Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Me and Marie Antoinette

Sometimes you pick up a book that seems to fit you like a glove. How many girls over the last fifty years have picked up Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, for example, and identified completely with the smart, acerbic, and sometimes unlucky heroine?

As unlikely as it may be, I got that ‘fits like a glove feeling’ from Waiting for the Queen by Joanna Higgins (Milkweed Editions, 2013). This middle-grade novel looks back at the escape of French aristocrats to rural Pennsylvania at the time of the French Revolution.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s painting Marie-Antoinette dit “à la Rose,” Palace of Versailles, France
In the late 1790s, boatloads of bejeweled and brightly dressed French nobles fled France and the guillotine. They hoped to build a new France—and a refuge for their queen, Marie Antoinette—in the American wilderness.

Higgins focuses on two girls: Status-conscious Eugenie de La Roque has seen horrors before escaping France with her family. Practical, egalitarian-minded Hannah Kimbrell is a young Quaker cook and maid. Her father and brother have been hired to build the new French town in the woods along the Susquehanna River.

The clash of cultures is well-drawn, and the gradually developing friendship between the two girls is believable and warm. Although the author relies over-much on having characters deliver speeches toward the end, the book still deserves its spot on Mary Ann Grossman’s Pioneer Press Top Ten list of 2013.

So, how does Waiting for the Queen fit this reader like a glove?

French Azilum Methodist Church, PA. Photo by Carol Manuel.
My parents were married in the small white church in French Azilum, PA—the site of that long-lost town of French aristocrats waiting for Marie Antoinette, who for now obvious reasons never arrived.

“Frenchtown,” as we call it, is where my mother spent summers, and where I’ve gone for family reunions over the years.

The other part of Waiting for the Queen that struck a chord was the Kimbrell family. As Quakers, Hannah and her brother and father use thee and thou. They speak “plain,” just as my own Quaker grandparents did.

But to enjoy this novel, you don’t need to speak plain or spend summers on the Susquehanna. You just need to let author Joanna Higgins lead you back into the past, just around a bend in the river, to a place where everyone is waiting for the queen.

Friday, February 21, 2014

One-Room Nation, Part 2

Honey Creek School, Monroe County, IN

Getting There

Today most students take buses to visit historic one-room schools. But in the old days, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything powered by gasoline or diesel. 

Every year across America kids find out what it was like to attend a one-room school. Here, scholars are leaving Honey Creek School. Students at this summer program had to leave buses and cars behind at the end of the lane.

Not too long ago three former one-room scholars shared stories about how they got to school. They were students in the 1920s and 1930s in Iowa, a state that once had more than 20,000 country schools.

Bill Dryer said, “We crossed the crick and walked through the timber. That was the short way. The long way was on the road.”

Mildred Wood recalled, “I rode a pony. My pony’s name was Diamond. He was stubborn and didn’t want to go up the hill. I’d have to pull him up.”

If you rode “Shank’s mare” or “Shank’s pony” to school, would your ride look like this? Nope. Riding Shank’s pony is an expression. It means using your own two feet. (Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, Library of Congress: LC-USF34-055803-D. August 1940, rural Kentucky.)
For young Eddy Sage things were a little easier: “My dad took pity on me and took me on his back.”

Some one-room schools had wagons or hacks, not too different from modern school buses, but powered by horses, not fuel. The one used in Pittsboro, IN, had a stove in the back for heating—and for popping corn on the trip home.

This school wagon would have been a pretty fancy ride back in 1900. 
(Library of Congress, Bain Collection: LC-DIG-ggbain-10237.)

Whether you travel on foot or on horseback or by blogpost, One-Room Nation is your guide to country schoolhouses. 

Why should you care about old-time schools?

So many Americans studied at one-room schools that the schools—and the many, many students who passed through them—have been vital in shaping our nation. Think about how a strong, solid building rises up. Before you can build a roof or walls or floor, you’ve got to have a foundation.

Over the years, as Americans learned their ABCs and math in one-room schools, they helped to create the foundation of our nation. When we remember, celebrate, and preserve these schools, we’re remembering, celebrating, and preserving something that makes America special.

NOTES: Quotations are from a panel of former teachers and students of one-room schools at “Your Unique Schoolhouse,” Country School Association of America Conference, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, which the Story-Slinger attended on July 17-19, 2004.

Could you survive in a one-room schoolhouse eighty or one hundred years ago? One-RoomNation, an on-going segment of the Story-Slinger blog, will try to answer that question in a few dozen posts. Unless otherwise noted, the photos in One-Room Nation are the property of the blogger, so please contact the Story-Slinger if you wish to use them.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

One-Room Nation, Part 1

Prairie School No. 1, Sheldon, IA.

All in One Room

Imagine that you’ve been transported in time to the early 1900s. You attend a school where everyone studies and works together. You’re all in one room, and you’ve only got one teacher. The students are all ages, all sizes—from kindergartners to eighth graders. But there aren’t very many of you, probably not more than thirty. Maybe only a handful.

The walls of your school might be made of brick, logs, sawn lumber, sod, or adobe, but there are only four of them, with a roof on top, some windows, and a door or two.

The outhouse at Honey Creek School,
Monroe County, IN
A few things that you are used to finding at school are missing. This one-room building has no indoor plumbing. The bathroom is a strange, smelly boxlike building over a hole near the schoolyard. (Bring your own toilet paper or learn to use leaves, old magazine pages, and corncobs.) The sink and drinking fountain are a pump nearby.

Inside your school, there’s no electricity. That’s right—no lights or fans or computers. And no furnace. Just stove in the middle of the room, with a pile of dried corncobs for starting a fire, and wood or coal to keep it going. Maybe your job is to bring in wood for that woodpile, because everybody in this school, right down to the smallest kindergartner, has a job to do.

Herbert Blessing attended a one-room school in York Township, PA, from 1929 to 1938, walking about a mile each way. Like the other students, he had a regular schoolhouse chore: 

“I was the fireman. We had a pot-bellied stove for heat. I went about an hour and a half early each day to get the school warm.”

Was he chilly for that first hour and a half? You bet. But everyone else arriving in the morning found a toasty schoolhouse—a lovely thought for a cold winter’s day.

NOTES: The quotation from Herbert Blessing is from “Mark’s School—Herbert Blessing,” York Daily Record, York, PA, May 18, 2007.

Could you survive in a one-room schoolhouse eighty or one hundred years ago? One-Room Nation, an on-going segment of the Story-Slinger blog, will try to answer that question in a few dozen posts. Unless otherwise noted, the text and photos in One-Room Nation are the property of the blogger, so please contact the Story-Slinger if you wish to use them.