Assorted polar bears, $19.95 (reg. $24.95) caught my eye, along with assorted owls, assorted elves, and battery operated candles. And then: table top fireplace (buy 3, get one free)! Such were the tantalizing holiday adornments on offer in a full page ad of the Sunday morning paper, November 29, 2015. Probably they come from China. Whatever happened to the tiny plaster figure skaters to set on a mirror “pond” surrounded by cotton batten “snow” and white-speckled, green bottle-brush trees?
Christmas was a colorful (if laborious) holiday in my childhood home, with Scandinavian tradition on one side and German on the other. Cookies stand out as the festive food, always homemade, sometimes taking hours to shape, bake and decorate. The favorites to eat were almond crescents, but the most admired were the cutout sugar snowmen, santas, hearts, and candy canes elaborately frosted to hang on the tree with the punched tin stars, bubbling lanterns, and jewel-toned glass balls. The kids might add paper chains and popcorn strings.
When I married and had children, I kept up the tree trimming tradition, starting with the glass balls, adding three new handmade ornaments every year, one for each child. Church bazaars yielded hand painted, wooden rocking horses and clothespin soldiers, flannel gingerbread men and batik candy canes. I was thinking they would want to take them when they had homes of their own. But they have their own traditions. Most impressively, a daughter-in-law assembles her grandmother’s aluminum, revolving tree with an Evergleam color wheel. I confess, even I gave in to my husband’s suggestion that, living on a desert, we should have a faux fir with lights already wound into its branches. All we have to do each year is fluff it up a bit. And buy gifts for sixteen people.
In the Forties and Fifties, presents from our grandparents were always special: a dog or bicycle for my brother; for me, a doll house with electric lights, and a Sonia Henie doll with a hand knit skating skirt and sweater, even a stocking cap and socks. My parents’ gifts to us were modest. They hardly had time to shop, the social season was so frenetic. Mother might be sewing herself a fancy dress for a winter dance, or making (besides hundreds of cookies) dozens of canapes for a cocktail party. Dad was busy preparing end of year business reports.
Still, without fail, Dad put up the outdoor display and organized the trip to get a freshly cut tree. Whether it was fir or balsam or Scotch pine depended on which woods my dad had been invited by a lumber baron friend to take one from, and which one looked spectacular enough for my mother’s discerning eye. One of my outstanding memories is of a gray day, standing in awe in a wide, tall and silent forest in Upper Michigan, watching soft white flakes flutter down, faster and faster, until my five-year-old brother, hip deep in packed snowbanks beside me, let out a frightened wail that echoed longer than a wolf’s howl in the oncoming dusk. Our mother huddled him close to her all the way home, while I rubbed holes in the steam on the car window, and peered into the darkness for the lights of farmhouses marking the edge of our northwoods village.
Perhaps that is what Christmas 2015 should be, not a time of luxurious trappings and feel good fantasies, but a time to strip down to the bare essentials; to stand in awe, perhaps even fear, and feel gratitude for the love that surrounds us.
The following book review was written for www.bookpleasures.com November 25, 2011
By Karen Dahood
TIMES LIKE THESE
E. E. Smith
Phoenix International, Inc., 2011
English writers are good at keeping their memories of World War II alive through novels and, over the recent commemorative years, television series that have filled us in on the main points, most recently in Home Fires. The focus understandably has been on Britain and France where so much action took place. It is rare now to get a personalized account of what was happening to people spending those years at home in the United States. That’s why the fictionalized account of 1945 by San Francisco writer Evelyn Eileen Smith is so important.
The reason 13-year-old Evelyn was forced to move with her mother to Shafter, Nevada, not much more than a railroad crossing, is simply that the mother was German, and Californians were considering rounding up German-born citizens just as we had rounded up Japanese, to put them in relocation camps so the rest of us could be secure. That meant Evelyn’s parents would have to learn to get along. The reunited family lived in the depot where her father was the agent and telegrapher, directing traffic on the Nevada Northern and Western Pacific railroad lines that crisscrossed in this empty landscape. Evelyn was more than annoyed to be deprived of her friends and opportunities in Sacramento, and to be stuck in a one-room schoolhouse with an uninspiring teacher, but she adapted. She took on the challenge of teaching English to a workman’s six-year-old daughter, and she eagerly submitted to lessons in classical literature from the former child actor who now operated the coal shute. Her father used his poker earnings to buy her a wild horse, and she enjoyed taming Dusty. There were worse dangers. She escaped death on a train track twice. And she accidentally boarded a train carrying wounded soldiers. As her father became more dependent on his supply of alcohol kept “out back,” and her mother began to flirt with other men passing through (not many did), things fell apart, and Evelyn’s destiny changed dramatically.
Smith is a playwright who has turned her hand to short stories and novels, including mysteries. Thus she has mastered the craft of plotting a story. Here her fluid narrative fits the time period, which I personally remember, and it made me nostalgic for those broadening biographies I read throughout sixth grade, and for eye-opening adventures of ordinary folks, as in The Boxcar Children and The Moffats.
Above all, TIMES LIKE THESE made me think about The Green Glass Sea, a novel for young adults about a Manhattan Project scientist’s adolescent daughter living with him in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the same time frame. Neither child could have imagined what was going on in the other’s geographical space – The Great American Desert or The Secret City – both artificially shaped by the fears that gripped the adult nation. Neither girl had worries about war; their concerns were about family and how to navigate out of childhood. When Evelyn’s dad relayed the news that the Second World War was finally over – that Japan had been successfully bombed – it marked the end of an era. Never again would childhood be so innocent.
A CASUALTY OF GRACE
Lisa Brown’s third novel to accurately, yet emotionally, portray the lives of her English ancestors who became 19th century Canadian pioneers surprised me. It is a more focused story than The Porter’s Wife and The Seeds of Sorrow, and much deeper psychologically. It worked for me as a novel of suspense. I knew something bad was going to happen to one of the young brothers, or between them, and I kept reading because I was on tenterhooks and could not sleep until I knew just what it was. It was like watching a thunderstorm broil up from distant clouds and roll toward me over the landscape until there was a mind-blowing crescendo right over my head.
I have felt amply rewarded in following this genealogy project which clearly has involved Brown in painstaking research about the Canadian frontier. I frankly don’t know enough about it, even though I have lived pretty close to its borders. I appreciate Brown as a clear and trustworthy narrator who brings history to life by describing the ordinary details of everyday work and relationships, and imagining the human responses of her characters. Notably, they had to make hard choices – sometimes not so hard when they were hungry.
Of course, to most people alive today, what was “ordinary” to 19th century farmers and settlers seems extraordinary, including the slow pace at which they managed to get through very difficult days. The story of Oliver and Simon delivers a painful memory of institutions created in large part to the early deaths of impoverished parents through disease and violence. As it happens, this recall is timely. In the last couple of years we have seen an unanticipated surge of abandoned and homeless children, first as a result of Ebola in Africa, and now from the destruction of Syria. In her preface, Brown explains the role orphanages played in those earlier migrations from Britain to younger countries that needed more helping hands. She warns us that the arrangements were not always motivated by lovingkindness or even understanding of human childhood needs. Whether or not she intended to raise questions about our present situation, she certainly has. In this non-agrarian age, what are we going to do for these thousands of destitute and traumatized 21st century children left on their own?
Brown’s new novel also resonates with concerns about domestic violence. Orphan boys arriving to work in fields and barns in exchange for a roof over their heads and decent meals had seen cruelty in their circumstances, but not necessarily anger. Oliver is old enough to remember his father having to work hard and rarely spending time with him, but he was a good parent. Much affection came from his mother. Younger Simon has few memories of hardship. He expects to be treated well and he is, without suspecting it might be twisted, or even wondering why his brother is not as lucky. Oliver, forced to be wise beyond his years, is constantly fearful, and when any kindness is shown him (again, by the females in his life) he is astonished.
The farmer who takes the boys is a villain, yet we eventually understand why. This bleak landscape is not just about the vagaries of nature and its impact on economics and social structure; it is about patterns. It instructs us that psychopathic behavior does not just appear randomly, and that children, like crops, must be nurtured into maturity by caring adults who were taught about love in their own childhood.
This review was originally published on www.bookpleasures.com, October 18, 2015.
The Boundaries of Desire: Bad Laws, Good Sex, and Changing Identities
Nude Out of Reach
Eric Berkowitz has followed his 2012 Sex and Punishment, an entertaining history of sex laws over the past 4000 years, with this more relevant and disturbing account of sex laws over just the past 100, laws that have influenced our social standards and that sometimes support and sometimes challenge our right to govern our own sensuality.
Interviewed on Public Radio last August, the human rights lawyer set the stage by pointing out that, as religion lost its authority over our lives, we turned to the social sciences for moral guidance, and the initial result was that “what were sins became mental illnesses.” Prostitutes were feeble-minded and a “one-way flow of venereal disease toward men;” and homosexuals were “naturally inclined toward crimes against children, toward political disloyalty, toward all kinds of anti-social things.” These imperfect beings had to be eliminated one way or another.
The fights for justice for just these two categories of sexual behavior give us incredible insight into our own bizarre portion of social history. We appear to be hopelessly ambivalent about sex.
Modesty at the beach circa 1945
Many familiar scandals of our era are present in this book: miscegenation, adultery, obscenity, sexual harassment, sex trafficking, child porn, “sexting,” and campus rape. So are controversies, such as the fairness of sex offender registries. Berkowitz frequently represents domestic abuse victims in court, and so he devotes much space to marital sex in its relationship to the evolving legal definitions of rape. It is this subject that drives home the reality that any answers from the social sciences will never be final ones and therefore the law as we attempt to establish it will never be complete.
Mom and Dad 1937
The author’s engaging prose helps the reader get through the fact-packed account with sustained interest, but absorbing it all takes weeks. It is tempting, therefore, to relegate this type of nonfiction to the reference shelf. Yet the cumulative effect is to make one think deeply about one’s own experience of what underlies and surrounds those facts. My initial reaction was to feel let down; it seems that any residual romantic notions my pre-pill generation might have of physical intimacy have been trampled by its preponderance of economic uses. “Having sex” instead of “making love” says it all.
Grandpa and Grandma as I Knew Them
I was reminded of Lisa See’s memorable reference in her historical novel Snow Flower to what women in her Chinese family called “bed business.” Sex was used to influence their men; it was all about gaining financial security and status. I was shocked when I read it and yet I recognized that motive as acceptable in my mother’s generation, up until the time most women could be financially independent. In many places in our world and nation that time never comes.
That is perhaps the lasting message here, that money is the motive behind almost all sexual activity. One exception of course is the natural urge that might be construed as pure joy or pure selfishness, the “sex drive” that we worry about. We would like to keep our adolescents safe from it, and in mentally diminished people it has to be controlled. Another exceptional motive is the kind of loneliness that can be satisfied temporarily by physical closeness.
But The Boundaries of Desire is not really about sex. It is about our desire to control sex. And it a book we do not want to shelve at all. It should be placed handily for reflection and discussion, and certainly for attempting to understand the varied “normal” responses to that fundamental urge, including fear. It might also remind us that trying to regulate bodily functions within a court of law is apt to be just a p—–g contest.
This review was originally written for www.bookpleasures.com and posted September 15, 2015.