy as well as comfortable, and all the while, she’s pushing for her sisters and friends to make their own choices as well. In Little Women, Jo March leaves home and an opportunity to marry her best friend to become a writer, and ends up meeting an older man who challenges her mind as well as her heart. And in The Bregdan Chronicles, Carrie Cromwell fights convention and risks her life by first freeing her father’s slaves, then by attending a women’s medical college up north, leaving her husband, family, and friends behind (temporarily).

These themes, which often fight against one another as much as they work together, have come up often in my own life – especially so in the last couple of years. My intense desire to be independent, to explore the world around me, and to pursue my passions keeps my mind and my heart constantly churning, constantly looking for what’s next and how to get there. Yet at the same time, I’m pulled home, to my parents, to my family in Louisiana, to a stable and comforting environment that brings me joy and peace. I yearn for a companion and prefer structure and routine, yet feel I am meant to do more and be more – for myself, if not for anyone else. I don’t like feeling stuck, yet I stick to safe routines and lifestyles because it’s easier, or less intimidating. Finding the balance is what I keep coming back to – what IS the balance? What IS the combination of home and family and a life of adventure and exploration that I’m looking for, and how do I find it?

For now, I’ll keep reading and continue learning. Perhaps some of the answers will come from the authors and characters that I’ve loved for so many years.

Have you noticed any themes in your favorite books from over the years that go deeper than genre? Are they relevant to your own life?

Whom do you love? Virtue vs. villainy in literature

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In last weekend’s New York Times book review, Bookends asked, “Can a virtuous character be interesting?” Two writers, Thomas Mallon and Alice Gregory, present their case for which type of literary character makes for more interesting reading: a good person, or a villainous one?

Mallon begins his argument for the “villain” with classic examples: Scarlett over Melanie in Gone With the Wind, Becky over Amelia in Vanity Fair, and perhaps the most fundamental and obvious example of all, Lucifer over God in Paradise Lost. He also references the recent controversy over Atticus Finch’s true colors illuminated in Harper Lee’s recently released Go Set a Watchman (I blogged on that here), and how Atticus may be an exception to the rule that we love to hate the bad guys, and that reading about flawed and even evil characters is more wholly satisfying than reading about do-gooders. Without the bad guys, Mallon says, we lose the opportunity to appreciate the virtue in the good guys – and in some cases, like in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, we lose the entire essence of the play, and the larger lessons and messages that come with it.

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Go Set a Watchman: Time To Reevaluate Our Heroes — and Our Conscience?

 

As I started Go Set a Watchman, Harper’s Lee’s highly anticipated sequel that is now being labeled as a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, I tried to manage my expectations. Early reviews and quick takes from the chapter released online a few days before told me that Atticus Finch wasn’t quite the beloved everyman hero that we all grew up with, and that Lee’s writing wasn’t exactly of TKAM standards. And of course, there’s all the controversy just over the actual discovery and publication of the novel – how could I not go into this without some sort of bias?

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From Laura Ingalls and Alicia Florrick to Elizabeth II: literary and historical women as role models

The more time I spend reading, writing, volunteering at the library, and exploring what I want to do with my life, the more I’ve learned that what I read and who I read about has influenced who I am and who I want to be. While I love Dickens, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Shakespeare, my heart is with Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, Lucy M Montgomery, and Jane Austen. Half Pint (Laura), Jo March, Anne Shirley, and Elizabeth Bennett are some of the strongest, imaginative, passionate, and soulful characters in literature – determining their place and path in life while remaining devoted to family, friends, and love. In history, I nerd out over the family wars and power struggles during the times of Henry VIII and Richard III, but it’s the reformations and revolutions and sea changes that Anne Boleyn, Katherine Woodville, and Elizabeth II brought about despite the opposition that really resonate with me.

Even when I think about the TV shows and movies I enjoy, it comes back to the women. Sure, Mad Men’s Don Draper is a fascinating look at the flawed man, but Peggy, Joan, and young Sally Draper are prime examples of women finding their way in a world dominated by the opposite sex. And while the Earl of Grantham may hold the keys to Downton Abbey, Ladies Cora, Mary, Edith (yes, even Edith!), Sybil, and Rose, and servants Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, Daisy, and Anna set the stage for the changing role of women in the first half of the 20th century. On The Good Wife, Alicia Florrick adapts to and then owns her circumstances, making us question what “good” really means. And in Game of Thrones, perhaps the most exciting character development lies with Daenyrus Targaryen, Sansa and Arya Stark, and (begrudgingly) Cersei Lannister.

When I was younger, I may have thought that I just liked that Laura Ingalls got to help her Pa make hay and then go buggy-riding with Almanzo. I may have been jealous of Anne Shirley’s red hair and her smart and witty friend and future husband, Gilbert. But what I think was really going on was that I admired their fiery spirit, their continued desire to learn and explore, and their fierce loyalty to home, family, and self. One of my favorite book series is one that centers on how a young white woman and her (later freed) slave and best friend get through the Civil War and years afterward, both dealing with their own set of obstacles, but both also remaining adamant about who they are and how to fulfill their dreams. Dare I say that these are the very reasons I have had a lifelong love affair with The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz? Beyond the singing and the rainbows and ruby slippers, these are also the stories of women and girls who overcome their fears – of the unknown, of the world beyond their doorstep, of those who challenge their beliefs – and take a journey to find their calling, or to find what matters most, even if it is right in their own backyard.

There are many out there that have applauded the arrival of newer young female “heroines” and role models in literature, such as The Hunger Games’ Katniss or Divergent’s Tris. While I support new stories and inspiring characters, we weren’t lacking in the first place. Stories of females fighting back against societal pressures and life’s ups and downs and tragedies is nothing new – all you have to do is pick up the Little House series, The Diary of Anne Frank, or Little Women. A 16-year-old pioneer girl braving her first teaching assignment in the middle of nowhere sounds pretty brave to me. So does the story of a young girl hiding from the Nazis in an attic, and another of a young woman cutting off her hair and secretly writing stories under a pen name to provide for her family.

This is no great epiphany of course. We read what we like, and we read (and watch) what connects to us, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. And as I continue to determine my next steps and explore who I am beneath the surface, I’ll keep in mind my heroines from the page, screen, and history, that I have loved from the first moment I met them.

Who are your heroines from books, tv or film, or history? Why?

Things I’ve Learned While Volunteering at the Library

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I began volunteering at the local library last August. I’m in the circulation department, and once a week for about an hour and a half, I shelf-read and clean books. I also help shelve some paperbacks and organize carts ready to be shelved, things like that. And contrary to belief, it’s not only elderly people who volunteer at the library. There aren’t many of us younger ones, but there are some, including my supervisor, who is my age, and has been working at libraries since high school. I may be one of the youngest volunteers, but being at a library is like another home to me. So getting my library fix once a week and supporting the system? A winning combination for a book lover. (Bonus: I even met a wonderful woman at the orientation who has now become one of my closest friends here in San Diego. We talk about books, knitting, Downton Abbey, and desserts. It’s perfect.)

Shelf-reading basically means making sure the books and other materials are in order on the shelves. You literally go book by book and read the spine label, re-shelving any books (or DVDs or audiobooks, etc.) that are out of place, and aligning them all on the edge of the shelf so it’s pretty and upright. So for instance, in fiction, you follow the spine label by author, then title. In nonfiction, you follow by the Dewey Decimal number, then author, then title. Some sections are nearly always perfect, making for a boring (if not fast) review, while others seem to always be out of sorts (children’s, new fiction, some non-fiction sections).

For most people, volunteering at the library may seem like a very mundane and rather uninteresting activity, but for book lovers, it’s a nice escape to the world we love, and a continual learning experience. Here are a few things I’ve learned from volunteering at the library:

  • Children’s books are filthy. I don’t mean the content. I wear gloves and use a household cleaner and microfiber cloth to clean books. What appears on the cloth after just one cover of a kids’ book is absolutely disgusting. (Note: there are Purel sanitizer stations all throughout the library. This is an important feature.)
  • The children’s books are also always the last to be organized. The volunteers will go through all of the rest of the library each month, shelf-reading anything but children’s, until we have to do it before starting any other section again. Said one volunteer recently, “I don’t do children.” (I wondered after if she meant that specifically for shelf-reading or in a larger life sense.)
  • Mystery and thriller series have all sorts of interesting title themes. I’ve never read mysteries or thrillers, so for a long time I thought that Sue Grafton’s alphabet series was somewhat unique. Or that whole “The Cat Who…” series. But when I started shelf-reading, I realized there is an insane amount of theming that goes on with these titles across the board, some of them kinda cool, and some that are lame. The alphabet thing is quite common, actually (i.e. Capital Killer, Capital Larceny, Capital Murder), and then there’s overplayed themes like baking or holidays (Carrot Cake Murder, Red Velvet Cake Murders).
  • Patrons still rely on old services. When I’m in the circulation room cleaning books or doing other tasks, at least three to four calls come in with a request for renewals or someone wanting to know when their books are due. This is despite a printed receipt system when you check out your books that show when they’re due, and an online renewal system that is quite easy to use. I think it’s an interesting example of how even though libraries are instituting technology to streamline processes, many patrons still prefer traditional methods.
  • People still use libraries to get work done. Or play games on the computer. Believe it or not, people don’t exclusively go to coffee shops now to hog the Wi-Fi and work on their paper (or check Facebook). Even on Tuesday afternoons, the library is full of people getting work done on their laptops at study tables, doing research, and whatever else they need quiet space for. But a fair number of people come to the library to make use of the computers for job searching, playing solitaire, and watching YouTube videos.
  • Library book sales are hard to beat. If your library has an ongoing bookstore and frequent sales, take advantage of it. On any given day, I can buy a newer paperback, a great biography, a classic cookbook, or a fascinating non-fiction book for anything from $1-3. Many of these books are in near perfect condition. Consider donating books you don’t want to your library, and buying from them, too, if that’s an option. Keep the cycle going.
  • You can never run out of new material to read. If you’re open to expanding your literary horizons, the library is a perfect place to try new genres, new authors, and new subjects – all for free.

Have you volunteered or worked at a library? What you have learned from your experience?