Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Sound of Freedom by Kathy Kacer

The Sound of Freedom is a fictionalized account of a young girl whose family manages to escape Poland with the help of  world-renowned violinist, Bronislaw Huberman. Huberman was a child prodigy who studied with Joseph Joachim. He began touring Europe when he was only fourteen. When Adolf Hitler came to power, Huberman surmised that the situation for Jews in Europe would only get worse. Although he left Germany for Austria he found the situation not much better. It was apparent the situation for the Jewish people would only worsen. So he began to plan to bring the best Jewish musicians to Palestine to form an orchestra. This novel tells of one family's hope to be part of that historic event. 

Twelve-year-old Anna Hirsch lives in Krakow with her father, Avrum Hirsch who is a gifted clarinetist and her Baba. Anna's father plays in the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra and also lectures at the music academy.

The novel opens with Anna and her best friend Renata stopping at Mrs. Benna's shop on the way home on a Tuesday afternoon while her father gives lessons.While snacking on their donuts they witness a group of boys who have lately been targeting Jewish kids try to bully Mrs Benna. She stands up to them and they leave. However when Anna and Renata are walking home they see the boys vandalizing the window of  Mr. Kaplansky's butcher shop while the police chief Constable Zabek watches without intervening. At home Anna tells her papa and her baba about what happened and she is warned to stay away from the boys. That night they listen world famous violinist Bronislaw Huberman play a violin concerto by Tchaikovsky. However the radio broadcast is interrupted by a speech by Adolf Hitler. In his speech Hitler promises to provide jobs and good schools to all German citizens, to build a strong army to defend the country and to start by "cleansing Germany of all Jews. Country after country will follow."

However Anna's father refuses to talk about Hitler or what's happening in Poland. At school the next day Anna and Renata are confronted by Sabina Zabek who tells them that soon they won't be allowed to attend any school. After school Anna misses Renata who has indicated she has something important to tell Anna, so she visits her father's orchestra rehearsal. She is stunned to see all the Jewish members of the orchestra segregated at the back of the orchestra and not in their respective sections. She is so upset that her clarinet lesson with her father is a disaster.

During the next two weeks, there are more attacks on Jewish businesses, the headlines in the newspapers are decidely anti-Jewish. Anna's friend Stephan Ungar tells her that his father has said they will not be kicked out school, that these are isolated incidents and that this troubled time will pass, but Anna is unconvinced. They meet Renata who finally reveals that her family is fleeing Poland for Denmark in a week's time. Renata states that her parents want to leave before the situation worsens, especially since it is so difficult for Jews to obtain papers to travel to another country and that many countries do not want to take in Jewish immigrants. Anna is desolate, partly because she knows her best friend is right and partly because her own family seems reluctant to acknowledge what is happening all over Poland and Germany.

Anna confides in Baba about Renata's family leaving but her grandmother attempts to calm her by telling her everything will be fine. However Anna tells her about what she saw at orchestra practice, confronting Baba and demanding she tell her the truth. Baba tells Anna about the "ghetto chairs" for the musicians but she believes that they will be safe.

That night Papa tells them about Bronislaw Huberman's trip to Poland to recruit musicians for an orchestra in Palestine. Papa tells Anna and Baba that Huberman is inviting Jewish musicians to audition. When Anna hears this she attempts to convince her father to audition by telling him everything that she has witnessed in the streets. However her father refuses to believe that the situation is dire, stating that their lives are in Poland and they cannot simply leave for something so uncertain. Anna is completely devastated. How can she convince her father that they must leave Poland and that Huberman's auditions may be their only way out?


Discussion

The Sound of Freedom portrays a real life event that occurred just before the onset of World War II through the eyes of a young girl. The Hirsch family is fictional; there was no Avrum Hirsch who was a clarinetist  recruited by Bronislaw Huberman. But Huberman did recruit seventy musicians for his Palestine Orchestra which was formed in 1936.  At a time when getting travel documents was almost impossible for people of Jewish heritage, somehow Huberman managed to obtain enough to bring not only the musicians but their families too. The novel covers the period up to the historic concert given by the Palestine Symphony Orchestra on December 26, 1936, conducted by Maestro Toscanini.

Kacer seamlessly incorporates many historical facts into her novel; the increasingly violent harassment of Jews in Poland, Huberman's method of auditioning musicians, the difficulties he encountered obtaining visas, the theft of his Stradivarius violin, and life in British Mandate Palestine. Kacer mentions some of the challenges Anna and her fellow emigrants experienced in moving to Palestine, including learning Hebrew and dealing with attacks on the area by Arabs. Life in Palestine would most certainly have been vastly different for European Jews who settled there.
Toscanni and Huberman Palestine Symphony Orchestra

When Anna's friend Eric and his family decide to return to Poland, Anna is distraught. Although Palestine is also struggling with conflict, the Jewish people are safer than in Europe and Anna wonders about the fate of Eric. Some musicians and their families did decide to return to Europe. Those who did, would not survive the war. Near the end of the novel, Anna learns that Bronislaw Huberman brought over one thousands Jews to Palestine and as history now knows - saving these gifted musicians and their families -from the death camps of Adolf Hitler. If only more people had acted, how many more could have been saved?

Kacer is a Canadian author whose parents are survivors of the Holocaust; her mother survived by hiding and her father survived the death camps. The novel was written at the suggestion of the publisher, Annick Press.  The Sound of Freedom is the first in what will be a series of four books called the Heroes Quartet. The next installment, a book about the famous French mime artist Marcel Marceau is due out March 2019. In light of the recent poll that suggests many children under the age of fourteen do not know what the word Holocaust refers to, Kacer's novel is all the more timely.

Readers are encouraged to view the documentary, Orchestra of Exiles which examines Huberman's efforts to put together an orchestra in Palestine and preserve some of the Jewish musical heritage which he felt certain would be destroyed by the coming cataclysm.

Information on the Palestine Symphony Orchestra can be found at the Jewish Virtual Library. 

Book Details:

The Sound of Freedom by Kathy Kacer
Toronto: Annick Press Ltd.      2017
249 pp.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

The Night Diary is a fictional account of one family's experience during the partition of India into two countries in 1947. The story is told in the form of diary entries written by the main character, Nisha beginning on her twelfth birthday, addresses to her deceased mother. Nisha receives the diary as birthday gift from Kazi, the family's Muslim servant. "The diary is covered in purple and red silk, decorated with small sequins and bits of mirrored glass sewn in. The paper is rough, thick, and the color of butter..."

He tells Nisha "someone needs to make a record of the things that will happen because the grown-ups will be too busy." Nisha decides to address each entry to her mother Faria who died giving birth to Nisha and her twin brother Amil. For his birthday, Amil receives a beautiful book, a collection of tales from the Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic poem. The book contains beautiful coloured pictures, which Nisha knows Amil will love as he loves to draw but struggles to read.

Nisha and Amil live with their papa who is the head doctor at Mirpur Khas City Hospital, and Dadi their grandmother in a large compound provided by the government. The compound consists of their home which is a large bungalow, cottages where Kazi Syed and their grounds keeper Mahit live, a vegetable garden and a chicken coop. Nisha and her brother both attend segregated government schools for boys and girls.

The first hint of change happens on July 18 when three men come to the house while Papa is at work and speak to Dadi. She orders Nisha and Amil into the kitchen with Kazi. Dadi won't tell them what they wanted but Amil tells his sister that he overheard the men asking Dadi when they would be leaving.

The next day, July 19 Nisha and Amil are followed by two boys as they walk to school. Although this occasionally happens, this time the boys throw rocks at them. Nisha blames Amil who often taunts them and then runs away. But Amil tells her "It's because we're Hindus...There are lots of places all over India where the Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims fight one another all the time now...That's why those men came to the house yesterday. They said the Hindus should leave and they don't want Kazi to live with us."  As tensions escalate, there is a fight between a Muslim and a Hindu boy at school and Amil is chased again after school. Papa decides that neither Nisha nor Amil will go to school. He explains that India will gain its independence from Britain but will be partitioned into two states. Their town of Mirpur Khas won't be in India but will now be a part of a new country called Pakistan. Although Gandhi wants everyone to live in peace, Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League wants a Muslim state while Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress wants to be prime minister of India.

Life at home leaves Nisha bored and missing school which she did well at. Then on August 2, a group of people break down the door of their home, ransacking and breaking furniture and pots while Nisha, Amil and Dadi hide in terror in the pantry. After they leave Kazi comes to get them, his head bleeding profusely from a cut. Shortly after this Papa decides it is time for them to leave Mirpur Khas as it is no longer safe for them to stay. He decides to hold a party and invites family and friends. Their neighbours, uncles, aunties, cousins and Dr. Ahmed and his family attend the party.

After the party, Nisha realizes that she would have her memories of life in Mirpur Khas and new memories of life in the new India. "My childhood would always have a line drawn through it, the before and the after." Nisha, Amil and their father will undertake a journey across India that will change them forever and in ways they cannot anticipate.

Discussion

Veera Hiranandani's The Night Diary is loosely based on the experiences of her father's family during the Partition. Hiranandani's father, grandparents, aunts and uncles had to cross the border from Mirpur Khas to Jodhpur in a journey similar to that undertaken by Nisha and her family.  Although they safely crossed the border, at least one million people died in this mass migration that saw tensions between Muslims and Hindus escalate into violence.

Hiranandani's novel presents a balanced portrayal of the relationship between Muslims and Hindus in pre-partitioned India.  As would be expected, the families of Nisha's Hindu father and Muslim mother had mixed reactions to their marriage years earlier; her father's family was against the marriage, puzzled by his lack of interest in the Hindu girls, while Nisha's mother's sister was so against the marriage that she never spoke to her again. However her mother's brother seemed supportive.

Because of Nisha's mixed background she and her family are open to friendships with both Hindu and Muslim people; her father's best friend is Dr. Ahmed, a Muslim, while Nisha's best friend is Sabeen, a Muslim student. Their cook, Kazi is also Muslim and considered a member of the family.

When Nisha and her family become targets of violence she struggles to understand. Because of their mixed heritage, Nisha and Amil don't know who attacked their home and are left confused. "...And anyway I thought the two sides were supposed to be us and the British. Why are we fighting each other?" Nisha wants to "go somewhere fresh and new where people were happy..." and where "nobody would mind that you were Muslim and Papa was Hindu and Amil and I could hold both sides of our parents in our hearts." In trying to understand why people are fighting each other, Nisha asks, "Is it the brain that makes people love and hate? Or is it the heart?"

Nisha's father tells her that everyone is to blame. "...when you separate people into groups, they start to believe that one group is better than another." But Nisha recognizes "...we all have the same blood, and organs, and bones inside us, no matter what religion we're supposed to be."

The journey to the border is filled with hardships and terrifying experiences that change how Nisha views the world and push her to ask many questions. When they run out of water Nisha thinks about Badal, the water man who brought water to their home daily. "I never thought about how heavy it must have been and how lucky we were to have someone bring it to us every day. A wave of shame rippled through the center of my body..." As their situation grows dire and they are unable to continue, Nisha begins to think about death. "...I've thought about other people dying, but I've never thought about me not actually being here anymore."

Suffering from dehydration and unable to continue their journey, Nisha tells Dadi she loves her, making her realize that although they "never said those words to one another..." they "did thing that meant love." Nisha realise that love that exists in their home in the form of service to one another. "Now I could see it. Dadi washing and mending my clothes. Papa kissing us on our foreheads before bedtime, Amil making a drawing of me. Kazi making my favorite paratha stuffed with fried onions and potatoes. Every day had been filled with things like this. All love, even between Papa and Amil." Facing certain death from lack of water, when Papa returns with the much needed water, his sacrifice and comforting of them convinces Nisha that father loves them. "I knew I would remember this forever, pack it away in my mind."

After Nisha is attacked outside Rashid Uncle's home by a Muslim man who has seen his entire family murdered, she wonders, "Why had his family been killed? Why would anyone do that? Do people who kill start out like me, or are they a different kind of human?" The attack leaves Nisha unable to comprehend the violence. "I know lots of people have died walking and on the trains in both directions. The riots and killings keep happening. I still don't understand. We were all part of the same country last month, all these different people and religions living together. Now we are supposed to separate and hate one another. Does Papa secretly hate Rashid Uncle? Does Rashid Uncle secretly hate us? Where do Amil and I fit in to all of this hate? Can you hate half of a person?" Nisha is referring to the fact that she and Amil are from Muslim and Hindu parents, leading her to wonder how people will view them.

When they finally push their way onto a train to cross the border, Nisha watches as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs fight one another in a bloody, deadly battle. "I looked at the dying men on the ground. For what? I did not know. More revenge? I shook all over. I had never seen anyone kill before. It has changed me. I used to think people were mostly good, but now I wonder if anyone could be a murderer..."

Hiranandani has populated her novel with realistic characters and has done an excellent job recreating the historical setting for the novel, demonstrating she knows her subject well.

The Night Diary doesn't really explore the root of the tensions between Muslims and Hindus in British India but it does show that the partition of the country into two separate republics was a violent event. This event viewed through the eyes of young Nisha shows how senseless the violence was, in what should have been a very proud moment in the history of the country - freedom from alost three hundred years of British rule. Today tensions continue to exist between Muslims and Hindus both within India and Pakistan and also between the two countries who are arch enemies. Neither nation has fared well since the Partition; India continues to have serious social issues including poverty, an inability to eradicate the caste system and serious women's rights issues, while Pakistan struggles with government corruption and encroaching Islamic fundamentalism.

Hiranandani includes a short Author's Note that provides some background information about her family's experiences and about the Partition. Readers may find the following websites helpful:

Stanford University's 19947 Partition of India & Pakistan

The British National Archives also have much information as does the BBC website.

Overall The Night Diary is an excellent, well-written novel for younger readers about an important event in the 20the century.

Book Details:

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
New York: Dial Books For Young Readers    2018
264 pp.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Escape From Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

Escape From Aleppo tells the story of the Syrian War through the eyes of a young girl as she makes her way across the city of Aleppo after getting separated from her family.

Early on the morning of October 9, 2013, Nadia Jandali is awakened by her cousin Razan who tells her they must leave at once. Nadia is filled with fear and attempts to crawl back under her bed where she's been sleeping. She can hear the deep boom of bombs called barmeela in the distance. These are barrel bombs filled with shrapnel which are dropped onto rebel held areas by the Syrian army. Nadia is forced awake, grabs her backpack and a burlap bag to meet the rest of her family.

Nadia's cousin, Malik who is the eldest son of Khala Fatima (Nadia's maternal aunt), believes the helicopters are coming their way and that they need to leave. Nadia's family have formulated a plan that Nadia, her mother and grandmother, and her three aunts and their children will assemble downstairs in the apartment building. The building was built by her grandparents thirty-five years ago and has four apartments, each housing a son and his family. Nadia's mother orders them to go downstairs while she hunts for Nadia's younger brother Yusuf's shoes. Razan's job is to help Nadia leave the building.She's rarely been outside in the past year after she was hit by a barmeela and severely injured. The trauma from that event has made Nadia terrified to leave her home.

At the front door, Khala Fatima, Khala Lina, Khala Shakira, and Nana debate what to do next but Khala Lina is emphatic that they need to go to the dental clinic where they have arranged to meet their husbands and sons at noon. Suddenly Malik comes tearing down the stairs telling them they need to leave immediately because the government military helicopters are heading towards them. At the last minute Nadia's mother, Amani comes downstairs carrying Yusuf and the group exits the back door - all except Nadia. As Nadia is forcing herself out the door and Malik races back to help her, their building is rocked by a barmeela, throwing Nadia down the steps and against an abandoned Jeep. Stunned, Nadia lays there hearing Malik yell for her.

In the confusion of the bombing, Malik believes Nadia is beneath the rubble and dead and her family leaves, not knowing she is uninjured but dazed. As another bomb explodes, Nadia rolls under the jeep and falls unconscious. She awakens later that afternoon, her family gone, determined to travel to Dr. Asbahi's dental clinic. Nadia flees through the city encountering a group of children playing on a playground surrounded by the graves of rebels and government soldiers. In trying to find her way through the ruins of Aleppo, Nadia soon finds herself lost. Unable to find the mosque, a landmark on the way to the dental clinic, hungry and exhausted, she runs into a shop for shelter during a rainstorm. It is late in the evening and she is tired and defeated.

Nadia discovers she has taken shelter in a pharmacy. She soon falls asleep underneath a desk in the office and doesn't awaken until very early the next morning. But Nadia learns she's not alone; an elderly man "in loose woolen pantaloons and a navy vest, a taqiyah (skull cap) covering his cropped white hair...Past him, near the door, stood a sturdy, dun-colored donkey." are also in the pharmacy. Relieved he is not a soldier or worse, Nadia attempts to get out the door of the pharmacy but finds it blocked by the donkey. Terrified but responding to the old man's kindness, Nadia tells him all that has happened to her and asks him if he knows the way to the Asbahi clinic. He tells her he does and that he will take her there after he completes a short errand. However, one thing leads to another and Nadia discovers her journey with the elderly man named Ammo Mazen, is filled with unexpected revelations and leads her to discover the hidden inner strength she needs to reunite with her family.

Discussion
Escape From Aleppo tells of one girl's journey across war-torn Aleppo and Syria to the safety of Turkey where her father and family waits for her. The main story is set in 2013, and takes place over a period of five days. It is told through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Nadia who travels through the city of Aleppo with a mysterious elderly man, Ammo Mazen. During this time the reader is shown the impact of war on Nadia's life, the effect on her family and her community

Senazi makes use of flashbacks to demonstrate how much Nadia's life has changed from before the start of the Syrian war. In 2010 and 2011 life for Nadia and her family is filled with ease and comfort. Her tenth birthday party is a feast of Nadia's favourite food, "kabob karaz - grilled lamb meatballs prepared with cherries and pine nuts.", a "towering chocolate cake...adorned with pink sugar roses", and attended by "Her family and friends from school, along with her parents' friends and neighbors, gathered in her grandparents elegant dining room..." She's the center of attention in a "satin aquamarine dress", with nails painted a matching shade of blue and she has a "stack of presents".  Nadia's life revolves around the finals of Arab Idol, auditioning for television commercials, the wedding preparations for her cousin Razan's marriage and her final exams. Life is full of possibilities.

In contrast is Nadia's life in the present, in 2013. After being injured in a barmeela attack, Nadia has a scar that runs from her knee to her hip and has a piece of shrapnel that remains in her leg. Once told she resembled the Arab Idol semifinalist, Carmen Suleiman, Nadia's appearance after escaping the bombing of her home in Salaheddine two years later is much altered. "Her eyes shifted, catching her reflection in the mirror. A stranger stared back at her: face covered in dust, hollowed cheeks marked with pale white scars. A cut, caked with dry blood, from where her head had hit the Jeep. Her hair, once thick and wavy, had been hacked off because of lice. Spiky and short, it now lay stuffed under an ugly olive-green woolen cap..."

After the bombing, Nadia looks at their family's apartment building which is mostly destroyed. "She peered inside Khala Lina's apartment, cut in half, her embroidered silk curtains still hanging from the window, fluttering like a maroon flag. A leather sofa hung from the ledge, it's matching love seat lying on what remained for Khala Fatima's kitchen below, her stove flat as an atayaf, a sweet cheese-stuffed pancake. Nana's beautiful cream-and-gold china lay scattered across the ground like snowflakes, broken in a million pieces."

The devastation of the war is shown as Nadia's journey through Aleppo to catch up to her family. She travels "past houses where shells had punched great holes and others that had collapsed completely, blocking the surrounding alleys with rubble." She watches an ambulance pull up to "what had been a large apartment complex, now a stack of concrete pancakes with jagged metal rods protruding from all angles. Survivors huddled near the road, coated in dust, consoling the injured while parmedics bandaged a boy's leg. And old man knelt beside teh rubble, weeping, his bent figure shielding something. Nadia got a glimpse of golden bangles and a frail arm." The city is filled with broken down cars, uncollected trash, abandoned stores, salons and mosques, snipers hiding on roofs, and there are "hundreds of checkpoints that had sprung up around the city, each manned by a different group, either affiliated with the Syrian army or one of the hundreds of rebel groups."

Throughout the story, Senzai incorporates various facts about the war. For example, readers learn how the Syrian War was rooted in the uprising in other parts of the Middle East. During Nadia's birthday party, the adults in the family gather to watch the television broadcasts of the self-immolation of a young man, Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bousid, Tunisia. The demonstrations in Tunisia spread to the surrounding countries of Jordan, Algeria and Oman while in Egypt, demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo lead to the removal of dictator Hosni Mubarak. This was followed by unrest in Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco and Libya. These demonstrations come to be known as the Arab Spring. In Syria it begins with the arrest and torture of a group of boys from Deraa who had written anti-government slogans on their school.  Through a flaskback, Nadia remembers the discussions at home between her grandfather and the rest of the family about how the U.S. wanted Assad to resign and how U.N. peacekeepers were sent in to monitor the situation. Later on as Nadia and Ammo Mazen are walking through the streets they encounter a woman who tells them about the sarin gas attack by the Assad government on rebels in Ghouta, near Damascus. An encounter with a group of rebels and an Egyptian-American journalist explains the rebel's view of the involvement of ISIS in the war. "The road you were on is blocked by those foreign bastards who call themselves ISIS. They've been fighting other rebel groups to usurp power...These foreign hypocrites use religion as an excuse to fight some glorified war, seeking power and fame. They are ruthless barbarians, posting videos on the Internet of their atrocities, like blowing up ancient sites or killing civilians for not following their brand of Islam."

Senzai uses the character of Ammo Mazen, to highlight the efforts of the Syrian academics to preserve their historical treasures from destruction in the war. Readers learn that "Most of the museums in the country, and all six of Syria's World Heritage sites, have been affected in one way or another..." Some of those treasures turn out to be rare books brought by Ammo Mazen and include "Kitab al-Tasrif by medieval Arab surgeon Abulcasis, Katib Cheleb's seventeenth-century Islamic atlas, and other rare books of poetry,history, science and mathematics."

Nadia's journey through the ruins of Aleppo to the safety of Turkey mirrors her own personal journey from a fearful traumatized girl to one who acts with courage and decisiveness when needed. Senzai has crafted a realistic protagonist in Nadia Jandali. She's a typical teenager - impulsive, self-absorbed but she is also courageous, intelligent and caring. At the beginning of the story, Nadia has been housebaound for almost a year, filled with fear. Spurred by the loss of her family, Nadia forces herself to try to find her way to the dental clinic in the hopes she will meet up with her family. "She realized that if she kept her eyes down and didn't look around too much, she could keep the fear at bay. Don't think. Just move. Her encounter with Ammo Mazen forces her to trust him despite the fact that he is a complete stranger. His kindness surprises her. "She realized that she had to trust him, at least a little, if she was going to find her family."  Although she does get to the Asbahi clinic, a note from her family telling her where to meet them leaves her feeling abandoned and angry. It also means that she must continue to rely on Ammo Mazen who she suspects is not telling her the full truth of who he is. Nadia is impatient and dismissive of Ammo Mazen's decision to travel by donkey. "Nadia mutinously stared at the smelly donkey, snoring away with Mishmish curled up under her neck. All he has is a bunch of junk, she fumed. Why is that so important?..." Instead she discovers that the old books are rare treasures to be preserved. As Ammo Mazen's healthy begins to deteriorate and he collapses, Nadia wants to abandon him. "I should just ditch them and go find my familiy on my own.It would be easier and faster..." she thinks but she reconsiders. "He had helped her when she needed it the most. And now she would help him. For now, the questions she had didn't matter. she would trust him." And when Ammo Mazen is attacked and his donkey and cart stolen, it is Nadia who comes up with a plan that retrieves them and allows their journey to the border to continue. In the end, Nadia and Basel a little boy they have picked up along the way, leave Ammo Mazen in the care of an elderly woman. Nadia's questions are answered

Escape From Aleppo is a well-written, interesting novel that portrays the realities of war without being too graphic. It is informative, giving younger readers the basic background of the Syrian war which is still ongoing, while putting a face to the conflict through Nadia, Basel, Ammo Mazen and the many other characters.

Book Details:

Escape From Aleppo by Naheed Hasnat Senzai
New York: A Paula Wiesmen Book            2018
324 pp.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Lion's Island by Margarita Engle

Lion's Island is set on the island of Cuba during the late nineteenth century, spanning the years from 1871 to 1878 and focuses on the struggles of the Chinese indentured labourers to obtain their freedom. The story is told (mainly) through the voice of Antonio Chuffat, who came to be known for his work promoting the rights of Chinese Cubans. Most young readers for whom this short novel in verse was written, likely know little of the history of Cuba except that it was the first point of land sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Cuba was claimed for Spain by Columbus and subsequently colonized by the Spanish when in  1511, Deigo Velazqueza de Cuellar settled in there, founding Baracoa. The indigenous Ciboney, Guanahatabey and Taino peoples inhabited the island but as with the coming of the European settlers in other parts of the America's later on, they were decimated by disease and the loss of their ancestral lands.  In 1526, Spain began importing slaves from Africa tow ork on the various farms.

Cuba remained a quiet part of the Spanish empire, at first a jumping off point for further exploration of the continent and also for the posting of military personnel to guard the transport of gold back to Spain. In 1762 the British captured Havana and occupied it for ten months; it was returned to Spain in 1763. This brief occupation opened up the island to international trade.

In the late 1700's, Cuba began to undergo significant changes in the island's economy and society. Cuba's economy began to transform from a mixed economy of ranching and tobacco farming to mainly sugar and coffee plantations. The growth of the sugarcane plantations meant the importing of large numbers of slaves from Africa. Despite the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1802 and the British determination to end the slave trade, Cuba continued to import African slaves. By the 1840's there were well oever four hundred thousand African slaves, a whopping forty-three percent of the island's population, despite the fact that slavery was supposedly abolished on the island in 1820 in an agreement with Great Britain. The plantation owners, seeing the end of the importing of black slaves from Africa, attempted to interest white European workers in coming to Cuba but were unsuccessful.

Instead they turned to China to supply their labor needs. The British has been experimenting with exporting Chinese and East Indian laborers to their various colonies as opposition to the black slave trade began to grow in the late 1700's. The Spanish also utilized Chinese labour in their Phillippines colony. This soon came to be known as the "coolie trade" in which Chinese workers - almost exclusively men - were forced to sign an eight-year labour contract. After completing the indenture they were to be given their freedom. From 1847 to 1874 almost one hundred twenty five thousand Chinese labourers were indentured to Cuba.

The experience of Chinese workers was comparable to that of the African slaves; they were often forcibly recruited in China, packed on the same ships used and captained in the African slave trade, auctioned in the same slave auctions,  housed in the same quarters that had been used or were being used by black slaves and were brutalized in the same manner. This led to many of them fighting in the Ten Years War for independence from Spain.

Using the real historical characters of Antonio Chuffat, his father, Senor Lam and Chin Lan Pin, an official from China sent to investigate the abuses, Engle constructs a story that describes the plight of the Chinese indentured laborers in Cuba in the 1870's. This story is told in seven parts by multiple narrators, using free verse. The story opens in 1871 when Antonio is twelve years old. Antonio's father, has moved from their small village of Jovellanos to La Habana where Antonio attends el Colegio para Desamparados de la Raza de Color - the School for the Unprotected Ones of the Race of Color so he can learn Spanish. Antonio notes the arrival of "los californios" - Chinese who have fled the violence and persecution in Los Angeles.

Outside of school, Antonio carries messages for Senor Tung Kong Lam, who emigrated from Shanghai to San Francisco but left after only a year due to the riots. These messages are to businessmen, soldiers and diplomats. Antonio overhears his father speaking to Senor Lam about the injustices the indentured Chinese laborers experience when they arrive in Cuba to work on the sugar plantations.

The story jumps ahead to the following year, 1872 with Antonio wanting to leave school to fight in the freedom war. However, he obeys his father and stays in school. When Antonio is invited to dinner at Senor Lam's home, he meets a "californio boy" who delivers vegetables to the Lam house. Antonio learns that Wing is from Los Angeles where his family ran a fruit shop in Chinatown. Their produce was considered "green gold".  However, a drought left the cattlemen angry and they turned on the local Chinese, rioting and hanging Wing's older brother Jin along with two dozen men and boys. Wing's family decided to flee California but while travelling the narrow land between North and South America, his mother died from a fever. Antonio is angered by what happened to Wing's family,
"If only I could roar
right out of my human skin
and race all the way
across land and sea, to help Wing
seek vengeance."

In Cuba, although safe from the riots of Los Angeles, their situation is not much better. Wing and his family have traded their adobe home in California for a thatched hut that's flimsy and muddy. His twin sister Fan works in the field all day with Ba, while Wing goes in search of vegetables to buy and resell for a profit. He is hassled by the Spanish soldiers who steal his money.

Antonio tells Wing about his father's plan to help runaway chinos by hiding them within the cuadrillas - paid work gangs who are hired during the harvest season. Each cuadrilla is paid as a unit for working one season only, meaning they are not indentured or slaves and they receive decent meals and lodging. Antonio enlists the help of Fan who is now working as a singer and Wing to secret runaway chinos off the island. Meanwhile the Spanish soldiers continue to intimidate and kill Cubans leading Senor Lam to send letters to the editors of newspapers in China telling about the abuses that the Chinese are experiencing in Cuba.

As Antonio grows into a young man he experiences his first love, begins to help runaway chinos escape Cuba and helps the Chinese royal emmisary, Chin Lan Pin as he travels throughout Cuba with scribes recording the spoken stories of men and women indentured for life. These stories will be considered "official petitions for freedom from the bizarre system of eight-year-contract slavery." But will their words have the power to change the laws and end the indentured labor of the Chinese in Cuba?

Discussion

This short novel uses free verse to tell the story of Antonio Chuffat who is half Chinese and half African. The story begins with Antonio as a messenger boy who carries words for Senor Lam.As he runs through La Habana he notices there are different types of men differentiated by the symbols on their garments; Peking military leaders who wear "sleek golden lions", soldiers have tigers, panthers or leopards on their uniforms, but diplomats have silk robes with "shimmering peacocks." Antonio wonders whether he will be a "roaring lion soldier or a calmly speaking diplomat bird?" He notices that the soldiers always yield to the diplomats - the men who fight with words.

Senor Lam writes letters to the editors of newspapers in China in the hopes that the government there will listen and do something about the plight of indentured chinos in Cuba. But Antonio wonders,
 "Who will speak up for the africanos
by writing letters to editors in Madrid?"
Antonio hopes some day to speak up for the africanos who are enslaved. But when eight young Cuban medical students are executed for vandalizing the tomb of a Spanish soldier, Antonio doubts the power of Senor Lam's words to move the "educated peacock men in Shanghai or Peking". He asks,
"Where is the POWER in words that aren't heard?"

However, Senor Lam's words are successful as Chin Lan Pin, an investigative emissary from China with a shimmering peacock feather embroidered on his robes, arrives to hear the stories of the chino workers. Antonio, now fifteen recognizes the power of the Chinese emissary who has these stories transcribed as "official petitions for freedom". Antonio's duty is to travel from farm to farm inviting each man to participate and tell his story. These words, he believes, will have power.
"Voices grow fangs.
Stories have claws."

Circumventing the Spanish planters by lying to them about their true purpose of the visit, Antonio and his father and the Chinese emissary listen to the stories. Antonio discovers that rather than being a lion soldier he can help in a better more powerful way.
"Stories, letters, translations.
Reports, articles, petitions.
These are the most POWERFUL ways
for me to help 
slaves."

When the powerful words of the indentured Chinese workers results in their freedom years later, Antonio begins working on freeing his mother's people- the africanos- from slavery too.
"Men from Nigeria
Women from the Congo.
Children of the Carabali, Mandinga,
and every other tribe
deserve 
liberty."

Lion's Island is short, to the point, highlighting the abuse of workers in colonial Cuba, and the importance of fighting against injustice not only with weapons, but with words. It's message of tolerance and understanding is an important one for today, while also providing an interesting look into a small part of the history of Cuba.

Lion's Island is the final novel in a series of novels about Cuba by author Margarita Engle whose mother is Cuban and father is American. Engle has been able to visit Cuba in recent years and has based her novels on detailed research that often includes primary sources. Included at the back of the novel is an interesting Historical Note on the history of Cuba and Antonio Chuffat, as well as a list of references and a few suggestions for further reading for younger readers.

Book Details:

Lion Island: Cuba's Warrior of Words by Margarita Engle
New York: Atheneum Books For Young Readers       2016
pp. 163



Friday, April 6, 2018

Across A War-Tossed Sea by L.M. Elliott

Fourteen-year-old Charles Bishop and his ten-year-old brother Wesley are celebrating Labor Day 1943 with their American host family, the Ratcliffs at a pond that feeds Four Mile Creek. Charles and Wesley have been sent overseas to America to escape Hitler's bombing of London. The Radcliff family has taken in Charles and Wesley because their father saved Mr. Ratcliff's life during World War I. Now they are living in Tidewater, Virginia with a family that includes seven-year-old twins Johnny and Jamie, two older boys Bobby and twelve-year-old Ron and their older sister, sixteen-year-old Patsy.

Tidewater, is located near Richmond, Virginia, an area heavily involved in the war effort, with factories at Richmond producing parachutes and other war materials, while east along the James River, the U.S. Navy has a base at Norfolk.  From Norfolk, the U.S. military deploys servicemen out of Hampton Roads to the war in Europe and North Africa.

Even though they are thousands of miles away from the war, Wesley continues to have nightmares about the bombing and the treacherous Atlantic crossing. One such nightmare occurs during their Labor Day outing after Wesley falls asleep because of the oppressive heat. Charles is embarrassed by Wesley's struggles but Patsy tries to comfort him. This leads Wesley to tell her about being attacked in the Atlantic and how their ship was not allowed to stop and save those whose ships had been torpedoed. But Ron ridicules Wesley whom he bullies constantly, which makes Charles angry. Patsy intervenes to prevent a fight. 

In September of 1943, Charles begins high school. He's on the football team as a tight end, while Bobby is the quarterback. As some of his school chums are now nighttime air raid wardens, Charles worries that he will be considered a coward. So when he writes home he tells his parents he wants to return to help the fire brigade in extinguishing the incendiary bombs in London.

Meanwhile Wesley finds himself "skipped ahead" to grade seven, the same grade as Ron. While Charles has a best friend in Bobby, Ron is not interested in being Wesley's friend. Instead Ron resents the presence of the Bishop brothers and bullies Wesley constantly. Ron accuses Wesley of cheating on a test but their teacher, Miss Darling discovers the paper he was holding was a telegram from his parents. Charles tries to encourage Wesley to stand up to Ron, telling him to ignore him and to work at being really good at something that Ron isn't so he will look foolish when he bullies him. Wesley decides on working at the spelling bee but although he makes it to the county championships he loses when he spells a word in the British way.

With the approach of Halloween, Charles and Bobby are busy preparing for the football championships, so when Mr. Radcliff asks the boys to help out with harvesting of pumpkins and the mowing and bringing in the hay, Bobby tries to decline. This leads his father to suggest that because help is hard to find he might have to hire the German POWs. Charles becomes so upset he leaves the dinner table and Mr. and Mrs. Ratcliff instead decide they will hire the sons of a local man, Ed. Wesley is sent to tell Charles so the two of them can visit Ed to ask him, but he's unable to find Charles. Instead he decides to visit Ed's house alone and while there he meets Ed and Alma and their son Freddy. Wesley leaves that evening believing he may have found a friend.

Soon everyone is working hard to bring in the harvest; Mr. Ratcliff and Ed and shredding cornstalks, Ed's sons and two friends are raking the hay into a tractor baler and Bobby, Ron and Charles and the twins are plowing the cornfield and planting winter wheat. When the mules bolt, dragging Charles it is Freddy who saves him. Although Wesley and Charles are grateful, Ron is angry that his brother Bobby is more concerned with Charles.

Charles and Wesley have many good and bad experiences; a haunted house for Halloween, a hunting trip that Wesley almost doesn't make because he shoots off a rifle in the Ratcliff home, Wesley's unexpected meeting of a Chickahominy Indian man and Charles joining Patsy whom he is crushing on, to plane-watch. But it is a series of events in the new year of 1944 that change many things for both the Ratcliffs and the Bishop brothers. Wesley gets into a brawl with Ron and his friends but tells Mr. Radcliff only part of the story to make Ron look good. This changes how Ron is viewed by his family and makes he and Wesley friends. Patsy learns that her beau, Henry Forester is missing in action over Europe. And Charles learns from a letter from a school chum that their school has been bombed. Feeling ashamed that he's not at home to help, Charles decides to attempt to canoe down the river to the Newport News-Hampton Roads docks where he hopes to stowaway on a cargo ship for Britain. This almost costs him his life.

Summer brings with it new challenges especially as the German POWs begin to work on the Ratcliff farm. For Charles and Wesley this means confronting their own prejudices and fears.

Discussion

Across A War-Tossed Sea is the third book in a trilogy that includes Under A War-Torn Sky and A Troubled Peace. This book is set in Virginia and tells the adventures of two English boys sent to the safety of America during World War II.

Although safe from incendiary bombs and the threat of invasion, Charles and Wesley Bishop must cope with homesickness, the trauma of their war experiences in London as well as living in America with its very different culture from that in their home country of England. Charles finds the American practice of talking about feelings annoying, especially when it comes to their war experiences in London. "Did they really think that talking or hugging or those molasses cookies and lemonade they endlessly offered could wash away the memories or houses shattering, friends trapped under rubble, or ships exploding and burning while survivors clung to wreckage in ten-foot-high waves?"

Charles' major struggle centers around the shame he feels at not being back in London to help with the war effort. At fourteen, he believes he can contribute and, to his school mates, it looks like he ran away. "Even though he and Bobby were good mates and he was enjoying high school, Charles was antsy to return to England and do his part. Several of his old school chums had become nighttime air raid wardens. Charles feared some of them called him a coward for evacuating to the U.S."  It is this shame after receiving a letter from England from a school chum, that leads him to run away from the Radcliff farm and attempt to canoe down the river to the sea. "More to the point, it felt to Charles as if he school chum's letter had implied that he was a coward for not being in London when the city desperately needed every able hand - a sense of guilt that had dogged Charles ever since he had walked up the gangplank of the ship evacuating him to America."  Charles' attempt to canoe to the Newport News-Hampton Roads docks almost ends in disaster. He does realize the serious repercussions his actions have for both himself (he develops pneumonia) the Ratcliff family (who use their savings to buy medication to save his life) and works to make amends. Eventually Charles is allowed to come home when his father is seriously injured in a bombing.

Charles tries to take the place of their father for his younger brother Wesley,  imagining how he might help Wesley deal with the bullying while coping with his own problems.  "Since crossing three thousand miles of ocean and settling in on the Ratcliff farm, Charles had had to play dad, mum, and big brother all to Wesley. No one comforted him when he was racked with similar nightmares!"

Meanwhile, Wesley struggles to overcome what is clearly post traumatic stress disorder due to the bombing in London and the attack on the ships during their Atlantic crossing. He experiences nightmares and is triggered by loud noises. The novel opens with Wesley experiencing one of his nightmares, much to Charles' annoyance. When Wesley accompanies Freddy and his family to London to see the launch of a aircraft carrier Freddy's father has been working on, he experiences a flashback of a air raid in London. "Abruptly, the five o'clock siren sounded, signaling the end of the work day for some, the beginning of it for others. Most didn't react to the blaring sound. But Wesley flinched and stiffened. Being around big ships all day had brought back a lot of very bad memories. Now the siren's wail sounded like the alarm he'd heard over and over again back home when the Luftwaffe was coming loaded with hellfire. The truck backfired again...He looked nervously to the sky, waiting for the first whistling scream of a bomb falling through the air. He backed away from Freddy, not seeing him, only the rush of hurrying people...He needed to find the nearest shelter, quick!"  Freddy's father and mother help Wesley calm down. However, with time and living in a safer environment, Wesley finds he has fewer

Wesley also has to deal with bullying by Ron Ratcliff. Although his older brother Charles tries to encourage Wesley to ignore Ron, Wesley decides a different way to deal with him. Recognizing that Ron needs affirmation, Wesley points out the good act Ron did when he is attacked by Ron's friends. Although Ron pushed Wesley first, in the end he saves him from a serious beating and Wesley helps him fight when they turn on him too. Affirmed by both his father and his older brother Bobby, both of whom are shocked at Ron's good behaviour, Ron becomes friendlier and stops picking on Wesley.

Charles and Wesley are unaware of  how different life in America is compared with England. Charles likes that Americans have "an ease with giving out compliments that, generally speaking, Brits didn't." Wesley discovers that in America, Negroes must sit at the back of the bus, segregated from white people and that some white Americans are very prejudiced against blacks. However, when a white bus driver helps Freddy and his family when they are threatened by white teens,  his actions demonstrate not all American's feel this way.

But both Charles and Wesley are forced to confront their own prejudices and hatred - against Germans when the German POWs come to work on the farm.  To Charles and Wesley, all Germans are Nazis but they soon discover that this is a very simplistic view when they meet Gunter, a young German soldier who doesn't believe in the Nazi ideology.

When Gunter expresses relief over the Allied invasion of Europe and the hope that the war will end soon, as so many Germans are dying, his strong emotions shock Wesley. "Were those tears in the Jerry's eyes? Wesley was amazed. He had to blink away the image Gunter painted, knowing well the type of horrifying scene he described. Wesley had never though much before about German families suffering the same kind of terror he and Charles had." Wesley and Gunter connect through their mutual interest in "Indians" and the Wild West and their love of reading.

For Charles, it is not so easy. When he learns that the German POWs who are sympathetic to the Americans are at risk of being murdered by other German POWs, Charles feels little sympathy. He is forced to confront his feelings of hate when Gunter is bitten by a deadly water moccasin and is in danger of dying. His moans bring back memories of a neighbour horribly injured in a German bombing but Charles also remembers how Gunter saved the Ratcliff twins from a crashing plane. Putting aside his feelings, Charles helps Gunter by sending Freddy for help and attempting to suck the poison out of the snake bite (a practice that does NOT work). Gunter, who believes he is dying from the snake bite, tells Charles, "...Kill if you must to serve your country. But revenge is a  poison. Like this snake. Fight to end hatred. Fight to bring peace. Yes?" Charles agrees and learns that he must forgive if he's going to do what Gunter asks. "For the first time in a long while, the Lord's Prayer filled Charles's mind and heart: 'Forgive us our trespasses as we...' -- he paused and emphasized the words to himself --'as we forgive those who trespass against us.' " When Charles does leave for England he knows he going "back into a war-tossed world. But he was ready to face it now, to fight, as Gunter had advised -- not for revenge -- but to stop those who brought war and delighted in it."

The novel ends on a positive, upbeat note, despite the fact that the war is still ongoing. Charles is returning to England but he feels differently about Americans than when he first arrived and is grateful to the Ratcliffs. "He'd learned so much from them -- about friendship, about generosity, about standing up to trouble." Wesley has overcome bullying and he tells Charles he's fine to stay behind; he hasn't had nightmares for some time and he's made two good friends in Freddy and Ron.

Elliott successfully recreates the 1940's war era in rural America through the experiences of two young British lads. This author is skilled at incorporating many details of life into the story; racial segregation that existed at this time, farming practices, the war effort in America, the dangers the merchant marine encountered bringing supplies to England and life in general for Americans at this time. Also incorporated seamlessly into the story are facts about the war, Hitler's soldiers and life in London during the war. For example, while Charles is fuming about the German POWs he notes that some are from Rommel's elite panzer divisions that served in Africa. Elliott uses this opportunity to inform readers how SS troops were branded- a practice implemented so they could be quickly identified. "They were tall, muscular, blond, haughty -- perfect Aryan specimens. They probably had the telltale 'SS' tattoo under their armpits, marking them as true believers, devotees of Hitler's racist beliefs." In this way, readers learn historical facts without really realizing it.E lliott has included an Afterword that provides further detailed information on life in wartime Britain, U-boats, segregation, V-1 rockets and German POWs in America.

Across A War-Tossed Sea suffers somewhat from uneven pacing; young readers may find the first hundred pages of the novel slow going. After the first hundred pages though, there are many exciting adventures and experiences which occur quickly, one after the other, engaging the reader to the very end of the novel.

Overall, Across A War-Tossed Sea is another well-written and appealing story by Elliott that explores the themes of tolerance, forgiveness and redemption.

Book Details:

Across A War-Tossed Sea by L. M. Elliott
New York: Disney-Hyperion Books      2014
247 pp.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Levi Strauss Gets A Bright Idea by Tony Johnston

"Gold!" somebody yelled. Next thing anybody knew,
the whole world rushed to California and
started digging up the place. The trouble was
they rushed so fast, they lost their pants." (that's American for trousers!)

So begins this tongue-in-cheek picture book about how (possibly) blue jeans were created. Subtitled "A Fairly Fantastical Story Of A Pair Of Pants" author Tony Johnston imagines gold miners who take to wearing barrels when their pants wear out. Levi Strauss, newly arrived from New York City discovered that that material used for tents was more durable and after testing the trousers he made, he sold them to the miners. His denim pants were such a success that he sent for his brothers to join him out west.

In fact the real story of how the blue jean pant, now known as "blue jeans" came to be, may never be known. Levi Strauss was born in Buttenheim, Bavaria which in 1829 was a part of Germany, to Hirsch and Rebecca Strauss. Two years after the death of his father from tuberculosis, and with increasing persecution in Germany because of their Jewish faith, Levi along with his mother and two sisters came to America in 1847. Levi's two older brothers, Jonas and Louis had emigrated to America earlier and had established a dry goods business in New York City. When the Gold Rush began in 1849, Levi saw a business opportunity in providing goods to those seeking their fortune and so he travelled out west to San Francisco. There he opened a dry goods store but he also placed ordered for his brothers' business back in New York.

Levi Strauss
In fact it is likely that the true creator of the blue jeans was Jacob Davis, a tailor in Nevada. Davis who had purchased cloth to make pants for his own store, had the idea to strengthen the pants by placing rivets on the pocket and fly seams to make them more durable. But he didn't have the money for a patent, so he wrote Strauss asking him for financial help. The patent was granted in 1873 to both Davis and Strauss. Initially the pants were made from heavy canvas material but later on they came to be made from denim which was dyed blue.  Eventually Strauss had the jeans made in a factory which he built. Sales of the jeans made Levi Strauss very wealthy and they came to be representative of western American culture and fashion. Strauss gave back to the community and his philanthropic efforts were well known; he was the director of several San Francisco companies, donated money to help the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and the Hebrew Board of Relief as well as donating money for twenty-eight scholarships at the University of California Berkeley.


Johnston's humorous tall-tale is accompanied by Stacy Innerst's illustrations which were created with acrylic on on old blue jeans, giving them a very unique look. While this picture book is not an accurate biography but rather a fun read-aloud, it might lead readers, parents and teachers into discovering the history of what has come to be a staple item in most peoples closets today. From acid wash to skinny jeans, blue jeans are probably the most worn and versatile clothing item we all wear.

picture credit:  http://www.nndb.com/people/001/000162512/

Book Details:

Levi Strauss Gets A Bright Idea by Tony Johnston
New York: Harcourt Children's Books              2011



Saturday, March 31, 2018

Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar

Ten-year-old Anjali and her friend Muslim friend Irfaan are caught vandalizing the house of Captain Brent the British officer who is the British Raj authority in her small (fictional) town of Navrangpur, India. In protest against the British occupation of India, many homes and offices of the British throughout India have been defaced with a black "Q" for Quit India.

Only a week earlier, Anjali's mother, Shailaja Joshi had been working for Captain Brent, translating decrees and legal notices of the British Raj. She also typed letters of rejection for mercy for people whose sons had been arresting fighting for independence from Britain. But she inexplicably quit her job. Now as Captain Brent is escorting them back to his house, they encounter Anjali's mother. Captain Brent's accusations are interrupted by Mrs. Misha's pleas that he pardon her son who is sentenced to hang for burning down a municipal building. However, Captain Brent is more concerned with Anjali's act of vandalism and he refuses Mrs. Misha's request. Even though it is evident that Anjali and Irfaan are responsible, Anjali's mother is furious at his treatment of Mrs. Misha and refuses to accept the British officer's accusations instead taking Anjali and Irfaan home.

Later Anjali along with her mother, Baba, Uncle Chachaji and their maid, Jamuna listen to a rebroadcast of Mahatma Gandhi's August 8, 1942 "Quit India" speech. The Indian people want the British to leave India with  Gandhi is urging a nonviolence form of resistance called ahimsa. Each family is requested to send one person to the fight for independence. As it turns out, this is why Anjali's mother has quit working - she will be the "freedom fighter" from their family as Anjali's father must work to support them.

Immediately Anjali's life begins to change. One day after school she arrives home to discover her parents burning all their foreign-made clothing. Anjali is also made to burn all of her beautiful ghagra-cholis, which makes her both sad and angry at her mother. Instead of wearing British-made exquisite clothing, Anjali and her family will wear Indian-made cotton clothing called khadi. And if that isn't enough, Anjali's mother shows up at school the next day to teach her classmates how to spin cloth. At first Anjali is ashamed but then when her mother pricks her finger she steps up to help.

At home, Anjali meets Mohan, a boy only a few years older than her and from the Untouchable caste, who cleans their backyard toilet waste each day. Untouchables are the lowest caste and are not allowed to enter temples for fear of "polluting" them. People believe they make everything they touch unclean and so they are shunned. When Chachaji chases Mohan away, Anjali's mother decides to clean their toilet. "We should be thanking them for cleaning up this mess. Why are they dirty for cleaning it? It's our mess, isn't it?"  Chachaji is against the Quit India movement and the movement to change things in Indian society because he believes people will get hurt or die.

Anjali and her mother attend a meeting of fifty freedom fighters, both Hindu and Muslim, men and women, held in the Khadi Shop which makes homespun cotton clothes from Indian cotton. At the meeting Anjali's mother announces that they will be teaching the children living in the Untouchable basti following the Diwali festival. The leader of the meeting, Keshavji Parmar who is from the Untouchable caste strongly approves.

During their Diwali celebrations, Anjali and her family are joined by her Muslim friend, Irfaan who loves to eat badam barfi. Anjali's mother decides to take a tray of badam barfi to Mohan's basti to offer to the people in celebration of Diwali. Unfortunately this does not go over very well as the people are reluctant to take the food and Mohan is offended by Anjali's use of Gandhi's term "Harijan" to describe the Untouchables. He tells Anjali that the Untouchables prefer the term "Dalit" which was what Dr. Ambedkar had named them. The Monday after Diwali, Paro and the other children in the basti have their first day of school. Keshavji meets Anjali and her mother at the basti but Anjali is even more surprised to see her school teacher there too.

In an effort to understand the experience the Dalit experience and to break from the caste system Anjali's mother decides to start cleaning their own outhouse. Mohan points out that he will not be able to support himself if she does his work, but Shailaja is determined to continue. Although Anjali finds the task repulsive she does help her mother. However their efforts to overcome the prejudices of the caste system results in Anjali's neighbours and classmates shunning and taunting her.

The Dalit children, Paro, Rohit, Urmila, Jyoti and Vijayuain continue to learn at the basti school, making good progress. In a confrontation with a vegetable vendor who objects to the presence of the Dalit children outside their basti, Anjali has the idea to integrate her school, bringing in the Dalit children. With the help of her mother and Masterji, they began working to achieve this. However, many of their friends and neighbours are not happy about this nor their work with the Dalit. They threaten to withdraw their children from Masterji's school and Anjali is taunted by her classmates. This challenge turns out to be the beginning of many Anjali and her family must face when rioting between Muslims and Hindus begins, their home is vandalized and Anjali's mother is arrested. Anjali must decide if independence and social reform are worth the sacrifices her family finds themselves making.

Discussion

Ahimsa is the fruit of fourteen years work for author Supriya Kelkar. Although the village of Navrangpur is fictional as are the characters of Keshavji and Anjali, the character of Shailaja Joshi was inspired by the life of her great-grandmother, Anasuyabai Kale, who worked with Mahatma Gandhi, and who was imprisoned for civil disobedience. After India gained its independence from Britain, Kale was elected to two terms as a Congresswoman.

In Ahimsa, Kelkar explores the efforts of the freedom fighters to gain India's independence from Great Britain and to also undertake social reforms within Indian society. This is done through the characters Anjali and  her mother, Shailaja. The freedom fighters believed that one way to unite the people of India as they fought for independence from the British was to work towards overcoming prejudices in Indian society due to the caste system. This struggle to overcome the day-to-day prejudices dominates the story.

The prejudices against certain castes are so ingrained that even Anjali and her mother hold them and must unlearn them. For example when Shailaja picks up Mohan's broom, "Anjali's stomach grew queasy." Anjali worries that her mother will become ill, but Shailaja tells her "We have always told you that people are people, regardless of their religion or caste." Shailaja then goes on to explain to her daughter how the caste system came to be. "See, our leaders divided people into castes thousands of years ago to ensure that everyone did the work that was needed for the society to function. The unfortunate Untouchables got stuck with the dirty work. Over the years, the Untouchables got a terrible stigma attached to them for no fault of their own...This irrational fear of people, calling them Untouchable, that is probably all there just to keep the status quo." Shailaja tells Anjali that this is wrong and that if Indians don't see one another as equals they cannot blame the British who see themselves as better.

Despite Anjali and her mother's efforts to integrate the Untouchables in their community, the old prejudices prove difficult to overcome. Uncle Chachaji refuses to eat a ladoo Anjali gives him, saying he won't eat anything that is going to the Dalits even though the dessert has never been touched by the Dalits. The vegetable vendor is furious when a toy belonging to a Dalit child lands in his cart, screaming that his eggplants are ruined yet he doesn't realize that it is their waste that fertilizes the gardens that grow the vegetables. Anjali's neighbours upon learning that the Dalit children will attend their school at first refuse to send their children and then reluctantly agree only if the Dalits will sit at the back of the classroom.

Anjali recognizes that in order to change others she must change herself first. After reluctantly helping her mother clean their family outhouse, Anjali examines her own feelings. "Why was she ashamed to clean up after herself? Why did she feel embarrassed doing something that Gandhiji had been trying to teach the country about for so long? Something that would free countless people and improvy hygiene for so many, saving them from dying from preventable illnessess? Why did she feel humiliated helping her mother with such a great idea? And worst of all, why was she so okay with letting Mohan hold the wagon and continue to be isolated and considered unclean?...She had to change her own attitude before someone like Suman would change hers." 

Anjali not only has to fight prejudices between Hindus but also the prejudice that exists between the two cultures that make up India: Hindu and Muslim. The Hindu-Muslim rioting places a strain on the friendship between Anjali and Irfaan and for a time their friendship breaks down. Anjali's mother tells her "Hindus are the grass. Muslims are the water. Mother India needs both to survive...If you give her just one...she will still need the other."

Kelkar has created a strong, determined and resilient heroine in Anjali. At first Anjali isn't interested in becoming involved in the fight against the British. She can't understand why her mother has quit her good paying job and she's very upset when her mother burns all her beautiful ghagra-cholis. However as Anjali is encouraged to consider what is happening in her village and her country she begins to really notice the world around her.  "For the first time, Anjali also noticed how many children stood in the streets, homeless and hungry and her smile disappeared. The kids were sweeping the roads, carrying garbage, sitting on corners, holding their naked infant siblings, begging for money..."  This makes her want to work for a better society, where everyone is treated with dignity.

Because Anjali comes from the privileged Brahmin caste she believes that change can come about immediately. But she soon discovers that changing the way people view their world takes time. For example when Anjali attempts to include the Dalits into her school she encounters strong resistance. Instead she must compromise - the Dalits can attend but must sit at the back. In the end, nine Dalit students and seven children from other castes attend a makeshift school after their building is vandalized. Anjali recognizes that this is a small but important change.

Anjali perseveres even though her mother is in jail, her school has been closed and the vandalized, and she has lost her two best friends, Mohan and Irfaan. Instead, Anjali is determined to fight on especially after she sees her mother fasting in jail. "...But now that I see you here...I'm not going to quit. I'm not going to give up. I'm going to keep fighting for what you started. One way or another. I'm going to continue your work." Anjali is severely tested when a protest against the British burning of the Khadi Shop turns violent and Captain Brent's life is endangered. Despite Captain Brent refusing to pardon her mother, Anjali does the right thing and intervenes to saves his life. Her act of mercy begets another act of mercy that saves her mother.  While the novel ends on a positive note, the reality is that many of the prejudices that existed in 1942, still remain a problem today in Indian society. This is particularly true for the Untouchable caste and women.

Ahimsa incorporates many themes to explore; tolerance, prejudice, identity, social activism and acceptance are just a few. Ahimsa provides the opportunity for young people to think about how they treat those who are different and what they can do to be more accepting of others, making it an outstanding novel for younger readers. There are also references to several important historical figures; Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar who was a Dalit and who crafted India's constitution. Kelkar includes an extensive Author's Note at the back of the novel which fills in the details of India's struggle for independence from Britain.

To learn more about the inspiration behind the novel check out Supriya Kelkar's website. India achieved independence in 1947, but it was partitioned into two countries, India which was predominantly Hindu and Pakistan which was predominantly Muslim.


Book Details:

Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar
New York: TU Books, An Imprint of Lee and Low Books Inc.  2017
302 pp


Thursday, March 29, 2018

The World Is Not A Rectangle by Jeanette Winter

Jeanette Winter's picture book, The World Is Not A Rectangle, written for younger readers, explores the life of Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Mohommad Hadid. Winter was inspired to learn more about Zaha after seeing photographs of her architectural designs in 2010.

Zaha was born, October 31, 1950 in Baghdad, Iraq into a progressive Muslim family that supported the education of women and who expected her to pursue a professional career. Zaha's interest in architecture was sparked by a family trip to the Sumerian cities in southern Iraq where they also traveled by boat to smaller villages in the region. Zaha stated, "...The beauty of the landscape -- where sand, water, reeds, birds, buildings, and people all somehow flowed together-- has never left me."


She attended American University in Beirut, Lebanon, studying math. Her family decided to leave Iraq when Saddam Hussein came to power and the conflict with Iran began. In 1972 Zaha enrolled in the Architectural Association School of Architecture where she met renowned architects Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis. After working for a period of time with Koolhaas, Zaha opened her own architecture firm in 1980.

It was her unusual - even peculiar designs and ideas that brought Zaha increasing interest from architects around the world. In 1983 her design of  a "horizontal skyscraper" for the leisure club in Hong Kong won an international competition.  It was never built, as were many of her other designs from the 1980's and the 1990's.  Instead many of the drawings of her designs were exhibited as artwork.

Zaha Hadid's first building to be constructed was the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany in 1993. It was not a functioning building however and ended up as a museum. The British, influenced by conservative values of the 1980's were unwilling to build her designs - they simply were not ready for her unique ideas. Her breakthrough came when her design for the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati was completed in 1998.

Zaha had a strong personality, not open to compromise. This plus her sex and her ethnicity often worked against her. But with the success of the building in Cincinnati, she came to be seen as a visionary who persisted despite being told her buildings could not be built.

Zaha Hadid won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004 - the first woman to do so. Her designs were now being built all over the world. Zaha's design for the London Aquatic Center in the 2012 Olympics in London featured a wave-like roof. Sadly, Zaha Hadid died suddenly of a heart attack in 2016.

Jeanette Winter's picture book doesn't go into many of the details of Zaha Hadid's life but covers enough of the major points to get her story across. The World Is Not A Rectangle highlights Zaha's special approach to architecture and design. Instead of boxy structures, her buildings have sweeping curves or as Winter describes them, "Her buildings swoosh and zoom and flow and fly." Zaha Hadid's buildings take their special form from the many different shapes in nature, the oysters shells, pebbles, waves and stars. Zaha is presented to young readers as a woman who had different ideas about how the buildings we use might be made. When she encounter resistance, she decided to perservere, "I made a conscious decision not to stop." Her success makes her a good role model for girls today.

Book Details:

The World Is Not A Rectangle by Jeanette Winter
New York: Beach Lane Books   2017


Sunday, March 25, 2018

Pocket Full of Colors: The magical world of Mary Blair, Disney artist extraordinaire by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville

Disney artist, Mary Blair was born Mary Browne Robinson in 1911 in McAlester, Oklahoma. Her family was quite poor and so they moved frequently, from Oklahoma to Texas, and then finally settled in California in 1918. Mary attended Live Oak Union High School graduating in 1929. She then went on to study Fine Arts at San Jose State College.

In 1931 Mary won a scholarship to the Chouinard School of Art located in Los Angeles. There she studied under the direction of American illustrator, Pruett Carter. She also met her future husband, Lee Blair at Chouinard. They married in March of 1934.

Because of the Great Depression both Mary and Lee had to work as commercial artists to support themselves. However Mary Blair did have art shows featuring her watercolours at several galleries in Los Angeles by 1938. These paintings featured darker, earthy colours but had an overall soft, muted quality. A good example of her style is the watercolour, Laundry Day which was painted in 1938. However her relationship with Walt Disney was to have a major impact on her life and her art.

In 1938 Lee was hired on by Disney Studios and worked on the animated films Pinocchio and Fantasia.  In 1940, Mary was hired to replace Lee in 1940. The Blairs were invited to accompany Walt Disney and his wife Lillian on a tour of South America in 1941. There Mary was exposed to the vibrant colours of the Latino culture and landscape which she began to incorporate into her own artwork. Her style changed to one that was described as "wild" and "electic".

Brigette Barrager's vibrant artwork from Pocket Full of Colors.
During World War II, Lee enlisted and was stationed on the east coast while Mary continued to work for Disney where she was assigned to oversee the art for several animated films including Three Caballeros. Throughout the late forties and into the early 1950's, Mary was the colour stylist for many Disney productions including The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan.

Although Lee had left Disney much earlier and Mary eventually left in 1953, her years with Disney contributed significantly to her art career. She worked as a freelance artist but also continued to work with Disney on various projects including murals and commercial projects.

Guglielmo and Tourville's exquisite picture book is the perfect vehicle to tell the story of Mary Blair. The authors' text is accompanied by Brigette Barrager's vibrant digital artwork portraying Mary Blair's artistic development into one of the world's most accomplished animators and illustrators of the 20th century. Interestingly Barrager has worked for Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. It is really Barrager's beautiful illustrations which make this picture book simply grand and help to bring to life the story of Mary Blair. You can view more of Barrager's artwork at her website.

Many young readers will have seen the Disney versions of Cinderella, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland but may not have realized they were actually watching the artwork of Mary Blair. Although Pocket Full of Colors doesn't contain any of Mary Blair's actual artwork, the authors have included an Author's Note at the back with a photograph of the Blairs. This picture book is a great addition to a home/school or public library collection.

Book Details:

Pocket Full of Colors: The magical world of Mary Blair, Disney artist extraordinaire by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville         
New York: Atheneum Books For Young Readers        2017




Friday, March 23, 2018

DVD: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is an account of the first weeks of Winston Churchill's time as Prime Minister of England. The story begins on May 9, 1940. By this time Hitler has invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark and Norway. Three million German troops are poised to invade Europe via Belgium. In Britain, it has become clear that the efforts by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to broker peace and rein in Hitler have failed. In these dangerous times, Britain is now seeking a new leader.  In Parliament, Clement Atlee believes Chamberlain has left Britain unprepared for war and calls for his resignation. Chamberlain decides to resign and Conservative MP Lord Halifax is offered the job. Halifax declines and so Churchill is offered and accepts.

May 10, 1940
Churchill receives a phone call from the French Embassy who inform him that Belgium and Holland have been invaded. His new secretary, Miss Elizabeth Layton, is warned about Churchill's gruff manner and true to the warning he scares her into leaving.  But Layton is told to stick it out and she agrees to deliver a telegram from the palace to Churchill. She returns to find Churchill listening to a BBC broadcast about the invasion of Holland and Belgium and an appeal to Allied countries to help them.

Meanwhile at the palace an angry King George VI believes that Churchill with his disastrous record at Gallipoli, his opposition to Indian independence, and his positions on the Russian Civil War and the Gold Standard demonstrate he lacks the judgement necessary to be Prime Minister. However, George does meet with Churchill and asks him formally to accept the position and form a government.

On May 13, 1940, the Nazis invade France. Churchill forms his war cabinet that consist of members from the opposition so as to represent the unity of the nation. He tells them "We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous time." His policy is to wage war and their aim is "Victory as all costs." However, Chamberlain is not happy as he believes negotiations with Hitler are paramount. He tells Halifax that Churchill must be removed from office.

Churchill receives the word that the French army has capitulated and that the collapse of western Europe is imminent. He travels to France where he meets with the French president and tries to encourage them to continue fighting. On May 19, Churchill gives a speech that is broadcast to the nation in which he reiterates his determination to wage war against Nazi Germany and win.

At this time the War Cabinent reveals that the entire British Army is trapped at Dunkirk, a small port in France. Churchill orders the garrison of four thousand men under Brigadier Nicholson to be sacrificed by drawing the Nazis away from Dunkirk so the soldiers can be evacuated.

Meanwhile Churchill must contend with the growing determination of Lord Halifax and Chamberlain to become involved in peace talks with Hitler through the mediatation of Italy. At first Churchill refuses but by May 27 when Belgium falls and as Britain begins to prepare for invasion, he reluctantly agrees to consider peace IF he knows the terms. King George supports Churchill in his desire to fight on, encouraging him and advises Churchill to go to the people, and let them instruct him. Churchill takes this advice to heart,impulsively decides to ride the London tube where the British people tell him they want to fight rather than sue for peace. This leads Churchill to address the Outer Cabinet as to whether they want to sue for peace and their answer is no. Churchill then informs the War Cabinet of his decision and addresses Parliament.

Discussion

Darkest Hour captures the essence of those dark critical months in 1940 when Europe finally comes to the realization of what Hitler is. The British government having lost confidence in Prime Minister Chamberlain forces him to resign and in his place king George VI requests Churchill to accept the position. As Hitler overruns Europe, the British government faces two choices, to capitulate to Hitler and negotiate peace or to resist and go to war. Darkest Hour portrays the conflict between Lord Halifax and Nevill Chamberlain who believe England should negotiate with Hitler through the Italians and Prime Minister Winston Churchill who believes in all out war. The film shows Halifax and Chamberlain "conspiring" to trap Churchill into stating he will not negotiate in the hopes that they can remove him.

Framed by two of Churchill's most famous speeches, Darkest Hour does capture the growing fear of the British government as they watch darkness descend over Europe. And for Britain it was most certainly the worst of times. Most of Britain's army was trapped at Dunkirk between the sea and the Nazis with the Navy unable to rescue them. This led Churchill to order the garrison at Calais to attack the Germans so as to delay their attack on Dunkirk a claim that has been disputed.

However Darkest Hour misses the mark in its portrayal of the person central to the British war effort - and the Allies' ultimate victory - Winston Churchill. Gary Oldman's portrayal is quite good, good enough to earn him many awards including a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best actor. Oldman manages to resemble Churchill  physically, capturing some of the elder statesman's mannerisms and his accent. However the movie portrays an uncertain and wavering Winston Churchill, about to agree to negotiate for peace and who seeks affirmation from the public in an impromtu train ride that definitely never happened nor would such an action ever have been considered by the aristocratic politican. Churchill was resolute in his belief that Hitler could not be reasoned with nor trusted. "You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth." was his famous response.

Overall Darkest Hour is an enjoyable movie for those not completely set on seeing a film based entirely on fact. There's some dramatic license taken to engage modern viewers which is a shame because Winston Churchill and the period covered in the film are fascinating enough.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Shame The Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Shame the Stars is the story of two families set in Texas in 1915 during the Mexican revolution. The prologue sets the context for the story with the events that occurred at Easter, 1913 between the two families.

Don Avecedo and Dona Jovita del Toro and their sixteen-year-old son Joaquin are hosting their good friends, Don Rodrigo and Dona Serafina Villa and their sixteen-year-old daughter, Dulcena at Las Moras. Las Moras is a 600 acre ranch that has been in the del Toro family since 1775, before Tejas became Texas. Joaquin and Dulcena's childhood friendship is blossoming into love which they hide from their parents.

Meanwhile on the back porch, Don Acevedo reads a poem, Tejano that was published in Don Rodrigo's newspaper, El Sureno. The poem challenges the tejanos for ignoring what's happening around them, how the Anglo immigrants are taking their land- their heritage, their birthright. Don Acevedo is critical of Don Rodrigo's decision to publish the poem, concerned that he might cause trouble between the people of Morado County and the Texan Rangers.  However, Dona Jovita feels that most people in the town of Monteseco know how the tejanos (Mexican-Americans) are being treated. And Don Rodrigo believes that as a journalist he must speak out against the prejudices towards the tejanos. But Don Acevedo is so outraged he tells Don Rodrigo that if their friendship is to continue he wants never to see one of his newspapers in his home again. The two part on bad terms, with Don Rodrigo hopeful that one day his friend Don Acevedo will understand.

The novel then fast-foward ahead two years to 1915. Joaquin will be heading off to Michigan Agricultural College in the fall, as his parents attempt to break his attachment to Dulcena Villa while Dulcena has been pulled out of school and is being tutored privately by Madame Josette from Paris. Don Rodrigo was forced to pull her from school because of constant threats and acts of vandalism to his print shop. Joaquin feels he cannot leave his home at this dangerous time when Texas Mexicans who have been here long before it became part of the United States, are fighting to keep their homes. These tejano rebels have been attacking the ranches of the Anglo immigrants and in retaliation the Texas Rangers have been "accosting and killing innocent tejanos".

In the morning, before Don Acevedo and Joaquin are finished their desayuno, ranch hand Manuel arrives to tell them that Captain Elliot Munro has come to talk to one of the ranch workers, nineteen-year-old Gerardo Gutierrez. Munro believes Gerardo was part of a group of tejano rebels who met up with a group of Mexican revolutionaries who crossed into Texas to burn the sugar mill. Don Acevedo is skeptical of Gerardo's involvement but Munro states he was overheard talking about the mill and also La Estrella, the local heroine of the rebels. Munro arrests Gerardo, leading him away on his horse, handcuffed.

That night Joaquin attends Lupita's quinceanera at the dance hall in the town square. It is a themed party with a masque ball, perfect for Joaquin and Dulcena to be together without their identities being discovered. After telling his parents about the party, Joaquin rides into Monteseco with Mateo and Fito. At the party Joaquin is able to dance with Dulcena only once as her parents are in attendance. Dulcena insists that Joaquin meet her at their secret spot near the Arroyo Morado at midnight. Little do they know this clandestine meeting will create much trouble for their families.

Dulcena reveals to Joaquin that she has learned that several of his father's workers are conspiring with the rebels, something Joaquin does not believe. When he reassures Dulcena that they have the protection of Munro, Dulcena tells Joaquin that Munro has no friends. Their rendezvous is interrupted by a group of rebels led by Carlos who lets them go when he discovers Joaquin's identity. However on their way home they encounter more trouble when two Morado County sheriff's deputies accost them and one, Slate attacks Dulcena with the intention of raping and murdering her. Although Joaquin and Dulcena fight back, it is Tomas and their friends Mateo and Fito who arrive in time. Tomas lets Slater and Davis go telling Joaquin they have no authority over them and that they will have to talk to Munro and hope he acts. At Las Moras later that night, the parents of Joaquin and Dulcena along with Tomas and Captain Munro meet in the del Toro's sala (living room). Munro refuses to punish Slater and Davis, telling the del Toro and Villa families that it will ruin Dulcena's reputation. This only serves to enrage both families. Munro wants Sheriff Nolan to deal with Slater and Davis which means that nothing will be done. Tomas believes not punishing them will only further embolden them. The meeting ends unresolved with both sides angry.

On Saturday morning when Joaquin and his father attempt to bail out Gerardo Gutierrez, they learn there is no bail and no visitors allowed. While his father goes to speak with Munro, Joaquin gets into a fight with Slater when he hears him disparaging Dulcena's good name. That night Joaquin discovers the secrets his parents have been keeping and their involvement with the rebels. As tensions in the town continue to rise, the del Toro and Villa families both suffer reprisals that endanger their lives, threaten to tear Dulcena and Joaquin apart and ultimately lead to a deadly confrontation with Munro and his deputies.

Discussion

This is another exceptional novel by Latina author, Guadalupe Garcia McCall. Shame the Stars has all the hallmarks of a great story: realistic, appealing characters, a unique setting, a blossoming forbidden romance and lots of action that leads to a thrilling climax.The events in the novel take place over the span of a month from August 20, 1915 to September 18, 1915, in the fictional town of Monteseco, Texas near the Mexican border during the Mexican revolution. Garcia McCall was inspired to write the novel after her son told her one night about a book written by Benjamin H. Johnson, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans. The book told the story of "tejanos (Mexican Americans) and Mexicans in Southern Texas in 1915 at the time of the Mexican Revolution." Garcia McCall was deeply moved about the murders of Mexican Americans during the rebellion of 1915 and awoke later that night with the story of Joaquin del Toro who lived at Rancho Las Moras forming in her mind. What began as a potential free verse project blossomed into a novel. Her research into this period and the writing of the novel took five years.

To understand the period the novel is set in, it is instructive to go back to the middle of the 1800's. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 ended the Mexican-American War and made land in Upper California, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Colorado, Nevada and Utah. The Rio Grande became the boundary between Mexico and American territory in Texas. The area was Mexican culturally and it was populated predominantly by Mexicans who simply stayed in the area when it became part of America. There were some Anglo settlers who were also part of the cultural mix at this time, intermarrying and learning to speak Spanish. However at the turn of the 20th century, Anglo settlers considered the land near the Rio Grande as ideal for farming and ranching and they began moving into the area. Many Tejanos had been on their land for several generations but could not produce the paperwork to prove that they owned the land. This led to court challenges by the Anglo settlers who usually won and the Tejanos were displaced from their ancestral homes. Between 1900 and 1914, hundreds of thousands of acres of land was taken from Tejanos and given to Anglos in just two counties.

During this time political instability in Mexico fueled the problems in Texas. In 1910 the Mexican revolution began. The Rio Grande Valley was still predominantly populated by Mexican and Mexican-Americans, many of whom had family living in Mexico. At this time it was relatively easy to move between the two countries and as a result, Southern Texas saw many political refugees from Mexico arriving, bringing with them the political ideals of their homeland. But some were very radical and saw this time as ripe for returning parts of Texas and the southern United States back to Mexico. Plan de San Diego was crafted by radicals in Monterrey, Neuvo Leon and advocated a race war by Mexicans and blacks against the Anglo settlers with the aim of returning Texas land to Mexico. Raids occurred against some Anglo farmers and against railroad and telegraph lines. This and the publication of the Plan de San Diego in local newspapers made Anglo Texans anxious.  In response, the U. S. government sent in large numbers of Texas Rangers who enforced laws in favour of Anglo settlers and carried out many unlawful killings of Tejanos and Mexicans. Often the families were warned not to come collect the bodies of the dead meaning they were not given a proper burial and cause both suffering and further intimidation of surviving family.

The extensive research author Garcia McCall undertook is evident as her novel incorporates many of the injustices such as the forcing of tejanos off their land and extralegal killings - that is killings by law authorities without due process and outside of the law - into the story. For example, Joaquin's tio Carlos tells him how he lost his home. "I came home one night and found my wife crying because she didn't have the papers to prove we owned the land our house was built on in Hondo. They had been lost in a fire, years before, and her family had never replaced them. Without those documents, my wife and I had no way of proving the land was ours. No one would help us. Lawyers refused to take our case. County officials wanted United States paperwork, when the only paperwork we had before the fire was from Mexico, a hundred years ago when our ancestors were granted the land. And then the Rangers made sure my wife and I moved out...They hung my sixteen-year-old son in our backyard."

The novel is written from the point of view of a tejano, eighteen-year-old Joaquin de Toro whose father is "light-haired and fair-skinned like an Anglo" and whose mother is Mexican. To make the story more interesting, Garcia McCall incorporates some elements from the Romeo and Juliet story; a young couple in love whose family have a falling out resulting in them being forced apart, they secretly exchange letters through the hired help (some of which Garcia McCall includes in the novel), Joaquin climbs the jacaranda tree to her bedroom balcony and is passionately in love with her, and they attend a masque ball in order to meet up. All of this happens in the midst of intense conflict in their world. While Joaquin is passionate and somewhat hot-headed, he is growing into a man who acts on his beliefs. Dulcena, although sometimes appearing too modern for the period of the story, is shown to be an intelligent young woman who wants to be a reporter and travel the world. Shame the Stars is populated by realistic Mexican-American characters who are portrayed as intelligent and willing to fight the injustices being done to them.

The story follows the increasing conflict that affects both the del Toro and the Villa families both of whom are revealed to be heavily involved in supporting the cause of the tejano rebels. Eventually this leads to the climax of the story involving the confrontation between the del Toro's and Captain Munro that leads to a catastrophic loss for the del Toro family, but also results in a partial resolution of the situation in Morado County. Garcia-McCall includes a very helpful Cast of Characters at the front of the novel to help readers familiarize themselves quickly with the main characters and the many supporting characters in the novel.

Garcia McCall's novel was most timely considering the anti-Hispanic rhetoric of the American presidential campaign in 2016 when it was published.Shame the Starsinvites young readers to learn about a part of their country's history that is rarely taught and to understand the backstory to the prejudice that continues today in parts of the southern United States. To that end, she has included a detailed Author's Note at the back as well as a short booklist for teachers and mentors, and credits for the mostly nonfictional newspaper clippings that can be found throughout the novel.

The sequel to Shame the Stars is set in Monteseco sixteen years later and follows the repatriation of the del Toros back to Mexico. This is a novel I look forward to reading - I just hope I don't have to wait much longer!

Book Details:

Shame The Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
New York: Tu Books, an imprint of Lee and Low Books, Inc.    2016
288 pp.