Biography/Memoir

Book Review: The Real Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Harper, 2013

Reading The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne gave me more pleasure in a book than I’ve had in a very long time. I find that I’m really becoming fond of Jane, and not only because I love her novels. Perhaps part of it is having had just a glimpse of her own world in London and Bath—a real picture to replace my many imagined ones.

Jane Austen has always been an elusive figure for me. I know several of her novels inside and out, backwards and forwards. Yet even after reading biographies of the woman behind them, such as Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life, I couldn’t have told you much about her, other than the outline her life followed. Part of the problem surely lies in the fact that her sister Cassandra supposedly burned the bulk of Jane’s correspondence, so there are large gaps in Jane’s own commentary on her life. But some of the fault lies with the family as a whole, who, according to Byrne, “wanted to project the image of a Jane that was ‘discreet, decorous, and reticent.’”

We are left with the idea of a Jane Austen who led a highly circumscribed life, trapped in her spinsterhood and passively dependent upon her family for any socialization or promotion. As Byrne puts it, “in the popular imagination, Jane Austen spent nearly all her life sitting in a parsonage, working on her embroidery, gossiping about the neighbors and writing novels confined to ‘three or four families in a country village.’” Byrne thoroughly disproves this myth in The Real Jane Austen. Inspired by a scene in Mansfield Park describing the effect of “homey” objects and surroundings on Fanny Price, Byrne looks at eighteen objects that either belonged to Jane or affected her life in an important way. She paints a picture of a woman who is daring, worldly wise, well-traveled, happily independent, and connected to, rather than insulated from, the people and events in Europe and the British Empire.

Several portions of The Real Jane Austen truly bridged the gap for me between the Jane of biography and the Jane that “appears” in her novels. I have to be honest and say that the wry, all-knowing voice that I hear when I read can hardly be that of a lonely, sheltered spinster sitting in a parsonage.

The real Jane spent a good portion of her life traveling and visiting friends and relations scattered throughout England. She twice lived in Bath and had a brother in London with whom she several times stayed. She visited a relative of her mother’s who had inherited Stoneleigh Abbey, a grand estate in Warwickshire, and its house and grounds were an obvious inspiration for many fictional scenes. She loved the seaside, particularly the town of Lyme, and sight-seeing to places like Box Hill. These places and carriage scenes (which Jane must have experienced time and again) ground her novels in her own reality.

The real Jane had connections with the exotic world of British India and with revolutionary France, a circumstance which forever colored her opinions of the French. Her father’s sister, orphaned and impoverished, sailed for India to try to find a husband. She not only found a husband, but perhaps also a lover—Warren Hastings, the first governor of India. Many speculated at the time that her only daughter was Hastings’ daughter. This daughter, Eliza, eventually married a French aristocrat and spent a period during the Revolution with the Austens while her husband tried to defend himself and his property in France. Jane certainly was not isolated from the wider British empire.

The real Jane had an intimate knowledge of the works performed on stage during her lifetime. The Austen family reveled in presenting amateur theatricals over the holidays and chose popular plays, which, surprising perhaps for a clergyman’s household, ran the gamut of content and moral tone. In this family atmosphere Jane began writing her own stories, which were far from the moralizing works we might expect from a clergyman’s daughter. Her experience of theatrical literature and their amateur productions is apparent in her novels, especially Mansfield Park.

The real Jane had two brothers at sea and one in the army, which explains why soldiers and sailors feature so prominently in her books. She had an aunt tried for shoplifting in Bath. She had a fair share of love interests and turned down (after accepting!) one very appealing proposal. Indeed, Byrne makes a reasonable case that the real Jane purposefully chose singleness in order to avoid the endless work and literal physical danger of marriage and childbirth.

Sir Walter Scott liked to read Jane Austen; he said she was “the first novelist in history to offer an accurate representation of ‘the current of ordinary life.’” He perceived that Austen’s characters are instantly recognizable as ‘real’ people.… He was thus the first to pinpoint in print one of the greatest qualities of Austen’s characters: the fact that we can all identify people like them among our own acquaintance.” Byrne demonstrates that Jane’s novels are this realistic because she mastered the art of transferring her own wide-ranging experiences and acquaintances onto the page. While her novels are far from autobiographical, her life informed them in an exceptionally rich way.

I think I would have liked the real Jane Austen. I might have been intimidated by her, but I think I would have liked her. She was pointedly honest, brave, and had a cheeky sense of humor. The Real Jane Austen was a treat to read; it was lively and just different enough from the typical biography to really propel the book forward. I’m ready now to buy my own copy of this book, read some of Jane’s favorite authors, and reread Mansfield Park (my least favorite of Jane’s novels) with a fresh, open mind. I’d say Paula Byrne accomplished a lot with her biography!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

charlotte bronte

Vintage, 2017.

I always have a hard time answering the question, “What’s your favorite book?” It’s kind of like trying to figure out my favorite food—there are just so many good ones out there. There’s a favorite for every mood and for every season of the year. But Jane Eyre always rises up to near the top and, if I’ve recently read it, it is the top. Jane Eyre is, perhaps, a cliché-sounding answer given my literary interests and my personality. It’s rather like Joe Fox assuming that Kathleen Kelly digs Pride and Prejudice and how he bets she “just loves that Mr. Darcy.” Yet it is terribly easy to come up with ways in which Jane Eyre is one of the best of all novels (Pride and Prejudice is, too!). It never disappoints in its vividness, its intensity, and primarily in the way in which its words reach to the very heart of human thought and emotion.

It’s hard to imagine such a novel coming from an author with inner solitude. And, come to find out, Charlotte Brontë herself embodied that impassioned spirit of her novels. She was intense, socially awkward, and endowed with what William Thackeray called “an impetuous honesty.” Yet I never realized how much—and how brazenly—she poured her experience into her work until I read Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman, my first Brontë biography.

The Brontës (all of them) were undeniably an awkward and puzzling, if genius, bunch. I had a brief introduction to them in the BBC drama To Walk Invisible, but even that dark and unflattering portrait failed to display the full extent of the Brontë family’s hardships and—honestly—weirdness. After reading A Fiery Heart, it seems like the themes of their literary production were a natural outpouring of their great hardships and losses.

“Charlotte was essentially a poet of suffering; she understood every corner of it, dwelt both on it and in it. In life, this propensity was a chronic burden; in her art, she let it speak to and comfort millions of others.”

Charlotte

Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery

Jane Eyre, the greatest of Charlotte’s creations, is a fiercely independent woman. Most of Charlotte’s females are. This doesn’t mean they are ultra-feminists; rather, it’s as if they are fierce in their forced independence. Charlotte and her sisters had responsibility thrust upon them almost from their earliest consciousness. Charlotte lost her mother at age five, her older sisters three years later, and her father was never an emotionally-steadying influence. His clergyman’s income was insufficient support for all of the adults living in the home, and it naturally fell upon women in the Brontë’s class to earn income by teaching, whether in a boarding school or as a governess. For Charlotte, this forced employment, which she came to despise, led her into great mental and physical distress. It was as if she felt her soul stifling in the life she had to lead. This gave her an air of fierceness in her social interactions, the way she expressed opinions, and the way she pursued relationships. This comes through in Jane Eyre’s conversations with Mr. Rochester and in her determination not to abuse her morality.

Charlotte’s female characters also suffer through impossible love—love that is unrequited or morally forbidden. Lucy Snowe agonizes over Monsieur Emanuel in Villette. Villette, I learned from A Fiery Heart, could be Charlotte’s autobiography. While studying at a boarding school in Brussels, Charlotte developed a great passion for the school director’s husband, Constantin Heger. He recognized her talent and encouraged it, but that was not enough for her. She sought a level of mental and spiritual communion impossible between a married man and his pupil. I felt shame for Charlotte in her inappropriate and blundering pursuit of Heger, her letters to him awful to read. Yet I was brokenhearted for this young girl that just wanted to be loved and to have someone recognize the real person inside her. She repeated the process a second time when she assumed a relationship between herself and her publisher, George Smith. This relationship, however, does not seem to have left as many scars, for it was Heger that ended up in Villette.

I get the sense from a A Fiery Heart that several of the Brontë siblings, Charlotte included, must have suffered from mental illness, although Harman never calls it anything other than a vague sense of “depression.” Their personal losses were staggering, watching a mother and two siblings die while they were young. And then Charlotte endured the deaths of her other three siblings—first Branwell, then Emily and Anne—in rapid succession. I feel like Branwell never stood a chance of success between having a sense of entitlement and suffering from what must have been something like PTSD. Emily and Anne never wanted to leave home. Charlotte herself suffered extreme health anxiety for herself and her sisters in adulthood, and no wonder.

I believe, then, that Charlotte’s acute suffering drove her success as a writer. Undoubtedly good writing comes from great perception and an appreciation of beauty or psychology or whatever truth the writer wants to focus on. But for Charlotte her suffering became her art. She suffered “over how she would ever accommodate her strong feelings—whether of love for Heger, or her intellectual passions, or her anger at circumstances and feelings of thwarted destiny—in the life that life seemed to have in store for her, one of patchy, unsatisfying employment, loneliness and hard work.” Harman says of Villette that “all her life’s suffering” went into it, but I think that it could as easily be said of Jane Eyre, too. Her novels “travelled inward, not outward … [and] reached psychological depths never attempted in fiction before.” Here was Charlotte’s travail in the birth of the modern novel.

As a present-day reader, I have always assumed that Jane Eyre held a certain Victorian sensibility, an inevitable moral message. I assumed that by having a heroine with enough moral courage to refuse illicit love that Victorians would have loved and applauded it. I have never thought of it until now as “cutting-edge.” But contemporary readers were shocked by it—shocked by its raw passion and its rage against society as Jane found it.

Reading A Fiery Heart has changed the way I view Charlotte and will change the way I read her books. It’s time to revisit Villette and try The Professor. The story of her life—and death—is a haunting one. I am glad she lives on in her words.

★ ★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Hemings

Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. W. W. Norton, 2009.

A couple of months ago, Sally Hemings meant nothing more to me than a political “distraction”—a woman who, like Monica Lewinsky in the 1990s, was used as a weapon to disparage the character of the sitting president. When allegations are made against a famous person, I never know who is telling the truth. Hype can be manufactured, facts distorted, words twisted beyond all meaning. All I knew was that Sally Hemings was a fallen woman—an unmarried slave, perhaps a temptress, in a scandalous relationship with Thomas Jefferson.

I recently listened to an episode of “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” podcast featuring historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf discussing their collaborative work in “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs:” Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. When I looked for the book at the library it was unavailable, but they had another by Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. I had seen the book cover before and assumed it was more of the speculative fiction I’ve seen on the topic. Finding it on the non-fiction shelf instead, I picked it up.

I did not make it far into the book before Gordon-Reed overturned all of my misconceptions about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. The parallels I drew off-hand between Sally and Monica Lewinsky broke down quickly in the light of Gordon-Reed’s interpretations. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family humanized the players, both black and white, in the Hemings and Jefferson story and showed me several of my own historical blindspots.

According to Gordon-Reed, the story of Sally—the most well-known Hemings—is incomplete without telling the story of her family, beginning with her grandmother and ending with her own siblings and children with Thomas Jefferson. The family’s history shows how cruel and perverse American slavery was and how inextricably linked the black and white races were in the South, all the way down to the family level. Sally’s grandmother, an African brought as a slave to Virginia, had a child with a white man, a Captain Hemings. Their daughter Elizabeth lived for many years as her owner John Wayles’s “concubine,” bearing him many children, one of whom was Sally Hemings. Thomas Jefferson married Wayles’s white daughter Martha and, through their marriage, acquired Elizabeth and her children and moved them to Monticello. Put another way, Sally and her siblings were slaves owned by their half-sister Martha.

After Martha’s death, Jefferson’s political career took off and he served as Ambassador to France for nearly a decade. For part of that time, Sally lived in Jefferson’s household in Paris. At some point in Paris, Sally and Jefferson entered into a sexual relationship; Sally was pregnant with their first child when the household prepared to return to Virginia. Sally and Jefferson reached an agreement, a “treaty,” in which she would willingly continue in their relationship in exchange for Jefferson’s granting their children’s freedom when they reached adulthood. In time, Jefferson fulfilled the agreement.

This is only a brief glance at the family history, and the facts alone leave behind a bad taste. But beneath this outline lie layers of meaning and subtleties lost over time. Starting with the facts (including the DNA evidence that Sally’s children were Jefferson’s children), Gordon-Reed connects the dots, bridging the psychological gaps between known events and turning Jefferson, Sally, and all of the Hemingses back into real people with thoughts and emotions. It is hard to condense what takes Gordon-Reed hundreds of pages to say, but the central idea, I believe, is this: the relationship between Jefferson and Sally was, in all likelihood, not what it is (or was) popularly thought to be. And because they were two very real people, it is worth trying to discover the truth. There is, of course, a lot of extended conjecture involved, but in Gordon-Reed’s words, we can “reference what we know of human beings as we try to reconstruct and establish a context for their lives.”

According to Gordon-Reed’s construction, it is vital to remember the context of Jefferson’s relationship with the Hemings family. Jefferson, a man who was always torn between his enlightened ideals and his dependence upon slavery, found a middle ground at Monticello where he could live with the enslaved Hemings family in a way that did not injure his conscience. He treated them in what he considered to be an enlightened manner; we can assume he treated Sally the same way.

In Paris, where their relationship began, Jefferson allowed Sally to earn a salary and enjoy a freedom of movement unknown to her counterparts in Virginia. In France, she was free to leave slavery and continue her independence with the legal backing of the French government. At Jefferson’s request, she did not. This fact, coupled with Jefferson’s temperament and personality, makes it unlikely that he coerced her into a sexual relationship. It is likely, instead, that they formed a genuine attachment.

Jefferson and Sally created as conventional a relationship as possible, given the constraints of their eighteenth-century slave society. Sally used their attachment to bargain for her position in the household and the eventual freedom of any children they had together. Marriage, of course, was not an option between a master and a slave. Sally could never be the respectable society wife that Martha Jefferson had been. But she could fill many other “wifely” roles—lover, companion, mother, and housekeeper. So she requested a “treaty” (their son’s word for the agreement) to formalize their relationship in the absence of marriage. They then lived in a faithful marriage-like relationship for over thirty years until Jefferson’s death.

Jefferson prepared his children with Sally for a life of what we would call “middle class” independence. Knowing that they were only one-eighth African and would likely pass for white, he invested years in their training in respectable trades. Gordon-Reed points out the irony in Jefferson’s public belief in the impossibility of moving slaves to freedom in one generation, while accomplishing it for his own children.

The Hemingses of Monticello was an intriguing read for me. Not only did Gordon-Reed turn my expectations on their head, she told a great story about the people behind the facts. I found the narrative fresh because she avoided the many de-humanizing stereotypes about slaves and she wasn’t afraid to look at Jefferson’s character in a new way. It was interesting to think, for example, of Jefferson in Enlightenment Paris, where he was a relatively small-time provincial man trying to camouflage his dependence upon an antiquated labor system. Seeing him in that light knocked him down off of that “Founding Father” pedestal too often used in Revolutionary history. I was also impressed with how Gordon-Reed managed to walk a fine line between advocating for the humanity of slaves and turning the slaveholder Jefferson into a monster. 

The Hemingses of Monticello is not a perfect book. It took a long time to get through and sometimes it was repetitive. A few times I found Gordon-Reed to be overly suspicious of the white people in the narrative. And I could not agree with every conclusion she drew. But the bottom line is, she came across as a historian who listens to the people of the past and thinks deeply about what she hears.

Book Review: French By Heart

French by heart

Rebecca Ramsey, French By Heart: An American Family’s Adventures in La Belle France. Broadway Books: 2007.

Buckling up on an airplane with the prospect of spending a glorious two-week vacation in a foreign country is one thing—one thing I have done and long to do again. It is another thing altogether to buckle up and move your entire life overseas. Ready for that? Hmmm. That is just what the Ramsey family did in French by Heart: An American Family’s Adventures in La Belle France.

My reaction to this book was literally a physical one. I made the mistake of cracking the cover open one night after everyone else was in bed. Within five minutes, my heart rate and blood pressure were way up. Sleep was a long way off.

Why such a reaction to this book with the cute, happy cover? Well, perhaps I identify in too many ways with the author, Rebecca Ramsey. Rebecca lives somewhere in Greer, South Carolina, a few miles from me, and her husband works for Michelin like mine does. Michelin moved Rebecca’s family to Clermont-Ferrand, France, a town I’ve visited twice and which you may remember I have already written about here. I don’t know Rebecca, but I do know that “moving to France” has not gone unmentioned in my house (albeit in a hazy, “alternate reality” kind of way).

So when Rebecca mentions mountains of paperwork, whirlwind French lessons, packing her piano onto a shipping container, and dubious looks from airline attendants at the mention of Clermont-Ferrand, I feel like I am looking at an “alternate reality” of my life. When I read about Rebecca understanding only half of what the people behind the counter at the bank are saying while everyone else stares at her, yes, my head vigorously nods, yes (only it happened to me at La Poste). When she stares at the sausage on her plate, spotting unfamiliar little lumps, my head again nods. And when she wanders the aisles of the bookstore, I, too, wander the same aisles in my head and think, oh, if only I could remember more French!

Rebecca and her husband, their three children (one of whom was still a baby), and their cat lived, worked, and went to school as a “normal” family in Clermont-Ferrand for four years. French by Heart is the story of how Rebecca—wife, mother, and neighbor—experienced France. It moves for the most part chronologically in exploring the strangeness of it all—the lack of toilets, the startling doctor’s office experiences, the smoking teenagers, the odd social habits, the unsmiling strangers (coming from the South, this would be really strange)—all of which, I’m sure, she included in order to scare me to death. On top of this is the always-hovering figure of the elderly neighbor, Madame Mallet, who watches Rebecca’s every move and criticizes every fault. Other than Rebecca, Madame Mallet is a central figure and the progression of their relationship—delving deeper and deeper beneath the crusty French exterior—is, I think, a mirror of Rebecca’s relationship with France itself.

There are moments in the book that fire up my imagination. Can you imagine, for instance, living five hours from Normandy and just popping up there for the weekend? Or having a winter break in the Alps? Or going antiquing for French antiques? Then there’s the Sunday afternoon hiking among the sunflower fields and the châteaux—sigh.

After reading, though, I was left feeling that Rebecca never did become “French by heart,” for during most of the book she is feeling either awkward, uncomfortable, or frustrated. I did not get a true sense of France or the heart of the French people. I’m not sure whether to put France out of my mind or say “Bring it on!” In all fairness, however, I am probably not the best candidate for reviewing this book. Given the connection I have with it, I am tuned to picking up on everything scary.

I need one of you out there to read it and tell me how French By Heart strikes you!

★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: Poirot and Me

Poirot and Me

David Suchet and Geoffrey Wansell, Poirot and Me. Headline: 2013.

I think most voracious readers agree that there is an uneasy relationship between books and the films made from them. We endlessly debate amongst ourselves, Is the book or the film better? For my part, movie adaptations make me uncomfortable; rarely is the movie better than the book. If it is a book I liked, chances are something valuable to me will be altered. I know it really can’t be helped; the two-to-three hour movie format usually means that some important details have to be dropped. But even if the book isn’t a favorite, I’ve already expended a lot of mental energy imagining the world of the book and it’s jarring to see it all rearranged on the screen.

I do realize, however, that a lot of the way people feel about films depends on which they encounter first—the book or the film. I watched the first few Harry Potter movies before I read the books, and when I got around to reading the books, it was a real treat. Nothing substantial changed and I enjoyed a much richer story. On the other hand, for someone who’s read Pride and Prejudice countless times the latest film adaptation starring Keira Knightley is très awful. Too much of the depth and subtlety of the book got the chop. But if you’ve never read the book, I suppose you might like the movie.

I’ve had these thoughts on my mind since I received a copy of Poirot and Me by David Suchet for Christmas last week. In Poirot and Me, David Suchet, the British actor who successfully filmed the entirety of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot canon for British television, chronicles his twenty-five-year career with the little Belgian detective. Suchet explains that acting the part of Poirot turned into more of a relationship with the character than a job, and his genuine sorrow at the end of that relationship prompted him to write this book.

A few pages in, Suchet says something that really struck me. It’s the “thesis” of his book, really. When he was offered the part, he had to admit that he didn’t know much of anything about Poirot. He’d never read one of Christie’s novels, and the film adaptations he had seen left him with the impression that Poirot was “a silly little man with a funny accent.” When he started to read the stories for himself from start to finish, he realized that Christie had created a man with a robust moral compass, a great kindness toward his fellow men, and who wasn’t at all meant to be funny. Taking the part of Poirot would fulfill what he believed to be his purpose as an actor—“to become the writer’s voice.” He wanted to show the world exactly who Agatha Christie made Poirot to be.

Suchet spent the next twenty-five years (on and off, of course) perfecting Poirot—his appearance, his walk, his accent, his facial expressions, his moral clarity. I had never thought before of how much work it is for an actor to represent a novelist’s character. After all, the script offers only the words. But Suchet took it upon himself to advocate for Christie’s Poirot, even though he knew he was annoying the directors and costumers who had their own ideas of who Poirot should be. He worked beyond the script to make Poirot a real man.

As I read Suchet’s recollections, it struck me just how good of a job he had done. I started watching the show in the 90s and also started reading Christie’s novels in the 90s. The fact that I don’t know which came first, how I can seamlessly move between the books and the films, is a testament to Suchet’s hard work. I realized that the Poirot on the screen is the Poirot in the book. I don’t struggle in my mind with which one is better.

For someone who has watched a majority of the TV show, Poirot and Me is an enjoyable catalog of the making of each episode and how Suchet filled the time between, along with a few charming anecdotes about the show’s fans. Perhaps if I were British I would have known this, but Suchet is also a well-known and awarded stage actor. Despite the Poirot role being the best-known of his career, Suchet has proven to be a versatile character actor. In fact, I don’t think I would enjoy many of the other roles he has played, so far are they from being like Poirot.

Suchet makes the case that, in many ways, his own character and Poirot’s are the same and that there were a few moments when he wasn’t sure which man was doing the talking. Even so, I did not feel that I got to know Suchet himself too much by the end, and would consider that the one downfall of the book. I appreciated the perspective he offered on the final few series that were filmed. I haven’t seen the last five episodes yet, but I feel that Poirot became darker and darker as the years went by. According to Suchet, this resulted from his and the new producers’ efforts to make the show as realistic and faithful to Agatha Christie as possible. I can respect that (all while missing the heart-warming feel of those early years).

If you have watched the Poirot films but never read any of the original stories, dive right in. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Or—if it’s vice-versa—I would honestly say the same thing. I’ll go out on a limb here and say the one is just as good as the other.

Book Review: The Oregon Trail, Round 2

 

The Oregon Trail

Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Simon & Schuster, 2015.

I was a real sucker for the new bestseller with “The Oregon Trail” blazing big and bold on its cover. I mean, I grew up deciding whether to ford or ferry the pixellated rivers of the American West and finding ways to save my supplies and hunt big game (and all too often having “John died of dysentery” pop up in front of me). This nerd was ready to relive the trail. But because I borrowed this title from the library in e-book format, I didn’t really read the cover when I clicked “borrow.” I was expecting a history of the Trail—but I ended up with much more. The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey is actually the story of a modern recrossing of the trail.

Rinker Buck, a worn-out, middle-aged journalist, tells of how he stumbled upon an Oregon Trail site after a trip to the west and experienced a sudden, crazy wanderlust. Then and there he decided to jump on the Trail and see for himself if it could be followed again end-to-end. So in the spring of 2011, after meticulously researching the Trail, Buck and his brother Nick bought a reproduction covered wagon, three powerful mules, and more Hormel chili than I’ll ever see in my lifetime. They hauled their stuff across the Missouri River into Kansas, hitched up the mules, and hit the road—er, Trail.

By Paul Hermans - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36739932

Scotts Bluff, NE. By Paul Hermans – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36739932

What follows is a blend of travelogue, history, and psychoanalysis. Day in, day out, Buck unfurls the landscape of the American Midwest and West along the Trail—a landscape not just of prairie, butte, and mountain, but of people, generous and hardy, that surround the Trail both today and in its history. The Buck brothers rely heavily on what Rinker calls their “Trail Family”—the men and women who welcome them into their homes and barns, advise them on their way, and show great care for the condition of the present Oregon Trail. [The Bucks travelled with no support team!] There’s no doubt Rinker relies on the ghosts of the Trail, as well, for vision and inspiration. He generously scatters pioneer accounts and the backstory of many Trail elements throughout the book. And on the deepest level, Rinker finds that traveling the Trail forces him to confront his motivations and his past, particularly his relationship with his father.

I have conflicting feelings about The Oregon Trail. Some elements just plain drove me nuts. Rinker is not always a likable narrator. Many times he’s just a grouchy, judgmental old man. He hates RVers and assumes they’re stupid (I don’t own one, but I don’t assume all the owners are stupid). He hates religion and isn’t afraid to say so. But I was most annoyed with the crudeness of his language. I DO realize that’s how a lot of people talk, but in a book like this it was excessive and unprofessional.

But there are parts of the book that are absolutely wonderful. Buck displays an appealing affection for the land, for his wagon, for his mules, and for his brother. I have just enough wanderlust in me, too, that I became addicted to the rhythm of the Trail and the magnificent, ever-changing landscape. I was ready to follow the Trail myself (in the car, of course). He also writes with honesty and raw emotion. The peak of emotion—when they reach Oregon and he realizes that he somehow has to disengage himself from his months-long adventure—I wanted to cry with him. And I never thought I’d feel sad about mules, but I hated to see him say goodbye to them, too. I was also inspired by the great number of Americans Buck met along the way who care about their heritage and have gone to great lengths to preserve and mark the Trail.

If you enjoy history, but aren’t looking for a scholarly work on the Oregon Trail, or if you’re looking for an armchair vacation in the American West, this book may be for you. I would be interested to hear your thoughts if you read it.

The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat“Spellbinding.” “Breathtaking.” “A Triumph.” All of those words that reviewers and authors throw at books in the front matter are absolutely true of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. It is one of the best books I’ve read in the last twelve months, if not one of the best books I’ve ever read in this genre.

If you’re like me, one of the most captivating aspects of the Olympics is the story films that run before the athletic events. These pieces explore the personalities of the athletes and the varied journeys that brought them to the Olympics. The Boys in the Boat is one of those films in book form, the difference being that you have hours to enjoy it.

The Boys in the Boat follows the story of a nine-man rowing crew from the University of Washington, with a specific focus on one oarsman, Joe Rantz. By some magic, Daniel Brown discovered Joe next door to his own property, living out his last days under the care of his daughter. Brown was spell-bound by Joe’s account and, happily for us, recorded it for history.

Joe’s story is similar to that of many other boys who came to adulthood during the Depression, and mirrors the lives of the boys that he rowed with in the Olympics. He grew up without money, without the love and support of family, yet somehow found the courage and backbone to care for himself, not ask for hand-outs, and work his way through college. He endured the emotional ups-and-downs of trying to make the varsity crew and then of pushing himself to make each race count. Through his eyes, we experience the wonder of those western boys as they saw the posh East Coast, and then Europe, for the first time. And looking back, we sense the eeriness of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Daniel Brown has a wonderful way with words. His evocative portrayal of Depression-era Washington state and America brings that period to life. He describes the sport of rowing in a poetic and inspiring way. He tells Joe’s story with great compassion and beauty, making the life of this extraordinary ordinary man so addictive I didn’t want to put the book down.

The Boys in the Boat is one of those books like Unbroken that I’ll be keeping on the shelf for my children to read when they grow older. I believe it is vitally important that our kids, who, for the most part, have it so very easy, learn from the examples of men like Joe who worked and worked to make a life, even when the odds were stacked against them.