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Our "Masterpiece Literary Society"

By Linda Burklin
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #66, 2005.

Linda Burklin tells what she did to make literature come alive for her students.
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Linda Burklin

When my oldest daughter, Lina, reached high school age, I realized that if I wanted her to read great literature, I would have to assign it and I would have to have some sort of master plan to ensure that we would cover as many classics as possible, from Homer to Solzhenitsyn. My solution was to form the Masterpiece Literary Society.

Masterpiece Literary Society is a club which I have offered through our homeschool group here in Longview, Texas for four years now. Members must commit to reading the assigned book each month and to coming to my house to discuss it on the first Monday of each month. They must also be willing to try new foods. Membership is limited to seven students (as hostess I am the eighth member). Why so few? Well, I wanted the group to be small enough to allow everyone to contribute to our discussions, and I also wanted a group that would not feel too crowded around our dining room table.

You see, each month's discussion takes place around the table while eating a formal dinner. One of my concerns as a homeschool mother was that my children had so few opportunities to "dress up" in their best clothes and practice their best manners. Our lifestyle includes very few formal events such as banquets and receptions, so with Masterpiece Literary Society I am trying to fill that gap. For some kids (including my own at the beginning) this is their first exposure to the concept of "dressing for dinner."

"Three Color Soup"—a Shakespearian era recipe that we enjoyed during our "Twelfth Night" dinner
Naturally, some students "dress" a lot more seriously than others, but I encourage everyone to take the dress requirement seriously. In fact, they have three choices when it comes to their attire. First of all (and by far the most common) they may dress in "Sunday best" or even formal attire. The second choice is to wear an outfit which represents the time period in which the book for that month is set, and the third choice is to dress as a character from the book.

Over the past four years my own two oldest children have dressed as pirates (for Treasure Island), as hobbits and elves (for Lord of the Rings), as Greeks and Trojans (for the Aeneid), and as medieval aristocracy (for Ivanhoe). Maybe it's related to my own love for drama, but the fact is that all my children (including my nineteen-year-old) have yet to outgrow the love of dressing up! They definitely prefer dressing in costume to wearing regular formal clothing - which leads to lots of extra sewing for me! However, most of the other members are much less flamboyant and tend to stick with their good church clothes.

The centerpiece of each meeting is (not surprisingly) the dinner itself. What do I cook? My first choice is to cook food that is actually mentioned in the book. For instance, when we were reading Tolkien I was able to reproduce many of the menu items that Bilbo served to the dwarves when they showed up at his house uninvited. For our Walden dinner, we ate outdoors and I cooked the entire meal outdoors using only foods that Thoreau mentioned in the book and using only cooking methods that would have been available to him (in this case, a grill and a couple of dutch ovens).

Over the past few years we have had many memorable meals. For Dickens' Oliver Twist we had a three course meal representing the three parts of Oliver's life: "gruel" for the first course, representing his time in the orphanage; sausages and potatoes served on tin plates, representing his time with Fagin; and a sumptuous trifle for dessert, representing his triumphant reunion with his wealthy family. For The Count of Monte Cristo we had a French feast followed by an Italian dessert to represent the two stages of the count's life. Jane Austen's Emma gave me an excuse to put on a great formal high tea.

For our "Walden" dinner we cooked and ate outside, using only foods that Thoreau mentioned in his book. The screen house we ate in was considerably bigger than Thoreau's cabin!
The Ivanhoe dinner remains one of the most fondly remembered. With several of the kids dressed in medieval dress, we met in our candlelit dining room and ate off trenchers using only knives, spoons and fingers (forks hadn't been introduced yet). I did some research to keep the food authentic, which meant no potatoes and no onions - a serious hardship for me! Not having access to the authentic game mentioned in Walter Scott's book, I served stuffed Cornish game hens, baked apples, mushrooms, and cheese. We had a wonderful time discussing the book and eating by the flickering light of many candles.

For To Kill a Mockingbird and Life on the Mississippi, we had big Southern dinners with favorites such as catfish, fried chicken, hushpuppies, ambrosia, and Mississippi mud pie. The Last of the Mohicans gave us the opportunity to sample pioneer American fare such as pumpkin soup, rye and injun bread, and succotash. Ben Hur exposed my students to Middle Eastern food, How I Found Livingstone to African food, The Iliad to Greek food, and The Gulag Archipelago to Russian food (the borscht was a bit hit!).

Maybe you're wondering how I pay for all this. Each student pays a fee of $45 per year. This works out to $5 per dinner, as we only meet for nine months out of the year (September - May). I admit that some months my expenses are considerably higher, such as when I had to pay over $5 per pound for rabbit meat! But the fees do help with the groceries that I otherwise could not afford. During our dinners my husband takes our younger children out for pizza so we can have our discussion uninterrupted.

How do I choose the books we read each month? Well, when I first came up with this idea, I sat down and planned out a five-year book list. (I allow precocious readers to join Masterpiece Literary Society as early as eighth grade.) Naturally, the list reflects my own preferences, but I like to think it still manages to cover most of the bases. It includes seven Shakespeare plays, Homer and Virgil, Dickens and Dostoyevsky. I try to alternate big, heavy-duty books like Les Miserables with lighter fare such as a play by Moliere or Sheridan, or a fun book like Captain Blood by Sabatini.

Although we only meet nine months out of the year, I do assign books in the summer months and my own children are required to read them. (As far as I know, none of the other members have ever read the summer books!) Instead of having our big dinners in the summer, I take my high schoolers out for a celebratory tea at our favorite local bookstore/tearoom when they finish their books. By the time they graduate, my children will have read 60 great classics in addition to the reading they do for their other schoolwork. My oldest, Lina, is now a college student and is beginning to catch on that she is not only better-read than all the other students she knows - she is also more widely read than most of her professors!

Two Elves ready for the "Lord of the Rings" dinner—my oldest children, Lina and Flynn
This past year, I started another reading club for my fifth-grader and a couple of her friends. I assign two books a month, and when they have all read them, they come to our house in the afternoon for a fancy afternoon tea. This has been a great motivation for my daughter to keep up with her assigned reading!

Something tells me that some of you may wonder where I get the recipes and menu ideas for all these creative dinners. I have a handful of history-themed cookbooks that have been a huge help, including The Medieval Cookbook by Maggie Black, The Little House Cookbook by Barbara M. Walker, and Seven Centuries of English Cooking by Maxime de la Falaise (a goldmine of interesting information and recipes). My international cookbooks have also been invaluable, as has the Food Network web site, www.foodnetwork.com. The Food Network has a database of over 20,000 recipes, making it easy to find not one but many recipes using a specific ingredient. I save all my menus so that when that book comes around again, I can see what we had last time and decide whether to do the same thing or whether to try something completely new!

If all this sounds like an awful lot of work - yes, I have to admit that it is. Apart from planning, cooking, and setting up for the dinners (which are admittedly an all-day project), there is the time commitment involved in reading the books along with my students. There have been months when we all felt we deserved a medal for finishing the assigned book in time - Les Miserables and Moby Dick spring to mind - but I don't regret any of it. My students sometimes complain about having to dress up, but they accept it as part of the package deal.

After four years, I still think that Masterpiece Literary Society is one of the best ideas I've ever had, which is a good thing: by my calculations I will be doing it for another fourteen years, until my youngest graduates from high school! I hope our positive experience will inspire you to start a dinner book club of your own!

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