Friday, July 29, 2016

Movie: Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond is the third Star Trek movie in the series reboot featuring the well chosen cast of Chris Pine as Captain James Tiberious Kirk, Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, Zachary Quinto as Commander Spock, Zoe Saldana as Lieutenant Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekov and Simon Pegg as Engineer Montgomery Scott. This time around the crew is directed by Justin Lin of Fast and Furious 6 fame and the villain facing off against Kirk is Idris Elba who plays Krall.


The movie opens with Captain Kirk on a diplomatic peace mission offers an artifact on behalf of one alien species to another. When the mission fails, Kirk admits in his captain's log that halfway through his five year mission he is tired. Commander Spock is seen placing the artifact, the Abronath, into the ship's archives. The Enterprise arrives at Starbase Yorktown for resupply and shore leave. Kirk speaks with Commodore Paris about his application for Vice Admiral and recommends Commander Spock for the captaincy of the Enterprise. While at Yorktown, a survivor of a ship arrives at the base. The alien, Kalara tells the base that her ship is stranded on a planet called Altamid, just past the nearby nebula and asks the Federation to rescue them. Kirk volunteers the Enterprise for the mission and the crew reassembles and leaves immediately.

However, once through the nebula and approaching the planet, the Enterprise is violently attacked  and quickly overwhelmed by a huge swarm of ships unlike anything they have ever seen before.  The small ships are like spikes which embed themselves into the hull of the Enterprise, releasing the aliens who begin slaughtering the crew. One of those aliens is Krall, who it is revealed is searching for the Abronath.

The ship loses its nacelles and when Scotty reconnects the impulse engines, attempts to limp toward the nebula. However, Krall orders his ships to cut the ship from the engines. As Kirk and the crew battle the aliens Kalara is revealed to have tricked the Federation so as to save her own crew who are also trapped by Krall. In a fight for the Abronath with Krall, Kirk manages to hide the artifact in a shuttle as the saucer section spirals towards the planets surface. The crew of the Enterprise are captured by Krall's men including Lieutenant Uhura and Sulu but Kirk, Chekov and Scotty escape in a pods, while Dr. McCoy and Spock crash land in one of the alien ships.

On the surface of the planet, all of the bridge crew struggle to reunite; Spock is badly injured and is treated by McCoy, Scotty stumbles upon another alien, Jaylah who saves him from Krall's men and Kirk, Chekov and Kalara begin looking for the saucer section of the Enterprise, and Uhura and Sulu try to figure out what Krall is up to.

Jaylah tells Scotty that her ship was taken by Krall and her crew has been taken one by one never to return. She escaped with the help of her father and lives by scavenging on Altamid. She takes Scotty to her "home" which turns out to be the USS Franklin, a Federation ship gone missing over a hundred years ago. Jaylah has rigged a cloaking device that has allowed the ship to be hidden while she tries to repair it. She agrees to help Scotty find his crew mates if he will help her repair the Franklin. At this point Kirk, Chekov and Kalara locate the Enterprise saucer and crawl through the wreckage. Kirk hopes to use the saucer to locate his missing crew, but is attacked by Kalara. Activating the boosters, Kirk cause the saucer to flip, killing Kalara but allowing him and Chekov to narrowly escape.

Meanwhile at the Franklin, one of Jaylah's traps is set off and she and Scotty go to investigate and discover it is Kirk and Chekov. They are released and taken back to the Franklin where Scotty fills them in and Kirk orders Scotty to continue with the repairs. McCoy and Spock, who is still weak from his wound, are located by Krall's men but are saved by Scotty who beams them both aboard the Franklin. Reunited with most of his bridge crew, Kirk decides that they must raid Krall's camp and save the Enterprise crew. Convincing Jaylah to help them, they begin to devise a plan to rescue the crew. What Kirk doesn't yet know is that Krall's plans are much bigger than just capturing the Enterprise.


Discussion

Fans of the Star Trek franchise certainly won't be disappointed with Star Trek Beyond, an intense film with plenty of action, explosions and the usual camaraderie between the crew of the Enterprise. The visual effects were especially stunning in this movie, fortunately overshadowing a mediocre plot. The deadly beauty of the nebula and the detail of the Starbase Yorktown - an artificial home created in space are just some examples of the beautiful special effects in the movie. Especially wonderful are the different camera shots of the starbase, showing it in incredible detail from every angle.  Director Justin Lin is noted for his action sequences and he delivers in Star Trek Beyond. The devastating and fatal attack on the Enterprise was vividly portrayed as Krall's attack ships overwhelmed the starship much in the way bees swarm. The intensity and the horror of the attack in the coldness of space is shown as Krall's ships swirl around the Enterprise, embedding themselves into its hull or slicing through sections to chop the ship apart.


There are lots of references to previous Star Trek movies including one of movie's posters which has a similar layout to that of Star Trek: The Motion Picture released in 1979. The music used to disrupt Krall's drone attack on the Yorktown starbase, Beastie Boy's Sabotage, is also the same song used in the 2009 Star Trek movie when a young James Tiberius Kirk crashes up his father's sports car. There are other throwbacks too - the picture of the 1989 cast of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier which Spock finds among Ambassador Spock's possessions is a tribute to the three deceased members(DeForest Kelly, Leonard Nimoy and James Doohan) of the original TV series and set of movies.

The movie Star Trek Beyond was not without its problems though. One aspect of the story in Star Trek Beyond that was disappointing is the revelation that Krall is actually a human rather than part of a new alien race that Starfleet might have to learn to deal with. Instead he is a rogue pre-Federation captain named Balthazar Edison whose ship, the USS Franklin, crashed on the planet a hundred years ago after being transported there via a worm hole. At that time the planet had already been abandoned by the original aliens who left their technology behind including dormant drones. Using the alien race's technology, Krall gradually morphed into something different, needing to obtain his energy from living beings. But when he is forced to flee on the starbase, he suddenly (and not fully explained) regains his human appearance. Krall is simply another angry villain out to seek vengeance against Starfleet. It would be refreshing to see the next Star Trek movie feature a more diverse alien cast (there were fifty new aliens shown throughout Star Trek Beyond) and an original villain who forces the Federation members to work together to overcome.  Krall's connection as a human and as the captain of the Franklin is unoriginal and led to minor inconsistencies in the storyline. For example, Jaylah has rigged a cloaking device that hides the Franklin from Krall on Altamid, but Krall as former captain of the Franklin would have known where his ship was located and likely would have suspected something was up if it suddenly disappeared.


Science fiction movies often try to portray futuristic concepts in a way that is faithful to the laws of nature. For example The Martian did a good job demonstrating how man might survive on Mars and how the technology to do so might work. However,  Star Trek Beyond sometimes fails in this regard. For example, the portrayal of the nebula, while very beautiful was inaccurate. Nebulae are clouds of gases - hydrogen, helium and ionized gases as well as dust in space. Yet in Star Trek Beyond the nebula near Starbase Yorktown is shown has having huge chunks of rock which collide with one another - definitely not what we have observed about nebulae but definitely creating a suspenseful atmosphere in the film.  In contrast, the portrayal of warp travel aboard the Enterprise was very well done - we see shots of the ship in a sort of bubble as it travels faster than the speed of light and within the ship, the view outside the window is that of blurred stars as one might expect traveling so fast.

In the Star Trek universe it sometimes feels as if the characters have forgotten the technology they have at hand in order to create a more exciting finale. For example, the Starbase Yorktown was located near the nebula which had never been explored. For such a huge base, so far out into deep space, it seems incomprehensible that this would be the situation. It also seems puzzling that there are so few starships at the starbase. When Krall is attempting to poison the starbase and is in the main glass tower, why did neither the crew of the starbase nor the Franklin attempt to beam him out of the tower and into space?

Despite the mediocre plot, Star Trek Beyond is an exciting movie and will definitely appeal to trekkies of all ages. Especially appealing was the new character Jaylah whom I hope appears in any future movies. As a resourceful, strong female character she adds new possibilities to the series, in light of the news that with the unexpected death of Anton Yelchin, the character Chekov will not return. Look forward to a fourth film sometime in the future as most major cast members have been signed.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

DVD: The Little Prince

One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.


The movie The Little Prince is based on the popular novel of the same title by Antoine de Saint-Euxpery who was a famous French poet and aviator. The novel was published in 1943 and tells the story of a pilot stranded in the desert where he meets a young prince who has travelled to Earth from a small asteroid. The book's main themes explore the forgotten innocence of childhood by adults and how we must look beneath the surface to see what is real.

The movie opens with a little girl waiting with her mother just before she's interviewed for entrance to the elite Werth Academy. Determined her daughter will gain admission, she prepares her daughter to answer what she believes will be the crucial question, "Are you Werth Academy material?" However the question the girl is asked is "What will you be when you grow up?" Completely unprepared to answer this question the girl starts to give the answer she prepared rather than answer the unexpected question. She stops, and faced with the realization that she's unable to answer, she faints.

With this failure, her mother devises a new plan. They buy a new house near the Werth Academy. It is a non-descript grey house like every other house around them except for the one next door. It is a ramshackle house with a wooden observation deck in the back.

The girl's mother organizes every minute of every day of every month for the next 53 days calling it her "life plan". However, things don't quite go according to plan. On the first day home alone, after her mother has left for work, the girl's house is badly damaged by their next door neighbour who attempts to start his plane. The plane's propeller flies through the backyard fence and into their house. The elderly neighbour retrieves the propeller as the girl watches in astonishment. The girl calls the police who come to the neighbour's home. The elderly man, an aviator, gives the little girl a huge jar of pennies. When she tells her mother that evening what happened, her mother tells her they will call a contractor in the morning and "forget the old man exists". Later that evening while studying, a paper airplane flies in through the window and lands on her desk. The little girl discovers it is a page of a story sent by the elderly aviator. She tosses it into the waste paper basket. The little girl goes through her morning routine until lunch when she decides she will begin rolling the pennies in the jar. While doing this, she discovers an odd collection of items amongst the pennies: a nail, a green marble, a sea shell,a red paper rose, a little metal airplane and a tiny figure of the little prince.

Recognizing the figure is the same as in the aviator's story, the girl retrieves the story from the bin and begins to read. At this point the movie portrays scenes from the story as the little girl reads, in stop motion animation. The story tells of a pilot who flew everywhere until he crashed in the Sahara Desert. One day a little boy appears asking the pilot to draw him a sheep. The pilot reluctantly agrees but his efforts are not acceptable to the little prince who tells him the sheep are too old, sickly and one is a ram. Tired, the pilot draws a rectangular box with holes and tells him the sheep is inside. The boy needs a sheep because where he comes from is very small.

The movie now switches back to the girl who is so intrigued with this beginning that she decides to go into the aviator's backyard. There she finds a yard crammed with eclectic pieces of machines including a decrepit red plane. The girl tells the aviator she found the story strange and begins asking him questions because the "facts" don't make sense to her. He begins to explain the story to her - for example telling her that the little prince comes from a very small asteroid called B-612 and that the sheep is needed to eat the Baobab sprouts which threaten to overrun the asteroid. While the aviator finds more pages of the story for her to read the little girl discovers a toy red fox which she immediately likes. Once more the movie switches to stop-animation. In this part of the story the Little Prince continues to keep his asteroid clean of the Baobab plants until one day a new seed sprouts. This seed, under the care of the Little Prince grows into a beautiful rose, cherished by the boy. They love each other but the rose begins to torment the Little Prince with her vanity and filled with doubt, the prince flees.

The little girl listens to the story and later watches the beautiful night sky with the aviator. Having lost track of time, the little girl rushes home with more story pages and the red fox. She admits to her mother that she did not finish all her planned schoolwork but that she read alot and made a knew friend. As the girl reads the pages she has brought home, the movie once again switches to stop animation.

As the little girl's friendship with the elderly aviator deepens she comes to see the world in a whole new way. And the message of the aviator's story becomes more and more apparent to her in her own life.


Discussion

The Little Prince is a simply wonderful film that exquisitely showcases the story of The Little Prince written by French author, explorer and aviator  Antoine de Saint-Euxpery. Directed by Mark Osbourne the movie captures the essence of the book, that there is mystery hidden within everyone and everything in the world - that "what is essential is invisible to the eye". This message is first hinted at in the opening pages of the book when the narrator states that as a child, he drew a object that people thought was a hat but really it contained an alligator.  Osbourne and his crew of screen writers wanted a story that could serve as a vehicle for de Saint-Euxpery's Little Prince. They came up with the idea that the aviator never had his story published. He was someone who had trouble connecting with others but who has a message to share. Instead his story remains as separate sheets of paper scattered around his house. But then a little girl shows up in the house next door and the aviator who "Thought I'd never find anyone who wanted to hear my story." suddenly has that someone. Although it is curiosity that drives the little girl to seek out the aviator next door so as to question him, she soon becomes very captivated by his story. Using the little girl, viewers experience the story through her eyes.

Osbourne used two mediums to make The Little Prince. The book is portrayed in the film using stop-motion animation while the larger story of the little girl and her relationship with the aviator who tells her his story of the Little Prince is told using CGI.

The stop-motion animation scenes were made using paper - representing the paper medium of the book. The beautiful illustrations in the Little Prince come alive with the stop motion animation. Many of the scenes are three-dimensional. For example, the heads of the characters were sculpted out of paper clay. The figures were also left with a textured appearance so that they appeared more realistic. Since the book's illustrations were done in water colour, vibrant water colours were used for the figures to capture the emotion and setting of the story. The director felt that the use of stop motion animation with it's imperfections made was reminiscent of childhood in comparison to the more mature and finished look of CGI.

The story of the aviator and the girl was told through the medium of CGI. This medium allowed the little girl's very scheduled adult world to be shown in sharp contrast to the warm, imaginative world of the aviator. The little girl's world is fully of greys and whites with little colour. Her mother wears a grey pant suit, their home is muted greys and their lives are scheduled down to the minute with routines. The girl is a miniature version of her mother. In contrast, the aviator's world is full of rich colours, greens, reds and yellows. This is best demonstrated when the little girl enters the aviator's backyard and is mesmerized by the deep green grass, the red airplane and the colourful parachute. He's filled with wonder about the world around him - a world that the little girl and her mother have never taken the time to notice.

At the start of the movie the little girl is more like an adult than a child. This is demonstrated in the opening scenes when she is interviewed by the Werth Academy. In the adult world she lives in, she is prepared to answer by memory, the question her mother believes is essential to her gaining admission. While in the waiting room, they fail to notice the world around them and in doing so miss the question plastered on the walls, "Que serez-vous quand vous serez adulte?"  This is the question that is asked in the interview and is a foreshadowing of what the fox will tell the Little Prince later - that what is essential is invisible to the eyes. They miss what is essential because they are not looking. Her adult-like character continues when she meets the aviator who sends her the first page of his story. Although she's fascinated by it, the little girl cannot relate to it because the facts don't line up. The child in her is buried so deeply she cannot enjoy the story and becomes bogged down with the incongruity of the "facts" .

In contrast to the little girl is the aviator who is like a little child. With his story and his wonder at the world and he helps her to rediscover the child within her. After reading about the Little Prince's journey's to the various asteroids populated by "odd" adults, the little girl begins to see her mother as an odd adult. This leads the little girl to question whether or not she wants to grow up but the aviator tells her "Growing up is not the problem, forgetting is." That is, forgetting how to look at the world through a child's eyes.

The juxtapositioning of the two stories - the first of the little girl as her friendship with the aviator develops and the Little Prince as he befriends a red fox is beautifully instructive. The Little Prince asked the fox to play with him but the fox tells him he cannot until he tames him - that is until they form a friendship, a bond. Otherwise he is just like any other fox to the Little Prince. The Little Prince finally understands what the fox has been trying to tell him when he finds a garden full of roses. Disappointed by what he believes is a lie his rose told him (that she was the only one in the universe) and that she is only a "common rose", the fox explains that the rose at home on the asteroid is special because of the time he has devoted to her. The roses in the garden are simply other roses with no special connection to him.  When the little girl reads this passage she is concerned that the fox and the little prince will not be together, but the aviator tells her that their connection will remain because the Little Prince will remember their times together just as he now remembers his times with the rose. The little girl worries now that she will lose her special friend, the aviator,whom she now recognizes she needs.

The little girl's deception is exposed to her mother when she and the aviator go for a drive to get pancakes.  Contacted by the police the little girl's mother realizes that her daughter has not been following her life plan but instead spending it with the aviator. Here in these CGI scenes we see how the current adult world often doesn't recognize the specialness of childhood, instead overplanning every single moment. The little girl accuses her mother of not caring but her mother tells her she cares about her and her "life plan" represented by the board. However, the little girl tells her mother the board is not her life plan but "just a wooden box with magnets" and that this is her mother's plan for her life. The mother after reading only a brief part of the aviator's story tells the little girl she must focus on what is essential. She destroys the pages of the story and gives her an (adult) deadline.

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly."

The next time she sees the aviator he hints that someday he will be gone, which greatly upsets the little girl. But he tells her that if she looks with her heart he will always be with her just as the the Little Prince is with his rose. Not understanding and deeply upset, the little girl returns home and focuses on getting into the academy. But when the aviator is taken to hospital the little girl's biggest fear is that she will grow up and forget the aviator. The story of the Little Prince and the girl merge when she flies the aviator's plane to find the little prince. From her adventure she comes to realize the truth of what the aviator told her. Just as the Little Prince who upon returning to his asteroid finds his precious rose dead, can see her in the morning sunrise, the little girl realizes that she will always remember the aviator when she looks at the stars. She will look into her heart and remember him.


This delightful movie will help children and adults alike the beauty of the novel The Little Prince set in a story about a little girl who rediscovers what it means to be a child.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Stones On A Grave by Kathy Kacer

Stones On A Grave is part of a series of seven books authored by various Canadian writers for young teens. The series, known as the Secrets, can be read in any order. An orphanage, known as The Benevolent Home For Necessitous Girls burns to the ground in June of 1964, leaving all its residents homeless. The younger girls are sent to various families, but the seven oldest girls, Dot, Malou, Sara, Tess, Cady, Toni and Betty are each given information about their past and told they must now make their own way in the world. Their stories are the basis for the seven novels in the series.

Stones On A Grave tells Sara's story. It begins the night of the terrible fire at the orphanage in the town of Hope. Sarah and the rest of the girls who live there make it safely out of the fire. Sara manages to grab her tin box holding her savings. Their matron, Mrs. Hazelton and their teacher, Miss Webster also make it out. The girls are taken to the church where they are told by Miss Webster that because the fire has totally destroyed the orphanage, no one will be able to return and that plans are being made to help each of the girls. The girls spend the night sleeping on the pews of the town church.

The next morning Sara, who is the oldest of the girls at eighteen, decides to go to her job at Loretta's, a diner where she's worked for the past few years. Normally Loretta's wouldn't be open on a Sunday but the owner, Mrs. Clifford has opened the restaurant to those who helped with the fire. When she sees Sara, Mrs. Clifford is shocked and tells her she can manage fine if she needs to take some time off. However Sara wants to work as it keeps her from worrying about what the future holds for her.

Sara's boyfriend Luke comes to the diner. Sara met him a few months ago when she went to the garage where he works to put air in her bicycle tires. Luke noticing her that day made Sara feel special. Mrs. Clifford doesn't like Luke however and questions him about whether he was involved in the orphanage fire. She also tells him she heard that he's been harassing Malou, one of the seven older girls at the orphanage. Luke denies this and Sara refuses to believe what Mrs. Clifford has said, but when Malou arrives at the diner, he ridicules her in front of Sara.

After work Sara goes to see Mrs. Hazelton at her cottage near the orphanage. Each of the girls has come to meet privately with her and Sara is anxious, wondering what Mrs. Hazelton will tell her. Mrs. Hazelton hands Sara two envelopes; the first contains a document from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation that lists information about her birth. Sara learns that she was born in Fohrenwald, Germany, that her mother's name is Karen Frankel and that she is Jewish. Mrs. Hazelton tells Sara that Fohrenwald was a camp for Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust. She tells Sara that her mother was imprisoned in a concentration camp which was liberated at the end of the war. Her mother contracted tuberculosis which was passed on the Sara. The second document is a medical certificate clearing Sara for travel to Canada and was signed by Gunther Pearlman, a German doctor. Mrs. Hazelton has no information on Sara's father nor how Sara ended up coming to Canada. However, she wants to help Sara as she starts her new life and gives her an envelope containing money to help her get started.

This new information and her conversation with Mrs. Hazelton make Sara realize that in order to face her future she needs to discover her past. And to do that she needs to travel to Germany. It is a journey that will uncover her past and help her plot her course for the future.

Discussion

Stones on a Grave is a well written, high interest, easy read for those who enjoy historical fiction and mystery. The novel is set in the mid-1960's and explores the aftermath of the Holocaust on Germans and those who survived the war. When Sara arrives in Germany she finds Dr. Pearlman initially helpful until she reveals her identity and tells him about her mother. The doctor becomes angry and refuses any further help. Kacer portrays a country struggling to come to terms with what happened and determined to try to forget. The older characters, for example Dr. Pearlman and Frau Klein, who lived through the war, do not want to talk about what happened and do not wish to remember. However, Peter, who represents a new generation of Jewish Germans becomes determined to help Sara uncover her family history. Frustrated at the lack of help she is receiving from Germans, Sara wonders Peter also attempts to explain to Sara the question many people asked themselves after the war, "How could the German people not know what was going on?"

At times some of the plot twists seem contrived, such as when Hedda Kaufmann decides against the rules to help Sara and also when by amazing coincidence she knew Sara's mother. Readers will probably quickly realize the real identity of Gunther Pearlman and also how Sara's mother became pregnant. One aspect of this novel that is particularly well done is Kacer's treatment of the war crime of rape and how it can affect the family of the victim.  Sara learns from Frau Kauffman at the International Tracing Center that her father was not her mother's husband, Simon Frankel but a Nazi soldier who raped her mother in the concentration camp. When Sara first learns this fact about herself, she is very distraught. She flees the center, her mind racing with questions. "How was it that she had traveled all this way to find out about her family only to discover that her father -- her father -- was a Nazi guard? What did that even mean? Was she part Nazi? And what part had come from him? The anger? The irritation? The blue eyes? It was almost too much to imagine."  Sara believes that this is why her mother gave her up, that looking at her meant remembering the rape. Sara decides to leave Germany immediately, regretting seeking out her past.The next day while waiting for Peter, Sara tells Dr. Pearlman that she discovered the truth about her past and that her mother "...must have thought I was a monster."

When Dr. Pearlman, who is Sara's grandfather, realizes how this tragedy is affecting his granddaughter, he decides to reveal the truth to her. He tells her that in fact, while "We were all afraid to look at you, knowing where and how you were conceived" her mother gazed at her with "pure love." "Those first few days after she was hospitalized, she wouldn't let you go. She held on to you as if together you could give each other strength to heal. Even as she grew weaker and we tried to pry you from her arms she still refused to let you go..."  The realization that her mother truly loved her helps Sara come to terms with the fact that she was born from an act of violence and to begin to accept that she is NOT her father. A moving letter from Frau Kauffman about her mother, makes Sara understand that there is much of her mother in her. Like her mother she is spirited and like her mother she dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Frau Kauffman's entreaty that she take what little she knows about her mother and be inspired pushes Sara past her anger and grief towards acceptance.

"Everything was becoming clearer to her. Yes, she would carry the man who had raped her mother somewhere inside her. Every time she looked into a mirror, stared at her blue eyes, she would be reminded of her roots. But she knew now that she was not him, and never would be. She would live her life trying to prove that."

Kacer does incorporate some interesting historical facts into her story. One example is Bad Arolsen, a town in northern Germany where documents from the war have been stored in a special center. Bad Arolsen is the location of the International Tracing Service which was begun in 1946 after the war to locate missing people and reunite them with their families and to let others know the fate of their loved ones. The Nazis kept detailed records of who was sent where. The names of Jews, what concentration camp they were sent to, how and when they died, or if they survived what displaced persons camp they were sent to was recorded in an effort to reunite survivors. Its vast archives were only made available to the public in 2007.   The English website may be found at International Tracing Service.

The book takes its title Stones on a Grave from the Jewish custom of placing stones on a grave.This ancient tradition is explained by Peter as follows: "Well, flowers disappear quickly. The belief is that stones last forever, just like the memory you hold of the one who has died."

Overall Stones on a Grave is a touching story about a young woman who learns the truth about her past and her struggle to come to terms with it. Part of the Secrets series conceived by Eric Walters, this novel is a good read for younger teens. It's unfortunate the cover design, like many good Canadian novels, is unimaginative at best.

Book Details:

Stones on a Grave by Kathy Kacer
Victoria: Orca Book Publishers      2015
213 pp.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

The Bitter Side of Sweet is a novel about the use of child labour and child trafficking in West Africa which supplies most of the world's cacao, a key ingredient in many types of confectionery. A report released last year by the Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine determined that in 2013/14, approximately 2.26 million children were working in cacao production, 2.12 million children were working in child labor in cacao production and 2.03 million children were working in hazardous work in cacao production in Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana combined.

Fifteen year old Amadou and his eight year old brother Seydou work harvesting cacao pods in the Ivory Coast. Two years previous, they left Moke and Auntie for what they thought would be one year of work. Instead they found themselves forced to work on a cacao farm run by Moussa and his two brothers, "all day, week after week, season after season, never getting paid."  They are beaten if they don't meet their daily quota.

Then one day a girl is brought into the camp. Her appearance at the camp is bizarre to Amadou because the camp is only filled with boys and men and because she is brought in alone. The girl is wild, cursing and fighting and she attempts to escape the minute she is untied. Amadou notes that she is well fed and her skin dark and shiny.  The girl is tied to a tree while Seydou, Amadou and Moussa go about harvesting the cacao pods. Amadou becomes annoyed with Seydou who does not listen to his instructions on how to cut the cacao pods safely from the trees and he moves off to another area. However, shortly after this Amadou hears Seydou crying and discovers that the girl tricked Seydou into cutting her free and she's now run into the forest in an attempt to escape. Knowing that his little brother will be punished terribly for this, Amadou decides to take responsibility for her escape.He is dragged into the forest as Moussa tracks the girl and she is caught with the help of Amadou. When they return to the camp, Amadou is badly beaten for not making quota as is another boy, Modibo, and the girl whose name is Khadija. They are not given dinner and are locked into the toolshed. The other boys are locked into the sleeping shed. The next day, despite attempting to prove he is well enough to work on a crew Amadou is assigned to work in the camp shelling the pods. This greatly upsets him because he will not be able to watch out for his little brother.

Seydou goes out to work in the farm while Amadou and a reluctant Khadija work on the shelling of the cacao pods. To Amadou's great relief, Seydou returns home safely and has made quota. However as they are being locked into the shed that night, Khadija manages to escape again. This time she is brutally beaten. Once again, Khadija and Amadou are chained together and must work shelling cacao pods. Amadou helps Khadija but also works hard to shell the cacao pods.  However, the worst is yet to come when the crew returns that evening and Amadou learns that his brother Seydou has been seriously injured by a machete, which cut through his left arm near his hand.

Moussa tries to save Seydou's mangled arm by stitching the horrific wound together with thread and a needle but by the next morning Seydou is running a fever and his arm is infected. Amadou is sent into the fields for the day with Moussa and Khadija is made to look after Seydou. But when Amadou returns Seydou's arm is festering and  swollen and he is delirious. The next day Moussa sends Amadou into the fields telling him he will take care of Seydou. He chains Amadou and Khadija together telling Amadou that if she escapes he will kill Seydou.

In the cacao trees,  Amadou and Khadija work together. Amadou feels some sympathy for Khadija when she begins to get blisters. They know they have to make quota as the pisteurs, the drivers who collect the cacao seeds, will be coming soon. Khadija promises Amadou she will not run because she does not want any harm to come to Seydou. When they return to camp at first Amadou is heartened to see Seydou sitting up but when Seydou begins crying Amadou realizes that his arm below the elbow is missing. Horrified at what Moussa has done to Seydou, Amadou punches him in the face. He is tossed into the toolshed, still chained to Khadija. Thinking about what has happened to Seydou, Amadou realizes he will never be able to protect Seydou on the cacao farm and that they must escape. But how will they make it off a farm in the middle of the forest without being caught? Working together, Khadija and Amadou create a perfect storm that allows them to flee to safety and ultimately have their story of trafficking told.


Discussion

Cacao pods on a cacao tree.
One of the major factors that makes a successful historical fiction novel is the ability of the author to recreate the era or setting for his/her readers. The same applies to novels which are set in a country which is culturally very different from the one most readers of the novel live in. The Bitter Side of Sweet is set in the West African country of Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and from the very opening of the novel, author Tara Sullivan sets the stage for her novel. The first thing readers of this novel encounter upon opening the book is a map showing the location of Cote d'Ivoire within the African continent and a map of the Cote d'Ivoire showing the cities in the novel.

Most readers have no idea what a cacao tree looks like nor the pods that Amadou and his crew must climb for and cut from the trees. They probably don't know how the seeds from the cacao pods are made into the chocolate that we enjoy in Canada and the United States.  However readers of The Bitter Side of Sweet will learn all this and more - especially about how most of the cacao in West Africa is harvested using child slave labour and that many of these labourers are trafficked. Underage workers harvest the cacao pods, doing work that is both difficult and unsafe. Forced to work in fields, these children do not attend school, meaning their futures are compromised if they escape.

Tara Sullivan does a wonderful job portraying how difficult Amadou, Seydou and the rest of the boys' lives are working on the cacao farm. This is evident from the very first page. The receive little food, "Neither Seydou nor I have eaten anything since breakfast, but Moussa is working too close for us to be able to sneak one of the cacao pods out of the sack", the working conditions are hot and dangerous, "I take a moment to wipe the sweat off my forehead. You'd think it would be cooler up here, but some days there isn't a breeze even halfway up a tree." They are beaten if they do not harvest enough pods, "Only twenty-five pods. Our sacks need to be full, at least forty or forty-five each, so I can get Seydou out of a beating. Really full if I want to get out of one too." In such conditions it's easy to see why boys like Amadou would quickly lose hope. "I don't count unripe pods. I don't count how many times I've been hit for being under quota. I don't count how many days it's been since I've given up hope of going home." Amadou has quickly learned to give up trying to escape, in the hope that he can somehow protect his much younger brother Seydou.

When Amadou and Seydou were first taken to the cacao farm, Amadou "used to think all the time: How can I run away? What is my family doing right now? Is Moke worried about us? Are they searching? How much longer will we have to work before we pay off our debt and the bosses let us go?"  But Amadou soon realizes that thinking about home means he doesn't make quota and he will be beaten. And so he has given up on trying to escape.

When Khadija arrives on the farm, she mocks Amadou for being "such a good boy" and tells him she's determined to escape. When her two attempts fail, she seems to have lost her will. However, it is Khadija's determination to escape and her refusal to accept this as her life combined with Seydou's serious injury, that leads Amadou to realize that they must either die trying to leave the cacao farm or spend a lifetime enslaved."I've been trying to take care of Seydou in little ways for years, and clearly, today showed that it's not enough. Now it's time to take care of him in a big way. Because when I really think about it, Khadija was right all along. Living here is nothing more than killing Seydou slowly." 

As it turns out, Khadija's presence in the cacao farm is not by chance. Unlike Amadou she was not tricked into working on the farm but was kidnapped so as to force her mother from publishing an article on the illegal methods being used to farm cacao.  Later on in the novel, when Amadou, Seydou and Khadija return to Khadija's home, the author uses Khadija's mother to explain present some of the facts about cacao farming in West Africa within the context of the story. The situation is further explained in her Author's Note at the back of the book. Readers will learn that the luxury of chocolate bars we enjoy in Canada and America come at a high price - the lives of children in West Africa.

Those children are represented by the characters of Amadou, Khadija and Seydou. These are beautifully crafted characters, exhibiting courage, perseverance and compassion. Amadou shows compassion for Khadija when she is brutally beaten after her second escape attempt. "She's no one to you, why do you care? I try to tell myself, but the words are a lie...Then I hear a rustling as she pulls herself back together and a soft, broken sobbing, and all I can think about is how terrible it is to be alone when you're hurting." Amadou comforts Khadija and the next day helps her clean up, wiping her face and hands and giving her water to drink.

As the older brother, Amadou feels responsible for Seydou, but Seydou also takes care of Amadou when he receives a beating after taking the blame for Seydou when Khadija attempts to escape. He sneaks mangoes into the bag of cacao pods so his brother will have something to eat during the day besides the cacao seeds. Khadija undergoes a transformation during her time on the cacao farm. At first she is concerned only for her own fate, but soon comes to see that her actions have consequences on the other workers.

The Bitter Side of Sweet is a well written novel that will educate and awaken the social conscience of young people to the dark side of a treat taken for granted in Canada, the United States and Europe. Like Amadou and Seydou in the novel, most cacao farmers and child workers have no idea that cacao seeds are used to make chocolate for consumption by people in these countries. Despite the terrible experiences that Amadou, Seydou and Khadija have lived through, the novel ends on a hopeful tone. The exciting conclusion demonstrates the risks some have taken to get the truth about cacao known to the rest of the world.

Despite widespread publicity about the trafficking of children and the use of slave labour on cacao farms in Africa little has changed. The Dark Side of Chocolate, a National Geographic documentary is worth watching.







For further information on the use of child labor in the cacao industry in West Africa, readers are directed to the website of Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. The school undertook a research project to determine the extent of the problem specifically in Cote de I'voire and Ghana.

Book Details:

The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons Ltd.    2016
299 pp.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain by John Boyne

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a heart-rending story of lost innocence in the face of terrible evil. It is the story of one boy's corruption at the hands of a powerful ideology that brought ruin to the Europe over seventy years ago.

Pierrot Fischer lived in an apartment with his German father, Wilhelm, a survivor and soldier of World War I and his French mother Emelie. Their family was together until Pierrot's father left in 1933 a few months after Pierrot's fourth birthday.

When Pierrot was very young his father taught him to speak German and would often carry him on his shoulders while pretending to be a horse. His father was very musical often entertaining people with folk songs. Pierrot was also able to speak French which he learned from his mother. Pierrot's father suffered from terrible nightmares which caused him to wake screaming in the night. He drank a great deal to help him forget what he experienced during the First World War.

Pierrot was best friends with a Jewish boy Anshel Bronstein who lived on the ground floor apartment of their building on Avenue Charles-Floquet.The two boys were born within weeks of one another. Anshel was deaf so the two boys developed a sign language that allowed them to communicate.

His father worked as a waiter for M. and Mme Abrahams in their restaurant and complained frequently about the poor tips from Parisians and how badly the Abrahams treat him. But he specifically blamed Jewish patrons, accusing them of being greedy. When Pierrot reminded his father that his best friend Anshel is Jewish, his papa told him that "Anshel is one of the good ones..."

Pierrot's mother and father begin to quarrel as his drinking becomes a serious problem. Shortly after his fourth birthday, Pierrot's father loses control, smashing the dishes and beating his mother unconscious. His father leaves the family and weeks later they learned that he died after falling beneath a train travelling from Munich to Penzberg, Germany.  Pierrot's maman goes to work for the Abrahams as a waitress and for the next three years their life is simple and happy. Until 1936.

In 1936, Pierrot's mother coughs up blood into a handkerchief on her birthday and days later a coughing spell brings up more blood. Emelie is taken to Hotel-Dieu de Paris hospital where she dies shortly after. Orphaned, Pierrot is sent to an orphanage by Mme Bronstein who wants to care for him but does not have the money to do so. She sends him to an orphanage in the city of Orleans that is run by sisters Adele and Simone Durand.  Pierrot must leave behind his beloved dog, D'Artagnan whose care he entrusts to Anshel.

Seven-year-old Pierrot is welcomed into the orphanage by the kindly sisters who tell him his stay will probably not be long as most children are placed with families. Pierrot has trouble making friends and is bullied by one boy in particular. Hugo had lived at the orphanage his entire eleven years. Pierrot never would admit that Hugo was the one bullying him. When a serious fight occurs between Pierrot and Hugo, the true identity of the bully is revealed by the Durand sisters. Pierrot does make friends with a girl named Josette and they their spend time walking around the grounds of the orphanage.

Eventually Pierrot leaves the orphanage and travels to Germany, having been taken in by his father's sister, his Aunt Beatrix. It turns out that Beatrix is the housekeeper for Adolf Hitler who has taken over the Berghof, a large mansion located at in the Obersalzburg of the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, Germany. She has been in her position for a little over two years. In the morning of the first day at the Berghof Pierrot meets Herta Theissen the second most senior maid, Emma who is the cook, Ute the senior maid and Ernst the chauffeur. Pierrot doesn't know who the master and mistress of the house are until Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun arrive. Desperate to belong and trying to make sense of his place in a world upended by war,; Pierrot develops a close relationship with Adolf Hitler who proceeds to draw the young boy into the Nazi world. As he becomes a spectator to Hitler's inner world and discovers the true nature of Beatrix and Ernst's activities, Pierrot must decide where his loyalties lie. It is a choice that will forever change his life.

Discussion
The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a tragic novel which portrays the gradual corruption of an innocent child by Nazi ideology. The novel's main character, Pierrot matures from a seven year old child into a young man of sixteen over the course of the story. His journey mirrors that of millions of young German children who grew up during the Nazi era and who were indoctrinated with ideas about racial purity, a global Jewish conspiracy and Germany's defeat in World War I. Although everyone experiences a natural loss of innocence that occurs during the transition from childhood into young adult years, Pierrot's transition is from a boy who hates cruelty to others and even animals to a young adult who is ready to sacrifice even those dear to him for power and affirmation. His entire belief system is turned upside down.

In the novel, Pierrot undergoes a gradual but steady transformation from an innocent, kind young boy to a staunch Nazi who believes he is superior and who craves power and control. His first day at the Berghof finds Pierrot overwhelmed, timid and willing to do what he's told. " 'Hello?' he said quietly, nervous of drawing too much attention to himself but hoping that someone would hear." He finds the air fresh and light, "filling his lungs and his spirit with an enormous sense of well-being." Beatrix reaffirms what Pierrot feels when she tells him that although the orphanage was good, it is better for him to be with family. "...But it's family that matters. And you and I are family. The only family that either one of us has left. We must never let each other down." This warning foreshadows the cruel way in which Pierrot will betray Beatrix's trust.

Before his relationship with Adolf Hitler, Pierrot had certain views of the world around him. Prior to going to the orphanage, his best friend was a Jewish boy, Anshel Bronstein. This doesn't matter at all to Pierrot, who trusts Anshel enough to leave his beloved dog, D'Artagnan in his care. Pierrot finds Ernst's warning about never mentioning Anshel's name at the Berghof upsetting because he doesn't understand yet how Germans view Jews. And later on when Beatrix discovers Pierrot is receiving letters from a boy named Anshel she tells him, "I know it must see strange...But letters from this...this Anshel boy could get you into more trouble than you realize...A letter from a Jewish boy would not go down well here." When he arrives at the Berghof, Pierrot identifies himself as French and not German because his mother was French, he has a French name and he considers Paris his home. However, his Aunt Beatrix tells him he is German because his father was German, that he must change his name to the German form which is Pieter and that the Berghof is his home now. It is possible that Beatrix's requests, although undertaken for what she considers Pierrot's safety, leave him with an identity crisis and therefore more open to accepting the Nazi ideology.

Initially Pierrot is a helpful child, doing what Beatrix asks of him. Watching Emma butcher a chicken makes him upset because Pierrot doesn't "like the idea of cruelty. From as far back as he could recall he had hated any sort of violence and instinctively walked away from confrontation...he could never understand the enjoyment some people got from hurting others." A letter from Anshel reveals how life has become so hard in Paris for Jews and it troubles "him to think of his friend being called names and bullied." He asks a schoolmate, Katrina if it would be better to be a bully rather than be bullied and agrees with her that this would never be a good thing.

Gradually however Pierrot's view begin to change, influenced by the Nazi culture around him at the Berghof. As he comes to know Adolf Hitler, he comes to embody the tyranny of Nazi ideology. It begins with Pierrot wearing the uniform of the Deutsches Jungvolk. When Pierrot had first arrived at the Berghof, Ernst spoke to him about uniforms, explaining why people like to wear them. "Because a person who wears one believes he can do anything he likes...He can treat others in a way he never would while wearing normal clothes. Collars, trench coats or jackboots -- uniforms allows us to exercise our cruelty without ever feeling guilt." When Pierrot puts on the uniform he feels exactly as Ernst told him weeks earlier, that he can do whatever he wants. He feels empowered just like Rottenfuher Kotler who stole his sandwiches on the train.  "He...realized how wonderful it would be to have such authority; to be able to take what you wanted, when you wanted, from whomever you wanted, instead of always having things taken from you." Hitler tells Pierrot he must wear the uniform all the time.

Hitler changes how Pierrot views his father's World War I service. His mother believed that although his father didn't die in the war, the war was what killed him. Hitler tells Pierrot that his mother was ignorant because his father should have been proud to die for Germany. Pierrot has read Hitler's Mein Kampf and is given Henry Ford's The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem. Almost nine, Pierrot begins treating the servants rudely, to the shock of Beatrix who discovers that her young nephew believes the Jews stole Germany's dignity and that his father was a coward who "allowed weakness to vanquish his spirit."  By the time he's eleven, Pierrot acts cruelly towards the servants, threatening Emma and becoming enraged when he finds an unread letter from Anshel in his discarded book, Emil and the Detectives. Now his view of Anshel is different; "He had like Anshel once, of course he had, but they were just children back then, and he hadn't understood what it meant to be friends with a Jew."

The change in Pierrot does not go unnoticed by Beatrix and Ernst who states, "He's becoming one of them. He's getting more like them every day. He's even started ordering the servants around. I scolded him a few days ago and he told me that I should take my complaints to the Fuhrer or be silent." It is these changes that convince Beatrix and Ernst that they must act to save Pierrot and all young Germans just like him.

There are several people in Pierrot's life who try to show him that his beliefs are wrong but even more that his actions are hurting those around him. Besides Beatrix and Ernst, his classmate Katarina directly points out to him the consequences of his actions involving Heinrich who told his classmates about the things his father had said about Hitler. Heinrich's father was dragged out of his bed and has disappeared while Heinrich and his family lost their home.

However, the transition of Pierrot from innocent French orphan to rabid German Nazi is completed when he betrays Ernst and Beatrix who plot to poison Hitler on Christmas Eve. Discovering their plot, he informs Hitler who has both executed. Pierrot tells himself that his aunt is traitor to the Fatherland and that she must be punished. From this point on, as Pierrot grows older, he becomes more cruel. He threatens Emma if she gives him any more of Anshel's letters, and he even forces himself on Katarina. Katarina is saved by Emma who tells him she doesn't understand who he has become.
" 'You were such a sweet boy when you first came here. Is it really that easy for the innocent to be corrupted?'
Pieter said nothing. He wanted to curse her, to bring his fury down upon her, upon both of them, but something in the way she stared at him, the mixture of pity and contempt on her face, brought some memory of who he had once been back to his mind. Katarina was weeping now, and he looked away, willing them both to leave him alone."
Despite his shame, Pierrot tells the Fuhrer about what Emma did, lying about his part and she is taken away. Katarina's family shop is sold and they vanish from Berchtesgaden. Pierrot now becomes known in Berchtesgaden as "the boy at the top of the mountain" for what he has done.

It is only when the Allies reach the mountain and find Pierrot, now a sixteen year old, hiding in a closet that he is pulled both literally and symbolically out of the darkness of Nazism into the light of liberation. Herta, the only remaining staff member admonished Pierrot before the soldiers came. " 'Don't ever pretend that you didn't know what was going on here. You have eyes and you have ears. And you sat in that room on many occasions, taking notes. You heard it all. You saw it all. And you also know the things you are responsible for...The deaths you have on your conscience. But you're a young man still, you're only sixteen; you have many years ahead of you to come to terms with your complicity in these matters. Just don't ever tell yourself that you didn't know...That would be the worst crime of all.' "

As it turns out, Pierrot seeks redemption by telling his story. Boyne gives his readers a wonderful twist at the end of the novel, explaining how Pierrot's story came to be told. Pierrot sees the fruits of the Nazi regime in the destroyed cities and the ruined families of Germany. He leaves Germany and returns to the city he once considered his home, Paris. The novel ends on a somewhat hopeful note, with Pierrot overwhelmed with guilt but hoping that his story might help him and others come to terms with what happened.

At the beginning of the novel,  when Pierrot leaves the orphanage run by the kindly Durand sisters, he is given a story book by Simone. That story book is Emil and the Detectives written by Erich Kastner, who was opposed to Adolf Hitler and whose novel, Fabian was publicly burned by the Nazis. The story is about a little boy on his way to the city for the first time and who has money stolen from him by a man when he falls asleep on the train. Determined to retrieve his money Emil follows the thief and with the help of a boy from the city, he is able to prove the money is his. He receives a reward because it turns out the man is a wanted thief. Emil and the Detectives demonstrates that even children have the capacity to fight against evil. Every problem Emil encounters he faces directly and has friends to help him.

In The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, Simone and her sister Adele know that Pierrot will be going to a place where he will be challenged to keep his values. Giving him this book is a foreshadowing of the troubles to come and a reminder that he can fight and overcome the evil he will encounter. The story told in Emil and the Detectives parallels Pierrot's experiences until he arrives in Germany, something he quickly realizes. However, unlike Emil, Pierrot does not fight against the evil he encounters. Instead he allows himself to be drawn into it, he refuses the advice and help of others until he himself becomes complicit in the Nazi horrors. And when he sees the book in Hitler's library four years after arriving at the Berghof, Pierrot dismisses it as a quaint children's book for which he has no use.

The Boy At the Top of the Mountain is deeply moving and terribly tragic. Historical fiction fans will appreciate John Boyne's extraordinary tale of coming of age in an era of unspeakable horrors, in the heart of Nazi Germany.

Those readers interested in learning more about the Berghof which is the setting for much of The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, will find many pictures of the mountain retreat on the website, Third Reich in Ruins.

Uncommon Travel Germany also has some interesting pictures of life at the Berghof during Hitler's time there. The Allied bombing completely destroyed the Berghof and it was completely eradicated after the war so nothing remained of the buildings.




Book Details:

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne
Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada    2015
215 pp.

Monday, July 4, 2016

White Sands, Red Menace by Ellen Klages

White Sands, Red Menace picks up the story of Dewey Kerrigan and Suze Gordon, post-World War II.The novel covers the span of approximately one year from May 12, 1946 to May 15, 1947.

It is May 12, 1946 and the United States has won the war in the Pacific, dropping two atomic bombs, which Dewey and Suze's parents helped to build, on cities in Japan. Casualties were in the hundreds of thousands and the public, including the scientists remain divided over the use of nuclear technology. Dewey continues to live with the Gordons who are now located in Alamogordo, New Mexico, a hour from the Mexican border and only sixty miles from the Trinity test site. The novel opens with Dewey and the Gordons driving to the White Sands Proving Grounds, a flat expanse of arid desert where the US government is testing the launch of the first American rocket launched into outer space.

The American army captured three hundred boxcars full of V-2 rocket parts along with the instructions, all written in German. The German scientists who were working on the rocket, including von Braun have been brought over to America to help the country build its own rockets. Dr. Gordon tells Dewey and Suze that this is the first rocket to travel straight up into the outer atmosphere. The launch is successful.

Meanwhile Dewey and Suze continue to develop their areas of interest: Dewey with building various machines and Suze with her art creations. In their shared bedroom, the two girls work on creating a wall of artwork and mechanical pieces that they name "the Wall".  In July, Dewey receives a cheque for three thousand dollars from her grandmother, Nana Gallucci's estate, plus her jewelry and her Nana's clothing. She also finds a picture of her grandparents and her father Jimmy Kerrigan and mother, Rita Gallucci Kerrigan when they much younger.

Suze's father continues to be very involved in the development of a rocket, while her mother works from home to stop further development of nuclear weapons. A chemist, her efforts are no longer needed by the military and she desperately wants to resume her career at Berkley. Longing for a connection to her mother, it is Suze's father who takes her to the desert to see the beautiful sunset and the stars. He tells her that he's going to be out at the base again for some time, involved in launch tests.

Over the course of the next year, Suze and Dewey make new friends. In August, Suze meets a girl, Ynez Esquero, from the southern part of Alamogordo which is primarily Mexican. This part of town is known as "Little Chihuahua" and the Hispanics are not allowed to live north of Tenth. Ynez is selling tamales which Suze discovers she really likes. Suze visits Ynez's home and learns that she wants to live in Hollywood some day. Ynez's mother, Dona Luisa, teaches Suze how to make tamales.

The school year starts and Dewey who is now attending Alamogordo High, is forced to take Home Economics and to repeat Algebra instead of being allowed to enroll in the grade nine trigonometry class. Dewey and Suze are in English, Social Science and Home Ec together. When a film is to be shown in Home Ec class, a boy named Owen Parker brings in the projector but has trouble getting things running. Dewey unobtrusively helps him and later on Owen helps her by taking her to his father's repair shop to teach her how to solder. Through the school year Dewey and Suze build new friendships while their own relationship becomes more secure. And as each face startling new situations to deal with, the true meaning of family is discovered.

Discussion

White Sands, Red Menace is a fitting conclusion to the story of Dewey and Suze and the beginning of the atomic age. Once again Klages does an excellent job recreating the setting for her novel - this time, life in postwar America, late 1940's.

The social and political fallout from the development of the atom bomb is shown throughout the novel. Sometimes the consequences are personal for Dewey and Suze, other times they are more indirect. For example Suze comes home one day to find her mother grieving over the death of a colleague, Lou Slotin who died from radiation sickness as a result of a plutonium accident.  Terry Gordon reveals to her daughter Suze that only the first hundred thousand casualties in Hiroshima where due to the actual bomb explosion. The rest died from radiation sickness like Slotin, which horrifies Suze. In Social Science class Suze confronts Mrs. McDonald telling her the government won't let the newspapers print the truth about Japan "because it might scare people and turn them against 'our new friend, the atom.' " When she tells the class what is really happening she is sent to the principal's office.

Klage uses a conversation between Dewey and Suze to hint at the hypocrisy of the American government in executing the remaining Nazi's at Nuremberg while not executing scientists like von Braun whose rockets killed thousands in Britain. Suze tells her, "My dad says it doesn't matter, 'cause we need 'em to teach our army how to work the controls and stuff." When the Gordons have one of von Braun's crew, Rudy Mueller and his son Kurt over for Thanksgiving Kurt tells Suze, Dewey and Owen how the Germans were able to use many "workers" to make so many rockets at Nordhausen.  Suze realizes that Kurt is referring to THE Nordhausen where the U.S. troops discovered the bodies of 3,000 slave laborers and where 20,000 slaves died making rocket parts. Suze realizes that if she knows, likely her dad and the other government scientists know too.

There's plenty of cultural references throughout the novel. For example, Dewey and Suze go to the theatre to see Tarzan and the Leopard Woman which starred Johnny Weissmuller and Brenda Joyce. The theatre also shows Spider Woman Strikes Back and the previews show the atomic bomb test at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific and Chapter Nine of Captain Midnight. In 1946 New Mexico, black children are not allowed to attend Alamogordo High and attain only a grade eight education. Obviously this will affect the types of employment available to black men and women. When Owen comes to visit Dewey he tells her about seeing a television in El Paso, Texas. In 1946 a ten inch television cost four hundred dollars. At this time there was no television station in El Paso but one in Los Angeles. He's certain that soon televisions will soon be sold.

The years immediately following the atomic bombing of Japan saw many products in the US marketed as "atomic" suggesting they had special abilities. Suze had expected her parents and the other scientists would be heroes for ending the war in the Pacific through the use of the atom bomb. However, when the world saw the damage done by the bombs, there were no celebrations, but America could not admit this. It would be unpatriotic. So Suze believes that instead American businesses try to minimize the harm of atomic technology by marketing it as beneficial to society.  "Songs, ads, comic -- everything was 'atomic' now, like just using the word would make stuff special? Atomic-like action! Who in their right mind wanted a cleanser that worked like the Bomb? It would blow up your sink, your kitchen, turn your whole neighborhood into ashes and rubble and radiation. Some way to clean."

Readers will get a good sense of the social norms of the post war era in which women had to conform to certain expectations. During the war, women worked in factories while men were overseas fighting but with the end of the war, society returns to the traditional roles expected of men and women. Men are to learn mechanical skills like welding and woodworking while women are expected to learn domestic skills like cooking and hygiene. Klage uses the character of Dewey who is different from most girls her age to show how difficult it was to fight the social norms of the times. Dewey will be in grade eight and wants to take shop but is told, "Oh no. Those are boys' classes." Instead she is forced to enroll in Home Economics. In fact Dewey is not even allowed to go into that part of the school only because she is a girl. She worries that not taking shop will affect her chance of attending MIT for engineering.

Klages portrayal of the relationship between Dewey and Suze is very realistic. The Gordon's have taken in Dewey when her father died. Dewey and Terry Gordon form a bond based on their love of science and the fact that they think in a similar way. This aspect of their relationship causes Suze to feel left out and jealous. Dewey seems to recognize this and tries to help Suze. When the girls have a fight over Dewey going to practice driving with Suze's mother, Suze finally admits to her friend, "I fee like an orphan. Dad's off with his rockets, and Mom's always busy." The fight leads Suze to talk to her mom about how she's feeling and her mother tells her,
 " 'I'm glad. Because I do love Dewey. As much as if she was your real sis--sibling. But that doesn't mean I love you any less. You know that, don't you?
'I guess so.'
'Oh, that was convincing.' She turned in her chair so they sat knee to knee. 'You're my daughter, no matter what. Always will be.
'Even though I don't like science much,' Suze said in a small voice. 'You're not disappointed I'm not more like you?' She paused, 'And Dewey.' "
Suze's mom reassures her of her love and tells Suze that she's more like her mom than she suspects. She shows Suze a picture of her and her friends, how she was tall like Suze at the same age and just as curious.

Dewey herself must also come to terms with the relationship between herself and her mother, who reappears in her life later in the novel. She learns the truth about her parents and why her mother left and she must make the difficult decision about what part her mother will play in her own life. In this regard Dewey is presented as a very mature fourteen year old who knows what her goals are and who is determined to achieve them. With the help of her best friend Suze, Dewey takes the unusual step of taking control of her own destiny.

There are a few historical facts peppered throughout the novel. For example Louis Slotin was a real historical figure, a Canadian physicist who worked to assemble the nuclear core of the Trinity bomb. Slotin died from a massive dose of neutron radiation when he accidentally caused a critical reaction to occur. The type of testing Slotin was involved in was called criticality testing and was considered very dangerous. Another historical fact is the McMahon Act which placed atomic research in the hands of the scientists removing it from military control.

White Sands, Red Menace is a fascinating read about the period of history just prior to the start of the Cold War. Klages offers a detailed Author's Note at the back which provides some further information and resources on the 1940's, the V-2 Rocket Program and the Atomic Bomb. Fans of historical fiction will really enjoy this novel about a little known era of American history.

Book Details:

White Sands, Red Menace by Ellen Klages
New York: Viking Press       2008
337 pp.