Book Club Retrospective #2

BLOG #1, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
BOOK CLUB RETROSPECTIVE #2
January 7, 2015

It’s time to look back at last year’s book selections and get your feedback as to which ones you liked best, why, and suggestions as to upcoming twelve 2015 book selections. In essence, this is your opportunity to give the professor a grade for the 2014 book selections.

As I look back, judging by your responses, the #1 book selection of the year has to be the October entry: Ralph Moody’s Little Britches. A number of you were introduced to the Moody family read-aloud series ago, and welcomed the opportunity to revisit. Do let me know which other selections you especially enjoyed.

And for all of you who may be interested in climbing aboard for this year’s selections, permit me to bring you up to date. Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Series was born On Oct. 19, 2010, as a result of former students urging me to come back into their lives in a special way: “Dr. Wheeler, years ago, I was in your classes, and you introduced us to books you’ve loved personally—and got me to do the same. I miss those sessions with you! Please, please, do it again. There are millions of books out there, which makes it ever so difficult for me to choose the ones that are really worth reading—especially for people like me who, like you, strongly believe in God and country, and values worth living by.” [a synthesis of responses].

But now, since I couldn’t give anyone a grade and wasn’t ordering books, I have had little control over who bothered to buy the books and read them and who did not. A year ago, a bit discouraged because I didn’t hear back from “members” very often, I asked for feedback. So positive were your responses, and so many told me you were finding copies, reading them, and adding them to your personal libraries, that I decided to keep the series going. A number of you have gone further and told me how meaningful many of the selections have been to you personally.

Such responses really help, for it is time-consuming to keep searching for new books worth including, older books that are worth considering, and books I’ve loved but must re-read before I grant them my personal blessing by choosing them.

Undoubtedly, the world-wide-web has made it easy for any of us to track down copies of even some of the scarcer titles.

It has evolved into a most eclectic mix of genres: non-fiction, contemporary, books children and teens have loved for generations, timeless classics, romantic fiction, westerns, Christmas classics, and so on. It is my hope and prayer that, if you keep my feet to the fire long enough, we’ll end up with a family library that generations yet to come will cherish.

To make it easier for current members to respond, and for non-members to join us, I am including a list of all the book-selections so far with dates the blogs appeared, to make it easier for new members to begin catching up on books they’d like to add to their libraries. Here they are:

OUR FIRST 36 BOOKS

Bergreen, Lawrence, Over the Edge of the World (May 28, 2014)
Brown, Abbie Farwell, The Christmas Angel (Nov. 23, 2011)
Burnett, Frances Hodgson, Little Lord Fauntleroy (Feb. 29, 2012)
Conan Doyle, Arthur, The White Company (April 30, 2014)
Dana, Richard Henry, Two Years Before the Mast (March 26, 2014)
Dickens, Charles, The Christmas Carol (Nov. 23, 2011)
Douglas, Lloyd C., Home for Christmas (Nov. 28, 2012)
Duncan, Dayton, and Ken Burns, (The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (June 27, 2012)
Goudge, Elizabeth, City of Bells (Sept. 26, 2012)
Grey, Zane (1) Heritage of the Desert (Dec. 28, 2011)
(2) Riders of the Purple Sage (June 5, 2013)
(3) The Vanishing American (June 30, 2014)
(4) Wanderer of the Wasteland (March 28, 2012)
Hale, Edward Everett, Sr., The Man Without a Country (Feb. 6, 2013)
Hill, Grace Livingston, Happiness Hill (Aug. 21, 2013)
Hugo, Victor, Les Miserables (Sept. 25, 2013)
Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited (May 8, 2013)
Knight, Eric, Lassie Come Home (Nov. 6, 2013)
Lorenzini, Carlos, Pinocchio (Sept. 24, 2014)
Lowry, Lois, The Giver (Aug. 27, 2014)
Moody, Ralph, Little Britches (Oct. 29, 2014)
Porter, Gene Stratton, Freckles (July 17, 2013)
Reed, Myrtle, The Master’s Violin (April 3, 2013)
Richmond, Grace, (1) Foursquare (Jan. 2, 2013)
(2) The Twenty-Fourth of June (May 23, 2012)
Sabatini, Ralph, Scaramouche (Feb. 26, 2014)
Sheldon, Charles, In His Steps (Aug. 22, 2012) (Nov. 26, 2014)
Sienkiewicz, Henryk, Quo Vadis (Jan. 28, 2014)
Spyri, Johanna, Heidi (July 30, 2014)
Tarkington, Booth, Penrod (Oct. 31, 2012)
Tennyson, Alfred, Lord, Enoch Arden (May 2, 2012)
Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (Jan. 25, 2012)
Van Dyke, Henry, The Other Wise Man (Dec. 4, 2013)
Wiggin, Kate Douglas, The Birds’ Christmas Carol (Nov. 26, 2014)
Williamson, C. M. And A. M., My Friend the Chauffeur (Oct. 26, 2011)
Wright, Harold Bell, The Calling of Dan Matthews (Oct. 26, 2011)

* * * * *

WHAT I NEED FROM YOU

Please weigh in immediately, and identify yourself (if unknown to me) as to interest in book club. Let me know (1) how long you’ve been a member, (2) what percentage of the 36 books you’ve purchased and read, (3) what your reactions are, (4) what grade you’d give me so far, (5) and any other thoughts you might be willing to share. Do this during the next week, please.

Also, suggestions for adding more members, such as starting up a discussion forum on Facebook or other media venues.

You may reach me at:
Joe L. Wheeler, Ph.D.
P.O. Box 1246
Conifer, Co 80433
http://www.joewheelerbooks.com
mountainauthor@gmail.com
Wednesdays with Dr. Joe@wordpress.com

Looking forward to hearing from you!

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Kate Douglas Wiggin’s “The Birds’ Christmas Carol”

BLOG #48, SERIES #5
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #36
KATE DOUGLAS WIGGIN’S THE BIRDS’ CHRISTMAS CAROL

November 26, 2014

Each of you—even those I’ve never had the privilege of hearing from—who honor me by being a member of Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club, will no doubt remember that every Christmas I’ve turned back the pages of time to a Christmas book that has warmed my heart down through the years. For our first Christmas (Nov. 23, 2011), we shared two books: Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Christmas Angel –Dickens with his inimitable male Scrooge and Brown with her equally memorable female Scrooge.

A year later (Nov. 28, 2012), we shared Lloyd C. Douglas’s moving Home for Christmas. Then last year (Dec. 4, 2013), we journeyed through the ancient East with Henry Van Dyke’s unforgettable Artaban (The Other Wise Man).

(1888 First Edition)

(1888 First Edition)

 

Now, for our fourth Christmas together, I am finally caving in to all the importuning readers over the last 23 years who have repeatedly urged me to include Kate Douglas Wiggin’s beloved little book, The Birds’ Christmas Carol (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1888) in the Christmas in My Heart® series. I never have, because it is too long, but I can make it our 2014 Christmas book of the year.

St. Luke, of course, told us the greatest Christmas story of all. However, it was left to Charles Dickens, in 1843, to gift the world with the first fictional Christmas book: A Christmas Carol.

Twenty-five years later, Louisa May Alcott brought the four Alcott sisters to life at Christmas time, in Little Women (1868-9). Beth has to be one of the most sentimental and most beloved heroines in all family literature. Just as was true in real life, Beth dies way too young. In my American Literature class discussions, even the macho males who initially groused about having to read “a girls’ book”, after reading it admitted to their classmates that they too had wept over Beth.

Twenty years later (1888) Kate Douglas Wiggin built upon Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Alcott’s depiction of Beth to gift her audience with a Beth-like character of her own—Carol Bird.

The author, Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856-1923) was born in Philadelphia, then the family moved to Hollis, MN. She was homeschooled, then studied at various seminaries and academies. When 17, she joined her family in California; after teaching in Santa Barbara, she moved to San Francisco where she established the first free kindergarten on the West Coast. Her first husband, Samuel B. Wiggin, died young; she later married George C. Riggs. She died in England.

(1929 Popular Edition)

(1929 Popular Edition)

Among her books are The Story of Patsy (1883), The Birds’ Christmas Carol (1888), Timothy’s Quest (1890), The Story Hour (with Nora A. Smith, 1890), Polly Oliver’s Problem (1893), A Cathedral Courtship (1893), Penelope’s Progress (1898), The Story of Waitstill Baxter (1913), Ladies in Waiting (1918), her autobiography, My Garden of Memories (1923), and a number of others. But her reputation rests on two books: The Birds’ Christmas Carol and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Both were bestsellers, but Rebecca swept the nation, no small thanks to two movies: the first (1917) was a silent film with an organ score – Francis Marion wrote a splendid screenplay for it, and kept it faithful to the book. The film was directed by Marshal Neilan and starred Mary Pickford, Eugene O’Brien, Josephine Crowell, Helen Jerome Eddy, Charles Ogle, Marjorie Daw, ZaSu Pitts, and Mayme Kelso. According to Derek Elley, “Mary Pickford plays as she never played before, varying lights and shades to elicit the major interest, tearful at one moment and laughing the next. Her support is flawless, embodying many artists of repute.” The second film (1938) all but abandons the original novel in favor of a bouncy musical. It was directed by Allen Dwan, produced by Raymond Griffith, photoplay by Arthur Miller. It had a star-studded cast: Shirley Temple, Randolph Scott, Jack Haley, Gloria Stuart, Helen Westly, Bill Robinson, Phyllis Brooks, Slim Summerville, and William Demarest. As would be expected, Shirley Temple steals the show. The plot: a talented stage child who wins a broadcasting moppet contest.

The Birds’ Christmas Carol was never filmed; nevertheless it benefitted mightily from the two Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms films’ publicity and hype.

You may well ask. Why all the sentimentality in The Birds’ Christmas Carol? Why all the fuss about a girl dying young?

Frontispiece - 1888 Edition

Frontispiece – 1888 Edition

Here’s why: Up until the early 20th century, half of all children died during their childhood or teen years. Since medicine was still in its infancy, sanitation wasn’t even thought of, antibiotics didn’t exist, nostrums were taken seriously, doctors were poorly trained, and hospitals were little used—people tended to be born at home, and die at home. As a result, parents were terrified by any childhood ailment, no matter how minor it might seem. Reason being: there were back then no reliable cures for anything. Most any infliction could end your life. And most women died from childbirth complications because neither doctors nor midwives washed their hands between patients.

Case in point: How well I remember my paternal grandfather, Rollo Wheeler, who though he and Grandma Ruby had eleven children, two of them—little Eva and little Arthur—died young and in his arms at home. So just mention either to him, and he’d weep.

Plus, the 1880s was a most sentimental decade. The traditional family was strong, God and country were celebrated, Father earned the living, and Mother was the almost deified madonna of the home. Children were protected from adult realities and taboos (unlike today). So since death was such an unfathomable mystery, the gradual departure of a young life was both celebrated and sentimentalized.

Offsetting the trauma of Carol’s long decline, Wiggin wisely offset it by the rollicking comic relief represented by the large Ruggles family next door.

Frontispiece: 1929 Edition

Frontispiece: 1929 Edition

 

* * * * *

So, with all this as a preamble, search out an early text. But try to get the Houghton Mifflin original text with original illustrations by H.R.H. But the so-called “Popular Edition” (1929), with color and b/w illustrations by Helen Mason Grose is equally attractive. If at all possible, don’t settle for anything but top condition in this heirloom book. When you read it, block out 21st century realities from your mind and pretend you are a turn-of-the-century reader.

Will be most interested in your reactions.

 

All Ye Book-Lovers

BLOG #51, SERIES #4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
ALL YE BOOK-LOVERS
LOOKING BACKWARD; LOOKING FORWARD
December 18, 2013

It was a little over two years ago that we launched “Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club.” Since it was voluntary, no-fee, and no one was required to respond, it has been most difficult to know just who has been faithfully (at least most of the time) keeping up. Before introducing Book #26 in 2014, I’d really like to hear back from all of you who have been following along. Let me know which authors, titles, you like best, and why. General reactions to the format too. Anything – just report in. Please? So I can be reassured that these monthly book blogs are meeting a need.

To refresh your memory – if you’ve been following along –, and to enable you to start back at the beginning, if you’ve a mind to, here is a list of our first 25 books of the month. Since I’m providing the dates those entries first appeared, it should be relatively easy for you to retrieve all those earlier entries. Here they are:

PROPOSAL FOR CLUB (October 26, 2011)

BOOKS

1. Williamson, C. M. And A. M., My Friend the Chauffeur (Oct. 19, 2011)
2. Wright, Harold Bell, The Calling of Dan Matthews (Oct. 26, 2011)
3. Dickens, Charles, The Christmas Carol (Nov. 23, 2011)
4. Brown, Abbie Farwell, The Christmas Angel (Nov. 23, 2011)
5. Grey, Zane, Heritage of the Desert (Dec. 28, 2011)
6. Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (Jan. 25, 2012)
7. Burnett, Frances Hodgson, Little Lord Fauntleroy (Feb. 29, 2012)
8. Grey, Zane, Wanderer of the Wasteland [ZG #2] (Mar. 28, 2012)
9. Tennyson, Alfred, Lord, Enoch Arden (May 2, 2012)
10. Richmond, Grace, The Twenty-Fourth of June (May 23, 2012)
11. Duncan, Dayton , and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (June 27, 2012)
12. Sheldon, Charles, In His Steps (Aug. 22, 2012)
13. Goudge, Elizabeth, City of Bells (Sept. 26, 2012)
14. Tarkington, Booth, Penrod (Oct. 31, 2012)
15. Douglas, Lloyd C., Home for Christmas (Nov. 28, 2012)
16. Richmond, Grace, Foursquare [GR #2] (Jan. 2, 2013)
17. Hale, Edward Everett, The Man Without a Country (Feb. 6, 2013)
18. Reed, Myrtle, The Master’s Violin (Apr. 3, 2013)
19. Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World, and Brave New World Revisited (May 8, 2013)
20. Grey, Zane, Riders of the Purple Sage [ZG #3] (June 5, 2013)
21. Porter, Gene Stratton, Freckles (July 17, 2013)
22. Hill, Grace Livingston, Happiness Hill (Aug. 21, 2013)
23. Hugo, Vic tor, Les Miserables (Sept. 25, 2013)
24. Knight, Eric, Lassie Come Home (Nov. 6, 2013)
25. Van Dyke, Henry, The Other Wise Man (Dec. 4, 2013)

CONTACT INFORMATION

Please respond to this blog questionnaire [includes those who’d like to join the club right now] via one of the following:

P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433

email: mountainauthor@gmail.com

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Henry Van Dyke’s “The Other Wise Man”

BLOG #49, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #25
HENRY VAN DYKE’S THE OTHER WISE MAN
December 4, 2013

It is December once again – time for another Christmas selection. For some time now I have been convicted that, for the third Christmas in our series, I ought to choose Henry Van Dyke’s greatest book. Of all Christmas books ever written, only Dickens’ Christmas Carol is the equal to The Other Wise Man. But it has something Dickens’ great book lacks: an unforgettable spiritual dimension that moves the reader deeply. It is one well worth re-reading every Christmas of one’s life.

Scan_Pic0065

One can count on the fingers of one hand the great Christmas stories. The Other Wise Man is one of them.

It was born on the eve of the social-gospel movement in America; born of the realization that the Jesus of the Gospels did not spend much time talking about what we call “doctrines,” but He was very concerned with how we treat one another. His entire earthly ministry could be summed up in two words: “loving service.”

Stories that change the world–how do they come to be? Half a century earlier, Charles Dickens had created the genre of Christmas story with his timeless A Christmas Carol. Nothing of comparable power had been written since.

For the 40-year-old scholar-cleric Henry Van Dyke, 1892 had been a dark and tragic year, during which his beloved father had died. The world saw merely the facade: Van Dyke at his peak–a graduate of Princeton, Princeton Theological School, and the University of Berlin; pastor of the New York’s prestigious Brick Presbyterian Church; author of such scholarly work as The Poetry of Tennyson. Yet inside, he was anything but confident.

The year had been full of sickness and sorrow. Every day brought trouble. Every night was tormented with pain. They are very long–those nights when one lies awake, and hears the laboring heart pumping wearily at its task, and watches for the morning, not knowing whether it will ever dawn . . .

And the heaviest burden?

You must face the thought that your work in the world may be almost ended, but you know that it is not nearly finished. You have not solved the problems that perplexed you. You have not reached the goal that you aimed at. You have not accomplished the great task that you set for yourself. You are still on the way; and perhaps your journey must end now–nowhere–in the dark.

Well, it was in one of these long, lonely nights that this story came to me. I have studied and loved the curious tales of the Three Wise Men of the East as they are told in the GOLDEN LEGEND of Jacobus de Voragine and other medieval books. But of the Fourth Wise Man I had never heard until that night. Then I saw him distinctly, moving through the shadows in a little circle of light. His countenance was so clear as the memory of my father’s face as I saw it for the last time a few months before. The narrative of his journeyings and trials and disappointments ran without a break. Even certain sentences came to me complete and unforgettable, clear-cut like a cameo. All that I had to do was to follow Artaban, step by step, as the tale went on, from the beginning to the end of his pilgrimage.

Responding to the oft-asked question: why he made the Fourth Wise Man tell a lie, to save the life of a little child, he countered,

Is a lie ever justifiable? Perhaps not. But may it not sometimes seem inevitable? And if it were a sin, might a man not confess it, and be pardoned for it more easily than for the greater sin of spiritual selfishness, or indifference, or the betrayal of innocent blood? That is what I saw Artaban do. That is what I heard him say. All through his life he was trying to do the best that he could. It was not perfect. But there are some kinds of failure that are better than success.

It is probable that more research went into this than any other Christmas story ever written. All his previous research, it appears in retrospect, had been setting the stage for this work. And now, it was not enough merely to tell the story he felt a Higher Power wished him to chronicle: it must have historical authenticity as well. So he scoured the great libraries of the world seeking information about every aspect of ancient life and travel. Not until he was satisfied that he knew his ground as well as an attorney presenting his first case before the Supreme Court did he finally begin writing.

What Van Dyke created was a story so simply and beautifully told that the reader is unaware that this re-creation of the world our Lord knew is undergirded by prodigious research. It is an awesome tour de force.

Scan_Pic0067

On Christmas Day, 1892, he spread out his manuscript on his pulpit, looked out at the vast hushed and expectant audience, and wondered how the Fourth Wise Man’s story would be received. He needn’t have worried: the little story spread like wildfire. Three years later, Harpers, the most prestigious publishing house in the world, launched it out across all the seas of the world, both in English and in many translations.

* * *

There are many editions out there on the world-wide web, but I recommend that you seek out one of the splendid editions with color art work. One of the most beautiful is the Harper Brothers 25th anniversary Memorial Edition of 1920, as well as the 30th in 1925. Believe me, you will treasure it forever. Try to secure a dust-jacketed edition.

WSJ – Best Kept Secret in America?

BLOG #22, SERIES #4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WSJ – BEST KEPT SECRET IN AMERICA?
May 29, 2013

It certainly was a secret where I was concerned, for all those years I just considered the Wall Street Journal to be merely the best-known of all financial newspapers, and what tycoons and wannabe tycoons subscribed to. Was I ever wrong!

Perhaps up until recently I just wasn’t ready to find out, lulled as I was by the assumption that, after half a millennium years of cultural dominance by print and paper, nothing significant was likely to alter that state of affairs.

But then came the long societal earthquake which triggered a seemingly endless succession of toppling dominoes. Small-town newspapers were first; then large dailies such as Rocky Mountain News in Colorado. At first I managed to console myself that the demise of that beloved old paper might not be all bad if the surviving paper, The Denver Post, would thereby become twice as strong, twice as rich, twice as interesting – but that didn’t happen. Then I began to hear of the demise of other well-known newspapers. And the ones that managed to survive seemed to be but pale shadows of what they once were, kept alive only by advertising; and when that too began to go elsewhere, massive staff layoffs became the norm.

Magazines were next. Actually, this equally sad development was anything but new, for magazines had been in steady retreat ever since the Great Depression hit in the 1930’s. Indeed magazines had ruled supreme over all other media in the 1910’s,1920’s and 1930’s, magazine editors paying writers more than book publishers or movie studio producers. Even though my wife and I had subscribed to both Time and Newsweek over the years, we’d always preferred Newsweek. Then I began to hear rumors I first considered to be all but impossible: my favorite news magazine, after a century of vibrant life, might not make it. And, not long before its last print issue; same for another news magazine I’d often read or consulted: U.S. News and World Report.

And then came what I first assumed would be merely a fad: e-books. Not in my wildest dreams did I envision electronic books ever challenging the supremacy of printed books! But like Dickens’ immortal supplanter, Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield, e-books seemingly were determined to supplant traditional ink and paper.

Just when I’d almost given up on print, one day at an airport, I idly picked up a copy of WSJ. Huh? Couldn’t be! After all, USA Today had a monopoly on national newspaper readership. Or did it?

I kept buying WSJ, then subscribed to it. An eye-opening series of daily newspaper thefts (always the WSJ, never The Denver Post), jolted me. Was the WSJ so good that people would break the law to steal copies that didn’t belong to them? Evidently so.

Gradually I became aware that a phoenix was arising from the graveyards of print. A newspaper that was a print window to the world. In depth, well-written, fascinating articles, columns, reviews, etc., that kept me informed on events, not just local, not just national, but global. And not just financial, not just political, but something I as a historian of ideas had only seen in Smithsonian’s incredible monthly magazines – art, music, books, fashion, religion, history, anthropology, geology, biography, cinema, television, burning cultural issues, sports . . . on and on. And Friday and Saturday’s expanded issues were so fascinating it would sometimes take half a day to fully digest them. I no longer missed Newsweek.

Having said all this, in many respects the same conclusions could be drawn for newspapers such as the New York Times, that also deliver well-drawn windows to the world. Indeed, a case could be made for reading both newspapers in order to arrive at a balanced synthesis of opposing political viewpoints.

Nor am I maintaining that faithfully reading newspapers such as WSJ or NYT each day may alone result in Renaissance men or Renaissance women, for today we are bombarded by such incessant streams of knowledge and information (mostly electronically) that the big problem may have to do with the distillation of it: making sense of it all.

We ought to be concerned about the demise of journalism, evidenced by the killing off of elementary and secondary newspapers, for the result will be a further diminution of adult journalistic minds. For make no mistake about it: electronic sound-bytes, thirty-second attack ads, electronic infomercials, and half-hour news broadcasts that include no more news substance than would fill one-half-page of newspapers such as the WSJ or NYT, are no substitute for thoughtful in-depth reading; for simplistic pre-digested information, not offset by broad in-depth reading, inevitably will result in adults crippled by myopic views of life and current issues.

Which brings me back to the reason I walk out each morning to the mailbox: to pick up The Denver Post (that fills me in on local/regional news) and the Wall Street Journal (that broadens my horizon so that I can see the broad global picture – the Zeitgeist).

What a pity that so few Americans today realize what they are missing by their disregard of newspapers, magazines and books.

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB

Nov. 23, 2011

SELECTION TWO

THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL

by

ABBIE FARWELL BROWN

 

 


 

 

DICKENS AND BROWN

 

If the truth must be told, I almost chose Dickens’ Christmas Carol as our December selection, but had second thoughts because Connie and I concluded that most of you would have already read it.  If it should turn out that you have not, I have a suggestion: In such a case, since both The Christmas Carol and The Christmas Angel are quick reads, I suggest that you read Dickens’ great classic first, for all modern Christmas stories graft on to Christmas Carol.

I was privileged to partner with Focus on the Family and Tyndale House in twelve classic books: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1997) and Little Men (1999); Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1997), and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1999); Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1997), Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis (2000); Grace Richmond’s The Twenty-fourth of June (1999); Gene Stratton Porter’s Freckles (1999); Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1999); Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Christmas Angel (1999); and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol 1997) and David Copperfield (1999).  For each of these I wrote a modest biography of the author (averaging 60 – 80 pages in length) as well as discussion questions placed at the back of the book for individual readers, parents, teachers, and homeschoolers.  And we featured the oldest or best set of illustrations we could find.

All these books have long since gone out of print, however, we still have sale copies available (new condition) for almost all of them should you be interested in purchasing them from us.  Since I’m hoping that you’ll either re-read or read for the first time The Christmas Carol, I’m featuring part of my introduction/biography: ‘Scrooge at the Crossroads.”

I cannot remember when I first heard it read . . . nor when I first read it . . . nor when I first experienced it on film . . . nor even when it first engulfed me as live drama. . . .  I only know that looking back through life, somehow — I know not how — Christmas Carol was always there.

In the annals of literature there is nothing like it.  Certainly there was nothing like it before Dickens wrote it in 1843 — since then, many have tried to imitate it.  But the great original still stands, alone and inviolate — the Rock.

Can Christmas possibly be Christmas without it?  Many there be who would answer in the negative: somehow, to conclude even one Christmas season without re-experiencing the story would be to leave that year incomplete.

In the century and a half since it was published, we have come to take it for granted: we just accept it as if it had always been with us: like Wise Men, creches, and holly.  What would the world, after all, be like without Scrooge, Marley, the Cratchits, the Three Ghosts, Bah! Humbug! and Tiny Tim?  Well, in the year of our Lord, 1842 — none of those yet existed.

So what was 1843 like for Charles Dickens?  Simply and succinctly put: not good.  It was about time for it to be “not good.”  Let’s step back in time — and I’ll explain.

As we can see in the bio, Dickens endured a tough childhood — a mighty tough childhood.  Then, at the age of 25, he was catapulted to the top of his world.  It is always dangerous to soar too high too young: it usually results in a strong case of King of the Mountain hubris — unless the 25-year-old is strong and wise beyond his years; unless he realizes, with Nebuchadnezzar, how quickly the God who giveth can become the God who taketh away; even more importantly, unless he realizes that, in life, nature ‑‑, and apparently, God ‑‑ abhors long plateaus.  In other words, today’s Success is already unrealizingly sowing the seeds of its own destruction.  This was true with Dickens.  He had assumed, as had that great Babylonian king before him, that he had become king and great all by himself ‑‑ by the sheer brilliance of his mind and force of his will.  Both of which he had an oversupply of.

Perhaps a baseball analogy would help.  In 1836, he stepped up to the plate, and hit Boz out of the park.  Next, he hit Pickwick out of the park.  Then Oliver Twist, then Nickelby, then The Old Curiosity Shop, then Barnaby Rudge, which just cleared the outer wall.  Then came his ill-fated trip to America, and when his bat made contact with American Notes, he only hit a bloop single, not even realizing that he now had a hairline crack in the bat.  That was followed by Martin Chuzzlewit ‑‑ and with it, he broke his bat.

For the first time in seven years, he was in trouble.  He had mistakenly assumed that, being King of the Hill, he could say anything he darn well pleased.  That he could travel to the late great colony of America and noblesse oblige himself all over the place.  Since Americans were too cheap to pay him his due royalties, he could just tell them where to go.  To put his condition in modern vernacular, he had an attitude problem.  Even his countrymen felt, this time, that he had gone too far.

The result: the golden faucet ‑‑ that had gushed its riches upon him for almost seven years ‑‑, now slowed its flow so much he wondered if perhaps his well was going dry.  Even worse, what if it was dry?  What if people would no longer buy his books?

Dickens was never much of a humble man: he knew to a penny the value of his gifts.  Or had known prior to 1842.  Now, he didn’t know any more.

Well, what could he write that would improve his fortunes, and help bring back his fickle audience?  Something he could write quickly, not just another two-year book serialization.  So the idea for Christmas Carol came to him (see bio).  For a month and a half he totally immersed himself in the world of Scrooge.  In the process, he gradually became aware that, somewhere along the way, he had become a Scrooge himself: had felt himself so secure in his gifts that he no longer needed other people, that he no longer needed to really care (not just abstractly, but one-on-one) about human need.

In the course of writing the story of Scrooge, Dickens was able to pull himself back from the brink, to realize his need of others.  He began to wonder if he any longer knew ‑‑ or if he ever had ‑‑ who he really was.  Could he even know without going backwards in time?

The answers to those questions were a long time in coming, but A Christmas Carol was the first step, the four other Christmas books represent additional steps, but the biggest steps were Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Yet something else happened during the writing of the little book: he learned a great deal about the difference between writing a lean cohesive book (written all at once) and writing the usually episodic, rambly, serialization book.

As a result of this no man’s land between the hubris of his youth and the social conscience of his maturity, he was able to make it the rest of the way through his life without ever again seriously daring hubris.  He was able to find out things about himself that stripped away some of his teflonish pride.  And sorrow would rock him on his heels again and again.

So it came to pass that in the last quarter of his life, in his 450 public readings (for fifteen long years, having an average of one public reading performance every twelve days), the story of Scrooge became as indispensable as singing the national anthem at a big league baseball game ‑‑ unthinkable to close without it.  And as his life drew to a close, a higher and higher percentage of each evening performance was devoted to Christmas Carol and its lesson of agape love.

It is no hyperbole to say that without this one little book, the life of Charles Dickens most likely would have been a very different story.  In a very real sense, then, we may validly say that the characters ‑‑ children, if you will ‑‑ conceived by this author ended up by taking him on a long journey . . . that would take the rest of his life.

And it is our privilege to be invited along.

Welcome to the timeless world of Christmas Carol.

ABBIE FARWELL BROWN AND

THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL

I have always loved Christmas stories — especially the heart-tugging kind.  And, let’s face it, sentiment and Christmas belong together.  Of all the seasons of the year, the heart is openest to love, empathy, kindness, forgiveness, generosity, and change . . . at Christmas.

Thousands of authors have written stories about Christmas, but sadly, most of them are shallow, sterile, and un-moving.  These stories may be technically brilliant, but if they fail to engage the heart, I view them as failures.

Only a few have written “great” Christmas stories, and even fewer have written “great” Christmas books (usually novelette length rather than full book length, as Christmas books are rarely very long).  And of those few special Christmas books which percolate to the top, very very few manage to stay there, but gradually, over time, sink down into that vast subterranean sea of forgotten books.  To stay alive, season after season, generation after generation, presupposes a magical ingredient no critic-scientist has ever been able to isolate.  Just think about the ones that come to mind: The Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, Its a Wonderful Life, The Other Wise Man . . . , and, with these four, we begin to sputter and qualify.  There are many others that come to mind, but none of them has been able to stay in the top ranks of Christmas Best Sellers.  In recent years, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson (1972) and Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas Box (1993) have so far evidenced staying power, but only time will reveal whether they will stay there, for it is comparatively easy to stay alive for ten, twenty, even thirty years ‑‑, it is much much harder to remain vibrantly alive 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 years or more.

But, none of this precludes comebacks.  Literature and public taste are, after all, cyclical, thus even during authors’ lifetimes, reputations roll along on roller-coasters, undulating up and down as public tastes and demands change.  No one remains hot forever.  Along this serpentine track of survivors rumble authors such as Dickens, Dostoevsky, Hugo, Cooper, Scott, Stevenson, the Brontes, Twain, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Alcott, Shakespeare, Carroll, Chaucer, Defoe, Dante, Dumas, Eliot, Kipling, and Thoreau — these never go out of vogue.

Once past the immortals, we move into a much more fluid field.  Depending on many factors, recoveries and resurrections continue to take place.  Usually because certain works brazenly dig into our memories and impudently refuse to leave.   Which brings us to Abbie Farwell Brown.

It was some years ago when I first “met” her.  My wife and I were wandering around New England at the height of fall colors.  Ah, autumn in New England!  There are few experiences in life to match it.  Among those few are New England used bookstores.  Well, it was in one of these that Connie discovered an old book — and short — with the intriguing title of The Christmas Angel.  She brought it over to me and asked if I was familiar with it or with the author.  I was not, but on the strength of the wonderful woodcut illustrations, we bought it.  Upon our return home, I unpacked it, then sat down to read it — and LOVED it.  Such velcro sticking power does it have that it has pummeled me until I am black and blue from its demanding to be brought back to the top, where it keeps telling me it belongs!  It was there once, and liked it, but, through no fault of its own, readers who loved it died off, so it began its gradual descent into that ultimate oblivion.

So here it is, if for no other reason than to rescue my battered body from its continuous pummeling.  I don’t often creep out far enough on limbs to risk getting sawed off, but I shall make an exception for The Christmas Angel.  I shall be really surprised if it does not claw its way back to the top — and stay there, this time.  It has all the enduring qualities that has kept The Christmas Carol up there for over a century and a half — in fact, one manuscript reader told me, about a week ago, that she even prefers it over The Christmas Carol.  It is one of those rarities: a book that should be loved equally by all generations — from small children to senior citizens.  I can see it being filmed; and I can see it becoming a Christmas tradition: unthinkable to get through a Christmas season without reading it out loud to the family once again.

Since the story is divided into 15 short chapters, it would lend itself to being spread out during the Advent or the Twelve days of Christmas.  Having said that, I’ll prophesy that pressure to read on by the listeners might make a proposed time table difficult to stick with.

And, unquestionably, the Reginald Birch illustrations add a very special dimension to the book.

When Christ wished to hammer home a point, He told a story, a parable, an allegory — in fact, biblical writers tell us He never spoke without them.  This is just such a story.  But, coupled with that is something else: it is one of the most memorable and poignant Angel stories I have ever read.  And it is amazing how many people today are rediscovering Angel stories!

It has to do with Miss Terry — bitter, cold, bigoted, and unforgiving.  As was true with Dickens’ Scrooge, in her life virtually all sentiment, caring, and love had been discarded, then trampled on, in her morose journey through the years.  And now, at Christmas, but one tie to her past remains, one key that might unlock her cell block of isolation: her childhood box of toys.

She determines to burn them, — every last one.

* * * * *

It is my personal conviction that reading both books this Christmas season will result in one of the richest Christmas seasons you have ever known.  And it will amaze me if you don’t end up loving The Christmas Angel at least as much as The Christmas Carol.

In my introduction/biography for The Christmas Angel I piece together Brown’s fascinating life story and list all her books and short stories.  I’m guessing many of you will wish to track down and purchase her other books as well as this one.

Be sure and journal each time you read from these books.

At the back of my edition are seven pages of questions to deepen your understanding.  Such as these:

Chapter One: “Alone on Christmas Eve” – What is the impact of that line?  Why is it harder to be alone on Christmas Eve than at other times?  Or is it?”

Chapter Four: “Why is it, do you think, that so few toys survive intact?  Are they deliberately mistreated, or does it just happen”

Chapter Six: “Why did Miss Terry rescue the Christmas angel from the muddy street, and why did she find it impossible to toss it into the fire as she had so many other toys?”

Chapter Nine: “Why is it, do you think, that toys have greater reality to children than they do to adults?  How is that borne out in this chapter?”

Chapter Fourteen: “How do Angelina’s Christmas angel and her guardian angel blur together?”

LAST SUGGESTIONS RE WRIGHT’S CALLING OF DAN MATTHEWS

More and more people keep expressing interest in The Book Club.  When you notify us that you wish to join, please email that information to us so we can add you to the roster.  If you feel uncomfortable posting your mailing address on the web, just drop it in the mail to me at P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.  Send me your name, interests, reading preferences, and other items that will help me chart the direction of The Book Club.

After securing a copy of each month’s book, be sure and journal each time you read from the book.

Following are some observations and suggestions re your reading our November selection: Harold Bell Wright’s The Calling of Dan Matthews:

1.  I first read it when I was seventeen.  Why do you think it had such a powerful impact on me?  (On others as well?)

2.  How is it different from other religion-based novels you’ve read?

3.  Wright wrote three Social Gospel novels.  Look up the term, then respond in terms of how the book incorporates the movement’s key elements.  In other words, Christ, in His life on this earth, was not at all into doctrine or creeds, but rather into selfless service for others.  So, did Wright pull it off?

4.  Did reading this book have an impact on you personally?  In what way?

5.  Did reading the book make you want to read more Wright books?

            SECURING DECEMBER’S BOOKS

You will have no trouble finding a copy of Dickens The Christmas Carol, for it is one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  But if you’d like to order my Focus/Tyndale edition, just write me at Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433, or send me an email at “mountainauthor@gmail.com.”  Should you wish me to inscribe any copies, just let me know—there will be no charge for that.  The Christmas Angel is likely to be more difficult to secure, but again, I can supply you with a copy.

PRICE: $16.99 each.  However, if you alert me to your being a member of our book club, you can reduce it to $14.00 each.  If you purchase both books, I’ll reduce the price to $25.00 total.  Shipping will come to $6.00 extra.

I’ll need your full name and mailing address.  Checks are fine.  So is PAYPAL. For further information, access our website at

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll journey to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

CHRISTMAS IN MY HEART® MEANDERS

“Meander” is the most apt verb I can think of to describe the journey of the last nineteen years. Nothing about it can remotely be classified as being predictable (perhaps the most exciting and frustrating aspect of turning over the navigational role of one’s life to God).

If I ever doubted the confusion generated by this meandering, the reactions of those who stop to look at the blur of Christmas-related titles and publishers at book-signing tables would set me straight. Goodness, sometimes I get confused myself just trying to explain all the twists and turns. But let’s try anyhow.

Christmas in My Heart

First of all: what I’ve come to call the “core series.” Fortunately, Review and Herald Publishing’s commitment to the series was unwavering (for a decade and a half); this provided the stability the series needed in its formative years. Unbeknownst to me, that very first year, I was locked in to what became the series’ defining template: old-timey Currier and Ives covers (horizontal rather than vertical format), old-timey woodcut illustrations inside, and old-timey (even when stories are new ones) stories that touch the heart. As time passed, and more and more Christmasaholics bought into completion (keeping their own series complete by buying the new collection every Christmas season), the template became so iconic I couldn’t have altered it even had I wanted to do so.

Focus on the Family’s involvement began early, and has continued with unbroken commitment ever since. Indeed, well over half the time, the Focus Christmas story of the year has been taken from the pages of Christmas in My Heart®. Most years, the books have been offered as premiums to ministry supporters, as part of seasonal mailouts reaching millions every Christmas.

Because of Focus on the Family’s involvement and because the first four books were a GOLD MEDALLION Finalist in 1995, the series rapidly expanded into Evangelical Christianity.

Which led to the seven-year partnership with Doubleday/Random House, beginning in 1996. Their books were re-scrambles (some stories taken at random from each of the first four collections), with old-timey (but not Currier and Ives) covers, woodcut illustrations (but different from those in the core series), vertical format rather than horizontal, and hardback with dust jacket rather than trade paper. With the entry of Doubleday, the series was marketed in chain stores everywhere, thus becoming a staple in the broader secular market.

Concerned that someone else might try to steal the title, Doubleday insisted that we Trademark it (which we did, after considerable legal choreography, effort and money). We renewed that Trademark at the end of five years, and again after ten years. Fortuitously, it turns out, for during the last 24 months, someone (a major player in today’s marketplace) moved in on the title. Only the Trademark saved us.

Christmas in My Soul

Doubleday/Random House published four Christmas in My Heart® Treasuries (1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999); at the end of that period, they moved on to a new series title, Christmas in My Soul for their gift books over the next three years (2000, 2001, and 2002), each book a re-scramble of stories taken from the first six books in the core series.

In 1998, Tyndale House co-published with Review and Herald the core edition of Christmas in my Heart® 7 (both publishing house imprints on the title page). In 1999 Tyndale House joined forces with Focus on the Family to publish a vertical trade paper edition of the core series (with different cover and introduction, but otherwise remaining the same content and illustration-wise).

But when Doubleday switched series titles in 2000, Focus on the Family and Tyndale House pounced on the hardback rights to the core series. Those vertical hardbacks with dust jackets were also beautiful works of art, just as Doubleday’s were, with old-timey non-Currier and Ives covers; but otherwise, inside, the same stories and illustrations as those used by Review and Herald in the core series. These editions continued to be published through 2006 (Christmas in My Heart® 9 – 15).

The 12 Stories of Christmas

In 2001, RiverOak/David C. Cook published The Twelve Stories of Christmas (the first twelve Christmas stories I wrote personally); for the only time, I also told the story behind the story—how I happened to write each one.

In 2006, storms assailed Christmas in My Heart®. Review and Herald wavered in its commitment to continuing the series, thus opening up the possibility of Focus on the Family/Tyndale House taking over all markets for the core series. Needless to say, Focus on the Family and Tyndale were delighted. But, at the last minute, Review and Herald decided to publish Christmas in My Heart® 16 after all. Result: Tyndale House and Focus on the Family ceased publishing their hardbacks of the core series. But then, even though they were still selling the same number of books as before, Review and Herald decided that Christmas in My Heart® 16 would be a nice number to conclude the series with. Not sharing this perception that the series had reached its terminus, I asked Pacific Press Publishing if they were interested in picking up the series with Christmas in My Heart® 17. The answer, in only hours, was a resounding, “In a heartbeat!” Same format, same Currier and Ives covers, same woodcut illustrations as before—all agreed upon. Thus the series has continued; this year with Christmas in My Heart® 19. The manuscript for Christmas in My Heart® 20 has already been sent in.

In 2007 and 2008, Howard/Simon & Schuster published three beautiful retrospective collections (rescramblings from Christmas in My Heart® 1 – 16): The Best of Christmas in My Heart® 1, Christmas in My Heart® 2, and Candle in the Forest and Other Christmas Stories Children Love.

Christmas in My Heart® 1 was published in Spanish and the first six books were published (rescrambles) in Norwegian.

St. Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas

Besides this, I edited Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Abby Farwell Brown’s Christmas Angel for Focus on the Family/Tyndale House in 1997 and 1999. I partnered with Canon James Rosenthal for our book St. Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas for Thomas Nelson in 2005; just off the press is another St. Nicholas book, my Saint Nicholas, part of Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters biography series.

This incredible story would have been much more difficult without the steadfast support and innovative placement of our collections by my cherished agent and friend, Greg Johnson, president of WordServe Literary Group, Ltd.

A special note: because of editorial differences of opinion (as to specific story-inclusion) in Review and Herald and Focus on the Family/Tyndale House, those who wish to acquire the complete core series of stories—so far—would need to secure the following:

Review and Herald Christmas in My Heart® 1 – 16.

Focus on the Family/Tyndale House Christmas in My Heart® 13 and Christmas in My Heart® 15.

Pacific Press Christmas in My Heart® 17, 18, 19.

* * * * *

So this blog brings all these meanderings up to date. Connie and I have no idea as to how long the series may last—we leave all that up to the good Lord. We take no credit for the first nineteen years of its story: we’ve only been taking orders from our Commander in Chief. When it is His will that the last Christmas in My Heart® book rolls off the press, then it will be time to write “Finis” to its story.

But not until then.

I’ll conclude this blog with a line from one of James Dobson’s many personal letters to me, “You’re right, Joe: Neither of our ministries belongs to us—but isn’t it a great ride?”

That it has been—and continues to be.