Thursday, May 31, 2012

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

 "Then this guy, he take the ax, small ax like for chopping, and he hit one kneeling guy on the back of the head. The guy fall down, like just a pile of rag hitting the ground very fast. Then the Khmer Rouge, he go down the line, hit each one. Terrible sound, like cracking a coconut, only its a human head.
"You," he says to me, "You put them in the ditch."
I don't want to do this, but I do it. My body does what this guy says. I push the people, very heavy, lot of blood. I push them into the grave. I do it. One guy, he's not even dead. They say to push him in anyway."
These days, young adult fiction is exploring more and more frequently relatively recent events such as apartheid in South Africa, the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Bosnian conflict, the Rwandan genocide, and the Gulf War. I have lived through the time period when all of the above occurred. I remember reading newspaper accounts and seeing television coverage.

For some of these events, such as the Civil Rights movement, I was too young to process what was really happening. For others, such as the Rwandan conflict, it has been difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the killing and the horrors perpetrated on others.

One of the best ways to learn about the past is through fictional accounts which bring to life, for the reader, the event and explore what it meant for people living through them. Never Fall Down is one such book, although  the person who narrates the story, Arn Chorn Pond, is a real person, living in the United States today.

Never Fall Down tells the story of the Khmer Rouge and the murderous genocide they wreaked upon their own people of Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, Arn was a nine year old boy living in Battambang, Cambodia with his family. Arn's father had recently died in a motorcycle accident which meant that his family could no longer run their opera business. His mother, an opera singer left the family to sing in Phnom Penh, while Arn, his sisters Chantou, Maly, Jorami, Sophea and his younger brother Munny live with their Aunt.

At first everyone is happy that the war is over. The Khmer Rouge soldiers fill the city, and ask everyone who has a uniform to put it on. These men are promptly marched out to the airfield and executed. Soon anyone who is wealthy and educated is executed.

The Khmer soldiers told the people that an American plane was coming to bomb the city and that all the residents must flee into the countryside. Arn and his family soon learnthat this is not the case. After three days of forced marching during which hundreds die, they find themselves in a camp. At this camp all of the children are separated and sent to a new camp where they are fed little and work from dawn to dusk.

When the Khmer Rouge ask if anyone can play music, Arn volunteers, believing that he will be killed, but hoping that this will get him out of the fields and the back breaking work. Instead, he is trained by an old musician to play the khim, a wooden stringed instrument which is played using a bamboo stick. He has five days to learn the new Khmer Rouge songs on an instrument he has never played before. The elderly music teacher tells that once he has taught Arn the songs, he will be killed because the Khmer Rouge do not want anyone who knows the old songs to live. Soon after, like many other Cambodians, the music teacher never returns.
"To live with nothing in your stomach and a gun in your face," he says, "is that living or is that dying a little bit every day?"
For Arn, so begins three long years under the Khmer Rouge regime, which only ended when he managed to escape from Cambodia to a Thailand refugee camp during the Vietnamese invasion. Once in the refugee camp, Arn was visited and eventually adopted by an American pastor, Peter L. Pond. Pond who adopted sixteen Cambodian orphans was both a tireless worker on behalf of the Cambodian people and a controversial figure.

For Arn, being adopted and taken to America was only the beginning of a long journey towards healing.Arn was a terrified boy who endured the most brutal and barbaric events, including his own repeated rape by a Khmer girl, and watching the countless gruesome murders of others as well a becoming a child soldier himself. It took him many years to tame the "tiger" in his heart - the hate that came from so much horror. But Arn chose to live and to tell the rest of the world what the Khmer Rouge did to Cambodians. He chose to live and try to save a part of his culture, the traditional music of Cambodia.

Never Fall Down is not for the faint of heart and readers and those recommending this novel need to be aware that the content in this story is deeply disturbing and vividly graphic. Never Fall Down is gruesome and heartrending. McCormick tells a story the evokes strong emotions of horror and sadness.

McCormick effectively captures the voice of Arn, through the use of the typical broken sentence structure that many nonnative speakers use when first speaking English. McCormick told Arn's story this way to retain the true nature of his story.  Since Arn was unable to recall  the details of many events, Patricia McCormick added details from her own research. Her novel is the result of intense, detailed interviews with Arn, as well as trips to Cambodia to trace his journey with the Khmer Rouge.

The title, Never Fall Down  refers to the expression Arn would say to himself in order to survive.

In this video, Patricia McCormick talks with Arn Chorn Pond about his childhood and her book:

In this video, Arn Chorn talks about his experiences under the Khmer Rouge and how the culture of music was almost destroyed by the brutal Pol Pot regime.

"Every day I had kill my own heart in order to endure. It was worse than a nightmare."

The Khmer Rouge was organized by Pol Pot in 1960 in the jungles of Cambodia on the heels of Vietnam's embrace of Communism. Both countries saw Communisim as a way to rid themselves of their French colonial regimes. By 1975, the Khmer Rouge was able to capture the capital of Cambodia, Phenom Penh, and form a new government which they called the Kampuchean People's Republic. Once in power, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge soldiers set about killing anyone with education, wealth or skills. All the rest were sent to work farms where 1.7 million souls died between 1975 and 1978. The countryside became known as the "Killing Fields".  In 1979, the Vietnamese invaded the country and established a more moderate communist government. Pol Pot was never tried for crimes against humanity and apparently died in 1998 of natural causes. Let us pray justice was done on the other side.

For more information on the Khmer Rouge please see Cambodia Tribunal Monitor.

Book Details:
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick
New York: Balzer & Bray    2012
216 pp.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples

Shabanu is the first of three books Suzanne Fisher Staples has written about desert life in Pakistan. The first story is told from the perspective of Shabanu, who is eleven years old when the novel opens. She lives a nomadic life in the Cholistan Desert region of Pakistan. Living with her older sister, Phulan, her Mama and Dadi, and her Auntie and her two small sons, life consists of tending the camel herds and enjoying her last months of childhood in the dusty, wind-storm prone desert.

Shabanu's narrative is exciting and filled with interesting events that move the story forward. The novel opens with the birth of a baby camel while its mother is being attacked by vultures. Shabanu manages to save the baby camel whom she names Mithoo. There is also a terrifying fight between two enraged male camels which Dadi, Shabanu and her family struggle to break up. Shabanu tells us how her family must now always be on their guard, for camels never forget.

Soon Dadi and Shabanu travel to Sibi to sell their camels at the Great Fair. Dadi gets a good price because his animals are the finest at the fair and they return home wealthy and able to afford expensive gifts for Mama and Phulan. However, for Shabanu, this is a difficult time because Dadi has sold her favourite camel, Guluband. She is angry and hurt at the loss of this treasured animal, but at the same time she comes to terms with the loss.  
 "But at the center of myself is an aching hole. With Guluband, my joy, my freedom, all of whom I am is gone. I wonder if I will ever take pleasure in anything again."
 As it turns out how Shabanu deals with this loss will be preparation towards accepting a more significant loss in the near future. Guluband's sale is a foreshadowing of her own sale later on.

Shabanu's family's life now centers around preparations for two marriages in the next year. It is also one of the main reasons for the sale of camels at Sibi. Older sister Phulan has been betrothed to her cousin, Hamir whom she will marry after the feast of Ramadan this year. It is expected that Shabanu will follow her sister the next year, marrying Hamir's brother Murad, soon after she begins her menses.

Not long after returning home from Sibi, a devastating sandstorm strikes, fatally injuring Grandfather. Out of respect for his wishes, the family takes him to Derawar to die. Too early to travel to Mehrabpur for Phulan's wedding, Shabanu's family waits for a bit and then proceeds to Mehrabpur to meet up with Hamir and Murad. Once there, Shabanu tells the reader of the tense situation between Hamir and Murad and former landowner, Nazir Mohammad who sold them a part of his land only to see it flourish under the brother's hard work. This tension will come to head shortly as a result of a chance encounter.

Nazir is known to have quail hunting parties where he usually offers his guests the daughter from a tenant family. When Shabanu's family camps near a canal on her cousin's land, they have a run-in with Nazir, who tries to kidnap the girls for his own use. Shabanu, Phulan, Mama and Auntie flee from the enraged Nazir while Dadi, Hamir and Murad try to settle things.

However, Shabanu finds the arrangements of the settlement to be horrific. She must marry the brother of the landowner, the kindly Rahim-sahib who is completely smitten with her, so that her family can pay the debt owed to the humiliated rich land owner. Not only that but she loses Murad as her betrothed to her sister. Shabanu's family is saved because of the love of Rahim-sahib, but her family has sold her to ensure her sister's happiness and her family's comfort and stability.

Shabanu is a beautifully crafted, well paced and fascinating story.The broader storyline of two young girls preparing for marriage is punctuated by interesting events that provide clues to the Cholistan culture and beliefs and which also set the stage for the climax of the novel.

It is obvious that Suzanne Fisher Staples has truly done the significant research she claims. Almost all the characters are based on people she met in Cholistan and almost every scene in Shabanu and Haveli, the second book in the series, is based on stories told to her when she lived in Pakistan. She was inspired to write Shabanu as a result of some of the women she met while working on a literacy project in a rural village in Pakistan's Punjab Province. She realized that women wherever they are, have similar stories and similar issues in their lives.

Some have criticized the author for writing Shabanu, because they feel as an American she cannot possibly be true to a culture that is not her own. However, Shabanu's voice is authentic. The character of Shabanu is based on a young girl, Maryam, whom Ms. Staples met in Yazmin. This girl was being raised by her grandmother and the two of them also form the basis for the characters Sharma and her daughter Fatima in the novel.

Shabanu is convincing both as a young girl approaching adolescence with her mixed feelings of growing into a young woman and leaving the joys and carefree times of childhood behind, and as a girl on the cusp of womanhood in a traditional, nomadic Pakistani family.

Part of being an adolescent is the search for identity, the answering of "who am I?". Shabanu doesn't want to marry and wishes she could be like her cousin Sharma whom she admires. She wishes to be free, strong and independent like Sharma. Yet the traditions of her culture require her to be exactly the opposite; obedient to her husband, dependent upon his provision.

When she was betrothed to Murad, Shabanu was gradually coming to accept her soon-to-be role as wife and eventually mother. But when she is told that she will no longer marry Murad, but the much older Rahim-sahib, who has three other wives who will hate her and beat her, Shabanu rebels. While outwardly appearing to accept what her father has ordained, Shabanu hides the evidence of her periods to buy herself some time. When her father forces the issue of marriage, Shabanu must choose between family and self. She chooses self and flees only to be caught and beaten. She has lost. Or has she?

It is Sharma and not Shabanu's Mama or Auntie who give Shabanu the strength and a way to accept her fate. She decides she will use Sharma's way and never give her heart to Rahim-sahib, a man she decides she can never love.

"The secret is keeping your innermost beauty, the secrets of your soul, locked in your heart," Sharma's voice whispers in my ear, "so that he must always reach out to you for it." 
Shabanu explores the microcosm of Cholistan culture, revealing this fascinating part of Pakistan to young readers the world over. First published in 1995, novels like Shabanu are more relevant than ever, especially given the ongoing events in Afghanistan, Pakistan's northern neighbour. Young people are like young people everywhere; the dream, they rebel, they wish to make their own choices, they challenge their parents, their culture and their way of life.

I am anxious to read Haveli and The House of Dijnn which continue the story of Shabanu.
Book Details:
Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples
New York: Dell Laurel Leaf   2003
240 pp.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Yesterday's Dead by Pat Bourke

"The newspaper had been delivered to the gate. There it was again -- the headline "Yesterday's Dead" -- posted over a grim list of names and addresses of the people in Toronto who'd died from the Spanish Flu the day before, the same way the paper listed the names of soldiers who'd died overseas. It seemed to her that the Spanish Flu was like an invading army, leaving grief in its wake as it spewed casualties."

Yesterday's Dead is set in the wealthy suburb of Rosedale, in Toronto in the autumn of 1918. Thirteen year old Meredith Hollings, fresh from rural Port Stuart, has been hired as a maid for Dr. Waterton's family. She needs the job badly so she can help her mom and her younger sister Ellen back home. Her father who abandoned the family, leaving them in debt, has been killed in action in the Great War.

When Meredith arrives in Toronto, the Spanish influenza is front page news. At the Waterton's home Meredith tries to settle in, learning her job from the kindly Mrs. Butters, and dealing with the unfriendly butler, the stiff, prickly Mr. Parker. At the same time she also meets Dr. Waterton's oldest son, Jack, the snobby, self-centered daughter, Margaret, and their younger brother,  five year old Harry. There's also Thomas Aloysius O'Hagan and his sister Bernadette, whose mother cleans at the Watertons. Tommy, as he is known, becomes a true friend to Meredith.

When the Spanish Flu hits Toronto, Meredith is left to care for a desperately ill Mrs. Butters while Dr. Waterton heads to the hospital. Soon Parker, Jack, and Harry are also ill. Meredith must not only look after the ill, but run the household, hoping she too doesn't succumb. She can only pray that Dr. Waterton will soon arrive back home, but it becomes apparent that it will be some time before he does. Until then Meredith must remain strong and carry on.

 Bourke sets up a lively conflict between Meredith and thirteen year old Margaret Waterton, who won't help and insists that Meredith still serve her meals, despite the crisis. It isn't until the situation becomes desperate, that Margaret finally puts aside her notions of class differences and pitches in.Tragedy strikes both at the Waterton's and at the O'Hagans. No family will remain untouched by the pandemic.

Bourke uses each of her characters to show how the influenza affected people differently, and how it was healthy young people, usually not the most susceptible age group, who died quickly. Jack, in the prime of his life becomes desperately ill, while younger Harry is only mildly sick. Certain characteristics of the illness, such as bleeding from the mucous membranes and rapid onset pneumonia are accurately portrayed in the novel. Bourke also effectively portrays the confusion and misinformation people had about the disease and the home remedies attempted to stave off infection through the use of dialogue between her characters.

The novel contains a wide range of characters from different classes in Toronto society making Yesterday's Dead engaging and realistic. This variety of characterization serves to demonstrate that the pandemic was not respectful of class divisions, infecting both the rich in Rosedale, and their poorer neighbours in Cabbagetown - a fact that surprises Meredith.

Although the novel has a predictable end, Yesterday's Dead is a historical novel that gently, yet realistically portrays what life was like in Toronto during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. Tens of thousands of Torontonians sickened and approximately 1,700 died. In fact so many died, that the undertakers would pass along the streets every day to collect the dead bodies. Life came to a virtual standstill while the pandemic passed through. Hospitals were overrun and short-staffed since many doctors and nurses had left to serve at the front or on the military bases. The novel accurately states that retired doctors and nurses were called upon to treat the sick and dying.

Bourke also provides young readers with a glimpse at what young working as maids could expect in the early 20th century. Meredith has lied about her age to get her job and has given up schooling because she needs to help her family financially. This was an all too common scenario for many children at this time.

The title of the novel refers to the section in the daily newspapers entitled, Yesterday's Dead, which published the names of those people who died the previous day -- as the above quote demonstrates. The novel has an excellent and accurate historical note at the back which provides young readers with more information on the 1918 influenza pandemic as it relates to Toronto. This novel will be of interest to young readers, 11 to 14, who are interested in Canadian historical fiction.

It is likely there will be more historical novels written on the 1918 pandemic in the coming years, as the 100th anniversary of this event approaches. It's refreshing to read a novel with a Canadian perspective on such a major historical event. A great debut novel for author Pat Bourke.

Book Details:
Yesterday's Dead by Pat Bourke
Toronto: Second Story Press      2012
256 pp.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Waiting by Carol Lynch Williams

No one talks to me.
They don't even look my way.
There's a death bubble around me and I know it. It's
a thin film, one that only I can see through, and I have
proof no one can see me, because they never look in
my direction
and I refuse to look in theirs.
London Castle's family is trying to cope with the tragic death of her older brother Zach. Her mother won't speak to her and spends her time in her bedroom alone, on her knees weeping. But even worse, London's mother won't speak to her and blames her for what happened to Zach. Her father is seemingly oblivious as to what is going on between the mother and daughter. He is always absent, working too much. London states that "At home, all life has stopped, even though it's been awhile." It seems London has been left to cope on her own with her feelings of guilt and loss.

Seventeen year old Taylor Curtis was London's boyfriend before he broke up with her and started a short-lived relationship with another girl. He was also Zach's best friend. He begins to renew his friendship with London. However, London finds it difficult to restart their relationship because so many memories of Zach are tied to Taylor. But Taylor offers London the support and caring she so desperately needs and she grasps at it.

Meanwhile despite London's numbness and difficulty in dealing with her brother's death, she does notice a new boy in class, Jesse Fulton, who turns out to be the brother of Lili whose been trying to befriend her. London likes Jesse, who she finds cute. Lili and Jesse become and important part of London's life and she forms a strong friendship with both of them and they too help her come to terms with Zach's death.


Through Williams evocative combination of prose and poetry, we learn the awful circumstances behind Zach's death. Having gotten his girlfriend Rachel pregnant, the two were planning to marry. But both sets of parents step in and the young couple are separated. Rachel is taken miles away by her parents and pressured to get an abortion. In a huge fight, Zach's mother calls Rachel  a whore and he also learns that she will be aborting his baby. Devastated and without hope, Zach hangs himself in his bedroom. London hears Zach dying and her and her mother race against time to save him. At the end of the book we learn what really happens with Rachel, and this makes his death all the more tragic.

As London struggles to deal with her mother's silence and anger, she uses her relationships with both Taylor and Jesse to help her feel alive and to find the strength to confront her mother. London finally confronts her guilt and realizes that she did the best she could. She is not responsible for Zach's death. The living must go on living.

Waiting tells the intense, tragic story of a family broken apart by the needless death of a young man. The suspense of not knowing the circumstances behind Zach's death and learning halfway through the book that he might have been a suicide, effectively draws the reader in. The end of the book, although somewhat predictable because the author does drop a hint,  leaves the reader is hopeful, but deeply saddened.

Waiting succeeds because it evokes powerful emotions; empathy for London who is being punished by her shattered mother for something she had no part in and because her mother is crushed by guilt for provoking Zach; sympathy for the young couple who are betrayed by the very people who had a duty to help them in such a crisis but who instead were more concerned about saving face; pity and anger for a mother so wracked by guilt over provoking her son that she can no longer love anyone; sadness for Zach who saw no hope in his future and who made a terrible mistake.

Maybe nothing could have saved Zach.
Maybe things were too messed up before he ever met
Rachel. Maybe he was too sad since we were little.
Maybe he had faith in everyone but himself.
Or maybe he just made a mistake and realized moments too late.

It also touches albeit obliquely, on the abortion issue and how it relates to men. Zach's suicide is directly related to the belief that Rachel will abort his baby. This leaves Zach in despair and the terrible fight with his mother provokes him into making a terrible choice. Often forgotten in the abortion debate, are the fathers who suffer unacknowledged from loss, betrayal and guilt.
Waiting also explores the role of faith in personal tragedy. London's father, who is a missionary, has told her that "God answers our prayers through Jesus Christ". But, long before Zach's death though, London was beginning to doubt.
Daddy doesn't know. Mom doesn't know. But on those
trips, I think I started wondering about a god that would 
let all this bad stuff happen. All of it is so awful. I was
changing. Stretching from my old religious skin. Feeling
itchy with the worrying and the cracking free.
London is in so much pain that she wants to die but she knows she cannot do this because she will cause her parents even more grief. She also feels that if she were to try something now, Jesus would not stop her. She's the daughter of a missionary, and "a missionary's kid can't kill herself". London feels God has abandoned her and her family.

But near the end of the book, London comes to the realization that she cannot live without God.

Waiting is a superb novel with lessons that many parents, especially Christian parents need to learn. Some of us will face a crisis with a daughter or son and we need to be there for them and with them. We need to use our wisdom and our life's experience to help them through the difficult times. Young people will make mistakes. We need to support them as they learn the hard lessons of life.
This is a novel that touches on many themes: redemption, loss, guilt, friendship, faith and family.
A brilliant book, highly recommended, especially to reluctant readers, and those who have experienced a loss through suicide.
Book Details:
Waiting by Carol Lynch Williams
New York: Simon & Schuster Children's  2012
335 pp.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

DVD Documentary: The War of 1812

June 1812 marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, a largely forgotten war in Britain and America, but not so in Canada. In Canada, we have two national heroes from the war; Sir Isaac Brock, the brave soldier who died during the Battle of Queenston Heights, and Laura Secord, the intrepid heroine who warned the British of an impending attack thus helping them to secure a victory in the Battle of Beaver Dams.

The War of 1812 provides viewers with a good overview of this conflict, drawing on experts and historical documents, and personal accounts.

The documentary opens with  background information as to why America declared war on a much stronger military nation. The war involved American colonists fighting against the largest naval power in the world at that time, Great Britain, as well as Canadian colonists and Native warriors. It was a war that should not have happened.

In the early 1800's the world was at war in Europe, Britain against France. Napoleon Bonaparte was intent upon conquering Europe and the only way Britain could stop him was to stop the French army from receiving supplies. Britain attempted to do this by blocking supply ships on the high seas. America remained neutral in the war but paid a price for this stance.

Britain was stopping ships on the high seas. All neutral ships trading with France had to stop in Britain and pay a duty. If they did not obey this decree, they were considered enemy ships. The Royal Navy stopped many ships on the high seas many of which were American. And from these ships Britain took money and men. Britain impressed over 6000 men in the early years of the 19th century. These men were forced to serve on British ships. As the years went by, the Americans became more and more outraged and resentment seethed. This resent built up to such a point that the Republicans began to agitate for a declaration of war.

Shawnee warrior Tecumseh became involved in the war because of the American policy of stealing Indian lands. One by one, Indian tribes were signing treaties with the Americans and losing their lands. In particular, Governor William Harrison of the Indiana Territory, was responsible for the Indians losing much of their land. Tecumseh had seen the Indians pushed back from the sea to the lakes and he wanted this to stop.

Tecumseh formed a confederacy of Native tribes who would oppose Harrison and the Americans. He would not allow the American expansion into Indian lands to go unopposed. While Tecumseh was away gathering support, Harrison decided to attack Tecumseh's headquarters in Prophetstown near the Tippecanoe River. However, the Natives attacked the Americans and only retreated when their supplies of ammunition ran low. Harrison proclaimed this a great victory but the battle served to turn the Natives even more against the Americans.

The Americans were outraged at finding British supplies in the Prophetstown, which they had burned to the ground. The result was that a Declaration of War was issued against Great Britain in June of 1812. Britain did not want another war; the troubles at home were deep and many. Canadians knew an invasion by America was likely. Many Americans believed that the colonists in Canada would welcome an invasion. Many others, especially those who lived on the Eastern seaboard, such as in New England were outraged.

The American plan was to attack and invade Canada in three places; at Detroit, at Niagara and at Montreal. There were several problems with this. First there were no roads to these areas and travel was by water - controlled by the British. Secondly, while the Americans were poorly prepared, the British-Canadians were not. The British soldiers were veterans and professional soldiers while the Americans used primarily militia who were untrained and untried.
Portrayal of the death of Isaac Brock
The three invasions were disasters with the Americans losing at Detroit and Queenston while the Montreal invasion never happened. The invaders returned home. Canada however, lost it's best soldier, General Isaac Brock in the Battle of Queenston Heights.

Nevertheless, the war continued on with battles that seemed to contain one blunder after the other on both sides. The Battle of Stoney Creek in 1813 was representative of how much of the war was fought. Two American Generals got lost in the forest. A third American General led a charge against his own troops. The Americans lost the battle but retained the field, while the British were victorious but retreated!

Britain needed to retain control of the Great Lakes as this was the only way to supply the colony. After the naval battle of September 10th, 1813, the Americans controlled Lake Erie. This allowed them a second chance to try to capture the heart of eastern Canada, a chance which was again botched. Two important battles, at Crysler Farm and Chateauguay, which the Americans lost and quickly forgot, are still remembered by Canadians. These battles are remembered because this was the first time that the three founding nations of the Canada, French, English and Native came together to defend their country.

1814 was the most violent year of the war. During the spring of 1814, the Town of York (Toronto) and the Town of Newark (Niagara on the Lake) were burnt to the ground by the American troops. The British returned the favour along the Niagara river, burning Buffalo and other towns. The Battle of Lundy's Lane occurred that summer and was the bloodiest, fiercest battle of the war.

In 1814, the British finally captured Napoleon and the war with France was over. This meant that Great Britain was now free to send the full force of its navy against the Americans. This might mean a serious loss of territory for the Americans. Not only that but raids by the British in the southern United States had freed over 4000 slaves. British troops marched on Washington and in a move that was certainly retaliatory, burned the White House. America could no longer afford to finance the war. And Britain was paying American farmers to supply the British army in Canada. So President Madison sent a delegation to Europe to negotiate a peace treaty.

Although the British initially asked for a large Indian state surrounding the Great Lakes, losses at the Battle of Baltimore and Fort McHenry meant that they eventually dropped this request. The terrible British loss at the Battle of New Orleans, which was fought AFTER the peace treaty of Ghent was signed, gave the American's the misguided notion that they had somehow won the war. Many equated Jackson's victory with the arrival of peace. This propaganda has lived on in America for years and is probably the greatest myth of the war. In reality, although Canada gained some territory, the boundaries between the United States and Canada remained the same. The principal losers were the First Nations, who lost their land forever, to American expansionism.

The War of 1812 draws on re-enactment footage to tell the remarkable story of a war filled with mishaps, incompetent military commanders, botched battles. myths and misinformation. The documentary draws upon many experts from America, Canada, and England: Rick Hill, Historian and Artist, Grand River Territory; Andrew Lambert Historian, Kings College London; Donald Fixico Native American Historian, Arizona State University; Rene Chartrand, Former Senior Curator, Canada's National Historic Sites; Donald E. Graves, Historian; Patrick Wilder, Historian, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; Diana Graves, Canadian Author, John Sugden, Tecumseh Biographer; and Ron Dale, Superintendent, Niagara National Historic Sites, Canada.

Overall, The War of 1812, directed by Diana Garey and Lawrence Hott,  provides an informative, balanced presentation of this little known and long forgotten conflict. The documentary might have focused more on the causes of the war and why President Madison chose to go to war against a colony of Great Britain. The documentary was also "light" on British historical experts.

What I found most interesting was how the First Nations experts explained the war from their perspective. There is no doubt they felt very betrayed by the British who promised them help in reclaiming land lost by American expansionism.

The use of re-enactments was useful in telling the story of the war and portraying the various battles. The documentary is filled with much interesting trivia such as what happened to the painting of George Washington in the White House prior to the burning, the use of Tecumseh as a hero by the American military, and how freed black slaves were accepted into the British army. Although this documentary is almost two hours in length, it is well worth the time for history buffs and anyone wishing to know more about this little known, but very important event in Canadian and North American history.

For an introduction to the War of 1812 and its causes, check out the War of 1812 website ( This website has links to just about everything you might want to know about the war including battles, weapons, regiments, treaties, biographies, video and sound clips and re-enactments.

The entire PBS documentary can be watched below:

Friday, May 25, 2012

Zorro Gets An Outfit by Carter Goodrich

Zorro was embarrassed.
Zorro and Mister Bud are two dogs sharing an owner. They are best friends. One day Zorro is given an outfit by his owner. Zorro does not want to wear this doggy outfit. He is embarrassed and humiliated...Everyone laughs at him and thinks he is a wuss. Mister Bud tries to make him feel better but to no avail.

But when someone new, also wearing a zany outfit, shows up, Zorro realizes that his outfit might just be the coolest thing ever. Zorro's humiliation turns to elation!

Zorro Gets An Outfit is a picture book par excellence. There is a good story, wonderfully expressive pictures which capture the emotions poor Zorro is experiencing and a satisfying conclusion. But really, the artwork of Carter Goodrich, character designer for many favourite Pixar movies, is simply grand. Part of what makes a picture book a wonderful read is the connection between the story and the illustrations. Carter Goodrich's illustrations not only make that connection but also tell part of the story too. Superb, superb, superb! Makes me wish there was a movie about Zorro and Mister Bud! This book follows on the heels of Say Hello To Zorro! published in 2011, which introduced spunky Zorro and his laid back pal, Mister Bud to readers.

Carter Goodrich won an ASIFA Annie Award in 2007 for his character design work in the animated movie, Ratatouille.

Book Details:
Zorro Gets An Outfit by Carter Goodrich
Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers     2012

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

DVD Series: Downton Abbey Season 2

Season Two of Downton Abbey picks up with the Great War in Europe. It is now 1916. Many of the men including Thomas Barrow (the footman), Matthew Crawley and some of the man servants at Downton have enlisted. Once in the trenches they see what real war is; it's certainly not the romantic fight that everyone at home imagines it to be. Thomas, never intending that he would end up in combat, finds a way out by deliberately injuring himself and getting sent back to Britain. He shows up a Downton, eventually to be placed in charge of the household.

The Earl of Grantham, Matthew Crawley and Lady Sybil
However not all men enlist. Initially, William Mason is not allowed by his father but by 1917 he too has gone off to war, although not before proposing to Daisy. The Earl of Grantham is considered too old to fight and instead is made an Honorary Colonel of the local regiment.He struggles with his role in a changing world; from Edwardian gentleman to the rich patron of a regiment.

Downton Abbey is soon made into a convalescent home for war veterans at the suggestion of Isobel Crawley. This causes great tension between Cora and Isobel resulting in the latter making the rather hasty decision leave for France where she hopes she will be of more use.

Lady Sybil, wishing to contribute to the war effort, undertakes nursing training at York and eventually returns to work at Downton Abbey. Sybil also is greatly attracted to the new chauffeur, Tom Branson, an Irishman with strong Boshevik ideals. It is partly these ideals which fuel Sybil's forbidden love.

Meanwhile John Bates attempts to buy off his wife Vera, as a means to obtaining a divorce. Instead, she shows up at Downton, threatening to blackmail him and the Crawleys unless he returns to her. Wishing to protect Mary, John leaves with her but eventually events play out in such a way that Vera is no longer a risk to John and Anna's hopes of marrying.

Lady Edith comes into her own, helping the injured men and easily determining the needs of the various patients at the Abbey. She gradually matures into a more caring, sympathetic person. This is especially seen when she befriends a man who shows up insisting he is a relation of the Crawleys.
Matthew and Lavinia
Although the Crawley family still has hopes that Mary and Matthew will settle their differences and make a match, this is soon put to rest when Matthew arrives home on leave, with the beautiful Lavinia Swire, to whom he is betrothed. Even a weak attempt by Rosamund, Cora's sister and Violet is ineffective in breaking the engagement. Instead Mary puts her hopes in the manipulative Sir Richard Carlisle who is a newspaper publisher, despite the obvious, that she still loves Matthew.

The second season of Dowton Abbey was not as visually rich as its predecessor and is characterized by weak and often silly storylines as well as missed opportunities to develop the characters more fully.

The Bates storyline is overwrought and borders on ridiculous. It is repetitive and predictable. Written specially for Brendan Coyle, the part of John Bates doesn't do this fine actor justice. Bates' waffling between bullying and resigned scrupulosity is almost schizophrenic.

Another silly storyline was the beginnings of an attraction between Robert Crawley and a new housemaid,  Jane Moorsum. The Earl can't decide will he or won't he, and his behaviour is completely at odds with his decisive and honourable character throughout the series to date. All this while Cora is deathly ill with the Spanish influenza? I was left feeling like this was filler for a series lacking fresh intrigue.

The episode dealing with the Spanish flu, in 1919, portrayed this serious illness in a somewhat unrealistic and gentrified way. The truth is that millions of Britons died from this illness which swept through households, taking the youngest and healthiest adults in the their prime. There was an attempt to show just how quickly people became ill when Mr. Carson, Cora and Lavinia all become sick within hours of each other. Predictably though, the Spanish flu became a device to remove an unwanted character.

Lady Mary Crawley, whom I felt was beautifully portrayed in Season 1 by Michelle Dockery, and who appeared to have much potential as a rebellious and modern-thinking, bohemian young woman, was reduced to a bland, defeated daughter determined to follow the rules of a dying order. Instead the role of bad girl was moved to Lady Sybil who tries to elope and who refuses to back down in her quest to marry the family chauffeur (really?) and shrug off her aristocratic status.

Ethel and her son meet the Bryants
One thing I did like was the storyline of Ethel Parks, the maid who gets herself into trouble by having a liaison with Major Bryant, a patient at the hospital and typically, a cad. We are shown Ethel as a single mother - a ruined woman or "drudge", as Bryant's father calls her, while the character of the man who made her so remains untarnished. This story line was very well done and evokes feelings of pity and anger at the inequity, the injustice and her lack of dignity in the eyes of society. Brave Edith stands up the Bryants who don't believe she's good enough to raise their grandson. "A mother's love got to account for something...".

Despite it weak points, I eagerly await Season 3 of Downton Abbey, but I sincerely hope the writers and producers rediscover the magic that made the first season's episodes so appealing.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Lily Pond by Annika Thor

The Lily Pond is the second of four books by Annika Thor that tells the story of the Steiner sisters. However, this short novel focuses mainly on thirteen year old Stephanie as she moves to the mainland to attend school in Goteborg, Sweden. It is an exciting time for Stephanie because she will be boarding with Dr. Soderberg's family. This means living in the same house as Sven, their eighteen year old son, whom Stephie likes very much.

Living in Goteborg brings back memories of Vienna, with its trams and cobblestone streets, its shops and tall buildings. If Stephanie was expecting to be treated like one of the family that notion disappears as she soon realizes that she is nothing more than a boarder at the Soderberg's home. Stephanie is responsible for making her own breakfast and lunch and she is expected to have her dinner in the kitchen with their maid, Elna. She is allowed dinner once a week in the dining room with the family.

But Sven doesn't treat her like a boarder - in fact he's more like a good friend. Soon after she arrives as the Soderberg's home, Sven takes Stephanie to a small lily pond, where they sit and talk. This beautiful pond, with its dark waters and graceful swan pair, becomes a place of solitude and retreat for Stephanie when she feels overwhelmed or confused. Unfortunately, Stephanie confuses Sven's friendship for something more. Her feelings threaten to ruin everything she has worked towards.

At school, Stephanie flourishes academically but has trouble making friends. Her friends, Sylvia and Ingrid who have also come from the island, are assigned different classes. Eventually Stephanie finds a good friend in May Karlsson who lives over in the poorer Mayhill district. May's large family are welcoming towards Stephanie.

Stephanie also has a mentor in her math and biology teacher, Hedvig Bjork, who helps Stephanie navigate a crisis later on. As she was warned by Sven, Stephanie does meet some teachers who approve of the new world order that Germany is working to establish in Europe.

In addition to all this, Stephanie must deal with the uncertainty of her parents situation as Jews in occupied Austria. As conditions deteriorate more and more for the Jews in Austria, her parents find themselves increasingly restricted in where they can work and shop. Desperate to leave Austria for the United States, they attempt to obtain exit visas. Just when things seem to be working to their advantage, Stephanie's mother becomes ill with pneumonia and cannot travel. Their position in Vienna becomes increasingly precarious. Stephanie deeply misses the comforting presence of her mother and father.

The Lily Pond is a wonderful read for young teens. Annika Thor realistically captures the angst that Stephanie experiences as a young teen having her first crush. Thor effectively portrays an young girl struggling with self-doubt, personal loss, and the stirrings of a first love.

Annika Thor also tells an important broader story in The Lily Pond - that of the plight of Jewish refugee children assimilating into a new culture without the benefit of their parents and often other Jewish children and families. No doubt these children found it difficult when their beliefs clashed with those of their foster families. During this era, there was little respect or tolerance towards the Jewish children's beliefs and often they were expected to adopt Christian beliefs. In some cases this was required for survival, as when children were given shelter in Nazi occupied areas of Europe. There can be no doubt that for many small children, as demonstrated in The Lily Pond with Stephanie's younger sister, Nellie, this caused doubt, confusion and a great deal of upset.

It is my sincere wish that Delacourt Press will consider publishing the remaining two novels in English for those of us who have started this series and wish to learn what happens to Stephanie.

Ms Annika Thor's website can be found here.

Book Details:
The Lily Pond by Annika Thor
Delacorte Press    2011

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Irena Sendler by Susan Goldman Rubin

Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto tells the story of a young Polish Catholic social worker who lived in Warsaw, Poland, in 1939. A petite woman, only 4 ft, 11inches, Irena watched in horror as the Nazis invaded her country and bombed beautiful Warsaw into ruins. When Poland surrendered on September 28, 1939, Irena joined the resistance movement of the Polish Socialist Party. Her goal was to save those whose lives were most endangered. When the Nazis began to focus on the Jews, Irena turned her attention to the Warsaw ghetto where thousands of Jews resided in horrible conditions.

In July 1942, the Nazis began transporting the Jews from the ghetto to Treblinka, a death camp. Irena knew that it might not be possible to save the adults, but she could try to save the children who were almost certain to die. She joined a new underground organization, Zegota, The Council for Aid to Jews, and working with the leader of the organization she organized and carried out the rescue many Jewish children. The young children were often secreted out of the ghetto in sacks, coffins or toolboxes.

Many of the rescued Jewish children  had to learn Catholic prayers and how to make the sign of the cross because they needed to be convincingly Catholic if stopped by Nazi patrols. Irena did not rescue the children in order to convert them to Catholicism, as some have claimed, but because "my heart told me to".

Irena Sendler
Eventually, Irena was captured by the Nazis and tortured but she refused to divulge any information. She was beaten so badly that both her legs and her feet were broken. Even when she was threatened with death, Irena did not waver.

It was always Irena's hope and intention to reunite the children rescued with their parents and so she kept a secret list of the children on a soft, transparent paper strip which was hidden inside a glass jar buried under an apple tree in Warsaw.

Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto is a beautifully crafted picture book telling the remarkable story of Irena and her work in saving Jewish children during the Holocaust. The book is richly illustrated with oil paintings on canvas, enhancing the overall drama of her story, which only came to be known after the fall of the Communist regime in Poland.

Irena Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008. She passed away that year.

Book Details:
Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin.
New York: Holiday House      2011
40 pp.

A second book that was published in 2011, entitled Irena's Jars of Secrets also tells how Irena came to be involved in the rescuing of over 2500 Jewish children. Her father was a doctor who treated poor Jewish families in Warsaw, even if they could not pay. He impressed upon her the idea that one must always help those in need. When Irena entered the Warsaw Ghetto disguised as a nurse, she was overwhelmed by the suffering she saw and she became determined to help. When the Nazis began transporting the Jews to Treblinka, she knew that she must try to save as many children as possible.

In order to keep track of the children, Irena stored lists of their names in glass jars buried beneath an apple tree. After the war, the Jewish Congress attempted to reunited the rescued children with their parents, but sadly most were murdered in the death camps.

Irena Sendler's story remained untold throughout most of the 20th century but the Jewish people honoured her as Righteous Among the Nations in 1965. Finally with the fall of the communist government in Poland, her courage was rewarded with that country's highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle.

Irena Sendler never won a Nobel Prize although she was nominated in 2008. Sometimes, even the Nobel Prize committee gets it wrong. But to the many many people alive in 2008 directly as a result of the courage and sacrifice of Irena Sendler, it hardly matters. Their lives are a testament to her love, bravery and charity.

 Irena's Jars of Secrets is illustrated with the beautiful oil paintings of artist Ron Mazellan. Mazellan's piantings capture the fear and terror of the moment such as when the Jewish citizens were being rounded up and sent to the ghetto (above) or when they were fleeing the ghetto in secrecy (right).

This detailed picture book also contains an Afterword providing more details about Irena's life, a glossary, and a list of books and websites for further research.

Book Details:
Irena's Jars of Secrets by Marcia Vaughan
Illustrated by Ron Mazellan
New York: Lee & Low Books   2011

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Selection by Kierra Cass

After war with and invasion by China, America is struggling to survive as a new country with an eight level caste system. China invaded America after it was unable to repay the massive debt it owed. America was renamed The American State of China. When Russia attempted to invade the weakened America, North America banded together to fight both China and Russia. Eventually a new country was formed under Gregory Illea who lead the assault against Russia and a forged a peace treaty with China. This new country renamed  Illea seems to have taken on some of the cultural aspects of China, with the removal of Western holidays and the moving of the New Year to January or February. Such is the post-war world in The Selection.

Generations after these events, America Singer lives with her mother and father and two younger siblings, May and Gerard, in Carolina Province.  Society in Illea is divided into eight castes with America's family being Fives; three castes from the bottom. Those who are Fives work as musicians and artists. Being a Five means having barely enough food. The rich castes are Ones, Twos and Threes. In order to better themselves, the lower castes try to marry up.

America's life changes drastically when she enters a competition, called The Selection, to find a wife for the Crown Prince of Illea, Maxon Schreave. Young women between the ages of sixteen and twenty are invited to submit their applications. From the thousands of applicants, thirty-five women will be selected to live at the royal palace in Angeles and meet Prince Maxon.  From these thirty-five women, one woman will be chosen by Prince Maxon.

America doesn't want to apply. She doesn't want to marry Prince Maxon because she has a secret and forbidden love; Aspen Leger, a Six, whom she plans to marry. However, to please her mother and when Aspen breaks up with her after telling her she needs to apply to the competition, America does so and predictably, is chosen as one of the thirty-five girls.

America enters the competition with the intention of not succeeding. She has a preconceived idea of what Prince Maxon must be like and she knows she won't be interested in him. However, despite telling Prince Maxon that she's not interested but that she'd like to stay on and help guide him in his choice of a wife, America soon finds herself deeply conflicted and falling in love.

Repeated rebel raids on the Palace lead Prince Maxon to cut short the selection process and choose only six women to remain. America is one of those six women. But her life is much more complicated than ever. If she thought running away to the palace would help her heal from Aspen's rejection she is mistaken because Aspen is now a guard in the palace. And Aspen wants her back.

The Selection is really a mashup of The Bachelor and Princess Diaries. It's an interesting idea which the author doesn't quite carry off.

The characters of Maxon and America are reasonably well drawn. Maxon is an appealing character who tries to maintain an attitude of respect towards the young women who are part of the Selection. He seems kind, attentive and intelligent. America is a girl who tries to help others and it is her magnanimous concern for those less fortunate than herself and the palace staff that help endear her to Maxon.

The book works as a romance read for young teens because it's interesting to watch how Maxon and America begin to develop a friendship and a blossoming love interest. Cass does a good job of developing this relationship. America has some difficulty admitting to herself that she is falling for the the prince, as she begins to know him better.

"I thought about the Maxon I knew now -- the man full of compliments, the man prepared to give me the winnings of a bet I lost, the man who forgave me when I hurt him both physically and emotionally -- and discovered that I didn't mind at all.
Yes, I still had feelings for Aspen. I couldn't undo that. But if I couldn't be with him, then what was holding me back from being with Maxon? Nothing more than my preconceived ideas of him, which were nothing close to who he was." 
 The reappearance of Aspen as a guard seems contrived so as to set up a sort of conflict for America as to which man she may have to choose. As a result, this conflict feels somewhat unreasonable and unbelievable. This is mainly because America has started to fall in love with Maxon and she is beginning to see possibilities in a life with this man who is not at all what she thought he was. Indeed, the same could be said for Aspen, who although he claims to love America, puts her a great risk by visiting her in her bedroom. It seems that this conflict is what will be explored in greater depth in the next novel.

What The Selection lacks is depth in creating a believable post-war world. Since this is a future world, it seems odd that there is television and cars but no internet, computer devices or cell phones.And a country with the kind of civil rights history and historic Constitution seems unlikely to take on a caste system. I'm unsure whether the author believes that this would have been the result of being occupied by the Chinese (who do not have a caste system). In addition to this, the rebel threat is poorly developed and not really understandable to the reader. 

The novel also lacks in the development of other minor characters, such as the other girls in the competition - most of whom just appear and disappear as quickly. Prince Maxon's parents are strangely absent, appearing as only one dimensional characters who sit in their chairs, nodding or laughing politely.
At times I found the writing in The Selection to be awkward - this was especially so in scenes with the television show and also the first attack on the palace. The ending is somewhat anti-climatic, and predictable.

Sadly The Selection hooks readers with its gorgeous cover, but the writing and storyline fail to serve up what the cover promises.

Book Details:

The Selection by Kiera Cass
New York: Harper Collins     2012
327 pp.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Revived by Cat Patrick

Daisy Appleby is dying again. This time it is an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting that will kill her. But she's not worried. Not really because Daisy knows she can be revived. Again.

So begins Revived by Cat Patrick.

Daisy McDaniel was an orphan who died in a bus crash in Beven, Iowa, eleven years ago, along with twenty others. As part of a special government program, a new experimental drug, Revive, was used on all the children who died in the crash. Fourteen of the so-called "bus-kids" were brought back to life and live under assumed names now. Daisy is one of them, but she has died four times since the accident and been brought back to life again each time. Daisy's problems are an allergy to bees and a tendency to be careless.

Her "parents" are government agents named Mason, who fronts as a psychologist, and Cassie, a stay-at home mom. They relocate Daisy to the midwest, Omaha, Nebraska, providing her with a new identity, so she continue her life without anyone being suspicious. Daisy starts the new school year at Omaha Victory High School where she meets Matt and Audrey McKean. She forges a close friendship with Audrey and a blossoming relationship with Matt, whom she falls hard for.

However things become complicated when Daisy learns that Audrey is dying of liver cancer. She inexplicably decides to tell Matt about the Revive drug even though it can't be used to help Audrey. This creates tension between them because Matt wants Daisy to help Audrey and Daisy knows she cannot do this.

But the real tension develops when Daisy digs deeper into the Revive program and learns some disturbing things about the head figure of the program, nicknamed "God" because of the power he wields. She begins to question the purpose of the program, the decisions about who gets the drug, and the ethics of trying the drug on someone who might have otherwise been saved by conventional medical intervention. Her investigating doesn't go unnoticed and soon Daisy is on the run from "God" who is not as friendly and caring as Mason and others believe.

While Revived has an interesting idea behind it, overall I was disappointed with this novel. The idea that the FDA would run a covert experimental drug program seemed implausible. It is unlikely that government agents such as Mason and Cassie would have a lab in the basement of an unsecured home, with samples of an experimental drug with so much potential and far-reaching consequences,  at their fingertips and available to Daisy or anyone. It also seemed very unlikely that Daisy as a 15 year old minor,  would be given access to such sensitive information and be allowed to easily access it any time she wished.

I didn't like the nomenclature used to describe the Revive drug experiment either. The mastermind behind the program was called "God" and the agents were known as "The Disciples" while those who were revived were called "Converts". This seemed unimaginative.

Meanwhile, it's no surprise that "God" turns out to be a malevolent character, with psychopathic tendencies and a lisp. 

I also felt at times that Revived tried too hard to be trendy, dropping references to TOMS, the band Arcade Fire which was hot about a year ago, and having a token transgendered character.

Matt and Daisy's relationship was the one redeeming feature of the book. Matt was a likable character and his concern for his sister made him seem genuine and caring. If Patrick had focused more on the human element of the story rather than on the action/suspense element, a more interesting novel would have been the result.

There is no doubt though that Revived has a imaginative, fascinating cover which piques the reader's interest in this novel. It's unfortunate the novel doesn't live up to its potential.

Book Details:
Revived by Cat Patrick
New York: Little, Brown and Company 2012

Saturday, May 12, 2012

K-Pop: WE

WE is a relatively new mixed Kpop group comprised of four members: Macho, Kang Han, Man Do and  female vocalist, Rosie. Their individual backgrounds are varied but all four are undeniably talented. The group was organized in October of 2011 and released its first digital single, Rain, on November 1, 2011. Their music can be classified as R&B/Hip Hop.

Below is the video to their song Party. It's a song that's just pure fun, with great choreography.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Making Bombs For Hitler by Marsha Skrypuch

Canadian author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch continues her historical fiction series for young readers, this time focusing on the little known slave raids conducted by the Nazis during the Second World War. Making Bombs For Hitler picks up the story of Lida Ferezuk whose kidnapping (in 1943 along with her younger sister, Larissa) by the Brown Sisters was mentioned in Skrypuch's earlier novel, Stolen Child. The narrator in that novel, Nadia Kravchuk, who is really Larissa, has a flashback remembering how she and her older sister were brutally taken from their grandmother's home in the village of Verenchanka, in the Chrenivets'ka region of the Ukraine. Making Bombs For Hitler backtracks, telling Lida's story from 1943 to 1951.

The novel opens with the two frightened girls arriving at a large building along with many other children. There they are sorted into two groups - those who will be slave labourers or Ostarbeiters for the Germans and those who will go into the Lebensborn program. Neither of them know what the two groups are for at that time. While Larissa is designated as Aryan and therefore suitable for the Lebensborn, Lida is shipped out of the Ukraine to Germany to become an Ostarbeiter. She is a mere nine years old.

Not knowing what has become of her younger sister, Lida must now face her fate along with many other young people, all the while worrying what has become of Larissa. Crammed into a cattle car with other Ostarbeiters, she is transported to Germany. She meets Luka Barukovich and fourteen year old Zenia Chornij both of whom are from Kyiv, as well as the very young Olesia Serediuk and Kataryna Pick.

When they arrive at the German factory, Lida quickly learns that to stay alive she must lie about her age and she must prove her usefulness to her German masters. Lida states that she is thirteen years old but when she is sorted into a group of younger children to be sent to the "hospital" she tells the officer that she is a good seamstress. She ends up working in the laundry and mending clothing and bedsheets. The fate of the younger children who are sent to the hospital,  is horrifying to Lida. The true desperation of her situation finally settles upon her. She is slave working to help the Nazis win the war, and that death might come at any time.

Lida is eventually moved from one factory to another, finally making bombs by hand for the German war machine. This is a task that both frightens her and fills her with shame; she wonders how many people will die as a result of the bombs she makes.

When the war finally ends, and Lida and her fellow laboureres are liberated, it takes many months for Lida to recover from her ordeal and some time before she learns her sister, Larissa's fate.

Making Bombs For Hitler is a well written, informative novel about this little known aspect of World War II. Skrypuch doesn't spare the reader any of the details about what went on in the camps or the suffering Lida and the other Ostarbeiters endured, but at the same time the book is not gruesome. Instead it is a poignant recounting of a cruel time in which many, many people suffered because of a terrible ideology. Skrypuch is able to convey the horror, the humiliation, and the loss many of these young people faced during the war. For many, their suffering didn't end with the war, as Lida's did. In a cruel twist of fate, many Eastern Workers who were liberated and sent back to the Soviet Union were not welcomed but instead sent to work camps or murdered because they were considered Nazis.

Lida is a strong character who evokes empathy and sympathy. It's hard to believe that she is so very young, for her voice is that of a wise, but terrified young teen. But Lida also displays courage, intelligence and a remarkable ability to find the beauty and good in small things. It is these qualities that help her and others to survive the degradation and brutality of the camps. When Lida is rewarded for her excellent work in the laundry, she selflessly uses it to help another girl, worse off than herself.

There are many supporting characters in this novel, one of whom is Luka, whom Lida seems to have a great deal of affection for. When he is injured in a bomb blast, Lida risks her life to know whether he is alive or not. And the ending of the novel suggests that these two have a future path to travel together, hopefully in the form of another novel!

The author also uses these supporting characters to portray the dignity some of the labourers brought to the camps despite being viewed as animals or spare parts for the German war machine. Whether it was older workers helping younger, newer workers adjust to camp life or sharing bread, many tried to retain their dignity in spite of the inhuman conditions.

Sensitively written, Making Bombs For Hitler, is highly recommended!

Book Details:
Making Bombs For Hitler by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Toronto: Scholastic Canada
186 pp.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Thunder over Kandahar by Sharon E. McKay

Sharon McKay's Thunder over Kandahar is the story of two Afghani girls, Tamanna and Yasmine, who have been brought together by circumstances beyond their control and who forge an enduring friendship that survives class differences, illness, war and separation.

Yasmine and her father and mother have come back to Afghanistan, so her father (Baba) can teach and help his beloved country rebuild after the ouster of the Taliban. She misses England very much and has a difficult time understanding her father's "call back to the land" of his birth. Yasmine cannot comprehend all the social restrictions, and the poverty of Afghanistan. She wants to return to England. One day while she and her mother are out walking and singing in Herat, they are targeted by the Taliban who severely beat her mother. Yasmine's mother suffers a badly broken leg in the attack and is bedridden. Baba decides to move the family to Grandfather's home in Bazaar-E-Panjwayi, Kandahar Province. There they will live in a small village where Grandfather is respected and where they will be near the American FOB (Forward Operating Base). 

It turns out that in this village, a young girl named Tamanna lives with her Uncle Zaman and her mother. Three years earlier, when her uncle was beating her mother, Tamanna tried to stop the assault and her hip was broken by a kick from her uncle. Tamanna is now lame. Her uncle instructs Tamanna to sell naan to a new customer from Herat who is wealthy and important. That customer is Yasmine's father. Soon Baba requests that Tamanna become a companion for his lonely daughter, Yasmine. 

The two girls get along wonderfully, despite a language difference. Yasmine speaks English, French and some Dari, while Tamanna speaks both Pashto and Dari. Yasmine teaches Tamanna English, and Tamanna returns the favour by teaching Yasmine Pashto. They also study arithmetic in the afternoon and learn about the history of Afghanistan from Baba. Eventually the new school, built by the Americans is opened but on the first day of school, it is attacked by the Taliban, who injure Yasmine and threaten the teacher. 

Then one day Baba has to take Yasmine's mother to the FOB to be treated as she is now very ill. He tells Yasmine that she cannot come but that they are planning to leave Afghanistan after her mother is treated by the American doctors. Baba has decided to return to London, as the situation is worsening quickly because of the Taliban insurgents. However, on their way to the FOB, their cart is attacked and both parents seriously injured. They are flown to Kandahar for treatment, while Yasmine is slated to follow them in a car hired by the Americans.

 Meanwhile, Tamanna is to be married off to a older man to pay off her uncle's drug debts - a prospect that horrifies her. She is also very sick and losing weight, but she knows she is alone and there is no one who can help her.

 Their lives intertwine once again when Yasmine, who is to be sent to Kandahar to meet up with her parents, does not forget Tamanna in her need. However, all does not go as planned for neither Yasmine nor Tamanna. Fleeing for their lives, their new found friendship is tested over the next few weeks as they struggle to leave Afghanistan.

This well researched novel presents what I consider to be a very accurate picture of life in Afghanistan during the Afghan War. McKay provides the reader with interesting tidbits of background history of the country, insights into the culture, how Westerners are views by the Afghan people and the views of the Taliban insurgents.  Some of the problems touched upon in this novel include the abuse of children by the Taliban, the crushing poverty of the country, the terrible abuse of women, the opium addiction problem which decimates many impoverished tribal villages, and the cooperation of the Americans/UN with the country's warlords.

Yasmine's parents are well educated Afghanis who hope for a modern and moderate society. Yasmine represents the Western outsider who doesn't know or understand the culture and Tamanna is typical of many Afghani who hope for a better life, especially for women. McKay very effectively conveys the hopes and aspirations that both young and middle-aged women in Afghanistan have for their lives, for the families, and for their country. Both girls are courageous, and selfless - willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for one another.

There is a large cast of characters in the novel but these are introduced one after another with relative ease, and are easy to keep track of. McKay lets the reader know what happens to all the major characters over the years which adds a sense of closure to the novel. All the characters are realistic and well drawn and it is easy to empathize with all but especially the women and children who suffer so much.

Thunder over Kandahar is an excellent, suspenseful novel for young people interested in Afghanistan and who wish to learn more about the conflict and how it has affected the people of the country.

The author spent time in Afghanistan conducting research for this novel which was vetted by Muslims in both the West and Afghanistan and also by young teen readers.

Book Details:
Thunder over Kandahar by Sharon E. McKay
Toronto: Annick Press   2010 
260 pp.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

DVD Series: Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey tells the story of the Crawley family of North Yorkshire at the turn of the 20th century. The Edwardian mansion is the home and life's work of Robert, Earl of Grantham, his lovely demure wife, Cora, the Countess of Grantham, and their three daughters, Mary, Edith, and Sybil.

The series opens with the family dealing with the consequences of the sinking of the Titanic in April, 1912. Two male cousins, next in line to inherit the Downton estate have drowned, meaning the estate will now be passed onto the third cousin of the Earl, Matthew Crawley, a lawyer in London. This throws the entire family into a state of shock and consternation because they expected Downton Abbey to go to a more upper class relative. Complicating the matter is the fact that Cora, who is American, brought a large amount of money to the Crawley estate when she married Robert. This entail cannot be separated from the estate, which means that she too will lose all her money upon the Earl's death, unless this entail can be somehow separated from the inheritance. Since according to British law, neither Cora nor her daughters can inherit the estate, it means they face the possibility of financial hardship and it also means the daughters must marry well in order to maintain their status in British society. It's hard to believe such laws still existed in the early 20th century, but they did.

The Earl, accepting this situation and believing he has no recourse under the law,  writes to inform Matthew of his new situation in life, - that he will one day be heir to the lavish Downton Abbey.  Matthew and his mother, Isobel Crawley, move to Yorkshire where they are installed in a small house near Downton. Matthew vows such an inheritance and a move up in British society will not change him. At first the upper class Crawleys, especially Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, try their best to dislike Matthew. But it is soon apparent that he is a good, intelligent man, who is willing to look into the matter of Cora's entail in the hope that some money can be rescued for the wife and daughters should they one day need it. In the meantime, Robert, Cora and Violet entertain the hope that Mary will marry Matthew and spare them all the possibility of losing Downton Abbey.

Into this setting, we follow the family through the next two years, until the beginning of World War I. Irreverent and disinterested Lady Mary behaves scandalously and despite efforts to conceal her misdemeanor,  rumours circulate throughout London about her ruined reputation. Middle daughter, Lady Edith, often passed over by men infatuated with her older sister, strikes back at Lady Mary with unexpected and heartrending consequences. And Lady Sybil gets mixed up in women's rights and politics while trying to help a lady's maid better herself.

Even more interesting than the Crawley family's feuds and foibles, is the shenanigans of the servants. Overseen by the butler, Mr. Carson, a stalwart and just man, the serving staff plot against one another, eavesdrop on the family, and try to cope with their own unique problems. There is the footman, Thomas, who is a most disagreeable character, and his partner in crime, the lady's maid Sarah O'Brien, both of whom are always plotting against Mr. Bates. The enigmatic Bates, a friend of the Earl, has a checkered past but now tries to be honest and live a clean life.

The entire first season's episodes are rife with characters in conflict, making the storyline interesting and mostly unpredictable. Downton Abbey is superbly cast, and fans of BBC period productions will no doubt recognize some familiar faces including Brendan Coyle (North and South, Larkrise to Candleford) who plays John Bates, Jim Carson (The Way We Live Now) as Mr. Carson, and of course, the incomparable Dame Maggie Smith who is brilliant as the Dowager Countess Grantham. Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern are wonderfully complimentary as the Earl and Countess of Grantham.

Downton Abbey does a wonderful job of capturing the expectation of change that everyone seems to have. Women are expecting things will change for them - that they will get the vote, be allowed to work, and possibly even inherit property. Men seem to sense that things will change politically and of course there's the beginning of World War I. Downton sees the installation of electricity AND the telephone. Change is definitely in the air by the end of season one.

The series is worth watching just on the basis of the costuming alone. With four rich women to clothe, the possibilities are endless and their dresses are absolutely beautiful - detailed brocades, flowing silks and rich velvets. Sybil's amazing harem pants, were a stunning coup de grace that should have been incorporated into more than just one scene! The series won an Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries 2011.

Downton Abbey, created by Julian Fellowes, is a collaborative effort between Carnival Films of the UK and WGBH Boston (PBS) in the US.
The series is filmed at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, although the servants quarters are shot on a set in London.

Below is the trailer for the first season:

I will be partaking of Season 2 shortly and I just can't wait.