Category: Historical Fiction (Page 2 of 2)

The Secret Garden and The House of the Seven Gables

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Children’s classic)

“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.”

The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (American classic)

“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:

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Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens (British classic)

“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.

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Villette

Villette, by Charlotte Brontë (British classic)

Book cover for Villette, by Charlotte Bronte
Villette

“With neither friends nor family, Lucy Snowe sets sail from England to find employment in a girls’ boarding school in the small town of Villette. There she struggles to retain her self-possession in the face of unruly pupils, an initially suspicious headmaster, and her own complex feelings, first for the school’s English doctor and then for the dictatorial professor, Paul Emmanuel. Charlotte Brontë’s last and most autobiographical novel is a powerfully moving study of isolation and the pain of unrequited love, narrated by a heroine determined to preserve an independent spirit in the face of adverse circumstances.”


I read Villette by Charlotte Brontë for the first time about twenty years ago. During that first reading, I became caught up in the raw emotion and love story of this great work. I thought it was a very stark novel, and I said as much when one of the members of my book group told the rest of us in the autumn of 2014 that she had recently finished reading it. She disagreed with my opinion and declared that it was a happy book. Of course, this disagreement fascinated the other members of the group, and we put it on our list for 2015. I just finished re-reading it and still think it is stark and that it ends in tragedy. Imagine my surprise when I learned that I was the only one out of the five in attendance at our meeting who felt that way. We had a spirited discussion about the matter, and I couldn’t persuade them to my point of view, and they couldn’t persuade me to theirs.

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Daniel Deronda

Book cover for Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot
Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot (British classic)

“Crushed by a loveless marriage to the cruel and arrogant Grandcourt, Gwendolen Harleth seeks salvation in the deeply spiritual and altruistic Daniel Deronda. But Deronda, profoundly affected by the discovery of his Jewish ancestry, is ultimately too committed to his own cultural awakening to save Gwendolen from despair.”


Daniel Deronda is one of several books on My Favorite Clean Fiction that was written to give readers a vision of Zion as a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine. (For others, see the evangelical Christian novels by Bodie and Brock Thoene.) One of the things unique about this particular novel is that George Eliot published it to promote Zionism before the term Zionism even existed. Here is an example of what I mean from the character Mordecai, who becomes Daniel’s mentor:

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All-of-a-Kind Family and Twenty and Ten

Book cover for All-of-a-Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor
All-of-a-Kind Family

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.

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Old Mysteries and Romances

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.

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Young Pioneers

Young Pioneers, a.k.a. Let the Hurricane Roar, by Rose Wilder Lane (YA historical)

Book cover of Young Pioneers, by Rose Wilder Lane
Young Pioneers

“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.

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O Pioneers!

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (American modern literature)

“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.”


Book cover for O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
O Pioneers!

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.

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Fireweed

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!

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