Thursday, September 24, 2020

DVD: A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is a biopic about Austrian conscientious objector and Catholic saint, Franz Jagerstatter. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life is a jewel that simply must be seen by anyone who is interested in studying the past, learning from history and discovering those hidden acts that only now are coming to light.

The film opens with the voice of Franz Jagerstatter stating "I thought that we could build our nest high up in the trees, Fly away like birds to the mountains."  This is followed by black and white archival footage of Hitler being welcomed by the masses, speaking at huge rallies with cheering crowds. Austria has become part of Hitler's Third Reich. Events will unfold that will change Franz's life forever.

Franz and his wife Fani are working in the fields of the farm high in the mountains near the village of St. Radegund, Austria, in 1939. Husband and wife are a team, working together scything, planting potatoes and raising their three beautiful daughters.

Fani reminisces about how she and Franz met, how her sister now lives with them, how life in their village is filled with hard work, good neighbours and is happy. But overhead the sound of an approaching airplane hints at the troubles to come.

In 1940 Franz finds himself at the Enns Military Base doing training. There he meets a fellow recruit, Waldland who is always happy. In a letter to her husband, Fani reveals that France has surrendered and that she's heard they are allowing the farmers to return home. 

At the military base, Franz and the others watch propaganda movies about Germany's conquests of France and Russia. But while the other soldiers clap enthusiastically, Franz is deeply disturbed. He sees the destruction and the human cost and writes to his wife, "Oh my wife. What's happened to our country? To the land we love?"

Summer turns to winter and then to spring, and Franz finally returns home. Fani and the children are ecstatically happy. During the wheat harvest in the fall, one of the farmers tells Franz he has been called up. He thought there would be peace but the war simply goes on. To Franz's question,  "Do you believe in what we are fighting for?" the farmer answers, "Not really." As Franz and the village miller Trakl watch their neighbours embrace Nazism, Trakl questions Franz, " Don't they know evil when they see it?..." Knowing Franz does not support the Nazis, he warns him to be careful.

In a conversation with his parish priest, Father Furthauer, a troubled Franz reveals that if he is called up he cannot serve. "We're killing innocent people, raiding other countries, preying on the weak. Now the priests call them heroes, even saints. The soldiers that do this. It might be that the other ones are the heroes. The ones who defend their homes against the invaders."  Father asks Franz if he's considered the consequences of his actions, for his family. He tells Franz he would most likely be shot and his sacrifice would benefit no one. He does agree to speak to the bishop about Franz's situation.

Franz's internal conflict deepens and Fani notices a change in her once carefree husband. He is thoughtful and worried. When brown shirts show up to collect for the war effort, Franz refuses, telling them he has nothing to give. This leads to a visit from Kraus, the mayor of Radegund as to why he's not supporting his people and the war effort. Franz however,  remains unmoved by the mayor's pleas.

Franz and Fani go to see Bishop Joseph Calasanz Fliesser. But the bishop is of no help to Franz. On the way home Franz tells Fani, "I think he was afraid I was a spy. They don't dare commit themselves or it could be their turn next." Eckinger, a neighbour explains to Franz that the bishop is going along, trying to appease the Nazis, in the hopes the regime will be more tolerant towards the church. Priests are being sent to concentration camps and church possessions are being banned.

The villagers begin to ostracize Franz and Fani. Franz's mother is upset with Fani, blaming her for changing her son. The mayor violently confronts Franz, telling him they must defend their country and that he is traitor to his people and his country.  Despite this Fani supports Franz. She tells him their prayers will be answered, if they are faithful to God, he will be faithful to them. 

Eventually their worst fears are confirmed: Franz is called up. The couple are devastated for they both know that if Franz follows his conscience, he will never return home. In March of 1943,  Franz reports to Enns for military service. He refuses to take a pledge to Hitler and is promptly arrested and put in prison. So begins his short journey of hidden resistance and ultimately to martyrdom.

Discussion

Written and directed by Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life portrays the events leading to Franz Jagerstatter refusal to support the Nazi regime and war, which he considered a great evil. As a result, Franz was arrested, imprisoned and guillotined at 4pm on August 9, 1943 in prison.

A Hidden Life is a deeply moving film that asks viewers to consider the role of conscience in our everyday lives, to explore the concepts of just war, the lost virtue of moral courage, and the possibility of sacrificing everything for our most deeply held convictions. It does so by setting this moving human drama against the majestic backdrop of mountains, waterfalls, blooming meadows and fast-flowing rivers.

Franz and Franziska on their wedding day

Franz Jagerstatter (played by actor August Diehl), whose Catholic faith blossomed after his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger (Valerie Pachner), a devout Catholic,  came to believe that Nazism and Catholicism were completely irreconcilable. When he saw the goals of the Nazi war, to enslave other nations, to plunder their resources, wealth and culture, and their determination to murder an entire race of human beings, he knew he could not participate in any way. To do so was to cooperate with a great evil.

When he was called up for a third time in 1943, Franz reported to the military base at Enns, Austria but refused to complete his military service. According to the Reich Court Martial  “that, due to his religious views, he refused to perform military service with a weapon, that he would be acting against his religious conscience were he to fight for the Nazi State…that he could not be both a Nazi and a Catholic… that there were some things in which o­ne must obey God more than men; due to the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’, he said he could not fight with a weapon. However, he was willing to serve as a military paramedic.” Interestingly in Malik's film, his offering to serve as a paramedic is somewhat glossed over. In fact, in real life, his request to serve as a medic was denied.

In A Hidden Life, Franz is repeatedly told that his conscientious objection would serve no purpose and therefore was meaningless. He is called a traitor, that his actions are sinful. His lone resistance would be hidden - no one would ever know of it, it would not alter the course of the war, nor stop it. Time and again he was told he had an obligation to his country, his people and to his family. 

Opposition surrounds him on all sides. His Catholic parish priest and even his Catholic bishop were of no help. Hoping for some guidance from his bishop, Franz is told that he "has a duty to the Fatherland, the church tells you so." and that he must obey those in authority over him. Franz asks the bishop, "If our leaders are not good...if they're evil. What does one do?" His bishop has no answer for him.

Before reporting for military service in 1943, Father Furthauer (played by Tobais Moretti) challenges Franz, "Does a man have the right to let himself be put to death for truth? Could it possibly please God?" He tells Franz that God wants us to be happy and not bring suffering on ourselves. In response to Father Furthauer's rationalizing, Franz astutely counters that we must stand up to evil. 

Franz talking with Judge Lueben

In prison, Franz's lawyer tries desperately and repeatedly to get his client to sign a paper. He doesn't understand Franz's defiance asking him, "How do you know what is good or bad?" At his military tribunal in July 1943, Judge Lueben meets with Franz privately. The Reich judge is deeply puzzled about Franz's objections and berates him, "Do you imagine that anything you do will change the course of this war? That anyone outside this court will ever hear of you? No one will be changed. The world will go on as before."  And yet at the end of his time with Franz, one senses that maybe Lueben does understand, that he is condemning a good man.

Franz's intense spiritual conflict is set against the backdrop of the spectacular beauty of the Alps. Malik filmed these scenes in the Italian Alps while the scenes in the farmhouse were shot in the Jagerstatter home in Radegund. The cinematography is one of the most outstanding features of this film. Scenes of Franz and Fani working together, scything wheat, running their mill, milking cows, sowing crops, cutting wood, baking bread, playing with their young children, and spending time alone, portray a simple life of honest but hard work. Set against a backdrop of breathtakingly beautiful scenes of mountains, misty forest, rushing streams, and golden wheat fields, Malik captures the beauty of nature  High in the Austrian Alps, in the tiny village of Radegund, one can feel the presence of God. These scenes of joyful family life and a loving marriage show and Fani's unwavering support sustain Franz.

As it turns out, all who told Franz that his sacrifice would be meaningless and forgotten in the mists of time were wrong. Today he is a saint, his life the subject of a sublime film that has touched millions. On his beatification, Diocesan Bishop Dr. Ludwig Schwarz and Bishop Dr. Manfred Scheuer (Postulator of the beatification procedure) made this statement:

“Franz J├Ągerst├Ątter is a prophet with a global view and a penetrating insight which very few of his contemporaries had at that time; he is a shining example in his fidelity to the claims of his conscience, an advocate of non-violence and peace, a voice of warning against ideologies, a deep-believing person for whom God really was the core and centre of life. His prophetic witness to Christian truth is based o­n a clear, radical and far-sighted analysis of the barbarism of the inhuman and godless system of Nazism, its racial delusions, its ideology of war and deification of the state, as well as its declared program of annihilating Christianity and the Church. His educated, mature conscience led him to say a resolute ‘No’ to Nazism and he was executed due to his consistent refusal to take up arms as a soldier in Hitler’s war.”
 
Those who wish to read more about Franz Jagerstatter's life are referred to the Diocese of Linz website.

The movie takes its title from a George Eliot quote from her book, Middlemarch:

"The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life..." Franz's life and his act of passive resistance were most definitely hidden and unhistoric. His life, lived faithfully and his refusal to participate in a evil war, have done good that none of us will fully know in this life.

A Hidden Life is a beautifully crafted film, with a cast who give outstanding performances. Malik challenges his audience to consider the life of a man who simply could not cooperate with evil. Ultimately his hidden resistance cost him his life. While the personal price was high, Franz Jagerstatter demonstrated that there was still some good in a very evil time.

Image credits:

Franz and Franzsika wedding photo: https://johnpwalshblog.com/2017/10/26/blessed-franz-jagerstatter-1907-1943-farmer-husband-and-father-conscientious-objector-and-martyr/ 

Franz with Judge Lueben: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/17-january/books-arts/film/film-review-a-hidden-life-cert-12a

Monday, September 14, 2020

War Stories by Gordon Korman

Twelve-year-old Trevor Firestone is on a weekend access visit with his father Daniel and his great-grandfather Jacob Firestone in Marlborough, Connecticut. He lives with his mother, stepfather and twin half sisters, seeing his dad every other weekend. Trevor loves everything war related, mainly because his great-grandfather, Jacob Firestone fought in World War II. Private First Class Jacob Firestone of Bravo Company was awarded a Bronze Star by the French for his part in liberating a small village in France from the Nazis.

Jacob, whom Trevor affectionately calls G.G., has told Trevor many stories of his time fighting the Nazis in France. This has led to Trevor becoming almost obsessed with war, especially World War II. "He played video games about it, read books, watched movies, built models. Both his rooms... were plastered with posters commemorating military units and major battles."

Their lives change forever when a letter from the village council of Sainte-Regine in France arrives, inviting PFC Jacob Firestone, the last surviving participant of the Battle of Sainte-Regine to a commemoration ceremony in the town in May. G.G. was to be the guest of honour. Although Daniel believes his grandfather is too old to attend, G.G. is determined to go.

Trevor and his great-grandfather plan out their trip to include the entire route G.G. took from his "basic training in Georgia, to England for staging, and across the English Channel for the invasion of Normandy on D-Day." They will also follow his route through France to Sainte-Regine and they will attend the seventy-fifth anniversary of V-E Day at Reims.

However, while Trevor is excited for the trip and the part his hero great-grandfather will play in it, his father, Daniel is concerned. The Sainte-Regine Facebook page about the ceremony has a comment on it by Vive le Verite (Long Live the Truth) stating that Jacob Firestone is no hero and is not welcome. Jacob doesn't seemed surprised nor does he offer any explanation. Both Daniel and Jacob decide not to tell Trevor.

But when they land in Normandy and as they travel throughout France, Trevor notices two young French teens seem to be everywhere they are. Not only that but the tires on their rental car are slashed.


It soon becomes apparent that the liberation of Sainte Regine is not quite what G.G. has portrayed to his family. Confronted by the past,  G.G. must tell the truth to Trevor and Daniel. Along the way, two families, one French and one American experience forgiveness, healing and the revelation for Trevor that there is no glory in war.

Discussion

War Stories by acclaimed children's author, Gordon Korman is a novel that explores the theme of war through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy, Trevor Firestone and also through the experiences of a seventeen-year-old soldier. Trevor adores his great-grandfather Jacob Firestone who enlisted as a seventeen-year-old and fought in World War II. Jacob was in Bravo Company and as an infantryman saw the realities of war: pain, death and massive destruction. However, this reality is lost on Trevor who sees only glory in war.

Korman utilizes a dual narrative to tell his story. The first narrative is set in the present (the year 2020) and tells of Trevor and his family, including his great-grandfather, a World War II Veteran as they travel through France at attend a ceremony honouring his great-grandfather's role in liberating a French town during World War II. The second narrative set in 1943 to 1944 as a young Private Jacob Firestone, part of Bravo Company fights its way across France. The two narratives are juxtaposed against one another, describing events in the same locales, 76 year apart. Korman uses both narratives to make his point about war - it's ugly, destructive and is not to be glorified.

Through Jacob's narrative, set in 1944 as he battles his way onto the beach at Normandy and through France, the reality of war is never far away.  Seven weeks into his time as a soldier, Jacob is already overwhelmed by the reality of war his training never really prepared him for."When Jacob closed his eyes, the picture of what bullets or shrapnel could do to a human being was never far away. He had already seen more death than he'd ever imagined possible. And more blood - it was hard to believe there could be so much of it. At times, he had found himself surrounded by so many bodies - from both sides in this war - that it became difficult to remember that these had once been people. Brothers and sons. Husbands and fathers and friends." He loses some of his best friends and sees the vast destruction war causes.

In Trevor's narrative, set in 2020, Trevor comes to learn more about the realities of war as his family travels through France, revisiting the locations of battles G.G. encountered. In the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Normandy, France, his father points out that "Battles may look glamorous in movies and on posters, but this is what's what's left over once the smoke clears away." To Trevor they are heroes, but his father Daniel points out, "They were kids,...Not much older than you, when you think about it. Every single one of these graves is more than a life lost. It's a family torn apart and generations that will never be born. Look at your great-grandfather.If he'd been killed in the war, neither of us would be standing here right now. Not to mention your kids, and their kids, and so on..."

Despite this Trevor remains convinced of the glory of war and he can't "...wait to hear the full story of how Bravo Company had liberated Sainte-Regine. It was going to be epic!"  Their travels through the various towns that G.G. fought to liberate help Trevor to understand that the video games he plays don't accurately portray the realities of war. Tanks don't blow through obstacles, they break down or are destroyed by enemies. Each battle won, each acre of land gained represents lost lives on both sides and destroyed villages and towns. The reality of the devastation caused by war is driven home when they visit Saint Lo, a town G.G. describes as being "flat as a pancake" by the time the Germans are forced out. 

However, the reality of war is really driven home when Trevor learns the truth of what happened during the liberation of Sainte Regine. His great-grandfather tells Trevor and his dad that he inadvertently revealed the location of a family, the LaFleurs, involved in the French Resistance - a mistake that led to the deaths of the entire family who had saved his life and nursed him back to health.

The revelation of what happened years ago leaves Trevor shocked but also with a different view of war.  "...he had always pictured war as a gigantic chess match, played by general, using pieces that represented armies. Everything went like clockwork. You executed your strategy, conquered territory, defeated your enemies." But what was missing in Trevor's image of war was the human cost; the villages destroyed simply because they were in the wrong place, a misplaced step that got a soldier killed or like his great-grandfather, a simple mistake that resuleds in the deaths of an entire family. War "....looked cool on a movie screen or in a video game. But when real lives were being lost, snuffed out by sheer random chance, there was no glory." 

War Stories is also about forgiveness and redemption.  Jacob Firestone has carried the scars of war with him through his entire life.  At the ceremony honoring him for his role in the liberation of Sainte Regine, Jacob is confronted by Rene LaFleur's descendants, Juliette and Philippe and acknowledges his costly mistake. With the help of Trevor who points out to Juliette that his great-grandfather volunteered to come to liberate France and that he has suffered too, she is able to forgive. This forgiveness brings healing and ultimately unites the two families.

Jacob also finds redemption in an act of mercy he committed shortly after learning of the deaths of the LaFleur family.  He spared the life of a young German soldier outside the LaFleur farmhouse and meets that boy, now an old man like himself. "...the German showed photographs of his wife, their three children, seven grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren."  Puzzled as to why his great-grandfather is lingering over the pictures, Trevor realizes what his father tried to explain to him earlier in the trip about the cost of war, "...None of those people would ever have been born if G.G. had done his duty and killed this man so many years ago. A snap decision -- a moment of mercy -- and all those lives became suddenly possible."

War Stories is a thoughtful novel that explores the themes of war, forgiveness, mercy and redemption. Well-written by veteran author Gordon Korman, it is a timely novel that encourages young readers to think about how war impacts soldiers and civilians and the lessons we might learn from previous wars. Ironically, Korman could not have known there would be a world wide pandemic in 2020 and so Trevor and his family's trip to France could not have happened in April and May. But in the world of fiction, anything can happen! Although Korman's Sainte Regine is fictional, Operation Overlord  - the Battle of Normandy was not. A map showing the general locations in the US, England and France would be helpful to young readers.

Highly recommended.

You can read about the invention of the Higgins boat from the Smithsonian Magazine.

Book Details:

War Stories by Gordon Korman
New York: Scholastic Press      2020
231 pp.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

A Book For Escargot by Dashka Slater

Dashka Slater's delightfully sweet picture book, A Book For Escargot readers are treated to the second story about Escargot, that dashing, suave French snail. C'est un regale that breaks the cuteness meter and is sure to delight readers young and old.

In this adventure, dashing Escargot is on his way to the library to find a book, but not just any book. He's tired of eating salads. He dreams of something much more scrumptious and so he wants "a French cookbook, filled with delicious French recipes."

Along the way to the cooking section, Escargot is amazed at all the wonderful books in the library. But he does find it upsetting that there are no "books about a daring snail hero who saves the day."

But Escargot laments the lack of books "about a daring snail hero who saves the day" and suggests that the reader might want to write a story about a "very beautiful French snail hero" based on him. And so he imagines beginning to write such a book as he slimes towards the cookbook section.

Eventually, Escargot makes it to the cookbook section where he finds what seems like the perfect book, The Art of French Cooking. This book will help him find something to make besides a boring salad. But Escargot makes a startling discovery about French cooking and comes up with a satisfying solution to a book that views escargot in a way he never imagined!

Discussion

In this  picture book, Escargot is cheeky and he knows it. From the very beginning he has no doubts about himself, telling readers, " It can be very distracting to have a very beautiful French snail staring at you while you read."  He very innocently suggests some classic children's books, with a decidedly gastropod theme. He even suggests that the author of a book about a snail hero might be modeled after his "most beautiful parts, like my shiny brown shell or my translucent tentacle of my chic outfit." By his own definition, he is "handsome, suave, and smart." And when he shockingly discovers the real reason French cooking involves escargot, he retreats to his shell, where he is "not hiding but more like having a private moment."

Bringing this humorous tale to life are the colourful illustrations by Sydney Hanson. She usually works with pencil crayon and also watercolours. Hanson, a certified naturalist, is well known for her lovely animal illustrations and she perfectly captures the cheekiness of Escargot as he innocently seeks out a French cookbook. A Book For Escargot demands to be read with a French accent. Nothing less than that will do!

Book Details:

A Book For Escargot by Dashka Slater
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux      2020


Monday, September 7, 2020

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

The Island of The Blue Dolphins is a classic children's novel about adventures of a young woman belonging to the Nicoleno tribe who survived alone for eighteen years on the island of San Nicolas. It is based on the true story of the only survivor of the tribe.

The island is one of the most remote of the Channel Islands located off the coast of California.

The Nicoleno Indians had lived on the island for centuries. It was visited frequently by the Russians who came to hunt otter for their pelts. There are several versions as to how the young woman came to be alone on the island. One story is that the remaining members of the Nicoleno Indians were being removed from the island when it was discovered that a boy had been left behind. A young woman, possibly the boy's mother or sister returned to the island.

In 1853, Captain Nidever returned to the island to hunt and encountered a middle-aged woman, who spoke to them in an unknown language. Nidever had been counselled by the Catholic fathers at the Santa Barbara mission to bring the woman to the mainland if they found her. This they did. No one was ever able to learn her name so she was given the name Juana Maria when she was baptized.

In O'Dell's famous novel, the story opens with the arrival of the Aleut (Russian) ship. At this time, a young girl named Won-a-pa-lei lived on the island in the village of Ghalas-at with her father, her younger brother Ramo and her older sister Ulape and the rest of their tribe.

Won-a-pa-lei's father, the chief of Ghalas-at greets the captain of the ship, Captain Orlov. In an unusual move, Won-a-pa-lei's father reveals his real name as Chief Chowig. Everyone in their tribe has two names, "the real one which was secret and was seldom used, and one which was common, for if people use your secret name it becomes worn out and loses its magic."  Won-a-pa-lei's secret name is Karana.

Captain Orlov has come with forty Alakan Aleut men to hunt sea otter. However, Karana's father is skeptical because a previous hunt by the Russians/Aleuts years ago, led by Captain Mitriff resulted in great trouble between the two peoples. Orlov offers to do the hunting and reluctantly agrees to divide the catch.

A hint of the trouble to come is given when one day Karana's tribe has the good fortune of catching a large number of fish, some of which the Aleuts wanted. Chief Chowig refuses to share the fish telling the Aleuts they can work to catch their own fish. Karana expresses her concern about how many otter the Aleuts are killing but her father tells her the otter will return to the kelp beds surrounding the island.

However, tragedy strikes the Ghalas-at community when the Aleuts and the Russian crew attempt to leave without upholding their end of the bargain. The two groups fight and the Aleuts flee the island but not before a battle that sees most of the Nicoleno men killed including Karana's father. Only fifteen men remained, seven of them, old men.

A new chief is chosen, a very old man named Kimki. With so few men, the women now must hunt, a situation that begins to cause trouble within the tribe. Karana and her people also have to deal with the loss of so many of their families. The following spring, Kimki decides to travel across the sea to the east to a place he had visited when he was a young man. He does not return after several months and a new chief is chosen.

The following year, the islanders see a different ship on the horizon. At first they fear it is the Aleuts returning but they soon learn it is a ship of white men who had met Kimki and were told to come to the island to take them away. As she prepares to leave the island, Karana is told that her younger brother Ramo is already on the ship, after being told he could not return to the village for his spear. However, as the ship is leaving the island, Ulape points to Ramo on the shore waving his spear. Karana is told the ship cannot turn back as it might founder on the rocks. Horrified, Karana leaps into the sea and manages to swim to shore.

So begins Karana's eighteen years marooned on San Nicolas. During that time she will confront death, make a decision about her future, deal with the wild dogs that roam the island and learn now to live with her loneliness.

Discussion

Island of the Blue Dolphins is based on the real life person, a woman given the name of Juana Maria who was the last surviving member of the Ghalas-at, a woman given the name of Juana Maria. Exactly how she came to be marooned on San Nicolas Island, and whether she lived eighteen years entirely alone, without seeing another human being remain uncertain.

When Juana Maria was brought to the Santa Barbara Mission by George Nidever, no one was able understand the language she spoke. She died seven weeks later, taking her story with her. In that time she had earned the title of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas, adding even more mystery to her.  Island of the Blue Dolphins therefore, is largely fictional, using Juana Maria's story as a framework for O'Dell's novel. Through his character Karana, O'Dell is able to give his readers a sense of what life might have been like for this young woman. She had likely already mastered the skills necessary to survive on the island. O'Dell portrays her as having remarkable ingenuity, intelligence and resourcefulness as she is able to cope with many different situations, some of them life-threatening.

But what makes this a fascinating and engaging story is that it is told by Karana who is the sole character in most of the novel - a difficult task for any writer. Whether she is fending off the wild dogs, hunting a sea lion, or attempting to leave her island and journey east, Karana is portrayed as brave and determined. To assuage her loneliness, the leader of the wild dogs whom she was set on killing becomes her companion. She is able to construct a safe and comfortable rock house for herself.  Rounding out the story are the  many interesting descriptions of the life on the island and in the surrounding sea.

Island of the Blue Dolphins is a classic that most readers aged nine to twelve will enjoy. It offers a refreshing break from the fantasy novels that so dominate books for this age group.

To learn more about San Nicolas Island, the people who inhabited these islands and the story told in Island of the Blue Dolphins, check out the National Park Service website.


Book Details:

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt         1988
pp.177

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Escargot by Dashka Slater

Escargot is the name of a dashing, suave French snail. And he's on a mission to be the reader's favourite animal and to get to the delicious salad at the end of the book! Along the way, Escargot fills readers in on his most magnifique traits. He even suggests that his shimmery trails of...."Not slime..." but "shimmery stuff" are beautiful.

Having convinced the young reader that snails do indeed make excellent favourite animals, Escargot arrives at the salad. But this salad is not quite to his liking. However, Escargot keeps an open mind which leads to a change in his liking and thinking!

Discussion

Escargot is a delightful picture book, whose main character, a French snail, will charm his way into your heart! Escargot is witty, cheeky and very amusing. In this story, Escargot encourages his reader to try something new, in this case, carrots. In doing so, he discovers a new favourite.

Helping the story along are the lovely illustrations by Sydney Hanson, who has worked for Disney Animation Studios and Dream Works Studios. Hanson is able to capture the qualities of Escargot's personality and bring them to life on paper. This makes Escargot much more than an ordinary snail, the text and illustrations of this sweet picture book working together to create a beloved character.


Book Details:

Escargot by Dashka Slater
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Baggage by Wendy Phillips

Baggage explores the issue of illegal refugees and human trafficking in this novel set in Vancouver, British Columbia. The story is told in verse, through voices of five people, Ms. Nelson a teacher, Brittany one of Ms. Nelson's students, Leah who is Brittany's sister, Thabo an illegal refugee and Kevin who is a friend of Brittany and Leah.

After returning from a trip to Japan with her students, Ms. Nelson notices the boy leaning against the baggage carousel in the International Arrivals area of the Vancouver International Airport. All of her students have been picked up except Brittany whose mother, an ER nurse, is late.

Thabo has been waiting for three hours after the old woman who accompanied him on the plane left to get food. She took his passport and papers and he has no idea where she is. Thabo doesn't speak English.

Ms. Nelson decides to intervene and takes Thabo to the airport police but no one can understand him. Eventually he is left with Immigration who will place him  in foster care while they determine his country of origin and his age.

At home, Brittany tells Leah and her mom that the boy was abandoned like "unclaimed baggage". She believes "He might be  a refugee a child soldier
maybe
a terrorist's kid
maybe
a victim of child trafficking."

While Brittany is focusing on Thabo and his situation, her friend Kevin who does all the research for her social justice initiatives begins to feel left out and used. At the same time, Brittany's sister Leah, who is a catcher on the local baseball team, begins to notice Kevin.

Brittany confronts Ms. Nelson after class one day, telling her that Kevin's research has shown that Thabo could end up in jail because he has no passport and no proof of age. She asks Ms. Nelson to find out what is going on with Thabo and tells her that her parents are willing to have him stay with her family. That night Ms. Nelson learns that Thabo has been placed in detention because of his lack of documentation and because he's considered a flight risk. The x-rays seem to indicate that he is likely older than eighteen years of age.

This news results in Brittany ramping up a massive social media campaign about Thabo's situation. She forces her family to take in Thabo and calls Kevin late that night to have him get his church minister involved. But when Border Services decides he's to be deported, Thabo seeks asylum in the Reverend's church. What they don't know is that the people who brought Thabo to Canada are actively looking for him and will stop at nothing to get him back.

Discussion

Baggage, a story about an illegal immigrant, tackles a host of social issues through a story told in verse. When Thabo is supposedly abandoned at Vancouver International Airport, he becomes the latest project of Brittany, a teenager who is described as a "passionate crusader". Soon Brittany has her family, her school and the community involved in her social media campaign to rescue Thabo. But it turns out that Brittany is so focused on publicity and activism that she doesn't ask the hard questions about Thabo's situation.

The novel attempts to focus on the social issue of illegal immigrants and human trafficking but there are also other issues explored such as the use of social media. A subplot is the blossoming romance between Kevin who is largely ignored by Brittany and Leah. Phillips tells Thabo's story using free verse, a format that provides only the basics of the story while highlighting the characters. Through Phillips effective free verse, readers will get a good sense of the main characters, what motivates them and how they are different.

It is the character of Brittany however, who steals the focus of the reader from illegal immigrant and potential trafficking victim, Thabo. Brittany, a master at generating publicity for causes, succeeds in her attempt to generate media attention for Thabo's plight but at the same time reveals herself as someone so completely focused on her online image and on using social media, that she forgets about the human element, the real people involved and how they are being affected.

This is seen in her relationship of lack of it with her friend Kevin who has a crush on Brittany. Kevin begins to feel used as Brittany ramps up her media campaign for Thabo. He notes she "loves projects loves to talk to crowds" and "Her favourite part is getting people passionate about issues..." but he wishes he was "an issue and she would get passionate about me."Brittany writes slogans, considers "a poster series made into memes" and "A few sound bites from Kevin's research". Kevin is a means to an end, her researcher and not much more. Her use of Kevin, who is Chinese in a multicultural poster with herself and Thabo is hurtful. She tells him, he is included because they are all good looking. Kevin knows it's "not a compliment, just a strategy".

For Brittany, Thabo is a "project". Brittany's focus is almost entirely on using Thabo to enhance her own image and social media campaign. In her effort to create a media storm around Thabo and his situation, Brittany forgets that she is dealing with a real person who may have experienced significant and terrible suffering. She doesn't take the time to think about how events are affecting Thabo. For example, when she brings him to stay in her family's home, Brittany is annoyed that he doesn't act grateful and she's irritated by the fact that he yells in his sleep.

Gradually Thabo becomes lost in Brittany's social media campaign, becoming a mere prop. When she brings him to school, it's more to show him off, and to generate her image of a social justice warrior.

"I'm bringing him
to school next week
to get him started on his missed education
to show him to everyone."

Brittany is excited to organize the Global Leadership club meeting, noting, "The club executive will be impressed. They'll all listen to me. It'll be cool." As the situation develops and Thabo takes refuge in the church, Brittany undertakes and organizes an amazing list of publicity stunts that include concerts, bake sales, and TV interviews.

In contrast to Brittany, Leah is more aware of how these events are affecting Thabo. She sees his humanity and treats him like a person who may be frightened and uncertain. Leah immediately tries to communicate with Thabo, discovering that immigration officials determined his language is Sotho, from southern Africa. This leads her to work on learning a few words of Sotho, practicing them over and over. When they take Thabo to school, it is Leah's quiet, "Ho lokile, It's okay." that brings a smile to his face.While Brittany is concerned about people donating to the Thabo Defense Fund, Leah worries that "Thabo is freaked out" and that other students might gang up on him. She checks in on him during the day.

It is Leah's quiet and calming approach to Thabo and her ability to empathize with others that draws Kevin to her. Leah recognizes that Kevin likes Brittany but she knows her sister isn't serious about any relationship, that she "dabbles in boyfriends". But Kevin begins to feel an attraction to Leah, who has a calming effect on him.

Ironically it is Kevin and Leah who are thrown together in an attempt to save Thabo. And incredibly Brittany continues to make the story about herself.
I post photos of the fire
do a few more selfies
pick the one
that shows to advantage
my cheekbones
and eyelashes
smouldering ruins in the background.

I Snapchat my friends
Tweet my networks
Instagram my circle, ...
update the Facebook page...

I change my profile picture
#GirlOnFire

To her dismay, Brittany finds herself on the outside of the trending story looking in!

Phillips has crafted a story that is both engaging and that offers many themes to explore. It's timely considering the ongoing refugee crisis in the world today. But the novel also offers young readers the chance to explore the issues surround social media and how it is used today. The novel's title, Baggage is an obvious reference to Thabo who is abandoned at the airport like a piece of baggage. But it might also be a reference to the "baggage" or emotional and psychological issues each of the characters have. There's plenty to explore in this intriguing novel.

Book Details:

Baggage by Wendy Phillips
Regina, Sask.:   Coteau Books    2019
295 pp.