Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Book: The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

Happy Thanksgiving!

On tomorrow’s Thanksgiving Americans (Canadians do so earlier) gather their extended families to show gratitude for nature’s bounty. We also thank Native Americans for sharing food with the new settlers, saving them from starvation. The Colonists repaid the Natives with smallpox.

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich tells the American story of survival from the Native perspective. It reads like the missing companion to Laura Ingall's Wilder's Little House books for young readers. Both feature lovely black and white drawings, fascinating descriptions of 19th century family life and harrowing tales with bright touches of humor. Who knew that Louise Erdrich was an artist too?

The protagonist, Omakayas, is not quite eight, but the story of surviving smallpox during a hard winter has broad age appeal. It could be read aloud to a younger child or read independently by a 9-12 year old. Omakayas’s special relationships with a crow and the bear cubs on her island would have made this book a favorite when I was younger. My daughter’s sixth grade class read it over the summer. She loved it and urged me to read it too.

Here's my daughter's review:

I very much did enjoy the Birchbark House. We read it for school, but I was introduced to it by my best friend in about third grade.

The protagonist is very interesting and thinks in a whimsical fashion, thinking very carefully and hopping about the woods, as she is only seven years old but very responsible. Omakayas is her name and throughout this lovely book she communicates with bears, picks berries and lives through the theme of the book which happens to be, in my opinion, seasons. However, there are various other sub-themes like stories, family, and nature.

The book was easily read, as I am twelve, and I read more difficult, complex books, but it was written well. The plot at some times kept you edging off your seat and biting your lip to see what happens next but at other times is very smooth and pleasant, as they collect wood to build their house and build it throughout each season.

As an adult, I appreciated Erdrich’s insight into native culture and the issue of encroachment. It’s rare that I can’t find a flaw in a novel, but The Birchbark House is flawless: beautifully written, lovable characters, emotionally charged and a worthy issue. It was a National Book Award finalist. It should be required reading for all Americans. Share it with your family over the holidays.

From Chapter 12 Maple Sugar Time:
“Omakayas grinned. Her smile was now whole - new teeth had grown in over the winter. She was older. Soon, spring plants would poke up through dead leaves. The curled head of ferns. Buds, roots, fresh new leaves. Fat lake trout would sleepily rise from the bottom, hungry to be caught. They would be able to think of something other than the next bite of food. They would live again, truly live.”
Author Louise Erdrich is part of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa and has written many novels on the Native American experience. For adults, my two favorites were Tracks and Love Medicine. I also loved her memoir on writing and motherhood, The Blue Jay’s Dance.  The Birchbark House is middle grade fiction, intended for children 8-12.

Speaking of talented middle grade authors, I had a lovely time with my neighbor, author Cynthia Lord. Last week we went out for the evening to talk about life and books. Cindy is the author of Newbury Honor winning Rules. Next week I’ll be interviewing another middle grade author Barrie Summy, who hosts the Book Review Club, and reviewing her soon to be released “i so don’t do spooky.” If you’re looking for good gift ideas for young readers….

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton: found for real in London

Walking up Drayton Gardens, a residential road in London, we saw a little house, wedged between townhouses. Above the ancient door was a mural of the house’s pastoral grandeur. Like the shepherd at the gate, I stopped in my tracks. Tears welled up in my eyes.

Growing up in Manhattan, one of my favorite books was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. My father saved it from his childhood collection. He would have been 6 and living in Manhattan too when it was released in 1942.

Sadly that first edition book did not survive my children. I cried the day I found the yellowed pages scattered in the nursery. I replaced it and supervised picture book reading after that.

The Little House is an American tale of a small pink house in the country. She sees the distant lights of the city and wonders what it would be like to live there. Over the years, the city sprawls towards her. Abandoned by the family who built her, she grows derelict and is trapped between skyscrapers, no longer able to see the stars at all.
“Then one fine morning in Spring along came the great-great-great-grandaughter of the man who built the Little House so well. She saw the shabby Little House, but didn’t hurry by.”
The Little House was published in 1942, but the story feels like a current tale of urban sprawl. Burton’s gorgeous illustrations remind me of another favorite artist, Grandma Moses. Her words are both poetic and visionary. The Little House won the Caldecott Medal in 1943.

Back in the 1970s, my family lived in a brownstone in a vanishing neighborhood of low-rise buildings. The old wood frame building next door, one of the last remaining in the city, was torn down to build a “pencil building” before laws banned them. Pencil buildings were mini-apartment buildings, built on a single lot.

On the avenues, rows of century old townhouses were razed to build luxury condominium high-rises. The Old World feeling of Yorkville became Upper East Side posh. Today there are no more children playing unattended on the sidewalks. Brownstones remain midblock, wedged between huge apartment buildings.


Living in small town Maine now, I feel like the Little House dug up from the city and transported:

“ As the Little House settled down
on her new foundation,
she smiled happily.
Once again she could watch
the moon and the stars.
Once again she could watch
Spring and Summer
and Fall and Winter
come and go.
Once again
she was lived in
and taken care of.”

Virginia Lee Burton passed away in 1968, when I was just learning how to turn pages without tearing them. Burton’s picture books are still in print today through Houghton Mifflin. The Little House would make a special holiday gift for your child or grandchild. Of the many books I passed onto other children when mine got older, this one remains on my shelf and in my heart.

Do you have a favorite picture book from your childhood?

Book Award Watch: Tonight is the National Book Award. I'm rooting for Maine author Phillip Hoose.  Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice tells the true story of a teenaged girl who refused to give her seat to a white woman on the bus. Colvin was jailed 9 months before Rosa Parks and went on to testify in court against segregation. Hoose interviewed Colvin to tell this true heroic tale, for the first time giving it the attention it deserves. Hoose's guest tonight is Colvin. I dare you to watch the video above with dry eyes.  Update: Phillip Hoose won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature - congratulations!

Shakespeare Watch: the Brunswick High School in Maine is performing Much Ado About Nothing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7pm and 2pm matinee on Saturday.  In addition to a ticket, bring one item of non-perishable food to contribute to the food drive.  Ten percent of ticket sales are also going towards the hunger drive, once costume costs are paid.  The kids are doing a great job with this delightful romantic comedy.  I've been observing rehearsals to research my young adult novel as u like it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Morse Mountain to Seawall Beach

Nature is an artist.
She sculpts with driftwood and paints with seasons.
Her canvas is Morse Mountain in Maine.

The trail is a dirt road,

Traversing the marsh,

Climbing to a summit overlooking the ocean.
 Nature draws a portrait with water. 

She mixes ochre on her palette and drops splashes of cadmium red. 

Pine trees transition to dune grass.  Smell the ocean.

Clouds are brushstrokes on the sky.  Feel the wind.

Waves weave an ocean blanket.  Hear the surf.

Wet sand abstracts the sky.  See infinity.

Driftwood is sculpture.  Touch it.

Seawall Beach is her masterpiece. 
I only leave my footprints on the sand,
My words upon a page,
And her images in memory.

Happy Birthday to my brother!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Confessions of Edward Day by Valerie Martin

I have been immersing myself in theater lately: auditing a Bowdoin class on Shakespeare, renting Shakespeare movies, watching the high school rehearse Much Ado About Nothing and reading books on acting.

The Confessions of Edward Day by Valerie Martin is a fictional memoir of an actor in the 1970s. Curtains open on a group of struggling young actors, who have escaped the heat of lower Manhattan to hang out at a beach house.

Our hero is a narcissistic actor, Edward Day, who owes his life to his doppelganger, Guy Margate. Literally owes his life. Edward almost drowned.

Guy expects something in return for his heroic rescue. His demands escalate. The stakes get raised whenever Madeleine Delavergne enters the picture. She’s a beautiful and talented actress but tainted by neurosis. Madeleine is attracted to both Edward and Guy, two handsome actors who resemble one another. They form a love triangle with a sharp apex.

Edward Day is a story about envy, jealousy and creative genius. It centers on the gap between artistic perfection and real life. Valerie Martin explored these subjects before in her brilliant short story collection, The Unfinished Novel. Now she turns her lens from authors and artists to focus on actors. Martin writes beautifully about the ugliness of human nature.

Despite the heavy psychological underpinnings, Edward Day moves at a good pace and is entertaining. Martin’s extensive research (down to high set costs vs. low actor wages) makes the off-off Broadway scene come to life. Being 20-something in 70’s NYC was good fun despite the hardships.

Fans of theater will appreciate the way Martin weaves the plays into the narrative. The actor-characters quote Shakespeare and discuss method acting. The themes of the plays echo in the characters’ lives offstage.

Sometimes the theater-narrative connection is overplayed. There is an obvious connection between Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and our characters. Martin describes those links scene by scene to the point of interrupting the narrative flow. Trust the reader.

Still, I very much enjoyed The Confessions of Edward Day. If you haven’t sampled Valerie Martin yet, you are in for a treat:
“These lines drop from her lips without intonation, like a bag of chips falling into a vending machine when the correct code has been punched.”

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@Barrie Summy

Blog Watch: Barrie sent me 2 useful links that explain how the new Federal and Trade Commission (FTC) rules effective December 1, 2009 apply to bloggers who accept free products (like ARCs and books) and endorse them:
For an example, see MY BOOK REVIEW POLICY in my sidebar.  My disclosure policy has actually been there since last May when I blogged about Blog Ethics.

Here are some NYT articles on it: