Title: History of Illinois in Words of One Syllable
Author: Thomas W. Handford
Publisher: Belford, Clarke & Co. (1888)
ISBN: about a century too early for ISBN
Are you intrigued? So was I when I found this supposedly monosyllabic and "profusely illustrated" history of Illinois, in a book store that has quite a decent collection of fascinating old volumes.
The first thing to understand about this book is that it is very hard to understand this book. The "one syllable" thing actually means that ev-er-y sin-gle word in ev-er-y sin-gle sen-tence on ev-er-y sin-gle page is bro-ken up with hy-phens like this. How-ev-er, some-times the syl-la-bles are ques-tion-a-ble. Take a look at some of the pages below and you'll see what I mean. See how the word "Indian" is broken into two syllables (making it sound like "Injun", which may have been a more common usage of that time) while the word "uncared" is supposed to have three syllables (un-car-ed) even though it's never to my knowledge been pronounced that way.
Are you even more intrigued now that you've seen the inside of the book? I was. I couldn't quite grasp why this book was published. Why would a publishing company make money by printing a large number of difficult to read books split up into strange quasi-syllables (more accurately "word bits"). At first glance it might be a school textbook (young people can so rarely understand more than one syllable) but the language seems very adult. After I got this book I showed a number of bookish types that I know but nobody could come up with an explanation. Then when I took the book back to the store, I got an answer that kind of makes sense.
Are you ready?
Are you sure?
Apparently, it was a book for immigrants who were new to the country and still learning English. Despite a terribly verbose writing style, this explanation makes some sense. Highlighting "-ed" on a word helps an ESL learner visualize the past tense (it must have messed with their pronounciation though). Using lots of cultural terms like "deep reverence" or "it was customary" makes sense if your audience is immigrants - although it's not at all the simplified language style we might find in an ESL textbook today.
You might expect that a book like this one would not be without its unique biases. You would be right. In addition to painting an image of native Americans as uncivilized savages, it is filled with interesting messages about women. Check out the excerpt below which asserts that "the red man was the warrior, the hero, the huntsman, and his squaw was his slave". The passage seems to set Native American customs apart from "our latest American civilization". While reading this passage, I couldn't help but wonder what the author's wife was doing while he wrote this book? And who was doing his washing, or cooking? If not his wife then a female servant?
I still haven't finished this book although I am quite desperate to make it to the end to find out what happens to Lincoln. ;)
In all seriousness though, I am so happy to have a book about the history of Illinois that was written by a likely contemporary of Abraham Lincoln (if the author was 79 when he wrote this book, he would have been born in the same year as Lincoln). Since I haven't finished the book, I can't give away the ending, but perhaps something really interesting will come up and I'll have to write a part 2....
These days my town has become much more multicultural due (in part) to an influx of refugees from Sudan. Not all of our white residents have been welcoming to the newcomers, but I really like to think that Australians on the whole are willing to give people at least a "fair go" - the benefit of the doubt. Others in the town, like my friend who is herself a reverse refugee of sorts (she moved back home from Fukushima in Japan after the earthquake with her two small children), work actively in the area to make sure our most vulnerable new residents are made feel welcomed in the community. I asked my friend what Christmas present she could recommend me to buy myself from my hometown, and she recommended this book.
The author, originally from Austria and an immigrant to Australia (and my hometown), wrote this book about a real-life encounter she witnessed in a local park when her daughter befriended a girl from Sudan. The story is simple - the two little girls spend time together in the park while the girl from Sudan learns English. At home, the girl curls up under her "blanket" (a metaphor for her life experiences and language). As her English language develops, she has two blankets - her old one and the new one, woven from new experiences and words as she collects them.
Two colour palettes are used deliberately throughout the book, and you can see them right on the cover above. The "old blanket" from Sudan and all things Sudanese are painted in rich red tones, warm and dark and familiar. The "new blanket" colours (everything from the new land) are fresh, cold, pale or dull blues and grays. In this way you can feel how foreign and unfamiliar the new land is to the young girl. When she makes a "new blanket" from her new experiences and knowledge, she is not replacing the "old blanket". Rather, she now has two blankets and a wealth of life experiences that she can call her own.
My hometown in Australia is probably gearing up for another summer Christmas right now. The old designs of Christmas firs and snow probably still decorate some Christmas cards, while on others Summer Santa is surfing on his surfboard while his kangaroos loll on the beach drinking a beer. Australia is finding its own identity around Christmas, but it is also finding ways to include residents for whom Christmas itself is not as familiar. Whatever your views this season, it is to be hoped that the love in your heart (the love that starts with two children in the park) is the most important thing.
An Australian who lived in Japan with my bicultural family now living in the USA, I believe that there are more different realities than there are books to be written.