Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Here is an interesting article by Virginia Postrel titled Resilience vs. Anticipation from Reason On-line, August 25, 1997. The whole article is a nice admixture of socio-geography, business strategy, macro-economics and technology history.

The only real relevance here is that I found it interesting and it provides some well-argued substance to a theme that the writer Lawrence Durrell used to speculate on, i.e. the influence of an environment on the character of a people.

Lawrence Durrell is most famous for his Alexandria Quartet, (constituting Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea) which is generally admired by many literary critics and has always seemed popular among older Young Adult readers. For my money, though, in my teenage years, I far more enjoyed his travel writing, especially Prospero's Cell, Reflections on a Marine Venus, Bitter Lemons, and Sicilian Carousel among others. Sadly all are out of print but some are represented in an anthology the Lawrence Durrell Travel Reader. Also not to be overlookoed is the humorous gem Antrobus Complete and the rather unclassifiable Pope Joan, all grist for the YA mill.

A great ten-step reading program

Here is a wonderful reading program from John Bianchi and Frank B. Edwards at Pokeweed Press. No special subscriptions, no classes necessary. Nothing - simply add commitment and books and you are good to go.

Reading through the steps, I kept wanting to pull out a particular step for emphasis. Step 5 for example (Read for the fun of it) is especially important. But then again Step 6 (Ration TV as you ration junk food) I am whole-heartedly behind. And Step 7 (Fill your home with books) has got to be mentioned and endorsed. And on and on. I guess that is why I like their progam so much. That and the fact that it pretty neatly summarizes what we have done in our home.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Tacitus, Germanic Tribes and Political Correctness

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus 56AD-117AD

In high school, I went through a Roman historian phase where I read many of the classic Roman historians; Tacitus, Livy, Plutarch, etc. The issues addressed by those writers of two millenium ago often felt so contemporary and I found it fascinating.

I came across this interesting set of observations on the naiveté of Tacitus via a couple of bloggers, Glenn Reynolds and then Gail Heriot. Once again, it is a tying together of today with the long ago.

The essay is by John M. Ellis and is actually the first chapter of his 1997 book Literature Lost; Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities.

Opening excerpt:

What we now call "political correctness" may seem to be nothing more than a modern fad, and one that will pass, but to see it only this way is to misunderstand it. Its particular shape may be specific to our time, but its basic impulse is one that recurs regularly in the history of Western society. Herein lies a deep irony. Those in the grip of this impulse are critical of the Western tradition and define themselves by their opposition to it, yet the impulse itself is so much a part of the Western tradition that the attitudes it generates can be said to be quintessentially Western. One reason for studying the Western tradition is to learn some important lessons about this recurring phenomenon and so avoid mistakes that have been made many times before. In this chapter I shall look at some prior episodes to show more clearly what kind of thing this impulse is, what produces it, and what its dangers are. Rather than carp at the absurdities of the current scene, we can understand them more fully as part of the history of Western civilization.

Those who study German culture, as I do, usually get their first account of the early Germanic peoples from the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote a short treatise entitled Germania in the first century A.D. By the standards of civilized Rome, the Germans were barbarians, which is what Tacitus calls them; in modern terminology, they were part of the Third World of their day. But in Tacitus' eyes they were quite remarkable people. They seemed to be instinctively democratic; all major affairs were discussed by the entire community, and only minor matters were delegated to chieftains. Even the views of a king were heeded, Tacitus tells us, "more because his advice carries weight than because he has the power to command." Similarly, in war, commanders relied on example rather than on the authority of their rank. These natural egalitarians were apparently not bothered by questions of social standing and power. And if they seemed to have the sin of pride well under control, the sin of greed seemed to give them no problems either: Tacitus notes that "the employment of capital in order to increase it by usury is unknown in Germany."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sydney Taylor


Born October 31, 1904 in New York
Died February 12, 1978

America, drawing its people from all over the world, has some great stories about assimilating into a new culture, each of those peoples then making their own contribution to the American melting-pot. There are some especially wonderful family stories from immigrant families. One of the crown jewels in this treasure chest is the All-of-a-Kind series by Sydney Taylor.

Like so many of the great children's stories, this one was told first as entertainment to the author's own child. Only years later through an unlikely set of circumstances did it actually become a printed book.

Sydney Taylor was born October 31, 1904 into an immigrant Jewish family in the Lower East Side of New York City. Her parents, the Brenners, immigrated to the USA in 1900 from Germany. They settled in the Lower East Side of New York City and there raised their family of seven, all, other than the first-born, Ella, being born in the US. Sydney was the third-born in the family and was actually christened Sarah but changed her name in high school.

Sydney Taylor grew up in the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side in a tightly knit family, taking full advantage of the limited opportunities for experience and mischief presented by her immediate surroundings. Graduating High School, she started work as a secretary, married and became involved in the world of dance.

She eventually became a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company. She left the Dance Company when her only child, Joanne, was born. After spending seven years at home with her young daughter, Taylor was drawn back into the world of dance from a new angle. She spent many years involved with a non-profit camp, Camp Cejwin, as the camp drama counselor. She had already begun writing, in that capacity, producing new scripts for her productions.

Daughter Jo, loved hearing Taylor retell the stories of her childhood in the Lower East Side in a family of five sisters (and latterly three brothers). At one point, prompted by Jo's question "Mommy, why is it that whenever I read a book about children it is always a Christian child? Why isn't there a book about a Jewish child?," Taylor wrote down all the stories that she had been relating to Jo for Jo to read as a book. After being read and circulated among Jo's friends for a while, the manuscript was packed away.

As Taylor relates in More Junior Authors edited by Muriel Fuller:

In 1950, when I was in my children's world at camp, my husband chanced to read the announcement of a contest for juvenile literature. He disinterred the manuscript without telling me. When I heard from the Follett Publishing Company that I had won the prize, I did not know what they were talking about. I showed the letter to my husband - and the secret was out! That's how I became a recognized author.

Thus was born All-of-a-Kind-Family, the first of five in the series recounting the adventures and misadventures of five sisters growing up together in the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. Following the success of the first book in 1951, More-All-of-a-Kind Family was published in 1954, succeeded by All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown (1957), All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown (1972), and Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family (1978).

In some ways these books are New York's answer to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little House on the Prairie. They capture the feel of a distinct time and a distinct place but do so within the timeless framework of a tightly-knit family. By building on the foundation of family circumstances, independent readers are perhaps more easily transported into the less familiar realm of long ago and faraway.

In this regard, the All-of-a-Kind Family stories have the additional dimension that they introduce children not only to living in straightened circumstances in the 1900's in New York City but also, incidentally to some of the structure and traditions of the Jewish faith. There are numerous stories that don't set out to teach you something but you end up learning something as a by-product of the entertaining story. The All-of-a-Kind Family stories fall into this select group.

Taylor wrote a handful of other books as indicated in the bibliography as well as articles for magazines but nothing struck home to the same extent as All-of-a-Kind Family. If you have not come across them yet, I recommend you add the series to your child's library.

Take a look at our book list, The American Immigrant Experience, for other excellent stories about families moving to America.

Independent Reader

All-Of-A-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor and illustrated by Helen John Highly Recommended

More All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor and illustrated by Mary Stevens Recommended

All-Of-A-Kind Family Uptown by Sydney Taylor and illustrated by Mary Stevens Suggested

All-Of-A-Kind Family Downtown by Sydney Taylor and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush Suggested

Ella of All-Of-A-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor and illustrated by Meryl Rosner Suggested


All-of-a-Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor, 1951

The Holiday Story Book, by Sydney Taylor, 1953

More All-of-a-Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor, 1954

All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown, by Sydney Taylor, 1957

Mr. Barney's Beard, by Sydney Taylor, 1961

Now That You Are Eight, by Sydney Taylor, 1963

The Dog Who Came to Dinner, by Sydney Taylor, 1966

A Papa Like Everyone Else, by Sydney Taylor, 1966

All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown, by Sydney Taylor, 1972

Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor, 1978

Danny Loves a Holiday, by Sydney Taylor, 1980

American Military Stories

As the song says - "War, huh, yeah; What is it good for?; Absolutely nothing." Except, of course, self-preservation. Veterans Day (November 11) approaches and is the catalyst for how to discuss war with young children. It is not an easy matter. Being logic machines, they of course want to know how to square the fact of war with the sixth commandment (or fifth depending on your religion): Thou shalt not murder.

We have always taken the position with our children that war is always a disaster for individuals and for nations but that it is sometimes an unavoidable disaster. There is no such thing as a good war, though some wars may be more clearly unavoidable than others.

At the same time we have tried to strike a balance with them: the crucible of war that destroys so much also often presents the extreme circumstances that permit acts of unalloyed giving, self-sacrifice, and nobility. So the challenge becomes how to extract the examples and valuable lessons of personal conduct and noble goals from the context of war without glorifying war itself.

And all of this is made even more difficult by matters of gender and maturity. With our limited sample of three (though friends confirm similar experiences), it would seem that a fascination with violence and the action of war is manifested to a greater extent among our young boys than our young girls. Presuming this to be generally true, we then face the conundrum that we want boys to read more but at the same time may not want them to read more of that which they are more strongly interested in: war and action.

On the maturity front you have the issue that war mirrors in some ways the turmoil of the young adult years as they carve out their own identity, autonomy and independence. Just as battle and strife often force an accelerated self-learning and self-awareness on the part of soldiers, so teenagers are attempting to forge their own beliefs under what they believe to be trying if not traumatic circumstances. It is appealing to young adults to read of others experiencing the same process under different circumstances.

Rather than try and tackle the larger topic of war in general, the books we list here are really focused on what it means to be an American citizen soldier: what are the experiences? what are the consequences? what is lost and what is gained?

This mirroring of young adult turmoil shows up in the distribution of good titles across the reading ranges. There really aren't all that many picture books about being an American soldier. There are a reasonable number at the independent reader level and there is a plethora at the Young Adult age.

With our boys that are interested in war and action, one of the things that we do with them that I think is a valuable mitigator in the long run, is to tell them stories of family loss. I have the advantage of having several generations of aunts and uncles who, on retirement, took up genealogy as a hobby. Consequently there is a reasonably good volume of information about who fought in what wars, going a good ways back.

When the boys have read a number of war books with enthusiasm, I make a point of finding a time to raise the topic of some family member that was lost in some past war, usually leading the conversation to a discussion of what might have been (just imagine if X had lived through that battle, the rest of the family might not have moved west after the war…). I try to not make it an obvious connection to what they are reading and I have not had to do it more than a half dozen times over a few years, but I think it does temper the youthful infatuation with glory and heroism with some real world realization of the consequences.

Finally - and making up for the absence of picture books a little - there are some wonderful poems that I think do strike the balance between heroism and nobility in the midst of war while emphasizing the destructiveness of war. See in Thing Finder Grandmother's Story of Bunker Hill by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Molly Pitcher by Kate Brownlee Sherwood, Barbara Frietchie by John Greenleaf Whittier and Kentucky Belle by Constance Fenimore Woolson.

As an addendum, Peggy Noonan had an article in the Wall Street Journal a little more than a year ago, March 30, 2006 - Patriots, Then and Now which makes for interesting reading.

Picture Books

The Story Of The H.L. Hunley And Queenie's Coin by Fran Hawk and illustrated by Dan Nance Recommended

The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln and illustrated by Michael McCurdy Highly Recommended

Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and illustrated by Ted Rand Highly Recommended

There Come a Soldier by Peggy Mercer and illustrated by Ron Mazellan Recommended

The Last Brother by Trinka Hakes Noble and illustrated by Robert Papp Suggested

America's White Table by Margot Theis Raven and illustrated by Mike Benny Recommended

They Called Her Molly Pitcher by Anne F. Rockwell and illustrated by Cynthia von Buhler Suggested

H Is for Honor by Devin Scillian and illustrated by Victor Juhasz Recommended

Independent Reader

Turn Homeward Hannalee by Patricia Beatty Suggested

House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert De Jong Suggested

Annie Between the States by L.M. Elliott Suggested

April Morning by Howard Fast Suggested

Bull Run by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by David Frampton Suggested

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes and illustrated by Lynd Ward Recommended

Thunder at Gettysburg by Patricia Lee Gauch and illustrated by Stephen Gammell Suggested

Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt Suggested

Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith Suggested

Best Little Stories from World War II by C. Brian Kelley Suggested

Best Little Stories of the Blue and Gray by C. Brian Kelley Suggested

Magic Treehouse Civil War on Sunday by Mary Pope Osborne and illustrated by Sal Murdocca Suggested

Magic Treehouse Revolutionary War on Wednesday by Mary Pope Osborne and illustrated by Sal Murdocca Suggested

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson and illustrated by Donna Diamond Recommended

The Perilous Road by William O. Steele and Jean Fritz Suggested

Clara Barton Founder of the American Red Cross by Augusta Stevenson Suggested

Molly Pitcher Young Patriot by Augusta Stevenson Suggested

Mr. Lincoln's Drummer by G. Clifton Wisler Suggested

Young Adult

Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose Recommended

Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley and Ron Powers Recommended

Flyboys by James Bradley Suggested

The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill Recommended

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane Recommended

Into the Valley by John Hersey and Donald Dickson Recommended

Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer Highly Recommended

Goodbye Darkness by William Manchester Recommended

We Were Soldiers Once...and Young by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway Highly Recommened

With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge Highly Recommended

Kentucky Belle

Kentucky Belle
by Constance Fenimore Woolson

Summer of 'sixty-three, sir, and Conrad was gone away--
Gone to the country town, sir, to sell our first load of hay.
We lived in the log house yonder, poor as ever you've seen;
Roschen there was a baby, and I was only nineteen.

Conrad, he took the oxen, but he left Kentucky Belle;
How much we thought of Kentuck, I couldn't begin to tell--
Came from the Bluegrass country; my father gave her to me
When I rode north with Conrad, away from the Tennessee.

Conrad lived in Ohio--a German he is, you know--
The house stood in broad cornfields, stretching on, row after row;
The old folks made me welcome; they were kind as kind could be;
But I kept longing, longing, for the hills of Tennessee.

O, for a sight of water, the shadowed slope of a hill!
Clouds that hang on the summit, a wind that is never still!
But the level land went stretching away to meet the sky--
Never a rise, from north to south, to rest the weary eye!

From east to west, no river to shine out under the moon,
Nothing to make a shadow in the yellow afternoon;
Only the breathless sunshine, as I looked out, all forlorn,
Only the "rustle, rustle," as I walked among the corn.

When I fell sick with pining we didn't wait any more,
But moved away from the cornlands out to this river shore--
The Tuscarawas it's called, sir--off there's a hill, you see--
And now I've grown to like it next best to the Tennessee.

I was at work that morning. Someone came riding like mad
Over the bridge and up the road--Farmer Rouf's little lad.
Bareback he rode; he had no hat; he hardly stopped to say,
"Morgan's men are coming, Frau, they're galloping on this way.

"I'm sent to warn the neighbors. He isn't a mile behind;
He sweeps up all the horses--every horse that he can find;
Morgan, Morgan the raider, and Morgan's terrible men,
With bowie knives and pistols, are galloping up the glen."

The lad rode down the valley, and I stood still at the door--
The baby laughed and prattled, playing with spools on the floor;
Kentuck was out in the pasture; Conrad, my man, was gone;
Near, near Morgan's men were galloping, galloping on!

Sudden I picked up baby and ran to the pasture bar:
"Kentuck!" I called; "Kentucky!" She knew me ever so far!
I led her down the gully that turns off there to the right,
And tied her to the bushes; her head was just out of sight.

As I ran back to the log house at once there came a sound--
The ring of hoofs, galloping hoofs, trembling over the ground,
Coming into the turnpike out from the White-Woman Glen--
Morgan, Morgan the raider, and Morgan's terrible men.

As near they drew and nearer my heart beat fast in alarm;
But still I stood in the doorway, with baby on my arm.
They came; they passed; with spur and whip in haste they sped along;
Morgan, Morgan the raider, and his band six hundred strong.

Weary they looked and jaded, riding through night and through day;
Pushing on east to the river, many long miles away,
To the border strip where Virginia runs up into the west,
And for the Upper Ohio before they could stop to rest.

On like the wind they hurried, and Morgan rode in advance;
Bright were his eyes like live coals, as he gave me a sideways glance;
And I was just breathing freely, after my choking pain,
When the last one of the troopers suddenly drew his rein.

Frightened I was to death, sir; I scarce dared look in his face,
As he asked for a drink of water and glanced around the place;
I gave him a cup, and he smiled--'twas only a boy, you see,
Faint and worn, with dim blue eyes, and he'd sailed on the Tennessee.

Only sixteen he was, sir--a fond mother's only son--
Off and away with Morgan before his life had begun!
The damp drops stood on his temples; drawn was the boyish mouth;
And I thought me of the mother waiting down in the South!

O, pluck was he to the backbone and clear grit through and through;
Boasted and bragged like a trooper, but the big words wouldn't do;
The boy was dying, sir, dying, as plain as plain could be,
Worn out by his ride with Morgan up from the Tennessee.

But, when I told the laddie that I too was from the South,
Water came in his dim blue eyes and quivers around his mouth.
"Do you know the Bluegrass country?" he wistful began to say,
Then swayed like a willow sapling and fainted dead away.

I had him into the log house, and worked and brought him to;
I fed him and coaxed him, as I thought his mother'd do;
And, when the lad got better, and the noise in his head was gone,
Morgan's men were miles away, galloping, galloping on.

"O, I must go," he muttered; "I must be up and away!
Morgan, Morgan is waiting for me! O, what will Morgan say?"
But I heard a sound of tramping and kept him back from the door--
The ringing sound of horses' hoofs that I had heard before.

And on, on came the soldiers--the Michigan cavalry--
And fast they rode, and black they looked galloping rapidly;
They had followed hard on Morgan's track; they had followed day and night;
But of Morgan and Morgan's raiders they had never caught a sight.

And rich Ohio sat startled through all those summer days,
For strange, wild men were galloping over her broad highways;
Now here, now there, now seen, now gone, now north, now east, now west,
Through river valleys and corn-land farms, sweeping away her best.

A bold ride and a long ride! But they were taken at last.
They almost reached the river by galloping hard and fast;
But the boys in blue were upon them ere ever they gained the ford,
And Morgan, Morgan the raider, laid down his terrible sword.

Well, I kept the boy till evening--kept him against his will--
But he was too weak to follow, and sat there pale and still;
When it was cool and dusky--you'll wonder to hear me tell--
But I stole down to that gully and brought up Kentucky Belle.

I kissed the star on her forehead--my pretty, gentle lass--
But I knew that she'd be happy back in the old Bluegrass;
A suit of clothes of Conrad's, with all the money I had,
And Kentuck, pretty Kentuck, I gave to the worn-out lad.

I guided him to the southward as well as I knew how;
The boy rode off with many thanks, and many a backward bow;
And then the glow it faded, and my heart began to swell,
As down the glen away she went, my lost Kentucky Belle!

When Conrad came home in the evening the moon was shining high;
Baby and I were both crying--I couldn't tell him why--
But a battered suit of rebel gray was hanging on the wall,
And a thin old horse with a drooping head stood in Kentucky's stall.

Well, he was kind, and never once said a hard word to me;
He knew I couldn't help it--'twas all for the Tennessee;
But, after the war was over, just think what came to pass--
A letter, sir; and the two were safe back in the old Bluegrass.

The lad had got across the border, riding Kentucky Belle;
And Kentuck, she was thriving, and fat, and hearty, and well;
He cared for her, and kept her, nor touched her with whip or spur;
Ah! we've had many horses, but never a horse like her!

Barbara Frietchie


Barbara Frietchie
by John Greenleaf Whittier

Barbara Frietchie

Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,

The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.

Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple and peach tree fruited deep,

Fair as a garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,

On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—

Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic-window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.

Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.

Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced: the old flag met his sight.

"Halt!"—the dust-brown ranks stood fast,
"Fire!"—out blazed the rifle-blast.

It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.

Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;

She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.

"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag," she said.

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;

The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman's deed and word:

"Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!" he said.

All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:

All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.

Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;

And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.

Barbara Frietchie's work is o'er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.

Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall's bier.

Over Barbara Frietchie's grave,
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!

Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;

And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!

Molly Pitcher


Molly Pitcher
by Kate Brownlee Sherwood

It was hurry and scurry at Monmouth town,
For Lee was beating a wild retreat;
The British were riding the Yankee down,
And panic was pressing on flying feet.

Galloping down like a hurricane
Washington rode with his sword swung high,
Mighty as he of the Trojan plain
Fired by a courage from the sky.

"Halt, and stand to you guns!" he cried.
And a bombardier made swift reply.
Wheeling his cannon into the tide,
He fell 'neath the shot of a foeman high.

Molly Pitcher sprang to his side,
Fired as she saw her husband do.
Telling the king in his stubborn pride
Women like men to their homes are true.

Washington rode from the bloody fray
Up to the gun that a woman manned.
"Molly Pitcher, you saved the day,"
He said, as he gave her a hero's hand.

He named her sergeant with manly praise,
While her war-brown face was wet with tears-
A woman has ever a woman's ways,
And the army was wild with cheers.

Grandmother's Story of Bunker Hill Battle

The Battle of Bunker Hill by Howard Pyle

There is an edition of the poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes and illustrated by Howard Pyle in electronic form which can be accessed via the Gutenberg Project: Grandmother's Story of Bunker Hill Battle

Grandmother's Story of Bunker Hill Battle (As she saw it from the Belfry)
by Oliver Wendell Holmes

'Tis like stirring living embers when, at eighty, one remembers
All the achings and the quakings of "the times that tried men's souls";
When I talk of Whig and Tory, when I tell the Rebel story,
To you the words are ashes, but to me they're burning coals.

I had heard the muskets' rattle of the April running battle;
Lord Percy's hunted soldiers, I can see their red coats still;
But a deadly chill comes o'er me, as the day looms up before me,
When a thousand men lay bleeding on the slopes of Bunker's Hill.

'Twas a peaceful summer's morning, when the first thing gave us warning
Was the booming of the cannon from the river and the shore:
"Child," says grandma, "what's the matter, what is all this noise and clatter?
Have those scalping Indian devils come to murder us once more?"

Poor old soul! my sides were shaking in the midst of all my quaking
To hear her talk of Indians when the guns began to roar:
She had seen the burning village, and the slaughter and the pillage,
When the Mohawks killed her father, with their bullets through his door.

Then I said, "Now, dear old granny, don't you fret and worry any,
For I'll soon come back and tell you whether this is work or play;
There can't be mischief in it, so I won't be gone a minute"
For a minute then I started. I was gone the livelong day.

No time for bodice-lacing or for looking-glass grimacing;
Down my hair went as I hurried, tumbling half-way to my heels;
God forbid your ever knowing, when there's blood around her flowing,
How the lonely, helpless daughter of a quiet household feels!

In the street I heard a thumping; and I knew it was the stumping
Of the Corporal, our old neighbor, on that wooden leg he wore,
With a knot of women round him, it was lucky I had found him,
So I followed with the others, and the Corporal marched before.

They were making for the steeple, the old soldier and his people;
The pigeons circled round us as we climbed the creaking stair,
Just across the narrow river O, so close it made me shiver!
Stood a fortress on the hilltop that but yesterday was bare.

Not slow our eyes to find it; well we knew who stood behind it,
Though the earthwork hid them from us, and the stubborn walls were dumb:
Here were sister, wife, and mother, looking wild upon each other,
And their lips were white with terror as they said, "The Hour has Come!"

The morning slowly wasted, not a morsel had we tasted,
And our heads were almost splitting with the cannons' deafening thrill,
When a figure tall and stately round the rampart strode sedately;
It was Prescott, one since told me; he commanded on the hill.

Every woman's heart grew bigger when we saw his manly figure,
With the banyan buckled round it, standing up so straight and tall;
Like a gentleman of leisure who is strolling out for pleasure,
Through the storm of shells and cannon-shot he walked around the wall.

At eleven the streets were swarming, for the red-coats' ranks were forming;
At noon in marching order they were moving to the piers;
How the bayonets gleamed and glistened, as we looked far down and listened
To the trampling and the drum-beat of the belted grenadiers!

At length the men have started, with a cheer (it seemed faint-hearted),
In their scarlet regimentals, with their knapsacks on their backs,
And the reddening, rippling water, as after a sea-fight's slaughter,
Round the barges gliding onward blushed like blood along their tracks.

So they crossed to the other border, and again they formed in order;
And the boats came back for soldiers, came for soldiers, soldiers still:
The time seemed everlasting to us women faint and fasting,
At last they're moving, marching, marching proudly up the hill.

We can see the bright steel glancing all along the lines advancing
Now the front rank fires a volley—they have thrown away their shot;
Far behind the earthwork lying, all the balls above them flying,
Our people need not hurry; so they wait and answer not.

Then the Corporal, our old cripple (he would swear sometimes and tipple),
He had heard the bullets whistle (in the old French war) before,
Calls out in words of jeering, just as if they all were hearing,
And his wooden leg thumps fiercely on the dusty belfry floor:

"Oh! fire away, ye villains, and earn King George's shillin's,
But ye'll waste a ton of powder afore a 'rebel' falls;
You may bang the dirt and welcome, they're as safe as Dan'l Malcolm
Ten foot beneath the gravestone that you've splintered with your balls!"

In the hush of expectation, in the awe and trepidation
Of the dread approaching moment, we are well-nigh breathless all;
Though the rotten bars are failing on the rickety belfry railing,
We are crowding up against them like the waves against a wall.

Just a glimpse (the air is clearer), they are nearer, nearer, nearer,
When a flash a curling smoke-wreath then a crash the steeple shakes
The deadly truce is ended; the tempest's shroud is rended;
Like a morning mist it gathered, like a thunder-cloud it breaks!

O the sight our eyes discover as the blue-black smoke blows over!
The red-coats stretched in windrows as a mower rakes his hay;
Here a scarlet heap is lying, there a headlong crowd is flying
Like a billow that has broken and is shivered into spray.

Then we cried, "The troops are routed! they are beat it can't be doubted!
God be thanked, the fight is over!" Ah! the grim old soldier's smile!
"Tell us, tell us why you look so?" (we could hardly speak, we shook so),
"Are they beaten? Are they beaten? Are they beaten?" - "Wait a while."

O the trembling and the terror! for too soon we saw our error:
They are baffled, not defeated; we have driven them back in vain;
And the columns that were scattered, round the colors that were tattered,
Toward the sullen silent fortress turn their belted breasts again.

All at once, as we are gazing, lo the roofs of Charlestown blazing!
They have fired the harmless village; in an hour it will be down!
The Lord in heaven confound them, rain his fire and brimstone round them,
The robbing, murdering red-coats, that would burn a peaceful town!

They are marching, stern and solemn; we can see each massive column
As they near the naked earth-mound with the slanting walls so steep.
Have our soldiers got faint-hearted, and in noiseless haste departed?
Are they panic-struck and helpless? Are they palsied or asleep?

Now! the walls they're almost under! scarce a rod the foes asunder!
Not a firelock flashed against them! up the earthwork they will swarm!
But the words have scarce been spoken, when the ominous calm is broken,
And a bellowing crash has emptied all the vengeance of the storm!

So again, with murderous slaughter, pelted backward to the water,
Fly Pigot's running heroes and the frightened braves of Howe;
And we shout, "At last they're done for, it's their barges they have run for:
They are beaten, beaten, beaten; and the battle's over now!"

And we looked, poor timid creatures, on the rough old soldier's features,
Our lips afraid to question, but he knew what we would ask:
"Not sure," he said; "keep quiet, once more, I guess, they'll try it
Here's damnation to the cut-throats!" then he handed me his flask,

Saying, "Gal, you're looking shaky; have a drop of old Jamaiky:
I'm afraid there'll be more trouble afore this job is done;"
So I took one scorching swallow; dreadful faint I felt and hollow,
Standing there from early morning when the firing was begun.

All through those hours of trial I had watched a calm clock dial,
As the hands kept creeping, creeping, they were creeping round to four,
When the old man said, "They're forming with their bayonets fixed for storming:
It's the death grip that's a coming, they will try the works once more."

With brazen trumpets blaring, the flames behind them glaring,
The deadly wall before them, in close array they come;
Still onward, upward toiling, like a dragon's fold uncoiling
Like the rattlesnake's shrill warning the reverberating drum!

Over heaps all torn and gory shall I tell the fearful story,
How they surged above the breastwork, as a sea breaks over a deck;
How, driven, yet scarce defeated, our worn-out men retreated,
With their powder-horns all emptied, like the swimmers from a wreck?

It has all been told and painted; as for me, they say I fainted,
And the wooden-legged old Corporal stumped with me down the stair:
When I woke from dreams affrighted the evening lamps were lighted,
On the floor a youth was lying; his bleeding breast was bare.

And I heard through all the flurry, "Send for Warren! hurry! hurry!
Tell him here's a soldier bleeding, and he'll come and dress his wound!"
Ah, we knew not till the morrow told its tale of death and sorrow,
How the starlight found him stiffened on the dark and bloody ground.

Who the youth was, what his name was, where the place from which he came was,
Who had brought him from the battle, and had left him at our door,
He could not speak to tell us; but 'twas one of our brave fellows,
As the homespun plainly showed us which the dying soldier wore.

For they all thought he was dying, as they gathered 'round him crying,
And they said, "O, how they'll miss him!" and, "What will his mother do?"
Then, his eyelids just unclosing like a child's that has been dozing,
He faintly murmured, "Mother!" and I saw his eyes were blue.

"Why, grandma, how you're winking!" Ah, my child, it sets me thinking
Of a story not like this one. Well, he somehow lived along;
So we came to know each other, and I nursed him like a mother,
Till at last he stood before me, tall, and rosy-cheeked, and strong.

And we sometimes walked together in the pleasant summer weather;
"Please to tell us what his name was?" Just your own, my little dear,
There's his picture Copley painted: we became so well acquainted,
That in short, that's why I'm grandma, and you children all are here!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Charge of the Light Brigade - October 25, 1854

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Caton Woodville

The Charge of the Light Brigade
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

Ghosts of books past


I love serendipity - it is perhaps one of the key pillars of optimisim. As reported in the October 6, 2007 edition of New Scientist (and available on-line to subscribers here):

From ancient Syracuse, through the medieval Holy Land to Istanbul and, finally, California, it has been a long journey for a musty old prayer book. But what is written on it makes the journey worthwhile. "This is Archimedes' brain on parchment," says William Noel, curator of ancient manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Hidden beneath the lines of ancient prayers and layers of dirt, candle wax and mould lies the oldest written account of the thoughts of the great mathematician.

This invaluable artifact is a classic example of a palimpsest: a manuscript in which the original text has been scraped off and overwritten. It was discovered more than a century ago, but only in the past eight years have scholars uncovered its secrets. Using advanced imaging techniques, they have peered behind the 13th-century prayers inscribed on its surface to reveal the text and diagrams making up seven of Archimedes' treatises. They include the only known copies of The Method of Mechanical Theorems, On Floating Bodies, and fragments of The Stomachion in their original Greek.

See also a couple of BBC articles a while ago covering the emerging discoveries - Text reveals More Ancient Secrets April 26, 2007; X-rays reveal Archimedes' Secrets August 2, 2006; and the transcript of interviews with the scientists/curators working on the text, Archimedes Secret March 14, 2002.

From the BBC interview with one of the senior scientists investigating the text, Dr. William Noel:
When the manuscript first arrived, you know, shivers ran, ran down my spine. I have never before in my life handled a book that is the only material witness to the mind of someone who died 2,200 years ago.

The transcript of the BBC interview gives a good sense of the excitement of discovery surrounding this improbable recovery. That the Greeks were so far advanced in their conceptual thinking so long ago (Archimedes 287 BC - 212 BC) is impressive enough, but that Archimedes was already headed down the path that would lead to calculus and that we should know that solely from a fragment of his writings that survived only in the form of hidden text beneath a vellum prayer-book boggles the mind.

This is such a powerful story of hope; the survival of the document at all; the precious cargo of ancient thought literally hidden within its pages; the rapidly developing non-destructive technologies that allow us to do what has never been done before in peering underneath the surface of the pages; the opportunity to know the thoughts of someone so long ago; and the sheer excitement of unexpected discovery.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Stories from Many Lands

Passionate as we might be about books and reading it is worthwhile remembering (and paraphrasing that wonderful old number from Casablanca), that a book is just a book. Yes it can be the door into thoughts, knowledge and experiences not otherwise accessible. But it is still a simple physical thing and as subject to misinterpretation, error, and misrepresentation as anything else we deal with in daily life.

In some respects books, a doorway into other times and places, are a little bit like those sci-fi stories where the spaceship has an errant warp drive that takes you someplace very quickly but you don't know where it is until you arrive (if then) or what you will find there.

Which books (i.e. which authors and illustrators) will take you someplace remote in time and distance and tell you something true about that destination? But first we need to answer (Philosophy Alert! Philosphy Alert!) - What is truth? This is verging on a set-up for a Monty Python skit. Bring out the Holy Hand Grenade.

Does a Disney version of Sleeping Beauty tell you much about Old Europe or does it tell you more about more about the middle-class tastes and desires of 1950's America? Is Little Black Sambo a virulent racist screed or an innocent child's story made up by a traveling colonial mother to entertain and distract her children on a long and uncomfortable train journey? Should all stories from the past be filtered and judged solely on our ever-shifting value-judgments of today? Deep waters these.

Waters made murkier and deeper by our seemingly ever-increasing sensitivity to perceived slights and insults. Which is not to say that there isn't much that can be offensive and distasteful about stories from the past or from countries with different traditions and values. But one of the wonderful elements of the adventure of reading is in the discovery of the new and different which, in turn, may be uncomfortable and disturbing. In fact, if it is comfortable, it probably isn't new or different.

I think it is the mark of a liberal mind (in the classic sense of the word) to have the capacity to read something and understand it in its context. I think it is more than worthwhile for our children to understand that knowledge, ideas, and judgments change over time. What was once acceptable in one context is now unacceptable and vice-versa. It is also worthwhile for them to put themselves into the context of a different place or time and understand how they might respond differently or not. Sometimes, if we were to put ourselves into the context of a different technology, a different economic system, a different values system, a different power structure, it becomes apparent that (as opposed to some non-existent ideal world), the choices were different, hard, and more limited. What would we have done?

And sometimes we are just left wondering. I have on a number of occasions read of Europeans massacring one another in the New World in the mid 1500s, as for example when the Spaniard Pedro Menendez de Aviles, massacred several hundred French Huguenot settlers in north-eastern Florida, in part because they were encroaching on land claimed by Spain and in part because, as Protestants, he viewed them as heretics. It just seems incomprehensible to me that these small numbers of Europeans, far from home, perched in a hostile situation on the edge of an unexplored and mysterious continent, subjected to an environment with which they were unfamiliar and unadapted and confronted by antagonistic locals, should have prioritized extermination of their fellow Europeans because of doctrinal differences as more important than all the other challenges they faced. But just because I don't understand doesn't change the fact that it happened and therefore exposes the poverty of my comprehension. But plus ca change.

Exposure to different countries and cultures is not an exercise in eating at a restaurant with foreign cuisine, or watching a foreign art movie. It is not just the exotic. It is about the fundamentals of life and death and living. Not of differences of habit with which we are unfamiliar but differences in a world-view that hovers beyond our grasp. As some say about the Sixties ('If you remember it, you weren't there'), so it might be said that truly understanding that which is different from you really means understanding how much you don't understand.

When we moved to Australia a number of years ago, I thought to myself that this would be an easy transition. I had lived in the US which shared a somewhat similar colonial, rural, and westward expansion ethos. I had also lived in the UK, from whence most of Australia's people came and with whom they had much shared history. Surely Australian culture would be some synthesis of these cultures with which I was so familiar.

It was a good lesson in not letting your thinking get ahead of your experience. Of course Australian culture was its own wonderfully unique thing and we spent five and a half years discovering its many facets and left feeling like we had but scratched the surface. Yes there were parallels to the US and to the UK but they were only that: parallels. Knowledge of the US and UK was of marginal benefit in understanding all the other influences that had melded and molded modern Australia.

Having lived in more than half a dozen countries on four continents and traveled and worked in many others, I know I don't have the answers. What I do know is that understanding and empathizing with those that are different from us, in whatever way, is hard work calling for much more than the throw-away slogans and inconsequential mantras that pass for insight into the other. Louise MacNeice captured this sense of both the wonderment and the frustration in trying to comprehend that which is so alien to ourselves.

Louise MacNeice
Autumn Journal

The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it
Page by page
To train the mind or even to point a moral
For the present age:
Models of logic and lucidity, dignity, sanity,
The golden mean between opposing ills...

But I can do nothing so useful or so simple;
These dead are dead
And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.

And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

The other thing I know, and hope for and fear, is that our children will be ever more challenged to engage with those that are different from themselves. Technology, the boon and bane of our existence, is indeed making the world smaller, throwing people from all sorts of different backgrounds together in an exciting but sometimes unnerving goulash. The better grounded our children are in their own traditions while being made aware of those of others, the more likely they will be able to navigate these tricky waters.

So what are some good books to expose children to Stories from Many Lands? As someone once said in reference to translated poetry: if beautiful, not true; if true, not beautiful. So it can be with books attempting to introduce stories from one culture to another. Below are an assortment of folktales, travelers tales, and stories that expose children to different countries and ways of thinking. We have attempted to strike an impossible balance between those that hue close to an original source while rendering in a way comprehensible and enjoyable to someone unfamiliar with that culture. Let us know if there are other candidates you would recommend.

Picture Books

The Barefoot Book of Animal Tales by Naomi Adler and illustrated by Amanda Hall

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

Peter's Old House by Elsa Beskow

Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and the Red Shoes by Maj Lindman

The Race of the Birkebeiners by Lise Lunge-Larsen and illustrated by Mary Azarian

Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Norhwest by Gerald McDermott

The Stonecutter by Gerald McDermott

Indian Tales by Shenaaz Nanji and illustrated by Christopher Corr

Anatole by Eve Titus

Independent Reader

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and illustrated by Tasha Tudor

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Michael Chesworth

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

Young Adult

Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge

The Histories by Herodotus

Death in Venice and Other Tales by Thomas Mann

The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean