Tag Archives: Decades Project

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes

I found the following story very funny when I was trying hard to be an intellectual 6th former. At an encounter group they are playing ‘who am I?’ to get to know each other. One person says: I have issues with my mother. All the participants think: that’s me! Mothers! We all have issues with our own and/or being one.

In a Country of Mothers is my choice for the 1990s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). It was published by Virago in 1994. AM Homes also wrote May We Be Forgiven, which won the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction. My notes when I read that book recorded that 

she is a vivid and brave writer, with a wonderful sense of the absurd, the absurd but possible, and with a tender aspect as well.

So as we reach the end of the century we recognise the world of this writer: therapy, aeroplanes, summer holidays, graduate education. We have come a long way through the twentieth century, from the first book in this year’s project, when the main character was battling with Victorian attitudes.

In a Country of Mothers

Claire is a successful therapist, with a lucrative if not satisfying practice in Manhattan. She is married to Sam, a lawyer, and they have two sons. They live in a small flat on Fifth Avenue. Her two boys cause her great concern and worry, to the point of obsession.

“Shit,” Jake said.
“What?”
It wasn’t like Jake to swear. The beginning of the end: in the morning he’d come down to breakfast with an unfiltered Camel hanging out of the corner of his eleven-year-old mouth. (15)

Claire gave up a child for adoption, under pressure from her parents, 25 years before. She thinks about this lost daugter every day, and later it is revealed has bought her birthday presents every year. 

Jody is her new patient. She is 25, and works as an assistant to a famous director and has just achieved her dream of a place at UCLA film school. She is finding difficulty with this career move. In therapy it emerges that Jody was adopted about 25 years ago, as a replacement for a son that died aged 7. She can never be sure that her parents love her enough, and she finds herself continually arguing with her mother, even though they speak every night on the phone. Her mother is not quite enough and too clingy all at the same time. 

Jody comes for therapy on the recommendation of her previous therapist (who once knew Claire). Claire is immediately attracted to Jody who is spikey, creative and very sharp. When the summer comes Jody moves to LA and Claire goes on holiday with her family to the beach for a month. Suddenly both women realise how much they are missing: Claire misses her ‘daughter’ and Jody misses her ‘mother’.

When Jody falls ill in LA Claire steps out of her therapist role and insists that Jody’s mother brings her back to New York. She becomes more and more intrusive in Jody’s life, finding her a physician, even meeting the parents not just to ensure the care of Jody but also to find out facts about the adoption. Jody does not recover, and Claire becomes more and more obsessed and neither of them can find a way out of the ties that binds them together. It all ends very badly. Neither understands themselves or each other. 

The obsessive need for a mother or daughter and the impossibility of anyone living up to the role becomes more destructive every moment. Jody’s mother can never get it right, always refers stuff back to herself. Towards the end of the novel Jody comes to see that she had wanted her mother to be different. 

This was the woman who had loved her to the best of her abilities, however limited they might have been. She’d loved Jody to the limit of her fear. She’d taken a stranger’s child and claimed it as her own. How could Jody hope that her mother would magically become someone else? If Jody wanted someone else, she’d have to become that person herself. (161)

It is uncomfortable to realise that the therapist-client relationship may easily lead to difficulties, easily spill beyond the roles of therapist and patient. But, one is forced to ask, isn’t that what happens?

It’s an uncomfortable book, but that is the kind of writer that AM Homes is. She explores acute situations and characters at full stretch. Her novels are therefore often controversial.

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes first published in 1993 and by Virago in 1994. I read the Granta edition published in 2013. 275pp

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I have been exploring novels by women. I framed my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from a book published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices have included rereads, classics and some new discoveries. In December I will review the year’s blogs for the project, but in November I will be looking at a collection of stories published by Virago during the Century.

The post war choices for the project have been:

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

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Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns

Benefits was written by a woman almost exactly the same age as me. We were young at that time: 31 years old. It was Zoe Fairbairns’ third novel. In Benefits she presents us with a vision of the future, seen from 1979, in which women continued to be controlled by technical, political and chemical means. It’s always attractive to consider what a writer got wrong or right about  the future. The details are different, but we should remember that today withholding benefits, Universal Credit, is used to punish the poor for any transgressions: failed appointments, mistakes, and unreported changes in circumstances. 

Benefits is my choice for the 1970s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The Female Eunuch had been published in 1970 and The Feminine Mystique in 1963.  Women were widely involved in feminism and women’s liberation. Consciousness raising groups of women were everywhere. Benefits rises out of the concerns of the late 70s.

Benefits

Set in a dystopian future beginning in the late 1970s, women are threatened by a government that starts off by awarding benefits to mothers and gradually begins to control their lives through the benefits and then through an even more sinister project.

The story follows two women. One is Lynn, a kind of middle of the road feminist, who is not unhappily married, has a daughter with a chronic illness, and who participates in the commune in the abandoned high rise: Collindeane Tower.

Marsha also drifts into the orbit of the commune, and takes up with Polly, a bossy Australian feminist who would like to take charge, but ultimately flees back to Oz, taking Marsha with her.

Another character is David Laing, a former social worker with a coffee habit and a controlling nature who becomes a minister. He is able to see the problems with the welfare system at the start of the novel, but is unable to engage sufficiently with the women who he knows. Peel, his subordinate and later his successor,  has a damning view of Laing, an early expression of the anti-boomers rhetoric we still hear today. 

He was of the soft generation, of the post-war guilt-ridden child-obsessed baby boom. They rode a roller coaster of gratuities: free milk, free cod liver oil, free schools, free medicine, free grants to go to college … it was Peel’s view that the trauma of the seventies, the sudden realisation that the party was over and they couldn’t get what they wanted by slapping on the label rights and howling, had blighted the generation for life, had rendered them incapable of understanding how life works. (168)

The policy shifts and changes, beginning with the benevolence of benefits paid into the purses of mothers, objected to by trades unions which were dominated by men who did not want to pay more taxes for the benefits; subsequently compliance was required to qualify for the benefits and ultimately to control women through narrow qualifications.

Any woman of child-bearing age seen on the streets without children in tow ran the risk of being stoned, spat on or refused admission to public buildings or transport. Some reported attacks by gangs of men who threatened a repetition if the women did not go back to their children. The policemen wrote down the details carefully. Then they said, ‘Are you sure you didn’t ask for it?’ (140)

Ultimately, as part of a shady deal with Europop to control women’s fecundity through chemical means, the whole thing unravels, helped by the violent death of Laing and the inspired children’s strike by women. 

Women’s issues

In the ‘70s women were struggling with question about organisation, living arrangements, leadership and how to improve their lives. Has that changed? Women’s lived experience must be put up against policy to check its value. By interweaving the stories of Lynn and Marsha and others, the author is able to show how distorted were the governments seeking to control women.

Of course Zoe Fairbairns did not know about Mrs Thatcher’s government and where it would take us in terms of cutting back the welfare state, and the industrial economy. She did not see the political division over the closing of the mines or the Falklands War, the Poll Tax and later the Iraqi war and years of austerity, let alone Covid-19. 

But the desire to control people, especially women, by those in political power remains. Today some of it is by the appeal to a past that did not exist, to ideas that are corroded and by denying or ignoring the outcomes of poor decisions and actions.

Zoe Fairbairns

Born in 1948, she began her writing career early, having two books published before she left university. She worked in women’s publications and journalism, including Spare Rib and continued to publish novels and short stories. Her most recent book is on writing short stories. 

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979) published by Virago. 214 pp 

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent  choices for the project are

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

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The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

Sally Jay Gorce is a lively 20-year-old American in Paris, the narrator of this novel. She is being subsidised by her rich uncle, so does not have to worry about money. She is a fresh voice, relating the succession of disasters in her life with sparkle, wit, some insight, and with great style. Just right for the post-war world.

The Dud Avocado was the first novel by Elaine Dundy. It quickly became a best seller. It was published in America in 1958, and was reissued by Penguin Books in 1960 and by Virago in 1993. With this choice for the the sixth decade in the Decades Project 2020 (see below) we emerge from the Second World War. 

The Dud Avocado

I first read this in 1961, perhaps the very copy I still have in my possession. At the time I thought it was risqué, funny, modern, definitely the voice of youth. Now with a reread it feels dated, and I have to admit that I was a little bored at times. Too many evenings in the bars and nightclubs, pursued by men, following her dream of becoming an actress and hooking up with Larry Keevil. (Really, the name should have been the clue.)

Sally Jay appears to be lively and irresistible. She certainly attracts attention, not least because when she first appears she is wearing an evening gown and it is around eleven in the morning. 

‘It’s all I’ve got to wear. My laundry hasn’t come back yet.’ (10)

And her hair is pink, originally ‘dyed a marvellous shade of red so popular with Parisian tarts that season’. (9) A bit on the transgressive and scatty side then.

She decides to ditch the Italian diplomat with whom she has been having an affair. She wanted to lose her virginity and she thought it was rather dashing to have an affair with a man who already had both a wife and mistress. She moves on through many casual encounters, and a relationship with Paul, an American painter. He is serious, but she leaves him to spend the summer in a villa near Biarritz. This has been organised by Larry, who has brought along a hunky Canadian who is keen to take up with Sally Jay and a girl he wants to seduce. Sally Jay’s main objective is to secure Larry for herself. But he becomes very elusive. She acts in his theatre company, spends the summer in his, but never gets into his bed.

During the timescale of the narrative (September to the next late Summer) she joins in the lively young night life in Paris and near their villa. They go to bars and nightclubs, dance and drink, eat and drink, and get involved in acting in plays and the movies. Her impetus for this hedonism seems to be that she is young. Here she is explaining to Teddy, the rejected Italian diplomat, why he is so angry.

What you can’t stand is the whole new young adventurous population with either just a little money or no money at all, no jobs, nothing, just a desire maybe to see the world awhile. Then all the jealousy and envy in your mournful little unfulfilled life rises up inside you and you have to invent all sorts of dark sinister motives for everyone. (212)

She says some pretty unpleasant things to people from time to time. But there are two things I noted about this statement. One is that young people really did feel like this well into the late ‘60s. And secondly that some of her circle did have ‘dark sinister motives’ for their actions, as Sally Jay found out later.

She asserts her right as a young person (a well-off American?) to explore life as she wishes. I think we could see her as an early example of that trend that became almost obligatory in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: to find yourself through life’s experiences.

I said that I tired of her, and it is true that the endless round of partying, name-dropping and wildness palled. I enjoyed its raciness more when I read it in my early teens. Her selfishness is only a little curtailed by the theft of her passport and the underhand and abusive behaviour of one of her circle.  She herself is rescued by a wealthy and glamorous man who only appears in the last 15 pages. 

Elaine Dundy

Elaine Dundy (1921-2008) was born into a wealthy family in New York and educated at home by governesses. After the Second World War she escaped to Paris and then to London, where she married the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan in 1951. (His name is dropped in the novel). They had a fraught marriage and separated in 1964. She worked on the satirical tv programme That Was The Week That Was, which had the reputation of being anti=Establishment. Back in the US she wrote two more novels and continued to make her name in theatre, journalism, films and writing biographies. 

The comparison with Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not resisted in many comments about Sally Jay. The novels were published in the same year. 

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy, first published in 1958. I used the Penguin edition from 1960.  255pp

Some relevant sites:

In the Guardian in August 2011, Rachel Cooke sees the Sally Jay’s life as ‘a complicated hoot’. She is not too bothered by the amoral aspects of the story. She rightly points out that no one reads this novel for the plot and enjoys the details of the heroine’s chaotic life. You can find her observations here

Simon in Tredynas Days, in May 2018, found that it was best to read the novel in small doses, to appreciate its qualities, like savouring chocolates in a box. Here are his comments in full.

The Decades Project 2020

This year I am indulging my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first five choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

It was the title that I had first noticed, although I can’t remember when. It took up residence in my consciousness as a book that I should read. Had I read anything else by the author Zora Neale Hurston? Nothing at all. But I was aware that she was a woman, black and American. And I was aware that this book in particular was recommended by readers I admire. So this was an obvious choice for the Decades Project.

Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937 and is the third book in the Decades Project for 2020 (see below for more details), from the decade 1930-1939 highlighted in the Virago collection called Brilliant Careers.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

At the start of Their Eyes Were Watching God Janie returns home to Eatonville, Florida, and the town is agog to hear what has happened to her third marriage, this time to Tea Cake. Everyone assumes that he has dumped her because she is older than him. But this is not the case as we find out. The novel is framed as the story that Janie tells her best friend Pheoby about her life and three marriages.

As a child she was brought up by her grandmother, who had been born a slave. Like other women who had been slaves, she had a child by a white man and she has brought the child up on her own. The daughter, Janie’s mother had her own child, Janie, by Lord knows who. She disappeared leaving the grandmother to raise Janie. The grandmother decides when Janie is in her teens that it is time for her to marry and packs her off to her first husband, Logan, who is a farmer who simply wants her to work for him.

She is rescued by the smart-talking Joe Starks who is determined to make something of himself and has been doing well in Georgia. Now he is on his way to a town in Florida.

But he was making money where he was. But when he heard all about ‘em makin’ a town all outa colored folks, he knowed dat was de place he wanted to be. He had always wanted to be a big voice, but de white folks had all de sayso where he come from and everywhere else, exceptin’ dis place dat colored folk was buildin’ theirselves. (37-8)

The two leave Logan’s farm, get married and travel to Eatonville, where Joe sets up a store and becomes its first mayor and becomes rich. Although Joe treats Janie better than Logan had, he stifles her, wanting to possess her, to make of her what he wants. In the end she finds it oppressive.

But Joe dies, too stubborn to seek medical help and after his death Janie becomes a woman of substance. She meets and falls for sweet-talking, kind Tea Cake. They can’t quite believe they love each other. He treats her right, and she loves him. They marry and move to the Glades, and for the first time Janie feels valued and loved and is able to feel she can do what she wishes. But their lives are disrupted by a Hurricane. This is a vivid episode, and the title is taken from the moment when the wind begins to blow.

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in their shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny weight against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God. (211-212)

The friendly community is destroyed and Tea Cake dies. This too is vividly described, as is Janie’s anguish. She returns home with her story.

‘Now, dat’s how everything was, Pheoby, jus’ lak Ah told yuh. So Ah’m home again and Ah’m satisfied tuh be heah. Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons.’ (256-257)  

Janie imparts her hard-earned wisdom to Pheoby, able to rest in the knowledge that while her three marriages were different, Tea Cake had enabled her to reach the horizon. 

Zora Neale Hurston

The author was born in Alabama in 1891 and raised in Eatonville itself. She died in Florida in 1960. Her grandparents had been slaves, but she was able to make the best of new opportunities becoming available in the 20s and ‘30s. Her name is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance (as was Nella Larsen’s, the subject of the previous choice in this series). She was not able to access higher education in her late teens so later she took ten years off her chronological age and entered college, becoming a noted anthropologist. She was also a teacher as well as a writer.

Their Eyes was her second novel and she had already published short stories. It is told in a mixture of phonetic colloquialisms or dialect and more conventional narrative style as can be seen from the quotations. This allows her to invent some excellent words and use turns of phrase that are enchanting. I thought I might find it difficult to read, but I soon got used to the rhythms and heard some of the voices in a slightly more authentic way. 

Janie’s story can be seen as the triumphant acquisition of a voice by a black woman. In her early years and first two marriages she had no voice, but with Tea Cake and after his death she was able to speak for herself. Its appeal is universal and, as Zadie Smith points out in her introduction, it is a novel of soulfulness.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, first published in 1937and then as a Virago Modern Classic in 1986. 259pp  The latest edition is introduced by Zadie Smith and has an afterword by Shirley Anne Williams.

The Decades Project 2020

This year I am indulging my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first three choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

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How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

Here is my final choice for the Decades Project on Bookword in 2019. Having explored children’s fiction from each decade from 1900 I have reached 2000-2010. And my choice can only be How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell.

My previous choices for this series have drawn on my mother’s books, my own reading and my daughter’s. How to Train Your Dragon and the following series were the obvious choice because for several years they had been the favourite books of my grandson, Oli, now 11 years old. I went, so to speak, to the dragon’s mouth for his comments.

How to Train Your Dragon

I had planned to interview my grandson about this book, but time was running out as half term was coming to an end. We were on the train last Friday. Oli was sitting behind me, so I wrote down some questions and sent my pad of paper back for his answers.  Here’s how that interview went.

Me: How old were you when you first read HTTYD?

Oli: 6

Me: How did you know about it?

Oli: Films. 

[The DreamWorks Animations use the ideas but not the illustrations of the original books. They have also been loved by my grandson.]

Me: What did you like about Hiccup? [the hero]

Oli: His confidence to learn and do the right thing.

Me: What did you like about Toothless? [Hiccup’s dragon]

Oli: His childish craziness.

Me: What did you like about the stories?

Oli: How unexpected they are.

Q&A Caro / Oli

Me: Would you recommend the books to a younger reader?

Oli: Yes, younger than I am now.

Me: Anything else about HTTYD?

Oli: I really enjoyed how each character had particular skills and characteristics.

Me: And how are the films and books different?

Oli: The storylines are different. Also Toothless is big enough to ride [in the films].

Me: Do you like Cressida Cowell’s pictures?

Oli: Yes.

Me: Why?

Oli. I like them because they can be crazy but also majestic and detailed.

Me: What are the stories about (books)?

Oli: About restoring the king’s lost things in order to bring peace to the Dragon Rebellion and stop a war between the humans and the Dragon Rebellion.

Me: What have you moved on to since reading HTTYD?

Oli: Harry PotterDiary of a Wimpy Kid.

Me: And what’s the best book you have ever read?

Oli: Now: Harry Potter, before: How to Train Your Dragon.

An endorsement I think for Cressida Cowell and her creations. Thank you Oli. And here is her Children’s Charter, for Cressida Cowell is currently the children’s laureate.

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell, published in 2003 by Hodder Children’s Books. Illustrated by the author.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Projects, I have been exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices. Next month I will be looking back at the children’s fiction choices and forward to next year.

Here are the links to the previous choices in this year’s Decades Project:

The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson (1991)

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (1983)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes  by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It  by E Nesbit (1902)

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The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson

My choice for the 1990s in the Decades Project is Tracy Beaker’s own story  about being a child in care in the 1990s, looking for foster care. This is the tenth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature. 

Tracy Beaker is the most successful character created by Jacqueline Wilson. There are three books with her name, and a television series among other indications of success. What is it about this spirited young girl that endears her to readers of all ages?

The Story of Tracy Beaker

Tracy tells her own story, which is as it should be for a ‘looked after’ child. Tracy is her own heroine, which is also as it should be. 

She is 10 years old and does not have a great deal going for her. She is in care and no one wants her, despite attempts to find suitable foster parents. She lives in a children’s home (Dumping Ground) and has a social worker (Elaine). She is not an attractive kid and Nick Sharratt’s illustrations aptly show her as a tangle-haired girl in ordinary clothes. Usually she has a smile on her face. 

Nick Sharratt and Tracy Beaker from his website

Tracy writes her own story in a vivid and clear style, as if she is writing in a social services workbook: Who am I? Clear-sighted as regards others, she is blind to her own faults, finding excuses for them, like hay fever (not crying), and that her mother is a Hollywood actress and will visit next Saturday. (It is likely that her mother has lost touch with her.) She is fierce and loyal, beastly to her enemies and grudgingly respectful of the residential social workers who have to deal with her tantrums.

The reader quickly sees that she is a child who will stand up for herself and at the same time she is a sulky child with poor behaviour because she has been let down by her mother, foster carers and the world. Those around her find it difficult to get on with her, but ‘dopey Peter Ingham’ persists. He shares a birthday with her and is also a resident in the children’s home. The story of how they become friends is an important subplot.

It is the search for a decent home that drives the story. Poor Tracy has been a ‘chid of the week’ in the local paper. This is how she would advertise herself.

TRACY BEAKER

Have you a place in your hearts for dear little Tracy? Brilliant and beautiful, this little girl needs a loving home. Very rich parents preferred as little Tracy needs lots of toys, presents and pets to make up for her tragic past. (61)

This is what appeared in the paper, written by Elaine.

TRACY

Tracy is a lively, healthy, chatty, ten-year-old who has been in care for a number of years. Consequently she has a few behaviour problems and needs firm, loving handling in a long-term foster home. (62)

Tracy’s reaction is over the top, of course.

I ask you!

‘How could you do this to me, Elaine?’ I shrieked when I saw it. ‘Is that the best thing you can say about me? That I’m healthy? And anyway I’m not. What about my hay fever?’ 

‘I also say you’re lively. And chatty.’

‘Yeah. Well, we all know what that means. Cheeky. Difficult. Bossy.’

‘You said it, Tracy,’ Elaine murmured. (62-3)

And then along comes Cam, a writer who is trying to write something about children in care for a magazine. Tracy, who also has aspirations as a writer, decides to adopt her although Cam finds that this is not plain sailing. Tracy tested her to the limit.

Absent parents in children’s literature

Almost all the books featured in this year’s Decades Project have been stories about children whose parents are absent or dead or completely inadequate. From the Fossil orphans of Ballet Shoes and Mary in the big Yorkshire house in The Secret Garden, to Willie in Goodnight Mister Tom parents who are present and good enough are in short supply.

The job of fiction is to explore a different reality, and in this way children can see that others may be less fortunate than them, and it allows them to face their fears about their parents.

The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson, first published in 1991. I used the Corgi edition (Puffin Books) published in 2018. 217pp. This edition contains an additional story Tracy Beaker’s Thumping Heart. Illustrations by Nick Sharratt.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 2000-2010. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (1983)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes  by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It  by E Nesbit (1902)

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Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

My choice for the 1980s in the Decades Project is a story of an evacuee in the Second World War. A neglected boy from Deptford in East London is sent to the country and is billeted with a lonely and reclusive older man. How did this combination work out?

We have reached the 1980s. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorianwas published in 1981. This is the ninth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature. 

Goodnight Mister Tom

William Beech (8) is an evacuee in 1939, sent from Deptford in London to a rural village, and lodged with an older man (in his 60s). This is Tom Oakley, who has been a bit of a recluse since his wife and baby son died 40 years before. Will is in a pitiful way: beaten and neglected by his mother and unable to read or write. Frightened of everything, he has been threatened with dire consequences if he strays outside his mother’s strict code. Despite it being September he has been sewn into his clothes for winter.

The old man has a loft room that he prepares for the boy. It emerges that Will has never slept in a bed. He is so anxious that at night he wets the bed. In order to care for the boy Tom has to learn discretion and gentleness. And he must work with his neighbours to clothe the boy and deal with the harm resulting from Will’s mother’s  physical abuse. And when the boy goes to school another outsider makes him his friend. This is Zach, a Jewish evacuee. The two boys form an adventurous friendship with three local children which brings Will out of himself.

Both Tom and the boy gradually become absorbed into the transformed community. Will learns to read and write and his talent at drawing is uncovered.

All goes well until Willie’s mother demands his return and in a disturbing turn of events it is discovered that she has had a baby. I was genuinely shocked by the moment when Will finds the baby with her mouth taped to keep her quiet. Will has developed more confidence in what is right and wrong which is a provocation to his mother. 

Not having heard from the boy Tom goes to London to find him and bring him home. Tom has been severely abused again and now the villagers bring him back to life.

Reading Goodnight Mister Tom

This is a great story, really well told. Some aspects of it are challenging as I have suggested: physical abuse of children, deaths and a child finding himself quite alone in an alien environment. 

On the other hand, Will is clearly assisted by adults and friends (including the dog) using common good sense and decency, sympathetic care, encouragement, acceptance into a community and the unconditional love of a dog and an adult. Despite the dark context of the story ultimately it is positive and hopeful.

Goodnight Mister Tomby Michelle Magorian was first published in 1981. I used the edition from Puffin Books (1983). 358pp

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1990-99. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

I was pleased to find two of my choices featured in the current edition of Slightly FoxedThe Eagle of the Ninth  and Ballet Shoes.

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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor

I was teaching in a school in north London in the 1980s and it seemed that every student in Y8 was reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It is easy to see why. There is a very engaging main character, Cassie, telling the story, a family suffering injustice and violence and a caring set of adults who explain the world and make it as safe as possible. But to be black in Mississippi in the Great Depression was to live in a violent and unsafe world.

We have reached the 1970s and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor was published in 1976. This is the eighth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature. 

The original cover, by Jerry Pinkney

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Cassie lives with her family on a small piece of land in Mississippi in the Great Depression. It is unusual for such a family to own land, even a small parcel of land, because they are black. Her father works away, as does her uncle, because the income from the cotton crop does not make enough to sustain the family. Cassie has three brothers, her grandmother and her mother who together make up her loving family. 

Cassie first notices racial segregation when she and her brothers have to walk through the mud to their school, while the white school children have a bus and go to their own school. What’s more, for sport, the bus driver frequently runs them off the road into the muddy ditches. The boys in her family plot to teach the bus driver a lesson. They succeed in breaking the school bus axle, and are not caught, although at about the same time there is trouble for some black families. This is a time of lynchings, burnings and violent racism.

Cassie’s family try to operate a boycott of the plantation shop, to use economic pressure to stop the exploitation of black families. But as they are the only black family with land they cannot muster enough support. Tensions rise. Cassie falls out with a rude young girl in a neighbouring white family, and is forced to apologise for standing up to the girl’s superior behaviour. Her father has his leg broken in a skirmish with some white men.

Finally, their friend TJ gets himself involved with some badass white kids. The three of them break into the local store, and the manager and his wife are badly injured. TJ is blamed and the white men come for him. He flees to Cassie’s family and then tries to get home. He is brought out of the house and his parents and siblings are violently manhandled. A friendly white lawyer tries to intervene, and only when a fire threatens the cotton crop does the community avoid violence and come together to save their common livelihood.

In the process of these events Cassie learns a thing or two about growing up and taking responsibility. There is a fair amount of sermonising and wise guidance by the adults. She must learn when to speak up, when to disobey, when to take action.

The readers in the 1980s would have been aware that the threat of violence was real, and that racial segregation and injustice was ubiquitous in the southern states. Cassie takes the role of the innocence who must have the behaviour and the injustices explained. Cassie asks the reader’s own questions. The threat of violence grows throughout the novel and culminates in a thunderstorm. We learn that despite great strength and size of each of the three black men, Papa David, Uncle Hammer and Mr Morrison, they choose the path of peaceful resistance.

Mildred D Taylor in the Author’s note that precedes the novel suggests that from her father

I learned a history not then written in books but one passed from generation to generation on the steps of moonlit porches and beside dying fires in one-room houses, a history of great-grandparents and slavery and of the days following slavery: of those who lived still not free, yet who would not let their spirits be enslaved … (7)

The first page suggests that the novel is based on the author’s own experiences.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cryby Mildred D Taylor, first published in the USA in 1976. I used the Puffin Books edition from 1980. 220 pp. My copy has the London school and English department stamp inside the cover. It’s on an extended loan. 

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1980-89. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin

I cannot remember how I came across this tale of wizards and dragons. It must have been soon after it was published, and it made a great impression on me. I was already an adult, but I found the metaphor of naming to be very powerful. In the ancient lore, Ursula Le Guin tells us, being able to speak someone’s true name means having power over them. Giving your true name is an indication of trust.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin was published in 1968. It is the seventh post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. 

This story concerns a young lad growing up, confronting his own weaknesses and learning how to deal with them. It is also full of adventure, friendship, ingeniousness, acts of courage and mystery. It was very popular and two more novels featuring Sparrowhawk, the great wizard, were published and collected as a trilogy by 1979. There were yet more Earthsea stories later.

A Wizard of Earthsea

Note the title, which, like the story itself, makes it possible for the reader to see themselves here. 

Sparrowhawk, true name Ged, is born on the island of Gont in the north east of the Archipelago. 

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns on its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. (13)

Sparrowhawk’s mother died soon after his birth and his father had little interest in him. The boy had no special features until he stumbled upon a form of words that summoned goats to him, a spell.  A local witch showed him a number of other spells and he was able to confuse and confound an invading horde of Kargad warriors and so save the village. Now his powers were noticed by the local wizard who provided him with an apprenticeship until the boy decided to go to the wizard training centre far away on the island of Roke.

[There is a great deal of sailing about the seas in this novel, and I made frequent use of the map of Earthsea. It was drawn by Ruth Robbins who also designed the first cover reproduced above.]

Sparrowhawk is ambitious and proud and during his training comes to resent another high achiever called Jasper. In an effort to outdo his rival Sparrowhawk unwisely initiates a forbidden spell, calling from the depths of the earth one who has long been dead. A dreadful evil is released into the world by this act and the rest of this first story is an account of how the shadowy evil tries to hunt Sparrowhawk down, and how the young lad learns to turn and become the hunter himself and how he eventually defeats his nemesis.

No wonder that adults also enjoy this story. It celebrates what we know to be good: determination, hard work, patience, friendship and doing right by others. It identifies what we know will unbalance us, that is ourselves. For Sparrowhawk it is his pride. 

Some Themes

There are few female characters in this first story, but in other respects Ursula Le Guin promotes the importance of diversity among peoples: their languages, appearances, beliefs and rituals. Her parents were anthropologists and she had absorbed their interest in how different societies work, where their fault lines are, how communities explain human actions. Difference is not a matter for aggression. In this novel aggression and violence arise from individual human failings.  

The love of the natural world also shines through this novel. There are invented animals, vast seascapes, and islands of great beauty. Everywhere people make the best of what they find to enhance their lives. 

Wizards, witches and mages are largely beneficent people. Those who help Sparrowhawk are modest, generous, and loving. Their wisdom has a great deal in common with the philosophy of Lao Tzu: playful, apparently contradictory, and thought-provoking. The importance of balance or equilibrium features too in this story.

Only in silence the word,

only in dark the light,

only in dying life:

bright the hawk’s flight

on the empty sky.

 – The Creation of Ea  (12)

See Ursula Le Guin’s version of Lao Tzu’s philosophy.

Ursula Le Guin and the imagination

Fantasy novels did not attract me much as a child, nor yet as an adult. The same can be said of science fiction. But in her novels I have learned to enjoy the best of both, mostly because she uses imagination to explore different worlds, different, places, different ways of being and shows us a way to proceed. I recommend this book and The Left-Hand of Darkness to any adult reader. 

The conceit of naming seems to me to be very important. We need to be able to speak our fears, our hopes, our failures to deal with them. The power to name, to write, is therefore essential for a civilised world.

And it comes to me that spells are magic words, so spelling is the act of magicking words, or simply put writing is magic. 

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin, first published in 1968. I read it in my copy of the Earthsea Trilogy published by Penguin in 1979.

Other Bookword posts on Ursula Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness  by Ursula Le Guin

A Tribute to Ursula le Guin, on her death in January 2018

Imagination and the Writer, on the necessity of training the imagination

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1970-79. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookwordplease email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

I loved The Eagle of the Ninth when I first read it as a child. And I enjoyed rereading it two years ago, the Romano-British adventure, the sassy female character and Rosemary Sutcliff’s skill in storytelling. Later I went on to study history at university. I wonder how much this book contributed to my interest in the subject. 

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff was published in 1954. This is the sixth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. I did not do this on purpose, but like the previous 5 choices, this novel has an orphan for its heroine. The heroes show qualities of courage and principle. The heroine has patience.

The story of The Eagle of the Ninth

Marcus Flavius Aquila grew up in Italy in the second century AD. Marcus’s father had commanded the First Cohort of the Ninth Legion when it disappeared having marched north to deal with rebellious tribes in 117 AD. Marcus follows his father into the army and does well. He is posted to his first command in Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter). After establishing himself as a leader he is severely wounded in an attack by the local tribes who have risen against Roman rule. Invalided out of the army he recovers at his uncle’s house in Calleva (Silchester). While there he plans to rescue his father’s reputation and the Eagle from the standard of the First Cohort: the Eagle of the Ninth. 

Marcus saves a British slave, Esca, who is about to be killed at the local gladiatorial games in Calleva. Esca becomes the devoted companion to Marcus and is freed at the start of their expedition to find the lost Eagle.

The story is a quest. They set out in disguise to follow any clues that will lead them to the truth of what happened to the Ninth and its Eagle. Their quest takes them to the Highlands of Scotland, north of the abandoned Antonine Wall. Of course they find and reclaim it, but the quest turns into a hunt as they attempt to bring it south of Hadrian’s Wall to the safety of established Roman rule. Marcus and Esca become the quarry, but in the end …

Rosemary Sutcliff

I have these novels written by Rosemary Sutcliff on my shelves

Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92) said she wrote books for children of all ages, from 9 to 90. It is true that her fiction does not talk down to readers, is not busy providing information, although she was careful with her research. She wrote many books, some situated in pre-historic times, others in Tudor and Stuart period and she is perhaps best known for her Roman Britain stories.  

In the Introduction toThe Eagle of the Ninth she explains how she brought together the mystery of the disappearance of the Ninth Legion and the discovery of a wingless Roman eagle in an excavation at Silchester in 1866. No one could explain how it got there.

It is from these two mysteries, brought together, that I have made the story of ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’.

I love her imaginative ability to weave adventures from the events of the past in all her novels.

Why I like the book

It’s a good adventure with plenty of cliffhangers – at the end of almost every chapter. Here are three examples:

But to Marcus everything seemed for the moment to have grown still. For the last comer was carrying something that had been a Roman Eagle. (157)

But Esca’s suddenly widened eyes were fixed on one corner of the cloak, outflung towards him, and he did not answer; and Marcus, following the direction of his gaze, saw the cloth at that corner torn and ragged. (185)

Up over the edge of the spur, three wild horsemen appeared heading for the gateway. (209)

The storytelling is excellent, just what young readers (between 9 and 90) want. We guess that Marcus and Esca will manage to find the Eagle and to escape their hunters, but we enjoy their efforts to achieve these. Both young men are authentic because neither is perfect.

I also liked the representation of the tribes, both near Exeter and the Seal people in the Highlands. The cover of my copy of The Eagle of the Ninth captures the rituals of the Seal people in a dramatic and attractive way. It is by C Walter Hodges.

Is The Eagle of the Ninth dated?

The novel was published in 1954, and at the time the explanation for the Silchester Eagle given by Rosemary Sutcliff was as good as any other. Archaeology has moved on and today it is not thought to be from a Roman Army standard, but more likely was part of a larger statue. It can be seen in Reading Museum.

It is a little unsettling to read such an accepting account of colonialism by the Romans. The rebellions are presented as the last struggles of the ancient tribes against the superior might, economic power and civilization of the Romans. I guess, critiques of the British Empire were not yet commonplace in the 1950s. In the same way, although Marcus does the decent thing and frees his slave Esca, there is no suggestion that slavery was the dark and essential underside of the Empire. 

Perhaps most of all, The Eagle of the Ninth is dated because the feisty and delightful young woman, Cottia, remains behind to wait for the return of the young men. Today any self-respecting writer would have sent her on the quest alongside Marcus and Esca.

However the novel is of its time and these reservations do not spoil the reading.

Film

And, there is of course a movie called The Eaglestarring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bull and Donald Sutherland (2011). I caught a short part of it some time in the last two years. It was so far from my understanding of the novel that I did not see it through. I think it is sad that the second part of the novel’s title was omitted for the film because the whole has mystery in its rhythm. On the other hand I saw enough to appreciate that Donald Sutherland was an inspired casting as Uncle Aquila.

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954. I reread my own 1970 edition from Oxford University Press. 

This is largely a recycling of an earlier post.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1960-69. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookwordplease email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project