Monday, July 16, 2018

Kiska by John Smelcer

In early June, 1942, thirteen-year-old Kiska, only a few days from her fourteenth birthday, watches as the hunters in their baidarkas (kayaks) return home from seal hunting. Kiska has been collecting sea gull eggs on the high cliffs above her village and when she sees the boats,  races down to the beach to meet her father and uncle. They both return with seals tethered to their boats. Kiska and her older sister Donia watch as their father and uncle skin the seals and cut the meat into pieces. Donia is nineteen-years-old and both a mother and a widow. Her husband never returned from a seal hunt, leaving her to care for their three-month-old daughter Mary. Donia became so depressed, she stopped eating but Kiska encouraged her to go on living for Mary's sake.

When they hear rumbling coming from the direction of Dutch Harbor, Kiska's father and uncle believe a storm is coming. But the storm that comes is unlike any they or their people have ever endured.


Kiska attempts to tackle the difficult subject of the forced internment of the indigenous people, the Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands during World War II. The Aleutian Islands which were part of the Alaska Territory in 1942 were considered an important strategic location, offering whoever controlled them, domination over the Pacific. If they were captured by the Japanese, the Aleutians would provide a base for attacking the West Coast of North America.

On June 3, 1942, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor, where the Americans had a military installation. returning on June 4 to continue more successful bombing of the town. The Japanese then invaded the islands of Kiska on June 6 and Attu on June 7. There was little resistance from the indigenous Aleuts. In light of the invasion of Kiska the U.S. government offered to evacuate the Aleuts from Attu but they declined. When the Japanese invaded the Aleuts were imprisoned and eventually transported to an internment camp in Japan for the duration of the war.

Fearing that the rest of the Aleutian Islands would be invaded the United States ordered the evacuation of the remaining Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. A total of 885 Aleuts were removed. They had little time to gather personal possessions nor clean and lock up their homes. Although the U.S. Government had begun discussions to plan for the evacuation, it happened suddenly, leaving the government struggling to find locations to house the Aleut. The Aleut were eventually placed in abandoned canneries and warehouses at five locations including Funter Bay as mentioned in the novel.

Conditions in the U.S. internment camps were horrible. Like their indigenous brothers and sisters throughout the North American continent, the Aleuts had little resistance to European diseases such a measles and small pox. Unsanitary living conditions, subpar housing and poor food contributed to the deaths of many young and elderly Aleutians.

Unfortunately, what could have been a very informative novel, in fact contains some serious historical errors. The main character, now a grandmother is relating what happened long ago, to her granddaughter. She tells her after boarding the ship, the U.S.Army Transport Delarof,  "Over the next week or longer, we stopped at seven more Aleut villages, including St. George and St. Paul on the Pribilof Islands...In all there were 881 of us from nine different villages crowded into the ship's dingy hold. " In fact, the Delarof did not transport all of the Aleut evacuees in one trip; the Delarof evacuated on residents of St. George and St. Paul before sailing to Dutch Harbor where villagers from Atka also boarded.And one hundred and ninety Aleuts from St. George were sent to Funter Bay.

World War II Aleutian Islands Resettlement Routes from Charles M. Mobley
According to a blog post by Melissa Green there are many further historical inaccuracies in this novel including the false proclamation read at each of the stops, villagers being held at gunpoint, the burning of three villages,  the main cause of deaths at Funter Bay being due to measles, the naming of the character Agafon as a shaman,  the presence of soldiers at Funter Bay and the relative passivity of the Aleuts during their internment to name a few. Readers are directed to the post in American Indians In Children's Literature for a more in-depth treatment of the inaccuracies that are strewn throughout this novel and which make its use as a teaching tool highly questionable.Such blatant inaccuracies in Smelcer's account call into question any of the other historical details he provides in the novel. If an author is going to write about an important historical event such as the internment of indigenous peoples during World War II, his/her research ought to be accurate and rigorous, especially if the goal is to educate young readers. There is no excuse for this in the digital age.

Readers may find the following resources useful:

World War II Aleut Relocation Camps in Southeast Alaska by Charles M. Mobley 
Chapter 2 Funter Bay Cannery from Mobley's publication also has a detailed article on what happened to the Aleut people during World War II.

Book Details:

Kiska by John Smelcer
Fredonia, New York: Leapfrog Press    2017
180 pp.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is a story about three teens with serious disabilities forming an unlikely friendship as they struggle to cope with everyday life.

Aven Green is a thirteen-year-old girl who was born without arms. She loves to make up crazy stories about what happened to her arms. "I got so tired of telling them the same boring story about being born without arms that I started making stuff up. It was stinking hilarious. I knew from the first moment I told a girl my arms had burned off in a fire, I had found a great hobby: making up stories. I loved the way her eyes grew wide with shock and the way her voice went all high-pitched with excitement as he asked me a bunch more questions about my charred arms." Her parents however stopped Aven's wild storytelling. Gradually Aven's classmates came to accept her disability and she never felt out of place in her school.

Aven's life changes drastically when her parents move from Kansas to Arizona to take over running a western-themed amusement park called Stagecoach Pass. Aven's father was unemployed when he was contacted by a guy named Joe Cavanaugh. They move into the small apartment over the Stagecoach Pass Saloon and Steakhouse, mainly because her parents must be available all the time.

At Stagecoach Pass Aven discovers the park has a gift shop, a gold mine offering gold spray-painted rocks, a soda shop that sells old-fashioned candy and ice cream and run by Henri who suffers from dementia and seems to already know Aven. There is a shooting gallery, a theatre that shows old black and white western movies, a jail were you can pay to have someone arrested for something silly and a petting zoo that contains an old llama named Spaghetti who has a large tumor on his head. There is also a steakhouse restaurant. But it is the museum that Aven finds most interesting because it contains a collection of stone arrowheads and framed photographs on the walls. Aven's curiosity is stirred by a blank spot on the museum wall and a nameplate that reads "The Cavanaughs, Stagecoach Pass, 2004"

Aven starts school at Desert Ridge Middle School a few days after arriving in Arizona. With a student population of a thousand kids, it's much larger than her school back in Kansas. In her old school, lunchtime was natural and easy with kids she'd grown up with. Aven would have sat with her friends, Emily, Kayla and Brittney laughing about teachers, complaining about parents and even catching the pretzels in her mouth that Kayla would toss at her. But at Desert Ridge she immediately feels awkward because  Aven has to use her feet to do everything including eating lunch. So she decides to forgo lunch the first day and tells her mother she just wasn't hungry. After school Aven scouts out more of the park and finds an old shack with numerous "DO NOT ENTER" signs slapped on it. An old rusted padlock hangs from one of the doors. But without arms, Aven is unable to open it.

Although Aven's teachers are nice, she doesn't want them giving her special treatment, something that never happened at her old school in Kansas. Aven returns to eat in the large bathroom stall the next day and then tries to eat in the cafeteria the following day. That doesn't go well when she is questioned by a group of girls who are more concerned about whether they can catch her disability than actually meeting her and making friends. Her next strategy is to try eating in the library. While reading Journey to the Center of the Earth Aven hears a dog barking. She discovers that the barking is coming from a boy sitting near her. Believing he is making fun of her, Aven confronts him. Instead he apologizes and tells her that he has Tourette's Syndrome - " a neurological disorder that causes involuntary motor or oral tics." When he asks Aven about her missing arms, his honesty encourages her to tell him one of her crazy stories which he finds hilarious. The boy, Connor tells Aven he comes to the library every day for some peace. Like Aven, Connor is also new to the area and hasn't made any friends. He tells her about Tourettes and how his classmates mimic his barking and laugh at him.

Aven invites Connor to the Stagecoach Pass, showing her new friend the different attractions and showing him the mystery shed. Connor is able to wedge the door open and they discover it contains stacks of books, "the shelves stuffed with old books and papers and props" and seems to hold the possibility of providing some information about the mysterious Joe Cavanaugh who owns the park and hired her father and who no one ever sees. Also puzzling are the many books on tarantulas.

Aven and Connor's begin spending much of their free time together at the park.  Aven adds another friend when she discovers Zion who is overweight eating in a quiet area outside the school. He tells Aven that he eats there so people can't watch him, "Everyone likes to watch a fat guy eat." Aven, Connor and Zion begin hanging out together, playing video games and searching the old shed for clues to the mystery of the Cavanaughs.As Aven and Connor's friendship blossoms they find the strength to support each other and the courage to let their light shine.


The Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is a juvenile fiction novel about belonging and how each person has something significant to offer the world. It is also a story about the importance of friendship in our lives.

Early in the novel when Aven is new to Stagecoach Pass and Arizona, she decides to take a walk into the desert behind the main park and discovers a large saguaro cactus that her father believes is over two hundred years old. Contemplating the span of two hundred years, and all the important events that have happened during that length of time including the Civil War and Martin Luther King Jr's famous speech, Aven believes her life and the events in it are insignificant. "I am an entirely insignificant event in the life of this cactus. I try to remember that as the sky darkens and the lights of Scottsdale and Phoenix brighten the earth -- millions of lights for millions of people. And then there's just me, sitting in the dirt on a mighty hill..."  Aven wonders then if it really matters that the kids at school ignored her or that they were afraid of her. As it turns out Aven's actions prove that she is anything but insignificant.

One way Aven proves to be significant is her effect on the life of her new friend Connor. When Aven meets Connor he is living a very limited life; he won't go to the movies, he won't eat out for fear of spitting his food and he believes he cannot ever go out in public. But Aven doesn't see the limitations in Connor's life, instead she sees his possibilities. She has him over for dinner, and she and her mother take him to see a movie. Aven encourages Connor to attend a Tourettes therapy group, even accompanying him. She stands up for Connor when he is mocked by other students in the hall. When Connor doesn't want to involve  his mother in the therapy group, Aven comes to understand that Connor blames "himself for all his mom's problems - his dad leaving, this tiny apartment, her hectic work schedule." Aven realizes that "It wasn't at all that Connor's mom couldn't stand him, as he had said. It was that Connor couldn't stand himself." By wanting to spend time with Connor, Aven shows him that it is possible for others to like him and enjoy being around him. Aven even manages to get Connor to attend the Stagecoach Pass art festival even though there will be huge crowds attending.

Aven also has a significant effect on another student in the school, the overweight Zion. When Aven meets Zion eating alone outside the school office on the hot sidewalk she befriends him. "How could I just walk past him again, as though he were invisible? As though he were some speed bump in my way?" Aven's way to include Zion is to join him for lunch each day bringing along Connor. Through Aven, Zion becomes friends with Connor.

Aven has a significant impact on the park when she comes up with a plan for Stagecoach Pass to have its own art festival. The event is a resounding success, bringing together Aven and her new friends, offering her a chance to shine her own light and help people see past her disability. For the park it means the beginning of a revitalization as new vendors are found for some of the empty stores in the park.

The theme of belonging is woven all through the events in the novel.  Aven has left her home and school in Kansas where she definitely felt like she belonged. She had three good friends who behaved normally around her and accepted her disability. But in Arizona life is more challenging. At first Aven's response is to hide - in the bathroom, the library and then eating lunch mostly outside with Connor and Zion.By the fall Aven still has no other friends besides Connor and Zion. "Most of the kids at school were now ignoring me completely. I guess they were used to seeing me around...It was more like I just didn't exist." At this point Aven doesn't belong but she's also been hiding. Her initial experiences with the kids at the new school have not been positive.

When Connor insists that Aven is not being realistic about her life and what she can achieve, that she is in fact - disabled, Aven becomes angry. She tells her mother, "I don't ever want to be seen just as a disabled person...I don't want to just be Aven Green, that girl with no arms. I don't want to be labeled like that." However her mother reminds Aven that she has to be realistic about her life, that some things are difficult for her. Then Aven's mother offers her a chance to show people that she is more than just someone with a disability by performing on stage with the band hired for the art festival. Aven adamantly refuses, "I'm not going to go up on stage so people can gawk at the girl with no arms playing guitar. I'm not some circus show."

Connor articulating how their disability makes them different causes a crisis in Aven. She too wants to be "like everyone else" so she can be invisible. But her father tells her, "No one lights a lamp and hides it under a basket. They put it on a table so it can shine for all to see." He tells Aven, "Don't be like everyone else, Aven. Be you." Aven makes the choice to go to the soccer tryouts. "It was hard to think about putting myself out there again, trying to be part of a new team, at a new school, with a new coach. Everyone watching me. But there are a lot of hard things in life. Who would I be if I gave up when things got hard?" With the support of her parents Aven makes the choice to do these hard things, trying out for the soccer team and performing at the art festival. Both of these choices open new possibilities for Aven, allowing her classmates to see beyond her disability and giving her the courage to try more new things like wearing a "strappy pink dress", forgiving her grandmother Josephine Cavanaugh for giving her up for adoption and even eating lunch in the cafeteria with Connor and Zion.

There is also the mystery of Aven's identity which is a minor subplot but which ties in with the theme of belonging. Bowling uses the character of Henry, an elderly man with dementia who runs the ice cream shop, to give hints to the reader that Aven is somehow connected to the park. Aven's appearance at the park is confusing to Henry. When Aven questions Henry about all the tarantula pictures on the wall of ice cream shop, Henry tells her that she loves tarantulas. Henry experiences confusion over Aven's lack of arms, asking her what happened to them and telling her she used to have arms. Later on he calls her Aven Cavanaugh, which angers Josephine Cavanaugh - because in fact Henry has just spilled the beans on Aven's real identity.  Halfway through the novel it is revealed that Aven was adopted when she was two years old. Although younger readers might not suspect anything, it's not difficult to figure out that Aven is somehow connected to the park. Aven eventually discovers her connection to the park, she must forgive her grandmother and mourn a mother she never knew.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is a sweet, funny read. Aven Green is a strong, determined heroine, whose disability make her intent on living life on her own terms. She is capable, positive and independent. Because of her own disability, Aven has considerable empathy for both Connor and Zion. She is able to see beyond Connor's Tourette's and Zion's weight to who they really are. In Aven, Bowling has crafted a realistic character, a young girl who wants desperately to belong and be like everyone else but whose circumstances mean a different path. The novel's positive message, delivered with some moments of great humour make what might be a heavy subject, accessible to young readers.  Bowling's novel invites young readers to be empathetic and to consider the physical and emotional challenges those with disabilities must navigate every day.

The inspiration for the novel came initially from a cousin who was severely wounded and lost an arm after serving in Iraq. Bowling was further inspired by viewing a video of Barbie Thomas, a stay-at-home mother and bodybuilder who lost both her arms at age two from an severe electrical shock. Bowling invited another woman with limb differences, Tisha Shelton (who was born without arms) to review her manuscript.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is highly recommended.

Book Details:

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
New York: Sterling Children's Books      2017
262 pp.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Daughter of Nomads by Rosanne Hawke

Daughter of Nomads is the first of two novels set in the Mughal Empire in 1662 about a young girl struggling to find her destiny. The novel opens in Sherwan, a village in the Kingdom of Hazara. Jahani lives with her mother, Hafeezah in a mud home in the village. Hafeezah is different from the other women in their village. She wears an embroidered cap with a white dupatta and her mother tongue is Burushaski, the language spoken in Hahayul, the most northern kingdom of the Qurragoram Mountains on the Silk Route. However, Hafeezah has insisted that they only speak Burushaski at home and Hindustani in public. Hafeeza is always concerned for Jahani's safety, often whispering blessings over her and even making Jahani wear a silver taveez, a sort of good luck token.

 Jahani awakens after a recurring nightmare, excited because this day, she and her best friend Sameela will be travelling to the bazaar to buy henna for Sameela's mehendi party. Sameela will be married next week after seven days of festivities. Jahani is taken to the bazaar with Sameela in a horse-drawn carriage, a tonga. When their tonga gets caught in a throng of donkey wagons and people, Jahani and Sameela jump out. As they leave a shop after Sameela buys henna and bangles, the two girls are pushed and fall to the ground. Jahani is unhurt, but Sameela has been knifed.  A stranger takes them back to Jahani's house where Sameela's father comes to claim his dead daughter. Jahani is devastated by the death of her best friend.

That night after Sameela's funeral and wake, Hafeezah reveals that she is not Jahani's birth mother and that her real parents are Aunty Zarah and Uncle Baqir who live in the Kingdom of Kaghan near the Kingdom of Hahayul in the Qurraqoram Mountains. When Jahani was four years old, someone tried to harm her but she was saved by the young son of Baqir's master of horse and by a snow leopard. The next day Zarah arranged for Hafeezah to take Jahani away to Sherwan. Now Hafeezah believes Jahani is once again in danger.

The next morning Jahani tells Hafeezah she intends to journey north to find Zarah and Baqir despite Hafeezah forbidding it. Hafeezah arranges for Jahani to have an armed escort - the young man who brought Jahani and Sameela home from the bazaar. The young man, Azhar Sekandar has been guarding Jahani for some time. He advises they leave immediately to avoid the rainy season, bringing war horses for them to ride. That night Azhar flies southwest to to Persia on his Persian carpet. Azhar first learned that Jahani was alive when he was seventeen years old. His foster father, Kifayat Ullah indicated Jahani was alive but hidden in a village she had been taken to nine years earlier. Kifayat had made Azhar wait a year before searching for her, until he mastered flying the Persian carpet. This would allow him to return to Kifayat in Jask regularly. Azhar became Jahani's protector with the knowledge of Hafeezah.

Azhar wants to take Jahani to north to the mountains, but Kifayat advises Azhar to make the journey in stages so that Jahani can learn about her identity gradually. He returns to Sherwan, and early the next morning, with Jahani on a white horse named Chandi and Hafeezah riding Sitarah, they quietly leave. From the beginning their journey north is fraught with difficulties. Two days in they discover a Hindu village that has been completely wiped out with the exception of a little girl named Anjuli.

The following day they take Anjuli to her mother's family in a nearby village but they refuse too take her. So Anjuli stays with Jahani's party. That night after making camp, Azhar kills a scout tracking them. They leave immediately and spend the next weeks riding at night and resting during the day. Just inside the Kingdom of Kaghan, Azhar fights off another attack, this time with the help of Jahani. Eventually they arrive at Lake Saiful Maluk where Azhar is greeted reverently by his friend,Rasheed. In the safety of the hut, Azhar reveals that they are being followed by "the men of Dagar Khan from the northern Kingdom of Hahayul". He tells Jahani that he is a new King Zahhak - a new "Demon King" like that in the legends.

Meanwhile at Baltit Fort in the Kingdom of Hahayul, Dagar Khan, the self-appointed tham receives a report from a commander who insists that despite burning villages, they can find no evidence of the girl he seeks. However, Dagar Khan is insistent because his seer, Pir Zal continues to claim she is alive. His vision warns Dagar Khan that she will come to claim his throne and that she must be killed if he is to rule over all the northern kingdoms. He orders the commander to continue looking and also to take a message to the warlord Mazahid Baig.

Azhar flies to Jask to consult with his father. When he explains how Jahani helped him during a fight, Kifayat gives him a special scimitar called Shamsher, the Lion's Tail. This fabled curved sword has a hilt made of jade and embedded garnets. He orders Azhar to teach Jahani "all you know as if she were a boy."  When Azhar returns, he is almost seen by Jahani on his flying carpet. She notices his beautiful Persian carpet which she believes is his prayer carpet. Azhar gives her the scimitar, telling her to "keep it hidden until the time comes to wear it openly."

They leave the lake for Naran where Jahani will finally meet her parents. Jahani dresses as a boy to avoid recognition by those hunting for a girl with red hair. Although it will be only a five mile journey, Rasheed's son, Mikal has gone ahead to warn Baqir and Zarah of Jahani's arrival. Their journey turns deadly when they are attacked by armed men wearing red turbans. In her head Jahani hears repeated warnings and advice during the attack. She is able to fight off an armed attacker using Shamsher although the circumstances of the fight are bizarre to Jahani. She is met by Saman Abdul, commander of Baqir's troops. While Jahani is escorted safely into Naran, Saman and his troops go to Azhar's aid.

In Naran, yet another revelation awaits Jahani. Jahani feels distressed that she has no feelings for Zarah, her mother. But in Naran, Jahani learns much more about her life before she came to Sherwan. When her father arranges for her marriage to Mazahid Baig, who protects Naran, Jahani begins to suspect all is not as it seems. An overheard conversation between Zarah and Baqir as well as more revelations from Azhar convince Jahani to flee Naran, determined to uncover her true identity and her real destiny.


Daughter of Nomads is probably Hawke's best novel to date. The novel combines the elements of a historical novel with mystery, adventure and a dash of fantasy to create a wonderfully engaging story. Its setting within the Mughal Empire during the seventeenth century is unusual and offers young readers a chance to learn about a culture and era they likely would not study in school. To help readers understand the context of events in the novel, Hawke includes a large map showing Jahani's journey north through the Mughal Empire. A note about the Mughal Empire would have been very useful.

The Mughal Empire was essentially a Muslim empire with strong Persian and Indian influences. It ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from the early sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century. The Mughal dynasty was characterized by its successful integration of both Indian and Muslims into a coherent, functioning state and by its ability to govern over such a large area. The empire was founded by a descendant of Genghis Khan. The Chagatai Turkic Prince Babur was descended from Timur and Chagatai, the second son of Genghis Khan. Through a series of military conquest, Babur was able to conquer all of northern India. At the time of this novel, the Emperor  Aurangzeb ruled. This story is set is the most northern region of the empire.

The story is told in the third person narratives of Jahani, her protector, Azhar Sekandar and Dagar Khan, "the self-appointed tham of the Kingdom of Hahayul". who is determined to capture Jahani and kill her.  Jahani begins the story believing she is a simple girl with a limited future, living in an small village. She knows that without a father and a dowry, she will never marry. Jahani's real future is foreshadowed in her daydreams of being "a warrior girl wielding a scimitar like Gordafarid daughter of an old Persian hero..." She also hopes to be "loved passionately like the Emperor Shah Jahan loved his wife, Mumtaz." 

However, Jahani's life changes forever when her best friend is killed and Jahani learns that she was the intended target. From this point on, she discovers that there is more to her past than she knew. When she learns that Hafeezah is not her birth mother, Jahani embarks on a what becomes a journey or momentous self-discovery.  With each attempt on her life, Jahani grows more puzzled. She doesn't understand why Dagar Khan is pursuing her. Jahani also finds herself seemingly able to communicate with Chandi her horse and is able to save the nomad sheep by stopping the wolves from attacking. Her strange ability to use Shamsher, a fabled scimitar is also puzzling to her. Her recurring dreams of a boy, a peacock and a snow leopard are based in reality as Jahani becomes convinced the boy is Azhar and the snow leopard is Zadi. Jahani feels a strong attachment to the mountains of the north, although she doesn't know why this is so.

In Naran, Jahani meets Zarah and Baqir but learns they took her from the nomads. With the nomads she meets Yazmeen whom she is led to believe is her mother, and sister of Tafeeq Baseer who rules the nomads along with his son, Rahul. However Jahani has much more to learn about her past. By the end of the novel, readers will know more about Jahani's identity than the character does. This remains for Jahani to discover in the second novel.

Although the reader is given many hints as to Jahani's true identity, for example the verse quoted by the seer Pir Zal, it isn't until later in the novel, in Azhar's narrative that the full story comes out. Kifayat tells his friend Bilal about how Dagar Khan simultaneously attacked the Kingdoms of Hahayul and Nagir. Azhar was six years old and living with Kifayat when Nagir was attacked first. He and Kifayat set out to warn the Kingdom of Hahayul about the attack but were too late.It was believed that the two-year-old shehzadi (princess) had escaped and Dagar Khan's men began kidnapping young girls with red hair. Kifayat continued to look for the little shehzadi and eventually found such a girl with the nomads. She knew her name was Jahani , spoke Burushaski and wore a silver taveez. Jahani lived with the nomads for two summers until she was adopted by Zarah and Baqir, wealthy landowners in the Kingdom of Kaghan. During this time Kifayat and Azhar followed Jahani, offering his services as a master of horses. When another attempt was made on Jahani's life at age four, she was hidden in a village in the south.  Azhar also reveals to Bilal that he is Shehzada of Nagir, thought to have been killed in the attack. No one knows that he survived.

Hawke incorporates Persian fables and historical facts into Daughter of Nomads. The purpose of using the Persian stories is to foreshadow Jahani's destiny and true identity. For example, when Azhar is leading Jahani and Hafeezah northward, he tells them a story about the famous King Merdas and his evil son Zahhak who came to be known as the Demon King. This is a story from the famous Shahnameh, The Persian Book of Kings. When Hafeezah questions Azhar as to what happened to him he tells her about how the Demon King dreamed that he would be killed by a man named Feraydun. "The Demon King searched for him and killed his father, but Feraydun's mother saved the baby and secretly gave him to a cow herder to bring up safely. When he was in danger again, his mother took him to the mountains where he played in fields of wildflowers." In fact, Jahani has dreams in which she remembers playing with a boy and a snow leopard in a field filled with flowers. The story is a hint that Jahani will play a similar role in the demise of Dagar Khan who has been told that "the woman with the leopard's heat" will come to take his throne.

After Jahani tells Azhar about her strange experience with Chandi, he tells her a story about the northern kingdoms. "The first mir of the kingdoms of Hahayul and Nagir - for they were one kingdom at that time - was born of the union of the great Sekandar and a pari (fairy). It is said that the pari's powers appear sometimes in descendants - they are given gifts." When Jahani inquires as to what those gifts might be Azhar states, "They are able to understand certain animals, have unusual strength, or can wield weapons with minds of their own. Usually descendants have only one gift, but in rare instances more than one is inherited." This story of course is a hint of Jahani's true identity and the origin of her special abilities which are beginning to be manifest.

Hawke also infuses the story with some historical information as well. For example when they are  entering the ancient village of Mansehra, Azhar tells Jahani how the large rocks at the entrance to the village were inscribed by Ashoka the Great, with the promise that he would only conquer by righteousness after conquering  by massacring the entire village.This is in fact a real historical event that happened. Ashoka assumed the throne after killing all of his brothers, save on, in 272 B.C. He was known as a cruel and ruthless leader. In 265 B.C., he conquered the Kingdom of Kalinga, destroying cities, burning villages and murdering thousands. When he surveyed the carnage, Ashoka was overwhelmed by what he'd done and had a complete conversion. The story serves to provide some cultural background to the young reader.

Hawke has crafted a wonderful historical fiction novel for young readers with a strong, capable heroine in Jahani. In the character of Azhar, readers have a young man who exhibits self-control, courage, and respect towards women. Daughter of Nomads is based on a story Hawke told her children, years ago, when they were on vacation in the Karakorum Mountains in Pakistan. It is, as she describes it, an "alternate history what could have happened if the little kingdoms of the area now called Pakistan banded together and fought for their freedom." The map and lovely pencil illustrations were done by D.M. Cornish.

Daughter of Nomads is well worth reading; Jahani's story concludes in the second book The Leopard Princess. Suitable for ages nine and up.

Book Details:

Daughter of Nomads by Rosanne Hawke
St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press     2016
290 pp.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Mary's Monster: Love, Madness,and How Mary Shelley Created FRANKENSTEIN by Lita Judge

Mary's Monster by Lita Judge explores the life of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Written in free verse accompanied by the author's impressive black and white illustrations, Judge tells the story of Mary Shelley's life and how she came to create one of the most famous novels of all time. There are nine parts to the book which spans the time period from 1801 to 1823. Judge employs two narrators; the Creature and Mary Shelley.

The book's opening Prologue is written in the voice of The Creature who tells the world that Mary Shelley created him as a way to expose the cruelty of the world.

In Part I Exile, fourteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft is on the deck of the Osnaburgh, heading for Scotland. Mary is feeling sad and isolated, remembering that her father did not see her off; only her sisters Fanny and Claire were there. She reminisces about her childhood.

Mary was born the night Herschel's comet blazed across the London sky. Mary's father  told her the story of the comet and its discovery by a woman, Caroline Herschel leading Mary to believe she could do anything in life. She was encouraged to read, to be independent and to use her imagination. But that changed in 1802 when her father married the Widow Clairmont, bringing into their family her daughter Claire Clairmont and a son named Charles.

In 1805 the family moved from their home in Somers Town to an abandoned shop in Holborn, a block from the gallows at Newgate Prison. Mary's stepmother hoped that her father would write and sell books from the shop and get them out of their financial troubles. But her father was more interested in political and social issues. At this time Mrs. Godwin convinced Mary's father to send her away. She lives with a widower name Baxter and his daughters.

Part II My Second Birth, covers the period from June 1812 to March 1814. Mary is living at Mr. Baxters home at Broughty Ferry with his daughters. She soon develops a close friendship with Isabella Baxter who has a passion for the French Revolution. The Baxter's library contains many books including those written by both Mary's father and mother. Reading her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft's novel, Maria, encourages Mary to take up her mother's ideals. Scotland becomes Mary's "Eyrie of Freedom".

Part III Return to Darkness March to April 1814. Mary returns to London to live with her family in the overwhelming stench and squalor of Holborn. Her stepsister Claire is now fifteen, her sister Fanny is thin and withdrawn. Fanny is Mary's half-sister: she has a different father, a married man who abandoned their mother.  A young poet named Percy Bysshe Shelley has been corresponding with Mary's father.

Part IV The Poet May-July 1814. Twenty-one-year-old Percy Shelley begins visiting the Godwins almost every day. Well-born and in line to inherit a fortune, Percy has been abandoned by his wife Harriet who is pregnant. Mary finds herself attracted to Percy from their first encounter. Soon Mary and Percy, along with Claire go for long walks, talking about galvanism, alchemy, gravity and astronomy. Fanny reminds Mary however, that Shelley is still married, that his wife is due to give birth to their second child soon, and that Shelley cannot be trusted - just as the man that got their mother pregnant abandoned her. However, Mary believes that people in love should be together. In late June, Mary and Percy make love beside her mother's grave after Percy reveals his tormented soul. Mary believes he simply needs to be loved.

Her decision to live with Shelley angers her father and stepmother. Shelley has promised Mary they will live in Switzerland like other free thinkers. Claire who passes letters between Mary and Shelley begs Mary to take her with them. Mary's father refuses to allow her to leave but on July 28, 1814, Mary and Shelley along with Claire race to Dover and then cross over to Calais, France. For Mary it is the beginning of life on her own terms, one that will result in much pain and loneliness but which will result in the creation of a new literary genre and one of the most famous works of literature of all time.


Lita Judge, an awarding winning children's author and illustrator was inspired to write Mary's Monster after contracting a virus that led to her developing an serious autoimmune illness. During the next two years as she convalesced, Judge found herself rereading a favourite novel, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein or A Modern Prometheus". Judge was fascinated by the fact that Shelley had written her novel when she was only eighteen years old. As she delved deeper in Shelley's life by reading her journals, Judge found herself and this led Judge to want to tell Mary's story and how she came to write Frankenstein.

The widely accepted account of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein is that the germ of the story resulted from a dream Mary had after nights of reading ghost stories at the villa of Lord Byron. However, Judge's belief is that Mary Shelley's troubled life, her experiences of being mistreated by her father's second wife, of being sent away to Scotland, of being abandoned by her father when she became pregnant by her married lover Percy Bysshe Shelley and her many other hardships, were in fact the genesis of Frankenstein. In her Author's Note at the back, Judge writes,
"The popular myth is that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was conceived spontaneously on a stormy night in answer to a dare  to write a ghost story. That evening did occur, but countless events in Mary's life before and after that evening played a much greater role in the horror novel's creation. My story is an attempt to trace the many origins of her genius. It's a testament to a resilient girl whose imagination, forged by isolation, persecution, and loss, created a new form of storytelling as a means of connecting with the very society that had socially exiled her."

In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley explores the themes of pain, isolation and abandonment as  Dr. Frankenstein rejects the creature he created. Her novel was also a commentary on the use of science in the early 1800's. During this time, many new discoveries were being made in science about the natural world. Mankind was on the cusp of the scientific age and hoped to tame the world through the use of science, especially the disciplines of alchemy and galvanism. Mary saw man's ambition to create life and to dominate nature as potentially destructive to the world and to man himself.

Like her father William Godwin, and mother Mary Wollenstonecraft, Mary also rebelled against the social norms of her day. Mary Wollstonecraft was a firm believer in the rights of women, believing that they were equal to men. She sets out her beliefs in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in 1792, probably her best known work. She had an affair with a married man, Gilbert Imlay, an American who ultimately abandoned her. Mary gave birth to a daughter, Fanny while in France where she was writing and studying the ongoing French Revolution. She attempted to restart her relationship with Imlay but he refused, resulting in two suicide attempts by Mary. Back in England Mary met William Godwin, an advocate for the abolition of marriage. Yet they married when Mary Wollstonecraft became pregnant. Mary died after giving birth to their daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. William Godwin was a radical who had anarchist tendencies. His publication of his wife's biography after her death which acknowledged her affair with Imlay, her illegitimate child and her two suicide attempts brought him much criticism because all of these behaviours were seen as scandalous and immoral. Having read her father's biography of her mother and been exposed to his ideas, Mary attempted to live her life in accordance with those ideas but found the reality was much different. Her father did not approve of her relationship with Percy Shelley and when she became pregnant outside of marriage, she was shunned.

Judge accomplishes her goal with a brilliant retelling of Mary Shelley's life in nine parts, the number nine being significant because it is the number of months of pregnancy and Mary's Frankenstein was written over a period of nine months, while she was pregnant with her second daughter Clara. She considered her novel her creative progeny. Through Mary's story, readers learn of the events in her life that ultimately influenced her writing Frankenstein. By writing her story in free verse, Judge pares Mary's life down to the important essentials while still retaining the pain, loneliness and sense of betrayal that Mary must have felt. Judge's ink, watercolour and pencil illustrations capture the dark moods of Percy Shelley, the emotional and physical struggles Mary endured, and the pain of the creature. The author story-boarded much of the book before beginning the writing process. Her timeline of creating the novel can be found on her website page, Mary's Monster Timeline.

Mary's Monster also includes an "Introduction" which introduces readers to both Mary Shelley and her novel Frankenstein. In her "Author's Note" at the back, Judge explains how she drew on a wealth of primary sources including Mary Shelley's journals, which events she excluded and provides an interesting exposition on parts of Mary's life. Her "What Became of Them" details the lives of family and several contemporaries of Mary Shelley. There is also a "What Were They Reading" section that lists what Mary and Percy were reading during their lives and a "Notes" that provides references for events in Mary's Monster.

Overall Mary's Monster is really quite an outstanding work and is a must read for fans of Frankenstein. Brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed.

Book Details:

Mary's Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created FRANKENSTEIN by Lita Judge
New York: Roaring Brook Press  2018
312 pp.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Flamingo Boy by Michael Morpurgo

When Vincent Montague was young, he had two pictures in his bedroom. One he painted in his Primary art class after his teacher, Miss Weatherly had them "paint a story". Vincent painted an "old traveller sitting on the steps of his gypsy caravan, h is piebald horse grazing the grass nearby" with a police care also in the painting. The inspiration for the painting was a story he had read in a book. The other painting was a picture by someone named "Vincent". It was of "four boats on a beach, with the sea and sky behind."

When he was older, Vincent discovered that the boat picture was painted by Vincent Van Gogh, "down by the sea, just a few miles from where he was living, in a town called Arles."  He learned from this book about Van Gogh from a bookstall in town. This created in Vincent a desire to see the places Van Gogh had visited and painted. 

It was at this same time, while studying for his six form exams in his family's home in Watford, that Vincent discovered a note taped to the back of the Van Gogh picture. The note was from his grandparents, dated January 277, 1964. It told him that they visited "this beach in the Camargue region in the south of France, where Vincent Van Gogh had gone when he painted this picture."

Because of the boat painting and the note, Vincent decided to leave Watford after completing his exams and "follow the bend in the road". During the summer following exams, Vincent travelled to the Camargue in the south of France. While walking on "a causeway with pink lakes on both sides" with "flamingos nearby, strolling languidly through the shallows" Vincent became very ill and collapsed. He felt himself being carried and awoke to find himself in a small cottage. He meets Lorenzo, the tall man who found him and Kezia Charbonneau, who tells Vincent that she and Lorenzo are like brother and sister but are also best friends.

Fishing Boats on the Beach at Sains-e Maries, June 1888.
Vincent learns that Lorenzo Sully doesn't speak much, that he likes only those people who are kind and that he loves the flamingos which he watches over and cares for. Kezia tells Vincent that he is "on a farm far out in the marshes,... a few kilometres down the road, along the canal from a little town called Aigues-Mortes."  When Vincent enquires as to how Kezia came to speak English so well, she tells him when he is sufficiently recovered she will tell him the story of how this came to be.

Gradually Vincent begins to recover, growing stronger from the rest, the delicious soups and crusty bread Kezia makes. Vincent also beings to understand Lorenzo more, how he speaks and his love of the flamingos. When he feels better, Vincent, in response to Kezia's questions, explains how he came to be wandering through the Camargue. This leads Kezia to begin to tell Vincent how she and Lorenzo who was known as Flamingo boy when he was little, met and how their lives became forever entwined. It is a story of friendship, trust and of mutual understanding. 


Award-winning British author, Michael Morpurgo was inspired to write Flamingo Boy because of his grandson autism. A trip to the Camargue in the South of France was the inspiration for both the setting and the idea of an autistic boy who couldn't relate well to others, but understood the world of animals. Morpurgo then set his novel during the occupation of France by the Germans and wove into it the painting by Vincent Van Gogh.  It is the main character and narrator, Vincent Montague's love of the painting that sends him on his journey at the age of eighteen to visit the Camargue and ultimately changes the course of his life.

Morpurgo employs two narrators, Vincent Montague who is narrating the story in the present about meeting Kezia and Lorenzo when he was eighteen years old in 1981, and Kezia Charbonneau who takes over the book's narration and relates the story of her youth during the 1940's in occupied France. Morpurgo uses Kezia's innocence of youth in her narrative to keep the horrors of the Holocaust and the discrimination of those who are different somewhat distant, almost impersonal, diminishing the emotional impact of the story. Kezia's mother warns her about the Germans in a general sort of way. "The Germans, they don't like Roma people, Kezia. I mean, more than most people they don't like us...They hate Jewish people too...Jewish people, Roma people -- the German's, the Milice, they want to be rid of us...And they hate children like Lorenzo too...Because he is different, Kezia --the same reason they hate us, and the Jews, because we are different."  But the terror of the German occupation is diminished both by the isolation of the Sully farm and by the kindness of the local German Caporal. 

Morpurgo uses the character of Caporal Willi Brenner, a teacher from Tubingen, Germany to demonstrate that not all German soldiers were Nazis. Many like Brenner were sometimes forced to fight against their will for the Third Reich. Brenner tells them that he was sent to Russia to fight, an experience so traumatic it turned his hair white and resulted in him losing toes due to frostbite. Brenner helps Kezia's family rebuild their carousel by bringing them wood which is scarce. He also helps both Kezia and Lorenzo's families by warning them about the Milice  and the Gestapo, by having his soldiers block the road to the Sully farm so as to protect Kezia's from being taken by the Milice.  Morpurgo often incorporates a sympathetic character in his novels to portray a more balanced approach, although the vast majority of German soldiers truly believed in what they were fighting for.

Flamingo Boy is classic Michael Morpurgo that most young readers, especially boys, will enjoy. Like most of Morpurgo's novels, the beautiful cover invites readers inside.Although Morpurgo delayed writing a novel that tackled the subject of autism because he felt he couldn't do it justice,  he's done a fine job here. Lorenzo is an endearing character whose unusual ways help both Kezia and Willi Brenner learn to trust. Morpurgo's descriptions of a boy for whom trust and loyalty are paramount and who loves the flamingos of the Camargue, provide readers with a better understanding how someone with autism encounters the world in a way that is refreshing.

Book Details:

Flamingo Boy b Michael Morpurgo
London, England: HarperCollins Children's Books      2018
288 pp.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Galen and the Gateway to Medicine by Jeanne Bendick

Jeanne Bendick was a well known author of many books, most of them focused on science. Jeanne was born in 1919 in New York City. Her career as an illustrator began while attending the Parsons School of Design. During this time she created illustrations for the children's magazine, Jack and Jill. After graduating in 1939, with the start of World War II, both Jeanne and  her husband became part of the war effort. She joined the American Woman's Voluntary Services while her husband enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force.

Jeanne wrote about many different topics with an appealing simplicity. "Jeanne Bendick had a remarkable ability through her straightforward writing and illustration to present complex scientific concepts in a form that was understandable by children." She was part of a group of three authors who wrote a science textbook for elementary school-aged children, Jeanne's last book, Herodotus and the Road to History was published in 2009 when she was ninety-one!! Jeanne was writing books on science at a time when there were few women in the science disciplines. Jeanne passed away on March 14, 2014 at the age of ninety-five.

Jeanne's book, Galen and the Gateway to Medicine traces the life and achievements of Galen, doctor to the Roman emperors. Galen was born in 129 AD in the Greek city of Pergamum during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. At the time of Galen's birth, Pergamum was a city within the Roman empire which included all of "the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, much of Europe (including England), part of Africa, the whole Middle East and some of Asia.

Little is known about Galen's family except that his father was Nicon, a famous engineer and architect who "was also a mathematician, a philosopher, an astronomer and a botanist." Nicon taught Galen during his early childhood and then he was sent to study in school as other Greek youths did. As a student, Galen studied history, philosophy, science and geometry. He especially loved math.

Galen's study of medicine began at the Temple of Aesculapius in Pergamum. Aesculapius was the Greek god of medicine, the first physician. After completing his studies at the Aesculapium, and with the death of his father, Galen decided to travel and study medical practices in other places. First he travelled to Smyrna where he studied with Pelops, a famous physician.  Then he continued on to Corinth and from there travelled to Alexandria, Egypt to the most famous medical school in the ancient world, The Museum. It was here that Galen developed many of his ideas about the human body and how it worked. Although some of his theories were very wrong, "Galen was trying to put together what he observed into a theory that explained how the parts of the human body functioned together as an interconnected system."

After nine years away, Galen returned to Pergamum where he worked as a physician to the gladiators in his home city. But his greatest adventures lay in the greatest city at that time, Rome. It was here Galen's reputation as a great physician came to be known throughout the Roman world and his work passed down through the centuries.


Galen and the Gateway to Medicine traces Galen's path to becoming the most respected physician of his time, one whose writings on the human body were considered definitive for the next 1500 years!

The author incorporates historical information into each phase of Galen's interesting life in a way that is engaging and yet informative for younger readers. For example, at the beginning of the book, readers are given a detailed picture of what life would have been like for a young Galen in second century Pergamum. Everything from what Galen might have had for breakfast to the foods found at the market, the types of houses in Pergamum to descriptions of the gymnasium and the baths. In describing Galen's studies in school in Pergamum, readers are introduced to many famous historical figures including Herodotus, Plato, and Aristotle.

When Galen attends medical school at the medical school at the Temple of Aesculapius Bendick describes how the Greeks treated illness, their beliefs about how the human body functioned and how the number four, an important number to the Greeks, influenced the way they viewed the natural world around them.

Bendick uses Galen's travels to Smyrna, Egypt and Rome to describe modes of transportation, the tools a physician might use in his practice, life in Alexandria - a great center of learning in Galen's time, and the gladiators in Rome. In describing Galen's life in Rome, Bendick covers many aspects of life in the Roman Empire in the second century including what it meant to practice medicine and pharmacology during this era. The author also cover's

The chapter "After Galen" explores the advances made in medicine, almost fifteen hundred years after Galen's death. Galen's ideas about the human body and illness were considered untouchable for generations, until the Middle Ages. Bendick explores what led to rethinking Galen's ideas in the Renaissance.

Galen and the Gateway to Medicine is a fascinating exploration into the history of medicine. Bendick writes in an easy style that flows naturally from one chapter to the next. The text is accompanied by the author's hand drawn maps and line illustrations and portraits. A worthwhile read for those interested in the history of science and medicine.

Book Details:

Galen and the Gateway to Medicine by Jeanne Bendick
Bathgate, ND: Bethlehem Books Ignatius Press   2002
131 pp.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli by Kyo Maclear & Julie Morstad

Bloom tells the story of fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli who was most famous for her creations during the interwar decades of 1920 and 1930's. Elsa was responsible for many significant contributions to fashion.

Elsa Luisa Maria Schiaparelli was born in Rome, in her family's home at the Palazzo Corsini, in 1890. She was born into a family with several accomplished intellectuals. Her father, Celestino Schiaparelli was a scholar whose research focused on the Middle Ages and who was Dean of the University of Rome. His brother, Elsa's uncle, Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered the canals on Mars. And a cousin of the Elsa's father and uncle, Ernesto Schiaparelli was the director of the Museo Egizio in Turin and a noted Egyptologist.

Elsa seemed destined from the beginning to be rebellious and unsettled.She had a rebellious childhood often playing pranks that had serious consequences. She attended the University of Rome, studying philosophy. During this time she wrote a book of poetry titled Arethusa, that her parents considered scandalous. Their response was to force her into a convent but she was able to leave after undertaking a hunger strike.  She left her family in Rome in 1913 and worked as a nanny in England to avoid marrying a Russian man whom her parents favoured. However, in London she became involved with Willem de Wendt, who also used the surname of de Kerlor and who was a sort of psychic involved in many different schemes including fortune telling. Many considered him a swindler. Elsa became engaged to him a day after meeting him! They married and were eventually forced to leave England, travelling to several countries before moving to America.

Elsa was eventually abandoned by de Kerlor in 1920, leaving her to care for their daughter, Maria Louisa Yvonne Radha whom she nicknamed Gogo. She returned to Paris in 1922 where she continued to receive support from her mother.  Although she had no training in the making of patterns and the sewing of clothing, Elsa began designing her own clothing. At first she made pieces for various clients. Her first big success came with hand knit sweaters featuring a black and white trompe l'oeil design. These took the fashion world by storm and Elsa's fashion career was off and running.

Elsa Schiaparelli from Vogue
In the 1930's Elsa Schiaparelli became involved with many famous artists who were part of the Surrealist movement. These included Salvatore Dali, Jean Cocteau, Alberto Giacometti and Leonor Fini. In collaboration with these artists, Elsa created some very distinct and creative pieces of clothing, including a dress with a lobster painted on by Dali, and an evening coat featuring what appears to be a vase of roses but also two profiles facing each other.

Elsa's contributions to fashion included the wedge shoe, the jumpsuit, paper clothes, transparent raincoats, specialty furs, the scarf dress, and coloured hosiery. She popularized pants and shoulder pads and her signature colour was a vibrant magenta which she named "Shocking". Many famous actresses of the period wore her clothes including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford.

Kyo Maclear presents a very simple version of Elsa Schiaparelli's life, bringing out some of the more interesting details that are sure to capture the interest of younger readers. Elsa's life is portrayed as that of a child not welcomed by her parents. Hoping for a boy, her parents had no name for her and gave her the name of a nurse. According to the story in Bloom, Elsa's sister Beatrice was the favourite of their parents who often referred to  Elsa as "Brutta". Although her life was complicated, Elsa persevered, overcoming "Mamma's harsh words and Pappa's judgement" and opened her first shop at the age of thirty-seven!  According to Maclear, Elsa's success is marred by the belief that her parents and Beatrice "will never approve of the path I have taken."

Throughout Bloom,  Maclear incorporates quotes from Elsa's autobiography, "Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli". This picture book employs brilliant magenta throughout - reminiscent of Elsa's favourite colour.  Elsa's story is brought to life by the colourful artwork of  Julie Morstad who utilized liquid watercolour, gouache, and pencil crayons to create the illustrations for Bloom.

There's no doubt Elsa Shiaparelli is a fashion designer largely forgotten by most today. But her influence can be found in much of the clothing considered fashionable by women. Bloom helps to remind readers, young and not-so-young about this famous Italian designer whose major competition was Coco Chanel!

The website, Kaleidoscope  Jewellry has an interesting post on Elsa Schiaparelli's twelve commandments for women featuring some photographs of her exquisite embroidery that are worth checking out.

Book Details:

Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad
New York: Tundra Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers      2018

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Love and War by Melissa De La Cruz

Love and War picks up months after the marriage of Elizabeth Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton. It is April 1781 and the War of Independence is raging. Elizabeth is living at the Pastures, her parents' estate in Albany. Eliza, desperately missing Alexander, has been out with  her sisters, Angelica, Peggy, five year old Cornelia and eight-year-old Rensselaer picking a rich harvest of berries.

Eliza is impatient to move out of her parents home, wishing that she and Alex could set up their own home soon but they have been apart more than they have been together.  After their marriage he had rushed back to General Washington's headquarters. Before Alex leaves to report back to duty, Eliza's family have planned a goodbye party this evening.

Eliza's father General Philip Schuyler, her husband Alexander Hamilton,  as well as Angelica's husband John Barker Church have gone into town on business. In the back room of the Schuylkill Tavern the three men seal a munitions agreement where Church will "provide five hundred rifles, twenty barrels of powder, and two tons of shot to General Washington at Newburgh, and the Continental army will pay you one thousand pounds sterling."  When pressed, Alex reveals that he plans to ask General Washington for his own unit to command.

This greatly concerns his father-in-law who fears that Eliza will be left a widow. Alex tells General Schuyler and John that he intends to fight at Yorktown, Virginia where the British under General Cornwallis has gathered his troops. It is a matter of pride - he doesn't want to thought of as a coward who "spent the war in a paneled office with a pen in his hand and a warm fire at his back..."  When further pressed if he has revealed his ambitions to Eliza, Alex admits he has not done so yet.  Alex know this will break Eliza's heart but he is determined.

Meanwhile in the Schuyler mansion, Eliza pays her mother a visit in her parents' bedroom. Eliza's mother, Catherine is due anytime to deliver what will be her last child. Catherine asks Eliza to play host to the party in the evening, concerned that Angelica's connection to her husband who is British makes her unsuitable as host. The party turns out to be a large affair with many important persons in attendance including George Clinton, governor of New York State. Eliza is thrilled to be with Alex again. However her happiness is ruined when she learns from Governor Clinton that Alex is intending to lead a regiment into battle at Yorktown. Shocked and deeply hurt by her husband's lack of consideration, Eliza argues with Alex and they part for the evening unreconciled.  For two days the young couple are not together but when Alex takes his leave to travel to General Washington, Eliza shares her concerns while Alex apologizes profusely.

Alex is given the command by General Washington he so desperately wants and marches to Williamsburg with his soldiers. On the way he gets to know them better, by sharing in the hardships of the march.At Williamsburg, Washington and Count de Rochambeau, the French General, finalize their plans for the battle at Yorktown. During their discussions, Alex learns from his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, that Lafayette's aide, Major Jean-Joseph Sourbader de Gimat will lead Alex's troops - the First and Second New York and the Fifteenth Connecticut into battle. Dismayed and angered, Alex passionately makes his case for being allowed to lead his troops into battle and wins  General Washington consent. The patriots succeed in winning the battle ending the war for the colonies' independence from Great Britain.

Back in Albany, Catherine Schuyler gives birth to a healthy girl who is named after her mother. Three months after Catherine's birth, the Schuyler family is accosted by redcoats at the Pastures. Eliza confronts the men in a friendly manner, bluffing that her father is on his way back with twenty armed men and fortunately for the Schuyler family, they leave.

With the defeat of the English at Yorktown, Alex resigns his commission and  heads for home. As Washington and others begin working to build a new nation, Alex and Eliza commence their new life too, in New York City.  It will prove to be a trying time for the young couple both in their marriage and financially but it will also see Eliza cement her position in New York society and Alex establish his reputation as a lawyer of considerable skill.


Love and War is the second book of the trilogy by Melissa de la Cruz about the life of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton and continues their story a few months after their wedding. De la Cruz's version presents a sort of  'bare bones' version of Eliza and Alexander's early years of marriage in Part I which covers the year 1781 to the end of 1783. Eliza did not remain with her family in Albany but travelled to Windsor to be near Alex while he was part of General Washington's army. They also had their first child, Philip in January, 1782. De la Cruz admits in her Author's Note that she deliberately left out any children in the her retelling of the Hamilton's story. This is a fairly big departure from their real life story which de la Cruz uses to drive the increasing tension between Alex and Eliza.

In Part I the major tension between the couple is due to Alex's determination to fight in the War of Independence. Alex doesn't tell Eliza and when she learns of his intent, she is devastated. Confronted by Eliza, Alex tells her, "I am a soldier, Eliza, and a good one. Without a command, I would never rise in the ranks, never gain the respect and honor I am due,...Please, try to understand. I am no one, I am nothing. I did this for us."  However, Eliza retorts that this is something a man might do, "...But a husband -- never,"  While Eliza argues that Alex's sharp mind could be put to better use helping "the transition from colony to country", for Alex it is a matter of pride. "What kind of man would I be if I was content to send others to the front lines while I took shelter in the general's tent?"

Part II of Love and War deals with Eliza and Alex's early life in New York City where they moved in 1783 as he launches his law career. This part of the novel deviates significantly from the real life story of the Hamiltons. Well into their marriage, they are no longer newlyweds, and have no children. Alex's focus is on his law practice while Eliza remains at home, considering her china and silverware. Eventually she does become involved in New York society but finds that she and Alex have little time together. This is in stark contrast to her portrayal in the first part of the novel as a strong woman involved in society, who undertook "fund-raising and fabric drives that had made her simultaneously the most admired and most dreaded girl in the capital region." De la Cruz also has Eliza sitting for her portrait by Ralph Earl who is in debtors prison in 1784 but her portrait was not painted by Earl until 1787. By this time Eliza and Alex had three children.In  Part II, the focus is on an increasingly distracted and inattentive Alex who works late and often forgets to communicate with his wife. Eliza feels abandoned and finds herself beginning to notice the attentions of another man. Meanwhile, Alex heads off the attentions of a loyalist war widow he is representing in court. This sets the stage for the third novel which will likely feature the crisis in their marriage

Love and War, although rich in detail about life in colonial America, is in some ways a very modern retelling. In the spring of 1781, Eliza's views on children and marriage are presented.  Eliza considers her mother's twelve pregnancies, "astonishing", an attitude that would have been unlikely for that era as it was common for women to have many children, often well into their forties. Of those twelve pregnancies, seven children died, some before they could be baptized. Eliza wonders, "True, seven lived and provided their parents with all the joys that children can impart, but one death for every life? It seemed almost too high a price to pay."  This attitude was also probably uncharacteristic for a woman in this era as both maternal and infant death was an acknowledged part of life. There was very little understanding of how to prevent deaths in childbirth, which were not the result of too many pregnancies but to poor nutrition and lack of obstetrical knowledge. Doctors had limited means of intervention in the late 1700's.

Eliza also exhibits a very modern view of  motherhood, marriage and life. She wonders at the awesome responsibility of becoming a parent at a young age. It is likely Eliza would have been prepared for this role in life by her mother and the social norms that existed at the time. In the 1700's she would expect to marry young and to bear children at a young age. However her thinking about her own place in the world of colonial America is decidedly progressive. "How could she expect to rear and mold a brood of her own, when she was still trying to decide not only who she was, but how she would be in the world?" Eliza remarkably states that she doesn't think "that raising children should be all a woman concerned herself with either."  Although maybe a wealthy woman like Eliza Hamilton could entertain the possibility of doing things other than raising children, for most women, raising a family was their sole occupation and was considered an important duty.

Love and War will definitely appeal to fans of the Broadway musical, Hamilton. Readers should not expect an accurate portrayal of Alex and Eliza Hamilton's lives or their attitudes at that time,  but one that will definitely fuel their interest and which may encourage them to research the real story behind these two famous Americans who lived at a time when a new country was being forged.

Book Details:

Love and War by Melissa de la Cruz
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons          2018
366 pp.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Kitchen Madonna by Rumer Godden

The Kitchen Madonna, written in 1967 by renowned author Rumer Godden tells the story of a young boy's love for his family's Ukrainian housekeeper and his determination to make her feel at home.

Nine-year-old Gregory Thomas lives with his parents and his seven-year-old sister, Janet in London, England.Gregory's parents are both busy architects so they employ "help"' in the form of an older woman named Marta. Marta who has been with the family for three months now has made life much easier for Mrs. Thomas. "Marta was tireless, clean and a beautiful cook" although Mrs. Thomas believes she gives the children "...rather too rich and spicy foods." Janet wishes Marta could stay with them forever and Gregory is "so tired of changes" as they have had several helpers over the past two years. Gregory loves that Marta is "always there". He feels safe by her constant presence.

But Marta is desperately unhappy. Gregory's mother believes it is too lonely for her.Marta was a refugee, driven from her village by soldiers. Marta had been shot at by the soldiers and she never saw her parents again. Marta liked the kitchen in her home where everything was done, cooking, eating, sitting and sleeping. This astonishes Janet especially when she learns that Marta's family slept on top of the oven. Marta tells Gregory and Janet that their kitchen is empty, that it feels empty.

Gregory who never forgets, waits for a week before he finally asks Marta what exactly is missing. " ' In my home, Ukrainian home,' said Marta, 'We make a good place. In the corner, there' and she showed an angle of the room. 'A place on top of cupboard, perhaps, or perhaps on shelf. Little place but it holy because we keep there Our Lady and Holy Child.' "  Marta tells them that they keep a "picture" crusted with gold, "with gold and stones, pearls, rubies..." and that there were pieces of cloth on the picture as well. Gregory understand that Marta is talking about a type of icon. Gregory becomes determined to find Marta an icon.

Trips to the British Museum, and to Rostov's - a jeweller in Panton Place don't quite provide Gregory what he's looking for. Rostov's is far too expensive and the store clerks are dismissive. However, when Gregory and Janet unexpectedly seek shelter in a church during a rainstorm, it is in the church that Gregory receives his inspiration. Hanging on a pillar is a sort of picture. "It was a Madonna and Child, a Jesus-Mary, in a heavy painted frame, but both Mother and Child stood out of the picture - 'Because they are dressed whispered Gregory - dressed as Marta had described them in stuffs and gold. The crowns were gold lace carefully cut; the veil and cloak were blue edged with silver and stuck with sequins and beads that glittered. The Mother's robe was red, patterned with silver and the Child's small robe was red too, covered with silver and beads." The two children read that this is a picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland.  Janet believes this is Marta's "icon" but Gregory tells her its not really and icon. Looking at how the picture has been decorated, gives Gregory an idea of just how he might make a picture for Marta so that their kitchen is no longer "empty".

As is often the case, helping others has the most unexpected consequences.


The Kitchen Madonna is the first of several classic Rumer Godden books that will be reviewed on this blog in the coming months. Godden was born in 1907 in India, where she lived in the town of Narayanganj which is now part of Bangladesh. Rumer had an older sister Jon who was quite beautiful and popular and two younger sisters,Nancy who was her father's favourite and Rose who was the youngest. Rumer and her sister Jon lived in India until the end of World War I and then were sent to England to attend a High Anglican boarding school in East Grinstead. This was a terrible experience for the two sisters. Eventually, after being sent to various schools, Rumer settled in at a school while Jon was sent to art school. Rumer returned to India when she was seventeen and opened a dance school.

Rumer had a social awakening after reading A Passage To India, coming to realize the racial and class prejudices that existed at that time. It wasn't until after she married in 1934, that Rumer began writing. Her first book was Chinese Puzzle in 1936. Rumer Godden wrote several children's books including The Doll's House, The Fairy Doll, Candy Floss and Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Among her more popular adult novels were Black Narcissus, In This House of Brede and Five For Sorrow, Ten for Joy. A dominant theme in her adult fiction is the loss of innocence and how that affects life. Rumer Godden converted to Catholicism in 1968 but much of her fiction has a touch of Catholicism and spirituality throughout.

She once stated that she felt writers are " simply an instrument through which the wind blows and I believe it is the Holy Spirit that makes the artist creative. My writing is something outside me that I've been chosen to do and I think that is what has enabled me to go on."

The Kitchen Madonna is a beautifully crafted story portraying the sacrificial efforts of a young boy to help alleviate the sadness of his family's live-in housekeeper, a middle-aged Ukrainian woman named Marta. Marta fled her home, was shot at by soldiers and suffered the loss of her parents. The exact details of what happened are not presented, but the reader comes to understand that Marta is deeply unhappy. Gregory is a sensitive, quiet boy who intuitively understands that "Marta's sadness had nothing to do with her country, it was of now." He is determined to learn the root of her sadness. Marta tells the Thomas family that their kitchen has no "good place" - a place for the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Child. Marta explains that this is a special kind of picture with "gold and stones, pearls, rubies...Sometimes real, sometimes no."  Gregory immediately grasps that this is a kind of icon.

Marta's sadness touches something deep within Gregory and he becomes determined to get her an icon. Although Marta hopes God will send her a picture, Gregory knows that he's the one to get the picture Marta desires. " 'God won't give her that picture, nor Mother, nor Father. I shall,' said Gregory." However, this proves far more difficult than Gregory or Janet imagined. They encounter a series of obstacles mostly due to the fact that they are young children without much money nor a means to travel around the city of London. But each obstacle is overcome with ingenuity and sacrifice that demonstrates the children's love for Marta and results in .

Their journey begins with a trip to the British Museum that will take most of their money. Janet is reluctant to give up her shillings because she is saving up for a pony. However Gregory admonishes her. "You mustn't be selfish." he tells his younger sister. They soon discover that an icon costs much more money than either of them have. And their money woes are compounded when they lose Janet's purse on the way home from the church near Rostov's store.

Gregory and Janet's sacrifices take on a much more personal note when Gregory actually begins creating the picture. When working out how to make her picture, Gregory decides he will use the frame from his beloved ship picture and paint it gold. But soon he discovers that he needs even more than that. Gregory is unable to find any scrap of material from Madame Ginette's donations that will work for the sky. Janet attempts to help, trading a pencil-sharpener and "a whole packet of peppermints" for a piece of pale blue velvet. When this doesn't work, "Janet almost cried with disappointment." Janet feels her sacrifice of peppermints was useless.  When Janet suggests that he use the sky from his "ship picture" Gregory is breathless, questioning "Cut up my ship picture for Marta?"

But this supreme sacrifice for what Gregory calls a more important picture, results in the picture coming together much more quickly and easily. "It was the first right step and almost at once he found the next...he found a piece of coral coloured cotton that, he suddenly saw, would make the veil and the Baby's robe..." Gregory's final sacrifice comes when he offers Mrs. Bartholomew his watch in exchange for a pound of toffee.Barty as she is called refuses his watch, instead writing him an I.O.U. Although Gregory is completely prepared to sacrifice his watch it is not necessary.

In helping Marta, and with each sacrifice, Gregory undergoes a journey that changes him. At the beginning of the novel, Gregory is described by his sister Janet as someone who "hardly ever does anything". "Gregory is a quiet boy, always first in his class at school but oddly out of things at home. 'He puts himself out of things,' Janet would have said and Mother complained, 'Gregory keeps himself to himself.' " Gregory's quietness is not understood by his mother who states, " 'He never hugs you as Janet does,...He's so wrapped up in himself that sometimes I wonder if he has a heart -- and he's so possessive."  Gregory also has the knack of never forgetting, he doesn't like to touch people and the Loft where he reads, is off limits to all.

As Gregory works on obtaining a picture for Marta, he begins to come out of himself. For example, when they are at the British Museum, it is Gregory who surprises Janet, asking where the icons are kept. He even carries on a conversation with a complete stranger in the icon room and gets their next lead in the search for an icon. At Rostov's, Gregory "quailed" at the shop door, fearful of entering, but he eventually works up the courage to do so. And while the shop's vastness and brightness makes Janet want to leave, Gregory is not afraid. While Janet "jibbed like a frightened little calf" , Gregory states that he wants to see the owner. "His voice, in its clearness and grandeur, reached all around the room, even to where an older man with white hair was writing at a desk at the back." When the men in the shop ridicule the children, Gregory stands his ground, "We didn't come here to be laughed at." he tells them. Although the visit to Rostov's ends badly Gregory has seen the kind of icon he believes Marta has in mind.

Gregory has his own space at home which he calls the Loft. It has a drawing table similar to his architect-father's drafting table, and he also has a favourite "painting of a little ship ploughing along in a rough sea under a pale blue sky with cotton wool clouds". Instead of asking Janet to leave his special space as he normally does, Gregory allows her presence as he considers the problem of Marta's picture. As he works away, Gregory notes, "Janet still breathed down his neck as he worked but something seemed to stop Gregory from snapping at her; perhaps it was those two pairs of pictured eyes that looked so steadily at him. He was patient with Janet and let her stay where she had never been allowed to stay before, in the Loft. He even let her go on with her questions."

When Gregory is unable to find the pieces of fabric for the Madonna, he acts on Janet's suggestion to visit their mother's milliner, Madame Ginette. Puzzled by Gregory's request, Madame Ginette asks him to explain why he needs the scraps. "For the first time Gregory smiled and then he, who never, as Mother complained, told anyone anything, told Madame  Ginette about Marta, the good place and the Kitchen Madonna." When Janet learns of Gregory's visit, she is stunned that Gregory went to Madame Ginette's alone AND that he spoke to her.

Determined to finish the picture, Gregory continues to reach out to those who might have what he needs. When he needs more wrappers for the border of the picture, he decides to visit the sweet shop, whose proprietor he has never spoken to and whose name he doesn't know. "What made him decide to carry out this business too without Janet he did not know, but he went alone and stood studying the toffees in their big glass jar." His explanation of why he needs the wrappers, stuns Mrs. Bartholomew. "Who would ever have thought you were that kind of boy. Proper stuck-up I thought you were: never a word for anybody...."

And when Gregory and Janet present the picture to their parents, telling them the entire story of how it came to be made, Gregory gives his sister her credit, " 'Because of Janet,' said Gregory -- and Janet glowed with pleasure -- 'Because of Janet I found a way to make the picture after all.' "  When Gregory cannot understand his mother's tears, she explains,
" 'What have you don?' said Mother through her tears. 'Lots of things. You began by sharing Rootle with Marta. You gave up your ship picture. You were ready to give up your watch, and here we all are in your Loft where you would never let us in.'....

'Yes!' said Mother. 'You let us in, Greg, and you have come out,' said Mother, which they did not understand."

The Kitchen Madonna is such a sweet story, chronicling how small acts of love can have such significant consequences in our lives.

Book Details:

The Kitchen Madonna by Rumer Godden
Toronto: Macmillian and Company Ltd.    1967
93 pp.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Blood Water Paint tells the story of painter Artemisia Gentileschi, today considered one of Italy's most talented artists. Artemisia's story, told in free verse is juxtaposed between the stories of the Bible's heroines Susanna and Judith. These stories are told, in prose, to Artemisia by her mother, Prudentia Montone as she lay dying from a fever after giving birth to a stillborn daughter.

Artemisia's mother died when she was twelve years old. Her father Orazio Gentileschi is a mediocre painter for whom Artemisia works as an apprentice, grinding and mixing pigments as well as painting. His shop does commissions of  "Bible tales, some portraits, ancient histories, myths." Artemisia finds it frustrating when she's taken away from her painting to cut up onions for their housekeeper Tuzia who often sends her shopping for linseed oil, and figs and fritters for her younger brothers. But Artemisia is determined to make the most of everything including a shopping trip to the Piazza di Santa Maria where she tries to notice colours and details.

Artemisia feels that her father is not able to portray feelings through his paintings. Although he attempts to lecture her on pigments and perspective, Artemisia knows more than her father is aware. To teach her about perspective, her father hires Agostino Tassi. Artemisia first meets Tassi when Tuzia lets him into the studio while Artemisia is working alone. She is overwhelmed by his large physical presence but she focuses on learning from Tassi. Signor Tassi encourages Artemisia to call him "Tino" which she does only reluctantly. He confirms to Artemisia that he has come to Rome for the Quirinal Palace commission, which Artemisia's father hopes to be involved in.

At this time Artemisia begins the preliminary sketches of Susanna. Although Artemisia needs to learn dual-point perspective before she can paint Susanna, her father wants her to focus on getting Tassi to include him in the palace commission. When Tassi at first declines based on the poor quality of Orazio's painting Artemisia offers a solution. Her father's name will appear on the works, but it will be she who will do the painting. Tassi appears interested in her proposal.

Later while working on her own painting of Susanna, Tassi stokes Artemisia's frustration over her father. She is moved by his apparent concern for her especially after he learns that she has been posing for her father. Tassi feigns concern, even questioning Artemisia as to whether her father abuses her. His concern moves Artemisia to kiss Tassi. The next day, on the way to Mass their carriage is stopped on the Via della Lungara by Tassi who insists on riding with them. His request is "a violation of the rules of decency, our code, our social order." Tuzia who is accompanying Artemisia, does nothing but Artemisia tells him he must not join them. When Tassi persists, stating that Artemisia has a chaperone, Tuzia orders Artemisia to make room for him.

Afterwards, Artemisia finds her thoughts preoccupied with Tassi. He returns to the studio the following day, "a hurricane of energy", telling Artemisia that he is falling behind on the Quirinal commission because he is captivated by her. She has a "horrid father", many responsibilities and a dreary studio. His solution is for Artemisia to come work in his studio. His offer is tempting to Artemisia because she believes she would not have to do many of the menial tasks her father makes her do, but instead might offer her other opportunities. However she also believes she would always be second in Tassi's studio too. When Tassi visits the next day he continues to press her to move to his studio; "Imagine what you would accomplish in my studio." and "...the things we could do together." To Artemisia, Tassi is speaking about marriage but Tassi has something quite different in mind. When he begins groping her, Artemisia struggles out of his way, telling him to stop.

Tassi returns to the studio, drunk, critical of Artemisia's Susanna. When he gropes her again, Artemisia orders him out of the studio. Instead Tassi, shreds the canvas and leaves, not returning for days. When he does, Artemisia tells him he is not welcome. Tassi warns her that her father is loyal to him and that payment is owed for her lessons. He rapes Artemisia in the studio, her screams are ignored by Tuzia.

Unable to paint or do much of anything after the brutal attack, Artemisia confronts Tassi when he returns the studio. Tassi acts indifferent, ignoring her orders to leave. Between his visits, Artemisia continues to suffer. Tassi again returns to the studio, attempting to win her over again, but this time, inspired by the stories of Judith and Susanna, Artemisia tells him that is going to tell her father. Tassi tells her he merely took what she offered, but Artemisia responds that he also destroyed her father's property - her painting.

Artemisia's father doesn't understand why she can't seem to focus on her work and doesn't know what it wrong with her. She tells him she will take no more lessons from Signor Tassi and when her father admonishes her for ruining their chance at the Quirinal commission, Artemisia tells her father the truth.  Despite her father's warnings about how her accusations will be perceived and how she will be treated, Artemisia insists that her father accuse Tassi. Gaining inspiration and strength from the Biblical heroines Susanna and Judith whose stories her mother told, Artemisia prepares to face a trial that she hopes will bring her justice. But what little justice she receives will come at a great price.


Blood Water Paint brings forth the story of Artemisia Gentileschi who was raped by painter Agostino Tassi. Artemisia who was born in Rome in 1593, was the eldest child of Orazio Gentileschi  and Prudentia Montone. She was introduced to painting in her father's workshop, mixing pigments, preparing canvases and painting her own works. Her mother died when she was twelve years old. Her brothers were also trained as artists but none showed promise equal to Artemisia. Her father was greatly influenced by the style of Carvaggio and this influence was passed on to Artemisia.

Susanna and the Elders by Gentileschi
Artemisia specialized in painting women from the Bible and ancient myths. Her first recognized work was Susanna and the Elders which she completed when she was just seventeen-years-old. Shortly after this work Artemisia was raped by her father's friend and colleague, Agostino Tassi. Tassi had been hired by Orazio to tutor his daughter and she was often left alone with Tassi and his friend Cosimo Quorlis. When Tassi did not act on his promise to marry Artemisia to restore her honour,  her father brought him to trial. Artemisia gave the judge all the required testimony indicating that what happened was in fact rape. Nevertheless she was tortured to see if her testimony was honest. Tassi was convicted but released by the judge.

After the trial, Artemisia married Pierantonio Stiattesi, an artist from Florence. She also painted Judith beheading Holofernes. Artemisia and Pierantonio moved to Florence where she became a successful painter, whose patrons included the House of Medici and Charles I, King of England. She was the first woman to be accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Designo. She also lived and worked in Rome, Venice, Naples and London. Her reputation as a Baroque artist eventually surpassed that of her father.

In Blood Water Paint, McCullough uses free verse to imagine the events leading up to rape of Artemisia and the trial afterwards. Interwoven throughout are the stories of Susanna and the Elders from the Book of Daniel in the Bible, and the story of Judith from the book of "the same name in the Old Testament. Artemisia's mother Prudentia begins her stories before the birth of her child. She is not well and fears she is dying. As her strength wanes  she seeks to educate her daughter in the dangers she may one day face as a young, attractive woman in a man's world.
"She knew I'd need Susanna
when I found myself
a woman in a world of men.

Girl as prey."

And so Artemisia's mother spends
"the last of her strength
to burn into my mind
the tales of women
no one else would
think to tell.

These stories
of a righteous woman,
her virtue questioned
through no fault of her own,
of a widow
with nothing left to lose..."

Prudentia tells her daughter the story of Susanna, the young, beautiful, virtuous wife of Joaquim who is accosted by two elders while bathing in the privacy of her home. Stunned and terrified, Susanna clutches at a robe to cover her nakedness. The two men  tell her "Today I am your husband. Today I tell you to lower your robe, and if you deny me, the world will hear how the faithless wife of Jaoquim cavorted in her garden with a man who was not her husband." Terrified, Susanna refuses even when they threaten her with the certainty of being stoned for adultery. "Susanna could lower her robe to these monsters who believe they can take whatever they want simply because they have the power...But if she does what they ask, she will be dead tomorrow either way. "
The elders lie about what happened in the garden and Susanna is ready to be stoned when Daniel, a respected young leader happens upon the scene. He questions the elders, determines they are lying as their stories are inconsistent and has them stoned. Susanna is freed. From Susanna's story, Artemisia learns to speak her truth, to speak out and let her voice be heard. She learns to be strong.

The other story Prudentia tells Artemisia is that of Judith, whose husband, Malachi died after being sent to investigate how close the Assyrians have come to the Jewish city of Bethulia which they have besieged. Bethulia's rulers have decided to hunker down and wait out the siege, meaning certain death for Judith and her people and rendering Malachi's death a waste. Outraged, Judith formulates a plan and with her servant Abra, travels during the night to the Assyrian camp and into the tent of Holofernes, the captain of the army. There she seduces him and then beheads him with his own sword. Judith and Abra carry Holofernes' head back to Bethulia. The Assyrian army flees, abandoning the siege and Bethulia is saved.                     

From Judith's story Artemisia learns that she is strong, despite the fact that she will be told she is "too small, too weak, too feebleminded to be of use."  Her mother counsels, "The world will tell you not to be outraged, love. They will tell you to sit quietly, be kind. Be a lady. And when they do? Be Judith instead."

These examples of strong women help Artemisia find her voice to accuse Signor Tassi and to endure a trial in the hopes of achieving justice. Like Susanna, Artemisia's story is not believed. Instead, she is tortured to determine if her testimony is true. Her hands are her life, but Artemisia submits to having thumb screws applied, severely wounding her hands, so determined is she to obtain justice for the rape.

Blood Water Paint is Joy McCullough's tenth novel. It began as a play which was eventually performed in 2015. As she was working on the play over the years, Mc Cullough began to see the possibility of it as a novel that might be of interest to teens.

In light of the recent #metoo movement, Blood Water Paint is a timely novel that asks the reader to consider the many issues surrounding rape and sexual harassment. These include victim blaming, sexual objectification and the trivializing of rape. McCullough also explores how social attitudes about sexuality and gender influence how rape is perceived and how it is treated by the courts and by society in general.

During the trial, Artemisia is treated by the court as though she is the one who has committed a crime. The trial drags on for months with Tassi showing up in court in "showy costumes", his story changing daily. Agostino testifies that she is a whore, "My studio is less for painting than for vulgar rendezvous", love letters are produced, despite the fact that Artemisia cannot write and a list of lovers given - including her father! The judge orders Artemisia examined by midwives for proof that her "pudenda" which in Latin is translated as "parts to be ashamed of" shows that she is not a virgin. The painful examination causes panic in Artemisia who feels like she is being raped again.
"My integrity must be tested
while Agostino smirks,
a man who raped
his wife,
her sister,
possibly even
had them killed."

McCullough, in her retelling of Susanna's story, has her appear ungrateful towards Daniel, questioning him as to what he would have done had the two elders stories not conflicted. Her point is that her testimony of what happened was never considered to be enough to prove her innocence. In the same way, Artemisia's account of what happened was also not considered sufficient. It was only accepted after she maintained her testimony was true under the pain of torture.
"...when I cried out
in the courtroom
like a child.

It's true.
It's true.
It's true."

The theme of contrasting perspectives is developed throughout the novel. The word "perspective" has two meanings, for the artist it is a way of portraying depth and distance but it can also mean  an attitude or point of view about something. McCullough incorporates both meanings into her story. At first Artemisia mentions single point perspective, "one vanishing point. The place where all lines parallel to the view converge"' This is a foreshadowing of the violent convergence of Artemisia and Signor Tassi's lives.
Although Artemisia knows single point perspective, Signor Tassi is engaged to teach her dual point perspective, something she needs to paint Susanna. Artemisia's paintings of Susanna demonstrate this perspective but there is also another meaning - the dual or two points of view of the events the artwork portrays - that of Susanna and that of the evil Elders intent on raping her.

McCullough contrasts Artemisia's perspective of painting the attempted rape of Susanna with that of men such as her father. Artemisia knows that her father cannot paint Susanna in the same way she can.
"Father's made attempts at Susanna,
just like the other painters - men-
who think they have the right
to tell the story of a woman
always watched.

But one can't truly tell a story
unless they've lived it in their heart."

His version of Susanna is that of a girl welcoming the attentions of the men who have watched her bathe.
"It doesn't matter.
He never listened
to my mother's stories, never bothered
to notice the fear of women.
He'll tell Susanna
just like all the others."
Like the other masters before him who painted this scene, Artemisia's father cannot comprehend "a woman's feelings in that moment."
Their paintings do not reflect the reality of a woman's experience, the feelings that only a woman can know.

"...The way the masters paint her,
the men are monstrous,
creeping, loathsome beasts,
obvious villains.
Yet Susanna wears
a smile that says
she welcomes their attentions."
The masters are perpetuating the myth that a woman who has been raped enjoyed it and indeed may have even encouraged it. Ironically this is exactly the perspective Signor Tassi, a rapist, takes. His "perspective" later on is to question Artemisia, "What was wrong with taking what you offered?"

Blood Water Paint is an interesting blend of poetry and prose, and of storytelling and painting. Fans of historical fiction will find this novel an engaging read while those interested in the social issues surrounding rape, especially from a historical perspective will find McCullough's novel has much to offer. There are many themes, some of which have been touched on here to further explore.

Book Details:

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
New York: Dutton Books     2018
292 pp.