Saturday, January 13, 2007

Book review; Surviving The Applewhites by S. Tolan

I want tell you about a book. It’s called Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie Tolan and it’s about a super- creative, unschooling family in rural South Carolina who absolutely thrive in chaos all except for one---E.D (who prefers order and structure to her homeschool).

For the children of this family, it’s self directed learning--what unschooling is supposed to be-- at its most free. Mayhem and disorder are part of the deal but there is actually ‘method to this madness’ as Jake Temple finds out when he comes to live with the Applewhites.

A spiked, crimson-haired, black clothed, juvenile delinquent sporting a studded collar and earrings, Jake is no innocent rose and has pulled some pretty creative stunts of his own, like burning down his last school in Rhodes Island.

When Jake, who consequently, gets sent to live with his grandfather predictably gets thrown out from the highschool there, Applewhite clan member and poet, Aunt Lucille who tends to have a "pathologically sunny" view of life and who happens to teach at said high school invites him to come to Wits End.

Wits End combines a furniture factory, gallery, studio, goat compound and the Creative Academy which Jake becomes a member of. Patriarch and grandfather Zedediah Applewhite, agrees it’s a "noble and socially responsible thing to do."

Living individual, intense, creative lives, the adults have transmitted this attitude onto their 4 charges- so that the children are encouraged to self-design, be self motivated and follow their bliss, by default really. Both adults and children are all so busily engaged in their own endeavors that an ordinary, mundane inquiry like ‘what’s for supper?’ is met with glazed looks.

Randolph the father who is a theatre director, has forgotten to go grocery shopping this week so it will be bits of tofu dogs, scraps of bacon and beet tops or whatever else you can scrap together to make a meal.

It’s a good thing that Lucille’s guru friend Ravi Govindaswami, who comes for a visit and is also adopted into the family is such a fantastic cook when he quits his fast.

What I love about this book is that although it’s a novel it’s better than most parenting books I’ve read as far as giving me solid advice goes. And it’s funny, which never happens with even the most alternative material. This book speaks to me personally in a way that no self-help book has ever done yet. It’s my life, minus the self doubt and angst.

Reading about this crazy family, I can give myself permission to embrace my own crazy gang--and see us all in a pleasing and positive light--adventurous, exciting, experimental and never boring. Live and let live is what’s at play here. I like the motto on the banner across the wall at the creative Academy:
Education is an adventurous quest for the meaning of life, involving an ability to think things throughZ. Applewhite


My 10 year old stays in her room. A lot. To my great distress, she never goes to bed before the midnight hour, and then only after a lot of threatening, cajoling and begging. In the story, Jake has been with the Applewhites for months and has yet to set eyes on the oldest child, Hal (15). A recluse sculptor/painter, Hal only comes out for foraging in the fridge, at night when everyone else is sleeping. Is anyone freaking? Is this a problem? No. No one is bothered or disturbed. I want to be that way.

Cordelia lives in her leotard, creating and choreographing dances, 'the Death of Ophelia' being her latest. Uncle Archie and Z are furniture designers and mother, Sybil is a famous mystery author who doesn’t think twice about throwing a dictionary at her unsuspecting daughter when she is disturbed and has writer’s block. There’s the youngest, Destiny who never stops talking and is allowed to be. The fact is everyone is so busy in their own project "nobody ever pays any attention to anyone else’s project but their own" (cryptically spoken by Lucille) that they don’t have interest, time or reason for that matter to be in someone elses’ business.

No wonder Jake’s attitude and appearance doesn’t phase them, much to his great disappointment.

An overweight basset hound, a crazed goat and a foul mouthed parrot are also part of the family and when an admiring visiting reporter comes to interview Sybil but ends up staying to write about this "artistic dynasty" the picture is completed.

The important thing though, is that when a crisis turns up, the family knows how to pulls together. When Randolph’s production of Sound of Music is in extreme danger of cancellation everybody in the household springs into action to save the day. The entire family including the mysterious Hal, and all of the visiting add-ons, work with a passion never seen by Jake to make the production happen.

Jake had thought that he knew something about the Applewhites and their passion. But nothing had prepared him for what happens when all of them at the same time became totally obsessed with the same thing. What had seemed like hard work before now looked like a sort of restful, happy holiday. Gone was any consideration of larks and owls. Work went on day and night. Sleep was relegated to a nap here and there. Perhaps some what exaggerated for the purpose of the novel, this intensity and commitment for making a thing worth happen, happen is a lesson to us all.
Both Jake and E.D, who believes she is the uncreative dud of the family, have moments of self-revelation, discovering things about themselves through the process. E.D learns that her kind of non-creativity is valued by others after all and most importantly by her own self. And Jake discovers his own talents.

‘What gives you joy?’ is the repeated ‘lesson-question’ asked by Z to a baffled Jake, at the beginning of his mis-adventures with the Applewhites.  Because, "Once you know that, you will know what you want from an education and you’ll be able to set your own program."

How true.

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