January was a great month for curling up in front of the fire with a blanket and a book. The skies may have been gray and the wind may have been chilling, but my spirit was warmed by the stories I read about lovers, orphans, immigrants, and displaced children of war. Here's the list:
The Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline
This was my favorite book this month. I was unaware of the historical event around which this novel revolved: the orphan trains of the 1920's and 30's. To alleviate the awful problem of orphaned and homeless children who populated the large cities like NYC during this era, children's aid societies transported thousands of orphans by train to the Midwest to places like Kansas. There the orphans were put on display like cattle at an auction and given to just about anyone who wanted one, for better or worse! Some people were kind and just wanted to help a child, but others, as you can imagine, were depraved and cruel and simply wanted free labor. One of the main characters of the novel is Vivian, a 91-year-old survivor of an orphan train. She gives a job to Molly, a 17-year -old foster child, who needs to do 50 hours of service to avoid juvie after she stole a book (Jane Eyre, I ask you... how can that be a crime!) from the library.Vivian needs her attic cleaned out, and Molly needs the hours: a perfect match. But the job turns into much more. As each box in the attic is opened, a piece of Vivian's long life is revealed and the two discover much about themselves and each other.
Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin
This book begins in post-WWII Ireland and follows a bright, young Irish girl, Eilis, as she emigrates to America where she begins a new life in Brooklyn. Her Irish family believe that America can provide a hopeful future for her, a future that she will not be able to find if she stays in Ireland. In America, Eilis blossoms under the strict guidance and generosity of a parish priest and a boarding house "mother." Here, she has been carefully placed through the efforts of her older sister. The priest selects a respectable place for her to work and even assists her in registering for college courses. Of course, life is not all rosy for Eilis as she tries to assimilate into a strange new place. The best thing about this novel is the peek it gives the reader into the flavor of life during this period of American history when Irish and Italian immigrants added to the fabric of our country with their rich and vibrant cultures.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
I had never read this classic fantasy, but decided it was time to do so, as I am taking a course on the works of C.S. Lewis. Of course, the story can be read on many levels and by just about any age group...it has such a classic appeal. The setting takes place during the blitzkrieg of London during WWII. Four children are sent from the beleaguered city to the country estate home of a wealthy professor. However, most of the story takes place in the fantasy world of Narnia that the children enter when they step through the depths of a wardrobe which stands in one of the many rooms of the mansion. Here they are faced with the very embodiment of good and evil. Much has been written about the symbolic aspect of the novel and the Narnia series.
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
Ahhh...Jane Austen! What else can I say...just divine. I think Persuasion is just as delightful as Pride and Prejudice (must be something about "P" words that bring the best out in Austen). I love the way Jane pokes a finger in the eye of the entitled titled class...what a bunch of shallow baffoons. Thank goodness the heroine in Persuasion is a humble, nice, likable person, because all of her relatives and most of her acquaintances are insufferable. And what better book to read during a series of cold, gray days than one that presents a heart-wrenching love dilemma that is not resolved until the last two pages of the novel. Delightful!