WWRW: January Reads

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So happy to have the What We’re Reading Wednesday link-up back!

My big read this past month was Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. It had been ages since I’d read a Victorian novel and thankfully this one was for a book club I had to lead, so I had to plow through all 450 pages of it, busyness and all.

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North and South is like an Industrial Revolution version of Pride and Prejudice. Margaret Hale, a young lady from the south of England, moves to the northern industrial town of Milton (Manchester) when her father has a crisis of faith and has to abandon his post as a country parson. Although Margaret comes from an aristocratic family, her father’s career as a minister and now as a tutor has kept her family from ever being really wealthy and has given her a good dose of empathy for the downtrodden of the world.

One of the first people Margaret meets in Milton is Mr. John Thornton, her father’s foremost pupil and the owner of a thriving cotton mill. Mr. Thornton is fabulously wealthy, and his mother warns him that Margaret will be after his money in no time because Margaret comes from the South where “if all tales be true, rich husbands are reckoned prizes.”

Perhaps Mrs. Thornton has read Jane Austen, but not very closely, because Southern English ladies are actually very particular about where their husbands’ wealth comes from, and Margaret is disgusted by the cotton mills and the conspicuous consumption of its owners. Milton tradesmen are not gentlemen!

Mr. Thornton, on the other hand, pretty much falls head over heels in love with Margaret the moment he lays eyes on her. But he doesn’t make his feelings known, especially because she openly criticizes the way he runs his business practically every time they meet. Margaret has befriended some of the millworkers, one of whom is dying of a lung infection caused by years of inhaling bits of cotton in the air, and she is convinced that the strict separation of life between the mill owners and workers is unjust and inhumane.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing at the mill as the workers prepare to strike for higher wages. Margaret is caught in the middle, and all the social issues that arise are where North and South veers off from an Austenesque comedy of manners. Gaskell isn’t anywhere near as perfect a writer as Austen, but she still manages to tell a pretty great love story.

….

As for reading with the kids, we are now into the early 20th century in our history cycle. I’m trying hard to find stories that are upbeat but with the Great War and the Great Depression right around the corner, it’s getting tough.

This picture book was a bright spot, however.

The Camping Trip that Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and our National Parks, by Barb Rosenstock

This book tells the true story of the time President Roosevelt went camping in northern California with the naturalist John Muir. Muir convinced Roosevelt that what appeared to be an endless Western frontier was in fact very finite and would probably be destroyed in another decade of relentless industrialization.

President Roosevelt returned from sleeping under the sequoias and created dozens of national parks, nature preserves, and wildlife protection laws.

We’re also reading about another Roosevelt in this read-aloud,

A Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt, by C. Coco deYoung

A Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt

This book is also based on a true story about a child who asked for the First Lady’s help when her family is evicted from their home during the Great Depression.

An early 20th century study wouldn’t be complete without a Titanic story, at least not in our family. Our kids have been fascinated by it since we read the Magic Tree House book about the Titanic when they were pretty young. They’ve watched computer models of the sinking and made their own Lego models as well.

All that to say I wouldn’t let them listen to such a tragic story if they weren’t already pretty familiar with it. We are listening to Gordon Korman’s Titanic trilogy in the car. The main characters are four teenagers aboard the ship–two First Class young ladies, an English steward, and an Irish stowaway who all become unlikely friends during the voyage.

This is a young adult novel, not a children’s book. Despite the usual disaster that you already know is coming, these kids have to deal with other non-childish things like dangerous gangsters, a suspected killer, an alcoholic father, and an absent mother aboard the ship.

We are actually not quite finished with Book 3, but (spoiler alert!) we are at the lifeboat stage, and it does appear that all four teens are going to survive (barely!). I couldn’t get a paper copy of the book from my library, so I’ve been cautiously listening ready to turn it off if one of them is going to die (but it never seemed like it was going to be one of those really dark YA novels). Although all four of the teens experience loss during the story, it would be too much for my kids to get attached to main characters who don’t make it.

(UPDATE: Okay, I finally found a review with a complete spoiler in it, ie, who survives, and apparently one of the four teens is going to die. He’s been so kind and self-sacrificing throughout the book, though, that I don’t think it will be too dark. I think the kids will accept it.)

Highly recommended for older kids who can handle the inevitably sad ending!

Teddy has become adorably attached to these two board books by Emma Garcia,

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and

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He’s got them memorized, as do the rest of us, so I’m about to order this one.

Highly recommended for the toddler boy in your life.

And as a bonus I’m going to add WHWBW (that’s What Have We Been Watching, per Jessica).

North and South, of course

True to the spirit of the novel if not the actual plot details, this is a wonderful film. Richard Armitage (aka Thorin Oakenshield) doesn’t quite top Colin Firth as most tortured male romantic lead in a BBC film, but he comes close. Brendan Coyle of Downton Abbey is also perfect as the millworkers’ union leader.

and also on Amazon Instant Video,

Dickens’ Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit (2008) Poster

The screenwriter also wrote the BBC versions of Middlemarch and Pride & Prejudice. The title music will sweep you back to Downton Abbey because it’s the same composer, composing almost the same music. Such a good film though–made me wish I’d already read the book.

Happy reading and watching!

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