Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Genevieve's War by Patricia Reilly Giff

Thirteen-year-old Genevieve (Gen) Michel is an American visiting her grandmother Meme for the summer of 1939. Meme lives on the farm Gen's father Gerard grew up on in Alsace, France only five miles from the German border. Gen's older brother, Andre has also been visiting for the summer, working in the village bistro. Andre has been in France the previous two summers, first in Strasbourg and Colmar, then in Basel working in restaurants as a cook. He's returned to America two weeks ago to begin college where he will study business and eventually open his own restaurant.

Now it is Gen's turn to travel home to America where she will live with Cousin Ellen in Flushing until Christmas. Aunt Marie who is like a mother to her is teaching in the far north of Canada as part of her preparation for a book she is writing. Gen has lived with Aunt Marie in Springfield Gardens for as long as she can remember. Her parents died in a train crash when she was very young. Gen has mixed feelings about returning to America. She doesn't want to stay with Meme, who complains about everything. But her friend Remy, tall with blue eyes and curly hair and her new friend Katrin Moeller on the nearby farm were the best part of the summer. Remy wants to farm some day, rather than take over his family's pharmacy.

Before Andre had left, he told Gen that war was coming to France, that the Germans intend to take back Alsace and invade Europe. Gen would leave just in time, taking a ship back to America. For her it couldn't come soon enough after a summer of Meme's gruff and stern ways, but Andre had felt bad about leaving Meme. The day for Gen to leave has arrived. She won't miss pulling cabbages or digging the potatoes, but she will miss Louis shepherd dog who is Meme's watchdog and the cow Andre named Elsie. When they climb into the cart, Gen notices Meme is in pain, dragging her left foot which seems to be bleeding. In the village Gen asks Meme to stop so she can say goodbye to Madame Jacques at the patisserie. Meme drops her at the train station where she meets up with Madame Thierry who will accompany her home to America. But when the train arrives, Gen cannot make herself board. Instead she turns around and walks back to the farm. On the way she hides her heavy suitcase and books in a wooded area to pick up the next day.

Her reappearance at the farm does not please Meme whom she finds laying on the bench by the hearth, her ankle bound. She considers Gen head-strong and impulsive, having wasted her Aunt Marie's money spent on her ticket. However, Remy is surprised and Katrin happy that Gen has not left. Even worse when Gen goes to retrieve her suitcase and books she finds they are gone, leaving her with no clothing. Meme gives Gen a few clothes and her father's old school notebook. Gen begins to settle into life on the farm, milking the cow and hanging herbs in the kitchen. Then one day, war arrives with the invasion of the Nazis. School does not begin as Monsieur Henri and some of the other teachers are in the army.

In December 1939, Gen receives a tearstained letter from Aunt Marie admonishing her for staying and fearing for her safety. Gen is homesick but Meme helps by bringing out some of the family traditions; a wooden shoe left out for Christmas, and the cutting of a Christmas tree which Gen manages to accomplish. There is goose, green beans and tart.

Following the holidays, school begins but there are soon many disturbing changes. In June, Paris falls and the war is over for France. The Germans begin deporting French Jews and those who fought against them in the Great War. At the end of the summer of 1940, Gen helps Meme harvest the many vegetables; the carrots, potatoes, cabbage and squash as well has canning the vegetables and making jam. On the first day of school they lose their pig to the Germans. When Katrin comes to walk with Gen, she tells her that they are hiding their food from the Germans. At school, students are stunned to discover they are no longer allowed to speak French, their names and street names are Germanized and even wedding rings must be changed to the right hand as is the German custom. All radios must be turned in and books not written in German are to be burned. However, the Germans arrive in the village and their presence brings fear to everyone. The history teacher, Monsieur Henri is replaced by the strict Herr Albert. The classroom's French flag is taken down and replaced by the Nazi flag.

Things begin to get worse as time passes. Gen helps Meme hide half of their food stores in a secret pantry behind the armoire and she is made to promise not to tell anyone. "You'll see," Meme said, 'There are those who are French, and others who are German sympathizers.' " In November they lose their horse Sister and the cart to the German army and a Nazi officer named Furst also begins living with them, taking Meme's bedroom. However, Gen disobeys Meme and tells Katrin everything.

The bombing of the railroad by the French Resistance to stop the Germans from deporting people angers the Germans. Remy is injured, his father is arrested, and his mother and sister forced to escape to neutral Switzerland. As Genevieve is drawn more and more into the Resistance she must learn to show discretion and take responsibility for her actions.

Discussion

Genevieve's War is a coming of age story set in occupied France during World War II.  Gen is only thirteen when the war begins in 1939. She's innocent and trusting, not realizing that in Alsace some French citizens will collaborate with the Germans.

Meme warns Gen repeatedly not to tell anyone about their food stores, about the secret attic where they eventually hide Remy. "We can't trust anyone. Tell no one Genevieve." and later "You'll see," Meme said. "There are those who are French, and others who are German sympathizers." But Gen believes that it will be fine to tell Katrin because she's her friend. Instead of listening to Meme Gen tells Katrin everything - "By the time we saw the school, I'd told her everything I could think of: the attic room, the painting, Louis. I wondered what Meme would say if she knew. But she wouldn't know. Katrin would keep our secret, I was sure of it." At this point, Gen is very naive and doesn't understand that she might be endangering the lives of others. It isn't until her secret about Remy hiding at Meme's house is revealed and the Nazi's come looking for Remy, that Genevieve begins to understand that this time of war calls for discretion and courage, that she might be responsible for the safety and the lives of those she is helping.

Besides chronicling the war, Genevieve's War also portrays the change in Gen's relationship with her grandmother. At the beginning of the novel it's evident they do not get along. Meme believes Gen is headstrong and impulsive. Likewise Gen has a poor opinion of her grandmother. When she finds an old photograph of Meme with the word Miel written on the back Gen thinks "How pretty she'd been, young and smiling a little. How different from the sour old woman she was now. I turned the picture over. Miel was written on the back. Honey! More like vinegar, if you asked me." Gen believes Meme will be happy when she leaves for home in America. When she decides to stay in France, Gen is not welcomed back. " 'You've missed the train, the ship. Headlong! Do you ever think?'...'A disruption in my life,' I thought I heard her whisper."

Their relationship begins to change when Remy's life is in danger after the bombing of the railway tracks. Gen begins to see the good in her grandmother and Meme comes to see that Gen has some redeemable qualities. Gen displays quick thinking when she is questioned by Furst about where she's been. This earns praise from Meme who tells her "You never cease to surprise me, Genevieve."  Later on Gen becomes angry at Furst for criticizing Meme, telling him she thinks Meme is wonderful. Gen overhears Meme tell Furst she "couldn't get along without her during this terrible time...Her father would have been proud of her."  Gen realizes she is beginning to love Meme.

However Gen disobeys Meme and tells Katrin about Remy hiding in their home leading the Nazis come to search for him. Fortunately, Remy is able to escape but the kindly woodcutter who is part of the French Resistance is not so lucky. Gen is devastated at her role in this and confesses to Meme the possibility that she might be responsible for what happened to him. However, Meme understands telling Gen how her father experienced the same thing and that in war, people do what they can. Gen realizes that in this war Meme "...had taken in a girl who was forgetful and messy, who hadn't loved her. She must have known what I was thinking. 'A girl who changed my life,' she said, 'A girl who looked like me when I was young, who acted like the son I loved.' " In the end Meme tells Genevieve, "You have been a gift, Genevieve." She gives Gen her wedding ring hoping it will remind Gen of her grandfather, Victor and Meme. Gen too feels love for Meme. "It's the best gift I've ever had, Miel. I do love you."

Because Genevieve's War is written for 9 to 12 year olds, many of the more terrible aspects of the occupation of France by the Nazis are only hinted at. For example, the deportation of French Jews is only mentioned once and the brutality of the Nazis is downplayed. However, readers are shown how the Nazis took whatever they wanted; animals, food, homes, and vehicles and how their presence creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust in the village. Younger readers will also get a good understanding of just how dangerous the work of the French Resistance was and how it was difficult to know just who to trust. Anyone might be a collaborator or an informant. For example Gen first believes that their new teacher Herr Albert is a staunch Nazi and someone to be feared. However, it turns out that Herr Albert is working for the resistance. Likewise, Madame Jacques turns out to be a collaborator.

Genevieve's War is a good introduction to historical fiction for younger readers and offers them the opportunity to learn more about what life was like for a specific group of French during World War II. Reilly Giff gives her readers a map showing the location of the Alsace region of France in relation to Germany and Switzerland but does not identify the location of Meme's farm. The novel ends with the liberation of France and offers hope for the future. The title is a reference to Gen's brother's name for the restaurant he someday wants to open.

Overall, a good treatment of the impact of the German occupation of the Alsace region of France during World War II.

Book Details:

Genevieve's War by Patricia Reilly Giff
New York: Holiday House      2017
222 pp.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky

Night Witches is set in Stalingrad, Russia in 1942 and is a fictional account of a young girl who joins 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Airforce.

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment was set up after the famous Russian woman aviator, Marina Raskova urged Stalin to allow women to become fighter pilots. This bomber regiment was made up of young women between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six who flew flimsy planes made of plywood and canvas and carried a two bombs on each run. Each plane contained a pilot and a navigator in an open cockpit and no parachutes.

They flew close to 30,000 missions over the course of the war, generally eight missions per   night. These missions were to harass the German army, and to destroy strategic targets. Because the bi-planes were smaller and lighter and had a maximum speed below the stall speed of the Luftwaft, they had greater maneuvrability giving them an edge in battle.

The 588th Regiment eventually became known as the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. Thus the Soviet Union was the first nation to have women pilots in a combat role. The Germans nicknamed these pilots "Nachthexen" or "night witches" because their light planes made a soft swishing sound, like that of what they imagined a witch's broomstick would make. They were so feared by the Germans that a pilot who shot down a night witch was awarded the Iron Cross.

Night Witches opens in Stalingrad, 1942 with Valentina Petrovna Baskova crouching in the rubble of her apartment building with her mother. They are watching the night lights set up by the German Sixth Army sweeping the sky in at attempt to protect their fuel depots, ammunition dumps, ground troops and support vehicles from being bombed by the light bi-planes of the 588th Regiment. Valentina's sister, Tatyana is on the "night witches"; both of them having learned to fly planes from their father who was head of the training program at Engels airbase. Three days ago on June 22, the Nazis invaded Russia in a major military offensive called Operation Barbarossa. Russian citizens were rallied to fight for their country and their leader, Comrade Stalin. Tatyana left for the People's Volunteers while Valentina's mother refused to allow her to go with her sister.

Their apartment has had one wall blown out. In the morning while Valentina's mother leans out the blown-out window, she is fatally shot through the throat. All alone, Valentina waits in the apartment and that night finds herself in the company of Yuri, whose father was a hunter in the Urals. Yuri had often been bullied at school but now he's a sniper, which makes him part of the NKVD or the secret police. Yuri tells her that he killed the sniper who shot her mother.  Valentina tells Yuri she must get out of Stalingrad and find the air fields of the 588th Regiment so she can join her sister as a night witch. Yuri tells her it will be difficult to do both. He tells her that Hitler has ordered all the citizens of Stalingrad to be marched to a camp and suggests that she leave immediately and try to get evacuated to the east bank of the Volga.

With this end in mind, Valentina (Valya) leaves and begins making her way through the city. However, she doesn't get very far before a schoolmate enlists her to work on a gun crew in one of the trenches. She is taught to operate an M1939, a 37-millimeter anti-aircraft gun by a young boy name Mikhail.When their trench is overrun by German panzers, Valentina saves them but they lose many fighters. Eventually however, Yuri comes to Valentina's rescue and helps her get to the night witches. Valya will start out as part of the ground crew, but she's determined to pilot her own plane and drive the Nazi's out of Russia.

Discussion

Night Witches tells the remarkable story of the first group of women who were involved in defending the Soviet Union against the Nazi invasion during World War II.  Although the characters in Night Witches are fictional, the night witches themselves were not.

I have several complaints about this novel as a piece of historical fiction. The first is that the date in the opening chapter is misleading because it identifies the battle for Stalingrad incorrectly as beginning in 1941. It did not. Hitler's offensive to subjugate Russia - known as Operation Barbarossa,  began in June of 1941. In the summer of 1941 the Germans, who caught the Red Army completely unprepared, rapidly moved into Russia. By July of 1941, despite vigorous resistance by the Soviets, the German Army had advanced four hundred miles into Russian territory and were only two hundred kilometers from Moscow.  The winter of 1941 saw many problems for the Germans, in particular the exceptionally bitter winter for which the German troops were not prepared, and significant losses of troops and materiel. The fight for Stalingrad began July 17, 1942. Hitler wanted to capture the city as it was a major industrial center that produced armaments. Capturing it would cut the Soviet's access to southern Russia and open the way to capturing the oil fields in the Caucasus.

Throughout the novel there are no other dates given and the time frame is vague. The story runs from roughly June of 1942 until 1946. It would have been very helpful if dates were given, even in a general way, throughout the novel so readers could place the events. Also Lasky provides no maps and unfortunately no historical note at the back to help younger readers understand more about the battle for Stalingrad which was considered one of the most significant of World War II - a battle which turned the tide of the war.

Lasky does capture to some extent the horror of bombed out Stalingrad and the terror of fighting the oncoming panzers and German army. However, her focus is more on the main character, Valya's struggle to become a pilot and her role as a night witch. The story follows the night witches as they liberate first Stalingrad, then the Kursk peninsula, then Soviet Russia, as they move through the Ukraine and into Poland and finally into Germany.

Valya and the other night witches know they cannot be captured because of Stalin's views about his own soldiers being captured;  "There are no Soviet prisoners of war only traitors..." This makes Valya and the other pilots terrified of being shot down and becoming a prisoner of war. When Tatyana is lost and her fate unknown, Valya worries. If her sister is alive and a German prisoner, the Russian soldiers will kill her when they find her. As Valya states  "Stalin believes that in Hitler's camps there are no prisoners of war, only Russian traitors. Surrender, even if one is wounded, is considered a criminal act...In Stalin's mind, 'true patriots' would not permit themselves to be captured, but would have fled east to the Urals." When she is shot down behind the lines her commander Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya works to have her rescued because Valya's fate once the Soviets liberate the area will be worse than death. Eventually  Bershanskaya tells Valya, "...every time a German prisoner camp is liberated, these SMERSH units and NKVD officers move in to interrogate the Russian prisoners, the 'traitors' who allowed themselves to be captured. These agents are charged with evaluating the prisoners' loyalty to the Soviet Union. Stalin is paranoid. He is as bad as Hitler." To prevent this from happening to Valya, Bershanskaya gives Valya cyanide tablets when she is sent on a mission to rescue her sister.

Valentina is a fully developed character; strong willed, courageous and intelligent. She's resourceful but seems incredibly self-possessed despite the death of her father, mother and grandmother, the loss of her home and the horrors of war. When Valentina first begins working with the night witches, she devises a new plan to make refueling  and loading the planes faster. This gets her noticed by Yevdokiya Bershanskaya, commander of the 588th Regiment who decides to promote her. But Tatyana disagrees and only reluctantly accepts Valentina in her new role. This results in their relationship becoming strained.  It takes the downing of Tatyana and her rescue that brings the two sisters together. When Tatyana does not return from a mission and is believed to have been lost, Valya is inconsolable. "My grief is bottomless, and I'm grieving for two of us, for I am lost as well. The person who infused me with purpose and meaning is gone. Without Tatyana I am nothing."

Lasky only briefly touches on the conflict Valya and her friend Yuri who is a sniper, experience as they kill people during the war. When Valya thanks Yuri for saving her life and preventing her from getting on the boat, he tells her "...You see, I'm a sniper. I kill all day, all night long. But I got to save you. Save a life. I felt human again." For Valya it is different. "I can't forget how I almost crossed my fingers when I asked which Yana had died. Is there something wrong with me? I wonder if my sister witches ever have thoughts like these. Killing from the air is easy. We see the target but not the human face behind the target. The consequences are distant. But somewhere there is undoubtedly another little four-year-old girl in Germany whose papa I have killed." Valya, after bombing a train, which she found thrilling, wonders, "Am I truly becoming a witch? Have I become addicted to killing?"

The historical inaccuracy mars an otherwise well written and fascinating account of one aspect of World War II. Readers will have to do their own research to flesh out their knowledge about Operation Barbarossa and the "night witches" of the 588th Regiment.

The following web articles provide information about the night witches as well as other aspects of World War II and Russia:
The Lethal Soviet Night Witches - Russian Female Heroes of the Air

The BBC website has an excellent webpage on Operation Barbarossa, "Hitler's Invasion of Russia In World War Two"

For more information on Stalin's treatment of repatriated Soviet troops read "Stalin's War Against His Own Troops" from the Institute For Historical Review.

Book Details:

Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky
New York: Scholastic Press     2017
211 pp.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Shahana by Rosanne Hawke

Shahana is one of the books in the "Through My Eyes" series. It tells the story of a fourteen year old girl who has lost almost her entire family to the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. As she struggles to survive, she finds herself pressured to enter into a forced marriage to survive.

The conflict over the Kashmir region began in 1947 with the partition of India and the formation of Pakistan. Pakistan believed that the former states of Jammu and Kashmir belonged to the new nation of Pakistan but India also laid claim to them. The Kashmir people would prefer to have their own state. This has resulted in two wars between India and Pakistan, in 1947 and 1965. Militants soon became involved in the conflict; Kashmiri militants fighting India along with Pakistani trained militants as well as militants fighting for Kashmir independence. To stop the infiltration of militants into Kashmir, India has constructed a "Line of Control", a wire fence topped with concertina wire that is up to twelve feet in height and electrified.  The fencing in the Jammu and Kashmir area was completed in 2004 and has significantly reduced the infiltration of militants.

Fourteen-year-old Shahana lives in her grandfather's hut with her younger brother nine-year-old Tanveer, not far from the Line of Control, a border separating Pakistani and Indian controlled Kashmir. Shahana and Tanveer lost their brother Irfan and their mother in a gun battle. Their wooden house in the village was also destroyed in the attack. When their father found them he brought them to Nana-ji, her mother's father who lived in a hut in the forest. When Shahanna was eleven and her brother only seven, they found their father bleeding on the rocks by the Neelum river. He had tried to cross to the Kashmir side to sell his shawls and was shot by the soldiers. He died after giving them his blessing. Since that time they have struggled to survive living off the milk provided by their goat, Rani and the money Shahana earns from her embroidery.

One night they hear gunfire coming from near the Neelum River "where the Line of Control runs along the border between Azad Kashmir and Jammu and Kashmir." The next day Shahana takes her embroidery to Mr. Nadir who owns the cloth shop in the village.  At his shop, Mr. Nadir gives Shahana a grey woollen robe called a pheran to embroider. Mr. Nadir suggests that Shahana sell Tanveer to him to make rugs in his shop, but Shahana refuses as she knows she will never be able to buy him back.

After milking their goat, Rani, Shahana and Tanveer walk to the big river to fish and catch a large trout. On their way home, Tanveer spots a boy lying in the river surrounded by dogs. Tanveer insists that they help the boy and against her better judgement, Shahana relents. They drag the boy out of the river, fighting off dogs, one of which is shot by a soldier on the other side of the Line of Control.

In the morning the boy awakens and tells them he is from a village in the Kashmir Valley and that his name is Zahid Amir Kumar. Zahid is looking for his father who was taken from their home in Sringar three years ago by the Indian police. Zahid wants to learn what has happened to his father. Zahid tells Tanveer that he attempted to swim across the big river during the night but Shahana knows that the Indian and Pakistani soldiers are able to see anyone with their motion sensors and thermal imaging devices. Although she is frightened, to Shahana, Zahid looks like a simple teenage boy and not a jihadist.

Shahana is concerned about Zahid staying with her as it is haram for an unrelated male to stay in the same house. However they decide he will stay but not who he will be - brother or cousin. Tanveer takes to Zahid immediately and the two spend time together hunting. Zahid seems very frightened of the militants and out of concern for Shahana, he decides to start sleeping under her house.For one thing it is haram for him to sleep in the same room with her and he can use the rifle to protect them.

When Shahana returns to Mr. Nadir with the completed pheran, he tells her she needs to be married so that she will be protected from the militants and that he has a man who is interested in marrying her. However Shahana refuses, insisting she is too young. He gives Shahana another pheran to embroider, this time with silver thread.

On the way home, Shahana stops at the house of her friend Ayesha whose father disappeared almost two years ago. Her mother, Auntie Rabia is now called a half-widow which causes her shame. As a result she is withdrawn and has not opened the door to anyone. However this time, Ayesha comes to the door after Shahana leaves and the two girls look at each other. Shahana knows needs her friend.

Things become more complicated when a militant, carrying an AK 47 Kalashnikov and wearing a turban shows up at Shahana's home while Zahid and Tanveer are out fishing. He asks for milk from the goat and asks her about her family. Shahana tells him she has two brothers. Scared of the militant who may learn of Zahid's true identity and realizing she is in danger because of Mr. Nadir's pressure to marry, Shahana decides to reach out again to her friend Ayesha.  As she reconnects with Ayesha, Shahana begins to feel as though she has someone she can turn to. However, Mr. Nadir is determined and when Tanveer goes missing and Shahana and Zahid are injured in an avalanche, Shahana must make a difficult choice. Fortunately, help comes from an unexpected place to save Shahana from a terrible fate.

Discussion

Rosanne Hawke has crafted an engaging novel for teens, about a little known conflict in a little known part of the world called Kashmir. The partition of India in 1947 had serious repercussions for both Muslims and Hindus. The partition itself was chaotic and violent, leaving many families separated and suffering the loss of loved ones. The Kashmir conflict was another situation that developed out of the partition and it has continued to divide this part of the world, affecting families and especially children.

In this novel, Hawke, who was an aid worker in the Middle East, attempts to portray the effect the long standing conflict over Kashmir has on the children of this region. This is done through the young characters, all of whom have suffered a loss in some way. Shahana has lost her brother, mother and father and almost loses her younger brother Tanveer. Ayesha has lost her father who disappears and is believed to have become a militant. Zahid has lost his brother who was shot by the soldiers. To get the bounty for shooting a militant, the soldiers claimed his brother was one. His father marched in protest and he was taken away three years ago.  His beautiful sister Nissa was taken by the militants.

For Shahana, the loss of her parents places her in a vulnerable situation from both the villagers and the militants. Shahana worries about the militants who kidnap young boys and make them into soldiers. They might take Tanveer. Shahana worries about the coming winter and about the wild dogs. must support herself and her brother who also needs medicine. She attempts to do this by doing embroidery for Mr. Nadir. However, Nadir recognizes Shahana's precarious situation and takes advantage of her by kidnapping her brother to work in his store making rugs and by blackmailing Shahana into being sold in marriage. In addition to these losses, Shahana is unable to attend school because her tent school was destroyed by the militants. She wants to continue school but there is no school and she cannot make money by going to school.

Hawke does an excellent job of portraying how stressful the conflict is for Shahana. When Ayesha encourages her to tell the world via the internet about what is happening to her, Shahana feels overwhelmed and begins to cry. "She cries for Tanveer, for herself because of Mr. Nadir, and out of fear. What if the militant steals Tanveer, or if someone finds out about Zahid? She will be worse than a half-widow. She hiccups. At least no one will want to marry her then. But could something worse happen?"

Hawke uses her characters to explain how the young people of the Kashmir region feel about the conflict. When Zahid and Shahana first meet they share how the conflict has affect their families, Zahid states, "They should ask us what we think of war..."  Shahana thinks to herself that she would have much to say. Amaan Khan states to Shahana that despite being a militant he no longer agrees with the jihad. Like other young people in the region he simply wants to live his life in peace.  Amaan tells her,  "Innocent children are caught in the crossfire. It is not why I joined. I came so Muslim brothers and sisters would have freedom, but we are killing them, destroying their culture, not freeing them." When pressured to respond, Shahana tells Amaan, "I think there should not be militants or the army here. That the governments should make peace, so children's lives aren't destroyed. There should be no fence dividing us." 

Map showing the disputed territory and the Line of Control
Zahid explains to Shahana that many peaceful groups simply want freedom from India but that the Pakistani militants are fierce and are attempting to change their ways. Shahana tells him that her village is Kashmir not Pakistani. However Zahid states that "We were a state with a maharajah, never part of India to be handed over to Pakistan at Partition or to China. When India and Kashmir were divided into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947 the two states went to war to control Kashmir. Since then this conflict hasn't stopped."

Shahana's friend Ayesha explains to her how she can let the world know what she things and how the conflict is impacting her life. Ayesha tells her about a website "for children about peace." The site tells children what they can do to make a difference. "They are meeting with a minister from the government after the winter. He will come to the Neelum Valley and hear children's stories and see their artwork." Ayesha encourages Shahana to tell her story and to share it.

From all of these characters, readers get a real sense of how they are impacted by the war, the militants and those like Mr. Nadir who take advantage of children who are orphaned and living precariously.

To aid readers in further understanding the story, the author has included a map of the region showing Shahana's village and the village of Zahid in relation to the Line of Control. Included at the back of the novel is an Author's Note which provides some information about the Kashmir conflict, a timeline of events related to Kashmir, a glossary words used in the  novel and a limited reading list to learn more.

Shahana is a well-written and informative story that engages younger readers about an ongoing but little known conflict. I highly recommend this short novel to readers interested in other cultures and the lives of young people in areas of conflict.

Book Details:

Shahana by Rosanne Hawke
Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia    2013
206 pp.


Map: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_of_Control#/media/File:Kashmir_map.jpg

Friday, June 16, 2017

Alex and Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz

Alex and Eliza is a novel about the courtship of what would become one of the most famous couples of the late 18th century America, a time when a new nation was being forged out of war and hardship.

General Philip Schuyler and his wife Catherine live on a magnificent estate called the Pastures just outside of Albany, New York. Despite having organized a successful campaign against the British in Quebec, General Schuyler was forced to resign his commission June 1777 because of the defeat at Fort Ticonderoga. The defeat also cost Schuyler his Saragota estate which was his second home. The commander of the British forces, General John Burgoyne made it his personal residence but when the Continental forces retook the estate in October, he burned it to the ground. This loss significantly affected the family's fortunes as most of Catherine's inheritance had been depleted in building the Pastures.

The Schuylers have seven surviving children, the three eldest girls being Angelica, an intelligent brunette,  Eliza who is intelligent, beautiful and practical and Peggy a tiny dark-haired beauty. It was time to marry them off but the reduced family fortunes meant that this would have to happen before knowledge of their financial situation became  To that end, Catherine Schuyler decides to throw a ball.

While preparing for the ball, Eliza refuses to dress in the rich burgundy dress her mother has chosen and instead wears "a simple gown of solid mauve, its skirt pleated but unamplified by hoops or panniers, and delicately draped to reveal a darker purple panel underneath. The purple lacing in the bodice ran up the front rather than the back, leaving almost no decolletage in view..." Mrs. Schuyler orders Dot, the maid to dress Eliza in the gown she's ordered but Eliza flatly refuses.

Upon coming downstairs, Eliza witnesses Colonel Alexander Hamilton informing her father,  General Schuyler about his imminent court martial. General Schuyler is curt but commends Hamilton on delivering this message in person and offers Colonel Hamilton the barn as accommodation for the night after the ball. Alex is confronted at the ball by Eliza and her sisters, who taunt him about not fighting in the war against the British and about his job writing letters as an aide-de-camp for George Washington.

Alexander Hamilton
http://twothirds.us/fp/images/p-hamilton.jpg
While Angelica spends the night dancing with Mr. John Barker Church, a British citizen ten years her senior and a noted gambler and spy, who favours the Revolutionary cause, Peggy dances with Stephen Van Rensselaer, heir to the largest estate in New York and a mere fourteen years old. Eliza dances with the handsome Major John Andre and the handsome Colonel Alexander Hamilton. Determined to make Alex feel as uncomfortable as possible, Eliza complains about his dancing, insults him in every way possible and steps on his foot. Alex tells Eliza that his errand to tell her father about his court martial was difficult as he very much respects General Schuyler.  Despite all this, Alex is completely infatuated with Eliza.

The story skips ahead two years and finds the Schuyler's financial situation growing more dire. The three Schuyler girls remain unmarried and General Schuyler has been acquitted in his court martial in which Colonel Alexander Hamilton served as clerk for the prosecution.

Eliza is on her way to her Aunt Gertrued in Morristown, New Jersey, travelling with her chaperone, Mrs. Jantzen. Aunt Gertrude who is married to Dr. Cochrane, General George Washington's physician, is working alongside her husband inoculating the local residents and the troops against smallpox. When Eliza had learned of her aunt and uncle's mission, she wanted to help and begged her mother to allow her to travel to Morristown. As it turned out, Eliza's mother was very much interested in her daughter going to Morristown, where General George Washington's army was wintering. Eliza might meet many young unmarried officers and find one to marry. Major John Andre had courted Eliza briefly but she turned him down.

Five miles outside of Morristown, Eliza's carriage breaks down and Mrs. Jantzen injures her ankle.  Amazingly Colonel Hamilton arrives to save the day and Eliza from freezing. She is placed on Colonel Hamilton's horse while he rides behind the saddle and is taken the rest of the way to Morristown and her Aunt Gertrude's home. During the ride Alex tries to recover Eliza's opinion of him by telling  her that he very much respects her father and apologizes for having to participate in his court martial. He also questions her about the hankerchief and the message she left him to meet in the barn after the ball. Eliza has no idea what he's talking  and this leads Alex to feel despair. Nevertheless, Alex attempts to visit Eliza while she's recovering but is turned away.

Aunt Gertrude questions Eliza as to whether she is carrying on a romance with Colonel Hamilton. When Eliza attempts to downplay the entire situation, Aunt Gertrude states, "My point is, I know a swain when I see one. Colonel Hamilton is clearly smitten with you. And though he is handsome and intelligent -- indeed brilliant -- perhaps even bound up in the very future of our young nation..." and she tells Eliza, "You are the quarry and Colonel Hamilton the hunter..."  Little does Eliza know that time and persistence will lead her to change her mind.

Discussion

Melissa De La Cruz has crafted a romantic and well-written novel about the blossoming love affair between Elizabeth Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton. Although little is known about their courtship, De la Cruz has written a romance that is entirely believable and one which portrays these famous Americans in a true-to-life way.

Eliza Schuyler was known as having a strong-will and for being somewhat impulsive. De la Cruz shows her will in Eliza refusing to wear the dress her mother had chosen for the ball and in the way she initially refused Alexander Hamilton's suit. Eliza and Alexander were engaged very quickly - in April of 1870 after having met only earlier that year. They had eight children. Alexander had an affair with a young woman and when he was accused of speculation,  Alexander published a pamphlet detailing his extra-marital relationship. The affair and his bad behaviour resulted in Eliza leaving him for a time, but she returned to the marriage. When she was pregnant with their eighth child, Alexander was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. Eliza lived to be ninety-seven, outliving her husband by fifty years.

De La Cruz also provides readers with some of the background of Alexander Hamilton, who besides being an aide-de-camp to George Washington, was also a Founding Father of the United States of America. Alexander was the illegitimate child of James A. Hamilton, a Scottish trader and Rachel Fawcett Lavien who had abandoned her abusive husband and fled to the island of St. Kitts. On St. Kitts she met Hamilton and they had two children but never married. James Hamilton abandoned the family on St. Croix. Alexander Hamilton's mother passed away when he was eleven. He was brought to America after he impressed his employer Nicolas Kruger who arranged for him to be sent to America. Once in America, Hamilton's star began to rise; he became involved in politics and the war for independence from Britain.

This novel is likely to be of interest to teen and adult fans of the Broadway musical, Hamilton. The story in Alex and Eliza is different from that portrayed in the musical and is told by both Alex and Eliza in alternating chapters. Fans will find the novel's pacing slow in the middle section, but as Eliza begins to realize her attraction to Alexander, the pace quickens and the novel concludes in a satisfying way.

Book Details:

Alex and Eliza by Melissa De La Cruz
New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons      2017
368 pp.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Movie: Wonder Woman

The new Wonder Woman movie, directed by Patty Jenkins is probably the best DC comic character movie to date. It has an amazing badass super-heroine, a reasonable storyline and is jam-packed with thrilling fight and action scenes to hook viewers.

Jenkins is a fan of the origin story and that's where her movie begins. A young Diana born to Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons is growing up on the Island of Themyscira which is hidden from the human world. Young Diana is determined to train like the other Amazon warriors but she is discouraged by her mother. Queen Hippolyta.

Her mother tells her that the god Zeus created mankind who lived happily and peacefully with one another. However, Zeus's brother Ares, the god of war, hated men. He stirred up discontent and anger among men which caused wars. Ares slew all of the other gods when they attempted to kill him. Zeus, using the last of his powers, attempted to stop Ares but only wounded him. Before he died, Zeus left mankind a secret weapon, the Godkiller, The Amazon's lived on the Island of Themyscira which was protected from the outside world by a special  believe the Godkiller is a sword. Queen Hippolyta will not allow her sister, General Antiope to train Diana, however, the two begin training in secret. When they are discovered Antiope convinces Queen Hippolyta to allow her training to continue.

One day when Diana is a young woman, she sees a plane crash into the sea. Realizing that there is someone drowning, she dives off the cliffs into the sea and rescues the pilot. That pilot is Steve Trevor. Trevor has almost no time to catch his breath before the island is attacked by the Germans who have been chasing him. The Amazon's rush to the beach and engage the Germans in a battle to the death. They slay all the Germans but General Antiope is killed saving Diana.

Trevor is taken by the Amazons and questioned using the Lasso of Truth. He reveals that he is an American spy working for British intelligence and that there is a horrible war happening in the outside world, the Great War, a "war to end all wars" that is never-ending. Trevor tells the Amazons that he has stolen the notebook of a scientist, Dr. Maru, who has created a terrible new poison gas. Maru is under the direction of General Ludendorff who believes this gas is the key to Germany winning the war. Maru and Ludendorff must be stopped as the Britain and Germany are in the process of negotiating an armistice. Trevor needs to get back to England so he can give the notebook to his superiors.

Diana believes that Ludendorff is Ares and she sets out with Trevor to return to England. At first she does not have Queen Hippolyta's permission but Diana stands up to her mother and tells her she cannot stand by while innocent people are being killed. She takes the sword and sails for England.

As Diana and Steve work to stop Ludendorff and Dr. Maru and end the war, the must face the dangers of No Mans Land and treachery from an unexpected traitor who is revealed to be the real Ares.

Discussion

Wonder Woman is by far the best DC Comics movie to date. There's a good storyline focusing on the origin of Wonder Woman, a solid cast and epic battle scenes. But more than that DC portrays a superhero who offers something more than just brute strength. Former Israeli soldier and Miss Israel, Gal Gadot shines as Diana who is Wonder Woman. The movie opens with the origin story of Wonder Woman and goes on to tell how a young, naive  Diana comes to be the greatest female warrior - Wonder Woman.  Patty Jenkins, the movie's director has unabashedly stated that she had a particular vision of what Wonder Woman would look like:
 “I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time — the same way men want Superman to have huge pecs and an impractically big body. That makes them feel like the hero they want to be. And my hero, in my head, has really long legs.”

Wonder Woman offers a different kind of female hero, one with a more authentic feminism that is aligned with the reality of woman. It is a feminism that is based on strength, independence, courage and compassion. Wonder Woman is a superhero who shows that women can offer the world something else besides physical strength and brute force; compassion, courage in the face of terrible odds and truth. When told why the land between the German and Allies front lines is called "No Man's Land" , Diana remains undeterred. She will attack and move the battle forward.  When advised to abandon the German-occupied village of Veld, Diana is moved by compassion and determined to free them. Ares attempts When goaded by Ares to view humans as corrupted and to help him destroy mankind Diana not only resists but destroys her half-brother. She refuses to kill the villainous Dr. Maru, remembering the words of Steve. She is the very opposite of Ares, offering mankind not war but peace. In this we have a very different kind of superhero. Patty Jenkins describes how Wonder Woman is different from the male superheroes:

"The thing about 'Wonder Woman,' which is very feminine and definitely different, is that her objective is to bring love and truth to mankind. It's not to stop any specific villain and it's not to fight and it's not to stop crime. She'll do all of those things in such a bad-ass way you can't believe it to defend you. And so it's an interesting other thing that brings that moral perspective into it."

The Wonder Woman character was created by William Moulton Marston in 1940. The comic book world at that time had only male superheros. This superhero was to be different because sh would conquer using love and truth. Marston who was a psychologist felt that women did not find their role in society as appealing because their feminine characteristics of love, compassion and truth were seen as weaknesses. So Marston set out to create a character who had these strengths but was also beautiful and powerful. Marston who lived in an open relationship with his wife Elizabeth and another woman Olive, based Wonder Woman mostly on Olive.

In a nod to Marston, the movie draws from his original 1940's comics but also the revised comics by George Perez published in the 1980s. It ties Wonder Woman into the overall DC universe in various ways. For example Diana receives a photograph of herself with Steve Trevor from Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. Several of the costumes, that of Ares and Dr. Maru are replicates of those from earlier editions of the Wonder Woman comics.

Wonder Woman is an enjoyable action movie, with epic battle and fight scenes, beautiful cinematography and solid performances by many of the cast. Chris Pine as Steve Trevor is a realistic love interest for Diana showing the young goddess superhero that humans have some redeemable qualities. He sacrifices his life to destroy Ludendorff's poison gas plane and demonstrates that humans are capable of doing good deeds.

There is some sexual innuendo in the first third of the movie, demonstrating Diana's isolation from the world of men but not portraying her as ignorant, and likely more for comic relief. There is also a frontal nudity shot - from a distance of actor Chris Pine. Not really necessary but Hollywood seems to think it so. Overall though Jenkins has done a great job with a movie that has been too long delayed.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin

"Everything starts this autumn, she suddenly thinks. So stupid. Does anything ever start with autumn, really? Autumn brings darkness, quiet, rest, death, trees lose their leaves and the earth grows hard."

Almost Autumn is a story about the plight of a Jewish family in German occupied Norway during the Second World War.

Fifteen-year-old Ilse Stern is completely infatuated with Hermann Rod. Hermann and Ilse have lived next door to each other all their lives, in apartments with their respective families, on the third floor of a tenement building, number ten Biermanns gate, in Grunerlokka, Norway. In the summer, Ilse would sit on the bench beneath the lilac tree in the back yard in the summer waiting for Hermann to emerge from the their tenement building. They would often sit together, laughing and talking. One day Hermann reveals to Ilse that he is beginning an apprenticeship with an artist because he wants to.

It is now autumn, October 1942. Ilse manages to sneak out of her home without her parents knowing after their noon meal. Her sisters, eighteen-year-old Sonja and five-year-old Miriam are at Torshovdalen Park. Ilse plans to meet Herman to go to the movies. A few days earlier in the stairwell of their tenement building, Hermann showed her two tickets and asked her to meet him "at the pictures on Saturday, five o'clock... Row seven, seats eight and nine."

Wanting to impress Hermann, Ilse wears her light summer dress, "the white one with red polka dots that Sonja sewed for her" to the theatre. She waits with great anticipation for Hermann but he doesn't show. Her neighbour from the fourth floor, Ole Rustad sees her and questions her. Ilse waits through two shows and returns home, upset that Hermann did not come.

Hermann has told both Ilse and his father that he is apprenticing as a painter in Frogner. Ilse seemed excited but his father was angry. On the day Hermann planned to go to the movies with Ilse, he walked all the way to Frogner to the apartment of Einar Vindju. However, Einar is not just an artist. He is working with the resistance, forging papers and helping people on their journey to Sweden. Together they listen to the English broadcast on the wireless and take notes. After each visit to Einar's apartment, Hermann takes home a painting that Einar has prepared so that his story about learning to paint appears to be valid.

Over the summer Ilse has been working for her father Isak, helping him in his tailor shop on Osterhaus' gate. Isak's father was a tailor like his father, grand-father and ancestors had been. Her older sister Sonja also works in the shop. Business is bad and they have very little stock to use. Every day Isak arrives at his shop early to scrub the shop windows of the racist graffiti written on them each night so his daughters will know how bad things have become. Although he tries to be friendly, fewer and fewer customers come to the shop. He is losing money and eventually will have to close. Other Jews in Oslo are also experiencing the same things; customers who have left and articles in the newspapers blaming the Jews for everything. This situation led Isak to go to the bank in the summer and withdraw all his money and empty the safety deposit box.

Sonja has been staying late at the shop to work on a project. She intends to get hired as a seamstress at the National Theater. Her friend Helene who works there, has suggested that Sonja apply and bring a sample costume. This is what Sonja is working on. If she gets hired, she will be able to afford her own apartment and earn he own money. Her meeting with Mr. Ostli goes well and she is hired for December 1st. However, Sonja decides to keep this a secret from her parents for now.

While Sonja is planning for her future, and her father is simply trying to keep his business going, Ilse is trying to figure out her relationship with Hermann who has apologized for standing her up and who invites her to go skiing. But when their father is taken away by the police, their shop closed and their mother required to report each day to the police station, Ilse's life is forever changed.

Discussion

Almost Autumn tells the story of a Jewish family living in Grunerlokka, a district in Oslo during the autumn of 1942. At this time Norway is under German occupation and life for Jews is becoming increasingly restrictive.  Kaurin tells her story from several points of view; that of Ilse Stern, her father Isak, her older sister Sonja, her boyfriend Hermann and the taxi-driver, Ole.

Although the novel is about two specific events, the rounding up of Jewish males over the age of fifteen on October 26, 1942  and the rounding up of Jewish women and children exactly a month later and the deportation of Norwegian Jews to Auschwitz, it is also a story that explores the role of chance in life.

Isak Stern has been thinking about escaping to Sweden with his family, yet he delays, a decision that will cost him and most of his family their lives. He withdraws all their money and valuables from the bank in the summer and he begins to consider leaving for Sweden. Yet he hesitates. "How would Hannah react to such a suggestions? Would she consider it, putting the girls through it; would he, for that matter? He doesn't know how to go about it, where to begin, who to contact...He needs to think it through, properly evaluate the situation before he involves Hanna in his plans."  When the police come for Isak, he thinks, "He was too late. It is the only thought that runs through his head. Too late. If only he had made a decision, if only he had known just how little time he had at his disposal, he would have done what was needed. The could have crossed the border to neutral Sweden by now, if only he had followed through on his plans. He even had a name; for days he had contemplated contacting a man by the name of E. Vindju in Frogner. But he hadn't, and now it was too late, they had gotten to him first."
Isak's decision results in their family being arrested, placed on a boat and then taken by train to Auschwitz where his wife and daughters are gassed and he works in the camp. He never returns. A decision, delayed becomes fatal.

Sonja goes to visit a friend and learns from a neighbour that it is likely they have fled to Sweden. Sonja mulls this over but doesn't act on it. "What should she say when she gets back in, should she tell the others that Marie and her mother have fled to Sweden, what would they make of it all, would they start considering doing the same thing?...Sonja decides to tell the others that Marie and her mother weren't at home when she called. It is the truth, after all. She will mull over the Sweden thing itself, maybe mention it to Ilse. They can take some time to consider it, look into it again in a little while." Delaying just as her father did turns out to be fatal for Sonja and her sister and mother.

Even Hermann is affected by a sort of paralysis. Einar wants him to speak to Ilse about leaving Norway. But somehow Hermann can't seem to. "...he would have loved to have said yes, that he had spoken to her, that they were ready, that all there was left to do was to set things in motion. He wished he were more efficient, that he spoke with clarity and conviction, but the walls here, the walls at home, the air outside, he couldn't breathe, there was something there, pressing in on him all the time..." Later on when he and Ilse go for a walk through Birkelunden Park, he still can't bring himself to suggest to her that she and her family need to leave, that they might have to leave everything behind.

Hermann's determination to take Ilse skiing and their impulsive decision to stay overnight in a cabin in the woods ends up saving her life. When the Nazis arrive to take her family, Ilse is not there. This one event, totally by chance, gives Ilse the opportunity to escape and as it also turns out Hermann happens to work for the resistance which means she is able to flee immediately to a safe house.

Kaurin makes her readers consider the possibilities if some of the characters had acted sooner. What if Isak had reached out earlier in the summer and found Einar's name then? What if Sonja had come home that night and told her mother that her friend had escaped to Sweden and pushed her to consider this option. What if Ilse had been home when the Nazi's came for her family? What if Hermann had spoken to Ilse earlier in the fall?

The overarching theme of the novel is autumn and its characteristic as a season of change or transition from the beauty of summer to the bleakness of winter. Each character feels this in their own way. For Hermann he feels he can't possibly become involved with Ilse because of his dangerous work with the resistance: "But now, now it is autumn and everything has changed. It won't work, not now, he has enough to keep on top of..."
Ilse thinks too about autumn. She feels autumn spells a change but when what she expects - her relationship with Hermann blossoming- doesn't happen she wonders if winter will bring the change, a foreshadowing of the terrible events to come. "Everything starts this autumn, she suddenly thinks. So stupid. Does anything ever start with autumn, really? Autumn brings darkness, quiet, rest, death, trees lose their leaves and the earth grows hard. In a week it will be November...Maybe the snow will come soon...And maybe, just maybe, things are different from what she had thought. Maybe everything starts with the first snow."



Kaurin uses foreshadowing in her novel. In autumn, Ilse is convinced that something is about to change. While waiting for Hermann at the beginning of the novel Ilse thinks, "Everything starts this autumn. Something is waiting for her; someone is waiting for her. " Later on she has a dream in which she is standing knee-deep in snow, cold. "She can see the others; soft and blurred, vague figures in the white landscape, wrapped up well against the weather. Mum, Dad, Sonja, and Miriam. She calls out to them, tells them to stop, to wait for her. They can't hear her, they don't turn around. They continue to walk away from her, toward a faint, yellowish light that looks like a fire in the process of dying. She watches them walk away, until she can no longer see them and they vanish into a thick, steamy smog."  Ilse's dream is a foreshadowing of her family's deportation to Auschwitz and their deaths.

Kaurin truly captures the terror and confusion Ilse and her family feel in occupied Norway and she also very realistically portrays the horror of the deportation of Ilse's family along with hundreds of other Norwegian Jews. Sonja's narratives are especially heartbreaking as she does not know that she and her family are being taken to their deaths in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. From Isak's perspective he too doesn't know that his family has been murdered and that he will die.

Almost Autumn is a heartbreaking story of one girl's coming of age during the holocaust and the loss she endures. Beautifully written, capturing the paralyzing fear under Nazi occupation, the novel ends with the hopeful message that love endures. 

Book Details:

Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin (translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger)
New York: Arthur A. Levine Books     2017
278 pp.