(Seems I’ve missed the deadline already. Blogging Occupational hazard – sorry!)
When I think of the books I read and re-read as a child, the ones which changed me and which fed my developing feminism, there are two things which they have in common.
One is that as a child growing up in a suburb in a coastal city in the most urbanised country on the planet, I craved books about people who didn’t live in cities – the Billabong books of Mary Grant Bruce, Swallows and Amazons and its sequel We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea; Jean Craighead George’s extraordinary My Side of the Mountain; Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding; Colin Thiele’s February Dragon; Nan Chauncy’s and Ethel Turner’s everything. Some books I loved might have been ostensibly urban, but featured animals and/or a desire for an escape from the city: Barry Hines’ Kes and Paul Gallico’s Thomasina for instance. (Paul Gallico was huge back then but you hardly hear about him now. If any of you cat people haven’t read Thomasina, get you to Book Depository stat.)
Another common thread in my childhood reading is that I gravitated with some powerful inner magnetism towards books which featured horses. The Billabong series again, Kate Seredy’s The Good Master, all the Pullein-Thompson books (if you weren’t a lover of pony books in your childhood, there were three Pullein-Thomson sisters, plus their mother Joanna Cannan, and they all wrote with the same signature style so as to be almost indistinguishable). Mary O’Hara’s Thunderhead series. I’m thinking of this today as I finish Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread, which is a book about horse people, unusual today. It was more than the love of horses themselves, their beauty and power and personalities. It was the underlying theme in all these books that women can do difficult things, they can be brave, competent and independent. They can spend a whole novel being concerned with facing problems, not their appearance – in fact there’s often a sense of glee in descriptions of a girl’s muddy or otherwise mussed-up state, where the author conspires with the reader in rejecting the norms of twentieth-century clean and “dainty” womanhood. (Ugh. Aren’t you glad that that word, at least, has well and truly sunk into disuse?) The Good Master and the Billabong series are a paradigm of the role of horses in writing about female emancipation in a pre-war world and the threats to that fragile sense of liberation. The Mary Grant Bruces and Pullein-Thompsons wrote about cracking hardy and not falling into the paradigm of domesticated womanhood, although these writers – products of their time – assumed that it would get you in the end.
“Pony books”, despite being at the slighter end of the scale, nevertheless had a strong ethical message – people who were cruel to their horses and rude to other people invariably lost while those who were kind and straight with others won the blue ribbons at the gymknana in the end, or had some other kind of personal victory. This was commendable, though perhaps not the best preparation for real life.
Honourable mention for some books which don’t quite fit here: Geoffrey Willans’ Down with Skool!, whose characters survive on Twitter, and Finn Family Moomintroll. I wasn’t much of a fantasy reader but loved ghosts and horror, scaring the wits out of myself with Edgar Allen Poe and M.R. James.
You’ll notice there is a generational element there. I grew up in the twentieth century, just as the baby boom was petering out, to older parents. I read a lot of older writing, some of it from Edwardian times, most of which isn’t in circulation now. Edith Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods, Five Children and It, What Katy Did, and many of the titles I’ve mentioned above. I’ve re read a few of them lately, and as you’d expect, some hold up better than others. It’s saddening to read A Little Bush Maid and see how Grant Bruce accepted, uncritically, white attitudes to indigenous people before WW1. It’s not a book I’d buy for a grandchild, although you could use it in schools as a set text, in context.
Another common thread of the books of these older times is that the narratives went on without parents present very often, if at all. I didn’t see that as unusual at the time. I can’t help comparing my own childhood – spending whole days playing in a disused quarry in a patch of scrub pretending to be the equivalent of My Side of the Mountain, exploring creeks with insufficient thought of snakes and footwear, riding horses with friends over huge areas of paddock and back road without telling anyone where we were going, or even knowing in advance where we were going… in the light of today’s helicopter parenting it seems so dangerous, even without the more dramatic adventures of the kids in the books. But it was inspiring.
Even today, the lessons of my childhood reading remain. Don’t be a wimp. Be nice to other people. Even if you’re a bookish nerdy type, you can love the bush and the outdoors. Be resourceful. And be good to your animals.
What were the books which shaped you?