Monday, October 29, 2018

Buried Beneath The Baobab Tree by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

YaTa "who is my daughter" lives with her mother and father and her five brothers, Issac, Jacob, Abraham, Elijah and Caleb, in a small village in Nigeria. Her papa loves to listen nonstop to his radio which can often be found on his shoulder. Her best friends are Sarah who also attends school with her and Aisha who is Muslim and who was married recently and now expecting her first child. Aisha no longer attends school so YaTa brings her notebooks for her friend to read. YaTa especially loves Aisha's goat-meat pepper soup.

YaTa has big dreams. She dreams of acing the Borno State scholarship exam so she can attend the special girls boarding school in Maiduguri. She dreams of being the first in her family to attend university. But she also dreams of someday being happily married, "being a good wife who kneels to serve her husband his meals and who bears him healthy sons."

Malam Zwindila who teaches in the village school praises YaTa because she knows more than all the boys. She has written the Borno State scholarship exam and now waits anxiously for her result.

At first papa's radio reports mostly Western news such as the Academy Awards nominations. Boko Haram attacks are secondary news. But soon the increasing number of attacks dominate the news. A car bomb kills at least seventeen people in Maiduguri where YaTa hopes to attend school.

One day after church, Pastor Moses's son, Success who is studying law at university, spends some time talking to YaTa, telling her about his travels and life at university. When he learns she has no books to read, Success promises to bring home books like Nancy Drew for her to read. At church Pastor Moses prays for those who are being killed by Boko Haram which wants the country to be governed by Islamic laws. Although these attacks have been going on for years they are now increasing in intensity. He also announces that his son will be getting married and the entire congregation is invited to the wedding in Jalingo. YaTa is upset because she has a crush on Success. But she eventually learns that it is Pastor Moses's oldest son, Prosper who is to be married.

As the days go by, people in the village become increasingly preoccupied with Boko Haram. Papa's radio announces that the terrorist group has attacked Izghe, a village only 190 km from YaTa's village. They learn that Boko Haram kill the men and make the women and girls "disappear". They attack public spaces by loading goats, cows and donkeys with explosives which are then placed in markets and streets. They are known to be hiding in the Sambisa forest. But there are many myths too. Such as that "A child born to any of them would automatically share its father's ideas and beliefs. It would grow up to kill, steal, and destroy."

Malam Zwindila attempts to ridicule Boko Haram's belief that if will turn Nigeria into an Islamic state. But YaTa is frightened. "What if the legends surround Boko Haram are true. " she wonders. Pastor Moses decides that the Christian community will undertake a month of prayer and fasting, hoping to protect them from the ravages of Boko Haram. Fear of the terrorist group begins to affect their daily life: when YaTa and Sarah are visiting Aisha to watch a movie, Aisha's husband Malam Isa asks them to return home before dark for their own safety.

YaTa learns from her principal, that she has been selected for the Borno State government scholarship program. The government will pay for anything she wishes to study up to a master's degree. This means that next term YaTa will be in a special boarding school, away from her best friend Sarah, her little brother Jacob who loves to chases lizards, helping Mama cook and clean. She cannot wait to share her news with Success who will be arriving soon.

In the meantime, YaTa is left in charge of the house while Mama is away for two days, traveling to Jalingo for Prosper's wedding. While she is making tuwo and vegetable stew into the living room, YaTa, and her family her what seems to be thunder. But when they rush outside after hearing men on motorbikes yelling "Allah ya'kawo ruwa!" and "Allahu akbar!" and firing guns. When YaTa's father grabs his machete, he is shot dead. After her father and brothers along with all the men and boys of the village are shot dead, YaTa and the other girls and women are forced into trucks. The dreaded Boko Haram has arrived in their village. YaTa now must struggle to survive, her life and her dreams shattered.


Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani has written a novel based on the kidnapping of 276 female students from the Government Secondary School in Chibok, in Borno state in Nigeria, on April 14, 2014 by the militant, terrorist group Boko Haram. Although fifty-seven girls managed to escape, many were kept for years, married off to Islamic fighters in the group. Boko Haram is a terrorist group raging jihad in northern Nigeria with the intent to install Islam and sharia law in Nigeria. They believe that western education corrupts Muslims, turning them away from the faith and that girls as young as nine should be married off. They specifically target Christians, killing the men and boys and enslaving the women, forcing them to convert to Islam, although Muslims too have been targeted. The kidnappings of young women in Nigeria continue to this date.

In an Afterword written by Viviana Mazza, she states that she and Nwaubani "decided to document this tragedy in a way that nobody else had done: from the point of view of the girls and their families." Both Nwaubani and Mazza wanted to write a book about what was happening, so the two women connected and began collaborating. They arranged to meet some of the Chibok families in Aduja where many have fled to safety. While Adoabi Nwaubani was able to travel to Chibok to talk to people in the town, Viviana Mazza, a white woman had to forgo the trip so as not to endanger the group.
"We wanted these girls to be seen not just as numbers but as the curious, ambitious, and lovely daughters whom their families wanted to see again.
We wanted their parents' anguish to be understood. Their daughters were taken alive, but not knowing what had happened to them was, in some ways, worse than if they had died. Their parents couldn't mourn. They lived in limbo."

Nwaubani has definitely accomplished all this and much more with Buried Beneath The Baobab Tree.  The novel's narrator is unnamed, although in this post I have called her by the affectionate term "YaTa" that her father and mother use. YaTa represents every girl whose life has been impacted in some way by Boko Harum, those kidnapped and those who escaped such a fate.

The novel begins with the everyday aspects of life in a small Nigerian village, comprised of both Christians and Muslims who live peacefully, side-by-side. Life for the girls and women in YaTa's village is quite simple in some ways and yet complicated in others. YaTa has chores to do, helps her mother look after her brothers, cooks, cleans and also attends school. Like most young people throughout the world, YaTa has dreams too. Although she hopes someday to marry, her thoughts are far from marriage. Instead, she states, "I want to attend the special boarding school for girls in Maiduguri. I want to go to university and get a degree. I want to be a teacher and impart everything I know to other children like Jacob. I want to travel to the places I hear about from Malam Zwindila and from Papa's radio, countries in faraway corners of the world."

But there is pressure to marry young, meaning few women are well educated. YaTa's Muslim friend Aisha is already married and has withdrawn from school. A significant factor affecting girls' attendance at school is the lack of feminine hygiene products, something most Western women take for granted. YaTa misses days of school every month because of her period. She uses a piece of cloth carefully folded, but even then there are problems. Clothes are stained due to leakage and there is no toilet she can use at school.

Soon YaTa's community is steeped in fear because of the Boko Haram attacks.  Then YaTa along with her friends Sarah and Aisha are kidnapped, their families murdered,  and they make the difficult choice to do whatever they need to, to survive. They are forced to learn verses from the Quran, to "marry" Boko Haram militants and are indoctrinated with their version of Islam. But YaTa knows this is not true Islam because of the Muslim friends she has grown up with. It is this interpretation of Islam that Nwaubani is careful to repeatedly point out is radical.

Nwaubani captures the fear and intense internal conflict the girls must have felt as they struggled to survive with Boko Haram. Although YaTa hates living with Boko Haram, hates her husband who rapes her, she knows what each day will bring. But to try to escape means returning to a world she no longer knows. "But I have no idea what might be waiting for me outside the Sambisa. I have no clue how to navigate the new world out there.
A world with no Papa and no brothers. And maybe with no Mama....Maybe inside the Sambisa forest is better. Maybe the life I know is better than the one I do not know. Maybe my dreams of a different life are just a waste of time."
YaTa must also cope with the tragic deaths of her family, and her friends; Aisha dies in childbirth from lack of care and her friend Sarah is brainwashed into becoming a suicide bomber.

The baobab tree in this novel mirrors the devastation that YaTa and her community experience. The baobab tree is rightly called "the Tree of Life" in Africa. It is a symbol of  life and health. A deciduous tree, it is able to absorb and store water in its trunk during the rainy season. It produces a fruit rich in nutrients including vitamin C, during the dry season, hence the description. Its leaves are edible and its bark is used to make cloth, rope, baskets and mats. The tree has an unusual appearance, looking like an upside-down tree with its roots sticking up in the air. These trees can live for thousands of years and grow quite large.

In her novel, Nwaubani makes reference to one of the many folktales surrounding the baobab tree. YaTa remembers her father's tale about the tree: " ' A long, long time ago,' he said, 'one of the gods up in the sky threw down a baobab tree from his garden. It landed upside down on Earth but still continued to grow.' "  YaTa mentions how her family uses the tree for most everything, from fruit gourds to scare away lizards and snakes, to Mama making miyan kuka soup for Papa, her older brother Abraham using the powder from the fruit on his pimples. It is an important place in the social life of the village too.
 "Men and boys gather under the upside-down branches of the baobab tree in front of our villaage health care center, exchanging news or deciding who to vote for in the next election.
Women and girls gather under the baobab tree near the communal well, exchanging gossip or deciding what styles of clothes to sew next."
The tree is even important for the domesticated animals and wildlife.

Later on YaTa even likens Success, the boy she finds attractive, to the remarkable baobab tree. "Like a baobab tree among the trees of the forest, so is he among all the young men in the world. I delight to sit in his shade, and his alone, and his fruit is sweet to my taste."

But in the short chapter titled, Tree of Death, the baobab tree has been turned into a tree of death. YaTa and Sarah who has been renamed Zainab, are living in the Sambisa forest, prisoners of Boko Haram and starving. While out searching for vegetables, the stumble across a baobab tree. But their initial delight turns to horror when, as they approach the tree the stench is unbearable. Buried in a hole beneath the baobab tree are the bodies of Magdalene who refused to convert to Islam and others.

Buried Beneath The Baobab Tree ends on a somewhat hopeful note with YaTa being rescued, and reunited with Pastor Moses. The reader doesn't know how YaTa's reunion with her mother went, or what her future holds or what difficulties she faced reintegrating into her life once more, a task certain to have been difficult because she is pregnant. But her story and that of many other girls has been told, and that's what is important.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani has written an deeply moving novel that brings to the forefront the plight of these girls and the desperate situation in Nigeria. It is important that the missing girls of Chibok and other villages are not forgotten.

Book Details:

Buried Beneath The Baobab Tree  by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
New York: Katherine Tegen Books        2018
330 pp.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

What The Night Sings: A Novel by Vesper Stamper

There are many young adult novels that tell the heart-wrenching story of the Holocaust, the increasing restrictions on  the Jewish citizens in Germany and throughout Europe, the forced removal of Jews from their homes and placement into ghettos and camps where they were worked and/or starved to death or outright exterminated.  However, What The Night Sings takes a different approach. It is a historical fiction novel that portrays the life of a Holocaust survivor in the year after the war. The novel is divided into five part spanning the period from April 15, 1945 to the winter of 1947.

The novel begins with Part I Liberation Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp April 15 - 1945. This first part of the novel tells the story of sixteen-year-old Gerta Rausch who has been at Bergen-Belsen for a year. She is barely alive and ill with typhus. Her previous three bunk mates have died; and old woman who was diabetic and had a seizure, two younger girls slowly starving to death. Her current bunkmate, Rivkah is from Koln and knew Gerta's parents. She is also dying of typhus.

But Gerta is saved when Bergen-Belsen is liberated by British soldiers on April 15, 1945. Gerta is taken from the filthy barracks, stinking of death. Lying on the ground next to her is a boy, "another skeleton" who "looks like a marionette, with glass eyes and a smile painted over his skin-wrapped skull." He tells her that they are free and the British are rounding up the SS. He is only starving, so once he begins to eat, his strength improves. The boy feeds Gerta and tells her the SS guards are now being forced to bury the thousands of dead.

Ten days later, Gerta watches as the British soldiers round up the women from neighbouring villages and walk them "...through the corpse-woods, past the stinking mass graves, into the storage rooms where luggage molders unclaimed and shorn hair piles up in a corner, destined to be stuffed into mattresses and woven into cloth for SS uniforms." A month post-liberation and Gerta learns the red-haired boy who helped her is Levi Goldszmit.Gerta and Lev share their past with Lev telling Gerta he is from Kielce, Poland. Reflecting back on her childhood, Gerta begins to realize that her father hid the reality of their life from her. She remembers thinking,  "The war was hard on everyone, but thank goodness we weren't Jews, I thought. How awful to be harassed, beaten and humiliated in the street, to not be allowed to work or go to school. At least that didn't apply to us."

Part II briefly tells Gerta's experiences in various camp. It flashes back to when Gerta was six-years-old and living in Koln. Music is a big part of Gerta's life: her papa is first chair-viola and she loves to sing. At age twelve, Gerta and her papa now live in Wurzburg with Maria Buchner, the renowned Kobratursporano diva and now Gerta's stepmother. Gerta is part of a choir composed of the children of the symphony musicians.  Maestra Buchner decides that Gerta should attempt a solo, so she begins to teach her operatic technique.

Shortly after she turns fourteen, Gerta's voice changes, meaning she can no long hit high notes. Life becomes more complicated and puzzling to the sheltered girl. She remembers that "...constellations of yellow-starred people filed out of town -men, women and children carrying bundles of clothes, blankets, books tied together in stacks, weaving through the streets to the train station." Gerta knows they are Jews and believes they are leaving by choice to a safer place. They rarely go out now and the doors are kept locked. Gerta is tutored at home. Many people are wearing yellow stars on their clothing but Gerta doesn't as she's is German. However her papa has only a few students and he is now last chair in his section of the orchestra.

On June 17, Gerta is awakened by pounding on their apartment door. Soldiers enter their apartment, ordering Gerta and her papa out. They quickly pack their bags, and with Gerta carrying her father's viola, leave as Maria watches. They are marched down Hofstrasse to the Residenz Square and then to the Wurzburg Station. There they are packed into cattle cars. In the train, Gerta's father reveals to her that they are Jews, their families having lived in Germany for generations. Gerta's mother was killed when she was four years old in a raid on the Jewish club. With her mother's wedding ring, Gerta's father was able to have their identification papers - the Ahnenpass forged. They became the German Richters instead of the Jewish Rausch's. They moved to Wurzburg and were able to pass as German until someone betrayed them.

Gerta and her father arrive in Theresienstadt where they are separated, he to the musicians building, she to the girls building. What at first looks like a quaint town with lovely buildings is in fact a camp, with filthy, cramped, lice-ridden barracks, little food and many dead and dying. Gerta meets Roza a girl who plays piano and works in the clothing shop. After a year, the camp now very crowded, hosts the Red Cross who are there to make a movie. Before the Red Cross visit, Gerta's papa breaks his leg when he is tripped by a guard. Afterwards they are sent by train to Auschwitz where once again Gerta is separated from her papa who is in terrible pain from his broken leg. Gerta has her head shorn, is tattooed with a number, stripped and forced into striped pants and shirt. She learns the awful truth about her papa, that he has been killed, the smoke from the crematorium stacks, the only thing that left of him and many others.

Part's III, IV and V return to the present year of 1945 as Gerta struggles to recover from her ordeal, and find her own identity amid the loss of everything that once mattered to her. Help comes from the one person who understands what she has suffered, unexpectedly blossoming into a love that both challenges and heals.


What The Night Sings is an unforgettable, riveting portrayal of the immediate post-Holocaust years for a young teenage survivor. As Vesper Stamper writes in her Author's Note at the back of the the novel, that despite growing up in a Jewish home in New York City,  she had never made the connection between the pogroms in Europe, the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. She found little information on the period between the end of the Holocaust and the creation of the new state of Israel. "I had never connected the two, and I was fascinated by the human stories behind this seldom-discussed era. The fact that survivors, after losing everyone they loved, made the seemingly illogical decision to get married and bring new children into the world -- this seemed to me the absolute bravest act I had ever heard of. At the core of what it means to be human is the ability to choose not just to survive, not just to hope, but to love. A fire rose up in me to tell this story."
What began as a short story, blossomed into a project that saw Stamper personally trace her character Gerta's journey from Wurzburg to Bergen-Belsen by visiting the locations of death camps.  This emotional journey left Stamper feeling that through her novel she "could invite others to remember with me."

The main character is Gerta who survives the Holocaust only to find herself facing the profound and frightening question of "Who am I?".  When she was forced from her home in Wurzburg as a fourteen-year-old girl along with her father, Gerta did not know she was Jewish. As the situation worsened in Germany Gerta remained unconcerned because as far as she knew she was German. She learns about her Jewish ancestry from her papa on the transport to Thereseinstadt. In an attempt to protect Gerta, her papa had assumed a fake German identity. He gave up all outward signs of his Jewish faith when Gerta is very young, meaning that their Jewish customs and identity were not passed on.

One of the many illustrations by Vesper Stamper in What The Night Sings
Once Gerta beings to heal physically she soon begins to struggle with who she is and what her life will be. Various people she meets in the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen help  Gerta discover the answers to these questions. These people include Levi Goldszmit,  Michah Gottlieb, Roza and Helene.

In the camp Gerta meets the handsome Michah Gottlieb with whom she is infatuated and who is arranging passage to the Jewish homeland  - Eretz Yisrael. Gerta believes that she can go back to Koln but Michah tells her this is impossible. "...Koln is a total ruin. and where exactly do you think the Nazis went. They're back home, sweetheart, getting their jobs back, still in charge, but without the brown shirts. Do you think that once you get out of here, your neighbors will suddenly be in their right minds just because the war is over? That you'll somehow emerge into a sane world?"  Michah tells Gerta that they have no future in Europe and that the Jews need their own homeland where they don't have to worry about another pogrom. Gerta insists she is German but Michah counters that this hatred has existed for centuries, for two thousand years. But his reasoning only makes Gerta angry as she asserts, "...I'm not some Zionist. I'm - I'm barely anything at all. And I don't have to be. I don't have to do any of this!"

Gerta's best friend is Lev but Lev with his deep Jewish faith and a lifetime of Jewish customs to draw on, wants to marry Gerta, something Gerta is not ready for. She tells Lev, "Besides, until all this happened, I didn't even know I was Jewish. And my experience of what that means? It's this place. It's fear. It's death. I don't want that life. I don't know a god, I don't know a family, I don't even know myself..."  Lev is ready to  "rediscover what it means to be Jewish." and is hoping that together they can grow young together. However while Lev's faith is a comfort to him, to Gerta it is not. Gerta struggles with the age-old questions about God, suffering and evil. To Gerta, God "took away everything, everyone we loved..." But Lev challenges her to recognize who really was responsible. "I'm not sure who took them, Gerta...Who? Hitler? The SS?... Or was it our neighbors? The ones who wanted your house or your silver..."

It is Helene who voices Gerta's internal conflict after Gerta the painful truth about her friendship with Michah. When she first meets Helene, Gerta identifies herself as "a musician first" but Helene reminds Gerta that is not who she is. She tells Gerta, "I wonder how many other girls are walking in your shoes. So young, coming of age with no family, no sense of who you are. You keep to yourself, not wanting to lose anything more, not know what's next. Is that right?"   Helene invites Gerta to partake of the ritual bathing, in which she will wash away the terrible memories and begin to be healed.

With her voice seemingly ruined, Gerta begins to realize that her life will not be what she thought it would be - that she would someday be a famous mezzo-soprano.  Gerta considers her lost voice the price of her survival, "We all paid with some part of ourselves. None of us escaped unbroken." Lev has a different more positive perspective. "We survived with the best part of us still intact" he tells Gerta, meaning that she has her music and he has his father's faith. It is Roza who helps Gerta recover what is really an important part of who she is - her voice. Before the transport, Gerta thought of herself as an aspiring singer. She learned to play her father's viola but it was her singing that she lived for.  In the displaced persons camp she cannot sing. Roza tries to understand why and Gerta explains "They took my voice...I have nothing to sing for." Instead she plays her father's viola because she'd "rather have that than try to sing form someplace dry and dead and empty." Roza tells Gerta not to let the Nazis take her voice and that sometimes you have to do things "out of brokenness." With Roza's help Gerta begins to sing again, discovering that her voice is not gone but just different. Although her first attempt to sing publicly in the camp fails, her reconciliation with Maria Buchner whom Gerta wrongly thought betrayed them to the Nazis, sets her on the path to recovering her gift of singing. Maria encourages her to continue, that her voice will ripen as she heals and lives.

Gerta, filled with happiness. Illustration by Vesper Stamper.
Eventually Gerta is able to fall in love with Lev whom she begins to realize does understand her. Both Lev and Gerta are trying to make sense of their new life, to  begin again but they soon realize that the past must be left behind. This is very evident when they return to Lev's hometown of Kielce, Poland and encounter intense anti-Semitism. Their only hope is to travel to the new Jewish homeland in Palestine, which eventually becomes Israel. 

The cover of What The Night Sings, features a black butterfly as it passes out the window, turning to a deep blue.The motif of the butterfly can be found throughout the novel as a symbol of Gerta's voice, innocence, hope and freedom. The butterfly comes to her when she's a child, giving her songs to sing but is lost during her suffering in the camps,  only to return when she enters the mikvah to cleanse herself of the haunting memories of the Holocaust. In Israel, as she rediscovers herself, her heritage and recovers her voice, the butterfly escapes through the window.

Accompanying the story of Gerta and Lev are the dark, sepia-like illustrations by the novel's author, Vesper Stamper, a gifted artist too. They are done in ink wash, white gouache, and graphite. These moving illustrations enhance the story's themes of war, fear, inner conflict, faith, and identity.

Stamper has included a detailed Author's Note explaining her writing process, a Glossary, a map of Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia and also Palestine, and a list of Resources. Born out of watching the movie Fiddler On The Roof, What The Night Sings is well-researched, deeply touching and very relevant to teenagers who often struggle with finding their path in life. This beautiful novel is a work of art in every sense of the term.

Readers are encouraged to check out Vesper Stamper's website, Vesper Stamper Illustration to see her artwork, books and to learn more about this amazing new author.

Book Details:

What The Night Sings: A Novel by Vesper Stamper
New York: Alfred A. Knopf       2018
266 pp, 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Button War: A Tale of the Great War by Avi

It is August 1914. Patryk is one of seven boys who form a group in a small village in Poland which at this time is occupied by the Russians. On this late summer day the boys are hanging out at the old ruins in the forest. The group consists of  Makary, a small boy who is the fastest runner, Raclaw whose father is the village lawyer able to speak Polish, Russian and German, Jurek a boy who is caned often at school and who insists he is a descendant of King Boleslaw, Wojtex who is the chubby son of the village butcher, Drugi who is the smallest, a frail boy always trying to understand things and Ulryk who wants to be a priest.

Jurek believes the ruins are those of an old castle belonging to Poland's first king, King Boleslaw the Brave. He claims to be the descendant of this ancient Polish king and that he owns both the ruins and the surrounding forest. However, the boys mostly thing this is a joke. Jurek is the leader of the group, the one who thinks up new things for them to do and who is always daring them. Jurek lives with his eighteen-year-old sister in a one-room shack on the edge of the village. His sister washes the uniforms of the occupying Russians and in this way supports them as their parents are both dead.

Patryk is more fortunate as he lives with his parents in a three-room wooden house with a main room that serves as his parent's bedroom, a kitchen and at the back, his father's workshop. Patryk's father is "a wheelwright repairing and making wooden wagon wheels." Patryk is learning this trade from his father.

One day Patryk finds a small rusty button near the castle ruins. Jurek wants the button and tries to Patryk to give it to him. When he refuses, Jurek becomes enraged, screaming and threatening Patryk with a large stick. Patryk holds his ground and then tosses the button into the forest. He is shocked by the hatred he sees in Jurek's face.

Later in August, as Patryk is going to school he witnesses the bombing of the old wooden school house by the Germans. It burns to the ground, killing the school teacher and a nine-year-old boy named Cyril. Makary wants to know why the war has come to their tiny village. The boys tell him that although the village is in Poland it has belonged to Russia.

Raclaw reveals that his father was told by the Russian commandant Dmitrov that they are leaving the village because the Germans are advancing. Meanwhile Jurek and Patryk take Raclaw to Jurek's backyard where he too cuts a button off a Russian uniform. Jurek claims that his button with the knight fighting the dragon is the best.

The three boys leave for home but Patryk, wanting to get a Russian button like Jurek's and realizing that with the Russians leaving this might be his only chance, sneaks back to Jurek's house. He steals a button, one that is exactly the same as Jurek's.

The next morning the seven boys watch from the village water pump as the Russians march out of the village.They discuss the withdrawal of the Russians and the coming of the Germans. Jurek brags about his button but when he sees that Patryk has the same button, he becomes enraged and then announces his dare.
"Wait! Got a great idea! We'll have a contest! Whoever gets the best button wins. Winner gets to be king. Means everyone has to bow down to him. Best dare ever. Buttons." Jurek insists that they cannot ask for a button but must "get" one.

Shortly after this the German's bomb the retreating Russians. Jurek leads the boys out of the village, to where the bombing happened, and they find many dead Russian soldiers. Jurek determined to find a winning button, climbs into a bomb crater. All the boys follow him but Patryk who is disgusted. This doesn't resolve the button challenge however, and Jurek tells the other boys they must wait until the Germans arrive to get better buttons.

Back in the village the boys decide to scavenge through the ruins of the school house. Ulryk uncovers their late teacher, Mr. Szujski's wooden cane that he used to beat the students with. Jurek snatches the cane away from Ulyrk, insisting that the who wins the button dare - the button king should have the cane. He promptly strikes Drugi hard on the arm. Remembering Jurek's anger in the forest, Patryk knows he cannot let Jurek win the cane or the button dare. "Knowing that if Jurek won the cane, he would use it in the worse way -- as he just had. And that told me that I absolutely couldn't let Jurek be the button king. He'd go crazy."

Patryk's worst fears are realized in ways not even he could have imagined, as the button dare escalates and pushes the boys into the most dangerous of situations.


Avi whose real name is Edward Irving Wortiss is the author of many acclaimed children's and teen novels. Like many of the best stories, The Button Warhad its germ in a story Avi was told by his father years ago. On Avi's website he explains his father's story:
"The story he told was rather unusual. He was raised in a village somewhere in Eastern Europe, but with so many national boundary changes, he could not even say precisely which country. During World War One, he said, his village was invaded and taken over by now this army, now that, from different nations. When these armies took over his village, the soldiers commandeered the women to wash their uniforms. Once washed, the uniforms were hung out to dry. The boys in the village—so my father-in-law related—would sneak about, cut the buttons from the uniforms, collect them, and trade them amongst themselves. This in the midst of The Great War."

As Avi explains, the button dare, which escalates, becoming both increasingly reckless and violent, mimics the escalating conflict that was to become the Great War. The boys begin by stealing buttons from Jurek's sister's clothesline, but are soon retrieving buttons from dead soldiers. From this they quickly move to following the soldiers and eventually even becoming involved in the conflict. The consequences are terrible.Their desire to collect buttons knows no bounds and directly results in the deaths of several of the boys; Drugi is beaten to death by an Austrian soldier for attempting to steal a button and Wojtex is executed for having a Russian button because the German's believe he is a traitor. Jurek's desire to obtain the best button leads him to become involved with the Russians helping them to set up the ambush of German soldiers which results in Raclaw being seriously wounded. As the boys are either killed or drop out, the contest becomes one between Jurek and Patryk.

Through the character of Patryk, Avi demonstrates how its possible to lose sight of what is right and be drawn further into a conflict. While many of the boys are eager at first to partake in Jurek's dare, only Patryk seems to understand the consequences should Jurek win.Patryk was the biggest and the strongest of the boys. His father tells him that God made him this way "to help the weak." Mindful of this, Patryk stays in the dare to try to win because he knows that Jurek will treat the other boys in a brutal manner if he becomes the button king. However, fighting on Jurek's terms doesn't help, as Patryk discovers, because Jurek keeps changing the conditions of the dare. As long as Patryk continues to play by Jurek's rules, he loses and becomes more and more like Jurek and is drawn in deeper.Just as Jurek does, Patryk desecrates the dead by stealing buttons from them and he steals from the living. He risks his life several times, all for buttons. He just can't seem to quit and walk away.

It is actually Ulryk, the boy who wants to be a Catholic priest, who does the right thing. He goes to Father Stanislaw, confesses and then throws his buttons in the river. When Patryk tells him that if he leaves, Jurek will be king, Ulryk, responds, "Not for me." and walks away. Even after Makary is killed by Jurek, Patryk still doesn't give up. He still intends to beat Jurek but the war intervenes. It doesn't stop Jurek who will now kill anyone to win. Finally Patryk does what Ulryk did - he throws the one button he still has away in disgust and runs out of the village to find his parents.

All of this is an allegory for the madness of the Great War where countries fought for four years over small patches of mud-filled, cratered, blackened land for no reason and where men were executed for desertion or bullied into enlisting. Even when it was obvious that no one was winning and that millions of lives,both soldiers and civilians were being lost, no one country would call a truce and end the war.

The Button War, reminiscent of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, is a dark, tragic novel. It is well written, with realistic characters and a well-created setting that portrays life in a village caught in the middle of a war.

Book Details:

The Button War: A Tale of the Great War by Avi
Somerville, Massachusetts:  Candlewick Press     2018
229 pp.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

Twelve-year-old Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning four years ago. Lucy was playing with her friend Cecelia, outside the apartment building she and Nana lived in when a sudden thunderstorm developed. Lucy decided to climb a chain link fence which was struck by lightning. The lightning strike knocked Lucy unconscious, stopping her heart, and her friend to the ground. Lucy's life was saved by the apartment maintenance man who was able to restart her heart with a defibrillator. Other than burns to her hands, Lucy seemed to be fine. That is until a week later.

While watching television with Nana, Lucy was inexplicably able to calculate the cost of a car from monthly payments in her head. Suddenly, Lucy who was in Grade 2 and learning addition and subtraction, could do difficult math calculations. Doctors diagnosed her with acquired savant syndrome, meaning she had developed a profound talent - in her case, the ability to do mathematics.

In reality, Lucy's brain was damaged by the lightning strike, part of the left lobe of her brain was shut down, resulting in the right side working overtime. Lucy can do advanced mathematical calculations, calendar math, recognize mathematical patterns and she "sees" math with every number having it's own colour and shape. Lucy also has a fear of germs which leads her to sanitize every surface she touches and she needs to sit/stand three times before she sits anywhere. She also needs to count all the words before she can read anything.

Because of all her peculiar habits, Lucy has been homsechooled since her accident and now at the age of twelve has passed high school, the GED and gotten perfects chores on her SATs. She wants to attend college but her nana believes she is too young.

Lucy's beloved Uncle Paul who is a marine visits their apartment before he moves away to California. He gives Lucy a pendant of a lightning bolt. During his short stay, he supports Nana in her decision to have Lucy attend public school. Lucy doesn't want to go to middle school but instead wants to go to college. She believes she can do everything online. However she hasn't left the apartment in four weeks and her only friends are online ones that she's made through the various math forums.

After a brief tour and a meeting with Dr. Cobb, principal of East Hamlin Middle School, Lucy is enrolled in Grade 7. Nana insists she attend for a year, "Make 1 friend. Do 1 thing outside o f these walls. Read 1 book not written by an economist or a mathematician." Lucy is certain that attending school will be a disaster.

Despite her strange habits and the fact that she's new to the school, Lucy does make two friends; Windy Sitton who loves musicals and is intrigued by Lucy's strangeness and Levi Boyd, a boy with two moms who loves photography and is caught cheating off of Lucy during their assessment in math class. Lucy is  made fun of and her strange habits earn her the label "cleaning lady". She spends most of her time attempting to hide her mathematical genius. She calculates how many questions she should get wrong on tests to that it won't look like she is hiding something. Lucy uses her math abilities to help her group of Windy and Levi in their class project. As her friendship with her two classmates grows, Lucy calculates that she can let them in on her secret - that she's really a math genius. However, Lucy begins to realize that while numbers can help predict certain things, not everything in life can be determined mathematically. She might be a math genius but Lucy discovers she's making many miscalculations about trust and the meaning of friendship.


The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is an enjoyable story about a young girl trying to come to terms with her differences while learning to trust and build friendships.

After her brain is damaged by a lightning strike, making her a math savant, Lucy Callahan believes her life is set, the equation of life has been solved - she will go to university and study math. Her unusual repetitive behaviours have forced her into the solitude of home, where she is taught by her Nana. But her wise Nana knows this is not healthy for Lucy and forces her into a year of school, to make a friend, and do something within the community. She knows this will be a difficult task for her young granddaughter who sees everything as numbers, but she hopes it will broaden Lucy's perspective.

And so Lucy enters school with the intention of simply surviving the year. However middle school forces her to interact with other people, something her mathematical abilities cannot really help her to do. Lucy uses her mathematical abilities to help her navigate life. She sees everything in mathematical terms. For example, the colours of clothing people all have numbers for Lucy. "I wear a teal-and-pink-striped shirt (like the colors of 107 and 42) and dark jeans." What Lucy can't understand are people and this difficulty leads to the inevitable crisis.

Initially she makes a good decision about who to tell about her mathematical gift. Although Windy is her budding friend, Lucy decides first to tell Levi about what happened to her at age eight. "I can't explain it, but I trust that Levi will keep my secret."  Despite the fact that Levi cheated off of her on their assessment and got them both in trouble, Lucy reasons, "Unlike Windy, he rarely talks about other people. I know I should get it over with and tell her, too. She's my best friend, and she shares every detail of her life with me...The problem is, she also tells me about everyone else. From her mom - who needs to wax a mustache - to which kids repeated kindergarten. There's no controlling information once it's in Windy's head. No vault. No lock and key. No secret combinations."

As it turns out Lucy was correct in her assessment of both Levi and Windy. She does eventually tell Windy who is upset that Levi knew before her. Levi explains to Windy that Lucy struggles to trust people. "Give her a break," Levi says, opening another box of candy. 'She did tell you a minute ago. Lucy's like a nervous teacup Chihuahua. She takes a while to trust someone.' " Levi likens himself to a trusty golden retriever.  Windy breaks Lucy's trust by revealing her secret at her birthday party.

While Lucy can understand advanced mathematical concepts she cannot understand Windy's betrayal of her secret. "For someone who is supposed to be smart, I can't figure out how to get Pi adopted, and I can't figure out Windy. Why did she tell my secret to someone who is always mean to her. She chose Maddie over me. Maddie." Lucy's miscalculation results in her feeling betrayed and angry. But when Windy confronts Lucy, apologizing for her actions, she forces Lucy to really listen to her. Lucy believes Windy told her secret "to get the other girls to like you by making fun of me..." however, Windy reveals that she wanted her friends to be Lucy's friends too. Lucy questions why Windy wants to be her friend and Windy states,  "You never complain about my love of musicals or my causess. You don't try to change people. It's like you're only trying to understand people."  Windy tells Lucy that she feels accepted. However for Lucy people will always be an unsolvable equation. "I will never understand people. In algebra, you can solve an equation when you have 1 unknown variable. People are equations with dozens of variables. Basically unsolvable."

By the end of the novel, Lucy is beginning to understand that life is not an equation with a set solution. For example, where she once thought that she would just want to move on to college, she now has several possibilities for schooling in January: she can continue on at East Hamlin, she can attend NCASME or she can home school. Attending school has also helped Lucy understand that others have their own problems something she comes to realize about classmate and mean girl, Maddie.

McAnulty has crafted a delightful novel about friendship, forgiveness and acceptance.  The Miscalcuations of Lightning Girl is populated with realistic, endearing characters from the trustworthy Levi, to Windy who thinks big and wants to save the world, to the understanding, kind Mr. Stoker who pushes Lucy to share her gift with the world. Overall  The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is an enjoyed read.

Book Details:

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty
New York: Random House     2018
293 pp.

Friday, October 12, 2018

House of Dreams by Liz Rosenberg

Lucy Maud Montgomery is perhaps best know for her  novel, Anne of Green Gables that told the story of a red-haired orphan, Anne Shirley who is adopted by  siblings, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. Published in 1908, the novel is set in the fictional town of Avonlea in Prince Edward Island during the late 1800's. Based on many events in her life, the novel was immediately popular. L.M. Montgomery went on to author many other novels, including Emily of New Moon, The Blue Castle and The Tangled Web and a large number of poems and short stories.

In House of Dreams, Liz Rosenberg delves into the life of Maud as she preferred to be called. Maud was born in Clifton, Prince Edward Island on November 30, 1874. Her father, Hugh John Montgomery was the son of Senator Donald Montgomery and her mother was Clara Woolner Macneill, whose family was one of three founding families of Cavendish, P.E.I.

The Montgomerys and Macneills could not be two more different families. Maud's great-great-grandmother Mary Montgomery was responsible for the family settling on the island. As the story goes, profoundly sea-sick, Mary refused to return to their boat marking the end of their voyage. Maud's paternal grandfather, Donald Montgomery was a Conservative who served in the provincial legislature for over forty years, and had a career in the Senate too. In contrast, the Macneills were Liberals. Maud's maternal great-great-grandmother was not happy to be settled on Prince Edward Island. In protest, she refused to take of her bonnet.

Maud at age 6
Maud was born almost nine months after her parents married. Hugh John and Clara struggled to make a living from a small country store they operated. Neither were adept at managing a small business and the store failed. Clara soon became ill with tuberculosis, and John Hugh moved his family to Cavendish where the Macneills could care for their daughter. Sadly Clara died in September of 1876, when Maud was not quite two years old.

Although Maud worshiped her father, he struggled to support her and increasingly left her in the care of her strict Scottish grandparents, Alexander and Lucy Macneill who had a farm just outside of Cavendish, on the north shore. John Hugh eventually moved to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, abandoning Maud when she was just seven-years-old  and beginning a new life, remarrying later on and starting a new family. Instead of being angry with her father, Maud continued to adore him.

Maud's grandmother, Lucy Macneill was to play an important role in her life, advocating for her granddaughter, and paying for her education, when Alexander refused to support her.  The Macneills were staunch Scottish Presbyterians, who took few trips and kept to themselves. They did visit relatives at Park Corner, John and Annie Campbell. Maud's cousin Frede Campbell would become Maud's closest friend. The Macneill home was cold in the winter so Maud had to sleep downstairs but in the spring and summer, her favourite seasons, Maud was able to live upstairs. She had her own bedroom, and a den which "became her essential and cherished place to dream and work." Throughout Maud's life, her "moods soared or plummeted according to the seasons." It is likely Maud suffered from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Maud at age 28.
Rosenberg traces Maud's life through her youth, adult life and into old age. Maud was able to attend Prince of Wales College and earn a first class teacher's license. She also attended Dalhousie University in Halifax. Her adult life was filled with many troubles and much literary success. Maud seemed unlucky in love; she was courted by John Mustard whom she had no intention of marrying,  became engaged to her cousin Edwin Simpson whom she felt she could never marry, had a romantic relationship with the already engaged Herman Leard during this time, broke off her engagement and eventually married Ewan Macdonald, a minister who unbeknownst to Maud had serious mental health issues. However, in 1908, her novel Anne of Green Gables, which had been repeatedly rejected by publishers only a few years earlier was published by L.C. Page of Boston, Massachusetts. This marked the beginning of Maud's extensive literary career.

Sadly Maud's life was not always happy. She had a difficult marriage to Ewan Macdonald, who had serious mental health issues. Maud and Ewan moved to Toronto after their marriage where they had two children and a baby that was stillborn.  Her oldest son Chester was a difficult child and grew into a man with serious problems. Despite her many personal challenges, Maud continued to write. Her books were enjoyed around the world and her successful literary career allowed her to earn enough to live comfortably.

Lucy Maud Montgomery will be forever remember for Anne of Green Gables, but House of Dreams shows there was much more to her story than just this one novel.


House of Dreams is Liz Rosenberg's revealing biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery presents many details of her life, gleaned from the extensive primary sources. Rosenberg used Maud's many journals, daybooks and letters to family and friends as her primary source material. Sadly almost all of Maud's early writings, poems and journal entries were destroyed before the age of fifteen by the author herself, something she later regretted. Despite this Rosenberg is able to piece together Maud's early life for her readers.

While some might know that L. M. Montgomery had an unsettled life, many probably did not know just how troubled her personal life was. Her journals paint a picture of a woman suffering from depression and anxiety, who may have had manic episodes and who was prone to debilitating bouts of deep despair.

Her youth and early adult life were certainly difficult as Maud had an intense desire to be a writer, but this dream was definitely not supported by her stiff-necked grandfather, Alexander Macneill. Maud was an excellent student but did not have the finances to fully achieve the education she desired. A good education would have allowed her to support herself and write. Instead her grandfather refused to help in any way refusing both money and transportation and it was her grandmother who gave Maud the necessary money to attend school. Maud showed resiliency and determination, often taking two years course load in one because she did not have the financial means to attend for two years.

Green Gables Heritage- farmhouse
Rosenberg demonstrates that many events and people in Maud's life were the germ for the characters in her novels. "Everything in Maud's early life led to the writing of that book, but she had to overcome a hundred obstacles to achieve it."

Maud grew up in a family of storytellers so it's not surprising she felt compelled to write her own. Her grandfather Alexander and her great-aunt Mary Lawson were especially influential as they had reputations a great storytellers. Anne was also influenced by one of her teachers, Miss Hattie Gordon who encouraged her Cavendish students to write.

Maud took everyday events of her life and worked them into her most famous novel, Anne of Green Gables. The novel grew out of an idea Maud had had a few years earlier about an elderly couple who decide to adopt a boy but end up with a girl instead. Maud "...transformed her own history of abandonment into a story of rescue. Maud put herself into the fictional Anne: her own vivid imagination; a passionate love of nature; her habit of naming inanimate objects; the imaginary cupboard friends; her hungry affection for books; her own vanity, pride, stubbornness; and a deep, abiding attachment to those she loves."

The fictional Avonlea was based on Cavendish, the Lake of Shining Waters was the pond at her cousin's home in Park Corner. Rosenberg writes that "Anne's house, Green Gable, was loosely based on a house belonging to two other cousins, David and Margaret Macneill."  Maud took some of the characteristics of her father John Hugh and her grandmother, Lucy Macneill for Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. However, although Matthew Cuthbert shared John Hugh's shy disposition, he was a devoted father to Anne, unlike Maud's own father. And Marilla's "keen sense of humour and understanding" was very different from Maud's grandmother.

"Anne of Green Gables is a book about creating lasting family. It is a celebration of place, a story about belonging.No one but Maud Montgomery, with all her checkered history and heart-hungry longing, could have created it."

Although modern readers mostly focus on the love story between Anne and Gilbert in Anne of Green Gables, it is as Rosenberg points out and as Canadian author Margaret Laurence has stated,  really the growing love between Marilla and Anne that dominates this first novel. Anne and Gilbert's relationship blossoms into love in a later novel.

House of Dreams will appeal to keen fans of Anne of Green Gables. Reading Liz Rosenberg's biography will give readers a true sense of L. M. Montgomery's life and how her own story shaped those she created. Julie Morstad has produced lovely line drawings done in ink which can be found at the beginning of each chapter.What this books lacks are photographs of Anne and her family, and perhaps  Nevertheless, House of Dreams is well written, definitively researched and engaging. Rosenberg includes an Epilogue in which she explores the circumstances surrounding Maud's death. There is also a Time Line of L.M. Montgomery's life, Source Notes and a Bibliography.

Fans interested in further exploring the life and writings of Lucy Maud Montgomery are encouraged to check out the University of Prince Edward Island's  L.M. Montgomery Institute.

The Canadian Encyclopedia has a detailed entry on Lucy Maud Montgomery.

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Images of Lucy Maud Montgomery are from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
Green Gables Heritage Park - farmhouse image:

Book Details:

House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery by Liz Rosenberg
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press   2018
339 pp.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Game of Hope by Sandra Gulland

Fifteen-year-old Hortense Beauharnais is a survivor of the French Revolution. It is 1798, four years after the Reign of Terror ended with the beheading of its architect, Robespierre. Hortense's father, Alexandre was guillotined days before the end, but her mother survived barely, due to be executed the next day. After the murder of her father, twelve-year-old Hortense was sent to the Institute, an all girls school run by Maitresse Campan and located in a chateau that used to belong to a wealthy family in Montagne-du-Bon-Air. Hortense's mother, Rose, now called Josephine, is re-married to General Napoleon Bonaparte who is with the French army in Egypt as is her older brother Eugene.

Also attending the boarding school are her cousin Emilie and Maitresse Campan's niece Adele Auguie who is nicknamed Mouse. Emilie attends the school because she has no family to care for her; her father fled during the Reign of Terror and her mother was imprisoned but is now married to her former prison guard. Emilie is newly married to Captain Antoine Lavalette, an arranged marriage to an officer in Napoleon's army in Egypt. Almost every girl in the boarding school is from the aristocracy and has terrible memories of the revolution.

Hortense has just recently returned to the school after spending three months caring for her injured mother. The story opens with Hortense suffering from a yet another nightmare of her father approaching and reaching out for her, his body headless. Her school mates believe that Hortense has seen a ghost.

As a "Multi", that is an older girl who wears a multi-coloured sash, Hortense is responsible for helping the younger girls who are divided into levels by colour, get up and get dressed in the morning, get to the dining hall and to learn proper etiquette. Her charge is 4-year-old Nelly.

One of the Multis is Bonaparte's sister, Annunziata who like the rest of the family has changed her name, calling herself Caroline. She has been late at least five times so Citoyenne Florentine who is the night monitor assigns her to the Table of Repentance. Maitresse Campan takes time to speak to Hortense, concerned about her recurring nightmare of her father and telling her she once met her father and saw him dance with the Queen. Maitresse also informs Hortense that she will be taking music lessons from the new music instructior, Citoyen Hyacinthe Jadin, who also teaches as the Conservatory in Paris.

Hortense's mother Josephine returns to Paris and has her daughter accompany her to a "civic celebration of Bonaparte's victorious Battle of the Pyramids and his triumphant entry into Cairo"  Hortense is concerned for her mother who seems deeply upset but who won't let on what is troubling her.  However, when Hortense returns to the school she learns from Eliza that the entire French fleet has been sunk by the British - all thirteen ships and that they now control the Mediterranean.

Out of concern for her brother Eugene, Hortense continues writing him letters which she does not mail. In these letters she also mentions her concern for Major Christophe Duroc whom she is infatuated with.

Hortense Beauharnais
Then terrible rumours circulate that Napoleon has been assassinated by an Arab. However, they soon learn that this is not true, but that Eugene was injured. In the summer of 1799, Hortense returns to her mother's home, Malmaison. Hortense questions Em about her father because Caroline has hinted that he is not really her father. Em reveals to Hortense the difficult situation between her parents and their separation but does tell her that in the end her father acknowledged that she was his daughter. Unfortunately, the two girls quarrel when Hortense tells Em that her affections as a married woman for Louis Bonaparte are wrong. During the summer Em is stricken with small pox and although she recovers, her face is badly scarred.

Hortense, Em and Caroline return to the Institute but soon after Hortense becomes ill and is forced to return to her mother in Paris. Meanwhile Josephine attempts to convince the Directors to send a fleet to rescue Bonaparte but they refuse. Then she learns that Bonaparte and Eugene have managed to travel to the port in the south of France. Determined to meet her husband before his family, Josephine along with Hortense travel to the south of France but they miss Bonaparte. Instead they journey back to Paris to find Bonaparte already there and refusing to see Josephine. Eventually it is Hortense and Eugene who convince him to see her and they reconcile. Josephine's home becomes Napoleon's base with many soldiers coming and going. This results in Hortense seeing Eugene's fellow aide-de-camp, Colonel Christophe Duroc.

Napoleon survives a coup and the Directors running the government are disbanded. A three person Consulate is formed that consists of Napoleon Bonaparte and two previous directors. Napoleon moves Josephine and her family into the Petit Luxembourg. They do not know it yet but this is beginning of Napoleon's rise to rule France. For Hortense it marks the beginning of her life in French society with many opportunities to meet Christophe Duroc. Soon enough she will be pulled into the political intrigue of Napoleonic France.


The Game of Hope was authored by Sandra Gulland who has written extensively on Hortense's mother, Josephine Beauharnais Bonaparte. She was asked to write a YA biography on Josephine's daughter, Hortense but Gulland was curious to know if Hortense's life would be interesting enough to write about and she learned that it was. To that end, Gulland has crafted a fascinating account of Hortense Beauharnais's life and a revealing account of life in France in the years immediately after the Reign of Terror and during the rise of Napoleon. Not only do young readers learn about Hortense but also about her mother Josephine, the rapidly changing political scene in France during the period immediately following the Reign of Terror and Napoleon's rapid rise to power.

Hortense and her family visiting her father in prison.
Gulland had to pick and choose what she was going to include in her story. For example she states in her Afterword that in real life there were many more relatives and friends than could be included in the story. Families in Catholic France were much larger and many well-to-do families had servants. To keep the number of characters manageable, many were left out of the novel.

The Game of Hope portrays a France struggling to come to terms with the horrors of the Reign of Terror. Hortense has recurrent nightmares of her father's execution. While Hortense is aware that her mother escaped being guillotined by only a day, her cousin Em's mother - Hortense's aunt was not so lucky. She jumped to her death the day before Robespierre was executed, so as to save her daughter from being impoverished. Convents are empty because their previous occupants have been executed. When Josephine and Napoleon move into the Tuileries, Josephine is

Gulland has crafted a believable portrayal of Hortense Beauharnais, a young woman who was a gifted composer and who was tutored by Hyacinthe Jardin a promising young composer who died prematurely of tuberculosis. Hortense struggles to come to terms with the past that includes her father's tumultuous relationship with her mother and his horrific death at the guillotine. But she also must reconcile her view of her mother who seems to be romantically involved with Citoyen Hippolyte Charles while her mother's second husband and Hortense's stepfather, Napoleon Bonaparte is in Egypt. Hortense dislikes the entire Bonaparte family.  Gulland portrays a young Hortense coming of age, discovering her attraction to the older Colonel Christophe Duroc and their blossoming friendship as they attend balls and other social functions.

The novel takes its name from a card game that was originally invented as a parlour game to be played with dice. It was forgotten but resurfaced in 1799 when Mlle. Lenormand began using the cards for fortune telling, an activity still forbidden by the Catholic church. Gulland's novel is divided in to eight parts featuring a card from the Game of Hope.  Gulland has Hortense use the cards on several occasions, in an attempt to predict what her future holds at a time in France when life was very unpredictable. Of course, no card game can predict one's future life as Hortense soon learns.

Gulland in her extensive Afterword, reveals how Hortense's life really played out. She was never able to marry her love, Christophe as both her mother and Maitresse Campan counselled against it and wanted her to marry Louis Bonaparte. Hortense did relent and marry Louis but their marriage was not a happy one, nor was Christophe Duroc's marriage to a wealthy and beautiful woman. Marriages at this time were often made to cement political alliances and the feelings of those involved were not really considered. This was demonstrated in the novel by her cousin Em's arranged marriage to an older man, Antoine Lavalette whom she despises. Eventually his care towards her after her beauty is marred by small pox, kindles her love for him.

Although Game of Hope is well written, it will likely appeal mostly to die-hard historical fiction fans and those with a specific interest in the post-French Revolution era and Napoleon.The story is mostly character driven, with Gulland's fine attention to historical detail. The author has included a Cast of Characters, a Glossary, a map of Paris as well as a list of the cards from the Game of Hope.

Hyacinthe Jardin's compositions are still performed today. Below is his F Minor Op. 1 No. 3 written for violin, viola and violoncello.

Book Details:

The Game of Hope by Sandra Gulland
New York: Viking, an Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC     2018
370 pp.

Hortense image: By Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson -, Public Domain,

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Small Things by Mel Tregonning

Small Things is a picture book without words about the timely topic of anxiety in children.

The book begins with a young boy in school gym class. He wants to fit in with his classmates, to be chosen to play but gets excluded. After class he grabs a basketball to bounce it, trips and falls, the other children laughing at him.

Lunch hour isn't much better as he tries to join a group of children sitting in a circle but no one welcomes him.He is waved over to a picnic table. Tiny creatures, his first feelings of anxiety begin to appear.

After lunch, the boy finds himself taking a math test. Word problems are horrible at the best of times and this test has word problems. The math test means even more anxiety. As the clock ticks on, his test is marked and a grade of C is the result. Upset, the boy goes to see the teacher who encourages him. But the boy knows his marks have been slipping over the past weeks. At first he had marks of A+ and A but now his grades have fallen to a C.

Walking home, the boy's anxiety is intense, manifested by the tiny demon-like creatures following him, taking chunks out of his arms and legs. Looking at his bedroom wall the boy sees many certificates of merit and student awards. This does not comfort him but only increases his anxiety.

That night while trying to do math problems, he struggles and is overwhelmed by his anxiety. He takes this out on his older sister who is practicing her violin. She tries to comfort him, to reassure him. But in bed that night he is overwhelmed by anxiety. The tiny demons representing his anxiety swirl around him and the bed.

The next day another math work sheet receives an even lower mark. The anxiety the boy feels eats away at his very self. Overwhelmed the boy strikes out at his only friend, a girl who has invited him to eat lunch with her when others have turned away. She received a mark of a B on the test. At home, the boy's anxiety is so great that he feels as if huge chunks of his very self are being eaten away. He cannot sleep.

His big sister comes in to see him and at this point the boy shares his anxiety and his pain, showing her the huge chunk missing from his arm. His sister rolls up her sleeve, revealing the wound on her arm - she too suffers from anxiety. Her anxiety is related to her music and in fact her hand that holds the violin contains many cracks.

His sister convinces him to tell their parents about the math test and his marks.Their parents offer him comfort and sit down at the kitchen table to help him work out the problems. That night the boy goes to sleep with the anxiety demons still present but not near him or his bed.

When the boy returns to school the next day, he sees that many of his classmates, including his new friend also carry anxieties with them.


Small Things is a graphic picture book created by Mel Tregonning  a young Australian illustrator. It began as a comic strip about a boy struggling with his inner demons of anxiety but was never completed. Sadly Mel took her life in 2014. Her family realized that the comic strip reflected her own struggles with anxiety and depression.

Mel was born in Perth, Western Australia in 1983. When she was sixteen-years-old, Mel had a short comic, titled Night published in 2009 by Gestalt Comics. In this comic, which can be downloaded for free from Gestalt,a young girl struggles to cope with the demons of anxiety. Mel knew about anxiety and depression having struggled with both throughout her life. Unfortunately, her moment of crisis came in 2014, after having been recently released from hospital.

Although Mel died before she completed her book, her family decided to finish her work and have it published as a way to spread awareness about mental health issues. To complete the last three pages of the book, award-winning illustrator Shaun Tan was contacted. Tan had already been contacted by Mel so her family felt that he was the one to complete those last few pages. Her original illustrations had been done in soft graphite on medium weight paper. Tan carefully considered those drawings so that he could emulate them sufficiently.

The tiny demons that surround the young boy are his anxieties and worries. They are black, complex and fearful looking as only anxieties and worries can be. They are so consuming they eat away at him, causing him tremendous physical and emotional pain. Each worry takes away a bit of the self, diminishing the person. But Tregonning's message seems to be that children with anxiety should be encouraged to talk to an adult, a parent and/or a friend. One illustration near the end of the book, showing the boy sleeping, tucked safely in his bed while his anxiety demons hover in the distance, implies that reaching out will help, will keep those demons at bay. Reaching out also means we discover we are not alone.

Anyone suffering from anxiety, whether they be a child, teen or adult will find Small Things very relevant. Young children will learn from Small Things that they are not alone, that we all have our struggles and that there are people who care. My hope is that Mel Tregonning is at peace. Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord.

Book Details:

Small Things by Mel Tregonning
Toronto: Pajama Press Inc.   2018