Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Caleb's Crossing

Last night my book group at the library discussed this latest novel by Geraldine Brooks. I think we have read all of her other novels, March, Year of Wonders, and People of the Book, so we were looking forward to her new novel. I had a hard time getting into it at first, as it is written in the language of the 1600s, and it is difficult to follow. But I found myself being pulled into the story and ended up liking the book very much. It is really fascinating how Brooks can start with a few facts and then create a whole story (fictionalized) from those facts--in this case, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. In writing the book, she talked with tribal members on Martha's Vineyard, read translations of early documents in the Wopanaak language, and did extensive research in Harvard's archives about the education of Native Americans.

The story begins in 1660 on the island of Martha's Vineyard (Brooks lives on Martha's Vineyard), and is told through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, the young daughter of an island minister. Bethia befriends Caleb, a young Wamanoag boy and they become lifelong friends, teach each other their language, and banter back and forth about their culture and their religions,  all this set against the conflicts at that time between the English colonists and the Native Americans.  I loved this passage where Bethia is telling Caleb the story of Adam and Eve, and Caleb responds:

"Your story is foolishness. Why should a father make a garden for his children and then forbid them its fruit? Our god of the southwest, Kiehtan, made the beans and corn, but he rejoiced for us to have them. And in any wise, even if this man Adam and his squa displeased your God, why should he be angry with me for it, who knew not of it until today?"

Bethia's love of learning and her relationship with Caleb form the basis for the story. Eventually they both end up in Cambridge, where Caleb is studying at Harvard (part of an experiment by the English to educate the "salvages") and Bethia is sent there as an indentured servant at the school. As a girl, Bethia cannot be educated, but she is smarter than most and manages to educate herself at Harvard, listening in on lectures and learning Latin and Greek.

Our group was split on the book--about half didn't like it. Some people wanted more story about Caleb and less about Bethia. Most of us liked Bethia and admired her strength and her will to learn. It's funny because several of us said it reminded us of Ahab's Wife, a book set in the late 1800s that we read last year and all ended up loving. We all agreed that Caleb must have been a remarkable man for his time, to have sacrificed so much of his Indian life to make the "crossing" into the English world.  In the end,  Bethia says, "Caleb was a hero, there is no doubt of it. He ventured forth from one world to another with an explorer's courage." We also appreciated the book's Afterword, when Brooks says that Bethia would have liked the fact that today Harvard has a woman president, and that the first Wopanaak from Martha's Vineyard since Caleb in 1665 received her undergraduate degree from Harvard in 2011.

It's not my favorite book of Geraldine Brooks, but I liked it and I'm glad I read it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Monday, February 27, 2012


Yesterday Walt and I drove to Sharpsburg, Md., to see the Antietam Battlefields. It's funny how historical places become so much more interesting as you get older.  I didn't know much about this battle, which took place on September 17, 1862, but Walt has read a lot about it and he filled me in.  Antietam was the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War and ended the first Confederate invasion of Union territory.  Of nearly 100,000 soldiers engaged in the battle, 3,650 men were killed and more than 18,000 were wounded or missing. Leading the Union Army was General George B. McClellan and leading the Confederate Army was General Robert E. Lee. Both survived the war, although McClellan was relieved of his command a month later in November 1862, for what Lincoln called "a bad case of the slows." Four days after the bloody battle, President Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which marked a turning point in the Civil War.

Antietam is a beautiful area, very peaceful and calm and there were lots of people walking the roads around the battlefield. The battle lasted 12 hours and you can follow the course of the battle, either by car or on foot, from the beginning near the Dunker Church, through the surrounding farmland and cornfields.

 There are lots of monuments, of course, honoring all the different regiments, both Union and Confederate.

Most of dead from the Union Army are buried in the Antietam Cemetery. Interestingly, the Confederate soldiers are buried separately, in nearby cemeteries.

It was fascinating to see markers like this one and to realize that these soldiers fought right around where we live (we live near Dranesville and Great Falls).

We also went to see The Artist on Saturday night, which we really liked. I was afraid I would be bored with a silent movie, but not at all.  It's so refreshing to see such a creative and thoughtful movie, especially when it seems like there is so much junk at the movies. We have seen most of the movies that were up for Best Picture this year, and liked all of them, but I am glad The Artist won! And love Jean Dujardin, mais oui!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Lovely Hellebores

One of the first signs of life in my garden are the hellebores, which actually started to bloom about a month ago. They are in full bloom now and I have been cutting them and bringing them inside. But you can hardly see the flowers on the plants because of all the old foliage, so yesterday I tackled my first job of the season in the garden--cutting back all those yukky leaves.  It felt like spring yesterday, seriously, in the 70s. It's nice to hear all the kids in the neighborhood outside playing, the thump of the basketballs next door.  Anyway, I cut back the old leaves, here's what one clump of hellebores looked like before:

You can see all the old foliage is blackened and coarse and really overwhelming the flowers. And here is the after:

 They look so much better and I can really see the flowers from the house now. It's funny because I cut the leaves back early in the day and by late afternoon the flowers were already standing up taller because they had room to breathe I think! They looked a little more pink too, for some reason.

And look at this clump, you can't see any flowers at all:

And voila!

And here you can see how many hellebores I have. They re-seed themselves easily, so after a few years you can really have a lot of hellebores. I started with one and look at all that I have now. I don't move them--I just take the seedheads in the summer and sprinkle them around and they seem to take very easily. Oh, and they do grow new leaves so there will be more green later in the season, but for now, the flowers are the stars of the show!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tulips Keep Me Going

I love tulips and during the winter I buy them almost every week when I go to Whole Foods on Fridays. I am partial to white tulips, but I try and branch out now and then, like with these orangy-yellow ones. Tulips get me through the winter.

It's supposed to be in the 70s today--so I think I have no choice but to get outside and do a few things in the garden, right? It's hard to know what to do--it's so warm, but is it going to get cold again?  At the very least I can start thinking about all the things that need to be done in the garden. One thing I can do is cut back the old leaves on the hellebores, so that I can see the flowers. They get hidden in all the old foliage.  I am meeting Liz for breakfast this morning (french toast, yum) and then have to do a Costco run, but I'm hoping I can get a few hours in the garden this afternoon. We'll see.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Sisters

I just finished reading this first novel by Nancy Jensen. It begins with the story of two young sisters in a small town in Kentucky, in the 1920s. Their mother has died and they are living with an abusive stepfather. When Mabel notices the stepfather eyeing her younger sister Bertie, she makes plans for their escape following Bertie's eighth grade graduation. But things go awry, of course, and the stepfather ends up dead, Mabel and Bertie's beau have skipped town, and the sisters are forever separated. Bertie is left behind, betrayed and confused (an explanatory  letter to her is never delivered). The story mostly follows the life of Bertie, which plays out in depressing fashion, and her subsequent  marriage, children, grandchildren.  It's kind of an uneven story, as the story focuses almost entirely on Bertie and not much at all on Mabel, who eventually becomes a photographer and even appears on 60 Minutes (Bertie even hears Mabel's voice on the television, but never follows up or even looks to see who is talking).  In a lot of ways it is a very frustrating book, because their estrangement is all due to a misunderstanding and you are always saying, "open that letter," "ask some questions," but they never do. Bertie says late in the book, "Something can happen to change your life so sudden, you can't ever get over it fast enough. And so you do things you wouldn't ever have thought of doing. Maybe hurt other people. And that changes things for them, too, all in a line." And so the the unhappiness and bitterness just keeps rolling through the generations. I had hopes for the story, it's readable, and the characters are depressingly real, but in the end I didn't like it very much. Their unhappiness was just too much. You keep waiting for them to overcome, but it just never happens.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Sunny Day in Lucketts

Yesterday was a holiday here (President's Day) so Gillian and I took a little field trip out to Lucketts and went to a few of our favorite antique places. We've found a lot of treasures at the Old Lucketts Store over the years. They have great stuff and lots of old outdoor furniture, perfect for a little sanding and repainting. Gillian is looking for some porchy furniture and I am always looking for garden chairs.  Gillian found this pretty orange pitcher for their beach place, and  I came home empty handed but it's always fun to look. We stopped in Leesburg for lunch at Tuscarora's, and then headed home as I had yoga at 5. Mary is in Mexico at a yoga retreat, so Pat was our substitute teacher. We worked mostly on balancing poses last night, always a challenge!

Guess who almost bought this chair?

And I liked these cheap and cheerful chairs.

A room full of painted furniture, great for small tables and shelves.

Gillian is peeking in one of the outdoor "rooms" at Lucketts.

And always some "pretties" to look at.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Great Falls

Walt and I went for a long walk yesterday morning at Great Falls. Neither one of us has felt very good this weekend, so we thought some fresh air might help. It was cold out but it was nice to see so many people out and about, enjoying the park. It's such a great place for kids to run around the paths and scramble up and down all the rocks. There is a path along the river and then other paths that go through the woods, with lookouts along the river. We used to come here in the summer with our kids and have breakfasts here. I remember doing that with Mom and Dad, and with Patty and Mark, too. The park is great all year, of course, but I particularly like it in winter. There is something about the starkness of the rocks and the water, and the noise of the falls. Usually you see kayakers around, but we didn't see any today.

Calm waters after the falls
I am always amazed to see the high water marks. It's so hard to imagine the water being this high.

I love all the rocks,  and everywhere you see stone walls, which are the remains of the old Patowmack Canal, which was built next to the river, so that river traffic could skirt the falls. Interestingly, the Canal was the idea of George Washington (Happy President's Day, George), who believed that the passageway from the Potomac River to the Ohio River was key to the future of our country.

Here is Walt standing on one of the locks from the old canal.

And I loved the bark on this tree--I came home and looked it up online and I believe it is a native dogwood. We will have to go back in the spring and check if it is indeed a dogwood. Later in the afternoon, we went to see The Descendants, which we both liked a lot. And so much for the snow we were supposed to get and the weather people have been talking about for days. Not one snowflake!! What a winter. I'll stop complaining soon.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Patiently Waiting for Spring

Another day in the 50s, the sun is shining, and the birds are chirping. The days are getting longer.   I am working today and tomorrow, so not much exciting happening. I just heard on the news that we might get some snow on Sunday, but I'm not counting on it.  I have given up on a good snowfall this year. There's not much we can do about the weather, so I am just patiently waiting for spring.

I took a walkabout this morning and noticed some new growth on one of my tree peonies. Hellebores are blooming, and snowdrops. The daffodils are up but no buds yet. I have noticed some crocus blooming around town.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Lovely Leaves

I have a thing for leaves. I love the shapes of leaves and the different textures. My favorite is probably the gingko leaf. I don't have a gingko tree, but a few years ago some houses near me planted all gingko trees along the street and I have really enjoyed watching them grow. I may have to plant one, just for the leaves. But anyways, back to leaves,  I think that's why I always seem to zoom in close when taking pictures of plants. I have been practicing close-up shots of some of my indoor plants with my camera and I think some of these turned out well.

And you thought I was done! Oh no, I collect ceramic leaves, too. I like to find them in places we visit--I bought my first one with Patty on the coast of Oregon, and she gave me a few others. Another I got last year in Northeast Harbor, Maine.