Monday, February 20, 2017

Movie: Hidden Figures

The movie Hidden Figures tells the remarkable story of three gifted African-American women mathematicians who made significant contributions to the American space program during a time when segregation and racial discrimination against blacks and women was an ongoing problem in America.

The film opens with a brief backstory of the three women,Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).  Katherine Johnson is the focus of the film but Vaughan and Jackson's experiences are also chronicled. Katherine is shown to be gifted in mathematics and her parents are encouraged to enroll her in a new school where her abilities are further developed. The film moves quickly to the year 1961 where the three women work at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. The tone of the film is set early one when the three women are at the side of the road where Dorothy is working on getting their car running again. A state trooper pulls up, overly suspicious and demanding identification when the women insist they work for NASA. It's obvious he can't believe NASA hires blacks and much less black women. Appealing to his patriotism, the convince the trooper to give them an escort to the facility. The ensuing race to Langley is one of the film's comedic moments.

All three work in the West Area Computers which was a segregated area of Langley as "computers", a name given to those who solved complex mathematical equations before the mainframe computer was in use. Dorothy hopes to become a supervisor but she is repeatedly passed over, while Mary aspires to be an engineer, a career path not open to women and certainly not a black woman. They are all working towards putting a man in space and attempting to catch up to the Russians who have successfully launched a satellite, Sputnik. To that end, Dorothy's supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) visits the West Area Computers and requests Dorothy send her a computer who can do complex math quickly. Dorothy immediately suggests Katherine whom she identifies as someone who can do anything you can throw at her.

Katherine is sent to work with the Space Task Force headed up by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). The Space Task Force is in a different building with no bathrooms for colored women. Her initial days in the Space Task Force are fraught with discrimination. She is mistaken for a cleaning lady, given calculations to check that have been severely redacted and is forced to use a separate coffee flask. As there are no colored bathrooms Katherine must leave her desk for twenty minutes to run across the center to the colored bathrooms in the west area. Her main nemesis is Paul Stafford who works to make Katherine's job as difficult as possible and refuses to allow her to sign her name to the daily reports.

Katherine's incredible mathematical genius soon becomes apparent.  Katherine's first assignment is to verify all the calculations for Alan Shepard's mission, a parabolic trajectory which will send him into suborbital flight. The Space Task Center needs to know his exact trajectory from lift-off to splash-down. Despite being given calculations with much information redacted, Katherine is able to accomplish her task. Shepard's mission is a huge success but the most daunting one was to come.

During this time, Dorothy Vaughan's attempts to get promoted to supervisor are thwarted by Vivian Mitchell. Mary Jackson is sent over to engineering where she meets aeronautical engineer Karl Zielinski who encourages her to pursue an engineering degree. However, despite having degrees in math and physical science, Mary discovers that she needs to take night courses at Hampton High School which is a segregated school.

Two 7090 IBM computers,NASA during Project Mercury 1962
Taken by Christopher C. Kraft
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_7090#/media/File:NASAComputerRoom7090.NARA.jpg
After working on Alan Shepard's mission, Harrison's group focused on the math necessary to send astronaut John Glenn into an orbital path around the Earth and then safely returning him. This was the main goal of the Mercury project. Glenn would attain an orbital path after blasting off from earth atop a powerful rocket. In the movie there seems to be some issue as to which rocket would be used. The Redstone rockets, developed by Von Braun continue to crash. Katherine's calculations demonstrate that the rocket is too heavy and does not have the power to achieve the required trajectory required to orbit the earth. Katherine Johnson, using math convinces her coworkers that this must be atop the more powerful Atlas rocket rather than the Redstone. It is Glenn's mission that the movie focuses on.

Katherine's job is to verify all the calculations but she appears to be hindered by the racist environment at NASA that sees her taking twenty-minute bathroom breaks because she has to run across the compound to use the colored bathroom. Frustrated with this situation, Harrison confronts Katherine who explains what she is experiencing working at NASA and in an iconic scene, Harrison is seen smashing the sign for the colored bathroom. After it's announced that John Glenn (Glen Powell) will be the astronaut to fly in the first orbital mission he is taken on a tour of Langley. The black staff is separated from the white staff and the intent is that they will not meet Glenn. In Hidden Figures, Glenn is portrayed as the consummate gentleman, kind and courteous. In the movie this comes across quite clearly. He is shown as determined to meet the African-American staff when it's evident NASA brass aren't interested in him doing so.

As Katherine works on the Mercury project, the film explores the situations of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson to a lesser extent. NASA sees the arrival of the IBM 7090 mainframe computer but the computer sits idle in a room because the technicians cannot get it working. Harrison is disgusted by this failure. Dorothy on her way back to the west computer group sees the computer room empty and decides to learn more about it and how to program it. She recognizes that her computers will no longer be needed once the mainframe is up and running, so she decides to learn programming and to teacher her computers as well. In this way they will be able to save their jobs. She is forced to steal a book on FORTRAN programming from the public library because as a black woman she is unable to sign out books. Dorothy learns FORTRAN, gets the IBM working and sets to teaching her computers the language. Mary Johnson, encouraged by mentor Karl Zielinski, applies to the court and is granted permission to attend night classes to earn the credits she needs for engineering school.

The climax of the film is Glenn's historic flight into space. His mission had been delayed several times due to various issues, but the Friendship 7 was launched into orbit on February 20,  1962. Similar to what real life, Glenn wanted Johnson to verify the trajectory computed by the new IBM computer,  "get the girl to check the numbers... If she says the numbers are good... I'm ready to go."

Besides portraying the exception mathematical abilities of Vaughan, Johnson and Jackson, Hidden Figures also shows that these women had lives outside of NASA: they were working mothers with children, wives with husbands and still had to conform to social conventions for women. Although the historical accuracy is fairly good for the different NASA missions shown the film does contain some inaccuracies. The overarching theme of the movie is that systemic racial discrimination and sexist bias was a significant factor in impeding America's progress in the space race. However, that's not exactly an accurate portrayal of the situation at NASA for this time period.  For example in Hidden Figures Dorothy Vaughan does not become a supervisor until the end of the movie which is sometime in1962. In fact Vaughan was promoted to supervisor of the colored computers in 1949, becoming the first black manager. When NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) became NASA in 1958, segregated facilities (bathrooms, dining areas and work areas) were abolished. Dorothy Vaughan was part of a racially integrated Analysis and Computation Division that included both men and women. In the film Mary Jackson also does not earn her engineering degree until later on but in fact Jackson became NASA's first black female engineer in 1958. And Katherine Johnson began working in the Space Task Group in 1958. She also had co-authored a report in 1960 on the equations for determining the orbital spaceflight of a spacecraft with a known landing.

Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae all give outstanding performances supported by a capable cast that includes Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Glen Powell. The film includes much historic film footage including news casts from the early 1960's. Hidden Figures not only presents side of the space race that many viewers are completely unfamiliar with, it also is an important vehicle for promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers to young girls who might see the film. This is a film not to be missed especially if you have an interest in the space race of the 1960's.

Those wanting to explore further the story of the black women mathematicians who were the hidden figures behind the NASA space program and victory in the space race are encouraged to read Margot Lee Shetterly's, Hidden Figure.

For more information on Dorothy Vaughan see her biography page at NASA's website.

For more information on Katherine Johnson see her biography page at NASA's website.

Mary Jackson's biography page can also be found on the NASA website.

For information on specific NASA missions the NASA webpage, "Humans In Space" has detailed information.

One of the trailers for Hidden Figures:





Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati

Seventeen-year-old Catherine Pulaski is struggling mightily with mental illness. She has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Her troubles began after the death of her beloved grandma when she was thirteen and just before the start of high school. After her grandma's death, Catherine's best friends, Olivia and Riley came to visit her daily. But as she sank into depression in her freshman year and was prescribed medication by Dr. A, her friends began to slowly abandon her.  By her sophomore year Catherine had little contact with Olivia and Riley.

In September of her sophomore year, Dr. A prescribed lithium for the mania but a week after starting the drug, Catherine attempted suicide by swallowing the entire bottle. According to Catherine, on that first Saturday of September, "Zero sucked me dry. When Zero bore down, I chose lithium, whose element-y name alone screamed its alpha position..." This was followed by a manic episode this past June in which she cut off all her hair, cleaned the garage and attic and charged a thousand dollars worth of vacation clothes to her emergency credit card.

Her disorder follows the pattern of depression in the fall and mania in the summer. Just before he retired, Dr. A diagnosed Catherine with bi-polar disorder which he stressed was likely genetic and chronic. This diagnosis has crushed Catherine because she's very afraid of the depressions which she labels Zero. Catherine decides the next time "Zero" strikes she will end her life. To that end she has been collecting a stash of leftover medications in a shoebox which she hides under her grandma's empty bed. "I will take whatever time I have left and kill myself when Zero makes Catherine landfall." Before doing this however, Catherine decides that she wants "one real, tangible connection to another human" and decides the way to accomplish this is to lose her virginity. She makes a first/last connection list on her phone and the first entry is L.V. for losing virginity.

In June she began seeing Dr. McCallum, who by Catherine's admission is smarter and more savvy to what's going on with her. He has prescribed Lamictal for her depression and he tells Catherine and her mother that it will take about six to eight weeks for it to have a noticeable effect but that it will help her. It's now October and in AP History class, Catherine's teacher, Mr. Oleck assigns them the task of exploring "an aspect of D-day that you'll never get from your textbooks or online." Mr. Oleck assigns Michael Pitoscia to be Catherine's project partner. Michael asks for Catherine's number so he can text her the results of his research that night. Although Catherine is uncertain about Michael's motives, he seems sincere so she agrees.

After school Catherine is driven by her mother to St. Anne's Outpatient Hospital where she goes through intake before beginning a new intensive outpatient program (IOP) on the recommendation of Dr. McCallum. who suggested the therapy after she cut school. He suggested the IOP with once a month medication checks. The IOP at St. Anne's is run by Sandy and includes Thomas Reardon aka Lil'Tommy, a boy Catherine knew from middle school, a Hispanic boy named John and blond-haired Garrett, both of whom attend Cranbury High and two girls from Immaculate Conception named Alexis and Amy. At their first session the IOP group discusses the bullying Lil'Tommy is experiencing because of his OCD. Catherine learns that John who wears Red Sox gear has an eating disorder as does Kristal who has bulimia while Garret is struggling with a drug addiction.Both Amy and Alexis also suffering from eating disorders.

As Catherine's relationship with Michael progresses she struggles with revealing her mental health issues, fearing he will leave her just like Olivia and Riley. When Michael wants to meet after school for their project Catherine lies, telling him she has a job at her mother's law firm. She meets his loud but friendly Italian family including his grandmother Nonny. Michael's kind and gentle nature makes Catherine decide that he will be the one she has her last tangible connection with. Michael is open and accommodating to Catherine when she wants to switch their soldier they are studying for their project to First Class Private Jane Talmadge who served with the 6888th Central Postal Division in France. In the IOP Catherine begins to connect with Kristal who invites her to the museum in New Haven where her mother works. However, she refuses to talk much about her own problems and won't confide in Kristal. But as her list of happy milestones grows on her phone Catherine finds looking at the list more calming than her shoe box of drugs. Is her future as bleak as Catherine believes it to be? And will Catherine ever be able to honestly and openly talk about her bipolar disorder?


Discussion

Author Karen Fortunati has crafted a moving and gritty novel whose main message for young people suffering from bi-polar disorder or other mental health issues is one of hope and recovery. The story is told from the point of view of  seventeen year old Catherine Pulaski who has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Told her mental illness is both strongly genetic and chronic leaves Catherine afraid. The reader follows Catherine as she journeys through her recovery, from anxiety and a plan to end her life to acceptance and a desire to embrace life.

The novel's title "The Weight of Zero" is a reference to the use of a numeric scale from zero to ten her mother and Dr. McCallum use for rating how her mood is, with ten being very happy but zero meaning deep depression. Zero is likened to an animal or beast "sniffing and pawing, looking for a crack in my brain that the meds haven't filled."  Zero circles Catherine, just waiting to strike when she least expects it. To counter Zero, Catherine, unknown to her mother and doctor,  has collected a shoebox full of medications including Celexa, Prozac, Abilify, Paxil, Zoloft and Lexapro which she will take to end her life.She often refers to her stash of drugs as her "troops" or "soldiers" who will fight off Zero by ending her life.  "My psychotropic soldiers give me hope." The stockpile of drugs is comforting: "Everything will be okay, my soldiers tell me. We're here." When Catherine becomes anxious about her next depression, lining her troops up at night calms her.  However as the reader discovers, Catherine's view of this plan for her life and her "troops" changes.

The Weight of Zero explores Catherine's life both inside and outside of therapy. In each the reader sees Catherine's progress even if she is not fully aware of it herself. In therapy she meets Kristal, a black girl who struggles with bulimia, and who befriends Catherine. At the same time outside of therapy, Catherine is partnered for a project at school with Michael a boy who it is later revealed has been crushing on her since freshman year. As Kristal and Michael both invite Catherine deeper into their lives, Catherine cannot reciprocate. This is because she believes if she tells both Kristal and Michael that she has bi-polar disorder they will abandon her like Olivia and Riley did. In therapy Catherine never reveals to the group why she is in therapy. She doesn't confide in Kristal even as their friendship deepens. "Can I ever tell her that I was hospitalized? Can I ever tell her the reason?" Likewise with Michael, she doesn't tell him about her condition either, even when he seems to sense something is not right and even when Michael opens up to Catherine about his brother Anthony's drinking problem.

Despite her not being able to be honest with her new friends, Catherine's perspective begins to change. As she adds to her list of good things that are happening to her, a first kiss with Michael and going with new friend Kristal to her mother's museum, Catherine notes, "...actually staring at the two newest entries, calms me. Maybe even more than my shoe box. Because it's proof, tangible proof that I might be able to experience some really good things before Zero moves up the Catherine coastline." After spending Halloween with Michael, going to a high school party and arranging a sleep-over with Kristal, Catherine notes that her list has turned into something different. "True, my one-item to-do list has morphed into a record of all the things, all the great things, that I'm experiencing. It's so beyond what I thought was possible..." But at this point her she still "needs the reassurance these bottles (of medications) give me..." Despite still needing the comfort of her "troops" Catherine acknowledges to herself that she is having days that she rates as a "nine". At Halloween she states, "And under all those layers of gray, I feel the colorful confetti of happy bubbling up out of me. How could I have forgotten this feeling? I am a...what? I can say it. It's only to myself. I am a nine."

Part of Catherine's difficulty in being honest with others about her illness is that she believes her pain is worse than others. When Michael reveals his brother's alcoholism to her Catherine's internal first response is to want to tell Michael that being bi-polar is worse than alcoholism. But she wonders, "...is being bipolar really worse than being an alcoholic? To be honest, they seem pretty balanced on the shit scale."

Catherine's biggest step in therapy begins when starts to understand that she doesn't have the corner on suffering. John recounts a serious accident during wrestling practice where he caused the injury to another player and he mentions the horrible sound the injured boy made. In a rare moment of openness, Catherine tells him she understands because she experienced the same when her grandmother had a stroke and died in her arms. She remembers "My beautiful grandmother reduced in seconds to a tormented creature dying on the bedroom floor, and I knew that sound was the last I'd ever hear her make." Having her peers in the IOP group acknowledge her pain, the first time she's ever spoken about it helps Cat. "I feel a little lighter. I realize now the enormity, the weight of that secret memory, is part of what keeps Zero tethered to me."  During this session, Sandy states that she wants them not only to be honest with themselves but to be honest with others. "I want you to think about the safest ways for you to deal with pain....Whether pain comes from anxiety or loneliness or a traumatic event or a condition, it doesn't matter. Pain is pain."

It is Kristal who calls Catherine out on how she views other people's suffering.  After a particularly difficult IOP Kristal tells Catherine, "Sometimes I get the feeling you think your shit is like, the worst and no matter what any of us go through, it will never compare to yours..."  Catherine recognizes the truth of what Kristal is telling, that she's "some kind of mental-health illness elitist."  Earlier in the novel Catherine ranted against Riley Swenson's mother whom she accused of being a comfortable Catholic who helps people with her "charity-at-a-distance" but who shuns Catherine and her mother. In her own way Catherine realizes she has been doing this with the people in her therapy group - minimizing their pain while believing her suffering is greater. "How could I have never acknowledged their pain, when pain is the one thing I understand?"

When her relationships with both Michael and Kristal experience crises, several things push Catherine towards finally being open and honest with herself and them. The first is that Dr. McCallum acknowledges her fear about the quality of life she can have with being bipolar and he makes it clear that she is managing her illness and that there are specific options for managing another serious depressive episode. The second is that Catherine comes to realize the significance of what Dr. McCallum told her earlier about her disorder having a genetic component. This allows her to give up the guilt she feels for being damaged and to realize that she is innocent - she's not responsible for her disorder. This realization is triggered by a letter Jane Talmadge wrote her mother during the war in which Catherine realizes the discrimination Jane experienced was due to her skin colour, something she cannot change about herself. "But I understand now what Dr. McCAllum was saying, and I can finally put the guilt for that malfunctioning aside. I am a victim of genetic roulette. It's not my fault."

Catherine finally finds the courage to tell Kristal the real reason she's in therapy and then realizes that Michael knows about her illness. Although she feels upset at the possibility of losing her two friends, Catherine also recognizes that her world has not collapsed and that she wants to live. She begins to understand that bad things might happen, not because she is bipolar but possibly because of other reasons. Catherine's friendships with Olivia and Riley might have been waning anyways before high school as Dr. McCallum tried to tell her.  Kristal might have left not because Catherine's bi-polar but because she wasn't honest with her about her illness. Michael might be pulling away not because he discovered she has a mental illness but because he wanted her to confide in him. "I keep blaming the illness for constraining me, but maybe I'm the one who's been limiting myself. Out of fear. " Catherine believes maybe she has to survive on "small acts of kindness that I never fully savored before, like Sabita's thoughtfulness, Alexis's compassion, John's concern..."  All of these little revelations move Catherine towards acceptance, healing and understanding.

My only criticism of this novel is the brief anti-Catholic rant by Catherine gives in Chapter 16. Cat relates attending Sunday Mass at Our Blessed Shepherd (the correct name according to convention is either Blessed Sacrament or Good Shepherd) where a "fat Father John" "intones" the prayers and gives a homily "with his mind-numbing abilities, the man rivals a high dose of NyQuil." According to Catherine, Catholics are hypocrites "who'll feed the homeless but only while wearing gloves. The ones who'll read the Gospels on Sunday and write nasty notes on Monday. And unlike Jesus, these are the ones who shun Cranbury High's lepers. Like me."  Cat is being bullied by classmate Riley Swenson whose rich parents sit in pews, "Their names are engraved on small, gold plagues that line the pews, raining hosanna in the highest on them and their wallets." The Swensons are "another good Catholic more comfortable with a handpicked charity-at-a-distance, the type where you do your good deed quickly and get out. Scheduled at your own convenience. No pesky emotional commitment."

I understand that the author is attempting to create an analogy between people who themselves as special in certain ways and Catherine who felt she had the dibs on pain. However, it's unfortunate Fortunati has her character rant in this way because it does a huge disservice to those young teens who are struggling with bi-polar disorder or other mental health issues and who have found comfort in their Catholic faith and/or have received helpful counselling and support from their parish priest and their parish community. In what is a reasonably accurate portrayal of a serious mental illness, this anti-Catholic bigotry mars this novel and is an affront to readers of faith.

There are plenty of themes to explore in The Weight of Zero. Karen Fortunati has created an excellent platform for sharing information about mental illness and provides and encouraging portrait of how professional counselling and family and friend support can improve the quality of life for people with mental health issues. The novel deals with the stigma, fear and anxiety that surrounds mental illness in a realistic and honest manner that is refreshing and will help young readers understand. Catherine Pulaski is a cleverly crafted character who brings out all this in the novel as readers share her struggles and her journey. Michael and his family mirror the kind of support we all need in tough times. The Weight of Zero is above all a story of hope and healing.

Fortunati was inspired to write this novel as a result of her experience as an attorney working with children and teens. She witnessed "impact of depression, bipolar disorder, and suicide" and wants her young readers to "know that they are not alone in navigating the shame, stigma, and anxiety that often complicate the management of this chronic condition."  She has succeeded.

Book Details:

The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati
New York: Delacorte Press     2016
385 pp.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley

Eliza Rose by historian Lucy Worsley tells the terrible story of Katherine Howard, the fifth wife of England's King Henry VIII through the eyes of her fictional cousin Eliza Rose Camperdone.

Twelve year old Elizabeth Rose Camperdone lives with her father, Lord Anthony Camperdone and her Aunt Margaret at Stoneton Castle in Derbyshire. Her beloved mother, Lady Rose died when Eliza Rose was only four years old. Her family is one of the oldest in Derbyshire but they have fallen on hard times as a result the actions of Eliza Rose's uncle, Baron Camperdone who was a traitor. Stoneton Castle was once surrounded by beautiful farms and forests, now all sold and cleared to make way for a lead smelter in the hopes of producing much needed income.

On the morning of her twelfth birthday, November 6, 1535, Eliza Rose learns that she will wed to the son of the Earl of Westmorland.This she looks forward to because it marks her passage into adulthood. Eliza Rose is told by her Aunt Margaret that she will not live with her husband until she has begun her monthly periods, something Eliza Rose does not understand.

Her nurse, Henny prepares Eliza for the betrothal by helping her into a beautiful, new gold dress and then she is taken to the Great Chamber where many people she knows have gathered. The Earl's servant, Sir Dudley who will stand in for the Earl's son in the ceremony, presents Eliza with her betrothal presents. These include pearls of Barbary, a very large ring and a brooch - the initial E topped with the Westmorland blackbird crest. Eliza signs the contract, sealing the marriage by proxy.

The following year in June of 1536, Eliza's family travels to the Earl of Westmorland's new home to meet King Henry VIII who is on progress around the countryside with his court. Eliza Rose is thrilled as she hopes to meet the King with his new queen, Anne Boleyn. She also hopes to meet her husband, the Viscount of Westmorland too. Eliza is upset to learn that she will not be attending that night's feast.  However, while her father and Aunt Margaret are at the banquet, Eliza sneaks out of her room and eventually to the roof of the house where she meets a young man who is drunk. Eliza Rose is dressed only in her night clothes and she finds the young man rude and menacing. It turns out the drunken man on the roof was the Viscount, her husband to be. When the Earl learns of this unplanned meeting, Eliza and her family are disgraced and sent home.

Back at Stoneton, Eliza Rose learns from her father that her marriage to the Earl of Westmorland's son is invalid because he is married - a fact unknown to the Earl. When Eliza turns thirteen she is sent south to Trumpton Hall to be schooled in the arts of the court by the Duchess of Northumberland so that she may find a wealthy husband so as to save her family. At Trumpton Hall, Eliza meets many other girls who are related to her as well as her comely cousin, Katherine Howard. She finds herself far behind the other girls in the knowledge of making themselves attractive to the men of the court, to curtsey, to dance and sing. However, Katherine and Eliza Rose are at odds, as Katherine is considered a great beauty. She taunts Eliza calling her Carrot Top while flaunting her beautiful creamy skin and blue eyes. Eventually Eliza Rose and Katherine develop a strained friendship but this doesn't last long. Eliza believes she has attracted the attention of their music instructor, Master Manham, only to find him making love with Katherine. Devastated, Eliza Rose's relationship with Katherine deteriorates as she sees her as a competitor.

In 1539, when she is fifteen, Eliza is sent along with Katherine Howard to be a maid of honour to the lady who will soon be the new queen, Anne of Cleves. Queen Jane died after giving birth and King Henry is wasting no time marrying a new queen. When they arrive at the Palace of Greenwich on the River Thames, Katherine and Eliza Rose meet Ned Barsby who is a Page of the Presence.

The Countess of Malpas who is responsible for training the maids of honour tell Eliza and Katherine they are "to be an ornament to the court...". She expects they will soon find rich husbands. When they meet King Henry VIII, Eliza notes how he looks over each of the maids of honour. Eliza finds court both boring and tiring, "...we were constantly on our feet, always smiling, curtseying to the king and the other men who came and went."  Henny arrives to be Eliza's tiring woman which make them both happy. Barsby reveals to Eliza that although he is familiar with the ways of the court, he is illegitimate and therefore will never benefit in the way that she can. He cannot improve his social standing through marriage or inherit his father's estate or become a groom. He warns Eliza against being drawn too deeply into the intrigue of the court. But with Eliza tasked with marrying well in the hopes of saving Stoneton and her cousin Katherine her main competitor, how can Eliza not risk such involvement?


Discussion

Wax figure of Katherine Howard
http://tudorhistory.org/howard/howardwax.jpg
Lucy Worsley has tackled the much-written-about Tudor era for younger readers, infusing historical detail into the story of Katherine Howard from a different perspective. In her novel, Worsley created a fictional character, Eliza Rose Camperdone and through her eyes has related the events of the Tudor court from 1535 to 1542. Eliza Rose is supposedly Katherine's younger, less well situated cousin.

Lucy Worsley is a curator of Hampton Court, the magnificent palace of Henry VIII on the Thames River. While looking deeper into the history of the ghost of Katherine Howard, Worsley felt that history has treated Katherine unfairly. Worsley writes in her Epilogue titled "Why I Wrote This Book", "She may have been young and foolish, but I felt that the odds at court we so heavily stacked against her that it was unfair that her lasting reputation should be as a silly little strumpet." She decided that she "would write a new version of Katherine's story..."

In Worsley's version we learn about Katherine Howard through the eyes of Eliza Rose who initially finds her to be "cold, heartless, egotistical and arrogant" when they are in training for court. Through her eyes Katherine is described as "the boldest and the buxomest" and "utterly beautiful." Eliza Rose sees that the girls all want to look like Katherine "with her creamy skin and her limpid blue eyes that beamed like lanterns." The girls training to be maids of honour copy the way she coils her hair around the back of her head. Katherine bosses the other girls and flirts with their teachers, as well as with King Henry. When Katherine becomes Queen, she continues her bossy ways and boldly cheats on King Henry, something that Eliza Rose recognizes and both dangerous and deadly. When her relationship with Master Manham is discovered, Katherine holds fast to the belief that Henry will forgive her and spare her life. When this is not to be, Katherine reveals the real reason behind her actions to her cousin - that she was placed in an almost impossible situation at court; she not only had to become queen but she also had to produce a son as heir to the throne, something Henry could not do. She is trapped in desperate circumstances, so she did what she thought might work - she attempted to conceive a child with another man. In the end Katherine is portrayed by Worsley not as a wanton, silly girl but as young woman who tried to outsmart a court that valued women only for the sons they bore and where political intrigue could have deadly results. At her execution, Katherine Howard is portrayed as dignified and composed and Eliza Rose feels proud of her cousin's "calmness and resolution."

Eliza Rose undergoes an inner journey in the novel as she matures from a naive twelve year old to an experienced courtier in the politically volatile Tudor court. An intelligent girl and a quick learner, Eliza soon becomes very accomplished and is sent with her cousin Katherine to the court of Henry VIII. She is ambitious, hoping to be the most sought after maid of honour and to secure a wealthy husband.

However, court is not what Eliza Rose expects. Her dresses are taken in so King Henry can see her figure and her necklines are lowered. The jewels to be worn are "thrilling to handle" but Eliza begins to "think that there were almost too many of them." Court is boring and tiring. Despite this Eliza Rose finds herself forming a friendship with Ned Barsby but she believes he is not someone she can consider marrying. Even when she begins to feel the first stirrings of attraction she tells herself "It's only Ned Barsby. No one important." In her efforts to attract a suitable husband Eliza Rose forces herself to reject and shun Barsby.

Eliza Rose struggles as she realizes the reality of court life; the men of the court leer at them and are interested only in getting them into bed. How can she reconcile what she sees and achieve what she was sent to court to do - "to find a husband to whom I would be joined in legal, holy matrimony." When her Aunt Margaret she expresses the reality of life at court - how they have been taught to believe the king is appointed by God and can do no wrong, but that the reality is quite different. Eliza Rose has discovered this for herself. "We could not ignore the evidence of our eyes that the king, God's anointed chosen monarch, was in fact a gluttonous, predatory old man." Her aunt warns her that court is a "poisonous swamp" in which the king holds the power of life and death. Eliza Rose is further shocked when her father suggests to her that she become King Henry's mistress in order to save his family's estate and feels a great sense of betrayal. When she confides in Ned he tells her that he had hoped she would want something different than to be the king's mistress.

Eliza decides to partake of court fully, staying up late at night, drinking, gambling and wearing fewer and tighter clothes. She flirts openly with the king but it is her cousin who wins Henry. Eliza Rose soon finds court to be unbearable and she longs for freedom. After Katherine becomes Queen and Eliza is made her maid of honour she again becomes disenchanted with court life. "...I was tired of the endless luxury of our life and our stifling lack of air and freedom..." By the end of the novel Eliza completely understands her life over the last few years. "Of course the old duchess had been training us up to be bait for the king. We were just pawns in the game of winning more power for our families...It should not have been a surprise. After all, I had been told for as long as I could remember that I must do my duty for my family. " Eliza faced with the prospect of becoming the king's mistress after the death of her cousin, feels court has become a prison. Though she has spent her entire life preparing for this moment, Eliza makes her own choice when a different path is offered.

Fans of historical fiction will enjoy Worsley's presentation of the events surrounding Katherine Howard rise through the Tudor court to queen and her tragic downfall. With her particular insight into the Tudor era, the author is able to give her readers what feels like a realistic and genuine glimpse into court life during this time. Interestingly, Katherine Howard as the fifth wife of Henry VIII left no mark on the history of England and there are no known portraits that can be definitively identified as being of Katherine Howard.

Book Details:

Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley
New York: Bloomsbury Childrens     2016
355pp.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Under A Painted Sky is a story about friendship, identity and the meaning of family. Set in 1849, it was Chinese-American author Stacey Lee's debut novel in 2016.

The day started out like any other for fifteen year old Samantha Young, the daughter of a Chinese dry
goods merchant. Her father had leased their store, the Whistle only six months earlier after moving them from New York City to St. Joe, Missouri,  the jumping-off point for wagons heading west to California.They left New York to start a new life in California after his Portuguese business partner gambled away their business. To that end Samantha's father had given his friend Mr. Theodore Trask her mother's precious jade bracelet. Then Trask unexpectedly came to the Whistle last month, leading a wagon train of seven. Before Trask left, Samantha's father gave him the bracelet. She had no idea what Trask was going to do for her father in California.

The Whistle's wood building is crammed with bolts of fabric, so Samantha and her father live at the back of the store. While her father works in the store, Samantha spends her days giving violin lessons. At five o'clock as she hurries home after a day of lessons, Samantha smells smoke. To her horror she discovers the Whistle a charred heap, the fire still burning strong enough that people are carrying buckets of water. Her father is dead, leaving Samantha to face the world alone.

Their landlord Ty Yorkshire seems sympathetic to Samantha's plight and offers her a room at one of his places,  La Belle Hotel. When she arrives at the hotel, Miss Betsy orders her Negro servant, Annamae to take Samantha up to Room 2A and clean her up. Annamae gives Samantha a bath but shortly afterwards Ty Yorkshire enters the room. He proposes that in order for Samantha to pay off the "debt" she now owes due to the fire at the Whistle, she work as one of his prostitutes. Samantha refuses and while resisting Yorkshire's attempt to rape her, causes him to slip and hit his head on the edge of the bathtub. Believing she has killed him, Samantha with the help of Annamae, moves Yorkshire's body to the bed and decides to flee St. Joe. Samantha tells Annamae she's going to California to find Mr. Trask who was helping her father. Annamae informs Samantha that she also was planning to escape this very night as Yorkshire was going to turn her into a prostitute. Since she's missed her "Moses" wagon to freedom, Annamae decides to flee with Samantha.

Samantha suggests they dress as two young men out to make their fortune in the gold rush. The girls dress in men's clothing stolen from the brothel's laundry and into a saddlebag they put Yorkshire's Colt Dragoon pistol, his powder horn, two gold rings and a few dollars. They then sneak out of the hotel and down the street with the intent of crossing the Missouri River that night.

Samantha knows they have to be on the last wagon to cross the Missouri otherwise they will never get out of St. Joe. The long line of wagons means they must somehow sneak onto the last wagon that will go across this night. Samantha creates a diversion so that she and Annamae slip quickly into the first wagon, hiding among bags of feed. The driver of their wagon is Mr. Calloway who is trying to catch up with his family. They decide to stay in the wagon which travels through the night. The next morning Calloway is stopped by Deputy Granger who tells him that "A Chinese girl bashed a man's head in last night" and that she is the daughter of the careless Chinaman whose shop burned down. Although Calloway hasn't seen the two girls, he does allow Granger to search his wagon. Samantha and Annamae slip unseen out of the wagon and into the protection of a nearby weeping willow.

Alone on the prairie the two girls open up to one another. Annamae tells Samantha that she has lived in St. Joe for four years after being in St. Louis. She has two brothers,Tommy who died when he was seven and and older brother Isaac whom she recently learned would meet up with her at Harp Falls. Her family was split when she and Tommy were sold to Yorkshire and Isaac to some unknown place. Andy's goal is to travel to Harp Falls to meet up with Isaac while Sam intends to catch up to Trask on the trail. Annamae suggests she cut Samantha's hair so she looks more like a boy. Their plan is to follow the Oregon Trail to California.

When they stop to eat, three young men, two white and one Mexican arrive on horseback with a fourth horse. The green-eyed boy is Cayenne Pepper, Cay for short, his cousin West and their Mexican wrangler, Pedro Hernando Gonzalez or Peety. Samantha introduces herself as Sam and Annamae as Andy. Sam and Andy tell the boys they are heading west to where there's gold, while Cay reveals that they have just moved one thousand head of cattle to St. Louis and are heading to a job in California.

Sam and Andy strike a bargain with the three cowboys to take them to the Little Blue River, riding the extra horse.  The cowboys seem friendly and Sam wonders if they should have bargained to take them farther than the Little Blue. The next morning the group of five set out, Sam riding with West on his sorrel named Francesca or Franny, Peety on his Andalusian named Lupe, Cay on his spunky pinto called Skinny while Andy is forced to ride Princesa, a temperamental bay who screams whenever she approaches. Sam learns from West that there are numerous trails to California. He tells her the distance before the Oregon Trail divides is 950 miles. For Sam this means she has to find Mr. Trask before the trail forks or risk losing him and learning what her father was planning for them, forever. When they reach the Little Blue, Sam suggests a fishing contest and that if she and Andy win, the three cowboys will take them to the next trading post, Fort Kearny where they can get their own horses. When the girls win the contest, it means three more weeks of hiding both their true identity and the fact that they are wanted criminals from the cowboys, while trying to learn the location of Harp Falls and catch up to Mr. Trask. What they don't bargain on is becoming friends and finding a new family.

Discussion

Under A Painted Sky is a compelling novel about friendship, family and identity. It is a tale of survival set in 1849, on the Oregon Trail. Although a historical novel, Under A Painted Sky focuses more on characterization and the relationships that develop between the main characters in the novel, in particular between Samantha and Annamae as well as between Samantha and West Pepper rather than on presenting readers with detailed information about the Oregon Trail and the movement west.

For example, most of the story takes place on the Oregon Trail but Lee's portrayal of travel on the trail in 1849 is somewhat sparse in detail. Andy and Sam set out with minimal provisions, yet never seem to lack for food or water or medicine. They conveniently kill a snake their first night when they also conveniently meet up with three young cowboys who are well provisioned. They also have no trouble catching fish or finding suitable drinking water. As they journey along the Oregon Trail no one seems unduly worried about getting caught on the prairie or in the mountains after the onset of winter - a major concern of wagon trains. There is some passing portrayal of the hardships of the journey, but it isn't until the group falls ill from cholera that the reader is presented with the reality of life on the trail in the mid-1800's.

Nevertheless,  the focus is on the relationships between the characters  and that is what makes this novel so powerful. There are five main characters in the novel: Annamae (Andy), Samantha (Sam) Young, West Pepper and his cousin Cay and their friend Pedro. Andy and Sam form an unlikely bond when circumstances throw them together.  They are thrown together by fate according to Samantha although Annamae, a religious girl, believes God has a hand in everything, even putting the willow tree near where Calloway stops his wagon.
"God planted this tree right here for us."
"Maybe it's better to think of it as fate...I mean, sometimes I wonder why God  would grant a favor if trouble's just waiting around the corner? It feel disingenuous. If it's fate, then it's written in the stars, and we can't do much to avoid it...I don't mean any offense. I just mean, if God is benevolent ---"
"God is benevolent, and it ain't Christian to believe in fate, because He's in charge of the stars, too."

However Samantha believes in the Chinese principle of yuanfen, that some peoples lives are tied together. She tells Andy this when she's worried she may not find her brother Isaac. "There's a Chinese principle callued yuanfen, which means your fate with someone else...Two people with strong yuanfen have a greater chance of meeting in their lifetimes, and can become close as family."

Lee develops her characters in light of the Chinese zodiac which we learn about through Samantha. Before the girls meet the cowboys, we learn first about Samantha. Samantha was born in 1833, the Year of the Snake. A child born in the Year of the Snake is considered lucky but since Sam's mother died in childbirth she is considered unlucky. She has been told to resist her "Snake weaknesses such as crying easily and needing to have the last word." Samantha, upon learning that Annamae was born in 1832, states that she was born in the "Year of the Dragon, the most powerful of the twelve animals on the Chinese calendar...Dragons are sharp-tongued, stubborn and overconfident...They're also creative and independent. And when they put their minds to something, they always succeed..."

When the three cowboys arrive on the scene, Samantha quickly begins to size up their characters and assigns them Chinese zodiac animals too, although she's not completely correct. Based on his age, Samantha believes Cay Pepper was born in the Year of the Rabbit, "meaning he has a tendency to overbreed." and that West is the same. But later she believes Cay was born in the Year of the Tiger. "He's fearless, but a show-off, which leads to recklessness. Yet he could charm the spots off a leopard, so people will follow him regardless. It doesn't hurt that the beauty of Tigers makes them difficult not to watch." She's not far off the mark as Cay is presented as a ladies man, and in fact is running from a girl in Texas who tried to trick him into marriage.

Samantha tells Andy that Peety, whom Andy likes, was born in the Year of the Rat. She says, "He likes to talk, but doesn't share much about himself. He's a perfectionist, a tireless worker, and -- this cinches it -- he loves elegance." She tells Andy that "Rats are most well-suited with Dragons." It's that principle of yuanfen once again.

A main source of tension in the novel is Samantha and Annamae hiding their true identity and that they are girls from the cowboys. For most of the novel it seems they succeed but the reader isn't quite certain. The reader learns near the end of the story, that the cowboys were not really fooled and that they knew all along these were two girls who needed their help. But until that point, this secret is the source of tension in the novel, especially as Samantha begins to form a strong attraction towards West. More and more Samantha finds herself falling for West and struggling to maintain her "boy" image. "I regard his profile, his lips parted slightly, and his perfect eyebrows beginning to knit. It both scares and thrills me to admire his beauty from so close, like I am breaking some law against staring." But the mixed messages she receives from West make her wonder. Even when Samantha saves West's life by force feeding him by mouth she is uncertain as to what he feels and what he knows. When he begins to recover he glares at her. Is he repulsed by her because or how she appears on the outside - Chinese or a boy?  "Maybe he knew all along and never said anything because kissing a Chinese girl would be as indecent as kissing a boy." She is saddened that he seems to be judging her by her "wrapper" that is the fact that she's Chinese. In the end she learns that West is actually struggling to come to terms with how he feels about her.

As Sam and Andy develop the skills needed to survive on the trail - they learn to ride a horse and shoot a gun and bow and arrow, they also begin to earn the respect of the cowboys. The bond between the five strengthen as they help each other through the numerous difficulties they encounter, West's accident, the cholera and their pursuit by the Scottish boys. By the end of the novel, the five characters discover they have formed a friendship and what amounts to a bond as strong as family. Samantha even chooses to delay her attempt to catch up with Trask in favour of helping Andy find Harp Falls and meet up with her brother. Samantha realizes that "Maybe what matters is not so much the path as who walks beside you."

Under A Painted Sky is filled with sky imagery that reflects the realities of life, sometimes beautiful, always changing. The title is a reference to something West tells Sam one evening as they traipse "through a wooded area tinted violet." "This is the best time to hunt, when the animals are out looking for their suppers.'Course, with a painted sky, light's not good." I never heard anyone all the sky painted before, but it's the perfect word. Clouds outlined in gold streak across the firmament, casting uneven shadows over the landscape." This is a reference to West uncertainty about Sam. He's not really sure what he's seeing. At the end of the novel when Annamae and Samantha are floating in the river looking up at the clouds and the different shapes they make Samantha tells her that the clouds are like life - ever changing. "The clouds, they never hold still. Sometimes you think you're seeing one thing, and a second later, the whole picture changes."

Lee brings her novel to a thrilling, action-packed climax and a satisfying conclusion. Not all the ends are tied up as Samantha never learns what her father had planned for them in California. But the crisis that nearly costs Sam her life, forces the truth out into the open: the girls are revealed for who they are, they learn that the cowboys quickly figured out their situation and West and Peety openly admit their affection for Samantha and Annamae. Lee has crafted a wonderfully written piece of historical fiction, filled with adventure, a touch of humour and populated by diverse characters who develop meaningful relationships.

Book Details:

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons     2015
370 pp.




Friday, February 3, 2017

DVD: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans tells the tragic (fictional) story of a young couple living on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Western Australia who find a baby in a rowboat washed near the beach and decide to keep the baby with catastrophic repercussions.

Tom Shelbourne has returned from serving in World War I, a shell-shocked survivor. Seeking a place of refuge and quiet, he accepts a temporary six-month contract as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a remote windswept island off the coast of Western Australia. Before beginning his stint as lightkeeper Tom travels to the town of Partaguese where he has dinner with Violet and Bill Graysmark and also meets their young daughter, Isabel. Bill reveals the lightkeeper on Janus Rock is suffering from some kind of mental breakdown due to the extreme isolation. Nevertheless, Tom begins his stay on Janus Rock, tending the light and working to maintain the lighthouse and its buildings.

It turns out the sick lightkeeper for Janus Rock cannot return and Tom is offered a three year job as the lightkeeper. He and Isabel begin a quick relationship initiated by Isabel and they marry. Tom and Isabel settle into life on Janus Rock and soon she is expecting a baby. However, she miscarries one night during a terrible storm and is understandably devastated. A year later Isabel once again becomes pregnant, but although she carries the baby much longer, she miscarries that baby too. Shortly after this miscarriage, Tom spots a rowboat in the water just offshore of the lighthouse. In the boat they find a dead man and a crying, very hungry baby.

After warming and feeding the baby, Isabel is supremely happy. Tom tells her that this must go in his log and he needs to contact the mainland to let them know. Isabel begs for him to wait until morning which he reluctantly agrees to do. In the morning Isabel argues that the baby is safe and that no one need know and that this is best for the baby who will most certainly be sent to an orphanage. This baby is the answer to their prayers. Against his conscience and better judgement, Tom agrees to omit the events from the logbook and buries the dead man on Janus Rock. He sends a message to the mainland stating that Isabel has given birth ahead of schedule and that the baby is a girl. There is much celebrating and the supply boat returns with baby supplies and food.

However, things begin to go awry when Isabel and Tom take the baby, whom they have named Lucy,  to the mainland for her christening. While waiting for the vicar to arrive, Tom notices a woman grieving by a tombstone.  After she leaves, he walks to the tombstone where he is stunned to see that it bears the names of two people lost at sea on April 26, 1923, the day they found Lucy. Those people are a man named Frank Roennfeldt and his baby daughter, Grace Roennfeldt. Tom realizes that he now knows the Lucy's true identity but more importantly that she has a mother who is suffering deeply. Tom is troubled and preoccupied during the christening and afterwards approaches Isabel to tell her what he has learned. He insists that they now must return Lucy to her mother, but Isabel refuses. She insists that they must do what is right for Lucy who is safe with them. In an attempt to assuage his conscience and comfort Lucy/Grace's mother, Tom sends her an anonymous note telling her Grace is safe and that her husband is in the arms of God. Hannah Roennfeldt takes the note to the local police but they tell her it's not enough to go on at this point.

A few years pass and life for Tom, Isabel and Lucy continues happily on Janus Rock. Until one day during a special event recognizing the service of the lighthouse on the island, Tom witnesses Isabel and Lucy talking unknowingly with Lucy's real mother. This sets in motion a chain of events that unravels the false life Tom and Isabel have built.

Discussion

The Light Between Oceans is a emotional, heartbreaking film that is slow off the mark but gradually draws viewers in. The film takes its time setting the atmosphere and the background for the events to come. After searching for months, the film crew chose the 72ft tall Cape Campbell lighthouse located Cook Strait in New Zealand's South Island as the setting for Janus Rock. Cape Campbell lighthouse allowed cinematographer Adam Arkapaw to recreate the windswept isolation that no doubt played a significant part in Isabel Shelbourne's desperate actions. Unfortunately, while the cinematography of the untamed power of sea and wind are gorgeous, the pacing of the film suffers.

Tom and Isabel Shelbourne are played by Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander who are a couple in real life. The couple definitely has an on-screen rapport that makes their quick marriage believable. Tom Shelbourne's withdrawn nature and propensity to destructive self-sacrifice is well captured by Fassbender. Rachel Weiz was cast as the stoic but caring Hannah Roennfeldt. All give solid performances.

The film is filled with many heartbreaking moments, including Isabel enduring two miscarriages, little Lucy being torn from the person she loves very much and who she believes is her mother, and the struggles of Hannah Roennfeldt to build a relationship with her long lost daughter, Grace. Equally heartbreaking is the conflict that develops between Tom and Isabel whom he loves very much. Tom's guilt over surviving the war results in his misguided attempts to protect the wife he feels he never deserved to have and to love.

Despite all of the tragedy the film ends on a hopeful tone, with a message of forgiveness. When Tom and Isabel face years of imprisonment for their actions, it is Hannah who redeems them. Remembering her beloved husband Frank who decided to forgive those who harboured antagonism towards him because of his German nationality, Hannah forgives Tom and Isabel, by speaking for them. She recognizes that they did save Grace and she remembers what Frank once told her, "You only have to forgive once. To resent you have to do it all day, every day."  And maybe in the end, that's the most important message of this film.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin

Counting Thyme is a sweet, poignant novel about a young girl's struggle to cope with the changes in her life when her family moves from their home in California to New York city so her brother can receive a last ditch treatment for cancer.

Eleven year old Thyme Owen's family has decided to move from their home in California to New York city when her brother Val is accepted into a drug trial that might save his life. Five year old Val was diagnosed nine months ago with neuroblastoma or nerve cancer.

After spending their last week with Grandma Kay in San Diego, Thyme, her mother and older sister Coriander (Cori) and younger brother Valerian (Val) flew to New York where they were met by her dad who had travelled ahead of them. Thyme is not happy about this temporary move because it means leaving behind her best friend Shani, whom she's known since preschool. The plan is for the Owen family to stay in New York for three months; December, January and February while Val is treated. However when Thyme pressed her mother on whether they would be home in time for Shani's birthday on March 6th, her mother was vague.

Thyme and her family move into a three bedroom apartment in a four-story brick walk-up. Cori and Thyme are not thrilled to be sharing a bedroom. Thyme puts up the Calendar of Us Shani made for her. She also unpacks her Thyme Jar, a glass jar containing slips of paper stating a certain amount of free time she's earned due to chores, good grades or helping out. The time slips began after her eleventh birthday, when Val got sick. Thyme used them at first to spend time with Shani, but once she learned they were moving to New York, she began to save them in the hopes she could return home early to stay with her Grandma Kay or Shani's family.

Cori and Thyme start school in New York with Thyme attending MS 221 near their apartment. She is given a tour the first day by Principal Williams and meets Emily Anderson who takes her to her home room class taught by Mr. Ellison. In this class Thyme meets twins Delia and Celia and a boy named Jake Reese who has "brown skin and hair that stuck out like springs all around his head, dark at the root and sand brown at the end." and who gives Thyme "a floaty feeling". Thyme introduces herself but doesn't tell the class the real reason for her move.

While Thyme struggles to adjust to New York, her older sister Cori seems to have no problems, joining the drama club at school. A call to Shani on the weekend is wonderful until Thyme learns that she has partnered with Jenny Hargrove to finish their social studies project.  When Val begins his treatment, Thyme meets Mrs. Ravelli, a feisty Italian lady hired to help take her to school and cook dinners for the family. Val's treatments cause him considerable pain and this is distracting for Thyme at school as she worries about her brother. One day at lunch, Thyme helps Emily and her friend Lizzie copy flyers for Mr. Calhoun for the Wizard of Oz play that will run during Spring Fling. After Thyme rescues the ruined flyers for Emily, she offers to help Thyme settle into the school.

When Lizzie decides to audition for the part of Dorothy which Emily also wants and believes she should get, Thyme finds herself caught in the middle. She shouldn't care - after all she's leaving New York at the end of February, long before Spring Fling. Meanwhile Cori confronts their mother about her silence on what's happening with Val's treatments and they learn that doctors still have no idea whether the treatment will be successful or even if it's working.

But as Val's treatment progresses, Thyme finds herself building a life in New York city with her new friends Lizzie and Emily and coming to the realization that she might not return to San Diego, especially when she learns of the secret her parents have been keeping from her. When Val experiences a setback, suddenly saving time to return to San Diego is not so important when your younger brother may be running out of time.

Discussion

Author Melanie Conklin first learned about neuroblastoma as a new mother. She quickly became involved in baking cookies for the fund raiser, Cookies For Kids' Cancer. Childhood cancer strikes fear into parents like few other illnesses and it is an illness that has a far reaching effect not only on the children but also their families.

 Counting Thyme explores the challenges families experience as they cope with a family member fighting cancer through the perspective of an eleven year old girl. The focus of the novel is on the journey Thyme experiences over the period of several months: that of accepting her family's situation and the life changes that occur as a result.

Thyme and her sister Cori struggle to cope with Val's cancer diagnosis. His acceptance into a drug trial means temporarily moving to a new city, leaving behind friends, family and starting a new school mid-year. Because the move is to be temporary, Thyme isn't interested in making new friends, only maintaining her friendship with Shani. Her focus is backwards rather than towards the possibilities New York might offer. Although Thyme loves her brother, she wants to be back in San Diego and everything she does, whether it's helping her mother or doing things for Val, is to earn time which she hopes will allow her to leave New York City and return to San Diego before her family. She wants to resume her old life.


Mrs. Ravelli helps Thyme recognize the positive changes in her life. She tells Thyme that based on her life experience making new friends is a good start and that soon they will be "old friends". This upsets Thyme because she is still focused on her friendship with Shani. The possibilities of new friends and experiences in New York is unsettling. "...the idea settled strangely in my mind. With every person I helped, with every conversation I had, I was making ties. Ties to school. To New York. That wasn't what I wanted, but it was happening anyway."

Mrs. Ravelli tells Thyme when she first arrived in New York as an immigrant she was told to go to Little Italy for good pasta like that in the old country. However she found she had to make her own pasta for it to taste like what she remembered. Using this analogy she advises Thyme to make her life the way she wants it, despite her brother's illness. Thyme wonders does that mean returning to her life in San Diego or facing "the promise of something new"?  Thyme finds herself being pulled towards the latter as she develops new friendships with Lizzie, Emily and Jake and becomes involved in the school Spring Fling play - the Wizard of Oz.

When Jake mentions that he doesn't understand why Dorothy didn't get out of the way, knowing the tornado was coming, Thyme understands Dorothy's predicament because her life has been caught up in the tornado of serious illness. "Sometimes, you don't have a choice about where you go. Because it's somebody else's story you're living..."

But more and more life in New York becomes less Val's story and more her own story. She and Jake work on recreating the sound of a tornado for the play,  their friendship blossoms with a hint of a first crush and Thyme finds herself caring immensely when her friends Lizzie and Emily have a falling-out.

Thyme is finally forced to accept her family's circumstances when she discovers her parents have sold their house in San Diego and when Val becomes seriously sick. Her parents acknowledge that they should have told her but they also stress that she is an important part of the family and necessary for Val's recovery. Her dad tells her, "You need all the parts to make the press work. All of them together. That means you, too." while her mother says "Thyme, you're the glue. You're the one Val talks to when he's sad. You're so strong and so brave, taking on this whole new place the way you have..." Thyme realizes that "the missing piece wasn't San Diego after all. It was knowing that I counted. Seeing that I belonged."

The time that Thyme has so diligently collected in her Thyme jar takes on a new meaning for her. The Thyme jar represents her old life in San Diego. She was collecting "time" as a way of holding onto that life. But when Val becomes seriously ill, Thyme realizes that Val is the one who needs that time - the time to go through more treatments and get well. Being healthy Thyme go back whenever to see her friend Shani and in fact her parents offer to send her back on spring break. But for Val, time is more valuable. Realizing this Thyme gives the jar to her mother, she lets it go and in so doing, lets go of her desire to return to San Diego.She realizes that Val needs the time in New York and she needs to be with him.

"I worried that I was too late figuring out what mattered. Too late choosing my brother. It was funny how I'd thought my worries would go away if I could just make it home. But I would have the same problems no matter where I went, because I would still be me, and worries attach to people, not places."

The title of the book then is a double entendre referring to Thyme counting up the hours she saves so she can return to her old life in San Diego and to "Counting Thyme" as in Thyme's life also being important to her family and to herself. Thyme believes her parents are "too busy with Val and work and stuff to listen to me." but Mrs. Ravelli reveals that her mama talks about her all the time.Eventually Thyme discovers that she does count to her parents and to Val.

Conklin vividly portrays life for a family coping with serious illness. Thyme's Grandma Kay has told her that when she and Grandpa moved to San Diego "she spent a lot of time eating canned tuna and waiting for life to go back to normal after they moved." However, "she discovered that there was no normal - just normal for now." Thyme realizes that for her family whose life revolves around Val's illness,  "normal for now meant that things were always changing. Cancer had changed everything: the things I ate, the place I lived...what kind of normal would we find when we got back to San Diego?"

When Val spikes a fever, Mrs. Ravelli comes to Emily's Christmas party to take Thyme to the hospital. Her family spends the days before Christmas waiting to hear back from Val's doctor. Their family mood is often affected by how Val's health goes and good times, while relished, can be fleeting. Thyme states, "When good things happened with Val, the happy feelings stuck to us for days, like a coating of invisible fairy dust -- but even fairy dust runs out of power eventually."

Later on when Val begins his second cycle of treatment, Cori tells everyone about planning a fund-raiser for her drama club and Thyme notes that "for a few minutes, dinner felt normal. Like it was okay to talk about other things besides cancer treatments and acupuncture and blood tests."

Thyme doesn't tell her friends or classmates the real reason she and her family have come to New York because she doesn't want to "become the poor girl whose brother has cancer...And then that's all they would care about, because cancer is the most fascinating thing in the world when it isn't happening to you...And they can't help assuming things...Like, that cancer boy's sister wouldn't want to participate in the end-of-year talent show, because, obviously, she's too busy with cancer-y things to do a skit..."

Overall, Counting Thyme is a heart-warming story about looking forward instead of back, about identity, family and figuring out what matters most in life.


Book Details:

Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons Ltd.     2016
300 pp.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

Paper Wishes is a story for younger children about the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II and how one young girl's life is forever changed.

Ten-year-old Manami Tanaka lives with her parents on Bainbridge Island off the coast of Washington state. It is March 1942, three months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the country is at war with Japan. Manami loves walking on the beach with Grandfather and their beloved little dog, Yujiin. They notice a warship off their island and Manami tells Grandfather that the soldiers make her scared. Grandfather tells her "When the soldiers see you, they are scared, too,". He tells her that the soldiers think "people with Japanese faces and Japanese names will betray us,". After school that day Manami's teacher Mrs. Brown asks Manami, her friend Kimmi, Ryo and a few others to stay after school. Mrs. Brown tells them that this is their last day at school and that what is happening is not their fault.

At home the next day, Manami is instructed by her mother to gather the herbs and to pull the onion and garlic bulbs from their garden. Her mother washes all their clothing, towels and sheets. Despite her repeated questions asking what is happening, Manami is not told anything until the next day when she learns they must leave their home and their island. But Manami's mother does not know why or where they will go or for how long.

When they walk into town to register and get a medical check-up Manami notes that those doing so all have dark hair and dark eyes, just like her family. They are assigned a family number and go home to pack. Several days later Manami's family leave their home along with other Japanese. They take a truck to the port but before they leave Manami hides their little dog, Yujiin in her coat. They board the ferry to the mainland and then prepare to take a bus to the train station. However, just before boarding the bus, Yujiin is discovered and taken away and put in a crate. This upsets Manami terribly. Their train trip takes two days, during which Manami sits still and does not speak.

When they leave the train Manami's family are taken by bus to a place called Manzanar which has barbed wire fences, a guard tower and "buildings covered with black paper." Manzanar is in the middle of a prison and Manami's mother recognizes it for what it really is - a prison. The prison is divided into blocks with each block having fourteen barracks.  Manami's family is assigned to Block 3, Barrack 4. They share their building with another family, the Soto family. Manami learns that her friend Kimmi is in Block 7.

At Manzanar, Manami finds she cannot speak.
"But when I open my mouth to speak, the dirt no longer feels like sand. It sticks to my lips and tongue like red mud. It coats my throat so that I cannot speak.
I think this is what happened to me.
I wish the dirt would cloud my eyes, so that I would not see this place that is and is not my home without Yujiin."

Manzanar from the Dorothea Lange Gallery June 1942

Manami is both sad and angry. So sad and angry that she cannot speak. Her mother presses her to speak but Grandfather tells her to give her time. Eventually the family moves to a newly completed barracks, Barrack 8 in Block 3. Mother takes her seeds and the bulbs and plants a garden. She plants zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers and cantaloupes. The planting of the garden makes Manami realize they may be at Manzanar for a long time.

As time passes the garden begins to sprout but only because Manami must water it everyday. Her father works building new barracks while her mother begins work as a cook. Manami still does not talk and she believes she sometimes hears Yujiin. Kimmi tells her that there will soon be a school in Block 7. Even when her older brother Ron comes to Manzanar, Manami does not speak. The starting of school nor the forced recitation of the pledge does not help, as Manami simply cannot speak. Will she ever find her voice again? Will she ever find Yujiin again?

Discussion

Paper Wishes is a touching story of a young girl who is deeply affected by the forced move of her family to an internment camp and the loss of her beloved dog Yujiin. Sepahban tells her story in the form of ten parts labelled from March to December of 1942. Paper Wishes captures the emotions and hardships Japanese Americans experienced as they were forced from their homes, leaving behind everything they had worked for, mainly due to fear and prejudice.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were forced to relocate to camps further inland as result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order 9066. This presidential order resulted in the relocation of approximately 122,000 Japanese Americans from the west coast of the United States. Interestingly as noted by the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive website, Japanese in Hawaii where Pearl Harbor is located were not relocated or incarcerated. As the website suggests, "The fact that so few Japanese Americans were incarcerated in Hawaii suggests that their mass removal on the West Coast was racially motivated rather than born of "military necessity." Agricultural interest groups in western states and many local politicians had long been opposed to the presence of Japanese Americans and used the attack on Pearl Harbor to step up calls for their removal."

Poster on Bainbridge Island
http://www.drshute.com/archives/000099.html
Sepahban touches on the racism that led to the decision to relocate Japanese Americans but in a gentle way for younger readers. Grandfather remarks to Manami that the soldiers are afraid of her. Manami notices that all the people being sent from their homes look just like her. But she also shows that not all Americans are prejudiced through the character of Miss Rosalie who tries to befriend Manami. Miss Rosalie is kind, gentle and understanding towards Manami and encourages her to draw. She shows respect towards Manami's family.  She also falls in love with Manami's brother Ron, demonstrating that she is not afraid of someone who is different.

The theme of loss is explored in the novel in several ways; Manami and her family's grief at losing their way of life and their culture, Miss Rosalie's loss when Ron is sent to another camp for his own safety and especially the loss of  Yujiin which is keenly felt by Grandfather and Manami. Manami is so overwhelmed by the loss of Yujiin she stops speaking. She comes to believe that it is her fault "that Yujiin is alone on the mainland, far from the island." She also believes that it is her "fault that Grandfather has stopped laughing." And she wonders if it is her "fault that Ron is with us in this prison-village, far from college." Manami believes that Yujiin is out there somewhere trying to get back to her. She decides to draw pictures of Yujiin and write promises on the paper: "Come, Yujiin and you can sleep in my bed." Then she walks to the edge of the camp and making a wish releases the paper into the wind. "I have added my paper promises to the air." Manami releases over thirty drawings but Yujiin does not return and Manami wonders if he did not get her drawings. Eventually Manami's loss is acknowledged by Grandfather and eventually he tells Manami she must stop looking for him because he will not come. Acknowledging her grief allows Manami to begin to move forward.

The inner journey Manami makes is reflected in the garden she and her mother plant in the barren desert. Every day the seeds must be watered and they flourish despite the hot, dry climate and a pounding rain storm that batters them into the ground. In October, Manami and her mother dig up the remnants of the garden and prepare it for next year. Manami's mother tells her that this garden was better than the island garden. "The island garden had plenty of rain," Mother says. "So much rain that it only grew shallow roots. This garden never had enough rain. So it had to grow deep roots. The island roots would never have survived the desert summer." Manami's struggles have made her a stronger person.

Paper Wishes explores the themes of family too. When Manami and her family report to register, her father makes sure that the soldiers understand that despite Grandfather's different surname of Ishii, he is part of their family. Manami's brother Ron is the oldest child and a young man and therefore considered responsible for his family. Because of this he returns from college to be with his father and mother, grandfather and Manami.

Paper Wishes would have benefited tremendously from good pencil illustrations. It's a shame so much new juvenile fiction goes without illustrations to accompany the story. Sepahban's character, Manami Tanaka has a very simple interior dialogue suggesting the book is definitely for younger readers. But readers of all ages will find themselves wanting pictures of Manami and her Grandfather walking on the beach with Yujiin, of the soldiers loading the trains or buses, of Manzanar and its barracks with the mountains in the distance, of Miss Rosalie and the school, of the mess hall, of Kimmi and Manami, of Manami sending her pictures into the wind, and of Yujiin.

The author includes a detailed Author's Note and a list of Resources at the back of this delightful short novel. This information will help young readers understand the context of the story. The riot mentioned in the novel actually did happen and was known as the Manzanar Riot.

Overall Paper Wishes is a beautiful and thoughtful treatment of a very sad event in American history.

For more information on the Manzanar War Relocation Center readers are directed to the National Park Service website. There is a webpage specifically about Japanese Americans as well as a cache of photographs of the people who lived there and the center.

The Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive has a wealth of images and information on the incarceration of Japanese Americans from the west coast.

The University of Washington Libraries Special Collections has a website on Bainbridge Island.

Information specific to the Japanese American community on Bainbridge Island can be found at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community website.

Book Details:

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban
New York: Margaret Ferguson Books    2016
181 pp.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

DVD: Deepwater Horizon

Deepwater Horizon is a cinematic dramatization of the oil rig disaster that occurred on the night of April 20, 2010 in the Gulf Coast in which eleven workers were killed and seventeen injured.

The Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling an exploratory well in the Macondo Prospect, a potential oil and gas prospect in Miocene-age sediments located approximately forty-one miles offshore of Louisiana. Ironically, the prospect takes its name from the fictional town of Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Drilling in the prospect was initially begun in 2009 by Transocean's Marianas semi-submersible rig but was discontinued after the rig was damaged by Hurricane Ida i the fall. In February of 2010,  Deepwater Horizon, a dynamically positioned ultra deep-water semi-submersible rig resumed drilling the prospect. It is important to remember that Deepwater Horizon was to look for oil, not pump it out of the ground. In April of 2010, with the drilling operation forty-three days behind schedule, disaster struck. What followed was a serious of human and mechanical mistakes that led to the disaster.

When an oil well is drilled a bit is used to drill through the rock. Each section drilled has casing installed to line the hole and then cement is poured to seal the space between the casing and the rock wall. This process is repeated again and again as the well is drilled deeper using smaller casing. When drilling a well, heavy mud is pumped into the well to lubricate the bit and also to carry bits of rock (called chips) to the surface. The mud also has another function. Hydrocarbons - that is oil and gas in the rock formations are under tremendous pressure thousands of feet below the earth's surface. When an opening is created as when drilling, the oil and gas will flow out of the rock to the surface unless there is a countering force.That force is provided by the static pressure of the mud which keeps the gas and oil from flowing out of the rock, up the drill pipe to the surface. If the pressure exerted by the mud is not sufficient the well will "kick" that is gas and oil will flow upwards. The hydrocarbons can also flow upwards if the well has been damaged or if "the cement placed between the casing protecting the drill string and the rock wall of the well isn't tight." In this case methane gas can flow up the drill string or outside of the cement casing and flow upwards with catastrophic results.

Deepwater Horizon
Because BP was behind schedule, drilling proceeded too quickly and the well was fractured at around 13,000 feet. The pipe had to be pulled two thousand feet back, the damaged section sealed and drilling restarted along a slightly different angle into the oil/gas bearing formation. With the drilling now finished, to secure the final section of the well, BP decided to go cheap and use a single string of casing from the wellhead to the bottom of the well. This was risky because it meant that there would be a significant chance gas would leak out of the formation. (Generally single casing is used on shallower wells on land.) Even worse, BP did not use enough centralizers or collars that ensure the pipe is in the middle of the bore hole so that when the cement is poured around it there are no gaps and therefore no risk of gas leakage. Both of the options were used to cut time and cost. BP also did not have Schlumberger run a cement bond log, deciding it wasn't needed. This test is routine on a well to test the integrity of the cement bond between the well casing and the formation. The blowout preventer (BOP) which can be used to shut down a runaway well was also damaged making it useless. Added to this was the apparent misreading of the negative pressure test which is done on a well to determine the integrity of the well. All of these factors plus many more contributed to the making of the disaster..


The movie, directed by Peter Berg,  focuses on a few people in the disaster - Transocean's Chief Electronics technician Mike Williams played by Mark Wahlberg with Kate Hudson cast as his wife Felicity, Transocean's offshore installation manager  (OIM) Jimmy ("Mr. Jimmy") Harrell (Kurt Russell), Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) who was a Dynamic Positioning Operator and Caleb Holloway (Dylan O'Brien) who was a drill crew floorhand. Also included were BP executives, nighttime rig supervisor Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) and daytime rig operator Robert Kaluza. While the movie makes Vidrine out to be the villain in fact as indicated above, it was a smorgasbord of many failures, both human and mechanical that were involved in creating the disaster. 

While much media attention has been on the ecological disaster associated with the oil spill that followed, little focus has been on the real people who survived the disaster and the eleven rig workers who died that night. Berg wanted to create a movie about the human tragedy behind the disaster.  In an interview with the L.A. Times Berg stated: “To this day, when people think of Deepwater Horizon, they only think of an oil spill — they think of an oil spill and dead pelicans ...Obviously that oil spill was horrific,” he continued. “But the reality is 11 men died on that rig and these men were just doing their jobs and many of them worked hard trying to prevent that oil from blowing out and it was certainly not their fault. As it pertains to the families of those men who lost their lives, I want them to feel as though another side of that story was presented, so that whenever someone talks about the Deepwater Horizon or offshore oil drilling, people don’t automatically go to ‘oil spills.’ ”

To recreate the events, an 85% scale replica of the Deepwater Horizon rig was built on an abandoned lot in Louisiana and placed in a enormous water tank.The replica was made as accurately as possible and the set was one of the largest ever made for a movie. It was set on fire to mimic the real explosions and inferno of the disaster. The realism of the set made it possible to give viewers some idea of just how horrific things were on the rig during the blowout. A 2010 New York Times article written by David Barstow, David Rhode and Stephanie Saul became the main source for the development of the movie script.

From the very beginning, the movie adaptation portrays a culture of disorganization, risk taking and poor maintenance on the rig. When Mike Williams, Jimmy Harrell and Andrea Fleytas arrive on Deepwater Horizon they are astonished to learn that the Schlumberger team has been sent home without running the cement log. No one seems to know why the log was not run and they are told that the drilling is finished and they are going to cap the well.  Furthermore there are many things on the rig that do not work - the phone system is out, toilets are backed up etc. After his own brief investigation with rig staff, Mr. Jimmy decides to confront BP executives, Don Vidrine and Robert Kaluza about the cement log and while doing so, Williams reels off a list of items on the rig that don't work and are in need of repair.

The movie also portrays the complex and often difficult relationship between the various partnering companies. Mr. Jimmy and Mike Williams show considerable disdain for the BP staff who they see as interested only in saving money at the expense of rig safety. Mr. Jimmy who works for Transocean the owners of Deepwater Horizon has nothing but contempt for Vidrine. It is also apparent that many of the rig's crew respect Mr. Jimmy.

One of the best scenes in the movie occurs early on when Mike is preparing to leave for his three weeks on the rig and he has breakfast with his daughter Sydney. Sydney is working on a school project that will explain her father's job and how he "tames" the dinosaurs. The scene is both an analogy for drilling an oil well and a foreshadowing of the disaster. Using a coke can which her father shakes, Sydney explains to her father that he tames the dinosaurs by drilling for oil. Sydney rams a metal rod into her can of coke and plugs it with honey - but after she finishes her explanation, the pop explodes out of the metal tube and onto the table, mimicking a well blowout. One of the trailers released for the movie shows this scene:




For the most part the movie is a fairly accurate portrayal of the situation on the rig and the disaster that follows. Williams didn't rescue Mr. Jimmy as in the movie but both men were seriously injured, Williams was left on the rig and did jump over ten stories into the ocean, the survivors did say the Lord's Prayer on the deck of the Damon B. Bankston and the rig was entirely engulfed in flames. The are minor inaccuracies such as when Mike Williams is given a dinosaur tooth by one of the rig staff for his daughter. Retrieval of a large fossil would not be possible because it would be destroyed by the drill bit. There is some dramatic license taken in the movie such as showing bubbles of methane gas escaping from the seabed around the borehole, suggesting to the viewing audience that the well is about to "blow".

Nevertheless Deepwater Horizon is a great action movie, filled with many tense moments and good acting. If anything the movie will help viewers understand the tragedy, learn a bit about the oil industry and remember the human story that seems mostly forgotten. Media focused on the 210 million gallons of oil that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico but Deepwater Horizon helps us to remember the eleven men who died that night.

For those interested in a more detailed description of exactly what is believed to have happened to cause the Deepwater Horizon blowout this video explains the details. Popular Mechanics also has a great article "Special Report: Why the BP Oil Rig Blowout Happened" that is worth reading.