The Hidden Treasure of Glaston

The Hidden Treasure of Glaston by Eleanore M. Jewett, 1946.

The year is 1171.  Twelve-year-old Hugh, a somewhat frail boy with a lame leg, arrives at the abbey of Glastonbury with his father on a stormy night.  Hugh’s father is a knight, and in his conversation with Abbot Robert on their arrival, he makes it known that, although he loves his son, he is disappointed in the boy’s frail condition because he can never be a fighter, like a knight’s son should be.  The abbot rebukes him, saying that there is more to life than war and that he, himself, is also of noble blood.  The knight apologizes, and says that, although it is not really the life that he would wish for his son, he asks that the abbey take him in and educate him.  Although the knight (who refuses to give his name, only his son’s first name) says that he cannot explain his circumstances, the abbot senses that the knight is in trouble and is fleeing the area, perhaps the country of England entirely. 

It is true that the knight is in trouble, and he is fleeing.  Since Hugh’s health is delicate, his father cannot take him along in his flight.  Realizing that the abbey will provide him with a safer life, Hugh’s father wants to see him settled there before he leaves and gives the abbey a handsome gift of expensive, well-crafted books as payment for his son’s education.  The abbot is thrilled by the gift, although he says that they would have accepted Hugh even without it.  Then, the knight leaves, and the monks begin helping Hugh to get settled in the abbey.

Hugh is upset at his father’s leaving and the upheaval to the life he has always known, although he knows that it is for the best because of his family’s circumstances.  Although the story doesn’t explicitly say it at first, Hugh’s father is one of the knights who killed Thomas Beckett, believing that by doing so, they were following the king’s wishes. Hugh’s father did not actually kill Beckett himself, but he did help to hold back the crowd that tried to save Beckett while others struck the blows, so he shares in the guilt of the group.  Although Hugh loves his father, he knows that his father is an impulsive hothead.  Now, because of the murder, Hugh’s father is a hunted man. By extension, every member of his household is also considered a criminal.  Their family home was burned by an angry mob, their supporters have fled, and there is no way that Hugh’s father can stay in England.  However, the prospect of life at the abbey, even under these bleak circumstances, has some appeal for Hugh.

Hugh has felt his father’s disappointment in him for a long time because his leg has been bad since he was small, and he was never able to participate in the rough training in the martial arts that a knight should have.  Even though part of Hugh wishes that he could be tough and strong and become the prestigious and admired knight that his father wishes he could be, deep down, Hugh knows that it isn’t really his nature and that his damaged leg would make it impossible.  Hugh really prefers the reading lessons he had with his mother’s clerk before his mother died.  His father always scorned book learning because he thought that it was unmanly, something only for weak people, and Hugh’s weakness troubles him.  Hugh’s father thinks that the real business of men is war, fighting, and being tough.  However, at the abbey, there are plenty of men who spend their lives loving books, reading, art, music, and peace, and no one looks on them scornfully.  For the first time in Hugh’s life, he has the chance to live as he really wants to, doing something that he loves where the weakness of his bad leg won’t interfere. 

The abbot is pleased that Hugh has been taught to read and arranges for him to be trained as a scribe under the supervision of Brother John.  Hugh enjoys his training, although parts are a little dull and repetitive.  Hugh confides something of his troubles in Brother John, who listens to the boy with patience and understanding.  Although he does not initially know what Hugh’s father has done, Hugh tells his about the burning of his family’s home, how they struggled to save the books that they have now gifted to the abbey, and how there was more in their library that they were unable to save.  Hugh tells Brother John how much he hates the people who burned their home and how much he hates the king, who caused the whole problem in the first place.  Brother John warns him not to say too much about hating the king because that is too close to treason and tells him that, even though he has justification for hating those who destroyed his home, he will not find comfort in harboring hate in his heart.  He also says that not all that Hugh has lost is gone forever.  People who have left Hugh’s life, like his father, may return, and there are also many other people and things to love in the world that will fill Hugh’s life.  Brother John urges Hugh to forget the past and enjoy what he has now.  When Hugh says how he loves books but also wishes that he was able to go adventuring, Brother John says that adventures have a way of finding people, even when they do not go looking for them.

One day, when Brother John sends Hugh out to fish for eels, Hugh meets another boy who also belongs to the abbey, Dickon.  Dickon is an oblate.  He is the son of a poor man who gave him to the abbey when he was still an infant because he was spared from the plague and wanted to give thanks to God for it.  Dickon really wishes that he could go adventuring, like Hugh sometimes wishes, although he doesn’t really mind life at the abbey.  Because Dickon is not good at reading or singing, he helps with the animals on the abbey’s farm.  Although he is sometimes treated strictly and punished physically, he also has a fair amount of freedom on the farm, sometimes sneaking off to go hunting or fishing.  He also goes hunting for holy relics.  Dickon tells Hugh about the saints who have lived or stayed at the abbey and how the place is now known for miracles.  He is sure that the miracles of Glaston will help heal Hugh’s leg, and he offers to take him hunting for holy relics.  Hugh wants to be friends with Dickon, but at first, Dickon is offended that Hugh will not tell him what his last name is.  Dickon soon realizes the reason for Hugh’s secrecy when a servant from Hugh’s home, Jacques, comes to the abbey to seek sanctuary from an angry mob that knows of his association with Hugh’s father.

The abbot grants Jacques temporary sanctuary but tells him that he should leave the country soon.  When Dickon witnesses Jacques’s explanation of why the mob was after him, comes to understand his connection to Hugh.  Although the mob does not know that Hugh is actually connected to Jacques, Dickon spots the connection and tells Hugh that he forgives his earlier secrecy.  Dickon even helps Jacques to leave the abbey the next day, in secret.

Now that Dickon knows Hugh’s secret, he lets Hugh in on his secrets and the secrets of the abbey itself.  He shows Hugh a secret tunnel that he has discovered.  There is an underground chamber between the abbey and the sea where more parchments and some other precious objects are hidden.  Dickon doesn’t know the significance of all of the objects, although there appear to be holy relics among them.  Dickon’s theory was that monks in the past created this room and tunnel to store their most precious treasures and get them away to safety in case the abbey was attacked and raided.  At some point, part of the tunnel must have collapsed, blocking the part of the tunnel leading to the abbey.  The boys are frightened away when they hear the ringing of a bell and can’t tell where it’s coming from.  Could there have been someone in a part of the tunnel that is now blocked off from the part where they entered?

Since Hugh is sworn to secrecy concerning Dickon’s discovery, he can’t ask Brother John about it directly, but he gets the chance to learn a little more when Brother John asks him to help clean some old parchments so they can reuse them.  Most of them are just old accounting sheets for the abbey that they no longer need.  Brother John said that they were stored in an old room under the abbey.  Hugh asks Brother John about the room and whether there are other such storage rooms underground.  Brother John says that there are rumors about a hidden chamber somewhere between the abbey and the sea where they used to store important objects for safety, but as far as he knows, no living person knows where it is or even if it still exists.  Hugh asks Brother John about treasures, but as far as Brother John is concerned, the real treasures of the abbey are spiritual.  However, when Hugh notices some strange writing on one of the parchment pieces that doesn’t look like accounting reports and calls it to Brother John’s attention, Brother John becomes very excited and orders him to stop cleaning the parchments so that he can check for more of the same writing.  Among the other scrap parchments, they have found pieces that refer to Joseph of Arimathea, who provided the tomb for Jesus after his crucifixion.  According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea also took possession of the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, which was supposed to have special powers, and that he left the Middle East and brought the Holy Grail to Glaston, where it still remains hidden.  The parchments make contain clues to the truth of the story and where the Holy Grail may be hidden.

This story combines history and legend as Hugh and Dickon unravel the mysteries of Glastonbury and change their lives and destinies forever.  Although Hugh and Dickon both talk about how exciting it would be to travel and go on adventures, between them, Hugh is the one whose father would most want and expect his son to follow him on adventures and Dickon is the one who is promised to the abbey.  However, Hugh loves the life of the abbey and serious study, and Dickon is a healthy boy who is often restless.  Their friendship and shared adventures at the abbey help both Dickon and Hugh to realize more about who they are, the kind of men they want to be, and where they belong. Wherever their lives lead them from this point, they will always be brothers.  There are notes in the back of the book about the historical basis for the story.

The Door in the Wall

The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli, 1949.

The story takes place in Medieval England. Robin is the son of a noble family. All his life, there has been the expectation that Robin would learn to be a knight, like his father. Soon after Robin turned ten years old, Robin’s father went away to fight in Scotland, and Robin’s mother sent him away to begin his training as a knight while she took a position as lady-in-waiting to the queen. However, soon after that, Robin became terribly ill and lost the use of his legs.

Now, Robin is miserable and wishing that his mother was still with him to help him get over his illness. Instead, he is looked after by servants. Then, after Robin throws a fit and refuses to eat, his servants disappear. The next person Robin sees is Brother Luke, a friar from St. Mark’s monastery. The friar tells him that his servants were ill and have fled from the plague, but one of them sent him to care for Robin. He feeds Robin and tells him that he will take him to St. Mark’s and continue to care for him there. Robin tells Brother Luke about how he was supposed to be taken away for training but that he was unable to go because he was ill, and he asks how they will get to St. Mark’s because he cannot walk. Brother Luke says that the man who was supposed to escort him to the castle where he would live and be trained as a knight may be unable to get back into London because travel is restricted due to the plague. As for how they will travel, Brother Luke has a horse that they can ride.

Before they leave, Brother Luke asks Robin to remember the wall around his father’s garden and the wall around the Tower. He points out that all walls have a door in them somewhere and that if you follow a wall long enough, you will eventually find the door. At first, Robin doesn’t understand what Brother Luke is trying to tell him, but the metaphor is the theme of the book and it becomes clear through the adventures that follow. The wall stands for adversity, and the door stands for solutions to problems, other paths to take, and ways to move forward in life. What Brother Luke is trying to say is that there are many types of problems in life (the walls), but that problems have solutions and there are ways around obstacles, and if you persevere, you will find them. He reminds Robin of this throughout the story.

At St. Mark’s, Robin stays in Brother Luke’s quarters, and Brother Luke takes care of him. When Robin is a little stronger, Brother Luke gives him wood to whittle. When he grows stronger yet, Brother Luke gives him writing lessons. As the plague begins to pass and there are less patients to tend to, Brother Luke begins to carry Robin around or push him in a cart, taking him to visit other parts of of the monastery.

Since Robin still cannot walk, Brother Luke thinks it’s important to keep his mind and hands busy, one of the first “doors” that he finds for Robin around his current limitations. Brother Matthew oversees Robin as he learns and practices carving wood, teaching him patience when he has a temper tantrum on ruining one of his first projects. Brother Luke helps Robin to write a letter to his father, in which Robin explains his current situation, and a traveling minstrel, John-go-in-the-Wynd, will carry it to Scotland when he goes there with some soldiers. Later,Brother Luke even takes him to go fishing and begins teaching him to swim. In spite of these improvements, Robin still worries about his inability to walk and how it will affect his future and his father’s hopes for him to be a knight.

When John-go-in-the-Wynd returns with a reply from Robin’s father, Robin’s father says that he is distressed to hear that Robin has been ill, although he thankful that Robin did not get the plague and die with so many others. Robin’s illness was severe, but he is already showing signs of recovering. His father has made arrangements for him to travel to the castle of Sir Peter in Shropshire, who is Robin’s godfather and where he was meant to go for his training, accompanied by Brother Luke and John-go-in-the-Wynd, as soon as he is well enough to travel. Since Robin has already become well enough to make himself a pair a crutches with his new woodworking skills and has begun to use them, they decide to proceed with the journey.

On the journey to Sir Peter’s castle, they have adventures, narrowly escaping from thieves and visiting a fair in Oxford. Robin encounters Welsh speakers for the first time. Although Robin is worried about what Sir Peter will think of him when he sees his condition, Sir Peter welcomes the travelers gladly. He has recently been injured in battle and still recovering himself. Robin says that he doesn’t think that he will make a very good page because of his difficulties in walking but that he can read, write, and sing to provide entertainment. Sir Peter says that there are many ways to serve others and that people must do what they can.

Brother Luke and John-go-in-the-Wynd stay at the castle to help Robin settle in, and Sir Peter gives Robin duties that he can perform. Robin asks Brother Luke if he thinks that he will ever be able to walk normally again, and Brother Luke admits that he doesn’t know but that he is sure that Robin will have a fine life ahead of him. People are not perfect, but everyone has to do the best they can with what they have. Robin soon learns to get around well enough to navigate the castle easily and play with the other boys, but he is still bent and unable to walk without crutches. Robin’s disability and the craftsman skills he learned from the monks have taught him patience and that he feels better after accomplishing difficult tasks.

Then, one foggy day, the Welsh surround and attack Sir Peter’s castle. The defenders hold out in the keep, but they begin to run low on food, and strangely, the well seems to be running dry. As they run low on water, hope seems to be lost. They begin to devise a plan for someone to slip out and go for help. Robin says that he could go. He knows where John-go-in-the-Wynd is staying with his mother nearby, and he can tell him the situation in the castle and where to go for help. If anyone catches sight of him, he will look like a poor, lame, shepherd boy.

Robin has felt badly about his new disability, but his youth and disability are actually what allow him to pass unchallenged through the enemy lines. Suddenly, his disability actually becomes an advantage, allowing him to do what others cannot. Robin’s future may not be the one that he first expected, but he has found ways to move forward in his life and ends up a hero!

The book is a Newbery Award Winner. It is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).


Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace, 1940.

This is the first book in a series about two best friends growing up in Minnesota around the turn of the 20th century. The stories in this book and the rest of the series are based on the author’s own childhood experiences with her best friend.

At the beginning of the book, Betsy meets her best friend, Tacy (short for Anastacia), for the first time after Tacy’s family moves into a house nearby when the girls are both about five years old.  Tacy is very shy and doesn’t want to talk to Betsy at first.  It isn’t until Betsy’s fifth birthday party, a short time later, that the girls really get to know each other and become friends.  After that, they are inseparable, almost to the point where people begin to think of them as one person, Betsy-Tacy. 

Each of the chapters in the book is a short story.  Some of them are about everyday things, like how Betsy would make up stories about her and her friend, how the girls would play dress up and paper dolls, or how they would have a “store” and sell bottles of colored sand to their friends.  Some of the stories are touching, as the girls help each other through some of the most important times of their young lives.  Betsy, the more out-going one, helps shy Tacy through the trauma of their first day of school.  Tacy, who has many brothers and sisters, reassures Betsy that everything will be alright when Betsy’s younger sister is born.  Both girls struggle to come to terms with the death of Tacy’s baby sister. 

At the end of the story, the girls make a new friend when a family moves into the chocolate-colored house with the stained glass window that the girls had always admired.

In the 60th anniversary edition of the book, there are pictures of the author and her best friend, Bick, who is the model for Tacy in the stories, and pictures of the author’s family.  There is also a description of the author’s early life and how the stories were based off her recollections of her own childhood.

This book is available to borrow for free online through Internet Archive.

Blueberries for Sal

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey, 1948.

Sal is a little girl whose mother takes her to pick blueberries one day. The mother wants to can the blueberries for winter.

Sal gives in to temptation and eats the blueberries as she picks them.

Meanwhile, a mother bear and her baby come to eat blueberries.

Both Sal and the Little Bear lose sight of their mothers, and when they go looking for them, Sal accidentally finds the mother bear, and the little bear accidentally finds Sal’s mother.

Eventually, the mother bear realizes that Sal is following her when she hears the blueberries plunking into Sal’s pail. Sal’s mother realizes that a small bear is following her when he eats blueberries out of her pail.

Fortunately, nothing bad happens. The mothers just look around for their respective children and figure out where they are by the sounds they make. Then, the mother bear leaves with her baby, and Sal and her mother take their blueberries home.

At first, I was worried about Sal being with the mother bear and how Sal’s mother would react to the mother bear when she saw it, but the two mothers never meet in the story, and the children are fine.

The book is a Caldecott Honor Book. It is available to borrow for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

Goodnight Moon

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, pictures by Clement Hurd, 1947.

This is a classic children’s bedtime book and has been for generations!

It all starts with a green room that has a red balloon.  The book describes everything in the room in rhyme.  There are kittens and mittens and a picture of bears in chairs.  It’s a cozy, peaceful room.

Then, the book says “goodnight” to everything in the room (and some things outside, like the moon), one thing at a time.

It’s just a cute, gentle book that is perfect to read to children who are going to bed. Reading it slowly can be very soothing.  The book never says it, but the “people” in the story are rabbits.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

So Dear to My Heart

So Dear to My Heart by Sterling North, 1947.

The original form of this story was actually from 1943, when the book was called Midnight and Jeremiah. In that book, the black lamb was named Midnight, not Danny, and many of the subplots that came to dominate this edition of the book didn’t exist. This edition of the book was rewritten and published after the Disney movie of of the story, which is why it was given the same name. The Disney movie was half live-action and half animated, and it made some changes to the story that were reflected in this rewrite/reprint. Naming the lamb “Danny” after the race horse Dan Patch was Disney’s idea. I actually think that I would have liked the original book better because I didn’t like the way some of the characters were portrayed in this book.

I have to admit that I was really frustrated with one of the characters in the story, and because of that, I found it difficult to wade through the parts dealing with her. However, it is important to actually finish this story once you begin because, otherwise, you won’t get the full picture of the story. It’s not that the ending is particularly surprising, and I can’t say that I ever really became fond of the character I didn’t like, but the more you pay attention to how the story gets to the ending, the more you realize what the one of the points of this story really is. This story is about the love between a boy and an animal. It has Christian themes and themes about hatred, prejudice, and loss. However, what struck me the most in the end is that this is also a story about knowledge and perspective. Knowledge and being open to knowledge can change a person’s perspective, but also having a different perspective in the first place can give a person knowledge or leave them more open to gaining it.

I’ll warn you that this is going to be a rather long review, and parts are going to seem a little repetitive because the way my review is organized is based somewhat on the way this book was organized, giving bits and piece of information about the same underlying situation accompanied by reactions to it. At the end, I’ve also included some odd historical information that relates to things mentioned in the story.

Jeremiah Kincaid, called Jerry, lives with his grandmother on the Kincaid family farm in Cat Hallow outside of the small town of Fulton Corners, Indiana in 1903. His parents are dead, having died in a fire when he was young. The full circumstances behind their deaths are not explained until the end of the book, and there are a few things in the book about their deaths and some current happenings that seem a bit mysterious. This book is not really a mystery story, but in way, parts of it play out a little like a mystery because there are missing pieces of information that need to be filled in before you really understand what’s going on. Knowing exactly what happened to Jerry’s parents and why eventually helps Jerry and his grandmother to resolve some of their feelings about their deaths and their relationship with each other. For most of the book, Granny Kincaid thinks she knows what happened, but it doesn’t take long for readers to realize that she’s unreliable as a narrator. Jerry’s Granny Kincaid is a very strict and strongly religious woman, and she is the character I did not like, who almost discouraged me from finishing the book. It wasn’t being strict and religious that made me not like her. I wouldn’t have minded that so much by itself; it’s the rest of the story of what she is that got to me. In a way, that feeling of not wanting to look further also plays into the story and the desire of whether or not you want to know more about what is behind a bad situation. In an odd way, Granny actually did remind me of something, but I’d like to save what she reminded me of until near the end because it will make more sense then.

When the book begins, Jerry is angry with Granny for selling his beloved bull calf to a butcher. Jerry loved the calf because he had raised it himself, but to Granny, it was just part of the routine of farm work. To Granny, animals are meant for food unless they are specifically work animals. Jerry feels more of a personal connection to the animals, which is also important to the story. Jeremiah longs for an animal that he can actually keep and love. This is what guides Jerry throughout the story.

Jerry gets his chance of an animal to love when the new lambs are born and one of them is a black lamb, rejected by its mother. Granny would be content to let the little black lamb die, thinking of it as an evil omen. Her casual cruelty and callous attitude when Jerry points out that it’s just an innocent lamb who couldn’t help being born black and is scared and hungry and will surely die without care were, frankly, pretty disgusting from my perspective. Granny is very religious but without compassion or empathy. For her, animals are to be used, and whatever or whoever is meant to die isn’t something she’s going to bother herself about. Not only that, but part of her callous, unfeeling nature is based on bitterness toward events in her own past, which are clarified through the story. There is/was a bitter history between the Kincaids and the Tarletons, who owned the next farm over, and Granny knows that the little lamb was sired by the Tarletons’ old black ram. Even though I didn’t like Granny, I kept reading because the most compelling part of the book is learning the full history of the Tarletons and the Kincaids, which comes out bit by bit as the book goes on. The way that this knowledge of the family’s history is given to the readers, piece by piece, is important. Each time that Jerry learns a little more about his family’s history, the story changes a little, giving not only Jerry, but the readers, a slightly different impression of what happened and why.

To help explain it, I’ll give you a kind of summary of what Jerry learns in the first chapters of the book. In her youth, Granny Samantha Kincaid married David Kincaid, Jerry’s grandfather, who is now deceased. David’s rival for her affection was Josiah Tarleton. Before Samantha and David were married, the two men had a terrible fight over her which had left David the victor but permanently injured. Following the marriage of the Kincaids, Josiah settled on a farm near theirs. Over the years, the Kincaids experienced hardships of various kinds, while Josiah became a wealthier man and flaunted that wealth at the Kincaids to show Samantha what she had missed by not marrying him. Even after Josiah married a woman named Lilith, things were still bitter between the two families. Samantha became convinced that Lilith was a witch who cursed their sheep with illness, although David said that was only superstition. Although Lilith is now dead (as are Josiah and David), Samantha is still afraid of anything associated with the Tarletons, thinking of it as evil. That is Granny Samantha’s frame of mind, as it has been for years, and that is the basic reason why she regards the black lamb as evil, because of its association with the Tarletons. As far as the beginnings of the bitter Kincaid/Tarleton feud goes, it’s an accurate description of the situation. From this basic description, it sounds like the Tarletons were mean, greedy, and vindictive, lording their better fortune over the Kincaids and maybe even doing things to make life harder on them. However, that is not the entire story. That description barely scratches the surface of the real situation.

Granny is a callous person with some vindictiveness of her own. Jerry himself has been on the receiving end of Granny’s callousness, and the story mentions that his birth was “unwanted,” like the lamb’s, something that he senses from his grandmother (a major reason why I didn’t like her). Part of the reason why Jerry craves love in his life and shows it to the animals is because he doesn’t get it from family, what’s left of it. Jerry insists on taking care of the little unwanted lamb, naming him Danny. He persuades his grandmother that the lamb will give good wool. As the lamb grows and gets into trouble, Granny says that it’s proof that she was right to think of the lamb as evil. However, Jerry defends the lamb, saying that Danny is just an animal that doesn’t know what it’s doing and forbidding his grandmother to turn Danny into food, a sentiment echoed by Uncle Hiram.

“Uncle” Hiram Douglas is the local blacksmith, a family friend, not related by blood to anyone else in the story, although he acts as a father to Jerry, having no children of his own. Uncle Hiram knew both the Kincaid and Tarleton families for years, observing their feud from a different, more distant perspective, and his account of what happened is more reliable than Granny’s. He was careful not to involve himself directly in the families’ troubles because their situation was toxic, and he knew it. Early in the story, Uncle Hiram sees the parallels between Jerry and his lamb, both of which have been deprived of love and proper care through no fault of their own. He tells Jerry that both of them are from good stock and not to pay attention to the superstitious nonsense that Granny tells him. It is Uncle Hiram who suggests to Jerry that he should take Danny to the County Fair when he’s bigger and show him off because Danny has the potential to be a champion. Jerry seizes on the idea, and it gives him hope. For much of the story, saving his lamb from Granny and taking Danny to the fair are his main goals.

It is Uncle Hiram who tells Jerry more about his grandmother’s long-standing feud with Lilith Tarleton and how she blamed Lilith for an unexpected flood that almost drowned his grandfather and killed some of their sheep (one of many unrelated things that Samantha blamed on Lilith). Samantha had been so sure that Lilith was a witch and caused the disaster with a curse that she actually hid in a place where she knew Lilith would go and waited for her to come along so that she could throw rocks at her, stoning her as a “witch”, and this incident is generally known in the community. Josiah Tarleton may not have been a nice person, but for all of her Bible-quoting, Granny Samantha has a fierce temper and an unpredictable nature. The picture of what happened between the Tarletons and the Kincaids changes a bit with the added information of Samantha’s sneak attack on Lilith.

The book continues like that, shifting back and forth between things happening in the present and Hiram’s explanations of the past. As the descriptions of the past become more detailed, Granny’s views are increasingly shown to be wrong, and her behavior more erratic and hateful. I did not find Granny a likeable or sympathetic character, to say the least. She struck me immediately as callous and unhinged, and that image stayed with me throughout the story. She is unfair and has double standards for how she views the world and human behavior. When misfortune happens to someone else, like an innocent black lamb (as well as other people, as described later in the story), Granny says it’s just the will of God and she doesn’t care, but if misfortune happens to her, it’s evil black magic and she’ll stone the first person she doesn’t like as the one responsible for it. This is how her mind works. When Jerry interacts with the people of the nearby town, readers discover that Granny is hardly seen as a pillar of the community. In fact, she hardly interacts with the community at all. Even the men down at the general store joke about Granny Kincaid being a witch herself. Jerry hears them joking, and it leads him to talk to Hiram more about his family.

When Uncle Hiram explains about the jokes the men make that both of Jerry’s grannies were possibly witches, more of the conflict between the Kincaids and the Tarletons is revealed. Samantha Kincaid doesn’t like to talk about Jerry’s father, who is her dead son, or his wife and is often deliberately callous with Jerry because Jerry’s mother was actually Arabella Tarleton, Lilith’s daughter. Up until this point in the story, Jerry was completely unaware of this or the fact that Lilith was his grandmother, too. Now, Jerry knows that Samantha’s son, Seth, married Arabella, and both of them died in a fire, something which Samantha blames on Arabella. With this information, the story shifts again, looking a little like a Romeo and Juliet type of situation.

Uncle Hiram doesn’t believe in witches at all, and he explains the truth about his grandmothers to Jerry. He says that, whatever Granny Kincaid says, Lilith was never an evil person, and he doesn’t really think that Granny Kincaid is, either. I’m still a little less charitable toward Granny here. Granny’s behavior and attitudes show a definite sadistic streak. I’m not talking about the way she sees animals mainly as food because that’s just a natural side of farming. Samantha is a vindictive person, with an inability to put blame where blame is due, choosing instead to take it out on an innocent victim, possibly because the innocent victim is more vulnerable to attack or because she can’t handle the thought of what or who is really at fault for a situation. In her attacks, she frequently resorts to physical violence, even inflicting harsh physical punishment on Jerry and also some twisted psychology, when you consider some of the things that Granny says to him.

As even more of the history of these two families comes out, you learn that there are pieces of the story that Samantha is deliberately ignoring or distorting in her accounts of what happened. First, Samantha blamed Lilith for Josiah’s jealous vindictiveness, rubbing his successes and the Kincaids’ hardships in her face because she refused his “love.” At least, he did this up until he also suffered hardships and lost much of his money later in life. This is another part of the story that is revealed later. At first, the characters make it sound like Josiah was more prosperous overall and had less hardship than the Kincaids, but it was more the case that his hardships came a little later in life, something that changes his story a bit. The reality of the situation is probably that the families were more equal in terms of their wealth and luck than earlier described. Their farms are literally right next to each other, outside of a small town where nobody is truly rich. Also, one of the misfortunes Josiah suffered was the early death of his wife. It turns out that Lilith died much earlier in life than any of the older generation of adult characters, not even living to see her own children grow up. Samantha and Lilith actually knew each other for far less time than it would sound from the way Granny talks. After Lilith’s death, Josiah seemed to kind of give up on life and generally let his children run wild because he didn’t quite know how to deal with them. In spite of Lilith’s death, Samantha continued to blame Lilith for everything that went wrong in her family’s lives. None of it was Lilith’s fault, but Samantha decided it was because she could not or would not see Josiah, or even members of her own family, for what they really were and Lilith for what she was. Lilith was a gentle soul who died relatively young, but she remained the evil witch and lurking spirit that haunted Samantha’s own troubled mind.

So, what was Lilith really like, and how do I know that she was a gentler person? Uncle Hiram explains that, unlike Granny, Lilith actually loved animals, just like Jerry does. Her father in Kentucky knew the famous Audubon who studied birds, and Lilith was also something of an amateur naturalist. People in Indiana distrusted her because she was more educated than most, and they thought it was weird that she knew all the “fancy names” for different birds and plants. Hiram understands the names that Lilith was using because he actually interacted with Lilith as a friend, and hearing her explanations broadened his experiences. The people who just thought Lilith was strange and “witchy” never figured it out. If I had to live with people like that, I’d probably be more trusting of animals than my fellow human beings, too. Hiram suspects that Josiah may have harbored feelings for Samantha even after his marriage to Lilith (the fuel for his vindictiveness, wanting to see his former love suffer for rejecting him) and that Lilith indulged her love of nature as an escape from her husband’s uncomfortable preoccupation with a woman who never returned his affections (and who lived on the next farm over and liked to call her a witch and throw stones at her like a crazy person for things she never did and possibly knew nothing about before the sneak attack – no, I just can’t let that slide – going out into nature to escape from her husband and study the plants and animals was what Lilith was doing when Samantha violently attacked her), leading to Lilith’s reputation for being a bit strange and possibly a witch.

This picture of Lilith is vastly different from the picture that Granny had given Jerry and even what other townspeople say about her, and it is much more truthful. (There is also more evidence that supports it later in the story.) Lilith was a spirited and loving young woman who defied her father to marry Josiah. She was loyal to him in spite of his obsession with Samantha, and she ran a tidy household, educating her children herself as best she could and teaching her daughter to play the violin. This was the person Granny considers to be evil, even beyond the grave, in contrast to herself.

At one of the points in the story where they discuss Seth and Arabella’s wedding, Granny says that deceased Lilith’s spirit was angry because Josiah, who was still alive at the time, kissed her hand at the wedding. Josiah was a drunkard who had taken a liberty, by Granny’s description, but poor dead Lilith was still the bad one. (Another thing we learn along the way was that Josiah’s mind deteriorated in his final years, an apparent combination of drinking and stress from the early loss of his wife and other hardships his family suffered. This comes from Hiram, not Granny, whose own mind I found suspect from the first.) Possibly, Granny could not bring herself to fully label Josiah has the bad one because he always liked her. Granny is actually somewhat vain and self-centered, and although she was not in love with Josiah and would never return Josiah’s feelings, I get the impression that she was flattered by them. That two men fought over her, even though she had a clear preference for one of them, and that one of them continued to follow her and dwell on her made her feel good, if a bit awkward that Josiah was the more prosperous of the two for a time as well as somewhat vindictive. Lilith, as Josiah’s wife, took at least some of Josiah’s attention away from Samantha when she entered the picture, and I suspect this was probably the basis for her becoming the bad one in Samantha’s mind, for representing a competitor for Josiah’s feelings, even though Samantha was married to the man of her choice and wouldn’t have wanted Josiah anyway. Sometimes, even people who do not want something in particular for themselves still feeling strangely resentful when someone else gets it, especially if the other person seems to benefit from it. Early on in their marriages, Lilith seemed to have gotten the better deal by marrying the richer man … until more of the story is told, and you find out that wasn’t quite the case. It didn’t take that long for things to turn rough for the Tarletons, and Lilith’s life didn’t have a very happy ending.

Uncle Hiram says that he has tried to explain all of this to Granny for the last 30 years, but “She don’t listen, or she don’t understand, or she don’t want to know-cain’t quite figger it out.” (This is one of those books where the author uses misspellings to convey accent.) My theory is what I said before, that Granny blames the wrong person for the source of problems and that blame is based solely on personal dislike. Lilith got the man Granny could have had, even if he was a self-centered jerk who Granny didn’t really love, and a more comfortable, prosperous life (at least, for a time, in a way, on the surface), while Granny’s husband was injured by Josiah and constantly struggled to make a living in the face of repeated misfortunes that were mostly random chance. The longer Granny harbored that irrational hate, nursed it, and indulged it, the more difficult it was to let go of it, not only because it had become habit but because of what it would mean to her personally to admit that she had done something horribly wrong. If Lilith was really her opposite in everything, and it turned out that Lilith was a really good person and a good mother, educated and nature-loving, what would that make Samantha? It would mean that she was not “on the side of the angels” and righteousness, that she was the one causing harm to the innocent rather than being the poor, injured party herself. (I still remember that Samantha is the one who hides in bushes and throws rocks at unsuspecting people, not Lilith. Once you know certain things, you can’t un-know them.) It would be a difficult thing for her to take, the realization that she might be more witch than the supposed witch and hardly an angel. As I said, people in the community have noticed it, too. Lilith may have seemed “witchy” to them because, as Hiram said, she was a little different and they didn’t really understand her, but Granny is witchy for much more obvious reasons.

At one point, Hiram tells Granny directly that she’s being unfair to Jerry and not raising him with the love he really needs, and she angrily tells him that she has to be this tough to keep Jerry from going the way of his parents, whose souls she considers sinful. During the course of the story, she actually tells Jerry that his parents are not in heaven, making up a song about them and how their marriage lead to hell. This is a terrible thing to tell a child and a twisted upbringing to give an orphan! Hiram tells Granny that, while she’s had to struggle and work hard all her life, she’s not the only one who works hard, suffers hardship, and is a good person and that the way that she’s behaving is unfair, but she only responds by both complaining and bragging at the same time about how hard she works and how often she prays and how much she’s done for Jerry, as if that entitles her to behave the way she does. Samantha is stuck on herself but can’t see it because she phrases her vanity in terms of her hard work and personal suffering, which she considers virtues, ignoring the bad behavior she has indulged in and the suffering she herself has caused. The book calls it her “proud bitterness.” (Insert wordless scream of frustration here.)

Because Jerry is Lilith’s grandson as well as hers, Granny Samantha sees evil in him, like she does in the lamb, and Jerry senses that she does not really love him. That is the strongest reason why I dislike Samantha as a character, plus her vindictiveness toward the innocent and helpless and inability to establish limits on how she indulges her vindictiveness. Although I think the author meant us to see her more as sad and warped by sadness than bad, I didn’t really see her that way myself. To me, she was irrational and possibly dangerous, given her history of physical attack, not “purely on the side of the angels” as Uncle Hiram characterizes. Seriously, hiding in the bushes to throw stones at a “witch” is not a healthy coping mechanism. The guys down at the general store know this and that is why they make witch jokes, but Granny doesn’t seem to have grasped how this looks even to people in her own town. Living alone with her grandson on their isolated farm has kept her steeping in her own bitterness and out of touch with reality. Only Uncle Hiram’s influence has allowed Jerry to get in touch with the truth of his family’s past and situation, and this is a central part of the plot.

I’m down on Granny Kincaid a lot, as you can tell by my repeated rants against her, but part of what makes characters like this so frustrating is that they are so obvious as plot devices. If Granny were a kinder, more reasonable person, this book would both be much less frustrating and much shorter. She is deliberately uncaring and unreasoning because she has to be in order to complicate the plot. She is one of the obstacles that Jerry must overcome. There’s no use arguing with Granny because she will and must remain resistant to persuasion, providing necessary plot tension, until the point in the story where the other characters either find a way to get around her or she has a change of heart and redeems herself. Given that Granny is Jerry’s grandmother and that this story has religious themes, I guessed that we would be going the redemption route eventually. However, I also knew that, with about 200 pages in the book, I’d probably have had more than enough of Granny by that point, which made me wonder if it would be worth it. I wouldn’t say that the redemption was worth it for Granny’s sake because I still didn’t really like her at the end, but by the time I got through all of the information that I’ve provided so far about the Kincaid and Tarleton families, I began to notice how the story about the families shifts slightly with each new piece of information about them, as seen from Hiram’s more neutral perspective. There is a larger point to be made here as the story continues, and Jerry learns more about the circumstances of his parents’ deaths, clearing up some additional plot holes that have been left hanging.

What’s left to tell? Notice that, while I told you that Jerry’s parents died in a fire, the Kincaid farm is obviously still standing and so is the Tarleton farm. They have not burned to the ground. So, where was this fire that killed Jerry’s parents? Also, if Josiah, Lilith, and Arabella Tarleton are all dead, who is running the Tarleton farm? Remember, Danny the lamb was sired by the Tarletons’ old black ram. Who owns that ram? Keep these points in mind for a moment.

Getting back to Jerry’s goal of taking Danny to the fair to win a prize, Granny is naturally resistant to the idea of going to the fair at all, but Hiram starts to win her over by suggesting that she show some of her weaving there (a successful appeal to her vanity), and Jerry promises to earn the money they need to go. Earning the money to go to the fair provides another obstacle for Jerry to overcome. Jerry begins hearing violin music at times, although he’s not sure where it’s coming from. He begins to think that it might be his mother’s spirit, trying to encourage him in his goals. There is also a scare when Danny is lost during a storm, and Jerry fears that he will never see him again.

The loss of Danny during a terrible storm is the turning point in the story and the real beginning of Granny’s redemption. Jerry doesn’t know whether Danny is surviving the storm or not, and Granny becomes truly worried about how upset that Jerry is and how she is unable to comfort him. She tries to tell him that whatever happens to Danny is the Lord’s will, and Jerry stuns her by saying that the Lord can’t have his lamb. Granny chastises him for blasphemy, but he refuses to take back what he says. Granny worries that Jerry might feel the wrath of God for what he says, and she actually tries to say that it’s her fault that Jerry says these things, that maybe she hasn’t raised him right, in the hope of sparing him from God’s wrath. This is the most concerned that Granny has been for Jerry since the book began. Jerry says that love isn’t evil, and for the first time, Granny admits that it isn’t, unless a person loves himself more than God. When Jerry asks how he can love a God who took away both his parents and his lamb, Granny is at a loss for an answer. She tries to explain that God is both all-merciful and all-powerful, but Jerry says that if God was really all merciful, He wouldn’t have let his parents die, and if He was all-powerful, He could have saved them. This is part of the age-old problem of why bad things happen to good people. Was there something wrong with God, perhaps even his non-existence? There are some who would argue that. Or was the fault with the people involved in the story, that their fate was punishment for their sins or brought about by their wickedness, as Granny has always believed? Granny has always believed that her son died because of his sins and that Arabella was the one who led him into sin. This belief has been the basis of all of her harshness with Jerry. However, there is another possibility, that is it all more a matter of perspective, that there is more information missing from this story which would make the situation more clear.

Granny’s inability to answer Jerry’s questions about the nature of God and prayer and why bad things happen to good people are what bring about a change in her. The older I get, the more I think that a little uncertainty in life, and even in religious faith, can be a good thing. Uncertainty is what keeps people open to knowledge because they feel like there is more that they don’t know. People who think they know everything they need to know tend to close the books because they don’t feel the need to learn more. People who are sure that they are doing everything that God wants don’t ask themselves what more they need to do, whereas people who aren’t sure are open to improvement. Some of the least confident people in life are the ones who are actually doing the most and trying the hardest because they constantly question what they’re doing, check themselves, and are the most open to learning and improvement along the way, the exact opposite of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. There have been many famous people who have experienced severe self-doubt, and sometimes, that’s what pushes people on to greatness. Even saints, viewed by others as having a special relationship with God and providing others with help and a sense of peace, often experienced their own dark times, self-doubt, and even doubt in God and their service to them. The great thing about saints isn’t that they were superior humans without flaws and human troubles but that they didn’t let those things stop them from doing the great things that they were meant to do. Perhaps the key is in seeing doubt not as defect but as a tool and uncertainty not as a failing but as a guide to learning and improvement.

Up to this point in her life, Granny Samantha felt absolutely certain about everything. She was as certain of Lilith’s wickedness as she was of her own faith in God. She had thought of all of the family’s misfortunes only in terms of what had happened to her, and now she realizes that Jerry was the one who was truly punished by the loss of his parents while being just an innocent baby, with no sins that needed to be punished. Now, Granny is confronted by the fact that she really doesn’t know everything and that some things may not actually have a definite explanation, or at least not one that is easy to find. Granny experiences doubt for the first time. It affects her so deeply that she tells Hiram that she told God that it’s about time that He answered her prayers about something or she might stop believing in the power of prayer and that He should really let Jerry find his lamb. She feels a little odd about saying this to God, even though she felt strangely better after saying it, but Hiram tells her that he doesn’t think it’s so bad. He says that he’s experienced his own doubts over the years and that he thinks that prayer is basically a way of telling God how you feel and letting him share the burden of worries. It’s natural for human beings to feel things like doubt, worry, and anger when things are going wrong and everything seems unfair. Granny admits that she has felt better since she has admitted her true feelings to God, like she truly has left the problem with Him, instead of keeping all of those negative feelings to herself, as she has for years.

Fortunately, this story does have a happy ending. Jerry does find Danny again after he is lost, and they do manage to go to the fair. Danny does not win the livestock competition because, as a black lamb, the judges decide that he is in a class by himself, but noting his quality, they give Jerry and Danny a special award for being unique. But, what’s important happens while Jerry is still searching for Danny and how he learns the final pieces of the puzzle concerning his parents’ death.

While Jerry was searching for Danny, he also met and connected with his Uncle Lafe, Arabella’s brother and Danny’s only other living relative besides Granny. Lafe is somewhat slow mentally, what the other characters call a “moonling.” He is referred to in passing a few times earlier in the story, but no one explains much about him other than his mental slowness. His slowness was considered one of the misfortunes of the Tarleton family because it caused his parents some worry. Even though Lafe is still living on the Tarleton farm next door and is the owner of the black ram, Jerry has not seen or spoken to him up to this point. However, like Arabella before him, Lafe knows how to play the violin and has kept the violin that once belonged to his sister. Jerry had heard him playing at other times earlier in the story, taking comfort in the playing and believing that it was his mother’s presence, trying to communicate with him. Lafe doesn’t talk much, and although he can read and write a little, he’s not very good. He shows Jerry Lilith’s old collection of books, showing that she was an educated woman, as Hiram said. Lafe cannot read well enough to read all of the books, and Jerry admits that he can’t read that well yet, either. Lafe also shows Jerry where he recorded Jerry’s birth in their old family Bible, a common practice in old times, before modern birth certificates. Jerry realizes that, in spite of the rift between the Tarletons and the Kincaids and the fact that Jerry has never really met his uncle before, his uncle has always accepted him as a full member of his family, giving Jerry an unexpected feeling of belonging.

Before the story is over, Uncle Hiram tells Jerry the final truth about his parents’ deaths. Both Seth and Arabella were fed up with life in Cat Hollow. They were tired of their parents’ feud and the limited opportunities for life there. Arabella loved horses and had real skill with them, so they took a horse with racing potential and tried to start a life in horse racing in Kentucky, where Arabella’s grandfather lived, where both of their families had lived before coming to Indiana. Their involvement in horse racing and gambling was what made Granny decide that they were sinful people. They later died in a burning stable in Kentucky. Granny told Jerry that she believed that Arabella had sent Seth into the burning stable to kill him on purpose, using their race horse as an excuse. She said that they had been living apart before that and that Arabella probably just wanted to get rid of Seth. When Jerry asked her how Arabella managed to die in the fire as well, Granny says that she could never figure it out.

This final piece of the puzzle is solved when the man who managed Arabella’s grandfather’s horses explains the night of the fire to Granny and Jerry. Seth had temporarily gone to Chicago to find a job to support his wife and child, but he had returned to where Arabella was staying with her grandfather to visit her. The fire broke out at night, and when Seth realized that his wife’s beloved horse was in danger, he insisted on going into the barn to try to save it. Arabella actually tried to stop him, but he ran in anyway. Arabella ran into the barn after him to try to save him, and they were both killed. After her earlier humbling at Jerry’s unanswerable questions, admitting her true emotions about the family’s misfortunes, and the victories of both Jerry’s lamb and her quilts at the fair, Granny is finally in a state of mind where she is able to except the truth of her son’s death. It was not caused by his sinfulness, but his love and a set of unfortunate circumstances, and Arabella had tried to save him at the expense of her own life. This knowledge helps Granny to make peace with the ghosts of the past.

I do feel like Granny receives this new picture of what happened to her son with less comment and emotional release than I would have expected. For most people, this would have been a very emotional moment, perhaps with crying or a sense of guilt for having put all the blame in the wrong place for years. Granny even made a quilt depicting a demonic marriage and writing a song to sing to her grandchild about how his parents were wicked and in hell, for crying out loud! So, what does Granny actually say about this final revelation?

“Wal,” said Samantha, “it jest goes to show. Cain’t never tell about true love. Guess I’ll have to change the last few verses of my song ballad.  Burned to a crisp in each other’s arms, no doubt.  It’s a real sad story.”

And that’s her final word on the matter. Great. I guess it just “goes to show” why I really don’t like Granny: she doesn’t have much emotional range or empathy even after her redemption experience. All through the story, it was all about her: her husband who was hurt by the rival for her affections, her husband who was almost killed in a flood, her son who was taken from her, and her duty to raise her grandson. When it was all about her, she had her deepest emotions and was wrathful and vengeful, and after she is made to realize that it’s not really all about her and never was, all we get is, “it jest goes to show” and “it’s a real sad story.” On the plus side, she did demonstrate some real caring for Jerry’s welfare before the end, but she’s never going to really feel bad about all the bad things she did or show a sense of regret, and that’s all there is to it. It’s good for Jerry because the past finally seems to be dead and behind them, and Hiram comments that, one day, Jerry will also inherit the Tarleton properties from his Uncle Lafe as well as the Kincaid properties, which will put him on a much better footing in life. But, somehow, it just seems unfair that Granny never seemed completely sorry for her role in all of this misery that went on for years, and I was left feeling it more than she was.

Something that I didn’t mention earlier, that I was saving for the end and my final reaction, is that Granny’s obsession with the supernatural and her belief in Lilith as a witch/witch’s ghost may not be based not only on her upbringing and religious beliefs but also in an odd human phenomenon that even modern people experience. People expect the world to make sense, and we are all hard-wired to look for cause and effect. Granny has a long history of misinterpreting cause and effect, but she’s not the only one. A few years ago, I attended a lecture given by a group of ghosthunters in my home town. This group said that they are sometimes called in to investigate people’s homes when they think that they are being haunted. In one of their explanations, they implied, although did not explicitly state, that there are psychological roots in much of the haunting phenomena that they investigate. What they actually said was that most of that people who called them in to investigate hauntings were people who were already in very troubled circumstances in their lives. These were people who had suffered financial problems, work problems, marital problems, health problems, or problems with their children, and often some combination of these. Then, in all of these cases, something mysterious happened that they couldn’t explain, and it was just the last straw. People in a happier, healthier, and more stable frame of mind might shrug off something unusual that happened as just momentary bad luck or coincidence, but when someone is already on edge or paranoid, they begin to notice more and more odd things happening that they would otherwise ignore, drawing connections between them in their minds to the point where they become convinced that they are haunted and/or cursed. The ghosthunters did not call these people liars or delusional, and from the way they told their stories, they suggested that, because these people believed that they were haunted, in a way, they became haunted. For example, one man suffered a series of disasters after buying an odd mask at a garage sale to use as a wall decoration, and he became convinced that the mask was cursed. One of the ghosthunters actually said, “I don’t think this mask was cursed before he bought it. I think it became cursed because he bought it.” The disasters that befell this man would have happened to him anyway, with or without the mask, but because they happened around the time when he bought it, he kept attributing every bad thing to the mask, and it did take on a negative influence in his life. It even began to affect the ghosthunters in a negative way after they removed it from his house because they were influenced by the negativity that this man had associated with the mask, making them wonder if some problems they experienced around that time were also associated with it, even though they said that they really didn’t think so. In an odd way, the man actually became the curse on his own cursed mask because of his attitude, just as Granny may actually have been the witch that she always claimed Lilith was, even though she couldn’t see it herself. From this psychological perspective, Granny Samantha’s weird witch obsession becomes more understandable, and she does look a little more like a sad victim of circumstance. Josiah Tarleton set up a toxic situation in the beginning with his early rivalry with the Kincaids, rubbing his early successes and their misfortunes in their faces, so when bad things happened that might have happened anyway, whether the Tarletons had bought the farm next door or not, Granny developed an association between them and her misfortunes that she interpreted as cause and effect. Although, I kind of suspect that Samantha may have been a little unbalanced even before all that, making her more of a candidate for going superstition crazy than her husband, who tried to tell her that it was all just coincidence. Still, I can see that repeated misfortunes can have a negative affect on someone’s view of the world. I have to admit, even now, thinking about it from that angle, I still don’t like Granny for the way she affected innocent people around her and didn’t seem to show remorse for her actions, but this explanation for Granny’s thinking does make sense.

However, I think that the overall message of the story was a good one. Life doesn’t have convenient, tidy answers that can just be summed up in one brief paragraph of explanation. There is no short, easy answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people, and much of the time, we don’t get the full story of what actually happened in the first place because we can’t see it from every perspective, from all of the people involved. I had wondered how the Tarletons responded to Samantha throwing rocks at Lilith, but the story never said. Did they just let the matter slide because the townspeople had also been whispering that Lilith was a witch? Did Josiah actually stand up for his wife in some way? Did David tell Samantha to back down because he didn’t really believe in superstition, and she was acting crazy? At the end of the story, we still don’t know what actually caused the stable fire that killed Jerry’s parents. Was it a human accident or negligence, deliberate arson, or a lightning strike? Even the man who was there at the time doesn’t know or doesn’t say. By that point, it doesn’t matter, because what the characters were most concerned about was the relationship between Jerry’s parents and the character of the the Tarletons, especially Arabella. Having established that, they feel no need to inquire further into the matter. What happened in the past was a combination of bad luck, random chance, and personal choice on the part of the people involved, when they decided how to respond to the emergency. What mattered in the end was how everyone felt about it and what they decided to do because of it. When their feelings and circumstances changed, they were free to make a different choice of what they would do. Being open to new information is key to considering a situation from a different perspective, and a different perspective helped them to gain the new information they needed.

In the original book, Midnight and Jeremiah, the family’s money troubles and the fair are more the central plot than these family issues. Also, the lamb, Midnight, doesn’t get lost until after the fair is over. Uncle Hiram (who is apparently really Jeremiah’s uncle in the original book) and the town decide to celebrate the lamb’s victory at the fair, but the celebration startles the lamb, so it runs off in fright. Jeremiah eventually finds him near the nativity scene at the church on Christmas Eve.

The book is available to borrow for free online through Internet Archive.

As a historical footnote to this story, Jerry mentions early in the book that his family and some others in their little town have Scotch-Irish ancestry and that they migrated into Indiana from Kentucky. This is something that older families in Indiana did during the pioneering and homesteading days of the 19th century. Another book that I reviewed earlier, Abigail, is about a family who traveled to Indiana from Kentucky in a covered wagon, which is what both the Kincaids and the Tarletons did when the grandparents in the story were younger, actually around the time when Abigail takes place. Their circumstances would have been very much like the people in that story, and the girl in the story of Abigail, Susan, also learns how to weave using a loom very much like the one Granny uses in this book.

Scotch-Irish (sometimes called Scots-Irish) is not a term that is generally used outside of the United States because Scotland and Ireland are separate countries. Basically, what it refers to is people with ancestry from Scotland (largely Presbyterian) and Ireland (more specifically Ulster Protestants, who also had some Scottish and/or English ancestry) who came to the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries, settling in the upper parts of what is now the southern United States but ranging as far north as Pennsylvania, generally covering the Appalachian region and states like Kentucky and Virginia. Regardless of which wave of immigration in which individual families first arrived or what mix of ancestries they had at that time, having settled in the same regions of the United States, families intermarried. If an individual has one of those factors in their background, it’s highly likely that they also have the other somewhere in their family tree. Even those with mostly Scottish or English ancestry tended to come to the Americas by way of Northern Ireland, which is why they and their descendants are often referred to by this combined name. Even though England isn’t mentioned in the term Scotch-Irish, these families also often have English ancestry, which you can see in many of their surnames. In fact, some argue that they may be ultimately more English in their origins than anything else. It would take closer examination of an individual’s family tree to mark their exact ancestry or combination of backgrounds, and in casual daily life in the United States, it wouldn’t really make a difference. The communities they formed in the United States lived basically the same sort of life, making them virtually indistinguishable and often interrelated. Sometimes, this name has been considered somewhat pretentious in its use, partly because one of the purposes behind its adoption was to distinguish people with Protestant ancestry from Irish Catholics who came to the United States later. Irish Catholics represent a different group of immigrants here. In spite of that, Scotch-Irish is a commonly-accepted description in the United States and gives a fair explanation of an individual’s family history when you understand basically what it means. Many of their descendants still live in the Appalachian region, but others have branched out to different parts of the country, as the families in this story did. They can be found everywhere in the United States in modern times.

Throughout the story, characters sing old folk songs and hymns, some that are traditional and some that they made up, sometimes accompanied by playing a dulcimer, a folk instrument found in many forms that is also used in Appalachian folk music. The Appalachian dulcimer is probably the one that the characters in the book used, given their background. One of the songs that stood out to me was Putting on the Style. This song comes in different versions, and I’d heard of it before seeing it in this book. It’s basically about how people play roles when they’re out in public and how the way they behave is partly because they’re fond of the image, not because it’s how they actually are in private. As the characters head to the fair at the end of the book, they sing this song and make up some verses of their own.

As another odd historical note, early in the book, when Jerry thinks about and describes the small town of Fulton Corners and how it is more exciting to a young boy than most people would think, he mentions the “haunted graveyard” because it looks old and creepy and is the kind of thing that a child might imagine to be haunted. He mentions that the monuments in the graveyard have different shapes and that the shapes mean things, like a lamb for a dead baby. This is true, and I’ve seen graves like that, even in Arizona, where I grew up. Modern American graveyards don’t do this and tend to have simpler markers, but in the 19th century, people used certain shapes to explain something about the deceased person. Lambs were for babies and very young children because they symbolized innocence and youth, and broken columns indicated a person who died unexpectedly in the prime of life. Jerry mentions other symbols in the story. Part of the reason why I know this is because I took a historic tour of the local pioneer cemetery in Phoenix, and also because there was an article in the local paper awhile back about some hikers who stumbled across an old graveyard that was once part of a ghost town, and they helped themselves to a lamb statue that they thought would make a good lawn ornament. At the time, they didn’t know the significance of the statue, but to anyone who realizes what they took, it’s horribly creepy. The author of the article told them to put it back. This is kind of an odd digression from the story, but since this is one of few books that mentions this odd historical detail, I decided to explain it here.

Molly’s Cook Book

American Girls

Molly’s Cook Book by Polly Athan, Rebecca Sample Bernstein, Terri Braun, Jodi Evert, and Jeanne Thieme, 1994.

This is a companion book to the Molly, An American Girl series.  It has recipes from the 1940s that people would have made during World War II.  A section at the beginning of the book explains how shortages and rationing during the war changed the way that people shopped for food and cooked.  For example, people on the homefront didn’t have many canned foods because many canned foods were shipped overseas to soldiers and much of the metal that would have been used to make more cans for food was being used to make other war supplies.  Because certain types of food were in short supply, individuals and families would receive ration books, which contained stamps that represented which types of foods they would be able to buy and how much.  Cookbooks printed during the war focused on creating meals that used little or no rationed products.  People also planted Victory gardens and grew their own vegetables to fill out their meals.

The cookbook is divided into sections for different meals:

Breakfast – Fried Potatoes, Toad-in-a-Hole (not the British dish – this is eggs cooked in a frame of bread, what I first learned to make as Eggs-in-a-Frame), Fried Bacon, Quick Coffee Cake, and Frozen Fruit Cups.

Dinner – Vitamin A Salad (made with carrots and lemon gelatin), Deviled Eggs, Carrot Curls and Celery Fans, Vitality Meat Loaf, Parsley Biscuits, Volcano Potatoes, and Applesauce Cupcakes.

Favorite Foods – French toast, Waldorf salad, PBJ Roll-ups, Jelly Flags, Victory Garden Soup, Nut-and-Raisin Bread, and Fruit Bars.

In each section of recipes, there is more historical information about food in World War II.  There is also a section in the back with party ideas from the 1940s.

For more World War II recipes, I recommend The 1940’s Experiment, which is a blog with recipes from World War II and an explanation of how they can be used to both save money and lose weight because they were intentionally designed to make maximum use of limited resources, both economically and nutritionally. In Molly’s Cook Book, there is a chart that government experts during World War II used to give people guidance on how to budget their food money among seven food groups. The diet that they recommended, both nutritionally and to limit certain rationed foods, was heavy on vegetables and fruits and lighter on meats, grains, and dairy products. This type of diet is basically in keeping with modern nutritional advice, which also emphasizes the importance of vegetables and fruit.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Surprise Island

The Boxcar Children

Surprise Island by Gertrude Chandler Warner, 1949.

Mr. Alden has promised his grandchildren a special surprise for their summer vacation. He tells them that, years ago, his father bought a small island because he kept horses and wanted a quiet place for them.  The island has only one little yellow house, a barn, and a fisherman’s hut where Captain Daniel lives.  Captain Daniel operates the motorboat that can take people to the island.  Mr. Alden plans to take his grandchildren to the island to look over the house, and if they like, they can spend the summer there.  The children think that it sounds like fun.

When they get to the island, the children decide that they want to stay in the barn instead of the house.  Captain Daniel also tells them that he has a young man staying with him, a friend who hasn’t been feeling well.  The Aldens’ old friend, Dr. Moore, has come to see the island with them, so he looks in on the young man.  It turns out that the young man was in an accident and had lost his memory for a time, although he has been gaining it back.  He says that he used to live with an uncle but that he didn’t want to go home again until he was sure that he was completely well.  He is going by the name of “Joe”, which is short for his middle name, Joseph.  Captain Daniel says that he’s known the young man all his life, and Dr. Moore also seems to know him, but Joe doesn’t seem to want to talk about himself to Mr. Alden.

The kids enjoy setting up housekeeping in the barn.  It reminds them of when they used to live in an old boxcar.  They use old boxes for furniture, dig for clams, and eat vegetables from the garden that Joe and Captain Daniel have tended for them.  Their grandfather allows the children to stay on the island in Captain Daniel’s charge, but they are mostly allowed to take care of themselves.  Joe sometimes brings them supplies that they ask for from the mainland.  (One of the themes of the Boxcar Children Series is self-sufficiency.  At one point, Jessie comments about how much better things seem “when we have to work to get it.”)  For fun, they go swimming, and Joe spends time with them, telling them about different types of seaweed.  They are surprised at how knowledgeable Joe is.

Henry gets the idea that they can set up a kind of museum of interesting things that they find on the island, like samples of different types of seaweed, shells, flowers, pictures of birds that they’ve seen, etc.  The other children think that it sounds like fun, and they begin thinking about the different types of things that they can collect.While they’re searching for things to collect and add to their museum, the children find a cave and an old arrowhead and ax-head.  They are authentic Indian (Native American) relics!  When they show Joe what they’ve found, he gets very excited, especially when they tell him that they saw a pile of clam shells, too.  Joe explains to the children how Native Americans used to use shells as money called wampum.  He thinks that what they saw was wampum, which the people who used to live there might have made after drying the clams to eat later.  Joe explains to the kids some of the process they would have used to turn the shells into wampum.  He’s eager to go to the cave and look for more Native American artifacts with them, but he urges them not to say anything to anyone else about it because other treasure hunters will probably show up if they do.  The children agree to keep their find a secret until their grandfather returns.

When they return to the cave with Joe, they make an even more incredible find: a human skeleton with an arrowhead inside.  It looks like they’ve found the bones of someone killed by an arrow!

As with some other vintage children’s mystery series, the early books in the series were more adventure than mystery.  The most mysterious part of this book concerns the real identity of the young man they call “Joe.”  The truth begins to come out when a strange man who calls himself Browning comes to the island in search of a young man who disappeared the year before while doing some exploring for him.  The young man he’s looking for worked for a museum.

This is the book where Violet first learns to play the violin.  This is a character trait that stays with her for the rest of the series.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

The Boxcar Children

The Boxcar Children

BoxcarChildren#1 The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, 1942.

“One warm night, four children stood in front of a bakery.  No one knew them.  No one knew where they had come from.”

These are the words that begin not only this story but a series that has been loved by generations and continued well beyond the death of the original author.

The four Alden children are on the run following the deaths of their parents.  Their nearest remaining relative is a grandfather they have never met, and although he should have custody of the children now, none of the children want to go live with him.  All that they know about him is that he is apparently a mean old man who opposed their parents’ marriage.  Henry, the eldest at fourteen, and Jessie, who is twelve, have taken charge of the two younger children, ten-year-old Violet and seven-year-old Benny.  They have a little money, and now travel on foot in search of a new home.

The first place they stop is a bakery in a nearby town where no one knows who they are.  They don’t have much money, but they know they are going to need supplies for their journey.  The stingy baker and his wife agree to give the children some food and a place to sleep for the night in exchange for some help in their shop.  The children are willing to work and accept the offer.  However, Henry and Jessie overhear the couple talking about them.  They like having the children to help in the shop, but Benny is too young to be of much help.  They are considering taking Benny to an orphanage and keeping the others.  Not wanting to be separated, Henry and Jessie wake Violet and pick up Benny, moving on.  Now, they have a second set of people they’re avoiding, besides their grandfather.

Seeking a place where they can stay while not being noticed by people around them, the children eventually find an old, abandoned boxcar on a disused piece of train track on the edge of some woods.  They take shelter there from the rain and decide that they can turn it into their new home.  There are blackberries growing nearby that they can eat and a stream where they can keep milk cold.  Henry finds odd jobs in a nearby town to earn more money, and the others discover an old dump where they retrieve some old, cracked dishes and other useful items.

It seems like an idyllic life at first.  The children are free of adult control, although they do have to work to create a household for themselves and find food.  They adopt a stray dog they call Watch (he’s their new watchdog), and Henry makes friends who appreciate what a hard worker he is.  However, some of them start to wonder about Henry, where he comes from, and where his parents are.

The children soon realize that someone is spying on them.  Is it someone from the town?  Could the baker and his wife still be looking for them?  Or is it someone sent by their grandfather?  When Violet is suddenly taken ill, the others realize that they need help and someone to trust.

Getting help for Violet does mean that the children’s secret is revealed to everyone, although they learn some important things in the process.  They discover who was spying on them and why and also discover that their grandfather is a nicer person than they thought and truly cares for them.

The version of the book that most people know is based on the 1942 edition of the book, but there was also an earlier version of the book from 1924 that is now in the public domain (read it here).  The later version simplified the original story, changed some of the names (the children had the same first names, but their family name was originally Cordyce, not Alden), and removed some parts that might be objectionable for young children.

Although the original story doesn’t completely clear up some questions that were left unresolved in the current version, like what the children’s parents were like, precisely how they died, and why they quarreled with the children’s grandfather in the first place, it did supply a few more details in the first chapter.  The original story begins when the children move to a new town with their father.  No one knew exactly where they came from, and the children pointedly refuse to say.  However, they do tell their neighbor, a baker, that their mother is already dead.  Their father is drunk, and the baker thinks that he looks like he’s in such bad condition that he isn’t likely to last much longer.  That turns out to be true when he dies (apparently from alcohol-related causes) soon after.  When they question the children about whether or not they have other relatives, young Benny blurts out that they have a grandfather before the others silence him.  The adults press the children for answers, and they reluctantly admit that there is a grandfather, but they say that he did not like their mother and would treat them cruelly if they were sent to him (or so, apparently, their parents had led them to believe).  The only one of the children who has even seen the grandfather is Jessie (actually called Jess in this version of the story), and then it was only from a distance because her father happened to see him passing by and pointed him out.  Later, the children hear the baker and his wife talking, saying that they have no choice but to try to find the grandfather, and the children decide to run away to avoid going to live with him.  The questions of how their mother died and why the grandfather didn’t like her in the first place are never answered.

James Cordyce (the children’s grandfather in the original book, their grandmother is also apparently dead) is a wealthy man who owns steel mills, and he is impressed by the children’s ingenuity and resourcefulness at managing their own affairs while living on their own.  He tells Henry that he wants him to take over the steel mills one day, and the book says that Henry does so when he grows up and does a wonderful job of managing them.  Mr. Cordyce tells the other children that he wants them all to go to college, and then they can do whatever they like when they grow up (which the book says also happens).

Although the books never actually say so, my theory is that Mr. Cordyce/Alden was a hard-headed businessman, particularly when he was younger, driven to succeed and not emotionally demonstrative, and that this attitude caused a rift between him and his son, who may not have shared his father’s business skills and interests.  The grandfather may have wanted his son to follow in his footsteps when the son had other ambitions.  The son may have seen his father as a cold and ruthless businessman and conveyed that impression to his own children after marrying a woman his father disapproved of (Because her family was poor? Because they were unambitious?  Because she had some objectionable personal habit?  There’s no telling), but because he may not have told the children the whole reason why he thought that the grandfather was cruel, the children imagined that he was worse than he really was.

We don’t know what the children’s father did for a living after his feud with his father or exactly where they lived (perhaps in Greenfield or close by so that Jessie was able to catch sight of her grandfather one day).  Why the father took to drinking is also never explained, but I think it may be implied that he did so out of grief for his wife who died.  But, I think that Henry and Jessie probably had to manage the household for their parents following their mother’s death (and maybe before that if she suffered from ill health), which is part of the reason why the children are so self-sufficient and seem more tied to each other than to any adult.  In any case, the original book says that Mr. Cordyce is interested when the doctor who befriends the children says that Henry and Jessie have business management skills, so I think he was thrilled to find out that he might have more in common with his grandchildren than he did with his son and hopeful that Henry would make a better successor in the family business.  But, that’s just the way I read it.

One other point that the original book covered was Watch’s origins.  The later version just has Watch as a stray who the children adopt, but the original story explained that he had just been purchased from a kennel by a wealthy woman when he was lost.  The kennel owner tries to reclaim the dog (kennel name Rough No. 3) on behalf of the woman, but the grandfather offers to buy the dog for much more than the original price.  The kennel owner says that it’s up to the woman who bought him, and they invite the woman to the house.  After hearing how attached the children have become to Watch, the woman allows them to keep him.

The newer, popular version of the book is available online through Internet Archive.

Cheaper By the Dozen


Cheaper By the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, 1948.

These are the real reminiscences of children from the Gilbreth family about their unusual childhoods during the 1910s and 1920s.  There are a couple of movies based on this book, including the 2003 movie that features the dad who is a football coach, but that story is fictional and bears almost no resemblance to the actual lives of the real Gilbreth family.  The older 1950 movie with Myrna Loy as the mother is closer.  The only part that they have in common is that there were a dozen children in the family and they had some unusual systems for handling their chaotic household.

The father of the Gilbreth family, Frank Gilbreth, Sr., was a motion study and efficiency expert.  He was one of the early pioneers in the field, studying the ways that people do things, whether it was routine household chores or making things in factories and trying to find ways to help them perform their tasks more efficiently.  Saving time was a passion for him, and he often used his own children and household as guinea pigs for his projects.  His wife, Lillian Gilbreth, was also a psychologist and engineer and was his partner in his work, continuing it after his death.

Part of the reason Frank Gilbreth was so interested in efficiency was that, in his early life, he worked with his hands and built a reputation as an efficient worker.  Later, he also learned that he had a heart condition that might cause him to lead a shorter life.  He had wanted a large family, and he and his wife had agreed that they wanted an even dozen of children, six boys and six girls.  He got his wish, but he was concerned about helping his children to make it as far as they could through school and giving the household a structure that would last even after he died.

The stories in this book are mostly funny stories as his children fondly remember the things their father taught them and the usual systems in their house that were designed to keep a dozen children in order.  The stories jump around a bit in time, and it isn’t always clear exactly which children were alive at certain points in the stories.  Whenever Jane, the youngest, is mentioned, the stories take place between 1922 and 1924, and there should be eleven living children in the family at most.  Although the Gilbreths did have twelve children, as they had hoped, they were all single births (no twins or other multiples), spaced out over 17 years.  Also, although this book does not mention it (the sequel, Belles on Their Toes contains a brief footnote), one of the older girls in the family (Mary) died very young of diphtheria, before her youngest sister was born, so there was no point at which all twelve children were together.  Even so, the Gilbreths always referred to their children as their “dozen,” and the stories make it sound like all twelve were together.  (This article explains a little more about Mary’s death and its effect on her family and the reasons why the books explain little about it.)

The children’s birth order isn’t specified in the stories, but for reference, these are their birth and death dates (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Anne Moller Gilbreth Barney (1905-1987)

Mary Elizabeth Gilbreth (1906–1912)

Ernestine Moller Gilbreth Carey (1908-2006)

Martha Bunker Gilbreth Tallman (1909-1968)

Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. (1911-2001)

William Moller Gilbreth (1912-1990)

Lillian Gilbreth Johnson (1914-2001)

Frederick Moller Gilbreth (1916-2015)

Daniel Bunker Gilbreth (1917-2006)

John Moller Gilbreth (1919-2002)

Robert Moller Gilbreth (1920-2007)

Jane Moller Gilbreth Heppes (1922-2006)

Wikipedia also claims that there was a thirteenth baby, an unnamed stillborn daughter, but this child isn’t mentioned in the books, and I don’t know for sure if that’s true.  Most of the children lived to adulthood, married, and had children of their own.

Note: I usually make notes about racial language in the books I review.  There are a couple of things I’d like to point out, although I also have to point out that, since this book is non-fiction, the people writing it were quoting people from memory.  Just be prepared for a few things that people said back in the 1920s that wouldn’t be acceptable in modern speech.  They aren’t central factors in the stories, but they are there.  For example, one of their grandmothers used to get dramatic when threatening the children with punishment and say that she would “scalp them like Red Indians.” (I’m not completely sure if she meant that the Indians would get scalped like that or do scalping like that, but I’m guessing that she probably wasn’t being particular.)  The mother of the family also frequently used the word “Eskimo” to describe bad language or “anything that was off-color, revolting, or evil-minded.”  Most of the time in the book, she says it kind of like the way some people say, “Pardon my French” when using bad language, and her definition of bad language was pretty mild.  I’ve never heard the word “Eskimo” used in that sense anywhere else, and it makes me cringe here.  There is some pay-off to the word when a couple of pet canaries whose full names the mother had declared were “Eskimo” escaped during a boat ride, and one of the kids tries to explain to the boat captain that he’s upset about “Peter” and “Maggie” being lost but he can’t say their last names because they’re “Eskimo,” making the captain think that a couple of Alaskan natives have mysteriously disappeared over the side of his boat.  It reminded me of something similar in Fudge-A-Mania, where Fudge accidentally made people think that his lost pet bird was his crazy uncle.  When sharing this book with children, like other older books, it might be a good idea to make it clear that they shouldn’t try to imitate some of the expressions the book uses because it might cause problems and misunderstandings.  There is also a Chinese cook in one chapter who speaks a kind of pidgin English that no one should imitate, either.

Overall, these are calm, funny stories about a somewhat eccentric family that can make nice bedtime reading.  The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Each of the chapters in this book talks about a different topic or period in the family’s life:

CheaperDozenShavingWhistles and Shaving Bristles

Introduces the father of the family and his experiments in motion study.  Frank Gilbreth was highly self-confident and frequently took at least some of his children (and sometimes the whole family) with him on visits to factories where he was helping to increase their efficiency.  He gave the children notebooks and pencils and had them take notes about what they saw.

To keep the household orderly and make sure that each child got ready for school on time and did their chores and homework, the parents instituted a chart that each child had to initial after completing certain routine tasks such as brushing teeth or making beds, and there was a special whistle that their father would give to get all of the children to come quickly for a meeting.  The father would sometimes take moving pictures of the children doing chores, like washing dishes, so that he could study their motions and determine if there were wasted motions that could be eliminated so that the task could be completed more efficiently.  He also used himself as a guinea pig, always trying to do daily tasks like buttoning his coat or shaving more quickly and efficiently.

Pierce Arrow

The family moves from their home in Providence, Rhode Island, to Montclair, New Jersey.  This chapter explains the move and also the father’s love of practical jokes.  Before taking the family to their real new house, he takes them to one that’s really old and run-down so that the new one will look that much better when they get there.  When they get their large Pierce Arrow car, big enough to carry the whole family, the father tricks each of the kids into looking for the “birdie” in the engine and then honks the horn to scare them.  He thinks it’s funny until one of the kids does the same thing to him.

CheaperDozenCarOrphans in Uniform

This chapter explains that the mother of the family was a psychologist.  While the father instituted systems and dealt out discipline, the mother was often the one that made the systems work, resolving conflicts among the children and making sure that everyone was doing what they needed to do and that they had everything they needed.  Older children also helped by looking after a designated younger sibling.

Much of the chapter explains how things often happened on family outings.  They always took roll call because there were a couple of incidents when children had been left behind by accident on earlier trips.  As a large family, they also attracted a lot of attention.  Sometimes, their father would try to get discounts on things like ticket prices and toll booths by pretending that his children were the nationality of whoever seemed to be in charge (and he was pretty good at guessing that correctly).  All of the Gilbreths were either blonde or red-haired, so Mr. Gilbreth was known to gleefully pretend that they were also Irish, when in fact, their heritage was Scottish.  He always thought jokes like that were funny, but finally his wife and children put a stop to his playacting the day that the family was mistaken for an orphanage on an outing.

Visiting Mrs. Murphy

The family enjoyed going on picnics together.  While they were eating, the father would often try to squeeze in an educational lesson, pointing out things like the way ants work together, how a nearby bridge would have been constructed, or what was going on at a nearby factory.  The children learned a lot from him, especially how to notice details in the world around them, but they noted that it was their mother who often put the lessons in perspective for them by pointing out the human side of each of these things, such as describing the fat queen ant in a colony with all of her slaves (their word, I’ve usually heard them referred to as “workers”, but you get the idea) waiting on her or the workmen on a construction project in their jeans, stopping for lunch.  Their father was also pleased by the mother’s descriptions, which complemented his lessons so well.  These stories help explain how the parents worked well together as a team.

The “visiting Mrs. Murphy” was a euphemism for going to the bathroom in the woods because the family didn’t really trust public restrooms.

Mister Chairman

This chapter explains a little about Frank Gilbreth’s youth and how he got his start.  His father died when he was young, and his mother encouraged her children to get the best education they could.  However, Frank Gilbreth decided to get a job instead of going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology like his mother planned because he was concerned about the family finances and his sisters’ education.  He became a bricklayer and drove his supervisor crazy because he always had tips for working faster and more efficiently.  Eventually, the supervisor adopted some of his suggestions, and Frank discovered his passion for motion study.  He worked his way up in construction until he became a contractor, and he was also hired to study working methods in the factories he built.  He became a wealthy man and met his wife as she passed through Boston on her way to a trip in Europe.  Lillian was from a wealthy family in California, and she had a college degree in psychology.  Although many people didn’t take female scholars seriously in those days, Frank did, and the two of them became a team, both personally and professionally.  They were both interested in the psychology of management, and they applied many of the principles from the professional world to their household and vice versa.

To help organize household tasks and make family decisions, Frank created a Family Council with himself as the Chairman and his wife as the Assistant Chairman that was similar to an employer-employee board.  For the most part, it did help to keep order in the family, but once in a while, the Chairman was overruled, including the time when the children ended up persuading their parents that they should get a family dog.

Touch System

This chapter goes into more detail about how responsibilities and chores were assigned in the family.  It also describes how the father arranged to make best use of “unavoidable delay” in the bathroom by putting Victrolas with language lessons in the children’s bathrooms, so they could learn while bathing or brushing their teeth.  He also taught them how to take baths efficiently, so that they could be in and out of the bathroom as quickly as possible.  Mr. Gilbreth took every opportunity and free moment to improve his children’s minds, including teaching them ways to perform complex math problems at the dinner table.

While working as a consultant for the Remington typewriter company, Mr. Gilbreth developed a system for teaching touch typing, and he taught it to his children.

CheaperDozenSchoolSkipping Through School

Mr. Gilbreth was anxious to see as many of his children get through school as he could, and he had great confidence in their abilities, so he often pushed his children to skip grades in school, using persuasion and his bombastic personality to get their schools to agree.  The children’s mother, however, saw her children more as individuals who needed time to grow up emotionally and socially as well as intellectually and tempered her husband’s enthusiasm for skipping grades.

The parents also had their children attend church and Sunday School, although the father wasn’t very interested in organized religion.  Lillian volunteered for a number of church projects and committees, and once, a friend of hers who had eight children of her own, referred her to a birth control advocate who was looking for someone local to volunteer to promote the movement.  The friend thought that it was a great joke, and the family made the most of it when the advocate showed up at their house.

Kissing Kin

When the United States joined World War I, Mr. Gilbreth offered his services to the U.S. Army.  While he was working at Fort Sill, Mrs. Gilbreth took their children (they had seven at the time) to visit her relatives in California.  The Mollers were a wealthy family, and the children enjoyed being spoiled by their grandparents and their aunts and uncles after the arduous train journey there.

Chinese Cooking

At first, the children felt like they should be on their best behavior when visiting their grandparents and aunts and uncles.  However, the adults were a little worried about how subdued the children were, and constantly being on their best behavior grew more difficult for the children.  One day, when the adults made the children wear new outfits that they hated for a special party, the children finally rebelled and got them all wet by playing in the garden sprinklers.  From then on, everyone was much more relaxed and informal.

The grandparents had servants, and Billy became rather attached to their Chinese cook, Chew Wong (I’m not completely sure if “Chew” was his real name or a nickname), who was known for being somewhat temperamental.  The cook enjoyed Billy’s company also, although when Billy got troublesome, he sometimes picked him up, held him in front of the oven, and threatened to cook him.  It was an empty threat, but one day, Billy (five years old at the time) pushed the cook when he was standing in front of the oven, also joking that he was going to cook him, and the cook apparently got his hands burned.  (This incident alarmed me a bit.  It seems that the cook wasn’t badly hurt, but still, that’s the kind of problem that horseplay like that can cause, and it could have been really serious.  The cook is described as speaking a kind of heavily-accented pidgin English.)

On the way home, all of the children came down with whooping cough.  When they picked up Mr. Gilbreth, Mrs. Gilbreth told him that next time, he could take the kids to California, and she would go to war instead.

Motion Study Tonsils

The family didn’t get sick very often (and tried hard to ignore it when they did), but this chapter describes what happened when the children all came down with measles and when several of them needed to have their tonsils taken out at the same time.  Their father decided to turn the tonsil operations into a motion study experiment.


The family had a vacation home in Nantucket, Massachusetts that they called “The Shoe” (after the nursery rhyme about the old woman who lived in a shoe and had so many children that she didn’t know what to do).  Although the father promised the kids that there would be no lessons and studying over the summer, he still found ways to teach them things by turning the lessons into games, like when he painted Morse code messages all over The Shoe and offered prizes to the children who could solve them.

This chapter also explains about the Gilbreths’ concept of “therbligs.”  The word comes from “Gilbreth” spelled backward, and it refers to a single unit of thought or motion.  Every task a person does is composed of a certain number of therbligs.  Reducing the amount of time needed for each therblig makes a task more efficient.  They taught this concept to their children as well, putting symbols representing the different possible therbligs on the walls of The Shoe as well.

For a while, The Shoe became a point of interest on local tours.

The Rena

The Rena was a catboat that the family owned.  Their father liked to run it like he was a real ship’s captain.

CheaperDozenBabyBathHave You Seen the Latest Model?

The births of new children were a regular experience in the Gilbreth family through much of the children’s early lives.  This chapter explains how the parents approached the births.  They decided very early in their marriage that they wanted a large family, choosing the number twelve as their target on the day they were married.  Mr. Gilbreth had a lot of theories about babies which he started testing on their first child, Anne.  He refused to allow people to speak baby talk around the babies (although he caved in and did it sometimes himself) so they would learn to speak properly, he hired a nurse who spoke German in the hopes that the baby would start learning a second language immediately, and he once tried to see if babies have an innate ability to swim by trying Anne in the bathtub (no, they don’t, and he was careful not to let Anne almost drown).

Mrs. Gilbreth had her first seven children at home, finding the hospital too dull because they wouldn’t let her work on anything while she was there.  As time went on, the children in the family began to wonder more about where the babies came from, although they knew that it involved their mother spending the day in bed, the doctor coming, and sometimes hearing their mother yell (she was embarrassed that they’d noticed).  Their mother tried to explain babies to them in terms of bees and flowers, but she was too shy to give them any real, direct information about it, and their father didn’t want to discuss the subject with them at all.  This chapter also mentions that part of the family tradition was that the mother would read the book The Five Little Peppers to her children while she was recovering from a birth.  (I also reviewed this book.)

Flash Powder and Funerals

Mr. Gilbreth loved taking pictures of his children (using a frightening amount of flash powder whenever he was in charge of it) and also frequently used pictures and movies of his children as part of his projects or as promotional images.  One of the most bizarre promotions they did was when Mr. Gilbreth was hired by a company that made automatic pencils.  They took pictures and movies of the Gilbreth children burying a coffin full of regular old wooden pencils.  The kids had to bury the coffin and dig it up again multiple times while they took all the pictures and movies they wanted.  Then, Mr. Gilbreth made them dig it up again and use all the wooden pencils in it so that none of them would go to waste.

Sometimes, these pictures and promotions were embarrassing to the children when they were made public and classmates and teachers talked about them at school.  Some of the reporters who interviewed the family for human interest pieces made up bits of dialogue to make their stories more interesting and embarrassed the family.  (Ex. “I am far more proud of my dozen husky, red-blooded American children than I am of my two dozen honorary degrees …”)

Gilbreth and Company

This chapter explains what it was like for special visitors to come to the Gilbreth house.  Most people found it pretty strange, with so many young children and the strict household rules which the children would also try to enforce on visitors.  The chapter mentions that Mrs. Gilbreth never liked using physical punishments on the children, but Mr. Gilbreth used them regularly.  Mrs. Gilbreth kept trying to tell him that he shouldn’t spank the children on various body parts because of the harm it could do.  At one point, Mr. Gilbreth asks her, irritably, “Where did your father spank you?  Across the soles of the by jingoed feet like the heathen Chinese?”  (It was a thing, but not exclusively Chinese.)

In particular, this part of the book describes two special visitors to the Gilbreth house: the father’s older sister, the children’s Aunt Anne, who came to look after the children while the parents were out of town, and a female psychologist who was trying to analyze the children for a paper she was writing.  The children generally liked Aunt Anne, who also gave them music lessons, even though none of them had any talent for music.  However, they started playing pranks on her when she started getting too militant with them, replacing the routines that their father gave them with ones of her own.

The children were more offended by the visiting psychologist, who asked them deeply embarrassing questions (ex. “Does it hurt when your father spanks you?”) and who seemed to have an agenda to prove that, while the Gilbreth children were smart, they were socially or behaviorally abnormal for living in such a large family under unusual systems.  The children also played pranks on her, getting hold of the answers to the intelligence test that she was giving them so they could give her either abnormally correct answers or psychologically abnormal answers and purposely behaving abnormally in her presence, intentionally twitching and scratching themselves.  Eventually, the psychologist caught on to what they were doing and left in a huff.

Over the Hill

This chapter is about family entertainment.  The Gilbreths liked to go to the movies about once a week, often staying to see films twice.  (Films were silent at this point.)  The father loved the movies as much as the kids, if not more so.  The children also sometimes put on little shows or skits for their parents.  In particular, they liked to do imitations of their parents, many of which involved either taking the children places or being asked questions about what it was like to have so many children.  Mr. Gilbreth also liked to do a “Messrs. Jones and Bones” cross-talk routine like the ones from minstrel shows, where a pair of actors perform pun-based jokes, except that he would play both parts himself, putting on accents like the black-face minstrels.  (Ex. “And does you know Isabelle?” “Isabelle?” “Yeah, Isabelle necessary on a bicycle.”)

CheaperDozenUnderwearFour Wheels, No Brakes

The oldest girls in the family were getting old enough to start dating in the early 1920s, around the time that flapper culture was beginning.  Their parents were fairly conservative in their habits, and the girls argued with them about being allowed to bob their hair and wear the latest fashions, like short dresses.  The parents finally broke down and allowed the girls to have their hair professionally bobbed after Anne gave herself a dreadful bob.  The father drew the line on make-up, however.

Motorcycle Mac

During the early 1920s, girls often referred to their boyfriends as “sheiks” in reference to the popular silent movie The Sheik.  The father of the family often chaperoned his daughters on dates or had one of their brothers do it, although he eased off after getting to know some of the young men better.  The younger siblings enjoyed teasing the older ones about their dates.  My favorite episode, though, was the time when one of Ernestine’s boyfriends climbed a tree outside of her window to spy on her, hoping to see her getting undressed, and the other siblings decided to teach him a lesson by pretending that they were going to set the tree on fire and roast him alive.  It’s a dangerous prank, but effective.

The Party Who Called You…

Mr. Gilbreth knew that he had a bad heart condition even before his last two children were born, and he made preparations that would help his wife to run the household efficiently after his death.  He died in his 50s while he was on his way to a series of conferences in Europe.  He had called his wife from the train station and was on the phone with her when he had his fatal heart attack.

The book ends with describing what his wife and children did after his death.  One of the things that I found most touching was the way that the children described the changes in their mother after her husband died.  They said that in their mother’s youth, she had been accustomed to other people making decisions for her, first her parents, then her husband, who guided their work and who had the idea of the large family in the first place.  In some ways, their mother had been a very nervous, anxious person, afraid of things like going out alone at night, lightning storms, and making speeches (although she did them anyway).  After her husband died, Lillian’s fears seemed to drop away because the thing that she had always feared the most, losing her husband, had happened, and she discovered that she and the children could still manage.  When her mother suggested that she move the family out to California to be close to their relatives there, Lillian held a Family Council to decide.  Lillian said that she planned to continue their father’s work, even going to Europe in her husband’s place to present his papers, and that would mean that the children would have to take on greater responsibilities in running the house and caring for the younger children.  The children agreed, and although money was tighter than it was before, they were able to carry on.