Excited much? You bet I am. These books were out of print, and now they’re back. Best book news of the year, if you ask me.
The relaunch coincides with a fresh burst of Betsy enthusiasm around here: Beanie, aged 8, is reading them for the first time. Her two big sisters have been fans for years, of course. My girls have never been to school, but they are part of a group of friends every bit as lively and close-knit as Betsy Ray’s high-school Crowd. And something I love is that Betsy and her crowd are themselves a major part of the bond between my girls and their friends. Seems like every time the other girls come over, they make a beeline for the Shelf of Honor where we keep our precious, tattered copies of The Tomes. The books have become a lending library and they seem to be in constant circulation. And I love this, because I really think the series has helped infuse our group with the spirit of fun and camaraderie you find in Betsy’s high-school stories. Equally important are the seriousness and reflectiveness with which Betsy addresses her own teen crises in the context of a deeply attached, affectionate family and circle of friends. Betsy knows that loving safety net is always there to support her, but she also understands that in order to walk the tightrope of life, she must find her own sense of balance, her own steadiness of foot. I’m glad Betsy is part of my girls’ Crowd, these young women with their own tightropes stretching out before them.
I got to chauffeur him once. He gave a reading at UNC-Greensboro while I was an MFA student there—this would have been around 1992—and as poetry editor of The Greensboro Review it was one of my jobs to help get our visiting authors from place to place. In this case I was asked to pick Mr. Pinsky up at the Charlotte airport (I think it was Charlotte—it was about an hour away, I remember that) and drive him up to Greensboro for the reading. My classmate David Scott (now married to our fellow classmate, author Julianna Baggott, aka N. E. Bode of The Anybodies fame) came along for the ride. We picked Mr. Pinsky up on schedule and for once in my life, there were no misadventures of any kind on the trip.
(But— “Not in your car,” Scott is saying over my shoulder. “Tell me you didn’t take your car.”
Oh yes we did: my fabulous silver 1981 Isuzu Imark with the blue grafitti on the door. The one with no air conditioning. The poet’s Cadillac!)
Mr. Pinsky was warm and kind and voiced no complaints about the unluxurious mode of transport. I remember we spent most of the drive talking about gardening—at one point I told him about my habit of planting imaginary gardens in the places I passed around town, thinking out what I’d plant there if this or that bit of earth were mine, and he said that sounded to him like the making of a poem. Later, I tried to write that poem but it turned into something quite different—became a sort of comic sketch involving an elderly woman planting watermelons on the grounds of her church.
Now, looking back, I think the real poem lies somewhere in that car ride: the shabby silver car speeding past the kudzu and pine; the moist Carolina heat; the esteemed poet discreetly unsticking his skin from the cracked red vinyl of the seat; the young students of poetry hoping not to bore; the imagined gardens that never grew even in a poem…there’s something there. Robert Pinsky could find it, I’m sure.
I wanted a few days to savor the novel I finished earlier this week: Lost by Jacqueline Davies, a spellbinding account of—well, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, sort of, but really that’s a backdrop to an achingly moving tale of loss and grief, from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old Jewish girl (whose narrative voice may be my favorite of the year so far) who works in the factory.
Melissa, the book by Davies sounds very good — thank you for posting about it. I’m acquainted with the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire only through Robert Pinsky’s poem “Shirt.” You may know it already, but if not, I encourage you to google it (it’s on various websites). Truly an amazing poem, and might be a good accompaniment to the novel…
Before Lost, I was acquainted with the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire primarily via a TV movie I watched as a girl—I remember so vividly the terrible image of a young Irish woman being urged by her desperate chum to jump out the window together before the flames devoured them, and the Irish girl sobbing that she couldn’t jump, she was Catholic and jumping was suicide and she wouldn’t do it, and the other girl stepping out the window as the Irish girl’s skirts caught fire. A horrible image. And would you believe that all this time, until I looked up the link for this post, I thought that movie was The Towering Inferno? Which entirely different film I must also have seen at some point—clearly I have conflated the two because I would have sworn Paul Newman was in the Triangle Factory movie, and now IMDB tells me he was part of Towering Inferno‘s all-star cast, along with Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire for goodness sake, and O.J. Simpson.
The film I’m remembering must have been this 1979 TV movie, The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal, featuring Tom Bosley, Stephanie Zimbalist, and Charlotte Rae. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Hairstyling.
There is something terribly poignant about that thought. 146 people died in the Triangle Factory Fire, most of them young women trapped on the 9th floor of a building with flimsy fire escapes, no sprinklers, and no fire alarms. 68 years later, someone won an award for getting their hairstyles right on TV.
Robert Pinsky’s poem, “Shirt,” which I had not read until Beth directed me toward it (for which: thank you so much), captures that disconnect, that jarring history wrapped up in something so simple, so unnoticed, so miraculous when you stop and think about it, as a plain cotton shirt.
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band
Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
Well, it’s almost September! And I am giddy with glee. Here they come!
I’ll be participating in the Betsy-Tacy book blog tour, an event that promises to be enormous amounts of fun. All through September, bloggers will be writing about particular Betsy books—my girls and I have been asked to talk about books 3 and 4, and Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, which will be a pleasure. Betsy’s encounter with the folks in Little Syria has always been a favorite episode of mine. Bonny Glen’s tour date is September 23, always a festive day around here. (Bruce Springsteen’s birthday, of course!)
All my best Rilla material—the stories and quotes I want to save forever—winds up on Twitter and Facebook these days. (That’s the fastest way to jot something down.) But just in case Twitter goes kaboom someday, I think I’ll start a Rilla-page here for easy future memory-laning. Like most three-year-olds, she is one funny little monkey.
Rilla, drinking water from a mug, asks if we can pretend it’s coffee.
Me: “Sure! How is your coffee, ma’am?”
Rilla: “I don’t like coffee.”
Rilla: “Mommy, can we have a babysitter named Daphne?”
Rilla chirps, bouncing: “Mommy! I’m going to free mini-Hawk Girl from the dungeon!”
Rose explains: “She means buy it on Amazon.”
Rilla deposits terrifyingly lifelike snake on my feet, announces: “It won’t eat me. ” Pries open rubber jaws, peers inside. “See? It won’t.”
(She sounds disappointed.)
Rilla names letters on cereal box: “L-I-F-E.”
Scott: “What’s that spell?”
Rilla’s question of the day: “Which people bounce?”
July 22nd. She just came in carrying a small wicker picnic basket. Knelt, opened basket, carefully spread napkin on floor, took out A BOWL OF CEREAL.
July 17th. “Mom, what’s your favorite color? Choose red.”
July 13th. Rilla has spent the past 20 sitting in an armchair licking a little piece of Japanese candy with all the intensity her 3yo self can muster.
Spent the last two hours wearing a necklace on my head as crown because I am (so Rilla declares) Mommy Princess. Forgot about it until I leaned over the dishwasher and it fell in.
July 9th. Rilla found reading big fat YA novel. “This is my faborite book.” 3 minutes later, book is cast aside in disgust. “I don’t like it. It has WORDS.”
I was looking at my reading log for the past three months and laughing at how aptly it characterizes our summer.
June: Regular activities wind down; we’re home for long, lazy days, hanging out in the backyard, enjoying the sunny evenings. I read nine books.
July: Whoosh! How’d we get so busy? Every day’s a new adventure. Comic-Con munches up a solid week. I read (to completion) one, count it—one, book. Bits and pieces of many others, but from beginning to end? A single book: an old favorite, savored slowly, a page and sometimes only a paragraph at a time, late at night, when the heavy hush has settled at last upon the house.
August: Our summer activities have settled into a routine, streamlined, efficient. Dentist appointments figure prominently in the calendar. This means waiting rooms. The baby is suddenly old enough to sit and play, allowing hands-free time for creative pursuits such as watercolor journaling and sewing. I read five books.
Of course, August isn’t over yet, and it goes out with a weekend. This means there’s a strong possibility I’ll find time for one more book. I’m about a third of the way into Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul and grateful to Mental Multivitamin for the recommendation. The library will be wanting it back soon, so I’ll have to pick up my pace. Delightful so far. In bed at night, after lights-out, I’m enjoying a Wodehouse novel via e-reader. (The iPod Touch has really become my preferred vehicle for bedtime reading, for all the reasons I mentioned in this post. It’s the easiest, least obtrusive way to read next to a sleeping baby without disturbing him. During daylight hours, however, I will always and ever [she declares with confidence] prefer a Real Book.)
The fiction to-be-read stack is as deliciously high as always. I continue to salivate over too many intriguing novels and squander precious could-be-reading moments failing to make a choice already. But also I wanted a few days to savor the novel I finished earlier this week: Lost by Jacqueline Davies, a spellbinding account of—well, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, sort of, but really that’s a backdrop to an achingly moving tale of loss and grief, from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old Jewish girl (whose narrative voice may be my favorite of the year so far) who works in the factory. I’d like to write more about this book in a proper post, later, but right now I’m still too wrapped up in the raw emotions of the story to be able to review it matter-of-factly.
So what comes after Lost, what novel will ring out summer? I can’t say.
“Jane, it’s the wreck of a fine man that you see before you,” he said hollowly.
“Dad . . . what is the matter?”
“Matter, says she, with not a quiver in her voice. You don’t know…I hope you never will know… what it is like to look casually out of a kitchen window, where you are discussing the shamefully low price of eggs with Mrs Davy Gardiner, and see your daughter…your only daughter …stepping high, wide and handsome through the landscape with a lion.”
Remember when you first realized the author of Anne of Green Gables had written a ton of other books besides the ones about Anne?
Maybe you found the Emily series next. Perhaps at times you harbored the heretical thought that Emily of New Moon was even better than Anne of Green Gables. You always changed your mind and gave the crown back to Anne because, well, there was something a wee bit prickly about Emily; she was terribly interesting, and you certainly admired her fire and her talent, but she wasn’t exactly bosom friend material. She seemed…hmm…a little cliqueish, perhaps, in her way; she wasn’t always out looking for kindred spirits like Anne. Indeed, she had enough difficulty managing the friends she already had. Emily didn’t need you: she had Ilse and Teddy and her art. Not to mention all that nonsense with Dean Priest, who, let’s be honest, kind of creeped you out from the start. And you knew it would be no use trying to warn Emily; that would just have put her back up.
Still, you were so glad you met her.
Perhaps it ended there, with Emily and Anne. Or maybe, just maybe, you were lucky enough to discover the others, the Pat books, the Story Girl duo, the one-offs, the story collections…and if you were very lucky indeed, maybe one day you met Jane of Lantern Hill.
Oh, Jane, that practical, capable, matter-of-fact miss. At first it is easy to underestimate her: she seems to lack the spunk and impulsiveness that make Anne and Emily so entertaining. Anne has barely arrived at Green Gables when she’s blowing up at Mrs. Lynde; and Emily, my goodness, the way she bursts out from under the table quivering with rage at all the aunts and uncles criticizing her father after his funeral: could you help but applaud? But Jane seems so quiet, so put-upon, so cowed by her horrible grandmother. Sure, you can see she’s seething inside, but isn’t that the point? Anne and Emily don’t seethe: they erupt. You keep waiting for Jane to erupt, practically begging her to.
But Jane’s not the erupting type, and what makes her story so satisfying is that she isn’t a prodigy—not of feistiness, nor imagination, nor talent. She’s an average Jane: which means that if Jane can fix up the mess that is her life, anyone can.
When we meet Jane, she and her mother are living with the aforementioned horrible grandmother. At first Jane’s mom seems like a Mrs. Lennox type a la Secret Garden, and you’re half-expecting typhoid to kill her off. But no, there she is fluttering in for a goodnight kiss on her way to a party, and the tear in her eye belies her lighthearted manner. Mummy’s in pain, Jane knows, and she needn’t look farther than Grandmother’s scowl to see why.
Jane’s mother’s family is Old Money, though the neighborhood is decaying around the family mansion. Jane’s cousins got all the talent, brains, and looks, it seems (Jane’s relatives are somewhat hard to distinguish from the obnoxious family of another meek-but-seething Montgomery heroine, Valancy Stirling of The Blue Castle)—but anyone with sense can see that cousin Phyllis and the rest of them are snooty, unimaginative bores, and Jane’s the only one with any salt to her. She’s warmhearted enough to care about the plight of the orphan next door, and she’s alert enough to be interested in the bustle of the servants, particularly the kitchen staff. Mostly Jane longs for something to do, something or someone to take care of. This desire to be active, not passive, is at the heart of Jane’s story. As a small child she entertains herself by imagining “moon sprees,” flights of fancy involving a host of imaginary chums who help her polish the dull and tarnished moon into a gleaming silver orb. This rather quirky fantasy (the quirkiest thing about Jane, really) is an expression of her longing for warm camaraderie, a happy family circle, a cozy hearth, and some soul-satisfying work to do. In her mind all these things are wrapped up together: Jane longs for the warmth and liveliness of a loving family, and she wants to be one of the people involved in the domestic bustle that creates a cozy and welcoming home. Her grandmother’s mansion is as cold and sterile as the dark side of the moon—the place to which her imaginary creatures must go when they are sulky or lazy, and from which they return “chilled to the bone,” eager to warm themselves up with extra-vigorous polishing.
Until age ten, these imaginary moon sprees are Jane’s only outlet for the urge to do, to work, to transform what is cold and lifeless to something warm and bright. Her tyrannical, hypercritical grandmother makes all decisions having to do with Jane and her mother. The mother is like a butterfly trapped in a cage, miserable, helpless. Jane’s father is absent: she has been led to believe he is dead. Then one day a rather nasty schoolmate discloses a disgraceful secret: Jane’s father isn’t dead; he’s alive and well and living on Prince Edward Island. Her mother, claims nasty Agnes, left him when Jane was three years old.
“Aunt Dora said she would likely have divorced him, only divorces are awful hard to get in Canada, and anyhow all the Kennedys think divorce is a dreadful thing.”
Jane is appalled by this knowledge, but it galvanizes rather than paralyzes her. The passive child becomes a girl of action. Her first action is to demand truth—she marches into a tea party and asks the question point blank: “Is my father alive?” Her mother answers simply “yes,” and this truth sets Jane—gradually and eventually, and not without some pain—free. (more…)
My Shakespeare Club is having a week of “camp”—four mornings of theater games and Taming of the Shrew scene rehearsals, gearing up for a performance next week. We are having a blast. Gosh I love this bunch of kids.
Afterward, when everyone goes out back to play for a while, I wonder if the rowdy fun is audible in the elementary-school classrooms on the other side of our back fence. And then I remember that twice a day, the school’s rowdy recess fun is extremely audible on our side of the fence…and in the room where the baby naps…and on the sidewalk in front of the house…and clear across the street. So I’m not worried.
I’m 2500 words into that Jane of Lantern Hill post and still can’t seem to wrap it up. (ETA: Finally gave up and posted it after yapping for almost 2700 words.) Ridiculous. And now: overhyped as well!
A friend asked for some book recommendations for his 12-year-old son. With Jane’s helped we assembled a stack of favorites, and since I know many of you agree with me that booklists are the next best thing to chocolate, I thought I’d share the titles here, just because. Okay, mainly because our friends took the trouble to write up a list of the books they borrowed, and I wouldn’t dream of passing up such an excellent opportunity to cut and paste.
The Sign of the Beaver
The Brendan Voyage (true story of modern attempt to recreate St Brendan the Navigator’s ocean journey) Homer Price
The Daughter of Time (enthusiastically recommended here) The King’s Fifth
The Dark Frigate
Otto of the Silver Hand
It’s a Jungle Out There
Where the Red Fern Grows (lump in my throat just thinking about it) Rowan of Rin
Swallows and Amazons
Henry Reed, Inc.
The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn
If All the Swords in England
I put those italics in all by myself, so never let it be said I’m not willing to go the extra mile for you. 😉
Once again, I’m using my Delicious autopost thingie to flag some things for Jane’s perusal. Will probably do this more and more often; it’s such a handy way to bookmark interesting pieces for my teen to read at her convenience.
Jane—a couple of related articles—this piece by Michael Pollan (I loved his book, The Botany of Desire) and then a farmer’s rebuttal to Pollan’s article.