Friday, February 26, 2016

After The Dancing by Margaret I. Rostkowski

After The Dancing Days is a sensitive exploration of war and its aftermath through the eyes of a young girl.

In April 1919, Annie Metcalf's father returns home from the Great War. She and her mother meet her father at the Kansas City train station. He had been stationed in New York caring for wounded soldiers returning from Europe. Annie's family has been directly touched by the effects of the war with the death of her beloved Uncle Paul who was killed in action in June of 1918.

After the regular passengers and soldiers leave the train, Annie and her mother witness the wounded soldiers leaving. Many have bandages and are missing limbs. Some are blind while others are in wheelchairs. A few have to be taken from the train on stretchers. This completely takes Annie by surprise. She is horrified to see one man whose face has been ruined by severe burns, yet she is unable to turn away. Eventually her father gets off the train, but the joy of seeing her father again is marred by the tragedy of the wounded soldiers.

Annie is unable to get the wounded soldiers she saw at the station out of her mind. She remembers the day they received the telegram informing them that her mother's brother, her Uncle Paul, had died. The sound her mother made after reading the telegram. How Grandfather chopped wood for an hour afterwards while grandmother lay for three days in her bedroom and cried.

Annie's family has a party to welcome home her father. Grandfather, grandmother, her Uncle John who is Paul's younger brother, her cousins Francis and Charlie, her Uncle Mark and Aunt Felicia are all in attendance. The next day Annie mentions the wounded men to her mother who assures her they will be fine. Her father tells Annie that the wounded including Timothy Lewis, a promising baseball player who is now blind, are being cared for out at St. Johns, a Catholic hospital run by nuns. Grandfather has been going out to St. John's to read  Ivanhoe to Timothy but he has not mentioned it to his daughter Katherine, Annie's mother, because she wouldn't approve. That night Annie talks to her father about the wounded soldiers and mentions that she never thought about whether or not her Uncle Paul suffered before he died. When she asks her father what has happened to the soldiers he tells her that the worst is over for them now as they are healing. Annie does not believe him.

While her father begins his work at St. John's, her mother writes music for songs and for piano. Before the war Annie's mother had a group of musicians who came to their house. These young men were friends with her brother Paul who studied at the Music Academy. Annie's Uncle Paul wrote music and he often came to their house to talk to Annie's mom because Grandfather wanted him to get a real job. Before Paul enlisted he took Annie for a ride on his new motorcycle and he also took her to see an opera. This made him special to Annie because unlike her parents, he listened to what she had to say.

In June, Annie goes to the library to search for books to read. Her mother's friend, Ruth Sylvester works in the library and before the war had stoked Annie's interest in other countries and travel. Now she takes out atlases and books about foreign countries. One afternoon she questions her grandfather about Timothy Lewis and the other wounded men. He tells her there are "a lot of badly hurt boys." Annie's father also talks about his work at St. John's, something Annie's mother doesn't approve of. Annie asks her father if she can visit the hospital and he agrees. Her father is unaware that Annie's mom doesn't approve.

On her very first visit, Annie meets with her father and her grandfather for lunch. Afterwards she notes how quiet the hospital is and on her walk around the grounds she meets the soldier with the badly burned face. First she runs away, leaving her book bag on the bench. Deeply embarrassed about how she has behaved, Annie returns to the bench to retrieve her bag and apologizes but the soldier is brusque towards her. That night Annie asked her father how the man was burned and he tells her it was probably from mustard gas which was used by both side in the war.

Annie and her friends, Emily and Darby, accompany their Sunday school class to the theatre in Kansas City to see a new Lillian Gish movie. The Sunday school teacher, Miss Peterson is critical of Annie's father working with Catholics and tells her so. She also tells Annie that it would have been better for the wounded men to have died. This horrifies Annie decides and she decides she does not want to attend Bible School this summer. At the Fourth of July celebrations, the mayor announces the building of a monument to honour those who died in the Great War.

Three days later Annie returns to St. John's with her grandfather. Timothy introduces her to his friend Andrew Crayton, who is the man with the severely burned face. Andrew is unfriendly but he does show an interest in the atlases that Annie has brought, especially the one of France. Andrew tells her what it was really like in France - that there were few people, no animals and the villages had all been bombed out. He tells her about the mud, the rats and the gas. When Annie's mother comes to pick up Grandfather because he hasn't been feeling well, she sees Andrew and ignores him and rushes Grandfather and Annie to the car. Annie is furious at how her mother behaved towards Andrew. Annie's mother is angry that she's been with a man "with the horrible face." Annie explains to her mother how she met Andrew, that he is better once you know him and that they looked at atlases. Annie's mother insists that she not return to St. John's, causing Annie be become very upset. Her mother says they've done their part for the war by "giving" Paul.

That night Grandfather takes a turn for the worse and has to be taken to the hospital. Ruth stays with Annie and they talk about what happened at St. John's that day. Ruth reminds Annie that her mother has been deeply affected by the deaths of the young men from the music group as well as the death of her brother Paul and encourages her to try to understand. The next day Annie's mom returns home and tells Annie that Grandfather is doing much better but must stay in hospital for a week. She also tells her that she and Grandmother will be taking him to Estes, Colorado. At first the plan is for Annie to accompany them, but her father intervenes and Annie is allowed to stay home. In defiance of her mother's reminder that she not go to the hospital, Annie promises Grandfather that she will continue to see Timothy at St. John's and read to him. In an attempt to quiet her conscience about disobeying her mother, Annie asks her father for permission to go to St. John's. Not knowing about Annie's mother's opposition he agrees.

Annie returns to read to Timothy and she also meets with Andrew again. Andrew asks Annie about her Uncle Paul and if  she knows where he died in France. She tells him that her family was told by Frederick McFarland a soldier who came to their home that he died in a woods in France. He told her grandparents that Paul died a hero. Andrew believes that Paul probably died at Belleau Wood based on what Annie has told him. He also shows her his Purple Heart which everyone who's been wounded or killed in battle receives. However Annie is quite certain that her Uncle Paul never received such a medal. When she checks her Uncle Paul's medals that evening Annie does not find a Purple Heart. Puzzled, she decides to write Grandfather and ask him and his letter reveals that Paul never received a Purple Heart. Annie tells her father about the medal leading them to reread the telegram they received informing them of Paul's death. As Annie begins to confront the realities of the war through her friendship with Andrew, she also uncovers the truth about her Uncle Paul's death.


Margaret Rostkowski has crafted an engaging story that explores the myths perpetrated by society about war at the turn of the last century. No war dispelled these myths more than the conflict that engulfed Europe in 1914 and came to be known as the Great War. Unlike the Second World War in which the liberation of Europe from Hitler and the Nazis was paramount, the First World War came about because of a complex set of reasons and missteps; treaties that required countries to side with allies, the formation of the German Empire by Bismarck, the war in the Balkans in the early 1900's and the complicated relationships between the monarchs of Europe and Britain who were all inter-related. The Great War was to be "the war to end all wars" and it was to be short - over by Christmas of 1914 by most predictions. However, this war was the first fought with the full use of modern industrial technology; machine guns, tanks, aircraft, artillery and chemical poison. When war was declared, most men expressed exhilaration at enlisting to fight for their country. Enlisting was viewed as honourable and an expression of patriotism. In Canada, seventy percent of those who enlisted were of British heritage, indicating these men believed they were helping defend their mother country. Men who died in the conflict were labelled heroes. Few people at home knew the appalling conditions soldiers on both sides experienced. But as the casualty lists grew opposition to the war grew as well.  By the end of the war, people wanted to forget. Few families remained untouched having lost husbands, fathers, uncles, and brothers. After The Dancing is an exploration of the aftermath of the Great War in a small town in Kansas and how the war forever changed the lives of those it touched.

After the Dancing, begins with the war over and trainloads of soldiers returning. Annie accompanies her mother to the train station to welcome home her beloved father. She is completely unprepared for what she witnesses - the return of terribly wounded  and disfigured soldiers.  Deeply affected by the wounded men at the train station, Annie questions her mother the next morning as to whether they will ever be whole again. "That man on the stretcher, with the face...and all the others. Do you think they'll ever be normal again? Will they be all right?" Her mother assures her that they will be fine because the war is now over.

Unlike her mother and the rest of the town who want to forget the wounded soldiers, Annie cannot. She questions her father about how the soldiers came to be wounded. "Different things. Some were burned, hit with phosphorus shells. Some were shot, some hit with mortar shells or shrapnel...But Annie, understand, we are trying to make them as well as we can. The worst is over for them. They are no longer in great pain. They're the lucky ones."  Annie is shocked by his response as she would not consider these men to be lucky. "The slow parade of wounded passed in front of me again. Lucky? My father had never lied to me before. But knew he was now." 

Like Annie's mother, many do not want to see the wounded men. At a movie outing Annie's friend Emily suggests that Annie's father is wasting his time treating the wounded soldiers at St. John's and that what happened during the war should be forgotten. "Now the war is over. We can forget all those horrible things now. He could be helping normal people who can get better. Mama says those men out there will never get any better. Besides, it's true, those men are scary to look at, aren't they?"

Annie decides she needs to see for herself and so she asks to go to the hospital. Annie quickly learns from Andrew Crayton, the soldier with the badly burned face, what the war was really like. He tells her "I was there only two months. I didn't see anything beautiful in France." When she apologizes he says, "You couldn't know. Nobody knows!"

While her mother takes Grandfather away to recuperate in Colorado, Annie confronts her father about the lies he has told her. He acknowledges that he lied in an attempt to hide the the reality of war from her."I was a fool to tell you such nonsense. I guess...I wanted to protect you somehow from all that I had seen. When I left for the war, you were still a child." Annie admits to him that she allowed herself to be deceived and her father tells her that he too is struggling with what has happened.

When her mother learns Annie's been visiting the hospital she is furious. She tells her husband that "I just want to forget all of this. It must end sometime. All the pain and hurt. Isn't it enough that we lost Paul?" Her inability to deal with Paul's death makes her unable to confront the reality of the wounded soldiers. But Annie challenges this view.
"That's what Miss Peterson said. They should have died in Europe so we wouldn't have to look at them. Would you like that better? So we wouldn't have to be upset. I can't believe you feel that way too."

Annie reveals to her mother that they were lied to by the soldier who visited them. Paul did not die a hero's death in battle but from measles. Heavy casualties from the battle prevented the doctors from caring properly for him. At first to Annie this makes his death seem worthless. But Andrew tells her Paul's death from measles is not what makes his death senseless, but the fact that he had to die in a conflict that itself didn't make sense. When Annie's mother learns how her brother died, she is overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all. But Annie tells her that what is really unfair is not to remember the wounded men who survived the conflict. By discovering the truth of Paul's death and talking about it, Annie helps her mother come to terms with it and to begin to heal. Only then can she begin to reach out to the wounded soldiers.

Annie also helps Andrew face life again as a seriously wounded veteran. He tells her, "Before I met you, I just sat around feeling sorry for myself. You know how I was. Mean to you, always angry, keeping away from everyone. Because...I knew what I looked like and I knew people were scared of me...And you talked to me, reminded me that I wasn't the only one the war had hurt." Andrew tells her that she made him take control of his life again by making her own choices in her life. By making the decision to return to St. John's to help the soldiers Annie grows up. Andrew points this out to her. "You came anyway. Decided for yourself what was right for you...That's what being an adult is -- making decisions for yourself."

Ruth helps Annie put everything in perspective when they talk about war. She tells Annie that people want to forget the war and the injured veterans because by keeping them as memories they do not have to think deeper about what happened. Remembering the wounded soldiers means they must confront the war and the possibility that it was not the glorious enterprise they first envisioned. The wounded men are a reminder of the brutality of war and their own losses.

All this makes Annie Metcalf a remarkable, strong, female character in the novel, ready and willing to confront realities the adults  are carefully avoiding. She forces her mother to face the reality of life after the war and Andrew to face life again. She considers what defines a hero, confronts society's negative view of wounded soldiers and reminds those around her of their duty to remember.

Rostkowski paints a snapshot of life in small-town America post World War I and conveys to her readers a sense of innocence lost. Annie, her mother and father and her mother's friend Ruth all reflect that loss as they struggle to come to terms with the war.

After The Dancing is a poignant novel that encourages readers to consider the themes of war, how our society defines a "war hero"  and how we treat our returning soldiers who remind us of the price to be paid in any conflict. This novel is a brilliant piece of historical fiction, well written and offering the reader many themes to be more deeply explored.

Book Details:

After The Dancing by Margaret I. Rostkowski
New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.    1986
217 pp.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Small Damages by Beth Kephart

"You aren't happy," Estela says.
"I can't be happy," I say.
"Look at me, Kenzie."
"I'm looking at you, Estela."
"Do you know your own heart?"
"I don't know anything."
"Go," she says, "and think. And don't come back until you know."

Small Damages tells the story of a young woman who gets pregnant and is sent away to have her baby.  The story is set outside of Seville, Spain in 1995 but begins in Philadelphia.

Her father died suddenly in September of her senior year as a result of a heart attack leaving Kenzie and her mother to pick up the pieces of their life in Philadelphia. Kenzie was very close to her father who was a photographer. She admired her father because he chose to be a photographer in spite of the disapproval of others including Kenzie's mother. After her father's death, Kenzie's mother does not cope well and Kenzie feels like a "half orphan". The one day her mother announces she is starting her own business, Carlina's Catering. She packs away all of her Kenzie's father's photographs, cameras and albums into boxes which are stored in the basement. His clothes are taken to Goodwill and his favourite chair is moved to the guest room. She joins This leaves Kenzie angry and disoriented.

Further turmoil ensues when Kenzie finds herself unexpectedly pregnant during her senior year. Neither her boyfriend, Kevin Sullivan nor her mother are supportive. Her mother, realizing that something is wrong asks Kenzie, "What have you done?"  and when she learns of the pregnancy tells her "I'm calling Dr. Sam. We're going to fix this." But Kenzie refuses, telling her mother that she cannot force her to have an abortion.  When Kenzie decides to continue the pregnancy her mother, considering her irresponsible and determined that they "...can't let anybody see what she's done" makes arrangements to send her to Spain.Kenzie says that "...she wouldn't help me, and in the end, she said, it was Seville or nothing, and I chose Seville."  Her mother chooses Spain because she has a  friend Mari who married a Spaniard and who knows of a couple wanting a baby. So Kenzie is shipped off to Seville for five months to have her baby and then to return to college.

As for her boyfriend Kevin, a baby was never part of his future. In a flashback, Kenzie remembers the day she confirmed she was pregnant. Late for her period and trying to ignore this fact, she does a pregnancy test at the pharmacy. When it is positive, she is overwhelmed and scared and calls Kevin. However Kevin ends the call before Kenzie can tell him, promising to call her back. When she needs him most, he's not there. Later he comes over and Kenzie tells him. Instead of comforting her and accepting some responsibility, Kevin points out that she has planned to attend Newhouse School of Public Communications and that he has Yale "and everything he had to be on account of everyone else." He asks her "what are your choices?" leaving her feeling like the pregnancy is her problem. He tells her the baby is only a half inch and that she doesn't have to continue with the pregnancy, but Kenzie tells him the there's a part of her dad in her baby. The day before she leaves for Spain, she asks Kevin to come with her to Spain. He refuses telling her that she doesn't have to go through with the pregnancy.

So feeling abandoned by both her mother and Kevin, Kenzie arrives Seville and met by Miguel who drives to his ranch in a cranky old car he calls Gloria. The ranch, called Los Nietos is where Miguel raises bulls for bull fighting. Also living at the ranch are a cook, Estela and Esteban who is a young man around Kenzie's age. Estela tells Kenzie she will teach her how to cook. Esteban doesn't live in the house and seems at first to be somewhat reclusive. Kenzie is distraught at having left her old life behind because pregnancy changes everything. "'s yours, and no matter what you do, you've done a big thing that stays with you a lifetime."

Estela sets out to cook a huge meal for a man, Luis, who is expected to arrive shortly. Kenzie learns that this man is Miguel's uncle and also Estela's friend. However, Luis does not arrive alone but with a group of people whom Estela calls the Gypsies of Benalua. They include Angelita, Joselita, Bruno, Rafael and Arcadio. Furious at the arrival of the gypsies Estela retreats to her room. Kenzie asks Esteban why Estela hates the gypsies but he only tells her she has her reasons.

Estela brings Kenzie a letter from Kevin but once again Kevin disappoints her.  Although it's written by Kevin it reads like a group letter from her friends, telling her how they all miss her. When Estela advises her to write her boy back, Kenzie tells Estela that she has no plans to respond and that she knows nothing about what it is like for her. Estela advises her to "Know your own heart first. Be careful." Distraught over the letter, Kenzie has had it. "That's it today; I can't stand it. I can't stand being here, on my own, invisible but also growing larger...Twenty-one words, and a bunch of we's, like I'm on some holiday. Like all I need out here in the desert of Spain is a lame group hug from the shore." She walks away from the ranch.

She is found by Miguel who tells her everyone has been looking for her and that he promised her mother he would look after her. Miguel takes her to Puerto de Sevilla and shows her the Necropolis in the hopes of calming her. Later Esteban brings Kenzie dinner and tells her about his past and how he came to live with Estela and that they are taking her tomorrow to meet her baby's adoptive parents, Javier and Adair. Slowly Kenzie and Esteban begin to form a friendship. He is kind to her and takes her riding on his horse, Tierra. Gradually learning about Esteban's life and what happened to Estela when she was young and in love leads Kenzie to rethink her choices. But it is Estela's story that finally crystallizes Kenzie's feelings for her baby, leading her to make begin to make her own decisions about her life.


Small Damages was in some ways a difficult read because initially Kenzie's voice is awkward and stilted. Her story is told in pieces, sometimes in the present, sometimes in flashback, giving the reader only a partial picture of what has happened in the past and what her current situation is. Eventually Kephart weaves together all the threads of this poignant tale. At its heart is a young woman confronting a life-changing event - an unexpected pregnancy, and offered little support when she makes the choice to continue the pregnancy. Instead, those who claim to love her focus on keeping the pregnancy a secret. Kenzie has lost her father and now experiences emotional abandonment by her boyfriend and her mother. In fact Kenzie's mother is so deeply in denial that when Kenzie asks who is adopting her child, her mother tells her not to call "it" her child.

Thankfully, Estela steps into the void, to mentor and mother Kenzie because as it turns out she was in a similar situation years ago. Estela who is an accomplished cook, is determined to teach Kenzie. She is a woman with a huge heart, having taken in Esteban when he was orphaned. It is Estela's loving care that brings about growth in Kenzie. Estela reveals her life of regret at giving up her own child under very difficult circumstances. This helps Kenzie discover what her heart has known all along - that this baby matters to her.

Kephart gives hints of Kenzie's attachment to her unborn child from the very beginning of the novel because Kenzie identifies almost immediately with her baby. She's taken a health class in Grade eight and remembers what she's learned. Throughout her narrative, she refers again and again to her unborn child.

"I choose a pastry from the tray -- raisins, white frosting, a rising yellow marmalade, and then I'm back out on the streets, thinking of you, tiny as a finger curled, and fed."

When Miguel refers to the adopting parents Javier and Adair as the parents of her child, Kenzie internally balks at this. She tells her baby, "Your dad plays lacrosse; he plays forward. He has dark hair, green eyes, a crowded Irish smile. He's always going somewhere..." 

Thinking of her morning sickness which has now passed, Kenzie remembers "But everywhere is the flail of you, your necklace of bones, your hardly skin, your fingernails, you already have them."

When she remembers the day she took the pregnancy test Kenzie states, "Eight grade health. The baby like a pea, a lima bean, like a see-through ocean of living. Six weeks, I thought. Maybe seven. And the baby and the cord still growing...Elbows at six weeks. Digits. Eyes on the sides of the head."

While Kevin is attempting to convince Kenzie that their baby is insignificant because it is only a half inch, Kenzie knows the truth - that this baby is already forming and developing. And she matters.

Forced to chose between having an abortion and staying at home or having the baby and going to Spain, Kenzie tells her baby she chose to go to Seville because she could already imagine a future with this child, even if others could not. "I chose Seville, because in my head I could see you; you were already a film that was playing...Call me an idiot. Call me selfish. A nothing half inch. But you weren't that to me."

When she's with Adair, she tells her that she's having a girl. "It's not that I actually know, I guess. It's just something I feel. Something inside." As Adair shows her the nursery they have prepared for the baby, Kenzie realizes this is her child's future and she's not a part of it and it hurts. "Suddenly it's all here; it's the future. It's you in Adair's arms, at the window, looking down on the streets of Santa Cruz, bouncing up and down beneath the dangle of clowns, looking part like Kevin, and part like my dad, and all like who you are, against her skin. The future is here in the room, and I catch my breath, and it hurts to breathe, and I can't."

Small Damages is another wonderful novel by Beth Kephart. She tackles a difficult subject with much sensitivity. While it might not seem very realistic that an eighteen year old girl can be forced to travel to Spain to have her baby, Small Damages reminds us that pregnant women are often bullied, abused and forced into making choices they don't want. An eighteen year old girl is financially vulnerable and one who's pregnant is especially vulnerable emotionally and physically. Kenzie, after allowing her mother to make some of her choices, takes control of her life by the end of the novel, recognizing that no matter what choice she makes, someone will be hurt. But she has to take that chance for herself and for her baby otherwise she may face a lifetime of regret like Estela.

Small Damages is well written, with interesting characters and an exotic setting. Readers will be pleasantly surprised by the twist at the end of the novel, one that completes Kenzie's transformation from a girl who found herself unexpectedly pregnant to a young woman in control of her destiny.

Book Details:

Small Damages by Beth Kephart
New York: Philomel Books        2012
293 pp.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Anatomical Shape of A Heart by Jenn Bennet

The Anatomical Shape of A Heart is a contemporary romance that explores the themes of identity and family. Beatrix Adams lives with her mother who is an emergency room nurse at Parnassus Medical Center and her older brother, Heath. Beatrix, who goes by the name of Bex, is fascinated by anatomy and aspires to be a medical illustrator. She's hoping to be allowed to draw the cadavers in the anatomy lab at the hospital so that she can enter a student drawing competition in July that offers a scholarship prize. But she first needs permission from the director of the lab, Dr. Sheridan. When Dr. Sheridan doesn't show for their meeting Bex finds herself taking the Owl transit bus to her home
in the Inner Sunset district, a few blocks from Golden Gate Park. While waiting for the bus she meets an attractive boy all dressed in black. Teasing him that he looks like a jewel thief, he tells her that Jack the Burglar is a good name, leading Bex to believe that his first name is Jack.

When the bus jerks to a stop and a can of gold metallic spray pain rolls out, Bex realizes she knows who he is. Someone has been spraying gold graffiti all over San Francisco since May. The graffiti, words like BEGIN, FLY, BELONG, JUMP, TRUST, have appeared as single words in gold paint on bridges and buildings. The gold paint tin leads Bex to believe that Jack is the person doing the graffiti. The police are convinced that the graffiti vandal is associated with a group called Discord who opposes the mayor.

Both Bex and Heath just make it home before their mother unexpectedly returns home that night. Bex hears her mother argue on the phone with an unknown person. The next morning Bex goes to her job as a checkout girl at Alto Market, an upscale gourmet market. Her manager, Ms. Lopez, tells her that the gold graffiti vandal has struck again overnight, painting the Ninth Avenue Golden Gate Park with the word BLOOM.

Determined to find out more about Jack, Bex talks to Panhandler Will, a homeless man who hangs around the Parnassus. The only thing he tells her is that Jack comes to visit a lady friend in the hospital. A few days later Bex meets Jack who has also been attempting to find out who she is. Bex only tells Jack that she's one of the contributing artists on an anatomy illustration blog called Body-O-Rama and challenges him to identify her. Meanwhile, Bex has her meeting with Dr. Sheridan who refuses her permission to draw cadavers because the facility is for the university students.

On her birthday, Bex along with her mom and Heath go to the Legion of Honor, an art museum showing an exhibition entitled Flesh and Bone and featuring Max Brodel's heart diagram. During her visit the area beneath the heart diagram is vandalized with the word, CELEBRATE in gold. Bex suspects that Jack saw her birthday post on the blog and wrote this for her. Bex takes a picture and posts it online with the comment "Golden Apple vandal wishing me a happy birthday."  This garners her a visit from the police inquiring as to whether she knows the vandal but Bex insists she does not know the identity of the vandal.

When Jack shows up at Alto Market, Bex angrily tells him about the police visit. She learns his name is Jackson Vincent and also tells him about not being able to draw in the anatomy lab and how she needs to do this so she can enter something spectacular in the art show to gain a scholarship. Jack promises to get her into the anatomy lab. The very next day Bex is contacted by Dr. Sheridan's assistant who tells her she can draw under the supervision of a student. Bex knows that Jack arranged this for her and wonders just who he really is. Meanwhile Bex receives a beautifully carved articulated artist's mannequin from a studio in Berkeley, California. Heath reveals to Bex that their father recently moved to Berkeley leading her to suspect it is from their father. Her mother has told them that their father abandoned them for a stripper and has refused to pay child support. Two years ago, Beatrix changed her last name from her father's Van Asch to Adams.

When Bex goes to draw at the anatomy lab, she is deeply upset at drawing a female cadaver nicknamed "Minnie". She rushes out of the lab and is sick to her stomach on the street where she meets Jack who comforts her. He takes her to an unusual tea lounge to recover and Bex finds herself increasingly attracted to him. At the tea lounge they have an unexpected encounter with Sierra, an old friend of Jack's who invites them to a party. Jack declines and somewhat explains his relationship with Sierra.  Bex meets Jack a few days later and finds him disheveled and confused. He's picked up by his father, leaving Bex puzzled over what's happening, especially since he seems in great distress. His texts only deepen the mystery further. The more Bex is in contact with Jack, the more questions she has about who he is and what is happening in his life.


There's plenty to dislike about the beginning of this novel and some of the messages it sends teens. In an attempt to seem cool and perhaps relevant to teens, The Anatomical Shape of A Heart is filled with a plethora of unlikeable characters who think nothing of behaving badly. Of course bad characters make novels interesting, but in this case, the first part of the novel gets bogged down in raunchy characters who promote the worst behaviours of modern culture. One of the main characters, Jackson Vincent, is a graffiti artist who is defacing various areas around San Francisco. He's acting out the frustrations he has over his ever-absent, cold father who is Mayor of San Francisco and the sadness he feels about his twin sister's mental illness. He is a mysterious character who draws the reader in because at first glance he appears to be the quintessential bad boy. Bex, is a sexually active teenager/wannabe medical illustrator whose main focus seems to be on having sex with Jack. In fact her narrative is filled with sexual innuendo and she's constantly fantasizing about Jack's body and sex, making the mystery of Jack's true identity and the secrets he's keeping almost insignificant.

Bex has a mother who thinks nothing of stealing EIGHT boxes of condoms from the hospital for her daughter for when she has sex with Jack. Readers are told Bex's mother does this on a regular basis for her gay son Heath who himself has crashed and burned several times both academically and in his relationships. Bex's parents divorced after her father abandoned the family several years ago. Bex's mother has told her children that their father left them for a stripper and that he refused to pay child support. This meant that they lost their home, that Bex had to leave her school and unless she is able to obtain a significant scholarship will be unable to attend university to study art. When Bex meets her father in Berkley she learns that all of this is not true. Her mother has also prevented her ex-husband from having any contact with his children, despite his desire to see them and his right to do so as a their father. Although Bex's mother is portrayed as a hardworking, caring mother, her actions towards their father and denying her children the chance to have a meaningful relationship with their dad make her a truly reprehensible character. Bex however, doesn't seem to mind much as she quickly forgives her mother's lies.

The large amount of sexual innuendo and Bex's constant desire to become sexually involved with Jack draw the focus away from aspects of the story that are much more interesting. Fortunately, Bennet does get her story on track in the latter half of the novel. Jack and his life have been a mystery to Bex up until now and there's a good reason why. Jack takes Bex to visit his "lady friend" who turns out to be his twin sister, Jillian, a schizophrenic. It is hauntingly tender scene. Jack is completely undone by his sister's descent into full blown schizophrenia. He treats her with respect, care and concern, resulting in Bex seeing Jack's true character and diverting her attention (momentarily) away from their mutual physical attraction. After their visit Jack explains to Bex how his beautiful sister changed from "being homecoming princess to someone who stopped wearing makeup and dressed like a slob."  to someone so paranoid she stabbed her own mother.  Jack reveals how this has affected him and how he mourns for the sister who "won't have a normal life. She won't ever go to school again, and she won't get married or have kids."  He also reveals that part of his pain arises from his parents determination to hide his sister's true condition, believing the stigma of a mental illness will negatively affect his father's political aspirations.

All of this has led Jack to question whether Bex would want to be involved with him. This does not prove to be a deterrent to Bex who proves herself to be open minded and brave. And it is through her that Jack's family changes how they deal with Jillian's mental illness. When her plans for the art show fall through, Bex decides to use her artistic ability to humanize Jillian's illness by drawing her portrait.

"Jillian's round face was painted in quick strokes. I'd copied her hair from old photos, dark and bobbed and swooping over her forehead. Her big eyes were open, and she was smiling shyly...Minnie's dissected arm and half-chest were superimposed over Jillian. But instead of looking alike the dead flesh I'd originally drawn, I'd painted it to look like the dissections were doors opening to reveal her muscles and organs -- like the back of a clock removed to show the cogs and wheels...
And in place of the usual anatomical diagram labels to identify the names of bones and muscles, I substituted words from Jillian's ramblings. Memories of her childhood cat. Her first boyfriend. Her favorite book...
Hundreds of words. They filled the space around her, connected by diagram lines and curling veins..."

Bex titled her work,  Hebe Immortalized" because, as the Mayor tells onlookers, "hebephrenia is another name for disorganized schizophrenia.  After the exhibition, Jack's father approaches Bex to purchase her painting. When she asks him why, he reveals that " made me realize I don't see my daughter as much as I should."  Ultimately it leads to the Mayor working to help obtain funds for "a new outreach program for homeless people with psychiatric needs..."  It would have been wonderful if Bennet could have had a rendering of Bex's painting. However, perhaps it's fitting she's left what it looks like to each reader's imagination.

One of the strengths of this novel is the journey Bex takes in determining how she's going to use her artistic abilities. At the beginning of the novel she's decided to be a medical illustrator. She's stopped using colour and only draws in black and white. Bex doesn't believe she's a creative person as she tells Jack, "And I'm not creative -- I mean, not in a cool way. I used to paint, but color overwhelms me now. Maybe my tastes have changed over the last couple of years -- I don't know. It's easier when I leave emotion out of it and just focus on line and shadow..." However, Bex quickly finds that she doesn't have the stomach for drawing from cadavers. When her mother questions why she's chose this route, Bex tells her she's being practical and hopes that her skills will one day save lives.  However, her mother tells her, "Art shouldn't be practical. It should be emotional and expressive. There are other ways to save people's lives than drawing teaching diagrams for med students. You could do something bigger. Something that makes people happy -- and that makes you happy." Eventually circumstances push Bex into considering another way to be creative, a way that melds her anatomical drawings with artistic flair. That change comes after meeting Jack's sister, Jillian, and offers Bex a chance to use her artistic abilities to speak for those who can't.

The Anatomical Shape of A Heart is a book best read by older teens due to the mature content.

Book Details:

The Anatomical Shape of A Heart by Jenn Bennet
New York: Feiwel and Friends Book     2015
294 pp.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Friends For Life by Andrew Noriss

Francis Meredith is sitting on a bench during lunch break when he first meets Jessica. He immediately knows something's not quite right  when he sees her walking across the grass in Victoria Beckham's zebra dress on a very cold February day. She sits down on the end of the bench and is shocked when Francis offers her a sip of his hot tea. The girl tells Francis that she is dead and that no one is able to see her or hear her. Except Francis. The girl who reveals herself to be Jessica Fry has been dead for a year but she doesn't remember the circumstances of her death. Francis and Jessica agree to meet again after school.

They meet and decide to go to Francis's home on Alma Road. Jessica is now dressed for winter - she just has to think about what she wants to wear and it appears on her body. Francis takes Jessica to his special room upstairs at the top of his house. This room is filled with Francis's drawing of fashion designs as well as a sewing machine, bolts of material, a table covered in paper patterns, dressmaker's dummy and a couch. On a set of shelves are at least fifty dolls, each dressed in a different outfit that Francis has created. Francis explains to Jessica that he's doing a history of fashion.

Jessica tells Francis that she does not remember how she died but that she knew she was dead. She was in her third floor hospital room and saw her body covered by a sheet. Despite feeling calm, Jessica felt there was something missing. She has been returning every night for the past year to her room in case she has missed something. Neither knows why Francis can see her while others cannot. Francis and Jessica discover they have several things in common including their love of fashion,they are the same age and are only children to single mothers.

As the days pass, Francis and Jessica spend all their days together. Jessica goes to school with Francis, helping him in each of his classes. They spend time after school in Francis's special room on the top floor of his home. To those who can't see Jessica, Francis appears to be a loner who doesn't talk to anyone. Francis begins to be bullied by Quentin Howard, a boy in his class who knows about Francis and the dolls.

Meanwhile Francis's mother, Grace becomes more and more concerned about the amount of time Francis is spending alone. Since his mother can't see Jessica, she believes he comes home every day and spends time alone in the attic. Worried after hearing Francis talking to himself, Grace suggests that Francis meet a new neighbour's son, Andy who will starting at Francis's school, John Felton the following week. Andy doesn't want to attend school and Francis's mother is hoping he can help Andy.

It turns out Andy is a girl named Andi Campion, a stocky, redhead who called Thug by her mother. Andi's mother explains that it is short for "Thuglette", a name she gave her daughter because she was always getting into fights when she was younger. Francis takes Andi to his bedroom where Jessica is waiting. Both Francis and Jessica are shocked when Andi is able to see and talk to Jessica. They reveal Jessica's situation to Andi who thinks she's very cool. Andi is curious about Jessica, especially about her not remembering the circumstances of her death. Both Francis's mother and Mrs. Campion are astonished that Francis and Andi seem to get along well.

Andi reluctantly agrees to go to school as long as Francis is with her. However, Francis warns her that he might not be the best person to hang with, telling her he is viewed as "different" and therefore is not popular. He takes Andi to his fashion room in the attic, showing her his creations. Andi is nonplussed because she tells Francis she has an uncle in the fashion industry who makes lots of money. At school the principal agrees to Francis's suggestion that Andi be placed in his class. With a little help from Jessica during math class, Andi is able to succeed. She also manages to save Francis from the bully whose been tormenting him.  The three friends spend many happy days together. Andi believes that Jessica show know how she died, so she arranges for her mother to take them to the village where Jessica lived. They locate her grave and convince Jessica to visit her home. When she does this, she does not return. Frances decides to visit Jessica's house and meets her aunt, Joanna Barfield who is a counsellor and tells him to call anytime.

Jessica does not return for days, leaving Francis and Andi upset. When she does finally show up she's wearing her hospital gown and can't remember exactly what happened. Every time the three discuss how Jessica might have died she fades.  Meanwhile Francis's reputation for working wonders spreads because of Andi's transformation into a good student and a girl who has started to wear skirts. This leads to a request by Roland Boyle's mother to have Francis help talk her son into returning to school at St. Saviour's. Francis reluctantly agrees and when he visits Roland he discovers that he too can see Jessica. The group of four now sets out to discover what they might have in common to lead them each to be able to see Jessica  when others can not. Little do they know that what links them will help save the life of a girl in distress and free Jessica from being stuck as a ghost. 


Friends For Life is a simple story about three teens who are considering suicide but are saved by an unexpected relationship with a ghost. That ghost who succeeded in killing herself, has been sent to save them as well as an unknown fourth person. The title of the novel has a double meaning - not only friends for life in the usual sense of being friends forever but also friends who save the lives of others contemplating suicide. Friends For Life explores the factors that often lead teens to consider suicide and what kinds of interventions might help in preventing suicide.

Francis, Andi and Roland do not fit in with their peers - each of them is very different. Francis loves clothing and fashion and dresses dolls. Andi has a body type that is different from the tall, slim, blonde type promoted as "beautiful" by the fashion industry, film and media, while Roland with his heavy-set large frame also has a different body type considered unattractive for a boy.

In the novel's exploration of suicide, Jessica tells how she became very depressed after the death of her mother and then her grandmother. Although her aunt and uncle were, as she described it, "nice" this was not enough. It is the character Roland however who puts into words exactly how a suicidal teenager thinks.

"It's funny, isn't it," said Roland, "how people being nice doesn't help when you feel like that. You know they want to help, you know they're trying to help, but it's like they're in another world. They have no idea how you're really feeling. Or what to do about it."

"You can act as if you think it matters whether you've done any schoolwork or what you eat or what you wear, but in the end...the pretending is such an effort, and you get so tired, that all you really want is for it to stop. For everything to stop."

Both Jessica and Roland state that once the idea of ending things takes hold, it becomes very difficult to ignore. Francis states that more than anything teens in this situation want to be like their friends, but find they cannot.  "And that's what gets to you in the end, isn't it?" It was Francis who was speaking now. "The being different. You want so much to be like everyone else but...He looked sympathetically across at Roland as he spoke. "You know it's never going to happen. You're always going to be different. With you it's your weight; with me it was all this."

The friendship between the three teens and Jessica changes their perspective on life and helps them to consider the things they might have done to help themselves. Francis and Jessica realize that not telling anyone how they were feeling, was a mistake. Francis wonders why he didn't try to tell Quentin Howard to stop teasing him. When Roland is teased at school by Dermot about his size he finds that the support of his friends and the school administration has changed how he views the teasing. It no longer matters and he wonders "why on earth he hadn't told Dermot to leave, or simply walked away."  "The thing he had most feared would happen had happened, but for some reason it had been okay. Perhaps it was because there were people around him who said it was not okay; perhaps that was what made the difference. Or maybe it was simply the realization that someone telling him he was fat wasn't that important. It didn't mean anything."

Jessica the ghost helps Francis, Andi and Roland understand there were alternatives to the choice she made and to prevent them from making the same mistake. Roland determines that her continued presence as a ghost means there is someone else she is meant to help. Eventually Jessica discovers that person is another student at John Felton who is being bullied by fellow students. Like Jessica, it was a series of traumatic events that led to life becoming unbearable for this student.

At the end of the novel, Francis gains more insight about suicide and how people come to this point as he reads through the letters that he receives after he and his friends intervened to help the student.  Many of the people were not starving or in chronic pain but instead felt they were "different" and that they felt alone. This leads Francis to wonder why being different is so painful. Jessica's Aunt Jo tells him that it may be that some people feel things more deeply than others and this combined with sometime traumatic in their lives leaves them vulnerable.

Friends For Life is a sensitive treatment of youth suicide filled with realistic characters who form a supportive, caring relationship with each other, demonstrating the power friendship can have on transforming the lives of those around us. The novel ends on a hopeful note with Francis feeling more positive about being different and coming to the conclusion that life can change very quickly. Francis discovers that he has learned to accept what makes him different and that has helped those around him accept him too. "And the strange thing was that, now that he didn't really care what other people thought, most them seemed quite happy to let him be as different as he liked."  He recognizes that his life has changed quickly over the span of a few months. Life could "appear so impossible at one moment, and so full of hope and possibilities the next."  That change can bring about opportunities for unexpected happiness. This is the lesson Francis's unexpected meeting with Jessica taught him - "how much fun there was to be had in life, how full of opportunities it was, how many chances it gave for enjoyment." 

 Friends For Life is highly recommended. Originally published in the United Kingdom as Jessica's Ghost. Andrew Noriss has stated he normally writes comedy and the story told in Friends For Life was not the usual stuff he writes. Over the course of ten years his story took shape. Andrew writes that he at times, like many of us, has experienced difficult times and is grateful to the "Jessicas" in his life "whose mere presence was a constant reminder that, even at its darkest, life if full of possibilities and that, yes, miracles can happen."

Book Details:

Friends For Life by Andrew Noriss
New York: Scholastic Books Inc.   2015
234 pp.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

An Eagle In The Snow by Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo has crafted a beautiful story within a story. Set in 1940 England during the bombing of Britain, a stranger tells a young boy and his mother how a chance encounter and the decision to do the right thing appears to have been the wrong thing done.

The novel opens with a young boy, Barney travelling with his mother on the 11:50 train to London, on their way to the safety of Cornwall by the sea. Barney is ten years old and he lived on Mulberry Street in Coventry with his mother and father.  His father is now off to war, with the Royal Engineers in Africa. He and his mother have just endured weeks of bombing attacks by Germany in what will one day be known as the Blitz. The latest attack destroyed their home leaving them with nothing. Barney scrambled up the rubble of their home to find his toy train but was held off by the air raid warden. His grandpa took his to check his fields and there they found his beloved horse, Big Black Jack dead. Now Barney and his mom are off to stay with her sister in Mevagissey on the Cornwall coast.

In the train with them is a man whom Barney recognizes as the air-raid warden who pulled him off the rubble on Mulberry Street. Barney says nothing to his mother. But when his mother falls asleep on the train, Barney tells the stranger he recognizes him from Mulberry Street. The man tells Barney he should be fighting alongside his father but a wound from the last war has prevented him from being accepted. Everyone has told him he has done his part and has the medals to prove it. While looking out the window, Barney spots what he thinks is a Spitfire, a British plane coming directly towards the train. However the stranger recognizes it is as German Messerschmitt that is attacking the train. He pushed Barney and his now wide awake mother to the floor. The train races along faster and faster until it reaches a tunnel and roars inside. Then they hear the brakes screeching as the train struggles to stop inside the tunnel.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspecting Coventry Cathedral.

The tunnel is pitch black and Barney doesn't like the darkness. The stranger tells them that they will have to wait inside the tunnel until the German fighters are gone. He offers to tell Barney and his mother a story to pass the time waiting, just like they used to do in the trenches during the Great War. His story is about his friend, William Byron, who went by the name of Billy Byron and how the two of them grew up on Mulberry Street and then joined the army. At first being in the army was an adventure. The stranger and Billy were given good food, clothing and sent to South Africa. However, war came to Europe and they soon found themselves sent to the front where conditions were very different. On a march to the front, Billy encountered a little girl who was close to death. Against the orders of his Sergeant, he picked up the girl and took her to the field hospital. This experience made him determined to stop the war as quickly as possible.

The stranger continues his story as they wait for the German aircraft to leave so the train can leave the safety of the tunnel. Barney at times becomes upset at the darkness so as he's telling the story, the stranger strikes matches to comfort him with their light. Barney learns that Billy Byron was a brilliant soldier who was seriously wounded several times and won many medals including the Victoria Cross. Near the end of the war he spared the life of a German soldier at the Battle of Marcoing. Like most Great War veterans life was not easy after the war. Billy eventually located Christine and they married. At times he seemed fine, other times troubled. As Adolf Hitler comes to power and hostilities begin between Germany and Britain, a fateful night in the cinema reveals to Billy the seemlying terrible consequences of good deed done years ago.


An Eagle In The Snow is loosely based on the life of Henry Tandey who was a British soldier in World War I. Tandey was a Private in the Green Howard regiment. He survived the Battle of Ypres and was awarded the three highest awards for heroism in a six-week period in 1918. It is uncertain that Henry Tandey ever met Adolf Hitler. The story holds that they met each other at the Battle of Marcoing when a soldier wandered into the British and Tandey refused to shoot him because he was wounded. That soldier was supposedly Adolf Hitler.  Readers can do more research into this fascinating story Morpurgo recounts in his own novel from the following resources and decide for themselves if Tandey really did encounter Hitler near the end of the Great War:

Did British Soldier Spare Hitler's Life in WWI?

How a Right Can Make A Wrong.

Henry Tandey Spared Wounded Adolf Hitler's Life in First World War and Changed the World Forever.

Morpurgo tells his story with simplicity, capturing both the devastation experienced by Coventry during the Blitz in 1940 as well as the hardships of soldiers during the First World War. The story provides the framework for young readers to explore the question what if doing what you believe is the right thing at the time turns out to be the wrong choice in the end?In An Eagle In The Snow, readers are confronted with Byron's moral dilemma to rectify what now seems like a wrong. Years ago he encountered a wounded Adolf Hitler. Sick of war and the killing, he spared the German soldier's life only to learn years later he became one of history's most infamous men. Determined to rectify what he considers a terrible mistake, Billy Byron sets out for Hitler's stronghold of .. However when he does finally meet Hitler outside, he finds himself unable to carry through with his plan.

Of course we all must make choices as we go through life. Some choices are easier than others and many of those choices are influenced by the values we believe in. Billy Byron believed that the Great War was wrong. When he encountered Christine by the side of the road, he saw the harm it was doing to innocent people and he wanted to shorten the war. By the end of the war, Byron was sick of the killing when he had a chance to spare one German soldier after one of the last battles, he did so. To say that he had a chance to save the world from World War II if he had killed a young, wounded Adolf Hitler in 1918 is unfair to a man who was a courageous soldier. Billy Byron stayed true to his values as a soldier both in 1918 and in 1939.

Perhaps the outstanding feature of this novel, is the way in which the story is told. The story employs third person omniscient point of view to tell the present story set in 1940, while the stranger uses third person to tell Billy Byron's story. Neither the reader nor Barney know the identity of the stranger, although readers who know Henry Tandey's story will quickly recognize that the stranger is Billy Byron. But even then, Morpurgo gives his readers a little twist at the end.

An Eagle In The Snow has a great cover to draw readers in but the book is marred by poor binding and likely won't last long in even the most caring of readers. The novel has the lovely pencil illustrations by Michael Foreman which often feature in Morpurgo's novels. Quite simply, this is another outstanding story for children and adults from this award-winning British author.

Book Details:

An Eagle In The Snow by Michael Morpurgo
London: HarperCollins 2015
265 pp.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Between Two Worlds by Katherine Kirkpatrick

Between Two Worlds is loosely based on the story of a sixteen-year-old Inuit girl known as Eqariusaq who lives with her husband, Angulluk in Greenland and her encounters with Arctic explorer, Robert Peary and his family at the beginning of the 1900's.

Robert Edwin Peary was an American who began exploring the Greenland ice sheet in the late 1800's. His goal was to be the first man to reach the North Pole. His first exploration of the Greenland ice cap was in 1886. In 1891 he undertook a second trip to Greenland to determine how extensive the ice cap was and if it would lead him to the North Pole. Peary made another expedition in 1893-94 and began investigating possible routes to the North Pole in the years from 1898 to 1902. Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909.

Equariusaq spent a year living with Robert E. Peary and his family in America. Robert Peary and his wife Josephine who was pregnant at the time visited northern Greenland in the fall of 1893. Josephine gave birth to a baby girl, Marie Ahnighito on September 12. The following summer Josephine and Marie returned to America, taking twelve-year-old Eqariusaq with them. Eqariusaq was soon named Billy Bah because that is what little Marie, whom she babysat, called her. Living in Washington, Eqariusaq learned to speak English and also collected many keepsakes and trinkets to bring back to her home in Greenland to show her parents and her people. She returned with Josephine and Marie the following year.

When she was fifteen, Eqariusaq married Angulluk. In 1897 Peary took Eqariusaq's mother, Atangana, her father, Nuktaq and her adopted younger sister, Aviaq to America along with several other Inuit. Lacking immunity to diseases common to North America, they all died with the exception of a boy named Minik.

In August 1900, Josephine and Marie returned to Greenland with supplies for Robert Peary in what is supposed to be just a summer trip. It is at this point Between Two Worlds picks up the story. Billy Bah is hunting for eggs on the cliffs outside of Itta with her husband Angulluk when she spies Josephine's ship, the Windward, entering the harbour. She and Angulluk return to the village to greet the qallunaat or white men. Captain Bartlett questions Billy about the whereabouts of Peary and she tells him that Perry has wintered on Musk Ox land (known as Ellesmere Island). In Peary's winter cabin Billy reunites with Peary's wife, Josephine whom she calls Mitti Peary and his daughter Marie. Mitti Peary returns to the ship while Marie, Billy and an orphan boy known as Bag of Bones because he is so thin spend time together. Captain Bartlett tells Billy that they plan to sail to Musk Ox land to locate Lieutenant Peary. The Inuit decide to travel with the quallunaat because there are large herds of musk ox on the island and they need the meat for the upcoming winter. Angulluk has Billy put their request to Captain Bartlett and he agrees but says he will only take ten people. Bartlett takes the young, unmarried hunters as well as Billy Bah and her husband Angulluk, and Aleqasina (Ally) who is Peary's mistress, her Inuit husband Piugaattoq and their son, Anaukaq (Sammy).

Before leaving, Billy visits her parents graves which are empty because they died in America. Billy Bah asks the spirits of her parents for her to be the one to receive their spirits into new life, in the form of a baby. As an Inuit she believes that her parents spirits will return to the body of a new baby, forgetting their memories of their previous lives. They do not answer her.

On the voyage to Musk Ox land, Angulluk trades Billy Bah to a sailor named Duncan Gaylor. Billy is happy to be with Duncan who treats her well. She could not go to a man unless her husband traded her. Determined to make her own decisions, Billy convinces her husband to trade and this leads Duncan to arrange for Billy to stay with him for the rest of the voyage to Musk Ox land. As they journey around the sound, Billy and Ally skin and clean the seals their husband's catch. They arrive at Payer Harbor in Musk Ox land on the eighth morning. Billy accompanies Bartlett and Mitti Peary to the island where they learn from the villagers that Peary recently left for Fort Conger which is far north from the village. The previous winter Peary had most of his frost bitten toes amputated but he has healed well and can still walk.  Bartlett decides he will leave Peary his supplies and the Windward will return to America. Marie is upset at this because she wants to see her father.

Despite a raging blizzard, Billy and Angulluk decide to leave the ship and move into the village. Unable to set up their tent during the storm, they stay in the igloo of an old woman named Navarana.The next morning they awaken to find that the Windward has been blown over onto its side on a shoal. The crew attempts to right the ship and unload all its cargo. Eventually the ship is righted when the tide comes in and Bartlett decides to try to leave the harbour as it is rapidly freezing. Attempts to dynamite a huge iceberg in its path are unsuccessful and the Windward becomes trapped when the harbour freezes over five days later. Angulluk goes hunting with the other hunters for musk oxen while Billy and Ally work on sewing in Navarana's igloo along with her daughter Mikihoq and her two children Tooth Girl (Akitsinnguaq) and Magtaaq. Navarana does not approve of Ally and Billy spending time with the quallunaaq (white men).  However Ally and Billy feel that the wealth they acquire in the form of axes and rifles are worth it.

With the ship saved, Mitti Peary and Marie come to Navarana's igloo to ask the Inuit to make them clothing for the winter. Billy is happy because she is able to negotiate a trade of guns and ammunition in exchange for the clothing and it also means a chance to see Duncan once again. Ally and Billy fight over who is to make Marie's kapatak. During the exchange Ally reveals to Mitti Peary that Sammy is Peary's son. Despite being shocked Mitti Peary decides that Ally will make Marie's kapatak while Billy will make hers. Navarana warns the two women to be careful; they can help the quallunaat survive the winter but they take what they want and then leave. She warns Billy that she needs to think about her husband and her life in their land.

Billy Bah, Ally, Akitsinnguaq (Tooth Girl) and Mikihoq return to the Windward to make Inuit clothing for Mitti Peary and also for Marie. At this time, Billy resumes relations with Duncan against the advice of Old Navarana. On the ship, Billy is approached by an older crew member, Office Sutter who wants to make plaster masks of Billy and the other Inuit. Initially they refuse but then Marie Peary and Akitsinnguaq and Mikihoq agree. While he is making the masks, Billy questions Sutter about her parents and how they died. From this conversation she suspects that both Sutter and Duncan are not revealing all they know about what happened to her parents in America.Billy becomes determined to learn the truth about what happened to her parents. She also becomes increasingly unhappy with both her husband and Duncan. Can she lead a life that is truly her own?


Between Two Worlds is a fascinating historical novel that captures the struggles of a young Inuit woman caught between the two worlds of her people and the white men who explore the high Arctic.

From the very beginning of the novel, Kirkpatrick gives her readers a sense of both the simplicity and the hardship of Inuit life in the early twentieth century. For example when Navarana tells Ally and Billy that she owes her life to the fact that her mother had an axe given to her by a white man who was Navarana's father. Billy indicates that "During very lean winters in Itta, mothers smothered their infant daughters. They allowed their sons to live because they'd grow up to provide for the community."

The Inuit view the long winter differently than the white men as Billy describes the dark winter as "cozy days of darkness that my family shared in our igloo."

Billy and Angulluk often greet each other by rubbing noses. They don't bathe so as to protect their skin from the dry cold. Billy tells Marie that the Inuit girls must grow up fast. "Boys need to hunt, or else we don't have enough food. And our people don't seem to live as long as yours. Or grow as tall."

Kirkpatrick weaves facts about Inuit life seamlessly into her story, describing how the people eat following Angulluk's return from a successful polar bear hunt and later on how the Inuit village on Musk Ox land uses all parts of the musk oxen.

The first part of the novel is almost entirely focused on providing the backstory of Billy Bah's relationship with the Peary's. When Billy goes on the Windward to sew clothing for Mitti Peary and Marie, she remembers in flashback her year with the Pearys in America. This provides the set up for the conflict Billy Bah experiences between her Inuit culture and that of the qallunaat. This conflict between two cultures is demonstrated best by Billy's difficult relationships with her husband Angulluk and the sailor Duncan Gaylor, each of whom represent their respective cultures. Billy is given in trade to Duncan by Angulluk. It was the Inuit custom for men to trade his wife to another man. "Now and then, a husband might lend his wife to another hunter for a few days, to help with his chores, ore relieve his boredom during the long winter. Such trades were never made with outsiders."

Billy cannot choose to go to a man unless her husband arranges such a trade. But when she is sent to Duncan, she likes his kind ways and manipulates her husband into arranging a trade for the duration of the voyage to Musk Ox land. When she returns to live with her husband on land, Billy is restless. She is happy to be with her husband once again but she longs for Duncan who feels the same. By Christmas with both Duncan and Angulluk vying for her attention and tension high between the two men, Billy comes to realize she loves both men. However, Billy begins to realize that Navarana's warning that she cannot be part of both worlds is probably true. When she discovers the truth about what happened to her parents in New York she is very angry and no longer trusts the qallunaat. She now believes that Navarana's advice about the qallunaat, "if they want something, they will use any excuse to have it, and they will forget you when it's convenient." is probably true. Mitti Peary risked Angulluk's life to find her husband and then risked both Angulluk, Billy and Bag of Bones' life a second time to locate Peary. Billy tries to get her husband to promise her he will not work for the Pearys again but he refuses.

Eventually Duncan begins to press Billy to leave Angulluk and to return with him to America. But Billy is determined that neither man will determine her future. She refuses to go with Duncan to America and when Angulluk refuses to promise never to trade her again, Billy decides she will leave him. Seeing how Peary reacts in his situation which is similar to hers - he has two wives and seems to live between two worlds, Billy decides she must be strong like Peary. The defining moment comes when Billy goes through the keepsakes she has collected from America. She realizes that these keepsakes were kept because she has wanted to return to America. Billy decides that she wants to remain in her land. The spirit of Navarana warns her not to hate the white men because she will not be able to control her own life. Billy realizes that she must see herself as equal to her husband and the qallunaat. She must be strong and make her own decisions. She finally does this when Peary asks her to return with him to Musk Ox land and make clothing for his expedition as he returns to try to make it to the North Pole. However Billy Bah doesn't do it for Peary's affirmation but because she likes to sew and she will have a new life.

Kirkpatrick has provided her readers with a great deal of background information outside of the story. A map of Greenland and a detailed note at the back of the novel providing readers further information about the real Robert E. Peary and Billy Bah are included as are numerous photographs. There is a list of Inuit words used in the story as well as a detailed list of the characters in the novel. Also provided are Endnotes with further information.

Readers will find some information on Eqariusaq from two articles in the online version of the Nunatsiaq. The second article is here.

Book Details:

Between Two Worlds by Katherine Kirkpatrick
New York: Wendy Lamb Books     2014
285 pp.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye Stranger is a juvenile novel focusing on friendship and growing up in the post-modern world and all the unique problems that can entail.

In the Prologue readers learn that Bridget Barsamian spent all of grade three in hospital after being struck by a car. Miraculously she survived the accident and returned to school after extensive treatment.

The main story is told by Bridget who now goes by Bridge and is in seventh grade. Bridge lives with her mom who is a cellist, her father who owns a coffee shop called the Bear Bar and her older brother Jamie who is in grade ten.  Bridge's best friends are Tabitha (Tab) and Emily (Em). In fourth grade the three girls made a pact that they would never fight.

In October of seventh grade things are beginning to change between the three friends. Emily's body is changing and she begins getting texts from an eight grade boy who sends her pictures of different parts of his body. Tab is opinionated and involved in many clubs. Bridge still draws animals on her assignments like they did in fourth grade and she's wearing a set of cat ears every day.

In English class Bridget has her paper marked by Sherm Russo who sits next to her. Sherm is bit nerdy but very friendly as he tells Bridge that he doesn't believe the moon landing ever happened. At the clubs fair, when Bridge sees Sherm is part of the Tech Crew she decides to join up. Tech Crew is run by Mr. Partridge who is a very intense teacher but also very kind.

During an intruder alert drill, Bridge can't help but notice Sherm - how he sits, the colour of his eyes and his smell. They whisper back and forth about breakfast and Sherm asks Bridge to go to the Dollar-Eight Diner to get cinnamon toast after school on Friday.  Bridge agrees. After school that same day Em reveals to Bridge and Tab that she and Patrick McCormack have been exchanging pictures and she shows them a picture of his belly button that he's sent to her. She doesn't really know what to do about the picture.

On Friday, Bridge's dinner with Sherm goes well. He tells Bridge that that his grandfather left his grandmother this past summer after fifty years. Sherm also tells Bridge that he remembers when she got hit by the car and tells her that his grandfather spent the night at the hospital along with many other people who were concerned about her. Bridge in turn reveals to Sherm that a nurse told her that she didn't die for a reason. But Sherm doesn't believe that she's any luckier than anyone else.

Meanwhile Em's picture contest with Patrick goes to new levels when he sends her a picture of himself in his underwear in what appears to be a game of chicken. For Em this means she must send something equally risque back to Patrick otherwise she'll be seen as being afraid. Bridge is horrified that Em is considering even taking such a picture but Em tells her that Julie Hopper told her if she doesn't send him a picture, she will lose Patrick. Em tells Bridge that she's told Tab what she's planning but that Tab is "all judgy now".  Despite Tab's reservations, Em is desperate to have Bridge help her. Bridge reluctantly agrees and takes a picture of Bridge wearing jeans and her mother's lacy bra. Em promises Bridge she will not send the picture to anyone until she talks with Bridge again.

The next day Sherm receives a picture the next morning on his cell phone with no text. Bridge notices that strange things are happening at school, people being called to the office and Em is extremely upset. Bridge learns the reason Em is freaking out is because she did send the picture to Patrick but even worse it has somehow been sent to David Marcel, another student in the class, who has in turn passed it along to other people. When Tab finds out she is furious at Bridge for her part in helping Em take the picture. When the group of friends meet in the fourth floor washroom,  Em tells her friends that David Marcel sent the picture to other students and now everyone in the school knows what has happened . Sherm confesses that he told Mr. Ramos after the picture was sent to him because he wanted to stop the picture from being spread around further. Em is furious at Sherm and yells at him to leave.

Em tells Bridge that Patrick told her someone took his phone and sent the picture to David. Bridge finds this scenario unbelievable and she tries to convince Em that Patrick is not trustworthy and that she should not be friends with him. However, Em believes Patrick and she refuses to give him up. She admits to liking the picture and tells Bridge that she's not ashamed for looking good.

The fallout from the picture is fast and furious. Mr. Ramos has the boys erase Em's picture from their phones. Em has to tell her mother and enlists Bridge's help in doing so. Sherm is worried Bridge won't like him anymore but she tells him she was only mad that he didn't tell her about the picture and going to see Mr. Ramos. David Marcel is suspended. Em loses her spot in the Talentine show and is treated badly by some of the students. Throughout this, Bridge and Sherm grow closer, Em and Patrick stay together, and the three friends must come to terms with what happened at school.


Goodbye Stranger is a fairly enjoyable read that deals with the issues involved in posting inappropriate personal cell phone pictures online. At its core is the theme of friendship and its ability to endure during during difficult times.

Stead realistically portrays middle school relationships and the modern problems young people face as they transition from childhood into teen years. The focus is on the dangers of social media and body image as well as how girls are treated differently than boys when problems arise. These dangers are largely unrecognized by young people because they lack the ability to see the consequences. For example, the character Em struggles to understand how a picture of herself that she feels good about, ends up creating so many problems for everyone, gets her labelled a slut and singled out for special treatment by the school. Tab mistakenly believes that posting Patrick's picture so that he can understand what Em has suffered through is a form of civil disobedience and will maybe teach him a lesson. Instead she makes things worse for everyone. Bridge and Tab both understood that Em taking this picture was wrong, yet Bridge helped Em take the picture in the name of friendship.

The theme of friendship is woven throughout the novel. Despite all that has happened, especially after Bridge helps Em with her poor choice of taking and posting the picture, after Tab posts Patrick's picture, the three friends ultimately fall back on their promise not to fight and find forgiveness for one another.An interesting contrast is shown between Em and Patrick's relationship and Bridge and Sherm's relationship. While Em and Patrick focus less on communication and more on social media, Bridge and Sherm's relationship starts out as a friendship that is grounded in communication and mutual understanding. It is the healthier one and the one that endures as shown in the epilogue.

One of the more interesting characters in Goodbye Stranger is Sherm who is struggling to come to terms with what he views as the betrayal of his grandfather to his beloved Nonna. He's not the only one struggling with this in the novel, but the reader comes to see how hurt he is that his father has left his grandmother after fifty years of marriage to be with another woman. Sherm writes his grandfather letters every day but never sends them to him, although in the end he does. In one of the letters he talks about how his father was trying to get his grandfather and Nonna to take a trip back to Italy to rediscover who he is. Sherm wants to know "Is the new you the stranger? Or is the stranger the person you leave behind?" This exchange touches on the theme of identity, especially relevant for tweens and teens who are just beginning to discover who they are. As we grow up, sometimes we are very different from the person we once were.

This is even more evident in the second person narrative of Celeste. Celeste had a good friend in Vinny because she made her feel like who she wanted to be. Or so she thought. But over time, as they grew into their teens there were aspects of Vinny's character that were cruel. Vinny's "tasting game" was one example.  At first Celeste tries to ignore Vinny's cruelty. Celeste states, "When you began to catch glimpses of something different -- like that spoonful of cinnamon, and the smile that went along with it -- you made excuses for her. That's Vinny, you told yourself." But Celeste begins to realize that the Vinny she once knew is gone. Instead of warning Gina about the tasting game, Celeste allows Vinny to hurt Gina by feeding her a spoonful of cinnamon. However, when Vinny tries to get Gina to eat her chapstick, Celeste intervenes and pays the price by being uninvited to her Halloween party. In a last ditch attempt to save this "friendship", Celeste betrays Gina's special secret. When she realizes what she's done she needs time off to figure out how to repair the harm caused. Vinny in effect has become a stranger to her and it's time to say goodbye to that friendship. Vinny is a stranger.

Stead employs several narrators including Bridge, Sherm and a mystery second person narrator. My only criticism of this novel is the use of the second person narrative. This mystery narrator that seemed to have no connection to the characters and the main storyline. The identity of the second person narrator is not revealed until the end of the novel. She refers to characters who are not part of the main story and the reader is left puzzling throughout the novel over the connection between the two narratives. It would seem the purpose of the second person narrator was to create a big reveal at the end of the novel but this easily could have been accomplished without such a device.This is not to say the narrative was not needed - just that it seemed ineffective as a device to create a reveal at the end of the novel.

An appealing aspect of this novel was the adult characters. It's rare to find a family like Bridge's where the parents are accomplished, hard working, caring and still married. This was refreshing.

Overall Goodbye Stranger was a good well written novel about middle school life, realistic in its presentation with authentic, varied characters.

Book Details:

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
New York: Wendy Lamb Books     2015
289 pp.