In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Mistress Masham

Dear Annie,

Ah, Mistress Masham's Repose.  One of the greats of children's literature.  It was published in 1946, the year of my brother's birth.  I don't know how my parents came upon it, but it was much loved in our household.   Yes, I too can hear my father's voice reading it.

One of Bob's and my magical discoveries when we met was that we both had fathers who had read us Mistress Masham, which we both loved.

It's such a beautifully written book.  Near the start of the story, when Maria has taken a first step toward gaining the confidence of the Lilliputians she has discovered, they solemnly parade themselves and their livestock in front of her (see picture in your post).
They all stood gazing at her with their mouths open, and the mothers held their children tightly by the hand, and the men stood rather in front, in case of emergency.
Nobody knew what to do.
Finally she remembered her instructions.  She called out that she was going to stand up, so they must not be afraid.  When she did stand, there was another "Ooo!"
Maria presents gifts, carefully planned with her friend the Professor.  Silk scarves, razors, needles, nails -- and "a shilling's worth of chocolate creams":
She had gone through a tussle with the Professor about  these.  He, with his giant's obsession about choosing small things for small people, had wanted to buy an old-fashioned sweet which was sometimes used on cakes, called Hundreds and Thousands.  They were tiny pellets of hard sugar, colored pink or white or blue.  Maria had insisted on full-sized chocolates.  Which  would you have preferred, then: a hard piece of sugar about the size of a toffee apple, or a chocolate cream the size of a pram?
Maria  befriends the colony, but cannot resist the allure of their novelty:
The more she adored and wondered at the doings of her six-inch People, the more she wanted to take control of them.  She wanted to play with them, like lead soldiers, and even dreamed of being their queen.  She began to forget what the Professor had said, about not being an owner.
This all  leads to a disastrous accident and Maria must make amends before she can regain the confidence of the People.  The Plot Thickens as the evil vicar and governess plot against Maria and -- when they discover them -- the Lilliputians.  It's exciting: there are chases, a dungeon, acts of courage.  But the real core of the book is about a ten year-old and a group of grown-ups one tenth her size learning to love and respect each other.  It's wonderful.

The language is sophisticated and often difficult for younger kids.  Even for a strong ten year-old reader it can be tough.  It's a pleasure as a read-aloud when a child is ready, though.  We read it with both our girls -- I think we may also have had a false start at a too-young age before savoring it together later on.  And for the map afficianados among us (hello, Ian!) there's a great map of the grounds of Malplaquet, Maria's decaying estate.



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