I have a weakness for books and magazines about simple living. For those who don’t know, Simple Living — capitalized — isn’t what happens when Paris Hilton and the other skinny one take off across America and discover how hard it is to get a decent haircut. It’s more the idea that ordinary, middle class people can make life purer and happier by not buying so much stuff. At its extreme, this way of thinking has you making Christmas gifts out of dryer lint and heating your house with grass clippings. At the other end of the spectrum, it suckers you into buying $19.95 books that tell you how to make your house a museum to minimalism and $4.95 magazines that tell you just what products to purchase to organize your clutter and purify your fridge.
Still, every once in a while, I clean out a cabinet and think I’ve finally, finally achieved the simple life. And then, somebody brings home a free water bottle they got at a school event, along with a package of crayons, two seed packets and a fistful of stickers and we’re right back where we started.
That’s when I turn to literature for my simple living fix. When I’m feeling anxious about all the clutter, I like to imagine I live on the prairie with Laura Ingalls Wilder, or in the big woods, and all I’ve got to buy anybody for Christmas is an orange and — if it’s been an exceptional harvest — a stick of licorice. In my free time (when I’m not sewing quilts), I’ll make a doll out of an old corncob. Or my husband will whittle something out of oak — a wheelbarrow, a barn and maybe a cow or two.
Surprisingly, Mark Helprin’s book about the royals (which turns out not to really be about them at all), Freddy and Fredericka, turns out to be another novel I can add to what I’ve just decided to start categorizing as literature of the simple life. It’s a silly, witty, slightly ridiculous story about what happens when two royals who start out looking an awful lot like Charles and Diana are parachuted naked into New Jersey and told they can’t come home again until they conquer the United States and bring it back into the British Empire.
It’s one of those books you laugh over on the train to work and in bed while everyone’s asleep: full of puns and twists and turns of fortune, punctuated by occasional beautiful pieces of prose about love and life and, well, simple living. That’s because what happens is that Freddy and Fredericka discover they like being self-sufficient and making their own way through the world. That they’re dirt poor and have dental issues for most of the novel doesn’t really bother them. (Some might flinch at this portrayal of the virtues of poverty as an insult to the poor, but really it’s so obviously a fantasy that it’s hard to see it as insensitive.) The novel gives you a whole new appreciation for the comforts of heat, enough food, decent clothing and love. But mostly, it’s just really funny and made me quite happy. I’m on page 400 and something, and I really don’t want it to end. But when I do, in the spirit of simple living, I’m putting it up on BookMooch so somebody can enjoy it for free.