This spring, I was asked by Franklin Sanders to review the second book in his 3-book series about Dogwood Mudhole, where he and his family live and farm. Can I tell you just how excited I was about that? Before he could change his mind I sent back an email telling him (a resounding) yes!
I reviewed At Home in Dogwood Mudhole-Vol. 1: Nothing That Eats for the Schoolhouse Review Crew last fall, and it was one of the best things I read all year (and even for a number of years before that). This book is truly special to me. You can read my review of Vol. 1 here, by the way…to see more about that book and why you need a copy of it! Franklin Sanders writes about modern farm life with equal parts of hilarity, profundity and grace; and even though I am not a farm girl (nor do I expect to be—other than backyard gardening and seasonal canning, I’m still a city girl through and through) I devoured every word and dog-eared more than a few pages. (With Post-It Note flags, of course—-I would NOT crease and fold a page!)
Franklin and Susan Sanders and their children, their daughters- and sons-in-law, and grandchildren have lived in rural Tennessee on the Top of the World Farm since 1999, and he has written about and shared his experiences with his email subscribers over that time. These wonderful accounts of life the way that most of us don’t live it combine beautifully into books, with Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 completed, and Vol. 3 planned for publication some time in 2014. Not only have the Sanders family members learned to farm with all that that entails (yes—growing feed, raising animals, maintaining farm equipment, butchering, preserving, accident survival and so on) but they have proven that American multi-generational families in this century can successfully live together, eat together, and work together—-and do so happily! I think a lot of people might wonder why a family might want to homestead in this day and age. At Home in Dogwood Mudhole books answer that question with humor, poignancy, faith and truth. It’s not always easy for them (okay—it’s not easy MOST of the time), but the benefits outweigh the difficulties–over and over again.
When I was a child and my life as a voracious reader was just starting out, I was captivated to discover that there were not only books with epilogues but even volumes that were part of a series! I always wanted to learn what happened next to characters that I’d fallen in love with. I think I realized this first with either Laura Ingalls Wilder or with Louisa May Alcott…I not only WANTED to know what happened next, I NEEDED to know. So you can imagine at least one of the reasons I was so delighted to read Franklin Sanders’ Vol. 2: Best Thing We Ever Did. Yes, I NEEDED to discover what happened next! (And that will also be the reason I’ll be tracking down Vol. 3 later this year.)
At Home in Dogwood Mudhole-Vol. 2: Best Thing We Ever Did continues the story that engages the reader so completely in Vol. 1. Again, we are treated to accounts of the successes and pitfalls of agrarian living, with a healthy dose of social and cultural commentary on the side. Franklin Sanders is a Christian of the Reformed stripe, and the way he is able to see and express God’s loving hand of providence in every part of life—even the difficulties—is a wonderful reminder to me that we don’t have a God who, as some say, winds up the universe and backs off, but who is intimately acquainted and involved with us in our joys, sorrows and daily living. And that He’s a God who rejoices along with us and even enters into our suffering…and applauds louder than anyone at our successes, both large and small.
Life with animals is a huge part of At Home in Dogwood Mudhole-Vol. 2. We’re introduced to the idiosyncrasies, adventures (misadventures?) and personalities of the Sanders’:
- Belgian plowhorses–their height, strength, heart and faithfulness
- Pigs who are almost cannibalistic but who are greatly redeemed by the excellent ham, bacon and sausage they’re transmogrified into
- Cows–caring for them, helping to bring their calves into the world, and training the grandsons in the ways of the milker
- Sheepdogs–everything that you loved about the movie “Babe” will delight you as you meet and get to know Deal, the sheepdog
- Bees–their hives, honey (especially sourwood) and importance to us all
- Goats who are both weird and charming
I’ve always especially loved the middle books of series. (See Wilder’s The Long Winter, Alcott’s Little Men and even Collins’ Catching Fire, for example.) I’m not exactly sure why. In the middle of the story or the project, the excitement and first blush of beginnings may be ebbing away…and we really see the rest of the work in front of us. This is the moment when we truly decide that we’re in this for the long haul; that we’re going to stick it out; that we’ve set our hands firmly to the plow and we’re going to finish the work. I think the middle is a place of real meaning, faithfulness and joy…and it’s our proving ground for the things to come. It’s the place where character is set and molded, where we grow not only in depth but in meaning. And this book is no exception to that observation!
Sanders and his family faithfully walk through challenges and successes. There are hives that are infested by moths and die, as well as others that do produce…just not as many as are expected. There are precious baby lambs and chicks that are stolen by un-dreamed-of predators. Anxiously-awaited animal births are stillborn. There are accidents that terrify the heart….and joyful survival of the same.
But in the midst of challenges, families engage together in work that builds life and strength. Homes are built for neighbors, like an old-fashioned barn-raising. Children are trained to work AND to worship, and to see God’s hand in the world around them. Trees are planted that will produce fruit for descendants generations down from today. Value comes not only in the work that’s done but the relationships that are built between family, friends and neighbors.
Just as in its predecessor Vol. 1, Vol. 2: Best Thing We Ever Did had more than a good story for me. There are sections of that book that I have marked, journaled about and that I am still thinking about….things that I know God is using in my heart and life to change me and shape me. Here are some that I’m currently pondering:
- “So when we truly love a wife, a friend, or child, we do not constantly fret because they view the world differently than we do, desire different goals, or approach things differently. Rather, we delight in them precisely because they do see the world differently and in the way unique to them. All the efforts of our love aim at helping them unfold what they are more and more fully, to stay always shy of hindering them. The lover wants the beloved to become more and more herself.” (p. 110)
- “In the silence of the drive home I re-played the day. I thought about all the careful and diligent work Ron and Heather had done to make a farm and a home, to raise handsome, lively, and obedient children. I thought about how their work served their neighbors with healthy and wholesome food. Then I thought about those children again—lively, curious, healthy, bright eyed, quick to obey, climbing all over everything, and barefooted. Maybe some people might not perceive anything grand or wonderful in all that, but it was there, the great work of God.” (p. 277)
- “In fulfilling every obligation there comes a Moment of Doubt when you wonder why you ever took it up. The fulfillment seems so enormous, so burdensome, so much more than you bargained for that you suspect you made a very unfair deal and perhaps….but then–you hope–your character and your shame catch hold and you finish out your duty without whining. Your word is your word, after all.” (p. 313)
And this one, my favorite of Vol. 2, maybe because I can so dearly relate to this answered prayer:
- “Sunday morning I was thinking about all that and my unanswered prayers, and suddenly it hit me: God has answered my prayers. My son Justin and his wife Ellen had their third child and son (and our sixth grandchild and grandson) on October 12, 2004. He was baptized Philip Read Everett Sanders. Ellen is recovering well and Philip is very popular. He has sent a little baby. We pray, and God sends a baby. How blind can we be? When the whole world lay in needy darkness, utterly lost, God answered their prayers with—a little baby. No better answer was possible.” (p. 179)
Franklin Sanders closes his excellent Vol. 2 by summing up the subtitle of the book. He and his wife, Susan, are talking about what the best thing was they ever did. She says, first, that it was having seven children. Franklin agrees, and says, and after that?
Susan answers, “Moving out here.”
I would wholeheartedly agree. For if they hadn’t done those things, we’d be bereft of these stories. Of these books that show us the providence and handiwork of God and the faithfulness and love of family and individual. Books that bring life and hope to our hearts and spirits. Not to mention, laughter to our lips!
You can purchase At Home in Dogwood Mudhole-Vol. 2: Best Thing We Ever Did and its excellent predecessor, At Home in Dogwood Mudhole-Vol. 1: Nothing That Eats from Franklin Sanders’ website. Each book costs $22.95 for the paperback version, or $16.95 for the ebook.
You can also visit the Sanders’ family’s Top of the World Farm website for more information on the family, the farm and its products.
Disclosure: I received a copy of At Home in Dogwood Mudhole-Vol. 2: Best Thing We Ever Did in exchange for my honest opinion expressed in my blog. I was not required to write a positive or glowing review and I was not additionally compensated for this review. I have shared my own opinion of this book. I am disclosing this in accordance with FTC regulations.