A Long Way from Chicago

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chicago

A Long Way from Chicago is a hilarious collection of stories about a boy and his sister from Chicago who go to spend one week of every summer in the late 1920’s and early 30’s with their—shall we say—eccentric grandmother. Grandma is a shotgun-wielding, conniving, sarcastic woman who doesn’t enjoy the nosiness of her small-town neighbors. She tells some serious “whoppers” of lies for various reasons. Her grandkids are appalled at first, but then they get used to it. And, as Joey notes, “Grandma saved herself a lot of bother by not being the kind of person you questioned.”

Some of their various adventures:

  • A family of boys is tormenting the town, so Grandma lies to them about when she’ll be gone and lies in wait, knowing they’ll try to steal something. When they come, she corners them with her shotgun and sends for their dad, who finally starts disciplining them.
  • Grandma takes Joey and Mary Alice to feed her aging “aunt”—a journey which involved catching catfish in (illegal) traps, stealing the sheriff’s rowboat, trespassing, and getting away from the town deputies, who are fishing in their underwear while intoxicated.
  • Grandma enters a pie contest, only to find out that a state-renowned baker has also entered. She switches their pies, only to have him win with her pie! Then, Joey ends up in an airplane. (Don’t ask.)

I’ll leave the rest of the stories for you to discover for yourself, but here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

  • Advice from Grandma: “Never trust an ugly woman. She’s got a grudge against the world.”
  • Weidenbach (the banker’s wife, referencing the Great Depression): “People blame the bankers.”
    Grandma: “My stars. The bank closes on people’s farms and throws them off their land, and they don’t even appreciate it?”
  • “It was a story that grew in the telling, in one of those little towns where there’s always time to ponder all the different kinds of truth.” (Grandma wasn’t the only liar in town, I’ll tell you that!)
  • Weidenbach (banker): “This isn’t business, Mrs. Dowdel. This is blackmail!”
    Grandma: “What’s the difference?”

It’s a fun and hilarious collection of stories, extremely enjoyable for long car rides! I definitely recommend it.

Tom Sawyer Abroad

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Those of you who have been following me for a while know my manifest delight in reading Twain usually (for those who don’t, see The Awful German Language and Tom Sawyer, Detective). This one, while still fun and adventurous, didn’t quite have the same effect. It had a lot more racial slurs (which I will not be repeating), and it was a story mostly made up of dialogue that filled the spaces on the way to things happening. (At this point my husband would raise a finger in the air about me being inconsistent; one of my main complaints about Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was that there was pretty much NO dialogue! Balance, I tell you! Balance!)

Also, a lot of the dialogue centers around Tom telling Huck and Jim how dumb they are. And, well, the whole just didn’t fill me with the glee that Tom Sawyer, Detective did.

Anyway, the gist of the story is that Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Jim (the black man they freed in Huckleberry Finn) find themselves flying across the world in a balloon of some kind (presumably something like a hot-air balloon). Most of the racial slurs involve Jim or the people they encounter while going across North Africa…

However, there were some perfectly hilarious parts to it. Here are some of them (misspellings Twain’s fault, not mine!):

  • A conversation between Tom and Huck about why the Crusades were “necessary” (Tom is trying to tell Huck that they need to begin a crusade):
    Tom: Why, can’t you understand? It’s [the Holy Land is] in the hands of the paynim, and it’s our duty to take it away from them.
    Huck: How did we come to let them git hold of it?
    Tom: We didn’t come to let them git hold of it. They always had it.
    Huck: Why, Tom, then it must belong to them, don’t it?
    Tom: Why, of course it does. Who said it didn’t?

    Tom: This is religious!
    Huck: Religious to go and take the land away from people that owns it?
    Tom: Certainly; it’s always been considered so.
    Uhhhh. Yeah. I tend to be just as confused as Huck by this one. The stupidity of religions sometimes…
  • Tom calls Richard Coeur de Lion (Richard the Lionheart) “Richard Cur de Loon.” Hahaha. I laughed so hard.
  • Huck gets mad because “maps lie”—that is, Illinois isn’t actually green, and Indiana isn’t actually pink (the coloring on maps that shows you where each state stops and start)… and that there aren’t actual lines of longitude on the earth. (Jim is horrified that time isn’t the same anywhere.)
  • This goes along with the previous one (more of Huck’s ignorance): “All around us was a ring, where the sky and the water come together; yes, a monstrous big ring it was, and we right in the dead center of it—plumb in the center. We was racing along like a prairie fire, but it never made any difference…” (A pretty accurate picture of their worldview—they’re at the center of everything!)
  • When Tom seems to be beaten in argument, he says that “as for people like me [Huck] and Jim, he’d just as soon have intellectual discourse with a catfish. But anybody can say that—and I notice they always do when somebody has fetched them a lifter.” What words of truth.
  • This description: “It was a rattler, that caravan, and a most bully sight to look at next morning when the sun come a-streaming across the desert and flung the long shadders [shadows] of the camels on the gold sand like a thousand grand-daddy-long-legses marching in procession.”
  • “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” This made me laugh because *sniff!* it’s soooo true!

 

The one other thing that cracked me up throughout the story was when Tom would “find” points of interest. Like, in Egypt, “This is the granary where Joseph stored up the grain and saved everyone from famine!” – despite the fact that there were dozens of ruined granaries around and he couldn’t possibly know which one it was, even if that particular one were still standing. Huck talked about it like, “I couldn’t believe how Tom could find things like that!” when of course he was making it up…

And all their arguments. Goodness. Someone needs to teach those boys something about logic! But I guess their stories wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining if they were logical…

The Well of Sacrifice

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This was another book I got to skim-read for work! And I was actually shocked how much I liked it. I’ve studied Mayan history a little bit, but it never occurred to me to be interested in a story set in their culture. And it’s a good story, too – a story about protecting one’s family, standing up against corruption and oppression, and doing the right thing even when no one would have blamed you (or even known) if you hadn’t.

And, in the interest of historical accuracy, there are some gory scenes of human sacrifice and blood-letting rituals with frenzied dancing. That was… interesting.

In other interesting things, there were hilarious names like Great Skull Zero (the bad guy), King Flint Sky God (the king), and – best of all – Smoking Squirrel (the main character’s uncle). The main character’s name is Eveningstar, which, as far as Mayan names go, I like a lot.

 

Some interesting quotes:

  • “They had been harsh because they were scared, he said, and because the meanest men somehow always become the leaders.”
  • A conversation between Eveningstar and her mother about Eveningstar’s sister, Feather Dawn:
    Mother: “[She] is not so strong. She needs more.”
    “She’ll always get it. But she won’t appreciate it.”
    “True. But there are more reasons for giving than to be thanked.”
  • “If I could go back, I would not change my choices.” (The feeling, “Shoot, I don’t like where I am now. But if I could go back, how could I have chosen any differently with what I knew at the time?)
  • Struggling with the death of her hero-brother: “When I thought of Smoke Shell, I found it hard to remember him as my brother, the man who had swung me around in his arms and taught me to read and count… He had become both more and less than that, a legend, a hero, not a thing of comfort, but a thing of awe.”

 

If you’re interested in the Mayans at all, or just good historical fiction, or girls who stand up for themselves and won’t be shoved around, you’ll enjoy this book. Hurray for strong female characters!

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

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frankie

This is the very amusing story of a girl at a prep/boarding school who tries to infiltrate the all-male secret society of Alabaster Prep: The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. This group states, “We… do formally commit ourselves to “acts of disreputability, ridiculousness, and anarchy, reserving the possibility that we will also commit acts of indecency and illegality, should the occasions call for it.” And Frankie succeeds not only in infiltrating the group, but in running it. Without anyone knowing.

 

It all begins at the start of her sophomore year, when a senior boy – a gorgeous senior boy – starts noticing her. They date, but he keeps secrets from her (and lies to her), and she knows it. So she starts tailing him and figures some things out. She gives him numerable chances to straighten out the lies, but he doesn’t come clean. What she wants more than anything is to be treated like a person with a brain, not a pretty little body to be dated. …As seen here:

Matthew [her boyfriend] had called her harmless. Harmless. And being with him made Frankie feel squashed into a box – a box where she was expected to be sweet and sensitive (but not oversensitive); a box for young and pretty girls who were not as bright or powerful as their boyfriends. A box for people who were not forces to be reckoned with. Frankie wanted to be a force.

 

This is why I love Frankie. She refuses to be bound by the powers that be. She rages against the machine. She insists on being taken seriously as an intellectual.

In many ways, she succeeds. By the end of the story, she has the respect of most people on campus. She effects significant change in the school – changes that students had been lobbying for for years previous and hadn’t managed. But she fails at what matters most to her: being seen as an intellectual equal by Matthew, and being truly accepted into his group as her own person rather than just as Matthew’s girlfriend. (Matthew, when he believes the pranks are pulled by Alpha, calls them “brilliant”; when he finds out they were Frankie’s idea, he calls them “psychotic.” Total double standard.)

So, I was rather disappointed in the end of the book. At the end, there isn’t a single person in Frankie’s life who really understands and appreciates who she is. (Even of her roommate, the narrator comments, “Frankie is grateful to have such a loyal friend, but it does not escape her notice that Trish’s lack of understanding is a condition of that loyalty.”) Which makes me sad, because I’ve spent many, many years of my life in that very position.

 

But the story itself, along the way to the ending, was highly amusing and well worth the read. Here are some favorite parts:

  • In a debate on whether fruit should be allowed on pizza, Alpha says, “A tomato may be a fruit, but it is a singular fruit. A savory fruit. A fruit that has ambitions far beyond the ambitions of other fruits.”
  • The book references If at All Possible, Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks. I was so hoping this title was entirely made up by the author, but it seems to be a real book. Perhaps I shall find it one of these days…
  • The disreputable pranks themselves. So great!

 

If you’re looking for some fun, light-hearted reading, this is a good choice!

Mongolian Folktales

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So, I know I’ve read a lot of folktale collections recently, but this one is different! The thing that first caught my attention about it was actually the illustrations. The pictures are all done by the art of Mongolian paper cutting. Which is to say, each picture is made from a single piece of black paper that’s been cut out from—and it’s still all attached. They’re shockingly intricate. I’m so impressed with this art.

Then, it has a lengthy introduction about the origins of Mongolian folktales, the types of folktales, the culture that’s shown through the stories, the nature of oral tradition, the process of collecting the stories… It’s so great! For anyone who’s interested in literature, how literature came to be, fables, folktales, legends, etc., this is one excellent place to look.

Here are a few quotes from that introduction I enjoyed:
• “People give birth to their heritage and their tales: that is true and as ancient as humans.”
• “Though the characters are given the qualities of animals, human beings identify with them and recognize themselves in these creatures. The camel, of course, represents virtue. He is fair. He believes what people say, he helps others without hesitation. The deer usually represents a negative image in our folktales. A deer does not keep his promises.” – This I find interesting because I’ve never heard a camel associated with virtue or a deer associated with deception before. It just goes to show you how differently various cultures can view the same things!
• “The storytellers were noble people, whose memory held many things. They seemed to have a special aura around them. More than just words, the way they told a story was inspiring.” – This reminds me of the great storytelling tradition of Tashbaan, from Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy. Also, I wish I came from a tradition of storytelling. It’s a skill I’d love to learn.

Now, for a summary of my favorite story out of the bunch, “The Two Good Brothers”:
There once lived two brothers who grew crops together for a living. The older one lived alone, but the younger brother had a wife and seven small children. Every year the two brothers worked hard together, and every year they divided the harvest evenly between them.
One year, the older brother begins to think, “I don’t know if it is right to share the harvest evenly. My brother has a big family to feed, and I only have to feed myself! I should give him one more sack of grain!” So that night, the older brother added one more sack of grain to the younger brother’s pile.
But the same night, the younger brother lay awake thinking. He said to his wife, “I don’t think we’ve been doing rightly to share evenly with my brother all these years. Since he lives alone, he has no one to help him with the housework at the end of the day. Let us go give him one more sack of grain.” So in the early morning hours, they moved one sack of grain from their pile to his.
They next day, the brothers went to check their stores and were both puzzled to find they had the same number of sacks as they had before. The next night when the older brother tried again to increase his brother’s stockpile, the younger brother figured it out and put it back. In the end, they realized how much they both desired to help each other and simply carried on as before.

I love this story because it’s just so happy! Family loving each other, desiring to help each other, and finding that they both want to help each other so much, they’re giving the same things to each other! It’s just one of those warm-you-all-through stories.

Sophie’s World

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sophieSophie’s World is a novel on the history of philosophy—written especially to be accessible for young people. It’s cool because it wraps a lot of textbook information into a novel, making it much more palatable than a straight-up textbook, and much more nerdy than your typical story. I sure enjoyed the combination! And the last third of the book gets downright trippy. So that’s fun, too.

Also, I found out during the course of reading this book that it was the inspiration for one of my favorite people to major in philosophy. (She’s now working on her PhD in philosophy.) Which is pretty awesome.

One fun thing about this book is that the original text is in Norwegian and the story is set in Norway. What’s funny is that you forget you’re reading a translation until you catch something that’s just slightly off from the normal English term or idiom, or that refers to things that we wouldn’t do. (In the latter category, I mean like when I came across Sophie working on “conjugating English verbs.” For a second I thought, “What?” And then, “Ohhh, because she’s studying English as a foreign language. Of course.”)
Other instances: use of “illusive” instead of “elusive,” “correction fluid” where we would say “whiteout” (although maybe that’s a British usage?), “cafeteria” for “café,” and some spots with a missing preposition. It was just fun to have little reminders here and there! (Also, I’m certainly not trying to bash the translator… I couldn’t do anywhere near as good a job translating into any language.)

Another thing I loved about this book was that I had to read it slowly. It took me a long time—and not just because it was 500 pages! I had to really slow down to wrap my head around the things each philosopher postulated, especially the ones I wasn’t as familiar with. (On the flipside, it was kind of a diagnostic for me to see which philosophers I was familiar with and which ones I wasn’t by how much I had to slow down. Turns out, I’m pretty familiar with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Marx, Darwin, Freud, and some others… and not as familiar with Berkeley, Bjerkeley, Spinoza, Hume, and some others. Good to know.)

Here are some quotes that I enjoyed slowing down to ponder:

  • Socrates: “He who knows what good is will do good.” Commentary: “Socrates thought that no one could possibly be happy if they acted against their better judgment. And he who knows how to achieve happiness will do so. Therefore, he who knows what is right will do right. Because why would anybody choose to be unhappy?”
  • Plato said that “a state that does not educate and train women is like a man who only trains his right arms.” YES.
  • “A sculptor is working on a large block of granite… one day a little boy comes by and says, ‘What are you looking for?’ ‘Wait and see,’ answers the sculptor. After a few days the little boy comes back, and now the sculptor has carved a beautiful horse out of the granite. The boy stares at it in amazement, then he turns to the sculptor and says, ‘How did you know it was in there?’” Very Michaelangelo of the little boy… (He said that every piece of marble has a figure already in it that is waiting to be discovered and displayed by the sculptor.)
  • Galileo: “The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.”
  • “When we speak of the ‘laws of nature’ or of ‘cause and effect,’ we are actually speaking of what we expect, rather than what is ‘reasonable.’ The laws of nature are neither reasonable or unreasonable, they simply are.”
  • Goethe: “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.”
  • “The thoughts that are washed along with the current of past tradition, as well as the material conditions prevailing at the time, help to determine how you think.” It’s crazy to think about how differently I would think—and therefore, how different I would be—if I lived in a different time period.
  • “The tension between ‘being’ and ‘nothing’ becomes resolved in the concept of ‘becoming.’ Because if something is in the process of becoming it both is and is not.”
  • “A composition—and every work of art is one—is created in a wondrous interplay between imagination and reason, or between mind and reflection. For there will always be an element of chance in the creative process.”
  • “She who wins the lot of life must also draw the lot of death, for the lot of life is death.”

So much to think about! Have fun processing these… And if you want more to think about, or are just interested in philosophy or learning to think well, pick up Sophie’s World! It’s great.

Victory on the Walls

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victory_wallsI’m told that this book is really popular, especially among homeschool families… and especially among Christian families. This is another one of those where I raise a distinct finger in the air to ask why.

It’s a historical fiction surrounding the character of Nehemiah, the Old Testament man who went back to Jerusalem (from exile) to rebuild the walls of the city. The story is told from the eyes of Bani, Nehemiah’s orphaned nephew. And, well, it’s hard to even know where to start on how bad the book is.

I guess we might as well start at the beginning: the title. There is no place in the book where victory is had on any walls. Anywhere. The closest incident would be a skirmish outside of the walls, near the walls I suppose, but it had nothing to do with the walls (i.e., there weren’t people standing on the walls shooting down people outside; the battle was fought completely out in the field). The closest preposition to the truth would be “victory near the walls.”
Well, you say, but prepositions aren’t the most important thing in the world. I agree. If there hadn’t been so many other grievous errors, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed. (Although someone I know would definitely dwell on this point. “Prepositions are important,” he would say, “because you have to make up before you can make out.” But I digress.)

The character of Nehemiah. Oh my. He is described as “arrogant, used to special attentions, and fearless.” But mostly arrogant. Oh, and he beats his nephew severely. Point 1, this is not at all the Nehemiah of the Bible. He is humble, grieved over the state of Jerusalem, and barely has the guts to ask the king to leave for Jerusalem. It would be like deciding to write a story on George Washington in which he’s suddenly a coward and a liar.

Point 2, since when are any of the people God chooses to lead Israel arrogant and obnoxious? I mean, let’s be serious: Moses (“most humble man alive”), Joshua, David, the prophets… Not only does the character of Nehemiah in this story not fit with Scripture’s details of him, it doesn’t even fit with the type of leaders God picks!

Then, worst of all. *sigh* The messages. Nehemiah tells his nephew to “do what his heart feels is right” (Disney, anyone?). Then, he tells the people that it is because of the righteousness and merits of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that the nation of Israel was chosen by God and continues to be cared for by Him. He says that their power is not in the sword; oh no, it is in the purity of their faith. And that if they break their covenant with God, they cease to be Israel.

Really? Because I’m pretty sure that if you actually read the Old Testament, you’ll find out that Abraham was a liar and an adulterer, Isaac lied just like his father, and Jacob deceived people for the entire first half of his life and then did such a bad job at parenting (playing favorites, etc.) that ten of his sons wanted to kill another one. Nobody’s merits ever had anything to do with God choosing them.

You’ll find that it was because of the ‘purity’ of Israel’s faith that they were actually in exile in the first place—because they didn’t have any purity of faith. And oh by the way, at this point in time they’ve already broken that covenant time after time and somehow still aren’t wiped out (so, they’re still Israel).

(These are just a very few of the problems; there are many more.)

So I’m not really sure where the author got any of those ideas. It certainly wasn’t Scripture. And if you’re going to throw completely anti-biblical ideas into a story, why are you trying to write a biblical historical fiction anyway? The only circumstance under which I would recommend people read this book is if they’re looking for a way to show how badly historical fiction can be done. Seriously. It’s that bad.

 

I guess you could say this is an anti-recommendation. Don’t read it. Or at least read it extremely critically if you must read it.

Macbeth

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MacbethAh, the Scottish play.

This was really interesting because I listened to it on audiobook, which… well, it was like a halfway way of experiencing a play. I sometimes dislike reading plays because I know they were written to be performed, not read. In the audio version, it is performed (with a full cast of readers), just without the visual elements of performance. Also, they had a sort of “translator” who piped up here and there when a character said something especially middle-English-y that needed some interpretation, which was nice.

As for the story itself, well, Macbeth puts all his eggs in one basket—from which we learn that it’s a bad idea to act on the prophecies of witches, particularly when you don’t know whether they are for or against you. Mainly, he lets his wife talk him into committing murder, even though the man is king (so it’s an assassination) and kinsman (so it’s against nature) and guest in his house (so it’s against the laws of hospitality).

Aaaand things pretty much go downhill from there.

The whole “wife talking you into killing someone to get what you want” bit was very reminiscent of the Ahab/Jezebel story regarding Naboth’s vineyard from the Bible (see 1 Kings 21, if you aren’t familiar). However, Lady Macbeth isn’t quite as ruthless as Jezebel. You see, unfortunately for her, she has a conscience. Not enough to keep her from killing someone—just enough to haunt her after she does.

Speaking of which, Shakespeare’s psychological realism in this play is phenomenal. He shows the guilty consciences of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with startling realism, including having Lady Macbeth sleepwalk and dream about washing her hands but not being able to get them clean. (An apt picture, since it was her hands that actually killed the king.)
Which is amazing because, you know, psychology as a discipline didn’t develop till the mid 1800’s, and then took some time to entire literature as the movement of psychological realism, and then it was even longer before dreams were recognized as having anything to do with psychology (thank you, Freud). So Shakespeare was only about 250 years ahead of his time. No big deal.

So basically, this play proved to me yet again just how amazing Shakespeare is. Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

  • As Macbeth and his wife are planning their dark deed, they note that they must pretend to grieve when they hear the news later: “False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” (1.7)
  • Donalbain, son of the murdered king: “To Ireland, I… Where we are there’s daggers in men’s smiles. The nea’er in blood, the nearer bloody.” (2.3) (‘Here, we can’t trust anybody. The closer you’re related to the king, the closer is the danger of being murdered.’)
  • “All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death…” (5.5)

Another brilliant move of Shakespeare’s that I fully appreciate is this irony: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both envy the man they killed because he has nothing to worry about, while their consciences and fear of being found out are driving them mad.

An excellent play. Absolutely excellent.

The Magician’s Elephant

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magicianselephantThis is a perfectly marvelous book. And I do mean perfect. And I do mean marvelous.

This book is about a child named Peter Augustus Duchene. Peter’s parents are dead, and he lives with a man named Vilna Lutz, who has always told him that his sister is dead, too. But one day in the market, a fortune teller tells him otherwise: his sister lives. And an elephant will lead him to her.

An elephant? In France?

Well, why not?

What Peter Augustus Duchene doesn’t know is that there is a magician in town. A magician whose magic no one respects. A magician who is desperate to do one great magic trick before he retires. A magician who calls down an elephant, which crashes through an auditorium ceiling, landing on and crippling Madam LaVaughn… despite his continued claims that he “intended only lilies.”

And out of this beginning, Kate DiCamillo weaves together the threads of all these different characters: Peter, the poetic magician, Vilna Lutz (a man who knows lots about soldiering and very little about raising a child), a policeman named Leo Matienne and his wife Gloria (unable to have children of their own), a little girl in an orphanage named Adele, the crippled Madam LaVaughn and her servant Hans (who has a vague memory of a childhood pet dog who could do impossible things), Tomas the beggar (who sings the events of the day) and his dog Iddo, and Bartok Whynn (a sculptor of gargoyles who fell off the scaffolding and laughs hysterically ever since). And all conspire (whether knowingly or willingly or not) to help Peter find his sister.

With this cast, what does DiCamillo create? A veritable miracle. The perfect fable. (I liked it even better than her Tale of Despereaux, which was also great!)

Here are some quotes I loved—both serious and amusing:

  • Peter is instructed by Vilna Lutz to get the smallest fish at the market: “Ask him for the smallest ones. Ask him for the fish that others would turn away. Why, you must ask him for those fish that the other fish are embarrassed to even refer to as fish.”
  • Peter has a habit of fiddling with his hat when perplexed: “He put his hand up to his hat. He took the hat off, and put it back on, and took it off again. [A woman at the market asks,] ‘Is the child having some sort of hat-related fit?’”
  • After Peter tells Vilna Lutz about the fortune teller’s prediction, Vilna Lutz cries out in a feverish sleep: “Elephants! Denizens of imaginary bestiaries!” (I nearly died! …Listening to hilarious audio books in the car can be dangerous!)
  • Peter has a dream: “The dream was too beautiful not to be true.”
  • Leo Matienne always asks the questions, “What if?” “Could it be?” “Why not?”
    When his wife tells him to stop, he responds, “We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?”
    His wife, Gloria: “The world cannot be changed. The world is what the world is and has forever been.”
    Leo: “No. I will not believe that.”
  • “The three of them stepped forward and began pounding on the door. Time stopped. Peter had a terrible feeling that the whole of his life had been nothing but standing and knocking, asking to be let in to some place that he was not even certain existed.”
  • The magician: “Have you, in truth, ever seen something so heartbreakingly lovely? What are we to make of a world where stars shine bright in the midst of so much darkness and gloom?”

It’s a perfectly marvelous fable, and you simply must read it.

I Am Regina

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regina

This is one of the most tragic stories I have ever read. And I loved it. I felt like it was cathartic for me. Maybe the Greeks were on to something with that whole catharsis thing… I guess they did a few things right.

What struck me so strongly about this book was just how much the protagonist endures. How she manages to go on. (As she narrates herself: “Piling pain on top of pain. I feel as if I were truly dying. Dear God, I cannot go on. / But I do…”)

Regina is a 10-year-old girl on a Pennsylvania farm who gets kidnapped by Ohio Indians – after seeing her brother and father murdered and scalped in front of her. Then she is force-marched through the wilderness on very little food, carrying a toddler on her back in a sling that cuts into her shoulders. Regina is separated from her sister, the only member of her family she knows is still alive.

When she arrives at her new Indian “home,” she finds it to be a tiny village of only a few families, and she belongs to the meanest of them. The mother beats her if she speaks her white man’s tongue, or if she takes too long doing chores, or if she doesn’t do the chores right. The warrior who brought her is a violent young man who tries to rape her at one point.

There is one young Indian woman who befriends her, Nonschetto, and Regina (Tskinnak now, by her Indian name) and she become good friends. Then Nonschetto is killed in a trade-gone-bad with some white men. Fever wipes out most of the Indian camp, and Quetit (the white girl Regina/Tskinnak carried to this place, and her only friend now) nearly dies. Then, just when Tskinnak and Quetit feel some love for the old woman, white men come and take them away, forcibly “rescuing” them from what is now the only family they know.

When the girls make it back, they’ve been gone almost nine years. They don’t speak German anymore; they only speak their Indian language. They don’t even remember their “white man” names. Regina is reunited with her mother only by the song her mother used to sing to her. Regina sang it in her captivity, and it’s the only connection she had to the life she left behind.

And that’s her story. And it’s true. (Well, mostly. You know how historical fiction is. Regina Leininger was really an Indian captive 1755-1763.)

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • “[Mother] is small and quick and always moving. Unlike Father, who has a stillness inside him; who often rests his arms on the barnyard fence and watches in silence as the sun goes down.” I love this description of her father.
  • “Nonschetto is gone and with her is buried all memories of my white man’s home. It was not something that I wanted to happen. It just did, the way new skin covers wounds.” Beautiful, beautiful description.
  • When Regina/Tskinnak’s Indian mother tries to force her to marry: “I will not marry… In my dreams, I walk through an endless forest and I walk alone.”
  • “…feeling the sudden pull between a life I know and one I remember in my dreams.” Painful. Also, this kind of touches on it, but the pain of not belonging of either group of people she’s lived with: she doesn’t belong to the Indians, because she’s white. But she doesn’t belong to the white people, because she doesn’t know how to speak their language anymore.
  • When Quetit is sick: “Perhaps I can bargain with God. Tell Him, ‘Lord, if you would spare Quetit, I will devote my life to you.’ But I find it difficult to bargain with a presence I cannot feel. This must be what Hell is like.” Devastating.
  • This was a really fascinating and moving part of the end of the story, to me. All Regina remembers of her first language, aside from the song her mother sang her, is how to read the Bible: “The Revered Muhlenberg gave her a Bible. And he watched in wonder as Regina, who spoke only Indian in everyday matters, read whole passages of the Bible aloud in German.”

 

So, yes. Pain. Such heartbreaking pain. And catharsis. I love this book so much.