Archive for the ‘Writing’ category

Three Books for the Writer Self – 1) The Soul’s Code

December 31, 2021

Meaning is invisible, but the invisible is not contradictory of the visible:
the visible itself has an invisible inner framework, and the invisible is
the secret counterpart of the visible.

—M. Merleau-Ponty, Working Notes

The full name of the book The Soul’s Code by famed depth psychologist James Hillman is The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. It might simply have been called The Acorn. The reason will become more obvious as we go on.

But first I want to refer to an image this book arouses, which it nowhere mentions: the medicine bag.

I like the Wikipedia definition, which is all that online resource says about it: “A medicine bag is usually a small pouch, worn by some Indigenous peoples of the Americas, that contains sacred items. A personal medicine bag may contain objects that symbolize personal well-being and tribal identity. Traditionally, medicine bags are worn under the clothing. Their contents are private, and often of a personal and religious nature.”

My medicine bag, so to speak, is not worn under my clothes, but lined up on the edge of the desktop computer case near where I write. I won’t go into the intricate details and significance of all the little items arrayed there, but I will mention a couple so as to illustrate what this image means to me.

The first is a brass-cased compass which belonged to my father. It looks like a small pocket watch, with the stem acting as a clasp release for the cover. On the outside of that cover is inscribed “C.S. Bristol” for my father Charles Stephen. It must have been given to him as a gift some time in his younger life.

The compass rose

Opened, the compass rose and the shivering needle are quite pleasant to look at. A compass can be, to me especially as a former surveyor, quite a symbolic object. And it connects me to my father, whom I never really knew, as a reminder of that mystery and all the metaphorical directions our lives have taken.

The second is a simple acorn, nicely formed, which I picked out of the dirt in a neglected street area under small oak trees. (This was long before I read Hillman’s book.)

I like to hold it, weigh it in my hand, and think about its invisible power – its potential to grow into a mighty oak.

And that brings us back to Hillman and his book. The Merleau-Ponty quote above comes from what Hillman calls “Epigraphs in Lieu of a Preface.”

The very first chapter is entitled “In a Nutshell: The Acorn Theory and the Redemption of Psychology.” As someone who took on a degree in psychology in my university years, I may be more sensitive than some about the extent to which Hillman proposes overturning accepted knowledge, and cultural assumptions, about the nature of our beings.

My interest in this book took on two aspects. The first was the possibility of better insight into creating characters for the novels I’m writing. I’ve been disappointed in many of the formulations in writing craft books about that. The second snuck up on me, and became equal and maybe more than the first: what patterns can I discern, make sense of, in my own life at 70 years of age.

An innate image

To put it most succinctly, what Hillman claims is this: We have within us an “innate image.”

“That innate image can’t be found, however, until we have a psychological theory that grants primary psychological reality to the call of fate.”

He says that otherwise we are robbed of our true biography, the destiny written into our acorn.

Of course this raises many questions and objections, and we can take a look below at how Hillman meets some of them.

James Hillman

But one feature of this perspective that rings true off the top is:

“Today’s main paradigm for understanding a human life, the interplay of genetics and environment, omits something essential—the particularity you feel to be you. … The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim.”

To summarize in Hillman’s words:

“This book is about calling, about fate, about character, about innate image. Together they make up the ‘acorn theory,’ which holds that each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.”

Hillman traces this idea back to Plato and Plotinus. The Romans spoke of one’s genius, the Greeks, of the daimon.

Where did that genius go, anyway?

Until the late 1800s anyway, this kind of understanding was active in what would eventually become our own culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson often wrote of a person’s genius, as in:

“Ah, that our Genius were a little more of a genius! A man must thank his defects and stand in some terror of his talents.”

But this whole notion, even of a soul, has fallen into disfavour in psychology and philosophy. When, outside of religious institutions where old words are mouthed, does the concept “soul” come up seriously any more?

As Hillman notes:

“The concept of this individualized soul-image has a long, complicated history; its appearance in cultures is diverse and widespread and the names for it are legion. Only our contemporary psychology and psychiatry omit it from their textbooks.”

It is sobering to consider how much of our lives are invisible. Our relationships constantly cope with the unseen realities of the other. Everything that matters, really, is embedded in the invisible: the interaction between people creating music, the force that brings out the new green in the spring, the internal fountain out of which come our dreams, the space between the feeling and the word written.

But in our culture, the invisibles tend to be marginalized and overlooked.

Hillman’s claim is that this idea of our fate as acorn, as inborn pattern, is a kind of myth, which like all myths, rests in these invisibles.

Embedded in a mythical reality

“The acorn is not embedded in me, like a pacemaker in my heart, but rather I am embedded in a mythical reality of which the acorn is but my particular and very small portion.”

Hillman argues for an essence beyond either nature or nurture, these categories which are the comfortable habit of our minds, of how we’ve been taught. Anything else in our mechanistic world view is just about inconceivable.

“The remarkable singularity of individuals, the differences among the billions of persons, even between newborn babies, siblings, identical twins, as well as those raised in the same circumstances and subject to the same influences—these facts ask for answers to the question of uniqueness.”

He discusses in considerable detail the limitations of nature and nurture, and what else there might be. But this is the gist of it.

He gives many examples of extraordinary people whose unique acorn developed into greatness. For one, he gives the example of the philosopher John Stuart Mill. He never attended school. Educated at home by his father, he began learning Greek at three and Latin at eight, and by fourteen had read most of the major ancient texts in the original.

As another, he describes the case of journalist Dorothy Thompson from the early part of the 1900s.

The juvenile Thompson, after slapping her sister, was locked by her minister father in a closet and forced eventually to memorize great chunks of literature, including the sonnets of Shakespeare, entire chapters of the Bible, much of Wordsworth’s Leaves of Grass, and the entire U.S. Constitution.

How Hillman describes this gives a good sense of his outlook. His view is that the acorn develops in its idiosyncratic way as a result of the conflicts and imposed limitations of the family and a person’s environment, and is not caused by them.

“The kind of punishment, though decreed by her father and decidedly cruel and unusual by today’s educational standards, seems to have been chosen by her own protective daimon, who had, of course, anyway selected that particularly literary father. The memorizing of texts fit the pattern of her life of writing….”

The parental fallacy

He particularly dissects what he calls the “parental fallacy” as the source of blame for our psychological conflicts, reactions and churnings.

“The parental fallacy, with all its accompanying jargon about bad double-binding mothers or seductive smothering mothers, and also about absent or possessive and punitive fathers, so rules the explanations of eminence that its jargon determines the way we tell the stories of our own lives.”

He asks, “What is the connection, if any, between the parental imagination—by “parent” I always mean the immediate, intimate caretaker of a child—and the child’s acorn? How do the parents imagine the child?”

He claims that the child’s acorn needs the parents’ fantasy about who they are and will become, if only to form itself by reacting against it.

“The family fantasy that has a child typed and pinned and wriggling on the wall forces fateful choices on the heart, choices to find another kind of fantasy, anywhere.”

Ok, so how bound by this “acorn” are we? We naturally resent anything that seeks to bind us, and this idea of a fated pattern for our life seems to do so.

Hillman quotes Plotinus:

“But if the soul chooses its daimon and chooses its life, how have we still any power of decision?”

How fatalistic should we be?

But Hillman’s idea of fate does not require the ideology of fatalism.

“So it is better to imagine fate as a momentary ‘intervening variable.’ The Germans use the term Augenblicksgott for a minor divinity that passes in the blink of an eye and has a momentary effect. The religious might speak of an intercessionary angel. Rather than a constant companion who walks with you and talks with you and holds your hand through all the crises of the day, fate intervenes at odd and unexpected junctions, gives a sly wink or big shove.”

Later, he says:

“The acorn acts less as a personal guide with a sure long-term direction than as a moving style, an inner dynamic that gives the feeling of purpose to occasions. You get the feeling of importance: This supposedly trivial moment is significant, while this supposedly major event doesn’t matter that much.”

The Bad Seed

Hillman devotes an entire chapter to “The Bad Seed,” when the daimonic turns demonic. This is shorthand for the pathologies of some people, ranging from serial killers to those figures who incite whole populations to evil. He spends a lot of time examining Hitler, and reflecting on the nature of that man’s disastrous genius.

Character is fate. Hillman notes the facets of Hitler’s character that helped lead to his rise: a cold heart, a fascination with the destructive nature of fire (think of night marches with fiery torches), identification with wolf symbology, anality (for one, constantly giving himself enemas), attraction to self-destructive women (six of whom either attempted or successfully committed suicide), attraction to freaks (the misshapen, the disfigured and the abnormal), and a complete lack of a sense of humour.

And then, absolute certainty and utter conviction.

Hillman asks the important question: If Hitler monstrously exemplifies the Bad Seed, could future Hitlers be prevented?

“Without a profound sense of psychopathy and a strong conviction that the demonic is always among us—and not only in its extreme criminal forms—we hide in denial and wide-eyed innocence, that openness which also opens wide the gate to the worst.”

His remedy:

“So thwarting the Bad Seed begins with a theory that gives it full recognition. That’s what this chapter, this book, is all about. So long as our theories deny the daimon as instigator of human personality, and instead insist upon brain construction, societal conditions, behavioral mechanisms, genetic endowment, the daimon will not go gently into obscurity. It drives toward the light; it will be seen; it asks for its place in the sun.”

A call to mediocrity

Hillman also examines mediocrity, a subject which brings a lot of his book closer to my ken, and my reality.

“Let’s first acknowledge that snobbish prejudices are packed into the term ‘mediocre.'” But to Hillman, no soul is mediocre, rightly understood.

“Many are called, few are chosen; many have talent, few have the character that can realize the talent. Character is the mystery, and it is individual.” He cites the interviews of Studs Terkel, who found uniqueness in those likely deemed among the mediocre and common by society.

Is there a call to mediocrity? Hillman gives four possible answers: 1) No, only stars have angels, 2) Yes, most of us have missed our true magnificent calling due to outside influences blocking us, 3) Yes, the acorn developed into a corn on our feet, a sore point: one has stumbled around, never quite finding the true path. But:

4) “For many the call is to keep the light under a bushel, to be in service to the middle way, to join the rank-and-file. It is the call to human harmony. It refuses to identify individuality with eccentricity. The calling stays through life and guides it in subtle ways and into less dramatic forms than we witness in exemplary figures such as those presented in this book. All are called; never mind the chosen few.”

Hillman is most interested in this fourth way of looking at this question. “Character forms a life regardless of how obscurely that life is lived and how little light falls on it from the stars.”

He goes on: “Calling becomes a calling to life, rather than imagined in conflict with life. Calling to honesty rather than to success, to caring and mating, to service and struggle for the sake of living. This view …offers another idea of calling altogether, in which life is the work.”

Lightly touched

I’ve lightly touched on some of the thought-provoking ideas provided in this book. It certainly challenges our normal view of the nature of people and ourselves. Some of what Hillman says I struggle with, but it all bears reflection. I think that sometimes even he is not quite sure how to best articulate his vision of the acorn.

On the two matters that brought me to this book in the first place, I found it fruitful.

For thinking about deep characterization in novel writing, his viewpoint allows for thinking about the characters I devise in ways well beyond the superficial. I need to show about them what they love, what they’ve lost, what they fear, and what their calling may be, even unknown to themselves.

For myself, examining the pattern of my own life, I come to no firm conclusion, but to reflect upon it may be this book’s main gift to me. I feel called to write, in the forms I can manage. That’s all I can say.

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Note: This is the first of three posts following Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction.

Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

November 21, 2021

The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, by James Hillman, Ballantine Books, 1996
The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau, by Robert Bly, Sierra Club Books, 1986, republished by Harper Collins, 1992
Ensouling Language: On the Art of Non-Fiction and the Writer’s Life, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, Inner Traditions, 2010
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I often have the sense that the part of me that struggles with writing is a self different than the everyday one that goes grocery shopping or the self that tries to charm my wife.  (This latter effort usually fails and all my selves, and hers, have a good laugh about it.)

I think of that crazy man and mystic G.I. Gurdjieff in this connection.  Gurdjieff, of Armenian and Greek descent, was born in what was Russia at the time.  He became a philosopher, a mystic, a composer, and a wanderer both geographical and spiritual.   As a spiritual teacher, he used methods including shock, music, dance, and hard labor to induce self-confrontation in his followers.  Although he died just after WWII, his writings and students continued to have influence.  There’s an interesting article from 1979 worth looking at in The New York Times upon the occasion of a preview of the feature film Meetings with Remarkable Men, about his life.  It gives the flavor of the man and his teachings.

Here is a relevant quote from Gurdjieff:

“One of man’s most important mistakes, one which must be remembered, is his illusion in regard to his I. … Try to understand that what you usually call ‘I’ is not I; there are many ‘I’s’ and each ‘I’ has a different wish.”

The writer Buster Benson makes a similar observation.  “We are better understood as a collection of minds in a single body rather than having one mind per body.”

(If you want to explore even more down this weird road, into one of the odder varieties of human consciousness, check out the “tulpamancers” described in an article in the journal Narratively.)

So to return to Gurdjieff’s formulation, the wish of my writing self is to conjure with words the closest, truest representations of the world and my experience of it that I can manage.  This is something I inarticulately feel strongly I have to attempt.  The act of trying to do so sets it apart from the rest of my selves, and it becomes a kind of identity.

These three books, each in its own way, have made this aspect of me sit up and take notice. I intend to write a post – part reflection, part review – on each of them after this introduction.

The first, The Soul’s Code by James Hillman, is a book I often came across, years ago, browsing in bookshops, but never really felt attracted to until recently.  Hillman, who died in 2011, was lauded as the most important American psychologist since William James

Deeply influenced by the psychology of Carl Jung, he went beyond it in incisive ways.  He founded a movement called archetypal psychology which, as others have pointed out, would be more accurately described as imaginal psychology, due to the importance he places on the imagination in the formation of our human reality.  His ideas are actually quite subversive to the usual run of thinking about our place in the world.  In The Soul’s Code, he proclaims the primacy in our lives of the “acorn” — all people already hold the potential for the unique possibilities inside themselves, much as an acorn holds the pattern for an oak tree.

The second book, The Winged Life, by the poet Robert Bly, is a commentary and examination of the writings of transcendentalist and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.  “He believed that the young man or young woman should give up tending the machine of civilization and instead farm the soul.”

Bly also refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson, that older fellow traveler of Thoreau’s, and his understanding: “…All mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball.”  Bly follows Thoreau’s poetic and wide-ranging investigations around the meaning of this metaphor.

The third book, Ensouling Language, by non-fiction author and poet Stephen Buhner, is the one most directly concerned with writing, and what makes it good.  Although the subtitle emphasizes “the art of non-fiction”, the book’s discussion, about how to follow the hints from the deepest parts of ourselves, can apply to any kind of writing, including and especially fiction.

In Buhner’s own words:

“I am and always have been interested in the invisibles of life, those meanings and communications that touch us from the heart of Earth and let us know that we are surrounded by more intelligence, mystery, and caring than our American culture admits of….”

The most common thread uniting the intent and meaning of these books is that of the poet Robert Bly himself.  The author of the book on Thoreau, he is also cited in the other two books, especially that of Buhner’s.  I was fortunate to take in one of Bly’s presentations many years ago, which had an impact that I recounted in a post on “The Shadow,” one of Bly’s preoccupations.  Hillman and Bly both approached psychology from a Jungian perspective (in the broadest sense) and they gave workshops together during the height of the “men’s movement” of the 1980s.

index rv

Robert Bly

A little of his outlook can be gleaned from his statement: “It’s so horrible in high school when they say, ‘What’s the interpretation of this poem?’” He wanted to shake off the intellectualism of “modernism”, as noted by the poet Elizabeth Hoover, in favor of the passion of Spanish poets like Federico García Lorca.

It is sad to know that Bly, now in his mid-90s, is suffering in the last stages of Alzheimer’s (recounted on Buhner’s blog).  As Buhner observes:

“He is greatly missed . . . even by himself. After the Alzheimer’s had taken hold, he once said, after watching a video of himself with his family, ‘I think I would have liked him.’

So, in the near future I will work through these three books in separate posts about what I found meaningful to the writer in me in each one.

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A Puzzle My Unconscious Gave Me

April 30, 2021

I’m writing a second science-fiction novel.  This is partly while I wait for responses from literary agents as I flog the first sci-fi novel around, and partly because I’ve finally discovered how novel writing, a life-long ambition, can work for me.  I want to pursue it further.

This second novel started out in my notes as a contemporary thriller/mystery.  Then I realized that it fit better into the universe started in the first novel.  (That was a welcome Aha! moment.) 

In that first novel, we are taken to developments a thousand years or more in the future, in the Third Era where a young archaeologist pursues his destiny.  (At that time, archaeological research to rediscover the advanced scientific accomplishments of the past are about the only way to make progress in the present and preserve Earth’s tiny toehold in space.)

The Third Era followed after the breakdown at the end of the more advanced Second Era, known for its over-the-top genetic engineering and weather wars.  But more obscure, historically, is the distant First Era in which you and I live now.  It became a matter of scholarly argument in the world of the first novel as to when the First Era came to an end, but there was speculation that it might be around the middle to the end of the 21st Century.

First draft of a second novel

So this second novel is set towards the end of that imagined First Era in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland where I live.  There are the trends of climate change and disruption, pandemics have come and gone, there are internet conniptions and decay, as well as other breakdowns in the financial and legal realms of what we’ve taken for granted as our “normal” world.  At the same time, technology (at least some of it) marches on.

The engine of this second novel though are the questions:  What if an intellectual, even spiritual genius, approaching, say, the level of a combination of Einstein and Krishnamurti were to appear, in this case in the body and mind of a young girl?  How would these particular characters and milieu respond to that?  How would the “hero”, who lost his sister at the same age to suicide, respond when this girl goes missing and is asked to find her?

I’m about 33,000 words into the first draft.  I’m happy about the cast of characters. The matrix of starting story events have been progressing without too much fuss.  I’ve wanted to explore issues of personal loss and the nature of consciousness (of all things), and I’ve got a bit of that going.

But now I’m at the point, I fear, of beginning to lose my way, despite my preliminary schemata of important scenes and character realizations to be reached.  Writing characters and scenes is always, I’ve found, necessarily different than what I might have imagined.  The logic of what is happening in the here and now of writing them often dictates a different result than I blithely foretold to myself.

I’m not yet stuck, but the organizing principle of the story is slipping from me and I need to regain it.  John Truby talks about this in his book The Anatomy of Story, as he describes the “designing principle” of the story, the unifying internal logic.  But I’ve got too much going on in my story with levers here, pulleys there, gears not meshing and turning the clockwork as they should.  It all threatens to tangle up without taking the story forward.

Primitive theory of psychology

My primitive theory about my writer’s psychology I’ve described before in the post “Working On A New Novel – Obsessed With Character” where I outline my reliance on the unknowns of my unconscious relaying through the subliminal level of my subconscious.  Very Freudian or Jungian or something.

Most anything I try to do on purpose with my dreaming parts never seems to quite work out.  I don’t, for instance, rely on going to bed with a fixed question in mind and a notebook to write down the realizations that pop out in the dreams I can never remember.  But last night, I dared to form a vague question to myself about where to go with the novel and an equally dim hope about maybe getting a fleeting image of something in a hypnagogic state.

King Rat

But nothing dramatic resulted, per usual.  However I did wake up this morning with the words “King Rat.  James Clavell” in my mind rising from the depths like a rare sea creature.  Just those words, clear as a bell.

I haven’t thought about that novel for years.  I remember reading it as a teenager in the 1960s in the rear bench seat of the rattly old school bus riding the 23 miles or so to the nearest town’s high school.  I remember now that my friend Ray recommended it to me.  He wasn’t much of a reader.  I took the book from him after he was done, wondering what he found in it.  I remember when I finished thinking it was good too.

King Rat was James Clavell’s first novel, based upon his own experiences in a deadly Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War.  He would go on to write a number of novels, perhaps most well known being Shogun, which was made into a hugely popular TV miniseries.  He became a well-known screenwriter and even a director in Hollywood.

In King Rat, the prisoners from different armies and social classes struggle to survive under appalling conditions.  The novel creates situations for the characters to show how they choose to meet this struggle.

The King Rat of the title is an enlisted man who through his intelligence, ruthlessness, creativity and drive, has become the “King” of the closed society of the prison camp.  The ostensible leader of the prisoners, a British officer, is obsessed about catching the King contravening rules which supposedly regulate the prisoners’ affairs, such as smuggling of goods.  Of course the smuggling has become a necessary part of survival for many.

The story is told through the viewpoint of Peter Marlowe, a British pilot befriended by the King due to his facility with languages.  In time, although he disagrees with many of the King’s actions, he comes to view the charismatic corporal as a friend, which is a rarity in the often cut-throat atmosphere of the camp.

By the end of the novel, the end of the war comes, and the prisoners are liberated.  And, interestingly, at that same time the King loses all power and influence, or even attention, as everyone goes their separate ways, freed from the webs of control he devised.

A perplexing bafflement of a conundrum

At the end I will list several reviews which helped refresh my memory of the novel.  But I found these remarks posted on the blog History in your eyes quite apt about the King:

Marlowe comes to realize about him: “the King asks for the best of each man and rewards them accordingly, irrespective of class or position. …

“This is a story of power struggle in doomed and powerless surroundings. This is a story of mental agility over physical ability. This is a story where morals and principles take a backseat. This story shows how when one is determined to rule and lead in miserable circumstances, there are always people who shall follow.”

I also found this relevant question from another blog review of the book on Dead End Follies:

“Who would you become if the rules of society suddenly crumble and you had the opportunity to form new ones?”

So now I have this puzzle.  How does this World War II prison-camp story, in all its complexity, relate to my first draft sci-fi novel set sometime in the middle of this century?  I am going to have to sit with that for a while.

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Notes: 

I came across several useful reviews of King Rat online.  They vary in their articulateness and focus but I found all of interest:

Dead End Follies

History in your eyes

BakerstoneBroadcast

My Book House

April 19, 2021

My Book House, edited by Olive Beaupré Miller, 12 volumes, 1937; For My Book House, A Parents’ Guide Book, 1948.
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For those of us who are readers, what we read as children is at the core of who we are and the paths we’ve taken.

I have a dim memory of going as a child to second hand bookstores with my father and mother in Washington state searching for books to take with us to the wilds of northern British Columbia.  This was in the early 1960s.  I was 9 or 10 years old.

Their finds included all the volumes of the famed 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, literature such as Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known, Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and the 12-volume set of My Book House, by Olive Beaupré Miller, 1937 edition.  It must have been my mother who insisted on completing the set with the 1948 parents’ guide, since the older grouping didn’t have it.

Inside the front cover of Volume 10

Sixty years on, I still have the My Book House volumes.  It is amazing to hold them – the illustrations are so evocative and bittersweet.  A reminder of a completely different time and place.

The volumes are slender blue books, in this fourth edition, numbered 1 to 12. They very roughly correspond to grade levels in their contents, although the first volume is oriented to much younger children, to be read to them.  Miller was an ardent believer in education for the young, and began these books, originally in a six-volume set in the 1920s, when she found that nobody was providing the graded stories, poems and illustrations she thought important for her daughter and other children.  

Books to grow with

The books were meant to “grow” along with their intended audience.  Early volumes contained nursery rhymes and simple stories and later volumes drew upon Chaucer, Shakespeare and Swift among many other classic writings which Miller adapted.  Sometimes, she wrote the stories herself.  Not only were fables, stories and poetry intended to be read by children, but also to be read by parents to them.  And the illustrations!  The illustrations by well known artists including a book cover by N.C. Wyeth do a wonderful job of creating imaginative space for the stories to dwell in. 

Miller set up a company with her husband to publish these books in Winnetka, Illinois and the first one, In The Nursery, was issued in 1920.  The first six-volume sets were often, as a promotion, enclosed in a small wooden house.  The six were eventually split into 12 thinner books for the benefit of small hands.  An interesting aspect of her publishing company was its staffing predominantly by women, including the sales force.  This was most unusual at a time when women were deemed best suited to staying at home.

The last edition was published in 1971.  Miller had continued to revise her books until her retirement in 1962. She died in Arizona in 1968.

A father’s Grand Adventure

Not only do these books connect me to my childhood and the northern log cabin I grew up in, but in an indirect way to my father.  He died of a stroke a couple of years after he moved his wife and three sons to the pioneering life he imagined and hungered for in the north.  He was only in his mid 40s.  He fought in the Second World War in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima, went to university where he met my mother, and dropped out with her to start a family. He worked for years as an architectural draftsman and trouble-shooting machinist, before embarking, his family in tow, on his Grand Adventure.

These books were part of his design for his family (along with serious advice from my mother, without doubt) as he took us to the Bulkley Valley in British Columbia to live on a section of land without electricity, phones or indoor plumbing.  He changed all our lives, and our futures, in a fundamental way and for the better.  We boys were given, on the outside, the gift of wild spaces, and our interiors were furnished by My Book House and all the other books that made the inside of our small cabin seem like a library.  Even my mother, who at first regretted our departure from the States and its amenities, came to love where we made our home.

So these books mean a lot to me.  I’d like to give just a sampling of their content.

Volume 5, Over the Hills, contained stories about Abraham Lincoln, Jack and the Beanstalk, the boyhood of Robert Fulton, and Wilbur and Orville Wright, among others, drawn from many classic sources. 

I think my favorite from this volume though was “Casey Jones, A Song of the Railroad Men.”  It goes: “Fireman says, ‘Casey, you’re running too fast. You ran the block signal, last station you passed.’…”  Then later: “He turned to his fireman said, ‘Boy, you’d better jump. ‘Cause there’s two locomotives that are going to bump!'”

Volume 8, Flying Sails, featured for me “Gulliver’s Travels to Lilliput” adapted from Jonathan Swift.  The accompanying illustrations are marvelous, of Gulliver tied down by many tiny figures.  This volume also included a couple of stories from the Arabian Nights, “The Adventures of General Tom Thumb,” and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

In Volume 10, From the Tower Window, we have the story of the Children’s Crusade, “The Home-Coming of Odysseus,” legends of the Round Table, the Spanish tale of “The Cid” and what moved me, for some reason, as a teenager, the tragic “Song of Roland.” 

In this last, retold from the Chanson de Roland, Roland heroically blows his horn, Oliphant, at the end of a great battle to call for relief for his men and himself, only to finally die.

In demand for homeschooling

In an interesting twist to the saga of the long out-of-print My Book House, the volumes, in all their many versions, are in demand as part of the homeschooling movement.  The set, as the Parents’ Guide points out, has 2752 pages of graded selections from over fifty different countries with two thousand illustrations, many in full color. They are a valuable resource for any family, homeschooling or not.

Homeschooling as a movement began in the 1970s as a rebellion against the rote regimented learning of the standard classroom, and has spread in many different directions, from the free school perspective to the evangelical.  But to me, My Book House is ideal as an underpinning for any youngster’s education.  I’m grateful that it was part of mine.

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References:

For more information on My Book House, here are some sites of note:

Winnetka Historical Society

Books In Heat: Books As A Passion

Circe Institute

Arthur Chandler

Plumfield and Paideia

TurtleAndRobot.com

Pam Barnhill

A Novel Is A D-9 Cat

February 19, 2021

Once upon a time, in the north-central part of the province of British Columbia, I worked in a coal mine.

(I will get to the nub of this post encapsulated in the title, but it will take me a little while.)

British Columbia is not particularly well-known for its coal, but in their day coal mines on Vancouver Island and in the north in the Telkwa area supplied home stoves and wider industry too.  At Telkwa where I worked one high-school summer at a small mine in the last half of the 1960s, some coal was hard enough to be considered metallurgical and all types were exported through the port of Prince Rupert in the post-World War II era.  Of course, there are modern-day large coal producers in the eastern part of this province.

But when I went to work at Bulkley Valley Collieries for $1.87 an hour that one summer, the old mine, once underground but now open pit, was barely supplying local coal stove needs.  Most people had wood stoves, and even then coal was considered too dirty for widespread use.  And trees were much more plentiful and accessible than coal.

I was looking for summer work, and we knew Les Hatfield, who hired me on.  Les was a neighbour who lived with his family way back in the woods around Walcott, a barely-there old railroad station on the Bulkley River.

Les was an interesting guy.  In most weather, he liked to wear vests made out of shirts with the sleeves cut off, revealing impressively tanned and muscular arms.  He and his family emigrated from Oregon to the Bulkley Valley not long after our family had done the same from Washington state.  He was an ex-race car driver, in the lower circuits, who claimed that he had once raced alongside A.J. Foyt.  He was a Bible-thumper, obsessive about the Book of Daniel.  He was also a hard-working, genuinely decent man.

So Les – Mr. Hatfield to me – hired me on at the coal mine for 10-hour days when he ran things for the manager for awhile.  He seemed to love to work outdoors and with machinery. At least those were the jobs easily accessible to him, whether in logging or mining.

The mine could only support a few workers at that time.  So mainly it was Les and me, occasionally his son Terry, whoever up on the hill was excavating coal with machinery – often Les no doubt – and an old German guy with a nose like a potato who was my immediate boss.

At the coal mine years before the conveyor belt there was a track for underground workings.. I identify with that guy with the smudged face.

The coal mining worked as follows.  An excavator would claw coal out of the ground well up in the foothill surrounding the mine buildings below.  That coal would be dropped in a waiting dump truck, which then trundled a ways down the hill to deposit its load on the top of the widely spaced iron grill of a large hopper.

My mission, which I accepted, was to then use a heavy pick to break up the large pieces of coal so that they could pass through the approximately eighteen-inch squares of the grid, and fill the hopper.

The other part of my job, after dealing with the truck load, was then to race below under a long canopy covering a conveyor belt where the old German fellow sat next to the hopper outlet.  I remember him as being extremely grumpy.  He plucked out pieces of clay and dirt from the coal as it passed by on the slow-moving conveyor.  He gruffly pointed out my mistakes as I occasionally missed a clump of clay covered with coal dust.

It was a job, but not one I particularly liked.  The 10-hour days seemed to go on forever, although Les would usually drive me home to our cabin on the way to his more remote farm.

One day, I think he must have taken pity on me during a lull in production.  The mine had a monster of a bulldozer, a D-9 cat, rarely seen in our environs down below.  For some reason, probably for Les to work on during a weekend, it sat at the beginning of the long gravel grade leading past the hopper and up the hill to the coal face.  Les explained he needed to go up and clear off overburden so the excavator could get at the coal.  We were going to “walk” the machine up.

A D-9

He climbed on and fired it up with a roar, the cover of the diesel stack fluttering as black smoke puffed and belched.  He beckoned me over.  It was too noisy to talk, but he gestured me on board.  The 49-ton machine seemed huge, its tank-like tracks a chest-high hurdle to climb up over and into the covered cab.

We started to move slowly, in an amazingly loud cacophony, grinding over the gravel, Les at the controls.  Walking was an apt metaphor.  I could have jumped off and kept up easily.

I have a vague recollection of the controls, but there was no steering wheel, just a collection of vertical and horizontal metal sticks to grab — clutches and throttles, chokes and hydraulics.  Les had me turn the beast by standing on one of the track brakes, like a car brake, but on either side of the operator’s seat.  This enormous clanking pile of metal, smelling of oil and iron and diesel smoke moved up-slope.  It was fun, but too soon it was back to breaking big ones into little ones again at the hopper.

So, a novel is like a D-9 cat?  Really?  It struck me, as I got 8000 or so words into the first draft of this second science-fiction effort that a novel is a bulky, clanking thing.  A bit of a behemoth to even think of directing.  Lots of moving parts with an uncertain driver at what he thinks are the controls.  The shaking noise of it like thoughts banging around about characters, and plot, and meaning.  It moves at a slow speed, unduly slow it seems often as the operator strains to get to the imagined sweet terrain ahead.

Or perhaps the process of a novel is more like what that lone teenager did, trying to keep balance on crossing metal struts, swinging that pick up and smashing down into the large pieces of coal.  Getting into the nitty-gritty of each scene, emerging finally with a smear of hard-earned dust on a forehead.  Maybe it’s like that.

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