Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Wolf Called Wander by Rosanne Parry

A Wolf Called Wander tells the story of a young wolf who undertakes an incredible journey of survival after his pack is destroyed. The story is based on the real life events surrounding a wild wolf known as OR-7 who was named Journey.

The story opens with the birth of a wolf pup named Swift into a large wolf pack. Swift named because he was the first to stand and walk, has a brother named Sharp who is bigger and a brother named Warm who is smaller,  as well as sisters named Pounce and Wag.  Although Swift is eager to go into the world outside the den, he is warned not to do so by Mother. Eventually at night, Mother orders the young wolf pups out of the den and into the world.

In the world Swift meets other members of the pack, Song the hunger, pup-watcher Growl and Father who gives him a lump of predigested meat. Swift learns this is elk meat, the "life of the pack".

During the summer, the pack hunts and Swift and his brothers and sisters enjoy the elk meat. Despite his best efforts, Swift can never quite get his larger brother Sharp to drop his tail to him. Swift eats more and runs faster but Sharp is stronger and larger. But Swift sits with Father watching him watch the mountainside that is their home. Swift learns not to hunt skunks, eat mushrooms or white berries nor badgers, wolverines or porcupines. He learns about the ravens and how they work with the wolves, about how men kill wolves and works on his hunting skills.

As summer turns to fall, Father notes there are many more wolves in their area. So he and Mother go off to mark out their territory to warn the stranger-wolves away. During an elk hunt, Father teaches Swift how to run the elk to uncover the weakest one but it is Sharp who helps make the kill and who feeds after Father and Mother. This leaves Swift only more determined to beat his bigger brother. During the winter Father chooses Swift to run the herd while Sharp helps him make the kill. 

No longer a yearling, Swift watches as the season changes and Mother has another batch of pups. On the first full moon of summer while the pups are feeding, an enemy pack of silver wolves attack Swift's smaller pack. While Mother escapes up the mountain with the pups, Father is surrounded by the other wolves and attacked. When Swift sees another wolf attempting to follow Mother up the mountain, he gets the wolf's attention by pretending to be a weaker wolf and then leads him on a chase. This wolf dies during the chase, but Swift determined to save his pack, leads several more on chases. However, Swift hears his father's death cry. Although he wants to howl to his pack to learn if any survived he can't because this might reveal them to the attacking pack. Later that night the pale wolves howl. Swift hears Sharp's low howl and knows that he is now their following wolf and that none of his pack remain. So Swift begins a journey that will take him hundreds of miles from his home territory and a new chance at life. Along the way there will be many lessons to learn, new animals to discover and many skills to develop.


Remote camera photo of OR7 taken in 2014
A Wolf Called Wander is loosely based on the life of a gray wolf who was collared in Oregon. He was the seventh wolf collared and was named OR-7. OR-7 was born into the Imnaha Pack in Oregon in 2009. He was collared in February of 2011.  In September 2011 OR-7 left the Imnaha Pack, travelling four thousand miles through the state of Oregon and eventually crossing into California. He travelled through the Soda Mountain Wilderness, the Klamath Basin and Sky Lakes Wilderness. His presence in California made him the first wolf in that state since 1924. OR7 returned to Oregon, crossing back and forth between the state and California several times before finding a mate and establishing a new pack, called the Rogue pack based in the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest in 2014. Since that time, OR7 has produced five sets of pups, helping to establish more wolves in Oregon.

Swift's story is told from his point of view, in a decidedly "wolf" voice. This makes the narrative that much more interesting and the lovely pencil illustrations by Monica Armino are a refreshing throwback to classic juvenile fiction novels from the 1950's and 1960's. They enhance Swift's story in a very real way.

Ultimately, Swift's story is one of brute survival, as he travels through new landscapes and must deal with a serious wound, lack of food, water and the loneliness of life without a pack. Early on the reader sees Swift's incredible will to survive after he is injured attempting to take down an elk. Unable to to walk and with vulture flying overhead, Swift determination to live is strong. "All creatures eat and all are eaten in the end, but I am not ready to be eaten, not today. I want my pack, my own pack. I want to run, to hunt, to live."

Parry incorporates many interesting facts about wolves into her story. For example, when Swift first leaves his decimated pack he has help from a raven. Ravens and wolves can have a symbiotic relationship, with the raven helping a wolf find food. But Swift, a young wolf without much experience doesn't understand why the raven has been following him. Father knew how to talk to the ravens, but he does not. However, when the raven picks up a bone and continues to drop it in front of Swift he comes to understand that the raven knows how to find food, but needs help from Swift. "Ravens do things for a reason. She is talking to me. She must know where to find meat. For all their savvy, ravens have the wrong beak for opening a hide. They need someone with teeth to get at the meat."

A Wolf Called Wander is an engaging novel that draws readers into the natural world, teaching them about wolves,  and helping them to understand the importance of an apex predator like the wolf in the forest ecosystem.  It also offers young readers the opportunity to consider the impact of man wolves over the last century. This well written novel will appeal to animal lovers of all ages. It's a book with a refreshingly different theme from the many the fantasy novels written for younger readers.

Parry has included a section titled, "The Real Wolf Behind The Story" which tells about OR7 and includes photographs and a map of OR7's journey through Oregon, into California and back into Oregon. There is also a section titled "About Wolves" which provides readers with information about some of their special characteristics as well as wolf tracks, wolf packs, wolf behaviour, the various habitats that Swift and his real-life counterpart,  OR7 encountered on their journeys. Parry has also listed Resources for Young Readers which offers documentaries, books and websites to check out, as well as some General Resources.

OR7 image credit: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife  https://www.flickr.com/photos/odfw/16674012963/in/album-72157623481759903/

Book Details:

A Wolf Called Wander by Rosanne Parry
New York: Greenwillow Books    2019
243 pp.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Orange For The Sunsets by Tina Athaide

Orange For the Sunsets explores the events surrounding the  historic order by Ugandan President Idi Amin in 1972 to banish Ugandans with Asian ancestry from the country. In the novel,

Uganda, initially isolated from outside influence due to its position in Central Africa,  saw an influx of missionaries in the early 1800s. This led to conversions to Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam. The country became a British Protectorate in 1894 after years of civil war between Catholic and Protestant converts. The presence of South Asians in Uganda was the due to the British who brought in workers in for the construction of the Ugandan Railway and also to work in the civil service. By 1972 when Ugandan President Idi Amin issued his order, there were approximately eighty thousand Asian Ugandans living in the country. They were given ninety days to leave.

Idi Amin's order was essentially the ethnic cleansing of the country. Its purpose, according to Idi Amin,  was to give back to Ugandans their country. During British rule, preferential treatment was given to the South Asians they brought in from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Asian Ugandans were generally better educated and better off than African Ugandans. As a result they commonly worked in the banking and business sector and were not integrated into Ugandan society. This resulted in friction between the two ethnic groups and the growth of "Indophobia".

Idi Amin's predecessor, Milton Obote attempted to help African Ugandans through a series of laws restricting the rights of Asian Ugandans. Idi Amin's edict would mean big changes in Uganda and ultimately would result in the destruction of Uganda's economy as Asian Ugandans fled the country taking their money and expertise with them.

In Orange For The Sunsets, the story focuses on the friendship between two tweens,  Asha Gomez who is a well off Indian Ugandan and her friend Yesofu, who is a much poorer African Ugandan. Yesofu had received an invitation to Asha's twelfth birthday party and had wanted to go but his mother reminded him that "You and Asha are from different worlds." So Yesofu doesn't attend her party at the Indian club but instead waits outside for Asha to leave so he can give her the birthday gift. But Asha refuses Yesofu's gift out of anger that he did not attend her party and made her look foolish. In her anger she breaks the bracelet, infuriating Yesofu who runs off.

After Sunday Mass the next day, Asha recovers all ten beads from Yesofu's bracelet and repairs the bracelet so she can wear it. At school she shows Yesofu the repaired bracelet and tells him it's the best birthday present she's ever received. After school at Asha's home, Yesofu tells her that the school cricket team's newly chosen captain will get to throw the first pitch at the India-Uganda cricket match. He hopes to be chosen captain.

The following Friday, Asha and the Gupta twins, Neela and Leela are making their way to Sari House to shop for the upcoming dance at the Entebbe Club when Mr. Bhatt, the owner of Cafe Nile ushers them quickly into his shop. On India Street, what looks like a parade turns out to be a demonstration by African Ugandans in support of Idi Amin who has just made a big announcement ordering all Indian Ugandans to leave the country.

Disobeying Mr. Bhatt, Asha drags Neela and Leela into the street only to find her and her friends caught up in the demonstration where the Africans are chanting "Indians go home." Terrified and realizing that their lives are at risk Asha and her friends try to get to safety.Meanwhile Yesofu and his brother Esi ride to the demonstration and meet Akello there. They are thrilled by the prospect of a brighter future, however Yesofu recognizes Asha in the crowd and that she is in trouble. Asha is saved by Yesofu's brother Esi who gets her out of the crowd on his motorcycle and takes her home.

At school when Asha tries to convince Yesofu and Akello that Idi Amin's order is wrong, she finds the African Ugandan students push back telling her that they deserve better in their own country.  With seventy-five days to go before the deadline to leave, Asha's father wants to leave before the situation gets worse. However, her mother is convinced that things will settle down especially since Idi Amin has exempted government workers like Mr. Gomez. Asha doesn't want to leave her friends in Uganda.

Asha and her family attend the India-Uganda cricket match. However, the match never happens. When Idi Amin arrives, he announces to a cheering crowd that he has sent the Indian team home and that he has also revoked the exemption for professionals like Mr. Gomez. With the crowd chanting "Africa for Africans!", Asha's family and the many other Indian families flee the game in panic. Asha's father insists that they must now leave Uganda, but once again her mother refuses, insisting that this crisis will pass.

Two weeks later, Asha calls her sister Teelu in London asking her to help in convincing their father to stay. During the call, Asha discovers her parents' passports in her father's home office and decides to hide them. As the days pass and the deadline draws nearer, it becomes increasingly evident that Asha and her family cannot stay. Her friend Yesofu finds himself equally conflicted, not wanting to lose his best friend but at the same time hoping for change that will lead to a better life. Leaving will mean letting go.


Orange For The Sunsets is an important novel that explores the 1972 expulsion of tens of thousands of Asian from Uganda through the dual narratives of Asha an Indian Ugandan and Yesofu who is African. Through these two characters, Athaide is able to effectively portray the vast disparity between the two ethnic groups in Uganda and their experiences during this difficult time in a way that is meaningful and invites young readers to thoughtful consideration.

From the very beginning of the novel, Athaide portrays the significant economic and social disparity that exists between the two main characters, Asha Gomez who is an Indian Ugandan and her best friend, Yesofu who is African Ugandan. Asha's father who is from Goa, India works in the Ministry of Tourism, arranging "special passports and visas for important dignitaries and other visiting government officials." Asha lives "in a pale yellow two-story house. Twice ...no, triple or quadruple the size..." of Yesofu's home with a "wraparound verandah". Their sitting room has "thick brocade curtains" and a "round, leather pouf" . Their Sunday lunch is followed by sweets in the sitting room. They can afford to eat kulfi or ice cream and serve their tea on a silver platter. Asha's family have African servants, including Yesofu's mother Fara who works as a housemaid and cook. Asha's older sister Teelu is studying nursing at a school in London, England.

In contrast, Yesofu whose family belongs to the Ganda tribe, lives in a two room shack, "made of wattle and daub -- woven rods and twigs plastered with clay and mud" with a grass roof. Yesofu sleeps on a woven mat and gathers branches for firewood. His mother has very little education having only complete up to primary class three and his Baba works in the fields all day. Yesofu's education is paid for by Asha's father and his dreams of college and playing professional cricket hinge entirely on a cricket scholarship.

Life is more restrictive for Yesofu and his fellow African Ugandans. Although the Indian Club where Asha has her party accepts African Ugandans, the only Africans in the club are those who serve drinks. Even at Asha's home Yesofu has had to come through the back door into her home, or stay in the kitchen if her parents were entertaining guests. And Yesofu and his friend Akello are the first African Ugandans to make his school cricket team. Even though Yesofu is an accomplished player, Rajeev, an Indian is chosen over him to be the team captain.Yesofu is only awarded the title when Rajeev reveals he will be leaving the country.

Readers will realize that Asha's family is very well off and that life holds many more opportunities for her than it does for Yesofu and his fellow African Ugandans. For Yesofu, the path to a better life is a college education but that comes at a cost he cannot afford. He is in school only because Asha's father pays his fee. Athaide's portrayal of life in the country shows how British colonial practices harmed the fabric of  Uganda and its indigenous peoples.

Both Asha and Yesofu experience intense internal conflict over what is happening. Asha, who loves her life and Uganda, is in denial about the reality of life in her country. Her life of comfort and privilege means she doesn't understand how being Indian and African makes her and Yesofu different. Her view of the world is very simple and naive.

When Idi Amin's edict is issued, Asha is in denial, "Uganda was home. The president couldn't make her leave."  At school Asha is confronted by her African classmates including Yesofu and Akello who points out that Uganda belongs to the Africans and that the Indians merely continued taking from the country after the British left.

Asha doesn't really understand the situation in her country partly because she is well off and partly because her parents do not talk to her about what is happening. When she asks her Papa she is told "Nothing you need to worry about." This isolation from the reality of what is happening leads Asha to believe they are not at risk and that her family won't be affected. She also has a simplistic view that people need to learn to get along. For example, when Asha states that she should wear the traditional African gomesi to the Entebbe Club, her friend Leela reminds her not to forget that she is Indian. But Asha responds, "Indian. African. We're different, so what if people stopped making such a big deal of it, then it wouldn't matter so much."

It is in her classroom when the topic is brought up that Asha begins to learn more about the reality of life in Uganda. For example, Yesofu mentions that his father was refused a bank loan to buy land, Asha wonders, "Had Yesofu's dad always wanted a piece of land? How come she didn't know?"  This leads her to other questions like, "Why is Amin punishing us? Whose fault is it? Why are Indians being blamed? How come the British didn't hire Africans?"

For Yesofu, the conflict is much deeper. Upon learning that Amin has ordered the expulsion of the Indians and the possibilities this might create for Africans like himself he wonders, "The man's words turned inside of Yesofu. It wasnt' just the opportunities opening up for Africans but also the bit about Indians being kicked out. Did that mean all Indians -Asha too?"  For Yesofu, the possibility of a brighter future, of his Baba being able to buy land, of attending college and having a better life lead him to support the actions of Idi Amin. He is certain his friend Asha will understand "...how the president's plan could help him and other Africans". Yesofu tries to celebrate with other members of his family and his friends, part of the Ganda tribe but "It felt like he was betraying them by not joining in, but wrong if he did."  Akello insists that the Indians must go because they don't belong in Uganda. When challenged about the morality of taking from the Indians, Akello tells Yesofu that leaving may be best for Asha. "Her Uganda is changing. It's going to be an Africa for Africans. Not an African for Indians and Africans."

However Yesofu soon finds that there is a dark side to the explusion as he witnesses the beating of an Indian man in the street and Akello assaulting Asha for calling him a shamba boy. With many countries refusing to take in the Indian refugees, Yesofu remembers the article showing "...The angry white faces holding their signs of hate. Were Africans any different? They didnt want the Indians any more than the British did..."

It is Asha's experience in Katabi, the rural area where Yesofu lives, that ultimately helps her understand events from the African point of view. After she is rescued from the well where she fell being chased by Akello, Asha realizes she does know Yesofu's life. "She'd never worked in the sugarcane fields. She'd never drawn water from a well for cooking. She'd never even had to wash her own clothes. Yesofu deserved to have everything she had or used to have. She wished she'd realized sooner how not having these things did make a difference..." When Yesofu visits her in the hospital Asha tells him that she's been selfish, not really understanding that their lives were different. "I never really thought about what your life was like outside my world."

The title of the novel is taken from the description of the colour of one of the beads from Asha's friendship bracelet that Yesofu gives her for her birthday. Esi is only able to recover four beads from the well. "Red for hibiscus flowers. Brown for sweetgrass. Blue for Lake Victoria. And orange for the sunsets."  Although only four beads remain, their friendship endures. Asha is leaving Uganda but the two friends do not say good bye but "Tautakutana tena." Or until we meet again.

Although the characters in Orange For The Sunsets are fictional, Athaide has used her family's experience in Uganda during this time and the stories told during family get-togethers to craft a realistic and informative novel.  The novel includes several informative features in the back matter including 90 Days In History: A Countdown to the Expulsion which is a timeline of the events, a detailed Author's Note with pictures from Athaide's family, a Bibliography and an Additional Resources section.

Book Details:

Orange For The Sunsets by Tina Athaide
New York: Katherine Tegen Books       2019
pp. 328

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Degas, Painter of Ballerinas by Susan Goldman Rubin

"Drawing is not what one sees, but what one can make others see." 

Degas, Painter of Ballerinas is an exquisite biography for young readers of this famous artist, known for his sketches, paintings and sculptures of dancers.From 1852 to 1912, Degas produced over a thousand dance pictures. While many artists were part of the Impressionist movement, Degas' interest was much different. Impressionists painted landscapes outdoors. Degas spent hours indoors at the Paris Opera observing dancers.The dancers were known as petits rats or "little rats" because they were always hungry. The petits rats would practice different ballet moves over and over to perfection. Degas would sketch their poses as they stretched, rested on a bench or worked at the barre.

Because he spent so much time at the Paris Opera, Degas was very familiar with the different ballet moves and would sometimes do a pirouette or an arabesque. He formed a fatherly friendship with many of the dancers whom he treated as if they were his own children. He saw how hard they worked and  how difficult the art of ballet was.

Degas did his sketching in the ballet studio or his own studio where the dancers were invited to pose. Afterwards he would combine these sketches into his paintings which were done when he was alone.

As time passed, Degas' art changed and developed. He explored different techniques,  and as his eyesight deteriorated, Degas moved to creating sculpture. The result was art that is timeless, beautiful and now considered very valuable.


Degas, Painter of Ballerinas is an fascinating exploration into the process and technique of this famous artist.  Rubin keeps younger readers engaged with her simple explanations and with the many wonderful colour plates of Degas' paintings, drawings and sculptures, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Rubin informs her readers on some of the different techniques Degas applied to his work. For example, he often used a single color to create an accent, making a canvas "come to life" or mixed pastels with charcoal and tempera paint. He even used bleach and steam to create different effects in his paintings.The layout of the book is such that there is a bit of text on each page accompanied by many wonderful pictures of Degas' artwork. Rubin mentions Degas poor eyesight, something that plagued him even as a young man and how he tried to preserve his eyesight by wearing blue tinted glasses. As his eyesight worsened, Degas turned to sculpture, creating incredible wax sculptures of dancers in certain poses.

While the first part of the book focuses more on Degas art. Rubin also includes a fairly detailed biography of the artist in a separate section at the back of the book. This gorgeous edition with the beautiful cover and the pink satin spine would make a lovely gift for either a young aspiring dancer or someone interested in art and artists.

Book Details:

Degas, Painter of Ballerinas by Susan Goldman Rubin
New York: Abrams Books For Young Readers    2019
60 pp.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

When Sue Found Sue by Toni Buzzeo

The inspiring story of Sue Hendrickson and her incredible discovery is told in When Sue Found Sue a picture book for younger readers.

Growing up in Munster, Indiana, Sue was a shy and curious child who loved to read and loved to find lost things. Sue was a very smart child who learned about the world around her through her extensive reading. She would visit the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago to view the exhibits of fossils and other items people had found over the years.

At age seventeen, Sue began travelling and joining teams of other treasure hunters. Her travels eventually led her to the hills of western South Dakota, known for its fossils. Sue spent four summers digging for duck-billed dinosaurs. It was dusty, hot work but Sue loved it. She found herself drawn to a sandstone cliff in the distance. On a day off, Sue and her dog Gypsy hiked to the cliff and it was there that she saw the bones of a T. Rex exposed. It took the team five days of hard work to expose the fossil skeleton and another three weeks to map and carefully remove them. Today the skeleton, named Sue, resides in the Field Museum of Natural History. This remarkable fossil has added significantly to our knowledge about this dinosaur.


When Sue Found Sue tells the amazing story of the discovery of the most complete Tyrannosaurs Rex skeleton to date. The fossil skeleton containing about 250 bones was discovered in 1990 by marine archeologist, field paleontologist and professional diver Sue Hendrickson. There are believed to be about 380 bones in a T. Rex skeleton, meaning Sue is ninety percent complete.

The new Sue with gastral basket and shifted stance.
Although there are now over thirty T. Rex skeletons that have been discovered, only five are approximately forty percent complete. This makes Sue Hendrickson's discovery that much more important. The T. Rex Sue does have some missing bones including one foot and one hand as well as about eight inches of her tail. And unlike many other fossil bones, Sue's bones were in very good condition.

Although the dinosaur is named Sue, scientists do not know if this skeleton is that of a male or female T. Rex. Dating from the Cretaceous period (about 67 million years ago) the skeleton was discovered with rib like gastralia bones that scientists were not sure exactly how they were connected to the skeleton. Scientists have now determined that the gastral bones were probably a feature that helped the T. Rex breathe. They have added the 26 bones that comprise part of the dinosaurs gastal basket to the skeleton.

When Sue Found Sue presents the story of Sue's discovery in easy to read prose, emphasizing Sue Hendrickson's determination to do in life what she found most interesting  - search for things. But unlike her childhood, Sue became part of teams that searched for lost boats, planes, for prehistoric fossils and finally for dinosaurs. Sue is an inspiration for young readers to follow their interests, challenging them to really look at the world around them. Sue's observations of the world inspired her and filled her with wonder and curiosity. There are many more discoveries waiting to be made!

Artist Diana Sudyka's earthy illustrations help the story of Sue Hendrickson come alive. Gouache and watercolours made from earth pigments were used to create the Dakota scenes in the picture book.

Buzzeo includes a short Author's Note about Sue Hendrickson and her discovery, a Resources For Children section and also lists some Additional Resources.

Readers are encouraged to check out The Field Museum of Natural History's webpage on Sue.

Sue image:  https://www.fieldmuseum.org/blog/fresh-science-makeover-sue

Book Details:

When Sue Found Sue by Toni Buzzeo
New York: Abrams Books For Young People    2019

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Where The World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

Where The World Ends is a fictional account of an event that occurred in the St. Kilda archipelago, located in the Atlantic Ocean, northwest of Scotland.

The island of Hirta which is the home for the twelve characters in the novel,  is the main island in the archipelago. Hirta was populated by very small number of inhabitants until 1930, when the remaining population was evacuated to mainland Scotland.

In 1727, a group of nine boys and men were set on Stac an Armin also known as Warrior Stac to hunt the birds and eggs, the main staple in their diet. They became stranded on the stac for nine months when a smallpox epidemic on Hirta devastated the community there. Very little is known about this event which was recorded in the diary of a Christian missionary. This provided McCaughrean with the opportunity to imagine what being marooned on a rugged stac in the stormy Atlantic for nine months without any hope of rescue might be like.

The story is told from the point of view of Quilliam who is part of the fowling party that includes Domhnall Don, Mr. Farriss, Mr. Cane, Murdo, Kenneth, Calum, Lachlan, John, Euan, Niall and Davie. To get ashore, everyone has to  jump from the boat onto the craggy stac. It was Calum's father who brought them to the stac and it will be up to him to return in three weeks time to bring them back.

Their first stop is Lower Bothy, a dark, dank, stinking cave where they temporarily stow their gear of ropes, fowling nets, cooking pot, egg baskets, bundles and boots. The next task is to kill the King Gannet, the lookout bird, who guards the Overhand and warns the other gannets of danger. Whoever kills that first lookout bird earns the title of King Gannet for their time on the stac. Quill succeeds in this task and earns himself the title. The fowlers then move from the Lower Bothy to Midway Bothy. This cave is no more comfortable then the lower cave but it allows them to descend on ropes and harvest the birds in this area.

They harvest storm petrels for their oil and meat, gugas (gannet chicks) for their meat, as well as puffins and other birds. The feathers are plucked by the younger boys and stuffed into sacks. Eighty cleits, "little towers built of rocks" are used to store the dead birds, acting like smokehouses to dry out the carcasses.

Two months before the fowlers left for Warrior Stac, the boat arrived from Harris, carrying Murdina Galloway, the niece of Mr. Fariss, the school master. With Murdina and the boat that brought her, came a bundle of clothes belonging to Old Iain who had died, tossed onto the shore by the skipper, Mr. Gilmour. That bundle of clothing was stored in the schoolroom to be shared out amongst the islanders. Murdina brought sentences, songs and laughter to Hirta. And Quilliam was entranced by her and her mainland ways. On Warrior Stac she occupies Quilliam's thoughts frequently.

Shortly after the fowling party left for the stac, the Reverend Buchan, a missionary on Hirta was slated to return to the mainland, along with Murdina. Quilliam believes it unlikely he will ever see Murdina again.

Stac an Armin
The next three weeks are spent gathering birds' eggs, wicking petrels (the oily birds are used like candles, burning down to their feet) and hunting birds. Four weeks pass, then three more. Finally Callum asks the question everyone is thinking, "Why do they not come?" Every possible reason is discussed; the weather, the tides, a problem with the boat. Euan, one of the younger boys faints and then prophesies that all on Hirta have gone up to heaven. Because of this,  many in the band of fowlers believe that God has decided to end the world and that they have been left behind on the island. However, Mr. Fariss and Mr. Don believe that they should try to build a raft and cross to Boreray so as to make a signal to Hirta for help. Quilliam, overwhelmed by the conversation, leaves the Bothy and to distract the younger boys who are also upset, helps them set afire one of the cleits containing gugas and puffins. Although they burn,  the signal goes out and there is no rescue.

As the weeks pass, Quilliam and the other fowlers must now face the prospect of a long winter, possible starvation and death. As tension mounts between the Col Cane who has set himself up as a minister of God and the rest of the party, the struggle to stay alive grows more desperate with each passing week. Has the world truly ended? How will they survive the winter?


Told from the point of view of protagonist Quilliam McKinnon, Where The World Ends is a story of extreme survival. Eleven inhabitants of Hirta are set on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the sea to harvest birds for their community over a period of three weeks. But when the boat does not return for them, they must find a way to survive through the harsh winter. Every aspect of their being will be tested; physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual. It is a tale of inner strength, resiliency,and courage.

McGaughrean immediately creates the setting and atmosphere for her story through her descriptive narrative. The stac is described in imposing terms. "Warrior Stac grows bigger the closer you get. You would swear it was pushing its way upwards -- a rock whale pitching its whole bulk into the sky, covered in barnacles, aiming to swallow the moon...Warrior Stac is so big and so dark that all the fowl of the air since Creation haven't been able to stain it. It looms there, as black and fearful as one horn of the Devil himself. And it teems with birds." Quill doesn't want to think ill of the stac. "It was not a living thing, only a slab of rock in a big, cold ocean at the edge of the world." It is evident from the beginning, that even in the warm summer months, survival on the stac will be a formidable challenge.

Map of St. Kilda showing the location of Stac an Armin
When the boat fails to return for them, it soon becomes evident to the group that they are marooned, likely for the winter and possibly permanently. The incredible challenge of staying alive through the winter is ably portrayed by McGaughrean. They have plenty of food in the form of birds and eggs, although they must deal with the rain and cold. So initially, the most significant challenge the men and boys face is psychological; the realization that for some unknown reason, no one is coming to take them back to Hirta. Each character deals with this realization in their own way. Murdo wants to partition off areas of the island so each can have his own area to hunt and store birds. Mr. Fariss contemplates suicide but is talked out of it by Quilliam. Mr. Don makes a practical plan to build a raft out of driftwood so they can sail to Boreray where they will have a much better chance of surviving the winter. Col Cane takes refuge in rigid religious belief.

From the beginning, Col Cane appoints himself as a "Minister", controlling the group by playing on their fears. Quilliam does his best to counter these fears but is largely unsuccessful. For example, when Quilliam tells the younger boys a story that draws on mythology to distract them from their dark thoughts, Cane decides he is a pagan who is to be shunned. Cane dictates Sundays as days of prayer and ordering the fowlers to "confess" not only their own sins but the sins of others too! As winter approaches, Cane's beliefs and demands become more extreme as he orders the group to stop fowling and say in the Bothy to pray and sing hymns. Quilliam sees the folly in this; they will run out of food if they stop harvesting birds. "It was insane. The birds would be gone soon.The party must keep fowling for as long as possible. Their were cleits needed mending." Eventually Quilliam is banished by the increasingly unstable Col Cane. This sets Cane up as the main source of conflict in the novel.

Although not much is known about the people living on Hirta before the 1800s, online research indicates that the islanders did not take much to Christianity in the 1700's and that Alexander Buchan, the missionary mentioned in the novel, was largely unsuccessful in his efforts to evangelize them. They still clung to their Druid beliefs as much as to the new religion of Christianity. McCaughrean captures the mixture of Christian and pagan beliefs that these men might have had in the 1700's. Col Cane seems able to use his distorted views of God and death to gain considerable control over the marooned fowlers. Although the fowlers would have been practical men, focused entirely on staying alive into the spring when they could hope for rescue by a passing ship, they would have also searched for omens. They young boys, often Euan remind them to do so.

McCaughrean has crafted a dark tale that might be more appropriate for older readers. Quilliam and Murdo talk about never having the chance to be with a woman, one character attempts suicide but is saved by Quilliam, another dies a gruesome death and various characters suffer serious injuries. There is also the situation of John who turns out to be a girl of fourteen, whom the older boys determine should be married off to one of them. McCaughrean's descriptions of the state of the fowlers as winter ends leave little to her readers' imaginations. "They sneezed incessantly and their skin crawled with parasites. Itchy, scabby and sore, their flesh cracked open at the least cause, like crabs whose backs split as they outgrow them."And there is the matter of Kenneth's toes....

Despite the harrowing, gloomy storyline, the novel has a surprisingly sweet ending for the main character, Quilliam, who survives by frequently imagining his love, Murdina by his side. After their rescue, that dream becomes a reality in a chapter narrated by Murdina.

Overall, Where The World Ends is an interesting but dark fictional account of a real life event that happened almost three hundred years ago. This is a remarkable survival story with many themes to be explored. McCaughrean includes a map of the setting, an Afterword, and a set of drawings of the various birds the fowlers would have found on the stac.

Readers can get a good sense of the novel's setting from this article on the BBC about the isolated island of Hirta and its unique people.

Stac an Armin image: Bob Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)] from geograph.org.uk

Map credit: Eric Gaba (Sting - fr:Sting) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Book Details:

Where The World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean
London: Usborne Publishing    2018
330 pp.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

My Name is Hanna by Tara Lynn Masih

My Name Is Hanna is the fictional account of a Ukrainian-Jewish family's struggles to survive the Holocaust. Fourteen-year-old Hanna Slivka lives in the village of Kwasova with her younger sister Leeba and her younger brother Symon and their parents Adam and Eva. Kwasova is a town comprised of Galicians from Poland, Russia and Ukraine. Hanna's family is part of the Jewish community, her family having moved to the town in 1927. As Jews they have lived side by side with farmers and townspeople, working together and even sharing the Ukrainian Community Hall with their them. But some Russians and Poles are not so tolerant of their Jewish neighbours. Often when walking home from the market, Hanna and her sister Leeba must deal with bullies.
Kwasova is part of Poland when Hitler invades the country on September 1, 1939. However, with the German invasion, the Russians race to occupy the eastern half of Poland. As a result, Kwasova becomes part of Soviet Russia with the arrival of the Red Army. Polish flags are replaced by the Soviet red flag with its sickle and hammer,  the Polish street signs are replaced with Russian ones and classes are taught in Russian.

However, things gradually begin to change for Hanna and her family and their Jewish community as well as for others in the town. Stalin forbids all public practice of religion so in April of 1940, the Jews must hide their preparations for Passover. The last Shepherd's Parade held in the shtetele happens in 1941, only because Hanna's father is able to convince the Russians to allow it.  Her father has considerable standing in both the Jewish and Ukrainian/Russian community. He is not only a sheepherder, but also is able to repair things for the Russians.This allows him to be on friendly terms with Commissar Egorov who is in charge of the NKVD officers stationed in Kwasova. Hanna's family live in the only brick house on the lane that leads to the meadows where the sheep graze. The only other dwelling on the lane is Mrs. Petrovich's thatched cottage. This older lady is a good friend of Hanna's family, hired as their Shabbes goy, doing work Hanna's parents cannot do on the Sabbath.

One night Hanna overhears the men talking downstairs. Visiting their home are the two Cohan twins Pavel and Jacob, Mr. Rabinowitz, and Mr. Stadnick who is Hanna's friend Leon's father. The Cohan brothers who are able to travel freely in the area and are the only source of information reveal that the war has come to their country now. The Ukrainians are welcoming the German army in the hopes that they will be free from the Russian occupation and will sponsor an independent Ukraine. The Red Army is fleeing, the NKVD has left. Gradually the Jewish community finds itself more and more isolated from Kwasovians.

In the winter of 1942, Hanna's family is drawn into sheltering refugees fleeing north from the Germans. When Hanna questions her father about their secret guests he tells her only that they have come from Romania and "are people like us." Hanna's father gives her a leather bound copy of Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.

In the spring, a Ukrainian farmer, Stepan Illiouk drops off two very young boys whom he helped on their journey north. While Hanna and her mother are attempting to figure out what to do, Mrs. Petrovich quietly deposits a basket of fresh chicken eggs on their doorstep. This means she has seen the two boys come to their home. Mrs. Petrovich makes, pysanky eggs for her clients for Easter and Christmas which Hanna helps to deliver. It is now clear that Mrs. Petrovich is an ally.Hanna and her mother come up with a scheme, disguising the two boys as being injured in a farm accident. After dark, Hanna's papa escorts them to the house of the Ukrainian Catholic priest, Father Dubrowski, who is baptizing Jews and creating new birth certificates for them, in the hopes of saving them.

Eventually the refugees stop coming, the Wehrmacht soldiers advance into the valleys, followed by the Einsatzgruppen with their guns, dogs, gas vans and classical music and the borders are closed.  Life becomes much harsher for everyone but especially for Jewish families. Hanna still attends school although as the oldest pupil she just reads. However the Polish students are careful to sit far away from the Jewish students. Hanna's friend, Leon now attends a small private school in the town for the Jewish boys. The many shops in the market square close and now there are long lines for what little food can be found. Because Hanna has blond hair she is now sent to stand in line for the two ounces of bread their family is entitled to.  In line, Hanna sees the poster warning people to avoid Jews in case of typhus. In a bold move Hanna manages to secure double their bread ration.

Gradually time begins running out for Hanna's family and the other Jewish families in Kwasova.The dreaded SS invade smaller rural towns and villages. In September they arrive Kwasova with a long line of Romanian Jews. They steal the horses and what little food remains in the town. Hanna's family watch from a hilltop outside of town waiting until the Germans move on. From the Cohan brothers, they learn the Germans massacred all the Jews marching with them, near the village of Borszczow, disguising the sound of machine gun fire with classical music played on a gramophone.

In Kwasova, the Jews are now ordered to register and to wear a blue Mogen Dovid.However Hanna's father forbids them from doing either, counting on their neighbours not to turn them in.The SS and the Ukrainian police are searching barns for hidden Jews whom they force into ghettos or murder. Hanna's Uncle Levi and her father dig underground bunkers to hide in during raids, while Hanna, her mother and sister will hide in an attic bunker. A pane of glass is removed from Hanna's bedroom window and the family takes turns listening at night for an unanticipated raid. That raid does happen and for two days Hanna and her family hide.

On an afternoon in the fall of 1942, the Germans force the closure of the schools for good, and the Ukrainian police steal Hanna's family's sheep to feed the Germans. On September 26, 1942, Mrs. Petrovich comes to Hanna's home bearing wooden crosses. She tells Hanna's father this evening, the Germans are coming through the town to forcibly remove all Jews to make it Judenfrei . Any home without a cross will be considered Jewish. Hanna's father takes the cross and brings one to his brother Levi. The night passes and Hanna's family and her cousins are safe. In the morning they learn what happened through the blackness of night from Stepan Illiouk. Many Jews were murdered in their beds, others were marched to a culvert near Stepan's fields and shot in groups while the Germans ate confiscated food and played classical music. Stepan is horrified that he now has a graveyard at the edge of his field.

Hanna and her family now realize that this is no short-lived pogrom they they can survive but the systematic annihilation of every Jew. They set out to save themselves, not realizing just how much it will cost them and how much their lives will change forever.


My Name Is Hanna is based somewhat on the real life story of Esther Stermer who saved the lives of her family and five other families by hiding in the gypsum caves in Eastern Ukraine during World War II. Esther and her husband Zaida lived in the small Ukrainian village of Korolowka, when it was invaded by the Germans in 1941. Determined to save her family, Esther and Zaida, along with five other families packed up some belongings and fled into the dark, cold night to the network of gypsum caves near their village. They were told about the caves by a forester in the District of Galicia. Thirty-eight persons would live in the caves for five hundred and eleven days, a record that still stands today, only emerging in when the Red Army had pushed the Germans out of the area in 1944. The families lived in a second cave which had good ventilation and lakes, creating areas to bath and digging latrines. Artifacts from their time in the caves were discovered in the 1990s by cave diver, Chris Nicola. Eventually he was able to discover the story behind the artifacts.

In Masih's novel, the characters are all fictional except for the historical figures of Adolf Hitler and Gestapo Chief Koelner. The author strove "...to be historically accurate in as many ways as possible." in spite of the fact that there were few personal accounts that survive, and the history of the region has been suppressed by both the Ukraine and Russia. In this regard, she succeeds admirably. Because of this Masih relied heavily on Esther Stermer's memoir to craft some of the details of Hanna's story, but she also created her own events too. For example, the Slivka's escape first to the forest, something the Stermers did not do. When that becomes too risky,  as a last resort they realize their only chance to survive is to retreat to the caves, a horrifying prospect, effectively portrayed in the novel.

Masih's characters are varied and realistic. There is the lovable, kindly Mrs. Alla Petrovich, a Ukrainian Christian who creates pysanky and who does as much as possible to help Hanna and her family. She recognizes their differences, but is tolerant and caring.  And there is the Ukrainian farmer, Stepan Illiouk and Yuri the forester who also help. Stepan does all he can to help his Jewish friends and is devastated when he witnesses the murder of hundreds of Jews near his fields.

Hanna is a strong, intelligent protagonist whose compassion is a central feature of her personality.  On her birthday a family fleeing persecution is hidden in their barn. "I listen, eyes wide. A whole family in our barn? Fleeing for their lives? I think of the cold barn, the lack of heat, wind whistling down from the mountains and through the drafty boards, the miles they still have to travel." Hanna gives her father the warm, long scarf her sister Leeba made for her birthday.  Later on from the safety of the hilltop, Hanna watches all the Jews huddled together in the town. "My heart breaks to see their misery. How I wish I had many scarves to hand out." When her friend Levi is depressed on his sixteenth birthday because no one notices, Hanna does notice and offers him a handful of dried crabapples.

However, Hanna is a realistically crafted heroine. When they are ready to leave their home for the forest, Hanna struggles to pray. "I am not much in the mood to be thanking God for things that seem frightening, like living in the forest, but when we thank God for the food we can finally eat, I join in." Hanna struggles terribly at times, wondering how Sonia could possibly have a baby when life is so terrible. She has little hope for the future but in the end that hope is restored.

Despite all the evil around them, Hanna's parents endeavour to teach her not to become like the Germans. This is best demonstrated when Fedir Wolinski appears half-dead at their hideout in the forest. Wolinski was the lamplighter in Kwasova, friendly to everyone before the war. But when the Germans came he turned on his Jewish neighbours and became the Tzeler, a Death Counter, actively looking for Jews in hiding and keeping track of the dead in the shetele. When the Germans shoot his wife, Wolinski knows his time of reckoning is coming and so he flees. Hanna learns from her parent's actions. "But my parents taught me something when they took in the Death Counter. Life is not good, however you are living it, if you become like those who don't value you."

Early in the novel, Hanna is given a copy of Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc which she treasures. To Hanna, her journey to survive parallels that of Joan. When she leaves her village, just as Joan left hers, Hanna understands what Joan feels. "I am at the end of the first chapter in Joan of Ar, where Joan, at seventeen, is looking back on her distant village, 'trying to print these scenes on her memory'. I am doing the same."  Hanna begins to use Joan of Arc to keep track of time. Like Joan, Hanna notes, "It is easy to lose track of time in one room you never leave, away from normal routines..."  Like Joan too, a tree plays an important part in Hanna's life. "I find a beech tree in the oan of Arc story as well. A fairy tree. A mystical tree connected to the children of Domremy, the hamlet she grew up in. I feel like I am following in her footsteps...." For her it is the Witness tree which is used as a means of communication in the forest. And as Hanna and her family  struggle to survive in the gypsum caves, she tries to draw on Joan's heroic example. "I try to be like Joan, who endured prison and torture. 'A great soul, with a great purpose, can make a weak body strong and keep it so,' Mr. Twain wrote." Hanna's purpose is to live.

My Name Is Hanna is a well written historical fiction novel that focuses on the plight of the Jewish population in Ukraine during World War II. Not many readers will know how deeply the Jewish people living in Eastern Europe suffered. Very few Jews in the Ukraine survived the war. And years later, Chris Nicola, attempting to learn the origins of the artifacts in the caves, would discover this history hidden. This is a novel that will place readers securely into a little known event, allowing them to experience the trauma of being hunted to the point of having to live for over 500 days in a dark cave.

Book Details:
My Name is Hanna by Tara Lynn Masih
Simsbury, Connecticut:   Mandel Vilar Press  2018
195 pp

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Language of Fire by Stephanie Hemphill

The Language of Fire is another retelling of the story of St. Joan of Arc, the Catholic teenager from the village of Domremy, who turned the tide in the Hundred Years War, saving France from English occupation.

Born in 1412 in Domremy, to Jacques and Isabelle D'Arc a peasant farmers. Joan was the youngest in her family with three brothers and a sister. Joan excelled at spinning and sewing and it was her nature to be prayerful, to help in all the family chores and to care for the poor. She was known to frequent the parish church and to pray. When she was thirteen-years-old Joan became aware of a voice accompanied by a flash of light that spoke to her. In her vision she saw St. Michael the archangel who bid her to be a good girl and who told her that St. Catherine and St. Margaret would soon come to her. When the two saints first appeared to her they were gentle in their request that she go see the dauphin and that she secure and army from him to lift the siege at Orleans. These initial visions happened in 1425 and continued for the next three years, growing more insistent.

With great reluctance, Joan began to speak of her visions, so that she could act on starting her mission to save France. In 1428, when Joan was seventeen she was pressed to marry receiving an offer from a suitor whom her parents encouraged. However, Joan knew she would never be able to carry out her mission if this were to happen so she refused the man who offered marriage. She even had to travel to the ecclesiastical court in Toul where she won her case. 

The French now laid siege to Orleans. If Orleans was lost, France would fall to the English. Joan's voices insisted that she must save Orleans. The second part of her mission was to take the heir to the French crown, Charles VII to the city of Rheims to be crowned. This would mean clearing the way to Rheims and removing the English from the city. To accomplish all this she was to start by meeting with Robert de Baudricourt. Her voices now insistent, Joan knew she had to act. So began her mission which would ultimately succeed, but lead her to martyrdom.


The Language of Fire is a novel of historical fiction written in free verse. Hemphill, who admits to having been fascinated with St Joan of Arc since her fourth grade catechism class, has done a stellar job in capturing the story of Joan of Arc and her remarkable mission. Impressed with Joan's belief in herself,  in her God-given mission and her ability to rise above her station, Hemphill was motivated to write her story.

The novel begins with the author portraying Joan in a decidedly modern feminist manner as she questions her friend Mengette about what she wishes for her life, 
"Did you ever wish
to be something
besides a wife and mother?"
Formed exclusively by her Catholic faith, Joan would have been intent on living a holy life and discovering and doing the will of God, something modern teens are not taught nor would likely consider. Hemphill admits that she took creative license with the young Joan, since little is known about her early youth. But in some ways, portraying a historical figure with modern attitudes does no favours to today's readers, who are led to believe that young people everywhere have always thought as they do today. As the novel progresses, Joan loses this feminist perspective and her character feels more true to the Joan we know from history.

To make Joan seem more realistic and relatable, Hemphill "created an internal struggle for Joan throughout her journey."  She wanted to present Joan as a person "of flesh and blood" instead of just the "largely pious and brave warrior." For Joan that struggle was to reconcile her mission from God with her place in society as a young woman with few rights. She knew God was calling her to a soldier's mission to save France, yet she was baffled as to how to accomplish this. She kept her mission a secret for several years, until the voices became threatening. Even her "voices" instructions to travel to meet Robert of Baudricourt, initially seemed impossible to her.

Hemphill portrays Joan of Arc as in awe of what God has done through her,
"...for I am a seventeen-year-old girl
who now leads thousands of men.

It seems beyond impossible,
yet because of Him 
I am."

as confident and in charge,
"Because I need answer to no one,
except God and the dauphin."

full of faith and virtue,
"I explain with a smile,
'All who follow me into battle,
I must be assured
I will see again in heaven.' "

Hemphill simplified one aspect of Joan's story; the voices who direct her. Joan of Arc indicated that she had visions and heard the voices of St. Michael the Archangel, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. Instead the author merged their voices into one voice, the voice of God, "...not only for ease of reading and comprehension, but more importantly because although in the fifteenth century hearing the voices of saints was not hard for people to imagine, modern readers do not in large part pray to saints." But many, as Hemphill notes in her Author's Note, do pray to God.

The Language of Fire captures the complexity of Joan's mission, the physical, political and social obstacles she had to overcome, the utter depravity of her imprisonment, the corrupted trial she endured and the horror of being burned alive at the stake, her naked corpse raised up and burned, her ashes thrown into the Seine.

The theme of fire can be found throughout the novel, foreshadowing Joan's martyrdom. Throughout this telling, Joan is troubled by dreams of fire, being trapped in her father's barn, set alight by the marauding English. It is a foreshadowing of the gruesome, brutal end Joan experiences at the hands of the English. The novel begins with Joan burning at the stake in 1431, expecting the fire to speak. Throughout her young life Joan has experienced dreams involving fire. It is always the same dream, Joan trapped in the rafters of her father's barn, the fire lit by English soldiers. Told by her voices that she will die young, Joan comes to suspect that she will "face a deadly fate somewhere beyond these victories." The dreams of fire haunt her in prison and to the very end when her fate is sealed.

It's evident from this retelling that Hemphill undertook considerable research into Joan's life. In fact, the author travelled to France, visiting the city of Rouen and walked its narrow streets as well as the courtroom where she was tried. Hemphill also read numerous biographies and consulted the trial transcripts.

If you read any fiction novel about Joan of Arc this year, The Language of Fire is highly recommended. Well written, true to Joan's life and filled with plenty of interesting details, it is a captivating account of Joan of Arc's heroic life.

Image credit: https://www.jeanne-darc.info/biography/visions/

Book Details:

The Language of Fire by Stephanie Hemphill
New York: Balzer and Bray       2019
492 pp.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

 "Sometimes the truth is dangerous, Julia. But we should search for it nonetheless..." Antonio, Julia's husband.

Ana Torres Moreno works as a maid at Castella Hilton Madrid, in Madrid Spain. It is 1957, almost twenty years after the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. During the war Ana has lost her parents; her father executed and her mother imprisoned  and murdered for wanting to open a Montessori school. For this crime her family was broken apart. Now Ana lives in silence, never mentioning her parents, dreaming of a life she cannot possibly have and of leaving Spain some day.

Now twenty years later, dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco has opened up Spain to tourists again. One such tourist is Daniel Matheson, from Dallas, Texas. Daniel, who is an only child, is with his parents who are in Spain to secure an deal for his father's oil company. They have rooms at the Castella Hilton Madrid.

Recently graduated from St. Mark's School of Texas, Daniel will attend Texas A and M University in the fall. His father wants him to take over the family oil business upon graduation, but Daniel is determined to be a photojournalist. To that end he is one of five finalists for the 1957 Magnum Photography Prize. With the trip to Spain, Daniel is hoping to get some great photographs that will win him the coveted prize and enable him to attend journalism school, an endeavour his father has made clear he will not finance.

Out on the street, Daniel who speaks fluent Spanish,  takes a picture of a nun carrying a bundle, the wind revealing the gray face of a dead baby. It is the last shot for the roll of film so Daniel quickly reloads another roll into his camera. When the Guardia Civil,  the military force that serves General Franco appear, Daniel quickly takes a shot, but he is at once accosted by the guards who rough him up, order him to remove the film, question him as to where he is staying and then escort him back to the hotel.

Ana and Daniel first meet when he returns unexpectedly to his room after his encounter with the Guardia Civil. After work that day, Ana goes to a workshop on Puerta del Sol where she helps her sister Julia sew traje de luces, the suit of lights worn by the matadors. The suit of lights is so called because it is covered in gemstones and beads sewn into fabric. In another room the master tailor, Luis is fitting the matador Ordonez. Julia and her husband Antonio have a four month old daughter who is not very healthy. Julia's work helps to feed their family and pay their debts. They hope to move from the impoverished Vallecas to a small flat in Lavapies. Ana tells Julia about her assignment to a very wealthy American family and how their son has access to American magazines. Julia warns Ana that their life is very different and to keep her distance.

That night Daniel attends a dinner reception at the Van Dorn's villa in Madrid. Daniel meets Shep Van Dorn, the U.S. public affairs officer for the American embassy and his son Nicholas who seems to Daniel to be a typical rich kid, interested in parties and women. Shep tells Daniel that Spain has many stories based on its geography and then introduces him to Benjamin (Ben) Stahl who works out of the Madrid Bureau of the New York Herald Tribune. Ben is impressed with Daniel's intensity and determination and also that he is a finalist for the Magnum Prize. During the reception, Daniel also learns from Nick that the embassy is processing the paperwork for an "orphanage deal" which he assumes means a monetary donation from his parents.

Purificacion (Puri), Ana's cousin works at the Inclusa, a orphanage that provides for destitute mothers and their babies. Babies arrive at the Inclusa via an opening in the wall near the door, called el torno. But some babies arrive with a nun or a doctor by the back door. Puri's questioning about this has gone unanswered. Puri's job is to interact with the babies so they will develop normally. She is especially devoted to one orphan, whom she has secretly named Clover. Puri is happy because Sister Hortensia, who runs the orphanage has arranged for Clover to be adopted. As she leaves the Inclusa, Puri encounters a distraught woman who states her baby was taken two days ago to be baptized and has not returned. Puri tells her the orphanage

Ana's brother Rafael (Rafa) and his friend Fuga are "comrades of hardship".  They spent their youth in a boys' home in Barcelona, a humiliating experience where they were both abused. Now Rafa works in a slaughterhouse while Fuga whose name means "Escape" is a grave digger. Fuga is determined to become a famous torero and earn enough money in order to expose the evil that is going on in the children's homes. He has discovered that some of the small coffins which feel too light do not contain the bodies of babies. Fuga believes "babies born to Republican or poor families are being stolen,that the church wants the children redeemed and raised by Francoists."Rafa asks his sister Julia to ask Luis to lend Fuga a suit of lights. He explains that Fuga has been practicing on the bulls in the willow field using a blanket dyed with red bricks. Julia agrees but asks Rafa to speak to Ana whom she is certain is headed for more trouble.

When Daniel's parents travel to Valencia, Ana takes him on a trip through Madrid to reach a photography shop to have his film developed. He meets twelve-year-old Carlitos, the bell hop at the Castellana Hilton and Lorenza, a tacky hotel employee and Miguel who runs a camera shop. Miguel is impressed with Daniel's expensive Nikon as well as his photographs.

Although Daniel's relationship with Ana deepens, life in Spain does not flow smoothly. Rafa is jailed, Ana loses her job at the hotel, Julia's daughter becomes seriously ill and Daniel and his parents leave, returning to their life in America with a surprise even Daniel couldn't predict. But over the years, secrets will be uncovered, second chances will be discovered and love rekindled.


The Fountains of Silence is an unforgettable novel about war, repression, poverty, secrets, and the burden of silence often borne by the survivors. But it is also about love, hope and redemption. The novel is set twenty years after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War which began in 1936 and ended in 1939. The Spanish Civil War was the result of a complex set of factors that dated well back into the 19th century when Spain was still a monarchy. Attempts to transition to a liberal government were fraught with uprisings, coups, and abdications during this century. In April of 1931, general elections were held and socialist and liberal republicans won in most of the provincial capitals, leading to the formation of the Second Spanish Republic.

In the 1930's Spain became a deeply polarized country. On the right politically were the Nationalists who were mainly Roman Catholics and included many landowners, businessmen and members of the military. They were opposed by the left-leaning Republicans, comprised of the educated middle class, labourers and those who worked in the cities. Elections held on February 16, 1936 saw a Popular Front government elected. This was a left wing coalition made up of working and middle class parties including the Spanish Socialist Workers Party and the Republican Left. They were determined to resist what they felt was fascism, which had already infected Italy and Germany. Spain was now wracked with violence, the outright seizure of farmland from landowners, the closure of Catholic schools, the seizure of Catholic property and desecration of churches.

However, members of the Spanish military began to plan a coup, which eventually took place on July 17, 1936. Led by three men, Emilio Mola y Vidal, General Jose Sanjurjo and eventually General Francisco Franco Bahomande, the Nationalist coup was unsuccessful and the country sank into civil war between the right Nationalists and the left Republicans. Both Mola and Sanjurjo were dead by the middle of 1937, leaving Franco to lead the war. With neither side strong enough to win the war, both enlisted military support from other countries. Eventually the Nationalists, with help from Germany and Italy, gained control of much of Spain. On March 28, the Republican armies began to surrender and disband.

Sepetys weaves together four stories; Ana, daughter of a middle class family whose parents were murdered and imprisoned for wanting to start a school and who longs for something more than the impoverished life she shares with her sister Julia and her brother Rafa; Daniel son of a wealthy American oil tycoon who dreams of becoming a photojournalist but who is expected to enter the family business; Ana's brother Rafa and his friend Fuga, survivors of a brutal boys school who discover that the coffins they are burying are empty; and Puri, Ana's cousin who works at the Inclusa and who longs to uncover the secrets of the orphanage and possibly her own identity.

The Fountains of Silence is a novel about how the greatest suffering in war is often borne by the youngest and most innocent, the children and teenagers who are unable to fight back against the violence and repression. Sepetys wanted to tell their story. "During the postwar period and dictatorship in Spain, young people were left amidst the wreckage to navigate an inheritance of heartache and responsibility for events they had no role in causing. The young adult narrative is what I chose to represent in the story -- innocent youths who, instead of pursuing hopes and dreams, became fountains of silence."

Almost everyone in the novel has a secret. Daniel has secrets; his plans to attend journalism school, his breakup with girlfriend Laura Beth, his blossoming relationship with Ana, his encounter with the Guardia Civil. Daniel's parents have their own secrets, a miscarriage, an illness and then an adoption. Ana, Julia and Rafa's share the secret of their family's involvement in resisting Franco, the murder of their father and the imprisonment, torture and public humiliation of their mother. Rafa and Fuga have the secret of their abuse at the boys home, of Fuga training in the fields illegally. Julia too has a secret, one that we don't learn until the very end.

It is Julia, who is considered the guardian of the family secrets who wonders at the cost of silence. "What is the cost of silence? If she remains quiet about her suspicions, is granting acceptance of what is happening? If she imposes silence upon Ana and Rafa, what is that telling them? That she is ashamed of their parents? Their parents did nothing wrong. They were academics, hardworking, sophisticated people. Their father wanted to create a school outside of the Catholic Church. That is all..."

One of the greatest strengths of this novel is Sepetys' characters. They are authentic to the era, unique and interesting. For example, Daniel Matheson is an endearing character, a teenager growing into adulthood as a young man with courage, compassion and honour. He is a protector and therefore very appealing. His love for Ana is genuine. Her family justifiably are concerned over her relationship with Daniel, but his honour is demonstrated in how he treats her. Daniel represents the reader looking into a Spain he cannot really understand, even though his mother is Spanish. Sepetys discovered during her research for the novel, that understanding what happened in Spain so many years ago was difficult for an outsider like herself. Daniel is that outsider, looking in, his focus sharpened by the lens of his camera.

Daniel's strength as an outsider is that he can tell the human story of what's happening Spain and Ben Stahl urges him to do so. "But you. You can capture a real story here -- a photo essay to show a different side of Spain than the one on the postcards. All the foreign correspondents are chasing the same threads....But they're mission something. What about the people of Spain? What is life like under a dictatorship? What's it like for young people when textbooks are government sponsored? What are their hopes and dreams when there are no free elections and only one religion?"

Ana, Julia, Rafa and Fuga are all well crafted characters, used to portray the suffering of the Spanish people during the Franco years. Ana, Julia and Rafa had their lives upended when Franco took power, losing their parents and being separated. Their grinding poverty is contrasted by the wealth of Daniel and the other wealthy Americans living in Spain. This is especially evident when Daniel visits the slum, Vallecas where Ana lives with her family in a concrete cement shack, without running water or toilets, a broken window and door and a collapsing roof. In contrast, Daniel's father meets with General Franco and his family is able to afford to dine at the renowned restaurant Lhardy, where "Waiters stand behind screens, so not to interrupt the guests but watch and tend to their every need." Both Rafa and Fuga have suffered mental and physical abuse and deprivation. Julia's husband, Antonio has a left foot that drags a bit, an injury courtesy of the Guardia Civil.

At a hefty 500 pages, The Fountains of Silence is an epic work of historical fiction. It is a work that touches not only on the poverty and repression the Spanish people endured under Franco's dictatorship, but also on the heinous practice of stealing newborn infants from families deemed too poor or too "Red". The theme of missing children is woven throughout the novel and is a part of the stunning conclusion. It is through the character of Puri, that the reality of this practice is exposed in the novel.

Sepetys includes an Author's Note about the Spanish Civil War, a section on Research and Sources which includes an extensive list of sources the author consulted, a Glossary and a section of black and white photographs from the era. 

Book Details:

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys
New York: Philomel Books    2019
495 pp.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Our House Is On Fire: Greta Thunberg's Call To Save the Planet by Jeanette Winter

Our House Is On Fire is a children's picture book that focuses on telling the story of teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. Her story begins in the city of Stockholm, where Greta who is quoted as stating "All my life I've been invisible..." is the lonely girl who sits at the back of the classroom and never says anything. After a presentation by her teacher on climate change, Greta who could focus for hours on anything, found her attention drawn solely to this topic.

After watching films and doing hours of reading on climate change, Greta began to focus on the many horrible natural disasters that were taking place in the world.

Greta became so concerned about climate change that "She barely ate or spoke." and she decided to do something. She went on strike from school and sat with a sign in front of Sweden's parliament. Every Friday, Greta would go on strike from school. After all, "What use is school without a future?" Soon she was joined by other students and their school strikes were noticed and spread. Eventually, Greta was invited to speak at the United Nations climate talks in Poland and at thethe World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. She wanted the world to panic as she was.


Our House Is On Fire is piece of alarmist nonfiction in the format of what appears to be a benign picture book for children. It pretends to tell the story of Greta Thunberg, but is a piece of propaganda promoting climate change ideology to our youngest citizens, without context, fact or balance.  It is something parents should be aware of and that their children may be exposed to in school.

Greta Thunberg is presented as a lonely child who is largely ignored by her classmates until she learned about climate change from her teacher. There is no mention that Greta was a mere eight-years-old when her obsession with climate change began.  In Our House Is On Fire, Greta is said to have focused on an entire list of climate catastrophes; "She saw ice melting into the sea, disappearing. She saw mighty winds and torrential rains howling across the lands. She saw coral reefs, deep down in the sea, pale as ghosts, bleached by the warming waters. Greta saw living creatures everywhere, struggling to stay alive. Greta saw floodwaters covering houses and people and animals. She saw cities swallowed under rising oceans. She saw the smoldering sun scorch the earth, leaving it bone dry. She saw blazing wildfires, racing through the forests." 

Clearly Greta was a young girl obsessed and terrorized by these events, unable to process them or place them within the larger context of our planet's ecosystem. For example, tsunamis are rare, blizzards are a normal part of winter weather as are hurricanes in the summer. Forest fires such as the ones that were burning in the Amazon jungle in the summer of 2019, are part of the natural ecosystem and its rejuvenation process. There is no explanation of the role of media in all this. Media bias has focused on "sexy topics" such as that relating to the Amazon jungle while no mention was made by the media of the forest fires that also occur annually in Africa.

This obsession left Greta sad and unable to eat or speak. To her, the future was bleak and full of despair. There is no mention of the fact that Greta Thunberg, in light of her behaviour, was then diagnosed with Aspergers, a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction, as well as the tendency to obsessively focus on one topic . One wonders where her parents where to calm her fears and help her put events like natural disasters into perspective. Instead, they fed her fears, becoming vegan and giving up air travel, something that cost her mother her opera career and likely has had little if any impact on world CO2 levels.

With "...each day more unhappy than the next..." Greta began to act on her fears. She went on a school strike and eventually spoke at world events. She told people, "I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day...I want you to act as if the house was on fire." Greta blamed all adults for what is happening.

Filled with these alarmist sentiments, Our House Is On Fire, ostensibly a biography, presents a very simplistic approach to a complex problem. There is no context to the issue of climate change. Instead children are presented with numerous scenarios of natural disasters some of which have never happened (such as cities being swallowed by rising seas) in a way that may be frightening and overwhelming. This picture book plays on children's fears in very destructive and manipulative way. It tells children they cannot trust their own parents to care for their future. It never mentions that each generation has done things that the next sees it might do better. There is no balance because there is no balance in Greta's approach either.

It's impossible to talk about Greta Thunberg without mentioning climate change. But such treatment should be honest, open and realistic. It should not work to alarm young children in the hopes of making them act out of panic. Greta wondered what good attending school would be. She need only have looked to young Boyan Slat who is working to clean the oceans of plastic waste with his invention. With her despairing, frantic and panicked message, Thunberg is no model for young children to aspire to.

Book Details:

Our House Is On Fire by Jeanette Winters
New York: Beach Lane Books       2019

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything by Martin W. Sandler

But now it was the whole globe receding in size, dwindling until it became a disk.  We were the first humans to see the world in its majestic totality, an intensely emotional experience for each of us. We said nothing to each other, but I was sure out thoughts were identical -- of our families on that spinning globe. And maybe we shared another thought I had...This must be what God sees.
                                                                                                             Frank Borman

As with any book about the space race, Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything begins with President John F. Kennedy's famous speech on May 25, 1961, challenging America to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's.

The Americans seemed to be well behind the Soviets who had not only launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, but also sent Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the Earth, the first human to do so. In 1961, communism seemed to be on the rise in every part of the world: a new communist government had been established in Cuba, half of the city of Berlin had just been taken over by communists and the civil war in Vietnam was about to intensify.

In the 1960s, the space program in the U.S. continued to work towards its goal of putting a man on the moon. Each mission built upon the next, each previous one offering lessons. In 1968, Apollo 8 was set to launch on December 21 and this mission would be another step in that goal, testing the lunar module. But the objective of the mission was drastically altered and escalated when NASA learned from the CIA that the Soviets had a rocket capable of carrying two men to the moon and that it was being moved into launch position. Although the Soviets would not able to land on the Moon, a successful mission to the Moon would mean they would be able to say they were first to the Moon.

George Low, manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program knew he had to act. Low came up with the plan to send Apollo 8, sans lunar lander to the Moon, to test communications and navigation systems. Low knew he would have to sell this to the head of the Apollo project, Christopher Kraft, but in the end he succeeded. Not only was getting to the Moon first an important technological achievement but in terms of the space race it was important too. One of the main objectives of the space race was to prove that American capitalism was more successful than Soviet communism.

All three Apollo 8 astronauts, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were on board with the revised mission objectives. Eventually NASA's Administrator, James E Webb also gave the go-ahead for the revised mission that would see Apollo 8 head to the moon and return to Earth. This decision meant enormous changes to the mission; a new flight plan and retraining the astronauts, in particular Bill Anders who was to pilot the lunar module but now had to train for the command and service modules. Anders was also responsible for "surveying the lunar surface for future landing sites."

What follows is the thrilling account of Apollo 8's remarkable journey from liftoff atop the Saturn V rocket to the Moon and back. Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything tells the story of how NASA scientists and the Apollo 8 astronauts came together, took enormous risks to make a daring mission an outstanding success.


Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything tells the story of the remarkable mission that was rejigged in order to put America ahead of the Soviets in the space race. Sandler begins by setting the stage for the events of Apollo 8 - the famous speech by Kennedy. However, the original objectives of the Apollo 8 mission were drastically altered when new intelligence revealed the Soviet Union's potential ability to travel to the Moon. From this point on Sandler focuses on the changes to the Apollo mission and the enormous risks the Apollo 8 astronauts were being asked to undertake.

These risks included creating new flight plan and using the largest rocket in the world that remained largely untested. Then there was the difficulty of both placing the spacecraft on trajectory to intersect the Moon as well as achieving lunar orbit. NASA flight director Gene Kranz likened the first to "threading the needle, shooting a spacecraft from a rotating Earth at the leading edge of the Moon, a moving target a quarter of a million miles away."  The enormous distance between the Earth and Moon meant that should anything go wrong, the trip back was three days. The astronauts also needed to perform an SPS burn to put them into orbit around the moon and a third burn to push them out of lunar orbit and back to Earth. On their return to Earth they also needed to accomplish reentry exactly. If the spacecraft's reentry was too steep, the gravitational forces on the astronauts as well as temperatures on the craft's heat shield would be extreme. A too shallow reentry would mean the risk of the spacecraft "bouncing off" the atmosphere causing it to "soar into a huge elliptical orbit around the earth."

Earthrise taken by Bill Anders
Much of the backstory to space exploration and the United States and Soviet space programs is told in separate sections with special paper; light blue with a faint image of the Moon. These sections are informative and fill in the blanks on certain aspects of the story, both cultural and science related. for example,  Pioneers of Rocketry explores the three scientists who laid the groundwork for modern rocketry, Russia's Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Germany's Hermann Oberth and the United States' Robert Goddard. Other special topics include Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolev who developed the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and who also designed Sputnik. Other sections include Paving the Way For Apollo 8 which summaries the first space missions that laid the groundwork for Apollo 8 including Project Mercury and the Gemini missions, The Families which focuses on how the mission impacted the astronauts families, and What's In A Name which discusses how areas of the Moon have been named.

Apollo 8 captures the astronaut's reactions to the incredible experiences of seeing Earth diminish as they travelled towards the Moon, recording the Earth rise on the Moon's horizon and seeing the dark side of the Moon for the first time. All three astronauts were deeply affected by these sights. What struck them was the Earth's fragility. Anders' colour photograph titled Earthrise made different impressions on each of the astronauts. For Lovell, it "became a symbol of the Earth's fragility, a reminder of just how small and insignificant the Earth's place in the universe truly is..." This impression was not unique to just Lovell, but to the millions and millions of people on Earth who watch the broadcasts from Apollo 8 and who saw this photograph.

Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything is a fascinating account of a mission that changed the space race and gave the American's the technical advantage to successfully land on the Moon a mere seven months later. Sandler includes plenty of photographs, a detailed section containing Source Notes, a Bibliography, short profiles of the Apollo 8 astronauts after the mission and an Index. A great book for anyone interested in accounts of the space race and the Apollo missions.

Earthrise image:  https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap181224.html

Book Details:

Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything by Martin W. Sandler
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press        2018
160 pp.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

A Bear In War by Stephanie Innes and Harry Endrulat

A Bear In War is based on the true story of a young girl who sends her beloved teddy bear over to Belgium in the hopes it will protect her father during World War II.

In 1916, with World War I at a stalemate in Europe, ten-year-old Aileen Rogers and her new teddy bear named Teddy are traveling home in their sleigh to their farm in East Farnham, Quebec.  Teddy notices that Aileen is wearing a metal brace on her leg and limps. She reveals to Teddy that she had polio and now has to wear a brace to support her weakened leg. This means she can't run and jump like the other children. Teddy tells her that this doesn't matter to him. Aileen's younger brother Howard thinks Teddy is rather small, but her father points out that "Sometimes the smallest ones have the biggest hearts..."

There are plenty of chores to do both in the house and on the farm. Aileen and Teddy set the table and after dinner wash the dishes. Afterwards, Aileen and her mother help in the barn, feeding the horses hay and oats.  Aileen tells Teddy about the war explaining that war happens "when people from one country fight people from another country."  That night as her father reads stories about the war in the Montreal Gazette he is worried.

The morning is filled with more chores, which Aileen does with Teddy "snug in the pocket of Aileen's coat." That afternoon they return to town to attend church. In town they see recruiting posters for the war. There are few men at church as most of them are off fighting in Europe.

One night Aileen's life changes forever when her father tells her that he has enlisted to go fight in the war. Although Aileen is proud of her father, she tells Teddy that she wishes he could stay at home.Aileen's father travels to Valcartier where he trains to be a soldier. Aileen along with her mother, brother and Teddy travel to visit her father at Valcartier.

Aileen's father's letters eventually reveal that he has sailed to England on the RMS Hesperian. After time in England, her father is eventually sent to Belgium. After much consideration, Aileen decides to send her most prized possession, Teddy to her father, "...to remind him of home and to keep him safe."  Sadly, although Teddy would return home, Aileen's father did not. Teddy would see all that the war would involve and Aileen's father's heroic efforts to help the soldiers as a medic. He was recovered from a pocket in her father's uniform and sent home.


A Bear In War is a truly a deeply moving and endearing picture book. Although the story is based on real events about a young girl losing her father in the Battle of Passchendaele in the fall of 1917, it also a story about love and sacrifice.

Aileen Rogers' Teddy
Aileen's father, Lawrence Browning Rogers served with the Fifth Canadian Mounted Rifles from 1915 to 1917. Lawrence wrote over two hundred letters to his wife, Janet May in that time. Both Aileen and her brother Howard also wrote to their father. These letters and the story of Teddy remained hidden until 2002 when Lawrence Rogers' granddaughter, Roberta Roberts Innes (Howard's daughter) discovered them in a family briefcase along with other memorabilia including Teddy. A Bear In War and a second book, Bear On The Homefront were written by Lawrence Roger's great-granddaughter, Stephanie Innes and children's author, Harry Endrulat.

The authors tell Aileen's family story from the point of view of Teddy, Aileen's new teddy bear. Teddy is kind and loyal. Aileen and Teddy's relationship is at once sweet and tender. She tells Teddy her secrets, the first being that she has had polio and has to wear a leg brace. Teddy responds, "That makes no difference to me."

Teddy immediately fits into the Rogers family, accompanying Aileen as she helps with dinner and chores on the farm.  Like Aileen, Teddy doesn't like war and he misses Daddy. Eventually after her father goes to war, Aileen and Teddy come up with the idea to send him to war as well, in the hopes that Teddy can protect her father.  Teddy and Aileen who have been a comfort to one another during this difficult time, decide to make their own sacrifice and send him overseas to France. During his time at war, Teddy tells young readers a bit about what it was like for soldiers during World War I.  "A lot of the time we sat in deep trenches. They were wet and cold -- and there were rats everywhere. But the trenches helped protect us from bullets and bombs....Sometimes we got hurt when a bomb exploded nearby. Sharp things would hit us." Sadly Aileen's father does not survive and is killed  while treating soldiers during the Battle of Passchendaele. Teddy survives the war and eventually is returned to the Rogers family. His own secret is "that I fought in the war in the pocket of a hero."

A Bear In War captures the uncertainty, fear and loss experienced by the families of soldiers during the long years of the Great War - a war that was supposed to end war but ended up being a continuous blood bath. Aileen's story is very much enhanced by Brian Deine's oil painting illustrations done in soft tones that accent the warmth of Aileen and Teddy's friendship, and how friendship can help carry us through tough times.

A Bear In War is an excellent picture book that offers children a gentle introduction what life was like during the early part of the 20th century, about how families coped during wartime and what life as a soldier was like.  Teddy is the teddy bear we all imagined having when we were children.

Teddy image: https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/objects-and-photos/art-and-culture/toys-and-models/teddy-bear/

Book Details:

A Bear In War by Stephanie Innes and Harry Endrulat
Toronto: Key Porter Books Limited      2008