Sunday, 15 November 2015

Saint Margaret of the Textiles

The other day I laughed myself silly over a delicious review-rant my friend Suzannah Rowntree posted on Goodreads.

To celebrate Queen Margaret of Scotland's traditional feast day today, I'm sharing it with you (with her gracious permission).

The Unveiling (Age of Faith, #1)The Unveiling by Tamara Leigh
Suzannah's rating: 1 of 5 stars

Every now and again I'll think, "I wonder what the kids are reading these days," and off I'll go to download and read one of the titles I've heard of. Sometimes this has been rewarding, and other times...

Well, other times I'll find myself lying awake grinding my teeth over a clean Christian medieval romance novel... which isn't very clean, isn't very Christian, and is only selectively medieval.

The most galling thing about this particular novel was something rather odd, something that would hardly bother most people. And so, for a while, I tried to hold in my irritation. But some wounds don't heal with time and the end of it is that I MUST SPEAK.

There's seriously some kind of anti-textile bias going on here. The heroine is a modern-style warrior chick, so pretty soon she collides with typical (and totally reasonable) medieval attitudes about women's work. And she's like,


Queen Margaret of Scotland, an actual medieval woman who would make the heroine of this book look like a total fusspot, would be facepalming so hard you could hear it in Norway.

When Margaret arrived in Scotland, basically nobody knew how to do anything with a needle except jam it into the eyesocket of whoever was currently cheesing them off. So, of course, their castles pretty much looked like this:

Except that shortly after Margaret arrived, they began looking like this instead:

When Margaret entered Scotland, she was greeted by a wild warrior king and a bunch of blokes who looked like something out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

But pretty soon they looked more like this:

Tradition even credits Margaret with introducing TARTAN to Scotland. Which means that next time you see David Tennant wearing a kilt, youíll know who to thank.

Thank you, Queen Margaret, for not thinking needlework somehow beneath you.

At about the same time Margaret was giving the entire nation of Scotland a makeover, an abbey of nuns in France were hard at work stitching one of the most important visual historical sources in the history of the world.

So that without the Bayeux Tapestry, we wouldn't know half of what we know today about armour, weaponry, and fighting tactics of the late eleventh century.

Meanwhile, the heroine of this novel wishes she could do something important with her life, IE, running around with the blokes waving swords and stuff.

Burning down castles full of priceless tapestries, for instance.

Slaughtering and carrying off talented textile workers from peaceful communities.

And you donít even want to know how much time and effort went into making Thomas a Becket's cope. It was never the same after he was martyred.

So basically, darling, unless youíd rather get around in an outfit consisting entirely of strategically-placed twigs...

...grow up and learn to enjoy using a needle.

View all Suzannah's reviews

Monday, 12 October 2015

5 Books for Brave Girls

We talk a lot with our girls about being brave. We talk about how we practise being brave by not freaking out over little things, so when big things come along we will have a habit of everyday bravery.

My favourite kind of book for my girls is one in which the heroine has to triumph not only over things external to herself (like Nazis), but internal obstacles (like timidity, pride, or selfishness). Because these are the things our daughters struggle with daily. And, let's be real: so do we.

We want our daughters to be the Irena Sendlers and Sophie Scholls of the future. Right now they're not faced with smuggling Jewish babies out of the ghetto or secretly publishing anti-Nazi newspapers. Right now they have to get along with each other and deal with the disappointments that come with everyday life. And believe me, this is hard enough for little girls who were born 22 months apart (not to mention the twins, who were born 3 minutes apart)!

Here are some of my favourite books for encouraging a love of bravery in your girls, featuring heroines who don't find bravery an easy thing.

1. The picture book heroine

Lizzie Nonsense
by Jan Ormerod
Age: 0+
Lizzie lives in the outback, cheering up her mother and baby brother and helping keep them safe while her father is away cutting and selling sandalwood. So lovely. Read my detailed review here.

2. The historical heroine

Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie
by Peter & Connie Roop & Peter Hansen
Age: 3+
Abbie Burgess was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, living off the coast of Maine, who took over her father's duties for nearly a month during a terrible storm in 1856. This simple telling communicates the warmth of the Burgess family and Abbie's sacrifices to keep the light burning.

3. The everyday heroine

Understood Betsy
by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Age: 5+
Everything frightens Elizabeth Ann, but when she is sent to stay with her cousins at Putney Farm due to a family illness, everything changes - including her.

4. The royal heroine

Journey for a Princess 
by Margaret Leighton
Age: 10+
A ninth-century Saxon Princess (King Alfred the Great's youngest child) has to overcome both shyness and enemy threats on an epic pilgrimage to Rome. This is a novel about how to identify true love and your place in history.
Unfortunately, this is currently out of print, but you can read it for free online by setting up an account at Open Library (that's what I did).

5. The adventure heroine

Pendragon's Heir
by Suzannah Rowntree
Age: 14+
This is a glorious, page-turning historical fantasy adventure through Arthurian legend. It dares to explore big questions related to bravery, like whether it's ever ok to "do evil that good may come". I could identify with Blanche, who at first would rather read about a sword fight than participate in one, but grows to love honour more than comfort. Highly recommended for fans of Narnia and Middle Earth: this novel will take your daughter back to the very myths that inspired them.

More recommendations
For all ages:
The Wise Woman by George MacDonald
Verity of Sydney Town by Ruth C. Williams
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Phoebe the Spy by Judith Berry Griffin
Dare the Wind by Tracey E. Fern and Emily Arnold McCully

For older readers:
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Mr. Standfast by John Buchan
Salute to Adventurers By John Buchan

Finally, if you're one of the few who haven't read Little House on the Prairie, do start there. My top five slots could all have been taken up by Little House books.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

5 Questions for Suzannah Rowntree

First, by way of introduction...
She fences, she crochets, she can dance a mean reel. She knows what infralapsarianism is, she eats orange peel, she's.....SUZANNAH ROWNTREE!
I'm really keen to ask Suzannah some questions about her debut novel, Pendragon's Heir, which, frankly, I enjoyed more than I've enjoyed any novel in years. Read my review here. It's an epic Arthurian adventure - bright as an illuminated manuscript, youthful as childhood dreams, and weighted with a deep longing for heaven redolent of the writings of C.S. Lewis. It's smart and well-written and moving and loads of fun. I highly recommend it for people who like their sword fights with a bit of St. Augustine.

Thanks to modern technology, you can start reading it in a matter of seconds, or order a lovely illustrated paperback to display to your friends: 

Suzannah, thanks for visiting my humble blog. Pardon me if my questions are long-winded and rather giddy.
Question the First: One thing I was amazed by was your ability to say what you wanted to say using using concepts and motifs already found in the Arthurian legendarium. I mean by that your ability to both construct a satisfying three-act structure plot and win our hearts to things you are passionate about, without introducing alien concepts that feel awkward and false. It's almost like you saw the Arthur legends as a box of puzzle pieces, all mixed up, that can be put together in different ways and still by some magic make a coherent picture. Can you talk about this? (I'm particularly hoping you'll speak about Sarras, which really astonished me and sent me back to the legends to parse out what was Rowntree and what was not.)
I started out by spending a whole lot of time thinking and wrestling with the actual themes of the Arthurian legend. After all, how was my version of the story going to mean anything unless I had a good idea of just what was going on in the originals? (That, and not knowing what Malory was trying to say drove me crackers). I had plenty of time to think and meditate and read up on the Arthur legends—and I had the help of people like CS Lewis and Charles Williams, who had done good work on explaining the original themes. It was these themes I used to build my own story.
Then, there were definitely times when I had to sit down and think, “I have this character from the legends who I don’t know what to do with, so I need to figure out what he means and how I’m going to tie him into the plot.”
Actually, it’s odd that you should describe the plot/theme density of my novel using the imagery of a box. One of the best articles I have ever read on the craft of writing—though I don’t believe anyone should make a regular practice of reading up on the craft of writing—was titled “Heroic Hollywood: Thinking Inside the Box”. This article (I recommend it to all of you) directs authors to use various themes or images from their stories as a “box” from which to unpack as many interconnected motifs as possible. This results in a book (or film) in which every plot point, character, symbol, motif, or event performs multiple functions within the story. This is simply good tight plotting, and it results in a very coherent and cohesive story. So in a way I did use the Arthurian myths as a toolbox from which I was able to assemble the pieces of my story.
It’s not perfect, though. I never did manage to fit in Perceval’s sister Dindraine. Which is a shame, because I love how Malory uses her and Galahad’s relationship to demonstrate a kind of sanctified and pure version of the courtly love tradition that runs amok wreaking havoc throughout the rest of the book :D.
With regards to Sarras, that was actually a very late addition to the book—it came to me in a stroke of blind inspiration while I was plotting the 4th draft—the one you beta read for me last year. As early as Draft 2, Morgan and Blanche had a series of confrontations in Part 2, but the setting was a bit different. What brought Sarras into play was a series of mental pictures that came to me—first, the green grass and ruined stone of the church in Port Arthur as well as pictures of Gothic ruins in Europe; then the thought of exploring a whole garden-city, then finally the sudden connection of such a place with a) Charles Williams’s vision of The City in All Hallows’ Eve, b) my novel, and c) the mysterious Sarras town of Arthurian myth. It was true inspiration, by which I mean that it was a mysterious and poetic connection that came into my mind not by any rational process but by a leap of intuition. I credit it, and a number of other equally arational inspirations, to the Holy Spirit, to whom be glory and honour.
Not until that moment had I intended to include Sarras in the story. However, I’ve spent a goodish bit of time since then just marvelling over how well it fitted into the existing web, and wondering how I could have finished the book without it.

The roofless church at Port Arthur, Tasmania

Question the Second: I remember Douglas Wilson saying something in the film "Collision" about debating Christopher Hitchens, along the lines of "You can't cram for this, you can't prepare for this, you have to have been thinking about and studying this stuff your whole life." While reading your novel, I felt I was in the hands of someone who was absolutely drenched in the medieval worldview. I suddenly "got" things about these ideas of quest, chivalry, honour, the Grail, that I had only sensed namelessly before. Can you share about your research process for this novel? Is this something you can cram for?
Wow, thank you! I was certainly aiming to convey some of the medieval worldview. Now that you mention it, another advance reader, Isaac Botkin, who also produced three illustrations for inside the book, said,
“The characters act like I would assume warriors in the age of Patrick, Columba, and Augustine would act.
“…I realise that Arthur is most likely a fictional character, and that the exploits of the knights of the Round Table are most certainly fictional. But legends have to come from somewhere, and there was a king in Britain in the early 500s, there was a strong Celtic church then, there was a vigorous theonomic crown by the time of Alfred, and a clear sense of building Christ’s earthly kingdom and fulfilling the great commission. Some of the ideals of the Table I’m willing to accept as extremely probable (almost unavoidable) historical fact. Also bear in mind that Arthur’s men are looking back on the time of Christ as recent history. …The Roman empire has just fallen, there are still barbarians everywhere, but the freedoms and advances of Christian civilisation are staggering. The hopes for success and discouragement in moral failure must have been severe.
“Which is why I love your book. I wasn’t sure at first, because I’m not really excited about homeschooled girls writing novels about knights and princesses, but I am excited about you writing about this amazing time in history.”
:D I have to say there were definitely times when I felt a bit uncomfortable writing about knights and princesses!
My research for Pendragon’s Heir purposefully did not include a great deal of study into realistic matters such as wounds, fighting styles, economy, or indeed anything at all about actual conditions in sixth-century Britain (the traditional setting of Arthurian myth). I did try not to embarrass myself with obvious mistakes, but my whole focus was on reproducing medieval fiction, not on reproducing medieval fact.
But where did this medieval worldview come from? In one sense I’ve been a passionate medievalist as long as I can remember, and that has to count for something. But I’m actually going to tell you that there is a way to “cram for this”: You HAVE to read primary sources. You most particularly especially MUST read the fiction of the people you want to understand. Nothing else will do. Without primary sources and original fiction, no amount of cramming—and no amount of reading history books—will help.
Medievalism - courtesy of St Giles Church, Cheadle,
and Suzannah's Pinterest inspiration board for Pendragon's Heir
I’m passionately insistent on this point. I’ve read too many books that purport to be “historically accurate” but which fail because while the author has his terminology and factual details correct, he has failed to really understand the mindset of the people he is writing about. Reading the histories and the fiction of the people themselves is the only way—I say the ONLY way—to understand who they were, what was most important to them, and what they hoped to achieve with their lives. For this purpose, fiction is about three times as revealing as history.
So I did not research medieval society and economy. I did not intend to reproduce a faithful picture of these things. I might someday, but that was not my aim with this book. My aim was to reproduce something as close to a medieval romance—as close to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Le Morte D’Arthur—as I could possibly manage within the confines of the twenty-first century novel.
Therefore, as research, that was what I read: medieval romances, and commentaries on medieval romances. What I have produced is not remotely factual, but I believe it is deeply true.
Question the Third: Can you tell us the authors who most influenced your...
Prose style/aesthetics
Sense of plot/structure
Mission/vision for fiction.
Probably the safest bet is to say that my six favourite authors—Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton, Wodehouse, Buchan, and Spenser—are the ones who influenced me most overall. All my reading has been rotting down in my mind for so long that I don’t know exactly which bit of it came from which author anymore. That said…
Prose style/aesthetics: I admire Tolkien, do not believe myself capable of imitating him, but probably do so unconsciously, especially in my higher-flown passages. If I could write like one of my favourite authors it would be John Buchan, and I have adopted a few things from him, especially a sneaking love of understatement, but I haven’t quite managed to master his glorious simplicity. In the dialogue for Pendragon’s Heir I did consciously attempt to reproduce an suitably modern-sounding version of Malory’s diction, inspired by the speech of Merlin in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength—every one of Merlin’s lines in that novel is a tiny masterpiece. But in the end, the author I copy best seems to be GK Chesterton. I love his shameless alliterations, and I alliterate myself at every opportunity.
Plot/structure: Structure is one thing I feel I’m a bit of a beginner at. That said, most of what I know probably comes from observation of other people’s plots, plus Peter Leithart’s book Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays. Generally speaking when it comes to plots I just try for three acts, an exciting finish, plenty of foreshadowing—and the the plot/theme density I talked about above. One day I should really get around to something a bit more elegant.
Characterisation: This is about people, and of course the basic handbook on People is Scripture. I do find other things helpful—Myers-Briggs typing helps me with variety and consistency, and vaious other personality-pigeonholing tools and sorters help too. I also snitch elements of characters I know in real life (and yep, that does mean that there is a real-life partial inspiration for Perceval walking around out there. Sorry, ladies—he’s taken). With the Pendragon’s Heir characterisation in particular, I had a huge amount of fun playing with the original characters from the Arthurian legends. So, OK, you have Arthur, the awesome kingly figure; why does he seem to lose his grip for a while toward the end of the story, allowing Gawain and Mordred to control him? You have Gawain himself, the hero of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in that tradition a very ideal knight; so why does his love for Lancelot turn into such bitter hatred at the end? You have Morgan le Fay, who spends her whole life trying to destroy her brother and his kingdom; why does she turn up at the end to help save his life? Writing Pendragon’s Heir was an amazing opportunity to flesh out these mysterious characters with their mysterious contradictions, and I spent a lot of time chewing them over. It was great fun.
Mission/vision for fiction: This is something else I’m very passionate about. When it comes to influences, the main one would be Scripture again. How does Scripture use fiction? For what purposes? Christ and the prophets used fiction to surprise their audiences with truth from an unexpected angle. Then, there are the Reformation-era apologists for fiction. Sir Philip Sidney, Torquato Tasso, Edmund Spenser, and John Bunyan all defended their decisions to use fiction to teach. All of them claimed that doctrines were more pleasant and more easy to understand when couched in the medium of fiction. Anthony Trollope in the nineteenth century made the same defence, but it was left to CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien in the twentieth century to arrive at a really full-orbed vision of fiction as a means of retelling the Gospel. Tolkien’s landmark essay On Fairy Stories is the work that first introduced me to the concept of mythopoeic truth, and it has remained my vision and my standard ever since.
Question the Fourth: There are so many things to be really proud of in this book. The prose, for one, which is strong without being minimalist, and evocative without being full of annoying flowery curlicues or constant colour descriptions (a pet peeve of mine - if you can't talk about colour as well as Rosemary Sutcliff, please spare us). Is there something you are particularly proud of? Something that came easily and surprised you, or something that took a great deal of slow and steady craftsmanship and now you can stand back and breathe a contented sigh?
The thing I’m most proud of is something I first heard from you. I think it was something along the lines of, “Most of the time, when you read a very absorbing book, you come away discontented with your life. That wasn’t the case with your book. I came away so excited about building the Kingdom of God, I had a smile on my face the whole day after I finished it.”

Later, another beta reader had exactly the same reaction. “I love your theme of Logres as the City of God on earth in its early stages of construction. This book makes me want to get out and do something.”

Finally, a bit different but related, another reader told me: “I strongly identified with Blanche…Her battle with fear and selfishness was very familiar to me…And she passes! Wow, was I delighted! It’s possible for young women to be strong and brave and deeply principled after all! It felt like a great victory, and one that strengthened my resolve to be a heroine.”
With this feedback, I realised I had accomplished something very important. A lot of people in our crunchy home-educating circles believe that fiction is unimportant or even dangerous, that it tempts readers toward “escapism”—a desire to flee the world of God’s creation into a self-indulgent world of the imagination…with fantasy being the worst genre of all. I understand this concern. Personally, it troubles me when I see readers become so absorbed in good books that they beat a retreat from the real battles in life and start living a half-life, a life of longing for an unreal world. It happens.
However, I believe that good fiction, read wisely, is a powerful weapon in our fight. It is such an incredible thing to have not one but three different readers tell me of their own accord that my novel has strengthened and encouraged them for real life in the real world. That’s what I’m most proud of. I have to say I’m not exactly sure how I achieved it, but I’m more pleased about this than I am about anything else in the book.

Craftsmanship takes time, so "Don't rush it," says Suzannah. 
"...You will never, ever regret taking a bit longer to make sure you have written something worthwhile."
Question the Fifth: You now have become well-connected with this burgeoning and very active community of indie authors, many of whom are home-educated, young and female. What advice would you give people like this who are tossing around an idea for a first novel? What advice would you give the movement as a whole (if it is a movement) to become a real literary force to be reckoned with?
For those who are considering writing their first novel: Don’t rush it.
Don’t rush it. I don’t want to read anything less than the best and you shouldn’t want to give me anything less than the best. I think you can produce amazing things, but I don’t know that you can produce anything particularly amazing at the age of sixteen. Or even twenty-one. Our culture does not tend to produce maturity that early.
I once read of a professional novelist, critically-acclaimed and popular with the reading public, who was asked why so many well-regarded and bestselling authors never publish their first novel until their forties. This gentleman answered that it takes forty years to learn how to write well and to develop the life experience necessary to write anything worthwhile.
He’s pretty near right. I’ve never regretted taking ten years to write Pendragon’s Heir. I’m not telling you you have to do the same, but I am telling you that you will never, ever regret taking a bit longer to make sure you have written something worthwhile. Ignore all your family and friends telling you to hurry up and publish the thing just because they’re excited about you being an author. Wait until you know that you have written something worthy in every respect to stand beside the greats.
Don’t publish just because you can. Publish because you’re ready.
For those who are already publishing and want to become a literary force to be reckoned with: Whatever you do, don’t stop improving. Don’t let early success go to your head.
Life is busy. With twenty five-star reviews on Goodreads from people who thought your novel was the best thing in the world, it’s easy to think you’ve arrived. You’re probably wrong. Maybe what you are is good at marketing a fourth-rate product to people who don’t know any better. Or maybe what you are is a goddess of Plotting or a patron saint of Characterisation, but could use a bit of help when it comes to Themes or Sociopolitical Realism.
What we need is to seek out critique partners who will understand and be sympathetic to our vision as authors, but who will pull no punches when it comes to pointing out our failings. If you know someone like this, treasure her up and make sure she’s slugging you in the eye on a regular basis. If you don’t know someone like this, you can’t have Christina. She’s mine :D.

Oh, I'm very selective about who I slug in the eye. You have to be very special indeed. Thanks for your thoughtful answers, Suzannah. 

The rest of you can read my review here.

Author bio:
When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at and is the author of both fiction and non-fiction. Pendragon’s Heir, her debut novel, released March 26.

Pendragon’s Heir synopsis:
Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of—or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

White Nights: the forgotten suspense classics of Ethel Lina White

Ethel Lina White (1876-1944)
I'm always on the lookout for books to read in the middle of the night while breastfeeding infants. After extensive testing, I have found that the perfect book is one which is just sufficiently exciting to keep me from falling asleep mid-feed (and waking hours later with a crick in my neck), while not being too gripping to get back to sleep promptly. The 20th century suspense novels by John Buchan, Josephine Tey and Mary Stewart fit the bill nicely.
I was on the lookout for similar light vintage thrills when I discovered the Welsh crime novelist Ethel Lina White. Innocently, I picked up her suspense masterpiece Some Must Watch from a discount bin outside a local news agent. It was shockingly good--but much too chilling for midnight reading.
This is how you will act for a few days after reading Some Must Watch.
I've now managed to hunt down about half of her novels (The Passing Tramp has managed to read some I haven't), and her unpretentious craftsmanship has won my wholehearted admiration. One of the things I love about her is the way these unabashed potboilers brim with themes that provoke and surprise by their, well, goodness.
White's thrillers show us that there are no small lies; that great people ignore ordinary people at their peril, pride and vainglory meet their demise at the hands of the humble; that evil is real and lives just around the corner; that gossip can kill; that appearances deceive, but sometimes in the very reverse of the way we expect. (It's probably quite reasonable to postulate her familiarity with the book of Proverbs at least, given the Methodist Chapel-pervaded culture of late 19th century Wales.)
White is enough of a craftsman to convey these things without stale didactism. You might not even spot them, while you are busy appreciating her delicious vintage characters and cracking good plots. It is no small achievement to write thrillers that are morally satisfying while being nail-bitingly suspenseful with a terrifyingly potent vision of evil.
Here's a quick guide to the ones I've read so far.

Some Must Watch

A red-haired heroine ("ginger for pluck") must survive a stormy night trapped in a Welsh manor along with an assortment of highly-strung characters - one of whom is a serial murderer. Or is the murderer outside, trying to get in?
This one is practically perfect in every way. It even observes the Aristotelian unities. YES!
You can read a more in-depth review from the incomparable Suzannah at Vintage Novels here.

The Wheel Spins

This one formed the nucleus of one of my favourite Hitchcock films, The Lady Vanishes, and you can also find it published under that (vastly superior) title. Typically, the film takes White's catchy premise somewhere quite different (and equally entertaining). This premise has proved so appealing that Hollywood has adapted it several times, most recently and without credit (grr!) in the film Flight Plan.
A self-absorbed socialite seems to be the only person to notice the disappearance of a mousy fellow passenger on a train journey through Europe. Is it a conspiracy, and will our heroine have enough spunk and decency to stand up for an ordinary little spinster whom everyone wants to forget? White has given us a heroine with overtones of Jane Austen. Read another Suzannah review here.

A Step In the Dark

I think I just died and went to potboiler heaven. A young widowed writer of cheap thrillers seizes her chance of a fairy-tale future in Europe...and finds herself in a nightmare. Her only hope of escape may be her own powers of invention. Does she have the nerve and skill to write herself free from her island prison?
If I say any more about this very Hitchcockian cautionary tale I will spoil it. I loved the way romantic tropes are turned on their heads in this one, and White proves with the heroine's two little girls that she can write children really, really well. This one is so good I'm giving you the Gutenberg link right now. So go read it.

Fear Stalks the Village

With its cozy village setting and large cast of quirky characters, there's more than a bit of Agatha Christie going on in this mystery and it will please those who like their crime served with tea and plenty of 1932 English ambience. At its heart, it's a treatise on the deadly effect of gossip on a picture-perfect community, but I defy you to predict how it will resolve.

She Vanished into Air

This one was utter nonsense and I cannot recommend it to any but the most desperate of White fans. I can only imagine that she had a pressing bill to pay. She managed to produce 14 thrillers between 1931 and her death in 1944, so she's allowed to have an off day, right?

While She Sleeps!

Apparently, this one was written partly as a farce and White seems to be poking fun at elements of her own style while keeping the thrills coming. Miss Loveapple is an amusing and memorable heroine and I honestly could not guess whether she would choose romance or her cozy single life up to the last page. There's the occasional sense of whip-lash from the back-and-forth between frothy and menacing, but still enjoyable.


I resisted reading this one for a while because I couldn't see how even White could do anything even remotely classy with a thriller set in a decaying waxworks museum. But she did. A large cast of morally-complex characters populate this weirdest and creepiest of White's works with multiple layers of twists.
Folks, let's put Miss White back in the limelight after more than half a century of neglect. To be punny about it, she's scarily good.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Home education and chronic illness

Is this for you?

First up, let me tell you who this post is not aimed at. Please know this was not written for you if you suffer from chronic illness, you are satisfied with your schooling choices, and you clicked on this in a state of incipient outrage, thinking "Oh, great. Lady, I am barely functioning and now I'm supposed to feel guilty for not homeschooling my children?!"

You are walking a hard road, I know. Please trust my sincerity when I say that my intention is to encourage and not to discourage.

I am writing this post in response to persistent questions from the following two groups of people:

  • People like my friend with CFIDS who loves the idea of home education for possible future children, but is fearful of her ability to do so due to health issues.
  • Parents who desire desperately to bring their children home to educate them but are fearful of their ability to do so due to health issues.

If this is you, welcome. Now, what can I possibly say that would encourage you? I'd like to make three statements for you to ponder.

  1. You can home-educate your children. 
  2. You may not be able to home-educate the way you imagined. 
  3. Your children will learn from your illness, not in spite of it.
Let me explain myself.

1. You can home-educate your children.

How can I say this? On a personal level, because I was home-educated by someone with a chronic illness, and I've known others who've done so, with wonderful fruit in their own and their children's lives. Read this testimony by Kimberley, a home-educator whose own mother home-schooled through cancer (there's more here).

Now. Here's the important qualifier:

2. You may not be able to home-educate them the way you imagined.*

(*It's worth noting that this seems to be true of every home-schooler I have ever known.)

It's common for people in your situation to believe that they are disqualified from home-educating because of one of the following:

  • You don't have the energy to take your children on field trips.
  • You don't have the time and focus to implement the perfect curriculum.
  • You've forgotten all your high school maths (and maybe also what day it is).
  • Sometimes you have to stay in bed all day.
Because of my mother's illness, she simply wasn't able to spend time drilling me in maths memorisation or doing awesome chemistry experiments, both of which are by nature things she would have enjoyed. Do I feel like I was short-changed by my education due to missing out in these areas? Not a bit of it. If you have doubts, you can read my traditionally-schooled, academically-focused husband's perspective on my education.

By now you are either all upset at me and/or you're wondering how on earth my parents managed to give me what my husband and I (and others) consider to be a first-rate education. 

Two strategies for home-educating with a chronic illness

I'm going to share two key strategies my mother used as she home-educated me through her 15 years of illness, which started when I was about 3.

1. Have simple but significant goals for your children's education.

My mother focused her efforts on teaching me a small number of vital skills. Briefly, they could be summed up as:
  1. Character attributes. The ones my parents insisted on were obedience, respect, cheerfulness, and diligence.
  2. Self motivation. I was never allowed to say "I'm bored". Tasks would be assigned to me if I did, and I usually preferred to come up with my own ways to occupy my time, which suited my mum just fine!
  3. Discernment. This was crucial, otherwise I could have simply become excellent at frittering away my time. I was taught to evaluate my interests and materials for quality, suitability and usefulness, from a worldview shaped by the Bible.
  4. Aspiration. To make big plans/ideas and to pursue them using the above skills.

Investing in these attributes/skills meant that she could be reasonably confident in my use of time and pursuit of my interests, with minimal (but wise) supervision from her.

2. Delegate.

Yes, that's right. This may seem counter-intuitive, but you don't have to do everything yourself. While my education was very much home-based and parent-directed, I received outside tuition in skills my parents didn't possess and which are hard to learn in any other way than in a hands-on context. In my case, it was music (harp, piano, singing), dance, French, and horse-riding/horse care. When I was 14 I experimented with enrolling in Adult Ed classes and used the information and skills I learned there to springboard into further self-directed learning.

If you are too ill to get out much, you absolutely need to avoid becoming a full-time chauffeur to your child/ren. There are good private tutors who will come to your house. There may be trusted relatives or other families who will give your child a lift to a lesson.

Consider this: delegating to family members, especially older relatives, can be richly rewarding for your family. Do you have an elderly relative who knows how to crochet, tat, knit, sew, kickbox? Is there an uncle with an interest in military history? God designed human beings to thrive as they pass on and receive knowledge in a mentoring/discipling relationship. Gardening, cooking, painting, preserving, wood-working, building...these skills are often lost between generations for no other reason than that it just didn't occur to anyone to initiate that kind of mentoring relationship.

I know, I know -- you may have a rotten relationship with your extended family. That may be one reason that home-educating appeals to you - you long to build a better, closer kind of family. It may go against the grain, but respectfully asking a family member to share their specialist knowledge/skills with your child is almost certainly going to be a step in the right direction. The worst they can say is no, right?

A really low-stress and achievable method of delegation is audio books. When I was a child, I listened to many classic books this way. When I learned to read, I went straight to Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey to find my favourite bits for myself which I already knew from the recording. Borrow them, buy them, subscribe to Audible. If you don't know what books to choose, find a good list (like this one or this one from my friend Suzannah).

Ok, here's my third and final thought.

3. Your children will learn from your chronic illness, not in spite of it. 

As Kimberley says,
"Through cancer God taught our family that our focus should be relational, first relationship with God, then with others. We are called to love and care for people, we should work to improve the lives of people, we must appreciate and enjoy people. It seems simple when you read it, but it’s uncommon in this world. It’s much more common to sacrifice people and relationship for a bigger home, a nicer car, a better education and even recognition, or a certificate of completion."
As they are at home with you, your children will learn from watching how you deal with your illness. If you use what energy you have to focus on the big things rather than feeling guilty about what your kids aren't doing, your children will learn from that. If you are a Christian and you are trusting God through the grief, pain and disappointment of ill health, your children will learn from that.

Your children don't need to be shielded from your illness. Just like Kimberley and her family were blessed through her mother's fight with cancer, they can learn lessons through your illness that will teach them wisdom, compassion and courage. I learned that my mother's deep desire to have a close relationship with her only child and to give her a lifelong love of learning could not be thwarted by 15 years of serious and often misdiagnosed ill health. I know that if I face serious health issues in the future, my attitude will be shaped by having seen God's grace to my mother and our family in action.

Friends, if you long to do this, if your deep desire is to bring your children home for their education, and you are bursting with questions, see the links below to women who blog about their experiences in this area, with lots more practical advice than I've given here. I'd also be very happy to put you in contact with people like my mother who can share their stories.

My mother and I climb Marion's Lookout
(in Tasmania's Cradle Mountain National Park)
 in her post-Chronic Fatigue era.

6 Tips for Homeschooling with a Chronic Illness
Homeschooling when Mama has a Chronic Illness
Homeschooling with Chronic Illness
10 Tips to Help You Succeed