Saturday, 05 December 2015 04:47

Writers for Conservatives: Children's Reading

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Writers for Conservatives: Children's Reading

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. He writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
It is the genius of culture to use beauty . . . to carry and transmit the most profound truths about our human lives. These truths . . . not only describe what we are; they describe what we should be. They are . . . the highest values - of knowledge of good and evil, of liberty and discipline, of joy and sorrow, of righteousness, work, understanding, courage, loyalty, friendship, pity, love - values that we recognize and try to live . . . Culture, by enduring, can make us comprehend that life - not the lives of men, but the life of man - endures; because the life of culture embodies the value of life, it can teach us all that our lives are worth living. -Samuel Lipman

Recently, two fathers asked me to send them reading lists for their growing children, and while I did what I could, I knew that it should really be the subject of an essay - a serious essay. Hence the epigraph. I see now that that quotation should have been at the head of my first column in this series. As my bemused readers must know by now, I do not write these columns only to entertain (although I hope they do); I want to enrich minds, to show how the beauty of words skillfully combined can "transmit the most profound truths about our human lives." Every generation must be taught anew our cultural heritage, and we cannot begin soon enough. Today the situation is especially perilous, inundated as we are by the salacious trash of what is, with unconscious irony, called "popular culture."

The following list contains titles that are obviously not "the best that has been thought and known" (Matthew Arnold), but these humbler books have their uses, they make their contribution to our knowledge and entertainment. The books are not graded by the age of readers because real readers, no matter their ages, will enjoy all kinds of books, easy or difficult. To my mind, they are suitable for youngsters between the ages of 7 and 16.

Grimm's Children's and Household Tales. Be sure to get one of the older unexpurgated editions. Busybodies are periodically horrified to discover brutality and mayhem in these stories, betraying their naivete. Children, whose lively imaginations are full of brutality and mayhem, love these obviously imaginary tales. My second grade reader was called East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and how I loved that name and the fantasies it promised!

Kenneth Grahame: Wind in the Willows, The Golden Age, Dream Days. Since I have a column on Grahame in the works, I will only say here that the best one is the first-named, a tale in which animals are quasi-human. In Mr. Toad the author created one of the great comic figures in our literature. Get the edition illustrated by Ernest Shepard.

The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder may be known to readers from a TV serial, but the books themselves are greatly superior and are popular with readers of all ages. True, artfully told stories of a family settling in the West after the Civil War.

The Peterkin Papers by Lucretia Hale, published in 1886, is a very funny book about a silly family, always rescued from their follies by "the lady from Philadelphia."

R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island and Kidnapped need no introduction from me, nor do the several volumes of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.

Rudyard Kipling: The two Jungle Books. We think of these as the story of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, but only three of the seven tales in volume one concern him. The others are animal stories, including the wonderful account of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the mongoose. The second volume is all about Mowgli and his friends: Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther and so on. Kipling has the great ability to give life to all his creations, at the same time that he casts their acts and thoughts in a moral context, which may be why so many writers have disliked him. I think envy was involved, too. Kim is the story of an English boy who becomes an intelligence agent for the British in India and at the same time the guide and disciple of a Tibetan holy man. Exotic, imaginative, and amusing. In Puck of Pook's Hill, two English children accidentally enact a magic that summons Puck, an ancient spirit of the land, who, in successive chapters, introduces them to various figures from the past. Some innocuous history lessons.

When I was 10 or 11 I went through a phase of reading Western pulp magazines, still plentiful then. Alas! they no longer exist, but a good collection of Western stories is Great Tales of the West, compiled by Pronzini and Greenberg. The Arbor House Treasury of Great Western Stories is also good. Or you can seek out the really superior Westerns of Ernest Haycox. Bugles in the Afternoon is an excellent book about Custer. The Virginian by Owen Wister was the first and is still one of the best. Andy Adams' The Log of a Cowboy tells the true story of a 3000-mile cattle drive from Mexico almost to the Canadian border in 1882.

Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Life on the Mississippi. The value of Twain's writing is that it presents a world free of today's inhibiting restraints in lively, racy prose. Huck Finn is one of the great first person narratives that makes the reader a confidant but preserves a distance; Huck's dignity is never compromised, and the reader preserves his faculty of judgment.

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is the archetypal account of solitary life on a "desert island," but an easier read is Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island, featuring the fabulous Captain Nemo and his submarine, the Nautilus, of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, another recommended title.

Francis Parkman's Oregon Trail and The Conspiracy of Pontiac bring the early West and Indians to life in prose that, more elevated than Twain's, is still direct and forceful. When I read The Oregon Trail at the age of 10, it had a great effect on my life. Teddy Roosevelt's Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail describes, in wonderfully sinewy prose, his life on his cattle ranch in the same area Parkman rode over with the Sioux 40 ears earlier, demonstrating dramatically the changes in Western society in those years. Readers interested in the history of the West can read Bernard De Voto's The Year of Decision: 1846 and Across the Wide Missouri, exciting and thrilling books. On the Civil War, I recommend Bruce Catton's trilogy about the Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln's Army, Glory Road, and Stillness at Appomattox. The great value of Catton's books is the way he makes the reader understand the war's meaning to its participants, hence to all succeeding generations of Americans. Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage is a deceptively simple account of one soldier's first experience of battle, a book that should always be borne in mind when reading the histories. The best short, uncomplicated life of Lincoln is by Benjamin Thomas, simply and clearly written, but it covers all the issues honestly and fairly. Nothing is better than Lincoln's own words, and an alert youngster can easily memorize the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. R. H. Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, an account of life aboard a sailing ship collecting hides along the California coast in the 1830s, before its settlement by Americans, is another one of those solidly expressive books, simply and strongly written, that we seemed able to turn out, almost effortlessly, in the 19th century.

I read, and loved, Herman Melville's Moby Dick when I was 14, the same year I read the Odyssey (in translation), and while the one is our greatest novel and a typically American product, soberly practical and down to earth as well as soaringly idealistic, it also has affinities with the Greek tale of a voyage of adventure, hardihood, and peril.

Of Thomas Hardy's novels I would recommend The Woodlanders, Under the Greenwood Tree, Far From the Madding Crowd, and The Return of the Native. I would leave The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess until later. What we get in Hardy is a lively, knotty description of a brooding English countryside and its rural inhabitants. Lower class rustics appear as figures in a chorus.

You can start almost anywhere with Dickens, but The Pickwick Papers, a picaresque tale of comic adventures, is an easy way to begin. Then the reader can go on to Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, and the rest. I began with David Copperfield. Dickens' novels are alive with fascinating characters as well as intense descriptions of things and scenes that we cannot forget. I still recall Tellson's bank in the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, first read some 60 years ago.

Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford, which I wrote about in a previous column, recounts the life of a poor country girl in England at the turn of the last century, a beautifully written memoir, simple, clear, and honest. A more fantastic, because primitive, life is revealed in Maurice O'Sullivan's account of life on the Blasket Islands off the Irish coast. I shall consider Twenty Years A-Growing in a future column, but I will say here that it is the most penetrating, beautiful description of life in a folk culture I have ever read.

For thrills and chills, I recommend a Modern Library Giant volume, Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, the best such collection I know.

Finally, I recommend Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels to acquaint young readers with the greatest satire in the language, an absorbing read in Swift's brilliant prose.

Reading these books will be entertaining as well as enlightening, and it would not hurt my adult readers to look at them, too.

In the next issue: Green Hell. *

Read 3586 times Last modified on Saturday, 05 December 2015 10:47
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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