Thursday, August 8, 2013

Finding the Right History Book

Every summer I spend many hours planning for the school year ahead. This is equally delightful and agonizing work. I consider the past year's successes and failures, set new goals and make adjustments, choose the subjects, fit them to a reasonably realistic schedule, then begin choosing the books. The last stage presumably should be my favorite, especially with the selection of books I have in our own library, but here is often the agonizing part for me.

I take this task seriously because Charlotte Mason attributed a child's failure to engage in a subject most often being due to use of the wrong book. Which will engage the imagination the most? Which is written with the best possible style and language? Which will impart the important ideas most winsomely? Still, it is through just such wrestlings and searchings we have found some of our most rewarding lessons. The result is worth the effort because the outcome is children who take joy in knowledge discovered in living books.

When my children are young, we spend those early years on the history of America, that which is most familiar to them, then a few years later add in the history of our most influential neighbor in the world: Great Britain. I will never forget the thrill I had one year when I planned to read Our Island Story and my slow-to-read son picked it up and announced he could read it himself. Thence forward it became his favorite book, proved by his spending his birthday money to buy himself a personal copy. This year, my youngest will begin at the beginning of Mrs. Marshall's excellent account of the story of her nation, but I had to find something new for his older brother to use, a further account to richly furnish his love of British history with "a storehouse of ideas," as Charlotte Mason refers to the study of history. She explained its importance this way:

"Here, too, is a subject which should be to the child an inexhaustible storehouse of ideas, should enrich the chambers of his House Beautiful with a thousand tableaux, pathetic and heroic, and should form in him, insensibly, principles whereby he will hereafter judge of the behaviour of nations, and will rule his own conduct as one of a nation. This is what the study of history should do for the child; but what is he to get out of the miserable little chronicle of feuds, battles, and death which is presented to him by way of 'a reign'––all the more repellent because it bristles with dates?..." (Home Education, P. 279)

My prowlings turned up A Child's History of England by none other than Charles Dickens. Here certainly is a master of language who knows how to tell a good tale, I thought. Emily often decides a book will be good from the dedication alone. This one would qualify:

"To my own dear children whom I hope it may help, by and by, to read with interest larger and better books on the same subject."

This history was also intriguing because none other than G.K. Chesterton endorsed it with the remark,

"...that the mere common-sense of Dickens gave a plainer and therefore truer picture of the mass of history than the mystical perversity of a man of genius writing only out of his own temperament, like Carlyle or Taine...This black-and-white history of heroes and villains; this history full of pugnacious ethics and of nothing else, is the right kind of history for children."

These were good signs, so I began to read, probably the ultimate test of whether a book is truly living is to simply read and see if it appeals, lures me in and on. It did. There is no dry account here, no dull droning succession of kings and conquerors following upon one another in a blurry succession. Instead, immediately the book begins with Dickens' unmistakably colorful narrative style, which instantly fires the imagination and plunges any reader into the midst of the story. The first chapter is such a lively account of the earliest days of known British history that the end of it comes unexpectedly and I am hooked. This might be just the right book for this year's British history.

"At last, the Roman emperor, Claudius, sent...a skillful general with a mighty force to subdue the Island, and shortly afterwards arrived himself...Some of the British chiefs of tribes submitted. Others resolved to fight to the death. Of these brave men, the bravest was Caractacus...who gave battle to the Romans with his army among the mountains of North Wales. "This day, said he to his soldiers, "decides the fate of Britain! Your liberty, or your eternal slavery, dates from this hour. Remember your brave ancestors, who drove the great Caesar himself across the sea!"...
"But the strong Roman swords and armor were too much for the weaker British weapons in close conflict. The Britons lost the day. The wife and daughter of the brave Caractacus were taken prisoners; his brothers delivered themselves up; he himself was betrayed into the hands of the Romans by his false and base step-mother: and they carried him, and all his family, in triumph to Rome.
"But a great man will be great in misfortune, great in prison, great in chains. His noble air and dignified endurance of distress, so touched the Roman people who thronged the streets to see him, that he and his family were restored to freedom. No one knows whether his great heart broke, and he died in Rome, or whether he ever returned to is own dear country. English oaks have grown up from acorns, and withered away, when they were hundreds of years old - and other oaks have sprung up in their places, and died too, very aged - since the rest of the history of the brave Caractacus was forgotten."

I cannot resist one more sample from his comments on my son's personal hero, King Alfred. This is not a detached author providing a factual account alone and his comment here shows why England has been a nation of heroic figures our boys crave to emulate:
"I pause to think with admiration of the noble king who in his single person possessed all the Saxon virtues: whom misfortune could not subdue, whom prosperity could not spoil; whose perseverance nothing could shake; who was hopeful in defeat, and generous in success; who loved justice, freedom, truth, and knowledge. Who, in his care to instruct his people, probably did more to preserve the beautiful old Saxon language, than I can imagine. Without whom, the English tongue, in which I tell this story might have wanted half its meaning. As it is said that his spirit still inspires some of our best English laws, so, let you and I pray that it may animate our English hearts, at least to this - to resolve, when we see any of our fellow-creatures left in ignorance,that we will do our best, while life is in us, to have them taught..."

Yes, Mr. Dickens, our American hearts as well.

For the joy of reading,



  1. DIckens' description of King Alfred is my favorite.
    I read somewhere recently that there are King Alfred daffodils. Must find.

    1. Bonnie,

      The characters in English history he describes I have met in other places, but his pop off the page. A tour of history through flowers would be a beautiful way to approach the subject, or, a book about the role certain flowers have played throughout history. We need more writers as powerful as Dickens. Thanks for your thoughts.