Minute Marginalia

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Six Little Cooks

Decades challenge; 19th-century women writers challenge.

E. S. Kirkland’s Six Little Cooks; or, Aunt Jane’s Cooking Class (1877; 6th ed, 1891; available via google books) shares a number of traits with Mary E. Bamford’s The Second Year of the Look-About Club (discussed in the previous post) . Both were written by 19th-century female authors; both have groups of children – friends and relatives -- working together to improve themselves (and faithfully recording information and their discoveries in notebooks); both place aunts in important roles as tutors. (Kirkland’s book is dedicated to her three nieces.)

Unlike Bamford’s book, however, here the participants are all female: six girls, ages nine to twelve, become skillful cooks under the tutelage of their aunt. The story begins when Aunt Jane’s niece Grace reads about a girl who enjoys cooking and is “seized with a desire to do likewise without delay.” Off she rushes “to get her mother’s permission, tripping over a footstool as she went, banging the edge of the door in her haste to get round it.” The narrator adds, “[Grace] always began everything with the same wild enthusiasm but was somewhat apt to grow weary of the new employment before she had thoroughly tried it.” (7)

Such an opening suggests this will be a book where the core activity transforms its practitioners. This section, however, is about the only attempt at character development, for Grace’s clumsiness and impulsiveness miraculously vanish as soon as she enters the kitchen. After the first day, she does not need to be reminded to wash her hands or don a clean apron, and all of the delicacies she prepares come out perfectly the first time. Apparently a desire to learn, a talented teacher, and a few good recipes are all that is needed for culinary success. (Indeed, the unspoken theme appears to be that everything works out magnificently once one begins cooking: the girls’ recipes result in delicious dishes in every chapter, with never a burnt crust or mis-seasoned offering; moreover, at one point, all Aunt Jane needs to do is remark that she wishes she had a marble slab for rolling out pastry, before one of her nieces immediately remembers that “there is one next door! When [the] hall-table slab was broken, Papa had it set out in the shed, and there it is now, just as large as life” and ready for use . . . )

The book is structured by days rather than traditional chapters (i.e., chapters are titled “First Day,” “Second Day”), though it’s evident more than 24 hours has elapsed in some cases. The bulk of each chapter is devoted to recipes, which Aunt Jane provides and the girls faithfully record in their notebooks. One hopes any young readers who decided to try making them had a knowledgeable adult nearby, since the book is stronger on ingredients than process.

Those looking for practical fare will need another book to supplement Strickland’s; hers is clearly designed to entice beginning cooks. Sweets and similar fare predominate: according to the index, of the 207 recipes in the book, 54 are for cakes (including 3 types of icing); 34, for puddings and sauces; 24, tea cakes and biscuits; 18, pastries; 16, custards and jellies; 14, confectionary and candy. That leaves 12 breakfast dishes, 14 lunch dishes (including 4 types of salad dressing), and 18 for “Sick room cookery” (5 types of gruel, 4 of tea, as well as lemonade, egg nog, and “toast water”). Appropriately, the book ends with a tea party for which the girls make tea biscuits, Virginia wafers, company tea cake, Dover cake with fruit, sponge cake, jelly cake, chocolate cake, macaroons, wine jelly and whipped cream, and chocolate meringues. (The feast at which these are consumed is not described, Strickland explaining “as my efforts have been limited to giving my little readers some account of their cooking lessons, I must not transgress bounds by describing anything outside” [231] -- a statement not completely accurate, but perhaps understandable here.)

A few recipes, for the curious.

No. 127 – Jenny Lind’s pudding [which Marion Harris Neil’s Something-Different Dish [1915] confirms is named for the singer because Lind liked this pudding so much]

One tumblerful milk and the same of flour, half a teaspoonful salt and one egg. When the egg is well beaten stir in half the milk, then salt and flour, and beat all together; then add the rest of the milk. Bake in patty-pans and serve with

No. 127 – Jelly Sauce

Half a cup currant jelly, two tablespoonfuls melted butter, the juice and half the grated peel of a lemon, half a teaspoonful nutmeg, one tablespoonful powdered sugar, two glasses wine. Beat the jelly to a smooth batter, then add gradually the butter, lemon, and nutmeg; beat hard, then add sugar, and lastly wine. Keep warm, and also well covered, to prevent the escape of the flavor.

[And, should that disagree with you, from the section on Sick Room cooking:]

No. 79 – Mrs. Miller’s Beef Tea

One lb. lean, juicy beef, one pint cold water, two even teaspoonfuls salt. Cut the beef in bits about an inch square, cover it with the cold water, and let it stand one hour. Heat it slowly over the fire till it reaches the boiling point, then strain and season.

No. 81 – Plain Gruel

Two quarts boiling water; into which stir one cup Indian meal and one tablespoon flour, previously made into a smooth paste with cold water. Boil slowly one hour. A handful of raisins boiled in the gruel improves it, especially for children’s taste.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Second Year of the Look-About Club

Decades challenge; 19th-century women writers' challenge

Judging by the children’s books I’ve been reading, learning in the 19th-century – at least in literature – was rarely a solitary activity. Instead, one formed a club and learned collaboratively.

One example of this is Mary E. Bamford’s The Second Year of the Look-About Club (1889), which as the title suggests, is a sequel to her popular The Look-About Club. (Second Year is available via google books; the first volume isn’t online.) Nature studies form the core – and justification – for this episodic work. A group of children unite to research and share stories, primarily about the birds, animals, and insects they discover near their home. An assortment of adult relatives offer guidance and participate in some activities, such as “Story Night”; a cousin in far-off California also joins the club, contributing her discoveries in long letters.

Part of the book’s effectiveness rests in its multiple narrative approaches: in addition to the California cousin’s correspondence, some segments follow various characters through their daily doings; others rely on storytelling sessions where family members recount animal-based anecdotes or legends; and over one-third of the book is a pamphlet the club created, with informational stories narrated by the insect or animal being studied. Although naturalists would probably shudder over the anthropomorphized creatures, the result is a very gentle narrative, where insects live in families with siblings and helpfully volunteer information about themselves, almost as if they were new neighbors. For example, in the opening of the segment titled “A Voice from a Hole in the Ground,” the narrator’s tone and word choice almost suggest that of another child – just one from a rather different background . . . :

Don’t look down here. I don’t want anyone coming to look down my little hole unless it is an insect that will tumble in here for my dinner. I am going to be a ground-beetle some day – one of the kind called Calosoma – and I must eat all I can, so as to grow. When I am a fine ground-beetle, I shall eat, too. My folks catch June bugs . . . And another relative of mine does good, for he eats potato-beetles. Another of my relatives, that has bright green wings, will go up trees to catch canker-worms, and another kind does ever so much good in eating those dreadful cutworms that plague vegetable-raisers so.

You cannot see how I look while I am in this little hole, can you? Well, I am long and black and have thirteen divisions to me, and six legs . . . I know you think that I am homely in shape, but my markings are pretty and I shall make a fine beetle. (106-07)

In contrast with the anthropomorphized tone of these accounts, the illustrations – perhaps gleaned from other sources – support the informational bent of the book, depicting insects and other creatures almost as specimens. Most are carefully labeled (“Carabus Adonis”), though a few have more light-hearted captions (“I am going to be a ground-beetle”), even if the illustration doesn’t support such an approach.

Of equal interest are the occasional glimpses of mindsets from the era. The book opens with one club member, Kittie, unhappy because she needs glasses. When she receives a pair, her siblings are quite curious about this novelty. One even asks, “How do you keep them on?” and marvels at “the little gold bows with knobs on the end, that went behind [Kittie’s] ears.” Kittie’s initial pleasure in her improved vision fades after a classmate teases her, but her father has a solution: he and her mother take Kitty “to the Blind Asylum” so she can see “so many worse off than herself” and appreciate what she has. That she does, and the club celebrates with a “’Blind Night,’ on which blind animals were to be talked about” – everything from a neighbor’s blind canary to the fish in Mammoth Cave.

Perhaps because Bamford herself was so interested in nature, the gender differences in the story are minimal – boys and girls participate in the club fairly equally. (Indeed, the girls sometimes seem to take a more prominent role, as does their Aunt Nan.) Interestingly, one bias that occasionally emerges (reminiscent of attitudes found in some contemporaneous series, such as Elsie Dinsmore) is anti-Catholicism. In the final chapter, “The Club’s Story Night,” after Aunt Nan volunteers “a queer Jewish legend about pigeons,” the children’s father looks for “Mrs. Jameson’s Legends of the Monastic Orders” and contributes a story about St. Nicholas of Tolentino:

It is related of this St. Nicholas that he never tasted animal food. In his last illness, when weak and wasted from inanition, his brethren brought him a dish of doves to restore his strength. The saint reproved them, and, painfully raising himself on his couch, stretched his hand above the doves, whereupon they rose from the dish and flew away. (170)

The children – who’ve listened appreciatively to an assortment of other myths and legends throughout the book – respond with “What nonsense!,” a sentiment echoed by their grandmother after their father reads another story, this time about St. Francis of Assisi. (Although the children’s religion is never specified, the California cousin and her parents attend a summer Chautauquan meeting – another touch of the times.)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Little Jarvis

Decades challenge (substitution #1) -- 1890
19th-century women writers challenge (Molly Elliot Seawell)

Molly Elliot Seawell, Little Jarvis (1890) (available on Google Books)

In his 1921 essay "A Plea for Old Cap Collier," Irwin Cobb skewered the practice of using selections in readers that "hold[ ] up as examples before the eyes of the young of the period . . . certain popular figures of poetry and prose who--did but we give them the acid test of reason--would reveal themselves . . . as incurable idiots." He illustrated his point by including among the examples Hemans' "Casabianca,” (1826) whose hero’s fatal filial persistence “has been played up as an example of youthful heroism for the benefit of the young of our race.” As Cobb explains:

Let us give this youth the careful once-over: The scene is the Battle of the Nile. The time is August, 1798. When the action of the piece begins the boy stands on the burning deck whence all but him had fled. You see, everyone else aboard had had sense enough to beat it, but he stuck because his father had posted him there. There was no good purpose he might serve by sticking, except to furnish added material for the poetess, but like the leather-headed young imbecile that he was he stood there with his feet getting warmer all the time,

The same mindset that glorified young Casabianca probably adored Molly Elliot Seawell's Little Jarvis -- and apparently did, since it was the prize story for Youth's Companion in 1890.

The epigraph on Little Jarvis’s title page signals the direction and governing philosophy behind the tale: “As his life was without fear, so was his death without reproach.” Jarvis is introduced as “the youngest midshipman aboard the Constellation” – his most important characteristic in Seawell’s eyes. He is also “the most troublesome” midshipman, though Seawell quickly qualifies this comment by adding that Jarvis is “merry, active, honest-hearted and . . . free from anything like meanness”. He is generously gifted with enthusiasm and courage, perhaps to the point of foolhardiness. The crew of the ship view him almost as a pet: they are bemused by his antics, frequently tolerating mischief that merits punishment, admiring Jarvis's tenacity. (He wins one friend, 21-year-old Lt. Brookfield, after challenging him to a duel to the death, which the latter refuses in favor of giving him a sound drubbing -- not once, but three times, since he repeats it each time Jarvis refuses to withdraw the challenge. Brookfield and the others are so impressed by Jarvis’s determination that they then invite him to dinner in the ward-room.)

Ultimately, the Constellation encounters a French frigate, the Vengeance – with Jarvis the first to spot it, of course – and he is sent to his station on the maintop. The captain also sends a sailor to protect him, but to no avail, for when the mast is damaged in battle and about to fall, Jarvis refuses to leave his post and jump to safety despite the sailor’s urging and the others’ prudent departure for more secure spaces. Instead,

little Jarvis with all of his intrepid soul shining out of his unflinching eyes did not move an inch. There was a strange light upon his face and a manly and heroic confidence had taken the place of his boyish excitement.

And there he remains as the mast topples; he is found “wearing still on his young face the brave smile with which he had faced death when glory beckoned him upward.” When the Constitution returns to port with an account of the battle, its captain receives a medal, and Congress “passed a separate and special resolution in honor of little Jarvis.” The story ends there – a brief 64 pages, as short as Jarvis’s life.

Like Hemans’s poem, Little Jarvis lauds courage and a fatal idealism couched as devotion to duty (seen as steadfast, not suicidal, and echoed by the Congressional resolution that honors Jarvis for “gloriously preferr[ing] certain death to an abandonment of his post”). Both pieces reflect the same sensibility – not just of their authors but of the era’s attitudes toward the young (a mindset that had changed by the time of Cobb's piece). Giocante Casabianca was the 10- or 12-year-old son of the commander of L’Orient, who accompanied his father into battle and was killed when the ship exploded. The title character of Little Jarvis is also based on a real boy, 13-year old James C. Jarvis, who died in February 1800 when he would not desert his post on the mast of the Constellation; he was fatally injured or drowned when the mast fell.

I’m still not certain whether external circumstances motivated the story. Hemans poem appeared approximately 25 years after the event it romanticizes; Seawell’s story was published 90 years after Jarvis’s death and 25 years after the Civil War, at a time when historical fiction about battles was flourishing.

Miscellaneous sources and links:

Cobb’s “A Plea for Old Cap Collier is online at Project Gutenberg

“Casabianca” is at numerous sites; Endtime Pilgrim’s has a stunning reproduction of George Arnald’s painting, “Battle of the Nile,” as well as commentary on the poem.

A brief biography of Jarvis is at Destroyer History Foundation’s page for the USS Jarvis. Images of the gold medal Captain Truxton, Jarvis's captain, received – and the text of the congressional resolution -- are at the Dallas Public Library's website. Context for the battle is at “War with Tripoli” at Integrated Publishing.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Another challenge

(and, with luck, a few more posts about books in the new year...)

Becky's Nineteenth-Century Women Writers Challenge was too tantalizing to pass up, especially since some titles can overlap with the Decades Challenge. I've tentatively selected a half dozen children's authors, most of whom are no longer that well known (some of whom are no longer known at all...) The six are

Mary Bamford
Mary Elizabeth Brush
Mary Crowninshield
Amanda Douglas
Laura Nichols
Molly Seawell

Most wrote what could be called informational fiction -- history and/or geography woven into a narrative; several also worked their stories into loosely-connected series.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

I haven’t figured out if Brain Selznick really is that rare children’s book illustrator who moves between picture books and novels with equal facility or if it’s just that, more than other artists, when Selznick does illustrations for a novel, they get noticed. Certainly his work for Ann Martin’s Doll People – including the trompe l’oeil title page shown here – added immensely to the experience of reading the book . (And, of course, Selznick received a Caldecott Honor for his magnificent work with Barbara Kerley‘s Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, including his homage to Charles Willson Peale .)

With The Invention of Hugo Cabret, however, Selznick blurs the boundaries between picture books and novels: the narrative alternates between traditional text and wordless sequences of illustrations. Each format contains unique information so that both are needed for the complete story. “Reading” it offers an unusual experience, for it requires shifting from one way of processing information to another at irregular intervals.

The plot is somewhat convoluted (to put it mildly). Young, orphaned Hugo Cabret has been living alone in a train station in Paris, stealing what he needs to stay alive and secretly tending to the station’s clocks. His alcoholic uncle, the clock keeper, disappeared weeks earlier, but Hugo conceals this information in order to continue work on a special project reconstructing an automaton. The mechanical figure is Hugo’s only connection to his father, who perished in a museum fire. When Hugo is caught trying to steal parts from a toy shop, the toymaker’s goddaughter Isabelle befriends him. Through persistence and coincidence, Isabella discovers Hugo’s hideout and the two fix the automaton, which surprises them by creating a mysterious drawing. The picture – an image that Hugo recognizes immediately (as will any reader familiar with Georges Melies’s A Trip to the Moon) -- moves the story into the second half of the book, and, ultimately, toward a resolution that combines film history, a fictionalized Georges Melies, art, and clockwork (or, put another way, machinery and magic -- ergo, movies).

Selznick’s narrative approach is perfectly matched to the tale, utilizing a format that combines words and sequential images in the best tradition of silent films. Even the book design recalls the genre, for the text pages have black borders reminiscent of intertitles. I’m still not certain whether what seem to be narrative flaws – a melodramatic plot occasionally relying on exaggeration, extraordinary coincidences, and actions that stem from a need to advance the storyline rather than from depth of characterization – are indeed failings or yet another of Selznick’s nods to his sources, those early action-driven movies. I am certain that this is an extraordinary book (worth more space than I’m giving it, especially in light of the many ways it explores ideas about visual narratives), one that I’m glad to have found.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Decades '08 Challenge

After seeing a notice about the Decades '08 Challenge -- 8 books from 8 consecutive decades -- over at A Reader's Journal, I decided it might be an effective way to review some historic children's series books.

Here's my tentative list (which will probably be revised by 2008...):

1842 Cousin Lucy at Study - Jacob Abbott
1850 Mary Erskine - Jacob Abbott
1864 Little Suzy - Sophie May
1870 Bodleys Afoot - Horace Scudder

1886 Among the Trees at Elmridge - Ella Rodman Church
1896 A Little Girl in Old New York - Amanda Douglas
1903 Billy Whiskers - Frances Trego Montgomery
1911 Dutch Twins - Lucy Fitch Perkins

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Out of the Deep I Cry & All Mortal Flesh

Out of the Deep I Cry and All Mortal Flesh are the third and fifth books in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mystery series. I'd read one of the earlier volumes for a book group discussion, then heard Spencer-Fleming speak at a conference and purchased Out of the Deep. Either I've become more accustomed to her detective and thus more interested in her world, or Spencer-Fleming just gets better with each book. After reading Out of the Deep, I found All Mortal Flesh and finished it in two days.

For those unfamiliar with Spencer-Fleming’s series, the premise is that Clare Fergusson, ex-Army helicopter pilot, now a newly-ordained Episcopalian priest, is at her first parish in the small town of Miller’s Kill in upstate New York. There she meets long-time resident and police chief, Russ Van Alstyne; the two quickly develop a friendship that threatens to become more (“threatens” because Russ is already happily married). This alliance allows Spencer-Fleming to look at crimes from two perspectives – the priest’s and the policeman’s.

Spencer-Fleming adopts her most creative narrative approach for Out of the Deep I Cry. Its opening chapter is set in 1970, when a young Russ Van Alstyne saves the widow Ketchem after she tries to drown herself. The next chapter leaps to the present, where Clare faces another watery problem: the church’s roof is leaking – with the worst patch near a memorial window given by the Widow Ketchem. Her daughter and only surviving relative, a parishioner, volunteers to use the Ketchem Trust to finance repairs, but doing so will deprive the town’s Free Clinic of a portion of its funds. Feeling guilty, Clare visits the clinic and encounters Debba Clow, an angry mother who is picketing to protest its doctor’s mandated immunizations for her children. When the doctor later disappears after meeting Debba outside of town – in the Ketchems' family graveyard – Clare steps in to help with the search, hoping to exonerate Debba.

As the novel progresses, flashback chapters (working progressively backwards in time) depicting key scenes from the Widow Ketchem’s life are interspersed with the main storyline. Connections between the two stories emerge: Widow Ketchem founded the free clinic and hired the now-missing doctor; vaccinations – or the lack thereof – brought about a Ketchem family tragedy. Thus, as the mystery advances toward a solution, a second story – the secrets of Widow Ketchem’s life – is gradually revealed, with each flashback providing insight into previous scenes.

As with Spencer-Fleming’s other books, the title (which, as usual, is taken from a hymn) carries particular significance. Among other things, a crucial point in Clare and Russ’s relationship is tied to a scene involving cries from the deep – but to say more would risk spoiling the plot.

Sometimes, I can be patient and wait for the paperback release of subsequent volumes. After finishing Out of the Deep I Cry, however, curiosity about how Spencer-Fleming was going to handle the complications she’d introduced into Clare and Russ’s relationship sent me to the library, where I happily seized on All Mortal Flesh, not realizing there was a volume between the two. Once I’d looked at the blurb, I was hooked.

Caveat to those still reading early titles in the series: Even the premise of All Mortal Flesh – printed on the blurb and mentioned in reviews – is a potential spoiler in regard to some of the continuing characters in the series. Consequently, all I’ll say is that the story is as much about Clare as about the mystery. For me, this was probably the most compelling book so far; virtually everything else was neglected until I’d finished it.

Obligatory link: An excerpt from the opening chapters of the first Clare Fergusson title, In the Bleak Midwinter, is online at Spencer-Fleming’s site, as is one for Out of the Deep I Cry. I don’t know if the hardcover of Deep is set a year earlier than the paperback or if the draft used for her website was never modified to correspond to the published version, but the first flashback really is dated 1970 (not 1969) in the paperback edition.