Classic Children's Literature · Reading

Completed: The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle

Cover: The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle The Arm of the Starfish
Madeleine L’Engle
US, 1965

In terms of the order of events in L’Engle’s wider story universe, The Arm of the Starfish is not the next book after A Wrinkle in Time. That would be A Wind in the Door (1973). But in terms of publication, The Arm of the Starfish was the second, and on a whim I decided that I would read all of the books, not just in the Time Quintet but in the Poly O’Keefe stories as well, in the order of publication. (This does have the negative consequence of delaying my return to my TBR list by a bit, but only a bit. I’ll be back in TBR-land shortly!)

Despite only three years between publication, The Arm of the Starfish seems a world away from A Wrinkle in Time. Not only is this because the two returning characters–Meg O’Keefe (née Murray) and Calvin O’Keefe are now married adults with seven children, but because unlike A Wrinkle in Time, The Arm of the Starfish seems much more grounded in the world we the readers know–there are no fantastic beings, no otherworldly travels, no giant evil IT to defeat. Indeed, the evil in this book is only too human–but surely as destructive and enticing for all that. The only element that really sets this novel in the realm of science-fiction is the depiction of Dr. O’Keefe’s science experiments involving starfish regeneration.

Our protagonist in The Arm of the Starfish is Adam Eddington, a young, but clearly intelligent and destined-to-be successful, man who is spending his last summer before college working for Dr. O’Keefe in his Portuguese island-based lab. However, things start to go awry before Adam even lands in Portugal, from the fog-delay at the airport to his mysterious encounter with the young beauty, Kali, to the airplane’s diversion to Madrid and Adam’s first encounters with Canon Tallis and Poly O’Keefe (the oldest of the O’Keefe children). Entrusted with seeing Poly safely to Lisbon and her father’s arms, Adam finds himself trapped in a larger conspiracy when Poly disappears from the plane and no one on board seems inclined to believe Adam’s story of her very existence.

While the Time Quintet books are more firmly in the realm of science-fiction, exploring cosmic concepts and universe-wide battles of good and evil, The Arm of the Starfish sits closer to the thriller genre, always steering towards a final, dangerous, confrontation. Its themes are of the darkness that lust for power or money or prestige can drive one to and of the small battles of individuals, both within themselves and against others.

Although a very different reading experience, diverging as it does in both style and story from its predecessor, The Arm of the Starfish, like Wrinkle, centers around a young protagonist with faults and self-doubt, whose failings sometimes may frustrate the reader, but who learns from his mistakes and grows over the course of the novel. In turn, the reader learns from Adam, and from his struggles.

My one piece of discomfort with The Arm of the Starfish was its portrayal of a native village on the fictional island of Gaea. L’Engle’s native characters feel as if they venture a little too close to stereotype (along the lines of “noble native”) for comfort, although they are only ever seen in a positive light. Also—and I admit here, I don’t know anything about actual Portuguese islands—the village, and its inhabitants, seemed more like something I would expect to read of in the South Pacific or Latin America than off the coast of Portugal. Stereotype or not, it threw me off mentally, every time it was described. In contrast, L’Engle’s depictions of Lisbon felt (and again, I can’t speak to personal experience) as if they were written by someone who has seen Lisbon in person.

All-in-all, a fast-paced enjoyable book, though perhaps not as enchanting as the better-known A Wrinkle in Time.

 

Classic Children's Literature · RAL

Anyone for a RAL?

It’s inevitable – no matter how lousy the reading’s been, no matter how many books are currently in the TBR stack next to my reading chair – come December (if not earlier), I’m thinking about the next year. What wondrous reading will be then? Admit it – you do it too. All those lovely end-of-year lists/goals/dreams. Truly, one of the highlights of December for me! (Can you tell I’m a planner/list-maker?)

So yes, I already have a pretty good idea of what I’m planning on for next year. And while I usually wait to share until either a) I’m signing up for a challenge I likely won’t actually complete or b) my end of year post, I thought there was one plan that I should mention early. Actually, a non-plan as well: I currently have no plans to continue the Children’s Classic Literature Event for a sixth year. If anyone else wants to host a similar event, please feel free (and I may even read along), but I won’t be hosting one.

A Wrinkle In Time Movie Poster (low res)

However. I am planning some Madeline L’Engle reading for next year, starting with a reread of A Wrinkle in Time. Yes, of course this is because of the upcoming film adaptation. And the fact that I asked for and received a box set of the Time Quintet books several years ago and still haven’t (re)read them. And then I thought, “hey, there’s a movie coming out–maybe I’m not the only one who wants to (re)read this?” So let me know if you think you might want to read along – if there’s enough interest in a A Wrinkle in Time RAL prior to the March release (I’m thinking January), I’d be willing to host. Alternatively, if there’s already a RAL planned/running, please point me that direction as I haven’t found it yet!

Now, just to clear the deck off first…

Classic Children's Literature

A Farewell to the Classic Children’s Literature Event

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Time always flies so fast during the Classic Children’s Literature Event! I can’t believe it’s the end of the month.  Already! I had hoped to get just one more book finished before the end of the month, but I’m still over 50 pages away, so it’s not looking likely. I’m sure that in addition to this last book, I’ll have one more straggler into May. So, if like me, you’re just not quite finished, feel free to share any last reads here over the next couple weeks and I will update the participant list.

Participant List:

Carissa at Bookshelves and Daydreams:
Mary Poppins Comes Back
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle
The Borrowers
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Carol at Jouney and Destination:
My Friend Flicka
Devil’s Hill

Cleo @ Classical Carousel:
Finn Family Moomintroll
Cyrus the Persian

Emma at Words and Peace:
Charlotte’s Web

Faith at Household Diary:
The 101 Dalmatians
Children of the New Forest
Bed-Knob and Broomstick

TJ at My Book Strings:
Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon

Amanda at Simpler Pastimes:
Beauty and Other Variations on La Belle et la Bête
Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals (Charles Perrault Fairy Tales)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Participants:

Cirtnecce @ Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices
Amanda @ Simpler Pastimes

Please let me know if I’ve missed your post!

Happy Reading!

Classic Children's Literature

Completed: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland RAL April 2017 250pxAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll
1865, England

It has been many years since I last visited Wonderland. I’ve only ever been there via the written word, all of the film adaptations seem to have passed me by. And so this reading surprised me. It was both familiar and un-, a return to somewhere I’ve been, a return to somewhere I didn’t recognize. While episodes such as the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the homicidal Queen screaming “Off with their heads!” and the Mad Hatter’s endless tea party are so familiar as to have become recognizable pop culture, I was surprised both at how much I remembered of the Pig and Pepper chapter and yet the episodes with the Mock Turtle and the Griffin not at all.

That word, “episodes.” Although the action flows from one scene seamlessly–if sometimes incongruously–into the next, just as in a dream, it seems to be composed of episodes: the caucus race, the tea party, the croquet party, the trial, and so forth. There is not really a through plot line, it is Alice’s “adventures,” and adventures must always be unexpected. But Alice proves they need not always have a motive. (The closest we get to a motivation is Alice’s desire to enter a beautiful garden, but once that is accomplished we still have plenty of book left.)

It is a dream story–explicitly so–and so both nonsense and perfectly sensible in the way that all good dreams are. The delightfully odd mind that this must have sprung from! It is, I can tell, even without the annotations in the copy I read,* that these characters, these references must have meant something to the “original” Alice, Alice Liddell–surely she must have played croquet and with playing cards, knew the proper manners for tea, and had overheard talk of such mysterious things as “caucus races.” Even the poems Carroll parodies that are now largely forgotten (well, I do know “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) would likely have been familiar to her, perhaps learned for her lessons; recitation seems such a common occurrence here!

I was most surprised by the humor. Doubtless the jokes and puns passed my fourth-grade self by. It is meant to be a bit silly too, I think. Now that I have reread it, I have no desire to try to impart some sense, some greater meaning to it, for I am not convinced that any is intended. Perhaps as some scholars think, there are references to historical figures or perhaps it is full of symbolism and greater meaning. But I find that I am quite content to take it as it is, to let my inner child simply meet it with delight.

*The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, Introduction and Notes by Martin Gardner, 2000 ed. I have mixed feeling about annotated editions. Sometimes such notes are useful, other times they are merely distractions. Although sometimes interesting, here I thought they too often went on too long (no, I don’t care about the 1933 film version, I’m interested in the text) or into unnecessary deviations. The context provided and the reprinting of the rhymes Carroll was parodying could be useful, however.

Classic Children's Literature · RAL

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland RAL

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland RAL April 2017

It’s here, time for discussion of our thoughts on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland! If you’ve never read Alice before (or are more familiar with any of the several film adaptations), was there anything that surprised you? Did you feel as lost as Alice? What just is this book about? Leave links to your posts in the comments, or feel free to discuss below.

Classic Children's Literature

Completed: Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals by Charles Perrault

I can’t believe it’s here already, but today marks the halfway point for the Classic Children’s Literature Event. Already! A gentle reminder to those reading, the discussion for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is planned for the weekend of April 21-23–just next weekend! (Though I won’t point fingers if you’re late.) I’d better get reading…

Cover: The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles PerraultTales and Stories of the Past with Morals [Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé]
Charles Perrault
(France, 1697)
Translator: Charles Welsh

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost. (J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” paragraph 2)

One fairy tale often leads to another, and after completing my “Beauty and the Beast” binge, it was time to move on to some other tales. Charles Perrault’s Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals [Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé] is not only the oldest title on my Children’s Classics project list, but it also contains versions of some well-known fairy tales plus a few others that are less familiar.

It is likely that Perrault did not invent these tales, but rather that, like the Grimm brothers, he retold stories already in oral circulation. Or perhaps he merely published them; the end note in the edition I read references Les Contes de ma mère l’Oie avant Perrault (Paris, E. Dentu, 1878), in which author Charles Deulin takes the view that the stories were likely written down by Perrault’s young (10 0r 11) son, from memory of tales his father had told him. In this theory, the elder Perrault had collected the stories to retell in poetic form and had asked his son to write them down from memory as an exercise. Reading the clear prose of his son, he then opted to publish those versions instead.

Regardless of the actual origins, this little collection, published over the years in various titles and various English translations, has proven influential–on later tale collectors, on film-makers, and, of course, on readers.

Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper

A story with many varieties, Perrault’s Cinderella became the familiar Disney version. If you are at all familiar with the latter half of the Grimm version (which Stephen Sondheim would take up as one of several tales in his Into the Woods), the Perrault version is also a gentler version–no cutting off of appendages, no pecking out of eyes.

The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods

What starts out as the familiar “Sleeping Beauty” story takes a decided turn to the macabre, just as the reader thinks the story is nearly over. For Sleeping Beauty’s prince has an ogre for a mother, and she loves nothing better to eat than young children. While we know that most fairy tales will end “happily ever after,” this one takes two halves to get there.

Little Thumb

I’m not entirely sure if it’s fair to say I was familiar with this one, for I’m not sure I’ve read this exact tale before. However, it is familiar, for it seems to be a French version of “Hansel and Gretel,” complete with poor parents leaving children in the woods and first stones, then breadcrumbs as trails. The witch is replaced by an ogre (I’m beginning to sense a theme?), and our hero Little Thumb must use his wit and ingenuity (and perhaps a vengeful streak?) to save the day.

The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots

I know I’ve read at least a version of this story before, it is so familiar–and nothing like the animated Dreamworks film, of course! But it is a story of trickery and deception. The third son of a miller inherits only the cat (for there was little enough to divide between three sons) and believes himself unfortunate. Only this cat has the cunning and planning abilities to provide for his master–and thereby himself–much, much more.

Riquet with the Tuft

This could almost be a Beauty and Beast tale. Riquet of the title is a prince, but is terribly ugly. He falls in love with a beautiful Princess–only she has no sense, which here means wit and intelligence as well as common sense. Fortunately, the fairies have given both a gift: Riquet can give the gift of sense to the woman he falls in love with, and the Princess the gift of beauty to the man she loves. Not too hard to see where this one is going…

Blue Beard

At last, I have read “Blue Beard.” I’ve heard so many references (though I can’t remember all where, at least one L.M. Montgomery novel for sure) to this dark tale of a man who keeps the bodies of his dead wives locked in a room of his home (or castle). Although I’d not previously read this exact story, the themes of fatal (or near-fatal) curiosity and forbidden rooms are common throughout literature.

The Fairy

A clearly moral tale: a widow has two daughters, one she loves who is selfish and disagreeable and one she doesn’t who is good and kind. The kind daughter meets a fairy in disguise when she is sent to the well to draw water and is rewarded richly for her kind treatment of the fairy. So the beloved selfish daughter is sent to the well, with not quite as desired results!

Little Red Riding-Hood

This is not the “Little Red Riding-Hood” I know! It starts out the same, but then ends. Abruptly. Both Little Red Riding-Hood and her grandmother have been quite eaten and there is no woodsman’s rescue! Though this perhaps may make it a bit more realistic than the average fairy tale… Nor does there really seem to be a moral, for Little Red Riding-Hood is not warned against straying from the path or talking to strangers, as she is in other versions.

And here the Perrault fairy tales end, on quite the somber note. Though, it is no wonder they remain at least somewhat popular, for they are quite readable and have an element of charm to them, even at their most disturbing. It is almost enough to send me in search of more fairy tales to read. Perhaps some Brothers Grimm on the menu next?

 

Classic Children's Literature

Completed Beauty and Other Variations on La Belle et la Bête

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Beauty – Robin McKinley (U.S., 1978, reread)

Adaptations of La Belle et la Bête – Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (France, 1740):

  1. Marie Le Prince de Beaumont  (France, 1756), as published by James Lumsden and Son, Glasgow.
  2. Andrew Lang (Scotland, 1889)

Unless you’ve been living with your head firmly ensconced in sand (and given the craziness of the news, I wouldn’t discount the possibility), chances are you’ve noticed that Walt Disney Studios has a little film out just now that may just have earned a little bit of money in recent weeks and that is based on an old fairy tale…and that just happens to fit in well with Classic Children’s Literature Month. I can’t say for certain (my memory escapes me on the particulars), but it’s likely that one of the trailers for Beauty and the Beast prompted me to a return visit to a more contemporary written adaptation, Robin McKinley’s Beauty.* And that in turn has sent me down the rabbit hole–not only did I then (re?)visit some of the more traditional tellings, but I have on order from the library Beauty and the Beast Tales from Around the World (Heidi Anne Heiner), though since they have to purchase/process a copy first (apparently this is what they do instead of ILL?), it could be a while before I get to that one.

What I would really like to read (and thus the library hold) is a translation of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 La Belle et la Bête. As far as I can tell, Villeneuve’s tale was the original story from which all of the other more familiar adaptations have sprung. That is, the original with the elements of a father promising a rose to his beloved daughter, getting lost in the woods and taking refuge in an enchanted castle where he is doomed to death by the beast for stealing a rose, the daughter willingly taking her father’s place and ultimately falling in love with the beast and ending his enchantment. (I believe there are other beauty + beast stories with different base elements–thus the “Tales from Around the World” part.) Since I was unsuccessful in finding an English translation of the Villeneuve, I settled temporarily for two adaptations, both of which are apparently both much shorter than Villeneuve’s and also the more commonly told. The first was by a Frenchwoman, Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. I couldn’t find a translator listed, but it is from the edition published by James Lumsden and Son in Glasgow. The second is by Andrew Lang, from his The Blue Fairy Book collection of fairy and folk tales.

Although both fairy tales, as well as McKinley’s novel-length adaptation are similar in their elements, they vary in the particulars. The fairy tales are most similar–naturally enough, for they share a common source. Beaumont’s version more emphatically pushes the moral however: virtue will be rewarded and selfishness punished. Here, Beauty’s sisters are proud and vain and selfish, while she is good and kind.  (There are also brothers, but they have very little personality as they are mostly just good sons and brothers.) Lang’s version, on the other hand–and perhaps here the more than 100 years between them makes a difference–has sisters who are nearly as insignificant as the brothers. The moral is not illustrated in them, but only in Beauty, who is rewarded for her own goodness and love. Notably, in none of these versions is it stated that the Beast under an enchantment due to his own moral failings, but rather entirely due to outside forces (in contrast to both Disney versions). (Actually, to be more accurate, I don’t think an explanation is given in Lang.)

In contrast with the fairy tales, McKinley’s adaptation much more greatly fleshes out both characters and plot. She has the advantage of greater length, for her story is a novelization of the fairy tale. But it also deviates some from the traditional stories. Instead of viewing Beauty with jealousy, her sisters are loving and kind in their own right–they truly do not wish to see her go and be sacrificed to the Beast. Nor are they the selfish, proud creatures of the fairy tale, but loyal to both their family and their lovers. Indeed, the middle sister, Hope, is distressed long before the loss of wealth, for her true love wishes to return to his hometown as a blacksmith and she is sorry that she might have to leave her family behind. But this lover is able to help the merchant and his family when they lose it all, thus showing how one tragedy may bring with it opportunity, and we see many scenes of happy family life, even after Beauty’s father has lost everything. I had worried that returning to a story I had so loved as a child might be a disappointment–that it could not live up to my memories–but thankfully, it was not so, and continued to enchant and delight me, far more so than the shorter versions.

I look forward to exploring other versions of these tales, and remain especially interested in Villeneuve’s. The short stories suffer in their shortness as compared to Beauty; will the longer original prove more satisfactory?

*Technically too new to be called “classic” just yet, I think, but older than I realized. Since it started me down the fairy-tale path, I decided to include it here anyway.