A Hum and a New Road

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Sometimes, my mind starts to hum. This hum, before it’s loud enough for me to hear it, starts as a tangle of thoughts, experience, knowledge, and passion, and then hum-hum-hum: it becomes an idea. Not just any idea, either: a persistent idea, an exciting idea, an idea that makes me want to make changes in my life. I got the hum in my freshman year of college when, after failing to view cadavers in my human anatomy class (which was required for my pre speech-language pathology major), I changed my major to English with an emphasis in literature.

This decision, which my boyfriend and family supported and encouraged, was one of my best. It led me to what I’m doing now, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I am a writer, but when people have asked me what I want to do with my Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults once I earn it, I have hesitated and said, “Teach, you know, so I can support myself in writing.”

I never thought much past that. I hoped I’d find a teaching job somewhere, somehow, with my M.F.A. I have no teaching experience and no talent for teaching, like my husband and parents do. Yet I thought I’d do it so I could help support my family and have lots of time to write (a joke, I’ve now learned!), which would always remain my focus.

But last week, I found out that some of my tidy plans to teach had no basis in reality, and I forced this question on myself: do you really, truly want to teach?

My answer was scary. My answer was no.

What else, I thought, could I do with a M.F.A.? How would I help support my family without having to work minimum wage jobs? I’ve worked at enough of those. Burger King, McDonald’s, La Quinta Inn & Suites. I refused to consider those options. But what could I do, if my writing took a long time to give me any income, as it most probably would?

There are more answers to this question than one might think, and one of those answers popped out at me, mostly because it was a subject that had pricked my interest before but had never hummed loudly enough before for me to hear it: copy editing. Editing. Proofreading.

I’ve always loved discovering errors in all types of copy and correcting them in my head. I admit that I judge people, as hard as I try not to, based on their basic grammar usage. So I researched more about what editors and copy editors do, joined the American Copy Editors Society, and signed up for the Poynter ACES certificate in editing.

Bella helping me with my editing certificate courses last night.

Bella helping me with my editing certificate courses last night.

I finished today, so I am now certified in editing. Certificates like these are not necessary in order to become an editor or copy editor, of course, and there are many different online and in-person certifications available. But if one has no formal training, this certificate provides loads of valuable information on editing copy for newspapers, blogs, academic theses, manuscripts, and more. I ordered the Chicago stylebook and the AP stylebook and started to study their basic guidelines. And then, because I plan to do freelance work at least until I finish my M.F.A., I ordered a book on starting a home freelancing business.

The more deeply I delve into this new career, the more I love it. I’m becoming an even better writer because of it, and as a writer, I have empathy for the writers I will edit. I know how it feels to be on the edited side.

The hum has faded, but its echo drives me, just as the hum for changing my major still drives me today. This choice to do something that I enjoy and am skilled at makes me feel empowered in a humble way. I have a bachelor’s degree in English. I have an eagle eye. I am developing my writing and critiquing skills at Vermont College of Fine Arts. All of that has led to the hum, to this.

I think God uses the hum to nudge me in the right direction, and I know it’ll come bug me again, probably about something entirely different—maybe about a new story idea, maybe about something I can’t begin to comprehend.

And I’ll welcome it when it comes.

Laura

P.S. I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite poems:

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

—Robert Frost

 

So far in life, the hum has kept me from sighing. It’s led me to roads I hadn’t traveled before. The difference, for me, will be a good one.

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Why I Don’t Like Stuck in Love

I took this photo right after residency, during a trip we took to Montana (for book research, of course! And to see lots of our good Montana friends).

I took this photo right after residency, during a trip we took to Montana (for book research, of course! And to see lots of our good Montana friends).

I sat down a few months ago to watch Stuck in Love, which I thought I’d like because it’s about writers and I like romantic comedies. Well. I enjoyed some of the actors’ performances, but one particular aspect of the film made me wish I hadn’t watched it, because I don’t like to get mad.

So what was it? First, the novelist dad in the movie is so successful that he lives in a beautiful, fancy home by the sea. Okay, fine. I’m sure Stephen King and other authors with his type of success have oodles of money with which to live ritzy celebrity lives. But this man has two children: a daughter and a son, both of whom are in their late teens. And the daughter’s first novel has been accepted for publication, maybe because of her dad’s name, maybe not. That smells like lies to me, but it gets worse when we see her champagne-filled book-launching party, and it gets horrid when her book sells well and she looks like she’s on the path to richness and glory, too.

And then, at the end of the book, the seventeen-year-old son writes a story that somehow gets to Stephen King, who calls him and tells him how awesome a writer he is. Gaggy McGaggerton.

This movie makes writing look easy. This movie makes writing look like anyone can sit and write a million-dollar book in a couple afternoons.

I’ve been waking up at 4 a.m. every day this week. I start my day with coffee and three hours of Vermont College of Fine Arts-related work—writing and revising essays; listening to faculty lectures on objective correlative, ways to convey emotion, and exposition, all on the wonderful VCFA database; reading chapters on point of view and exposition in craft books; and revising my experimental (for me) new novel that I’m writing this semester under my advisor’s guidance.

I squeeze a T25 (great workout program, by the way) workout in there, walk Bella and feed her, and eat breakfast, and then I hit the laptop keys for two more hours. I spend those hours revising AND THE BLACKBIRDS MOCK, which I thought was perfect two months ago. But because I workshopped it during my first residency and received another important nudge-and-critique on it, I now see all the ways in which I can improve it. It’s hard to sit down every day and re-think my manuscript yet again, but once I get going, it’s the most absorbing, exhilarating, and rewarding thing I do. I love that I’m learning the art of revision.

After lunch, I read. I’m usually reading three books at a time: ten books every four weeks for VCFA, plus books that I hope help me with my BLACKBIRD revisions, plus a book that I choose for myself. Always a book I choose for myself. This amounts to about five books a week. (I have 47 books on my roll-top desk alone, plus a whole wall-to-floor bookcase full of them.)

After that, I write some more, whether it’s new work for the new novel, BETWEEN PRIMROSE AND FOXTAIL, or more revisions for BLACKBIRD. One of the best things about VCFA is that I have this large, amazing class, and five of them have agreed to critique BLACKBIRD as I revise it in the next few months. This means that I revise a chapter and send it off to them, wait for a response, and then revise again according to the response. I’m also helping them by critiquing their work, so I set aside time for that.

And of course, I have a husband, so I leave my desk to spend time with him before he starts school next week. And I have friends and family to call, and Bella to pet and try to pick up. But I’m this busy and I haven’t even started my job yet—I’ll start part-time work in late September and pray that I can make myself wake up at 3 a.m. so I can work on my writing and leave the house by 7 a.m.

And guess what? I love what I do. I have times where I feel like I write crap. I have times where I know what I’ve written is strong. And every single day, I realize how much I have to learn, and that energizes me more than anything. I used to think that writing wasn’t too hard and that it would make me rich like the characters are in Stuck in Love.

It won’t make me rich. I’m not J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. But it will, and it does, make me say to myself every day, “I love this. I will do this for as long as I am alive.”
I hope that everyone I know and love finds work that makes them say the same thing, even if they have to hold other jobs and wake up hours before the sun in order to do that work and live that dream.

Laura

The First Residency

College Hall, where many of our lectures take place.

College Hall, where many of our lectures take place.

This morning, at the final VCFA MFA in WCYA faculty lecture, Tom Birdseye named the two factors that push a person to write: a plan and a deadline. And it’s true. These last almost-two weeks have filled me with information, inspiration, and determination. I have finally experienced my first MFA residency and never cried once, not even on linen day. I’m proud of that, because if I were going to cry at any point in the residency it would have happened after my piece, the first twenty-five pages of AND THE BLACKBIRDS MOCK, was workshopped several days ago.

It’s not that anyone was unkind. My workshop leaders, Martine Leavitt and Shelley Tanaka, are kind, wonderful women who lead thorough and lively workshops. Martine told us on the first of six two-hour workshop sessions that seeing what DOES work in a peer’s piece is just as important as seeing what doesn’t. My lovely workshop group and leaders found issues and strengths in BLACKBIRD that I never saw, and I am so grateful for that. I’m also grateful that, in the end, I the writer choose what to keep and what to let fall to the grass.

So I didn’t cry, but today I came close when I realized that I’m saying goodbye to this exhilarating place for six months. The VCFA class of July 2014 receive their diplomas in an hour. Our last workshop happened this morning, and in it Martine gave us a washer tied to a string and told us to focus on it, to will it to move back and forth, side to side, in a circle. I’m not sure how—an optical illusion? The pulse moving through the thumb? Willpower?—but mine did what I willed it to do.

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When we were finished staring at our little washers-on-a-string, Martine told us that early in her writing life, someone told her to always remember that she is a writer. She told us the same thing: we are writers. I, Laura, am a writer, and if I focus on that truth when I feel my most inadequate, I will write.

Shelley told us that she, like Martine, does the washer-on-a-string exercise sometimes to remind herself that she is a writer, and therein lies the beautiful essence of the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults: the faculty, all published and successful authors, struggle like we do with writing though their writer’s toolboxes are heavier than ours. They fight distractions and emotions and push through criticism and emerge alive on the other side. They are people—thoughtful, caring, and brilliant people who never stop encouraging their students.

As I embark on my first six months of graduate school with a semester plan and five deadlines, a bunch of half-formed tools in my toolbox, and thirty-odd new writer friends to laugh and cry with, I will dangle the string from my thumb and first finger and tell myself the everlasting truth: I am writer, no matter what.

The first two books for my first packet bibliography. The one on the left is by a VCFA alum!

The first two of ten books: I’m reading these tonight and all the way home tomorrow for my first packet bibliography. The one on the left is by a VCFA alum!

Laura

P.S. Because of that plan and those deadlines, I won’t be able to write on this blog as much as I would like to. You may have noticed that already. I plan to post once a month, if not more often, so please stay with me, and thank you for reading!

And here are some photos from my time here in Vermont:

Found these while on a run yesterday morning.

Found these while on a run yesterday morning.

Another scene from that same trail run.

Another scene from that same trail run.

Green beauty.

Green beauty.

 

What Have I Been Doing?

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(Above: books by VCFA faculty advisors.)

My poor blog. How I have neglected you! I am whipping through my last two weeks of ‘summer vacation,’ though it’s an atypical vacation because it started in March and ends on July 7 (which happens to be my husband’s and my first anniversary. I’ll be on the other side of America. I’m sad about that part of my new adventure).

What has gobbled my hours so much that I haven’t found time to blog? The answer lurks in many of my posts: I’ve been reading. But not just any books. I’ve been reading books by my advisors at Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Writing for Children and Young Adults program. I want to read at least one book by each faculty member. That’s a total of 21 books.

Here are the ones I’ve read so far:

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher

Hanging on to Max by Margaret Bechard

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt (one of my two first workshop leaders)

And I’m almost done with Tyrell by Coe Booth

Each is splendid in its own wildly different way. These writers, these advisors, stun me with their talent, and I am honored to have the opportunity to work with them these next two years. I purchased another Martine Leavitt book, as well as another Susan Fletcher book, and another A.S. King book and another Kathi Appelt book because I couldn’t find them at the library and I just HAVE to read more of what they’ve written. Today I’m going to the library to get the sequel to One Crazy Summer and a handful of books by other faculty members whose works I have yet to enjoy.

Does reading this many books count as being too busy to write? For me, yes. I’ve also been doing regular-life things, like spend time with my husband, clean the house, play with Bella, cook, exercise, have an awesome graduation weekend with family and friends, and more. And in all this reading and cleaning and laughing, I’ve been taking notes on the two different stories my imagination works on every day, because writing does not take place merely on a word processor: it takes place in the mind first. I thought about And the Blackbirds Mock for a year before I wrote it this past winter. Every writer is different, but that’s how writing works for me.

I urge you to read the books listed above. If you’ve never read Young Adult or Middle Grade books, start with these. They suck you in and amaze you with their talent and creativity and humanity. I’d also love to hear from you–what are you reading? I’m always looking for more books to add to my endless to-read list.

Laura

Today I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant at Not (So) Small Stories. Join us! http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/06/24/small-stories-fourteenth-edition/

Why I Write for Children and Young Adults

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In the last few weeks I have done something I only dreamed about doing while in undergrad. It’s something I used to do every summer vacation as a girl. It’s something I did every school year, too, something that—during those eight hours—I was not supposed to do. I’ve talked about it before because it’s just as much a part of my life as is eating, breathing, sleeping.

You guessed it: I have been reading. I read myriad books in college, but professors chose them for me and I tried to squeeze a me-book in there most of the time but it took me ages to finish my me-book with all those other books begging for my attention. But in this lull-time between achieving settledness in our new home and flying to Vermont for my first VCFA residency in July, I have done nothing but spend time with my husband, play with my dog, and READ. Here are the books I’ve finished since I completed The Grapes of Wrath on May 14:

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (A VCFA advisor)

Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

Sounder by William H. Armstrong

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It’s easy to see a connection between all these books, most of which I loved and some of which I didn’t (but I liked all of them to a degree): they are all children’s, or young adult, books. And the writing and the stories found within them match the quality of the contemporary adult books I have read. People often think that writing for children and young adults is only something writers do before writing real books—books for older people.

That is not the case at all, and authors of children’s and YA books will tell you that faster than you can ask them when they plan to move on to adult book writing. There are writers who do both, but no writer of children’s books thinks of herself as preparing to write an adult book by writing what she loves to write until she’s ‘good enough’ for adult books.

I have great respect for writers of good adult and good children’s/YA books, and I think some people are better suited to write for one audience over the other, but in my lifetime I’ve received patronizing looks when I am either reading a children’s or YA book or talking about writing one.

I read children’s books more than adult books because children’s books first grabbed my hands and whisked me into other characters’ minds and lives and troubles. Those books, like the books I listed above—several of which I read as a kid and re-read now—deepened my love of reading and of life. I write for children because I want to give them that same porthole to wonder that I have clung to through moments of anguish and moments of joy and all the moments in between.

Children’s, and YA books to a lesser but still tangible extent, let the world hope. No matter what happens in these stories, hope ultimately clutches the reader in its soft and earnest arms, and 21-year-old optimist that I am, I love this. And I know there are hundreds, thousands like me out there. They’re the ones who are writing children’s books. They’re 20, 35, 48, 67, 80, maybe even 98. And though life has flung death and illness and sorrow into their faces, they hope.

I read and write children’s books because I refuse to grow up all the way if growing up means believing life is monotonous, difficult, and hamster-wheely. And if I ever publish a book, I will hope there are adult readers out there who refuse to grow up all the way, too. I hope you will hand that book of mine to your daughter, your son, your niece, your nephew, your grandchild, and then I hope you keep one. I hope you tuck yourself into one of those Pinterest reading nooks everyone wishes they had, or at least into a comfy sofa or a lawn chair by a creek or a lake or in your yard, and read that children’s or young adult book. You’re never too old for it.

Laura

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Above: this is the look you get if you interrupt me while I’m reading (taken at eleven or twelve years old). ;)

Today I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant at Not So (Small) Stories! Join us: http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/06/03/small-stories-eleventh-edition/

 

The License Plate

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As Louis and I drove our 1993 Toyota 4Runner to the DMV, sadness tugged at my mind. 

“Do we really have to get California plates?” I asked. 

“Not if we don’t mind getting a huge fine for still having Montana plates after we’ve lived here this long,” Louis said. 

I knew that would be the answer, but I had to ask it one last time. I love the new home that we have recently moved into—a little gray house in a small city, within walking distance of Louis’s school, with a yard and a garage and a porch and room for Bella. I am happy here. But the Montana plates belonged on the 4Runner. They had graced the old car for thirteen years.

We made the mistake of not booking an appointment at the DMV, so we were there for hours. And at each station we visited within the DMV, we were told we’d have to turn in the Montana plates. 

“But why?” I asked Louis.

“I don’t know. I got to keep my Montana plates when I switched the Civic’s. I guess they changed the rules.”

One of the women at one of the myriad desks gave us a tool with which to unscrew the old plates and attach the new, and I lagged behind Louis as we walked into the parking lot and toward the old 4Runner. He bent to the back of the car and began to remove the rusted screws.

I was wholly unprepared for the tears that rose in my throat and dropped onto my face, and suddenly I was eight again. 

We got the new license plate for the cars. It isn’t that pretty. It is blue and white and has a skull on it. And snowflakes at the top, just three. The Montana on it is in big letters. Montana, The Treasure State, it says on my postcards. I am always looking for the treasures in the treasure state. And one of my postcards says Big Sky, just like it says by the skull. Big Sky Country. I think I like this cold scary license plate. It matches what’s happening right now: snow, lots of it. Dad parked the 4Runner on a snowbank in our yard and that’s crazy cool. I’ve heard it snows here in July some years. I love this place already, even though on my first day here I ran into a birdhouse and had to get two stitches. There’s a creek behind the house, and a field with a horse and donkey in it. I live in the country now. I am a country girl, just like Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

And all those thoughts swallowed me. I knew that I could not give the plates to the DMV people, which were cold and scary in a completely different way than the license plate was to me when I was eight. 

“Geez! The screws are so old that they just broke in half.” Louis held the ancient screw so I could see it. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t believe I’m crying about this. But I can’t give the plates to the DMV.”

Louis looked down at the plate, and I noticed that the three snowflakes were not snowflakes at all. They were three 0s, for the year 2000. “We can ask them if it’s really necessary. I need a smaller tool for this, so let’s go in there and ask before we take the front plate off.”

Louis asked the woman what he had told me he would ask.

“You need to turn them in,” she said, her voice bored, a hint of annoyance slipping into it.

“But why? I’ve kept old license plates before,” I asked, angry now and trying not to show it.

“They changed the rules. You need to give them to me.”

Who are ‘they’? I thought, giving the woman my best I’m-trying-not-to-yell-at-you glare. I was afraid I’d cry again if I didn’t.

“Well, we can’t get the front one off. We need a smaller tool. Do you have one?” Louis asked. 

“We only have the ones we gave you.” The woman snatched the Montana license plate from Louis’s hand and let it fall to the floor like she was throwing a bag full of dog poop into a dumpster. It gave a sharp metal scream as it hit the concrete ground. “Don’t worry about the other one,” she said, so gruffly I thought at first that she was telling me snap my sentimental ties to the Montana plates. 

Louis and I walked outside once more. “What did she say about the front one?” I asked.

“That we can keep it. Let’s go—we have to find a shop. Half of the screw is in the hole and it won’t come out.” 

“Thank you,” I said. “I’m sorry for being all crazy about this. I just didn’t want to give up my last piece of tangible Montananess forever.” I had loved letting people think I was still attached to Montana in some way, loved smiling at other Montana-plate people on the freeway. That was over, now, but I had one plate to keep.

Louis looked at me and took my hand. “You don’t know that it’s forever. You might get a Montana plate again someday.”

He smiled, and so did I, and our common dream danced in our imaginations.

He gave me the license plate a few minutes later, a piece of metal rippled and cracked by blizzards and hail and sun and rain, by eleven years of fickle, beautiful Montana. And I hung it on the wall in our office a few days later, that I may never forget the eight-year-old girl and the eleven years that formed her into present-day me, that I may never forget our dream.

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Today I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant and the Not So (Small) Stories community! This week’s prompt is ‘memory’ or ‘dream’. Join us! http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/05/27/small-stories-tenth-edition/  

The Grapes of Wrath and Little House

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I strutted into my dad’s elementary school classroom in my blue calico Laura Ingalls Wilder dress with its matching red calico bonnet and apron with a Boxcar Children book clutched in my hand.

“How cute!” said a girl who looked a year or two older than I was.

“Is this your daughter, Mr. O?” another asked.

“Look at her clothes!”

I grinned, unable to keep my outgoing nature tucked behind my lips.

“Yes, this is my daughter, Laura. She’s here to read you part of a Boxcar Children book. Ready, Laura?” my Dad showed me to a plastic chair and I smoothed my petticoats and dress and sat.

“How old are you?” someone asked.

“Five…or six…or seven,” I answered. (Actually, I don’t remember which of the three ages is correct.) I opened the book to the first page and began to read aloud the Aldens’ latest mystery adventure.

*

I have loved to read ever since I learned how at four or five years old, and though the Boxcar Children books were high on my list of favorites, the dress I wore that day told the world what books had lodged themselves in the top spot of my soul: all nine Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I told people I was named for Laura. I wore that dress as much as I could—to church, to birthday parties, to my dad’s school, to my ‘log cabin’ (the underneath area of a bush-like tree in the backyard).

Though I have long outgrown the dress, which my mom sewed for me as a Christmas gift, those books are still my favorites, ever. I re-read them every year, from Little House in the Big Woods to The First Four Years, and my favorite book within this favorite series changes with my age. As a child, the first three books inspired me the most. As an older girl, On The Banks of Plum Creek. As a teenager, The Long Winter and Little Town on the Prairie. As a young adult, These Happy Golden Years.

I picked up The Grapes of Wrath almost a month ago and trudged through the first fifty pages with low spirits. The book did not grip me immediately as East of Eden did, and I was worried that I would take forever to read it. But once Tom Joad found his family and discovered they wanted to leave Oklahoma and head to paradise California, where they could live in a white house with plenty of land and fruit trees in the yard, my mind became glued to the narrative. As the Joads purchased a jalopy and loaded it with all their belongings, much like the Ingalls family does with a covered wagon throughout the Little House series, I was hopeful for them, hopeful that they’d find something good in California, even if it wasn’t a white house.

But I didn’t know the extent to which they would suffer until I started down Route 66 with them and ached for each one of their losses and deflated dreams. The Ingalls children faced teasing for being ‘country people,’ and so did the Joads—but they were more than country people. They were Okies. Completely unwanted people not only in the land that held their blood and sweat in its red dirt but also in the land where they sought freedom from the tractors and corporate farmers and the poverty that gnawed the flesh from their children’s bones.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was that, once I got used to reading the Oklahoma dialect, I connected with the Joads and the other migrant people, and though much of their story is sad, the people find comfort in one another, “And because they were lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to a new mysterious place, they huddled together; they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country” (203). The humanity that comes from the migrants’ realized fears and minuscule joys is the most powerful aspect of this book.

It was my first time reading The Grapes of Wraththough I stared at the original cover as framed in my local Barnes & Noble store each time I went to read books there as a kid. The image of the man looking out over a line of loaded jalopies, his wife and child by his side, stayed with me and contributed to my interest in this book.

And I loved it the entire time I was reading it (aside from the slow first fifty pages). I love it more than East of Eden. I am not sure why that is, but it is. I’ve heard people say they hate it, or were bored by it, but it pulled me to its people the way Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books did when I was young and still do today. I even think the book’s ending is hugely powerful, if strange. Those who read the book before me might understand that, might understand what the ending says about Rose of Sharon and about the Joads as a family.

I could have a discussion on this book all day long, but I’ll stop here and let you read it for yourself, maybe for the first time, maybe to see if it’s any good since you detested your first reading of it. Let me know what you think, even if you don’t agree with me.

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Laura

I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant at Not So (Small) Stories this week. Join us! http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/05/12/small-stories-eighth-edition/ I still haven’t figured out the pretty button picture…oh well.