Tag Archives: reading

His Stories, My Stories

for perserveranceAfter finding the Christmas gift and the book dedication, I start rummaging through the rest of the old books from home, wondering who originally owned them. Every one of them has either a bookplate or an inscription inside — good fortune for me and an indication of the value they had for the owner and the giver.

One of the novels was presented to Harold by a teacher as a prize for ‘perseverance’. Perseverance can mean many things, but maybe it meant that he valued learning and was able and willing to keep attending school when surrender to family duty and hard work on the land was a more common choice.

Home boy Barnardos 1900 Russell Man Collections Canada

Home boy Barnardos 1900 Russell Man Collections Canada. Public domain – available from Wikimedia Commons.

I find more books with Harold’s name in the front — presents from his brothers, presents from  his friend, Walter. I’m surprised to find that even Rilla of Ingleside has Harold’s name on it — the year1919, is written underneath. I leaf through L.M. Montgomery’s story of the the home front during the Great War. When I was young, I hadn’t recognized the historical accuracy of it; back then it was just the romantic end to the Anne series.

I open up my copies of Ishmael and Self-Raised by Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Great Heart by Ethel M. Dell , John Halifax, Gentleman and Lazarre by Mrs. Craik; Harold’s name is in nearly every old book that’s been passed on to me.book dedication - Lazarre

His stories were my stories.

These books are the old romantic stories I read, loved and reread when I was a teen, but skimming through them now, I see they are not merely romantic novels.  They all have protagonists with shining moral standards who maintain their integrity throughout their trials because of their strong Christian values.

I begin to wonder – was that what Victorian/Edwardian novels were like or were they just the type of book Harold preferred to read? 

*****

To find out what people were reading at the time, I used two sources.

First, I found two databases of American Best-sellers of the 20th Century. One was compiled as a joint project involving students from several American universities. The other from Publisher’s Weekly (made available on Wikipedia). The lists cross-checked and two of the books from the lists, The Virginian by Owen Wister (1902 #1 best-seller, 1903 #5 best-seller) and The Rosary by Florence Barclay (1910 #1 best-seller, 1911 #9 best-seller) are in my collection of grandfather’s books. (I didn’t looked into Canadian publishing only because none of his books were published in Canada. They were from Britain and America).

The second source was the good old Methodist survey of the Swan River Valley. It provided a local focus. The surveyors not only recorded the reading habits of the people, they recorded the most borrowed titles from the Bowman Public Library that year. They were:

Bowman Library loans 1914

Popular books at that time turned out to be a range of melodramatic romance, action/adventure, mystery and biographical stories. But what was popular is only part of the answer. I also have to consider, what might have been available to Harold?  I don’t know what else Grandfather may have owned or had access to. And I don’t know how hard it may have been to even acquire books.

*****

Religion seems to play a significant part in the Gillespie’s lives even influencing Harold’s choice of literature. But I wonder what the norm was back then, perhaps my family was just very religious. I want to better understand what part religion played in the history of this time for these people.  I have a couple of solid clues I want to follow — one is the Methodist survey and the other has to do with Harold’s friend, Walter.

 

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A Gift, from 1904

While cleaning up one Saturday, I rediscover an old book that’s been sitting on the family shelves since forever.

childrens book of christ 002

A Child’s Life of Christ has never interested me, but I stop to examine it this time because its obviously been well read by someone. I always thought it belonged to my mother, but discover it’s older than that. Inside is a dedication page dated 1904 and it is made out to the three young Gillespie boys — Harold, Ray and Percy. It’s  a Christmas gift from their mother — the boys would have been nine, seven and five years old — the family would have been settled in Durban for only four years. They must have been doing well to afford such a thick, handsome book.

The cover is heavily embossed and soberly religious, but as I leaf through the stories, I begin to see the appeal of this book for little boys. The engravings inside are rich with exotic plants — palm trees grow next to cactus and oleanders in full bloom. Desert landscapes, walled cities and vaulted temples provide backdrops for camel trains, merchants and dusty mobs.  Ancient kings pose with chins on their fists, Israelites crowd together, robes and keffiyeh billowing in the desert winds. This isn’t a book full of bible stories, it’s an adventure book (although the author dutifully delivers morals and counsels his young readers against certain thoughts and deeds). I read a couple of pages then a few of the chapters.cropt version of heir and wicked husbandmen

 

The Plot: There is this youth who grows up thinking he is just an ordinary boy, but he discovers one day from an eccentric wise man that he is not ordinary at all — he is the Chosen One. He meets other young men, they band together. Some evil people are trying to kill him, other people tell him he is their hope. He performs miracles but has dark days too …

 

Hmmm, sounds very similar to a book I read to my children when they were young.

****The Raising of Lazarus

The Child’s Life of Christ was probably well-read for a number of reasons: it was a gift, it was a form of religious teaching for the children, it would have been a wonderful source of stories during long winters, and they likely did not own many books. And that got me wondering — how many books would a homesteading family like the Gillespie’s have owned? What other kinds of books might Harold have read as he grew up?

Ten years after the Christmas present was given, a rural survey was carried out by the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. In it they thoroughly documented the agricultural, educational, religious and social lives of the people in the valley — including the reading habits of the locals. Of the families surveyed, the average number of books owned was only ten to twelve. The survey noted that many farmers were not book-lovers (but read newspapers and rural interest journals). It was also mentioned that books owned by families were shared with others. Lending libraries were set up in a couple of communities but not in Durban. So even in 1914, with local communities far more established than in 1904, books and stories were not so plentiful.

Books and the stories in them are what we build our dreams on as children. They are how we take our first steps out into the wider world; they challenge us to live like the heroes within and to stand up to villains wherever they may be. I know they have an enormous impact over our thinking and who we aspire to be.

I’m searching for Harold’s influences — where he grew up, the conditions in which he grew up, what shaped him to bring him to his decisions and his fate.  Could this book have been a factor?