Your Ancestors Could Have Met Jean Valjean

29043I’m currently on a French literature binge. Having recently finished The Count of Monte Cristo, I started Les Misérables a few weeks ago. While both these stories are worth reading (and re-reading), they’re both very long. I read an abridged version of Les Misérables in high school without realizing it was abridged. Who would expect the abridged version to be 500 pages?

And that’s less than half the full book. That Victor Hugo is a rambler.

Reading the two books back to back has taught me quite a bit about France in the nineteenth century, most of which I didn’t know, or had forgotten.

The French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille, the medieval prison in Paris, on July 14, 1789. This day was followed by the years known as the Reign of Terror.

This part I was familiar with. The guillotine, the mass genocide, and the execution of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are dramatic and bloody.

But I wasn’t as familiar with the period after this, which was rocky for France as well.


By 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte had taken over and declared himself the Emperor—so much for democracy. His reign lasted ten years. In 1814, he was exiled to the Island of Elba, but escaped a year later to make a final attempt at power. He lost the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, at which point King Louis XVIII permanently resumed the throne.

Please excuse the history lesson. All this interested me because The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Misérables both take place in the years after the king has regained the throne. Even though the monarch isn’t going anywhere, France is still reeling from the political upheaval of the last thirty years, elements which play heavily into the plots of both novels.

This similar time frame interested me so much that I decided to investigate the book timelines more closely. If the fiction world existed, both Jean Valjean and Edmond Dantès would be living out their adventures at the same time. I found this amusing, so I included a few other books in my research as well. Here’s how that timeline would look, if these fictional heroes walked in our world:

In 1769, Jean Valjean of Les Misérables is born. While he is a child, the American colonists are fighting for freedom in the 1770s.

Somewhere around 1780, Mr. Darnay and Lucie Manette of A Tale of Two Cities give birth to their daughter.

guillotine3 Benjamin Franklin dies in 1790. Two years later, during the Reign of Terror, Mr. Darnay comes to France to free a faithful servant. He is imprisoned himself. While he is in prison, Sir Percy Blakeney of The Scarlet Pimpernel is secretly smuggling French nobility out of the city to escape the guillotine. Apparently, he misses Mr. Darnay.

In 1795, Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to keep his sister’s children from starving, and goes to prison for it. A year later, in 1796, Edmond Dantès of The Count of Monte Cristo is born.

Over in America, George Washington dies in 1799. By this time, Darnay and Lucie’s daughter is probably married, and Lucie has grown old.

When Abraham Lincoln is a two-year-old toddler, in 1811, Miss Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice meets Mr. Darcy. They are married in 1812, while their county is at war with the Americans.

Jean_ValjeanThree years later, Jean Valjean has just been released from 19 years’ worth of prison, and has his fateful encounter with the Bishop Myriel. Meanwhile, Edmond Dantès is sailing into port as a young 19-year-old, ready to become a ship’s captain and the husband of the beautiful Mercedes.

As Jean Valjean’s good fortune rises, Edmond Dantès’ sinks. By the time Dantès emerges from prison in 1829, Jean Valjean and Cosette are safely tucked away at a convent in Paris, and young Marius Pontmercy is learning to become revolutionary.

In 1832, Marius helps with the short-lived revolution in Paris, Jean Valjean saves him from death, and dies himself. Dantès, meanwhile, is biding his time before he takes his vengeance against his enemies in 1838.

In 1845, just seven years later, Scarlett O’Hara of Gone with the Wind is born.

Of course, I could go on an on. There are so many wonderful books from the nineteenth century, and I’ve hardly touched on some of my favorite British characters. Fun to imagine, right?

Question: Who is your favorite character from these books? Why? Leave a comment!

Monthly Reads: June

Monthly Reads

July already. Wow; time flies. Here’s to the month of June and its reading, full of sunshine and good books.



The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Genre: French Literature

Talk about a long book! I loved it, but it took me over a month to listen to it on audiobook. Adventure, romance, questions of justice, vengeance, and mercy. The main character, Edmond Dantes, is worth getting to know.


18249280Blackveil and Mirror Sight by Kristen Britain

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

The fourth and fifth novels in the Green Rider series, which I have enjoyed over the last two months. I’m not sure what I think about the fifth and newest installation. The author makes the plot go in an unexpected direction, and the genre of her work becomes steam punk fantasy instead of the traditional fantasy in the rest of the series. The jury is still out—we’ll see what the sixth book brings.

4671The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Genre: American Literature

One of my reading rules is that I won’t watch a movie before I’ve read the book. So The Great Gatsby has been on my reading list lately, especially since the recent film. I didn’t read it in high school because I was reading other books (Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Aquinas, etc.) I liked it. It’s very classically American, and Fitzgerald makes his readers think.


Pearl in the Sand by Tessa Afshar

Genre: Historical fiction

This is a retelling of Rahab’s story, the prostitute from Jericho who saves herself and her family by choosing to follow the Hebrew God instead of the idol Baal. I liked Tessa’s book; it’s pretty accurate both to the historical setting, and to the Bible’s account of the events. She tells the story well and makes it entertaining and moving.


Phantastes by George MacDonald

Genre: Fantasy, Literature

I’ve wanted to read some George MacDonald for a while now, because he influenced both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. All three writers share the same philosophy of fairy tales. This book was well worth the time. It’s a fairy tale for grown-ups, and also acts as an allegory for the Christian walk. A very impressive little book.


Midwife of the Blue Ridge by Christine Blevins

Genre: Historical fiction

This book was unique because it’s an American colonial book, but it doesn’t take place where all the Revolutionary action was happening at the time—Boston, Philadelphia, New York, etc. Instead, it takes place on the frontier of Virginia, and the main character is an immigrant from Scotland who has to deal with the hostility of the Native Americans. I enjoyed entering the world of the book.

My favorite book from June? It’s a toss-up between Phantastes and The Count of Monte Cristo. Both contain thought-provoking plots, but are also entertaining as fiction.

Question: Did you finish any books in June? If so, which ones? Leave a comment!

How Much Blood Does the American Flag Cost?

For the last twenty years, since I was two years old, my family’s 4th of July tradition has consisted of the same events. We first attend our neighborhood carnival, which includes the ferris wheel, the giant slide, and cotton candy. Next is our street block party with hot dogs, American flag shortbread cookies, and basketball games. Finally, the classic Flag Day event, the fireworks. For the last few years, I’ve also added a 5k or 10k race to that line-up.

1997. I'm in the middle, with my cousin on the left and my sister on the right.

1997. I’m in the middle, with my cousin on the left and my sister on the right.

While this is fun, there’s so much more to the celebration of the Union. I decided to find out how much blood those red, white, and blue decorations have cost our country. The facts are pretty astounding:

American Revolutionary War (1775-1783): 50,00 dead or wounded

War of 1812 (1812-1815): approximately 20,000 dead or wounded

Civil War (1861-1865): 750,00 dead (not including wounded)

World War I (1917-1918): 320,518 dead or wounded

World War II (1941-1945): 1,076,245 dead or wounded

Korean War (1950-1953) :128,650 dead or wounded

Vietnam War (1955-1975): 211,454 dead or wounded

War on Terror (2001-present): 57,614 dead or wounded

BunkerHillThat’s a total of 2,614,481 soldiers who have been killed or wounded defending our country—and that’s just the big wars. I haven’t included all the Native American wars, the Spanish-American wars, or any of the other small conflicts the US has participated in since the founding of the Union. If you’re interested, the full list is here.

The end of the Declaration of Independence says this:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States…they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Here’s to the men and women who have made the Fourth of July possible.

Monthly Reads: May

Monthly ReadsSo…it’s been a while. (A month? Really?) But in that month, I graduated from college, started working, and became engaged. Not that any excuses are good ones, but still…

I’m ready to get back to it! So let’s start with a belated list of May reading.



Green Rider by Kristen Britain

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

The first in the Green Rider series. In a world where magic is feared and reviled, a girl receives the magical “rider call” to enlist as one of the king’s messengers, all of whom secretly use magic to perform their duties. I’ve enjoyed reading through this series. Though not terribly original, the author has built an energetic world, and there’s good potential for romance, which the author tastefully doesn’t carry too far in this first book.


147844 147842

First Rider’s Call and The High King’s Tomb by Kristen Britain

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

The second and third books in the Green Rider series. The characters develop nicely, and the romance takes an unexpected, but realistic turn. The overall plot also thickens like cake batter when whipped. I approve.



A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

This book has popped up on multiple lists over the last few years, so I thought I’d give it a try. The story revolves around a young Russian countess who flees when the Tzar is overthrown, and now must find work as a maid in England to help support her mother and brother. I liked the intersection between the Russian and British cultures, and learned quite a bit about both through that interaction.



Taste of Darkness by Maria Snyder

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

The third book in Maria Snyder’s Healer trilogy. I’ve been waiting for a while for this one to come out, then for the libraries to own it. It was a good conclusion to the trilogy. Maria’s several trilogies all have similar stories, characters, and plots, and this one fit the mold. But it’s my favorite of her stories, maybe because it’s the first one I delved into.



Bones of Faerie by Jannie Lee Simner

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

This one wasn’t my favorite. It’s part post-apocalypse, part fantasy coming of age. Enjoyable, but better for a younger audience—maybe junior high age. The best aspect of the book was that the author incorporated some death magic into the main character’s abilities, which is more unusual.

Amazingly, no serious pieces of non-fiction or literature in May. I was working through The Count of Monte Cristo, but that’s a long one, so I just finished it. Stay posted…

First Impressions: A Short Story

I’ve written quite a bit about other people’s stories, so I think it’s time to share one of my own. Below is a short story for your consideration. Please feel free to leave a comment—writing is almost always a work in progress, and I would like to hear what you think.

empty-high-school-hallway-jpgFirst Impressions

The first time I met my husband, I slapped him.

I was at a new high school senior year because my dad switched jobs. I hated leaving my long-term friends back home, but I shoved my anxiety into the deepest crevices of my mind and told myself to make friends or die trying. By lunch the first day, I had met a few girls in Physics who invited me to sit with them.

We were sitting down at a table in the shade when we heard raised voices coming from the lockers. Several seniors were tormenting a cornered freshman.

One of my new acquaintances nodded to the senior in the middle, who was laughing as his friend shoved the freshman into the lockers.

“That’s John. Everyone wants to go out with him, girls salivate when he walks by.”

I shook my head. “I wouldn’t want to go out with anyone who’s such a jerk.” An image flashed in my mind—my best friend Owen had received a few beatings our freshman year. I had been too afraid to do anything at the time, and it still caused a sick knot in my stomach. My friend had needed help, and I hadn’t been brave enough to stand up for him.

I put down my plastic fork. “I’ll be right back.”

As I marched over to the lockers, I wondered what I was doing. It was my first day—I should be making friends, not enemies. But I kept picturing Owen.

“Excuse me,” I said to John. He turned to me, surprised. Without waiting for an invitation, I stepped around him to stand in front of the freshman. “I think this poor kid has been bullied enough for one day.”

They stared at me. “Who are you?” John asked.

I tried to make myself as tall as possible. “I’m Christina. Don’t you have lunches to eat?”

John’s face turned from surprise to incredulity. “You think you can just interfere?”

I realized that I was eye-level with the middle of his chest. “That’s exactly what I think. You’re a big bully, and I won’t have it.”

He took one step forward, and that was when I slapped him. My hand left a light pink mark on his cheek. He gaped at me.

“Don’t let me catch you again.” I let the freshman make his escape, and then went back to lunch and my awestruck classmates.

I spent the rest of the school year fending off John’s romantic advances. He wanted to get my number, to buy me coffee, to take me to homecoming and winter formal and prom. He wanted to drive me home when he found out I took the bus. He even invited me to the Sadie Hawkins dance. But I had told Kendal I didn’t date jerks—no matter how attractive—and kept to my word. It didn’t matter that he had stopped bullying. My first impression of him had stuck.

When I started my freshman year at Arizona State University, I walked into my first day of my backpacking PE class and saw John at one of the desks. I tried to sit in the back, but he saw me and moved to sit next to me.

“Hey Christina,” he said. “I didn’t know you were going to ASU.”


“Look. I know we got off to a bad start last year, but could we try again? Please?”

I looked at him. While it was true that all the girls at high school had salivated after him, he hadn’t dated anyone our senior year. “Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

Through the Wicket Gate

pilgrim-gateYou get two book recommendations from two different friends. The first one says, “You should read this great novel I just finished.” The second one says, “You should read this great allegory I just finished.”

Which one would you read? Most of us would probably choose the novel over the allegory. “Novel” sounds fun and interesting—a story that will whisk you off into an adventure. “Allegory” sounds like hard work—you have to think deeply to dig out the hidden meaning beneath the words.

I just finished reading The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, a classic text of Christian fiction. It’s the story of a man named Christian who leaves his home, family, and all his worldly possessions to seek the king’s Celestial City, and be freed of the heavy burden on his back. Published in 1678, it’s full of “Thee” and “Thou” and “must needs be.” I enjoyed reading the work, but came away with a question of categorization: is it a novel or an allegory? What’s the difference between the two?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “allegory” comes from the Middle French word allegorie, which first popped up in the seventeenth century—about the same time The Pilgrim’s Progress was written. This word originally referred to “a narrative which has a hidden or ulterior meaning.”

This definition includes works such as Jesus’ famous parables. These stories contain symbolism and a hidden meaning meant for those who, if they have ears, can properly “hear.” (The words “parable” and “allegory,” according to the OED, can be interchangeable.)

For example, in the parable of the sower, a man goes out to sow his crop, and the seeds are scattered in different types of soil. The story is full of symbolism: the seed represents the Gospel, and the different kinds of soil represent the hearers’ reactions to the news. Other famous allegories include Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This definition also includes The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Two questions naturally follow this categorization:

1. Is an allegory like The Pilgrim’s Progress worth reading? After all, a novel will be more fun to read than a 330-year-old book.

The short answer is, Of course it’s worth reading. We wouldn’t still be talking about it 330 years later if it wasn’t. It’s considered a classic Christian text (which is a reason in itself), but it’s also useful for instruction in the believer’s life. Just because allegories aren’t trendy to write in the 21st century doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them. Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress as an inspiration for believers to stay on the path of righteousness, and as a practical guide for avoiding pitfalls and errors on the way. We can still use the story to serve these purposes.

2. How do we go about reading an allegory? It’s not a devotional, but it’s also not fiction written for the sake of entertainment, like Harry Potter or a mystery by Sue Grafton.

Bunyan was writing at a time when almost all written work was created for the sake of teaching or argumentation, not for pleasure. “Novels” as we understand them today, didn’t exist. We might even consider The Pilgrim’s Progress as a kind of precursor to the modern novel.

As an allegory, we can’t read Pilgrim’s Progress as we would read a devotional or a novel. It’s fiction, so we need to follow the characters’ stories, but we also need to find the second, deeper meaning, which is even more important than the first.

Thankfully for us modern folk who aren’t used to reading allegories, Bunyan is very clear about his symbolism. The people Christian meets along the way include Hypocrisy, Faithful, Hopeful, and Mr. Worldly Wise. Christian journeys through places such as the Hill of Difficulty and the Plain of Ease. This kind of symbolism is easy to follow.

With an allegory, it’s helpful to and try to see both the text’s meanings at once. Allegories are a good hybrid because they provide a certain amount of entertainment, but also invite the reader to dig into the deeper meaning of the text.

A two-in-one package: entertainment and theological lessons. Sounds like a bargain to me.

Monthly Reads: April

Monthly ReadsApril is a busy month for my family: two birthdays, plus Easter. So I did a lot of reading in the car—or rather, listening. The library’s audiobook feature is handy.



The Idea of a University, by John Henry Newman

Genre: Education, Literature

This is a series of lectures given by the founder of the first Catholic college in Ireland, in the 1800s. He asks questions such as, “What is the purpose of a University?” “Is theology a scientific study?” and “Should we teach practical skills in a University?” I liked his ideas, but he could have said them in twenty pages instead of two hundred and fifty.



15806868Towering by Alex Finn

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

A fairly entertaining retelling of Rapunzel. It has a believable setting, given the fantasy nature of the story. But the story itself wasn’t all that engaging. I can read a good book for hours on end, but this one was easy o put down. Overall, so-so.



Allegiant_novel_coverAllegiant by Veronica Roth

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

I was very happy with the ending of the Divergent series—much more than the ending of the Hunger Games. While the Hunger Games ends with despair, Allegiant ends with the hope of restoration and redemption. It’s definitely worth finishing the series.



TheSoundAndTheFuryCoverThe Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Genre: Literature

Wow—talk about an intense book. I listened to this one, and was very confused when it started. The first narrator is mentally disabled, and jumps between memories without telling the reader. When I finally understood what was happening, I could follow it better. A classic book, but be forewarned—it’s not for the faint-hearted.



116563So You Want to be a Wizard by Diane Duane

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

This is the first book in the popular So You Want to be a Wizard series. I’d heard about this series for a while, and thought I’d read the first one. If I was anywhere between the ages of ten and fifteen, I would be chomping at the bit for the second one.



abolitionofmanAbolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

Genre: Philosophy

This set of three essays is arguably Lewis’ most important work. He discusses the problems associated with modernist thought, which ends in the abolition of humanity.



images-2The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

A book about magic, chocolate, and love—pretty cute. It’s not one of the best young adult fantasies I’ve read, but was worth the four or five hours I put into it.



ThehelpbookcoverThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

Genre: Historical Fiction

After the film came out a few years ago, a friend of mine read the book and recommended it to me. So I put the movie on hold until I had read the book. It was fantastic. Educational, entertaining, heart-rending—definitely worth the read.



pilgrims_progressThe Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

Genre: Christian Literature

I thought I had already read this book; my mom had read it to me when I was little. But then I started it, and realized she must have read me the children’s version. Written in the 17th century, it’s full of “Thee” and “Thou” and “must needs be.” But I still liked it—Bunyan communicates spiritual practice through narrative, which was revolutionary at the time.

As for my favorite out of all these… It’s a close run between Abolition of Man and The Help. But one is fiction and the other non-fiction, so I should be allowed to choose both, right?