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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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?

For the love of books

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“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”  – Cicero

I think I’ve read more books in the last 10 months than I have in the last three or four years. I suppose that’s what being on a part-sabbatical while working from home in the country does for you – it’s given me a chance to get a library card again for the first time in years, to hungrily devour books long on my “to read” list and revisit favorites from my youth. It’s made me choose reading over TV and the social media, led me to staying up late just to finish one more chapter (or the end of a book), and it’s reaffirmed that reading is one of the things that brings me the most joy in life.

In honor of National Reading Month, I wanted to acknowledge some of the books, characters, and reading moments that have stuck with me through life, out of the hundreds (thousands?) of books I’ve completed.

  • Little House in the Big WoodsThe Book of Goodnight Stories: a wonderful illustrated book of fairy tales and fables, broken up to last an entire year. It was one of the first books my mom read to me. I still have it, and look forward to reading it to my children someday.
  • The Long Winter: I think this was the first Little House book I ever read. My mom got it for me at a library booksale, a weathered and creased version, with the original Garth Williams illustrations. It got me hooked on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story, and I have since read all of her books in the series many times over (including now!). Laura was probably one of my first literary heroines. The Long Winter and the books rounding out the series are my favorites: Cap Garland! Town revivals! Almanzo’s Morgan horses!
  • Kindertransport and Clara’s Story: the first two books that I built a collection around of Holocaust stories, which I was fascinated by for years, especially after a trip to Germany at age 12.
  • Jane Austen: all of it. Read my post on her birthday here, and my own life lessons from her books here.
  • An Old-Fashioned Girl: my favorite Louisa May Alcott novel (yes, even over Little Women!). A sweet, good heroine, complete with a love story and a family’s plummet from rich to poor. Also, the introduction of the velocipede. I read it multiple times. Read my post on another one of Alcott’s books, a little-known “thriller.”
  • The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn: the book that sent me down the rabbit hole of the Tudor dynasty and the fascinating lives of Henry VIII’s court. Mostly historical fiction, but I’ve been diving into the non-fiction, too. Alison Weir does both well, and Philippa Gregory is always good for a scandal.
  • The Mitford books: I found this sweet series about a small-town pastor and his friends by Jan Karon quite by accident, but was absolutely taken by it. Less about believing in God, and more about believing in the beauty of friends, family, and love, these books are good for the soul.
  • Shakespeare: I read the requisite plays in high school, and some of his sonnets. But after taking a class in college and reading more of his work (Titus Andronicus, anyone?), I became more devoted. Favorites: Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III.
  • The Bregdan Chronicles: also originally known as The Richmond Chronicles (and the version I own), this historical romantic fiction series based before and during the Civil War is mostly out of print now, but the author is coming out with a new book.
  • Maniac Magee: a youth book I read a couple of times in elementary school about a young orphan boy on the run who makes an imprint in a racially divided town. There’s a kid called Mars Bar in it, and a lot of cake making. And running.
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (and its sister books): Rebecca Wells hit straight to my heart with these books about four Louisiana women growing up and raising their families together. Need I say more? The movie doesn’t do justice to the book.
  • Anne of Green Gables: I would be remiss to leave this series off the list. I read through these books so many times they are like a comfortable blanket. My favorites were always Anne of the Island and Rilla of Ingleside. I’m still looking for my own Gilbert Blythe.

I could go on forever. There are so many books and authors that I love, but this is just a little glimpse at what’s impacted me the most. You can also read my post on an ode to the books of our youth, with some contributions from friends.

How have books and reading impacted your life? What are some of your favorite books that have stuck with you over the years?

Happy birthday, Jane Austen

Circa 20 years ago, I received my first Jane Austen book, a copy of Emma, a Christmas gift from an aunt who knew of my passion for reading. At the time, even though I was already reading classics and other advancing literature, I thought perhaps it might be a little above my head. But I only let the book sit for about a year on my shelf before I couldn’t wait any longer, and promptly devoured it. I was hooked.

Next, I read Sense & Sensibility and then Pride & Prejudice. I followed that with Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and finally, Persuasion. I have loved Jane Austen before I had heard of Colin Firth, or before Keira Knightley became a star. I’ll admit something — I’ve never even seen the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice, but I’ve read the book at least five times.

People always tout P&P as their favorite Austen novel, and for many, it is king among classic literature. But like many of the essayists in Why We Read Jane Austen, I agree that choosing your favorite Austen novel is akin to picking a favorite child, or for me, a favorite dog. It’s nearly impossible. If I’m forced, it would be P&P, but from there, there is a close tie between Mansfield Park and Emma.

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