Saturday, August 28, 2010

Book Review: A Long Labour: A Dutch Mother's Holocaust Memoir

I've discovered that there is whole genre of fiction I did not recognize as such - women's holocaust narrative which exists within the larger context of Dutch Holocaust Literature. The book, A Long Labour was written by Rhodea Shandler whose name at birth was Henriette Dwinger. Rhodea was a Dutch Jew born in Leeuwarden, Netherlands in 1918. She was one of the few Dutch Jews to survive the extermination of approximately seventy-five percent of Jews in Holland. In 1951, Rhodea emigrated to Canada with her husband, Ernst and their five daughters. For many years she felt no compulsion to share her experiences with her family until advancing age led her to the decision that her story must be told.She writes,"Strange that the urge to write often comes after a time lapse. Perhaps there is sufficient distance now between the events and my recording of them for my mind to rest, to be able to make sense of those long-ago occurrences."

I found this book provided a window into an aspect of WWII that I've rarely encountered other than in Anne Frank's Diary. Rhodea writes about some of the choices she had to make in order to save her life and the lives of those in her family. But she also writes about how she and other Jews were unable to help most and that they didn't know until after the war that they would never see those family members sent to work camps. In many parts of the book, these choices are stated in a very matter of fact manner, without much emotion. Perhaps, after the passage of so many years, Rhodea has come to terms with her choices. Nevertheless, they must have been extremely difficult ones to make. Her memories of returning home, of the struggle to reunite with surviving family members, of trying to reclaim personal belongings given to so-called friends for safe keeping and of trying to adjust to living in a society complicit with what happened are compelling.
The Long Labour also made me understand what it must have been like for the survivors whose connection to the past after World War II was often completely eradicated. Aunts, uncles, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers...sent away, never again to return. It must have seemed impossible.
The pictures put a face to the names in the book, and I was especially touched by the picture of Rhodea's brother Simon, playing his violin. Simon a gifted musician did not survive the Holocaust. The Introduction written by Dr. S. Lillian Kremer, University Distinquished Professor Emerita, KSU is well worth reading.
Rhodea Shandler died in 2006, shortly after the memoir's completion.

Book Details:
A Long Labour
A Dutch Mother's Holocaust Memoir

by Rhodea Shandler
2007 Ronsdale Press & Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre

Friday, August 20, 2010

Secret Daughter. A Novel. by shilipi somay gowda

Secret Daughter is definitely one of the best adult fiction books I've read this year! Incredibly poignant and filled with both tragedy and hope as is India.

Secret Daughter opens with a short but intriguing prologue, the significance of which we don't comprehend until the very end of the book.
This is the story of the lives of three families, on two different continents, tied together by the birth of a baby. Somer Thakker, a 32 year old physician living in California, learns she has premature ovarian failure and therefore will never have the baby she so desperately wants. This leads her and her husband Krishnan to consider adopting a baby from Krishnan's native India.

Meanwhile, half a world away in Dahanu, India, Kavita, wife of a poor farmer (Jasnu) decides to save her newborn daughter, Usha, from certain death by leaving her in an orphanage in Mumbai. After walking three days, Kavita, reluctantly gives up her baby, a heartrending decision that will haunt her the rest of her life. It is Somer and Krishnan who adopt Usha (mistakenly called Asha by the orphanage), the baby with the beautiful gold-flecked eyes,  when she is 1 year old. Asha leaves India to grow up, much loved and well educated in America.

The story is primarily told in the voices of the three principal female characters, Somer, Asha, and Kavita from 1984 to 2009; the period during which Asha grows to adulthood. Added to their voices are those of Jasnu and Krishnan who provide the perspective of  husband and father.

  is a rich study of the motifs of love, family, motherhood, and feminine identity. Somer and Kavita  each struggle with their fears and understanding of all of the above while Asha must deal with the meaning of family, love and identity. As an adoptee, she struggles to learn who she is, what family means and even more importantly how love can sometimes mean giving up something very very dear.

The theme of loss also figures prominently in this story for each of the women - although we also learn of the tremendous loss Jasnu experienced and has kept unacknowledged throughout most of his life - it is a loss that causes his only regret at a terrible price. What ultimately shines through in Secret Daughter,  is the inner strength of these women, their growth in wisdom and how this strength helps them to guide their daughters, daughter-in-laws and grandchildren.
Secret Daughter also focuses on the incredible sacrifices women make for each other and for their children.

Shilipa Somay Gowda brilliantly captures the incredible contrasts that mark the society and culture of India. A strong sense of family and familial obligation is contrasted with the practice of femicide, bride burnings, and a cultural preference for boys. The soul killing poverty of the slum, Dharavi is in contrast to the wonderful resourcefulness of the poor. And that same poverty is offset by Mumbai sari shops containing silk garments in every shade of the rainbow and the wedding in a prominent Mumbai family that features guests in the thousands at a cost of ten million rupees.

Despite the tragedy that abounds in this book, Ms Gowda weaves a story of hope and possibility.  I highly recommend this book, especially as a book club offering. Thankfully, we are provided with a glossary of Indian vocabulary at the back, although I personally enjoy the Indian works used throughout the novel. The Epilogue provides a satisfying conclusion to the Prologue.

Book Details:
Secret Daughter. A Novel. by Shilpi Somay Gowda
HarperCollins Publishers 2010

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira

Historical fiction at it's very best.

Mary Sutter is a young midwife, following in the footsteps of her mother, Amelia. She lives in Albany, New York with her twin sister Jenny. Despite her renown as a midwife, it is a surgeon Mary wants to be. She has been turned away from every medical school and cannot find a doctor with whom to apprentice. When her first love, Thomas Fall marries Jenny, and Dr. James Bleven refuses to apprentice her, Mary takes things into her own hands.
Mary flees to Washington City (which would eventually be known as Washington, D.C.) to answer the call by Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of Army Nurses. It is the beginning of the Civil War.However, when Dorthea Dix turns her away, Mary offers her services as a nurse/apprentice at the Union Hotel in Georgetown. In this vermin infested, dilapidated foul "hospital" that Mary finds herself under the tutelage of surgeon Dr. William Stipp.
In the meantime, Mary's mother Amelia is distraught over her sudden departure and begs Mary repeatedly to return home. Although Amelia is also a midwife, she feels that she will not have the skill necessary to deliver Jenny when her time comes.But Mary in her determined quest to become a surgeon and because her intense heartbreak prevents her from facing Jenny, delays until the last possible moment to travel home to help her sister Jenny -with disastrous results. This causes Mary to have a crisis of confidence and she vanishes into the maelstrom of the Civil War, only to resurface at the battlefield months later.
Amid the disorganized carnage of the early Civil War, Mary, William and James struggle to cope not only with their own personal demons but with the blood, gore and exhaustion as they attempt to minister to the overwhelming numbers of injured and dead. Mary and William work amid the chaos to save the lives of soldiers while James believes that if they only knew more, doctors could save the lives of many of the wounded. All three men, Thomas Fall, James Bleven and William Stipp find Mary Sutter an utterly  remarkable, if not incomprehensible woman. None of them quite understand her but are drawn to Mary by her courage and her intelligence.

Ms Oliveira successfully combines a detailed historical fiction with a touch of romance. She is able to weave significant figures of this time period into her narrative, making them believable and three-dimensional. We meet Mr. Lincoln, John Hay and Dorothea Dix. Lincoln seems extraordinarily vulnerable, suffering terribly and undergoing a crisis of faith when his son Willie dies of typhoid.

Something I wasn't aware of and hopefully is realistically portrayed in the novel, was the ineptitude of both sides in preparing for war as well as the incompetence of the each army command which led to failed battles, unexplained retreats and battles that turned into bloodbaths.

Descriptions of childbirth and battlefield are equally graphic, thus realistically portraying what it was like to die for both women and men in the mid 1800s.  I had never considered that the Civil War occurred just prior to most of the major discoveries in modern medicine including basic knowledge about surgical hygiene. It is disheartening to read about surgeons treating severe compound fractures by amputation and to read about how  doctors believed suppuration and fever healed wounds. Water to clean wounds was used over and over again. Patients where regularly treated with whiskey and/or quinine.

There are detailed descriptions of the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Antietam (also known as Sharpsburg) in which over 20,000 men died.

"The day after the battle, the sight of the crowded yard nearly knocked Mary off her feet. Men lay next to one another without room for anyone to walk in between them. She staggered and caught herself....Cries for water and for mothers and sweethearts mingled with sobs of pain. It was a great rabble of suffering, and now it was her great rabble."

Considering the amount of  historical detail in the novel,  it is evident the author did considerable research involving both primary materials (journals, lectures, diaries newspaper articles) as well as consulting historians and  librarians. Among sources consulted, The Library of Congress for Dorothea Dix's letters, Interlibrary Loan of the King County Library for books, The Special Collections at the University of Washington Medical School Library for information on midwifery, the online librarian at the Library of Congress who directed Oliveira toClara Barton's War Lecture and as well as a number of books on Civil War Medicine, Civil War hospitals and Civil War surgeons and doctors.

It is a pleasure to read historical fiction when the author has taken such attention to detail. This small time frame of American history came alive for me - and that is what historical fiction is all about.

Book Details:
My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira
Viking Press  2010

For further investigation:
Photographic History of the Civil War

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Night To Remember by Walter Lord

The book that led to the making of the classic movie, A Night to Remember:

Walter Lord's book is well done and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lord wrote his book after interviewing many survivors, crew and relatives of survivors. He studied the Titanic's blueprints, builder's specifications and cargo manifests and also reviewed much of the testimony given at investigations undertaken in London and Washington.
What I liked best about this book is Lord's critical analysis of how class structure in the early 20th century played a part in every aspect of society and in the end determined who would live and die on Titanic,

"And it was the end of the class distinction in filling the boats. The White Star Line always denied anything of the kind - and the investigators back them up- yet there's overwhelming evidence that the steerage took a beating:...."

"...The statistics suggest who they were-the Titanic's casualty list included 4 of 143 First Class Women (three by choice)...15 of 95 Second Class Women... and 81 of 179 Third Class Women....only 23 out of 76 steerage children were saved...."

how prejudices influenced peoples observations:

"With this lost world went some of its prejudices - especially a firm and loudly voiced opinion of the superiority of Anglo-Saxon courage. To the survivors all the stowaways in the lifeboats were "Chinese" or "Japanese"; All who jumped from the deck were "Armenians", "Frenchmen," or "Italians." "

and how the Titanic tragedy changed that and many other things about life and business in the early 20th century.

"Overriding everything else, the Titanic also marked the end of a general feeling of confidence.  Until then men felt they had found the answer to a steady, orderly, civilized life....For 100 years technology had steadily improved.....The Titanic woke them up. Never again would they be quite so sure of themselves....Here was the "unsinkable ship" - perhaps man's greatest engineering achievement - going down the first time it sailed."

I enjoyed watching the movie years ago, long before James Cameron's Titanic hit movie theatres. I still believe A Night To Remember is one of the best movies ever made about the disaster. In the same way, Walter Lord's book is also one of the best I've read on the tragedy.
Readers may want to check a post I wrote a while back about recent investigations into what may have really caused Titanic's demise.

Book Details:
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
Henry Holt and Company  1955
266 pp.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The King's Arrow by Michael Cadnum

Historical fiction is one genre that is hard to write well and because of this it often does not appeal to young adults. Michael Cadnum makes a good effort at a long ago event - the mysterious death of William the Conqueror in 1100 AD in his book, The King's Arrow.

It is 1100 AD and feelings are still high after the Norman conquest of Britain. English landholders have been forcibly removed from their land and the English aristocracy has been replaced by the French-speaking Normans. Neither the English nor their Norman conquerors trust one another. There have been gradual social and political changes in the ensuing 35 year since the Norman conquest.

Simon Foldre is the 18 year old son of a Norman nobleman and an English aristocrat. Looking like an Englishman to the Normans and a foreign lord to the English, Simon is struggling to find his place in the new England.

"Simon faced a future of divided happiness, knowing too much of both English umbrage and Norman self-importance to feel at home in either camp."

When he is offered a chance to participate in the royal hunt, Simon hopes he finally has his an opportunity to make a name for himself. He is offered the chance to be an English varlet to Walter Tirel of Picardy. But things go horribly wrong and Simon finds himself fleeing the Normans accompanied by Tirel.

The tragic events to come are foreshadowed by the cruel murder of a local hunter Edric by the royal marshal, Roland Montfort. Montfort is in charge of the king's personal security and does not like the English.  Cadnum fills his story with hints here and there of political intrigue. For example, there is the suggestion that Prince Henry is  anxious to assume the kingship of England, perhaps by any means necessary. This suggests that William's death, although considered by history as accidental, may have happened anyway on that day.

Although the historical event that forms the background of the book's plot is an interesting one in and of itself, I found the book to be somewhat slow at first. Cadnum takes his time creating the setting and atmosphere of the story in order to set up future events. As the tragedy unfolds and Simon is caught up in the events, the pace picks up. In the end, this short novel is a quick read for those interested in English history during the time of the Normans.

Book Details:

The King's Arrow by Michael Cadnum
Viking 2010