Old Books, Disagreements, Loving People

As you likely know, we use AmblesideOnline for our homechool curriculum.

One knock AO gets is that it occasionally uses old, sometimes racially insensitive (at best) or downright racist (at worst) books. There are books to offend many groups – Roman Catholics have issue with Trial and Triumph and Westward Ho!; This Country of Ours finds detractors in those of the LDS faith; Dr. Doolittle is offensive to Africans and African Americans, etc.

I was recently reading aloud to my children from Kate Seredy’s The Good Master. Seredy’s books are free-reads and we find her to be a delightful writer: funny, engaging, beautiful language and encouraging ideas.

Because I was enjoying The Good Master so much, I was utterly unprepared for Chapter X “Kate and the Gypsies” where Seredy painted the ‘gypsies’ as untrustworthy, lying thieves with a broad and heavy brush.

I think what surprised me most, was that this was not the first time we’d seen Roma – or Romani – in the book. When the family attended the fair, a gypsy, er, Romani fiddler played a fun, exciting dance and we saw the fun – without the antagonism.

So, when Uncle Marton – Master Nagy – treats the arrival of the Romani with suspicion and, in the story, they act in a way deserving that suspicion, I was taken aback. When Kate goes with them (rather than be tied up so she cannot get help as the farm is robbed of chickens and pigs), and then is almost drugged by an old woman so she cannot escape, I knew we had to talk about this.

Discrimination against the Romani has long been established in Europe: kicked off lands, pogroms, imprisoned and killed in the Holocaust. As a nomadic, wandering people, it is easy to blame, fear, and be suspicious of the other – especially if they’ve passed through (“The gypsies did it!”).  I’m not saying that the Romani are entirely innocent of the behaviors attributed to them – stereotypes often have some basis in fact, like a tall tale – but any time all attitudes and all actions are put on all of any people group, there’s a problem. It’s always a struggle when differing cultural values – from property ownership to family structures – reside in the same place.

But, that’s not really the point of this post.

What I really want to talk about is: Why would I continue to read a book like this? Why would I still be planning to read other Seredy books?

Our culture has become so divisive, not just along racial and ethnic lines, but also ideological lines. If I disagree with you on any issue, in our culture, I must disagree with you on all.


If I agree with you, I must always agree. Disagreement means total disregard of everything you say. Heated, angry disregard. You can see this in our current election process. On one hand, we see intolerance of opposing ideas in the name of tolerance. On the other, we see intolerance of so-called political correctness as though people oughtn’t be offended at disrespect.

But, friends, this is not right.

As a people, the thing which brings us together seems to be an inability to discriminate, to judge rightly, to consider our agreement or disagreement issue by issue, not person by person (or people group by people group – whether that be race, ethnicity, ideology, religion, or any other division we can think of).  

I use “discriminate” purposefully. I want to retain meanings of words. The first definition of discriminate is still, “recognize a distinction; differentiate.” Does that shock you? When we discriminate rightly, we divide the individual ideas carefully from each other. We see the person beyond their ideas. We can disagree with their immigration policy separately from their fiscal policy. We can see the commonalities between faith traditions without agreeing on every jot and tittle – and we can still be friends and learn from one another. When we see the other person as a person with ideas we can agree with and ideas we can disagree with (and really, is there anyone with whom you think exactly like on all things?), the antagonism lessens. The vitriol becomes unpalatable. We can love our neighbor as ourselves.

How, then, do we teach this to our children? And learn it ourselves?

We read books with which we disagree. We continue to see the beauty in a book that has a portion we strongly disagree with. We talk about the books and ideas when we rise up and when we walk along the way.

We talk about oppression, of stereotypes, of dealing fairly with people. We talk about the fear and suspicion of ‘the other’ that drives a lot of hatred and racism. We show how disagreement doesn’t mean disrespect. We show how we can love those with whom we disagree. We hope to do better.

So, yes, we will finish The Good Master and we will read more Seredy and other old books, discussing our points of agreement and our points of disagreement. We will let our children see where their father and I agree and where we disagree (he leans libertarian, I’m more conservative), yet we love each other to distraction.

Reading old books that have portions with which we disagree and handling them with care allows us to learn to be respectful and intellectually honest. Those old books do need to be read with careful thought and engaged minds. I suspect I will either read aloud or preread every other Seredy book before my children are set free with them. But, reading old books can help us to see how others have been treated in history. It can help us to understand their struggles better and show compassion. It can awaken us to struggles people still face. It can help us in our quest to learn to love people – our quest to be wise and virtuous.


  1. I agree with you on this, and would further say that we should be doing the same with NEW books. Too often I see many people willing to read old books and use care in handling the racism, or class-ism, or whatever other ism there is therein. But they will not read a new book that has portions they disagree with (say on evolution, or LGBT issues) and will discount the book as a whole. There are books with worthy things to say both old and new that will have ideas we may not agree with, but that does not discount the whole book and the looking at the ideas we want to handle with care helps us understand the past and current times better than ignoring them will.

  2. Yes, very true. I am planning to read 'The Good Master' with my book group next term but it will need careful discussion. There is a tendency to see old books as fine because they are old and to ignore issues.
    Recently, we have moved some books for an older relative and found a picture book from the First World War. This book is blatant propaganda about joining up. A fascinating read but not suitable for young children!

  3. Dawn, thank you for such a beautiful post. Reading these older books is important in shaping where we were, where we are, and where we're going. I think how you approach it is inspiring!

  4. Great points on this topic. I mean I am a serious book lover. I not going to put away my Little House cause Pa participated in a minstrel show. Or not read Mark Twain books cause of characters named N word Jim or Injun Joe. That expresses the attitudes of the time period in which the author wrote or lived. You cannot erase that. Books are a window into the minds and soul of people. Sometimes you may find an ugly or hateful soul but sometimes you might find something beautiful and magnificent. And their are lessons to be learned from all sorts of sources.

    1. Dawn, your post brings to mind C.S. Lewis's words: 'Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.'
      Later generations will probably look back on the books written in our day and voice their objections.

  5. I thought of Lewis’ words as well. There is discrimination and there is discernment. We must choose wisely the books we use to teach our children, and help them discern and discriminate between the messages you want them to internalize and those you want them to reject. How the book is written, and who your children will ultimately identify with, is key in this process of discernment. Nicely written, Dawn!

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