Monday, 27 August 2018

AmblesideOnline Year 8, Term 1, Australian Geography: The Bight by Colin Thiele & Mike McKelvey

The Bight is one of seven titles in the Australian Conservation Series. Three other books in the series were also written by Colin Thiele: Coroong, Range Without Man, and The Little Desert.
It is is a unique book that was published in 1976, just after the new highway across the Nullarbor was completed, and it looks at a magnificent part of Australia, the Great Australian Bight, which straddles the coasts of South Australia and Western Australia.

Although there are only 56 pages in this book, including photographs, it manages to convey the history, the geography, and the wonder of this magnificent area.
Thiele points out that this part of Australia has a very striking history. From Pieter Nuyts’ voyage in the Gulde Zeepaert along the coastline in 1627, followed 160 years later by Vancouver, D’Entrecasteaux, and then Matthew Flinders who completed the map of the South Land in the 19th Century. It was Flinders who named a prominent cliff face Point Culver which was to be Edward John Eyre’s goal forty years later when he decided to force a passage to the Head of the Bight.

Of the sagas of the Bight Eyre’s dominates all the others. There is a poetic quality about its magnitude and starkness and seeming futility and grandeur. Though taken from real life there are elements in it that are larger than life - the unwavering hostility of the land, the vastness of distance, the enormity of the task, the obduracy of the human will. It is a story that deserved its happy ending.

About twenty to thirty kilometres north of the coast is the Nullarbor, which Thiele describes as ‘a level sea of limestone.’ The explorer Alfred Delisser dubbed it “Nullus-Arbor” on account if its treelessness - a Latin title and not an Aboriginal one as it is often believed to be. Some parts of the Nullarbor are riddled with vast hollow chambers and sinkholes that provide homes and a respite from the heat of summer for a variety of creatures such as cave owls, swallows and kestrels.

In the 1870’s and 1880’s, surveyors, telegraph linesmen and prospectors made their mark in the area, followed by men who built their sheep stations in places like Yalata and Koonalda. Now there are only a handful of sheep, solitude and distance.
The inland area of the Nullarbor was opened up by the Railway and then in the mid-1970’s the Eyre Highway was bituminised all the way from Western Australia to South Australia.
My parents made the trip from Whyalla in South Australia to Perth in Western Australia with five kids, my granny, and various household appliances crammed into a van in the early 1970’s when a good part of the road was still unsealed. I have memories of a very long, straight drive across the Nullarbor Plain, a vast blue sky and not much else. There was very little traffic and when we did see any other travellers it was very exciting and there was a great deal of tooting & waving. We’d stop for the night by the side of the road, light a fire and spend the night there. There were kangaroos and other animals that came out after dark to make night driving too hazardous.
We felt like pioneers.

The completion of the highway was hailed as the dawn of a new era. It was more than that. It was the end of something as deep and old as the roots of the nation; the end of challenge, demand, discomfort, and the stimulus of the unexpected. It was symbolic of conformity and uniformity...
With the old road there was still the possibility of the unexpected; of delay, breakdown, and improvisation; of ambush by bull dust; of plans frustrated and timetables destroyed...

There was opportunity for humility and succour and gratitude and imagination, of being forced to camp out under the stars, of having to make plans about food and fuel and water, of thinking ahead, developing self-reliance, appreciating distance, and doing all those things that are good fair the soul and character of man.

There is something very humbling about getting out of your puny vehicle, standing in the red dust, looking around at 360 degrees of low saltbush, seeing no other humans for a space of time and realizing your absolute smallness in the scheme of things. I've been thinking about this quite a lot lately as it's been a while since I've experienced this and I'm feeling a desire to do so again.

Yet there should also be cause for hope, not merely in the value of the highway for trade or travel or defence, but because, coming close to the cliffs of the Bight in isolated places, it gives scope for the human spirit. For who could stand on those ramparts and not be aware of what has gone before, of humanity's diminutiveness in the scheme of things. Who, in his mind’s eye, could not see again the 350-Year-old temerity of the Gulde Zeepaert, the meticulousness of Flinders, the incredible tenacity of Eyre...this is still the untamed country. Move the traveller a kilometre or two away from the highway, and the age-old verities of the region hold him fast.

This is a beautifully written Australian living book that I’m using in Term 1 of the Ambleside Online Year 8 curriculum in place of the Christopher Columbus selection. It also covers some Australian history of exploration and natural history as well as geography.
It's out of print but available for a reasonable price second-hand.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Back to the Classics: Sick Heart River by John Buchan (1941)

Sick Heart River was John Buchan’s last novel. He dictated the story to his long-serving secretary, Lilian Killick, who told his wife that the book was ‘odd,’ and ‘so unlike him, so introspective.’ It is a very philosophical book but it is also an adventure and a spiritual quest.
The main character is Sir Edward Leithen, a stoic bachelor, lawyer, and Member of Parliament, who appears in other Buchan books. He is a dying man, as was Buchan at the time this book was written. In fact, it was completed only days before he died.Buchan, who had been serving as Governor-General of Canada, and as such had journeyed all over Canada, embarked on a tour of the north in 1937.
From Edmonton he and his entourage took the train north for the journey by paddle steamer down the Athabasca River to Fort Chipewyan, where they passed into the Slave River. Then came the thousand-mile steamer journey to the Arctic Ocean, and thence to the Mackenzie Mountains and Aklavik; over the Great Bear Lake to Coronation Island where he met the assortment of people who would populate his last book.On his return journey by way of Alberta and British Columbia, he flew over the coastal range and saw the country that would be described so intimately in Sick Heart River. Due to his poor physical state, he didn’t experience an Arctic winter but borrowed from traveller accounts and conversations with his son who had spent time there.

The Story

Sir Edward Leithen is fifty-eight years of age and has been given only a year to live. He was to expect a progressive loss of strength until his heart failed. There was no hope. Faced with this prognosis, Leithen reflected on his life:

He had used most of the talents God had given him, but not all. He had never, except in the War, staked his body in the struggle, and yet that was the stake of most of humanity. Was it possible to meet that test of manhood with a failing body?

The test came when Mr. Blenkiron (an American character from Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels) approached him with a request to help find his niece’s husband, Francis Gaillard. Gaillard was a Frenchman originally from Quebec who had ‘snapped’ and disappeared into the north. A combination of detective, psychologist and sportsman was what was required and Blenkiron was convinced that Leithen was the man.

Leithen raised his sick eyes to the eager face before him, a face whose abounding vitality sharpened the sense of his own weakness.‘You’ve come a little late,’ he said slowly. ‘I’m going to tell you something...which nobody knows except myself and my doctor - and I want you to promise to keep it secret...I’m a dying man. I’ve only about a year to live.’

He was not certain what he expected, but he was certain it would be something which would wind up this business for good. He had longed to have one confidant, only one, and Blenkiron was safe enough. The sound of his voice speaking these grim words somehow chilled him, and he awaited dismally the conventional sympathy. After that Blenkiron would depart and he would see him no more. But Blenkiron did not behave conventionally. He flushed deeply and sprang to his feet, upsetting his chair.

“My God!” he cried. “If I ain’t the blightedest, God-darned blundering fool! I might have guessed by your looks you were a sick man, and now I’ve hurt you in the raw with my cursed egotistical worries. . . . I’m off, Sir Edward. Forget you ever saw me. God forgive me, for I won’t soon forgive myself.”

“Don’t go,” said Leithen. “Sit down and talk to me. You may be the very man I want.”

A theme running through the book is that of Leithen ‘making his soul.’ He accepts Blenkiron’s assignment determined to squeeze as much out of life as he could before he dies, makes his way to Canada and meets with Galliard’s wife, Felicity.

How valuable was that thing for which he was bartering all that remained to him of life? At first Blenkiron’s story had been no more than a peg on which to hang a private determination, an excuse, partly to himself and partly to the world, for a defiant finish to his career. The task fulfilled the conditions he wanted - activity for the mind and a final activity for the body. Francis Galliard was a disembodied ghost, a mere premise in an argument. But now - Felicity had taken shape as a human being. There was an extraordinary appeal in her mute gallantry, her silent, self-contained fortitude.

And so, Leithen’s spiritual quest to ‘make his soul’ begins with a trip to the north where he meets up with a ‘half-breed’ Cree tracker, Johnny Frizel and two Hare Indians. They discover that about ten days previously Galliard had joined up with Johnny’s brother, Lew, also an expert guide, and the two of them were heading north. Johnny suspected that Lew was as sick in heart as Galliard.

We have each of us to travel to his own Sick Heart River.

That turns out to be the case and now there were two men that needed to be found and healed.
The remainder of the story follows Leithen’s gradual convalescence and the turning point in his life where he chooses the path of duty and decides to stay in the North and help a tribe of Hare Indians who are on the verge of extinction. They had become unhinged by superstition and horror of the supernatural.

There was a plain task before him, to fight with Death...Here in the North life had always been on sufferance, it’s pale slender shoots fighting a hard battle against the Elder Ice. But it had maintained its brave defiance. And now one such pathetic slip was on the verge of distinction...
By God’s help that should not happen - the God who was the God of the living. 
Through strange circuits he had come to that simple forthright duty for which he had always longed. In that duty he must make his soul. 

Each sick-hearted man lost all care for himself in sympathy for others. When they forgot their own troubles, they found they had disappeared.

Well, that was a bit of a ramble. It’s difficult to summarize a story like this but it’s an excellent read. It’s quite different to most of Buchan’s other books and if you’re mostly interested in the Richard Hannay type of adventure, you may not enjoy this as much. My kids have read and re-read most of Buchan's books around the age of about thirteen or fourteen, but this one and Witch Wood are two that are best left for more mature readers, I think, but for different reasons.

Both books are available free for Kindle.

Linking up to 2018 Back to the Classics: Classic Travel or Journey Narrative 
 & Books You Loved


Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Reading, Thinking, & Domesticity #4

Making Room for Contemplation

I’ve noticed more recently that I’ve become increasingly distracted and my attention span hasn’t been as good as it was. I put it down partly to getting a new iPhone (my old one didn't do much and was often unreliable). When you're using your phone for texting, emails, appointments, reminders, timers etc., it's too easy to be distracted and one thing leads to another if you're not careful.

We're also in the throes of bathroom renovations that have dragged on for over 7 weeks (update that to 9 weeks!) & that’s made life a little chaotic, too...burst waterpipes, cement dust, tradesmen not turning up when they said they would or arriving when you aren't expecting them, pluming supplier sending the wrong parts...blah, blah, blah. Besides that, my morning walks have come to a halt because of these renovations, which is a sure recipe for a scattered brain for me.

I haven't listened to any podcasts lately but then I came across this one on the Circe Institute website - an interview with author Alan Noble. I haven’t read the book they mention but the podcast discusses making room for contemplation in the context of living in a distracted world. It’s well worth listening to. I’ve been thinking about ways I can cultivate this space - technology can be a great tool and I know I won't be getting rid of my phone so I need to work around it. Distractions aren’t going to disappear even when our renovations are done - something else will jump in, I'm sure, but I'm considering how I can allow space for contemplation regardless.

My older girls read these books by Elizabeth George when they were in their teens. Moozle has read one and is most of the way through the second. She reads a chapter a few times a week as a sort of devotional, apart from her 'official' lessons, and has been enjoying them. The author covers relationships in general and content-wise, they are just right for girls aged about 12/13 years and up. The author also has a book for younger girls (ages 8 to 12 years). I've read a few of her books myself and thought they were very good.
Her husband, Jim George, has written a few books for boys on similar topics. I like the fact that they don't venture into the 'too much information' side of things and leave it up to the parents to decide when to introduce these topics.

The Green Years by A.J. Cronin - this is the second book I've read by this Scottish author and I do like his writing very much. The Keys of the Kingdom was the other book and while The Green Years was not quite as good, it was, nevertheless very enjoyable. The setting is Scotland, in the same area I came from, so that was a great attraction for me. Cronin often substitutes a fictional place name for the one he's writing about but I recognised some of the places from his evocative descriptions.

I've started to read the books above in preparation for a Women's Retreat in mid-September. I'm speaking on The Friendships of Women & I want to look at this from a couple of different angles.

Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer - a classic by the German theologian who was martyred by the Nazis. I read Eric Metaxas' biography of Bonhoeffer  two years ago so it will be good to hear from the man himself. It's only a short book (my copy is 96 pages) & was published in 1954. From what I've read so far, it's very good and fairly easy to read.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. I first heard about this book via Brandy @ Afterthoughts and have since read a couple of articles about the author and was intrigued by the impact made upon her life when a couple drew her into their lives by an act of hospitality. I bought my copy at Koorong (an Aussie Christian bookshop). I usually buy new books via BookDepository but they only had the audio book in stock when I tried to order it. Koorong has a 20% off sale a few times a year so it's worth waiting for one if you want to get a few things.

The Gospel Comes With a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield - here the author looks at 'radical hospitality' using her own life as a backdrop and shows us how to enact this in our own homes.

The Barefoot Investor by Scott Page - financial planning, money management in general, investments...a hands-on approach that walks you through the process. Page is an Aussie author and some of what he covers would have to be adapted if you're not living in Australia, but it is a worthwhile book and would be helpful for anyone. My husband read it earlier this year as did our married son and it was passed on to another son who shares a house with three other young fellows and they're all reading it, and actually putting it into practice. There's some Aussie slang and corny humour in places, and of course, the situation here is different in regards to superannuation, loans, health funds etc, but his general financial strategies may be used anywhere.
This would be a great book for an older high school student or any young adult, or those struggling with debt to help them manage their finances and plan for the future.
The book below has been updated for the 2017-2018 financial year.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

A Combination of Mystery & History: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (1951)

The Daughter of Time is an unusual type of crime mystery in that a piece of English history is resurrected and brought into the 20th Century to be investigated. It concerns the reign of Richard III and the murder of the Princes in the Tower.
Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard conducts his own investigations into the four hundred year old mystery from a hospital bed where he is confined after an accident while on duty. Bored and despondent, nothing has much interest for him until one day a friend, endeavouring to cheer him up, brings him a collection of historical portraits of people who had some mystery attached to them.
Grant had always had a passion for faces, made a conscious study of them, and had an almost instinctive way of picking out a criminal on sight.
When he finds a portrait of a man in his mid-thirties, dressed in the fashion of the late fifteenth Century, he is arrested by the expression in the subject’s eyes:

Grant paused in the act of turning the thing over, to consider the face a moment longer. A judge? A soldier? A prince? Someone used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist. A man at ease in a large design, but anxious over details...

When Grant turns the portrait over and discovers the subject is Richard III, he is piqued that he mistook a notorious murderer for a judge. His first impression of the man in the portrait was certainly not that of a villain. This arouses his curiosity and so he begins his own investigation into the allegations against Richard.
Each of the four books I’ve read by Josephine Tey have been quite different from each other, although Inspector Alan Grant features in all of them. The Daughter of Time is different from any other mystery/crime novel I’ve ever read and I enjoyed its uniqueness and its mental challenge.
Tey unearths contemporary accounts, documents, and historical resources to present Richard Plantagenet from a different viewpoint. She reveals that Sir Thomas More, the author of More’s History of Richard III, had never known Richard at all and had, in fact, only been eight years old when Richard died at Bosworth. More obtained his account of Richard III from John Morton who was the Archbishop of Canterbury during Henry VII’s reign and a bitter enemy of Richard.
Tey not only turns the Princes in the Towers mystery on its head but also has a little swipe at Cromwell:

Cromwell started that inverted snobbery from which we are all suffering today. ‘I’m a plain man, I am; no nonsense about me.' And no manners, grace or generosity, either...

And Mary Queen of Scots:

Her tragedy was that she was born a queen with the outlook of a suburban housewife...If you are willing to put a country of ten million people in pawn in order to score off a royal rival, then you end by being a friendless failure.

And she also has no time for the Scottish Covenanters:

The Covenanters were the exact equivalent of the I.R.A. in Ireland. A small irreconcilable minority, and as bloodthirsty a crowd as ever disgraced a Christian nation...A dragoon (read policeman) couldn’t arrest anyone without a warrant...but there was nothing to hinder a Covenanter lying snug in the heather and picking off dragoons at his leisure. Which they did, of course. And now there’s a whole literature about the poor ill-used saint in the heather with his pistol; the dragoon who died in the course of his duty is a Monster...Like Richard.

I read this book aloud to my thirteen year old daughter as it’s scheduled in Year 7 of the Ambleside Online curriculum and she really liked it, although it took a couple of chapters for her to get interested. As the AO website states, there are some sections that need editing for this age group, but they’re mostly in the first few chapters and they aren’t central to the story.

This book opened a wonderful door for the discussion of historical perspectives and bias and inspired Moozle to do a bit of reading on the Plantagenets and the Tudors. Then we started reading Shakespeare’s Richard III. Now, this was interesting after the perspective of The Daughter of Time! Shakespeare’s Richard III is a real creep. You only have to read the first two scenes of Act 1 before you believe Richard capable of every vile deed known to man.
Shakespeare’s Globe sheds some light on Shakespeare’s view of Richard. His portrait of Richard as a physical and moral monster is not accepted by modern historians.
The Daughter of Time is a splendid way to learn some history as well as being an enjoyable mystery.
Available free for Kindle

Updated to add this link: The Search for King Richard III (thanks to GretchenJoanna for passing this on!)

This is my choice for A Classic by a Woman Author in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge

Linked to Books You Loved.