Sunday, July 15, 2018

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is a story about three teens with serious disabilities forming an unlikely friendship as they struggle to cope with everyday life.

Aven Green is a thirteen-year-old girl who was born without arms. She loves to make up crazy stories about what happened to her arms. "I got so tired of telling them the same boring story about being born without arms that I started making stuff up. It was stinking hilarious. I knew from the first moment I told a girl my arms had burned off in a fire, I had found a great hobby: making up stories. I loved the way her eyes grew wide with shock and the way her voice went all high-pitched with excitement as he asked me a bunch more questions about my charred arms." Her parents however stopped Aven's wild storytelling. Gradually Aven's classmates came to accept her disability and she never felt out of place in her school.

Aven's life changes drastically when her parents move from Kansas to Arizona to take over running a western-themed amusement park called Stagecoach Pass. Aven's father was unemployed when he was contacted by a guy named Joe Cavanaugh. They move into the small apartment over the Stagecoach Pass Saloon and Steakhouse, mainly because her parents must be available all the time.

At Stagecoach Pass Aven discovers the park has a gift shop, a gold mine offering gold spray-painted rocks, a soda shop that sells old-fashioned candy and ice cream and run by Henri who suffers from dementia and seems to already know Aven. There is a shooting gallery, a theatre that shows old black and white western movies, a jail were you can pay to have someone arrested for something silly and a petting zoo that contains an old llama named Spaghetti who has a large tumor on his head. There is also a steakhouse restaurant. But it is the museum that Aven finds most interesting because it contains a collection of stone arrowheads and framed photographs on the walls. Aven's curiosity is stirred by a blank spot on the museum wall and a nameplate that reads "The Cavanaughs, Stagecoach Pass, 2004"

Aven starts school at Desert Ridge Middle School a few days after arriving in Arizona. With a student population of a thousand kids, it's much larger than her school back in Kansas. In her old school, lunchtime was natural and easy with kids she'd grown up with. Aven would have sat with her friends, Emily, Kayla and Brittney laughing about teachers, complaining about parents and even catching the pretzels in her mouth that Kayla would toss at her. But at Desert Ridge she immediately feels awkward because  Aven has to use her feet to do everything including eating lunch. So she decides to forgo lunch the first day and tells her mother she just wasn't hungry. After school Aven scouts out more of the park and finds an old shack with numerous "DO NOT ENTER" signs slapped on it. An old rusted padlock hangs from one of the doors. But without arms, Aven is unable to open it.

Although Aven's teachers are nice, she doesn't want them giving her special treatment, something that never happened at her old school in Kansas. Aven returns to eat in the large bathroom stall the next day and then tries to eat in the cafeteria the following day. That doesn't go well when she is questioned by a group of girls who are more concerned about whether they can catch her disability than actually meeting her and making friends. Her next strategy is to try eating in the library. While reading Journey to the Center of the Earth Aven hears a dog barking. She discovers that the barking is coming from a boy sitting near her. Believing he is making fun of her, Aven confronts him. Instead he apologizes and tells her that he has Tourette's Syndrome - " a neurological disorder that causes involuntary motor or oral tics." When he asks Aven about her missing arms, his honesty encourages her to tell him one of her crazy stories which he finds hilarious. The boy, Connor tells Aven he comes to the library every day for some peace. Like Aven, Connor is also new to the area and hasn't made any friends. He tells her about Tourettes and how his classmates mimic his barking and laugh at him.

Aven invites Connor to the Stagecoach Pass, showing her new friend the different attractions and showing him the mystery shed. Connor is able to wedge the door open and they discover it contains stacks of books, "the shelves stuffed with old books and papers and props" and seems to hold the possibility of providing some information about the mysterious Joe Cavanaugh who owns the park and hired her father and who no one ever sees. Also puzzling are the many books on tarantulas.

Aven and Connor's begin spending much of their free time together at the park.  Aven adds another friend when she discovers Zion who is overweight eating in a quiet area outside the school. He tells Aven that he eats there so people can't watch him, "Everyone likes to watch a fat guy eat." Aven, Connor and Zion begin hanging out together, playing video games and searching the old shed for clues to the mystery of the Cavanaughs.As Aven and Connor's friendship blossoms they find the strength to support each other and the courage to let their light shine.

Discussion

The Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is a juvenile fiction novel about belonging and how each person has something significant to offer the world. It is also a story about the importance of friendship in our lives.

Early in the novel when Aven is new to Stagecoach Pass and Arizona, she decides to take a walk into the desert behind the main park and discovers a large saguaro cactus that her father believes is over two hundred years old. Contemplating the span of two hundred years, and all the important events that have happened during that length of time including the Civil War and Martin Luther King Jr's famous speech, Aven believes her life and the events in it are insignificant. "I am an entirely insignificant event in the life of this cactus. I try to remember that as the sky darkens and the lights of Scottsdale and Phoenix brighten the earth -- millions of lights for millions of people. And then there's just me, sitting in the dirt on a mighty hill..."  Aven wonders then if it really matters that the kids at school ignored her or that they were afraid of her. As it turns out Aven's actions prove that she is anything but insignificant.

One way Aven proves to be significant is her effect on the life of her new friend Connor. When Aven meets Connor he is living a very limited life; he won't go to the movies, he won't eat out for fear of spitting his food and he believes he cannot ever go out in public. But Aven doesn't see the limitations in Connor's life, instead she sees his possibilities. She has him over for dinner, and she and her mother take him to see a movie. Aven encourages Connor to attend a Tourettes therapy group, even accompanying him. She stands up for Connor when he is mocked by other students in the hall. When Connor doesn't want to involve  his mother in the therapy group, Aven comes to understand that Connor blames "himself for all his mom's problems - his dad leaving, this tiny apartment, her hectic work schedule." Aven realizes that "It wasn't at all that Connor's mom couldn't stand him, as he had said. It was that Connor couldn't stand himself." By wanting to spend time with Connor, Aven shows him that it is possible for others to like him and enjoy being around him. Aven even manages to get Connor to attend the Stagecoach Pass art festival even though there will be huge crowds attending.

Aven also has a significant effect on another student in the school, the overweight Zion. When Aven meets Zion eating alone outside the school office on the hot sidewalk she befriends him. "How could I just walk past him again, as though he were invisible? As though he were some speed bump in my way?" Aven's way to include Zion is to join him for lunch each day bringing along Connor. Through Aven, Zion becomes friends with Connor.

Aven has a significant impact on the park when she comes up with a plan for Stagecoach Pass to have its own art festival. The event is a resounding success, bringing together Aven and her new friends, offering her a chance to shine her own light and help people see past her disability. For the park it means the beginning of a revitalization as new vendors are found for some of the empty stores in the park.

The theme of belonging is woven all through the events in the novel.  Aven has left her home and school in Kansas where she definitely felt like she belonged. She had three good friends who behaved normally around her and accepted her disability. But in Arizona life is more challenging. At first Aven's response is to hide - in the bathroom, the library and then eating lunch mostly outside with Connor and Zion.By the fall Aven still has no other friends besides Connor and Zion. "Most of the kids at school were now ignoring me completely. I guess they were used to seeing me around...It was more like I just didn't exist." At this point Aven doesn't belong but she's also been hiding. Her initial experiences with the kids at the new school have not been positive.

When Connor insists that Aven is not being realistic about her life and what she can achieve, that she is in fact - disabled, Aven becomes angry. She tells her mother, "I don't ever want to be seen just as a disabled person...I don't want to just be Aven Green, that girl with no arms. I don't want to be labeled like that." However her mother reminds Aven that she has to be realistic about her life, that some things are difficult for her. Then Aven's mother offers her a chance to show people that she is more than just someone with a disability by performing on stage with the band hired for the art festival. Aven adamantly refuses, "I'm not going to go up on stage so people can gawk at the girl with no arms playing guitar. I'm not some circus show."

Connor articulating how their disability makes them different causes a crisis in Aven. She too wants to be "like everyone else" so she can be invisible. But her father tells her, "No one lights a lamp and hides it under a basket. They put it on a table so it can shine for all to see." He tells Aven, "Don't be like everyone else, Aven. Be you." Aven makes the choice to go to the soccer tryouts. "It was hard to think about putting myself out there again, trying to be part of a new team, at a new school, with a new coach. Everyone watching me. But there are a lot of hard things in life. Who would I be if I gave up when things got hard?" With the support of her parents Aven makes the choice to do these hard things, trying out for the soccer team and performing at the art festival. Both of these choices open new possibilities for Aven, allowing her classmates to see beyond her disability and giving her the courage to try more new things like wearing a "strappy pink dress", forgiving her grandmother Josephine Cavanaugh for giving her up for adoption and even eating lunch in the cafeteria with Connor and Zion.

There is also the mystery of Aven's identity which is a minor subplot but which ties in with the theme of belonging. Bowling uses the character of Henry, an elderly man with dementia who runs the ice cream shop, to give hints to the reader that Aven is somehow connected to the park. Aven's appearance at the park is confusing to Henry. When Aven questions Henry about all the tarantula pictures on the wall of ice cream shop, Henry tells her that she loves tarantulas. Henry experiences confusion over Aven's lack of arms, asking her what happened to them and telling her she used to have arms. Later on he calls her Aven Cavanaugh, which angers Josephine Cavanaugh - because in fact Henry has just spilled the beans on Aven's real identity.  Halfway through the novel it is revealed that Aven was adopted when she was two years old. Although younger readers might not suspect anything, it's not difficult to figure out that Aven is somehow connected to the park. Aven eventually discovers her connection to the park, she must forgive her grandmother and mourn a mother she never knew.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is a sweet, funny read. Aven Green is a strong, determined heroine, whose disability make her intent on living life on her own terms. She is capable, positive and independent. Because of her own disability, Aven has considerable empathy for both Connor and Zion. She is able to see beyond Connor's Tourette's and Zion's weight to who they really are. In Aven, Bowling has crafted a realistic character, a young girl who wants desperately to belong and be like everyone else but whose circumstances mean a different path. The novel's positive message, delivered with some moments of great humour make what might be a heavy subject, accessible to young readers.  Bowling's novel invites young readers to be empathetic and to consider the physical and emotional challenges those with disabilities must navigate every day.

The inspiration for the novel came initially from a cousin who was severely wounded and lost an arm after serving in Iraq. Bowling was further inspired by viewing a video of Barbie Thomas, a stay-at-home mother and bodybuilder who lost both her arms at age two from an severe electrical shock. Bowling invited another woman with limb differences, Tisha Shelton (who was born without arms) to review her manuscript.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus is highly recommended.


Book Details:

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
New York: Sterling Children's Books      2017
262 pp.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Daughter of Nomads by Rosanne Hawke

Daughter of Nomads is the first of two novels set in the Mughal Empire in 1662 about a young girl struggling to find her destiny. The novel opens in Sherwan, a village in the Kingdom of Hazara. Jahani lives with her mother, Hafeezah in a mud home in the village. Hafeezah is different from the other women in their village. She wears an embroidered cap with a white dupatta and her mother tongue is Burushaski, the language spoken in Hahayul, the most northern kingdom of the Qurragoram Mountains on the Silk Route. However, Hafeezah has insisted that they only speak Burushaski at home and Hindustani in public. Hafeeza is always concerned for Jahani's safety, often whispering blessings over her and even making Jahani wear a silver taveez, a sort of good luck token.

 Jahani awakens after a recurring nightmare, excited because this day, she and her best friend Sameela will be travelling to the bazaar to buy henna for Sameela's mehendi party. Sameela will be married next week after seven days of festivities. Jahani is taken to the bazaar with Sameela in a horse-drawn carriage, a tonga. When their tonga gets caught in a throng of donkey wagons and people, Jahani and Sameela jump out. As they leave a shop after Sameela buys henna and bangles, the two girls are pushed and fall to the ground. Jahani is unhurt, but Sameela has been knifed.  A stranger takes them back to Jahani's house where Sameela's father comes to claim his dead daughter. Jahani is devastated by the death of her best friend.

That night after Sameela's funeral and wake, Hafeezah reveals that she is not Jahani's birth mother and that her real parents are Aunty Zarah and Uncle Baqir who live in the Kingdom of Kaghan near the Kingdom of Hahayul in the Qurraqoram Mountains. When Jahani was four years old, someone tried to harm her but she was saved by the young son of Baqir's master of horse and by a snow leopard. The next day Zarah arranged for Hafeezah to take Jahani away to Sherwan. Now Hafeezah believes Jahani is once again in danger.

The next morning Jahani tells Hafeezah she intends to journey north to find Zarah and Baqir despite Hafeezah forbidding it. Hafeezah arranges for Jahani to have an armed escort - the young man who brought Jahani and Sameela home from the bazaar. The young man, Azhar Sekandar has been guarding Jahani for some time. He advises they leave immediately to avoid the rainy season, bringing war horses for them to ride. That night Azhar flies southwest to to Persia on his Persian carpet. Azhar first learned that Jahani was alive when he was seventeen years old. His foster father, Kifayat Ullah indicated Jahani was alive but hidden in a village she had been taken to nine years earlier. Kifayat had made Azhar wait a year before searching for her, until he mastered flying the Persian carpet. This would allow him to return to Kifayat in Jask regularly. Azhar became Jahani's protector with the knowledge of Hafeezah.

Azhar wants to take Jahani to north to the mountains, but Kifayat advises Azhar to make the journey in stages so that Jahani can learn about her identity gradually. He returns to Sherwan, and early the next morning, with Jahani on a white horse named Chandi and Hafeezah riding Sitarah, they quietly leave. From the beginning their journey north is fraught with difficulties. Two days in they discover a Hindu village that has been completely wiped out with the exception of a little girl named Anjuli.

The following day they take Anjuli to her mother's family in a nearby village but they refuse too take her. So Anjuli stays with Jahani's party. That night after making camp, Azhar kills a scout tracking them. They leave immediately and spend the next weeks riding at night and resting during the day. Just inside the Kingdom of Kaghan, Azhar fights off another attack, this time with the help of Jahani. Eventually they arrive at Lake Saiful Maluk where Azhar is greeted reverently by his friend,Rasheed. In the safety of the hut, Azhar reveals that they are being followed by "the men of Dagar Khan from the northern Kingdom of Hahayul". He tells Jahani that he is a new King Zahhak - a new "Demon King" like that in the legends.

Meanwhile at Baltit Fort in the Kingdom of Hahayul, Dagar Khan, the self-appointed tham receives a report from a commander who insists that despite burning villages, they can find no evidence of the girl he seeks. However, Dagar Khan is insistent because his seer, Pir Zal continues to claim she is alive. His vision warns Dagar Khan that she will come to claim his throne and that she must be killed if he is to rule over all the northern kingdoms. He orders the commander to continue looking and also to take a message to the warlord Mazahid Baig.

Azhar flies to Jask to consult with his father. When he explains how Jahani helped him during a fight, Kifayat gives him a special scimitar called Shamsher, the Lion's Tail. This fabled curved sword has a hilt made of jade and embedded garnets. He orders Azhar to teach Jahani "all you know as if she were a boy."  When Azhar returns, he is almost seen by Jahani on his flying carpet. She notices his beautiful Persian carpet which she believes is his prayer carpet. Azhar gives her the scimitar, telling her to "keep it hidden until the time comes to wear it openly."

They leave the lake for Naran where Jahani will finally meet her parents. Jahani dresses as a boy to avoid recognition by those hunting for a girl with red hair. Although it will be only a five mile journey, Rasheed's son, Mikal has gone ahead to warn Baqir and Zarah of Jahani's arrival. Their journey turns deadly when they are attacked by armed men wearing red turbans. In her head Jahani hears repeated warnings and advice during the attack. She is able to fight off an armed attacker using Shamsher although the circumstances of the fight are bizarre to Jahani. She is met by Saman Abdul, commander of Baqir's troops. While Jahani is escorted safely into Naran, Saman and his troops go to Azhar's aid.

In Naran, yet another revelation awaits Jahani. Jahani feels distressed that she has no feelings for Zarah, her mother. But in Naran, Jahani learns much more about her life before she came to Sherwan. When her father arranges for her marriage to Mazahid Baig, who protects Naran, Jahani begins to suspect all is not as it seems. An overheard conversation between Zarah and Baqir as well as more revelations from Azhar convince Jahani to flee Naran, determined to uncover her true identity and her real destiny.

Discussion

Daughter of Nomads is probably Hawke's best novel to date. The novel combines the elements of a historical novel with mystery, adventure and a dash of fantasy to create a wonderfully engaging story. Its setting within the Mughal Empire during the seventeenth century is unusual and offers young readers a chance to learn about a culture and era they likely would not study in school. To help readers understand the context of events in the novel, Hawke includes a large map showing Jahani's journey north through the Mughal Empire. A note about the Mughal Empire would have been very useful.

The Mughal Empire was essentially a Muslim empire with strong Persian and Indian influences. It ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from the early sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century. The Mughal dynasty was characterized by its successful integration of both Indian and Muslims into a coherent, functioning state and by its ability to govern over such a large area. The empire was founded by a descendant of Genghis Khan. The Chagatai Turkic Prince Babur was descended from Timur and Chagatai, the second son of Genghis Khan. Through a series of military conquest, Babur was able to conquer all of northern India. At the time of this novel, the Emperor  Aurangzeb ruled. This story is set is the most northern region of the empire.

The story is told in the third person narratives of Jahani, her protector, Azhar Sekandar and Dagar Khan, "the self-appointed tham of the Kingdom of Hahayul". who is determined to capture Jahani and kill her.  Jahani begins the story believing she is a simple girl with a limited future, living in an small village. She knows that without a father and a dowry, she will never marry. Jahani's real future is foreshadowed in her daydreams of being "a warrior girl wielding a scimitar like Gordafarid daughter of an old Persian hero..." She also hopes to be "loved passionately like the Emperor Shah Jahan loved his wife, Mumtaz." 

However, Jahani's life changes forever when her best friend is killed and Jahani learns that she was the intended target. From this point on, she discovers that there is more to her past than she knew. When she learns that Hafeezah is not her birth mother, Jahani embarks on a what becomes a journey or momentous self-discovery.  With each attempt on her life, Jahani grows more puzzled. She doesn't understand why Dagar Khan is pursuing her. Jahani also finds herself seemingly able to communicate with Chandi her horse and is able to save the nomad sheep by stopping the wolves from attacking. Her strange ability to use Shamsher, a fabled scimitar is also puzzling to her. Her recurring dreams of a boy, a peacock and a snow leopard are based in reality as Jahani becomes convinced the boy is Azhar and the snow leopard is Zadi. Jahani feels a strong attachment to the mountains of the north, although she doesn't know why this is so.

In Naran, Jahani meets Zarah and Baqir but learns they took her from the nomads. With the nomads she meets Yazmeen whom she is led to believe is her mother, and sister of Tafeeq Baseer who rules the nomads along with his son, Rahul. However Jahani has much more to learn about her past. By the end of the novel, readers will know more about Jahani's identity than the character does. This remains for Jahani to discover in the second novel.

Although the reader is given many hints as to Jahani's true identity, for example the verse quoted by the seer Pir Zal, it isn't until later in the novel, in Azhar's narrative that the full story comes out. Kifayat tells his friend Bilal about how Dagar Khan simultaneously attacked the Kingdoms of Hahayul and Nagir. Azhar was six years old and living with Kifayat when Nagir was attacked first. He and Kifayat set out to warn the Kingdom of Hahayul about the attack but were too late.It was believed that the two-year-old shehzadi (princess) had escaped and Dagar Khan's men began kidnapping young girls with red hair. Kifayat continued to look for the little shehzadi and eventually found such a girl with the nomads. She knew her name was Jahani , spoke Burushaski and wore a silver taveez. Jahani lived with the nomads for two summers until she was adopted by Zarah and Baqir, wealthy landowners in the Kingdom of Kaghan. During this time Kifayat and Azhar followed Jahani, offering his services as a master of horses. When another attempt was made on Jahani's life at age four, she was hidden in a village in the south.  Azhar also reveals to Bilal that he is Shehzada of Nagir, thought to have been killed in the attack. No one knows that he survived.

Hawke incorporates Persian fables and historical facts into Daughter of Nomads. The purpose of using the Persian stories is to foreshadow Jahani's destiny and true identity. For example, when Azhar is leading Jahani and Hafeezah northward, he tells them a story about the famous King Merdas and his evil son Zahhak who came to be known as the Demon King. This is a story from the famous Shahnameh, The Persian Book of Kings. When Hafeezah questions Azhar as to what happened to him he tells her about how the Demon King dreamed that he would be killed by a man named Feraydun. "The Demon King searched for him and killed his father, but Feraydun's mother saved the baby and secretly gave him to a cow herder to bring up safely. When he was in danger again, his mother took him to the mountains where he played in fields of wildflowers." In fact, Jahani has dreams in which she remembers playing with a boy and a snow leopard in a field filled with flowers. The story is a hint that Jahani will play a similar role in the demise of Dagar Khan who has been told that "the woman with the leopard's heat" will come to take his throne.


After Jahani tells Azhar about her strange experience with Chandi, he tells her a story about the northern kingdoms. "The first mir of the kingdoms of Hahayul and Nagir - for they were one kingdom at that time - was born of the union of the great Sekandar and a pari (fairy). It is said that the pari's powers appear sometimes in descendants - they are given gifts." When Jahani inquires as to what those gifts might be Azhar states, "They are able to understand certain animals, have unusual strength, or can wield weapons with minds of their own. Usually descendants have only one gift, but in rare instances more than one is inherited." This story of course is a hint of Jahani's true identity and the origin of her special abilities which are beginning to be manifest.

Hawke also infuses the story with some historical information as well. For example when they are  entering the ancient village of Mansehra, Azhar tells Jahani how the large rocks at the entrance to the village were inscribed by Ashoka the Great, with the promise that he would only conquer by righteousness after conquering  by massacring the entire village.This is in fact a real historical event that happened. Ashoka assumed the throne after killing all of his brothers, save on, in 272 B.C. He was known as a cruel and ruthless leader. In 265 B.C., he conquered the Kingdom of Kalinga, destroying cities, burning villages and murdering thousands. When he surveyed the carnage, Ashoka was overwhelmed by what he'd done and had a complete conversion. The story serves to provide some cultural background to the young reader.

Hawke has crafted a wonderful historical fiction novel for young readers with a strong, capable heroine in Jahani. In the character of Azhar, readers have a young man who exhibits self-control, courage, and respect towards women. Daughter of Nomads is based on a story Hawke told her children, years ago, when they were on vacation in the Karakorum Mountains in Pakistan. It is, as she describes it, an "alternate history what could have happened if the little kingdoms of the area now called Pakistan banded together and fought for their freedom." The map and lovely pencil illustrations were done by D.M. Cornish.

Daughter of Nomads is well worth reading; Jahani's story concludes in the second book The Leopard Princess. Suitable for ages nine and up.

Book Details:

Daughter of Nomads by Rosanne Hawke
St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press     2016
290 pp.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Mary's Monster: Love, Madness,and How Mary Shelley Created FRANKENSTEIN by Lita Judge

Mary's Monster by Lita Judge explores the life of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Written in free verse accompanied by the author's impressive black and white illustrations, Judge tells the story of Mary Shelley's life and how she came to create one of the most famous novels of all time. There are nine parts to the book which spans the time period from 1801 to 1823. Judge employs two narrators; the Creature and Mary Shelley.

The book's opening Prologue is written in the voice of The Creature who tells the world that Mary Shelley created him as a way to expose the cruelty of the world.

In Part I Exile, fourteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft is on the deck of the Osnaburgh, heading for Scotland. Mary is feeling sad and isolated, remembering that her father did not see her off; only her sisters Fanny and Claire were there. She reminisces about her childhood.

Mary was born the night Herschel's comet blazed across the London sky. Mary's father  told her the story of the comet and its discovery by a woman, Caroline Herschel leading Mary to believe she could do anything in life. She was encouraged to read, to be independent and to use her imagination. But that changed in 1802 when her father married the Widow Clairmont, bringing into their family her daughter Claire Clairmont and a son named Charles.

In 1805 the family moved from their home in Somers Town to an abandoned shop in Holborn, a block from the gallows at Newgate Prison. Mary's stepmother hoped that her father would write and sell books from the shop and get them out of their financial troubles. But her father was more interested in political and social issues. At this time Mrs. Godwin convinced Mary's father to send her away. She lives with a widower name Baxter and his daughters.

Part II My Second Birth, covers the period from June 1812 to March 1814. Mary is living at Mr. Baxters home at Broughty Ferry with his daughters. She soon develops a close friendship with Isabella Baxter who has a passion for the French Revolution. The Baxter's library contains many books including those written by both Mary's father and mother. Reading her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft's novel, Maria, encourages Mary to take up her mother's ideals. Scotland becomes Mary's "Eyrie of Freedom".

Part III Return to Darkness March to April 1814. Mary returns to London to live with her family in the overwhelming stench and squalor of Holborn. Her stepsister Claire is now fifteen, her sister Fanny is thin and withdrawn. Fanny is Mary's half-sister: she has a different father, a married man who abandoned their mother.  A young poet named Percy Bysshe Shelley has been corresponding with Mary's father.

Part IV The Poet May-July 1814. Twenty-one-year-old Percy Shelley begins visiting the Godwins almost every day. Well-born and in line to inherit a fortune, Percy has been abandoned by his wife Harriet who is pregnant. Mary finds herself attracted to Percy from their first encounter. Soon Mary and Percy, along with Claire go for long walks, talking about galvanism, alchemy, gravity and astronomy. Fanny reminds Mary however, that Shelley is still married, that his wife is due to give birth to their second child soon, and that Shelley cannot be trusted - just as the man that got their mother pregnant abandoned her. However, Mary believes that people in love should be together. In late June, Mary and Percy make love beside her mother's grave after Percy reveals his tormented soul. Mary believes he simply needs to be loved.

Her decision to live with Shelley angers her father and stepmother. Shelley has promised Mary they will live in Switzerland like other free thinkers. Claire who passes letters between Mary and Shelley begs Mary to take her with them. Mary's father refuses to allow her to leave but on July 28, 1814, Mary and Shelley along with Claire race to Dover and then cross over to Calais, France. For Mary it is the beginning of life on her own terms, one that will result in much pain and loneliness but which will result in the creation of a new literary genre and one of the most famous works of literature of all time.

Discussion

Lita Judge, an awarding winning children's author and illustrator was inspired to write Mary's Monster after contracting a virus that led to her developing an serious autoimmune illness. During the next two years as she convalesced, Judge found herself rereading a favourite novel, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein or A Modern Prometheus". Judge was fascinated by the fact that Shelley had written her novel when she was only eighteen years old. As she delved deeper in Shelley's life by reading her journals, Judge found herself and this led Judge to want to tell Mary's story and how she came to write Frankenstein.

The widely accepted account of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein is that the germ of the story resulted from a dream Mary had after nights of reading ghost stories at the villa of Lord Byron. However, Judge's belief is that Mary Shelley's troubled life, her experiences of being mistreated by her father's second wife, of being sent away to Scotland, of being abandoned by her father when she became pregnant by her married lover Percy Bysshe Shelley and her many other hardships, were in fact the genesis of Frankenstein. In her Author's Note at the back, Judge writes,
"The popular myth is that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was conceived spontaneously on a stormy night in answer to a dare  to write a ghost story. That evening did occur, but countless events in Mary's life before and after that evening played a much greater role in the horror novel's creation. My story is an attempt to trace the many origins of her genius. It's a testament to a resilient girl whose imagination, forged by isolation, persecution, and loss, created a new form of storytelling as a means of connecting with the very society that had socially exiled her."

In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley explores the themes of pain, isolation and abandonment as  Dr. Frankenstein rejects the creature he created. Her novel was also a commentary on the use of science in the early 1800's. During this time, many new discoveries were being made in science about the natural world. Mankind was on the cusp of the scientific age and hoped to tame the world through the use of science, especially the disciplines of alchemy and galvanism. Mary saw man's ambition to create life and to dominate nature as potentially destructive to the world and to man himself.

Like her father William Godwin, and mother Mary Wollenstonecraft, Mary also rebelled against the social norms of her day. Mary Wollstonecraft was a firm believer in the rights of women, believing that they were equal to men. She sets out her beliefs in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in 1792, probably her best known work. She had an affair with a married man, Gilbert Imlay, an American who ultimately abandoned her. Mary gave birth to a daughter, Fanny while in France where she was writing and studying the ongoing French Revolution. She attempted to restart her relationship with Imlay but he refused, resulting in two suicide attempts by Mary. Back in England Mary met William Godwin, an advocate for the abolition of marriage. Yet they married when Mary Wollstonecraft became pregnant. Mary died after giving birth to their daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. William Godwin was a radical who had anarchist tendencies. His publication of his wife's biography after her death which acknowledged her affair with Imlay, her illegitimate child and her two suicide attempts brought him much criticism because all of these behaviours were seen as scandalous and immoral. Having read her father's biography of her mother and been exposed to his ideas, Mary attempted to live her life in accordance with those ideas but found the reality was much different. Her father did not approve of her relationship with Percy Shelley and when she became pregnant outside of marriage, she was shunned.

Judge accomplishes her goal with a brilliant retelling of Mary Shelley's life in nine parts, the number nine being significant because it is the number of months of pregnancy and Mary's Frankenstein was written over a period of nine months, while she was pregnant with her second daughter Clara. She considered her novel her creative progeny. Through Mary's story, readers learn of the events in her life that ultimately influenced her writing Frankenstein. By writing her story in free verse, Judge pares Mary's life down to the important essentials while still retaining the pain, loneliness and sense of betrayal that Mary must have felt. Judge's ink, watercolour and pencil illustrations capture the dark moods of Percy Shelley, the emotional and physical struggles Mary endured, and the pain of the creature. The author story-boarded much of the book before beginning the writing process. Her timeline of creating the novel can be found on her website page, Mary's Monster Timeline.

Mary's Monster also includes an "Introduction" which introduces readers to both Mary Shelley and her novel Frankenstein. In her "Author's Note" at the back, Judge explains how she drew on a wealth of primary sources including Mary Shelley's journals, which events she excluded and provides an interesting exposition on parts of Mary's life. Her "What Became of Them" details the lives of family and several contemporaries of Mary Shelley. There is also a "What Were They Reading" section that lists what Mary and Percy were reading during their lives and a "Notes" that provides references for events in Mary's Monster.

Overall Mary's Monster is really quite an outstanding work and is a must read for fans of Frankenstein. Brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed.

Book Details:

Mary's Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created FRANKENSTEIN by Lita Judge
New York: Roaring Brook Press  2018
312 pp.