In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

Reading Trails

 - Wednesday, June 04, 2014

We've just moved our TV into another room and can't work out how to connect it, and I don't care! The pile of books by the bed is getting smaller, and I'm reading them one after the other, quite indiscriminately. Serendipitously, the last three I read were sort of linked, which is what happens when you hand your reading over to the universe.


Top of the pile was the children's classic, What Katy Did, by Susan Coolidge. Written in 1872 and set in the 1860s in Ohio, twelve year old Katy Carr is the eldest of six motherless children, who live with their father, the local doctor, and their rather unyielding aunt. Katy reminds me of Jo March, from Little Women (1868). She is spirited, untidy and very much her own person. The quest to be good is a strong theme in children's books from that era-but Katy can't help herself, she wants to be heroic, but she also wants to have fun. One of the funniest and most memorable school scenes I have ever read must be when she invents 'The Game of Rivers'. Katy is passionate about people and forms all kinds of unsuitable alliances, causing much embarrassment for herself and others. When Katy suffers a horrible accident, the novel changes tone, and she discovers fortitude and a new respect for her family. The wonderful descriptions of family life, and Katy's slow and painful recovery, are very believable, and very affecting. Not all classics pass the test of time as well as this one.


Tracy Chevalier's 2012 book, The Last Runaway, is also set in Ohio, in 1850. After a failed romance, a young Quaker woman named Honor Bright sets sail for America. Her sister dies on this hideous sea voyage, and she finds herself alone in the middle of Ohio, amongst rather inhospitable 'Friends'. Slowly she pieces together a life, and finds herself (rather abruptly) married to a virtual stranger on a remote farm. This farm is one of the stops on the 'Underground Railroad'-the organisation that helped slaves escape the South. When Quaker Honor finds this out she naturally wants to help, but much to her surprise, not all her brethren feel the same way. Apart from Honor, who is a rather dour creature, the book is full of colourful characters and wonderful descriptions of quiltmaking, bonnet making and dressmaking. Honor is a brilliant seamstress, which is pivotal to the plot, lifting what could have been a rather trite story. As the author points out in the Author's Note, the myth of Underground Railroad is a 'feel-good' story, but the reality was somewhat different. Between the years 1800-1865, 30,000 African Americans managed to escape using the 'Railroad', but this was less than 1% of the slave population.
Next, and continuing the slave narrative, I just read Huckleberry Finn (1884). Mark Twain's classic tale has eluded me until now. Maybe I found the vernacular too v vhard to read-but this time I persevered, and it was so worth it. Huck Finn really is one of literature's great characters, and while Tom Sawyer might be a children's adventure, Huckleberry Finn, with its alcoholism, child abuse, tarring and feathering, and the deadly peril a runaway slave faces  in the antebellum South, really isn't. The grim reality of Huck's life, his hideous father in particular, would make for very hard reading if the book wasn't so funny, and Huck wasn't so resolutely full of life. His raft trip down the Mississip, with the escaped slave Jim, is hair-raising, scary and hilarious. The people they meet on the way, the situations in which they find themselves embroiled, and the way they dodge authority, are so funny and elegantly written, it's easy to understand why this is seen as one of the great books. Huckleberry Finn's inner struggle to be good, and his unusual insight, transcend the worst parts of the story, much like he manages to rise above his own background. Having just read Donna Tartt's new book, I see many parallels between Huck Finn and The Goldfinch's central character, Theo Decker-another way Huck lives on. Louise Pfanner