There’s a good chance that if I mention The Swiss Family Robinson you know what I’m talking about. This story of a castaway family has enchanted readers since its first publication in 1812. Even if you haven’t read a version, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or at least heard of one of the film adaptations.
I don’t remember if I first came across this story as a Great Illustrated Classics book or through the 1960 Disney film. I’m sure one led quickly to the other. Shortly after that, I found a more “grown-up” version of the book in my favorite book store. It was a 1968 edition that was about 12 tall by 8 inches wide, and the margins were filled with illustrations of animals and explanatory notes. I read it so much the book literally fell apart.
The Great Fanfic Conspiracy
When I started looking for a replacement copy, I realized this book was originally written in German and that there was more than one English version to choose from. This led to a startling revelation.
I’m not sure what to write about Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow (1888). It’s a fun story, and it makes me want to either read Shakespeare or re-watch The Hollow Crown: War of the Roses. Or both — both would be good. But I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot to talk about for a Classics Club book post.
Maybe I should write a post about BlacKkKlansman instead, since I just watched that movie yesterday and I have lots of thoughts about it swirling around. (In short, I thought it was a very well-done movie about an important subject, but I felt the director undermined its message by adding news footage on the end that tied this story of the past to a specific incident and president of today. You don’t need to spoon-feed viewers your ideas. Let us make the connection ourselves.)
Anyways, that’s off-topic. The Black Arrow is about political and ideological groups fighting each other, characters who feel torn between two sides of an issue, someone who’s pretending to be something they aren’t, villains who think they’re better than everyone else, and a crusader-type character avenging oppression and injustice.
Actually you could use all those descriptions of BlacKkKlansman, too, even though the two stories are really nothing alike. I guess it just goes to show how themes in story telling can span different cultures and centuries. I’m fascinated by this phenomenon. Take fairy tales, for example. There are over 900 versions of Cinderella and nearly every culture has its own take on the story. Why? Did the story start one place and somehow travel that much? Or is it due to something like Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious?
And we’re off-topic again. Back to Stevenson. The Black Arrow is a loosely historical story set during the War of the Roses. The main character is Richard “Dick” Shelton, who i’m afraid I didn’t care about at all for the first couple chapters. Actually, I didn’t care much about him by the end of the book either even though he does experience some basic character growth. He seems stubbornly determined not to think about what’s going on around him and that irritates me.
Initially, young Shelton picks a side in the political conflict just because that’s the side his guardian is on. Then, after he learns his guardian killed his father, Dick declares for the other side. And he sticks with that decision because it’s dishonorable to flop back and forth even though he hasn’t got a clue what he’s fighting against or in support of. I know lots of people fight for causes they don’t really understand, but should the hero of a book be killing people based on what was for him a mostly arbitrary decision?
In similarly oblivious fashion, Dick Shelton seems to be the only character who doesn’t know John Matcham is actually a disguised woman even though he spends several days traveling alone with her. As soon as he finds out John is actually Joanna Sedley, though, Dick promptly proposes marriage. He doesn’t know much more about her than that she’s female and they have a common enemy in their mutual guardian, but apparently it’s enough to avow undying love. I’m not impressed with him.
My few complaints aside, The Black Arrow is a fun adventure story and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Still, this probably isn’t a book that I’ll re-read again (I’d read it once around high school) nor one of the classics that I’ll think much about. On another side-note, I appreciated the author’s notes about where he changed historical facts to fit his story. I have no problem with writers taking a certain amount of creative liberties with history, but if you’re going to write historical fiction it’s nice to know when and how you’re stepping away from the facts.
Honestly, this is my favorite way to learn history — read it in fictional form, then look-up how close it is to being accurate. Mara: Daughter of the Nile (while not historically accurate) got me interested in ancient Egypt. I really didn’t care much about the founding fathers (though my history-loving mother made sure I read plenty of non-fiction while we were homeschooling) until listening to Hamilton. I guess I’m just more intrigued by stories and characters than by descriptions of events and people, so when someone offers me real events as stories and historical people as characters I’m hooked.
I realized after my last Classics Club post that I’m bad at writing book reviews. I’d intended to just write a short “this is what the books are like, this is what I thought” post for Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels but it turned into an essay on what makes a strong female character and the state of modern feminism. I think I’ll give up on book reviews. Apparently I can only write thoughtful, rambling essays.
That’s not a bad thing though, right? These are classics, after all. People have been writing reviews of them for decades or centuries. If you want to find out about the plot you can go on Goodreads. I’d much rather talk about the ideas prompted by these great books. And I think you might rather read about that, too.
NOTE: this post contains spoilers but not enough, I think, to ruin the book for you
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A Perfect Fantasy Book
I feel like The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle* should have been a re-read for me, but this was the first time I’d read it. You’d think as much as I love unicorns and fantasy novels I’d have picked this one up earlier. Especially considering how much everyone loves it. Even the guy who wrote the best fantasy book I’ve ever read says, “The Last Unicorn is the best book I have ever read. You need to read it. If you’ve already read it, you need to read it again” (Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind*).
On the surface, The Last Unicorn seems like a pretty simple book. A unicorn overhears two men say there aren’t any unicorns left in the world. Worried that she might be the last one, she goes out searching for other unicorns and meets with the sort of adventures you’d expect in a fantasy novel. There’s a wizard, a merry band of outlaws, a wise woman, a curse, a wicked king, and heroic prince, a talking cat, and a beautiful princess. But there’s so much more than that, too.
How People See You
There’s a lot going on in this relatively short book, so I’m just going to focus on one theme that I found particularly interesting. When the unicorn first sets out on her search, I expected that problems would arise when people spotted a unicorn walking down the road. But all they see is a white mare. The unicorn is puzzled.
“I suppose I could understand if men had simply forgotten unicorns, or if they had changed so that they hated unicorns and tried to kill them when they saw them. But not to see them at all, to look at them and see something else — what do they look like to one another, then? What do trees look like to them, or houses, or real horses, or their own children?”(p. 11).
I’m fascinated by female characters who find ways to live life on their own terms within their culture’s ideas of femininity. Many of my favorite “strong female characters” from Classic literature (like those in Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Francess Burney, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s books ) already have a sense of their own worth and, while they may push against certain confining ideas on appropriate female behavior, they don’t hate their own femininity or attack other women for being feminine. When they fight for their rights, they do it as women who are inherently equal to men — not as women trying to be men.
My two latest books for The Classics Club list are both written by Elizabeth Gaskell. North and South is a re-read for me and Cranford was a new one. I decided to blog about these two books together so I wouldn’t be devoting quite so many articles here to book reviews. I’d expected them to have enough similar themes that this would be easy to do (similar to blogging about Cooper’s sea tales together). But I was pleasantly (if somewhat inconveniently) surprised to find out that the two books are very different. Gaskell is a much more versatile writer than I’d been giving her credit for in my mind.
Characters Who Need Each Other
The contrast is immediately apparent. North and South (1855) opens with a wedding while Cranford (1853) opens with the line, “In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women.” Men are extremely rare and viewed with much suspicion in Cranford, but in the world of North and South most of the action is driven by or centers around men. One might say Cranford is defined by the absence of men and North and South by the actions of men.
That wouldn’t quite be fair to the women of these books, though. Both stories are filled with what I would call strong female characters. They don’t punch things, shoot stuff, or walk around talking about how empowered they are while wearing sexy clothes. But I would submit to you they’re actually better-written and even “stronger” than the female characters who run around modern films insisting they don’t need anyone’s help. Gaskell’s characters model a connected community of both men and women who are stronger together. Read more →
Yesterday my sister and I went to see a community theater’s production of the musical Jekyll and Hyde. It’s a show that our cousin introduced us to years ago through the soundtrack and we were excited to it on stage. I’m not sure I’d call this a favorite play, but the music is fantastic and the story line prompts some intriguing questions about the nature of human kind and how our personalities work.
Jekyll and Hyde is a classic tale of good and evil. The play is quite different from Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novel, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the original version, Jekyll develops a serum to separate his darker side because he’d already started indulging his vices and wanted to keep doing so without fear of discovery. The play offers a more compelling protagonist; a Jekyll searching for a cure to evil on a grand scale. If you’re curious, you can watch a really good high school production ofthe play on YouTube by clicking here.
This isn’t the sort of play that I recommend frequently. It’s dark. It’s complicated. It’s more sexual than the scandalized ladies sitting behind me expected. It doesn’t end happy (don’t look at me like that — you don’t get spoiler warnings when the book’s 132 years old). But it’s also a deeply compelling story that dives head-first into tough questions about the nature of man. Read more →
I’m going to knock two books off my Classics’s Club List in this post. They’re both written by James Fenimore Cooper (best known for The Last of the Mohicans) and both take place on and near the sea, so grouping them together makes sense. In fact, the library book I read has both in a single volume. The Red Rover (1827) is a re-read for me, but The Pilot (1824) was new.
I really wanted to like these books. They’re the sort of stories that I usually love. But I just wasn’t really liking them and found myself skimming large chunks. It wasn’t until halfway through The Red Rover (which I read second) that I finally figured out why. My favorite books are usually character-driven, but Cooper isn’t really writing to tell his characters’ stories. He’s writing love-letters to the sea and the men who sail her waves.
Scarcely A Favorite With Females
In a preface to the 1849 edition of The Pilot, it says that this book “could scarcely be a favorite with females. The story has little interest for them, nor was it much heeded by the author of the book in the progress of his labors. His aim was to illustrate vessels and the ocean rather than to draw any pictures of sentiment and love.”
At first, I felt compelled to prove him wrong. I like books about vessels and the ocean. And the story’s plot centers around two young American naval officers (Griffin and Barnstable) who risk their real mission in trying to rescue the women they love. There’s also a mysterious Pilot, who has an equally mysterious connection with another woman at the house. It’s a perfect recipe for a romantic adventure.
But Cooper doesn’t take full advantage of the compelling plot he’s crafted. Oh, he keeps with that story line but the characterization starts falling apart. Cooper will spend several chapters describing in loving, minute detail how a ship’s crew navigates away from a particularly dangerous piece of coastline during a storm. But if you’re expecting such care taken with the characters you’re in for a disappointment. Read more →