Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo's latest book is about a sailor who was in the merchant navy during World War II and who suffered a catastrophic injury that changed his life forever. The story is narrated by the grandson who is now in his fifties, remembering how his relationship with his wounded grandfather grows through the years.

As a young child, Michael had nightmares about a man with a twisted face who jumps out of a sinking ship that is on fire. The nightmares always happened before his grandfather's visits at Christmas.These visits were not frequent because his grandfather lived on the Isles of Scilly. Unlike other people, and against his parents warnings, Michael would look at his grandfather. Unlike others who were revolted by what they saw, Michael could see past his grandfather's scars.
"I was never revolted by what I saw. If I had been, I could have looked away easily. I think i was more fascinated that anything else, and horrified too, because I'd been told something of what happened to him in the war. I saw the suffering he had gone through in his deep-blue eyes -- eyes that hardly ever blinked, I noticed."
Although Michael asked his parents about how his grandpa was wounded, they were reluctant to tell him much about what happened or about his grandmother whom he never met. Michael began visiting his grandpa in the Scilly Isles when he was twelve. His grandpa's world was much different from busy, noisy London; he spent his time fishing and reading. As the years went by, in the quiet time spent together Michael forged a strong bond and a deep understanding with his grandpa that led to his learning the truth about what happened during the war and in the years afterwards.

Discussion

Half a Man is a touching story about a family in desperate need of healing and forgiveness. The story centers on the importance of how we "see" others and of accepting people as they are. The hurt in Michael's family began when his grandmother Annie, was unable to see past her husband's terrible wounds. Grandpa tells Michael that Annie came to see him in hospital but things were different. "Right away I saw she didn't look at me the same, didn't speak to me like I was normal, like the nurses did. She still loved me, I think, but all she saw was a monster man." When he returned home, grandpa found that Annie still would not look at him. This deeply hurt Michael's grandpa and Annie's inability to accept him for who he was after the war, led to deeper problems. This inability to see grandpa was passed onto Annie's daughter - Michael's mother and eventually to Michael's father. They mistakenly believe that looking at grandpa was rude and upsetting to him. The only person able to look was Michael. At first Michael's looks were secret glances. These furtive looks turned into longer stares at grandpa's face and his missing fingers. At first Michael was scared when he looked at his grandpa's face, but as he grew older, the fear disappeared and he came to recognize the suffering. This acceptance leads Michael's grandpa to open up to him about what really happened to him many years ago - something he has never told anyone. Like anyone else, regardless of whether they have a disability or not, grandpa wanted to be seen and accepted.

Michael's grandpa too struggled to accept what happened to him. He admitted to Michael that he drank too much and said things that he shouldn't have, leading Annie to leave him. He tells Michael, "I don't blame her, not anymore. No one wants a monster for a husband. No one wants half a man, and that's what I was, Michael, half a man. That's what I still am."

Therefore, Half a Man is also a story which explores the lasting impact war has on those directly involved and on their families - often into the generations that follow. Morpurgo's gentle story-telling conveys the sense of loss experienced by grandpa's family when he returns home so terribly wounded. As grandpa struggled to recover from his catastrophic wounds he discovered the one thing he desired most - his family, taken from him. His beloved wife, Annie, who could have been a source of comfort and healing, was unable to look at him. Their struggles to cope with the aftermath of the war led to Annie abandoning him, taking their little girl who was Michael's mother, with her. The result was a family completely broken: Michael's grandpa was consumed by hate and Michael's own mother grew up angry at her mother for taking her away from her dad.

It is left up to Michael to bring about his grandpa's wish for the family to reconcile - specifically his wife and daughter. This happens at grandpa's funeral.

Michael's grandpa mentions that it was Dr. McIndoe who put him back together in the hospital. "It was him that did it, put us back together, and I'm not talking about the operations. He was a magician in the operating room, all right. But it's what he did afterward for us. He made us feel right again inside, like we mattered, like we weren't monster men."

Dr. Archibald McIndoe was in fact a real person. At the time of World War II, there were only four plastic surgeons in Britain and Dr. McIndoe was one of those. Dr. McIndoe was stationed at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead (where Michael's grandpa was treated). There he founded the Centre for Plastic and Jaw Surgery to treat mainly RAF causalities of World War II. Dr. McIndoe developed new ways to treat the horrific burns suffered by RAF pilots and championed the rehabilitation and reintegration of these terribly disfigured men back into society.

In 1941 he formed the Guinea Pig Club which consisted mainly of recovering RAF patients. McIndoe believed that the disfigured airmen should be fully reintegrated into society at a time when many who saw these men in public were horrified and demanded they remain hidden.  McIndoe died young, at age 59 in 1960, but his legacy lives on in the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation which works to develop new ways to treat burns and soft tissue injuries. Morpurgo's Half a Man is dedicated to Eric Pearce, "one of the very last of McIndoe's 'Guinea Pigs.' "

You can read more about the amazing Sir Archibald McIndoe on the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation website.

Half a Man is a story simply told, beautifully illustrated by Gemma O'Callaghan's prints.

Book Details:

Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press   2005
53 pp.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Girl At The Center of the World by Austin Aslan

The Girl At The Center of The World is the sequel to The Islands At The End of The World. Seventeen year old Leilani Milton and her father returned to their home on the Big Island. Three months after The Arrival of the Emerald Orchid, an alien being orbiting the Earth and responsible for disabling all electronic and power grids, Lei and her family lead a subsistence lifestyle. They farm their own crops and ration everything.

Leilani's epilepsy has resulted in her being able to communicate with the Emerald Orchid who returned to Earth to spawn as she has done before. An astronomer, Buzz living at the observatory on Mauna Kea helped Lei talk to the Orchid. The alien along with its baby was about to leave Earth but Lei and her father discovered that the Orchid has the ability to absorb the harmful radiation spewed out from nuclear meltdowns. With nuclear reactors no longer able to cool their fuel rods, catastrophic nuclear meltdowns began occurring all over the planet. Lei while in contact with the Orchid during her seizures was able to witness these meltdowns occuring all over the planet. Yet no excess radiation has yet to be measured. When the Orchids communicated their love of the "sweetness", Lei came to understand that this was a reference to the radiation which they absorb.

While the Orchid's leaving would have allowed the power grid to be restored, the nuclear meltdowns would have left the planet uninhabitable. So Lei managed to convince the Orchid to stay a while longer and to absorb the "sweet" radiation.  Lei's connection with the Orchid is strong but similar to a child holding onto a helium balloon. If she lets go, the Orchid will leave for her home in the depths of space where there are many more like her.

However, Lei's problem is that the longer she keeps the Orchid in orbit around Earth the more difficult it will be to recover from the extended period without power. She needs to get a message out to everyone about the nuclear plants, to tell them to stop trying to save the reactors and to let them go critical because the Orchid can absorb the harmful radiation. The question is how to do this.

Leilani's father, mother, her seven year old brother Kai and her Grandpa are safely hidden in their little valley. Her family celebrates Lei's seventeenth birthday along with Keali'l who is Hawaiian and whose parents died in the first tsunami wave. Keali`l worked for Lei's mother, a biologist at University of Hawai`i and now she's taken him in.

During one of her contacts with the Orchid, Lei finds the Orchid hinting at releasing something which Lei doesn't really understand. At her birthday party, which is attended by Tammy, Keali`l and Buzz, Lei feels ill and her parents worry that she might have appendicitis. However Lei experiences a seizure and realizes that the Orchid is releasing a meteor (Lei refers to this as a pearl) which she wants to send into the ocean. Lei asks the Orchid to send the meteor into the mountain on Hawai`i, Mauna Loa because if the meteor hits the ocean it will cause a tsunami. When she awakens there is an earthquake and a meteor shoots across the sky and into the shield volcano's flank.

Witnessing this, Tami Simpson who is Lei's best friend, realizes that Lei is able to communicate with the Orchid. Lei tells Buzz that she calls the meteor "the pearl". Buzz tells the Milton's he will hike up the volcano to check out the impact site and sample the pearl.

At night Tami and Lei meet Keali`l at the breakwater on Hilo Bay. The bay is filled with tsunami debris and the hills around Hilo are dark. Keali'l brings a dive light and the three go diving for slippahs (lobsters). However their diving is interrupted by Hanamen, the sheriff's men,  who fire shots at them and demand their dive light and their bag of lobsters. Lei leads her friends through a hole in the breakwater. One of the Hanamen is a  guy named Two Dog. Two Dog and the other Hanamen notice a sailboat passing the bay and decide they are going to attack. Leaving a man behind to watch for Lei and her friends, Two Dog and two men head out after the sailboat. Lei leads Tami and Keali`l through the breakwater but Tami cuts herself badly on a piece of concrete. Fearing she will draw sharks as she is bleeding and having been seen by the Hanaman on the breakwater, Tami begins swimming for the sailboat. The three teens manage to convince the man and woman on the sailboat to pick them up, warning them that people are planning to take their boat.

Marcus who is a doctor and Rachel agree to sail to Onomea Bay where Lei's house is located. Lei tells them her family will help them if they treat Tami's serious leg wound. On the sailboat while talking with Keali`l, Lei has an important revelation that she could use the Orchid to send a message via Morse Code by causing the Orchid to dim and brighten. To test the possibility that this might work, she asks the Orchid first to fade then to go back to her normal brilliance. It is successful.

Keali`l stays with Rachel on the sailboat while Lei, Marcus and Tami hike to Lei's home where they fill her parents in on what happened. Marcus tells Lei that Tami must have antibiotics for her leg which has a deep cut that must heal open. The next day Marcus relates his story of escape from Phoenix Arizona to San Carlos, Mexico. Lei and her family stock up Marcus and take him back to Onomea Bay and then she and Keali`l head into Hilo to search for the IV antibiotics Marcus has told them to search for. Finding nothing at the clinic they head to the hospital where the doctor, Dr. Madsen, after learning how she was injured tells them that they must bring Tami in. Tami is brought in and receives the antibiotics she needs because of Keali`l. Lei knows Keali`l has gotten the antibiotics at a great personal price. Meanwhile Lei runs into Aukina, the soldier from the military camp on O`ahu. He agrees to teach her Morse code, although he doesn't know her reason for wanting to learn.

In an attempt to relax, Lei goes swimming at Rainbow Falls and suffers a grand mal seizure during which her contact with the Star Flowers is interrupted by an unknown person telling the Orchid to leave Earth. Shocked, Lei has no idea what to make of this. As Tami's leg heals, Lei begins to learn Morse Code from Aukina and struggles to learn who might be contacting the Orchid. Against the backdrop of the growing tension between the tribes, Lei begins practicing dimming and brightening the Orchid so she can eventually send her message out about the nuclear reactors. But will her efforts be thwarted by the unknown person attempting to convince the Orchids to leave?


Discussion

The Girl At The Center of The World is an exciting sequel that focuses on Leilani's attempt to save her planet and on the survival of her family and friends. There are plenty of descriptions about how the Milton family is working on building a sustainable lifestyle.

However Lei's focus is on a much larger and grander scale. Through her contact with the Orchids she experiences first hand the melt down of nuclear reactors in different areas of the world. "A silent pop of white flashes off the coast of New York. A ball of water crowned with radioactive mist swells along the morning's edge. The atomic poison of this explosion mixes with the fallout of other nuclear disasters that blanket the globe. But my Orchid draws up the venom, neutralizes it." Lei knows the longer the world remains without the ability to make electricity the harder it will be to recover. But her discovery that the Orchids have saved the planet from nuclear fallout means she must eliminate all of the danger from the nuclear reactors before she can let the Orchids leave. She must get the message out to the rest of the world to allow their nuclear reactors to go critical so the Orchid can finish the job of absorbing the excess radiation and then be released. An unexpected development is the introduction of an unknown person who attempts to get the Star Flowers to leave. Lei doesn't know the identity of this person but attempts to block his communication with the mother Orchid and to form a strong bond with her baby.  All her attempts to communicate and reason with this person fail. This sets up a mystery and also a source of conflict that complicates Lei's mission. The resolution to this conflict in the novel is really anticlimactic partly because once the identity of the other contact is revealed, Lei seems to quickly and rather easily convince him to leave and partly because the second storyline is more exciting.

That second storyline continues the conflict hinted at in the first novel between Lei's Tutu who was once a police officer and the sheriff of Hilo who has taken control of the island. Lei's grandfather and the sheriff have a complicated past which comes back to haunt them both. Bands of gangs called Tribes are fighting for control of Puna and Hilo. The sheriff of Hana from Maui who put a gun to Lei's father's head in the first novel is in control in Puna. His Hanamen control the plantations and agriculture. When the sheriff learns about Lei's ability to connect with the Star Flowers he begins to search for her family's farm. This leads to a deadly confrontation which provides the main source of tension for the novel.

Aslan's storyline is unique as is his setting - the exotic islands of Hawai`i. He touches on some of the native Hawaiian culture and beliefs, and of the islands' annexation by America and the desire of Hawaiians to exercise self government. This is main reason for the sheriff's desire to have the Orchids stay. "What we're building here is too important. These Flowers leave, the occupiers --the tourist droves --return. I won't allow that to happen."

Unlike the first novel which focused on survival during the crisis, The Girl At The Center Of The World focuses more on relationships; Lei's relationship with her beloved grandpa who reveals his connection to the sheriff of Hana, her friendship with Tami who is her best friend and the blossoming romance between Lei and Aukina. Aslan ties up all the loose end neatly - and perhaps too conveniently leading the novel to end in a hopefuly way.  Power is gradually being restored and civilization is beginning to return to the world.

The Girl At The Center Of The World is a solid conclusion to the novel and will appeal to those who enjoy a unique science fiction story set in an exotic location. Austin Aslan was inspired to write these two novels while doing his masters in tropical biology in Hawaii.

Book Details:

The Girl At The Center Of The World by Austin Aslan
New York: Wendy Lamb Books     2015
337 pp. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Girl In the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

"This is all completely insane and every new piece of information only compounds the insanity. I'm trying to find a girl who vanished from a closed house. Who cannot be reported missing, because if the police found her, it would be worse for her than if they'd never gone looking at all. "

It is January 1943. Winter in Amsterdam. Holland was occupied two and half years ago by Nazi Germany.

Hanneke Bakker is on her way to make her "deliveries" of black market items. Hanneke trades in the black market - the "illicit underground exchange of goods" such as potatoes, meat, and lard so her family can survive. She hunts down items that can no longer be easily found in shops such as bacon, tea and chocolate. To Miss Akkerman, her first customer on this Tuesday morning,  she brings lotions and lipstick.

Hanneke's next customer, Mrs. Janssen, has requested sausage. The Janssen's have three sons, the two older ones have moved to London and America, but the youngest son died on the Dutch front lines attempting to protect Holland's border from the German invasion. Her husband disappeared a few months ago and Hanneke never asked about his whereabouts. She offers Hanneke real coffee and stroopwafel and insists she visit. Mrs. Janssen then tells Hanneke the real reason for asking her to stay:  she wants Hanneke to find a missing person.

Mrs. Janssen has been hiding a young Jewish girl in a tiny room off her pantry. Her husband Hendrik had a business partner David Roodveldt who is Jewish. The Roodveldts included wife Rose, and their two daughters Lea and fifteen year old Mirjam. In July David came to Hendrik needing a place to hide, so David brought them to his furniture shop where he built a secret room. Mrs. Janssen did not know her husband was hiding the Roodveldts and didn't find out until one night last month when a girl wearing a pale blue coat showed up at her door. That girl was Mirjam Roodveldt. She told Mrs. Janssen about the hidden room and that someone betrayed Hendrik. The Nazis came to the factory but when Hendrik claimed he didn't know and David tried to intervene, all were murdered by the soldiers. Mirjam escaped out the front door of the factory.  Mrs. Janssen tells Hanneke that she was hiding Mirjam in the secret room in her pantry until yesterday at noon. When she returned from visiting her neighbour, Mrs. Veenstra, Mrs. Janssen discovered Mirjam was gone. Mrs. Janssen has no idea how she left the house unseen nor where she might have gone. Hanneke promises Mrs. Janssen nothing mainly because she is trying only to survive the war.

Hanneke purpose in life at this time is to try to help her family survive, not to find missing persons. Her father is unable to work because of an injury during the Great War. Hanneke works as a receptionist for Mr. Kreuk, an undertaker. But Kreuk also has a second job for Hanneke. Using the ration cards of dead people, he stocks up on supplies and resells them at higher prices on the black market. Later on in the day after talking with Mrs. Janssen, Hanneke and her family witness their neighbour, Mr. Bierman who is Jewish being taken away by the NSB officers. Life in Amsterdam has changed so much for Hanneke and her family. Her best friend Elsbeth is now living with a German soldier. Her boyfriend Sebastian (Bas) Van de Kamp was killed on the Dutch front two years ago.

Hanneke decides to go back to Mrs. Janssen and ask her more about Mirjam. She learns that Mirjam attended the Jewish Lyceum. Even though it is now 3pm, Hanneke decides this might be the perfect time to sneak into the school unnoticed when the hallways are filled with students leaving. However, she finds the school quiet and mostly empty of students who are either in hiding or have been taken away by the Germans. At the Jewish school Hanneke is confronted by a tall young woman only a few years older than herself. She tells Hanneke nothing. When Hanneke returns home around 6pm she finds Bas's older brother Ollie waiting for her. Ollie, a university student, takes Hanneke for a walk and questions her about her visit to the Jewish Lyceum. Ollie reveals that the young woman Hanneke met at the school, Judith came to him because she believed Hanneke might be a Nazi scout. After pressure from Ollie, Hanneke reveals that she is looking for a fifteen year old girl and wants to meet Judith again to ask her. Ollie invites her to their supper club that both he and Judith, also a university student attend.

That supper club turns out to be a small resistance group that includes Ollie, Judith and her friend Sanne, Willem and Leo and is part of a larger network. The group is struggling to provide fake ration cards for the people that they have been helping in hiding. From Judith, Hanneke learns about how the beautiful theatre, Hollandsche Schouwburg has been turned into a deportation center for the Jewish population who are shipped to the camps. Judith's cousin, Mina works in the nursery or creche which keeps the children separate from their parents until they are deported to the camps. Hanneke learns that any Jewish person who is caught up in the nightly sweeps, regardless of whether they received their deportation notice, would be sent to Schouwburg. She needs to discover if Mirjam might be in Schouwburg.

As Hanneke continues her search for Mirjam she confronts the reality of the Nazi occupation of Holland and the effect of war on the Dutch people. Hanneke also begins to discover the risks the hidden resistance takes to save even a few Jewish children. And she uncovers the truth of Mirjam's disappearance, she discovers friendship, jealousy and unintended betrayal while dealing with the loss of the boy she loved.

Discussion

The Girl In The Blue Coat is a finely crafted historical novel about life in occupied Holland. Set over the span of eight days in January of 1943, the novel follows Hanneke Bakker, whose blond hair would make her a poster girl for the Nazi party, as she searches for a missing Jewish girl.

At first Hanneke doesn't want to get involved in the mystery of Mirjam's disappearance but Hanneke undergoes a transformation over the week portrayed in the novel. At first Hanneke is concerned only with survival, like the majority of her fellow Dutch citizens. War, occupation and the loss of her boyfriend have hardened Hanneke to some degree.  When Mrs. Janssen wants her help, Hanneke's initial reaction is "Too bad she didn't realize I don't need to be buttered up. I work for money, not kindness." Even after Mrs. Janssen tells her story, Hanneke states "The explanation doesn't matter, really. I can't help her, no matter how sad her story is. It's too dangerous. Survival first. That's my war motto. After Bas, it might be my life motto...Now I transport black market goods, but only because it feeds me and my family. I flirt with German soldiers, but only because it saves me. Finding a missing girl does nothing for me at all."

Hanneke insists she is a different person from the one she was before the war. She doesn't believe she can change a situation that is much bigger than her small world.  "Finding this girl is not who I am anymore. That action is soft; I am practical. That action is hopeful; I am not. The world is crazy; I can't change it." 

She tells Mrs. Janssen that she will consider finding Mirjam.But as Hanneke begins to learn about Mirjam she finds herself drawn into becoming  "an accidental member of the resistance."  And she finds herself drawn into asking "Mirjam. Where did you go?"  Hanneke decides to help Mrs. Janssen partly as an act of rebellion against the Nazis, partly to try to put a bit of order into her "corner of the world" but also as "a way of finding the person I used to be." 

When it appears that Mirjam has been caught in a sweep and is at the dreadful Hollandsche Schouwburg, Hanneke becomes determined to free her and prevent her from being taken to the camps. Ollie tells her that his group cannot help her and that they cannot risk the resistance network for one girl. But Hanneke responds, "I know your 'greater good', Ollie, but if the good that you're working so hard for is one that won't work to rescue a fifteen year old girl, then is it worth it anyway? What kind of society are you trying to save?" 

Hesse builds the tension in her story with numerous plot twists that lead to the revelation of what really happened to Mirjam and her best friend, Amalia. The terrible tragedy plays out despite Hanneke and the resistance group's efforts. Like her own situation with Bas, there are unintended consequences of certain actions. Just as Amalia unwittingly revealed Mirjam's family's secret hiding place leading to the death of four people, Hanneke's pressuring of Bas to sign up led to his death. Hanneke did not believe Bas would die and feels enormous guilt over his death, just as Amalia felt enormous guilt over what happened to Mirjam's family. However, unlike Amalia who tried to fix her mistake, Hanneke can never undo what she's done. She comes to realize that doing good deeds will never make her feel better about the loss of Bas, but that healing is possible. "Maybe we can't barter our feelings away, trading good deeds for bad ones and expecting to be whole."

Hesse also effectively portrays the effect of war on people; how fear and the desire to survive at all cost changes people so that they no longer resist evil but unwittingly co-operate by simply doing nothing. For example Hanneke notes that after Mr. Bierman is arrested, "the shop assistant is selling vegetables to a customer, as though the store's owner wasn't just put into a truck and carted away, as though Mrs. Bierman's world wasn't just turned upside down."

When Hanneke and Willem watch one of the forced marches from the Schouwburg, Hanneke notes how people simply ignore what is happening. "The prisoners follow, carrying suitcases, disheveled and tired like they haven't slept in days. The crowd is big, maybe seventy people, and the soldiers march them down the middle of the street. It's a lovely winter day in Amsterdam, and though there are other people on the street, couples like me and Willem, nobody acts like the forced parade of people is out of the ordinary. Our sense of the ordinary has become horrifying."

Hesse also touches on the Dutch citizens who were on friendly terms with their Nazi occupiers and how they were thought of by their fellow citizens. This is done through Hanneke's friend Elsbeth. Hanneke and Elsbeth were close friends for twelve years but their friendship died when Elsbeth became involved with a German soldier and eventually married him. Hanneke refuses to attend Elsbeth and Rolf's wedding and she grieves over how the Nazi's poison everything.

There's plenty of references to some of the resistance actions by the Dutch and to how the Dutch Jewish population suffered. In this way Hesse creates a realistic setting for novel so that readers get a true sense of the what the Nazi occupation was like. Ollie, who it is revealed is a homosexual, confides his secret to Hanneke but questions her as to whether she will tell. Even at the end of the novel when Hanneke expresses her happiness over the defeat of the Nazi's at Stalingrad, she experiences momentary fear that the woman on the train may be a Nazi sympathizer.

The Girl In The Blue Coat is a combination of historical fiction, mystery and adventure. It has a strong heroine and an interesting supporting cast of characters.

Book Details:

The Girl In The Blue Coat by Monica Hesse
New York: Little, Brown & Company    2016
301 pp.



Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Color of Silence by Liane Shaw

Seventeen year old Alexandra Taylor is in a courtroom to be sentenced for joyriding. Eleven months, sixteen days, and thirteen hours after Alex and her best friend were involved in a tragic car accident that cost the life of her best friend Calliope Prescott. She is sentenced to two hundred hours of community service and one full year of probation. The conditions of her probation are to continue regular participation in school, observing a nightly curfew of ten o'clock.

Alternating between flashbacks of her life before the accident and her current situation, Alex remembers the events that led to her being in the courtroom. Cali is determined to go to a party but Alex doesn't really want to go. Alex decides to attend even though she'd rather stay home and practice for the recital two days after the party. The party is held at Cory Bellevue's home - a mansion in Greystone Estates. Cali wants to go because of her crush on Matt Wainfield. The two make arrangements to attend and to be picked up by Alex's dad afterwards. At first Alex feels uncomfortable but settles in when she meets Mandy from her vocal class. However, Alex and Cali's lives change forever when Cali takes the keys to Matt's car to do a coffee run.

Her life post-accident finds Alex being taught at home for some of her subjects as she is too distressed to return to school. She remains distracted and unfocused as Ms. Smithson reminds her to keep up with her work in math. Nelle Parkins, Alex's probation officer tells her she has secured a community service project for her at the local hospital where she will visit a young girl the same age as Alex who has serious physical challenges. She lives in the hospital and Alex will be a companion to her, reading, talking or doing whatever staff feels is necessary - something Alex is not happy about.

That girl is seventeen year old Joanie Watson who cannot move on her own and cannot talk. She needs to be fed via a tube that enters her stomach. The only thing Joanie can control is her eyes.  When she was a baby, Joanie was left at a children's hospital by her mother who was wearing a necklace of beautiful polished stones. She left the necklace for Joanie as a keepsake.

Joanie lived in another special hospital for a time and then lived in two different group homes, although some of that time involved hospitalization. At the second group home everyone was kind to Joanie and it became home for her. Joanie couldn't stay in the group home though once her lungs began to deteriorate.

 Above her hospital bed hangs her mother's necklace of coloured stones which she uses to remind of her things that have happened in the past. Each stone draws her into a memory of her past. Joanie's favourite nurse is Patrick, who has sparkling eyes and who makes her laugh. Patrick tells Joanie that she is going to have a new visitor, a girl the same age. Joanie is thrilled and hopes that this girl will be someone who truly sees her.

Alex learns that Joanie has a neuromuscular disorder that prevents her from being able to control her body and that she cannot talk. One of the nurses, Kathleen, encourages Alex to talk to Joanie as they believe she understands. At their first meeting Joanie quickly recognizes from Alex's eyes that "she has her windows closed so that no one can see inside."  She wonders why Alex has so few words. Alex is unhappy with her placement because she must go to the hospital and do the one thing she doesn't want to do - talk. Alex's father tells her that she cannot continue her silence forever, that eventually she will have to talk to people.

Because she doesn't want to speak, Alex decides to bring a CD of Broadway tunes. However the music causes Alex to flashback to just before the party when Cali did her makeup. It is a painful memory. For Joanie, the music makes her feel connected to Alex. The next day Alex returns with a jazz CD. Joanie feels that Alex is using the music to block out the world. But how long can Alex continue to block out that fateful day of the party? How long can she continue to live in the past and ignore the present?

Discussion

The Color of Silence is a deeply moving story about a young girl's journey from guilt to acceptance and healing as she helps an unexpected friend achieve her dream of communicating with those around her.

Shaw uses Alex and Joanie, both of whom are stuck in the past, as narrators in The Color of Silence. Their relationship is set against the tragedy of the accident that claimed Alex's best friend's life. Eleven months after the accident, Alex is still struggling to cope with what happened, blaming herself for not taking care of Cali. Alex spends her days thinking about her life with Cali before the accident. It is through her memories that the events leading up to the accident are revealed.She lives in the past yet is unable to confront it.

Joanie who is confined to hospital as her health deteriorates is also focused on the past. At one time she attended school and lived in a group home. Unable to communicate with the outside world, Joanie's world now consists of the interactions she has with hospital staff, especially Patrick and a vibrant inner life. Joanie looks at the stone necklace which she calls her "rainbow' because of its coloured stones and uses each stone to draw out a memory of events in the past. As their friendship blossoms both help the other to live in the present.

Although Alex has been assigned to the hospital to help Joanie, it is Joanie who helps to break Alex out of her grief and move her towards forgiveness, acceptance and healing. Joanie pulls Alex out of her self-absorption and makes her think about what Joanie's life is really like. Alex has chosen not to talk, but Joanie cannot speak even if she wanted to.This leads Alex to gradually begin engaging with Joanie  and after her first session learning to use the eye gaze technology, Alex finds herself not thinking about Cali but of Joanie who is a real part of her present. Likewise once Alex decides to be present to Joanie and realizes that Joanie will have a much better chance of succeeding to learn the eye gaze technology with her help, she draws Joanie away from her necklace.

Since Joanie is severely disabled Shaw uses her character and situation to explore how people view the disabled. Joanie remembers watching the movie version of The Wizard of  Oz and how the scarecrow was viewed differently by people because of his "raggedy outsides".  Joanie feels that people view her in the same way. "My raggedy outsides hide my brain as well. Even though some people treat me like I can think and feel, no one really understands how much of me there really is. Maybe someday I'll find my own wizard who will show the world that I have a fully operating brain that was really inside of me all along..."   (the latter a foreshadowing of Joanie's learning of the Eye Gaze technology).

When Joanie is taken to the Children's Museum, one of the volunteers places her in front of a mirror but Joanie does like this because the mirror only shows her reflection, the outside of her.  Instead she wishes "there was a magic mirror that could show him who I really am."  "because the outside of me really doesn't look like the inside of me at all." Although Patrick tells Joanie that she is the strongest person he knows, the complete opposite of what most people tell her. "Mostly I hear words like 'frail,' 'weak,' and 'fragile' when I hear other people talking about me."

As Joanie begins to learn how to use the Eye Gaze which she calls her Wizard, she begins to wonder how learning to communicate with others will change their view of her and how having this ability will change her. "What would people think of me, I wonder, if they knew how I was on the inside. Would I seem like the same person to them, or would I become someone different? How would people treat me if I could tell them what I want? Would I become a whole person to them?"
"Will I stay the same person if I can use outside words?...When i woke up yesterday morning, I was Joanie. Silent and filled up with thoughts and dreams that no one but me was every going to know. When I woke up this morning, I was someone who can tell Shawna and Alexandra that the square has a name, and that the name is Blue."

Shaw also demonstrates through the character of Joanie, how the disabled are capable of having a rich interior life,  unknown to the rest of us. When Joanie is beginning to learn to communicate she notes that Patrick remarks that she now has words. But Joanie has had words for a long time, they have just been inside her. "Patrick would be surprised to know that I have my very own stories and hopes and thoughts and ideas and feelings."


A major theme throughout the novel involves the use of words and silence. Alex won't talk because of the trauma she experienced during the accident. Juxtaposed with her situation is that of Joanie who cannot talk because of her disorder.  Yet both girls help each other to find a way to speak. When Cali is driving and loses control of the car she screams at Alex "I don't know what to do! I can't control it! Tell me what to do!"  However Alex can't remember what to do and in her panic, "My thoughts are all scrambling around in a total panic and I can't find any words that will help her." Alex blames her silence for Cali's death.  The silence after the crash leads Alex to remark,  "They say that silence is golden. I know that isn't true. The real color of silence is black."

After the accident Alex told the police what happened but the words came out mixed up. Eventually she stopped answering the police questions because all anyone wanted to know was who was driving, who owned the car and where they were going.  There was little concern for her or for what happened to Cali. Three months after the accident Alex was taken to a speech pathologist who suggested she needed help to talk about what happened. But as far as Alex is concerned, "I don't have anything to say. My words are useless." because Cali is dead and nothing she says now will bring her back.

However when Alex begins visiting Joanie in the hospital as part of her community service she recognizes how precarious Joanie's life is without the ability to speak.  "She can't tell anyone if she starts to panic. She can't say what she wants them to do or not to do --what she feels or doesn't feel. If she's hungry or tired or happy or sad or lonely."  After her outburst to her father when Alex explains that she's to blame for Cali's death because she didn't make the right choices, Alex knows her words have hurt her father. She also begins to realize that she's hurting Joanie because she's not giving her the best she has to offer by being silent to a girl who wants more than anything to communicate with the outside world. Researching the eye gaze technology leads her to realize, "What is wrong with me? Going in to see Joanie and basically refusing to talk, when all she wants in the world is to be able to do the one thing that I've decided to stop?"

 Meanwhile Joanie cannot vocalize but she uses words all the time. "I actually use words very well. I have listened to stories and movies and plays and people talking around me and to me for seventeen years. I am so full of words and thoughts and images that if I ever could figure out a way to let them loose, they would come swirling out of me in a torrent of syllables... I would fill every room with the colors of my dreams until the whole world became a rainbow of my making." For Joanie, the color of silence is the rainbow.

Joanie eventually leads Alex towards healing and recovery as she learns to communicate. She shares herself and her most intimate part - her rainbow necklace - with Alex. Alex knows this is what friends do and she begins to recognize that Joanie is her friend. Still Alex struggles to find the courage to tell Joanie why she comes to visit her and what happened to her. Alex wants to be a real friend to Joanie and that means sharing something of herself, in her case, the truth about why she has been coming to see Joanie. Talking to Joanie when she's very ill allows Alex to open up and prepares her for the long overdue conversation she eventually has with her father.

Although the novel has a sad ending, Shaw shows Alex is on the road to healing by accepting what she cannot change - her actions in the past. Alex grieves her choices and actions but knows Cali would want her to stop feeling sorry for herself and get on with her life.

The Color of Silence touches on many themes: forgiveness, healing, death, life, and the meaning of friendship making it an interesting read.

Book Details:

The Color of Silence by Liane Shaw
Toronto: Second Story Press     2013
264 pp.



 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Hold Tight. Don't Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner

Hold Tight Don't Let Go is a story about life in Haiti after the January 12, 2010 earthquake that devastated the impoverished island.

Fifteen year old Magdalie Jean-Baptiste lives with her manman and her cousin Nadine in the basement of Madame Faustin's home in the city of Port-au-Prince. Magdalie's manman is really her aunt who took her in at age three, when Magdalie's mother (manman's younger sister) died. Manman is a servant in Madame Faustin's home where she does the cooking, cleaning and shopping. Before the earthquake, manman took good care of Magdalie and Nadine. They were poor but they went to the Catholic school and were cleanly dressed.

When the earthquake begins, Magdalie is shelling pigeon peas under the tree in Madame Faustin's garden.Madame Faustin's house collapses killing Magdalie's manman who was working on the second floor. Magdalie, Nadine and Magdalie's uncle Tonton Elie survive the quake and are forced to live in a camp on the soccer field. Magdalie's life is now very difficult but even more so when Nadine's father who is a lawyer in Miami obtains a visa for her to travel to America.

Nadine leaves in November of 2010 for America. She promises Magdalie, "Mwen pap janm lage w. I'll never let you go." Nadine promises Magdalie she will bring her to Miami too. While anxiously waiting for Nadine to contact her, Magdalie lives in a tent camp with her uncle Tonton Elie who struggles to find work to support them. The cash-for-work programs have ended and the country now is in the midst of the cholera epidemic. Magdalie spends her time cleaning and sleeping and doesn't bother to find work because she believes she will soon be leaving for the United States.But as time passes will she ever make it to Miami and leave the horror and devastation of Haiti behind?

Discussion

Hold Tight Don't Let Go is a stark, honest telling of life in Haiti after the earthquake of 2010. Magdalie's life undergoes a major transformation after surviving the terrible earthquake that kills her manman. The changes in her life cause deep turmoil within her. In 2009 - year before the earthquake, Magdalie's diary entry reveals she's a girl who goes to school, follows the Brazil soccer team, and buys pink Tampicos with Nadou. She's good at history and writing. Her life is focused on everyday things such as watching her mother get up early to prepare meals for Mme. Faustin and helping her manman even though Mme. Faustin doesn't like her to do so. But now, a year after the earthquake, Magdalie's life is unrecognizable.  "I don't recognize myself. And I hate this; I hate it all. I want my life back. I want to worry about ordinary things like algebra and French dictees again. I want everyone back and whole and alive."

For Magdalie, "ordinary life is now like a bad parody of ordinary life before the earthquake." She has little motivation to do much of anything. She can't attend school as her Tonton Elie has no money and she is alone. Wagner vividly portrays Magdalie's precarious situation and how much her life had changes. "I am alone, I am alone, I am alone. If I fall, there will be no one to catch me. I am responsible for myself. I have to be an adult now. No more birthdays...My old life feels like a film I saw while half asleep."

Magdalie finds herself growing angrier and angrier at her situation which she is helpless to change.
Magdalie decides to try to make extra money by selling water so she can leave the camp, leave Port-au-Prince and leave Haiti to go to Miami. But borrowing money from Nadou's friend, Jimmy ends in disaster when she is robbed on the taptap (bus). Her inability to accept the reality of her situation leads to Magdalie becoming increasingly angry at the injustice of her situation, the poverty in the capital and how it changes people. "We are all turning against one another in this country, where the hungry steal from the hungry, the poor persecute the poor. We, the poor, on the streets, visible and exposed, with no walls or windshields to keep us safe. Everyone devours us, including and most of all ourselves."

Magdalie's inability to help herself, the realization that Nadine is not going to send for her to come to Miami and a white photographer's insensitivity of the true situation in Haiti cause Magdalie to lash out. Concerned her tonton takes her to a manbo, Manman Niniz, a vodou priestess who performs a ceremony to release the anger Magdalie has. Magdalie wonders "if God has forgotten us."  "The anger boils inside of me. The earthquake broke open all the sadness in my heart, and I could only patch it up again with hardness. I took my fear  and my sadness and turned them into hate, because it made me feel strong instead of weak."  The ritual Magdalie goes through with Manman Niniz provides Magdalie the opportunity to grieve over the loss of her manman, the loss of her life and Nadine's departure.

Magdalie's trip to Jeremie further helps her to begin to come to terms with her life as it is now and the loss of her manman. After nine days of ritual mourning and the promise of a blossoming romance with a boy her age, Magdalie begins to recover from her sadness and her anger. She leaves the mountain village with a fresh determination to return to school. "I am filled with hope and fear, because I want so much for my furture, and I don't know how I will do it, but I know I must." Magdalie represents all those young women living in impoverished countries who dream of a better life but who have little opportunity to fulfill their dreams. In Magdalie's case, fate intervenes in an encounter with Mme. Faustin whom Magdalie admonishes.

Wagner has crafted a realistic character in Magdalie whose reactions to her experiences feel authentic. Mackenson is the calm gentle foil to Magdalie's intense emotional character. Readers will find many interesting descriptions of Haitian culture and ritual surrounding death and the spiritual life. The sense of family where relatives care for those less fortunate is well portrayed.

Although the beautifully colourful cover of Hold Tight Don't Let Go suggests that this novel might be for younger teens, the realistic portrayal of life in Port-au-Prince with many references to sexual acts, prostitution and male genitalia make this a novel for older teens. Wagner provides a brief history of Haiti at the back of the novel as well as a glossary on Haitian Creole, the language spoken in Haiti.

Book Details:

Hold Tight Don't Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner
New York: Amulet Books   2015
263 pp.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Bracken's latest novel, Passenger is historical fantasy that focuses on time travel. What if you belonged to a family with the ability to travel through time? What if you never knew this and ...

Seventeen-year-old Henrietta (Etta) Spencer is an aspiring violinist. Etta will be performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto at Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic this evening. Etta's debut had been delayed for years by her instructor, ninety-four year old Alice because of crippling stage fright. But in the past three years, Etta's stage fright diminished and she is anxious to start her solo career. Etta dropped everything else including her boyfriend Pierce to focus on her debut.

Etta's mom Rose is a mysterious woman who hasn't told her daughter much about her life. Etta knows her mother has travelled to Cambodia when she was eighteen and studied at the Sorbonne. She doesn't know her father.

At the concert hall while Etta prepares, Alice tells her she has an errand to do and quickly leaves. Etta will be performing on the Antonius, one of several Stradivarius violins in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts collection. When Alice doesn't return, Etta becomes anxious and sets out to find her.Unable to locate her  Etta decides to check the conservation wing where her mother has her office. Outside the office Etta hears Alice and her mother arguing, seemingly about whether Etta is ready to perform. Alice states that Etta is not ready for this but her mother believes she can handle it. Furious at what she's hearing,  Etta barges in and insists she will perform tonight. However, when she steps onto the stage  in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium to perform minutes later, Etta hears a terrible feedback noise and must be led offstage. One of the other prospective performers, a dark-haired girl named Sophia helps her out of the backstage area and into the Egyptian wing of the museum. Sophia leads her closer and closer to the source of the feedback. The two discover Alice shot and dying from a chest wound as they are approached by three men in tuxedos.  The next thing Etta knows, Sophia shoves her towards the high pitched sound and she finds herself waking up on board a ship being attacked by another.

Etta discovers that she is a prisoner on a ship, the Ardent, a British merchant ship which has just been disabled and boarded by the crew of a privateer, the Challenger, captained by Nathaniel Hall. The Challenger was authorized to act as a privateer and to legally hunt British ships. Nicholas Carter, a black man who is Hall's second-in-command, has been working the past three years for Lowe & Lowe Shipping traveling from the West Indies to the American colonies when he was approached by Cyrus Ironwood to intercept the Ardent and take the two women on board to New York City by September 21. Etta knows nothing of this at this time and when she awakes on the ship, she rushes on deck just as the battle for the Ardent has ended, terrified and confused. Nicholas and Captain Hall explain to Etta about the capture of the Ardent just as Sophia comes on deck. Sophia tells Captain Hall (who knows nothing of Nicholas's mission) that she and Etta are the Spencer sisters. Her familiar and rude way with Nicholas make Etta realize that the two know each other. With Nicholas now in command of the Ardent and Captain Hall returned to his own ship, Nicholas explains his mission to Sophia and Etta.

Alone in their quarters, Etta demands to know who Sophia is and an explanation of how she came to be on the ship. Sophia tells Etta that she has "traveled" to the eighteenth century and that Etta belongs to one of several families who have the ability to travel through time. This ability has been inherited from one of her parents, likely her mother Rose. Etta realizes that the argument she overheard at the Met was not about her musical debut but about whether or not she was ready to time travel. Sophia tells Etta that her mother's name is Rose Linden, that she had the ability to time travel and simply disappeared one day.

Sophia explains that their ancestors were able to take advantage of "tears in the fabric of time, pass through holes to emerge in a different era...They're like the natural crevices - fissures - you find around the world. The passages have always existed, and our families have always been able to find and use them." The passages could lead from Egypt in the time of the pharaohs to medieval Paris. Considering this, Etta believes her mother wanted her to know about her unique abilities and for her to travel.

Sophia tells Etta that she was born in 1910 Philadelphia, She explains to Etta that they traveled through a passage but when they arrived in this time Etta became unconscious. The only ship Sophia could gain passage on was bound for England so Cyrus Ironwood hired Nicholas and Captain Hall to capture the Ardent and take it to New York where they will meet him. Sophia reveals that Ironwood has used travelers to manipulate time to secure the Ironwood fortune and bring the other traveler families under his control. Grandfather has chosen 1776 as the year where he is based and where all travelers must travel from. There are less than one hundred travelers now. When they travel they observe the norms of each era, something Etta finds difficult when she attends dinner that night and experiences the racism towards blacks typical of the late eighteenth century.

Etta realizes that Sophia knows Nicholas Carter because he is also a traveler. As the illegitimate son of Cyrus's son Augustus, he has inherited the ability to travel. In conversation with Nicholas, Etta learns that Rose Linden was "the only traveler to successfully outwit Ironwood", stealing something of his and disappearing. Nicholas tells her that Rose broke the heart of Augustus Ironwood, Cyrus Ironwood's heir. Nicholas promises to help Etta if in fact she is being used in some way to harm Rose. Etta and Sophia are escorted to New York City after they come ashore near Oyster Bay, off Long Island Sound.They are taken to the Dove Tavern opposite the Royal Artillery Park where they meet Cyrus Ironwood, Sophia's grandfather.

Cyrus tells Etta that he met her mother while they were sightseeing in Renaissance Italy. He arranged for her to marry his son Augustus but she disappeared suddenly seventeen years ago. Cyrus shows Etta her mother's travel journal which travelers keep to avoid crossing paths with themselves in another time. He also shows her a letter written by Virgil Ironwood to his brother Augustus about a new passage in Nassau, Bahamas that put him in Manhattan 2015 as they hunt for the item Cyrus is after. In Manhattan 2015 Virgil discovers Henrietta Spencer who looks just like her mother (the missing) Rose Linden. Virgil is happy to see them well settled. Both Virgil and Augustus were dead within the year. Cyrus tells Etta that he needs her to steal back what her mother stole from him.

Cyrus reveals that through the influence of his agents, Etta was asked to perform at the museum as a way to trick her into traveling back to his time. Sophia was sent to determine if Etta was able to sense the time passage and was therefore a traveler. Cyrus believes that Etta's mother Rose Linden stole an astrolabe which belonged to his ancestors. His search through various eras has proved fruitless and cost him his direct heirs.Rose claimed it belonged to the Linden family but Cyrus insists it does not. The astrolabe is special because "it can examine a passage and inform the bearer of the destination and time period on the other side..." Cyrus tells her he wants it to protect travelers who are fewer now and who risk their lives using uncharted passages. He tells Etta he has been searching for some time and has lost two sons, Augustus and Wilbur and a grandson, Julian in his attempt to track it down. He also gives Etta a letter an agent found in their home that was written by Rose to Etta in a special code. He wants her to decipher the letter because he believes it holds clues to the location of the astrolabe. Cyrus gives Etta until Sept 30 to locate the astrolobe.

Although Etta recognizes the code, she hides this from Cyrus who tells her she will decipher it before beginning her search. She agrees to help Cyrus believing if she can find the astrolabe she will be able to find her mother and save Alice. To ensure that Etta does not trick him, Cyrus pressures Nicholas into accompanying Etta on her search in exchange for revoking the ban on his traveling and giving Nicholas all of his plantation holdings in 1776. But will Etta be able to outwit Cyrus at his own game long enough to save her life and all that she holds dear?

Discussion

Alexandra Bracken's novels are characterized by complicated storylines and Passenger is no different. The main storyline is gradually revealed against the backdrop of 1776 Manhattan and Etta Spencer's abrupt encounter with Nicholas who is of mixed white/black race.

Bracken reveals much of the backstory in bits and pieces throughout the novel. And that backstory is complicated, so much so that it is unlikely readers will remember all the details when the next novel is published. So here is a basic summary that will contain spoilers.

There were four families, the Ironwood, Jacaranda, Linden and Hemlock families who were time travelers. Although at first these families worked together much like clans with each having its role. as record keepers, financiers and shifters who checked the stability of the time passages. Eventually there was a falling out. Cyrus Ironwood's first wife, Minerva was murdered by Roman Jacaranda after Cyrus was implicated in a conspiracy to gain control of the travelers. This started a war between the four families. Cyrus eliminated almost all of the other families and became the Grand Master. Rose and her grandfather were the last Lindens and they preferred to stay out of the fray. Rose became part of a group call refugees - people without a home when their timeline was changed. While the remnants of the Jacaranda and Hemlock families joined with the Ironwoods, some became "Thorns" people who are trying to restore their futures.

Initially each of the four families had an astrolabe. Three were lost or destroyed. When Rose disappeared so did the remaining astrolobe. Although Cyrus tells Etta that it is his, Alice in the 1940 era tells Etta and Nicholas it belongs to the Linden family. She also tells them that the astrolabe can create new passages and is therefore much more powerful than Cyrus has led them to believe. It could give whoever possesses it, the ability to control time. The Thorns want it so they can create passages to the past in an attempt to return to the original timeline.

Cyrus married Minerva but hid her in the past for her own safety. Her location was discovered by the other families who waited for a year when there was no direct passage and then murdered her. This meant that Cyrus had no way of preventing her murder. Cyrus's second wife produced two sons, Wilbur and Augustus. Augustus was intending to marry  Rose when she suddenly disappeared.  Augustus spent years searching for her and became increasingly troubled. He raped the Ironwood family slave and fathered Nicholas in 1757. Captain Hall and his wife, now part of the Ironwood family, purchased Nicholas and his life improved greatly from that point on.

With the hunt on for the last astrolabe, Cyrus having lost Wilbur and Augustus, sent his grandson Julian along with Nicholas to search. When Cyrus almost located the astrolobe, Rose moved it and hid it. She and Professor Linden did not destroy it.Rose believed that one day Cyrus would likely come close again to finding the astrolobe and she wrote a coded letter to Etta. From her childhood, Etta was taught the coding system used in the letter so when Cyrus shows her the letter Etta is able to decipher it. She believes that the first clue is a passage near the Elgin Marbles.

Terrace of the Elephants Angkor Thom

As Etta and Nicholas search for the astrolobe they travel from 1940 London and the Blitz where they encounter a young Alice to the lush Cambodian jungle and the ruins of Angkor Wat. From 1880 Paris and the gorgeous Medici Fountain to the blowing sands of Damascus, Etta and Nicholas struggle to follow the clues Rose has laid out to find the hidden astrolabe.But they soon discover that they are being pursued by two men whose identities are not known.

Set against Etta and Nicholas's hunt for the missing astrolobe is their blossoming romance. In Nicholas's natural time of 1776, such a romance is forbidden by law but as they travel through various eras their relationship deepens quickly. This sets up an intense conflict for Nicholas. He has signed a contract with Cyrus to bring back the astrolobe in exchange for his freedom. But gradually he feels the temptation to leave his natural time and be with Etta who treats him as a partner rather than as a servant.
"Could he kiss her, knowing that he was on the verge of betraying her and ensuring that the astrolabe got back to Ironwood?
Could he kiss her, knowing that she must return to her time and he must remain in his? The vilification they would face if she were to come with him back to his time, and they were unable to deal with the cruel laws of the colonies..."
Etta begins to have what Nicholas believes is a "dangerous" effect on him leading him to think about things he's buried for some time: to leave his era and to keep the astrolabe and travel with Etta to different centuries until they were safe. Gradually his thinking changes.  "...he felt the touch of a changing wind blowing through him, pushing him toward a different path. All of these things he desired, he could have; if not on a ship, then by seeking out the passages that could carry him where he wanted to go. And he would her: the lady with whom he wished to travel."

Etta too becomes conflicted over their blossoming relationship. She believes part of the attraction is that their relationship seems impossible because they are from two different eras. Etta also struggles with the morality of time travel. When they arrive at her mother's room in Damascus she and Nicholas discover  a huge collection of relics from different eras. Etta asks, "...Is there a point to it, other than to amuse themselves?..." Etta questions why the passages were made and believes their original function has been corrupted.

Medici Fountain  built by Marie de Medici
Passenger is an intriguing read but it sometimes gets bogged down in its own story. There's simply so much detail about the time travelers it's hard to keep track of all the information. However on the positive side, the story itself is very interesting and engages the reader from the beginning. Etta, finding herself in a very different world from her natural time, never seems to blink. She's determined to return to her time, continue on with her performance career and to save her beloved Alice. Bracken could have left out the sometimes lengthy descriptive romance passages which divert from the storyline.

Passenger is huge novel, just short of 500 pages but fans of fantasy and adventure who love a large dose of romance will enjoy this latest offering by Bracken.

Book Details:

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken
Los Angeles: Hyperion    2016
486 pp.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

"I have depression, I say to myself. Saying 'I am depressed' makes it sound like that's all that I am. But that's not all that I am. I have depression, but I am not just depressed. Maybe the night I tried to kill myself, that's all I was. Depression took over and became my all. But I'm a good worker at the right job. I like to write. I'm a friend. I have memories and ...hopes?"

The Memory of Light is an intensely honest and touching novel about a young girl's journey towards healing after a suicide attempt. The novel is all the more profound because author Francisco Stork writes that when he was a young man he too attempted suicide.

Sixteen year old Victoria (Vicky) Cruz wakes up in a room in Lakeview Hospital. She vaguely remembers being in the emergency room having her stomach pumped after overdosing on sleeping pills. Dr. Lina Desai tells Vicky that Juanita Alvarez found her and called 911. Vicky tells her that Juanita has been her nanny since she her birth but that she is being sent back to Mexico because of her arthritis. At the suggestion of Dr. Desai, Vicky calls Juanita who is overjoyed to hear from her. She tells Vicky her cat, Galileo's frantic meows are what alerted her that something was wrong. Juanita in trying to understand asks Vicky many questions to which she has no answers. Juanita tenderly tells Vicky she will not return to Mexico until she comes home.

After the telephone call, Dr. Desai tells Vicky she is going to recommend to her father and stepmother that she stay at Lakeview for a few more weeks to attend daily group therapy,  to meet with her and to allow the thoughts of killing herself to quiet down.

At Lakeview, Vicky's roommate is Domonique (Mona) Salas. Mona is welcoming towards Vicky and tells her briefly about the other two people, E.M who is in for beating up people including his father and Gabriel, who are part of the Group Therapy Healing sessions. Vicky meets them at lunch with Mona and finds their discussion of suicide to be honest and real. E.M., muscular and tattooed, states that he believes suicide is an act of cowardice. Gabriel insists that "a person who kills himself can be ill. When you're ill, you can't deal with problems the way healthy people can. No being able to have courage and hope is the illness." Vicky realizes that with these three fragile people she doesn't have to pretend.

The next morning Vicky's father and stepmother arrive to take her home. They plan to have her return to school immediately while she goes to see Dr. Sanez, reputedly the "best young people's psychiatrist in Austin." However, Vicky tells her father she does not want to return home that "If I go back now, it will be like before." Dr. Desai explains to Vicky's parents that a new environment for a few weeks will help her to consider the type of thinking that led to her suicide attempt. Despite his anger and disappointment, Vicky's father agrees to her stay.

As her stay at Lakeview continues, Vicky finds her thoughts of suicide become less prominent as she has daily sessions with Dr. Desai and the GTH group. During one session Dr. Desai asks them to talk about their fathers. Gabriel who doesn't know his father talks about his grandfather who is seventy-four and works as a gardener. His grandmother has an unknown mental illness. When his mother died it affected his grandfather deeply and he had a heart attack. He quit school to help his grandfather so they can take care of his grandmother. E.M. won't talk about his father so Mona tells the group about her family. She also doesn't know her father but must cope with her stepfather and her mother both of whom are addicts. The only good thing in her life is her little stepsister Lucy who was taken away by social workers and placed in a foster home. Mona is desperate to find Lucy.

Unlike the others, Vicky comes from a well to do family. Her father inherited his father's brick making factory and grew his own business from there. Vicky's father invests in rundown buildings which he restores and sells for profit. Six months after her mother died, Vicky's father married his office assistant, Barbara. Vicky talks about her mother at the request of Dr. Desai and tells them that her mother was beautiful, loved Spanish and Latin poetry and loved to play Scrabble. But when Vicky was eight she got breast cancer and died two years later. She spent the last three months of her illness in bed. Vicky's nanny, Juanita brought her meals while Vicky spent time reading to her beloved mother.

After hearing about Vicky, Mona tells the group that she believes Vicky is still sad over her mother's death. In response to Mona's statement about feeling sad over her mother's death, Vicky tells them she feels numb. As the group discusses the sadness Vicky and Gabriel felt after their mothers' death, Mona suggests that Vicky is suffering from depression. It is something Vicky has not considered and it is the first step that she takes towards healing. As the group continues to meet, they grow closer and begin to help one another towards self-acceptance and healing. E.M, Mona and Gabriel each give Vicky a tool to help her cope with life and in return Vicky saves each of their lives.

Discussion

The Memory of Light is simply an amazing book, so well written because it's obvious the subject matter, depression and suicide, are close to the author's heart. And because it is a very honest and forthright treatment of depression and suicide. The novel traces Vicky's fragile journey towards healing from depression and suicide and towards learning to find the strength and joy to live again. This journey is portrayed in a realistic and very informative way to young readers so they can have some understanding about depression and see how Vicky journeys towards healing.

At the beginning of the novel, in hospital after her suicide attempt and during her meeting with Dr. Desai, Vicky lacks hope, believing that another suicide attempt is inevitable. "I want to tell her that she's right, that I'm going to try again. Sooner or later, the days, hours, minutes, and seconds of my life will slowly choke me until I feel like the only way to breathe is to die. All the group therapy meetings or private session full of talking or comfortable silences are not going to stop me."

Vicki begins to gain insight into what happened to her when the Therapy Group Healing talks about their families in-depth and Vicky talks about her mama's death from breast cancer. Mona tells Vicky that she believes she is still grieving over her mother's death. "What you were trying to say is that it's normal to feel sad for a while after your mom dies, but it's not normal to feel numb and empty like you did six months after your mom died or like Vicky feels now, which is not normal sadness but clinical depression..." This comes as surprise to Vicky because up until this time depression was only a word. But now it's "a heavy, thick fog, yellow and pale purple, the color of a bruise, that fills up a room with no windows, no air, no light."

This leads Vicky to research depression and to develop an interesting analogy of minerelves who live and work in the tunnels of her brain. Both her sessions with Dr. Desai and her daily contact with the other group members help Vicky to process what happened to her. With deft skill Dr. Desai begins to explore the time leading up to her suicide and what led her to finally move on to killing herself. They explore her father's expectations for her and how these expectations have affected how she feels about herself and her family. Dr. Desai uses the story of the monkey who refuses to let go of the mango and is captured, to tell Vicky that we all have mangoes we are holding onto. "The mango is a view of reality that is not true, a story about ourselves or about our world that causes us pain and keeps us from being open to life as it is." Vicky believes her mango is that she pretends.

The interactions between Mona, Gabriel, E.M. and Vicky demonstrate how the group begins to help one another but the focus is on the main character, Vicky who learns ways to understand herself and her mental illness. Each of the characters in the story impart some wisdom from their young lives that help Vicky move towards healing. For example, Mona tells her to be honest with herself and to make an inventory of her "uglies". "Don't lie to yourself about how you really feel about things or people or yourself." Gabriel helps Vicky to see that the things that make life good and worth living are the "green things" like roses and writing. E.M. encourages her to be brave and work around the "rocks" or obstacles that might be people such as her controlling father.

When the two weeks are up, Vicky finds the strength to confront her parents about going to Dr. Desai's ranch in spite of her father's derogatory attitude towards her fellow patients and his insistence that she try to salvage her academic year so she can attend college. He seems unable to process that his daughter tried to kill herself only two weeks earlier. But part of Vicky's journey is that she now has identified her problem and knows what she needs in order to get well.  "This dark thing, I now know, is my depression. It is something I need to get to know, understand, tame if possible, but I don't quite have the strength or knowledge to handle it yet. It has gone into hiding these past few days because I had help --- it's been five against one."

Ultimately Vicky begins to have hope for the future. It is this hope that allows her to act "as if life were worth living" when a rafting trip on the Natchez River on Dr. Desai's ranch proves disastrous. This hope also leads to Vicky beginning to want things in her life again - a sign that living is taking precedence over suicidal thoughts. And she moves from thinking to acting on those wants, helping Gabriel when he goes into a mental health crisis, finding a home for her beloved Juanita and rescuing Mona from a deadly situation. More comfortable with reaching out when she needs to, when Vicky faces her own crisis, a return to home and school, she finds support in her sister Becca and her voice to place her own care and what she believes best for herself, first. She even has to courage to confront her father when he refuses to take her to Lakeview to see Gabriel.

We also see a gradual shift in how Vicky views herself. When she enters treatment Vicky tells Dr. Desai that she's lazy an doesn't care about anything. She doesn't realize she's viewing herself through the lens of depression. By the end of the novel Vicky has a more positive view of herself as for example when she thinks "I'm a good worker at the right job."

One of the strongest metaphors in the novel is that of light which is part of the title. Dr Desai helps Vicky put her depressive thoughts into perspective by encouraging her to view herself as the sun. "Thoughts are clouds, Vicky. They are not you. The cloud of wanting to die disappears, and if you don't grab it, it will eventually float away. The cloud that says 'I'm lazy and a coward and a phony to boot' floats before you, and you can calmly watch it come and go. You are not the clouds or even the blue sky where clouds live. You are the sun behind them, giving light to all, and the sun is made up of goodness and kindness and life."

E.M furthers this imagery when he talks to Vicky about how he uses Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, to help him be brave in his difficult life.
"...Huichi is about being brave. About not being defeated by anybody or anything. Rising up every day and doing what you gotta do. Shining your light so that people and things around you can live."

Eventually Vicky finds her own Huichi, and that is her mama. In a poem about her mother Vicky writes,
"You hardly see me in the sun
My sparkle's in the stars
When all is dark around you,
I'm the memory of light."

One of the strengths of Stork's novel is the presentation of some of the realities and issues surrounding mental health issues. Stork tackles the image of mental illness head on and Vicky's father is the prime mouthpiece for these views. He doesn't want her to remain at Lakeview and is quite blunt about how he views the people at the hospital's fifth floor. "This is a public hospital. They take all kinds of deranged people. You don't belong here." and later on when Vicky advocates for living at Dr. Desai's ranch, "I don't like you being surrounded by sick people, by...patients in a psychiatric ward." These are statements that would never be made to a loved one if the ailment were physical. The novel also realistically portrays some of the realities people confront when dealing with mental health issues. For example, Mona who has been diagnosed as bipolar stops taking her medication, believing it is working against her.

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Stork never overwhelms his readers. Although the novel often contains detailed information about mental illness, Stork lightens the mood frequently with humorous dialogue and situations. This is especially seen in the intereactions between Mona and E.M. and also when E.M and Vicky's father meet in the parking lot of RC Cruz.

The Memory of Light is populated by a varied cast of characters ranging from the infuriating Miguel Cruz (Vicky's father) to the tough softie E.M., sensitive Gabriel, and the gentle caring Dr. Desai. Even the secondary characters stand out.

Stork on his website writes, "I have faith in the goodness and value of my books. In the case of The Memory of Light, I have faith in the ability of the book to give hope to those suffering from depression and to re-affirm the joy of hope in those who are well. The story of Vicky’s recovery from depression and suicide attempt is a story of hope and of how hope comes to a person’s anguished soul."

The Memory of Light is a brilliant novel that accomplishes what Francisco Stork intended. There are plenty of themes to explore besides the ones mentioned in this post. Well worth reading and highly recommended to teens who want a young adult novel with substance.

Book Details:

The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork
New York: Arthur A. Levine Books 2016
325 pp.



Saturday, April 2, 2016

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

It's September 16, 1890  and seventeen year old Josephine (Jo) Montford, a senior at Miss Sparkwell's School for Young Ladies is worried about the piece she's written for the school newspaper,  the Jonquil.  At teatime, she asks her friend Gertrude (Trudy) Van Eyck to look over the story which is an expose on the abuse of girl laborers at Fenton's Textile Mill. Trudy warns her not to hand in the story to Miss Sparkwell as she will be given detention for a week. When Jo compares herself to reporter Nellie Bly, Trudy reminds Jo that she is a Montfort and therefore expected to marry young and well and that her intended Mr. Abraham Aldrich will not want his future wife to know the real world.

Now editor of the Jonquil, Jo tells Trudy that she wants to inform readers and "draw back the veil that hides the injustices that surround us". Jo believes that the girls in the mill are very unfortunate because no one knows about their plight but Trudy believes they are worse off because they are not yet engaged yet and therefore must preserve their reputations. Trudy tells Jo that her way around this is to marry Mr. Gilbert Grosvenor early and then to do as she pleases even if it means having to give away her body to a man she doesn't love.

Jo is called to Miss Sparkwell's office. Expecting to be admonished about her news article instead Jo is told by Mr. Abraham (Bram) Aldrich and his sister Adelaide (Addie) that her father has been killed in an accident. He was cleaning his revolver when it went off. Jo is devastated but manages to gather her personal belongings from her dormitory room and accompany Bram and Addie back home. At Charles Montfort's funeral luncheon, Mrs. Cornelius  G. Aldrich, Bram's grandmother complains about the delay in Bram's engagement to Jo due to the death of her father. Jo and Bram's families have long expected them to marry, however, an engagement must now be delayed.

Jo cannot believe her father was killed cleaning his gun, given that he was always cautious and an experienced sportsman. In his study, Jo finds a bullet behind the long draperies at the bay window. She notes the bullet has the letters W.R.A. Co. .38 Long on the bottom. Jo remembers her father standing at the window of his study as if he was waiting for someone, his face often having a haunted look.

Jo is tasked with taking a bequest to Arnold Stoatman, editor of the city newspaper, the Standard. Jo's father owned several lumber mills, a rope company and was a partner in Van Houten shipping along with six other men. The Montforts also own the Standard which used to be a shipping newspaper. However, while waiting to meet Stoatman, Jo overhears reporters talking about various stories including her father's death. One of the reporters, a handsome man by the name of Eddie Gallagher states that he knows Charles Montfort killed himself and that the police were paid to state it was an accident. After seeing Mr. Stoatman, Jo is taken home by Eddie whom she confronts about what he said regarding her father's death. Eddie tells Jo that her father's bullet wound is consistent with suicide and that his gun was found in his right hand. He reveals that the police captain and the coroner were bribed to record the death as accidental so as to avoid scandal. That night Jo returns to her father's study but when their butler Theakston unexpectedly enters the room, she must hide under her father's desk. This leads to Jo inadvertently discovering her father's agenda in a hidden compartment in the floorboards under the desk. The agenda is filled with one thousand dollars in cash and mysterious entries about meeting someone named Kinch at the Van Houten's Wharf as well as an unknown Eleanor Owens b. 1874. Jo wonders if Eleanor Owens might be her father's mistress, although she is sure he is a good, upstanding man. Before leaving her father's study Jo notices a man who seems to have a dirty face watching the window of the study.

Having many questions and no answers, Jo decides to talk to her father's brother and a partner in Van Houten, her Uncle Phillip. Phillip is angry at Jo for visiting the Standard but he confirms that her father did kill himself. When she shows Phillip her father's agenda he states that the names and dates mean nothing to him, although he attempts to have Jo give up the agenda to him. Phillip refuses to answer most of Jo's questions and warns her that he has worked hard to protect her reputation by keeping the truth of her father's death out of the newspapers so that she can marry well. Jo is not put off however and decides to pay Eddie a visit at his lodging at 23 Reade Street. Eddie is on his way to the morgue so Jo decides to accompany him. At the morgue Eddie introduces Jo as Josie Jones a new reporter to Oscar Rubin a medical student who works nights at the morgue. Oscar who is interested in forensic medicine tells Jo that her father, Charles Montfort was murdered. Oscar was there with his boss, Dr. Koehler who immediately ruled the death a suicide. However Oscar's examination of the death scene suggested that Charles was shot in the head. Oscar told Koehler later on but he did not agree with Oscar's theories.

Jo wants to go to the police but  Eddie convinces her she needs solid evidence because the police in New York are often paid off. Eddie offers to help Jo get the proof she needs in exchange for a good story he needs to establish himself as a crack reporter. Eddie warns Jo that the truth about her father and her family may not be what she wants to know. He indicates that what they really need to answer is who did Charles Montfort anger enough that he was killed. As Jo and Eddie follow one lead after another, the deaths mount and the danger increases. As the shocking truth is revealed, Jo must choose between her family and the truth.


Discussion

These Shallow Graves is a murder mystery set in the City of New York during the years 1890 to 1891. In the late 19th century, young women, whether they were rich or poor, were rarely able to escape the social class they were born into. The main character, Jo Montfort belongs to a family with "old wealth". She lives in a beautiful mansion at Gramercy Square with servants, attends lavish balls and has beautiful gowns made to order. Her family has an Adirondack estate and she spends her summers in Newport. However, like most wealthy young women of this era, Jo is expected to marry well and have a family to ensure the family wealth is passed on to the next generation. It was only when married that young women finally have some freedom to indulge in their passions. Jo is rebelling against these expectations. Her friend Trudy warns her "You know the rules: get yourself hitched, then do what you like. But for heaven's sake, until you get the man, smile like a dolt and talk about tulips, not mill girls!" Her family expects her to accept Bram Aldrich's marriage proposal expected any day. And to give up her dreams. "Well-bred girls from old families came out, got engaged, and then went back -- back to drawing rooms, dinner parties, and dances. They did not venture into the dangerous, dirty world to become reporters, or anything else." Jo questions why "boys get to do things and be things and girls only get to watch?" Gradually Jo finds a way to "do things" that only men can do.

In order to investigate her father's murder, Jo must secretly slip out of her proper world so as to avoid scandal. She breaks almost every rule of decorum in almost every way; she is out of her house late at night both alone and in the company of a man, she goes to the morgue, to a brothel, to a den of thieves, to the docks and to Eddie's room. She even breaks the law by digging up a corpse. However, despite longing for the freedoms men have, Jo experiences fear and conflict because if discovered, she will ruin her reputation and her future. She tells Fay, a young pickpocket who is trapped in a life of poverty and crime, "I wish I'd never gone to the Standard and never overheard him talking. That's how I found out about my father, you know. Ever since that day, I've been doing things I never thought I'd do. And most of them aren't good. I keep stepping out of my world, going farther away from everything and everyone I know. I'm scared, Fay. Scared I'll go too far one day and I won't be able to find my way back."

When Jo brings her concerns to Uncle Phillip he makes her feel ashamed. "Her uncle's words, she knew, were intended to make her feel ashamed of herself. That was what people did when they wanted to stop a girl from doing something -- they shamed her.
Don't fill your plate; it's greedy. Don't wear bright colors; you'll look fast. Don't ask so many questions; people will think you bold."

Later on Trudy and Jo discuss marrying a man they do not love. Trudy considers marriage a business transaction: she is willing to trade her beauty and freedom for money and a comfortable life. Jo wonders what their lives would be like if they had their own money. "What if we were the the ones with jobs and bank accounts and investments? Can you imagine how different things would be?"

Despite being in mourning, Jo is to attend the Young Patron's Ball. Before her father's death and her meeting Eddie, Jo was looking forward to the ball. However now Jo wants to avoid the ball because it will be the lead up to Bram's marriage proposal which she does not want to accept. The ball symbolizes Jo's privileged but scripted life. "Everything was lovely and perfect as long as each person knew the steps and executed them. The women must only ever watch and wait. The men were the ones who would decide. They would choose. They would lead. And the women would follow. Tonight and forever more."

Jo experiences deep conflict over her feelings for Eddie and her desire to escape the expectations of her family and her upper class society. While Bram represents a life she does not want, Jo recognizes he's a good man. "He was a solid, honorable man who would always take care of her and make sure she lacked nothing." But Jo know Bram will never allow her to pursue a writing career nor give her the freedoms she wants. She also believes he will never love her with the same passion as Eddie has shown.

Jo accepts Bram's marriage proposal because she mistakenly believes Eddie isn't interested. However, when Madam Esther tells Jo she is no different than the prostitutes who work for her, Jo realizes that her marriage proposal is more like a business transaction. "And suddenly Jo saw her engagement to Bram for what it was: a business deal, and she was the commodity that had been traded. She didn't love Bram. And he didn't love her. He cared for her in his way, as she did for him. But it wasn't love. It wasn't what she felt for Eddie." Jo decides she will tell her mother she cannot go through with the marriage. She backs down when her mother learns that Charles Montfort was murdered.

In the end, circumstances free Jo from marrying Bram and the collapse of her family's social status allow her the possibility to make her own choices in life and love. It should be noted that not all wealthy young women felt the constraints Jo Montfort did. Many used their wealth and position in society to help others. However, breaking free from their families expectations often meant losing everything as the character Sarah Stein demonstrates. Sarah, who is a friend of Oscar Rubin was disowned by her father when she decided to attend medical school.

In Jo Montfort, Donnelly has created a strong, intelligent female character who demonstrates persistence and courage to discover the truth and to live her own life. Donnelly portrays the restrictive lives of women, both poor and wealthy in the era known as the Guilded Age. These Shallow Graves is populated with many interesting secondary characters.

Readers will likely guess who is responsible for the murder of Charles Montfort early on, but this won't affect their enjoyment of seeing how the story line progresses. Some of the twists feel a bit contrived but they do allow the author to tie up all the lose ends. Overall, These Shallow Graves is another outstanding novel from Jennifer Donnelly but is recommended for older teens.



Book Details:

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly
New York: Delacorte Press    2015
482 pp.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Listen To The Moon by Michael Morpurgo

Fourteen year old Alfie Wheatcroft and his family live in Veronica Farm on the island of Bryher one of the Isles of Scilly of the coast of Cornwall. Although Alfie's mother, Mary warned him to go to school when his father Jim arrives at his boat on Green Bay, intending to go out for the day, Alfie is there waiting. The two spend time fishing for mackerel but when they catch little, Alfie suggests they go in closer to St. Helen's an isolated island where an old quarantine house, Pest House, sits abandoned. Alfie's father is not keen to do this but allows Alfie to row them in near the sandy beach to try their luck. Both Alfie and his father hear what seems to be a child crying. Scared they beach their boat and soon discover that they are hearing a child, crying and coughing and it is coming from the Pest House.

Alfie discovers a pale, sick child hiding in the fireplace of the ruined Pest House, shivering and wrapped in a blanket. Terrified the young girl tries to run away but collapses. Alfie and his father put the girl in the boat and take her back to Green Bay. They are met by Mary and many others who live on the island. Mary orders someone to send for Dr. Crow on St. Mary's. The girl momentarily awakens and whispers "Lucy" leaving those around her to believe that she is named Lucy. Lucy is taken to the Wheatcroft home at Veronica Farm. Dr. Crow encourages Lucy to eat and drink as she is feverish and dehydrated.  Alfie's cousin, Dave Bishop visits after the doctor leaves and tells Jim and Mary Wheatcroft that he went over to St. Helen's and found a grey sodden blanket and a bedraggled teddy bear. The blanket has the name Wilhelm on it and immediately Cousin Dave jumps to the conclusion that Lucy is German and a "lousy Hun". Alfie's mother threatens Cousin Dave, telling him he is to tell no one about the name on the blanket. He promises reluctantly.

At first the Wheatcrofts believe that Lucy doesn't speak because she might be German and therefore not understand English. However Alfie believes that Lucy does understand but for some reason cannot speak.
June 1915 and with no end to the war in sight, the islanders are growing more apprehensive especially as the papers are filled with "daily reports of ever mounting casualties, those dreadful long lists in the papers of the killed, the wounded and the missing in action." The Isles of Scilly had had the bodies of four drowned Royal Navy sailors washed ashore in recent months. Lucy Lost as she is now referred to, continues to live with Alfie's family while people  speculate on who she was and how she came to be on St. Helen's.

All of the Wheatcrofts must deal with harassment from the islanders. Jim is teased about finding mermaids while Mary must fend off constant questions about Lucy when she visits her brother Billy. Mary goes every day to visit her brother, called Uncle Billy by her family. She rescued him from the County Asylum in Bodmin where he was located after going missing following the death of his wife and baby. Billy who doesn't speak or interact much with the islanders, lives in the boat house on Green Bay. Most of his time is spent restoring an old ship, the Hispaniola which he intends to sail some day. Alfie too is quizzed by the teachers at school and is taunted by Zebediah Bishop,  Cousin Dave's son. Eventually Alfie has enough and the two ending fighting and receiving detention from the mean-spirited headmaster, Mr. Beagley. During detention Alfie learns that Cousin Dave has broken his promise not to tell about the blanket with the German writing on it.

Despite Lucy's silence, Alfie likes being with her. He spends time talking to her in the hopes that she will gradually begin to talk again. Lucy however seems unable to respond. Dr. Crow is concerned that Lucy has been deeply traumatized leaving her unable to speak. He believes that if she does not recover they will have to send her to the mental hospital, something  He insists that the Wheatcrofts attempt to get Lucy out of bed and to that end he brings his gramophone. The gramophone seems to draw Lucy's attention, so much so that she begins to play Dr. Crow's records constantly and is especially fond of Mozart's Andante Grazioso. Unfortunately this does not help her to talk. Lucy however gradually becomes more involved in life at the Wheatcrofts; she waits for Alfie to return from school and begins to accompany him in the morning when he opens up the henhouse. She even begins to ride Peg, the island's temperamental horse. But Lucy still refuses to speak, even when the Headmaster Beagley orders the Wheatcrofts to send her to school. It takes a second tragedy and Uncle Billy and the Hispaniola that finally solve the mystery of Lucy Lost.

Discussion

Listen To The Moon is a novel set in the summer of 1915 on the Isles of Scilly off the Cornwall coast. What will someday be known as The Great War is only ten months along. Like most people, the islanders believed the war would be over by Christmas but by May 1915, the number of dead is quickly mounting. The Isles have casualties among their own and hatred of the Germans or anything German is high. Germany, attempting to blockade the British Isles threatens to sink any ships flying the British flag. The Lusitania was one of the largest ocean liners traveling the Atlantic in 1915. The ship was traveling from New York to Liverpool when she was sunk by a German submarine on May 7th. Over a thousand people died in the sinking. The ship sank off the Old Head of Kinsale and many locals set out in boats to rescue people. It is claimed that a grand piano was found floating in the sea with a little girl on it as is described in Listen To The Moon.

Listen To The Moon tells the fictional story of Merry MacIntyre who along with her mother, was on her way to England to visit her soldier-father. Merry's father was originally from Toronto but like many of his generation decided to fight for his ancestral homeland, Britain, in the First World War. By the time the war began, Merry's father and mother lived in New York. With her father wounded and stationed at a hospital in England, Merry and her mother decide to travel there to visit him.  However readers do not know this part of the story until part way through. Morpurgo begins with Alfie and his family and then switches narratives throughout the story. Alfie's story is told in third person narrative while Dr. Crow, Mr. Beagley and Merry tell their stories in first person.

Listen To The Moon is far too long for a juvenile novel and the pacing is inconsistent at best. Better editing would have eliminated long pages of repetitive passages about Lucy not speaking in the early chapters and considerably shortened the novel. The story itself is interesting but becomes bogged down in details that will make younger reader's interest wane. While Dr. Crow and Mr. Beagley's narratives are interesting, they could have been shorter and in the case of Mr. Beagley's, probably eliminated entirely.

Morpurgo does his usual excellent job of creating the setting for the novel which is the Isles of Scilly. A map of the isles would have been helpful in orienting young readers.

The simple life of the people is well portrayed as are the attitudes common in the early twentieth century. The anti-German sentiment of the islanders is a main focus of the storyline and is directed towards the little "Lucy Lost" who comes to the island community and the family who generously takes her in. At times the bad treatment of the Wheatcrofts seems overdone, perhaps to demonstrate that such emotions are often not rational.

The novel moves quickly towards a resolution after an unexpected twist in the story. And Morpurgo provides young readers with a bit of information regarding the S.S. Lusitania, the German U-boat campaign, the Isles of Scilly and the S.S. Schiller.

Book Details:

Listen To The Moon by Michael Morpurgo
London: HarperCollins Children's Books     2014
433 pp.