Bess Streeter Aldrich’s “A Lantern In Her Hand”

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #46
BESS STREETER ALDRICH’S A LANTERN IN HER HAND
November 4, 2015

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I take our book selection seriously, believing as I do that life offers us all too few opportunities to read books worth remembering. After all, if we read a book a week, starting at the age of five, at the age of 75, we’d only have read 3,600 books out of the millions one could choose from.

Thus I gave a lot of thought to our 46th book selection. During a recent fall colors trip we took with Bob and Lucy Earp in Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, I took four potential candidates for the November book along. Aldrich’s book won out. It was my second reading of Aldrich’s masterpiece, and it impressed me even more the second time than it did the first (rarely is this true).

Would you like to become an authority of sorts on life on the Great Plains during the pivotal post Civil War years? Travel in a wagon train, live in a sod house (mostly underground), live with droughts, torrential rains, prairie fires, blizzards, grasshopper plagues, claim jumpers, primitive medical conditions, unrelenting winds, marauding Indians, financial depressions, isolation, wars, epidemics, early death, and ever so much more. Live through it as retold by one whose parents lived through it herself. The early events in the book were lived by Aldrich’s parents; the later events she experienced herself.

As a reader, you are there with the storyteller, Bess Streeter Aldrich. Once you board that covered wagon that is pulled west into Nebraska, vicariously you live as pioneers lived, enter into their minds, hearts, and souls.

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“All along, you will be amazed at the sheer number of insights into life back then that are relevant to life today. So what if overnight our power grid was hacked and we were forced to start all over again as pioneers? Just as Abbie and Will did. What if we had to put our own dreams on hold so that our children might live a better life than we had? What if we had nothing to pass on to our children but our dreams and a precious few bygone evidences that we weren’t always poor? The following excerpt movingly portrays this:

        “Abbie walked over to the small-paned half-window set in the sod, and looked out at the gray twilight coming across the prairie. The winds that were never still blew past the house in their unending flight.

“How queer people were. All the folks in the new country were hoarding things, hanging on to old heirlooms. They became symbols of refinement and culture. “Sarah Lutz had a painting that drew your eyes to it the minute you opened the door. Oscar Lutz’s wife had a pink quilted bedspread that she kept rolled up in newspapers. Even Christine Reinmueller had a bright blue vase with magenta-colored roses on it, standing up on top of the cupboard. They stood for something besides the land and the corn and the cattle. They must hang onto them, never lose them out of their lives, for if lost, everything was lost. She must hang onto the pearls and everything they stood for; Sarah must keep her painting; Martha Lutz, her bedspread; Christine, her blue vase. Else what was there in the future for the children?” (P. 108).

But the true measure of a book is whether or not it has the power to change you, inspire you, elevate you, broaden you, make you think deep thoughts—so that when you reluctantly read that last page, you are a different person from what you were when you read that first page—This is just such a book.

Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881 – 1954) was one of Nebraska’s most widely read and loved authors. Her writing career spanned forty-some years, during which she published over 160 short stories and articles, nine novels, one novella, two books of short stories, and one omnibus. In her work, she emphasized family values and recorded accurately Midwest pioneering history. She became one of the highest-paid authors of her time.

Her work appeared regularly in such magazines as The American, Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, and McCall’s.

Following is a listing of her best-known works:

1924 – Mother Mason
1925 – The Rim of the Prairie
1926 – The Cutters
1928 – A Lantern in Her Hand
1931 – A White Bird Flying
1933 – Miss Bishop
1935 – Spring Came on Forever
1936 – The Man Who Caught the Weather
1939 – Song of Years
1941 – The Drum Goes Dead
1942 – The Lieutenant’s Lady
1949 – Journey into Christmas
1950 – The Bess Streeter Aldrich Reader

And so Abbie Deal went happily about her work, one baby in her arms and the other at her skirts, courage her lode-star and love her guide,—a song upon her lips and a lantern in her hand. (P. 70)

* * * * *

Aldrich was originally published by D. Appleton & Company. If at all possible, secure a first edition hardback with dust jacket. She has also been published by Dutton Signet and Appleton Century Crofts.

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POEMS I HAVE LOVED IN LIFE #18

BLOG #25, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
POEMS I’VE LOVED IN LIFE #18
June 24, 2015

Alfred Noyes (1880 – 1958), though born in England, later moved to America, where he was Professor of English at Princeton (1914 – 1923). A prolific writer, he is best known for his The Loom of Years (1902), Poems, (1904), Forty Singing Seamen (1907), Tales of the Mermaid Tavern, and Forest of Wild Thyme (1905).

But out of all the works he ever wrote, it is The Highwayman that has given him immortality. My mother loved it, knew it by heart, and often performed it. One of the fascinating poetry genre we call “story poems,” it has an irresistible beat to it.

It is a poem to be recited to an audience—be sure and include children and teenagers—on a dark and stormy night. Turn the lights down low, or out completely. The more ghostly the setting the better!

Once heard, it can never be forgotten—especially if recited or performed by elocutionists like my mother. I’ve loved it ever since I first heard my mother perform it when I was young. If this was what poetry was—I wanted more of it!

THE HIGHWAYMAN
PART ONE
I

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

II

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle
His pistol butts a-twinkle
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

III

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

IV

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s red-lipped daughter,
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—

V

“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,.
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

VI

He rose upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair I’ the casement! His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
(Oh, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the West.

PART TWO
I

He did not come in the dawning; he did not come at noon;
And out o’ the tawny sunset, before the rise o’ the moon,
When the road was a gipsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching—
Marching—marching—
King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

II

They said no word to the landlord, they drank his ale instead,
But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed;
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window;
And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

III

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest;
They had bound a musket beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
“Now keep good watch!” and they kissed her.
She heard the dead man say—
Look for me by moonlight;
                Watch for me by moonlight;
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

IV

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years,
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

V

The tip of one finger touched it; she strove no more for the rest!
Up, she stood up to attention, with the barrel beneath her breast,
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins in the moonlight throbbed to her love’s refrain.

VI

               Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding,
Riding, riding!
The red-coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still!

VII

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer! Her face was like a light!
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,.
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.

VIII

He turned; he spurred to the West; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own red blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, his face grew grey to hear
How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

IX

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs i’ the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

X

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
                Riding—riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

XI

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard;
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred;
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
                Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

TREASURES OF THE PAST #4

BLOG #11, SERIES 3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

TREASURES OF THE PAST #4

March 13, 2013

In last week’s blog, In Praise of Old Magazines, I discussed my ongoing love affair with old magazines, and what a treasure each represented to readers of the time who were privileged to read the timeless wisdom represented by the printed stories, poems, and articles.

In recent weeks and months, I’ve been perusing the pages of close to a thousand magazines of The Youth’s Companion (time period: 1870s to late 1920s), when that venerable century-old magazine finally gave up—not coincidentally, synonymous with the cataclysmic Wall Street crash of 1929.

In its pages there are so many gripping stories and memorable poems featured that I, to my later chagrin, passed over multitudinous shorts which I inwardly classified as mere “filler” (something trivial to fill up the allocated pages). Indeed, I was two-thirds through this monumental task before a certain title of a short so piqued my interest that I took the time to read it—and was instantaneously hooked. Perhaps it was but a fluke. Just to make certain, I read another—and another—and another. To my utter dismay, I concluded that I’d now have to go back to the beginning and complete my tabulating inventory!

What I discovered is that the editors early on discovered that much of the timeless wisdom submitted by contemporary authors was packaged in the shorts, any one of which might well be worth a month of reading (in terms of impact of even one of these gems upon the lives of the magazine’s readers).

I also discovered that most of these shorts are every bit as timeless (in terms of the values articulated) today as they were then.

Just to give you a feel for them, here is one. Do let me know if you’d like me to mine these shorts further for our blog readers (there is no author; almost none of these shorts referenced the author—such a pity!).

THE DREAM

The girl sprang to her feet and walked up and down the dean’s office; her eyes were red, and her thin face was drawn as if with pain. “I suppose you think I’m selfish,” she cried. “But I haven’t slept a night since the telegram came. I’ve read it over and over till I’m almost wild. I can’t see how it is right to expect me to leave college and give up all my life plans to take care of Mother. I could go to her during vacations. It isn’t as if we hadn’t money enough to make her comfortable; she could have almost anything in the world. And she may live for several years; the doctor said so.”

“Twenty years ago,” the dean said slowly, “another girl came to me with a problem like yours. She was studying chemistry. She told me that there wasn’t anything in the world she liked better, and that, if anyone offered her sunsets and music and starlight and beauty, she would want them only to analyze in the laboratory. In her junior year her mother died and left one little girl and three boys between the ages of twelve and nineteen.

“I’ve seen great struggles, but I’ve never seen a bigger one than that girl went through. When she said good-by she looked as if she had had a year’s sickness. ‘I’m going home,’ she said, ‘but I’ll never give up my dream!’

“I told her that there was as much chemistry about her home as there was anywhere else in the world, and I’ve never forgotten the startled look that came into her eyes. She stood quite still and just looked

“She was at home for nine years, till the girl started at college. Then she herself returned and took up the work where she had left off. Of course she was years older than most of her fellow students; and she had lost much of the technique of her work. But she had gained other things: judgment, power of quick decision, all-round knowledge and human sympathy. Moreover, through the years she had read much and had followed her beloved study into unusual fields. She had studied the chemistry of the Bible and of literature; she knew the history of chemistry and the lives of the great chemists. In short, she was well on the way to becoming a well-rounded chemical scholar, not a mere laboratory worker. Another thing, in the years at home she had so fired her brothers with her enthusiasm that today all three of them are men of science. Years afterwards she said, ‘My disappointment was the best thing that ever came to me. If I had had my own way, I should be nothing but a chemist now. Those years taught me to put life first and chemistry second.’

“That is why we could not afford to let her go when she finished her course. For twelve years now her influence has been inspiring hundreds of lives inside and +outside the laboratory.”

“You don’t mean—Miss Torrance?” the girl cried.

“I mean Miss Torrance.”

The girl stood quite still, and the dean, watching, saw the look she had been waiting for come into the tired eyes.

—The Youth’s Companion (March 23, 1922)