Online Reading Challenge – April Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

How did your  “1800s” reading go in April? Exciting? Interesting? A non-starter?

I struggled a bit to find something to read this month. I think the “1800s”, while full of many excellent titles, was a bit to broad. There was almost too much choice. A more defined time period, while limiting choices, would make it easier to find a real gem. In fact, I had decided I would re-watch some favorite Jane Austen movies, but at the last minute I found a book that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. That book was The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.

Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman living in England in 1850, is jilted by her intended and decides, at the last minute, to join her sister who is immigrating to America to marry. The month-long Atlantic crossing is very difficult for Honor and further tragedy strikes during the journey to Ohio. Honor finds herself homesick, alone and struggling to find her place in a strange land.

America is very different from the England Honor grew up in; where England is settled and solid, America is raw and constantly changing. Survival is a constant struggle and comforts are meager. While people are kind, they are not particularly welcoming, absorbed in their own problems and struggles. And political tensions run high, often pitting neighbor against neighbor as the question of slavery begins to reach its boiling point – Honor has landed in a tiny settlement near Oberlin, Ohio, known as a safe stop for runaway slaves following the Underground Railroad.

Honor’s Quaker religion teaches her to despise slavery and she quickly begins helping the runaways that she encounters at her family’s farm. She soon learns that ideals can suffer in the harsh light of reality; her family forbids her from helping the runaways even though they agree with her views and new laws threaten hefty fines and imprisonment if defied. When a crisis is reached, Honor must decide between her beliefs and the law. Which path will she take and at what cost?

Much like Honor, this book is deceivably simple – a straightforward story line with a clearly drawn situation. But also like Honor, there is a lot of hidden depth here. How do you stand up for your beliefs against the majority? How do you battle loneliness and homesickness when you know you can never return home? How do you find purpose and meaning? There is a lot of  rich imagery, of the beauty and harshness of nature, of the quilts Honor expertly sews and the differences from their English counterparts. I enjoyed the view of a mid-1800s life on what was essentially the frontier, and a glimpse of the Quaker religion, practices and principals. Throughout the book, Honor hangs on to the Quaker belief that “there is Light in everyone” even when people are at their worst; a lesson that has never gone out of style.

OK, now it’s your turn – what did you read this month? Let us know in the comments!

 

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Marta McDowell

Guest blog post by Laura

The seeds of my relatively new hobbies: gardening, landscaping with native plants, and what my friends call “pioneer” cooking, may have been planted long ago by my favorite childhood books. I would disappear into the Little House in the Big Woods or Little House on the Prairie both by Laura Ingalls Wilder for hours at a time. I also spent time with the Island of the Blue Dolphins, a fictional account of the true story of a Native American woman’s story of survival while stranded alone on an island, by Scott O’Dell.

In The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, McDowell aptly describes the various places Pa Ingalls’ wanderlust took his young family. They lived in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, and South Dakota. Some locations were still Indian Territory at the time the young Ingalls family built homesteads. Finally, Laura and her husband Almanzo settled permanently in Missouri.

I was absolutely amazed at the speed in which forest and prairie were decimated and towns emerged. Laura and Almanzo traveled from South Dakota to Missouri by covered wagon in 1894 and she went to visit her cosmopolitan daughter in San Francisco by train in 1915 and by Buick 1925! McDowell includes a section on Visiting Wilder Gardens and Growing a Wilder Garden for those interested in road-tripping or attracting pollinators.

It was fun to see the Moline Wagon Company and John Deere mentioned. I learned I have planted some of the native plants Laura found on the landscapes of her youth. Some of the herbal remedies she used were familiar, but most were new to me. I also enjoyed seeing the names of familiar seed catalogs that regularly show up in my mailbox over a hundred years after Laura may have ordered from them: Stark Bros. & Gurney.

I was happy to get a second look, this time through mature eyes, at the literary heroine of my childhood. She was a remarkable, intelligent woman, and her daughter was an amazing character in her bold independence for a woman of her time. Laura clearly passed along the pioneer spirit to her.

This is my favorite passage from the book and sums up her view of the world: “Laura didn’t curtain its windows so she could see the changing pictures of the world outside. Depending on the time of day, the season of the year, and the weather, the scenes framed in the glass panes shifted, but were a constant draw. She appreciated ‘the forest trees in the wood lot, the little brook that wanders through the pasture, the hills and valleys, and the level fields of the farm lands.’ Living close to nature was a fundamental thing. Along with love and duty, work and rest, nature was a key ingredient in her formula for happy life.”