The Simple Life: Freddy and Fredericka

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.

13 thoughts on “The Simple Life: Freddy and Fredericka

  1. Ah, I have been the subject of a crash course in simple living lately, which is difficult, to say the least, during the holiday season. I’m at a point in my life where I can do more for my family than they can do for themselves and yet, as much as I want to rain glittery bits and gold coins down on them, I realize that it’s the small, sentimental gifts that will be remembered year after year.
    And thank you for your gift of a glowing recommendation. I will be on many flights the next two months and it’s either a great book or the latest US Weekly (groan!) for me.

  2. I really fancy simple living – just me an’ the books, you know. But in the meantime I live with the two untidiest males you could find, so I think fictional solace is the best I can hope for!

  3. Bloglily, we are truly sisters. Yes, I now subscribe to three yes three simple living magazines. I have a whole shelf of books on dealing with clutter. My favorite one, I can no longer find in all the chaos which is my life. Thank you for the book recommendation, and for the feeling of simple fellowship.

  4. The book sounds quite interesting. Book Mooch can perhaps be a part of simple living, but it’s having the opposite effect on me — it’s cluttering up my to-be-read shelves!

  5. Hi Jessica — US Weekly. That’s another failing of mine. I love catching up on that kind of news. Still, a big fat book is much nicer on a long plane flight.

    Litlove, fictional solace, indeed. I’m going to compile a list of comfort books — sort of the mashed potatoes and apple crisp of literature.

    marymom (sistah!) — I want to report to you that today at the library I checked out FIVE such books, and it’s all Mark Helprin’s fault: The Mindful Cook: Finding Awareness, Simplicity, and Freedom on the Kitchen; Downsized but Not Defeated: The Family Guide to Living on Less; The Tassajara Recipe Book (they’re the zen people, so they count for simple eating); Celebrate Simply: Your Guide to Simpler, More Meaningful Holidays and Special Occasions; and Simplicity from a Monastery Kitchen.

    Clearly, somebody’s realized that all you have to do to sell nonfiction is add the word Simple to the title.

    me, I’m going to get SimpleBlog going. Which reminds me, isn’t “simple” another word for fool?

    Hello Dorothy — Agreed. I keep getting BookMooch packets and cannot keep up with them.

  6. What would libraries do without you? They are lucky to have such a devoted friend. No need for library bonds on the Berkeley ballot!!

  7. I remember reading Little House on the Prairie to my kids and thinking, I could do with a bit of that simple stuff. Sooooo romantic and uncomplicated, except of course when the wolves come or when Papa has to eat the Christmas candy in order to survive in a snowstorm.

    My one solution to fighting THE STUFF is to avoid magazines as much as possible – they set everything up so gorgeously that you want to hit the High Street THAT MINUTE and acquire that ESSENTIAL fluffy throw immediately. Keeping out of the shops helps too.

    I like the idea of the book, though. Perhaps it’s time for me to join BookMooch … books aren’t stuff of course, they’re food.

  8. I’m always saying to my husband (who should be living with Litlove’s husband and son, it sounds like) that it’s time to live a simpler life and to get rid of everything except the books. But, if you were to see our house, you’d realize how absurd that is. The books are the biggest problem, and we could take a GIANT step toward living a much-simpler and less-cluttered life by getting rid of them and keeping everything else. But then where would I go to escape the closets overflowing with clothes we never wear and the kitchen cabinets full of stuff that seemed like a good idea at the time we bought it?

  9. I’m not quite sure what it says about me that I never once fantasized about living the simple life a la Laura Ingalls, but every time I read an end-of-the-world novel, I’m quite convinced I could survive radioactivity, throw a backpack over my shoulders and bond with other survivors on our way to starting a new life in, say, Colorado. Thank you, Stephen King. I might be a little disturbed.

    I know exactly the zen you are talking about regarding a clean cupboard, though – last week I cleaned out our refrigerator and experienced Pure.Joy. Today, though, we are throwing a dinner party and I’m quite sure all the necessary food and drinks will ruin my pretty, clean, organized refrigerator. Something about brie and apple appetizers …never simple.

  10. I’d like to recommend “Simple Abundance – A Daybook of Comfort and Joy” by Sarah Ban Breathnach. I picked it up at a Library booksale several years ago and love its simple grounding messages and suggestions of ways to enjoy an uncomplicated life. Because it’s written by an American and I live in the Southern Hemisphere, I sometimes have to turn to the date that’s six months away from my calendar, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure and inspiration I get from it.

  11. Don’t lets forget the life coaches, who will charge hundreds or thousands of dollars/pounds in order to reduce clutter not only in your life, but also in your bank balance. How thoughtful!

  12. I could so relate to the line “…and then someone brings home a free water bottle…” ~ so true in our home. Still, I continue to strive for the simple, uncluttered life.

  13. oooh, Mark Helprin, my favorite non-serious author! Have you read Winter’s Tale yet BlogLily? That book literally changed my life. It made me realise I wanted to live in NYC and that I never wanted to let go of my imagination. I’ve only been able to finish a handful of books this year, unfortunately Freddy & Fredericka is one of the unfinished ones… I’ll have to give it another go.

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