The Queen, Cassandra Austen, and Me

In the hubbub surrounding the recent passing of the queen, the word I keep encountering in all kinds of places is duty.

It’s a concept I was already mulling over as I finished the excellent Miss Austen by Gill Hornby. The novel, wreathed in calm shot through with an old loneliness, extrapolates from a famous but mysterious incident in the Austen family—that after Jane’s early death, her sister Cassandra was known to destroy correspondence written by her famous sister.

After all, “Cassandra was the executor of her sister’s estate: the keeper of her flame; the protector of her legacy.” Our protagonist is defined by this sense of obligation. Wearily in old age, Cassandra observes to herself, “A single woman should never outlive her usefulness.” Later, she remarks, “It is as if Nature can only throw up one capable person to support each generation. In my family that has always been me. […] Our fortune is to have families who need us. It is our duty, our pleasure. Our very worth!”

Throughout the novel, then, Hornby works to valorize this humble dedication to duty, illustrating the unflashy devotion Cassandra shows her sister, Jane, and their family, even when it requires self-denial. In this way, Cassandra resembles the quieter heroines her sister dreams up: the Elinors, the Fannys, the Annes. This duty is no pitiful delusion, either, for as Cassandra declares silently, “Look at me, Isabella! I have known happiness. Without man or marriage, I found a happiness, true and sublime!” (And this, the cautious reader should note, is not revealed to be a secret anachronistic fling, either, rest assured.)

Struck by tragedy while still a young woman, Cassy resolves, “From the moment the news had been broken to her—badly, insensitively, not as she would have liked or deserved, but no matter—Cassandra had identified that as the occasion to which she must rise.”

By Doyles of London, via Wikipedia

While we can and maybe elsewhere should argue whether the late queen’s duty was one worth always following, even when it pitted her against ex-subjects in the developing world or her own family, certainly we can recognize that in her day to day life, in both its splendor and tedium, Elizabeth unstintingly gave her life to her perceived duty.

And maybe that’s what fascinated so many of us, whether we were avid consumers of royal gossip or simply casual viewers of The Crown: her duty was both like and unlike our own. In her decades of service were jewels and rich brocade, private jets and dignitaries, far from our own sometimes dull-as-dishwater domestic duties. And yet there is something recognizable, something lacking in the lives of so many public figures, who seem committed only to a life of ambition or pleasure. This may be part of Elizabeth’s enduring appeal for many, that, like the costume dramas to which so many of us kinda religious, kinda stay-at-homey ladies find ourselves drawn, in Queen Elizabeth we recognized a woman like ourselves, trying (though sometimes failing) to discern what was right and to do it — rather than just what would make her happy.

We have, of course, the purer, undiluted example of the saints. But for so many of these, the example is often a fierce and alien flame: a blazing martyrdom, a heroic triumph. That’s why we gravitate to the small and attentive dutifulness of figures like St Thérèse of Lisieux, I think, toiling away in their mundane, quiet corners, but find the writ-large duties of the royal materfamilias so fascinating.

Cassandra’s reward for a lifetime of service comes in perusing a last letter of Jane’s, in which Jane deems her the “dearest, tender, watchful sister,” and, with a rare straight-faced earnestness, proclaims, “As to what I owe her, I can only cry over it and pray God to bless her more and yet more.”

It’s all any of us can work for then—a little gratitude, a little recognition, the prayers of those around us, whether we end up as the longest reigning monarch of England or the sister in the shadows. I hope that ultimately Queen Elizabeth found those things for herself—and that I might, too.

The Involuntary Vow of Silence

My days are in no way silent. I have never done a silent retreat. When I go on my mama retreats I find myself chattering to myself all weekend, narrating my actions like I do day in and day out when I’m shadowed by a little tribe of children. It’s a habit I can’t shake, and one I think of when I encounter monastic rules of silence occasionally in novels.

So, it was a big change when, recently, I got the first case of full blown laryngitis I can remember, right on the heels of my first bout of mastitis.

I didn’t see it coming, hadn’t realized I’d even caught the kids’ cold until the mastitis misery lifted, and by then, there was no saving my voice.

Homeschooling, as it turns out, is mostly talking, at least the way I do it, but we were already behind from the colds and mastitis so we limped along. It turned out Pip, now in fourth grade, can do almost all his work independently, but that second-grade Scout can do basically none of hers. It turns out lots of Ambleside Online books can be found on LibriVox or Scribd or YouTube, but very few of Mater Amabilis’s books. So John did a bit and the internet did a bit and some of it just got rolled over till later.

The more important lessons of my involuntary silence for me came outside of school hours, though. When I can’t speak, I listen more to my kids. I enjoy their conversation more when I can’t hustle them along or shape the conversation.

I have to go with the flow a lot more. So much of managing and adjusting to life with four kids has been me raising my voice and delegating, coaching and guiding us all through the grocery store aisles, or unloading the groceries. But when my coach voice failed me, mostly the kids rose to the occasion, even without my minute management.

Being rendered voiceless, more than anything, reminded me of those long mornings with just a couple small kids, when in my exhaustion I’d convince the kids to play doctor, so I could lie limp and sneak-sleeping on the floor of their bedroom as they flitted around me with their plastic stethoscopes, their faux-concerned voices. There was nowhere to go; we were just together, passing the time in each other’s company. As one murmured to the other, as the other inspected my wounded knee and dropped it with a professional cluck of disapproval, I’d doze off.

Nearly a decade ago, it was just me in the winter light of our silent New England apartment, staring in to the inscrutable blue eyes of our firstborn. Now, improbably, I am surrounded by a murmuration of starlings, a murmuration of my own making, the happy chatter and endless complaints of these little people God has called into the world. It is overwhelming and it is beautiful, both. It took being silent to remember that.

2021 in Books

Total: 60. Comparable to last year’s record-breaking year, likely due to the two P’s, pandemic and pregnancy. Woohoo.

Fiction Favorites:

  • Crossbows and Crucifixes: A Novel of the Priest Hunters and the Brave Young Men Who Fought Them (Henry Garnett): what a subtitle, right? Despite the hokiness of the title, this was a fun one to read aloud to Pip — genuinely engaging and not overly didactic. I don’t know if I’d recommend it broadly to adults and I doubt I’ll read it aloud to Scout, but I’m glad we found it for him.
  • St Patrick’s Summer: A Children’s Adventure Catechism (Marigold Hunt): I promise not to choose only sectarian children’s books!!
  • Once Upon a River (Diane Sitterfield): See? A delightful audiobook centered around a pub on the Thames
  • None Other Gods (Robert Hugh Benson): OK, another Catholic thing but for adults! An engaging story of one young man’s self-abnegation — funny and challenging by turns.
  • The Midnight Library (Matt Haig): just a really fun audiobook
  • Very Sincerely Yours (Kerry Winfrey): just likable people falling in love. The sort of thing you want in a rom com but I (for one) can rarely find.

Nonfiction Favorites:

  • The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom (Corrie ten Boom). I talk about this one, which everyone except me has read, back here.

Notes & Trends:

I was all over the place; you can see the different threads of aloud-with-kids, passing morning sickness time, pre-pregnancy, etc.

  1. Crossbows and Crucifixes: A Novel of the Priest Hunters and the Brave Young Men Who Fought Them (Henry Garnett): aloud for Pippin’s school as a sub for an AO choice.
  2. Home (Marilynne Robinson): re-read
  3. Beach Read (Emily Henry): recommendation from my sister
  4. Burning for Revenge (John Marsden): comfort re-read
  5. A Killing Frost (John Marsden): comfort re-read
  6. The Dead of Night (John Marsden): comfort re-read
  7. Tomorrow When the War Began (John Marsden): comfort re-read
  8. Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh): re-read, aloud to Pip for fun
  9. Evvie Drake Starts Over (Linda Holmes)
  10. The Switch (Beth O’Leary)
  11. Still Life (Louise Penny)
  12. The Atlas of Love (Laurie Frankel)
  13. Dragons in a Bag (Zetta Elliott): aloud with Pip
  14. Barren Among the Fruitful: Navigating Infertility with Hope, Wisdom and Patience (Amanda Hope Haley): loaner from my friend Lindsay
  15. The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
  16. A Thousand Acres (Jane Smiley)
  17. First Frost (Sarah Addison Allen); audiobook
  18. Garden Spells (Sarah Addison Allen); audiobook
  19. The Light Invisible (Robert Hugh Benson)
  20. None Other Gods (Robert Hugh Benson)
  21. The Moonlight School (Suzanne Woods Fisher); audiobook
  22. The Bride Test (Helen Hoang); audiobook
  23. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (Barbara Kingsolver); re-read, audiobook
  24. The Modern Cottage Garden: A Fresh Approach to a Classic Style (Greg Loades)
  25. Lemons (Melissa Savage); audiobook, recommendation from Pip
  26. The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom (Corrie ten Boom)
  27. Patron Saint of First Communicants: The Story of Blessed Imelda Lambertini (Mary Fabyan Windeatt); aloud to the kids for school
  28. The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Sitterfield); audiobook
  29. You Have a Match (Emma Lord)
  30. The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennett); audiobook, recommendation by Beca
  31. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (Gail Honeyman); audiobook
  32. The Midnight Library (Matt Haig); audiobook
  33. The Half-Acre Homestead: 46 Years of Building and Gardening (Lloyd Kahn)
  34. In the Time of the Butterflies (Julia Alvarez)
  35. Mandy (Julie Andrews Edwards); re-read, read aloud to Scout for school
  36. St Patrick’s Summer: A Children’s Adventure Catechism (Marigold Hunt); aloud to the kids for school
  37. The Long Winter (Laura Ingalls Wilder); aloud to the kids
  38. Once Upon a River (Diane Sitterfield); audiobook
  39. On to Oregon (Honoré Willsie-Morrow): audiobook with kids
  40. The Little Duke (Charlotte Yonge); aloud with Pip for school
  41. The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell); audiobook
  42. Real Learning Revisted (Elizabeth Foss)
  43. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz); audiobook
  44. By the Book (Amanda Sellett); audiobook
  45. Even as We Breathe (Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle)
  46. The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry (Wendell Berry); audiobook
  47. Musical Chairs (Amy Poeppel)
  48. Green Dolphin Street (Elizabeth Goudge)
  49. The Abolition of Man (C.S. Lewis); re-read
  50. Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years (Catherine Newman)
  51. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky); re-read
  52. Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry); re-read
  53. Teaching From Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakeable Peace (Sarah Mackenzie); re-read
  54. Anne of the Island (L.M. Montgomery): audiobook, re-read
  55. The Life Intended (Kristen Harmel)
  56. Anne’s House of Dreams (L.M. Montgomery): audiobook, re-read
  57. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee): re-read
  58. The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame): re-read, aloud to Pip for school
  59. Yours Very Sincerely (Kerry Winfrey): gift from my sister
  60. The Guest List (Lucy Foley): audiobook

Incremental

So, what we’ve been doing since radio silence in July:

The answer is the usual thing. I found out I was pregnant and took to my bed like a Victorian lady, as per usual, but with extra trepidation and gratitude after our 2019 loss.

I had just finished my second annual Mama Retreat planning our 2021-22 school year and you know what they say about God and plans. The week we were meant to start (so that we could be done in time to lead study abroad, which we immediately canceled) happened to be Week 6 of pregnancy: When Things Get Real.

Rather than postponing the school year, I faithfully downed a Zofran each morning with breakfast and slogged through our year from my couchside nest, abandoning Spanish and most of music appreciation, neglecting any science that required anything as taxing as standing, vocally resenting the excellent Kate Snow math that required me to (gasp!) use manipulatives and games to make math fun. (But I did do that, at least.)

I got sick, and got sicker, and felt better because that suggested the pregnancy was ok, but also, bleh.

First trimester, homeschooling was all I did. And I mean all. Laundry? Extra credit! Any kind of food prep beyond microwaving a frozen pretzel? Kudos to you, good woman! And it felt like nothing. The best and worst part of my day, maybe two or three hours total for both kids, and the rest of the day just killing time between naps.

But here’s the thing. A trimester of four-mornings-a-week school is actually not nothing, once it accumulates. Ideas were introduced. Facts were learned. I even had fun with some of the readings! They even did fine on their end-of-term exams with J.

It turns out most of the important things are incremental, difficult to measure. I grew eyeballs for this here baby, and I can’t tell you how or when, though I could tell you, less usefully, how often I threw up in the process. Pip learned about the Tudor era and his penmanship gradually became less murderer-y, and, kicking and screaming, he learned how to do double narrations with Scout. Scout built up familiarity with addition facts (just to be betrayed by subtraction) and heard a couple fairy tales she’d somehow missed, and attained the Drinking Game Stage of Literacy.

They also learned important things like what is worth waking Mama from a pregnancy nap, how to make lunch on their own, and gestational development.

I am better now, 20-some-odd weeks in, but not dramatically. I am glad I didn’t wait to feel better but began the difficult slog when we did. It gave structure to our days and distracted me, a bit, from the misery of this process. God willing, this spring our baby boy will join us, with all the associated return to health and energy that usually brings me — not to mention J’s glorious parental leave. Maybe we will do grand projects then, in-depth nature studies where I hobble farther than the backyard park, catch up on those dozen lessons of science and try a bit of family Spanish. Maybe we will just stare at the baby in wonder and get to know him. But incrementally, I trust, we will work our way to where we need to be.

Our school is a combination of Ambleside Online, Mater Amabilis, and my own odd brain.

Interdependence and the Single-Car Family

The road to Kasese

In the upper-middle class suburban sprawl where J and I grew up, most of the kids at least had access to a car through high school. J and I entered marriage with two cars, but pretty immediately we spent six months in an impoverished corner of Uganda with no car at all, so when we got home and J’s dad talked about how much he’d enjoyed driving J’s little Echo, we sold it to him. (I recognize how privileged this is from a global perspective, but then again, our position was hardly unique.)

Boda boda life in Uganda

In over a decade since that initial decision, we’ve kept just one car, even as we upgraded from my gramps’s Accord to a hatchback, from the hatchback to a minivan. When we went to buy our first home, we intentionally chose one in town, close to campus, allowing J to easily walk or ride his bike to work, and with a park out back so we had plenty of at-home entertainment.

Still, here and there over the years the only way we’ve been able to attend certain things is through the generosity of friends who do own two cars. We would have missed parties and out-of-town events without these other people being willing to give one or the other of us a lift. At least once I would have missed work if a neighbor friend hadn’t loaned me back the Accord we’d sold him. I used to feel guilty because our choice means we rely on others, but then I decided that might actually be a strength.

Four wheels and freedom (from others)

There have been seasons, when we were low income in grad school, or when I was laid low by pregnancy, when we relied more heavily on others. Sharing a van now helps us maintain that reliance. Just because the system would be much less tenable if everyone we knew dropped down to one vehicle doesn’t mean it’s foolish (or worse, arrogant) of us to do.

Instead, we who are in the rare situation not to have so much vulnerability thrust upon us should look for opportunities to trust. Maybe your exercise in interdependence, in trusting in God’s Providence, is waiting to borrow kid snow gear from friends instead of just buying it, or trusting you can borrow camping supplies from your neighbor. Maybe you do something that terrifies me, like cohousing, or leaving your doors unlocked as a matter of principle, like friends of ours in New England. Maybe it’s as small as building your weekly menu off a farm share or the close out grocery instead of controlling every aspect and getting huffy when the big box store doesn’t carry that one ingredient, in or out of season.

Of course in twelve years of single cardom we’ve quarreled about whose need for the vehicle trumps the other’s. I have no idea if we’ve saved much money than keeping an old second beater, as we’ve spent comfortable spending more on our house location, really good soles for J’s shoes, and (too) many bikes. Certainly we’ve spent more time in the car together so we can drop someone off. (Probably not the worst thing, actually.) Quite possibly we’ve annoyed a person we’ve asked for a ride by our importunate request.

Inter-reliance runs those risks. The fortresses we build ourselves to protect against ever appearing mendicant prevent those risks, but introduce others: loneliness, a lack of resilience and flexibility when disaster and need do inevitably strike. We can pretend toward independence when everything is going well and never ask for any help, believing we never will need it. Or we can take baby steps toward trusting others with our needs, one rideshare at a time.

Low-Bar Homeschooling: Music Study

A music appreciation study by someone who doesn’t understand music for people who also don’t understand music!! What could go wrong?

For the last two years, I’ve been trying to create my own vaguely Charlotte Mason-esque music study units with varying degrees of success. This one, on Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” is the one that has gone best without running out of steam mid-term. I’m a librarian by trade, and librarians are all about saving effort and sharing their projects, so in this spirit, I offer you what I’ve done.

It helps to think of this piece as a guide in the sense of a tour, as described here, like you enter the lobby of a building and are led through it all, ta da, ta da.

  • Vocabulary (For me, the music-naive — I don’t dwell on the terms with the kids, just mention them in passing.) Definitions from this site:
    • Theme: main tune
    • Variation: alterations to the theme or “the tune in different ways— faster, slower, happy, sad, even upside down!”
    • Fugue: a melody with many voices entering at different times, a little like a round.
  • Versions of “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” We Watched
    • Trippy cartoon — I led with this to give them some visuals when listening to this piece, which is longer and less narrative than Peter and the Wolf and The Nutcracker, which we’d studied before.
    • Performance. We usually just watch several performances of our piece, one per week, because it seems to help all of us to have something to look at while we listen. I know some families listen while driving but my kids are usually already looking at books or chattering, so this works better for us.
    • Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra — empowering because kids! Filmed during lockdown, so you really see how the pieces fit together as they were all filmed separately.
    • Royal Philharmonic — also filmed during lockdown.
    • Really lengthy but helpful recording from the New York Philharmonic — lots of good explanations (like using the “Happy Birthday” to explain variations) and some funny parts. There are also interactive features.
    • Truly insane rip-off Muppet tour — ok, so my girls loved this, but I’m pretty sure it would fall under Charlotte Mason definitions of “twaddle.” Still, it taught me that a spit valve just has water from respiration (probably still spitty but STILL), which is a huge relief and something I wish I knew earlier so I wouldn’t have spent so many years haunted by the idea of spit valves.
  • Purcell’s Original
    • Scene from 2005 Pride and Prejudice featuring Purcell’s original rondeau, which Britten wrote his variations around. My early music expert brother-in-law pointed out the instrumentation elsewhere in this movie doesn’t reflect historical reality (I guess they’d still be playing harpischords rather than piano fortes? IDK), but I think it still gives a taste of the stripped-down look at the smaller piece of music that informs Britten’s larger piece. (And I love to show movie clips featuring our music selection because it really emphasizes how music literacy plays into other media and art forms — like the references to Peter and the Wolf in A Christmas Story. You can ask, “What does knowing this music tell you about this scene?”)
    • You can also see Purcell’s original performed as Purcell would have composed it in this clip.

What I don’t do in music study:

  • the aforementioned car listening
  • worksheets of any kind
  • sitting or lying still just listening, because no one is that good at concentrating among my littles and I for one would fall asleep

How has music study looked in your family?

Luxury and Freedom in Travel

We spent a full third of 2019 traveling with our children on trips mundane and ambitious alike, short jaunts and long hauls, with extended family and on our own.

Along the way I learned many things — how to rig an iPad video monitor for hotel naptime; how to hang a rubber laundry line almost anywhere; how to pack incredibly lightly for a family of five (and more importantly, be mostly calm and nice while I do it). But I also learned about myself, and one of the things I learned is that I really don’t much like to be pampered.Read More »

June Books

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Synopsis: Raskolnikov is going through something major. In the midst of his melancholia (?) / funk (?) / morbid obsession (?) he convinces himself that murdering an unlovable old pawnbroker is justifiable. But can he live with himself?

Let me just say you can’t really discuss a major work like this, at least not in the same way I’ll discuss and dismiss the books below. All I’ll say is that I’m glad I tackled it, despite dreading it; that it read easier and I brought more to the story than when I first read it at 18; and that it made me think all over again about this ten-year old murder committed by one of my Great Books classmates. How do any of us pry apart pathology and sin and fatal philosophy? How do any of us determine culpability? And yet, of course, we must. (The translation I read this time, though it had a cover that freaked out the kids, probably also helped make this reading less impenetrable.)

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Synopsis: New to the Dakota Territory, the Ingalls family are not new to difficult frontier living. But an unremitting series of severe blizzards will test them, and their community, in ways they never imagined.

As it was for most of you, 2020 was our own personal long winter, summed up hilariously (and with lots of profanity, be warned) in this piece from McSweeney’s. Reading The Long Winter aloud to my kids during our stir-crazy months of isolation helped us keep perspective, but naturally wasn’t an entirely delightful experience, not funny like some of our favorite read-alouds, which is probably why it took us long past wintertime to finish, but profitable nonetheless. As a bonus, it also made me deeply glad all over again we didn’t take that position in the Midwest.

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

Synopsis: Claire Waverley is the contented if somewhat aloof spinster of her small North Carolina town, where her popular catering, featuring edible flowers from her grandmother’s garden, earns her a reputation as more than a little magical. She’s the Waverley sister who stayed, but soon she’ll have to contend with the arrival of her little sister Sydney in “the year where everything changed.”

There is a particular category of books I really enjoy but rarely come across. Like romantic comedy films, too often the books I pick up thinking they might fit this elusive designation are too frothy or frivolous or explicit. Garden Spells might gain entry into the category, though — the “light and bright and sparkling” woman’s fiction (?) / literary fiction (?) — the sort of thing you want to read when you have a cold and plan to read for hours and hours. (Marisa de los Santos, and particularly her Love Walked In are the gold standard for what I’m talking about.) I listened to this as an audiobook and it lit up the time I spent hand-washing dishes at our Airbnb. It isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s baking and gardening and sisterhood and romance and a little frisson of magic and just undemanding.

The Light Invisible by Robert Hugh Benson

Synopsis: An old priest relates to the narrator, a young priest, a series of visions and spiritual experiences from his life.

Last month I loved None Other Gods and this was my other RHB haul. And this one I…nothinged. It was OK. Very short, with some spiritual insight but many parts that felt heavy-handed. Unfortunately the vision that stands out most vividly to me a few weeks after reading is a part I hated, about the spiritual consolation of the death of a child. I couldn’t help thinking that in the ranks of Plotless Books About Old Clergymen Reflecting On Their Lives, this was no Gilead.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Synopsis: In the world of high-prestige butlers, Stevens has dedicated his life to a dying profession, sacrificing love, self-knowledge, everything to his trade. (Stevens is such a professional that we never even learn his first name.) But over the course of a long drive across a countryside where servants are leaving big houses, as Stevens himself grows old, he must confront his choices and weigh whether they were the right ones.

A beautiful, fairly shattering exploration of how we actually think, remember, and understand our lives, and especially vivid after we’ve all thought about upstairs-downstairs dynamics through the prism of Downton Abbey. Sobering, even when it’s funny, and always lovely.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Synopsis: Think King Lear, but pitch it among a successful Midwestern farm dynasty.

Oh gosh, I guess I liked this, but it was brutal! King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare, so I snatched this from a pile of books my grandmother-in-law was giving away and didn’t really think about what “modern adaptation of Lear” would mean, but even Pippin knows about Shakespearean tragedies: EVERYBODY DIES. My GIL Judy didn’t find any of the characters sympathetic, but I did, at least at first, and as the book is told from Goneril’s perspective, this definitely fell into “of the devil’s party” territory. I thought the application of the old plot to Smiley’s setting worked well without feeling forced to perfectly correspond, and was pleasantly surprised to find the critique of industrial agriculture running throughout.

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen

Synopsis: More Waverleys! It’s ten years since the events of Garden Spells and here we follow the angst currently surrounding Claire, Sydney, and Sydney’s teenage daughter Bay.

Did we need more Waverleys? Not necessarily. Is the plot, as in Garden Spells, a not especially satisfying afterthought? Yes. Is the characterization of the small town charming? Sure. Was it fun? Yes. Bonus points for a sympathetic not-quite villain and the unconventional teen love story. Boo for a very deus-ex-machina adoption storyline.

Barren Among the Fruitful: Navigating Infertility with Hope, Wisdom and Patience by Amanda Hope Haley

I don’t know whether it was reading First Frost and A Thousand Acres, both of which feature infertility plots, or answering so many questions about our family size while we were back home this month, or just coming up on the due date again of our lost little one, but I finally felt ready to read this little book, loaned to me years ago by a friend who’d struggled with infertility so I could better understand another friend’s struggle (who I’m pleased to say now has a toddler and a second baby on the way). While a lot of this I couldn’t relate to — written from a Protestant perspective, it left all fertility technology on the table — and because I do, in fact, have three living children, it did help me to understand what God could be doing in the lives of all of us with fewer children than we’d hoped for.

May Books

Most of what I read this month was eleventy billion pages of Crime and Punishment, if you must know, but I did make it through these guys:

The Moonlight School by Suzanne Woods Fisher

Synopsis: It’s 1911 and Lucy Wilson is looking for a fresh start when she arrives in rural Kentucky to work for her strong-willed, charismatic cousin Cora Wilson Stewart, superintendent of schools. She carries her own grief and guilt, and along with it, her prejudices against the mountain people she encounters.

I was not prepared for this book — somehow I didn’t realize it was Christian fiction, a genre I don’t usually read, although it did remind me pleasantly of reading Christy as a teen, and I guess that is also inspirational fiction? At first I found passages too cloying, but I was drawn in by the fascinating culture Fisher was describing. The plot felt a bit stilted, as we don’t even get to the creation of the Moonlight School (a chance for illiterate adults to gain some education) until quite late in the book, with an extraneous thread of romance and the solving of a mystery I found both too neat and kind of…heavy-handed. That’s a lot of complaints, but I liked it. Send me more book recommendations about adult literacy and/or Appalachia!

None Other Gods by Robert Hugh Benson

Synopsis: Frank Guiseley walks away from Cambridge, his inheritance and his family when he enters the Catholic church. Instead, he takes to the roads of England, feeling out his faith and encountering all kinds of people in his rambles through the Edwardian countryside as he undergoes a sort of purification.

Why do I get high and mighty about Christian fiction and then make glaring exceptions for books like this? Because I, like you, contain multitudes, dear reader. In my very first trip to a bookstore after becoming fully vaccinated, I stumbled upon this book and another of Robert Hugh Benson’s books at the neighborhood used bookstore and got very, very excited, then plowed through this on a romantic swampside anniversary trip. (Multitudes, I tell you.) RHB was a name I’d heard bandied about, and he definitely carries echoes of many other authors I love, especially Chesterton, and some of his settings and humorous details feel very Evelyn Waugh. There are more lyrical descriptions, especially of nature, than in those others, though, which help lighten the serious trajectory of Guiseley’s life. Read more about Benson’s short but extraordinary life here — I’m looking forward to trying the other book of his I scooped up, too.

Takeaway Passage:

“Religion doesn’t seem to me a thing like Art or Music, in which you can take refuge. It either covers everything, or it isn’t religion. Religion never has seemed to me (I don’t know if I’m wrong) one thing, like other things, so that you can change about and back again. It’s either the background and foreground all in one, or it’s a kind of game. It’s either true, or it’s a pretense.”

Mary Azarian: Wendell Berry for Small Fry

Woodcuts are not a medium I naturally gravitate toward in children’s book illustrations. I miss the soft hues that characterize, say, Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius, and will always have a weakness for watercolors, but Azarian’s strident, rustic woodcuts carry their own sparse beauty.

Here Comes Darrell: Schubert, Leda, Azarian, Mary: 0046442416054:  Amazon.com: Books

My introduction to Mary Azarian came years ago when her charming book with Leda Schubert, Here Comes Darrell was reprinted in a collection of truck stories I scored for Pippin. Darrell is a farmer in rural Vermont who fills his year serving his neighbors until he finally must accept his neighbors’ help in the end to repair his long-neglected barn roof. It was my favorite in the anthology and often found me tearing up by the end.

Rural community! Neighborly care! Small-scale agriculture! I thought of the story again while reading so much Wendell Berry this year, and so lugged home a stack of Azarian’s work from the library to read through and test out on my children/captive victims.

The comparison between the two artist/thinkers is not unfounded, as it turns out — Azarian has done woodcuts to accompany Berry’s poems, such as here. Azarian grew up on a Virginia farm and, after an education at Smith College, moved to Vermont with her family where at various times she taught in a one-room school house, farmed, and worked full-time on her woodcuts. (I collected this last information from her wikipedia page, which is clearly and adorably edited by one of her grandkids.)

While Azarian serves as an illustrator to many authors, she’s definitely developed a particular niche. Here are some of her books our family enjoyed:

From Dawn till Dusk by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock

Discusses the protagonist’s siblings’ complaints about the hard work of their upbringing on a Vermont farm by juxtaposing each with the fun to be had in each situation. My girls especially loved the barn kittens.

Tuttle’s Red Barn: The Story of America’s Oldest Family Farm by Richard Michelson

This longer-length picture book is a great living book for moving through the history of one particular piece of New Hampshire farmland, continuously owned by one family since Pilgrim days. You can watch the permutations of each generation in many arenas: the evolution of the farm house, the diversification of the farm economy, the recycling of names from generation to generation. Spoiler alert: I read up on the place afterwards and it’s since been sold out of the family. (This is my second-most-depressing post-book research finding, second only to learning several people in On to Oregon were soon after killed in a raid.)

Barn Cat: A Counting Book by Carol P. Saul

For the youngest listeners — a vaguely Kliban-esque cat encounters a variety of animals around the farm in her quest for a bowl of fresh milk.

Before We Eat: From Farm to Table by Pat Brisson

The most Berryian of these books, Before We Eat is a simple litany of the people to whom we owe thanks as the producers of our food. The gentle rhyming text highlight the sources of various foods and concludes with an open-air intergenerational meal. “Sitting at this meal we share, / we are grateful and aware, / sending thanks upon the air… / to those workers everywhere.”

Image via

A Gardener’s Alphabet by Mary Azarian

We have a flower alphabet book already, so I was pleased to see the diversity of Azarian’s selections for each letter were not confined to just flowers.

Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel by Leslie Connor

In a vaguely Miss Rumphius story arc, Miss Bridie leaves Ireland with only a shovel and uses it to build a beautiful, satisfying life for herself in New England.

Have you read any Mary Azarian before? What other children’s book illustrators point to the beauty of a simple life for you?