Monday, September 28, 2015

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose

The little known story of the beginning of the Danish resistance as told in The Boys Who Challenged Hitler almost never got told. As Hoose relates in his introduction, while on tour in Denmark in 2000, he visited the Museum of Danish Resistance in Copenhagen and came across a special exhibit called the "Churchill Club". This group was started by a group of Danish teens during World War II to resist the Nazi occupation of their country. Unlike neighbouring Norway, the Danish settled quickly into an uneasy relationship with their German occupiers and these teenage boys were shocked and ashamed that their countrymen would be so willing to work with the Germans.

Hoose was encouraged to contact one of the original members, Knud Pedersen, now an elderly man, by the museum's curator. However, when Hoose reached out to Pedersen, he indicated to Hoose that he was unable to work with him due to prior obligations with another American writer. In September 2012, Hoose reconnected with Pedersen after discovering his old file on the Churchill Club. This time Pedersen was interested, as the previously planned book was never written. So in October 2012, Hoose and his wife flew to Denmark where they stayed with the Pedersens. Hoose spent a week interviewing Peterson and the two sent hundreds of emails to one another in the following months as Hoose wrote. However, at Christmas 2013, Knud Pedersen became seriously ill with pneumonia and almost died. In December, 2014, just prior to the publication of The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, Knud Pedersen passed away. The Boys Who Challenged Hitler tells the remarkable story of a group of Danish teens determined to undermine the Nazis in Denmark and awaken their countrymen's courage to stand up to Hitler.

The story begins with the lightning occupation of Denmark on April 9, 1940 by Nazi Germany under the guise of placing Denmark as a "protectorate" of Germany. Fourteen year old Knud Pedersen's family was living in Odense, Denmark's third largest city. The Pedersen family consisted of Reverend Edvard Pedersen, his mother Margrethe, his older brother Jens and his younger siblings, Gertrud, Jorgen and Holger. Denmark was not the only country invaded in early April. The Nazi's also invaded Norway with one significant difference; the Norwegians valiantly fought back, while Denmark quietly and quickly conceded to the German army. Hitler needed all of Scandinavia; Denmark provided a route to transport the iron ore needed in the manufacture of weapons from Sweden (which was neutral) and Norway.

The Churchill Club in front of Holy Ghost Monastery.
Interested in drawing and painting, Knud never paid much attention to politics or the war going on in Europe. From the newspapers Knud and his brother Jens learned of the resistance put up by the Norwegians and the high price they paid for that resistance. Furious and ashamed of his countrymen, Knud and Jens decided that "if the adults would not act, we would."

While Jens wanted to wait until they recruited more people, Knud wanted to act. They formed their group which they decided to call the RAF Club with their cousin Hans Joergen Andersen and their friends harald Holm and Knud Hedelund. Having no weapons or training in the use of them, the boys were limited to disrupting the Germans by cutting telephone lines, destroying signs. The Germans were furious and told the Danish police to find the culprits or they would take over the police force in Odense.

In 1941, Knud's father, Edvard Pedersen moved to Aalborg, Denmark's fourth largest city to accept the pastorship of a new parish. Aalborg was highly prized by the Germans because of its airport which was used by German planes to refuel before traveling on to Norway. The German war machine required the iron-ore from Sweden and controlling Norway allowed them to transport this valuable resource to Germany.  The Pedersen family lived in a very small part of Holy Ghost Monastery. Knud and Jens lived on the second floor and were enrolled in the college prep school, Cathedral School. The school had many pro-Nazi students and faculty so they had to learn who to trust.

Eventually Knud was able to recruit Helge Mil and Eigil Astrup-Frederiksen. Before Christmas, Knud, Jens, Eigil, Helge and two more potential recruits, Mogens Thomsen and Mogens Fjellerup along with two of Jen's classmates, Sigurd and Preben Ollendorf had an intense discussion about the occupation of their country. They decided to act. "We will act. We will behave as Norwegians. We will clean the mud off the Danish flag." Sigurd and Preben decided against getting involved but the others remained committed and named their group,the Churchill Club after Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

They divided themselves into three groups that would look after propaganda, technical and sabotage. The propaganda department painted blue versions of the Nazi swastika with "arrows shooting out of the top of each arm, like thunderbolts" on German cars, barracks and headquarters as well as those stores, homes and offices which were owned by Danish Nazi sympathizers. The technical group was to produce bombs and was headed by Mogens Fjellerup who was nicknamed "the Professor" because he was a brilliant physics student who had been given the keys to the physics lab. The sabotage department was to focus on destroying German property and steal weapons. Knud, being a man of action, was most interested in sabotage.  A fourth group, which was unable or unwilling to actively participate in the club, provided other kinds of assistance such as providing money or materials. All members "had to commit a serious act of sabotage such as stealing a German weapon." and no adults were to be told about the group.

The Churchill Club would meet in Jen's room and then ride around Aalborg to scout out potential targets. Those targets were hit during the daytime since security was less stringent and they all had curfews. Many Germans enjoyed their life in Denmark, partaking of the culture while many Danish collaborated with them producing weapons and parts for the war. However, many Danish began to show patriotism by singing Danish folk songs and wearing special pins called "Kings Badges".

The Churchill Club began by vandalizing directional signs in Aalborg and painting their blue altered swastikas all over the city. They attempted to set an office in the Fuchs Construction Company, a major collaborator with the Nazis, on fire. The next focus of the club was to set German vehicles on fire and to steal German weapons. They managed to steal a pistol from a German car and rifle from the bedroom of a German soldier. The acquiring of these weapons now forced the Churchill Club to decide what they would do with the weapons; would they continue to destroy German assets or would their focus be on armed resistance? If the latter, that meant they would have to train themselves.

The Germans by now were well aware that someone was actively determined to destroy their assets in Aalborg and they were determined to stop whoever was responsible. Eigil's sister worked as a secretary for the Aalborg police and she informed the Churchill Club members that the German's had brought in two investigators to determine who was involved. She pleaded with them to lie low but Knud was not interested in doing so. Their next hit, on the Aalborg railroads would be so successful that Knud and the Churchill Club would be in the sights of the Nazi investigators. The teenagers would be no match for the brutal Nazis determined to end the beginnings of Danish resistance. Little did they know that the Churchill Club was just the impetus the Danish people needed.


Discussion

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler tells the story of the Churchill Club primarily through the narration of Knud Pedersen, while writer Phillip Hoose sets the stage for the narratives by providing some of the background details. The story, little known outside of Denmark and certainly not well known to younger generations of Canadians, is an important part of the history of World War II and the global resistance to Nazism. Hoose not only focuses on the events during the war but also provides readers with information on what became of the members of the Churchill Club. What is apparent is that the members of the Churchill Club were forever changed by what happened to them during the war. Knud found Denmark had changed drastically in the two years he had been locked up in jail. The resistance was now intense, resulting in Germany identifying Denmark as "enemy territory." "Aalborg had become a hotbed of resistance. Residential gardens bulged with buried guns, smuggled from abroad, tooled at home, or stolen from the Germans. Underground newspapers, at last telling the truth about the war, flew from small, mobile, concealed presses. Massive labor strikes challenged German authority." Knud's family had changed too; his father haboured resisters and raged against the Nazi's from the pulpit. Knud found himself lonely and struggling to reintegrate into what was left of Danish society. He managed to become involved in the organized resistance and did so until the end of the war in 1945.

Despite their hatred of the Germans, Knud and his fellow resisters had a code that they operated according to. While planning to damage the German cars that sat every day outside Knud's bedroom window, one of the members suggested that if the German guard realized what was happening, they would hit him from behind with a pipe. However, other members objected to hitting a man, even a German soldier, from behind considering to do so was an act of cowardice. This was the first time the Churchill Club were forced to confront some hard questions. It was easy for Knud and his brother and the other boys to decide that they would form some kind of resistance group. According to Knud when they formed the group they had "all vowed that we could, and would, kill." But actually acting on this proved to much more difficult. As Knud points out in his narrative, they were middle-class boys who came from regular families and had no military training that would have prepared them to behave as soldiers who are trained to kill.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler is filled with photographs of the Churchill Club, the occupying Germans in Denmark, Holy Ghost Monastery, and many other relevant people and places. Hoose has included maps, and epilogue, a bibliography, notes on supplemental information used in the book and an index.

Well written in a style that is readable and engaging, readers will feel that they have come to know Knud Pedersen personally. The sadness and confusion he felt when his beloved country was occupied and his determination to resist the Nazis comes through in his narrative, more than seventy years later.

Book Details:

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux        2015
198 pp.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Part II: The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

Part Three: The Storm Breaks

Part Three focuses on the events leading up to the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in 1917 and beginnings of the Russian Revolution. The period from 1914 until March 1917 was characterized by the gradual economic collapse of Russia, the inability of Nicholas to govern Russia and to understand the effect war would have on his country, the increasing influence of Rasputin on Alexandra and therefore on Nicholas, and the disintegration of loyalty to Nicholas II by the Russian people.

In 1914, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were murdered by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. Forty million non-German and Hungarian ethnic groups made up a significant part of the empire and each wanted their own state including Serbia. The murder destabilized all of Europe because of a complex set of defense agreements. Austria-Hungary was determined to punish Serbia by declaring war on the region. War on Serbia meant Russia entered the war on Serbia's side, and this also brought in France which had a treaty with Russia, as well as England which had a treaty with France. On Austria-Hungary's side was Germany which declared war on Russia. This led Tsar Nicholas II of Russia to reluctantly declare war on Germany (which was ruled by his cousin!)Like other nations, the people of Russia believed the war would last no more than six months. With the crops ready to harvest, thousands of peasants answered their tsar's call to war.

Despite Russia suffering heavy losses to the Germans, the war stalled with neither Russia nor the German or Austrian armies gaining new ground. Nicholas had no idea how ill prepared Russia was for war. Believing the war would be over quickly, no plans were made to manufacture guns or ammunition. Not only that but troops lacked such basic supplies like winter clothing and boots.

By May1915, the war was a colossal disaster for Russia; they not only lost the ground gained early in the war, but also all of Russian Poland. Soldiers who weren't killed deserted. The people turned against anything and anyone German, including the German empress, Alexandra.

Lacking any military experience and against the advice of his ministers, Nicholas decided to take command of the Russian army. He left the day to day governing of Russia to Alexandra - and Rasputin. As expected, nothing changed for Russia: men continued to die at the front, troops were poorly outfitted and there were food shortages and strikes at home. From 1915 to 1916, Rasputin controlled the government through Alexandra. Those government ministers who stood in Rasputin's way of leading a debauched lifestyle, were replaced at the suggest of the starets. The result was a weak and ineffective government made up of incompetent, indecisive men. One man, Prince Felix Yusupov decided to take matters into his own hands. Yusupov along with Vladimir Purishkevich, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and Dr. Stanislaw Lazovert, formulated a plan that resulted in the murder of Rasputin. The Russian people rejoiced when they learned of his death, but Alexandra and the grand duchesses were horrified.

By January 1917, food shortages were common, prices soared and thousands were unemployed. Nicholas was incapable of acting, instead continuing to allow Alexandra to run the country. The tsar's cousin, Sandro (Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich) attempted unsuccessfully to advise both Nicholas and Alexandra to replace the ministers appointed on the advice of Rasputin and to allow Nicholas to rule without Alexandra's interference. Both were rejected outright and Nicholas ordered his own troops to quell the revolt. At first they obeyed but then took the side of the people. On March 12 the citizens and soldiers seized the Fortress, freed prisoners, looted shops and burned police stations and government buildings. Duma president, Rodzianko telegramed Nicholas begging him to save Russia. Nicholas did not bother to read it. The government ministers unable to make Nicholas understand what was happened walked away. Alexander Kerensky convinced the Duma to become the head of government and set up a Provisional Government. Their goal was to set up a democratic government. At the same time, the workers and soldiers set up a Petrograd Soviet which also included railway workers and bankers. The two organizations decided to work together. Nicholas was unaware that he was no longer the leader of Russia.

Alexandra was warned to leave Tsarskoe Selo with the children by Rodzianko, but three of them, Olga, Tatiana and Alexei were too sick with measles to be moved. At first the empress and her family were protected by a battalion but by March 15 these soldiers deserted them, along with many of the palace's staff.

Nicholas meanwhile was delayed in returning to Tsarskoe Selo because his train was repeatedly diverted as the revolutionaries continued to block the tracks. When Nicholas learned of the desertion of the palace soldiers he decided to give the people what they wanted. However, Rodzianko informed the tsar his offer was no too little too late. He then decided to abdicate, first in favour of his son Alexei and then in favour of his brother Grand Duke Michael. However, the people were furious when they learned of this development forcing Michael to abdicate when his safety could not be guaranteed. Three hundred years of Romanov rule had come to an end.


Part Four: Final Days

This section details the revolution's spiral into anarchy and communism and focuses on the fate of Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

Nicholas finally returned to Tsarskoe Selo. Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia on April 16, 1917. Lenin immediately set to work to try to overthrow the Provisional Government. The Petrograd Soviet were not yet onside. He was not in favour of a republic nor a democracy. The Provisional Government was ineffective and it refused to withdraw from the war with Germany after promising the people, Russia would act only to defend itself. This deceit angered the people.

Meanwhile the Provisional Government had to decide what to do with the Romanovs. King George V refused to take the family because of pressure from Britons who saw Empress Alexandra as a German and therefore an enemy. Kerensky decided to move the family, in a train disguised as a Japanese Red Cross train, to Tobolsk, Siberia. There they stayed in the mansion of the governor and were still treated with respect by the citizens of Tobolsk.

By October, 1917, a second revolution took place - the Provisional Government surrendered quietly and the soviets came to power. Lenin brought huge changes to Russia - private ownership of land became illegal, estates were confiscated and the land divided up and given to peasants, private homes were seized and the contents taken, banks nationalized, private industries and manufacturing was nationalized,  and all property of the Russian Orthodox Church was seized. Not everyone liked Lenin and former soldiers, nobles, and tsarist officers formed the White Movement. The army formed by these men was joined by those who had lost their property and members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Their intent was to take back Russia, make it a democracy and rescue the tsar.

With formation of the White Army, Lenin and the other soviets feared the possibility that Nicholas would reclaim his throne. This could not be allowed to happen so Lenin sent Vasily Yakovlev to move Nicholas and his family. Because Alexei was ill, Nicholas, accompanied by Alexandra and Marie were taken to Ekaterinburg to a house which the soviets named, "the House of Special Purpose". Three weeks later the three grand duchesses and Alexei arrived to find their parents living in five rooms with white washed walls. Their imprisonment was overseen by Commandant Alexander Avdeev, a staunch Bolshevik. The many young and inexperienced soldiers guarding the royal family developed a sort of friendly relationship with the grand duchesses. But when the Bolshevik authorities discovered this they called in Yakov Yurovsky, who hated the royal family. Yurovsky replaced the young soldiers with battle-hardened ones who were fully committed to the revolution.

With the approach of the White Army, the Bolsheviks knew that Ekaterinburg would likely fall and the Romanovs would be rescued. The only solution was to execute the entire family. Lenin opposed this; he believed the tsar should be put on trial for his crimes and would likely be executed but he was not willing to murder Alexandra and the children. However, officials in Ekaterinburg felt very differently. Yurovsky began to plan for the execution of the Romanovs.

Church of All Saints
built on the site where
the Romanovs were executed.
Whether or not Lenin finally authorized the execution is not known. In the early morning hours of July 17, 1918, the entire Romanov family was executed in the basement of Ipatiev House - the house with a special purpose. When the White Army captured Ekaterinburg, they did not find the royal family. Instead they found an empty house and in the basement, a room with many bullet holes and traces of blood. The Bolshevik officials in Ekaterinburg publicly admitted to executing Nicholas but not the rest of the royal family.

Fleming details the immediate events after the execution of the Romanovs and briefly describes the end of Lenin's rule and the seizing of power by the brutal Joseph Stalin in the decades afterwards. Also detailed is the forensic investigation into the deaths of the family, the recovery of their remains and the bestowing of sainthood on the family. Fleming also discusses the Orthodox Russian church's investigation as to whether the murder of the Romanov family could be considered martyrdom.

Discussion

The Family Romanov is incredibly interesting and a must-read for those interested in history and in Russia. Fleming wanted "to discover the true story of what happened to Russia's last imperial family...I needed to find the answers to the question that kept nagging me: How did this happen? How did this rich, splendidly privileged, and, yes, beautiful family related by blood or marriage to almost every royal house in Europe end up in that Siberian cellar? Something had gone terribly wrong. But what? What forces were at work? What personalities? And was there really nothing Nicholas or Alexandra could have done to change their fate?"


As Fleming notes, The Family Romanov is book that tells three stories: "The first is an intimate look at the Romanovs...The second follows the sweep of revolution from the workers' strikes of 1905 to Lenin's rise to power in November 1917. And the third...is the personal stories of the men and women whose struggle for a better life directly affected the course of the Romanov's lives."

That Fleming has done an enormous amount of detailed research is abundantly apparent. Even more apparent is that she has distilled that information down to a readable, engaging book for young adults and adults alike, while providing a sense of life in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Fleming succeeds in realistically portraying the Romanov family, presenting their good qualities as well as their weaknesses, separating myth from fact. This is especially apparent with Tsar Nicholas II, a man who probably should never have succeeded his father to the throne. The story is a terrible tragedy especially brought home by the photograph of the skeletal remains of the family.

The Family Romanov includes an extensive bibliography, notes and suggestions for online resources that are worth noting. Worth looking into is the Alexander Palace Time Machine website.

Book Details:

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming
New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books     2014
292 pp.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Adrift by Paul Griffin

Adrift is an intense psychological thriller about a group of five teens adrift in the Atlantic Ocean for fifteen days. Griffin's portrayal of their attempts to survive is both gritty and realistic and doesn't have a happily-ever-after ending.

Seventeen year old Matthew Holloway and his best friend, John Costello, had jobs at Heron Hills state park at Montauk, Long Island.  Matthew's dream was to attend Yale studying forestry and become a ranger in Utah or Alaska while his friend wanted to be an electrician. While Matthew fixed boardwalks and lifeguard chairs, John worked as a mechanic in the park's maintenance shop.

Matt and John grew up in Woodhull a working class suburb but attended different high schools. On Sundays, the two make extra money by purchasing soda and ice cream treats and selling them to tourists on the beach. Matt let his parents know everything is going well as they head out on the beach. Pushed out of their usual territory the two head over to Sully's Inn and it's private beach. There they meet three wealthy sunbathers, Driana Gonzaga from New York and Estefania (Stef) and Joao (Jojo) Martins from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Driana invites Matt to a party at her house on Tuesday evening.

On Tuesday evening despite John's reluctance, Matt and John both attend Driana's party at her parents beautiful villa. During a walk on the beach Driana tells Matt that she is taking a year off after having graduated from the very expensive Blessed Heart High School and will be working at animal control. Driana loves animals and wants to be a vet. Matt finds himself attracted to her; "She was the rarest of kids my age: comfortable in her own skin. At ease with her money but not afraid to make fun of herself for it. Being around that balance of confidence and humility lit me up. She was plain cool. She was perfect."

As John and Matt are leaving, Driana asks if anyone has seen Stef. They find her phone and jeans on the stairs leading to the beach and realize that she's gone wind surfing. It is night and the moon is out when they barely spot Stef, riding the wind out to sea. Against the objections of John, Jojo decides to take out a fiberglass boat to retrieve her. Dri and Jojo get into the boat but John attempts to convince Matt that this is a terrible idea. There's no light on the boat and no radio and it's not made for the strong windy conditions they are experiencing. Matt is determined to go because of Dri and John reluctantly follows him into the boat.

They reach Stef just as her sail goes down and see that she is being circled by a large dolphin. Just before getting into the boat, Stef attempts to hug the dolphin who bucks its tail into the Windsurfer, breaking her arm. Dri and Matt dive into the water and get her into the boat. Stef is unconscious and bleeding from the head and her arm has suffered a compound fracture below the elbow. Matt manages to revive her but the artery in her arm is bleeding out fast. He ties a tourniquet made from an old towel around her arm, staunching the blood, but Matt knows she will lose the arm if they don't get back to land soon.

Now out of cell phone range and unable to contact parents or the coast guard, they try to use the engine to get back to shore but it is out of gas. Matt retrieves the surfboard and they lash Stef to the board to prevent her from moving when she awakens. Matt knows she will be in tremendous pain from her broken arm and she also has a concussion. Meanwhile John sets to taking apart the engine in the hopes of repairing it.  He succeeds but tells them they do not have enough gas to get back to shore and that they need to save it. All four teens realize that it might be at least a day or more before anyone determine that they are missing and they won't know where they have gone.

The two remaining Brazilian teens are horrified at John's seemingly cold view of Stef prospects of surviving if they do not get to shore soon. John blames Stef for her stupid choice to go windsurfing at night, while Dri tries to defend her cousin whom she says has had a hard life. As Stef's condition continues to deteriorate, the other four teens keep a look-out with binoculars for passing ships.

The next day is brilliantly sunny and hot, so hot that everyone suffers from sunburn. Dri successfully rigs up a makeshift distiller to extract drinking water from the sea water. They see a sailboat and a speed boat but are unable to make contact. Stef's arm continues to worsen, although she becomes lucid for a time. During the first day Dri presses Matt about the bullet scars on his left shoulder. Jojo thanks Matt for saving Stef's life and notes how steady John is in a crisis.

It is at this point that the police begin to look into the disappearance of Matt and John because Matt's friend car which he borrowed, has not been returned. When the group wakes up on the second day they find that Stef has died. While Dri is dazed, Jojo is deeply upset at his girlfriend's death. Matt cannot seem to feel anything while John appears unaffected. After collecting water from a heavy downpour and also drinking as much as they can, Matt and Dri slip into the water beside the boat to cool off in the afternoon heat. Matt tells Dri how he came to have the bullet wounds in his back.

Having traced the car to the home of Rafael Gonzaga, police continue to look into both Matt and John. They now consider this a missing person case that includes Driana and Estefania as well as Jojo and begin searching the beach. On the boat the four remaining teens have wrapped Stef's body in the windsurfing sail. However, now they are plagued by flies which swarm around the body and bite the survivors. Jojo is covered in bites because he refuses to leave Stef's body or to place it into the sea. Eventually Dri convinces him to let her go and they place Stef on the windsurfer board and push her out onto the ocean.

By day five, John is working on creating a primitive harpoon in the hopes they can spear fish. Jojo's fly bites are not healing mainly because he can't stop picking at them. Jojo eventually reveals to Matt that he not only takes medication for his dermatitis but also mood stabilizers. By day seven Matt senses that a bad feeling has come into the boat. "It wasn't exactly anger. A menace, maybe. I didn't think Jojo was causing it, but he was picking up on it." John tells Matt that things will change in the boat if they do not find food soon. When Matt questions him, John tells him that the desire to survive can make a person do terrible things. "No food and the drive to survive can make a person do things he never thought he'd be able to do, especially when he's losing his mind. I'm telling you Matt, watch your back. Dri's too." John is warning Matt that Jojo is becoming increasingly unstable and may become dangerous. Just how much longer the four can hold out without food and almost no water is questionable. Even worse is the possibility of dangers they may face in the coming days; sharks, severe storms, dehydration and that one of them may become so dangerous that the unthinkable might need to be considered? Can they hold out until help arrives?

Discussion

Adrift uses the lifeboat trope in which a group of people, in this case, five teens, adrift in a boat with little hope of immediate rescue, find their situation so dire that they begin to consider killing one of them to save the others. In this novel, Jojo is becoming increasingly angry and erratic. Trapped in a boat adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, Jojo finds himself suddenly off his medications and having to cope not only with the life threatening physical conditions but also with the loss of his beloved girlfriend. As Jojo becomes unstable, John, Matt and Dri begin to argue over what to do with him. While Dri tries to support Jojo emotionally, John, who is practical, considers the possibility that they may have to kill him before he attacks one of them. When the realize that the land they drove the boat towards is merely an island of plastic, Matt states that this is when Jojo begins to act mean. John tries to be cautious about whether or not they should eat the rotted fish they find, but Jojo will not have John telling him what to do. Jojo tells him, "Watch yourself, John. You're making me angry." Later on as the sore on his leg is worsening, Jojo begins to lose hope. "Hope is so very draining. It's a bore, actually." He becomes morbid when Matt asks him about his medications telling him that he doesn't believe him being happy is the natural way things should be. "I think this, here, right now, the way I'm feeling: This is the true me. And I am so very angry. I don't even have the courage to kill myself. Who would build such a world? Tell me. A world where tests like this are commonplace?"

When John suggests that they be "proactive" rather than wait for Jojo to hit one of them with the hammer, Matt argues that his wounds will eventually kill him. But John counters, "Then if he's dead anyway, why not put him out of his misery?" Dri argues that Jojo is not himself and she challenges John about how he is viewing Jojo and their situation.
"I know where I am," she said. "I know exactly. And I'm not so lost that I don't know what I am too."
"And what's that?"
"Still human."
When Dri sticks up for Jojo, John maintains that their difficult situation now has stripped away the veneer to reveal the real people they are. "Why did those dudes shoot into my father's van? He's built that way. At heart, that's who he is. Sure, he's everybody's pal when things are easy, but turn up the heat a little, and now you're seeing the real Jojo." John tells Dri she doesn't know the real Jojo, only the medicated version of him.
Dri tells John that if they do murder Jojo it is something they will live with for the rest of their lives if they survive. "I'm scared of what I become if I murder somebody,"

John is correct in that the experience does reveal the strengths and weakness of each of the characters; John is a quiet effective leader ready to do whatever is necessary to survive, Matt with his knowledge of first aid is a protector and caring person, while Dri is motivated by doing what is right no matter what the circumstances.

Underlying the main story is a second story involving John, Matt and the murder of John's father.. Bit by bit, during the time in the boat, the horrific story is revealed. This event is the main motive for John following Matt into the boat - John believes he owes Matt for saving his life.

Not unexpectedly, being adrift in the Atlantic for fifteen days changes the survivors forever. They are unable to continue their friendships because their mere presence reminds each other of what they experienced. It's an interesting question to consider what makes some people so resilient in the face of catastrophe while others are completely undone. While John continues with his life plan to become an electrician, both Matt and Dri find themselves deeply changed. Instead of becoming a forest ranger, Matt works as an EMT.

Griffin spares his readers none of the gory details and some passages are especially graphic and therefore entirely realistic. His reason for placing the teenagers out in the ocean is entirely plausible (fact: teenagers at a party do stupid things). My only question is that it is unlikely Matt, John and Dri would have been able to eat much of anything once they were rescued. Nor would they be allowed to do so. Adrift is a good read, with an appealing cover, that should definitely be followed up with something light.


Book Details:

Adrift by Paul Griffin
New York: Scholastic Press     2015
228 pp.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Part I: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming Part I

The Family Romanov is historical nonfiction written for younger readers, although many adults will find this book of interest.

Fleming sets the stage for this fascinating account of the Russian Royal family by describing a grand costume ball held on the night of February 12, 1903 in honour of the two-hundredth anniversary of St. Petersburg's founding as the Russian capital. In attendance were members of what was known as the belaya kost - the 870 families who made up Russia's wealthiest citizens. They "represented only 1.5 percent of the population, but owned 90 percent of all Russia's wealth." These people were well educated and could trace their roots "back to the ancient princes who had ruled the country centuries earlier." Their homes were filled with priceless works of art, antiques and many luxuries. They wore designer gowns and vacationed on the French Riviera. French or English was the language of choice as Russian was considered coarse. The ball, hosted by Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Empress Alexandra saw their guests dressed in costumes of rich fabrics and decorated with jewels. This wealthy segment of Russian society was insular and uninformed about the rest of the Russian people. They had no idea how the vast majority of their fellow Russians, in a country that stretched from Poland in the west to Japan in the east, lived.

The main disconnect between the nobility and the peasants was ignorance about what life was like for eighty-four percent of Russians at the beginning of the twentieth century. The wealthy including the tsar believed that the peasants' lives were comfortable and pastoral. As Fleming indicates it was a very romanticized view of life that came about because the nobility had virtually no contact with the poorer classes. The reality was that most peasants lived in small huts with little furniture or bedding and had little eat. Peasants struggled to support themselves because they did not have enough land to grow sufficient food. As the population grew, this situation only worsened and the peasants saw acquiring land from the nobility as the only solution. Because of the poverty, people began to move to the cities to find work in the new factories. However, life in the city was much worse, characterized by long hours, poor wages, dangerous working conditions, crowded homes, disease and pollution.  Into this world, Nicholas  was born.

Part One: Before the Storm
This section explores the early life of Nicholas II and his marriage to Princess Alix of Hesse. By the time Nicholas came to the throne, the Romanovs had ruled Russia for almost 300 years in a form of government known as autocracy, where one person rules exclusively. The Romanovs claimed their right to rule was God-given. Thus Russia had no constitution, congress, court of appeal or supreme court. The tsar was required to follow the laws of succession (only a male relative could rule) and to follow the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church. The tsar was head of the Imperial Cabinet consisting of thirteen ministers who were noblemen appointed by him. The country was divided into thirty-four provinces, each with its own governor, imperial army and police force. A large imperial bureaucracy existed to enforce laws, impose fines and fees, and keep records." Poorly paid bureaucrats meant they were easily corrupted and therefore despised by the people. The tsar maintained his hold on power by strict control over his people; the imperial army and the police silenced all political dissent.

Nicholas's father, Tsar Alexander III was a harsh ruler who was not eager for his son to succeed him. He neglected to prepare Nicholas to rule Russia and to develop as a statesman. And Nicholas himself did not look forward to ruling Russia either. He was shy, gentle and enjoyed reading. Nicholas originally met the girl who was to be his wife in 1884 when he was sixteen and she was twelve. Born Princess Alix Victoria Helena Louise Beatrice of Hesse Darmstadt, she was a happy, smiling child nicknamed Sunny until the death of her mother at age six. Afterwards her personality changed. Nicholas and Alix met again five years later and this time both were completely smitten. Five more years passed in which Nicholas traveled the world. In April 1894 Nicholas proposed and after a brief hesitation over changing her faith from Lutheran to Russian Orthodox, Alix agreed. The couple married November 26, 1894 a month after the death of Tsar Alexander III died.

Nicholas was terrified of becoming tsar of Russia. "What is going to happen to me...to all of Russia? I am not prepared to be tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of how to even talk to the ministers."  From the beginning both Nicholas and Alexandra (her new Russian name) struggled. Alexandra appeared aloof and unapproachable and she was shocked by Russian society leading her to disinvite many of Nicholas's friends and cousins. The couple moved to the Imperial Park at Tsarskoe Selo, living in the less grand Alexander Palace. With Nicholas unable to comprehend his duties as tsar and Alexandra revolted by the excesses and bad behaviour of the Russian court, the two withdrew to the enchanted estate of Tsarskoe Selo. From 1895 to 1901, Tsarina Alexandra gave birth to four daughters. Although Nicholas was at first happy with the births of the daughters, the need for a son soon became their most pressing concern. Each pregnancy was becoming more difficult for Alexandra and so they began to seek the help of holy men, prayers and mystics, some of whom were of questionable character. With the birth of Alexei in 1904, Nicholas and Alexandra were thrilled. But soon it became apparent that the little boy had hemophilia, a genetic disorder with no treatment in 1904 and which could be life threatening. It was a disease passed down through Alexandra's side of the family. They withdrew even further from society and kept his condition a secret.

Part Two: Dark Clouds Gathering
This section covers the period from 1905 until 1913 of Nicholas II's reign. In 1905  the increased literacy of the workers led to increased recognition of and demand for a government that responded to their needs. No longer content to be slaves to the monarchy, the people wanted a say in how their vast country was ruled. The event that would turn out to be of greatest significance came to be known as Bloody Sunday. A peaceful march to St. Petersburg's Winter Palace was organized by a young priest known as Father George Gapon to present a petition by the workers directly to the tsar. The petition asked Nicholas II to address the problems workers in Russia faced. Like most workers in Russia, Fr. Gapon still believed that the tsar was the father of Russia and cared for his people. The tsar was not blamed for the greed, despotism and cruelty of the factory managers and landowners towards the workers and peasants. It was Nichola's response to Fr. Gapon's march on January 22, 1905 that would ultimately be his undoing.

Informed of the march and the request that he receive the worker's petition, Nicholas II instead sent soldiers to greet the marchers and did not attend. Approximately 120,000 men, women and children, peacefully marching were confronted by soldiers who eventually opened fire on them, killing up to 200 people. This unwarranted attack which came to be known as Bloody Sunday changed the Russian people's minds about their tsar. Nicholas, hearing of the tragedy did not accept blame and would not consider the advice of his advisers and even Count Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author who advised his tsar, "...what great evil you will bring to yourself and to millions if you continue on your present course."

The unrest spread to other areas of Russia with rotating strikes which led by October 3, to massive strikes that shutdown cities. Printers and railroad workers were followed by "factory workers, schoolteachers, postal workers, telegraph operators,,,, doctors, lawyers, bankers, even the ballerinas of St. Petersburg's Imperial Mariinsky Theatre." Prime Minister Count Sergei Witte gave Nicholas II an ultimatum; either crush the rebellion in a bloody show of force or give the people the right to freedom of the press and speech and the Duma, an elected legislature they were demanding. Threatened by his cousin, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich's suicide if he did not concede Nicholas finally agreed. He signed into law the right to "freedom of conscience, speech, assembly and association" and the formation of a Duma,  in what was known as the October Manifesto. But Nicholas believed that the problem was not the autocracy but the fact that the people of Russia were being punished for their sins against his rule.

The supporters of the tsar believed the Jewish population were responsible for the unrest and repression. It was this belief that led to numerous pogroms. "In the two weeks after the signing of the October Manifesto, there were 694 separate pogroms across the country." Both Nicholas II  and Alexandra also believed the Jewish citizens were responsible. Jews living in Russia were already restricted by numerous laws including one that limited the number of Jews who could attend school.

Around this time a man who would become a famous revolutionary began to come into his own. Vladimir Ulyanov, whose father was a bureaucrat, became a professional revolutionary following in the steps of his brother Alexander who was hanged for plotting to kill Tsar Alexander III. In 1895 Ulyanov was sent to prison and then to three years exile in Siberia for his part in organizing workers' strikes. After his exile, he traveled throughout Europe gaining a reputation as a leader of the communist movement. He wrote and edited and newspaper called Spark under the pen name of Lenin. A student of Karl Marx's theories, Lenin believed that the only way Russia could become communist was through the strong leadership of a few revolutionaries. The Social Democrats who followed Lenin were known as Bolsheviks, those who believed in a more gradual change and who opposed Lenin where known as Mensheviks. Lenin returned to Russia hoping to start a full scale revolution but he was eventually forced to leave after the second uprising in December and retreated to Finland.

After the October Manifesto the attempted arrest of the soviets resulted a mass revolt in Moscow against the autocracy that included all the Social Democrats. Nicholas ordered his troops to put down the rebellion by any means possible, including the use of artillery and the shooting of any one found in the vicinity of the rebellion. He did not stop there. Revolutionaries were hunted down and imprisoned or exiled or executed. Workers against the tsar were fired. Groups of soldiers undertook actions known as Punitive Expeditions into the countryside, killing villagers and burning villages. But Nicholas II could not accept the reality of sharing power with the Duma. Between April 1906 and November 1907 the Duma closed twice resulting in three Dumas. The first Duma consisted of a decent representation from all of Russia's classes including the nobility, the land-owners, the workers and the peasants.By the Third Duma, the nobility, landowners and businessmen dominated this legislative body. It was this Duma, supportive of the Romanov autocracy that would sit for the next five years.

In 1905, the Romanov family became acquainted with Father Gregory Rasputin, a starets or holy man. Desperate to obtain help for Alexei and his hemophilia, the tsar and tsarina had tried doctors, priests and various mystics from all over Europe. In Rasputin's presence, Alexei seemed to recover and this was enough to convince the Alexandra. Because of this, the tsar and tsarina were blind to Rasputin's true nature and his reputation. Rasputin had a reputation with the ladies and he was distrusted by Prime Minister Peter Stolypin who ordered an investigation into his activities. Even when the report confirmed Stolypin's suspicions, Nicholas II refused to act resulting in the Prime Minister banishing Rasputin from St. Petersburg. Stolypin was murdered at the Kiev Opera House. It was only when letters between the royal family and Rasputin began circulating that Nicholas and Alexandra refused to see Rasputin. But that would change when Alexei had a serious bleed that almost cost him his life that Alexandra contacted the starets.

At the 300th anniversary of Romanov rule, Nicholas II and Alexandra believed that they were deeply loved by the Russian people. "But while the people acted curious or reverent, on only one occasion was the family greeted with spontaneous good feelings."

Discussion

The first part of this detailed work on the Romanov family focuses on their life before the revolution, with emphasis on the conditions in Russia that led to the collapse of the Romanov autocracy. The focus is on Nicholas's belief that his rule was divinely given and how this belief led him to vehemently resist any attempt to change how Russia was ruled. He was warned repeatedly by his ministers that he threatened to undo a thousand years of history by his obstinance. Both Nicholas and Alexandra retreated from the people following their marriage. It was this distance that made him appear uncaring. This situation alone suggests that Nicholas, who was ill prepared to assume the throne, was not fit to rule. He refused to accept that the conditions for the ordinary workers and the peasants were unjust and fell back on blaming the Jewish population for the social unrest. Especially interesting is the portrayal of the four grand duchesses and the crown prince and their relationship with their parents and their tutors.

Fleming's writing style is appealing and she quickly engages the reader's interest in a country with such a fascinating history. After setting the stage in the first two parts, the next two will focus the Russian revolution. Fleming has included a detailed family tree of the Romanovs, a map of the Russian empire, a detailed Bibliography, Notes and and index.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord

The Start of Me and You is a story about a young girl struggling to come to terms with the death of a friend while learning to live again. At it's heart is a tender story, well told of a friendship blossoming unexpectedly into a first love.

Paige Hancock lives in Oakhurst, Indiana with her mother and her younger sister, Cameron. A year earlier, Paige's first ever boyfriend, Aaron Rosenthal, whom she dated for a grand total of two months, died in a swimming accident. Paige has spent the last year attempting to come to terms with his death. In her school where everyone is defined by something, she is known as "the Girl Whose Boyfriend Died".

Paige encounters Ryan Chase, a boy she has had a crush on since forever, in Alcott's Books and Beans. She realizes that he understands what she's been going through, the sympathy from complete strangers since his sister was sick with cancer. They discover they share a class in Honors English.

Paige has just finished her therapy and she now has to cope on her own. With summer holidays coming to an end, she decides to plan out a great year, hoping that she can fake her way "through every step until things were truly good again." Her best friend Tessa McMahon suggests that Paige try to rejoin some of the groups she was a part of in freshman year. After talking with her Grammy who is suffering from short term memory loss, Paige is inspired to draw up a list that includes 1. Parties/social events, 2.New group, 3.Date, 4. Travel and 5. Swim. The last item on the list, Paige is certain she never wants to do again.

Paige's junior year starts with her learning from her friend Morgan Sullivan that Ryan broke up with girlfriend Leanne Woods over the summer. In Honors English, Ryan is there with his cousin, Max Watson who had been attending a private school, Coventry School. The new teacher, Ms. Pepper seats Ryan just behind Paige, making her very happy to be so near her crush. However, the seating arrangement doesn't last long, before Ms. Pepper has Max switch seats with Ryan who has spent too much time talking with his buddy, Tyler. Ms. Pepper informs the class that they need one more person for the Oakhurst Quizbowl team. Paige decides to join the team, believing it will help her move forward and is surprised to learn that Max is the team captain.

Meanwhile Paige is stunned to learn from both her parents that they are dating - each other. This makes her very uncomfortable but her sister Cameron is more accepting. Her parents have been divorced for over five years and Paige is shocked that they have been dating for the past four months. It was Aaron's death that brought them together again. At Maggie Brennan's party Paige learns that Tessa now has lunch with Ryan, making her just a bit jealous. But Tessa isn't interested at all in Ryan. Paige encounters Max sitting in a room at the party by himself reading and later by Ryan's car as she is leaving. Paige decides to stay and talk with Max, in the hopes of meeting Ryan. The night ends with Paige altering her list of things to do, scratching out attending parties and amending number three to specifically dating Ryan Chase.

In English class, Paige and Max are paired together for an exercise, leading them to learn a few details about each other. When Paige tells Max that she has the middle name of Elizabeth for the character in Pride and Prejudice, Max tells her that he thinks she's more a Jane Bennet who doesn't judge people, who is under-appreciated and quiet and kind. He nicknames her "Janie".

Max invites Paige to his house to meet the QuizBowl team and prepare for their first match. Paige meets his mom who is a pediatrician and also meets QuizBowl team members,  Malcolm and Lauren.When Max drives her home, Paige tells him about her family and her parents dating. Max listens patiently and then encourages Paige to look at what is happening from a different perspective.

At this point, Paige continues to be focused on Ryan and how she can spend time with him. When Max tells her about Ryan's break-up with Leanne and how he disliked her, Paige feels validated because she obviously doesn't like Leanne either. She feels that being friends with Max gives her a better chance of getting to know her crush, Ryan.

The first Quizbowl match is terrifying for Paige but she makes her way through it with Max's calm reassurances. Paige's life continues to intertwine with Max's. She and Max walk together on their way to lunch and to math class. At the movie theatre, when Tessa and the group decide to stay for a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Paige must leave to meet her mother's curfew, Max offers to drive her home. When Paige learns that her Grammy has suffered a stroke, Max drives her to the hospital and then tells Tessa what happened so she can be there for her.

Things become complicated when Ryan drives Paige to a get together at Alcott's and they kiss in his jeep, leaving Paige wondering just what the kiss means. During the winter he asks her to hang with him, while Max and Tessa go to see a band. During their time together, Paige helps Ryan plan a surprise party for Max and reveals that he's still not really over Leanne.

It takes a silly game at Max's birthday party, where Max and Paige spend seven minutes locked in a closet, for Paige to realize that she has feelings for Max. And those feelings have seriously thrown her plan for recovering her life into chaos.

Discussion

The Start of Me and You is one the best young adult novels of 2015, with its positive portrayal of teen friendships, caring teen characters who grow through the story, and light romance. At the center is a strong female character, and excellent cast of supporting characters

Paige Hancock is a strong female character, demonstrating courage and fortitude. Having spent a year grieving over the loss of her friend Aaron, she decides to take control of her life,doing things that will challenge her. This leads her to join the Quizbowl club, where she comes to know Max Watson. But Paige isn`t focused on Max, she`s focused on attracting Ryan Chase who is her longtime crush. Paige uses his cousin Max in the hopes of gaining opportunities to be with Ryan and maybe become his girlfriend. However, Paige realizes several things; that Ryan is not quite over Leanne and that he is interested in her best friend Tessa. And while she`s been focusing on Ryan, she hasn`t recognized the reality of her relationship with Max. "Ryan was more an idea in my mind, and Max was a person -- my person. Sure, I daydreamed about Ryan,imagined being his girlfriend and what that would be like. But it was Max who remembered everything I ever told him, Max who looked perpetually delighted when I made him laugh...When had I learned him so completely?...It all played like a montage in my mind; Max by my side all these months...How had not seen him?"

Paige begins to realize that she's changed and that has affected her relationships. "Maybe my feelings for Max had been there the whole time, obscured by the rubble of the Ryan Chase crush I'd somehow outgrown. I'd been focusing on rebuilding the debris of my former life when instead I should have been clearing myself a path out. And that path led straight to Max." All this leads Paige to edit her list once again, crossing out Ryan and simply set the goal of dating. She'd liked Ryan in very superficial way that an eighth grader would, but Paige is no longer in eighth grade. Max is real and present in a way Ryan is not.

Max is a brilliant character, kind, intuitive and resilient. He also challenges Paige, recognizing that she's always preparing for something that is most likely to happen instead of working towards something she wants to happen. Max tries to get Paige to confront her fear of swimming but she's resistant and angry at him for trying to fix her. When Paige learns that Max has probably seen her list which has the intention to date Ryan Chase, she finally accepts that at first she used Max as a way to try to be with Ryan. While Max is initially deeply hurt by what Paige has done, his love for her allows him to forgive her. 
 
One of the more delightful characters in The Start of Me and You is Paige's grandmother whom she affectionately calls Grammy. Paige frequently visits her Grammy and is patient and kind towards her. often telling her about her life. Likewise Grammy is sensitive and able to recognize when her granddaughter is troubled. Despite having Alzheimer's and even after having a serious stroke, Grammy is able to impart her wisdom that comes from a long life. For example, when Paige tells her about her parents dating, Grammy tells her that her parents were very happy when they were first married, something Paige would not necessarily know. Grammy tells her "Things change. There are so many outside forces coming at marriage; finances and jobs and houses and children. You can lose each other if you're not careful. It doesn't mean it was all a wash." Just before her death, Grammy advises Paige to "love extra, even if it means you hurt extra, too." Grammy wisely tells her to "Just live your life."

One of the strongest themes in The Start of Me and You is that of positive female friendships. Paige, Tessa, Morgan and Kayleigh all help each other when they experience tough moments. When Tessa's parents miss their dinner date for her seventeenth birthday because they are stuck in China, Paige organizes a dessert buffet at Tessa's home.  When Morgan and Kayleigh have a falling out over Kayleigh's focus on her boyfriend Eric, Paige is able to smooth over the disagreement.  When Paige's grandmother has a stroke, Tessa leaves the Rocky Horror Show and comes to the hospital to provide emotional support for Paige and drives her home. Paige rescues Kayleigh when she is stranded after a party is raided by the cops. Reflecting on friendship, Paige believes that friends do favours without expecting anything in return. "In friendship, we are all debtors. We all owe each other for a thousand small kindnesses, for little moments of grace in the chaos...Because with true friends, no one is keeping score. But it still feels good to repay them --even in the tiniest increments." It is this portrayal of strong female friendships that is so refreshing and so unusual in young adult literature. There are no mean girls in this novel.

The Start of Me and You
also portrays parents in a positive and realistic way. Paige's parents have been divorced for five years but are now attempting to reconcile. Paige's father admits that the divorce was mostly his fault and that he's been going to therapy so that he won't make the same mistakes. He doesn't know if they will remarry, but "Nothing is more important to me than doing right by you and your mom." He's forthright and responsible. Both parents are portrayed as caring and involved in their children's lives. When Paige and Max's relationship collapses after the pool incident, Paige's mother takes the time to talk the her about what happened and to counsel her. Paige recognizes her mother's efforts. "...I felt grateful for my mom in a way that I never had before. She made an honest effort to hear me and to understand where I was coming from. " 

Lord uses foreshadowing in an interesting way. The Start of Me and You uses a familiar trope of a girl out to capture the cute high school athlete but who falls in love with the sensitive, nerdy geek. In a way it's fairly predictable but the author has a message for her readers and she uses Max to deliver it.  Paige tells Max she's upset about her parents dating because she knows how it will end. When Max is helping Paige to reconsider her parents dating, he uses the example of people rereading books in which they know the ending.  "In books, sometimes the foreshadowing is so obvious that you know what's going to happen. But knowing what happens isn't the same as know how it happens. Getting there is the best part."  And that is exactly the case with The Start of Me and You. All the characters in the book realize that Paige loves Max. Even Max knows she loves him. The reader too, begins to suspect early on that Paige is going to fall for Max. However Paige does not realize she loves Max until the very end. It's how she gets to that point that makes this novel so enjoyable. And along the way she too comes to realize that "Knowing what happens is different from knowing how it happens."

The Start of Me and You is a great summer read, but also a wonderful story about the power of friendship and the determination to move forward in life. The positive portrayals of female friendship, two parents attempting to recover their marriage, and relationships between the sexes make this an excellent novel. I can't wait to read more from this promising young adult author.

Book Details:

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord
New York: Bloomsbury Children's Books    2015
373 pp.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

All We Have Is Now by Lisa Schroeder

All We Have Now is about two homeless teens who struggle to come to terms with their lives in the face of an impending catastrophe that will wipe out the United States.

The novel opens approximately 28 hours, 25 minutes before an asteroid is expected to impact in the state of Idaho. The government has revealed that an asteroid coming from the direction of the sun is due to impact the Earth causing annihilation for millions and widespread destruction. People have fled the state and surrounding areas and many people have even fled the continental United States.

 Vince Mason and Emerson Steele are two homeless teens who have been living on the street for the last year and a half. In light of the impending disaster, they are considering ending their lives. With no money, no car and having left their families they have no way to escape the impact zone. Their lives have not be great up until this point. "Before, they slept in parks, in alleyways, in backyard sheds. They scrounged for food in restaurant dumpsters, or begged for money on the street. Every day, it was about survival. It was a dirty, ugly life, but they became pros at living that way. " Now with people having left Portland in an attempt to escape the asteroid, Vince and Emerson have been able to find a room in a shelter. They been able to clean themselves and not be ashamed of how they look. They decide rather than wait for the asteroid to hit they will jump off Vista Bridge also known as Suicide Bridge, which has nothing but "cold, hard pavement" beneath it.

However when they reach the bridge, they find a man waiting, presumably intending on jumping. The man introduces himself to Vince and Emerson as Carl and asks them to let him help them. After someone helped him realize his dream of being a fireman, he has helped four other people with their own wishes. But he needs one more and Vince and Emerson are that last wish. Vince tells Carl that every day since he's been on the streets he's wanted money for food, clothes and a place to stay. Carl gives Vince his wallet filled with cash and tells him "Feel rich in these final hours."

After doing this Carl stands on the bridge watching the beautiful sunset before he answers a call from his wife, Trinity. She has returned from saying good-bye to her parents and is waiting for Carl at their home. Carl tells her he gave away both his car and his wallet and Trinity tells him that her car is out of gas. He promises to try to find a way home and asks Trinity to see if she can find a car. Carl tries phoning friends but is unable to contact anyone who can help him and eventually cell service fails.

Meanwhile Emerson and Vince learn that the man who gave them the money is Carl Ragsdale, who is fifty-one years old and lives in Lake Oshwego. They wonder why he isn't with his family at this terrible time. Vince decides that he'd like to do what Carl was doing - help people, give them one last wish. The first person they encounter is a sixteen year old boy named Hayden who can sing and play guitar and who has always wanted to be in a band. After finding food at an abandoned tavern, they travel to a karaoke bar which has remained open. Hayden gets his wish to sing in front of the crowd in the bar. Having accomplished what he wanted, Hayden decides to return home.

Carl has taken to walking since he is unable to find a ride in the direction of his home. He meets Jerry, an elderly man and together they break into a bakery that Jerry's wife used to work at.  After eating pastries and drinking coffee, Jerry falls asleep and Carl is unable to awaken him. Believing he has died, he decides to take Jerry's car and drive home to Trinity. However, before he can get to the car, Carl is knocked unconscious.

The next person Emerson and Vince meet is Jackie, an unmarried career woman who was supposed to travel to Paris in October. At first Jackie can't find her car but when she does, Vince offers to drive her to a special place as a surprise. That place turns out to be a French cafe whose owner, a "good-looking twentysomething guy" named Phillipe, lets them in. While dancing and eating french pastries he and Jackie end up falling for each other. Having accomplished their mission to help yet another person, Emerson and Vince leave taking Jackie's BMW with her blessing. Their next stop is the Multnomah County Library where they read picture books and encounter a woman, Rima and her daughter, Inika who believe that everything will be back to normal in a few days.  This leads Emerson to ask Vince if he believes that there really is an asteroid.

As the deadline for the impact looms closer and closer, Carl struggles to recover from a serious concussion. Helped by a woman and her daughter who coincidentally are Emerson's mother and sister, Carl tries to return the favour and help them locate Emerson. In return he hopes to make it home to his wife.  Vince and Emerson struggle to deal not only with their personal relationship but also with the possibility that things may not be as they seem. Vince also tries to push Emerson to set things right with her mother before it's too late. But are some things just not so easily repaired.


Discussion

In All We Have Is Now, Schroeder weaves two storylines together, that of Emerson and her friend Vince and that of Carl Ragsdale. Although they all meet early on in the story and then experience separate journeys, Schroeder cleverly reunites them at the novel's conclusion, showing how we are all interconnected in one way or another. Emerson's narrative is the primary one told in both prose and short poems which are quite lovely.

All We Have Is Now is story about living life to the fullest in the time we have been given. We are reminded to appreciate what we have in life and not to focus on what is missing. When Hayden meets Vince and Emerson he tells them he left home because "I-I couldn't stay there. With them. I just...I couldn't, you know? I snuck out the bathroom window." However after singing in the karaoke bar Hayden realizes that he has a family, that his parents have been good to him and that his slipping out the bathroom window was not justified. He decides to return home. and it is also about forgiveness and redemption.

Also dominant in the novel is the idea about making the most of each day we have. When Vince and Emerson meet the twelve year old twins, Kailee and Kendall who have been abandoned, they drive them home and take them to an amusement park to distract them from what is happening in their lives and on a bigger scale. Kendall tells them that she wishes things would end happily and that she's afraid about what the future holds. Vince tells them, "No, see, you guys are looking at it all wrong...The amount of time isn't important. A hundred minutes or a hundred years. Whatever, it doesn't matter. Just make it count." When Kailee responds that it's difficult to not be angry about losing out, Vince advises her "...to ask yourself if that's how you want to spend the rest of your life." 

Like Kailee, Carl too is struggling to deal with the possibility that everything will end. As he's eating an apple at Emerson's mother's home, he finds "all he can taste is regret." The regret is that he's found something he loves but instead of savouring it in the moment, he is focused on how he will never taste another apple again after that night.

When Emerson takes Vince to a carousel so he can experience a memory he had of his mom so long ago, she asks him if he's mad that he didn't get more time with his mother. But Vince tells her, "Maybe sometimes I am, but I really try not to be. I mean, it's wasted energy, wishing for more. I'd rather spend my time making wishes that might come true."

Throughout the novel, Vince is determined that Emerson needs to contact her mom whom she is estranged from.  One of the ways Emerson has been coping with her mother's rejection has been to ask Vince what her mother and her older sister Frankie are doing. This leads him to describe an imaginary scenario that is positive and happy. However Emerson's fear that her mother hates her is overwhelming. If she doesn't call she can pretend otherwise. "What if her mom hung up on her? What if her mom hated her so much, she didn't even want to know where she was or if she was okay? As long as she stayed out of touch, Emerson could pretend her mother missed her a tiny bit."

As the time of impact creeps closer, Vince convinces Emerson that she needs to go see her family, no matter what she believes their response will be. He doesn't want her to experience regret. "Look, I just know that once you see them, once they see you, nothing else will matter. The past is the past. It's gone, you know? It doesn't matter anymore...All we have is now. Right now."

Like Carl eating the apple, Emerson realizes that she doesn't want to die because she's come to the conclusion that she has something to live for. She has come to realize that she loves Vince and he loves her. Emerson feels "ever-increasing terror about what comes next, and anger at having to go way too soon."

Similarly, Emerson's mother, Rhonda, is also experiencing deep regret over her actions towards her daughter. Her regret is so thick that "Carl wishes he could just cut it away for her."

At a conspiracy theory meeting about the asteroid, Emerson's view begins to change with small things at first. When she is given a piece of pumpkin pie with whipped cream she focuses on how delicious it tastes.When Emerson confronts the hurt she has caused her older sister, Frankie when she ran away, she is filled with regret. Vince tells her she cannot change the past and that there has been good that has come out of her choices too such as their meeting and the good they have done others in the time remaining. Emerson states, "I just can't let myself think about the stuff I wish I could change...You were right. Regret hurts."

One of the many poems which are part of Emerson's narrative, A Way of Life, expresses what Emerson has come to understand, that we must live life not looking back, nor looking ahead. Instead, "Each minute, each hour, spent doing, spent living." In contrast to this are Rhonda and Frankie, who are fighting over what has happened in the past to Emerson. As it turns out, Vince was right; Emerson's reunion with her family helps both her and them forgive and heal. Regrets are in the past.

Schroeder has written an appealing short novel with a timely message about what's important in life. It's probably impossible to live a life without some regrets. There are always difficult choices to be made each with their own path.

Book Details:
All We Have Is Now by Lisa Schroeder
Point, an imprint of Scholastic       2015
266 pp.









Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Avis Dolphin by Frieda Wishinsky

Avis Dolphin is based on a real person of the same name who sailed on the steamship, The Lusitania, in 1915. The real Avis Dolphin was accompanied by Hilda Ellis and Sarah Smith on her journey. While on the ill-fated liner, she was befriended by Professor Ian Holbourn, also a real person. Avis Dolphin is an imaginative retelling of their voyage across the Atlantic in diary form beginning on Day One Saturday, May 1, 1915 and continuing until the last entry on Day Seven, Friday May 7, 1915 when tragedy struck.

The story opens with twelve year old Avis Dolphin arriving at Pier 54 in New York City, preparing to board the Lusitania. Accompanying her are two nurses, Hilda Ellis and Sarah Smith from her mother's nursing home in St. Thomas, Ontario. Avis doesn't want to leave her home to travel to England where she will see her grandparents in Worcester and study at a school there. She feels even worse when she overhears a conversation between two photographers attempting to photograph the famous millionaire, Mr. Vanderbilt who has arrived to board the ship. They are discussing the possibility that the Lusitania might be in danger of being attacked by the Germans who have sent a warning out that the sea around the British Isles is a war zone. However Hilda reassures her that Mr. Sumner of the Cunard Lines has indicated that the Lusitania is too fast for the German U-boats. They try to comfort her by pointing out all the wealthy travellers who are boarding the Lusitania, indicating that they believe the voyage will be a safe one.

At 12:20pm the Lusitania pulls away from the dock and sets out for Liverpool, England. The next morning finds Avis feeling unwell and seasick. Unable to eat breakfast she walks to the deck in the hopes the fresh air will help her. There she meets a kindly Scottish gentleman named Ian Holbourn who notices that Avis feels unwell and encourages her to join him for a walk. Hilda recognizes him as Professor Ian Holbourn, the Laird of Foula, a small rocky island in the western Scottish Shetlands. To distract Avis from her sea sickness Professor Holbourn begins by telling her some facts about the Lusitania and also about his wife Marion and his three boys. He invites her to visit his family at Foula. They decide to explore the first class section of the ship, and are amazed at its opulence.


Professor Holbourn has told Avis that legend holds that his island of Foula was once inhabited by a giant and a bogeyman. Avis is enthralled by this and asks the Professor to tell her more about the giant and the bogeyman which he does in bits and pieces as they journey across the Atlantic. Professor Holbourn is concerned about safety on the Lusitania, and when his witnesses a poorly devised life-boat drill he questions the sailors. This brings him into conflict with Captain Turner who feels that lifeboat drills would only upset the passengers.

Meanwhile Hilda and Sarah spend their time flirting with the eligible men in second class. Sarah has snared a boy named Peter whom she meets every day in the dining room while Hilda makes friends with Richard and Jane who are twins. As the voyage continues, Avis finds herself enjoying the sea, Professor Holbourn prepares to give his talk on his trip to Iceland, and Hilda and Sarah have a falling out. But everyone becomes anxious once the coast of Ireland is spotted and the warning from Germany is remembered.

Discussion
Avis Dolphin is a well written account of a terrible marine disaster that occurred during World War I and not long after the sinking of the Titanic. In fact, the collective memory of the Titanic disaster was still very fresh in the minds of most people in North America and Britain when the Lusitania sank. Wishinsky tells her story without fanfare, simply and in an engaging manner through the eyes of a twelve year old girl who is struggling to make sense of the world around her. Avis enjoys herself most of the time on the Lusitania but is old enough to be concerned about the possibility of an attack by a German U-boat. She enjoys the companionship of the professor, manages to explore all three classes of the Lusitania and meet some of the passengers, and tries to understand the complicated relationship between Sarah and Hilda. Avis also notices the worry of the passengers as they approach the coast of Ireland. Her narrative during the sinking manages to convey the confusion and terror around her and that she herself experiences.

"We climb over broken tables, chairs, lights, dishes, ripped jackets, skirts, underwear and tablecloths. We stumble over a pair of boots and a headless doll.
The injured are everywhere -- sobbing, moaning -- but we can't help them. We can't stop. I shudder as we step over a woman. I know her! She's Harold's wife, Mildred. Harold, who I met on the deck just two days ago. Harold, who can't swim. And here's his wife. Is she unconscious -- or dead? We can't even stop to help her."
All of this makes her narrative both realistic and believable.

Wishinsky uses the artwork of Willow Dawson to tell Professor Holbourn's story of a girl shipwrecked on Foula and who encounters a giant and a bogeyman. These graphic novel panels appear throughout the novel and seem somewhat incongruous. Dawson's unique black and white illustrations do not capture the professor's story in a way that makes the tale appealing.  It is the weakest part of this novel. A more substantial folk story illustrated with colour panels might have been more effective.  Both the Professor and Avis seem like individuals with a vibrant imagination and the panels could have reflected that.

Nevertheless, Avis Dolphin is a fascinating, well told story of an important historical event that should appeal to younger readers. The book is in a larger format with larger type that lends itself to easy reading. Frieda Wishinsky provides an informative Author's Note at the back which details some facts about World War I, Avis Dolphin and Professor Ian Holbourn and about Foula.

For more information on Avis Dolphin please check out the following:

The Lusitania Resource: Miss Avis Gertrude Dolphin

For those interested in the Island of Foula, check out Foula Heritage and also Shetland Foula

Book Details:

Avis Dolphin by Frieda Wishinsky, illustrated by Willow Dawson
Toronto: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press 2015
164 pp.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Anastasia And Her Sisters by Carolyn Meyer

Anastasia and Her Sisters tells the tragic story of the Romanovs, the last reigning monarchs of Russia at the turn of the 20th century. The focus is on the four daughters known as the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia who went by the acronmym of OTMA and is told by primarily by Anastasia but also through the diary entries of her older sister,  Olga.

The story begins in April, 1918 with the family under house arrest. Seventeen year old Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova watches as her father, Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, her mother, Empress Alexandra and her sister the Grand Duchess Marie leave in a caravan of peasant carts. Her father is to be put on trial in Moscow by the provisional government.  Accompanying them are Dr. Botkin and some servants. Anastasia along with her thirteen year old brother Alexei, and her sisters Olga and Tatiana remain in Tobolsk waiting, fearful of the outcome. Olga and Tatiana are the older sisters, while Marie and Anastasia are the two younger ones. The sisters hope that they will be rescued, even after the family was refused asylum in England. They have no idea what the future holds for them, but they hold out hope that they will be rescued.

Anastasia and her sisters learn that the Tsar and Empress have been taken to Ekaterinburg instead. A letter from Mama tells her that they need to sew their jewels into their clothing, although that is not exactly what she tells them to do. As a young girl on the verge of womanhood, Anastasia reminisces about the ball for Olga's sixteenth birthday. During that ball, Olga danced with Lieutenant Sablin but had eyes only for Lieutenant Voronov. It is these memories that lead to Anastasia narrating the events that lead up to the terrible day in 1918.

This leads into Part I OTMA: The Grand Duchesses 1911. In autumn of 1911, at their palace in Livadia, on the Black Sea Anastasia and her family spend their time hiking along mountain paths, playing tennis and touring in their papa's motorcars. In December they travel by train north to Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo only a half hour away from St. Petersburg. There are always two trains, one a dummy train so that should a revolutionary or anarchist attempt to assassinate the tsar, they will not know which train to bomb. Anastasia discovers that her sister Olga is infatuated with Lieutenant Pavel Alexeyevich Voronov one of the officers assigned to the Tsar's yacht, the Standart. Besides noticing her sister's glances at Lieutenant Voronov she decides to read her sister's private diary.

At Tsarskoe Selo the royal family follows its routine of rising early and having lessons with their tutors of whom there are many. For example, Charles Sydney Gibbes teaches them English, Monsieur Pierre Gilliard teaches French, Pyotr Vasilyevich Petrov teaches them geography. Also at the palace  is the royal physician, Dr. Botkin and his children, Gleb and Tatiana. Anastasia's only brother, the heir to the throne, Alexei, is a hemophiliac, a condition inherited from his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria of England. This fact is a closely guarded secret. Alexei is watched by two sailors, Andrei Derevenko and Klementy Nagorny who try to prevent him from injuring himself and who often carry the young tsarevich around. Father Grigory Rasputin who dresses like a peasant and smells bad, frequently comes to see Alexei and he seems better after his visits. Father Grigory's seeming ability to heal Alexei has resulted in a close relationship with the family, especially the empress. Anastasia's Aunt Olga Alexandrovna, Papa's youngest sister visits Tsarskoe Selo very Saturday during the winter, taking the girls skating and tobogganing. On Sundays they usually visit Anichkov Palace to have lunch with their grandmother, Dowager Empress Marie whom Anastasia and her sisters and brother called Grandmere Marie. They would sometimes go to Aunt Olga's palace on Sergievskaya Street which she shared with her husband Duke Peter (Petya) Alexandrovich of Oldenburg, meeting cousins and other relatives, to dance and play games. Their life is filled with routine and ease.

Tsarevich Egg given by Tsar Nikolai to the Empress, 1912
In the spring of 1912, the Romanov's return to Livadia where they are invited to parties on estates, go sailing and have picnics. After celebrating Easter at Livadia, Olga begins to develop a deeper attraction to Pavel Voronov. Count Smolsky tells Tsar Nikolai that unrest continues to develop across Russia, with workers walking off their jobs. Aunt Olga indicates that she has heard the peasants too are restless, but Anastasia's papa, brushes off their concerns,  believes that everything will be fine. Later on during the summer they meet Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who is called Cousin Willy because he is a cousin to both Anastasia's mother and father. Anastasia and her sisters are not fond of him. During the spring, Alexei somehow injuries himself and begins bleeding. This episode is so serious that Dr. Botkin believes Alexei may die and convinces the tsar to inform the people that their beloved tsarevich is very ill. Father Grigory telegrams the Empress to tell her that he will recover which he does. Olga celebrates her seventeenth birthday at the royal lodge in Spala in what was once part of Poland, with the help of many of the locals who come to dance and play music. From Olga's diary, Anastasia learns that their father asked Olga if she would consider marrying Dmitri Pavlovich.

In the winter and spring of 1913, Russia prepares to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Romanov rule with church services, ceremonies, dinners and receptions. On the third night, Olga and Tatiana are invited to a grand ball held in honour of the Tsar and Empress. Disappointed she and Marie cannot attend, Anastasia waits to hear about it later from her sisters. Meanwhile Olga's relationship with Voronov continues into the summer when they have their first kiss. But by the winter of 1914, Voronov is engaged to be married to Olga Kleinmichel and Olga is devastated. The spring of 1914 Olga is asked by the tsar to consider marrying Prince Carol of Romania, something that does not appeal to her. Anastasia watches as Olga continues to struggle with the loss of Voronov.

In the summer of 1914, Tatiana turns seventeen, Marie is fifteen and Anastasia is thirteen. The summer is spent painting and relaxing at their dacha in Peterhof and then embarking on their summer cruise in the Baltic Sea. But an event far away, in Sarajevo, Serbia is to cause repercussions around the world. The assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife by a Serbian lead the tsar to realize that this may very well lead to war. Russia was on Serbia's side while Austria and Germany were allies meaning that if Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia would have to enter the war.  At first Anastasia and her sisters are deeply concerned. Little do they know that their lives are about to change forever with the start of a world war later in 1914. And the instigator of it all will be their much disliked Cousin Willy who will declare war on his own cousin, Tsar Nicholas II.

Discussion

In Part 1, OTMA, Meyer sets the stage for the story, which is essentially about the events leading up to the mass murder of the entire Romanov family in 1918 by the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka. This is done by describing the life as a young Grand Duchess through the eyes of Anastasia (Nastya) Nikolaevna Romanova as she grows up from an eleven year old girl to a young woman of seventeen. Detailed descriptions of holidays, birthdays and family relationships are presented, giving the reader an excellent idea of what it was like to be a member of the Russian royal family at the turn of the century. In many respects the young duchesses are like any other girls in this era; sharing secrets with sisters, learning about puberty, experiencing a deeper relationship with parents or other relatives (in Anastasia's case, her Aunt Olga), feeling pressured to follow social conventions such as marrying a man of equal social standing, disliking school lessons and becoming curious about boys, love and marriage. But in other ways, their lives were very different, filled with luxuries most young girls could never imagine, trips on the Baltic, wearing gorgeous gowns, attending balls and dancing with dashing military men, and living in beautiful ornate palaces. The focus is mostly family intrigue and on the relationships between the various cousins as well as Grand Duchess Olga's blossoming love affair with Lieutenant Voronov who is quickly married off to prevent the socially unacceptable attachment from developing any further.

Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna 1914
Since the narrative is Anastasia's, there are only fleeting mentions hints that all is not well in Russia. Anastasia mentions about the gruesome murder of her great grandfather Alexander, how her father is warned not to ride ahead of the Cossacks into Moscow on the anniversary of the crowning of the first tsar. Their lives as aristocrats are insular as they are generally unaware of the true state of life in Russia and how the people really feel about the tsar and his family.

In Part II War 1914 focuses on Russia at war and the involvement of the royal family in the war effort. Anastasia points out how conflicted her mother, the empress must feel. "Her mother was English, but her father was German! She was born in Germany! Her brother, Uncle Ernie, lives in Germany. She might still be there if she hadn't fallen in love with Papa and come to Russia to marry him. She had to learn to speak Russian, and she even gave up her religion for ours. Mama is as Russian as anybody and she must hate it that Cousin Willy is doing this wicked, awful thing."

The royal family were not mere spectators but participated fully in the war effort. The Empress Alexandra turned numerous palaces of the tsar and of wealthy Russians into medical units to care for the wounded soldiers. She also organized special trains to bring the wounded men to these hospitals and smaller facilities called lazarets. The empress and her older daughters, Olga and Tatiana, were trained by the Red Cross to work as nurses, becoming sisters of mercy. They spent many days caring for the wounded and dying. Anastasia points out in her narrative, her "Mama assisted at as many as three surgeries, one right after the other, each lasting a couple hours." Both Tatiana and Olga recount the horrors of men terribly wounded and of others dying.

As in other European countries, the Russian people were intially excited about going to war and also held the belief that it would be a short war. The attitude of the Russians towards the Germans is summed up by Gleb Botkin who tells Anastasia, "The Germans don't know how to fight!" Gleb assured my brother. "They only know how to make sausages! All we have to do to win is to throw our caps at them." Anastasia's Aunt Olga remarks about the patriotism of the people. "I've witnessed the most extraordinary sights over the past week: the thrilling sight of men going to war. Every day from early morning until after sunset, hundreds and hundreds of men marching down Nevsky Prospect to the Warsaw Station to board a train for the front. People walk beside them, cheering them on. They're fighting for Holy Russia and for the tsar, Nicky!"

Tsar Nicholas too becomes involved in the war, traveling to Stavka, the army headquarters near Bialowieza. As in other countries, the Romanov's soon realize that the war will not be over by Christmas 1914. As the war drags into 1916, Anastasia indicates that Russia is suffering from strikes, food shortages and trouble from the revolutionaries. However, these troubles seem distant as she doesn't not provide many details nor indicate to the reader how she feels about these troubles.  recounts that Empress Alexandra spends more and more time with Father Grigory who has become an advisor to the tsarina, while Nicholas II remains at Mogilev as commander-in-chief.

Rasputin, advisor to the Empress
It is through Olga's diary entries that there is a hint of the true situation brewing at home. Olga reveals that the empresses seems blind to how people view her relationship with Father Grigory who is hated by the people and although she wants to warn her mother, Olga and Tatiana believe it is futile. The warning is left to the empress's sister, Ella who tells Alexandra that Emperor Nicholas needs to be leading the country and not the army as he is not a military man. Aunt Ella also attempts to warn the empress about Father Grigory. But these warnings are strongly resisted by Empress Alexandra.

Part III Revolution 1917 begins with the OTMA becoming sick with the measles and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas and the establishment of a provisional government. This section focuses on the increasingly precarious situation of the Romanov royal family. They are placed under house arrest in Tsarskoe Selo. Anastasia and her family are led to believe that there is a British ship on its way to take them to England. Their situation grows more difficult when soldiers arrive to guard them. They are insolent and treat the former Tsar with disrespect. Food shortages continue and Monsieur Faberge who has created many beautiful eggs for Nicholas as gifts to the tsarina at Easter over the years, has fled the country.

Part IV Exile, 1917 tells about the blossoming friendship between Anastasia and Dr. Botkin's son, Gleb while traveling by ship to their place of exile in Tobolsk. They know nothing about what is happening in the war. By the winter of 1918, it's obvious that their situation is desperate and Olga refuses to allow their parents to treat them as children anymore. The new government has ordered the Tsar to Moscow where he is to be put on trial. The Tsar, his valet Trupp, the Empress, her maid Anna Demidova, Marie, and Dr. Botkin will all travel to Moscow.

Part V Fate, 1918 focuses on the Romanov's last few months, essentially picking up the story that was started in the short chapter prior to Part I. Marie, Anastasia, Alexei are reunited with Papa, Mama, Olga and Tatiana in Ekaterinburg and taken to live at Ipatiev House which has been renamed the sinister House of Special Purpose. Their guards are no longer respectful Russians but coarse Bolsheviks who are cruel. Anastasia turns seventeen and is no longer the happy, carefree girl she was before the war. "When I'm frightened -- that's most of the time now -- I retreat to happy memories and try not to think."

Anastasia and Her Sisters is perhaps Meyer's best piece of historical fiction, filled with exceptional detail about the Romanov's everyday life in Russia before the war and their complicated family relationships and connections with the other royal families of Europe and England. The characters of the Tsar Nikolai and Empress Alexandra as well as Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia are well portrayed. However, the reality of life in Russia for the vast majority of Russians is only hinted at. Instead, the Tsar is shown as a sort of benevolent ruler who cares deeply for his people and who believes fully that he has been called by God to rule. With the story told from Anastasia's point of view, this makes perfect sense. As a young girl she would completely believe in the way of life she her family had and they way her father ruled Russia. In the latter part of the novel,  Meyer maintains Anastasia and her family's ignorance of the terrible end planned for them.

The subject matter of this novel is incredibly interesting and the detail Meyer provides her readers may encourage them to do even more research into the Russian royal family. The book is detail driven and therefore is slow through the middle of Part I which is the largest section of the novel. Perhaps the inclusion of photographs of Anastasia and her sisters and brother and maybe their various palaces might have helped the narrative along. Those readers who are interested in a follow up would do well to read The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming which I will be reviewing soon.

Meyers includes a simplified family tree of the Romanovs and a detailed Epilogue at the back of the novel explaining what happened to the Romanov's as well as many of their relatives, maids and tutors.

Readers are encouraged to search online if they wish to research further.
The Alexander Palace website has much information to explore.
 

Book Details:

Anastasia And Her Sisters by Carolyn Meyer
Toronto: A Paul Wiseman Book        2015
308 pp.