Sunday, March 25, 2012

Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest—Linda Carlson

In federally supported towns like Coulee Dam and Richland, Washington, government subsidies eased the way to independence. Especially in Richland, where townspeople didn't even have to change their own light bulbs as late as 1946, the change was a shock...The actual incorporation didn't take place until 1958, after the Atomic Energy Commission promised partial funding for another ten years. Although Richland residents disliked the AEC's rigid control, they were astounded by the costs of self-government and private ownership... (204)

This was a remarkably well-organized and constructed book. (The content of the book was so beautifully culminated by a "gazetteer" which included a paragraph about each of the company towns in the Pacific Northwest.) I feel as though these features shouldn't be a surprise to me, but they are, sadly. On a semi-related side note, I read a book about the role of medicine in the Lewis and Clark expedition, which would have been fascinating had it not been for the fact that it was so poorly edited, disjointed, repetitious, and filled with personal anecdotes from the author (who was not a member of the expedition). Hence my need to praise this selection.

As I carried this book with me to work, I received some questioning glances. Since I started this blog I've taken to making notes in my books, and especially flagging certain pages if they have potential quotes, as I always like to include that portion at the beginning of each post. With a history book, this flagging system becomes a bit more advanced. You can barely see the edges of the book at this point. If I ever get back into academic writing, I'm sure this flagging system will advance to the next level, with the flags actually color-coded to specific subjects or thesis lines. At this point, it's more a hodge podge of not only flags marking good quotes, but also sticky notes with larger questions and observations - again, in the event that I were to ever again have the energy to write a research paper.

This book was especially poignant for me. I'm a Pacific Northwesterner, and my maternal grandfather was actually from Roslyn, Washington, one of the mining towns mentioned fairly frequently in the book. His father, I believe, was the mayor at some point. Some of you may be more familiar with Roslyn as the site where they filmed Northern Exposure - Roslyn filled in for the fictional town of Cecily, Alaska. (If you're interested in more trivia about well-known films and famous figures who visited these mining towns, you should definitely read the book. I never knew that Elizabeth Taylor was in Washington State for the filming of one of the Lassie movies, or ALL of the numerous movies that were shot in and around the area.)

Like many others who have been given a bare-bones history of company towns, I imagined that they mostly consisted of dictatorial businesses who owned everything purely as a means of staff retention and a means to gain more revenue . They didn't care about their employees, and paid them the minimal amount, sometimes paying them in scrip, which could only be used at the company store. However, this book tells a much different story. While there were some company towns like the awful ones I pictured, they were few and far between. Rather, more were actual communities, communities that banded together in good times and in bad.

The majority of these towns were in existence from the late 1800s into the mid 1900s. While the rest of the country was struggling during the Depression, companies in the Northwest were looking to take care of their workers. While they weren't able to pay employees to work full-time, they tried to ensure that each man had a few shifts a week. This meant that they were always certain to have some pay at the end of the month. Additionally, since companies owned everything, many of them were incredibly lenient, if not entirely forgiving, of rent that had to go unpaid as a result of the financial hardships. Several of them lowered the prices in the company stores as well.

Also present are stories of communities collaborating to send their young'uns to college. Often, this included the financial support of the company, contributed through several different avenues. The support for education seems to have been rather astounding, leading one to consider how to replicate that support in our current climate.

Religious tolerance also seems to have been a theme. "In Britannia, Beach, B.C., owned by the same copper-mining company that developed Holden, Washington, volunteers built a church with an entrance on each end and a wall down the middle so both Catholic and Protestant congregations could meet at the same time." (73) One of the main reasons for this was most likely due to the social nature of church in general. As the book mentions, congregations were usually the first to establish social activities in the community, regardless of the denomination.

Most obvious was the amazing sense of community these company towns inspired in their folk. Due to the isolation, mostly as a result of transportation obstacles and the other aspects mentioned above, these communities were really more like extended families - caring for their sick, sending their children to college, even staying in touch decades after the town had been shut down and they had all gone their separate ways. The families in these towns went out of their way to take care of each other. As the book says, "At Grisdale, Washington, when the young son of the school principal, Lou Messmer, and his wife, Ann, faced surgery, the loggers donated enough money to cover the medical bills...At Holden, miners had a voluntary payroll deduction program for making donations to a grieving family." (156) A voluntary payroll deduction program. These men, who were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, voluntarily gave portions of their pay in order to help out their neighbors, cousins, friends.

I'm not sure where that sense of community has gone, and why more often than not our society has an "every man for himself" mentality. I don't understand why we try to mask this inhumanity under the guise of capitalism. I don't understand why any attempt to help those who are struggling is often hatefully lambasted as a move towards socialism. We could all stand to learn something from them.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Man Overboard!—Curtis Parkinson

The actual conversation wherein the FBI agent tells a 16-year-old kid he's just met that he's an FBI agent, with relatively no prompting.
"You mean you were on the Rapids Prince when my colleague Derek Patterson went overboard?"

"Derek Patterson was your colleague?"

"Derek Patterson is...I mean was...the one who'd been following Heinrik since he landed from the U-boat. We weren't ready to nab Heinrik yet as we wanted to see who his contacts were first."

"But who was Derek Patterson? And who are you?"

The main sighed. "I guess I need to explain. I'm from the FBI -" (85)

I was beyond thrilled to receive this book. I've been a member of the LibraryThing website for about three or four years now, and just recently discovered the Early Reviewer option. This special feature allows you to browse the books which publishers are releasing for early review, and enter a lottery to win them. Although I had won a book prior to this one, I received the envelope sans book and was sorely disappointed. It made it even more exciting to actually receive this one!!

Okay, enough excitement. Down to business.

I'm sad to say that I was rather disappointed to complete this book. It's partly my own fault for building up these intense expectations in my head. I should have also taken the time to reacquaint myself with the summary of this book once I received the notice that I had won.

I felt the plot was not particularly unique. In addition to it being an old idea, it was not particularly well executed. The book is set in 1943, when 16-year-old Scott - who is working on a ship for the summer - accidentally overhears a secret Nazi plot. In the ensuing action, his friend Adam is kidnapped by the Nazis as leverage to keep Scott from telling anyone. Meanwhile, the Nazis have also made a connection with a French-Canadian woman, and utilize her daughter Colette as a cook and general maid. When the Nazis leave the city for the country in order to be closer to the shipping lines, they take Colette with them in order to keep an eye on Adam and continue to manage their meals. In the end, Adam escapes with Colette's help, meets Scott in the woods right outside of the Nazi hideout, and they successfully foil the Nazi's plan.

As you may have guessed from my tone, I was quite incredulous at the plot. It was completely unrealistic, even for young adult fiction. It's been one of my pet peeves for quite a while - probably since I was a young adult myself - to encounter books that condescend to readers and make things so simplistic. Although I can say that it does lend itself to the tradition of books such as The Boxcar Children or even the Nancy Drew series: kids encounter a problem, they decide not to tell adults, yet somehow the problem always manages to work itself out by the end of the book. Even if there are Nazis involved.

I did really like the cover of the book, which was shiny and metallic. So that's something in its favor.

At one point, Scott encounters an FBI agent who is undercover with the Nazis. How does Scott know he's an FBI agent? Because this man tells a 16-year-old kid that he's an undercover FBI agent. WHAT?! Absolutely not.

Towards the end of the book, when they find the bomb (taped to the top of the toilet tank in the crew washroom), the response from Adam and Scott is, "Wow! Look at that!" Of course. That is the correct response to a bomb.

All in all, I was underwhelmed. While I am grateful and thrilled to have received this book through the Early Reviewers system, perhaps I need to be more selective about the books I "bid on" in the future.

Friday, March 16, 2012

La Petite Fadette—George Sand

"La petite Fadette rougit beaucoup, ce qui l'embellit encore, car jamais jusqu'à ce jour-là elle n'avait eu sur les joues cette honnête couleur de crainte et de plaisir qui enjolive les plus laides; mais, en même temps, elle s'inquiéta en songeant que la Madelon avait dû répéter ses paroles, et la donner en risée pour l'amour dont elle s'était confessée au sujet de Landry." (167)

[Roughly translated: Little Fadette blushed mightily, embellishing more, for never until this day had she had on her cheeks such honest color of fear and of pleasure which adorns even the most ugly ones; but, at the same time, she worried in thinking that Madelon had had to repeat her words, and to make her a laughing stock for the love that she had confessed about Landry.]

It's been a while, I must say. I haven't had as much time to read as I'd like with my recently crazy work schedule, but I'm back!

A bit of back story on this particular book choice: I minored in French in university. I had never studied French prior to that minor, and since I graduated a bit over three years ago, I haven't had much occasion to utilise my skills. This is true to the point that they're not so much skills as a muscle that has now atrophied due to disuse. My comprehension is passing, but when it comes to actually speaking French, I don't even try - mostly because I'm all too aware that I'll offend someone with my horrible sentence construction and verb conjugation. (Especially knowing that I find few things more offensive than negligently poor grammar.) So every once in a while I'll pull out a French book (most of which I purchase for between $1.00 and $5.00 at Half Price Books) and pretend that I understand more than the 75% of it that actually makes sense.

Truthfully, this is the first time that I've read an honest-to-goodness French novel (255 pages!) Previously I had spent some time with Petit Nicolas (written by Goscinny), a character who is amusing but is written for children, and with Le Petit Prince, again a book for French children. (Although I guess I did co-read L'etranger by Camus in college.)

I was a bit impressed with myself for understanding as much as I did, I have to be honest. While there was some vocabulary that I did have to look up, for the most part I was able to suss out what was going on.

I'm so glad that I selected this particular book. What a lovely story. In the beginning, we meet Landry and Sylvinet at their beginning (aka their birth). They are twins, and their parents are warned to make sure to differentiate between them and separate them as much as possible so that there aren't problems with attachment later in life. Their parents decide not to take this advice. Fast forward to their teen years (starting at about fifteen) and, although the twins look very similar, if you spend some time with them you'll start to notice differences. Landry is stronger, both physically and emotionally, and Sylvinet is more reliant on his brother and a bit more tenderhearted.

[Warning: There is quite a bit of plot explanation below. If you don't want to read spoilers, or if you simply don't want to be bored, please feel free to skip to the end. Mostly it's included because I was excited that I had been able to figure it out. I certainly could have made it more concise had there been less excitement.]

Around this time, Landry is sent away to a neighboring farm in order to assist the owner, and, although they see each other all of the time, Sylvinet becomes incredibly withdrawn. Then Landry develops a romantic interest for the niece of the owner, Madelon. Through a series of events, he also encounters Fadette (although that is not her given name, but merely a nickname that the village had bestowed upon her). The village considers Fadette to be a witch because her grandmother has taught her how to utilise herbs in order to help people and animals recover from illnesses. Once again, an instance of people being afraid of what they do not understand.

On a particular day, Sylvinet had been missing for some time and Landry was out looking for him, in a panic. He meets Fadette on the road and she says that she will help him find Sylvinet, but he must give her something in return. He readily agrees, his thoughts only of finding his brother. She never comes to collect her prizes (some farm animals that belong to Landry's family). About a year later, it is late and Landry is crossing a river and gets stuck and she comes to his rescue, saying that she will help him as long as he promises to dance seven dances with her at the Sunday sockhop. (Okay, obviously not a sockhop, but it made for some nice alliteration.) Again, he agrees, she helps him, and he goes along his merry way. But she actually wants to collect on this particular favor, which becomes a problem when Landry realizes that he has promised to dance with Madelon.

The night of the dance, Landry, an honorable young man, follows through on his promise to Fadette. He is sorely disappointed in his friends when they do nothing but taunt and ridicule her. At the end of their seven dances, she leaves in tears, and he follows her - after first standing up to his friends and admonishing their horrendous behavior. Madelon additionally is full of attitude, and informs him that she doesn't need him, and that any young man would be more than happy to take his place. Landry begins to doubt his "love" for her.

When he runs after Fadette, he finds her and talks to her, really for the first time. He realizes that she is not a witch (obviously) - she is, in fact, an incredibly faithful, thoughtful, intelligent, and caring young woman. She admits to him that she knows she is ugly, and could never hope that he would be interested in her, and was happy just to get the seven dances. He asks if he can kiss her, after a particularly flattering bit of moonlight shines on her, and she refuses. She tells him that if he were to kiss her tonight he would regret it in the morning. And he realizes in the morning that she was right.

One day, Fadette shows up and has had a makeover. Her hair is more organized and her clothing is no longer in rags. Landry has realized at this point that Madelon is shallow and mean, and has given up on her - meanwhile, he's been thinking more and more about Fadette. He sees her in church following her makeover and seems to have a revelation. They begin to spend more time together, and gradually fall in love.

Once Landry's family discovers this, they tell Landry that he absolutely cannot marry Fadette because of her family reputation. She leaves the village in order to make a name for herself. Around this time, Landry is sent away in order to lessen the intense bond between himself and his brother. Fadette returns about a year later when her grandmother (who had raised her) dies. She goes to visit Landry's family, mostly to ask his father for advice, and learns that Sylvinet is sick. She nurses him back to health (essentially by telling him that he's being ridiculous, and is not physically sick so much as lazy and stubborn) and he falls in love with her. Once Landry returns, he and Fadette get married, and Sylvinet leaves to join the military, planning to never get married.

Definitely more exposition of the plot than I usually include, but I thought it might be fitting for this particular occasion.

It's a great love story, and not too incredibly difficult to understand. Most of the verbs were ones that I was already familiar with, and what I didn't immediately understand was generally obvious after reading a bit farther and working out the context. I'm glad I took the time to read this beautiful story and flex my French muscle.