Monday, November 27, 2017

The Small Literary Golden Age of 1945

1945 saw the publication of Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi and Uomini e no by Elio Vittorini in Italy, Animal Farm by George Orwell and Brideshead Revisted by Evelyn Waugh in Great Britain, "The Aleph" by Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina, and The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre in France. It was also, for a confluence of serendipitous happenings, a banner year for a veritable bounty of books I loved in childhood. Such a rich variety of children's books, or gently probing books for adults, might seem in retrospect strange for such a year, a year of so much death and horror, the dropping of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the beginning of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the Nuremberg Trials, the division of Korea into American and Soviet-occupied zones, a year of suicides and bombardments and mass rape. Or perhaps it's not so strange. Children are born and grow up even amid the most hideous of atrocities and outrages and it is in those times and places especially that such worlds of magic, solace, yearning, and joy are most needed. Here are eight novels, all published in 1945, that shine a light of comfort in dark times.

Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren
Pippi Longstocking is a rollicking, joyous children's novel, without a shred of sentimentality,  but born of isolation and physical misery: Lindgren began telling her sick daughter stories about the red-haired, super-strong Pippi to help her through pneumonia and wrote them down as a novel after she was confined to the house with her own injury. The books (for the success of the first Pippi book led to a series) are irreverent, direct, and obdurately silly and Pippi is an early, though anarchic, feminist role model for small girls, for she tears through conventions of femininity with a devil-may-care attitude.

The Small Rain - Madeleine L'Engle
L'Engle's debut novel was written for adults, but by the '80s and '90s, when I was discovering her work, her reputation rested on her young adult novels and most people discovered her writing for adults only after devouring those works for younger readers. The Small Rain follows Katherine Forrester from her neglected childhood, abandoned by a traumatized mother to a flamboyant Broadway-actress aunt, to the beginnings of womanhood. Katherine aspires to a career as a pianist and much of the novel concerns her search for kindred spirits who can understand the profound need for music that both sustains and torments her.

Strawberry Girl - Lois Lenski
Lenski became something of an embattled figure among parents and librarians because of her refusal to coddle children, especially privileged children, from the upsetting truths of poverty and social oppression. Her mission was to foster social compassion in children and she chose to do so by rejecting the sugar-coating that her detractors insisted was due to the innocence of (privileged) childhood. Strawberry Girl, along with Indian Captive, is one of her best books, set in the early twentieth-century in Florida, among poor 'Crackers' (the word is hers - these books are not politically correct by today's standards). In this novel, young Birdie becomes entangled in a family feud, the result of a fundamental conflict between a strawberry farm and free-range cattle grazing.

That Hideous Strength - C.S. Lewis
The last, and best, in Lewis's science fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength manages to be both an Arthurian saga and a dystopian thriller creepy enough to unsettle even with the glut of dystopian fiction we're bombarded with today. Lewis paints a bizarrely gorgeous imagining of a possible post-war England, in which budding academic Mark Studdock takes a post at the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, despite their odd interest in a wood rumored to be the burial place of Merlin and his wife Jane's fears following terrifying nightmares of a severed head. Of all the books on this list, this one is most obviously a child of the war, but one that succeeds in making a hopeful and forward-looking plea for education and against totalitarianism.

Heaven to Betsy - Maud Hart Lovelace
The fifth out of ten in the Betsy-Tacy series, which began publication in 1940, Heaven to Betsy brings its young literary aspirant and her friends into adolescence. Lovelace recreates a lost, innocent world, reminiscent of the late Victorian fantasy of Lady and the Tramp, romping through sing-alongs, picnics, ouija board divinations, and fudge-making. Betsy has her kerfuffles - her taste in boys leads to heartbreak and she decides to change her church denomination - but the point of these novels is not plot. Rather, they are like scrapbooks of a happy, privileged, enviable young womanhood, their characters vivid and lively, and their crisply articulated encouragement of a girl's ambition enough to leaven them when they get too sugary.

The Pursuit of Love - Nancy Mitford
There is a whole delightful comedic genre dedicated to nutty English aristocrats and Mitford was a master of that genre, what with being a rather nutty aristocrat from a truly bonkers family herself. Though the book is buzzy and frothy as champagne, Mitford sneaks in a good bit of political commentary, with her characters mixed up in the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance. Though the romantic, tragically inclined Linda is the heroine, far more memorable are her Uncle Matthew, a 'Kraut'-hating aristo who so dearly loves to hunt that he substitutes his own children when he can't get hold of a fox, the Bolter, so-named for her habit of scampering off to a new man when the latest has gotten boring, and Davey Warbeck, a hypochondriac writer.

The White Deer - James Thurber
Thurber's high fantasy tale of magical transformation, questing, and true love recalls William Goldman's The Princess Bride, successfully mixing an aloof satire and clever word-play with a poignant and sincere fairy tale reminiscent of Andersen and Perrault. The three sons of King Clode, two hunters and a poet, set out to win the love and hand in marriage of an amnesiac princess, transformed from a white deer. Richly imagined and remarkably original given its Medieval trappings, The White Deer is enchanting.

Stuart Little - E.B. White
E.B. White's first children's novel follows Stuart Little, a slightly pretentious mouse born to a human family, who sets out on an adventure to find his best friend, a white bird named Margalo. The book's ambiguous ending resulted in my toddler self throwing a terrific tantrum, as I couldn't bear not knowing what happened next, but as an adult, one is struck by White's evocation of a lived life, a strikingly realistic texture in a novel about a mouse who carries a cane as a fashion statement and drives a car that has an invisibility switch. Though not on a par with his masterpiece, Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little is an odd, whimsical, meandering story, of the kind the best sort of parent might make up at bedtime.

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