Thursday, April 27, 2017

Silent Songbird by Melanie Dickerson

Silent Songbird is the seventh installment Melanie Dickerson's historical fairy-tale romance series, the Hagenheim series. Seventeen year old Evangeline lives in Berkhamsted Castle in Hertfordshire, England with her maid, Muriel. Evangeline is a ward of King Richard II who is her cousin. Her father was the king's deceased uncle, Lionel of Antwerp. She and Richard have been friends since they were children.

Evangeline decides to flee Berkhamsted Castle to avoid being forced to marry Lord Shiveley who is an older, trusted advisor of King Richard. Her appeal to Richard fails to move the king to change his mind. Determined to escape that night, Evangeline disguises herself as a peasant and flees with Muriel. They fall in with a group leaving the castle after selling wheat and other goods during the day. That group is led by a young nobleman, Westley le Wyse who is returning to his family's estate in Glynval. When he meets Evangeline and Muriel he agrees to allow them to travel with his group when Muriel tells him that Evangeline is mute as a result of an attack by her mistress.

On the journey to Glynval, the group encounters men on horseback, wearing the livery of Lord Shiveley and King Richard. They inform Westley's group that they are looking for two women, one of whom is tall and has red hair. Because the woman they are looking for is not mute like Eva, they tell Shiveley's men they have not seen the women.

When they arrive at Glynval they are taken to Westley's father's castle, which is much smaller than that of Berkhamsted Castle. Mistress Alice assigns Muriel who goes by the name of Mildred, to churn butter while Evangeline is sent to work in the fields, scything wheat. It soon becomes apparent that Evangeline is incapable of doing any menial tasks. Everything she is assigned, she is unable to do and usually ends in disaster. First she almost seriously wounds Reeve Folsham with the scythe. Westley intervenes and has Evangeline sent to the castle where Lady le Wyse assigns her to work under Golda, the head cook. Working with Sabina, Nicola, Berta and Cecily, Eva is unable to shell peas. She finds it difficult to draw water from the well and when sent to put the slop into the pigs' trough, Evangeline inadvertently allows the animals to escape. However, with Westley's help, they return the pigs to their pen.

Westley wants to know more about Eva's injury to her voice. He tells her that his friend, John Underhill's father was killed during the peasant uprising. Westley's father gave his servants a decent wage and lessened their work hours while John's father did not. John is angry as Westley and his father, Lord le Wyse and blames them for his father's death. Eva gets Westley to understand that she can read and write and this leads him to invite her to the castle that night to read the Bible together.

Muriel attempts to convince Evangeline to return to Hertfordshire, telling her it is her duty to marry whomever the king chooses, but she refuses. Evangeline hands have become badly blistered and it is Westley who treats them with a special salve made by his mother. Given the day off, she wanders along the bank of the river and is witness to Westley being attacked by two men. He is struck on the head and falls into the river. Evangeline rescues him and unable to pull him out, begins screaming for help. Sabina, the miller's daughter arrives to help and is astonished that Evangeline can speak. Together they along with several men get Westley back to the manor house. Sabina who intends to marry Westley, threatens to reveal Evangeline's secret if she takes credit for his rescue.

Evangeline realizes she will now have to reveal her secret because she knows Sabina will tell and she also believes Westley is in danger. However revealing her secret may mean Evangeline will be sent back to Berkhamsted castle to marry the nefarious Lord Shiveley. However, Westley's family has a connection to Lord Shiveley that may just end up saving Evangeline.


Discussion

Silent Songbird stays true to the tropes that are common in historical romance fiction. In this case, a virginal heroine runs away to avoid marriage to a rake only to meet the virtuous, handsome, kind man of her dreams whom she can't marry because he's beneath her station in life. However, the two end up marrying and living happily ever after.

There are essentially two storylines in Silent Songbird centered around the two main characters; Evangeline's forced marriage to Lord Shiveley and Westley's conflict with John Underhill. The novel opens with Evangeline's story. Dickerson uses the threat of Evangeline's imminent marriage to draw her readers into the story. Evangeline devises a scheme of pretending she's mute but this causes her and Muriel problems. Confronted with Westley's generosity and kindness, Evangeline feels enormous guilt over deceiving him about not being able to speak. It's probably unlikely that Evangeline would have be able to avoid a forced marriage in the 14th century. As Muriel repeatedly tells Evangeline in the novel, "Romantic love is very well to dream about to imagine what it might be like to fall in love and marry and live in bliss for the rest of your life...But it is not the way of kings and those with royal blood." Evangeline likely would have been prepared for the eventually of marriage, even to a much older man. No other opportunities would have be available for her as a ward of the king, other than entering a convent. In the story however Westley's parents who are nobility are uncharacteristically determined to help Evangeline even if it means losing everything. "Losing everything is sometimes the price one must pay for doing the right thing. I could not save my cousin, but perhaps...perhaps we can save the king's..." As it turns out they are more than acquainted with Lord Shiveley.

In Westley's narrative, Dickerson provides some of the historical backstory that led to the conflict between Westley and John. Set in England in 1384, the story occurs after the Peasant Revolts of 1381. The black death had ravaged the population in 1340 resulting in a shortage of labour. England was involved in an ongoing conflict with France that would become known at the Hundred Years War. High taxes and the practice of serfdom also contributed to the revolts in which some of the noblemen and royal officials were killed. King Richard met with the rebels and was able to successfully put down the revolt. The roots of the revolt form the basis for the major conflict in the novel between Westley le Wyse and John Underhill.

Silent Songbird
is highly romanticized and idealistic; Westley is handsome, a Bible-reading Christian, concerned with everyone's welfare. His foil is John Underhill, the opposite of Westley in every way. Similarly, Evangeline is a sweet, caring, innocent girl, the opposite of the conniving, mean-spirited Sabina.

Fans of Dickerson will enjoy this novel as it follows the formula of her other books in this series.

Book Details:

Silent Songbird by Melanie Dickerson
Nashville, Tennessee:  Thomas Nelson      2016
282 pp.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lighter Than Air by Matthew Clark Smith

Lighter Than Air is a picture book about Sophie Blanchard, the first woman to fly in a balloon. Ballooning was a popular craze in eighteenth-century France as man began to look to the heavens and sought a way to fly.

Two French brothers, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier had invented a hot-air balloon and run several trials with it. Joseph's idea for the hot air balloon came about while watching the embers rise into the air from a fire. He and his brother built a box with and attached sac constructed out of taffetta and lit a fire in the box. Their first balloon travelled almost two kilometers before crashing.

When the first manned balloon flight took place in November of 1793, Sophie Armant was five years old. Her full name was Marie Madeleine Sophie Armant and she was born in 1778 in Trois-Canons, France. Sophie who was nervous of the noisy carriages used for travel in those days, wished she could fly like the birds. As she grew up, ballooning continued to flourish in France, even becoming incorporated into the fashion of the era and even in furniture.

One of the most famous balloonists was Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who along with John Jeffries an American doctor, were the first to cross the English Channel in 1785 in a balloon. Sophie was fascinated by Blanchard's feats and was determined to become a balloonist. This was a daring ambition as women would not thought capable of doing many things that men did. Sophie married Blanchard, who had earlier abandoned his wife and four children to pursue his ambition of becoming a balloonist. Blanchard believed that having a young woman accompany him might make ballooning more profitable. Soon Sophie made her own solo ascent in 1805. He was correct. After his death in 1809, Sophie carried on becoming a famous balloonist.

Lighter Than Air tells the remarkable story of how Sophie Blanchard became the first woman balloonist and was so famous that Emperor Napoleon made her Chief Minister of Air Ballooning. Author Matthew Clark Smith is a naturalist and writer who makes his home in Mississippi. Smith wanted to tell Sophie's story because he views her as the first in a long and proud line of women who became aeronauts, pilots and astronauts, proving that women can do anything men can do!

Lighter Than Air is illustrated with the lovely ink and watercolour art of Matt Tavares who is an award-winning children's book author-illustrator. His first picture book was Zachary's Ball which was published in 2000. Tavares states in a note at the back of the book that he tried to use the sky to help tell Sophie's story.

Other resources to further your interest:

The Smithsonian website has an article, Sophie Blanchard - The Highflying Frenchwoman Who Revealed the Thrill and Danger of Ballooning.

Nova's website also has a webpage, A Short History of Ballooning which is helpful.

A short animated film The Fantastic Flights of Sophie Blanchard was made in 2012.



Book Details:

Lighter Than Air by Matthew Clark Smith
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press 2017


Monday, April 24, 2017

DVD: Lion

Lion brings to the big screen, the remarkable story of Saroo Brierley who was lost at age five, adopted by an Australian couple and who as an adult eventually located his family in India. This beautiful film, directed by Garth Davis

In 1987, Saroo whose real name was Sheru Munshi Khan, was allowed to accompany his fourteen year old brother Guddu to beg for food. Sheru lived in Ganesh Tali with his mother and his brothers and sisters. Their father had abandoned the family and they were very poor, so the boys often begged for food.

On that fateful day, Guddu and Saroo took the train from Khandwa station to Burhanpur. While Guddu went to look for food, Saroo slept on a bench. When he woke up, Guddu was no where to be found. Thinking he was on the train waiting in the station, Saroo boarded. However, the train was not in service and Saroo ended up travelling over 1500 miles to Calcutta. Lost, confused, and unable to speak the local dialect of Bengali, (Saroo spoke Hindi) he spent weeks on the streets before being taken to the Nava Jeevan orphanage by an older boy. The orphanage was run by Saroj Sood. Eventually, Saroo was adopted by a couple, John and Sue Brierley from Tasmania, Australia.

In Australia, Saroo quickly settled into his new life. He was raised in the Brierley's loving home with another Indian orphan, Manosh. However Saroo never forgot his brother nor his mother. In the movie, which is based on the book, A Long Way Home written by Saroo Brierley, when Saroo is in Melbourne studying hotel management, an Indian dinner with friends forces him to confront his past. He admits he was adopted and explains to his friends, including his girlfriend Lucy, what happened to him as a young child. They suggest that he try this new feature called Google Earth to try to locate his village.

Sunny Pawar as young Saroo
At first Saroo is dismissive of this suggestion but he soon begins his search. His time searching causes him great inner turmoil as he struggles to cope with the knowledge that his mother and his brother may still be searching for him and likely thinking of him each and every day. Using Google Earth and social media, Saroo is able to locate his village but will his family still be there? Saroo travels to India and is reunited with his family after twenty-five long years.


In Lion, a young Saroo is portrayed by Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate is his older brother Guddu and Dev Patel was cast as the adult Saroo Brierley. Nicole Kidman and David Wenham of Faramir fame from Lord of the Rings play Saroo's adoptive parents. Pawar is captivating in his performance, endearing himself to viewers as we watch this small, innocent boy struggle through his fears and loneliness to survive on the streets of Calcutta. To better portray the reality of young Saroo's situation the movie contains many scenes, shot overheard, showing the little boy in the contrasting, sweeping vistas that exist in India, and among crowded streets and dirty slums.The second half of the movie is devoted to a grown-up Saroo's struggle to locate his family in India based only on the vivid memories he retains from his childhood. His search began using the satellite images on Google Earth and over a period of months he finally located what he thought might be his family's village. Saroo could remember only that the nearest railway station began with the letter B and when he found Burhanpur station he begins to recognize features on the satellite images. Davis does a great job of showing us the images Saroo would have viewed and the map he created as he worked his way through eliminating possible villages. These are juxtaposed with images Saroo remembers from his memories of what happened. His reunion with his mother is tender and emotional; Dev Patel and Priyanka Bose who portrays Kamla Munshi, probably capture only the barest essence of what this truly must have felt like.

Saroo with his family in India.
Davis says that he sees his film as having two parts; the first part portrays the outside journey Saroo experiences as he travels across India alone in a the train, then in search of his brother and his family and finally to Australia, the second part of the film portrays the inner journey of Saroo as he struggles to understand his past and find his family. Saroo has stated that he does not see himself as having two identities, but instead as having two families: one in India and one in Australia.

If you haven't seen Lion, go see it. It's a wonderfully realistic portrayal of one man's journey back home that feels honest.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

To Catch A Killer by Sheryl Scarborough

To Catch a Killer is a somewhat predictable murder mystery. Author Sheryl Scarborough is a forensics buff who has incorporated her knowledge into the novel; readers interested in basic forensic science won't be disappointed.

Erin Blake lives in Iron Rain, Oregon with her mother's best friend, Rachel. Erin's mother, Sarah Blake was murdered fourteen years ago. Erin was only a toddler at the time and survived three days alone beside the corpse of her murdered mother. With the identity of her father unknown, Rachel took in Erin.

Once again Erin finds herself at the scene of a murder - this time involving her beloved biology teacher, Miss Laura Peters. Erin found her body lying in a pool of blood when she went to drop off DNA samples for Miss Peters to analyze. She tells the police officer named Baldwin that she saw someone running away from Miss Peters' house and identifies the person as Journey Michaels, a classmate.

Rachel arrives at the police station where her best friend,  Detective Sydney Rankle works. As she's leaving, Journey Michaels is being brought in for questioning. The next morning Rachel questions Erin about why she was at Miss Peters home early in the morning.  Erin doesn't tell Rachel what really happened and why she was leaving a bloodied towel in Miss Peters mailbox. She tells Rachel that she knows so much about forensics from Rachel's brother Victor's books on the subject. "Uncle" Victor works for the FBI. Rachel is not supportive of Erin's interest in forensics as she believes it is a trigger for her based on what happened when she was younger. But Erin, her best friend Spam and her other friend Lysa run a Cheater Check club where they offer forensic services to their fellow students to see if boyfriends/girlfriends are cheating.

It turns out that Erin is quite keen on forensics. She has a secret door in her closet that leads to the attic where her mother's old furniture is stored and where she is also hiding the box containing evidence from her mother's murder.The attic also houses Erin's beginnings of a small lab complete with a microscope. Erin tells her friends that there were three potential male suspects in her mother's case that she considers might be her father. From her mother's evidence she knew their identities and was able to surreptitiously obtain DNA evidence with the intention of determining if any are her father. Miss Peters was going to do the tests.

When Erin returns to school, she attempts to talk with Journey but he seeks her out and is furious, handing her a thin strip of white and blue fabric claiming she dropped it. Erin is shocked because the fabric Journey Michaels hands her is a missing part of her mother's dress. Erin gets a pass home from Mr. Roberts, the principal and unexpectedly finds police confiscating her laptop and other possessions. Sydney tells her that Journey is cleared but that she is a person of interest. Luckily the police do not search the attic. Erin has no idea what the piece of fabric means and she's determined to speak with Journey.

They meet after school and compare what happened that night outside Miss Peters house. Journey reveals that he had brought a toothbrush to Miss Peters because he is trying to clear his father of murder. Erin takes Journey to her house and shows her the box of evidence and her budding crime lab. Erin tells him that the tie he gave her was part of her mother's dress and has been missing for fourteen years. She believes if they can figure out who left the material in the van and why they can solve both her mother and Miss Peter's murders.

Discussion

To Catch A Killer features four teens who attempt to solve the murder of their biology teacher through the use of forensics. The teens are led by the main character, Erin Blake who was present when her mother was murdered years ago. Erin is a forensics buff like her "Uncle" Vince who works for the FBI. She reads all his books on forensics procedures.

Crime novels create suspense partly by concealing the identity of the perpetrator. But in To Catch A Killer, readers will clue-in early on to the identity of the murderer as this character's behaviour stands out as creepy and just strange. However, Erin doesn't notice because she considers this person a close friend.

The focus of the story is on the forensics used to solve crimes and Scarborough delivers on that count.  Scarborough incorporates many forensic facts into her story by having Erin either practice them or mention them to her friends. There is an eleven-page description of Victor and Erin conducting a DNA extraction at Erin's house. Despite the story being engaging, many of the situations seemed contrived to move the plot along. For example, principals don't usually give out passes (most schools have attendance offices that do this or vice principals - which did not exist in this story) but it was necessary to have Erin go home to discover the police searching her bedroom. Another strange situation involved Rachel's lame attempt to convince Erin that there was no intruder in their house despite the fact that Erin saw the man and had physical evidence (the footprint) of his presence. The fabric from Erin's mother's dress was the clue that linked the person who murdered Sarah Blake to the murder of Miss Peters yet at the reveal near the end, the reader has to wonder why that person was carrying around a piece of fabric for fourteen years (and it still seemed in good condition) and dropped it in Journey's van?

The characters in To Catch A Killer are interesting, especially Spam, but not as developed as they could be. Scarborough does give more detail on the relationship between Erin and Spam and of course, there's a budding romance between Journey and Erin.

Overall, To Catch A Killer is a fun read, with an exciting conclusion. It's not Agatha Christie but for those who love mysteries and lots of forensics, it's a winner. Scarborough ties up most of the loose ends but not all.

Book Details:

To Catch A Killer by Sheryl Scarborough
New York: Tom Doherty  Associates       2017
320 pp.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wait For Me by Caroline Leech

Set in Aberlady, East Lothian Scotland Wait For Me is a tender story about forbidden love during the closing days of World War II.

Almost eighteen-year-old Lorna Anderson lives on Craigielaw farm with her father. Her mother died when Lorna was very young. Since then, Mrs. McMurdough (Mrs. Mack) comes daily to cook, clean and care for the Anderson family.  With her brothers, John Jo and Sandy away at war, Lorna and her father are helped on the farm by Nellie who came two years ago from the Women's Land Arm.

In early February of 1945, a truck bearing German POWs from the Gosford Prisoners of War camp pulls into the farm. One of the prisoners, a tall skinny young man is dropped off to work on the Anderson farm. He is introduced to Lorna who is shocked to see that the left side of his face has been badly burned and scarred. "...from his left temple to his chin across his cheek and down the left side of his throat, the pale skin had been burned away, leaving raw red scarring, tight and shiny. The flesh was puckered into the knotted remnants of an earlobe, and his left eye was stretched out of shape, round elongating to oval."

Lorna races to school to write her exam and can't wait to tell her best friend Iris Robertson. After the exam Lorna's teacher, Mrs. Murray suggests to Lorna that she should consider university but with the war continuing, Lorna feels she cannot leave her father. After school Lorna tries to convince Iris to reconsider her blossoming romance with William Urquhart, who is the son of the parish minister and Aberlady School's head boy but Iris insists that William is clever and "very moral". Iris believes that Lorna's dislike for her beau is a mask for jealousy. . Lorna tells Iris about the badly disfigured young German soldier who is working on their farm. Iris seems to feel the German soldier deserved his injuries which greatly upsets Lorna.

The next day the German POW arrives back at the farm. After slowly and loudly introducing herself, Lorna is surprised to discover that he speaks English. He tells her his name is Paul Vogel and wishes Lorna a good day. Paul explains to Lorna that his aunt was an English lady who taught him English during his holidays on his uncle's farm. When Lorna tells Paul that people are not happy about Germans working on local farms and that there are Nazis at the camp he brusquely reminds her that not all Germans are Nazis. Later on Mrs. Mack reminds Lorna that Paul like all young men, was doing what his country asked of him.

As the days pass Lorna begins to experience increasingly conflicting feelings about Paul. Although she's upset at his presence on the farm, she also watches out for him. With the start of lambing season, Lorna helps her father as Nellie is unable to cope with the birthing. Paul stays in the lambing shed to feed those lambs abandoned by their mothers caring tenderly for them. But after her remark about the Nazis, Paul is curt and distant with Lorna, making her feel upset. Needing more help on the farm. Lorna's father is granted permission to have Paul stay overnight on the farm. They arrange a place for Paul to sleep in the hayloft in the barn and Lorna takes his evening meal to him in the barn.

One evening Paul explains to Lorna about his family. She reminds him of his younger sister Lilli who lives in Desden with his mother. Paul describes the beauty of Desden to Lorna, with its churches, art galleries and many parks. He also tells her how his father, a clockmaker, was forced into the Wehrmacht, the German army in late 1939 and was dead by April. When he turned sixteen, Paul began to apprentice as a clockmaker, but when he turned eighteen, he too was forced into the Wehrmacht.

As Lorna comes to know Paul, she is faced with the reality that he is a nice man and one whom she could be friends with or even more. But is that even possible in a time of war? And what does that mean for herself and her family? For Lorna, falling in love with an enemy soldier may mean losing all that she holds dear.

Discussion

Wait For Me is a beautifully crafted story about love in the time of war. In her debut novel, Leech deftly weaves her story about a young woman's prejudices and assumptions that are gradually conquered when she encounters the humanity of a German prisoner of war. As her view transforms from mistrust to friendship and finally to love, she struggles with her own inner conflicts and the prejudices of those around her.

The story opens in February of 1945, in what would be the closing months of World War II. Like most British, Lorna views all Germans as the enemy; cruel and dangerous.  The nearby base has been made into a prisoner of war camp housing German soldiers who are to work on local farms. When she first sees Paul Vogel, she believes he's sneering at her. "Then his gaze fell to her school uniform and woolen stockings, her milk-and-muck-spattered shoes. The right, undamaged side of his face rose in a sneer. Or was it a smile? No, definitely a sneer."

Although she doesn't trust Paul, when Iris suggests that he may have deserved his terrible wound, Lorna is horrified. "Iris! Just because someone's a German doesn't mean he deserves to be hurt so badly."  Iris suggests that Lorna should be pleased that he's been badly hurt, but Lorna is confused about how she should feel. "Well, yes...no...maybe...I mean, yes, but when you've got a real one standing right in front of you and the damage to his face is so terrible, well, it's ...different. Somehow."

The next day, Lorna notices that Paul seems forlorn and she feels "... almost sorry for him." Looking more closely at Paul, she notices, "...the tug at the right side of his mouth was there again. That same sneer. Except, today, it did look more like he was trying to smile. Tentative, perhaps, but still, it lightened his face..." And when she actually speaks to him, she notices even more, "...the smile was back, drawing Lorna's attention away from the burns. Its curve led her from his mouth up to his eyes, which sparkled." Lorna feels guilty; "Surely noticing an enemy's sparkle was tantamount to treason. She was betraying John Jo and Sandy and Gregor..." 

Lorna is concerned about Paul understanding the sergeant's insults but when she returns Paul's wave minutes later she admonishes herself. "Stop! He shouldn't be this friendly. She couldn't be this friendly. He was a German, after all." Paul's friendly actions don't fit with Lorna's view of Germans who are the enemy. Mrs. Mack tries to explain that Paul is simply doing what his country asked of him in a time of war. Lorna decides, "the prisoner had seemed quite nice, and not particularly threatening...Yes, he was quite nice really. For a German."

One day after Paul mentions his sister,  Lorna's questions lead him to tell her how the war affected his family and life.  Lorna identifies with Paul's situation, recognizing that just as she worries about her brothers, he worries about his mother and sister in Dresden. But as Lorna opens up to Paul about her brothers, once again she experiences intense conflict. "What had she been thinking, trusting this stranger, this enemy, with her precious memories.?" Yet she continues to be drawn to Paul both physically and emotionally. Watching him one morning washing at the water pump she wonders, "Would this Greek god still be here by summer, washing at the pump in the warm sun?"

Observing Paul working on the farm creates curiosity in Lorna. "She found herself wanting to know more about him. And it was strange, the more they'd talked the evening before...the less German he became. Or not less German, exactly, but more like any of the normal boys, the Scottish boys she knew at school. Lorna didn't know what to make of that. He was not like she had expected the enemy to be at all. In fact, she was beginning to realize that he might not be so very different from her."

Lorna's inner conflict is realistically portrayed and her gradual change of heart as she comes to view Paul as a person worth loving is touching and very romantic. Her internal struggle is a complicated one. For example, as their friendship grows, Lorna finds herself becoming more concerned with Paul and how he feels. His scarred faced no longer repulses her as she is able to look beyond his wounds to the person beneath. Lorna feels shame over her initial feelings about Paul suffering from the cold when he first arrived on the farm and shame for labelling him a Nazi. Paul's help when she is caught unexpectedly in a rainstorm, leaves her feeling comfort at his presence and recognizing that Paul is a nice person whom she could be friends with. But when they talk about the war and how Paul came to be injured, Lorna remembers that Paul may have killed Allied soldiers. "Suddenly the doubts crept back in. She must not forget that this man was an enemy soldier, she must not forget he was German, that he had been trained to kill men like her brother and his friends."

 Although Lorna is loyal to Britain she can't make herself hate or treat Paul badly simply because he's German. Her close relationship with Paul helps her to recognize that he doesn't represent the Nazi regime and that like her family, he's been caught in a war not of his own making.  But her struggle is ongoing throughout the novel; she is ready to accuse Paul of stealing her father's watch and she viciously blames him for what happens to John Jo.

Ironically, Lorna's only other interaction with a man who is not a family member is a complete contrast to Paul's actions towards her. While everyone is warning her to be watchful of Paul because he might be a spy, to lock her bedroom door when he stays overnight on the farm, it turns out it is the American soldiers she needs to be wary of. Her date for a dance turns out to be an American soldier whose drunken attempt to rape her leaves Lorna distraught and afraid. His behaviour is in stark contrast to Paul who is labelled an enemy soldier. Even Nellie's experience with the American soldiers is not a positive one; she becomes pregnant by a soldier who then tells her cannot marry her because he has a wife in Tennessee. 

As Lorna's relationship with Paul becomes known within the community both she and Paul face prejudice and Lorna is ostracized by almost everyone.  Here Leech's character shows her mettle; she stands up to her brother and to the prejudice of the villagers.Her bravery is soon supported by her father and by Mrs. Murphy whose son Gregor was killed. As her family rallies around her, Paul begins to find some acceptance when the war ends.

Leech builds tension throughout the novel beginning with the crisis between Lorna and her brother John Jo who is furious that she is friends with a German soldier, to a confrontation between Lorna's family and the parish minister, culminating in the sudden departure of the Germans from Gosford leaving Lorna believing Paul has gone for good. But Leech closes her story on a hopeful note, as suggested by the novel's title.

Wait For Me really captures the atmosphere of living in rural Scotland during the close of World War II. Life on the farms continued as families worried and waited for word of sons and husbands sent off to fight. Lambing season arrives, people fall in love, life goes on. Interactions with American and Allied soldiers were not always positive. And the arrival of German prisoners of war caused much worry among the local people.  Leech offers a balanced perspective with some characters being open and accepting of Paul, while others are not. John Jo's furious reaction to Lorna's relationship with Paul is realistic (it would be expected a soldier would not be happy with his sister falling in love with an enemy soldier) while Mrs. Mack recognizes Paul as a person who needs healing and compassion. Leech also touches briefly on the bombing of Dresden by Allied forces, demonstrating that in war, terrible deeds are done by both sides.

Wait For Me is another excellent addition to the young adult World War II historical fiction genre. Fans of Dan Smith's My Friend The Enemy will enjoy Caroline Leech's debut novel. Look for more from this author in the coming year.

An article from the Telegraph exploring the bombing of Dresden on the 70th anniversary.

A February 2015 Atlantic article titled, "Remembering Dresden: 70 years after the firebombing" contains many interesting photographs (Please note some are very graphic).

Book Details:

Wait For Me by Caroline Leech
New York: HarperCollins Children's Books   2017
361 pp.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

Sixteen year old Petula De Wilde lives with her mother and father in a four-storey walkup called the Arcadia in Vancouver's West End, B.C. A family tragedy, the death of Petula's little sister Maxine three years earlier, has derailed her life and that of her parents.


Petula and her best friend Rachel were ten years old when their mothers were each expecting a second child. Petula and Rachel were "crafting fiends" who spent their weekends making anything and everything. Petula's sister, Maxine Ella was born first and Rachel's brother Owen was born shortly afterwards. Maxine was a sweet, happy child whose favourite book was Where the Wild Things Are.

For Maxine's third birthday, Petula and Rachel made her a wolf costume with brown buttons which Petula sewed on to the front of the suit. One November evening over two years ago, Petula stayed home with Maxine while their parents went shopping. Maxine was fussy that day but Petula still put her down for her nap even though Maxine threw a temper tantrum. Eventually she calmed down and Petula thought Maxine fell asleep. When her parents returned and her father went to get Maxine he found her dead. She had been sucking on one of the buttons and it came loose, lodging in her throat, suffocating her. From this terrible event Petula learned to "always expect the worst."

Since Maxine's death, Petula is always preparing for something terrible to happen and she lives her life with this in mind. She only crosses at designated crosswalks and intersections, she scans the pavement for suspicious objects and bags, she avoids construction sites frequently checks that she's not being followed and carries a rape whistle. Her friendship with Rachel was destroyed when Petula could not bear to see Rachel with Owen and behaved cruelly towards her.

Maxine's death also seriously affected Petula's parents and their marriage. After Maxine's death her parents sold their cozy apartment on Comox. Her father who loved to play music stopped doing so and he's frequently absent from home. Her mother has taken to volunteering for the Vancouver Feline Rescue Association and has taken in six cats. The cats have helped drag Petula's mother "out of her pit of despair after Maxine died, which was something no one else -- not me, not my dad, not her therapist -- had been able to do." But they have also created tension between Petula's mom and dad.

After Maxine's death, Petula is sent to counselling with the school counsellor, Carol Polachuk. However, when she throws a cup at Polachuk, it's decided Petula will attend YART, the school's Youth Art Therapy group once per week. The group is facilitated by Betty Ingledrop who is their art therapist. The group consists of Alonzo Perez who attempted suicide after he came out to his family, Ivan (the Terrible) whose mother drowned two years ago on vacation in Mexico, and Koula Apostolos who is an alcoholic and drug addict. And then there is a new member, the Bionic Man.

The first time Petula sees the Bionic Man is when he is leaving Carol Polachuk's office in the counselling suite. The second time happens when Petula faints during her presentation on the 9/11 disaster. After being checked out by the nurse, Petula talks with Mr. Watley, the principal of St. Margaret SS who encourages her to try to avoid panic attack triggers. When leaving Watley's office, Petula bumps into Bionic Man again. He is at least four inches taller than Petula who stands at 5 ft 11 inches. He introduces himself as Jacob Cohen and offers her his black bionic hand to shake. They meet a third time in English class when Jacob is assigned to be Petula's partner for a class project involving adapting a portion of Wuthering Heights into a screenplay or stage play. Petula want's nothing to do with Jacob but after their YART session he attempts to get her phone number.

On the weekend Jacob shows up a Petula's apartment and meets her parents. He tells them that his family just moved to Vancouver in the past month after his parents got job transfers from Toronto. While at her apartment, Jacob discovers Petula's scrapbook that she keeps with clippings of disasters. She explains to Jacob that she's a pessimist and that the scrapbook reminds her to be vigilant.

As Petula and Jacob's relationship grows, and as she attends more YART sessions, Petula begins to change. Outings with her friends from YART lead Petula to use a public washroom. She reaches out to her estranged friend Rachel and begins to try to recover their friendship. With the encouragement of Jacob, Petula begins to confront her fears. But while Petula and the other YART members open up about their lives, Jacob remains secretive about his past. She can't find him online or on social media and he's insistent that their video project not be posted to YouTube. As Petula begins to heal emotionally, she must face some hard truths about her parents and about the boy she loves.

Discussion

Set in Vancouver, B.C. Optimists Die First is the story of a young girl who struggles to cope with a series of challenging situations in her life and with the help of friends eventually arrives on the path to healing and forgiveness. Petula De Wilde and her parents are still attempting to come to terms with the death of her litter sister, Maxine, when her parents decide to separate. In addition to this, Petula discovers the boy whom she is in a serious relationship with is discovered to have been involved in a drunk-driving accident that resulted in the deaths of his two best friends.

This would seem to be a large number of heavy subjects to tackle but Nielsen manages her story well through the use of humour. Optimists Die First is laugh out loud funny at times while realistically portraying Petula's struggles. With the death of her sister, Petula has developed rituals to keep herself and her family safe. Maxine's death has taught Petula that life is filled with danger. "Maxine's death had shown me that dangers lurk around every corner. So even if my grief and guilt made it hard for me to get out of bed, I knew I needed to do what I could to keep my parents together and safe. And I had to keep myself safe too...Because I'm it. I'm the only child my parents have left."

Petula's fears are overwhelming and all-encompassing. She hasn't been on a bus or eaten ground beef in two years, she wears mittens to avoid touching public areas with her hands, she plans never to fly, and she won't walk by construction sites. Besides coping with her enormous list of fears, Petula also feels she must be a caretaker to her parents who are also struggling with Maxine's death. Her father is often absent from home and her mother seems obsessed with collecting cats and suffers from depression. Maxine's death has deeply impacted their marriage and despite counseling they seem unable to resolve their issues. This leaves Petula feeling as though she needs to help her parents as they try to maintain some sense of normalcy.

For example when her father complains about how the cats are a priority for Petula's mother rather than the family, Petula quickly intervenes. "I'll clean it up...I vacuumed up all the clumps of cat fur in the living room. I sprayed all surfaces with antibacterial spray and changed the litter boxes. It was part of my strategy: think ahead to things my parents might argue about and try to fix them before they did." On their twentieth wedding anniversary, Petula with the help of Koula, prepares a special evening for her parents, in the hopes that this might help their marriage. Although her parents show much concern for her, it is her relationships with her peers that ultimately help Petula the most.

Nielsen portrays Petula's journey from obsessive fear and guilt towards healing in a gradual and realistic way. Everyone has their part to play in her journey, from her school principal Mr. Watley to Jacob, to Rachel and her companions in YART.  Watley continues to encourage Petula to avoid the triggers for her panic attacks and when necessary pushes her towards involvement in life.Petula's relationship with Jacob and her developing friendships with her peers in YART  help her begin to live again. With Jacob's encouragement, Petula contacts her best friend Rachel in an attempt to reconcile and the two girls begin crafting again. Rachel is patient and allows Petula to gradually come back into her life. Jacob helps Petula confront some of her other fears too.

One of the strengths of Nielsen's novel is the realistic portrayal of her art therapy group YART, which is populated by quirky but believable teens. The YART  teens push Petula to do the things she's avoided for the past two years, such as eating out in restaurants, using public washrooms, and taking public transit.  Eventually Petula's realizes that "Something was shifting in me. I woke up in the mornings and actually looked forward to the day." Petula is even able to visit her friend Rachel and be around her little brother Owen, realizing "This is what I was so afraid of. This little boy."  And she's finally able to look at Maxine's copy of Where the Wild Things Are and cry over Maxine's death.

Confronting her fears allows Petula to help Jacob confront his own. Koula recognizes that Jacob hasn't been honest with the group. "...we've told him a ton. He hasn't told us much at all. It's like we've peeled back all our layers, and he's only peeled back maybe one." Jacob hadn't told Petula or anyone in YART about his past because he was afraid they would see him as "Jacob, the Drunk Driver Who Killed His Friend." However, with encouragement from Petula, she helps Jacob face down his fear and reach out to the friend who survived, Frankie Goorevitch. But before that Petula must forgive Jacob for the lies he's told and for treating her like a charity case just as she has had to forgive herself and realize that Maxine's death was an accident and no fault of her

Optimists Die First is filled with the themes of redemption, forgiveness, acceptance and the meaning of friendship. All these themes are woven throughout the novel and extend to almost all the characters. The book takes it's title from Petula's belief that pessimists are the ones who survive because they are constantly wary. Optimists die first because they are incautious. However Jacob points out to her that pessimists live smaller, limited lives but to Petula their lives are safer and longer.

Overall, Optimists Die First is a well written, engaging novel. Very enjoyable, short and to the point.

Book Details:

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen
Toronto: Tundra Books      2017
224 pp.





Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Vimy Oaks. A Journey to Peace by Linda Granfield

The Vimy Oaks: A Journey to Peace tells the remarkable story of Leslie Miller, a Canadian soldier who brought a few acorns from the oak trees at Vimy Ridge back to Canada and how one hundred years later Vimy may once again have oak trees.

When World War I began in mid-1914, Leslie Miller was teaching school in Saskatchewan. He enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was sent over to England in 1915. Leslie who was well educated joined the army's Signal Corps. He was stationed at Shorncliffe Camp, a military base near Folkestone, England. As a member of the Signal Corps, it was Leslie's responsibility to send and receive communications between various units of the military. During his time in England, Miller trained other signallers. Eventually he sailed across the English Channel to France. During his time overseas Miller kept several diaries filled with observations about the people and the towns in France.

Lieutenant Leslie Miller
Miller was part of the Canadian troops who fought in the battle for Vimy Ridge in April, 1917. After the battle, while on Vimy Ridge, Leslie Miller gathered acorns from the destroyed oak trees and mailed them home to his family in Canada. Miller didn't return home until early 1919. Eventually he returned to the Miller farm and the acorns from Vimy Ridge grew into oak trees. Miller eventually married and he and his wife, Mary Isabel "Essie" Fraser called their farm Vimy Oaks.

As the years passed by, many new Canadians helped the Millers on their farm. One such person was Monty McDonald who helped harvest the produce, remove brush and helped with the apple harvest. Leslie and Essie eventually sold their farm and after their deaths and the Miller  farm was purchased by a church. The Vimy Oaks however, remained.  The grew tall and very large.

When Monty McDonald traveled to Europe and visited the Vimy Memorial in France, he noted that there were no oak trees. Vimy Ridge had large stands of oak trees prior to World War I but the battles had destroyed the forests and scarred the earth around the ridge. McDonald wondered if it would be possible to reforest Vimy Ridge with the oak trees descended from the Vimy Oaks on the Miller farm in Canada. They would serve as a living memorial to those who died there. The second half of Granfield's picture book explains how McDonald's idea was to become a reality.

Discussion

Linda Granfield has crafted an engaging non-fiction book that informs young readers about a little known piece of Canadian history. This year we remember the Battle of Vimy Ridge which began 100 years ago on April 9, 1917 and continued until the final hill was taken on April 12th. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was of supreme importance to Canada because it was the first time four Canadian divisions, fighting together as a unit, accomplished what no other military force was able to, and that was capture the ridge held by German soldiers. It was a carefully planned attack but it came at an enormous price - the deaths of thousands of Canadians with many more thousands wounded. Whether it is myth or not, Canadians have claimed that this battle signified the beginning of Canada as a nation in its own right.

Canadian Gunners at Vimy Painting by Richard Jack
Granfield tells only the basics of the Vimy Ridge story. Instead her focus is on how one Canadian soldier's decision to save a few acorns from Vimy, grew into a remarkable legacy. The story of Leslie Miller, a member of the Signal Corps is illustrated by the muted oil paintings of illustrator Brian Deines. The story is further enhanced by many interesting photographs of the Vimy Memorial, Canadian troops, the trenches of Vimy, Leslie Miller in uniform, Leslie and Essie later in life, and so forth.The second part of the story focuses on the efforts of Monty McDonald to see the Vimy Oaks from the Miller farm return in some form to France.

McDonald's original plan called for acorns to be gathered from the Vimy Oaks on the old Miller woodlot (all that remains of Leslie and Essie's farm today). However, when McDonald went to collect acorns two years ago, the trees produced only a handful of acorns. Not enough to start a crop of seedlings. He devised a second plan which involved having arborists scale the trees and take cuttings of the most recent growth from the top and graft them onto other trees to grow. Over one thousand trees were waiting in a nursery in West Flamborough to be planted at the Vimy memorial in France. However the French had to refuse the trees because they were concerned about the introduction of.... into France. Instead these Canadian saplings will be planted a World War I memorials across the country. This past year the Vimy Oaks in the Miller woodlot produced thousands of acorns which McDonald collected. Two hundred acorns were sent to a nursery in Paris where they have be nurtured. While they will not be ready for planting on the centenary, the will be ready for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I next year.


The Vimy oaks, when repatriated to Vimy Ridge, will help us to remember the sacrifice of so many young Canadians. In 1916, Leslie Miller wrote in his diary, "I am writing seated at the foot of a large oak..." One hundred years on, may people sit beneath the oak trees, not to write war diaries but to write and read in peace.

The Vimy Foundation's Vimy Oaks webpage has a brief write-up.

To learn about the Vimy Oaks Repatriation Project check out their website: this pdf outlines the plan. The Vimy Oaks Legacy website has much information on the entire project as well as a webpage on Lieutenant Leslie Miller

Macleans Magazine explores why Vimy Ridge became so important to Canada.

CBC has a video tour with Peter Mansbridge of Vimy.

Book Details:

The Vimy Oaks: A Journey to Peace by Linda Granfield
North Winds Press       2017
33 pp.