“The Mansion,” by Henry Van Dyke (American classic, story)
“John Weightman wanted the best of everything. He surrounded himself with beauty and riches, and was very careful with how he spent his money. ‘No pennies in beggars’ hats,’ he liked to say. Until one night he dreamed that he died . . .
“Finding himself with a group of travelers dressed in white, John joins them on their journey to the Celestial City where each individual will be rewarded with a mansion based on treasures set aside. Thinking that his mansion will be the most grand, John Weightman learns what it truly means to lay up treasures in heaven.”
“Long, long ago, a wise man named Artaban, a priest of the Magi, discerned from heavenly signs that the time was at hand for the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy—the birth among the Hebrews of a holy Prince and Deliverer of Man. Hastening to join three fellow Magi for the long journey into Judaea, he paused to help a dying man and was left behind. And so Artaban began his pilgrimage alone, striking out not toward the realization of his life’s deepest longing, as he hoped, but only toward misfortune and suffering. Or so he believed until one blessed, radiant moment.”
These two classic Christmas stories illuminate the human progression from goodness to righteousness to holiness.
“Born in India, the unattractive and willful Mary Lennox has remained in the care of servants for as long as she can remember. But the girl’s life changes when her mother and father die and she travels to Yorkshire to live with her uncle. Dark, dreary Misselthwaite Manor seems full of mysteries, including a very special garden, locked tight for 10 years. With the help of Dickon, a local boy, Mary intends to uncover its secrets.”
“Built over an unquiet grave, the House of the Seven Gables carries a dying man’s curse that blights the lives of its residents for over two centuries. Now Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, an iron-hearted hypocrite and intellectual heir to the mansion’s unscrupulous founder, is attempting to railroad a pair of his elderly relatives out of the house. Only two young people stand in his way–a visiting country cousin and an enigmatic boarder skilled in mesmerism.”
As soon as I learned that The Secret Garden would be on my book group‘s schedule for 2015, I thought it would be nice to re-read The House of the Seven Gables also and comment on both novels. On the surface, these books appear quite different, but I knew they were similar in at least one respect—both stories show gardening as being an activity that nourishes both the body and spirit. By the time I was finished reading the books, I realized that they are even more similar than I had remembered; they both address the healing of emotionally diseased individuals and families in old manor houses that symbolically take on the sickly qualities of the families that inhabit them. One of the characters in The House of the Seven Gables describes this relationship between the families and their generational homes:
“O Pioneers! tells the story of Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of Swedish immigrants, who is given her family’s farm after the death of her father. She sets out to make the land pay—even when everyone else is moving on—and succeeds brilliantly, while coming to realize her love for a close family friend.”
My parents joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Topeka, Kansas when I was two. As a child I participated in Pioneer Day in summer Primary every year to commemorate the arrival of the Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and even dressed up like a pioneer in a gingham dress, pinafore, and bonnet my mother had made for me. While I appreciate those particular pioneers and the heritage they’ve given to me by adoption, I don’t have one ancestor who actually made that trek. My pioneers are the settlers of Kansas, not Utah. One of the neighboring states of Kansas is Nebraska, the setting of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! The way Cather describes the landscape in O Pioneers! gives me such a vision of the place where I grew up that reading it always evokes a feeling of nostalgia in me.
I’ve just uploaded updates for two important files on my web site. The first, Wholesome Literature—A Realistic Choice, is a rewrite of the essay previously entitled “Wholesome Literature—the Intelligent Choice” for a general religious audience. The original essay began as a literary spotlight to a group of women in my church almost twenty years ago. Of all my literary essays, it was the one with the most potential for revision to a more general audience. After several attempts over the past decade to make that revision, I finally produced something that satisfies me!
The second document I updated was My Favorite Clean Fiction. I now provide a link for each author who has books in the public domain to his or her list of free ebooks on Project Gutenberg‘s web site. I also simplified my list and added descriptions for almost all of the titles.
As I collected descriptions, I couldn’t help but notice how many of them weren’t written to draw a popular audience, particularly those describing the classics. That seems a shame to me, because so many of the classics really are great stories. If the descriptions were written to capitalize more on the story and less on the meaning, the books might find a wider audience. For example, here’s a boring description of The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne:
“Still as exciting and meaningful as when it was written in 1902, Owen Wister’s epic tale of one man’s journey into the untamed territory of Wyoming, where he is caught between his love for a woman and his quest for justice, has exemplified one of the most significant and enduring themes in all of American culture. With remarkable character depth and vivid descriptive passages, The Virginian stands not only as the first great novel of American Western literature, but as a testament to the eternal struggle between good and evil in humanity, and a revealing study of the forces that guide the combatants on both sides.”
This is one of those novels that has everything—cowboy card games, coarseness, and pranks without much in the way of foul language; action, adventure, and a climactic shoot-out without any gore; and romance, passion, and an incredibly intimate honeymoon scene without any mention of sex. One of the most important events in the book, in fact, is a hanging that happens off-stage. By modern literary standards, this story ought to fall apart. As a proponent of wholesome fiction, I am delighted to tell you that it works! And, by the way, don’t scroll to the end of the novel to read that incredibly intimate honeymoon scene to see what I mean, because that won’t work. (Okay, so I know you’re going to do it anyway, but seriously, you’re going to be disappointed!) The way Owen Wister accomplishes the seemingly impossible is by building a complex vision of the protagonist phrase by phrase, scene by scene. A reader needs the context of the entire book to appreciate that final honeymoon scene.
“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.