“Born Free”: Timeless and Transcendent After All These Years

Have you ever re-discovered a book from your childhood that still has the power to move and profoundly impact you, even a half century after your initial read? If so, then you’ve found a true classic.

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Joy Adamson’s Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds is such a book.

Evocative and compelling, Born Free is the remarkable true story of Elsa, an orphaned lion cub raised by Joy Adamson and her husband, George. At its core, Born Free is a love story. With great sensitivity and precision, Adamson chronicles the mutual affection and bond between a magnificent lioness and the humans who loved her enough to release her to the Kenyan wilds where she was free born.

It’s probably the most moving and inspiring “animal story” I’ve ever read.

Joy Adamson wrote three books about African lions: Born Free, Living Free, and Forever Free. I read them all. Born Free is my favorite.

I first read Born Free in 1969, nine years after it was first published. I was in the fifth grade. Entranced, I read it over and over. There’s something timeless and transcendent about the story that’s difficult to put into words.

I lost track of Adamson and Elsa over the years. But I never forgot the extraordinary story of a free born lioness and the humans who loved her. I recently located a library copy of Born Free. Finally.

Elsa and “Born Free” author Joy Adamson.

Opening the Forward to the Fortieth Anniversary Edition (2000), I was startled to learn that Joy Adamson was stabbed to death by a disgruntled former employee in 1980. The news hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt like I’d lost a best friend I’d never met. So it was with a mixed sense of sadness and reverence that I sat in a sun-soaked living room in a far corner of the Olympic Peninsula nearly thirty years after that sad event and re-opened a book that profoundly impacted my life, especially with regard to animals.

Lavishly illustrated with black and white photographs, Elsa’s story is still an unforgettable one. So is Adamson’s prodigious writing talent. Her breezy, bucolic style recalls another formidable literary talent who writes so evocatively about her life in Kenya: Isak Dinesen. Like Dinesen, Adamson’s descriptions of her life as the wife of a senior game warden in East Africa have a luminous quality that is almost melodic.

My favorite photo from the book. Joy Adamson and Elsa.

I read Born Free cover to cover in one sitting. Here’s a key line, from page 109:

“Her (Elsa’s) good-natured temperament was certainly due in part to her character, but part too may have come from the fact that neither force nor frustration was ever used to adapt her to our way of life. For we tried by kindness alone to help her to overcome the differences that lie between our two worlds.”

The Adamsons and Elsa succeed beyond all expectations.

Re-reading the last chapter, The Final Test, the same intense sense of sadness and loss these pages evoked in me five decades ago bubbled up again from some deep internal well. It was as if Elsa and her human pride had never left, patiently waiting 50 years for my return to their story.

Recording Elsa’s success in finding her own wild pride and mate, Adamson writes:

“We returned to camp alone, and very sad. Should we leave her now, and so close a very important chapter of our lives?”

The Adamsons decide to wait “a few more days” to make sure Elsa has been accepted by the pride.

In the final elegiac paragraph, Adamson returns to her “studio” by the river to continue writing the story of Elsa, “who had been with us until this morning.” Sad to be alone, the author writes that she tries to make herself happy “by imagining that at this very moment Elsa was rubbing her soft skin against another lion’s skin and resting with him in the shade, as she had often rested here with me.”

I cried. Again.

And that, friends, is the mark of a true classic.

 

 

Elsa on Camp Bed Photo Credit

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Anacondas & Oracles

“Where in the world is Anaconda, Montana?” Mom asks me, peering over her reading glasses.

Do I look like an oracle?

“Wait…” She starts tapping away on the hand-held shiny thingy. Mumbles something about “Googling.”

“Looks like it’s in southwest Montana. Kind of near Butte.”

I have no clue what that means. Do you? Well, Mom’s smiling. She must be pleased with herself. So I’m pleased, too. Can you see my tail wagging?

“What’s up with Anaconda and Montana?” you ask. Well, ya, see, Mom just finished a book she’s been looking to re-read for a long, long time. Not a single library in our entire state carried it. She had to order it through Inter-Library Loan.  I don’t what that means. Sounds like a hassle.

Anyway, her long-looked-for book finally showed up. From one of those book places in Anaconda, Montana. I still don’t know what that means. But Mom finished all 247 pages of that book in one day. So it must’ve been good.

What was it? Oh. You mean the title? Spencer’s Mountain. Published in 1961. By Earl Hamner, Jr. You know, The Waltons guy. Only in this book, it’s not Walton’s Mountain. It’s Spencer’s Mountain. The family patriarch is Clay Spencer. His oldest son is Clay-Boy. Not John. And not John Boy.

But Mom really loves this story about a large family growing up poor in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. They made a movie out of it in 1963. With somebody called Henry Fonda as Clay Spencer. And another someone called Maureen O’Hara as Olivia Spencer, the mom. Some guy name “James MacArthur” plays Clay Boy.

“The movie closely parallels the book,” observes Mom. Even including the Rockfish River, Hickory Creek, and Charlottesville. Of course, the names of all the children are different than in the TV Waltons. But that’s another story.

Speaking of stories, have you ordered your copy of Mom’s latest book? It’s a little bit like this Spencer thing: The Small Things: What ‘The Waltons’ Taught Me About Writing & More.

Find out more at Shushes, Small Things & Plain Vanilla.

Arf! Arf!

A ‘Champion for the Ages’

Reposting from 2018 in honor of Derby Day and the 145th Run for the Roses!

***

“Inevitable.” Isn’t that a great word? Learned it from Mom the other day. As in, the 144st annual Run for the Roses is coming up on May 5. So debates about who was the Greatest Thoroughbred of All Time are… inevitable.

Or so I’m told.

A few other things I learned:

The “Run for the Roses” is also known as The Kentucky Derby. The Derby is always run on the first Saturday in May. It’s the first jewel in the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred horse racing.

Why do I care about Thoroughbred racing? Well, I don’t. Not really. But Mom does!

She’s been reading a Walter Farley book about one of the greatest champions to ever set hooves on a race track: Man O’War. Along with legendary Triple Crown winner Secretariat, Man O’War is a top contender for Greatest Thoroughbred of All Time honors.

Back to the Farley book.

Man O’War’s remarkable life unfolds through the eyes of fictional stable boy Danny Ryan. Mom says the story is nearly as powerful and compelling as the great Thoroughbred himself. I’m not sure what the means. But it sounds good.

Here’s Mom’s review of Farley’s Man O’ War.

So when Kentucky Derby time rolls around each May, the comparisons between Man O’ War and another great champion, Triple Crown Winner (1973) Secretariat, are inevitable. At least according to Mom. Which horse gets the nod for Horse of the Century? Depends on who you ask. And what day it is.

Both possessed blinding speed. Both ran challengers off their feet. Both broke records. Both have great stories.

So whether your vote for The Greatest goes to Secretariat or Man O-War, a few things are for sure:

1) May is the perfect month for awesome horse stories!

2) Any story by Walter Farley is a great story. Inevitably.

3) Churchill Downs promises another great Run for the Roses this Saturday. (“Run for the noses”? I always kinda thought that was when Mom calls me in for dinner. But I may be wrong about that.)

4) One of the finest athletes to ever set hooves on a race track, Man O’War remains a Champion for the Ages. Just like Walter Farley.

Is it dinner time yet?

Update – May 5: Congratulations to the 2018 Kentucky Derby winner, Justify!

Shushes, Small Things, & Plain Vanilla

Shhhh!

I’ve heard this a lot lately. Mom’s been working on a project. She calls it The Story. She’s spent like a million years at her keyboard working on it. Or maybe it’s only been 20 minutes?

Anyway, The Story is finally finished. Here it is! (Can I bark now? Like, real loud? Cuz this is like a big bark-worthy thing here, ya know?!)

Find out more at: The Small Things: What ‘The Waltons’ Taught Me About Writing & More.

Here’s one of my favorite parts. Near the end:

High above the river a bald eagle soars in slow circles. Dropping like a stone, the majestic raptor glides low over the water, talons out, and spears a fish. Great wings beating, he climbs to the nearest conifer to tear and eat. Northwest clouds cough out a cold chorus as sable night seeps over the Olympic Mountains.

Night rings down the curtain on day. Ideas roll around in my head like lost pennies. Small things like eucalyptus trees. A Michigan dairy farm. Guitar lessons. A first love. Girl’s chorus and my first creative writing teacher. Lunches and lagoons. Summer adventures and sheer stupidity. Time is like a penny. Life stories that don’t always go the way we planned. Clark Park, to which I’ve never returned….

… Peering out the window at a rising moon, I give thanks for family, friends, and a roof over my head. I recall A.J. Covington’s advice to a fledgling Walton writer and pad back to my keyboard. I can’t help but smile. You were right, Doc. You were right, indeed.

Mom says, “Sometimes even ‘plain vanilla’ has flavor.”

You’ll get that if you get The Story. Woof!

My Favorite Holiday!

Humans finally came up with a holiday I can sink my teeth into, so to speak. I mean, bark. Did you know that today is National Love Your Pet Day?

I mean, hey. After all the endless hours I spend guarding, playing with, walking, protecting, supervising and watching my humans and all the weird stuff they do (“Teeth brushing”? What’s up with that?), isn’t it about time I get some extra recognition?

You gonna eat that?

So today Mom’s making my favorite homemade treats. Come on, beef burgers!

We’re going to play chase the breakers at the beach and throw the ball and frisbee, too! Unless it’s snowing. Or pouring rain. Then we’ll just play in the weather!

Alright, who hid the ball?

Afterwards, I’ll curl up on my soft, fuzzy doggie blanket near the heating vent, all nice and cozy. Or even better: I’ll hijack and hog Mom’s blanket. If she’ll let me hop onto the recliner. Since it’s National Love Your Pet Day, that’s a pretty sure bet. Or I can always deploy my patented, never-fail, 100% guaranteed Adorable Puppy Eyes.

Not even Mom can resist that.

Is this place great, or what?

Check out my snazzy HUNTER ORANGE coat! It’s even waterproof!

How are you loving your four-legged buddy today?

Book Brontosaurus, Mobile Devices, and Pizza

View from Fremont TrailI had to laugh. Not because the situation was funny, but because there wasn’t much else to do.

Yours truly exercised executive privilege the other day and took the kiddos swimming at the local YMCA. Along with half the population of the Free World.

It seemed like a good idea at the time: a warm, blue, postcard-perfect summer day. An open afternoon. A recently renewed Y membership. A heated indoor pool. Almost-clean towels. (Nobody’s perfect.)

Continue reading

Book Tag!

I’m a tag expert. Get the ball? I’m on it! Fetch the stick! It’s mine! Grab the Frisbee? Oh yeah! So Mom says we’re getting the tail wagging for 2019 with a New Year’s Book Tag.

Ready to play? Aw, come on! It’ll be fun! Let’s jump on it! Ready? Set? Let’s go:

How Many Books Will You Read This Year?

Mom’s Goodreads goal was 365 books for 2018. She finished with 383. Can we get back to you on this year?

What are five books you didn’t get to in 2018 but will make a priority for 2019?

Hmmmm… Maybe Stephanie Garber’s Caraval series and Neal Shusterman’s Scythe series. You?

What genre do you want to read more of?

Creative non-fiction narrative. It’s non-fiction that reads like fiction, with a compelling plot. Mom wants to read more about Czar Nicholas II. I’m holding out for more Rin Tin Tin. Go figure.

Three non-bookish goals for 2019?

  • Mom: Walk 10 – 15 miles a week. Me: Walk 100 miles a week. (We may have to negotiate.)
  • Mom: Learn how to make tiramisu
  • “Teach the dog to let go of the ball” (What’s up with that?)

A book you’ve had forever that you still need to read?

Mom reads fast. I mean, Like. The. Wind. She also has a pretty good handle on what she is and isn’t interested in. So she doesn’t have much to say about this category. Other than she wants to finish the sequels to The Darkest Minds. You?

What word will define your 2019?

Just one? Are you kidding me?! Well, okay. If you insist. How ‘bout squirrel? No? Would you settle for pizza? (I like Hawaiian. Just sayin’.)

Now it’s your turn. Ready to do this? Consider yourself tagged.

Winning or Wounding and “Smithing” Well

Geyser spray

Niagara falls. Earthquakes. Stars. Old Faithful. Rainbows. A pen.

Power.

Writer, maybe you’ve never really thought about it before, but do you realize the power you have at your fingertips? The impact your words can have? There may be no other profession that can persuade, convince, motivate or edify like writing. Writers have the ability to create, enhance, improve, challenge, enlighten, embrace, entertain, or educate like few others. We can also destroy, defeat, discourage, dampen, denigrate, divide and dispirit.

If you’re a word smith, smith well. And carefully, because the “power of the pen” is immense.

Oops

Example: Awhile back I received a Dear John letter from a friend. Let’s call her Sally.

Okay, it wasn’t really a “letter.” It was more like a one-way ticket for an under-the-bus reservation. Seems I inadvertently “hurt her deeply” by not immediately returning an “I’m dying, please call me” message she left on my machine. While we were on vacation. Out of town. Tent-camping for a week in Incommunicado Land.

Her first message came in an hour after our departure for terra incognita. The second arrived the next day, and with increased voltage: “I can’t believe you haven’t called me back yet. I told you I was dying.” (This isn’t the first “I’m dying” call I’ve received from Sally.) I called her back when we got home. No answer. Left a message explaining we’d been out of town for a week, hoped she was feeling better, please give me a call and let me know how you are.

No response.

Several months later I received a four-sentence note from Sally. “Please do not contact me again” she wrote, “I’m not interested in a one-way relationship.”

At Your Fingertips

Now, I could go several different directions here. But to stay on target, here’s the point: If you’re a writer, you have enormous power at your fingertips. You can wound or win with your words. You can splash canvasses with color, wonder and intrigue. Introduce readers to far-off lands, distant destinations, or, like Tolkien, create entire worlds and histories in your head and transfer them to the page. You can inspire, amuse and make merry. You can also delve into the depths of despair, cut others off at the knees. Alienate, isolate, separate and depress.

A good example of the latter: 1984 by George Orwell and Night, by Elie Wiesel. If you’re really interested, here’s a list of the Top 10 Most Depressing Books. (I do not agree with this list entirely, but they got 1984 right.)

I scoured the internet in search of a reasonable, sane listing of the Top 10 Most Inspiring or Uplifting Books ever written. By “inspiring” I mean uplifting, engaging, poignant, powerful or laugh-out-loud. A beautifully crafted, thoughtfully written work that ignites an “Aha!” moment(s), drawing readers into something bigger than themselves.

‘Most Inspirational?’

I must’ve read through like nine zillion lists, usually punctuated with, “You have got to be kidding!” So, after I picked myself up off the floor, I decided to create my own. Here in no particular order are my purely subjective choices for Most Inspirational:

The Bible

The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams

Where the Red Fern Grows – Wilson Rawls

The Notebook, Three Weeks With My Brother – Nicholas Sparks

The Christmas Box, Road to Grace series – Richard Paul Evans

The Gift of the Magi, The Ransom of Red Chief – O. Henry

The Hiding Place – Corrie ten Boom

These Strange Ashes – Elisabeth Elliot

The Applause of Heaven, When God Whispers Your Name – Max Lucado

A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

Cold Tangerines – Shauna Niequist

The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

Secrets of the Vine, The Prayer of Jabez – Bruce Wilkinson

The Last Lecture – Randy Pausch

The Wizard of Oz – Frank Baum

For Those Who Hurt – Charles Swindoll

Woods Runner, Winter Dance – Gary Paulsen

The Mitford Series – Jan Karon

Inkheart – Cornelia Funke

Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Out of Africa – Isak Dinesen

Walking With God, Waking the Dead – John Eldredge

Sunrise to Paradise – Ruth Kirk

That’s the short, short list of champion wordsmiths who’ve “smithed” well. If you want the full list, check out my Book Shelf.

Kristine Lowder - close up

What’s on your list? Cite an example of someone who “smiths” well.

Ya Gotta Have the ‘Want To’

“383 books in one year?!” people suck in their breath. “How’d you do it?”

Well. I gotta be honest. It was me.

I mean, ‘cmon. Who do you think took Mom on all those walks to the library to grab the latest truckloadsof unread titles? Who do you think nosed through Mom’s book bag(s) until I settled on something worthy and trotted it out? Who do you think sat in her lap while she turned pages? And pages. And pages.

And. Pages.

You know how modest I am. But, hey. As they say, If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And I definitely Have. It.

Oh, sure. Mom says being a fast reader – somewhere between warp speed and 100 mph with your hair on fire – helps. Ditto audio books. Creative juggling. Prioritizing. Self-discipline.

Also reading and eating. Reading (audio) and driving. Reading and washing dishes, folding laundry, cleaning out the basement, mopping the floor, cooking (audio). Reading and walking (audio). Reading in the check out line. At red lights. In the doctor’s and dentist’s waiting room. Setting aside one day a week to read. Logging off the computer. Turning off the phone. Letting voice mail handle it.

Being a voracious reader and lifelong-bibliophile who’d rather get lost in a good book than eat doesn’t hurt, either.

But. If you really, really want to read 383 books in one year like Mom, here’s the key: Ya gotta have the want to.

It all comes down to commitment. Desire. Drive. Aka: the “want to.”

But we all know the real score here. Mom got all those books read because of me. After all, I’m a World Champion Want-To-er. I’m happiest when I’m with my peeps. Reading. Driving. Walking. At red lights. Waiting. Supervising (“Quiet! Mom’s reading!”). In Mom’s lap while she turns pages.

See? Told you it was me.

I love this job. Wait. Do I smell bacon?

Kimber the Magnificent (and modest, too!)

 

What’s your “gotta have the want to” for 2019?