Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Boxcar Children 1942 by Gertrude Chandler Warner

This year I made a goal to read 100 books; I am tracking this as part of a Goodreads Challenge, as well as a board on Pinterest. So far I have a total of 61, which today (September 3) places six books behind schedule. (I am currently reading eight books, so if I manage to finish them all this week I’ll be back on track!)

The first book I finished, way back in January, was The Boxcar Children. This was the first in a series of the same name that I originally read as a child. There are nineteen total in the original series, and I am happy to say I now own all of them. I have decided I would like to read thru all nineteen this year, but haven’t really put much effort into it, so I’m only on number seven currently. Anyway, I chose this as my first book for the year because I found another reading list (along with the Time 100 list I’ve been reading through). This one is from Pinterest, and it has 26 suggestions for 2017, which comes out to one book every two weeks.

The first entry on the list is to read “a book you read in school,” which I started at the same time as The Boxcar Children, which was the second entry, “a book from your childhood.” (The book I read in school will be in another blog post.) This was in fact one of my favorites from childhood, and although it has never been a challenge to read, it has always managed to capture my imagination.

This book is about four siblings – Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny Alden – whom we meet as orphans, running away so they don’t have to live with their grandfather, whom is supposedly mean. They end up in an old, abandoned boxcar in the middle of a forest, with grass growing over tracks. They find an orphan dog with a hurt paw, and nurse him back to health, calling him “Watch.” They also find, nearby, an old dump full of “treasures” – broken but useable dishes, a board to make a shelf, some pots and pans, etc. Henry goes into town to do some odd jobs and buy food. By the end of the story they are discovered and reunited with their grandfather, who it turns out is a very kind old man. The rest of the series is more of their fun adventures.

Now, a little about why I enjoyed it so much. Just before starting third grade, we moved across town to a double wide trailer in a campground. About 50-60 yards or so behind our trailer was a set of railroad tracks, and next to them a dirt path leading out of town. I used to wander along that path exploring nature and the things man left behind, and one day I discovered my very own treasure. It was a dump, abandoned, probably long forgotten by the city, or whomever happened to own the land. It was much like I imagined the one in the story to be! I didn’t bring home anything to use, but I did spend countless hours exploring it and pretending to be like the four Alden children.

Reading it again, as an adult, I still had that fascination with the adventure of living alone in the boxcar, finding things to make a “home,” and a sense of purpose and accomplishment. It was a good first pick for this year, and it set the stage for many more great reading adventures. I hope to write about them all (all 100!) before the year closes, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Lord of the Rings 1954 by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Three Rings for the Elven-Kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in halls of stone,
Nine for mortal men, doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
in the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie.”

The third book on the TIME Top 100 list is The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. It was originally written as one book in three parts, so it’s included as one book on the list, although I read the three separately (and it took me about seven months to get through them, as they weren’t as interesting as I had hoped).

I had been putting off reading this book for years, so when it came up on the list I was reluctant to start.; I’m not sure why exactly, I really enjoyed The Hobbit both times I read it (in fact, I hope to read it again this year). I wish I could say that finally reading it made my reluctance seem silly, but honestly, I didn’t really enjoy the story very much. There wasn’t enough plot to keep my attention for long periods, and Tolkien writes with a lot of description. Sometimes I enjoy that, but as this was written about someplace I couldn’t picture in my mind, with creatures that I had no experience with, I found it difficult to follow.

There are a few themes that I remember that gave the story some redeeming quality in my mind – the idea of a true leader vs. a temporary fill-in; the idea that a group is not always the best approach to an epic adventure; and the idea of home not always being a place of innocence and contentment. Let me explain.

First of all, there were a couple of examples of lands or countries in Middle Earth that were being ruled by men who weren’t the “true” rulers. I don’t really remember specifics, I just remember this coming up a few times. And in each case, it was made clear that the people and land suffered under this temporary or, in some instances, “fake” leadership. This was made plain when the true leaders returned and took over, and life began to be prosperous again.

This stood out to me because I have worked under many types of leadership in my adult life, both in education positions and in retail, and one thing that has always remained true is that if someone is just a “pretender to the throne,” the business or classroom fails. It takes a special kind of person to really take charge and make things work and grow the way they are intended to work and grow; to stop surviving and start thriving.

Next is the idea that groups aren’t always the best option; or in this case, fellowships. When the “fellowship of the ring” was established, it was intended to be protection and guidance for Frodo, who was tasked with returning the ring to the mountains of Mordor (specifically Mount Doom). However, as the journey progresses, we learn that this task is really something only Frodo, and his best friend Sam, can accomplish. The others are more like moral support, or background noise.

This also brought up something else that I found interesting:  although this fellowship was sent out as one unit, each individual had to take a personal journey as well, unique to himself, a sort of spiritual quest as he faced the challenges of battle and the evil power temptation of the Ring. So on this one long, epic journey, we are presented with several smaller journeys that help to shape the bigger picture. I thought that was another fitting form of “fellowship” – each of the smaller parts served to strengthen the whole of the story.

Finally, the idea of home, specifically the Shire (where the hobbits lived) was intriguing to me. At the beginning of the story it’s presented as an idyllic place, where innocence and ignorance live, a place none want to leave, and if they must do so, will be looked back on with fond memories. And yet by the end of the story, when the hobbits finally return, this vision of innocence and perfection has been shattered by all that they have seen and done, and for Frodo, it no longer feels quite like home. Even the happy ending wasn’t quite happy after all. I liked that. It reminded me of my own life, when something major or even traumatic happens and my perceptions of my surroundings, my safe places, shifts, and I feel somehow lost or displaced.

I don’t know that I will read this book again, although I know there are symbols and depths that I have yet to explore within its pages. Perhaps I will simply read the SparkNotes for it and find my fulfillment there. For now, I will leave you with one of my favorite photos, which includes this epic adventure, billed with the ability to piss off four groups of “geeks” in one shot: