"The main schoolroom held it all--students, teacher and eight
grades' worth of books, materials, and supplies. Bookcases and
shelves lined the walls below the windows and rose to the ceiling in
places, every inch of space crammed with books, paper, flash cards and
art material...We used the flattop heating stove as a storage table
until it had to be lit in October. Standard-issue portraits of George
Washington and Abe Lincoln glowered down upon us, and before Health
Inspection every morning, we stood beside our desks and pledged
allegiance to a flag propped in a corner behind Teacher's desk."
Many of the books I review are ones I seek out carefully, titles
gleaned from lists or bibliographies or discovered in topic searches.
Others fall into my hands by sheer serindipity. Judy Blunt's Breaking
Clean falls into the latter category. I picked it up at the Friends
of the Orono Public Library book sale. It looked good. Boy, was it
ever. It led me into a world I'd never before imagined existing
during the very years I was growing up.
Does the above quoted paragraph bear any resemblance to the
school(s) you attended or sent your children to?
Although I was a contemporary of Blunt, the daily pledging of
allegiance and learning under the glowering portraits of Washington
and Lincoln were the only commonalities I could discover. In my
primary school we had individual rooms for different grades, a central
heating system with noisy, clanking radiators, indoor plumbing, a gym,
a cafeteria, and a universally feared principal to ride herd on the
student body and teachers. But then again a bustling Massachusetts
seaside city was worlds away from frontier farming isolation.
An episode from the book's second chapter neatly sets the stage
for the narrative. Blunt's parents had made arrangements to move to
their own ranch. An interim abode had to make do until the previous
owner could harvest his crops and vacate. Her pregnant mother was
carrying poultry into their temporary chicken house when she ran into
an obstacle in the form of a large and lethal rattlesnake. She yelled
for her husband to come decapitate it with a spade. Both knowing the
protocol would indicate this was not an uncommon occurrance.
Blunt grew up in a sparsely populated area where livelihoods
were very uncertain and nature was unforgiving. Work was a constant
for all but the very youngest family members. That, however, did not
"...Always we waited for the next year, hope whispered on the east
wind, snatched away by the west, trusting as blood turned to dust that
the rains would come. And they did. Sometimes too late, when the
wheat stood like straw, other times in a wide swath that buried crops
in a mire of roots and mud. But always they came, just enough to stir
the imagination of more."
Because her local school only went through grade eight, Blunt
and her peers faced in their early teens a challenge today's students
typically contend with years later: leaving home. High school
students had to live in a larger town--either baching (renting a place
together) or boarding (paying for room and board in a home.) This
surely constituted culture shock. And, for Blunt, it happened when
she was coping with self image, dating, and rebelling against the
patriarchal nature of the world in which she grew up and to which she
was expected to return. It was a world in which, although, for a
family to survive, it was essential for wives to be every bit as
strong, stoic, and competent as their spouses, men held all property
and power and intended things to stay that way.
Breaking Clean is an excellent read for women's studies
scholars, illuminating a time and place that is relatively neglected.
It is also a darn good narrative. I highly recommend it.
On a personal note, sadly we've had to take the Christmas tree down.
Every year Joey cat and I get so much joy from it! Luckily I have an
artificial tree in my for my very favorite ornaments and a miniature
tree with tiny little ornaments to keep the spirit of Christmas alive
in my heart all year long.
A great big shout out goes out to all others who keep the Christmas
spirit burning in their hearts and lives.
Sent from my iPod