Books for Brave Girls

If children can keep their wits about them and are brave,
they can always help in some way, my dear.
We don’t have such dreadful wars now; but the
dear God knows we have troubles enough,
and need all our courage and faith to be patient
in times like these.

In Trudel’s Siege, a book written by Louisa May Alcott when she was sixteen (1848), sickness, poverty and hunger lay siege on Trudel’s family. Her father, a linen weaver, is too sick to work; her mother, a lacemaker, cannot work while she nurses her husband; the old Grootmoeder could only knit stockings to sell. Inspired by the story of the siege of Leiden, Trudel looks for ways she can get food for her family. She gives her precious kitty, Jan, to the baker’s family in exchange for bread, sausage and milk. She goes out looking for odd jobs she can do in exchange for food. 

I can hear modern objections to this story: Why isn’t this girl in school? No child should have the burden of providing for the family! Where were social services?

I actually find the self-reliance, tempered with faith in God’s provision, very refreshing. So it’s a twinge too earnest. Trudel struggles with her sacrifices…for one minute. Such selflessness is usually only found in books. But Trudel’s satisfaction—her compensation—comes as she sees her parents and grandmother’s hunger abated. Alcott improves with age: who can forget Jo March’s satisfaction/sorrow when she sells her hair?

 

Carol Ryrie Brink’s book Baby Island (1937) could be Robinson Crusoe: the Young Mommy Edition. I found the Foreword essential for a modern reader to get this book.

When I was a small girl, it was the fashion in our circle
to borrow the neighbors’ babies. I myself was never a
very accomplished nursemaid, although I had many happy
hours pushing the perambulator of a young cousin; but
some of my friends had a positive genius for taking care
of and amusing babies. They never thought of receiving
pay for this delightful pastime. Minding a baby was its own reward.

When the ocean liner is sinking, twelve year old Mary Wallace’s first thought is to save the babies she has made friends with. She wakes her sister Jean, ten, and they find the twin toddlers and three-month old baby unattended. After scooping them up and getting in a lifeboat, a father gives them another toddler to hold while he returns for his wife. Suddenly they are cast off and adrift on the ocean.  

Mary is certain they will reach a little island.

Why the public library at home is just full of books about
shipwrecked people who landed on tropical islands. And
did you ever see a book written by a person who was
drowned at sea? I never did.

Whenever Jean gives way to tears, Mary rallies the troops:

Remember who you are.
Remember you are a Wallace.
Sing ‘Scots, Wha Hae wi’ Wallace Bled!’
and you’ll be all right.

The supplies, especially the canned milk, in the lifeboat sustain them until they land on a island. They build a shelter, find more food, build a pram and a playpen, while the baby gets a tooth, the toddler learns to walk and the twins start talking. They learn very practical knowledge of tides, “more today than I ever learned in school.” Mr. Peterkin, an old curmudgeon, lives on the other side of the island with his goat and parrot. 

It’s a whimsical book. Diapers—the need for or the stink or the cleaning of—are never mentioned. And yet I find parts of it plausible. When I was twelve, another twelve-year-old and I ran a day care center for the counselors’ kids at a summer camp. I marvel now to think of the responsibility we had, but at the end of the week all was well. 

What I loved about this book was the way Mary Wallace thought of the needs of others and how that kept her occupied and how her occupation kept her form sniffling and whining. Carol Ryrie Brink writes that her grandmother is in every book. Caddie Woodlawn is based on her grandmother’s childhood, but the spunk and resourcefulness of Mary Wallace is another clear reflection.

It strikes me that in both titles the girls are fortified by stories from books.  We must never stop reading good stories to our kids.

 

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Satisfaction of Daylight and Dark

 

She worked hard
and managed her life
with dignity and good humor.
What did she get out of it?
A step-by-step and day-by-day satisfaction of daylight and dark,
of turning seasons,
of gardens and flowers and friendly animals,
of sharp knives and clocks that were on time,
of well-baked bread
and a properly stuffed and roasted chicken,
of rich memories of a happy childhood.

 

Carol Ryrie Brink describes her Gram, who, she says “has crept into nearly every book that I have written. Sometimes she is the chief character, sometimes she has a minor part; sometimes she is young, sometimes she is old.” I have enjoyed getting to know Carol’s Gram, whom I first met in the delightful Wisconsin frontier book, Caddie Woodlawn. If you love Laura Ingalls Wilder, you will love Caddie Woodlawn. With a picture of Gram in my head, I’m eager to re-read the story of her childhood.   

The quote above comes from A Chain of Hands, Brink’s final book, published posthumously. This book is a series of vignettes about the hands that touched and transformed Carol Ryrie Brink’s life.

What strikes me about Gram, is that her granddaughter could write this about a woman who had experienced a truck-load of tragedy. Her husband had been murdered “just after he had let his insurance policy lapse.” She lost five children in their infancy. Her daughter (Carol Ryrie Brink’s mother) killed herself after a bad second marriage. She raised or partly raised three grandchildren. Yes, this is Caddie Woodlawn’s life!

…but it was impossible to live with her
and not be infected with some of
her honor
and justice
and good humor.

 

Two Are Better Than One

 

I haven’t read your novel, but I can imagine what it’s like.
I think it is an excellent exercise in the use of your imaginations.
I’m pleased with you for writing it.
But now you must begin to look around you here at home.
Use all of your senses to find out what kind of a place you are living in.
Ask yourself how it smells, how it tastes, how it sounds,
as well as how it looks.
Then someday when you wish to write real books,
you will put your real experiences into them.
You will not need to go to imaginary countries half the world away
for your material. Perhaps someday you will even write
about this very year in your lives in Idaho. 180

My friend Noel and I were sitting in her van, waiting for the key to a building. As we chatted, she looked straight ahead and said, “Carol Ryrie Brink grew up in that house. You know the author of Caddie Woodlawn?” My eyes widened as I nodded. At one time I loved Caddie Woodlawn more than Laura Ingalls. “She wrote several adult novels about the early days of Moscow,” Noel continued. “You might like them.”  I put the titles on my wishlist and waited. This summer I am on a Carol Ryrie Brink reading streak. Before I began her trilogy about Moscow, ID, I read a little-known children’s book.

Two are Better Than One is a superb story for girls in that delicate time between dolls and bras.  Chrystal Reese and Cordelia Lark live a few blocks apart in the early 1900’s. Chrys is alone with her aunt and grandmother in a quiet house. Cordy lives with her dad and mom and four older brothers in a bustling house. When they aren’t playing with dolls, or going to Dorcas Club meetings, or exclaiming “Swellissimus!”, Chrys and Cordy decide to write a novel—by taking turns writing a chapter— about two dolls: The Romantical Perils of Lester and Lynette. This novel, included in the book with its juvenile spelling and construction gave me the loudest horse laugh:

“Lester!” screamed Lynette, trying hard not to swoon,
“You have come in the very niche of time.” 85

Miss Hickenlooper, a new teacher, is a problem. She doesn’t understand them, even confiscates the miniature dolls. The girls nourish their grievance by writing a hate poem. She discovers the poem, the girls see the hurt they’ve afflicted. This section has stuck with me weeks after I finished the book. Here a few snippets from that scene:

All along they had thought of Miss Hickenlooper as their enemy,
a comical one to be sure, but an enemy nevertheless.
And now she seemed to be not an enemy or even a villain
but just a person who had been mocked and hurt
by a couple of girls. 52

 
…we didn’t mean it for hate.
We thought it was—well, sort of funny.
It made us feel better.
We didn’t think about how you would feel. 53

The girls go to some parties and begin to neglect the dolls. They serve punch at a college dance. The novel gets finished and Chrys and Cordy decide to stage a wedding for the dolls. This back and forth between the little girl and the almost grown-up mimics the conflict I’ve witnessed in adolescent girls. 

As I get to know Carol Ryrie Brink, I see many autobiographical elements in this sweet story of friendship. The dedication is “…for Charlotte. She, better than anyone else, will be able to sift through all the make-believe and find the grains of truth.”  Like dear Laura Ingalls, the story of Chrys and Cordy harks back to a time when a girl had to learn how “to keep herself happy and amused.”