Saturday, June 24, 2017

Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky

Night Witches is set in Stalingrad, Russia in 1942 and is a fictional account of a young girl who joins 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Airforce.

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was set up after the famous Russian woman aviator, Marina Raskova urged Stalin to allow women to become fighter pilots. This bomber regiment was made up of young women between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six who flew flimsy planes made of plywood and canvas and carried a two bombs on each run. Each plane contained a pilot and a navigator in an open cockpit and no parachutes.

They flew close to 30,000 missions over the course of the war, generally eight missions per   night. These missions were to harass the German army, and to destroy strategic targets. Because the bi-planes were smaller and lighter and had a maximum speed below the stall speed of the Luftwaft, they had greater maneuvrability giving them an edge in battle.

The 588th Regiment eventually became known as the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. Thus the Soviet Union was the first nation to have women pilots in a combat role. The Germans nicknamed these pilots "Nachthexen" or "night witches" because their light planes made a soft swishing sound, like that of what they imagined a witch's broomstick would make. They were so feared by the Germans that a pilot who shot down a night witch was awarded the Iron Cross.

Night Witches opens in Stalingrad, 1942 with Valentina Petrovna Baskova crouching in the rubble of her apartment building with her mother. They are watching the night lights set up by the German Sixth Army sweeping the sky in at attempt to protect their fuel depots, ammunition dumps, ground troops and support vehicles from being bombed by the light bi-planes of the 588th Regiment. Valentina's sister, Tatyana is on the "night witches"; both of them having learned to fly planes from their father who was head of the training program at Engels airbase. Three days ago on June 22, the Nazis invaded Russia in a major military offensive called Operation Barbarossa. Russian citizens were rallied to fight for their country and their leader, Comrade Stalin. Tatyana left for the People's Volunteers while Valentina's mother refused to allow her to go with her sister.

Their apartment has had one wall blown out. In the morning while Valentina's mother leans out the blown-out window, she is fatally shot through the throat. All alone, Valentina waits in the apartment and that night finds herself in the company of Yuri, whose father was a hunter in the Urals. Yuri had often been bullied at school but now he's a sniper, which makes him part of the NKVD or the secret police. Yuri tells her that he killed the sniper who shot her mother.  Valentina tells Yuri she must get out of Stalingrad and find the air fields of the 588th Regiment so she can join her sister as a night witch. Yuri tells her it will be difficult to do both. He tells her that Hitler has ordered all the citizens of Stalingrad to be marched to a camp and suggests that she leave immediately and try to get evacuated to the east bank of the Volga.

With this end in mind, Valentina (Valya) leaves and begins making her way through the city. However, she doesn't get very far before a schoolmate enlists her to work on a gun crew in one of the trenches. She is taught to operate an M1939, a 37-millimeter anti-aircraft gun by a young boy name Mikhail.When their trench is overrun by German panzers, Valentina saves them but they lose many fighters. Eventually however, Yuri comes to Valentina's rescue and helps her get to the night witches. Valya will start out as part of the ground crew, but she's determined to pilot her own plane and drive the Nazi's out of Russia.

Discussion

Night Witches tells the remarkable story of the first group of women who were involved in defending the Soviet Union against the Nazi invasion during World War II.  Although the characters in Night Witches are fictional, the night witches themselves were not.

I have several complaints about this novel as a piece of historical fiction. The first is that the date in the opening chapter is misleading because it identifies the battle for Stalingrad incorrectly as beginning in 1941. It did not. Hitler's offensive to subjugate Russia - known as Operation Barbarossa,  began in June of 1941. In the summer of 1941 the Germans, who caught the Red Army completely unprepared, rapidly moved into Russia. By July of 1941, despite vigorous resistance by the Soviets, the German Army had advanced four hundred miles into Russian territory and were only two hundred kilometers from Moscow.  The winter of 1941 saw many problems for the Germans, in particular the exceptionally bitter winter for which the German troops were not prepared, and significant losses of troops and materiel. The fight for Stalingrad began July 17, 1942. Hitler wanted to capture the city as it was a major industrial center that produced armaments. Capturing it would cut the Soviet's access to southern Russia and open the way to capturing the oil fields in the Caucasus.

Throughout the novel there are no other dates given and the time frame is vague. The story runs from roughly June of 1942 until 1946. It would have been very helpful if dates were given, even in a general way, throughout the novel so readers could place the events. Also Lasky provides no maps and unfortunately no historical note at the back to help younger readers understand more about the battle for Stalingrad which was considered one of the most significant of World War II - a battle which turned the tide of the war.

Lasky does capture to some extent the horror of bombed out Stalingrad and the terror of fighting the oncoming panzers and German army. However, her focus is more on the main character, Valya's struggle to become a pilot and her role as a night witch. The story follows the night witches as they liberate first Stalingrad, then the Kursk peninsula, then Soviet Russia, as they move through the Ukraine and into Poland and finally into Germany.

Valya and the other night witches know they cannot be captured because of Stalin's views about his own soldiers being captured;  "There are no Soviet prisoners of war only traitors..." This makes Valya and the other pilots terrified of being shot down and becoming a prisoner of war. When Tatyana is lost and her fate unknown, Valya worries. If her sister is alive and a German prisoner, the Russian soldiers will kill her when they find her. As Valya states  "Stalin believes that in Hitler's camps there are no prisoners of war, only Russian traitors. Surrender, even if one is wounded, is considered a criminal act...In Stalin's mind, 'true patriots' would not permit themselves to be captured, but would have fled east to the Urals." When she is shot down behind the lines her commander Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya works to have her rescued because Valya's fate once the Soviets liberate the area will be worse than death. Eventually  Bershanskaya tells Valya, "...every time a German prisoner camp is liberated, these SMERSH units and NKVD officers move in to interrogate the Russian prisoners, the 'traitors' who allowed themselves to be captured. These agents are charged with evaluating the prisoners' loyalty to the Soviet Union. Stalin is paranoid. He is as bad as Hitler." To prevent this from happening to Valya, Bershanskaya gives Valya cyanide tablets when she is sent on a mission to rescue her sister.

Valentina is a fully developed character; strong willed, courageous and intelligent. She's resourceful but seems incredibly self-possessed despite the death of her father, mother and grandmother, the loss of her home and the horrors of war. When Valentina first begins working with the night witches, she devises a new plan to make refueling  and loading the planes faster. This gets her noticed by Yevdokiya Bershanskaya, commander of the 588th Regiment who decides to promote her. But Tatyana disagrees and only reluctantly accepts Valentina in her new role. This results in their relationship becoming strained.  It takes the downing of Tatyana and her rescue that brings the two sisters together. When Tatyana does not return from a mission and is believed to have been lost, Valya is inconsolable. "My grief is bottomless, and I'm grieving for two of us, for I am lost as well. The person who infused me with purpose and meaning is gone. Without Tatyana I am nothing."

Lasky only briefly touches on the conflict Valya and her friend Yuri who is a sniper, experience as they kill people during the war. When Valya thanks Yuri for saving her life and preventing her from getting on the boat, he tells her "...You see, I'm a sniper. I kill all day, all night long. But I got to save you. Save a life. I felt human again." For Valya it is different. "I can't forget how I almost crossed my fingers when I asked which Yana had died. Is there something wrong with me? I wonder if my sister witches ever have thoughts like these. Killing from the air is easy. We see the target but not the human face behind the target. The consequences are distant. But somewhere there is undoubtedly another little four-year-old girl in Germany whose papa I have killed." Valya, after bombing a train, which she found thrilling, wonders, "Am I truly becoming a witch? Have I become addicted to killing?"

The historical inaccuracy mars an otherwise well written and fascinating account of one aspect of World War II. Readers will have to do their own research to flesh out their knowledge about Operation Barbarossa and the "night witches" of the 588th Regiment.

The following web articles provide information about the night witches as well as other aspects of World War II and Russia:
The Lethal Soviet Night Witches - Russian Female Heroes of the Air

The BBC website has an excellent webpage on Operation Barbarossa, "Hitler's Invasion of Russia In World War Two"

For more information on Stalin's treatment of repatriated Soviet troops read "Stalin's War Against His Own Troops" from the Institute For Historical Review.

Book Details:

Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky
New York: Scholastic Press     2017
211 pp.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Shahana by Rosanne Hawke

Shahana is one of the books in the "Through My Eyes" series. It tells the story of a fourteen year old girl who has lost almost her entire family to the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. As she struggles to survive, she finds herself pressured to enter into a forced marriage to survive.

The conflict over the Kashmir region began in 1947 with the partition of India and the formation of Pakistan. Pakistan believed that the former states of Jammu and Kashmir belonged to the new nation of Pakistan but India also laid claim to them. The Kashmir people would prefer to have their own state. This has resulted in two wars between India and Pakistan, in 1947 and 1965. Militants soon became involved in the conflict; Kashmiri militants fighting India along with Pakistani trained militants as well as militants fighting for Kashmir independence. To stop the infiltration of militants into Kashmir, India has constructed a "Line of Control", a wire fence topped with concertina wire that is up to twelve feet in height and electrified.  The fencing in the Jammu and Kashmir area was completed in 2004 and has significantly reduced the infiltration of militants.

Fourteen-year-old Shahana lives in her grandfather's hut with her younger brother nine-year-old Tanveer, not far from the Line of Control, a border separating Pakistani and Indian controlled Kashmir. Shahana and Tanveer lost their brother Irfan and their mother in a gun battle. Their wooden house in the village was also destroyed in the attack. When their father found them he brought them to Nana-ji, her mother's father who lived in a hut in the forest. When Shahanna was eleven and her brother only seven, they found their father bleeding on the rocks by the Neelum river. He had tried to cross to the Kashmir side to sell his shawls and was shot by the soldiers. He died after giving them his blessing. Since that time they have struggled to survive living off the milk provided by their goat, Rani and the money Shahana earns from her embroidery.

One night they hear gunfire coming from near the Neelum River "where the Line of Control runs along the border between Azad Kashmir and Jammu and Kashmir." The next day Shahana takes her embroidery to Mr. Nadir who owns the cloth shop in the village.  At his shop, Mr. Nadir gives Shahana a grey woollen robe called a pheran to embroider. Mr. Nadir suggests that Shahana sell Tanveer to him to make rugs in his shop, but Shahana refuses as she knows she will never be able to buy him back.

After milking their goat, Rani, Shahana and Tanveer walk to the big river to fish and catch a large trout. On their way home, Tanveer spots a boy lying in the river surrounded by dogs. Tanveer insists that they help the boy and against her better judgement, Shahana relents. They drag the boy out of the river, fighting off dogs, one of which is shot by a soldier on the other side of the Line of Control.

In the morning the boy awakens and tells them he is from a village in the Kashmir Valley and that his name is Zahid Amir Kumar. Zahid is looking for his father who was taken from their home in Sringar three years ago by the Indian police. Zahid wants to learn what has happened to his father. Zahid tells Tanveer that he attempted to swim across the big river during the night but Shahana knows that the Indian and Pakistani soldiers are able to see anyone with their motion sensors and thermal imaging devices. Although she is frightened, to Shahana, Zahid looks like a simple teenage boy and not a jihadist.

Shahana is concerned about Zahid staying with her as it is haram for an unrelated male to stay in the same house. However they decide he will stay but not who he will be - brother or cousin. Tanveer takes to Zahid immediately and the two spend time together hunting. Zahid seems very frightened of the militants and out of concern for Shahana, he decides to start sleeping under her house.For one thing it is haram for him to sleep in the same room with her and he can use the rifle to protect them.

When Shahana returns to Mr. Nadir with the completed pheran, he tells her she needs to be married so that she will be protected from the militants and that he has a man who is interested in marrying her. However Shahana refuses, insisting she is too young. He gives Shahana another pheran to embroider, this time with silver thread.

On the way home, Shahana stops at the house of her friend Ayesha whose father disappeared almost two years ago. Her mother, Auntie Rabia is now called a half-widow which causes her shame. As a result she is withdrawn and has not opened the door to anyone. However this time, Ayesha comes to the door after Shahana leaves and the two girls look at each other. Shahana knows needs her friend.

Things become more complicated when a militant, carrying an AK 47 Kalashnikov and wearing a turban shows up at Shahana's home while Zahid and Tanveer are out fishing. He asks for milk from the goat and asks her about her family. Shahana tells him she has two brothers. Scared of the militant who may learn of Zahid's true identity and realizing she is in danger because of Mr. Nadir's pressure to marry, Shahana decides to reach out again to her friend Ayesha.  As she reconnects with Ayesha, Shahana begins to feel as though she has someone she can turn to. However, Mr. Nadir is determined and when Tanveer goes missing and Shahana and Zahid are injured in an avalanche, Shahana must make a difficult choice. Fortunately, help comes from an unexpected place to save Shahana from a terrible fate.

Discussion

Rosanne Hawke has crafted an engaging novel for teens, about a little known conflict in a little known part of the world called Kashmir. The partition of India in 1947 had serious repercussions for both Muslims and Hindus. The partition itself was chaotic and violent, leaving many families separated and suffering the loss of loved ones. The Kashmir conflict was another situation that developed out of the partition and it has continued to divide this part of the world, affecting families and especially children.

In this novel, Hawke, who was an aid worker in the Middle East, attempts to portray the effect the long standing conflict over Kashmir has on the children of this region. This is done through the young characters, all of whom have suffered a loss in some way. Shahana has lost her brother, mother and father and almost loses her younger brother Tanveer. Ayesha has lost her father who disappears and is believed to have become a militant. Zahid has lost his brother who was shot by the soldiers. To get the bounty for shooting a militant, the soldiers claimed his brother was one. His father marched in protest and he was taken away three years ago.  His beautiful sister Nissa was taken by the militants.

For Shahana, the loss of her parents places her in a vulnerable situation from both the villagers and the militants. Shahana worries about the militants who kidnap young boys and make them into soldiers. They might take Tanveer. Shahana worries about the coming winter and about the wild dogs. must support herself and her brother who also needs medicine. She attempts to do this by doing embroidery for Mr. Nadir. However, Nadir recognizes Shahana's precarious situation and takes advantage of her by kidnapping her brother to work in his store making rugs and by blackmailing Shahana into being sold in marriage. In addition to these losses, Shahana is unable to attend school because her tent school was destroyed by the militants. She wants to continue school but there is no school and she cannot make money by going to school.

Hawke does an excellent job of portraying how stressful the conflict is for Shahana. When Ayesha encourages her to tell the world via the internet about what is happening to her, Shahana feels overwhelmed and begins to cry. "She cries for Tanveer, for herself because of Mr. Nadir, and out of fear. What if the militant steals Tanveer, or if someone finds out about Zahid? She will be worse than a half-widow. She hiccups. At least no one will want to marry her then. But could something worse happen?"

Hawke uses her characters to explain how the young people of the Kashmir region feel about the conflict. When Zahid and Shahana first meet they share how the conflict has affect their families, Zahid states, "They should ask us what we think of war..."  Shahana thinks to herself that she would have much to say. Amaan Khan states to Shahana that despite being a militant he no longer agrees with the jihad. Like other young people in the region he simply wants to live his life in peace.  Amaan tells her,  "Innocent children are caught in the crossfire. It is not why I joined. I came so Muslim brothers and sisters would have freedom, but we are killing them, destroying their culture, not freeing them." When pressured to respond, Shahana tells Amaan, "I think there should not be militants or the army here. That the governments should make peace, so children's lives aren't destroyed. There should be no fence dividing us." 

Map showing the disputed territory and the Line of Control
Zahid explains to Shahana that many peaceful groups simply want freedom from India but that the Pakistani militants are fierce and are attempting to change their ways. Shahana tells him that her village is Kashmir not Pakistani. However Zahid states that "We were a state with a maharajah, never part of India to be handed over to Pakistan at Partition or to China. When India and Kashmir were divided into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947 the two states went to war to control Kashmir. Since then this conflict hasn't stopped."

Shahana's friend Ayesha explains to her how she can let the world know what she things and how the conflict is impacting her life. Ayesha tells her about a website "for children about peace." The site tells children what they can do to make a difference. "They are meeting with a minister from the government after the winter. He will come to the Neelum Valley and hear children's stories and see their artwork." Ayesha encourages Shahana to tell her story and to share it.

From all of these characters, readers get a real sense of how they are impacted by the war, the militants and those like Mr. Nadir who take advantage of children who are orphaned and living precariously.

To aid readers in further understanding the story, the author has included a map of the region showing Shahana's village and the village of Zahid in relation to the Line of Control. Included at the back of the novel is an Author's Note which provides some information about the Kashmir conflict, a timeline of events related to Kashmir, a glossary words used in the  novel and a limited reading list to learn more.

Shahana is a well-written and informative story that engages younger readers about an ongoing but little known conflict. I highly recommend this short novel to readers interested in other cultures and the lives of young people in areas of conflict.

Book Details:

Shahana by Rosanne Hawke
Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia    2013
206 pp.


Map: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_of_Control#/media/File:Kashmir_map.jpg

Friday, June 16, 2017

Alex and Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz

Alex and Eliza is a novel about the courtship of what would become one of the most famous couples of the late 18th century America, a time when a new nation was being forged out of war and hardship.

General Philip Schuyler and his wife Catherine live on a magnificent estate called the Pastures just outside of Albany, New York. Despite having organized a successful campaign against the British in Quebec, General Schuyler was forced to resign his commission June 1777 because of the defeat at Fort Ticonderoga. The defeat also cost Schuyler his Saragota estate which was his second home. The commander of the British forces, General John Burgoyne made it his personal residence but when the Continental forces retook the estate in October, he burned it to the ground. This loss significantly affected the family's fortunes as most of Catherine's inheritance had been depleted in building the Pastures.

The Schuylers have seven surviving children, the three eldest girls being Angelica, an intelligent brunette,  Eliza who is intelligent, beautiful and practical and Peggy a tiny dark-haired beauty. It was time to marry them off but the reduced family fortunes meant that this would have to happen before knowledge of their financial situation became  To that end, Catherine Schuyler decides to throw a ball.

While preparing for the ball, Eliza refuses to dress in the rich burgundy dress her mother has chosen and instead wears "a simple gown of solid mauve, its skirt pleated but unamplified by hoops or panniers, and delicately draped to reveal a darker purple panel underneath. The purple lacing in the bodice ran up the front rather than the back, leaving almost no decolletage in view..." Mrs. Schuyler orders Dot, the maid to dress Eliza in the gown she's ordered but Eliza flatly refuses.

Upon coming downstairs, Eliza witnesses Colonel Alexander Hamilton informing her father,  General Schuyler about his imminent court martial. General Schuyler is curt but commends Hamilton on delivering this message in person and offers Colonel Hamilton the barn as accommodation for the night after the ball. Alex is confronted at the ball by Eliza and her sisters, who taunt him about not fighting in the war against the British and about his job writing letters as an aide-de-camp for George Washington.

Alexander Hamilton
http://twothirds.us/fp/images/p-hamilton.jpg
While Angelica spends the night dancing with Mr. John Barker Church, a British citizen ten years her senior and a noted gambler and spy, who favours the Revolutionary cause, Peggy dances with Stephen Van Rensselaer, heir to the largest estate in New York and a mere fourteen years old. Eliza dances with the handsome Major John Andre and the handsome Colonel Alexander Hamilton. Determined to make Alex feel as uncomfortable as possible, Eliza complains about his dancing, insults him in every way possible and steps on his foot. Alex tells Eliza that his errand to tell her father about his court martial was difficult as he very much respects General Schuyler.  Despite all this, Alex is completely infatuated with Eliza.

The story skips ahead two years and finds the Schuyler's financial situation growing more dire. The three Schuyler girls remain unmarried and General Schuyler has been acquitted in his court martial in which Colonel Alexander Hamilton served as clerk for the prosecution.

Eliza is on her way to her Aunt Gertrued in Morristown, New Jersey, travelling with her chaperone, Mrs. Jantzen. Aunt Gertrude who is married to Dr. Cochrane, General George Washington's physician, is working alongside her husband inoculating the local residents and the troops against smallpox. When Eliza had learned of her aunt and uncle's mission, she wanted to help and begged her mother to allow her to travel to Morristown. As it turned out, Eliza's mother was very much interested in her daughter going to Morristown, where General George Washington's army was wintering. Eliza might meet many young unmarried officers and find one to marry. Major John Andre had courted Eliza briefly but she turned him down.

Five miles outside of Morristown, Eliza's carriage breaks down and Mrs. Jantzen injures her ankle.  Amazingly Colonel Hamilton arrives to save the day and Eliza from freezing. She is placed on Colonel Hamilton's horse while he rides behind the saddle and is taken the rest of the way to Morristown and her Aunt Gertrude's home. During the ride Alex tries to recover Eliza's opinion of him by telling  her that he very much respects her father and apologizes for having to participate in his court martial. He also questions her about the hankerchief and the message she left him to meet in the barn after the ball. Eliza has no idea what he's talking  and this leads Alex to feel despair. Nevertheless, Alex attempts to visit Eliza while she's recovering but is turned away.

Aunt Gertrude questions Eliza as to whether she is carrying on a romance with Colonel Hamilton. When Eliza attempts to downplay the entire situation, Aunt Gertrude states, "My point is, I know a swain when I see one. Colonel Hamilton is clearly smitten with you. And though he is handsome and intelligent -- indeed brilliant -- perhaps even bound up in the very future of our young nation..." and she tells Eliza, "You are the quarry and Colonel Hamilton the hunter..."  Little does Eliza know that time and persistence will lead her to change her mind.

Discussion

Melissa De La Cruz has crafted a romantic and well-written novel about the blossoming love affair between Elizabeth Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton. Although little is known about their courtship, De la Cruz has written a romance that is entirely believable and one which portrays these famous Americans in a true-to-life way.

Eliza Schuyler was known as having a strong-will and for being somewhat impulsive. De la Cruz shows her will in Eliza refusing to wear the dress her mother had chosen for the ball and in the way she initially refused Alexander Hamilton's suit. Eliza and Alexander were engaged very quickly - in April of 1870 after having met only earlier that year. They had eight children. Alexander had an affair with a young woman and when he was accused of speculation,  Alexander published a pamphlet detailing his extra-marital relationship. The affair and his bad behaviour resulted in Eliza leaving him for a time, but she returned to the marriage. When she was pregnant with their eighth child, Alexander was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. Eliza lived to be ninety-seven, outliving her husband by fifty years.

De La Cruz also provides readers with some of the background of Alexander Hamilton, who besides being an aide-de-camp to George Washington, was also a Founding Father of the United States of America. Alexander was the illegitimate child of James A. Hamilton, a Scottish trader and Rachel Fawcett Lavien who had abandoned her abusive husband and fled to the island of St. Kitts. On St. Kitts she met Hamilton and they had two children but never married. James Hamilton abandoned the family on St. Croix. Alexander Hamilton's mother passed away when he was eleven. He was brought to America after he impressed his employer Nicolas Kruger who arranged for him to be sent to America. Once in America, Hamilton's star began to rise; he became involved in politics and the war for independence from Britain.

This novel is likely to be of interest to teen and adult fans of the Broadway musical, Hamilton. The story in Alex and Eliza is different from that portrayed in the musical and is told by both Alex and Eliza in alternating chapters. Fans will find the novel's pacing slow in the middle section, but as Eliza begins to realize her attraction to Alexander, the pace quickens and the novel concludes in a satisfying way.

Book Details:

Alex and Eliza by Melissa De La Cruz
New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons      2017
368 pp.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Movie: Wonder Woman

The new Wonder Woman movie, directed by Patty Jenkins is probably the best DC comic character movie to date. It has an amazing badass super-heroine, a reasonable storyline and is jam-packed with thrilling fight and action scenes to hook viewers.

Jenkins is a fan of the origin story and that's where her movie begins. A young Diana born to Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons is growing up on the Island of Themyscira which is hidden from the human world. Young Diana is determined to train like the other Amazon warriors but she is discouraged by her mother. Queen Hippolyta.

Her mother tells her that the god Zeus created mankind who lived happily and peacefully with one another. However, Zeus's brother Ares, the god of war, hated men. He stirred up discontent and anger among men which caused wars. Ares slew all of the other gods when they attempted to kill him. Zeus, using the last of his powers, attempted to stop Ares but only wounded him. Before he died, Zeus left mankind a secret weapon, the Godkiller, The Amazon's lived on the Island of Themyscira which was protected from the outside world by a special  believe the Godkiller is a sword. Queen Hippolyta will not allow her sister, General Antiope to train Diana, however, the two begin training in secret. When they are discovered Antiope convinces Queen Hippolyta to allow her training to continue.

One day when Diana is a young woman, she sees a plane crash into the sea. Realizing that there is someone drowning, she dives off the cliffs into the sea and rescues the pilot. That pilot is Steve Trevor. Trevor has almost no time to catch his breath before the island is attacked by the Germans who have been chasing him. The Amazon's rush to the beach and engage the Germans in a battle to the death. They slay all the Germans but General Antiope is killed saving Diana.

Trevor is taken by the Amazons and questioned using the Lasso of Truth. He reveals that he is an American spy working for British intelligence and that there is a horrible war happening in the outside world, the Great War, a "war to end all wars" that is never-ending. Trevor tells the Amazons that he has stolen the notebook of a scientist, Dr. Maru, who has created a terrible new poison gas. Maru is under the direction of General Ludendorff who believes this gas is the key to Germany winning the war. Maru and Ludendorff must be stopped as the Britain and Germany are in the process of negotiating an armistice. Trevor needs to get back to England so he can give the notebook to his superiors.

Diana believes that Ludendorff is Ares and she sets out with Trevor to return to England. At first she does not have Queen Hippolyta's permission but Diana stands up to her mother and tells her she cannot stand by while innocent people are being killed. She takes the sword and sails for England.

As Diana and Steve work to stop Ludendorff and Dr. Maru and end the war, the must face the dangers of No Mans Land and treachery from an unexpected traitor who is revealed to be the real Ares.

Discussion

Wonder Woman is by far the best DC Comics movie to date. There's a good storyline focusing on the origin of Wonder Woman, a solid cast and epic battle scenes. But more than that DC portrays a superhero who offers something more than just brute strength. Former Israeli soldier and Miss Israel, Gal Gadot shines as Diana who is Wonder Woman. The movie opens with the origin story of Wonder Woman and goes on to tell how a young, naive  Diana comes to be the greatest female warrior - Wonder Woman.  Patty Jenkins, the movie's director has unabashedly stated that she had a particular vision of what Wonder Woman would look like:
 “I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time — the same way men want Superman to have huge pecs and an impractically big body. That makes them feel like the hero they want to be. And my hero, in my head, has really long legs.”

Wonder Woman offers a different kind of female hero, one with a more authentic feminism that is aligned with the reality of woman. It is a feminism that is based on strength, independence, courage and compassion. Wonder Woman is a superhero who shows that women can offer the world something else besides physical strength and brute force; compassion, courage in the face of terrible odds and truth. When told why the land between the German and Allies front lines is called "No Man's Land" , Diana remains undeterred. She will attack and move the battle forward.  When advised to abandon the German-occupied village of Veld, Diana is moved by compassion and determined to free them. Ares attempts When goaded by Ares to view humans as corrupted and to help him destroy mankind Diana not only resists but destroys her half-brother. She refuses to kill the villainous Dr. Maru, remembering the words of Steve. She is the very opposite of Ares, offering mankind not war but peace. In this we have a very different kind of superhero. Patty Jenkins describes how Wonder Woman is different from the male superheroes:

"The thing about 'Wonder Woman,' which is very feminine and definitely different, is that her objective is to bring love and truth to mankind. It's not to stop any specific villain and it's not to fight and it's not to stop crime. She'll do all of those things in such a bad-ass way you can't believe it to defend you. And so it's an interesting other thing that brings that moral perspective into it."

The Wonder Woman character was created by William Moulton Marston in 1940. The comic book world at that time had only male superheros. This superhero was to be different because sh would conquer using love and truth. Marston who was a psychologist felt that women did not find their role in society as appealing because their feminine characteristics of love, compassion and truth were seen as weaknesses. So Marston set out to create a character who had these strengths but was also beautiful and powerful. Marston who lived in an open relationship with his wife Elizabeth and another woman Olive, based Wonder Woman mostly on Olive.

In a nod to Marston, the movie draws from his original 1940's comics but also the revised comics by George Perez published in the 1980s. It ties Wonder Woman into the overall DC universe in various ways. For example Diana receives a photograph of herself with Steve Trevor from Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. Several of the costumes, that of Ares and Dr. Maru are replicates of those from earlier editions of the Wonder Woman comics.

Wonder Woman is an enjoyable action movie, with epic battle and fight scenes, beautiful cinematography and solid performances by many of the cast. Chris Pine as Steve Trevor is a realistic love interest for Diana showing the young goddess superhero that humans have some redeemable qualities. He sacrifices his life to destroy Ludendorff's poison gas plane and demonstrates that humans are capable of doing good deeds. 

There is some sexual innuendo in the first third of the movie, demonstrating Diana's isolation from the world of men but not portraying her as ignorant, and likely more for comic relief. Overall though Jenkins has done a great job with a movie that has been too long delayed.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin

"Everything starts this autumn, she suddenly thinks. So stupid. Does anything ever start with autumn, really? Autumn brings darkness, quiet, rest, death, trees lose their leaves and the earth grows hard."

Almost Autumn is a story about the plight of a Jewish family in German occupied Norway during the Second World War.

Fifteen-year-old Ilse Stern is completely infatuated with Hermann Rod. Hermann and Ilse have lived next door to each other all their lives, in apartments with their respective families, on the third floor of a tenement building, number ten Biermanns gate, in Grunerlokka, Norway. In the summer, Ilse would sit on the bench beneath the lilac tree in the back yard in the summer waiting for Hermann to emerge from the their tenement building. They would often sit together, laughing and talking. One day Hermann reveals to Ilse that he is beginning an apprenticeship with an artist because he wants to.

It is now autumn, October 1942. Ilse manages to sneak out of her home without her parents knowing after their noon meal. Her sisters, eighteen-year-old Sonja and five-year-old Miriam are at Torshovdalen Park. Ilse plans to meet Herman to go to the movies. A few days earlier in the stairwell of their tenement building, Hermann showed her two tickets and asked her to meet him "at the pictures on Saturday, five o'clock... Row seven, seats eight and nine."

Wanting to impress Hermann, Ilse wears her light summer dress, "the white one with red polka dots that Sonja sewed for her" to the theatre. She waits with great anticipation for Hermann but he doesn't show. Her neighbour from the fourth floor, Ole Rustad sees her and questions her. Ilse waits through two shows and returns home, upset that Hermann did not come.

Hermann has told both Ilse and his father that he is apprenticing as a painter in Frogner. Ilse seemed excited but his father was angry. On the day Hermann planned to go to the movies with Ilse, he walked all the way to Frogner to the apartment of Einar Vindju. However, Einar is not just an artist. He is working with the resistance, forging papers and helping people on their journey to Sweden. Together they listen to the English broadcast on the wireless and take notes. After each visit to Einar's apartment, Hermann takes home a painting that Einar has prepared so that his story about learning to paint appears to be valid.

Over the summer Ilse has been working for her father Isak, helping him in his tailor shop on Osterhaus' gate. Isak's father was a tailor like his father, grand-father and ancestors had been. Her older sister Sonja also works in the shop. Business is bad and they have very little stock to use. Every day Isak arrives at his shop early to scrub the shop windows of the racist graffiti written on them each night so his daughters will know how bad things have become. Although he tries to be friendly, fewer and fewer customers come to the shop. He is losing money and eventually will have to close. Other Jews in Oslo are also experiencing the same things; customers who have left and articles in the newspapers blaming the Jews for everything. This situation led Isak to go to the bank in the summer and withdraw all his money and empty the safety deposit box.

Sonja has been staying late at the shop to work on a project. She intends to get hired as a seamstress at the National Theater. Her friend Helene who works there, has suggested that Sonja apply and bring a sample costume. This is what Sonja is working on. If she gets hired, she will be able to afford her own apartment and earn he own money. Her meeting with Mr. Ostli goes well and she is hired for December 1st. However, Sonja decides to keep this a secret from her parents for now.

While Sonja is planning for her future, and her father is simply trying to keep his business going, Ilse is trying to figure out her relationship with Hermann who has apologized for standing her up and who invites her to go skiing. But when their father is taken away by the police, their shop closed and their mother required to report each day to the police station, Ilse's life is forever changed.

Discussion

Almost Autumn tells the story of a Jewish family living in Grunerlokka, a district in Oslo during the autumn of 1942. At this time Norway is under German occupation and life for Jews is becoming increasingly restrictive.  Kaurin tells her story from several points of view; that of Ilse Stern, her father Isak, her older sister Sonja, her boyfriend Hermann and the taxi-driver, Ole.

Although the novel is about two specific events, the rounding up of Jewish males over the age of fifteen on October 26, 1942  and the rounding up of Jewish women and children exactly a month later and the deportation of Norwegian Jews to Auschwitz, it is also a story that explores the role of chance in life.

Isak Stern has been thinking about escaping to Sweden with his family, yet he delays, a decision that will cost him and most of his family their lives. He withdraws all their money and valuables from the bank in the summer and he begins to consider leaving for Sweden. Yet he hesitates. "How would Hannah react to such a suggestions? Would she consider it, putting the girls through it; would he, for that matter? He doesn't know how to go about it, where to begin, who to contact...He needs to think it through, properly evaluate the situation before he involves Hanna in his plans."  When the police come for Isak, he thinks, "He was too late. It is the only thought that runs through his head. Too late. If only he had made a decision, if only he had known just how little time he had at his disposal, he would have done what was needed. The could have crossed the border to neutral Sweden by now, if only he had followed through on his plans. He even had a name; for days he had contemplated contacting a man by the name of E. Vindju in Frogner. But he hadn't, and now it was too late, they had gotten to him first."
Isak's decision results in their family being arrested, placed on a boat and then taken by train to Auschwitz where his wife and daughters are gassed and he works in the camp. He never returns. A decision, delayed becomes fatal.

Sonja goes to visit a friend and learns from a neighbour that it is likely they have fled to Sweden. Sonja mulls this over but doesn't act on it. "What should she say when she gets back in, should she tell the others that Marie and her mother have fled to Sweden, what would they make of it all, would they start considering doing the same thing?...Sonja decides to tell the others that Marie and her mother weren't at home when she called. It is the truth, after all. She will mull over the Sweden thing itself, maybe mention it to Ilse. They can take some time to consider it, look into it again in a little while." Delaying just as her father did turns out to be fatal for Sonja and her sister and mother.

Even Hermann is affected by a sort of paralysis. Einar wants him to speak to Ilse about leaving Norway. But somehow Hermann can't seem to. "...he would have loved to have said yes, that he had spoken to her, that they were ready, that all there was left to do was to set things in motion. He wished he were more efficient, that he spoke with clarity and conviction, but the walls here, the walls at home, the air outside, he couldn't breathe, there was something there, pressing in on him all the time..." Later on when he and Ilse go for a walk through Birkelunden Park, he still can't bring himself to suggest to her that she and her family need to leave, that they might have to leave everything behind.

Hermann's determination to take Ilse skiing and their impulsive decision to stay overnight in a cabin in the woods ends up saving her life. When the Nazis arrive to take her family, Ilse is not there. This one event, totally by chance, gives Ilse the opportunity to escape and as it also turns out Hermann happens to work for the resistance which means she is able to flee immediately to a safe house.

Kaurin makes her readers consider the possibilities if some of the characters had acted sooner. What if Isak had reached out earlier in the summer and found Einar's name then? What if Sonja had come home that night and told her mother that her friend had escaped to Sweden and pushed her to consider this option. What if Ilse had been home when the Nazi's came for her family? What if Hermann had spoken to Ilse earlier in the fall?

The overarching theme of the novel is autumn and its characteristic as a season of change or transition from the beauty of summer to the bleakness of winter. Each character feels this in their own way. For Hermann he feels he can't possibly become involved with Ilse because of his dangerous work with the resistance: "But now, now it is autumn and everything has changed. It won't work, not now, he has enough to keep on top of..."
Ilse thinks too about autumn. She feels autumn spells a change but when what she expects - her relationship with Hermann blossoming- doesn't happen she wonders if winter will bring the change, a foreshadowing of the terrible events to come. "Everything starts this autumn, she suddenly thinks. So stupid. Does anything ever start with autumn, really? Autumn brings darkness, quiet, rest, death, trees lose their leaves and the earth grows hard. In a week it will be November...Maybe the snow will come soon...And maybe, just maybe, things are different from what she had thought. Maybe everything starts with the first snow."



Kaurin uses foreshadowing in her novel. In autumn, Ilse is convinced that something is about to change. While waiting for Hermann at the beginning of the novel Ilse thinks, "Everything starts this autumn. Something is waiting for her; someone is waiting for her. " Later on she has a dream in which she is standing knee-deep in snow, cold. "She can see the others; soft and blurred, vague figures in the white landscape, wrapped up well against the weather. Mum, Dad, Sonja, and Miriam. She calls out to them, tells them to stop, to wait for her. They can't hear her, they don't turn around. They continue to walk away from her, toward a faint, yellowish light that looks like a fire in the process of dying. She watches them walk away, until she can no longer see them and they vanish into a thick, steamy smog."  Ilse's dream is a foreshadowing of her family's deportation to Auschwitz and their deaths.

Kaurin truly captures the terror and confusion Ilse and her family feel in occupied Norway and she also very realistically portrays the horror of the deportation of Ilse's family along with hundreds of other Norwegian Jews. Sonja's narratives are especially heartbreaking as she does not know that she and her family are being taken to their deaths in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. From Isak's perspective he too doesn't know that his family has been murdered and that he will die.

Almost Autumn is a heartbreaking story of one girl's coming of age during the holocaust and the loss she endures. Beautifully written, capturing the paralyzing fear under Nazi occupation, the novel ends with the hopeful message that love endures. 

Book Details:

Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin (translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger)
New York: Arthur A. Levine Books     2017
278 pp.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Valiant by Lesley Livingston

Fallon, youngest daughter of Virico Lugotorix, King of the Cantii tribe of Prydain, lives in Durovernum. Fallon's two older brothers died when she was a baby and her mother died days after her birth. Her older sister Sorcha was killed in battle with the Romans. King Virico was captured by Caesar and his legions and Sorcha was lost in the battle to free him. It has been seven years since the Roman legions have left Prydain, whom they call Britannia, but Fallon and her people know they will one day return. Prydain is too rich in gold, tin and timber and slaves to be abandoned. Fallon plans to be ready like the rest of her Celtic tribe to fight off the Roman invaders, as her sister Sorcha did.

The novel opens on Fallon's seventeenth birthday with her attempting to execute a chariot maneuver called the Morrigan's Flight, named after "the fearsome winged war goddess who flew over battlefields collecting the souls of the worthy dead." Fallon knows this to be "the supreme act of a true Cantii warrior." Driving her chariot is Maelgwyn Ironhand, the boy whom Fallon loves. She hopes that she will be made a member of her father's war band.

After almost killing herself in her attempt, Mael is furious and begs Fallon to allow him to ask her father for her hand. However Fallon declines, begging Mael to wait as she expects her father to make her part of his war band. It is not unusual for the women of the tribes of Prydain - the Cantii, Catuvellauni, Trinovantes and Iceni to choose to fight with the men warriors.

Fallon's birthday coincides with the Eve of Lughnasa, when the four tribes of Prydain came together to feast. At the feast that night, Fallon is horrified when her father betrothes her to Mael's brother Aeddan, who is now king of the Trinovantes. Although Fallon loves Aeddan as a brother, it is Mael she wishes for her husband. Her father tells her he will not make her a war chief because he doesn't want to lose her the way he lost Sorcha.

Fallon decides to run away to avoid marriage to Aeddan and asks Mael to join her. He refuses. On her way out of the village she encounters Aeddan and Mael fighting and to her horror sees Aeddan kill Mael. She is grabbed from behind and knocked out.

Fallon finds herself on a boat gliding down the River Dwr, a captive of slave traders. On the slave galley heading to Rome, Fallon is questioned by the Macedonian slave trader who tells her his name is Charon. Charon attempts learn Fallon's name and questions her about the sword she was carrying. It has the engraving of a triple raven on it - the mark of the Morrigan. Fallon tells him she did not steal the sword but that it belonged to her sister, a great warrior, who gave it to her. Charon orders her to be taken to the hold but not to be harmed in any way.

They land on the north shore of Gaul (France) and travel overland by caravan in wooden cage carts. Fallon and the other slaves wear a slave collar and are chained together at the neck and at the ankle. The territory they are passing through is dangerous, after Caesar defeated the Gallic king, Vercingetorix (Arviragus) and destroyed the Arverni tribe leaving the land filled with raiders. Fallon fights with another slave, Elka who is a member of the Virani tribe. Their fight results in the cart tipping over and crashing into a ravine and both Fallon and Elka escaping.

Their escape is short lived however as Charon recaptures them and they are taken to the port of Massilia. There they are forced onto another slave galley that will be accompanied by a Roman legion ship under the   authority of Decurion Caius Antonius Varro. Their journey is short however when the slave galley is attacked by pirates. Fallon and Elka are able to free themselves from the ship's hold and Fallon attempts to kill the Roman Decurion. However, he convinces her to attack the pirates. As the ship is sinking, Fallon rescues Charon who insists on saving a small trunk.

In Rome, Fallon and the other girls captured are prepared for the slave auction. Fallon has no idea what her fate will be nor why she merits the special treatment by Charon. What will her future be in the city that is the center of the world?

Discussion

Arviragus (Vercingetorix) surrendering to Julius Caesar
The Valiant is arguably one of the best novels of 2017. It has a fierce, plucky heroine, is set in both Celtic Britain and in Rome at the height of its power, and is a story filled with brutal battles and Roman intrigue. Added to this is the blossoming forbidden romance between a Roman Decurion and a barbarian warrior.

Livingston portrays both tribal life and customs in Celtic Britain in approximately 46 B.C as well as life in Rome during Caesar's reign. Female gladiators, known as gladiatrices existed but were probably not the norm as they would have gone against what Roman's considered the ideal for women - that is being wives and mothers. There is some evidence for their existence and there seems to be some discussion around what they wore, if they were slaves, how they fought and even if they existed during Caesar's reign. We know from historical accounts that the Emperor Domitian had gladiator contests that involved women. Livingston models her gladiatrices after the male gladiators; Fallon wears a helmet as well as a breastplate and a leather skirt, her fights are not to the death as portrayed in film and gladiatrices were slaves.  Readers will learn a bit about the different types of gladiators and their training. For example in the gladiator school (Ludus Achillea) run by her sister, Fallon fights Gratia who is a Murmillo, a gladiator who uses a sword and heavy shield as well as Meriel who is a Retiarius, a gladiator who fights with a trident and a rope net.

In the novel, Livingston uses Caesar's Triumphs as the setting for Fallon's own victory. Fallon takes part in Caesar's Triumphs, which was a series of events to celebrate Caesar's military victories, especially the conquering of Britain. Beforehand she meets the king she worshiped as a young girl, the imprisoned Arviragus. Known as King Vercingetorix to the Romans, he is no longer the young, fiery leader she remembers. He has been kept in a cell for years with the intention of parading him in front of the people so they could see how terrible he was and what a victory this was for Caesar. Afterwards he would be taken back to prison and strangled. He advises Fallon to win the heart of the people and of Caesar so she can win her freedom.

Besides the detailed descriptions of battles and intrigue, Livingston also weaves a budding romance  between Fallon and Decurion Varro into her story.  Although this is easily a stand-alone book, Livingston has a sequel planned which will likely tie up some loose ends. For example, it is never revealed who is behind the threats to Fallon and her relationship with Caius Varro remains unrequited.

Overall, The Valiant is an exciting novel with a strong female protagonist and several strong female secondary characters that captures life in ancient Rome during the time of Julius Caesar.

Book Details:

The Valiant by Lesley Livingston
Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.     2017
372 pp.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Runs With Courage by Joan M. Wolf

Runs With Courage is a novel about a young Lakota girl who is taken from her family on the reservation and sent to a missionary school to be "civilized" with the intent of assimilating her into 19th century white America. Ten-year-old Four Winds lives on a the Great Sioux Reservation with her parents and younger brother Bear.

The following historical backstory will help readers understand the setting of Runs With Courage. The Lakota people migrated from the Great Lakes area to the Great Plains in the 17th century. They had been primarily hunters and gatherers but soon began to hunt buffalo, becoming nomadic and living in teepees. They also acquired horses during this time and the horse changed their culture completely.They came to rely on the buffalo completely and their conflict with other tribes revolved around raiding other tribes for their horses. They developed the practice of "counting coup" which is mentioned in Wolf's novel, where honour was obtained by touching the enemy without causing harm.
Their way of life continued mostly untouched by the arrival of the settlers until the mid-1800's. Until this time the US government considered the west to be of little economic value and the land fit only for "Indians." This changed with the discovery of gold and other minerals on the West coast and as settlers and speculators passed through Lakota territory they came in conflict with the various tribes. The US government built forts throughout the west to protect travelers. One of those forts was Fort Laramie.

The United States Army built Fort Laramie on Lakota lands without their permission. The treaty brought together eight tribes who had been at war and also the United States government in an attempt to resolve the conflicts. The government used a different form of mediation than what the Indian tribes were familiar with and attempted to give each tribe a territory. Territorial claims between the tribes were set out and the United States government agreed not to claim any of this land. The treaty also guaranteed safe passage through this land along the Oregon Trail and allowed for roads and forts to be built.

By North Dakota government.
However, the treaty which protected Lakota territory from settlement, was not honoured by the US government. The Lakota people, many of whom did not even know about the treaty, continued to raid other tribes and attempted to defend their land from settlers. Attacks on settlers were met with force by the US army. A new treaty,  the Fort Laramie Treaty 1868 (Sioux Treaty of 1868),  was negotiated between the US government and the Lakota in which white settlement in the Black Hills, considered sacred by the Lakota, was banned forever. The treaty also granted the Lakota people hunting rights in South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana until the buffalo were gone. The US government believed the one way to remove the Lakota permanently was to destroy the buffalo, on whom the Lakota completely relied.

However when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, (an 1874 expedition led by General George Custer) prospectors began trespassing on land and the government did not uphold its part of the treaty. The Lakota attacked miners and these attacks were met with resistance by the US army. This resulted in the Great Sioux War of 1876-77 in which the Lakota, after winning several battles,  were eventually defeated by a reinforced US Army. Their sacred Black Hills land was annexed by the US government and the Lakota were forced onto reservations, prevented from hunting buffalo and made dependent on government rations.

A part of the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868 stipulated that the Lakota should be "civilized" and that their children should be sent to "mission" schools. Eventually the Great Sioux Reservation was broken up into smaller reservations and the Lakota were forced to sign away millions of acres of land.

Runs With Courage begins in 1880, a few years after the Great Sioux War when the Lakota have been settled onto the reservation and are becoming dependent on government rations. Four Winds and her family had lived in the forest near He Sapa (the Black Hills) before they were forced to move onto the Great Sioux Reservation. The novel opens with ten-year-old Four Winds and her little brother Bear witnessing the arrival of a wagon of two white people, a man and a woman. Four Winds questions her parents and uncle about them that night at dinner. Her uncle reminds her that the whites are people like them but they are not honourable because they do not keep their promises. Almost a month later, Four Winds' uncle tells her that they live in the white man's world and must learn about them. For this reason she will be sent away to live with the white men and attend their school for girls only. Four Winds is deeply upset but she agrees to go when she realizes she has no other option.

Four Winds' mother gives her a small wotawe and Bear gives her a small carved rabbit before she leaves. Four Winds arrives at the All Saints Missionary School late that evening and is taken upstairs to a room where there are other Lakota girls preparing for bed. Four Winds has never seen a bed before and the clothing she is given is strange and scratchy. A girl named Walks Tall tells Four Winds that it will get easier.

The next morning, Four Winds soft deerskin dress which still "held the scent of prairie" and her mother's wotawe and Bear's rabbit carving are taken away and her hair is cut. She is given the name of Sarah and doesn't understand why adults punish children by hitting them. Four Winds learns that she cannot speak Lakota or she will be punished, and she is not allowed to dance for joy because that is behaving like a savage. Four Winds who has been starving on the reservation, eats too much bread at breakfast and feels unwell afterwards. While she is in her room recovering, she discovers a Lakota boy burning her clothing and cries herself to sleep.

Despite all the strangeness Four Winds is determined to be strong and brave. But daily she is confronted with things that make no sense to her and she feels overwhelmed. Can she still be Lakota and survive in the white man's world?


Discussion

Runs With Courage provides younger readers some idea of what it was like for the children of native Americans and their families during the late 1800's and early 1900's as the push to settle the west occurred. Initially the United States government was not interested in settling the west and deemed the land there as having little economic value. However the discovery of gold and other minerals changed that view and although

As with First Nations people in Canada, Native Americans were forced into missionary schools and later residential schools with the intent of erasing their culture and replacing it with the white man's culture. Wolf has fashioned a Native American character who tries to resist the white man's attempts to change her. Four Winds is both courageous and resilient. Although she doesn't want to leave her extended family she obeys her elders. But her initial experience at All Saints Missionary School and the white culture forced on her prove overwhelming.

At first Four Winds resistance is vocal and filled with anger as she strikes out against the teachers and her fellow students. When she berates them for co-operating with the white teachers, Moon Awake asks her "Since coming to this school, have you been hungry?" Four Winds realizes that she has not been hungry since she came to the school but she feels this was not her family's reason for sending her.

Four Winds initially believes that she has been sent to the white man's school to be a bridge between her people and the white culture. But she is confronted by William the boy who burned her clothing, who tells her that the Great White Father is the name given to the American presidents and that these people are not honourable. Four Winds now believes the white men do not want a bridge to her people. This suspicion is further confirmed when Four Winds is sent to the office to get a pair of scissors and she sees a plaque that states, "Kill the Indian, Save the Man". Understanding what this means leads Four Winds to break the plaque, be whipped by Pastor Huber as punishment, and run away to her tiospaye.

Four Winds makes the decision to return to the school after her mother reveals the truth about her being sent to the school; "They told us we must send you or they would withhold our rations.' I felt numb.My being at the school had never been about bridges. It had been about food and nothing else.  That was how I had helped my tiospaye. I had saved them from starvation." Wolf shows in this scene the shame Four Winds' Uncle and Father have at not being able to provide for their tiospaye as a result of being forced onto the reservation and being unable to hunt their main food source, the buffalo.

It is Four Winds' friendship with the only other character in the novel to resist assimilation into white culture that helps her cope. William, whose real name is Catches Fire came to the school after his entire tiospaye was murdered by white soldiers. His resistance to assimilation into the white culture is more covert.   Everyone believes him to be slow but William is quite intelligent and he uses this mistaken perception as a way to "count coup", "a supreme act of bravery to touch an enemy in battle without killing him." He saves the sacred things that each student brought with them to the school. He moves slowly to hinder the white teachers at the school. In the barn, William has created his own sort of tipi with sleeping skins. Late at night, he dances, an activity that has been forbidden and considered savage.

Watching William dance, Four Winds finds that her "angry spirit has been soothed." She decides to give her fellow students back their sacred things at Christmas in a secret meeting. And ultimately she figures out a way to get herself back to her people - by becoming a teacher to them and being a bridge between the two cultures.

Runs With Courage ends on an upbeat tone with Four Winds who has been renamed "Runs With Courage" by her tiospaye, living happily on the reservation with her family. Although Wolf portrays many of the hurtful ways the white teachers treated indigenous children, their experiences seem tame in comparison to what really happened in most missionary and residential schools. The children are well fed, and although the school is cold in the winter, there is none of the neglect or rampant sickness that was common in these schools. The novel effectively demonstrates how the Lakota parents were manipulated to send their children to the schools and how their children were eager to do what the white teachers wanted. The alternative was starvation. Four Winds comes to fully understand this when she sees the change in little Laughing Deer who arrives at the school. Laughing Deer quickly learns to speak English and say the Christian prayers even though she doesn't understand what she is saying nor the beliefs behind the prayers. Miss Beatrice shows her off to the senators who come to visit the school, "When she was able to speak English, she spoke in complete sentences. I think it is a true testament to the ways we are trying to civilize these people."

Wolf attempts to create a balance in her novel with both good and bad characters; Miss Beatrice is a kind teacher who lets the Lakota children dance and she tries to comfort Four Winds while Pinch Finger (Miss Agnes) is harsh and Pastor Huber believes they are savages and heathens.However, most of the secondary characters are two dimensional.

One of the more interesting chapters in the novel deals with Four Winds' reaction when she sees herself and her classmates in a photograph taken of the school. Four Winds cannot comprehend what she is seeing. "But the girls in the picture were white girls." When Pinch Finger points out Four Winds in the photograph, she is filled with disbelief. "I shook my head. That was not me. I could not have mistaken myself for a white girl." Later on she tells Catches Fire, "I saw a white girl standing with many other white girls. But they were us. It was me! I thought I was a white girl!" Four Winds feels like she is losing her identity and won't be unable to hold on to who she is. But Catches Fire tells her "They cannot have our spirit. It is like the hunting game I showed you. Sometimes you can't see everything." He is telling her that inside she remains a Lakota.

Overall "Runs With Courage" is a simple novel that gives younger readers a basic understanding of issues involved in the residential/missionary schools in relation to the Lakota aboriginals. It also sets the stage for further inquiry into the history that led to the Lakotas being forced onto the Great Sioux Reservation.


For more detailed information on the History and Culture of the Standing Rock Oyate.


Book Details:

Runs With Courage by Joan M. Wolfe
Ann Arbor, Michigan:  Sleeping Bear Press     2016
211 pp.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ask Me How I Got Here by Christine Heppermann

Adrienne (Addie) Solokowski  is a sophomore who attends Immaculate Heart Academy, an all girls Catholic high school in Minneapolis.

Addie and her best friend Claire are part of the school's cross- country team. Addie is a good runner, pushed by Coach and she helps Claire run better. The two girls often like to run early in the morning.

It's April and she is dating Craig, a junior from St. Luke's. Craig is cute but Addie considers him a bit of a jerk so she decides to become involved with his best friend, Nick at a party. Soon they are having sex. Addie is worried about telling Craig but it turns out that Craig has been involved with a girl named Iris.

Eventually Addie brings Nick back to her house . Her parents both like him. Before they go to her room her mother tells her
"If you're brave enough for mad passion
with your sweet innocent mother right downstairs,
go ahead."

Nick teaches bass at his uncle's music store and plays in a band called Side Effects. He wants Addie to write lyrics for his music.

By August, Addie realizes her period is late. Claire notices immediately that Addie doesn't' seem to be "giving one hundred percent" when they go out running. Claire has no idea that Addie is pregnant because Addie doesn't tell anyone. Eventually Addie tells Nick who is "supportive" and drives her to the local Planned Parenthood where the doctor tells Addie her options.

Addie returns home and struggles to tell her parents about her pregnancy.  Addie has to tell them because according to Minnesota law she requires parental consent to have an abortion. When she does tell her parents, her father hugs her and tells her it will work out while her mother goes downstairs and cries.  The next day Nick takes Addie to the clinic where she has her abortion. Addie misses the first cross-country practice of the season as she recovers from the abortion.

In September, Addie returns to school and begins competing with the cross-country team. However, she ends race after race, walking. As she struggles to come to terms with what happened over the summer, Addie is affected more than she realizes.

Discussion

Ask Me How I Got Here is a novel-in-verse that attempts to explore the weighty issue of abortion from a young Catholic  woman's perspective. The novel is divided into six parts, April, May, June, August, September and October with the bulk of the story being told in the month of October. Unfortunately, Heppermann's use of free verse gives superficial treatment to the controversial issue of abortion and its aftermath. The poems are short, as is the novel. The result is that Hepperman's story is vague about many of the details and therefore disappoints those who would like a more rigorous treatment.

Addie's story is a common one but the free verse poems offer the reader only the bare bones of the story. Addie is a young girl who becomes pregnant and has an abortion at Planned Parenthood. After her abortion she begins acting out, dumping friends, dropping the sport she loves and lying to those who love her. Her poorly understood Catholic faith offers her no comfort. She then meets a former runner, Juliana and begins a lesbian relationship with this woman who herself is struggling. The message from Juliana is that shame from abortion comes from society and not from guilt over killing one's unborn child.

 It is troubling how Addie is abandoned by her very modern "Catholic" parents. Heppermann's portrayal of parents response to unplanned teen pregnancy is spot on, one of many typical parental reactions (some girls are forced to abort, other's thrown out of the house and other girls treated with concern and care as they carry their child to term). There is no discussion of a "baby" and as with Addie visiting the clinic, no mention of what alternatives are offered to her. Addie's parents seem distant in this life-changing event for their daughter. They hug her or disappear to cry and when the deed is done, mom is there with money for birth control pills (which she would likely be offered at Planned Parenthood after her abortion). Addie is taken to the clinic by her boyfriend and when she returns home after the abortion her mother makes a "couch nest" for her and goes off to work. But the effects of the abortion are soon felt. 

Ask Me How I Got Here does portray some of the emotional and psychological effects of abortion on women but instead of questioning WHY, instead it avoids the entire discussion and projects the blame for  Addie's feelings onto her Catholic faith. Almost immediately after her abortion Addie begins acting out. Although she attempts to act "normal" she finds herself constantly thinking about what has happened. Nick takes her to the movies but she notes that the buttered popcorn tastes like burnt sand and when she finally starts to relax, she attempts to placate her conscience by telling herself, "What's done is done, I can't change it now, so why let it ruin my afternoon?" At this point in the novel no one has made Addie feel judged or shamed. In fact her boyfriend Nick has gone out of his way to be kind. What Addie feels appears to come wholly from within herself.

In August cross-country season begins but Addie isn't much interested. Throughout September Addie finds herself walking to the finish line and not caring, even when Nick attempts to motivate her. In October Addie doesn't participate in spirit week, and drops out of cross-country lying to her parents, friends and Nick about attending practices. Addie repeatedly turns a picture of her taken before her abortion face down, causing her mother to wonder what's going on in the house. In a poem titled, "The Trinity, Explained" Addie suggests that everyone comes in pieces. She views herself as a bad person.
"I'm the daughter
who can't stop making bad choices;
the girlfriend
who won't answer her phone;
the ghost
who is anything
but holy,
no matter how hard she tries."

Addie finds it difficult to sleep, and eventually dumps her boyfriend. She becomes remarkably snarky to her friend Claire, attempting to push her away. Claire confronts Addie in the hall to tell her how upset she and Nick are:
" ' Nick cares about you. I do, too.
And we thought we knew
what you cared bout, but apparently
we have no idea.' "

Eventually Addie's parents learn she's been lying to them and a discussion with her parents leads her mother to dismiss Addie's father's concern about her having a physical injury. Her mother's response suggests that she recognizes Addie is struggling emotionally with the events of the summer (i.e. the abortion) but no help is offered by them. They just want her to be happy. However, no one talks about the "elephant in the room", Addie's abortion and what really happened.

Addie's struggles continue. In the poem WWMD (What Would Mary Do?) Addie tells herself Mary would try not to think about it, try not to think at all.  When she goes to meet Juliana their discussion about Addie's guilt over leaving the cross-country team leads Juliana to remark,
"You've got to separate yourself
from the story....
don't automatically assume
 that you're the one who fucked up." 
Addie begins to apply Juliana's advice to her own situation, assuming that her problems are due to other people, not her own actions.

Ask Me How I Got Here offers an unsavory portrayal of the Catholic faith by an author who herself is Catholic. Some poems border on sacrilegious. For example, in the poem titled "Sunday Morning",  Heppermann compares sex to receiving Holy Communion. Another poem, "The Advantages of Being Mary" complains that Mary did not have to worry about Joseph bringing "protection" nor about being condemned for getting pregnant. Almost everything Catholic is shamed and treated in a derogatory manner in this novel.

When making the decision to abort, Addie states that she hopes "that God has enough faith in me to let me make my own choices." However it doesn't appear that she considers what her faith might offer her in making a decision on what to do. She doesn't talk with a priest, she never seems to inform herself on why the church teaches what it does about abortion.  Instead Addie's poems focus on mocking the Catholic church and criticizing those against abortion. 

In the poem, "Going to Confession", Addie's view on the sacrament of Confession is focused on the negative and not as a sacrament of healing and guidance (the church has renamed this sacrament, the Sacrament of Reconciliation).
"Every month at all-school confession,
I rolled them through that narrow door
to show the priest how wicked I'd been."

Addie's views are no surprise considering her mother's heterodox view of Catholic teaching on sexuality. In the poem, "Cafeteria Catholic", Addie's mother tells her about the parish priest not allowing her the "choice" to wear a certain necklace during Mass when she was a kid, implying it was unreasonable (and sinful). This trivial event is compared to Addie's abortion when her mother equates the church's refusal to allow abortion as another unreasonable action. Addie's mother pontificates,
"The Catholic Church is run by men,'
she says as she digs out her wallet
to pay for my birth control pills. 'And men
make mistakes.'"

Not surprisingly, prolife characters are not portrayed in any realistic way. Instead they come across as stupid and boorish. For example,  the one prolife character in the novel, Allison Finley is portrayed as ignorant about basic reproductive science:
"Allison Finley goes off about
how she would never take birth control pills
because they kill egg cells, which is like
having an abortion every month."

Young prolife students are well informed and know that oral contraceptives do not kill "egg cells" - the proper term is ova - but that some oral contraceptives may cause very early abortions, which is what Allison is referring to. This is one of several reasons why the Catholic church does not support taking oral contraceptives. Allison is described in unsavory terms, as someone who can't think for herself.
" 'I'm doing Hope's Journey,'
Allison barks, and then waits,
like she's a trained seal, ..."

Addie mentions later on in a poem titled, "It Takes Me Back" how she met prolife picketers outside the abortion clinic and that murder was spelled with two "d's once again suggesting those who support the prolife side of this issue are ignorant.

After listing off a number of different nun's orders, Addie mentions how one of the nuns from the order that founded Immaculate Heart Academy, the Servants of Our Blessed Mother, made Liz Morley carry heavy textbooks upstairs when she was six months pregnant. Those nasty Catholic nuns!

In the poem "The Church Responds" Addie refuses to accept that the Catholic Church responds to those dealing with the aftermath of abortion with compassion. She cuts off Allison remarks about post-abortive healing and facing what as happened in the abortion. Allison mentions the various rituals women use to help them heal from their abortions such as writing a letter or holding a funeral. Addie does write a letter to her unborn baby in the poem, "Dear You" in which she expresses not her sorrow at the abortion but tells the child she would not force her/him to write a letter like this. Interestingly Addie's writes,
"Whatever you would have looked like,
whoever you might have been,
I have no way of knowing."
Addie doesn't know of course, because her child never had the opportunity to live her/his life.

There's not much to like in this novel for those Catholic teens who believe in their faith's teaching on abortion. The main character, Addie is a poorly catechized Catholic who simply parrots almost every secular/feminist objection against the Catholic church's stance on abortion/contraception while denigrating Mary and Joseph.The objections are superficial and immature and there is almost no critical thinking done by the main character or her parents. The issue of abortion deserves a more honest treatment in young adult literature, something this novel does not offer.

For those interested in learning about the historical perspective of the Catholic Church's teaching on abortion, these articles, Part I and Part II by Donald DeMarco, a professor of philosophy and a Catholic provide a detailed summary.

There are many wonderful orders of nuns who do excellent work teaching and performing works of charity. The evangelization begun by St. Pope John Paul II has begun to bear fruit in the many young women seeking to enter religious communities. These are a far cry from the nuns portrayed in this novel as they are happy, vibrant, caring young women. For example, the Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist specialize in teaching young people and are comprised of young women called to this charism. The Sisters of Life, founded by the late His Eminence John Cardinal O'Connor is a contemplative/active community of nuns that also minister to women facing an unplanned pregnancy.

In response to the large number of women who have experienced abortion and suffer silently, the Catholic church has responded to offer post abortive healing. Project Rachel is one  post-abortive healing service.It is offered by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for those facing pregnancy loss, including the loss of a child through abortion.  Rachel's Vineyard is another service offering women and men a way out of despair, shame and guilt after an abortion. 

Book Details:

Ask Me How I Got Here by Christine Heppermann
New York: HarperCollins Childrens Books       2016
225 pp.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Truth About Peacock Blue by Rosanne Hawke

Aster Suleiman Masih is a Christian living in Pakistan with her father (Abba) who is a tailor and her mother (Ammi) who works in the house of Colonel Rafique and his wife (who are Muslims). She also had a brother Ijaz who suffered from asthma. They have family also living further south in Pakistan - her cousin Barakat and also in Australia; her Uncle Yusef, Aunty Noori and cousin Maryam live in Australia.  The novel opens with Ijaz's funeral. Aster's family from south Pakistan and Australia come to his funeral.

Aster realizes that her view of the world changed drastically when she was twelve years old. One morning, Aster goes out early to get water and encounters two boys attacking Hadassah in a wheat field. Her screams scare the boys off and she helps a bloodied Hadassah walk home to her mother Aunty Feebi. Hadassah was attacked by the landlord's sons. Her family keeps quiet about the attack because as Christians their village might be burned to the ground. Also the law in Pakistan will view Hadassah as the criminal, not the boys who attacked her. Three months later, Hadassah is sent to a village south of Lahore to study women's tailoring. Aster has no understanding at this point as to what has really happened to Hadassah.

The village teacher, Miss Saima, visits Aster's parents and encourages them to send her to high school in the Government Girls High School. Her father agrees and tells Aster that in April she will be sent to high school in place of Ijaz. Aster is welcomed at the school by the principal, Mrs Iqbal who tells her father that "she will be expected to take all the same subjects as the other girls, but she will be free to follow her Christian faith."  She is introduced to her class of Year Eights as Aster Suleiman Masih, which identifies her as a Christian and is seated by a girl named Rabia.

In school Aster is harassed and ridiculed by a Muslim girl named Sabeena. Mrs. Abdul who teaches Isamiyat and Arabic and who wears a burqa, takes an immediate dislike to Aster, slapping her and refusing to listen to her. Aster is afraid to return to school but her cousin Sammy, encourages her to reach out and make friends. At school her maths teacher, Miss Rehmat and the English teacher Miss Saed-Ulla encourage Aster. Rabia advises Aster to say the Kalimah, "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God." because this will make life easier for her. However, Aster refuses because she is a committed Christian.

On Sunday at church, Dr. Amal who was a friend of Izja, comes to visit and give a talk. Aster decides to take over Ijaz's facebook page, removing his picture and personal information and putting up a profile picture of a peacock. She renames the profile Peacock Blue after her favourite colour and bird. Facebook allows Aster to connect with her cousins, Sammy Ibrahim in Pakistan and Maryam Yousef in Australia.

One day after school Aster visits Mrs. Rafique's home with her mother who does their laundry and cooking. Although the Rafiques are Muslims, they have helped Aster's family, paying for Izja's medicine and giving Aster and Izja gifts for Christmas and Eid. Aster wants to tell Mr. Rafique, who was a Colonel in the army about Mrs. Abdul but she feels he won't understand.

At school Rabia confides to Aster that her father converted to Islam by saying the Kalimah. He was offered land and money to convert; now her father has an office job and her brother attends university and Rabia has good marriage prospects. Rabia suggests that Aster help her with math and English and she will tutor her in Arabic and Islamiyat. With Rabia's help, Aster begins to improve in Arabic. Eventually Colonel Rafique learns about Aster's situation and tells her she will now be tutored by him.

Aster along with her family and the entire village prepare for Hadassah's wedding. Hadassah reveals to Aster how much she misses her baby son whom she named Shahbaz after the minister of minorities who was assassinated. Hadassah is married and goes off to live with Danyal Peter in his village near Rawalpindi.

When Aster returns to school to write her exams, a terrible thing happens. Her first exam is Islamiyat. No sooner has Aster handed in her exam then she is arrested by the police and accused of blasphemy by Mrs. Abdul. Not really understanding what is happening to her, Aster is dragged out the gates of the school, which are quickly surrounded by a mob and a dozen police officers. Not knowing what she has done, unable to contact her parents, Aster is taken to the police station, her hands handcuffed behind her back and thrown into a cell. Surely she will be home quickly once this mistake is sorted out. But Aster will soon learn that in Pakistan, it doesn't matter if you are a child or you unintentionally blasphemed. Under Sharia law your life is forfeit if you blaspheme.


Discussion

The Truth About Peacock Blue is a story about the rigid enforcement of Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws. The story (the fictional) Aster Suleiman parallels that of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who has been on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan for the past seven years. Asia's only crime was drinking water from the same cup as her Muslim neighbours. Petitions calling for the release of Asia whose only crime is that of being a Christian have had little effect. Salman Taseer the governor of Punjab and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti both supported freeing Asia, and both were assassinated. Asia currently lives in a squalid jail while she awaits a hearing before Pakistan's Supreme Court.

Similarly in The Truth About Peacock Blue, fourteen year old Aster is accused of blasphemy on an exam, jailed and ultimately sentenced to death. Her lawyer is subsequently assassinated. Aster's cousin Maryam begins a petition to free Peacock Blue, the name Aster uses on facebook. The novel ends with Aster, now sixteen years old,  in solitary confinement for her own protection awaiting an appeal. The story is told from Aster's point of view interspersed with posts by her cousin Maryam titled Free Peacock Blue.

Rosanne Hawke provides a balanced perspective of Pakistan's blasphemy law as she shows the persecution of Christians and Muslims alike. However, the novel's main theme is the brutal persecution of Christians in predominantly Muslim Pakistan, ironically a country formed out of the partition of India so Muslims could freely practice their own faith.Although their constitution allows for the freedom of religion, in reality, such freedom does not exist in many parts of Pakistan.

Under Pakistan's blasphemy law anyone who defiles the name of Mohammed either by the use of derogatory remarks, spoken or written, directly or indirectly is to be sentenced to death. There have been a marked increase in blasphemy charges since 1986 when the law was amended and as the country has become more radicalized. At least half of the charges have been against Christians who comprised less than three percent of the population. A charge of blasphemy in Pakistan often leads to death threats against the accused, their families, entire villages as well as lawyers and judges. The accused are often immediately jailed, sometimes placed in solitary confinement for their own safety. The blasphemy law in Pakistan is often used to persecute religious minorities or to settle personal disputes as in the case of Asia Bibi.

Hawke ably demonstrates the injustice of both Pakistan's blasphemy law as well as Sharia law through the experiences the female characters.  In jail Aster is never really safe, often beaten, sexually harassed and almost raped. She is thrown into a cell with older women all of whom are victims of Sharia Law.  Hawke uses these scenes to show how precarious life is for women under Sharia law. In cases of rape it is the victim who is punished and not the perpetrator.  Kamilah Muhammad was raped and became pregnant. When the baby began to show she was accused of zina, reported by her own father and thrown in jail. Narjis was married off to a cruel warlord to pay off a debt. Durrah killed her husband because he and his mother abused her. Hafsah, a Muslim woman was also accused of blasphemy when a quilt she was carrying knocked the Holy Qur'an off a shelf and into the fire, causing a corner of the sacred book to be burned. It was her mother-in-law's revenge for Hafsah giving birth to four girls, ignorant of the fact that  her son determines the sex of their babies. Her husband loved her and refused to marry another so her mother-in-law used the blasphemy law to remove her from the house. Muneerah, a Muslim, was secretly married to a boy she loved. When she became pregnant her father had her arrested for zina, her uncle killed her husband and when she gave birth to the baby in jail, he was taken away. Each woman has experienced the brutal effects of Sharia law.

Hawke provides a detailed account of how a blasphemy case works its way through Pakistan's corrupt justice system. Aster's trial takes place before a judge and a panel of "bearded clerics in dark shalwar qameezes" where Sharia Law rules. Therefore, many of the features of Western law which is based on Roman and Christian canon law do not apply. For example, no consideration is given to Aster's age nor the fact that she is a Christian girl who would likely know little about Islam and Muhammad. The Muslim witnesses who appear on Aster's behalf are badgered and discounted. Evidence crucial to the case is destroyed and there are no corroborating witnesses.

But The Truth About Peacock Blue is more than just a story about the evils of Sharia Law. It is a story of Christian persecution and the blossoming of a deeper faith that results. Hawke's portrayal of Aster's growing faith and trust in Khuda (God) during her imprisonment is moving. How many would keep the faith under such circumstances?  When Aster attends the government school she meets Rabia whose father converted to Islam so that his family would be better off. Rabia encourages Aster to say the Kalimah, telling her, "You should convert...It's a Muslim country, everything is easier if you're the same." but Aster refuses. When she questions Rabia about what she believes her friend is undecided but leans towards Islam. Aster states she cannot say the Kalimah just because it is expected. She must be true to what she believes and she realizes that for Rabia her faith is a cultural thing and doesn't mean much to her.

When Aster is first arrested  she struggles at first, "As I lay there thinking, I realized something horrifying: I couldn't feel God. Was my faith only something I believed in my happy life in the village? Then I heard Abba in my head: Khuda is always with us whether we feel He is or not, just believe." In the jail, Aster is told by Muneerah that her blasphemy is unforgivable and that she will never get to heaven. Aster wonders, "It astounded me how we could worship one god and have such a different understanding of him."

 Instead of focusing on Mrs. Abdul, Aster chooses to focus on Yusef (Joseph) who was sold into slavery by his brothers. "He did his best to honour Khuda even under the threat of death and became respected by the prison guards...Yusef had a special talent for interpreting dreams."  Aster begins to have dreams while in prison, most of them are frightening to her. Such as dreaming about Yusef who does not hear her pleas for help.Gradually her dreams change. "I dreamed I was in a boat. At first the waves were gentle. Fish jumped over the waves...Then the waves rose higher until the boat was as high as a mountain and I knew it would crash. I screamed and suddenly someone appeared in the boat with me. He used a pole and the boat didn't capsize as we rode down the wave with white curling foam circling us. I saw his face before the next wave came. He was enjoying the exhilaration of the ride. It was Yesu Masih. I was not alone."

After Aster is condemned as Yesu was, on the feast of little Eid or Easter she is comforted by a special dream. "That night I dreamed I was in a courtyard. A light shone and grew closer and there was Yesu Masih, holding out his hand. He wore a long cream robe and a shawl that was so bright it made the whole land  shine with colour. He looked as strong as if He could overthrow a court or a whole government if he wished it, but it was me He wanted. His dark eyes brimmed with compassion. 
'Beloved Aster.' His voice reverberated in the sky and His love settled around me like a blanket made of peacock feathers."

Aster is supported by her Christian community who pray for her and exhort her to be strong. She is visited often by Dr. Amal who tells her, "There are many people praying for you, Aster, even outside of Pakistan." Aster "prays for strength like hers (Malala) to endure the waiting."  Her father when he finally is able to visit her, tells Aster, "What makes our life different wherever we are, even in a prison, is the presence of Khuda and his love. He is in control whether we feel it or not. Just trust him  and he will help you persevere. Then hope will come." But Aster wonders, "We all knew prayers weren't always answered the way we think they will be. What if Khuda allowed me to stay in here like Job, who had to go through his suffering?"


Hawke uses metaphors throughout her novel. One such is example involves mice. Early in the novel Aster remembers how she cooked rice without noticing that there were mice droppings (mice dirt) in the bag. The mice droppings ruined the rice. This led to her getting her eyes checked and getting glasses. When she meets Zaib, the journalist who wants her to write down her story, Zaib tells her that she is Muslim but that "We have mice in the cupboards. You know about that I suspect." Zaib is comparing extremist Muslims who ruin the beauty of the Muslim faith to the mice who get into the cupboard ruining the good rice. She asks Aster not to "tar every Muslim with this same brush."

My only criticism of this novel is the cover. Aster is supposed to be dark-skinned, yet the model on the front cover is decidedly white and doesn't represent the character in the story. But overall, The Truth About Peacock Blue is well crafted, searing novel about the reality of extremism that seems to overtaking the Muslim faith in many countries.

Book Details:

The Truth About Peacock Blue by Rosanne Hawke
Crows Nest, Australia:  Allen & Unwin                          2015
253 pp.