Recent Reading

This past winter I have been reading some early American/Colonial and post-Revolution history, because I am interested in the genealogical context. Understanding the settling of our country and the Indian wars does change one’s point-of-view. The books about the French and Indian War, also called the Seven Years War and the first-real-world-war, are interesting in that they are so far from the cowboy-and-indians movies that set the frame for today’s thinking. It is no longer politically correct to discuss the violence between the settlers and the Indians. Yet, through my reading of Allen Eckerd’s Conquest of America series and several other academic historians, I have had to face the reality of the hatred between the settlers and the Indians. The Indians were lied to again and again, and played off against each other by the French and British. The tribes, too, were quite willing to play the French and British off against each other, in their desperate efforts to protect their homeland. The settlers were land hungry and the clash of cultures along the frontier is a fascinating, and disheartening, story. The savages were savage, torturing and eating captives, killing viciously, etc—no wonder the settlers hated them. If your enemy is eating captured people, it is hard to see that they might have noble qualities or that their culture might have things to offer. Because my family lines were here shortly after 1620 and some, such as Captain James Parsons, fought on the frontier, I have been interested in digging into the info. That the settlers had no right to encroach on Indian territory and violated treaty after treaty is also part of the mix. The accounts of getting the chiefs drunk and having them sign paper treaties are too numerous. After all, taking land from savages was no bad thing to do, at least in the settlers’ minds.

When I tire of bloody battles with the savages in the wilderness, I read Regency novels from England—the post-Revolutionary period just after the bloody French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution, but across the sea, which tends to give one an interesting context of both sides of the pond. Fops were equally savage in their social wars, but they only maim and eat others metaphorically.

So then, I move forward in time and read British novels written and set in the mid-20th century—post WW I through the 1950’s. My favorites are Angela Thirkel’s 37 volume Barsetshire series, an up-take on the Barsetshire novels of Anthony Trollope set in the Victorian times. What she does is start with the grandchildren of his characters and go forward. Her father was a poetry don [professor] at Oxford and her literary references and allusions are marvelous. Since I taught British poetry and literature for 28 years, I can actually see where she has taken phrases from Hamlet or Macbeth or Dickens or whatever and woven them into her dialogue. It’s delightful, but probably most enjoyed by those with a solid foundation in British lit. I re-read her books every couple of years—in order. She writes during the time of WWII and the post war years—-a severe look into what happens with the loss of empire through the eyes of those out in the provinces [i.e. us out here in the Midwest].

In the past six months, I have read 25 + books about American Colonial history and settlement, British novels, British biographies and autobiographies, and books about British culture—in addition to a number of American novels for my book club and books dealing with my other interests. I also read a lot of web articles from progressive political sites, plus magazines such as The Atlantic, Harpers, Newsweek, The American Spectator, genealogy periodicals, not to mention that great American entrepreneur, Martha Stewart’s magazines: Living, Body & Soul, and Food. My sons think I am an idiot, but actually I am quite well read in my particular interests, which are not their interests,
as I loath philosophy as a discipline [well, European philosophy is what I loathe, as I find Buddhism fascinating] and I seem to be unable to deal with numbers at all—-son #1 is an Assistant Professor of Buddhism at U. of Calgary and son #2 is a number crunching businessman. One of the delights of retirement is time to read—and the ability to delve into my interests instead of reading endless student-written journals and essays.

In May and June, I began reading and re-reading many books about the Mitford sisters, which I discuss in my next posts.

Little House on the Prairie

When I was a girl, my mother gave me The Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the first of the “Little House” books, which were favorites of hers when she was a girl. I loved that book, and the rest of the series, dearly and read each book several times. It is my family’s story: all four of my grandparents were children of pioneers who arrived on the prairies of Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa in covered ox wagons after long treks across Indiana, Illinois, or Wisconsin or in wooded southern Indiana after long treks through Tennessee and Kentucky. I use the term “pioneer” here to mean “people settling and farming on land which had not previously been settled by Europeans.” The parents of my grandparents came from families who were in the Appalachian Mountains at the time of Daniel Boone and Lewis and Clark, frontiersmen who fought in the boarder wars before, during, and after the Revolution, early settlers of Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and North Carolina. The family of my grandmother, Hazel Lewis Parsons, carried the story of their descent from the same Lewis family as Meriwether Lewis down through the generations and across the plains. I have not yet “proved” that fact, but old family stories often have elements of truth.

A couple of years ago, I purchased the entire set of Little House books and re-read them. I was astonished at what I understood from an adult perspective: a layer of sadness and failure grips the stories. When I was reading the books as a child, I was enthralled with the adventures and the sense of exploration as the family moved to new homes. As an adult, I saw the little family struggling to survive, to find success, to find a place to thrive. Pa moves the family from here to there, looking for land and work. A good carpenter, he is not a successful farmer. Ma grows more careworn as the years pass, losing a child [not in the books, but in real life] and coping with their daughter Mary’s blindness.The hardships they endure in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Kansas are so typical of pioneer families, including my own. Some thrive in the new settlements on the prairie, but others wither, crushed by hardships and deaths.

Like Laura’s family, all of my pioneer lines were farmers, farming land they received from the government in land patents for military service or bought after working/renting first. Very few had the cash to plunk down to buy a farm. They lived close to the land; it was their livelihood, their insurance, their inheritance. From the old pictures, the family farms are modest and neat, not hard-scrabble. However, the families who settled in Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and North Carolina at first lived in Abe Lincoln type log cabins, building more prosperous frame homes later.

In the Colonial days, some Old Virginia families practiced primogeniture, the land going to the oldest son; at first, German families followed similar practices. Quakers generally divided their inheritances equally. The old farm families followed the traditions of their native lands, but as the young democracy took hold and grew, dividing the land equally among the children became the common practice, or at least finding a way to make the inheritance equal became the practice, such as affluent fathers buying more land to help their children get started. With such large families, often 10-15 pregnancies in a woman’s lifetime, the older children had to strike out on their own, with one of the younger children staying on the “home” farm or perhaps a grandchild remaining to care for the family land and aging parents. Often, though, in my family, aging or widowed parents were taken along as the family migrated. The 1850 U.S. Census is the first to record everyone’s name, age, and birthplace, making it possible to see the migration patterns. It is interesting to see these practices in my family lines across many generations. Several of my mother’s family lines meet in Ohio–Patton, Marsh, Lewis–including one marriage in Hamilton, Ohio [now Butler County] in 1792–and other lines settled in Southern Ohio around 1800-1820. By 1810, the Indiana Territory is opened for settlement, and my mother’s Lewis, Starry, Patton, and Riner lines are settlers in the mid-to-late 1820’s. By 1850, the younger generation is moving on to Illinois and by 1870, many are moving on to Kansas. In 1848, my father’s grandfather, Davis Rogers Doud, D.R.’s mother Martha Rogers Doud, and several brothers, sisters, cousins, and spouses, migrate from Trumbell County in eastern Ohio to Illinois and settle in Grundy County. D. R. Doud and his two younger brothers were farmers and Methodist circuit rider ministers. After the Civil War, the younger generation in most of these families moved on to Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska. Interestingly, a Doud line lived right down the road from the Lewis-Riner families in Jewell County, Kansas, although no one knew the connection until I began researching. That Kansas Doud was a first cousin of my grandmother Harriet Doud Shafer, son of her father’s older brother Israel Doud, who settled in Iowa.

In re-reading the “Little House” books, I was also struck by her family’s isolation from their extended family. Reading the later biographies of Laura and her daughter Rose, I learned that was not completely true; the connections were just not included in the stories. Both of Laura’s parents came from large families and occasionally they visit with relatives or relatives stop to visit with them. Still, they did not travel in family groups the way earlier generations of my family traveled. When I studied the 1880 plat map of Burr Oak Township in Jewell County, Kansas, I was startled. Down two roads are farm after farm of Lewis and Riner cousins or siblings—Pangborns, Drakes, Skeels, Millers, Grubbs, Lewis. They came in small groups over a period of 10-12 years from Onarga, Illinois, settled, raised their families, and died; their bones rest in the beautiful old Burr Oak Cemetery. Earlier generations of these same families had traveled together in groups from Ohio and Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois. Some in the next generation, like my grandparents, my mother and her sister, moved back east, while others of their cousins moved on to Colorado and California. Inferring the isolation of the Ingalls family made me sad, just as I have been heartened to trace the intertwined relationships of my Riner-Lewis families and their cross-country, multi-generation, migration with family and friends. Quite a few of us are still out here in the heartland.

Hamlet on the Potomac

Hamlet… I love that play; I estimate that I taught Hamlet to 40-50 classes, maybe more. [“Taught” means spending four weeks reading and explaining the play, line by line.] Recently, I came across two articles which use selections from Hamlet to comment on George Bush. It is no secret that I loathe George Bush, his dreadful war, his Imperial presidency, and his attempts to take away numerous freedoms using the pretext of his imaginary war on the idea of terror. The first article below, by Robert Sheer, is a superb parody of the famous “To Be or not to Be” soliloquy. Shakespeare can and should be studied to understand the issues in our world and to learn how issues/scenarios are resolved. Symbolically, it is all there, if we can only face the truth and see past the moment to the resolution…i.e..Shakespeare tells us how the issue will be resolved. Paying attention is sometimes way too painful.

Robert Scheer: Brooding Prince’s Soliloquy

And from The Huffington Post: Bill Robinson, “Where Bush Got His Twenty Thousand.”

Books — Libraries — Reading

I love books. I love to read. I love the feel of a book in my hand; I love to find an author who draws me into his or her created world. My books are my life-long friends. I give away the books I do not much care for, but keep the ones I like, even if I never read them again. They sit on my shelves, reminding me of the pleasure they gave. They are my friends, guardians and supporters of my personal and intellectual journey. Rooms lined with books are my favorites. Back in the 1990’s, Max and I took my mother to Boston where we toured the home of John and Abigail Adams. I was entranced by his library, located in a small building attached to the house. It was one large room, two stories high, with a staircase and narrow walkway to attain the second tier. Imagine the effort to gather such a library in 1780. I do not expect to achieve the dream of having such a room in my home, but I thought his was one of the most wonderful rooms I had ever seen. It was clearly a working library and study, not a collection gathered to impress. I have always loved libraries, but am eternally put off by my early memories of the library dragons, the prim, usually elderly ladies who guarded books from the “unwashed” such as me. Perhaps it was my eclectic choices which put them on guard. Fortunately, librarians are much more friendly nowadays. Being able to purchase my choices–love!!–allows me to chose without commentary from others, a freedom I grasp with relief.

My book club recently read Anna Quindlen’s How Reading Changed My Life. She writes about her love of reading—the title is self-explanatory. When I was teaching high school, it was hard for me to deal with students who walked in and announced “I hate to read.” I thought: you are an idiot!! However, I generally made a bland response about how I loved to read or rolled my eyes. The same students frequently commented on my breadth of knowledge: “How did you know that?” one would ask, seemingly astonished. How, indeed! I read it in a book.

My father loved books, as did his father. One of my treasured photographs is of my Shafer grandparents in “the library” of their home, seated by the library table. That table now sits next to me, holding my work as I read and write at the computer. My father collected books all of his life; when he was an impoverished young minister, he tended to forget his children needed shoes in his haste to purchase some much-desired book. When he died, it took his grandson Jim four months to sort and catalogue the books. It was a daunting task, as thousands of books were stored on all three levels of his condo. Some were given to the Grace Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio; others were divided among the children and grandchildren; the bulk are stored in Salem–the Latin, Greek, and philosophy—waiting for Jim to have a study of his own. 

My mother also loved to read and was an avid patron of libraries, preferring not to have a large personal collection. She did have several bookcases of much-loved books. Her treasured collection of books about John and Abigail Adams is now shelved in my living room, as are her Gladys Tabor, Stillmeadow books. A few of her beloved books from childhood also now sit on my bookshelves.

Our home was not “filled with books,” as my father had a study in our home, lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves, while other rooms contained no book shelves but perhaps a few books stacked here and there. Books were all around and we children were encouraged to read and to use the library. No, we were expected to read and to use the library. Reading was more important than sports, games, entertainment—and certainly more important than TV, which we were not allowed to watch very often. I cannot even remember where the TV was in our house when I was 16—oh…yes, out on the side porch. Some of my favorite times as a child were visits to my grandmother, Hazel Parsons, who would take me to the Highland Branch of the Louisville Public Library and allow me to browse and then help me carry home stacks of my selections. One time, after I had selected a stack, taken them home, and read all day, we returned the next day for more. The librarian sourly commented that perhaps I needed to select more difficult books. In my teaching career, as we teachers struggled to encourage students to read—and I read hundreds of those “lying” book reports in which the student clearly had NOT read the book or had read only parts—I would remember that librarian’s remark. She certainly had never read any research about how children learn to read or about the stages of reading development. But then, those were the days when the library dragons guarded their treasures from scruffy little kids such as me.

My house is filled with books. Upstairs the window seats in the dormer windows are lined with book shelves; there, I have all the 35 cent paperback novels, many important literary works, that I bought in college. Hundreds of books I have bought in the past 45 years, a cookbook collection, and my children’s books line the large upstairs bedroom, one wall of our living room, a shelf in the dining area, and the book cases along the non-window wall of the sun porch. Lots of magazines are stacked around, too. I do not go to the library very often now, as books covered with scent or the smell of candles or Glade or similar things give me a headache. Mostly, I buy what I want to read—and I recycle. I have some books I read again and again. Every few years, I re-read all of Jane Austen’s novels. I also read through the 37 book cycle of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series—again and again. E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books are another set of favorites to re-read. I plan to start re-reading all of my books about Thomas Merton again, as my book club is going to read The Seven Story Mountain this spring. I have all of his journals, many of his books, and many critical books. I haven’t read the Merton books for twenty years—and am anticipating the pleasure of re-reading from a more mature viewpoint. Right now, our Brown Bag study group at church is reading a book of Merton’s writings about nature. His poet’s eye sees to the heart of things.

The other night Max’s grandson Ethan’s oldest son, great-grandson Rhett, age 4 1/2, asked me to “read books.” Soon he and his brother Riley, age 3, were sitting on my knee or leaning against my legs as I read: Winnie the Pooh, Dumbo, Morty and Mickey, and The Tawny Scrawny Lion. I had not read those Little Golden books to little boys for some 35 years, but the words came back almost as if I had them memorized. The same thing happened each year on Dr Seuss Day at school [March 2—Read Across America] when my seniors enjoyed The Cat in the Hat, One Fish-Two Fish, Green Eggs and Ham, among others. I could almost chant those books I have read them so many times. I am looking forward to reading to the “Greats” again—Max has six great-grandchildren; the oldest is Rhett. A small body, pressed close as one reads aloud, is one of life’s most wonderful tactile experiences.