Saturday, March 31, 2018

Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar

Ten-year-old Anjali and her friend Muslim friend Irfaan are caught vandalizing the house of Captain Brent the British officer who is the British Raj authority in her small (fictional) town of Navrangpur, India. In protest against the British occupation of India, many homes and offices of the British throughout India have been defaced with a black "Q" for Quit India.

Only a week earlier, Anjali's mother, Shailaja Joshi had been working for Captain Brent, translating decrees and legal notices of the British Raj. She also typed letters of rejection for mercy for people whose sons had been arresting fighting for independence from Britain. But she inexplicably quit her job. Now as Captain Brent is escorting them back to his house, they encounter Anjali's mother. Captain Brent's accusations are interrupted by Mrs. Misha's pleas that he pardon her son who is sentenced to hang for burning down a municipal building. However, Captain Brent is more concerned with Anjali's act of vandalism and he refuses Mrs. Misha's request. Even though it is evident that Anjali and Irfaan are responsible, Anjali's mother is furious at his treatment of Mrs. Misha and refuses to accept the British officer's accusations instead taking Anjali and Irfaan home.

Later Anjali along with her mother, Baba, Uncle Chachaji and their maid, Jamuna listen to a rebroadcast of Mahatma Gandhi's August 8, 1942 "Quit India" speech. The Indian people want the British to leave India with  Gandhi is urging a nonviolence form of resistance called ahimsa. Each family is requested to send one person to the fight for independence. As it turns out, this is why Anjali's mother has quit working - she will be the "freedom fighter" from their family as Anjali's father must work to support them.

Immediately Anjali's life begins to change. One day after school she arrives home to discover her parents burning all their foreign-made clothing. Anjali is also made to burn all of her beautiful ghagra-cholis, which makes her both sad and angry at her mother. Instead of wearing British-made exquisite clothing, Anjali and her family will wear Indian-made cotton clothing called khadi. And if that isn't enough, Anjali's mother shows up at school the next day to teach her classmates how to spin cloth. At first Anjali is ashamed but then when her mother pricks her finger she steps up to help.

At home, Anjali meets Mohan, a boy only a few years older than her and from the Untouchable caste, who cleans their backyard toilet waste each day. Untouchables are the lowest caste and are not allowed to enter temples for fear of "polluting" them. People believe they make everything they touch unclean and so they are shunned. When Chachaji chases Mohan away, Anjali's mother decides to clean their toilet. "We should be thanking them for cleaning up this mess. Why are they dirty for cleaning it? It's our mess, isn't it?"  Chachaji is against the Quit India movement and the movement to change things in Indian society because he believes people will get hurt or die.

Anjali and her mother attend a meeting of fifty freedom fighters, both Hindu and Muslim, men and women, held in the Khadi Shop which makes homespun cotton clothes from Indian cotton. At the meeting Anjali's mother announces that they will be teaching the children living in the Untouchable basti following the Diwali festival. The leader of the meeting, Keshavji Parmar who is from the Untouchable caste strongly approves.

During their Diwali celebrations, Anjali and her family are joined by her Muslim friend, Irfaan who loves to eat badam barfi. Anjali's mother decides to take a tray of badam barfi to Mohan's basti to offer to the people in celebration of Diwali. Unfortunately this does not go over very well as the people are reluctant to take the food and Mohan is offended by Anjali's use of Gandhi's term "Harijan" to describe the Untouchables. He tells Anjali that the Untouchables prefer the term "Dalit" which was what Dr. Ambedkar had named them. The Monday after Diwali, Paro and the other children in the basti have their first day of school. Keshavji meets Anjali and her mother at the basti but Anjali is even more surprised to see her school teacher there too.

In an effort to understand the experience the Dalit experience and to break from the caste system Anjali's mother decides to start cleaning their own outhouse. Mohan points out that he will not be able to support himself if she does his work, but Shailaja is determined to continue. Although Anjali finds the task repulsive she does help her mother. However their efforts to overcome the prejudices of the caste system results in Anjali's neighbours and classmates shunning and taunting her.

The Dalit children, Paro, Rohit, Urmila, Jyoti and Vijayuain continue to learn at the basti school, making good progress. In a confrontation with a vegetable vendor who objects to the presence of the Dalit children outside their basti, Anjali has the idea to integrate her school, bringing in the Dalit children. With the help of her mother and Masterji, they began working to achieve this. However, many of their friends and neighbours are not happy about this nor their work with the Dalit. They threaten to withdraw their children from Masterji's school and Anjali is taunted by her classmates. This challenge turns out to be the beginning of many Anjali and her family must face when rioting between Muslims and Hindus begins, their home is vandalized and Anjali's mother is arrested. Anjali must decide if independence and social reform are worth the sacrifices her family finds themselves making.


Ahimsa is the fruit of fourteen years work for author Supriya Kelkar. Although the village of Navrangpur is fictional as are the characters of Keshavji and Anjali, the character of Shailaja Joshi was inspired by the life of her great-grandmother, Anasuyabai Kale, who worked with Mahatma Gandhi, and who was imprisoned for civil disobedience. After India gained its independence from Britain, Kale was elected to two terms as a Congresswoman.

In Ahimsa, Kelkar explores the efforts of the freedom fighters to gain India's independence from Great Britain and to also undertake social reforms within Indian society. This is done through the characters Anjali and  her mother, Shailaja. The freedom fighters believed that one way to unite the people of India as they fought for independence from the British was to work towards overcoming prejudices in Indian society due to the caste system. This struggle to overcome the day-to-day prejudices dominates the story.

The prejudices against certain castes are so ingrained that even Anjali and her mother hold them and must unlearn them. For example when Shailaja picks up Mohan's broom, "Anjali's stomach grew queasy." Anjali worries that her mother will become ill, but Shailaja tells her "We have always told you that people are people, regardless of their religion or caste." Shailaja then goes on to explain to her daughter how the caste system came to be. "See, our leaders divided people into castes thousands of years ago to ensure that everyone did the work that was needed for the society to function. The unfortunate Untouchables got stuck with the dirty work. Over the years, the Untouchables got a terrible stigma attached to them for no fault of their own...This irrational fear of people, calling them Untouchable, that is probably all there just to keep the status quo." Shailaja tells Anjali that this is wrong and that if Indians don't see one another as equals they cannot blame the British who see themselves as better.

Despite Anjali and her mother's efforts to integrate the Untouchables in their community, the old prejudices prove difficult to overcome. Uncle Chachaji refuses to eat a ladoo Anjali gives him, saying he won't eat anything that is going to the Dalits even though the dessert has never been touched by the Dalits. The vegetable vendor is furious when a toy belonging to a Dalit child lands in his cart, screaming that his eggplants are ruined yet he doesn't realize that it is their waste that fertilizes the gardens that grow the vegetables. Anjali's neighbours upon learning that the Dalit children will attend their school at first refuse to send their children and then reluctantly agree only if the Dalits will sit at the back of the classroom.

Anjali recognizes that in order to change others she must change herself first. After reluctantly helping her mother clean their family outhouse, Anjali examines her own feelings. "Why was she ashamed to clean up after herself? Why did she feel embarrassed doing something that Gandhiji had been trying to teach the country about for so long? Something that would free countless people and improvy hygiene for so many, saving them from dying from preventable illnessess? Why did she feel humiliated helping her mother with such a great idea? And worst of all, why was she so okay with letting Mohan hold the wagon and continue to be isolated and considered unclean?...She had to change her own attitude before someone like Suman would change hers." 

Anjali not only has to fight prejudices between Hindus but also the prejudice that exists between the two cultures that make up India: Hindu and Muslim. The Hindu-Muslim rioting places a strain on the friendship between Anjali and Irfaan and for a time their friendship breaks down. Anjali's mother tells her "Hindus are the grass. Muslims are the water. Mother India needs both to survive...If you give her just one...she will still need the other."

Kelkar has created a strong, determined and resilient heroine in Anjali. At first Anjali isn't interested in becoming involved in the fight against the British. She can't understand why her mother has quit her good paying job and she's very upset when her mother burns all her beautiful ghagra-cholis. However as Anjali is encouraged to consider what is happening in her village and her country she begins to really notice the world around her.  "For the first time, Anjali also noticed how many children stood in the streets, homeless and hungry and her smile disappeared. The kids were sweeping the roads, carrying garbage, sitting on corners, holding their naked infant siblings, begging for money..."  This makes her want to work for a better society, where everyone is treated with dignity.

Because Anjali comes from the privileged Brahmin caste she believes that change can come about immediately. But she soon discovers that changing the way people view their world takes time. For example when Anjali attempts to include the Dalits into her school she encounters strong resistance. Instead she must compromise - the Dalits can attend but must sit at the back. In the end, nine Dalit students and seven children from other castes attend a makeshift school after their building is vandalized. Anjali recognizes that this is a small but important change.

Anjali perseveres even though her mother is in jail, her school has been closed and the vandalized, and she has lost her two best friends, Mohan and Irfaan. Instead, Anjali is determined to fight on especially after she sees her mother fasting in jail. "...But now that I see you here...I'm not going to quit. I'm not going to give up. I'm going to keep fighting for what you started. One way or another. I'm going to continue your work." Anjali is severely tested when a protest against the British burning of the Khadi Shop turns violent and Captain Brent's life is endangered. Despite Captain Brent refusing to pardon her mother, Anjali does the right thing and intervenes to saves his life. Her act of mercy begets another act of mercy that saves her mother.  While the novel ends on a positive note, the reality is that many of the prejudices that existed in 1942, still remain a problem today in Indian society. This is particularly true for the Untouchable caste and women.

Ahimsa incorporates many themes to explore; tolerance, prejudice, identity, social activism and acceptance are just a few. Ahimsa provides the opportunity for young people to think about how they treat those who are different and what they can do to be more accepting of others, making it an outstanding novel for younger readers. There are also references to several important historical figures; Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar who was a Dalit and who crafted India's constitution. Kelkar includes an extensive Author's Note at the back of the novel which fills in the details of India's struggle for independence from Britain.

To learn more about the inspiration behind the novel check out Supriya Kelkar's website. India achieved independence in 1947, but it was partitioned into two countries, India which was predominantly Hindu and Pakistan which was predominantly Muslim.

Book Details:

Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar
New York: TU Books, An Imprint of Lee and Low Books Inc.  2017
302 pp

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The World Is Not A Rectangle by Jeanette Winter

Jeanette Winter's picture book, The World Is Not A Rectangle, written for younger readers, explores the life of Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Mohommad Hadid. Winter was inspired to learn more about Zaha after seeing photographs of her architectural designs in 2010.

Zaha was born, October 31, 1950 in Baghdad, Iraq into a progressive Muslim family that supported the education of women and who expected her to pursue a professional career. Zaha's interest in architecture was sparked by a family trip to the Sumerian cities in southern Iraq where they also traveled by boat to smaller villages in the region. Zaha stated, "...The beauty of the landscape -- where sand, water, reeds, birds, buildings, and people all somehow flowed together-- has never left me."

She attended American University in Beirut, Lebanon, studying math. Her family decided to leave Iraq when Saddam Hussein came to power and the conflict with Iran began. In 1972 Zaha enrolled in the Architectural Association School of Architecture where she met renowned architects Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis. After working for a period of time with Koolhaas, Zaha opened her own architecture firm in 1980.

It was her unusual - even peculiar designs and ideas that brought Zaha increasing interest from architects around the world. In 1983 her design of  a "horizontal skyscraper" for the leisure club in Hong Kong won an international competition.  It was never built, as were many of her other designs from the 1980's and the 1990's.  Instead many of the drawings of her designs were exhibited as artwork.

Zaha Hadid's first building to be constructed was the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany in 1993. It was not a functioning building however and ended up as a museum. The British, influenced by conservative values of the 1980's were unwilling to build her designs - they simply were not ready for her unique ideas. Her breakthrough came when her design for the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati was completed in 1998.

Zaha had a strong personality, not open to compromise. This plus her sex and her ethnicity often worked against her. But with the success of the building in Cincinnati, she came to be seen as a visionary who persisted despite being told her buildings could not be built.

Zaha Hadid won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004 - the first woman to do so. Her designs were now being built all over the world. Zaha's design for the London Aquatic Center in the 2012 Olympics in London featured a wave-like roof. Sadly, Zaha Hadid died suddenly of a heart attack in 2016.

Jeanette Winter's picture book doesn't go into many of the details of Zaha Hadid's life but covers enough of the major points to get her story across. The World Is Not A Rectangle highlights Zaha's special approach to architecture and design. Instead of boxy structures, her buildings have sweeping curves or as Winter describes them, "Her buildings swoosh and zoom and flow and fly." Zaha Hadid's buildings take their special form from the many different shapes in nature, the oysters shells, pebbles, waves and stars. Zaha is presented to young readers as a woman who had different ideas about how the buildings we use might be made. When she encounter resistance, she decided to perservere, "I made a conscious decision not to stop." Her success makes her a good role model for girls today.

Book Details:

The World Is Not A Rectangle by Jeanette Winter
New York: Beach Lane Books   2017

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Pocket Full of Colors: The magical world of Mary Blair, Disney artist extraordinaire by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville

Disney artist, Mary Blair was born Mary Browne Robinson in 1911 in McAlester, Oklahoma. Her family was quite poor and so they moved frequently, from Oklahoma to Texas, and then finally settled in California in 1918. Mary attended Live Oak Union High School graduating in 1929. She then went on to study Fine Arts at San Jose State College.

In 1931 Mary won a scholarship to the Chouinard School of Art located in Los Angeles. There she studied under the direction of American illustrator, Pruett Carter. She also met her future husband, Lee Blair at Chouinard. They married in March of 1934.

Because of the Great Depression both Mary and Lee had to work as commercial artists to support themselves. However Mary Blair did have art shows featuring her watercolours at several galleries in Los Angeles by 1938. These paintings featured darker, earthy colours but had an overall soft, muted quality. A good example of her style is the watercolour, Laundry Day which was painted in 1938. However her relationship with Walt Disney was to have a major impact on her life and her art.

In 1938 Lee was hired on by Disney Studios and worked on the animated films Pinocchio and Fantasia.  In 1940, Mary was hired to replace Lee in 1940. The Blairs were invited to accompany Walt Disney and his wife Lillian on a tour of South America in 1941. There Mary was exposed to the vibrant colours of the Latino culture and landscape which she began to incorporate into her own artwork. Her style changed to one that was described as "wild" and "electic".

Brigette Barrager's vibrant artwork from Pocket Full of Colors.
During World War II, Lee enlisted and was stationed on the east coast while Mary continued to work for Disney where she was assigned to oversee the art for several animated films including Three Caballeros. Throughout the late forties and into the early 1950's, Mary was the colour stylist for many Disney productions including The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan.

Although Lee had left Disney much earlier and Mary eventually left in 1953, her years with Disney contributed significantly to her art career. She worked as a freelance artist but also continued to work with Disney on various projects including murals and commercial projects.

Guglielmo and Tourville's exquisite picture book is the perfect vehicle to tell the story of Mary Blair. The authors' text is accompanied by Brigette Barrager's vibrant digital artwork portraying Mary Blair's artistic development into one of the world's most accomplished animators and illustrators of the 20th century. Interestingly Barrager has worked for Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. It is really Barrager's beautiful illustrations which make this picture book simply grand and help to bring to life the story of Mary Blair. You can view more of Barrager's artwork at her website.

Many young readers will have seen the Disney versions of Cinderella, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland but may not have realized they were actually watching the artwork of Mary Blair. Although Pocket Full of Colors doesn't contain any of Mary Blair's actual artwork, the authors have included an Author's Note at the back with a photograph of the Blairs. This picture book is a great addition to a home/school or public library collection.

Book Details:

Pocket Full of Colors: The magical world of Mary Blair, Disney artist extraordinaire by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville         
New York: Atheneum Books For Young Readers        2017

Friday, March 23, 2018

DVD: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is an account of the first weeks of Winston Churchill's time as Prime Minister of England. The story begins on May 9, 1940. By this time Hitler has invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark and Norway. Three million German troops are poised to invade Europe via Belgium. In Britain, it has become clear that the efforts by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to broker peace and rein in Hitler have failed. In these dangerous times, Britain is now seeking a new leader.  In Parliament, Clement Atlee believes Chamberlain has left Britain unprepared for war and calls for his resignation. Chamberlain decides to resign and Conservative MP Lord Halifax is offered the job. Halifax declines and so Churchill is offered and accepts.

May 10, 1940
Churchill receives a phone call from the French Embassy who inform him that Belgium and Holland have been invaded. His new secretary, Miss Elizabeth Layton, is warned about Churchill's gruff manner and true to the warning he scares her into leaving.  But Layton is told to stick it out and she agrees to deliver a telegram from the palace to Churchill. She returns to find Churchill listening to a BBC broadcast about the invasion of Holland and Belgium and an appeal to Allied countries to help them.

Meanwhile at the palace an angry King George VI believes that Churchill with his disastrous record at Gallipoli, his opposition to Indian independence, and his positions on the Russian Civil War and the Gold Standard demonstrate he lacks the judgement necessary to be Prime Minister. However, George does meet with Churchill and asks him formally to accept the position and form a government.

On May 13, 1940, the Nazis invade France. Churchill forms his war cabinet that consist of members from the opposition so as to represent the unity of the nation. He tells them "We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous time." His policy is to wage war and their aim is "Victory as all costs." However, Chamberlain is not happy as he believes negotiations with Hitler are paramount. He tells Halifax that Churchill must be removed from office.

Churchill receives the word that the French army has capitulated and that the collapse of western Europe is imminent. He travels to France where he meets with the French president and tries to encourage them to continue fighting. On May 19, Churchill gives a speech that is broadcast to the nation in which he reiterates his determination to wage war against Nazi Germany and win.

At this time the War Cabinent reveals that the entire British Army is trapped at Dunkirk, a small port in France. Churchill orders the garrison of four thousand men under Brigadier Nicholson to be sacrificed by drawing the Nazis away from Dunkirk so the soldiers can be evacuated.

Meanwhile Churchill must contend with the growing determination of Lord Halifax and Chamberlain to become involved in peace talks with Hitler through the mediatation of Italy. At first Churchill refuses but by May 27 when Belgium falls and as Britain begins to prepare for invasion, he reluctantly agrees to consider peace IF he knows the terms. King George supports Churchill in his desire to fight on, encouraging him and advises Churchill to go to the people, and let them instruct him. Churchill takes this advice to heart,impulsively decides to ride the London tube where the British people tell him they want to fight rather than sue for peace. This leads Churchill to address the Outer Cabinet as to whether they want to sue for peace and their answer is no. Churchill then informs the War Cabinet of his decision and addresses Parliament.


Darkest Hour captures the essence of those dark critical months in 1940 when Europe finally comes to the realization of what Hitler is. The British government having lost confidence in Prime Minister Chamberlain forces him to resign and in his place king George VI requests Churchill to accept the position. As Hitler overruns Europe, the British government faces two choices, to capitulate to Hitler and negotiate peace or to resist and go to war. Darkest Hour portrays the conflict between Lord Halifax and Nevill Chamberlain who believe England should negotiate with Hitler through the Italians and Prime Minister Winston Churchill who believes in all out war. The film shows Halifax and Chamberlain "conspiring" to trap Churchill into stating he will not negotiate in the hopes that they can remove him.

Framed by two of Churchill's most famous speeches, Darkest Hour does capture the growing fear of the British government as they watch darkness descend over Europe. And for Britain it was most certainly the worst of times. Most of Britain's army was trapped at Dunkirk between the sea and the Nazis with the Navy unable to rescue them. This led Churchill to order the garrison at Calais to attack the Germans so as to delay their attack on Dunkirk a claim that has been disputed.

However Darkest Hour misses the mark in its portrayal of the person central to the British war effort - and the Allies' ultimate victory - Winston Churchill. Gary Oldman's portrayal is quite good, good enough to earn him many awards including a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best actor. Oldman manages to resemble Churchill  physically, capturing some of the elder statesman's mannerisms and his accent. However the movie portrays an uncertain and wavering Winston Churchill, about to agree to negotiate for peace and who seeks affirmation from the public in an impromtu train ride that definitely never happened nor would such an action ever have been considered by the aristocratic politican. Churchill was resolute in his belief that Hitler could not be reasoned with nor trusted. "You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth." was his famous response.

Overall Darkest Hour is an enjoyable movie for those not completely set on seeing a film based entirely on fact. There's some dramatic license taken to engage modern viewers which is a shame because Winston Churchill and the period covered in the film are fascinating enough.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Shame The Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Shame the Stars is the story of two families set in Texas in 1915 during the Mexican revolution. The prologue sets the context for the story with the events that occurred at Easter, 1913 between the two families.

Don Avecedo and Dona Jovita del Toro and their sixteen-year-old son Joaquin are hosting their good friends, Don Rodrigo and Dona Serafina Villa and their sixteen-year-old daughter, Dulcena at Las Moras. Las Moras is a 600 acre ranch that has been in the del Toro family since 1775, before Tejas became Texas. Joaquin and Dulcena's childhood friendship is blossoming into love which they hide from their parents.

Meanwhile on the back porch, Don Acevedo reads a poem, Tejano that was published in Don Rodrigo's newspaper, El Sureno. The poem challenges the tejanos for ignoring what's happening around them, how the Anglo immigrants are taking their land- their heritage, their birthright. Don Acevedo is critical of Don Rodrigo's decision to publish the poem, concerned that he might cause trouble between the people of Morado County and the Texan Rangers.  However, Dona Jovita feels that most people in the town of Monteseco know how the tejanos (Mexican-Americans) are being treated. And Don Rodrigo believes that as a journalist he must speak out against the prejudices towards the tejanos. But Don Acevedo is so outraged he tells Don Rodrigo that if their friendship is to continue he wants never to see one of his newspapers in his home again. The two part on bad terms, with Don Rodrigo hopeful that one day his friend Don Acevedo will understand.

The novel then fast-foward ahead two years to 1915. Joaquin will be heading off to Michigan Agricultural College in the fall, as his parents attempt to break his attachment to Dulcena Villa while Dulcena has been pulled out of school and is being tutored privately by Madame Josette from Paris. Don Rodrigo was forced to pull her from school because of constant threats and acts of vandalism to his print shop. Joaquin feels he cannot leave his home at this dangerous time when Texas Mexicans who have been here long before it became part of the United States, are fighting to keep their homes. These tejano rebels have been attacking the ranches of the Anglo immigrants and in retaliation the Texas Rangers have been "accosting and killing innocent tejanos".

In the morning, before Don Acevedo and Joaquin are finished their desayuno, ranch hand Manuel arrives to tell them that Captain Elliot Munro has come to talk to one of the ranch workers, nineteen-year-old Gerardo Gutierrez. Munro believes Gerardo was part of a group of tejano rebels who met up with a group of Mexican revolutionaries who crossed into Texas to burn the sugar mill. Don Acevedo is skeptical of Gerardo's involvement but Munro states he was overheard talking about the mill and also La Estrella, the local heroine of the rebels. Munro arrests Gerardo, leading him away on his horse, handcuffed.

That night Joaquin attends Lupita's quinceanera at the dance hall in the town square. It is a themed party with a masque ball, perfect for Joaquin and Dulcena to be together without their identities being discovered. After telling his parents about the party, Joaquin rides into Monteseco with Mateo and Fito. At the party Joaquin is able to dance with Dulcena only once as her parents are in attendance. Dulcena insists that Joaquin meet her at their secret spot near the Arroyo Morado at midnight. Little do they know this clandestine meeting will create much trouble for their families.

Dulcena reveals to Joaquin that she has learned that several of his father's workers are conspiring with the rebels, something Joaquin does not believe. When he reassures Dulcena that they have the protection of Munro, Dulcena tells Joaquin that Munro has no friends. Their rendezvous is interrupted by a group of rebels led by Carlos who lets them go when he discovers Joaquin's identity. However on their way home they encounter more trouble when two Morado County sheriff's deputies accost them and one, Slate attacks Dulcena with the intention of raping and murdering her. Although Joaquin and Dulcena fight back, it is Tomas and their friends Mateo and Fito who arrive in time. Tomas lets Slater and Davis go telling Joaquin they have no authority over them and that they will have to talk to Munro and hope he acts. At Las Moras later that night, the parents of Joaquin and Dulcena along with Tomas and Captain Munro meet in the del Toro's sala (living room). Munro refuses to punish Slater and Davis, telling the del Toro and Villa families that it will ruin Dulcena's reputation. This only serves to enrage both families. Munro wants Sheriff Nolan to deal with Slater and Davis which means that nothing will be done. Tomas believes not punishing them will only further embolden them. The meeting ends unresolved with both sides angry.

On Saturday morning when Joaquin and his father attempt to bail out Gerardo Gutierrez, they learn there is no bail and no visitors allowed. While his father goes to speak with Munro, Joaquin gets into a fight with Slater when he hears him disparaging Dulcena's good name. That night Joaquin discovers the secrets his parents have been keeping and their involvement with the rebels. As tensions in the town continue to rise, the del Toro and Villa families both suffer reprisals that endanger their lives, threaten to tear Dulcena and Joaquin apart and ultimately lead to a deadly confrontation with Munro and his deputies.


This is another exceptional novel by Latina author, Guadalupe Garcia McCall. Shame the Stars has all the hallmarks of a great story: realistic, appealing characters, a unique setting, a blossoming forbidden romance and lots of action that leads to a thrilling climax.The events in the novel take place over the span of a month from August 20, 1915 to September 18, 1915, in the fictional town of Monteseco, Texas near the Mexican border during the Mexican revolution. Garcia McCall was inspired to write the novel after her son told her one night about a book written by Benjamin H. Johnson, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans. The book told the story of "tejanos (Mexican Americans) and Mexicans in Southern Texas in 1915 at the time of the Mexican Revolution." Garcia McCall was deeply moved about the murders of Mexican Americans during the rebellion of 1915 and awoke later that night with the story of Joaquin del Toro who lived at Rancho Las Moras forming in her mind. What began as a potential free verse project blossomed into a novel. Her research into this period and the writing of the novel took five years.

To understand the period the novel is set in, it is instructive to go back to the middle of the 1800's. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 ended the Mexican-American War and made land in Upper California, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Colorado, Nevada and Utah. The Rio Grande became the boundary between Mexico and American territory in Texas. The area was Mexican culturally and it was populated predominantly by Mexicans who simply stayed in the area when it became part of America. There were some Anglo settlers who were also part of the cultural mix at this time, intermarrying and learning to speak Spanish. However at the turn of the 20th century, Anglo settlers considered the land near the Rio Grande as ideal for farming and ranching and they began moving into the area. Many Tejanos had been on their land for several generations but could not produce the paperwork to prove that they owned the land. This led to court challenges by the Anglo settlers who usually won and the Tejanos were displaced from their ancestral homes. Between 1900 and 1914, hundreds of thousands of acres of land was taken from Tejanos and given to Anglos in just two counties.

During this time political instability in Mexico fueled the problems in Texas. In 1910 the Mexican revolution began. The Rio Grande Valley was still predominantly populated by Mexican and Mexican-Americans, many of whom had family living in Mexico. At this time it was relatively easy to move between the two countries and as a result, Southern Texas saw many political refugees from Mexico arriving, bringing with them the political ideals of their homeland. But some were very radical and saw this time as ripe for returning parts of Texas and the southern United States back to Mexico. Plan de San Diego was crafted by radicals in Monterrey, Neuvo Leon and advocated a race war by Mexicans and blacks against the Anglo settlers with the aim of returning Texas land to Mexico. Raids occurred against some Anglo farmers and against railroad and telegraph lines. This and the publication of the Plan de San Diego in local newspapers made Anglo Texans anxious.  In response, the U. S. government sent in large numbers of Texas Rangers who enforced laws in favour of Anglo settlers and carried out many unlawful killings of Tejanos and Mexicans. Often the families were warned not to come collect the bodies of the dead meaning they were not given a proper burial and cause both suffering and further intimidation of surviving family.

The extensive research author Garcia McCall undertook is evident as her novel incorporates many of the injustices such as the forcing of tejanos off their land and extralegal killings - that is killings by law authorities without due process and outside of the law - into the story. For example, Joaquin's tio Carlos tells him how he lost his home. "I came home one night and found my wife crying because she didn't have the papers to prove we owned the land our house was built on in Hondo. They had been lost in a fire, years before, and her family had never replaced them. Without those documents, my wife and I had no way of proving the land was ours. No one would help us. Lawyers refused to take our case. County officials wanted United States paperwork, when the only paperwork we had before the fire was from Mexico, a hundred years ago when our ancestors were granted the land. And then the Rangers made sure my wife and I moved out...They hung my sixteen-year-old son in our backyard."

The novel is written from the point of view of a tejano, eighteen-year-old Joaquin de Toro whose father is "light-haired and fair-skinned like an Anglo" and whose mother is Mexican. To make the story more interesting, Garcia McCall incorporates some elements from the Romeo and Juliet story; a young couple in love whose family have a falling out resulting in them being forced apart, they secretly exchange letters through the hired help (some of which Garcia McCall includes in the novel), Joaquin climbs the jacaranda tree to her bedroom balcony and is passionately in love with her, and they attend a masque ball in order to meet up. All of this happens in the midst of intense conflict in their world. While Joaquin is passionate and somewhat hot-headed, he is growing into a man who acts on his beliefs. Dulcena, although sometimes appearing too modern for the period of the story, is shown to be an intelligent young woman who wants to be a reporter and travel the world. Shame the Stars is populated by realistic Mexican-American characters who are portrayed as intelligent and willing to fight the injustices being done to them.

The story follows the increasing conflict that affects both the del Toro and the Villa families both of whom are revealed to be heavily involved in supporting the cause of the tejano rebels. Eventually this leads to the climax of the story involving the confrontation between the del Toro's and Captain Munro that leads to a catastrophic loss for the del Toro family, but also results in a partial resolution of the situation in Morado County. Garcia-McCall includes a very helpful Cast of Characters at the front of the novel to help readers familiarize themselves quickly with the main characters and the many supporting characters in the novel.

Garcia McCall's novel was most timely considering the anti-Hispanic rhetoric of the American presidential campaign in 2016 when it was published.Shame the Starsinvites young readers to learn about a part of their country's history that is rarely taught and to understand the backstory to the prejudice that continues today in parts of the southern United States. To that end, she has included a detailed Author's Note at the back as well as a short booklist for teachers and mentors, and credits for the mostly nonfictional newspaper clippings that can be found throughout the novel.

The sequel to Shame the Stars is set in Monteseco sixteen years later and follows the repatriation of the del Toros back to Mexico. This is a novel I look forward to reading - I just hope I don't have to wait much longer!

Book Details:

Shame The Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
New York: Tu Books, an imprint of Lee and Low Books, Inc.    2016
288 pp.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine by Heather Lang

"I believe Ruth has performed a useful mission in the world. She has proved a woman can do things and I believe she has benefited aviation by shaming some of the men who lacked the nerve to help develop the airplane."    Ruth Law's father

Ruth Law is remembered as an extraordinary woman aviation pioneer who made the first flight from Chicago to New York. Ruth had already made many contributions to aviation, including breaking the altitude record for women and also for performing acrobatic stunts.

Born in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1887, Ruth and her brother Rodman were active and daring children, always playing "hazardous pranks" according to their father. Rodman Law grew up to become a daredevil and movie stuntman while Ruth decided she would like to fly. However, when she approached Orville Wright, he refused to give her flying lessons, believing that flying was not something a young woman could master. Of course, Ruth proved him wrong. Wright did sell Ruth a plane though and she was able to find another instructor, learning to fly in a mere three weeks and obtaining her license in 1912. Ruth, being mechanically-minded was capable of maintaining her own plane. She could tell by the sound of the motor whether something was wrong. After earning her pilot's license, Ruth did air shows, doing stunts like the "loop the loop" but she is best known for her flight from Chicago to New York City in one day in 1916.

The early 1900's were a time of great social change and women were leading the way, fighting for the right to participate more fully in society and to have the right to vote. In 1916 Ruth Law decided she wanted to prove that women were serious aviators and she wanted to set the American record for the longest nonstop flight. Victor Carlstrom had just set a new record of 452 miles. Ruth knew she could fly farther - she planned to fly from Chicago to New York, something that had not yet been attempted by any man.

People were skeptical but this did not deter Ruth nor did the fact that the manufacturer of the larger plane she needed, refused to sell to her. This was because Glenn Hammond Curtiss was busy making planes for use in World War I and also because he felt as a woman, Ruth Law was not capable of flying the larger plane. In fact the plane Ruth used was a small Curtiss biplane with the propeller in the back and the cockpit completely exposed to the elements. As with other women trailblazers, Ruth would have to overcome many serious obstacles to accomplish her remarkable feat.

Heather Lang's picture, Fearless Flyer book tells young readers how Ruth accomplished her amazing feat. Lang describes Ruth's determination and her resourcefulness in attacking the many obstacles that she needed to overcome if she was to be successful. Many of Ruth's own words are incorporated into the story, providing valuable insight into Ruth's personality. Flying could be a scary experience, but Ruth Law loved the challenge and the thrill. She would not be thwarted by those who insisted a woman could not undertake such a challenge.

Accompanying Lang's recounting of Ruth's historic flight are Raul Colon's exquisite illustrations rendered in Prismacolor pencils. The drawings, softly textured and impressionistic at times capture many moments of Ruth's flight over the countryside and accurately portray the machine she flew.

Included at the back of the book is a two-page section titled More About Ruth Law as well as a Bibliography and a list of Source Notes which indicate that Heather Lang did extensive research for this picture book. Fearless Flyer is a great read-aloud book for the classroom or at home and a great way to inspire young girls to  persevere and reach for the sky.

Book Details:

Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine by Heather Lang
Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Calkins Creek   2016

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Algonquin Spring by Rick Revelle

In Algonquin Spring, Revelle picks up the story six years after the Haudenosaunee raid that saw Mahingan's wife Wabananang captured and most of his warriors massacred. Revelle tells his story alternating between various narrators.

Tall Man

The story opens in what is present day Newfoundland. Tall Man, and his three companions are Beothuk who are hunting when they encounter men unlike any they've ever seen before. The have red hair and beards and wear bright coloured clothing. Both groups of hunters encounter the same caribou but Tall Man's group is attacked and he and his companion Whale Bone are captured. Tall Man finds he can understand their captors Oysten and Visate. They are put into a large boat with many more red-haired men and forced to row, heading south, far away from the Beothuk's land.

Eight days later, they arrive at the mouth of the present day Vaureal River on Anticosti Island where the group spends  days fishing. Tall Man knows they are stocking up for their voyage home, and he tells Whale Bone they must try to escape before the strangers finish this task or they will likely be killed. The strangers want to add a bjorn (bear) to their stores and so they take Tall Man and Whale Bone with them into the forest. Opir discovers six warriors busy gutting a bear and the strangers decide to kill them and take the bear. However, all of the strangers are killed because Tall Man and Whale Bone decide to help the native warriors. Whale Bone is killed but Tall Man is taken in by the two native warriors, Matues (Porcupine) and E's (Clam) who survived the attack and whom he learns are Mi'kmaq. With them is a small man, Apistanewj whom Tall Man had saved. Their home is in Gespe'g on the coast. Matues and E's tell Tall Man that they were on the island as part of their initiation into manhood and that they have others waiting for them at a camp nearby. At this camp, Matues and E's explain to Jilte'g what happened in the forest and introduce Ta's'ji'jg and Nukumi (Grandmother) to Tall Man and Apistanewj. The small party travels in Mi'kmaq sea canoe from the island to the coast, escaping the Eli'tuat ship with the help of a pod of whales.

On land they journey inland through the forest to the Mi'kmaq winter camp. At the camp, Tall Man creates much interest. E's tells their chief Gaqtugwan Musigisg about the deadly encounter with the Eli'tuat. An elder Mi'kmaq declares that Tall Man is Glooscap. Tall Man accepts this, wondering what his destiny will be. As the winter ends, the Mi'kmaq are in dire need of food and this leads Gaqtugwan Musigisg to send Glooscap, Apistanewj, E's, Matues, Ta's'ji'jg and Jilte'g to hunt for food.  He believes their village will be safe with only eight warriors as it is too early in the spring for the Haudenosaunee to attack. Unfortunately, the village is attacked and destroyed by a group of Stadacona and Haudenosaunee warriors and Nukumi and ten children are taken captive. Glooscap and his party return to find the village and several women and children who survived because they were away from the camp. Ta's'ji'jg is badly injured when he tries to cut down what he thinks is his father's stuffed skin.  Glooscap decides to track the Haudenosaunee party and to free Nukumi and the women and children. At this time another Mi'kmaq party led by Jigjigi arrives. Although they cannot supply Glooscap with warriors, they agree to take the survivors to the summer camp along the coast. However, one of their warriors, Crazy Crow decides he will accompany Glooscap. As they begin to track the Haudenosaunee, it soon becomes apparent they will be drawn into an epic battle that only one side can win.


Further east, at the same time Tall Man is captured by the Eli'tuat, Mahingan and his family band of nineteen are wintering near a waterfalls. This band includes his little son Anoki, his brother Kag and his wife Kinebigokesi, their twin sons Makwa and Wabek, his brother Mitigomij, his sister Wabisi, the two warrior women Agwaniwon and Kina Odenan and their friend Kanikwe, as well as a Wabanaki family and two young Ouendat (Huron) warriors, Odingwey and Kekek. In February, Mitigomij comes to Mahingan and tells him he has heard and elk in the woods above the falls and he suggests they try to run him down because the meat will help them survive the remainder of the winter. Mahingan agrees and divides their group into two; Mitigomij will take the two Ouendat warriors, the twins and the two warrior women and their friend along with seven aminosh up the escarpment to show them where to begin their quest for the elk. Meanwhile Mahingan and his son Anoki will go to check the fish nets further downstream.

At the river, Mahingan encounters three young Susquehannock warriors attempting to rob the net. He notices that they are emaciated and weak. After hauling in the nets and loading the toboggan with the fish, Mahingan feeds the three warriors who are named, Sischijro, Oneega and Abgarijo. The three who are brothers tell Mahingan that they were captured by the Haudenosaunee, led by Corn Dog. They also tell him of a beautiful, intelligent and fearless Algonquian woman named Wabananang whom Corn Dog has ordered to be left alone as he plans to use her in revenge for an old enemy. Oneega also reveals that  Corn Dog has a close friend who is very tall and is a Mi'kmaq whom they call Winpe. Corn Dog has a huge number of warriors from various tribes, the Abenaki, Delaware, Mahican and Pennacook tribes and that after raiding the Mi'kmaq he plans to attack the Algonquins.

Kanikwe and his group track the elk but are attacked by a group of Haudenosaunee and Hochelagan warriors whom they manage to kill but not without losing Kekek. They are assisted in defending themselves with the help of Mitigomij and his black panther. Mitigomij warns Kanikwe that Corn Dog is up to something. Eventually Kanikwe and Mahingan meet up and tell each other what both have experienced. After this Mahingan decides that they need to determine Corn Dog's exact location so they can plan for his attack. But first his family group must journey to Asinabka (present day Chaudiere Falls) where they will spear sturgeon, walleye and sucker.  On their journey to Asinabka, Mahingan almost loses Anoki who falls into the river; he is saved by Mahingan's wolf, Ishkodewan. However Mahingan begins to feel that he has an important quest to undertake, that of bringing back his wife Wabananang and their daughter. This feeling is reinforced by a dream, and so Mahingan asks for warriors to accompany him once the spring fishing is completed. With seventeen warriors, four women and his son Anoki, Mahingan sets out to reclaim his wife and confront Corn Dog.

Corn Dog

Corn Dog is determined to avenge the death of his friend Panther Scar by Mahingan at the Battle of the Waterfall six years earlier. During the winter he has been raiding along the St. Lawrence, capturing warriors to strengthen his band. His plan is to have the Hochelagan and Stadacona Nation to join him in the spring, first to attack and destroy the Alonquin allies, by crossing the Kamatarwanenneh (the St. Lawrence River) to raid the Mi'kmaq and Wabanaki. This will prevent them from aiding the Algonquin. He will then attack the Bark Eaters, killing Mahingan and his brother Mitigomij. Corn Dog plans to use Mahingan's wife who has been a captive to lure Mahingan into attacking him.

In the spring, Corn dog meets Seven Dogs, the old chief of the Hochelagans to tell him his plan. Seven Dogs agrees but will not attack until June after his people have recovered from the hard winter. Corn Dog returns to his village, Ossernenon to obtain the permission of the Clan Mother to go to war. Corn Dog's Clan Mother of the Turtle Clan sets out to meet with the Clan Mother of the Wolf and Bear Clans to decide on the war chief. Eventually Corn Dog is sent to the Mohawk capital of Tionnontoguen where he is given the antlers of the war chief. He is allowed only one hundred warriors and ten women from the three villages. Contests are arranged to select the warriors and the women. Wabananang and her daughter Pangi Mahingan enter one of these,  the gruelling foot race through the forest even though Corn Dog tells her it isn't necessary as she will be travelling with them. However, Wabananang wants her seven-year-old daughter to also qualify because she knows that if she escapes and does not return to the Haudenausee village, her daughter will be adopted into a family and she will never see her again.

Corn Dog and his war party set out, first going to the healing springs at Saratoga and then after a six day journey arrive at the Stadacona village to add warriors. However Corn Dog is furious when he is given only fifteen warriors by the old war chief and when  he learns that the Mi'kmaq are now alerted to the possibility of attacks when the chief allowed some of his warriors to attack them. It is a foreshadowing of things to come as Corn Dog heads into battle against the Algonquin tribe and his enemy Mahingan.

Mahingan and his warriors stumble upon a group of  Mi'kmaq hostages being held by the Stadacona and Haudenosaunee. The same group is also attacked by Glooscap and Crazy Crow. Meanwhile, Wabananang along with her daughter has escaped Corn Dog's war party and is heading towards Mahingan, and the final deadly confrontation between the two arch enemies.


Revelle weaves together the three storylines of Mahingan, his arch-enemy Corn Dog, and the Beothuk, Tall Man/Glooscap and his Mi'kmaq friends. Eventually all three of these characters meet in what becomes a consummate battle between deadly rivals. This battle forms the exciting cliffhanger ending to the novel and sets the stage for the final novel in the trilogy.

As with the first novel, Revelle includes considerable detail about the culture of the indigenous peoples of Ontario and Eastern Canada. In this novel the author reveals more about the Mohawk nation, the People of the Flint, to the south of the Great Lakes and introduces readers to the Beothuk who were the aboriginal people of Newfoundland. In Algonquin Spring, readers learn how the Mokawk way of life was quite different from the Algonquins in that they lived in large communities of longhouses protected by wooden stake palisades and planted fields with what were called the three sisters: corn, squash and beans. While the Algonquins made summer and winter camps, the Haudenosaunee tended to remain in an area for a period of time. The Beothuk of Newfoundland are shown to be a peaceful people who keep to themselves and rarely war with other tribes unless forced to.

The author also presents other aspects of indigenous culture including descriptions of the use of natural remedies to heal wounds and other ailments. For example Mahingan mentions how the Mi'kmaq suffer from eye irritation due to being in smoky wikuoms during the winter and how the center of the mountain maple twigs are used as a poultice to relieve the irritation. When the warrior Ta's'ji'jg is severely wounded his wounds are treated with resin and yarrow. "Matues started a fire and heated the resin just enough that Apistanewj could work it over the wounds to seal the skin and halt the bleeding. The resin would be warm when it was applied, soothing the wound while sealing it. The yarrow he had applied before the resin. After sealing the cuts with the pine resin, Apistanewj laid the bark over the lesions. After cutting pieces of leather from our clothing to wrap around the bark, the task was complete." The warrior was then given cedar tea "to help soothe his pain and heal him from the inside."

The incorporation of cultural detail into the story means the indigenous peoples are portrayed in an authentic way. They are intelligent and caring towards their children, the injured and sick, in harmony with their environment taking what they need,  but also brutal and cunning in warfare.  Revelle doesn't shy away from describing the realities of warfare. In a battle with a Hochelagan, the Algonquin warrior Kanikwe narrates what happens; "I became engaged in hand-to-hand struggle with a man at least six-inches taller than myself...I grasped the club that I kept in my waistband, and as my foe made another thrust, I stepped aside and hit him flush in the face. Blood spattered all theway up my arm and I could hear the sound of breaking bone and his gasping for air. The warrior dropped to one knee and I buried my knife into his neck, with only the handle preventing the weapon from going any deeper. He turned and looked at me, spat out some teeth, smiled, and dropped on his side with a gush of air leaving his body. I reached down and cut off the ear nearest to me, putting it into the pouch where I carried the rest of my vanquished opponent's ears..."

Yet not all are like the Algonquin or Mohawk. This is shown through the character of Tall Man from the Beothuk, indigenous people who lived in what would eventually be called Newfoundland. Tall Man/Glooscap is horrified at the cruelty of the Haudenosaunee when he returns with the Mi'kmaq to find their village devastated. "After entering the burning remains of the site, I eyed two charred bodies tied to a post in a fire pit, burned beyond recognition. It was everything I could do to hold back a gagging reflex. My people very rarely went to war, and when we did, it was with the Inuit. Neither side in those conflicts ever chose to inflict this kind of cruelty." Torture by fire, running the gauntlet, and the removing of fingers and fingernails are some of the cruelties described in the novel.

Algonquin Spring is populated by many interesting characters, one of the strengths of this novel.  More is revealed about characters from the first novel, in particular Corn Dog and Mahingan's brother, Mitigomiji who is revealed to have special powers that explain why he is able to travel over land quickly. There are several new characters, the most important being Tall Man who is revealed to be Glooscap, an important figure in Mi'kmaq culture. Perhaps the most interesting new character is Crazy Crow whose back story is engaging and who adds considerable interest to the storyline. Revelle also incorporates some aboriginal mysticism into the story with suggestion that Mitigomiji is a shape-shifter and Crazy Crow's talking crow who leads Wabananang to safety.

As with the first novel in the Algonquin Quest series, maps would have been very helpful in placing both the locations of the various tribes and perhaps even documenting their journeys. Revelle also includes an excellent Author's Note that sets up the context for the continuing story of Mahingan and his ongoing conflict with Corn Dog as well as various glossaries for terms in several indigenous languages. It's quite obvious that Revelle has undertaken considerable research for his novel. 

Algonquin Spring presents a fascinating and informative snapshot of life in North America before the arrival of the Europeans and is a fine second novel, with a strong plot - something often lacking in middle novels of a trilogy and a colourful cast of engaging characters.

Book Details:

Algonquin Spring by Rick Revelle
Toronto: Dundurn Press   2015
290 pp.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Gentle Ben by Walt Morey

Gentle Ben is a classic story set in the wilderness of the Alaskan Territory. Thirteen-year-old Mark Andersen lives in Orca City a fictional fishing village along the Alaskan coast with his father Karl and his mother Ellen. His father is a seiner who owns a boat, the Far North and makes his living off the yearly salmon run. Mark had an older brother Jamie who died from tuberculosis.

Every day Mark can't help but stop by the shed where a five-year-old brown bear named Ben is chained to a post. The bear is owned by Fog Benson who captured him when he was a six month old cub, after shooting the cub's mother. Benson does not care for Ben well, and the bear is bony and thin from lack of food. Mark likes to share his lunch with Ben and then sit and scratch him under the chin, something the bear loves.

Mark wishes he owned Ben and could take him to the stream to each the tender shoots, grubs and salmon, but he knows his father will never agree. He hates the way Ben is kept in the shed and not fed properly but his fear of his father's temper is difficult to overcome. Mark's father is busy getting his boat ready for the opening of the salmon season in two weeks. His father and Clearwater, an older Alaskan man are working to make sure everything is ready so that when the opening is declared they can be ready at sea.

At dinner Mark's father reveals that Fog Benson has offered to sell him the bear for one hundred dollars. If he doesn't buy him, Benson plans on turning Ben out on the tundra and offering people the chance to take a shot at him. Mark speaks up and asks his father to buy Ben. At the urging of his mother Mark tells his father how he found Ben loose one day and how he took him back to the shed, scratching him under the chin. Karl is stunned and admonishes for allowing him to be with the bear who he considers a dangerous, unpredictable animal. However, Ellen tells her husband that she has seen the bond that has developed between Mark and Ben.

After Mark is sent to his room, Karl and Ellen talk about Ben; Mark decides to eavesdrop. Ellen tells Karl that Mark is not thriving; he's pale, has little appetite and is not active. Dr. Walker has indicated that this puts him at risk for tuberculosis which killed his brother Jamie. He was exposed and therefore is at risk. He needs exercise and good food. Ellen suggests they buy the bear because this seems to be the only think that Mark is interested in. Karl refuses, believing the idea is "preposterous". However, Ellen persists. "I only know that sometimes something does happen between people and animals. There seems to be a bond the overcomes all fear, prejudice, everything objectionable..." Ellen believes this is their one chance to save Mark from the same fate as Jamie.

In the morning Mark decides to hike across the tundra to the small valley and stream to set Ben free. But Ben is determined to stay with Mark so he leads him into the tall sedge grass in the hopes he can sneak off while Ben is feeding. Meanwhile at the house Karl discovers Mark is missing, so he follows Ben's tracks  to the valley. There he is confounded to see Mark asleep next to Ben, one arm along Ben's neck. Karl awakens Mark and tells him it was wrong to take Ben who doesn't belong to him and makes him take the bear back to the shed. At home, Karl presents to Mark the responsibilities he would have to undertake if he were to buy Ben; he will have to cut grass for the bear, feed him, work on the boat with Clearwater and learn how to swim. When Mark readily agrees to do all of this, Karl tells him that he will purchase Ben.

With Ben now his, Mark works hard to keep his end of the bargain. But when Ben is provoked into attacking a man, the people of Orca City want the brown bear gone. Mark reluctantly agrees to free Ben on an island to save him. Little does he know that a set of unforseen circumstances will reunite his with his beloved bear.


Gentle Ben is a classic animal story similar to that of Jack London's White Fang. The book was so popular that a television series was created in the 1960's based loosely on the novel, except that it was set in the Florida Everglades and featured a black bear. Morey's novel is typical for the time in which it was written; stories and television series featuring characters befriending animals and exploring the inexplicable bond that sometimes forms between man and animal were common. Lassie and Flipper are examples of other shows that were popular at this time. Gentle Ben is especially appealing because the animal of interest is a "brown bear...the largest, most dangerous big-game animal in North America." As Ellen tells Karl, "He is the largest carnivorous animal on earth. He is the last living relic of those fabulous hairy mammals of the Ice Age who migrated from Asia and Russia millions of years ago...He is a direct descendant of the legendary Siberian cave bear."

Gentle Ben is filled with the fascinating details of life in Alaska before it became a state in 1959. There are descriptions of the vast tundra and sweeping mountains, the life cycle of the salmon, the workings of various types of traps used to catch the salmon at sea, the ins and outs of working a seiner, and the fish pirates who steal salmon from traps and fish illegally in the spawning streams. Morey is able to convey a sense of the vast wilderness of Alaska and how precarious life can be in the far north. Karl Andersen had purchased his boat four years earlier and had just made the final payment. His family is dependent on the annual Alaskan salmon run to make their living, so the boat is crucial. Yet he loses his vessel in a winter storm when he takes over the mail run to make some extra money. Although Andersen survives the sinking, his best friend and crew member, Clearwater drowns.

Morey provides plenty of experiences for Mark that will help mature him; working for Ben's upkeep, learning to work on his father's boat, dealing with the death of Clearwater, the moving away of Mike Kelly and giving up Ben to save him from being shot. Before he owns Ben, Mark deeply desires to have the kind of relationship his brother Jamie had with their father. "He wanted to be friends with his father and feel that same closeness there had been between his father an Jamie...And he was afraid of his father's temper, the harshness of his voice. The look from  his father's blue eyes when he was displeased could freeze you inside. Mark was sure he would never know such warm companionship with his father." Although Mark does ask his father for Ben, it is his mother who forces Karl to reconsider. When his father agrees to buy Ben, Mark begins to see his father in a new way. As they are going up the path to see Ben in the shed, "Mark could not help noticing how his father's broad shoulders were back, his head high, the rest of blond hair shining in the bright morning sun..." Over time, Karl comes to acknowledge the relationship his son has with Ben. While he doesn't understand it, as it goes against everything he knows about brown bears, he comes to accept it.

Mark fulfills all of his responsibilities that he agreed to and even manages to work out an agreement with Mike Kelly to store Ben's food in his freezer over the winter. His first trip on his father's boat when he spends two days away from home lead Mark to begin to change - something he notices immediately. "He had been gone two days...He felt he had changed a lot. He felt as old, as experienced, as wise as Jamie had seemed that last year when he'd gone on the boat with their father. He knew he was not the same boy who had kissed his mother good-bye on the dock and then run aboard the boat so she wouldn't see the tears filling his eyes." His adventures over the summer also have the added benefit of improving Mark's health. At the beginning of the novel he is thin and sickly but after the summer his health vastly improves, he grows an inch and gains ten pounds and at the end of the novel he is described as being very healthy.

Gentle Ben is a heartwarming novel for those younger readers who love stories about animals and the outdoors. It's not a lengthy story, and the bond between Mark and Ben is curiously satisfying. Still a great classic read for children.

Book Details:

Gentle Ben by Walt Morey
New York: Puffin Books     1965
191 pp.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Suspect Red by L. M. Elliot

Set in Washington, D.C. during the Cold War, Suspect Red captures the paranoia and fear as politicans and the FBI are determined to hunt down potential Communists and subversives.

Fourteen-year-old Richard Bradley lives in a suburb of Washington with his nine-year-old sister Virginia (Ginny), his mother Abigail, and his father Don who is an FBI agent. Richard's father is a World War II veteran who served in the Air Corps as a rear gunner. Years later, he's still nervous around loud sounds and has trouble controlling his anger.

Richard will be starting high school and like any teen he's interested in reading books such as Robin Hood. However, everything and anything that even hints of socialism is purged. And this includes Robin Hood. He manages to read other banned books like Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and John Steinbecks Red Pony, both of which have authors who are considered "Red subversives".  Richard has also been reading Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, but it is hidden from his mother.

Their Washington neighbourhood has many important people including Vice-President Richard Nixon. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. In August, 1953, a new family, the Whites move into their neighborhood.  Richard and his mother take a meatloaf over as they welcome the Whites who are from Czechoslovakia. Teresa White tells Richard and his mother that they were lucky to escape Prague before the arrival of the Nazis and only because she had the good luck to be married to a member of the American diplomatic corps. They fled to London where they experienced the terror of the Blitz and then after the war travelled to New York. Teresa invites Richard to go upstairs to meet  her son Vladimir. As he passes through the house Richard cannot help but notice the unusual artwork and the amazing collection of books; The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, Animal Farm by George Orwell and many others. As it turns out, Vladimir shares Richard's love of reading. However, Vladimir is much more cosmopolitan that Richard, having travelled more and having an interest in jazz.

In September of 1953 Richard and Vladimir who attend Wilson High School, take the city bus together and also eat lunch together. Richard has spent time showing Vladimir the sights of Washington, their favourite being the Museum of Natural History. Vladimir continues to lend Richard books, many of which are banned and he introduces him to the world of jazz including Thelonius Monk, trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist Charlie Parker. Richard and his family attend McCarthy's wedding. The girl Richard's been crushing on since third grade, Dottie Anne Glover is also there but she's interested in Richard introducing her to his friend Vladimir. Angry at her father for not allowing her to join cheerleading, Dottie wants to go on a date with Vladimir who she believes is a "Red" as a way of revenge.

As his friendship with Vladimir continues to grow Richard's world is broadened by his experiences with the White family. He travels to New York where he is introduced to the artist and writer friends of Teresa - many of whom are considered questionable by McCarthy. Richard, although friends with Vladimir is also careful to note anything unusual. When Teresa is seen receiving a package from a strange man, Richard is both excited and worried. Based on the other things he's seen at the White home, he suspects Teresa might involved in something important and he decides to tell his father. But in doing so, Richard may be doing more harm than good, while betraying the only good friend he has.


In Suspect Red, Elliot tackles the 1950's, a difficult era to portray in historical fiction. Veterans had returned home, hoping to settle down to a life of peace but the world was anything but peaceful. America and the communist Soviet Union had emerged from the war as the world's two new super powers. Their military might depended on developing more sophisticated atomic weapons. To that end, America found itself in an arms race with the Soviet Union each trying to build bigger and more powerful bombs.In 1949, the Soviet Union successfully detonated an atomic bomb. Meanwhile Communism was spreading across the globe. Countries occupied by the Soviets at the end of the war, such as Poland, the eastern part of Germany, Yugoslavia, Romania and Albania saw Communist puppet regimes set up against the will of the people. Communism was also spreading in Asia - China had overthrown the Imperial dynasty and became Communist in 1949. Korea was now embroiled in war with Communists from Korea and China fighting to overthrow the U.S. backed government there. As a result, Americans saw communism as a real threat to their country, the world and their way of life.

The fear of communism in America really began after the Russian revolution of 1917 and the end of World War I. The war brought about great changes in class and social order as well as many attempts to establish the rights of workers. The early 1920's saw strikes for better wages and working conditions. In the 1930's Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies which aimed to help the unemployed, youth, elderly and poor were seen as socialist leaning. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed in 1938 to ferret out anyone suspected of subversive, communist actions.

In 1947, the Truman government sought to help foreign countries who fought communism through financial aid. Many companies, universities and institutions as well as local governments developed loyalty programs to ensure only loyal Americans were hired. It was at this time that many actors, directors and screenwriters were investigated and brought before HUAC. Soviet spies were discovered within the government and even a scientist from the Manhattan Project.  In 1950, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested for selling American information on the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. They were tried, convicted and executed in 1953.

Senator Joseph McCarthy
All of this helped set the stage for Senator Joseph McCarthy's crusade to root out any subversive, communist or anti-American activities. He was convinced that the U.S. State Department was rife with Communist sympathizers.  Academics, writers, actors, musicians and really anyone was at risk of being investigated. Once reported, they appeared before the committee where "evidence' was often flimsy at best and often rewritten to suit the charges. Often these people lost their jobs, and were black-listed, thus preventing them from being employed in their professions. Even Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Linus Pauling were investigated. People were careful who they associated with and which organizations they belonged to. People who had joined Communist organizations in their youth or who had been invited to attend Communist functions but who had no real affiliation were considered suspect. The fear of subversive Communist ideas led to widespread paranoia and the banning of books and types of art.

Elliot effectively captures the paranoia of the McCarthy era through the characters of Richard Bradley and his family. At the beginning of the novel, Richard is enjoying reading Robin Hood until his mother tells him he can't read it and takes it from him. She tells Richard that the local librarians have made a list of banned books and Robin Hood is on it. "Because Robin Hood takes from the rich to give to the poor...That's a Communist concept." 

Richard whose father is an FBI agent wants to believe his father is a great G-man (Government man) but he learns from his mother that his father botched a very important case - the Judith Coplon case. Coplon was suspected of spying for the Russians and was put under FBI surveillance. Richard's father was one of the FBI agents assigned to follow Coplon but lost her for twenty minutes when she was planning to meet her Russian contact. Coplon went free and the situation was an embarrassment for the FBI and Hoover. Now Richard is "searching for proof that Don really was as good a G-man as he'd always believed his dad to be."  This leads to Richard being on the look out for anything suspicious and that leads him to suspect his friend Vladimir's mother. Viewed through the lens of paranoia, the White family appears on the surface to Richard at least support subversive ideas.

Richard finds the White's have many books by authors he has never heard of like Truman Capote, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot. He finds a copy of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a Black author who portrays white people as racist. Vladimir's older sister, Natalia explains to Richard that a children's book, the winner of the 1952 Caledcott Medal for illustration is considered subversive because of one of its illustrations. She explains to Richard that this notion is ridiculous and that the illustrator's previous book, The Two Reds, is considered suspicious simply because of its title.  At her Christmas party, Teresa White expresses her disappointment at the State Department's decision to recall an exhibit of important American artists such as Georgia |O'Keefe and Edward Hopper from Czechoslovakia because it might be helping promote Communism.

On a visit to New York City with Vladimir and his family, watches Teresa meet a strange man and receive an envelope from him. She also meets Arthur Miller, the author of the play The Crucible, a controversial play whose theme of the Salem witch trials is a metaphor for the McCarthy hearings.

In the White home, Richard finds Czech newspapers, a map of Prague marked with red circles and arrows, a Life magazine with a picture of the AP bureau chief in Prague, William Oatis who was accused by the Czech government of spying for the US defaced with horns.

All of these little discoveries lead Richard to believe that the Whites might be involved in something sinister, so he reports everything to his father. However this leaves Richard feeling unsettled and guilty. He attempts to rationalize what he's done by telling himself that he has to be loyal to his dad first over his friend Vladimir and that "...he hadn't said anything bad about Vladimir. He'd simply passed on some interesting things he'd observed about people in Brooklyn Heights and Teresa's oddball friends." When he discovers that the White's home is being bugged, Richard realizes this has gone much farther than he anticipated. "Richard swallowed hard, fighting off vomit. He was weirdly elated and riddled with a horrible sense of responsibility at the same time. He knew there was something suspect abotu Teresa. But he liked her. And what had he done potentially to Natalia? To the brother who loved her so much, his best friend?"

The reality of what he's done sinks in when Richard learns from Vladimir what his mother has been doing all along - attempting to save the life of a cousin who has been sentenced to twenty years prison in Czechoslovakia on the testimony of William Oatis. However, the truth is too late for Vladimir and his family. Mr. White is suspended from his State Department job, pending a Loyalty Review Board hearing. He is considered a security risk because of Teresa who is friends with radical writers and artists. Although his suspension and review ends up not being due to what Richard told his father and what his father reported, Richard still feels deeply guilty for betraying his friend and his family. " was Richard's fault, for misinterpreting things, for making assumptions based on the bombast of powerful guys like McCarthy, for spreading gossip. For--how had Natalia put it?-- for not thinking for himself." 

Although his actions almost destroy his friendship with Richard the two boys do reconcile. But Vladimir has some advice for Richard, "It doesn't matter if you're liberal or conservative, man, just make your own decisions about what you believe." Vladimir also gives Richard a pin from Natalia with the reminder "that Robin Hood was his own man, with his own beliefs..." It is the quintessential lesson all teens must learn as they come of age as adults.

Writing a story set in the early 1950's was no doubt very challenging. Although told in second person, this novel is difficult to read when Richard oddly refers to his parents by their first names. However, Elliot does a great job in aiding her readers understanding of the 1950's era by including a great deal of historical information from this decade at the beginning of each chapter. This includes information numerous photographs on various topics and events related to the 1950s, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Korea War, the Soviet Union's hydrogen bomb test, Lucille Ball, Edward R. Murrow, and the McCarthy hearings. These detailed clips help to set the story in Suspect Red within the broader context of the times. Elliot also includes a detailed Afterword and Bibliography.

Overall, Suspect Red is good novel that explores the early Cold War in a way that will be appealing to younger readers, while informing them on this fascinating time in America.

Book Details:

Suspect Red by L.M. Elliot
New York: Disney Hyperion    2017
292 pp.

Friday, March 2, 2018

DVD: Wonder

Wonder is an incredibly wonderful adaptation of R. J. Palacio's outstanding debut novel of the same name. It is the story of August (Auggie) Pullman who was born with a serious facial deformity and has endured thirty surgeries. Having been homeschooled, Auggie's parents have decided that at age 10 it is time to enter the outside world by attending Beech Prep school. Auggie is understandably apprehensive as is his father, but he reluctantly agrees. He knows people will struggle to accept him.

Auggie's parents, Nate played by Owen Wilson and Isabel played by Julia Roberts visit the school before classes begin. Auggie is given a tour of the school by three classmates, Julian, Charlotte and Jack Will. Julian pointedly question's Auggie about his face.

The first day of school is as difficult as Auggie imagined, but he does begin to make a friend in Jack Will.  However, their friendship ends on Halloween, when everyone is in costume, Auggie overhears Jack making unkind remarks about him to his friends. As a result Auggie doesn't want to go trick or treating that night, but Via talks him into it. Although his friendship with Jack has crashed, Auggie begins to make another friend in Summer Dawson. Troubled as to why Auggie won't talk to him, Jack questions Summer, but she will only give him the clue "Ghost Face".  Eventually Jack figures out that Auggie overheard him and he makes amends by sticking up for Auggie when Julian calls him a freak. His fight with Julian gets him suspended but later on he and Auggie connect online and Jack apologizes to Auggie.

Auggie continues to be bullied at school by Julian and his friends. They leave nasty notes on his desk and a class picture is taped to his locker with the message to "die". Mr. Browne intervenes, and Julian along with his parents are brought before the principal, Mr. Tushman. Julian's parents are not cooperative and don't believe he's done anything wrong, but Julian has a change of heart. Mr. Tushman suspends him from the class trip to a nature camp. Auggie's quiet strength wins over his classmates and at graduation he is awarded the Henry Ward Beecher medal.

The movie also follows a parallel storyline about Olivia, Auggie's older sister who is quietly struggling in her own life, which is overshadowed by Auggie's health problems. Via's friendship with her best friend Miranda has suddenly and inexplicably dissolved. Although deeply distressed over this loss, Via isn't able to talk to her parents who are consumed with Auggie's struggles to adapt to school life. She finds herself attracting the attention of a fellow student, Justin who encourages her to sign up for the drama club which she does. As the year progresses, Justin and Via's relationship blossoms, she takes him to meet her family and of course Auggie. Eventually Via does open up about how she feels ignored by her parents.  Miranda and Via eventually repair their relationship, as Miranda comes to realize what she missed about the Pullman family. Her own family has disintegrated when their father abandons her mother who does not cope well with the divorce. As with the novel, the movie recounts events from various points of view, that of Auggie, Olivia, and Miranda.

The strength of this movie is twofold: remarkable casting which brings to life an outstanding, inspirational story. Young Canadian actor, Jacob Tremblay as Auggie gives a winsome performance. Tremblay wore a facial prothesis to somewhat mimic a facial deformity. Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts shine as Auggie's parents, capturing their warmth, and the care they have for both their children. Wilson plays Nate with gentle touch of humour while Roberts captures Isabel's quiet determination to help Auggie integrate into the world at large. Even those actors cast for secondary characters such as Daveed Diggs who plays Mr. Browne, Izabela Vidovic as Via and Milli Davis as Summer Dawson give compelling performances.

In the movie we see Auggie transform from a young boy so concerned about how he looks to other people that he constantly wears a space helmet to someone who is both accepted and who accepts himself as he is. When his father confesses to hiding his space helmet and then offers to return it, Auggie refuses his offer. It's clear, there is no going back, he can't hide forever.  But to get to this point, Auggie had to endure much bullying and ostracizing which he does with a quiet stoicism and an endearing sense of humour. But those who make the effort to reach out and get to know Auggie, discover a person who is smart, thoughtful, loyal and funny. There's a compelling charisma about Auggie that makes him a "wonder."

Wonder effectively captures the novels main themes of friendship, forgiveness, acceptance while offering positive portrayals of traditional marriage and family life, and realistic scenes of school. And the main message, that this journey through life is hard, so be kind, shines through at the very end.

If you didn't see Wonder when it was in theatres, make sure you take the time to check it out on DVD or Netflix.