About Me

My photo
I am a high school English teacher who loves to read, and I'm passionate about finding quality books for my students to read. The reviews on this blog will reflect what I am currently reading and sometimes what my students are reading. The books that appear on the list are ones that I think would be of interest to high school students, are age appropriate in content and difficulty, and in some way tap into eternal truths. Most are classics, but some are just fun, popular books.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Hero and the Crown

At my daughter Joanna's graduation, I presented her with a sword. I told her that God had put within her an adventurous spirit and that I was proud of her and wanted to see her go out and make the most of it. It probably seemed hokey to some people, but I stand by it. At the time, it felt a little strange because the sword already belonged to her (I had stolen it from her room for the ceremony), but now that I have read Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown, I realize that there is a precedent for presenting a daughter with her own sword and that good things happen when you do.

The first half of this book would be awe inspiring for any girl with a romantic thirst for adventure. Aerin struggles through a debilitating illness, befriends an injured war horse, trains him back to greatness, and with a dogged patience that would rival Thomas Edison's, develops a concoction that will defend her against dragon fire. Thus armed, she heads off to fight dragons. Step aside, St. George! Step aside, Prince Whatever Your Name Is in Sleeping Beauty! The description of Aerin's battle with Maur beats any I've read anywhere in English literature. It makes a mockery of such silliness as Beowulf leaning up on one arm and prying Grendel's claws back with one hand. You don't defeat a monster many times your size without being slung around, charred to a crisp, beaten to a pulp, and left for dead yourself.

The second half of the book is a bit harder to swallow. Who is this Luthe guy? How old is he? Is he really bald? Why fall in love with him when Tor is back home fighting off the northern demons? Aerin's experience with Luthe drags on beyond endurance. Listening to Aerin and Luthe beside the silver lake rivals listening to Bella and Edward talk in the cafeteria. When she falls in love with him, it feels like Luke Skywalker has fallen in love with Yoda (minus the gender problem--okay, maybe that was a bad analogy). All the same, at the end when she has nicely turned back to Tor but somehow keeps Luthe in her heart for the next life--yuck--it reminded me of what a good thing it was for Rowena that she didn't know how often Ivanhoe thought about Rebecca. We're supposed to believe that "it was her love for Luthe that made her recognize her love for Tor," that "her destiny, like her love, like her heritage, was double." It never comes together for me.

All the same, when Aerin gets back to Damar, the book picks up again, and there are some great battle scenes. The book is like a beautiful figure with a gaping wound. What do you do with it? Joanna tells me she just reads the parts she likes. That answer would make Aristotle turn over in his grave, but if you look at it like an Arthurian romance where the whole is clunky and episodic but certain parts pierce your heart, it might work. In that sense, The Hero and the Crown fits right in with other great fantasies in the Medieval tradition.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Peter Pan

When I was a kid, I day dreamed about getting tied to a stake. It wasn't always the same bad guys who captured me. Sometimes it was Medieval bandits, sometimes Arabs, sometimes pirates, sometimes Nazis, sometimes Soviets, but most often it was Indians. The shape of my world sprung from "Rin Tin Tin" episodes. I watched them avidly and idolized the little boy who owned the dog and got to wear a uniform just like the Cavalry officers. My mother sewed a stripe down each side of my blue pants for Christmas one year and proved her worth. They always captured me and tied me to the stake because I was trying to save a girl who was already tied to another stake. So there we stood a few yards apart, our hands tied behind our backs, without a hope in the world. If she was gagged, she stared at me with burning eyes that said, "I love you. Thanks for trying." If we weren't gagged, I said something along the lines of "To die will be an awfully big adventure." I know that J. M. Barrie had these same sort of dreams as a child. The amazing thing is that he seemed to fuel them into his adulthood and wrote Peter Pan.

Neverland is familiar to anyone who had a backyard growing up. Things are not as perpetual in the Neverland of the book as they are in the Disney movie, where the Indians are usually spoofing when they catch the lost boys. Neverland is gloriously dangerous in the book. The pirates are out to kill the lost boys, the Indians are out to kill the pirates, and the animals are out to kill the Indians. Hook may kill a pirate simply to show his method, and when there are too many lost boys, Peter "thins them out." Yikes. Apparently, children on the mainland need to do some more clapping too, because not all fairies survive this tale.

There are plenty of other familiar things too. There is a wife's kiss that a husband can't ever quite catch. There is a boy's arrogance that makes him really believe that someone else's idea was his own, and yet his desperate need for bandages for the slightest of wounds. Above all, the book acknowledges that children are heartless; this is what makes them so attractive, because it shows an absolute faith in a mother's love. "Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time; and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be embraced instead of smacked."

If you enjoy the sort of word play and rhetorical flourish that you find in Alice in Wonderland, or A Series of Unfortunate Events, you will love Peter Pan. I must offer up an example: "It was the grimmest deed since the days when [Hook] had brought Barbecue to heel; and knowing as we do how vain a tabernacle is man, could we be surprised had he now paced the deck unsteadily, bellied out by the winds of his success?" Read and dream again.