Tuesday, July 7, 2020

My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson

The year is 1961 and thirteen-year-old Lora is determined to her part in the Cuban revolution. Having ousted the U.S.-backed government of President Fulgencio Batista in 1959, the new government led by Fidel Castro has mandated that Cuba will become a fully literate nation. Everyone who can read and write is directed to teach those who cannot.

Lora is determined to enlist, after seeing a poster in her high school but she needs the signature of her father and he is opposed to her participation. However, with the help of her modern thinking abuela, eventually her father relents and signs the papers. So Lora sets out, leaving behind her stricken parents, her beloved abuela and her two younger brothers, Silvio and Roberto. After writing her exams, Lora and the other students from her school travel to the Varadero training camp. Arriving at Varadero Beach,formerly a resort for wealthy tourists, Lora is stunned by its beauty.

Lora is to become part of the new Conrado Benitez Brigade, named after a young black literacy teacher murdered in the Escambray Mountains. She, along with the thousands of other young people are set up in luxurious hotel rooms set up as dorms. When she first arrives Lora meets Marissa who was a university student in Havana. Besides learning how to teach literacy, Lora and the others are taught basic first aid, and given lectures on agriculture. They will be not only teaching but working alongside the farmers and their families too.

Lora's training is interrupted when the United States launches an invasion in the Bay of Pigs. Many of the teachers and other leaders leave to join the battle and Lora's father soon arrives to take her home. But Lora courageously refuses telling him it would be like a soldier deserting. Eventually the Bay of Pigs invasion is over. Lora finishes her training and receives her uniform and equipment of a brigadista.

In April of 1961, Lora along with thirty other brigadistas take a bus south and then travel into the Escambray mountains in the back of a truck. They are dropped off in the middle of the forest where they meet up with Esteban their commander and his assistant Lillian, both accompanied by a soldier. Lora and the others, ten boys and twenty girls,are taken to their base camp. There they are divided into neighbourhood teams; Lora's team includes Juan and Maria. In their orientation, they are told to write their parents and keep a journal of their successes and failures.

Eventually Lora travels to meet her new family, Luis and Veronica Santana and their three children, Rafael, Emilia and Isabel. While Lora will be living with them, she will also attempt to teach the neighbouring Acosta family, comprised of an elderly couple and their son Daniel and his wife Nancy. At first the Acosta men are resistant to learning but Lora meets each challenge with grace and determination winning life long friends and succeeding in her mission.


My Brigadista Year focuses on the beginning period of the Cuban revolution, and is told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old girl, spanning the years from 1958 to 1961. It carefully skirts the abuses of the Cuban revolution while highlighting the camaraderie of the Cuban people newly freed from the brutal Batista regime.Ironically the same abuses and violence committed by rebels hoping to defeat Castro and that Lora expresses horror over will be used by Castro to cement his control over Cuba.

Young readers will not find My Brigadista Year to be a realistic representation of life under the communist government led by Fidel Castro. In her Author's Note at the back, Paterson admits that her novel "is by no means meant to be a full or balanced account of all events occurring in Cuba in the year 1961. Fidel Castro committed many evils against his enemies, some of whom originally fought on his side for freedom from Batista but felt betrayed by actions of the new government when small farms were seized and innocent families relocated or put in camps. From 1959 until his death, Castro presided over a repressive regime, jailing and executing political opponents and sometimes even those considered allies, and denying ordinary Cuban citizens freedoms we Americans take for granted."

However, few children will likely read the Author's Note nor is it likely that teachers will read it to students either. So young readers will be left with the impression that the Cuban revolution was a necessary and positive development for Cuba and that young people were eager to join the brigadistas.The revolution occurs without much context as the focus is on one teenage girl who is not witness to the many abuses that occurred. For example, Lora only briefly mentions the closing of all religious schools and the conversion of them into national secular schools.

Thus, Lora is a highly idealized character, keen to do her part.  Lora's courage and dedication to both her mission and the families she is serving are uplifting. She is genuinely concerned for the families and forms a life-long bond with them. Her time in the mountains, helps her to understand the poor and eventually leads her to become a doctor. But as Paterson notes, "...the literacy campaign was not entirely staffed by idealistic volunteers like Lora. I understand that some families felt the pressure of potential reprisal for non-cooperation, and therefore, some young people might well have felt forced to join the campaign. As the year went on and the goal remained distant, schools were closed and teachers were also conscripted."

As Paterson shows in My Brigadista Year, the program also functioned to indoctrinate illiterate rural families in socialist and communist ideals. Reading material was mostly government propaganda and not classics or primers designed to simply teach reading and comprehension skills. For example, Lora mentions that the first image in the primer is of men connected to the OEA, the Organization of American States. The letters were to be used to not only teach vowels but also to explain how the United States was working to make sure "our revolution would fail."

Interestingly, My Brigadista Year subtly reveals  Lora's biases. When Lora wanted to attend an expensive high school in Havana, she had to decide whether to keep her abuela's beautiful heirloom gold earrings or sell them to "some arrogant, rich North American tourist". While it's unfortunate that she would have had to sell such a family treasure in order to attend a good school, her view of  all tourists as arrogant seems at the very least, unfair. Has Lora met many American tourists or is this just what she's been told? It may be that tourists to Cuba in the 1950's were arrogant but they also brought much needed money into the Cuban economy. And many people all over the world make extreme sacrifices far greater than selling a pair of earrings, to attend school.

The same can be said of Lora's view of nuns whom she seems to particularly dislike. In a flashback to her beginning high school Lora notes, "Many of the nuns who taught us had degrees from England and Europe.Our French maestra had a degree from the Sorbonne University, in Paris, and the Sister who taught English had graduated from Oxford University, in England. They were scholars, and, if I may say so, not as humble as you might imagine a nun to be." Lora describes the nuns clothing as "dressed head to toe in medieval habits."  Paterson employs a trope common in literature, that of the mean, heartless nun. In this novel, the messages are clear: rich people are arrogant and religious people are uncaring, old fashioned and lacking in humility. Perhaps in light of current events, these are today's "acceptable biases"?

My Brigadista Year interestingly does mention the prejudice that exists in Cuba and many  countries regarding skin colour. Lora has a new friend, Norma whose dark skin indicates her likely African heritage. Lora notes that her mother likely would not approve of her dark-skinned friend and she is certain that Norma experienced prejudice from their classmates based on the colour of her skin. Lora herself experiences this prejudice when she returns home from her brigadista assignment and is deeply tanned, noting that her mother refrained from making any comments until much later.

Paterson's Epilogue, where Lora as an adult describes her life in very positive terms, encourages young readers not to judge her country. "My country is not perfect, but then is yours?" The question seems to suggest that communism is simply another form of government with good and bad points. But is it? History from the 20th century shows that this is not so.

Book Details:

My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson
Somerville, Mass.     2017
198 pp.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Fingal's Quest by Madeleine A. Polland

Fingal's Quest, set in 6th century Ireland and France, tells the story of a poor boy's quest to follow a monk, Columban, whom he is inexplicably drawn to. When Columban leaves for Gaul, Fingal follows, embarking on a journey that leads him to self-discovery and the realization that unless we love God first we can be drawn way from doing God's will and ultimately away from God.

It is 575 A.D. and thirteen-year-old Fingal Domnall is on his way to Bangor, the greatest monastic school in Ireland. Tired from his journey on foot, Fingal watches as a wealthy man, a red-haired boy his age and servant pass him by without greeting or acknowledgement. Later another traveling party approach and this time Fingal doesn't bother to look. But the boy, Diarmid is friendly and greets Fingal, telling him they are headed for Bangor.  Dairmid's father, Finian Mor, King of the Tribe of Connor will be placing his son in the care of the Abbot Comgall who is considered a very holy man. They offer to take Fingal the rest of the way.

When they arrive at Bangor, Fingal, shy and uncertain and without a father to guide him, watches with envy as Diarmid confidently walks with his father. Fingal is helped to find the abbot by the gatekeeper but on his way encounters a man who will change his life forever.  That man is a tall, very handsome monk with fair hair, whose strength and gentleness immediately appeal to Fingal, whose father died when he was very young.  The tall monk is Brother Columban who helps Fingal find the abbot.

Because he is poor, Fingal will enter the monastery as a "poor scholar" which means he must work to pay his way through the school. Fingal is assigned to work on the farm and to share a hut with the other two new boys. His master in his studies with be Brother Columban which thrills Fingal.

In the large refectory, Fingal meets Diarmid and the red-haired boy who ignored him, Cahal MacNellan. Cahal, whose father is a chieftain. Despite Fingal's claim that his father was "tutor to the children of Connacht's king..." and was also "far cousin to my lord Abbot", Cahal is furious that he has to share his hut with a "common peasant".  His complaint to Brother Columban is promptly dismissed.

Cahal mocks Fingal as the three boys work to build their hut, when he learns that Fingal has no books from which to study and that he is working on the farm. However Diarmid is eager to help Fingal, willing to lend him his books. To help him learn the Greek alphabet, Brother Columban carves the alphabet into a heavy flat stone which Fingal takes back to his hut. It isn't long before Fingal begins making good progress in his studies.

Fingal witnesses the holiness of Columban who heals a dying horse. It is at this time that Columban first challenges Fingal as to his reasons for coming to Bangor. Shortly after this, a ship arrives bearing strangers, men and boys from Gaul, who beg to study at Bangor so they can return to their homeland to "teach in our land where men are lost to God, and His word is no longer known!"  They tell Comgall that the destruction of Gaul by the invasion of the Huns has resulted in religion having "died among the ruins of the churches!...And that seems true though it is more than a hundred years since Gaul was ravaged! The cities lie in fragments and wild beasts roam in ruins grown no different from the forests. The churches are abandoned. God is dead." They indicate that although the people are still Christian, "they do not know any longer what it means, and in some places they have gone back to the old pagan gods. There are no schools, no teaching: learning is withered, my lord Abbot, and religion lost." Other than Monte Cassino and the work of Benedict, Europe is dark.

This dire revelation that Gaul had "never recovered through the long years from the crushing feet of Attila's destroying armies which had devastated cities, razed churches, and quenched for generations the light of European learning" leads Columban once again to approach the abbot with the request to travel to Gaul. Once again the abbot refuses to allow him to leave, as he dearly loves Brother Columban.

In the autumn, the monk Colmcille sails into Bangor from Iona to reveal that the faith is now spreading through the pagan kingdoms of Scotia and Northumbria and even into Wales as a result of the missionaries. Fired by Colmcille's zeal, Columban again requests to follow what he believes to be God's will in going to Gaul and is again refused by the abbot Comgall. Columban asks Colmcille to pray for him and by morning, Comgall has relented and given his permission for Columban to leave.

As the monks build a ship for Columban to sail to Gaul, Fingal hatches a plan to stowaway on the ship to be with his beloved Columban. The thought of staying at Bangor to continue his studies without his beloved Brother Columban make Fingal desperate. Diarmid agrees to go with him only so that he can get to Gaul faster. However, Cahal who hates Fingal, overhears their plans and when the time comes in the spring for Columban to sail, he reveals their plan to the holy monk. Fingal and Diarmid are hauled off the boat and reprimanded. However when another group of Franks arrive some months later, Fingal is determined to try again. This time Diarmid refuses to go along with his plans. Fingal is successful in sailing to Gaul, and has many adventures as he journeys across the country to meet up with Columban. Ultimately Fingal must come to realize the importance of putting God first, even before his beloved Columban.


In Fingal's Quest, Madeleine Polland has crafted an engaging and thoughtful historical novel set in 6th century Ireland and France that offers young readers a chance to learn about this  time period and to explore some unique themes. There are few novels set in this era, so Fingal's Quest makes for interesting reading.

Polland references many historical events in her novel which are centered around the life of a real saint, St. Columban. In the late 500's A.D. Ireland was a country richly steeped in the Catholic faith. Monasteries were the center of learning and deep faith. Young men like Columban were determined to live holy lives. Columban was a handsome young man who was determined to overcome great temptations against chastity. To overcome these temptations, Columban tavelled to Lough Erne where he studied under Sinell, the abbot of Clauinis. He then travelled to Bangor, County Down, in Northern Ireland, to  monasteray led by the abbot Comgall. Columban was filled with the desire to preach and travel to Europe but Comgall was unwilling to let him do so. Eventually Columban travelled along with twelve monks, through Great Britain to Gaul. His mission was to revive the Catholic faith and the culture, destroyed by the Huns.

While the Catholic faith still existed in Gaul, the culture had collapsed and people no longer led Christian lives. The church was also in disarray, with bishops and priests lax in their faith as well. This was mainly due to the ruinous invasions of Attila the Hun, known as Attila the Scourge of God. Attila had been at war with various parts of the Roman Empire for years. He was known for his cruelty and as a destroyer of cities. In 451 A.D. he invaded Gaul, destroying the country as he went, razing to the ground entire towns and cities. Eventually he was stopped at Orleans, in the battle of Chalons.

As in the novel, King Gontram, who was the grandson of Clovis, the first king of the Franks, supported Columban and his monks in their preaching and gave Columban the ancient Roman castle of Annegray. Columban established several monasteries in France and Italy which became centers of learning and culture.He also set about attempting to reform bishops and clergy who had grown lax and refused to follow the rules of the faith.

Fingal's Quest explores the theme of love and how this virtue can be misapplied to both things and people in our lives, preventing us from doing God's will.  Fingal meets Brother Columban at Bangor and like the Abbot Comgall forms a deep attachment to the holy monk. For Fingal, it is the absence of a father and the "...immediate impression of the strength and gentleness he had longed for in a father..." that draws him to Brother Columban. But Fingal soon learns that Abbot Comgall also has a similar attachment to the holy monk. He is told by one of the boys that Brother Columban " was among the first monks to join Comgall in Bangor" and that the abbot "dotes on him" and will not let him leave. It is Columban's "...heart's desire to go to Europe and preach the word of God in the land where it is lost. There have been Franks come from Gaul who tell how their land is abandoned, and Columban feels that God has called him as he called Abraham to go to a far land. But Comgall will not hear of it. He loves him far too much, and holds him close." Columban remains obedient to his superior.

Fingal fails to see his love of Brother Columban, mirrored in the abbot's same love, has overtaken his love of God. Columban first attempts to explain this to Fingal after the miraculous healing of the horse."I speak of the love of God which you must learn to put first before all other loves, if you would be professed and serve God well. If you love God truly, then He will help you to come close to those who are close to Him. And who are closer than the animals and the tings that grow?" Fingal believes he loves God because he has left his home and his mother to serve God but Columban challenges the young boy to examine his heart more closely.

When Fingal and Diarmid are discovered hiding in Columban's ship, Fingal argues that Columban's leaving means there is nothing for him at Bangor.  But Columban tells him, "There is everything for you here, Fingal, my son. Everything you need for the life in God which you tell me you want to follow. But you must follow it for the love of God and God alone No one else will do. Fingal!" He warns Fingal, "....how long have I been held captive here by the love which my lord Abbot bears me? Held even against what I knew to be the will of God. Take care, Fingal - take care- of the chains of human love!"

Sadly it takes Fingal several years to learn this lesson. In this regard, Fingal's Quest realistically demonstrates to young readers how spiritual growth can take years and often involves some painful experiences. Fingal does eventually travel to Gaul where he is enslaved and then freed to finally meet up with Brother Columban at the ruins of Annegray. Fingal is not allowed to enter the novitiate at Annegray. As the months pass, the people Fingal met on his travels through Gaul in search of Columban and whom he led to the the faith, enter the novitiate at Annegray. When Fingal bitterly confronts Abbot Columban, he finally admits that he came to Annegray not to seek God but to seek the monk who has been like the father he lost.

Fingal doesn't learn the lesson about human love until he is asked to journey to a town across the mountains for herbs for Brother Columban the Younger who is dying. However, when Fingal returns to Annegray, the sick monk has died. One of the lay brothers, Remi tells Fingal that Abbot Columban's tremendous love of Brother Columban the Younger led him to pray to God that the seriously ill monk would not die. The sick monk told his fellow religious that it was Abbot Columban's prayers which caused the him great suffering. "So the love of my lord Abbot chains me in agony, and he will not let me die and reach my rest in God."  When Abbot Columban was told this, he realized that he was guilty of the same sin as Fingal.  Fingal goes to see Abbot Columban and tells him that this had made him understand his own failing. "It has brought me to understanding. I think I knew from the first what ti was you warned me against, but my heart was willful and I would  not see. But I would serve God truly. And I know now the power of human love that could step between and even the throne of God. I will learn to love God first."  This is the ultimate lesson of Fingal's Quest.

Polland was an exceptional writer of Catholic historical fiction whose stories featured interesting characters set in eras that appealed to young readers. A mark of a good historical fiction writer is the ability to craft a setting that is realistic and true to the era of the story. Polland does this admirably, especially in her portrayal of the extent of decay and collapse in Gaul in the 6th century. For example, the character Julius, whose family is one of the few who have retained their culture, who befriends Fingal tells him what happened in Gaul. "When the barbarians came swarming in...the beautiful stone halls and houses and the state building of the Romans were torn down in panic to strengthen the walls of the towns. But they were not to be kept out, and afterwards the walls crumbled and no one cared to maintain them. So the poor people take the stone to this day for thei building of their homes. You will see mud huts held up with Doric columns; slabs of marble quarried and polished and chiselled with love in the finest quarries of Italy are used to support their filthy thatch. And they take no heed of it. Beauty is dead in Gaul, Fingal and the love of it. Not only is religion lost - oh, yes, they are Christians, but they have forgotten what it means - but except among a few, culture is lost. Art, literature, sculpture, music, the fine art of building - they all mean less than nothing to these children of Attila."
This passage conveys the profound destruction of an entire culture and the desperate state of life, in a country ruined by an invader whom history remembers for his cruelty and rapaciousness.
Fingal's Quest will definitely appeal to readers of all ages who enjoy historical fiction. A highly recommended read!

Book Details:

Fingal's Quest by Madeleine A. Polland
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company Inc.    1997
191 pp.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Transmission by Morgan Rice

Transmission is the first book in the Invasion Chronicles by well-known fantasy and sci fi author Morgan Rice. In this novel, a terminally ill boy believes he is receiving transmissions from aliens and travels to SETI to get help in decoding them. But the transmissions, meant to be a warning, come to late to prevent a world-wide catastrophe for Earth.

Thirteen-year-old Kevin McKenzie has been having "visions" for weeks. Kevin, who lives with his  mother, an advertising agency employee, in Walnut Creek, tries to convince her the visions are real. It wasn't until he fainted that his mother finally took him to the doctor. This eventually let to the hospital and then to see Dr. Markham who diagnosed Kevin with a form of leukodystrophy.  The rare illness which affects the myelin sheath of the brain will eventually kill him. In the hallucinations, Kevin sees a strange landscape, palm trees with twisted trunks and a purple sky. And always there are two sets of numbers: 23h 06m 29.283s and -05 02' 28.59

When Kevin has another fainting spell and vision at school and begins talking about planets, the principal suggests that Kevin should stay home. At this point Kevin decides to see Dr. Yalestrom, a psychologist.When Dr. Yalestrom asks Kevin to draw what he sees in his visions, he lets "the pencil flow over the paper automatically" and produces a detailed blueprint of a spaceship. Dr. Yalestrom believes that Kevin's visions are him trying to come to terms with his illness. The fire and destruction he sees reflect the sense of doom and the numbers counting down are part of that ending.

Kevin finally decides to tell his best friend Luna about his visions. To his surprise, Luna believes that his visions are really ones of an alien world and wonders if somehow his illness has given him the ability to connect to it. When Luna enters the first set of numbers into her phone, she tells Kevin they bring up the TRAPPIST-1e system which has planets believe to harbour life. Luna believes that Kevin should contact the scientists from SETI.

At first Kevin is dismissive of Luna's suggestion but then he decides to ask his mother to take him. His mother however, wants nothing to do with this and at first refuses to drive him to San Francisco to meet with the SETI scientists. She eventually relents and the two set out for the SETI Institute in Mountain View. At SETI, Kevin and his mother are initially turned down, but when the receptionist learns that Kevin is terminally ill, she arranges for Dr. Elise Levin, the director to see them. During his time in the lobby of the building, Kevin has a vision in which he sees a silvery object in space with the words Pioneer 11.

In talking to Dr. Levin and telling her about his hallucinations, the meaning of the numbers and that he believes someone is attempting to contact Earth. She is skeptical and tells Kevin she needs something new as proof his visions are authentic. Kevin then states that he believes they will receive a signal from Pioneer 11, a deep space probe NASA launched. Almost immediately Dr. Levin's phone rings and she is told that NASA is receiving telemetry from Pioneer 11.

Dr. Levin and Kevin race to NASA where Kevin meets Dr. Brewster and Phil a researcher who runs a number of tests on him. Eventually is allowed to listen to the Pioneer telemetry and he is able to decipher more messages, this one, "We are coming. Be prepared to accept us." However, Dr. Brewster remains skeptical. He is eventually able to translate a much longer message which has come from aliens almost forty years ago. It reveals that their world has been destroyed, three inhabited planets out of seven. Their home planet was destroyed by fires, after the collapse of their colonies.

Kevin rebels against Brewster's determination to keep the messages secret and tells the media what has been happening. He does this because he believes the messages are for all the people of Earth. More messages reveal that the aliens have sent capsules out to all the inhabited worlds, with a record of their history. It says that the capsules have a tight seal to preserve them and that they must find the capsule. Eventually the coordinates to the location of the capsule are sent. These coordinates are shared with the public and are eventually determined to be a location in the Colombian rainforest. Kevin along with his mom, Luna, Dr. Levin, Dr. Brewster and Ted, are determined to find the capsule before other teams of scientists. They have no idea that their discovery will unleash an overwhelming terror on Earth.


Transmission is a fun, quick sci fi read that is best suited for ages nine to twelve. A young boy, suffering from a terminal illness discovers that he is able to receive and decode messages from an alien civilization. Unknown to Kevin and the NASA scientists there are two sets of messages, some are a warning that some of the messages are misleading and have been sent by aliens who will harm Earth. Eventually Kevin receives a message that is a warning to the people of Earth not to open a capsule that has landed on Earth, or they risk destruction. Unfortunately, this message is not decoded in time to prevent a world-wide catastrophe, which only Kevin and Luna do not succumb to. This sets the stage for the next book in the series.

There are plenty of holes in Rice's story line. For example when it is discovered the alien object has landed in the Colombian rain forest, the world's scientists race to Colombia hoping to locate it. It's unlikely a sovereign country would allow hordes of scientific teams to simply descend on the a delicate ecosystem so quickly. Scientists and upper level government officials would need to co-ordinate with Colombian officials to organize the search and to determine what will happen to the capsule.

As is typical in many juvenile and young adult novels, the adults in Transmission are generally portrayed as dumb, violent and unable to resolve issues or solve problems. Instead that seems to be the job of the thirteen-year-old protagonist who is remarkably good at getting the adults to do what he suggests.

Despite these flaws, Transmission is an exciting novel that reads quickly and will leave readers wanting more.

Book Details:

Transmission by Morgan Rice
Self published
169 pp.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, the cohort commander leads his men, the Fourth Gaulish Auxiliaries of the Second Legion from Isca Silurium to Isca Dumnoniorum where they will relieve the current garrison. Marcus, who is the Pilus Prior Centurion, had lived his first ten years on the family farm near Clusium with his mother. His father, a soldier, had travelled to Judea, Egypt and Britain. Marcus and his mother were planning to join his father in Britain but a rebellion by the northern tribes forever changed that plan. His father, commander of the First Cohort of the Ninth Hispana, had marched north and was never heard from again.

With the death of his mother soon after the disappearance of his father's legion, Marcus was raised by his aunt in Rome. Eventually Marcus decided to be a soldier and requested to be sent to Britain. His ambition was to make a name for himself, to become Prefect of an Egyptian legion and return home to retire in the Etruscan hills.

When he arrives at the Roman fort, Centurion Marcus Aquila meets the current commander, Centurion Quintus Hilarion. Quintus warns Marcus to be wary of the wandering Druids whose appearance seems to foretell trouble as they tend to incite the tribes to attack, preaching a holy war.

Soon Marcus slips into frontier fort life, well suited for the hard work of a command. Marcus is also able to take time hunting with his guide, Cradoc, a Britain not much older than himself, who is considered an outstanding charioteer. There are rumours of a wandering Druid having been seen in the district. With a third poor harvest expected in the fall, Marcus worries that this might be a sign of an impending attack.

That attack comes two days after Marcus wins a wager for a spear with Cradoc for being able to drive hi chariot. After two vicious assaults on the Roman fort, Marcus leads a group of soldiers in testudo formation to rescue a scouting party. The third attack happens at this time, involving a charge by chariots that threatens to wipe out the Roman troops. Marcus, determined to break the charioteer charge, hurls himself at the lead chariot driven by Cradoc.The chariot crashes, flinging both Marcus and Cradoc underneath the horses.

Marcus awakens six days later to find himself severely injured and confined to bed. He learns from Centurion Drusillus that both the Druid leading the attack and Cradoc died in battle. Centurion Clodius Maximus, Commander of the relief force informs Marcus that he will leave two Centuries to bring the garrison up to strength and that Centurion Herpinius will be taking command of the fort until Marcus's relief will be sent from Isca. It makes sense to Marcus that a relief would be sent until he is recovered. He has a wound in his should and a badly injured right thigh. However soon Aulus indicates to Marcus that one day his wound will heal and he will be able to walk again, but his service with the Eagles was finished. The new commander, a young man named Cassius, who was the owner of the chariot team Marcus has driven in the Saturnalia Games soon arrives and Marcus leaves for his Uncle Aquila's home on the edge of Calleva.

Marcus's room is a small sleeping cell that opens onto the courtyard colonnade. Living with Marcus and his Uncle Aquila is Stephanos, his uncle's old Greek body-slave and Sassticca who is their cook. Marcus decides after two months at his uncle's home that he doesn't want to return to Italy to live with his uncle Tullus Lepidus and his aunt. This decision is met with approval by his uncle who enjoys living in Britain.

On December 25, Marcus along with his uncle attend the Saturnalia Games in Calleva. At the games, Marcus notices a young girl in attendance with Kaeso, a magistrate like his uncle Aquila and his wife Valaria. When the fighters are paraded out Marcus notices the fear in the eyes of a slave-gladiator, tattooed with blue warrior patterns. This fight turns out to be one to the death in which the blue tattooed warrior fights another called the Fisher who is armed with a net. The blue warrior loses the fight but has his life spared when Marcus convinces the crowd to do so.

Marcus decides to buy the slave as a body-slave and does so the next day. He learns, the man who has been a slave for two years is called Esca, son of Cunoval from "the tribe of Brigantes, bearers of the blue war-shield." During the winter, Esca rescues a wolf pup during a hunt by the town to rid the area of wolves. Marcus names the wolf pup Cub.

Eventually Marcus learns about Esca's past, that he was his father's armour-bearer. His father was a Clan Chieftain of the Brigantes. The Clan rose up again the Romans, but lost and Esca was taken and sold to a trader named Beppo in Calleva. As Esca tells Marcus about his life with his people, he remembers an event ten years earlier. Hidden behind a boulder, he watched a Legion marching north, carrying "a great golden Eagle with its wings arched back...", with men in scarlet cloaks and crests. "But the mist was creeping down from the high moors, and the Legion marched into it, straight into it, and it licked them up and flowed together behind them, and they were gone as though they had marched from one world into --another." Marcus tells Esca that his father was the scarlet hacklet next after the Eagle."

Shortly after this Marcus meets the young British girl, about thirteen, who had been with Kaeso and Valaria at the Saturnalia Games. She informs Marcus that although her aunt and uncle call her Camilla, her real name is Cottia and that she like her Aunt Valaria is of the Iceni. She doesn't like that they pretend to be Roman, forgetting that they are Iceni.

Marcus's old wound begins to trouble him again and his Uncle Aquila brings in one of his old field surgeons, Rufrius Galarius to examine his leg. Rufrius determines that his wound must be reopened and searched before it will mend fully. This is done the next day, with Rufrius finding splinters of wood in the old wound. Eventually Marcus's leg heals, somewhat twisted and with Esca's help he regains his strength.

Marcus must now determine what to do with the rest of his life. Just when he decides to approach his uncle about becoming a secretary, he learns that the Legate of the Sixth Legion, Claudius Hieronimianus and his staff, Tribune Servius Placidus are visiting. Claudius, an Egyptian, is a friendly man, but Placidus, an attractive Athenian, is a soft aristocrat not suited for soldiering.

During the course of their dinner, Claudius mentions that Eburacum seems "...more than a little ghost-ridden by the Ninth Legion." He states that the lost legion lingers in the memory of the people there. "...there have been times, when the mist comes down from the high moors, when I have more than half expected to see the lost Legion come marching home." Marcus questions Claudius as to whether he has any theory as to what happened to the Hispana. While Claudius believes they were likely ambushed and killed, Placidus believes that "..in a Province of Valentia, even in the whole of Caledonia, upward of four thousand men could not be destroyed without a trace?" It is Placidus's theory that they killed their officers and deserted to the Tribes.

However, Claudius tells Marcus and his uncle that there is a rumour that the Hispana did fight to the very end and that the Eagle now resides in a tribal temple where it is honoured.In Claudius's mind, if the Hispana went rogue they would have destroyed or hidden their Eagle. However, if it was taken in battle as a trophy it would be a very different situation. "To the Outland Tribes it must seem that they have captured the god of the Legion: and so they carry it home in triumph, with many torches and perhaps the sacrifice of a black ram, and house it in the temple of their own god to make the young men strong in war and help the grain to ripen." 

When Marcus questions him as to what he intends to do, Claudius tells him that there is really nothing he can do based on only a rumour. If the Eagle is still in existence, it is a powerful symbol to the Painted People as it would inspire them to fight against the Romans. Claudius cannot send a legion and so Marcus proposes that one might be able to find and recover the Eagle. Marcus proposes that he, along with Esca, and posing as a travelling oculist might be able to find out the truth at the very least. With the blessing and under the order of Claudius Hieronimianus, Marcus Aquila and Esca set out on a quest to learn the true fate of the Ninth Legion and possibly recover the lost Eagle. It will be a journey that will test both men to the limits of their courage and endurance.


Rosemary Sutcliff's classic novel for young readers, Eagle of the Ninth is centered around the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion of Hispana, Legio IX Hispana in the second century. The legion had fought in many battles in the Roman Empire and the Roman Republic and was sent to the Roman province of Britain in 43 A.D. The last known evidence for the existence of the Ninth Legion was its involvement in the rebuilding of the fort at Eboracum, known today as York, in 108 A.D. It is not known what happened to the legion after this when it seems to have disappeared from history.

In Sutcliff's novel, the Ninth Legion is identified as having marched into the mists of the northern frontier to put down a revolt by the tribes of Caledonia, now known as Scotland, and was never seen again. Her novel is somewhat based on the discovery of a bronze cast of an eagle, known as the Silchester eage dating from either the first or second century A.D. This cast was discovered in the ruins of  Calleva, which was a town in Roman Britain. Like the eagle retrieved by Marcus Aquila in the novel, it was missing its wings. Although it was initially considered potentially to be from a Roman legion, it's now believed to be scrap.

Nevertheless, Sutcliff has crafted an engaging story about a young Roman, Marcus Aquila whose father was the leader of the lost Ninth Legion. When a friend of his Uncle Aquila reveals that rumours indicate the Roman Eagle lies somewhere in a tribal temple in the northern part of Valentia province, Marcus sets out on an epic quest to find the Eagle and clear the name of the Ninth Legion.

Sutcliff foreshadows the coming change in Marcus's life through the imagery of the rose bush.When Marcus first arrives at the fort he notices the beautiful rose bush in the officers' courtyard. It is a reminder of life in Italy. "And in one corner of the officers' courtyard, some past commander, homesick for the warmth and colour of the south, had planted a rose-bush in a great stone wine jar, and already the buds were showing crimson among the dark leaves. The rose-bush gave Marcus a sense of continuance; it was a link between him and those who had been before him, her on the frontier, and the others who would come after..."

After the attacks, as Marcus begins to heal from his wounds he notices the rose bush outside and how it is coming to the end of its blooms. "Now that he could sit up, he could lok out into the courtyard, and see the rose-bush in its wine-jar, just outside his window. There was still one crimson rose among the dark leaves, but even as he watched, a petal fell from it like a great slow drop of blood. Soon the rest would follow. He had held his first and only command for just as long as the rose-bush had been in flower..."

And when his friend Cassius, the new fort commander, leaves for the bath house, Marcus witnesses the rose-bush shedding its final petals. "Outside in the courtyard, the last crimson petals fell in a little bright flurry from the rose-bush in the old wine-jar."  A new chapter in Marcus's life is about to begin.

That new life turns out to be his quest to find out what really happened to his father's Legion and to that end Marcus ends up succeeding. In Eagle of the Ninth, Marcus is a man of honour. He is courageous, just, and avoids killing whenever possible. Marcus tries to build a friendship with the local tribes while recognizing he is a stranger in their land. In saving Esca from death, treating him kindly as a body-slave and freeing him, Marcus shows himself to be a just and compassionate man. When Esca and Marcus find themselves trapped in an old Roman signal tower, Marcus does not kill the young warrior Liathan but spares him. He is a fitting hero with a noble quest.

Eagle of the Ninth is an exciting novel that will interest readers from ages nine to twelve, while giving them some perspective on what life was like in the Roman province of Britain. Life was not peaceful for the Romans who were seen as invaders by the people of Britain. They repeatedly rose up against them, only to be punished with destroyed villages and crops and salted fields. From Sutcliff's story, one gets the impression that the northern tribes found in Caledonia were too fierce for the Romans to conquer.

Sutcliff was a masterful storyteller who wrote many wonderful historical fiction novels for children and for adults too. Many are out of print now but can be ordered through Inter Library Loan from local public libraries and are well worth reading. Eagle of the Ninth is the first in a trilogy of novels about Roman Britain.  Included are a map of Roman Britain, illustrations by famed C. Walter Hodges and a List of Place Names.

Book Details:

Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
London: Oxford University Press    1967
255 pp.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Light In Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron

The Light In Hidden Places is a fictionalized account of the real-life story of  Stefania Podgorska, a Polish-Catholic who risked her life to save her Jewish friends and neighbours during World War II.

The story begins in 1936 with Stefania living on her family's farm outside of Przemysl in Poland. Stefania or Fusia as most call her, doesn't enjoy life on the farm, with its smells and with her large, noisy family. At age eleven, Fusia had made an unsuccessful attempt to leave the farm and move to Przemysl where her older sisters, Marysia and Angia were living. However, two years later, at age thirteen, and with a bit of planning, Fusia succeeds in leaving.  In Przemysl, living with her sisters, Fusia begins working for a Jewish lady, Mrs. Diamant who owns a sweets shop on Mickiewicza Street. While Mrs. Diamant runs the shop, Mr. Diamant, who is not well,  remains at home convalescing. The Diamant's have four sons and a daughter. There is Chaim who is studying medicine in Italy, Izio who attends university, Max who is in an apprenticeship and a younger brother Henek. Their daughter is living in Lwow.

Fusia's job is to sweep the shop and wrap parcels but soon she is running errands to the market for Mrs. Diamant. Fusia becomes good friends with Izio. She begins spending more time at the Diamants, often eating supper with them in the evening, discussing politics and topics in medicine. When Angia moves to Krakow and Marysia moves to the far side of the city, Fusia is welcomed into the Diamant's home. Fuzia's friendship with Izio gradually blossoms into the beginnings of a romance.

Then in September of 1939, war comes to Poland when the Germans invade. While President Moscicki attemptes to rally the young men of Poland, the Diamant brothers flee to Lwow.  Fusia realizes they are running because they are Jews. However, the Russians and the Germans carve up Poland, taking over their part of Poland. Jews in the east part of Przemysl are safe but the Jews in West Przemysl are forced to flee to the Russian controlled areas of the city. The Diamant brothers return home but they have no idea where their sister might be.

Life returns somewhat to normal. Henek and Izio return to school, while Chaim works in the hospital and Max worka as a dental assistant in the village of Nizankowice. Fusia learns that her mother and younger siblings are safe at their farm, but her older family members are scattered throughout Poland. However, the respite is short. By June of 1941, their area of Poland is once again bombed by the Germans who take over Przemysl. While the Diamant boys flee, Fusia and Mr. and Mrs. Diamant travel to the village of Nizankowice where they stay with Mrs. Nowak, a Catholic who boarded Max. However, Fusia's belief they could safely stay in the village is shattered when she witnesses the hatred of the locals towards Jews. They quickly return to Przemysl where they discover their shop damaged and looted. The Diamants learn that their bank accounts no longer exist. The Diamant's sons return, revealing that the border with Russia has been closed.

In April of 1942, the Diamants along with all Jews in Przemysl are now ordered into the ghetto. Three weeks later, as they are preparing to move, the Gestapo storms into their apartment, removing all of the Diamant's possessions except what the family was able to hide in Fusia's room. As the Diamants walk to the ghetto, Fusia notes how people who once shopped at the Diamant's store, now abuse them.

Eventually a new tenant, twenty-three-year-old Emilika, a Catholic, moves into the room on the first floor. She soon becomes a constant fixture in Fusia's apartment. Then one morning, Fusia is stunned to see Max Diamant marching in the street with other Jewish men. Risking her life, she walks alongside him and learns that he is being sent to work and that they desperately need food in the ghetto, that there are eight families to an apartment. Fusia manages to self a silk scarf and buy eggs, butter, flour and a chicken. She is able to sneak into the ghetto and is horrified at the number of people crammed into buildings and the obviously starving children.The Diamant's are grateful for the food but warn her not to return to the ghetto. It is a promise Fusia will end up not keeping.

One night, Izio makes it out of the ghetto to visit Fusia and reveals to her that one thousand men are being sent to a labor camp in Lwow and that Max is on the list. But when Fusia next sees Max as he marches through Przemysl, he tells her that Izio went in his place. Devastated, Fusia sells as much as she can, travels by train to Lwow, and manages to get into the work camp to see Izio. He is starving and desperate to escape. He begs Fusia to help him and together they hatch a plan for his escape. But Fusia is unable to save Izio, after her train is delayed by German troops and Izio is discovered and executed.

Having lost the man she loved, Fusia decides to return to her family's home in country. She finds their farmhouse in ruins and her younger sister abandoned and starving. Her sister had been left in the care of an elderly neighbour Mrs. Zielinski, but when she died, Helena was left with the father and son who beat her. With her sister Helena in tow, Fusia returns to Przemysl hoping to just survive the war. But soon she realizes that it is up to her to save those she cares for even though it may cost her everything she holds dear.


Sharon Cameron's The Light In Hidden Places brings to young readers the story of Stefania Podgorska's heroic actions during the German occupation of Poland. Stefani or Fusia as she was called, was a young Catholic girl who was living with a Jewish family, the Diamants, at the beginning of World War II. The Diamants became a second family to Fusia. She also found herself falling in love with Izio Diamant. As the war progressed and it became apparent the Diamants as Jews were in grave danger, Fusia began helping them in any way she could. But while the Diamants seemed to be aware of the danger they were in, Fusia initially did not understand what was really happening. However, Fusia was soon to be educated in the ways of the world during the war.

Fusia's education begins with her learning about Jews. Because of her friendship with the Diamants and their kindness and generosity towards her, Fusia viewed the Jewish Diamants as simply people like herself. At Mass with her sister Angia one Sunday she "...thanked God for the Diamants. Moses was in my Bible, too, after all, and I felt certain that God like him." She eats dinner with the Diamants, works in their shop and evenutally moves in with them when her sisters move away. This is the first part of her education in Przemysl.

The second part of her education in Przemysl teaches Fusia that sometimes there is only yourself to take action. While leading Mr. and Mrs. Diamant out of Przemysl to Niazankowice and hopefully to safety, Fusia begins to believe the entire situation is ridiculous. "Mr. and Mrs. Diamant had to stop and rest about every forty-five minutes, even though I was carrying all our supplies in the knapsack...What was I doing? How could I take care of two people old enough to be my grandparents? Someone else should have been doing this job. Making these decisions. Only there was no one else. There was only me."

The third part of her education begins when leaving the ghetto Fusia witnesses a girl being beaten to death with the butt of a rifle. "But the SS man smiled while he did it, then left her body and her blood on the street." With this Fusia experiences "...the joy of hate. The happiness of causing another person's death and pain."  She finally understands now the evil she is facing. Just prior to witnessing this brutal murder, after having taken a great personal risk by sneaking into the ghetto, Fusia was warned by Mrs. Diamant about the evil they were all dealing with and she urged Fusia to be careful, not to underestimate it. "You are a good girl, ketzele,' she whispered. 'But you do not understand. How could you, when I did not understand? But you listen to me now.' She held my face and looked me in the eyes. 'They will kill you. And they will like killing you. Do not give them the chance.' "

The fourth part of Fusia education occurs when she is bringing Helena back to Przemysl to live with her. Helena faints due to malnutrition and exhaustion in the street. They are picked up by German soldiers and Helena is treated kindly by a German doctor, Dr. Becker who comes to the apartment the next day with food and medicine. Fusia realizes the one cannot categorize people. "It was wrong to paint all men the same color. Whether they be Jewish or Polish. Or even German. " It is a lesson she will have to keep in mind in the coming months and years, in order to survive.

Fusia states that ultimately her education in Przemysl had taught her "...that people like to divvy up one another with names. Jew. Catholic. German. Pole. But these were the wrong names. They were the wrong dividing lines. Kindness. Cruelty. Love and hate. Those were the borders that mattered."

Unlike many of her neighbours, Fusia is able to see the Diamants, not as Jews but simply as people like herself, for whom she has a responsibility towards. After learning about the conditions in the Jewish ghetto and how they need food Fusia decides to act. "...How was anyone in the ghetto supposed to live? Were the Nazis planning to starve every Jew in Przemysl? I put my clean feet into some socks and tied my shoes. Maybe they were. But they weren't going to starve mine."

After the first Aktion which claims the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Diamant and many Jews, the rumour of a second one makes Fusia act. When she tells Emilika that she is thinking of doing something to help Izio's brothers who are now in danger by hiding them, Emilika is critical. "Do you want to die? Do you think you've lived long enough....I won't throw my life away for some Jew I've never even heard of!" Emilika tells her, "These people, Fusia. It's awful. It's sad. But you didn't make these things happen, and it's not something you can fix. They're not your responsibility..." Struggling with her inner conflict as to whether to act or not, Fusia enters the cathedral to think and wonders, "If I live through this war, can I live with having done nothing, or will my life be poisoned with regret?....But who else is there to save them but me? Oh Great God. Lady Mary. Give me the answer."

The Light In Hidden Places certainly captures the inner conflict Fusia experienced in deciding to help the Diamants. What starts off as bringing food to the Diamants in the Jewish ghetto soon sees Fusia unsuccessfully attempting to rescue her fiance, Izio Diamant from a death camp. But even this heartrending failure doesn't stop Fusia. She ends up hiding thirteen Jews in the attic of the house she's living in while four Nazi's live on the ground floor, and the neighbour in the front apartment has  her son, an SS officer visiting. Their house is situated across the street from a German hospital!

Cameron watched Stefania Podgorska's oral history interview when it was aired on PBS in the early 1990's. It was something that she would remember. In 2017, Cameron, who never forgot Podgorska's story found her full interview on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website and wanted to tell her story. She was able to contact Stefania and Max's son Joe Burzminski (Max took on the new name of Ed Burzminski after the war) and was given access to Stefania's unpublished memoir.

Cameron portrays Fusia's intelligence, ingenuity and courage as she meets one challenge after the next. Her younger sister, Helena is no less resourceful and quick thinking. And despite the tragedy amidst so much evil, Cameron at times infuses her story with touches of humour. Stefania and Helena, by the grace of God and their own determination were able to save thirteen Jews.

The Light In Hidden Places is a magnificent testament to the human spirit's ability to overcome great evil. Stefania's story reminds us that we all have a responsibility to fight hatred, division and cruelty. Her story is timeless and for our time. Cameron has included an extensive Author's Note complete with photographs, that tell what happened to Stefania and Max and Helena after the war as well as the Jews who survived with them.

Book Details:

The Light In Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron
New York: Scholastic Press    2020
 377 pp.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas

Hua Mulan lives in a small town in the north with her father, her little brother Murong, their servant Auntie Xia and her thirty-year-old son Dabao. They used to live in the south, in a house on Lake Tai but left after Mulan's father was severely injured in a duel that left him paralyzed. Mulan's twin brother, Muyang died when they were infants, shortly after her father's injury. Mulan was recorded as having died and she took her brother's place and his identity.

Mulan's father began training her to fight when she was very young in preparation to fight a duel. The story begins with Mulan meeting her future adversary secretly at a cleared area near an abandoned shrine, three days after the Lantern Festival. It has been two years since they last crossed swords. Her adversary, Yuan Kai has been the one to arrange these meetings. He has brought his sword Sky Blade, but Mulan has only a cheap bronze practice sword and not Heart Sea, "the priceless family heirloom that is at the root of the enmity" between them. The two fight, testing each other's abilities until their lanterns blow out, ending the session.

Half a month later, Mulan and her father receive a letter from Yuan Kai stating that he will not be able to partake in the scheduled duel due to the impending conflict with the Rouran. Before Mulan and her father can decide how to respond, they learn that an imperial messenger will be arriving in the village soon and that every house must send a messenger to the marketplace. Mulan, disguised as a man, arrives at the marketplace along with the rest of the village men. They are informed by an Xianbei messenger that the Rouran are invading and that "each household is to contribute an able-bodied male for the realm's defense. No exceptions. Conscripts are to report tomorrow at dawn."

Suddenly Mulan is gripped with the realization that her family has no able-bodied male. Her father is paralyzed, her brother Murong is too young and Dabao has the mind of a child. She knows she will have to be conscripted. On her way home, Mulan quickly purchases the best horse she can find. At home she tells her family of her decision to volunteer. Mulan's father gives her several weapons including the family heirloom, Heart Sea.

When Mulan reports for the conscription she has them change the name on the list from her dead brothers, to her own of Hua Mulan. Mulan along with hundreds of conscripts being the long march in columns to an encampment containing thousands of other conscripts. She cannot help but wonder if Yuan Kai is among them.

Once in the encampment, Mulan hears talk about someone called "the princeling" having arrived. She also begins to realize being a woman in a large war encampment with thousands of men is going to make if very difficult to hide her sex. How will she escape being discovered. But then an unexpected opportunity presents itself.

When Mulan first sees the princeling, she is stunned at how familiar is his movements and mannerisms are to her. They remind her of Yuan Kai, but she tries to put this out of her mind. Accompanying him is a large man named Captain Helou who treats the princeling with great respect and deference. Suddenly, a soldier comes forward to request a chance to demonstrate his martial arts skills with Captain Helou. Helou of course easily defeats the young soldier. Mulan decides to challenge Helou, requesting that he shoot three arrows at her from a pace of fifty feet, which she will catch with her bare hands while blindfolded.

The first two arrows that Captain Helou shoots, Mulan easily catches. But on the third shot, Mulan discerns three arrows coming directly at her with great speed. Stunned, she yanks out her sword, Heart Sea, slicing through the arrows and catching one of the broken shafts. When Mulan removes the blindfold she discovers that it was the princeling on his horse using a more powerful bow who shot the arrows. Furious, she approaches the princeling who asks her name and inquires if she wishes to join them. Hua Mulan agrees, realizing that this will get her out of the encampment.However, little does Mulan realize that she has embarked on a journey with her long feared nemesis, the young man she is fated to meet in a duel. It is a journey of self-discovery, revelation about her family's past, of redemption, forgiveness and love!


Magnolia Sword, is a superbly crafted version of the Mulan legend/folktale.  Author Sherry Thomas has managed to blend history, romance and adventure into a captivating tale for teens and adults alike. Thomas, who grew up in China, writes in her Author's Note that she "chose to infuse it with elements of wuxia, a uniquely Chinese literary genre that explores themes of honor, sacrifice, vengeance and forgiveness through the adventures of almost mythically adept martial artists." And in this regard, Thomas succeeds beyond imagination!

Although the story is about the legendary female warrior Mulan, Thomas has created an interesting backstory that forms the basis of the plot for this retelling. Hua Mulan is fated to meet another highly skilled warrior Yuan Kai in a duel in which the winner will claim two special swords. Mulan's family has one sword, called Heart Sea, while her opponent's family, the Pengs have its mate, Sky Blade. The Hua and Peng families have been rivals for generations, fighting over the two swords.

Two generations earlier Kai's grandfather Peng hoped to end the duels by arranging a marriage between Mulan's father Hua Manlou and Peng's daughter. However, Mulan's father was in love with another woman. He refused the marriage offer and married the woman he loved, Mulan's mother.  This meant that the duel now had to be fought between Peng's daughter and Manlou. However, before the duel could be fought, Peng's daughter became very ill and her sister stepped in to fight Manlou. She won the duel, seriously injuring Manlou. When she approached Manlou to retrieve his sword, he acted dishonourably and threw two hidden weapons, poisoned bronze lillies at her. She died from the poison. Peng's daughter who fought Manlou was Yuan Kai's mother. So now that the children, Mulan and Kai are grown, they too must fight the duel to see who will possess the swords.

Mulan knows none of this until she is accepted into a special band of warriors led by a princeling whom she is certain is the opponent she must fight in the duel. She has met this opponent several times but their faces have always been covered so she cannot be entirely certain. The princeling takes them to his home where Mulan learns his real identity and the truth about the duel years ago from his aunt, the woman her father refused to marry.  Mulan now knows that the princeling is Yuan Kai. Mulan believes that the princeling does not know she is a woman.

However there are several twists in the story. Shortly after Mulan's father returned from the duel, Mulan's twin brother, Muyang died. Wishing to keep this a secret, Manlou had Mulan take over her dead brother's identity, training her to be a skilled martial arts warrior. What Mulan does not know is that Yuan Kai knows she is a woman disguised as a male warrior. He made this discovery years earlier when he travelled to Mulan's home on Lake Tai and witnessed a young girl in a boat who transformed herself into a young warrior.

However, most of this is revealed gradually throughout the story, drawing the reader into the story. What is the true identity of the princeling and does he know that Mulan is a girl warrior? As the story develops, from the warrior band's mission to scout out the movements of the invading Rouran to the discovery of a traitor in their party and the impending invasion of the imperial city, Mulan must make a decision.

When Mulan learns of her father's dishonorable behaviour during the duel years ago she is devastated and filled with shame. Her initial decision is to remain at the Great Wall in relative safety, feeling she has done her duty by enlisting and keeping her promise to her family to stay safe and return. However, this decision makes Mulan feel conflicted. She has not been trained "in yiqi, the code of honor and brotherhood that governs righteous conduct for men." After all she is a woman, expected to lead a life serving men. Her conduct is to be "judged almost entirely on her chastity, obedience, and self-effacement." However Mulan decides to continue with the princeling and his elite band, looking at herself as someone who is a person who has skills to offer. "Brotherhood might be unique to men, but loyalty, devotion to friends, and a sense of fairness are not."

Mulan expects Kai to be filled with a spirit of vengeance and is surprised to find he is not. When she questions Kai as to what made him no longer want to kill her father, he astonishes her by replying that he never wished to do so. "What would I have done, by killing your father, except make things worse for his family? And what would I have done, by wanting to kill him, except make things worse for me?"  Kai eventually reveals that once he discovered he was to fight Hua Manlou's daughter "in the guise of her brother", he wished that they "could have met under different circumstances." And so both Kai and Mulan put aside the old enmity between their families and work together to save their country. And ultimately to unite their families with forgiveness, compassion and redemption.

Thomas has done a superb job of crafting the characters of Mulan and Kai. Both are honorable, intelligent, disciplined and loyal. Their relationship develops and matures gradually over the course of the story, from two adversaries who do not trust one another to friendship and then to a delicate and tender love born out of forgiveness and mutual respect. Their story is timeless and the themes of forgiveness, compassion and repentance, enduring.

Magnolia Sword is a bright spot in young adult literature and might very well be the best book written for teens this year. This novel would hold up well as a screen adaptation.

Book Details:

Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas
New York: TU Books     2019
348 pp.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Vision Saints Series Part 1

The Vision book series is a series of short biographies of Catholic saints and holy men and women. They were written for children, aged nine to twelve, and published in the 1950's. Because each book is written by a different author, the quality and style of writing varies. Some books are about well known saints like Thomas Aquinas or St. Theresa of Lisieux, while others are about lesser known saints such as Mother Cabrini and Father Damien. With the passage of time some of the books about men and women who led exemplary lives are dated in terms of the person's status in the church. For example, Father Damien de Veuster's cause is now complete and he is a saint whose feast day is May 10th.

Saint Pius X: The Farm Boy Who Became Pope by Walter Diethelm, tells the story of Guiseppe Sarto who became Pope Pius X. Bepi as he was affectionately known, was a poor farm boy who grew up in the village of Riese. This account stresses Bepi's life of holy poverty. As a priest, bishop, cardinal and even as the archbishop of Venice, Sarto gave away everything he had to help the poor.

Guiseppi Sarto was not just concerned about the material needs of people but also about their spiritual needs. While the spiritual director of the seminary in Treviso, Father Sarto diligently instructed his seminarians, leading them in prayer and doing all he could to ensure they would become faithful priests.

As Pope Pius X, he continued his support of the poor, giving away vast sums of money to support orphans and to help educate children. Pius X is most noted for changing the rules regarding the reception of Holy Communion for children. Before his pontificate, children did not make their First Holy Communion until they were eleven or twelve years of age. He was responsible for changing the rules to allow children as young as seven to receive the sacrament as long as they understood what the sacrament involved. Pius X was deeply distraught over World War I which was just beginning in 1914. He died before the war grew to involve most countries in Europe, desolate at the thought that so many would loose their lives.

In St. Helena and the True Cross, Catholic author Louis de Wohl traces Helena's transformation from the ambitious pagan wife of Legate Constantius to the devote Christian mother of her son, Emperor Constantine. Helena is believed to have been a royal princess of the Trinovants and the daughter of King Coel.

The story begins with Legate Constantius tricked into leaving his command in the province of Southern Britain to travel to Rome. Believing the request to come from the new emperor, Maximian, Constantius arrives in Rome to learn this was not the case. His two month journey has allowed a rebellion  led  Carausius and his Roman soldiers to succeed.

Back in Britain, Helena and her thirteen-year-old son Constantine flee north along with Centurion Marcus Favonius to escape the troops of Admiral Carausius who quickly takes control of the province of Britain.

Seven years later, Constantine, now twenty-years-old and his mother Helena are living in hiding in Verulam and still waiting for Rome to reclaim Britain. Carausius has been murdered and replaced by the traitorous Allectus. Then suddenly news arrives that Rome has returned to reclaim Britain. From a stolen report Helena learns that Constantius is leading a large force that has already reclaimed certain areas. She decides to return to their villa in the south.

However, things are not what Helena and Constantine expect. Helena and Constantine learn from Constantius's aide-de-camp, Legate Curio, that Constantius is now emperor over the West (Occident) while Galerius rules over the Orient (the East). Both Diocletian and Maximian ordered Constantius and Galerius to divorce their wives and remarry. Constantius is now married to Emperor Maximian's daughter, Princess Theodora.

A devastated Helena, returns to their house in Verulam with Constantine and Favonius. It is during this period of suffering over the abandonment by her husband that Helena first learns of the Christian faith through a slave. Out of curiosity she decides to see Albanus, a Christian priest who explains the beginnings of the faith to her. Although skeptical at first, Helena eventually comes to respect the Christians and advocate for them when they are persecuted. She begins to find the cruelty of the Romans towards slaves and Christians offensive.

When her son, Constantine eventually becomes Emperor, defeating Maxentius and capturing Rome, Christianity is made the state religion and the old Roman gods are abolished.  Through a series of visions, Constantine comes to believe that the God of the Christians is on his side. Soon after, Helena becomes a Christian. But the ambitious Helena, now elderly woman, is determined to find the one true cross of Christ. To that end, she travels to the Holy city of Jerusalem and begins her search.

In De Wohl's novel, Helena is portrayed as a dynamic character, regal, ambitious and open minded. Her suffering as a result of the abandonment of herself and her son by her husband Constantius opens her to the possibilities offered by the Christian faith. But Helena's conversion is gradual and takes place over many years.

Helena's discovery of the Christ's Holy Cross is also portrayed in this novel. Tradition holds that St. Helena discovered the true cross during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326 A.D. Christians, now free to practice their religion were able to travel to the Holy Land and Helena undertook this journey with the intent of finding these holy relics. Helena traveled to Mount Calvary where she found a temple to the goddess Venus built by the pagan Romans to prevent Christians from worshipping at the place of Christ's crucifixion. Helen was able to locate three crosses as well as nails and the inscription placed on Jesus's cross. She was able to determine the true cross by having a very ill woman in Jerusalem touch all three crosses. Only one cross, the true cross healed her. In de Wohl's novel, a young boy is cured of a withered arm.

In Father Damien And The Bells, authors Arthur and Elizabeth Sheehan have written an engaging account of Damien de Veuster's journey to sainthood. Damien, who was born Joseph de Veuster, grew up in Tremelo, in Flanders, Belgium. His father was a farmer. Joseph or Jef as he was called, was the youngest in the family and was responsible for tending the sheep.

August and Jef loved to hear their mother read stories from The Lives of the Holy Martyrs and Hermits. After four years of study at the Werchter village school Joseph stayed home to help his father on the family farm. He was a strong young man who loved physical labour. However his father, Francis de Veuster worried about Joseph and believed that he was different and destined for something else. So he arranged for his son to attend the academy in Braine-le-Comte, located in Hainault, southern Belgium so that Joseph could learn French. After that he would learn the grain business to help the family farm.

Meanwhile Joseph's brother Auguste entered the seminary of the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts, taking the name Pamphile.

At Braine-le-Comte, Joseph soon endeared himself to his classmates. But he was a deeply spiritual young man, often spending his nights in prayer. He was beginning to feel the call to a priestly vocation. At this time his sister Pauline entered the Ursiline Sisters in Holland. When his letter to his parents suggesting his vocation was not immediately answered, Joseph mentioned his intentions to Pamphile during one of his visits. His brother suggested he join the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts and eventually that is what came to happen. Upon his entry he took the name of Damien.

In the seminary of the Picpus Fathers in Louvain, Damien's unusual physical strength and good health did not go unnoticed. He practiced many denials, often sleeping on the floor and giving up his portion of meat at meals. In July of 1863, Pamphile learned he was to sail to the missions in Honolulu, Hawaii in October. But it was not to be. Pamphile became ill in October, during the typhus epidemic of 1863 and was unable to travel. Determined to take his brother's place, Damien wrote the Father General asking permission to travel to Hawaii. His request was granted.

This was to set Damien on the path as a missionary in Hawaii and ultimately his life's work with the lepers on Molokai. Father Damien's love of hard work, his unusual physical strength and his compassion for those suffering from what was in his time an incurable disease were to mark his ministry.


Overall the quality of these three Vision novels is good. Each writer succeeds in giving readers a sense of what life was like in the time the saint lived. Each book manages to identify for young readers,  the virtues that these holy men and women practiced, and which ultimately led them to lead sainthood.

In the case of St. Pius X, it was his practice of prayer and poverty at an early age that set him on the path to sainthood. He routinely gave everything away he had, including his money, food and even his coat. St. Helena, is remembered for  her work for the church and for the poor and for her determination to find the relics of Christ's crucifixion. In the case of St. Damien, young readers will get a definite sense of how the practice of the Catholic faith was a part of daily life for Dutch Catholics. This holy family produced four religious vocations: his older sisters Pauline and Eugenie became nuns and his older brother Augustus became a priest.

For all three saints the path to holiness took a lifetime. For St. Pius X and St. Damien their faith was nurtured within the family where it was taken seriously and a part of everyday life. For St. Helena her conversion occurred gradually over the course of her life, nurtured by the example of the Christian community. De Wohl suggests that the kindness of Christians towards her situation led Helena to consider the faith, as her gods offered her nothing. She was resistant to conversion because as a Roman citizen she struggled with the manner of Christ's death - his crucifixion. "How could she believe in a God who allowed himself to be crucified, who died the most shameful death, hanging between two criminals?" For Helena, the cross was a barrier to her conversion. Albanus tells her that the cross is the obstacle to most Christians but that unlike the pagan gods, the Christian God has suffered both with us and for us. In de Wohl's account, it is her discussion with Albanus, who relates how trees are central to many pagan religions, that plants within Helena the seed of a desire to find the true cross.

Helena was a woman who did nothing by halves. From Butler's Lives of the Saints we read, "It appears from Eusebius, that St. Helen was not converted to the faith with her son, till after his miraculous victory; but so perfect was her conversion, that she embraced all the heroic practices of Christian perfection, especially the virtues of piety and almsdeeds...."

Many of the Vision books have been republished by Ignatius Press in the last 20 years with refreshed covers that are appealing to modern readers. Excellent for children and teens interested in learning more about specific saints. Suitable also for adults.

Book Details:

St. Pius X: The Farm Boy Who Became Pope by Walter Diethelm, O.S.B.
San Francisco: Ignatius Press   1994
163 pp.

St. Helena and the True Cross by Louis de Wohl
San Francisco: Ignatius Press   2012
158 pp.

Father Damien and the Bells by Arthur and Elizabeth Sheehan
San Francisco: Ignatius Press    2004
168 pp.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

What Makes A Van Gogh A Van Gogh by Robert Muhlberger

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Series of What Makes A.... A...." introduces young readers to a series of famous artists. For this post I will review one of the books in this series, What Makes A Van Gogh A Van Gogh?.

Each book in the series follows a similar format, beginning with an introduction to the artist. This introduction provides some background information about the artist's early life.

In What Makes A Van Gogh, readers learn that Vincent Van Gogh was a person who "inherited a deep respect for humanity" from his minister father, while his passion for art and nature came from his mother. Van Gogh was a hard-working student who studied a number of languages. But school was not his forte and he quit when he was sixteen. Van Gogh worked in an art gallery, as a school teachers and then a minister. But eventually Van Gogh came to believe that he was called to be an artist.

What Makes A Van Gogh follows Vincent's artistic journey from its beginnings in 1885 when he painted his first masterpiece. This painting was of a group of peasants eating their dinner of potatoes.  He used his friends, the DeGroots making many sketches before finally paint the larger portrait. From Holland, Van Gogh traveled to Antwerp and then on to Paris where his brother Theo lived. One of the first people Van Gogh met in Paris was the owner of an art supply shop, Julien Tanguy. Their friendship was to prove an important influence on Van Gogh and his art. It was probably due to the Through Tanguy, Van Gogh formed a friendship with fellow artist Paul Signac, who painted with bright colours and used a new technique called pointillism. Although Van Gogh never really adopted pointillism, he did begin to use brighter colours. He painted more than twenty self-portraits during his time in Paris.

In 1888, Van Gogh moved to the town Arles in southern France. This was to be the most productive time of his life, a period where he painted his famous sunflower canvases.  What Makes A Van Gogh explores the influences on Van Gogh's art and technique, which scenes and subjects attracted his interest, and some of the different techniques he used to create his beautiful paintings. Muhlberger devotes a few pages to Van Gogh's famous painting, Starry Night, exploring the some of the features of the painting.

Like the other books in the series, this book ends with a section that uses the title of the book to summarize the special attributes of Van Gogh's art and technique. Although these books are out of print now, they are worth obtaining from your local library or through interlibrary loan. They provide young readers with many interesting facts about the artist, their techniques and paintings.

Book Details:

What Makes A Van Gogh A Van Gogh by Robert Muhlberger
New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Viking Press    1993
49 pp.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

The Hiding Place is a moving account of a Dutch family's work in the underground to save Jews during the Holocaust. It is considered a classic in Christian literature today.

Cornelia Ten Boom was the youngest daughter of Casper ten Boom and Cornelia Johanna Arnolda Luitingh. Corrie as she came to be called, was born on April 15, 1892. The ten Boom family was comprised of three older surviving children; Elizabeth who was called Betsie, Willem, and Arnolda Johanna known as Nollie. The ten Boom family belonged to the Dutch Reformed church and were very devout.

Strongly believing that the world should know the story of what happened in Holland, Corrie wrote about her family's experiences in The Hiding Place. In the book, the story begins with her family's party celebrating the 100th anniversary or their watchmaking and repair shop located in Haarlem. The shop had been started by her grandfather Willem ten Boom. It is 1937, only a few years before the horror that will soon consume Europe and come to be known as the Holocaust. Corrie is forty-five years old, her older sister Betsie is fifty-two.

In celebration of their anniversary, the shop and family home begins filling with bouquets of flowers from friends and patrons. In addition to Nollie and Willem, both of whom now have their own homes, attending the party, the family is visited by many people including the mayor of Haarlem, the postman and policemen.

Soon talk at the party turns to the worsening situation in Germany with the arrival of Willem who is accompanied by a dazed and injured young Jewish man. Willem, who runs a home for elderly Jews in Hilversum tells Corrie and her family that the man, Herr Gutlieber whose lower face is badly burned was set on fire by boys in Munich. He managed to flee Germany on a milk truck, arriving this morning in Hilversum.

Corrie remembers that Willem had been studying what was going on in Germany for years. In 1927 he wrote about the unprecedented "contempt for human life" that was growing in the country. He noted the German clockmakers who were suddenly and mysteriously no longer open for business and that they were all Jewish.

There are more signs that things in Germany are deteriorating when Corrie's father hires a young German apprentice named Otto to work at the shop. A member of the Hitler Youth, Otto comes only once to listen to Corrie's family's nightly reading of the scriptures. The Old Testament, according to Otto, "as the Jews' 'Book of Lies' ". Soon the ten Booms learn of other disturbing events. Otto's landlady discovered a large knife in his bed. But it is Otto's cruel treatment of Christoffels that move Corrie's father to fire him. Willem reveals that Germany is teaching its young people not to value the elderly who they consider to "have no value to the state."

War comes to Holland in 1940 with the invasion of the country by Germany. For five days the country's army attempts to fight off the Nazis but eventually they are overwhelmed and surrender, with the Queen fleeing to England.

At first life in occupied Holland is little changed except for the late curfew, the presence of German soldiers, and the takeover of the Dutch press which prints German propaganda. At night Corrie and her family listen to the aerial dogfights between the English and German planes, as Germany uses Holland as a launching point for the bombing of England.

But gradually the true horror of the occupation begins to creep into daily life. Minor attacks on Dutch Jews grow into bolder attacks and outright discrimination. Parks, libraries, restaurants and theatres all ban Jews who are now required to wear the six point Jewish star on their clothing. People begin to disappear, as evidenced by the unclaimed watches in the ten Boom shop.

Corrie and Betsie and their father begin to discuss how they might have to help their Jewish neighbours. That chance comes much sooner than expected, in November of 1941. One day Corrie and Betsie watch as German soldiers ransack Weil's Furriers, ordering Mr. Weil out of his store at gunpoint, ransacking their apartment and stealing their furs. Needing to find a safe place for Mr. Weil and make sure his wife knows not to return home from Amsterday, Corrie takes the train to Willem in Hilversum. With the help of Willem's son Kik, they find a safe place for the Weils.

As the situation for Dutch Jews worsens, Corrie and her family become increasingly involved in helping them. It is work that Corrie feels especially called to do. Soon the ten Booms are working with the Dutch underground to help as many as possible. As Corrie and her family eventually discover, this dangerous work will cost some their lives. Their faith in God and his providence


The Hiding Place is much more than just a recounting of one family's experiences during the Nazi occupation of Holland. It is much more than a memoir of Dutch resistance. It is a testament to Christian faith acted upon in a time of great evil. Corrie and Betsie were determined to follow God's will in everything in their lives, sometimes at great cost to themselves and those they loved.

Corrie became an integral part of the Dutch underground, obtaining ration cards, helping Jews to safe houses and even allowing the Beje to undergo renovations creating a secret room. Willem was involved in hiding Jews, along with his son Kik. There was never any question in Corrie and her family's minds as to whether they would help their Jewish neighbours. Service was already an integral part of their lives. It was only a matter of how. Their Christian faith demanded nothing less.

The ten Boom family's life was framed and informed entirely by their Christian faith. Casper ten Boom read scripture to the family at 8:30 in the morning before beginning his work in the watch shop and at night before bed, asking "God's blessing on us through the night." Their mother visited the sick and the poor, "cooking and sewing for the needy in the neighborhood...". Every event in their lives was informed by their Dutch Reformed Protestant faith. For example,  Corrie accompanied her mother who was visiting a young mother whose newborn baby had just died. This experience of death haunted Corrie and she became so distraught that latter at home she was unable to eat dinner. Her fear was for the death of her father, Mama and her sister Betsie. Her father uses this moment to impart some of his faith and wisdom, reminding Corrie that he gives her the train ticket just before boarding, when travelling to Amsterdam. "...And our wise Father in heaven knows when we're going to need things, too. Don't run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need -- just in time."

L to R: Nollie, Corrie, Casper, Cornelia, Willem and Betsie
Life was lived in service to others in the ten Boom household and Corrie's mother and aunts were exemplary in that regard. Corrie mentions the numerous ways her mother and aunts served their friends and neighbours. Her mother is described as having knit "caps and baby dresses", "composing cheery messages for shutins" When Tante Jans is diagnosed with diabetes, then a terminal illness, she decides to spend what time is left for her, organizing a center for the soldiers, writing and fund raising. When her disease progresses and she has only weeks left, Tante Jans is distraught because she believes she has not done enough in her life to merit salvation. Her worry shows how important service to others was in the ten Boom family and had been for generations.

Perhaps Corrie's birth on Good Friday, April 15, 1892 was a sign of what was to come. She was not expected to survive but she did and grew up to be a woman with strong Christian principles. During an aerial battle over their city, Corrie experienced a premonition in the form of a vision about her family.

While praying for their country as the invasion begins, Corrie experienced this following terrifying vision. "Then as I watched, a kind of odd, old farm wagon -- old fashioned and out of place in the middle of a city -- came lumbering across the square pulled by four enormous black horses. To my surprise I saw that I myself was sitting in the wagon. And Father too! And Betsie! There were many others, some strangers, some friends. I recognized Pickwick and Toos, Willem and young Peter. All together we were slowly being drawn across the square behind those horses. We couldn't get off the wagon, that was the terrible thing. It was taking us away -- far away, I felt -- but we didn't want to go...." At the time Corrie had no idea what the vision could possibly mean, but years later, when she, her sister Betsie, Peter, Nollie, Pickwick and her father are taken away after a raid on her house, Corrie remembers the dream. It was a warning, perhaps to help her prepare for what was to come.

As the occupation continued, Corrie was deeply conflicted as to how they would work in the underground given the rumours about the types of resistance involved. "The rumors tended to get more spectacular with each repetition. But always they featured things we believed were wrong in the sight of God. Stealing, lying, murder. Was this what God wanted in times like these? How should a Christian act when evil was in power?"

It is something that Corrie and her family struggled with as the months went by. After a search by German soldiers for young men for forced work, the family argued over whether it was permissible to lie to protect someone. While Nollie believed that "God honors truth-telling with perfect protection!" as her daughter Corky had just done. But Corrie is not so certain.

The title of Corrie's autobiography is more than just a reference to the secret room in the Beje. It is also a spiritual reference, one Corrie did not realize until she was in prison. Watching ants hiding in the wall of her cell Corrie understands the significance of having a special safe place in Christ. "And suddenly I realized that this too was a message, ...For I too had a hiding place when things were bad. Jesus was this place, the Rock cleft for me..." Later on while suffering from edema in the hospital at Ravensbruck, Corrie wonders what if....and then remembers, "There are no 'ifs' in God's kingdom. I could hear her soft voice saying it. His timing is perfect. His will is our hiding place. Lord Jesus, keep me in your will...."

This touching account is well worth reading, not only for the heroic efforts of the ten Booms, but more for the remarkable spiritual gems contained within.

If you would like to know more about the ten Boom family The Corrie ten Boom House website has many interesting details.

ten Book family image: https://renovare.org/articles/this-too-is-in-his-hands

Book Details:

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
Crossing Classics
228 pp.