Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hey, Girls, Be Glad It's the 21st Century

My 11-year-old daughter has recently decided she wants to be a zoologist and work with big cats. She also wants to be a chef, thanks to too much time spent watching the Food Network with her dad. Whether her goals will stay the same over the next ten years or not, I don't know. But I do know she at least has a chance to be those things, which is more than could have been said had she been born in a different time.

I'm reading Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende right now, and I just can't keep from thinking about how restricted women's lives used to be. (Warning: There may be spoilers below!) The part of the book that got me started thinking about this theme was when Eliza turned 16 and her guardian/mother figure, Rose Sommers, begins to try to set up a "proper" marriage for Eliza. That's what girls did for most of human history - get married, whether it's really what they wanted to do or not. I think about Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman that I read last summer - Birdy isn't even old enough (only 13) to really have any idea of what she might want to do (assuming she had the choice), and yet her father is already searching around for a husband for her. Even women who were capable of taking care of themselves in a lot of ways, like Hannah in Hannah Fowler, realized that the world was stacked against single women. Eliza's guardian, Rose, is a good example of that. She never married, but she still had to be attached to a man's household in order to have any social standing. Luckily, she had an unmarried brother for whom she could serve as mistress of the household. Otherwise, she would have had a very sad, marginalized life.

I'm also struck by how much marriage has been used as an economic tool throughout history. Birdy's father isn't concerned with whether Birdy will like her new husband, but whether her marriage will add to the family's prestige and wealth. Mary Hoffman's The Falconer's Tale has at least two examples of a young woman who was married off to an older man to enhance her family's economic position. I guess this shouldn't be a surprise to me, but the practice really reduced a daughter to a commodity.

I suppose it's even more specific - it's the young woman's virginity that is a commodity. In Alice Turnbull's Alice in Love and War, Alice realized she had "lowered her market value" as soon as she slept with Robin. In Daughter of Fortune, there are three women who are seduced by lovers and face the consequences of lowered market value: Rose, who never marries and gets to/has to serve as housekeeper and hostess for a brother who silently but most definitely holds her "fallen" status over her head; Joaquin Andrieta's mother, who is thrown out of her family when she becomes pregnant and who is forced to raise her son in abject poverty; and Eliza, who actually gets off easiest, I think. I'm not sure what would have happened had she stayed in Valapraiso rather than running away to follow Joaquin to California. She might have faced a fate similar to Rose's, or she might have been tossed out, like Joaquin's mother. But because she broke the accepted social norms and found a way to follow Joaquin, she gets to have a satisfying relationship with Tao Chi'en (I think - I'm not completely finished yet, but I've read ahead a little, and it looks like that's where things are going). She gets a happy ending - though people at the time wouldn't have thought so, since she married outside her race. I guess they would have thought that fate was more disgraceful than either of the others.

One last thing strikes me as I read this. How unfair is it that the women have to pay for their lack of sexual self-control, but the men get a free pass, so to speak? Rose is put in a very restricted social role that could be blown apart if the story of her past was revealed. Joaquin's mother is sentenced to a life of desperate poverty and an early death from disease because she got pregnant out of wedlock. Eliza takes drastic action to get to the father of her baby, even if it means the danger of stowing away on a ship to a place she's never been before. Yet Joaquin and Eliza's father, John Sommers, get to go on their merry ways, pursuing their dreams of gold and their lives without another thought of the circumstances faced by the lover they left behind. Unfair!

I'm not trying to argue that girls should get a free pass for a lack of self-control, any more than boys should. These stories just make me reflect on what limited lives women used to have, and to feel fortunate that the world has changed in ways that allowed me to marry for love, not economics, and that give my daughter the chance to be a zoologist chef who feeds her leftovers to the tigers.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Who's Cribbing from Whom?

Ok, I'm kidding with that title. I recently finished reading Caddie Woodlawn for the first time. How did a girl who loved pioneer stories as much as I did as a child grow into adulthood without reading this book?!! Well, that's a question for another time. My point tonight is to talk about the similarities I kept noticing between Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink and the Little House book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

There were a number of events that happened to the girls in both stories - a prairie fire, encounters with the Indians, interaction with a overly prim girl, an unruly student who threatened to disrupt the school, the disappearance of a beloved dog, a potentially life-threatening dunk in a body of water. I know it's not the case, but it's almost like one author was copying ideas from the other. I checked the publication dates, and it's sort of ironic, I think, that both Caddie Woodlawn and Little House on the Prairie were published in 1935. There just must have been certain experiences that were common in pioneer communities. Some, like the prairie fires, were due to the landscape; some, like the encounters with the Indians, were due to the proximity of the different cultures; some, like prim cousin Anabelle and snotty Nellie Olsen, are just a part of human nature, regardless of the time or place.

The thing that is interesting is the way the different authors develop these similar experiences. Let's just use as an example the threat of a possible Indian attack. Here's an excerpt from Caddie Woodlawn:

"After dark, sentries were stationed about the farmhouse to keep watch during the night, and the women and children made their beds on the floor of the parlor, after the bedrooms were filled. No one undressed that night, and fires were kept burning in the kitchen and dining room for the men to warm by when they changed their sentry duty. Windows were shuttered and lanterns covered or shaded when carried outside. A deep silence settled over the farm. They did not wish to draw the Indians' attention by needless noise or light."

Now, here's an excerpt from Little House on the Prairie:
"Laura crept out of bed and huddled against Ma's knee. And Mary, left all alone, crept after her and huddled close, too. Pa stayed by the window, watching."
"The drums seemed to beat in Laura's head. They seemed to beat deep inside her. The wild, fast yipping yells were worse than wolves. Something worse was coming, Laura knew it. Then it came - the Indian war-cry."
"A nightmare is not so terrible as that night was. A nightmare is only a dream, and when it is worst you wake up. But this was real and Laura could not wake up. She could not get away from it."
"When the war-cry was over, Laura knew it had not got her yet. She was still in the dark house and she was pressed close against Ma."

I enjoyed Caddie Woodlawn, and I will definitely be recommending it to my 11-year-old daughter. But I have to admit, I like Laura Ingalls Wilder's version of the pioneer life better. Her description makes me feel like I was right there, hearing that terrifying cry in the dark. I guess that's the difference between telling about your own pioneer experience (which Wilder was doing) and telling the stories of someone else's experience passed down to you (which Brink was doing).

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Anybody Up for Helping Me Test Something?

It looks like the current course management system at the school where I teach is about to be ditched, so I'm exploring ways I can keep doing the things I do with it in my classes. One of the features I would hate to lose is having a short quiz at the end of the reading material. I found a free quiz creator and what follows is a test to see if the tool is going to be something I could use with my classes. If you take it, please leave a comment to let me know how the quiz program worked for you. Thank you to anyone who helps!

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Moment of Bitterness....

In my morning routine of checking email, I found a message offering me a coupon to an online bookstore, so ever the procrastinator, I decided to check out what the store had (instead of really getting to work). The coupon wasn't that great, but that's not what I'm bitter about....it was the book titles that were featured on the front page of the online store.

Two of the three books were celebrity memoirs, one for Ozzy Osborne and one for Jenny Sanford. Ozzy - ok, he's been around and lived some life - maybe he's got something interesting enough to put in a book. The one that really got me, though, was this Jenny Sanford memoir (Staying True, I think was its name).

Honestly, my first reaction was, "Who's Jenny Sanford?" Then the fog lifted from my morning brain, and I remembered she is the wife of the governor of South Carolina, the governor who had an affair with a woman from Argentina and disappeared for a few days, supposedly out hiking the Appalachian trail (uh-huh).

Once I remembered that, that's when the bitterness set in. How long ago was the entire Sanford scandal? Last summer? Six months ago? And the woman already has a published book for sale? Heck, in six months, I can't even get a response to my query from an agent or publisher as to whether they might like to look at my full manuscript! As a writer, this makes me even more convinced that all the big publishing houses care about is making a quick buck.

As a reader, I'm dismayed. The Sanford affair was all over talk TV. What is going to be in this book that hasn't already been said? More tawdry details? Raw emotion? Moralizing about the sanctity of marriage? Fine. Maybe that's what some readers want. I'm sure someone will buy the book. But I find myself wondering if the content of this book wouldn't have worked equally well as the feature story in some women's magazine.

Color me disgusted.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Good Advice from an Author

I'm getting along pretty well with my A to Z Reading Challenge so far; I just finished Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. It was all right. I like reading children's books, but this one was a little younger than I really prefer. That's not to say anything bad about the book. Curtis did well with maintaining the suspense of the story throughout, and I learned something about the racism that African-Americans faced during the Depression era.

The best thing I took away from the book, though, came in the author's note at the end - actually in the last paragraph.

"Be smarter than I was: Go talk to Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad and other relatives and friends. Discover and remember what they have to say about what they learned growing up. By keeping their stories alive you make them, and yourself, immortal."

My grandfather on my mother's side just turned 99 about a week ago. When I think about everything that has happened in his lifetime, it's pretty amazing. He was about 7 when the U.S. entered World War I, 18 when the stock market crashed, a young married during the Great Depression, in his 30s during World War II. He witnessed Sputnik, the assassination of JFK, Watergate, the fall of the Berlin wall, the fall of the Twin Towers. When he was a child, cars were uncommon. He has only an 8th-grade education, because people had to pay tuition to attend high school, and he needed to work to help support the family, anyway. Now -- although he doesn't use them! -- we have tools that can instanteously communicate with people around the world, and that can store an entire music library on something smaller than a deck of cards. Think of the stories he could tell!

The same thing is true of my father's father. He's a youngster at 94, ha ha. He actually served in the Pacific in World War II, including the Battle of Midway.

But....I haven't heard their stories and probably won't. When we were both younger, I didn't even think about doing it. Now that I realize it, it's not going to happen. For one thing, they aren't exactly forthcoming with the stories. For another, I'm intimidated by them, sad to say. I might feel differently about it if it were my grandmothers. In fact, I do remember hearing some stories from my paternal grandmother about when she was first married and lived in a house with big cracks between the floorboards. The problem is, I didn't write those down, and now she's gone. All I have are the rather faded memories of the conversation.

Maybe kids will take Curtis' advice. But just in case my grandchildren are intimidated by me (ha!) I'm going to try to write down a few things and use scrapbooking to help preserve "how it used to be."