Monday, March 28, 2016

Listen To The Moon by Michael Morpurgo

Fourteen year old Alfie Wheatcroft and his family live in Veronica Farm on the island of Bryher one of the Isles of Scilly of the coast of Cornwall. Although Alfie's mother, Mary warned him to go to school when his father Jim arrives at his boat on Green Bay, intending to go out for the day, Alfie is there waiting. The two spend time fishing for mackerel but when they catch little, Alfie suggests they go in closer to St. Helen's an isolated island where an old quarantine house, Pest House, sits abandoned. Alfie's father is not keen to do this but allows Alfie to row them in near the sandy beach to try their luck. Both Alfie and his father hear what seems to be a child crying. Scared they beach their boat and soon discover that they are hearing a child, crying and coughing and it is coming from the Pest House.

Alfie discovers a pale, sick child hiding in the fireplace of the ruined Pest House, shivering and wrapped in a blanket. Terrified the young girl tries to run away but collapses. Alfie and his father put the girl in the boat and take her back to Green Bay. They are met by Mary and many others who live on the island. Mary orders someone to send for Dr. Crow on St. Mary's. The girl momentarily awakens and whispers "Lucy" leaving those around her to believe that she is named Lucy. Lucy is taken to the Wheatcroft home at Veronica Farm. Dr. Crow encourages Lucy to eat and drink as she is feverish and dehydrated.  Alfie's cousin, Dave Bishop visits after the doctor leaves and tells Jim and Mary Wheatcroft that he went over to St. Helen's and found a grey sodden blanket and a bedraggled teddy bear. The blanket has the name Wilhelm on it and immediately Cousin Dave jumps to the conclusion that Lucy is German and a "lousy Hun". Alfie's mother threatens Cousin Dave, telling him he is to tell no one about the name on the blanket. He promises reluctantly.

At first the Wheatcrofts believe that Lucy doesn't speak because she might be German and therefore not understand English. However Alfie believes that Lucy does understand but for some reason cannot speak.
June 1915 and with no end to the war in sight, the islanders are growing more apprehensive especially as the papers are filled with "daily reports of ever mounting casualties, those dreadful long lists in the papers of the killed, the wounded and the missing in action." The Isles of Scilly had had the bodies of four drowned Royal Navy sailors washed ashore in recent months. Lucy Lost as she is now referred to, continues to live with Alfie's family while people  speculate on who she was and how she came to be on St. Helen's.

All of the Wheatcrofts must deal with harassment from the islanders. Jim is teased about finding mermaids while Mary must fend off constant questions about Lucy when she visits her brother Billy. Mary goes every day to visit her brother, called Uncle Billy by her family. She rescued him from the County Asylum in Bodmin where he was located after going missing following the death of his wife and baby. Billy who doesn't speak or interact much with the islanders, lives in the boat house on Green Bay. Most of his time is spent restoring an old ship, the Hispaniola which he intends to sail some day. Alfie too is quizzed by the teachers at school and is taunted by Zebediah Bishop,  Cousin Dave's son. Eventually Alfie has enough and the two ending fighting and receiving detention from the mean-spirited headmaster, Mr. Beagley. During detention Alfie learns that Cousin Dave has broken his promise not to tell about the blanket with the German writing on it.

Despite Lucy's silence, Alfie likes being with her. He spends time talking to her in the hopes that she will gradually begin to talk again. Lucy however seems unable to respond. Dr. Crow is concerned that Lucy has been deeply traumatized leaving her unable to speak. He believes that if she does not recover they will have to send her to the mental hospital, something  He insists that the Wheatcrofts attempt to get Lucy out of bed and to that end he brings his gramophone. The gramophone seems to draw Lucy's attention, so much so that she begins to play Dr. Crow's records constantly and is especially fond of Mozart's Andante Grazioso. Unfortunately this does not help her to talk. Lucy however gradually becomes more involved in life at the Wheatcrofts; she waits for Alfie to return from school and begins to accompany him in the morning when he opens up the henhouse. She even begins to ride Peg, the island's temperamental horse. But Lucy still refuses to speak, even when the Headmaster Beagley orders the Wheatcrofts to send her to school. It takes a second tragedy and Uncle Billy and the Hispaniola that finally solve the mystery of Lucy Lost.

Discussion

Listen To The Moon is a novel set in the summer of 1915 on the Isles of Scilly off the Cornwall coast. What will someday be known as The Great War is only ten months along. Like most people, the islanders believed the war would be over by Christmas but by May 1915, the number of dead is quickly mounting. The Isles have casualties among their own and hatred of the Germans or anything German is high. Germany, attempting to blockade the British Isles threatens to sink any ships flying the British flag. The Lusitania was one of the largest ocean liners traveling the Atlantic in 1915. The ship was traveling from New York to Liverpool when she was sunk by a German submarine on May 7th. Over a thousand people died in the sinking. The ship sank off the Old Head of Kinsale and many locals set out in boats to rescue people. It is claimed that a grand piano was found floating in the sea with a little girl on it as is described in Listen To The Moon.

Listen To The Moon tells the fictional story of Merry MacIntyre who along with her mother, was on her way to England to visit her soldier-father. Merry's father was originally from Toronto but like many of his generation decided to fight for his ancestral homeland, Britain, in the First World War. By the time the war began, Merry's father and mother lived in New York. With her father wounded and stationed at a hospital in England, Merry and her mother decide to travel there to visit him.  However readers do not know this part of the story until part way through. Morpurgo begins with Alfie and his family and then switches narratives throughout the story. Alfie's story is told in third person narrative while Dr. Crow, Mr. Beagley and Merry tell their stories in first person.

Listen To The Moon is far too long for a juvenile novel and the pacing is inconsistent at best. Better editing would have eliminated long pages of repetitive passages about Lucy not speaking in the early chapters and considerably shortened the novel. The story itself is interesting but becomes bogged down in details that will make younger reader's interest wane. While Dr. Crow and Mr. Beagley's narratives are interesting, they could have been shorter and in the case of Mr. Beagley's, probably eliminated entirely.

Morpurgo does his usual excellent job of creating the setting for the novel which is the Isles of Scilly. A map of the isles would have been helpful in orienting young readers.

The simple life of the people is well portrayed as are the attitudes common in the early twentieth century. The anti-German sentiment of the islanders is a main focus of the storyline and is directed towards the little "Lucy Lost" who comes to the island community and the family who generously takes her in. At times the bad treatment of the Wheatcrofts seems overdone, perhaps to demonstrate that such emotions are often not rational.

The novel moves quickly towards a resolution after an unexpected twist in the story. And Morpurgo provides young readers with a bit of information regarding the S.S. Lusitania, the German U-boat campaign, the Isles of Scilly and the S.S. Schiller.

Book Details:

Listen To The Moon by Michael Morpurgo
London: HarperCollins Children's Books     2014
433 pp.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys tells the story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 through the voices of four young people, haunted by the terror of the war, each carrying their own secret.

In a forest, deserter Florian Beck, badly wounded by shrapnel, decides to hide in an old potato cellar. But he is not alone. He finds a young Polish girl, Emilia about to be raped by a Russian soldier. Florian kills the Russian and reminded of his sister Anni, reluctantly allows Emilia to accompany him. Emilia knows Florian is German and that he wants nothing to do with her, partly because she is Polish. Hitler considers the Polish to be subhuman and brutally executed Polish intellectuals. She considers Florian to be her knight - the one who saved her.

Meanwhile twenty-one year old Joana Vilkas is fleeing East Prussia in advance of the Russians. She fled her native Lithuania in 1941 with her family. Because her mother had German heritage, they were allowed to repatriate to Germany but Joana only made it to Insterberg in East Prussia. For four years she worked with the surgeon at the hospital in Insterberg, first stocking shelves, then assisting him in surgery. As she walks along the road Joana encounters a six year old boy who was traveling with his grandmother. She has died and now he is alone, so Joana takes him into her charge. Joana is with fifteen other refugees including a blind girl, Ingrid, an old shoemaker who is nicknamed the shoe poet and a very large woman named Eva.

Florian, Emilia, Joana, the boy and the shoemaker, along with Ingrid, Eva and others find shelter in an old barn. Joana cleans and stitches Florian's wound which has become infected but Emilia does not allow Joana to examine her. Joana suspects that Florian is hiding something and Ingrid who can sense things about people believes he is a thief. Joana asks Eva to talk to Emilia, who speaks only Polish. She learns that she is fifteen years old and from Lwow in southeastern Poland. Emilia's father had sent her to a farm near Nemmersdorf in East Prussia, hoping she would be safe. Both Joana and Eva are horrified because they have heard about the atrocities committed when Nemmersdorf was overrun by the Red Army.

Emilia learned after fleeing through Nemmersdorf that the Nazis had killed thousands of Polish Jews in Lwow including her friends Rachel and Helen Weigel. She doesn't know that most of the Polish intellectuals like her father, a mathematics professor were also rounded up and shot by the Nazis.

Florian Beck was hired as a restoration apprentice by Dr. Lange, director of the museum in Konigsberg. Mentored by Dr. Lange, Florian was sent to the best school so he could assist in establishing the Furhers dream of a national art museum in his hometown of Linz. Through Dr. Lange, Florian met Gauleiter Erich Koch, leader of the regional branch of the Nazi Party. Crates of art began arriving at the museum. Florian worked on restoring pieces of art that arrived. However, Florian eventually comes to understand what the Dr. Lange, Koch and the Nazi's are doing with the art. And he devises a plan for revenge.

In Gotenhafen, young Alfred Frick a sailor in the Kreigsmarine, believes he is serving Germany well. Although he believes he has made many sacrifices and that his exceptional abilities place him above everyone else. In fact he shirks his duties and hides in the closet. Alfred imagines the letters he would write to the girl he loves, Hannelore, telling her how well he is doing and that he will prove to be a hero. Eventually Alfred is assigned to help outfit the Wilhelm Gustloff for the evacuation of German troops and refugees from East Prussia, Poland and Germany.Alfred carries within him a horrible secret of something he has done.

Florian and Emilia leave the group at the barn separately, intent on traveling to the port of Gotenhafen. Florian does not want to travel with Emilia and gives her a gun for protection, but still she follows him. When a German soldier steps out of the woods behind Florian to kill him, Emilia fires bringing him down and saving Florian. Meanwhile the shoe poet, the boy, Joana, Eva, Ingrid and others begin their trek to Gotenhafen too. The poet tells them they will find an old Prussian estate to shelter in for part of the journey but Joana is doubtful. Both groups meet a second time at the abandoned Prussian estate. They warm themselves and rest, helping Emilia who is in shock after shooting the German.

Joana and Florian begin to form a bond as she cares for him, checking on his stitches. They even dance together when the boy finds a gramophone and sets it up.  Eva learns from Emilia that she is planning to meet her lover August. In fact, she was raped by Russian soldiers on the farm of her father's friends, the Kleists. It is her secret she cannot tell.

After making a grisly discovery at the mansion, the group quickly leave heading for Gotenhafen where they hope to gain passage on the ships evacuating people from the advancing Red Army. Emilia is placed in a cart while the rest of the group walks. Their journey is filled with many dangers including attacks by the Red Army and the dangerous crossing at the Vistula lagoon which is frozen over but repeatedly attacked by the Soviet planes. After surviving all of these, little do they realize their greatest challenge will be to survive the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.


Discussion

Ruta Sepetys has crafted a riveting and deeply moving account of the Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy. The Gustloff, transporting close to 10,000 souls from the Polish port of Gotenhafen was sunk by three torpedoes from a Soviet U-boat on January 30, 1945. It sank in an hour. Over nine hundred people survived, leaving 9,000 to perish in the icy Baltic Sea. This marine disaster, the worst in history, soon disappeared from collective memory possibly for many reasons; German shame over the Holocaust and an reluctance to grieve publicly for their own war losses as well as overshadowing by the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania which had many famous passengers.

In an attempt to portray the various experiences of Polish/Lithuanian/Russian/Germans near the close of the Second World War Sepetys chose four narrators: a Lithuanian nurse named Joana, Emilia a young Polish girl, a Prussian artist named Florian and Alfred, a young German sailor. Sepetys states that she deliberately chose "the child and young adult narrative" for this novel so that the reader could experience "seeing the war through the eyes of youths from different nations, forced to leave everything they loved behind."

Although the main characters are fictional, they convey the struggles, the desires and the hopes people experienced as they fled to safety. One of the greatest strengths of this novel is that Sepetys doesn't spare her readers any of the horror of war, demonstrating that no one is spared not even the young German sailor. The account is not graphic yet through the eyes of each we learn of the brutality experienced and of lives irrevocably changed. In spite of this inhumanity, Sepetys shows that acts of kindness, courage and sacrifice abound; Florian and Emilia saving each other, Joana's concern for others, the shoe poet's kindness and his care for the young orphaned boy.

As in any good fiction, several of the characters experience a significant transformation. The most interesting was that of Florian Beck. Florian realizes he has been duped by the Nazi's into helping with their theft of rare art. Bent on revenge he steals a priceless piece of art from a prized collection plus the keys to where some of that art has been hidden. To safeguard himself, Florian doesn't want to be involved with anyone, least of all Emilia or Joana. He tries to abandon Emilia several times. Emilia however believes there is much goodness in Florian and refers to him as her knight. Eventually Florian lives up to Emilia's belief in him. When Emilia believes she is unlikely to survive the disaster she begs Florian to take her daughter knowing he will protect and save her. "The knight. He had the baby. I knew he'd be a savior." But Emilia is also responsible for saving Florian - possibly twice, something Florian acknowledges at the end of the novel. Emilia saved Florian by drawing out his goodness.

The only German in the novel, Alfred Frick is portrayed as delusional young man hopelessly indoctrinated in Nazi propaganda. He is perhaps the most tragic character in the novel because he demonstrates how the young people of Germany came to believe Hitler's ideas about races and groups of people. His indoctrination is demonstrated by the little ditty he's made up to remind him of the Reich's racial, social and political enemies. Unable to face the terrible thing he's done, Alfred spends all his time fantasizing about how superb a sailor he is and composing fictional letters to a girl he loved, Hannelore Jager. In one such imaginary letter he states, "Imagine, my darling, your Alfred is saving two thousand lives." In reality he's been asked to clean the toilets. When the sailors explain to him that soldiers who are dying will be left behind, Alfred coldly states, "Quite wise...Leave the browned cabbage in the basket. It makes no sense to save a head with only a few good leaves."  Alfred's blind loyalty to Adolf Hitler and his Aryan dreams led him to commit an unspeakable act.  His death,  which occurs while he is screaming Nazi rhetoric is symbolic and foreshadows the death of the Nazi regime.

That Sepetys did an enormous amount of research is evident by her ability to capture the terror and desperation people in Eastern Europe - specifically East Prussia, Poland and Lithuania experienced, first from the German Nazis and then from the advancing Russians. Her extensive research is confirmed in her Research and Notes section at the back of the novel. This section details the people Ruta Sepetys contacted while doing her research.

To help her readers, Sepetys includes a map Eastern Europe in 1945 in the front of the novel and a map of the same area of Europe today can be found in the back. In her Author's Note Sepetys explains her family's connection to the events which occurred in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. Readers will learn not only about the sinking of the Gustloff but also about the famous missing Amber Room which was dismantled by the Nazis from the Catherine palace in 1941. The amber panels were packed into 27 crates and sent to Eric Koch, gauleiter of East Prussia. The amber panels were never recovered and have been the object of many searches over the years.

In her authors note at the back, Ruta Sepetys writes"When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them." It is for this reason historical fiction remains so important; so that events forgotten may be restored to the memory of the next generation. As Sepetys suggests, often the seed of interest is sown by historical fiction and she encourages her readers to explore further. To that end the following websites may be useful as well as the detailed list of resources Sepetys used in her research which can be found at the back of her novel.

The Sinking of the M.S. Wilhelm Gustloff

National Geographic video on the Amber Room

Amber Room website

For fans of historical fiction, Salt To The Sea is a must-read. It is a beautifully written and deeply moving account of a forgotten tragedy.

Book Details:

Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys
New York: Philomel Books     2016
391 pp.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Will To Survive by Eric Walters

Will To Survive is the final installment in Canadian author, Eric Walters' Rule of Three trilogy about survival in a post-apocalyptic world.

It has been months since the power blackout and the community at Eden Mills has further solidified itself, growing its own food and developing it's own security. But it is now plagued by one of its own members, rookie cop Brett who has turned against the Eden Mills group.

The novel opens exactly where the second book left off - Adam Daley has just killed two men intent on making him fly his Cessna to a group of armed ex-military men who have been preying on smaller communities.

Adam's group, led by Herb Campbell had captured Brett and his group which had gone rogue. Brett who was being kept prisoner, escaped, freed the other prisoners and ordered them to kill their guards. He kidnapped Adam and had instructed two of the prisoners, Tim and Owen to force him to fly his Cessna to the Division compound while he and the remaining prisoners traveled on foot to the Division. Before leaving, Brett told Adam that he had killed Herb. Determined not to fly the Cessna, Adam had no choice but to kill Tim and Owen. Will To Survive opens with Adam's mother who in charge of security and her lieutenant, Howie, trying to understand what has just happened.

Adam races to Herb's home to discover him very much alive. Suspecting Brett might try to kill him, Herb has been sleeping in his "safe" room - a concrete bunker in his basement. Adam tells his mother, Howie and Herb that Brett forced the rebels to kill the guards. Based on what Adam tells him, Herb states that Brett is trying to instill fear into their community. Adam also tells Herb that Brett has formed an alliance with the colonel and the remains of the Division who have since returned to the compound.

Herb tells them they must act quickly because Brett knows how they operate, their strengths and weaknesses. They decide to change the guard stations and their schedules as well as where supplies are stored. Meanwhile, Herb and Adam take the Cessna up and fly directly to the Division compound because they know that is what Brett is expecting. However Adam and Herb also take along a home made bomb, set to detonate thirty-five seconds after its armed. They touch down only long enough for Herb to set down the armed bomb. The explosion destroys one of the barracks and lays a huge hole in the runway.

Herb, Adam and Quinn who is an ex-Division member do reconnaissance from the Cessna to see what communities exist around them. They discover the refinery near the lake which likely still contains fuel and decide that they will reach out to them in the future. Their flight also takes them over the Division compound which is found to be deserted. An away team is sent to the compound to tear it down and destroy it so the Division cannot return.

Days later the Eden Mills neighborhood is attacked from the burned out condominium tower. Two guards are injured. In the morning Adam goes up in the ultra light while Adam's father and others lead an assault time to the tower. They find that the sniper has abandoned the tower but killed four people so he could use their unit. Adam and Herb believe that Brett is behind the attacks which result in the deaths of three guards.

While the rest of the group wants to take down the tower, Adam suggests that they extend their wall so that it includes the condo tower. His plan while increasing the number of people they have to feed will allow them to grow more food and provide better protection for the Cessna taking off on the Erin Mills highway.

As this is undertaken, flights over the area reveal several things to Adam and Herb. They discover that there is a group of armed people with motorized buggies and carts who are traveling on the nearby roads. They appear to be well organized and are all wearing similar clothing. They also located a field of ready to harvest potatoes and discover another farmer and his family, taking them into the community.However a second attack on the Eden Mills community with a rocket propelled grenade makes Herb realize that they must connect with the communities around them, including the people living at the hospital

Adam, his girlfriend Lori and best friend Todd discover another isolated community on an island in the lake. They are forced to land at the island airport where they meet Robert Wayne a colonel in charge of three thousand people living there. After returning to Eden Mill's Adam brings Herb back to the island to meet Colonel Wayne. However, they are contacted by Brett and he tells them he will be attacking the Eden Mills neighborhood again. Adam begins to realize that the only way to protect their people may be to kill Brett. It is an action he does not want to take, but when Brett harms more innocent people, Adam becomes convinced they will only be safe when Brett is dead.

Discussion

Will To Survive is a thrilling conclusion to Walter's Rule of Three series. In the first two novels, Walters laid the groundwork for the events in the final novel by developing the sociopathic character of Brett who was a cop working under Adam's mother in the local police force. At first it seems Herb is able to restrain Brett's bad behaviour, but as the crisis continues and social order breaks down, Brett's true character begins to show. He becomes increasingly violent, killing for pleasure and then becomes determined to seek revenge on Herb and Adam. Brett takes over the Division and turns them into a mobile Mad Max-like force. His attacks on the Eden Mills community evolve into attacks against innocent families in an attempt to breed fear and gain control over the community. Believing he has killed Herb, he is now determined to kill Adam, who he sees as the leader of the Eden Mills community.

In contrast Adam Daley continues to grow into a responsible, intelligent leader under the tutelage of Herb. Adam is the true hero of the situation; he thinks outside the box and tries to live by his moral code, an important part of which is not to kill people. As he confronts the evil threat Brett poses, Adam questions whether he will become like Brett, killing for pleasure. Adam knows that likely the only way to stop Brett is to kill him. "And he was a monster -- a monster I had to kill. And I had to do it without hesitation, without that split second of doubt, without thinking of him as a person. Then I realized that was the way Brett killed. No doubt, no remorse, no second thoughts. In order to kill him, to kill the monster, I'd have to be a monster, too. I'd have to join him. Not just for my own sake, but for the people of this neighborhood and beyond."

When the neighborhood group votes on whether or not to give into Brett's demands, Adam has the deciding vote and he demonstrates courage by voting not to give in. But this is still a struggle for him as he admits after a fight with his girlfriend Lori. "Here I was, stuck between two options; either I was becoming too much like Brett...or I wasn't enough like him and I wouldn't be able to stay alive."

Eventually though Adam does have to kill Brett when Herb is shot in cold blood. The loss of Herb leaves Adam second-guessing his decision to follow his conscience. But Dr. Morgan tells him "That's not who you are. That's not who we are, what we stand for, and you know that." Adam knows he couldn't have killed Brett in cold blood, which is why he never shot before Brett shot Herb. Instead he waited until he had no choice.

Adam's hope in humanity and his struggle to see the humanity of those he's fighting against - especially Brett, results in Herb changing how he views others. Herb freely admits that Adam helped remind him of the humanity of others in his final letter.

The only significant plot weakness in Will To Survive is the lack of any hint about what happened to cause the blackout. Despite the Eden Mills community coming into contact with military and other communities almost a hundred miles away no mention is ever made about what happened on a broader scale. For example, the island community which has planes capable of traveling far distances apparently has no idea what is going on. Neither Adam nor Herb seem interested in finding out either. The question is never broached even six months after the blackout when there might have been some news of what happened.

Walters skillfully leads his readers to the exciting showdown between Brett's group and the Eden Mills community. Despite the shocking twist at the end of the novel, the story concludes on a hopeful note with the brief restoration of the highway lights suggesting that whatever cause the blackout for months was soon to be overcome.

The Rule of Three series is highly recommended for fans of survival fiction and reluctant readers who prefer a male protagonist. As usual, the great covers are a draw to crack the spine and become immersed in a well thought out story by an accomplished Canadian author.


Book Details:

Will To Survive by Eric Walters
Toronto: Razorbill    2016
310 pp.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Spotlight

Spotlight is the dramatization of the investigation by group of Boston Globe reporters in 2001 that led to the expose of the cover-up by the Catholic Church in Boston of the abuse of minors.

The movie sets the stage by opening with a scene in a Boston police station in 1976. The bishop is overheard telling a young mother with her children, that the priest will be taken out of the parish. Two police officers in station talk about what is happening and it is mentioned that the priest, Father Geoghan will never face an arraignment. When the lawyer arrives, he tells them to keep the press away from the station.

Fast forward to July 2001. Marty Baron has just become editor of the Boston Globe and decides he wants to shift the paper towards investigative journalism that focuses on local stories. Spotlight is a four person investigative reporter team which reports to Ben Bradlee Jr. When Marty arrives, Spotlight is in the process of trolling for its next story.

Around this time Globe columnist Eileen McNamara had just published another column on the Father John J. Geoghan case which she has been following since it broke in 1996. Geoghan was eventually defrocked and  by 2001 he was facing criminal charges as well as 84 civil suits. McNamara questioned how the Catholic Church, specifically Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston could repeatedly place Geoghan in new parishes after he reportedly went on "sick leave" and not have known he was re-offending. While Baron wants the investigative team to pursue this and to apply to the sealed documents released the rest of the Spotlight team remains skeptical until they begin researching.

Walter Robinson, the lead editor on the team advises that they start with the Father Porter case in which dozens of kids were molested in Fall River ten years earlier. Eric Macleish represented the victims in this case and when they talk to him he warns them to be discreet so that Cardinal Law does not learn of the investigation. Walter and Sacha Pfieffer also a Spotlight reporter meet with Macleish and he informs them that the cases are difficult to represent because the statue of limitations on abuse is three years and is complicated by the fact that many victims do not come forward until they are adults. Most of the victims were kids from tough neighbourhoods. Macleish tells Walter and Sacha that he believes Mitch Garabedian who is representing the victims in the Geoghan case has nothing on Cardinal Law and that he is bluffing in order to obtain a bigger settlement.

Mike Rezendes reaches out to Mitch Garabedian, the eccentric lawyer for the Geoghan victims, in the hopes of speaking with some of the victims. Garabedian is reluctant at first but later agrees.

After having clips and other material pulled from the Globe's archives, they come across Phil Saviano who is a victims advocate who has formed a group called SNAP - Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Sacha is requested to track him down. The Globe archives also reveal that another priest,  Liam Barrett molested kids in Philadelphia, was transferred to Boston, reoffended and was moved again. His case was settled in 1977. This leads Robinson and the team to believe that there might be a pattern involved in the abuse.

When the reporters talk to Saviano he tells them the abuse is not about being gay that it's about priests raping boys and girls. Saviano reveals that he was preyed upon by Father David Holley of Worcester and that most of the victims were poor kids who feel special when a priest shows them attention. Saviano shocks the team by telling them that he believes the extent of the abuse is widespread, encompassing all of America and the world right up to the Vatican. He knows of thirteen priests in Boston alone who are abusing children. Saviano also directs them to talk to Richard Sipe, an ex-priest who worked in the one of the church's treatment centers and who has studied priest-abusers.

Both Mike Rezendes and Sacha Pfieffer interview victims who explain how they were targeted and what kind of abuse they suffered. They also learn that Eric Macleish represented a number of these victims and obtained settlements for them. After learning this Walter now wants to expand the investigation and goes to Ben for permission to do so.

Meanwhile Mike interviews Sipe extensively. He tells him the church wants people to believe these are isolated cases but they are part of a larger recognizable phenomena which he believes relates to the church's requirement of priestly celibacy. As the team goes deeper into the investigation they make startling discoveries about how the church is dealing with the priest-abusers, the families of the victims and run headlong into the enormous influence the Catholic church has in Boston. Undeterred, Spotlight eventually publishes its expose in early 2002. It is a bombshell that rocks Boston.

Discussion

Spotlight accurately portrays the Boston Globe investigation into the child abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church in Boston. The expose when finally published eventually led to the resignation of Cardinal Law and a Pulitzer Prize for the group of reporters. More than that it caused thousands of people to come forward acknowledging their abuse. The revelations were far-reaching and dramatic eventually revealing the abuse of children by Catholic clergy to be a worldwide phenomena. In Boston alone, 249 priests were discovered to have been abusing children over a period of several decades. It also revealed that the Catholic church attempted to cover up the abuse scandal by paying out small settlements and making victims sign confidentiality agreements, promising to remove the abusers from parish work. In fact, as we now know and as many Catholics in America and Canada can attest to, priest-abusers were merely moved from one parish to another, sometimes after "treatment" only to re-offend and abuse more victims.

The film leaves off listing the number of priests found to have abused children in Boston and lists the areas in the world which were directly impacted significantly by the abuse of children by Catholic priest. Seeing two screens listing all the cities is disheartening to be sure. In fact there are places in Canada not even listed in the movie in which significant problems existed.

Unfortunately, Spotlight neglects to mention at the end of the film,  the significant efforts undertaken by the Catholic church following 2002 to deal with the problem of priest abusers. This leaves viewers to believe that this situation continues to exist in the Catholic church. It does not.  The Catholic Church now has in place some of the strictest requirements for the reporting of abuse and for action against priests who abuse children. The same cannot be said of other institutions such as the public school system in the United States where abuse by teachers continues to be a significant and unacknowledged problem. The church also has endeavored to better screen applicants to the priesthood, requiring intensive psychological testing.

Spotlight while highlighting the obvious poor handling of the abuse by the Catholic church also hints at, but never fully explores, the responsibility of the Boston Globe and the Boston catholic community at large in not acting. Eric Macleish, when confronted by Walter Robinson, mentions twice in the movie that he sent the Globe significant information concerning twenty cases many years ago, but it was buried.  Likewise Phil Saviano also tells Walter Robinson that he sent all of his information to the Globe five years earlier but apparently they weren't interested. In Spotlight, Robinson and Marty Baron are quick to excuse themselves for not acting (Robinson says he has no recollection of receiving Macleish's information). The same consideration is not given to the Catholic church in how it acted.In some ways, Spotlight depicts a simplistic view of how the Catholic church responded, ignoring the fact that initially the church relied on the current professional psychological opinion that these abusers could be rehabilitated. Of course when this obviously was not successful, they never changed how the priests were dealt with, allowing more children to be harmed.

Given the scope of the abuse, both Robinson and his team are astounded that so many people who were abused and their families remained silent. Given that there were 249 priests involved in the scandal in Boston alone, it would seem that someone in the community might have acted. However, the stigma of abuse, the fact that it involved priests who were supposed to be good men led many victims to desire confidentiality. Jeffrey Mirus in his article, Three Great Lessons of the Abuse Scandal provides some of the background as to how the Church has functioned and how certain weaknesses led to the scandal.

Spotlight, which was directed by Tom McCarthy, endeavours to be as realistic as possible; the choice of actors who look like the real life persons involved is quite remarkable. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams all turn in exception performances. A fan favourite, Stanley Tucci portrays the eccentric Michael Garabedian.

While the focus is on the investigative team, the victims are not ignored either and their portrayal is also realistic and deeply moving. We get a sense of how deeply harmed these people were by what happened to them and by the fact that this harm was never acknowledged by both the Catholic church and their community.

The following resources may be of use for further exploration of this issue:

The Story Behind the Spotlight Movie

The first part of the original series, Church allowed abuse by priest for years published by the Spotlight team can be read online. The remaining articles are listed at the end of this article and are well worth reading.

Reporting An Explosive Truth: the Boston Globe and Sexual Abuse in the Catholic church - this website is a case study for investigative journalism for Columbia University's Journalism School.

Father Geoghan case.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Say You Will by Eric Walters

Say You Will is a funny novel about a genius teen who struggles to fit in with his peers in high school. To that end, he undertakes a promposal despite believing he has little chance of succeeding.

Samuel Davies is a brilliant junior and that makes him different. But Sam doesn't want to be brilliant. All he wants is to fit in with his peers. To achieve this, Sam has started dressing differently, learned popular vernacular and stopped acing tests. However one of his teachers, Mrs. Tanner, astutely catches Sam at his game and challenges him about not doing his best. He tells her about wanting to fit in and to be "normal". Mrs. Tanner tells him that will never be the case and that normal is just a social construct.

Sam's two friends are Ian and Brooke. Brooke is very smart, a committed vegetarian and is into many social causes. "Brooke had spearheaded a drive to ban throw-away plastic water bottles on campus and replace them with reusuable ones."

Ian has a problem filtering the information he shares with others. He sees a psychologist, Dr. Young  who has been helping Ian learn to "re-channel his comments so that they wouldn't get him in so much trouble." Sam also sees Dr. Young although he has recently stopped. To help him, Ian taps out his inappropriate comments in Morse code rather than speaking them aloud.

Both Ian and Sam are smitten with three of Brooke's friends, Taylor who is the most beautiful girl in the class and her friends Ashley and Brittney. While Sam is attracted to Taylor who is both beautiful and intelligent and kind, Ian prefers Ashley.

While at lunch, Sam, Ian and Brooke along with much of the school witness a spectacular promposal undertaken by Kevin, captain of the football team. Using a dozen team members who line up alongside a limo, they spell out BRITT PROM? as he asks Brittney to the prom. She accepts and drives off with Kevin in his limo.

Ian wants to ask Ashley but with having lost his job at Clown Town where Brooke and Sam also work, money is a problem. Brooke doesn't believe in either proms or promposals, both of which she considers "meaningless, wasteful decadence driven by mindless capitalism..." However Sam is impressed by what Kevin did because he "put himself out there, in front of everybody, and risked Brittney saying no to him," Brooke is disgusted by Sam's desire to go to prom and the possibility that he is considering a promposal. He tells Brooke that in order to continue his quest of fitting in, he needs to consider doing a promposal. "If promposals are the new social norm, then I'd have to follow that norm. Besides, I figure I'd have to do something pretty special to convince this particular girl to go with me."

At home, Sam watches the video of Kevin's promposal with his parents. He admits to his mother that he is considering a promposal. When Sam's father spills that he is considering doing the promposal, Brooke offers to help Sam so it won't be a total failure.Ian agrees to help Sam as long as Sam helps him with his promposal. When Ian questions Sam as to who he is going to ask, Sam is vague. However both Ian and Brooke believe that Sam is intending to ask Taylor to the prom despite Sam's insistence that he is not.

Has Sam set himself up for a huge failure just to prove he fits in? Who is he really going to ask and how can he possibly top Kevin's promposal?

Discussion

Say You Will is a funny, enjoyable novel about one boy's journey to fit in as he navigates the precarious world of high school. Sam is a brilliant student who decides that in order to fit in he needs to dumb himself down and dress and act like his "cooler" peers.
"Added to that was a calculated combination of longer hair, new clothes, the sprinkling of new words into my vocabulary -- smaller words, combined with popular vernacular -- and what would have appeared to be a much more relaxed attitude toward school. These were all factors that I had identified as being associated with students who occupied the "cooler" end of the social spectrum."

Sam considers himself to be evolving, something he explains to his teacher, Mrs. Tanner when she confronts him about his lower marks. She encourages Sam to embrace his "difference" which is of course, his high intelligence. Mrs. Tanner hopes to change his thinking by explaining some of the future consequences such as losing scholarships to universities. However, Sam remains undeterred in his plan.

He believes that because he has always had friends who were not part of the clique, he and his friends never worked harder to try to fit in. 
"The three of us just sort of fit together. Because of them, Id' never really been alone. We'd all been different -- looking back, we were definitely outsiders even then -- but we were outsiders together. That made it so much less lonely. Maybe that was part of the problem. Because we had each other, we didn't work as hard as we might have to break through and become more like everybody else."

In response to Sam's expressed desire to be normal, Mrs. Tanner tells him the idea of "normal" is a social construct. She warns Sam "it's important not to lose sight of who you are, the real, authentic, genuine you, as you make your climb to the top..."

Then Kevin's promposal happens and Sam considers that this is yet another way for him to fit in. When his friends warn him that doing a promposal could be disastrous, Sam reasons, "If prom was part of the high school experience and fitting in, and I wanted to be part of that experience, shouldn't I go to prom?"

Sam is forced to reconsider his strategy of deliberately getting lower marks on tests when he asks Mrs. Tanner for her help with his promposal. She points out to Sam that he really does want the higher marks but he's cheating himself and not being true to who he is by deliberately scoring lower. He acknowledges this and agrees to do his best if his marks are kept secret. Although this doesn't really represent much growth on Sam's part he is beginning to acknowledge that being smart is an authentic part of who he is.

The choice of Sam's promposal is not revealed until the very last pages but readers will easily determine who Sam wants to take to prom. His promposal is true to who he is and who the girl he asks is, done with his characteristic humour.

Say You Will is a light, quick read that has capitalized on the promposal craze in existence for the past couple of years. Walter's witty dialogue between the three friends is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Ian's lack of a "filter" provides plenty of opportunities for the creative, funny exchanges that characterize this novel. Brooke is the eco-friendly, no-nonsense, practical girl who seems to fit with Sam's methodical manner and dry humour. Say You Will touches only lightly on the themes of self-acceptance and growing up. Recommended for those new to high school!

Book Details:

Say You Will by Eric Walters
Canada: Doubleday Canada 2015
184 pp.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sparrow: the true story of Joan of Arc by Michael Morpurgo

Sparrow is Michael Morpurgo's superb retelling of Joan of Arc for young readers. Set in the early 1400's France, young Eloise Hardy experiences a beautiful dream that recounts Joan's heroic campaign that drove the English from her beloved France.

Seventeen year old Eloise Hardy lives with her mother and father in Montpellier, France. Ever since she can remember, Eloise has admired St. Joan of Arc for her bravery and her strength.  A large picture of St. Joan hangs at the top of the stairs in their home. Eloise's mother loves the picture but her father is not keen on it.

When Eloise was sixteen, her family moved. She was upset until she learned that they were moving to Orleans, the city Joan freed from the English over five hundred years ago. The Joan of Arc picture went with her family and was placed in Eloise's bedroom in Orleans. However, with the exception of one classmate, Marie Duval, who makes the effort to speak with her, Eloise feels alone in her new town. She takes to walking along the Loire and sitting near the Tourelles, the English fort Joan and her soldiers stormed hundreds of years ago. Eloise notices a brown sparrow also frequents the same area and she takes to feeding him breadcrumbs and naming him Jaquot.

Then Eloise learns that her school has been chosen to provide the girl who will ride through the streets of Orleans on a white horse as Joan of Arc. She will be dressed in silver armour and carry a replica of Joan's standard. The date for this ride will be May 8, the anniversary the siege of Orleans was broken and also Eloise's birthday. Girls wishing to win this privilege have to write an essay. The ten best essays will be chosen and the writers interviewed by the Headmaster and the Mayor of Orleans.

For two weeks Eloise works diligently on the essay, encouraged by her mother who is a journalist. Eloise's essay is one of the ten finalists, along with Marie Duval. The interview goes well but Eloise is not chosen as Joan, despite the fact that her essay was the best. Instead, Marie is chosen because she has lived in Orleans all her life. Angry and disappointed, Eloise takes down Joan's picture above her bed and puts it in the cupboard. As preparations continue for the big day, Eloise makes the decision to skip school on May 7th. Instead she heads down to the river to spend the day there. But as she's watching the river Eloise slips into the most remarkable dream ever. A dream about Joan and what really happened to her.

Discussion

There aren't too many modern novels about St. Joan of Arc for young people. Michael Morpurgo has remedied that situation with Sparrow. The story of Joan is told in a dream the narrator has, leaving Morpurgo the ability to relate the events unencumbered.

The Hundred Years War between France and England occurred from 1337 to 1453. Its roots probably go back as far as1066 when William the Conqueror invaded Britain in 1066. William was Duke of Normandy, France at that time. His heirs still retained their royal titles in France. Eventually the British royalty would renounce its claim on certain French territories. However the two countries continued to be interconnected in many ways.

France sided with Scotland in her conflict with King Edward I and from this point on the two former allies were at odds. King Edward III of England laid claim to the French throne in 1337. Charles IV of France had died without a male heir. Instead of choosing fifteen year old Edward, Philip was chosen instead. King Philip decided to take back the region of Aquitaine from the English but King Edward chose to fight for it. However King Edward did not want to invade and take over France, instead he led raids into the country, burning and pillaging. In 1356 at the Battle of Poitiers, King Edward III's son, Edward the Black Prince, captured King John II of France. He was ransomed for three million crowns and parcels of land. After King Edward III's death, his grandson King Richard II became king at the age of ten. Peace reigned for a period of time between the two countries.

In 1413 Henry IV became King of England and asserted his claim to the throne of France. The French defeat in the battle of Agincourt led to the King Charles declaring Henry heir to the French throne. Some of the French people did not accept English rule and began to fight back. However the English laid seige to Orleans, a city that was loyal to the French king, in 1428. The dukes of Orleans supported the claim of the uncrowned king, the Dauphin, Charles VII to the French throne.

For many years a prophecy had been circulating throughout France of a maiden in armour who would drive the English out of France. The maid was predicted to come from an area of France called Lorraine, which is where Joan's village of Domremy is located. When Joan arrived in Orleans, for the first time the French had hope they would defeat the English and prevent the eventual occupation of their entire country. The capture of Orleans by the English would have opened up the entire southern part of France.

The Hundred Years War is divided into three periods; the Edwardian war from 1337 to 1360, the Caroline war from 1369 to 1389 and the Lancastrian war from 1415 to 1453. Joan of Arc lived and fought during the Lancastrian war. Joan's "voices" began when she was thirteen years old. These voices were those of St. Catherine of Alexandra and St. Margaret as well as the archangels Michael and Gabriel. You can read more about these holy saints and angels on the website, Joan of Arc: Her Voices. Unlike a person who is mentally ill, Joan's voices never interfered with her ability to live her life. Instead they instructed and trained her for the mission she would be undertaking in a few years.

Morpurgo succeeds in telling Joan of Arc's story in a compelling but straightforward manner. The novel's attractive cover beckons young readers in to learn more about this amazing young woman who was chosen to save her country. Morpurgo captures Joan's brave and determined character but also makes her realistic by including her flaws too. She's impatient and at times imperious. And despite her forbearance and perseverance, Joan in a moment of weakness, recants her testimony, when her fear of burning at the stake overwhelms her love of God and her desire to obey him. Strengthened once again by her voices, she withdraws her confession and is burnt at the stake.

Sparrow does not focus on the characters who are responsible for her trial nor does he get bogged down in the actual details of the trial, although there is a short section where the reader experiences Joan's questioning. The focus remains on Joan, her belief in her voices, her naivete at being sold by the soldiers to the English, her misplaced trust in a trial by the church and her trust that she will be freed.

The novel is titled Sparrow because of a little white sparrow Joan saves when she is younger. This sparrow, she calls Belami stays with her from the beginning of her mission until her death at the stake. Similarly Eloise also has a little brown sparrow who keeps her company as she dreams about her heroine, Joan of Arc.

The only disappointing aspect of this novel is the typographical errors in the book. Other than that, Morpurgo has a written a refreshing account of Joan of Arc to inspire a new generation of young readers. This novel was first published in the UK in 1998 as Joan of Arc.


Further Research:

Joan of Arc Biography 

History of the Hundred Years War 

Joan of Arc page from EWTN

Joan of Arc Trial - this website contains numerous interesting links 

Book Details:

Sparrow: the true story of Joan of Arc by Michael Morpurgo
HarperCollins Childrens Book    2012
253 pp.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Suffragette

Suffragette attempts to portray the struggle of women in Britain to obtain the right to vote. It was never meant to be an encompassing film. Instead Suffragette attempts portray the intense struggle and vicious opposition women faced to obtaining their civic right to participate in the political sphere of their country by focusing on a small group of women.

The movie opens in 1912 with fictional Maud Watts (Carrie Mulligan), who works at Glasshouse Laundry, delivering a package for her employer, Mr. Norman Taylor (Geoff Bell). While doing this errand on her way home from work, Maud becomes caught up in an act of civil disobedience by the suffragettes who throw stones at shop windows. She escapes the ensuing melee between the suffragettes and police and makes her way home but not before recognizing a co-worker, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff).

The suffragettes are encouraged by Alice Haughton, the wife of an MP, to speak before parliament regarding amendments to the suffrage bill. Maud tells Violet, who has been chosen to testify she will accompany her but when Violet shows up badly beaten by her husband, Maud is asked to step in. Reluctantly Maud prepares to read Violet's statement but she is questioned about her own situation by Prime Minister Lloyd George. The suffragettes are pleased with Maud's success and Edith Ellyn (Helen Bonham Carter) invites Maud to tea.Edith runs her husband's chemist shop. Her father opposed her getting educated but she was able to do so because of her mother. Her husband inherited the shop but she runs it, although she really wants to be a doctor.

When the suffragettes return to parliament they learn that the Prime Minister has not granted the right to vote. Furious, the suffragettes begin protesting but the police immediately begin kicking and punching the women. Many are arrested including Maud, Violet, and Edith and Alice Haughton. Alice wants her husband Benedict to bail all the women out but he refuses. He doesn't allow her to use her own money as she wishes. They are kept for a week in prison under harsh conditions. During this time Edith and Violet encourage Maud to be strong and introduce her to Emily Davison who is on a hunger strike.

When Maud returns home, her husband Sonny is angry over her involvement with the suffragettes and completely unsympathetic to what she went through in jail. Maud promises him she will not be further involved. Meanwhile Pankhurst is in hiding and the suffragettes await her further instructions. News arrives of a secret meeting where Emmeline Pankhurst will speak to the suffragettes and Maud attends with her friends. Pankhurst encourages the women to become rebels, to fight in anyway they can since their demands have been ignored now for years. She tells them "Deeds not words" is their motto.

The police raid the meeting arresting Maud and others. On the orders of Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) who has been tracking the suffragettes, the women are taken to their homes so that their husbands can "deal" with them. Sonny, furious at Maud's participation refuses to let her back into their home or to see their son, George.

Haughton and Steed meanwhile decide they need to get into the East London group and hope to obtain an informer by publishing photographs of the women involved in the suffragette movement. Maud is shown her picture by a disapproving neighbour. When Taylor sees the pictures, he fires her. Ridiculing her for the abuse she has suffered at his hands, Maud burns his hand with the iron.

Inspector Steed who has been called to the factory tells Maud that she will go home provided she becomes an informant for the police. Maud tells him that Taylor deserved what happened because of what he's done to her and other women, but Steed reminds her that no one listens to "girls like you."

Maud meets with Edith who explains to the group that they will be bombing the King's post office boxes. Before she undertakes her part in this Maud manages to see George and spend some time with him but when she returns him to Sonny he tells her by law their boy is his and he can prevent her from seeing him. This results in Maud writing Steed to inform him that she has decided against his offer. She believes in fighting for her rights as a woman and if the law won't let her see her son, she needs to work to change that law.

All of this leads to Maud becoming more radicalized and more involved with suffragettes. With each arrest and jail time, she along with the other suffragettes become determined to win the right to vote and to obtain other rights for women too.

Discussion

Suffragette is a movie that provides an excellent starting point to create awareness of how different life was for women a century ago and that many of the rights women enjoy today were hard won. The women's movement in the United Kingdom began in the 1800's as more and more women desired to participate more fully in society. Women's rights became a national movement in the UK around 1872. Women began lobbying for more rights but change was slow and often piecemeal. For example, in 1882 women won the right to own property but as of 1912, women could still not vote, despite years of lobbying.

Emmeline Pankhurst emerged as a leader in the women's movement in the UK. She founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) which challenged women to act in order to secure more rights. Conditions in Britain for women at this time were deplorable. Many worked long hours in factories in terrible conditions for pay that was far less than that of men. They had no parental rights and no say in the political process. They were unable to hold meetings because it was almost impossible to find a venue. Unable to secure the right to vote Pankhurst decided that a more militant approach was required and her group advocated civil disobedience in the form of smashing windows, bombing postal boxes and eventually arson. She and many of her followers were arrested and staged hunger strikes while in prison. Many were brutally force-fed.

Suffragette is set against this backdrop in 1912 to 1913. The movie, directed by Sarah Gavron, accurately portrays life for women during this time period.

In Suffragette, as Maud experiences the injustice of laws which favour men, she becomes increasingly radicalized. The abuse by her employer, the loss of her husband and her son, the brutality of the police, the ridicule of those around her and torture by doctors in the jail all drive her towards supporting the suffragettes. Carrie Mulligan portrays Maud's increasing desperation and her transformation from reluctant mother and laundress to determined activist realistically.  It's gradual and not without conflict.

Helena Bonham Carter's performance as Edith Ellyn was wonderful. It was enjoyable to see her in a role where her considerable acting abilities could be brought to bear. She gave Edith a refreshing brashness that made her seem the most realistic of all the film's characters. Bonham Carter brought out Edith's resourcefulness and stoic determination to make things better for the next generation. She saw her own dreams of becoming a doctor and owning her own business thwarted merely because of her gender.  Yet she soldiers on and encourages the other suffragettes to do so too. Meryl Streep brief performance as Pankhurst was solid.

The event that forms the climax of Suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison's walking out in front of the King's horse at the Epsom Derby was a real event that occurred on June 4, 1913. Emily was struck by King George V's horse, Anmer and trampled to the ground as she tried to offer the women's vote flag to the rider. She died four days later in hospital. Her death and funeral made headlines around the world. Below is actual film of the race.



As the movie does not fully develop the real life characters, Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison, viewers are directed to research these women. Pankhurst's autobiography, Suffragette: My Own Story is worth reading.

Canadian women might be interested to know that women in Manitoba were the first to get the vote in Canada. That right was granted on January 28, 1916. They could run for provincial office and vote in provincial elections but they could not vote federally. The right to vote in federal elections was not fully granted to women in Canada until May 24, 1918. Aboriginal women did not gain the right to vote in federal elections until 1960.


Emily Davison's Funeral

Women's Suffrage in Canada

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

My Brother's Secret by Dan Smith

Dan Smith's novel explores the moral dilemma faced by a young boy who is desperate to fit into his nation's ideal of being a patriotic German.

Twelve year old Karl Friedmann is a member of the Deutsches Jungvolk, a group for German boys too young to join the Hitler Youth. They are trained to be fit and fearless so they can eventually fight for the Fuhrer. The novel opens with Karl's group of younger boys participating in a war game which his team wins when Karl captures the opposing team's flag. Karl is praised by the leader, Alex Jung of the Hitler Youth group, training them and given a silver proficiency badge. He is bursting with pride at his accomplishment.

One of the boys on the losing team, Johann Weber, seems upset and unable to participate like he usually does.Karl learns that Johann's father, Oskar, was killed in the war. The other boys mock Johann for crying over his father's death, saying they would be proud if their father had died for the Fuhrer. To punish Johann for crying, Alex has the other boys fight him. The first one he calls up is Karl. Everyone taunts Karl to hit Johann but Karl refuses until Johann screams for him to punch him. Feeling terrible about knocking Johann down, Karl helps him to his feet but is ridiculed by Alex for doing so.

When Karl returns home he is teased by his older brother Stefan, who tells him that he does not have to wear a uniform to be a good German. Karl accuses Stefan of being a coward because he left school so he would not have to join the Hitler Youth. On his twelfth birthday, Karl's family receives a telegram that informs them their father has died in action in Russia. Their mother, Hannah, collapses in shock and Karl expresses his own shock at his father's death. Stefan decides to go get Opa and Oma. When Stefan puts on his jacket, Karl notices a white flower embroidered on the inside pocket. He questions Stefan about it, but Stefan simply tells Karl that it's nothing and to forget about it.

Due to Hannah's fragile condition, Oma and Opa bring everyone to their home on Escherstrasse in Cologne. Karl's mother is completely bedridden. Karl wants to join the local school and the town's Deutsches Jungvolk troop but Stefan tells him that Opa and Oma want to keep him home for some time. They want him to think about his involvement with the Nazi "stuff". Karl balks at this and asks Stefan once again what the white flower means, but Stefan refuses to tell him.

While Stefan works in a local mill, Karl finds himself terribly bored. He feels like he is in prison which makes him remember how Stefan was sent to a camp last year after someone reported him fighting with boys from the Hitler Youth. One day Karl sees a young girl who lives in the house across the street from him. He wonders if she is a "second-degree Mischling", that is a person with one Jewish grandparent. She sees Karl at the window and waves to him before riding off on her bike. Bored and frustrated, Karl sneaks away on his bike and rides through town. While riding he sees walls painted with white graffiti that says "Hitler is killing our fathers." At the end of the slogan is a white flower, the same as the one Karl saw on his brother's inside jacket pocket.

Karl ends up at a school where he spots the dark-haired girl he saw earlier. However Karl is quickly spotted by the teachers who yell after him. Fleeing on his bike, Karl races away only to be struck by a black Mercedes car. That car is driven by a man from the Gestapo, Kriminalinspektor Gerhard Wolff. Wolff is not nice to Karl, despite the fact that he was thrown to the pavement and is scrapped and bruised. He questions Karl about the white paint on his fingers and then asks him why he doesn't know him. Karl explains his situation while Wolff drives him to his Opa and Oma's home.

At his Opa and Oma's home, Wolff is intimidating; he searches their kitchen questioning Karl's grandparents on their full cupboards. They tell him that the get their food from Herr Finkel's shop. Opa is intimidated into wearing his Nazi party badge and must attend more meetings while Karl is ordered back to school and into the Deutsches Jungvolk in a week's time.

Afterwards Karl meets Lisa Herz, the girl across the street. She takes Karl to Herr Finkel's shop where they buy some chocolate. Lisa asks about Stefan and Karl tells her about how he got into trouble with the Gestapo and was sent to boot camp. Lisa asks if someone reported Stefan because this happens all the time. Lisa shows Karl a carving of a flower that she found when some boys were chased by the Hitler Youth. It is the same as the white flower he saw on the wall graffiti. That night when Stefan comes home as he's giving Opa money, the square of black cloth embroidered with white flower falls out of his pocket. Oma and Opa warn Stefan to be careful. When Karl sees the piece of cloth from his brother's jacket and asks what the flower means, no one answers him. Karl realizes that they do not trust him. He knows the flower means something and that his brother is somehow involved. Karl becomes determined to find out. His curiosity endangers Stefan and leads himself and Lisa deeper into a deadly confrontation with Gerhard Wolff and the Gestapo.


Discussion

In My Brother's Secret, Dan Smith excels at re-creating the historical time period of World War II Germany. On June 22, 1941, Germany began Operation Barbarossa - the invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler proclaimed that the Soviet Union would collapse within three months. His plan was to conquer Russia before their notorious hard winter set in. Initially, the blitzkrieg was very successful, with German troops advancing far into Russian territory and almost completely disabling the Russian war machine. However, for many reasons, the German invasion began to falter and German casualties began to mount.  In this novel, Operation Barbarossa has just began and Karl and Stefan's father has been unwillingly sent to the Russian front.

In the opening chapters which describe Karl's experiences in the Deutsches Jungvolk, Smith ably demonstrates the brutality of the Nazi regime. By describing Karl's indoctrination in Nazi racial theories and his belief that he must be strong as Krupp steel (Krupp was a steel company which made war weapons for Germany during both world wars) the setting and tone of the novel are quickly established. Karl is young and easily won over to the Nazi ideals. Like most young boys, he wants to fit in and he wants to fight for his beloved Germany.  In fact he has so absorbed the Nazi propaganda that he denounced his own brother - something that is hinted at in the first part of the novel and revealed later on.

As part of the Deutsches Jungvolk Karl is told to be "As fast as a greyhound, as tough as leather, and as hard as Krupp's steel. The words of the Fuhrer himself."  It is something he takes to heart, pushing himself physically. He prides himself on being acknowledged in the group. 

However, a series of events occur that gradually change Karl's mind, opening his eyes to the reality of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. When Karl's father, Oskar is killed in Russia he expresses shock and anger. "It's not fair. The war was supposed to be short," I sobbed. It was supposed to be over. Everyone was supposed to give up when they saw us coming." He also tells Stefan that he expected to feel proud if his father died but instead he feels overwhelming shock and emptiness. Despite this Karl still defends his participation in the Deutsches Jungvolk and his idol, Adolf Hitler.

After his accident with Kriminalinspector Gerhard Wolff,  Karl finds his views on the Nazis beginning to change. Seeing how Wolff treats his beloved grandfather, Karl begins to reconsider.  "When I was at school with Ralf and Martin, the idea of people being punished for not following the rules felt right, but I wasn't so sure now."

Later on Stefan points out to Karl the reality of life under Nazi rule, something he has largely been sheltered from. After the leaflets are dropped, Stefan tells Karl what happens to people who oppose the Nazis. "It's time to stop pretending. He needs to know that you don't have to do anything. You just have to say something, think something. All it takes is for one person to tell the Gestapo and that's the end of it. Some people even report their own family." Stefan tells Karl that people are sent away to die in camps and not as he believes "to learn how to be better Germans." Karl begins to realize that he has been a part of something terrible and is filled with guilt and remorse.

After Karl and his friend Lisa witness Herr Finkel being terrorized and taken away by the Gestapo he is deeply upset. Karl remembers how kindly Herr Finkel, a man with "sparkling blue eyes" had been towards him, how he asked after his mother, offered his condolences over his father's death and deflected the nosy questions of Frau Vogel.
"I felt numb. Seeing someone I knew arrested and manhandled our of his own shop was horrible. I'd heard about these things, I knew it happened, but I had never seen it. And I always thought it happened to the right people, to people who deserved it...Herr Finkel was a shopkeeper. He sold chocolate. What could he have done to deserve this? Had it been like this for Lisa's Papa?"  

Karl begins to understand that Stefan was telling the truth about how the Nazis kill anyone who opposes them. Lisa tells him that her father refused to go to Russia to fight so they placed him in camp. She tells Karl that the back of the leaflet states that thousands of German soldiers have died in Russia. When he sees the boys from the Deutsches Jungvolk and the Hitler Youth on parade and listens to their songs about the Jews, Karl feels shame. "Not so long ago, marching like this had seemed like the best thing in the world, but now I felt a stab of shame that I had shouted such hateful things."

He eventually tells his Opa and Oma that he knows they don't like the Fuhrer and admits to them that he doesn't like him anymore either. When he thinks of Hitler's words, "Germany will be victorious." Karl experiences intense conflict because although he wants Germany to win, he doesn't support the Fuhrer anymore. Karl refuses to confront the idea that the Gestapo may be torturing Herr Finkel. But as he has becomes involved with the Edelweiss Pirates and must deal with the cruel and manipulative Wolff, Karl finally understand the true nature of the Gestapo. This is further revealed to Karl when he learns of Frau Schmidt's betrayal of Jana and Stefan.

Karl is a thoughtful but reckless boy. This makes him a realistic character because he doesn't suddenly turn against the Nazis. He experiences conflict as his eyes are opened and he also experiences shame for how he thought and behaved. Karl's internal struggle as he goes from patriotic German youth to Nazi resistor is reflected in how he views Hitler's autobiography, Mein Kampf which initially he prizes.

Mein Kampf (My Struggle) was published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926 and outlined Hitler's plan for Germany. In Mein Kampf among other things, Hitler blames the Jewish people for the world's troubles and especially those of Germany, although for the latter he also includes socialists and Marxists. In it he also proposes the genocide of the Jewish population of Germany by poison gas.

Karl remembers how he begged his parents to purchase him a copy but they refused, telling him he would never read it. It's likely, knowing what it contained, they didn't want him to read it. He saves up money and buys himself a copy only to find it "too complicated. Too boring."

When he takes the British leaflet from Lisa, Karl hides it in his copy of Mein Kampf. Karl's Opa comes into his room and sees him with the book and asks him if he's read it. He tells Karl that he found it "a little dry for my taste" because he can't tell Karl outright what he really thinks. This is because everyone in Karl's family knows he believes in the Nazis, know he reported Stefan and therefore do not trust him. But Karl tells him he believes he will never read it, indirectly indicating to his Opa that he no longer believes in the Fuhrer.

At the end of the novel, now fully realizing how dangerous the Nazis and their ideology is, Karl burns his copy of Mein Kampf. "I placed three brown folders on the grass at the far end of the backyard, and put Mein Kampf on top of them so the Fuhrer was looking at the sky, then I doused him with kerosene from Opa's supplies."

"When I put a match to the book, the flames burned blue and flickered in the wind. The folders went up well, but the book was thick and it took a while for the fire to work through it. The pages blackened and curled as the Fuhrer turned to smoke."

The difficulty with which Mein Kampf burns is representative of how hard it will be to cleanse the Nazis and their ideology from Germany.

My Brother's Secret is another fine historical novel from British author Dan Smith. It's wonderful to see excellent novels written for young boys. Both this novel and Smith's My Friend, the Enemy explore specific moral dilemma's young people experience in times of war.

Further Reading:

The Edelweiss Pirates

Book Details:

My Brother's Secret by Dan Smith
New York: Chicken House, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.    2015
293 pp.