Holiday Book Bonanza ’09:
Sally G. McMillen
It has become a holiday tradition on the OUPblog to ask our favorite people about their favorite books. This year we asked authors to participate (OUP authors and non-OUP authors). For the next two weeks we will be posting their responses which reflect a wide variety of tastes and interests, in fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. Check back daily for new books to add to your 2010 reading lists. If that isn’t enough to keep you busy next year check out all the great books we have discovered during past holiday seasons: 2006, 2007, 2008 (US), and 2008 (UK).
Sally G. McMillen is the Mary Reynolds Babcock Professor of History and Department chair at Davidson College. Her newest book, Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement illuminates a major turning point in American women’s history, a convention and its aftermath, which launched the women’s rights movement.
Selecting a favorite children’s book is nearly impossible since so many wonderful ones have been published. Thinking about books I loved to read to our children, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Ferdinand the Bull, Amos and Boris, and Charlotte’s Web come immediately to mind. But in recalling my own childhood and how much I enjoyed curling up in a comfy chair and burying my head in a book, probably the one that I loved most was A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I must have read it a dozen times, and I still revisit it as an adult. Years ago, on our first trip to London, my husband and I stayed in a B & B whose third-story window looked out over the rooftops of the city. For a few minutes, I stood there transfixed and pretended that I was Sarah Crewe in her garret. Burnett’s old-fashioned story with its satisfying ending pleases a reader who is somewhat old-fashioned and incurably romantic.
What appeals most to me is the main character, Sarah Crewe. She personified the kind of girl I dreamed of becoming—selfless, kind, empathic, well-mannered, and smart. Brought from India to a London boarding school by her doting father, Sarah quickly adjusted to her new environment. The school’s headmistress, Miss Minchin, however, resented the accomplished and privileged Sarah. Girls started calling her “princess,” some in adoration but others in derision. When Sarah’s father died and lost his entire fortune, Sarah was left alone and destitute. Miss Minchin moved Sarah to the attic and forced her to work as a scullery maid.
Sarah’s ability to endure sudden loss and deprivation—cold, hunger, exhaustion, and brow-beating— inspired me. Becky, the scullery maid who resided in the garret next to Sarah’s, became her best friend. Sarah wove magic amidst the bleakness, creating make-believe stories about their situation. The girls befriended a mouse and fed its family bread crumbs from their meager diet. On a miserable, rainy London day, a hungry and cold Sarah was out doing errands. She found a coin on the street and rushed to buy hot buns at a nearby bakery. True to Sarah’s character, she gave the buns to a street urchin, a girl far more miserable than she.
For anyone who has never read about Sarah, I will not spoil that experience by revealing the ending. As one might imagine, the story ends happily. Burnett teaches young girls that strength, persistence, and goodness ultimately can lead to positive results.
Another near-impossible task is to name a favorite adult book, for scores of titles come to mind. I decided to tackle this choice by thinking of a book that I love and also that had an indelible impact on my life. My choice is an enormous collection of remarkable letters, The Children of Pride; a True Story of Georgia and the Civil War, edited by Robert Manson Myers. Years ago I bought a copy, for glowing reviews made it seem like a book I would enjoy. Even with two energetic young children keeping me busy, I devoured all 1400+ pages. This book serves as a reminder of the value of letters and how much we learn through what is becoming the lost art of written communication.
Myers undertook a challenging task in editing the cache of letters of an antebellum southern family living in Liberty County, Georgia: the Charles Colcock Joneses. The family patriarch was a prominent Presbyterian minister, owning three plantations and more than 100 slaves (much of the property acquired through marriage). Liberty County was a unique place in the South, due in part to Jones who envisioned himself a most paternalistic master. He encouraged near-by plantation owners to educate and Christianize their slaves and to treat them kindly. Jones tried to practice what he preached and wrote religious tracts to spread his message, seeing himself as a caring, concerned slave owner. Yet, like nearly all slave owners, he never came to grips with his belief in the inhumane, oppressive labor system that brought his own family so much wealth. Mary Jones Jones, his wife and first cousin, was an extremely well-educated woman, a strong and dedicated wife and mother. The three Jones children are also part of this text, as are numerous friends and relatives. These letters provide a profound understanding of the plantation South and all its positives and negatives. This book helped to convince me that I was a historian at heart and needed to pursue that profession. It also made me realize that the South would be a fascinating place to study.
Children of Pride proved invaluable for my dissertation on motherhood in the Old South. I also use many of its letters in my classroom teaching. Certain moments conveyed in the letters remain etched in my mind, such as Charles Jones’s outrage when he discovered that a family friend who visited him had impregnated one of his slaves. Another unforgettable moment took place toward the end of the Civil War when Mary Jones could not understand why her allegedly devoted house slaves chose to leave and to follow Sherman’s men in order to seek their freedom.
A valuable complement to this book is Erskine Clarke’s Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic which details both the slave and the white experiences on Jones’s plantations.