The imposing figure of Samuel Johnson keeps popping up in my (and my children’s) reading lives these days. A few months back I was pre-reading a book assigned for C-Bear’s grade 10 year called A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland by James Boswell. The book chronicles an excursion from “London to Land’s End” (as Johnson put it in his account of the journey). I thoroughly enjoyed its descriptions of that part of the world where my ancestors came from, at around the same time as they would have been leaving it for the new world. The scenery, the way of life. I also felt like I got to know this Samuel Johnson fellow fairly well from the pages of his friend Boswell’s journal.
Shortly thereafter, my homeschool mom’s bookclub read Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford. If you’ve read it (or watched the BBC series), I’m sure you can recall the rather amusing and heated exchange between Matty’s older sister Deborah (pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, by the way) and her new neighbour Captain Brown. Deborah insists that her beloved Dr. Johnson is by far to be preferred over her neighbour’s author of choice — Charles Dickens. She raves about this Dr. Johnson, and I was tickled to know exactly who she was talking about. (Personally though, I think I’d have to side with Captain Brown on this one.)
Fast forward a few months and now C-Bear is reading A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland as well as chapters about the life of Samuel Johnson from an English literature book for school. After listening to her narrations, I was doing some research for my last Hymn Study Guide when I stumbled across a chapter on the life of Isaac Watts in a book called Lives of the English Poets by (you guessed it) Samuel Johnson. He had some glowing things to say about Watts, and by this time, I felt like I was getting inside information from a trusted friend. I wonder where this Dr. Johnson will pop up next. I love the zig zagging in this kind of education, one thing building upon and filling out my understanding of another. It’s a beautiful web of connections.
It’s African Heritage Month, and by pure coincidence we have just reached the chapters in Belle and Little Mister’s history spine leading up to the American Civil War. We were ready for a new supper time read aloud so I decided to grab Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker. I have such vivid memories of our school librarian at Parkdale Elementary reading this book aloud to my class when I was in grade five, and I wanted to share that experience with my own children. As I was entering the book on my Good Reads’ list, I happened to notice a fairly lengthy review that I couldn’t resist reading. It basically boiled down to this — Smucker was not qualified to write a book like this because she wasn’t black, and the book falls far short of accurately portraying the full horrors of life as a slave.
Well, I guess I both agree and disagree. In my opinion, this book is an appropriate read for a gentle introduction to the gut-wrenching topic of slavery. But there is obviously no way I would force this book (or any one book, for that matter) to shoulder the burden of exhausting the topic for my kids. We read other books by other authors at other grade levels too. We don’t read one book and call it “done.”
That’s the beauty of homeschooling. It’s an ongoing conversation with our kids…many conversations actually, that pop up quite naturally as we live our lives, read a magazine, watch the news, have a question. Just because Canada is lauded as a safe haven in the time period of Smucker’s book doesn’t mean we are not honest with our kids about the fact that slavery existed here too, as it did throughout the Commonwealth. We also talk about race relations in later years and learn about such figures as Rosa Parks, Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr. We spend entire terms of school reading the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Phyllis Wheatley, and Langston Hughes. We learn about the lives and work of people like William Wilberforce and John Newton as well. Because instead of growing up ashamed of their “white privilege”, I would rather my children be inspired to use whatever position and privileges life affords them (regardless of skin colour) to speak out and speak up for those who need a voice.
I can’t see how the colour of Smucker’s skin would either qualify or disqualify her from tackling a certain subject in her writing. I loved reading about Dr. Johnson’s visit to northern Scotland because even though some of my ancestors may have been living there at the time, I know next to nothing about what their lives were like. It would not surprise me one iota if there were countless history buffs, teachers, journalists, authors of other ethnicities who would do a much better job writing a book about the inhabitants of the Isle of Skye in the eighteenth century than I would. The fact that I am physically descended from them does not mean I know the topic better than someone who has studied and researched it. That being said, I do acknowledge the reality of generational trauma. I recognize that there is a knowing that goes deeper, impressed on our hearts rather than our heads. That kind of inherited and lived knowledge, however, is sometimes hardest to find words for. So I guess my review would boil down to this: Underground to Canada is a story, not a textbook. I don’t look to Smucker’s story to tell me the whole story. But in my opinion, she did a remarkable job of telling a memorable, educational, and touching one…especially considering her era and her intended audience.
We have had some very pleasant weather as this week has drawn to a close. The ice left behind by last weekend’s storm is nearly all melted away from the torrential rain earlier this week and mild temperatures the last few days. On Monday, however, the ice was still thick, and we inched our way along a walking trail with some homeschool friends that afternoon. Well, the kids raced on ahead of us moms. Still not sure how they do that without ice cleats or anything. At least the trail was level. And we saw lots of beautiful birds. There are some really great trail systems in this area. Can’t wait to explore some more.
C-Bear and Boo attended a nearby youth group on Wednesday and thoroughly enjoyed it. A former Stanley Cup champ was there to speak to the youth this week. It was a small group which helped my girls to connect and feel included I think. I was so glad they had the opportunity to socialize with some other teens. They need that right now.
Every afternoon I usually read aloud from a book in a different school subject with Belle and Little Mister. We rotate between history, geography, science, and biography for our afternoon lessons. This week Friday came, and we still had two readings to do but knew we would only manage one of them in the allotted time, so I gave them the choice between a chapter in The Story of Inventions or Barbara Greenwood’s book about pioneer life. I knew they would choose the pioneer book. They love that book! This week’s chapter was all about work bees and preserving food for the winter. There are always some suggested activities at the end of each chapter (I think that’s why they are so fond of this book actually). We learned how the pioneers on backwoods farms learned to be creative in crafting musical instruments to play a tune or keep a beat for their community dances. And we tried our hands at a homemade “fiddle” made with an old soup can and some string. As I nailed a hole in the bottom of each can, all I could think of was Emmet Otter putting a hole in Ma’s washtub in the Jim Henson production “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas”.
It’s been a good week. We’ve kept ourselves busy and can’t believe one week of Daddy’s course is done already! Today, I will drive Ella into Halifax for rehearsal with the girls’ show choir she has joined. Tomorrow, we will attend church. And the next day another week of school will begin. And next Friday we have an extra special treat we’re looking forward to…but more on that next time!