Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

The Black Stallion

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What is it about gorgeous black horses that draw men in, set their imaginations on fire, and steal a bit of their hearts? As a child, I knew that horses were regal creatures. Because they are gorgeous, capable of intelligence, posses affection, and have a certain nobility, I was always smitten with horses. Nearly all horses have something to recommend them, even Seabiscuit with his knobby knees, too-big head, and short legs was a hero. Black Arabians, however, are the stuff that dreams are made of.

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I grew up watching Ben-Hur and thinking that Judah’s white horses were a disappointment. In both the book and the movie, they are described as being near goddesses. And yet, their imperfectly white coats and grey-peach colored noses always seemed a bit unimpressive to me. Instead, I dreamed of gorgeous dark colored Arabians. Tall, strong, fast, and midnight-colored coats seemed, to me, to be God’s perfect expression of the horse. The standard by which all other horses would be judged.

Strangely, my childhood was devoid of horse books. I knew that Black Beauty existed, but I never read it. I think that we had an abridged copy in my family library, but I didn’t know that authors could describe horses well enough to rival the beauty that movies could show. My love of horses came from movies, I think. T.V. series’ and movies like “Ivanhoe,” “How the West Was Won,” “The Irish R.M.,” and “Horse Masters” had me dreaming of falling in love with my own magnificent steed.

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The Black Stallion
by Walter Farley has to be one of the most famous horse books ever written. And yet, this bibliophile, had never read it until a month ago. I can say with all honesty, that I was missing out. I am sad that I did not have this beautiful book in my vernacular and imagination many, many years ago. Thanks to my book club, I am catching up on all of the worthy books I missed out on. We are chasing our own classics education, one book at a time.

The Black Stallion is a triumphant and marvelous story. A young boy, Alec, is on a transatlantic steamer preparing for his return journey from visiting his uncle in India. His parents are waiting for him in New York and he is making this journey alone. As he contemplates the journey, he studies a beautiful pocket knife that his uncle gave to him before he left. Young readers, boys especially, will find it hard not to be intrigued immediately. Well-read readers will quickly guess that that pocket knife will not only prove to be essential but also representative of some central theme.

In case the prospect of following a boy through an independent sea voyage from exotic India isn’t enough to arrest the attention of the reader, Farley invades the scene with a tempestuous and exquisite black stallion who is being put aboard the boat. Fierce and powerful, this force of nature is not coming willingly. His mighty legs kick while his head thrashes and he destroys nearly everything in his path. Clearly this beast was captured from the wild and he has no intention of “settling into” captivity. All on board give the horse wide berth. All, that is, except Alec. Alec is enchanted by The Black. Without much than a hint of success, Alec tries to tempt The Black into friendship with sugar cubes. The horse is not friendly, but he is not too opposed to Alec’s presence near his stall.

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In the first chapter, we have a fairly perfect opening to what promises to become a story about a boy and his horse. All of that is put into question in chapter two, however, when a storm causes the ship to wreck. Lost at sea, Alec feels the whip of a rope and grabs hold of what is, in fact, part of the horse’s bridle. Together, the pair swim all night until the horse scents land and drags Alec onto the shore of a deserted island.

Reminiscent of Kipling’s romantic and alluring style, Farley delights us with several chapters of survivalist and boy-tames-the-wild-beast narrative. The writing is poetic and musical. The details are fascinating and imaginative. A little bit Swiss Family Robinson and a little Ralph Moody, these chapters detail twenty days of creative survival.

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When Alec and The Black are rescued, they make the long sea voyage to New York via Rio de Janeiro. Along the way, we watch the friendship between Alec and this untamed wild horse grow. Despite their growing love for each other, The Black remains terrifyingly wild when interacting with anyone or anything else. Alec must call on all of his own intelligence, courage, and patience to whittle away at The Black’s skittishness and break the horse’s wildness.

When Alec and The Black disembark in New York, we meet Alec’s parents. Farley does a beautiful job sketching these characters. He does not give us much detail about them, but what he does draw feels quite authentic and renders them noble in their own way. They love this son whom they thought that they had lost. They want to support him. They are anxious about the wildness of The Black. They are deeply respectful of the experience their son has survived and they seek to honor his crisis-honed maturity.

Once Alec is resettled into “normal” life and The Black has moved into the stables of a neighbor, the story shifts gears and becomes something akin to Come On, Seabiscuit. I won’t give any details but, suffice to say, Farley built The Black to be a great race horse.

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All of my children loved this book. My youngest (6) wants to be a cowboy when he grows up and he could not get enough of The Black. My middle child (7) loves good writing and enjoyed the adventure of it all. My oldest (9) is all boy and loved everything about Alec. As a parent, I loved that Alec is worth emulating. He loves and respects his parents. He is resourceful, courageous, and loyal. He is a willing student in the hands of an excellent old mentor. And, Alec is principled.

The copy we have is illustrated by Keith Ward and it is magical. The audible narration is expertly done. The movie… well, let’s not talk about that disaster except to say that it is not The Black Stallion, it is something else with the same name and a few of the same characters.  

This is a book which more than delivers on its reputation. And, delightfully, this is the first book of a series! I haven’t read the others and suspect that they aren’t quite as good, but Farley has earned my respect and I think that any book he wrote probably has some merit. 

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Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

Charlie the Lonesome Cougar

I have been packing around a paperback copy of Charlie the Lonesome Cougar for almost 50 years now.  The title is from a Disney movie that came out in 1967.  I may have watched the movie on a Sunday evening “Wonderful World of Disney.”  Perhaps at a drive-in theater!  In 1968, Scholastic Books published a book based on the screenplay.  I loved getting those Scholastic book orders every month or so, and I loved books about animals.  The book is only 78 pages long.  I probably paid a precious quarter for it.

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When the book came to mind recently, I wondered if I should risk ruining it for myself by reading it again.  My desire to know whether it is good stuff or junk was stronger than my wish to let the book and movie remain pleasant memories.   My conclusion about the book is that it’s sweet and wholesome.  The story is light with plenty of humor.  Animal-loving children can enjoy imagining having a cougar for a pet.  Adults will be aware that that can come to no good, but will fall in love with Charlie anyway.

Jess is a young man who works for a lumber company in the Pacific Northwest.  One day, while out marking trees in the woods, he discovers a tiny cougar kitten that has somehow been abandoned outside the den.  The baby’s eyes aren’t even open yet.  Who could leave the helpless kitty there to starve?

Mark Van Cleefe, the author who converted the screenplay to book form, writes some endearing descriptions of the kitten learning about his world.  Everything is new to Charlie, the cougar.  A blowing leaf crumbles under his paw, a fuzzy dandelion makes him sneeze.   If he hadn’t tumbled down the hill when coming face-to-face with a growling badger, that encounter could have ended badly.  When he starts a game of tag with a squirrel, he gets himself stuck in a tree and Jess has to rescue him.  Van Cleefe also periodically reports on Charlie’s age and growth so we get a picture of how quickly he grows into a huge cat.  At two years old he is 7 feet long and weighs over 160 pounds.  Charlie is no longer a housecat.

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The best parts of the story are when Charlie roams in the wild. Charlie’s interactions with the lumber men have more of a feel of set-ups for short, funny, or heart-racing scenes that build toward the inevitable parting of the man and the wild animal.  When Charlie accidentally wanders off into the wilderness, we see him face the challenge of surviving on his own.  He has to become a wild cougar rather than a pet that takes his daily food for granted.  We see how much of the life of a wild animal is taken up with self-defense and finding food.  For children who may not yet be interested in studying animals, I think his encounters with other creatures could open a door of investigation.  With great interest, Charlie watches as a bear catches fish.  He doesn’t learn how to fish for himself, but he becomes adept at stealing fish from the bear.  Then the bear moves on and Charlie is on his own again.

The lumber company Jess works for floats logs down the river to the mill.  A floating bunkhouse and kitchen raft follow.  Charlie accidentally sets the kitchen raft free of its mooring with Jess asleep inside.  The raft drifts into a log jam where the men have just lit a fuse for the dynamite set to break up the jam.  Charlie rides a log down the river, disembarks onto the log jam, and picks up the dynamite, attracted to it by the long “string” attached.  Will he respond in time to Jess’s hollering for him to drop it?  Of course he will. It’s Disney. Everything is going to be fine.  But chaos and much damage will ensue.

It is the company manager who finally tells Jess that he will have to stop bringing Charlie to work.  So, Jess has to cage his cat.  One night Charlie scents another cat, a female.  He escapes, goes for a romp, can’t find his way home, and spends the winter learning to fend for himself in the wild.  When he finds his way back to the lumber camp the next spring, there is more chaos in the camp and  everyone thinks Charlie has gone bad.  Jess shows up just as the manager is about to shoot the cornered cat.  I remember this scene being very intense when I was a child, but it isn’t drawn out too long, and it is very satisfying when Charlie remembers Jess and lets himself be led out of danger.

The next day, Jess takes Charlie to a wildlife refuge where he sets the cat free to live happily ever after.  Charlie meets up with his girlfriend and they amble off into the sunset.  The scenario will sound familiar to lovers of such stories as Gentle Ben and Rascal.  Though the pet will be missed for a long time, the wild animal really will be happier in the wild.  

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I was concerned that the movie I loved as a child would seem silly now; a string of slapstick situations with a giant cat living out of his natural element.  It was not.  The scenes of confrontation between cat and man’s world might seem a bit contrived to movie-savvy adults, but it turns out that most of the time is spent showing Charlie in the wild.  The thin plot almost seems more of an excuse to follow a cougar around with a camera than a real attempt to show what life would be like with a gigantic housecat.  Animal experts may find plenty of diversions from the realm of possibility, but I find the nature scenes wholesome and lovely.

There is an extended scene near the beginning where Charlie has wandered off to survey his neighborhood.  He encounters a raccoon cub, a fox kit, and a young pine marten.  Then he plays with a bear cub until the sow has to rescue Charlie and her cub from a male bear.  Mama wins the fight with the male when Charlie and the cub break the tree branch from which they’ve been watching the battle and land on the male bear’s head.  It’s a bit silly, but mostly fun, and the scene with Charlie and the cub napping together in a hollow log is darling.

Charlie’s foray into the wild after becoming lost in the wilderness is a large chunk of the movie.  It is more like one of Disney’s nature films than a regular movie.  Charlie and the female cougar romp and slide in the snow.  Charlie roams through some stunning scenery.  As Charlie has never had to hunt for food, he has to learn by watching other animals.  When the female cougar catches a rabbit, he expects her to share.  She does not.  The rabbit killing is done off scene, as is the killing of a deer later, once Charlie becomes an accomplished hunter.

My dad and his dad were loggers in Oregon, so I enjoyed watching the lumber company prepare for the spring log drive down the river.  They are shown breaking up log jams, the narrator explains how the cookhouse raft and bunkhouse raft (wanigans) follow the lumberjacks, and there is a short birling competition which Charlie joins.  When Charlie is chased by a bounty hunter with his dogs, Charlie escapes by doing a log-riding trick from his kittenhood, this time down a flume.

I am quite pleased that I can recommend this book and the movie for children of any age.

Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

Henry Reed, Inc.

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“According to Uncle Al the Princeton area is filled with all sorts of research centers. I didn’t know that the big companies had separate buildings and places where their scientists developed new products, but apparently they do. I guess that’s an example of free enterprise, and I am going to learn more about these research places in order to tell my class about them.”

And that is exactly what Henry Reed did.

In 1958, Keith Robertson created a quirky, smart, friendly, respectful, and inquisitive character named Henry Reed. Henry and his neighbor friend Midge are the thirteen-year-old central characters in a 5-book series. Henry Reed, Inc. is the first book and it is one of the best of its kind that we have read. Everything that we have loved about Homer Price, Danny Dunn, Good Old Archibald, and Alvin Fernald is present in Henry Reed, Inc.. The scrapes that Henry and Midge get into are side-splittingly funny. The intellectual curiosity of Henry and Midge is wonderfully inspiring to my science-minded kids. The writing is complex and sound while remaining boyish. The characters hold very traditional values. The story arc is a compilation of delightful vignettes. Like the other books I mentioned, this one is wonderful for read-aloud, and would be excellent for helping a young reader develop confidence and stamina.

“This is a journal, not a diary. Diaries are kept by girls and tell about about their dates and what they think of their different boyfriends. My mother says that men deep diaries too, that the most famous diary in the world was kept a long time ago by an Englishman named Pepys. That may be so, but when I read about pirates and explorers and sea captains they always kept journals, so this is going to be a journal. It is going to be a record of what happens to me this summer in New Jersey.”

Henry is the son of foreign diplomats. He lives in Europe and has spent very little of his life in the United States. The story is told entirely through journal entries that Henry keeps for a class project. Henry is spending the summer with his Aunt and Uncle in Grover’s Corner right outside of Princeton, New Jersey. The teacher at Henry’s Italian school asks Henry to study American free enterprise and report back to his class when he returns in the fall. Naturally inquisitive, Henry spends the summer learning the art of free enterprise through a research and development firm that he and Midge develop.

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Parents of boys and girls will find much to love in this book. Henry’s uncle is quick to point out that his sister, Henry’s mother, was a budding naturalist and that Henry’s love for animals, nature, and science come from his mother. It is very clear that Henry’s parents, and Henry’s aunt and uncle, are all very intelligent and very curious people. This gives the story a really beautiful intellectual quality to it. I found it particularly satisfying that the themes throughout emphasized a love of ideas, a love of nature, and a love of scientific experimentation.

It becomes very clear that Grover’s Corner is a bedroom community for Princeton University professors and scientists. This gives the story a really neat setting. Nestled into farm country, populated by free thinkers, and maintained with traditional values, Grover’s Corner seems to be an ideal place to turn a boy and his friend loose for the summer so they can explore their world, test their theories, and practice a little enterprise.

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Robertson understands boys. Presumably because he was one. But more than that. His story celebrates the boyishness of boys. As a mom, I found myself cringing while my boys were rejoicing! I will never look at a wasp’s nest the same way again!

It is early March in NE Wisconsin as I write this. There is snow on the ground and the trees are still bare. Nearly two months after having read Henry Reed, Inc., my kids and I were on a nature walk yesterday and discovered a large paper wasp nest. I hate those things. Almost instantly, all of us cried out, “Do you remember when in Henry Reed….” What a joy! Now when we see a nest like that, we will always think of a construction truck knocking the power out in an entire neighborhood. I will let you read the story to get the details for yourself. 

Illustrated by Robert McCloskey, the sketches are dynamic. They capture the spirit of the book perfectly. I thought I loved McCloskey’s work in Homer Price but it pales in comparison to Henry Reed. These pictures tease us into laughing before we have read the punchline. What a great way to encourage a young reader who is trying to learn how to read better and faster!

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One small word of warning. There is one scene of mildly questionable decision-making on the part of Henry and his aunt. When I read it, I was worried that there would be more and that it would spoil the book. I do wish that scene could have been resolved without a lie. I am very glad, however, that that was a one-time occurrence and nothing came of it.

This is a series that I would love to own in hardbound. I believe that you can buy all of the books in paperback reprints, but the hardcover books are more substantial in size.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Good Books from Louisa May Alcott

In our Little Men book club discussion a number of questions have come up about other Alcott books worth reading. While this article will be far from comprehensive, I hope that it will give lovers of Little Women and Little Men a few more gems to fall in love with.

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In our article about Little Men, we explain that Alcott wrote the first two Jo March books under protest. Little Women (1868) and its sequel Good Wives (1869) , usually published together simply as Little Women, follow the March sisters through their coming of age and into their marriages. Little Men (1871) and its sequel Jo’s Boys (1886) are the second half of the March sisters’ story. Little Men is, in my humble opinion, the best of the books. Little Men explores one of Alcott’s most favorite themes – education reform. Jo’s Boys, while entertaining and interesting, feels uninspired and formulaic to me. I just didn’t feel as if Louisa invested the same heart into Jo’s Boys that she did into Little Men. (My favorite audible recordings of Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys are all by Barbara Caruso.)

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In a format that was strikingly similar to the Jo March books, Alcott wrote another pair of books that should not be missed about Rose Campbell and her seven male cousins. Eight Cousins is easily compared to Little Men and is almost equally charming. Also about education reform and social reform, Eight Cousins is delightful for readers young and old. My children were in fits of giggles throughout the story, and moped around for two days after it ended because they missed the Campbell cousins. The sequel, Rose in Bloom, is a lovely follow-up but not really for young readers. Instead of being a childish adventure, it is good and wholesome stuff for teen girls who want to read edifying romance stories (think Jane Austen for young ladies). (My favorite audible recordings of Eight Cousins and Rose In Bloom are both by Barbara Caruso.)

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In her heart of hearts Alcott loved her youngest readers best. Henry James called her “the novelist of children… the Thackeray, the Trollope, of the nursery and the school room.”[w] Alcott loved writing about children in their natural state and was always wrestling with her editors. She wanted to tell the stories she most enjoyed, but her editors wanted her to satisfy her childish audience that was growing up and who wanted to see how Alcott’s characters would grow up with them.

In 1869, Alcott published six chapters of An Old Fashioned Girl for Merry’s Museum Magazine. In these chapters, we meet 14 year old Polly. Polly is a country girl with unrefined manners and customs who visits her elegant city friend Fanny Shaw. In 1871, Alcott re-published those six chapters along with a sequel set six years in the future. In the introduction to the novel, Alcott apologizes for the serial feeling of the first six chapters of this complete story. In truth, I am not a huge fan of the first six chapters (and frankly, I don’t think that Alcott was either). The sequel, however, more than makes up for it. The young adult portion of the novel is fascinating and almost feels like Alcott is taking a second pass on her character Amy March from Little Women, and in so doing is giving Amy more moral fortitude and depth of character. Odd as this little book is, it has a special place in my heart and is one that I like to return to when I want something wholesome, romantic, feminine, and nostalgic. I think that certain aspects of An Old Fashioned Girl may remind readers of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or Daddy Long Legs. (The only audiobook recording for An Old Fashioned Girl I have found is from Librivox. I personally do not care for it at all.)

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In 1878, Alcott penned a charming and timeless children’s story that is universally appealing to boys and girls. Under the Lilacs is a classic down-on-his-luck orphan story that reminds me of something like Pollyanna. Far from sophisticated in its story or writing, Alcott uses this sweet and sunny little story to inspire a love of nature in her readers. While reading it, I found myself googling classic nature guides. A great little book for a child who is sick in bed, a confident young reader who needs simple but worthy text to practice on, or a great living book to be paired with a Thornton Burgess unit study (something like The Burgess Bird Book unit study my family is doing). 

Jack and Jill, published in 1880, is the last of Alcott’s full length children’s stories and it is one of my favorites. Jack and Jill has the classic Alcott moralizing tone, but it also has some very creative boyishness that reminds me of Homer Price or The Mad Scientists Club. When Jack and Jill are seriously injured in a sledding accident, the friends are forced to bed for months. In an effort to keep their spirits up, Jack’s brother and some of the other village children organize all kinds of entertainment for the two sad little patients including a clothesline-style elevator that is used to send messages back and forth between the two sick rooms. When the kids are out of danger, their mothers cross social boundaries to work together to homeschool the pair of invalids. Certainly not a masterpiece of writing it is, according to Alcott’s dedication, a gift to her youngest readers from her heart to theirs.

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While I will probably always argue that Little Men and Eight Cousins are Alcott at her finest, I make space for all of these on my family shelves because they are celebrations of childhood and traditional values that are disappearing. These are all good food for young souls.

FYI: Many readers desire to collect Alcott and, if possible, have matching spines. Sadly, it is basically impossible to get all of the best Alcott books in a consistent printing. The “green books” are often as close as we can get and they are a mixed bag. This series has lovely illustration from Ruth Ives but Little Women is abridged and Rose In Bloom is not included.

The Illustrated Junior Library is a good option for the Jo March books. Little Women (and Good Wives) is in one complete and hefty volume and both of the sequels were also printed. Sadly, those are the only Alcotts in that series.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Red Falcons of Tremoine

The Red Falcons of Tremoine by Hendry Peart opens in the middle of a complex story. It took this reader more than a few pages to feel at home in the text, partly because it felt as though I had walked into the middle of a conversation, and because I was met with a lot of details rather rapidly. Once I settled in, however, it proved to be an exciting and morally sound adventure.

Not unlike William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this 12th century story tells the tale of feuding families, love, honor, duty, and courage. Like Romeo and Juliet, it involves a pair of starcrossed lovers.  However, when we enter this story they have already been dead for more than a decade. If Romeo and his bride Juliet had had enough time to run away, start a family, and hide from their fate, this is what it might have looked like. They could only run for so long and, as in Shakespeare’s play, it would still have ended in tragedy.

What is interesting about this story is that this isn’t really about Romeo or Juliet type characters at all, nor is it about romance. It is about the cast of characters who surround our lovers and what happens when the lovers are no more. I found this to be interesting because so many stories today focus on the romantic ending but give little thought to life “after” the romance has been resolved. This story has the power to shape the expectations of young people towards more noble and realistic conclusions.

In this children’s story, love is pure and sacred – and we see many different forms of love. Like a good Shakespearean play, this story gives us many variations on the theme of “love”. In addition to the off-scene lovers who shaped this situation, there is an arranged marriage of other characters which blossoms beautifully, there is love between grandfather and grandson, love between different friends, estranged love, love that has been weakened by pride and selfishness, and love of God which triumphs over all and mandates a certain standard for behavior. There is nothing blush-worthy, but there is plenty to chew on. The main characters in this story work out the suffering and redemption of two families who have been torn apart by war and prejudice.

We follow the story of an orphan and the discovery of his birth, his relations, and his responsibilities. We see inside two family castles, and through the eyes of our little friend we compare the strengths and weaknesses of each family, their estates, and how they submit to the chivalric code.

By the end of the story we have had a marriage, a war, a reconciliation, an acknowledged heir, and, ultimately, a redemption.

This story is set in medieval England and features a monastery and traditional Catholic attitudes and commentary. It is not offensive or evangelistic. It is very moral, very traditional, and pretty well told.

My nine-year-old enjoyed the story immensely, and absorbed some of the goodness. I suspect, however, that in a few years he will get much more out of it.

For a family studying Romeo and Juliet this might be a nice supplemental reading. While the author never references Shakespeare, I see a very natural connection and a great opportunity for discussion.

For families studying Ivanhoe, this might be a good entree to that style and theme. It would also be a great offering to a younger reader who is not ready for the size and texture of Ivanhoe but is ready to think on these kinds of things.

Overall, this is an excellent story for our young men and women to feast on. Our main character has to make many difficult decisions about moral issues and he is often required to behave nobly while suffering painfully. Excellent for the moral imagination of young readers, and well enough written that it is also a feast for their intellect.

The audiobook is beautifully narrated by John Lee.

**Interesting note from Bethlehem Books regarding the author:

Hendry Peart is a pseudonym for the real name of the author of Red Falcons of Tremoine. The editors of Bethlehem Books have so far not discovered the author’s actual name or any information about her apart from the following short paragraph on the dust jacket of the first publication of the book in 1952:

“Hendry Peart, who is English by birth, has always been fascinated by the Middle Ages. Red Falcons of Tremoine grew out of an idea which came to her many years ago, and some chance reading about English castles and abbeys made it spring to life again so that it just demanded to be put down on paper. Miss Peart moved to Canada as a child and later to the United States, and now lives in California near Monterey Bay. An American citizen since 1934, she says it is ‘a very rich experience to have the heritage of both countries.’ Miss Peart has worked in the juvenile department of a publishing house and also as a children’s librarian, so it is not surprising that her first book should be for boys and girls.”