From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties – Philip Oakes (1980)

book363I have no idea where I found this title – probably a random pick at the FoL sale one year – but the title jumped into my hands when I was scanning my bookshelves the other day. What it is, actually, is an autobiography of a man’s childhood in the 1930’s up in Stoke, near what’s called “The Potteries” in England.

It’s a pretty normal childhood – nothing too extremely bad or great – a fact that made it very easy for me to connect to the author and his life as explained by his writing. In fact, this certainly reminded me of “Cider with Rosie” (Laurie Lee, 1960), but this one with a more serious and slightly different tone to it.

Oakes’ childhood mainly took place in the 1930’s in England. It’s a time of childhood fun, but also the time is tinged with the unavoidable memory that WWII is just about to break out (1939), and so there is a persistent and vague sense of anticipation and excitement for Oakes. He is a child after all, and all he knows of war is what he’s read in books and heard from relatives similar, as Oakes describes, as the “excitement before a birthday party”…

Oakes’ family lived in the Potteries in northern England, an area known for its pottery industry (thus the moniker) and all that is associated with that: heavily working class, factories, smoke in the air (and the smell)… His mother was a single mother (a stigma in the 1930’s) who was also struggling with severe ill health, so money was tight.

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left...

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left…

However, the one thing that his relatives put above all else was the importance of a good education, so when young Philip was offered the opportunity to attend an elite private school down south, the family must have been so excited knowing that this was the chance for Philip to leave his childhood to become something more that was possible otherwise. (Not so sure about Philip!)

So he goes to boarding school down south which is of course a different world for him – new friends, new school, new uniform, new rules…

“Dawdling was not allowed. It frayed moral fiber. It encouraged idleness. It was the antithesis of all that Mr. Gibbon [school headmaster] stood for…”

The private boarding school takes both boys and girls, but the genders are divided by living in separate wings of the establishment so they rarely seem to meet. The narrative relates the antics enjoyed by Philip and his new friend Carpenter: they raid the kitchen late at night for midnight feasts (sometimes helped by the maids who were only a few years older), they scrump apples, and have a secret club in the boiler room… Very Enid Blyton (except not so cuddly and warm).

It’s the 1930’s but the school is very old-fashioned with a lengthy history – strict uniforms were the rule, an hour to write home on Sundays and expectations that pupils support their school houses in football/soccer by standing on the lines in the rain on dreary Saturday afternoons.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the memories that Oakes mentions happened to overlap with mine of life in my old private all-girls school (about 650 students) growing up in England even though it was fifty years later. (The more things change…) My twin sister and I attended the same school (along with 90% of our friends) from when we were 6 to until we finished our A-levels when we were 18. We were very lucky in many ways to have this experience and it’s one that I look back on with fondness most of the time.

My old school in England in 1982 - Bedford High School....

My old school in England in 1982 – Bedford High School….

Our school had very strict cultural rules which governed friendship, lunchtime, and all the other important parts of growing up in that milieu. Lunchtime rules and expectations was that whoever sat at the head of the table (and rules decided which end of the table was “head”) would serve lunch to the others sitting there and then after lunch, the playground opened up to another set of generally accepted rules. One lunch rule that I clearly remember was that the first person to touch the salt and pepper and say “veins” would also be immune from doing “the cloth” which referred to wiping down the table after lunch. (Gross at the best of times.) Anyway, these expectations weren’t really talked about but everyone was aware of them and generally followed them to the letter.

Oakes’ descriptions of the school’s morning assembly was really similar to how our school organized ours, even down to the typical hymns that were chosen on special occasions, the organ that accompanied them and the rows of school pupils listening to the headmaster (or mistress in our case) as s/he read the results of the cricket team, the date and topic of the next school debate, and asking who had engaged in minor misdemeanors such as a missing pair of gloves from someone’s coat pocket.

As I look back on that experience of going to a public (which means private in England) school in England, it was idyllic in a lot of ways as an educational experience, but I must admit that I did leave it feeling very unprepared to face the world. (It was generally assumed by the school that most pupils would be going to university, but if you weren’t one of the pupils who followed that well-worn path (i.e. me), the school wasn’t really focused on giving you tools to handle that. If you’re going to go to the Great Unknown such an American university (which we did), then you’re on your own, sister.

It’s great to live in a world with widely accepted rules and most of your friends in the same boat, but when that was the case (as in moi) and you leave that educational vacuum, it’s strange to need to make new friends and not have the comfort of a regimented class schedule.

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978...

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978… (I’m in the middle.)

Don’t get me wrong: I adored the experience of going to a private school and would probably have been eaten alive in a comprehensive if I needed to go there. If I had kids, I would try and replicate the social side of my old school life for them. It’s just that the whole school thing didn’t really give me the tools I would need to succeed once I’d stepped outside into the real world for the first time. (Sink or swim after that, my friends.)

However, lessons were learned, skills were developed, all is well and I expect that the overall school experience is very different now.

Way off track there wrt the book, but if you’re ever curious about life in private school in the early-mid twentieth century (and up to the 70s), then this book will give you a good idea. I really enjoyed it and it brought back many happy memories of school days. Recommend it.

So Long a Letter – Mariama Bâ (1980)

book333“…the path of life is not smooth; one is bruised by its sharp edges…”

This is an epistolary novel (swoon) written with the goal of bringing attention to women’s rights in Senegal and it’s certainly a powerful novel. The narrative is a collection of letters from the POV of a newly widowed wife whose husband has just died leaving two wives (herself and a much younger much newer one) and it gives a clear-eyed perspective into what it’s like to live as a woman in a polygamous culture. Her friend (to whom the letters are written) elects to leave her husband when he takes a second wife, even though doing so puts her at an economic and societal disadvantage — she must do what she must do to maintain her dignity. The narrator, on the other hand, has elected to stay with her husband when he chooses to take a second wife (although she hates having to accept this), and it is this comparison of the two Senegalese women’s lives that form the basis of the narrative structure.

senegalThe narrator’s husband has been married to her for more than 12 years – they have children and an established life together – and the new wife he takes is one of her daughter’s friends, much younger and prettier and now very much spoiled by her husband’s wealth (developed, I might add, by the support of his wife #1). Her husband now ignores his #1 family and wife (with his 12 children), and as you might expect, the book simmers with the anger of wife #1 as she relates the story of her life, both before wife #2 and after.

With the husband now dead, both wives are in the 40 days of Islamic required mourning, and this leaves ample time to meditate on her life so far. It’s a powerful construct.

Bâ writes as tightly as a spring ready to be released, and describes life in Senegal extremely well. Life in both the city and the rural villages, the early stages of the labor movement (which is what her husband has done for a career), the machinations of politics, the rights of women and children, and the oncoming unstoppable force of the end of Colonial Rule and changing societal roles – all of these mean that a New Africa is on the way whether Old Africa is ready or not.

I adored this book, although it was not an easy read subject-wise, but the pure emotion that was elicited via the text was incredible. I’m not sure what else (if anything) Bâ has written, but I will be looking for her name from now on. Highly recommended.

(Above) - Mariama Ba.

(Above) – Mariama Ba.

February 2015 Reading Book Numbers…

black-history-month_2 For February 2015, I read the following titles (with links to blog posts about said book where there is one):

The Mezzanine – Nicholson Baker (F)

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach (NF)

Brown Girl, Brownstones – Paule Marshall (F)

March Book Two – John Lewis/Nat Powell (GN-NF)

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby (F) – post to come

Victorian Hospitals – Lavinia Mitton (NF)

  • Total number of books read in February: 5
  • Total number of pages read: 1,446 pages (av. 289 pages)
  • Fiction/Non-Fiction: 1 F and 4 NF
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 3 library books and 2 owned books. 0 e-books this month. (Total of 8 books off TBR pile this year.)

One special note was that I read some African-American literature (and non-fiction) which was eye-opening and fascinating for me. In case you’re interested and so they are all in one place, here’s the list:

(And more titles from POC authors on the way… I am really enjoying finding new titles.)

Goodness gracious me. I seem to not have read as many books as usual… Work has been very all encompassing which helps to explain the low numbers. Several big reports mean two tired eyes at the end of the day!

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The Clothesline Muse

clotheslineWe were culture vultures the other day when Texas Tech brought “The Clothesline Muse” to a local stage and it was really a great experience. I’m not really a huge fan of modern dance having got nightmares from my early teenaged years of doing it at school during PE. (“Look – Be a leaf in the wind!!”) But this performance was not at all what I was expecting and I loved it.

It’s a multidisciplinary performance piece (and I say “performance piece” to sound arty, but another way to describe it could be a musical/dance/play/poetry mix which would still be accurate) – anyway, it’s an extremely polished well produced play (of sorts) which focuses on the relationship between a grandmother who is moving into an assisted living place and is being helped with the packing by her young granddaughter. As the boxes are packed, the granddaughter is struggling to meet her work deadlines at the same time (via phone/email), but as they eventually slow down the pace of packing, the elder woman starts to tell the younger stories of her long-ago youth. These stories cover the personal but also the political: emerging labor movement rights, African-American history, civil rights issues, women’s rights… All seen through the lens of the grandmother who was a washerwoman, a laundress, and as the play continues, it shows that there can be pride in the most menial of jobs.

This was a fantastic mélange of music and memory, of lithe young dancers doing impossible moves with their bodies and of the slow stiff body of the aged, of songs giving voice to those who had none… I think I may sound a bit gushy here, but this play is good enough to be gushy about. The singers were fantastic – jazzy (without being annoyingly improvisational) and extremely good. Nnenna Freelong plays the lead role and she is an award-winning Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and wrote the play. What was a great extra touch was that once the performance was over, the cast came out to the front of the stage and took questions and answers from the audience (who included high school as well as univ students). For such a great cast to take the time to add this educational component that was very well received by the younger audience members.

The Clothesline Muse is touring the US right now, so you might want to check the listings to see if it’s coming close to where you are. I highly recommend it if you like music, plays, dance, issues-focused culture, or extremely good anything.

Loved it!

(Just made it at the end of February as part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition.)

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Like One of the Family – Alice Childress (1954)

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(Part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition. The first day of February in 1960 was the first recognized lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, NC, when four college freshmen from North Caroline A&T sat at their local Woolworth’s requesting service. Looking back at this fairly recent history, I continue to be amazed at how people treat at each other – and continue to do so.)

I actually have no idea from where I got this title (probably on a fellow blog or similar), but it was on my TBR shelves and it fit perfectly into my February themed reading for Black History Month (in the U.S.).

Alice Childress

Alice Childress

Although this is fiction, it’s based on how life actually was for many people, and this book recounts the snippets of life for a black domestic worker in the 1950’s. (In fact, Alice Childress the author had experience in this position at times in her life.)

It’s written as a series of one-sided conversations between Mildred and her friend Marge who is also a housekeeper for another white family elsewhere, and, as both women live in the same apartment building, they usually get together for a chat after they get home as they’re friends as well as neighbors. This narrative structure worked really well, for it left a lot unsaid in its writing, which allowed the reader to become particularly engaged. It was like hearing only one side of a telephone call, or perhaps like reading a diary (except more immediate). (And it’s epistolary of sorts and you know how I like those.)

The title, “Like One of the Family”, was taken from a related conversation that Mildred had with the family for whom she cleans (and much more). For example, the (white) woman of the house was having a small gathering of her (white) women friends one morning, and as Mildred passed through the room, refilling plates and coffee cups, the hostess had said “Oh we love Mildred. She’s just like one of  us.”

This, of course, was patently untrue on many levels (and insulting on others), and as you read this part of the book, it’s crystal clear that, although the phrase was meant with benign intention, it was still insensitive. Mildred is not one to hide her feelings, and so once the visitors have left, she talked with the lady of the house and made it patently clear just why she feels it is not so. After you read why, you’ll agree as well as this is such a cogent obvious argument that it’s tough to realize why people did not understand that fact in those days. (Well, there was not a lot of clear race-focused thinking at that point in general, methinks.)

This is not a comfortable book to read as White writes Mildred with a simmering anger that bubbles just under the surface and you’re not quite sure when it’s going to emerge. It’s also difficult because as one looks back to that period in time, you know the life of the African-American person is not going to get better until many years into the future which added a little poignancy (combined with annoyance at the situation) for me. I just do not understand how one group of people could treat another group with such inhumanity. Mildred was not the only one getting angry in this story!

So this was a seething look at the world of domesticity, although this time was viewed through the lens of people who were forced to do it as they had few other options open to them (as opposed to the current New Domesticity crowd who have a wide range of choices). First published in 1956, and then not republished until Beacon Press released it in 1986. 1956 was at the cusp of the U.S. Civil Rights movement and was slap-bang in the middle of Jim Crow. Brown vs. the Board of Education had just happened in 1954, Doris Day was popular, the space race was picking up speed, and the Red Scare of Russian communism was a huge concern. The times they were a-changing and I can well imagine that this unnerved quite a few (white middle class) readers in the US of the 50’s.

This was a good read to begin February and Black History Month as I think it gives the immediacy of how frustrating and horrible the culture was if you were black (or African-American or similar) even a century after slavery had been outlawed. I’m looking forward to reading other titles as the month progresses, so more to come.

If you have titles that you’ve read or have heard of and would like to suggest them, please feel free. I’m always open for ideas, and I know that there are a lot of good reads out there of which I haven’t heard. Suggest away!

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The Fifties: A Women’s Oral History – Brett Harvey (1993)

book323Here’s a quote from an early 1950’s Life Magazine trying to convince women to give up the best war jobs now that the men had come back and women should really be back in the house now (or only in certain jobs suited to her female constitution):

“Household skills take her into the garment trades; neat and personable, she becomes office work and saleslady; patient and dexterous, she does well in repetitive, detailed factory work; compassionate, she becomes teacher and nurse.”

Fashion Advice from 1953.

Fashion Advice from 1953.

With current fashions having a focus on Mid-Century Modern (or MCM) – furniture, fashion, cars etc. – it’s interesting to look at how the U.S. really was back then, politically, socially and others. It seems to me that the decade has been idealized somewhat or perhaps that people have this large stereotypical image of how life was back then when it was really much more complicated than martinis and cigarettes. This book addressed some of these issues from the perspective of how it impacted the women who actually lived in this time. It was really fascinating.

The 50’s had a lot going on, worldwide, and the U.S. was smack in the middle of the Red Scare and the arms race between U.S. and Russia. Add to that set-up a frenzied fear about being infiltrated with Communism, and the country was smothered in paranoia on several levels: uppity women who weren’t always satisfied to go home and be a good wife, returning military men (mostly) who had been exposed to radically different viewpoints and now brought that back to infiltrate American communities, the government idea of the Soviet Union taking over the world, the civil rights movement just starting…  and it all turned into a rather weird time.

mccarthyismHarvey, the author, brings up an extremely interesting perspective on this world view, comparing the nation’s political perspective of containment (i.e. keep the Communists out and keep the “American” way of life in) to the societal containment view of the role of women (i.e. keep women out of the workspace and keep women in the domestic arena). It’s as though everyone was very uncomfortable with anyone getting out of their boxes while, at the same time, everyone needs to stay to their allocated historical place in the world.

As American servicemen were still returning from tours overseas from WWII and Korea, women were expected (and sometimes forced) to give up their independent lives (and to hand over the jobs that they had been doing just fine) to the returning troops. That was the patriotic thing to do and the right thing to do, and if anyone didn’t conform to that pattern, then it was seen as almost dangerously rebellious by the Establishment. Quite a few women who had been working were not happy having to go back and try to fit their former lives into a very small box just because people (mostly men) said so. Obviously, this led to a few problems.

The majority of women settled back into their routine, but some didn’t, and these are who are the book focuses on – oral histories of women looking back from present time (well, the 1990’s) to their younger selves and the decisions they made. It was clear that this forced domesticity, if you will, did not sit well for all, and as I read some of the recorded conversations in this book, the common theme was one of regret of chances not risked and paths not taken.

woman_workWomen had been working for many decades, and with two world wars under their belt, the American women knew that they were capable of working many jobs usually considered only to be suitable for men. However, society was such that the expectation was that the women who worked in these formerly unsuitable jobs were temporary and should return to their domestic lifestyles once peace arrived. Women knew that there were jobs out there that would be workable and were not necessarily the usual format of nurse/teacher/shop assistant/menial factory worker, and yet so many elected to fit themselves silently back into their reduced roles post-war. And this is what the book reports: the featured modern older women look back on their younger selves and ask themselves “why?” Why did they give up their foothold in the men’s worlds?

It’s interesting to think about: what would you have done if you were a woman in the 50’s in this set-up? Would you have gone back and fit the accepted mold: college degree/wife/home/children? Or would you have been brave enough to break free and do your own thing? Several women in the book did exactly that, but faced friction almost everywhere, both from men and women, in their early careers. Most continued with their careers and ended up doing just fine, but imagine where these pioneers would be if they hadn’t had to overcome these obstacles. (And the same question would clearly fit with other disenfranchised groups throughout history as well.)

Anyway, as you can see, this book set me off going down several trains of thought and was a fascinating read. Not every woman regretted what they did – some were very happy to remain in the domestic role – so there was a good mix in the book. I have another topic related to this book which I’ll chat about next time, but I’ll keep this post a manageable length. Obviously, this was a good read in that I’m still thinking about it days after.

More to come.

Homeward Bound – Emily Matchar (2012)

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This title has been pretty high on my TBR for about the last year or so. Why I haven’t read it is a question for the ages, but eventually I pulled it off the shelf. Written by Emily Matchar (who writes the New Domesticity blog), I was familiar with the general tack of the narrative and the whole book stayed quite close to that, overall. Material-wise, it wore a bit thin in places and there was some repetition (probably to keep a word count up there), but as mentioned, there were salient points in it.

Matcher takes a critical look at the world of what she calls “New Domesticity” – the Gen Y-ers who are embracing back-to-nature “crunchy” lifestyles of urban homesteading (keeping chickens, growing veg etc.) and home crafts such as knitting or making jewelry. This is not that notable in and of itself, but Matcher’s perspective is through more of a feminist lens which studies what this rejection of the workplace in lieu of being a SAHM/F (but mostly mothers) could mean for women in the future. It’s really quite an interesting read to consider this return to domesticity being viewed as a political statement (which some participants would argue it is).

From the book, it seems that quite a few Gen Y-ers (more than 95% female in this particular non-academic study) appreciate the steps that the first-wave and second-wave feminists have taken but blame this early feminism for their retreat from the workplace to the remolded idea of June Cleaver life, saying that their parents rejected domestic life to work and parent, and now they want to reclaim it back (“except it’s different”).

“New Domesticity is most attractive to people who are removed enough from the horrors of rural poverty to find canning charming, yet struggle to find genuinely fulfilling careers and decent ways to balance work and life.”

Emily Matcher.

She likens the people in their 20’s and 30’s as being raised by the “I’m OK You’re OK” parents who taught their offspring the lovely (but rather idealistic) idea of everyone being “as special as a snowflake” and thus having unrealistic expectations of beginning jobs once they’re graduated.

Additionally, as a human, one tends to make friends who reflect what you individually believe (“birds of a feather flock together”) which is both strengthening for their beliefs but also adds a great deal of peer pressure. Matcher reports groups of friends aligning very strict parenting behaviors (e.g. intensive attachment parenting styles) with almost a moral quality, seeing peers who don’t follow their way of acting as being “worse” or even “bad” parents at times. (Obviously, not everyone holds that opinion, but it was quite a common occurrence in the book. May have been the sample though which did seem rather limited at times.)

The adoption of this “new domesticity” is also very class-oriented, with only people who have reliable and middle-class working partners to support them and make them able to reject working in a full-time job. As the saying goes, “only those with enough money can say that money doesn’t matter”…)

It takes resources to do lovely but expensive and time-consuming hobbies like quilting or making jam, especially when you add in the common pipe-dream of making a sustainable living from a small Etsy on-line shop. (Most people don’t succeed, but it’s a nice idea. The reality, according to Matcher, is that the majority of these micro-crafting enterprises either don’t sell anything (re: the former website Regretsy) or do sell some but with the owners having to turn into temporary mini-sweat shops to get the orders out. (“I’d like 150 mini jars of home-made plum jam for my wedding please. It’s on this next Saturday.”)

Additionally, other critics and Matchar have linked this withdrawal from working life to the domestic front as changing how society views its community problems and rejects the social good. For example, numerous examples shown in the book report that people want to follow Ghandi’s “be the change you want to see in the world” , which is a lovely idea, but when it’s employed in a “my family first and pooey on everyone else” does move the focus from solving community problems as a whole to just solving your own immediate family’s problems (when really, they’re not even “problems”). To wit, parents who may have otherwise volunteered as a PTA leader (or with other vital skills) are now more focused on these intensive home-life choices, which means that the PTA would miss out on this individual’s leadership skills. So it’s a big ripple effect in some ways…

The misguided anti-vaccination movement is a good example of this, along with some cases of home schooling where the parenting “teacher” is in absolutely no position to be teaching science or other subjects and, despite their intentions, are only putting the “protected child” at a disadvantage when they enter public school life. (Not everyone, of course, but I do worry about the more extreme examples.)

There was also some repetition from chapter to chapter, but I think it was because each chapter had been written at a different time with specified word counts (or page counts), and the author was struggling to meet those parameters. (Maybe not the case, but I’m going to give benefit of doubt here.) Oh, and If the author mentioned “crunchy” as a description of the eco lifestyle one more time, I was going to throw the book at the wall.

Still, I enjoyed the critical perusal of the world of cupcakes (and more) and I still don’t really get why people try to follow such extraordinarily complicated parenting rules (such as attachment parenting guides describe) which only seem to add an extra unnecessary level of stress to their lives…

I also don’t really get why these (mostly) women force themselves to live a work-intensive home life – “from scratch” is a common refrain like their great-grandmothers — whilst rejecting working life. Why not put that home-focused effort into something that pays good money (like a job) that will be able to support you in the unpredictable future? This lifestyle seems almost selfish in a way.

It also brings to the fore the risk that this New Domesticity population bring to their lives whilst they completely reject the serious side of working life (like having a job). Removing themselves from the workforce places a huge financial risk on themselves – the kids will grow up, their relationship/ supporting spouse could leave or die, and then what happens to the domestic maven? One cannot live on cupcakes and hand-made bread alone forever. (I might be of a more pragmatic bent than others though.)

It might well be that this book was just focused on a very small sample of people and that the majority of New Domesticity fans are well-intentioned and sensible; if that’s the case, then the world can relax, but if this is true to form, then it’s a bit concerning to think about.

Needless to say, if anyone would like me to taste-test any cupcakes, please feel free to send me one. 🙂

The Wind – Dorothy Scarborough (1925)

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This was a bit of a gamble as it always is when you do a re-read of something that impressed you earlier. Just as people change over time, so does one’s reading experience and this proved to be no different.

I think I had first read this back in the early 1990’s (need to check my records), and at that time, I was just reading for a good narrative, a good read (and that’s ok and there is nothing wrong with wanting or expecting that when you read). This time around, I approached it in a more critical manner (as in literary criticism, not in a grumpy complaining manner), and so it was a different experience.

This is a fictional story of a young woman who has grown up in Virginia in comfortable circumstances in the 1880’s. However, when her mother dies leaving her homeless and mostly poor, her choices are limited for her future. She was not trained (or expects) to work in any useful capacity, she’s not married, she has no marriage prospects, and so where could she go? (Women of the time were expected to be looked after and dependent on their husbands/brothers/cousins etc. no matter how far-reached the connection.) She ends up being sent to live in the wilds of West Texas with a distant cousin and his family, and it is there, where the wind blows strongly across the Plains, that she slowly loses her mind but finds her strength in some other ways.

Sweetwater 1890

Sweetwater 1890

Letty, the protagonist, ends up moving to Sweetwater, Texas, when her mother dies leaving her penniless and homeless. With few resources to pull from, Letty is forced to imagine what her new home will look like, and using the name “Sweetwater” as a guide, she conjures up a green lush world of rolling hills and streams. (Sweetwater is a real-life town in West Texas, and is just about on the High Plains region of the state: few trees, not much water, semi-arid prairie environment, Pioneer type of country and time.)

She is also very naïve and believes everything she is told, so when a friendly stranger on the train west tells her about the evils of the never-ending wind in this area of the world, she takes it to heart and during the long days she spends inside the small and simple house, her school-girl mind embellishes this.

Unhappy and lonely in her distant cousin’s house, teaching children who don’t want to be taught and feeling in the way, Letty becomes very unhappy. The plains are not developed with towns, Sweetwater just having a few houses, and so there is little to do and even less to look at apart from the wide vast prairie. The wind has little to break against, and with so little to occupy her mind, Letty obsesses over her sad new life and sees no relief. Scarborough develops the wind into a character in its own right, and as time passes, Letty’s mind wanders and she ends up terrifying herself with the continuous wind. Her boredom turns her fear into an obsession and the wind ends up determining her life. (Well, it’s really Letty who determines it, but she would far rather blame the wind.)

Sweetwater 1880 courthouse

Sweetwater 1880 courthouse

This was written by Scarborough but was published anonymously when it was first released, a marketing ploy by the publisher to sell more copies. However, unflattering as the story is about West Texas and published at a time when Texas was still clamoring for businesses to come, the Chambers of Commerce in the state were really fuming when they first read it and viewed the unknown author and the publisher’s decision to publish it anonymously as “lily-livered varmit” type cowards. How could someone publish such ugly fiction when West Texas needs all the economic development it could get? The horrors.

So the book had a mixed reception at first: general readers liked the story (not best-seller standards, but not too shoddy), and the business-related groups were angered by it. Scarborough was reportedly not in agreement with the publishers about the anonymity strategy, but left announcing her name as author so late in the process that it really had little impact on her publishing career in the end.

The narrative, itself, is not bad, but I found the protagonist to be very annoying and passive, refusing to take her life into her own hands. (Still, without money or education or a professional skill of some kind, I suppose there were not too many options for unmarried women at that time who had few family connections.)

So, apart from feeling impatient with the lead character, this had some good descriptions of life in early pioneer days in windy West Texas. With the recent wind and haboobs that we have had recently in our area, this made appropriate reading. It was just a bit too much purple prose and weak female lead for me. It’s better if you look at it from a more historical approach as opposed to a literary one, I think.

The Bite of the Mango – Mariatu Kamara and Susan McClelland (2008)

Bite of the Mango bookAfter having this on the TBR pile for ages, I finally pulled it off the shelf and read it. I had been hoping for so much more (similar to the read of Monique and the Mango Rains), but it was not to be. That’s not to denigrate the story or experiences of this author in any way. I just could not seem to connect with this young girl as she told her story via a Western journalist.

The true story is compelling – Sierra Leone is taken over by rebels who attack small villages. Any villagers unfortunate enough to be caught by the renegades have atrocities committed against them, and in this particular case, the young woman is caught and has her hands cut off and she has to walk to the next town to get medical care etc. So – yes. It’s a riveting story. So why wasn’t I pulled into it like some other books?

The story is first-person narrative, but is filtered through a Western journalist and written in a very simplistic style – very “Dick and Jane go to town” structure. I wasn’t sure I could make it through a book written like this, but then rationalized it by saying that the story is autobiographical and “perhaps this is a tool to see what happened through the young girl’s eyes”.

But it didn’t really get any better after that. I really wanted to love this – however, it was not to be. I finished it, but it was rather a trial in the end. That’s a shame as the story is mostly compelling and needs to be told. Perhaps just not in this style.