Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

Sara’s Ancient History: Cycle 1

This article has been updated and enhanced. Please find the new post here.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The movie is better. Much better, in fact.

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In 1903, Baroness
Orczy wrote a successful stage play about a foppish English noble who mastered the art of “disguise and redirect” in order to save the lives of French royals destined for the Madame Guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Building on the success of The Scarlet Pimpernel production, she converted the story into a novel which launched a series of eleven novels and two collections of short stories. The concept is quite intriguing and was well received on both sides of the Atlantic. The title, The Scarlet Pimpernel, became so emblematic of resistance to terror that several decades later a number of distinct WWII spies were assigned the moniker. For example, Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty was dubbed “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican” for his use of disguises and underground rescue operations for escaped Allied POWs, Jews, and refugees during WWII.

The 1982 movie is better. I know, I said that already. As a bibliophile, it pains me to write that. But, sadly, it is absolutely true. And sadly, the same is true of my other favorite Pimpernel story. The movie The Scarlet and the Black with Christopher Plummer and Gregory Peck is much better than J.P. Gallagher’s The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican. (More on that in another review.)

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a quirky book (or series of books). The writing is uneven. In places, it is beautiful. In other places, it is enough to drive any good reader to the brink of insanity. How many times must she use “superhuman” to describe an effort that Percy or Marguerite is making… at least twice in one chapter and again later. It doesn’t fit the first, second, or third time! Let alone three times in one short novel.

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This story is so interesting, that it has become a classic without really proving itself a specimen of good literature. Perhaps someday it will go away. But I suspect that this one will hang around. The idea of a consummate actor with nearly limitless resources, power, and influence putting his life in danger to save innocent men and women from the satanic bloodlust of the French revolutionaries is classically intriguing. The story is brilliant. The writing is subpar. The concept has gone on to inspire the back story for many other super heroes like Batman and Zorro.

Towards the end of the novel, there is a long and irritating windup before the conclusion. Frankly, it is ridiculous and incredibly repetitious. We hear how much Marguerite loves this man, whose life is in peril, every other page. Far from romantic, it feels like a record that keeps skipping. Marguerite’s superficiality is distracting and takes away from the story itself. The final section of the novel, however, is lovely. The conclusion is creative, elegantly written, and rosy.

I keep saying that the movie is better. It is. The screenwriters took all of the Marguerite novels into consideration when writing a strong story arc with nuanced plot twists. (Over the 13 Pimpernel books, Sir Percy’s wife Marguerite only features in a few.) In the 1982 movie, Jane Seymour’s Marguerite is a much stronger and more interesting character than the Marguerite of the novels. Likewise, Anthony Andrews’ Sir Percy is warmer and more lovable than the character in the novel. By combining several of the best storylines into one movie, we get the best that the book series has to offer.

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Uneven as it is, the story is a wonderful way to introduce teens to the historical setting of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Of course there are more well-written historical fiction books in this setting, A Tale of Two Cities, for example. This one, however, is unique, compelling, exciting, wholesome, and romantic. A little bit Jane Austen, a little bit Charles Dickens, a little bit Victor Hugo, and a little bit Alexandre Dumas. Clean, noble, and clever, this story could help young men and young women fall in love with the period and develop an interest in the complexities of that time.

The Audible version that I have is both excellent and horrible at the same time. The narrator is fantastic. The cover art and music are horrendous. If you choose to get the audio, don’t let the music turn you off of the really great narrator.

Note: I would not pass along the other novels in the series to teens without previewing. I am re-reading The Elusive Pimpernel right now (another Marguerite novel) and am irritated with how much like a cheap romance novel it reads. It is not immoral, but it is loaded with over the top descriptions of romance and marital bliss. To quote Fred Savage’s character in The Princess Bride, “is this a kissing book? I HATE kissing books.”

 

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Little Britches #5: Fields of Home

In my review of the fourth book in Ralph Moody’s Little Britches series, Mary Emma and Company, I said goodbye to young Ralph. That book closed the chapter on Ralph’s childhood. Fields of Home chronicles Ralph’s debut into young manhood. No longer a child but not yet a man, this chapter of Ralph’s life extends through two books, both of which are hard.

Fields of Home is a mixture of tenderness, toughness, innocence, and deepening maturity. It is a wonderful demonstration of character and family loyalty, but it also has some coming of age challenges. I recommend this book to teens and their parents. Specifically, I think that this would make a fantastic parent-child book club or teen book club book. While there is nothing overtly immoral in this story, it would be a heavy book for a younger audience. I have asked my Ralph Moody loving nine year old to wait to read it.

In Mary Emma and Company, Ralph struggles to fit into the societal customs of urban life. His independent country mindset finds him on the wrong side of too many legal situations. While Ralph is pretty innocent, he cannot escape the bad boy label that has been misapplied to him. In a desperate attempt to save her son from serious trouble, Mary Emma sends young Ralph to live with her father, Thomas Gould. Thomas is a war veteran, and a tough, old-fashioned farmer. Misunderstood by many, ornery as a rule, and stubborn as a mule, Thomas has a habit of driving off his sons and hired help. When Ralph comes to the farm, Thomas is in his seventies, set in his ways, and practically impossible to get along with.

From Geni.com:

About Sgt. Thomas Jordan Gould (USA)

Soldier and Farmer who suucceeded his farther on his return from his countrys service and by his industry, resolution ads self denial, transfromed this rocky hillside into a fertile farm.

Grave of Thomas Gould

Lisbon Maine, The History of a Small Maine Town: pg. 21: “Jacob Gould, mentioned briefly in an earlier section, was born in 1768 and died in 1862 and was one of the pioneers who settled in this town and helped restore it from the wilderness. He was nineteen years of age at the time. His son THOMAS J. GOULD who was born in 1841 and died in 1929, succeeded his father upon his return from the Civil War. Through hard work and self denial he transformed the rocky hillside into a fertile farm. Sadly enough the farm burned flat at midnight in July of 1919. The deed to the farm was granted by Governor Bowdoin to Jacob Gould who built the first frame house on it in 1810.”

Before Ralph even lays eyes on the farm, he is warned by locals of Thomas’s thick-headedness. By the end of Ralph’s first day on the farm, he is already making plans to run away to Colorado. Generally good-natured and respectful, Ralph finds Thomas and his housekeeper Millie practically impossible to get along with. Frustrated, but of good character, Ralph knows how important it is to help his grandfather get the wheat in, so he resolves to stay just long enough to finish the harvest. Even that personal resolve, however, is about break when Uncle Eli makes a surprise visit. Praise God for Eli!

Uncle Eli (one of Ralph’s mentors from Mary Emma and Company) is Thomas’s brother. Younger than Thomas, we discover that Eli left the family farm decades prior because Thomas had driven him off too. The Gould and Moody character, however, runs thick in this group of men and Eli, despite his frustration with his brother, never fails to come when he is needed. His coming is the salve that heals Ralph’s wounded pride just enough to keep Ralph on the farm to finish the haying. By the time that the hay is in, Ralph decides to stay on.

Throughout the next year, Ralph, Millie, Eli, and Thomas have personal successes and failures. They have fights with each other and make-ups. As they rub against each other’s respective strong wills, they grow as individuals and as a team. You could say that Ralph comes of age in that year and becomes a young man worth knowing.

Fields of Home is as much a story about family dynamics, pride, and forgiveness as it is about farming and husbandry. In this very interesting story, we see a clashing of the times. In Eli we see mechanical and interpersonal genius that has one foot in the past and one foot in modernity. In Thomas we see traditional and hard working farming genius. In Ralph, we see a brilliant blend of intuitive farm genius coupled with modern mechanical skill. In many ways, Ralph is the blend of the two older men and each loves him for it. As hard as it is for Thomas to consent to modernizing, and as hard as it is for Ralph to accept a farming mentor who isn’t his father, they ultimately form a powerful team which is strengthened by Eli’s regular visits and Millie’s keen farm sense.

Throughout the book, we get a serious education in farming. Ralph takes great pains to explain to us how his grandfather is utilizing old techniques (and why) while he also explains his modern contributions. This is a deeply interesting look into a largely forgotten way of life. Today, farms look nothing like this. A bit like reading James Herriot, this book showcases that tension between old farming and new. Sadly, the “new” farming ushered in the industrialization of farm life, which ultimately led to small family farms being absorbed by larger commercial farms. Many have said that Moody and Louis L’Amour wrote the books they did to capture the Wild West before it was gone. I think that something similar is at work here with the vanishing family farm.

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An interesting theme throughout this book is that of “wasting.” Thomas is a veteran, a second generation farmer on the family homestead, a father, and a grandfather. He has a profound sense of preservation. He wants his farm to pass to his heirs in better condition than he inherited it. Part of his ideology is a deep commitment to saving. Sadly, however, he lives like a pauper to keep money in the bank and forces everyone in his sphere to do the same. When Ralph is truly hungry, he is scolded for eating the eggs Thomas intended to sell. Thomas takes saving to an extreme and is afraid of trying new and profitable ventures out of fear of failure. How this works itself out is very interesting.

One word of warning to parents: Ralph’s first real love interest is explored in this story. The pretty farm girl next door is Ralph’s first kiss, and that romance is lightly explored. Clearly there is nothing scandalous, but it is romantic and Ralph’s descriptions are scattered throughout.

For all of his faults, Thomas is a deeply honest man. He is also a man of character, regardless of his foibles. This beautiful story shows that even a 73 year old man can grow as much as his teenage grandson does. There is a cow trading scene that is a good example for teaching honesty.

I usually say that Mary Emma and Company is my favorite Little Britches book, but I think that I have to apologize for that and own that this one is really my favorite. The descriptions of farm life are so fascinating, and the way the family dynamics are explored is really lovely. Absolutely more challenging than the earlier books, this one is very good reading and would be excellent food for young adults.

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Just for fun, the family at Harrison Farm seems to have found the Gould Farm. According to an entry at Geni.com, it seems that the farm burned to the ground in 1919.

We will be reviewing all of the Little Britches books. Find all that we have posted here.

 

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The First Olympics

In June of 1894, Pierre de Coubertin and his newly organized International Olympic Committee unanimously voted to schedule the first Olympics of the modern era to open in April of 1896 in Athens, Greece. Over the next two years, 13 countries would assemble teams of athletes to represent their nation in this peaceful international assembly of goodwill. For two weeks, every four years, the world would build something positive together.

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Actual American Olympic Team in Athens 1896

In May 1984, a beautiful t.v. movie mini-series about these first modern Olympics was released to coincide with the 1984 Summer Olympics. This series boasted a t.v. all-star cast (Angela Lansbury, David Ogden Stiers, Honor Blackman, Louis Jourdan, etc.), gorgeous sets and costumes, and really excellent family-friendly storytelling. Over several episodes, viewers were drawn into the triumphant and heroic story of the establishment of the modern Olympic games.

In the summer of 1984, I was eight years old and our young family was mesmerized by the Summer Olympics. Like families everywhere, we were glued to the television watching swimming, gymnastics, track and field, and diving. This mini-series allowed us to keep the excitement of the Olympics alive long after the games were over.

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Still from the film

Beautifully told through an optimistic and virtuous filter,  it is devoid of crass language, sexual content, and alcohol. Following the stories of the American athletes, the famous Australian Edwin Flack, and the Greek marathoner Spiridon Louis, families are transported back in time to a very special (and romantic) moment in history.

Chariots of Fire was released in 1981. Anne of Green Gables was released in 1985. The First Olympics has a feel very similar to both of those productions and captures many of the same wholesome notes.

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Actual Robert Garrett at the 1896 Olympic Games

There are so many things that we take for granted today when we think of the Olympics. We think of a universal calendar. We think of standardized weights and specs for the discus. We think of standard rules for the pole vault. But when the first modern Olympics took place, little was standard and everyone had some surprises. While many of the facts surrounding the Olympics are lost, the discus issue, for example, with Robert Garrett was clearly documented in many reliable sources. (In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I am being vague.)

This living history movie is a romanticized but compelling look inside the process of recruiting athletes and coaches, training and housing the team, fundraising for their passage to the games in Greece, and ultimately hosting a successful Olympic games.

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1896 Olympic Stadium

At 3 hours and 57 minutes, our family watched this in one hour segments across four Sunday nights during the long cold winter. There is one scene that turns out very wholesomely, but may cause conservative parents initial concern: when the boys are preparing for the first public exposition with local fans, they misunderstand and think that they must compete as the ancient Greeks did – in the nude. The camera angle is such that we see next to nothing and the coaches rush them back into the bath houses to put on clothing. We do have one quick rear view.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Little Britches #3: The Home Ranch

This article is going to be shorter than the others in the Little Britches series because this book is pretty unique for the series.

Near the end of Man of the Family, we learned that Ralph spent his last summer in Colorado working for Mr. Batchlet. That summer proved to be a very important season in Ralph’s life, but not one that he could explore in Man of the Family. In the second installment of the Little Britches series, Man of the Family, Ralph concentrates on the family storyline and how they were learning to exist without his father’s support. We do get one chapter dedicated to his summer, and it’s a good one! When that book closes, however, the family is headed East.

Before advancing that storyline, Ralph dedicated the third book of the series, The Home Ranch, to that special summer. While there were lessons that he learned about himself during that experience, there was no way to capture that summer in the second book.

While the first two books mark the passing of time, critical milestones, and help us understand the family life that was so essential to Ralph’s development, this one is more a collection of vignettes.

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In this third offering, we are treated to a really fascinating look inside of ranch life through Ralph’s experiences. This is a story that is a celebration of the cowboy life, the grit of the men who do the work, the tenacity of the women who support them, and the mentoring that older men offer to younger men in this precarious existence. Ralph learns incredible technical lessons, develops an interior life of self reflection, and we get hints at what his own future might look like.

Readers of the second book may open the third book and be crushed when they realize that we are not going to hear about how the crisis of the family’s flight is resolved. Where the second book ends, it is very difficult to want to go backwards and look into an experience that only deepens our regret at Ralph’s loss when the family had to leave. I was so irritated on my first reading that I closed this book and jumped to the fourth. Frankly, you can do that without missing a beat.

This one is such a standalone that you can really read it anytime after the closing of the second book. It does not advance the overall plot line of the series, but it does enrich it.

Despite my being discouraged about the out of order nature of this one, it is a fantastic book. And many of the lessons that Ralph learns in this book come to serve him well in the fifth, seventh, and eighth books. (The sixth book is a detour in Ralph’s life and is very different from the other books in the series.)

If you are doing this series as a read aloud and you have horse loving listeners, I would read this one in the appropriate order. If you choose to skip the book so that you can see what happens after they leave their farm, do make sure you come back to this one. The Home Ranch is a book about mentoring, independence, and hard work.

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We will be reviewing all of the Little Britches books. Find all that we have posted here.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Seabiscuit, Family Friendly

“Separately they were nothing more than a failing jockey and a broken down horse. Together they would become the hard luck heroes for a troubled nation.” – Seabiscuit PBS Documentary

In 1938, America was hurting. Not only was the nation poor, scared, hungry, and gearing up for war, but it was also broken. The Great Depression had ravaged so much more than the economy. It left men feeling like little more than discarded and helpless animals. America needed some good news. She needed a hero to rally behind. She needed to see one of her own climb out of the pit and ascend back into the Promised Land.

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Short, chunky, distrustful, abused, knobby-kneed and so often defeated, Seabiscuit was the most unlikely hero of them all. Descended from equine royalty, Seabiscuit had been found wanting. In the hands of trainers who did not understand his personality, he was relegated to the grueling work of making better horses feel more confident than they deserved to feel. He was badly raced and forced to lose so often that he learned no other way of competing.

In August of 1936, automobile entrepreneur Charles Howard bought the three year old disappointment on the recommendation of his ranch horse trainer, Tom Smith. The unorthodox Smith, had locked eyes with the colt, and felt intuitively that he understood him. Smith argued that the Biscuit was something truly special who had been seriously misunderstood and undervalued. While most horses were evaluated for their feet, Smith argued that Biscuit would win with his heart and his head.

Tom worked to restore Seabiscuit’s health and his spirit for the next two years, winning races along the way. Equally broken and blind in one eye, jockey Red Pollard was another unusual but genius pick by Smith. The horse and the jockey understood each other almost right away and would go on to understand each other for the rest of their lives.

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In November 1938, Seabiscuit was slated to compete against racing legend, War Admiral. The race was dubbed a “David and Goliath” pairing and “The Match Race of the Century”. Howard, a marketing wizard, knew how to compare his horse and jockey to the spirit of the everyman American. America could not help but identify with the “failing jockey and broken down horse” (Seabiscuit PBS Documentary) and see themselves in this Cinderella story. If Seabiscuit had not existed, someone would have needed to have invented him.

This story is so beautiful on many levels. I get emotional every time I read about it or watch a movie related to it. Charming and exciting, it has been captured and retold many times. Fans simply cannot get enough of this fairytale true story, so families have a lot of choices when it comes to sharing the story with their children. In this article, we are going to review several of the most famous family friendly versions of the story. In a future article, I will deal with the more mature version as laid out in the Laura Hillenbrand book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, and the 2003 film based on Hillenbrand’s work.

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Ralph Moody, author of the Little Britches books, is one of the greatest horse story tellers I have ever read. His passion for horses breathes a special kind of life into the stories he relates. Our family has loved many of his books, but this one has to be one of the best. Utterly family friendly, Come On Seabiscuit reads like an exciting adventure story. Equally good in print and in audio, we have used it as a family read aloud as well as a quiet time listening book. In the near future, my nine year will likely read it independently for his daily reading time.

In 1939, Charles Howard produced a documentary of his famous horse. For many years that documentary was considered lost. In 2003 the rediscovered documentary was colorized and re-released to coincide with the new film based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book Seabiscuit: An American Legend. The documentary is titled Seabiscuit: the Lost Documentary (1939). Old as it is, my children were enthralled by it. Seeing the real Seabiscuit and Red Pollard on film made them feel as though they were being transported back in time. Understanding that the quality of the film is quite vintage, it was still a viewing treat.

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As part of the “American Experience” series in 2003, PBS did a feature length documentary on Seabiscuit. It was beyond watchable – it was downright exciting. As a family we appreciated all of the details that the Moody book had not included. As a reader, I appreciated the interviews with Pollard’s daughter and friend as well as that of Laura Hillenbrand. Family friendly, well done, and interesting to watch, it really enhanced our appreciation of the Moody book.

 

In her second to last film, Shirley Temple starred in a 1949 fictionalized version of the Seabiscuit story. True to it’s era in movie making, it does not even try to be faithful to the story but reinvents it with the biases of that time. Horse lovers and history buffs will be pleased to know that footage from the actual match race with War Admiral as well as the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap race is spliced into the film. Modern viewers, however, may not appreciate the coarse Hollywood portrayal of immigrants and characters of color. While not faithful to the true story, and ethnically insensitive, it is generally wholesome and family friendly. Until younger viewers are mature enough to watch the 2003 film, this is a sweet Seabiscuit story with some historical footage. Our family purchased it in a four-pack of classic Hollywood horse films including Black Beauty.

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In a future article, I will talk about why the 2003 film is absolutely not family friendly. Beautiful, expertly made, emotional and substantive, it is also appropriately dark in places, has some off-color language, and includes a brothel scene that just can’t be easily explained to young viewers. This is a film for adults and mature teens. Objectionable as some parts are, it is very compelling.

 

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Little Britches #2: Man of the Family

When Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers closes, we are left with an overwhelming sense of grief. It is near to impossible not to love Charles Moody and the ethic that he instilled in his family. Understandably, Ralph chooses to focus his first memoir on the father who was so crucial to his moral formation and too soon lost to the world. In that first book, we are dimly aware that Mame (Mary Emma) is a powerhouse and well matched to her husband, but we are not overwhelmed by her genius or strength until the end of the story. Little Britches: Man of the Family shifts the focus from one excellent parent to the other. Mary Emma emerges as a lioness – incredibly strong, agile, alert, principled, and committed her to vocation. It is clear that Ralph was enormously blessed to have the parents that he did.

Just like Narnia, my favorite Little Britches book is whichever one I am reading – except for one – but if hard pressed to pick just one, I probably like this one best. But maybe not. Mary Emma and Company is incredibly powerful and A Horse of a Different Color is just so fascinating to me. This really is a powerhouse series that belongs on every family bookshelf in America. This is essential food for the moral imagination and also provides an incredible view of living American history. Ralph Moody is, in my opinion, one of the greatest American authors.

One of the really fun things about the Little Britches books is that they are a bit like berries. All are tasty, all are good for you, all are part of the natural order, and all are flavored differently. Maybe we could compare Father and I Were Ranchers to blackberries – a bit exotic, a bit sweet, a bit tart, a bit wild, and never quite so tasty as when your body needs them the most. If Father and I Were Ranchers is a blackberry, Man of the Family is like raspberries. Also a bit wild and exotic. But more sweet than tart. And always appealing. Man of the Family also ends with well earned tears and mourning, but, to me, it is a more powerful story and the ending feels less tragic and more noble. Father and I Were Ranchers ends as it does because God has worked His will. Man of the Family ends because the family has submitted to their moral conscience and wills themselves to do what is right no matter the cost. This is a story about endless sacrifice, but also of a deepening of resolve and a maturing of character. In Father and I Were Ranchers, Ralph is mentored into goodness. In Man of the Family, Mame, Ralph, and Grace labor for goodness out of their own good character – and it is a thing of beauty to behold.

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A blue roan like Ralph and Hi’s pair of horses

Horse lovers will be particularly pleased with this installment. While the first book was more about the land and the family, this one is more about the horse and its centrality to the life of the land. In the two years that this book spans, so much depends on Ralph’s relationship with excellent horses. In addition to many horse stories, this book also chronicles details about rabbit breeding and cows. Animal lovers will appreciate the love and care that is shown to the animals throughout this farm life existence.

When judging family friendliness, I always recommend that families look at the age of Ralph and know that as he grows, so too will the storyline. In this book, Ralph is 10, 11, and 12.

As I was saying, a twelve year old boy is too young for such an undertaking. But I do realize that circumstances have given you a great deal more experience than most boys of your age. – Mary Emma

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A couple of fine points for parents to take note of when considering this text… in the interest of giving parents full disclosure, there are some details here that contain small spoilers. If you don’t want spoilers, skip this section.

  1. Birds and the bees. In this book, Mary Emma gives birth to the last baby of the Moody family. The children have no idea that their mother is pregnant until the baby is born. To our modern sensibilities, Mary Emma handles it oddly, but it would not have been totally strange for her time. The children know that mother is not well but they do not understand why.
  2. More Birds and the Bees: Ralph has 2 female bunnies who are in heat. Mary Emma very delicately helps him facilitate some husbands for the does and soon Ralph is in the rabbit breeding business. It is handled gracefully, but it is unavoidable.
  3. Dishonesty. Ralph and Grace are challenged several times to make decisions which are morally complex but ultimately involve withholding the truth from their mother and doing some lying. Their intentions are good, they are aware that they are flirting with the line, they struggle under the weight of the guilt, and they get away with it. What is important to note is that the standard they are struggling against is their mother’s preference as opposed to the way things are done by others. This entire series of events is clear evidence of what happens when a single mother is burdened with having to navigate letting other men mentor her son. Men she trusts, respects, and appreciates but who ultimately are not as strict as she is. It is complicated and hard. There simply isn’t a good way through this, and it would be a great piece to talk about with children.
  4. On the flipside, there are powerful moments of moral conviction. There is a side business that they run that involves being faithful in small and hard things so that God can bless them with trust in bigger things.
  5. Santa Claus. If you have firm Santa Claus believers, this will likely be a non-issue. If, however, you have children who are on the edge of falling out of belief, this will likely push them over. Grace and Ralph have a detailed conversation about which siblings still believe in Santa and which may not. Then, they conspire to provide Santa gifts for the kids in case they still believe. What they do is beautiful – but it could easily be a Santa Claus spoiler. If you plan to read aloud, it could very easily be skipped over.
  6. There is some objectionable language. All of it is appropriate to rough cowboy life and is not used for shock value. Ralph recorded the language as he remembered it and so parents may wish to be warned.

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This book is just packed to the gills with fascinating and inspiring stories. So much of that way of life is captured here and explained so beautifully. Fiction writers could not have contrived a more lovely story. Ralph shows us again that real life is more interesting than fiction and ultimately worth doing well.

We will be reviewing all of the Little Britches books. Find all that we have posted here.