Archive for August 14th, 2008

From the Archives: Life on the Trail

August 14, 2008 @ 7:52 pm | Filed under: , , , , ,

Originally published in Februrary 2005.

It’s been a rough morning. Our wagon tipped over while fording a river, and we lost fifty pounds of salt pork and our only shotgun. Then Rose took sick—cholera, we think—and died before we could do anything about it.

My girls are undaunted by this stunning double tragedy. They push on across the prairie, estimating the number of miles to the next fort. Maybe we can trade our mule for a new gun.

“At least we still have the fishing pole,” says Rose. She seems to have accepted her own death gracefully.

“I don’t like wattlesnakes,” announces Beanie.

Jane cracks up. “Who does? Remember when I got bit, back before we crossed the Platte?”

We found ourselves on the Oregon Trail by way of a great read-aloud, one that vaulted unexpectedly to the top of our Family Favorites list: By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman. I began reading this hilarious novel to the girls on a cold winter afternoon, but after Scott got caught up in the story during a coffee break, it became a family dinnertime read-aloud. At times, the kids laughed so hard I feared they would choke. We sailed with young Jack and his unflappable butler, Praiseworthy, from Boston Harbor all the way around Cape Horn and up to San Francisco. Along the way we visited Rio de Janeiro and a village in Peru. We panned for gold in California and made friends with half a dozen scruffy, optimistic miners. We found ourselves caring deeply about such oddities as rotting potatoes, dusty hair clippings, and the lining of a coat.

Our westward journey has occurred at a fairly brisk speed. After Great Horn Spoon deposited us in the thick of the California Gold Rush, there was much conversation about the many reasons and ways in which people migrated west. Our trail led to other books: Moccasin Trail, Seven Alone, By the Great Horn Spoon!, and now Old Yeller. We discovered the absorbing Oregon Trail computer game and have outfitted a dozen or more separate wagons for various westward journeys. Rose got hooked on the food-gathering part of the game. I can’t tell you how many baskets of dandelions and wild onion she collected. Jane seems most interested in the game’s diary function. She clicked her way through the journal of the young pioneer girl who appears in the animated sequences at certain points along the trail, and then she began to write a trail journal of her own. The sad death of our sweet Rose, the disastrous river-crossing, and Beanie’s encounter with the rattlesnake are now chronicled for posterity.

I don’t know what lies around the next bend in the trail. I’ve stopped trying to pave the road ahead of time. The best adventures, it seems, are to be found in the bumps and detours. We’re well outfitted for the journey with books and maps and eyes and ears and that burning appetite for knowledge that can make a hearty meal out of buffalo grass and brambles.

—Excerpted from an article appearing in the Virginia Homeschoolers newsletter.

Book Notes: August

August 14, 2008 @ 6:33 am | Filed under: ,

A few remarks on things we’ve read or are reading around here…

What Makes a Raphael a Raphael by Richard Muhlberger. About ten years ago, I heard that the What Makes a… series was going out of print and I snapped up the five titles I could find. I think they’ve since been reissued with new covers, so they’re not all lost and gone as I feared they would be. But I’m glad I made the purchase way back then. We love these books. They are slim paperbacks will full-color reproductions of paintings, many paintings, by the artist in question. The text is readable and engaging and in addition to providing biographical information about the artist, Muhlberger spends a lot of time taking close looks at individual paintings, discussing materials, technique, composition, and historical context in clear and vivid language. Beanie, my current seven-year-old, listens raptly. We pulled the Raphael book off the shelf on a whim a week or two ago, and several mornings have found the two of us poring over the details of one of the paintings in this book. Beanie will linger over the volume long after the little ones have called me away. Jane, overhearing scraps of our discussion, was herself drawn in and has been taking her own turn puzzling out the symbols Raphael uses to identify certain saints in his religious artwork.

The St. George painting made us think, of course, of Margaret Hodges’s classic picture book, St. George and the Dragon. May I just say (for the thousandth time) how much I adore Trina Schart Hyman‘s work? We have an edition of Peter Pan which she illustrated, and Rose has read it to tatters—but we can’t part with it, taped up and raggedy as it is. Rose says that no one else draws the Lost Boys properly. I understand exactly how she feels, because as long as I live, there will be only one edition of The Secret Garden for me, and that’s the one illustrated by Tasha Tudor.

At the orthodontist’s office yesterday, Rose and Bean were asked to fill out questionaires about their favorite things and special talents. (I could write a whole post about those questionaires: good grief.) Rose was somewhat tortured by the small blank asking for her favorite book (“It’s impossible, Mom!”) and finally came to a compromise between space and reality by squeezing in Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. It pained her, though, to abridge the title of the latter in that fashion. Every true fan knows it’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Rose has not encountered many fill-in-the-blank experiences in her life, and she was not impressed by this one.

I can’t begin to keep up with Jane’s reading lists anymore. I make mental notes of the piles I see on end tables and bedsides around the house. Lately there’s a lot of James Herriot and Rick Riordan. Right here beside me on the sofa is Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy, which Scott, Jane, and Rose have all enjoyed, but I haven’t read yet myself. Rose keeps going back to Gail Carson Levine’s Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg, which came by surprise from Uncle Jay last week and was jubilantly celebrated by all three girls. It had been a library favorite for months. We have a number of Levine’s earlier fairy tale books because Gail and I used to have the same editor at HarperCollins, and Alix kept me well supplied with Gail’s latest. Ah, those were the days.

I’m reading Understood Betsy to Rose and Beanie: one of our family’s favorite read-alouds ever. Beanie was about Rilla’s age the last time we enjoyed this book aloud. She doesn’t remember it at all, of course, and so I get the fun all over again of hearing the chuckles and giggles in all the right places. The first time I read this book aloud, Jane was about five years old. Scott was working at home in those days, writing, and I remember how he came out of his office for a cup of coffee and got sucked into the story, and that was the end of his work session for that day. After that I was adjured to save the read-aloud time for when he could join us. (The same thing happened with By the Great Horn Spoon years later.)

At bedtime, Scott is reading Watership Down to the younger girls for the second time in…a year? Two years? Doesn’t matter how long (or short) a time ago it was: it was time again. All three decreed it.

This may explain why Beanie came staggering out from bed yesterday morning and said, “Mommy, I just had the most realistic dream. We were all rabbits…”