Friday, January 29, 2016

First Book of the Year Down

2016 TBR Pile Reading Challenge


Virginia of Elk Creek Valley by Mary Ellen Chase

*I actually wrote this post on January 12 but somehow left it as a draft and didn't post it until today, January 29!

Eleven days into the new year, and I have finished the first book and am halfway through the second book of the year. I can't help but be a bit disheartened at the knowledge that not too long ago I probably would have had three books read by now. I just don't read like I used to. At 49, going on 50, I guess I just don't do a lot of things like I used to do!

Excerpt from the book:
Elk Creek Valley was a blue and golden place that mid-summer morning in the Big Horn Country. It seemed like a joyous secret tucked away among the mountains, whose hazy, far-away summits were as blue as the sky above them. The lower ranges, too, were blue from purple haze and gray-green sagebrush, while the bare, brown foothills tumbling about their feet were golden in the sunlight. 


Virginia of Elk Creek Valley, published 1917, is set on a ranch in Montana not long before the start of The Great War. Virginia is about 17 years old in this story which details a summer on her father's ranch where she has invited three of her best friends from their school back east, along with two male friends and her own aunt, also from the east. The book has the expected East meets West adventures -- trail riding, camping, a barn-warming, bear hunting -- but the story isn't just about spending a summer on a ranch. Almost all of the visitors learn some very personal and sometimes painful lessons during their stay, like letting go of preconceived notions about people and that it's better to admit a mistake and laugh at yourself than to hold onto your pride and make yourself miserable. 

It's a good little story, written in the style so usual for young adult books from the early 1900s and the descriptive prose reminds me a little of Zane Grey's writing. It has religious overtones, typical of this type of book, but they aren't pushy and they don't interfere with the story. It's the type of book I would have read when I was younger. 

The only thing I didn't like about the book was that it was actually a continuation of an earlier book about Virginia and her friends, and there were many, many references to people and events from that book. I read a lot of series books, and I'm used to the author being able to weave in facts that we need to have from a previous book in order to understand certain things. There was no such weaving here. Chase simply referenced people and things without context, which was a little jarring, especially when alluding to a possible tragic romance between Virginia and someone named Jim (we get the feeling that something terrible happened to Jim). I didn't know there was a previous book about Virginia and her friends or I'd have read it first, even if it wasn't in my TBR pile. 

All in all, though, the book was good, and now I can cross it off my list. The characters were interesting and fairly well fleshed out. The plot was believable. The pace was quick. The writing style would be considered "old-fashioned" to modern readers but was typical of the period, with really good descriptive narrative and decently flowing dialog. I probably won't read it again, and it isn't something I will keep as a hard copy. Out of five stars, I would give it a good,solid four. I will look for other books by the same author, in particular the ones she is most well-known for, those set in her native state of Maine.


Mary Ellen Chase wrote more than 30 books, essays, and biographies during her writing career. She was born in 1887 in Blue Hill, Maine. One of eight children born to deeply religious parents, Chase was a scholar, teacher, and educator, earning an MA and Ph.D in English at University of Minnesota. She taught in a one room school, at a coed boarding school, a girls' private school, and two universities, including Smith College. She retired in 1955 and continued to live on-campus at Smith with her long-time companion,  historian Eleanor Duckett. Even after retirement she continued in education, both teaching (adult seminars at Radcliffe College) and learning (taking classes in the Hebrew language). She began writing at age 16, and set many of her works in her home state of Maine, but also wrote two books set in Montana where she lived and worked for a while recovering from an illness.


Next on the list (as of this writing, I'm almost finished with it) is The Sherlockian by Graham Moore.

So, how are you doing with your own personal reading challenge?

~ ~ Lori

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