Saturday, October 29, 2016

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel

Every Hidden Thing is based on the the decades long feud between American two paleontologists, Edward Drinkwater Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh which took place in the middle of the 19th century. Their feud which became known as the "Bone Wars" saw both men attempt to outwit the other in the hunt for dinosaur fossils in the American Midwest. Their rivalry new no bounds and lasted until Cope's death in 1897. Canadian author Kenneth Oppel has used Marsh and Cope's rivalry as the basis for his story in Every Hidden Thing.

The story begins with Samuel Bolt's father, Professor Michael Bolt presenting his latest find at a meeting of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Bolt is a gentleman scientist without a university education but well respected as a self-taught paleontologist. Professor Bolt was the second to discover a dinosaur in America - a partial skeleton but enough that he could name it.

Also in attendance at this meeting is Professor Cartland from Yale. The self-taught Bolt is seen as an amateur by Cartland whose connections to Yale give him important status. It is at this meeting that Samuel meets the homely but highly intelligent Rachel Cartland, Professor Cartland's daughter, whom he finds most captivating. They spend a short time conversing, neither aware that the other is the child of their father's rival.

Bolt had been sent crates of bones by a dentist, Dr. Hawthorn of Kansas. From these bones, Bolt was able to reconstruct a skeleton of a large sea creature he named Elasmosaurus. However, during his presentation, Cartland informs Bolt and the audience that Bolt has erred in his reconstruction of the creature. He has placed the head of the Elasmosaurus on the wrong end, mistaking the long length of vertebrae as the tail when in fact it is the neck. Cartland picks up the skull and clicks it into place on the other end of the skeleton stating, "Which would indicate to me, Professor Bolt, that the tail is in fact the neck, and you have built your dinosaur backward, sir." This outrage leads to the two men brawling at the meeting.

The next morning Samuel discovers an unopened crate in his father's office. In the crate, Samuel and his father find the largest tooth they have ever seen as well as a note written nine weeks earlier by a fossil hunter named Edward (Ned) Plaskett. Plaskett writes that he located the large tooth northeast of Fort Crowe and is offering his services to help find the rest of the fossil. Samuel's father determines that a creature with such a large tooth would be bipedal and "of some fifty feet in length, whose height measured from the ground, would be in the area of thirty feet." Samuel believing this would be the king of dinosaurs leads his father to partially name it rex.

Professor Bolt wants to simply telegraph Plaskett that he is hired but Samuel argues they should travel to Fort Crowe to find the rex themselves. However, lack of money is a huge problem because Samuel's father has used up all the capital from the sale of his inheritance. Samuel takes the initiative and at a Quaker's meeting tells the men he feels called to find God's creatures buried in the ground. The men take up a collection and raise enough for the Bolts to launch an expedition.

Meanwhile Professor Cartland and Rachel are on their summer expedition to the Western Territories. The Cartlands will have an army escort, twelve paying Yale students as well as free rail passes from Union Pacific. At first Professor Cartland decided that Rachel would stay in New Haven with her Aunt Berton attending picnics, church socials and a debutante ball. Rachel wanted none of it; she wants to attend university and hunt fossils and the expedition offers her a chance to work towards that goal. When she's sent to her aunt, Rachel releases a snake in her aunt's bed and is sent home. With her father having no other alternative, Rachel joins him on the expedition.

Unbelievably Samuel and Rachel meet up at Omaha Station to take the Union Pacific train heading out west, although neither party knows the exact destination of the other. Samuel continues to be completely enamored with Rachel. Their fathers set them both to spying on one another to try to determine their plans.  One of the Yale students appears to reveal to Professor Bolt that the Cartland's expedition is traveling to North Platte. This leads Samuel to tell Rachel about the tooth they have been sent by Plaskett. However the Bolts soon discover that the Cartland's destination is the same when they get off the train in Crowe. To the frustration of the Bolts they discover that Cartland has bought up almost all the supplies. When they finally meet up with Plaskett, his rough appearance at first worries Professor Bolt but he is determined to help them get to the badlands. While the Cartland's are burdened with their thirty soldiers and the Yale students, Samuel and his father along with Plaskett and a driver named Hitch Powers set out for the badlands. Samuel and his father set up camp and begin exploring. But when Bolt discovers Cartland's expedition camped on the banks of the nearby river, he is furious and confronts Cartland. The two men agree that whoever finds a bone first owns the site which will be staked with a flag. The two men race to find the rex of dinosaurs against the backdrop of hostile Indians bent on recovering what was stolen from them. Meanwhile, Samuel and Rachel become increasingly infatuated with one another, leading them to make an outlandish choice to control their own destinies.

Discussion

Every Hidden Thing is a story loosely based on the intense rivalry between two American paleontologists in the mid to late 19th century. In the novel the rivalry is between two fictitious paleontologists, Professor Bolt and Professor Cartland, who are also loosely based on the real paleontologists, Edward Cope and O.C. Marsh. Other than their determination to find dinosaur fossils before the other and to quickly name them, Oppel's story is very much different. In the novel Professor Bolt's son Samuel is portrayed as having discovered the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton after having a vision resulting from a rattlesnake bite. In fact, both Cope and Marsh did discover pieces of the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the late 1890's but these pieces were not identified until much later in the 20th century. Although Cope married and had a child, Marsh never did.

Instead Oppel re-imagines the feud from the point of view of the two paleontologists' teenage children who form an alliance and eventually run off to get married. Samuel and Rachel share the storytelling in alternating narratives. The main strength of Oppel's story is the characters who are well drawn. Professor Bolt is described as a man who isn't "afraid to talk with his fists." Samuel describes his father as having a deranged look about him due to "his left eye had a slightly awkward angle to it..." Compared to Cartland, Bolt is a man with a bit more integrity who is deeply angered by Cartland's dishonest methods to obtain fossils. He appears more willing to respect the Indians than his rival.

Cartland is the most vile of the characters, stealing from just about anyone he can. He is described as short and "solid as a potbellied stove" with "sparse hair" and a mustache.  Rachel mentions that her father has a "rather unfortunate verbal tic of saying 'yes yes' in the midst of his sentences. And it rarely meant he agreed with you." He doesn't support Rachel's ambition to attend university and become a scientist. He's bought off his rivals so they can supply him with information on fossil finds and has blocked Bolt's papers from being published. Cartland shows profound disrespect for the indigenous people of the plains when he desecrates an Indian burial site, chopping the heads off the bodies to take back for research. Thoroughly in a rage when he discovers his daughter has married Samuel Bolt, Cartland attempts to kidnap his daughter.

Samuel is portrayed as an awkward teen definitely not comfortable with his changing body. He is determined to make Rachel both trust and like him so he tells her about the large tooth fossil.  Rachel describes Samuel as being "tall, with a mop of wavy, coarse hair. He looked like one of those puppies that hadn't grown into its body yet but gave all the signs of its full size to come..." Samuel sees Rachel as a potential wife and partner, working together to hunt fossils and do research but he's confused by her lack of feeling towards him.

Rachel is not considered attractive and she knows it, often focusing on how she is rarely complimented about her appearance. "But without a mother I was never told I had lovely hair or a pleasing figure or striking eyebrows..." Samuel's compliment that she has "the most extraordinary eyes." make her feel special. She's also described by Samuel as being unromantic, "She was like a fortress. Impenetrable."  Rachel is determined to attend university even marrying Samuel in the hopes of achieving this goal despite not wanting to marry.

Having a background in geology, this novel initially seemed very intriguing. However as the story progressed I found Samuel's description of how his body responds to Rachel  offputting. Samuel Bolt unabashedly narrates what happens to his body in a way that most readers really don't want to know. When he first meets Rachel Cartland, despite her being somewhat unattractive Samuel narrates how he becomes aroused. Why we have to know this I'm not sure. When the two elope and end up in a hotel room on their wedding night, the reader is subjected to a three page detailed account of their struggles and awkwardness, again probably something most teens really don't want to read about. Their blossoming romance in spite of the violent rivalry between their fathers plays on the much used Romeo and Juliet trope.

In contrast, Oppel's descriptions of the badlands welcome and colourful. "The steep slopes showed all their ancient layers -- tawny, black, gray, red -- like the diagrams in Father's geology books...Some of the stepped buttes looked like Mayan temples. There were gaunt castles. Archways and spires of a great Gothic cathedral..." When they arrive in the badlands Samuel narrates, "It was surprisingly lush along the brown, slow-curving river lined with cottonwoods and tall grass and flowers. In the sun's low evening light, the stone was rich yellow and peach and purple. The wind made a pleasant dry rustle in the cottonwoods." The ravines are described with equal eloquence: "The ground was scattered with rocks of all shapes and sizes, gray basalt and pink granite and yellowy limestone and great speckled silver hunks and creamy pebbles, all broken and crushed by glaciers and rounded and smoothed by rivers over thousands of years. There were green sage and spiky cactus and clumps of perfectly spherical deer droppings."

I'd love to recommend this novel which would probably be of interest to younger teens but I feel Samuel's wedding night narrative and the whole elopement subplot really distracts from the overall story. If you are interested in Tyrannosaurus rex and the rivalry between Cope and Marsh check out the resources listed below and spare yourself the unsavory descriptions that mar what would otherwise have been a really good novel. Hopefully another author will make an attempt to portray this interesting rivalry in a way that will be more informative and less sensational than Every Hidden Thing.

Paleontology: The Truth About T. Rex

This talk is about Tyrannosaurus rex held at Alberta's Tyrell Museum.




You can learn much more about the real Bone Wars by watching the short documentary, Dinosaur Wars on the PBS show, American Experience. The PBS website has detailed information on the rivalry between Cope and Marsh as well as information about viewing the documentary.

Book Details:

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel
Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.    2016
361 pp.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom

Not If I See You First is Eric Lindstrom's debut novel, about a young blind teen who discovers that there are more ways to be blind than just not being able to see. As she discovers this she learns about forgiveness, reconciliation and second chances.

High school junior, Parker Grant lives in the town of Coastview  with her Aunt Celia and her Uncle and her cousins, Sheila who attends the same high school, and Petey who is only eight years old. Parker lost her sight when she was seven years old as a result of a car accident that killed her mother and tore her optic nerves. Then three months ago Parker found her father dead on his bedroom floor. Because a bottle of Xanax was found in his room, the insurance company denied Parker his life insurance benefit and she lost the house to her Aunt Celia. To help Parker adjust to the loss of her father, her aunt and uncle moved in but the adjustment has been difficult for all.

Parker attends John Quincy Adams High School. There used to be another high school, Jefferson, but it closesd, o Adams is now jammed with new students including Parker's long ago ex-boyfriend Scott Kilpatrick. Parker and Scott had been best friends since grade four. In grade eight they became boyfriend-girlfriend. One day during lunch they went to an empty classroom and while they were kissing, unknown to Parker, they were being watched by Scott's friends. Seven boys in all. Parker fled the room and had her dad pick her up from school. Scott tried to explain to her what happened and kept calling her. He tried to tell Parker he was sorry but she refused to talk to him. If he was in the same class as her she ignored him and eventually they both graduated and went to different high schools. Now Scott is attending Adams.

At the start of the new school year, Parker has been assigned a new buddy, Molly who will help her get around the school. Unlike many visually impaired people, Parker does not wear sun glasses but instead wears a scarf wrapped around her head, covering her eyes. Since going blind Parker has a list of eleven rules, the most important being "Rule #1: Don't deceive me. Ever. Especially using my blindness. Especially in public." and "Rule #INFINITY: There are NO second chances. Violate my trust and I'll never trust you again. Betrayal is unforgivable."

After dinner that night, Parker's best friend Sarah calls her and reveals to her that Scott Kilpatrick, "Parker Enemy Number One" was in her Trig class that day and that he may try to apologize to her again. However, Parker simply steels herself and tells Sarah she will just ignore him. 

On a shopping trip to the mall to get a new pair of running shoes, Parker meets a nice sales clerk named Jason Freeborn. Parker is attracted to Jason who is a senior at Adams because he treats her like a normal person. Several days later Parker meets Coach Underhill who explains how she can run using a guide. After doing a trial run on the grass the coach tells Parker that she's fast and that means she will have a hard time finding a guide who can keep up with her.

As the days go by Parker learns that Scott seems to still care about her. When she takes a nasty fall on the field after working with Coach Underhill  she learns from Molly that Scott was one of the first over to see that she if she was hurt. When out on a date with Jason, he tells her that Scott was the one who intervened when two guys were harassing her at school and stole her phone. This leads Parker to text Scott and ask him why he did what he did to her in grade eight and what he was trying to tell her back then. He tells her the truth of what happened in Ms. Kincaid's classroom four years ago. Scott also tells her that he hopes she never forgives him and that he stopped making excuses for what he did. He tells her that he did the unforgivable.

Discussion

Not If I See You First chronicles the journey sixteen year old Parker Grant undergoes during her junior year as she is forced to confront the reappearance in her life of the boy who was her best friend and her first love. She lost that friend because she rushed to judge what he'd done without fully listening to his side of the story. She made the decision to never to forgive him and this decision has a profound effect on her life because Parker loses her ability to trust people.  But while Parker continues to ignore him after he reappears in her life she discovers that he still cares for her. And this makes her question what happened and her decision not to forgive him. Suspecting she might be missing the truth of what really happened that day she reaches out to him and discovers something about herself in the process.

Parker is still angry at her ex-boyfriend Scott Kilpatrick for what happened when they were thirteen years old. When she learns he is now attending Adams, Parker tells best friend Sarah what what he did was unforgivable. "I'll say fuck you Scott Kilpatrick and your sad little story about being a stupid kid. When people do dumbass things everyone has to live with the consequences..."

But a series of events with her new boyfriend Jason, with Scott, with her cousin Sheila and with best friend Sarah make Parker realize that she has become so focused on herself that she has become blind to what is happening in the lives of those around her.  Parker learns from Molly and Jason that Scott has been watching over her and has unknowingly come to help her several times. Unsettled over Scott's concern for her, Parker decides she needs to know his side of the story and she texts him. She discovers that he did not set her up when his friends caught them kissing and that he cared only about her that day, running after her to try to explain. Then Sarah breaks up with her boyfriend Rick but she won't tell Parker much about what happened, leading Parker to realize that they almost never talk about Sarah's life. When Sheila comes to pick up Parker at school she has music playing loudly in the car. This supremely annoys Parker until she discovers that Sheila is doing this to cover up her crying. When she tries to apologize Sheila angrily tells her that the world does not revolve around her and her problems. Parker admits to knowing this but Sheila accuses her of not really understanding. "I hear the words but everything else tells me you don't know. Yeah, you got big problems...You really are blind! You can't see you're not the center of the universe! That other people have lives and things happen to them all the time and you know nothing about it!...You just don't care. Say whatever you want but in your head it is all about you. Except it isn't, Parker. It really, really isn't."

Parker has always acted as though she is sure of everything around her because she feels she can't trust anyone but herself. She recognizes why she does this: she pretends to be sure of everything because the alternative is much scarier. "I know why I'm so sure of everything all the time; it's because I can't stomach the alternative, that I can't be sure of anything ever....the hard truth is clear. I was wrong about pretty much everything that happened in this car ride. And if I let myself think about it, I might be wrong about a lot of other things too.

She was so sure of what happened years ago in that classroom that she never considered maybe she didn't know what really happened. Now suspecting this might be the case with Sarah, Parker decides to talk to her best friend. Sarah tells Parker that Scott still loves her despite the way Parker has treated him.She knows this because of how he looks at her. Sarah realizes that Rick has never looked at her the way Scott still looks at Parker and this leads her to want more out of a relationship with a boy. She tells Parker this because she knows Parker can't see Scott's reactions. When Rick surprises Sarah by being very upset over their break-up Sarah wonders how badly Scott must have felt when Parker dumped him. This is something Parker never thought about because she was so wrapped up in her own feelings. Parker comes to the realization that the person she's always been is not someone who's very good.

When she confronts Scott to admit her mistake she tells him that it seems like "Everyone is a secret. There's no way to know what's in anyone's head." but Scott tells her "People are full of things you don't know but that doesn't mean they're secrets; you just don't know everything yet." When she asks if they can be friends again Scott declines because he believes he has permanently broken Parker's trust, an important characteristic of a true friendship.

Parker tries to convince Scott that she wants to be friends again and that she is able to trust him. However Scott is having none of it because she's a person who doesn't trust and he can't imagine her as someone who does. The Parker Scott now knows is the one who tells a fellow student during one of her "relationship advice sessions" with Sarah that getting back with an old boyfriend won't work,
" The point is...if he wasn't happy before, why would he be happy now? Either he's changed or he's hoping you have. Have you changed?"
"I don't think so."
"He hasn't either, sorry to tell you. People don't change. They just learn from experience and become better actors."

Despite Parker's efforts to convince Scott that she feels differently about him now that she knows the truth of what happened, Scott is unwilling to be more than just friends. Scott also has trust issues. Like Parker who thought Scott was someone who would betray her, Scott believes Parke is someone who would just throw a "friendship away in an instant, and...just bail without even a word." Parker understands that Scott can't trust her because she didn't trust him but she tells Scott that "...trust needs proof." Parker forces Scott to make a choice: either he is her boyfriend and he continues doing the things he's been doing to look out for her, or he is not and he has to stop watching out for her.

Lindstrom has crafted and entire set of realistic, believable teen characters in his novel. Parker Grant is completely blind (something Lindstrom does mention as usual as most people with visual impairment can see some light or shadows) but she's no stereotype. That much is evident from the very beginning of the novel when she is portrayed as a person known for speaking her mind and not caring how others feel. Parker describes herself at the beginning of the novel as "I'm the reigning queen of not giving a shit..."  She's not a nice person. When she is nasty to the boy in Trig class she states, "The silence that follows is the perfect example of the thing I love most about being blind: not seeing how people react to what I say." She has an attitude, she's self-centered and as Trish describes her later in the book, she's a "Blind Bitch".  But Parker's struggles to come to terms with several tragedies in her life make her an endearing character too.

Not If I See You First is a brilliant debut novel for Lindstrom and marks him as an author to watch for in the future.

Book Details:

Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom
New York: Little, Brown and Company      2015
310 pp.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

DVD: The Man Who Knew Infinity

The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the amazing story of Srinivas Ramanujan, a very gifted mathematician who made astonishing contributions to the analytical theory of numbers in the field of mathematics. The movie is based on the book, The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel. In the movie, Ramanujan is portrayed by actor Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire).

Ramanujan was born December 22, 1887 in Erode, Madras Presidency in the British Raj. When Ramanujan was a small child he did not like attending school. He became interested in mathematics while attending Town High School where he came across a book, Synopsis of elementary results in pure mathematics by G.S. Carr. He was able to teach himself mathematics using this textbook. In 1904, Ramanujan attended Government College in Kumbakunan on a scholarship. However he lost his scholarship the following year because he devoted all his time to the study of mathematics and very little to other subjects. Eventually he left Government College and in 1906 he entered Pachaiyappa's College in Madras with the intention of passing the First Arts Examination so that he could attend the University of Madras. He failed the examination because he was only able to pass the mathematics portion of the exam and dropped out of school. Despite this, Ramanujan continued to work on mathematics; in 1908 he worked on continued fractions and divergent series and in 1911 he published a paper on Bernoulli numbers in the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society. This paper gained him the reputation as a mathematical genius in the Madras area. At this time in his life Ramanujan was struggling to survive as he had no paying job. He had married a ten year old girl, Jannaki Ammal in 1909 but they did not live together for several years.

Ramanujan was well known to many mathematicians in the Madras area and he was finally able to obtain employment as clerk in 1912 at the Madras Port Trust. In fact, the Chief Accountant for the Madras Port Trust was a trained mathematician and he clearly recognized Ramanujan's abilities. Eventually Ramanujan's work came to the attention of  G.H. Hardy, a resident at Trinity College, Cambridge when he received a letter from him in early 1913. Ramanujan had contacted various other professors in England without much success. However Hardy was most interested. Ramanujan's letter contained a long list of unproven theorems and Hardy wanted some proofs. Ramanujan desperately wanted to travel to England but he required a scholarship to do so. With Hardy's help he was able to obtain a scholarship for two years from the University of Madras and travelled to England from India in 1914.

Srinivas Ramanujan
The Man Who Knew Infinity picks up Ramanujan's story in 1914 just before he leaves Madras for England. Dev Patel is cast as Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy is played by Jeremy Irons. This casting gives viewers the sense that Hardy was a much older mentor to the younger Ramanujan but in fact there was only ten years between the two men. The film beautifully portrays the gradual friendship and mutual respect that develops between these two men from vastly different cultures over the span of five years. In fact it is this wonderful capturing of the deep relationship between these two brilliant men that makes this movie so rewarding. At the beginning, Hardy is somewhat gruff and professional and it is the kindly encouragement of Hardy's colleague, John Littlewood that helps Ramanujan. But Hardy's open mindedness and his willingness to recognize the genius of Ramanujan and to help him, form the basis of a deep friendship and working partnership. Despite their common love of theoretical mathematics, Ramanujan and Hardy were very different. Ramanujan was a deeply religious man, a Brahmin who was a vegetarian. In contrast, Hardy was an atheist, who states in the movie that he doesn't believe in anything he can't prove. In a scene from early in the movie, Ramanujan questions Hardy for walking with an umbrella in bright sunshine. Hardy responds that "God and I don't exactly see eye to eye." but Ramanujan tells him "No sir. You believe in God. You just don't think He likes you." When asked by Hardy (and others) where he got his ideas, he often stated that they came from God. "You want to know how I get my ideas? God speaks to me...An equation for me has no meaning unless it represents a thought of God." Hardy works tirelessly to get Ramanujan elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and as a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge. When Ramanujan decides to return to India and they say goodbye, Hardy tells Ramanujan he wants a letter each week with a new idea. The two men are now close friends and Hardy seems at a loss over Ramanujan's departure. Overlaying this scene is a sense that Hardy will never see him again in this life.
Ramanujan (centre) with fellow Trinity students.
https://goo.gl/images/VE1KSy

The film portrays Hardy's efforts along with his colleague John Edensor Littlewood (who is played by Toby James) to give Ramanujan the mathematical training he needs. Hardy is seen relentlessly insisting that Ramanujan must provide proofs of his theorems. Meanwhile, Ramanujan seeming to sense he is running out of time, is determined to see his work published.

In fact as World War I dragged on and the vegetables Ramanujan often ate became scarce his health began to suffer. Ramanujan had previously been ill in India and in 1917 he became seriously ill in England. In the movie, he is seen frequently visiting the medical tents set up on campus for the injured soldiers sent back from the front in Europe. The film suggests that Ramanujan was thought to have tuberculosis, although the diagnosis of exactly what was wrong with him was never fully determined.

The Man Who Knew Infinity captures the historical period well, providing viewers with a sense of the obstacles Ramanujan faced upon arriving at Trinity, and the struggles his fellow mathematicians had in understanding and accepting him. Two mathematicians, Ken Ono and Manjul Bhargava were involved in the making of the film to ensure the mathematics was accurately portrayed. The movie was ten years in the making and premiered at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival. Well worth the wait and definitely worth viewing.



This short biography of Srinivasa Aiyangar Ramanujan from the MacTutor  History of Mathematics website is worth reading.

As shown in the movie and stated near the end, Ramanujan left a number of books and manuscripts containing his ideas and theorems, all of which have since been proven. Work on his ideas continues to this day as this article from Science Daily explains. This more recent article from + plus Magazine: Living Mathematics 2015 is also quite interesting.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Fatty Legs: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton

Fatty Legs is the first of two books written by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton based on her personal experience in one of Canada's residential schools in Canada's far north. Margaret who was born Olemaun Pokiak, belonged to the Inuvialuit, or Canadian Western Inuit who inhabit the western Arctic. Olemaun had made the trip to Aklavik several times with her father when she was quite young. She was fascinated by the French-speaking nuns and priests. When her older half-sister, Ayouniq - called Rosie by the nuns, read part of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Olemaun, she became determined to attend the school and learn to read.

But Ayouniq warns her younger sister that life in the school is not as she imagines it will be. Her beautiful long braid will be cut and she will have to do chores and kneel for forgiveness. When Olemaun asks her father to send her to the school he refuses. Although he knows how to read he doesn't value the learning taught in the school over the skills learned at home. But Olemaun believes her experiences at the school will be different. Her persistence pays off and Olemaun is allowed to attend the school. Like those before her, Olemaun finds herself completely unprepared for life in the residential school at Aklavik. Even worse, she finds herself stranded there for an extra year when the ice does not fully melt.


Discussion

Fatty Legs is based on Olemaun Margaret Pokiak-Fenton's childhood and her first two years in a residential school in Aklavik. Olemaun's father had warned her the outsiders will offer her no new skills and that their ways are not useful to the Inuit. "They make you wear their scratchy outsiders' clothes, which keep out neither the mosquitoes nor the cold. They teach you their songs and dances instead of your own. And they tell you that the spirit inside of you is bad and needs their forgiveness."  Olemaun is so keen to attend the school that she successfully argues against her father. Her initial enthusiasm is quickly dampened when she leaves her parents and is taken by the nuns. From the moment she enters the care of the nuns, her First Nations identity is broken down. Olemaun has her hair cut along with the other new girls and their beautifully handcrafted clothing, warm and suitable for the far North climate is removed and replaced with uncomfortable, ill-fitting clothing that is not warm. And the nuns are less than friendly.

Margaret Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton
To convey how the Aboriginal children viewed the nuns, the authors use adjectives that portray the religious nuns as cruel, predatory animals. The nuns are described as "the spectacle of dark-cloaked nuns, whose tongues flickered with French-Canadian accents" evoking a image of snakes or reptiles.  Olemaun is met inside the school by a nun who is description reads like a predatory bird; "An outsider with a hooked nose like a beak came for me, her scraping footsteps echoing through the long, otherwise silent halls."  Olemaun describes the nun who cuts her braids off in the same way, "I can fix my own hair," I protested in Inuvialuktun, but she held tight and, with the same motion a bird makes to pull a piece of flesh from a fish, clamped the jaws of shears down on my braid and severed it."  When Olemaun goes to put on the stockings her mother has purchased for her they are snatched from her by a nun "with a scaly claw."  But Olemaun's true nemesis is a hook-nosed nun she nicknames " the Raven".  The Raven "shrieks" , cackles and "scuttles" around the girls mocking Olemaun for using shaving cream to clean her teeth.

But not all the nuns are remembered as cruel. Margaret Pokiak-Fenton describes the head nun in very different terms. "A tall slender nun appeared in the doorway. She was pale and seemed to float across the bathroom floor...She looked like a pale swan, long and elegant." That nun was Sister MacQuillan. When the Raven is about to strike Olemaun for spilling her cabbage soup on her, "Then Sister MacQuillan glided between us, the Swan protecting me with her gentle wing." The Raven frequently singled Olemaun out for extra chores as she was "wilful" and had a strong character. To further punish Olemaun, the Raven makes her wear red stockings that make her well muscled legs look large. This leads to her classmates laughing at her and calling Olemaun "fatty legs". But Olemaun figures out a way to get rid of the stockings forever and it is Sister MacQuillan who understands.

Liz Amini-Holmes' artwork reinforces the dark nature of the nuns with their ghastly white faces set off by their dark habits and widows peak caps. At times the nuns look like vampires and in this respect,  the artwork seems a bit overdone.

Young readers, whom this book is geared towards, will quickly understand why Olemaun and the other Aboriginal children did not like the residential schools. These schools were designed by the white Canadians who lived in the south and who did not understand the particular character of the far North climate nor the ways and culture of the peoples who lived there. Their intentions were to educate the children and to assimilate them, the first a noble goal but the second a definite product of the belief that white Western culture was the only culture of merit. The effect of the schools on the children is demonstrated by Olemaun when she returns to her family after only two years. Her mother doesn't recognize her, she finds their food greasy, salty and strong smelling.

The authors round out this short biography with a chapter about the residential schools and a wonderful section titled Olemaun's Scrapbook which contains plenty of fascinating black and white photographs of her family, of the towns her family visited, the residential school in Aklavik, the students and the nuns and brothers at the school and Catholic mission in the North West Territories and many more interesting subjects.


You can learn more about Inuvialuit culture from the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation website.

The Canadian Museum of History also has a good section on Inuvialuit history that has been pieced together from various sources including traditional oral histories, archaeological research and the writings of those who lived and explored the far north.

A second book, A Stranger At Home was published in 2011 and is the sequel to Fatty Legs.

Book Details:

Fatty Legs: A true story by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Toronto: Annick Press   2010
104 pp.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Another Me by Eva Wiseman

Another Me is a story set in 14th century Strasbourg, France during the time when the bubonic plague was spreading throughout Europe. The spread of bubonic plague throughout the region led to many pogroms in various cities. This was because Jews were believed to be poisoning the wells used by non-Jews in the city. News from Bern and Zofingen that Jews had confessed under torture to poisoning the wells there, led some of the citizens of Strasbourg to suspect the Jewish population of their city too. However, the Jews in Strasbourg were under the protection of the Catholic church and the city which they paid a high fee in return for protection.

Sadly, ignorance about the cause of bubonic plague which was spread by rats and poor hygiene and determination by the butcher and tanner's guilds to rid Strasbourg of the Jewish population resulted in the massacre of two thousand Jews on February 14, 1349. This event is recounted near the end of Wiseman's novel.

The story opens in October 1348 with seventeen year old Natan folding the used clothing his father had purchased and placing them into the cart so they can be taken to Drapers' Row to be sold. The drapers then turned the used clothing into luxurious garments for the wealthy. It is almost Shabbos (Sabbath) and Natan's father has not returned with his cart from the drapers, so Natan and his younger brother Shmuli set out to find their father. Traveling down Judenstrasse, the Street of the Jews and across town to Draper's Row they fail to find their father. Eventually they find their father in the lane behind their house, badly beaten, his leg broken.

After arguing with his parents, Natan's father reluctantly agrees to allow him to take the cart but only to Wilhelm's shop in the center of Draper's Row. When they enter Draper's Row a boy steals some clothing from their cart. When they chase him, Natan meets Elena who is the daughter of Wilhelm the draper who tells them to let the boy go. Almost immediately Hans, who is Wilhelm's journeyman-apprentice appears, asking Elena if she requires any help. When Natan informs Wilhelm of his father's accident, the master draper consoles him and gives Natan a gold coin.

After helping to unload Natan's cart, Elena invites him in for a tankard of ale, against the wishes of their cook, Vera. Back home, Natan finds himself completely smitten with the draper's beautiful blue-eyed Elena. Fortunately for Natan he is sent back to the drapers to purchase some red yard so his mother can finish a beautiful tapestry she is working on. Elena and Natan manage to spend a few moments alone before they are interrupted by Hans. Elena arranges to meet Natan in the lane behind their house at eleven o'clock. Natan returns that night and spends the entire night in Elena's kitchen talking. The two meet several times every week into November.

In November of 1348, Natan decides to meet Elena at the city well. His mother warns him that she has heard about a letter from from the city of Bern which tells of the plague having arrived in the city and that the Jews were accused, arrested and tortured into confessing that they had poisoned the city wells.She tells Natan that Rabbi Weltner's brother has written to warn them that they same thing might happen in Strasbourg. When Natan heads to the well he finds a mob attacking a Jewish moneylender. Natan recognizes Hans who is attempting to stop the attack and tells him to get Wilhelm. When Natan attempts to intervene, he is knocked unconscious.

Natan regains consciousness and learns that he is resting at the home of Elena and her father, after having been carried there. Natan spends several days at their home recovering and then decides to return home but before he leaves he overhears Hans proposing to Elena. She refuses him telling Hans that her heart belongs to another.

One day in February of 1349 Natan receives an urgent message from Elena to meet him at her home. She tells Natan that she has overheard her father talking to the Ammeister, Peter Schwarber. Schwarber told Elena's father that at an assembly in the Alsace region, delegates from the cities of Bern and Zofingen stated that Jews in their cities confessed to poisoning the wells, causing an outbreak of the plague. These delegates managed to convince those from Basel and Freiburg that they should kill all the Jews in their cities. Elena tells Natan that Schwarber refused but she doubts his sincerity because he has ordered the city well covered.

On his way home, Natan secretly discovers three men dumping garbage into the well. When they attempt to throw a cat into the well, it escapes and reveals Natan hiding in the shadows. Kaspar the butcher grabs Natan recognizing him as the boy who tried to save the Jewish moneylender. When Natan threatens to tell the Ammeister the truth about who poisoned the well Kasper murders Natan so that their deed will remain a secret. But in a surprising twist, Natan may be able to fulfill his intention to save the Jews of Strasbourg from certain death once the poisoned well has been discovered.

Discussion

Wiseman makes use of a belief in Judaism that involves transmigration of the soul. In Another Me, Natan becomes an ibbur which Rabbi Weltner explains as occurring "when a righteous person's soul take up residence in another's body." In Natan's case, his soul has migrated into the body of Hans, hence the title "Another Me". As to why this has happened, Weltner explains to Natan that "It happens when someone's time here on this earth ends before he can fulfill a promise or complete a task important to our people." The rabbi believes that it is Natan's task to warn the Ammeister that the accusations against the Jews of Strasbourg are false.  And so Natan with the help of Elena sets out to try to accomplish this in Hans body. The rabbi warns Natan and Elena about telling her father the truth of what has happened to Hans and Natan but he agrees to accompany Natan to talk to his parents.

Thus through the eyes of Natan/Hans we learn the fate of the Jews of Strasbourg. The horrific massacre is presented in to young readers in unflinching detail. "When we got to the cemetery, we saw that several huge wooden platforms had been built over the graves. Beside them were piles and piles of firewood. Our masters drove us up the platforms like cattle...Finally Kasper lit the wood around the first platform. Schwarber lit the second and third, until the fire spread to all the platforms. Soon, the sound of screams and the stench of roasting flesh filled the air."

Painting of the pogrom of 1349 by Emile Schweitzer
Wiseman is able to portray the reality for the Jewish citizens of Strasbourg in the 14th century. The Christians of Strasbourg and other cities throughout medieval Europe had placed numerous restrictions on Jewish citizens. They often had to wear identifying badges so that Christians like Elena did not become unknowingly involved in an intimate way with Jews, something that was forbidden. Certain occupations were forbidden to them and they could not own land. Instead most Jews were involved in commerce and banking, often as moneylenders. They were often difficult to deal with but this was likely because they were forced to pay large taxes for protection by the city and in turn passed these large fees onto their clients who then complained about them. Many Jews were threatened to either convert and be baptised or to face expulsion from their cities. When the plague broke out in the mid-14th century the Jewish people were blamed. This was due to the many superstitious beliefs that persisted about the Jewish people. It was thought they were poisoning the city wells but this accusation made no sense because they too used the same wells. Fewer Jews contracted the plague likely because of their ritual hand washing upon arising in the morning and before meals but this only made Christians suspicious. During Natan's meeting with the Ammeister and the councilors, the superstition based on misunderstanding and ignorance is portrayed. "The Jews don't die from the pestilence like the rest of us," Adolf said. "That's true," Felix the barber replied. "It is said that they die at half the rate we do. I have heard they made a pact with the devil to protect themselves." Despite this pervasive superstition Pope Clement VI issued several bulls repudiating the superstitious beliefs of Christians and asserting the humanity and dignity of the Jewish citizens in Europe.

Wiseman accurately portrays the ignorance and superstition of people in the 14th century regarding illness. Medicine in this century was largely based on superstition and very strange ideas. For example when her father takes ill, Elena decides she needs to get the surgeon because "Everybody knew that bloodletting worked miracles." Bloodletting using leeches or cutting remained a choice treatment for almost two thousand years and was practiced into the 18th and 19th centuries.  It was based on the concept that blood and other fluids which together were called "humours" needed to be balanced. Elena tells Natan that the surgeon will "balance Papa's humors and restore his health."  When the surgeon arrives he tells Elena that "Bloodletting will reduce the hotness of his blood."

Readers see how the citizens of Strasbourg dealt with the Black Death. Homes of those sick with the plague had a red cross painted on the door and no one was allowed in or out. During this time there were so many sick that the streets were deserted. Elena finds the parish priest dead in the church. Everyday corpse bearers with their death cart traveled through the streets calling for people to bring out their dead. The dead were so numerous that they were buried in pits outside the city walls and no one was allowed near the pits.

In spite of all this trouble Another Me has a tender subplot of two star-crossed lovers, the Jew Natan and the Christian Elena. If Natan had lived they would never have been allowed to marry as marriage between Jews and Christians was forbidden. His return as an ibbur is temporary although Elena does not know this at the time. She struggles to come to terms with Natan in Hans body which she finds disgusting. But just as she learns to love him once again Elena must face losing her beloved Natan all over again when he leaves the body of Hans.

Another Me is a short historical novel about a little remembered pogrom and an era of history dominated by misunderstanding, ignorance and superstition.

For information about the relationship and history of early Christians with the Jews and Judaism readers are directed to The Church and the Jews in the Middle Ages by Thomas Madden.

Book Details:

Another Me by Eva Wiseman
Northern New York: Tundra Books     2016
233 pp.



Monday, October 10, 2016

Take The Fall by Emily Hainsworth

Take The Fall seeks to solve the murder of Gretchen Meyer. Sonia Feldman finds herself running for her life after being attacked in the woods near her house while walking home from her best friend Gretchen Meyer's house. Frantic, out of breath and terrified, she stumbles into her Uncle's diner where her mother and her Aunt Dina are finishing up for the day. Soon Sheriff Woods and Deputy Amir Rashid are there questioning Sonia. Not long after Deputy Robson gets the call - Gretchen has been found dead.

Over the course of the next few weeks Sonia struggles to come to terms with her best friend's death while at the same time trying to figure out who killed her. Sonia lives in the town of Hidden Falls where she attends Hurlburt High School. Her best friends are Gretchen Meyer, Haley Jacobs and Aisha Wallace who have known each other since kindergarten. However, sometime in middle school Gretchen became much closer to Sonia; they often had sleepovers and took Sonia on family vacations. Gretchen is the daughter of Carlton Meyer, the wealthy owner of a tech company.

Gretchen's latest ex-boyfriend, Marcus Perez is brought in for questioning. Gretchen's car is missing and the police have found signs of a struggle at the falls. Marcus is released as he has an alibi. Sonia tells Sheriff Wood that she drove Gretchen home from Brianne Prashad's party at around 11 pm. During the party, Gretchen fought with her younger sister Kirsten but Sonia doesn't know what caused the fight. They left Kirsten drunk at the party. Sonia tells Wood that they did not talk during the short drive home, something Wood finds surprising considering the two girls are best friends. When Wood tells Sonia that Gretchen called her home at 11:04pm, Sonia tells him no call was made from the car. After parking the car, Sonia ran into Haley Jacobs walking her dog. She saw Gretchen go into her house and then she started through the park to her home.

On the following Monday, Sonia returns to school against the wishes of her mother. She wants to go back to school so she can begin forming a suspect list. She learns that Gretchen's parents surprised an intruder in her room before she was listed as missing and that Carlton Meyer is offering a fifty thousand dollar reward for any information leading to the arrest of the person who murdered Gretchen. Marcus shows up at Sonia's Uncle Noah's diner after school but is thrown out. He tells her that he wants to help her find whoever killed Gretchen because he believes the police are still trying to pin her murder on him. Sonia is conflicted over helping Marcus because she has Gretchen's SD card which shows Marcus furious and wishing she was dead. At school the next day, Marcus confronts Sonia begging her to hear him out, but he ends up getting into a fight with Kip, another Gretchen ex-boyfriend. The day does not end well for Sonia either as someone places a picture of her and Gretchen into her locker with Sonia's scratched out.  She decides to confront Marcus over the picture but when she does he denies having anything to do with this. Instead Marcus works at trying to convince Sonia to help him search for Gretchen's killer so that he can clear his name. He admits that his alibi isn't any good because his grandmother was asleep when he arrived home but she lied to the sheriff. Sonia decides to work with Marcus, to compare their lists of potential suspects. But as Sonia talks to classmates she reveals just how manipulative Gretchen was and that any one of them could have been responsible.  But she also reveals to Marcus the true identity of Gretchen's killer forcing Sonia to make the most important decision of her life.


Discussion

Take The Fall is a murder mystery that opens with a punch. It seems that Sonia Feldman has been attacked by the same person who also murdered her best friend Gretchen Meyer. This is the assumption made at the beginning of the book by all the characters. A second assumption, that the ex-boyfriend, Marcus Perez whose parents are addicts is the killer is also made.  However, close reading reveals that all is not as it seems. The biggest clue offered is the flawed timeline given by Sonia to Sheriff Wood who never seems to catch on. Sheriff Wood never seems to question Sonia much other than interviewing her the night of the murder and the next day. But the facts should make him at the very least curious and they don't. Sonia drops Gretchen off at her house, giving her friend the car keys and proceeds to walk through the park towards her home. In her account, Sonia is accosted at the bridge by someone but manages to escape out of the park. By her own admission she arrives at the diner only minutes after dropping Gretchen off, bruised and scratched. Gretchen's body is found shortly afterwards in the water beneath Hidden Falls. But according to Sonia's timeline there are twenty-five minutes unaccounted for. Their houses are on opposite sides of the park, not close enough to be seen without the leaves on the trees but likely not axtwenty-five minute walk.

With no clear suspect, Wood never turns his attention back to Sonia. When all the potential suspects can produce alibis, Wood never comes back to question Sonia who was the only person in the park at that time, who has evidence of being in some kind of struggle and who has no alibi. Added to this are several serious weaknesses in the story:  Gretchen's body is never tested for DNA evidence (at least it's never brought up in the story) and there is no mention of an autopsy. Sonia who has been in some kind of altercation with an unknown person also never undergoes any forensic exam such testing for DNA on her arms and under her fingernails. In fact Sheriff Wood seems perpetually reluctant to undertake ANY forensic testing. It is Sonia who requests that he check the fingerprint on the mysterious postcard she's received in her locker. This lack of forensic evidence seriously hampers Wood's investigation but is successful in creating suspense and mystery in the story.

Sonia's "investigation" into her friend's death reveals that Gretchen Meyer was a controlling sociopath bent on wrecking the lives of all those around her. She's the stereotypical rich bad girl. As Sonia builds a list of possible suspects, the reality of Gretchen's relationships with those around her are exposed. While Sonia knew of Gretchen's cruelty to her younger sister Kirsten, she discovers that Gretchen's reach also extended to Marcus whom she was giving money to and that Gretchen destroyed all his artwork leading to him wishing Gretchen were dead. Eventually the true nature of Sonia and Gretchen's relationship is revealed. Sonia tells Marcus, "Whenever she was up to something, she made sure I played a part...I was afraid of her, afraid what she might do to me. I didn't want any part of it, but I went along with everything she did. I"m no one to admire." Marcus realizes that Sonia's situation was worse than anyone else. "How long did it take her to get you right where she wanted you?...What would she have done if you said no to her? When was the last time you tried?"  The extent of Gretchen's control over Sonia is only revealed when Sonia learns that the fake website they created for an assignment was made live on the internet, possibly jeopardizing Sonia's scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania. Gretchen's parents had offered to pay for Sonia's tuition if she attended Stanford with her. But attending Penn offered Sonia a chance to escape from Gretchen's control, one Gretchen was determined not to allow to happen. This sets the stage for the motive of the confrontation between the two girls.

Hainsworth certainly keeps her readers guessing; Gretchen's many enemies means there are numerous potential suspects who would have liked revenge and the use of Sonia as an unreliable narrator keeps the reader guessing as to what's really happened. For example Sonia frequently mentions how Kirsten is remarkably like Gretchen, casting suspicion towards Kirsten. Sonia's description of Kirsten notes this similarity.  "Kirsten Myer, Gretchen's younger sister, walks down the steps towards me. She's a natural blonde, but I'd forgotten she experimented with dyeing her hair a couple of weeks ago. At the time, Gretchen was annoyed, remarking that she'd never match her own vibrant red, but it's startling - no, disturbing how much Kirsten looks like her now."  Later on she notes, "I almost drop my phone. Kirsten stands next to me, holding a brown paper lunch bag. Her voice sounds so much like Gretchen's it's a minute before I'm breathing normally again." 

Take The Fall has a romantic subplot between Marcus and Sonia. The reader has the understanding that the two would have had a relationship if it were not for Gretchen and her manipulation of Marcus. While Sonia believed that Marcus hated her she learns after Gretchen's murder that in fact he was attracted to her but had to pretend to dislike her so as to protect her from Gretchen.

Take The Fall is typical teen fare, full of teen drama and a few stereotypical high school teens including a manipulative, rich bad girl who could have been killed by an one of her classmates. What the novel could have used was a map outlining the location of Sonia and Gretchen's homes in relation to the park and Hidden Falls and an epilogue that gave readers a satisfying conclusion to the story. Overall though an interesting read for teens who like high school murder mysteries.

Book Details:

Take The Fall by Emily Hainsworth
New York:  Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers    2016
356 pp.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Gemini by Sonya Mukherjee

Gemini is a very unique novel that tackles a very different reality, that of conjoined twins. Hailey and Clara are two seventeen year olds who share the lower end of their spinal column as well as their intestinal tract. They are "two complete, full-size people, with two normal, fully functioning brains" who share sensation in the lower half of their bodies. While they may share the lower part of their bodies, Hailey and Clara are very different persons. Hailey is outgoing, with pink hair, a butterfly tattoo on her shoulder, edgy black eye makeup and is determined to become an artist. Clara is shy, dressing blandly to avoid being noticed and fascinated by astronomy. Hailey is opinionated but Clara who by her own accounts has "sharp" opinions keeps them to herself.

Hailey and Clara live with their parents in Bear Pass, a small (fictitious) town in California. Their family moved to the town to avoid the stares and curiosity of strangers.  Their parents teach at Sutter College, a private four-year college where their father is a tenured professor in literary theory and British poetry and their mother is a lecturer. The small town means that most people know them and leave them alone.

When they hear that a new guy is coming to Bear Pass the twins are anxious but in different ways; Clara worries how they will be perceived and Hailey just wants someone interesting. The new guy, Max first appears in their AP English class. He's tall with blond hair, and has moved to Bear Pass from Los Angeles. While Hailey is not interested, Clara most definitely is. The twins learn from Bridget that Max appears to have an interest in astronomy so they along with best friend Juanita scheme to arrange a trip to the Sutter College observatory with Max. Their school is having a Sadie Hawkins dance and Juanita believes an outing to the observatory will give Clara a chance to ask Max to the dance. Meanwhile in art class, which Clara hates, Hailey talks to fellow art student Alek Drivakis whom she finds attractive. Like Hailey, Alek has a bit of an edge; he likes to wear black and his artwork frequently features corpses or fires.

At the Sandwich Shack,Juanita reveals that one of the teachers is pressuring her to apply to Stanford and other high level colleges. However because of costs and her mother's fears and reservations, Juanita plans to attend college locally despite being an excellent student. For Hailey this seems wrong because while she and Clara are stuck attending Sutter College which has about 500 students, she knows that Juanita will be able to obtain a full scholarship at Stanford. Even Hailey is not happy attending Sutter because it means her ambition to attend a good art school will not be realized. While the three are discussing their future plans along with another friend Bridget, Max arrives. Max tells the group that he has moved to Bear Pass from Santa Monica in his senior year because of circumstances involving his father. When Hailey asks Max to join them at the Sutter observatory so Clara can show him the stars, Max clams up and ends up leaving the cafe in anger.

At home the twins find their mother upset over American conjoined twins undergoing separation surgery in San Francisco. Clara and Hailey's mother believes the parents and the doctors are taking unnecessary risks in order for the twins to live independently. As with her own twins she believes the surgery is wrong. While the twins mother is opposed to them undergoing separation surgery, leaving Bear Pass or even doing day trips, their father is more open and encouraging, offering to take them to San Francisco.  Clara becomes angry at her mother over this, indicating that separating twins is not always wrong. Her confrontation with their mother surprises Hailey who decides that she is asking Alek to the Sadie Hawkins dance and she tells Carla that she should ask Max.

At lunch hour the next day they meet Alek who tells Hailey that he is applying for a summer program at  Golden Gate Arts in San Francisco. It's a three week intensive working with real artists. Alek encourages Hailey to apply and to plan to stay in the dorms. With Alek seeming very comfortable around her, Hailey asks Alek to the dance and he accepts. When Clara meets Max a few minutes later, she decides to make it difficult for him and tells him that Friday is his last chance to come with her to the observatory. Max reluctantly agrees to meet Clara but it turns out that he had planned to watch the Orionid meteor shower at his home. So Max turns the invitation around and invites Clara to his house as well as their friends.

Hailey manages to convince Clara to let her apply for the summer art intensive that Alek mentioned and at least go for the interview. Their meteor-watching get-together which includes Max's friends Josh and Gavin as well as Clara and Hailey's friend, Juanita initially goes well until Lindsey, Vanessa and Jasmine arrive. As Lindsey makes a move on Max and attempts to get rid of Hailey and Clara, Max becomes angry and his mom sends everyone home.

The next event Hailey and Clara attend is Amber's Halloween party which sees Hailey dress up as Galinda while Clara is the Wicked Witch. Max is at the party as the Tin Man and he and Clara make arrangements to go to the observatory at Sutter. Max explains to Clara what happened at his house telling her he was once a special ed kid and that he has a major stuttering problem. Alek crashes Amber's party to question Hailey about applying to the summer art program. He offers to take her for an interview or to take her portfolio. Like the other social situations, Amber's Halloween party ends badly for the twins. Alek shows Hailey something on his phone that deeply upsets her and Clara overhears a conversation between Max and his friends about the twins that disgusts her.

These events begin to affect how Hailey and Clara view themselves and result in them reconsidering the future they have planned. They embark on a journey of self-discovery that leads them to several momentous decisions.

Discussion

Gemini is a novel about two teens with an unusual disability who struggle to take control of their future and to define themselves outside of their disability. Clara and Hailey are pygopagus twins joined at the base of the spine and sharing their gastrointestinal organs. Their parents, specifically their mother refused to allow them to be separated when they were young, although it appears their father did not completely agree with her decision and still has some doubts. Otherwise Clara and Hailey are physically healthy and thriving. Their family moved to a small town so that they could be protected from people who might want to take advantage of their unusual situation. But this isolation is beginning to bother the more extroverted twin, Hailey who is a gifted artist and who wants to study art at a good university, to travel and experience life more fully. Her quieter sister, Clara, finds Bear Paw just fine and is reluctant to travel anywhere where they might have to deal with many new people or situations. However Clara also finds her situation restrictive as she argues with their mother about how she has made assumptions about what life after separation might be like.

As the twins approach adulthood they must face the reality that friends and school mates will move on from the small town of Bear Pass. They come up against the reality of their situation, something they feel their parents have pretended doesn't exist. Both Clara and Hailey chafe at their parents efforts to portray them as "normal" because they know this is not really true. Carla tells Hailey, "I'm sure it's perfectly normal to have to share the job of putting out silverware because we can't be in two separate parts of the same room...I'm sure it's perfectly normal to always balance off the side of the toilet while your sister is peeing...I'm sure its perfectly normal...to have to spend your entire life in the world's smallest rural community so that no one will stare and point and laugh at you when you go out in public and see actual strangers." Hailey also dislikes how they pretend that they are normal but she recognizes why their parents do this because it is the simplest way to cope. "Normal, normal, normal. It's this idiotic mantra around our house. We claim we're normal. We build our lives around that lie. It's why we can't go anywhere, or do much of anything. If we did, we'd come up against the truth." But Hailey,even as a child knew they were not normal. "We were not like anyone else. Who besides us had two minds that understood each other perfectly? That worked in such perfect synchrony that they could operate their four legs and four arms in unison without discussion, giving them twice the strength of a regular child? Not to mention twice the imagination and bargaining power...We weren't normal. We were magical."

Beginning to face the reality that they are two people with different interests and goals in life but joined together leads them to experience some serious conflicts which is new as they usually "just work things out, often with very little discussion." Hailey accuses Clara of not caring about how she might feel about staying in Bear Pass and attending Sutter College which doesn't have the program she needs to further her art studies. "...your head is so crammed with your own problems, if you tried to make room for mine, your brain would burst open at the seams." This leads Clara to reconsider their choices and their future plans. She asks their parents to allow them to travel to San Francisco so that Hailey can interview for the art intensive. Clara does this because she believes that although she's satisfied with their lives and the plan for them, maybe Hailey is not. "All this time I'd been holding onto the idea that the life we'd planned -- or rather, the life our parents had planned for us, and that we'd accepted -- was the best that either of us could hope for. But maybe that wasn't true for Hailey. Maybe it was true only for me."

Hailey believes that it is wrong for their mother to limit their choices in life but she also knows she must work together with Clara to figure out their future. Hailey believes that art school and leaving Bear Pass likely won't happen but she knows there must be a change in their lives. So she decides to do what Clara has suggested and apply to film school at Sutter while hoping that she and Clara can live in a house or in a dorm at the college rather than at home. 

In addition to struggling with making their own decisions about their lives, both girls must now confront how their conjoinedness will affect their ability to date and to marry. Both girls meet boys they are attracted to but struggle with how those boys view them. Clara struggles with her attraction to Max and the fact that he doesn't feel the same.  She wonders how Max really views her and whether it matters. Clara also feels disgusted at herself. "It was me. I was disgusting. A mutant. Had I really forgotten that?" She remembers how her mother has explained they were to think about themselves. "The way we view ourselves has to come from the inside, not from the reflection that we see in other people's eyes." But Clara questions this advice. "But sometimes it seems to me that reflections are all we have. Without them, we could never see ourselves at all. "

At the same time Hailey is also very attracted to Alek. Things come to a head when the twins begin to assert some control over their lives by insisting that they be allowed to attend the Sadie Hawkins dance. Their mother at first refuses but then relents. Hailey wonders what their mother really believes about them. "Our mom was always carrying on about how normal we were and what normal lives we could lead, but I think we both began to understand that she didn't actually believe this. Or maybe in some ways she did, but not in others."

All of this plus the fact that Hailey wants to attend art school leads Clara to contact a surgeon about their situation and the possibility of separation. Hailey points out to Clara the lengthy recovery time from surgery as well as the possibility that one of them will die. But Clara admits that she is afraid she will be lonely once separated. She tells Hailey that she wants a chance at love and she wants freedom too. But Hailey tells her she isn't giving them a chance to see what they can accomplish.
"You're willing to die for that, Clara? We're only seventeen. We haven't really started our lives yet. We don't know what we can have and what we can make happen. Are we not going to give ourselves a chance?...I mean a chance at life as ourselves, Clara, without tearing ourselves apart."

It is Alek who shows the twins the way forward. From the beginning he tells the twins that he considers them special and he tells Hailey: "Though to be honest, I always thought it must be kind of cool, too. Like, how many people can say there's another person who understands everything about them?" When Hailey asks him if he really wants to be seen with them - two girls joined together and face the possibility that he will be called a freak, as Matt was,  he tells them "...I'd rather be a freak than a coward...What I mean is, I'd rather do what I really want to do, no matter what anyone thinks. And that's exactly what I'm doing."

Hailey's kiss with Alek makes Clara realize that she wants a full(er) life and not just a kiss from a boy. "...I wanted those things, but also a thousand other impossible things, and maybe a few possible ones too...All this wanting inside me was not going to go away. I couldn't turn it off. Something had been flickering to life inside me for years now, and it was growing steadier, and hotter too. If I tried to keep it buried much longer, I was going to go up in flames." What Clara has been wishing for all these years is being separated from Hailey - that she wants to escape Hailey. But Clara comes to realize that her fear of  how others will view them and what will be said is what is holding her back from leaving Bear Pass. Hailey explains to her that their conjoinedness is part of who they are and that they need to accept it and embrace it. That it can be part part of their strength.

Daisy and Violet Hilton
Overall, Mukherjee's novel was a very interesting exploration of an unusual medical condition and the ethical, social and personal issues involved. Her characters felt realistic and the situations the conjoined twins experienced, plausible. The title, Gemini, is a reference to the third astrological sign in the zodiac and refers to the twins Castor and Pollux.


Conjoined twins are a very rare medical condition. While most conjoined twins die in utero or shortly after birth, there have been several famous twins. One set of conjoined twins Mukherjee mentions in her novel, Daisy and Violet Hilton, were pygopagus twins born in 1908. They were abandoned by their single mother. The twins were bought by Mary Hilton who employed their mother, Kate Skinner. Mary Hilton and her husband trained the two girls as dancers and singers and then made them tour as sideshow performers. The twins were well known entertainers for many years starring in vaudeville and burlesque shows but their lives were strictly controlled and their earnings stolen from them.  Recently a documentary Bound by Flesh was made about the Hilton twins.



It's probable that in today's world, Violet and Daisy would have been separated as they were joined at the hip and spine and shared no major organs. Sadly Violet and Daisy died impoverished from the Hong Kong flu in 1969.


Book Details:

Gemini by Sonya Mukherjee
New York: Simon & Schuster     2016
326 pp.