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text 2017-05-27 07:08
My Personal Literary Canon: Begin at the beginning
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret - Judy Blume
Then Again, Maybe I Won't - Judy Blume
Deenie - Judy Blume
Tiger Eyes - Judy Blume
Forever... - Judy Blume
The Luckiest Girl - Beverly Cleary
Up in Seth's Room - Norma Fox Mazer

I'm going to start with the books that on the surface might strike some as the most trivial, but realistically, because of the age I was when I read them, would have had the biggest impact.


Hands down, the undisputed winner for most influential YA writer has to be Judy Blume.  In my previous post I mentioned I didn't come from an open family.  When speaking about my adolescence, I cannot put too fine a point on this:  my entire sex education consisted of a short movie and forgettable lecture in 5th grade that left me horrified, and the works of Judy Blume.  


But I got so much more out of her books too.  Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret might have enlightened me on the more embarrassing aspects of puberty, but I also learned the importance of making up your own mind about your beliefs, and that there was no right answer for everyone.  I also noted the dangers of jumping to conclusions about people you don't know; that their reality is not mine.  


Then Again, Maybe I Won't taught me that while change was rarely welcomed, sometimes good and unexpected things came out of it.  Deenie was my personal adolescent nightmare writ large; scoliosis terrified me; after reading Deenie it still terrified me, but I could see how someone might survive it and own it.  Tiger Eyes taught me we all carry guilt, even for the things we aren't guilty of and can't control, and while that may be the nature of things, we should never stop trying to let it go.


Then, of course, there's Forever...  I doubt I have to list all that I learned from this book, but the most lasting lesson was this: I'm allowed to choose for myself.  I get to make my decisions on my own terms and I'm allowed to change my mind.


This, in my opinion, was Judy Blume's strength.  She never preached to her readers, either directly or indirectly.  She created characters that were confronted by the things her readers confronted, and then gave her characters the rational capacity to find the answers on their own. Adults don't play Yoda in her books; the kids reach their own conclusions, and as a result they serve as examples to their readers.


There are other teen authors from back in the day that come to mind:  Beverly Cleary, of course, although not for her much more famous Romana series, but for The Luckiest Girl.  At 16, Shelley leaves her family to spend a year in California with a family she barely knows.  While quite a bit of the book is dated now and even a little twee, what stuck with me all these years was her bravery in getting on that plane by herself, her openness to experience new things, and her unapologetic, unabashed delight in the world around her. I admired her for that - I wanted to be like that too, and I am, mostly. I'll forever be grateful to Beverly Cleary for Shelley.


Finally, there's Up in Seth's Room by Norma Fox Mazer.  Like Forever this deals with the weighty issues of first love and how far do you go?  This book fascinated me because it straddled two myths:  If you defy your parents you're automatically wrong, and if you're dating someone older, you're going to be unable to say no.  Finn is 15 and falls for a 19 year old.  She defies her parents after she's forbidden to see him, but she calls the shots with Seth.  She decides what she is and isn't comfortable doing and she sticks to her guns.  As a stubborn teen, Finn spoke to me in ways nobody else ever did.


I give my mom (deservedly) most of the credit for the strong-willed, independent woman I am today, but it's just as accurate to say these women deserve to share the credit with her; they went where she was unwilling or unable to go, and I doubt she could find much fault with their lessons.


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text 2017-05-27 05:26
My Personal Literary Canon: Context and criteria

Moonlight Reader started this with her post:  A Personal Literary Canon, Part 1 and quite a few of us have jumped on the bandwagon because the question is just too intriguing to ignore:  what makes up your personal literary canon?  Each person's definition of personal canon, by definition, varies.  Mine is summed up thus:


What books have contributed to who I am today?  What books, which authors, shaped me, my values, my beliefs?  To me, those are the books that make up my literary canon.  If someone sat down and read the books in my list, they'd have a pretty good idea of who I am as a person.


To give that statement context, while my childhood was awesome, my parents were rather hands-off and staunchly conservative.  There wasn't any lecturing going on at home, but neither was there any personal-level openness.  As I was a huge reader from the beginning, most of my education about life necessarily came from what I read, shaped further by the examples my parents set.


So, that's pretty much my over-riding criteria for determine books/authors in my canon, but in addition to that I'm more or less using the following:


1.  No restrictions on subject:  fiction/non-fiction/poetry whatever; it's all fair game.

2.  Books or authors that would go with me to the island (in other words, books I love enough to have read over and over and over again).

3.  Concerning authors with multiple works that qualify, or books in a series, I will either include only the author if their work as a whole had a profound effect, or one or two books in a series that had the strongest impact.

4.  I will explain each choice, as quite a few of them will not necessarily be obvious.

5.  This is an ongoing project, and I reserve the right to add or modify these criteria as needed.

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text SPOILER ALERT! 2017-05-27 01:23
Lord Johnnie -- part 4 -- Finale!

As always, be warned that here be spoilers!


Although I started last night's home stretch on page 247, the main issue that this section covers has to reference a quote from page 200 that I intentionally did not mention in part 3.


Lord Johnnie was published in 1949.  I read it for the first time in 1961 or 1962.  Kathleen E. Woodwiss's The Flame and the Flower that sparked the boom in paperback original historical romances was published in 1972.  Janice Radway's study of romance novel readers, Reading the Romance, was published in 1984.  The collection of essays by romance novelists titled Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women edited by Jayne Ann Krentz was published in 1992.  A Natural History of the Romance Novel by Pamela Regis was published in 2003.


The assumption is taken for granted -- and yes, it is -- that the sexy historical romance novels of the 1970s themselves evolved from a tradition of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice through the domestic novels of the late nineteenth century to the early Mills & Boon/Harlequin romances and the paperback gothic romances of the 1960s.  


Because, after all, the books read each other themselves and then went on to write themselves; the women writers -- and the writers of romance novels since 1972 have been predominantly women -- were, like, not really there.


But we were!  And we wrote the books, pulled the stories and the characters from our own experiences, including our experiences as readers and watchers of movies.


In her book Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels, Rachel Brownstein acknowledges a truth that too many of the analysts either consciously ignored or never bothered to learn: The Flame and the Flower was less a direct descendant of Pride and Prejudice and Little Women than it was the child of a woman who had probably watched Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and read Samuel Shellabarger's Lord Vanity.  Brownstein writes:


My brother is two years younger than I, and at the time I was doing the complete works of Frank Yerby he was reading everything about Napoleon.  You can interpret that in one of several ways: (1) he was marching on Moscow while I was being raped; or (2) he was the scruffy little Corsican while I was a half-breed beauty; or (3) he was the emperor while I was victim and vanquisher in succession, or even both at once.


We read, and then we wrote.  And it wasn't as if there weren't other women writers between Bronte and Woodiwiss.  Why is it that writers like Margaret Mitchell, Kathleen Winsor, Catherine Gaskin, Daphne du Maurier are just kind of ignored as potential influences?  Romance, adventure, excitement, action, and even history were all part and parcel of fiction written by women throughout the years preceding those early paperback blockbusters that followed The Flame and the Flower.


But we also read the books written by, for, and about men.  Men like Leslie Turner White and Lord Johnnie.


In the early 1990s I belonged to an informal group of romance writers who congregated on America Online via an email group.  The members included a few major names and a lot of unknowns (like me).  Among others were Brenda Hiatt, Alexis Harrington, Constance Walker, Rebecca Brandewyne, Kasey Michaels.  Brandewyne had exchanged letters with Frank Yerby before his death in 1991; Kasey Michaels and I laughed about the book club editions we had read clandestinely as teenagers, books that we remembered and that had shaped our writing style even from that young age.


Could we have been the only ones?  I sincerely doubt it.


But here's the thing that seems most important as a take-away from that reading history:


The romance part was as important to the guys as it was to the girls.


Oh, sure, when we got a little older and we started reading the James Bond books -- and we did read them -- there wasn't as much romance.  We read Peyton Place, too, and Candy and all the other juicy forbidden books of the 1960s.  But the foundational thread that ran through the book club books like Lord Johnnie was that love and romance mattered for everyone, without embarrassment, without shame, without giggles and snickers and blushes.  And if it mattered for the fictional characters, could it matter any less for their real-life writers and readers?


Which brings me back to page 200 of Lord Johnnie.


. . . "And heed this -- I'm not going to give you up!"


"But dear God -- why?"


"Because I love you!"  The words astonished him quite as much as they did her, for when she looked up in amazement, he grinned ruefully.


"'Pon my honor, that slipped out, my lady!" he confessed. "Though I've never spoken it before, it's true enough."


She wrung her hands.  "Love?  What does a knave like you know of love?"


"Very little, Leanna.  I had always imagined it to be a pleasing headiness, like rare champagne, rather than the gnawing emptiness that has ruined sleep and haunted my waking hours.  Yet unlike normal hunger, no substitute seems to appease it.  Rather than starve longer, I risked my neck to follow you to New York.  I'm not leaving it without you."


Pretty powerful stuff for a young teenager with dreams of being a writer.  Pretty powerful stuff coming from the hero rather than the heroine!


And now, back to the action, keeping in mind that Johnnie has made this confession; Leanna has not.


So Johnnie ends up kidnapping Leanna and taking her aboard the Able Lady.  Leanna is not happy, and she lets Johnnie know she's not.  Therefore, of course, neither is he.  But the arc of Johnnie's transformation from independent, reckless, and careless rogue to whatever he turns out to be is showing how his innate decency now has an opportunity -- before, he was merely trying to survive in a shockingly cruel world -- to develop and even flourish.  He has confessed his love, and acted shamefully upon it, but by page 251, he has his regrets.


He spread his hands in resignation.  "I regret it now," he confessed.  "Yet though the act itself was vicious, the impulse was sincere.  Aye.  Ridiculous as it may sound now -- I had hoped to win you."


"God in Heaven!" she cried.  "Your overweening temerity is insufferable!  A filthy felon and a pirate --"


Johnnie stiffened in anger.  "My crimes were no obstacle to our marriage, I might remind you -- wife!"


"Must you continually bring that up?"


"I must, since they are so closely allied."  He chuckled bitterly.  "In the romances I have read, the wooing precedes the wedding.  I can understand the advantages now.  But look -- let us not bicker.  'Tis agreed we both erred sadly.  Do you accept my offer?"


His offer is to give her some cash and ship her, one way or another, back to New York, once again rid of him . . . forever.  The course of true love being what it is, such a neat resolution proves impossible.  The Able Lady encounters a French warship, the Beausejour, and in the ensuing battle, though Johnnie's crew is victorious, his ship is damaged beyond salvage.  He takes possession of the enemy vessel, unaware that amongst its passengers is a royal courier with secret dispatches.


Once again, Johnnie is faced with a dilemma.  He can save himself and his crew or he can take risks to deliver the dispatches to the authorities back in New York, thus warning the British forces of an impending attack by the French.  The risks are great, and without guarantees of success.  The authorities in New York are the very officials he scammed and outwitted in his escape when he kidnapped Leanna.  Her fiancee has leveled charges of abduction against him.  He's sailing under forged letters of marque.  He has lost the Able Lady, which belonged to the Duchess of Tallentyre; the only thing he has with which to repay her is the captured French brigantine.  And of course there's Leanna, who is more friendly with his crew members than with him.


Remember back on page 60 when Leanna confessed that wealth was her objective, for the security it could give a woman without other resources?  Johnnie had made his own confession to her earlier (p. 46-47).  He saw wealth as the means, not the end.


His bitterness overflowed.  "All right -- I'll be honest.  I'll tell you something I never spoke aloud before, because, until you walked into Newgate, it was nothing but a vain, silly, hopeless wish."  He talked rapidly, as if trying to keep ahead of the restraint of reason  "I have always wanted to be a gentleman!  I've hated sordidness and poverty, hated coarseness and vulgarity.  Then, miraculously, you came into that hell-hole and married me.  In that I saw the hand of Providence.  I would have been a fool to have thrown the opportunity away."


He saw her eyes widen, and then to his surprise she laughed.


"Merciful heaven!" she cried.  "Did you expect to move in here with me?"


"May I remind you I have moved in!"


She drew a hand across her eyes, as if to wipe away a vision.  She had difficulty keeping her voice steady.


"Johnnie, you are a man of some intelligence.  You should realize that marrying me does not of itself make you a gentleman.  Good Lord, gentlemen are born!"


His features darkened under a flood of color, as he recalled Moll Coppinger's denunciation:  Gent'men don't come out o' Whitefriars an' Newgate, as 'e'll soon fin' out!



"You asked me what I wanted," he said, scowling.

Are the French dispatches his last chance perhaps at achieving his goal?  Will turning them over to the military in New York, even if he ends up hanging for all his past crimes, grant him some respect at the end, give him the legacy of a gentleman's honor?


He has little choice.  His prize vessel is being tailed by two other French ships, their captains unaware that the Beausejour is no longer under the command of its French captain.  Johnnie's only hope is to lead them back into British territory and engage the English fleet.  If he survives that, and can turn over the dispatches before the English hang him, and convince them that the French directives are legitimate plans to attack New York, he might stand a chance.  Not necessarily to save his own neck, but at least to save Leanna, the stalwart Rodney Yew, and his crew.


Once again, he puts into motion a plan, carefully thought out and even more carefully executed.  The French are defeated, but a last second complication lands Johnnie and his crew in prison, destined all to hang for his crimes.


He had left England known only as Johnnie the Rogue, outlaw and thief, the nameless bastard who aped his betters and had impossible dreams.  As a mutineer, he adopted the name Bloodsmythe to match the commission of the man he had defeated.  In New York, he purchased forged documents under the name Captain John Scarlett.  Thinking that he has at least partially redeemed himself, he walks into the last noose under his father's honorable name of Ballantyne.  A gentleman's name.


Things couldn't look worse, but of course that's not the way the romances end.  And remember, Johnnie has read them, too!  Did he read Tom Jones, the tale of a bastard with roguish ways but a good and honest heart?  Perhaps he did, and like the foundling Tom, Johnnie wins out in the end.  His old misdeeds are forgiven, Sir Clarence drops the charges against him for kidnapping Leanna, the governor grants him a captain's commission, and even the highly respected Rodney Yew has agreed to serve under him.


And he has, at long last, won Leanna's heart.


She went down on her knees before him.  "You said some wonderful things in your delirium, Johnnie -- about loving me.  Can you say them again in your right mind?"


He touched her cheek tenderly.  "I'm not in my right mind now, sweetheart, but I'll try."


Somewhere in the distance the noon gun thundered, but John Ballantyne did not hear it.


Johnnie is redeemed through his own actions, is granted his wish, and they all live happily ever after.


Why wouldn't I love a book like that?


But again, looking specifically at the character of Leanna, through a feminist lens and comparing her to the heroines of those post-Flame and Flower historicals, she never gives up her agency.  Happy ending and all, she's not the main character but she's much more than a trophy.  She takes the initial action to marry a condemned felon to get out of the debts she admits she incurred.  She admits to prior sexual experience without shame.  She maintains her determination to marry for financial security rather than hold out for unattainable love and romance.  She also attempts to guarantee that Johnnie keep his promise to leave her alone forever, but her attempt backfires and nullifies his end of the bargain.  She heads off to New York.  After the kidnapping, she makes a life for herself on the ship, a life that leaves out any interaction with Johnnie.  And in the end she makes up her own mind about her future.  She has the choice to stick with her plan to marry Sir Clarence Laughton; she chooses to stay with Johnnie.


I didn't want to be disappointed by this book, and I wasn't.  In this reading, I found details I had forgotten or never took note of, and they only served to increase my respect for the construction of an almost perfect romance.


Only "almost"?  Well, since I can't make Lord Johnnie come to life. . . .





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text SPOILER ALERT! 2017-05-25 21:11
Lord Johnnie -- part 3

Don't forget:  spoilers abound!


Lord Johnnie and his crew of would-be pirates are now on their way to New York.  I had hoped to finish the book last night, but by midnight had only reached page 246.  Realizing I couldn't finish and still get a decent night's sleep, I reached for the bookmark.


But it was a satisfying read, and I knew I'd finish in one more session.


Because I knew the story well enough after all these years, I was looking for the extra, deeper elements, and there were three of them in this section.


The first was the character arc of Johnnie himself.


In striking contrast to the character of Connie Goodwin in Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Johnnie behaves exactly as one would expect him to: sometimes impulsively but always with a clear awareness of what he's doing and why, and always in a way that makes sense to the reader.  He knows the risks he takes, knows the potential outcomes.  He even knows when he does things that are slightly out of his own character.


He is also very much aware of the changes in his behavior and his attitudes as he takes on new responsibilities.  All his life he had only been responsible for himself; he never trusted or relied on anyone else.  Even when plotting his escape from hanging and his companions were essential, he knew they could not be completely trusted.  After the escape, when he has gone to Leanna's home, he confesses to her that he has never been able to trust anyone.


Nor has he ever let himself become responsible for anyone else, requiring that someone else trust him.  That changes when he and Ames are taken by the press gang: It's his fault the old man, who had sailed with his father, has been forced into service.  It changes even more then the crew mutinies and Johnnie becomes captain, because now he is responsible for all of them.  When faced with opportunities to save himself and let the rest fend for themselves, he consciously chooses not to.


Part of his growth can be understood as his reaction to people around him, people who do things he has never experienced before.  In his own dog-eat-dog existence, the idea that others would come to his assistance is totally foreign.  When Mrs. Bloodsmythe comes to his rescue in a most amusing way, he's slightly astonished, but certainly grateful.


And that's the second of the three incidents in this part of the book that stand out.


The Eagle is boarded by a Lt. Ayers from another English ship, the Tiger.  Ayers is suspicious that a much younger man is claiming to be Capt. Bloodsmythe, because he had met the captain and his wife at a social event in England.  When Mrs. Bloodsmythe comes on deck, links her arm through Johnnie's, and claims him as her husband, Ayers is thrown off course (pun intended).  The captain's widow explains that the older man she was with in London was in fact her husband's cousin and scolds the lieutenant. (p. 166)


"Why, Lieutenant Ayers -- I'm furious with you!  Did you think that fat old walrus was my husband  For shame!"


Ayers reacted as if he wished the deck would suddenly give way beneath him.  "No, no, my lady!  Only --"


"You did! You really did!"


"Forgive me!" pleaded Ayers confusedly.  "I really must be getting back."  He scribbled furiously across a paper and shoved it toward Johnnie.  "There's your clearance, Captain.  I acted hastily."


After Ayers leaves the ship and returns to his own, Johnnie confronts the widow over her performance.


"By my troth, madame, you amaze me!"


"I fear you underestimated me, sir."


"Aye, I fear I did.  I'm indebted --"


She stiffened her spine.  "You're indebted for nothing!" she cut him off.  "The debt was mine.  If it is paid, then I am relieved. for I don't wish to be obligated to you further!"  With that she swept out of the cabin.


She has, in a sense, mirrored much of Johnnie's own experience, in which he thinks he's been independent, but in fact there are always others around who have their parts to play.


What's surprising, however, is that Johnnie doesn't question her sense of indebtedness, nor her ability to have cancelled the debt.  She was Bloodsmythe's victim, but he did not strip her of her humanity or her agency.  Neither did author White.


Thus saved from discovery, Johnnie captains the crew to New York, where he faces another potential mutiny when they learn they're not going to the tropical islands.  In order to dispose of the ship and acquire another better suited to his plans, he soon learns there is only one person in the burgeoning city of some sixteen thousand souls  who can help him.  One person controls the trade in ships, some directly and some indirectly, but there is no route to buying a vessel but through the hands of Reggie, the Duchess of Tallentyre.


She's a more than a little scandalous businesswoman in her fifties, and as it turns out she has just the ship Johnnie needs, the Able Lady.  She also knows everyone who is anyone in the city and has connections to everyone else.


It never occurred to me, back in 1961 or '62, to question that a woman would control the shipping trade in colonial New York.  Almost exactly two hundred years after the story's setting, women faced all kinds of obstacles in their everyday lies that I also wasn't aware of.  The inability of a married woman to get credit in her own name, for example. 


The women in the popular culture of my time weren't like the Duchess of Tallentyre.  Laura Petrie, Harriet Nelson, Donna Stone, and Lucy Ricardo were not assertive and strong like Reggie.  If they managed their families -- and their men -- it was more through manipulation than partnership or independent agency.  In contrast to wife and mother Laura Petrie, Sally Rogers was less the successful working woman and more the frustrated husband-hunter, because wife-and motherhood were the desired ends.


But I had abandoned television for the world of books, so I was much more impressed, even subconsciously, by someone like the Duchess than by Laura Petrie.  Women, even imaginary women created in a man's mind in 1949, could do things.


Of course, since Reggie knows everyone, Johnnie can't resist asking her about Leanna, whom he knows left Portsmouth the same time as he, headed also for New York.  Well, Reggie doesn't know her, but she knows how to find out. 


The reunion of husband and reluctant wife doesn't go well, and it is complicated further by revelations of Johnnie's true identity.  Another of his risky plans, made this time with the assistance of the Duchess of Tallentyre and unwitting collusion of Lord Chauncey Eden, the Governor of New York, results in his springing his crew from prison and escaping New York harbor in the Able Lady just a cannonball's breadth ahead of the pursuing English.  But the more complex his life becomes, the more easily it's further complicated by the actions of others over whom he has no control -- and that includes himself.


Having found Leanna again he's determined not to lose her again, so he kidnaps her on the justification that she is, after all, his lawful wife.  But once aboard the Able Lady, he also discovers he is once more saddled with the competent but just a little to righteous Lt. Rodney Yew.  Though his scheme to release the crew included freedom for Yew, the lieutenant himself didn't trust Johnnie.  (p. 245)


"Be good enough to explain why you did not go ashore when I so ordered?"


"I considered it an ill-timed jest," Yew snapped.


Johnnie's smile was cold.  "Jest, eh?"  Then he detailed exactly what had happened between  the Governor and himself relative to Yew.  "Does that still strike you as a jest, Mr. Yew?" he concluded.


Yew stared at him incredulously.  "By the powers, sir, I owe you an apology!"


"That doesn't better your plight," Johnnie said dryly.


To his amazement, Rodney Yew laughed, albeit a trifle bitterly.


"Aye, true enough.  'Twould seem the jest was one of Fate's.  Yet, I think you'll grant I cannot be censured for not anticipating such magnanimity from a man of your reputation, sir!"


Johnnie had to grin.  "In a word -- you didn't expect fairness from the Devil?"


Yew shrugged.  "I repeat what I said once before, sir.  You pass all understanding."



With a loyal crew, a sleek ship, and a fair wind, Johnnie should have it made.  Leanna is in her cabin, probably not too happy, but he's confident she'll come 'round. 


He just doesn't know there are 62 more pages. . .


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text 2017-05-25 00:50
My canon: the little house years
Little House in the Big Woods - Laura Ingalls Wilder,Garth Williams
Little House on the Prairie - Laura Ingalls Wilder,Garth Williams
On the Banks of Plum Creek - Laura Ingalls Wilder,Garth Williams
By the Shores of Silver Lake - Laura Ingalls Wilder,Garth Williams
The Long Winter - Laura Ingalls Wilder,Garth Williams

When you are a reader it's possible to mark your life in books. There are those books that are so immutably connected to a prior time and place that opening the book is like time-travel - a way to be your younger self once again.


I could list the books that do this for me, although I would always add to the list as the thought occurred to me: A Little Princess, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, A Wrinkle in Time, From the Mixed of Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Anna Karenina, Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, The Anna Papers, Charms for the Easy Life. Sooner or later, I will tell you about all of those books. And many, many more.


But today, I'm going to talk about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books, which I read into tatters. I was a bookish girl, and I still remember the Christmas that I was 7, in the third grade. We were living in a house in Omaha, Nebraska, on Hickory Street. Is there any street name that feels more Americana than a street named after a tree? My husband grew up on Birch Street. I lived on Hickory Street for a short time, and while I lived on Hickory Street, I woke up one Christmas morning, and ran downstairs and found the complete series under the tree for me.


The covers were the gingham edged version, I think. Although, I suppose I could be wrong about that because I no longer have my childhood editions. I read them into shreds, and they disappeared somewhere along the way. I own the gingham edged editions because I bought them when my daughter was small, hoping that she would love them as I did. She didn't, but I've unequivocally gotten my money's worth, because I've read them all, more than once. 


These might have been the first books that I truly loved. I devoured the first book, laying on my back under the tree on Christmas Day, watching the Christmas lights winking above me. I dragged myself out from under the tree to have Christmas dinner with my family - they wouldn't let me read during dinner, and I still remember racing through dinner, trying to be polite and conversational because all I wanted was to get back to Laura and Pa and their cabin in the Wisconsin woods, where Laura and Mary played in the attic surrounded by pumpkins and squash and the other harvested foods that would keep them fed during the long, dark, snowy winters. I can still see Garth William's illustrations in my mind's eye.


I read these books ten times. Twenty times. More times than I can count. I was always partial to the first two, and I never liked On the Banks of Plum Creek, probably because that was the year that they lived in Minnesota, and that horrible Nellie Oleson makes Laura's life so terrible.


As an adult, I am most astonished by The Long Winter, which has the most harrowing description of a town on the edge of starvation that I've ever read, although the terrible anxiety and danger is only apparent by reading between the lines. To a child, a long winter sounds like a lark, a delightful time-out-of-mind experience of endless snow days tucked in warm, in front of a fire. Only when I realized how close to death they were did I recognize the incredible courage demonstrated by Ma & Pa and the townspeople who kept themselves, their children, and their neighbors fed through a famine.


The television series premiered the same year that those books showed up under my Christmas tree. I don't connect those two things in my mind, although it seems obvious to me now that my parents gave me the books because of the series. For years, I faithfully watched every episode, laughing at Laura's antics, identifying with her enthusiasm, her heedlessness, her lack of interest in girlish things. The series ran until I was a junior in high school, long after I had left Laura behind for Ray-Bans and Tolstoy.


When I read the books now, I am that girl, all over again.

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