The Boyhood of Christ by Lew Wallace – Selection #25 of Deal Me “IN” 2016

The Card: 2♣2 Two of Clubs.

The Suit: For 2016, Clubs is my suit for “Stories by ’Legendary’ Indiana Authors”

The Selection: “The Boyhood of Christ” first published by Harper and Brothers of New York in 1888. I found a copy online at https://archive.org/stream/boyhoodofchr00wall#page/n135/mode/2up which includes some great illustrations, a couple of which are included below.

The Author: Lew Wallace – one of the most famous Hoosiers of the 19th Century. Diplomat, Civil War general, and author of the epic, best selling novel, “Ben-Hur” (you may have seen the reasonably successful 1959 film version with Charlton Heston)

img_6202What is Deal Me “IN” 2016? I’m glad you asked! Before the start of each year, I come up with a list of 52 stories to read and assign each of them to a playing card in a standard deck. Each week, I draw a card, and that is the story I read. By the end of the year (52 weeks), I’m done, and ready to start a fresh deck. (For a more detailed explanation of the Deal Me In challenge, see the sign up post. For a look at my deck of cards/storylegacy project seal of approval 2roster click here.) Since 2016 is my home state’s bicentennial, in this year’s edition of my annual Deal Me In challenge, I’m reading only stories that have an Indiana “connection” of some kind. Deal Me “IN” is now also officially endorsed as a “Legacy Project” by The Indiana Bicentennial Commission.

The Boyhood of Christ

For week 25 of Deal Me “IN” I drew the two of clubs. In my version of the Deal Me In challenge, “deuces are wild” so I get to pick an “at large” story, preferably staying within the theme of the suit. Why did I choose this story? Well, partly because when I first announced my bicentennial version of Deal Me In December, I was scolded (good-naturedly, I presumed) for not initially including anything by Lew Wallace in a so called “Legendary Indiana Authors” category. Point taken, I made a mental note of it. So when the wild card came around, off I went in search of this lesser-known work of the author of Ben-Hur.

I was actually quite charmed by this story, even if the title is somewhat misleading (we don’t learn much more about the actual boyhood of Christ than is available in the scant scriptural references, but that doesn’t turn out to matter). The setting is at an estate when an evening dance for young people is taking place. Two young girls break away from the group and seek out “Uncle Midas” (a thinly disguised fictional version of Wallace himself) in hopes of him “telling them a story for Christmas Eve,” the occasion of the party. Wallace describes them as no longer girls, but not quite young women, and that “for persons so young they were well read, and could talk about great events and take delight in hearing of far countries.”

Aerial picture of study from: http://www.ben-hur.com/

The young auditors settle into Uncle Midas’s study (not coincidentally, also a fictional approximation of Wallace’s actual study – now a museum in Crawfordsville) to hear his story about The Boyhood of Christ. Uncle Midas explains how there are some stories not found in scripture that they may have heard, and relates some from the apocryphal “The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus” for his listeners. Ending these stories, he says of this gospel that “The book has its place on my shelf along with other religious curiosities, such as the Koran and the Mormon bible.” – Not sure how the Muslims and Mormons would feel about their faith being relegated to the status of “curiosity”(!)

Throughout his storytelling, Uncle Midas tries to give his young listeners an excuse to return to their party rather than continue to humor him by sitting through an old man’s storytelling. In spite of this, His audience continues to grow as the other young people at the party join them – at first to lure the initial two girls back to the party – but later finding themselves becoming rapt listeners as well. At the end, in a final plea, Midas says that “the band” (er, I mean the fiddlers) must be anxiously waiting their return, but:

“‘You are mistaken, Uncle,’ said Nan.

‘How so?’

‘The Fiddlers are here too, and have been for the past fifteen minutes.’

‘Oh! Very well; I am content with my short triumph over them. Good-night to you all.’

Thereupon the company went to him one by one; the boys shook his hand and thanked him and the girls kissed him. And the music and the dance went on until the holy-day stole through the windows.”

I DID say it was charming, remember? 🙂

image

I also loved an earlier passage  where the author describes how Uncle Midas (i.e. Wallace) has prepared to spend his retiring years:

“Uncle Midas had led a busy life; he had been a lawyer, a soldier, an author, and a traveller; he had dabbled in art, diplomacy, and politics; and, like most men so diversely occupied, there had never been a day in which he had not promised himself to let his mind say to his body, ‘Thou has served me well, and carried me about for much teaching, and I have profited much; now, O good servant, take thine ease; the gathered fruits are waiting, and I alone will continue to labor.’ At length, noting the coming of his mid-afternoon of life, he determined to make the promise good. Towards that end he built the study, and tied it to his house with the conservatory, reserving the shelves for those other and higher associates which, in their cloaks of cloth and gold, would also wait for him, and, being called, begin talking in a manner the cleverest tongue cannot attain…”


Illustration –  Mary teaching Jesus the alphabet

Playing card image found at: https://playingcardcollector.net/2013/07/18/kashmir-playing-cards-by-printissa/

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Soldier, Author, Diplomat…

I frequently talk with the other members of my book club about how one of my favorite “side effects” of reading a lot is how “connections” begin to form between the different books one reads. The inter-relatedness of one’s reading makes the reader begin to feel a sense of ‘cultural literacy’ (at least it does for me) that can make him swell with pride. Sometimes, it’s as overt as another book I’ve read being mentioned or referred to in a new book (an example of this would be my recent reading of The Help, which mentions To Kill a Mockingbird several times). Sometimes, it’s a reference to a person whose works you’ve read. One joy of becoming more familiar with the works of Kurt Vonnegut in the past year is that – with him being from Indianapolis – there are sometimes references that are perhaps more special to me, a fellow Indianapolitan…

I encountered something of this nature yesterday when I was (re)reading Cat’s Cradle for this Friday’s meeting of the KVML Book Club. In chapter 42 (the chapters in Cat’s Cradle are only a few pages long), the narrator, John (or Jonah, call him Jonah…) is on  a flight to The Republic of San Lorenzo and has encountered a couple, H. Lowe and Hazel Crosby, on the plane who also happen to be from Indiana. Hazel comments that “I’ve been around the world twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything.” Later she gushes, “The man who wrote Ben Hur was a Hoosier.” At this point I closed the book for a moment and, as Haruki Murakami might say, entered the realm of memory…

I went to college in Crawfordsville, Indiana, at the small but well-respected Wabash College.  Crawfordsville happens to have been the home of General Lew Wallace in his final years, and the location where he wrote the famous novel (which became a more famous Oscar winning movie) Ben Hur. Wallace was one of the town’s most famous citizens. His name is still on things all over town, including a motel and lounge. The town’s main theater, The Strand (sadly, no longer standing) showed Ben-Hur every spring around Easter, and I’m happy to say one year I took in the show in what must have been something resembling the original movie experience from 1959 (The Strand was one of those classic old, huge theaters that have largely disappeared in the age of the multiplex).

During my college years I became a habitual walker. The odd schedules that college students generally keep led me to even become a frequent walker late at night. I considered these late night walks “study breaks.” I walked all over town, sometimes logging several miles, admiring the many old and architecturally interesting houses in the quiet solitude of the late hour.  On one of these late night wanderings I “discovered” the Lew Wallace study, a historic landmark and museum. It became a favorite terminus of many of my walks.

My initial discovery was on a night walk, and normally the grounds were kept locked up and there was no admittance to be gained. The property is surrounded for the most part by a tall brick wall, and there were several times I walked speedily down the gently sloping sidewalk on the north side. At that time in my life, I was given to a sort of vague mysticism that these night walks helped incubate. Something about walking along this wall enhanced the mystery of what was on the other side. A few times I even imagined that some sort of ‘guardian entity’ would shadow my steps, following along with me just on the other side of that wall. Of course, I could’ve returned to the spot in the daytime to learn more about this place, but that would spoil the aura of mystery my imagination had built around it. One night however, the gate was open, and I crossed the threshold…

The grounds were fairly large, and one of the first things I encountered was a statue of Wallace, whose square base had his name engraved on one side, with the other three sides bearing the words Soldier, Author, Diplomat – in honor of Wallace’s three main careers. A little further to the east was the study itself. A hearty but not ostentatious fortress of solitude, I could certainly appreciate the sentiment which led to its construction. Wallace once wrote,

“I want a study, a pleasure-house for my soul, where no one could hear me make speeches to myself, and play the violin at midnight if I chose. A detached room away from the world and its worries. A place for my old age to rest in and grow reminiscent, fighting the battles of youth over again.” (Letter to Susan from Santa Fe, Dec. 4, 1879.)

The piercing quiet of the late night and the thrill of “discovery” has forever imbued this place with a magical aura that I still feel to this day. I’ve often thought of visiting it again as an adult, but again, I almost feel that would ruin it for me. I often now marvel at the fact that never in my late night perambulations and trespassings was I ever encountered by any local law enforcement, who might not appreciate the innocent motives of my “study breaks.”

So, thank you, Kurt Vonnegut, for leading me to excavate this memory…