“In first century Judaea, Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala and sentenced to life as a Roman slave. When, during a pirate attack in the Aegean, Ben-Hur saves the life of a galley commander, his fortunes improve and he returns to Galilee a free man. There, his quest for vengeance turns into insurrection, but his life is transformed when he witnesses Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist.”
When I was a child, one of the three big television networks in the U.S. ran the film Ben-Hur  every year around Easter. In those days, the only way to watch a motion picture was to see it in a theater when it came out or watch it on network television. There was no streaming. There were no DVDs. There was no cable TV. There weren’t even video cassettes! When one of the networks broadcast a major motion picture like Ben-Hur, it was a big deal. Families like mine made arrangements to watch it, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get the chance to see it again for another year.
Because of that, the movie Ben-Hur not only became a part of my Easter tradition, it became ingrained in my consciousness. I loved this film as a child, and I still love it as an adult. It should be no surprise, then, that shortly after I became a part of the Great Books Group, I suggested that we read Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Imagine my own surprise at the time when, after reading a good part of the book, I realized that I didn’t care for it enough to even finish it.
When I saw that one of my favorite LibriVox readers recorded The Scarlet Pimpernel and two of its sequels, I decided to listen to them. The Scarlet Pimpernel isn’t great literature, but it’s fun, and I’ve been in the mood for light reading.
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Volume 1 and Volume 2, by Mark Twain (American classic)
“Regarded by many as the most luminous example of Twain’s work, this historical novel chronicles the French heroine’s life, as purportedly told by her longtime friend—Sieur Louis de Conté. A panorama of stirring scenes recount Joan’s childhood in Domremy, the story of her voices, the fight for Orleans, the splendid march to Rheims, and much more. An amazing record that disclosed Twain’s unrestrained admiration for Joan’s nobility of character, the book is matchless in its workmanship—one of Twain’s lesser-known novels that will charm and delightfully surprise his admirers and devotees.”
Joan of Arc’s fascinating holy life, combined with Mark Twain’s superb storytelling, make Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc the most compelling, uplifting novel I’ve read in a while. With this novel, Twain accomplishes what I believe is a difficult, if almost impossible, feat for an author—he makes a holy person both believable and accessible. At the other end of the spectrum, his evil characters are also just as real and believable—horrifyingly so. Moreover, all of his characters, both fictional and historic, are unique and interesting. With his phenomenal insight into human character, Twain helped me understand how so many real people—both commoners and aristocrats—could have believed that a seventeen-year-old peasant girl had been visited by angels and called of God to deliver France from English bondage.
“Nine is the ninth female born in her batch of ten females and ten males. By design, her life in Freedom Province is without complications or consequences. However, such freedom comes with a price. the Prime Maker is determined to keep that price a secret from the new batches of citizens that are born, nurtured, and raised androgynously.
“But Nine isn’t like every other batcher. She harbors indecision and worries about her upcoming Remake Day—her seventeenth birthday, the age when batchers fly to the Remake facility and have the freedom to choose who and what they’ll be.
“When Nine discovers the truth about life outside of Freedom Province, including the secret plan of the Prime Maker, she is pulled between two worlds and two lives. Her decisions will test her courage, her heart, and her beliefs. Who can she trust? Who does she love? And most importantly, who will she decide to be?”
The description of the novel Remake surprised me when I read it in the Deseret Book catalogue in the fall of 2014. This book, a dystopia that Deseret Book published under its Shadow Mountain imprint, was quite a bit different from anything I had ever seen the company publish before—in a good way. I like dystopian fiction and was so intrigued by the fact that Deseret Book would publish something like Remake that I downloaded the book and read it on a trip to the beach at the end of 2014.
Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott (Scottish classic)
“In the court of Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is favoured above all the noblemen of England. It is rumoured that the Queen may chose him for her husband, but Leicester has secretly married the beautiful Amy Robsart. Fearing ruin if this were known, he keeps his lovely young wife a virtual prisoner in an old country house. Meanwhile Leicester’s manservant Varney has sinister designs on Amy, and enlists an alchemist to help him further his evil ambitions. Brilliantly recreating the splendour and pageantry of Elizabethan England, with Shakespeare, Walter Ralegh and Elizabeth herself among its characters, Kenilworth (1821) is a compelling depiction of intrigue, power struggles and superstition in a bygone age.”
The tension between possessing a title of nobility and being noble in mind and heart lies at the center of Kenilworth. From the beginning of the novel, Scott portrays the former suitor of Amy Robsart, the gentleman Tressilian, as possessing nobility of mind and heart. We first meet Tressilian at an inn, where he is seeking information about the whereabouts of Amy on behalf of her father. His features have a “meditative and tranquil cast,” and he is “dressed with plainness and decency, yet bearing an air of ease which almost amounted to dignity, and which seemed to infer that his habit was rather beneath his rank.” While he is at the inn, the proprietor makes this observation about Tressilian to his nephew Michael Lambourne, who ends up in the employ of the story’s villain, Richard Varney:
“A body is found in the Thames and identified as that of John Harmon, a young man recently returned to London to receive his inheritance. Were he alive, his father’s will would require him to marry Bella Wilfer, a beautiful, mercenary girl whom he had never met. Instead, the money passes to the working-class Boffins, and the effects spread into various corners of London society.”
Our Mutual Friend details corruption and falsity in those “various corners of London society” to such a degree that a glimpse of Zion didn’t come easily to me as I read it. In this Babylon-like society, the altruistic mingle with the mercenaries, and distinguishing between them isn’t always simple. One thing that Dickens does well in this novel is show how these types exist at all levels of society and that it is possible for a person to change—sometimes for the better and, just as often, for the worse.
All-of-a-Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor, illustrated by Helen John (Juvenile fiction)
“It’s the turn of the century in New York’s Lower East Side and a sense of adventure and excitement abounds for five young sisters—Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie. Follow along as they search for hidden buttons while dusting Mama’s front parlor, or explore the basement warehouse of Papa’s peddler’s shop on rainy days. The five girls enjoy doing everything together, especially when it involves holidays and surprises. But no one could have prepared them for the biggest surprise of all!”
Twenty and Ten, a.k.a. The Secret Cave, by Claire Huchet Bishop, illustrated by William Pene du Bois (Juvenile fiction)
“During the Nazi occupation of France, twenty ordinary French kids in a boarding school agree to hide ten Jewish children. Then German soldiers arrive. Will the children be able to withstand the interrogation and harassment?”
One of the women in my book group read all kinds of wonderful children’s literature when she was a girl and often recommends books the rest of us have never heard of. One of those books was All-of-a-Kind Family. Whenever I read a particularly delightful children’s book like this one as an adult, I often wonder how I would have liked it had I read it as a child. This time around, I began thinking fondly about the books I did read as a girl, and one of my most beloved books was a short novel entitled The Secret Cave, which was originally published with the title Twenty and Ten. I still have my little scholastic edition of The Secret Cave, with its torn cover and taped up, yellowed pages, and I have enjoyed reading it to my children.
One of the problems with old mysteries and romances is that if they’re any good, their plots have been rehashed a zillion times since they were originally published. Out of the five books listed below, I only remember two real surprises, and they were in the same book. Nevertheless, all of these books satisfied my need for a light read and yet possessed a certain sparkle.
Young Pioneers, a.k.a. Let the Hurricane Roar, by Rose Wilder Lane (YA historical)
“Newlyweds Molly and David are only sixteen and eighteen years old when they pack up their wagon and head west across the plains in search of a new homestead. At first their new life is full of promise: The wheat is high, the dugout is warm and cozy, and a new baby is born to share in their happiness. Then disaster strikes, and David must go east for the winter to find work. Molly is left alone with the baby—with nothing but her own courage to face the dangers of the harsh prairie winter.”
After a recent read of O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, I decided to try another book about pioneers in the Midwest—Dakota Territory—entitled Young Pioneers, by Rose Wilder Lane. Both books celebrate the pioneering spirit and are frank about the fact that circumstances were often so difficult that many pioneers gave up their dreams and returned to their families and previous occupations in the east. What struck me in particular about Young Pioneers was the passion and hope this very young couple feel about their life together in this rough and beautiful farmland despite the fact that they live in a dugout, in very primitive conditions. I’ve often wondered what drove so many to leave their comfortable or at least tolerable lives for circumstances so savage.
Fireweed, by Terry Montague (Christian fiction, Latter-day Saint)
When sixteen-year-old Lisel Spann sees her brother off to fight in the coming war against what she and her German compatriots have been told is Polish aggression, she “is hardly prepared for the coming years when the storm erupts in full fury. She fights feeling of hopelessness as she watches the Nazis tear her loved ones from her life. Before her eyes her beautiful city is turned to rubble under the allied bombs.” With the help of her family and neighbors, she struggles to survive and hold on to her faith.
If Feathers and Rings is the Latter-day Saint novel I keep going back to, Fireweed is the one that has stuck with me the most. For that reason, when I recently saw it on the shelf of used books at the local bookstore that sells products to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I bought it to re-read. When I opened it up and read in the author’s introduction that she is a descendant of Germans who lived for a century in Russia before immigrating to the United States, I felt an instant connection to her since I, too, am a descendant of the same group of people, although my ancestors settled in Kansas, not Idaho, and I didn’t grow up with a connection to the German community (aside from my mother’s stories) in Topeka the way the author did in Rupert, Idaho. I didn’t, in fact, know enough about my own family history at the time I originally read Fireweed to see the connection, but I’m so delighted to see it now!
“The Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers).
“God has just such gladness every time he sees from heaven that a sinner is praying to Him with all his heart, as a mother has when she sees the first smile on her baby’s face” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot).
“God’s love and mercy can overcome all things—our ignorance, and weakness, and all the burden of our past wickedness—all things but our wilful sin, sin that we cling to, and will not give up” (George Eliot, Adam Bede).
“Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America).
“I decided that God, a kind and loving God, could never be proved. In fact there are . . . a lot of arguments against him. But there isn’t any point to life without him. Without him we’re just a skin disease on the face of the earth, and I feel too strongly about the human spirit to be able to settle for that. So what I did for a long time was to live life as though I believed in God. And eventually I found out that the as though had turned into a reality” (Madeleine L’Engle, The Moon by Night).
About the Author
Creator of spaced-out Christian fiction and clean-reading resources. See my BIO.