Monday, 19 March 2018

Why We Use Old Books for Science

A common charge against Charlotte Mason educators is that we use too many old books. When it comes to teaching science, this objection is even more vehement. How can you teach science using books that were written ten, twenty, thirty or worse still, over a hundred years ago?
Yes, we do tend to use older books but that's not because older books are intrinsically better than more modern titles. There are plenty of dud older books that we'd never use for the good reason that they aren't well-written. The reason we'd choose an older book over a more recent is because it has a literary approach, i.e. it presents facts that are clothed in literary language.
More and more, education has become utilitarian in its approach, and this is reflected in the teaching of science and the content of the books that are used. David Hicks made this observation:

' science took a technological turn and as education began preparing students for work rather than for leisure, for the factory rather than for the parlor, the school itself came to resemble the factory, losing its idiosyncratic, intimate, and moral character...
In its utilitarian haste, the state often peddles preparation for the practical life to our young as the glittering door to the life of pleasure; but by encouraging this selfish approach to learning, the state sows a bitter fruit against that day when the community depends on its younger members to perform charitable acts and to consider arguments above selfish interests.'

Norms & Nobility by David Hicks

When a book is too direct and factual there's the possibility that the student may not appropriate the material.
I've thought about this not only in relation to my children but also to my own reading. Some thoughts on uniting the literary & the scientific here.

Of course some things will have changed from when a science book was first written, but we could say that about a science text that was written a year ago. There are ways to bring the knowledge up to date without too much trouble while still giving your student the foundational concepts padded out in a literary medium. YouTube videos are one way that's worked well for us. The chapter from the book is read first and then an appropriate video is shown after that.
We take care that:

'...all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas.' 
Towards a Philosophy of Education, pg xxx

Some of the science books I've been using this year for my 13 year old daughter are in the 'old' category. Some are more modern, but they are all good. The first three book below are scheduled for Year 7 (Form III) at AmblesideOnline.

The Life of the Spider by Jean Henri Fabre (1823-1910)

Notebook page for The Life of the Spider 

The Wonder Book of Chemistry by Jean Henri Fabre - translated into English in 1922

These two books by Fabre are my daughter's favourites. Interestingly, Fabre was not only a scientist but a poet (see a short bio here). Charlotte Mason said of French scientists that,

'...they perceive that as there is an essence of history which is poetry so there is an essence of science to be expressed in exquisite prose.'

 Notebook page after reading Chapter 17 of The Wonder Book of Chemistry

I've used some of the University of Nottingham's Periodic Table of the Elements to not only bring some of the concepts in The Wonder Book of Chemistry (and other books we've used in the past couple of years) up to date but also to see demonstrations of science experiments that we wouldn't be able to perform safely at home.

Eric Sloane's Weather Book (1952)

The BBC's Wild Weather series narrated by Richard Hammond have been helpful with Sloane's book which on the surface looks simple enough but contains some difficult topics where a visual or simulated demonstration is helpful.

Architecture Shown to the Children by Gladys Wynne (1913)

This year we started Architectural Science and Gladys Wynne's book is our primary text. I've added in a couple of other books we have that relate to the science behind architecture such as String, Straightedge, & Shadow: The Story of Geometry by Julia E. Diggins (1965)
Although this would be classified as Mathematics and not Science, we're using it alongside the above book as it relates to Architecture in the Ancient World. The Grand Design DVD's are also an enjoyable addition from time to time.

Some examples from Moozle's Architecture Notebook

Secrets of the Universe by Paul Fleisher - this was originally published in 1987 and is out of print but it was re-issued as five separate books in 2002. Moozle is reading this one at present:

This is a series that a few of my children have enjoyed and learnt quite a lot from. Fleisher has explained the concepts well and included experiments that are do-able in the home situation. This was one Moozle did on light reflection last week:

Signs & Seasons by Jay Ryan (2007) is a more recent science publication but I'm supplementing with The Constellations & How to Find Them by Sir William Peck (1942) as he writes from a Southern Hemisphere perspective.

I managed to find a sundial in a local park

Natural Science

The older books really shine with this subject and just about every book I have related to this field is old. I have up to date field guides for studying birds and plants in our part of the world but reading the writing of earlier naturalists is very inspiring. An interesting article I found about this: What Early 20th Century Nature Study Can Teach Us.
Some of the books I use the most are:

Natural History in Australia by William Gillies & Robert Hall (1903)

Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock (1911)

Bush Calendar by Amy Mack (1909)

I posted a list of some of these that are available free online here. 

Mother Culture Science

These are some science titles I've read for my own education, or have used with my older children in the high school years. I've linked to reviews I've written on them or where we've used them in high school.

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks (2001) - my own reading and one of my sons read it around the age of 16 years.

Longitude by Dava Sobel (2011) - this was a book I read aloud about 5 years ago to multiple ages

Madame Curie by Eva Curie (1937)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D. Watson (1968)

Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov (1966) - we used this in Years 9-11

Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself by George Gamow & Martynas Ycas (1967)

The following books are medically related, inspirational/devotional & highly recommended:

Fearfully & Wonderfully Made by Philip Yancey & Dr. Paul Band (1980)

Ten Fingers for God by Dorothy Clarke Wilson (1965) - a biography of Dr. Paul Brand

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Back to the Classics: The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge (1956)

The Rosemary Tree is the first book I’ve read by Elizabeth Goudge, although she’s been on my radar for many years, but I doubt it will be my last as I found her writing to be descriptive and multi-layered; her characters warm and interesting.
The Rosemary Tree not only has an engaging plot, it also displays a skill in revealing character and from what I’ve read about the author, this seems to be her trademark.
There are, of course, many authors who have this skill, but Goudge doesn’t leave her characters unveiled and without hope. As they acknowledge and confront their weaknesses, mistakes, and outright transgressions, those same defects become catalysts for redemption. I loved this aspect of her writing and how it reflects her Christian values.
I won’t divulge the plot as there are a couple of surprises but here are some selections from the book to whet your appetite.

Goudge’s phrase ‘Interior Riches’ and the idea of ‘furnishing ones’ own private world' stood out to me so much that I wrote about it here.

'...out of chance phrases and flashes of beauty (Michael) had always in old days been able to build for himself his country of escape. “Rest and ease, a convenient place, pleasant fields and groves, murmuring springs, and a sweet repose of mind.” Cervantes had known the same country, and had doubtless retained the power to create it even in the midst of misery, so great were his own interior riches.
But Michael’s imagination had always been dependent upon exterior bounty, and cut off from that he had been cut off from his country too.'

‘...sarcasm doesn’t grow on the same stalk as humility.’

Goudge expressed the idea that hospitality could be sacramental. I’ve been pondering this and thinking back on some experiences we’ve had where hospitality did serve as a tangible extension of grace.

Some character sketches:

Bob, the gruff old gardener:

'He did occasionally let fall tokens of respect, and always when Michael was feeling most disintegrated by a sense of his worthlessness. They seemed to be bestowed to join him together again, for Bob seemed always moved by that strong creative impulse which only the best men have. In most men, Michael thought, even decent men, the destructive impulse is strongest in the presence of weakness.'

John, the compassionate, self-deprecatory, muddling vicar; a Don Quixote type of character:

'(Miss Giles’) amused liking for the amiable muddier was infused with sudden respect; which was not lost when he stopped the car with such a jerk that her head nearly went through the windscreen. He was out of the car in a moment, apologising and helping her out in a manner that could not have been more courteous had she been a duchess. Four shallow steps led up to the front door...and such is the power of suggestion that she walked up them as though she were a duchess, and led the way to the drawing-room with an air of elegance and grace that smote John’s heart with compassion. Another man might have thought it merely laughable...but to John it was as though he saw a fragile delicate flower struggling for life in some airless slum.'

Mrs Belling - on the surface a very sweet, charming woman who ran Oaklands, a school for small girls. Underneath, a completely self-absorbed woman who exercised a compelling power.

'Oaklands aquired an enviable reputation...and after forty-five years, even though it was declining now both in numbers and prosperity, it still retained it, as the scent of a rose still clings to it after the petals have begun to fall...
But the scent of a dying rose becomes at last tinged with the smell of decay and so had the atmosphere of Oaklands, emanating Asia did from the extraordinarily strong personality of Mrs. was not easy to realise that strength could exist enclosed in such fatness and flabbiness, such laziness and self-indulgence, and hardly anyone did realise it; apart from a few of the children, and their unconscious knowledge showed itself only as a curious shrinking from Mrs. Billing’s sweetness.'

For some reason I had in my mind that this author would be a little saccharine and light but a few of my reading friends spoke highly of her writing so I knew I should at least try one of her books.
I did find the last couple of chapters of The Rosemary Tree to be a little contrived or forced (I was thinking mostly of one or two conversations where Harriet was involved) but Goudge’s revelations concerning Mrs. Belling’s true character made up for any other deficiencies.

Linking to 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge: A Classic by an Author That's New to You.
And to The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

Monday, 5 March 2018

Beau Geste by Percival Christopher Wren (1924): A Tale of Decency, Chivalry, Altruism and Heroism

Beau Geste by P. C. Wren is an adventure story and a convoluted mystery set predominantly in the African Sahara. The story jumps into the first mystery immediately, but that turns out to be a distraction from the central mystery - the theft of a precious gemstone. The two mysteries are related but the connection doesn’t make sense until the end of the book and both mysteries are solved.
The main characters involved in the story are the three Geste brothers: Michael or ‘Beau,’ so named because of his ‘remarkable physical beauty, mental brilliance and general distinction;’ Digby his twin brother and John, their younger brother. Orphaned at an early age, they lived in England with their maternal aunt, Lady Brandon, and two other young relatives, Claudia and Isobel.

Poor Aunt Patricia! She had contracted an alliance with Sir Hector Brandon as one might contract a disease. The one alleviation of this particular affliction being its intermittence; for this monument of selfishness was generally anywhere but at home, he being a mighty hunter before the Lord (or the Devil) and usually in pursuit of prey, biped or quadruped, in distant places.

Lady Brandon owned a magnificent gemstone known as the ‘Blue Water’ and one evening it disappeared. The blame fell on Michael, her favourite. He admitted his guilt, but as thieving was so out of character for him, and he had no motive for the crime, each of his brothers ‘confessed’ to being the culprit.
The French Foreign Legion had captured the young men’s imaginations earlier and so it was to France that that all three individually made their way to join up to the legion. To their surprise, the three brothers discovered they had all tried to cover for each other when they met up when met up as  legionaries. Together they were stationed in Sidi Bel Abbès, Algeria, under the command of the sadistic Sergeant Lejaune:

To his admiring superiors he was invaluable; to his despairing subordinates he was unspeakable...
He would have made a splendid wild-beast tamer, for he had all the courage, strength, forceful personality, hardy over-bearing consciousness of superiority, and contemptuous, callous brutality required in that bold, ignoble profession.

There followed all manner of adventure, danger, moral darkness and tragedy, complicated when Lejaune somehow heard that Michael had stolen a precious gem and determined to get it from him.
Beau Geste is a terrific story of heroism, brotherly love, loyalty and faithfulness. Duty and doing what is right, regardless of the outcome, is an ever present theme, an unquestionable fact of life.
There are some gruesome aspects of desert fighting and Legion life in the tale but conversely, there are also nuggets of humour and brotherly banter throughout that add a carefree touch to the narrative.
This is no contrived morality tale, but a sensitive, triumphant story of unsung heroes and a noble gesture (i.e. beau geste).
An afterword in my copy of the book that was written by Brian Stableford summed up the author’s intentions in writing this book. I think he admirably achieved his purpose:

His constant obsession is with matters of decency, chivalry, altruism and heroism, and his constant lament is that in this cruel world these things are too often unobserved, unappreciated and unrewarded.

Beau Geste was written from the perspective of an Englishman in 1926, so there are cultural and racial biases that would probably be seen to be offensive by today's standards. The book is free online here if you want to peruse it.
P. C. Wren said that he enlisted himself in the French Foreign Legion using a pseudonym (as is the common practice) but the Legion authorities apparently disapproved of his portrayal of their system and deny his claim. However, his account of the daily life of a legionnaire is very vivid for someone who hadn’t spent time in its ranks.
As with many classics, this is a book that serves a broad age range. I thought it was a rivetting story  and my teenaged children enjoyed it around the age of about fourteen and up. It’s a splendid book for a young man with its emphasis on true heroism, the descriptions of life as a legionary and the humourous episodes early in the story which describe the antics of ‘Captain’ Michael’s ‘band’:

When a French cavalry officer on leave from Morocco visits their Aunt:

“Bags I we get him up to the schoolroom to-morrow,” whispered Michael...
Aunt Patricia lifted off the glass cover and handed the jewel to the Frenchman...
“That has caused we know not what of strife and sorrow and bloodshed,” he said. “What a tale it could tell!”
“Can you tell tales of strife and bloodshed, please?” asked Michael, and as Claudia said, “Why of course! He leads charges of Arab cavalry like Under Two Flags,” as though she had known him for years, we all begged him to tell us about his fighting, and he ranked second only to the “Blue Water” as a centre of attraction.
On the following afternoon, the Captain deputed Claudia to get the Frenchman to tell us some tales.
“Decoy yon handsome stranger to our lair,” quoth he. “I would wring his secrets from him.”
Nothing loth, Claudia exercised her fascinations upon him after lunch, and brought him to our camp in the Bower, a clearing in the woods near the house.

John’s description of his brother, Michael:

The Captain...was a very unusual person of irresistible charm, and his charm was enhanced, to me at any rate, by the fact that he was as enigmatic, incalculable, and incomprehensible as he was forceful. He was incurable romantic, and to this trait added the unexpected quality of a bull-dog tenacity. If Michael suddenly and quixotically did some ridiculously romantic thing, he did it thoroughly, and he stuck to it until it was done.

However, despite the youthful tone of some of the earlier passages, the story takes on a more serious tone story as it progresses with some of the characters downright evil, treacherous or cruel.

As Wren observed, altruism and heroism often go unobserved, unappreciated and unrewarded, and those who fight for what is right don’t always receive their reward in this life. A striking feature of Beau Geste is the contrast between the loyal and altruistic tendencies of a handful of characters and their ignoble, self-centred counterparts.
It helped me to read Beau Geste with a French dictionary close at hand as there are French words on just about every page in some sections of the book. Some of them are redundant or related to the military but the general gist can usually be worked out from the context.

Michael after he joins the Legion:

“Don’t bray like that, my good ass,” said Michael turning to him, “and try not to be a bigger fool than God meant you to...”

“It’s seems like we’ve all got to die, either way,” said Glock.
“It’s what I am trying to prevent, isn’t it, fat-head?” answered Michael.

Some interesting links on the french foreign legion which was established in 1831 during the reign of King Louis-Philippe and, yes, is still operating today.

Whatever Happened to the French foreign Legion?

The Mysterious Lure of the French Foreign Legion 
If you want to enlist in the Legion!!

Linking to 2018 Back to the Classics: Beau Geste is my choice for a 20th Century Classic
and Carole's Books you Loved.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Reading, Thinking, Domesticity #3

When I started this Reading, Thinking, Domesticity series in January, I mentioned that one of the definitions of the word 'domesticate' means to tame. We're taming and reclaiming the lives of those in our home but more importantly, our own life.
Dr Harold C. Mason said that:

"Man was made to dwell in a garden but through sin he has been forced to dwell in a field which he has wrested from his enemies by sweat and tears, and which he preserves only at the price of constant watchfulness and endless toil. Let him but relax his efforts for a few years and the wilderness will claim his field again."

A.W. Tozer echoed this observation in his own words:

"The bias of nature is toward the wilderness, never toward the fruitful field," and he defined temptation as "the effort of the wilderness to encroach upon our newly-cleared field."
This 'law of the wilderness' operates universally and any part of our lives that are neglected will become overrun and any previous gains lost.

I was thinking of  the words above in the context of 3 John vs 2:
“Friends, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” 

To prosper means to make good way and is linked to walking, so going back to the wilderness analogy, prospering requires a steady, consistent effort toward something. To stop walking is to wither.
Have you heard of the spinning plates analogy? It's difficult to keep all our plates spinning and they sometimes/often end up falling as we fail to keep them spinning on their sticks. Sometimes we just have too many plates. This verse in 3 John highlights the internal life, the soul/spirit, as the most important plate to keep spinning but obviously we have a responsibility to look after our physical health also.
This is possibly the last item on the agenda in many a busy home educator’s life but the older you get, the more you realise how important it actually is, and the harder it is to establish good habits!


These are some ways I'm addressing these areas; keeping the plates spinning and looking after Spirit, Soul & Body:

‘For the Love of God’ by D.A. Carson is a daily companion that has a systematic 365 day reading plan that takes you through the New Testament and Psalms twice, and the Old Testament once. It’s based on the M’Cheyne Bible reading schedule & includes a daily commentary that focuses on one of the chapters you’ve read that day.

I’ve been enjoying this free Bible app ( I don’t use it for every reading but it helps me fit in a lot more Bible as I can listen while I walk or when I’m in the car. It’s been helpful when I’m tired and I lose track of what I’d just read!! or when my mind wanders.
I've always found C.S. Lewis to be very accessible and read many of his books when I was a new  Christian. I somehow missed The Screwtape Letters although my older children have read it. It is fun while being instructive.

'The Rosemary Tree’ by Elizabeth Goudge is such a wonderful story - quality nutrition for the soul. Just lovely! I've nearly finished it and have so many passages underlined ready to be put into my commonplace book.
‘Strength Training for Woman’ by Joan Pagano is an excellent, well-illustrated book and contains exercises that may be done at home or the gym. I discovered that my bone density was low which surprised me as I eat a lot of dairy products so I've been making an effort in the past year to be more consistent with weight bearing exercises. I joined the gym with my husband about two years ago but I was only averaging one session a week. I've upped that to two to three sessions a week and incorporated some of the exercises in this book. My gym-going 21 year old plumber son who is built like a tank told me I now have biceps - not very noticeable, but they're there.

When Screwtape was instructing his nephew in how to destroy a young man’s faith he said:

‘ must always remember that they are animals and whatever their bodies do affects their souls.’

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Newbery Honor Book: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (1987)

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is a gripping short story about a thirteen-year-old city boy who survives a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness after the pilot suffers a massive heart attack mid-flight.
Brian Robeson is flying from New York to Canada on a small Cessna plane to stay with his father for the summer. He is the only passenger and it is the first time he’d ever been on a plane.
Brian survives the crash of the plane into a lake, escaping with only the clothes he is wearing and the hatchet his mother gave him strapped to his belt.
He realizes very quickly that he needs shelter and food and begins his education in survival skills. He finds berries, learns how to spear fish and birds with his homemade spear, and with the aid of his hatchet, discovers how to start a fire.
He survives an attack by a moose, an encounter with a bear, a tornado, the torturous afflictions of mosquitoes and in the process gains some inner resolve and strength that he didn’t have before.

If the story was confined to the plane crash, the boy’s attempts to keep alive, and his growth during the ordeal, it would probably be an excellent read for a child around the age of twelve, but there are a few themes that might cause concern for parents, and I'd recommend a pre-read before handing it to your child (it's only about 180 pages).
The reason Brian is travelling to Canada to spend the summer with his dad is because his parents recently divorced and he is on his first visit to his father’s new home.
Bit by bit Paulsen reveals Brian’s secret: he had seen his mother in the company of another man in her car and had seen them kiss. This knowledge burned inside him and during the flight his mind flashes back to the scene; to his strained relationship with his mother who was unaware that Brian knew about her infidelity; to the secret his father was unaware of.

It was an ugly word, he thought. A tearing, ugly word that meant fights and yelling...the breaking and shattering of all the solid things...
The Secret.
The big split. Brian’s father did not understand as Brian did, knew only that Brian’s mother wanted to break the marriage apart. The split had come and then the divorce, all so fast, and the court had left him with his mother except for the summers and what the judge called ‘visitation rights.’ So formal. Brian hated judges as he hated lawyers. Judges who leaned over the bench and asked Brian if he understood where he was to live and why. Judges who did not know what really happened. Judges with the caring look that meant nothing as lawyers said legal phrases that meant nothing.

Sitting in the cockpit with a dead pilot, the plane knocked off its course when the man smashes into the controls with the violence of his chest pain; trying to send an SOS when he has no idea of how to contact anyone; when in fact, he’d never even seen the inside of a plane except in movies - this is pretty intense stuff.

I thought Paulsen’s depiction of the inner turmoil of a young boy’s struggle with parental breakdown was very perceptive and real. He also conveyed the terrible shock, fear and loneliness of the boy's predicament before and after the crash with skill. The writing style is more likely to be appreciated by children around the age of the protagonist or even younger but I’d think hard before giving the book to anyone under the age of fourteen or fifteen.
There is an incident that occurrs when he’d been on his own for forty-two days. He hears a plane and runs with a burning piece of wood to try to signal to the aircraft but he fails to attract any attention. Up until this point he had just been waiting to be rescued but he realizes that the doomed plane had veered way off its course and no one would be expecting him to be where he was. All his hope dissipates and he tries to commit suicide by cutting himself with his hatchet.

Madness. A hissing madness that took his brain. There had been nothing for him then and he tried to become nothing but the cutting had been hard to do, impossible to do, and he had at last fallen to his side, wishing for death, wishing for an end...
Still there on his side and the sun came up and when he opened his eyes he saw the cuts on his arm, the dry blood turning black; he saw the blood and hated the blood, hated what he had done to himself when he was the old Brian and was weak, and the two things came into his mind - two true things.
He was not the same. The plane passing changed him, the disappointment cut him down and made him new. He was not the same and would never be again like he had been. That was one of the true things, the new things. And the other one was that he would not die, he would not let death in again.
He was new.

Another incident that might be too much for younger readers occurred after a tornado tore through the area. Afterwards, when Brian went to the lake, the tail of the plane was now visible. He remembered that a survival pack had been stored near the tail somewhere and he decided to try to get out to the plane and recover the pack.
Once he got to the plane, he had to dive down to loosen the pack as it was jammed in by one of the seats. As he grabbed the pack, he saw the pilot’s head, or what remained of it, and he realized that the fish he had been eating since he’d been stranded had been nibbling on the pilot all that time and the skull was almost picked clean. A bit gross, and needless to say, Brian was sick.
The ending was a little ironic. Brian finds all sorts of goodies in the survival pack, including an Emergency Transmitter that he fiddles with but it appears to be broken. He cooks himself a slap up meal using some of the treasures that come in the pack, and as he sits savouring the smell of his cooking, a plane with floats suddenly roars overhead and lands on the lake fifty-four days after the crash.
Dumfounded, Brain stares at the pilot as he gets out of the plane:

'I heard your emegency transmitter - then I saw the plane when I came over...' He trailed off, cocked his head, studying Brian. 'Damn. You're him, aren't you? You're that kid. they quit looking, a month, no, almost two months ago. You're him, aren't you?
You're that kid...'
Brian was standing now, but still silent...He looked at the pilot, and the plane, and down at himself - dirty and ragged, burned and lean and tough - and he coughed to clear his throat.
'My name is Brian Robeson,' he said. Then he saw that his stew was done, the peach whip almost done, and he waved to it with his hand. 'Would you like something to eat?'

Overall, Hatchet is an absorbing and quick read. An interesting aspect for me is Brian’s character development during the course of the story. From a slightly tubby adolescent who had no idea of how to look after himself, reeling from the trauma of his parent’s divorce and the secret he carries, he develops into a young man who learns to overcome his emotions, to think through his decisions before he acts on them, and to learn through his mistakes.
I think in the right circumstances and at the right time this book would be a good choice, especially for a boy. I’ve read that Hatchet has been assigned in some schools for 4th grade students but I think that’s too young.

The author has written a couple of sequels that I haven’t read. Brian's Winter (published previously as ’Hatchet: Winter’) continues the story by looking at what would have happened had Brain not been rescued and had to survive the winter.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Australian Historical Fiction: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans is M. L. Stedman’s 2012 award-winning debut novel. It is set in Western Australia where the author was born and raised, and is a well-written and heart-wrenching story.
Without giving away too much of the plot...the story takes place in the years after The Great War and centres around Tom Sherbourne, a young man who becomes a lighthouse keeper upon his return from active service. Memories of the war haunt him and he struggles with the fact that so many others did not return, or did so maimed and psychologically ruined. In many respects he is able to pick up his life again but his choice to be a lighthouse keeper is influenced by his desire for a solitary life, a direct result of both his unsettled upbringing and the trauma of war.
Then he meets Isabel, a young woman ten years younger than himself, and she has made up her mind that she wants to marry him.
Well, they do marry and go to live at Janus Rock, a fictitious, remote island off the coast of south-west Western Australia where their only contact with the outside world is the supply boat that visits the island four times a year from Point Partageuse (a fictitious town).

Lighthouse keepers were required to keep meticulous records in a logbook - visitors to the island, wreckage from the sea, every significant event at or near the lighthouse, whether it was a passing ship or a problem with the lighthouse’s apparatus - it was a legal requirement to document those events straight away.
One day in 1926, something occurs that doesn’t get documented. Tom is an honourable man but out of concern for Isabel’s fragile emotional state, he makes a decision that leads to longterm tragic consequences.
The Light Between Oceans is a sensitive story that explores moral choices and the deceitfulness of the human heart. It shows that our decisions do not only impact our own lives but have repercussions for those around us; that our emotions are not always reliable and that we can reason away just about anything if we lean on them alone.

This is the first time I’ve read anything by this author and I was impressed by her style of writing and descriptive ability. The historical and technical details about lighthouses and the work of lighthouse keepers were quite fascinating, even for this very non-technically minded woman, and the portrayal of the problems encountered by returned servicemen and their families was handled brilliantly.
The only negative for me was the profanity which became more frequent towards the latter part of the book, although it’s not out of character for the times, or for some people going through the type of circumstances and pressures described.
A very worthwhile book and one of the best written modern books I’ve read in a long time.

Tom's comment about his war service:

‘Being over there changes a man. Right and wrong don’t look so different any more to some.’

The impact of the war:

Throughout its infancy, the unspoken belief in Partageuse was that real hints happened elsewhere...
Other towns in the West had known things different, of course: Kalgoorlie, for example, hundreds of miles inland, had underground rivers of gold crusted by desert...
The world wanted what Kalgoorlie had.

...Then in 1914 things changed. Partageuse found that it too had something the world wanted. Men. Young men. Fit men. Men who spent their lives swinging an axe or holding a plough and living it hard. Men who were the prime cut to be sacrificed on tactical altars a hemisphere away.

The author has a nice way with similes and other figures of speech:

And Janus Rock, linked only by the store boat four times a year, dangled off the edge of the cloth like a loose button that might easily plummet to Antarctica.

‘Tom Sherbourne. Pleased to meet you,’ Tom replied, putting out his hand.
The older man looked at it absently for a moment before remembering what the gesture meant, and gave it a peremptory tug, as if testing whether the arm might come off.

Post-traumatic trauma:

Something solid. He must turn to something solid, because if he didn’t, who knew where his mind or his soul could blow away to, like a balloon without ballast. That was the only thing that got him through four years of blood and madness: know exactly where your gun is when you doze for ten minutes in your dugout; always check your gas mask; see that your men have understood their orders to the letter. You don’t think ahead in years or months: you think ahead in years or months: you think about this hour, and maybe the next. Anything else is speculation.

Tom's character:

Regulations require that each Sunday he hoist the ensign and he does, first thing. He raises it too when any ‘man o’ war’, as the rules put it, passs the island. He knows keepers who swear under their breath at the obligation, but Tom takes comfort from the orderliness of it. It is a luxury to do something that serves no practical purpose: the luxury of civilisation.

Other blokes might take advantage, but to Tom, the idea of honour was a kind of antidote to some of the things he lived through.

Thanks to Sherry at Semicolon Blog for mentioning this book. I'd heard of the title but I don't often read modern fiction and probably wouldn't have if Sherry hadn't said how much she enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Mr. Standfast - How do I Love Thee? Let me Count the Ways...

This is the third time I’ve read Mr. Standfast by John Buchan. It’s one of my favourite books by this author and the third time around hasn’t diminished my ardour.
Mr. Standfast is the third book of five in Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels that began with The Thirty-Nine Steps, and was followed by Greenmantle. The book was published in 1919 after the Bolshevik Revolution and as World War I was coming to a close. Buchan’s story opens in 1917 when Hannay was serving as a Brigadier in France. He is recalled by British Intelligence to pose as a pacifist in order to infiltrate a spy ring that threatens to bring about an Allied defeat on the Western Front.
Hannay, an upfront man of action, is disgusted with the idea of being a fake pacifist, but he sees his duty, does what is required of him, and by the second half of the book he’s well and truly in on all the action, and nearly gets annihilated a couple of times.
There is a romantic element in this story as Hannay falls in love with the charming Mary Lamington, who is also working for British Intelligence. There are some tense moments for him when the sinister Graft von Schwabing, the German master of disguise, succeeds in tricking Mary. She walks into his trap and finds herself on the 'Underground Railway' heading into Germany with him.

What I loved About Mr. Standfast

•    Buchan uses the theme of Pilgrim’s Progress throughout the book. When Hannay is given his assignment via Mary, she tells him to buy a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress and ‘get it by heart.’ When he receives letters and messages about his assignment, they are written in a style reminiscent of John Bunyan. Some of the chapter headings are taken directly from Pilgrim’s Progress: The Village Named Morality; The Valley of Humiliation; The Summons Comes for Mr. Standfast.

•    Buchan has a very literary style and perceptive insights into human nature. Add those qualities to his grasp of the historical setting and his ability to tell a thrilling political/spy adventure story and the result is a winner.

•    Buchan was a fellow Scot and I love his descriptions of the Scottish Highlands and its people. He also had a very full and interesting life, living in South Africa and later in Canada where he held the position of Governor General. This wide experience of life is reflected in his writing.

•    Buchan’s characters: Mr. Blenkiron, who starred in Greenmantle makes his appearance again in Mr. Standfast, this time as a healthy man cured of his chronic dyspepsia; Sir Archie Roylance, the light-hearted youth who previously served with Hannay and now is in the flying Corps, and Mary Lamington, the courageous and patriotic eighteen year old girl who wins Hannay‘s heart.

•    My favourite character in this book would have to be the wiry and wise, Peter Pienaar, an old associate of Hannay’s from South Africa who participated in some previous adventures. He had found his niche in the Flying Corps and gained a reputation for skill amongst his fellow flyers, but also from Lensch, the German aviation hero. Peter had been downed by Lensch in a air fight and at the beginning of this story he is a crippled prisoner of war. The Pilgrim’s Progress was his constant companion and he had singled out Mr. Standfast as his counterpart because he did not think he could emulate Mr. Valiant-for-Truth. How wrong he was!

Among the unopened letters was one from Peter, a very bulky one which I sat down to read at leisure. It was a curious epistle, far the longest he had ever written me, and its size made me understand his loneliness. He was still at his German prison-camp, but expecting every day to go to Switzerland...
Peter's letter was made up chiefly of reflection. He had always been a bit of a philosopher, and now, in his isolation, he had taken to thinking hard, and poured out the results to me on pages of thin paper in his clumsy handwriting. I could read between the lines that he was having a stiff fight with himself. He was trying to keep his courage going in face of the bitterest trial he could be called on to face - a crippled old age. He had always known a good deal about the Bible, and that and the Pilgrim's Progress were his chief aids in reflection. Both he took quite literally, as if they were newspaper reports of actual recent events.
Peter preferred Valiant-for-Truth to Mr Greatheart, I think, because of his superior truculence, for, being very gentle himself, he loved a bold speaker...He thought that he might with luck resemble Mr Standfast, for like him he had not much trouble in keeping wakeful, and was also as 'poor as a howler', and didn't care for women. He only hoped that he could imitate him in making a good end.

But the big courage is the cold-blooded kind, the kind that never lets go even when you're feeling empty inside, and your blood's thin, and there's no kind of fun or profit to be had, and the trouble's not over in an hour or two but lasts for months and years. One of the men here was speaking about that kind, and he called it 'Fortitude'. I reckon fortitude's the biggest thing a man can have—just to go on enduring when there's no guts or heart left in you.

Peter was writing for his own comfort, for fortitude was all that was left to him now. But his words came pretty straight to me, and I read them again and again, for I needed the lesson. Here was I losing heart just because I had failed in the first round and my pride had taken a knock. I felt honestly ashamed of myself, and that made me a far happier man.

Mr. Standfast by John Buchan is my choice for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Re-read a favorite classic

John Buchan's Richard Hannay novels are scheduled as free reads in the AmblesideOnline Year 11 curriculum, but they are also great reading for around age 12 to 13 years and up. My kids loved them.