Thursday, September 24, 2020

DVD: A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is a biopic about Austrian conscientious objector and Catholic saint, Franz Jagerstatter. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life is a jewel that simply must be seen by anyone who is interested in studying the past, learning from history and discovering those hidden acts that only now are coming to light.

The film opens with the voice of Franz Jagerstatter stating "I thought that we could build our nest high up in the trees, Fly away like birds to the mountains."  This is followed by black and white archival footage of Hitler being welcomed by the masses, speaking at huge rallies with cheering crowds. Austria has become part of Hitler's Third Reich. Events will unfold that will change Franz's life forever.

Franz and his wife Fani are working in the fields of the farm high in the mountains near the village of St. Radegund, Austria, in 1939. Husband and wife are a team, working together scything, planting potatoes and raising their three beautiful daughters.

Fani reminisces about how she and Franz met, how her sister now lives with them, how life in their village is filled with hard work, good neighbours and is happy. But overhead the sound of an approaching airplane hints at the troubles to come.

In 1940 Franz finds himself at the Enns Military Base doing training. There he meets a fellow recruit, Waldland who is always happy. In a letter to her husband, Fani reveals that France has surrendered and that she's heard they are allowing the farmers to return home. 

At the military base, Franz and the others watch propaganda movies about Germany's conquests of France and Russia. But while the other soldiers clap enthusiastically, Franz is deeply disturbed. He sees the destruction and the human cost and writes to his wife, "Oh my wife. What's happened to our country? To the land we love?"

Summer turns to winter and then to spring, and Franz finally returns home. Fani and the children are ecstatically happy. During the wheat harvest in the fall, one of the farmers tells Franz he has been called up. He thought there would be peace but the war simply goes on. To Franz's question,  "Do you believe in what we are fighting for?" the farmer answers, "Not really." As Franz and the village miller Trakl watch their neighbours embrace Nazism, Trakl questions Franz, " Don't they know evil when they see it?..." Knowing Franz does not support the Nazis, he warns him to be careful.

In a conversation with his parish priest, Father Furthauer, a troubled Franz reveals that if he is called up he cannot serve. "We're killing innocent people, raiding other countries, preying on the weak. Now the priests call them heroes, even saints. The soldiers that do this. It might be that the other ones are the heroes. The ones who defend their homes against the invaders."  Father asks Franz if he's considered the consequences of his actions, for his family. He tells Franz he would most likely be shot and his sacrifice would benefit no one. He does agree to speak to the bishop about Franz's situation.

Franz's internal conflict deepens and Fani notices a change in her once carefree husband. He is thoughtful and worried. When brown shirts show up to collect for the war effort, Franz refuses, telling them he has nothing to give. This leads to a visit from Kraus, the mayor of Radegund as to why he's not supporting his people and the war effort. Franz however,  remains unmoved by the mayor's pleas.

Franz and Fani go to see Bishop Joseph Calasanz Fliesser. But the bishop is of no help to Franz. On the way home Franz tells Fani, "I think he was afraid I was a spy. They don't dare commit themselves or it could be their turn next." Eckinger, a neighbour explains to Franz that the bishop is going along, trying to appease the Nazis, in the hopes the regime will be more tolerant towards the church. Priests are being sent to concentration camps and church possessions are being banned.

The villagers begin to ostracize Franz and Fani. Franz's mother is upset with Fani, blaming her for changing her son. The mayor violently confronts Franz, telling him they must defend their country and that he is traitor to his people and his country.  Despite this Fani supports Franz. She tells him their prayers will be answered, if they are faithful to God, he will be faithful to them. 

Eventually their worst fears are confirmed: Franz is called up. The couple are devastated for they both know that if Franz follows his conscience, he will never return home. In March of 1943,  Franz reports to Enns for military service. He refuses to take a pledge to Hitler and is promptly arrested and put in prison. So begins his short journey of hidden resistance and ultimately to martyrdom.

Discussion

Written and directed by Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life portrays the events leading to Franz Jagerstatter refusal to support the Nazi regime and war, which he considered a great evil. As a result, Franz was arrested, imprisoned and guillotined at 4pm on August 9, 1943 in prison.

A Hidden Life is a deeply moving film that asks viewers to consider the role of conscience in our everyday lives, to explore the concepts of just war, the lost virtue of moral courage, and the possibility of sacrificing everything for our most deeply held convictions. It does so by setting this moving human drama against the majestic backdrop of mountains, waterfalls, blooming meadows and fast-flowing rivers.

Franz and Franziska on their wedding day

Franz Jagerstatter (played by actor August Diehl), whose Catholic faith blossomed after his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger (Valerie Pachner), a devout Catholic,  came to believe that Nazism and Catholicism were completely irreconcilable. When he saw the goals of the Nazi war, to enslave other nations, to plunder their resources, wealth and culture, and their determination to murder an entire race of human beings, he knew he could not participate in any way. To do so was to cooperate with a great evil.

When he was called up for a third time in 1943, Franz reported to the military base at Enns, Austria but refused to complete his military service. According to the Reich Court Martial  “that, due to his religious views, he refused to perform military service with a weapon, that he would be acting against his religious conscience were he to fight for the Nazi State…that he could not be both a Nazi and a Catholic… that there were some things in which o­ne must obey God more than men; due to the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’, he said he could not fight with a weapon. However, he was willing to serve as a military paramedic.” Interestingly in Malik's film, his offering to serve as a paramedic is somewhat glossed over. In fact, in real life, his request to serve as a medic was denied.

In A Hidden Life, Franz is repeatedly told that his conscientious objection would serve no purpose and therefore was meaningless. He is called a traitor, that his actions are sinful. His lone resistance would be hidden - no one would ever know of it, it would not alter the course of the war, nor stop it. Time and again he was told he had an obligation to his country, his people and to his family. 

Opposition surrounds him on all sides. His Catholic parish priest and even his Catholic bishop were of no help. Hoping for some guidance from his bishop, Franz is told that he "has a duty to the Fatherland, the church tells you so." and that he must obey those in authority over him. Franz asks the bishop, "If our leaders are not good...if they're evil. What does one do?" His bishop has no answer for him.

Before reporting for military service in 1943, Father Furthauer (played by Tobais Moretti) challenges Franz, "Does a man have the right to let himself be put to death for truth? Could it possibly please God?" He tells Franz that God wants us to be happy and not bring suffering on ourselves. In response to Father Furthauer's rationalizing, Franz astutely counters that we must stand up to evil. 

Franz talking with Judge Lueben

In prison, Franz's lawyer tries desperately and repeatedly to get his client to sign a paper. He doesn't understand Franz's defiance asking him, "How do you know what is good or bad?" At his military tribunal in July 1943, Judge Lueben meets with Franz privately. The Reich judge is deeply puzzled about Franz's objections and berates him, "Do you imagine that anything you do will change the course of this war? That anyone outside this court will ever hear of you? No one will be changed. The world will go on as before."  And yet at the end of his time with Franz, one senses that maybe Lueben does understand, that he is condemning a good man.

Franz's intense spiritual conflict is set against the backdrop of the spectacular beauty of the Alps. Malik filmed these scenes in the Italian Alps while the scenes in the farmhouse were shot in the Jagerstatter home in Radegund. The cinematography is one of the most outstanding features of this film. Scenes of Franz and Fani working together, scything wheat, running their mill, milking cows, sowing crops, cutting wood, baking bread, playing with their young children, and spending time alone, portray a simple life of honest but hard work. Set against a backdrop of breathtakingly beautiful scenes of mountains, misty forest, rushing streams, and golden wheat fields, Malik captures the beauty of nature  High in the Austrian Alps, in the tiny village of Radegund, one can feel the presence of God. These scenes of joyful family life and a loving marriage show and Fani's unwavering support sustain Franz.

As it turns out, all who told Franz that his sacrifice would be meaningless and forgotten in the mists of time were wrong. Today he is a saint, his life the subject of a sublime film that has touched millions. On his beatification, Diocesan Bishop Dr. Ludwig Schwarz and Bishop Dr. Manfred Scheuer (Postulator of the beatification procedure) made this statement:

“Franz J├Ągerst├Ątter is a prophet with a global view and a penetrating insight which very few of his contemporaries had at that time; he is a shining example in his fidelity to the claims of his conscience, an advocate of non-violence and peace, a voice of warning against ideologies, a deep-believing person for whom God really was the core and centre of life. His prophetic witness to Christian truth is based o­n a clear, radical and far-sighted analysis of the barbarism of the inhuman and godless system of Nazism, its racial delusions, its ideology of war and deification of the state, as well as its declared program of annihilating Christianity and the Church. His educated, mature conscience led him to say a resolute ‘No’ to Nazism and he was executed due to his consistent refusal to take up arms as a soldier in Hitler’s war.”
 
Those who wish to read more about Franz Jagerstatter's life are referred to the Diocese of Linz website.

The movie takes its title from a George Eliot quote from her book, Middlemarch:

"The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life..." Franz's life and his act of passive resistance were most definitely hidden and unhistoric. His life, lived faithfully and his refusal to participate in a evil war, have done good that none of us will fully know in this life.

A Hidden Life is a beautifully crafted film, with a cast who give outstanding performances. Malik challenges his audience to consider the life of a man who simply could not cooperate with evil. Ultimately his hidden resistance cost him his life. While the personal price was high, Franz Jagerstatter demonstrated that there was still some good in a very evil time.

Image credits:

Franz and Franzsika wedding photo: https://johnpwalshblog.com/2017/10/26/blessed-franz-jagerstatter-1907-1943-farmer-husband-and-father-conscientious-objector-and-martyr/ 

Franz with Judge Lueben: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/17-january/books-arts/film/film-review-a-hidden-life-cert-12a

Monday, September 14, 2020

War Stories by Gordon Korman

Twelve-year-old Trevor Firestone is on a weekend access visit with his father Daniel and his great-grandfather Jacob Firestone in Marlborough, Connecticut. He lives with his mother, stepfather and twin half sisters, seeing his dad every other weekend. Trevor loves everything war related, mainly because his great-grandfather, Jacob Firestone fought in World War II. Private First Class Jacob Firestone of Bravo Company was awarded a Bronze Star by the French for his part in liberating a small village in France from the Nazis.

Jacob, whom Trevor affectionately calls G.G., has told Trevor many stories of his time fighting the Nazis in France. This has led to Trevor becoming almost obsessed with war, especially World War II. "He played video games about it, read books, watched movies, built models. Both his rooms... were plastered with posters commemorating military units and major battles."

Their lives change forever when a letter from the village council of Sainte-Regine in France arrives, inviting PFC Jacob Firestone, the last surviving participant of the Battle of Sainte-Regine to a commemoration ceremony in the town in May. G.G. was to be the guest of honour. Although Daniel believes his grandfather is too old to attend, G.G. is determined to go.

Trevor and his great-grandfather plan out their trip to include the entire route G.G. took from his "basic training in Georgia, to England for staging, and across the English Channel for the invasion of Normandy on D-Day." They will also follow his route through France to Sainte-Regine and they will attend the seventy-fifth anniversary of V-E Day at Reims.

However, while Trevor is excited for the trip and the part his hero great-grandfather will play in it, his father, Daniel is concerned. The Sainte-Regine Facebook page about the ceremony has a comment on it by Vive le Verite (Long Live the Truth) stating that Jacob Firestone is no hero and is not welcome. Jacob doesn't seemed surprised nor does he offer any explanation. Both Daniel and Jacob decide not to tell Trevor.

But when they land in Normandy and as they travel throughout France, Trevor notices two young French teens seem to be everywhere they are. Not only that but the tires on their rental car are slashed.


It soon becomes apparent that the liberation of Sainte Regine is not quite what G.G. has portrayed to his family. Confronted by the past,  G.G. must tell the truth to Trevor and Daniel. Along the way, two families, one French and one American experience forgiveness, healing and the revelation for Trevor that there is no glory in war.

Discussion

War Stories by acclaimed children's author, Gordon Korman is a novel that explores the theme of war through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy, Trevor Firestone and also through the experiences of a seventeen-year-old soldier. Trevor adores his great-grandfather Jacob Firestone who enlisted as a seventeen-year-old and fought in World War II. Jacob was in Bravo Company and as an infantryman saw the realities of war: pain, death and massive destruction. However, this reality is lost on Trevor who sees only glory in war.

Korman utilizes a dual narrative to tell his story. The first narrative is set in the present (the year 2020) and tells of Trevor and his family, including his great-grandfather, a World War II Veteran as they travel through France at attend a ceremony honouring his great-grandfather's role in liberating a French town during World War II. The second narrative set in 1943 to 1944 as a young Private Jacob Firestone, part of Bravo Company fights its way across France. The two narratives are juxtaposed against one another, describing events in the same locales, 76 year apart. Korman uses both narratives to make his point about war - it's ugly, destructive and is not to be glorified.

Through Jacob's narrative, set in 1944 as he battles his way onto the beach at Normandy and through France, the reality of war is never far away.  Seven weeks into his time as a soldier, Jacob is already overwhelmed by the reality of war his training never really prepared him for."When Jacob closed his eyes, the picture of what bullets or shrapnel could do to a human being was never far away. He had already seen more death than he'd ever imagined possible. And more blood - it was hard to believe there could be so much of it. At times, he had found himself surrounded by so many bodies - from both sides in this war - that it became difficult to remember that these had once been people. Brothers and sons. Husbands and fathers and friends." He loses some of his best friends and sees the vast destruction war causes.

In Trevor's narrative, set in 2020, Trevor comes to learn more about the realities of war as his family travels through France, revisiting the locations of battles G.G. encountered. In the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Normandy, France, his father points out that "Battles may look glamorous in movies and on posters, but this is what's what's left over once the smoke clears away." To Trevor they are heroes, but his father Daniel points out, "They were kids,...Not much older than you, when you think about it. Every single one of these graves is more than a life lost. It's a family torn apart and generations that will never be born. Look at your great-grandfather.If he'd been killed in the war, neither of us would be standing here right now. Not to mention your kids, and their kids, and so on..."

Despite this Trevor remains convinced of the glory of war and he can't "...wait to hear the full story of how Bravo Company had liberated Sainte-Regine. It was going to be epic!"  Their travels through the various towns that G.G. fought to liberate help Trevor to understand that the video games he plays don't accurately portray the realities of war. Tanks don't blow through obstacles, they break down or are destroyed by enemies. Each battle won, each acre of land gained represents lost lives on both sides and destroyed villages and towns. The reality of the devastation caused by war is driven home when they visit Saint Lo, a town G.G. describes as being "flat as a pancake" by the time the Germans are forced out. 

However, the reality of war is really driven home when Trevor learns the truth of what happened during the liberation of Sainte Regine. His great-grandfather tells Trevor and his dad that he inadvertently revealed the location of a family, the LaFleurs, involved in the French Resistance - a mistake that led to the deaths of the entire family who had saved his life and nursed him back to health.

The revelation of what happened years ago leaves Trevor shocked but also with a different view of war.  "...he had always pictured war as a gigantic chess match, played by general, using pieces that represented armies. Everything went like clockwork. You executed your strategy, conquered territory, defeated your enemies." But what was missing in Trevor's image of war was the human cost; the villages destroyed simply because they were in the wrong place, a misplaced step that got a soldier killed or like his great-grandfather, a simple mistake that resuleds in the deaths of an entire family. War "....looked cool on a movie screen or in a video game. But when real lives were being lost, snuffed out by sheer random chance, there was no glory." 

War Stories is also about forgiveness and redemption.  Jacob Firestone has carried the scars of war with him through his entire life.  At the ceremony honoring him for his role in the liberation of Sainte Regine, Jacob is confronted by Rene LaFleur's descendants, Juliette and Philippe and acknowledges his costly mistake. With the help of Trevor who points out to Juliette that his great-grandfather volunteered to come to liberate France and that he has suffered too, she is able to forgive. This forgiveness brings healing and ultimately unites the two families.

Jacob also finds redemption in an act of mercy he committed shortly after learning of the deaths of the LaFleur family.  He spared the life of a young German soldier outside the LaFleur farmhouse and meets that boy, now an old man like himself. "...the German showed photographs of his wife, their three children, seven grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren."  Puzzled as to why his great-grandfather is lingering over the pictures, Trevor realizes what his father tried to explain to him earlier in the trip about the cost of war, "...None of those people would ever have been born if G.G. had done his duty and killed this man so many years ago. A snap decision -- a moment of mercy -- and all those lives became suddenly possible."

War Stories is a thoughtful novel that explores the themes of war, forgiveness, mercy and redemption. Well-written by veteran author Gordon Korman, it is a timely novel that encourages young readers to think about how war impacts soldiers and civilians and the lessons we might learn from previous wars. Ironically, Korman could not have known there would be a world wide pandemic in 2020 and so Trevor and his family's trip to France could not have happened in April and May. But in the world of fiction, anything can happen! Although Korman's Sainte Regine is fictional, Operation Overlord  - the Battle of Normandy was not. A map showing the general locations in the US, England and France would be helpful to young readers.

Highly recommended.

You can read about the invention of the Higgins boat from the Smithsonian Magazine.

Book Details:

War Stories by Gordon Korman
New York: Scholastic Press      2020
231 pp.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

A Book For Escargot by Dashka Slater

Dashka Slater's delightfully sweet picture book, A Book For Escargot readers are treated to the second story about Escargot, that dashing, suave French snail. C'est un regale that breaks the cuteness meter and is sure to delight readers young and old.

In this adventure, dashing Escargot is on his way to the library to find a book, but not just any book. He's tired of eating salads. He dreams of something much more scrumptious and so he wants "a French cookbook, filled with delicious French recipes."

Along the way to the cooking section, Escargot is amazed at all the wonderful books in the library. But he does find it upsetting that there are no "books about a daring snail hero who saves the day."

But Escargot laments the lack of books "about a daring snail hero who saves the day" and suggests that the reader might want to write a story about a "very beautiful French snail hero" based on him. And so he imagines beginning to write such a book as he slimes towards the cookbook section.

Eventually, Escargot makes it to the cookbook section where he finds what seems like the perfect book, The Art of French Cooking. This book will help him find something to make besides a boring salad. But Escargot makes a startling discovery about French cooking and comes up with a satisfying solution to a book that views escargot in a way he never imagined!

Discussion

In this  picture book, Escargot is cheeky and he knows it. From the very beginning he has no doubts about himself, telling readers, " It can be very distracting to have a very beautiful French snail staring at you while you read."  He very innocently suggests some classic children's books, with a decidedly gastropod theme. He even suggests that the author of a book about a snail hero might be modeled after his "most beautiful parts, like my shiny brown shell or my translucent tentacle of my chic outfit." By his own definition, he is "handsome, suave, and smart." And when he shockingly discovers the real reason French cooking involves escargot, he retreats to his shell, where he is "not hiding but more like having a private moment."

Bringing this humorous tale to life are the colourful illustrations by Sydney Hanson. She usually works with pencil crayon and also watercolours. Hanson, a certified naturalist, is well known for her lovely animal illustrations and she perfectly captures the cheekiness of Escargot as he innocently seeks out a French cookbook. A Book For Escargot demands to be read with a French accent. Nothing less than that will do!

Book Details:

A Book For Escargot by Dashka Slater
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux      2020


Monday, September 7, 2020

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

The Island of The Blue Dolphins is a classic children's novel about adventures of a young woman belonging to the Nicoleno tribe who survived alone for eighteen years on the island of San Nicolas. It is based on the true story of the only survivor of the tribe.

The island is one of the most remote of the Channel Islands located off the coast of California.

The Nicoleno Indians had lived on the island for centuries. It was visited frequently by the Russians who came to hunt otter for their pelts. There are several versions as to how the young woman came to be alone on the island. One story is that the remaining members of the Nicoleno Indians were being removed from the island when it was discovered that a boy had been left behind. A young woman, possibly the boy's mother or sister returned to the island.

In 1853, Captain Nidever returned to the island to hunt and encountered a middle-aged woman, who spoke to them in an unknown language. Nidever had been counselled by the Catholic fathers at the Santa Barbara mission to bring the woman to the mainland if they found her. This they did. No one was ever able to learn her name so she was given the name Juana Maria when she was baptized.

In O'Dell's famous novel, the story opens with the arrival of the Aleut (Russian) ship. At this time, a young girl named Won-a-pa-lei lived on the island in the village of Ghalas-at with her father, her younger brother Ramo and her older sister Ulape and the rest of their tribe.

Won-a-pa-lei's father, the chief of Ghalas-at greets the captain of the ship, Captain Orlov. In an unusual move, Won-a-pa-lei's father reveals his real name as Chief Chowig. Everyone in their tribe has two names, "the real one which was secret and was seldom used, and one which was common, for if people use your secret name it becomes worn out and loses its magic."  Won-a-pa-lei's secret name is Karana.

Captain Orlov has come with forty Alakan Aleut men to hunt sea otter. However, Karana's father is skeptical because a previous hunt by the Russians/Aleuts years ago, led by Captain Mitriff resulted in great trouble between the two peoples. Orlov offers to do the hunting and reluctantly agrees to divide the catch.

A hint of the trouble to come is given when one day Karana's tribe has the good fortune of catching a large number of fish, some of which the Aleuts wanted. Chief Chowig refuses to share the fish telling the Aleuts they can work to catch their own fish. Karana expresses her concern about how many otter the Aleuts are killing but her father tells her the otter will return to the kelp beds surrounding the island.

However, tragedy strikes the Ghalas-at community when the Aleuts and the Russian crew attempt to leave without upholding their end of the bargain. The two groups fight and the Aleuts flee the island but not before a battle that sees most of the Nicoleno men killed including Karana's father. Only fifteen men remained, seven of them, old men.

A new chief is chosen, a very old man named Kimki. With so few men, the women now must hunt, a situation that begins to cause trouble within the tribe. Karana and her people also have to deal with the loss of so many of their families. The following spring, Kimki decides to travel across the sea to the east to a place he had visited when he was a young man. He does not return after several months and a new chief is chosen.

The following year, the islanders see a different ship on the horizon. At first they fear it is the Aleuts returning but they soon learn it is a ship of white men who had met Kimki and were told to come to the island to take them away. As she prepares to leave the island, Karana is told that her younger brother Ramo is already on the ship, after being told he could not return to the village for his spear. However, as the ship is leaving the island, Ulape points to Ramo on the shore waving his spear. Karana is told the ship cannot turn back as it might founder on the rocks. Horrified, Karana leaps into the sea and manages to swim to shore.

So begins Karana's eighteen years marooned on San Nicolas. During that time she will confront death, make a decision about her future, deal with the wild dogs that roam the island and learn now to live with her loneliness.

Discussion

Island of the Blue Dolphins is based on the real life person, a woman given the name of Juana Maria who was the last surviving member of the Ghalas-at, a woman given the name of Juana Maria. Exactly how she came to be marooned on San Nicolas Island, and whether she lived eighteen years entirely alone, without seeing another human being remain uncertain.

When Juana Maria was brought to the Santa Barbara Mission by George Nidever, no one was able understand the language she spoke. She died seven weeks later, taking her story with her. In that time she had earned the title of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas, adding even more mystery to her.  Island of the Blue Dolphins therefore, is largely fictional, using Juana Maria's story as a framework for O'Dell's novel. Through his character Karana, O'Dell is able to give his readers a sense of what life might have been like for this young woman. She had likely already mastered the skills necessary to survive on the island. O'Dell portrays her as having remarkable ingenuity, intelligence and resourcefulness as she is able to cope with many different situations, some of them life-threatening.

But what makes this a fascinating and engaging story is that it is told by Karana who is the sole character in most of the novel - a difficult task for any writer. Whether she is fending off the wild dogs, hunting a sea lion, or attempting to leave her island and journey east, Karana is portrayed as brave and determined. To assuage her loneliness, the leader of the wild dogs whom she was set on killing becomes her companion. She is able to construct a safe and comfortable rock house for herself.  Rounding out the story are the  many interesting descriptions of the life on the island and in the surrounding sea.

Island of the Blue Dolphins is a classic that most readers aged nine to twelve will enjoy. It offers a refreshing break from the fantasy novels that so dominate books for this age group.

To learn more about San Nicolas Island, the people who inhabited these islands and the story told in Island of the Blue Dolphins, check out the National Park Service website.


Book Details:

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt         1988
pp.177

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Escargot by Dashka Slater

Escargot is the name of a dashing, suave French snail. And he's on a mission to be the reader's favourite animal and to get to the delicious salad at the end of the book! Along the way, Escargot fills readers in on his most magnifique traits. He even suggests that his shimmery trails of...."Not slime..." but "shimmery stuff" are beautiful.

Having convinced the young reader that snails do indeed make excellent favourite animals, Escargot arrives at the salad. But this salad is not quite to his liking. However, Escargot keeps an open mind which leads to a change in his liking and thinking!

Discussion

Escargot is a delightful picture book, whose main character, a French snail, will charm his way into your heart! Escargot is witty, cheeky and very amusing. In this story, Escargot encourages his reader to try something new, in this case, carrots. In doing so, he discovers a new favourite.

Helping the story along are the lovely illustrations by Sydney Hanson, who has worked for Disney Animation Studios and Dream Works Studios. Hanson is able to capture the qualities of Escargot's personality and bring them to life on paper. This makes Escargot much more than an ordinary snail, the text and illustrations of this sweet picture book working together to create a beloved character.


Book Details:

Escargot by Dashka Slater
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Baggage by Wendy Phillips

Baggage explores the issue of illegal refugees and human trafficking in this novel set in Vancouver, British Columbia. The story is told in verse, through voices of five people, Ms. Nelson a teacher, Brittany one of Ms. Nelson's students, Leah who is Brittany's sister, Thabo an illegal refugee and Kevin who is a friend of Brittany and Leah.

After returning from a trip to Japan with her students, Ms. Nelson notices the boy leaning against the baggage carousel in the International Arrivals area of the Vancouver International Airport. All of her students have been picked up except Brittany whose mother, an ER nurse, is late.

Thabo has been waiting for three hours after the old woman who accompanied him on the plane left to get food. She took his passport and papers and he has no idea where she is. Thabo doesn't speak English.

Ms. Nelson decides to intervene and takes Thabo to the airport police but no one can understand him. Eventually he is left with Immigration who will place him  in foster care while they determine his country of origin and his age.

At home, Brittany tells Leah and her mom that the boy was abandoned like "unclaimed baggage". She believes "He might be  a refugee a child soldier
maybe
a terrorist's kid
maybe
a victim of child trafficking."

While Brittany is focusing on Thabo and his situation, her friend Kevin who does all the research for her social justice initiatives begins to feel left out and used. At the same time, Brittany's sister Leah, who is a catcher on the local baseball team, begins to notice Kevin.

Brittany confronts Ms. Nelson after class one day, telling her that Kevin's research has shown that Thabo could end up in jail because he has no passport and no proof of age. She asks Ms. Nelson to find out what is going on with Thabo and tells her that her parents are willing to have him stay with her family. That night Ms. Nelson learns that Thabo has been placed in detention because of his lack of documentation and because he's considered a flight risk. The x-rays seem to indicate that he is likely older than eighteen years of age.

This news results in Brittany ramping up a massive social media campaign about Thabo's situation. She forces her family to take in Thabo and calls Kevin late that night to have him get his church minister involved. But when Border Services decides he's to be deported, Thabo seeks asylum in the Reverend's church. What they don't know is that the people who brought Thabo to Canada are actively looking for him and will stop at nothing to get him back.

Discussion

Baggage, a story about an illegal immigrant, tackles a host of social issues through a story told in verse. When Thabo is supposedly abandoned at Vancouver International Airport, he becomes the latest project of Brittany, a teenager who is described as a "passionate crusader". Soon Brittany has her family, her school and the community involved in her social media campaign to rescue Thabo. But it turns out that Brittany is so focused on publicity and activism that she doesn't ask the hard questions about Thabo's situation.

The novel attempts to focus on the social issue of illegal immigrants and human trafficking but there are also other issues explored such as the use of social media. A subplot is the blossoming romance between Kevin who is largely ignored by Brittany and Leah. Phillips tells Thabo's story using free verse, a format that provides only the basics of the story while highlighting the characters. Through Phillips effective free verse, readers will get a good sense of the main characters, what motivates them and how they are different.

It is the character of Brittany however, who steals the focus of the reader from illegal immigrant and potential trafficking victim, Thabo. Brittany, a master at generating publicity for causes, succeeds in her attempt to generate media attention for Thabo's plight but at the same time reveals herself as someone so completely focused on her online image and on using social media, that she forgets about the human element, the real people involved and how they are being affected.

This is seen in her relationship of lack of it with her friend Kevin who has a crush on Brittany. Kevin begins to feel used as Brittany ramps up her media campaign for Thabo. He notes she "loves projects loves to talk to crowds" and "Her favourite part is getting people passionate about issues..." but he wishes he was "an issue and she would get passionate about me."Brittany writes slogans, considers "a poster series made into memes" and "A few sound bites from Kevin's research". Kevin is a means to an end, her researcher and not much more. Her use of Kevin, who is Chinese in a multicultural poster with herself and Thabo is hurtful. She tells him, he is included because they are all good looking. Kevin knows it's "not a compliment, just a strategy".

For Brittany, Thabo is a "project". Brittany's focus is almost entirely on using Thabo to enhance her own image and social media campaign. In her effort to create a media storm around Thabo and his situation, Brittany forgets that she is dealing with a real person who may have experienced significant and terrible suffering. She doesn't take the time to think about how events are affecting Thabo. For example, when she brings him to stay in her family's home, Brittany is annoyed that he doesn't act grateful and she's irritated by the fact that he yells in his sleep.

Gradually Thabo becomes lost in Brittany's social media campaign, becoming a mere prop. When she brings him to school, it's more to show him off, and to generate her image of a social justice warrior.

"I'm bringing him
to school next week
to get him started on his missed education
to show him to everyone."

Brittany is excited to organize the Global Leadership club meeting, noting, "The club executive will be impressed. They'll all listen to me. It'll be cool." As the situation develops and Thabo takes refuge in the church, Brittany undertakes and organizes an amazing list of publicity stunts that include concerts, bake sales, and TV interviews.

In contrast to Brittany, Leah is more aware of how these events are affecting Thabo. She sees his humanity and treats him like a person who may be frightened and uncertain. Leah immediately tries to communicate with Thabo, discovering that immigration officials determined his language is Sotho, from southern Africa. This leads her to work on learning a few words of Sotho, practicing them over and over. When they take Thabo to school, it is Leah's quiet, "Ho lokile, It's okay." that brings a smile to his face.While Brittany is concerned about people donating to the Thabo Defense Fund, Leah worries that "Thabo is freaked out" and that other students might gang up on him. She checks in on him during the day.

It is Leah's quiet and calming approach to Thabo and her ability to empathize with others that draws Kevin to her. Leah recognizes that Kevin likes Brittany but she knows her sister isn't serious about any relationship, that she "dabbles in boyfriends". But Kevin begins to feel an attraction to Leah, who has a calming effect on him.

Ironically it is Kevin and Leah who are thrown together in an attempt to save Thabo. And incredibly Brittany continues to make the story about herself.
I post photos of the fire
do a few more selfies
pick the one
that shows to advantage
my cheekbones
and eyelashes
smouldering ruins in the background.

I Snapchat my friends
Tweet my networks
Instagram my circle, ...
update the Facebook page...

I change my profile picture
#GirlOnFire

To her dismay, Brittany finds herself on the outside of the trending story looking in!

Phillips has crafted a story that is both engaging and that offers many themes to explore. It's timely considering the ongoing refugee crisis in the world today. But the novel also offers young readers the chance to explore the issues surround social media and how it is used today. The novel's title, Baggage is an obvious reference to Thabo who is abandoned at the airport like a piece of baggage. But it might also be a reference to the "baggage" or emotional and psychological issues each of the characters have. There's plenty to explore in this intriguing novel.

Book Details:

Baggage by Wendy Phillips
Regina, Sask.:   Coteau Books    2019
295 pp.

Monday, August 24, 2020

This Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda


This Light Between Us is the heartbreaking story of two teens whose long-distance friendship is ripped apart by the events of World War II.

Ten-year-old Charlie Levy, who lives in Paris, France begins writing Japanese-American, Alex Maki in March of 1935 as part of a letter exchange program with an American school. However Charlie's excitement over corresponding is not matched by Alex, who doesn't want to write letters to a girl. However, three years later in 1938, Alex and Charlie find themselves continuing to correspond with one another. At this time Alex reveals to Charlie that he does not have blond hair and blue eyes but is in fact a dark haired Japanese American. Although upset, Charlie forgives Alex for this lie.

On December 7, 1941, Alex's world changes forever with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Alex who lives with his parents and his older brother Frank on Bainbridge Island, in Washington state, is in church when the news arrives.Immediately, all the Japanese Americans in the church leave and return to their homes.

At first the Maki's believe things will settle down and life will return as it was before. But it soon becomes evident that Japan has awakened a sleeping giant and along with it, the deep-rooted prejudice towards Nisei and Issei.

At school Alex feels "his Japaneseness more keenly" and has racist graffiti scrawled on his locker. His homeroom teacher tells Alex and another Japanese American student not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Within three days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans cannot travel more than five miles from home, cannot have radios, their bank accounts are frozen and must register at police stations.

Then Alex and his brother Frank return home one day after school to find that there father has been taken away. They learn that other families of Japanese heritage have had their homes searched, so they decide to destroy everything Japanese in their home, anything linking them to Japan with whom the United States is now at war.

Meanwhile in France, Charlie is also experiencing racism. Because she is Jewish, they are not allowed to use radios, ride bicycles, have a phone or use the public phone. Jews can't use parks, theatres, swimming pools, cafes or libraries. Many of her Jewish friends have fled Paris but Charlie refuses to leave her beloved city. A family friend, Monsieur Schafer wants Charlie's parents to flee to Nice but her Papa refuses. In her letters to Alex she tells him how the city is changing, how people first resisted the Nazis by painting V's everywhere but how she now experiences harassment on the subway.

In January of 1942, the FBI show up at the Maki home and ransack it. In late March, Alex and  his family learn that all Japanese persons will be evacuated from Bainbridge Island by the end of the month. A curfew for all Japanese on the island is also imposed. When Frank attempts to play in the exhibition charity game against their archrival West Seattle High, he is pulled off the field and taken home by the police.

On March 30, 1942, Alex and his family are taken from their home. They are taken by military truck to Eagle Harbor where they along with over two hundred Issei and Nisei are loaded onto a ferry that takes them across Puget Sound  to Seattle. For two days they travel by train and bus far inland, to Manzanar War Relocation Center. The prison camp is dirty, dusty, unfinished, with barracks that offer no privacy and little protection from the elements. In all this time Alex still has not received any further letters from Charlie.

A letter in June, 1942 reveals that things are deteriorating in France. Even worse, Charlie's letter is left unfinished. A letter in July informs Alex that Charlie is hiding in her father's factory waiting for the return of her father and mother who are at their apartment packing suitcases. They have finally decided to flee to Nice. Her letter ends so that Monsieur Schafer can post it in Nice. In October, Charlie writes to say that her parents never returned to the factory and the half-packed suitcases in their apartment indicated that her parents had been taken. Eventually Charlie was also captured and taken to the Velodrome d'Hiver along with thousands of other Jews. Fortunately, Monsieur Schafer is able to rescue Charlie from a camp, Beaune-la-Rolande by paying off those in charge. She is now living in hiding along with a Sinti family. Alex does not know this will be the last letter he received from Charlie.

In December, 1942, the clerk in the post office at Manzanar gives him a packet of his letters that have been returned. He learns from another man in the camp that the Germans invaded the unoccupied Vichy zone of France. All mail to France has now ceased.

As the months pass in the prison camp, Alex sees the toll it takes on his mother and his older brother Frank. Their petitions to free their father are unsuccessful but this is kept from their mother. A camp riot over poor living conditions result in the deaths of several Japanese Americans, further angering everyone.

Then one cold winter night in early 1943, Alex has a vision of Charlie. His volunteer work at the camp newspaper gives him information about events happening in Europe and it's not good. He learns that thousands of French Jews have been deported. Another distressing vision in March is of Charlie as a prisoner, gray, drab, skinny, with a shorn head and a number tattooed on her forearm. She begs him to find her. It is these visions plus the promise of release of his father should he enlist, that pushes Alex into the decision to join the army.

Alex's assignment into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of Japanese-American soldiers, leads him into the European theatre of war. Alex is on a mission, to defeat the Nazis and find Charlie before it's too late.

Discussion

This Light Between Us tells the story of two teens, in two different countries, encountering racial hatred in a time of war. It is also a love story, born out of a friendship developed through years of writing letters to one another.  Their story is told mainly by Alex Maki while Charlie Levy's story is told through her letters to Alex.

Author Andrew Fukuda offers a compelling story in a realistic setting that incorporates many historical details and events. The evacuation of all Japanese from the West Coast, the incarceration in Manzanar prison camp, the riots by Japanese over living conditions, the 442nd Regiment, as well as the deportation, imprisonment and murder of hundreds of thousands of French Jews are some of those events captured in this novel.

A main focus of the novel is the racism both Alex and Charlie experience: Alex as a Japanese-American in the United States and Charlie as a French Jew in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France. The racist policies their countries enact change their lives forever, with devastating consequences. Fukuda captures with unsettling clarity the terrible conditions and treatment endured by Japanese Americans as they are forced out of their homes and businesses on the West Coast and into prison camps.

The feelings of anger, betrayal and  hopelessness, Japanese Americans, called Issei (Japanese immigrants) and Nisei (second generation Japanese born in America) experienced during the war as they were relocated to prison camps are very realistically portrayed. For example when Alex and Frank come home after school and discover their father has been arrested they are both angry and afraid. " 'How can they just take Father?' Alex says, incredulous.He looks at Father's chair at the dining table. Father, gone. His presence ripped away, leaving a gaping black hole in the universe..."  Fearful of what the police might do, Alex's family destroys everything Japanese in their home. "For the next few hours, they throw into a pile outside anything remotely Japanese: ceramic rick bowls, chopsticks, novels, kimonos, Hinamatsuri and Tango no Sekku dolls, phonographs by Noriko Awaya, old photo albums, Mother's favourite kintsugi ceramic cups and bowls, calendars with prints of Utagawa Hiroshige's work." Alex's mother also adds in all of Grandma's old letters and they light fire to the entire pile. "Two minutes later, and there's nothing left. Decades of thoughts and hopes and feelings turned to ashes, forever disappeared."  For many Japanese Americans (and Japanese Canadians) this loss of connection to their culture and their past would be only the beginning. They would lose their homes and businesses, sent to prison camps (politely termed "internment camps") and some would lose their lives as a result of the harsh conditions, poor food, and crowded living barracks.

Charlie's experiences as a French Jew are not quite so detailed, but her fate is no less disturbing and is tragic. For Charlie, her experiences are recounted in her letters to Alex. They portray her feelings as war inches closer: there is the hope that things will be fine, the growing realization that her world around her is collapsing, the loss of her parents and then her fear and loneliness before her disappearance. Fukuda incorporates a touch of romantic fantasy, with Alex's visions of Charlie in terrible distress. This serves as a major impetus to his enlistment; he needs to find Charlie.

A significant portion of This Light Between Us portrays fighting by the 442nd, the unit Alex Maki is assigned to.  Fukuda sets his character in the battle the 442nd will be forever remembered for,  the Rescue of the Lost Battalion. This situation developed in the Vosges Mountains of northern France in October, 1944 when the 1st Battalion of the 141st Regiment became separated from their fellow soldiers and were surrounded by several German units. Unless the Germans were forced to retreat, the battalion was doomed. Attempts to reach the 1st Battalion by several other American units were unsuccessful. It took six days of brutal fighting, including hand to hand combat, before the Japanese-Americans were able to reach the trapped soldiers. They received Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars for their tremendous bravery. Fukuda's portrayal of the fighting makes for exciting reading and gives young readers a good sense of  the reality of war and the sacrifice made by a segregated unit of Japanese soldiers a country that treated them so wrongly.

This Light Between Us is one of the stars of historical fiction of 2020. There are plenty of themes to explore and historical events to research in greater depth. The novel takes its title from the paper lanterns both Charlie and Alex light and set afloat, Charlie's lantern in the Seine, Alexi's in the Atlantic Ocean in the hope they will find the other across time and space.

Fukuda offers readers a Bibliography at the back of the novel. He found the inspiration for this novel based on the facts that Anne Frank had an American penpal and that a "A subcamp of the Dachau concentration camp was liberated on April 29, 1945, by a segregated all-Japanese American military unit."  These two facts along with some research led to this novel. This novel is well written, engaging and highly recommended.

You can read more about the Rescue of the Lost Battalion at the Densho Encyclopedia.

Book Details:

The Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda
New York: Tom Doherty Associates Book   2019
382 pp.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Train by Jodie Callaghan

The Train is a children's picture book that introduces the topic of residential schools to young readers. In this short but important picture book, a young girl named Ashley is on her way home from school.  Walking along collecting bits of glass, she meets her great-uncle near where the old train station once stood. After embracing he tells her that he is waiting for the train. This puzzles Ashley who knows that there is no train able to travel along the broken tracks, no longer in use.

Sitting on a piece of the concrete foundation left from the old train station, Uncle tells Ashley his story about the train station. When he was a young boy, many young people from the reserve including Uncle and Ashley's grandfather, Timmy would wait for the train to bring rations from outside the reserve. One day the four oldest, including Timmy and Uncle were sent to the train station with baskets, wearing their winter coats to the station. To their surprise, they were made to board the boxcars and were taken to a school. At the school, the nuns took their clothes, cut their hair and weren't allowed to speak their native language. If they disobeyed, they were punished, sometimes severely. Uncle stayed at the school for six years, afraid and unhappy.

Ashley's elderly great-uncle now comes to the tracks to remember and  to wait "...for what we lost that day to come back to us." But he is also happy that Ashley doesn't have to attend a residential school. Her laughter and joy at playing and running give him hope for the future.

Discussion

Jodie Callaghan is a member of Listuguj First Nation located in Gespegewa'gi near Quebec. Callaghan who is Mi'gmaq heritage was inspired to write The Train after hearing the stories of many people who attended residential schools. The Train was the winner of the 2010 Mi'gmaq Writers Award.

This picture book offers a gentle treatment of the residential school issue, introducing the basic facts of what happened to over one hundred fifty thousand First Nations children throughout Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries. As such it can be used as a spring board to discuss more in-depth what happened to the Indigenous peoples of Canada and how their culture was stolen from several generations. Georgia Lesley's lovely oil paintings bring to life this sad story. Callaghan includes a short glossary of Mi'gmaq words that have been used in the story.


Book Details:

The Train by Jodie Callaghan
Toronto: Second Story Press      2020

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

They Went Left by Monica Hesse

They Went Left is Monica Hesse's newest offering. This novel focuses on the post-World War II period as a holocaust survivor, eighteen-year-old Zofia Lederman searches among the ruins of Europe for her missing twelve-year-old brother.

It is August 1945 and Zofia is preparing to leave the camp where she has been for the last few months regaining her health. Zofia was barely alive in Gross-Rosen when it was liberated by the Soviet Red Army in February. She was found in the women's barracks by Dima Sokolov, a Russian soldier. Now Dima waits for her to be processed out of the camp so he can drive her to Sosnowiec, her home town. Zofia hopes that her twelve-year-old brother, Abek who was in Birkenau which was liberated before Gross-Rosen will have returned there.

Zofia remembers how they became separated. Three years into the occupation of Sosnowiec, on August 12, 1942, all the remaining Jews were ordered to go to the soccer stadium under the pretense of being issued new identification. But when Zofia and her family arrived at the stadium, they like other Jews waited for days to be sorted by health, age and by who looked strong enough to work. Eventually, Zofia's family was sorted, she and Abek were sent to the right. Everyone else in her family, "Papa, Mama, Baba Rose, beautiful Aunt Maja.....they went left."

Her experiences at Birkenau and Gross-Rosen have left her struggling to remember and to distinguish real memories from dreams.

With Dima's help, Zofia returns to her family's apartment in Sosnowiec, their real home before the Nazis forced all six of them into an apartment in the Jewish ghetto. While Dima goes to report in to his superiors, Zofia walks to her family's home on Mariacka Street. She finds their apartment empty, no furniture and no Abek. A neighbour, Pani Wojcik tells Zofia she hasn't seen him. In a closet, Zofia finds a hope chest filled with clothing they couldn't take with them when they were forced to leave home and into the ghetto. In it she finds her mother's wedding dress along with clothing that Zofia had made for her brother or aunt. In her brother's jacket, she had sewed in the story of their family in the form of the alphabet. "A is for Abek. B is for Baba Rose. C is for Chomicki & Lederman, the factory we own, and Dis for Dekerta, the street we attend synagogue on,....H is for our mother, Helena; M is for Aunt Maja; Z is for Zofia."

Dima arrives at the apartment telling Zofia that he has invited his Commander for dinner. When Zofia goes to the bakery to buy bread, she meets a friend, Gosia who survived the war in hiding. Gosia tries to help Zofia in finding her brother by asking Salomon Prager who survived and who may have seen Abek. Dima, Commander Kuznetsov, and Gosia have dinner at Zofia's apartment. During the dinner Zofia learns that Abek may have been transferred to either Bergen-Belsen or Dachau which are near Munich. She also learns that Dima has learned that Abek is not at Bergen-Belsen but he doesn't know about Dachau or Birkenau. Zofia is told that if Abek was evacuated from Birkenau he is likely to be in a refugee camp called Foehrenwald near Munich. When Dima comes to stay overnight in order to protect Zofia, she quietly leaves after he falls asleep and takes a train from Silesia to Germany. 

So begins Zofia's hunt for her brother. It will take her deep into Germany to a displaced persons camp in Munich where Zofia will finally confront her past so she can face the future.

Discussion

They Went Left is a heart-rending story of a Holocaust survivor confronting the past she has blocked out to protect herself as she struggles to reclaim her life at the end of World War II.

Hesse, who has written several World War II historical fiction novels, wanted to write a story that focused on the post-war period. "I realized that most of the books I'd read and documentaries I'd seen all finished at the same place: the end of the war. They ended with the liberation of a concentration camp. The disbanding of an army unit. A celebration in the streets. There was much less about what happened in the weeks and months after the war, when an entire continent had to find a way to recover from the suffering it had experienced and the atrocities it had committed." 
 
On a trip through Europe and specifically on a train ride through a city called Sosnowiec, Hesse was inspired "...to re-create, as best I could, what might have happened to a young woman who had been taken from that town at the beginning of the war, and who now had to return to it."  In her "A Note on History and Research" Hesse takes readers through her stages of research and how she attempted to recreate some of the historical points in her story. For example, Zofia's imprisonment was patterned from the historical event of young women with sewing skills being sent as slave labour to Neustadt, a textile factory, and then forced to march to Gross-Rosen in the winter near the end of the war in Europe.

The result is a novel that not only provides readers with a window into postwar Europe, but also to the challenges Jews who survived the Holocaust encountered. Most had lost almost all immediate family.  Few children survived the war, as most were gassed or brutally murdered as Zofia witnessed. Many survivors suffered from serious physical ailments like Zofia who lost toes to frostbite. Some survived only to die a few days, weeks or months after, as in the case of Miriam's twin sister Rose. Most had no homes to return to, either being destroyed in the war or repossessed by neighbours or strangers who refused to leave. Attitudes in many European countries towards the Jewish population continued to be hostile, as demonstrated by the threats Zofia received while staying at her family's home in Sosnowiec. As a result, many like Breine and Chaim, emigrated to Israel while others like Zofia and Abek moved to North America. In this way, Hesse has effectively captured an accurate snapshot of postwar Europe for young readers, making this historical fiction at its best.

In They Went Left, the story opens with Zofia Lederman leaving the hospital to begin the search for her brother, Abek. With the help of two Russian soldiers, Zofia follows a lead that takes her to a displaced persons camp, Foehrenwald, near Munich. Throughout this time, Zofia seems confused, unable to concentrate, mixing up names and forgetting events that have just happened. And she continues to have dreams about her missing brother.

Hesse gives hints that something about Zofia's memories is not quite right through a series of dreams Zofia experiences, about the last time she saw Abek. The novel opens with the first version of the dream in which Abek is a healthy boy and she is about to be transferred out of Birkenau. "But then something changes. Then dream-Abek's face twists, and his words come out pained: 'Something happened,' this Abek says. 'But we don't have to talk about it yet.' " This suggests that something about this memory or dream is not quite as it seems and that it is something Zofia is unable to cope with at this time. Each dream Zofia has is not quite true recounting of what actually happened to Zofia and Abek as they are forced from Sosnowiec and travel to Birkenau. They are what she terms, "A dream version, not the real version, and as soon as I realize that, I open my eyes."  Eventually Zofia has a dream that places her and Abek in a dark space. He tells her 
" 'Is it time yet?' he asks. 'Is it time to think about the last time you saw me?'
'I'm trying,' I tell him, 'I'm trying.'
'You're getting closer,' he says, 'You're getting closer, so please make a promise to me, Zofia. Make one guarantee: that this is the last time you lie about the last time you saw me.'
'How can it be a lie if I don't know what the truth is?' I ask.
'The absences of the truth is not the presence of a lie. I'm trying. I'm trying. I'm trying. '"
By this time it's evident that Zofia is suppressing something so terrible she mustn't remember it.

When she arrives in Foehrenwald to search for her brother, the kindness of the refugees helps Zofia and her mental state improves. She begins a relationship with a man named Josef Meuller and she rediscovers her skill for sewing and tailoring as her family once owned a clothing factory. She takes a trip to the Kloster Indersdorf, a camp that took in children from Dachau to see if Abek is there but this proves fruitless. The kindly  nun, Sister Therese who runs the camp, offers to post notices and shortly afterwards, Abek shows up at Foehrenwald. It's seems unbelievable.
 
But soon Zofia comes to the realization that the boy claiming to be her brother is not her brother. This and the realization of Josef's true identity force Zofia to confront what really happened in the train to Abek at Birkenau. This memory that had been suppressed so she could survive through the horror each day brought. "I left pieces of myself in that car. I left pieces I will never get back. I left them unwillingly, as my mind forced itself to block away those impossible, impossible minutes. I left them willingly for my own protection, because remembering that story would hae demolished every reason I had to survive. And beyond all reason, beyond any possible explanation, I still did want to survive."

Although Abek was gone, his story lived on in the jacket that Zofia had made for him containing the alphabet of their lives. It was found by another little boy who also wanted to survive and who losing his family hoped to find another. But that alphabet which told the story of Zofia and her family is no more. Now it has changed.
"A is for Abek.
B is for Baba Rose. No. B isn't for Baba Rose any longer. Baba Rose is gone. B is for -- B can be for Breine, effervescent and hopeful, planning her beautiful wedding inside a refugee camp. And C is for Chaim, her timid Hungarian groom.
D is for Dima, who saved me, take me to the hospital and then taking me home to Sosnowiec. 
E is for Esther, kind and steady, apply rouge to the cheeks of her protesting friend.....
X is to x things out. To cross out the things I'll forget on purpose. Some things are okay to forget on purpose....
Z is for Zofia."
 
Zofia, knowing that the boy before her is not Abek, makes a decision to look to the future. "I think we must find miracles where we can. We must love the people in front of us. We must forgive ourselves for the things we did to survive. The things we broke. The things that broke us." 
 
Well-written and well researched, They Went Left is story filled with tragedy and hope.  In Zofia, Hesse has crafted a heroine who despite having experienced the most unimaginable suffering and seen so much death, has survived. This trauma makes her an unreliable narrator for most of the novel. Eventually she is forced to confront the reality of what happened to her and to her family. Only when she is in a place of safety, when she experiences the kindness of others, and when she sees that there is the possibility of a life after the horrors of war can Zofia being to process what she has experienced.

As one might expect this novel does contain some sexual content and some scenes of death and violence, making it more suitable for older readers.


Book Details:

They Went Left by Monica Hesse
New York: Little, Brown and Company    2020
364 pp.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

DVD: 1917

1917 is a war movie that tells the story of two fictional soldiers and their journey to warn another British unit that it is not to launch a planned attack on German lines.

Lance Corporal Thomas Blake learns that his leave has been cancelled and that he must see General Erinmore immediately. Told to pick a buddy to come with him, Blake choses Lance Corporal William Schofield.

They meet with General Erinmore who asks Blake if he has a brother in the 2nd Devons.  He tells him that his brother Joseph is in the 2nd Devons. On a map Erinmore shows Blake the location of the 2nd Devons and asks him how long it would take him to travel there. On the ground it appears the Germans have undertaken a strategic withdrawal. Colonel MacKenzie in command of the 2nd Devons has sent a message indicating that he is going after the retreating Germans. He believes he can break them. But Eirnmore tells Blake that he is wrong.

Aerial reconnaissance indicates that the Germans have extensive fortifications, defenses and a new type of artillery. The 2nd are to attack the German line in the morning tomorrow but they do not know about these fortifications. Erinmore can't warn the 2nd because the Germans have cut all their phone lines. Blake and Schofield are to travel to the 2nd Devons at their current position at Croisilles Wood, one mile southeast of the town of Ecoust, and deliver a message to Colonel MacKenzie to call off the attack. If they fail, they will lose two battalions, sixteen hundred men including Blake's brother Joseph Blake.

After being told to leave immediately, Blake and Schofield are given a few supplies and directions to the Yorks. They are to follow the trench west up on Sauchiehall Street, the northwest on Paradise Alley at the front. They are to continue along the front line until they find the Yorks. There they must give a note to Major Stephenson who is holding the line at the shortest span of  no-man's land. It is at this point that they will cross.

When they express concern about crossing in daylight and being seen they are told not to worry as there should be no resistance. Nevertheless, as they leave, Schofield tries to convince Blake to wait until dark but he refuses, saying he must save his brother.

Blake and Schofield reach the Yorks and learn that Major Stephenson has been killed and replaced by Lieutenant Leslie. The lieutenant believes Eirnmore is crazy to believe the Germans have retreated. Despite his deep cynicism, Leslie, who tells Blake and Schofield there "is nothing like a scrap of ribbon to cheer up a widow", gives them directions on how to cross no-mans land.

The two soldiers succeed in crossing no mans land and enter an abandoned German bunker which they discover has been booby-trapped. Schofield is almost killed by rock debris when a rat trips the wire and causes an explosion. He is saved by Blake who helps lead him out of the bunker and then wash the rock dust out of his eyes. They cross the rest of no mans land, and pass through a deserted forest.

At an abandoned farmhouse, Blake and Schofield are almost killed when a German plane is shot out of the sky and crash lands in the ruins of the barn. The two soldiers rescue the pilot, his suit in flames, from the plane. When Schofield wants to shoot the pilot, Blake insists that they help him. While Schofield is getting water from the well, the pilot turns on Blake and fatally stabs him. Schofield promises a dying Blake that he will continue their mission and find the 2nd Devons to bring Erinmore's message and thus save his brother.

Shortly after Blake's death, Schofield is helped by a unit of British soldiers who have just crossed no mans land near Bapaume. The commander, Captain Smith offers Schofield a ride part of the way to Ecouste. They are going up to the new line as the Newfoundlanders have requested reinforcements. Just outside of Ecouste, Schofield is once again on his own, as the troops cannot cross the downed bridge into the town.

In Ecouste Schofield is targeted by German snipers and is eventually grazed and knocked out. When he awakens he finds the town burning. Still being chased by German soldiers, Schofield stumbles into a basement where he finds a young woman caring for a starving baby. He gives her all his food, including his canteen filled with milk.

At daylight Schofield continues on his journey but again encounters German soldiers and is pursued until he jumps into the river and is carried downstream to the Croisilles Wood. Schofield doesn't know this is where he has beached until he hears singing which leads him to the 2nd Devons. The soldiers are preparing to go into battle and Schofield now faces a race to save at least some of the soldiers from certain death.

Discussion

1917 follows the journey of two soldiers as they race against time and fend off certain death to warn a British battalion it is walking into a trap by attacking what appear to be retreating German soldiers. The mission is made even more urgent in that the soldier chosen to deliver the message has a brother in the at-risk battalion.

The film 1917 presents a somewhat false view that the British command during the Great War was deeply concerned about the loss of men. In fact, the potential loss of sixteen hundred men is almost insignificant in the face of the over four hundred thousand causalities the British Commonwealth experienced during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. For many military commanders, these losses were deemed necessary by those in positions of authority in France, Britain, Germany and even Russia. Soldiers spent years fighting over mere yards of land, knowing that certain death awaited them every time they were ordered out of their putrid trenches.

Putting aside this fictional representation, 1917 does attempt to portray the desolation and destruction of war but the film in many ways is a very sanitized presentation of war; viewers only get a quick glimpse of bodies or part of bodies in no man's land, the fires in Ecoust are in the distance, the strangulation of a German soldier by Schofield is in shadow, soldiers fall in a clean, indifferent way in the first wave of the 2nd Devon's attack and even Blake's death is quick. Perhaps the most touching moment is near the film's end, when Schofield talks with Blake's brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake, asking him if he can write to their mother. He wants her to know Tom didn't die alone. Granted the film's focus is on the two soldiers and eventually just Schofield and his journey through many obstacles. This is accomplished with amazing cinematography and that is where this film's strength lies.

Casting was particularly strong, with both George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman as Schofield and Blake giving solid performances. There are a few big names including Colin Firth as General Erinmore and Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel MacKenzie in cameo roles.

There have been numerous war movies of late, a theme the doesn't seem sustainable given the current depressing climate of Covid. Movie buffs will likely be looking for lighter fare in the coming months. Nevertheless, 1917 is a well done, fictional treatment of the Great War, that offers a few suspenseful moments and some beautiful cinematography and a lovely haunting melody at the end.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Wink by Rob Harrell

In Wink, twelve-year-old Ross Maloy has been diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer called mucoepidermoid carcinoma of the lacrimal gland. Ross's story is told in the present as he goes through a series of radiation treatments with flashbacks to how his battle with cancer began.

Ross lives with his father who is a trial lawyer and his stepmother Linda. His mother, a talented illustrator died of cancer when Ross was five but he doesn't remember very much about her.

His life changed forever one summer day in July when Ross's father notice his right eye was puffy. After two days of icing his eye, they decide to take him to see Dr. Sheffler, an eye specialist. What followed was a CT scan and an immediate consultation with Dr. Sheffler who revealed that the scan showed a tumor in the lacrimal gland above Ross's right eye. A biopsy of the tumor revealed the diagnosis of a rare cancer that Dr. Sheffler had never encountered before.

Dr. Sheffler brings in Dr. Inzer who tells Ross and his dad that the only way to treat his cancer  is to remove his entire right eye and socket and then to do radiation. She offers to do the surgery in two days. This treatment would mean the complete loss of Ross's vision.  Ross is completely devastated. To help him cope his father takes him to see Abby Peterson, his "best friend since the third day of first grade."

The day after this terrible diagnosis and prognosis, Dr. Sheffler contacts Ross's father and arranges for them to meet Dr. Throckton. He tells Ross and his father that he can save both of Ross's eyes. First he will have a more modest surgery that removes the lacrimal gland, recover from that and then undergo eight weeks of proton radiotherapy. The radiotherapy will gradually destroy the sight in Ross's right eye but his left eye will be protected to save the vision.

The first surgery date is cancelled and Ross has his surgery two days later leaving him with a scar and a "closed, squinty, permanently winking eye." Beside him, through the post-operative pain is Abby. Soon after his first surgery and just before school starts, Ross has more surgery to place special "BBs" in his forehead to direct the radiotherapy beams.  Most of the above information about his cancer is given in chapters that are flash backs which Ross labels as Bad Days.

Harrell opens his novel with Ross's story in the present as he attends his first proton radiotherapy session and returns to school, after missing the first week. At the clinic he meets Jerry an elderly man who is also a patient, and Frank, the radiation tech who encourages him to bring his own music to help the sessions pass quickly. Their discussions about music help Ross to cope with the treatments.

School is more challenging because all Ross wants to do is fit in. He's spent previous grades just flying under the radar. In contrast to Ross, his best friend, Abby stands out with her tangerine-colored hair and her "eccentric sense of fashion." Next to Abby, Ross is invisible and that's how he likes it. But his classmates can't help but notice Ross's eye. Jimmy Jenkins, the gum-chewing, spitting kid who sits next to Ross in class, mocks and bullies Ross.

His cancer diagnosis gets Ross attention from Sarah Kennedy, the smartest, prettiest girl in his grade. Sarah tells Ross that there is a Christmas talent show in December at the end of semester. Ross has no idea what he would possibly do but he's thrilled to be noticed by Sarah. As he goes through treatments, the side-effects lead classmates to make fun of him, posting cruel memes online. In his attempt to find comfort in the music that Frank has given him, Ross realizes that it is guitar that resonates with what he is feeling. With Frank's help Ross begins to learn how to play guitar and in the process discovers the importance of friendship, learns to cope with his illness and discovers the key to fitting in.

Discussion

Rob Harrell has written a funny, engaging book that tackles some pretty heavy topics for juvenile readers, among them cancer and death as well as friendship and change. These topics are handled in a deeply personal way for young readers but with a touch of humour that lightens the story. Not only are there many funny situations but Harrell incorporates numerous comic panels of the adventures of Batpig, Ross's alter-ego and the comic character he created.

Wink is based on Harrell's own experience when he battled the same type of cancer in 2006, experiencing many of the same things as his character Ross Maloy. Because he was able to draw on his own experiences, Wink feels realistic and believable, despite it's somewhat formulaic structure (sick kid scores big at the school talent show).

In Wink, Ross and his father are shocked to learn he has a very rare form of cancer. Their family lost Ross's mother to cancer when he was very young, so Ross's diagnosis seems especially devastating. As a boy beginning Grade Seven, all Ross wants to do is fit in, be normal and remain invisible and cancer won't let him do that. His surgery leaves him with a scar and a permanently winking eye while the radiation treatments cause him to lose his hair and to have to use a messy ointment for his damaged eye. To hide these changes,  Ross takes to wearing a cowboy hat to school which earns him even more unwanted and unpleasant attention in the form of bullying and some nasty online memes mocking him.

But Harrell has created a dauntless character in Ross. Despite the anger, fear, repeated humiliations in front of classmates, and sense of loss, Ross grows throughout his ordeal. In a conversation with Jerry, an older man who is also going through cancer treatment, Ross learns that Jerry who was a really good trumpet player never followed his dream further because he was told it was something normal people don't do. Ross comes to understand that being "normal" is not necessarily a good thing to aspire to. Jerry tells Ross, "But different! That's another matter. Different moves the needle. Different is where the good stuff happens. There's strength in different."  It is advice Ross takes to heart.

After realizing that music is helping him cope with his intense feelings, Ross asks Frank to teach him guitar. This leads him to form a reluctant partnership with classmate Jimmy Jenkins that blossoms into a true friendship. Music offers Ross the opportunity to form new interests and friends, something that will be important in the second semester when his best friend Abby will no longer be at school. It also allows  him the chance to transition from being invisible to "standing out", when he performs with Jimmy and Abby in the Christmas talent show.

Ross also comes to recognize the importance of friendship and what it means to be a good friend. Before his cancer diagnosis, Abby, Ross and Isaac Nalibotsky had been good friends since grade four. However, when Ross is diagnosed with cancer, Isaac simply cuts out of their group. Eventually Ross confronts Isaac who tells him he freaked out and "had zero idea what to do. What to say to you. Zero."  In other words, Isaac had no idea how to deal with a friend who has a serious illness. This is a minor theme that Harrell gives some attention to at the beginning of the novel when classmates react to Ross's return to school with curious looks. "Now I can't walk the length of a hallway without someone studying me to see if I look sick. Or just staring. Or even worse, they ask how I'm feeling." Ross even mentions how some people cope with illness or death by mentioning their own experiences. Eventually Isaac does realize what he did was hurtful and he attempts to make it up to Ross by giving him a new cowboy hat before the Christmas talent show.

In contrast to Isaac, Abby doesn't let Ross's cancer diagnosis influence their friendship. She listened to him talk about his cancer diagnosis, was with him after his surgery, and was willing to be with him for his first radiation treatment. Her loyalty through a difficult time mark her as a true friend. Her ability to treat Ross the same through his illness, helps him cope with what is happening and adds some normalcy to his life. Ross describes Abby as "She's the only person who jokes with me about my 'situation' -- she's done it through most of this whole ordeal -- and I literally could not appreciate it more. It makes me feel like something in the world is normal." Abby is the friend who encourages Ross in his guitar lessons and to play at the talent show.

Abby also teaches Ross that a good friend is someone that can also listen and reciprocate. Ross learns that friendship is both receiving and giving, that his relationship with Abby mustn't always be all about his problems. This happens when he visits Abby and learns she is upset about her family's move. "Do you realize my whole life is about to change? Everything! I'm being uprooted! Why am I even bothering with homework? It's not like anything matters. It's so stupid. I mean, I know you're dealing with a lot -- I can't imagine -- but for God's sake Ross! Am I not allowed to have my own...." The two fight and Ross leaves feeling angry but also knowing in his heart Abby is right although he has a difficult time at first experiencing empathy for Abby's situation. "Does she really think her problems compare to mine? I have a life-threatening disease! I could friggin' die!..."  Eventually though Ross comes to understand Abby's worries telling her, "I think I've been way up my own butt."  Ross helps Abby deal with her worry about "sticking out", telling her that she "stands out" in a good way.

Ross also learns that people may not always be what they appear to be on the outside. This is demonstrated by the characters, Sarah Kennedy and Jimmy Jenkins. Sarah is smart, pretty and popular while Jimmy is large, rude and has the disgusting habit of spitting in a jar. Ross wants nothing to do with Jimmy who harasses him constantly in class. However, he tries desperately to impress Sarah each time humiliating himself. When a series of hurtful memes ridiculing Ross are shared online, Ross believes Jimmy is the perpetrator. This results in a brawl in class and Ross accusing Jimmy in front of the principal. It turns out that Jimmy, who doesn't own a phone, is not the culprit and he genuinely tells Ross,  "...Those pictures or memes or whatever. They sucked."  Eventually it is Jimmy who learns the truth,  revealing to Ross that Sarah Kennedy is responsible. Ross learns that Sarah's popular, pretty face hides a mean heart, while Jimmy has become a caring friend.

Despite the heavy topic of cancer, young readers will find Wink to be a well-written novel with many funny moments. The numerous Batpig cartoons placed throughout the book are enjoyable and serve to ease the tension  in the story. Fans of Wonder will definitely enjoy Wink

Book Details:

Wink by Rob Harrell
New York: Dial Books for Young Readers   2020
315 pp.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

DVD: Emma

The 2018 version of Emma directed by Autumn de Wilde is probably one of the quirkiest adaptations of a period drama in years.

The movie is based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name and follows wealthy, young Emma Woodhouse as she meddles in other people's affairs to mostly disastrous results. Set in Regency England, in the fictional village of Highbury, a young Emma has a much overrated opinion of her ability to match make. She is fresh off the success of pairing her governess Miss Taylor with the older Mr. Weston. The movie opens with the marriage of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston and Emma's father lamenting that Emma should stop making matches.

From this success, Emma takes Harriet Smith, a young woman of unknown parentage under her tutelage, encouraging her to set her sights on a marriage to a man above her station in life. At tea,  Harriet reveals that she has received an offer of marriage from Mr. Martin, a tenant farmer whom she finds attractive and pleasing. However, Emma encourages her to refuse him. After all, Emma is certain that Harriet is the daughter of a gentleman and therefore destined to do much better than Mr. Martin.

When Emma's long time family friend, Mr. Knightley learns of Harriet's refusal, he scolds Emma for her part in it. Knightley had counselled Mr. Martin to ask for Harriet's hand in marriage. Now he tells Emma she may have ruined Harriet's best chance for a happy life.

Undeterred,  Emma attempts to match up Harriet with the vicar, Mr. Elton, by setting up numerous situations for the two to meet, even arranging Harriet to sit while she paints her likeness. Mr. Elton appears to be flirting with Harriet however, Emma soon discovers that it is she who is the object of Mr. Elton's desires when he proposes to her. When Emma reveals this to Harriet she is devastated.

Meanwhile Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston's son by his first marriage, visits Highbury. At first Emma finds herself taken by the handsome Frank Churchill. At this time Jane Fairfax, a relative of the Bates also arrives in Highbury for a visit. Mr. Elton's new wife, the former Miss Augusta Hawkins decides that she will help Jane find a suitable position as a governess, something Jane does not want. In contrast to their affection towards Jane, the Eltons are rude to Harriet whom they consider well below their station. When Mr. Knightley offers to dance with Harriet at a social, Harriet takes this as a sign of his interest and becomes infatuated with him.

Despite her blunder with Harriet and Mr. Elton, Emma continues to believe she can discern . Mr. Knightley believes Jane and Frank are interested in one another but a pianoforte anonymously gifted to Jane causes Emma to believe someone else is responsible.

At a ball given by the Westons, Harriet is snubbed by Mr. Elton but is saved by the chivalrous Mr. Knightley who asks her to dance. At the same ball, Emma and Knightley dance and it is at this time that Knightley realizes he loves Emma. Early the next morning Harriet is carried by Frank Churchill to Hartfield. She indicates in a vague way, that she has found love again, even though the person is well above her station. Emma believes Harriet to be referring to Frank Churchill.

Emma once again meets with Mr. Knightley disapproval when she makes a terribly unkind remark about Miss Bates during a picnic on Box Hill. Emma visits the Bates, to apologize and to bring some food, and learns that Jane is not well. Shortly after, Frank Churchill's aunt dies and it is revealed that he and Jane are in fact engaged. Meanwhile, Harriet reveals that she believes Mr. Knightley is courting her. This shocking revelation confounds Emma as to how she could be so wrong. She wills herself not to influence Harriet but instead walks to Donwell, Mr. Knightley's estate.

There she stunned to receive Knightley's proposal. Emma reveals to Knightley that she will not accept his proposal until Harriet's situation is sorted out. Knightley offers to go and urge Mr. Martin to make his suit again but Emma tells him that since she is responsible for what has not happened between Harriet and Mr. Martin, she must go. The result is two marriages, Harriet and Mr. Martin and Emma and Mr. Knightley!

Discussion

This adaptation features Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse, Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley, Josh O'Connor as Mr. Elton, Mia Goth as Harriet Smith, Callum Turner as Frank Churchill and Amber Anderson as Jane Fairfax. All give strong performances.

Like many of the adaptations before it, de Wilde's version is true to Austen's novel, offering some of the lines Austen fans will be familiar with. de Wilde spends some time setting the story up, dividing her film into four seasons beginning with Summer and passing through Autumn, Winter, Spring and ending with Summer. While the first part of the film feels well paced, that latter two seasons feel rushed as they move through the Frank Churchill story to resolve the tension between Harriet, Frank, Jane, Emma and Mr. Knightley.

The Eltons taking tea at Hartfield
Some scenes are particularly well done, for example the picnic at Box Hill in which Emma insults Miss Bates. The change in atmosphere as a result of her unkindness is well portrayed, with the afternoon outing ruined. The tension that develops between Emma and Knightley is well played with Emma leaving in tears. In other scenes, the comedic element is played to its utmost, as when Mr. Elton and his new wife visit Hartfield and Elton is focused on eating some of the delicious desserts set in front of him. Mrs. Elton in her dark orange dress with her black hair bow, all true to Regency style, are memorable. Some scenes are simply strange, such as Knightley's proposal to Emma in which she inexplicably suffers a nose bleed while revealing to him Harriet's mistaken infatuation.

Unlike many period dramas there is some minor nudity in Emma; there's Knightley's backside revealed at the beginning of the film, to what purpose is unknown, perhaps to demonstrate to viewers how Regency men dressed, and Emma is seen lifting her dress to warm her bare buttocks by the fire, perhaps to demonstrate her penchant for breaking the rules and being somewhat irreverent.

Director Autumn de Wilde and her production team which included Oscar-winning clothing designer Alexandra Byrne, did considerable research into Regency clothing and decor and it shows in this adaptation. The clothing and hair styles are all authentic to the Regency period with its mustard yellows, pinks, and deep orange palette. de Wilde wanted to use the clothing as a way to portray the class differences, a theme in Austen's novel. As a result, Emma's clothing is elaborate and rich in colour, while Harriet's is much simpler and comprised of subdued pastels. The mens' clothing was also designed to convey social status. For example, the wealthy Mr. Woodhouse, clad in his exquisite beige, white and grey floral housecoat contrasts sharply to the dark tweeds of Harriet's suitor, Mr. Martin. One clothing item that stands out is the brilliant red cloaks of Harriet and her fellow school girls. While reminiscent of the red capes in the Handmaid's Tale, in fact this colour was common in Regency clothing for girls of Harriet's class.

The use of pastel greens, blues, pinks and yellows in the decor were also true to the Regency period. As with many period dramas, the settings are half the fun and in this case coordinate well with the costuming and the scenes being played out within them. Knightley's Donwell estate, the interior of which is presented only briefly at the beginning, is simply breathtaking and leaves the viewer wishing to see more. Even the meals and their settings are remarkably sumptuous.

Overall this adaptation of Emma is interesting, unique and plays up the comedic element while highlighting the theme of class and privilege. The rich costuming and set design make Emma a visual delight. But what is most absent is the unassuming chivalry of Mr. Knightley as he works to make Emma into a serious, considerate and mature young woman. It is this characteristic that made the 2009 BBC miniseries version so appealing and romantic.

image credit: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/new-emma-may-look-pretty-jane-austen-deserves-treated-seriously/