Friday, June 29, 2012

Olde Tyme Religion

I don't find myself overtly religious, by any stretch of the imagination. I've always kept rather quiet about my beliefs for the most part, believing what I believe and embracing a "live and let live" stance regarding everyone else. Being this way, it sometimes surprises people to find that I actually do appreciate religion in many forms. I loathe getting in religious arguments with others (another reason to keep my beliefs largely private) but here in the world of books, I feel freer to share some of myself.  I love learning and reading about all world religions. Whether or not I embrace the ideology, I love the ritual and dedication found in so many belief systems. That's partly why I love to read about more strict religions such as Quakers, Mennonites, monks, nuns, etc. I am fascinated by the dedication. I am fascinated with the stories of how one decides to take that path. I was actually talking about this the other day with my mother when she was talking about how before she became a wife and mother, she was very much dedicated to her church and seriously entertained the idea of becoming a nun. Given my presence here, you can guess that particular plan wasn't carried out, but she's always remained a very devout woman, which I think influenced some of my fascination with the structure, ritual, etc of so many religions. But as I told my mother, I think for many young women aspirations of being a nun was in there at some point with wanting a painted pony when you're a girl - just part of growing up woman.

"Melancholie" by Jean-Jacques Henner (1829-1905)

That being said, you will occassionally find some religious themed works scattered amongst my posts. They won't be the overly preachy kind, but the kind that give you just enough to think about. And being curious about all religions as I am, there's sure to be a good mix of topics traveling through.

This being one in that mix -- Tillie: A Mennonite Maid by Helen R. Martin. There's surprisingly more suspense in this 1904 book than you might expect just from the title. This is the story of Tillie, a young Mennonite woman who feels oppressed, mainly by her father but also by her religion. She is encouraged by the local teacher hired to teach the Mennonite children in the community (the teacher is not a Mennonite herself, but sees such potential in Tillie that she encourages Tillie to go for what she wants.) Tillie moves to the city, finding work with her aunt (who runs a sort of B&B), where she meets a young hottie Harvard grad who also encourages Tillie to embrace her intelligence and not hide it under a butter churn, so to speak. Tillie's father on the other hand, is of the mentality that children are created for the purpose of working for the family, so there's no need for a bunch of extra fancy book learnin'. Thus begins the struggle of Tillie deciding whether to honor her family or enrich her own life.

The plot might be in an older format, but that aside, who hasn't struggled with what they want vs. what their family expects of them? Especially those in highly oppressive situations where one is given a heavy-handed dose of guilt for going for what they want! That's one of the big things that really appealed to me about this story. I might not connect with the religion but I can certainly relate to her struggle! At times it was hard to even keep reading because some of Tillie's struggles were so close to my own childhood, particularly in this instance where her parents are described:

Tillie's father was a frugal, honest, hard-working and very prosperous Pennsylvania Dutch farmer, who thought he religiously performed his parental duty in bringing up his many children in fear of his heavy hand, in unceasing labor, and in almost total abstinence from all amusement and self-induldgence. Far from thinking himself cruel, he was convinced that the oftener and the more vigorously he applied "the strap," the more conscientious a parent was he. His wife, Tillie's stepmother, was as submissive to his authority as were her five children and Tillie. Apathetic, anemic, overworked, she yet never dreamed of considering herself or her children abused, accepting her lot as the natural one of woman, who was created to be a child-bearer, and to keep man well fed and comfortable.  It had been her {Tillie's} father's custom -- ever since, at the age of five, she had begun to go to school -- to "time" her in coming home at noon and afternoon, and whenever she was not there on the minute, to mete out to her a dose of his ever-present strap. " I ain't havin' no playin' on the way home, still!When school is done, you come right away home then, to help me or your mom, or I'll learn you once!"

But thankfully, there were the strong, inspiring words of Miss Margaret to balance out the painful scenes, words that are good for any woman to be reminded by, at any time of life:

As soon as you are old enough, you must assert yourself. Take your rights -- your right to an education, to some girlish pleasures, to a little liberty. No matter what you have to suffer in the struggle, fight it out, for you will suffer more in the end if you let yourself be defrauded of everything which makes it worth while to have been born. Don't let yourself be sacrificed for those who not only will never appreciate it, but who will never be worth it. I think I do you no harm by telling you that you are worth all the rest of your family put together. The self sacrifice which pampers the selfishness of others is not creditable. It is weak. It is unworthy. Remember what I say to you -- make a fight for your rights, just as soon as you are old enough -- your right to be a woman instead of a chattel and a drudge. And meantime, make up for your rebellion by being as obedient and helpful and affectionate to your parents as you can be, without destroying yourself. 

One of my favorite gospel songs
with a couple of my favorite silver screen actors -

"Old Time Religion"
Gary Cooper & Walter Brennan 
Sergeant York (1941)

Johnny Cash version (awweesoome!):

 I also read through another antique title recently, in a similar vein as Tillie -- The Quakeress by Charles Heber Clark, this one from 1905, but this book was much drier in tone, not as interesting, I thought. I do recommend Tillie though, if you happen to come across a copy. There's a free online copy here.