Saturday, July 11, 2020

One book, two books, red book, blue book*

I started reading Where the Red Fern Grows to the children over breakfast this week (which reminds me, I need to fill out our homeschool record for the past couple of days) and they've been loving it so far, always begging for another chapter (and now, in Benjamin's case, hounding me for a pair of hounds). It's a beautiful window into a different time period, I think. It was published in 1961, which makes it 59 years old this year. However, the narrator, Billy Colman, is remembering his boyhood, fifty years previous so the kids and I calculated that it probably took place about 100 years ago (I don't recall a year being specifically mentioned in the first few chapters; we're not very deep into it yet and I haven't read it since I was in middle school (when it was one of the books for my homeschool (online) English class; I've really come full circle here)).

Anyway, Rawls describes life in the Ozarks so beautifully and he is, in my opinion, an expert on life in the Ozarks. That's where his family farm was. Like Billy (which, by the way, my kids were amazed when the kids at the schoolyard started taunting Billy by calling him "hillbilly"; they were like, "How do they know his name?!"), Rawls grew up in the Ozarks in the early 1900s. He experienced them firsthand. Like Billy, Rawls' mother was part-Cherokee and thus was given land by the US government as retribution for having, you know, stolen the land in the first place. Actually, there are a lot of similarities between Billy and Rawls. This story isn't classified as autobiographical, but Rawls drew liberally from his childhood experiences.

So, my point is, that this is probably a pretty good book to read if you want to get a feel for how a poor family in the Ozarks may have lived in the 1920s (or so). In fifty years if you want to get a feel for how a poor family in the Ozarks may have lived this would still be an authoritative (heavy on the author, perhaps, light on the authority part) take on it. Rawls experienced the Ozarks in the 1920s firsthand.

Was Rawls a perfect person? No. He was not.

He has a rap sheet. He served time in Oklahoma as well as in New Mexico. He wasn't well-educated, being educated at home (darn homeschoolers) without access to many books or anything and though he always loved telling stories he didn't have the means to write them down (they were too poor for paper so he would sometimes scratch words in the sand), so his grammar and punctuation were poor (so it's good for us all that he married a good editor).

I don't know what backwards 1950s ideals he clung to, but I imagine he embraced quite a few ideals from that time period. His words still have merit. They're a testimony of the time period he knew and, frankly, if a modern author came through and tried to write about the 1920s they would not do as well. They would not be as true to the time period. They would get things wrong.

Honestly, I feel the same way about The Little House on the Prairie series.

I know it's problematic. Some of the ideas Laura had about "Indians" are today considered wildly inappropriate. And they are, at times, shocking for me to read. And then my children and I get to have a lovely conversation about why those ideas are inappropriate and should not be perpetuated. But...I still think that her descriptions of life as a family on the "frontier" are beautiful and far more accurate than anything a modern author could come up with. She was telling her truth and I believe there is merit in that.

There's an idea circulating that we should be teaching modern literature to our children. Literature that teaches the values we have embraced in our modern society. I don't disagree. Modern literature is wonderful. However, I don't think that we should teach modern literature at the expense of literature from the past, even if it seems grating or antiquated. We can have both, right?

Naturally some stories will fall by the wayside. There will be books we never return to. But there are will be stories we do return to, time and again, despite embedded prejudices, despite the way they so fully embraced the "backwards ways" of a culture that—to them—likely felt enlightened. We can learn things from imperfect people. And we can learn things from imperfect literature. And there might be a book written tomorrow that you feel perfectly encapsulates the ideals of society and teaches nothing but the most proper of morals to our youth, which people will snub in fifty years.

I don't know that I'm making my point(s) well, so let me sum up: Books from the past can teach us important lessons in spite of their imperfections. Authors, likewise, can write beautiful books that can teach us important lessons in spite of their imperfections. Both modern literature and older literature have value.

Imagine a world without Shakespeare. Weird, right? Literature has the ability to ripple through generations; it's part of the fabric of our culture. And I'm reading Notre-Dame right now. That problematic. The treatment of the Gypsies/Romanians/Egyptian (they kind of just fling words around at those poor people) is deplorable. Victor Hugo, himself, kind of a skeevy dude. And's still around and still teaching society lessons and not really convincing me that I should go around acting like medieval Parisians. I'm consuming it through my modern lens (as Victor Hugo was, himself, writing about a past culture (that he knew way more about than I do) through his then-modern lens).

Sometimes (and by sometimes I mean always) we do cast things off. Not everything that is popular today will still be popular in fifty years. But some stories will remain. We will take them with us into the future. And hopefully those stories will help us be better people.

But to say that no literature from more than 75 years ago should be taught in schools is ludicrous.

I think we should choose good writing from many places and time periods, even if it is solely to criticize what we read. I think relying solely on modern storytellers puts us at risk of ignoring a wealth of information previous generations could give us. Even reading older literature with a critical eye can help us enter the future better prepared than not reading it at all. What's that saying about being doomed to repeat history...?

In that same vein, let's talk about JK Rowling for a minute. Her wizarding world was a charming and generous creation. Did she champion LGBTQ+ issues in her writing? No. She did not. Honestly, at that time I don't know that it was a thing we talked about as much as we do now. So I can forgive her for that. How could she know what lens we would be using in the future to look back at her work? She couldn't. But her stories were something beautiful for the world to witness. And they teach some good lessons. They aren't perfect stories.

Is JK Rowling perfect? No. She's not. I'm not going to agree with her on everything. I'm not.

But I still think I can glean knowledge from her. I can't in good conscience write her off completely because of a few things she said that might rub me (or others) the wrong way. That said, I don't really follow her as a public figure. I don't hang on her every word. She is no goddess, no power figure to me. She is a writer who has told some wonderful stories and who continues to let the world witness those stories (her truth) even in the face of criticism.

My children have enjoyed her Harry Potter world and we've been stuck at home without access to the library (which technically opened up again for on my birthday, but which we haven't yet visited because—guys!—we are putting up a field hospital in Atlanta), so when JK Rowling announced her new project The Ickabog, we were immediately interested. We finished it tonight and the kids loved it.

Honestly, there were times I questioned whether it was an appropriate story to be reading to my little kids. With my modern lens there was too much violence. Too many characters dying.

We're soft here in modern times.

Shakespeare, Hugo, Tolstoy...everybody dies. All the time—people dying. No one bats an eye.

Modern day: one well-liked character dies and everybody's sad and mad at the author forever.

Even in the Hunger Games, Andrew pointed out, Katniss doesn't die. Somehow she lives! Had that story been written two-hundred years ago, Katniss would be dead. Everyone would be dead. Because people die. All the time.

Anyway, that was one critique I saw repeated on Goodreads—that this was marketed as a children's story and yet dealt with some pretty intense off-with-her-head moments. But, you know what, it was a good story. One that taught some good lessons for these rather unprecedented political times. And I'm thankful for the words that JK Rowling shared with the world...even if I don't agree with 100% of everything that she says. I'm weird like that.

I can also read Rawls in spite of knowing he went to prison (more than once) and despite being pretty sure that if we asked him about trans people he probably wouldn't have very nice things to say (that is just my guess—a wild, overgeneralization about the generation in which Rawls grew up).

Imagine trying to go through life only ever exposing yourself to people/literature/ideas you agree with. What a sad existence that would be when there is a wealth of experience at our disposal.

For the record, Rachel is currently reading An Ordinary Man and I have The Hate you Give sitting on my desk. We've got a lot going on here, book-wise.

* Doctor Seuss is also a problematic writer, but I just read Sneetches with my wee ones this morning and then talked about how silly those Sneetches were and how we can love everyone, even if they look a little different than we do. And even though Doctor Seuss himself harboured some deep-seated prejudices, that isn't the message my children got from that story.  


  1. Thank you for this. Thinking people understand provenance, in literature and other things. As a child of the 1950s, I cannot agree that those ideals are backward. As people routinely said when my generation wanted sexual freedom, "the new morality is just the old immorality." And Sneetches (from that same period) is great on the absurdity of calling out superficial differences among people. Thanks again, Nancy. I worry about you when you go two or three days without writing...

    1. Thanks for commenting (and for worrying). :) We're doing fine here; just trying to get back into the groove of homeschooling again (which eats up a lot of my energy/writing time). Once the kids are back into a schedule of sorts writing will be easier...I hope. :)