Friday, November 30, 2018

Grenade by Alan Gratz

Thirteen-year-old Hideki Kaneshiro lives on the island of Okinawa with his mother, his father Oto, his older sister Kimiko and his younger brother Isamu. The war between Japan and America has now arrived on their doorstep with an American invasion imminent. To prepare, Oto and Kimiko were drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA): Oto to fight and Kimiko as a nurse in a hospital. Hideki, along with his mother and brother were ordered to evacuate to Japan. Hideki was with them as they were leaving Okinawa on a ship headed to Japan, but was grabbed by an IJA soldier who felt he was old enough to fight. Kimiko tried to protect him by stating that he was a coward.

Three hundred and fifty years ago their family's ancestor, Shigetomo "surrendered without a fight when Japanese samurai had invaded Okinawa". Although the family was spared, Shigetomo was beheaded. Now his shame has been passed on down through the generations making every third generation male a coward. Hideki's family believes they are haunted by the ghost of their ancestor. The Japanese soldier however doesn't believe this and Hideki soon finds himself in training and a member of the Blood and Iron Student Corps.

Then on April 1, 1945, Hideki along with a hundred other boys is lined up outside his school as American artillery bombards the island. Hideki and his fellow students are graduating at 2 am in the morning, as the American invasion of Okinawa begins. Lieutenant Colonel Sana warns them about the Americans, who "...will hunt your grandparents down and burn them alive...torture your mothers. Butcher your brothers and sisters...Try to trick you too. Offer you food and kindness..." They are told they must be prepared to die a glorious death for the Emperor and each boy is given two grenades. Hideki ends up with two ceramic grenades, when Yoshio, the boy who has been bullying him, takes his metal ones. They are then sent into the countryside to attack the American troops when they land.

The boys first hide in a cave and then when they smell the American's cooking a pig, they decide to attack the camp. However this proves disastrous: one boy blows himself up with his grenade, another has his grenade explode in his face,  while most of the boys are shot or blown apart. Terrified, Hideki runs through the forest until he comes to his haka, family tomb. There he finds his father, Oto, dying from a stomach wound. Oto tells Hideki that his mother and brother are dead and that he must find his sister Kimiko. He reveals that the Japanese hid the sinking of the ship by an American submarine and that the Yamato - the largest Japanese battleship was sunk weeks earlier by the Americans.

Hideki and his father are joined in the tomb by a Japanese soldier named Private Shinohara who crazed with fear,  forces them from the safety of the tomb. Before he dies, Oto tells Hideki that he now understands that their ancestor, Shigetomo was in fact very brave. After the death of his father, Hideki sets out to find his sister Kimiko who he believes has been sent to the army hospital in Ichinichibashi. It is a journey that will cost Hideki much as he discovers there is no glory in killing. At the same time he grows to understand the reality of war and the true meaning of courage.

Meanwhile on what is code named "Love Day", Private Ray Majors along with 183,000 American soldiers and Marines of the Tenth Army lands on the beaches of Okinawa. Ray had gone against the wishes of his father, a World War I veteran, and enlisted in the Marines a few months earlier. Ray had hoped to go to Europe but found himself assigned instead to E Company, nicknamed "Easy Company" and sent to Japan. Their squad leader is Sergeant Walter Meredith and Ray's fox hole buddy is Corporal John Barboza, known as Big John, an "enormous guy from the Bronx, New York." He carries one of the squad's BAR, a Browning Automatic Rifle. They land on the beach and encounter no resistance from the Japanese.

Sergeant Meredith tells them they have to march east for half a kilometer to secure the area around the landing beach. At first everything seems eerily peaceful, with "Thatch-roofed farmhouses ...nestled among forests of pine and bamboo." But things change quickly when they stop at a farm to consider butchering a piglet and come under sniper fire, killing one of their soldiers. Ray's squad flush the sniper out, a boy who looks like he is twelve-years-old. To Ray's horror, Big John shoots the young boy as they cannot take prisoners.

After butchering and eating the pig, Ray's squad check out a cave that might hold Japanese soldiers. After Big John tosses a grenade into the cave, many Okinawan civilians flee, but terrified of the Americans, they choose to walk off the cliff to their deaths.

That night their camp is attacked by a lone Japanese soldier who Ray shoots dead. Sickened by having killed a man, Ray is deeply distraught. As they move from cave to cave, Ray is determined for his squad to stop tossing grenades into the caves since they may hold innocent civilians. Sergeant Meredith decides that they will start with smoke grenades. After Sergeant Meredith is badly injured, Big John becomes the new sergeant. They are then ordered to the front to replace the Army's 96th Division just as the war in Europe ends. But at the Battle of Kakazu Ridge, Ray makes a decision that forever changes things for both himself and Hideki.

Discussion

Grenade tells the story of a young boy who discovers the reality of war and the meaning of courage during the American invasion of the island of Okinawa, The story is told from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old Okinawan boy, Hideki Kaneshiro as well as that of an American soldier, Ray Majors. Gratz gradually weaves together the two storylines, having Ray and Hideki unwittingly encountering one another several times, until the two intersect in a brief but deadly encounter. But it is Hideki's journey that is the focus of the story.

Hideki's journey begins when he is sent into the forests of Okinawa with the instructions  to kill as many Americans as he can and then to kill himself. Hideki and his family believe that he has been born afraid and that he is unable to show courage until the spirit or mabui of his ancestor, Shigetomo who had shamed the family with his cowardly act of surrender hundreds of years earlier, found peace. For Hideki the way to cleanse this shame is to bravely kill  the American devils who have invaded Okinawa. When Hideki finds the flyers asking the Okinawans to surrender, he resolves not to surrender and not "to let the Americans or Shigetomo's mabui tell him what to do." However his first encounter with the Americans sees him fleeing in terror. He resolves not to listen to Shigetomo's mabui which he believes he carries inside of him.

However, when Hideki kills Ray, his perspective changes. "But now that Hideki had done it, now that he had actually taken another human being's life, he felt a great yawning emptiness inside. A shaking sadness came over him, and he wept. He didn't care about being brave anymore. Or defending the Emperor. Or fighting the Americans. He just wanted to undo what he'd done. To take it back." Killing Ray Majors is so devastating to Hideki that he wonders "How would he ever be the boy he was before? How could he go on?" Looking at the soldier, Hideki realizes he isn't much older than he is and that he looks more like a boy than a man. When he looks at the picture of the boy and his father recovered from the soldier's pack Hideki notes, "They didn't look evil. But what did evil really look like, after all? Evil was what you did, not how you appeared on the outside."

Hideki's view of the Americans whom he has been told are monsters and the Japanese soldiers all of whom he meets, are violent and cruel, begins to change. In the American medical tent, Hideki is treated kindly, given medication and had his wounds tended to; he sees their kind side. Hideki begins to understand that the Americans are like the Japanese, both are monsters when fighting doing terrible things when they are afraid. But when they are not fighting, they are kind, they are like Hideki. When he and Kimiko are finally safe behind American lines, Kimiko questions him as to why he is carrying photographs of American and Japanese soldiers who have destroyed their island. Hideki points out to his sister, that in the photographs there are no soldiers, only ordinary people "Look. There aren't any soldiers here. There are brothers and fathers and sons, surrounded by the people they love and the people who love them back. I'm honoring the men they were before they came to Okinawa. Before they became monsters."

Kimiko recognizes that the war has changed Hideki, that he is more confident and brave. Although Hideki denies it, his actions prove otherwise: he helped the Miyagi family surrender to the Americans, and at great risk he helped Kimiko rescue a group of Okinawa children whom the Japanese were going to use as human shields in an attack. When Hideki tells her he was scared, Kimiko explains, "....being brave doesn't mean not scared? It means overcoming your fear to do what you have to do. A real coward would have run away and never looked back. Fear isn't a weakness. Anybody who's never been afraid is a fool."

His experiences help Hideki reconsider his view of his ancestor Shigetomo and his label as a coward. "His ancestor Shigetomo, wasn't a soldier. He was a farmer. So why had Hideki and his other descendants expected him to fight back against trained samurai warriors? There was never any chance he could have fought the Japanese and won. It would have been suicide." Hideki's comprehension of what his ancestor experienced frees him from the shame. But he still must work though killing the American soldier - a heavy burden for any thirteen-year-old boy.

The events in the novel take place at the beginning of the invasion code- named Operation Iceberg, which commenced on April 1, 1945.While the war in the European theatre was winding down, the Pacific War would still have several more months of fighting. The Americans, drawn into war with Japan when they bombed Pearl Harbor on December have worked their way across the Pacific, capturing islands. By 1945, they were ready to invade Japan and needed the airfields of Okinawa to accomplish that goal. Expecting fierce resistance at the beach head from the Japanese on Okinawa, instead American troops encountered abandoned beaches. The Japanese plan was to draw them well into the island, and then fight to the death, knowing that if Okinawa fell, Japan would lose the war. The Americans faced heavy fighting along the Shuri Line, near the Shuri Palace, at Kakazu Ridge and along a series of ridges. Eventually the Japanese retreated to the southern end of Okinawa where they made a last stand. In the end, the Americans defeated the Japanese on Okinawa but at a great cost to both sides: the Americans suffered 49,000 casualties, the Japanese lost 110,000 men. It is estimated as many as 150,000 Okinawans lost their lives.

Gratz doesn't shy away from portraying the brutality of war, the fear ordinary men turned soldiers experienced, the terror of battle and in particular the cruelty of the Japanese army. Throughout the novel, the Japanese soldiers are portrayed as willing to do almost anything to kill Americans, mostly because they did not view Okinawa as their own land. The civilian population on Okinawa was forced to fight, women and children had explosives strapped to their bodies, and were used as shields by the Japanese soldiers. This ruthlessness left the American soldiers with almost no choice but to kill civilians along with soldiers or risk being killed themselves.In turn they threw grenades into caves and used fire as a weapon. Through the eyes of Hideki the reader sees the devastation the war has wrought on his beautiful homeland and his people who have no quarrel with either the Americans nor the Japanese.

Grenade is set during a battle that likely many young readers have never heard of, nor studied in history classes. But the Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest of the Pacific War and the Japanese resistance combined with heavy losses on both sides likely contributed to the American decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan later in the summer of 1945.

Gratz provides readers with a map and a detailed Author's Note at the back both of which help readers understand the events in the novel better. Grenade is a thought-provoking story that begs to be read.

Book Details:

Grenade by Alan Gratz
New York: Scholastic Press    2018
270 pp.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Driving By Starlight by Anat Deracine

Driving By Starlight is Anat Deracine's debut novel about two Muslim teenage girls who live in Saudi Arabia and their struggle to balance their dreams and hopes with the restrictive society they live in while maintaining their friendships.

Leena Hadi lives with her mother Norah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Her father  is in jail for having protested against the government. Leena longs to make her own choices, to go to school and have a career. She has a reputation for breaking the rules and therefore has the nickname, "Leena Adhaleena which meant Leena who goes astray." Her best friend is Mishail, Quraysh whose father is minister of the interior in the Saudi government. Before her father was arrested, Leena and Mishail's fathers were good friends.

The two girls who are seniors at Nizamiyyah Secondary  are planning an act of defiance of Saudi Arabia's strict dress code for women when their class travels to a park. They don't want a class picture of three rows of girls in black abayas, with only their eyes showing. Instead they plan to take a picture of themselves wearing beautiful colourful dresses in the park. Since all women's cellphone cameras are smashed at the time of purchase, Mishail brings a pocket camera belonging to her brother.The seniors include Aisha, Bilquis, Mishail, Sofia and Leena. They wait for their supervising teacher to fall asleep and then race to the bathrooms to change into Western-style clothes. However, Bilquis decides to tell the headmistress what they are doing.

When they return to the school, Maryam Madam speaks to Aisha, Mishail, Sofia and Leena attempting to find out who is responsible. Getting nothing out of them, she talks to Leena alone who confesses to what happened. Before Leena's father's arrest, Maryam Madam had promised to take care of her.Now she allows her to make prints of the photos before destroying the digital files. Leena tells her that she is considering Princess Nora  University for law, but Maryam Madam tells her that this may be difficult due to her father's situation.

Because her father is absent, Leena must dress as a man to accompany her mother shopping - a practice known as boyat. They walk to the home of her father's law partner, Hossein so her mother can get some papers signed. While there they learn from the television that riots have closed the only co-ed university in the country. After a period of protests by Islamic fanatics, the government makes some concessions including the exclusion of women from KASP scholarships. Schools reopen and when Leena returns to her school she finds that there are new students from Najd National, a school that has been destroyed. Now in addition to new students, Leena's school will also have the headmistress from Najd, Naseema Madam.

Leena's relationship with Mishail begins to unravel with the presence of a new girl, Daria Abulkhair. Daria is half American and lives in one of the American ARAMCO campuses. She knows how to drive a car and unlike her classmates has experience: she's French-kissed a boy. Daria also knows how to meet boys at Faisaliyah, a mall in Riyadh, something Mishail is determined to experience. Leena is horrified as this is a serious crime under Saudi law. Mishail reveals that her father wants to marry her off by the end of the year, even though she's only fifteen. She wants to find her own boy, to have another option. Leena reluctantly agrees to go to Faisaliyah.

Leena is further upset by the presence of Daria when the new girl is chosen over Leena for the debate team. Daria was chosen over Leena because of the situation with Leena's father.This will have a huge impact on Leena's future because it now means she will have no chance of qualifying for a scholarship. To apply to another university requires the signed permission of her father, something Leena will not be able to obtain.

As Daria and Mishail's friendship grows, Leena finds herself on the outside, growing jealous. At a party at Daria's home, Leena meets Ahmed who is Daria's cousin. Only a few years older than Leena her reveals that he attended her father's shillahs. Mishail becomes jealous after seeing Leena speaking with Ahmed, telling her friend that she has been seeing Ahmed and believes he loves her. The two girls argue and Leena afraid for her friend and at the urging of Daria, informs the headmistresses about what Mishail has been doing. This fractures the two girls friendship and Leena realizes that they have been played against one another by Daria. Mishail is replaced on the debate team by Aisha and suspended for two weeks.

Meanwhile Leena begins seeing Ahmed and his rebel friends almost every night in the desert, dressed as a boy, learning to drive. She comes to realize that she is doing the very thing she reported Mishail for. Despite this she doesn't care. At this time, knowing that she must look out for herself, she begins reading law cases with her father's partner, working for him whenever she can. At school, Daria's cruelty towards Aisha who doesn't understand the law she must debate very well, leads Leena to realize that they must stop fighting against one another and start helping each other.

Leena decides to form her own shillah with Aisha to stop the fighting. They write a contract for the secret society that will included the outcasts and "required that girls who joined had to share a secret that they had told no one else and had to give evidence of it..." They also had to help others in the shillah, promising to never knowingly harm them. As a start, Leena begins helping Aisha for the debate.Soon many of their classmates are interested in joining.

When Leena gets into trouble with the muttaween for walking alone at night, the truth about her father's political activism is revealed. With the help of her mother and Maryam Madam, and Leena's own knowledge of the law, a way is found to not only help her gain her independence and a say in her life but also to save her best friend's life and help the other young women in her shillah who also face the same challenges.

Discussion

Driving By Starlight is a novel set in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia  that explores the themes of friendship, family and freedom. The story is centered around the friendship between two girls, Leena and Mishail and their lives in a country with strict Islamic laws. Almost immediately readers get a sense of what life is like for girls and women in Saudi Arabia, a Muslim country whose laws and culture are centered on Sharia law. Every aspect of their lives is affected. Deracine peppers Leena's narrative with many descriptions of how restrictive her life is, demonstrating just how broken the country is.

Leena, is a brilliant student who wants to study law. However, her father's arrest has made this all but impossible because as a girl she requires the written permission of her father. The fact that she cannot make her own decisions without the permission of a man infuriates Leena. Throughout her narrative she notes the many restrictions and rules of Saudi life, as a result of Sharia law. For example, most people live attempting to not attract the attention of "the muttaween, the religious police from Al-Hai'a, the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice." who lurk everywhere, even on the roads. "Surveillance cameras were on every street corner, and muttaween in their vans pulled up alongside us to inspect the car's inhabitants..."

Women especially experience many restrictions that men do not. Leena notes that in order for her and her friends to take pictures they need to borrow a camera because their cell phones have no working cameras. This is because "all women's cell phone cameras were smashed at the time of purchase." Posting anything online is a dangerous affair due to Al-Hai'a who spy "on all phone and internet communications in the country. Not only did all our phones have apps that regularly pinged our guardians with our location, our fathers could always request the records to determine if there had been any inappropriate communications."

Contact between unrelated girls and boys is forbidden and the sexes are strictly segregated. "By law, the boys' school had to be at least five kilometers from ours to prevent the ever troublesome potential indecency." This segregation also exists in many homes. When Leena visits her friend and stays for dinner, the women eat separate from the men;  Mishail, her mother and Leena in the kitchen while Mishail's brothers and her father in the livingroom, "passing dishes through the barely open doorway." But Leena notes it wasn't always this way in the Quraysh family, only when Mishail's father become a minister.

Laws governing marriage strongly favour men, although Muslims are likely to view them as protecting women. Leena notes that while women must remain faithful men do not experience the same expectations. "When the law stated that a man could marry four women and have a few concubines besides through misyar marriages, a boy was not just well within his rights to love two girls, he was practically a saint for choosing only two."

Just how different a girl's life is from a boy is highlighted many times throughout the novel. Faraz, the son of Leena's father's law partner wonders why Leena, who is very smart, doesn't apply for university outside the country. But for a girl it's not so simple.  "So easy for men to just set out on their adventures, leave everyone else behind. Even if I could leave, even if every cell in my body ached for scholarships that I wouldn't get, what was I supposed to do, abandon Mishail and my mother? Give up on my father?" Leena cannot move about in public without a male guardian unless she practices boyat, dressing in a white thobe, pretending to be a boy. She is driven to her school every day by a man in a car. She cannot drive, not even to the hospital (although that was changed this summer). She needs the signature of her male guardian to apply for university. And as Leena bitterly notes, Quaraouine, a university founded by a woman, is now closed to her, allowing only men to study there.

Leena and her best friend Mishail find their friendship almost destroyed when they fall for the same boy and as they clash over rebelling against the strict rules of their culture. Leena attempts to warn her best friend but Mishail tells her, "I know it's dangerous...Everything we want is forbidden or dangerous. I just don't care." Soon Leena finds herself committing the same crimes but like Mishail, she doesn't care because she has no father to protect her and no future to save. She continues to meet Ahmed and his friends, partly because she loves driving in the dark as it gives her a sense of freedom that she longs for, "...nobody watching to tell us about the laws we were breaking." 

Deracine's heroine, is a strong, intelligent young woman who is not content to live her life dictated by men. Leena begins to take control of her life by studying with her father's law partner in the hopes that she can one day attend university. After seeing Daria being especially cruel to Aisha, Leena decides women must work together to help one another. "We were all fighting one another for a window out of hell. Me against my sisters. It had to stop." She cites the example of Manal Al-Sharif who organized a Facebook protest, asking women to drive in protest of the law forbidding women this right. Although half a million people watched the video, only a few dozen came out to support her. "Even other women called her a pot-stirrer, a troublemaker, someone who was setting back the reformers' negotiations with her impatience."  To that end, Leena forms a shillah or secret society.

The author foreshadows the future choice of temporary marriage that Leena, Aisha, Sofia and Mishail make in order to obtain some control over their lives. As Daria explains early on in the novel, "It's a way for single women to find a convenient guardian, or to, you know, do things, without waiting. Understand?" Although Leena is somewhat disgusted she realizes the temptation in signing a piece of paper in order to live in peace, to live one's life the way one chooses. Mishail believes people must do whatever they need to in order to survive, quoting her best friend, "Water will find a way."  And that is exactly what Leena, Misahil and Sofia discover as they are helped by Maryam Madam, Dr. Haider (Aisha's father), Mishail's father and Leena's mother to obtain a legal guardian, marry and leave the country. All of this demonstrates just how little freedom exists for women in Saudi Arabia outside of the conventional Muslim society and how much work remains to be done in the area of women's rights and the full participation of women in public life. But it also shows how people do work together to help women circumnavigate the strict rules of life in Saudi Arabia.

Anat Deracine is a pen name chosen by the author because it means "to uproot from one's native land"  reflecting  her experience as an immigrant, from Saudia Arabia to Canada and then to the United States. Deracine used her experiences growing up in Saudi Arabia to craft many of the scenes in her novel.

Driving By Starlight offers teen readers a window into a culture that is very different from their own in the West but its themes of the meaning of friendship and family are common to all cultures and to the challenging teen years. Although Deracine does include a Glossary at the back, there are many terms and concepts unique to a Muslim society that readers will not be familiar with and which perhaps should have been included in the Glossary and elaborated on in an Author's Note at the back. But overall, Deracine  portrays life in Saudi Arabia in a way that is real to her readers. Her characters are realistic, having both virtue and weaknesses. The beautiful cover will help to draw readers to read this well-written novel by this promising young author.

Book Details:

Driving By Starlight by Anat Deracine
New York: Henry Holt and Company      2018
277 pp.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Too Young to Escape by Van Ho and Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

On May 19, 1981, four-year-old Van Ho awakens to find her mother, sisters gone, not unusual because they often left for work early. However, Van's six-year-old brother Tuan is also not at home and that is unusual. Only Van and her grandmother, Ba Ngoai still remain sleeping on the third floor of Van's aunt's house in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Most of Van's relatives lost their businesses and homes in the communist takeover. Di and Bac took Van's family in after the Vietnam war ended and the communists took over. Van's father and her oldest sister Linh left a year earlier. Her father who was a translator for the Americans in Vietnam, was considered an enemy of the state and in great danger. So he fled taking Linh with him.

Di and Bac made their living by bartering on the street, making and selling rice sacks from their home. It was Van's responsibility to spin enough yarn every morning so that the weaver could make the fabric for the sacks. After finishing the spinning, Van's other chores before school included wiping down the dust from the spinning that coated the furniture.

At school Van notices that her sisters and brother are not in their respective lines for their classes. All through the day she wonders where her family has gone. When Van returns home that afternoon, Ba Ngoai reveals that her mother, sisters and brother have gone to be with Ba and Linh in Canada. Van is so shocked she refuses to believe Ba Ngoai at first and then wonders why she's been left behind.
"Why would Ma disappear without even saying good-bye? And why did she leave me? Maybe I had been a bad girl, and this was my punishment. But what had I done? I hadn't meant to be bad."

Van's aunt and grandmother attempt to assure her she is loved and a good daughter. They explain to her that the journey to escape Vietnam meant taking a boat and was extremely dangerous, especially for a child as young as Van. So she was left behind, with the hope that she and Ba Ngoai will someday also leave for Canada.

When the new school year begins in September, Van becomes friends with a new girl at her school named Trang. From her clothing it is obvious that Trang is very poor. But Van too is poor and unable to afford new clothing that she desperately needs. She is also bullied by Chie'n, who is the son of the local policeman. It is not long before Van and Ba Ngoai begin receiving boxes from Canada. Van's parents send them chocolates, new clothing and money. However, they must be careful not to draw the attention of the military police.

Although she dearly misses her family, Van learns to appreciate what she has; the love of her grandmother and aunt and uncle and her best friend Trang. And then one day, the time she has been waiting for arrives: Van and Ba Ngoai receive air line tickets to Toronto and special papers to enter Canada. For Van it is a time of both happiness at soon seeing her family she can hardly remember and sadness at leaving her best friend Trang and all that she has ever known.

Discussion

Many parents and grandparents of children reading this book will remember the large number of refugees from the communist regime of Vietnam in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Too Young To Escape is based on the true story of a Vietnamese family who came to Canada  during the 1980's. This children's novel grew out of an earlier book authored by Skrypuch, Adrift At Sea which told about Van's brother Tuan and his escape from Vietnam. As Skrypuch mentions in her Author's Note at the back, she would often get questions at school presentation of Adrift At Sea about what happened to Van. Did she ever make it to Canada? So Skrypuch approached Van Ho and asked her to consider telling her story. Together they worked on telling Van's story, as she attempted to recall as much as possible of this period of her life. Skrypuch mentions that many of Van's extended family lived with her aunt and uncle during this trying time. To avoid cluttering Van's story with too many secondary characters, these people were left out of the narrative, making it simpler for young readers. But the essence of the story remained, with a few details filled in.

Readers will be impressed by Van Ho's respectful kindness towards her Ba Ngoai and her obedience to her aunt and uncle who, at great risk, have taken in many family members. Van's fortitude in dealing with being left behind, and making the best of her situation are evident in her story.  But the authors also show that it was difficult for Van to come to terms with being left behind. This was especially evident when photographs began arrived from Canada of her family, happy and well settled.
"A photograph fell out of the envelope...It was a picture of my whole family -- except for me. Ma had a huge grin on her face, and she stood beside a man who had to be Ba. Lined up in front of them were Tuan, Lan, and Loan. An older girl was with them too. She had to be my oldest sister Linh. They were all smiling.
The photograph made me happy and angry all at once. I was relieved that my whole family was safe. But why did they look so pleased? Didn't they miss me? Did they even thing about me at all?.."
Van's narrative shows how difficult it became for her to eventually leave her homeland, but that this was overshadowed by her happiness at being reunited with her family.

Refugees boarding a small boat to escape Vietnam.
Within weeks of the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, Canada began accepting refugees. During the years of 1975 and 1976, Canada accepted 6,500 refugees. Meanwhile in Vietnam, the communists punished the South Vietnamese who had fought with the Americans against them. As Van's grandmother relates in Too Young To Escape, the communists stripped the South Vietnamese of their homes, businesses and property. They lost their jobs and were unable to attend university. Many former military and government officials were sent to "re-education camps" which were really prisons. As a result of this and the strained relationships between Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and China, many Vietnamese decided to flee the country. But there were refugees from other countries in southeast Asia as well.

According to the online Canadian Encyclopedia entry,"Over 1 million people departed Vietnam aboard unseaworthy makeshift vessels, hoping to reach international waters and be rescued there. But first they had to face huge risks — drowning, hunger, dehydration, attacks by pirates, sexual assaults and even murder. Some of the refugees who survived all these perils were then stuck for months in crowded refugee camps in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, while others remained confined to their vessels because no country would allow them to land." This led to the refugees being called "boat people", a term generally not used today.

At this time Canadian immigration had no category for refugees. However the new Immigration Act passed in 1976 established a new category of immigrants for refugees, allowing people to enter the country based on criteria that identified them as refugees and also allowed private Canadian citizens to sponsor refugees. By April 1980 Canada accepted 60,000 Indochina refugees and throughout the 1980's Canada would accept over 200,000 refugees from Southeast Asia.The vast majority of these refugees went on to become hard-working Canadians contributing to many sectors of Canadian society.

Those wishing to understand the backstory behind the events described in Too Young To Escape are encouraged to read the Canadian Encyclopedia entry "Canadian Response to the 'Boat People" Refugee Crisis"

The Canadian Museum of History also has some excellent resources on Vietnam, the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese Refugees.

Too Young To Escape is another excellent, well-written book by Canadian Ukrainian author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch that brings to light recent history in a meaningful way for young Canadians. Readers will enjoy the short interviews with Van's mother and father and the colour family photo album at the back. A must-have book for schools, homeschoolers and anyone interested in portraying Canadian history in an engaging personal manner.

Book Details:
Too Young To Escape: A Vietnamese Girl Waits to be Reunited with Her Family by Van Ho and Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Toronto: Pajama Press   2018
142 pp.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Smoke in the Sun by Renee Ahdieh

The novel opens with Asano Yumi, sister of Tsuneoki attacking the Emperor's funeral procession in Inako. She sees her action as the beginning of restoring justice to the Empire of Wa. Barely escaping, Yumi removes her black half mask and hides on the underside of a thatched roof attached to a forge. The soldier searching for her, doesn't discover her hiding place but returns later to find her mask in the mud. The reaction of the woman in the forge tells him that she saw the person with the mask, so to protect himself, he murders the woman in front of her son. However, as the soldier walks away from the forge, he is watched by a fox with yellow eyes. He suddenly begins to feel excruciating pain and collapses.

Hattori Mariko finds herself in Henian Castle, having been escorted there by her brother, Kenshin the Dragon of Kai. Deep within the castle lies Okami, her love, captured by Prince Raiden and imprisoned. Mariko is determined to discover the truth about who conspired to kill her in Jukai forest, why the Black Clan was made the scapegoat, and what was really the motivation behind all of this.

Her elderly servant, Shizuko tells Mariko to eat more so she will be pleasing to her betrothed, Prince Raiden. Mariko realizes she must be like water - fluid and changeable in order for her plans to succeed. She must fake being a demure bride, tall, proud and hapless.

After she is dressed in an exquisitely embroidered kimono, Mariko, along with Shizuko and a retinue of women is taken to the Lotus Pavilion. There she meets the Imperial Majesty Yamoto Genmei, Empress of Wa who is the mother of Roku who is now the emperor. Roku and Raiden are half brothers, sons of the deceased Emperor Minamoto Masaru. Both the Empress and Mariko verbally spar with one another, each sizing the other up.Mariko realizes the Empress Genmei is a cruel woman.

Meanwhile in the dungeon of Henian Castle, Minamoto Roku the new sovereign of Wa wants to discover who is responsible for the sudden suspicious death of the Emperor. He view Takeda Ranmaru (Okami) as a serious enemy. In his cell,  a badly beaten Okami is threatened and branded with acid by Roku.

Asano Tsuneoki with his Black Clan attempt to attack the fortress of Akechi Takamori, the daimyo who turned against his father and burned the Asano stronghold to the ground. However their attack goes awry when Tsuneoki discovers the fortress and its people are possessed by some fearful dark magic. Tsuneoki is attacked by a fox whom he battles both physically and mentally, after changing into the nightbeast. Both he and the fox are wounded.   After escaping the area, Tsuneoki reflects back on his own deal with dark magic, one that he Okami made as ten-year-old boys. "With the aid of blood oaths and a black-stoned dagger, Tsuneoki and Okami gave their futures to demons of the forest - his to a nightbeast, and Okami's to a shapeless demon of wind and fire." The boys swore to follow the light of the moon and to never have children of their own.

The attack in the Jukai forest has resulted in many many new warriors joining the Black Clan, people rebelling against the Emperor. They have now moved into bamboo forest known as Ghost's Gambit. Tsuneoki learns that the domains of several clans loyal to the Minamoto family have fallen under the influence of dark magic like the Akechi clan. The soldiers of the clan have lost their minds and vanished and the people seemed to be wandering. Ren believes Prince Raiden's mother, Kanako whom he refers to as a witch is responsible, that she wants her son to sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne. But Tsuneoki is not so sure. He decides that they must let people know they are mounting a rebellion against the Minamoto clan. Tsuneoki also remembers Okami's mother's land, long abandoned since her death. He intends to save the son of Takeda Shingen and restore Okami to his rightful position as shogun.

Mariko is then taken by her brother Kenshin to the dungeon of Henian Castle. Enroute, Kenshin warns her not to react to anything she witnesses and that the Minamoto family is always tesing those around them. He tells her not to react in any way that shows she cares for the son of Takeda Shingen (Okami). Deep within the prison, Mariko meets Roku, Raiden and Okami who is in a cell and has been severely beaten. Mariko knows this is a trap for her so she must once again be as "water". She does not call for Okami's death, stating that she would not want to be responsible for another's death.

Determined to free Okami, Mariko steals back to his prison that night but her attempt to fashion a working key to his cell fails. Okami reveals to Mariko the oath he swore to a demon for his magical powers.  Realizing that it will not be so easy to free Okami, Mariko knows she must play the part of a willing bride to Raiden while working to help the Black Clan from inside the imperial city. She could work from inside the imperial court to bring down the Minamoto family and the new emperor Roku who is proving himself to cruel and careless.


Discussion

Ahdieh has fashioned a riveting sequel to Flame In The Mist. The plot centers around a seventeen-year-old girl's attempt to free the young man she loves and to change her world for the better. Combining historical fiction with magical realism, Smoke In The Sun has the unusual setting of feudal Japan complete with shoguns, emperors and samurai. In this sequel, Ahdieh ties all the loose threads together from the first novel.

The main character, Hattori Mariko is a resilient young woman determined to find a unique place for herself in her world. Initially Mariko's greatest dream and deepest hope is "Of a world in which she was allowed where she pleased, unburdened by the responsibility of marriage, free to invent to her heart's content." However, after only a short time in the imperial castle she begins to aspire to a much higher goal, that of changing her world for the better. Mariko wants to have the freedom to make her own choices about her life. Yumi a geiko whom Okami once loved, has similar desires. Mariko tells her "We should create a world for women like us. It would be a thing to see."

As Mariko is working to save Okami from certain death she knows she must be cool and detached. "Her purpose was not to simply be any man's bride. If she could not have the boy she wanted -the life she wanted- she would forge her own path." Mariko does not give up on her dreams even though she is marrying Raiden, whom she does not love. She chooses to marry Raiden in the hopes that her wedding will provide the distraction required to free Okami. "Mariko's dream for a world with a place for her in it. Not as someone's daughter. Not as someone's wife. But as a woman who made her own choices. Lived without fear. Even it if meant being married to Prince Raiden, Mariko wante to live in that world. A world in which the boy she loved still lived. A world in which she could bring about lasting change." 

Mariko sacrifices herself in order to save a man Roku condemns. When Raiden questions her as to why she offered herself in place of the condemned man, she tells him, "Because if no one cares about what is right or wrong in the seat of our empire -- the very seat of our justice -- then all we hold dear is lost." In doing so, Mariko is an example of courage, showing Raiden how those in the imperial court ought to act. Mariko calls Raiden in on his lack of responsibility and his "passivity" in the face of evil. And she encourages him to recognize his strength and that he is the one who should rule the empire.

Ahdieh tackles the theme of goodness over power in the Smoke In The Sun. Three characters in the novel are enmeshed in dark magic; Okami, Tsuneoki and Kanako. All have given their souls to demons in order to gain the ability to use dark magic and therefore become powerful. The dark magic ends up killing Kanako who attempts to use her power to overthrow her rival's son - Roku - from the throne.  In the end it is Okami and Tsuneoki who challenge Roku and Raiden who kills him. Her fate is a warning to all who use magic. Okami and Tsuneoki are loosed from their oaths by a black dagger left in the remains of Okami's mother's ancestral home. Okami finds a message from his father telling him, "Fight not for greatness, but for goodness." Okami realizes that seeking power is not the answer. He must fight for those he loves.

Smoke In The Sun is a novel with many layers to explore, fascinating secondary characters who have depth, and an engaging storyline. Another brilliant effort from this wonderful author.

Book Details:

Smoke In The Sun by Renee Ahdieh
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons      2018
408 pp.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Eleventh Hour by Jacques Goldstyn

Jim and Jules were born on the same day, in the same town. Except Jules was born two minutes after Jim. They became best friends, having similar interests. But Jim being faster and stronger was always ahead of Jules in everything they did. Jim watched out for Jules who looked up to him.

When World War I began in 1914, both Jim and Jules enlisted. But as always, Jules was two minutes late for everything. Two minutes behind Jim to get his uniform, in training and even to to catch the boat over to the war. It was those two minutes however that have a lasting effect on both their lives.

Discussion

Jacques Goldstyn delivers a poignant tale about two friends, one of whom dies just before the Armistice comes into effect on November 11, 1918. Goldstyn is a renowned illustrator whose career was born out of a request to illustrate a children's science book. At the time he was working as a geologist!

The Eleventh Hour was written in memory of George Lawrence Price, who is generally considered to be the last Canadian soldier to die on November 11, 1918. Price was conscripted into the army on October 15, 1917. He had fought in several important battles including the Battle of Amiens and he also had been gassed.  Price was killed in Mons, Belgium.

George Lawrence Price
Price who was part of  "A" Company the 28th Battalion of the Saskatchewn North West Regiment, decided to search houses in Ville Sur-Haine, which is located near Mons. Although the Canadian Corps had received notification that the war would indeed end at 11 a.m. that day, this was not communicated to Price's unit.  He was one of five soldiers involved in the search, going from house to house. The first house was searched, with the Germans fleeing through the back door but as they checked the second house, Price stepped outside and was shot in the chest, falling into the arms of  Pvt. Art Goodmurphy. He died minutes later at 10:58 a.m, despite the efforts of his comrades to save him.

Like  George Lawrence Price, Jim also dies two minutes before the Armistice goes into effect. A devastated Jules, who survived because he was always two minutes behind Jim, returns to Canada and tries to pick up life after the war. However, without his best friend Jim to lead him, Jules soon discovers a huge hole in his life. One thing Jules does do is to honour his friend's sacrifice  by attending the ceremonies at the local cenotaph on November 11.

Goldstyn's book is dedicated to his grandfather, Michel Quelever who did survive the First World War, physically uninjured. The Eleventh Hour is illustrated with Goldstyn's signature cartoon-style ink and watercolour drawings which effectively capture the depths of the friendship between the two boys and the horror and chaos of war. The Eleventh Hour is a longer picture book which portrays the sacrifice made by Canadian soldiers in World War I.


For more information about George Lawrence Price.

The Canadian Virtual War Memorial Page.

Book Details:

The Eleventh Hour by Jacques Goldstyn
Toronto: Owlkids Books Inc.      2018

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen


Jennifer A. Nielsen's newest historical fiction for teens explores the courageous fight by hundreds of Jewish resistance fighters as they make their last stand during the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.

The novel opens as Chaya Lindner, a Jewish teenager who has been working for the past three months as a courier for the resistance movement known as Akiva, attempts to lie her way into the Tarnow Ghetto in Krakow, Poland. Posing as Helena Nowak,she brings food, clothing and forged identification papers to the Jews imprisoned there, informing them of what is happening on the outside. The Tarnow Ghetto has been sealed since very early in the war meaning the people there do not know what is really happening. As a result the Jews in the ghetto were tricked onto trains, believing they were being relocated to work camps. In fact, they were being sent to death camps. The ghettos were merely a step in the German plan to exterminate the entire Jewish population.

Chaya's story flashes back to life three years earlier when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Before the German occupation, Chaya's father owned a shoe repair shop and their family, which included her younger brother and sister, Yitzchak and Sara, had a good life. With the Blitzkrieg, everything changed. All Jews were required to register, their homes were searched by German soldiers who took jewelry, foreign currency, and anything they wanted. National monuments were looted and synagogues burned. Jews were assigned to forced labour, and made to wear the yellow star of David on an armband.

In 1940, Chaya's father lost his business and her family sold most of their belongings to survive. Eventually they were forced into the Podgorze District where four families were crammed into each apartment. However, Chaya's name wasn't on the list of Jews who were to move into what would be called the Krakow ghetto. So Chaya's family sent her to live with her grandmother near the village of Kopaliny. On her way to her grandmother's home, Chaya remembered Shimshon and Gusta Draenger, the leaders of her Jewish scout group, Akiva who lived on a nearby farm. The Draenger's took her in and during the summer more Akiva scouts arrived. One of the Akiva leaders was a man named Dolek.

In the summer of 1942, Dolek brought Chaya devastating news: her sister Sara was taken by train to Belzec, a death camp. Yitzchak had disappeared. The story of Chaya's family was shared with the Akiva scouts leading Shimshon to tell them they must make a decision: they can wait until the Germans eventually come for them or they can fight back, join together with other resistance groups. The scouts chose resistance.

Chaya is asked to be a courier, a most dangerous job that would lead to certain death if she were ever caught. For the next ten months Chaya fights back against the Germans as part of the resistance. It is a fight that will lead her to the ultimate showdown as the Warsaw ghetto fights back against the German's final liquidation.

Discussion

Nielsen's well researched novel, Resistance is an engaging, well balanced account of the final stand taken by the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto to resist the mass deportations to labour and death camps. The ghetto's liquidation or total destruction and removal of all Jews was ordered by Heinrich Himmler in October, 1942. The Jews in the ghetto had organized several resistance cells, ZOB (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa) the Jewish Combat Organization and ZZW (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy) also known as the Jewish Military Union. With a limited arsenal obtained from the Polish underground, home made grenades and Moltov cocktails and other weapons, the Jewish resistance held out for a month, led by Mordecai Anielewicz. In the end, all of the surviving Jews, over 40,000 souls, were deported to various concentrations camps, where they were murdered by the SS.

Resistance is told through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old Jewish girl, Chaya Lindner whose parents are trapped in the Krakow ghetto. With the certain death of her younger sister Sara and the disappearance of her brother Yitchak, Chaya's mother has lost her will to live. They refuse to use the false papers that Chaya brings them to save themselves, instead accepting their fate. The loss of her sister, motivates Chaya to fight against the Germans, eventually leading to her joining resistance fighters in the Warsaw uprising. Chaya participation escalates as she becomes increasingly determined to fight back against the Germans.

A subplot involves the relationship between Chaya and a new, inexperienced member of the resistance, Esther Karolinski. Chaya is convinced that Esther is not up to the task of working in the resistance and at first various situations seem to prove Chaya right. Despite Esther's mistakes, she does begin to learn, while pushing Chaya to rethink her own reasons for resistance. In the end, Esther courageously makes the ultimate sacrifice so that Chaya and her fellow fighters can escape the Warsaw ghetto as it's being liquidated.

One of the many themes explored in the novel is the meaning of resistance and how resistance might be different for each person. Esther feels compelled to challenge a Nazi sympathizer on the train, raising suspicions and almost getting them arrested. She tells an angry Chaya, "But isn't that the point of the resistance, to make the world notice us?" Chaya however has a different view of the resistance, "The point of the resistance is to save lives...Every single day, more Jews are dying. Our fight is to stop that from happening. Nothing else matters."

In the Lodz ghetto, Chaya attempts to help Avraham, Sarah and Henryk, three teens hiding out on the abandoned upper floor of an apartment building. They reject the option of working for the Nazis as a way to save themselves and have decided to give their lives to God. When Chaya offers to help them escape, Avraham refuses telling her "...No, we're choosing faith...The highest honor we can give God is to die in his name." Unable to understand, Chaya believes they are simply giving up but Esther explains, "No, Chaya. As much as the Nazis want to take our lives, they want to take our faith too. We fight for one, Avraham's friends fight for the other." When Chaya questions the importance of faith, Esther tells her, "We'll all die one day -- no one escapes that fate. Our only decision is how we live before that day comes. Our path requires courage, but so does theirs. Both paths, are ways to resist."

After their presence in the Lodz ghetto results in another Aktion, both Chaya and Esther struggle with the form resistance might take. They are challenged by the fact that their resistance so far seems to be ineffective and harmful whether it was the attack on the cafe or their trip to Lodz. Esther states, "We didn't stop the war or get the Nazis to leave Krakow. We can't even say that lives were saved because of what we did...What about in Lodz? All we did there was make things worse...we stole a weapon, lost food that could have saved lives, and ended up being the cause of an Aktion. Maybe what we're doing is as bad as the enemy!".

When Chaya and Esther arrive in the Warsaw ghetto she tells the resistance there that Akiva failed in it's goal of using resistance as a way to inspire other Jewish uprisings. However she hopes that the Warsaw uprising will inspire not only other ghettos such as Bailystok, Sobibor and Tarnow but also the Polish army and the Polish people to rebel against the Germans.

Their decision to make a final stand in the Warsaw ghetto gives Esther a sense of freedom which Chaya doesn't quite understand. " 'We've never been more free. don't you see? They don't control us anymore. Since we already know how this will end, they can't even use the fear of death against us. There is nothing more they can take from us, but today, we have taken their superiority, and the belief in our submissiveness. No matter how this ends, history will recognize today for its greatness.' "

Although the Jewish resistance lose the fight in the Warsaw ghetto, Chaya vows to fight on for the memory of her friend Esther, for all of Akiva, for Avraham, Sarah and Henryk and those who died in the Aktion in Lodz, for the kind man named Wit who sheltered Jews on his farm, for her parents and her sister.
"Historians might say that the Jews lost every uprising we attempted in this war, that every resistance movement failed.
I disagree.
We proved that there was value in faith. There was value in loyalty. And that a righteous resistance was victory in itself, no matter the outcome."

The novel's balanced approach helps young readers understand how people reacted differently to the Nazi occupation of their countries. While many people supported the extermination of the Jewish population, others did not and Nielsen highlights some of the ways Jews were helped. Chaya observes, "...there were three kinds of Polish citizens in the country these days. The first were those who endeared themselves to the invaders, who proudly allowed their homes to be assimilated into the German territory and their lives into the Nazi culture...The second group of Poles, the largest group, were merely surviving, trying to blend into the background. They might've moved into homes abandoned by Jews who were sent to the ghettos, and might've taken over our shops and our possessions, but they felt little joy in it. They didn't help us, but they believed that at least ignoring our situation caused no harm...the third group of Poles was different. They helped. They snuck close to the ghetto at night and tossed bread over the walls...they took Jewish people into their lives, into their homes, and offered them a place to hide, a chance to escape the fate that tens of thousands of us had already suffered." Nielsen incorporates a few characters into her story that fit the third group; Wit Golinski, an older man who intervenes to protect Chaya and Esther from a woman who is a Nazi sympathizer and who offers them a ride, food and money, and the Catholic nuns who smuggle arms to the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto and the Catholic priest who helps

Resistance is Nielsen's best historical novel to date. The novel's Afterword provides some detail regarding several key resistance figures and their fate. A map of Poland and of Krakow, Lodz and Warsaw would have provided some context to the setting for younger readers. Nevertheless, an engaging novel with a strong heroine and an interesting cast of supporting characters.

Book Details:

Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen
New York: Scholastic Press      2018
385 pp.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Winnie's Great War by Lindsay Mattick and Josh Greenhut

Cole is ready for bed when his mother asks him if he wants to hear the story  of his stuffed bear. When he asks for something different, Cole's mother offers to tell her son the real story about his great-great-grandfather and his bear Winnie.

The story begins in the woods, where Bear is just emerging from her den inside a tree, for the first time. Mama bear watches as Bear climbs a tall tree, so high, she gets stuck and needs rescuing. But during this adventure, Bear meets two squirrels, Fancy and Tall whom she can understand and talk to. Mama warns Bear that only the trapper can his traps can hurt them. Sadly this is exactly what happens to Mama one day. With her front leg held fast in the trap and the trapper approaching, Mama warns Bear to hide up the tree and to be brave. Bear climbs the tree and witnesses the trapper shooting her Mama and hauling her away.

The next morning the little boy who was with the trapper returns to the tree with food. Each day he returns with food until one day Bear cannot resist the fish that lands at the base of the tree. The fish leads her to the freckled boy who gives her sticky delicious maple syrup. Bear is follows the boy home to an old wood and stone cabin where he lives with the trapper, his grandpa and grandma.

At the cabin, Bear meets Leo the dog and watches as the boy helps a white mare give birth to her foal. When the trapper sees Bear, he recognizes her as the orphan cub. Bear is put into a small wooden pen next to the chicken coop, but soon she finds a way out. This leads to plenty of trouble that includes eating all the flowers in the window box and getting into the cabin where she eats a pie and brings down a shelf of jars and bottles. Although the boy tries to keep her, his grandpa decides to take Bear into town

Bear is taken into White River to the Hudson's Bay Company but when the clerk wants to make her into a rug the trapper leaves. Eventually Bear is bought by a young soldier, Lieutenant Harry Colebourn from Winnipeg for twenty dollars. On August 24, 1914, Bear and Harry leave Port Arthur on the train. Harry introduces Bear as their mascot for the Veterinary Corps. Colonel Currie is not impressed however, threatening to "do away" with Bear should she be a problem. Harry decides to name the young bear Winnipeg or Winnie for short. And so begins Winnie's travels, across the country to Valcartier, and then on to England where Harry and his friends, Brodie, Edgett and Dixon prepare to go to war. But Winnie won't end up in France. Instead she spends the duration of the war in England, seeing Harry whenever he's on leave. But it is Winnie's time in England after the War is over that leads to the marvellous Winnie the Pooh stories.

Discussion

Winnie's Great War was written by Harry Colebourn's great-granddaughter, Lindsay Mattick in collaboration with writer Josh Greenhut. Using material from her family's archive that included Harry's diaries, photographs and other artifacts, as well as detailed research into World War II and also bears, Mattick has penned the story of her great-grandfather and the bear cub he named Winnipeg from her beginning as a bear cub to her purchase by Harry and then as they travel from Canada overseas to England during World War I.

Winnie and Harry
The story is told from the point of view of the bear cub's perspective beginning with when she was a cub in the forest with her mother to her capture, to when Colebourn purchases her and travels overseas, to her life in the zoo in London. Using the basic facts of Harry's short time with Winnie from his diaries, Mattick blends fact and fiction together to create an engaging story that is more detailed and will appeal to readers in the 8 to 12 age bracket. Some of the characters are real such as Harry Colebourn, Brodie, Edgett, Dixon and Currie. Others such as the many animals, Fancy and Tall, Sir Reginald, Victoria and Alberta and Black Knight (who are horses) are fictional, making the tale more appealing for the younger reader. When Cole complains that his mother is just making up the story of the animals such as Sergeant Bill, a goat, she assures him that some actually did exist; "There was a billy goat from Broadview, Saskatchewan, who came to England on the same convoy as as Winnie and trained in Salisbury Plain and fought with the Fighting Fifth in France...Later in the War, he butted three soldiers into a trench a split second before a shell exploded on the spot where they'd been standing. He could hear it coming, he saved their lives. Sergeant Bill  received the Victory Medal before returning  home to Canada."

Mattick's variety of animal characters are used throughout the story to promote the idea that listening to those who are different and tolerating one another leads to understanding and peace. In the novel, the author anthropomorphizes the animals in order to demonstrate how intolerance and misunderstanding can result in war. On the boat, Winnie discovers that the horses hate the rats who poison their food while the rats dislike the horses who stomp on them and kill them. Winnie finds herself caught in the middle because she listens and can understand both sides. Cole asks his mother if the horses and rats can understand what the other is saying. She tells him that they can't because they aren't taking the time to listen. Misunderstandings can then lead to war. "No. Because if you're not listening, it's impossible to hear.If you believe that somebody is so different from you that you can't possibly have anything in common, you'll never be able to hear them no matter what they say. That was the way with the rats and horses. And that's how it is in war." When both begin listening to the other's concerns they are able to broker a solution that works for both rats and horses.

Cole asks his mother if there will ever be a time without war, she tells him, "I don't know. As long as animals have roamed the earth, they've fought -- over food, over land, over everything. But maybe if we were better at understanding each other, there would be less fighting." 

Mattick's novel is filled with lovely pencil illustrations by Sophie Blackall. There is an extensive section title The Colebourn Family Archive complete with many photographs of Winnie and Harry as well as some other interesting information.

Winnie's Great War is a short storybook that captures the essence of Harry and Winnie's remarkable relationship and how Winnie came to be the inspiration for the Winnie the Pooh novels authored by  A.A. Milne. At the same time the author encourages young readers to be tolerant of those who are different or who hold different views and to work together in a way that fosters understanding and peace.

Image from Library and Archives Canada:
http://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item?app=fondsandcol&op=img&id=e011067494-v8


Book Details:

Winnie's Great War by Lindsay Mattick and Josh Greenhut
Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.      2018
227 pp.