Monday, February 19, 2018

I Am Algonquin by Rick Revelle

I Am Algonquin is the first book in a trilogy by Canadian author, Rick Revelle who is a member of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation.

The novel tells the fictional story of Mahingan and his family who are members of the Omamiwinini (Algonquin People) in the fourteenth century before the arrival of the Europeans. Mahingan, born in 1305, is from the Kitcisipiriniwak tribe (People of the Great River) - one of the eight Algonquin tribes of the Ottawa Valley. Mahingan and his family are living through a period of cold winters and cool summers creating hardship for the Algonquins.

The novel opens with Mahingan and a small hunting party that includes his two brothers Kag (Porcupine) and Wagosh (Fox) on a trip north to find game for their starving village. Each of the five family units have sent a hunter north to the Land of the Nippissing. The lack of snow this winter has made the hunting of the monz (moose) and wawashkeshi (deer) difficult. Kag is a fierce warrior while Wagosh who is younger is a good tracker and hunter but untested in battle. The other hunters include Monz and Makwa, both of whom are married to Mahingan's sisters. Also with the hunting party are Kag's twin sons, Agwingos (Chipmunk) and Esiban (Raccoon).

Six days into the hunt they slay a deer caught in the ice and then soon their dogs pick up the scent of a moose. Mahingan's group quickly kills the moose but immediately face another danger - warriors from the Nippissing. They are hunting in Nippissing territory and the moose is meat that would sustain both tribes in this difficult winter. Although Mahingan's party manages to defend themselves, killing and wounding several of the Nippissing, they lose Makwa who is killed by a blow to the head.

Pulling five toboggans laden with moose meat along with a travois pulled by dogs, Mahingan's hunting party begins the long journey home. They must keep watch in case the Nippissing decide to pursue them and they must also bury Makwa. After burying their warrior, Mahingan and his party are set upon by ten mahingans (wolves) but are able to ward them off after killing four of the pack. Mahingan's party eventually reach their village with the much needed food, to be greeted happily but also with the news that two of their village have died.

The village protector is Mahingan's younger brother Mitigomij (Red Oak) who was born with a club foot. As a result, he has become accomplished in all forms of weapons including the spear, war club, knife and sling shot. His constant companion is a black panther Makadwa Waban (Black Dawn) whom he rescued when he was twelve-years-old. A brutal encounter with four warriors of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) when he was sixteen, resulted in death for three and the mauling of the fourth by the black panther. It is an encounter that will have serious future repercussions for the Omamiwinini.

Weeks after they return, Mitigomij spots six canoes making their way up the river. Mahingan learns they are Hochelagans whom he believes have come to scout the location of the various villages of the Omamiwinini. Mahingan, believing an attack in imminent, organizes a plan that involves moving the women, children and young boys to safety, calling in warriors from surrounding family units, and preparing an attack to kill the Hochelagan warriors so they cannot return to their tribe. Asiniwabidi (Stone Elk) returns from scouting to reveal that there are more Hochelagans than originally thought and that they have raided the Otaguttaouernin and have captured Kwingwishi, the young woman Mahingan's brother, Wagosh wants to marry. With forty-eight warriors the Omamiwinini soundly defeat the Hochelagans, freeing the captured Otaguttaourenin and torturing and killing the Hochelagan warriors.

Mahinigan and his tribe are now safe for some time to enjoy the spring and summer. The summer gathering of the various Omamiwinini family units sees Wagosh marry Kwingwishi while Mahingan learns his wife is pregnant. During this time Migadinan-andeg (War Crow), chief of the South Nippissing Band challenges Mahingan's people to a game of lacrosse to settle their dispute over hunting rights. The game sees no winner but  Mahingan offers Migadinan-andeg a wampum belt offering peace and an agreement regarding each other's hunting grounds. After the Nippissing leave, Mahingan receives word from a Wabanaki (Abenaki) warrior that the pijaki (buffalo) will soon be arriving in their territory.This is an unusual event as buffalo are not native to this area. The two tribes work together to kill many buffalo for meat and hides, meaning their tribes will not starve during the winter. On their way home from the Wabanki grounds, Mahingan's party are attacked by a small group of Haudenosaunee, resulting in the death of Makons.

After safely returning to their village, Mahingan's nephews, the twins Agwingos and Esiban undergo the Wysoccan journey. While this is occurring, Migadinan-andeg and his Nippissing warriors return to seal the peace pact and celebrate with a great running race. Shortly after this, Wabananag gives birth to a son, Anoki.

But late in the summer, a forest fire devastates the Omamiwinini lands, forcing Mahingan to relocate their village on the larger island in the river. Unaware of the significant danger posed by the Haudenosaunee warrior Panther Scar whom Mitigomij spared years ago, and believing the other families would gather for the summer meeting, Mahingan along with his brothers, Mitigomij and Kag and a group of warriors travel to the Ouendat to trade. A brutal attack by the Haudenosaunee led by Mishi-pijiw Odjishiziwin - Panther Scar and Corn Dog (Mandamin Animosh) wipes out the remaining warriors left at Mahingan's village. Wabananag manages to hide Anoki in a small cave before she is captured along with the other women and children. Black Panther split up, with Corn Dog intending to raid Algonquin settlements to the north.

When Mahingan returns to his village he finds it burned and many dead and mutilated warriors. Wagosh is found dead in the forest and is buried. Although Mitigomij was attacked by Corn Dog, he survived after being saved by his black panther. He returns to the village where he finds Mahingan preparing to make war.

Determined to avenge the destruction of his people, Mahingan rallies a large force that includes the Nippissing, the Omamiwininini, and the Ouendat, to fight the Haudenosaunee. He also enlists the help of the Innu and Malecite.  After days of pursuit, Mahingan eventually catches up with Panther Scar at the portage and a final battle between the two settles the score in his favour. While Kag is able to free his wife, Kinedigokesi he informs Mahingan that his wife Wabananag is still alive, setting the stage for the next novel.


Canadian author Rick Revelle decided to write I Am Algonquin because there were few if any novels about the First Nations people of Canada and he wanted young readers to learn about the culture and beliefs of the people who lived here well before any European set foot on the continent.  Revelle's great-great-great-grandfather moved his family from the Algonquin reserve in Quebec to Bedford Township near Kingston, Ontario, an area that was part of the traditional lands of the Algonquin nation well before the colonization of North America. Revelle's Algonquin ancestry naturally led him to focus on his Algonquin culture. The novel is set in the early fourteenth century and therefore required extensive research by the author as little is known about the Algonquin's prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Revelle's goal for this novel, is that readers will "learn something that you didn't know about the Algonquins and their Allies, and that it will help in a small way to bring attention to the Algonquin language."   I Am Algonquin is overwhelmingly achieves both these goals.

Revelle details almost every aspect of life in an Algonqin family unit including hunting, food preparation and storage, games, birth and death rituals, the roles of men, women and children within the family unit and warcraft. Readers also come to understand the relationships between the various nations in the pre-colonial era. All of this is done in a most effective way by Revelle, who incorporates these details seamlessly into his story along with many words from the Algonquin language. One of the more interesting rituals is that of the Wysoccan journey to manhood where childhood memores are erased by ingesting a herb that induces madness. The drug is administered over a period of days and results in memory loss. The loss of childhood memories allows the young men to be trained in the ways of a warrior.

Two aspects of life during this period stand out. The first is the unrelenting struggle to survive in the harsh wilderness of Ontario by what is essentially a stone-age culture. Mahingan states, "We were constantly struggling to have enough to eat and always battling the elements to stay warm or dry. Add the constant threat of our enemies and it was a life of never-ending vigilance." He believes, "The lives of the Omamiwininini people were always in the hands of Kitchi Manitou. Our lives seemed to be always a battle against starvation, grief, and the constant fear of our enemies."

The second is the constant threat of war and the brutality of these conflicts. Revelle captures all of this in his story. "These battles were always brutal because of the weapons we used -- arrows and lances that tore as they entered the body. Hand-to-hand combat with knives that ripped and cut. War axes that broke bones and caused tremendous head wounds." Surviving a battle wounded meant bleeding to death or dying from infection. A warrior captured alive was tortured and forced to run the gauntlet, and often brutally maimed and murdered. When the chief of the Hochelagans is captured Mahingan describes his fate. "The Hochelagan was a brave man. Not once did he cry out in pain. when he reached the end of the line he was bloodied from cuts and his feet were seared from the coals. We then gave him to the women, who took him and finished the job of torturing him until he died. The women cut out his heart at the end, and it was given to the man who had captured him."  If anything, this novel should dispel the myth that the life of the indigenous peoples in Ontario was one of peace and fraternity. Defending their hunting and territorial rights was essential and the consequences of war were immediate and devastating as Revelle's novel demonstrates through the character of Mahingan. The attack by the Haudenosaunee result in the decimation of Mahingan's warriors and the captivity of their women and children. 

But I Am Algonquin is not just a novel filled with the rich details of life in 14th century Ontario; there is also a strong storyline that continually holds the interest of the reader with frequent conflicts between nations, attacks involving dangerous animals, storms and a forest fire. We follow Mahingan as he returns from an adventure-filled hunting trip that saves his village from starvation to battles with the  Haudenosee and the Hochelagans, a peace settlement with the Nippissing, the birth of his son, a forest fire and a devastating encounter with the Haudenosee that results in a cliff-hanger ending.

Revelle crafts a varied cast of characters for his novel. Mahingan, leader of his family unit is intelligent, wise, and courageous but fatally misjudges the effects of the forest fire and the Haudenosee. Perhaps the most unique character is Mitigomij, Mahingan's brother who despite a club foot, is a warrior of renowned skill. The novel is populated with a large number of supporting characters who help flesh out the story including two fierce women warriors.

Despite all of these very positive attributes, unfortunately the writing in I Am Algonquin is sometimes repetitive, at times awkward and is marred by numerous grammatical errors including the use of wrong words, mixed tenses and switching points of view. This poor editing and proofing, by no means restricted to this book or publisher, I hope has been corrected in the second and more recently published third novel. Canadian literature needs more stories about the First Nations people, especially before the arrival of the Europeans so we can learn about their rich culture and history. These stories need to be told in an engaging way that captures the imagination of young readers but must also be well written and edited. A novel such as I Am Algonquin is the perfect vehicle to inform a new generation of Canadians about our Indigenous Peoples.

Book Details:

I Am Algonquin by Rick Revelle
Toronto: Dundurn Press     2013
275 pp.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Mary Anning's Curiosity by Monica Kulling

Kulling begins her book with the story of Mary Anning surviving a lightning strike when she was a baby. The book focuses on Mary's hunt for fossils in the large cliffs by the sea near Lyme Regis, where she and her family lived.

The ammonites and other curiosities that she, her brother Joe and their father found were sold to tourists to supplement their income.  Mary's father worked as a carpenter but his true love was hunting for fossils. He believed that the Black Ven cliffs held the remains of a giant creature, which the townsfolk called a crocodile.

Mary Anning's father suffered a terrible fall that resulted in a serious back injury and eventually led to his death from tuberculosis. Mary decided to give up school and search for fossils full time, believing that this was the only way she could save her family from the poorhouse.

Their major competition came from Captain Cury whose real name was William Lock. When Joe spotted the eye socket of an enormous creature in the shales of the Black Ven, Mary and Joe become determined that Captain Cury will not steal their find from them.


This delightful little storybook, (it's only 115 pages) for younger readers, tells the story of 19th century British fossilist, Mary Anning. The richly detailed cover, portraying the fossils in the ground and Mary Anning with her hammer, invites younger readers in to discover the remarkable story of a young girl whose discoveries helped shaped the budding discipline of paleontology. Melissa Castrillon's fine pencil drawings accentuate the smaller details of the story.

Canadian author, Monica Kulling was inspired to write about Mary Anning after reading Tracy Chevalier's novel,  Remarkable Creatures, a fictional account of Mary Anning written for teens and adults. After reading and researching more about Anning, Kulling decided she was an inspiration for children because she persevered through very difficult circumstances and because she discovered some of the first dinosaur fossils. And of course, the fact that children are naturally curious about dinosaurs, makes this an obvious choice for a childrens book!

Kulling fills her account with fascinating details. For example, the fossils of ammonites, which are extinct but resemble modern day Nautilus molluscs were often found and sold by Mary Anning and other fossil hunters. Kulling relates that many people thought these ammonite fossils were the remains of the snakes that St. Hilda turned to stone in England.

The title, Mary Anning's Curiosity is a double entendre, the word curiosity being a common word used by the English for fossils, and of course also referring to Mary Anning's curosity in the cliffs that contained the usual finds she and her family dug up.

The book contains an extensive Author's Note that supplies extra details for adults and teachers, and there are booklists for both teachers and younger readers as well. A great short read for interested younger readers or teachers in the classroom!

Book Details:

Mary Anning's Curiosity by Monica Kulling
Toronto: Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press 2017
115 pp.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Unearthed is the newest science fiction novel by this best-selling duo. The story is told in alternating narratives by sixteen-year-old Amelia (Mia) Radcliffe and seventeen-year-old Jules Thomas Addison. Both Mia and Jules are on the alien planet called Gaia but for very different reasons; Mia is a scavver hoping to find relics to sell while Jules is there to learn more about the Undying.

With conditions on Earth declining rapidly, the International Alliance (IA) was created with the purpose of building a spacecraft that could travel to  Alpha Centauri to a planet named Centaurus in the nearest solar system. The world pooled together resources and sent three hundred colonists into space. But eight years into their journey, the IA received  a final transmission that was a plea for help. The IA was either unable to or unwilling to act.

Fifty years ago, while some astronomers were searching for further signals from the Centaurus mission they picked up a new signal. Jule's father, Elliott Addison now a renowned mathematician and linguist was eighteen-years-old and a student when he deciphered the messages which came from a civilation called the Undying. He was able to decode the messaga and learned it not only provided the instructions on how to build a portal the planet, Gaia, but also how their technology destroyed them. Their technology has been hidden and only those who are worthy, who pass a test will obtain it. Astronauts and trained scientists were sent to Gaia where they located a large temple complex. A solar cell was found in this temple complex, brought back to Earth where it is currently being used to power what is left of the west coast of the United States.

Elliott Addison continued to work on the code and discovered "a code within a code". At first this second layer of code was thought to be a distortion in the signal and was ignored for decades. However, Addison discovered that it maps out a shape similar to a Fibonacci spiral, reminiscent of a Nautilus shell or the shape of the Milky Way. The code also contains one word which Addison believes means "catastrophe" or "the end of everything". He believed the Undying were sending a warning.

Because of this Dr. Addison begged the IA not to rush into further exploration of Gaia but to move slowly if only for the safety of mankind and of those sent to explore the planet. However, having seen what the Undying technology could accomplish, the IA refused. This led Addison to attempt to warn the world during a television interview. He was arrested and incarcerated.

A few weeks ago while looking at topographic maps of Gaia, Jules Addison discovered a spiral-shaped temple, small and hidden at the end of a canyon. Jules believes thsi temple holds the clue to what the second code really means. Although no one is officially suppposed to be on the planet, Jules was able to arrange a way to get to Gaia. His trip to Gaia was financed by Global Energy Solutions who obtained  a formal International Alliance I.D. that of Francois LaRoux which allowed him to pose as a junior technician on the orbital station around Gaia.

The novel opens with Mia Radcliffe struggling to fend off two other scavvers. Jules stumbles upon this confrontation and manages to overpower the man while Mia deals with the woman. After escaping this situation, Mia wants to continue on her own. Jules learns that Mia is on Gaia to scavenge from the temples, making him angry. However both Jules and Mia need one another; Jules is inexperienced but he convinces Mia varied skills while Mia needs the knowledge of the temples that Jules seems to have.  Each is keeping secrets from the other; Jules that he is the son of Elliot Addison,that he's on Gaia to find out the truth about the Undying  and Mia who is on Gaia to make enough money from her scavenging to free her younger sister Evie from slavery. Mia is determined to travel to the large temple where she hopes to find more artifacts but Jules tells her that this is merely a decoy and that the real treasure is contained within a smaller temple. Mia reluctantly agrees to go with Jules plan.

To reach the smaller temple they must travel part way through a canyon however when they reach the canyon, Jules and Mia are shocked to see a large expedition. To thwart this group, they disable their skimmer bikes and steal one. This allows them to reach the small temple within a day. After resting overnight, they enter the temple and begin to work their way through each room and each puzzle. It is during this time that Mia realizes that Jules is the son of Elliott Addison. After the first day they manage to successfuly navigate to the bottom of a pit but when they awaken the next morning, Jules and Mia are captured by a group sent out by the woman named Mink who hired Mia. The group is led by a woman named Liz and she is determined that Jules and Mia will lead them to the secret to be discovered deep in the temple.

However, as Jules and Mia work their way through the temple, they make both an astonishing discovery and uncover what might be the real reason behind the Undying's messages. A reason that is far more terrifying than anything they could have imagined.


In Unearthed, Kaufman and Spooner have crafted an exciting, fast-paced novel with a mystery as the central part of the plot. According to their website the book was originally billed as an Indiana Jones and Lara Croft mashup, which is a fairly accurate description of this novel. An ancient alien race, the Undying has sent a message to Earth with information on how to build a portal to their planet, and offering technology to those who can prove themselves worthy by solving the clues they have left behind. Earth is dying and the alien technology is the last hope to save the planet and mankind. But just who are the Undying and is their technology really the panacea it promises to be?

The authors use dual narrators who are very different; Jules, a clean-cut, naive but brilliant academic and Amelia, a street-wise high-school dropout who scavenges for a living. They begin their relationship with a healthy bout of mistrust that is complicated by a growing mutual attraction. Unexpectedly thrown together,  Jules and Mia embark on an Indiana Jones type of exploration of a temple on the alien planet, having to solve a series of hierglyphic puzzles to avoid being skewered, crushed or thrown into pits. The story is kept moving along with the introduction of a group who take Jules and Mia captive as well as the main characters growing uneasiness have about what's really going on.

While Jules is portrayed as honorable, intelligent and caring, Amelia is resourceful and resilient, a quick thinker whose ability to act is an asset in tight situations. It is Amelia, not the brilliant academic Jules, who comes to the realization that what they've been led to believe doesn't fit the reality of what's happening on Gaia. This leads to a remarkable twist in the story and a cliffhanger ending with the perfect setup for the concluding novel.

Kaufman and Spooner's writing combines a number of strengths which make their novels so appealing. Their storylines are imaginative and engaging, often having some unsolved mystery that retains readers' interest. They are characterized by unexpected twists that make the reader reconsider what is happening in the novel. And they are able to craft complex characters that are unique and often opposites, creating a source of conflict that must be resolved. The only distraction in Unearthed is the almost immediate angst and romanticized infatuation that occurs between Jules and Mia, despite meeting under dangerous circumstances on an alien planet light-years from Earth. For the most part, this romantic aspect of their relationship doesn't overwhelm the storyline, although near the climax of the story, their feelings for one another do come to the fore.

Overall another good novel by this duo, and the sequel to Unearthed will be eagerly awaited by their fans!

Book Details:

Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
New York: Hyperion       2018
328 pp.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Quest For Z by Greg Pizzoli

The Quest for Z tells the story of British cartographer, geographer and explorer Percy Fawcett's life and his quest to find what he called "Z", a lost ancient city that he believed lay deep in the Amazon jungle.

Percival Harrison Fawcett was born in 1867 in Torquay, England. He attended Newton Abbey Proprietary College and eventually attended the Royal Military Academy and was commissioned as a lieutenant of the Royal Artillery in 1886. Percy served in British Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka and it was here that he met Nina Agnes Paterson at a tennis party. Nina was born in Kalutara in 1870 and was educated in Scotland but returned to Ceylon afterwards. As her family disapproved of her relationship with Percy, their marriage was delayed for several years. Eventually they married and had three children, Jack born in 1903, Brian born in 1906 (deceased 1984) and Joan born in 1910 (deceased 2005).

Percy's father, Edward Boyd Fawcett was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Percy was bored with military life and wanted something more engaging as his life's work. So In 1901, he joined the RGS and studied surveying and map making. Percy's interest in South America was initiated by the President of the RGS who considered South America to have considerable economic potential. The RGS was entrusted as a neutral party with overseeing the mapping of the boundary between Brazil and Bolivia and the President offered Percy the job of undertaking this task. He accepted.

Percy's first trip into Boliva in 1906 was eye-opening. The terrain was mountainous, the villages very isolated and the people hostile and suspicious. Europeans had entered the jungle to capture the indigenous people to work as slaves in the rubber trade and so were often not trusted. The jungles were filled with strange and dangerous animals and insects including anaconda and Bushmaster snakes, poisonous spiders and wild boars. Percy worked for the Boundary Commission for three years and then continued exploring South America on his own. During this time he became convinced that a long lost city which he inexplicably named "Z" existed deep within the Amazon jungle. This was based on his knowledge of local legends.Eventually he was drawn back to Europe where he fought in the First World War. He returned to South America in 1920 but his expedition at that time was unsuccessful. Up to 1924, Percy Fawcett made seven expeditions into the wilds of the Amazon.

 By 1925, Percy, who was now fifty-seven years old and whose reputation as an explorer was declining, struggled to secure financial backing for yet another expedition to look for his lost city. Eventually he was able to finance his expedition and on April 20, 1925, Percy set out on what would be his final attempt with his son Jack, and Jack's best friend, Raleigh Rimmell. They left Cuiabla in Mato Grosso for the jungle. Initially things appeared to go well with local runners bringing back regular reports about their progress. However, four months into the expedition, as the they were entering an area known to be inhabited by hostile indigenous tribes, the updates ceased. Months and years passed but Percy Fawcett and his party were never heard from again. To this day his disappearance remains a mystery but it is most likely that Percy, his son and his party were killed by hostile Indians.

The Quest For Z recounts, in an engaging and informative way, many of the details of Percy Fawcett's story for younger readers. Percy Fawcett who lived as the age of exploration was winding down was famous world-wide for his jungle exploration. His accounts were widely read and included many exciting details many of which can be found in this account.

Author-illustrator Greg Pizzoli sets the stage for Percy Fawcett's interest in South America, with its unknown interior and wealth of legends. Using short paragraphs of text paired with Pizzoli's illustrations, young readers follow Percy's life as he develops an interest in exploration and eventually travels to South America. Side bars provide interesting facts about the Royal Geographical Society, the Amazon rainforest, mosquitoes and famous explorers.

The artwork in the book was inspired by the photographs and drawings Pizzoli made on trips to Central America and Southeast Asia. He used a variety of mediums including silkscreen, photographic halftones, Zipatone, photocopiers, newspapers, cut paper and Photoshop.

The book also contains an Author's Note, information about those who continued to hunt for Fawcett and his party, a Glossary and a list of Selected Sources. The Quest for Z by Greg Pizzoli is a really well done picture book about a historical figure the captured the imagination of people all over the world.

Book Details:

The Quest For Z by Greg Pizzoli
New York: Viking, Penguin Young Readers Group    2017
44 pp.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a fictionalized account of the experiences of Dita Kraus (nee Polachova) who was sent to Auschwitz-Birchenau along with her mother and father in December, 1943.

Dita and her mother were housed in a section of Auschwitz known as Camp BIIb, referred to as the "family camp" which housed families brought in from the Terezin ghetto located in Czechoslovakia. The Nazis used the "family camp" as a propaganda showcase to prove to the outside world that Auschwitz was simply a work camp for the Jews of Poland.

The childrens block was overseen by Fredy Hirsch, a young Jewish sports instructor. He had managed to convince the Nazis to allow him to create a separate hut where the children could play while their parents slaved in the labour camp. The Nazis agreed but refused to allow schooling of the children. However, Hirsch helped create a clandestine school and library. Dita, age fourteen was asked by Hirsch to be the librarian. She  remembers only one book from the library, A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells. However, other people from the camp remembered other books too. The library also contained a "living library" in which people who knew certain books very well would tell the story to the children.

Dita Polachova and her mother were eventually sent to a work camp in Hamburg and then to Bergen-Belsen which was liberated by the British in April, 1945. Dita became ill with typhus and was quarantined. During this time her mother also became ill and died soon after. Dita's father, Hans had perished of starvation at Auschwitz so her mother's death left her an orphan. She returned to Prague and there met her future husband Otto Kraus who had been one of the instructors in the childrens block at Auschwitz. Dita moved to Teplice to stay with her friend, Margit and her father. During this time Otto wrote her every day and she eventually returned to Prague, married him and later emigrated to Israel where she lives today.

Author Antonio Iturbe was looking for information about the library in the childrens block at Auschwitz and surrepitously stumbled across Dita's contact information. This book is the result of both his interviews with Dita Kraus and the research he conducted. Although based on true events with real people, the novel is a work of fiction. Iturbe tells Dita's story using third person present tense narratives of various characters; Dita, Fredy Hirsch, Rudi Rosenberg who is the camp registrar,  Alice Munk who is Rudi's girlfriend, Viktor Pesek an SS guard from Romania and the Jewish girl he likes - Renee, and Ota Keller an instructor in the childrens' block.

Although the novel begins in January of 1944, the backstory of Dita's life is presented very early on as a series of flashbacks. Block 31 is undergoing an inspection by the SS guards, including Dr. Joseph Mengele. Dita is doing her best to go unnoticed as she has two books hidden beneath her smock. Books are forbidden and Dita must not be caught with them, something Dita very much understands. "Books are extremely dangerous; they make people think." To calm herself Dita thinks back on a time before fear overran everything. At age nine, in 1939, Dita's life was a happy one, living in Prague, Czechoslovakia, shopping with her mother and how as a child she had funny names for their neighbours. But all that changed with the arrival of the Nazis, on March 15, 1939.

At this time Dita's family lived in the most modern apartment building in Prague. She remembers her father dressed in neat suits for his job as a lawyer in the social security office. But for the Jews of Prague everything quickly spiraled out of control; immediately they are forced to move from their apartment across the river to one in Smichov. There are ration cards and bans, no school and no using the parks, theatres or shops. A year later saw yet another forced move to the Josefov district, where all the Jews were to now live. So Dita, her parents and her grandparents moved into an rundown apartment. Eventually they were forced to move with all the Jews out of Prague to a small walled town named Terezin which became a Jewish ghetto. It was from there they were deported to what would be the most famous extermination camp.

Dita and her parents arrived in Auschwitz in December 1943. An acquaintance from Terezin, told Dita's mother about the barrack-school. But at fourteen, Dita was too old for the school. However, the director of the school was able to keep a few older teens as assistants. At first the deputy director, Miriam Edelstein would not take Dita but when she learned Dita spoke fluent Czech and German, she had Dita act as a prompter for the play to be performed for the top officers of Auschwitz |II. After the play, Fredy Hirsch, the director of Block 31 offered Dita the job of librarian, a dangerous one because books are banned. Dita accepts. In Hirsch's cubicle, Dita is shown the eight books that comprise the library; an unbound atlas, a Basic Treatise on Geometry, A Short History of the World by H. G. Wells, A Russian Grammar, New Paths to Pyschoanalytic Therapy by Freud, a French novel (which turns out to be The Count of Monte Cristo), and a second Russian novel lacking a cover. While Dita lives in the childrens block, her parents live in separate men's and women's barracks.

Shortly after the barrack inspection, Dita is cornered by Dr. Mengele who tells her he's watching her. Terrified Dita wants to give up her librarian duties but she is concerned Fredy would be disappointed with her. Dita idolizes Fredy whom she remembers seeing at the Hagibor sports field on the outskirts of Prague. He was in charge of the youth activities there. Thinking back on Fredy, Dita decides "She won't quit the library...but she'll have to be alert..." Dita has a seamstress sew two hidden pockets on the inside of her smock so she can hide the books. As the children and teachers use the books more frequently, Dita asks Seppl Lichtenstern, a deputy director, to be given an assistant and for the books to be openly displayed each day on the chimney. Although Lichtenstern is opposed to this, Fredy agrees.

 Dita spends her time taking the books to those who want them and simply trying to survive without attracting the further attention of Dr. Mengele. But although Dita admires Fredy she also is puzzled by him, especially when she overhears his distress at deceiving the Jews in the childrens camp.  Dita wants to tell Fredy about Mengele but to avoid the others in the hut knowing about what happened she hides in a small space behind the woodpile to wait for him to be alone. She falls asleep and when she awakes it is nighttime and she overhears Fredy talking to an SS officer. Fredy is concerned about how he is deceiving the Jewish prisoners. This leaves Dita both confused and angry. As Dita struggles to survive in Auschwitz, she endures the death of her beloved father, watches the "liqudation" of the transport that arrived before hers and the death of the man she greatly admires - Fredy Hirsch. In her quest to discover the truth about Fredy's death, Dita uncovers the real reason behind the childrens block while mustering the courage to go on.


Prisoners uniforms on display in Auschwitz.
The Librarian of Auschwitz is a haunting story of life in the infamous extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau run by the Nazis in Poland. It tells the remarkable story of Dita Polachova as she struggles to survive through 1944. As the author states in his Postscript at the back of the novel,  "The bricks used to construct this story are facts, and they are held together in these pages with a mortar of fiction." 

To that end Iturbe weaves together the perspectives of many people with that of Dita's,  capturing the horror, degradation and fear experienced while being a prisoner in the what was perhaps the most efficient of the Nazi extermination camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The Librarian of Auschwitz is not for the faint of heart; there are numerous descriptions of the indignities suffered by the Jewish people at the hands of the SS guards, descriptions of what Jewish women and children experienced when they were gassed, the hideous black skies around Auschwitz filled with the ash of the cremated bodies, information on Dr. Joseph Mengele's gruesome experiments on children and women and many, many more terrible things.

One theme that appears throughout the novel is the role of books and libraries as a form of resistance and provide a sense of normalcy and escape. Dita's early childhood was one surrounded by books. As they leave most of their possessions behind in the move to the walled city of Terezin - transformed to become the Jewish ghetto, Dita's father smuggles in a book, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. This annoys her mother who feels they could have packed more shoes instead. But Dita states, "...That book took me much further than any pair of shoes." For Dita, "The reality in the book became truer and, in a way, more understandable than the one that surrounded her in the walled city." In the Jewish ghetto, Dita learns of a secret library consisting of approximately sixty thousand books, "...from the hundreds of public libraries and private collections belonging to the Jewish community, which the Nazis had closed down and plundered." Dita helps the librarian, Miss Sittigova take a book trolley around the streets of Terezin. The books, although sometimes stolen and used for other purposes offered the Jewish prisoners an opportunity to escape briefly their terrible circumstances. the book trolley is the highlight of the Jewish people's day.

In Auschwitz, neither school nor books are allowed but the Jews under the direction of Fredy Hirsch find a way to circumvent this rule. They establish a clandestine school and a hidden library. Dita views the library and her role as librarian as a form of resistance. "She's a fourteen-year-old girl, and they are the most powerful military weapon of destruction in history, but she's not going to take part silently in the procession again. Not this time. She's going to stand up to them." Even in the face of a threat by Mengele, Dita forges on. Fredy encourages Dita to remain as libarian, "...Of course it's a risk, but we're at war --although there are people here who sometimes forget that. We're soldiers, Edita. Don't believe those who say we're bringing up the rear and then put down their arms. It's war, and each of us has our own front line. This one is ours, and we must fight to the end."

Being the librarian allows Dita to resist in her own small way - something that is very important to her. The Nazis had a penchant for book burning; Ota Keller tells Dita that Freud's "...books were among the first to be burned by Hitler in 1933." Dita also has a copy of The Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek which was also banned and burned by the Nazis. The book helps Dita cope and even makes her smile - something she at first feels shame for but then realizes that it too is a way of resistance. "In a place like Auschwitz, where everything is designed to make you cry, a smile is an act of defiance." 

When the childrens block is to be "vacated" Dita reviews the library books as though they are old friends, mending "their wounds", caressing them. "When they're lined up, the books form a tiny row, a modest display of veterans. But over these past months, they've enabled hundreds of children to walk through the geography of the world, get close to history, and learn math. And also to be drawn into the intricacies of fiction and amplify their lives many times over. Not bad for a handful of old books." It is like leaving behind old friends.

Even at the end of the war, while in the field hospital where her mother Liesel lays dying of typhus, Dita  finds solace in books. She is given two paperback novels by Francis, a British nurse who is carrying for her mother. "While her mother sleeps, she sits down on an empty bed and inhales the smell of paper, fans the pages quickly with her thumb, and smiles at the way it sounds like a deck of cards being shuffled. She opens a page, and the paper rustles. She opens a page, and the paper rustles. She runs her hand up and down the spine again and notices the blobs of glue on the covers. She likes the names of the authors -- English names that sound exotic to her. As she holds the books in her hands, her life begins to fall into place again. Doing this helps her slowly put the pieces of the puzzle back where they belong."

Iturbe incorporates many detailed historical facts into his story, sometimes through the flashbacks of the characters and other times when they fit directly into the storyline. For example while Fredy Hirsch is reminiscing as to how he ended up at Auschwitz this leads him to remember the arrival of 1,260 Jewish children from the Bialystok ghetto in Poland on August, 24, 1943. When the September transport is sent to "quarantine" and eventual extermination, Iturbe notes with precision the historical fact: "During the night of March 8, 1944, 3,792 prisoners from the family camp BIIb were gassed and then incinerated in Crematorium III of Auschwitz-Birkenau."

But The Librarian of Auschwitz is also a portrait of courage and hope, of determination and resistance, of random acts of kindness in a place where hate reigns. Dita never gives up, even at the very last when she goes through one final "selection" by Dr. Mengele, even when her mother dies after gaining her freedom. The death of Dita's mother was the most heart-wrenching moment in the entire novel because it highlights the unfairness that is the hallmark of life. Dita wonders how her mother suffered so much only to die when finally free. "Liesl Adler, who has resisted all the deprivations, tragedies, and miseries of these years, becomes gravelly ill with the arrival of peace. Dita can't believe that after all she has overcome, she isn't going to live in peace. It's not fair."

The canon of Holocaust literature is extensive, but The Librarian of Auschwitz seems to explore the experiences of the Jewish people in a more genuine way. Perhaps this is due to Iturbe's fortuitious meeting with Dita Kraus. In his Postscript, Iturbe writes, "There's a great deal about Auschwitz on the internet, but it only talks about the place."so he decided to visit the extermination camp "to feel the vibration of that accursed place." He writes,"Walking through Auschwitz-Birkenau in solitude means enduring a very cold wind that carries echoes of the voices of those who remained there forever and became part of the mud present-day visitors walk on." The visit gave Iturbe "some sense of what the Holocaust was" but it was his meeting with Dita that provided some depth of understanding about the Holocaust that the author has managed to infuse throughout the novel. Readers will wonder at the profound suffering of the Jewish men, women and children, the incredible indifference of the German people and the fanatical ideology that drove the Nazis to murder millions.

Further information on the following can be found at these links:

Kurt Gerron, a German singer, actor and director and also a Jew who was murdered by the Nazis after being forced to make a propaganda film for them.

Dita Kraus survived three concentration camps; Terezin north of Prague, Auschwitz-Birchenau and Bergen-Belsen.

Picture credit: Auschwitz uniform:

Book Details:

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe
New York: Henry Holt and Company    2017

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Don't Tell The Enemy by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch's latest novel is based on the real life experiences of Kateryna Sikorska and her daughter Krystia during World War II. In the Author's note at the back of the novel, Forchuk Skrypuch writes that she was approached by Ukrainian-Canadian journalist and film maker Iryna Korpan and given a copy of a her documentary, She Paid the Ultimate Price which tells the story of her mother and grandmother's experiences in the Ukraine during World War II. Korpan encouraged Forchuk Skrypuch to write a book about these experiences. Don't Tell The Enemy is that book.

The novel opens on June 28, 1941 and is set in the fictional town of Viteretz, Ukraine. The town of four thousand souls has about eight hundred Ukrainians, the rest being split between Polish and Jewish. The Soviets who have occupied the town for the past two years, are fleeing eastward ahead of the advancing Nazis. As they leave, the civilians are being shot and the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) are rounding up and shooting educated Ukrainians and stealing whatever they can.

Krystia Fediuk, her younger sister Maria and their Mama are huddled in their home located across the street from the boarded up St. Mary's Ukrainian Catholic Church, listening to explosions and gunfire. In the morning Krystia warily enters their cowshed  to investigate the noises she heard during the night only to discover her cousin Josip hiding in the loft. He is on his way to a refuge in the forest where he hopes his brother Borys has gone. Their father and mother, Krystia's Uncle Roman and Auntie Iryna remain in town.

While taking their cow Krasa out to pasture, Krystia encounters Uncle Roman also walking his cow Lysa to the fields. He tells Krystia to wait for him so they can walk back to town together, but when he doesn't return, Krystia becomes concerned. It is her Jewish friend, Dolik Kitai who finds Uncle Roman shot dead in field by the retreating Soviets.

By the first of July 1941, the Germans arrive in Viteretz, as liberators who appear benevolent, providing soup for the townspeople and allowing the Catholic church to open again. At the same time, the Ukrainians announce their independence as a free country from the state radio in Lviv. Krystia's family along with their neighbours, Mr. Kitai and his wife Dr. Mina, Mr. and Mrs. Segal, and Uncle Ivan cautiously celebrate. But as the days pass, and the Germans settle into the abandoned homes and German refugees begin flooding the town Krystia and her family and friends become uneasy. The initial jubilation at being liberated from the Soviets  quickly turns to unease and then horror as the Nazis gradually reveal their true intentions. The Nazis move quickly from dishing out free soup to creating lists of Jewish citizens, to cold blooded murder.

The Jews are blamed for the murders of Ukrainians in the jail in Velicky Selo despite a German soldier acknowledging that this was the work of the Soviets. Commandant Hermann states, "These Jew are guilty of torturing, mutilating and killing the hundreds of men that we found in the prison at Velicky Selo." One hundred Jewish men are summarily executed and dumped in a mass grave. 

Krystia goes to the Jewish cemetery to see what really happened. There she discovers the awful truth: "The victims marched to the edge of the ditch and then ordered to remove their clothing. They were shot, and fell into the ditch, and dirt was shovelled over them." Krystia is horrified over the victims being forced to strip so their clothing is not damaged and the German civilians calmly sorting through the clothing of the murdered men. Later on two of the Germans Frau Schneider and her daughter Magda are seen wearing clothing from the murdered Jews. "My stomach did a lurch as I stepped in and realized what these two were dressed in. Marga wore the baker's white trousers and shirt. Frau Schneider wore the dogcatcher's grey shirt and brown trousers. Looking at them made me think of vultures, picking at scraps from the dead."

For Krystia, her family and neighbors this is the beginning of the terror living under the control of the Nazis. Homes and food are confiscated, more men murdered, the Jewish citizens identified and then forced into a ghetto. But Krystia and her family are determined to help and resist in any way they can. When a neighbor begs them for help, Krystia and her mother make a decision that has deadly consequences for all involved.


Don't Tell The Enemy is another excellent. well-written novel from Canadian award-winning author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch. This novel focuses on the life in one small town in the Ukraine during World War II. Similar events to those portrayed in the novel in the fictional town of Viteretz, occurred throughout the Ukraine, as evidenced by the existence of many mass graves throughout the country.It is believed that there are more than 700 mass graves scattered throughout the Ukraine. Over 1 millions Jewish Ukrainians were murdered by the Nazis during their occupation of the country.

The story is told through the eyes of fourteen year old Krystia who is based on Krystia Sikorska, who was a mere eight years old in 1941 and who survived the war and now lives in Canada. Don't Tell The Enemy is a fictionalized account of some of what Krystia lived through and as Forchuk Skrypuch states in her Author's Note, many of the characters in the novel were real people.

Don't Tell The Enemy captures the brutality and the terror that existed for the Ukrainians, Polish and Jews who lived under Nazi occupation. Forchuk Skrypuch doesn't spare young readers any of the details of life during this time. The novel describes several mass murders, the forcing of Jews into a ghetto with the ultimate goal of murdering everyone, the terrible risks and courage of those in the resistance, and the dignified behaviour of the Jewish people even when they were brutally mistreated.

Also captured is the disconnected behaviour of Nazis who live what seems to be cultured lives while either actively participating in or at least being aware of the atrocities occuring. For example, when Krystia makes milk deliveries to Frau and Herr Lange who live in the Kitais' confiscated home and are expecting a baby, she notes the beautiful cherrywood bassinet in the nursery and wonders "...where it had come from. Were the old owners now in a slave camp or ghetto? Or had they already been killed? Frau Lange seemed cheerful and oblivious...How could they seem so normal, even almost nice, yet live like vultures -- benefiting from the destruction of others."

As the Nazis strip the Jewish people of their rights, their homes and their dignity, Krystia becomes determined to resist in any way possible. She is portrayed as a courageous, intelligent girl determined to do the right thing, even in the face of deadly consequences to herself and what remains of her family. She sees these acts as ones of defiance in the midst of a town now filled with enemies. At considerable risk, Krystia and her mother choose to hide three Jews under the floor of their home. Krystia secrets food and medicine into the Jewish ghetto and helps Mr. Segal forge papers to be used to help Jews escape. The penalty is death for any of these actions.

Although the village of Viteretz is fictional, a map locating the Ukraine in relation to the Soviet Union and Germany in 1941 would be helpful for younger readers.

Don't Tell The Enemy is another well-written, informative novel about little known events during World War II, events that should never be forgotten. This novel, brings those events to light for yet another generation of young people, ensuring that both the good and evil acts of this time will be remembered and the people who died will not be forgotten.

Readers wishing to learn more about the Ukrainian Holocaust are encouraged to check out the following:
 Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies website
The Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine which also has an article on Nazi War Crimes in Ukraine.

I've included a clip from the documentary, She Paid The Ultimate Price by Iryna Korpan about her mother Kateryna Sikorska who was hanged for hiding her Jewish neighbours.

Book Details:

Don't Tell The Enemy by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Toronto: Scholastic Canada Ltd.    2018
184 pp.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Stolen Secrets by L.B. Schulman

Livvy's mother, Gretchen has dragged her across the continental United States from Vermont to a new life in San Francisco. Livvy leaves behind her home with its beautiful backyard in Vermont, her friends that she's known since preschool and Sean, her first boyfriend. Her mother, a recovering alcoholic leaves behind her AA sponsor, Tom.

However it's soon apparent things are not what they seem. A friend texts Livvy to tell her that a help-wanted sign has been posted at her mother's old job, Gourmet City where she supposedly was laid off.  Her mother also seems to know her way around San Francisco quite well and she knows exactly which bus Livvy needs to take to get to her new school. Then on Livvy's first day of school, she watches from their apartment window as her mother. supposedly on her way to a job interview, scraps the resumes Livvy's printed out for her job interview, tossing them into the garbage bin.

Although she attempts to follow her mother, Livvy soon loses her in the streets of San Francisco and is forced to rush to school. On her first day at Grant High, Livvy meets Franklin D. Schiller, who introduces himself in their Algebra 2 class. It turns out Franklin D, as he likes to be called is also in Livvy's International Debate class. Franklin D. decides he likes Livvy and sets out to try to win her over.

After school Livvy decides to check out 2846 Fillmore, the address she found on a sticky note, believing this to be the location of her mother's interview. Livvy discovers the address is not a business but a yellow Victorian house, occupied by an elderly lady. Her mother is there but soon leaves. Puzzled over her mother's prescence at the house, Livvy goes to the front porch and meets the elderly woman.She tells the woman that she saw her mother at the house. This leads the woman to remark that Livvy looks like her father, Lee Newman but not like her mother Gretchen  and introduces herself as Adelle Pfeiffer. She invites Livvy in for tea and tells her that she has hired Gretchen to do odd jobs. Confused by Gretchen's strange answers and random statements, Livvy eventually runs out of the house.

Back in their apartment, Livvy confronts her mother over the lies and tells her she met her grandmother whom she thought was dead. Her mother admits that Adelle is her mother, telling her that she moved to San Francisco because she was afraid she would be cut out of her mother's will if she didn't help care for her. Her mother's lawyer has arranged for Gretchen and Livvy to be paid a stipend and living expenses. Another caregiver, Vicki has been hired to work at night. Gretchen warns her daughter not to get involved with her grandmother who has a cruel streak. However, Livvy wants to get to know Adelle on her own terms.

At school Franklin D. continues to pursue Livvy inviting her to join him at lunch, but she declines giving the false excuse of having a prom planning meeting. Nevertheless Franklin D. remains persistent, even when Livvy provides numerous excuses and when she lies to him after Sean dumps her by text. Finally she relents and begins eating with Franklin D. and his eclectic friends.

Livvy's mother refuses to tell her much about her grandmother or why she stopped visiting her when she was in college. Feeling guilty about staying away, Livvy decides to visit her one day. She notices a mezuzah, an ornamental box to hold a copy of verses from the Torah, on the door frame. This makes Livvy wonder if her grandmother is Jewish? On this visit Adelle speaks a few words of German and mumbles about not being able to escape. When Livvy returns to her apartment, she discovers her mother has begun drinking again. Gretchen tells Livvy that caring for her mother whom she has a poor relationship with has triggered her relapse and she promises to call Tom. However, Livvy doesn't trust her mother and decides she will follow up with Tom on her own.

Livvy's time with her grandmother begins to raise more questions than answers. Her oma talks about journals, being a writer, about roll call and camp, being called Lazy Lillian by a sister she doesn't have. More random statements are made by Adelle including mentioning a place called Belsen, escaping on the last train and warnings to hide the jewelry. Livvy decides to search Belsen on her phone and discovers that Bergen-Belsen, was a women's concentration camp where Anne Frank and her sister Margaret died of typhus. The mystery about her grandmother begins to deepen.

At this time, Livvy's mother goes into crisis, having a serious alcoholic relapse that leads to her arrest and jailing for driving while impaired.  Tom travels to San Francisco and he and Gretchen tell Livvy that her mother will be returning to Vermont to do another session of rehab at Evergreen. Meanwhile Livvy is allowed to stay with her elderly grandmother, offering her the perfect chance to try to solve the mystery of her grandmother's past. With the help of Franklin D. who becomes more than just a friend, Livvy uncovers is a shocking past and a family secret that might explain her mother's serious problems but which also offers the possibility of forgiveness, recovery and redemption.


Schulman's Stolen Secrets takes the tragic story of Anne Frank and imagines a fictional account of one woman's life as it intersects with Anne's. While Schulman was careful to craft a story  that "didn't invent a 'new' Anne Frank" her novel does include a fictional account of Anne's experience at Bergen Belsen. The novel, which  explores the issues of Alzheimers and alcoholism, also uses these illnesses as a means of driving the plot. Livvy's grandmother, Adelle Friedman has Alzheimers which allows Schulman to develop the mystery of her past.  Adelle's fragmented memories are mixed up between the truth of her identity and the identity she assumed at the end of the war but Livvy doesn't know this.  By having Adelle suffer from Alzheimers, Schulman sets this character up as an unreliable narrator; her random statements to Livvy seem to suggest one thing, as do Adelle's short one or two page narratives in italics inserted between chapters. These short narratives tell of her time at Bergen-Belsen but they are vague enough to suggest to the reader the very opposite of what really happened. Eventually Livvy uncovers the unsettling truth.

Livvy's mother's alcoholism and her relapse set the stage for Livvy being left on her own and therefore being able, with the help of her new friend Franklin D. to investigate unhindered her grandmother's past. This also allows Livvy's friendship with Franklin D. to blossom.

Bergen-Belsen at the time the camp was liberated.
Stolen Secrets is populated by a quartet of strong, well developed characters, the most appealing of which has to be Franklin D. Shiller. Franklin D. is eccentric, caring, funny. Part of what makes this character so appealing is that he is part of a warm family and has caring, engaged parents - very unusual for young adult fiction. Franklin D. serves to provide some mild comic relief in what would otherwise be a dark novel.

In complete contrast is Livvy's dysfunctional family; her parents are divorced with her father having run off with another woman to Australia (conveniently putting him out of the picture) and her alcoholic mother who has been sober for the past five years until her recent relapse. As is typical of alcoholic families, Livvy is forced to be the parent and care for her mother both physically and emotionally. This sets Livvy up as a sixteen-year-old, mature far beyond her years. Livvy is unusual also in that she loves facts and is gifted with a prodigious memory.

Just as her mother undergoes a journey of recovery in the novel, Livvy too experiences her own journey. With a mother who is very needy, Livvy hopes to establish a different relationship with the grandmother she believed to be dead. She's hoping her oma will be a heroine for her and quickly rushes to fit her into that identity. However, when Livvy discovers the truth about her grandmother's past, she feels angry and betrayed. She refuses to visit her oma's bedside. "Why should Oma have family at her beside, stroking her hand, encouraging her to live? The Holocaust victims hadn't died with such love and care." 

But Livvy doesn't abandon her grandmother as her mother did. Instead of judging her grandmother "for her part in crimes against countless innocent people" Livvy decides to see her "as she had been, a girl around my age, who'd sold her soul to believe in a world of Hitler's creation-- one that promised jobs, solutions to economic problems, and a shiny new nation. A girl who'd ruined many lives, including her own." Livvy decides  "So in the end, I decided to accept Oma solely for who she was to me -- my grandmother. I was her last hope for absolution, the only person who could forgive her when she couldn't even forgive herself."  Livvy sitting by her dyig oma's bedside considers, "I weighed the facts one last time. My grandmother had made some horrific choices. But the reality was, I loved her in spite of it. Lifting her papery hand in mine, I bent down and kissed her cheek."

 Stolen Secrets is a very different novel that tackles many issues and yet works remarkably well. Well written, this novel is highly recommended.

Book Details:

Stolen Secrets by L.B. Schulman
Honesdale, Pennsylvannia: Boyds Mills Press   2017
302 pp.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

Piecing Me Together is a novel about life as a young African-American in modern-day America. Set in Portland, Oregon, the main character is Jade Butler who attends St. Francis High School on the other side of town, away from her friends and family in predominantly poor, black Northside. St. Francis is considered the best private school in Portland, and is predominantly white. Jade hasn't made many close friends at the school which is concerning to her mother.

Jade's family consists of her mother who works as a house keeper for a rich old lady named Louise after she was fired from her job at Emanuel Hospital for theft. Uncle E.J. lives with them and sometimes deejays. Her dad also lives in Portland with his white girlfriend who has a college degree and a good paying job.

The first day of school, Jade meets with Mrs. Parker her guidance counselor who Jade hopes will have information about the volunteer abroad program. Mrs. Parker has provided Jade with several opportunities; an essay writing class in her freshman year and a SAT prep class last year. Now Jade is hopeful because the volunteer abroad program is "not a program offering something I need, but it's about what I can give." Instead Jade learns that she's been selected to participate in a program, Woman to Woman: A Mentorship Program for African American Girls. Each of the twelve girls will be paired with a mentor and will experience trips to various sites across the city. When Jade questions Mrs. Parker, she is told that she was selected based on gender, grade and need through teacher nominations. Although she's upset that Mrs. Parker hasn't given her information on the study abroad program Jade reluctantly agrees to participate when she learns that staying in the two year program and maintaining her grade point average will earn her a scholarship to any Oregon college.

At her first Woman to Woman meeting, Jade's mentor, Maxine, fails to show leaving Jade feeling disappointed. Maxine shows up at Jade's home later in the evening, apologetic and bearing a gift bag of art supplies. Although Maxine is friendly and shows interest in Jade's art, their time together is interrupted by calls from Maxine's boyfriend.  Maxine cancels their next meeting and then offers to take Jade for brunch on her birthday. However, Jade's mother becomes furious at this and refuses to allow Maxine to follow through on her plans. Instead she's invited in and spends some time talking with Jade about her collage art.

Jade makes a new friend - a white girl named Sam whom she rescues from an awkward situation on the public transit to school and who is new to St. Francis. Sam invites Jade to her home where she lives with her grandparents after her mother abandoned her. Th visit is awkward because Sam's grandmother is racist, but her grandfather is welcoming to Jade.

Meanwhile, through the Woman to Woman program, Jade and Maxine attend a "girls night" at mentor Sabrina's home for a night of advice on dating.  They also visit the Portland Art Museum but instead of accompanying Jade through the museum, Maxine spends time talking with her boyfriend in the lobby. This leads Jade to confront her over dinner afterwards, with Maxine promising not to do this again.

But as Jade continues through the mentoring program, she begins to realize that if she wants to achieve her dreams and make something of herself, she needs to find the courage to make her voice heard. Only in this way will she come to be seen not as someone who needs help but as someone who can offer help.


Piecing Me Together tackles a wide range of themes that include race, class, privilege and friendship. Watson specifically considers how race and class impact opportunity and who gets what.

The main character is a black teenager, Jade Butler who is determined to make something of her life. She lives in a predominantly black, poor neighborhood in Portland, Oregon and she starts the novel believing that in order for her to succeed, "in order for me to make something of this life, I'd have to leave home, my neighborhood, my friends." To that end her mother has enrolled her in a mostly white high school, St. Francis that offers students many opportunities that are not available at the school in Jade's neighborhood. One of those opportunities is a study abroad program and to improve her chances of being chosen, Jade has been learning Spanish. However, to her dismay, Jade learns she has not been chosen and instead has been selected for a mentoring program which her guidance teacher Mrs. Parker tells her is for "young people with your set of circumstances are, well, at risk for certain things, and we'd like to help you navigate through those circumstances."

As she spends more time in the Woman to Woman program, Jade feels that the purpose of the mentoring program is to "fix" her, something she resents. Jade feels that although Maxine is black, she doesn't really understand her. Jade tells her best friend Lee Lee, "I don't want to be taken all over the city of Portland just so I can see how everyone else lives in bigger and better houses and neighborhoods. I wanted to be in Woman to Woman because I thought I'd actually learn something about being a woman. About how to be a successful woman." Eventually Jade confronts Maxine about her dissatisfaction, "I do like going on all those trips, but sometimes you make me fell like you've come to fix me; only, I don't feel broken. Not until I'm around you...It feels like Woman to Woman takes us to all these places outside of our neighborhood, as if the places in our neighborhood aren't' good enough."

When Jade's new friend Sam, who is white is offered a placement in the study abroad program in Costa Rica, she is devastated and left wondering " choices are made about who gets what and how much they get. Wondering who owns the river and the line, and the hook, and the worm." She also tells her friend Sam that people are offered different opportunities because of their skin color or race. "I just want to be normal. I just want a teacher to look at me and think I'm worth a trip to Costa Rica. Not just that I need help but that I can help someone else."

Watson describes several instances of racism throughout the novel. Jade is asked to leave a clothing store, accused of loitering and later because she has a large bag the implication being that she is a shoplifting risk. Yet her friend Sam who is white is allowed to stay as is another woman with a large bag.  A white volunteer hosting a tour for the Oregon Symphony assumes that the black women in Jade's group "were the kind of kids who wouldn't appreciate classical music." At school Jade is ordered to the office, even though a white classmate Hannah was the one who was disrespectful. Sam attempts to tell Jade that Hannah was not sent to the office not because she is white but because her family is wealthy and donates to the school.  Jade and Andrea see a black woman pulled over by a white policeman. Jade also learns of a fictional black girl, Natasha Ramsey who is beaten by police who attended a call at a house party in Vancouver, Washington.

 Despite her initial reservations about the mentor program and the rocky start she and Maxine experience, the program does help Jade find her voice.  Her complaints to Maxine result in a few changes in the program; for example several money management workshops are arranged and the group visits Maxine's sister's art gallery to learn about becoming an entrepeneur. Jade approaches Mr. Flores and tells him how his decision not to recommend her for the study abroad program was unfair and questioning how "is it fair that the girl who tutors half the people chosen for the study abroad trip doesn't get to go?" Near the end of the novel, at the Woman to Woman fundraiser, Jade tells a patron, "...I've learned I don't have to wait to be given an opportunity, but that I can make an opportunity and use my voice to speak up for what I need and want."  This is demonstrated later on by Jade and Lee Lee taking the initiative to host an open mic and art show in honor of Natasha Ramsey who was assaulted by police. 

Although many teens struggle with finding their identity throughout their high school years, Watson highlights how this can be especially difficult for black teens. As a person of color, Jade feels very different from everyone else at St. Francis. "And I realized how different I am from everyone else at St. Francis. Not only because I'm black and almost everyone else is white, but because their mothers are the kind of people who hire housekeepers, and my mother is the kind of person who works as one." Later on in the novel she mentions how she can't really be herself but has to tone down her 'blackness'..."Sometimes I just want to be comfortable in this skin, this body. Want to cock my head back and laugh loud and free, all my teeth showing, and not be told I'm too rowdy, too ghetto. Sometimes I just want to go to school, wearing my hair big like cumulus clouds without getting any special attention, without having to explain why it looks different form the day before...At school I turn on a switch, make sure nothing about me it too black. All day I am on..."

This is in contrast to what she feels within the safety of her family and home where she believes in herself. At home, secure in her family, this seems possible. "...that's when I believe my dark skin isn't a curse, that my lips and hips, hair and nose don't need fixing. That my dream of being an artist and traveling the world isn't foolish." However, outside of her home, Jade feels as though she shatters into pieces. "And this makes me wonder if a black girl's life is only about being stitched together and coming undone, being stitched together and coming undone."

A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y by Mickalene Thomas
This theme of being fragmented appears repeatedly throughout the novel, manifesting itself through Jade's collage art and in the lovely collage art by artist Bryan Collier on the novel's cover. At Powell's bookstore, Jade is introduced to the work of two black collagists, Romare Bearden and Mickalene Thomas whose art reflect "the making of me". Throughout the novel Jade continues to make collages that reflect what she is experiencing. The chapter titled renaciamiento or rebirth describes Jade creating a collage using photos of people like Emmett Till, Trayvon Marton, and Michael Bland, all of whom died at the hands of white brutality and showing them "living", "loving" and "being".

Throughout the novel, Jade is fascinated by the story of Lewis and Clark who are famous for their journey through the western United States, through the continental divide to the Pacific Ocean. The two explorers were accompanied (among others) by the famous Shoshone Indian woman,  Sacagawea and her infant and husband, and a black slave named York. In Piecing Me Together, Jade observes  how history has not acknowledged (until recently) the contributions these two non-white members of the expedition made. Their journey seems to mirror Jade's experiences, how she felt invisible to the teachers at St. Francis who didn't consider nominating her for the study abroad, and how her efforts have gone unrecognized.

Piecing Me Together is a brilliantly crafted novel that may help young readers understand better the black experience in America. Watson tackles so many issues in this novel, issues that deal with race, opportunity, class, identity and body image. This is done in a positive and realistic way through the remarkable character of Jade Butler. A well-crafted character, Jade is comfortable with her larger size and the colour of her skin, but she desperately wishes other people felt the same. She is resourceful, empathetic, intelligent and gifted.

Choosing Portland, Oregon as the setting for this novel seemed unusual, but Watson did grow up in the city. Interestingly, according to a recent article in the Atlantic, Portland has a very racist history towards it's African-American citizens.

art photo credit:

Book Details:

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
New York: Bloomsbury Children's Books     2017
264 pp.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Auma's Long Run by Eucabeth Odhiambo

Auma Onyango lives in the small Luo village of Koromo in Kenya with her Mama, her younger sister Baby, and her two brothers nine-year-old Musa and eleven-year-old Juma. Also living in their family compound is Bani, her father's mother. Her Baba works in shop in Nairobi, returning to visit them at the end of each month.  She attends KaPeter Primary school where she is beginning Class Seven. Auma loves to run, has big dreams of becoming a doctor one day, but in order to achieve her dream, Auma must get a scholarship to attend high school and eventually university in the city far from her village. She hopes to accomplish that by winning a scholarship for track.

Then one day after school, Auma is surprised to see Baba home from Nairobi, during a weekday in the middle of the month of November. Baba's job in the city has meant Auma and her brothers have been able to attend school regularly. Auma is suspicious of her father's unusual visit in that he has not brought them his usual gifts from the city. Aumua also senses that something was different about him, that his presence is not reassuring. "I couldn't shake the feeling that something dark and unfamiliar had followed him into our home."

With the death of Tabitha's husband, Mika, Auma notes that there have been many deaths in the past two years, supposedly from typhoid and malaria. Her best friend Abeth has lost both her mother and father and now lives with her younger sister Supa and her grandmother. "I still couldn't figure out why only parents seemed to be dying, leaving behind healthy grandparents."  However, Auma wonders why so many adults are suddenly dying from these diseases or if they are sick with something unknown.

It soon becomes apparent that something is seriously wrong with her father. Auma's father does not re return to his job in Nairobi, spends his days sleeping,, and continues to lose weight. When Auma asks her mother when Baba will return to his job, her mother ignores her questions. But Auma is determined. Eventually Auma's mother tells her that she doesn't know what is wrong with Baba and she decides to accompany him to the clinic. When they return, Auma notices her mother looks "like she had seen Death himself."

In January a new term begins at school with Auma now in Class Eight. Meanwhile Baba continues to grow weaker and sicker. Her mother refuses to take him to the medicine man, telling Auma that she will continue to pray to God for his healing. Then one day Auma returns home from school to find that her father is dying. Her mother mourns Baba's death but for Auma it marks the beginning of a challenging and sad period of her life where she must make some difficult decisions about her future.


Auma's Long Run tells the story of the devastating effects of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Odhiambo decided to write this story featuring younger characters because the AIDS epidemic in Africa has primarily impacted young children who are often left orphaned by the deaths of one or both parents from the disease.  To date, the AIDS infection in Kenya shows little signs of slowing down. Over the last decade, the country has the highest rate of new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa. Over 1.6 million Kenyans are HIV positive.

Born and raised in Kenya, Odhiambo states that she wrote "the story of the girls and women I grew up around. I wanted to explore some of the issues that thread through the lives of women: a woman's place in society, relationships, marriage, childbearing, motherhood, strength, confidence, and respect. Above all, I wanted to honor the resilience of HIV/AIDS orphans, many of whom overcome their trauma to grow up to be successful adults but have no platform to tell their stories."

One aspect of the AIDS epidemic in Kenya that Odhiambo addresses is the lack of information and the unwillingness of adults to talk about what was happening during the early years of the epidemic, both of which contributed greatly to the rapid spread of the disease. This is shown in the novel by the character Auma, who is an intelligent, observant girl, seeking answers. Auma is puzzled by the deaths of parents, leaving children and grandchildren untouched.  Although Auma is determined to learn what is going on, she finds the adults in her village are secretive. Only by surrepitiously listening in on a conversation between two adult women in the market does Auma learn about a disease called AIDS or Slim and that it kills people by making them very weak and unable to fight off infections.

When her father becomes seriously ill, her mother never talks to Auma about his illness. After overhearing villagers speak about her father's illness Auma suspects her father has AIDS but is unable to confirm this belief. "Over and over again I'd asked myself what could possibly be wrong with Baba. Over and over again I came up with only one answer. And yet I'd kept hoping that I was wrong. That Mama would have some other explanation for me."

 Even at her father's funeral, the adults speculate about what killed Baba, but never really naming what they believe killed him - AIDS. This reluctance to understand and talk about what is happening in the village is upsetting to Auma. "Maybe that was better, not knowing. Or maybe the worst feeling came from only knowing half of something, and never being able to get a complete answer...
And maybe the adults weren't hiding things from me. Maybe they really didn't know."

Fortunately, her teacher Mr. Osogo openly discusses AIDS with Auma's fellow Class Eight students, explaining how HIV virus attacks the body. Not satisfied, Auma asks "the big question", "How do people contract HIV?" While Mr. Osogo informs the class that it can be contacted through sexual relations with an infected person, he also identifies other ways to become infected. Mr. Osogo's description of AIDS confirms Auma's worst fears. Auma questions why the adults in the village have not spread this information. "Why weren't there a hundred Mr. Osogos dragging blackboards into the middle of the market and explaining this to everyone? Why was even the disease's name hidden beneath a layre of you knows and stupid nicknames?"

Odhiambo also highlights some of the myths that Auma encounters in the treatment of AIDS such as using the village medicine man and the idea that having sex with a virgin cures AIDS.

The novel also portrays how difficult life can be in rural Kenya for young girls; they face challenges in being treated equally and in making decisions about their future. For example, many girls do not continue on with their education, often not completing high school. In Auma's Class Seven, there are forty-five students, of which only fifteen are girls. Auma is determined that she will not be one of those girls who quit school because of her period - a common occurence in the developing world. Often this is the result of a lack of sanitary hygiene materials; Abeth shows Auma how she can use an old blanket for this purpose. Specific tasks like collecting water and going to market are considered women's tasks. While out collecting firewood with her brothers, Juma and Musa are confronted by a boy whom they sense wants to harm Auma. As Auma matures into a young woman, she discovers it is unsafe to collect firewood alone, or to fill the family pail at the stream. When Auma begins to menstruate, she decides not to tell her mother because she knows she will tell her grandmother who will then pressure her to marry. "If Dani had her way, I'd quit school now and leave home to get married. Leave my parents and siblings behind. Leave Abeth and all our friends..." Dani's attempt to marry her off, result in Auma having to hide.

Odhiambo captures the devastating effect AIDS has on individuals, families and society in general. What is particularly tragic is Auma's view of marriage as a life-limiting choice, one that leads to a life of hardship and even death. Even more saddening is her view of men, partly due to her father's betrayal that has led to such tremendous suffering for her family and the death of her mother. Because of this Auma forms the determination to never marry as a way to protect herself from AIDS.

Despite the tragic subject matter of Auma's Long Run, Odhiambo has created a resilient character in Auma. Despite the loss of her parents and the deaths in her village, Auma manages to maintain a hopeful attitude, demonstrating fortitude and great strength of character. She decides she will be an adult who looks for constructive solutions. "...I wondered why most of the elders in my life failed to think of constructive solutions to problems. Mama, Dani, Aunt Mary -- they all seemed to jump to the easiest solution or give up...What if they talked openly about AIDS, so that everyone knew how it spread and how to avoid contracting it or passing it on? What if they thought seriously about the consequences for orphans after their parents' burials?...I would not be that kind of adult. I would look for real solutions, even if they didn't come easily."

Well written, Auma's Long Run is a thoughtful, serious treatment of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, written for younger readers that encourages them to ask the difficult questions and to consider the global consequences of this serious illness.

Book Details:

Auma's Long Run by Eucabeth Odhiambo
Minneapolis:  CarolRhoda Books     2017
297 pp.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Whistling In The Dark by Shirley Hughes

Whistling In The Dark is set in a suburb of Liverpool, England during the period from the fall of 1940 to the spring of 1941. It follows a small community of neighbours as they struggle to cope with the nighttime bombing of the docks of Liverpool, the rationing of food and goods and the appearance of a mysterious stranger.

Liverpool was a major port located on the northwest coast of England, where the River Mersey meets the Irish Sea. With its strategic location, docks which were used by the Royal Navy and the many industries, Liverpool was recognized as a key port by Hitler. As a result the city became the second most bombed after London, during the Blitz, suffering many casualities. The first bombing raid occurred in August of 1940, and continued throughout the autumn of 1940.

Joan Armitage lives in a suburb of Liverpool with her mom, her seventeen-year-old sister Audrey, her brother Brian and a younger sister Judy. Joan's father, who was a wireless operator on an oil tanker in the Merchant Navy was lost at sea.  Audrey's beau, Dai Davies is also serving in the Merchant Navy helping bring food and supplies to England. Audrey worries about Dai and each short leave he's granted is time for them to quickly see one another. Many families have lost a father or a brother so they understand the fear.

As Joan is working on her french homework one evening in the sitting room she hears a faint low whistle and then sees "the dark shape of a man looking in at her." Terrified, Joan opens the door to see Brian arriving home on his bike from grammar school. They immediately lock the back door and when Mum arrives home, she and Brian search the garden and surrounding bushes without luck.

At school the next day, Miss Sanderson introduces a new girl, Ania who is Polish. To prevent Angela and her friends from bullying Ania,  Joan's best friend Doreen makes a point of talking to Ania during the mid-morning break. Doreen tells Joan that Ania is an orphan who came to England on the Kindertransport and now lives with the elderly Mrs. Mellor.

Besides school, Joan goes to the teenage hops at the youth club and to the cinema, usually the Queensway Cinema to see American movies. These movies offer her "a glimpse of heaven compared with the chilly reality of the blackout and endless queues for the meager family  meat ration..." She also does youth-service work with Ross Jenks and Derek Williams, collecting salvage for the war effort. One afternoon on their way to look for salvage they decide to stop at the old Royal Hotel which is now used to house evacuee children from the risky areas of Liverpool.  The hotel is run by volunteers from the Women's Voluntary Services (WVS). A few of the children tell Joan and the boys that they believe the hotel is haunted because they hear footsteps at night and strange noises coming from the attic.

When Joan returns hope she finds Captain Ronnie Harper Jones, who is stationed with the Army Catering Corps paying her mother a visit. Although Joan doesn't like Ronnie who she thinks is "on the oily side", she does like the parcels of food he brings for them. Joan's mother insists that she attend the charity dinner dance in aid of the Red Cross at the golf club; Ronnie is taking her mother, which does not make Joan happy. Both Audrey and Brian also don't like Ronnie. Before Ronnie leaves, two army men arrive to question Mrs. Armitage about whether they've seen anyone suspicious lurking around. They inform the family that a Polish refugee with the Pioneer Corps has deserted. Although she remembers the earlier siting of the man around their home, Mrs. Armitage lies to the army men, later telling Joan that she doesn't know the circumstances and if the stranger is the Polish man she wants him to have a chance to get away as incarceration in the Military Prison is terrible.

As the Blitz in Liverpool intensifies, Joan finds the frightening bombing raids to be one of many situations to be overcome. The annoying visits of Captain Harper Jones lead to an upsetting decision by Joan's mother. The discovery by Derek and Ross of a hidden cache of blackmarket foodstuffs result in a serious accident and the uncovering of a local blackmarket ring that brings down a highly respected resident. Added to this is the reappearance of the mysterious stranger whose presence complicates life for Joan and her family.


Whistling in the Dark paints a realistic picture of life in Liverpool during the Blitz of 1940-1941. Author Shirley Hughes draws on her own personal experience of having lived through the Liverpool Blitz when she was a teenager.

Narrated by Joan Armitage, the first part of the novel develops the setting, providing young readers with a sense of life during wartime. In many ways life went on during the war; Joan and her friends go to movies at the theatre, attend dances and she continues to take art lessons. Her sister Audrey has a boyfriend in the Merchant Navy and her mother is being courted by a much disliked Captain Harper Jones. But Joan's narrative mentions the many ways life in Liverpool changed during the war: the blackout curtains, the shortage of nylons leading women to paint their legs with gravy browning, children scavenging for metal and other scraps for the war effort, the rationing of coal and food especially meat and sugar. Hughes particularly focuses on the children being hungry; "...they were aching with hunger." and how when visiting each others homes, they refused food because "in this era of food rationing, it wasn't polite to accept food." And of course the bombing raids which overshadow all aspects of life.

One especially memorable scene in the novel in which the terror of the bombing raids is captured occurs when Joan and Doreen go to the cinema to see a Betty Grable movie. In the theatre, they hear "the heart-sinking wail of the air-raid siren outside". Instead of enjoying the film, Joan finds she can't concentrate, "Her ears, like everyone else's were straining to catch the sound of those engines getting nearer: German Focke-Wulf bombers on their way to drop their nightly barrage of high explosives to pound the Liverpool docks." They must remain in the theatre, the power goes out frequently leaving them in total darkness, flakes of plaster occasionally falling from the ceiling as they heard "the distant sickening crunch and thud of explosions over Liverpool..." And afterwards when the all clear has sounded and Joan and Doreen along with others leave the theatre, "...the sky over Liverpool was blazing orange and fiery red."

Using the character of Ania, Hughes also explores the plight of Jewish children sent to England via the Kindertransport. Ania arrives in Liverpool completely alone and is eventually befriended by Joan and her family. Readers also see the attitude that existed towards deserters like Ania's uncle, Likasz Topolski, who has deserted only because he wants to meet his neice.

Within the novel however is a more courageous story - that of the role of the Merchant Navy in bringing in food and supplies to Great Britain at tremendous risk. This risk meant that everyone was careful not to waste and that many necessities were done without. It was a risk Joan and her family knew well as her father had been lost at sea and it was a risk Audrey lived with daily regarding her boyfriend Dai.

Hughes packs a ton of action into the latter half of the novel; Ania's story is developed, the identity of the mysterious stranger revealed, the discovery of a black mark cache and numerous plot twists that make for an exciting and satisfying ending.  Whistling In The Dark covers many aspects of wartime England in an informative and engaging way for younger readers.
For further information on Liverpool during the Blitz:

The Imperial War Museums website has substantial information on the Liverpool Blitz.

The Merseyside Maritime Museum website.

Book Details:

Whistling In The Dark by Shirley Hughes
Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press   2015
227 pp.