Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Marti's Song for Freedom by Emma Otheguy

Marti's Song for Freedom is a dual language picture book (English/Spanish) about Cuban patriot, Jose Julian Marti y Perez who worked towards Cuban independence from Spain.

In this picture book, Jose was a young boy who loved  the countryside of his country Cuba. However, Jose was disturbed when he saw people enslaved by the wealthy land owners. These people worked cutting the sugar cane in the fields.

Jose had learned about the Civil War in the United States which ended slavery in that country. He knew the people enslaved in his own country should be free too and he wanted to abolish slavery in Cuba. However, Cuba was ruled by Spain and the Cuban people were not allowed to be a part of the government so they had no say in how their island was run.

In 1868, Cubans began fighting Spain for independence and to gain control over their country. Jose was too young to fight so he used words, in the form of pamphlets that he handed out. For this he was taken away to jail and sentenced to forced labour in a quarry.  Eventually he was freed but on the condition that he leave Cuba. But Jose Marti would never stop fighting to free his beloved Cuba.

Discussion
 
Emma Otheguy's picture book, Marti's Song For Freedom portrays the life of Jose Marti, an important human rights activist and Latin American intellectual. Marti was born in 1853 in Havana, Cuba, to Mariano Marti Navarro and Lenoro Perez Carbrera. He was the eldest of eight children, having seven younger sisters. When Marti was twelve-years-old, he attended Escuela de Instruccion Primaria Superior Municipal de Verones which was run by Rafael Maria de Mendive who would become an important influence and mentor. His best friend was Fermin Valdes Dominguez, whose family owned slaves.

Marti enrolled in several schools but in 1867 he was studying at the San Pedro school for his undergraduate degree.  What would become The Ten Years War, a decade long struggle for Cuban independence, resulted in the formation of many groups supporting the war. Marti became a strong supporter not just of Cuban independence but also of the emancipation of of slaves. He expressed his views in poems, some of which were widely published. In 1869 when he was only sixteen years old he was arrested for his political involvement in the war against Spain.

Deported to Spain, Marti earned an M.A. and a law degree from the University of Zaragoza in 1874. He continued to be politically active, publishing many political essays. He returned to Cuba in 1878 but was once again exiled back to Spain.Marti travelled to many different countries including Mexico, Guatemala, and the United States and Venezuela. In 1891 he wrote Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses) which is quoted throughout Marti's Song For Freedom.

Marti continued to grow more and more politically active and eventually began organizing an armed Cuban revolution to gain the country's independence. He returned to Cuba in 1895 and died in the Battle of Dos Rios leading a two man charge into battle when others had withdrawn. Cuba eventually gained independence in 1898.

Marti's Song for Freedom is Otheguy's debut picture book. Written in verse, in both English and Spanish, Otheguy crafts a fascinating portrait of Marti who is considered Cuba's first most patriot and poet. Otheguy presents Marti as a person sensitive at a young age to the plight of the Cuban people who were forced by the Spanish to work as slaves on their own land.  But while living in New York,  he also saw in Americans a blindness to the less fortunate, the poor and the homeless that surrounded them. His time in the Catskill Mountains brought him back in touch with nature and its beauty that he so loved.Otheguy's biography is enhanced by the colourful artwork of illustrator Beatriz Vidal who incorporates many symbols onto the pages containing text. For example, the verses telling about Marti sent to jail as a young teen feature a caged bird, and when he returns to Cuba one last time, Otheguy quotes a verse from Marti's poetry and an eagle is featured as a symbol of freedom and power.

Otheguy's verses are complemented with a few chosen verses from Marti's Versos Sencillos giving readers a sense of Marti's passion, his love for Cuba and the island's people, his appreciation of nature and his expressive poetry. At the back of the picture book Otheguy includes an Afterword which provides detailed information on Jose Marti's life as well as a Selected Bibliography. Lavishly illustrated with short verse, Marti's Song For Freedom is an excellent resource for young readers to learn about some of the history of Cuba, and to discuss the themes of equality, national independence and the right of people to govern themselves.

Book Details:

Marti's Song For Freedom by Emma Otheguy
New York: Children's Book Press        2017

Monday, July 29, 2019

Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell

Sweetgrass Basket is a heartrending story of two Mohawk sisters sent to a residential school by their parents with the belief that this is best for them. Instead the sisters discover an institution focused not so much on educating them as in destroying their heritage.

Matilda (Mattie) Tarbell and her younger sister, twelve-year-old Sarah  are sent by train to a school in Carlisle for Indian children. When Mattie was unhappy about this her father told her, "You must go to school.
Life will be better for you.
It is for the best."
Their brothers and sisters were sent to other schools, some closer to home, others further away.

They are met at the train station by Mr. Davis whom Sarah describes as "the blackest man I have ever seen...". There are four other children besides Mattie and Sarah who ride with them in "the strangest, strangest thing on wheels."

Although Mr. Davis assures them they will be alright and will like the school, Mattie and Sarah immediately experience harsh treatment at the hands of Mrs. Dwyer who runs the school. Dressed all in black, with "eyes that look like tiny chunks of coal set into a snowbank muddied by a January thaw."Mrs. Dwyer immediately makes both Mattie and Sarah fear her.  an severe and unfriendly face and who constantly taps a ruler in her hand, Mrs. Dwyer elicits fear is almost all the students.

Mattie states the first thing they learn how to do is march, which they do whenever they go anywhere in the school. Mattie is able to read and speak English and her writing is deemed beautiful by Miss Weston, a kind teacher who becomes Mattie's favourite. Although Miss Weston loves Mattie's essay about the sweetgrass baskets her mother used to make, Mrs. Dwyer refuses to allow it to be printed in the school's paper.

While Sarah struggles to adjust, Mattie finds a friend in Gracie Powless from the Onondaga. Their days are filled with work and lessons. The girls are taught by Miss Prentiss how to use a sewing machine: Mattie excels at mending, a skill her mother taught her. Miss Prentiss decides that she will have her do finer work. Meanwhile, Sarah works in the laundry under the tutelage of the kindly Miss Velma. But when Sarah is allowed to rest outside after the heat causes her to collapse in the laundry, she is scolded by Mrs. Dwyer and Miss Velma is sent away.

When Mattie is accused of stealing Mrs. Dwyer's brooch, a chain of events is set in motion that will lead to tragedy and a heartbreaking loss for Sarah.

Discussion

Sweetgrass Basket is a much needed novel about the experiences of Native Americans who were sent away from the their families to residential schools to be "educated". Carvell provides an Author's Note at the very beginning of the novel in which she explains that The Carlisle Indian Industrial School did in fact exist from 1879 to 1918. Located in southern Pennsylvania, it was the first off-reservation school for Native Americans in the United States. Children from many different tribes attended the school, among them children from the Mohawk nation. The author's husband's great-aunt Margaret attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the early 1900's and this novel is based on her experiences.

Set in the early 1900's, Sweetgrass Basket is told from the perspective of two fictional Mohawk sisters, Mattie and Sarah Tarbell, using free verse. In some instances, events are described by both sisters, at other times, their alternating voices carry on the story. Both Mattie and Sarah do not want to attend the school but do so in obedience to their father. However, instead of being treated with dignity and compassion, with understanding and kindness, the young Indian girls are subjected to physical abuse and in some cases even neglect. The Indian children, in a strange environment far from home, find themselves at the mercy of the school matron, Mrs. Dwyer, a dour, cold woman dressed in black.  It soon becomes apparent that the focus of the school is not just to educate them but to wipe out the practice of their own culture and replace it with the ways of the white people.

In the Carlisle school, the children are given new names that are different from the names given to them by their parents. Unlike the other students, Mattie and Sarah both have English names, but they also have Mohawk names. Their father advised them to tell only their English names which they obey.
"He said our Mohawk names are special,
and we should keep them for special times."

The words written above the chalkboard in the classroom, "Labor conquers all things." are eerily similar to the words, "Arbeit macht frei" or "Work sets you free" that will be placed on the gate at Auschwitz 1 years later in Nazi-occupied Poland. The girls are told by Mrs. Dwyer,
"...if we work hard,
we will be as good as white people.
She says this is our chance to prove
we are as good as white people."
Sarah and Mattie and the other Indian girls are made to feel inferior, less than white people.

They are not allowed to bring anything from home that might remind them of their culture. However,  Sarah and Mattie keep the memory of their home alive in their minds, remembering life at home with their parents and their siblings. In secret, they use Mohawk words to describe their world, reminding each other of their heritage. For example, Sarah reminds her sister that as Mohawks they are Keepers of the Eastern Door. Mattie states,
"She said I must always remember that we
the KANIEN'KEHAKA, the Mohawk people,
are Keepers of the Eastern Door,
and that long  ago it was through us
that people were allowed to travel the lands
of the HAUDENOSAUNEE, the Iroquois;
that we allowed all to pass through our lands,
as long as we knew they traveled in peace."

The title of the novel is a reference to the sweetgrass basket that belongs to Mattie. Although they were told not to bring anything from home, Sarah brings a scarf that their mother made for her and Mattie's sweetgrass basket. Mattie had wanted to bring the basket but their father had told her not to bring it. Having "...heard the tears in her heart." Sarah decided to pack the sweetgrass basket with her. When she reveals it to Mattie one day at school, she feels she has lifted the sadness from her sister's heart. After showing her best friend Gracie, Mattie hides the basket in her bottom drawer. It will be a special basket where she and Sarah will keep their womanly thoughts.

The basket becomes a metaphor for Mattie and Sarah's Indian culture. After being accused of stealing Mrs. Dwyer's brooch, Mattie's basket goes missing from her drawer. She is unable to discover who took the basket. After Mattie is accused by Mrs. Dwyer of stealing her brooch and runs away, the basket ends up in the possession of Mrs. Dwyer, who calls Sarah into her office to question her about it.  In a move symbolic of what she stands for - the destruction of Indian culture, Mrs. Dwyer crushes Mattie's sweetgrass basket in the presence of Sarah.

"But as I lift my arms to take it from her,
she pushes her hands together in one sharp
movement, and Mattie's beautiful basket
made from our mother's love
is turned instantly into a misshapen mass
that now looks oddle like a small winter squash
flattened on one side from where it grew....

Mrs Dwyer takes two steps to her right
and drops the object of her scorn
into the waste bin that sits beside a wooden chair..."
The message is clear, the Indian culture has nothing redeemable about it, it is something to be jettisoned in favour of the white man's culture.

Although there is heart-breaking tragedy in the novel, Carvell does leave her young readers with a sense of hope. At the very end,Sarah is given Mattie's basket, saved from the garbage by the kindly Mr. Davis who enigmatically tells Sarah he has fixed her bottom drawer. Puzzled, she checks the drawer:
"There, tucked in among my nightclothes,
there under the scarf my mother made with love for me,
was Mattie's gift from her.

Mattie's beautiful basket.

Mattie's beautiful sweetgrass basket."

The return of the basket signifies hope for the future that their way of life can and will be preserved.

In a delicious twist near the end of the novel, it is Sarah who finds Mrs. Dwyer's brooch, but convinced she will never be believed, she disposes of it. Had Mrs. Dwyer been more understanding, the brooch she cared so much for, might have been returned to her.

Sweetgrass Basket is a well written novel that is both timely and overdue. Carvell's simple poetry is deeply moving, allowing readers to experience the pain, the sense of loss and the anger Mattie and Sarah experience as young Indian Americans who have been suddenly separated from their family and their way of life. Those who read this novel with sensitivity will weep at the fate of Mattie, at the lack of care for these young girls and at the lack of understanding of their way of life. Although we cannot change the past, through novels like Sweetgrass Basket  which explore the Native American experience in residential schools, we can remember it, learn from it and change the future.

Book Details:

Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell
New York: Dutton Children's Books    2005
243 pp.



Friday, July 26, 2019

Apollo 11

"...We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too....
But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun--almost as hot as it is here today--and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out--then we must be bold."

President John F. Kennedy's speech at Rice Stadium, Houston, Texas, September 12, 1962

In 1962, Kennedy committed the United States of America to landing a man on the moon before the end of the 1960's .  On July 16, 1969 at 9:32 a.m., Apollo 11, the mission to accomplish that feat, was launched into space via a Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island in Florida. Aboard were Commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Command module pilot Michael Collins. Four days later, on July 20th, Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon and spent over two hours walking on its surface, while Collins orbited in the command module.

The documentary,  Apollo 11 follows the mission just prior to launch until splash-down on July 24, 1969 in the Pacific Ocean just west of Hawaii.  

Apollo 11 is unique in that it relies on archival footage of the mission, from inside Mission Control, to camera footage shot by the astronauts themselves. NASA also located thousands of hours of uncatalogued audio from Mission Control.  This was combined with the archival footage to create a film that followed a timeline from the point of the Saturn V rocket being wheeled to the launchpad to the splashdown and quarantine and the conclusion of the voyage.  In addition, director Todd Douglas Miller forgoes interviews and narration to chronicle the historic voyage giving viewers a unique insider perspective of the entire voyage.

Apollo 11 presents viewers with some of the most beautiful clear images of the moon landing, of the lunar module in space and of the docking of the lunar and command modules. There are many images of Buzz Aldrin and not so many of Neil Armstrong who held the camera most of the time while on the moon's surface.


To help viewers understand some of the more technical aspects of the voyage, animation of the orbital path around the Earth, the various burns to orient the spacecraft a certain way, the orbital path around the Moon and the separation and docking of the lunar module with the command module were created as well as the re-entry path were created. Other interesting features are a few recordings of the physical condition of the astronauts during the launch and during the descent to the moon's surface. Interestingly during the launch Armstrong's heart rate was 110, while Buzz Aldrin's was a mere 88.

Buzz Aldrin setting up the seismometer at Tranquility Base.
For those old enough to remember watching the launch and who followed Apollo 11 throughout its mission, the film brings back so many memories and emotions; excitement and awe, along with the ever-present fear that something might go seriously wrong. Indeed, the film especially captures the moments of anxiety the various teams at Mission Control experienced. Their relief was palpable for example when communication was re-established every time the command module re-appeared on the side of the moon facing Earth or during the nine minutes of blackout during re-entry at the end of the voyage. And no film about any event in this era would be complete without the voice of Walter Cronkite Jr., news anchor for CBS Nightly News.

For those for whom the voyage of Apollo 11 was merely an event in history, this documentary is very much recommended. It might not have the thrills of modern movies and documentaries, but the complexity of the mission, the enormous number of people involved,  the risks undertaken and the courage to do so, and the fact that for the first time in history man stepped onto another world far from Earth, make Apollo 11 an important record of that accomplishment.

image credit:  https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/imgcat/hires/a11_h_40_5949.gif

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Grain of Rice by Nhung N. Tran-Davies

The events described in A Grain of Rice are loosely based on the experiences of Tran-Davies family when she lived in Vietnam and then fled after the war. Five-year-old Nhung, along with her mother and five siblings was sponsored to come to Canada in 1979, after fleeing their homeland by boat to Malaysia. Vietnamese who fled by sea in rickety boats came to be known as the "boat people".  Many lost their lives on the journey, others were attacked and robbed or worse by sea pirates. Today Nhung Tran-Davies is a physician who lives with her family just outside of Edmonton, Alberta.

In A Grain of Rice, a young girl flees Vietnam with her family to escape the worsening oppression and living conditions in the country just a few years after the end of the Vietnam War.

A Grain of Rice opens with a horrific storm that floods the Mekong River next to their home in Vinh My, a village on the river, where thirteen-year-old Yen, her mother Huong, younger sister Tien, and their adopted brother Quang live. As the water floods into their home, Yen races to grab Tien, while her Ma searches for Quang. The family shelters in the loft of their home, waiting for the storm to abate.

The next morning, when Ma is not home, Yen goes in search of her, but encounters their neighbours Co Sau and Cau Sau who lament that they have lost everything. Yen's Ma arrives at Bac Minh's home carrying a dead child, Trinh who was also a neighbour, but cannot find Trinh's brother and sister.  Yen is devastated by the death of Trinh; only a few days earlier she was playing with him and his brothers and his sister Mai. Trinh's parents were away at the markets downriver when the flooding happened. They will return to find their entire family gone.

That night Yen mentions to her mother that they should go find Ba in Ca Mau but her mother refuses telling Yen they don't need him. Ba had been taken away by the southern soldiers prior to the fall of Saigon. After he was returned, when Yen was ten-years-old and Tien was not quite a year old, Ma left Ba, taking her family to the Mekong Delta.

Later that night Yen's two older siblings, her brother Lam and her sister Muoi return home from Saigon where they attend high school. Toa Cu who is a teacher but also owns a crayon factory, pays for their school tuition. They bring home a notebook for Yen and crayons for Quang. As the family talks about their journey home, Muoi indicates that Toa Cu has indicated that their family should "escape"with him. Yen is not quite sure to what they are referring.

Ma decides that she needs to travel downriver to Ca Mau for supplies. This trip puzzles Yen. "We hadn't been back to Ca Mau since we stole away three years ago, just months before giai phong. Ma had not even mentioned Ca Mau since then. What had changed? It was unusual for her to choose Ca Mau when there were other closer markets, although they were smaller."

On the trip down the Mekong with Ma, Yen questions her mother about travelling to Ca Mau, her mother will only tell that it is for business. In Ca Mau, after being accosted by a government soldier, Yen and her mother set up a spot to sell their crabs and bananas in the market. They are shocked to see Co Sau begging for food, which they offer her. She tells them that they came to Ca Mau looking for an old friend but the friend and his family have disappeared.While Ma takes Co Sau to someone who can help them, Yen decides to wander off to find her father. She remembers how he was taken away by the soldiers from the south for being an informant for the Viet Cong and kept for two years and beaten.

When she finds her father, she tells him that Ma and Muoi are planning to escape, although she doesn't quite understand what this means. Yen asks her father to help them so that Ma will stay. but he is not sympathetic. Yen is shocked to see that her Ba has a wife and small child. Furious she runs out and returns to the market, only to find her mother and their items are gone.

Yen finds her mother in the temple, making offerings to Buddha. Yen has already been robbed by a one-legged beggar, and now they are confronted by the same officer who gave them trouble when they arrived in Ca Mau. But this time they are lucky as a stranger wearing a jade pendant intervenes.

Before they leave Ca Mau, Ma and Yen visit a friend Co Thanh who runs a fabric store. Co Thanh's husband has been gone for the past three years, taken to a labour camp to be "re-educated". She seems to indicate that her son is dead but also that he only has hope if he leaves the country. While Yen is confused her Ma seems to understand.

Back home, Ma begins to prepare for their journey that will lead them to escape the country. Yen is frustrated because no one will tell her anything. But when Bac Minh arrives one night warning them they must leave at once because soldiers are looking for them, Yen must discover her courage to make the long and dangerous journey, leaving behind the country she loves for an unknown future.

Discussion

A Grain of Rice is an interesting story that provides young readers with a sense of what life was like in the years immediately following the end of war in Vietnam. The country, previously divided into the communist North and the democratic South was now reunited and ruled by a communist government. In A Grain of Rice, young readers will learn that the Vietnamese people continued to suffer long after the war ended. The repressive communist government began punishing South Vietnamese civilian and military officials, sending them to re-education camps. Many never returned. Nguoi hoa or ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam and who considered themselves Vietnamese were particularly targeted, losing their businesses and property. With worsening economic conditions and widespread corruption and human rights abuses, millions fled the country. These refugees fled by boat into the South China sea where they faced drowning, dehydration, attacks by pirates, rape and murder. Many were picked up from rickety vessels and brought to the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong where they spent months and years in refugee camps. At the time, the Vietnamese refugees were referred to as "boat people"  which some consider a racist term today.

The Tran family
The story in A Grain of Rice is based on Tran-Davies experience as a refugee from Vietnam.  Tran-Davies was born in December of 1973, just over a year before Saigon was overrun by the Viet Cong. Her father died during the war leaving her mother a widow with five children. To support her family, they moved to a small village where her mother worked as a seamstress. But they experienced famine and flooding, the latter meaning they had to live in the loft of their home, as Yen does in the novel. Life was so difficult, the future so dismal, that her mother decided to risk everything for a better life. Tran-Davies and her family were lucky, they survived the trip and ended up in a refugee camp in Malaysia. After eight months in the camp, Tran-Davies' mother's prayers were answered and they were sponsored by Canadians from Alberta. Tran-Davies was five years old when she arrived in Canada. Today Dr. Tran-Davies is a physician in Calmar, Alberta where she shares a family practice with her husband Dr. Grant Davies.

In A Grain of Rice, Yen and her family are nguoi hoa or ethnic Chinese and are not treated well. Yen's experiences reflect the corruption and fear that the Vietnamese people experienced daily under the communist regime. When they first arrive in Ca Mau, Yen and Ma are accosted by officials who show disdain that they are nguoi hoa and force Ma into giving them money. Yen remembers a time years earlier when they had been stopped by uniformed officials on the river. "They had used their badges to stop us, then confiscated all our merchandise."  In the market at Ca Mau with Ma, they are warned when a "yellow-uniformed official" approaches. "Police officers. They're in cahoots with the northern army. They take everything from us and send it to their friends and families..." When they visit the fabric store run by Ma's friend, Thanh, Yen immediately notices how much has changed. "I could see that the walls, once lined with rolls and rolls of fabric coils in every colour, texture and pattern, were now virtually barren. No silk or satin. Only brown, white or black polyester and cotton."

Tran-Davies manages to capture all the terror and tragedy that Yen and her family and the other refugee's experience as they attempt to flee their country. Before they leave, Yen discovers Co Sau's body on the beach after the previous night's boat sank. Terrified and fully aware of the danger she faces, Yen refuses to leave. On their own journey they deal with rain, a violent sea, sea-sickness and long days trapped in the reeking hold of the boat. Their boat is attacked by pirates who rob them, murder several men and rape some of the young girls. Their boat sinks when the Malaysian Coast comes not to rescue them but to tow them out to sea. Yen's life and death struggle to survive the sinking fortunately ends well.

Although the novel has a somewhat happy ending, readers will be left with many questions. What has become of Lam and Muoi? What will happen to Yen and her family in Malaysia?

A Grain of Rice is well written and will give younger readers a sense of what some refugees experience as they search for a place to live in freedom and safety. Novels such as these help create empathy for those less fortunate and provide an opportunity for younger readers to learn about other cultures, other countries and systems of government which do  not offer citizens the freedoms that we enjoy in Canada.

image credit: https://mcccanada.ca/stories/journey-refugee-sponsorship-nhung-tran-davies

Book Details:

A Grain of Rice by Nhung N. Tran-Davies
Vancouver: Tradewind Books    2018
167 pp.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Path To The Stars: My Journey From Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist by Sylvia Acevedo

Sylvia Acevedo is the current Chief Executive Officer of the Girl Scouts of the USA. She is also an accomplished engineer and businesswoman.Sylvia tells her own story about growing up in New Mexico during the social changes of the 1960's and how she found her own path to the stars.

Sylvia was born in South Dakota while her father was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Her father's family was from Mexico but he had grown up in Texas and spoke fluent English. Her mother grew up in Parral, Mexico, in the the state of Chihuahua and could not speak English. For Sylvia's Mami, life with two small children in a strange country was lonely and very different.

When Sylvia's father was discharged from the army, her family moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico.There they moved in with her father's older sister, Tia Alma and her family. The home was crowded but filled with children to play with. Sylvia's father found work at New Mexico State University as a chemist in the physical science labs. Sylvia's mother who had a sixth grade education, stayed at home to look after the children but also worked cleaning homes in El Paso, Texas.  Eventually Sylvia's family moved to another house on Solano Street. Her aunt, her mother's younger sister, Tia Angelica came to stay with them because her mother was expecting a baby. Soon, Sylvia's younger sister, Laura was born.

Shortly after Laura's birth, Sylvia's father was fired from his job because he did not take his work seriously and often made mistakes. He found a new job at the White Sands Missile Range as an analytical chemist, a job he took much more seriously.  The family moved again, this time to Griggs Street. In Las Cruces, Sylvia's Mami loved the close knit community and knew many of the families.

When Mario was six-years-old and Sylvia was four-years-old, they began taking lessons from Hermana Amelia Diaz who taught them English. Sylvia's Mami wanted them to be able to understand the language before they began attending Bradley Elementary School. Sylvia learned the Pledge of Allegiance, and learned to read in English but not Spanish.

Sadly, tragedy struck when Sylvia's younger sister Laura was only nineteen months old. She contracted meningitis and was hospitalized for months. Laura survived the illness and eventually returned home, but much changed. She had been a boisterous, happy child who chattered but now she was quiet, withdrawn into her own world. Initially her vision had been affected by the meningitis, and she was unresponsive, unable to walk or talk. Although she would mostly recover, Laura's illness changed Sylvia's family in many ways. Her father stopped going to church, her mother decided to learn how to drive, reasoning that if she had been able to, they might have gotten Laura medical treatment sooner. Her mother also decided that they needed to move away from their poor neighborhood where the streets weren't paved, the houses close together with feral dogs wandering around.

Before attending Grade One at Bradley Elementary School in the fall, Sylvia was enrolled in the Head Start program, despite many neighbors being wary of the government program. However, Sylvia flourished in the program, learning to read books, and becoming a confident speaker to her classmates.

Sylvia's family moved again, this time across town to a house on Kay Lane in a neighborhood where everyone spoke English and there were few Mexicans. This move meant attending a new school, Alameda Elementary School where Sylvia found it difficult to fit in. Initially she was placed in the remedial grade two class, which stunned Sylvia even though she quickly moved out of the class. Sylvia found it difficult to make friends, feeling sad and fearful, afraid she would be moved back in class if she gave the wrong answer.  One aspect of attending school at Alameda was that Sylvia was not the only girl who played on the swings and monkey bars.

But Sylvia's life was about the take a very different path because of one classmate who reached out to her. One day after school, Sylvia was invited by a classmate, Sylvia Black to attend Brownies, a part of Girl Guides for younger girls. With her mother's permission, Sylvia accompanied her classmate to Brownies. For Sylvia, Brownies offered her hope from the very first meeting. When she is quickly and firmly corrected on how to safely pass scissors, Sylvia is so impressed that she decides she really wants to be a part of Brownies.The skills and attitude towards life, she would learn in Brownies and later on in Girl Guides would stay with Sylvia and help guide her towards the goals and life she envisioned for herself. Ultimately, these skills would help her reach for the stars and further than she could have ever foreseen.

Discussion

Path To The Stars chronicles Sylvia Acevedo's journey from a young girl uncertain about her future but determined to have "adventures" to an industrial engineer at NASA. After graduating from the University of New Mexico with a degree in industrial engineering, Acevedo worked as an engineer for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Projects she participated in included the Solar Polar Solar Probe and the Voyager 2 flyby mission to Jupiter.  Voyager is still operational as of this post! Eventually Sylvia went on to obtain her Masters in Systems Engineering from Stanford, one of the first Hispanic-Americans to do so.

While doing an interview about Stanford in the mid-2000's, Acevedo remembered how her Girl Scout experience positively impacted her life, giving her the skills and confidence to succeed. Acevedo came full circle when she was nominated to serve on the national board of the Girl Scouts.

Path To The Stars portrays Sylvia as an intelligent, determined, resourceful child who grew into a confident young adult. The first signs of her determination and resourcefulness are shown when Sylvia is determined to save for her first library card. Although her older brother Mario did not have to save money for a library card, Sylvia did. Instead of buying treats with the leftover change from errands, Sylvia would save the change. She eventually saved more than eight dollars. When she was placed in the remedial class for second grade, she writes, "...By the end of my first day, I'd made up my mind that I would not stay the worst student in the worst second-grade class. I didn't know how I'd do it, but I'd find a way to move up." She did just that with her strong reading skills.

Joining Brownies had a profoundly positive influence on Sylvia's life. At her first meeting she learned two things. The people in Brownies, "...care about how to do things correctly and safely, and they wanted to teach me these things too. And, I realized, that meant they cared about me...Brownies could tell me how to do things the right way." Her sister Laura's illness had made Sylvia feel as though she had no control over events in her life. Brownies offered Sylvia that possibility.

From her Brownies experience of selling cookies to raise money for a camping trip taught Sylvia "how to plan and save for the future." This was an important lesson for her because her family's precarious financial situation meant that unanticipated expenses often caught her parents by surprise. "Selling cookies completely changed the way I thought about my life. I had learned invaluable skills: how to sell and how to create opportunity for my Girl Scout troop -- and for me. I could create possibilities for myself. That gave me confidence and the courage to dream big dreams."

Earning badges in Brownies gave Sylvia the courage to learn how to bowl."Because of the badges, I knew that I could teach myself to fulfill a goal and work as a member of a team. "  Brownies also opened up the Sylvia the path she would choose later on as a young adult. Her Brownie leader, Mrs. Beeman noticed Sylvia's love of the stars and suggested to her that work on the Observer badge from the older Cadette Girl Scouts. Resourceful and determined Sylvia sent away for a rocket kit and with the help of older brother Mario, launched her rocket. Her cooking badge taught her that she could do science.

"At the end of my time in Junior Girl Scouts, I loved the way my sash looked, with its rows of colorful badges. I was proud of what the badges represented, each one showing that I'd mastered a new skill. Every badge reminded me of the community to which I belonged.... Whether those skills belonged in the kitchen or to the outdoors, we were all gaining confidence in our own abilities."

As a young teen, Sylvia began to understand that her parents were not good planners and often weren't prepared for emergencies. After several serious incidents which placed Sylvia and her family in either life threatening or serious situations, she came to the realization that she would have to be the "one who did the planning ahead for my family..." "Over and over in Girl Scouts, I had learned that planning ahead and doing things properly could help you get what you wanted."

Sylvia grew into a teenager who knew what she wanted. In Junior High School she signed up for a free class on car maintenance and learned how to change the oil, something she did for her family on a regular basis after that. Once again life lessons learned in Girl Scouts were the driving force. "It was just as the Girl Scouts had taught me: be prepared, and you can take control of your life. Cars and furnaces don't have to break down, and people don't have to be stranded in the desert." This determination was to stand her in good stead later on as she experienced resistance from universities in entering her chosen field of industrial engineering. She was questioned merely because she was a woman interested in what was a mainly male scientific field.

Sylvia's local library was also instrumental in influencing her life. A book about Clara Barton that her parents purchased for her, intrigued Sylvia because "It was the first time I'd ever read about a woman who did important things, even helping to win a war." In the library Sylvia liked to read "biographies about the childhoods of famous people". At times the local library was a place of refuge, such as when her mother planned to leave her father.

Sylvia also touches on the different expectations for her and her brother Mario from their father. "Papa expected me to get good grades in school, but it was never with the same interest that he took in my brother. Papa never asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the way Mami did. I knew he expected me to get married, have children, and keep house, just like Mami. He even said so sometimes." Her desire to attend college led Sylvia to refuse attending the home economics class in high school. Sylvia stood up to her father who felt that this was a class she needed. "But now, I refused to go every day to a class that was preparing me to be a homemaker. I was going to college, and I needed to learn other things besides cooking and sewing. And that's what I told Papa." At first her father refused to sign the paper exempting her from the class but eventually gave in. Sylvia took an extra math class.

Sylvia Acevedo's biography is fascinating and well told. Her story is that of  a girl who grew up with big dreams and found a way to make them happen. She was part of that generation of young women who forged a new path, overcoming obstacles, pushing themselves to be the best they could be, and taking risks. She was given the skills through her experiences in Girl Guides and certainly took to heart the motto, "Nothing is impossible if you work hard and develop the skills you need to succeed."

Path to the Stars should be read by any girl wanting a career in science, by any girl with big dreams. Her experiences entering university and the work world are familiar to those women, myself included who had to deal with discrimination simply because we are women. A well written and engaging story for all young readers!

image credits: https://money.cnn.com/2017/05/19/news/girl-scouts-new-ceo/index.html


Book Details:

Path To The Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist by Sylvia Acevedo
New York: Clarion Books       2018
309 pp.

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Diamond and the Boy by Hannah Holt

Most people know that diamonds are the hardest naturally occurring mineral and very valuable. For decades they have been marketed as a symbol of love.  Diamonds were formed as a result of both high pressure and high temperature within the Earth's mantle at around 90 to 100 hundred miles below the surface, several billion years ago. They were brought closer to the surface either by deep seated volcanic activity or in subduction zones. These violent volcanic eruptions brought material from the mantle near to the surface in kimberlite pipes, a process that is believed to have happened very quickly.

It is a common misconception that diamonds are formed through the metamorphism of coal. However, they are found in rocks that are much older than coal. Most diamonds were formed from PreCambrian rock several billion years ago, whereas coal deposits are much younger. Diamonds are formed from carbon and are very hard because the bonds between the carbon atoms are very strong.

Diamonds can now be made synthetically in a lab under controlled conditions. Dr. Hall was the first who successfully created a diamond in the lab in a process that could be reproduced. For his work in creating artificial diamonds, Hall received the American Chemical Society's Award for Creation.

The Diamond and The Boy tells Tracy Hall's story. It was known how diamonds were created in nature and many believed that in time, the same conditions could be recreated in the lab. Dr. Hall and  his team did just that using a hydraulic press on carbon while heating it to 5000 Fahrenheit. Synthetic diamonds were becoming increasingly necessary in the oil and aerospace industry, so there was a need to develop a process to create artificial diamonds easily and without significant cost. Artificial diamonds could cut precisely and unlike natural diamonds,  could be designed for a specific task.

In The Diamond and The Boy, Hannah Holt, the granddaughter of Dr. Hall, tells the story of her grandfather along side a rock named graphite. The boy is poor and lives in a tent, while the rock lives deep down inside the earth. The graphite experiences the heat of the earth's mantle while the boy hides near heat to escape the bullies at school. Both experience pressure, the graphite the pressure from being buried so deeply in the mantle, the boy the pressures of hunger, cold and loneliness. While the graphite undergoes a violent eruption that brings it closer to the surface, the boy's talents are brought to light by his brilliance in school. Both wait for discovery, the diamond by the miners working the earth, the boy Tracy for graduation and a job in a science lab. Eventually, working after several trials, Dr. Hall was able to change rock into diamond.

Discussion

This picture book, geared for young audiences uses a dual narrative comparing the events a piece of graphite goes through to become a diamond to the events a young Tracy Hall experienced on his journey to creating artificial diamonds. The story is simply told, with the use of repetitive words such as HEAT,  PRESSURE, "THE CHANGE"  and phrases, "Mighty, unyielding, brilliant"  to emphasize the some of the more important aspects of the story for younger readers. Holt compares her grandfather's life experiences of being bullied and poor to that of carbon, both undergoing a trial that makes them something better, stronger and unbreakable.

Tracy Hall was born in 1919 in Utah. He studied at the University of Utah obtaining his B.Sc. and M.Sc. there. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he returned to his studies, obtaining his Ph,D in physical chemistry in 1948. Hall eventually joined a team at GE which was focused on creating artificial diamonds. Hall and the team managed to create a synthetic diamond in December of 1954. There is some controversy surrounding Hall and his methods, but the end result is that he was able to develop a process for producing synthetic diamonds that was reproducible.

Holt avoids all the controversy and just sticks to the basic story which is aided by Jay Fleck's simple illustrations created with coloured pencils and digitally added texture. Holt includes a short write-up titled "Diamonds As Gemstones" and a short biography of Tracy Hall, a Timeline and a Selected Bibliography.

Book Details:

The Diamond and The Boy by Hannah Holt
New York: Balzer + Bray     2018

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Line Tender by Kate Allen

Twelve-year-old Lucy Everhart's lives in the town of Rockport, Massachusetts with her father Tom who is a detective and who also serves on the Salem Police dive team. Her mother, a marine biologist who studied sharks, passed away five years ago, after suffering an aneurysm while on a research boat. Lucy was seven years old at the time. Her best friend, thirteen-year-old Fred Kelly lives across the street from her house. Fred and Lucy share a unique relationship; they do almost everything together but they each have their own interests. While Fred is brilliant and science focused, Lucy loves to draw.

One summer morning, while Lucy and Fred are in the Country Store buying candy, when they hear that a local fisherman has brought in a shark. They race down to the wharf where they find a crowd looking at a huge great white shark hanging from a hoist. Fred suggests that they enter this into their field guide, "an extra-credit project for science class that is due in September." Fred had suggested they work on the field guide over the summer; he would do the writing and Lucy would do the illustrations. To date they have a black-capped chickadee from Pigeon Cove and a spotted salamander from a pond in the woods.

Sookie,  a fourth-generation Rockport fisherman who caught the shark, tells Lucy that it was caught in their net while they were fishing for cod. Lucy's father is also at the wharf taking pictures. Lucy questions her father as to why the great white was so far north; he tells her that they follow their food and in particular seals which are beginning to return to the island in the area.

That night Lucy and Fred watch coverage of Sookie's shark on the news and see old footage of Lucy's mother talking about sharks. Watching her mother on television upsets Lucy because it feels like her mother is alive and will be home for dinner soon. She and Fred decide to head down to the wharf to work on their field guide. Lucy checks in with her neighbour, Mr. Patterson an elderly widower who enjoys listening to the radio and the police scanner. He tells Lucy that the police are keeping watch over the shark. Sure enough they find Officer Parrelli in his car at the wharf. Lucy works on her sketch of the shark and when it begins to rain, Officer Parrelli drives them home.

The next morning, Mr. Patterson tells Lucy that the big storm brought down trees, caused power outages and the shark is missing. At the wharf the meet Sookie with his father Paulie and Officer Parrelli. Fred believes that something happened to the shark during the storm. The next day they go to Folly Cove, a place Fred often goes to collect specimens for his aquarium. At the cove they find a "freakishly large" moon snail. Fred is amazed at how Lucy can recreate the snail on paper, making it look three-dimensional. She tells him she's not a "science person", that "...if you could tell science like a story, I'd pay attention." Fred eagerly obliges by telling Lucy several stories about the moon snail and shells which she finds interesting.

In the evening Lucy's father explains that they now know what happened to Sookie's shark; the storm broke it off the hoist and carried it out to sea. While Fred and Lucy are working on their science guide in Lucy's mother's library, Fred discovers file boxes and uncovers an proposal titled "Proposal for Cape Code White Shark and Gray Seal Study",  Lucy's mother wrote in May 1991, a month before her death. Stunned and completely taken by surprise, Lucy reluctantly lets Fred take home the proposal, which he promises to return.

On Saturday night, Fred's sisters, Fiona and Bridget are preparing to go out when Lucy arrives at their house. Fiona does Lucy's makeup much to Fred's puzzlement. Fiona and Bridget tell their mother that they are simply "going over to Lauren's house to watch a movie...". Suspecting that they are meeting up with Bridget's new boyfriend, Dominick Maffeo, their mother insists that they take along Lucy and Fred. It turns out that they are going to swim at the Cape Ann quarries along with Lester, Sookie's deckhand and Simon Cabot. Soon bottles of cheap liquor are being passed around with Lucy and Fred also drinking. Impulsively, Fred jumps into the quarry and reluctantly Lucy follows him and the others. Suddenly Fred is no where to be found....

With Fred's death, Lucy's world is turned upside down. Can Lucy look beyond what she's lost and forward to what might be in the future. Her mother's past research proposal unexpectedly leads Lucy to find her way forward while grieving the loss of her best friend and her mother.

Discussion

The Line Tender is the debut novel for Kate Allen. The title is taken from the term "the line tender" used when divers are searching for a missing person in the water. "The line tender holds the line above the surface. The primary diver descends through the dark and cold until he hits bottom....It is so dark that even with a searchlight nothing would be visible....The line tender holds the line and directs the diver in an arch search, the primary diver moving in a three-foot circle around himself, feeling for the child." The line tender is someone who is essentially the life line for the diver who during a difficult search is completely dependent upon him.

This imagery is carried on throughout the novel after the death of Lucy's friend, Fred Kelly. Immediately after his disappearance, during the search, while Lucy is waiting in the ambulance, she imagines the line connecting her to Fred. "In the back of the ambulance, with Fiona, I had tried to imagine a string that wrapped around my hand. It had threaded out the door of the truck. It had crossed the dirt path and avoided the feet of those watching the rescue efforts, draping over the cliff. It had dropped into the water, the end of the string moving toward Fred like there was a gravitational pull. And when it found him the string curled around Fred's wrist. I held the line." Lucy saw herself at that moment as the line tender, Fred's last hope.

Lucy spent all her time with Fred. Their relationship was moving from a childhood friendship into something more just before his death. Their first kiss happened during the evening at the quarry. Lucy must now deal with this second loss, only five years after the death of her mother. Without Fred, she must now come to terms with his death and find a path forward. That path turns out to be a rediscovered connection with her mother.

Lucy retrieves her mother's study proposal from Fred's room along with his backpack. When Fred had discovered the proposal in her mother's library, it brought back to Lucy a part of her mother that she never really knew much about because she was so young, only seven years old.  "The 1991 box was like the kite on a snapped string, a loose piece of her that Fred had caught. It was her words, recorded at the point when she was as old as she was ever going to get....He had found a treasure." Little does Lucy know at this time just how important this lost treasure will be to her.

The proposal which now has Fred's notes along the margins, turns out to be a lifeline. It leads her to Vernon Devine, a shark expert and Lucy's mother's mentor, now long retired and suffering from dementia. Despite this, Lucy is able to learn more about her mother and her proposal from someone who was close to her and worked with her. Lucy is encouraged by Professor Devine who tells her the seals will return and along with them the great white sharks. In a moment of confusion, thinking she is Lucy's mother Helen, he tells her to do the census. A news report on television leads her to meet Dr. Robin Walker, another colleague of her mother. Dr. Walker tells Lucy that her mother's proposal is now being implemented and when a shark washes up in Chatham, she invites Lucy to the necropsy. While Lucy does sketches of the shark as it is being dissected, her father takes photographs. Later, when her father develops the film, he tells her that his favourite photo is one where she is intensely drawing. Her focus and attention to detail lead her father to remark that she would make a good line tender.
"...The line tender sees everything. Reads the divers' signals, the terrain, the equipment. Uses all the resources to stay connected to the other end of the line."

By following the leads from her mother's proposal, following the clues and holding onto the line that led back to her mother, Lucy has been able to rediscover her life and begin healing from the deaths of both Fred and her mother. The thread once lost between herself and her mother, has been recovered and reestablished.

Allen's idea to write this story came from her own experiences in 1996 in her hometown of Beverly, Massachusetts, when a fisherman caught a great white shark. Many people visited Beverly Harbour to see the shark and the necropsy.Years later in a writing class, she remembered this incident and wrote it up with the characters of Lucy and Fred, as the opening for a novel.

Overall, The Line Tender is a well-written debut, with a well portrayed setting and lots of facts about marine life. Xingye Jin's beautiful pencil sketches of different types of of sharks can be found throughout the novel. The relationship between Lucy and Fred is perhaps the most appealing aspect of this novel, and the death of Fred so soon in the novel is both tragic and unsettling. Readers may find themselves disappointed at this plot twist because Allen has crafted such a realistic and innocent relationship between the two friends. They accept each other as they are, their differences, quirks and strengths. and Allen portrays their friendship with a touch of humour. While Fred's death allows Allen to take the story in a direction most young readers might not be expecting, it's still disappointing because readers are already invested in the two main characters. Allen's last tribute to Fred Kelly is "Lucy's" drawing of Fred's arm hold the large moon snail: a fitting tribute to a character the reader grew to love in the story.

A great debut novel and readers should look forward to more from this gifted writer.


Book Details:

The Line Tender by Kate Allen
New York: Dutton Children's Books   2019
371 pp.


Sunday, July 7, 2019

White Rose by Kip Wilson

The White Rose is a historical novel about the White Rose resistance group formed by a group of medical students and a professor out of the University of Munich in the early 1940's. The group included Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, Kurt Huber, Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell and Professor Christoph Probst as well as others. After the defeat of German forces in the Battle of Stalingrad, with millions of wounded and dead, with the ongoing annihilation of Jewish citizens of Germany and other occupied countries, the destruction of the Polish aristocracy and forced labour, the White Rose group hoped to prick the consciences of their fellow Germans into rebelling. Sadly their resistance brought them only death. By 1943, it was too little too late for the German people who were completely under the control of  the Nazis. It would be two more years before the Nazi regime would be brought to its knees by the Allies.

The novel opens with a section title "The End" on February 18, 1943 with Sophie and Hans having been taken to Gestapo headquarters where they are both being interrogated by Herr Mohr. Sophie naively believes she will be able to lie her way out of this dire situation.

The story then backtracks in a section titled "Before", to 1935 where fourteen-year-old Sophie enjoys life in Ulm with her four siblings Inge, Hans, Liesl and Werner. Her family has lived in Ulm in a rented flat in a building owned by Jakob Guggenheimer who is a Jewish businessman. Sophie's aim is to become "...the most of me" and "...the best of me". Sophie dreams of being a noble person. 1935 also sees the Fuhrer decree that young Germans must complete a mandatory six months of service.

In 1937 Hans leaves for Gopping for the Reichsarbeitsdienst to complete his labour service. Signs begin appearing, on bridges, in parks and on German Jewish storefronts, indicating that Jews arse not welcome. The Scholl's home is raided by the Gestapo and Inge and Werner are arrested. So is Hans on his military base. Hundreds of teenagers throughout Germany are also arrested, accused of being involved in illegal youth group. Inge and then Werner are released, but Hans is not. Eventually Hams is acquitted in 1938.

By 1938, Sophie begins to see the changes in Nazi Germany. She is glad to leave Ulm during a summer trip.
"escape
from the once overwhelming
civilization of Ulm, now
eroding
at its very
foundation with
        soft music turned harsh
        beloved books burned
        true art marked degenerate,
all hints that a terrible future
presses close,..."

Meanwhile returning to "The End", Sophie continues to be interrogated as Robert Mohr is determined to catch Sophie and Hans.

In 1939, Hans is now in Munich studying medicine and Sophie's boyfriend Fritz is away training soldiers. Although he's enjoying university, Hans knows the Reich doesn't value the knowledge they are learning. Instead it just wants the young men for war. Because Sophie's father is doing well in his business, he moves the family to a larger home on Munsterplaz.

1940 sees the Blitzkrieg in progress as Germany marches through Luxembourg to France. Sophie attempts to get her male friends to promise not to fire their weapons, to refuse to follow the Fuhrer blindly. A letter from Hans in May reveals that German soldiers are commandeering the best homes in France, making him feel like they are thieves. In July he writes about the casaulties. At this time Sophie begins to hear rumours of disabled children being deliberated killed in vans with poison gas. She wonders,
"Yet what can anyone
do
to stop it?"
She feels ignoring this would be cowardly.

In 1941, Sophie attempts to circumvent the Reichsabeitsdienst with teacher training. Instead, she is sent to Krauchenwies labor camp, with its forced ideology lessons and constant work. In May, Sophie is energized by the sermon of Bishop August Von Galen who reminds the German people that deliberating killing is murder and punishable by death. Von Galen's sermon is circulated as leaflets, giving Sophie hope people will act. In September, Jews are ordered by Reinhard Heydrich to wear the yellow Star of David. Shortly afterwards, rumours begin about Jews from Ulm being deported out of Germany. Sophie wonders where they are being sent.Sophie and her family refuse to participate in the collection drive for the Wehrmacht. She worries and prays for her brothers to survive the war.

1942 sees Sophie finishing her labor service in Blumberg and then entering university. Possibly inspired by Bishop Von Galen, Sophie asks Fritz to help her get money and a voucher for a duplicating machine. In Munich, Sophie is both uplifted and determined to make a difference. She meets Alex a half-Russian, half German student, and Christoph and his wife Herta with two small children, Han's girlfriend Traute. Sophie is given a leaflet like Bishop Von Galen's, encouraging passive resistance. Sophie is convinced that the leaflet is the work of her brother Hans. Sophie resolves when her brother returns from the front, she will not be excluded.

Meanwhile in the present of February 19, 1943 Sophie denies knowing anything about mailing "treasonous leaflets" in Munich and other cities. But then Sophie learns that Hans has confessed and that they have evidence from their flat. This leads Sophie to admit that she and Hans did in fact spread the leaflets because
"The war for Germany
                is lost,
young lives
              sacrificed in vain..."
They wanted to inspire others to follow them.
Sophie begins to realize her situation is dire,
"There's no way
              out
of this cage."
  

Discussion

In her novel, White Rose, Wilson has crafted a  deeply moving account of the events that led to the arrest and execution of members of the White Rose resistance group in Germany in 1943. Initially Sophie Scholl believes she and Hans will survive the interrogation. Instead they are considered traitors and are dealt with harshly; sentenced to death. The tragedy of Sophie and Hans Scholl is that Sophie hoped their deaths would spark more resistance. But it proved to be too little too late. Only defeat in war would bring the down Hitler and end the mass killing. Within Germany many members of the resistance were hunted down and executed. The leaflets found their way out of Germany and into the hands of the Allies who dropped them over Germany. But by this time, the people of Germany were too afraid to confront the Nazi regime which now had complete power over all of the country. They could only wait for the Allies and Russia to overrun their country.

Wilson portrays Sophie as a young, honourable woman whose father, Vati instilled in her the ideals of  truth and justice and who was raised to be politically minded. Sophie is portrayed as a young person who sees her beloved country being destroyed from within and who longs for others to do something, for her fellow Germans to resist, but no one takes up the charge. It seems Bishop Von Galen's homily and the leaflets distributed afterwards are the impetus for Sophie taking action.

The story of the White Rose resistance group is told primarily from Sophie Scholl's perspective, in free verse. There are a few poems written in the voices of Jakob Schmid the custodian who saw Sophie and Hans with the fliers and who brought them to his superior, Roland Freisler the judge who condemns Sophie and Hans, Else Gebel a political prisoner who shared Sophie's jail cell, Robert Mohr the Gestapo investigator who interrogated Sophie. Wilson has divided events up sections titled  "Before" which relate the events that lead up to her and Hans capture at the University of Munich, "Day Zero" which is a section of poems about what happens at the university when the leaflets are released and "The End" which deal with her interrogation, sentencing and execution.

Wilson has done considerable research into White Rose and the Scholls as evidenced by her extensive list of sources, both in English and German at the back of the novel as well as primary sources in German. She also provides readers with a Glossary and a list of the people involved as well as what happened to them.

Novels like White Rose are important because they challenge young readers to consider the actions of real people like Hans and Sophie Scholl and to ask what they might have done if they had lived in this time. Sophie and Hans originally supported Hitler and were eager to join the youth groups. But they quickly became disillusioned when they saw what policies and ideas these groups were promoting.  Many of the issues that Sophie experienced are issues are similar to ones we face today; we live in an era of unprecedented propaganda and fake news, where inaccurate content can be created and spread quickly, where voices different from the accepted social/political narrative can be deplatformed and where even facts often don't hold sway.

White Rose is a well-written novel that is highly recommended. Although Sophie and Hans Scholl's deaths did not lead to the uprising she hoped, they are remembered today as one of the few voices that stood alone against the Nazi regime. And that is no small accomplishment.

For more information on the White Rose resistance group readers are directed towards these resources:

A Noble Treason: The story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Revolt Against Hitler by Richard Hanser

Sophie Scholl and the White Rose by Annette Dumbach and Jud Newborn


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


Book Details:

White Rose by Kip Wilson
New York: Versify, an imprint of  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.     2019
358 pp.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman

The Bridge Home is a story of family, loss, forgiveness, redemption and second chances. Two sisters flee an abusive home, living on the streets with two boys until illness forces one of them to take a chance that will change all their lives.

Eleven-year-old Viji and her intellectually-challenged sister Rukku live in Chennai, India with their Amma and Appa. Their Appa is a violent man who beats Amma. One night Amma is so badly beaten that her arm is broken and she has to go to the hospital. The next day, Appa attempts to apologize by giving Viji and Rukku gifts but Viji rejects her father's attempt and he becomes physically abusive. Viji knows that unlike her Amma who hopes the beatings will stop someday, she must leave. The next morning taking food, extra clothing, a book her teacher gave her and some money, Viji leades Rukku out of their home to the bus station where they take the bus from their village to the city. In the city they barely escape from the bus driver who attempts to kidnap them. Their first bit of luck happens when they meet a kindly lady who runs a teashop with her husband. When Rukku breaks a glass cup, Viji offers to work to pay for the broken cup and it is then that they meet Teashop Aunty.

At night they wander onto an abandoned, ruined bridge with their newfound puppy Kutti. There they meet two boys, Muthu and an older boy, Arul. The next morning they return to Teashop Aunty who gives Rukku a large bag of beads and shows her how to tie knots and braid the strings together. The two girls wander to the temple looking for work but end up encountering a wealthy woman and her daughter Praba who wants Viji and Rukku's little dog. They are chased away by the gardener and their first day ends without work or food.  That night Arul brings them food and a tarp for shelter. While telling Rukku a story, Muthu refers to Viji as Akka or older sister, which makes her feel like they are family.

Viji, Rukku, Muthu and Arul spend the next months working as ragpickers on various dumps in the city.  This job disgusts Viji as it is smelly and covers her in grime and filth. Rukku uses the beads to make necklaces and they manage to sell all but one, earning a small fortune of hundreds of rupees. The four children are eventually forced to leave their tent homes on the bridge after they are pursued and set upon by the waste mart man who tries to kidnap them. Salvaging the remaining money from the necklaces they sold, the four children relocate to a graveyard and set up new tents against one of the tombstones.

The monsoon rains arrive and with them hordes of mosquitoes. On a visit to a Catholic church, the children encounter a kindly woman, Dr. Celina Pinto who is the director of  Safe Home for Working Children. Celina Aunty as she is called, offers them a place to live, go to school and work. Viji is immediately attracted to this offer because she has a dream of some day becoming a teacher. Muthu and Arul run out of the church with Viji and Rukku following them, but not before Celina Aunty hands Viji her card. Later on Muthu reveals that he doesn't believe Celina Aunty because he was sold by his stepbrother into slave labour in a factory making handbags. There he was beaten and starved.

The monsoon and mosquitoes bring illness to both Muthu and Rukku. At first Viji tres to help by selling Kutti and buying medicine but it soon becomes apparent that both are very very ill. Viji must trust her instincts and reach out to Celina Aunty in the hopes she can save them and herself.


Discussion

Venkatraman who grew up in India, the daughter of a single mother, was introduced at a young age to charitable work for underprivileged children in her native country. Her interest and work with organizations devoted to helping the thousands of homeless and underprivileged children both in India and in the United States were the inspiration for this novel. It is evident from her portrayal of  homeless children in India, that this is an issue close to Venkatraman's heart.

With sensitivity and compassion, Venkatraman portrays the plight of two young sisters who flee from their abusive father. Viji makes the decision to leave, partly to protect her younger, disabled sister. "If I wanted a better future, I needed to change the live we had. Now." Fiercely protective of her sister Rukku who is developmentally challenged, Viji promises that they will always be together no matter what. It is a promise that is destined to be broken, although through no fault of Viji's.

Living on the street is difficult  especially for Viji who wonders if her dream of being a teacher is lost forever. Viji wonders, "Could we ever recover enough to clean ourselves up and go to school? Or was that dream as impossible as pretending the trash dump was a treasure trove?" When Viji challenges Arul and Muthu to consider the future they tell her they only worry about each day but Viji is determined to hope and dream. "I couldn't -- wouldn't let the boys destroy my hope we'd find a better life, somehow." She wonders how they can live without dreams.

When Rukku becomes very ill, Viji wants to reach out to Celina Aunty, a kind woman who has offered them help, but she doesn't know if she is able to trust her feeling that this woman is a good person. Eventually though, she must find the courage to trust Celina Aunty who proves that Viji's initial impression was correct.

Rukku's death from dengue fever and pneumonia devastates Viji. With Rukku gone, Viji's life seems to have no purpose. Celina Aunty attempts to help Viji cope with the loss of her sister, attempting to get her to write about it since she can't seem to talk about what has happened. Viji mistakenly believes that Celina Aunty is attempting to convert her and tells her that she doesn't believe in God. But Celina Aunty encourages her to "have faith in the goodness within yourself."

Viji must contend with the immense guilt she feels over Rukku's death. She reasons that Rukku would be alive today if she hadn't forced her to leave home. That guilt is "like a rock was sitting on my chest, weight me down so I couldn't rise out of bed." Viji is angry that her sister is gone; the loss of her sister makes her feel alone. Arul points out that he and Muthu are now her family and he admonishes her, "Start looking at what you haven't lost...Start giving thanks for what you do have." He points out that she has a second chance "to do something more with your life..."

Perhaps the most touching scene in the entire book occurs when Celina Aunty takes Viji to a home for people with disabilities like Rukku. The realization that Rukku could have gone to school causes Viji immense pain and grief. But out of this experience comes the first reawakening of a purpose in Viji's life; the desire to return and help at the school. Celina Aunty's suggestion that Viji may one day be able to teach there gives her hope. "Celina Aunty's words made my dream glimmer again. Faint and far away, but not lost."

Viji takes the first steps towards achieving that dream when she refuses to return home with her Appa during his visit to Celina Aunty's home. Recognizing that she must move forward Viji refuses her father's offer to return home. With a mixture of forgiveness and pity, and maturity and courage far beyond her years, Viji understands that her home and future is with Celina Aunty, despite her father's promises to be better.

Not only has Venkatraman crafted a feisty, strong heroine in Viji but her supporting characters are also well drawn. There is the thoughtful Arul who brings Viji and Rukku a tarp after their first night on the beach, and who offers to go to the waste man so that Viji and Rukku can "see the nice part of the beach..." There is Muthu whose playful ways help Rukku and there is Rukku who surprises even Viji. Viji marvels at how Rukku grows during their time out on the street. "Ever since we'd left, you'd been behaving so differently from before. You hadn't once lost your temper. You'd made friends. You even looked different, because you'd been holding your back straight all the time." In the end it is Rukku who helps Viji move forward in life, who gives Viji her purpose again, who gives her the strength to forgive and to remember. At the end of the novel Viji recognizes how Rukku really helped her in her life.
"All this while, I thought I'd looked after you, but now I see it was often the opposite.
You gave me strength.
By never letting me get away with a lie.
By showing me small miracles.
By laughing at all the wrong times.
Together we were such a good team."
Because of Rukku, Viji decides that she will face life "living with my whole heart...And imagining with my whole mind."

The Bridge Home is another fine novel by Padma Venkatraman, one that offers insight and understanding about the plight of poor and homeless children in the developing world, ending with a message of hope. Her novel gives young readers a sense of the childrens' humanity and dignity, by portraying them as young people with dreams and hopes like children everywhere, deserving of a childhood that is safe and nurturing. Perhaps we can all take Celina Aunty's advice to "try thinking about Good. About doing Good."

Book Details:

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman
New York: Nancy Paulsen Books      2019
191 pp.