Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Pioneer Girl, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Several decades ago, an aspiring author sat down and wrote an entire story on lined notepads. It was a true story about her life, much more iconic than most of our stories will ever be. She poured her heart into it, and sent it off to a beta reader who made copious edits. Then she asked her beta reader to shop it around to various publishing houses.

What distant days, when your friend could use their agent for your book. :)

She had a previous track record in publishing magazine articles, and her beta reader was a well-connected individual. But publisher after publisher rejected it. "We already have books similar to this." "Not at this time." "We will not be publishing this book."

Her beta reader added fictional episodes to make it more exciting. It was turned into a juvenile version. Then, after years of trying, the author turned one sliver of it into a children's novel and sent it off to Harper Collins. It was published as Little House in the Big Woods.

The book I review today is the spurned autobiography Little House in the Big Woods was based off of. Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder's adult biography, never found an audience in her lifetime. But after its publication this year, the publishers have had to arrange for multiple printings, and it graced the New York Times Bestseller list for Hardcover Nonfiction.

The Ingalls story still resonates. And here's why you should read it.

The Book 
[From Amazon Description] Hidden away since the 1930s, Laura Ingalls Wilder's never-before-published autobiography reveals the true stories of her pioneering life. Some of her experiences will be familiar; some will be a surprise. Pioneer Girl re-introduces readers to the woman who defined the pioneer experience for millions of people around the world.

Through her recollections, Wilder details the Ingalls family's journey from Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, back to Minnesota, and on to Dakota Territory sixteen years of travels, unforgettable stories, and the everyday people who became immortal through her fiction. Using additional manuscripts, diaries, and letters,
Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography builds on Wilder's work by adding valuable context and explores her growth as a writer.

Author of an award-winning Laura Ingalls Wilder biography, editor Pamela Smith Hill offers new insights into Wilder's life and times. In an introduction, Hill illuminates Wilder's writing career and the dynamic relationship between the budding novelist and her daughter and editor, Rose Wilder Lane. Sharing the story of Wilder's original manuscript, Hill discusses the catalysts for Pioneer Girl and the process through which Wilder's story turned from an unpublished memoir into the national phenomenon of the Little House series.

My Thoughts
First things first, the introduction, though long, was fascinating background for Laura's publication journey. Non-writers may find it illuminating just how much work goes into writing and publishing a book, and it's a wonderful foundation for the rest of the Pioneer Girl experience. Whether you read it before the book or after, make sure you do read it.

Second, Pamela Smith Hill's annotations made the book a much richer, deeper reading experience. Laura's writing is terse and occasionally out of chronological order, reproduced with original spelling and grammar errors. Hill's notes explain continuity errors, give brief biographies of each person Laura mentions, and explain fascinating tidbits about life at that time. You won't want to miss them.

I loved hearing about the churches Pa and Ma were part of. The United Congregational Church in Walnut Grove, and the church they helped the travelling preacher start in De Smet. I don't remember if the children's novels covered that, but I didn't know how religiously involved they were, and I enjoyed that aspect.

I also never realized how responsible Laura was. The books give the impression of a wild and free-spirited girl. She was free-spirited, but she was far from wild. From a young age she was helping neighbors babysit their children, helping young mothers with housework as they tried to live on the prairie, and bringing the cows in every night. When Mary went blind, most of the heavy work fell on Laura, and during the long winter she worked just as hard as Ma and Pa to keep them all alive and warm. In spite of that, she also had a mischievous streak; one time she turned the clock back an hour so she could get extra time with Almanzo.

I also loved Hill's comparisons to the Little House series, tracing how much Wilder had grown as a writer. She added fictional elements for stronger plots and character arcs. She learned how to describe things in greater detail, and play on the emotions of her readers. I still remember how unfair it felt for Ma to make Laura give her doll to a neighbor girl, and Laura's fight with Mary over whether blonde curls were prettier than brown. Wilder knew how to faithfully portray the heart of a child, and that drew countless children's hearts to her stories.

This book destroys some of the well-known plots. Jack, the beloved dog, only technically existed in Little House on the Prairie. In The Long Winter, the Ingalls family lived with a young couple and their new baby, who wouldn't contribute anything to the household.

There are some adult stories about illegitimate babies, violence, domestic abuse, and even one disturbing account of possible death through sexual factors. While it's appropriately handled for adults, you may wish to read it aloud to young children to avoid those parts.

As an extra treat to the over-all experience, lots of pictures are included of the various towns, schoolhouses, and people. Likenesses of Cap Garland, the Wilder family, and other iconic figures of the Little House books grace the pages. From the story itself, to the maps and pictures, to the fascinating annotations, Pioneer Girl is a can't-miss look into the hard work and pioneer spirit of the age. It's a spirit of industry we would do well to emulate.

You can find more about Pioneer Girl and various media releases at www.pioneergirlproject.org.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Fullness of Joy Literary Celebration Tag

Today is a celebration day! Joy C has a blog birthday this week over at Fullness of Joy, with a fun tag and a truly amazing giveaway. I'm joining in the tag, and by all means, please post your answers as well! And don't forget to check out that giveaway! It ends in 16 hours, and you won't want to miss it.

Congratulations, dear Joy, and thank-you for your cheerful, generous inspiration in your little corner of the web. :) I always love to visit your blog, and feel right at home there.

1. What is your favourite "happy" sort of book? (a book that either has joy/happiness as a major theme, or a book that gives you a happy, cozy feeling inside). 
Great Expectations (Charles Dickens), The Fisherman's Lady (George MacDonald), and Winnie-the-Pooh. Also any L.M. Montgomery book, or Ellis Peters Cadfael mystery. (Note that aside from Pooh and Montgomery, the books are not cosy in themselves. They just inspire my personal coziness.) 
2. Did you ever have, in your childhood/youth, a certain book that launched you into a serious love of reading which made it something bigger than a mere hobby in your life?
It might have been Robert Louis Stevenson and the Little House books--they stick out as the most memorable books of my childhood, and gave me a thirst for adventure and a love for quiet character development. 
3. What is one overhyped novel that people nowadays term as a "classic" that you really didn't like as much as everyone else? What made you dislike it so much?
You know,  I can't think of any. But if you want to have fun, read this hilarious collection of Amazon reviews on classic literature. (Hey, hold on! Finish this post first!) 
4. What makes you motivated to blog, and what is your favourite aspect of the blogging experience throughout the years you've been writing?
You know what it really boils down to? I'm a stubborn lass, and hate giving up a goal once I've begun. That is sometimes a virtue. It is sometimes a vice. And it is only by the grace of God that I've maintained a regular blogging schedule. 
5. What are 4 works of literature that you are particularly looking forward to reading in the near future?
Peter Pan, To Kill a Mockingbird, Johnny Tremain, and Heartless
6. What are some of your favourite non-fiction books?
I was thinking about non-fiction books the other day, and realized that, while I read fiction books multiple times, I only read non-fiction books once. Strange, but true. Recently I enjoyed Paul Murray Kendall's Warwick the Kingmaker and Richard the Third. Jessica Thompson's Answering Your Kids' Toughest Questions was also wonderful. 
7.  What are some of your favourite time-periods to read about?
Pretty much anything in the latter 1800s, a bit of medieval, a bit of American Revolution, and early 1900s. I'm on the lookout for good stories in the 21st century. 
8. Is there a special book that influenced you to do something new in your life, or changed you in a profound way?
The books I have read are like the roots that support and nourish a tree. As time goes, they grow bigger and more twisted, until, short of cutting that tree down, you couldn't remove it from the ground. The same is true of the books I have read. They have all shaped me. I have absorbed each one of them and layered it into my mind, until it's a compost of ideas and people and teachings that I could never separate into their individual parts again. 
9. Do you have a favourite contemporary fictional novel?
Jan Karon's At Home in Mitford. Rich stories, endearing characters. Everyone should read this book. 
10. Persuasion is a very autumnal book, and many authors and poets have beautifully described and romanticised that season, which leads to the question: why is autumn so often idealised, and does it hold that certain magic and charm to you? What is your favourite season?
It means dying and nostalgia, something that humans are very, very much in tune to. Dying dreams, dying childhood. Humans are tuned to remember better days, probably in part because they remember that something was lost, and someday they will get it back again. They are looking for Faerie, as Tolkien would have it.

It definitely holds that charm for me--sweaters and books and a glorious rebellion of falling leaves. But I find things about all seasons charming, so I can't pick a favorite. 
11. There are many novels set during the era of the French Revolution, especially books written in previous generations by authors such as Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Baroness Orczy. Which, if any, are your favourites?
Eldorado, by Baroness Orczy, was smashing. Gives me chills every time. And The Elusive Pimpernel, when Sir Percy holds the candlesticks aloft--be still, my beating heart. 
Sorry. Never used that expression before. 
12. What excites you the most about literature and its influence in culture, and how it effects the way people think and act?
Literature shapes the affections, trains the mind, and bolsters the courage of the next generation. I wrote my thoughts about the importance of stories here. 
13. Is it ever a struggle to reconcile reading fiction/entertainment with the struggles of reality, and to place the importance of fiction within one's daily Christian life and walk with the Lord?
Considering that I spend a hefty amount of time writing and planning fiction novels, that is my real, daily work. I don't struggle with it, because one has to apply the same character and discipline to working with fiction as one does to any other job. You have to get up in the morning, get the book written, field critiques without melting, apply revisions, and continue to hone the vision, all the while striving to learn what would improve your craft. That is not for the faint of heart. And it is only my relationship with the Lord that keeps me cool, dedicated, zealous, and honest--because, at the end of the day, I want him to be pleased and glorified. 
14. Would you rather you lived in the countryside of England during WW2, or in the
American Prairie during the 1800s, or during the Neoplonic Wars in Europe? (basically favourite historical era/setting to live)
I'm reading about the prairie in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Pioneer Girl this week. While it was often frightening and full of hard work, I love the way they carved out a life for themselves. I might want to at least visit that time. In the end, I am most happy with the time in which I live, in which we are more medically and scientifically advanced. It's easier to keep in touch with people. 
15. What is your favourite Jane Austen novel? Do you have a favourite film or tv adaption?
I have always loved Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, but I suppose my favorite TV adaptation would be Ramola Garai's Emma. 
16. Describe your ideal reading nook! 
My bed. I have a scandalous amount of pillows (my secret) and a cozy bedside reading light. My family members will come in and put the blinds up to get me some sunshine while I read obliviously...
17. Is there a particular book that is quite underrated and yet you think is undeservedly so and should be read by everyone? 
Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit. I sometimes hear of people watching the miniseries, but the book's satire of American culture is much, much funnier.  
18. Do you have a favourite Parable that the Lord Jesus told? What inspires and encourages you the most about it?
It's not a parable, persay. But Jesus' allegory of the sheep and the shepherd in John has always comforted me. When I read it, I feel like a timid lamb being picked up and held close by the Shepherd. 
19. Name a book you've reread more than twice. 
Many favorite books I have read 7 times or more. Freckles, Prester John, and Jane of Lantern Hill come to mind. 
20. The main character in one of the giveaway books (Until that Distant Day) is a superb cook. How fond are you of cooking/baking and homemaking in general? 
I have good success with both cooking and baking, rarely encountering a disaster or something that tastes bad. When I get in the kitchen, I am dead serious. No jokes. Just snap to and get the meal on the table. (Unless I'm with friends, in which case I'm much more jolly.) Cooking is my favorite. I also love cleaning and organizing, and have taken on the scary jobs of scrubbing out the bathroom and keeping the fridge up to date. 
21. What is a book you're intimidated to read but really want to read in the near future?
I have two intimidating books under my bed. The Faerie Queene, and Tolkien's Unfinished Tales. They are not really progressing at present. But hope is the balm of my procrastinating soul. 
22. What 3 novels (or series of novels) would you like to see adapted to film or television?
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, any Gene Stratton-Porter book, and The Hidden Hand, by EDEN Southworth. All epic and worthy of the silver screen. 
23. What would be the first thing you would like to say to/ask your favourite author if you had the opportunity of speaking intimately with them for ten minutes?
What was the one passion that kept your writing spark alive all this time? And if you could tell me one piece of advice that will last me my whole career, what would it be? 
25. Favourite quote by your favourite author?
What torment is this? I will simply share a quote that stirs the glory in me:
And Finn turned about and saw them all round him, closing in with spears raised to strike; and he knew that the end was come. He let his spear that could not face five ways at once drop to his feet and stood straight and unmoving as a pillar stone...And the five spears made five great wounds that put out the light of the sun. ~The High Deeds of Finn MacCool, by Rosemary Sutcliff
26. What is your greatest wish/purpose in picking up your own pen and writing?
I wrote it down in a computer document very eloquently and passionately. I cannot find the document. My purpose is to glorify the Lord by technical excellence in fiction and to give readers characters to love that will be vivid friends to them. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Soul Friends, by Leslie Parrott

I have a deep value for friendship. Over the years, I have corresponded, laughed, cried with, and cheered on many sisters in Christ. Rarely do those friendships stop at surface level. It doesn't take us long to start sharing our heart cries with one another. We're thirsty pilgrims, travelling with great wistfulness in our battle of flesh vs. spirit, and we know that we need each other.

That's why, in the name of friendship, I was excited to pick up Leslie Parrott's new book, Soul Friends.

The Book 
[From Amazon Description]: God brings us soul-friends to help in our spiritual journey, sometimes in predictable places: small groups, friendships, and mentors. But they’re sometimes found in places we don’t expect―these “hidden guides” are people, past or present, whose role in our life may even be hidden from them, but nevertheless, have a deep impact on our growth and vitality. Whether it’s a hidden guide, a member of a small group, or a friend we’ve had for years, these soul-friends all hold the potential to embody grace that enables us to take a next step in the unfolding journey of our faith.

Leslie reveals how every woman traverses four stages of spiritual growth―quest, calling, crisis, and communion – again and again. And whatever stage you find yourself traveling right now, you need soul friends to help you move forward

When we seize the initiative to connect, together we will form a part of the deep communion that is the sisterhood of the traveling saints, journeying together in our desire to know God, serve him, and love him more deeply. Through story, poem, and reflection, Leslie Parrott reminds each of us of the incredibly intimate, intricate, faith-forming work God does in us through the gift of the women he places in our lives.

My Thoughts
Soul Friends has the unfortunate flaw of missing its main premise. The cover promises a deep discussion on worthwhile friendships. The actual text discusses the cycles of a woman's spiritual life, while friendships are used as anecdotes and supporting points. Leslie emphasizes that friends are vital during each stage of Quest, Calling, Crisis, and Communion--but never explains in-depth the how or why they are crucial. Friendships should have been the main thrust, with the spiritual journey as a side-development. But it was the other way around.

Another thing that constantly threw me off was the use of the Message Bible for scripture quotations. Parrott chose Message for its poetic and friendly style, but it was so casual that I really couldn't view it as Scripture. I appreciate the fact that she chose it to create a certain mood in the reader, but found it more distressing than helpful.

This is a hard review to write. I felt as if I came to her book hungry for bread, and was given toaster pastries instead. Sweet, but not nourishing to the deepest parts of my soul.

Even though I felt the book missed its main potential, Leslie has a sweet, sweet spirit about her that I only want to praise. Her writing style is warm and friendly. If anything, it struck me that Leslie would be a wise and compassionate friend herself, and I would love to know her personally. There were several quotes, if I had had a pencil handy, I would have underlined, especially towards the end of the book. She writes from a real position as a busy wife and mom, striving to know Jesus, striving to minister to those around her, not from a lofty pedestal of having it all figured out. I was blessed by her willingness to be real.

This book wasn't what I expected, but it seemed theologically sound, and I think it still has the potential to bless many women. I thought of several people I could give it to who would come at it with different expectations than myself. A lot of ladies' groups would enjoy discussing this together. I felt like it could have struck a much deeper note in today's hurting times, but it has the potential to kick-start deep discussions. After all, a good book is a catalyst for good conversation--and perhaps those conversations can be instrumental in deepening a friendship.

I'm still looking for a book on soul friendships. But if you're looking for an inspirational collection of thoughts on a woman's spiritual journey, with friendship as a side point, you may enjoy Leslie Parrott's Soul Friends.

I received this book for free from Zondervan in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Best of Literary Fathers

Welcome to the last Best Of post on My Lady Bibliophile! I couldn't let Father's Day pass without making a list of my favorite fathers (and father figures) in literature. :)

Fathers don't seem to do better than mothers in literature. If they aren't murdered in terrible accidents, they generally die of illness with the wife and daughters gathered around. Those who do live are often incapable or prone to excessive bursts of anger. But surprisingly enough, there are a lot of good fathers and father-figures in literature. It didn't take me long to come up with a list of them.

*Many titles in parentheses can be found under the Book Reviews tab.

Doctor Gibson (Wives and Daughters)--He's one of our favorite literary dads around here. We love his relationship with Molly. But he had strange taste in stepmothers.
Mr. Meagles (Little Dorrit)--A warmhearted friend and doting father. Played by the same actor as Doctor Gibson in the BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit.
Andrew Stuart (Jane of Lantern Hill)--Janekin. The ship's clock. Laughing eyes and poetry and a rattle-bang car. Kenneth Howard. I loved him.
Simon Garth (Middlemarch)--He knew the man his daughter loved had some growing up to do. Instead of alienating him, Simon Garth helped him grow up so they could marry each other. Now there's the way to handle a courtship.
Mr Dinsmore--Naysayers howl away and go read the later books. He mellows out wonderfully, and reading about Elsie and her dad with my own father was a wonderful part of my childhood.
John Farrier (A Study in Scarlet)--I know he's rather out of the way, but I always loved him for defending his adopted daughter from being forced into a polygamous marriage. We still quote his famous line: "There are two ways out of this room--the door or the window. Which do you prefer?" :)
Sandy M'Keithe (Crown and Covenant Trilogy)--A bulwark of wisdom in a time of strife. His main goal was to serve King Jesus during the slaughter of the Scottish Covenanters.
John Whittier (Pollyanna)--We never see him alive in the book. But his careful instruction and optimistic legacy of the Glad Game comforted his little girl for years after his death.
Elrond (Lord of the Rings)--Don't judge him based on the movie-Arwen, I beg you. The books are heaps better in regards to that relationship.
Richard Adams (Queen Sheba's Ring)--It's not every man who would endure slavery, capture, thirst, starvation, and long treks across Africa in hope of finding his lost son.
Ameres (The Cat of Bubastes)--A pagan priest thirsty for one true God to worship. His life was a noble one.
Duncan (The Fisherman's Lady)--Who couldn't love his funny, bittersweet hatred of Campbells, and his poor, blind piping?
James Douglas (The Lady of the Lake)--I love his stalwart Highland soul. I also love his daughter and son-in-law.
Mr. Stanton (Laddie: A True, Blue Story)--A tender husband, a wise father, and a visionary neighbor. If you want to learn how everyday living can be visionary for the kingdom of God, meet Mr. Stanton.
Dr. Strong--Another man whom we never meet living, he taught his daughter Linda to love the land and live clean. His influence guided her throughout her life.

Father Figures 
Mr. McLean (Freckles)--If you've read the book, you know. If you haven't, you need to.
Sir Ector (Pendragon's Heir)--I love his weakness for three volume novels. :) He is a watchman for Camelot, guarding one of its treasures while waiting for the summons to come home.
Jean Valjean (Les Miserables)--Lifted out of his pit of despair, he rescued Cosette from becoming like her mother and raised her up to a position of love and prosperity. I don't endorse Les Mis for a variety of worldview flaws, but I do appreciate Valjean's redemption of this little girl.
Dr. Alec (Eight Cousins)--he's probably one of my favorites, next to Andrew Stuart. Rose's guardian in the middle of several hilariously opinionated aunts, he helps her grow up strong in body and mind.
Mr. Jarndyce (Bleak House)--He made that house anything but bleak, and showed that loving sacrifice does not have to mean self-pity and despair.

Real-Life Fathers 
A.A. Milne--If you've never read the introductions to the Pooh books, you've missed a treat. A.A. Milne was a tender husband and an imaginative father. He won his boy's heart forever through the Hundred Acre Woods.
Charles Ingalls--A pioneer who took his family hither and yon. I loved his "Pop Goes the Weasel" and "Half Pint".
Georg Von Trapp--Georg was brave in the navy, and endured the loss of his first wife and the loss of living in his dear Austria. He found happiness with Maria and provided a new haven for his blended family in America.
Father Ten Boom --His words of wisdom, love for the Jews, and love for people in general really shine in Corrie's accounts. A giant of the faith.

Any fathers you'd like to add to this list? I'm light on Tolkien, especially, but any genre is more than welcome! :)

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my own father, who bought me so many books growing up and required visionary blogging of his children. Without him, neither this blog nor my extensive library would be what they are.

PS. Want more Father's Day reading? Check out Why Every Girl Needs a Daddy, from Sense and Sensibility.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Patterns vs. Portraits In Literature (Part Two)

Welcome back to Part Two of Patterns vs. Portraits in literature. This is the last in a two-part series discussion a foundational principle to how we read. We're looking at the benefits and disadvantages of two kinds of literature:
There are two ways characters can act in a book. A pattern shows us how we ought to act. A portrait shows us how we do act, and where that leads.
Think Elsie Dinsmore (pattern) vs. Anne of Green Gables (portrait). As I said last week, we need to read both kinds of books. "If our goal in reading is to know Christ and make him known, then we can't miss the benefits that both patterns and portraits have for us.":
If we never aspire to any kind of appreciation of pattern literature, then we're never going to grasp the full beauty of Christ's perfection--that God has given us each a choice to be good, and obedience isn't out of our reach. On the other hand, if we never learn an appreciation of portrait literature, then we won't grasp the depth of our sin and God's love for sinners.
I'm deeply grateful for all the comments various readers chimed in with, and hope this week's look will prove fruitful as well!  (Need to catch up? Check out Part One.)

Why Do the Wicked Prosper? 
Mark Twain wrote two short stories that I read years ago, and have remembered ever since. The first was a story about a bad little boy named Jim who skipped Sunday School. He went boating on Sunday and didn't get drowned, went fishing on Sunday and didn't get struck by lightning, stole a pen-knife and didn't get whipped for it, grew up as a rascal, and became a successful man in the Legislature.

Twain wrote a flip story about a good little boy named Jacob who always tried to do and say the right thing. He loved his Sunday school books and hated lying and stealing. This boy had a terrible time of sickness and injury, and ended up dying in an exploding glycerine catastrophe. (Disgusting.) He didn't even get to give the touching last speech that Sunday school boys are supposed to give.

Mark Twain has issues, and both stories have a lot of flaws. But they are also important in pointing out the ridiculous twaddle that children were being taught in his day. Loving good behavior is not loving Jesus, and I'm sure many children mistakenly believed that Jesus only loved them because of their puritan restraint.

One of my childhood nightmares was a book by Harvey Newcomb called Anecdotes for Girls. In his stories, every girl who went to a dance died of pneumonia, every girl who came to love Jesus laid down her life in a tragic illness for her sister, and every girl who spoke an unkind word was very wicked and sorry for it afterwards. However exasperating and depressing their method of frightening children into good behavior, these stories contain a lot of truth about what is sin. But they do miss one fundamental truth: Sometimes the wicked do prosper, and sometimes the righteous don't. That's the truth that Mark Twain hit straight on the head.

If you give your children books where the bad boy always punished quick, they'll have no conception of David's plea 'why do the wicked prosper?' They're going to think that everyone will make restitution, or God will punish them. That everyone will live in love, or God will show his displeasure. They will be unable and unwilling to grapple with the hard truths of Bible and history, in which not every bad person gets punished and not every good person gets rewarded.

That just doesn't happen. It just doesn't. Sometimes you're going to live with Josie Pyes who constantly get under your skin, or parents who aren't sympathetic, or children who look into your eyes and say "I hate you". You're going to live with pastors who fall from grace and ministry leaders who never come back.

Good stories, both pattern and portrait, teach how to heal and cope with the wounds of reality's brokenness.

Portrait Literature Teaches the Authentic; Pattern Literature Teaches the Ideal 
I read a book called Soul Friends by Leslie Parrott this week. In it she told countless stories of friends who were willing to be authentic with each other about their relationship with Christ. One time a lady she knew walked out of church before the communion service. Leslie asked her what was going on, and she said "I am angry with God right now about my daughter's chronic disability. We can't share a meal together." She gave herself weeks to wrestle through it, and until she could share communion heart to heart with God, she was honest with Him. She was a portrait of grace, not a pattern of perfection.

One feature of pattern literature is that it always preaches the ideal rather than the authentic. The ideal relationships, ideal behavior, ideal life choices. (Ideal often including extra-biblical rules). That isn't a bad thing. We should strive for the ideal that is living in obedience to Christ.

But sometimes  as a sinful person living with sinful people, ideal doesn't happen. I was flipping through a book last week for parents, and the author repeated constantly "This is the ideal. But we know that life rarely is ideal." They weren't trying to make excuses, but offering solid biblical support for those struggling with broken family scenarios.

Our ideal and God's ideal are sometimes (often) different. Good portrait literature shows that. Portrait literature shows that as messy as we are, and as often as we have to deal with the just consequences of God's discipline, his grace is lavish, and he can bring healing out of great pain.

We need both kinds of literature--one to keep before our eyes what the ideal is, and one to comfort us when we are not able (however we long) to live out an ideal perfect life.

Portrait Literature Asks Questions; Pattern Literature Gives Answers
Andrew Peterson wrote a song on his new album "After All These Years" entitled "Holy is the Lord". It's a song about Abraham's willingness to offer up Isaac on the altar. My favorite part about the song is the fact that it doesn't tell the end of the story. It simply ends with Abraham's step of obedience, while  he cries out in deep anguish that God would "make another way". It's arresting in its poignancy. It has the boldness to end with the question, and not the answer.

Portrait literature focuses on the question. Sometimes it includes the answer, but it allows the character to take as long as they need to explore the question. Pattern literature gives the answer fairly quickly. Both have their merits. Sometimes the person reading just needs a simple answer they can trust. Sometimes they are hurting and resistant, and need a book that includes the struggle as well. Both kinds step in to play, according to reader needs.

One Final Note on Pattern Literature
That being said, I value and appreciate pattern literature. Too often I think we can use "this book was too preachy" as an excuse for "this book was too convicting" or "this book wasn't entertaining enough." Sometimes a book should pinch and challenge. We need to embrace that accountability, when a characters correct actions don't line up with our incorrect ones. We shouldn't rationalize it away--but accept it. Kevin DeYoung, in a sermon at John MacArthur's Inerrancy Summit, said "Oftentimes we call legalism someone who is more serious about disobedience than we are." (emphasis mine) Despising all portrait literature as legalistic is wrong. Some of it is legalistic, and should be avoided. But not all of it. Be careful not to mark people who read pattern literature as sheltered and immature. They may be serious about fixing their eyes on that which is pure and holy--and that's a good goal.

How to Strike a Balance
I'm not a parent yet; but at this point, I'm considering how to mix these two types of literature in my kids diet as they grow up. When they're young, they don't really need to be taught sin. They know how to disobey their parents. But neither does one want to exasperate them with constantly holding up perfect examples. I would give them heavier on the pattern literature to train their affections, with a few portraits mixed in to keep it real and relatable. (That's what my mom did, and one of our favorite portrait books growing up was Gone-Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright.) As they grow older, and more able to choose the evil and toss the good, I want to start mixing in a lot more portrait literature. They need to grow up to be adults in understanding and discernment. I want them to grapple with questions and behavior choices, constantly bringing them back to the light of Scripture.

Fiction is to train. Viewed as entertainment, no wonder pattern literature is being pumped out so fast. But viewed as war games--then you want to run through all kinds of scenarios and worldviews that children will face in real life. The broken as well as the whole, the sinning as well as the saintliness. That's really what it all comes down to.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Corral Nocturne, by Elisabeth Grace Foley

One Sunday late in May, I had the treat of reading another one of Elisabeth Grace Foley's novellas: Corral Nocturne. This is a sweet prairie love story, with Elisabeth's trademark knack of putting color into familiar and well-loved personalities. I heartily enjoyed it.

The Story 
From Goodreads: Life on her brother’s ranch is lonely for Ellie Strickland. Ed’s ungracious manners and tight-fisted habits keep visitors away and his mother and sister close to home. But when Cole Newcomb, son of the wealthiest rancher in the county, meets Ellie by chance, he is struck by an unexpected impulse to rescue her from her solitude—and Ellie’s lonely summer is transformed.

When Cole asks her to go with him to the Fourth of July dance, Ellie is determined that nothing, from an old dress to Ed’s sour temper, will stand in her way. By the time the Fourth of July fireworks go off at midnight, will they herald only more heartache, or maybe—just maybe—a dream come true?

Novella, approximately 21,000 words.

My Thoughts 
First of all, can I say how much I love novellas? They are quick, easy to read, and make me feel like I'm accomplishing a lot even when reading time has to be snatched here and there. I never thought how much artistry and satisfaction a short story could hold, but Elisabeth Foley's have been just the ticket. 

Second, Ellie's mama is awesome. A lot of authors could take a Cinderella story and keep in the evil stepmother motif, but Foley wrote a close and loving mother/daughter relationship. Do you realize how few of those there are in literature? Most mothers are either dead or flighty or mean, but Mrs. Strickland is a woman of spunk, and a good seamstress to boot. Kudos! 

While I think Foley's writing style shines even brighter in her later collection, Wanderlust Creek, Cole was a fun hero seizing an opportunity to show a hurting girl he cares, and Ellie was a sweet heroine longing for someone to take care of her. She exemplifies the popular Cinderella traits of courage and kindness.

The western flavor is something I'm finding extremely refreshing lately. There's something honest and homespun and family-centered in Foley's re-tellings of this genre, and it makes a wonderful addition to my literary diet. 

If you're in the mood for some sweet relaxation, I recommend picking up a copy of Corral Nocturne

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Patterns Vs. Portraits In Literature (Part One)

A couple of weeks ago, I updated my Bibliophiles workshop to include a brand-new principle I'm really passionate about. It's one I mentioned when discussing Anne of Green Gables, and one I'd like to further expand in today's article: Patterns vs. Portraits in literature.

Homeschool readers have instinctively worked on this concept from babyhood. We've talked a lot on the blog about what to do when a character sins (my deepest post on the topic being When A Character Chooses Evil). Sin is inevitable in a fallen world, but how much to allow, and what in the world is Christian liberty, puts huge snarls in the debate.

Patterns vs. portraits is the cornerstone of clarifying this concept.

There are two ways characters can act in a book. A pattern shows us how we ought to act. A portrait shows us how we do act, and where that leads.

 Portraits came in to play during the Victorian age of literature, when children's books were written with protagonists who were essentially flawless. Throughout the story they encountered troubles that they overcame without sinning, or sinning in a very controlled way.

One of the most popular examples is Elsie Dinsmore, but there are others. Take, for instance, G.A. Henty. Each book contains a resourceful young man placed in a harrowing conflict, who accomplishes his adventures without much need for spiritual growth. Harry, in In the Reign of Terror, comes to England fully equipped with integrity. Amuba from The Cat of Bubastes doesn't really struggle with resentment for his master--just a deep longing to go back home. These books were written during an era that produced literature for children to teach them how to act.

Homeschool people grew up reading a surfeit of pattern literature, and a lot of them are writing in the same style. I recently read Faith Blum's A Mighty Fortress, which illustrates this concept to perfection. Joshua and Ruth are patterns of how one should love their siblings, work, and forgive their enemies. Another pattern example would be the Moody series by Sarah Maxwell. The children are quick to ask forgiveness, quick to serve others, and speak often of witnessing and reading Scripture. Douglas Bond's Crown and Covenant series is another: the father teaches his children in complete agreement, and they all hold the same view of Christian warfare.

Portrait literature is quite different. In portrait literature, the son decides not to follow the profession of his father, the girl gets married to the lover her family doesn't approve of, the kid throws a temper tantrum without apologizing, and sometimes life is really, really stormy. Parents and kids have disagreements, wives and husbands don't always love each other, and if someone is your enemy at school, you just might take a little revenge to plague them.

A Girl of The Limberlost is portrait literature. L.M. Montgomery's Emily series is portrait literature (in fact, pretty much anything by Montgomery is portrait) Robin Hood is portrait literature. Robert Louis Stevenson is portrait literature. Getting the drift? My own novel, War of Loyalties, is portrait literature. Portrait literature includes the reality of sin, and the reality that sin is not always dealt with in the correct manner. Portrait literature also includes a variety of lifestyle choices, whether or not the author personally endorses all of them. One of the upsides of portrait is that it can teach truth in a less abrasive way. It can also give a more empathetic view into the temptations and struggles of others, simply by helping you relate to the person sinning. That is not meant to make you excuse sin; it is simply meant to give you a merciful view of sinners, so you can help them more tenderly. Most mercy is encompassed in the attitude "I've been there," an admission you constantly make when reading this style. Sometimes I read a portrait book and end flabbergasted, because I simply don't know how I could react differently in the same situation. Portrait literature teaches us greater understanding of and compassion towards brokenness.

How to Use Both
Ideally, people should appreciate the merits of both kinds. Perhaps it's my personality type, but I am rarely annoyed by pattern literature--I've always loved Elsie Dinsmore, G.A. Henty, and Pollyanna. But if that was the extent of my reading diet, then I think I would struggle with a serious judgmental attitude. Pattern literature rarely takes into account seriously broken situations, and rarely shows an honest-to-goodness struggle with sin. Pattern characters have struggles, but they are not really prolonged and intense. One downplay of pattern literature is that, used too often, it can create a hypercritical and condemnatory spirit in immature readers.

Most readers will choose one kind or the other. They'll detest perfect little missys who always give up their rights, and look for all the Romeos and Juliets they can possibly find. Others read only books that have a character acting as they should act, and wonder how any kind of Christian could read a book where a character struggles with prolonged sin.

But to be healthy, readers need both. If you only read pattern or portrait literature, your understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is going to be really messed up.

The Bible uses both kinds of stories. Joseph is a pattern character in the way he responds to his misfortunes and his brothers. Boaz would be another. Jesus would be the ultimate pattern of sinless perfection. But most of the Bible is filled with portrait characters. Isaac showed favoritism to his boys. Rebekah lied to her husband. Michal despised David and never had children. David never punished his sons' sexual sin and murder. Peter was prone to fear of man, and Euodia and Synteche couldn't agree. The Bible has both for a very important reason. To teach us that God can be obeyed, and to teach us that we cannot obey him. That's why Christ died for us.

It's interesting that all the pattern characters in the Bible are types of Christ--and I would guarantee that most perfect patterns in man-made literature aren't created for the same purpose. Perhaps in the glut of pattern literature we're doing a disservice by putting the righteousness on where it was never supposed to be: on ourselves, instead of on Christ. That being said, I think pattern literature is important, and I'll be exploring why in part two.

If we never aspire to any kind of appreciation of pattern literature, then we're never going to grasp the full beauty of Christ's perfection--that God has given us each a choice to be good, and obedience isn't out of our reach. On the other hand, if we never learn an appreciation of portrait literature, then we won't grasp the depth of our sin and God's love for sinners. We'll think Jesus died to save us from snapping at our sister, and miss the fact that we're saved from the deepest blasphemy and idolatry that anyone could commit. We'll think our sins are never as bad as the people in the Bible. Our love will be lukewarm and self-righteous.

Fellow bibliophiles, don't let that happen.

Learn how to read both. If our goal in reading is to know Christ and make him known, then we can't miss the benefits that both patterns and portraits have for us.

More next Tuesday.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Mara, Daughter of the Nile

When I first read the back of this book, I thought it sounded like historical fiction at its coolest. Now, at the end, I'm sure of it. It's hard for me to review, because some of the moral implications I don't know what to do with. But it's an epic story, and here's the good of it:

The Book
From Goodreads: Mara is a proud and beautiful slave girl who yearns for freedom. In order to gain it, she finds herself playing the dangerous role of double spy for two arch enemies - each of whom supports a contender for the throne of Egypt.

Against her will, Mara finds herself falling in love with one of her masters, the noble Sheftu, and she starts to believe in his plans of restoring Thutmose III to the throne. But just when Mara is ready to offer Sheftu her help and her heart, her duplicity is discovered, and a battle ensues in which both Mara's life and the fate of Egypt are at stake.

(Is that not cool?)
My Thoughts 
Mara is one of those books that is pure fun to read. All the time you're reading, you're thinking "this is a good story--a lifetime story--this is why I love books". It's spy fiction at its tightest, with tiny clues and grand stakes that all weave together into the delicious combination of suspense that I like to experience. This book has everything from midnight meets to tomb robbing (and breaking the royal seals on the tombs was no joke for an Egyptian).

The characterization gives food for thought, and is far from a rainbow of happiness, but neither is it one of those gut-wrenching tales that leaves you exhausted and glassy-eyed. When I finished, I had the happy, heart-pumping adrenaline of a story well told that didn't try to knock my emotions out of whack at the same time. I was able to do what I love best: read the story without that hangover angst the next day.

The Egyptian culture makes for a unique and beautiful setting. I loved the way McGraw combined the little details of clothing, eye paint, gods, food, and nobility. What made her setting even richer was bringing in a Syrian with completely different culture and value system, and contrasting Mara's love for Egypt with the Syrian Inanni's wariness and disgust. Mara considers Inanni's many shawls frumpy and shapeless, while Inanni considers Mara's sheath-like dress immodest and thin. That's a brilliant way to highlight culture details. The setting alone made me happy. In the midst of my love for countless English/Irish/Scottish tales, having something so gripping set in a very different country like Egypt brought new zest and enchantment to the tale.

In reading K.M. Weiland's Structuring Your Novel over the weekend, I constantly remembered Mara, and was pleased by how classy the author's plotting was. From a reading perspective it's a joy, from a writer's perspective it's an example worth emulating. It never dragged, but neither was the action cheesy. McGraw never went over the top and never undersold herself. It hit all the correct crisis points naturally, and crescendoed up to a whammer of a climax that delivered the 100% punch I wanted. McGraw got away with using four or five POVs, but none of them were confusing. Every writer who has a book with any kind of drama in it should read Mara.  I would put it in a writing class, or even a literature program for the quality of it.
Lotus flowers also featured in the story. 
As far as the side I'm still thinking about, Mara is a story set completely within a pagan culture. After being used to something like Haggard, which contains at least some mention of Christianity, it left me wondering how to review it when there was nothing to gain a foothold on from my worldview. Mara contains a lot of lying, which I understood in the context of a spy novel. You can't really have a story about a double spy without it. But still, even when it's necessary, I like to think through it.

Last week we learned about an Israeli principle called Pikuach Nefesh. One sect of the Pharisees in the Middle East held that loving God and loving their neighbor were the highest commandments. If you had to lie or break the Sabbath to love your neighbor, then the loving came first. In many ways, Mara makes me think of that, as she makes choices to sacrifice for the spies and king she loves. Though I don't think the author had that principle in mind, and I myself have reservations about it, understanding Pikuach Nefesh helped me process this book as a Christian reader. This is how a poor, non-Christian Egyptian girl would realistically act, and I can respect the consistency of her viewpoint without embracing all of her moral choices.

In spite of the deceit factor, there are certain things the characters will not do, come torture or whipping or death. They act by their moral code, and they respect it, even if they swear by all the gods of Egypt in the process. Two things that shine clear are patriotism and deep sacrifice for the well-being of Egypt.

For readers who like to look out for romance, Mara contains a significant amount. It was a full-blooded, mature romance, not a shallow and saccharine one. But even though it didn't trouble me, some readers may not care for it. :)

In looking at the Amazon reviews, it has over 200 five star reviews and very few negative ones. Most times I view five stars with a wary eye, but this time I am glad. It shows that a lot of people recognize its worth. It may not be a Christian story, but I think it's a story well told, valuable in looking through the eyes of a different culture and belief system. Good quality deserves accolades, and Mara, Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, is a joy of an adventure tale.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Art of War for Writers, by James Scott Bell

I've never actually sat down and read a book on writing advice until William Zinsser's On Writing Well. I've followed blogs, specifically K.M. Weiland and Go Teen Writers, to pick up helpful community with other writers. But this year I wanted to delve into more books about the writing craft, so I picked up James Scott Bell's The Art of War for Writers, after a glowing recommendation from a friend. It made for an enjoyable day's reading while working election polls.

The Book 
Based off Sun Tzu's war tactic quotes, James Scott Bell puts together a classy volume of writing advice. He divides it into three sections: Reconnaissance (the mental disciplines required in writing), Tactics (tips on the craft itself) and Strategy (navigating the publishing industry). The basic common sense is surprising in its simplicity, but remarkably refreshing as well. It's written in a conversational style, like a one-on-one meeting you might experience at a writer's conference. A fast read, with some snazzy binding layout, it provides writers with the best of battle advice: that which is clear, and that which is necessary.

My Thoughts
To be honest, I don't know if it would have helped me to read writing advice sooner or not. I picked apart what I liked in literature simply by reading good books and writing blog reviews. Then I wrote a story I liked. But I view writing advice as taking your weapon to a sharpening stone, or cleaning your gun. It gives you the encouragement of knowing you're on the right track, and provides a fresh round of ammunition for the next stage of the writing journey.

My favorite part was how short each chapter was--most of them being 2 or 3 5x7 pages. Easy to get through, boiled down to the cleanest, most pithy advice Bell could muster. Whether you're a mother, a student, or simply a busy stay-at-home daughter, that makes for easy read. :) I enjoyed going through a section and then thinking about it as I attended to other duties.

The best exercise was in section 21 when Bell has you take a few of the movies and books that have impacted you most deeply and pick apart the elements that you are passionate about. Including one or more of these elements in each project, he says, adds a deeper level to any book you take on. To keep a high quality of writing, he encourages readers to scan over this list every so often, to make sure they're not getting off track with their main vision. I found that passion points for me were justice, mercy, passion, perseverance, suffering, friendship, and heroes that set my soul on fire.

Another encouraging light bulb moment was in section 29, where he discusses making improvements outside your comfort zone. Sometimes, to really make a character pop off the page (especially for an introverted writer) you have to write their actions and thoughts more explicitly than you yourself would prefer. Bell encouraged writers to delve deeper into the emotions of the character and write it out clearly and vulnerably on paper. I found that to be a rewarding exercise in my last War of Loyalties rewrite. As Bell says, you can always scale it back later. A couple of times I did--but most times I ended up with a scene much better than the original, because I pushed myself.

One of my biggest insecurities was how my writing day looked like--if it was normal and efficient enough. In section 76, Bell collected a 'typical writing day' from a variety of successful authors, and it helped to see that mine really wasn't much different than theirs--especially during the editing stage, when it's basically scarf pizza, sleep, and walk around like a zombie.

Some of it is basic methodology that I had knocking around in my head but never bothered to put into words. This book is crisp, reassuring, and avoids writing fads (the biggest detriment to young writers). It gives experienced advice to avoid the worst tactics and pitfalls in the war of words. I highly enjoyed it, and recommend it to any of my writing friends.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...