Posts Tagged ‘1910s’

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The Brown Study

January 12, 2017

I have this embarrassing secret, only it’s not particularly secret and I don’t know if I’m embarrassed: sometimes I really like religious fiction. Yes, sometimes it’s cloying, and I’m not into that. But sometimes it’s Amy Le Feuvre being weirdly mystical, or G.K. Chesterton doing whatever the hell he ever thinks he’s doing. And sometimes it’s the kind of thing Grace S. Richmond writes, where religion is about firm ideals and practical good deeds and it’s almost not condescending. I’ve never had a particle of religious belief, but those ideals are compelling, and I don’t need religion to (to a certain extent) share them. Also, you know what else is compelling? Passionate, tortured, hidden self-denial. And The Brown Study is, like, 70% that.

I’ve read so few of Richmond’s books, but they’ve all featured attractive young clergymen, so I’m forced to assume that’s a thing for her. The Brown Study’s variation goes like this: Donald Brown was the minister at a fashionable city church, but he had to take some time off for his health. He moved to a poor area and offers unofficial spiritual support to his neighbors. He realizes that he can do more good there than at his fancy church, and also that his new work makes him a better person, but his old friends all want him to come home, including the girl he loves.

It’s all spiritual pining and being nice to the neighbors, and I enjoyed it thoroughly–although I might regret the nice plates and carpets and things Brown has to leave behind almost as much as he does.

There’s a second, unrelated story to fill out the book. In it, young Julius Broughton schemes to get his sister Dorothy and his engineer friend Kirke Waldron to meet. Once they’ve done that, though, they don’t need his help–they’re perfectly capable of carrying their romance through as straightforwardly as possible.

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Strawberry Acres

December 29, 2016

I’m almost positive someone recommended Grace S. Richmond’s Strawberry Acres to me. It seems pretty unlikely that I would have accidentally bookmarked a story about a family of siblings moving out of their apartment to run a recently inherited farm.

The Lane siblings (one girl and three boys, ages ranging from 16 to 24) and their uncle move out to their new property in a makeshift way at first, with a tent in their pine grove and Max, Alec and Bob commuting to their jobs in the city. All three are more or less reluctant to become farmers, but their sister Sally and their friends Jarvis and Josephine Burnside eventually bring them around.

It’s a similar setup to The Enchanted Barn, but it’s better. There’s more visible work happening, and the characters and relationships are great. Sally is, as expected, the heart of the family, but she’s not too perfect to like. Max is perhaps the most interesting character–smart and practical, but inclined to get his back up when other people make plans, to the point where they have to work around his stubbornness. And I loved the Lanes’ friendship with the Burnsides, who have not only stuck around through the Lanes’ misfortunes, but have stuck so close that there’s almost no awkwardness about financial disparities. That set of relationships was one of many reasons Strawberry Acres so frequently reminded me of Six Girls and Bob.

No one will be surprised to hear that I wished there was more detail–specifics about farming and fixing up the house, especially–but I have to excuse Richmond, because she has a lot of ground to cover. The story she’s chosen to tell needs to develop slowly, and she’s due a lot of credit for letting it span four years instead of trying to squeeze it into one or two. That means we have to skip over a lot of the slow stuff I like, but what we do get is almost note-perfect, so I’m disinclined to complain. I found Strawberry Acres to be a satisfying read, and one that probably ought to be sending me to another of Richmond’s books and not to a reread of Six Girls and Bob. But, you know, the heart wants what it wants.

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Christmas Stories: On Christmas Day in the Evening

December 23, 2016

Grace S. Richmond wrote a sequel to On Christmas Day in the Morning, and it’s called On Christmas Day in the Evening. It’s pretty religious, but mostly in a cute way. It takes place two years after the events of On Christmas Day in the Morning, and it revolves around the village church, which has been standing empty for several years after a series of disagreements in the congregation.

The Fernald kids, led by Nan, decide to open the church for a one-off Christmas service, hoping to bring the villagers together. They enlist Guy’s brother-in-law, a minister in a fashionable city church, and he in turn enlists a retired minister who hasn’t given a sermon in fifteen years, but knows all about the local quarrels.

Everything winds up exactly as you’d expect, and even the family grouch gets in on the Christmas spirit action, but the story didn’t move me. I think it’s because all of the Fernalds are totally fine, and nothing is at stake. Even the Fernald parents, the only ones who still live in the village, aren’t involved–they’ve stayed out of their neighbors’ quarrels. The characters who are involved serve as country stereotype comic relief, so they don’t help much either.

I think Richmond is trying to bring in exactly the kind of firsthand emotion the story needs when she introduces Elder Blake, but he’s not central enough. She might have done better to give On Christmas Day in the Evening a brand new setting and not bother with the Fernalds at all. I like them, and was glad to encounter them again, but nothing about them is essential to the story.

 

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Christmas Stories: On Christmas Day in the Morning

December 15, 2016

On Christmas Day in the Morning, by Grace S. Richmond, has everything I want in a Christmas story: brevity, nostalgia, just enough sadness to highlight the happiness, and, most importantly, the Unity of Christmastimes.

Guy Fernald, paying his parents a visit one Christmas, is dismayed to find that he’s the only one of the six Fernald kids to show up at all. Edson, Oliver, Carolyn and Nan have families of their own, Ralph lives out West, and Guy himself has spent the bulk of Christmas day with the girl he hopes to marry. His parents are touchingly happy to see him, which only makes Guy feel more guilty, and he promises himself that next Christmas will be different. Fast forward to the following December, when Guy starts enlisting his siblings in his Christmas plan. The plan works out, and so does Guy’s romance, and the whole thing is sweet and satisfying and so heartwarming I cried a little.

There were a couple of dialogues between the parents that struck a slightly false note for me, and, as ever, I wanted more detail—food and presents and Guy convincing his siblings—but I’m not inclined to complain. The story, like the plan, is carried along by Guy’s enthusiasm, and everything else falls neatly into place.

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The Pleasuring of Susan Smith

July 13, 2016

Yes, this book is really called The Pleasuring of Susan Smith. It’s by Helen Maria Winslow, and it’s a lot less exciting than it sounds.

I mean, it’s not bad. It’s one of those stories where all the right things happen, it’s just that they happen in an unsatisfying way. Susan Smith is a middle-aged spinster from Maine. When the elderly relative she cares for dies and leaves her his money, plenty of people have ideas about what she ought to do with it, but Susan wants, for once in her life, to have fun. She ends up in New York, where she moves in with her young cousin John James Smith, otherwise known as Jack. She then proceeds to solve Jack’s romantic and financial problems, give herself a makeover, casually start in a Broadway play, and find someone nice to fall in love with. And that’s all great, but it doesn’t feel like anything.

Books like this are, to some extent, about vicarious self-indulgence for the reader. Susan is getting to do all these cool things, and triumphing in all the predictable ways, but what’s the point if the author won’t wallow? Just saying what happened doesn’t count. What’s the fun of the shopping spree if we don’t hear about the clothes? What’s the point of telling us that the love interest finds Susan interesting is we don’t get the content of their conversations? Winslow’s got the plot stuff down; all she had to do was make us feel it. The Pleasuring of Susan Smith is cute, but it’s all at surface level.

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Aunt Olive in Bohemia

June 10, 2016

I thought unemployment was going to be so great for my blogging, but as it turns out I’ve only read two new-to-me things since I quit my job at the beginning of May. And I liked them both, but somehow I haven’t been able to get much down on paper, so I’m trying for something a little shorter-form here.

Aunt Olive in Bohemia, by Leslie Moore, is pretty much perfect in outline. It’s about a 60 year old spinster who inherits a bunch of money and moves to London to fulfill her lifelong dream of being an artist in a studio. She makes friends with the young men in the neighboring studios, adopts a precocious model, and generally makes the lives of the people around her better. And the execution is pretty good, but…it starts out very good and gets perceptibly worse. I loved a lot of the early parts, but not I find myself dwelling more on my disappointment later.

It’s a tonal thing, I think. The story gets very serious and agonized about romance, and the gaudy stuff — people giving up everything for Love with a capital L — drown out the more delicate parts: the friendships and the artistic styles adopted by the characters and the people figuring out where they belong. Also, a grown man declares his intention of marrying a child, so. You know. Automatic deduction of one letter grade.

To sum up: I spent a while thinking Aunt Olive in Bohemia was a great book, and it’s not. But it does have some great stuff in it.

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The “Polly of the Hospital Staff” series

April 27, 2016

Do you ever realize, halfway through a book, that you’ve read it before? That happened to me this week with When Polly Was Eighteen, by Emma C. Dowd. I assume that means I’d also read Polly of Lady Gay Cottage and Polly and the Princess before. Probably I raced through them just as fast last time, and that’s why I don’t remember.

Let’s backtrack. I talked a bit about Polly of the Hospital Staff when I first read it. It’s a totally average story about a sunny orphan making a home, except that it’s more than averagely enjoyable. It’s also got the most typos I’ve ever seen in a Project Gutenberg text, so, you know, be warned. It’s followed by Polly of Lady Gay Cottage, which covers Polly’s transition to life as the adopted daughter of Dr. Dudley and his wife. She gets to meet some of her biological family, but her found family turns out to be more real. Dowd is a little bit obsessed with adoption, but in a nice way.

Next comes Doodles, the Sunshine Boy, which isn’t a Polly book, but has Polly in it. I didn’t read this one last time around, I’m pretty sure, but I dug deeper this time. I don’t really know what to say about Doodles. He can’t walk. He can sing. His family is poor, and various nice things happen to them. Another average but enjoyable book.

Doodles also appears in the next book, Polly and the Princess. There is no princess; the book is about Polly’s involvement with a nearby…I don’t know what to call it. A home for women without any outside means of support. It’s a particularly satisfying book, in that certain characters are victims of injustice and then eventually they’re vindicated.

When Polly Was Eighteen skips ahead about five years to find Polly home from college for the summer, and wrestling David Collins’ jealousy. David is one of Polly’s oldest friends, and was always the obvious future love interest. Emma Dowd does a good job of laying the groundwork for his jealousy in the earlier books, and of showing how unromantic it is in this one.

So, yeah. I like this series a lot. There’s very little you wouldn’t expect, but Dowd makes a virtue of predictability–call it trustworthiness. If you like orphans and found families and an improbable number of disabled children learning to walk again, I thoroughly recommend her.