I like the mysterious titles of some of the books I read in the past two months! Three of them I read aloud to my seven-year-old Lydia; four I read to myself.
Stories Shared with Seven-year-old
The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key
Jon was watching shooting stars with his people when he took a step backward in the darkness and fell through “the Door that led to another place, the one that had been closed so long.” That other place is soon recognizable as Earth, specifically rural Appalachia. Jon senses the feelings of the deer and then the humans he meets–and the humans feel an instant hatred that astounds him, so he escapes–astounding them with his light-footed leaping. They immediately begin telling tales of “the wild boy” and demanding his removal from the area, while Jon hides until he senses some different, kinder people coming along. The Bean family help Jon figure out how to get back to his people. Meanwhile, they teach him about Earth society and, in the process, come to realize just how much they, too, want and need a better world.
I remember this book from my elementary school’s library. I didn’t get to read it again until a few years ago, when I saw it in a used-book booth at a science fiction convention. It’s a fascinating combination of gentle and harsh, with horrible human behavior seen through eyes that take enlightenment for granted. The same author wrote Escape to Witch Mountain, and we recently enjoyed the 1975 Disney film based on it; Lydia recognized the similar themes of a child/children with special abilities being disdained and feared by ordinary people and turning out to be from another world. I hope she won’t feel as alienated from the culture around her as I often did in my childhood, but I still love these books for the feeling of hope they convey–there’s a better place out there, where people like you are welcome and normal!
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
Lydia and I love the film based on this book, too. I knew I’d read the book and at least one of its sequels in elementary school, but I didn’t remember it well, so I bought a copy for Lydia’s seventh birthday. Many ideas are recognizable in the film–stepping into the chalk drawing, laughter that floats people up to the ceiling, feeding the birds–but the overall plot arc is quite different; the book is more of a series of episodes, including surprises like a dancing cow, a day when Michael is rude to all the servants so is forced to travel around the world (we have an edition revised to avoid racism), Mary Poppins sneaking out at night to glue stars onto the sky, and animals strolling among caged humans in the zoo. The parents are less important characters, and Bert isn’t a chimney sweep and never meets the children. Oh, and there are four children: Jane and Michael Banks have baby twin siblings, who have a whole chapter of their own adventure.
Lydia felt the character of Mary Poppins was very different, too: “In the movie, she’s nice. In the book, she’s kind of rude.” But after watching the movie many times as a teen and adult, I think the genius of Julie Andrews’s portrayal of Mary Poppins is that she seems sugary-sweet on the surface but really has an edge to her: “Close your mouth, Michael! We are not a codfish!” She lives with the children as their primary caretaker for months, yet she remains mysterious and subversive.
Warriors: The Darkest Hour by Erin Hunter
In this sixth and final chapter of the first of four series of books about cats who live in warring clans in a forest, an orange tomcat rises to power and unites two of the four clans with some scary alley cats from Twolegplace (the human town) to try to slaughter all the cats still loyal to the guidance of their ancestors.
This is the one I read all the way through of the several books from this series that Lydia has borrowed from two older friends. As I mentioned, she’s on the verge of being able to read these books to herself, and I hope she’ll start doing that! They are well written and well plotted, with appealing features like a list of allegiances and two maps showing the cat view and the twoleg view of the same area. I just don’t like war stories. I don’t want to read about the gathering doom and the betrayals and the evil plotting and the ripping and tearing and blood, blood, blood! But Lydia and her friends are very excited about playing cat clan camp and seem to spend their time peacefully caring for the kits and being alert to the possibility of attack, rather than actually fighting, so I’m glad they have this abundant source of inspiration. I hope it’ll work out like Percy Jackson did with my older child–I read him one book, and then he read the rest!
Books for Myself
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
Nine short stories explore different aspects of Black women’s lives in relation to church-taught morality. When you feel called to love someone in a way that breaks the conventional rules, how do you know what God wants? As I read, I kept thinking of words from the Episcopal liturgy: Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us. What does that mean outside of church; how do we give ourselves for others and know we’re walking in love rather than walking into exploitation? What it means for me is not exactly the same as for any of the characters in these stories, but I appreciated these immersions into nine unique situations.
If you believe that God’s Plan is for every person to choose between straight married sex or celibacy, you will not like this book, but check out the next one:
At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon
This “first novel in the beloved Mitford series” is a cozy story of life in a small town in the North Carolina mountains from the perspective of a sixty-year-old Episcopal priest. Lots of things happen, some of them quite interesting or surprising, and one of the plot lines genuinely qualifies as a mystery while others include the unveiling of unrelated long-held secrets, yet the overall mood remains one of comfortably settled life deeply rooted in a specific place and tinged with cautious innocence. (Father Tim spends several chapters worrying whether he should accept an offer to go steady with a woman he adores!)
I love the way Father Tim thinks about religious concepts in relation to his everyday life, and although the sexual morality in this book is quite decorous, the characters are faced with complex moral decisions related to poverty and self-actualization. Father Tim finds himself temporarily parenting an eleven-year-old boy whose grammar and manners aren’t up to his standards; where is the line between being a good influence and accepting one of God’s children just as he is? How can the townspeople help an elderly man whose life is contorted by the whims of his mentally ill wife? What should they do about the mysterious person hiding in the church, who emptied cremated remains into a flower bed and ate a whole marmalade cake? Father Tim has been stressed out for years and is now developing diabetes; how can he ask for what he needs when so many other people need him? Could it possibly be okay for him to allow the parish to pay for a housekeeper or to take that long-promised trip to Ireland with his favorite cousin? He is a humble soul who shows his own strength in dealing with others but gets confused about caring for himself.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Nora is so tired of letting everyone down and disappointing herself. She attempts suicide, but instead of awakening in an afterlife, she finds herself in an infinite library where Mrs. Elm, the librarian who was so kind to her as a teenager, helps her to try out other stories of her life. What if Nora had kept up her music career? What if she’d had a career studying glaciers? What if she hadn’t let the cat out? Exploring various possibilities, she sees that every decision has repercussions both good and bad–so how can she choose the one that’s really right?
This is a very clever premise, and I like the way it wrapped up in the end, very satisfying but not too neat. The tricky thing about it is that Nora can’t possibly be a consistent character, because she goes through so much character development! That was unsettling, but I liked the way she arrived in each life midstream–sort of jumping into the role played by another version of herself with whom she had no communication–and had to get her bearings as a bunch of strange people said, “How could you forget that?!” In a way, Nora’s semi-blankness as a character helped me to reflect on how my own life could be different if I’d done something differently. She did seem much more like a real person and a real woman than Greta Wells, anyway, despite having similar issues.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Were the author’s parents insane or unconventional and brilliant? This memoir keeps you see-sawing between the two perceptions. Jeannette’s father was an engineer with big dreams for a solar-powered family home, which never came to fruition as his alcoholism and defiance of authority repeatedly got the family into messes from which they would “do the skedaddle,” moving on to a new place. Her mother was an artist who believed in self-reliant children and radical acceptance of all life’s experiences. They were inconsistently able to provide food or really habitable housing for their four children, but they taught them a lot about science, creativity, and survival skills. Jeannette describes serious burns and car accidents alongside hilarious family adventures. Eventually, the siblings banded together to save money for the eldest to start her adult life in New York City–and then their father stole their money to buy liquor. The story of how they got her to New York anyway, then got themselves there one at a time and all worked their way to better lives, is very impressive and inspiring–and while they weren’t able to pull their parents up into lives like their own, the parents ended up living happily by their own standards. It’s a great story, hard to put down!