The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Title: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Pages: 317
Recommended Ages: 12 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★★

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All hail, Holmes!

The Stories.

A Scandal in Bohemia. The King of Bohemia has come to Holmes in great distress. Unless Holmes is able to recover a compromising portrait from one, Irene Adler, not only will the King’s marriage be jeopardized, but all of Europe will suffer from the repercussions. Will Mr. Holmes take the case?

The Red-Headed League. Mr. Jabez Wilson is in some distress. He was accepted into the League of Red-Headed men and appointed a job in the club – with a tidy remuneration – only to receive word this morning that the club has been dissolved without a trace. What is this league all about, anyway?

A Case of Identity. Miss Mary Sutherland is entirely confused. Against her domineering step-father’s will she has become engaged to marry a Mr. Hosmer Angel. But on the morning on which they were to be married, Mr. Angel disappeared and has not been seen since. Where can he have got to?

The Boscombe Valley Mystery. A man, Charles McCarthy, has been found lying in a pool of his own blood. The obvious suspect – indeed the man the police have arrested – is McCarthy’s own son, James, who was engaged in a savage argument just minutes before McCarthy was killed. But Miss Turner, who has known James since he was a boy, is convinced that he could never commit murder. So Holmes is called in to sift the clues, to weigh the facts, to name the murderer…

The Five Orange Pips. John Openshaw is scared. Scared out of his wits. And the horror of it is, he doesn’t know exactly what he scared of. All he knows is that it exacts death – mysterious death – of its victims. See, his uncle died shortly after receiving an envelope containing five orange pips. The experience was repeated with his father. And now, he has received five orange pips of his own…

The Man With the Twisted Lip. Several days ago, Neville St Clair disappeared. His wife is frantic to find him and is certain that she saw him in the upper story of a shady business. But when she entered there, fully expecting to see him and demand an explanation from him, he wasn’t there. Instead, an old, decrepit beggar greeted her. Has St Clair been murdered? Or is he still alive?

The Blue Carbuncle. ‘Tis Christmas – the season of happiness and goodwill. But it’s also the season of mystery and robbery. For a shabby hat and goose have thrust upon Mr. Holmes – complimentary of a squirmish in which the owner of both took to his heels – and a priceless blue carbuncle has been stole from the Hotel Cosmopolitan. Will Holmes be able to draw any connection between the two?

The Speckled Band. Two years ago, Julia Stoner stumbled out of her bedroom and collapsed upon the floor writhing in pain. The only words she managed to utter before dying were these – “the speckled band!” All of her doors and windows had been locked from the inside at the time that she was seized, and the only clue to her mysterious death was her previous mention her hearing whistles in the night. Imagine then, her twin sister, Helen’s, horror when, after being moved to Julia’s now vacant room so that repairs may be done in her own room, she hears whistles in the night. What does it mean, Mr. Holmes?

The Engineer’s Thumb. It is not often that Watson is able to bring an interesting case to Holmes’ attention. But in this instance, the case is not only interesting, it is unforgettable! It involves a mysterious mansion, a gang of very clever forgers, and an engineer with a missing thumb…

The Noble Bachelor. Holmes never bothers to read the society papers. But this case comes straight out of society gossip. It seems that Lord Robert St. Simon has been deserted – jilted – by his wife just hours after their wedding ceremony was completed. She has completely disappeared! Can Mr. Holmes track her down?

The Beryl Coronet. Mr. Alexander Holder of the banking firm, Holder & Stevenson, is distraught. He was entrusted by an illustrious client with the invaluable beryl coronet as security for a loan. But several of the gems have been stolen from the coronet while in Mr. Holder’s possession – and the only suspect is his own son!

The Copper Beeches. A young lady, Miss Violet Hunter, wants to consult Mr. Holmes on a very important matter. She wants to know if she should accept a position as governess at the Copper Beeches. Although Holmes is initially disdainful – considering such a problem to be below him – he changes his mind when he hears what is troubling her. It seems that amongst her employer’s requirements are that she would cut her beautiful hair quite short and occasionally wear a dress of electric blue. Holmes foresees danger in Miss Hunter’s future!

Discussion.

I love Holmes. I love his world. I love his art. I love his cold calculation, his indefatigable spirit, and his mysterious languid spells. I love his sometimes snobbish but ever companionable relationship with Watson. And, of course, I love 221b Baker Street.

It was so good getting back into the Holmes canon. I’ve watched so many adaptions of his character in the past few years that I’d somehow lost sight of the real Holmes. Because every adaption only presents a facet of the true Holmes – the full complexity of his character somehow eludes the screen.

This particular collection of short stories – one of five – is, I think, the happiest of them all. It occurs before Conan Doyle kills Holmes, and presumably while he still likes him. Holmes isn’t quite as light-hearted as he was in A Study in Scarlet, but neither is he so brooding as in the later stories (His Last Bow, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes). And the stories themselves are fine.

I don’t mean fine as in ‘okay’. I mean fine as one means ‘fine china’. These stories are finely crafted and populated with believable characters. One thing that I love about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes canon is that it proves that a mystery need not be based around a murder to be intensely fascinating. Of the twelve mysteries contained in The Adventures, only three deal directly with murder.

In fact, the whole book is remarkably clean. Really the only story of the lot which parents need be concerned with is the first, which concerns the indiscretions of a king. But even here, the word mistress is used only once – the relationship is referred to as an ‘entanglement’, not an affair. It is, considering the topic itself, clean.

Various forms of God’s name are used a total of eighteen times, most in serious situations which could be considered forms of prayer.

Conclusion. Excellent! Buy it – read it.

The Story of the Battle of Antietam

Title: The Story of the Battle of Antietam
Author: Zachary Kent
Pages: 31
Recommended Ages: 9 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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September 17, 1862. The Battle of Antietam. The single bloodiest day of the War Between the States. The battle in which General Lee’s Maryland Campaign was repulsed by General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. The day which left thousands of mothers desolate.

The Story of the Battle of Antietam is by no means exhaustive – on the contrary, it was written primarily for children. But it provided a comprehensive examination of the battle, including the days preceding and succeeding it. The movements of both armies are discussed and pictures are provided of the key leaders of the battle as well as the locations, campsites, and battlefields involved.

Discussion.

In explanation of the beginning of the war, Mr. Kent says,

“Since 1861, the United States had been gripped by civil war. A long, raging argument over slavery and states’ rights had torn the country in two. In the North, where factories thrived, thousands of European immigrants were willing to work for low wages. Most northerners had no use for slavery, and many considered it cruel and immoral. In the South, however, cotton was the major crop. It was grown on large plantations worked by African slaves. The southerners depended on slavery for the success of their farming economy.” [pg. 7]

While this paragraph may be true as far as it goes, it gives an imbalanced version of the causes of the war. This could easily be remedied by a little parental instruction.

‘My God’ is used once in the middle of the battle.

Conclusion. An excellent resource that describes the Battle of Antietam in language that children can understand and adults can learn from.

A Study in Scarlet

Title: A Study in Scarlet
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Pages: 131
Reading Level: 12 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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The first of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Story.          

Dr. John Watson, on leave from his post as doctor to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, is in need of comfortable rooms at a reasonable price. The only practical way to achieve this combination is to find a flat mate. So, when someone mentions Sherlock Holmes, a fellow interested in chemistry, as a man also in search of rooms, Dr. Watson doesn’t waste any time. He secures Holmes and their rooms, relieved that he can now settle down.

But it isn’t as simple as that. Holmes is an unusual fellow – he keeps odd hours, receives a plethora of uninvited guests, and is mysterious about his profession. This puzzles Dr. Watson until the day that he learns that Holmes’ profession is the mysterious. Then, he is plunged into a murder mystery that involves an empty house, a woman’s wedding ring, and the word ‘RACHE’ written on a wall… in blood…

Will Holmes be able to solve this fantastic mystery and catch the elusive murderer?

Discussion.

I read the complete Sherlock Holmes back in 2009. Since then, I’ve re-read most of the short stories, some more than others. But I hadn’t re-read any of the novels. It was time.

There is something so special about re-reading the early days of the Holmes/Watson association. It’s easy to grow accustomed to the trust and collaboration between them and forget that in the earliest days, Watson wasn’t quite sure what to think of Holmes (he’s never heard of a heliocentric universe. Really!) and Holmes did not include Watson in his adventures. They were outsiders to each other. And then, slowly, the bond began to grow.

Also of interest to me was the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in this first story. I have long been aware that his character changed over the course of the stories, but I hadn’t realized just how much. Oh, sure, he’s still the same old lover-of-the-puzzle-for-the-puzzle’s-sake Holmes, but he’s different. He’s more ambitious with his trade – he chafes at the fact that Lestrade and Gregson will reap the benefits of his deductions, whereas in later stories, he accepted and sometimes preferred the fact that the Yard detectives were credited. In the later stories he’s more moody, more inaccessible. In A Study he is boyish, susceptible to praise, and ready to laugh at a joke.

So the question is, which way do I prefer him? The answer – both. I like him both ways. I like Holmes as the moody genius as well as the good-natured blood hound. As one he’s more legendary, the other more human. Both are good. Both are Holmes.

Now for the actual story, or rather stories. The first time I read A Study in Scarlet, I was irritated that nearly a half of the novel was spent explaining the motive / personal history of the murderer. It felt anti-climactic, as though Doyle was just trying to create a certain number of words rather than an actual story. This time through, since I already knew how the story ended, I didn’t feel so impatient. I still don’t think that it was the best way to write a story (interrupting an English mystery to insert a bit of American western), but it doesn’t destroy the story.

Cautions.

Holmes expresses an opinion in one scene which explicitly references Darwinism. It is incidental and does not affect the story.

The second half of the story involves a Mormon settlement – it is properly (harshly) represented.

‘Damn’ is used once, ‘darn’ twice. Variations of God’s name are used a total of three times.

Conclusion. A Study in Scarlet is the introduction to one of the most fascinating characters of literature. Read it, then read The Adventures and The Return.

Old Town in the Green Groves

Title: Old Town in the Green Groves
Author: Cynthia Ryland
Pages: 164
Recommended Ages: 8 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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As I started to read this book, I was sure I recognized the author’s name. Cynthia Rylant, Cynthia Rylant… At last I could stand it no longer. I pulled up my data base… and there she was. She was the author of… MISSING MAY? Horrors! But, thank goodness, Old Town in the Green Groves is nothing like Missing May.

The Story.

Laura loves their little house on Plum Creek. She wishes she could live there forever. All they need is for this year’s crop to be successful, and then Pa will be able to pay off his debts, and they can stay there for a good long time.

But the crop isn’t successful. For the third year in a row, the Ingalls’ crop is destroyed – consumed – by grasshoppers. As far as Pa can figure, their only option is to sell the farm, pack up the family, and move to Burr Oak, Iowa, where he’s been offered the job of helping to run a hotel.

Laura is said to be leaving her beloved home. And when she gets to Burr Oaks, she’s not very impressed by its constricting borders. But she trusts Pa, and she hopes that he too will soon be influenced by his love of the prairie and they will soon drive a wagon west, far west…

Praises.

I have to hand it to Ms. Rylant – she did an amazing job calling up the Little House on the Prairie atmosphere. And she was very careful with her material – about a third of the book was spent recalling incidents that had happened in previous Little House on the Prairie books, and the rest was based on a dozen pages that Laura herself wrote. Her attention to accuracy was impressive.

There was such a sweet family sense to Old Town in the Green Groves. You got the feeling that everyone in the Ingalls family really loved one another.

“Now, flutterbudget,” said Pa, putting an arm around her in the rain, “what could a pot of gold possibly bring you that you haven’t already got?”

Laura stood next to Pa and looked all around her. She looked at their wonderful house full of real glass windows. She looked at the door leading into it and, beyond that, in her mind, she looked at Ma smiling back at her, and Mary and Carrie and little Freddie all well and happy and safe. She looked down at poor soggy Jack besides her feet and at Pa’s old boots, worn from so much work and so many miles to make a good home for his family.

Laura looked at the new barn Pa had built, warm with the smell of hay and oats and strong, fine animals. She looked through the raindrops at the farmland and fields opening all around, promising wheat and corn and potatoes and good-rooted turnips. And on beyond these were the slender little leaves on the willows beginning to bud and the soft green shoots of the yellow star grass and the blue violets and the friendly white daisies set to bloom.

Laura thought about it all there in the steady spring rain. Then she looked at Pa.

“You’re right, Pa,” Laura said with a smile. “I can’t think of anything I haven’t already got.”

Pa hugged her shoulders, and she followed him to the barn. [pgs. 31-32]

Mary, Laura, and Carrie are very industrious little girls who work around the house as a matter of duty. They manage to successfully run the house when Ma is having baby Freddie, and later when she is sick. When the girls themselves are sick, Mary apologizes to Ma for not being able to help her.

After Ma recovers from her illness, Laura “wished to do even more for Ma. She wished she could give Ma everything. Laura never again wanted to think about Ma being sick and thin and yellow.” [pgs. 50-51]

I thought this was sweet.

“May I hold Freddie as far as Nelson’s?” Mary asked Ma as the girls climbed into the back of the wagon.

“Oh, can’t I hold him please this time?” asked Carrie.

Laura wanted to hold Freddie too, but she didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to make it a squabble.

“Mary asked first,” Ma said, “So she may take the baby as far as Nelson’s. Then Carrie may hold him as far as the creek. When we cross the water, Laura may hold him until we reach home.”

All three girls were happy. [pg. 18]

Isn’t that sweet? All of the little girls wanting to hold their little brother – and Laura not wanting to start an argument.

When the Ingalls first move to Burr Oaks, both Ma and Pa work in the hotel in an attempt to pay off their debts. Laura is very saddened by this because she misses the time she used to spend with Ma. This is the girls’ reaction when they hear that Ma is about to stop working.

“Oh, good!” said Mary. “Good, good, good!”

Laura was relieved too. Ma would belong to them again, not to the hotel.

“I can’t wait, Ma,” said Laura.

“Neither can I,” said Ma with a smile. [pg. 116]

Once, when Laura is feeling depressed, she goes to Pa with her problem. He listens to her, talks with her, and gives her the security she needs.

At the end of the story, when little Grace has just been born, Ma looks at the girls and asks them,

“Do you know what ‘grace’ means?”

The girls all shook their heads.

“It means the spirit of God in someone’s heart,” said Ma. And her eyes filled with happy tears. [pg. 147]

Cautions.

After they move to Burr Oak, Laura, Mary, and Carrie meet the Steadman boys. These boys are rough, rowdy, pesky, and generally everything unpleasant. They mercilessly tease the girls, and because both of their families live at the same hotel, it is impossible for the girls to escape them. Laura wants to retaliate to them, but

Ma had instructed the girls never to be mean to him.

“But he’s mean to us, Ma,” Laura had said.

“And you are a lady,” answered Ma, and that ended the discussion. [pg. 91]

And although the boys continue to tease the girls, none of them ever responds in kind. However, when the boys mock them for having the measles, Laura hotly wishes, “I hope Johnny gets them.” A few days later, Ma tells her girls that Johnny did get the measles.

Ma waited to see if any of her good girls laughed. But not one of them did. They all looked solemnly at Ma, and not one cracked a smile. Satisfied, Ma went back to work.

But as soon as she left, Laura looked at Carrie and Carrie looked at Mary and Mary looked at them both and they laughed and laughed and laughed!  [pg. 112]

Although we should not be happy at the misfortunes of others, I could not blame the girls for being happy that their tormentor was temporarily out of action. At the very end of the book, after Johnny hits her with a spitball, Laura sticks out her tongue at him.

Pa tells a story to Ma which Laura overhears.

“What do you mean he ‘burned out his lungs,’ Charles?” asked Ma in a hushed voice behind the curtains of the four-poster.

“The fellow drank so much whiskey,” said Pa, “that he was full of fumes, and when he tried to light a cigar, he breathed in the flame of the match and burned out his lungs.” [pgs. 113-114]

After Laura’s little brother, Freddie dies, Laura tells Ma, “He was an angel.” Ma agrees with her.

Upon seeing a rainbow, Pa tells Laura that there’s a

“Pot o’ gold out there somewhere,” said Pa.

“Really, Pa?” asked Laura.

“Honest truth,” answered Pa. “But only elves can find it. That’s what they say, anyhow.” [pg. 31]

Laura remembers that “Ma had told Laura that if ever she had a dream about clover, it would foretell a happy marriage, a long life, and prosperity. Laura was still waiting for this dream.” [pg. 140]

‘Darnedest’ and ‘by golly’ are each used once.

Conclusion. For anyone who enjoyed the Little House on the Prairie series, this book is for you!

…If You Grew Up With Abraham Lincoln

Title: If You Grew Up With Abraham Lincoln
Author: Ann McGovern
Illustrator: Brinton Turkle
Pages: 79
Recommended Ages: 9 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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…If You Grew Up With Abraham Lincoln, written by Ann McGovern, is unique. It reads neither like a biography nor a pure history – rather, it is a cross between both. Many of the questions dealt specifically with Lincoln while others concerned the general period of history in which he lived.

Q & A.

What kind of clothes did people wear on the frontier?

People on the frontier did not wear fancy clothes. All the clothes were made at home.

Men hunted deer and used the deerskins to make pants and jackets and shoes. They called the deerskin buckskin.

Buckskin breeches were fine – unless you got caught in the rain. Then the breeches would shrink. As they dried, the breeches would get tighter and tighter around your legs. Abe had a blue mark on each leg all his life, from wearing buckskin breeches that shrank after a rain. [pgs. 17-18]

What kind of school would you go to?

You would go to a blab school! The schools were called blab schools because everyone blabbed – that is, everyone said his lessons out loud at the same time. That is how the teacher could tell if each pupil was doing his work.

You might live miles away from a schoolhouse. When he lived in Indiana, Abe Lincoln had to walk about four miles though the woods to get to school. [pg. 33-34]

How would you send a letter?

If you wanted to send a letter, you would give it to the postmaster. Abe Lincoln was postmaster of New Salem for three years.

You would write your letter on a sheet of paper.

There were no envelopes. So you would fold the paper and seal the folds with hot sealing wax. You wrote the address on the outside. There were no stamps either. In the upper right-hand corner, the postmaster wrote down how much it would cost to send the letter. But you wouldn’t pay to send the letter. The person who got the letter paid for it. The farther away he lived, the more he had to pay.

If you wrote a letter on one sheet of paper to a friend who lived thirty miles away, your friend would have to pay six cents. But if you used two sheets of paper, your friend would have to pay twice as much. So people tried to crowd everything onto one sheet of people. [pgs. 55-56]

Cautions.

Lincoln is treated neither as a villainous ogre nor the savior of the world. He is depicted simply as a person who existed and whose life is worth recording. I found this “neutral” position acceptable, but then I am not a die-hard Lincoln hater…

One answer mentions the practice at corn husking events of exchanging a red ear for a kiss.

In the answer to one of the questions, Abe jokes about one of his father’s prayers.

One answer discusses the local beliefs and superstitious healing practices.

One answer mentions The Arabian Nights and its magical stories.

Conclusion. Helpful study of the life and times of Abraham Lincoln.

Soldier’s Heart

Title: Soldier’s Heart
Author: Gary Paulsen
Pages: 106
Recommended Ages: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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Gary Paulsen is the author of the Mr. Tucket series…

The Story.

Fifteen year old Charley Goddard is excited at the prospect of signing up as a soldier. He knows he’s too young, but why should he miss out on all of the adventure and glory of war? Why not lie about his age and join in the excitement? Then, when he returns, he’ll be a hero!

But nothing could have prepared Charley for the carnage and bloodshed of war. As he watches friends and comrades blow up around him, will Charley have the strength – physical and mental – to pull through?

Discussion.

Soldier’s Heart is told in very simple language – so simple an eight year old could read it with comfort. But the words convey deep sorrow, horror, and despair. As a soldier, Charley is brought face to face with the ugly violence of the war. And he records it. All of it. He writes of horses with half their heads missing, of the horrible screams which echo across the fields, of the sweet smell of bloated, decaying bodies, of jaws blown off, appendages missing, and intestines dangling from stomachs. The horrors of war are presented in all of their sickening, revolting, chilling reality. There were several places where I turned my eyes away from my spot on the page to catch a deep breath before rushing through as quickly as I could to the non-violent parts. And all of this experience by fifteen, sixteen, seventeen year olds! No wonder Charley became hardened!

Charley couldn’t stop running and soon found himself in front of the line. He would have been shocked to see himself. His lips were drawn back showing his teeth, and his face was contorted by a savage rage.

He wanted to kill them. He wanted to catch them and run his bayonet through them and kill them. All of them. Stick and jab and shoot them and murder them and kill them all, each and every Rebel’s son of them. Not one would be able to get up. Not one. Kill them all.

Before they could kill him. [pgs. 50-51]

Soldier’s Heart did much to dispel my sentimental, happy-go-lucky, isn’t-this-an-adventure view of war. It showed me the unreasoning power of death. And I am grateful to it for enlightening me. It wasn’t a pleasant read, but it sobered me.

At the end of the story is a brief scene in which it is implied that Charley is considering suicide. However, he does not.

Charley’s family (his mother actually, his father’s dead) only appears in the very beginning of the story, when Charley talks her into letting him join the army. She admits that she has not been able to control him since his father died, however, they do seem to love one another.

Paulsen says that Charley is old. He explains this by saying, “Not old in years – years he still hadn’t started daily shaving or learned about women. But in other ways he was old, old from too much life, old from seeing too much, old from knowing too much.” [pg. 98]

Charley gets into the army by lying about his age.

‘Hell’ is used twice while ‘damn’ is used once. When Charley first hears a man curse, Paulsen writes, “Charley nodded but stopped talking because he did not like profanity, even of a low order.” [pg. 19] Charley thinks/prays several times on the battlefield and uses God’s name freely.

He thought it must be the same with profanity and immoral thinking. Charley believed in Heaven and Hell and God and Jesus and wanted to be with God if he was killed. If he had profane thoughts as he went to war, they might infect his soul as the dirty clothes would infect his wound. And while he did not think he would die, did not think he would even be hit or hurt, did not think of it at all, still it was best to be careful. [pg. 20]

Conclusion. I do not consider Soldier’s Heart to be ‘off-limits’ for all ages. Its bleakness and bloodiness is much too harsh for younger readers. However, older students who are interested in gaining a realistic perspective of war or who are infected with a sentimental view of war may profit from it.

Wanted Dead or Alive

Title: Wanted Dead or Alive
Author: Ann McGovern
Pages: 62
Recommended Ages: 8-12
Star Rating: ★★★★

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I’ve already overviewed Harriet Tubman’s life in my review of Harriet Tubman, so I will not here enter into another account. I will only note that Harriet Tubman was written for an older audience than “Wanted Dead or Alive” and thus includes more details of Harriet’s life. “Wanted Dead or Alive” also barely touched on Harriet’s life after the war but focuses more on her exciting exploits during it.

Discussion.

Instead of glossing over Harriet’s deep religious sense, Ms. McGovern depicts Harriet as praying and praising God in several different instances.

Lies are told to save lives.

Conclusion. A solid account that will fire your children’s imaginations and give them a greater interest in the effort to end slavery.

The Man Who Would Be King

Title: The Man Who Would Be King
Author: Rudyard Kipling
Pages: 48
Reading Level: 13 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

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A story of adventure, intrigue, companionship, and betrayal…

The Story.

It seems impossible. Yet here he is – Carnehan, the same man that stood before me two years ago contracting with his comrade, Dravot, that they two would become the kings of Kafiristan. The same man, but oh how different now! Then he was bright, happy, full of life and health – ready to take on the world! Now, he is a cowering, whining cripple, barely able to stand and shrinking from the notice of day. What happened during those three years? What happened to the Man who would be King?

Discussion.

Alright. So there are two main things that I want to discuss about The Man Who Would Be King. The first is the interpretation of the story – what it means and what we can learn from it. The other is an evaluation of the story – how it was written and how it should have been written. (Like I know better than Kipling, right? Right.)

An Interpretation. The Man Who Would Be King is, ostensibly, a classic adventure story. As the story begins, we learn that Carnehan and his cheeky friend, Dravot are planning to launch a two man invasion on a small Middle Eastern nation, with the naïve intention of becoming kings. Sounds like a riproaring fun scenario! But The Man Who Would Be King is not fun. I don’t mean that to say it was boring or annoying or anything negative – it simply was not a fun story. It was a sober story told in occasionally humorous tones.

I don’t know how Kipling meant The Man Who Would Be King to be interpreted. I don’t know if it was intended to be an up and up adventure story or a political agenda expressed in covert language. So instead of falling all over myself trying to tell you how he meant it, I’ll tell you how I took it.

The Man Who Would Be King was a story of pride. It was a story of the destruction of pride. And it was a story of how no one – no one! – is allowed to lift himself up and call himself god. Because that’s exactly what Carnehan and Dravot do. They don’t set out plotting to do it, I’ll give them that, but as soon as the opportunity arises, they capitalize on superstition and pretend to be gods, thus commanding the idolatrous and subservient worship of a people group and enthroning themselves as absolute sovereigns over a sphere. They maintain this masquerade for quite some time, but in the end, their fall is swift and horrible. The people they tricked into worshipping turn upon their fallen gods in rage. Justice is executed.

All of which I found to be a poignant reminder of how carefully we must guard our hearts against the sin of pride. We may not do anything so drastic as Carnehan and Dravot, but we are guilty of the same sin on a smaller scale, for we all seek to inflate our own importance for the purpose of gaining power, admiration, etc.

An Evaluation. I believe that The Man Who Would Be King could have been written much more effectively. It wanted to be an adventure story and contained most or all of the right elements – ambitious protagonists, an exotic frontier, and a kingdom at stake (all it was missing was the beautiful princess – think Prisoner of Zenda) – but it was hampered stylistically by two things.

First was the narrative within a narrative technique. Adventure stories are rarely as interesting in this format as they could have been in an outright narrative, primarily because the suspense is precluded. We already know that something terrible happened to Carnehan and that Dravot is dead. So, while we may wonder at what happened in those two years, we aren’t glued to the story, because we already know its outcome. Also, narratives-within-narratives (henceforth NWN) rarely let you forget that what you are reading is, in fact, a story. You aren’t allowed to get into the story – you may only listen to it. Carnehan’s story felt faraway to me – out of touch with reality and really unearthly. Perhaps Kipling meant it to be that way. I don’t know.

Second is its brevity. Because Kipling DID choose the NWN technique, the story had to be kept short. After all, Carnehan couldn’t talk for two days straight! But I thought that had the story been told forthrightly (as I suggested in the paragraph above) and had it been expanded, it could have been much more effective. I don’t believe that longer is better in general, but as readers, we need enough time to get involved with our characters. The Man Who Would Be King just didn’t give me that time. So, when it ended, I felt sorry for Dravot and Carnehan, but I was not connected enough to them to actually feel empathy for their situation.

Caution.

Carnehan and Dravot not only claim to be gods and encourage idolatrous worship, but they also encourage the re-opening of a Masonic club in Kafiristan in which they establish themselves. They initiate a large group of men into the club and use it to further their power.

There is some little discussion of women – Carnehan and Dravot swear that they will not “look at any woman black, white or brown” until they are established in their kingdom. After they are kings, Dravot declares that he wants a wife and tells Carnehan that he should get a wife, too, “a nice, strappin’, plump girl that’ll keep you warm in the winter.” To be fair, Carnehan replies by paraphrasing Scripture to his friend. “The Bible says that Kings ain’t to waste their strength on women, ‘specially when they’ve got a new raw Kingdom to work over.” I’m not sure how he missed the parts about lying and taking the name of God in vain…

‘Damn’ is used five times, ‘hell’ once, and ‘niggers’ once. Variations of God’s name are used as exclamations a total of twelve times.

Conclusion. A very thoughtful piece from Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King explores the issue of human pride and the inevitable destruction that accompanies it.

Heart of the West

Title: Heart of the West
Author: O. Henry
Illustrator: Joseph Ciardiello
Pages: 246
Recommended Ages: 13 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

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At the last Maud Marks Library Sale, I picked up a beautiful hardcover. It was published by Reader’s Digest, which would excite me in any case, but this find was doubly exciting. Because it was the Reader’s Digest edition of Heart of the West written by one of my favorite authors, O. Henry. But before I start raving, let me mention the stories included in the volume.

There are far too many for me to provide a synopsis of each, but I can give a list of the stories included. They are Hearts and Crosses, The Ransom of Mack, Telemachus, The Handbook of Hymen, The Pimienta Pancakes, Seats of the Haughty, Hygelia at the Solito, An Afternoon Miracle, The Higher Abdication, Cupid A La Carte, The Caballero’s Way, The Sphinx Apple, The Missing Chord, A Call Loan, The Princess and the Puma, The Indian Summer of Dry Valley Johnson, Christmas by Injunction, A Chaparral Prince,and The Reformation of Calliope.

Discussion.

I realized once I started Heart of the West that I had not read anything by O. Henry since September of 2011; that is, not since I began this website. It had been far too long.

I fell in love with O. Henry’s short stories back in 2010. I enjoyed his story The Gift of the Magi, but it was The Ransom of Red Chief that clinched me. While the Auto Waited, A Retrieved Reformation, and The Tainted Tenner were just icing on the cake.

O. Henry crafted stories like no other writer I have ever read. He is humorous – he gets the biggest kicks out of his characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves. He has an extensive vocabulary – the story is that as a young man he read the dictionary like some people read novels – and he writes twists like nobody’s business. O. Henry’s endings are on a level with Agatha Christie’s for ingenuity, elan, and all around devilishness, only they are usually of an outrageously humorous nature, whereas Christie contents herself with being merely shockingly clever.

All of the stories in Heart of the West are set in the west – mostly Texas. The stories concern half-built settlements, cattle ranchers, outlaws, and all things western. However, although the stories were set in the west, populated by the west, and concern nothing but the west, these stories have nothing to do with the western genre. They pointedly ignore the guns-aflarin’ style and instead fall under the probing-of-human-nature category. They are humorous, but masterful; light-hearted yet deeply sincere. Here are a few quotes which I thought demonstrated the eccentricity of O. Henry’s style.

We were in the main dining room, and there was a fine-dressed crowd there, all talking loud and enjoyable about the two St. Louis topics, the water supply and the colour line. They mix the two subjects so fast that strangers often think they are discussing water colours; and that has given the old town something of a rep as an art centre. [pg. 62]

Teedeheede. In another story, two friends are trying to court the same woman.

“I reckon you understand.” says Paisley, “that I’ve made up my mind to accrue that widow woman as part and parcel in and to my hereditaments forever, both domestic, sociable, legal, and otherwise, until death us do part.”

“Why, yes,” says I, “I read it between the lines, though you only spoke one. And I suppose you are aware,” says I, “that I have a movement on foot that leads up to the widow’s changing her name to Hicks and leaves you writing to the society column to inquire whether the best man wears a japonica or seamless socks at the wedding!”

They proceed to court her without any “under-handed work” – that is to say, they only court her when the other is present, so as to be fair and above-board. Cute, huh?

Cautions.

Thirteen of the nineteen stories concern romantic relationships. In one scene, a man asks another man not to kiss a woman “quite so loud”. In another story, a woman is unfaithful to her outlaw man and takes up with a Lieutenant.

The very first story features a troubled marriage – the wife acts as an able manager of the ranch while her husband does all of the manly work. He tires of this situation and seeks to change his position to a more masterly one, but instead behaves very childishly. She resists his unreasonable claims and he leaves the house, establishing another ranch several miles away where he “rules”. In the end, she sends him a request to return to her, he returns, and they are reconciled.

In Christmas by Injunction, a man decides to pretend that he is Santa Claus and surprise the village children. This plan backfires.

One little boy who is markedly “fresh” tells an adult to “shut up”.

Variations of God’s name are used nine times. ‘Damn’ is used six times (three spelled, three dashed), ‘hell’ three times (one spelled, two dashed), ‘dad-blamed’, ‘dang’, and ‘durn’ once each.

Conclusion. I would definitely recommend O. Henry’s short stories to serious readers. Heart of the West may not be the absolute best of Henry’s works, but it is a fair sampling.

The Rider of Lost Creek

Title: The Rider of Lost Creek
Author: Louis L’Amour
Pages: 153
Reading Level: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

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Louis L’Amour returns with an exciting story of honor and murder.

The Story.

Kilkenny is not a man who forgets favors. So when Mort Davis, a man who saved his life, asks for Kilkenny’s help, he responds immediately. What he finds when he arrives at Davis’s ranch is perplexing.

Webb Steele and Chet Lord tower over the valley with their huge ranches. They are determined to squelch Mort Davis – seem to be under the impression that he is a malicious squatter and perpetrator of annoyances.  But Kilkenny divines that Steele and Lord are not the main players in this game; they are but pawns being controlled by a stronger and more deadly brain.

But whose is it? And why does he want Davis – and Kilkenny – dead?

Discussion.

Loved this quote.

“This is a violent time. But if only bad men could use guns the world would be in a sorry state. We need such men as you, men who know when to use and when not to use guns, men who will carry them not as a threat but as a protection for themselves and others.” [pg. 119]

Three romantic incidents:

1) In the first chapter, a rider says that he wants a bath, a shave, and a look at the girls before he heads to his boss’s ranch.

2) A girl nearly runs Kilkenny down with a buckboard. He tells her he’d like to kiss her, but that the circumstances aren’t right. Later, he does kiss her, but nothing comes of it.

3) When Kilkenny first meets Nita, he finds that

“Her figure was seductively curved, and she moved with a sinuous grace that had no trace of affectation.” [pg. 71]

‘Damn’ is used fifteen times, ‘hell’ ten, and ‘godforsaken’ once.

Conclusion. Not a necessary story, but a fun adventurous one.