There is a concept known in the Charlotte Mason community as mother culture. It is all that a mother/teacher/person does toward her own education: her explorations, her pursuits. (If you don't believe me, look at Jeanne Webb, a member of the Ambleside Online (AO) Auxiliary. She is having a full home alone mother culture week.) Our journey as learners never ends; on the contrary, it's rekindled when we become teachers of our own children. How can I know my children will learn unless if I practice principles in my own life, principles I have learned from the lives of others who have been there before? How can I inspire if I don't allow myself to be inspired by the world around and the relationships that it offers?
There is much I want to share with you in answer to that question, but I will leave that for my presentation in February, -wink-. For this post, I want to share the concept of a character driven novel.
A year ago on the forum, a mom asked for opinions on The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Karen said she enjoyed the book, among other reasons, because it was character driven. I read it and was blown away by it. I made Heather (my good friend and fellow CME Retreat speaker) read the book; she was hunted by it. We talked about it for weeks. We still talk about it. It was the year of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and My Name is Asher Lev. And those words, character driven, gave me the clue that maybe I was similar to Karen in that I too was drawn to character driven books. Venturing deeper, maybe Karen is also like Charlotte Mason in that both of them appreciate books not only told from the perspective of one (or several) characters, but books where character itself is a binding theme.
Volume five of Charlotte Mason's series, Formation of Character, contains numerous mentions to books. If Jesus used parables to teach, Charlotte Mason used character driven books, -grin. Karen Glass has read many of those, and she mentions how Charlotte Mason manages to see something in a secondary character that goes unnoticed to another reader. Miss Mason was right, and moms know this too: everybody gets something different from the same reading. Some of us become curious about those titles Miss Mason mentions and want to find and read them too. What I take from this is, as part of mother culture, some character driven novels are highly recommended.
We hear some say they are drawn to a literary curriculum, -a curriculum in which the best literature is used to teach-, others just want books which teach character and godly views. The first group may miss in that they are simply taking pride in the great books they are reading. The second group may miss in that if books don't have the highest standards of quality, the message of character will be lost. Ultimately we want both: the best literature used as the vehicle of education resulting in the growth of virtue in ourselves and our children. This is accomplished when we see in the best literature a character driven book.
Character driven books, when well written, are an honest-and poetic-look at life. In them we see the characters behaving, talking. We become flies in the wall, observers, listeners, thinkers. I would rather get to know a friend and see how she lives and what she values with my own eyes, and arrive to my own conclusions, than hear her lecture me. In like manner, I would rather read a book in which the author presents to me an array of people, their world, their conversations and relationships, than hear the author preach to me and use and abuse her novel for that purpose (no matter how noble the agenda).
This type of novel is dear to me, and I always like having at least one on going. However, I'm not sure if I happen to find character driven novels, or if over time I have learned to see character in all novels I read, even in books that aren't novels. With my Charlotte Mason newly developed vision, rare is the book that does not illustrate some of her concepts such as the way of the will, habit is ten natures, nature or nurture?, and allusions, principles, ideas, pieces of knowledge that we are learning at the time or have learned in the past. The connections seem to expand to infinity (and beyond, :) ) To clarify this, I do believe there are some books that fit that character driven genre more than others.
Crow Lake is a perfect example. Crow Lake is a book Karen Glass recommended some time ago, somewhere on the AO Forum. Without spoiling the book for you, I'll quote a few lines.
Dear Aunt Annie,
How are you? I hope you are well. We are all well. Bo is well. Miss Carrington came. Mrs. Mitchell came she brot stew. Mrs. Stanovich came she brot pie.
... I thought, [the letters] say absolutely nothing. (...) I realized that if [Aunt Annie] looked hard-and she would have looked hard-she probably found a certain amount of comfort between the lines.
For a start, she would know that we were not starving and that we had not been forgotten by the community. She would know that I was in good enough shape to sit down and write a letter and that Luke and Matt were organized enough to see that I did. The fact that I invariably wrote on a Sunday implied that we had a routine, and Aunt Annie was of the school which set great store by routines.
Daniel is naive in some ways. He hasn't had to struggle for anything in life and that has made him easygoing. Undemanding. Not so much of himself as of other people. He is generous and fair and tolerant, all of which are qualities I admire, but sometimes I think he carries them too far. Sometimes he makes excuses for people in a way which almost denies them responsibility for themselves. I believe in free will. I do not deny the influence of genetics or environment -what biologist could?-and I'm aware that we are biologically programmed to do many of the things we do. But within those constraints, I believe we have a choice. The idea that we are carried along by fate, unable to resist or change direction, sounds suspiciously like an excuse to me.
I peered down into the water and saw that our beetle, still marching steadily downward, was surrounded by a glistening silver bubble. (...)
I stood speechless, staring out over my audience. Inside my head, my inner ear played back to me the sound of my voice. The drone of it. (...) And overlaid on top of the drone, like a film joined up with the wrong soundtrack, I kept seeing my own introduction to this subject: Matt and I, side by side, with the sun beating down on our backs. The beetle sauntering along under the water, safe in his tiny submarine. Matt's amazement and delight.
Matt thought it was miraculous-no, there is more to it than that. Matt saw that it was miraculous. Without him I would not have seen that. I would never have realized that the lives which played themselves out in front of us every day were wonderful, in the original sense of the word. I would have observed, but I would not have wondered. (Italics by the author.)
I closed Crow Lake, sad to have come to its end, happy to have met those children, men and women in it. The book filled me with gratitude towards the author, -for the beauty she has shared-, and to the characters, -for the opportunity to look inside their lives and learn from them.