Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A New Year's fairy tale - The Little Match Girl

Fairy tales are, despite their sometimes grim content and often alarming messages, always for children. They're distinctly unsatisfying for adults. Their brevity makes them unsettling. Their action makes them downright scary. They are written as if by children, with that brutal, direct and virtually amoral style that sends a sensible grown-up running away to the relative comforts of Stephen King and Margaret Atwood.

First, a comparison. Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol is a seasonal staple at this time of year. The tale of an embittered miser who becomes the most generous of men through having his eyes opened to the need and potential of others, particularly the poor, is eternally popular in a world which likes to focus on redemption and positive change. The mid-19th century produced many stories of wealth and poverty, love and indifference, as it was a time when the ruthless attitude that poverty was a) inevitable and b) a judgement on the poor was starting to meet resistance.

Two years later, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen added to the criticism with a very short story about a loveless urchin who curls up on a wintry street corner on New Year's Eve. The Little Match Girl is one the darkest of Andersen's often sad stories. When I first read it as a child, it was my first experience of a fiction in which the hero is not saved, the world is not righted, and despite the warmth and love of the religious message, what lingers is the tragedy.

Despite my fondness for Scrooge, I'm fascinated by Andersen's darker story. Dickens, ever a bully with his paper pulpit, crams redemption down our throats so forcefully that the part of the story most remember with fondness isn't Scrooge the redeemed, but Scrooge the - well, Scrooge. Dickens' story fails on what had to have been the most basic level; he's a portrait of a very particular miser, not a representative of all the harsh, indifferent rich men who turn their backs on their fellow humans. Dickens adored making a point, but he loved writing zany, memorable characters more.

Andersen's story, on the other hand, is of a small child dying in the snow at the Christmas season, dreaming of a stove, food, holiday decorations. Nobody has bought her matches, another urchin has stolen her shoes, her own father will beat her for not bringing home money. It doesn't get more relentless than this. No time-travelling look at the influences of a rich man's poverty of soul, no change of the fate of a poor man's son, no warmth but the promise of fantasy and death. The mood in this short, short story is almost unbearable. And in an entirely different way than A Christmas Carol, it's also succeeded worldwide as a recurring, eternal tale.

It's available online at Online-Literature.com and at HCA.Gilead.org, which also contains a lot of information about Andersen.

Some truly alarming pop culture trivia from Wikipedia

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Moccasin Trail

Moccasin Trail
Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Tom stared at him, his eyes traveling from the braids to the coup feather, from the claw and bead necklace to the medicine bundle dangling below Jim's left ear.
"By golly, hoss," he said slowly, "I thought you was a half-breed. Didn't you grow up Crow?"

"Yeah, but I come from Missouri afore that. Long time ago."

"What happened, Injuns steal you?"

"No, I run away from home. It's nigh nine year back now."

19-year-old Jim Keath is living at the tail end of the wild west, 1844, in the great wilderness of Oregon Territory. As a restless 11-year-old farm boy, he'd run away to chase his Uncle Adam, a trapper, to adventure. He'd gotten more than he bargained for when, a year into his Western life, he was mauled by a bear. A tribe of Crow Indians came across the half-dead boy and saved his life, raising him as their own. But at 16, the boy now living as a Crow named Talks Alone has a disturbing reaction to seeing fellow warriors return home with white scalps. Troubled, he finally runs away from his tribe and takes up trapping with mountain man Tom Rivers. But a note from a nearby trading post shakes his life up once again. His parents are dead, and his three younger siblings need his help.

Jim, if you're still alive, come help us. Pa's been dead three year, and mother died on the trail two months ago. We buried her beside the Sweetwater. Now me and Sally and Dan'l is all that's left. We are just across the Snake bound for the Williamette Valley, and none of us are old enough to claim land after we get there, except you. If you ever cared anything for mother or any of us, then come. It's our only chance.

Jim is excited to reunite with his brother Jonnie; the two were very close back in Missouri. But when he finds his siblings, Jonnie and Sally are dismayed by his appearance and embarrassed by the challenge of incorporating their gone-native brother with their fellow pioneers. To Jim, the pioneers are the contemptible 'bourgeways' who he can already foresee are going to destroy the wilderness he loves. And beneath that culture clash, Jim is still torn between whether he's an adventurous white boy or a Crow native at heart.

Their family drama doesn't have much time to percolate, however, as the first order of business is finding a way through the mountains into the farm-friendly Williamette Valley. The wagons can raft - wildly - down the Columbia River through a gorge that is the only entrance through the Cascade Range to the valley, but the cattle must go over the mountains. Both parties suffer, Jonny and Sally with the wagons:

Since the first day, all of them had ceased to think of the river as a mere body of water, rushing through natural causes to the sea. It was a monster, intent on their destruction, roaring with fury at their presence in his black-walled gorge, calling the rain to drench them and the snow to blind them and the wind to madden them and the rapids to drown them.
and Jim with the cattle:

Only the dwindling food supply enabled Jim to distinguish one day from the next, as they struggled through a white and swirling world where they could see only a few feet at a time, where the gusty wind drove the snowflakes into their sleeves and down their necks, stung tears into their eyes, and then froze them on their lashes.

Jim's temporarily in the family good graces when he escorts the herd safely over and signs them the deed for 640 acres on the Tualatin River. But as Jonnie buckles down happily to the enormous task of creating a farm out of the forest, Jim is again beset by restlessness and resentment. And confusion. He doesn't understand why these pioneers want to tame the land, he doesn't understand why his brother is one of them, and he doesn't understand why his brother and sister hate his Crow years. And yet - he's not Crow. He remembers the good and bad years of that life, and can't find the words to defend them to his family. Or his own feckless indifference for the family he ran from, or his inability now to settle down and live happily as a farmer. When Tom drifts back into the picture, Jim's tempted to resume his old life.

A very thorough and fair portrait of a family divided, in which the two sides both get a sympathetic hearing. Jonnie's view of Indians - murdering savages - is balanced by Jim's memories of the tenderness and brutality of his Crow family. But Jim's incomprehension about the 'bourgeways' is balanced by scenes where Jonnie talks with others, notably the sympathetic Rutledge, about the frustrations of having this brother who won't help with the backbreaking labor of carving out a farm, and whose Indian ways creates unease with the neighbors.

The main characters - Jim and Jonnie - are rock solid, but most others are peripheral. Sally in particular seems to be a missed opportunity. The action is frequent, believable and memorable. The problems and their resolution are excellent.

Other edition

About the author
Eloise Jarvis Mcgraw
Born in Texas, she grew up in Oklahoma and attended Principia College in Illinois. She married William Corbin McGraw in 1940. Her first published article was accepted by Parent's Magazine in 1943. The young family lived in various places, including San Diego, before heading to Oregon in 1952. They bought a farm near Wilsonville and both Eloise and William concentrated on writing. Under the name William Corbin, he was also a successful author of books for children and teens (Smoke, High Road Home, Horse In The House).

The Oregon Book Awards named their honor for children's literature after her: the Eloise Jarvis Mcgraw Award for Children's Literature.

Sawdust In His Shoes
Moccasin Trail (1952) won Newberry Honor
The Golden Goblet (1962) won Newberry Honor
The Moorchild (1997) won Newberry Honor
A Really Weird Summer (1977) won Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery
The Seventeenth Swap
Mara, Daughter Of The Nile
Joel And The Great Merlini (1979)
The Trouble With Jacob
Tangled Web
Master Cornhill
The Money Room
The Striped Ships
Crown Fire (1951)

Oz books
Merry Go Round In Oz
The Forbidden Fountain Of Oz
The Rundelstone Of Oz

Pharoah (1958) (adult)
Techniques Of Fiction Writing (1959) (nonfiction)

Papers at the University of Oregon
NYT Obituary
Oregon Book Awards
Wilsonville, Oregon
Map of Oregon Territory in 1838
About the Tualatin River
About the Columbia River Gorge
Photo of the Columbia River Gorge