Book Review: Laura Ingalls Wilder by William Anderson

I’ve read my fair share of Laura Ingalls Wilder biographies for children–most (if not all) of them fitting into the glossy paged photograph-laden category. Each biography has a tendency to veer one of two directions: either it focuses almost entirely on the information Laura shared in her Little House books (thereby adding nothing for the avid reader) or it focuses almost entirely on the ways reality deviated from the Little House books (thereby destroying a young reader’s trust in the essential historicity of Wilder’s novels.)

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A biography by William Anderson is as different from those biographies as a book can be. It is not a glossy picture book with minimal text. It is not simply a retelling of Laura’s Little House books. Neither is it a critical look at how Laura changed her story.

Instead, it’s an honest to goodness biography written at a reading level (and in a style) similar to Laura’s “Little House” books. Anderson explicitly mentions some things that are different from the books (for instance, that Laura was actually much younger than described in Little House on the Prairie when her family settled in Indian territory); but he mostly writes Laura’s story as it occurred, letting the Wilder fan take notes of where stories were slightly altered or moved to a different context in the Little House books.

I loved it.

I think this book would have been very accessible to me in the throughs of my first Little House obsession (age 6-8), and would have added to my understanding of pioneer life (and Laura’s life in particular) without dissuading me from love for the Little House series.

It is a book of substance not of fluff, written simply but not condescendingly. I recommend it highly.

Having said all that, I think it is important that I clarify. This book is written for an elementary to middle school audience, so it doesn’t go into great detail about certain things. Those who are interested in a more in-depth discussion of Pa’s squatting on an Indian reservation or of other harsh components of pioneer life will be disappointed. Don’t expect an adult biography. But, for what it is, a children’s biography of a beloved author, this is a very good book.

I read this title as a part of Barbara H’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge. You can check out what other people have been reading at her wrap up post.

Rating: 4 stars
Category: Children’s biography
Synopsis: A biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder from birth to death; written for an elementary to middle grade audience.
Recommendation: Definitely recommended for the target audience (although older folks can enjoy it too).

WiW: Breathing Room/Living Space

The Week in Words

While reading John Keegan’s Penguin Lives biography of Winston Churchill (unsurprisingly titled Winston Churchill), I found the following quote by Churchill, describing his vision for the world:

“The cause of the poor and the weak all over the world will [be] sustained; and everywhere small peoples will get more room to breathe; and everywhere great empires will be encouraged by our example to step forward into the sunshine of a more gentle and more generous age.”

Churchill said this in 1910 or so, four years before the world would be drawn into a Great War.

At the same time, German thinkers and political theorists were developing their theory of Lebensraum or “Living Space” which Hitler would take as a main Nazi party doctrine.

Hitler writes of the principle of Lebensraum in Mein Kampf:

“Without consideration of traditions and prejudices, Germany must find the courage to gather our people and their strength for an advance along the road that will lead this people from its present restricted living space to new land and soil, and hence also free it from the danger of vanishing from the earth or of serving others as a slave nation.

The National Socialist Movement must strive to eliminate the disproportion between our population and our area—viewing this latter as a source of food as well as a basis for power politics—between our historical past and the hopelessness of our present impotence.”
~Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf found in the Wikipedia article on Lebensraum

Living space, Hitler declares. Give us living space.

Breathing room, Churchill proclaims. Give them breathing room.

I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between the two phrases.

“Living space”

“Breathing room”

The same sort of vision.

One led to the destruction of over six thousand Jews and many thousand more minorities (whether political, ethnic, religious, or social).

The other led to the liberation of Western Europe from encroaching totalitarian regimes.

Similar dreams, completely at odds with one another.

The two men would be pitted against one another in the largest war the world has seen yet.

Hitler would fight for his Lebensraum, bowling over nation after nation in Europe.

Churchill would stand, for the most part alone, to regain “breathing room” for the many marginalized peoples of Europe.

What is the difference between the two?

While Hitler argues for the benefit of himself and his people, those he has considered to be the “master race”, Churchill argues on behalf of the poor, the weak, the “small peoples”.

The same goal, but two separate targets.

Fight for my rights, for my people, for my way of life?

Or fight for others?

Not to say that Churchill was not interested in Britain’s rights or people or way of life. In fact, he was, rather oddly, a British imperialist–and certainly interested in Britain’s interests.

But he was nevertheless conscious of the rights and desires of the downtrodden, the oppressed, the “small peoples”–and it was this that made his “breathing room” so different than Hitler’s Lebensraum.

Don’t forget to take a look at Barbara H’s meme “The Week in Words”, where bloggers collect quotes they’ve read throughout the week.

Book Review: “The Narnian” by Alan Jacobs

I’ve read biographies of soldiers, of statesmen, of starlets. I’ve read biographies of philanderers, philanthropists, and even families. But until The Narnian, I’d never read a biography of a mind.

Unlike the more traditional biography, which seeks to relate the events of an individual’s life first and foremost, The Narnian chooses to focus on how the events of C.S. Lewis’s life shape and are shaped by Lewis’s powerful imagination and thought life.

As a fan of Lewis’s fiction dating from my early elementary years, later turned a lover of his more philosophical works, I took great delight in reading The Narnian. Unlike the misnamed C.S. Lewis: Chronicler of Narnia (My Review), The Narnian is shot throughout with references to Lewis’s imaginative works.

It has now been months (unfortunately) since I read The Narnian, and the fine details of the book have faded from my mind. I cannot remember the specific points that Jacobs makes better than other biographers or the characteristic manner in which he made his points. I cannot give details of his writing style. Such details have been lost in the hubbub of moving.

But one thing has not been lost—my sense of deep gratitude to Jacobs for his fine biography of a mind that has so shaped my own mind through his writings, both fiction and philosophy. Jacobs treats Lewis respectfully as he seeks to describe Lewis’s life and the development of his imagination. Jacobs does not blindly bow before Lewis’s memory as though Lewis were incapable of doing wrong—but he also avoids the trap of pigeonholing Lewis into one or another category, suggesting that he was a master at X (philosophy or apologetics or criticism of Medieval literature) while pooh-poohing the rest of his life and work.

This is truly a wonderful biography of Lewis, presented in an engaging and honest manner. I definitely recommend it.

Janet also read and reviewed The Narnian over at Across the Page. Her review is a bit more in-depth with hints of what can be found within the book. Check it out!

Rating: 4 stars
Category: Biography
Synopsis:A biography of C.S. Lewis that focuses on his inner life–his mind and imagination.
Recommendation: If you’ve read and enjoyed Lewis, be sure to check out this book for a fantastic look at the man behind the books you’ve read.

Visit my books page for more reviews and notes.

Book Review: “C.S. Lewis: The Chronicler of Narnia” by Mary Dodson Wade

I consider juvenile nonfiction as my own personal version of Cliffs Notes (for those of you too young to remember the once ubiquitous yellow and black covered pamphlets, think a printed Spark Notes.) Whenever I want to get a general outline of a topic, a basic overview of an idea, or some interesting facts about something, I turn to the juvenile nonfiction section at my local library.

I was excited to see C.S. Lewis: The Chronicler of Narnia in the children’s nonfiction section when I was working on the Chronicles of Narnia reading challenge (all the way back in July!)

I generally enjoy biographies written for younger people because they tend to focus on the highlights rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae (as some adult biographies can.)

I discovered that Mary Dodson Wade’s biography did a good job at giving a classic overview of Lewis’s life. The author begins at the beginning with young Clive Staples renaming himself “Jacksie” and concludes with some of Lewis’ legacy. In a concise 83 pages, it offers an efficient, comprehensive biography.

My only peeve with the book is its title. With a subtitle like The Chronicler of Narnia, I would have expected the narrative to focus on events and ideas that specifically relate to the Chronicles of Narnia. It did no such thing.

Sure, the book opens with a quote from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader–but from there it gives no mention of Narnia until the second to last chapter (Chapter 13). While many other authors would discuss similarities and differences between Lewis’s childhood imaginary world Boxen and Narnia, Wade remains silent. While many other authors would muse on how Lewis’s love for myth or experience in the Great War or training in philosophy or comaraderie with the Inklings affected his writing of Narnia, this author does not. She does not mention Narnia until after she has told almost all of Lewis’ story and discussed all his other writings. Then and only then, she states “Lewis wrote seven fantasies for children” and begins to speak of the Chronicles.

This is where I find it hard to review this title. How can I assess such a book? It was well suited for the purpose for which I read it–that is, to give me a Cliff Notes on Lewis’s life so I wouldn’t have to work so hard while reading a more in-depth adult biography (I’m currently working on The Narnian by Alan Jacobs.) But as a biography in and of itself? It gets the job done. It tells the facts. But it has little artistry of form to recommend. Wade’s writing doesn’t pull me into Lewis’s world, it doesn’t fascinate me by establishing a meta-narrative in which to read his life, it doesn’t make any interpretations about who Lewis was. It’s just…the facts, nothing more.

Rating: 2 stars
Category: Children’s biography
Synopsis: Wade summarizes the major events in C.S. Lewis’ life, including his many writings.
Recommendation: The facts are there, the treatment pretty comprehensive–but this title lacks soul. If you want an encyclopedia entry-type coverage of Lewis, go ahead and read this. Otherwise, look elsewhere to learn who Lewis really was.

Visit my books page for more reviews and notes.