Winesburg, Ohio

Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is a book of short stories that created a stir when it was first published in 1919. My library copy included an introduction by Malcolm Cowley which suggested Anderson’s great strength as a writer was to provide momentary, bright glimpses of character and truth, and this is why 1) this book succeeded, and 2) Anderson never succeeded as a novelist. My Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia mentions its “lyric beauty.” Another source spoke of its logic as song-like. But unlike these critics who seem unanimous on its literary merits, other readers objected to it as “pessimistic or destructive or morbidly sexual” (quoted from Malcolm Cowley’s introduction).

My own reaction to the book is somewhere between these two extremes. I recognize the beauty of its writing. It’s written simply and straightforwardly, capturing characters’ essence over and over with stunning economy. Its narrator functions as a keenly observant eye, never staining the lens with strong personality, moralizing, or emotional heavy-handedness.

Except in the first story, “The Book of the Grotesque.” Here Anderson essentially orients the reader to his purpose by setting forth the book’s organizing myth:

In the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful… And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them. It was the truths that made the people grotesques… The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

The only character in this collection of stories, many of them only 5 or 6 pages long, who isn’t a “grotesque” in the sense described here is George Willard, a young reporter who becomes the audience — or perhaps more accurately, the hearer of confessions — for other characters. Over and over, those who are struggling to make sense of life, or who have chosen their course and lived to a disfigured old age, buttonhole him and explain their experience. Usually these encounters take place at night and outdoors, which may have helped to give this collection a timeless quality that transcends its very specific locale of smalltown Winesburg in an innocent era.

Willard himself is a quintessential young man of “a great many vague thoughts,” a passive recipient of information. He appears in almost all of the tales, sometimes as a main character, sometimes as a peripheral character in someone else’s story on whom others project some significance. Eventually, he leaves Winesburg to seek his fortune. If I were to read the criticism of this book, I’m sure it wouldn’t take long before I heard an argument for Willard as Anderson’s writerly persona, a portrait of the artist as a young man. He becomes, in the sense described above, a “composite” of the truths others confess to him but doesn’t really develop or change in any significant way himself. He succeeds in not becoming a grotesque, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll develop into anything else.

For some reason, despite its strengths, I struggled through this book. Very possibly, this isn’t so much the fault of the book as the beautiful weather that’s freed me from my house and taken me outdoors. I’d bring the book with me, but let’s just say my reading process was interrupted more frequently than usual.

A second reason is that if someone had taken Thoreau’s statement that most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and plotted out a fictional argument for it, this would be the resulting book. I don’t despise such truth as it conveys. I’m grateful for a glimpse into other ways of thinking and experiencing. Why else do we read but for that? I’m just saying it began to weigh me down, taken all in a gulp. Quality? No question. Significance as a literary achievement? No question. Pleasure in reading it? Well, there’s a question there. Surely I delighted in some of the book’s beauty, but I also wasn’t sorry to see it end.

In the Presence of My Enemies


This book leaves me unsure. It’s an account of missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, who went away for a romantic anniversary weekend, and were kidnapped by terrorists and held for over a year in the Philippine jungle. Gracia lived to tell the tale.

In the Presence of My Enemies is about the story, not the writing. It persistently rejects the temptation to adorn the events it recounts as “lit-ra-chur.” Time after time, it gives a terse account of a highly dramatic situation, and characters who run the gamut from diabolical to saintly, without much description. There’s enough, surely, to suggest the kind of misery the Burnhams (and the other hostages) endured. But it’s paced in a way that keeps us moving through the material almost deceptively quickly. This is a story, after all, of “hope deferred making the heart sick” – of an ordeal that lasted far longer than anyone thought at the beginning.

I read this book on the heels of Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot, another tale of missionaries enduring cruel trial. Having the longer view historically, my reading of that story included the luxury of seeing at least glimpses of good that was brought out of horrific events. Those who committed brutal murder underwent a transformation that started with their crime, giving it a meaning that, if it fails to make it any less horrific, at least gives it purpose.

This book is a different animal. It doesn’t provide a context or a larger perspective, partly because it’s so recent and any significance remains to be seen, and partly because Gracia Burnham’s personality — at least her writerly personality — is less reflectively wise and more visceral, somehow, than Elliot’s. Several times I felt myself wanting a different narrator, one who could guide me to a more comfortable view of things, or — admittedly — who didn’t seem so much like me.

No such luck. Whereas Elisabeth Elliot is steadfast, mature, wise, deep, Gracia Burnham struggles. She often retreats into the jungle to cry. She gets angry at God. She struggles with hating her captors. As she says at one point, “I realized that when everything is stripped away from you and you have nothing, you find out what you are down deep inside. What I was starting to see was not pretty.”

In the same way that I found myself closely resembling Gracia, I kept noticing the ways my husband is like Martin Burnham: more steadfast, more quiet about any inner turmoil he may be feeling, more stubbornly hopeful. All in all, it was eerily easy to slip myself into this story, and I think that’s why I don’t know how to evaluate it, or even how I feel in my gut about it.

I do know that it offers an answer to whether God can be sufficient, and unthreatened by our doubts, when we struggle to respond in a situation that’s unquestionably evil. The answer comes in scenes where Martin and Gracia share the food sent them by their missionary friends with their captors, even though they’re starving. It comes when Gracia washes the bedding of a sick terrorist. It comes when the Philippine army accidentally shoots Martin to death in a recue attempt (revealed on the flyleaf), and Gracia forgives them. It comes when Martin quotes Psalm 100 hours before his death, desiring to “serve God with gladness.” Fully human, but also fully for real as Christians, this couple inspires me in the midst of a story without a completely happy ending. I’ll conclude with Gracia’s own words:

When you stop and think about it, the Abu Sayyaf are not the only “bad guys,” are they? We all have pockets of darkness inside ourselves. Recognizing how much I carry inside of me was one of the most difficult parts of my entire ordeal in the jungle. I already knew I was a sinner, of course. It’s one of the first things I learned as a child in Sunday school. But I was also a missionary, a pastor’s daughter, a life-long “good girl.” Weren’t people like me supposed to be able to react to adversity with strength and kindness and courage? Why wasn’t I showing more of those traits?

…I begged the Lord at times, “Please just give me some peace. I can’t find it in my own heart. I can’t find long-suffering. I feel anything but gentle right now. Please work some gentleness into my life. Give me some joy in the middle of this horrible situation.

And he did.

Through Gates of Splendor

How do I begin to come to terms with this book?

At some point I became familiar with the story of the five missionaries killed in Ecuador in the ’50’s. Last year I read Steve Saint’s End of the Spear, and it deepened my appreciation and curiosity. But though I’ve had this book since Christmas, it’s taken me till now to read it. I guess I knew it would be powerful.

There’s no question of its quality. Elisabeth Elliot is direct and deeply wise, and her writing, interspersed liberally with the writings (in journals and letters) of the missionaries themselves, tells the story compellingly. I was struck by several things, and very grateful to have read the 50th anniversary edition with its concluding pages where the author gives her perspective 40 years after the massacre.

First, this is the kind of book that shakes all the phony or peripheral stuff out of my hands, and brings me to the question of whether I’m a Christian at all. There’s a level of spiritual passion in these young men that I simply don’t have. They truly gave their lives over to God for his purposes, disinterestedly.

Second, the marriages in this book reflect a level of unity of purpose that exceeds… perhaps anything I’ve ever seen in reality. Here, that is — in my sphere. They were of one accord in their sense of purpose, and they exhibit a level of teamwork that’s beautiful to see.

Third, the unglamorousness of missions work struck me as I read. I went on a 2-month summer mission in high school, but it was as part of a good-sized team of like-minded, like-aged people. Not the case with these. Setting up a home, learning a language, doctoring illnesses, and simply living out a sometimes tedious routine of life within a foreign culture in the interest of gaining trust — and doing it for a long haul, not for a summer — takes a real toughness.

Fourth, these men were very human. The story, played out over the years since their massacre, has shown in so many ways that it’s written by God himself. The Waodani were introduced to the gospel. Wives and children of the slaughtered men carried on the effort, and were reconciled — sometimes became dear friends — with those who had speared the missionaries. Yet the missionaries themselves, despite the passion for God I’ve already mentioned, were still very human. They ran the gamut of discouragement, giddiness, occasionally perhaps even a tendency to impose western culture rather than just the gospel.

This is where I appreciated Elizabeth Elliot’s afterword, written in 1996. She refuses to simplify, conceding that “the question as to why the men who had trusted God to be both shield and defender should be allowed to be speared to death was not one that could be smoothly or finally answered in 1956, nor yet silenced in 1996.” 40 years of reflection on the story yield a discerning treatment of its devastating aspects in the context of a worldview with a loving God at its head. “I think back to the men themselves, remembering Pete’s agony of indecision as to whether he should join the others in the venture,” she writes;

Ed’s eagerness to go even though Marilou was eight months pregnant, his strong assurance that all would be well; Roj’s depression and deep sense of failure as a missionary; Nate’s extreme caution and determination; Jim’s nearly reckless exuberance.

She goes on, delineating the tensions that developed between workers after the men died; the discovery that the language coaching the men had received had been inaccurate; the sufferings the indians themselves faced when the airtight seal around their culture was finally broken. At last she concludes,

It is not the level of our spirituality that we can depend on. It is God and nothing less than God, for the work is God’s and the call is God’s and everything is summoned by Him and to His purposes, the whole scene, the whole mess, the whole package — our bravery and our cowardice, our love and our selfishness, our strengths and our weaknesses.

Good, true words. The story is amazing because it’s God’s story, not because these men constituted a second Messiah. Their decisions mean more, not less, because they were as imperfect as I am, yet they responded wholeheartedly. They weren’t superheroes; they were, however, willing in the ways God needed them to be in order to, as Steve Saint says, “write his story with their lives.” I’d like to be a part of that story, too.

Socialized Homeschooling

Like my title? I was aiming for an attention-grabber…

But a more accurate title would be, “Socialization Reconsidered.” My husband and I have been wrestling through questions on the subject of healthy socialization for our daughters. We homeschool, but so far we’ve felt like a square peg in the various round holes offered as organized social groups: our local homeschool support chapter, a Classical Conversations pilot group starting up in the area, and a local homeschool co-op.

Here’s what I don’t need:

  • teaching responsibilities beyond what I’m doing with my kids (required in a co-op);
  • business meetings (our local homeschool chapter’s monthly meetings);
  • someone shaping my curriculum for me (Classical Conversations).

Here’s what my daughters don’t need:

  • to be shoved into a clique of homeschooled kids who form a closed circle and told, “Go be socialized!”
  • a setting that heaps on extra or irrelevant academic requirements;
  • a program (vs. a community. There’s a difference.)

So far we’ve had a good experience enrolling my older daughter in basketball, some church activities for kids, horseback riding lessons, and swimming lessons. But what these lack is freedom. Somehow none of them have resulted in friendships that go beyond the bounds of whatever activity is central.

Here’s the thing, though: my daughters are glowing! They’re not pining away for social contacts, though they enjoy being with other kids when it happens. They’re friendly and outgoing. They give no appearance of lacking anything.

So how do I evaluate all this? As a person who enjoys people, but finds it pretty easy to be alone too, I’m thinking that they’re not in bad shape. They’re certainly not dependent personality types. But at the same time, I want to be living a realistic human life; we need other people, we need friends. The Well-Trained Mind does a great job of critiquing public education’s view of “socialization” as a competetive model, vs. the family as a cooperative model. A child taken out of public school isn’t removed from social influence, just placed in a different social setting organized around different values. For all the touting of public school as a way to socialize kids, I don’t see a very impressive level of civility or healthy social functioning anywhere in our society, from our public institutions right on down.

Family is a nourishing, realistic social context, but I want to supplement and ground us in a relational world bigger than just our family. It’s hard to find or create ways to do this that don’t involve paying money and signing up for a program. Church can be a place to move toward something more real than programmed, and I feel like we’ve found a church where this begins to be a real possibility. It can provide a bigger family than our own, one that spreads beyond Sunday morning. This is a family endeavor, though, not a drop-off activity; it’s an outgrowth of family life, not separate from it.

Another idea we’ve been playing with is passion-centric, rather than people-centric or curriculum-centric, social life. In other words, rather than enrolling in a co-op of some kind, we have this horse-passion going in my 7-year-old. It’s lasted a year or more, and there’s a good chance it’s here to stay. Why not seek out as many opportunities as we can that will enable her to run with this — more riding lessons, helping at a stable, etc. — and letting a constellation of relationships form in that environment?

Here’s what I keep coming back to: C.S. Lewis. Denise Levertov. Maurice Sendak. Madeleine L’Engle. These are not only remarkable artists and thinkers, but contented people. What do they all have in common? “Isolated” childhoods. They’re products of solitude, time spent between the covers of books and chasing imaginative pursuits with a pencil. Exceptionally gifted, no doubt. But I wonder how many average-looking people have exceptional gifts that never burst into flame because they never experienced a vacuum in a world increasingly full of chatter. These names we all know did. And they turned out all right, didn’t they?

No Little People

Francis Schaeffer’s No Little People is a book of 16 sermons delivered at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. My reading of it follows on the heels of Schaeffer’s True Spirituality, and reinforces my appreciation for the strengths of his thoughtfulness and vision. There are some quotations from the book at this site, as well as a listing of other writings by this author.

As its title suggests, the theme that ties these sermons together is the difference between our view of our significance as limited human beings, and God’s view. The sermons are not a “series” per se; they’re not a planned, systematic progression into this subject. Rather, they represent a variety of approaches, some topical, some expository. Taken altogether, they are unanimous in their unfolding of a biblical view of persons that stands in sharp and freeing contrast to the one suggested to us by our own inner estimations, and those of our present-day world.

There’s a real value to reading more than one book at a time by the same author. I found that reading this right after True Spirituality hammered home some of the distinctives of Schaeffer’s thought, the most significant (to me) being his ability to articulate the biblical worldview against a context of other worldviews, and to identify the ways that our lives and institutions can incorporate strands that are inconsistent with what we profess. In a matter-of-fact way, he keeps a firm context in the history of ideas, fleshes out biblical history around various passages, and draws distinctions between philosophical emphases. It helps to drive home an understanding of the intellectual forces at work in every area of life, and to increase consciousness of them.

Schaeffer is eminently rational, and I appreciate this as well. But it never turns into intellectualism. Always he keeps the beam shining on the importance of a living faith, not a merely intellectual one. But he always keeps in view the fact that our faith, our knowledge of God, begins with propositional truth stated in our space-time world — the divine intersecting with our human experience at specific times and places, and speaking in our language.

I have to acknowledge that my reading didn’t do these sermons full justice. The ideal setting would be in a reading group where they could be studied and savored. That’s not a possibility in my life right now. While reading them one after the other, armed with a pencil for underlining but no one to discuss them with, had the advantage of getting the big picture of themes accumulating and building, I also recognize the disadvantage of not absorbing them and processing them as fully as I’d like. Probably I’ll revisit this book, stored away for now as a treasure chest of valuable, distinctive insights and perspective.

Fit Bodies, Fat Minds

I’ve had Os Guinness’ Fit Bodies Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It for about 10 years. I think I’ve put off reading it because it sounds smug — like something that would feed an elitist spirit and fan the flame of a ranting condescension toward American culture. I’m not very nice when I rant. Further, in general I think there’s too much ranting, especially in the blogosphere, from people who purport to be concerned Christians. Recently I’ve read “Christian” rants on everything from other bloggers’ choices about what to write about, to politics, to the need for church reform. It always leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth — though once the tone starts to degenerate, I rarely finish reading whatever it is. I have a hard time reconciling fashionable anger with the mind of Christ.

It turns out that this was the right time for me to read this book, though. It was on the recommended reading list at the end of Total Truth, and following up my recent reading of that tome with this slimmer volume worked well. This is a far cry from ranting or smugness. I was fortunate enough to hear a series of lectures by Os Guinness at my alma mater back in the mid-90’s, and I was mesmerized by his sophistication, his wit, and his articulateness as a cultural critic. This book was a delight to read for the same reasons.

I just glanced through some of the reviews at Amazon as I was importing the link, and have to scratch my head when they charge Guinness with being superficial or dogmatic. This book is indeed a quick read (150 pages), but its purpose is to sketch out a sharply-focused “big picture” confined to anti-intellectualism in popular culture (not academia). To be sharply-focused when the scope is so broad is to opt against burdening the text with exhaustive detail (read Total Truth for that), but the resulting focus would not be possible for such a broad subject without an extremely discerning perspective, and an ability to render the complex forces at work in American history and thought with refreshing directness.

The book is structured in three sections. The first provides an overview of eight influences over the last 200 years that have contributed to the softening of the Christian mind, sweeping through American intellectual life and leaving a “ghost mind” (as in ghost town) in their wake. The second section traces eight strands of present-day culture that contribute to further atrophy. Last, in a single chapter, Guinness suggests eight first steps to responding. (He likes 8, I guess.) “Our task, as followers of Christ, is not easy but it is clear,” writes Guiness at the start of this last section:

The challenge, in St. Paul’s words, is to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Thus the currents are swift and the pressures strong, but a focus on the negative is far from negative. It is the first step to the most glorious positive of all, having the mind of Christ.

Guinness admits at various points that a given subject warrants a whole book in itself, but he returns frequently to the more modest purpose of this book, which is introductory. For someone looking for an overview that provides a structure for organizing future thought, this is a great read.

Some of the things I enjoyed about this book: first, after Pearcey’s longer book, I appreciated this chance to review the history of evangelicalism in a more abbreviated way. I felt like I came away with a clearer sense of the big picture. Second, I enjoyed encountering some familiar figures in Guinness’ many allusions. One, sadly, was Frances Asbury, after whom my undergraduate college was named. He was a Methodist circuit rider who, I discovered in these pages, posed “a choice between the importance of study and the importance of soul-saving that would have been unthinkable to the Puritans.” Fancy that: my college was named after someone guilty of anti-intellectualism. (Sigh.) Another was Frances Schaeffer, cited a few times. And still another was Camille Paglia, two of whose books an academic advisor gave me years ago in order to challenge (or madden) me, but which I’ve never read. Maybe it’s time. Third, as these varied names suggest, Guinness is an astute observer of culture, and his discussion ranges widely from Rush Limbaugh to Madonna, from the frontier to cyberspace, from the Puritans to Camille Paglia. Say what you will about Guinness’s rapid treatment of the subject, he could never be accused of being underinformed or unengaging. Last but not least, he actually made an attempt to distinguish postmodernism from modernism from modernity, and succeeded in bringing some clarity to these confusing terms. In a word, wow. I wouldn’t have thought that was possible.

Reading Guinness’ strong, clean prose is pure pleasure, reflecting as it does polish, wit, liveliness, and a keen mind. For a readable, fast-paced, and provocative

True Spirituality

True Spirituality is the fruit of Francis Schaeffer’s reconsideration of Christianity after ten years of serving as a pastor. Schaeffer had reached a point of desperation. “A problem came to me,” he writes in the preface,

the problem of reality. This had two parts: first, it seemed to me that among many of those who held the orthodox position one saw little reality in the things that the Bible so clearly said should be the result of Christianity. Second, it gradually grew on me that my own reality was less than it had been in the early days after I had become a Christian. I realized that in honesty I had to go back and rethink my whole position.

So he did. He backed up to agnosticism, and evaluated whether his beliefs were legitimate, and whether Christianity made any real difference. The results include this book, a long list of other writings, and the founding of what was to become the thriving ministry of L’Abri in the Swiss Alps.

The basic structure of this book is to demonstrate, first, that there are thoroughly sufficient rational reasons for belief in “the infinite-personal God,” and the truth of Christianity. It satisfies the basic questions humanity struggles with. But to me the real reward was the second half of the book, where Schaeffer discusses living it out — not in the way it often looks in its institutional forms, but in our conscience, our thought lives, our psychology, and our relationships with one another.

Schaeffer is thoroughly rational, and once he’s established the intellectual basis for faith, he returns to it again and again as the ground from which we move into the new life. Mind renewal is largely a matter of making a conscious mental effort to remind ourselves of what we’ve assented to as truth. It’s not a mystical experience, or a thing that happens to someone magically after they say the sinner’s prayer. As we make this effort, we can expect divine aid, and life change from the inside out.

But he’s not an “intellectual” in the sense of finding satisfaction in ideas for their own sake. What matters most is the fruit borne by “true spirituality” — love. Our lives, and the church, should run according to biblical principles, but above all they should exhibit the reality of the supernatural by showing human beings loving one another.

My hairdresser asked me once, “What is there at church that someone from outside would want?” Good question, unfortunately. She cuts hair for pastors and “good churchpeople” all the time (including me), and to her it sounds like any unpleasant political institution or dysfunctional family. Schaeffer helps to explain why this is so often the case, and as L’Abri so beautifully demonstrated, he and his wife founded a community that represented a true, countercultural, biblical church in action.

What did I like best? I liked Schaeffer’s frequent reminders that God never relates to us mechanically (or legally, or officially), but always personally — and so we are to relate to each other. It struck a responsive chord in me, because of my accumulated frustration with programmed and systematized and corporatized Christianity. “If there is no demonstration in our attitude toward other men that we really take seriously the person-to-person relationship, we might as well keep quiet,” he writes.

I also liked the humility Schaeffer exemplifies himself, and encourages in his readers. “Each time I see something wrong in others, it is dangerous, for it can exalt self, and when this happens, my open relationship with God falls to the ground,” he writes. “So when I am right, I can be wrong.” Whether we’re relating to our children, or to others who’ve injured us, or to a spouse, or to superiors, we’re on equal footing as creatures, and have no ground to swing into either inferiority or superiority.

Above all, perhaps it was the grace of Schaeffer’s picture that was most satisying. More clearly than I’ve seen it in a long time, I see the distinction between perfection and beauty. Schaeffer frequently describes truth in aesthetic terms, and it helps me to lay aside the perfectionism that tends to destroy joy and discover new eyes. “How beautiful Christianity is,” Schaeffer exults, “– first, because of the sparkling quality of its intellectual answers, but second, because of the beautiful quality of its human and personal answers. And these are to be rich and beautiful. A crabbed Christianity is less than orthodox Christianity.”

Although my natural (self-indulgent) tastes lead me to fiction, I’m grateful to have read this. It rocked the Christian landscape when it was first published in 1971, and reading it is a beneficial earthquake in my inner life in 2008. It’s really not possible to do it justice here, other than to offer a heartfelt recommendation to any Christian whose paradigms need to be excavated and restored.

The Light Princess

The Light Princess is a book of about 110 pages that I unearthed in the library’s juvenile section. There are a few etexts available (listed here), but this is the version I read.

I’ve read a few other MacDonald stories: Phantastes (years ago), Lilith, and The Princess and the Goblin. C.S. Lewis felt his imagination was “baptised” by Phantastes; me, not so much. Nor Lilith.

But I’ve enjoyed both his tales for children immensely. The authorial voice of this one is less grandfatherly than in The Princess and the Goblin, leaving the reader undistracted from the story as it unfolds. I liked this, for this story is like a diamond: it leaves some strong pictures in the mind, multifaceted and mythic, and it’s a treat to be able to retain them vividly, undistorted by an overbearing narrator.

The basic plot involves a princess who, because her aunt (a witch) was inadvertantly forgotten at her christening, is cursed with weightlessness. Gravity — of any kind — has no hold on her. Her body floats; her mind flits; her heart drifts, failing to attach to anyone. She never cries. She’s a mere shell.

Eventually a prince falls in love with her, just about the time her evil aunt begins to drain the lake where the princess loves to swim. She begins to fade away herself. The only way to restore the lake is for someone to willingly give his life for the princess. What will happen? This is the tale MacDonald spins, playing with the symbolic suggestiveness of light(ness), gravitation, and water.

If the princess is the quintessential picture of empty loveliness, her aunt is the picture of hatred. At one point she casts a spell that involves a long walk during which she mutters, coiled lovingly by a huge snake, locking a seemingly endless string of doors. I enjoyed the strength of these characterizations.

I also developed an appreciation for Sendak’s illustrations. I’m as much of a Where the Wild Things Are fan as anyone else, but I wasn’t sure about these drawings till I got a ways into the story. They have an eeriness that seems, I decided, well suited to this fantasy tale, reminding me of Chris Van Allsburg’s Mysteries of Harris Burdick illustrations. (You can see them here.) Sometimes a careful scrutiny of them brings unexpected rewards… In one, a table beside the king holds a copy of Phantastes. This was a well-told story that will probably stay in mind for awhile.

Justin Morgan Had a Horse

We finished Marguerite Henry’s Justin Morgan Had a Horse as a family read-aloud. The book was a satisfying experience for us, and my daughter (7) is at this moment coloring a detailed picture of a Morgan in honor of Little Bub, the story’s equine protagonist.

This tale apparently takes some liberties crafting a book about the life and times of “Figure,” the founding sire of the Morgan breed, depicted in this story as Little Bub. The role of Joel Goss, the boy who gentles Little Bub and spends his whole life yearning to own, and eventually purchasing, the horse, is exaggerated. Many of the legends and facts about the little horse’s life are portrayed faithfully, however, including his role carrying President Monroe in a parade, winning fame at pulling bees and races, and serving dependably as a workhorse in Vermont.

Whatever quibbles one may have with the book’s one-to-one correspondence with historical details, it captures without question the distinctiveness of the original Morgan and the breed he sired. Convincing characterization, dialogue, and contextualization in events help to bring a chapter of American history to life. And though this tale recounts truthfully the kind of neglect, and sometimes abuse, animals often suffer under human care, it also captures the transforming effect quality stewardship can have on both horse and owner, and the powerful affection that can enrich the relationship between them.

This story was rewarding for both my daughter and me. The text was entertaining, and though it challenged a 7-year-old in some spots through its historical references and dialect, these were easily surmounted without getting bogged down in explanation. (The reading level is aimed at middle school, I’d guess.) For anyone looking for either a historical story encompassing the period from 1790 – 1820, or one that builds appreciation for a unique breed, this novel delivers.

Homeschool by the dozen

I must have been about 11 when I read Cheaper by the Dozen. I really don’t remember much about it, though I retain a haze of good feeling. The one thing I remember clearly is that the father of that large family put a record player in the bathroom and insisted that his children listen to foreign language records whenever they were in there. Eventually they all became fluent in a second language.

The book must have influenced me more than I realized, because in my first year as a homeschooler, I find myself using audiobooks quite a bit as a way of making books a main course in our lives. We check them out of the library, give them for birthdays, listen while they’re busy with other activities during free time instead of watching television. My daughters, ages 7 and 4, have responded positively, and though I usually have no problem seeing the downside of things, I really can think of no criticism of the use of audiobooks. Used not as a substitute, but as a supplement, to parental read-alouds, they can be an incredible resource for a homeschooler.

This site contains a rundown of a number of the potential benefits, including increased listening skills, vocabulary, pronunciation, and use of the imagination. My oldest just turned 7, and I’m pleased with her reading skills. But she could never sit down and read through the Narnia books on her own, and for me to read them would take much longer. I’m reading various Marguerite Henry stories to her now (she’s horse crazy), and it takes maybe a week, sometimes two, to get through one of them, reading a little each day. But King of the Wind was available on cassette at the library, and we listened to the whole story in an afternoon. Then of course, she listened several more times before we took it back to the library. Audiobooks allow much more time for literature than my parental availability can, providing some great material for an eager, absorbent mind.

Children will listen to works that are beyond their level when they’re read orally, challenging them in vocabulary and conceptualization. The Little House books have been enriching for my daughter, and we’ve listened through On the Banks of Plum Creek. There’s a great deal of practical knowledge to be gained from the young heroine of these novels, and I’ve often been surprised by the level of insight accessible to a 7-year-old. Similarly, we’re using Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World series for ancient history, and because my daughter loves history so much I bought her the audiobook. She’s free to listen as often as she wants to the chapters we’ve already studied together. It amazes me to hear the commentary she offers on life, seen through a historical lens. Yesterday as she listened to the story of Shamshi Adad, she commented that he wasn’t a good ruler because of his brutal tactics. “He should rule through being truthful and fair, like Jesus and Asoka,” she volunteered while building a lego stable. And today at the lunch table, when I overheard her little sister whisper, “I’m on your team!” when she was about to be disciplined, I said, “So, you’re banding together, huh?” My 7-year-old laughed and said, “Just like the Greeks. They fought with each other except when they had to fight Persia.” (I’m Persia in this scenario. Oh goody.)

Sheer repetition is another virtue of audiobooks. Maybe this point is made already. We all know that children love to hear the same stories over and over, and I comply when I’m reading to them. I see the value of this. But I certainly don’t mind when someone else is available to take the rereading reins, particularly if it’s something I don’t really enjoy. (Curious George and Mother Goose, for instance.)

Last but not least, the quality of materials is often superb. Cherry Jones, who reads the Little House stories, has a wonderfully warm and expressive voice, and the fiddle music punctuating her reading is something I couldn’t supply. Similarly, the Dr. Seuss audiobook we own is read by a cast of actors who bring all their dramatic skills to the table in the service of young readers, and the results are enjoyable for “children” of all ages. The Frog and Toad stories are read by Arnold Lobel himself, and his friendly voice makes the concept of the author much more than a name on the cover. Ditto for E.B. White’s readings. Last but not least, the Narnia stories read with a British accent have spoiled me forever.

So this is a rave, nothing less. The only potential downside I see is that audiobooks might foster in children an impatience with the slower and more skill-dependent process of reading for themselves. So far, I don’t see that happening. Nor do I see them losing their desire to hear me read to them, even though I’m not nearly as dramatic a reader as some of the cd’s I’ve cited. I have a vague anxiety at times that I’m “programming” them, but the medium doesn’t really permit that. For encouraging a love of language in all its rhythms and possibilities, for challenging their imaginations and their vocabularies, for insisting on active thinking rather than passive absorption, audiobooks are difficult to unseat. Am I missing something? If so, I hope one of my readers will clue me in.