The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

Mar 26, 2020

If an award was given for "worst cover ever," this book would probably be a top contender. I passed over it many times as a kid at the library because it looked rather dull. I guessed it was about a girl traveling across the ocean. Her voyage looked happy, even pleasant. Look at her serene expression, her hair blowing gently in the breeze, her crisp and frilly outfit. I assumed her "true confessions" were about a secret love interest or some other silly nonsense.

Nothing could be further from the reality of this book.

How about mutiny, murder, and hurricanes on the high seas instead?

Charlotte Doyle has lived most of her life at Barrington School in England, but the time has come for her to return home to Providence, Rhode Island. As such, her father booked her passage on a merchant ship, the Seahawk. The circumstances are not ideal for a refined young woman, but two other families will also be sailing on the ship, so Charlotte will not be alone.

But when she arrives at the dock in Liverpool, she finds out that neither family will be able to make the voyage after all. Not only that, but Charlotte can't even find a porter who is willing to take her trunk to the ship because the name Seahawk has an instant negative effect on everyone who hears it.

With a deep sense of foreboding, but no other alternative, Charlotte boards the ship. Her fears are not allayed: Her cabin is small and cramped, the sailors are coarse and frightening, and she doesn't know how she'll ever maintain proper decorum through such a long journey. One sailor, Barlow, warns her: "You're being here will lead to no good, miss. No good at all. You'd be better off far from the Seahawk." In addition to that, the ship's cook, an old black sailor by the name of Zachariah, offers her a dirk, and you know things can't be good if someone think you may need a knife to protect yourself.

It is also obvious from the very beginning that there is quite a bit of dissatisfaction and unrest among the crew, and it seems to be directed toward the captain, Andrew Jaggery. But Charlotte thinks the captain is the only civilized human on board (besides herself, of course), and she is determined to stay close to him in spite of the warnings from the rest of the crew.

Things come to a head when Charlotte accidentally finds a round robin in the crew's quarters--a type of symbol that signifies unity before a mutiny. Captain Jaggery reveals his true (ugly) colors, and Charlotte instantly switches loyalty, casts away her restricting dresses, and joins the crew.

I don't think my boys would have ever decided to read this book on their own, but it worked perfectly as a readaloud. It had plenty of suspense, adventure, and yes, unfortunately, blood to keep them extremely interested. Almost every chapter ended with a cliffhanger, which made it nearly impossible to find a good place to stop reading each night. They never wanted me to quit in the middle of a chapter, but every time I got to the end, they said, "Mom! You can't stop there! You know you can't stop there." As the climax approached, we had no other choice except to keep reading.

I will say that in spite of the thrilling adventure in this book, I came away severely disappointed by one thing (spoiler ahead):

I kept waiting for the crew to rise up in defense of Charlotte. I had it all worked out in my head: Captain Jaggery would attack her, and just as her fate seemed inevitable, they would rush to her aide in a display of true friendship and loyalty.

But the moment never came.

At first, it was understandable. They were trying to protect Zachariah because he had been one of their mates for years. But even once it was clear that Zachariah was innocent, they remained stoic and impassive, paralyzed by doubt and fear.

Perhaps it was the author's intent to give Charlotte the full spotlight at the end--to demonstrate that a girl doesn't need any help from a bunch of rough and tumble sailors. But even though it made Charlotte look awesome, everyone else (except perhaps Zachariah) was disappointingly weak, and I wouldn't trust any of them for friends in the future. Plus, we're supposed to think that these men who couldn't be bothered to give Charlotte even so much as a nod of encouragement were all of a sudden going to be totally supportive of her becoming captain of the ship? I couldn't buy it.

It was one of those times where I wanted to take the book and rewrite the climax. It could have been so much better. It's not all about girl power. There needs to be a sense of camaraderie and loyalty as well, and that was missing.

(Spoilers over.)

Overall, we all loved it, and the parts that didn't meet our expectations gave us lots to talk about. It was a little advanced for Clark who was rather a fair weather listener. He was always in and out of the room, which meant he sometimes asked questions about the most obvious things: "Who's Captain Jaggery?" (The other boys: "What do you mean, who's Captain Jaggery?!?!?! Only the most evil captain to ever sail the seas.")

Our copy had a slightly updated cover. And even though it still might not be the most tantalizing, that dirk behind Charlotte's back does give you a clue that it will be about more than just salty winds and blue skies.

This Ball of String Called Life

Mar 19, 2020

I am envious of the birds--their cheerful twitterings and joyful exclamations of spring. No knowledge of a global pandemic; an economic collapse; a medium-sized earthquake. Oblivious to the chaos, they have retained their normalcy in a way that I long for.

I listened to them this morning as I sat on the steps on the side of our house. Everything was still and peaceful except for their sweet and repetitive songs--little calls back and forth to one another.

Then two neighbors walked by. I caught only the briefest snatch of their conversation, but it included the words "social distancing." It is what is on everyone's lips right now. And mind. And heart.

I went back to listening to the birds. As with everything else, they missed the memo about social distancing. They were enjoying brunch together, but I was not invited.

My dad used to read a story to my brothers and me about a young man who found a ball of string (or perhaps it was given to him--the details are a bit fuzzy). This ball of string gave him the ability to jump forward in his life. All he had to do was give a little tug on the string--unwind the ball just a bit--and he could easily move past his current situation. The catch was that he couldn't go back. Once the string was pulled, it could not be rewound.

At first he was reluctant to pull the string. He seemed to sense the danger in it. But it was too tempting. If there was something he was looking forward to, he unwound it ever so gently so that he didn't have to wait. When his daughter became ill, he jerked it forward to free her of the pain. Sometimes he pulled the string too hard, and he lost more of his life than he intended to. Bit by bit, his life slipped away until the string was nearly gone.

If I had that ball of string right now, I don't know if I could resist the urge to give it a wee pull. The unknown is what is weighing on me right now. I have no idea how long this could go on for. Will my kids ever go back to school? Or church? Will we ever take another family vacation? What about soccer, gymnastics, chess club, play dates, shopping, the library, book club, concerts, plays, date nights, and the like? Will we ever go back to "normal"? Or is that what this is?

Of course, we were somewhat prepared for this, having said no to many things over the last six months because of Aaron's compromised immune system. But now we've taken it to the next level. Or maybe we're just finally feeling exactly what it's been like for Aaron for these many months.

I went on a short walk this afternoon. Despite it being the first day of spring, the weather was cool and wet. I loved it. As I walked, I meditated. I have been meditating almost every day since I took Brooke Snow's Christian meditation course at the beginning of the year. It has been so grounding for me, and the benefits have continued as I've practiced it during this uncertain time.

While I was walking, I tried to do one of the seeing meditations. I attempted to picture events of the future through a lens of gratitude as if they had already happened. This is a meditation I have quite enjoyed in the past as it is full of the hope that comes with thinking about your dreams.

But today, my mind met a brick wall. I went back to the aspirations of last week, and they seemed insignificant, even ridiculous. I no longer knew if they were possible or even practical in our new reality. Maybe I needed to readjust my thinking to fit into this new framework. But I didn't know what that looked like. I tried to see over the wall, but it was too high. I didn't have a magical ball of string in my pocket that could effortlessly move me forward to the next scene of my life. I yearned for a glimpse of the future, but the present pushed back against it.

My mind wouldn't give up though. I went back to the basics: I imagined myself recognizing God's hand in my life. I felt His love for me, and I opened myself up in gratitude to Him. I pictured a future of happy, healthy children. They were doing the activities they love. A smile crossed my face, and I began to feel light. With each thought, it became easier to think the next one.

Yesterday I read Chapter 21 of Luke. This chapter highlights some of the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and also the Second Coming. It makes mention of wars, commotions, earthquakes, pestilences, famines, and "fearful sights."  It is not exactly a pleasant chapter, and yet I came away from it feeling so much peace. The charge is given to "be not terrified" and "in your patience possess your souls." Both of these felt like timely reminders.

But it was verse 28 that especially caught my attention: "And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh." The imagery was powerful: Look up. Lift up your head. Redemption is coming.

There are many things beyond my control right now. But I can look up and see the good in the world around me. I can lift up my head and get to work. I can acknowledge the redemption that comes.

I want to hold my ball of string carefully--not dwelling on the past or rushing into the future but taking the moments and lessons as they come and letting them shape me. I want to let the string unwind at its own pace without any help from me. I don't want to miss out on the magic of today because I was so concerned about avoiding every ugly, disappointing moment. 

A friend came over on Tuesday evening to help me prune my peach tree. (Don't worry, we were very careful to follow the necessary precautions for no contact.) She guided me through the process of snipping off twigs and cutting down branches. We opened up the middle so light can reach the inside of the tree. As we pruned, I took notice of the new buds decorating each branch.They were full and plump, right on the cusp of blossoming. It will happen any day now.

Spring is my favorite time of year. And this spring, we will miss out on a lot of the things I love about this season. But one thing we will not have to miss is the bringing forth of new life. It will happen whether we notice it or not. Like the birds announcing the arrival of spring, the trees and flowers will follow their predetermined course and make each new day a celebration.

I think I will enjoy it more this year than I ever have before. It is reminiscent of past springs while at the same time paving the way for a brighter future. And I am going to bask in it now.

A Little of This and That in February

Mar 8, 2020

Spring is on the horizon. Although I am so happy to be putting this winter behind us, I have to say that it didn't feel as long or as tedious as I was expecting, and for that I am extremely grateful. February was filled with . . .

Visiting . . . my grandma. I alluded to this trip at the end of my January post, but now I'll share a little bit more about it. My mom and I spent five days in Lincoln, Nebraska with my dear grandma, and it was heavenly. Because of the distance involved, I have only seen my grandma a few times in the fifteen years since I got married, and those visits have all been abruptly cut short because of the short attention spans of little children. But this time, it felt like I had been transported back to my childhood in all of the best ways. I slept in the small guest bedroom and listened to the familiar sounds of the traffic on my grandma's busy street. My grandma shuttled us around in her old Chrysler van (yes, she still drives at 90 years old!). We sat around in the living room and paged through old photo albums. We went out to eat at my grandma's favorite restaurant where she ordered a piece of butterscotch pie (as usual). My Uncle Steve dropped by for a visit and teased me. One night, my mom let me tag along when she got together with two of her best friends from high school and college. They were so cute as they talked and laughed and reminisced. It made me wish that I could have been part of their crowd, too. It was also good to get some alone time with my mom. We watched movies on the plane, walked around my mom's old neighborhood, and commiserated about some of the awkward moments during our trip. It was just a very sweet, very peaceful, very relaxing trip, and I'm just so grateful the weather cooperated so we could have it!

Writing . . . poetry. One of my goals for 2020 is to write a poem every week. It's turning out to be one of my favorite goals ever. I just write the poems in my regular, daily journal. They take the place of an entry, and they're usually about an event or thoughts from something that happened that day or week. My friend, Sarah, asked me if I was going to post those poems anywhere, and the answer was a resounding no. So far, my poems have ranged from tolerable to mediocre to awful, but guess what? I don't care because I know no one is going to read them. It's purely for my own benefit and growth, and I am enjoying the process so much. It is free from any of the pressures I put on myself when I know other people might see my work, and so I'm not experiencing the kind of paralyzation I get with other creative endeavors. I want to keep it that way.

Finishing . . . off the latest season of the Great British Bakeoff with our traditional finale party with the Gardners showcasing recipes from the show. This time, Mike made Steph's Raspberry Chocolate Fudge Cake, Henry's Tomato and New Potato Tarte Tatin with Crab Salad, and Michael's Keralan Star Bread. It was maybe the best food we've ever eaten but the most disappointing end to the show I've ever seen.

Sharing . . . a friendly public service announcement about Maggie Binkley's 15-minute workouts. I mentioned these a few months ago when I first started doing them, but I think they are worth mentioning again as I do one almost every morning before I take the kids to school. I love that they push me, they can be easily modified, there is a wide variety (with or without weights, core, arms, cardio, etc.), and I can be done in under twenty minutes. They look a little amateur since they're just recorded in Maggie's living room, but I haven't found the quality of the workout to suffer because of that at all, and it actually helps me feel more comfortable doing it because it feels like Maggie is the kind of practical, down-to-earth person I could be friends with. I highly recommend them if you're looking for a workout you can easily do at home.

Sitting . . . in the dentist's chair for the first time. The boys all had dentist appointments in February (except Aaron), and it was the first time for Ian. He can be unpredictable and volatile (typical two-year-old), so I didn't know what to expect, but the other boys went first, and when it was his turn, he hopped up in the chair like an old pro.

Being . . . serenaded to on my front porch. On the afternoon of Valentine's Day, there was a knock on the door, and Mike said, "Oh, I think it's for you." I opened the door to four random strangers, dressed in suits and wearing big smiles. They broke out in four-part barbershop. I stood there awkwardly listening and throwing questioning glances at Mike. When they were done, I put on my best enthusiasm and said, "That was so nice. Thank you so much." One of them held up his hand and said, "Oh wait, there's more!" I endured one more love song, they handed me the ugliest artificial rose I've ever seen, and then walked away. Once I'd closed the door, Mike said, "I didn't think you'd like it, but I knew it would be memorable!" (Apparently, a guy from his work is in a barbershop guild, and singing to people on Valentine's Day is their annual fundraiser.) Mike failed to snap a photo, but trust me, it was memorable.

Banging . . . out the knitting projects. I finished four different projects during the month of February: a cowl, two hats, and one toy. There's a certain rush that comes with completing something, so to get it four times in one month felt pretty good. I started the cowl several months ago when Aaron was still in the hospital (I needed a very mindless project to work on), but the others were quick little projects that each took me less than a week to finish. I'll admit, I think it's going to be difficult to settle back down with a longer project that won't give me the same kind of instant gratification.

Caving . . . into Clark. One of those aforementioned knitted projects deserves its own special paragraph. My kids watched the first season of The Mandalorian with Mike and loved Baby Yoda. Personally, I could care less about Star Wars, but when I saw a knitting pattern for Baby Yoda, I knew my kids would love it. I made the mistake of showing it to Clark after which it became his personal mission to get me to knit it. He can be relentless--a trait that could prove to be very useful to him in the future--and he followed up with me constantly about this project: Have you bought the yarn yet? Did the yarn arrive?  Did you start making him yet? Are you working on it? How much do you have left? He even went so far as to negotiate with me, "I'll only do that if you work on my Baby Yoda." Luckily, it was a pretty fast knit (even with making the body twice because I wasn't happy with it the first time), and now I am free from my task master. He loves that little toy and even went so far as to say, "If I have my Baby Yoda with me, then I don't get bad dreams."

Listening . . . to the music from the Broadway version of Little Women. My Little Women game is still going strong. My mom and sister and I couldn't find a weekend in February to continue our marathon, but I revisited the Broadway soundtrack that I fell in love with years ago. I feel like many people don't know about it, but it is so good, and I promise that if you are also obsessed with all things Little Women right now, then you will love it. I especially recommend Jo and Beth's duet "Some Things Are Meant to Be," which brings me to tears every time.

Volunteering . . . in Clark's kindergarten class. There are a couple of women who come to Clark's class every Friday to sing and teach songs to the kids. I believe they started doing it when one of them actually had a kindergartner, but that has been years ago, and they're still doing it. It is such a generous gift to the kindergarten class year after year, and I love them for it. Anyway, I told them that if they ever needed someone to fill in on the piano, I would be more than happy to help. And this month, I finally got a chance! I loved listening to these sweet kids sing their hearts out, but mostly I just sat in awe of Lorraine (the one teaching the songs) who just seems to have a gift for teaching music. The kids adore her.

Going . . . on a hike. On President's Day, we decided to get out and enjoy the sunny (but still very cold) weather with a little hike. We did the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, which is beastly in the summer because it doesn't have any shade, but it was quite pleasant in the winter. Unfortunately, some parts of the trail were very muddy, and those places were especially difficult for Ian to navigate. We made it though, and it was worth it for the crystal clear views.

Introducing . . . my kids to an old favorite from my childhood: the PBS Ramona series. This 10-episode series was released in 1988, and most of the stories were taken from the book, Ramona Quimby, Age 8.  I decided to see if I could find it on YouTube, and then I showed it to my kids. The quality is not great, but so far they've loved it. I think we've watched the first five episodes.

Buying . . . a new coffee table. When we first moved into our home, we bought a $40 coffee table from the classifieds. It has served us well, but for the last year or so, it's been looking a little chipped and sad. So when Janssen talked about how much they love their coffee table and how hard wearing it has been, I purchased it immediately without even giving it a second thought. (It helped that it was more than 50% off, so it wasn't a huge investment.) It matches our living room so well, and we immediately broke it in by putting together a 1000-piece puzzle on it (luckily it fit, or I probably would have had to send the table back).

Committing . . . to potty training Ian. I've been thinking about it for a couple of months (ever since he begged for underwear for Christmas) but finally felt like the time was right. Our pediatrician recommends that dads train boys (which is all fine by me), so we found a weekend when Mike had Friday off and blocked off the three days for exclusive teaching and practicing. In the days leading up to it, we talked it up big time to Ian, and the night before, he and Mike went out to fill up the prize basket with treats and toys. Of course, as much as I'd love for Mike to be 100% in charge of this, he has to go to work. So I've had to take over, but overall, it's been pretty successful (although not enough that I will label Ian as "trained" yet), but, more importantly, it has been a positive experience.

Watching . . . Bright Star at Hale Center Theater. Mike gave me tickets for my birthday, and we finally got to go at the end of February. I knew almost nothing about the story going into it, and it blew me away. I was disappointed at first to find out that we were getting the lead's understudy, but she was so good that if I hadn't known otherwise, I wouldn't have believed that she wasn't the normal lead. We always love Hale Center Theater, but this was probably in my top five shows of all time.

Attending . . . concerto night at our local high school. My nephew, Steven, was one of nine soloists who performed a concerto with the high school's orchestra. It was a fantastic night. There was so much talent coming off that stage, and it was exhilarating to be in the same room with it all. Steven played the second movement from Camille Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 2. It represented months of time and work on his part, and it all paid off beautifully. I don't have a photo from the night, but I do have this one of Steven playing Connect 4 with Ian, which shows what a well-rounded, nice kid he is in addition to being so talented.

Waiting . . . for his birthday. Although Leap Day forces everyone to wait an extra day for their birthdays, I think it's probably only the March 1st birthdays who really feel it. Max was especially disappointed this time around because Leap Day not only made him wait for his birthday, but it pushed it off of Saturday and onto Sunday.

That's a wrap on February! I'd love to hear about the highlights from your month in the comments below.

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