A clash of civilizations, a loss of one’s heritage, and the courage to change: A review of Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown

Note: When Amy Belding Brown asked me to review her latest book, I jumped at the chance; Mr. Emerson’s Wife had been a game-changing book for me. I smiled when I read of her interest in finding out more about Puritan life since Transcendentalism, explored in her previous book, was a strong reaction to that life. I had the same curiosity. Knowing about the beliefs of New Englanders in the beginning enriches the history and understanding of Transcendentalism and all other religious history in New England. A piece of trivia as well: John Hoar who figures in this book originally owned Orchard House nearly two hundred years before Bronson Alcott purchased it. Hoar sheltered Indians on his property; future generations of Hoars were neighbors of the Alcotts.

See the end of this review for a book giveaway!

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amy belding brown latte shop-1The last time I saw Amy Belding Brown, we were having coffee at a shop in the center of picturesque Grafton, Massachusetts talking about Mr. Emerson’s Wife (see previous post). It turns out Brown had lived in my hometown all this time and I never knew. At that get-together she talked about a new historical novel she was working on which covered the period of King Phillip’s War. Having no knowledge of that war I was to discover that in fact, that period of history was right on my doorstep, not only in the present, but in my past as well.

Setting

flight of the sparrowFlight of the Sparrow, set for release on July 1, goes back to the beginning of the Puritan settlement in Massachusetts, using historical fiction to portray the devastating consequences of the epic clash between the English and the Native American. The setting is King Phillip’s war, taking place in the mid 1670’s; its consequences are played out through one Puritan woman and one Nipmuc man.

Main characters

Mary Rowlandson was the wife of a minister in the town of Lancaster. Brown’s main character is based upon a real-life woman whose experiences are documented in a book she co-wrote called The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed, Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (available here as text and here as ebook). This religious memoir of her three months as an Indian captive was the first “best-seller” in English America (pg. 329).

James Printer, also known as Wowaus, came from Hassanamesit, a Praying Indian settlement founded by John Elliot who translated the Bible for the Indians to aid in their conversion to Christianity. The remains of Hassanemesit are located in my hometown of Grafton, Massachusetts.

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James Printer helped to set the type for the first edition of Mary Rowlandson’s book. For a time after the war he resided in the sole remaining Praying Indian settlement, Natick, just one town over from my childhood home of Wellesley.

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Summary of story

After the town of Lancaster is attacked and burned, Mary is taken captive along with her three children by the Nipmuc tribe (her husband Joseph was away at the time). In the course of the battle, her sister Elizabeth is wounded and then killed by fire, Mary herself is wounded, and her youngest daughter Sarah is also wounded mortally; she would die several days later as the captives are led away bound with rope. Mary carries Sarah as far as she can, struggling to ease her daughter’s pain, knowing there is nothing she could do to save her. Adding to her burden is her separation from her other daughter Marie and son Joss.

Living in sheer terror from moment to moment during that march, Mary experiences unexpected kindness from James Printer, who frees her from the rope around her neck. It would prove to be the first of several encounters for Mary with this mysterious, handsome and compassionate man.

Collision of cultures

During the first half of Flight of the Sparrow, Brown describes Mary’s captivity, weaving in detailed, colorful and honest descriptions of Native American life. Presenting the beauty and nobility along with the cruelty, Brown brings us into the increasing turmoil of Mary’s mind and heart. Terrified of and angry with her captives one moment, she finds herself admiring their way of life in the next. She gradually accepts Indian ways, from the freestyle way of dress to time spent outdoors, finding solace in the beauty that had before eluded her. She experiences the growing pains of a personal horizon expanding, a heart growing, and the old orderly and rigid ways of her life slowly falling away. In her captivity she discovers a freedom of movement and thought denied to her as a Puritan woman. It is a freedom she will sorely miss when she returns to English society. She is frightened to discover that her rock-solid Christian faith, regimented by spoken prayers and long scripture passages, is failing her. In the end she tries to bargain with James Printer to stay with the tribe when her time to be ransomed arrives.

Personal involvement

There is of course one other problem: Mary has developed feelings for James and the feelings are mutual. She is able to talk with him freely, expressing herself in ways she never could with her husband Joseph. She finds herself thinking of him and wishing to stay with him despite her status as a married woman.

Inner turmoil

Brown does an excellent job of presenting the moral dilemmas Mary faces both in her captivity and her restoration to the English. I struggled with her status as a slave and the cruelty she endured and yet rejoiced too at the unexpected generosity and kindness of the captors towards that slave. I empathized with Mary’s painful and yet exhilarating transformation as she grew to accept and then love her life with the Indians. I mourned as she was separated from James, the man she truly loved, having to return to the oppressive life she led with Joseph, whom she no longer loved. I felt her grief over Sarah and her concern for her other missing children, her longing to be back with the Indians and her surprising loss of personal freedom as she returned to her old life of repression, rules and propriety. I mourned the loss of her faith and her inability to transcend her Puritan ingraining which favored the letter of the law over than the spirit. While she was able to embrace that all peoples are children of God thus deserving respect and compassion, she could not see that God himself existed beyond the Bible and spoken prayers.

Turmoil of a nation

The empathy did not stop with the individual characters. Brown expands that empathy to an entire nation of people who, because they lost King Phillip’s war to the English, had their way of life taken from them. Although Brown is equally honest regarding the horrific actions of both sides in the war, the consequences for the Indians prove to be the most heartbreaking.

The value of the story

The depth of research that went into the creation of Flight of the Sparrow was evident in the compelling and authentic telling of the story. Brown is not hemmed in by the facts but rather uses those facts as a means of letting her imagination create a multi-layered and emotionally satisfying story. The life journeys of Mary and James not only touch the heart but challenge the mind as well. Just as Mr. Emerson’s Wife exposed and expanded my narrow way of thinking, Flight of the Sparrow caused me to search my heart when it came to meeting and knowing people who are not like me. While Brown’s aim may have been to tell a story about a period she was not familiar with so that she could learn more about her herself and her New England heritage, she has provided that service to this reader as well.

Visit Amy Belding Brown’s website for links to sites carrying Flight of the Sparrow.

Win a free copy of Flight of the Sparrow! Be the first to comment on this post and you will win!

For a quick history of the setting for the story, visit these sites:

Grafton, Massachusetts

Natick, Massachusetts

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Controversy wrapped in sentiment: Louisa May Alcott’s genius

(Disclaimer: Admittedly I’ve only just started pouring over Louisa’s works, and I haven’t yet ventured into her “blood and thunder” tales, so my comments here are limited to the later stage of her writing which proved to be the most successful).

Louisa’s genius

I’ve often said that Louisa May Alcott’s genius was twofold. She crafted stories of realism, sometimes poignant, often humorous, always entertaining. They were filled with very human characters who seemed as familiar as our neighbors.

And ever pragmatic, she also was willing to learn and adapt herself to new genres, mastering several.

Louisa may have lamented the fact that she wasn’t recognized in her time as a “serious” writer but she was a voice of her era with a modern twist, thus making it a voice that resonates today. In the words of the late Madeleine Stern, considered the preeminent Alcott scholar, Louisa was the consummate professional.

Pioneer as a professional

It’s ironic considering that Louisa had no formal training and did not go to public school or university. She was never mentored by a more experienced writer but instead was totally self-taught. There were precious few role models. In a time when there were virtually no women “professionals,” Louisa learned how to be one.

She was a pioneer, and that to me is genius.

Other layers to genius

Now I’m beginning to believe there is another layer to this genius. Louisa had a rare ability to take controversial ideas and wrap them up sweetly in children’s stories. It’s rather like the pill you have to feed to your dog – you wrap it up in something he loves like a piece of cheese, and he downs the pill without incident (unless your dog is too smart for his own good!). He doesn’t even realize he’s downed the dreaded pill and his ailment is taken care of.

In the same way, Louisa “wrapped” issues concerning the autonomy of women, the state of the family, and the care of children in sentimental tales like An Old-Fashioned Girl.

Victorian Domesticity

Charles Strickland’s book, Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott, points out many of the ways Louisa inserted these topics into this story.

Work versus Fashion

Polly was a woman with purpose.

He refers first to Chapter 13 which I thought was a particularly compelling chapter. Here Polly introduces Fanny to her circle of friends, a “sisterhood” of working women. Following the life of fashion, Fanny has been feeling empty and depressed, her life lacking purpose. Although held in esteem by society, Fanny is bored and miserable while the “lowly” working girls are happy. Polly exhorts Fanny to search herself and find what she can do well so she can give of herself to others:

“If ever a girl needed work, it’s you!” cried Polly. “You began to be a young lady so early, that you are tired of everything at twenty-two. I wish you’d go at something, then you’d find how much talent and energy you really had.”

A Sisterhood

Polly then proceeds to show Fanny what she means through the lives of her working friends (Miss Mills (the landlady), Becky (an artist), Bess, Rebecca, Kate (an author)).  Fanny not only experiences their happiness through sense of purpose, but she notes the authenticity of their friendships which were based on the real rather than the perceived.

Strickland describes what I alluded to in the last post concerning Polly’s life as a working girl, affirming my theory:

“This episode is remarkable . . ., that such radical feminism found expression in one of Alcott’s juvenile books, going beyond, in fact, the sentiments expressed in her literary fiction [such as Work: A Story of Experience, Louisa’s other significant adult novel] . . .” (pages 87-88, Victorian Domesticity)

Polly’s Temptation

Chapter 15 suggests that Polly was tempted, for a moment, into a life of fashion when (Arthur) Sydney (aka “Syd”) showed an interest in her. Syd was the apple of Fanny’s eye but he was attracted to Polly. Although an upright and fine young man, perfect for marriage, Polly turned him away because she knew she didn’t love him and feared tiring of him. Syd was well-off and would have presented Polly with a life of ease and security (i.e. beginning her own family of fashion), but she resisted the temptation, remaining true to herself. She retained her autonomy.

Indicting the Family of Fashion

The Shaws were a family of fashion.

Polly had experienced the family of fashion in the Shaws and found that life empty and wanting with its endless parties, love of money, concern over appearance and distinction of classes. It was an shallow life that robbed the Shaws of meaningful relationships with each other and those outside their family.

She preferred her own old-fashioned family – although poor, there was a deep sense of warmth and caring, along with a the need for work which provided purpose. Louisa’s sweeping indictment of families of fashion is summed up by Strickland in this way:

“The world inhabited by families of fashion is one devoid of warmth, justice, or charity, and it corrupts all whom it touches – men and women, rich and poor, old and young.” (page 92)

How the Family of Fashion affected women (and children)

Strickland maps out how Louisa used the first half of An Old-Fashioned Girl to lay out her case against the family of fashion, culminating in a stinging indictment most especially of Mrs. Shaw:

Women of fashion, and a woman of purpose

” ‘a pale, nervous woman,’ [from An Old-Fashioned Girl] who has made herself into an invalid at the age of forty. Having nothing to do, she is much preoccupied with her imagined aliments, and presides over a household in which there is little affection between parents and children. She encourages Fanny to copy her fashionable follies and has not time for younger daughter Maud: ‘When Mrs. Shaw came home that day in her fine visiting costume, and Maud ran to welcome her with unusual affection, she gathered up her lustrous silk and pushed the little girl away, saying, impatiently, ‘Don’t touch me, child, your hands are dirty.’ ‘[from An Old-Fashioned Girl] ” (pages 99-100, Victorian Domesticity)

The high price of fashion

I had noticed too how Fanny had begun to develop these “aliments” and I could see why so many women became invalids during the Victorian era. One cannot deny their authentic self forever and not feel the affects; the body has a way of acting out what the mind and heart will not admit. Thoreau certainly understood that.

Plenty of meat

I had read most of An Old-Fashioned Girl before I came upon Strickland’s book and was pleased to see so many of my thoughts verified. He analyzes other Alcott books such as Work, Moods, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom and Jack and Jill. I had had my doubts as to whether I would find any meat in Louisa’s juvenile works.

Obviously I have a lot to learn! And a lot more reading yet to do.

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Louisa May Alcott’s brand of feminism: final thoughts on “Moods,” thanks to Sarah Elbert

I finally finished reading Moods a few weeks ago but just couldn’t comment on it. After reading both the 1864 and 1882 versions, I concluded that the book left me flat. The characters felt rather two-dimensional. Both versions ended differently and each ending seemed convoluted. It left me feeling the way I did after reading The Inheritance (see previous post), except that Moods was a lot better.

One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Threads blog, recently wrote an insightful post on Moods that caused me to dig deeper. She had read the version which included thoughts by Sarah Elbert so that prompted me to dust off the essay I found of hers from BookRags and read it (note: you can’t read the essay unless you purchase it first). That essay threw open the doors regarding Moods, and Louisa’s thoughts regarding women.

Moods as seen by Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert

The essay was taken from A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women and here Elbert paints a compelling portrait of Louisa as a feminist, and how that feminism figured into her writing. What I especially appreciated about Elbert’s treatment of this topic is that she didn’t come at it with a strident or militant attitude. Rather, she objectively outlined what Louisa’s feminist inclinations were and how they seeped into every word she wrote.

Louisa’s understanding of feminism

Sarah Elbert, from the film “Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind LIttle Women” by Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen

Elbert maintains that Louisa’s combination of living out American Romanticism in her family, coupled with her immersion in her father’s Transcendentalism gave her a unique perspective on women’s issues. It wasn’t just about political rights.  Rather, it was about being taken seriously as a whole person: equal to the man, an individual with dreams, aspirations, ambitions, thoughts and spirituality that were all her own:

” Bronson Alcott described Louisa as ‘Duty’s Faithful Child,’ but she was also a daughter of the Transcendentalist movement he helped found. As such, she and many of her female contemporaries struggled for a sense of individual identity within the context of traditional domesticity. Trying to combine both domesticity and individuality into a workable feminist perspective, they directly challenged established sex roles integral to nineteenth century social order.”

How this relates to Moods

Taken in this light, Moods began to make sense to me.

I now understand why Louisa took such great pains to paint Sylvia Yule the way she did:  as a young girl, shut away at home because she was the “dangerous age of seventeen” (Elbert), totally unprepared for life as a mature married woman. She was greatly subject to moods (what seventeen year-old girl isn’t?) which caused her to make thoughtless, impulsive decisions that would cost her dearly later on.

As those of you know who have been following my posts, Sylvia is found desirable by two men who are best friends: Geoffrey Moor (based loosely on Ralph Waldo Emerson, with shades of Bronson Alcott) and Adam Warwick (based on Henry David Thoreau). Louisa in real life hero-worshipped both Emerson and Thoreau. Moor is regarded by Sylvia as one of her dearest friends while she feels passionate love for Warwick. Because of a misunderstanding with Warwick, Sylvia succumbs to Moor’s pressure and marries him. In the earlier version of the story, this impulsive act, guided by her inexperience with life and her moods ultimately leads to disaster while in the later version, things inevitably work out after much pain.

It is through this story that Louisa maps out the theories explained here by Elbert:

” . . . Moods in fact deals deeply with moral and social questions. Alcott attempted to analyze the effect of Transcendentalism on the lives of women. Years of living out the principles of American Romanticism with her family had made her an expert on the problems it posed for women. Moods pointedly includes a defense of experience for young, unmarried women; an attack on passion and romantic love; and an insistence on friendship and equality as the best basis for lasting relationships between the sexes.”

Moods was ahead of its time

Louisa revamped Moods in 1882 because she was so dissatisfied with the original version published by A.K. Loring. She complained bitterly of editing out half the book in order to get it published, causing much misunderstanding on the public’s part as to the book’s true purpose. But in my mind, because Moods was ahead of its time, it would not have been understood by the likes of men such as Henry James Jr. who savaged the book in his critique:

“In 1865 Henry James Jr. dismissed Moods as an unconvincing version of ‘the old story of the husband, the wife and the lover.’ Since a thirty-year-old spinster author could scarcely possess much insight into the eternal triangle, James assumed that the attempt to deal with any deeper problem was laughable. ‘Has Miss Alcott proposed to give her story a philosophical bearing? We can hardly suppose it,’ James wrote acidly. His review was only one of many discouraging notices that Louisa Alcott tried to answer in her preface to a revised edition of the novel in 1882. She maintained that the first work was so altered for the publisher that ‘marriage appeared to be the theme instead of an attempt to show the mistakes of a moody nature, guided by impulse, not principle.’ ” (from Elbert’s essay)

Click on the above link to read the whole review and you will immediately see how clueless James was with regards to Louisa’s intent. Naturally he wouldn’t get it because the women’s movement hadn’t begun to seep into the consciousness of men (nor a lot of women either). It was perhaps unrealistic for Louisa to expect the public to understand the true meaning of Moods as her thinking was far from the mainstream.

Is the intent of Moods any clearer today?

Yet as a 21st century woman who has lived through the women’s movement, I didn’t really get Moods either. It wasn’t until I read Elbert’s essay that I finally understood and that suggested two things to me: one, I am not schooled enough to read between the lines of Moods without some help, and two, perhaps Moods wasn’t written well enough to convey the message to the masses.

Artist versus Craftsman

This realization caused me to think that Louisa was a far better writer when she was a craftsman rather than as an artist. When assigned a certain genre, she could adapt and write compelling stories, whether it be blood and thunder tales, stories from the Civil War,  or “moral pap for the young” as she liked to put it. I remember reading the chapter on Little Women in Madeleine Stern’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Biography (see previous post) where Stern laid out the case like a lawyer of how adaptable Louisa was when it came to writing because she approached writing as a business, like a pro. Her best book, a classic for the ages, was written under duress as an assignment!

True genius

Louisa’s true genius (which I’m not sure she appreciated) was her totally on-target reading of what the public wanted (which is surprising considering she herself was so apart from the mainstream ) plus her chameleon-like ability to be the writer she needed to be to please that audience and earn her keep.

All creative persons long to be artists and to be taken seriously as artists. It’s the nature of the beast. As a creative sort myself, I can fully understand Louisa’s desire to be an artist. So perhaps she never felt fulfilled as a writer. But as a craftsman, she produced a body of work which 150 years later is still read and appreciated, and now even studied. It didn’t hurt that she authentically lived the ideals she wrote about. Without knowing about that life, the writings can never fully come alive. I am very grateful that I spent a lifetime getting to know Louisa first before delving into her writing.

Worth the read

So perhaps Moods was not my favorite work of hers but it was hardly a wasted effort to read it. I learned a great deal about Louisa which causes me to be that much more passionate about her. I am tremendously grateful to women like Sarah Elbert who have taken the time to analyze and critique Louisa’s works so that folks like me who are learning can understand Louisa May Alcott better.

If you are interested in learning more about Sarah Elbert’s take on Louisa and Moods, be sure and download the essay I’ve referred to in this post (available for a small fee). Or, purchase the book it comes from, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, online. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this essay; it is well worth the read.