Saturday, December 31, 2016

Moo by Sharon Creech

Moo is a delightfully sweet story about a young girl and her brother who are recruited to help a lonely elderly woman but find they are on the receiving end of so much more than they ever imagined.

Twelve year old Reena and her seven year old brother Luke like in the big city with all its noise and smells and fun things to do. However when Reena's parents lose their jobs at the newspaper, her mother suggests that they consider moving. Reena suggests they move to Maine. It is a suggestion immediately accepted by her mother because her parents met in Maine.But Reena is not happy.

Their move to Maine is not well received by her families' friends. But they pack up and move to a small harbor town with "gentle mountains" opposite the harbor and around it. There they rent a
"small old house
with a woodstove inside
and an apple tree outside..."

Reena and Luke ride their bikes
"discovering our new town
its people and dogs and old houses
its winding lanes and gnarled trees."
They also see a farm with what Luke calls "Oreo cows", black and white cows which are black at both ends and a white belt in the middle. The girl in farm field tells them they are called Belted Galloways. As it would happen, Reena and Luke would pass the farm, Birchmere Farm every day on their bikes. The cows were a bit frightening to Reena but she noted that every day teenagers came to work on the farm. Reena's brother Luke loved to draw but now his superhero characters have morphed into farmer-like people.

Just before the farm, on the edge of town, on Twitch Street, sits the house of Mrs. Falala, an old lady who by the towns people owned at least a cow and a pig. Reena and her brother often hear the sound of a flute coming through the open attic window. One day Reena's father takes her and her brother to visit Mrs. Falala, but the visit does not go well. A menacing cat and a "fat black hog" greet them. Reena's dad brings Mrs. Falala two books, which turn out not to be what she wants.

Meanwhile, Reena's mother finds a job teaching English at a private school near their town, but her father is still looking for work. Reena and Luke are sent back to Mrs. Falala's with more books. This time they encounter fourteen seagulls on top of the roof and a long black snake "slithering along the gutter". Mrs. Falala hauls them into the house. The books are somewhat better, but Mrs. Falala admonishes Luke sucking his thumb and tries to flick it out of his mouth.  This leads to Luke telling her not to touch him and Reena tell her to leave him alone. Mrs. Falala  yells at them to leave immediately. By the time they reach home, their parents have heard what happened and they tell Reena and Luke that Mrs. Falala claims they were disrespectful to her. This leads Reena and Luke's mom to visit Mrs. Falala by herself. When she returns she tells Reena that Mrs. Falala is very charming and that Reena and Luke can really help Mrs. Falala. They will start tomorrow.

Belted Galloway
Reena and her family visit Mrs. Falala the next day. Reena and her brother are enlisted to clean out her cow barn of dung. After cleaning out so many cow patties, Luke wonders where the cow is. Reena and Luke eventually meet Mrs. Falala's cow who is named Zora. By Reena's admission Zora is "ornery and stubborn" and "was selfish beyond selfish and filthy...". But as Reena and Luke continue to work at Mrs. Falala's barn, both Mrs. Falala and Zora become less intimidating and more like family.


Moo is a delightful novel that tells the story of two young children who are volunteered by their parents to help an elderly, eccentric woman. In doing so they begin to fit into their new life and come to love the strange but kindly Mrs. Falala.

Creech tells her story in free verse that captures the essence of the emotions of Reena and her brother as they navigate this challenging time in their lives. At first Reena is reluctant to move away from the city. Reena states that she is
"full of buses and subways
and traffic and tall buildings
and crowds of people
and city noises
            honking and sirens and
and city smells
            bakeries and car exhaust
            hot dogs and coffee
and city lights so bright..."

She wonders,
"Would I know what to do
and how to be
in Maine?"

However, when Reena and her family arrive in their small harbor town, she almost immediately finds good things about it - the wide sidewalks and  quiet, curving lanes allow her and Luke to ride their bikes everywhere and discover their new town. One of those discoveries is learning about cows, which Reena states she thought were like "a LARGE lamb; soft, furry, gentle, uttering sweet sounds." However she quickly discovers they have large heads, enormous noses and make deep, loud mooing sounds. They also have slobbery mouths. And, quite frankly,  they scare her.

And then Reena meets Zora, Mrs. Falala's cow. At first she's terrified of the cow as Zora's obstinate nature proves to be challenging. She butts both Reena and Luke and refuses to go where they lead her. But Mrs. Falala insists the children care for Zora and that they show her at the fairs. Mrs. Falala tells Reena that Zora is uncooperative because she doesn't know her and that she needs to introduce herself to Zora.

Gradually Reena forms a bond with Zora, learning how to care for her and how to show her. No longer is Reena afraid and instead she comes to believe that the cow is lonely. Although Zora remains temperamental the bond deepens and a sort of trust forms between the animal and Reena. By the end of the story, Reena is describing Zora as "that stubborn, crazy, belligerent, sweet, sweet heifer." She recognizes the good and bad qualities of Zora's nature and even uses the correct term to describe her "cow".

Likewise, Luke develops a bond with Mrs. Falala. Luke loves to draw and while Reena has been caring for Zora, Luke has been teaching Mrs. Falala to draw. Zora and Mrs. Falala help Reena and Luke adjust to their new life in a rural town. They learn new skills and make new friends. And eventually Reena's family is given a very different life through an unexpected tragedy.

As it turns out, Mrs. Falala was likely looking for someone to take over her farm and Reena's family seemed like a possibility. When she passes away, Reena and her family are not only saddened but wonder what will happen to the animals and the farm. Creech provides her readers with a satisfying, heart-warming ending.

Moo is a lovely short novel that would make a great class read-aloud and would interest young readers who enjoy books about animals.

Picture attribution:  By Amanda Slater from Coventry, England - Belted Galloway, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Book Details:

Moo by Sharon Creech
New York: Joanna Cotler Books   2016
278 pp.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Twelve-year-old Martha O'Doyle has been expelled from Blessed Name of Our Holy Mother parish school for not knowing her catechism and for arguing with Sr. Ignatius in catechism class. Her ma takes her with her to her job as head housekeeper at a Fifth Avenue mansion. Perhaps a year working as a maid will make her see the value in attending school.

Martha's mother's employer is Mr. J. Archer Sewell, owner of one of New York's most successful newspapers. Sewell's wife, Rose Pritchard is an invalid who hasn't left her rooms in years. Her father made his fortune from the West Virginia coal mines and then moved to New York where Rose was sent to the best schools and attended the society parties. Before her marriage to Mr. Sewell, Rose had a reputation for causing scandal, working in a sweatshop sewing neckties or running off to Paris.

The Sewell mansion is more than Martha ever imagined, with turrets and spires. Martha's mother gives her a quick tour of the house, showing off the opulent rooms with their gold pianos and sofas of satin. However, Martha notes that the walls are entirely bare "a chessboard of discolored squares and rectangles on the silk wallpaper, nails left behind like you'd see in a chap boardinghouse." When Martha asks her mother where all the pictures are, her mother tells her that Rose keeps them in her rooms as a comfort to her.

Martha is assigned to work in the kitchen under the supervision of Monsieur Leblanc and after a week she quickly learns the work of the kitchen. The other staff include two housemaids, Bridie and Magdalena and the footman, Alphonse. Besides preparing special meals for Mr. Sewell's guests, Martha also must prepare the same meals every day for Mrs. Sewell. So she is not "overstimulated" her meals of toast and tea and porridge with a "fancy sugar stirred into it that Mr. Sewell secured from some specialty grocer..." are loaded onto the dumbwaiter in the kitchen. The meals are sent to her rooms in the turret on the top floor and when she's finished the empty plates are sent back down in the dumbwaiter. After a month of working at the mansion, Martha meets Mr. Sewell who talks to her about politics and tells her she should read a book about becoming rich.

Then one night, Rose escapes out the dumbwaiter and the kitchen is set on fire. Rose's antics are published in the Yodel. Martha suspects that Alphonse is the one who leaked the story. When Martha brings tea to Rose's rooms she is astounded. "In just a small suite of rooms were crammed dozens of paintings, stacked three or four deep, leaning against walls or tables or wardrobes. Others were hung haphazardly, some big, some small, some dangling so they half jutted across a window. The walls pulsated with life -- no, with something larger than life. Gods and goddesses fought and frolicked. Dukes and duchesses followed me with their eyes. Winds swept through landscapes and bowls of glistening fruit dangled out of reach."

Mr. Sewell tells his wife she doesn't need to use the dumbwaiter to leave her room but she can leave by the door. The doctor notes that Mrs. Sewell has been reading Ovid and Dante's Inferno. When Mr. Sewell expresses his desire to sell off the books in the library, Rose tells him he cannot because they belong to her. As they try to determine what led to Rose's strange behaviour the night before, she complains that the porridge is too salty. But Martha made the porridge and remembers that she forgot the sugar that night. She notes that Rose has an angry red rash on her face and neck. When Dr. Westbrook suggests removing the paintings, Rose becomes agitated and is given a sedative. Afterwards, Martha confesses to her mother about forgetting the sugar and her mother moves her from the kitchen to upstairs as a maid.

Martha's dad, who is in vaudeville, unexpectedly shows up at home. Her father tells her that he's been very successful with his act but that he cannot stay and has to catch the next train to Syracuse. The next day Martha begins her week as an upstairs maid, cleaning the first floor. When she goes in to clean the gallery, she discovers four paintings hanging on the walls, neatly in a row, each draped over with a sheet. Martha finds the paintings intriguing but doesn't know much about them. The first painting, titled Proserpine by Rossetti looks to Martha like Eve holding the apple. However, Alphonse informs her the painting is not about Eve and the fruit is definitely NOT an apple. Before they can talk further, the two are discovered by Martha's Ma who sends Alphonse off and tells Martha that the paintings are Miss Rose's pride and her ticket into New York society. Ma explains that although the majority of the paintings are in her rooms, "Miss Rose gets it in her head that certain paintings need to be downstairs. For Mr. Sewell's visitors." After her ma leaves, Martha looks at the other three paintings which include Nature morte by Gustave Courbet, Still even by Willem Kalf and The Pomegranate by Pablo Picasso.

Nature morte by Gustave Courbet

Still Even by Willem Kalf

The Pomegranate - Picasso

The next day Martha talks to Alphonse about the paintings and he tells her that "Nothing on that wall is an accident." In response to her questions, Alphonse tells Martha that "Invinculis faciebat" means "made in prison" and that pomegranates are a fruit. Alphonse encourages Martha to make use of Rose's library, telling her he will leave the door unlocked for her. Unfortunately, this doesn't work out for Martha because she is quickly discovered in the library by her mother who tells her the books are extremely expensive and that Mr. Sewell would rather sell them and invest the money in the stock market. He cannot do this however, because the books, the house and the paintings all belong to Rose.

In her determination to learn more about the paintings on display in the Sewell Mansion gallery, Martha takes a side trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art after running an errand. A docent shows Martha the many paintings which contain pomegranates but this doesn't seem to help her. On her way home, Martha purchases a pomegranate from a fruit stand and has Bridie send it up to Miss Rose as a treat. It is returned with the word "HELP" pricked into it.  Martha feels "...those grand, expensive paintings held the secret to something. Something dark and threatening. And the pomegranate was at the center of it."


The Gallery is an intriguing story about a young girl who quickly recognizes that the unusual paintings in the abandoned gallery in the mansion are a message to the outside world from a young wife who lives on the top floor. Once Martha deciphers the message her mission is to convince her mother about what is really going on in the Sewell mansion and to save Miss Ruth.

In Martha O'Doyle, Marx Fitzgerald has fashioned a smart, determined heroine who refuses to accept Mr. Sewell's version of events in his home. The paintings, the book by the Roman poet Ovid along with the message pressed into the pomegranate are clues to Martha suggesting something is not right in the Sewell household. When her first attempt to learn about the paintings is thwarted, Martha turns to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then to the public library. "I needed to connect the dots somehow. I needed to go somewhere where I could find all the stories I needed without keys or admission fees or fear of Ma walking in. The public library."  In the library Martha learns about Ovid and his book, Metamorphoses. After reading the story about Proserpina, Martha is convinced that Rose Sewell is trapped in her rooms upstairs and that she is trying to escape. She also becomes convinced that her mother knows what is going on in the Sewell house but because of her attachment to the master, she cannot see the truth behind the events.

The mystery is gradually uncovered as Martha comes to understand the complex relationship her mother has with Mr. Sewell and the alterior motive Mr. Sewell might have for wanting to gain control over his young wife's inheritance. The person Martha needs to convince most is her mother, because her ma truly believes that Miss Rose is mentally unstable. When Martha tells Alphonse what she has uncovered he tells her that Mr. Sewell is powerful and able to create any story he wants because he is wealthy and he controls a newspaper. But he also tells her that "Mr. Sewell has convinced your mother that this bizarre scene is in service to her mistress. So let us just say, the lady of the house is not the only one that Mr. Sewell has imprisoned."

Marx Fitzgerald brings her wonderful story to a satisfying conclusion, tying up all the loose ends and having those who deserve to, get their "just desserts".  In her author's note at the back of the novel, Marx Fitzgerald states that The Gallery came about after she found some fascinating stories in old newspapers from the 1920's and '30's. Into these stories, the author has woven in some of the most famous works of art, giving young readers the chance to learn about them. She also has her main character, Martha learn about the classical Greek myth of Proserpina. This makes The Gallery not only engaging but a great chance for young readers to explore other Greek myths on their own.

In her Author's Note, Marx Fitzgerald answers questions the story in The Gallery brings up, providing background information about the historical setting of the novel. The Gallery takes place in late 1928 and early 1929, before the historic Great Crash of October, 1929. It's a good thing Miss Rose was able to save her paintings and books because had Mr. Sewell sold them and invested in the stock market he would have lost everything in that crash.

The author does mention that Italian immigrants like Alphonso Vanzetti would have been able to easily change their name in this era. This is partly true - immigrants did often anglicize their names - Pasquale became Patrick for example. However many Italian immigrants like my grandfather did indeed have passports issued by the Italian government and young men under the age of 18 in Italy were not allowed to emigrate unless they were travelling with their families. All young men were also registered for armed service at birth and were expected to report on their eighteenth birthday. They had to provide proof as to why they could not fulfill this obligation even if they were in Canada or America.

The Gallery is a wonderfully refreshing and enjoyable novel, suitable for all ages. Well written, completely riveting, complete with a likeable heroine.

Artwork attributions:
Dante Rossetti: Proserpine © [W. Graham Robertson] Photographic Rights © Tate (1940), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Gustave Courbet:

Willem Kalf: Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pablo Picasso: The Pomegranate

Book Details:

The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
New York: Dial Books for Young Readers    2016
321 pp.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Girl On A Plane by Miriam Moss

Fifteen year old Anna Milton's father is in the British Army so she's grown up in places all over the world. Her father's been stationed in Bahrain for the past few years. When she was eleven, Anna's
parents decided to send her to boarding school in England and whenever they can afford to, she travels home to be with them on the holidays.

Now in early September, 1970, her entire family is returning to England because her father has been reassigned there. This means they will not be returning to Bahrain. First to leave will be Anna who is returning to her boarding school, followed by her brothers, nine-year-old Sam and eleven-year-old Mark who will fly out a few days later. Her parents will Bahrain at the end of the week. Anna tells her mother, whom she calls Marni, that people at last night's party were talking about the recent plane hijackings and joked that it would be her turn next. But Marni's mother assures her that things
will be fine.

The next day Anna is driven to the airport and boards a white BOAC VC10 aircraft for the flight to England. On the plane, Anna is seated between two boys, an older boy named David and a younger boy named Tim who has a terrapin in a little container. However, minutes after take-off, the plane is hijacked by the PFLP - the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. There is a hijacker in the cockpit of the plane with the pilot, Captain Gregory as well as one in the passenger cabin. The captain asks everyone to remain calm and tells them that the hijackers have ordered him to fly to Beirut to refuel and then onto to Jordan where the plane will land on the Revolutionary Airstrip in the Jordanian desert.

Anna is completely terrified especially when the captain also indicates that there is a third hijacker located in the seats carrying a briefcase filled with explosives. The passengers are asked to turn in their passports to the hijackers. Anna notes that the one hijacker is a giant and the other one is heavily perspiring so the three children nickname the two hijackers "Giant" and "Sweaty". Anna wonders why the hijackers want their passports and David tells her they probably are looking for Israelis. He
informs Anna and Tim that the PFLP hijacked four planes on Sunday; two were taken to the Jordanian desert, one was blown up in Cairo after the passengers and crew were removed but on the fourth plane, an Israeli El Al plane, the hijackers were overpowered by the crew. One hijacker was killed, the other is now in prison in London. It was the Israeli plane the PFLP really wanted.

Anna wonders if her parents know what is happening, that she's been hijacked. And in fact they do learn about it fairly quickly. Meanwhile the stewardesses, Rosemary and Celia hand out drinks to the passengers. While David is able to eat his lunch, Anna is too upset to eat anything, a decision she will come to regret later on. The plane lands in Beirut where it is refueled and two more hijackers arrive, a woman and a man. They then take off and fly to the Revolutionary Airstrip in Jordan. The crew is ordered to shut down the engines, but the captain and the navigator object telling them that there will be no air conditioning and no functioning toilets. And with the plane being in the desert, conditions will soon become unbearable. The hijackers do not relent however and the engines are turned off.

Soon the plane becomes sweltering. Rosemary enlists Anna to help her salvage whatever unopened food remains from the lunches to distribute to the passengers, giving Anna a package of crackers and tiny can of pineapple juice to share with David and Tim. Soon it is announced that anyone with an Arab, Asian or Indian passport is allowed to leave the plane. The remaining passengers are allowed a short time at the door of the plane for fresh air. As night falls, and oppressive heat of the desert turns to bone-chilling cold, the plane is visited by the second-in-command, a striking woman accompanied by two heavily armed guards. She is hostile and threatens the passengers with death. Anna is both shocked and terrified, as the other hijackers have not acted this way towards them. "Are they going to kill us now? Mow us down? Is that what she is saying? Why would she speak like this otherwise? My mind whirls. I feel disbelief and panic. I feel sick."

When the captain tells her they have children on board, the woman flies into a rage, threatening to shoot him. She tells the hostages that "If your prime minister doesn't release our comrade Leila Khaled in London by midday on Saturday, you will ALL DIE. We will blow up the whole plane with you in it....Or maybe... we will kill you all,"

For the next three days, Anna must try to control her overwhelming fear and panic, her sense of hopelessness and try to survive under gruelling conditions in the Jordanian desert, where there is not only the threat of the terrorists but also the threat of being caught in the middle of a civil war in Jordan.


Girl On A Plane is a fictionalized account of the author's own experience in this exact event. Miriam Moss was a young passenger on the BOAC plane that was hijacked that day in 1970. She sat in the plane rigged with explosives for four days as negotiations went on to free the hostages. After she was released, Miriam went on to live her life but like many survivors of traumatic events, never wrote about it. This novel attempts to convey to younger readers what it was like living through a hijacking.

The history of the Middle East, specifically Israel and Palestine is complicated at best. In order to better understand the situation Anna, David and Tim found themselves placed in the novel, some background history will help.

Historical background for the novel:

1947 Partition Map
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has its basis in a historical dispute over land which both the Jewish and Palestinian people lay claim to.  Modern Palestine is defined as the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.  Palestine has been controlled by many different conquerors through the centuries - for example,  in Jesus's time it was the Romans. After World War I though, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire meant that large areas of the Middle East were without state.

The Council of the League of Nations entrusted Great Britain with the administration of the territory of Palestine in July 24th, 1922 Mandate. Great Britain was authorized by the Allied Powers to establish a national home for the Jewish people while taking into account the rights of the nonJewish population of the region. In 1937 the Peel Commission recommended that Palestine be divided into two separate states, one Jewish and one Arab. Neither group found this solution to be acceptable; for the Jews it meant they would have a territory of only 5000 square kilometers out of 26,000 square kilometers. The Arabs rejected the plan because it meant accepting the existence of a Jewish state. The Jews decided to negotiate with the British.

In 1939 the British White Paper proposed that an Arab state be established within ten years in Palestine and that Jewish immigration be restricted. The Arabs turned this down too. When World War II ended and the extend of the Nazi persecution of Europe's Jews became known, it was evident that a safe homeland was required. Unable to broker a deal, the British turned the problem over to the newly created United Nations in 1947. The UN proposed that there be two states, one Arab, one Jewish with the city of Jerusalem administered by the UN as an international state city. While the Jewish population was unhappy with this, especially since Jerusalem was separated from their state, nevertheless they accepted the U.N. Partition Plan. The Arabs once again did not. Even a last ditch attempt to secure a deal was unsuccessful and Arab League Secretary Azzam Pasha set the tone: "Mr. Horowitz, that your plan is rational and logical, but the fate of nations is not decided by rational logic. Nations concede; they fight. You won't get anything by peaceful means or compromise. You can, perhaps, get something, but only by the force of your arms. We shall try to defeat you. I am not sure we'll succeed but we'll try."

Map of Israel 2016
Courtesy CIA World Factbook

The UN went ahead with its plan, the British troops were to withdraw and their Mandate terminated by August 1948, and the Partition Plan implemented in October, 1948. The day before the British Mandate expired, the Jewish state was declared but the Arabs immediately declared war on the State of Israel. This was the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, which the Israelis won and which saw them gain some areas originally to be under Arab control. In 1967, the Six Day War was also won by Israel and saw them gain control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. U.N. Resolution 242 called for the Israeli withdrawal from all seized land in the Six Day War. However the Israelis decided to place Jewish settlements into the Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank, displacing thousands of Palestinians. The Palestinian refugees along with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) fled to Jordan. In September of 1970, King Hussein of Jordan declares war on the PLO, the four airplanes are hijacked and the events in the novel, Girl On A Plane transpire.

Moss's focus in her novel is not so much on the politics of the hijacking but more the personal struggle of Anna to cope during the hijacking. Nevertheless she does weave some of the politics into the story for her young readers without losing the focus on her characters.

For example, the stewardess, Rosemary gives Anna some of the back story to the hijackers. She tells Anna they have been talking to the hijacker they refer to as the Giant who has told them they are all Palestinians who have been living in refugee camps in Jordan for years. Because they feel their cause has been ignored by the world they are doing this to gain attention. They are desperate to return to their homes. Rosemary states that they are all to help by sending the British Prime Minister, Ted Heath, telegrams asking him to release jailed hijacker Leila Khaled.

Anna eventually is able to talk with one of the young hijackers named Jamal. She asks Jamal how he can be a part of the hijacking of innocent people, keeping them like animals on the plane. He tells her that his family had a farm with orange groves. The Israelis wanted the land and that his parents were shot dead as they fled their home. He and his brother hid until dark and then left. He asks Anna, "...where would you be if that had happened to you?"

Later on Jamal speaks with David and Anna.  David confronts Jamal, asking him what happened after his parents were murdered. Jamal attempts to justify his actions by what has happened to him: telling David they first went to live with relatives but that they too had to flee to Jordan. When David shows little sympathy, Jamal reminds him that when this is over he will return to his homeland. Jamal has "no home, family, passport, possessions. No security, no education..." David presses Jamal to explain why he specifically and his family and Anna should pay for this? Jamal tells him they want to bring their plight to the attention of the world. He tells Tim, David and Anna that he and the other Palestinians want to go back to Palestine. "All we want is to go back home to our land. That is all that drives us." Jamal also tells them that the angry woman hijacker hates the English because "They were the ones who gave our land away to the Jews..." David points out to Jamal that while he considers the land to be his, the Jews also have a historical claim to the same land and they had also been forced from the same land.

The conversation between Jamal and Anna, David and Tim serves to present to young readers the complex situation in the Middle East and specifically presents the Palestinian side of things. However,what Jamal tells David is not entirely accurate: while the British did give SOME of the land to the Jews, not all the land claimed by the Arab League was given to them. In fact the Jewish people received only 5000 square kilometers of the total land of Palestine. It was the Arabs who refused to accept any claim by the Jewish people to the land and any right to exist as a nation. Instead, they chose to start a war which eventually has cost thousands of lives, and ultimately the loss of some of their land.

Moss effectively portrays Anna's struggles to cope with the psychological and emotional distress of being held hostage. There is no doubt this event has an significant impact on Anna. Anna gradually begins to identify with the hijackers on some level in what appears to be a mild and developing case of Stockholm Syndrome. Despite the horrible situation Anna has been put into, she notes the humanity of the hijackers.  When Anna along with the other passengers is allowed to access her luggage outside the plane she and the other women are told to pose with the hijackers for a picture. Despite the group's terror when the women are separated from the men for a photo with the hijackers, Anna remarks "They're just men, somebody's brother, somebody's father, someone's uncle. I begin to relax. They're refugees. They're homeless. They're men with a cause. " Anna finds herself feeling some sympathy for the men and empathy for the fact that they are homeless.

Her discussions with Jamal, at first political, become more personal. And later when Anna is safe in Amman, she wishes she could have said good bye to Jamal and the Giant. "I think of Jamal and the Giant back out there with the planes and wonder what they're doing, how they are, whether they're safe. And I feel so sorry not to have said goodbye, not to have ever said how brave I though they were."

Nevertheless, the stress of coping is overwhelming throughout her ordeal. For example, on the last night Ann states that she tries "pretending nothing significant is happening. I push dangerous thoughts to one side, and when I fail, I have to stand up, leave the others, walk away,recover, return,sit back down again." Considering the possibility that she might die the next day Anna's thoughts turn to her family, remembering each member with a particular fondness. The next morning when the captain begins giving instructions to the crew, Anna is ready to be sick. When they learn they are to be freed, Anna is stunned and relieved but these emotions are quickly replaced by "a quiet dread, the dread that someone or something might jeopardize this fragile chance of freedom." Anna also feels fear over leaving the plane as "going outside, away from it, feels incredibly dangerous too."

The struggle to cope continues even after the hostages are released. When she arrives in Amman, the aggressiveness of the reporters and her separation from David and Tim add to Anna's distress. "I lean over and look in the mirror. My face is clean. Really clean. I lean in closer, look into the eyes. Who are you? Who are you now? I don't recognize the girl staring back. She looks different. Her eyes are wild and a bit frightening. I back away. What have I become.?" Anna struggles to trust the belief that she is going home, as she thinks "Somewhere inside my head, the switch that makes sense of everything has been turned OFF, and it feels awful."

Anna, David and Tim manage to board their plane to Cyprus, but others find getting on another plane so soon after the hijacking to be psychologically difficult. Even Anna finds herself wondering if she should save part of her breakfast on the plane, just in case... Adding to Anna's distress is the possibility that she might have to go straight to her boarding school when her name is not on the list of people who have family waiting for them in London.

Even when she arrives in London and is with her parents, Anna still doesn't feel safe. "Yes, I'm safe. I hear the words, but I don't feel safe. Not yet. It's like I have a lot of unsafe to get out of my system first." And when a photographer comes to their hotel room Anna doesn't want to answer questions and feels annoyed at how her parents and the photographer view her experience in such a trivial way. Later when viewing the planes which are exploded by the hijackers, Anna becomes extremely upset, feeling a part of her has been destroyed. Her mother promises her, "You will find yourself again...You will be safe Anna, and calm Anna, again. I promise..."

The beginning and the end of the novel are engaging and interesting, but pacing in the middle of the novel is somewhat slow. We feel the drag of time as Anna and the passengers wait for three days for their fate to be decided. The middle of the novel focuses on Anna's struggles to cope with the deteriorating conditions on the plane. She also learns about the motives behind the hijacking and has personal contact with the hijackers. Girl On A Plane is a good addition though, to the canon of historical fiction because it covers events not written about. With hijackings a relatively rare event today, the PLO terrorism and hijackings of the 1960's and '70's have been largely forgotten.

Interestingly according to a spreadsheet on the Virtual Jewish Library website which lists terrorist attacks on Israel from 1968 to 1973, Palestinian terrorists who hijacked airplanes were almost unanimously freed, making this form of terrorism a successful means to bring attention to their cause. Even in cases where large numbers of innocent people were injured or killed, the perpetrators of these attacks were almost always set free, had sentences commuted or were returned to Palestinian terror groups. It's hard to feel sympathy for the Palestinian cause in light of these facts.

A more detailed summary from both the Arab and Israeli point of view can be found in this detailed document titled "History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" from the PBS website.

Information regarding the Dawons Field hijacking can be found on the VC10 website. And a recent NY Times article, Why Airline Hijackings Became Relatively Rare is also worth reading.

An article about Leila Khaled, the PLF member who was released because of the hijackings.

Book Details:

Girl On A Plane by Miriam Moss
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt       2016
274 pp.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

And Then The Sky Exploded by David A. Poulsen

Thirteen-year-old Christian Larkin is attending the funeral of his beloved great-grandfather, William Deaver. GG Will as he was affectionately known was a kind man who had worked in the area of material physics. However his funeral is met by protesters yelling about Deaver being a killer and a bomb maker. A few days after the funeral, Christian approaches his mother to ask her why there were protesters at GG Will's funeral but she won't tell him and refers him to his dad. But Christian's dad, who is vice-principal at Anna Fernicola Middle School also won't talk to him about what happened.  The only thing Christian has learned, from the local Trimble Times-Herald, is that the protesters were at the funeral to protest Mr. Deaver's involvement in the Manhattan Project.

Both Christian and his sister Carly attend Anna Fernicola Middle School and this is where Christian begins to understand what his great-grandfather was involved in. The class bully, Lorelei Faber accuses Christian of having a great-grandfather who "helped kill millions of people." She mentions the Manhattan Project, in which a group of scientists from all over the world worked on a building an atomic bomb that was eventually dropped on Japan. This leads Christian to do his own research on the Manhattan Project.

He discovers that his great-grandfather was among the famous scientists who worked on the secret Manhattan Project. They were developing an atom bomb using uranium and plutonium. The first atom bomb to be used in war was dropped on the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Christian learns that over two hundred thousand people died either directly or indirectly because of the first bomb. As he tries to comprehend that number of people dying, Christian wonders "if there were any Anne Frank-type stories about Hiroshima" to help him understand the human side of what happened.

Christian's best friend is a deaf boy, Carson Tinsley whom he met in football camp during the summer.The two boys like to eat and talk football. Because of his disability, Carson who is sixteen is in Christian's grade nine class. Carson can drive and so he often takes his father's 2003 Chevy Cavalier to school, picking up Christian along the way.

Christian attends the first meeting of the Weston Comprehensive High School Travel Club. The club's twenty-six members has to decide on a destination for it's trip this year. The students have suggested France, England, Germany and Portugal as possibilities, but Christian suggests that they consider Japan because of its very different culture. The club's advisor, Mr. Pettigrew wants them to consider all of these options including Japan. After the meeting one of the club members and a classmate, Zaina Nawal asks Christian to go see a Japanese movie showing at the Variety Theatre on the weekend. However, Chris who is infatuated with the beautiful Julie LaPointe, who happens to be dating another guy, turns her down. But Carson tells him he needs to forget about Julie and think about the girl who is actually interested in him.

At a second meeting of the Travel Club, Mr. Pettigrew tells the members that he has discovered there is a program through the Japanese embassy which helps with the cost of travel. Due to the 2011 tsunami disaster there has been a decline in tourism to Japan and the government is providing funding for school trips from abroad. So Mr. Pettigrew suggests that he and Chris research more into this option. After the meeting, Chris talks to Zaina and apologizes to her for turning her down, telling her he would in fact like to go to the movie with her. They exchange numbers.

After completing their research on Japan, Mr. Pettigrew tells Chris that they must get approval for the trip from the school administration and the Parents Council for the trip.At the Parents Council meeting, Lorelei's mother who is the vice-chair strongly voices her opposition to the Japan trip. However, Lorelei stands up to her mother and the trip is approved by the Parents Council.

As part of his preparation for the Japan trip Chris goes to the library with his girlfriend Zaina to research the Manhattan project. He tells Zaina that "someone in my family might have been partly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people..." and that he needs to learn more. Christian's best friend, Carson questions him as to why he wants to go to Japan. Christian tells him that partly it's for himself, that he wants to be proud of his great-grandpa. He also tells Carson that "I know it's crazy, but I can't help it.I keep having these thoughts that maybe there's something I can do to...I don't know...make a difference..."

Will Christian find what he's seeking in visiting Japan - a way to come to terms with his grandfather's actions and to understand an important part of world history?


And Then The Sky Exploded is a short piece of historical fiction that explores the ethics of dropping the atom bomb on Japan, unfortunately not in a very in-depth way. Poulsen does this through his main character, young Christian Deaver, whose great-grandfather, the fictional William Deaver,  was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. Unfortunately, no one in his family will openly discuss this with him, leaving him to feel conflicted over the actions of a beloved great-grandfather.

Children's Peace Monument
In order to demonstrate to young readers what that day was like in Hiroshima, seventy years ago, Poulsen presents a separate narrative of a young girl, Yuko which chronicles the experience of a survivor of the atomic bomb explosion. Christian was able to better understand the effects of the Holocaust by reading Anne Frank's diary and wishes to better understand what it was like in Hiroshima.  "Anne Frank. I read that book a couple of years ago and I felt like crap when I'd finished because I knew she'd died...I was actually able to feel something because it was one person.Or a few people. And because of the diary, I knew them -- especially Anne. I wondered if there were any Anne Frank-type stories about Hiroshima." And so through Yuko's narratives the reader learns what it was like that day when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. However, for Christian, he begins to understand when he visits the Atomic Bomb Dome. "And standing there at the Dome, I could see in my mind's eye people sitting at desks, maybe some talking on the telephone, some typing, just starting their day's work. This place -- this made it personal. Like Sadako. Like Anne Frank. Both young girls. Both died in the war."  The two narratives intersect when Christian meets Yuko's grand-daughter and asks if he can meet her Obaasan,  Yuko. Apologizing on behalf of his great-grandfather and explaining to Yuko that his relative tried unsuccessfully to stop the atomic bombing of Japan, brings healing and forgiveness to Christian and peace to Yuko. She tells him, "You have done something for me, Christian-kun. You have heard my words. You have listened with respect to me. And believed me. And cared. That is enough."

Poulsen doesn't delve too deeply into a consideration of the ethics of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. It's easy enough to understand what led to the decision to drop the bombs (America wanted to end the war quickly) and easy to criticize through the lens of time. Zaina points out to Christian that sometimes people had no choice as to what they did during wartime, but Christian counters that the scientists on the Manhattan Project were not prisoners and were not forced to work on the bomb - they did so willingly. But Zaina states, "...maybe it's a case of doing what you have to do to end the war and stop more people from dying." Christian at first considers this argument mainly because he hasn't heard a counter argument to it. Eventually through his friend Carson, Christian learns that some of the scientists working on the Manhattan project did attempt to appeal to President Truman not to use to bomb. One of those scientists was Christian's great-grandfather.

For the most part, And Then The Sky Exploded is a short, high interest novel about the bombing of Hiroshima. This novel would make a good introduction for younger readers of the issues surrounding the use of atomic/nuclear weapons. Catholic readers also might consider exploring the Catholic theological doctrine of just war.

There is the odd stereotypical character such as the class bully, Lorelei Faber who is a "big, overweight, round-faced, nasally voiced rich kid" who "does her hurting with words, not fists." But even Lorelei turns out to have redeeming qualities.Christian has a good mix of supporting characters including Carson who helps him work through his mixture of feelings and Zaina who gets him to think differently about Lorelei. Disappointing is the lack of parental input into Christian's journey to understand his family's connection to the atomic bombing and the backstory. If this had been included it could have made Christian's journey more engaging.

Readers can check out the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum website which provides a wealth of information including a virtual museum, survivor stories and a section on Sadako a young survivor who is mentioned in Poulsen's novel and who died from leukemia and for whom the Children's Peace Monument was erected.

Information on the Children's Peace Monument can be found here.

The Manhattan Project webpage of the U.S History website has a wealth of information as well as links to other useful site.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission website has a page devoted to Canada's Historical Role in Developing Nuclear Weapons.

Book Details:

And Then The Sky Exploded by David A. Poulsen
Toronto: Dundurn Press    2016

Sunday, December 11, 2016

DVD: Anthropoid

Set in Czechoslovakia in 1941, Anthropoid tells the heartwrenching story of the exiled Czech government's operation to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the brutal commander in charge of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.

The movie opens by presenting the background story for viewers. In September of 1938, a conference was held in Munich between Adolf Hitler and the leaders of France, Italy and Great Britain. Hitler threatened to start a war unless Germany was allowed to annex Czechoslovakia. Britain agrees and the Czech army is told to stand down, allowing Germany to invade the country without a shot being fired. A year later, Germany invades Poland and World War II begins. Germany needs the Czech factories to make their armaments but Czech resistance is strong and hindering production. As a result Hitler sends his third-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich to crush any resistance. He soon earns the name the Butcher of Prague.

The setting now moves to April 1942 Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik parachute into a forest overnight. Josef has injured his ankle, so they decide to lay low. They are found by a local farmer who takes them to his house. Although he appears to be friendly, they catch him contacting the authorities. Josef shoots him while Jan chases another man who escapes. The two men flee the farm in a truck to meet their contact, Oldrich Novak in Prague.

When they arrive at the safe house, they are told that Oldrich Novak is not there but are directed to the local veterinarian, Dr. Eduard who is a "good man". Dr. Eduard quickly surmises their situation and tells them that Heydrich has succeeded in crushing the Czech resistance and that the miller, Bretislav may be able to help them. He takes them to an abandoned building where they are questioned by Ladislav Vanek and Uncle Hajsky to determine if they are legitimate resistance. Both men are the head of the Jindra Organization - the Czech resistance. Vanek tells them almost all the resistance has been taken out and that Oldrich Novak was taken away several months ago. Jindra has lost contact with the exiled government in London because their radio is broken. They hoped that Jan and Josef had brought a new crystal for the radio.But when asked what their mission is, Josef tells them, Operation Anthropoid. - there are to assassinate SS Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich.

Vanek tells them it is madness to attempt this because Hitler will destroy Prague. When he suggests they choose a lower ranking officer, Josef disagrees, telling them their orders are from the Czech government in London.Vanek takes them to then home of Auntie Moravec who is very welcoming and provides the two men with a room. They will stay out of sight until they get the papers they need to move about. The two men are also introduced to Mrs. Kovarnikova's daughter, Marie who is paid to help at the home. Jan is immediately drawn to her, but the more practical Josef decides that if they can get another girl to be his partner, they will look less conspicuous.Marie brings in a friend named Lenka Fafkova. The two girls invite Jan and Josef to a dance but when they show up at the club well dressed and wearing bright red lipstick, Josef becomes angry and forces Lenka to fake a scene and leave. He tells her she has to fit in, not wear bright red lipstick to attract attention.

At a meeting at Cafe Morov, Jan and Josef meet other members of the resistance where they plan how to
Reinhard Heydrich
Jewish Virtual Library
assassinate Heydrich. They know his basic routine: every day Heydrich returns to his family along Paneske Brezany, but he is heavily guarded. Once a month he travels to Berlin and it is possible to know exactly when as his personal cars are prepared in advance. However, the train and the station are also heavily guarded. Uncle Hajsky tells them he has a contact who works at the chateau who may be able to help them discover Heydrich's routine, but he warns them that they are the last of the resistance and that if they are captured they will have no hope. They will be tortured to extract information on those involved and then executed. To protect those involved Hajsky gives everyone cyanide capsules.

Marie tries to talk Jan out of the assassination, especially as the two of them fall in love and eventually announce that they are planning to marry. Lenka however tells Josef her father, who was a captain in the army was arrested in 1939 and shot along with 5000 other prisoners when Heydrich took over.

The Czech resistance, especially Vanek are increasingly against the assassination and insist that Josef and Jan allow them to contact London for further confirmation. Jan and Josef receive confirmation to go ahead but they learn from a source inside the chateau that Heydrich will be recalled to Berlin and then posted to Paris. This means that if the assassination is to go ahead it has to be done immediately.
However, Vanek tells them he has received a message telling Jindra to stand down and that there be no
action against the German Reich at this time. Josef refuses to accept this. Uncle Hajsky sides with Josef and gives him the go ahead.

The plan is set in motion and although the assassination is successful, the German Reich retaliates with
unimaginable ferocity. Heydrich's death brings about the deaths of thousands of innocent people and the traitorous actions of one of the resistance members results in the deaths of most of the remaining Czech resistance.


Anthropoid is a stark, gripping film which realistically portrays the terrible evil experienced by the Czech people under the occupation of Nazi Germany. Betrayed by Europe and Britain, the Sudetenland was given to HItler in an effort to appease his threat of war. With the loss of the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia was unable to resist Hitler's invasion of the remainder of the country in March of 1939. Hitler set up the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and he chose as his Reich Protector, the cruel and completely immoral Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich's mandate was to regain control of the Czech population which had resisted by killing Reich officers and sabotaging factory production so necessary to the Nazi war machine. He began to eliminate the Czech intelligentsia and brutally crush the Czech resistance. The Czech government in exile in Britain realized that they needed to do something and a plan was conceived to murder Heydrich. Initially Warrant Officer Josef Gabcik and Staff Sergeant Karel Svoboda were chosen to undertake the mission. However, Svoboda received a head injury during training and was replaced by Jan Kubis. Before leaving Britain on December 28, 1941, both men made out their last will and testament in what would likely be a suicide mission.

Anthropoid portrays their mission in a somewhat simplistic manner but does capture the essence of how dangerous the operation was in a country under the iron grip of Heydrich and the ruthless retaliation of the Nazis as they systematically hunt down those responsible for his murder. In this regard the last part of the movie following the attack on Heydrich becomes increasingly violent, showing the torture of young Ata Moravec and the final bloody battle in the Church of St. Cyril and Methodius. The movie's final scene is horrific, portraying the brutal deaths of all the resistance members. Viewers are left aghast and feeling like they have some sense of the savagery of the Nazis, now mostly forgotten, two generations away from events like this. We need to remember the truth about what happened during this era.

Cillian Murphy was cast as the determined Josef Gabcik, Jamie Dornan portrayed a quiet, suave Jan Kubis who struggled with killing another human being, and Toby Miller played Uncle Hajsky as cautious and wise.  The film doesn't touch too deeply on the morality of killing Heydrich who was known as the Butcher of Prague and who was the architect of Nazi Germany's "Final Solution" - the extermination of all Jews in Europe. But viewers aren't really given a sense of WHY this man was so horrible. Instead we are told this in the opening panels which provide the background for the movie.

Anthropoid is well worth viewing, if only to learn more about Operation Anthropoid and the heroes of the Czech resistance, Josef Gabcik, Jan Kubis, Adolf Opalka, Josef Bublik and Josef Valcik.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicole Yoon

Daniel Jae Ho Bae's older brother Charlie Jae Won Bae has just been kicked out of Harvard University. Daniel's parents who are immigrants from South Korea are disappointed and angry that their beloved first-born son who can do no wrong has failed. Charlie doesn't like Daniel and the feeling is mutual. As a little boy, Daniel looked up to his older brother but that changed when Charlie pushed him away to be with friends.

Daniel and Charlie's parents Min Soo and Dae Hyun met and married in South Korea and came to New York City to start a new life. With the help of a cousin they opened a beauty supply shop called Black Hair Care which sells hair care products to the African American residents of New York. They expect their children to be successful to be doctors. Now that Charlie has been forced to withdraw, the pressure is on Daniel to gain admission to a good school and to stick to the path chosen by his parents - becoming a doctor. But Daniel doesn't want to be a doctor. Instead he wants to be a poet.  He's refused to apply to Harvard, but has an interview today with a Yale alum.

Daniel dresses in his new gray suit and a bright red tie for the interview and takes the Westbound 7 train to Manhattan where his favourite barber is located. He has the entire day free before his interview and he decides he will "do whatever the world tells him to", that he will "blow in the direction of the wind."  Enroute the train is stopped in a tunnel just before the Times Square station by the conductor who encourages everyone to find God. From Times Square Daniel decides to walk to the barber keeping an eye for a "Sign". He stops outside a church on Thirty-Seventh Street but when it's locked his sits down to people watch. That's when Daniel sees a black girl with a huge Afro and huge pink headphones completely blissed out listening to music. Daniel recognizes that she's passionate about music and finds this attractive. He decides to follow her when she enters a music store called Second Coming Records. 

Natasha Kingsley, her nine year old brother Peter and her parents Samuel and Patricia are being deported tonight. She and her parents are undocumented, illegal immigrants from Jamaica. They were discovered when her father was charged with a DUI.  Natasha decides to try one last time to prevent their deportation by going to the offices of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. On her way into the USCIS offices, Natasha has her personal effects scrutinized by Irene, one of the many security guards. She's late for her 8a.m. appointment with Karen Whitney by five minutes and she is refused. Just as she's about to be escorted out by security, a brown-skinned man by the name of Lester Barnes intervenes. Barnes tells Natasha that her family is here illegally and that she has to leave. He attempts to tell her "Everything is irie there, man" but Natasha questions him about whether or not he saw the real Jamaica on his trip. She begins to cry telling him she planned to attend college and will be returning to a country she doesn't know and hasn't lived in since she was eight. Barnes gives her the name of a lawyer, Jeremy Fitzgerald who can "fix" her situation. Natasha has an appointment at eleven a.m. and so she decides to walk to the lawyer's office and stop in at her favourite record store along the way.

Inside Second Coming, Natasha is disgusted to see her ex-boyfriend Rob and his new girlfriend, Kelly, making out and stealing records. Also watching is a stranger, a Korean boy who is astonished at what Rob and Kelly are doing.Natasha refers to him as Red Tie and together they watch as Rob and Kelly are confronted by a store employee. Daniel introduces himself and shakes hands with Natasha but she's not interested, doesn't tell him her name and tells him to have a nice life. Daniel follows Natasha out of the store and when she goes to step off the curb to cross the street, Daniel sees a BMW running the red light and pulls her out of danger. Natasha is stunned but grateful despite her headphones being broken. Daniel presses her to tell him her name which she does and he invites her to get something to eat. He learns that Natasha is from Jamaica and that she has an important appointment to keep, something that is causing her worry.

While Daniel believes he could have the life his father wants for him and be a great doctor, "something about Natasha makes me think my life could be extraordinary.." Daniel finds himself inexorably attracted to Natasha. In fact, he believes he's falling in love with her even though he knows being with a black girl will never gain his parent's approval. In the coffee shop, Natasha is not friendly towards Daniel and is dismayed to discover that Daniel is falling for her. She tells him not to fall in love with her because she has no intention of falling in love with him. In fact she doesn't believe in love because it can't be measured and is temporary.

So Daniel challenges Natasha that he can get her to fall in love with him. To do this he decides to use some of the questions from a study mentioned in the New York Times. But what Daniel doesn't realize is that time is running out for them. Are they destined to be together? Can Fate intervene?


The Sun Is Also A Star is a beautifully crafted novel that explores the way our lives are inexplicably interconnected to one another. Throughout the tapestry that is woven in this story, Nicole Yoon asks her readers to consider the role of God, Fate or chance in what often seems like random encounters in our lives.

The central characters are Jamaican born, illegal immigrant Natasha Kingsley and Korean-American Daniel Jae Ho Bae. Around them revolve a cast of smaller characters that include Natasha's father Samuel, Daniel's brother Charlie and his father, Dae Hyun Bae, Irene a security guard at USCIS, the train conductor, the BMW driver Donald Christiansen, Attorney Jeremy Fitzgerald, his assistant Hannah Winter, a Korean waitress, and the building security guard named Joe. Although Daniel and Natasha affect each others lives significantly so do the other characters and in particular one character who plays an unexpected part in bringing them back together.

Like the string art on the novel's front cover, Yoon weaves a set of colourful, imaginative narratives together that portray the desperation of a girl to stay in America while demonstrating the threads that connect us all. The Sun Is Also A Star brilliantly demonstrates how we are all interconnected and asks us to consider the origin of the meetings that happen between people. Are these encounters coincidence, random acts that happen in the universe or do they happen due to Fate, destiny or God? Of course the main encounter in the novel is that of Daniel and Natasha. Were they destined to meet and fall in love or was it just random chance?

The two main characters view life very differently and thus approach this question very differently. Natasha is intelligent and practical. Like most people today, she doesn't "like temporary, nonprovable things, and romantic love is both temporary and nonprovable." While her mother believes everything happens for a reason, and her father prefers to see the hand of God in things, Natasha believes "that life is just a random series of good and bad things that happen until one day you die. There is no fate, no destiny, no meant-to-be." Natasha believes she's a realist: "It's better to see life as it is, not as you wish it to be. Things don't happen for a reason. They just happen." Natasha intends to be a data scientist but she feels this choice is not destiny. "I chose this career. It didn't choose me. I'm not fated to be a data scientist...I did research on growing fields in the sciences...No fate."

Practical Natasha believes the "poetic heart, the heart of love songs and fickle and will lead you astray. It will tell you that all you need is love and dreams." Despite this, Natasha's "fickle, nonpractical, non-future-considering, nonsensical heart wants Daniel. I know there's no such thing as meant-to-be and yet here I am wondering if maybe I've been wrong." This sets up an intense conflict within Natasha who believes that "love is just chemicals and coincidence."  Natasha believes in "determinism -- cause and effect. One action leads to another leads to another. Your actions determine your fate." She views the actions of one individual human as inconsequential compared to the forces at work in the vast universe. 

In contrast, Daniel, an aspiring poet  challenges Natasha's practical, less passionate outlook on life. "We are capable of big lives...Why choose the practical thing, the mundane thing? We are born to dream and make the things we dream about." Unlike Natasha, Daniel believes in love and shortly after meeting her, he's certain he's going to fall in love with her. Daniel believes in Fate or destiny - their meeting might have been by chance but once it happened, falling in love was inevitable. When Natasha reveals that she is hours from being deported, Daniel is deeply hurt. He struggles and wonders if "Life is just a series of dumb decisions and indecisions and coincidences that we choose to ascribe meaning to."  He considers what Natasha told him that he's looking for someone to rescue him from his life because then the decisions about his future will be out of his control. "It won't be me defying my parents. It will be Fate." 

But Daniel's faith that something else is at work in their lives is rekindled when he and Natasha find each other a second time that day - he returns to the building where she had the interview while she goes back to his house hoping to meet him there. Perhaps it is destiny or Fate that intervenes but Daniel's brother does the only good thing he will do for his brother in his life, he gives Daniel's phone number to Natasha. They discover yet another coincidence - Daniel's interview is in the same building as Natasha's lawyer and that the interview is with her lawyer, a Yale alumnus.While Daniel believes in God and that the connection people share with one another represents God, Natasha believes only in science to explain that connection. When it becomes apparent that Natasha will have to leave, Daniel has succeeded in his quest but while he hopes there will be "something else that could lead them back to each other" someday. For Natasha, maybe meant to be isn't forever.

 Themes and ideas from Natasha's narratives are explored further in separate chapters. For example, when Natasha meets with Lester Barnes at the Immigration office he makes reference to the Jamaican term "irie". He tells Natasha of his limited Jamaican experience, "I had a nice time. Everything is irie there. You'll be all right." But in the chapter titled "irie. An etymological history" Natasha explores the meaning of irie, but also how words can mean one thing to one person -like Barnes, but a totally different thing to another person. Barnes really doesn't know or understand the Jamaican concept of irie in the same way that Natasha might. "A word can start off meaning one thing and end up meaning another. Is it from overuse and oversimplification, like the way irie is taught to tourists at Jamaican resorts? Is it from misuse, like the way Natasha's father's been using it lately?"

Yoon also shows her readers how the slightest of our actions can influence another person in ways we might not know. Irene who is the security guard at USCIS loves her job because it is the sole source of connection with other people in her life. She slows down each bin she needs to search, forcing people to "look up and meet her eyes." Irene decides that she will kill herself, something she's been contemplating for some time. However, Natasha, believing that Attorney Fitzgerald can save her family from deportation, decides to phone Lester Barnes asking him to thank Irene. Her delaying Natasha getting through security resulted in the chain of events that led her to meeting Daniel. Barnes call to Irene ultimately saves her life, leads her to start on a new path and results in her, years later helping to reunite Daniel and Natasha.

The Sun Is Also A Star is another brilliant, beautiful novel by Nicole Yoon. Her stories are engaging, thoughtful and remarkably well crafted. Nicole Yoon grew up in Jamaica and also in Brooklyn New York. Her second novel makes her a force to be reckoned with in young adult literature.

Book Details:

The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicole Yoon
Canada: Doubleday Canada    2016
344 pp.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

What Light by Jay Asher

What Light is a delightful Christmas holiday romance written by renowned author Jay Asher. This beautifully crafted novel  is about forgiveness, redemption and second chances.

Sierra's family runs a Christmas tree farm in Oregon. Every year on the Thanksgiving break, Sierra and her parents make the journey to California to set up their Christmas tree stand in a small town three hours south of San Francisco. Every year it means temporarily leaving behind her life and friends, Rachel and Elizabeth in Oregon for one month. From Thanksgiving until Christmas, Sierra and her parents live out of a trailer, selling the trees they grow on their farm in Oregon. Their family's Christmas tree business was started by her father's father and her parents met on the lot because her mom's family were annual customers.  From the time she was a year old, Sierra has accompanied her parents to California. However, this year might be their last. Sierra's family have selling trees at their lot for over twenty-five years but competition from supermarkets and other retailers who now sell trees has cut into their profits. Instead, Sierra's family might have to close the stand for the last time this year and sell to those vendors next year.

In California Sierra has a best friend too. Heather's family lived next door to Sierra's grandparents on her mom's side and when they would visit her mom's family the two girls quickly became friends. So traveling to California means Sierra will at least have a friend to connect with. The day before Thanksgiving Sierra and her mom drive down to California to meet up with her dad. At the tree lot Sierra settles into their cramped trailer. Andrew, one of the young guys her father employs, asked Sierra out last year. However, Sierra refused telling him she wasn't allowed to date anyone who worked for her father. This has made things awkward between them. Besides Sierra feels it would not be worth it to date someone for the short time she's in California, only to have to leave Christmas morning.

After their traditional Thanksgiving dinner with Heather's family the two girls head up to Cardinal's Peak to check on the Christmas trees they've planted over the past six years. Heather tries to convince Sierra to date someone for the month that she is in California so she has someone to double date with. She finds her boyfriend, Devon, boring and plans to dump him after Christmas. But Sierra does not want to hurt some guy by dumping him right after Christmas when her family leaves. Sierra tells Heather that this may be their last year for the Christmas tree stand.

Then one day the Christmas tree lot is visited by a very cute guy whose smile brings out a dimple. And Sierra begins to reconsider her moratorium on dating. The next morning when Heather visits, Sierra tells her about the cute boy who came by the lot. Sierra's description of his cute dimple tells Heather immediately who he is and she's not pleased. She tells Sierra his name is Caleb and that he is not a good choice for a holiday romance. When Sierra presses Heather to reveal what she's heard, Heather tells her that there is a rumor that Caleb attacked his sister with a knife. Sierra is horrified but relieved to discover Caleb's sister is alive. Caleb returns to the tree lot to purchase another tree and this time Sierra gets a chance to meet him. When she refuses to shake his hand, Caleb suspects that someone has told her about him but they part amicably. On her way home Sierra sees Caleb purchasing another tree from Hoppers family-owned tree lot. Puzzled she stops and asks Caleb what he's doing. They tease one another and Sierra admits to having heard something about him but Caleb brushes her off telling her they can just be friends.

When Heather and Sierra go for breakfast at Breakfast Express Sierra learns that Caleb works at the diner. While they are at the diner, Sierra and Heather discover that Caleb is buying Christmas trees for needy families. The makes Sierra feel conflicted about what she's heard about Caleb and the Caleb she knows. The next day he stops by the tree lot and tells Sierra that he buys the trees because "'s nice to give people what they want instead of only the necessities." He tells her he uses his tips from the job at Breakfast Express to buy the trees. When Caleb suggests she accompany him the next time he takes a tree to a needy family, Sierra agrees.

Sierra begins to realize she's falling for Caleb as she struggles to understand how the boy she knows fits with the rumours surrounding him. Even more difficult is the fact that any relationship started will have to end when her family returns to Oregon after Christmas. Or will it?


What Light is an uplifting Christmas romance about a girl who gives a boy a second chance when no one else will. Sierra is determined to enjoy what will likely be her last Christmas in the small California town that her parents sell Christmas trees. While her friends both in California and Oregon are encouraging her to find a holiday boyfriend, Sierra's not keen on the idea - that is until she meets the very cute Caleb. But Caleb has a bad reputation as the boy who pulled a knife on his sister. As Sierra meets Caleb over the period of a few days she begins to struggle with two very conflicting images of the boy she knows - the one who works and spends his tips on Christmas trees for needy families and the boy who supposedly attacked his sister with a knife.

Despite her best friend, Heather's reservations Sierra decides to give Caleb a chance.  But she decides "I need to know more before I let myself get any closer to him." Her parents too have reservations mainly because they know Sierra will be leaving after Christmas and that it's likely their tree stand will not be back next year. At this point they don't know about Caleb's behaviour towards his sister years ago. As Sierra continues to meet him she struggles with her mounting attracting to Caleb. "I like Caleb. I like him even more every time I see him. And this can only lead to disaster..." When Caleb and Sierra deliver a tree to a needy family and they are less than appreciative, Caleb tells her he understands this family's situation. "Just so you know, I am very aware of how mean they were about getting a free tree. I have to believe, though, that everyone is allowed a bad day." Caleb is willing to give the couple the benefit of the doubt, something he hasn't been given in by anyone in the town. This has led to him being isolated and ostracized.

Eventually Sierra learns what really happened between Caleb and his sister Abby and she's understandably horrified. Yet she's also very empathetic. "The way his jaw tenses, I know he's cried over this many times. I consider everything he's told me. How hard all of this has been for his mom and his sister, as well as for him. I know this should scare me a little, but somehow it doesn't, because I do believe he couldn't hurt anyone. Everything about him makes me believe that."

Caleb, who is frustrated and hurt at losing his best friend Jeremiah over what happened, tells Sierra that they mustn't judge Jeremiah's family because they don't know the full story. Sierra notes that all of her friends did exactly that when she told them about Caleb. "Everyone reacted so fast. Everyone had an opinion without ever hearing from Caleb."  Sierra believes that if Caleb's sister has forgiven him then she has no right to hold this over him especially since he obviously regrets his actions.

Concern for Caleb leads Sierra to confront Jeremiah about his break with Caleb. Her parents have always considered forgiveness and the belief that people can change for the better to be important. She encourages Jeremiah to talk to his mom and to consider the possibility that Caleb may have changed. Despite her willingness to give Caleb a chance, Sierra still feels intense conflict over their growing relationship because she hasn't told him about the strong possibility that she will not be back next year. She tells her friend Rachel, "Now that I know it's not wrong to like him...I obsess over whether that makes it right. I'm only here for a couple more weeks."

When Andrew tells Sierra's parents about Caleb, her parents worry that's she's becoming involved with someone who might be harmful. This angers Sierra and she decides to confront her parents about how they view Caleb. Sierra tells her parents that they seem to feel that there is no room for mercy, that what Caleb did should mark him for life. "He's been labeled so many people for so long. And they'd rather believe the worst of it than talk to him about it. Or just forgive him." Sierra tells her parents that she's "been raised to believe that everyone can become better".

It is Sierra's determination to trust Caleb and to give him the benefit of the doubt that help him to prove himself worthy of her. And her making the decision to do this leads others to do so as well. Jeremiah decides to take a stand for their friendship and visit Caleb against his mother's wishes. And it is Jeremiah who later on returns the favour and tells Sierra to forget the "logic" because "logic doesn't know what you want."

Jay Asher has crafted a believable, strong character in Sierra. Asher avoids making Caleb a character readers pity. Instead he too is seen as strong but perhaps a little battle-weary with trying to overcome his bad reputation. Through Sierra, readers explore the themes of forgiveness, mercy and redemption and are forced to consider questions like How long should someone be marked by a mistake? and Can a person really change? Asher never gets too heavy-handed and even Andrew's jealousy is muted as the story focuses more on how Sierra deals with him and the effects his actions have on her and her family.

The novel ends on a strong positive note, filled with hope for the future. What Light is good holiday read, not too heavy, but with some interesting themes and nice touch of romance to lighten things up. Well worth picking up for the Christmas holidays and beyond.

Book Details:

What Light by Jay Asher
New York: Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House     2016
251 pp.