Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Fifteen Lanes by S. J. Laidlaw

Set in India, Fifteen Lanes tells the story of two girls from very  different segments of Indian society, one the daughter of wealthy parents who leads a life of privilege, the other a first born to a prostitute whose fate seems to be that of her mother.

The story opens with Noor Benkatti remembering how at age five she used to sleep under her mother's bed in a room shared with three other women. Noor lives in a house in Kamathipura run by Binti-Ma'am and her son Pran with her Ma and another woman called Deepa-Auntie. Her five year old self did not fully understand the men who visited her mother, Ashmita and the other women such as Deepa-Auntie at night, nor why she couldn't sleep at night with her mother in their bed.

Noor remembers her first day of school, her uniform, the tight braids and her first time wearing shoes. Her mother sent her to a fee-paying school but unlike the parents of her schoolmates, did not accompany her the first day. Noor immediately made a friend in Gajra Bawanvadi. Gajra was soon sharing her delicious lunch of samosas, paratha and dahl with Noor, who was used to eating very little. But when her mother discovers that she's been eating more food than usual she warns her not to steal.

Noor's story fast forwards four years to when she is nine years old. Noor now has a three year old sister, Aamaal and her mother is expecting another baby. In the 4th class at school, Noor is an excellent student, placing firsts in Math and English. Talking with Deepa-Auntie, she asks her about her past. Deepa-Auntie is from Nepal and has beautiful golden skin which makes her a favourite with the men who come to the brothel. She grew up poor on a farm but when she was a young girl she was taken from her village by a man who promised her she would work as a domestic. Instead she ended up in the brothel in India. When talking with Deepa-Auntie, Noor asks her mother to explain why they never visit her Ma's village anymore. Ma explains that she is a devadasi, that her mother dedicated her to serve in the temple. Her mother gave Ashmita to the temple for money. The village elders pretended it was a sacred tradition but it was no longer like that. Without explaining further what a devadasi is or what it will mean to Noor, Ma tells her that she cannot escape her fate. "You were born into your fate, Noor. I may forestall it but you can't escape it. We can only hope your next incarnation will be more forgiving."

Noor does not understand what a devadasi is and Deepa-Auntie has no information to give her because she is from Nepal. Deepa-Auntie hopes to pay off her debt to Binti-Ma'am and Pran and return to her country to see her younger sister Yangani. However, Deepa-Auntie is not allowed out of the house and can only sit in the window box which is where men look at the women for sale. She must have permission and can only be escorted out by Binti-Ma'am or Pran.

Noor's mother gives birth to a baby boy named Shami. The day of his birth Noor is out with her friend, Parvati but Aamaal and Lali-didi who is a new girl in the brothel run to tell Noor to get Sunita-Auntie to help her mother who is in labour. However, when Noor returns with Sunita-Auntie her mother has given birth to a frail, little boy. Sunita-Auntie tells Noor that both her mother and the baby boy have the virus - meaning AIDS and she tells Noor to suffocate the baby.  Noor refuses.

Little Shami is constantly sick with pneumonia and sores. One evening Aamaal and Noor are accosted by a customer leaving their house. Noor manages to get Aamaal away from the man and she is saved by Pran and her mother. The customer tells Ashmita that if she is devadasi so is Noor and that she is only delaying the inevitable. Pran informs him that  when it is time Noor will be sold. This altercation leads Noor to confront her mother about what it means to be devadasi. Ashmita explains that it has been tradition that the oldest daughter is dedicated to serve in the temple as a courtesan to the priests and wealthy landowners. Although the practice has been outlawed it continues on as a form of sexual slavery now. Noor is horrified to learn that this will be her fate.

Noor's true situation is discovered as a result of her seeking medical help for her little brother Shami who is HIV-positive and sickly. As Noor's mother's health deteriorates (she is also HIV-positive) she is unable to care for Shami. Her time is spent resting and continuing to work as a prostitute at night. It is a brief encounter in a clinic that unravels Noor's world. At school Noor continues to excel, obtaining firsts in almost every subject. Noor's mother lied to get her into the school hiding that fact that she is the daughter of a sex worker and Noor herself has fabricated an embellished family history; her father is a civil servant and her mother a former actress. After school one day as Noor and her classmates, Gajra, Sapna and Kiran are discussing their marks, Sapna's father who is a doctor, arrives. He recognizes Noor as the girl who brought her very sick brother to his clinic and he makes sure Noor knows he has recognized her. Knowing once the truth of her situation becomes known - that she is the daughter of a sex worker, she will be expelled from her school, Noor races home. At home Noor learns that her mother has been called to her school. Prita-Auntie, upon hearing what has happened tells Noor to come with her and she takes her to the NGO demanding that they ensure Noor is allowed to continue in the school.

Juxtaposed against Noor's story is that of fifteen-year-old Grace McClaren. Three weeks into the new school year and Grace is struggling to make friends. Her popular brother, Kyle has moved on to university and her best friend Tina has moved to Singapore, leaving Grace without anyone to hang out with. For the past three years Grace has attended Mumbai International School. Her family has moved every couple of years and Grace has struggled to adapt, never really fitting in. Attempting to make friends Grace tries to become part of Madison's group however this fails miserably. Grace has a crush on Todd who was friends with her brother Kyle even though it seems like Kyle didn't like him. On Friday night Grace gets a series of text messages supposedly from Todd. Although she's skeptical at first, Grace continues to text Todd over the weekend and by Sunday they are sexting with Grace sending him a picture of herself topless.

When she arrives at school on Monday morning Grace is horrified to see her topless picture taped to her locker and discovers that it has been shared with almost everyone at the school. Grace realizes she has been tricked by Madison and possibly Todd.  Mr. Smiley who is principal of the school,  listens to Grace's version of what happened and tells her parents that the school will have to decide what consequences she will face. At home her father is supportive, but Grace's mother is not as she is furious over what she believes was a stupid act. Grace's distress over what has happened is to great that it leads her to begin cutting by engraving the word "Stupid" into her thigh with a pen. At school the next day, Mr. Donleavy who is Grace's community service advisor, tells Grace and her parents about a program run by an NGO that works to prevent the daughters of sex workers from being trafficked as their mothers were. While her parents are horrified, Grace herself is very interested. Mr. Donleavy tells Grace that teens in the program are paired with a girl and she would act as a mentor and friend.

Meanwhile at school, Grace continues to receive nasty texts and to be confronted by Madison. However, the school's most popular student, VJ Patel who's father is a Bollywood producer, tells her he will help her. VJ wants Grace to be his beard in exchange for him supporting her socially and teaching her how to deal with people. VJ is open with Grace telling her numerous secrets about his family. He told his mother he is gay but she told him never to mention it again.

Grace continues to cut herself, cutting the words SLUT and LOSER into her legs. Mr. Donleavy takes VJ and Grace to Kamathipura  to Sisters Helping Sisters run by Miss Chanda, which works with the children of women in the sex trade. At first Grace believes the house is full of children but is soon shocked to learn that the girls are her age. While Grace is at SHS, a woman shows up with a young girl in tow and begins yelling at the NGO staff. Grace notices the girl and learns from her that the woman is asking the staff to help keep the girl in school. Grace and VJ learn the girl's name is Noor and that because her school learned she was the daughter of a sex worker, they want her to leave. Because Noor's mother distrusts the NGOs she is unable to join the program and come to the house run by SHS. This doesn't stop VJ though as he arranges for Noor and Grace who will mentor her to meet at his home. As Grace struggles to recover her reputation and her self-esteem, Noor struggles to remain in school and escape the horrible fate of becoming a devadasi like her mother. When Noor's situation takes a sudden change for the worse, she has the courage to reach out to Grace who acts quickly to help her, and redeeming herself in the eyes of her parents.


Fifteen Lanes whose title is a reference to the lanes in Kamathipura which house the sex trade, tackles the difficult subject of sex slavery and trafficking as well as sexting. Although this was a well written novel, I feel the story of Noor would have been better told if the story had focused entirely on her rather than flipping between the two points of view. Noor' Benkatti is the daughter of a sex worker whose story is juxtaposed with that of Grace McClaren, a wealthy girl whose family  had lived on three different continents. Grace's life is a complete contrast to that of Noor's poverty. Their futures are incomparable: Noor faces a future of certain prostitution and an early death from disease and hardship while Grace has many options open to her including education, being able to choose to marry and have children. Comparing Grace's first world problems of sexting to Noor's third world problem of being trafficked into prostitution felt trivial. Grace's problems arise from her own actions and problems that are decidedly "first world" while Noor's situation is the result of the outlawed practices of religious prostitution and sex trafficking.

Nevertheless Laidlaw who spent time volunteering with sex workers' daughters in Kamathipura, manages to capture in a gritty way, the reality of life for girls who are trafficked both from within India and also from other countries. The way young girls are forced into the sex trade is explained by what happened to Noor's mother and some of the other women in the novel. Noor's mother tells her that while everyone in her village pretended that her working in sex was a sacred duty it was not. She was sold for money by her mother to the temple and then trafficked. Deepa-Auntie tells Noor that she was taken by a man from her family in Nepal with the promise of domestic work before she even had her first period. Noor knows was beaten because Deepa-Auntie has scars all over her body. Lali-didi was sold to a brothel in Calcutta by her brother. She tells Noor, "My family was glad to be rid of me."

Noor's future is hinted at by what happens to her twelve-year-old friend, Parvati who lives on the street. Parvati is vulnerable and relies on her boyfriend Hussein who has offered Parvati and Noor a place to sleep. Parvati tells Noor that Hussein loves her and gives her gifts of clothing. This makes Noor suspicious. As it turns out, Parvati has been given money by a boy named Suresh who decides he wants it back. Eventually Parvati is ganged raped by Suresh and his friends and ultimately forced into sex work.

Noor's narrative also explains other ways that girls end up in the sex trade - through the kidnapping of babies. "Kidnapping was another hazard of life on the street, though baby girls were more often stolen that boys. ..Babies sometimes disappeared from the brothels themselves...Everyone knew it was the brothel owners. They sold them to traffickers who resold them in distant cities far from the protection of their families. The brothel owners made money, and it was a powerful way to punish mothers who'd resisted allowing their children to follow them into the trade."

The sense of hopelessness that sex trafficked victims experience is shown by Noor's mother Ashmita who tells her young daughter "You were born to your fate, Noor. I may forestall it but you can't escape it. We can only hope your next incarnation will be more forgiving."

Noor's life in the brothel is explained in a way that is not graphic but still conveys her reality. Noor indicates early on in the novel that it is impossible to live in a brothel and not be corrupted by what is happening. As a small child she is allowed to sleep under her mothers bed but can hear all that is happening. When she becomes older, the expectation is that she will find a place to sleep out on the street before she is either sold or slips into sex work like her mother. After a customer tries to buy her, Noor admits that men have said bad things to her and that men, including her mother's customers often tried to touch her. Her mother like most of the other sex workers was sold into it at an early age. Noor states that she believes her mother is only in her twenties and that her mother told her she was "barely in her teens" she she had Noor.

The effect of working in the sex trade is also grimly portrayed in the novel. Lali-didi, the new girl in the brothel is very young. She is forced by Pran to take as many customers as want her. "No one knew how many customers she had each night. Only Binti-Ma'am saw the money that changed hands. She promised Lali-didi that one day soon her debt would be cleared, but everyone knew Binti-Ma'am was a liar. No one in our house cleared their debt while they were still young enough to fetch a high price."

Noor understands what the sex trade does to girls like Lali-didi. "As always, I felt a stab of anxiety as I watched the transformation from the girl that she was, little older than me, to the object that she became.For weeks I'd seen something die in her each time  she went through this process and every day less of her returned. She rarely spoke, never laughed; it was if she were dead already."

The discrimination girls like Noor face because of their situation which has occurred through no fault of their own is well described too. When Noor is allowed to continue on at the school, some of the girls reflect the judgemental attitudes of Indian society. Sapna whose father struggled to escape poverty states, "My father says it's improper for a girl like her to go to school with girls like us." But Gajra defends Noor stating that she must not be defined by her mother's situation or her social status.

Noor who is aware of what will happen if she tries to escape when she is locked into "the box" in preparation to being sold, shows great courage in contacting Grace. Grace's friendship with Noor helps her to put her own difficulties in perspective and also helps her to understand that they both share some measure of pain. Noor doesn't judge Grace for cutting because she recognizes that same pain in Grace that existed in her friend Parvati and in Lali-didi. She encourages Grace to tell her parents.

Fifteen Lanes is a detailed account of the reality of sex trafficking in India. It has become a serious problem throughout much of the world even in the United States and Canada. Those wishing to learn more can follow up this novel with other online resources. 

For information about the devadasi consider this article from The Telegraph.

The following documentary, Born Into Brothels (2004) in an Indian-American documentary filmed in Sonagachi, Kolkata's red light district. It was made by Zana Briski who went to the red light district to take pictures of the prostitutes but also encounter the many children of the sex workers.

Book Details:

Fifteen Lanes by S.J. Laidlaw
Tundra Books:    2016
300 pp.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Movie: Ben Hur

Since 1959, the movie Ben-Hur, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd as Messala has been a beloved classic. The Oscar winning film's iconic chariot race scene, the stage for the final, deadly confrontation between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala captured the imaginations of theatre-goers in way unheard of at that time. This summer's release of a new adaptation doesn't quite measure up to the 1959 classic but Ben-Hur is still a good effort and better than most "swords and sandals" movies.

For those who might not know, Ben- Hur is actually based on the 1880 novel of the same name written Lew Wallace. In this year's adaptation, the movie begins by focusing on the close relationship between a prince of Israel, Judah Ben-Hur and his adopted Roman brother, Messala. Messala lives in Jerusalem in the house of Ben-Hur as an equal. The two love to race horses but their kinship can go only so far. Messala is in love with Judah's sister, Tirzah but because he is not a Jew, Judah and Tirzah's mother, Naomi disapproves. This leads Messala to leave Jerusalem to make his fortune in the Roman Army. While he is gone, Judah marries Esther but Tirzah remains unmarried. Messala makes a name for himself in the Roman army fighting in Germania and other Roman territories. Just prior to his return, three zealots are found hiding in the Ben-Hur stables by Judah. One of the zealots, Dismas, has been seriously injured. Judah treats the wounded young man, orders the others away and informs Dismas he can stay until he heals but he must not fight against the Romans.

Messala returns to Jerusalem as head of the Roman garrison and reunites with Ben-Hur. Instead of brutally killing the Jews opposed to Roman oppression, Messala has tried to be lenient. But when a group of Roman soldiers are attacked in a Jewish graveyard, he seeks out Ben-Hur and tells him he needs help. Messala wants Judah to provide him the names of the zealots who are involved in the insurrection because Pontius Pilate will be arriving in the city and he does not want trouble. Judah refuses to name names but assures Messala that the Jews have agreed to not cause problems. As Pilate makes his way through the city an attempt is made on his life. That attempt comes from the rooftop of the Ben-Hur house and is made by Dismas. Dismas manages to escape in the ensuing confusion, allowed to by Ben-Hur who knows he will be crucified if caught. The Roman soldiers capture Judah, Naomi and Tirzah but Esther manages to escape. Messala rails against Judah, whom he accuses of treason, sentencing him to the galleys and ordering Naomi and Tirzah to be crucified. On his way to the galleys, Judah has his second encounter with the teacher, Jesus who brings him water, a foreshadowing of their later meeting when Jesus is on his way to Calvary.

Judah survives five years in the galleys, fueled by his hatred. His galley is destroyed (along with all the other Roman ships) in a battle against the Greeks who have been plundering Roman ships in the Aegean Sea. Judah washes up on the shore near the tent camp of Sheik Ilderim who recognizes that he is an escaped galley slave and threatens to take him to the Roman garrison. However, Judah saves Ilderim's sick horse and is allowed to stay in the encampment. Judah accompanies Ilderim's entourage to Jerusalem where he meets Esther who is now a follower of the prophet Jesus. She tells Judah she does not know what has happened to his mother and sister and that he cannot be seen in the city. Judah decides to confront Messala, luring him to the abandoned Ben-Hur home but is almost captured.

Recognizing Judah's desire for vengeance, Sheik Ilderim tells Judah that the best revenge is to be obtained in the coliseum by challenging Messala to a chariot race and humiliating him and Rome by winning. Sheik Ilderim arranges with Pontius Pilate for Judah to race and that if he wins all Roman claims against Ben-Hur will be void. Pontius Pilate agrees and so Judah begins training as a charioteer. Judah eventually learns that his mother and sister are lepers having been spared crucifixion by a Roman soldier further fueling his anger against Messala. This leads to the chariot race in Jerusalem and Judah's victory over Messala. However, Judah realizes winning the race does not give him the peace he longs for and after witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus he seeks out the broken Messala and the two forgive one another. Meanwhile, Naomi and Tirzah are cured of their leprosy after the death of Jesus and reunited with Judah.


Although the story line in this adaptation varies considerably from both the 1959 movie and the novel, Ben-Hur still manages to capture the essence of the story: a Jewish prince is made the scapegoat for a crime he didn't commit by a beloved adopted brother, his family is destroyed and he sets out to seek vengeance only to discover revenge is never the answer. This adaptation misses many important parts of the novel such as the details of what happens to Naomi (Miriam in the novel and the Charlton Heston movie) and Tirzah, and their conversion from Judaism to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Also missing are Judah Ben-Hur's rescue of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius, from drowning in the Aegean battle. In the novel and the 1959 movie, Arrius adopts Judah and gains him his freedom. In contrast to the 1959 movie, this new adaptation sees Judah Ben-Hur married to Esther (in the novel he married at least five years after the race with Messala) but their romance is a minor point throughout the movie. This new movie differs significantly in that Messala does not die as a result of his injuries, so one of the most famous death scenes in cinema is not recreated. Overall, the 1959 movie more closely follows the story line of Lew Wallace's novel as much of the middle of the story is missing from the 2016 adaptation.

Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur reasonably well, but lacks the passion that Charlton Heston brought to the role. Toby Kebbell as Messala manages to capture Messala's troubled nature and desire to fit into the Roman world. The only actor who seems out of place is Morgan Freeman who has the part of Sheik Ilderim. Freeman's interpretation of the Sheik, wise yet willing to make his fortune off of the Roman games is overshadowed by his trademark sonorous voice. It's been suggested that Freeman might have been better narrating the film and I agree. At times the screen writing is shabby and the dialogue, delivered with a hint of British accent, most definitely modern. The last scene, a recapitulation of the opening scene with Judah and Messala racing on horses is set to a thoroughly modern tune that seems woefully out of place.

The main themes of the novel, betrayal, redemption and forgiveness are not overshadowed by the amazing special effects. The galley battle scene and the chariot race are amazingly well done and the cinematography with it's sometimes unique camera perspective make for fascinating viewing. The crucifixion scene is short but lacks the drama that the 1959 movie was able to convey. Judah Ben-Hur's conversion to Christianity is quick and clean; there's little of the struggle which was so well portrayed by Heston. Judah Ben-Hur has several encounters with Jesus, who preaches a new law, that forgiveness and love of neighbour are paramount.

Although Jesus is a minor character in the first part of the story, his presence becomes more prominent after the chariot race. When Judah tries to give him water but is whipped, Jesus intervenes, stopping Judah from retaliating. Jesus' radical call to love is in direct contrast to the Roman way of blood sport and cruelty and to the practice of Judaism at the time of Jesus - both of which encouraged "an eye for an eye'. Judah Ben-Hur learns that his vengeance has not healed him of his hurt and has not only crippled his once beloved brother, Messala, but destroyed his soul too. Revenge hasn't changed the fact that his mother and sister are lepers or that his family is in ruin (according to this version). The Jews (and Judah Ben-Hur) are becoming like their oppressors, cruel and blood-thirsty, a fact that Pontius Pilate points out to Sheik Ilderim after the race.

It's likely that this film won't do so well probably because audiences are tiring of remakes. We've had remakes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Tarzan, Godzilla, not to mention the tiresome Spiderman, Batman and Superman reboots and many, many others. This is also a movie with definite religious overtones that tend not to resonate so well with modern audiences. In the hopes of making the film more palatable, there is plenty of action and it was filmed in 3D. The movie has little gore and no sex. The filming was done in such a way that suggests what happens rather than showing it.  This is particularly true of the sea battle and the chariot race as well as the crucifixions, the confrontation in the Garden of Gethsemane and even the leper colony. Despite its many weakness, Ben Hur is an enjoyable remake, with great action sequences, beautiful cinematography and a good (albeit vastly pared down) story.  For younger viewers, if you haven't seen the 1959 version, please do so. It's worth the time (3 and half hours!) and it's a classic.

Here's the second trailer for Ben-Hur 2016 - the beautiful music is Ceasefire by the Christian rock group For King and Country:

Friday, August 19, 2016

How It Feels To Fly by Kathryn Holmes

How It Feels To Fly explores the complex illness of anorexia and its relationship to anxiety, body image and identity. The novel also explores the effect of parental expectations and peer pressure on teens struggling with anxiety issues. The story focuses on one girl who is part of a group of elite athletes and artists as they struggle to work through their issues over a period of two weeks.

Sixteen year old Samantha Wagner, is an aspiring ballet dancer who has been sent to a counselling camp, Perform at Your Peak in North Carolina, for elite teen artists and athletes with anxiety issues. Samantha's mother was a aspiring dancer whose career was ended by a broken ankle.

The camp director, Dr. Debra Lancaster, is helped by two peer counsellors, Andrew, a former football player and college student majoring in pyschology and Yasmin a vocalist and sophomore at Belmont University in Nashville who suffered from stage fright. Both Andrew and Yasmin are graduates of Dr. Lancaster's therapy.

In the past months, Sam has gained fourteen pounds as her body changes. The weight, gain coupled with pressure from ballet teachers and adjudicators and her mother, has resulted in Sam developing an eating disorder and serious anxiety issues. Then came the panic attack that was witnessed by her ballet instructor, Miss Elise. Backstage before her performance in Paquita, Sam put on Lauren's smaller tutu and freaked out. Concerned about her well-being, Miss Elise spoke with Sam's mother and she was sent to this therapy camp.

Sam is supposed to be attending ballet intensive in two weeks but her participation has been delayed so that she can participate in the therapy camp. However because the camp runs a week into the only ballet intensive that she was accepted into, Sam has been put on the wait list with the expectation that there will be no problems obtaining a spot in the a week late.

At Perform at Your Peak, the other campers include Jenna who is a figure skater, Zoe who plays tennis, Katie an elite gymnast, Dominic an outstanding quarterback and Omar who is an actor. Dr. Lancaster tells the campers that there will be a group therapy session every day but that they will also spend time in private counselling sessions with her.

After orientation Andrew tells Sam that the camp will help her "to learn how to take good mental care" of herself no matter what career she's in but Sam takes this to mean that Andrew believes she can't become a professional ballet dancer. At the first group therapy session, Andrew and Yasmin tell their stories; how Yasmin found Perform at Your Peak helped her to overcome stage fright and how Andrew discovered that he was playing football to please his father and in the end decided to quit after his freshman season. Dr. Lancaster asks the group to share a time when they each performed at their absolute best. After each shares a specific performance, Sam talks about her performance as the Dewdrop Fairy in the Nutcracker, this past December. Sam states she was told it was the best she had ever danced and that she felt "light and sparkling" and very pretty. Zoe mocks Sam for feeling this way but Dr. Lancaster tells the group that they will be working to get back that feeling of affirmation and well being that they experienced during these good performances.

As part of the therapy, Sam is partnered with Andrew for an exercise where they must be blindfolded and led around by the other person. Sam has Andrew go first and she leads him over to the gazebo while admiring how attractive he is. She learns that Andrew is a college junior, four years older than herself. But when it's her turn and she stumbles into a hole, Sam has a panic attack, blaming Andrew for risking her future career. Andrew is stunned and confronts Sam questioning her about what happened. Trusting Andrew, she admits to the attack and tells him that she was afraid the stumble would cause an injury and destroy her ballet career. Sam convinces Andrew not to tell Dr. Lancaster about the panic attack but to let her do it.

At lunch it becomes apparent that Sam is unable to eat, at least not in front of others. When she tries to hide, she is caught by Dr. Lancaster who makes up a plate of spaghetti for her. Zoe who calls Sam,  "Ballerina Barbie", and who is bothering everyone, accuses Sam of having an eating disorder. In her next private session Dr. Lancaster questions Sam about her panic attacks, leading Sam to reveal that she had a panic attack while she was with Andrew. She tells Dr. Lancaster that while blindfolded she felt extremely anxious because she couldn't tell if she was being judged by Andrew and that she doesn't like being looked at. She refuses to elaborate much further than that.

Sam begins to get up early both so that the other campers can't see her get dressed and also to spend time with Andrew. In their next group session, Zoe continues to refuse to participate and laughs when Dr. Lancaster assigns the group to create a collage representing a situation that makes each person anxious. Sam's collage has a small figure surrounded by eyes. After discussing the collages, Dr. Lancaster encourages the six teens to reach out to one another telling them, "Your fellow campers can empathize. They can make you feel less alone...They can brainstorm with you. Support you." However, Sam's inner voice tells her that no one can help her. As the days pass, Sam finds herself falling for Andrew, interpreting his touches, the extra time he spends with her and his compliments as a sign that he feels the same. But Sam's crush on Andrew leads to catastrophe for both of them and creates a crisis that changes the course of Sam's life.


For the most part, How It Feels To Fly offers a realistic portrayal of what it is like to suffer from an eating disorder and anxiety. Sam's problems surfaced when, as she puts it, her body betrayed her. Sam arrives at Perform at Your Peak viewing her body as an enemy to her dreams of becoming a dancer. She gained fourteen pounds between November and May and this affected her dancing, throwing her balance off and making her pirouettes shaky. The change was so gradual that at first, Sam believed she was just having off days. "Then I noticed soft curves where there used to be straight lines. Roundness and fullness. A hint of an hourglass." She tries to cut calories and exercise more, but the weight gain continued. To hide her imperfect body, she wrapped herself in loose clothing.  However, soon other people noticed, her mother, her teachers and adjudicators and they made remarks. Negative comments began, some direct, some insinuating. "...Tabitha saw me holding a sandwich after ballet class and asked, all fake concern, 'Are you sure you need to eat that?' That's when I stopped eating in front of other dancers..."

Along with the dieting and exercising, Sam's thinking changed and she saw herself in very negative terms. She arrives at the therapy camp with these thoughts overwhelming her.  "Everything about you is wrong. Nothing can make it better. Nothing except --" and "Ugh you're disgusting." She is also in denial about her problems and her need for help. In their first morning group session she thinks to herself "I don't need therapy. I was doing fine on my own." She's trained herself to be good at not talking about her problems, "good at nodding, and changing the subject, and pretending I don't hear things. And smiling, always smiling."  Her inner voice is strong, constant and derogatory. "Even transparent, you're fat. Look at you. You're disgusting..."

However Dr. Lancaster notices Sam's eating issues and Sam experiences a panic attack almost immediately, proof that she is not coping well. Although Sam is reluctant to talk to Dr. Lancaster she does do the assigned exercises: the art therapy and the journaling. All of this is well portrayed in the novel and the interactions between the various characters and their dialogue with one another is realistic and sometimes humorous, creating welcome comic relief.

A key factor in Sam's seemingly fast recovery is her relationship with Andrew, a well meaning peer counselor who inadvertently stirs Sam's infatuation for him by helping Sam see herself differently. He tells her she is beautiful and that she is not fat. Although Andrew's advice is good for Sam, he doesn't recognize her growing attachment. And Sam reads far more into Andrews actions than she should. "As we walk back to the Perform at Your Peak house, Andrew stays beside me. I wish we were holding hands. I wish he had his arm around my waist. Once I start thinking about his hands, his arms, I get this picture in my head of us dancing together. I bet he'd be a great dance partner. Strong, attentive, gentle."

Andrew is unaware of Sam's infatuation and he oversteps his bounds by encouraging Sam to sneak out at night to teach him to how partner her. This only makes things worse. "The next morning, I can't stop thinking about Andrew. His eyes catching the moonlight. His bright smile turned intimate, like it was designed especially for me...Did he feel the sparks I felt? Is he thinking about me the way I'm thinking about him?" But when Sam takes matters into her own hands and tries to kiss him, Andrew realizes too late his mistake. Their improper relationship leads to Andrew getting fired and Sam relapsing.  It is this crisis and the loss of her spot at the ballet intensive that motivates her to try one last time to get into the ballet intensive. This gutsy action ultimately provides Sam with a new opportunity to rethink her place in the world of dance and take the "leap across the gulf" that Dr. Lancaster spoke to her about. It also leads to her finally confronting her mother about how she is hurting Sam.

Perhaps the one misleading aspect of this novel is that it presents an overly optimistic view of the treatment of eating and anxiety disorders. Although Kathryn Holmes in an interview with EpicReads has stated that "Sam does not have a full blown eating disorder" the constant voice in her head telling her body is ugly, the rituals and behaviours around food, and the restriction of food are all evidence of anorexia. Sam also admits later in the book to having made herself vomit months earlier and attempts to do so again but for the intervention of a fellow camper. She also has body dysmorphia as evidenced by her struggle to find body parts that she actually likes.

Teens struggling with eating disorders and the usual accompanying anxiety issues generally do not show the significant improvement over such a short period of therapy as Sam did.Therapy takes time to change negative thinking patterns because they often have their roots in other issues that must be dealt with. The rituals like counting food, eating alone, rearranging food on the plate and eating exactly what someone else eats are all coping strategies to try to hide the illness and stop the pressure being placed on the anorexic to eat. These also do not disappear within a two week time frame. Similarly with anxiety issues, patients must learn coping strategies to help them. These also take time. It also takes time to  build a rapport with a therapist, even meeting daily for a week. Sam seems to do this quickly, perhaps as Dr. Lancaster states because she is removed from the environment that is the cause of her stress and anxiety.

Holmes does a good job of demonstrating how dancers in particular are susceptible to developing body dysmorphia and anorexia. There is not only the change in her body, but the pressure from Sam's mother and the attitude of  teachers and coaches in dance and athletics towards those who don't fit the desired body type. For example, Sam's mother is determined that her daughter will become a professional ballet dancer and have the career she never had. Although she doesn't directly criticize Sam, she implies that eating foods like meatballs and fajitas is not healthy. She tells Sam, "I know I can count on you to make good choices." When her mother admonishes her for eating a fajita, Sam feels guilt for not asking for a salad. Instead of affirming Sam's choice to eat healthy, her mother launches into a lecture about learning to adapt, leaving Sam in tears.And when Sam loses her spot in the ballet intensive, her mother doesn't really take the time to assess how Sam is feeling and what she is thinking. She doesn't even stop to think that perhaps this might be a sign that Sam needs to find another form of dance more suitable to her body type instead of trying to mould Sam's body into that of a classical dancer. She launches into a plan that will focus on Sam training even harder, leading Sam to more extreme actions. Holmes also points out how unforgiving the dance world is towards those whose body type is not considered suitable. For example, Sam remembers when she had to provide her current weight on an audition form and there was a caveat that mentioned overweight or underweight dancers would be on probation. This led Sam to wonder " heavy was too heavy? What was the exact right number?"

One of the main strengths of How It Feels To Fly is the realistic characters and their developing relationships with each other. For example, Sam manages to help Katie overcome her fear of the balance beam, providing a source of support for her. And Jenna, whom Sam spends time doing ballet with at the camp, steps up to help Sam when she is in crisis, revealing her own struggles with cutting. The characters feel genuine and their problems real.

Holmes' message in her novel is to make young readers aware they are not alone and that others can be a source of support. Fighting body dismorphia and anxiety does not have to be done alone and is often successful if the person has patient, affirming support. She also highlights the belief that eating disorders are generally the result of a need for control by having Sam come to this realization at the end of the novel. "My epic realization that maybe everything -- my anxiety, my body image issues, all of it -- comes from wanting to feel in control."  Later on, a wiser Sam states
"I'm not good at letting go and moving forward. Not yet. 
I'm still so attached to Before. So anxious about After.
But I'm working on changing. I'm trying to focus on
Someone in the room might be staring at me. Might be judging me.
That I can't control."

Author Kathryn Holmes majored in Dance and English Literature at Goucher College in Maryland. She's a contemporary dancer who has performed with many New York City based choreographers.

How It Feels To Fly is a really good novel. Although the timeline for Sam's recovery is a bit swift, the process and the things she learns about her illness are well presented and accurate. Those who enjoy realistic fiction and who are interested in exploring one of the most common mental health challenges teens experience will want to read this novel.

Book Details:

How It Feels To Fly by Kathryn Holmes
New York: HarperTeen     2016
359 pp.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Keep Me In Mind by Jaime Reed

Keep Me In Mind opens with Liam McPherson writing about what happened that fateful early morning he and girlfriend Ellia Renee Dawson were out running along the beach. After taking a break, Ellia ran off on the winding bike trail that led towards a cliff. The next thing Liam knows, Ellia is screaming. Just remembering that much is painful. He can't sleep and has been hanging outside of Ellia's house across the street watching for her.

Ellia watches the boy who emerges from his house every day at 5:30am to run. She goes outside to meet him, remembering that she saw him when she woke up in the hospital with tubes everywhere. A week after getting out of the hospital Ellia finally decides to talk to Liam, asking him for help in unlocking her phone. Ellia remembers Liam visiting her in the hospital and her not recognizing him, believing she has just started high school. But when she learns later from a friend that he is telling the truth, Ellia wonders if her parents knew she was dating a white boy.

As a result of her fall, Ellia has retrograde amnesia "which was the inability to recall past events because of severe head trauma." Her parents believe that her remembering her phone password is a good sign, but Ellia's neurologist, Dr. Whittaker has told her that "adapting to everyday life would be an adjustment." On the advice of Whittaker, Ellia is sent to a psychologist to undergo cognitive therapy.

When Ellia's best friend Stacey visits she reveals to Ellia that she wants to be a designer but that her father wants her to follow him and be an engineer. Stacey gives Ellia a reference point, a link to her immediate past that she cannot remember. With well over three hundred friends on Facebook, Ellia can only remember twelve of them. Checking her phone reveals hundreds of pictures with Liam and other friends. Stacey suggests that she contact Liam, but to Ellia this feels odd because Liam seems like a stranger to her.

Liam attends Leon High School along with his uncle Wade McPherson (his grandfather married a much younger woman and had a child.) who lives with Liam's family three weeks out of every month. Distraught at the loss of their relationship, Liam decides to "write the story of me and Ellia, how we met, how we fell in love -- the whole nine. It would be an epic tale of love found and lost..." Liam uses Ellia's best friend, Stacey to learn how she is faring but Stacey presses Liam to visit Ellia and tells him to just be there for her and to "Give her a reason to know who you are or leave her alone."

Liam's father, a former Navy man, is a force to be reckoned with. He insists that Liam do two volunteer placements and questions Liam if he's still involved with Ellia who he has forbidden him to see. Liam attempts to tell his dad that he loves Ellia but that doesn't go over well. Even worse when Ellia shows up on his street and Liam is caught by his father talking to her, she is forced to leave.

Ellia begins cognitive therapy sessions with Dr. Kavanagh at the Serenity Behavior Health Center. On her first visit she meets Cody Spencer who goes to St. Pedro, a private all-boys academy and who has anterograde amnesia. Cody has no short term memory because of a surfing accident that resulted in him going without oxygen for a lengthy period of time. To help him function, Cody records any important information in his phone.

Believing Liam's dad is a racist, Ellia wonders about her past relationship with Liam, but Stacey tells her she's reading too much into what happened. Ellia gradually begins integrating into her friends from school, even though she is not back at school yet. She declines attending the Valentines Day dance and in a rare talk with her mother, learns that her parents were not keen on Liam. Meanwhile, Liam, upset over his father's reaction to Ellia, is confronted by Stacey who wonders why Ellia's memory loss is confined only to the time she has been involved with Liam. She tells Liam that Ellia is taking therapy and she suggests he meet her at Serenity. Liam surprises Ellia outside the health center and upsets her by kissing her. However this meeting sees them begin to communicate and Liam reveals more of what their relationship was like. They agree to meet at the park where Liam will tutor Ellia. As Ellia struggles to heal, regain her memories and return to her routine, she begins to uncover the true nature of her relationship with Liam.


Keep Me In Mind is a story told in two voices, that of Ellia Dawson and her boyfriend Liam McPherson. Ellia's narrative feels genuine and down to earth as a teen struggling to remember the last two years of her life and regain her identity. As she learns about her life over the past two years, Ellia embarks on a journey that leads her to re-evaluate just who she was as well as her relationship with Liam. Ellia begins to discover an image of herself that is less than pleasing. From her friends she learns that she was constantly involved in pranks such as sneaking into a frat party and almost getting hazed and breaking into a run down department store to steal a mannequin. Liam confirms what Ellia has discovered from reading various posts, that at a model search in Quintero, she threw a chair at a model who caused her to trip on the runway and that she drove around with a homeless man in the trunk of her car. Dr. Kavanagh tells Ellia that the amnesia causes people not to "recognize parts of themselves." But, Ellia admits to Dr. Kavanagh that she doesn't like the girl she's discovered. Her therapy changes focus, from working on regaining her memories, to discovering why Ellia was acting out.

Ellia already knows that there are serious problems with how she and her parents relate to one another. Earlier in the novel she mentions her father's complete absorption with his work and she and Stacey often talk about how her life is very controlled. Her parents never fully communicate with her; they talk about her but never really include her in the discussion."The Dawsons were doers, fixers, movers, and shakers from a long line of overachievers with the title Dr. or Prof. in front of their names. Words like impossible, fail, and can't were considered cuss words in our household. Any attempt at angst or a pity party quickly led to a rundown of our family tree, stemming back to the British Crown and the sugarcane fields of Barbados." 

At her session with Dr. Kavanagh, Ellia states, "My parents are very performance driven. Dress with decorum. Stand up straight; never slouch. Behave like a lady at all times and never bring shame on your family. On sight, people will judge you, and your life must contradict their stereotypes and preconceived notions. Work harder than everyone else and get good grades. Go to an elite college. Get a well-paying job and marry a successful..." Exploring further, Dr. Kavanagh believes that Ellia's father, used to taking control, tried to manage how she grieved when her beloved dog, Babette died. She believes that Ellia not being allowed to grieve on her own terms,  may have been the trigger for her rebellion, rather than hanging out with Liam and Dr. Kavanagh encourages her to tell her parents how their pressure and control is affecting her.

Ellia also begins to get a sense that her relationship with Liam was not a healthy one;  she was very controlling and Liam allowed her to boss him around. Liam's narrative reflects his obsession with Ellia and his determination to recover her as his girlfriend, even asking her, "Is there any chance of us getting back together/" When Ellia learns of  her controlling behavior from Liam, she tells him "You live your life on your own terms. Don't let anyone -- not even a girl -- keep you on a leash. I don't care how fabulous and awesome she is, no one is worth forgetting who you are."  Revealing this to Dr. Kavanagh, her therapist suggests that their relationship may have been co-dependent, possibly because something is lacking in Liam's life.

Both Liam and Ellia discover their parents are not quite lying to them but committing "a lie by omission". To Ellia this is worse than a lie because "The other person had knowledge, leverage, that they could hold over your head or use to manipulate you." causing fear and anger. For Ellia when her father blames Liam for her accident, she knows that he's not telling her the entire truth because Liam was the one who found her. This causes Ellia to question who is withholding the truth, Liam or her father? When Ellia reads Liam account of their relationship, she confronts her parents, especially her father. Their discussion helps all involved understand what happened to cause Ellia to act out before the accident and leads Ellia to discover something important for Liam. For Liam, he learns from Ellia that his father also lied by omission - he never told Liam the court order preventing him from seeing Ellia has expired. He too confronts his father who accuses Liam of using Ellia to fill the void of his mother who left. Eventually Liam does call his mother on the urging of Wade and he tells her how her leaving the family has affected him.

The underlying theme of the book is the loss of friendship and connection. That loss can come about in many ways but in Keep Me In Mind it is the loss of friendship and love as a result of an unexpected accident - a serious head injury. As Ellia struggles to understand her relationship with Liam, whom she has no memory of, Liam mourns the loss of his relationship with her. Unable to express his loss in words and wanting to tell Ellia, he decides to write the story of their relationship. For most of the novel he experiences "writer's block", that is he is unable to write about the events that led to Ellia's injury and their broken relationship. For Liam, writing the account of his relationship with Ellia is cathartic; it helps him learn about himself and Ellia and it helps him process what has happened the loss of their relationship so that if their relationship is truly over, he can move on. He comes to recognize that he was using Ellia to escape his family problems. His account also helps Ellia because it forces her to see herself as she really was (but doesn't remember) and that she also was using Liam for the same reason.

Ellia herself wonders how Liam must feel and she too experiences as sense of loss. "These were supposed to be the best years of my life, and I couldn't recall most of them. What other experiences had been stolen from me? What other friendships, bonds, and trusts had been stripped away?" She recognizes that Liam is "waiting for the return of Ellia Dawson...My life wasn't the only one that was at a standstill, and it was hard to tell what was worse: forgetting or being forgotten."  She experiences deep conflict over the state of her relationship with Liam, who wants things to continue as they were. Ellia however, does not feel for Liam the way she did before her accident and that causes her to evaluate why this might be.

Eventually both Liam and Ellia come to realize that one cannot live in the past, that we must keep moving forward. Liam decides to let Ellia go, giving her the account he wrote of their relationship. Ellia is encouraged to view her amnesia in a different way: instead of a loss, to consider it an opportunity for a fresh start and a chance to reinvent herself. "Yesterday was gone and there was no point in reaching behind me for something I couldn't even hold. Time moved in one direction: forward. And I needed to keep my eyes straight and do the same."

Keep Me In Mind is an interesting read that focuses on the curves life can throw at us unexpectedly and how we sometimes struggle to cope. Fans of contemporary novels will enjoy how Liam and Ellia eventually work out the unexpected curve they've been dealt to begin anew.

Book Details:

Keep Me In Mind by Jaime Reed
New York: Point and imprint of Scholastic Inc.    2016
329 pp.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

DVD: The Race

"'Cause you know, out there on that track you're free of all this. The moment that gun go off, can't nothing stop me. Not color, not money, not fear, not even hate. There ain't no black and white. There's only fast and slow. For those ten seconds you are completely free."

The Race is a dramatization of Jesse Owen's quest to run in the 1936 Olympics which were held in Nazi Germany. The Olympics were awarded to Germany in 1931 with the intention of supporting the country, but two years later, the country found itself under the control of Hitler and his Nazi party. As the racial policies of the country became known more and more Americans began to question their country's participation in the Berlin Olympics, which would be seen as supporting Hilter, the Nazi party and its policies.

The movie opens in 1933 with Jesse Owens, played by Canadian actor, Stephan James living with his mother, father and sister Laverne in Cleveland, Ohio. He has a passion for running. As a high school athlete Owens tied the record of 9.4 seconds for the 100 yard dash. In the fall of 1933 Jessie prepares to leave for Ohio State University in Columbus.

Before leaving for Ohio State University (OSU) Owens goes to visit his little daughter, Gloria and her mother, Minnie Ruth Solomon who works as a hairdresser.  He promises Ruth he will return to marry her.

In the past three years OSU has had a poor showing at the national college championships. Track coach Larry Snyder, himself once a great runner, is being blamed for the losses and his career looks like it might be finished. He's looking for fresh talent to restart his track team. Snyder has Owens come to his office where he asks him why he came to OSU, a school considered to be very bigoted towards black athletes. Owens tells him that his coach Charlie Riley told him he's a natural runner and that Snyder was the best. Snyder tells him that records don't matter, only gold medals matter. He asks Owens if he wants to run in Berlin in 1936 and Owens indicates that he's concerned that the Germans don't like blacks. But Snyder points out that the same attitudes exist in the United States. He warns Owens that if he wants to run and win he must spend the next 28 months training hard every day.

Meanwhile at a meeting of the U.S. Olympic Committee Convention, Avery Brundage, a former track athlete and Olympian, and now a wealthy businessman head of the American Olympic Committee (AOC) is told that Germany's racist policies towards Jews and Romany Gypsies is a major concern and that a boycott of American athletes is being considered. Officials from the Amateur Athletic Union point out that the Germans are not allowing Jewish athletes to join sports clubs and therefore they are unable to qualify for the Olympics. The Germans also do not want Negroes to compete at the Games. Brundage believes that Germany needs the Olympics and Ambassador Charles Sherrill states that they have assurances from Germany they will not discriminate. However Judge Jeremiah T. Mahoney of AAU states that they cannot trust the Nazis and that he will recommend a boycott. They decide to send Avery Brundage over to Germany to talk to German officials.

Meanwhile at OSU, Owens struggles to find the time to attend practice and work. He writes Ruth and sends her money for their daughter and tells her he has applied for a marriage license. Confronted by Snyder about missing practices, Owens reveals his dilemma and tells Snyder he needs to find a way for him to make money and train.

In 1934 Berlin, Brundage is shown the stadium under construction and is told everything is being recorded by Miss Leni Riefenstahl who was hand-picked by Hitler. Brundage sees for himself the situation in Berlin: Jewish stars on businesses, people being dragged from their homes. Brundage meets Leni and Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda at a lunch. While Leni tries to explain that she wants her film to showcase the Olympic ideals, Brundage doesn't believe her. He tells the Germans that they risk an Olympic games without America unless they come into line and allow Jews and Negroes to participate. He also tells them they have to clean up their press. Goebbels states he will agree if Brundage agrees to support them with the AOC (American Olympic Committee).

Back in Columbus, Snyder gets Owens a job as a page at the Ohio legislature paying him $60 a month and allowing him to train. They work on his start. Jesse continues to face racism and ridicule from the football team which is all white but coach Snyder tells Jesse that this is just a distraction and that he must learn to filter all of this out while he is at the Big Ten meet.

Just before the meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1935, Jesse injures his back trying to high jump with friends. In pain he completes in four events over the span of 45 minutes and sets three world records and ties a fourth. Owens competes in the 100 yard dash, the broad jump, the 200 yard dash and the 225 yard hurdles.

Owens and Snyder head to Los Angeles for the NCAA Track and Field Championships. Held at Edwards Stadium in Berkley, Owens wins four events. During his time in LA he meets a woman at a jazz club and becomes romantically involved with her. During this time Brundage returns to Berlin where the situation appears to meet his expectations. He tells Goebbels taht the Americans will be voting soon on whether to participate. Goebbels attempts to bribe Brundage by offering him to be involved in the building of a new German embassy in Washington designed by Albert Speer. Brundage is drawn into looking at the plans and it appears he accepts Goebbels offer.

Back in the United States, Owens affair with Quincella gets into the papers and Minnie Ruth threatens to sue him for breach of promise. Owens unsuccessfully attempts to call Ruth. At a meet in Nebraska, Owens loses the 100 yard dash to his rival Eulace Peacock. The next morning Owens breaks up with Quincella and when he returns to Ohio he goes to see Ruth in Cleveland. At first Ruth runs him out of Ida's Beauty Salon, but not to be deterred, Jesse waits for her to leave and eventually convinces her to marry him.

On December 23, 1935, the U.S. Olympic Committee meets to vote with Brundage arguing for participation and Mahoney arguing for a boycott. When Brundage wins the vote 58 to 56, Mahoney resigns from the AAU, not wanting to be involved in something he finds morally wrong.Owens and Snyder rejoice at this news. Knowing that he will be competing in a country that believes he is part of a inferior race, Owens sets out to win the gold medal in track and to deny Nazi Germany the propaganda it so desperately wants.


The Race is a well done, timely movie about Jesse Owens and his winning four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Most young people today do not know who Owens was (my 19 year old daughter had no clue), so there's considerable value in the making of move like The Race to remind us of those people whose light shone brightly in times of darkness. The focus of the movie is on Owen's life leading up to and including his participation in the 1936 Olympics. The title of the movie has a dual meaning, both of a sports event but also referring to the race of a person - in this case black people.

The overarching theme in The Race is the racial bigotry that existed in America in the 1930's and that bigotry was the same hatred that led to the murder of millions of Jews, Catholics, homosexuals and gypsies by the Nazi's in Germany. Like most blacks in 1930's America Owens faced bigotry and discrimination in every aspect of his life. When traveling to Columbus, Owens and his friend sit at the back of the bus. When he meets Larry Snyder for the first time, Owens keeps his eyes cast down, as most blacks were taught to do. Despite his athletic ability, Owens wasn't offered an athletic scholarship and he couldn't room on the campus of OSU.  After working out at the track, Owens and his friend are made to wait until the whites use the locker room showers, and black athletes are not allowed to play football. At the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Owens is booed when he lines up for the 100 yard dash with the other white competitors. When he travels to Germany to participate in the Olympics, the rest of the team are in first class on the ship, but Owens and his black teammate travel in steerage. Even attending a dinner in his honor, Owens and his wife must use the back entrance. At the end of the movie, it is noted that Owens athletic achievements were never acknowledged by the White House in 1936. Against this backdrop the film shows the hypocrisy of America as it protests against the racial policies of Nazi Germany, threatening to boycott the Berlin Olympics.

The Race presents a mostly sanitized Jesse Owens, focusing on his athletic accomplishments and his relationship with his coach, Larry Snyder played by Jason Sudeikis who gives a surprisingly good performance. Jesse is shown as a young man who believes in his ability to run but not so certain off the track. Owen's family was involved in the development of the script, and as a result The Race is a fairly accurate portrayal on the events that occurred. Canadian actor Stephane James trained at Georgia Tech working to get into shape and to run like Owens. The recreation of the 1936 Olympics and Owen's win in the 100 metre dash are amazingly well done.

Of particular interest in this film is Avery Brundage played by Jeremy Irons who makes Brundage look too old for the age of  he would have been in 1933 to 1936. Yet Irons captures the complicated character of Brundage whose backroom deal with the Nazi regime created a great scandal. Another fascinating character of this era was Leni Reifenstahl, Hitler's filmmaker who is portrayed as a moderate German caught in the middle of the conflict between Brundage and Goebbels.Reifenstahl, brilliantly played by actress Carice van Houten, created many films that propagandized the Nazi regime. She appears aloof, professional at times, but genial towards Owens, and determined to make her film, even when Goebbels orders the cameras not to record yet another potential Owen's medal. Goebbels was well portrayed by Barnaby Metschurat who gave the Nazi Minister of Propaganda a creepy, chilling persona. As for Hitler, director Stephen Hopkins made the decision to keep the German chancellor in the background and the focus on Owens, Snyder and the quest to win gold. Hitler's face is only ever seen from the side and he has no lines in the movie.

For more information on the movement to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics, check out the Holocaust Encyclopedia entry. The entry points out the conflict that developed between Brundage and Mahoney which is portrayed to some degree in The Race. One benefit of America's participation in the 1936 Olympics is that Jesse Owens proved Hitler's idea of one race being superior to all others as the nonsense it was. Owens won the gold medal in the 100 meter dash as well as gold medals in three other events.

You can watch Leni Riefenstahl's documentary, Olympia on Youtube.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Outrun The Moon by Stacey Lee

Outrun the Moon is a fictional account of the 1906 earthquake that destroyed the city of San Francisco. At 5:12 am on April 18, a huge earthquake with its epicenter near San Francisco hit the city. The northern 477 kilometers of the San Andreas fault was ruptured. The city experienced strong shaking for 45 to 60 seconds. However, the worst was to come. The earthquake ignited fires which burned through the city for three days. Hundreds of people were burned alive in the rubble of the buildings.

Outrun The Moon begins several days before the earthquake. Fifteen year old Mercy Wong (Mei-Si) lives at thirty-three Clay Street in Chinatown, San Francisco with her ba (father), Wong Wai Kwok, her mother Lei Ha who is the undisputed best fortune-teller in Chinatown and her eight year old brother Jack. Her ba is Catholic but her mother practices a mixture of Buddhism and Taoism. Mercy's brother has poor lungs and has delayed speech because of the bubonic plague inoculations forced on the Chinese who were blamed for the recent bubonic plague outbreaks in the city.

Mercy's best friend is Tom a member of the Chinese community whose father expects him to be a herbalist. However Tom is interested in flying and has built a hot-air balloon he calls Tom's Floating Island. He wanted to be part of the Army Balloon Corps but when that disbanded, Tom became interested in the new machine developed by the Wright brothers. After a short unexpected balloon ride, Tom gives Mercy a special herb, chuen pooi (also called Fritillaria bulb) used in Chinese medicine for colds and coughs. Mercy is thrilled because this is going to be her family's "ticket to a good life."

Mercy plans to use the herb to bargain her way into a girl's school using her "bossy cheeks" and her business savvy gleaned from Mrs. Lowry's book, The Book For Business-Minded Women. She was given this book by the mortician she used to work for. Taking Jack with her they visit Chocolatier Du Lac where Mercy tells Madame Du Lac that she wishes to speak with her husband who is president of the board that runs St. Clare's School for Girls. Mercy wishes to be admitted to the school and she hopes to bribe Madame Du Lac with a rare herb, chuen pooi which "is also known to fade freckles and lighten the complexion." Tom's father refused to sell the herb to Madame Du Lac. Madame Du Lac agrees to obtain Mercy a meeting with her husband after she is given the bulb, but Mercy tells her she will tell her how to prepare it only after she meets with Monsieur Du Lac.

Mercy arrives at St. Clare's on Monday determined to bargain her way into the school. Her ba runs a laundry business and the work is hard. Mercy does not want her brother Jack with his weak lungs to inherit such a life.  Having graduated from the Oriental Public School, higher education is closed to Mercy because she is Chinese. Mercy hopes to gain admission to St. Clare's in the hopes that when she graduates she will be able to start her own business, supplying Chinese herbal teas to Americans. Her dream is to purchase a house in the wealthy Nob Hill area of San Francisco so Jack and her family can live there.

At St. Clare's Mercy sees Elodie, Monsieur Du Lac's daughter whom she recognizes from the Du Lac's chocolate shop.  Monsieur Du Lac informs Mercy that it is not possible for her to be admitted to the school but Mercy persistently argues that publicly funded schools are required by law to admit Chinese students. Mercy offers to help Monsieur Du Lac sell his chocolates in Chinatown and that she can arrange for him to go before the Benevolent Association which manages all affairs in Chinatown. In return she wants him to allow her to attend St. Clare's on a full scholarship for three years. Monsieur Du Lac refuses and instead offers her to attend for three months in exchange for not only getting the hearing but securing him the right to sell his chocolates in Chinatown. If she does not her attendance at St. Clare's will be revoked.  He tells her she will pretend she is a Chinese heiress.

That night Monsieur Du Lac's car arrives to pick up Mercy and take her to St. Clare's.From the neck down she looks like a St. Clare's girl with her navy dress, black stockings and boots and her felt hat, all courtesy of Monsieur Du Lac. Her ma warns her that it will take time to fit in, Jack gives Mercy his Indian head penny, but Ba is not there as he is working in the laundry. On her way to St. Clare's, William, the Du Lac's chauffeur stops to pick up Elodie Du Lac who informs Mercy that her father has told her she is to pretend that Mercy is a Chinese heiress.

At the school Mercy meets Headmistress Crouch who is amazed at her proficiency in English and who immediately begins checking Mercy's credentials.Crouch informs Mercy that she will be meeting Monsieur Du Lac on Friday. To Mercy's disappointment she discovers she will be studying French, comportment and embroidery rather than commerce or economics. After correcting Mercy's posture and telling her more of the rules she lets her know that she will be rooming with Elodie Du Lac.

At St. Clare's Mercy meets Harriet Wincher, Katie Quinley who is from Red Rock Texas, and twins Ruby and Minnie Mae Beauregard from South Carolina, Francesca Bellini and Father Goodwin. After Mass Mercy attends her comportment class taught by Mr. Waterstone who informs her that he has a special interest in cultures of the Far East. Watersone question Mercy about Chinese customs and asks her to demonstrate a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. Mercy, not having ever performed a traditional ceremony makes a ridiculous ceremony up on the spot.

Mercy and Elodie struggle to get along as roommates. After dinner and Good Friday Mass, Mercy prepares for her meeting with the Benevolent Association, coming up with the idea that the Du Lac's chocolates could be marketed to the Chinese as an funeral offering to the ancestors. Elodie informs Mercy that she will also be attending the meeting, but the Du Lac chauffeur, William informs the two girls that the meeting will have to be rescheduled. Furious, Mercy knows that she must show up at the meeting and manages to convince Elodie to stand in as proxy for her father, as she will someday be involved in his chocolate business.

The meeting before the Chinese Benevolent Association is almost a disaster, as Mercy presents her idea. Her friend Tom Gunn, whose father is a herbal doctor, is against allowing the chocolate to be sold in Chinatown for health reasons. However Tom saves the day and the Benevolent Committee approves the selling of the chocolate in Chinatown. On her way home, Mercy stops to visit her family but her little brother Jack is asleep. Unbeknownst to her, it is the last time Mercy will see her mother and Jack. On the way back Elodie who has clued in to Mercy and Tom's mutual interest, tells Mercy that she will make Tom a consultant on the selling of chocolate to Chinatown, but Mercy tells her this will not be possible.

On Easter Sunday night, Mercy sneaks out of St. Clare's and meets Tom at Laurel Hill Cemetery. Tom tells her that he is leaving Tuesday at dawn for Seattle to work for a man who is building a plane. He tells a shocked Mercy not to wait for him and she, not wishing to dishonour him tells him he deserves to follow his dream. But inside she is crushed at Tom's decision.

The next days see Elodie bully Mercy and attempt to expose her. When Mercy reads the girls fortunes during embroidery class, Elodie informs the teacher, Mrs. Mitchell. The class is interrupted by Crouch who announces that two girls were seen leaving the grounds the previous night. One is discovered to be Katie Quinley who lost her shawl in the garden. Katie refuses to tell who the other girl was, but not wanting Katie to be punished, Mercy admits to being the other girl. She is whipped, sent to confess to Father Goodwin who assigns her penance to weed the herbal garden and made to sleep in the attic. Headmistress Crouch also informs Mercy that she has sent correspondence to China to determine if Mercy is a legitimate Chinese heiress.

The next morning the girls are assigned to do their own laundry because Mercy's uniform was not turned inside out. Mercy uses her knowledge of laundry to quickly get her and her friends, Ruby, Minnie Mae, Katie and Francesca's laundry finished. Elodie is furious when she discovers what has happened and the two girls get into a brawl with Elodie revealing Mercy's true identity. Headmistress Crouch pulls Mercy from classes and assigns her to work in the kitchen until Monsieur Du Lac returns from his trip. As Mercy is pondering her immediate future in the garden, an earthquake strikes, destroying the school and changing Mercy's life forever.


Outrun The Moon is an entertaining piece of historical fiction that provides readers with a snapshot of life in early 1900's America. The novel is centered around the devastating earthquake of 1906 which destroyed the city of San Francisco. Lee devotes a considerable amount or the novel to life before the earthquake - the first nineteen chapters which set the stage for the disaster by describing life in 1906 San Francisco. The city at this time was home to approximately 15,000 Chinese. Chinese were prevented from immigrating to America by the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882, renewed in 1892 and made a permanent law in 1902. Many Chinese came to America during the Gold Rush years and were also laborers on the building of the railroad across the continent. However, they were gradually forced out of these jobs and many settled in cities like San Francisco where they worked in restaurants and laundries. The effect of the Chinese Exclusion Act was to prevent the Chinese men who were already in America from bringing over their families. Chinese living in San Francisco in 1906 experienced intense discrimination.

Lee attempts to portray the racial discrimination Chinese experienced in her novel through the main character, Mercy Wong. Mercy, despite being born in America, is only able to attend the Chinese public school and there is no opportunity for her to further her education by attending high school. When Mercy first arrives at St. Clares, she overhears the girls talking about her. Not only do they have little understanding of her culture, but their comments are derogatory.
" 'You suppose she speaks English?' The talk continues.
'The ones here hardly speak any at all. Mother says they're not bright enough.'
Someone snorts. 'The girls in Chinatown hardly need English. They're all soiled.' The speaker lowers her voice, but I catch the word just the same."
Lee also teaches her readers about some of the problems facing the Chinese community in the early 1900's San Francisco. Chinatown was located on prime land in the city, land that wealthy white business owners wanted. The Chinese community recognizes this and refuse to sell or to be driven away. When Mercy meets with the Benevolent Association she feels that the Chinese community should be less protectionist and more open to working with others so that they can gain the same rights as white Americans.

In her Author's Note at the back of the novel, Lee indicates that immediately after the earthquake, people of every race and class worked together to help one another. This is effectively portrayed in the novel as all the girls of St. Clare, led by Mercy Wong, work together, setting up a kitchen to feed the homeless survivors. In this way they bring together many different people in the city. Mercy begins to realize that what Mr. Mortimer, the mortician told her - that death is the great equalizer is true. Mercy notices that "some of the invisible walls are beginning to crack" between different people when a white woman offers a Sonoran woman and her child crackers. As the St. Clare girls struggle amongst the ruins of the city, Mercy experiences more freedom than she ever had before. Elodie, stripped of her friends, her mother dead and her father far away, is on equal footing with Mercy. Oliver Chance, a white man seems to show interest in Mercy as he and a friend help out in the park. When Francesca suggests that he is from a good family, Mercy remembers that as a rule, white people do not associate with Chinese. As she notes, "The trembler moved us in mysterious ways, shifting underlying assumptions about social rank and order. "

Mercy is a strong female character, whose faith in God is severely tested by the disaster. She states that her brother "Jack's birth proved to me that God exists." But with his death, "the sea is empty for me." She struggles with the unfairness of their deaths, that she should be comfortable "when Ma and Jack suffered such unspeakable deaths." No religion offers her comfort. "The ancestors have turned their backs on my family, even after all those offerings we made. And Ba's Christian God - the all caring, all powerful one - He has been the most disappointing of all. Though I am not speaking to Him anymore, I still plead with Him to let me find Ba soon. It's the least You can do."

From the disaster Mercy becomes aware of how fragile life is. "You expect certain things to always be there, like the bakery on the corner, or the boy you grew up with. But when the very ground can eat you alive without warning, what's to say the ocean won't dry up? Or the stars won't suddenly shut off? Nothing is forever." She wonders what has happened to her father and if Tom is even safe.

With Chinatown destroyed, and Jack gone, Mercy has lost her sense of purpose. Jack and her ma no longer need a big house, or an easier life, nor will they feel hunger again. Mercy struggles to accept what has happened and how her life has changed. "The stars wink, teasing me with the notion that this has all been some colossal joke. That I will wake up any second in the living room of our flat on Clay Street with the smell of pomelo in the air. But the universe never jokes. It is always profoundly, unflinchingly serious." To deal with her pain of loss, Mercy reaches out to those in need and organizes the kitchen to help others who have suffered.

It's unfortunate that Lee decided to present such a negative view of a Catholic priest in her novel, choosing to portray Father Goodwin as unfaithful to his vows of celibacy. No doubt there have been Catholic priests through the ages who broke their vows, but was it really necessary to portray a priest in this disparaging manner in a young adult novel? Especially when the main character, Mercy is a young Catholic girl struggling with her faith. It seems as though Lee succumbed to the current 21st century view that sees Catholic priests as abusers and pedophiles.

Overall Outrun the Moon is a well written historical novel. Mercy's voice is sometimes humorous and at other times thoughtful. Her wit provides much comic relief and makes her seem a realistic character who finds within herself the ability to weather adversity. Her indomitable spirit causes Headmistress Crouch to reassess her view of Mercy whom she now considers to be someone who gets things done. Supporting Mercy is a well developed cast of characters, each a bit different -  from the kindly Francesca, the spoiled rich girl Elodie to the crusty Headmistress Crouch. The novel takes its title from a phrase Mercy's mother tells her at the very beginning, that we cannot always control what happens in life, but we can view events with a different perspective. This is in reference to her telling Mercy that she has foreseen her own death. She reminds Mercy that she tells clients that they cannot change their destiny but they can change their perspective. " 'It is like the moon. We can see it differently by climbing a mountain, but we cannot outrun it. As it should be.' "

For more information on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake check out the United States Geological Survey's website. 

Book Details:

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons Ltd.     2016
391 pp.