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Francesca recommends books: Americana, part 1 | Manolo for the Big Girl

Francesca recommends books: Americana, part 1

For the next few weeks, Francesca will be recommending a sprinkling of books that offer windows into the American psyche– little bits of Americana– some delightful, some disturbing, all interesting. We will go in sort-of chronological order by setting (that is, when the book takes place, not when it was written). Here we go . . .

Let Francesca guess: You were assigned The Crucible in high school, but you had a history paper due the same week, and something had to go. So you just showed up for the class discussions, BS-ed your way through, and got a B+ in the course anyway.

The time has now come for you to do what you should have done then! The The Crucible, by Pulizter-winning playwright Arthur Miller, is ostensibly about (to take words from Amazon), “socially sanctioned violence” in colonial America, based on the real events which led to innocent young girls being convicted of witchcraft. In truth the play is a parable for McCarthyism, but it can be enjoyed on both levels. It is a gripping and disturbing read. And pretty short. Do yourself a favor and spend a Sunday afternoon reading it.

Next. No matter how much you love the movie, nothing compares to the original, Pulitzer-prize winning book version of Gone with the Wind. Nothing. Scarlett is so . . .  so . . . deliciously hate-able, and yet we want her to learn, to grow, to survive. Find out about the marriage, and the children, left out from the film . . . go back to  Civil War-era Georgiea with Rhett, with Melanie, with Ashley, with Scarlett . . .

And now, on to Westward Expansion. Laura Ingalls Wilder did us a great service by documenting (and only slightly fictionalizing) her growing-up years on the Frontier, in a series which has since come to be known as “The Little House Books.” Again, forget the television show. Forget everything you think you know about Little House on the Prairie. The show was OK for what it was, but there was very little in the show that was actually based on the books. And also, if you read the books when you were a child, re-read them because so much becomes more clear when you are a grownup. Of course, they are much faster to read when you are a grownup, but many of the nuances of the characters and what they do become easier to pick up.

Francesca’s 2 top picks from the Little House series are Little House in the Big Woods, the first installment, which chronicles Ingalls’ life when she was an extremely small child and her family lived in a log cabin deep in the woods of Wisconsin, and The Long Winter. The Long Winter explains how the Ingalls family survived in De Smet, South Dakota, when it snowed so hard and so long that the residents of the little town ran completely out of food and coal. Only as an adult, re-reading the book, did I understand the gravity and drama of the story, the fact that “Pa” and “Ma” and the other characters are not simply hungry and cold. They are, literally, in danger of starving to death. The episode in which Almanzo Wilder risks his life to try to find food for the town is breathtaking. But I didn’t get that when I was ten.

If you don’t plan to read the entire series, then I might suggest that before reading The Long Winter, you read Little House on the Prairie, in order to come to understand how the Ingalls’ came to live on a homestead outside of De Smet.

Here is a link to a  9 book box set  containing the entire series, for under $30! A great deal!

Finally, if you are a fan of American history, or of food history, or of the Little House books, Francesca highly recommends The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories . As author Barbara Walker explains in the fascinating book and chapter introductions, much of the Little House series is concerned with food: the hunting of it, the preparing of it, and the storing of it. This is because, on the Frontier, food was a major occupation and the Ingalls family had to work hard in order to not go hungry (which they sometimes did anyhow).  The cookbook goes through the foods in the series, many of which come with cooking instructions in the books, and approximates the recipes for modern kitchens. Thus, we learn how to make, among many other things, sour-dough starter, stewed rabbit with dumplings, succotash, and cucumber pickles the old-fashioned way (but with an electric or gas stove, not a wood-burning one).

Francesca has tried a couple of the recipes, and truthfully they are not good eatin’. But the book is a wonderful read.

Happy reading!

xoxo, Francesca

13 Responses to “Francesca recommends books: Americana, part 1”

  1. class-factotum October 18, 2007 at 10:11 am #

    I *loved* the Little House books when I was a kid. I have never thought of re-reading them, but now I will.

    Might I add to the list of “Living on the prairie and almost dying and for sure going insane in the long, dreary winter” genre, “Giants in the Earth,” by Ole Rolvaag. It’s about Norwegian immigrants on the prairie and I like it not just because it’s about my people but because it is an excellent (albeit depressing at times, but then, we Norwegians are like that) book.

    “My Antonia” is also very good in the prairie genre.

    For the Texas/cowboy genre, “Lonesome Dove” is fabulous. I stayed up until 2:00 a.m. three nights in a row to finish that thing. I’ve never seen the miniseries, so I don’t know how it compares, but the book is almost always better than the movie anyhow and I have no doubt the same is true in this case.

    Isabel Allende’s “Daughter of Fortune” and “Zorro” are both fun books that involve California history.

  2. cattypex October 18, 2007 at 10:21 am #

    Oh, those Little House books!! A few years ago I made a DeSmet pilgrimage. It was awesome, though I got out-geeked by a lady who knew that Ma Ingalls was 4’9″. Also their claim shanty was about 10′ x 12′. There were… let’s see…. 2 adults, 2 teens and 2 smaller children living in there, with all their stuff. Damn.

    When I read them as an adult, I finally figured out that “When a girl is old enough to put up her hair, she must wear corsets” was code for “menarche.”

    Let us all thank Dame Fashion that corsets are no longer required, especially for us big girls.

    And those two Isabel Allende books are fabulous, too!!!!

  3. Neller October 18, 2007 at 11:50 am #

    I could about kiss the Francesca at this moment!! I was more than an avid reader as a child (and I firmly believe that laid the foundation for future successes – I encourage EVERYONE to read read read). I was the one that perused the Scholastic Books order forms for HOURS before finally narrowing down my Wish List to 2 or 3 books my parents would actually buy for me.

    I was hooked on the Little House series as a pretty young child – I think I was in second grade when I first picked them up. After buying a couple of the set (Little House in the Big Woods & Little House on the Prairie) and checking out others from the library and reareading them dozens of times, my uncle finally bought the boxed set for me for Christmas when I was in fourth grade. I was the happiest girl on earth! Little House in the Big Woods will always be my favorite, as I’m from Wisconsin, but I enjoyed The Long Winter as well. Particularly the scene in which Pa Ingalls figures out the Wilder boys are ‘shorting’ their store & keeping grain hidden. It was that book that made me want to use my mom’s for-decorative-purposes-only coffee grinder to try to make my own bread from scratch.

    Finally, I HAVE that cookbook! I made the maple syrup/snow candy and cherry turnovers one year. The turnovers were alright, but quite bland. The snow candy probably would have been good…had I used maple syrup rather than Mrs. Butterworth’s. (My 10 year old mind did not understand the difference.) I may have to retrieve that from my parents’ house and give the snow candy a whirl this year….

    Thanks again for the entry, and bringing back fabulous memories. I’ll add your other suggestions to my ever-growing “To Read” list. (And I apologize about writing my own novella here!)
    ~Danielle

  4. Twistie October 18, 2007 at 11:51 am #

    I adore The Crucible. The Salem witch trials have long fascinated me, and the play is surprisingly accurate. A few details have been changed for the sake of dramatic organization (Abigail Williams was only eleven when she began accusing people of witchcraft so she wasn’t having an affair with John Proctor, Ann Putnam’s daughter was also named Ann rather than Ruth, Ann Putnam Sr. was actually among the ‘afflicted girls’ – the only full, legal adult among them) but much of the dialogue is based heavily on the trial transcripts and diaries that have survived from the period, and most of the public events that happen in the play are well-documented.

    Oh, and there’s one advantage to reading the play over seeing it: Arthur Miller included a great many notes about the characters and events within the published script, so you can learn a lot of details that couldn’t have been covered in a production of a two-hour play.

    Salem’s witch trials were far from the only ones in the American Colonies, nor were they the bloodiest, but they were – and still are – probably the most bizarre. They were also among the last. The accused ranged from little Dorcas Good, age four to elderly people who had been upstanding members of the community for threescore years and ten. they ranged from wandering beggars to the wife of the Governor of Massachusetts. Yeah, that last one was where it was finally decided the afflicted girls had overstepped their bounds and the insanity was brought to an end.

    If you only ever read one book on the Salem Village madness, The Crucible is an excellent one to choose. It also happens to be a powerful statement of human dignity in the face of insurmountable odds. Go read it today.

  5. Margo October 18, 2007 at 8:36 pm #

    Have you read The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus? It’s a treat.

  6. Ms. Berry October 18, 2007 at 8:39 pm #

    Oh, I just re-read the LH books last month! They are amazing. TLW hit me hard too, as now that I am in my 20’s, I get so much more out of them than when I was 10. I keep finding myself thinking things like “If Ma could hold onto a clothesline to milk the cow in a blizzard, I can get up an hour early to walk to work.”

    I was also amazed in “Little Town on the Prairie” how excited everyone was when The First Cat came to De Smet, and how Pa paid $5 (or something like that) for one of her kittens because the rodent problem was so bad.

    I don’t have the cook book, but I do have the songbook.

  7. Toby Wollin October 19, 2007 at 11:49 am #

    I’ve been a Little House freak since I was 8. My daughters’ names are Laura and Carolyn. I’m not kidding.
    The item which I picked up and have always recalled from the first LH book was the Christmas party – remember? The babies all rolled up and sleeping on the bed? And Ma’s brother, back from the war..still wearing his uniform and frankly, just a little bit …NUTS?
    First case of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome that I ever saw – I did not know it as that problem at the time but I remember thinking when I read that, that her uncle had been made sick by the Civil War.

  8. slownews October 19, 2007 at 10:23 pm #

    Golly, LH books were my absolute bibles (so to speak) when I was a kid. I’m wondering if it’s too soon for my daughter, age 4? My mom is thinking these are the books for Christmas.

    Francesca, you sound exactly like a (stylish) lit prof to me. Bless you.

  9. JustJenny October 20, 2007 at 12:16 pm #

    I’m so glad someone else liked Gone with the Wind. I must have read that book 200 times growing up. I can still recite whole sections… Wonderful prose.

  10. Anne October 20, 2007 at 4:48 pm #

    I also loved Gone with the Wind – I need to get it out and read it again. I read all the Little House books as a kid, and thought it sounded like great fun. But you are right – I was reading them to my daughter last year, and as an adult, I was struck by how hard their life was. The book Farmer Boy is practically food porn – I read that Laura embellished/fantasized the amount of food the Almanzo had growing up because it was so scarce in her childhood.

  11. Florence Italy May 24, 2009 at 12:07 pm #

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader.