Saturday, January 21, 2017

DVD: Deepwater Horizon

Deepwater Horizon is a cinematic dramatization of the oil rig disaster that occurred on the night of April 20, 2010 in the Gulf Coast in which eleven workers were killed and seventeen injured.

The Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling an exploratory well in the Macondo Prospect, a potential oil and gas prospect in Miocene-age sediments located approximately forty-one miles offshore of Louisiana. Ironically, the prospect takes its name from the fictional town of Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Drilling in the prospect was initially begun in 2009 by Transocean's Marianas semi-submersible rig but was discontinued after the rig was damaged by Hurricane Ida i the fall. In February of 2010,  Deepwater Horizon, a dynamically positioned ultra deep-water semi-submersible rig resumed drilling the prospect. It is important to remember that Deepwater Horizon was to look for oil, not pump it out of the ground. In April of 2010, with the drilling operation forty-three days behind schedule, disaster struck. What followed was a serious of human and mechanical mistakes that led to the disaster.

When an oil well is drilled a bit is used to drill through the rock. Each section drilled has casing installed to line the hole and then cement is poured to seal the space between the casing and the rock wall. This process is repeated again and again as the well is drilled deeper using smaller casing. When drilling a well, heavy mud is pumped into the well to lubricate the bit and also to carry bits of rock (called chips) to the surface. The mud also has another function. Hydrocarbons - that is oil and gas in the rock formations are under tremendous pressure thousands of feet below the earth's surface. When an opening is created as when drilling, the oil and gas will flow out of the rock to the surface unless there is a countering force.That force is provided by the static pressure of the mud which keeps the gas and oil from flowing out of the rock, up the drill pipe to the surface. If the pressure exerted by the mud is not sufficient the well will "kick" that is gas and oil will flow upwards. The hydrocarbons can also flow upwards if the well has been damaged or if "the cement placed between the casing protecting the drill string and the rock wall of the well isn't tight." In this case methane gas can flow up the drill string or outside of the cement casing and flow upwards with catastrophic results.

Deepwater Horizon
Because BP was behind schedule, drilling proceeded too quickly and the well was fractured at around 13,000 feet. The pipe had to be pulled two thousand feet back, the damaged section sealed and drilling restarted along a slightly different angle into the oil/gas bearing formation. With the drilling now finished, to secure the final section of the well, BP decided to go cheap and use a single string of casing from the wellhead to the bottom of the well. This was risky because it meant that there would be a significant chance gas would leak out of the formation. (Generally single casing is used on shallower wells on land.) Even worse, BP did not use enough centralizers or collars that ensure the pipe is in the middle of the bore hole so that when the cement is poured around it there are no gaps and therefore no risk of gas leakage. Both of the options were used to cut time and cost. BP also did not have Schlumberger run a cement bond log, deciding it wasn't needed. This test is routine on a well to test the integrity of the cement bond between the well casing and the formation. The blowout preventer (BOP) which can be used to shut down a runaway well was also damaged making it useless. Added to this was the apparent misreading of the negative pressure test which is done on a well to determine the integrity of the well. All of these factors plus many more contributed to the making of the disaster..

The movie, directed by Peter Berg,  focuses on a few people in the disaster - Transocean's Chief Electronics technician Mike Williams played by Mark Wahlberg with Kate Hudson cast as his wife Felicity, Transocean's offshore installation manager  (OIM) Jimmy ("Mr. Jimmy") Harrell (Kurt Russell), Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) who was a Dynamic Positioning Operator and Caleb Holloway (Dylan O'Brien) who was a drill crew floorhand. Also included were BP executives, nighttime rig supervisor Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) and daytime rig operator Robert Kaluza. While the movie makes Vidrine out to be the villain in fact as indicated above, it was a smorgasbord of many failures, both human and mechanical that were involved in creating the disaster. 

While much media attention has been on the ecological disaster associated with the oil spill that followed, little focus has been on the real people who survived the disaster and the eleven rig workers who died that night. Berg wanted to create a movie about the human tragedy behind the disaster.  In an interview with the L.A. Times Berg stated: “To this day, when people think of Deepwater Horizon, they only think of an oil spill — they think of an oil spill and dead pelicans ...Obviously that oil spill was horrific,” he continued. “But the reality is 11 men died on that rig and these men were just doing their jobs and many of them worked hard trying to prevent that oil from blowing out and it was certainly not their fault. As it pertains to the families of those men who lost their lives, I want them to feel as though another side of that story was presented, so that whenever someone talks about the Deepwater Horizon or offshore oil drilling, people don’t automatically go to ‘oil spills.’ ”

To recreate the events, an 85% scale replica of the Deepwater Horizon rig was built on an abandoned lot in Louisiana and placed in a enormous water tank.The replica was made as accurately as possible and the set was one of the largest ever made for a movie. It was set on fire to mimic the real explosions and inferno of the disaster. The realism of the set made it possible to give viewers some idea of just how horrific things were on the rig during the blowout. A 2010 New York Times article written by David Barstow, David Rhode and Stephanie Saul became the main source for the development of the movie script.

From the very beginning, the movie adaptation portrays a culture of disorganization, risk taking and poor maintenance on the rig. When Mike Williams, Jimmy Harrell and Andrea Fleytas arrive on Deepwater Horizon they are astonished to learn that the Schlumberger team has been sent home without running the cement log. No one seems to know why the log was not run and they are told that the drilling is finished and they are going to cap the well.  Furthermore there are many things on the rig that do not work - the phone system is out, toilets are backed up etc. After his own brief investigation with rig staff, Mr. Jimmy decides to confront BP executives, Don Vidrine and Robert Kaluza about the cement log and while doing so, Williams reels off a list of items on the rig that don't work and are in need of repair.

The movie also portrays the complex and often difficult relationship between the various partnering companies. Mr. Jimmy and Mike Williams show considerable disdain for the BP staff who they see as interested only in saving money at the expense of rig safety. Mr. Jimmy who works for Transocean the owners of Deepwater Horizon has nothing but contempt for Vidrine. It is also apparent that many of the rig's crew respect Mr. Jimmy.

One of the best scenes in the movie occurs early on when Mike is preparing to leave for his three weeks on the rig and he has breakfast with his daughter Sydney. Sydney is working on a school project that will explain her father's job and how he "tames" the dinosaurs. The scene is both an analogy for drilling an oil well and a foreshadowing of the disaster. Using a coke can which her father shakes, Sydney explains to her father that he tames the dinosaurs by drilling for oil. Sydney rams a metal rod into her can of coke and plugs it with honey - but after she finishes her explanation, the pop explodes out of the metal tube and onto the table, mimicking a well blowout. One of the trailers released for the movie shows this scene:

For the most part the movie is a fairly accurate portrayal of the situation on the rig and the disaster that follows. Williams didn't rescue Mr. Jimmy as in the movie but both men were seriously injured, Williams was left on the rig and did jump over ten stories into the ocean, the survivors did say the Lord's Prayer on the deck of the Damon B. Bankston and the rig was entirely engulfed in flames. The are minor inaccuracies such as when Mike Williams is given a dinosaur tooth by one of the rig staff for his daughter. Retrieval of a large fossil would not be possible because it would be destroyed by the drill bit. There is some dramatic license taken in the movie such as showing bubbles of methane gas escaping from the seabed around the borehole, suggesting to the viewing audience that the well is about to "blow".

Nevertheless Deepwater Horizon is a great action movie, filled with many tense moments and good acting. If anything the movie will help viewers understand the tragedy, learn a bit about the oil industry and remember the human story that seems mostly forgotten. Media focused on the 210 million gallons of oil that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico but Deepwater Horizon helps us to remember the eleven men who died that night.

For those interested in a more detailed description of exactly what is believed to have happened to cause the Deepwater Horizon blowout this video explains the details. Popular Mechanics also has a great article "Special Report: Why the BP Oil Rig Blowout Happened" that is worth reading.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

The Fourteenth Goldfish is a
humorous look at one family's life when a scientific impossibility becomes a reality.

Eleven-year-old Ellie Cruz lives with her mother, a high school drama teacher, in a small, two bedroom house in the Bay Area surrounding San Francisco. One afternoon Ellie's babysitter, Nicole tells her that her mom will be late coming home because she has to pick Ellie's grandfather up from the police station.Ellie can't imagine what her grandfather has gotten into. He's a scientist who's never approved of Ellie's mom's love of theatre, so Ellie knows this will interesting.

When Ellie's mom returns home she is accompanied by a slender, teenage boy with long hair. At first Ellie thinks he might be one of the kids from her mother's theatre crew. As her mother and the boy argue back and forth, Ellie begins to realize that he seems familiar. When she spies the college ring on the boy's finger she realizes the boy is her grandpa.

Her grandfather tells Ellie that he has found a way to reverse aging, through cellular regeneration. He's discovered the fountain of youth. Ellie is filled with disbelief but her mother assures her that the thirteen-year-old boy standing before them is actually her seventy-seven-year-old grandfather, Melvin Herbert Sagarsky.

As Melvin stuffs himself with pizza, he tells Ellie that his vision and hearing has returned and his arthritis is gone. He also says he was picked up by the police for trespassing on private property - the lab where he once worked and whose reputation he helped build.

The next morning Melvin tells Ellie that he needs to get into his lab to recover his jellyfish specimen. He explains to Ellie that he has a species of jellyfish, Turritopsis melvinus in the lab. The T. melvinus is what helped him to "sort out the mechanism for reversing senescence" or the process of aging. Ellie is skeptical but Melvin explains to her that there are plenty of examples in nature of organisms with regenerative abilities. A few months ago, Melvin states that he was contacted by an Australian diver who had found an odd specimen of T. nutricula. When Melvin received the specimen he was certain it was a new species as it was huge and had other differences. So he named it Turritopsis melvinus. He then created a compound which he tested on adult mice who reverted to adolescence. He decided to test it on himself and he too reverted to adolescence. But the jellyfish is still in the lab and Melvin wants it to continue his research.

First though Melvin is sent to school with Ellie. Besides dressing very eccentrically, Melvin loves the large school lunches. As he struggles to fit in at school, Melvin schemes to retrieve his jellyfish from his old lab, in the hopes that he can publish his work and win a coveted Nobel Prize. But as Ellie learns more about the world of science and what it means to be a scientist she begins to wonder at the price some pay for the knowledge they gain and whether every discovery is necessarily good. It is Ellie who forces Melvin to consider the true cost of his discovery.


Jennifer Holm has written an engaging, humorous story for younger readers that explores both the importance of science in our lives but also the ethical dilemmas scientists should consider but sometimes do not,  in the face of new discoveries. Holm's writing draws from her personal experience growing up with a father who was a pediatrician and who regularly kept "petri dishes with blood agar in our refrigerator to grow bacteria cultures."

In The Fourteenth Goldfish, Ellie's grandfather Melvin Sagarsky is determined to sneak into his old lab and obtain his jellyfish, T. melvinus, from which he created a compound that reversed aging and turned him from an old man into an adolescent. Melvin shows up at Ellie's house being the snarky, quirky grandfather she's always known except that he's now in the body of a thirteen year old boy. He's determined to recover T. melvinus, continue his research and win the coveted Nobel Prize.

As Ellie spends time with her grandfather, he explains the positive character traits of scientists and why science is so important - that it has brought about good change in the world.  Her grandfather mentions many famous scientists such as Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer and Galileo and presents to his granddaughter what he believes are characteristics that make scientists superior to other people in society. He tells her that scientists are persistent. "Average people just give up at the obstacles we face every day. Scientists fail again and again and again. Sometimes for our whole lives. But we don't give up, because we want solve the puzzle." According to Melvin, scientists "keep trying because they believe in the possible...That it's possible to cure polio. That it's possible to sequence the human genome. That it's possible to find a way to reverse aging. That science can change the world."

Ellie researches the scientists her grandfather has mentioned so she can write about one of them for a school project. While researching Oppenheimer, Ellie discovers that the scientists working on the first atomic bomb had mixed feelings about their success. Oppenheimer stated  "We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent." Ellie understands a little how they felt because her feelings were the same when her "grandfather walked through the front door looking like a teenager." 

Even though they fail at their first attempt to gain access to the lab, Ellie's grandfather remains undeterred, telling Ellie that "Scientists fail all the have to keep at it. Just like Marie Curie" who eventually won a Nobel prize. Once they do rescue the jellyfish specimen from his old lab, her grandfather begins making plans to set up a lab and continue his work. However, Ellie begins to have reservations about his research. Her research into some of the scientists her grandfather mentioned shows that science can also have a dark side too. "Marie Curie was exposed to a lot of radiation during her experiments. Eventually it poisoned her. Her discovery killed her." When her best friend Brianna tells Ellie that she thinks Melvin is cute, Ellie is stunned that her friend likes her seventy-seven year-old grandfather. 

Melvin teaches Ellie to observe the world around her, to ask questions and to think more deeply about things. This has an unexpected result because Ellie begins to seriously consider the consequences of her grandfather's discovery with the critical observation of a scientist.  "I look around my room with new eyes, and what I observe makes me question everything. The handprints on the wall: as people grow older, will hands get smaller instead of bigger because of T. melvinus?...will people have fewer candles on their cake every year because they're getting younger?"  Ellie already knows the other side of the Marie Curie story, but what about Robert Oppenheimer?  Her internet searches reveal that almost two hundred thousand people died because of the atomic bomb. Was the development of the bomb good?

This leads her to question her grandfather about what his discovery will mean for the world: will they have changed it for the better? When Ellie's grandfather clings to the idea that science is always for the good, she counters, "I believe in science! But what if it isn't a good idea? What if we're not Salk? What if we're Oppenheimer? What if T. melvinus is like the bomb?"

Ellie asks her grandfather, "Is growing up, growing old - life - is it all so terrible?" Ellie goes full circle remembering what her grandfather said to her about scientists believing in "the possible".  She tells her grandfather that she wants that possibility of living her life from the age of twelve until she's old. Ellie's idea is further affirmed when she attends her mother's high school production of Our Town, a Thornton Wilder play about life in small town America. The play's central theme is that the living do not appreciate life while they are living it and take the time to savour it fully. This is expressed by the character of Emily who grows up, marries but dies unexpectedly after having her second child. She returns to the living for one day, her twelfth birthday.
"She has a line about whether anyone understands life when they're living it. I get what she's trying to say: life is precious and we don't realize that at the time. But maybe life's also precious because it doesn't last forever. Like an amusement park ride. The roller coaster is exciting the first time. But would it be as fun if you did it again and again and again?" Ultimately, Melvin Herbert Sagarsky gets it and this understanding is shown in what he tells Ellie and what the choices he makes.

The Fourteenth Goldfish is a thoughtful novel in which author Jennifer Holm asks her young readers to consider the consequences of scientific discoveries and to ask hard questions. Questions like,  "Should we do something just because we can?" and "How will the discovery of...change the world?"  In this novel it is the discovery of reversing aging but it could be anything - the genetic modification of foods or animals.

One of the strengths of The Fourteenth Goldfish is the strong, well developed characters Holm creates. She has captured the snarky, confident, proud nature of an accomplished, elderly scientist in the character of Melvin Sagarsky. He's a brilliant mix of elderly wit and teenage moodiness. Ellie Cruz is a thoughtful, intelligent young girl whose natural curiosity is sparked by her grandfather. Even the secondary characters are interesting; Raj who shows an interest in Melvin's research and Ben, Ellie's mother's boyfriend who desperately wants to marry her.

The Fourteenth Goldfish is a great novel for middle grade readers and is highly recommended. The title refers to the goldfish Ellie was given by her preschool teacher, Starlily to teach her about the cycle of life. After all her classmates goldfish had died, Ellie's fish seemed to live on and on until it died in fifth grade. But it turns out that Ellie's first goldfish actually died years ago and her mother had been replacing each goldfish with another until that fateful thirteenth in grade five. Melvin is the fourteenth goldfish - the one who lives on and on.

It should be noted that Madame Curie won TWO Nobel Prizes, one in Physics in 1903 and the other in Chemistry in 1911. To this day she remains the only person to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in TWO different sciences. Also poliomyelitis cannot be cured but it can be prevented through vaccination.

Book Details:

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm
New York: Random House     2014
195 pp.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

To Stay Alive by Skila Brown

In April of 1846, Franklin Graves decides to relocate his family of nine children to California where the climate is warmer and the land fertile. It would be a decision with serious and life-changing consequences
for all involved.

During the spring, nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves sews herself a new dress for the journey while her family prepares, receiving their two new wagons and selling their cabin and land in Lacon, Illinois. Despite his eagerness to leave, Mary Ann's father, Franklin, delays their departure so their cattle will have grass to eat on the journey. They will take three horses, twenty head of cattle, three wagons and eighteen oxen to pull them on the 1700 mile trek to California. Mary Ann's older sister, Sarah and her husband Jay Fosdick will also travel west.

Eventually the Graves leave Lacon, accompanied by hired hand John Snyder, beginning their five month journey west. The days are monotonous, filled with walking, cooking, rain, mud and the making of a quilt to memorialize their trek. They arrive in St. Joseph in Iowa Territory, one of the last wagons to pass through. They pass through the prairie during the summer, seeing herds of buffalo, gathering their chips to feed the cooking fires. Their first sign of trouble is having over one hundred head of cattle stolen by the Pawnee Indians. When Mary Ann's father and some other men go out to find the cattle they return with only a few head and one dead man, Edward Trimble.

On the fourth of July the group reaches Fort Laramie in the western part of Nebraska Territory. In the fort there are many wagons and lots of information shared. A man named Hastings insists that taking the new southern route will save three weeks, but others insist that the northern route is the proven one. Mary Ann's father decides they will take the route south of Salt Lake and that they will have plenty of time to pass through the Sierra Nevada mountains before fall.

The Graves leave Fort Laramie alone and face days of monotonous walking with no sign they are even heading in the right direction. They arrive at a huge rock, Independence Day, so named because that is when most wagons heading west arrive at this point. It's a subtle reminder to the Graves that they are now weeks behind. At Fort Bridger just east of Great Salt Lake, Jim Bridger tells the Graves that Hastings is waiting ahead to lead them through the new route which has grass and is flat and easy. They buy supplies and two days out meet with another large party, the Donner Party which is awaiting the return of Hastings to lead them onward. The Donner party has sent three men, James Reed, Bill McCutchen and Charles Stanton to get Hastings. However only Reed returns telling them that Hastings cannot turn back as he is obligated to help the first party through. The Donner and Graves party move on and eventually meet up with McCutchen and Stanton who are bedraggled and exhausted. They tell the group that the way forward is impassable for them because it is too rugged for the wagons.

While Bill tells the men that the canyon is too steep, James Reed insists that they can move forward. In the end they decide to take a canyon to the north. This proves to be disastrous as the men must cut the trees and haul boulders in order for the wagons to pass. After eleven days of arduous work, in two days the wagons pass through and they finally leave the Wasatch Mountains. Fall sets in and the days are cool. They find a note,badly weathered, telling them that they must travel fast for two days and two nights through the desert to reach water. It takes the Graves three days before they finally walk out of the desert. They are now running out of food and it is decided that Bill McCutchen and Charles Stanton will ride ahead and bring back supplies. All the belongings the Graves brought with them from Lacon are now abandoned before the group begins travelling along the Humboldt River.

Tragedy again strikes when James Reed murders John Snyder in a fit of anger. They bury Snyder and banish Reed. The group now walks as fast as it can, hoping to spy the mountains that mean their journey is almost over. Soon they do come to the mountains but Donner's want to stop and rest the cattle while Mary Ann's father does not. Charles Stanton, accompanied by two Indians, Luis and Salvador, arrives with mules loaded with food. However, Bill McCutchen is not with them. Charles tells them they are ten days away from their destination of Sutter's Fort and winter is at least a month away. Mr. Donner decides that the group will rest up a few days before continuing onward. In that time a young man accidentally shoots another and Mr. Donner suffers a deep wound to his hand while repairing a wagon wheel. This leads Franklin Graves to decide to leave without the Donners, taking the Breens, the Reeds and Charles Stanton. But a day out, the Graves party encounters a prolonged snow storm. As the days pass, each with more snow,  travel becomes difficult. Mary Ann and her family now face the dreadful possibility that they will be trapped in the mountains and may not live to see California.


To Stay Alive is the heartbreaking account of the "Donner Party" tragedy of 1846-47 in which only forty-five of the eighty-one people trapped in the mountains survived. Although many wagon trains set out for the west that year, a combination of factors worked together to cause the tragedy. Author Skila Brown in her note at the back of the novel states that the combination of an early snow and the lengthy time it took for the party to cross through the Wasatch Mountains, the route suggested by Hastings, contributed to the Graves and the rest of the Donner party being trapped in the mountains in deadly weather.

Brown tells the Donner Party story from the point of view of Mary Ann Graves. Her research into the tragedy revealed Graves to be a fascinating person, an attractive woman with a strong, determined personality - the exact type of storyteller she wanted for the novel. The story is told in verse, some narrative, some free, and some shape poems, one poem per page. These poems are placed into five seasons, beginning with Spring 1846, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring 1847.

To Stay Alive portrays the struggles Mary Ann and the rest of the settlers experience to stay alive in the harsh Sierra Nevada winter. The use of verse allows Brown to omit some of the more gruesome details of what Mary Ann Graves and her family endured as they slowly starved and froze in the snowy, frigid mountains. Yet the poems do convey their desperation and revulsion as they are forced to make the most awful of decisions to stay alive - to eat those who have died. The poem "something" conveys how, as their circumstances deteriorated, cannibalism becomes a possible way to survive. The dead become "it" and "meat".


                we could eat it
                                        oh god
                                 we could
there's flesh there     like with the bear
                                                     the beef
                                                   it's meat
                we could eat it

                            oh god          we could

What Mary Ann might have been thinking as she lived through this is captured in many of the poems that follow.

"We could do that.
We could.
It would keep us alive."

And when it's decided that they will eat human flesh,

"I look around at the faces, see
the agonizing dread because it's clear
this thing
will be done."

Later on in the poem titled "Cold",

"Amanda slices meat,
lays it out to dry,...

We all sit, wait,
shamefully hungry,

except Salvador and Luis
who've moved over, revolted."

Brown foreshadows the coming tragedy and cannibalism in her poetry. For example, the poem, "We Wait" foreshadows the tragedy that awaits the Graves family partly due to Franklin Graves' decision to delay their  journey west.

Even though he's itching to go,
Father says we wait.

Wait deeper into spring,
until the roots

in the ground along the way are closer
to moving, pushing

up, growing tall, sweet,
into food for out cattle.

wait as long as we dare, hoping
winter won't come and cool everything

before we have a chance to arrive,
before our five-month journey has ended.

Brown hints too at the future possibility of cannibalism when Mary Ann and William Eddy are struggling to climb one of the mountains. The two hear a noise in the bush but do not realize it is Charles Stanton who has fallen behind. Eddy is prepared to shoot what he hopes is an animal and therefore something to eat.  At the last minute he sees that it is Charles.

"I see Eddy's face
lower to the side of the gun
as he adjusts his arm and then

through the bushes
comes Charles,
out of breath, he staggers in, slumps down
at the base of a tree.

We watch him pant.
Eddy lowers his eyes before he lowers his gun,
and I let out my breath.


He almost shot Charles,
thinking he was food.

To Stay Alive is a skillfully crafted piece of historical fiction about an event that still garners much interest and controversy to this day. The novel asks the reader to consider "the choices we would make if we were on the brink of death." Readers who do further research will discover that To Stay Alive is a much sanitized telling of what was a very gruesome tragedy that involved murder, cannibalism and outright selfishness. For example the group trying to walk out of the mountains on snowshoes begins to consider their Indian guides as food and begin to dehumanize them, rationalizing killing them for food:  "don't have a soul", "like a lame horse that sometimes needs to be relieved of its suffering...". Mary Ann warns the Luis and Salvador to leave the camp and in terror they flee. But William Eddy hunts them down, kills them and butchers them. In the poem No Indians, the poetry is to the point:

"Eddy takes the lead, veers
us over ground we've covered.
His gun is out as if he's 
hunting game." 

In the poem, "numb" cannibalism is vaguely described but the meaning is clear,
i feel nothing
not my fingers
or my toes
or my thighs
or my neck
or my cheeks
or my tongue

or the warmth

eddy places in my hand

or the taste of it

as it brushes past my lips..."

Overall, To Stay Alive is a very good recounting of a piece of American history (and tragedy). Brown includes a map at the front of her novel, showing the route taken by the Graves from Illinois to California, as well as a list of all involved.  There is also a detailed Author's Note at the conclusion which is worth reading and lists the outcomes for all involved.
For more information on each family in the Donner Party and their fates check out Survivors of Donner Party.

The March 1992 issue of Discover Magazine, March published an article, Living Through the Donner Party which discusses the Donner Party tragedy and why some people perished while others managed to survive the harrowing conditions.

Book Details:

To Stay Alive by Skila Brown
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press 2016
275 pp.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

On the morning of September 11, 2001, sixteen year old Kyle Donohue watches the first Twin Tower collapse from his classroom in Stuyvesant High School. As he is evacuated across the Brooklyn Bridge, Kyle spots what he first thinks is a bird, but soon discovers is a girl wearing a pair of giant white wings that look like part of a costume. She appears ready to jump but Kyle pulls her up and makes her run with him across the bridge. Kyle's father is back in Manhattan, where two planes have been flown into buildings like bombs. He's part of the Joint Terrorist Task Force, the first sent into crisis situations like this. At this point, Kyle has no idea if his father is alive or dead.

Kyle takes the girl to his apartment building where his family lives on the eleventh floor. He tells her that his mom and sister are in Los Angeles and that his uncle lives with them. Kyle is unable to reach his father or his mother by phone.

Kyle takes the girl who is covered from head to toe in white ash to their four bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights. When Kyle gets home he has another message on his phone from his father, filled with sounds of crashing, sirens and chaos. His father asks him to contact his mom but also to get to somewhere safe. Kyle tells the girl to shower and gives her clean clothes and tells her she can rest in his sister Kerri's room. He then attempts to call his mom and Kerri at Chase Knolls Garden Apartments where they have been staying over the summer in Los Angeles. Kerri has been attending acting camp and her departure was delayed by a week when she got a callback for an audition. He is not able to get his call through though. Meanwhile the girl gets cleaned up and Kyle notes that she's quite pretty with all the ash cleaned off. He informs her that he will wash her clothing and that he needs to reach his mom and tell his Uncle Matt about her presence. When he asks her her name, she tells Kyle she doesn't know which only puzzles and upsets Kyle more.

He decides to check up on his Uncle Matt who is in the guest room and finds him asleep in his wheelchair. Kyle's Uncle Matt was a lieutenant in the Emergency Services Unit before his accident. He is kind and very smart. Uncle Matt would defend Kyle from the criticisms of his Uncle Paul and his dad who believe all Donohue men are cops. It was especially bad after Kyle transferred to Stuyvesant. Now Kyle misses the old Uncle Matt. Uncle Matt has been living with them after his serious motorcycle accident. The scenes on the television screen confuse Kyle because they are saying that the North Tower collapsed when he knows he saw the South Tower fall. From the television Kyle learns that both towers have collapsed, that a plane was flown into the Pentagon and that a fourth plane believed to be hijacked, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Military jets have been scrambled and it is unknown how many other attacks might happen.

Eventually Kyle does receive a message from his mother who is not able to work a cell phone properly and keeps hanging up. She does let him know however that their flight has been cancelled and that they are going to try to find a place to stay in Los Angeles. In the guest room his uncle is watching coverage of the disaster in disbelief. Kyle fills him in on what happened to him that morning and on what he knows so far about the attack, and his mom and dad. Later on he also tells his uncle about finding the girl around his age on the bridge and that he has brought her to their apartment. He tells him that based on the amount of ash on her she must have been at the towers when they collapsed. His uncle suggests that Kyle call "Missing Persons" but Kyle tells him it's unlikely he will get through. As the day wears on and Kyle tries to carry on as much as possible, making pizza, taking care of his uncle and trying to reach his mother. What should he do with the girl who doesn't remember her name? Is his father safe? Will his mom and Kerri be able to return home soon? When will it be safe to go outside? Over the next several days Kyle will find himself falling for this mysterious, captivating girl. And he will discover his act of kindness in saving a girl in a moment of despair, gives her a second chance to make things right. In saving her, Kyle saves himself too.


The Memory of Things is a poignant story about how,in the face of the incomprehensible, we struggle to continue on with our lives. The terrorist acts of 9-11 certainly can be described in this manner. How do we comprehend the act of hijacking two fully fueled planes, using them as bombs to bring down two iconic buildings trapping and pulverizing to death thousands of innocent people. Polisner was inspired to write The Memory of Things in the years after 9-11 but waited because she required time to process the depth of the tragedy.

To tell her story, Polisner uses the two main characters of Kyle and a girl whom readers eventually know as Hannah. Kyle's narrative is the principle one, written in prose because his memory is intact. Hannah's narrative is inserted into Kyle's and is in free verse. Initially Hannah's narrative consists of simple broken verse, representing her broken memory;
"Wait to fall
but don't
Am tethered here.
A boy shouts,
eyes full of terror.
He grabs hold of me...

In the day following the terror attack, Hannah makes many references in her narrative that seems random and meaningless. For example,
(Words slip in, echoing and distant:
attitude devant...)

As Hannah spends time at Kyle's family's apartment, her memory begins to return and her narrative is more fluid and coherent.

The tears come so hard I can't catch my breath,
can't stop my body from shaking.
Kyle hugs me, and I fight him off.
I"m so angry and broken, I can't even bear to be hugged,
don't deserve to be hugged.
But then I give in, because I'm
lonely and

Eventually Hannah's story becomes coherent, revealing a heartbreaking story filled with grief and regret but not without hope.

As the tragedy unfolds, two people who would otherwise never have met, come together and briefly find comfort in each other, helping each other to cope and to begin healing. Their budding relationship is temporary though as Kyle suspects. "Besides I have this aching sense that what Hannah and I have is one of those things that happens in a vacuum, that can't be sustained under normal conditions. Under the pressures of school, and life, and parents, and siblings, and distance. It's something quiet and possessive, that will fall apart once it's diluted." Despite that both Kyle and Hannah have each other's contact information - she his email, he her phone number.

A major theme in the novel revolves around memories and how they are an important part of our lives, defining who we are and even the choices we make. This is demonstrated in the novel especially through the characters of Uncle Matt and Hannah Marconi. Kyle's Uncle Matt was badly injured in an accident, breaking his neck, jaw and fracturing his skull. His speech is slurred and he is partially paralyzed. Uncle Matt has been reciting things that appear to be random but Kyle knows he's working on a "practical skill called the method of loci, a memory trick in which certain types of data get stored in storylike sequences." According to Kyle, his uncle "is a genius and a memory expert." Although he's been a cop, the other part of his life has revolved around competing in memory competitions. Before his accident, he was planning to attend the U.S. Memory Championships for the third time with the intention of winning. The fact that Uncle Matt is able to still practice the method of loci demonstrates to Kyle that despite his physical limitations his mind is still very sharp. When Hannah shows an interest in Uncle Matt and talks to him like he's present, she motivates him to practice his memory trick, leading Kyle to recognize that his uncle is healing and to tell his father that Uncle Matt needs to stay with them.

While Uncle Matt still has his memories, the girl Kyle rescues does not. She doesn't remember her name, is suicidal and dazed when he pulls her off the bridge. After a day or so, she tells Kyle "I keep remembering little things. Bits and pieces. Like those things that flash at the end of a movie reel when the film runs out..." She remembers voices, faces, music and dance steps. Her broken memory is reflected in her broken poetry narrative. Eventually Hannah recovers her memory after spending a few days in a safe place. Her memory of her last conversation with her father haunts her. Hannah's father, John Marconi is the lawyer for Harrison Highfront, accused of raping a girl. Eventually Hannah's memory is restored when she sees a magazine article about her father and the case in Kyle's apartment. She tells Kyle that the last conversation she had with her father was an argument. The memory of those last words haunts Hannah.

For Kyle, the presence of Hannah helps him forget the reality of what is happening. When Kyle and Hannah are practicing Uncle Matt's memory trick, Kyle forgets the attacks, about Uncle Matt's accident, about Jenny Lynch's dad and Bangor's uncle dying in the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. "I forget that this day isn't normal, that yesterday wasn't normal, that the whole world as we know it has stopped...But then she sits down and sighs, and like that, I'm slammed with the memory of things. The cold hard truth that she doesn't belong here with me, that this is just temporary..." Kyle notes working on the memory trick to remember ten insignificant things makes them happy because for a moment they forget what they can't or don't want to remember.

It's interesting how Polisner has her characters carrying on with seemingly mundane chores and the regular business of living. People need the familiar in times of stress to help them cope. While waiting to hear from his father and his mother,Kyle does laundry and cooks. His father returns home after several days of working at Ground Zero and Kyle wakes in the morning to him making a batch of pancakes. His father explains "It's been tough, Kyle, I won't lie. Brutal. Which is why I needed to get home. See you guys, do something normal. Sit and eat a few pancakes with you and my brother, here." People find comfort in the routine of daily tasks when times are difficult. They also need something to tether them to reality. Kyle is the tether that Hannah needs while she struggles to remember. "Well, it feels like that, Kyle, back there. Like I"m adrift, in soaking wet clothes that are too heavy with the weight of things I don't even know...It's like I'm here, solid, but I'm not connected to anything. I'm completely untethered. I know that makes no sense," she says. It does, I say, 'I think I get it. but you're wrong. You're tethered to me.' "

The Memory of Things is tender, a delicate story about two people who come together unexpectedly and help each other in a time of great distress - the terrorist attacks of 9-11. It is a story about fear, loss, struggle, love and hope. And a brilliant piece of writing by Gae Polisner.

Book Details:

The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner
New York: St. Martin's Griffin    2016
279 pp.