Rabbit Hill

Back in May when I was raking dead leaves off my flower garden, I uncovered a nest of baby rabbits. There was brief chaos: I wondered if I’d stepped on them or hurt them with the rake, it started raining, and my husband was on the phone and couldn’t immediately lend his more level head to the multi-aged feminine hysteria. A few minutes later, we’d picked them all up, ascertained that they weren’t hurt, put them in a box to raise — then changed our minds and put them all back, raking their comfy coverlet of leaves and rabbit hair back over them.

It was the beginning of a summer of watching over them. They’ve all come through to adulthood in one piece. One has sunned itself frequently in the yard; another hides under a pile of boards next door; the third got trapped in the garden one morning, and the girls and I cheered from the window as my husband tried to herd the little rocket back to the gate.

All this to say that we were an ideal audience for Rabbit Hill. This delightful story won two awards: a Caldecott for its illustrations, and a Newbery for its writing. It’s another book from my own childhood revisited with my children, and both daughters loved Robert Lawson’s tale about a patch of countryside with its lively population of animals, all imaginatively transformed into distinctive characters and dialects.

The central happening in this tale is the arrival of new folks at an abandoned farm, and the speculation of all the animals about what they will be like. To everyone’s delight they are as generous and humane as can be. I know, thanks to Elizabeth Rider Montgomery’s Story Behind Modern Books, that the new folks in the big house are Lawson and his wife, whose Connecticut property was so inundated with rabbits that they called it Rabbit Hill.

It was a fun chapter book to read aloud, largely because the personalities of the animals are so vivid: Father Rabbit with his genteel and courtly speeches, Porky the woodchuck with his earthiness and poor grammar, Uncle Analdas with his penchant for the adjective “dingblasted.” It lends itself to high drama! For an animal tale that doesn’t make you cry, you can’t do better than this.

Diary of an Old Soul

I’ve been revisiting George MacDonald lately. I knew him first as the one whose Phantastes C.S. Lewis credited with “baptizing his imagination.” Then I explored some of his children’s books, and more recently a Gothic romance. Slowly I’ve been accumulating impressions and experiences of this writer.

I didn’t realize that he was also a well-respected poet, and frequently a guest lecturer on poetry. This week I learned that MacDonald was an admirer of Browning, an acquaintance of Tennyson, and such a fan of Coleridge that he made The Rime of the Ancient Mariner the subject of a chapter in his book There and Back. He published several volumes of poetry, including  A Book of Strife in the form of The Diary of an Old Soul, published as 366 seven-line poems in 1880. “No stranger to hardship,” notes Robert Trexler in the introduction,

MacDonald suffered from emphysema, eczema, bouts of depression, and poverty throughout his long life. Several times poor health placed him at the point of death. His mother died when he was ten and his two closest brothers died as young men. He outlived 4 of his 11 children, 2 of whom died in 1878 and 1879, the period just before the publication of these daily poems. Readers of MacDonald’s books, filled as they are with hope and optimism, might be surprised to learn of the many tests of faith God permitted in his life.

Diary of an Old Soul contains a 7-line poem for each day of the year. Most of them are reflective, devotional pieces that probe all corners of his spiritual life. Many are prayers. Opposite each page is supposed to be a white page for the reader to write their own response, as the first poem explains:

Sweet friends, receive my offering. You will find
Against each worded page a white page set: –
This is the mirror of each friendly mind
Reflecting that. In this book we are met.
Make it, dear hearts, of worth to you indeed: –
Let your white page be ground, my print be seed,
Growing to golden ears, that faith and hope shall feed.

YOUR OLD SOUL

The best way to get acquainted with the book is on these terms, I think. Mine is a library copy, though, so instead of accompanying MacDonald on a journey that unfolds in small steps over a year, I’ve been browsing through the poems — gorging myself, in effect. (It’s not ideal, but maybe I can redeem it at some point with an original poem about late fees…?)

Truth is, they don’t lend themselves to gorging. But here are a few samples that give their flavor, with minimal commentary from Yours Truly.

August 21
Thou being in me, in my deepest me,
Through all the time I do not think of thee,
Shall I not grow at last so true within
As to forget thee and yet never sin?
Shall I not walk the loud world’s busy way,
Yet in thy palace-porch sit all the day?
Not conscious think of thee, yet never from thee stray?

Several lines of speculation emerge: maturity in love for God; the role of consciousness and the “deepest me” of the unconscious; the innerness of spiritual transformation. In the end, the poem suggests, we’re changed not by having lots of consciously religious thoughts, but by the quiet work of God within.

December 26
We all are lonely, Maker — each a soul
Shut in by itself, a sundered atom of thee.
No two yet loved themselves into a whole;
Even when we weep together we are two.
Of two to make one, which yet two shall be,
Is thy creation’s problem, deep, and true,
To which thou only holds the happy, hurting clue.

There’s no trite wind-up, just an acknowledgment of loneliness against a backdrop of faith. MacDonald uses reflection to acknowledge the limits of reflection.

Strangely, though, the overall effect of these poems is to ease loneliness. Here is an author who, as 19th-century scholar Vida Dutton Scudder points out, “makes less solitary the inmost recesses of the spiritual life.” Each of these poems is a microscope trained on some current of thought or feeling. In their quietness they illuminate, and accord a gentleness to, the moments of insight that add up to the diary of a soul.

Reflections on the Psalms

I have to be honest: the book of Psalms has never been a favorite of mine. It’s been praised so often by others that I’m quite willing to accept that the fault is in me. There are a few individual chapters that I love. In general, though, where others find the Psalms give voice to deeply-felt feelings and prayers, I am much more affected by some of the rousing stories of the Old Testament, the prayers in the Epistles, and the parables of Jesus.

I’m not sure why this is. But reading C.S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms laid a gentle hand on some things in the these poems that have bothered me, even though I’ve never really addressed them myself: the cursings, the self-righteousness, the rapturous love for the law, the way the writers think of death as simply the end. In this book Lewis works out his own thoughts about these and other matters over which he stumbled initially. I can’t say that Lewis has illuminated my hitherto unknown reasons for having only a polite interest in the Psalms, but he does soften the guilt I feel over it. If someone so erudite has struggled too, then it must be neither unpardonable nor insoluble.

My reading of these essays was uneven; I wasn’t equally interested in all of them. (I’m sure this will be a useful reference that I’ll return to in future seasons, though.) My favorite essay by far is #11, “On Scripture.” It bothers me sometimes to hear what sounds like Bible-olatry in Christians. The implication is that it’s the only revelation we have, all questions are answered there, and that’s that.

I like Lewis’s way of seeing the Bible. He acknowledges that it includes many literary forms, writers with different levels of awareness of inspiration, interference in its canonization and editing, an evolving (and flawed) human consciousness filtering it all. He acknowledges that the human personality through which the Bible comes to us is “an untidy and leaky vehicle,” rather than one that can give us “ultimate truth in systematic form — something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table.” Instead of what we might have thought would be best, we have what God apparently thinks is best:

The total result is not ‘the Word of God’ in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.

He goes on to make the point that it’s the very departures from our desired “perfect” vehicle that give the Bible a unique power. Because it’s not easy prey for our “systematising intellect,” it demands a response from the whole person.

I’d like to quote more, but that gives a taste. The rest of the essays are well worth reading. For those who criticize Lewis for approaching universalism, there’s ample ammunition here to accuse him again. At various points he expresses the hope that some of the ancients who anticipated Christ (Akhenaten, Plato) may be saved despite being outside Jewish or Christian tradition. I don’t read this as universalism, or in any way undermining the primacy of Christ claimed in the gospels. God is gracious, and I expect we will find surprises in Heaven like the vineyard workers in Jesus’s parable found. Overall in these essays there is a generosity, a sanity, and a willingness to face the uncertainties with both faith and reason that I found very nourishing.

The Wheel on the School

At last, we’ve finished The Wheel on the School.

The chapters are longer than we’ve typically tackled in a read-aloud: 20-25 pages or so. This means bedtimes have slid a bit later, and we’ve had just this one option (rather than this plus a picture book or two) each night for the whole of its fifteen chapters. It was well worth it.

I read this as a child, but I didn’t remember much beyond the basic storyline: it was about storks. Recently it was recommended in both For the Children’s Sake, and the activity guide that goes along with The Story of the World. I decided to give it a try.

As promised, it’s quite suspenseful. Lina, a little girl in the 6-student Shora school, reads an essay one day about a subject of interest to her: storks, and why storks no longer nest in Shora. It triggers an imaginative speculation that eventually draws the whole village into a plan to attract storks back to their rooftops.

This is a book that deals in big subjects: having a dream, and the courage to believe in it; cooperative enterprise; bridging age gaps; faith; nature; education; the sea. It gave us a glimpse of Dutch culture; every time we opened the book, I almost felt the salt spray and the chill of Shora. The character development is more leisurely and detailed than other single books we’ve tried as read-alouds, and the cast of characters encompasses all ages.

I loved hearing my daughters burst out laughing at the antics of Janus, the fisherman who’s lost both legs and begins to emerge from his shell of bitter isolation to become the children’s champion. I loved the way comparisons to people in this story have emerged in conversation more than once as we’ve been reading it. I loved the way the girls begged for another chapter each night, even after a fairly long session just to get through one chapter. I loved the story itself, which brought me (I admit it) to tears at times as I read. (”Here, I’ll take a turn, Mommy,” said my 8-year-old finally, reaching for the book.) And I loved the way that when we finished it, my 5-year-old said reflectively, “I was thinking last night: just one little story — one little story by that one little girl — turned into a whole plan.”

Wide Sargasso Sea

I was making supper one night last week when I heard a review of this novel on NPR. I’m not sure how I could have missed Wide Sargasso Sea till now. Written by Jean Rhys, it tells the tale of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, the “madwoman in the attic,” in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. When I heard Sara Paretsky’s recommendation that “you must read this,” I complied immediately. I went to the computer and put the book on hold at the library before the radio segment was even finished. I share Paretsky’s feelings about Jane Eyre, as well as her reluctance about “vampire novels” in general (books that depend on other books for their life). Yet she recommended this one. I simply had to read it.

Apparently, Jean Rhys had written a few novels in the ’20’s and ’30’s that had not been well received. Written in the same style as Wide Sargasso Sea (which has been classed as postmodern), they tapped into a sensibility not yet familiar to a wide readership. This book, which incorporates her firsthand knowledge of the setting from her own upbringing in Dominica, appeared in 1966, when she was 70. The adulation came too late, she said. She died a few years later.

My impressions: sad. Terribly sad. Lyrical. Evocative. Expertly crafted.

Expertly crafted: Wide Sargasso Sea is written from two points of view. The first section is narrated by Antoinette Cosway (who becomes Bertha Rochester). It establishes her as a Creole heiress in post-colonial Jamaica, living on an estate in decay. The second section places us inside young, British Mr. Rochester, who has been somewhat deceptively drawn into a marriage arranged by his father and Antoinette’s step-brother Richard Mason (who makes an appearance in Jane Eyre). Antoinette’s entire inheritance is transferred to Rochester upon their marriage. He narrates the book’s mid-section about their honeymoon. The short third section returns us to Antoinette’s perspective, bringing the book to its conclusion in the confinement of Thornfield, Rochester’s estate in England. Rhys works powerfully within the limits of these perspectives to create intrigue and suspense.

Evocative and lyrical: I could see the vivid colors and smell the fecundity of the tropical setting, all set forth with startling economy. The narrative is like a taut string, never a wasted word, every phrase spare and compressed, dialect and racial tensions and landscapes both interior and exterior conveyed vividly. In some ways it’s like reading a long poem.

Sad: So sad. The Eden is an Eden in decay. The beauty is preyed upon. The passion destroys. I guess the standard way of seeing this novel is to take a feminist reading and see Bertha as destroyed by a patriarchal society, but I have to say that I thought both parties in this marriage were victims. In this sense it’s consistent with the explanation Rochester gives Jane in Bronte’s novel. It’s beautiful in its way, rich and powerful. But I’m not sure I would say I enjoyed reading it. “Call me perverse, but I’ve always identified with heroines who suffer before they succeed,” writes Paretsky. Me too. The trouble is, this heroine never succeeds.