Friday, October 31, 2014

Crossing Stones by Helen Frost

Set during the First World War, Crossing Stones is the story of two families who live across from one another on Crabapple Creek. Frost has structured her novel in a unique way, with four separate narrators who tell their stories in free verse.

The Jorgensen family including Muriel and her younger siblings, sixteen year old Ollie and seven year old Grace, live across Crabapple Creek from the Norman family which includes Emma and Frank and their parents.The novel opens in April, 1917 with Muriel questioning her teacher, Mr. Sanders, during class as to why all the "real life" secretaries are women but in school they only learn about men secretaries. Muriel is angry to learn from the president that the United States will send men to fight in the war. Ollie is still to young to enlist, but Frank has been in basic training in Kansas for the past six months. The president tells the nation he will need an army of 500,000 men.

Mr. Sanders talks to Muriel's parents telling them she has no "moral compass" when she questions America's involvement in the war. While Muriel's mother is ashamed, her father defends her freedom to express her opinions. Mr. Sanders tells them that if she continues to question the decision the president has made, other students "may wonder if their classmates are risking their lives for nothing." Papa tells Muriel that she must be careful in the future about people like Mr. Sanders who believe others have no right to different opinions.

Ollie wants to go to fight but he's too young yet. Instead he helps Emma's family while Frank is away by mending fences. Ollie figures by helping out he will build up his muscles so he can look older and enlist illegally. He tells Grace he will make her a playhouse of the scrap wood.

In the poem, Socks, Muriel talks about the expectations of their families. Emma Norman is her best friend and Frank and Ollie are like brothers, but with Frank coming home on leave next week before he ships out, their mothers seem to have the expectation that Muriel will become the next Mrs. Norman. Muriel likes Frank as a friend but she knows she cannot marry him.

Frank arrives home for tens day of leave after which he will be shipped overseas. Both families have a huge dinner at the Normans home to celebrate his homecoming. During his leave, Muriel graduates from high school. Despite being smarter than all the boys, Arthur Anderson is valedictorian as a result of Muriel being given a D in comportment, likely the result of her questioning Mr. Sanders view on the war. Muriel feels Arthur's speech makes no sense.

                                 "Why is everyone just doing what they're told?
                         The presidents of all the countries should
                 meet somewhere and fight this war themselves
        if they think it's worth fighting.
What are they sacrificing? Have they asked the mothers
        who gave the best years of their lives to raise
                 these boys the presidents are sending into battle?
                            No! Women don't even get to vote -- it isn't fair!

Frank thinks Muriel sounds like the suffragettes. Muriel enjoys her graduation dancing with all the boys but Arthur. On the way home, Frank mentions about all the local boys who are enlisting and then suddenly asks Muriel for a kiss. Frank wants to have a girl back home to write to when he is in France, "someone to keep fighting for". Muriel refuses because she doesn't want to just be "someone" whom Frank hurriedly chooses before going off to war. Refusing Frank a kiss results in an argument with Emma who feels this might have been good for Frank while he's at war.

With Frank and many of the other men gone to war, women begin filling in for the men. Muriel's Mama decides to go work for a shop manager as a bookkeeper "for the duration" and the housework falls to Muriel. When Muriel's mother tells her how important mothers are because they raise their children to be honest, Muriel questions the wisdom of this when these children are then sent off to fight wars.

Shortly after Frank is sent overseas, Ollie slips away, taking the train to the city to secretly enlist. Muriel and her family find out when the mailman brings a letter later that day from Ollie explaining what he's done. Muriel's Papa wants to go retrieve Ollie, but Mr. Norman persuades him that doing so might land Ollie in jail.

Meanwhile in July 1917, Papa tells Muriel that the government has passed a law, the Espionage Act,  punishing people who speak out against the war. Papa warns Muriel to be careful and he worries about his sister, Muriel's Aunt Vera, who is involved with the suffragettes protesting for the right to vote for women.

Virginia Arnold holding Kaiser banner.
Frank's letters to Emma and his parents tell of adventure. His letters to Muriel are heavily censored, leading Muriel to wonder if the war is right, why are the soldier's letters blacked out. Ollie too is beginning to regret having signed up and wonders if Muriel was right. A letter from Aunt Vera tells about the protests by the suffragettes and that she is going to Washington to join the picket line in front of the White House. She plans to be in Washington only a week and will stop to visit Muriel.

However shortly after Muriel's father receives a letter from Vera telling them about a controversial sign the suffragettes have made equating President Wilson with the Kaiser of Germany. Vera has been arrested and is in jail. The protests in Washington with new suffragettes replacing those who are arrested mimic the war effort as new soldiers fill in for those who are killed. Frank writes to Muriel that they can't seem to stop a war that is consuming millions.

And then one Saturday afternoon, the lives of the Jorgensen and Norman families are changed forever with the news that Frank has been killed in action. While trying to comfort Emma, Muriel struggles to deal with her own grief for a man she did not want to marry but she certainly wanted to return home safe and sound. Frank's death marks the beginning of several crises that Muriel and her family must deal with leading her to make some hard but different choices about how she will live her life.


Crossing Stones is an exquisitely crafted novel, from its expressive jacket art by Richard Tuschman to the uniquely structured poems within. Frost deals with two major historical events in her novel, the entry of the United States into the Great War and the suffragette movement to achieve the right to vote for women. These two dramas are the backdrop for the simple farm life of two families, knit together by the bonds of friendship and love. There are two prospective couples, Ella Norman and Ollie Jorgensen and Muriel Jorgensen and Ella's brother Frank. Ella and Ollie share a mutual affection for one another that eventually leads to love. However, Frank and Muriel, although good friends in a brother-sister sort of way, do not know what they want. Frank seems to feel an attraction to Muriel but he's a cautious person by nature and without the encouraging cues from Muriel only  decides to push their friendship before he leaves for France. This makes him seem a bit calculating which puts Muriel off. And Muriel doesn't like their families' expectations that she will some day marry Frank.

Frank's final letter to Muriel, which comes with his personal affects weeks after his death, reveals the deep conflict he felt over fighting and killing other men, how the truth of the war was being kept out of the newspapers and how Muriel's questions about the war lead him to doubt deeply about what was happening and to hesitate to kill. For Muriel, these revelations have a lasting effect.

"A bullet and a bandage for the wound
         it causes, all in one small envelope.
                  My questions may have caused a hesitation
                           that cost Frank his...his certainty.
                  His life? However long I live, it won't
         be long enough to silence that suggestion."

Grace's drawing is a foreshadowing of Frank's death; the picture showing the crossing stones with Emma and Ollie and "a stone with no one on it, my hand stretched out toward it, reaching out to someone who's not there."

While everyone is struggling to come to some kind of terms with Frank's death, Ollie arrives home, having lost an arm while saving a fellow soldier from being run over by a tank. Emma who is trying to cope with the loss of her brother, now has to deal with what has happened to Ollie. Despite being changed by his experiences in the war, Ollie is helped to heal by the wonderful acceptance and love of Emma.

Besides exploring the issues surrounding the First World War, Frost also includes much information about the what suffragette movement in the United States during the year 1917. This is done through the eyes of Muriel who writes about the picketing women and their treatment by men in Washington, their arrest and the forced feeding of the suffragettes.

Another aspect I found especially appealing in Crossing Stones was Frost's positive portrayal of family life at the turn of the century. The Norman family suffers the loss of their only son, Frank, and in response to this tragedy, Muriel's Mama goes over to stay with Mrs. Norman. When Ollie returns home recovering from the loss of his arm, Muriel's family pulls together to help him recover, but Muriel also offers him the space on their walks to talk about the war and what he experienced. It is these talks that help Ollie to begin to heal.  When Grace becomes ill with the influenza that is sweeping through the towns, Emma carries her to the stream so Ollie can take her and Mrs. Norman brings soup for Grace.

The poetry in this book is nothing short of impressive. In a note at the back of the book Helen Frost provides her readers with some information on the form and structure of her poetry which she wanted to reflect the idea of "stepping from stone to stone across a creek". Muriel's poems look like a meandering river while Ollie and Emma's poems are representative of the stepping stones. Their poems are " 'cupped-hand sonnets,' fourteen-line poems in which the first line rhymes with the last line, the second line rhymes with the second-to-last, and so on, so that the seventh and eighth lines rhyme with each other at the poem's center." However, while the rhyming words are found at the end of the lines in Emma's poems, in Ollie's poems the rhyming words are the first in each line. Frost goes on to explain further how Ollie and Emma's poems are connected to each other.

Crossing Stones is a wonderful historical novel that conveys both the horror of World War 1 as experienced by both the men who fought and their families back home, as well as the determination and pluck the suffragettes demonstrated as they fought for the right to be politically equal to men. Creative, unique, poignant and sensitive in its treatment of these issues and of families torn apart by a senseless war and a changing social order, Crossing Stones is a true gem.

Book Details:

Crossing Stones by Helen Frost
New York: Frances Foster Books      2009
184 pp.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sam and Dave Dig A Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

"... there's moments where a story, no matter how strange, has some semblance of the truth and then you're able to believe it - it's not just kids who can get there, adults can too and we get there when we read...."

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole is another wonderful picture book that works for children and adults alike. Jon Klassen, award winning author-illustrator's coloured pencil and digitally created illustrations fill in the extra details to the story of two men digging a hole, only to miss the mother-lode of a diamond and many other treasures along the way, but to find what seems like a smaller treasure.

The chocolate-milk-swigging Dave and animal cookie-connoisseur Sam dig and dig, and then just when they are close (and don't know it) they make the momentous decision to change direction. Each time they make a decision to try something new, they miss a grand discovery but that doesn't really matter because they are in it together. They appear to end up in the place they started but things are different, because of the journey, because of what they went through.

Perhaps a subtle message to stay the course, enjoy the journey and enjoy whatever the result. I really loved this book with the wonderful drawings that bring out the rest of the story.

Mac Barnett is a best-selling author of books for children. His book Extra Yarn was a 2013 Caldecott Honor book.

The zippy zany book trailer starring Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen can be watched below:

Book Details:
Same And Dave Dig A Hole by Mac Barnett
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press    2014

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey

The Infinite Sea is the second installment in the 5th Wave trilogy. In The 5th Wave, aliens who have been watching Earth for thousands of years finally decide to put into action their plan to remove the infestation of humans on the planet. They began by knocking out power with an electromagnetic pulse, then they triggered giant tsunamis which wiped out the populations living near the coastal areas. This was followed by the third wave which was the red plague. The fourth wave saw the aliens consciousness inserted into the bodies of humans and then activated at puberty. These are known as Silencers and they actively seek out humans to kill them. The apocalypse is in full gear, with the Others working to eradicate the last of the humans. Teenager Cassie Sullivan spends much of the first novel searching for her younger brother, Sam, and in the process uncovers the horrifying 5th Wave. The 5th Wave is comprised of children who under the pretense of being "saved" and being trained to kill, not the aliens as they believe, but their fellow humans.  This is being done, Cassie discovers in a huge military camp run by an "Other" named General Vosch. She also meets Evan Walker, a human hosting an alien consciousness, who falls in love with her and who does not wish to follow through with the plans to annihilate the entire human race. With the help of Evan, Cassie and a group of teens take out Vosch's base with a massive explosion leaving the fate of Evan unknown and the destruction of the base only a minor setback for the aliens.

What follows is a detailed synopsis of the entire novel so that when the third book is released, readers can return to refresh their memories about the storyline. Therefore, there are plenty of spoilers in this description. A review follows further down, which I hope, will not have spoilers.

The novel opens with a short prologue which recounts the event of a child being used as an IED to destroy a group of humans hidden in a farmhouse demonstrating that no one can now be trusted - not even small children who might be deadly weapons. This is a foreshadowing of what might be in store for Cassie's group of survivors.

Book 2 The Infinite Sea picks up the story several weeks after the destruction of Vosch's base. It is winter and without food, many of the surviving humans face the reality of freezing and starving to death. Cassie's ragtag group of survivors is holed up in an abandoned hotel infested with rats. They have gone there because it was Cassie's prearranged meeting place with Evan after the attack on Vosch's Camp Haven. In the hotel are Cassie, Ringer, Teacup, Nugget (Sam), Dumbo, Zombie (Ben Parish) and Poundcake. Ben is not doing well, feverish from the bullet wound Ringer gave him when they escaped Camp Haven. Cassie continues to hope that Evan has survived the blast and will return.

Ringer is preparing to leave, to scout out the caves where they plan on moving to. As she travels along the highway, she thinks about Evan Walker and what he told Cassie, that the aliens are pure consciousness occupying a human body and that they don't need the planet to exist. The reason for the aliens needing a planet seems puzzling to her and doesn't add up. Ringer is outside Urbana and headed to the Ohio Caverns outside of West Liberty. In the woods she discovers another 5th Waver like herself only he's been shot dead. This can only mean a Silencer must be around. Ringer removes the tracking pellet from the dead kid and puts it in her mouth. But instead of shooting a Silencer, Ringer shoots Teacup.Just as she's about to finish her off, a black chopper arrives and Ringer decides to allow them to be captured.

Meanwhile back at the hotel, Cassie keeps watch on the parking lot while the others sleep. She is remembering a conversation she had with Ringer and Ben. Cassie remembers what Evan Walker told her about the aliens and about himself, that he began life as Evan and then at thirteen his alien consciousness awoke and then Evan came back into the picture again later on. He told her that the aliens no longer have bodies, it was the only way they could make the journey and that their consciousnesses were downloaded onto the mothership; some are still there awaiting the completed cleansing. The camps were set up to select the best humans for brainwashing so they could complete the annihilation. But Ben wants to know why they just didn't download enough of their troops into humans to wipe the remaining humans out. Evan proved however that there was a risk to this, that by becoming human they might actually take on a human identity.

They have decided to wait to see if Evan will show giving Ben time to heal from his wounds. However, things go bad fast when Cassie spots Teacup sneaking away after Ringer. Poundcake is sent after her. As they wait for Poundcake to return, Ben wonders why the aliens waited centuries to exterminate them when they could have done it earlier when there were fewer humans on the planet.

Soon Ben and Cassie realize that Dumbo is missing. Waking Sam and ordering him to lock the door to his room, Ben and Cassie begin working their way through the hotel. They decide to check the elevator shaft. Ben lowers Cassie into the shaft and she moves into the elevator car. After checking the lobby, gunshots ring out on the upper floor and Cassie races back up to her brother's room where she finds and shoots Evan Walker in the knee.

The story picks up with Evan's narration. He reveals that as a child he remembers dreaming of owls but when he turned thirteen the dreams stopped. The alien in him had awakened ready to use the gifts the owl had given him and his life as a thirteen year old boy became a lie. Evan apparently has survived the blast and has been rescued by another Silencer, a tall, blonde woman with icy blue eyes named Grace. Grace tells him that he has sixteen broken bones including a broken ankle, a fractured skull and second degree burns. Evan met Grace when they were sixteen. Evan was already struggling with the knowledge that every person he met would be dead in two years time. It was the first time either of them had met someone like them.

"They all understood the risk in donning the human mantle. Sharing a body with a human psyche carried with it the danger of adopting human vices -- as well as human virtues. And far more dangerous than greed or lust or envy or any of those things -- or anything -- was love."

Grace asks Evan how he came to be at the base and learns only the bare details of what happened. She and Evan journey to her house in her sector on Hwy 68 where she takes him to recuperate. It will take almost  three weeks for his ankle to heal sufficiently for him to use it again. When Grace leaves to get supplies, Evan makes the decision that he must neutralize her. He can't wait three weeks for his ankle to heal and he can't take Grace with him to meet Cassie and the other survivors.  Grace will never let him go and she wouldn't think twice about killing him. So when she returns he strangles her and leaves her for dead.

But traveling along Hwy 68 Evan soon discovers that he has not killed Grace as he suspected and that she is tracking him. Evan starts a huge bonfire in the middle of the highway with the intention of drawing  the 5th Wave so they will attack. This happens and during the gunfire, he manages to escape from Grace and find his way to the hotel when Cassie is hiding. By the time Evan arrives, he sees Ringer leaving to look for the caves. Evan realizes that his enhanced body is giving out and he is becoming more like a typical human.

At this point in the novel Yancey provides some of the backstory to Poundcake because his actions are important in this part of the novel. Poundcake came to be picked up by the school buses after the death of his mother from the plague. She had been sick for days while Poundcake and his baby brother had to fend for themselves. Running out of food, Poundcake left to search for food for him and his baby brother. He searched in all the nearby grocery stores but managed to find only a piece of cake wrapped in plastic. When he returned home, Poundcake found his brother gone and his mother violently ill, the plague now infecting her brain. Six weeks after her death Poundcake began walking along the abandoned highways and was eventually picked up by a school bus filled with children and soldiers. Poundcake has never uttered a word after his mother's death.

Evan storms into the hotel but is shot by Cassie after she runs up the stairs from the lobby. Dumbo tells Cassie that Evan has a broken ankle, a stab wound in one leg, a bullet in the other, covered in burns and is running a high fever. Ben's abdominal wound has been repacked by Dumbo but he's furious at Evan and wants to leave the hotel. Cassie's five year old brother Sam also wants to go with him. In his lucid moments Evan tells Cassie he saw Teacup and Poundcake heading north and he tells her not to go after them warning her about Grace. Poundcake returns but does not have Teacup nor Ringer and because he never speaks, Cassie's group has no idea what has happened to Teacup and Ringer. Ben believes that Teacup has caught up with Ringer who has taken her to the caves.

The next day the group hears a helicopter overhead and twenty minutes after it passes by, a friend of Sam's, Megan appears in the hotel wearing shorts, a thin T-shirt and flip flops, tells them her throat hurts and then collapses. Puzzled at her sudden appearance and her strange clothing given the onset of winter, they believe Megan may have a tracker but Cassie can't find any evidence of one. What Cassie does see is a little girl bruised and abused by indifference, cruelty of the Others. Ben asks Cassie to check the girl's throat which she has done and finds only that it's red. Evan tells them that she is not implanted with a tracking device but that her throat is rigged with an incendiary device rigged to blow when it detects CO2 - the child is a bomb. Evan tells them its almost impossible to remove the bomb without detonating it. This leads Ben to want to simply kill the girl and it is his attitude that makes Cassie realize that he has lost a great deal of his humanity. But Ben can't kill little Megan and he asks Cassie to cut the wire to the bomb.

Cassie realizes that the Ben Parish she crushed on a year ago is dead and gone just like the school girl who desired him is also gone. With the help of Evan, Cassie manages to extract the bomb from Megan's throat. Evan tells Cassie that the bomb is a test, that if they didn't blow up it either means that the bomb was defective or that they might have a Silencer with them. Ben figures that they know Cassie and the other group are at the hotel possibly indicating that Ringer and Teacup have been captured. Cassie suggests that they blow up the hotel using the bomb and they hit upon using the CO2 canisters from the soda fountain from the diner next door. They decide to rig the canisters to dispense the CO2 slowly within the confined space of the elevator and blow the hotel. Ben and Poundcake go to the diner to get the canister, while Dumbo watches the hall and Sam goes to care for Megan. This leaves Cassie alone with Evan who tells her that they have to go to the last place anyone will look - Grace's house on Hwy 68. He draws Cassie a map and then tells her that the way to end it is Grace - that she is the doorway and that Cassie can finish it. This doesn't mean much to Cassie at this time however, she has little time to ask him more because Grace shows up at the hotel.

What follows is a battle between Grace and the four humans, Cassie, Ben, Dumbo and Poundcake.  Evan tells Cassie they must leave and go to the house he told her about and that he will take care of Grace. Ben, Cassie, Dumbo, Sam and Megan all leave. However, Poundcake, who has been fatally shot by Grace scrabbles back into the hotel, knowing that Sam has dropped the baggie containing the IED that was in Megan's throat. As Grace coldly tortures him by shooting him repeatedly, realizing that he's mortally wounded, Poundcake confronts her with the IED, shoots her in the back and blows up the hotel with him, Grace and Evan in it.

The novel then switches over to tell the reader what has happened to Ringer after she is captured by General Vosch. Under Vosch's direction, Ringer also known as Marika has a hub placed in her that will enhance her body. This is a kind of nanotechnology - "a microscopic command hub affixed to the prefrontal lobe of her brain" that control the 40,000 units, 10 arrays of four thousand that enhance each of the different systems of her body.

While Ringer is recovering, she is kept company by a man named Razor. When Ringer tries to teach Razor a chess game, Razor teaches her a game, chaseball,  he invented which is really a secret way to communicate. He plans on helping her escape which she does. They commandeer a Black Hawk helicopter and Razor and Teacup parachute out while Ringer with her enhanced body dives out of the helicopter and free falls to earth. She meets up with Razor who takes her to the warehouse and there Ringer meets Vosch who tells her this was all a test. He also tells her that there are no alien consciousness inside any humans because it was too risky. Instead they used a program, inserted into unborn children and activated at puberty. Evan is a human who is enhanced but the program in him has crashed and he's now off the grid. If there are others like Evan, enhanced, off the grid, this could be a problem. Vosch needs Ringer to help him find Evan. His only hold on Ringer is Teacup who is alive.

Ringer tells all this to Razor. After several days, Ringer along with Razor are brought back to Vosch who asks her if she's solved the mystery. She tells him that Evan falling in love causes unpredictability. Evan doesn't yet know the truth, but he knows enough to stop the aliens and he's off the grid. Razor sets Ringer free by killing Teacup, thereby allowing her to flee from Vosch.

The Infinite Sea was a thrilling novel, that captures the reader from the horrific prologue to the very last page with its surprising ending. Readers may find that the initial chapters narrated by Ringer are somewhat slow, but the pace evens out and the twists and shocking revelations keep the story truly enthralling.

Like its predecessor, The Infinite Sea tells its story through the eyes of a group of teenagers, possibly one of the few groups of surviving humans on the planet, who are trying to figure out how to stay alive and how to outwit the aliens. They each have their own ideas as to what the key element is to survival. At the beginning of the novel, Ringer believes the key is rage but later on she comes to realize that it is something else.

The Infinite Sea is another novel with several strong female characters; in the first novel it was Cassie Sullivan, in The Infinite Sea, it's Ringer or Marika (we learn her real name). Cassie is a somewhat minor character in this novel which focuses more on Ringer who is now a major character. Ringer takes on the qualities of a superhero near the end of the novel, physically enhanced to match her strong personality. She's become a weapon, but it as it turns out, a rogue one. We also learn more about Evan and General Vosch. Yancey also provides his readers with some backstory for other minor characters such as Grace and Poundcake to flesh out the story.

We also learn more about the aliens through Vosch, especially the reasoning behind the strategy used to cleanse the earth of humans. 

One of the great themes of these novels is that of courage, perhaps best exemplified by Poundcake who makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his friends from Grace.  Another strong theme is that of love, its unpredictability and how love can lead to the most unpredictable of actions. This happened in the first book between Evan and Cassie, with Evan helping her rescue her brother and destroy Vosch's base - something he finds remarkable. In the second book, the unexpected love that develops between Ringer and Razor lead him also to act in an unpredictable manner, something which Vosch did not foresee.

Because of the ending, readers will have a certain expectation as to what the plot might be like in the third novel, so it will be interesting to see if that expectation is met. The Infinite Sea is young adult fiction crossover into adult fiction with strong appeal to a wide age range. The writing is great, captivating and Yancey moves between narrators seamlessly. 

The 5th Wave is currently in development for a film adaptation which will be released in January, 2016.

Book Details:
The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons     2014
300 pp.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Gathering of Pearls by Sook Nyul Choi

"Tough times are the times when one gathers one's pearls."

Gathering of Pearls is the last book in Choi's three part series about a young woman's life in Korea and her journey to America.

It is September, 1954 and Sookan Bak has just arrived at Idlewild Airport (now known as John F. Kennedy International Airport) in New York, after a lengthy plane trip across the Pacific. Sookan has achieved her dream of coming to study in America where she will be attending Finch College, an all-girls Catholic college in New York. She feels tired, overwhelmed and nervous. Everything is so much larger and busier than Seoul, Korea. Sookan is struck by how tall and openly affectionate Americans are. Adding to her worries is the fact that the students who were supposed to meet her at Idlewild are not there. Anxious, Sookan calls Sister Casey at Finch College and gets instructions to the college. So begins her four years in America.

When she arrives at Finch College, Sookan's self-consciousness over her black hair and yellow skin is not eased by Sister Casey's request that she wear her native dress, called a hanbok to dinner. However, the girls at the college are delighted and Sookan meets her roommate, Ellen Lloyd, a tall, blonde outgoing girl. Sookan and Ellen get acquainted, with Sookan telling Ellen how her older sister who is a nun did not want her to come to America and Ellen showing Sookan a picture of her boyfriend, Lyle who is a student at Princeton. Sookan is impressed by Ellen's plans for her life, to marry Lyle and have four children, two boys and two girls.

Sookan plans an ambitious academic schedule, selecting world literature, world religions, Greek and Roman culture and early European history. She knows this will be challenging but she is determined to succeed. Sookan also meets another girl at the school, Marci Gannon, who is very different from Ellen. Marci is quiet, loves to read books and has a somewhat boyish look. Marci believes she looks and sounds awkward but Sookan reassures her that she is just fine.

Sookan receives her first letter from her mother which makes her feel homesick but she also discerns that things are difficult for her family in Korea. Her mother both encourages her, having faith that she will succeed and also tells her not to worry about the family back home.

As the term wears on, Sookan finds it increasingly difficult to keep up with her heavy course work and manage her outside commitments. For scholarship work she is assigned to serve the evening dinner shift and she's also asked to speak about Korea to the Girl Scouts Club. She also agrees to babysit the children of Professor Bennett on weekends.

As Sookan becomes better friends with both Marci and Ellen, she begins to realize that they  have similar problems with family expectations despite the difference in their cultures and traditions.
In Ellen's situation, her problems center around her growing relationship with her boyfriend Kyle, whom Ellen is convinced she will marry. Possibly knowing her parents will not support her decision to become involved with a boy so young, Ellen keeps her relationship a secret.

Marci tells Sookan that her father wants her to study science and eventually take over his chemical company, Gannon Chemical,  something she has absolutely no interest in. Marci feels disconnected from her parents who seem to adore her older sister, Susan, who is outgoing, popular and who shares similar interests with their parents.

Sookan especially understands Marci's predicament because it mirrors her own feelings, especially towards her older sister Theresa, although she is shocked to hear Marci voice them. Letters from Theresa who is a nun, seem to highlight this disconnect the Sookan feels too. Instead of encouraging her as their mother had done, Theresa chides Sookan for neglecting to send her the pages of her personal journal so she could read them, as she agreed to do and for neglecting their goal of  helping people. Theresa, whom everyone looks up to, considers Sookan's dream of studying overseas to be a waste of time. All this leaves Sookan conflicted and feeling as though she has neglected to do her duty and has disobeyed her older sister. Although she has assumed she would one day be a nun like Theresa, now she is not so sure.

Before leaving for Christmas holidays at Marci's home, Sookan receives two letters from home, one from her mother and the other from her sister, Theresa. The two letters bear different news and opinions. From her mother Sookan gets a letter that encourages her to patient, that trying to do everything according to both Korean and American tradition will not be possible. On the other hand, Theresa's letter tells about her unending hardships at the convent, criticizing Sookan's behaviour and questioning her maturity to be away from home. Sookan must struggle to fit in at school while at the same time try to retain the values that her family back in Korea value.

Gathering of Pearls while telling an interesting story about a young woman who comes to America to follow her dream of getting a good education and breaking free to some degree of the restrictions her culture places on her, is more a coming of age story and about recognizing the wisdom parents have to offer their children, and about acceptance.

Like Marci and Ellen, Sookan is faced with a family member who does not understand her or what she might want in life. In Sookan's case it is her older sister, while with Ellen and Marci it is their parents. How all three girls deal with this timeless problem is a major theme in the novel. Marci rebels violently against her father who wants her to study chemistry, a subject she is neither good at nor enjoys. She believes her father hates her, but Sookan, an outsider sees that he merely wants her to enjoy what he can provide for her. Ellen on the other hand feels her parents won't let her make her own decisions about her life despite the fact that she is only eighteen years old. Sookan eventually comes to her own realization about her sister through her mother.

When Sookan returns to school after Christmas break, Sister Reed meets with her to change her schedule, telling her they are very impressed with all her accomplishments. She also gives Sookan a beautiful pearl necklace, a necklace her aunt wanted to be given to an extraordinary young woman. Later on when the pearl necklace breaks, Sookan is reminded of something her mother told her.
"She used to say that women are like oysters. Just as an oyster takes an irritating grain of sand and creates a pearl around it, a woman can take a painful experience and enrich herself by creating something precious from that pain. We take in the misery and bitterness, but instead of letting it poison us, we turn it into a precious pearl....
I cleaned each pearl and thought of my mother. She had suffered so much, and she had made herself richer for it. She was rich in understanding and love...."
When tragedy strikes her family and Sookan learns of the death of her mother, she is utterly devastated. Father Lee travels from Korea  and tells her a particular strength that her mother possessed.
"'You know, Sookan, what made your mother so special was her ability to accept people. She firmly believed that one was born with one's nature. One could try to change but would ultimately remain the same. Because she believed this so firmly, she appreciated people for their strengths. She managed to overlook their weaknesses and never criticized them. She also believed that each person was born with a destiny. She never tried to impose her will on any of her children. She wanted each of you to pursue your own path.... She wanted you to live your own life and, most of all, to be happy.'"

Later on her younger brother, Inchun, sends Sookan their mother's reading glasses. She also receives a letter from her sister that reeks of resentment that she is not there for their mother's funeral. Sookan recognizes this but also remembers her mother's way of thinking. Inchun's gift of their mother's reading glasses to Sookan is a symbol for Sookan looking at people the way her mother did - with understanding, acceptance but also realizing that she must make her own choices and her own life and not necessarily do what her sister or others might believe she should do.
"I realized I must accept my sister, as my mother had done. Nothing would change her, not even Mother's death. I saw now that she had her own shortcomings, insecurities, and anxieties. It was my responsibility to try to understand her as a human being." 
Sookan recognizes that her sister does care for her but that she need not obey her. This allows her to accept her sister and to love her.

Gathering of Pearls is a wonderful conclusion to this beautifully crafted autobiographical trilogy. Readers will learn a little about the history of Korea and its culture, the values placed on family responsibility and duty. Sookan is gentle, thoughtful narrator who realistically conveys to readers all of this.

Book Details:
Gathering of Pearls by Sook Nyul Choi
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company    1994
163 pp.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Unspeakable by Caroline Pignat

Set against the backdrop of the sinking of the R.M. S. (Royal Mail Ship) Empress of Ireland in 1914, Unspeakable tells the story of a young woman's struggle to reclaim her life after enduring a series of tragedies.

The sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the early hours of May 29, 1914 was considered "Canada's Titanic".  The Empress of Ireland was one of two ships commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to facilitate travel between Great Britain and Canada. It launched on January 27, 1906 and because of the Titanic disaster a mere two years earlier had state-of-the-art passenger safety features. The Empress of Ireland had eleven water tight compartments, forty life boats and over 2000 life jackets including several hundred for children. It was also outfitted with an Marconi wireless telegraph and had an underwater sonar to detect icebergs.

On the evening of May 28, 1914, the Empress of Ireland was ready to weigh anchor. On board she had 1,477 people on board including eighty-seven first class passengers, two hundred fifty-three second class passengers and seven hundred seventeen third class passengers. Under the command of Captain Henry George Kendall, a twenty-five year veteran of the sea, the Empress of Ireland left Quebec for Liverpool, England at 4:30pm. The pilot, Adelard Bernier would guide the Empress down the Saint Lawrence and then leave the ship at Pointe-au-Pere as it continued on its voyage to Liverpool.

At 1:40am the lookout on the Empress of Ireland reported a ship running upriver on the starboard (right) side. Based on their positions and speed Captain Kendall believed the ships would pass each other on the starboard side without problems. However, when the Empress encountered a fog bank, Kendall stopped his ship and ordered two blasts of the ship's whistle to tell the other ship their location. Their reply told him that the two ships were much closer than he'd thought. Suddenly, the other ship, the Storstad, a coal runner, appeared on the starboard side and within minutes collided violently with the Empress of Ireland. The Storstad with its reinforced bow for sailing in ice, rammed the Empress of Ireland almost in its midsection. Although Kendall requested that the Storstad not  reverse its engines it appeared to do so. It was 1:55am on the morning of May 29.
Captain Kendall ordered the water tight compartments to be closed and the passengers awoken and directed to wear their life jackets and to go to the life boats. However, due to the severe list of the ship, it was impossible to close the compartment doors. Because most passengers had only been on the ship for a short period of time, finding the lifeboat stations was difficult. A mere ten minutes after the collision, the Empress of Ireland turned completely on its starboard side and began to sink. The ship sank in a mere fourteen minutes.

1012 people perished in the accident and out of one hundred thirty-eight children on board only four survived. More people perished in the sinking of the Empress of Ireland than in the Titanic. Four hundred and sixty-five survivors were plucked from the icy St. Lawrence River by the Storstad and other ships and taken to Rimouski, Quebec. A Royal Commission determined that the sinking was the result of error on the part of both ships' navigators. It was also further determined that the inability to close the water tight doors and the open portholes hastened the ship's demise.

Unspeakable tells the (fictional) story of Ellen Hardy, daughter and sole heiress of Hardy Estates, who is using the false name Ellie Ryan to protect her family name. The story is divided into numerous parts that begin with The Morning After, and then alternate between telling Ellie's story in flash back of  how she came to be on the Empress of Ireland, the sinking of the ship and the three interviews she does with a reporter that further flesh out her story.

In The Morning After, Ellie Ryan is disembarking from the steamer, Lady Evelyn, that plucked her out of the frigid St. Lawrence River, cold and in shock. Ellie looks everywhere for "him" to no avail. He's not on the the Lady Evelyn, no does she see him on the quay at Rimouski. "Hundreds survived. He had. He had to." With the help of a local woman, Monique, Ellie searches the hospital and the nearby homes where survivors of the tragedy have been taken. At the quayside shed where the bodies are being stored, Ellie meets Wyatt Steele, a reporter for the New York Times who tells her that the world wants to hear her story. Furious, Ellie refuses to talk to him.

In flashback, in Four Months Before, the beginning backstory of Ellie is told. Ellen is living at Strandview Manor with her elderly great aunt, Geraldine, who informs her that she will be working as a stewardess on the Empress of Ireland. She will be taking along Geraldine's maid, Margaret (Meg) Bates. Ellen does not want to do this but she is given no choice by her aunt. They board the ship in Liverpool and are shown their cabin which they will share with two other girls, Kate and Gwen.

On her second crossing Ellie meets Jim Farrow, a stoker who has burned his arm. Ellie has been helping the ship's doctor, Dr. Grant and when Jim is brought in she treats and bandages his arm. Ellie is attracted to the muscular, coal dust dirty Jim in a way she can't explain, despite his hostile and angry manner.

In The Day After Ellen is on her way home, troubled by the memories of Meg's death and having to tell her grandfather, Bates, who is their butler. She is also wondering about what has happened to a man named Jim. On the train to Quebec she meets Wyatt Steele who takes down Gracie Hanagan's story. Gracie is one of only four children who survived. Once Gracie is finished, Steele begins questioning Ellen and it's evident he's done considerable research.He knows her

In Three Weeks After, it is June 1914 and Ellen has returned home to Strandview Manor to discover that Aunt Geraldine has passed away. The funeral is now over and the estate of G.B. Hardy, well known adventure novelist remains to be settled. Ellen is being hounded by reporters who want to interview Ellie Ryan and the fourteen year old maid, Lily mistakenly lets in none other than Wyatt Steele. Steele knows that Ellen Hardy used the name Ellie Ryan on the Empress of India and as Ellen is the only surviving stewardess from the Empress of Ireland, he wants to interview her. Wyatt lures Ellen into doing a series of interviews after revealing that he has the diary of Jim Farrow, the man Ellen fell in love with on the Empress of Ireland. Wyatt Steele tell Ellen that he will give her the journal page by page in exchange for all of her story.

From this point on the narrative alternates between the interviews Ellen gives to Wyatt  and the various flashback chapters which include Four Months Before, Three Days Before, Two Days Before and Sailing Day. In the interviews Ellen reveals to Wyatt why she signed onto the Empress of Ireland but this section also reveals her aunt's motivations for sending her away, reveal Jim's thoughts from his journal. Ellen also recounts the sinking of the Empress of Ireland to Wyatt. The other flashback chapters tell about Ellen's developing relationship with Jim Farrow, the mysterious brooding stoker. Dividing the novel into sections seems uneven, but the story does come together seamlessly and the reader is never left feeling confused as to how the events unfolded. The tragedy of the Empress of India is woven into the story in a believable way and the chapters detailing the sinking of the ship are especially well done. Pignat portrays the strict moral code that existed in society at the turn of the 20th century, one that saw women severely punished even if they unintentionally stepped outside that code, while men suffered few consequences.

Unspeakable combines tragedy and romance to create an engaging high interest story that informs readers about a forgotten maritime disaster. The book takes its title from the unspeakable secrets the two main characters, Ellen Hardy and Jim Farrow have as well as the unspeakable tragedy of the sinking of the Empress of India. At times the novel does slip into the melodramatic regarding Jim's repeated walking away from Ellen because he believes he's not worthy of her, but the ultimate revelation of their secrets and their willingness to accept the other as they are, is touching.

Caroline Pignat has written a very readable, interesting piece of historical fiction that succeeds on all levels. Her detailed research into the sinking of the Empress of Ireland as well as this time period both in Canada and England is demonstrated by the novel's believable characters and the realistic portrayal of the sinking. Unspeakable should definitely be a Forest of Reading White Pine nominee in 2016. 

Book Details:
Unspeakable by Caroline Pignat
Toronto: Razorbill 2014

The Canadian Museum of History has a webpage devoted to the Empress of Ireland tragedy.

This website, Empress of Ireland 1914/2014 Commemoration provides very detailed information about the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. The PBS website also has a detailed page on the disaster.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Half Life of Molly Pierce by Katrina Leno

"In the times I 'd like to black out, I am forced to live. To be aware. To witness."

Leno tackles the unusual condition, dissociative identity disorder in The Half Life of Molly Pierce. Formerly known as multiple personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder is a controversial disorder in which "two or more distinct identities, or personality states, are present in—and alternately take control of—an individual. The person also experiences memory loss that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness." (Psychology Today

Seventeen-year-old Molly Pierce experiences long stretches where she remembers nothing about what has happened to her.  As far as she knows the missing memories started a year ago and she hasn't told anyone. No one except her thirteen year old sister, Hazel seems to notice. Not her parents who own a book store, nor her fifteen year old brother, Clancy. Molly has been seeing a therapist, Alex one a week.

It's mid October and Molly finds herself driving through Manchester-by-the-Sea, a small town in Massachusetts. She's left school and she can't remember what has happened to her over the past few hours but she decides to go home, shower, take a nap and then go to her parents bookstore to help out. Looking in her rear view mirror she sees  a boy on a motorcycle in a black helmet and jacket, racing to catch up to her. While she makes it through the next intersection safely, the boy on the bike does not. His motorcycle is hit by a truck and he ends up landing on the pavement in front of Molly's stopped car.

Molly races out of her car to the boy who is badly injured and dying. He recognizes her and calls her Mabel, telling her he messed up and he's sorry. He tells her his name is Lyle Avery and that she knows him, asking her to stay with him as he dies. Molly has no idea how Lyle knows her but she agrees to "pretend" she knows him. She agrees to call his brother, Sayer and accompanies Lyle to the hospital in the ambulance. When Sayer arrives Molly tells him she has no idea who he is and she questions him as to how he knows her name. Sayer never really answers her questions and following Lyle's death, she is picked up by her parents.

Lyle's death is the trigger that eventually helps Molly realize what is happening to her and that she had created an "alter", a separate personality to deal with the stress of living. Molly is puzzled by the fact that Sayer knows her yet she has no idea how she knows him. Sayer asks her to attend Lyle's funeral which Molly agrees to. Molly is filled with many questions. She asks Sayer how he knew where she lived, how long he's known her and how she knew Lyle. Sayer's answers are vague adding more mystery to Molly's life until she gradually begins to remember.

Molly's memories come back in reverse chronological order starting with her most recent encounter with Lyle in a warehouse just prior to his accident. Lyle and Molly argued and she told him it was over and not to follow her. But he did. On his motorcycle. After the funeral Molly remembers a second time when she met Lyle beneath the "oak tree on the edge of the graveyard in town."  Molly told Lyle something that he didn't seem to like and he left. This memory is so deeply upsetting to Molly that she sees her therapist Alex.

At the appointment with her therapist, Molly tells him that she is missing  "blocks of time" where she has "no idea what I've been doing. Where I've been."  Molly thinks that Alex should be surprised by this but she learns that he already knows. Alex tells her that when she's herself he has told her but she doesn't remember, that she blocks it out. And he suggests to her that she needs to work it out for herself.

Each memory leads to only more and more questions and Molly gradually comes to remember events further back. At first she doesn't understand who the Molly is in her memories because she's different.
"Something has developed between yesterday and today: this weird feeling that I am not watching myself but a copy of myself. Some of the things I say, I would never say in real life. The Molly in my memories, she is bolder than I am. She is less inhibited. She is prettier. She does her makeup better than I do. Her hair. She holds her shoulders differently and she always smiles like she knows what everyone is thinking."
Molly begins to understand that Alex is right, that she has to figure this out for herself. These memories gradually lead Molly to the revelation of her alter, Mabel, who met Lyle but fell in love with his brother, Sayer.
It was almost as if someone else had taken a turn at living my life.
Someone else.
And suddenly the answer hangs waiting in the air in front of me....
Someone else living my life.
I don't feel anyone else inside me.
What else accounts for any of it?
The Half Life of Molly Pierce is a strange novel because is deals with a very unusual mental illness - that of a person having several personalities. In this story, Molly Pierce has a second alter, Mabel, who is more outgoing, confident and happy. As Molly recovers her memories and becomes aware of Mabel, she has to make the decision as to whether her alter is going to stay or leave.

Molly is a believable character, struggling to understand what is happening to her and ultimately deciding that she needs to live her life, that she deserves to be well and to be happy. One of the strong features in this novel is the positive portrayal of Molly's therapist and her family, both of whom give her the space and time to work through her mental illness.

Leno weaves her mystery about Molly slowly and then drops hints along the way as to the identity of "Mabel".  A novel about a girl with dissociative identity disorder could have been very depressing, but Leno never lets her story slip into the darker aspects and in fact, the novel ends on a very hopeful tone. We even get to experience some of her alter, Mabel, in a few chapters and learn why Mabel came into being. Mabel seems to recognize that her time is almost up but she seems accepting of that. Mabel writes Molly a letter explaining why Molly created her and that she now needs to go because she is harming Molly rather than helping her.

Perhaps the novel's weakness is the lack of secondary character development, particularly Molly's parents. The dynamics between Molly and her siblings was interesting to read, how they were able to recognize that she had two different personalities. Hazel knew before anyone else that Molly had Mabel, but Clancy is more accepting and more honest towards her. I also found it interesting that Mabel could be recognized and distinguished in family photographs from Molly.  

The Half Life of Molly Pierce is an excellent debut for this author. It is a short, high interest, and well written piece of realistic fiction.

Book Details:
The Half Life of Molly Pierce by Katrina Leno
New York: HarperTeen    2014
234 pp.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dance of the Banished by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch"s Dance of the Banished explores the controversial Armenian genocide which occurred almost 100 years ago in Ottoman Turkey. Repeatedly denied by the government of Turkey over the past century, the 20th century's first large scale genocide took place in the Anatolia region as Turks turned on their Armenian Christian citizens and annihilated them through mass murder and death marches into the desert. Despite Turkey's repeated refusal to acknowledge internationally the Armenian genocide, there is much evidence proving the Young Turk government's mass murder of its Christian population, the destruction of Armenian culture and intelligentsia, including the seizure of property and the desecration of Armenian holy sites.International recognition of the Armenian genocide has been slow and hindered by political interference as Turkey is important geographically to the United States and other NATO countries.

Almost one hundred years later,  the region to the south has experienced yet another violent "cleansing" by a radical Muslim group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which seeks to establish a Sunni caliphate in the area. Armenian and Syrian Christians, Yazidis, and Shi'ite Muslims are the victims of  ethnic cleansing in this modern conflict.

Ali Hassan announces to his beloved Zeynep that he will be traveling to Canada.Hagop Gregorian was to have taken Ali's younger brother, Yousef, with him to Canada but instead will take Ali. The men worked in other countries sending money home for their wives to pay taxes and support their families. Ali promises Zeynep that he will return to marry her, giving her a journal and asking her to use it to record what is happening to her and then mail it to him. He promises to do the same with his journal. But Zeynep will have none of it. She tells Ali she will not wait for him and refuses to be his betrothed.

With this beginning, the novel, divided into eight parts, tells the story of Ali in Canada and Zeynep in Turkey during the years of 1913 until late 1917. Their narratives form the separate parts of the novel beginning with Zeynep in Eyolmez, Anatolia in June of 1913. Still reeling from Ali's departure, Zeynep becomes determined to leave her village. Zeynep is not on good terms with Ali's mother who has complained to the dede about her. Zeynep's cousin, Fatma who is married to Ali's brother Yousef, has a baby girl along with a son named Suleyman. In December of 1913, the Turkish army takes Zeynep's brother, Turabi, along with Riza and Hassan. Early in 1914, Protestant missionaries arrive in Zeynep's village attempting to convert the Alevi Kurds to Christianity. When Zeynep tells the teacher, Miss Anton, who is from Toronto, Canada about wanting to come with her to Harput, Miss Anton flatly refuses because Zeynep will not convert to Christianity.

Zeynep decides to take matters into her own hands and when the missionaries leave for Harput she follows them on foot. She is eventually discovered and welcomed by Reverend John Emmonds and his wife, Lenore. Before arriving in Harput they stop in Mezreh, which is half Armenian and is headquarters for the Ottoman Army, where Zeynep helps them.  In Harput Zeynep finds the Emmonds home to be spacious and is puzzled by the many empty rooms. Zeynep meets Keghani an Armenian girl who lives with the Emmonds and Yester an Armenian woman who comes in to cook for them. Yester's husband, Onnig does various chores for the missionaries.

At first life is good; Zeynep and Keghani work at the hospital and then attend lectures at the college. They are well treated by the Emmonds. From her mother's letter she learns that the Turkish soldiers are raiding the villages and young men are being forced into the army.

By August, 1914, Zeynep hears that Austria, Germany and Serbia are at war with Russia. Since Germany and Turkey are allies it likely means Turkey will enter the war. When Zeynep learns that all men between the ages of twenty and forty-five must enlist or they will be hunted down she worries about Turabi. Quickly the situation escalates out of control. Armenian men trying to avoid the draft are imprisoned, the men are marched up and down the streets and are beaten, soldiers steal from the marketplace, and the women and children begin to starve. By September the soldiers, including the Armenian men and Turkish officers are marched out of  Harput through Zeynep's village of Eyolmez to Erzurum where there is fighting.

A month later, Fatma, Aunt Besse and Suleyman show up in Harput bearing a terrible story. When the Turkish soldiers came to Eyolmez they stole everything from both Armenian and Alevi alike. With the villages in the area all overrun by the Turkish soldiers, the people fled into the mountains. It was there that Fatma's baby died. Fatma tells Zeynep that there were no Armenian soldiers with the Turks, which puzzles her because she knows the Armenian men left with the Turkish army. Fatma also gives Zeynep a letter written to her by Ali.

Ali's narration begins in January of 1915 in Kapuskasing, Ontario.He is a prisoner of war having been sent to northern Ontario because in the eyes of the government he is from Turkey and therefore must be a Turk - an ally of Germany and therefore at war with Canada. This Ali cannot understand because he is an Alevi Kurd, one of the original inhabitants of Anatolia. The Canadians believe that anyone in Turkey who is not Christian must be Muslim.

When Ali first arrived in Canada he worked in the foundry in Brantford. But when the war started, all foreigners were fired and now without work Ali struggles to make ends meet. Both Ali and Yousef are arrested along with many other men, for allegedly trying to blow up the post office. Ali's landlord, Hagop Gregorian tries to reason with the police but he is told that they have orders from the government in Ottawa. First he is sent to Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario and then to the wilderness of Kapuskasing where he is ordered to chop down trees to make bunkhouses for the prisoners.

What follows in alternating parts are the stories of Ali and Zeynep. Ali struggles to cope with the loneliness and hardship of the north and the sometimes brutal treatment by the guards. They are forced to cut down the beautiful huge trees which Ali feels is a terrible wrong.  The terrible conditions leads him to make a rash decision which almost results in severe consequences. Hearing about Turkey's involvement in the war, Ali is desperately worried about what has happened to Zeynep. Will he ever see her again?

Meanwhile, Zeynep can only watch as her country dissolves into the chaos of what eventually becomes the Armenian genocide. First she learns that the Turkish Army has killed all the Armenian men, and then that all Armenians are to be deported. Suspecting that this will be another massacre Zeynep seeks the help of the American Consulate, who encourages her to continue recording what is happening in Harput.  Zeynep cannot understand why the government is killing the Armenians.The Alevi's try to help the few Armenians left but they soon find themselves the focus of the next wave of ethnic cleansing by the Turks. Zeynep's only chance to escape may be through the Dersim Mountains and into Russia.

Dance of the Banished is a beautifully crafted novel, from its gorgeous cover (a painting by Pascal Milelli) inviting readers into its pages, to the well-told story of two lovers separated by distance and war. Using alternating narratives, Skrypuch effectively presents the effects of war in two very different countries. In Harput, we experience the horror of the Armenian genocide through Zeynep's eyes as she struggles to understand what it happening.
People who had lived in this area for thousands of years were being rounded up and killed? I tried to set my emotions aside to make sense of it from the government's point of view. What was their purpose? Did they want all the businesses to grind to a halt and all the shops to close? What about the hospitals? Without the Armenians, who would run them? Killing the Armenians would even harm the Turks, so why were they doing this?"
When the magnitude of the killing becomes apparent to Zeynep she finds it incomprehensible.
"Mr. Davis estimates that a million and a half Armenians have been killed. Is that even possible? Each of those million and half people was a living, breathing human being like you or me."
From Zeynep we learn that the American Consul, Leslie Davis tried to get word out to the world via telegrams and photographs but these never got through. The American Consulate eventually hid hundreds of Armenians, men, women and children. Skrypuch is not overly graphic but she does managed to convey a sense of the brutality and the extent of the genocide through descriptions of the wounded, "the threadbare Armenians marched past be marched in circles in the desert until they die." Especially tragic is Zeynep's encounter in the market

Skrypuch isn't afraid to identify those involved of the massacre when Zeynep sees a group of Turks and Muslim Kurds chanting "Praise be to Allah. Bless us in our efforts to kill the Christians." and she cannot understand the Kurds involvement since they themselves have been persecuted in Turkey.

Through Ali's eyes we see the ignorance of a predominantly British Canada, whose people and government don't understand other cultures who in war time, automatically violate basic human rights. Ali struggles to endure the poor rations, the bitter cold and his loss of freedom. Ali has a chance at freedom when Nadie offers him the opportunity to live with her people. But Ali recognizes that living such a different life has a price; abandoning who he is and failing to stand up for what he believes in.

Many young Canadians will find Ali's experience as a prisoner in Canada disturbing. Ali considered himself someone loyal to Canada, yet solely because of his nationality he was imprisoned and endured hard labour for several years. Unfortunately, this practice continued in the Second World War, as my mother's family experienced.

The author's extensive research on the Armenian genocide is evident in Dance of the Banished. Her development of the setting of the novel is realistic and her characters believable for this time period and for the Alevi culture she portrays so well. The title refers to the semah, a religious ritual dance between Alevi men and women that has a special spiritual significance. With the departure of Ali and the breakdown of society in Harput, and Ali's incarceration neither can perform this dance. When they are reunited, Zeynep and Ali feel whole again and are able to perform the semah.

There are two excellent maps included, on the back of the front and back covers. The first map is of  Anatolia, showing its location relative to Syria and Russia. The map at the back of the novel is of Kapuskasing, Ontario. The map illustrations were done by John Lightfoot and are very well done. My library copy obscured these maps by taping the cover flaps down. Also included are photographs of the Kapuskasing Internment Camp.The author also has an interesting note detailing her research and how she came to write the novel.

Dance of the Banished is an excellent piece of historical fiction and Marsha Forchuk Skyrpuch's best work to date. Definitely a future White Pine Award winner for this increasingly popular and talented Canadian children's author.

Book Details:
Dance of the Banished by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Toronto: Pajama Press        2014
233 pp.

Historical Note:
This map shows the different "provinces" that existed in the Ottoman Empire in 1914.

Map of the Ottoman empire 1914. Source:
In 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian set the stage for Austria declaring war on Serbia. Russia supported Serbia along with Britain and France, a group of countries known as the Allies, while Germany supported Austria in war against Serbia in what came to be known as the Central Powers. The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in November of 1914 despite still recovering from the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 in which it lost many soldiers. Although the Ottoman Empire won several major battles early in the Great War, with the advance of the Russians from the north into Armenia, the Empire initiated the Armenian genocide. Considered the first of the modern genocides in the twentieth century, the Armenian genocide saw the mass murder of male Armenians and the forced march of women and children into the desert where their deaths from starvation were to be hidden from the world. This was done by the Young Turk government, supposedly a progressive government that was to lead the empire into a modern era on the basis of equality. Instead, this government was responsible for the murder of close to 1.5 million Armenians.This "ethnic cleansing" of Christians from Turkey was largely ignored by the world at the time and for decades afterwards. Although many Kurds participated in the massacres, some Kurds such as Zeynep helped their Armenian brothers and sisters.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

My Friend The Enemy by Dan Smith

My Friend The Enemy is a well written piece of historical fiction that captures the reality of war for both soldiers and civilians while showing the humanity of the enemy from a young boy's perspective.

It is a bright sunny summer day in Northumberland, England when twelve year old Peter Dixon hears the air raid sirens go off in his village and hears "the angry buzz of German bombers filling the sky." Out in woods checking his snares, he begins running towards the village where he knows his Mam will be worried about him. Peter turns just in time to see a bomber plummeting towards him in Mr. Bennett's potato field. The explosion of the German plane blows Peter off his feet and just as he begins to black out, he sees a white parachute falling from the sky. Peter's Mam arrives first, then children from the village race over the hill towards the crash site followed by men belonging to the Home Guard. Then the soldiers who had taken over Bennett Hall and the farm soon arrive. Peter is checked out by Dr. Jacobs who finds he has nothing more than a few scratches.

Mr. Bennett who owns the estate and Hawthorne Lodge where Peter and his family live, arrives to survey the damage. Peter doesn't like Mr. Bennett because he seems overly interested in his Mam. Peter's dad is the gamekeeper on the Bennett estate raising pheasants for Mr. Bennett. Both Peter's dad and Mr. Bennett saw action in Dunkirk, but while Mr. Bennett remained at home, Peter's dad was sent over to Africa to fight the Germans. Mr. Bennett convinces Mam to allow Peter to stay and watch the fireman put out the flames from the plane while he escorts her home.

One of the boys from the village, Tom Chambers,  tells the lieutenant that he saw a parachute and this is confirmed by another boy, Alan Parsons as well as Peter. Sergeant Wilkes tells the children that they shouldn't worry because they will soon catch the German airman and they brag about shooting him when they find him.

At the crash site Peter meets someone he's never seen before - a girl dressed in boys clothes. The girl whose name is Kim, is from Newcastle and has been sent into the country to be safe from the German bombing of the city. Kim tells Peter that the German plane is a Heinkel that likely had as many as five airman in it. Kim's brother, Josh, is in the RAF while her father is a doctor at a hospital in Newcastle. Also at the crash site is fifteen year old Trevor Ridley, who enjoys bullying others, particularly Peter. But when he makes suggestive remarks about Peter's mother and Mr. Bennett in front of the other children, Kim stands up to him.

Kim and Peter make plans to return later that night to the crash site to try to locate souvenirs. They meet at 10pm but witness a group of three boys, including Trevor and his buddies being caught and sent home.They do manage to sneak past the guards, to the wreck and retrieve a few souvenirs including a gun. But a bigger discovery awaits them in the woods near the plane. Running into the woods to avoid discovery, Kim and Peter come upon the wounded German airman.

Based on what they have heard the adults say about killing the "Jerry" when they find him, Kim and Peter decide to hide the German airman rather than turn him in. Their decision is based on the belief that if Kim's brother or Peter's father were found by someone overseas they would hope their family member would be helped. They take the German soldier to the shed area where Peter's dad kept the pheasants for Mr. Bennett but instead of hiding him in the shed they find a large, overgrown area where he will be completely hidden.

Both Kim and Peter realize the German airman is young, afraid and injured. The next day they manage to bring him water and a bit of food, but it's obvious he needs his wounds tended to, a change of clothing and some way to relieve himself. Peter tells the German his name and learns the soldier's name is Erik. At the mention of a doctor, the German becomes upset and insists that they do not take him to the doctor. Kim cleans the bad cut on his face, wraps his wounded arm and they bring him what little food they can scavenge from their homes.  Erik thanks Kim for helping him. When they return a day later Kim discovers that Erik's ankle is either broken or badly sprained. Using wood from one of the pheasant cages, they make a splint for him.

The German airman is not anything like the posters up in the village. He is young, sad, weary and most of all, thankful towards Kim and Peter. Meanwhile Trevor Ridley continues to bully Peter and warns him he knows he's up to something.  Eventually, Trevor and his friends confront Peter and Kim in the woods, setting in motion a series of events that have serious consequences for all.

My Friend The Enemy is a very well written novel that explores the concept of enemy and propaganda during wartime. It is common during wars between countries to make assumptions about the people on the opposite side of a conflict. During the First World War, British and American propaganda demonized the German soldier (usually referred to as Huns) and the German people, while the Nazi's immense propaganda machine was used during the Second World War against the Jewish people. In Peter's village the adults repeatedly espouse the view that they must kill the German because he would kill them first.

Throughout My Friend The Enemy, Peter's view of Germans comes to change, despite the fact that his father has been taken away from him to fight overseas as a result of Germany. Meeting a German soldier puts a human face on the enemy for Kim and Peter. Peter recognizes as much.

;"All those Germans we heard about on the wireless were different. They were not men, they were faceless, helmeted and armed, marching across places I knew the names of but had never seen. France, Norway, Africa. They were airplanes dogfighting over the English channel; they were bombers casting a shadow over our cities. They were the enemy.
Our German was different. He was a real person. He was here, he had a face, and he was in trouble."

Even after a few visits to the injured German soldier, Peter begins to have trouble reconciling the pictures on the war posters of Germans with the young German soldier before him.

"On some of the posters, the Germans looked like they had no faces, just half-closed eyes looking at us from the shadow beneath their helmets. Or they were dark monsters, sighting along the barrels of their rifles. On one of them, the enemy was a mustached cross between Hitler and the devil -- his red face topped with horns that stuck out from his side-parted black hair. But as I watched him drink, I realized the man we'd brought into my secret place wouldn't have stood out if he'd been waiting in the queue at the grocer's."

Kim expresses what Peter is thinking when she says, "He's not much of a German, is he?"..."You've seen the posters. They always look different. Like their monsters or somethin'." They both agree that their German looks nothing like the posters, more like them and not different at all. And looking at him reminds Kim of her brother, Josh, and Peter of his da'. Now that they can put a face to the enemy, a young man who is scared, has a name and a family, Peter and Kim have a hard time believing what the adults around them are saying. Even though they are told by adults if they find the German they must turn him in, Peter and his friend display the moral courage not to when they believe that he will be killed.

Smith does a brilliant job of seamlessly incorporating facts about daily life in the English countryside during World War II and portraying the effects of war on Peter and his family and those around them. There is the loss of his da' at a time when a young boy needs him most, the privation of not having enough to eat or the basic necessities of life and of course the terror of being bombed.

My Friend The Enemy succeeds as historical fiction because the author establishes a realistic setting in north east England and populates his story with historically accurate characters and situations. While the major focus in Peter's life at this time is the German soldier, life during wartime goes on. Peter has to deal with the village bully, forms a new friendship with a girl that turns out to last a lifetime, and he has to deal with what appears to be a blossoming friendship between his mother and Mr. Bennett, leaving Peter feeling like she is possibly being unfaithful to his dad.

The novel has a wonderful epilogue which tells what happened to Peter and his mother, to Kim and also to Erik who writes a letter to Peter at the end detailing his life and thanking him for befriending him.The cover is quite well done although I actually like this cover better. A map showing Peter's location within England and relative to Norway and Germany would have been welcome. Overall a truly appealing novel on many levels.

This novel is highly recommended for young readers interested in World War II history and for those looking for a novel with a male point of view. I look forward to reading and reviewing another of Dan Smith's novels, My Brother's Secret. You can visit Dan at his website Dan Smith

Book Details:
My Friend The Enemy by Dan Smith
New York: Chicken House, an imprint of Scholastic    2014
279 pp.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Fourth Wish by Lindsay Ribar

Margo McKenna is now one of only two genies in the world, besides her crush, Oliver Parish. After making a fourth wish that saved Oliver, but killed Xavier by setting him free, Margo is struggling to adjust to life as a genie with unimaginable powers. But those powers come at a price especially when the person who is in possession of your "vessel" is the creepy boy you don't like.

When Margo first becomes a genie she reappears as Amber, a tall, curvy blonde, at a party Ryan Weiss is attending. Ryan holds Margo's vessel which is a red guitar pick.  The first of his wishes is that Margo's best friend, Naomi Sloane fall in love with him. This horrifies Margo because she knows for a fact that Naomi dislikes Ryan even more than she does. Margo is forced to grant Ryan his wish and Naomi appears to be attracted to him. The next day Ryan tells Margo that he and Naomi spent the night together. He tells her that he will be more careful about his last two wishes which he wants to be really good.

Walking home Margo meets up with a girl named Gwen who is really Oliver who she learns has taken this body for his new master. Oliver fills Margo in on what happened after the fourth wish took effect - that they spent time in the gray world called the Between. Oliver tells her he will teach her about the magic so she can function as a genie. He shows her how to move through space and time quickly and how to change herself back into Margo. Oliver tells her that the magic makes her look like someone her new master will be attracted to and trust. She can go back to her original body and she will eventually learn how to stay for long periods of time in that body if she needs to.

Oliver had thought that he and Margo would run away to be together but Margo tells him taht she even though she became a genie she had no intentions of giving up her human life; she has a family and wants to go to college. Margo has trouble retaining her shape as herself and eventually has to reveal her situation to Simon Lee, the only human person who saw what happened in the Jackson High auditorium and his girlfriend, Vicky Willoughbee. She also tells Naomi what has happened to her and that she is now a genie.

When Oliver and Margo talk again Margo tells Oliver how Ryan is telling everyone what happened between him and Naomi and that he also seems quite knowledgeable about genies. Oliver tells her  about an online forum on genies and when he signs onto the board using his really identity of Ciaran Kelly they find that he's been fishing for information on this forum.

The next time Ryan "calls" Margo he is with a dark-skinned man in dreadlocks whom Ryan announces will be her next master. Margo is shocked to learn that Ryan is intending upon selling her to this man, whose name is James. James backs out of the sale when Margo as Amber tells Ryan he can't sell her because she's a person.

Meanwhile Margo begins to learn about her magic and life as a genie.

The Fourth Wish is a strange novel that tries to tackle a lot of issues within the confines of a paranormal romance. In this novel, Margo is attempting to come to terms with the fallout of becoming a genie at the end of The Art of Wishing. This was an impulsive action on her part, to save Oliver's life without fully understanding the consequences of her action. The major consequence which she gradually comes to recognize in The Fourth Wish, is that she can't live her human life while being a genie because being a genie means being bound to someone else and essentially losing some of one's free will. "But I also can't do this double-life thing anymore," I continued. "I can't walk around pretending to be normal when I'm constantly making an effort to look like myself, constantly wondering if my master's going to call me, and all that."  Margo feels like she is leading a double life and she struggles to maintain her identity both physically and psychologically, as a high school senior intent upon attending NYU next year. Becoming a genie begins to change her in ways that her friend Naomi recognizes as harmful. When Margo calls forth money and later when she "adjusts" herself to be smarter at math, she begins to realize that there is a level of dishonesty about these "adjustments" that she is not prepared to accept. Eventually, Margo gets around this in the end by making Oliver her master knowing that he will not use the wishes and she can carry on with her life for the most part.

Two other themes in this novel involve the body and are connected; the first involving gender identity and the second idea that a genie is simply supposed to adapt to having his or her body used. The author spends a great deal of time in the book focusing on one of the rules of a genie and how this affects them - a genie's body is made to look like someone his/her master will be attracted to and trust. This means that if a genie's gender is female and her master wants a male genie she will be male. So Margo learns that Oliver has been both male and female and in this novel he has the identity of Gwen which is confusing to Margo and leads her to question who he is, who she is and how this will affect her. Oliver eventually tells her that she will get used to the idea of being either gender but to Margo being a man when she is decidedly female feels like "wearing a costume".  The idea of a genie being able to take on a different gender like changing one's hair colour came up repeatedly throughout the story weakening the storyline and stunting the overall development of the main characters.  It seemed at time that the author's purpose was to make her point that gender is fluid, using Oliver, the intelligent, bisexual genie, as her mouthpiece.

While Margo seems to accept that Oliver can take on different genders, she has more trouble accepting his promiscuous past as either a male or female and the apparent loss of free will genies encountered with various masters, especially when it led to manipulation and sexual assault. Oliver seemed to suggest that genies simply had to accept this as part of their fate and that Margo needed to learn how to adjust herself to cope instead of actively trying to stop the abuse.  This comes up when Ryan Weiss decides to turn a wish against Margo and force her to sleep with him. When she tells Oliver about what happened he seems to imply that she can control this by manipulating the other person rather than getting them to actually stop their behaviour.

By the end of the novel, Margo begins to realize that being a genie is not really all it's made out to be. She's followed Oliver into his world, only to realize that give up one's free will can lead to manipulation and abuse.

Overall The Fourth Wish will appeal to those who enjoy fantasy and paranormal but they may find there is not enough substance to hold their interest through the middle of the novel. Readers will find themselves questioning the trade-off Margo made for love.

Book Details:
The Fourth Wish by Lindsay Ribar
New York: Kathy Dawson Books      2014
358 pp.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fireflies in the Dark by Susan Goldman Rubin

Fireflies in the Dark tells the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an artist and a teacher who worked with children using art. When Hitler came to power and set up a dictatorship, he began to implement many policies to rid Germany of its Jewish population. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Friedl lived in Prague at this time. Concerned for her well being, given the Nazi policies towards Jews, friends had arranged for Friedl to emigrate to Palestine, the new Jewish state, but she refused to leave her friends. Eventually, Friedl, like most of the Jews in Czechoslovakia, was sent to a concentration camp in 1942. Friedl, her husband Pavel Brandeis were sent to a camp called Terezin or better known as Theresiendstadt.

When Friedl was packing to leave for Terezin she took many art supplies including paint, brushes and paper. Her motivation for doing so were the children that she knew would be in the camp. Friedl felt that art would be able to help many of the children in the camp. Friedl and her husband along with all the Jewish population of her town and many others had to lug their suitcases almost two miles into Terezin which was once a Czech army fortress. All of the town's non Jewish inhabitants were ordered to leave and it was turned into a camp.

At the camp the Nazi guards took away anything of value that the Jewish people had brought with them but Friedl's art supplies were left untouched. Families were separated so Friedl lived in a separate barrack from Pavel. She was sent to live with the children in a "home" called L410 which was for girls. Conditions in L410 were terrible as it was cramped and cold. Friedl managed to create a small area away from the packed barrack that allowed children some space.

In the camp, Friedl and other adults taught the children in secret as they were not allowed to attend school but only to study music and crafts. Friedl's effort in this was to give art lessons to any child who wished to learn. It was through art that Friedl helped the children to express what they were feeling, to escape the horrific situation they had been placed into and to retain some dignity during a time when hope was lost. People including the children did not receive enough food, had to cope with bedbugs and lice, and were often sick. In addition was the ever present fear of being named to the transports which meant being sent east to a death camp.

In 1943 Friedl and the other tutors at Terezin had the children put on a production of a Czech fairy tale called Fireflies.  With Friedl's help they created the costumes for the musical. On October 6, 1944, Friedl along with thirty of her students was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau were she was murdered.

At the end of the war when Terezin was liberated by the Russians, two suitcases containing five thousand children's drawings were found in the attic of L410. The suitcases were brought to Prague by Willi Groag who had been the head tutor at L410. Nothing was done about them until ten years after their discovery when they were finally exhibited. Today these drawings are now catalogued and preserved. Both the Jewish Museum in Prague and Beit Theresienstadt in Israel retain the drawings.

Fireflies in the Dark captures the essence of Friedl's work with the children of Terezin as well as their experience in the concentration camp, with the many reproductions of their artwork. For example, A Train Travelling Through a Night Landscape by Alice Guttamanova who died in September, 1943 effectively portrays "a train hurtling the night, carrying the prisoners into the unknown." with its dark bold lines amid a full moon. Other paintings such as Flowers and Butterflies by Margit Koretzova display beautiful colours that suggest an escape to a happier more peaceful realm.

The author, Susan Goldman Rubin was able to meet some of the survivors of Terezin including Eva Stichova-Beldova, Helga Weissova-Hoskova, Kurt Jiri Kotouc and Doris Grozdanovicova. She also had access to the unpublished diaries written by some of the prisoners. All of this plus the help of numerous others contributed to a book which passes on the story of the children of Terezin to a new generation of young people.

Book Details:
Fireflies in the Dark by Susan Goldman Rubin
New York: Holiday House     2000
48 pp.