April 16, 2013

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

I’m going to guess you probably know this one, but I’ll give you the big picture anyway.

Alice is playing in the garden with her older sister when she spots a white rabbit checking his pocket watch and remarking on his lateness. She chases him and falls down the famous rabbit hole. She finds herself in a hall full of doors, all of which are locked. She eats and drinks and changes size several times trying to get into a tiny door that leads to a beautiful garden. But it’s all to no avail.

As a tiny person she comes across a whole group of animals and spends some time with them. She insults the mouse several times when she brings up her beloved cat, Dinah. In this way she puts off all the animals she’d been talking to and goes wandering off by herself.

Here she runs into the rabbit again who sends her to his house to fetch him a pair of kid gloves. She finds the house and the gloves, only to grow very large while inside the house until she is trapped. A bevy of animals under the rabbit’s direction then tries to get her out of the house by throwing things at her. The things turn out to be little cakes, which she eats; they shrink her back down and she runs out of the house.

Next she meets the caterpillar. He shares with her the secret that one side of his mushroom will make her grow larger and the other smaller. With that she goes off to the Duchess’s house. There the cook is throwing things and demanding more pepper. The Duchess is breastfeeding an ugly baby that won’t stop screaming. The Duchess leaves to get ready for croquet with the Queen and hands Alice her baby. The baby promptly turns into a pig and wanders off.

It’s then that Alice notices the Duchess’s grinning cat in the tree. The Cheshire Cat gives Alice directions to the March Hare’s house, where Alice finds a tea party in progress. There she also meets the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse. Apparently it’s always tea time there and the group keeps progressing around the table from place to place, drinking more tea.

After a few rounds of riddles, Alice leaves and finds herself in the royal garden. There she meets some playing cards who are trying to paint the white roses red. The Queen catches them and orders their heads cut off. She then presses Alice into playing croquet with her using a flamingo for a mallet, a hedge hog for a ball, and more playing cards for the arches. Of course the game gets nowhere, and the Queen spends all the time ordering people’s heads cut off. 

Finally the Queen takes Alice to the Gryphon, who introduces her to the Mock Turtle. The Mock Turtle proceeds to tell some thoroughly confusing stories until they hear that a trial is beginning and Alice and the Gryphon run off to see the Knave of Hearts tried for stealing the Queen’s tarts. After much silliness Alice grows in height again and tells off the King and Queen. When the cards begin to attack her, she wakes up to discover that her adventures were really just a dream and the cards were just some leaves falling from a tree.

Other Thoughts:

  • When I was a little kid, I danced the part of a flamingo in Alice Through the Looking Glass. Just thought you should know.

I thought I was "da bomb" in this costume.
  • Lewis Carroll clearly had a vast and vivid imagination. I would say that he perhaps had some recreational habits, but the writing reminded me a good deal of A.A. Milne and Winnie the Pooh, which is to say, it’s clearly the sort of silliness you invent for the toddler/young child set.

  • I once again missed a whole rash of very English, very period references. Alice recites several poems which are meant to be comical because they are slightly off from the real versions. Having no acquaintance whatsoever with the real versions, the references were lost on me.

  • I was impressed by how many of the stories I did actually know. Quite a bit of the original story has made its way, in one form or another, into popular culture.

  • My copy has a color illustration of the tea party on the front, which has prompted H to ask me about Alice. I’ve had rather a good time telling her some of the stories—abridged for both content and time. She’s a very practical child and doesn’t understand the comedy of the cook throwing things for no reason whatsoever.

Next up: The Wind in the Willows.

April 12, 2013

Grapes of Wrath


The novel follows the Joad family, who lose their family farm in Oklahoma during the dust bowl. The eldest son, Tom, returns home from prison (killing a man in self defense) to find his family packing their belongings to head west to California where work and green pastures are promised. Immediately upon leaving, Grampa dies. They bury him the first night in a field because they fear that paying the $40 to have him buried will mean they won’t have enough money to make it to California.

The trip to California is mostly uneventful. They meet and part from friends. Grandma goes downhill very rapidly after Grampa’s death and she dies as they cross the last stretch of desert into the promised land of California. Paying to have her buried cleans out the family of the rest of their money.

The first night in California brings a quick end to any dreams of easy living. The Hooverville, tent town they stay in is visited by a wealthy farmer looking for workers accompanied by a deputy sheriff. When some of the “Okies” looking for work question the farmer about wages, which get lower and lower all the time, the deputy tries to arrest them. A fight ensues. The instigator and Tom both make it out, but the sheriff fires wildly after them and maims a woman. The preacher, Casy, who is traveling with the Joads takes the blame and gets arrested. Later that night they hear that the tent town will be burned by the townspeople in retaliation for talking back to the sheriff. The Joads are able to escape just in time and sneak south to a government camp.

Life in the government camp seems ideal. They are still camping with mattresses on the ground, but there is indoor plumbing (the first flushing toilets for the children), hot water, and respect. The camp forms its own governing body and maintains peace and order. The Joads stay as long as they can, but eventually they run out of work, money, and food. They go north to look for work.

They go to a peach orchard and inadvertently work as scabs against a strike. The owner had wanted to pay only 2.5 cents a box when the workers wanted five cents. The Joads, as scabs, receive five cents a box and are just barely able to buy dinner with the wages earned by four adults picking peaches all afternoon.

Tom sneaks out the first night and discovers that the leader of the strike is none other than the preacher, Casy, who came west with them. He came out of jail with the notion that workers had to unite to get a decent wage and good treatment. The locals catch them and kill Casy for fomenting dissent. Tom snatches up the pick handle and kills the man who killed Casy. Tom gets away but not without earning a broken nose.

When Tom makes it back to camp, the family hides him, and they leave camp. The locals are looking for Tom for killing the man, and Tom broke his parole by leaving Oklahoma. They find work at a cotton plantation and Tom hides out in the wilderness near their camp while his wounds heal. The family is able to eke out a living from picking cotton, but the cotton doesn’t last. More and more pickers arrive every day and there just isn’t enough work for everyone.

At this point, summer is turning to winter and the rains come. The youngest daughter, Ruthie, boasts that her brother is hiding out because he killed a man and that he’ll kill a bully’s older brother. Tom has to leave the family for good to avoid the chance that someone will talk and come looking for him. The oldest daughter, Rose of Sharon, catches a cold and goes into premature labor. Her husband left her the first night in California when it turned out that life wasn’t going to be easy and perfect. Her labor coincides with a flood of the stream they are camped beside. The men team up to try and throw up a levy, but a falling tree destroys their levy and the flat they’re camped on is flooded. The Joad truck is completely flooded and they are stranded in their railroad car at the cotton camp.

Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn. The car starts to flood and the family has to build a make shift platform to try and stay warm. After a few more days of constant rain and almost no food, they finally leave their belongings behind to look for drier quarters. They retreat to a barn and find a young boy and his father, who is almost dead of starvation. The man had been giving the boy all the food they had and hadn’t eaten in almost a week. The man has a whispered conversation with Ma, during which it is obvious that he asks for their kindness in taking care of his son after his death. The boy begs them to help. Ma sends everyone away and passes a silent exchange with Rose of Sharon. The novel ends with the girl lying down beside the dying man and offering him her breast milk as a last attempt to save his life.

Other Thoughts:

  • Why are all the books on this list so long? So long! I saw Les Miserables in Barnes and Noble the other day. You could probably knock someone unconscious with the thing.
  • Steinbeck alternated these sweeping, scene-painting chapters with chapters of actual narrative. I could really have done without the scene painters, especially because they almost all described something in this fancy metaphoric way that happened in the very next chapter, so it was like reading it twice.
  • Some of the symbolism in this one was a little too hit-you-over-the-head for me. For example, Grampa dying at the beginning of the journey because he couldn’t leave the land, because it was the end of an era.
  • The narrative arc was a bit odd for me. For 95% of the book it appears as though Tom is the main character. Almost all the narrative happens from Tom’s point of view. But then he completely disappears at the end of the novel. Ruthie tells and Ma goes to him and says to leave and then he just vanishes. In the end you’re not sure if the focus changes to Ma or to Rose of Sharon. Ma at least is a strong character throughout—one who actually gains momentum and strength as things get worse and worse. She keeps the family together through sheer force of will. Rose of Sharon on the other hand is a shadowy window dressing for most of the novel and a whiny teenage, pregnant, jilted girl the rest. But Steinbeck plucks her up and uses her as this symbol to end the novel.
  • Sidebar: Why did she have to offer her breast to the dying man? Could she not have expressed some milk into a cup? Seriously?
  • What I ultimately got from the story is that capitalism, if left untamed by human kindness, is a beast. It consumes resources and drives prices until the will of the people pushes it back. In this case it took the form of “evil” land owners who lured far more workers than they needed to their farms, all of whom were starving, so they could pay them almost nothing. Then when the work ran out or the workers objected to the horrendous pay and conditions, they were brutalized. The government camp, on the other hand, is set up as a paragon of what can be accomplished through mutual cooperation. It’s a commune where the people were self policing and everything was wonderful. I wouldn’t say that it was a pro-communist book, but it was pretty close. The story itself is really pretty heartbreaking as you watch this family get destroyed by hard times. It’s set against a backdrop of social inequity that’s hard to miss. But I was left unfulfilled with the ending. Everything was unresolved and the metaphor of Rose of Sharon as mother to the poor and her stillborn child as the stillborn hopes of migrant workers looking for a better life seemed stilted to me.

Next up, Alice in Wonderland.

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