Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Pause by John Larkin

Seventeen-year-old Declan O'Malley decides to kill himself. The novel splits the story into two narratives, one before and one after. The story begins five hours before his attempt to commit suicide. It's a Saturday morning and Declan is focused on checking his phone for a message from his girlfriend, Lisa. But no message is forthcoming from Lisa who is being sent by her mother to Hong Kong.What Declan doesn't know at this time is that Lisa's vindictive mother has confiscated her phone.

Two hours before Declan is at home with his mother at breakfast but cannot eat because he's in so much pain."There's nothing I can do. There's nothing I want to do. I just want the pain to stop." His sister Kate tells him to forget about Lisa and his father tells him there are "Plenty of other fish in the sea." But his mother encourages him telling him that "The sun will smile on you again soon. I promise." and she offers to listen if he needs her to.

The story then jumps to seven months prior and tells how Declan arrived at the situation he's in, in the present. Declan who attends Redcliffe Boys is waiting at the train station on a Monday morning waiting for this girl to show up. His friends Chris and Maaaate show up and encourage him to approach the girl he likes. A month later Declan finally works up the courage to approach Lisa on the train, talking to her about To Kill A Mockingbird. They exchange home phone numbers before Lisa exits the train. When Declan finally visits Lisa's home the first person he meets is her mother whom he immediately nicknames "The Kraken".  Lisa's mom is cold and grills Declan about his family and his plans for school. Lisa and her mother argue and finally she is allowed to study with Declan in the kitchen. The Kraken regularly checks in on them, but Declan and Lisa managed a few kisses.

Meanwhile an hour before his suicide, Declan packs his backpack and tells his mom he's going to meet up with Chris. He reflects on the state of his mind and remembers back to his budding friendship with Lisa.  They managed to find time together by sneaking away from Lisa's Christian Crusaders group, only to have her mother, The Kraken, find out and punish Lisa by sending her to live in Hong Kong. Minutes before, Declan buys a train ticket to the airport where he hopes to meet Lisa before she leaves for Hong Kong. Instead he makes that fatal choice to jump. Or does he?

Discussion

John Larkin has written an insightful and unique novel about teens and suicide. Larkin began work on The Pause after suffering a mental breakdown himself in 2012. Initially his book began as a work of nonfiction but evolved into a story about a teenage boy who decides to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. He chose a teenage boy as the main character because suicide predominantly affects young people who do not have the life experience to cope when they are experiencing a mental health crisis. In The Pause, Larkin explores both versions of Declan O'Malley's life; the one where he commits suicide and the one where he "pauses" and does not follow through.

In The Pause, Larkin provides readers with a graphic description of what happens to Declan when he is hit by a train. He details not only the physical destruction of Declan's body but also the emotional and pyschological effects. Prior to jumping, Declan's thinking isn't logical. All he's thinking about is stopping the unbearable pain.
"I watch the train emerge from the tunnel. The train can take me away from all this. It can stop the pain. It can heal my ruptured nerves, silence my screaming mind. And it will be quick. Will be efficient. It will be final. Everyone will be better off without me."

However, when he is hit by the train, it is anything but quick and Declan quickly realizes how his horrific death will affect his family, his friends and bystanders. "I thought this would be instantaneous. Boy was I wrong. Very wrong..." Declan feels the destruction of his body and it is described in detail. He also becomes aware of how his death affects the train driver,  "The look of horror on the driver's face will stay with me forever as no doubt will the memory of my shattered face on his windscreen. He will wake up in a cold sweat every night for the rest of his life"  and the children on the platform, "Little kids off for a day shopping or a day at the movies will also wake up screaming at night." As he's dying Declan begins to count the cost of his suicide. "It's now that I start to contemplate the damage I've left behind. My parents will have to identify my body. My body. How could I do this to them? Who's going to tell Kate? ...Who's going to break it to Lisa? Who's going to tell her that the future we'd planned on our train ride to see Bombay bicycle Club is over?"

From this point on Declan is forced to see the life he gave up. Or did he? Larkin leaves his readers with that question to contemplate throughout the novel when he pauses Declan's story and states that he now gets "to see, in vivid detail, the life that I gave up." Declan's story continues but this time with him making the choice to pause and in that instant to save his life.Declan is taken to hospital and eventually sent to a mental health hospital where he receives medication and group therapy. From this point Declan begins to heal and is able to carry on with his life.

Larkin uses Declan's narrative covering the nine years after the train incident to offer strategies and advice to those suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. For example in therapy, psychotherapist Ed Chui tells Declan and others in the group, "Life is about enjoying the little moments...And isn't that life? Little moments stitched together. We're all going to fall on bad times and go through sadness, through breakups, through death, bereavement and depression. It happens. It's a part of life. But those moments will pass and you'll have good moments again. You'll have great moments. You'll have beautiful moments." Ed tells of his own struggle with suicide and how he didn't act on his thoughts because "I knew I had to stay alive. Not for the life that I was having at the time, because frankly it sucked, but for the life that was just beyond the horizon."

Later in the novel, Declan states, "But in order to have those moments you have to work through the pain, find a way out of the darkness. You have to pause. You have to live."  And that's Larkin's central message in The Pause. Declan's life is not perfect after his suicide attempt; his parents divorce, he and Lisa eventually part ways for many years, and he ends up breaking up with his fiance on his wedding day. But, Declan has many good moments. He reconciles with his father, is successful in his job and comes to terms with what happened to him when he was cared for by his Aunt Mary. His life proves that Ed Chui was correct.

Overall, The Pause is a remarkable novel, honest in its treatment of suicide and offering a message of hope to those struggling with life, that things will get better. Larkin has created a realistic character in Declan O'Malley. The heavy subject matter is lightened by Declan's humour and forthright honesty.

Book Details:

The Pause by John Larkin
North Sydney, Australia: Penguin Random House   2015
329 pp.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

Latham's dual narrative, Dreamland Burning is set in current day Tulsa and 1921 Tulsa. The first narrative is set in current day Tulsa, Oklahoma. Seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase is on her way to an appointment with the district attorney at the county courthouse. She's decided to walk because she wants think about what happened almost one hundred years ago, in 1921 when Will, Joseph and Rose ran north into the woods and fields to try to survive.

Rowan reflects back on what began the first Monday of summer vacation, the day workers arrived at her house. The house has been in Rowan's father's family since her great-great-grandfather, who founded the Chase oil company. Rowan's father Tim who is white, did not want to do anything to the back house, but her mother Isis who is black wants it renovated as a guest house.

The workers abruptly stop their work and quickly leave, talking about "old bones", "police" and "murder". Rowan decides to investigate and discovers a hole cut in the floor of the old house has exposed a skeleton dumped facedown in a roll of stiff fabric. She decides to call her best friend, James Galvez because the skeleton, despite looking like it's been there for many years, suggests foul play.

James arrives in his 1969 El Camino. He's part-black, part-Kiowa. The two of them check out the skeleton and find what looks like blood splatter on the shirt and pants and a gun. The gun has eight notches in it. Rowan also notices thin cracks in the skull as though it's been shattered. Just past the skull James pulls out a brick with dark stains and hair along it's edge. The edge fits perfectly along the fracture line in the skeleton's skull.

Before they can observe anything else, Rowan's mother returns home,finds them with the skeleton and calls the police and her husband. Rowan manages to take an item from the grave without her mother knowing. Officer Cooper quickly arrives and upon seeing the old skeleton, calls the detectives and the medical examiner. After questioning Rowan and James in the presence of her mother and father, the detectives decide to call in Genny Roop, a forensic anthropologist.

Later, in her room Rowan discovers the item she secreted from the skeleton is an old wallet containing coins from 1916 to 1921. This means the skeleton is of a person who was alive in 1921, the year the race riot occurred in Tulsa. Rowan doesn't know much the race riot except that "something had happened between a black teenage boy and  white teenage girl in a department store elevator, then things melted down outside the courthouse the next night. Most of Greenwood ended up burning and everyone pretty much tried to forget about it..." Rowan is puzzled as to how the skeleton could having anything to do with the riots because her family's house is in Maple Ridge, which in the 1920's was an area for rich white people.

When Rowan's job at a virology lab falls through, she finds work at the Jackson Clinic in North Tulsa, the poor section of town. There she meets Truman Atwell, a tall, tattooed man with a "black-toothed meth-addict smile." who works there as well as an interesting patient named Arvin. Rowan meets Dr. Wood who agrees to allow her to job shadow. Back at home, Rowan meets Genny Roop, the forensic anthropologist. Genny doesn't know if the skeleton is male or female but she tells Rowan that she will be able to tell once she unwraps it and removes the remains of the clothing. She knows Rowan took a wallet from the skeleton. When Rowan retrieves the wallet she discovers a brittle, yellowed slip of paper that is a receipt from the Victory Victrola Shop for payments made by a J. Goodhope. She returns the wallet but keeps the receipt as a starting point for her investigation into the mystery of the skeleton.

Rowan and James reconcile and begin to work on solving the mystery of the skeleton. They begin to research the history of Rowan's home and Rowan learns more about the skeleton under the back house. But as they delve deeper into the history of the 1921 race riot and the history of how Rowan's family came to own their house, they uncover the ugly reality of bigotry and hate. And they discover how the past can touch the future.

Alternating  with Rowan's story is William Tillman's narrative. Seventeen-year-old William lives with his father who has a Victrola store and his mother who is a full-blood Osage Indian. His mother is a woman of substantial means, receiving profit from oil pumped out of tribal lands. As a result William's father is having a three storey home constructed in Maple Ridge, a new part of Tulsa. William and his friend Cletus Hayes are at the Two-Knock Inn one March night drinking Choctaw ( a type of beer).William becomes intoxicated and when Adeline Dobbs, whom he's infatuated with arrives, he decides to approach her. Just then, a tall handsome man "browner than bootleather" sits down at Addie's table. William, furious and egged on by Clete, confronts the black man who introduces himself as Clarence Banks. He invites William to join them but instead William tries to punch Clarence who pushes him away, causing William to fall and fracture his wrist. Clarence leaves and Clete who believes the black man should be punished, goes to find a policeman. The policeman who has been forcing the speakeasy's proprietor to pay protection money tries to bully people into providing him with information. Clete who gives the policeman Clarence's name, insists that more be done.

Victrola Model 110
William doesn't reveal all the details of how he broke his arm and his father, angry at his son drinking, has him begin working in the family's Victory Victrola Shop. At school the next day, Addie confronts William in the cafeteria, slapping him on the face and informing him that Clarence might die. Further, she reveals that Clarence was whipped, beaten and left in the street. If he does die, Addie considers William to be just as responsible as the men who beat him.

 At the shop William meets Vernon Fish, a nasty white man who belongs to the Klan and who is attempting to recruit William's father. Vernon hates the area of Tulsa known as Black Wall Street where well-to-do blacks live and he feels William's father Stanley needs to prove himself.

William begins to feel badly about what happened to Clarence Banks and he decides to apologize to Addie but the apology flops. Instead he reveals his racist views which disgust her.

One day at the shop, a young black delivery boy named Joseph Goodhope tells William he wants to purchase a Model 110 Victrola.William takes Joseph and his sister Ruby into the back of the shop to try to complete the sale but they are discovered by William's father.Eventually the two make a deal  for Joseph to buy a Model 14, but William's father tells Joseph he won't deliver the machine until it's paid in full and if he misses even one payment he will be in default.

A week later William saves Ruby from being hit by a car. Ruby asks him to write a receipt for Joseph's payments on the Victrola which he agrees to do. Vernon shows William his Klu Klux Klan robes and his gun Maybelle, which he notches for every Negro he kills. William begins to suspect that Vernon and his friends beat Clarence and a trip to Addie's home confirms that Clarence has indeed died. As William gets to know Joseph and Ruby, he begins to view his Negro neighbours differently.

When a young woman accuses a Negro man of raping her in an elevator, racial tensions ignite and William finds he is forced to make a choice; follow his new ideals or run with the crowd and be part of a murderous riot.

Discussion

Dreamland Burning is a historical mystery set in both the present and in 1921. Rowan Chase's narrative tells about her and her friend Jame's efforts to learn the circumstances behind the skeleton beneath the floor boards of their old home's servant's house. William Tillman's narrative tells the story of life in 1921 Tulsa leading up to the race riot of 1921. The finale of the novel sees the two narratives connect in the present linking William, Ruby and Joseph and Rowan.  Latham includes plenty of twists which keep her readers engaged and guessing as to which of the characters in the 1921 narrative ends up buried beneath the floor.

Dual narratives can be challenging because the writer has to establish both voice and setting for each; in this case a female character living in the present day and a white male character living almost one hundred years ago.  Latham succeeds in this regard creating authentic settings and realistic characters. She also manages to chronicle the journeys of both characters as they mature and change.

William Tillman begins his story as a young man filled with hatred towards a black man for attracting the notice of a white girl he's infatuated with. William's confrontation with Clarence and his failure to tell the truth ultimately leads to the death of an innocent black man. At first William attempts to rationalize what happened. He apologizes to Addie for upsetting her but not for what he did to Clarence."...I blathered on, saying it was a shame he'd touched her hand like that, and how I wished he'd known better and hoped there wouldn't be any permanent damage from the beating he took." This only disgust's Addie and puzzles William. "For shouldn't my apology have sufficed? And shouldn't any Negro man with half a brain know that no good could come of messing with a white woman in public?" 

However William begins to see things differently when he saves Ruby Goodhope from being hit by a car. He angrily tells Ruby she could have been beaten by the milkman and that she belongs back in Little Africa. But Ruby's fear at what could have happened causes William to see Ruby for what she is. "And suddenly it wasn't a colored girl I saw before me, but a girl, plain and simple." William doesn't like the way Ruby has been treated. "And I hadn't liked seeing Ruby cut down, never mind nearly killed. I hated it so much that I reached out and wiped away the teardrop slipping down her cheek...it was the third time I'd touched a brown-skinned person."

At learning of Clarence's death, William feels remorse especially after he learns that Clarence was the son of the Dobbs's maid, Marie. It is at this point that William accepts responsibility for stirring up trouble that resulted in Clarence's death. Seeing Clarence's mother makes William realize he was someone's loved son. Later on William notes how differently his father treats Negro customers. If they are short a single dollar he takes back the machine whereas he's never refused to deliver to a white customer. As William spends time with Ruby and listens to her stories about Joseph, he comes to see them not as Negroes but as people like himself. He grows to respect Joseph whose hard work and honesty are shown each week as he makes a payment for the Victrola. As a result when the whites begin rioting, William is determined to help; he drives to Greenwood to rescue their maid, Angelina's family, to confront the hateful Vernon Fish who tries to force him to go killing Negroes and to save Joseph and Ruby and the Tylers.

Rowan's narrative also portrays her growth and serves to tie up all the loose ends, revealing what happened to William Tillman, to Ruby and Joseph and the connections to the past. Rowan's work at the clinic serves to make her realize that although some things have improved for African Americans, in some ways the same problems exist. James tells her that "The crime's different but the problem's the same. It's about power and prejudice and shit rooted so deep that people don't see it anymore. You know we're six times as likely to go to jail as white people right?" Later on Rowan's mother, on learning that she's working at the Jackson Clinic tells her they have tried to protect her from the reality of life for blacks. But she now tells her daughter that the lives of black people matter and that riots like the one in 1921 should not be forgotten. "The lives that ended that night mattered. It was a mistake for this city to try to forget, and it's an even bigger one to pretend everything's fine now. Black men and women are dying today for the same reasons they did in 1921. And we have to call that out, Rowan. Every single time." This has a profound effect on Rowan, resulting in two significant decisions. First when she learns from Genny that the skeleton in their back house was likely black, Rowan becomes determined to solve the mystery of how it  came to be there. Secondly,  Rowan is involved in a car accident that results in Jerry Randall, a white man accosting her and then pushing her friend Arvin Brightwater into traffic resulting in his death. Randall used a racial slur before pushing Arvin and Rowan realizes that if Arvin had been white, he likely would not have been assaulted and died. Rowan decides that she must act, she must testify because otherwise Arvin simply becomes another black man whose death will be forgotten and no one held accountable.

Buildings burning in Greenwood
Latham's Dreamland Burning brings to life the terror of the worst race riot in American history, one that, until recently has been mostly forgotten.The city of Tulsa was booming in the years following the first World War.  It was known as the "Magic City" because of its new office buildings, beautiful homes, airport and railroads, and many modern conveniences. This boom was fed by nearby oil discoveries resulting in Tulsa being known as the Oil Capital of the World. The African American citizens of Tulsa shared in this boom, with many settling in the northern part of the city that became known as Greenwood or Little Africa. Greenwood became the most affluent black community in America at the time, a fact that did not sit well with the white people of Tulsa. The novel's title, Dreamland Burning, is a reference to the Dreamland Theatre in Greenwood that served the African Americans of the community. It was destroyed during the Tulsa race riot.

The ruins of the Dreamland Theatre following the Tulsa race riot.
On May 30, 1921, a black man named Dick Rowland was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman named Sarah Page in an elevator. Despite Sarah Page not pressing charges, Rowland was arrested the next day. Newspaper reports stirred up the white population who showed up outside the courthouse demanding the sheriff release Rowland to be lynched. One of the two white-owned newspapers, the Tulsa Tribune published an editorial titled "To Lynch Negro Tonight" which suggested that men were assembling to take Rowland and lynch him. The sheriff and his men barricaded themselves in the top floor of the courthouse to protect Rowland from the mob outside. Blacks from Greenwood arrived at the courthouse, shots were fired and they retreated to Greenwood. On June 1, 1921, white rioters looted and burned Greenwood to the ground, killing three hundred people in the process, and leaving many homeless and/or injured. No white person was ever held responsible for the riot, although the chief of police at the time, John Gustafson was removed from his position. The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was never spoken about and not taught in schools. This dark chapter in the history of the city was ignored until very recently.

In William Tillman's narrative, Latham presents some of the realities of that night to her readers; William and Joseph encounter dead Negros who have been burned, tortured and dragged behind cars on the road, they meet men out to kill any Negro they can find. Latham captures the fear the black citizens of Tulsa must have felt in the characters of the Tylers, Joseph and Angelina.

Overall, Dreamland Burning is a well written, authentic retelling of the Tulsa race riot of 1921. Latham takes this difficult event and weaves a murder mystery that is solved almost a century later, revealing long kept secrets. It's a reminder that the past is sometimes the key to the future.

Book Details:

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
New York: Little, Brown and Company      2017
365 pp.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Welcome To Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

Twelve-year-old Omar Hamid lived with his family in Bosra, Syria. By his own admission, it was a beautiful town with Roman ruins in the center that regularly drew tourists from all over the world. His father worked at the tourism office while his mother, Leila cared for their family. At this time, Omar family consisted of his older brother Musa who has cerebral palsy, his fifteen-year-old sister Eman, his five-year-old brother Fuad and his baby sister Nadia. Omar worked in his Uncle Ali's hardware store before school and when school ended at 1pm, he worked with Rasoul trying to get the tourists to buy from his souvenir shop.

At his uncle's shop one morning, a man Omar calls Mr. Nosy warns his uncle about his son studying at university telling him to stay away from politics. He tells him there are terrorists everywhere. Uncle Ali is shaken by this, closes his shop and tells Omar he's leaving town. On the way home from school that day, Musa reveals to Omar that they are moving to Daraa because their father has been transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Omar's family move to Daraa the same time trouble began. Their last day at school Omar overhears Musa's friends talking about two fifteen-year-old boys who sprayed slogans on walls calling for the downfall of the Syrian government. They were caught and tortured. As the family is packing, Omar's parents quarrel over sixteen-year-old Eman continuing school. His mother wants her to continue but the father feels she should be married.

They move to his granny's flat in Daraa. Also living in Daraa is his Auntie Majda and her little girls. At school Omar is shocked to see Musa become part of a group led by a boy named Bassem. Musa tells Omar that Bassem's cousin was his friend in Bosra and that he and his friends have been involved in plotting a revolution. Along with his nerdy friends back in Bosra, Musa has discovered the terrible things the Syrian government has been involved in; arrests, disappearances and torture of citizens. They want to live in a democratic state and have been organizing the marches and demonstrations. Musa challenges Omar, asking him if he cares that he lives in a dictatorship.

One day after mosque, Omar discovers Musa has a phone given to him by Bassem. When he arrives home, Omar finds his mother frantic because there are demonstrations in Daraa. She sends him out to get Granny and Nadia who have gone to Auntie Majda's home. Omar witnesses the demonstration and the Syrian government troops opening fire on the students. One of those students is his brother Musa whom Omar helps to flee. They hide his cell phone just before they are confronted by a soldier but manage to convince him they are not involved in the demonstration. With Bassem's help they rescue Granny and Nadia who have been trapped outside Auntie Majda's flat. Eventually Omar retrieves the phone which has film of the demonstration and Musa gives it to Bassem and Latif.

But the student actions ignite a civil war that begins to engulf them all. Every day there are marches followed by funerals. Latif is shot in the head and dies in hospital. The internet is cut off, the schools closed and then tanks roll into Daraa, besieging the city. A tense moment occurs when the soldiers begin searching every house. Musa has to hide both his phone and a little notebook. He and Omar manage this and the soldiers leave without discovering either.

Soon a full scale civil war is happening. The electricity is cut which means no lights, no mobile phones, and no fridge. There are bombings and shootings. Omar is constantly afraid, his younger brother Faud begins wetting the bed, Eman gets a rash and Musa has nightmares. Then one day Baba returns home because the Ministry of Agriculture is closed. When he learns that Musa is out, Baba is furious and Omar is sent out to bring him home. On their way back, Omar is shot by a soldier, he bullet grazing his arm. Even worse a shell lands on the house next to theirs, destroying both homes. After spending the night huddled in a shed Omar and his family work to clean up their apartment. However, Uncle Feisal shows up offering them a way out of Daraa. He takes them to Leila's brother-in-law's farm outside Bosra.

Uncle Mahmud and Auntie Fawzia take Omar and his family in, giving them the storeroom to stay in. Baba returns to Daraa to stay with a friend in a quiet part of town, away from the fighting. Meanwhile Omar begins helping out on the farm, working with his cousin Jaber. Life on the farm seems tranquil and safe with the fighting confined mostly to the cities. But soon the violence spreads into every area of Syria and Omar and his family must flee, leaving everything behind. It is a journey that will take them far from home, to a distant land and a new life.

Discussion

Laird has written a solid novel that offers young readers the chance to learn about the Syrian war and the plight of refugees. The experiences of young Omar and his family opens a window on the culture of Muslim Syrians.  In some ways the Hamid family is not that much different from families in the West. Omar like many children, doesn't like school. Instead, he's interested in making money and someday owning his own business. His older sister Eman has dreams of continuing school. Musa, whose intelligence is hidden by his cerebral palsy, is politically engaged and wants to work for a democratic Syria. Omar's mother and father love and care for their children and simply want to raise their children in a safe, clean city. They are part of a large extended family who care for one another.

However, some things are very different in Syria. This is especially true of how women and the disabled are treated. Omar's older sister Eman is a good student. Because education is strictly segregated, Eman attends an all girls school. Eman wants to be a teacher, a goal Baba does not support. Her mother does because she wanted to be a teacher before she was forced into marriage to Baba at age fifteen. When the family is forced to move to Daraa, Baba decides that Eman will no longer attend school. "Education's a waste of time for girls. Eman's sixteen already. It's high time she was married. I've had a good offer..." Omar's mother is shocked at this revelation and refuses to move to Daraa unless Eman is able to continue school.  Eman tells Omar, "...I want to do something Omar! I want to be a teacher! Have my own life!"  Later on when war comes to the farm outside of Bosra where Omar's family has fled, Eman learns that her father, mother and auntie have all worked to arrange her marriage to Abu Bilal, a man who is later discovered to have raped and nearly killed another girl. Eman's feelings don't matter and she is never consulted. She resists the marriage, but is slapped and abused by her family. In desperation she attempts to starve herself and threatens to kill herself. Omar watches and is powerless to help his older sister. It is only in the refugee camp, without the presence of Baba, that Musa stands up to Bilal and refuses to allow the marriage to happen.

The attitude towards Omar's disabled brother Musa is also very different. Omar relates that "The teachers had written him off for years and said he was stupid." Musa has been laughed at, beaten and even had his arm broken at school. He's been bruised, insulted and had his notebooks destroyed.  But in spite of this Musa has persisted in attending school. It was his seventh grade teacher, Mr. Ibrahim who recognized Musa's intelligence and this forced Omar to recognize that his brother is a "brainbox". Even some of his own family struggle to accept Musa. Omar states that "Granny couldn't bear the sight of Musa. 'There have never been any deformed children on our side of the family,'   I heard her say to Baba, looking accusingly at Ma."  Musa becomes politically active and is involved in the planning of the initial actions against the Syrian government. He shows great courage and takes terrible risks to fight for what he believes in. Always an outsider because of his disability, this offers Musa a chance to belong to something important.

Laird who visited and volunteered at two refugee camps, Za'atari and Azraq in Jordan, provides her young readers with a real sense of what life is like in these camps. Through the characters of Eman and Omar, Laird describes the hopelessness for the future. "Eman shrugged. 'So what? Anything's better than living in limbo here! What have we got to look forward to? Nothing. There's no school for Musa and me, no work...Eman sighed. 'I just feel hopeless, that's all.We're in a sort of prison. We're nowhere. And we might be here forever." Yet when the opportunity to leave the refugee camp and travel to Britain arises, Omar and Musa feel fear and Musa resists. "...But in England we'd be just a bunch of refugees, living on charity. You know what the British say about Arabs and Muslims? They think we're all crazy terrorists..."

Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan
In Omar, Laird has crafted a strong, appealing main character whose actions and feelings are authentic. Omar is loyal, brave and compassionate. He helps his brother Musa when he repeatedly gets himself in a tight spot, despite feeling frustrated and angry at him. When Baba abandons the family after learning of Musa's involvement with the Syrian rebels, Omar becomes responsible for many of his family's needs. As expected, Omar feels overwhelmed by this responsibility. He sympathizes with Eman over her being forced to marry a much older man whom Omar knows has a poor character. He courageously but unsuccessfully attempts to convince his Ma that Bilal is an evil man. Eventually Omar does convince Musa to defend their older sister. Instead of attacking Riad, a poor boy who is running wild in the camp, Omar takes him under his wing, turning him from the path of a thief into a boy focused on trying to do the right thing.

Welcome To Nowhere is highly recommended for readers aged 9 to 13 but will also appeal to older readers. Laird has included a map showing the location of Syria in the Middle East but there is no map showing Omar's journey to Jordan nor the location of the refugee camp.  There is an informative "Letter From The Author" at the back of the book which provides more details about the Syrian situation. Welcome To Nowhere is a good book to acquaint younger readers with the Syrian refugee situation and to help them better understand the plight of refugees.

Book Details:

Welcome To Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird
London: Macmillan Children's Books     2017
329 pp.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

DVD: For Greater Glory

For Greater Glory is a film about the Cristeros War from 1926 to 1929 when the Mexican people rose up against the repressive government of President Plutarco Calles and his anti-Catholic laws.

The film opens in 1926, a few years after the Mexican Revolution. At this time, a precarious relationship between the atheist Mexican government and the Catholic church existed. President Plutarco Elias Calles begins strictly enforcing the anti-clerical laws written into the Mexican constitution of 1917. The movie opens with Calles giving a radio address in which he claims Mexico is under siege by outcasts from Rome and Europe who have come to the country to destabilize it. These fanatics, he claims will not be tolerated and he has instructed Congress to devise a set of laws to deal with this "national emergency". These laws require every foreign-born bishop, priest and minister to be deported immediately. Any priest who criticizes the government will automatically receive a five-year jail sentence. The wearing of religious vestments in public is also prohibited. Calles states that his government will do whatever is necessary to preserve the ideals of the Mexican revolution.

Twelve-year-old Jose Luis Sanchez throws food at Father Christopher and is brought to the priest by his godfather Mayor Picazo to work for him. Father Christopher refuses, considering Jose's actions a harmless prank but later on he encourages Jose, telling him he will train him to be an altar boy. Picazo warns the priest to be careful wearing his cassock in public, stating, "God save us from these heathens."

Father Vega tells Father Christopher that there are spontaneous protests all over the country and that soldiers are travelling to the towns to make sure that the laws are enforced. But Father Christopher states that he came to Mexico from Europe when he was just seven years old and he doubts that they would deport an old priest. As it turns out he is sadly mistaken. Father Vega believes that armed resistance is inevitable, stating,  "We cannot allow the Godless to take away our freedom." The elderly Father Christopher tells him he will not fight but he will feed and shelter those fighters in need.

Eugene and Tulita being turned away from the cathedral.
Rome does respond. Pope Pius XI condemns Calles actions and beginning midnight August 1, all holy services in Mexico are suspended. This directive results in people lining up for marriage, baptism and confessions. (It should be noted that the Mexican bishops requested the cessation of religious services so as to avoid confrontations with the Mexican government and the police.) Enrique Gorostieta and his wife, Tulita are turned away from the cathedral for their daughter's confirmation. Enrique believes this situation will be temporary, that Calles will be overthrown,but Tulita is upset.

Meanwhile, a young woman named Adriana is attempting to get signatures for a petition to repeal the Calles law. An older gentlemen suggests that while Calles can ignore a million signature petition, he cannot ignore an economic boycott. Adriana takes this idea to Anacleto Gonzalez Flores who believes it to be brilliant. The Catholics organize a widespread boycott and march in the street leading Calles to believe he has been too lenient and that the boycott is to wreck the economy and bring the government down. This leads Calles to send soldiers to the churches, resulting Catholics being murdered and beaten.After this, Anacleto insists that they continue to resist peacefully but Miguel Gomez Loza tells him the war is already upon them. Anacleto agrees they can support the rebellion with funds, communication and medicine but they will not fight.

From the church tower, Jose sees the federales (federal soldiers) rapidly approaching and warns everyone. He runs to warn Father Christopher to hide but the elderly priest tells him he's too old to hide. Jose begs him to hide at his home, but Father refuses. From his hiding place, Jose witnesses the execution of Father Christopher and returns to his home devastated. Meanwhile the Catholics in the villages begin to fight back, arming themselves and attacking the federales. They call themselves Cristeros.  In a small village church, Father Robles is confronted by federales and hanged, the church vandalized. A few Cristeros arrive too late to help Father Robles, however they kill all the federales and hang their leader.

As the crisis deepens, two lawyers, Anacleto Gonzalez Flores and Miguel Gomez Loza, who work for the National League for the Defense of Religious Freedom join with the Cristeros to help fund the rebellion. They realize they must organize the twenty-thousand Cristeros into an effective force to fight for the freedom to practice their Catholic faith. They decide to approach a retired general, Enrique Gorostieta, although Anacleto is doubtful because Gorostieta is an atheist. Miguel visits Gorostieta on behalf of the  League to implore him to help.  Gorostieta tells him all the Cristeros have is belief but Miguel reveals they have weapons and a vast secret network. Later that evening Gorostieta tells his wife, Tulita about being approached by the Cristeros. She is shocked because he is an atheist but he tells her despite this he believes in religious freedom. In the end, he decides to become involved and lead the Cristeros, with the blessing of Tulita.

One of the Cristeros, Victoriano Ramirez is ambushed by fourteen federales at his ranch. He kills all of them and earns the nickname "El Catorce" - the Fourteen. When he arrives at the Cristeros camp he learns that Father Vega is the "general" leading the Cristeros. Vega insists that they must work together; Ramirez's actions drove the federales into their camp, causing many casualties. Under the direction of Father Vega, the Cristeros attack a train to steal the gold shipment. They succeed but the attack goes terribly wrong when Brother Pablo is killed and against Vega's orders, many civilians are burned alive in the train. It is at this point that General Gorostieta finally joins the Cristeros, telling them they will fight honorably and with dignity and cunning. They will not fight for revenge because they are an army fighting for God and the church.

In his village, Jose witnesses the brutal attack on a photographer and his son, Miguel who have been creating a photographic record of the war. Jose attempts to intervene but the soldier informs Jose that Mayor Picazo, who is Jose's godfather, ordered the murders. When confronted by Jose, Picazo tells him that Miguel is a well-known Cristero who killed a federale sergeant. He threatens Jose, warning him that he will not save his life again. This leads Jose and his friend Lalo to decide to join the Cristeros.

Jose and Lalo travel by horse to the Cristero camp where General Gorostieta accepts their help. As the days pass, Jose and Gorostieta form a father-son bond with Jose's example of a strong faith and deep peace beginning to tough the heart of Gorostieta. As the Cristeros organize, Calles intensifies his efforts to strangle both the Catholic church and those rebelling. Although some of the Cristeros raids are successful, many are not. Jose is captured, tortured and executed when he refuses to repudiate his faith. Gorostieta is devastated at the murder of Jose.

The United States through the efforts of Ambassador Dwight Morrow, becomes involved in attempting to broker a peace between the Cristeros and Calles. The US wants to end the fighting and save the US rights to Mexican oil fields. As a deal is reached, the fighting between Calles' troops and the Cristeros continues and many of the Cristeros, some, a martyrs death.

Discussion

For Greater Glory serves as an important piece of cinema in the effort to bring to light, both to the world and to the Mexican people whose government has suppressed it, the forgotten struggle for religious freedom - the Cristeros War. This war between the people and the government of President Calles lasted from 1926 to 1929 and cost an estimated ninety-thousand Mexicans their lives. 

To better understand the events For Greater Glory portrays, it helps to have some background knowledge of the relationship between the government of Mexico and the Catholic church. Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821.  In the 1850's the Mexican government under the leadership of Benito Juarez, who was backed by the United States, began confiscating land owned by the Catholic church. This was part of a land reform to reclaim land that was felt to belong to Mexicans. Eventually the government enacted laws that placed all church property under the ownership of the Mexican government and also forbade any public expression of religious belief. Mexican Catholics rebelled until Porfirio Diaz became Mexico's president in 1876. Diaz did not enforce the anti-clerical laws and so for many years the government and church co-existed.

However during his time as leader, Diaz continuing confiscating church land and redistributing it. The land of Mexico's indigenous peoples was also confiscated and eventually this led to much of Mexico's land being owned by a small percentage of very wealthy citizens. This led to the Mexican Revolution which had it's beginnings in 1910.

President Plutarco Elias Calles
In 1910, Porfirio Diaz was re-elected amid claims his win was rigged. He was ousted and Francisco Madero, a wealthy landowner who had the support of the Catholic clergy, won election in 1911. He reintroduced religious freedoms to Catholics that they had not experienced since the mid-1800's.  Although Madero won the election fairly, his presidency faced great opposition from both conservatives and revolutionaries. He was opposed by Victoriano Huerta, Venustiano Carranza, Pancho Villa, and Alvaro Obregon in the north and Emiliano Zapata in the south.  The period from 1913 to 1920 saw revolution and assassinations. Madero was forced to resign in 1913 and was later assassinated by one of his trusted military officers, General Victoriano Huerta. Huerta resigned in 1914 and fled to the United States. Carranza became President in 1915, defeating Villa and Zapata who held more lenient views towards the Catholic church.

In 1917 the Mexican Constitution was passed which raised to constitutional law the complete separation of church and state. To accomplish this, the old anti-Catholic laws from the previous century were enacted. These laws stated that all churches were the property of the Mexican government, clergy were banned from voting, from participating in political discourse and could not wear their religious garments, Local governments could also control the number of religious in their jurisdiction. Schools run by religious were banned and education was to have no religious content. The constitution was decidedly anti-Catholic and anti-religious. It is not surprising this occurred the same year the communist revolution overtook Russia.

Obregon handily won the presidential elections in 1920. He remained president for four years and in 1924, Calles became Mexico's 40th president. At first Calles presidency worked for positive change in Mexico, equality, land redistribution, better education and the rights of workers. But Calles was vehemently anti-Catholic and he soon re-enacted the anti-clerical laws embedded in the Mexican Constitution. His hardline stance led to direct conflict with the church and resulted in the Cristero War which began in 1926.

For Greater Glory attempts to portray the complex events of the Cristero War but doesn't fully succeed. For one thing viewers with little previous knowledge of Mexican history will struggle to understand the significance of the main characters and their relationship to one another, if any. The film attempts to follow a few significant players involved in the war; lawyer and pacifist Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, twelve-year old Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio, Miguel Gomez Loza, General Enrique Gorostieta, Father Jose Reyes Vega,  Victoriano Ramirez and the women of the Cristiada as exemplified by Adriana. Anacleto Gonzalez Flores was probably one of the most important figures in the Cristiada but the film never manages to convey this to the viewer. Gonzalez Flores was a charismatic leader who organized passive resistance and who only reluctantly became connected to armed resistance. He was faithful to Christ under torture until the very end. Sadly these qualities were never fully presented in For Greater Glory. Instead the relationship that dominates the movie is that between Jose and General Gorostieta, both of whose characters are the best developed in the movie. It is Gorostieta's journey from atheist and reluctant Cristeros to a convert to Catholicism that dominates the latter half of the movie.

The movie also chronicles several characters spiritual journeys including those of Jose, Mayor Picazo and Victoriano. Jose begins the film a mischievous boy who pranks the parish priest but transforms to a boy who develops a more mature and serious outlook on life after witnessing the murders of Father Christopher and others. Soon his life belongs to Christ and his faith is something to be preserved at all cost. In contrast, his godfather, Mayor Picazo begins as a seemingly devout Catholic concerned for the welfare of the parish priest but loses his soul as he attempts to get his beloved godson to apostatize so he can save him.

Where the movie succeeds is in its attempts to give viewers some sense of the horrific oppression of Catholics by the Calles regime and the determination and grit of the Cristeros to defend the right to practice their faith. However, it's almost impossible to fully portray the brutality of the Calles regime. The rabid anti-Catholic policies of Calles resulted in the martyrdom of many innocents some of whom are portrayed in the movie; the attack on Catholics at Mass, the brutal hanging of Father Jose Maria Robles Hurtado, the Cristeros riding through entire villages massacred by the federales, corpses hanging from the telephone posts along the railway, the summary execution of the elderly Father Christopher and the torture and execution of a young boy, Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio. The film does not show the effects of the closure of churches and Catholic schools on the people except at the very beginning when the Gorostieta family is turned away from the cathedral. Nor is it really possible to show how the loss of most of Mexico's Catholic priests affected the sacramental life of Catholics.The movie is also chock full of wonderful scenes of the Latin Mass, Catholics receiving the sacraments, and scenes in beautiful churches with statues and paintings.

Blessed Miguel Pro moments before his death.
One of the most moving scenes in the movie occurs early on when Jose races to Father Christopher who is in the church praying. Jose begs him to flee or at the very least to hide at his home. But Father Christopher knows that he is too old to flee and that by hiding he may gravely endanger Jose's family. He tells Jose,  "Who are you if you don't stand up for what you believe? There is no greater glory than to give your life for Christ." Father Christopher tenderly embraces Jose attempting to comfort the distraught boy. The elderly priest does not resist as he is led outside the church and executed as a tearful Jose watches from the tower. The character of Father Christopher is based on the real life priest, Cristobal Magallanes Jara.

Viewers will be deeply touched by the martyrdom of Jose Luis Sanchez. Unable to break the young boy's determination not to reveal critical information and to remain faithful to Christ, he was cruelly tortured. As shown in the movie, the bottom of his feet were cut and he suffered many other wounds. Jose was forced to walk through the town to his grave in the cemetery where he was stabbed. He died reiterating the battle cry of the Cristeros, Viva Cristo Rey!

For Greater Glory was directed by Dean Wright known for his work on two of the Lord of the Rings movies (The Two Towers and The Return of the King) and featured a strong cast that included Andy Garcia as General Gorostieta, Eva Longoria as his wife Tulita, Oscar Isaac as Victoriano Ramirez, Ruben Blades as President Calles, Eduardo Verastegui as Anacleto, Bruce Greenwood as Ambassador Dwight Morrow and featuring Mauricio Kuri as Jose. Peter O'Toole played Father Christopher. Movie goers may remember the devout Catholic Verastegui from the movie, Bella. All give believable, solid performances in this movie.

During the rolling movie credits, viewers will see film footage of the execution of Blessed Miguel Pro, a Mexican priest. It is likely the first time the martyrdom of a Catholic saint has ever been filmed. Calles had Pro's execution filmed in the hopes that he would disgrace the Catholic faith. But Pro went to his death forgiving his executioners and faithful to Christ his king.

Perhaps the most important message of For Greater Glory is that the one, apostolic, holy church founded by Jesus Christ will never be overcome by worldly powers. Throughout the last 2000 years, countless governments from the Roman Empire to the communist regimes of Stalin and Castro, from Robspierre to Calles have tried to suppress the Catholic faith. But people like those who were part of the Cristiada will remain faithful to their beliefs. For there IS no greater glory than to give your life for Christ. Viva Cristo Rey!