In the High Peaks

Friday, May 30, 2014

Private Peaceful -- World War I Literature

I was extraordinarily moved by Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful. I was immeasurably affected by the entire novel, partly because a sizeable chunk of the 192 pages was about a tenant family living on a manorial estate in England during the years leading up to World War I. The novel, told from the point of view of the youngest brother within that family, comes charged with all the injustices and the benefits of growing up in the English countryside during the Edwardian era. The other sizeable chunk of the book focused on the older brother and the youngest fighting in the British army on the front lines in World War I Belgium and France.

I emphasize the first "chunk" of the book because it clearly lays out the hierarchical class structure that ruled the rural landscapes of many regions in England prior to World War I. The manorial "head" of the estate, in this case, was known as "The Colonel," and he ruled, absolutely, and often without fairness, over all the farmers and other tenants who supported his estate with their labor. It would not be exaggerating to say that The Colonel proves himself to be unjust, uncaring, and downright heartless and cruel in many of the dealings that erupt between him and his tenants.

Yet the Peaceful family: Charlie; Tommo the youngest; their oldest, mentally handicapped brother Big Joe,  their courageous mother Mrs. Peaceful, and their close neighbor and friend Molly all manage to secure a warm, vibrant, enriching family life on the estate, full of all the wondrous experiences that rural life provides, and all in spite of the overbearing presence of The Colonel.

When war comes, Tommo feels shamed into enlisting, although he is a mere 15? or 16-year-old. His older brother Charlie also enlists, of course, although his recent marriage to Molly, with a child on the way, makes him loathe to leave home.

Again, British hierarchical rule comes into play in the army, which makes the infantryman absolutely powerless. At first Charlie and Tommo are blessed with an upper-class lieutenant who is a true leader and knows how to get the most from his men without resorting to abuse and terror. When this officer is wounded and leaves the front, he is replaced with a loathsome sergeant who believes wholeheartedly that abuse of his men makes them stronger. Charlie protects his fellow soldiers by refusing to obey suicidal orders, and eventually the sergeant charges him with mutinous behavior because Charlie insisted on staying with the badly wounded Tommo until darkness provided more safety. Charlie, as he knew he would, suffered the direst penalty for common sense and loyalty to his comrades. He is court-martialed and sentenced to death by firing squad.

I do not feel I'm betraying a story spoiler because Morpurgo's purpose in writing this book was to highlight attention on the fact that   British soldiers were sentenced to death even though many of them suffered from "shell-shock," battle fatigue, and, in two cases, for falling asleep while on sentry duty. Shot by a firing squad of their own comrades. Heinous.

Morpurgo's "case" or point is that because of these statistics, these men should be pardoned and exonerated by the British military and the British government. At the time of the publication of Private Peaceful, 2003, this official step had not been taken, but, by gosh, isn't this the year to do it if it hasn't been done already? Please alert me if it has been done. I may not be aware.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

World War I: What Are You Reading?

Tomorrow I'll be posting my entry about Private Peaceful, which is only half done at the moment. It won't be finished tonight, so I'll post it tomorrow, which is the due date for Caroline's Literature and War Readalong. Please refer to the blog "Beauty is a Sleeping Cat" in the "Blogs of Substance" list to the right.

So World War I Reading: Have you read or are you planning to read the books I hope to read?
1. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.
2. Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger   (Do you know of anyone who is reading or who has read this German World War I Classic?)
I have the Penguin classic Storm of Steel from the library. Unfortunately the library system's only copy is in a dreadful state. I'm contemplating ordering a copy. What were your views of this book?

In January 1972 I purchased a wonderful volume of Wilfred Owen's poems, which I still proudly own. I was so hungry for it, as a 19-year-old living during the Vietnam War era. Owen wrote so courageously about living amidst constant death and annihilation, which made my 19-year-old self sit up and take notice. He was my favorite WWI writer of that time. Poetry about suffering spoke to me strongly. Have you read Wilfred Owen?

I read Sassoon at that time, e.e. cummings, Robert Graves, and many, many more, all because I took a 4-week winter intensive course in World War I literature at my college of the moment--this was my first year of college, the year before I attended the college that let me be me, the college that made all the difference. Unfortunately, in 1972, at the first college, the young professor believed he held the #1 cornerstone on suffering, so he lectured to us for 3 hours a day, five days a week, without ever letting a single one of us students say a single word. The hubris of it, really. And, if you can imagine, a bit later, he slept with my roommate in the dorm. Enough said about literary authority.

Because I came from a top-notch high school and had been enthusiastically encouraged to speak my mind, I rebelled by knitting a vest throughout these 3-hour monologues in the winter World War I Lit course. Professor was not too pleased, but he did not tell me to stop knitting. It was a pass/fail course, so I did not worry.

I learned nothing from this professor, but I gained a tremendous amount  of knowledge from the readings. I felt a unique kinship with Owen and the pain he painted so vividly in his poetry.

To this day, I continue to identify strongly with the suffering of soldiers. I feel I understand everything they say, and experience a strange kinship, though I've never been on an actual battlefield. How about you?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Teetering Pile of Books Threatening to Collapse

New books and exciting older books are tumbling across my path these days, and wouldn't you know, I started teaching an intensive summer Children's and YA lit course on Monday, which leaves me little time to read. My non-work-related or pure pleasure reading has taken a hit from late winter on. Yet the books haven't stopped coming.

The Train to Warsaw by Gwen Edelman is the book I feel I must read as soon as I've finished Private Peaceful. I have found a lot to savor in the sub-genre of Holocaust fiction focused on showing the repercussions, the sequelae, the legacy of being very young survivors over the course of a lifespan. The Train to Warsaw is about a man and a woman who escaped from Warsaw when they were very young. They were then separated and reunited, married, and lived a lifespan in London. Over 40 years later, they both return to Warsaw, where the husband, a writer, has been invited to speak. And off they go. At 190 pages, with not many words per page, and poetic words at that, I was immediately drawn to the book. I must finish it over this long weekend.

How I wish I could squeeze in a thorough read of the English historian Ian Mortimer's remarkable work, The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England. When my eye caught this title on the New Nonfiction library shelf, a book I wouldn't have glanced at a year ago suddenly riveted me. First off, the author is an authority on his subject. He has a BA, a PhD, and a DLitt degree from Exeter University as well as an MA in archive studies from university College London. His achievements go on from there. The credentials gave me confidence in the book. So the connection:
In the past 5 months, I have been researching my mother's family relentlessly, that is, in a genealogical sense. This quest has led me to pursue a new, intense interest in 17th-century colonial Massachusetts and New England history, apart from my family. Now bear with me--I know that statement promises that ultra-boring statements will follow.

As it turns out, though, except for one 1620 Mayflower ancestor, all of my mother's ancestors were Puritans who fled East Anglia for  Massachusetts during the Great Migration from 1629-1640, during the reign of Charles I. This group fled religious persecution, primarily. However, some of the emigrants were born in the late 1500s or had parents who were born at that time. From my studies, it's amazing to read how English culture, folklore, superstitions, old sayings, societal norms--everything was transplanted and remained important in the families and in the overall society and culture of English colonists of Massachusetts.

Well, red lights sparked for me because my mom's family farmed in the same area of Massachusetts for over 300 years. She grew up on a farm within 25 miles of all the farms where all of her ancestors back to the 17th century did. Her direct ancestors did not move on, though many of the sons of these prolific families did.  My mom's family held tight to many, many of their customs. They married each other. My mother's parents discovered that they were not only third cousins, they were fourth cousins, fifth cousins, and sixth cousins. So until I discovered these amazing facts, I did not realize that many of the old sayings and customs common to my mom's family came from East Anglia. This knowledge came from a superb history written by the renowned U.S. historian David Hackett Fisher entitled Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. One-fourth of the book is devoted to the East Anglian origins of Puritan Massachusetts settlers. And, naturally, much of their way of living connects strongly with the ways of life prominent during the Elizabethan era.

My next phone conversation with Mom: Did you ever wonder where the compulsion for the four o'clock tea time came from?

I've just scratched the surface with my overwhelming pile of books. Maybe another post this weekend?

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Glenn Greenwald Links in Place Now--Scroll Down.

Please refer to Saturday's blog post for the three links I was not able to provide at the time of publication. They're there now! Enjoy.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Swamped with WWI, YA Lit, and Edward Snowden

Regarding the World War I 100th anniversary, I finally ordered and received a book I've been meaning to read for years. I know it's a title that many of you have read: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. It is on my "Must Read This Summer or Die" List. It would be lovely if I could start it sooner, but I'm reading lots for the Children's Literature summer course I'm teaching starting Monday and I'm in the middle of several other wonderful books.

I wish, I wish I could get my copy of Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo for Caroline's Month of May Literature and War Readalong. But it sits waiting for me at Crandall Library, in our nearest city, and I haven't been able to get there. Time is running out! I'm still hopeful--Ken must visit the city tomorrow. Maybe I can bribe him to go out of his way to pick it up? I hate to make him go out of his way to feed my reading habit, but I think he'd also like this book.

Okay. I'm also desperate to read Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel, the German World War I classic. It's waiting for me at Crandall Library, too.

Meanwhile, I'm zipping through the 21st-century YA classic, Looking for Alaska by John Green, which won the American Library Association's highest award for YA literature, the Michael Printz Award. It is also a huge cross-over adult bestseller. And it's been hugely censored and challenged for use in high-school English classrooms all over the US, despite the fact it is still, still, a YA bestselling classic in 2014, nine years after its publication in 2005.

And last on my list to talk about this week is the just published, soon-to-be  #1 nonfiction book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald (Greenwald's blog link), the former US constitutional lawyer and columnist for The Guardian (until October 2013), and the only journalist whom Edward Snowden entrusted with the tens of thousands of U.S. "secret" documents that he seized for the purpose of informing the public of the U.S. government's Homeland Security Office top-secret surveillance of U.S. and foreign agencies and citizens. I heard Greenwald interviewed on National Public Radio's Fresh Air program on Wednesday, and I was so intrigued, I drove to a bookstore and bought it. Now I just need TIME, that most precious commodity, to read it. Fascinating article in Rolling Stone
And for the New York Times review, here's the link.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Falling Dumbly and Blindly upon Jenna Blum's Those Who Save Us

It's extraordinary--today B&N sent me notice of a Nook discount on Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. I was  fascinated by the snynopsis, dying to read it, and thought I had it in the house and had read it.  Hmmm...

After much investigation of my public blog and personal files, it turned out that I confused this title with Sarah's Key by Tatiana De Rosnay, a book I suffered through, though I was thrilled to read it. So I immediately raced upstairs, straight to the paperback Those Who Save Us, only to realize that I purchased it in Boston in 2005, months before moving to our present home in the Adirondacks. I realized as I flipped through the pages that I had never read it. The paperback is pristine, the book obviously never touched. And here I'd thought, in the dim, dark reaches of the back of my brain, that I had read it, though the IT was actually Sarah's Key, a book I definitely read in 2010 but must have borrowed from the library. How weird!

Needless to say, because I was so swept up this morning in the description of Those Who Save Us, I'm thrilled to have the novel right next to me this minute. How serendipitous! I will plunge in to Blum's novel immediately. After the Readathon, I am in need of a dramatic novel that will capture my imagination. Please follow the links if you're interested.