Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Interlude by Chantele Sedgwick

Interlude is a classic story of a boy and a girl thrown together unexpectedly, each struggling with their own problems but who fall in love. The novel opens with eighteen-year-old Mia Cox in her doctor's office. She's there to get tested to determine if she's a compatible match so she can donate a kidney to her younger sister Madison (Maddy). Dr. Mason discusses the risks of donating a kidney and tells Mia that she will know in two weeks.

Weeks later, Mia takes Maddy to her dialysis treatment which undergoes three times per week. Mia is very worried about her sister who is tired and withdrawn. She is in the final stages of kidney disease which is renal failure. At dinner that night Mia gets a call from the doctor's office informing her that she is not a match and therefore not suitable to donate a kidney to Maddy. Mia retreats to her bedroom, completely distraught but also determined. She pulls out an old birthday card sent by her birth mother Carmen Santalina from fifteen years earlier. Mia and Maddy's mother Carmen, abandoned them when they were three years old. Her father moved to from New York to California where he remarried.

With a plan formulating in her head, Mia questions her father as to whether Carmen still lives in New York City. However,he will only tell her that Carmen won't care, even when Mia begs him to at least call her and tell her about Maddy's illness. Furious at her father's refusal, Mia googles Carmen's name to locate her in New York. She is interrupted by Maddy who come to her bedroom and then collapses. Mia screams for her father, the paramedics are called and Maddy is rushed to hospital.

At the hospital Maddy is stabilized but weak and she confides to Mia that she knows she's going to die, that a donor will not be found in time. Mia tries to encourage Maddy who believes it is too late for her. Determined to save her sister Mia goes home, packs a backpack, writes her father a note, and drives to the airport where she books herself onto a flight to New York City. Her hope is to find their birth mother and convince her to donate a kidney to Maddy.

On the flight, a guy about Mia's age, with dark hair and an eyebrow piercing, is seated next to her. He is slouched down in the seat, not talkative, his earbuds in listening to music. Part way through the flight Mia notices the distinctive tattoo on his arm. When he picks up an entertainment magazine, Mai mutters about not liking the band Blue Fire and the lead singer Jaxton Scott who are featured on the cover. Mia's remark is heard by this guy who questions her as to why she doesn't like them. Mia tells him she believes they have no talent, their image is creepy with the makeup and black nail polish and piercings and that they are fakers. The conversation makes Mia curious about the article on Blue Fire. As she's reading it, a closer look at the picture of Jaxton Scott leads Mia to recognize the tattoo on his arm is the same as the one on the guy sitting next to her. To her horror Mia realizes she's sitting next to Jaxton Scott.

Mia tries to apologize but Jaxton insists he's not offended and appreciates her honesty.  Jaxton tells Mia that he is "taking a spontaneous vacation to New York. Indefinitely."  He has no gig to be at and no girlfriend, no bodyguards or groupies. When Jaxton questions Mia about her trip at first she is reluctant to tell him her reason for flying to the city, only that she is sightseeing. However Jaxton can sense that Mia is not telling him the truth and that she's running from something. He reassures her that everything she reads about him is fake, that it is all show.

Mia tells Jaxton about her sister's terminal illness and that her trip to New York is to locate their birth mother who is the only other person likely to be a match. Jaxton tells Mia he is "The screw-up who's running away from  his life." He tells her that his band formed in high school and by their junior year, they had a record contract. On tour he managed to finish his senior year of high school but there were also parties, tours and playing huge venues. Jaxton insists all he wants to do is write music. When Mia questions him as to why he's doing this if it's not what he wants, he tells her it is difficult to get out of contracts, so this trip is a break to try to figure things out by returning home to his family on Long Island.

After a lay over in Denver, Mia and Jaxton board their flight to New York. Jaxton arranges for Mia to sit next to him, and invites her to really listen to his music. When it becomes apparent that Mia has no where to stay and that she has no idea how to locate her birth mother, Jaxton insists on helping her. But Mia is reluctant to accept Jaxton's help because she really doesn't know him, so to remedy this, he spends some time telling Mia more about himself in the hopes she will feel safer. As their flight nears its destination, Jaxton offers to put Mia up in a hotel overlooking Central Park. Mia balks at this because she cannot afford it but Jaxton insists. As they spend time together, Mia knows she has to stay focused on finding her birth mother and helping save Maddy, even as her attachment to Jaxton grows.

Discussion

Although Sedgwick's novel, Interlude is a predictable YA romance, it is both enjoyable and sweet, with the added bonus of a happy ending. Mia and Jaxton, from very different worlds, each dealing with very serious life problems, are inadvertently thrown together and fall in love. Jaxton has the image of a bad boy rocker in contrast to Mia's clean girl image. While Mia seems to have her life together and knows what she wants, Jaxton is struggling to deal with his rock star lifestyle.  Their time together is seen as an "interlude" in their lives.

The story is told from the point of view of Mia who astutely identifies the situation both she and Jaxton are in. "We're two people running from different things in our lives. One of us is running to save another, the other is running to save himself." Both Jaxton and Mia love music; Jaxton is a song writer and lead singer in a rock band, while Mia is an accomplished pianist. While talking on the plane about music, Jaxton mentions that he loves preludes which he describes as "...the most important part of the song, I think. It has to be distinct. Different  than everything else out there. It's like the hook. Or the tease before the masterpiece, if you will."  But Mia loves the interlude which she sees as the solo in the middle of a song, that gives a break from the lyrics. Their time spent on the plane is the interlude for both Jax and Mia, a time away from the stresses of their lives, where they can just be themselves and not deal with their worries. It is the break for Jax from his rock star life and for Mia it is a break from the worry about finding a donor for Maddy and her illness.

The themes of sisterhood and family can be found throughout the novel. Mia is devoted to her sister as evidenced by her willingness to take her sister Maddy to her dialysis treatments and to stay with her for the three hours it takes to clean her blood. Mia is determined to save her. She is willing to donate a kidney to her sister however when that becomes impossible Mia impulsively and in desperation decides to travel across the continent to find their estranged biological mother. Although this isn't successful in the way Mia planned, it does work out in the end.

Sedgwick's story stresses the importance of family. Jax tells Mia, "I talk to my mom at least once a week. My sister Jeigh, usually every day. We've always been really close. I have another sister, but she's a bit younger, so I don't hear from her as much. I love hanging out with her when I go home, though."  For Mia, despite being abandoned by her birth mother at age three, she is very close to her father and her stepmother, Trista. "I can't imagine living my life without Trista. She's been a wonderful mother to me."  Because Mia has such a strong sense of family with her father, Trista and Maddy, she is stung by her birth mother Carmen's complete rejection of herself and Maddy being "family". Carmen tells Mia that Maddy is not her daughter. "I might have been a mother to you once, and I'm sorry for all the pain I caused you, but I was never a mother to Madison. I held her once...She's a stranger to me and she has no recollection of me either. I don't owe her anything." Fortunately for Maddy, Carmen's sister Ana does not feel this way and decides to undergo testing to see if she is a possible donor.

Sedgwick admits she had to do considerable research into kidney disease and organ donation. Live donor organ donation is somewhat controversial because of the risks to the donor. However, live donor kidney donation is the most common and the most successful of all transplants.

Interlude is a light, enjoyable read, with well developed and interesting characters. Suitable for ages 13 to 18.

Book Details:

Interlude by Chantele Sedgwick
New York: Sky Pony Press    2018
275 pp.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Shooting Kabul by Naheed Hasnat Senzai

It is July 2001, and eleven-year-old Fadi Nurzai's family are fleeing their home country of Afghanistan. Fadi along with his father Habib,his mother Zafoona, his older sister Noor and younger sister Mariam are packed into a taxi hurtling across the dusty plain in the dark. Their driver is Professor Sahib, Habib's former  teacher at Kabul University. After a six hour ride from Kabul, they arrive in Jalalabad, a city in the eastern province of Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan. Here they will rendezvous with a truck to take them to across the Afghan border with Pakistan to Peshawar where Zafoona's cousin and her husband will meet them at the border.

Only a month earlier, Fadi's father had told them they were leaving Afghanistan. Zafoona needed better medical care for a cold that had turned into a serious illness. But also the Taliban had tried to recruit Fadi's father in what was a thinly veiled threat. Although he had put them off for the time being, it is inevitable that they will return.

Habib was born in Afghanistan but had travelled to Madison, Wisconsin where he earned a Ph.D in Agriculture. Afterwards he returned to his homeland inspired to help rebuild Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviets by the Taliban.

When he and Zafoona had returned to their homeland along with their family, the Taliban asked Habib to rid the country of the poppy fields used for opium. Gradually Habib had been successful in this endeavour, getting farmers to grow food for the country. However, the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islam began creating problems as they began suppressing civil rights. Music, movies, books and photography were banned, women were forced to wear the burka, and schools for girls were closed. Fadi's father had hoped to obtain work at Kabul University in the agriculture department but it was closed because of the years of war. Instead, Habib opened a dry goods store in downtown Kabul to support his family.

Just past midnight an army truck shows up at the rendezvous point to take them to Pakistan. Habib, realizing this is their ride, orders Fadi to take Mariam, while Noor follows with their mother. As they move towards the truck, suddenly dozens of people emerge from hiding, running towards the truck. Fadi is gripping Mariam's hand tightly and tries to steer them towards his father in the back of the truck. In the chaos, with everyone scrambling to get on the truck, the Taliban arrive, creating even more panic. But as Fadi's father pulls him into the back of the truck, Mariam slips from his grip, trying to retrieve her pink Barbie, Gulmina which as fallen to the ground.

Panicked by the approach of the Taliban, the truck driver announces he is leaving. To Fadi's horror, the truck roars away, leaving six-year-old Mariam behind with many others and the Taliban in hot pursuit. Zafoona, already ill and exhausted is completely hysterical. Her pleas for the truck to return to retrieve Mariam are ignored while Habib who wants to jump out of the truck, is held down by the other men. Returning would mean capture by the Taliban and possible execution.

On the plane to London, Fadi berates himself, feeling responsible for losing Mariam. He thinks back to when they arrived in Peshawar. Once in Peshawar, Fadi's father went back over the border in an attempt to locate Mariam, but could find no trace of her. Zafoona's cousin, Nargis promised to contact them and let them know when she heard any news. Unable to delay any longer, Fadi's family had to go to the American consulate in Peshawar to pick up the papers "arranged with the help of Habib's old college advisor in the United States." Zafoona had wanted to remain in Peshawar but Habib told her that if they did not leave their asylum papers would expire and they would have been stateless - unable to return to Afghanistan but unable to remain in Pakistan.

When they arrive in San Francisco, Fadi and his family are met at the airport by Uncle Amin, who is married to Zafoona's younger sister Khala Nilufer. Once a doctor in Kabul's main hospital, Amin and Nilufer had left Afghanistan in 1998 along with his parents Abay and Dada, a month after Fadi's parents had arrived back in the country from the United States. Uncle Amin works two jobs as a lab technician to support his family but he generously offers them to stat with him at his home in Fremont. Fadi meets his cousin, Zalmay, who is his age. While eating lunch, the adults talk about little Mariam and how UN Refugee Agency has sent out a bulletin about Mariam and how there are many people looking out for her. However, Fadi's feelings of guilt overwhelm him and he hides inside the pantry.

In August of 2001, Fadi's father and his Uncle Amin have contacted many family and friends in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, all searching on both sides of the border for Mariam. Meanwhile Habib moves his family out of Uncle Amin's house into an apartment at the Paradise Apartment Complex.

Fadi begins the school year at Brookhaven Middle School where he is in Mr. Torres' 6B class. Almost immediately he draws the attention of two bullies in his class, Felix and Ike. Fadi does a good deed by returning a classmate's wallet and she introduces herself as Anh Hong. Meanwhile at home, Fadi's family learns that Mariam may have been taken in by a family with two boys who were trying to get to Peshawar. This information upsets Zafoona and she argues with Habib telling him they should not have left Peshawar.Zafoona wants to return to Peshawar to search for Mariam but that requires money the Hurzai family does not have.

When Fadi learns about the school photography club and an upcoming contest with the chance to win tickets to India, he believes he just might have found a way to go back and help find Mariam. With the encouragement of Anh and Noor's money for the club fee, Fadi is determined to win. Meanwhile he must deal with the class bullies and his own feelings of guilt. When the contest doesn't produce the results Fadi is hoping for, he all but gives up until a remarkable meeting changes everything.

Discussion

The events in Shooting Kabul bracket the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and throughout the United States. The novel provides young readers with insight into the immigrant experience during this time. Fadi's parents who returned to their homeland of Afghanistan with the hope of helping to modernize their country are now refugees in the United States. But their relief at escaping from the Taliban is marred by the loss of Mariam who was accidentally left behind in Jalalabad.

Shooting Kabul focuses primarily on the struggles of eleven-year-old Fadi as he experiences tremendous guilt and shame for not being able to hang onto his little sister Mariam when they were trying to board truck to take them out of Kabul. He is so certain of his own guilt in the matter that he is shocked to discover that each member of his family is also struggling with guilt. Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Zafoona confesses her feelings of guilt to her sister Nilufer,
" 'She's my baby. I'm her mother. It's all my fault,' cried Zafoona, and, she burst into ragged sobs...
'No you don't understand,' said Zafoona. 'If I wasn't so sick, I could have looked after her. But instead everyone was looking after me. Noor and Habib were so worried about getting me on board the truck that they lost track of Fadi and Mariam. It's my fault.'"

Despite hearing this, Fadi continues to believe Mariam's situation was his fault, and he withdraws, often withdrawing from his family. In their new apartment, Fadi overhears his sister Noor confessing her responsibility for the loss of Mariam to their father. Noor states that she was responsible for caring for Fadi and Mariam; "No, I'm the oldest. I should have taken care of them...It's my fault Mariam is lost!" Fadi is shocked to overhear this admission but he thinks, "Everyone things it's their fault she's gone. But it's my fault, not anyone else's. I'm the one who doesn't deserve to belong to this family. I'm the one who's torn it apart."

Fadi then hits on the idea that he will return to Peshawar to find his sister. However without money this will be difficult so he devises a plan to travel to Pakistan. Just how deeply Fadi feels the loss of his sister is demonstrated when he sneaks into the trunk of his father's taxi to hitch a ride to the airport. His plan is to board a flight to London and then to catch a plane to Peshawar. Fortunately for Fadi, when he is unable to get out of the trunk, disaster is averted when his father opens the trunk to place a passenger's luggage inside.

Fadi then becomes determined to win the grand prize of a trip to India, in a local photography contest. Although planning to enter the photography contest gives Fadi hope his pain and guilt surface in a destructive way when the family visits a Toys R Us store.
"From both sides of the aisle hundreds of Barbies stared down at him. Fadi closed his eyes. His body felt cold and his hand went numb...His eyelids flickered open. Cowgirl Barbie gave him an accusing glare. Artist Barbie stood next to her, holding a paintbrush, sharing a conspiratorial frown with Doctor Barbie....Assembled on the bottom row stood a platoon of Barbies from around the world. Native American, Korean, Spanish, Nigerian, and Austrian Barbie were whispering to one another...whispering about Gulmina." The sight of the Barbies triggers the image of Mariam "holding out Gulmina, asking him to put her into his backpack." Fadi becomes enraged and begins destroying the Barbie display. "He knocked off a line of dolls, and they crashed to the floor. He stomped on the slender rectangular boxes, his tennis shoes making crunching sounds. He fell to his knees and ripped of the lids and pulled out Diamond Princess Barbie. He shook her with all his might and started banging her and Soccer Barbie against the concrete floor. The store manager found him, huddled on a pile of crushed boxes and Barbies, sobbing." The scene is tragic and disturbing, portraying the trauma many refugees from war-torn areas  experience.

Although both Zafoona and Noor have told someone about their guilt over Mariam, Fadi has been unable to confide in anyone, carrying his burden alone. However, after losing the photography contest and any chance of traveling to India, he confides in Ms. Bethune, telling her what happened that night in Kabul. Fadi is shocked that she does not consider him responsible and she helps him look at what happened in a different way, encouraging him not to blame himself for something he had little control over. Fadi never does tell his family about his guilt because the situation is resolved before he has the opportunity to do so.

Throughout the novel Senzai does an good job of incorporating recent Afghan history into the story so that younger readers have the background information to understand the events that occur. Readers experience the 9/11 attacks from the perspective of the Afghanistan refugees through the characters of Habib, Zafoona, Uncle Amin and others. The author also portrays how the Afghani people themselves view Osama Bin Laden, in the scene after 9/11 in the grocery shop in Little Kabul, and how they believe the events of 9/11 will impact their country. By incorporating many details about the country itself young readers from the United States and Canada are able to learn a bit about  Afghanistan's a rich heritage and diverse ethnic groups.

Shooting Kabul is another fine novel from this author and is highly recommended. Senzai states in her Author's Note at the back that "I didn't want to write this book..." because it touched many sensitive and personal issues including Islam, Afghan history and politics. Senzai's father-in-law's experiences are mirrored in those of Habib making the novel a very personal story. But it is a story well worth reading because it provides young readers the opportunity to understand Afghan history and culture separate from the American perspective presented in the media and because it also portrays the challenges refugees experience in coming to a culture vastly different from their own.

Book Details:

Shooting Kabul by Naheed Hasnat Senzai
New York: A Paula Wiseman Book      2010
273 pp.

Friday, May 11, 2018

DVD: Breathe

Breathe portrays the remarkable story of Robin Cavendish who contracted poliomyelitis in 1958 at the age of twenty-eight years old. As a result of this illness he was paralyzed from the neck down and completely reliant upon a respirator to breathe. Initially Robin wanted to die but with the support of his wife, Diana he was able to live a very full life and change the way severely disabled people were treated.

The movie opens with Robin Cavendish first noticing the beautiful Diana Blacker while playing cricket. His friends tell him he hasn't a chance with her as she is a notorious heartbreaker. But after he bats a ball into the china on a table near Diana, her interest in him is piqued. They date, fall in love and marry in 1957, despite her twin brothers Blogg and David expressing concern about the impending marriage. Marrying Robin will mean having to travel and live in Kenya, however Diana is quite agreeable to this.

The film then jumps to Kenya where the Cavendishs are with friends, Colin, Mary and Don who is a doctor. Robin mentions how much he loves the silence in Kenya. At a camp fire one evening, Don tells a story about sixty prisoners on Kome Island during the Mau Mau rebellion. Crammed into a small tin hut and with no possibility of being freed, the leader of the prisoners gives them permission to die. The next morning they are all found dead; Don's point being that people can will themselves to live or die. While Robin doesn't really believe the story, Diana emphatically states that she would choose to live. This scene is a foreshadowing of the coming trial Robin will face when he becomes seriously ill and must make the choice to live or die.

Shortly after this Diana reveals to Robin that she is expecting a baby and he is thrilled. The movie then jumps to the British Embassy in Nairobi in 1959. During a tennis match, Robin feels unwell and uncharacteristically loses to Colin. That night Robin becomes ill, shivering with fever and with terribly aching joints. He staggers to his friend's room and collapses. It would be the last time Robin would ever walk. He is rushed to hospital and when asked to move his arms or legs he can do neither. Soon he is struggling to breathe and is placed on a respirator. The diagnosis of polio is made with complete paralysis from the neck down. Diana is told Robin has a matter of months at most to live. When their baby, Jonathan is born, Diana places him next to Robin.

In 1960, Robin is flown home to England where he is placed in a hospital with other patients. Dr. Khan tells Diana that Robin is severely depressed and doesn't want to see her or his son Jonathan. When Blogg and David visit, Robin insists he wants to die. Dr. Entwistle who is in charge of the ward tells Diana that Robin is learning to swallow and if he can accomplish that he can learn to talk again. When he finally is able to speak, Robin challenges Diana as to why she continues to visit him. "You can't love this," he tells her, to which she responds, "Apparently I can."

Robin with his son Jonathan
In response to Robin's wish to die, Diana tells him that since the machine is breathing for him he's going to keep on living; she wants Jonathan to know him. So Robin asks her to get him out of the hospital. But when she approaches Dr. Entwistle, he refuses saying that no one with her husband's level of disability has ever left hospital care. Nevertheless, Diana purchases an old house and with the help of Dr. Khan, her brothers and a nurse, they attempt to sneak him out of the hospital. There efforts are discovered by Dr. Entwistle who orders them back, but Robin staunchly refuses. For Robin, being outside the hospital, seeing the blue sky, being around his family and friends is glorious and his mood improves immediately.

Robin is not satisfied with just being home, so with his friend Teddy Hall, an Oxford professor, they   devise a chair with a battery to power the respirator to give Robin more mobility. The first chair was built in 1962. Mobile around his home leads Robin to want to explore further and in 1965 they are able to retrofit a van so that Robin can sit in the front seat. This leads to trips across England and even into Spain where disaster almost strikes when the van's power which runs Robin's respirator is shorted out.

In the spring of 1971, Dr. Clement Aitken, Director of the Disability Research Foundation is amazed by Teddy Hall's motorized wheel chair and questions how he created it. Aitken tells Hall that he wants him to create hundreds of chairs, something that isn't possible without some kind of funding. Their first attempt at funding is refused so they seek a private donor in the form of a dowager and are able to make ten chairs for two thousand pounds. Dr. Aitken tells Robin and Diana that there are thousands of patients living their entire lives in hospital beds when they could be living a much better life.

With the encouragement of Dr. Aitken, Robin and Diana accompany him to a European conference in Germany in 1973 on Managing the Lives of the Severely Disabled. Dr. Aitken and Robin go to see Dr. Erik Langdorf who has patients in a modern, sterile environment of iron lungs. They are immobile with only their heads visible. He is shocked when he sees Robin in an upright chair with a respirator. At the conference, Dr. Aitken remarks that it is odd that at a conference on the disabled there are none in attendance and brings in Robin who asks them why they keep their disabled hidden away.Robin tells his story and tasks them to go back to their hospitals and help their patients to truly live "open the gates and set them free..."

Eventually the use of the respirator takes its toll on Robin as his lungs suffer abrasions and begin to suffer from bleeds. These bleeds he is told will only get worse and eventually they will kill him; he will drown in his own blood. Robin decides with the help of Teddy that he will euthanize himself. To this end he has a series of parties and makes arrangements to have his respirator turned off. Although Diana is at first angered, she comes to accept his decision. Robin Cavendish passes away

Discussion

Breathe brings to life the extraordinary journey of Robin Cavendish, who after being stricken with the paralytic form of polio faces a shortened life confined to an institution. Instead with the determination and love of his wife, Robin is able to live a fulfilling and rich life the next thirty-six years, In that time he challenges how the medical profession and society as a whole view the severely disabled.

It was Robin and Diana's son John Cavendish, a successful British film producer who believed his father's story would make a good movie. To that end he enlisted William Nicholson who wrote the screenplay for the movies, Gladiators and Nell. Nicholson whose services would be quite costly, asked not to be paid until the film was actually made.

Robin (Andrew Garfield) and Diana (Claire Foy) in Breathe
Cavendish had formed a new studio, Imaginarium Studios which specializes in motion-capture filmmaking, with motion capture actor Andy Serkis. Serkis, probably best known for his work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, was interested in making a movie and this seemed the ideal vehicle. Like Cavendish he too had a vested interest in the movie as his sister has multiple sclerosis and his mother has worked with the disabled.

Cavendish wanted to make sure the film about his father's life was not dark and depressing but uplifting. He wanted to portray the fact that his father's quality of life was good and that he led a life full of joy and adventure, sending the message that the severely disabled could have a life worth living. In this respect, Breathe is very successful. Serkis shows a very depressed Robin who is intent on dying during the period immediately following his illness. However, his wife Diana refuses to allow this but with some help, manages to remove him from the hospital setting. For Robin the choice is clear: he would rather live a fuller life with the risk of dying should his respirator fail than be bedridden in a hospital hidden away from family and friends. Once home his transformation is immediate and Robin is filled with ideas that might make his life better.

Breathe highlights the reality that the severely disabled can have a good quality of life with support from family, health care professionals and society. This is especially evident in the scenes where Robin and Dr. Aitken attend a conference in Germany in the early 1970's. The scene where Robin and Dr. Aitken are shown Dr. Langdorf's progress in treating polio victims is both shocking and heartbreaking. Breathe also serves as a reminder to a generation, which has never known the ravages of "childhood diseases" like polio, measles and whooping cough, just how dangerous these illnesses can be.

Claire Foy gives a captivating performance as Diana Cavendish; Andrew Garfield's job of portraying Robin Cavendish was much more challenging but he captures the range of emotions Robin experienced throughout the early years following his illness. The film has a solid cast of supporting actors as well.

Like The Theory of Everything which portrayed the remarkable life of Stephen Hawkings, Breathe challenges viewers to view the severely disabled differently, to recognize that though their bodies may be broken, inside are minds and hearts with dreams, desires and capabilities. We have a duty to give them the best life possible.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

R.I.P. Eliza Hart by Alyssa Sheinmel

R.I.P. Eliza Hart is a novel that explores the pain and stigma of mental illness through the contrasting experiences of two young teens. The story is told using the dual narratives of  Ellie Sokoloff who suffers from claustrophobia and Eliza Hart who has committed suicide and is in the process of dying. When Ellie is considered a suspect in Eliza's death, she decides to investigate and uncovers a deeply buried memory that offers the key to her own illness and to the death of her beloved childhood friend. Her narratives cover the period from March 16 to March 27, as police investigate Eliza's death and her family holds her funeral.

The novel opens with Eliza describing the pain of dying. Her narratives describe her own personal journey of suffering from unipolar disorder in which she had unremitting depression and how she struggled to keep this illness a secret from everyone outside her family. Eliza reveals that she had trouble sleeping all through her childhood and her thyroid was tested when she was thirteen.

Ellie James Sokoloff has been to  eight therapists in an effort to overcome her claustrophobia, all to no avail. She's given up on the therapy but is hoping that by continuing to force herself into closets or bathrooms she might heal herself. But stuffing herself in the bathroom of the suite she shares with fellow student Sam Whitker isn't working. Ellie and Sam are students at Ventana Ranch, a boarding school located in the Santa Cruz Mountains on the California coastline. Approximately one hundred fifty high school juniors and seniors, all of whom study natural sciences. Except for Ellie who is the first liberal arts student in the school. Ellie had hoped for a fresh start at Ventana Ranch. Her claustrophobia attacks began after her parents divorced and moved from California back to the East Coast. This was after first grade when Ellie was seven-years-old and she and her mother were living in an apartment in Manhattan. Despite seeing a child psychologist, a therapist, Ellie suffered many attacks. Thinking maybe the attacks were triggered by moving from the open air of California to the urban density of New York city, Ellie decided to apply to a school in California in the hopes of curing herself.

Sam returns from a hike just as Ellie emerges from the bathroom in distress, telling her that someone is hacking the burls off of the redwood trees on one of the trails. Then they hear the sound of sirens and see the Coast Guard arrive.When Ellie sees them pull up a body with long blonde hair Ellie is shocked because it is Eliza Hart, once a childhood friend from kindergarten and grade one when Ellie lived in Menlo Park. Ellie was shocked to discover that Eliza was also enrolled at Ventana. Sam believes Eliza likely committed suicide but Ellie isn't so sure. Police set up floodlights around the area of the cliff where Eliza was found, leading Ellie to believe that the police are considering that Eliza might have been pushed off the cliff.

Ellie decides to walk down to the valley but on the way she overhears the Harts talking with Detective Roberts. He asks whether Eliza had depression and if there was anything strange about  her in the days prior.  While Mr. Hart is unresponsive,  Mrs. Hart assures Roberts that Eliza was normal. They are joined by Alan Carson, the dean of students as well as Julian Alvarez who tells the detective that a week earlier he saw Eliza arguing with someone outside her dorm. Although he could not identify the person, he recognized Eliza by her blond hair. As a result of Julian's information Detective Roberts wants all students to remain on campus for interviews despite it being spring break, telling Dean Carson that police will monitor who comes in and out of the campus.

The next morning Ellie awakens to students gathering outside Eliza's dorm room window. The sight of the students brings back memories of the previous months and Ellie's struggle to fit in. By Halloween, the new start that Ellie had hoped for hadn't materialized; she was isolated and unable to make friends. In January, Ellie decided to reach out to Eliza and reconnect with her. She paid a visit to the suite Eliza shared with Arden Lin and Erin Smythe but her invitation to lunch was rejected by Eliza who accused Ellie of stalking her. Completely shocked, Ellie realized that it was Eliza who spread the terrible rumours that Sam told her at Halloween; that she is a pathological liar, sent to a school back east for troubled kids and who broke up her parents marriage. Ellie has no idea why Eliza hates her.

On Friday, Sam convinces Ellie to attend the memorial service for Eliza. She's reluctant because she knows everyone knows Eliza Hart hated her. But Sam is insistent. However,  after the service, Erin and Arden confront Ellie and Sam. Erin threatens Ellie, telling her she will be telling the police about her stalking Eliza. Erin insists that it was Ellie fighting with Eliza that morning.

All of this distresses Ellie considerably. Sam tells her that the interviews will be conducted in Professor Clifton's old office which is small, meaning that Sam knows about her phobia. On Saturday the police begin interviewing students, so Sam suggests that they go for a hike as a distraction. During their hike on the Y trail, they encounter two men who are cutting the burls off of redwoods to sell. Ellie and Sam hide and listen as the men, one of whom is named Mack, talk about Eliza Hart. From their conversation it appears that they have been using Eliza's ID to gain access to the redwood forest on the campus that some of the money they earned through the sale of the burls was being split with Eliza. Ellie wants to go to the police but Sam insists that they do not have enough information.

With her police interview scheduled for 4pm that afternoon, Ellie decides that to learn more they need to follow Mack and the other man after they leave the forest. Ellie believes that learning more will help her clear her name and may help them understand what happened to Eliza. Little does Ellie know  she will uncover a clue that will open the door to her own mysterious phobia while answering many of her questions about Eliza and her death.

Discussion

R.I.P. Eliza Hart begins as a murder mystery but evolves into a story focusing on mental health and the devastating effects it can have on sufferers and their families. After the body of classmate and former childhood friend, Eliza Hart is found on the cliffs adjacent to their school,  Ellie believes that she is being considered a suspect in Eliza's death and she wants to know what really happened to this girl who inexplicably hated her. When she and roommate Sam discover that Eliza had a secret boyfriend and was involved with burl-poachers, Ellie decides to tell the police in the hopes of clearing her name. However, this information is not new to the police as Ellie later learns that Mack came forward to talk with them. When Ellie and Sam are unable to discover much about the Eliza's death, Sam believes they have to focus on the clue Mack gave them, that Eliza was afraid of Ellie because she saw something that happened involving Eliza's father.
 
It is Ellie's encounter with Alexander McAdams (Mack) that provides her with the clue as to why her friendship with Eliza disintegrated after first grade, why Eliza spread rumours about her and ultimately reveals what really happened to Eliza. Sheinnmel is able to create considerable suspense throughout the novel by having the character of Mack not reveal what Eliza had confided to him about Ellie. Mack tells Ellie that " 'You're the one who knows about her family,' he spits. 'She told me everything. You were there the last time her dad - ' He cuts himself off, shaking his head."   At this point the novel now presents readers with two mysteries; that of Eliza's death and the mystery of what Ellie saw years ago at Eliza's home. Both of these mysteries are connected in some way. To solve the mystery of what Ellie witnessed years ago, Sam suggests they visit Eliza's home during the funeral in the hopes it will trigger Ellie's memory. This is successful as Ellie discovers why Eliza was afraid of her. "Eliza wasn't a mean girl. She was a frightened girl." The visit also leads Ellie to suspect that Eliza suffered from mental health issues in the same way her father did.

While the overarching story line is the mystery of Eliza Hart's death, both girls narratives detail serious struggles with mental health issues. Ellie Sokoloff is struggling with claustrophobia that has dominated her life since she was seven-years-old. Its effects have been to isolate her from her peers and make her prone to bullying.  Her mother sought help for her and Ellie was treated by eight therapists without much success and at great financial and emotion cost to her mother. No therapist had been able to draw out the terrible memory Ellie had of Eliza's father cutting himself and which Ellie eventually identifies as the likely cause of her phobia. Despite the lack of success, Ellie continued to see therapists and even tried to cure herself by doing her own immersion therapy where she would force herself into situations that would set off an attack. She never gave up and when she does uncover the hidden memory she tells her mother, "I want to start going to therapy again..." and she insists that she see a specialist, "Someone who knows about repressed memories and claustrophobia....I'd like to try to stay.  With therapy. See if things get better."

In contrast Eliza gives up. Eliza's chapters reveal how difficult her life was, coping not only with her father's serious mental illness but also her own. She first witnessed her father's attempt to kill himself when she was in kindergarten.His treatment was complicated with mixed results. Eliza had seen her father go "to a dozen therapists and tried more medications than a cancer patient" without getting better she is skeptical about therapy..."Most people who don't live with it think that therapy and pills will fix it. I believed that the first few times we sent Dad off to get his medication adjusted: Just a little tune-up and a little time off, and he'd be back better than ever." "It was years before I understood that treatment for mental illness isn't that simple. It's like living with cancer that goes into remission after a course of chemotherapy. It's under control, but it could still metastasize."

Eliza is unable to admit to herself that she is ill despite suffering from insomnia and depression, and being unable to feel strong emotions. Eliza is lonely, an only child like Ellie. And yet despite this, she is high functioning; a straight A student, winning swimming medals, attending class and going to parties. When her mother confronts her, Eliza tells her she's paranoid, "But I was lying. I knew what it was. I just didn't want to admit it." Even knowing she was luckier that most because her parents could afford treatment, Eliza can't go on. "How many times could they adjust my meds and try again? How many therapists' couches could I sit on, complaining about a life that seemed so good on the outside?...I'd run out of fresh starts. I'd had enough."
Her situation is tragic. The full extent of her struggle is finally revealed when Ellie and Sam go to talk with Eliza's mother. For Eliza, keeping up appearances was more important than getting the help she needed. It is during this chapter that the real tragedy of Eliza's struggle becomes apparent and it is heartwrenching.

Besides the theme of mental health, R.I.P. Eliza Hart offers readers the chance to consider the themes of self-acceptance, the meaning of friendship, and identity.

One of the best features of this novel is its cover which shows a girl in distress underwater. This image portrays Ellie's own description of her claustrophobia: "...whenever a door closes in a windowless room --an elevator, a closet, a bathroom--my lungs behave like I'm twenty thousand leagues under the sea, with no escape in sight." Ellie tells Sam, "It feels like I'm underwater. It's not the walls that are closing in, but wave after wave of water, threatening to drown me."

Overall R.I.P. Eliza Hart is a well-paced, riveting novel that blends mystery and realistic fiction and deals with the heavy issues of phobias, depression and suicide in a way that is very balanced.

Book Details:

R.I.P. Eliza Hart by Alyssa Sheinmel
New York: Scholastic Press    2017
324 pp.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

"...I dress my thoughts in the clothing of a poem."

The Poet X is about a young girl's struggle with faith and identity and trying to find her own voice. Fifteen-year-old Xiomara Batista lives in Harlem, N.Y. Xiomara means "One who is ready for war."  Unlike her older twin brother Xavier, Xiomara had to be delivered by Caesarean because she tried to enter the world feet first.

Xiomara is struggling with her Catholic faith and this is complicated by her strained relationship with her mother. After managing to dodge confirmation classes for the past two years, this year she has been signed up along with her best friend Caridad. But Xiomara doesn't really want to be confirmed. She doesn't believe she needs Jesus in her life and she feels that the church doesn't value her and that God doesn't seem to be watching out for her. However, when Xiomara objects, her mother tells her she will send her to the Dominican Republic "where the priests and nuns know how to elicit true piety."

Xiomara's mother is overly pious. This began after their birth. Her parents had given up  hope for children. Their conception and birth was considered miraculous by their friends and changed her parents; her father became more serious and her mother began to attend Mass daily. Xiomara's mother had wanted to be a nun. Instead she was forced to marry Xiomara's father in the hopes they would eventually travel to the United States.

The first confirmation class finds Xiomara more interested in talking to Caridad about boys and struggling to accept the idea of accepting Christ into her life. Caridad is the exact opposite of Xiomara; she recites Bible verses, wants to wait for marriage for sex, respects her parents. However, she's accepting of Xiomara and "tells me that she knows ...I'll figure it all out."

The first day of high school finds Xiomara liking Ms. Galiano her first period English teacher.  She's young and she pronounces Xiomara's name correctly on the first try. Xiomara is impressed with Ms. Galiano because although she is petite, she "carries herself big ...Like she's used to shouldering her way through any assumptions made about her." Their first assignment is to "write about the most impactful day of your life."  What Xiomara wants to write about is how her period came in fifth grade and she did not know what to use nor how to use the tampons. When her mother learned that she was using tampons she scolded her, telling her to skip church and to use pads. What Xiomara actually writes about is her brother gifting her a leather bound journal which she records her thoughts.

At Mass on Sunday, Xiomara doesn't want to receive Holy Communion but her mother forces her. Xiomara feels that girls are given a list of rules they cannot break. She's told to have faith in men but men harass her and make her feel small. As punishment for refusing to receive Communion, Xiomara is made to attend Mass with her mother every evening of the week. After receiving Holy Communion from Father Sean, Xiomara sacrilegiously spits out the host and hides it beneath the pew. commits a sacrilege by spitting out the host and hiding it beneath the bench.

On September 17, Xiomara discovers a poster at school for the Spoken Word Poetry Club. It is run by Ms. Galiano on Tuesdays after school, which unfortunately conflicts with her confirmation class. Xiomara knows her mother will never let her skip the class. However, that night her twin brother encourages Xiomara to join. The next day Xiomara questions Ms. Galiano before class about the club. Watching a video of a poet reciting thrills Xiomara. 

Xiomara's life begins to change when a classmate, Aman is assigned as her lab partner.  She is immediately attracted to Aman and decides she wants to get to know him. Eventually Xiomara agrees to spend time at the park with Aman listening to music even though she knows her parents will not approve.As their friendship blossoms Xiomara finds ways to spend time with Aman, sneaking to a Halloween dance and going skating. But when she's seen kissing Aman on the train Xiomara's world comes crashing down. Her mother brutally punishes her by making her kneel on rice in front of the Virgin Mary and forces her to talk to Father Sean. But Xiomara is not sorry and Father Sean believes that she should wait to be confirmed.

As the crisis between Xiomara and her mother deepens, she realizes she must either find her voice or lose herself completely.


Discussion

Slam poet, Elizabeth Acevedo has crafted a powerful novel about the importance of words and finding your own voice. Her debut novel, The Poet X tackles a wide range of themes about coming of age that include identity, the role of faith, first love and independence.

In the novel the main character, fifteen-year-old Xiomara Batista is struggling to figure out who she is, what she believes and to give a voice to her feelings and beliefs. Because her parents consider Xiomara and her twin brother to be a miracle, her mother zealously attends daily Mass. However, unlike her best friend Caridad and her twin brother Xavier, Xiomara feels marginalized by the Catholic faith, the church and God. Forced to attend Mass nightly in preparation for her confirmation, Xiomara repeatedly commits an act of sacrilege by receiving Holy Communion and discarding it beneath the pew, her "hands shaking less and less everytime..."

All her doubts and anger lead her to publicly confront Father Sean in confirmation class about the creation account in Genesis. Father Sean's failure to answer Xiomara simply deepens her rebellion, misunderstanding, her loss of faith and encourage her to respect him. Father Sean however does seem to understand that Xiomara's conflict is not so much one of faith but of identity. And it is Father Sean who helps Xiomara and her mother Altagracia put their broken relationship back together.

Xiomara is shown to be a deeply conflicted young woman. She is conflicted about her body which she considers a source of trouble based on how men react to her. She is by her own description, tall and well built and men are attracted to her. Her mother tells her that she'll "have to pray extra so my body didn't get me into trouble."

"And I knew the what I'd known since my period came:
my body was trouble. I had to pray the trouble out
of the body God gave me. My body was a problem.
And I didn't want any of these boys to be the ones to solve it.
I wanted to forget I had this body at all."

Xiomara's solution is to hide her body in big sweaters, "trying to turn this body into an invisible equation." Xiomara's view of her body is merely reinforced by her mother's violent over-reaction when she sees her kissing Aman. Her mother hits her, calls Xiomara a "cuero" (slut) and makes her kneel on rice in front of the Virgin Mary statue while she mother prays. Xiomara is forced to go to confession to Father Sean, whom she tells that she is not sorry. Father Sean understands some of the conflict between Xiomara and her mother and her struggle with her Catholic faith. At this point in time he is Xiomara's voice, telling her mother that she is not quite ready to be confirmed yet. It is a message Xiomara cannot tell her mother.

Xiomara's journey towards finding her own voice is gradual and painful. At first she is not even remotely interested in taking part in the poetry club even though a poetry video makes her realize that others have the same thoughts she has. Xiomara thinks
"she can't think that I,
who sits silently in her classroom,
who only speaks to get someone off my back,
will ever get onstage
and say any of the things I've written,
out loud, to anybody else."

However, Xiomara's feelings about Aman lead her to write pages of poetry, "writing pages and pages about a boy and reciting them to myself like a song, like a prayer." Still she pretends to forget about the Spoken Word Poetry Club but Ms. Galiano isn't fooled; she considers Xiomara a poet based on her assignments submitted for English and continues to encourage her to attend.

During this time, Xiomara doesn't write what she really wants to say for her English assignments, but instead gives Ms. Galiano what might be considered more acceptable. For example when she has to write the last paragraph of her biography she wants to write about becoming "the warrior she wanted to be" but instead writes about what she might be expected to accomplish; creating a nonprofit organization that helps first-generation girls date, go away to college and move out when they turn eighteen and buying her parents a house in the Dominican Republic.

At first when Xiomara is brutally punished for kissing Aman she withdraws into herself, speaking to no one. With many of her privileges withdrawn and despite the fact that her mother still expects her at confirmation class, she decides she will attend the poetry club because she now feels ready.
"...I have so much bursting to be said,
and I think I'm ready to be listened to."
It turns out Ms. Galiano was right - Xiomara finds her groove in the club. After reading her poem  she feels validated.
"I can't remember
the last time people were silent
while I spoke, actually listening...

My little words
feel important, for just a moment.
This is a feeling I could get used to."

For Xiomara, "...it feels like an adult has finally heard me." The poetry club changes Xiomara's attitude towards everything. She begins to answer questions in English class. Xiomara agrees to Caridad's suggestion and participates in an open mic night at the legendary Nuyorican Poets Cafe, impressing the host who invites Xiomara to the poetry competition. Attending poetry club and reading her poems to Ms. Galiano results in Xiomara "blossoming"; she's proud of her poetry, proud how the words "connect with people" and "how they build community." Over the Christmas holidays Xiomara fills her journal with poetry about her mom, Aman and her twin brother.

The crisis between Xiomara and her mother pushes Xiomara to finally speak up.  Xiomara's mother reads her journal and angered by her daughter's poems tries to burn it. Xiomara's first reaction is to runaway from home but Ms. Galiano tells her she must talk to her mother and work out their relationship. With the help of  Father Sean Xiomara finds her voice to work with her mother "to break down some of the things that have built up between us." and to accept that this relationship will not be a typical mother-daughter relationship. With the help of Ms. Galiano, Xiomara performs at the poetry competition. Xiomara is reluctant at first because her poems are personal, but Ms. Galiano tells her that
"words give people permission
to be their fullest self. And aren't those the poems
I've most needed to hear?"

In the end Xiomara discovers that "learning to believe in the power of my own words has been the most freeing experience of my life. It has brought me the most light."

The Poet X - the title being a reference to the name Xiomara gives herself, is a well written novel that hits the mark. There are plenty of nuances to explore in Xiomara's relationship with mother, her brother and her friend Aman. Readers will easily identify with at least some of Xiomara's struggles. Acevedo is a National Slam Champion who placed 8th in the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam.

Book Details:

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
New York: Harper Teen    2018
361 pp.








Sunday, April 29, 2018

Liana's Dance by Rosanne Hawke

The novel opens with Liana and her best friend Evie shopping at the bazaar in the village of Murree in northern Pakistan. Because Pakistan is a Muslim country, the two girls must be accompanied by a male relative and for this trip it is a fellow classmate, Ash who is a British-born Pakistani. When Ash complains about wanting to go to the chai shop - women are not allowed in the men-only tea shops, Evie suggests he go, that they will be fine with the older shopkeeper. Liana has just purchased a burgandy shawl when Ash returns, telling them they must leave at once. It is at this time that Liana notices the growing crowd outside the shop and a lone teenage boy chanting, "Allahu Akbar, God is great!" The shopkeeper tells them the crowd are Shia Muslims as he slams the shop door and rolls down the window shutters. Just as Ash pushes Liana and Evie to the floor there is a tremendous explosion. Except for the loss of hearing in one ear, Liana is fine as are Evie and Ash. As they flee out the back door of the shop, Liana hears the cries of the wounded.

Liana experiences a nightmare from the trauma of the attack when she is back in her boarding school, The Pines International School. This causes Evie to worry about her. Liana and Evie have grown up together in boarding school and they are now inseparable. Evie tries to assuage Liana's fears about an attack but things have been changing in Pakistan. The attacks by the mujaheddin on various groups including the police and army are growing. Up until the previous holiday, Liana's parents had lived in a large village for all of her life, helping the people there. Gradually however, things began to change - people expressed anger and hatred of America. Soon the army appeared in the village and then guards were assigned to their home. They needed permission to travel. Almost all of the expats left the area and aid workers received threats. On Liana's last holiday home, the police in their village asked them to leave because her father, an Australian could not be distinguished from an American and they could no longer protect them. Even having a Pakistani wife might not prevent an attack, As Liana's parents are both Masihi - that is Christian. So they moved to a nearby town where they were well known. However, even there her father took precautions, locking their gate on Fridays when the men walked past to the mosque.

Liana returns from her holiday too boarding school in Murree with evacuations papers and her passport just in case. Unlike her parents whose faith is comforting, Liana feels overwhelming fear. In Mr. Jones's history class she finds herself unable to concentrate. Liana is even more distraught when, after class she learns that Evie's brother, Kris was almost hit by a rock thrown by a passing car. The rock contained the message, "Americans must die!" The next morning a new set of rules is posted by the school principal that directs students to be less noticeable and forbidding visiting the chai shop across from the school. The rules only serve to frighten Liana even more. "We can't go anywhere. We're just stuck here, waiting. And for what? For some terrorist to attack us?" She faints in Mr. Jones' class only to wake up in the sick bay with Evie watching over her.

Evie tells her about the new music teacher who is due in any day and that his name is Mikal Kimberley. Mikal flies into Islamabad, nervous about working at The Pines International School. On the flight Mikal stands out because of his shoulder-length blonde hair and tanned skin. The passenger sitting next to him, a Pakistani man advises Mikal to be careful in Pakistan as the "feeling against Western countries, and especially America, runs high at this time." He is warned that people will not know he is Australian. He urges Mikal to cover his head with a hat and gives him his rolled woollen cap.

The trip to Pakistan is Mikal's first abroad. His mother passed away during the past year from breast cancer. After the death of his adoptive father five years ago, his mother raised him and paid his studies at various conservatories. In her last letter to Mikal, she revealed that his biological father John did not know about his birth. After Mikal's mother married Rob Kimberley, she learned that John travelled to Pakistan as a volunteer and that he had married and had a daughter. When Mikal told his mother his intention to teach music in Pakistan, she saw this as a sign from God that he would not be left alone after her death.

Mikal's arrival at the school is welcomed by the students, especially the girls who are attracted by his good looks and blond hair. All except Liana who continues to struggle to cope with the terrorist threat and has completely withdrawn. When Mikal inadvertently sees her dancing in the woods he decides to incorporate dance into his classes in the hopes of drawing her out of her shell. His first lesson touches Liana who respects him for trying something no other teacher has. However, shortly after this the school is attacked by Islamic terrorists resulting in the deaths of several security guards, a groundskeeper, two office workers and a passerby. The school makes the decision to evacuate the students, sending them to their various embassies via unmarked vans. Liana is to travel with with Mr. Kimberley, Jeremy and his sister Carolyn. Their lives take a sudden desperate turn when two of the vans are attacked, the teachers killed and the students taken hostage. Liana's van careens over a cliff and she and Mikal are rescued by men from a nearby village. To get to safety Liana will have to draw deep to discover an inner strength she never knew she had while using her talent for dance to save their lives and those of her fellow students.

Discussion

Liana's Dance is part of Rosanne Hawke's Beyond Borders series, following after Dear Pakistan and The War Within. In this story the reader follows Year 11 student Liana as she struggles to cope with the increasingly unstable situation in her home country of Pakistan.

Rosanne Hawke has many interesting stories to tell as evidenced by her previous novels. Unfortunately, in Liana's Dance the opening chapters of the story are difficult to follow. The novel opens with a great hook - the main character experiences a terrorist attack while shopping in a bazaar in Murree. This terrifying event serves to draw the reader into the novel. However, in the chapters that immediately follow, it is difficult to sort out the details of the characters backstory because the narrative is very fragmented. Perhaps this is because this was the third installment in the series and therefore could not be read as a standalone? Details that might matter, for example, the name of Liana's boarding school aren't learned until Chapter 6 when it is revealed through another character. Sometimes the story jumps - requiring the reader to fill in the missing details. This happens well into the novel, for example when Liana and Mikal, disguised as brothers are in Attock and have just been greeted by men outside the bazaar. One minute they are together and then next Mikal is just returning from having purchased roti and chicken tikka in the bazaar, despite being mute and having left Liana alone.

A subplot with a twist is introduced early on, with the appearance of Mikal Kimberley in Chapter 6, revealing that he has a half-sister possibly somewhere in Pakistan. Immediately readers will guess that this half sister is Liana, dispelling what could have been a significant source of tension in the novel. All that is left for readers is to wonder how and when they will discover their familial relationship. Mikal's first attempts to locate his half-sister at The Pines is unsuccessful, his methods somewhat questionable since they involve the misuse of school records. Ironically, Liana and Mikal must pretend to be brothers to hide their identities, while in fact they really are half-siblings but are unaware of this connection. Instead, the two feel something special; for Liana it is in the form of a budding crush on the man she believes to be just her school teacher, for Mikal is it a feeling he cannot define. Fortunately this crush is quickly ended by Mikal. Another subplot in the novel involves Liana's failing friendship with Ashkenaz Peter, a Year 12 student whom she rebuffs when he returns from England.

Liana's transformation from a young girl traumatized by the attack in the bazaar at the beginning of the novel to a courageous girl who saves Mikal's life is too quick to be believable. Liana was traumatized to the extent that she had withdrawn almost completely, suffered flashbacks, nightmares, fainting spells and a loss of appetite. Yet in the matter of a few days and after a traumatic accident also involving terrorists, after a tense experience in a rural village where her identity must be kept hidden, she is able to act quickly, heroically to save herself, her classmates and her teacher. Likewise, Mikal's change from an Australian unfamiliar with Pakistani customs and culture to an AK-47-toting teacher determined to free a bunch of students is also quite astounding. The climax of the novel - the freeing of the international students by a lone Pakistani-US operative, Mikal and Liana stretches readers' belief.

It's difficult to tell just how accurate the portrayal of life in northern Pakistan is in this novel. Hawke does seem to try to balance her portrayals of Muslim extremists with more balanced characters who are helpful and caring towards their Western visitors. The wedding of a young girl barely into her teens is well portrayed. The phrase "war on terror" is used repeatedly throughout the book and yet was not in common use after 2007. Although no date was mentioned in the novel, there is a reference to Osama bin Laden's death which occurred in 2011, by which time the phrase "war on terror" was mostly obsolete.

The beautiful cover and the opening chapter will certainly draw readers in but they will be disappointed that this short novel doesn't live up to expectations.

Book Details:

Liana's Dance by Rosanne Hawke
Capalaba QLD Australia:    Rihiza Press      2017
182 pp.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Fania's Heart by Anne Renaud

Fania's Heart tells the moving story of Fania (Landau) Fainer  who was a forced labourer at the munitions factory at Auschwitz. In 1944, Zlata Sznajderhaus also a worker at Auschwitz, came up with the idea to make a small booklet in the shape of heart for Fania's twentieth birthday. The heart would be the only thing Fania had left after the war.

Fania was born in 1924 in Bialystock, Poland. One day while out on the street, Fania was singled out because she had the required yellow Jewish star on her clothing and arrested. She was first sent to Lomza Prison and then deported to Stutthof forced labour camp. She would never see her parents nor her brother Leybl or sister  Mushke again. From Stutthof, Fania was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943 where she was selected to work as a labourer in the Weichsel Union Metallwerke munitions factory next to the camp. She was only eighteen-years-old. Every morning she was awoken at 5 a.m. and marched to the factory after being given a ration of bread. Every day was a tremendous struggle to survive.

With the approach of her birthday, Fania mentioned to the girls she had come to befriend at the factory that she would be turning twenty soon. Wanting to do something special for her friend, Zlatka Pitluk managed to obtain scissors and paper with the help of the other girls in the factory. She had always loved to draw hearts and with a pencil drew twenty hearts.

The heart's pages were glued together with a mixture of bread and water - a tremendous sacrifice since workers received very little of either. Zlatka then passed the heart booklet on to the other eighteen young women, who managed to keep it hidden and signed the pages with messages and best wishes. Those young women were Berta, Bronia, Cesia, Eva Pany, Fela, Gusia, Hanka, Hanka W., Helene, Irene, Liza, Mala, Mania, Mazal, Mina, Rachela, Ruth and Tonia and Zlatka. Mania wrote, "Freedom, freedom, freedom."

After the pages had been signed, Zlatka was not satisfied because she felt the booklet needed a cover. So she decided to cut a heart shape out of her favourite blouse that she was wearing. This had to be done during work and without being noticed. The heart-shaped booklet was covered with the purple fabric from Zlatka's blouse and embroidered with a red letter "F".

On Fania's birthday, December 12, 1944 the heart was passed carefully down the table hidden in a small "cake" made of bread and water and jam. Although the cake and the heart-shaped booklet were not discovered,  the Kapos became suspicious because Zlatka was moving at their table. One of the Kapos who was a prostitute,  decided to search Zlatka who was wearing her favourite purple blouse beneath the striped uniform worn in Auschwitz. Upon discovering the blouse she questioned Zlatka as to how she was able to pass the inspections each morning and who was inspecting her. Zlatka courageously told the Kapo that she was the one inspecting her and was promptly slapped. She then took Zlatka into another room and abused her.

When Auschwitz was evacuated a month later in January 1945 as the Soviet army advanced westward into Poland, the inmates were sent on a death march. Fania carried the treasured heart underneath her arm to avoid detection. Over 15,000 inmates died on the march, but Fania survived, eating grass along the way. She was then deported to Ravensbruck Womens Camp.

The heart survived the war as did Fania. When she moved to Toronto, Ontario in 1949, she brought the heart with her. It now resides in the Montreal Holocaust Museum after Fania donated it in 1988.

This poignant story of resistance and humanity in the face of evil is told in Renaud's picture book, Fania's Heart. Fania's story is told through the eyes of her daughter, Sandy who finds her mother's heart booklet when she was ten years old. Sandy questions her mother about the strange little book and learns the story of how it came to be. The heart booklet stands as a testament to the power of the human spirit to endure in the darkest moments. Richard Rudnicki's watercolour illustrations help bring Fania's story to life. The back matter contains a detailed Author's Note with further information and photographs. Fania's Heart is a great resource to help young readers understand the reality of the Holocaust.

 Book Details:

Fania's Heart by Anne Renaud
Toronto: Second Story Press     2018

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Sound of Freedom by Kathy Kacer

The Sound of Freedom is a fictionalized account of a young girl whose family manages to escape Poland with the help of  world-renowned violinist, Bronislaw Huberman. Huberman was a child prodigy who studied with Joseph Joachim. He began touring Europe when he was only fourteen. When Adolf Hitler came to power, Huberman surmised that the situation for Jews in Europe would only get worse. Although he left Germany for Austria he found the situation not much better. It was apparent the situation for the Jewish people would only worsen. So he began to plan to bring the best Jewish musicians to Palestine to form an orchestra. This novel tells of one family's hope to be part of that historic event. 

Twelve-year-old Anna Hirsch lives in Krakow with her father, Avrum Hirsch who is a gifted clarinetist and her Baba. Anna's father plays in the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra and also lectures at the music academy.

The novel opens with Anna and her best friend Renata stopping at Mrs. Benna's shop on the way home on a Tuesday afternoon while her father gives lessons.While snacking on their donuts they witness a group of boys who have lately been targeting Jewish kids try to bully Mrs Benna. She stands up to them and they leave. However when Anna and Renata are walking home they see the boys vandalizing the window of  Mr. Kaplansky's butcher shop while the police chief Constable Zabek watches without intervening. At home Anna tells her papa and her baba about what happened and she is warned to stay away from the boys. That night they listen world famous violinist Bronislaw Huberman play a violin concerto by Tchaikovsky. However the radio broadcast is interrupted by a speech by Adolf Hitler. In his speech Hitler promises to provide jobs and good schools to all German citizens, to build a strong army to defend the country and to start by "cleansing Germany of all Jews. Country after country will follow."

However Anna's father refuses to talk about Hitler or what's happening in Poland. At school the next day Anna and Renata are confronted by Sabina Zabek who tells them that soon they won't be allowed to attend any school. After school Anna misses Renata who has indicated she has something important to tell Anna, so she visits her father's orchestra rehearsal. She is stunned to see all the Jewish members of the orchestra segregated at the back of the orchestra and not in their respective sections. She is so upset that her clarinet lesson with her father is a disaster.

During the next two weeks, there are more attacks on Jewish businesses, the headlines in the newspapers are decidely anti-Jewish. Anna's friend Stephan Ungar tells her that his father has said they will not be kicked out school, that these are isolated incidents and that this troubled time will pass, but Anna is unconvinced. They meet Renata who finally reveals that her family is fleeing Poland for Denmark in a week's time. Renata states that her parents want to leave before the situation worsens, especially since it is so difficult for Jews to obtain papers to travel to another country and that many countries do not want to take in Jewish immigrants. Anna is desolate, partly because she knows her best friend is right and partly because her own family seems reluctant to acknowledge what is happening all over Poland and Germany.

Anna confides in Baba about Renata's family leaving but her grandmother attempts to calm her by telling her everything will be fine. However Anna tells her about what she saw at orchestra practice, confronting Baba and demanding she tell her the truth. Baba tells Anna about the "ghetto chairs" for the musicians but she believes that they will be safe.

That night Papa tells them about Bronislaw Huberman's trip to Poland to recruit musicians for an orchestra in Palestine. Papa tells Anna and Baba that Huberman is inviting Jewish musicians to audition. When Anna hears this she attempts to convince her father to audition by telling him everything that she has witnessed in the streets. However her father refuses to believe that the situation is dire, stating that their lives are in Poland and they cannot simply leave for something so uncertain. Anna is completely devastated. How can she convince her father that they must leave Poland and that Huberman's auditions may be their only way out?


Discussion

The Sound of Freedom portrays a real life event that occurred just before the onset of World War II through the eyes of a young girl. The Hirsch family is fictional; there was no Avrum Hirsch who was a clarinetist  recruited by Bronislaw Huberman. But Huberman did recruit seventy musicians for his Palestine Orchestra which was formed in 1936.  At a time when getting travel documents was almost impossible for people of Jewish heritage, somehow Huberman managed to obtain enough to bring not only the musicians but their families too. The novel covers the period up to the historic concert given by the Palestine Symphony Orchestra on December 26, 1936, conducted by Maestro Toscanini.

Kacer seamlessly incorporates many historical facts into her novel; the increasingly violent harassment of Jews in Poland, Huberman's method of auditioning musicians, the difficulties he encountered obtaining visas, the theft of his Stradivarius violin, and life in British Mandate Palestine. Kacer mentions some of the challenges Anna and her fellow emigrants experienced in moving to Palestine, including learning Hebrew and dealing with attacks on the area by Arabs. Life in Palestine would most certainly have been vastly different for European Jews who settled there.
Toscanni and Huberman Palestine Symphony Orchestra

When Anna's friend Eric and his family decide to return to Poland, Anna is distraught. Although Palestine is also struggling with conflict, the Jewish people are safer than in Europe and Anna wonders about the fate of Eric. Some musicians and their families did decide to return to Europe. Those who did, would not survive the war. Near the end of the novel, Anna learns that Bronislaw Huberman brought over one thousands Jews to Palestine and as history now knows - saving these gifted musicians and their families -from the death camps of Adolf Hitler. If only more people had acted, how many more could have been saved?

Kacer is a Canadian author whose parents are survivors of the Holocaust; her mother survived by hiding and her father survived the death camps. The novel was written at the suggestion of the publisher, Annick Press.  The Sound of Freedom is the first in what will be a series of four books called the Heroes Quartet. The next installment, a book about the famous French mime artist Marcel Marceau is due out March 2019. In light of the recent poll that suggests many children under the age of fourteen do not know what the word Holocaust refers to, Kacer's novel is all the more timely.

Readers are encouraged to view the documentary, Orchestra of Exiles which examines Huberman's efforts to put together an orchestra in Palestine and preserve some of the Jewish musical heritage which he felt certain would be destroyed by the coming cataclysm.

Information on the Palestine Symphony Orchestra can be found at the Jewish Virtual Library. 

Book Details:

The Sound of Freedom by Kathy Kacer
Toronto: Annick Press Ltd.      2017
249 pp.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

The Night Diary is a fictional account of one family's experience during the partition of India into two countries in 1947. The story is told in the form of diary entries written by the main character, Nisha beginning on her twelfth birthday, addresses to her deceased mother. Nisha receives the diary as birthday gift from Kazi, the family's Muslim servant. "The diary is covered in purple and red silk, decorated with small sequins and bits of mirrored glass sewn in. The paper is rough, thick, and the color of butter..."

He tells Nisha "someone needs to make a record of the things that will happen because the grown-ups will be too busy." Nisha decides to address each entry to her mother Faria who died giving birth to Nisha and her twin brother Amil. For his birthday, Amil receives a beautiful book, a collection of tales from the Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic poem. The book contains beautiful coloured pictures, which Nisha knows Amil will love as he loves to draw but struggles to read.

Nisha and Amil live with their papa who is the head doctor at Mirpur Khas City Hospital, and Dadi their grandmother in a large compound provided by the government. The compound consists of their home which is a large bungalow, cottages where Kazi Syed and their grounds keeper Mahit live, a vegetable garden and a chicken coop. Nisha and her brother both attend segregated government schools for boys and girls.

The first hint of change happens on July 18 when three men come to the house while Papa is at work and speak to Dadi. She orders Nisha and Amil into the kitchen with Kazi. Dadi won't tell them what they wanted but Amil tells his sister that he overheard the men asking Dadi when they would be leaving.

The next day, July 19 Nisha and Amil are followed by two boys as they walk to school. Although this occasionally happens, this time the boys throw rocks at them. Nisha blames Amil who often taunts them and then runs away. But Amil tells her "It's because we're Hindus...There are lots of places all over India where the Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims fight one another all the time now...That's why those men came to the house yesterday. They said the Hindus should leave and they don't want Kazi to live with us."  As tensions escalate, there is a fight between a Muslim and a Hindu boy at school and Amil is chased again after school. Papa decides that neither Nisha nor Amil will go to school. He explains that India will gain its independence from Britain but will be partitioned into two states. Their town of Mirpur Khas won't be in India but will now be a part of a new country called Pakistan. Although Gandhi wants everyone to live in peace, Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League wants a Muslim state while Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress wants to be prime minister of India.

Life at home leaves Nisha bored and missing school which she did well at. Then on August 2, a group of people break down the door of their home, ransacking and breaking furniture and pots while Nisha, Amil and Dadi hide in terror in the pantry. After they leave Kazi comes to get them, his head bleeding profusely from a cut. Shortly after this Papa decides it is time for them to leave Mirpur Khas as it is no longer safe for them to stay. He decides to hold a party and invites family and friends. Their neighbours, uncles, aunties, cousins and Dr. Ahmed and his family attend the party.

After the party, Nisha realizes that she would have her memories of life in Mirpur Khas and new memories of life in the new India. "My childhood would always have a line drawn through it, the before and the after." Nisha, Amil and their father will undertake a journey across India that will change them forever and in ways they cannot anticipate.

Discussion

Veera Hiranandani's The Night Diary is loosely based on the experiences of her father's family during the Partition. Hiranandani's father, grandparents, aunts and uncles had to cross the border from Mirpur Khas to Jodhpur in a journey similar to that undertaken by Nisha and her family.  Although they safely crossed the border, at least one million people died in this mass migration that saw tensions between Muslims and Hindus escalate into violence.

Hiranandani's novel presents a balanced portrayal of the relationship between Muslims and Hindus in pre-partitioned India.  As would be expected, the families of Nisha's Hindu father and Muslim mother had mixed reactions to their marriage years earlier; her father's family was against the marriage, puzzled by his lack of interest in the Hindu girls, while Nisha's mother's sister was so against the marriage that she never spoke to her again. However her mother's brother seemed supportive.

Because of Nisha's mixed background she and her family are open to friendships with both Hindu and Muslim people; her father's best friend is Dr. Ahmed, a Muslim, while Nisha's best friend is Sabeen, a Muslim student. Their cook, Kazi is also Muslim and considered a member of the family.

When Nisha and her family become targets of violence she struggles to understand. Because of their mixed heritage, Nisha and Amil don't know who attacked their home and are left confused. "...And anyway I thought the two sides were supposed to be us and the British. Why are we fighting each other?" Nisha wants to "go somewhere fresh and new where people were happy..." and where "nobody would mind that you were Muslim and Papa was Hindu and Amil and I could hold both sides of our parents in our hearts." In trying to understand why people are fighting each other, Nisha asks, "Is it the brain that makes people love and hate? Or is it the heart?"

Nisha's father tells her that everyone is to blame. "...when you separate people into groups, they start to believe that one group is better than another." But Nisha recognizes "...we all have the same blood, and organs, and bones inside us, no matter what religion we're supposed to be."

The journey to the border is filled with hardships and terrifying experiences that change how Nisha views the world and push her to ask many questions. When they run out of water Nisha thinks about Badal, the water man who brought water to their home daily. "I never thought about how heavy it must have been and how lucky we were to have someone bring it to us every day. A wave of shame rippled through the center of my body..." As their situation grows dire and they are unable to continue, Nisha begins to think about death. "...I've thought about other people dying, but I've never thought about me not actually being here anymore."

Suffering from dehydration and unable to continue their journey, Nisha tells Dadi she loves her, making her realize that although they "never said those words to one another..." they "did thing that meant love." Nisha realise that love that exists in their home in the form of service to one another. "Now I could see it. Dadi washing and mending my clothes. Papa kissing us on our foreheads before bedtime, Amil making a drawing of me. Kazi making my favorite paratha stuffed with fried onions and potatoes. Every day had been filled with things like this. All love, even between Papa and Amil." Facing certain death from lack of water, when Papa returns with the much needed water, his sacrifice and comforting of them convinces Nisha that father loves them. "I knew I would remember this forever, pack it away in my mind."

After Nisha is attacked outside Rashid Uncle's home by a Muslim man who has seen his entire family murdered, she wonders, "Why had his family been killed? Why would anyone do that? Do people who kill start out like me, or are they a different kind of human?" The attack leaves Nisha unable to comprehend the violence. "I know lots of people have died walking and on the trains in both directions. The riots and killings keep happening. I still don't understand. We were all part of the same country last month, all these different people and religions living together. Now we are supposed to separate and hate one another. Does Papa secretly hate Rashid Uncle? Does Rashid Uncle secretly hate us? Where do Amil and I fit in to all of this hate? Can you hate half of a person?" Nisha is referring to the fact that she and Amil are from Muslim and Hindu parents, leading her to wonder how people will view them.

When they finally push their way onto a train to cross the border, Nisha watches as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs fight one another in a bloody, deadly battle. "I looked at the dying men on the ground. For what? I did not know. More revenge? I shook all over. I had never seen anyone kill before. It has changed me. I used to think people were mostly good, but now I wonder if anyone could be a murderer..."

Hiranandani has populated her novel with realistic characters and has done an excellent job recreating the historical setting for the novel, demonstrating she knows her subject well.

The Night Diary doesn't really explore the root of the tensions between Muslims and Hindus in British India but it does show that the partition of the country into two separate republics was a violent event. This event viewed through the eyes of young Nisha shows how senseless the violence was, in what should have been a very proud moment in the history of the country - freedom from alost three hundred years of British rule. Today tensions continue to exist between Muslims and Hindus both within India and Pakistan and also between the two countries who are arch enemies. Neither nation has fared well since the Partition; India continues to have serious social issues including poverty, an inability to eradicate the caste system and serious women's rights issues, while Pakistan struggles with government corruption and encroaching Islamic fundamentalism.

Hiranandani includes a short Author's Note that provides some background information about her family's experiences and about the Partition. Readers may find the following websites helpful:

Stanford University's 19947 Partition of India & Pakistan

The British National Archives also have much information as does the BBC website.

Overall The Night Diary is an excellent, well-written novel for younger readers about an important event in the 20the century.

Book Details:

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
New York: Dial Books For Young Readers    2018
264 pp.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Escape From Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

Escape From Aleppo tells the story of the Syrian War through the eyes of a young girl as she makes her way across the city of Aleppo after getting separated from her family.

Early on the morning of October 9, 2013, Nadia Jandali is awakened by her cousin Razan who tells her they must leave at once. Nadia is filled with fear and attempts to crawl back under her bed where she's been sleeping. She can hear the deep boom of bombs called barmeela in the distance. These are barrel bombs filled with shrapnel which are dropped onto rebel held areas by the Syrian army. Nadia is forced awake, grabs her backpack and a burlap bag to meet the rest of her family.

Nadia's cousin, Malik who is the eldest son of Khala Fatima (Nadia's maternal aunt), believes the helicopters are coming their way and that they need to leave. Nadia's family have formulated a plan that Nadia, her mother and grandmother, and her three aunts and their children will assemble downstairs in the apartment building. The building was built by her grandparents thirty-five years ago and has four apartments, each housing a son and his family. Nadia's mother orders them to go downstairs while she hunts for Nadia's younger brother Yusuf's shoes. Razan's job is to help Nadia leave the building.She's rarely been outside in the past year after she was hit by a barmeela and severely injured. The trauma from that event has made Nadia terrified to leave her home.

At the front door, Khala Fatima, Khala Lina, Khala Shakira, and Nana debate what to do next but Khala Lina is emphatic that they need to go to the dental clinic where they have arranged to meet their husbands and sons at noon. Suddenly Malik comes tearing down the stairs telling them they need to leave immediately because the government military helicopters are heading towards them. At the last minute Nadia's mother, Amani comes downstairs carrying Yusuf and the group exits the back door - all except Nadia. As Nadia is forcing herself out the door and Malik races back to help her, their building is rocked by a barmeela, throwing Nadia down the steps and against an abandoned Jeep. Stunned, Nadia lays there hearing Malik yell for her.

In the confusion of the bombing, Malik believes Nadia is beneath the rubble and dead and her family leaves, not knowing she is uninjured but dazed. As another bomb explodes, Nadia rolls under the jeep and falls unconscious. She awakens later that afternoon, her family gone, determined to travel to Dr. Asbahi's dental clinic. Nadia flees through the city encountering a group of children playing on a playground surrounded by the graves of rebels and government soldiers. In trying to find her way through the ruins of Aleppo, Nadia soon finds herself lost. Unable to find the mosque, a landmark on the way to the dental clinic, hungry and exhausted, she runs into a shop for shelter during a rainstorm. It is late in the evening and she is tired and defeated.

Nadia discovers she has taken shelter in a pharmacy. She soon falls asleep underneath a desk in the office and doesn't awaken until very early the next morning. But Nadia learns she's not alone; an elderly man "in loose woolen pantaloons and a navy vest, a taqiyah (skull cap) covering his cropped white hair...Past him, near the door, stood a sturdy, dun-colored donkey." are also in the pharmacy. Relieved he is not a soldier or worse, Nadia attempts to get out the door of the pharmacy but finds it blocked by the donkey. Terrified but responding to the old man's kindness, Nadia tells him all that has happened to her and asks him if he knows the way to the Asbahi clinic. He tells her he does and that he will take her there after he completes a short errand. However, one thing leads to another and Nadia discovers her journey with the elderly man named Ammo Mazen, is filled with unexpected revelations and leads her to discover the hidden inner strength she needs to reunite with her family.

Discussion
Escape From Aleppo tells of one girl's journey across war-torn Aleppo and Syria to the safety of Turkey where her father and family waits for her. The main story is set in 2013, and takes place over a period of five days. It is told through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Nadia who travels through the city of Aleppo with a mysterious elderly man, Ammo Mazen. During this time the reader is shown the impact of war on Nadia's life, the effect on her family and her community

Senazi makes use of flashbacks to demonstrate how much Nadia's life has changed from before the start of the Syrian war. In 2010 and 2011 life for Nadia and her family is filled with ease and comfort. Her tenth birthday party is a feast of Nadia's favourite food, "kabob karaz - grilled lamb meatballs prepared with cherries and pine nuts.", a "towering chocolate cake...adorned with pink sugar roses", and attended by "Her family and friends from school, along with her parents' friends and neighbors, gathered in her grandparents elegant dining room..." She's the center of attention in a "satin aquamarine dress", with nails painted a matching shade of blue and she has a "stack of presents".  Nadia's life revolves around the finals of Arab Idol, auditioning for television commercials, the wedding preparations for her cousin Razan's marriage and her final exams. Life is full of possibilities.

In contrast is Nadia's life in the present, in 2013. After being injured in a barmeela attack, Nadia has a scar that runs from her knee to her hip and has a piece of shrapnel that remains in her leg. Once told she resembled the Arab Idol semifinalist, Carmen Suleiman, Nadia's appearance after escaping the bombing of her home in Salaheddine two years later is much altered. "Her eyes shifted, catching her reflection in the mirror. A stranger stared back at her: face covered in dust, hollowed cheeks marked with pale white scars. A cut, caked with dry blood, from where her head had hit the Jeep. Her hair, once thick and wavy, had been hacked off because of lice. Spiky and short, it now lay stuffed under an ugly olive-green woolen cap..."

After the bombing, Nadia looks at their family's apartment building which is mostly destroyed. "She peered inside Khala Lina's apartment, cut in half, her embroidered silk curtains still hanging from the window, fluttering like a maroon flag. A leather sofa hung from the ledge, it's matching love seat lying on what remained for Khala Fatima's kitchen below, her stove flat as an atayaf, a sweet cheese-stuffed pancake. Nana's beautiful cream-and-gold china lay scattered across the ground like snowflakes, broken in a million pieces."

The devastation of the war is shown as Nadia's journey through Aleppo to catch up to her family. She travels "past houses where shells had punched great holes and others that had collapsed completely, blocking the surrounding alleys with rubble." She watches an ambulance pull up to "what had been a large apartment complex, now a stack of concrete pancakes with jagged metal rods protruding from all angles. Survivors huddled near the road, coated in dust, consoling the injured while parmedics bandaged a boy's leg. And old man knelt beside teh rubble, weeping, his bent figure shielding something. Nadia got a glimpse of golden bangles and a frail arm." The city is filled with broken down cars, uncollected trash, abandoned stores, salons and mosques, snipers hiding on roofs, and there are "hundreds of checkpoints that had sprung up around the city, each manned by a different group, either affiliated with the Syrian army or one of the hundreds of rebel groups."

Throughout the story, Senzai incorporates various facts about the war. For example, readers learn how the Syrian War was rooted in the uprising in other parts of the Middle East. During Nadia's birthday party, the adults in the family gather to watch the television broadcasts of the self-immolation of a young man, Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bousid, Tunisia. The demonstrations in Tunisia spread to the surrounding countries of Jordan, Algeria and Oman while in Egypt, demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo lead to the removal of dictator Hosni Mubarak. This was followed by unrest in Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco and Libya. These demonstrations come to be known as the Arab Spring. In Syria it begins with the arrest and torture of a group of boys from Deraa who had written anti-government slogans on their school.  Through a flaskback, Nadia remembers the discussions at home between her grandfather and the rest of the family about how the U.S. wanted Assad to resign and how U.N. peacekeepers were sent in to monitor the situation. Later on as Nadia and Ammo Mazen are walking through the streets they encounter a woman who tells them about the sarin gas attack by the Assad government on rebels in Ghouta, near Damascus. An encounter with a group of rebels and an Egyptian-American journalist explains the rebel's view of the involvement of ISIS in the war. "The road you were on is blocked by those foreign bastards who call themselves ISIS. They've been fighting other rebel groups to usurp power...These foreign hypocrites use religion as an excuse to fight some glorified war, seeking power and fame. They are ruthless barbarians, posting videos on the Internet of their atrocities, like blowing up ancient sites or killing civilians for not following their brand of Islam."

Senzai uses the character of Ammo Mazen, to highlight the efforts of the Syrian academics to preserve their historical treasures from destruction in the war. Readers learn that "Most of the museums in the country, and all six of Syria's World Heritage sites, have been affected in one way or another..." Some of those treasures turn out to be rare books brought by Ammo Mazen and include "Kitab al-Tasrif by medieval Arab surgeon Abulcasis, Katib Cheleb's seventeenth-century Islamic atlas, and other rare books of poetry,history, science and mathematics."

Nadia's journey through the ruins of Aleppo to the safety of Turkey mirrors her own personal journey from a fearful traumatized girl to one who acts with courage and decisiveness when needed. Senzai has crafted a realistic protagonist in Nadia Jandali. She's a typical teenager - impulsive, self-absorbed but she is also courageous, intelligent and caring. At the beginning of the story, Nadia has been housebaound for almost a year, filled with fear. Spurred by the loss of her family, Nadia forces herself to try to find her way to the dental clinic in the hopes she will meet up with her family. "She realized that if she kept her eyes down and didn't look around too much, she could keep the fear at bay. Don't think. Just move. Her encounter with Ammo Mazen forces her to trust him despite the fact that he is a complete stranger. His kindness surprises her. "She realized that she had to trust him, at least a little, if she was going to find her family."  Although she does get to the Asbahi clinic, a note from her family telling her where to meet them leaves her feeling abandoned and angry. It also means that she must continue to rely on Ammo Mazen who she suspects is not telling her the full truth of who he is. Nadia is impatient and dismissive of Ammo Mazen's decision to travel by donkey. "Nadia mutinously stared at the smelly donkey, snoring away with Mishmish curled up under her neck. All he has is a bunch of junk, she fumed. Why is that so important?..." Instead she discovers that the old books are rare treasures to be preserved. As Ammo Mazen's healthy begins to deteriorate and he collapses, Nadia wants to abandon him. "I should just ditch them and go find my familiy on my own.It would be easier and faster..." she thinks but she reconsiders. "He had helped her when she needed it the most. And now she would help him. For now, the questions she had didn't matter. she would trust him." And when Ammo Mazen is attacked and his donkey and cart stolen, it is Nadia who comes up with a plan that retrieves them and allows their journey to the border to continue. In the end, Nadia and Basel a little boy they have picked up along the way, leave Ammo Mazen in the care of an elderly woman. Nadia's questions are answered

Escape From Aleppo is a well-written, interesting novel that portrays the realities of war without being too graphic. It is informative, giving younger readers the basic background of the Syrian war which is still ongoing, while putting a face to the conflict through Nadia, Basel, Ammo Mazen and the many other characters.

Book Details:

Escape From Aleppo by Naheed Hasnat Senzai
New York: A Paula Wiesmen Book            2018
324 pp.