Friday, March 31, 2017

Old School Favorite Books: A pre- 1945 Roundup

Each month the Old School Kitlit Reading Challenge hosted by Katie at Read-At-Home-Mom has a different theme. For March, the theme is favorite books published before 1945. Of course, there are the usual favorites like The Secret Garden, The Wizard of Oz, Madeline, and some of the Betsy-Tacy books, but I thought I would share the nine books that left such an impression on me that I still think about them and have even given to my Kiddo to read.
Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates 
Mary Mapes Dodge, 1865
Living in Holland, the Brinker family, once middle class, is now quite poor because Mr. Brinker has been hurt in a fall from a dike and can't work. Hans, his mother and sister Gretel do their best to support the family. Hans has saved money to buy steel skates for himself and his sister so they can enter a race and try to win a pair beautiful silver skates. When Hans discovers a doctor who can help his father, he offers to pay for the risky surgery with the money he saved to buy the skates for the race. The doctor does the surgery for free, Hans buys skates for Gretel and himself, but in the end Hans lets a needier boy win the boy's race. Aside from learning a lot about Holland and Dutch culture, the most important thing I took away from this story is the importance of paying kindness forward. If you would like to read Hans Brinker, you can download it for free at Project Gutenberg

Little Women
Louisa May Alcott, 1868
My first memory of Little Women is seeing my sister crying while she was reading it and I knew I had to read it as soon as she finished. Set during the Civil War, it is the story of the four March sisters and their mother at home in New England while their is off fighting with the Union Army. Life is hard and food is scarce, but the family does what it can to get by. Life is made more pleasant when the sisters meet Laurie, grandson of their wealthy neighbor. Jo is my favorite character, probably because she has a quick temper, and so did I. She also speaks without thinking, as habit I still struggle with. But what I really took away from Little Women is the importance of family and their support, and that it might not be easy, but it is important to try to follow your dreams. You can also download Little Women for free on Project Gutenberg

Anne of Green Gables
L. M. Montgomery, 1908
This is the story of redheaded orphan Anne Shirley who is accidentally sent to siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. Marilla wants to send her back because they need a boy to help on their farm, but Matthew is smitten with Anne from the start. Anne has a vivid imagination, and like Jo March, she is impulsive and speaks without thinking. The book follows her adventures with best friend Diana Barry and nemesis Gilbert Blythe. My mother bought this for me when I was 10 and very ill, and it was quickly followed by the remaining five books about Anne Shirley, which I still have. Anne of Green Gables was my mom's favorite book when she was young, and it formed a real reading bond between us that lasted until her death in 1998, and I guess you could say that that bond is the most important thing I took away with me from this book. And to always be yourself, of course. Anne of Green Gables can also be found on Project Gutenberg

The Velveteen Rabbit: Or How Toys Become Real
Margery Williams, 1922
Originally cast aside in favor of newer, more modern toys, the Velveteen Rabbit is told by the old Skin Horse that toys only become real when they are loved by the children who own them. The Velveteen Rabbit is ignored until the boy who owns him gets ill and is given the toy to sleep with. From then on, the rabbit is the boy's favorite toy, going everywhere with him. But when the boy gets sick with scarlet fever, all his toys must be burned to contain the disease, including his beloved rabbit. Put into the garden with all the other toys to be burnt the next day, the rabbit sheds a real tear. The nursery fairy tells him he is real now and takes him to the forest to be with other rabbits. When I was young, I didn't really get this book, but later I realized that it is about how our relationships all help make us who we are and that they should be cultivated with care. The Velveteen Rabbit can also be downloaded from Project Gutenberg

The School at the Chalet
Elinor Brent-Dyer, 1925
My cousin, who lives in Wales, sent me this for my birthday one year and I've been hooked on the Chalet School series ever since. This first book tells how Madge Bethany, 24, decides to found a boarding school, in part to help her pay for the care her ill 12 year old sister Jo needs. She decides to open the school in the mountains of southern Austria instead of England for financial reasons, and before long she finds herself with a school full of students. The Chalet School books are pretty much full of the usual things that go one in a boarding school: classes, sports, friendships, quarrels, and unlike many series books, they don't feel like they are written in a time vacuum. The characters age, marry and have children of their own, providing Madge with an endless supply of students. In later books, the school deals with Nazis in Austria, escaping from them and finding a place in Wales to set up school. I loved these books, and desperately wanted to be sent to boarding school. Well, that didn't happen, but I did spend quite a few summers at sleep-away camp, which wasn't all that different.

The Blythe Girls: Helen, Margy, and Rose
Laura Lee Hope, 1925
When I was 10, my mother sent me to Michigan to help out on my aunt's farm. I wasn't very helpful, but I did discover a bunch of books in her attic. Among them, was the first volume of the Blythe Girls series. I loved this first book - three sisters, all still in their teens, who must move into a Manhattan apartment after their parents die. They get jobs, lose jobs, meet guys, and in general, just try to make it in the big city. There are 12 books in the series, and each one after the first, focuses on a problem of one of the sisters. The books were published by Grosset & Dunlap, as part of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and as we now know, there was no such person as Laura Lee Hope. Instead, the real author of the Blythe Girls series, among other series books, was really named Elizabeth M. Duffield Ward. The Blythe Girls made me want to be independent, to live in Manhattan (I lived in Brooklyn) and to have an apartment there when I grew up and I did just that, living on East 7th Street in the East Village while I was in college and a few years after, and best of all, working and paying for it myself.

The Secret of the Old Clock
Carolyn Keene, 1930
This was the first Nancy Drew book I read, and I continued to read them in order, even though they take place in a time vacuum. Nancy is 18, lives with her lawyer father, Carson Drew, and housekeeper, Hannah Gruen. In this first book, Nancy investigates a lost will. After wealthy Josiah Crowley dies, Nancy is told by a relative that his will might be found in the family clock. Nancy decides to investigate this, hoping the will can help out some of his relatives, the Hoover sisters, who are really struggling financially. If Nancy and her chums Bess and George don't find the will, the snobby, already-wealthy Tophams will inherit everything. Nancy has to figure out a way to get into the Tophams summer home, find the clock and thwart a group of burglars. I read the revised version of The Secret of the Old Clock, not the one written in 1930. One drawback to the Nancy Drew books, which also came out of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, is the there are lots of stereotypes, but what makes them important is, once again, the image of a strong, intelligent and independent woman. Nancy wore frocks, had chums, and drove a roadster and I wanted to be just like her.

Cherry Ames, Student Nurse
Helen Wells, 1943
The United States is at war and young women are being encouraged to become nurses, which is exactly what 18 year old Cherry has decided to do, because "she wanted to do vital work, work that the world urgently needs" (pg. 5) and her decision is encouraged by her family's friend, Dr. Joseph Fortune. She begins her training at Spencer Hospital School of Nursing. She is a bundle of nerves, but soon meets her fellow nursing students, who will become her series-long friends. In her first year, Cherry figures out how to help a very sick child, and helps save the life of the mysterious patient in Room 3, the one the student nurses have been told to leave alone. Cherry, whose real name is Charity, is another of those strong, independent woman, but she is also a bit of a rebel and will question authority when she thinks it's necessary. My mom became a nurse for the same reasons that Cherry did and had hoped I would follow in her footsteps, but reading the Cherry Ames series was the closest I came to nursing. My calling was teaching. 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith, 1943
I read this when I was 12 and absolutely loved it. I was a Brooklyn girl who loved to read just like the main character, Francie Nolan. It is a coming of age novel about a young, Irish American girl living in an apartment in Williamsburg, where her mother is the janitor. Francie's father is a romantic ne're-do-well alcoholic whose drinking impacts the whole family. I will never forget reading about Francie and her brother Neeley standing in the Christmas tree lot, waiting for midnight when the tree seller throws the leftover trees at the people too poor to buy them. Francie and Neeley catch the largest, heaviest tree and drag it home through the snowy streets and up to the apartment. It took a few years for me to realize the extent to which trees played a metaphorical role in this book. The story begins when Francie is 11 and continues to young adulthood. Francie's life is full of disappointments, but like the trees in the book, Francie grows into a strong, determined, and persistent young woman no matter what life throws at her.

These, then, are my pre-1945 Old School favorite books.  Do you have any favorites?

1 comment:

  1. I like this list. Some of these books I'd never heard of before - The Blythe Girls and The School at the Chalet both sound like a lot of fun - and I didn't realize how old some of the other books are...


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