I’m one of the gazillion and one people in the world who think they’re quite a lot like Anne Shirley.
I’d like to think, however, that I have some justification for that. Observe:
We’re both raising a whole slew of children. (Six for Anne, seven for me.)
We both lost a baby.
We both wish our hair was auburn. (Mine’s brown, but my nice friends say it has auburn highlights.)
We’re both married to our best friends.
We’re both a little nerdy, over-competitive, and dramatic.
We’re both addicted to good books and have aspirations to be published.
We both want to add a little more beauty and joy to the world.
I decided to name this blog “Blythe & Bold” in honor of Anne Shirley Blythe and the bold, creative way she lived life as a mother and a creator of small moments of beauty.
The quote above, from Anne’s House of Dreams, sums up my mission for this blog and one of my greatest passions in life.
In my personal life, that means anything from having babies to artfully arranging my husband’s lunch on a plate. It means creating a beautiful environment for our homeschool lessons. It means writing and drawing and arranging flowers, or hand-lettering an inspiring message on a chalkboard outside for my neighbors to see as they drive by.
On this blog, it will mean sharing some of my favorite works of art with you: books and paintings, lovely recipes and beautiful songs. It will mean introducing you to some of my favorite artists, whether the way they make their life a work of art is through traditional creative work, or more overlooked areas of service and kindness and hospitality.
It will mean encouraging you to create some beauty yourself–because you know you want to. After all, you’re probably one of the gazillion and one people who is a whole lot like Anne Shirley, too.
How have you made the world a little more beautiful? Please share it with me in the comments, and maybe I can share some of your work here!
Twelve is a hard age. Your body is changing, your thought processes are changing–maybe the world isn’t changing any more than it used to, but you’re noticing it now. I clearly remember spending the year I was twelve in a sort of survival mode. I desperately wanted to stay the same. My friends had no such intentions.
When I read The Kate in Between, by Claire Swinarski, I immediately found 12-year-old myself on its pages: not in Kate, the main character, but in her erstwhile best friend Haddie–the clueless but confident kid who wears weird clothes and reads tons of books and has passionate interests and isn’t troubled about fitting in as long as she has a best friend by her side. I may have been more subdued than Haddie, but boy could I feel her pain when Kate decided that a lifelong friendship wasn’t as important as fitting in with the popular crowd.
Here’s where the magic of good writing came in. Because the story is Kate’s, not Haddie’s. So I got to follow Kate–see Kate’s intentions, Kate’s rationale, Kate’s hurts. Far from being so stuck in the POV of the character like myself, I found myself cheering on one very unlike myself. This book does an incredible job of showing the reader how most of us really are somewhere “in between.” Kate is first lauded as a hero when she saves Haddie’s life, but she knows the reality is that her actions may have landed Haddie in danger in the first place. When the truth comes out, she’s reviled as a bully–but that isn’t 100% true either. Following Kate’s narration and thoughts throughout the story gives a dramatic bird’s-eye view of the wibbly-wobbly mess and wonder that is being human and being a friend–and, especially, that is being twelve.
This is a must-read for all my kids–it will go on the shelf with Shannon Hale’s Real Friends as a textbook for navigating tween friendships. Like Hale’s book, it’s also very funny and a pleasure to read. Also like Hale’s book, it’s one of the rare middle grade stories that portrays faith in a way that is at once background to the story and intrinsic to who the characters are–and I love that.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Greg’s blog, Always in the Middle: https://gpattridge.com
About 5 out of 7 days of the week I end up encouraging someone I know (or maybe a complete stranger) to try something new or develop a skill they already have and to make some art. My family *might* roll their eyes a little now. To be fair, I tell myself the same thing just as often. And one area that I’ve really hoped to develop is my love for watercolor painting. So when I was offered the chance to review Emily Lex’s watercolor products, you better believe I jumped at the chance!
Emily sent me her two watercolor workbooks, links to her online classes for adults and kids, and sets of her “Truth for Today” cards for kids and adults. Let me take these one at a time…
The watercolor workbooks, one on painting animals and one on florals, far exceeded my expectations. Each two-page spread contains on one side a “finished” picture, a selection of the colors you’ll want to use for your palette, and step by step instructions, with the opposite page having a lightly sketched outline for you to paint onto–so if you’d like to jump into watercoloring without developing your drawing skills first, this is perfect. The paper is thick and beautiful, and the printing and binding of excellent quality. While marketed toward adults, this would make a perfect gift for any budding artist above the age of seven or eight, in my opinion.
Next, the watercolor classes. My four oldest girls (14, 11, 10, and 7) tried out the class for kids, and ended up producing some beautiful paintings which unfortunately I wasn’t able to photograph before they disappeared! They loved the class, but their one critique was that the first few videos–about supplies and basic technique–were a little dull to them. As a background, they know a lot more about painting than your average beginner, so this might be just them–but parents may wish to preview these videos in case they’d like to skip over. Altogether, though, Emily’s instruction style was excellent. There was no talking down, no assuming that children weren’t capable of making real art. I loved that, and so did the kids. I’d highly recommend this class for anyone six and up.
The adult class was equally clear and engaging. I’m already planning on gifting it to a couple of my friends who have expressed interest in learning to watercolor! While it wasn’t new to me, my favorite was the lesson on brush lettering, as so many other watercolor classes exclude that–and it’s really, really fun to do.
Below you can see the result of a couple of the lessons. I was very pleased!
Lastly, the Truth for Today cards. Honestly, I wasn’t too interested in these–so they ended up being the best surprise of the package. I LOVE them! Each small square card contains a scripture verse and an accompanying watercolor image by Emily. It’s been such a little bit of joy each day to choose a verse and set the card on the included brass stand. My entire family looks forward to this new, little routine that adds a touch more peace and trust into our days. Again, I’m planning on ordering these for friends, I love them so much.
I hope this review has done justice to these wonderful products! You can check out Emily Lex’s site–and be sure to look into a giveaway she’s running!–here:
Imagine me, about five or six years ago, up waaayyy past my bedtime to finish Greenglass House by Kate Milford. I shut the book and turn off my light, basking in that -just-finished-an-amazing-book feeling–you know the one. But I can’t fall asleep. So as soon as my baby wakes up to nurse, I take the excuse to grab my laptop and do a little research.
I’m a full grown, college-educated adult, and I had to google “Is Nagspeake a real place?” because I have rarely encountered a fictional world so believable and compelling. I mean, I wanted Narnia to be real. I daydreamed about slipping into Middle Earth. But I knew they were made up. With Kate Milford’s Nagspeake…I just had to check to be sure. And, reader, in case your own googling brought you here for some reason–no, Nagspeake is all made up. But seeing as you might not be able to travel in the real world for a while yet, you should definitely travel to Nagspeake via your local library or bookstore as soon as possible.
The thing that brings Nagspeake to life is the layers of world-building that Kate Milford brings to the story. She reminds me a bit of Tolkien in this way, actually–because not only does her town have a physical presence and history and evolving character, it has story and legend and music and song. In Greenglass House, the main character Milo reads a series of stories gathered in “The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book,” stories which are integral to the plot of Milford’s book. Like Tolkien with The Silmarillion, Milford decided to bring those stories to life by actually writing the thing. And it’s SO GOOD.
Instead of “merely” being a collection of stories, The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book is a series of puzzles within puzzles, all framed by stories and characterizations (oh, and gorgeous illustrations) that bring it all as vividly to life as her other works. I was surprised when I realized, “Wait, this is a novel as well as a bunch of stories!” and at that point I couldn’t stop turning pages.
I really don’t feel that I can say much more without major spoilers. I will give the warning that this is probably excellent on its own but would be highly enhanced by having a knowledge of Nagspeake from Milford’s other books, at least Greenglass House and Ghosts of Greenglass House.
Luckily, those books are good enough to keep you up way past your bedtime, so if you haven’t read them…. You know, do yourself a favor.
I admit it: I’m a sucker for animal stories. I love the fairy-world bits of miniaturism you can add to their stories. (Tiny hats from acorns! Petite homes in tree trunks! I’m all there for it.) I enjoy the fact that animals are automatically diverse, and that I can see myself in, say, a hedgehog, whereas I might feel so different from an English queen or space-age teenage boy that it’s hard to identify–and that an English queen or teenage boy might be able to find themselves in the hedgehog just as well.
I also really love the wild weirdness of The Wizard of Oz. And Cory Leonardo won my devotion in her sweet and funny first book, The Simple Art of Flying. So you know I jumped on the chance to read her newest release, The Hedgehog of Oz, when it was offered on Netgalley.
The story follows a hedgehog named Marcel who lives in an old, beautiful movie theater. He dines on spilled popcorn and fruit gems (strawberry ones are his favorite) and enjoys the camaraderie of two chickens, “Uncle” Henrietta and “Aunty” Hen, that wandered into the theater as well. He lives in hope that one day his human girl Dorothy will come into the theater for a Saturday viewing of their favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz, so he can right the wrong he committed and they can be reunited.
But soon Marcel is thrown into an Oz-worthy adventure of his own, complete with yellow roads, flying beasts, and companions who know a thing or two about brains, heart, and courage. Of course, he must learn–just like Dorothy in the book and film–how to use his own brain, heart, and boldness to make his way back home where he belongs.
As in The Simple Art of Flying, Cory Leonardo proves here that she is a master of character development–especially the type of quirky and lovable characters that I seem to love the best in books for young readers. Marcel is a delightful little hedgehog, but he may be eclipsed in delightfulness by his companions, a scarecrow of a mouse named Scamp, an old squirrel named Ingot, and a baby raccoon called Tuffy. Scamp the mouse, in particular, was a superb character who joins the ranks of Reepicheep of Narnia and Matthias of Redwall as Mice to Remember.
If you don’t love The Wizard of Oz, you may find the overt and frequent references to that book/movie a little much. I did pause a few times during the first half of the book to consider whether even I found them overdone–but I will honestly say that by the second half of the book, Marcel’s story became so compelling on its own that I couldn’t be bothered to consider any longer. I just wanted to see what happened–even if I was pretty sure he was going to end up facing a witch, meeting a good fairy, and ending up with “no place like home.” (He did, and it was perfect.)
I already hand-sold this title to an eight-year-old reader (and her mom) who I happened to see glancing at it at our local bookstore, and I will heartily recommend it here to readers of the 7-10 range most especially, particularly if they like animal stories or Oz! Parents of young but gifted readers will be grateful for a story that is gentle enough for a seven-year-old, yet compelling enough to maintain their interest.
As a long-time homeschooling mother (yep, I was one of those people teaching my kids at home before it was cool) and a former homeschool student, I do my best to stay on top of books that represent homeschooled children. And, honestly…? It’s not hard. There are few enough books that have a homeschooled character as a primary or even secondary character that I can easily keep up. (Can this year of learning at home for the general public change that, authors, please?) Quite often, unfortunately, descriptions of homeschoolers fall into the same old stereotypes (you can read my review of Alice’s Farmfor more on that topic). I’m pleased to say that today’s book gets homeschooling right.
Here is the description from the publisher:
In a small Virginia town outside a mysterious government facility, four homeschooled teenagers investigate a series of murders and other crimes while wrestling with challenges of faith, family, and the transition from childhood to adulthood.
A tragic explosion devastates the town of Steven’s Mill, Virginia. Was it an accident or was it part of a larger plot to take over the town and shut down the work going on at the secret command center?
This first book in the “Mount Hideaway Mysteries” series of books and movies sets the stage for all the action and adventure to come.
This series features gripping drama and entertainment from a faith-based perspective. Teens and adults in the stories wrestle with tragedy, danger, and relationships while they also pursue their relationships with God.
What I liked: I really enjoyed reading about homeschoolers without constantly rolling my eyes at the stereotypes (What about socialization? Can you go to college? Don’t you miss riding the bus?) cropping up every other page or so. If you’re curious what it looks like to be part of a homeschool co-op (just one type of homeschooling, where parents teach classes one or two days a week to a larger group of students, rather than just their own kids) in highschool, I can’t actually think of any other book to refer you to.
I also enjoyed that the characters live out–as well as struggle with–their Christian faith, without proselytising being the main point of the book. While faith is central to the story, there is a separate, distinct plot. I loved how faith is so integral to the characters’ lives that it’s part of the plot and setting and character growth without being in your face about it.
The plot was fun–very reminiscent of Nancy Drew, if Nancy was a homeschooled Christian teenager in Virginia.
What I didn’t love: Unfortunately, there were a lot of copyediting fails in this self-published work. And here’s the thing: I presume homeschoolers are going to be the main audience of this book. If there’s one stereotype about homeschoolers that might be true, it’s that we tend to go a little bit crazy on the grammar and copyediting. (Okay, okay, not all homeschoolers are grammar police…but a lot of us are. Inordinately so. Trust me–one of them will almost definitely find a typo on this post and let me know about it… ;)) So the character names’ changing spelling randomly, the sentence fragments, the lack of consistent formatting may drive the target audience a little crazy.
I also found the characters to be a little similar for my taste. Sometimes they were described in one way but seemed to act in a very different way.
This is just me–but I am NOT a fan of books ending on a cliff hanger, with unresolved plot points.
Ultimately, if you’re looking for books that accurately represent Christian and homeschooled characters, take a look! But be prepared to brush over some copyediting issues (here’s hoping they can address those soon so this will appeal to a wider audience).
If you’re interested in reading this book, go check out the website, where you can read the first two chapters for free: https://www.mounthideaway.com
Imagine someone coming up to you and saying, “Hey, you know that book you love? Someone wrote a sequel! Remember the main character? Yeah, so the story starts with him dead now, and it’s all about how the secondary character is dealing with the resulting grief. It’s amazing. You should read it.”
So… I’ll try not to start my post in quite that upbeat manner. I’m not sure exactly what Gary D. Schmidt was thinking, but… he killed off Holling Hoodhood, friends. If you loved The Wednesday Wars as much as I did, then you may need a moment or two to process this. Grab some chocolate. Shout dramatically about, “Who do authors think they are anyway, playing God like that?!” Slowly sip a cup of tea. I’m sorry. I know Holling may just have been a fictional character, but the grief is real.
Feeling a little better? Okay.
Yeah, so… this book is amazing! You should read it!
Despite being cruel and unusual and making me rethink the power placed in my hands as a writer, Schmidt’s decision to begin Just Like That with the death of a beloved character (technically, he places it slightly in the past as the book begins) achieved the result of pulling you instantly into the emotions of the new main character, Meryl Lee Kowalski. Even if you’ve never read The Wednesday Wars, you’d feel for Meryl Lee. But if you share the tiniest bit of her love for Holling Hoodhood, you’ll cry a little yourself and feel her shock and understand what she means when she speaks of a great, big Blank of grief following her around all the time, threatening to overcome her.
And then, in case you thought Mr. Schmidt had tricked you into feeling such strong emotion based solely upon the fact that you know Holling and Meryl Lee, he introduces another character: Matt Coffin, who stands by the shore of Maine skipping stones and somehow–just like that–ingratiates himself into your affections and you know you will not stop reading his story or Meryl Lee’s either unless absolutely compelled to do so by the events of your real life. And you really hope they don’t compel you too much.
Now let’s see if I can give you a little plot. Meryl Lee, horrified by the prospect of returning to the school which she and Holling attended together, is sent to St. Elene’s, a prestigious all-girls’ boarding school in New England, where she sticks out like a sore country bumpkin thumb in a world of rich, sophisticated students. Matt Coffin, skipper of stones, is running away from something and doesn’t want to talk about it, not even to the kindly old woman who find him on the shore and skips some stones along with him before inviting him to her table, or the curmudgeonly lobster boat captain who takes him on as an apprentice of sorts.
Meryl Lee, perhaps spurred on by the injustice of her friend’s death, spots injustices all around her at St. Elene’s and makes it her mission to right what she can, even as she’s belittled and ridiculed by her classmates and a particularly nasty teacher. Matt, meanwhile, just wants to feel safe–but his past inevitably catches up with him and puts everyone he’s growing to love in danger.
I don’t want to spoil the story with any further plot, although I will say that Just Like That has more easily articulated plot than many a Gary D. Schmidt novel–he’s so wonderfully good at character growth that you’d follow his characters around if they did pretty much nothing. This one, however, is full of mission and danger and conflict, and it is incredibly, don’t-read-it-when-you-need-to-fall-asleep, tense.
But. It’s still the characters that keep you reading. It’s the human nature of it all. It’s the deep-down trust in the goodness of humanity that Schmidt exudes that makes you turn page after page in wonder.
In all fairness, I’ll say that one plot point fell a little short, fitting too handily and leaving me shrugging at such a coincidence. But honestly–I couldn’t care less. That humanity sold me.
You can purchase Just Like That from your local indie bookstore by clicking on this link: Shop your local indie bookstore
I’m an affiliate, so I will receive a tiny percentage of each sale. Thank you!
P.S. I couldn’t fit this into the review, but I’m a mother of a 13-year-old girl, so I feel compelled to add a caveat: as wonderful as this story was, I wasn’t completely comfortable with the intensity of the romantic interest between 13-year-old characters. There’s a lot of kissing. It’s never described in a sensual way and it always serves the plot–but…they’re 13. 1) A lot of 13-year-olds out there are actually put off by this kind of romance in a story (I was, at that age), and 2)….they’re 13. I would have found it completely ok if the characters were 16 or 17, I think. As it was, because of the characters’ backgrounds, I wasn’t totally against it. It worked in the plot. But you might want to give the story a read before handing it to your middle schooler. (Actually, you want to anyway, or you won’t get a chance to read it until your middle schooler is through. So just take this excuse.)
P.P.S. Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with the e-book to review!
Eleven-year-old Rigel Harman loves her life in off-the-grid Alaska. She hunts rabbits, takes correspondence classes through the mail, and plays dominoes with her family in their two-room cabin. She doesn’t mind not having electricity or running water—instead, she’s got tall trees, fresh streams, and endless sky. But then her parents divorce, and Rigel and her sisters have to move with their mom to the Connecticut suburbs to live with a grandmother they’ve never met. Rigel hates it in Connecticut. It’s noisy, and crowded, and there’s no real nature. Her only hope is a secret pact that she made with her father: If she can stick it out in Connecticut for one year, he’ll bring her back home. At first, surviving the year feels impossible. Middle school is nothing like the wilderness, and she doesn’t connect with anyone . . . until she befriends a crow living behind her school. And if this wild creature has made a life for itself in the suburbs, then, just maybe, Rigel can too. 365 Days to Alaska is a wise and funny debut novel about finding beauty, hope, and connection in the world no matter where you are—even Connecticut.
If you know me, you’ll know that summary just tweaked a couple of sensitive points. As a former homeschooler and current homeschooling mom, my radar is always out for portrayals of homeschooling–and I’ve become less tolerant when they’re done poorly and fall into cliches and stereotypes. I’m also a Connecticut transplant who has found it possible to live at least somewhat off the land, even in a suburb of a big city. I confess that the main reason I wanted to read this book was to make sure it didn’t spread any untruths about homeschooling, Connecticut, or subsistence living. It’s not really the best attitude with which to approach a book.
And then… I was blown away. Cathy Carr takes a fairly commonly-done theme and plot and makes it shine with perfect characterizations, believable struggles and emotional arcs, and just plain excellent writing. I absolutely loved this.
Let me address a few of those sensitive points:
I loved that, despite depicting a fairly sheltered life in Alaska, the author never blamed homeschooling itself for any lack of social grace or awareness. In fact, by contrasting shy Rigel with her outgoing sisters, Cathy Carr demonstrates that personality, more than educational-style, will effect a child’s social skills. A large part of the book also focuses on the failings of the school system in allowing for good social interactions–all the bullying and peer pressure that is so much a part of that environment. This was all balanced and true-to-life. I so appreciate that the hackneyed “homeschooled kid learns to thrive in school environment” theme was completely eschewed in favor of a theme that allowed for real personal growth.
I could have gone for a slightly more nuanced view of Connecticut. We do have farms and nature sanctuaries and some good, old-fashioned small towns. We’re not Alaska. But we’re not all Fairfield County rich kids. Even Fairfield County rich kids aren’t all Fairfield County rich kids. That said, Cathy Carr again avoided the most harmful stereotypes, so I appreciated that. She also showed how beautifully diverse our state is. I know it’s impossible to show an entire culture in one story, and Rigel was exposed to only one small bit of CT.
The off-the-grid lifestyle was shown to be difficult and impressive, rather than odd and unbalanced–even while showing its common pitfalls. Yes, an 11-year-old kid uses a gun to hunt. But it’s clear that this 11-year-old has been taught more gun safety than your average middle aged guy. She respects the gun as a dangerous tool and wouldn’t use it lightly. Her parents allow her to hunt because she is responsible and capable. This all could so easily have been twisted into disrespect for those who live such an extreme lifestyle–but it wasn’t.
Finally, I have to add that 365 Days to Alaska is an excellent family story. Like another recent favorite, What Happens Next, it shows that sister relationships are worth fighting for.
You can buy 365 Days to Alaska from Amazon by clicking the image above, or from your Indie bookstore by clicking this link: Shop your local indie bookstore
I am an affiliate seller, so I will receive a small percentage of each sale. Thank you!
I haven’t read enough new books in 2021 to make a serious Newbery prediction–and yet… I’m going to anyway. Lauren Wolk’s Echo Mountain is beautiful and gorgeous and good, and it deserves all the shiny medals.
I know–there have been a lot of excellent books published in 2020. Even having read fewer of them, I was impressed with this year’s calibre. But when I looked back on my year’s reading, Echo Mountain kept standing out.
Before I get to the review proper, let me just share a weird coincidence. I have absolutely no knowledge go Lauren Work spying on me, yet this is a description from her story:
“On one wall: shelves of books in all colors and sizes, like the keys of a new instrument I wanted badly to play… Hanging from the roof: dozens of faded bouquets dangling like an upside-down garden… And there was a workbench and a back wall hung all over with tools that my father would have cried to see. Beautiful tools of all kinds, as if someone had made wonderful things here.”
And here (Exhibits B, C, and D) are a few photos of my house:
So…I may be biased. But also… maybe Lauren Work is destined to be my good friend in the future when she realizes we have pretty darn similar tastes in what makes life interesting. 🙂 Lauren, if you ever read this, consider yourself invited over. You can hang out in Mark’s shop and I’ll brew you up a cup of lemon balm and lavender tea.
Anyway…enough of that tangent. Have I already convinced you that Lauren Work is an excellent writer and that her setting is pretty great? Good. I’ll move on to the rest of the story now.
A few years ago, my oldest daughter told me if she could go back in time and live in any time period, it would be… the Great Depression. Which 1) made me realize however many presents I’d bought for that kid were obviously too many and she should get flour sacks from then on; and 2) made me seek out excellent historical novels set in the 30’s. Because, yes, there’s something absolutely fascinating in reading about other people going through hard times.
And then…you get a year that’s going to go down in history as, well, a hard time. And suddenly reading books set in similarly difficult windows of the timeline of history seems even more important. Lauren Wolk couldn’t have known how hard 2020 would be when she wrote Echo Mountain, but somehow she wrote a story that we all needed.
Here’s a quick summary from the publisher:
“After the financial crash, Ellie and her family have lost nearly everything–including their home in town. They have started over, carving out a new life in the unforgiving terrain of Echo Mountain. Though her sister Esther, especially, resents everything about the mountain, Ellie has found more freedom, a new strength, and a love of the natural world that now surrounds them. But there is little joy, even for Ellie, as they all struggle with the sorrow and aftermath of an accident that left her father in a coma. An accident for which Ellie has accepted the unearned weight of blame.
“Urgent for a cure to bring her father back, Ellie is determined to try anything. Following her heart, and the lead of a scruffy mutt, Ellie will make her way to the top of the mountain, in search of the healing secrets of a woman known only as “the hag.” But the mountain still has many untold stories left to reveal to Ellie, as she finds her way forward among a complex constellation of strong women spanning generations.”
Here’s what I love about this story, a million and a half times over: Ellie is a tremendous character. She makes a heart-wrenching decision at the beginning of the story to take the blame for an accident she didn’t cause–even though it makes her mother and sister resent her and others pity her–because she’d rather be resented than cause others to feel guilt. And this…just stunned me. As a person, I’m inspired by this character’s strength and courage. As a writer, I’m sitting there, staring at the page, wondering, “HOW ON EARTH DID THIS WRITER PULL THIS OFF?!” Because Ellie is no Pollyanna or Little Lord Fauntleroy. She’s a real, relatable girl, who does real, relatable things. And yet her choices are saintly. She’s one of the best examples I can think of in fiction of how very normal people can do very extraordinary, holy things. If you need a literary mentor to get you through the rest of a hard winter, go find this book as quickly as you can.
This morning I read a beautiful, well-meant, even insightful Instagram post that really has been eating at me. 2020 wasn’t so bad, was the general gist. 2020 was the best year of this person’s life. He’d found love, done great things in his work and vocation, learned and loved and celebrated. The key, he said, was gratitude for God’s presence this year and acknowledgment of all the good things He did.
I get it. I can get riled up by the “2020 is the worst year ever” narrative. 1) because I’ve read a lot of history, and 2) because the the times are, as St. Augustine said, what we make of them. A numerical year has no magic power over us unless we give it power. And that power to change our lives should be God’s alone. But just as my friend had the best year of his life partially because good things happened in it–he found love, made beautiful things, been successful!–there are others who’ve had the worst year of they lives because bad things happened in it. I’ve lost a lot of people I loved this year–and there are those who are much more impacted by those losses than I am. 2020 was really hard for my friends–women about my age–who lost a mother or a husband or a child. It was hard for my nephew who couldn’t pursue his vocational dream as planned because the classes he needs to take were all canceled. It was hard for my niece whose health issues caused pain, worry, and incredible inconvenience. Barely any of this even touches on the impact of “news-worthy” issues. It’s just…life. Hard things happen, and we don’t have control over that.
We do have control, though, in how we respond. And that’s why, even though some incredibly difficult things have happened in 2020, I will look back on this year as one of tremendous, illogical, God-given joy. Not always my own–not my own as often as it should have been, in fact. I will think back on 2020 as the year when my friends and family whose lives were torn apart by difficulties and grief responded to those circumstances–in what I would guess has been the worst year of their lives–with joy. And I am so, so grateful for their witness.
God didn’t abandon my friends in their worst-year-ever. He walked beside them and held their faces to the light. And as I’ve struggled through my own, smaller trials and worries this year, that light has shone out and helped guide my way. We’ve cried together–and alone–more this year than we have in a long while. There is, and has to be, an acknowledgment of real grief and loss and struggle that was thrown our way. But somehow, miraculously, there’s still joy.
So, thank you, Lord, for your gifts this year. Thank you for the friendships that have sustained me and shown me your goodness. Thank you for walking with us in our grief. Thank you for easing difficulties with unexpected gifts, your surprise twists and turns. Thank you for the abundant, unadulterated happinesses–the grasp of my baby’s fist against my fingers, or seeing her first, sparkling smile. Thank you for the confusion and hurt and lack of control that has pushed me so readily into your arms. Thank you for joy.
2020 was not the best year of my life. But thank you, Father, for walking it with me.
On this last Monday before Christmas, I’m happy to share with you a book that will bring the presence of Our Lord and His Mother into your reading life (and that of your tween and teen children) in a special way: The Woman in the Trees, by Theoni Bell.
Slainie Lafont is excited to leave Belgium and travel to the wilds of Wisconsin with her family in the mid 19th century. But the old story holds true: pioneer life isn’t as easy as it looks. As she matures from a young child to a young lady, tragedy and trial strike one after another. The one consolation offered to her–the teaching and companionship of Adele Brise–is angrily rejected by Slainie’s cold mother. Adele claims to have had a vision of the Mother of God, who gave her a mission to teach the pioneer children about God. But to Slainie’s mother, a belief in God is more dangerous than all the difficulties of the Wisconsin wilderness. Wasn’t it God, after all, who brought misfortune into their lives?
The story follows Slainie through adolescence and the losses brought by the Civil War, and into adulthood, marriage, and family. Though her relationship with her mother is still fraught, Slainie has come to a deep faith in God, which sustains and comforts her. But will her faith be enough help her through the greatest danger she’s yet had to face?
The Woman in the Trees is historical fiction gold. Theoni Bell describes the events surrounding the Peshtigo Wildfire, the Civil War, and “everyday” pioneer life for Beligian immigrants with a straightforward gracefulness. Slainie is a wonderful character; her voice rings true from childhood to motherhood, and her growth during that time is both believable and moving.
While this story, centered around the miraculous appearance and intercession of Our Lady of Good Help (the only Marian apparition in the United States approved by the Catholic Church), could have a broad appeal to lovers of historical fiction, I’d say that its primary audience will be Catholic young adults. It’s hard to find stories about Catholic kids trying to live out their faith in an authentic, story-worthy way. Don’t get me wrong; “everyday sanctity” requires heroic courage, but it doesn’t always make for the best stories. Combining Slainie’s story of spiritual growth with the drama of pioneer life is a perfect combination.
You can buy The Woman in the Trees from Amazon by clicking HERE, and I’ll receive a tiny commission on each sale (thank you!).
P.S. Can I have a quick second to talk about the cover art? This blew me away. So well done.