Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay

The Orange Grove is an exploration into the ideology of terrorism and its consequences. The novel opens with the bombing of nine year old twins, Amed and Aziz's home in an unnamed country. The bomb which came from the other side of the mountains where their long time enemies live, destroyed their grandparents home. Their father Zahed's parents, Mounir and Shahina were killed when the bomb roared through the side of their house. The bombing happened three days after Aziz had returned home from the city with his father. Zahed had taken his son Aziz who was very sick to the hospital.Aziz stayed for

Amed and Aziz's mother Tamara has a sister, Dalimah who lives in America and who is married to a man from the other side of the mountain. Because the people on the other side of the mountain are their enemies and they have been at war with them, Zahed and Tamara do not trust Dalimah. On the day Zahed and Aziz returned home from the hospital, Tamara received a letter from Dalimah encouraging her to come to America with the twins. Tamara of course has no intention of going to America and she considers her sister's husband to be a liar who has told terrible things about them to the people in America.

Zahed had just finished burying his parents in the orange grove when a jeep with three men arrived. One is Halim whom Amed and Aziz know from the village school and his father Kamal but the other man with a machine gun is unknown. Amed and Aziz are sent to their room while Zahed and Tamara speak with the men. The next day Zahed tells Amed and Aziz that the man with the machine gun is Soulayed. He is from a neighbouring village and is well educated. The boy's father tells them that Soulayed wanted to see the ruins of their grandparent's home. Soulayed also informs Zahed that homes in nearby villages have been destroyed and that these attacks are merely the prelude to invading their country and enslaving their children. Zahed shows the boys the canvas belt Soulayed left behind but offers no explanation as to what it is.

A week after the bombing, Zahed calls Amed and Aziz into the orange grove where he spends "twelve hours a day pruning, watering and checking every tree." Tamara refuses to come. She has acknowledged the hatred that exists among the men of her country and asks that God not take both her sons. Zahed tells his sons that Halim is going to die. He has gone to the south to blow himself up with a belt of explosives. Zahed then relates what Soulayed has told him: that his sons have found a way to reach the other side of the mountain that borders their land in the north and which separates them from their enemies. Soulayed knows this from Halim who was told by Aziz and Amed. When Zahed asks if this is true Amed and Aziz say nothing. Zahed lets his sons know that Soulayed will return to speak with them soon.

Soulayed returns to the orange grove and takes the twins in his jeep to the base of the mountain where he tells them what Halim has told him. The boys were flying their kite near the mountain which they were not allowed to do when the string broke and the kite vanished over the other side. To retrieve the kite they climbed the mountain. Amed tells Soulayed that they had to retrieve the kite otherwise their father would have been angry as the kite was a gift from their grandfather. The boys found "a ghost of a road snaking through the rocks" and followed it to the top where they saw "a strange kind of town" on the other side. Soulayed tells them what they saw was a military installation and that it was God who broke the kite's string and led them to see this. However Amed tells Soulayed that he only told Halim that their kite had flown near the mountain.

Soulayed continues to impress upon the boys that because the area around the mountain and the path are mined, "God broke your kite string and God guided your steps on the mountain." He tells them that others have tried to get to the town but have been blown up. As a result Soulayed has decided that one of the brothers will return to the town in a few days wearing a belt of explosives to destroy the installation.

The boys return home wondering which of them will be chosen by their father to wear the belt and in the meantime they play at blowing themselves up in the orange grove. Zahed tells Tamara that he has decided that it be Amed who will wear the explosives belt. Zahed reasons that since Aziz will die because of his cancer "it will not be a sacrifice if he wore the belt." Tamara is filled with pain and she concocts a plan to thwart Zahed sacrificing their healthy son, Amed. That night she awakens Amed and reveals to him that his father will choose him to wear the canvas belt to avenge his parents' deaths. She tells Amed that Aziz is very ill and will die from his illness. So she asks Amed to persuade Aziz to take his place and wear the belt. Tamara does not want to loose both her sons, one to illness and one to being blown to bits. However, Amed refuses, despite his mother's assertion that Aziz will suffer greatly from his sickness. The next day Zahed takes Amed to the tool shed where he tells him that Soulayed will return in a few days and take him to the foot of the mountain. He will wear the belt. Zahed also tells Amed that he has chosen him because Aziz is very sick. He encourages his son to love the belt and to get used to wearing it.

After Zahed leaves, Aziz enters the shed and Amed admits to his brother that he is scared to die. Aziz offers to go in his place, but at first Amed refuses. When they return to the house, Amed tells his mother he has done as she asks. Tamara's plan, although saving the life of one son, will bring about tragic and unforeseen consequences.


The Orange Grove presents the twisted logic that is characteristic of terrorism, radical ideologies and war. Author Larry Tremblay is careful never to identify the religious sect that Zahed and Tamara and their family belong to or to name the country they live in. Instead he uses beliefs that are common to many religions but which are taken to extreme.

Zahed and his wife Tamara and their twin sons, Amed and Aziz live in a country that is at war with a neighbouring country on the other side of the mountain. A bomb from that country destroys Zahed's parent's home, killing them. They are visited soon after by a soldier, Soulayed from another village who manipulates Zahed into sacrificing one of his sons so as to avenge the killing of his parents. To help with this, Soulayed brings fifteen-year-old Halim and his father, Kamal with him to speak with Zahed. Kamal first praises Zahed telling him his father, Mounir must have been "in harmony with God" to be able to grow the orange grove out of the desert. He also notes that Zahed is twice blessed with twin boys. He tells Zahed he was angry at Halim's decision to become a suicide bomber but after having seen the destruction of Zahed's parent's home he now understands Halim's choice. Soulayed tells Zahed, "Revenge is the name of your grief."

To impress his sons, Zahed tells them that Soulayed is "an important man" who "talked to me with his heart" and that "He's a pious man. An educated man." In other words, he is a man to be respected and whose words are important. In order to convince Amed and Aziz of what he is about to ask them, Soulayed tells them that their kite breaking was an act of God. "He broke it so that things would come to pass as they must." Soulayed states "...God broke your kite's string and now it's their own death they're warehousing." He also informs them that their climbing the mountain was miraculous especially since no one else has been able to climb this mountain because it is mined. "A miracle: that's what really happened on that day. God broke your kite string and God guided your steps on the mountain." After informing them that they have been chosen to wear the belt of explosives Soulayed states, "God has chosen you. God has blessed you."

Later on Soulayed comes to the farm bringing money for Zahed and he tells Amed, "You know, Amed, what's going to happen is both sad and happy. You understand, right? But you, you must be only happy. You're going to die a martyr. You are three times blessed." The night before Amed is to leave for the mountain, Zahed invites his neighbours and two employees to his house to celebrate, explaining that Amed will soon be a martyr. "All saw this invitation as an honour being bestowed upon them."

But despite all of his indoctrination, Amed is terrified. But Soulayed admonishes him, "...Think of our enemies! Think of what they did to your grandparents!" He is told not to dishonour his father and to "Think of Paradise!" Tamara is the only one who sees war for what it truly is. She recognizes that for the men of her country, "It's hatred that keeps their bones in place. Without hatred they would collapse and never get up again." In an attempt to save at least one of her sons, she convinces Amed to switch places with Aziz. Aziz will be the bomber because he's going to die from cancer anyways. She recognizes what she's asking Amed to do is horrible. "What's the use of bringing children into the world it it's just to sacrifice them like poor animals being sent to the slaughterhouse?" When the neighbours come to celebrate before Amed leaves, Tamara sees the garland of lights as a "sacrilege, a miserable lie."

Tremblay portrays the realities of war, the lies created to perpetuate the cycle of violence, the devastation wreaked on families and individuals and the dehumanizing of the enemy in a way that is profoundly moving. In the aftermath of the suicide bombing the reader truly experiences the pain and guilt of Amed and the sense of loss from the death of his twin brother and the estrangement of his family.

The novel is divided into three parts, "Amed" which tells the story of his switch with Aziz, "Aziz" which tells the story of Amed's life as a twenty year old and his struggle to come to terms with what happened after Aziz accomplished his mission as a suicide bomber, and "Sony" which relates Mikael's play and how Amed comes to participate in it.

Mikael has written a play about war for his theatre students, among them a man named Aziz (this is Amed who was sent to live with Damilah in America when the truth of his identity became known). In the play a soldier has brutally murdered a young boy's parents. However, the soldier is unable to kill the boy named Sony, because he reminds him of his own young son. So he demands the boy explain why he should spare him. It is Mikael's intention that the child die to demonstrate the cruelty of war.  Aziz has the part of Sony but he tells Mikael he cannot play this character. Aziz tells his story to Mikael, that his name is really Amed, how he switched places with his sick twin brother who was sent to bomb a military installation. After the bombing, Amed begins to live life as Aziz but he discovers he cannot live this lie and he becomes so sick his parents take him to the hospital. Eventually the truth is discovered when Amed reveals it to the family during a party celebrating Aziz's supposed miraculous cure from cancer. He tells Mikael that when Soulayed spoke, Amed looked into Soulayed's mouth and realized he saw nothing but lies. When Amed's true identity was discovered, he was sent to America where he learned the truth - that his brother was sent to a school where he blew up dozens of innocent children and maimed many others. Even though Mikael tries to comfort Amed by telling him that his brother did not understand what was going on, Amed feels this does not change the fact that his beloved twin brother murdered innocent children. Amed tries to explain to Mikael that war wipes away the boundaries between adults and children; children can be brave or they can be cowards, they can do heroic things or they can murder others, even other children. War affects everyone, adults and even children.

Mikael has prided himself on writing a play that he feels explains war. However, Amed/Aziz's narrative makes him realize that he does not understand war. He asks Aziz to use his story to convince the soldier in the play but Aziz cannot do this because it's not fair and not accurate. In the end Aziz returns to the stage, which Mikael describes as "the great gaping stage mouth with its potential for lies and truth." Aziz stands before the soldier and tells him he is seven-year-old Sony, and nine-year-old Aziz and twenty-year-old Amed. He doesn't need to tell the soldier a story to convince him not to kill Sony. The reason for not killing the boy must come from within the soldier.

"No, you don't need to have a reason or even to have right on your side to do what you think you must do. Don't look elsewhere for what is already within you."

Book Details:

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay
Windsor: Biblioasis 2015
pp. 157

Monday, February 20, 2017

Movie: Hidden Figures

The movie Hidden Figures tells the remarkable story of three gifted African-American women mathematicians who made significant contributions to the American space program during a time when segregation and racial discrimination against blacks and women was an ongoing problem in America.

The film opens with a brief backstory of the three women,Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).  Katherine Johnson is the focus of the film but Vaughan and Jackson's experiences are also chronicled. Katherine is shown to be gifted in mathematics and her parents are encouraged to enroll her in a new school where her abilities are further developed. The film moves quickly to the year 1961 where the three women work at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The tone of the film is set early one when the three women are at the side of the road where Dorothy is working on getting their car running again. A state trooper pulls up, overly suspicious and demanding identification when the women insist they work for NASA. It's obvious he can't believe NASA hires blacks and much less black women. Appealing to his patriotism, the convince the trooper to give them an escort to the facility. The ensuing race to Langley is one of the film's comedic moments.

All three work in the West Area Computers which was a segregated area of Langley as "computers", a name given to those who solved complex mathematical equations before the mainframe computer was in use. Dorothy hopes to become a supervisor but she is repeatedly passed over, while Mary aspires to be an engineer, a career path not open to women and certainly not a black woman. They are all working towards putting a man in space and attempting to catch up to the Russians who have successfully launched a satellite, Sputnik. To that end, Dorothy's supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) visits the West Area Computers and requests Dorothy send her a computer who can do complex math quickly. Dorothy immediately suggests Katherine whom she identifies as someone who can do anything you can throw at her.

Katherine is sent to work with the Space Task Force headed up by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). The Space Task Force is in a different building with no bathrooms for colored women. Her initial days in the Space Task Force are fraught with discrimination. She is mistaken for a cleaning lady, given calculations to check that have been severely redacted and is forced to use a separate coffee flask. As there are no colored bathrooms Katherine must leave her desk for twenty minutes to run across the center to the colored bathrooms in the west area. Her main nemesis is Paul Stafford who works to make Katherine's job as difficult as possible and refuses to allow her to sign her name to the daily reports.

Katherine's incredible mathematical genius soon becomes apparent.  Katherine's first assignment is to verify all the calculations for Alan Shepard's mission, a parabolic trajectory which will send him into suborbital flight. The Space Task Center needs to know his exact trajectory from lift-off to splash-down. Despite being given calculations with much information redacted, Katherine is able to accomplish her task. Shepard's mission is a huge success but the most daunting one was to come.

During this time, Dorothy Vaughan's attempts to get promoted to supervisor are thwarted by Vivian Mitchell. Mary Jackson is sent over to engineering where she meets aeronautical engineer Karl Zielinski who encourages her to pursue an engineering degree. However, despite having degrees in math and physical science, Mary discovers that she needs to take night courses at Hampton High School which is a segregated school.

Two 7090 IBM computers,NASA during Project Mercury 1962
Taken by Christopher C. Kraft
After working on Alan Shepard's mission, Harrison's group focused on the math necessary to send astronaut John Glenn into an orbital path around the Earth and then safely returning him. This was the main goal of the Mercury project. Glenn would attain an orbital path after blasting off from earth atop a powerful rocket. In the movie there seems to be some issue as to which rocket would be used. The Redstone rockets, developed by Von Braun continue to crash. Katherine's calculations demonstrate that the rocket is too heavy and does not have the power to achieve the required trajectory required to orbit the earth. Katherine Johnson, using math convinces her coworkers that this must be atop the more powerful Atlas rocket rather than the Redstone. It is Glenn's mission that the movie focuses on.

Katherine's job is to verify all the calculations but she appears to be hindered by the racist environment at NASA that sees her taking twenty-minute bathroom breaks because she has to run across the compound to use the colored bathroom. Frustrated with this situation, Harrison confronts Katherine who explains what she is experiencing working at NASA and in an iconic scene, Harrison is seen smashing the sign for the colored bathroom. After it's announced that John Glenn (Glen Powell) will be the astronaut to fly in the first orbital mission he is taken on a tour of Langley. The black staff is separated from the white staff and the intent is that they will not meet Glenn. In Hidden Figures, Glenn is portrayed as the consummate gentleman, kind and courteous. In the movie this comes across quite clearly. He is shown as determined to meet the African-American staff when it's evident NASA brass aren't interested in him doing so.

As Katherine works on the Mercury project, the film explores the situations of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson to a lesser extent. NASA sees the arrival of the IBM 7090 mainframe computer but the computer sits idle in a room because the technicians cannot get it working. Harrison is disgusted by this failure. Dorothy on her way back to the west computer group sees the computer room empty and decides to learn more about it and how to program it. She recognizes that her computers will no longer be needed once the mainframe is up and running, so she decides to learn programming and to teacher her computers as well. In this way they will be able to save their jobs. She is forced to steal a book on FORTRAN programming from the public library because as a black woman she is unable to sign out books. Dorothy learns FORTRAN, gets the IBM working and sets to teaching her computers the language. Mary Johnson, encouraged by mentor Karl Zielinski, applies to the court and is granted permission to attend night classes to earn the credits she needs for engineering school.

The climax of the film is Glenn's historic flight into space. His mission had been delayed several times due to various issues, but the Friendship 7 was launched into orbit on February 20,  1962. Similar to what real life, Glenn wanted Johnson to verify the trajectory computed by the new IBM computer,  "get the girl to check the numbers... If she says the numbers are good... I'm ready to go."

Besides portraying the exception mathematical abilities of Vaughan, Johnson and Jackson, Hidden Figures also shows that these women had lives outside of NASA: they were working mothers with children, wives with husbands and still had to conform to social conventions for women. Although the historical accuracy is fairly good for the different NASA missions shown the film does contain some inaccuracies. The overarching theme of the movie is that systemic racial discrimination and sexist bias was a significant factor in impeding America's progress in the space race. However, that's not exactly an accurate portrayal of the situation at NASA for this time period.  For example, in Hidden Figures Dorothy Vaughan does not become a supervisor until the end of the movie which is sometime in1962. In fact Vaughan was promoted to supervisor of the colored computers in 1949, becoming the first black manager. Katherine Johnson is shown repeatedly running across the compound to use the "colored" bathroom. However, when NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) became NASA in 1958, segregated facilities (bathrooms, dining areas and work areas) were abolished. Dorothy Vaughan was part of a racially integrated Analysis and Computation Division that included both men and women. In the film Mary Jackson also does not earn her engineering degree until later on but in fact Jackson became NASA's first black female engineer in 1958. And Katherine Johnson began working in the Space Task Group in 1958. She also had co-authored a report in 1960 on the equations for determining the orbital spaceflight of a spacecraft with a known landing.

Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae all give outstanding performances supported by a capable cast that includes Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Glen Powell. The film includes much historic film footage including news casts from the early 1960's. Hidden Figures not only presents side of the space race that many viewers are completely unfamiliar with, it also is an important vehicle for promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers to young girls who might see the film. This is a film not to be missed especially if you have an interest in the space race of the 1960's.

Those wanting to explore further the story of the black women mathematicians who were the hidden figures behind the NASA space program and victory in the space race are encouraged to read Margot Lee Shetterly's, Hidden Figure.

For more information on Dorothy Vaughan see her biography page at NASA's website.

For more information on Katherine Johnson see her biography page at NASA's website.

Mary Jackson's biography page can also be found on the NASA website.

For information on specific NASA missions the NASA webpage, "Humans In Space" has detailed information.

One of the trailers for Hidden Figures:

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati

Seventeen-year-old Catherine Pulaski is struggling mightily with mental illness. She has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Her troubles began after the death of her beloved grandma when she was thirteen and just before the start of high school. After her grandma's death, Catherine's best friends, Olivia and Riley came to visit her daily. But as she sank into depression in her freshman year and was prescribed medication by Dr. A, her friends began to slowly abandon her.  By her sophomore year Catherine had little contact with Olivia and Riley.

In September of her sophomore year, Dr. A prescribed lithium for the mania but a week after starting the drug, Catherine attempted suicide by swallowing the entire bottle. According to Catherine, on that first Saturday of September, "Zero sucked me dry. When Zero bore down, I chose lithium, whose element-y name alone screamed its alpha position..." This was followed by a manic episode this past June in which she cut off all her hair, cleaned the garage and attic and charged a thousand dollars worth of vacation clothes to her emergency credit card.

Her disorder follows the pattern of depression in the fall and mania in the summer. Just before he retired, Dr. A diagnosed Catherine with bi-polar disorder which he stressed was likely genetic and chronic. This diagnosis has crushed Catherine because she's very afraid of the depressions which she labels Zero. Catherine decides the next time "Zero" strikes she will end her life. To that end she has been collecting a stash of leftover medications in a shoebox which she hides under her grandma's empty bed. "I will take whatever time I have left and kill myself when Zero makes Catherine landfall." Before doing this however, Catherine decides that she wants "one real, tangible connection to another human" and decides the way to accomplish this is to lose her virginity. She makes a first/last connection list on her phone and the first entry is L.V. for losing virginity.

In June she began seeing Dr. McCallum, who by Catherine's admission is smarter and more savvy to what's going on with her. He has prescribed Lamictal for her depression and he tells Catherine and her mother that it will take about six to eight weeks for it to have a noticeable effect but that it will help her. It's now October and in AP History class, Catherine's teacher, Mr. Oleck assigns them the task of exploring "an aspect of D-day that you'll never get from your textbooks or online." Mr. Oleck assigns Michael Pitoscia to be Catherine's project partner. Michael asks for Catherine's number so he can text her the results of his research that night. Although Catherine is uncertain about Michael's motives, he seems sincere so she agrees.

After school Catherine is driven by her mother to St. Anne's Outpatient Hospital where she goes through intake before beginning a new intensive outpatient program (IOP) on the recommendation of Dr. McCallum. who suggested the therapy after she cut school. He suggested the IOP with once a month medication checks. The IOP at St. Anne's is run by Sandy and includes Thomas Reardon aka Lil'Tommy, a boy Catherine knew from middle school, a Hispanic boy named John and blond-haired Garrett, both of whom attend Cranbury High and two girls from Immaculate Conception named Alexis and Amy. At their first session the IOP group discusses the bullying Lil'Tommy is experiencing because of his OCD. Catherine learns that John who wears Red Sox gear has an eating disorder as does Kristal who has bulimia while Garret is struggling with a drug addiction.Both Amy and Alexis also suffering from eating disorders.

As Catherine's relationship with Michael progresses she struggles with revealing her mental health issues, fearing he will leave her just like Olivia and Riley. When Michael wants to meet after school for their project Catherine lies, telling him she has a job at her mother's law firm. She meets his loud but friendly Italian family including his grandmother Nonny. Michael's kind and gentle nature makes Catherine decide that he will be the one she has her last tangible connection with. Michael is open and accommodating to Catherine when she wants to switch their soldier they are studying for their project to First Class Private Jane Talmadge who served with the 6888th Central Postal Division in France. In the IOP Catherine begins to connect with Kristal who invites her to the museum in New Haven where her mother works. However, she refuses to talk much about her own problems and won't confide in Kristal. But as her list of happy milestones grows on her phone Catherine finds looking at the list more calming than her shoe box of drugs. Is her future as bleak as Catherine believes it to be? And will Catherine ever be able to honestly and openly talk about her bipolar disorder?


Author Karen Fortunati has crafted a moving and gritty novel whose main message for young people suffering from bi-polar disorder or other mental health issues is one of hope and recovery. The story is told from the point of view of  seventeen year old Catherine Pulaski who has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Told her mental illness is both strongly genetic and chronic leaves Catherine afraid. The reader follows Catherine as she journeys through her recovery, from anxiety and a plan to end her life to acceptance and a desire to embrace life.

The novel's title "The Weight of Zero" is a reference to the use of a numeric scale from zero to ten her mother and Dr. McCallum use for rating how her mood is, with ten being very happy but zero meaning deep depression. Zero is likened to an animal or beast "sniffing and pawing, looking for a crack in my brain that the meds haven't filled."  Zero circles Catherine, just waiting to strike when she least expects it. To counter Zero, Catherine, unknown to her mother and doctor,  has collected a shoebox full of medications including Celexa, Prozac, Abilify, Paxil, Zoloft and Lexapro which she will take to end her life.She often refers to her stash of drugs as her "troops" or "soldiers" who will fight off Zero by ending her life.  "My psychotropic soldiers give me hope." The stockpile of drugs is comforting: "Everything will be okay, my soldiers tell me. We're here." When Catherine becomes anxious about her next depression, lining her troops up at night calms her.  However as the reader discovers, Catherine's view of this plan for her life and her "troops" changes.

The Weight of Zero explores Catherine's life both inside and outside of therapy. In each the reader sees Catherine's progress even if she is not fully aware of it herself. In therapy she meets Kristal, a black girl who struggles with bulimia, and who befriends Catherine. At the same time outside of therapy, Catherine is partnered for a project at school with Michael a boy who it is later revealed has been crushing on her since freshman year. As Kristal and Michael both invite Catherine deeper into their lives, Catherine cannot reciprocate. This is because she believes if she tells both Kristal and Michael that she has bi-polar disorder they will abandon her like Olivia and Riley did. In therapy Catherine never reveals to the group why she is in therapy. She doesn't confide in Kristal even as their friendship deepens. "Can I ever tell her that I was hospitalized? Can I ever tell her the reason?" Likewise with Michael, she doesn't tell him about her condition either, even when he seems to sense something is not right and even when Michael opens up to Catherine about his brother Anthony's drinking problem.

Despite her not being able to be honest with her new friends, Catherine's perspective begins to change. As she adds to her list of good things that are happening to her, a first kiss with Michael and going with new friend Kristal to her mother's museum, Catherine notes, "...actually staring at the two newest entries, calms me. Maybe even more than my shoe box. Because it's proof, tangible proof that I might be able to experience some really good things before Zero moves up the Catherine coastline." After spending Halloween with Michael, going to a high school party and arranging a sleep-over with Kristal, Catherine notes that her list has turned into something different. "True, my one-item to-do list has morphed into a record of all the things, all the great things, that I'm experiencing. It's so beyond what I thought was possible..." But at this point her she still "needs the reassurance these bottles (of medications) give me..." Despite still needing the comfort of her "troops" Catherine acknowledges to herself that she is having days that she rates as a "nine". At Halloween she states, "And under all those layers of gray, I feel the colorful confetti of happy bubbling up out of me. How could I have forgotten this feeling? I am a...what? I can say it. It's only to myself. I am a nine."

Part of Catherine's difficulty in being honest with others about her illness is that she believes her pain is worse than others. When Michael reveals his brother's alcoholism to her Catherine's internal first response is to want to tell Michael that being bi-polar is worse than alcoholism. But she wonders, " being bipolar really worse than being an alcoholic? To be honest, they seem pretty balanced on the shit scale."

Catherine's biggest step in therapy begins when starts to understand that she doesn't have the corner on suffering. John recounts a serious accident during wrestling practice where he caused the injury to another player and he mentions the horrible sound the injured boy made. In a rare moment of openness, Catherine tells him she understands because she experienced the same when her grandmother had a stroke and died in her arms. She remembers "My beautiful grandmother reduced in seconds to a tormented creature dying on the bedroom floor, and I knew that sound was the last I'd ever hear her make." Having her peers in the IOP group acknowledge her pain, the first time she's ever spoken about it helps Cat. "I feel a little lighter. I realize now the enormity, the weight of that secret memory, is part of what keeps Zero tethered to me."  During this session, Sandy states that she wants them not only to be honest with themselves but to be honest with others. "I want you to think about the safest ways for you to deal with pain....Whether pain comes from anxiety or loneliness or a traumatic event or a condition, it doesn't matter. Pain is pain."

It is Kristal who calls Catherine out on how she views other people's suffering.  After a particularly difficult IOP Kristal tells Catherine, "Sometimes I get the feeling you think your shit is like, the worst and no matter what any of us go through, it will never compare to yours..."  Catherine recognizes the truth of what Kristal is telling, that she's "some kind of mental-health illness elitist."  Earlier in the novel Catherine ranted against Riley Swenson's mother whom she accused of being a comfortable Catholic who helps people with her "charity-at-a-distance" but who shuns Catherine and her mother. In her own way Catherine realizes she has been doing this with the people in her therapy group - minimizing their pain while believing her suffering is greater. "How could I have never acknowledged their pain, when pain is the one thing I understand?"

When her relationships with both Michael and Kristal experience crises, several things push Catherine towards finally being open and honest with herself and them. The first is that Dr. McCallum acknowledges her fear about the quality of life she can have with being bipolar and he makes it clear that she is managing her illness and that there are specific options for managing another serious depressive episode. The second is that Catherine comes to realize the significance of what Dr. McCallum told her earlier about her disorder having a genetic component. This allows her to give up the guilt she feels for being damaged and to realize that she is innocent - she's not responsible for her disorder. This realization is triggered by a letter Jane Talmadge wrote her mother during the war in which Catherine realizes the discrimination Jane experienced was due to her skin colour, something she cannot change about herself. "But I understand now what Dr. McCAllum was saying, and I can finally put the guilt for that malfunctioning aside. I am a victim of genetic roulette. It's not my fault."

Catherine finally finds the courage to tell Kristal the real reason she's in therapy and then realizes that Michael knows about her illness. Although she feels upset at the possibility of losing her two friends, Catherine also recognizes that her world has not collapsed and that she wants to live. She begins to understand that bad things might happen, not because she is bipolar but possibly because of other reasons. Catherine's friendships with Olivia and Riley might have been waning anyways before high school as Dr. McCallum tried to tell her. Kristal might have left not because Catherine's bi-polar but because she wasn't honest with her about her illness. Michael might be pulling away not because he discovered she has a mental illness but because he wanted her to confide in him. "I keep blaming the illness for constraining me, but maybe I'm the one who's been limiting myself. Out of fear. " Catherine believes maybe she has to survive on "small acts of kindness that I never fully savored before, like Sabita's thoughtfulness, Alexis's compassion, John's concern..." All of these little revelations move Catherine towards acceptance, healing and understanding.

My only criticism of this novel is the brief anti-Catholic rant that Catherine gives in Chapter 16. Catherine relates attending Sunday Mass at Our Blessed Shepherd (the correct name according to convention is either Blessed Sacrament or Good Shepherd) where a "fat Father John" "intones" the prayers and gives a homily "with his mind-numbing abilities, the man rivals a high dose of NyQuil." According to Catherine, Catholics are hypocrites "who'll feed the homeless but only while wearing gloves. The ones who'll read the Gospels on Sunday and write nasty notes on Monday. And unlike Jesus, these are the ones who shun Cranbury High's lepers. Like me." Cat is being bullied by classmate Riley Swenson whose rich parents sit in pews, "Their names are engraved on small, gold plagues that line the pews, raining hosanna in the highest on them and their wallets." The Swensons are "another good Catholic more comfortable with a handpicked charity-at-a-distance, the type where you do your good deed quickly and get out. Scheduled at your own convenience. No pesky emotional commitment."

I understand that the author is attempting to create an analogy between people who themselves as special in certain ways and Catherine who felt she had the dibs on pain. However, it's unfortunate Fortunati has her character rant in this way because it does a huge disservice to those young teens who are struggling with bi-polar disorder or other mental health issues and who have found comfort in their Catholic faith and/or have received helpful counselling and support from their parish priest and their parish community. In what is a reasonably accurate portrayal of a serious mental illness, this anti-Catholic bigotry mars this novel and is an affront to readers of faith.

There are plenty of themes to explore in The Weight of Zero. Karen Fortunati has created an excellent platform for sharing information about mental illness and provides and encouraging portrait of how professional counselling and family and friend support can improve the quality of life for people with mental health issues. The novel deals with the stigma, fear and anxiety that surrounds mental illness in a realistic and honest manner that is refreshing and will help young readers understand. Catherine Pulaski is a cleverly crafted character who brings out all this in the novel as readers share her struggles and her journey. Michael and his family mirror the kind of support we all need in tough times. The Weight of Zero is above all a story of hope and healing.

Fortunati was inspired to write this novel as a result of her experience as an attorney working with children and teens. She witnessed "impact of depression, bipolar disorder, and suicide" and wants her young readers to "know that they are not alone in navigating the shame, stigma, and anxiety that often complicate the management of this chronic condition." She has succeeded.

Book Details:

The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati
New York: Delacorte Press     2016
385 pp.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley

Eliza Rose by historian Lucy Worsley tells the terrible story of Katherine Howard, the fifth wife of England's King Henry VIII through the eyes of her fictional cousin Eliza Rose Camperdone.

Twelve year old Elizabeth Rose Camperdone lives with her father, Lord Anthony Camperdone and her Aunt Margaret at Stoneton Castle in Derbyshire. Her beloved mother, Lady Rose died when Eliza Rose was only four years old. Her family is one of the oldest in Derbyshire but they have fallen on hard times as a result the actions of Eliza Rose's uncle, Baron Camperdone who was a traitor. Stoneton Castle was once surrounded by beautiful farms and forests, now all sold and cleared to make way for a lead smelter in the hopes of producing much needed income.

On the morning of her twelfth birthday, November 6, 1535, Eliza Rose learns that she will wed to the son of the Earl of Westmorland.This she looks forward to because it marks her passage into adulthood. Eliza Rose is told by her Aunt Margaret that she will not live with her husband until she has begun her monthly periods, something Eliza Rose does not understand.

Her nurse, Henny prepares Eliza for the betrothal by helping her into a beautiful, new gold dress and then she is taken to the Great Chamber where many people she knows have gathered. The Earl's servant, Sir Dudley who will stand in for the Earl's son in the ceremony, presents Eliza with her betrothal presents. These include pearls of Barbary, a very large ring and a brooch - the initial E topped with the Westmorland blackbird crest. Eliza signs the contract, sealing the marriage by proxy.

The following year in June of 1536, Eliza's family travels to the Earl of Westmorland's new home to meet King Henry VIII who is on progress around the countryside with his court. Eliza Rose is thrilled as she hopes to meet the King with his new queen, Anne Boleyn. She also hopes to meet her husband, the Viscount of Westmorland too. Eliza is upset to learn that she will not be attending that night's feast.  However, while her father and Aunt Margaret are at the banquet, Eliza sneaks out of her room and eventually to the roof of the house where she meets a young man who is drunk. Eliza Rose is dressed only in her night clothes and she finds the young man rude and menacing. It turns out the drunken man on the roof was the Viscount, her husband to be. When the Earl learns of this unplanned meeting, Eliza and her family are disgraced and sent home.

Back at Stoneton, Eliza Rose learns from her father that her marriage to the Earl of Westmorland's son is invalid because he is married - a fact unknown to the Earl. When Eliza turns thirteen she is sent south to Trumpton Hall to be schooled in the arts of the court by the Duchess of Northumberland so that she may find a wealthy husband so as to save her family. At Trumpton Hall, Eliza meets many other girls who are related to her as well as her comely cousin, Katherine Howard. She finds herself far behind the other girls in the knowledge of making themselves attractive to the men of the court, to curtsey, to dance and sing. However, Katherine and Eliza Rose are at odds, as Katherine is considered a great beauty. She taunts Eliza calling her Carrot Top while flaunting her beautiful creamy skin and blue eyes. Eventually Eliza Rose and Katherine develop a strained friendship but this doesn't last long. Eliza believes she has attracted the attention of their music instructor, Master Manham, only to find him making love with Katherine. Devastated, Eliza Rose's relationship with Katherine deteriorates as she sees her as a competitor.

In 1539, when she is fifteen, Eliza is sent along with Katherine Howard to be a maid of honour to the lady who will soon be the new queen, Anne of Cleves. Queen Jane died after giving birth and King Henry is wasting no time marrying a new queen. When they arrive at the Palace of Greenwich on the River Thames, Katherine and Eliza Rose meet Ned Barsby who is a Page of the Presence.

The Countess of Malpas who is responsible for training the maids of honour tell Eliza and Katherine they are "to be an ornament to the court...". She expects they will soon find rich husbands. When they meet King Henry VIII, Eliza notes how he looks over each of the maids of honour. Eliza finds court both boring and tiring, "...we were constantly on our feet, always smiling, curtseying to the king and the other men who came and went."  Henny arrives to be Eliza's tiring woman which make them both happy. Barsby reveals to Eliza that although he is familiar with the ways of the court, he is illegitimate and therefore will never benefit in the way that she can. He cannot improve his social standing through marriage or inherit his father's estate or become a groom. He warns Eliza against being drawn too deeply into the intrigue of the court. But with Eliza tasked with marrying well in the hopes of saving Stoneton and her cousin Katherine her main competitor, how can Eliza not risk such involvement?


Wax figure of Katherine Howard
Lucy Worsley has tackled the much-written-about Tudor era for younger readers, infusing historical detail into the story of Katherine Howard from a different perspective. In her novel, Worsley created a fictional character, Eliza Rose Camperdone and through her eyes has related the events of the Tudor court from 1535 to 1542. Eliza Rose is supposedly Katherine's younger, less well situated cousin.

Lucy Worsley is a curator of Hampton Court, the magnificent palace of Henry VIII on the Thames River. While looking deeper into the history of the ghost of Katherine Howard, Worsley felt that history has treated Katherine unfairly. Worsley writes in her Epilogue titled "Why I Wrote This Book", "She may have been young and foolish, but I felt that the odds at court we so heavily stacked against her that it was unfair that her lasting reputation should be as a silly little strumpet." She decided that she "would write a new version of Katherine's story..."

In Worsley's version we learn about Katherine Howard through the eyes of Eliza Rose who initially finds her to be "cold, heartless, egotistical and arrogant" when they are in training for court. Through her eyes Katherine is described as "the boldest and the buxomest" and "utterly beautiful." Eliza Rose sees that the girls all want to look like Katherine "with her creamy skin and her limpid blue eyes that beamed like lanterns." The girls training to be maids of honour copy the way she coils her hair around the back of her head. Katherine bosses the other girls and flirts with their teachers, as well as with King Henry. When Katherine becomes Queen, she continues her bossy ways and boldly cheats on King Henry, something that Eliza Rose recognizes and both dangerous and deadly. When her relationship with Master Manham is discovered, Katherine holds fast to the belief that Henry will forgive her and spare her life. When this is not to be, Katherine reveals the real reason behind her actions to her cousin - that she was placed in an almost impossible situation at court; she not only had to become queen but she also had to produce a son as heir to the throne, something Henry could not do. She is trapped in desperate circumstances, so she did what she thought might work - she attempted to conceive a child with another man. In the end Katherine is portrayed by Worsley not as a wanton, silly girl but as young woman who tried to outsmart a court that valued women only for the sons they bore and where political intrigue could have deadly results. At her execution, Katherine Howard is portrayed as dignified and composed and Eliza Rose feels proud of her cousin's "calmness and resolution."

Eliza Rose undergoes an inner journey in the novel as she matures from a naive twelve year old to an experienced courtier in the politically volatile Tudor court. An intelligent girl and a quick learner, Eliza soon becomes very accomplished and is sent with her cousin Katherine to the court of Henry VIII. She is ambitious, hoping to be the most sought after maid of honour and to secure a wealthy husband.

However, court is not what Eliza Rose expects. Her dresses are taken in so King Henry can see her figure and her necklines are lowered. The jewels to be worn are "thrilling to handle" but Eliza begins to "think that there were almost too many of them." Court is boring and tiring. Despite this Eliza Rose finds herself forming a friendship with Ned Barsby but she believes he is not someone she can consider marrying. Even when she begins to feel the first stirrings of attraction she tells herself "It's only Ned Barsby. No one important." In her efforts to attract a suitable husband Eliza Rose forces herself to reject and shun Barsby.

Eliza Rose struggles as she realizes the reality of court life; the men of the court leer at them and are interested only in getting them into bed. How can she reconcile what she sees and achieve what she was sent to court to do - "to find a husband to whom I would be joined in legal, holy matrimony." When her Aunt Margaret she expresses the reality of life at court - how they have been taught to believe the king is appointed by God and can do no wrong, but that the reality is quite different. Eliza Rose has discovered this for herself. "We could not ignore the evidence of our eyes that the king, God's anointed chosen monarch, was in fact a gluttonous, predatory old man." Her aunt warns her that court is a "poisonous swamp" in which the king holds the power of life and death. Eliza Rose is further shocked when her father suggests to her that she become King Henry's mistress in order to save his family's estate and feels a great sense of betrayal. When she confides in Ned he tells her that he had hoped she would want something different than to be the king's mistress.

Eliza decides to partake of court fully, staying up late at night, drinking, gambling and wearing fewer and tighter clothes. She flirts openly with the king but it is her cousin who wins Henry. Eliza Rose soon finds court to be unbearable and she longs for freedom. After Katherine becomes Queen and Eliza is made her maid of honour she again becomes disenchanted with court life. "...I was tired of the endless luxury of our life and our stifling lack of air and freedom..." By the end of the novel Eliza completely understands her life over the last few years. "Of course the old duchess had been training us up to be bait for the king. We were just pawns in the game of winning more power for our families...It should not have been a surprise. After all, I had been told for as long as I could remember that I must do my duty for my family. " Eliza faced with the prospect of becoming the king's mistress after the death of her cousin, feels court has become a prison. Though she has spent her entire life preparing for this moment, Eliza makes her own choice when a different path is offered.

Fans of historical fiction will enjoy Worsley's presentation of the events surrounding Katherine Howard rise through the Tudor court to queen and her tragic downfall. With her particular insight into the Tudor era, the author is able to give her readers what feels like a realistic and genuine glimpse into court life during this time. Interestingly, Katherine Howard as the fifth wife of Henry VIII left no mark on the history of England and there are no known portraits that can be definitively identified as being of Katherine Howard.

Book Details:

Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley
New York: Bloomsbury Childrens     2016

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Under A Painted Sky is a story about friendship, identity and the meaning of family. Set in 1849, it was Chinese-American author Stacey Lee's debut novel in 2016.

The day started out like any other for fifteen year old Samantha Young, the daughter of a Chinese dry
goods merchant. Her father had leased their store, the Whistle only six months earlier after moving them from New York City to St. Joe, Missouri,  the jumping-off point for wagons heading west to California.They left New York to start a new life in California after his Portuguese business partner gambled away their business. To that end Samantha's father had given his friend Mr. Theodore Trask her mother's precious jade bracelet. Then Trask unexpectedly came to the Whistle last month, leading a wagon train of seven. Before Trask left, Samantha's father gave him the bracelet. She had no idea what Trask was going to do for her father in California.

The Whistle's wood building is crammed with bolts of fabric, so Samantha and her father live at the back of the store. While her father works in the store, Samantha spends her days giving violin lessons. At five o'clock as she hurries home after a day of lessons, Samantha smells smoke. To her horror she discovers the Whistle a charred heap, the fire still burning strong enough that people are carrying buckets of water. Her father is dead, leaving Samantha to face the world alone.

Their landlord Ty Yorkshire seems sympathetic to Samantha's plight and offers her a room at one of his places,  La Belle Hotel. When she arrives at the hotel, Miss Betsy orders her Negro servant, Annamae to take Samantha up to Room 2A and clean her up. Annamae gives Samantha a bath but shortly afterwards Ty Yorkshire enters the room. He proposes that in order for Samantha to pay off the "debt" she now owes due to the fire at the Whistle, she work as one of his prostitutes. Samantha refuses and while resisting Yorkshire's attempt to rape her, causes him to slip and hit his head on the edge of the bathtub. Believing she has killed him, Samantha with the help of Annamae, moves Yorkshire's body to the bed and decides to flee St. Joe. Samantha tells Annamae she's going to California to find Mr. Trask who was helping her father. Annamae informs Samantha that she also was planning to escape this very night as Yorkshire was going to turn her into a prostitute. Since she's missed her "Moses" wagon to freedom, Annamae decides to flee with Samantha.

Samantha suggests they dress as two young men out to make their fortune in the gold rush. The girls dress in men's clothing stolen from the brothel's laundry and into a saddlebag they put Yorkshire's Colt Dragoon pistol, his powder horn, two gold rings and a few dollars. They then sneak out of the hotel and down the street with the intent of crossing the Missouri River that night.

Samantha knows they have to be on the last wagon to cross the Missouri otherwise they will never get out of St. Joe. The long line of wagons means they must somehow sneak onto the last wagon that will go across this night. Samantha creates a diversion so that she and Annamae slip quickly into the first wagon, hiding among bags of feed. The driver of their wagon is Mr. Calloway who is trying to catch up with his family. They decide to stay in the wagon which travels through the night. The next morning Calloway is stopped by Deputy Granger who tells him that "A Chinese girl bashed a man's head in last night" and that she is the daughter of the careless Chinaman whose shop burned down. Although Calloway hasn't seen the two girls, he does allow Granger to search his wagon. Samantha and Annamae slip unseen out of the wagon and into the protection of a nearby weeping willow.

Alone on the prairie the two girls open up to one another. Annamae tells Samantha that she has lived in St. Joe for four years after being in St. Louis. She has two brothers,Tommy who died when he was seven and and older brother Isaac whom she recently learned would meet up with her at Harp Falls. Her family was split when she and Tommy were sold to Yorkshire and Isaac to some unknown place. Andy's goal is to travel to Harp Falls to meet up with Isaac while Sam intends to catch up to Trask on the trail. Annamae suggests she cut Samantha's hair so she looks more like a boy. Their plan is to follow the Oregon Trail to California.

When they stop to eat, three young men, two white and one Mexican arrive on horseback with a fourth horse. The green-eyed boy is Cayenne Pepper, Cay for short, his cousin West and their Mexican wrangler, Pedro Hernando Gonzalez or Peety. Samantha introduces herself as Sam and Annamae as Andy. Sam and Andy tell the boys they are heading west to where there's gold, while Cay reveals that they have just moved one thousand head of cattle to St. Louis and are heading to a job in California.

Sam and Andy strike a bargain with the three cowboys to take them to the Little Blue River, riding the extra horse.  The cowboys seem friendly and Sam wonders if they should have bargained to take them farther than the Little Blue. The next morning the group of five set out, Sam riding with West on his sorrel named Francesca or Franny, Peety on his Andalusian named Lupe, Cay on his spunky pinto called Skinny while Andy is forced to ride Princesa, a temperamental bay who screams whenever she approaches. Sam learns from West that there are numerous trails to California. He tells her the distance before the Oregon Trail divides is 950 miles. For Sam this means she has to find Mr. Trask before the trail forks or risk losing him and learning what her father was planning for them, forever. When they reach the Little Blue, Sam suggests a fishing contest and that if she and Andy win, the three cowboys will take them to the next trading post, Fort Kearny where they can get their own horses. When the girls win the contest, it means three more weeks of hiding both their true identity and the fact that they are wanted criminals from the cowboys, while trying to learn the location of Harp Falls and catch up to Mr. Trask. What they don't bargain on is becoming friends and finding a new family.


Under A Painted Sky is a compelling novel about friendship, family and identity. It is a tale of survival set in 1849, on the Oregon Trail. Although a historical novel, Under A Painted Sky focuses more on characterization and the relationships that develop between the main characters in the novel, in particular between Samantha and Annamae as well as between Samantha and West Pepper rather than on presenting readers with detailed information about the Oregon Trail and the movement west.

For example, most of the story takes place on the Oregon Trail but Lee's portrayal of travel on the trail in 1849 is somewhat sparse in detail. Andy and Sam set out with minimal provisions, yet never seem to lack for food or water or medicine. They conveniently kill a snake their first night when they also conveniently meet up with three young cowboys who are well provisioned. They also have no trouble catching fish or finding suitable drinking water. As they journey along the Oregon Trail no one seems unduly worried about getting caught on the prairie or in the mountains after the onset of winter - a major concern of wagon trains. There is some passing portrayal of the hardships of the journey, but it isn't until the group falls ill from cholera that the reader is presented with the reality of life on the trail in the mid-1800's.

Nevertheless,  the focus is on the relationships between the characters  and that is what makes this novel so powerful. There are five main characters in the novel: Annamae (Andy), Samantha (Sam) Young, West Pepper and his cousin Cay and their friend Pedro. Andy and Sam form an unlikely bond when circumstances throw them together.  They are thrown together by fate according to Samantha although Annamae, a religious girl, believes God has a hand in everything, even putting the willow tree near where Calloway stops his wagon.
"God planted this tree right here for us."
"Maybe it's better to think of it as fate...I mean, sometimes I wonder why God  would grant a favor if trouble's just waiting around the corner? It feel disingenuous. If it's fate, then it's written in the stars, and we can't do much to avoid it...I don't mean any offense. I just mean, if God is benevolent ---"
"God is benevolent, and it ain't Christian to believe in fate, because He's in charge of the stars, too."

However Samantha believes in the Chinese principle of yuanfen, that some peoples lives are tied together. She tells Andy this when she's worried she may not find her brother Isaac. "There's a Chinese principle callued yuanfen, which means your fate with someone else...Two people with strong yuanfen have a greater chance of meeting in their lifetimes, and can become close as family."

Lee develops her characters in light of the Chinese zodiac which we learn about through Samantha. Before the girls meet the cowboys, we learn first about Samantha. Samantha was born in 1833, the Year of the Snake. A child born in the Year of the Snake is considered lucky but since Sam's mother died in childbirth she is considered unlucky. She has been told to resist her "Snake weaknesses such as crying easily and needing to have the last word." Samantha, upon learning that Annamae was born in 1832, states that she was born in the "Year of the Dragon, the most powerful of the twelve animals on the Chinese calendar...Dragons are sharp-tongued, stubborn and overconfident...They're also creative and independent. And when they put their minds to something, they always succeed..."

When the three cowboys arrive on the scene, Samantha quickly begins to size up their characters and assigns them Chinese zodiac animals too, although she's not completely correct. Based on his age, Samantha believes Cay Pepper was born in the Year of the Rabbit, "meaning he has a tendency to overbreed." and that West is the same. But later she believes Cay was born in the Year of the Tiger. "He's fearless, but a show-off, which leads to recklessness. Yet he could charm the spots off a leopard, so people will follow him regardless. It doesn't hurt that the beauty of Tigers makes them difficult not to watch." She's not far off the mark as Cay is presented as a ladies man, and in fact is running from a girl in Texas who tried to trick him into marriage.

Samantha tells Andy that Peety, whom Andy likes, was born in the Year of the Rat. She says, "He likes to talk, but doesn't share much about himself. He's a perfectionist, a tireless worker, and -- this cinches it -- he loves elegance." She tells Andy that "Rats are most well-suited with Dragons." It's that principle of yuanfen once again.

A main source of tension in the novel is Samantha and Annamae hiding their true identity and that they are girls from the cowboys. For most of the novel it seems they succeed but the reader isn't quite certain. The reader learns near the end of the story, that the cowboys were not really fooled and that they knew all along these were two girls who needed their help. But until that point, this secret is the source of tension in the novel, especially as Samantha begins to form a strong attraction towards West. More and more Samantha finds herself falling for West and struggling to maintain her "boy" image. "I regard his profile, his lips parted slightly, and his perfect eyebrows beginning to knit. It both scares and thrills me to admire his beauty from so close, like I am breaking some law against staring." But the mixed messages she receives from West make her wonder. Even when Samantha saves West's life by force feeding him by mouth she is uncertain as to what he feels and what he knows. When he begins to recover he glares at her. Is he repulsed by her because or how she appears on the outside - Chinese or a boy?  "Maybe he knew all along and never said anything because kissing a Chinese girl would be as indecent as kissing a boy." She is saddened that he seems to be judging her by her "wrapper" that is the fact that she's Chinese. In the end she learns that West is actually struggling to come to terms with how he feels about her.

As Sam and Andy develop the skills needed to survive on the trail - they learn to ride a horse and shoot a gun and bow and arrow, they also begin to earn the respect of the cowboys. The bond between the five strengthen as they help each other through the numerous difficulties they encounter, West's accident, the cholera and their pursuit by the Scottish boys. By the end of the novel, the five characters discover they have formed a friendship and what amounts to a bond as strong as family. Samantha even chooses to delay her attempt to catch up with Trask in favour of helping Andy find Harp Falls and meet up with her brother. Samantha realizes that "Maybe what matters is not so much the path as who walks beside you."

Under A Painted Sky is filled with sky imagery that reflects the realities of life, sometimes beautiful, always changing. The title is a reference to something West tells Sam one evening as they traipse "through a wooded area tinted violet." "This is the best time to hunt, when the animals are out looking for their suppers.'Course, with a painted sky, light's not good." I never heard anyone all the sky painted before, but it's the perfect word. Clouds outlined in gold streak across the firmament, casting uneven shadows over the landscape." This is a reference to West uncertainty about Sam. He's not really sure what he's seeing. At the end of the novel when Annamae and Samantha are floating in the river looking up at the clouds and the different shapes they make Samantha tells her that the clouds are like life - ever changing. "The clouds, they never hold still. Sometimes you think you're seeing one thing, and a second later, the whole picture changes."

Lee brings her novel to a thrilling, action-packed climax and a satisfying conclusion. Not all the ends are tied up as Samantha never learns what her father had planned for them in California. But the crisis that nearly costs Sam her life, forces the truth out into the open: the girls are revealed for who they are, they learn that the cowboys quickly figured out their situation and West and Peety openly admit their affection for Samantha and Annamae. Lee has crafted a wonderfully written piece of historical fiction, filled with adventure, a touch of humour and populated by diverse characters who develop meaningful relationships.

Book Details:

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons     2015
370 pp.

Friday, February 3, 2017

DVD: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans tells the tragic (fictional) story of a young couple living on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Western Australia who find a baby in a rowboat washed near the beach and decide to keep the baby with catastrophic repercussions.

Tom Shelbourne has returned from serving in World War I, a shell-shocked survivor. Seeking a place of refuge and quiet, he accepts a temporary six-month contract as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote windswept island off the coast of Western Australia. Before beginning his stint as lightkeeper Tom travels to the town of Partaguese where he has dinner with Violet and Bill Graysmark and also meets their young daughter, Isabel. Bill reveals the lightkeeper on Janus Rock is suffering from some kind of mental breakdown due to the extreme isolation. Nevertheless, Tom begins his stay on Janus Rock, tending the light and working to maintain the lighthouse and its buildings.

It turns out the sick lightkeeper for Janus Rock cannot return and Tom is offered a three year job as the lightkeeper. He and Isabel begin a quick relationship initiated by Isabel and they marry. Tom and Isabel settle into life on Janus Rock and soon she is expecting a baby. However, she miscarries one night during a terrible storm and is understandably devastated. A year later Isabel once again becomes pregnant, but although she carries the baby much longer, she miscarries that baby too. Shortly after this miscarriage, Tom spots a rowboat in the water just offshore of the lighthouse. In the boat they find a dead man and a crying, very hungry baby.

After warming and feeding the baby, Isabel is supremely happy. Tom tells her that this must go in his log and he needs to contact the mainland to let them know. Isabel begs for him to wait until morning which he reluctantly agrees to do. In the morning Isabel argues that the baby is safe and that no one need know and that this is best for the baby who will most certainly be sent to an orphanage. This baby is the answer to their prayers. Against his conscience and better judgement, Tom agrees to omit the events from the logbook and buries the dead man on Janus Rock. He sends a message to the mainland stating that Isabel has given birth ahead of schedule and that the baby is a girl. There is much celebrating and the supply boat returns with baby supplies and food.

However, things begin to go awry when Isabel and Tom take the baby, whom they have named Lucy,  to the mainland for her christening. While waiting for the vicar to arrive, Tom notices a woman grieving by a tombstone.  After she leaves, he walks to the tombstone where he is stunned to see that it bears the names of two people lost at sea on April 26, 1923, the day they found Lucy. Those people are a man named Frank Roennfeldt and his baby daughter, Grace Roennfeldt. Tom realizes that he now knows the Lucy's true identity but more importantly that she has a mother who is suffering deeply. Tom is troubled and preoccupied during the christening and afterwards approaches Isabel to tell her what he has learned. He insists that they now must return Lucy to her mother, but Isabel refuses. She insists that they must do what is right for Lucy who is safe with them. In an attempt to assuage his conscience and comfort Lucy/Grace's mother, Tom sends her an anonymous note telling her Grace is safe and that her husband is in the arms of God. Hannah Roennfeldt takes the note to the local police but they tell her it's not enough to go on at this point.

A few years pass and life for Tom, Isabel and Lucy continues happily on Janus Rock. Until one day during a special event recognizing the service of the lighthouse on the island, Tom witnesses Isabel and Lucy talking unknowingly with Lucy's real mother. This sets in motion a chain of events that unravels the false life Tom and Isabel have built.


The Light Between Oceans is a emotional, heartbreaking film that is slow off the mark but gradually draws viewers in. The film takes its time setting the atmosphere and the background for the events to come. After searching for months, the film crew chose the 72ft tall Cape Campbell lighthouse located Cook Strait in New Zealand's South Island as the setting for Janus Rock. Cape Campbell lighthouse allowed cinematographer Adam Arkapaw to recreate the windswept isolation that no doubt played a significant part in Isabel Shelbourne's desperate actions. Unfortunately, while the cinematography of the untamed power of sea and wind are gorgeous, the pacing of the film suffers.

Tom and Isabel Shelbourne are played by Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander who are a couple in real life. The couple definitely has an on-screen rapport that makes their quick marriage believable. Tom Shelbourne's withdrawn nature and propensity to destructive self-sacrifice is well captured by Fassbender. Rachel Weiz was cast as the stoic but caring Hannah Roennfeldt. All give solid performances.

The film is filled with many heartbreaking moments, including Isabel enduring two miscarriages, little Lucy being torn from the person she loves very much and who she believes is her mother, and the struggles of Hannah Roennfeldt to build a relationship with her long lost daughter, Grace. Equally heartbreaking is the conflict that develops between Tom and Isabel whom he loves very much. Tom's guilt over surviving the war results in his misguided attempts to protect the wife he feels he never deserved to have and to love.

Despite all of the tragedy the film ends on a hopeful tone, with a message of forgiveness. When Tom and Isabel face years of imprisonment for their actions, it is Hannah who redeems them. Remembering her beloved husband Frank who decided to forgive those who harboured antagonism towards him because of his German nationality, Hannah forgives Tom and Isabel, by speaking for them. She recognizes that they did save Grace and she remembers what Frank once told her, "You only have to forgive once. To resent you have to do it all day, every day."  And maybe in the end, that's the most important message of this film.