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.

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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