Books

One Book South Dakota: The Children’s Blizzard

I read David Laskin’s true account, The Children’s Blizzard, some time ago, so I was interested when Melanie Benjamin’s novel by the same name was announced as the 2021 One Book South Dakota. Benjamin takes the true story and tells it through fictional characters, two sisters who are schoolteachers. When the blizzard hits and the main characters, like many actual school teachers during that storm, have to choose between trying to flee their one-room schoolhouses and get their students to safety, or hunker down with what little food and firewood they had. Each sister reacts differently, resulting in very different outcomes.

More than 200 people died in the blizzard, which ravaged Dakota Territory on January 12, 1888. These were seasoned homesteaders who were quite used to harsh Midwest winters, but what took everyone off guard was the sunny weather that morning and the extreme speed of that particular storm. It hit mid-day as well so students had already made the long trek on foot or horseback to their primitive school houses.

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Both books also remind us of the extreme hardships of early homesteaders in the Midwest, especially during a natural disaster. Schools had very few supplies, such as enough firewood, and teachers were usually very young and inexperienced. Mothers who had already lost babies and young children during childbirth or to disease found themselves mourning yet again.

I definitely recommend reading both books. Laskin’s book is a fascinating account of how homesteaders arrived in Dakota Territory from Europe and the many struggles they faced. He also writes about the meteorological aspect of the blizzard and why it caught so many people off-guard. Benjamin’s book brings that story to life through interesting characters who are very human in what drives their decisions, both good and bad, when faced with hardship.

Books

Books: Talking to the Ground

Talking to the Ground was another book I grabbed on a whim off our local library’s shelves when I was there with my daughters. In the early 1990s, Douglas Preston, his fiancée, and her nine-year-old daughter embarked on a 400-mile horseback journey through the Navajo desert. They wanted to get closer with nature and with one another.

During the trip they were completely reliant on each other, their own strength, their horses, and the kindness of strangers they encountered along the way. They packed everything they needed on two pack horses, each rode one of their own, and were accompanied by an energetic dog. They searched for water, endured dust storms, and slept under the stars.

I will admit at first I thought the author was out of his mind. He had been on similar journeys before by himself, but now bringing along a child with limited riding experience? There are steep cliffs. Water is scarce. There are scorpions!

The book came out in the late 1990s. I related to nine-year-old Selene (I was nine in 1992, too) who brought a Gameboy and copy of “Matilda” on the trip. It would be interesting to get her account of the trip now as a 38-year-old woman looking back.

Talking to the Ground is rich with Navajo history, and real, boots-on-the-ground journalism. It also is an honest account of a family with a changing dynamic. Selene and her future stepfather become closer during the journey. Overall, it is a touching account of a new family learning about one another through extreme conditions.

Books

Books: Dear Child

I took a significant hiatus from blogging over the past few months. I did a lot of reading during that time. One book I recently finished was the thriller Dear Child by Romy Hausmann. A young woman is kidnapped and found years later, but is it really her?

The book has tones of both Gone Girl and Room. In fact, the cover bears that praise written by another author. Having read and liked both of those, I will still say Dear Child is even better than those books. It has richly developed characters, many twists and turns, and delves into the psychology behind the various characters.

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Some pieces of a father’s love for his child and what it would be like to have that child go missing are absolutely heart-wrenching. Hausmann’s writing offers the perfect amount of description of a creepy cabin in the woods, a child’s naïve observations, and the strategic thought process of a captive woman hell-bent on escape. Read this one!

Books

Books: Wolfpack

If you are looking for a quick and highly inspirational read, grab Wolfpack by Abby Wambach. Wambach is a former professional soccer player and happens to be married to Glennon Doyle, author of Untamed. I loved this book.

I don’t have much (well, any) interest in soccer, but I do have interest in ways women can support and encourage one another. Wolfpack is short at just 95-pages, but it packs a punch. I never grow tired of being inspired by women who are honest and positive and know how to persevere.

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Wambach also published a version of this book geared toward pre-teen and teenage girls. I plan to pick up that copy in the near future as I gear up for parenting two teenage daughters in less than a decade. Time flies.

My favorite part of the book is when Wambach writes about how when she would score a goal on the soccer field, she’d immediately begin pointing. That is because the goal was not scored by her alone. Others were involved in every success. She tells her readers that when they succeed, they better start pointing.

She writes this: “Her victory is your victory. Celebrate with her. Your victory is her victory. Point to her.”

Books

Books: Untamed

Reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle felt like sitting down with a good friend for a deep and honest conversation. You know, those conversations that can go on for hours and cover anything and everything from hilarious anecdotes to deep, soul-bearing truths. Her writing is beautiful and real.

Doyle was a married mother-of-three speaking at a conference for women when she met the woman of her dreams. She writes about her husband’s infidelity and learning to find true love with the woman she eventually married. I was especially moved by her experiences parenting young daughters in an uncertain world, which is definitely something I can relate to right now.

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Living up to the expectations of others almost killed Doyle. From the time she was a young girl she struggled with eating disorders, alcoholism, and drug addiction. By the time she was nearly 40, she was in a broken marriage, struggling to be a good mother, and running herself into the ground.

Untamed tells about how Doyle pulled herself out of that decades-long rut and found happiness and truth. The book is broken into many stories, each one like a breath of fresh air reminding us that we are worthy of being loved for the person each of us is. No fronts. No façades. No b.s.

Books

Books: Anthony Bourdain: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

I recently stumbled upon The Last Interview book series, which features the last publicized interview of late celebrities as well as a variety of other interesting interviews and conversations. Of course the first one I was drawn to was Anthony Bourdain’s. I have long enjoyed Bourdain’s writing style and television shows.

I know it sounds weird, but when he died in 2018, it felt like more than just another celebrity death. I knew I would miss his work, his voice, and his occasional snarky comments. It felt a little like losing a friend.

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Bourdain was long an advocate of the importance of people understanding where their food comes from as well as the integral role food plays in defining our cultures. Reading this dialogue between him and various interviewers reminded me why I loved his work so much. It is about food and interesting people, but also about so much more.

There are more than a dozen Last Interview books featuring everyone from Kurt Vonnegut to Prince. Also featured are Toni Morrison, David Bowie, and, coming soon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. These are interesting, fairly quick reads that give us one more look into the lives of these icons.

Books

Books: Stern Men

I enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoirs Eat, Pray, Love and Committed when I read them several years ago. I have never picked up one of her novels until recently when I stumbled upon Stern Men, Gilbert’s first novel, published 20 years ago. Her writing style is intriguing in her fiction as well as her non-fiction.

Stern Men tells the tale of two small islands off the coast of Maine and a centuries-old lobster fishing war. The inhabitants of the two islands grapple with each other while they experience both success and hardship in their way of life. Lobster fishing is dangerous, difficult, and anything but glamorous.

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The novel’s protagonist, Ruth Thomas, is a smart young woman with a foul mouth and a desire to someday run her own lobster fishing operation. The characters are engaging and the dialogue seems real. Many of the men on the island discourage Ruth from following that dream, pushing her instead to attend a mainland college.

Ruth’s relationships with the people of the island as she uncovers secrets of her family’s past are what make the book such a fun read. Ruth navigates relationships with her parents, a woman who is like a mother to her, and a variety of other island residents, and the quirks of real people shine through Gilbert’s writing. It is a reminder that sometimes the small towns and communities that shape our young lives are worth revisiting. Sometimes we cling to our roots, be it good, bad, or otherwise.

Books

Books: The Good Neighbor: The Life and Works of Fred Rogers

I finished The Good Neighbor: the Life and Works of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King some time ago, but am just now getting around to posting about it. The timing seems right, though, because I think now more than ever we need to be reminded to like each other just the way we are. King spent a great deal of time researching Rogers’ life, interviewing many people close to him, including many of the people who helped create and produce Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The book was published in 2018.

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Through his work in children’s programming, Mister Rogers has impacted generations of kids. I loved to watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and my daughters love Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. As a parent, I like the way the programming helps young children deal with their feelings in a positive way. I realize that, even though I didn’t know it at the time, that is what I loved about Mister Roger’s Neighborhood when I was only a few years old. The show made it OK to feel your feelings.

Rogers refused to advertise to children. He also had a disdain for anything that didn’t seem honest or straightforward. King’s interviews reveal that the soft-spoken cardigan-wearing guy wasn’t an act. It was truly how Rogers lived his life.

Rogers died in 2003 of stomach cancer at age 74. He left a legacy of promoting kindness and acceptance. What I enjoyed the most about the book was some of the quotes Fred Rogers made over the years.

I’ll leave you with this one: “When I was a boy I used to think that strong meant having big muscles, great physical power; but the longer I live, the more I realize that real strength has much more to do with what is not seen. Real strength has to do with helping others.”

Books

Books: Unfollow

“Can two walk together, even if they disagree? Of course we could. Not exactly revolutionary, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was.”

That is a line from Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Fred Phelps, leader of Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Westboro is well-known for its cruel and hateful protests of military funerals, the LGBTQ community, and many other groups. They are known for forming picket lines claiming they do God’s work, but are rooted in deep hatred of anyone different from them.

Unfollow, published in 2019, is Phelps-Roper’s account of her upbringing in Westboro and her decision to leave the church. She writes accounts of picketing as a young child, holding signs with offensive language meant to belittle whichever group Westboro was pointing its finger at on any given day.

While leaving Westboro was a straightforward decision in theory, it also meant leaving the world she knew. It was a world in which she felt loved. Her grandfather, however evil he could be to the outside world, was often just a regular, loving grandfather to Phelps-Roper herself. Because of Westboro’s strict rules, leaving meant she wouldn’t see these people again. She would no longer see her parents or many of her siblings.

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Unfollow is also the One Book South Dakota for 2020. You can visit One Book South Dakota for more information on hosting a virtual discussion of the book. Phelps-Roper lives in South Dakota now with her husband and young daughter.

Although I was rooting for Phelps-Roper as she mustered the courage to leave such a hateful environment, I found it a bit sad that, in the end, she found herself faithless and still missing the people she loved. She writes that she no longer prays.

She does, however, dedicate her time to promoting meaningful dialogue between people from different walks of life. After leaving Westboro, Phelps-Roper has built deep friendships with many of the very people she picketed as a teenager and young adult. She now believes if we are open to learning and understanding one another, we can cause real and positive change. That is a message of love, acceptance, and respect that we all can use right now.

 

 

Books

Books: Year of Wonders

I just posted a book review a few days ago, but I finished Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks over Memorial Day weekend and it was so amazing I could not wait to share. The book is nearly 20 years old, but I had not heard of it until recently when I was listening to an NPR interview with three authors who wrote fiction based on times of plague and pandemic. I was blown away by this book.

In the past month, I have tried to be more intentional about the amount of time I spend reading, watching, or listening to news of COVID-19. I seek to stay informed through reputable sources without falling down a rabbit hole of continual negative speculation. It is a difficult balance.

So it might seem strange that I chose to read this work of fiction, based on an English village in the 1660s, ravaged by the bubonic plague. However, it was just so interesting I could not put it down. There was just enough hope and gloriously written dialogue to keep the grim subject matter from becoming too much.

Brooks wrote Year of Wonders after hiking in rural England and coming upon an old sign that said “plague village.” She was intrigued and her research lead her to the true story of a small village not far from London, where villagers made a pact, lead by their local clergyman, to isolate in their village for a length of time to contain the plague. The characters were richly developed.

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Anna, the main character, is modest, resourceful, and extremely hard-working. She undergoes epic hardship, yet still seeks to help others. The social aspect of this book hits home in this time of precaution, fear, and loss, and how people in the village cope with those topics over the course of a year.

Human reaction is an interesting thing, and Brooks writes of it so well. So much of the villagers’ reaction to the plague and the quarantine nearly mirrors what is happening in our society today. There are people who immediately jump in to take care of others. Then there are people who judge, demean, and condemn one another.

In one scene, several customers of an ill tailor refuse to burn the garments they purchased despite certainty that the items are infected with bubonic plague. Only Anna throws her beautiful dress into the fire to avoid spreading the plague in her home. It is not a cheerful read, but it does show how Anna comes to appreciate the minute details in life. In the end, Brooks does leave us with some hope for humankind.

Custer friends, this book is available at our local library in E-book and Audio Book forms.