Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Fourth of July in fiction

I was sitting in traffic this morning, looking forward to the July 4th holiday coming up (even though going back to work on Friday will feel a little weird), and I started thinking about some of my favorite fictional Fourths.  The ones I came up with are all from children's books, the best-loved ones that are still on my shelves:

My all-time favorite is probably in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Town on the Prairie.  De Smet, the little town on the Dakota prairies, has survived the Long Winter and is growing daily as new settlers arrive to stake their claims.  It is prosperous enough to have a celebration on the Fourth, though Ma is disappointed that it will just feature horse-racing, not the picnic with the traditional fried chicken that she would prefer.  Laura and Carrie are thrilled to go with Pa, to enjoy fireworks, eat pickled herring, listen to a reading of the Declaration of Independence (which they all know by heart, of course), introduce Carrie to lemonade, and watch that young Wilder boy win a buggy race with his team of perfectly-matched Morgans (which they win in spite of the heavy peddlar's wagon they're pulling).  In Farmer Boy, set ten years earlier, Almanzo's whole family goes to the Fourth celebrations in the town of Malone.  There he is taunted by his mean cousin Frank because he doesn't have a nickel to buy lemonade.  When he asks his father for the money, he gets a homily on hard work, but he is rewarded in the end with a half-dollar.  Surprisingly for Farmer Boy, which I've seen described as food porn, there is no luscious description of the picnic lunch that Mother packed (reading this book always leaves me hungry and craving apple pie, which they eat for breakfast).

The only Fourth I can remember in Louisa May Alcott's books is in Eight Cousins.  Rose and Uncle Alec are spending a delightful holiday camping with the boys and the perfect Aunt, Jessie, on Campbell's Island.  But Rose decides to return to the aunts' house and send Phoebe, her friend the family's maid-of-all-work, off to the Island to enjoy a rare holiday on the Fourth.  She has to trick everyone, including Phoebe, to accomplish this.  While she nobly enjoys "a quiet, busy day, helping Debby, waiting on Aunt Peace, and steadily resisting Aunt Plenty's attempts to send her back to the happy island," everyone else on the "happy island" is fretting because she isn't there, particularly Phoebe, who doesn't enjoy her holiday at all.  Kindly Uncle Mac finally drags her out of her slight martyr complex to watch the fireworks.

I also like the Fourth of July with Sydney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind-Family, who celebrate on New York's East Side in the early 1900s.  All the familiar elements are there - flags, bunting, firecrackers -  but the family feasts on potato kugel rather than hotdogs and apple pie.  (In the next chapter Mama takes the girls to Coney Island for the day, with a picnic lunch that includes limburger sandwiches.)

One of the very nicest Fourths takes place in Philadelphia in the 1820s, in Jane Flory's Faraway Dreams.  Maggy Mulligan has been rescued from the Seafarer's Safe Harbor, an orphan's home, by Miss Charlotte Sutcliffe, a milliner, who has taken her as an apprentice.  Miss Sutcliffe has a tiny workroom in a house shared with her sister, whose pompous husband and spoiled daughter hate having a relative in trade but depend on her earnings.  Miss Sutcliffe is an artist whose bonnets are much in demand, and Maggy slowly grows to love the beautiful fabrics and the creative work, as well as her gentle mistress.  After long summer days of hard work, Miss Sutcliffe declares that they will take a holiday on the Fourth and enjoy the whole day: "The prospect was exciting. Independence Day was celebrated all over the country, of course, but nowhere with more enthusiasm than in Philadelphia where the Declaration had been signed."  It is a day of pure delight, start to finish.  I loved this book as a child, checking it out over and over again from the library.  I was so happy to find a copy again a few years ago, and to find that it is still a joy to read.  Jane Flory wrote another of my favorite childhood books, One Hundred and Eight Bells, about a young Japanese girl growing up in Tokyo in the early 1960s.  It was my introduction to Japanese holidays like New Year's, which sounded particularly fun.  Sadly, her books have probably been purged from most libraries these days.

Any favorite fictional Fourths to add to the list?


  1. I can't think of a single one ... so thank you for celebrating for us! (My strongest L.I.W. memory is of the book when they move into town for a long cold winter and it's so cold that they have to dress under the bedcovers, so that's no help.)

  2. I had such a fun evening, pulling all my old favorites off the shelves :) I re-read The Long Winter during Hurricane Ike - all those roaring winds in the story!

  3. Thank you for this post! When I came across it I had just been trying to think of some fictional Fourths. These are some of my favorites. The Little House and All-of-a-Kind Family books have such great food writing! Even those Limburger sandwiches sound appealing.

  4. What a great post! Sadly, I am drawing a complete blank on fictional 4ths.

  5. elizabeth, I think Farmer Boy has the most luscious food - the Wilders certainly ate better than the Ingalls family! Have you seen the Little House Cookbook? With the AOAKF books, I've always wanted to try the Purim Haman taschen, but with poppyseeds.

    JoAnn, I could only think of one Fourth in an adult novel, and it wasn't a very exciting one. Of course, I do read more British novels these days, but I wonder if other holidays, like Christmas or New Year's, have more potential for grown-up stories. Still, fireworks do seem to bring out the kid in many of us - just hand me a sparkler & I'm off down memory lane.

  6. I don't celebrate the fourth, but I remember being completed enchanted by the All-of-a-Kind books!

  7. Debbie, I read the All of a Kind books over & over as a child. I've come across several of them in library sales lately & happily added them to my shelves.

  8. Yes, LIW's Little Town on the Prairie 4th of July is wonderful, as is Farmer Boy's. Now, you've got me scouring my brain to come up with other fictional 4ths, and also drawing a blank. I haven't read Eight Cousins, so I don't even have that!

    For such a wonderful summer holiday that has such memories for so many people, I wonder why it doesn't figure in fiction more?

  9. Jane, I wonder too! Maybe because it's more exciting for kids? For adults it mostly means a day off from work.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!