Kenilworth Castle

Kenilworth Castle
Kenilworth Castle, John of Gaunt's Hall

Sunday, July 15, 2007

coral island, katzekopfs, hesba stretton, Nesbit!

i've been working away at the PhD Project Reading List (sort of; june got lost in the haze of teaching). but since summer session ended, and i am a Free Girl again, I have been trying to read steadily.

The Coral Island - RM Ballantyne. There seems to be this pattern of sneaking natural history/science lessons into books disguised as novels. I found this to be the case in both of my "island" books - Coral Island and Anne Parrish's adorably-illustrated The Floating Island. Not being particularly interested in snails and coral and small sea-creatures, I found most of the natural history quite dull. The Coral Island is weirdly unbelievable because of Our Heroes' ages (18,15,13) - but they don't speak or act like teenagers or young men. It's a pretty typical boys' adventure story - King Solomon's Mines MEETS Robinson Crusoe, I guess (having to rescue the light-skinned black girl and all). At ChLA in June, I'd heard a paper on coral insects, and the way they, and natural history, were used by British Missionary societies, so i had that in the back of my mind while reading. It was useful to have someone else's pre-digested ideas on hand for a book I'm not likely to do much with in the future. Of course, my queer-detectors went off when tall, manly Jack tenderly whispers to Ralph Rover, but beyond that - well, I'm glad I don't have to read it again.

The Hope of the Katzekopfs by "william churne" (the pseudonym of Rev Paget). So I read this one, and kind of went "wtf???" It's a fairly typical 19th century fairytale/moral tale - Lady Abracadabra whisks the nasty little Hope of the Katzekopfs, Prince jerkface, off to Fairyland to learn him a lesson. (think of Toad and Badger, saying "we don't want to teach them! we want to learn them!!!")
It had all the weirdness of the Victorian fairytale - I was thinking of the fairystories collected in Forbidden Journeys, (eds. Nina Auerbach and U.C Knoepflmacher). There's the grotesque, the Fairy, the moral, the transformation: nothing terribly new or surprising, though since Katzekopfs was written in 1844, perhaps I've got the wrong end of the stick, and Rev Paget was really doing something extraordinary and new. "Amelia & the Dwarves" is a better, weirder, story (in my opinion). What perplexes me most about Katzekopfs is the way it is so.....German-ish. But this isn't a terribly pressing (or productive) question, so I'll bracket it.

HESBA STRETTON:

I was dreading reading anything called "Jessica's First Prayer." But I found it....freakishly compelling. I went on to read the three other novella/tracts in the collection with "Jessica," and enjoyed them all. I'm surprised by this, because they're all very Algerish stories: dirt-poor and helpless children with good qualities find benefactors who teach them about Jesus and God. Sometimes, the child dies. Sometimes, the child does not die. Either way, everyone's really excited about Jesus and God and lives happily ever after (but never as happily as those morbid children who ecstatically die, ready and willing to go chill with God and Jesus rather than live their earthly lives).
"Little Meg's Children," "Alone in London," and "Pilgrim Street" were the other three stories, and I have to say I enjoyed them all. Stretton's writing is solidly good, and there's something so wonderfully Victorian, almost Dickensian, about her characters and settings. I don't know much about Stretton, other than that she was a christian reformer, concerned - obviously! - with the poor, and with poor children. i sometimes wonder what would happen if we had decent writers cranking out tractlike stories like this now - about the poor and underprivileged - would anyone read them? would any child read them and be motivated? would any adult?

which is a decent segue into today's re-read, Five Children & It. Now, I love Nesbit and I've re-read nearly all her books repeatedly. I just zipped through The Magic City (possibly my favorite) again, and it's still damn fantastic.

Five children & It is not one of my favorite Nesbit stories, perhaps because the wishes-adventures are SO snarkily carried out. I LOVE The Story of the Amulet, however; which is the Stretton connection. Nesbit and Stretton have similar projects in terms of politics (Nesbit not from the Christian angle, though), in their concern for the poor. And I find it fascinating that they handle their political material SO differently - and equally successfully, I think. Stretton wants to move us through pathos and christian spirit (or maybe christian guilt?); Nesbit wants to move us through a kind of pragmatic rationality, and through a kind of ostranenie , the defamiliarization she can achieve through time-travel.

I'm thinking I might teach "Little Meg" and The Story of the Amulet this fall.....

what do you think?

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