Reading Narnia: The Last Battle

Hellooo everyone! I haven’t been able to blog for the past two weeks since I was preparing for and working as a camp councilor with a group of high schoolers at the NYC Rescue Mission for a week ( check out their website)! It was a really great experience and a lot of fun. We did a lot of NY-centric activities when we weren’t working too, and it was great to spend time in different areas of the city that I don’t go to all the time. I’m hoping to talk about it more fully in a future post.

Anyway, today I’m excited to wrap up my Reading Narnia series by discussing The Last Battle. (I was hoping to review it before camp but I didn’t have a chance to.)

The-Last-Battle-CoverThe Last Battle starts off differently than the rest of the books in the series in that the story starts off in Narnia itself. Every other book has started with the children being called to Narnia before they are told what the problem is, but since the story starts off in Narnia this time, the reader can watch the story unfold more which I enjoyed.

So The Last Battle starts at the end of Narnia’s days with an ape named Shift and a donkey named Puzzle. Puzzle is Shift’s slave and does whatever he says, so when Shift finds an old lion skin from one of the non-talking animals, and decides that Puzzle should wear it and pretend to be a lion, Puzzle does as he is told.

I thought Lewis did a good job of showing Shift and Puzzle’s relationship. It’s not that Puzzle just does whatever Shift tells him to do right off the bat. He argues with him and tries to get his opinion heard, but he is so used to Shift winning these debates that he doesn’t try hard for too long and usually goes along with what Shift says in the end. It is an interesting power dynamic and it makes the reader sympathize more with Puzzle from the start.

What starts off as a fun imitation game soon turns much more serious as Shifts starts claiming that Puzzle is in fact Aslan, who no one has seen for years. Pretty soon Puzzle is locked up, the animals of Narnia are lining up to see him, and the power is going quickly to Shift’s head.

King Tirian, a distant relative of  Prince Caspian, calls Eustice and Jill to help after he hears the news. There is much debate over whether this lion is the real Aslan, even though he is being greedy because after all Aslan has never been a tame lion. But the Centaurs have read the stars and learned that it is in fact a fake. I thought Lewis did a good job depicting this debate as well, particularly with the Dwarves, who are known for siding with whichever side will benefit them more.

I have to say that I was hoping to see more of Jill in this book, particularly after Eustice was introduced in Dawn Treader and then again in Silver Chair. I wanted to see more of Jill, but I also thought she held her own defending Narnia with a bow and arrow.

As I said before this all takes place during the last days of Narnia and Narnia has a very different feel to it. While the story kept the pace going, the land itself is slowing down, and after the battle, Eustice and Jill are ushered in to the new Narnia where they meet Susan, Peter, Edmund, Polly, and Digory. I also particularly liked the way Lewis wrote about the joy and color of the new Narnia as opposed to the old. He writes,

You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among the mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different-deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know.

There has been some criticism about Susan’s absence from The Last Battle because she became interested in lipstick and fashion and things like that.  None of those are inherently bad things, and that’s not what Lewis is saying. I don’t think that that is really what Lewis was getting at. I think he summed in up when Polly says, “She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age.” Beauty, looks, and being mature and an adult was what Susan began to idolize to a point where she couldn’t see the bigger picture any more. “Being the right age” was the thing that she lived for, and I think that is what Lewis was getting at when he said she no longer went to Narnia.

So those are some of my thoughts on The Last Battle, and I have loved reviewing the Narnia books over the past couple of weeks. Let me know what you thought about The Last Battle or any of the other Narnia books (or movies) in the comments below, and thanks for reading! 🙂

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Reading Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

So we are nearing the end of the week now, but I hope everyone had a great and relaxing Memorial Day Weekend. I spent some quality down time out in Long Island scoping out some good reading nooks for the rest of the summer and going to the beach.

ImageI’m still playing major catch up here at Goodbookscents, but today I am going to talk about Voyage of the Dawn Treader, book 5 in the Chronicles of Narnia.

At this point in the series Peter and Susan have had their last trip to Narnia, and are away when Lucy and Edmund spend the summer with their snobbish cousin,  Eustice Scrubb, who doesn’t really believe in fun. So Edmund and Lucy are inside one day looking at a strange portrait in Lucy’s bedroom of a ship when they are sucked into the painting (Eustice manages to get himself dragged in as well).

They soon find themselves in Narnia on a quest with Prince Caspian on a mission that takes them to the edge of the world to find the seven missing lords that Caspian’s uncle banished during his reign as king.

I have to say Dawn Treader is not my favorite Narnia book. On their journey the crew stops at a variety of islands all with a different adventure, but I’ve never really been as much a fan of books with various island adventures as opposed to a more cohesive plot. I had the same feeling about The Odyssey in high school too – who knows maybe that ruined books like this for me.

That being said, while I did not like Dawn Treader as much as the other books in the series, it does have some of my favorite scenes. Narnia has different effects on different people, which is something that I love about the land and this series. For Eustice, he is a royal kill joy from the get-go, and that doesn’t change for a while when he is in Narnia. He butts heads with Reepicheep the mouse (who I still love), gets seasick (which I can’t fully blame him for) and complains constantly and never helps the rest of the crew (which I can blame him for).

The ship stops at one island, and to avoid doing work Eustace wanders off and runs headlong into a dragon’s lair. But the dragon that he sees is dying. I thought Eustace had an interesting response to this that seemed pretty realistic to me. Lewis describes Eustice watching the dead dragon by saying,

The relief was so great that Eustace almost laughed out loud. He began to feel as if he had fought and killed the dragon instead of merely seeing it die.

While it is understandable that he is relieved that such a fearsome creature is no longer a threat to him (although it was never really threatening in the state that it was in), there is also something really selfish about Eustice’s response. He also was never really in awe of the dragon, as one could be since they are such magnificent creatures, but as Lewis explains, Eustice hasn’t read the right books.

Anyway, Eustice enters the dragon’s cave to get out of the rain and finds the dragon’s pile of gold. He takes one of its gold bracelets, which he slips on to his upper arm. But when he wakes up the next morning, he has found that he has turned into a dragon, and the bracelet is cutting painfully into his arm. (That was all a lot of introduction but this is the part that I really got int0).

Lewis explains that Eustice was better as a dragon, and he even became helpful to the rest of the group by getting them food and all. And being liked was something new for Eustice. (I always like good character development, even if it involves being turned into a dragon). But he is still desperate to shed his dragon form, and the heal his arm which still has the bracelet on it.

And who else can help but Aslan? Eustice hears Aslan’s voice calling to him and he is led to a pool where Aslan tells him to undress. But no matter how much Eustice scratches at himself, he can not get his scales off, and ultimately Aslan has to do it for him. I particularly liked the way Lewis described this. he says,

The very first tear he made was so deep that I though it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I though I’d done it  myself the other three times…

Every Narnia book has a couple of key points that show how Aslan works in the children’s lives, and in turn how Jesus works in ours, and this is definitely one of those points. While Eustice does describe this experience as painful, there was also so much gentleness and love in it that it changed his character for the rest of the series. And I just love the imagery of him turning back into a boy by peeling back the layers of dragon.

The other scene that I really enjoyed (probably because it had to do with character development, and I am a sucker for good character development) was when the group found themselves on another island filled with invisible beings, and Lucy is sent by them into a manor house to find a spell book to turn them visible again. She spends her time flipping through the spell book, engrossed by all that it has to offer. She finds spells for beauty and popularity, and the book, tending to what she wants, shows her future as popular and beautiful, even more beautiful than Susan. But then things start to go bad, and Lucy sees what the other girls in her class think of her, and they weren’t always good.

I thought this part was particularly interesting, because it showed Lucy in a new light. Lucy was always the youngest one, and she’d never really cared about looks or beauty before. She was also always the one that was the most in tune with Narnia and Aslan. But here she is growing up and insecurities are beginning to surface. She also went to the magic book to help others, but ends up being tempted to help herself, which is an interesting dynamic. But a lion’s voice calls to her and tears her away from the spells. Ultimately she is still the same Lucy, but at the same time she is growing up, and I thought Lewis showed that really well here.

So those were the scenes that really stuck with me after reading Dawn Treader. Even though I did like other Narnia books more as a whole compared to this one, Dawn Treader is important in the line up of the series, and it does a lot of setting up for the final two books in the series. It was interesting to see new Narnian lands and old characters in a new light.  Ultimately I would recommend this book. Have any of you read it? What are your thoughts?

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Reading Narnia: Prince Caspian

Hello everyone! I have been kind of crazy busy since last posting, but I am excited to be back. On Friday I went up to Wheaton for my 2 year reunion. It was great to see everyone (and remember how uncomfortable dorm mattresses are) and it was a lot of fun. I left early on Saturday morning to go back to the city for one of my best friend’s bridal showers, which was also tons of fun. I also started a new babysitting job for two adorable little girls on Monday, and I have been editing a bit, so even though I’ve been a bit swamped, and I’m 90% sure I left my wallet on the train up to Wheaton and I spent my train ride back cancelling my debit card and finding the closest Western Union to Penn Station that was open on a Saturday, I would say I’ve had a good past couple of days.

Today I’m also excited to talk about Prince Caspian here. I am still playing catch up with book reviews because as it turns out it doesn’t take too long to read kid’s book (although it is a lot of fun 🙂 ) and I’ve been reading a lot of YA recently (as you will see after the Narnia series is over). So I think I was reading this right after Easter.

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So Prince Caspian. I ended up borrowing a copy of the book from the library, and it was the special edition with color photographs which was pretty fun. It’s been a while since I read a book with pictures in it. I also was a little more familiar with the story of Prince Caspian from seeing the movie, as opposed to other Narnia books.

A bit about Prince Caspian: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy return to Narnia when they are heading back to school (that would be nice) only to find it a very different place from when they were last there. Years have passed, and Narnia has been taken over by the Telmarines, who have sent all the talking animals into hiding. But the Telmarines have a prince (Caspian) who is more interested in Narnia and its creatures than his own land. He and the Pevensies team up to bring back Narnia.

I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment so I am doing this review by memory, but I did like the way Caspian was introduced to Narnia – through stories from his old Nurse and his tutor. He always had a fascination and love for the land that his nation did not share, which ultimately shapes the rest of the series.

I also liked the internal debate that went on in many of the characters during the Telmarine’s reign. It was clear that they were in a tight spot and needed to find a way out, but was it worth waiting for Aslan, who some of them had never seen, or would turning to the White Witch, the antagonist in Lion, Witch, Wardrobe work? Nikabrik the dwarf was all for The White Witch (the dwarves were treated well under her rule), and it created a good amount of tension in the book. This debate was also played up more fully in the movie with The White Witch almost making a comeback through a sheet of ice only to have Edmund destroy her (go Edmund!)

Prince Caspian is one of the few books that I have read after seeing the movie as opposed to before, so I was kind of hoping that that scene was in the books as well, but I thought the debate was shown well without it too. It also showed how much time had passed since the Pevensies had last been to Narnia and the gravity of the Narnian’s current situation  if the bleak winter in the second book could be potentially seen as better than their current predicament.

The other main thread of Prince Caspian (other than the impending battle between the Narnians and the Telmarines) is, of course, Aslan. Lucy, who has always been the closest to Aslan, claims to see him while travelling through Narnia, but the others cannot. This also brings in some conflict to the story as to why they can’t see him, and why Lucy can. Lewis does a good job of portraying “a child-like faith” in Lucy without making it sound preachy, which could easily happen in an allegory like this. The older children really begin to doubt Lucy, (although they do point out that she’s been right before) and doubt themselves about why they can’t see the Lion when Lucy can.

All in all I enjoyed Prince Caspian, although I would still say that The Horse and His Boy and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe were my favorites. Also if I have a chance I may review The Voyage of the Dawn Treader this week as well (two review in one week – w0w), but for now I am looking forward to a nice relaxing Memorial Day Weekend, even if it is supposed to rain.

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Reading Narnia: The Horse and His Boy

I was hoping to post earlier this week, but I’ve been pretty busy which has been nice, so here I am now, and I’m excited to talk about The Horse and His Boy. As it turns out, the Narnia books don’t take very long to read, and I finished this one a couple of weeks ago. I started reading The Horse and His Boy when I was little, but I was disappointed to find out that Polly and Digory or the Pevensie children weren’t main characters, and I just couldn’t get into it so I stopped reading about five pages in. So it’s kind of funny now that it is one of my favorite Narnia books.

ImageThe Horse and His Boy takes place entirely in Narnia, as opposed to many of the other books in the series, during the rule of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. It shows more of Narnia, and its surrounding lands, specifically Calormen  Archenland. Shasta is a boy living with his father in Calormen, but he is not happy in his situation and decides to run away with Bree, a talking horse from Narnia.

On his journey he runs into Aravis and her horse, Hwin, who are also running away. The two of them team up on their way to Narnia and run into more trouble and adventure than they ever planned in, especially when they discover a plot to take over the Narnian crown from the Pevensies.

In my opinion, The Horse and His Boy has some of the strongest characters in the Narnia series. Aravis is awesome, and I particularly liked her conversations with Lasaraleen, a snotty Calormen princess and old friend of Aravis, since the two are such polar opposites. Lasaraleen has a tough time seeing past herself while Aravis is primarily focused on her own safety and escape.

Shasta also has a great relationship with Bree the Horse, who has some great, funny lines.

It was also interesting to see Narnia from an outsider’s view, particularly a negative one such as the Calormen’s. The prince of Calormen is the one actively against Narnia, while his father, The Tisroc, is more against it, but is not strong willed to stop his son. This is where most of the conflict comes from the story, but it also sets up an interesting dynamic within the royal family.

Even though Peter, Susan, Lucy, and Edmund are not main characters in The Horse and His Boy, they do make an appearance as kings and queens of Narnia (which I would have found out if I had stuck with the book longer when I was little). I particularly liked this, not only because we got to see them in a different light, but we got to see how Edmund’s relationship with the Witch in the last book affected his rule as king, particularly when he shows mercy on a traitor . It was nice to see Edmund as something other than a stuck up, insecure little boy, so I particularly liked that. It was quick, but it really showed development within his character. 

And of course there is Aslan. He doesn’t have as active a role in this book as opposed to other per say, particularly compared to Lion, Witch & Wardrobe or Prince Caspian, but even though he doesn’t have as much screen time, some of my favorite, and his most powerful lines of his are in this book. (Some of these are spoilers but) two that really stuck with me were,

I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mill so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.

and

Child, I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.

There were others, but those are the two that resonated with me the most.

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Reading Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

lion-the-witch-and-the-wardrobeI would say that The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is probably the most well known book in the Narnia series, and although it is only the second in the line up, it is also one of the most pivotal. In it we are introduced to the Pevensie children – Peter, Susan, Lucy, and Edmund, who reappear in future books, and we see more of Narnia post-creation.

I feel like the plot of this book is fairly well known. Lucy finds Narnia through the wardrobe she walks into a world enchanted into an eternal winter (with no Christmas) at the hands of The White Witch. With the help of the magical creatures of Narnia and Aslan of course, the children set out to bring back spring, but of course not everything goes to plan.

I found Lucy and Edmund to be the most interesting  of the children – Peter and Susan kind of take on the role of parents as the two oldest, and while Peter does have a good story arc of accepting his role of High King of Narnia, I just found Edmund and Lucy to be the most interesting.

Edmund is an interesting character because he is pegged as the “evil one” when he follows Lucy into Narnia. When he gets there he meets The White Witch, who offers him whatever he wants in the way of food and he snacks on the Turkish Delight that she gives him. (I’ve actually had Turkish Delight when I was in Turkey freshman year of college and it is pretty good. I will always connect it with this story.)

I have often thought that in a way it is easier to write bad characters than good characters – they don’t always have to play by the rules and they often have interesting motivations and back stories (not that good characters don’t but there’s just something about a villain’s back story that I am really interested in). I think C.S. Lewis does a good job with this in Edmund and the role that he plays in the book.

First off Edmund himself isn’t bad in the way that many villains are. He just comes across the villain first and falls in with her. Before Narnia he’s kind of the lost child in the line up – he always picks on Lucy and gives her a hard time and scolded by his older siblings. He isn’t as close with the rest of them as they are with each other. So when The White Witch gives him special attention, he can’t help but feel loved.

The interesting part of Edmund’s character is when he returns to The White Witch and her castle on his second trip to Narnia with his siblings. He goes back to the Witch after seeing how she took Mr. Tumnus (I love Mr. Tumnus, and James McAvoy), and hearing about the terror she inflicted on Narnia from Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (love them too!) But he still goes back after he heard about Aslan from the Beavers because the Witch promised him that he could be king over Narnia, and that he would have power over his siblings, particularly Peter.

On this reading I thought Edmund was a very well flushed out character. He was very realistic in his desires and flaws and C.S. Lewis does a good job of making him relatable. He isn’t at The White Witch’s castle for very long before he realizes that this is not what he had in mind. She turns very cruel to him, and there are no more promises of power or Turkish Delight. So while a large part of his character is striving for power and recognition above his siblings, the rest of his character is trying to get back to them after seeing the cruelty of The White Witch.

Lucy is another favorite of mine. Maybe it’s because she and Mr. Tumnus are such good pals and I want to join them for tea. Or maybe its because she is the youngest and the first one to find Narnia. The others write it all off as her being an imaginative little girl but are proven wrong when they end up in the snowy woods themselves. She is also the one that has the closest relationship to Aslan throughout the books, which I think is a really interesting detail that Lewis chose to hone in on.

I was talking about this with a friend of mine, who had also read the Narnia books recently, and it is interesting to look at the reactions of various characters throughout the series as they meet Aslan. I will be talking about this more in future posts as well but some are frightened, some are hesitant, some are doubtful, and others are relieved. When the Pevensies first hear about Aslan, Lewis writes,

At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.

Lucy is always the one that is happiest and the most free around Aslan, and Lewis is really showing the whole concept of “child-like faith” through her. I also feel like she is the Pevensie that is focused on the most throughout the series, and she is the one that is closest to Aslan.

And now on to Aslan himself. I said that this is a pivotal book in the series because it really sets up Aslan character for the rest of the series. In the first one it is clear that he is special because he is the one that sings Narnia into existence, but in Lion, Witch, Wardrobe we see him in a relationship with those around him. And most importantly (spoiler alert) he dies. Not only does he die, but he dies for Edmund and then he comes back again. Kind of like Jesus…

I first read Lion, Witch, Wardrobe (that is going to be my name for it since it is a long title to type out) in third grade Reading, and I was so sad by the fact that Aslan died that I had forgotten he came back to life again. I also never really put it together with the Jesus metaphor because I did not read it in that context. We watched the Aslan’s death scene in class from the old movie, and I remember it being really scary. It definitely affected me, and that was without the religious connotations, which I think really is a nod to the writing and the scene itself. It is powerful. I rewatched the new version of the movie a few months ago, and I was also blown away by it then as well. I knew the plot by then of course, but it was the first time I had revisited the story since really becoming a Christian in high school, and I just had a lot of feelings about that scene in general.

First of all, Edmund left to go to the Witch’s castle after hearing about Aslan (as it said earlier, he was filled with fear). He heard about who Aslan was and he turned away. He never even met him like the others did, but he was the one that Aslan died for so that he could have a second chance and be reunited with the rest of his siblings. Also he left so that he could gain power and become king, but there was a prophesy that said he and the rest of the Pevensies were going to be kings and queens of Narnia, which turned out to be much better than what the Witch had planned for him. He is the one that goes through the most character development throughout the book, and is pivotal to the story itself.

I have a lot of feelings about the Narnia series and this book in general, and I could go on and on, but I am going to stop here and save the rest for the other posts. (I am about to finish up the 6th book.) But recommend this book to everyone no matter what their religion or age is. It’s hugely layered and is just a good read in general. It doesn’t take very long to get through, and most importantly it takes you to Narnia.

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Reading Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew

The-chronicles-of-narnia-the-magicians-nephew-book-coverI have never read all the Narnia books before. I read The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe when I was little, but then I got bored when I started The Horse and His Boy and found out that it introduced new characters when I thought we were going to stick with Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmund for a while, or at least Polly and Digory. And that was the end of my Narnia reading as a child.

But a few weeks ago I decided to give it another try. The cat is out of the bag – I know that the series covered many characters, and I now know about the Aslan/Jesus metaphor – another aspect of the books that I wasn’t aware of when I first read them. I also watched Lion, Witch, Wardrobe and Prince Caspian recently and it got me in a Narnia mood.

Even though I’ve never read through the Narnia series, The Magician’s Nephew was a book that I returned to a lot as a child so it was pretty familiar to reread. I also used it in my senior paper about children’s literature and the changing view of the British Empire through the 20th century. Sounds kind of obscure but it was really fun to write. So in a way I was returning to an old favorite.

Reading The Magician’s Nephew for fun was much different than the last time I read it for my paper though. I found myself enjoying it much more than I expected, even though the story is a familiar one to me. Digory Kirke lives in London with his aunt, uncle, and sick mother. He is playing one day when he meets a girl named Polly next door and the two of them discover what Digory’s Uncle Andrew is creating in the attic – magic rings that will take the wearer to new worlds.

C.S. Lewis meant The Magician’s Nephew to be a prequel to the rest of the series, and I found that although a lot does happen in this book, there is a lot of set up and not as much action as in future books. It does have some memorable scenes and characters it though – the evil queen who wants to take over whatever land she is in, Uncle Andrew who is slightly mad and power crazy but is intimidated by the queen, Strawberry the talking horse, Digory, Polly, and of course Aslan.

Lewis also did a good job of telling the creation story while still making it his own. I love the idea of Digory et. al. watching as Aslan creates Narnia, and the way Lewis describes each person’s reaction to what is happening before them. The Queen is just too obsessed with power to notice, Uncle Andrew ignores Aslan as much as he can, convincing himself that he is just a silly lion and argues with the queen, and Polly and Digory want to simply observe the creation but are constantly distracted by the Queen and Uncle Andrew. The only character that is fully present is the London cabby and his horse who came along by accident – the most unlikely king of Narnia.

That’s one of the things I like about Narnia. It’s characters from our world are regular every day people who are introduced to Narnia and Aslan, and it is from that place that they do amazing things.  That is seen over and over again throughout the series. It is something that Lewis himself focuses on, and I’m excited to look at that further in these blog posts.

The story has a very 50’s children’s story feel to it, almost as if Lewis is narrating the story himself, which I liked. I feel like that’s not seen as much anymore with the author directly talking to the reader, and I felt like I was being read to.

I also liked the way The Magician’s Nephew set up The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (I need to find an abbreviation for that) by explaining the lamp-post, the Queen, and the wardrobe.

So although I found other Narnia books more action packed than this one (I am currently on The Voyage of the Dawn Treder), I enjoyed being reintroduced to Narnia and the characters that it holds. And whether you see Aslan as Jesus or simply as the lion in Narnia, there is no denying that he is awesome.

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Caleb’s Crossing: A Glimpse of Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600’s

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Well this week has proven to be sufficiently busy for me. But in all the craziness I did manage to find the time to finish my book, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. I bought Caleb’s Crossing on Martha’s Vineyard a few years ago, and it has been sitting on my shelf ever since.

I came across it late last Friday night, the beginning of Memorial Day weekend, when I was looking for a good book to curl up with in the cold. (It seemed more like Columbus Day weekend with all the rain and the cold than the beginning of summer, but the weather this week has made up for it).

Caleb’s Crossing proved to be an excellent curl-up-by-the fire book. Set on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600’s, Caleb’s Crossing tells the story of a young girl Puritan girl named Berthia Mayfield, who comes across a young Wampanoag Native American boy. She and this boy, who she later calls Caleb, strike up a strong friendship that lasts throughout the book. Caleb, who is inducted into Puritan society, ends up being the first  Native American to graduate from Harvard. The novel is based on a true story, and tracks Berthia and Caleb’s journey through the years.

This is not what I would call an action packed book, but it is well written, and tells a good story. From the beginning of the novel, Berthia makes the point that she is not the average well mannered Puritan woman that her mother is, and that is the ideal for the society she grows up in. At a young age Berthia began listening in on her older brother’s school lessons that she was not privy to herself. It is clear that she has more interest in education and schooling than her brother does, and furthering her knowledge proves to be a driving force behind her decisions throughout the book.

I particularly enjoyed this novel for its descriptions of Martha’s Vineyard, which is a place I know well. Even in pre-Revolutionary America Martha’s Vineyard acted as a get away from mainland life. Berthia’s grandfather moved there from The Massachusetts Bay Colony when he had a disagreement about the ways of life with the other members in the colony. Even in the strict Puritan days, the Vineyard has a more relaxed feel to it than the lifestyle of the mainland peoples. This contrast is made abundantly clear when Berthia travels to the Boston later in her life, and describes the strict practices she sees there. Her own family has a fairly rigid way of life, but Berthia is allowed more freedom because of their island lifestyle than she would be as a young woman growing up elsewhere in the colonies at this time.

Berthia clearly loves Martha’s Vineyard has a close connection to the island which becomes stronger when she is introduced to Caleb and the Native American ways of life. This introduction also has an interesting effect on her faith, which as a Puritan is a huge part of her life. At a young age she grapples with the contrast between her strict Protestant upbringing, and the freer, more nature-based practices of the Wampanoag Native Americans. The result, although she is constantly grappling with it, turns out to be a more fleshed out picture of God’s plan that she was seeing otherwise, especially in terms of the beauty of nature on the island.

As I said before, Caleb’s Crossing is not a fast paced book, but Brooks does weave suspense throughout her story. Berthia proves to be a strong character, and I enjoyed seeing how she carved a life for herself in an unconventional manner for a Puritan woman of her time. Throughout her life she chooses positions for herself that allow her to further her learning and happiness, which were not aspects of life women tended to focus on in this time period.

I thought that some of the more minor characters, such as Berthia’s mother and grandfather could have been developed more fully throughout the book, but as a whole I enjoyed reading Caleb’s Crossing. I enjoyed seeing Martha’s Vineyard, Boston, and Harvard through a different lens. As a new school in Cambridge, Harvard at this time had about 30 students who studied with private tutors in two buildings – very different than college today.

Geraldiine Brooks does a good job of transporting her reader into a world of the past of Native Americans, Puritanism and education. The contrast between English and Native American life is well depicted, and the complexities of the relationship between these two groups of people, which defined so much of American history, is looked at from multiple angles. Brooks does not stereotype this relationship, and encompasses many different views in her story.

I tend not to gravitate toward Pre-Revolutionary fiction, because I have studied that era so much in school, and was never as interested in it as I was other periods of time in American History. But, despite all this, I really enjoyed Brooks’ story, and liked seeing a world that I know so well as new and unfamiliar. All in all it was an enjoyable Memorial Day Weekend read.