Tuesday, October 18, 2016

DVD: The Man Who Knew Infinity

The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the amazing story of Srinivas Ramanujan, a very gifted mathematician who made astonishing contributions to the analytical theory of numbers in the field of mathematics. The movie is based on the book, The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel. In the movie, Ramanujan is portrayed by actor Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire).

Ramanujan was born December 22, 1887 in Erode, Madras Presidency in the British Raj. When Ramanujan was a small child he did not like attending school. He became interested in mathematics while attending Town High School where he came across a book, Synopsis of elementary results in pure mathematics by G.S. Carr. He was able to teach himself mathematics using this textbook. In 1904, Ramanujan attended Government College in Kumbakunan on a scholarship. However he lost his scholarship the following year because he devoted all his time to the study of mathematics and very little to other subjects. Eventually he left Government College and in 1906 he entered Pachaiyappa's College in Madras with the intention of passing the First Arts Examination so that he could attend the University of Madras. He failed the examination because he was only able to pass the mathematics portion of the exam and dropped out of school. Despite this, Ramanujan continued to work on mathematics; in 1908 he worked on continued fractions and divergent series and in 1911 he published a paper on Bernoulli numbers in the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society. This paper gained him the reputation as a mathematical genius in the Madras area. At this time in his life Ramanujan was struggling to survive as he had no paying job. He had married a ten year old girl, Jannaki Ammal in 1909 but they did not live together for several years.

Ramanujan was well known to many mathematicians in the Madras area and he was finally able to obtain employment as clerk in 1912 at the Madras Port Trust. In fact, the Chief Accountant for the Madras Port Trust was a trained mathematician and he clearly recognized Ramanujan's abilities. Eventually Ramanujan's work came to the attention of  G.H. Hardy, a resident at Trinity College, Cambridge when he received a letter from him in early 1913. Ramanujan had contacted various other professors in England without much success. However Hardy was most interested. Ramanujan's letter contained a long list of unproven theorems and Hardy wanted some proofs. Ramanujan desperately wanted to travel to England but he required a scholarship to do so. With Hardy's help he was able to obtain a scholarship for two years from the University of Madras and travelled to England from India in 1914.

Srinivas Ramanujan
The Man Who Knew Infinity picks up Ramanujan's story in 1914 just before he leaves Madras for England. Dev Patel is cast as Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy is played by Jeremy Irons. This casting gives viewers the sense that Hardy was a much older mentor to the younger Ramanujan but in fact there was only ten years between the two men. The film beautifully portrays the gradual friendship and mutual respect that develops between these two men from vastly different cultures over the span of five years. In fact it is this wonderful capturing of the deep relationship between these two brilliant men that makes this movie so rewarding. At the beginning, Hardy is somewhat gruff and professional and it is the kindly encouragement of Hardy's colleague, John Littlewood that helps Ramanujan. But Hardy's open mindedness and his willingness to recognize the genius of Ramanujan and to help him, form the basis of a deep friendship and working partnership. Despite their common love of theoretical mathematics, Ramanujan and Hardy were very different. Ramanujan was a deeply religious man, a Brahmin who was a vegetarian. In contrast, Hardy was an atheist, who states in the movie that he doesn't believe in anything he can't prove. In a scene from early in the movie, Ramanujan questions Hardy for walking with an umbrella in bright sunshine. Hardy responds that "God and I don't exactly see eye to eye." but Ramanujan tells him "No sir. You believe in God. You just don't think He likes you." When asked by Hardy (and others) where he got his ideas, he often stated that they came from God. "You want to know how I get my ideas? God speaks to me...An equation for me has no meaning unless it represents a thought of God." Hardy works tirelessly to get Ramanujan elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and as a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge. When Ramanujan decides to return to India and they say goodbye, Hardy tells Ramanujan he wants a letter each week with a new idea. The two men are now close friends and Hardy seems at a loss over Ramanujan's departure. Overlaying this scene is a sense that Hardy will never see him again in this life.
Ramanujan (centre) with fellow Trinity students.

The film portrays Hardy's efforts along with his colleague John Edensor Littlewood (who is played by Toby James) to give Ramanujan the mathematical training he needs. Hardy is seen relentlessly insisting that Ramanujan must provide proofs of his theorems. Meanwhile, Ramanujan seeming to sense he is running out of time, is determined to see his work published.

In fact as World War I dragged on and the vegetables Ramanujan often ate became scarce his health began to suffer. Ramanujan had previously been ill in India and in 1917 he became seriously ill in England. In the movie, he is seen frequently visiting the medical tents set up on campus for the injured soldiers sent back from the front in Europe. The film suggests that Ramanujan was thought to have tuberculosis, although the diagnosis of exactly what was wrong with him was never fully determined.

The Man Who Knew Infinity captures the historical period well, providing viewers with a sense of the obstacles Ramanujan faced upon arriving at Trinity, and the struggles his fellow mathematicians had in understanding and accepting him. Two mathematicians, Ken Ono and Manjul Bhargava were involved in the making of the film to ensure the mathematics was accurately portrayed. The movie was ten years in the making and premiered at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival. Well worth the wait and definitely worth viewing.

This short biography of Srinivasa Aiyangar Ramanujan from the MacTutor  History of Mathematics website is worth reading.

As shown in the movie and stated near the end, Ramanujan left a number of books and manuscripts containing his ideas and theorems, all of which have since been proven. Work on his ideas continues to this day as this article from Science Daily explains. This more recent article from + plus Magazine: Living Mathematics 2015 is also quite interesting.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Fatty Legs: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton

Fatty Legs is the first of two books written by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton based on her personal experience in one of Canada's residential schools in Canada's far north. Margaret who was born Olemaun Pokiak, belonged to the Inuvialuit, or Canadian Western Inuit who inhabit the western Arctic. Olemaun had made the trip to Aklavik several times with her father when she was quite young. She was fascinated by the French-speaking nuns and priests. When her older half-sister, Ayouniq - called Rosie by the nuns, read part of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Olemaun, she became determined to attend the school and learn to read.

But Ayouniq warns her younger sister that life in the school is not as she imagines it will be. Her beautiful long braid will be cut and she will have to do chores and kneel for forgiveness. When Olemaun asks her father to send her to the school he refuses. Although he knows how to read he doesn't value the learning taught in the school over the skills learned at home. But Olemaun believes her experiences at the school will be different. Her persistence pays off and Olemaun is allowed to attend the school. Like those before her, Olemaun finds herself completely unprepared for life in the residential school at Aklavik. Even worse, she finds herself stranded there for an extra year when the ice does not fully melt.


Fatty Legs is based on Olemaun Margaret Pokiak-Fenton's childhood and her first two years in a residential school in Aklavik. Olemaun's father had warned her the outsiders will offer her no new skills and that their ways are not useful to the Inuit. "They make you wear their scratchy outsiders' clothes, which keep out neither the mosquitoes nor the cold. They teach you their songs and dances instead of your own. And they tell you that the spirit inside of you is bad and needs their forgiveness."  Olemaun is so keen to attend the school that she successfully argues against her father. Her initial enthusiasm is quickly dampened when she leaves her parents and is taken by the nuns. From the moment she enters the care of the nuns, her First Nations identity is broken down. Olemaun has her hair cut along with the other new girls and their beautifully handcrafted clothing, warm and suitable for the far North climate is removed and replaced with uncomfortable, ill-fitting clothing that is not warm. And the nuns are less than friendly.

Margaret Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton
To convey how the Aboriginal children viewed the nuns, the authors use adjectives that portray the religious nuns as cruel, predatory animals. The nuns are described as "the spectacle of dark-cloaked nuns, whose tongues flickered with French-Canadian accents" evoking a image of snakes or reptiles.  Olemaun is met inside the school by a nun who is description reads like a predatory bird; "An outsider with a hooked nose like a beak came for me, her scraping footsteps echoing through the long, otherwise silent halls."  Olemaun describes the nun who cuts her braids off in the same way, "I can fix my own hair," I protested in Inuvialuktun, but she held tight and, with the same motion a bird makes to pull a piece of flesh from a fish, clamped the jaws of shears down on my braid and severed it."  When Olemaun goes to put on the stockings her mother has purchased for her they are snatched from her by a nun "with a scaly claw."  But Olemaun's true nemesis is a hook-nosed nun she nicknames " the Raven".  The Raven "shrieks" , cackles and "scuttles" around the girls mocking Olemaun for using shaving cream to clean her teeth.

But not all the nuns are remembered as cruel. Margaret Pokiak-Fenton describes the head nun in very different terms. "A tall slender nun appeared in the doorway. She was pale and seemed to float across the bathroom floor...She looked like a pale swan, long and elegant." That nun was Sister MacQuillan. When the Raven is about to strike Olemaun for spilling her cabbage soup on her, "Then Sister MacQuillan glided between us, the Swan protecting me with her gentle wing." The Raven frequently singled Olemaun out for extra chores as she was "wilful" and had a strong character. To further punish Olemaun, the Raven makes her wear red stockings that make her well muscled legs look large. This leads to her classmates laughing at her and calling Olemaun "fatty legs". But Olemaun figures out a way to get rid of the stockings forever and it is Sister MacQuillan who understands.

Liz Amini-Holmes' artwork reinforces the dark nature of the nuns with their ghastly white faces set off by their dark habits and widows peak caps. At times the nuns look like vampires and in this respect,  the artwork seems a bit overdone.

Young readers, whom this book is geared towards, will quickly understand why Olemaun and the other Aboriginal children did not like the residential schools. These schools were designed by the white Canadians who lived in the south and who did not understand the particular character of the far North climate nor the ways and culture of the peoples who lived there. Their intentions were to educate the children and to assimilate them, the first a noble goal but the second a definite product of the belief that white Western culture was the only culture of merit. The effect of the schools on the children is demonstrated by Olemaun when she returns to her family after only two years. Her mother doesn't recognize her, she finds their food greasy, salty and strong smelling.

The authors round out this short biography with a chapter about the residential schools and a wonderful section titled Olemaun's Scrapbook which contains plenty of fascinating black and white photographs of her family, of the towns her family visited, the residential school in Aklavik, the students and the nuns and brothers at the school and Catholic mission in the North West Territories and many more interesting subjects.

You can learn more about Inuvialuit culture from the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation website.

The Canadian Museum of History also has a good section on Inuvialuit history that has been pieced together from various sources including traditional oral histories, archaeological research and the writings of those who lived and explored the far north.

A second book, A Stranger At Home was published in 2011 and is the sequel to Fatty Legs.

Book Details:

Fatty Legs: A true story by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Toronto: Annick Press   2010
104 pp.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Another Me by Eva Wiseman

Another Me is a story set in 14th century Strasbourg, France during the time when the bubonic plague was spreading throughout Europe. The spread of bubonic plague throughout the region led to many pogroms in various cities. This was because Jews were believed to be poisoning the wells used by non-Jews in the city. News from Bern and Zofingen that Jews had confessed under torture to poisoning the wells there, led some of the citizens of Strasbourg to suspect the Jewish population of their city too. However, the Jews in Strasbourg were under the protection of the Catholic church and the city which they paid a high fee in return for protection.

Sadly, ignorance about the cause of bubonic plague which was spread by rats and poor hygiene and determination by the butcher and tanner's guilds to rid Strasbourg of the Jewish population resulted in the massacre of two thousand Jews on February 14, 1349. This event is recounted near the end of Wiseman's novel.

The story opens in October 1348 with seventeen year old Natan folding the used clothing his father had purchased and placing them into the cart so they can be taken to Drapers' Row to be sold. The drapers then turned the used clothing into luxurious garments for the wealthy. It is almost Shabbos (Sabbath) and Natan's father has not returned with his cart from the drapers, so Natan and his younger brother Shmuli set out to find their father. Traveling down Judenstrasse, the Street of the Jews and across town to Draper's Row they fail to find their father. Eventually they find their father in the lane behind their house, badly beaten, his leg broken.

After arguing with his parents, Natan's father reluctantly agrees to allow him to take the cart but only to Wilhelm's shop in the center of Draper's Row. When they enter Draper's Row a boy steals some clothing from their cart. When they chase him, Natan meets Elena who is the daughter of Wilhelm the draper who tells them to let the boy go. Almost immediately Hans, who is Wilhelm's journeyman-apprentice appears, asking Elena if she requires any help. When Natan informs Wilhelm of his father's accident, the master draper consoles him and gives Natan a gold coin.

After helping to unload Natan's cart, Elena invites him in for a tankard of ale, against the wishes of their cook, Vera. Back home, Natan finds himself completely smitten with the draper's beautiful blue-eyed Elena. Fortunately for Natan he is sent back to the drapers to purchase some red yard so his mother can finish a beautiful tapestry she is working on. Elena and Natan manage to spend a few moments alone before they are interrupted by Hans. Elena arranges to meet Natan in the lane behind their house at eleven o'clock. Natan returns that night and spends the entire night in Elena's kitchen talking. The two meet several times every week into November.

In November of 1348, Natan decides to meet Elena at the city well. His mother warns him that she has heard about a letter from from the city of Bern which tells of the plague having arrived in the city and that the Jews were accused, arrested and tortured into confessing that they had poisoned the city wells.She tells Natan that Rabbi Weltner's brother has written to warn them that they same thing might happen in Strasbourg. When Natan heads to the well he finds a mob attacking a Jewish moneylender. Natan recognizes Hans who is attempting to stop the attack and tells him to get Wilhelm. When Natan attempts to intervene, he is knocked unconscious.

Natan regains consciousness and learns that he is resting at the home of Elena and her father, after having been carried there. Natan spends several days at their home recovering and then decides to return home but before he leaves he overhears Hans proposing to Elena. She refuses him telling Hans that her heart belongs to another.

One day in February of 1349 Natan receives an urgent message from Elena to meet him at her home. She tells Natan that she has overheard her father talking to the Ammeister, Peter Schwarber. Schwarber told Elena's father that at an assembly in the Alsace region, delegates from the cities of Bern and Zofingen stated that Jews in their cities confessed to poisoning the wells, causing an outbreak of the plague. These delegates managed to convince those from Basel and Freiburg that they should kill all the Jews in their cities. Elena tells Natan that Schwarber refused but she doubts his sincerity because he has ordered the city well covered.

On his way home, Natan secretly discovers three men dumping garbage into the well. When they attempt to throw a cat into the well, it escapes and reveals Natan hiding in the shadows. Kaspar the butcher grabs Natan recognizing him as the boy who tried to save the Jewish moneylender. When Natan threatens to tell the Ammeister the truth about who poisoned the well Kasper murders Natan so that their deed will remain a secret. But in a surprising twist, Natan may be able to fulfill his intention to save the Jews of Strasbourg from certain death once the poisoned well has been discovered.


Wiseman makes use of a belief in Judaism that involves transmigration of the soul. In Another Me, Natan becomes an ibbur which Rabbi Weltner explains as occurring "when a righteous person's soul take up residence in another's body." In Natan's case, his soul has migrated into the body of Hans, hence the title "Another Me". As to why this has happened, Weltner explains to Natan that "It happens when someone's time here on this earth ends before he can fulfill a promise or complete a task important to our people." The rabbi believes that it is Natan's task to warn the Ammeister that the accusations against the Jews of Strasbourg are false.  And so Natan with the help of Elena sets out to try to accomplish this in Hans body. The rabbi warns Natan and Elena about telling her father the truth of what has happened to Hans and Natan but he agrees to accompany Natan to talk to his parents.

Thus through the eyes of Natan/Hans we learn the fate of the Jews of Strasbourg. The horrific massacre is presented in to young readers in unflinching detail. "When we got to the cemetery, we saw that several huge wooden platforms had been built over the graves. Beside them were piles and piles of firewood. Our masters drove us up the platforms like cattle...Finally Kasper lit the wood around the first platform. Schwarber lit the second and third, until the fire spread to all the platforms. Soon, the sound of screams and the stench of roasting flesh filled the air."

Painting of the pogrom of 1349 by Emile Schweitzer
Wiseman is able to portray the reality for the Jewish citizens of Strasbourg in the 14th century. The Christians of Strasbourg and other cities throughout medieval Europe had placed numerous restrictions on Jewish citizens. They often had to wear identifying badges so that Christians like Elena did not become unknowingly involved in an intimate way with Jews, something that was forbidden. Certain occupations were forbidden to them and they could not own land. Instead most Jews were involved in commerce and banking, often as moneylenders. They were often difficult to deal with but this was likely because they were forced to pay large taxes for protection by the city and in turn passed these large fees onto their clients who then complained about them. Many Jews were threatened to either convert and be baptised or to face expulsion from their cities. When the plague broke out in the mid-14th century the Jewish people were blamed. This was due to the many superstitious beliefs that persisted about the Jewish people. It was thought they were poisoning the city wells but this accusation made no sense because they too used the same wells. Fewer Jews contracted the plague likely because of their ritual hand washing upon arising in the morning and before meals but this only made Christians suspicious. During Natan's meeting with the Ammeister and the councilors, the superstition based on misunderstanding and ignorance is portrayed. "The Jews don't die from the pestilence like the rest of us," Adolf said. "That's true," Felix the barber replied. "It is said that they die at half the rate we do. I have heard they made a pact with the devil to protect themselves." Despite this pervasive superstition Pope Clement VI issued several bulls repudiating the superstitious beliefs of Christians and asserting the humanity and dignity of the Jewish citizens in Europe.

Wiseman accurately portrays the ignorance and superstition of people in the 14th century regarding illness. Medicine in this century was largely based on superstition and very strange ideas. For example when her father takes ill, Elena decides she needs to get the surgeon because "Everybody knew that bloodletting worked miracles." Bloodletting using leeches or cutting remained a choice treatment for almost two thousand years and was practiced into the 18th and 19th centuries.  It was based on the concept that blood and other fluids which together were called "humours" needed to be balanced. Elena tells Natan that the surgeon will "balance Papa's humors and restore his health."  When the surgeon arrives he tells Elena that "Bloodletting will reduce the hotness of his blood."

Readers see how the citizens of Strasbourg dealt with the Black Death. Homes of those sick with the plague had a red cross painted on the door and no one was allowed in or out. During this time there were so many sick that the streets were deserted. Elena finds the parish priest dead in the church. Everyday corpse bearers with their death cart traveled through the streets calling for people to bring out their dead. The dead were so numerous that they were buried in pits outside the city walls and no one was allowed near the pits.

In spite of all this trouble Another Me has a tender subplot of two star-crossed lovers, the Jew Natan and the Christian Elena. If Natan had lived they would never have been allowed to marry as marriage between Jews and Christians was forbidden. His return as an ibbur is temporary although Elena does not know this at the time. She struggles to come to terms with Natan in Hans body which she finds disgusting. But just as she learns to love him once again Elena must face losing her beloved Natan all over again when he leaves the body of Hans.

Another Me is a short historical novel about a little remembered pogrom and an era of history dominated by misunderstanding, ignorance and superstition.

For information about the relationship and history of early Christians with the Jews and Judaism readers are directed to The Church and the Jews in the Middle Ages by Thomas Madden.

Book Details:

Another Me by Eva Wiseman
Northern New York: Tundra Books     2016
233 pp.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Take The Fall by Emily Hainsworth

Take The Fall seeks to solve the murder of Gretchen Meyer. Sonia Feldman finds herself running for her life after being attacked in the woods near her house while walking home from her best friend Gretchen Meyer's house. Frantic, out of breath and terrified, she stumbles into her Uncle's diner where her mother and her Aunt Dina are finishing up for the day. Soon Sheriff Woods and Deputy Amir Rashid are there questioning Sonia. Not long after Deputy Robson gets the call - Gretchen has been found dead.

Over the course of the next few weeks Sonia struggles to come to terms with her best friend's death while at the same time trying to figure out who killed her. Sonia lives in the town of Hidden Falls where she attends Hurlburt High School. Her best friends are Gretchen Meyer, Haley Jacobs and Aisha Wallace who have known each other since kindergarten. However, sometime in middle school Gretchen became much closer to Sonia; they often had sleepovers and took Sonia on family vacations. Gretchen is the daughter of Carlton Meyer, the wealthy owner of a tech company.

Gretchen's latest ex-boyfriend, Marcus Perez is brought in for questioning. Gretchen's car is missing and the police have found signs of a struggle at the falls. Marcus is released as he has an alibi. Sonia tells Sheriff Wood that she drove Gretchen home from Brianne Prashad's party at around 11 pm. During the party, Gretchen fought with her younger sister Kirsten but Sonia doesn't know what caused the fight. They left Kirsten drunk at the party. Sonia tells Wood that they did not talk during the short drive home, something Wood finds surprising considering the two girls are best friends. When Wood tells Sonia that Gretchen called her home at 11:04pm, Sonia tells him no call was made from the car. After parking the car, Sonia ran into Haley Jacobs walking her dog. She saw Gretchen go into her house and then she started through the park to her home.

On the following Monday, Sonia returns to school against the wishes of her mother. She wants to go back to school so she can begin forming a suspect list. She learns that Gretchen's parents surprised an intruder in her room before she was listed as missing and that Carlton Meyer is offering a fifty thousand dollar reward for any information leading to the arrest of the person who murdered Gretchen. Marcus shows up at Sonia's Uncle Noah's diner after school but is thrown out. He tells her that he wants to help her find whoever killed Gretchen because he believes the police are still trying to pin her murder on him. Sonia is conflicted over helping Marcus because she has Gretchen's SD card which shows Marcus furious and wishing she was dead. At school the next day, Marcus confronts Sonia begging her to hear him out, but he ends up getting into a fight with Kip, another Gretchen ex-boyfriend. The day does not end well for Sonia either as someone places a picture of her and Gretchen into her locker with Sonia's scratched out.  She decides to confront Marcus over the picture but when she does he denies having anything to do with this. Instead Marcus works at trying to convince Sonia to help him search for Gretchen's killer so that he can clear his name. He admits that his alibi isn't any good because his grandmother was asleep when he arrived home but she lied to the sheriff. Sonia decides to work with Marcus, to compare their lists of potential suspects. But as Sonia talks to classmates she reveals just how manipulative Gretchen was and that any one of them could have been responsible.  But she also reveals to Marcus the true identity of Gretchen's killer forcing Sonia to make the most important decision of her life.


Take The Fall is a murder mystery that opens with a punch. It seems that Sonia Feldman has been attacked by the same person who also murdered her best friend Gretchen Meyer. This is the assumption made at the beginning of the book by all the characters. A second assumption, that the ex-boyfriend, Marcus Perez whose parents are addicts is the killer is also made.  However, close reading reveals that all is not as it seems. The biggest clue offered is the flawed timeline given by Sonia to Sheriff Wood who never seems to catch on. Sheriff Wood never seems to question Sonia much other than interviewing her the night of the murder and the next day. But the facts should make him at the very least curious and they don't. Sonia drops Gretchen off at her house, giving her friend the car keys and proceeds to walk through the park towards her home. In her account, Sonia is accosted at the bridge by someone but manages to escape out of the park. By her own admission she arrives at the diner only minutes after dropping Gretchen off, bruised and scratched. Gretchen's body is found shortly afterwards in the water beneath Hidden Falls. But according to Sonia's timeline there are twenty-five minutes unaccounted for. Their houses are on opposite sides of the park, not close enough to be seen without the leaves on the trees but likely not axtwenty-five minute walk.

With no clear suspect, Wood never turns his attention back to Sonia. When all the potential suspects can produce alibis, Wood never comes back to question Sonia who was the only person in the park at that time, who has evidence of being in some kind of struggle and who has no alibi. Added to this are several serious weaknesses in the story:  Gretchen's body is never tested for DNA evidence (at least it's never brought up in the story) and there is no mention of an autopsy. Sonia who has been in some kind of altercation with an unknown person also never undergoes any forensic exam such testing for DNA on her arms and under her fingernails. In fact Sheriff Wood seems perpetually reluctant to undertake ANY forensic testing. It is Sonia who requests that he check the fingerprint on the mysterious postcard she's received in her locker. This lack of forensic evidence seriously hampers Wood's investigation but is successful in creating suspense and mystery in the story.

Sonia's "investigation" into her friend's death reveals that Gretchen Meyer was a controlling sociopath bent on wrecking the lives of all those around her. She's the stereotypical rich bad girl. As Sonia builds a list of possible suspects, the reality of Gretchen's relationships with those around her are exposed. While Sonia knew of Gretchen's cruelty to her younger sister Kirsten, she discovers that Gretchen's reach also extended to Marcus whom she was giving money to and that Gretchen destroyed all his artwork leading to him wishing Gretchen were dead. Eventually the true nature of Sonia and Gretchen's relationship is revealed. Sonia tells Marcus, "Whenever she was up to something, she made sure I played a part...I was afraid of her, afraid what she might do to me. I didn't want any part of it, but I went along with everything she did. I"m no one to admire." Marcus realizes that Sonia's situation was worse than anyone else. "How long did it take her to get you right where she wanted you?...What would she have done if you said no to her? When was the last time you tried?"  The extent of Gretchen's control over Sonia is only revealed when Sonia learns that the fake website they created for an assignment was made live on the internet, possibly jeopardizing Sonia's scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania. Gretchen's parents had offered to pay for Sonia's tuition if she attended Stanford with her. But attending Penn offered Sonia a chance to escape from Gretchen's control, one Gretchen was determined not to allow to happen. This sets the stage for the motive of the confrontation between the two girls.

Hainsworth certainly keeps her readers guessing; Gretchen's many enemies means there are numerous potential suspects who would have liked revenge and the use of Sonia as an unreliable narrator keeps the reader guessing as to what's really happened. For example Sonia frequently mentions how Kirsten is remarkably like Gretchen, casting suspicion towards Kirsten. Sonia's description of Kirsten notes this similarity.  "Kirsten Myer, Gretchen's younger sister, walks down the steps towards me. She's a natural blonde, but I'd forgotten she experimented with dyeing her hair a couple of weeks ago. At the time, Gretchen was annoyed, remarking that she'd never match her own vibrant red, but it's startling - no, disturbing how much Kirsten looks like her now."  Later on she notes, "I almost drop my phone. Kirsten stands next to me, holding a brown paper lunch bag. Her voice sounds so much like Gretchen's it's a minute before I'm breathing normally again." 

Take The Fall has a romantic subplot between Marcus and Sonia. The reader has the understanding that the two would have had a relationship if it were not for Gretchen and her manipulation of Marcus. While Sonia believed that Marcus hated her she learns after Gretchen's murder that in fact he was attracted to her but had to pretend to dislike her so as to protect her from Gretchen.

Take The Fall is typical teen fare, full of teen drama and a few stereotypical high school teens including a manipulative, rich bad girl who could have been killed by an one of her classmates. What the novel could have used was a map outlining the location of Sonia and Gretchen's homes in relation to the park and Hidden Falls and an epilogue that gave readers a satisfying conclusion to the story. Overall though an interesting read for teens who like high school murder mysteries.

Book Details:

Take The Fall by Emily Hainsworth
New York:  Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers    2016
356 pp.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Gemini by Sonya Mukherjee

Gemini is a very unique novel that tackles a very different reality, that of conjoined twins. Hailey and Clara are two seventeen year olds who share the lower end of their spinal column as well as their intestinal tract. They are "two complete, full-size people, with two normal, fully functioning brains" who share sensation in the lower half of their bodies. While they may share the lower part of their bodies, Hailey and Clara are very different persons. Hailey is outgoing, with pink hair, a butterfly tattoo on her shoulder, edgy black eye makeup and is determined to become an artist. Clara is shy, dressing blandly to avoid being noticed and fascinated by astronomy. Hailey is opinionated but Clara who by her own accounts has "sharp" opinions keeps them to herself.

Hailey and Clara live with their parents in Bear Pass, a small (fictitious) town in California. Their family moved to the town to avoid the stares and curiosity of strangers.  Their parents teach at Sutter College, a private four-year college where their father is a tenured professor in literary theory and British poetry and their mother is a lecturer. The small town means that most people know them and leave them alone.

When they hear that a new guy is coming to Bear Pass the twins are anxious but in different ways; Clara worries how they will be perceived and Hailey just wants someone interesting. The new guy, Max first appears in their AP English class. He's tall with blond hair, and has moved to Bear Pass from Los Angeles. While Hailey is not interested, Clara most definitely is. The twins learn from Bridget that Max appears to have an interest in astronomy so they along with best friend Juanita scheme to arrange a trip to the Sutter College observatory with Max. Their school is having a Sadie Hawkins dance and Juanita believes an outing to the observatory will give Clara a chance to ask Max to the dance. Meanwhile in art class, which Clara hates, Hailey talks to fellow art student Alek Drivakis whom she finds attractive. Like Hailey, Alek has a bit of an edge; he likes to wear black and his artwork frequently features corpses or fires.

At the Sandwich Shack,Juanita reveals that one of the teachers is pressuring her to apply to Stanford and other high level colleges. However because of costs and her mother's fears and reservations, Juanita plans to attend college locally despite being an excellent student. For Hailey this seems wrong because while she and Clara are stuck attending Sutter College which has about 500 students, she knows that Juanita will be able to obtain a full scholarship at Stanford. Even Hailey is not happy attending Sutter because it means her ambition to attend a good art school will not be realized. While the three are discussing their future plans along with another friend Bridget, Max arrives. Max tells the group that he has moved to Bear Pass from Santa Monica in his senior year because of circumstances involving his father. When Hailey asks Max to join them at the Sutter observatory so Clara can show him the stars, Max clams up and ends up leaving the cafe in anger.

At home the twins find their mother upset over American conjoined twins undergoing separation surgery in San Francisco. Clara and Hailey's mother believes the parents and the doctors are taking unnecessary risks in order for the twins to live independently. As with her own twins she believes the surgery is wrong. While the twins mother is opposed to them undergoing separation surgery, leaving Bear Pass or even doing day trips, their father is more open and encouraging, offering to take them to San Francisco.  Clara becomes angry at her mother over this, indicating that separating twins is not always wrong. Her confrontation with their mother surprises Hailey who decides that she is asking Alek to the Sadie Hawkins dance and she tells Carla that she should ask Max.

At lunch hour the next day they meet Alek who tells Hailey that he is applying for a summer program at  Golden Gate Arts in San Francisco. It's a three week intensive working with real artists. Alek encourages Hailey to apply and to plan to stay in the dorms. With Alek seeming very comfortable around her, Hailey asks Alek to the dance and he accepts. When Clara meets Max a few minutes later, she decides to make it difficult for him and tells him that Friday is his last chance to come with her to the observatory. Max reluctantly agrees to meet Clara but it turns out that he had planned to watch the Orionid meteor shower at his home. So Max turns the invitation around and invites Clara to his house as well as their friends.

Hailey manages to convince Clara to let her apply for the summer art intensive that Alek mentioned and at least go for the interview. Their meteor-watching get-together which includes Max's friends Josh and Gavin as well as Clara and Hailey's friend, Juanita initially goes well until Lindsey, Vanessa and Jasmine arrive. As Lindsey makes a move on Max and attempts to get rid of Hailey and Clara, Max becomes angry and his mom sends everyone home.

The next event Hailey and Clara attend is Amber's Halloween party which sees Hailey dress up as Galinda while Clara is the Wicked Witch. Max is at the party as the Tin Man and he and Clara make arrangements to go to the observatory at Sutter. Max explains to Clara what happened at his house telling her he was once a special ed kid and that he has a major stuttering problem. Alek crashes Amber's party to question Hailey about applying to the summer art program. He offers to take her for an interview or to take her portfolio. Like the other social situations, Amber's Halloween party ends badly for the twins. Alek shows Hailey something on his phone that deeply upsets her and Clara overhears a conversation between Max and his friends about the twins that disgusts her.

These events begin to affect how Hailey and Clara view themselves and result in them reconsidering the future they have planned. They embark on a journey of self-discovery that leads them to several momentous decisions.


Gemini is a novel about two teens with an unusual disability who struggle to take control of their future and to define themselves outside of their disability. Clara and Hailey are pygopagus twins joined at the base of the spine and sharing their gastrointestinal organs. Their parents, specifically their mother refused to allow them to be separated when they were young, although it appears their father did not completely agree with her decision and still has some doubts. Otherwise Clara and Hailey are physically healthy and thriving. Their family moved to a small town so that they could be protected from people who might want to take advantage of their unusual situation. But this isolation is beginning to bother the more extroverted twin, Hailey who is a gifted artist and who wants to study art at a good university, to travel and experience life more fully. Her quieter sister, Clara, finds Bear Paw just fine and is reluctant to travel anywhere where they might have to deal with many new people or situations. However Clara also finds her situation restrictive as she argues with their mother about how she has made assumptions about what life after separation might be like.

As the twins approach adulthood they must face the reality that friends and school mates will move on from the small town of Bear Pass. They come up against the reality of their situation, something they feel their parents have pretended doesn't exist. Both Clara and Hailey chafe at their parents efforts to portray them as "normal" because they know this is not really true. Carla tells Hailey, "I'm sure it's perfectly normal to have to share the job of putting out silverware because we can't be in two separate parts of the same room...I'm sure it's perfectly normal to always balance off the side of the toilet while your sister is peeing...I'm sure its perfectly normal...to have to spend your entire life in the world's smallest rural community so that no one will stare and point and laugh at you when you go out in public and see actual strangers." Hailey also dislikes how they pretend that they are normal but she recognizes why their parents do this because it is the simplest way to cope. "Normal, normal, normal. It's this idiotic mantra around our house. We claim we're normal. We build our lives around that lie. It's why we can't go anywhere, or do much of anything. If we did, we'd come up against the truth." But Hailey,even as a child knew they were not normal. "We were not like anyone else. Who besides us had two minds that understood each other perfectly? That worked in such perfect synchrony that they could operate their four legs and four arms in unison without discussion, giving them twice the strength of a regular child? Not to mention twice the imagination and bargaining power...We weren't normal. We were magical."

Beginning to face the reality that they are two people with different interests and goals in life but joined together leads them to experience some serious conflicts which is new as they usually "just work things out, often with very little discussion." Hailey accuses Clara of not caring about how she might feel about staying in Bear Pass and attending Sutter College which doesn't have the program she needs to further her art studies. "...your head is so crammed with your own problems, if you tried to make room for mine, your brain would burst open at the seams." This leads Clara to reconsider their choices and their future plans. She asks their parents to allow them to travel to San Francisco so that Hailey can interview for the art intensive. Clara does this because she believes that although she's satisfied with their lives and the plan for them, maybe Hailey is not. "All this time I'd been holding onto the idea that the life we'd planned -- or rather, the life our parents had planned for us, and that we'd accepted -- was the best that either of us could hope for. But maybe that wasn't true for Hailey. Maybe it was true only for me."

Hailey believes that it is wrong for their mother to limit their choices in life but she also knows she must work together with Clara to figure out their future. Hailey believes that art school and leaving Bear Pass likely won't happen but she knows there must be a change in their lives. So she decides to do what Clara has suggested and apply to film school at Sutter while hoping that she and Clara can live in a house or in a dorm at the college rather than at home. 

In addition to struggling with making their own decisions about their lives, both girls must now confront how their conjoinedness will affect their ability to date and to marry. Both girls meet boys they are attracted to but struggle with how those boys view them. Clara struggles with her attraction to Max and the fact that he doesn't feel the same.  She wonders how Max really views her and whether it matters. Clara also feels disgusted at herself. "It was me. I was disgusting. A mutant. Had I really forgotten that?" She remembers how her mother has explained they were to think about themselves. "The way we view ourselves has to come from the inside, not from the reflection that we see in other people's eyes." But Clara questions this advice. "But sometimes it seems to me that reflections are all we have. Without them, we could never see ourselves at all. "

At the same time Hailey is also very attracted to Alek. Things come to a head when the twins begin to assert some control over their lives by insisting that they be allowed to attend the Sadie Hawkins dance. Their mother at first refuses but then relents. Hailey wonders what their mother really believes about them. "Our mom was always carrying on about how normal we were and what normal lives we could lead, but I think we both began to understand that she didn't actually believe this. Or maybe in some ways she did, but not in others."

All of this plus the fact that Hailey wants to attend art school leads Clara to contact a surgeon about their situation and the possibility of separation. Hailey points out to Clara the lengthy recovery time from surgery as well as the possibility that one of them will die. But Clara admits that she is afraid she will be lonely once separated. She tells Hailey that she wants a chance at love and she wants freedom too. But Hailey tells her she isn't giving them a chance to see what they can accomplish.
"You're willing to die for that, Clara? We're only seventeen. We haven't really started our lives yet. We don't know what we can have and what we can make happen. Are we not going to give ourselves a chance?...I mean a chance at life as ourselves, Clara, without tearing ourselves apart."

It is Alek who shows the twins the way forward. From the beginning he tells the twins that he considers them special and he tells Hailey: "Though to be honest, I always thought it must be kind of cool, too. Like, how many people can say there's another person who understands everything about them?" When Hailey asks him if he really wants to be seen with them - two girls joined together and face the possibility that he will be called a freak, as Matt was,  he tells them "...I'd rather be a freak than a coward...What I mean is, I'd rather do what I really want to do, no matter what anyone thinks. And that's exactly what I'm doing."

Hailey's kiss with Alek makes Clara realize that she wants a full(er) life and not just a kiss from a boy. "...I wanted those things, but also a thousand other impossible things, and maybe a few possible ones too...All this wanting inside me was not going to go away. I couldn't turn it off. Something had been flickering to life inside me for years now, and it was growing steadier, and hotter too. If I tried to keep it buried much longer, I was going to go up in flames." What Clara has been wishing for all these years is being separated from Hailey - that she wants to escape Hailey. But Clara comes to realize that her fear of  how others will view them and what will be said is what is holding her back from leaving Bear Pass. Hailey explains to her that their conjoinedness is part of who they are and that they need to accept it and embrace it. That it can be part part of their strength.

Daisy and Violet Hilton
Overall, Mukherjee's novel was a very interesting exploration of an unusual medical condition and the ethical, social and personal issues involved. Her characters felt realistic and the situations the conjoined twins experienced, plausible. The title, Gemini, is a reference to the third astrological sign in the zodiac and refers to the twins Castor and Pollux.

Conjoined twins are a very rare medical condition. While most conjoined twins die in utero or shortly after birth, there have been several famous twins. One set of conjoined twins Mukherjee mentions in her novel, Daisy and Violet Hilton, were pygopagus twins born in 1908. They were abandoned by their single mother. The twins were bought by Mary Hilton who employed their mother, Kate Skinner. Mary Hilton and her husband trained the two girls as dancers and singers and then made them tour as sideshow performers. The twins were well known entertainers for many years starring in vaudeville and burlesque shows but their lives were strictly controlled and their earnings stolen from them.  Recently a documentary Bound by Flesh was made about the Hilton twins.

It's probable that in today's world, Violet and Daisy would have been separated as they were joined at the hip and spine and shared no major organs. Sadly Violet and Daisy died impoverished from the Hong Kong flu in 1969.

Book Details:

Gemini by Sonya Mukherjee
New York: Simon & Schuster     2016
326 pp.

Friday, September 30, 2016

I Am Not A Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer

I Am Not A Number is a picture book that presents in a way most suitable for young children, the reality of the residential school situation that existed in Canada for a century and a half. The picture book tells the story of author Jenny Kay Dupuis's grandmother Irene Couchie Dupuis who was sent to a residential school for one year.

Irene Couchie was an Anishinaabe girl growing up on the shores of beautiful Lake Nipissing in the early 1920's. She lived with her mother, her father who was chief of their community and her siblings. Their life was simple with plenty of healthy food but none of the basics such as running water or electricity. Aboriginal culture placed a strong emphasis on family.  In 1928 when Irene was a mere eight years old, an Indian Agent came to their home and told Irene's parents they had to give up their children so they could attend the residential school. Irene and her two brothers were placed in the Spanish Indian Residential School for the year, against the wishes of her parents. It was a lonely year for Irene who was separated from her brothers and forbidden to speak her mother tongue.

The residential school system was in existence for some time before the 1800's but by the 1830's most Christian denominations in Canada were running some schools. It was the treaties and agreements from 1870's onward which shaped the residential schools in Canada. The government of Canada was obliged to assimilate aboriginal peoples into "Canadian" culture and it was decided that the residential school system was the best way to accomplish this. At first many First Nations people also agreed that learning how to live in the new European-Canadian culture would be beneficial but the schools did not live up to their expectations. Families were separated, children grew up disconnected from their parents, their culture and their communities. Language and customs were forgotten.

Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer capture all of this and more in this short, simple story based on the life of Dupuis' grandmother. The story is accompanied by Gillian Newland's beautifully expressive watercolour illustrations. The illustrations are done in browns, beige and black mimicking the sad subject matter of the book. The picture book's title is a reference to the common practice in residential schools of assigning aboriginal children a number rather than using their given name.

For those who would like to learn more about the Residential schools check out the Canadian Encyclopedia entry.

To explore the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada please visit this website as well as the archived TRC website.

Book Details:

I Am Not A Number by Jenny Jay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Toronto: Second Story Press     2016

Friday, September 23, 2016

A Spy's Devotion by Melanie Dickerson

A Spy's Devotion is the first novel in Melanie Dickerson's Regency Spies of London series. A Spy's Devotion is set in 1811 in London, England. It is the first party of the Season and Miss Julia Grey and her wealthy cousin, Miss Phoebe Wilhern are in attendance along with Mr. Nicholas Langdon who has recently recovered from wounds he suffered while fighting in the Peninsula against Napoleon. Phoebe is infatuated with Nicholas and determined to flirt with him and make him fall in love with her. Julia plays the pianoforte and sings, entertaining those at the party.

Meanwhile, Nicholas, who notices Julia's attractiveness, is reminded by the coarse Hugh Edgerton that Julia has no dowry and therefore is not a suitable marriage prospect. Edgerton tells Nicholas that Julia is flirting with Mr. Daniel Dinklage because he has an income of fifteen thousand pounds a year. He suggests that instead Nicholas should be considering Phoebe Wilhern. Edgerton asks Nicholas what he will be doing in the week he has remaining before returning to the war and Nicholas indicates that he must do a favour for a man named Richard Beechum who died in battle. He will be returning a diary to someone he doesn't know. At the same dance, Julia overhears her Uncle Wilhern talking to Edgerton and stating that they must retrieve the diary from Nicholas Langdon.

The next day while waiting for his valet to locate Garrison Greenfield, the man he must return the diary to, Nicholas is visited by Edgerton who behaves strangely. When the valet returns from the War Office without any information about Greenfield Nicholas decides to copy the diary which appears to be written in some kind of code and visit the War Office himself. When he sets out, Nicholas is beaten and robbed of the diary. Devastated at losing the diary Nicholas continues to the War Office where he informs Philip McDowell of what has happened. He learns from Colonel Thomas Stockton of the Foreign Office that Garrison Greenfield was a British spy. Stockton asks Nicholas to investigate Hugh Edgerton and Robert Wilhern and to hand over the copy of the diary to his men.

Meanwhile, Sarah Peck who was Phoebe and Julia's governess is being sent away to a new position. Sarah encourages Julia to secure the affections of Mr. Daniel Dinklage and marry him rather than end up as a governess. She later writes to Julia about her new position and states that the only person who treats her nicely is the son of her employer. This news causes great worry to Julia who fears Sarah may be in danger and she warns her to act prudently.

Parties and balls continue as the Season progresses. Phoebe continues her desperate attempts to win the affections of Nicholas while Julia unwillingly encourages Dinklage in his pursuit. She has promised Phoebe that she will do everything she can to convince Nicholas to focus on her. Nicholas is careful to dance with each young woman only once so as not to show favour to any particular girl but he continues to find himself drawn to Julia. He introduces Julia to his sister Leorah and the two young women quickly become friends. Julia struggles to ignore her attraction to Nicholas as her cousin Phoebe is so determined to win Nicholas. In fact she attempts to direct Nicholas's attention away from herself and to encourage his interest in Phoebe.

At a dinner party at the Wilhern's, Nicholas attempts to search Robert Wilhern's study to locate the missing diary. He is unsuccessful but is saved from discovery by Julia. Julia could have informed her uncle about him, but remained quiet and Nicholas begins to wonder if she might be of help to him.The next morning Julia's uncle informs her that Hugo Edgerton has approached him with a request to marry her. Julia is horrified however, especially after Edgerton accosted her at the ball at the Wilhern's weeks earlier. She tells her uncle that she must refuse his request. In a desperate attempt to save herself, Julia who is a gifted pianist,  visits her old teacher, Monsieur and Madame Bartholdy to ask whether they could take her to the continent to tour and perform, but Monsieur Bartholdy tells her they are now too old for such a venture. At the same time Dinklage's mother refuses to accept her son's interest in Julia and sends him away to Derbyshire.

During her visits to the Bartholdy's Julia discovers that Nicholas Langdon travels in this poor part of town to visit the Children's Aid Mission where he spends time with the children and helps his old friend Mr. Wilson who runs the mission. Nicholas asks Julia to keep his visits a secret. At the next ball, when Julia is accosted by Edgerton, Nicholas rescues her by asking her to dance a second time with him. This sends the Wilherns and especially Phoebe into the depths of despair as a second dance sends the message that Nicholas favours Julia. However Nicholas realizes that as he's investigating Julia's uncle for possible treason she is not a suitable marriage prospect at this time. Also he needs to marry someone with a sizeable income because as the second son he receives little income from his father. Despite this he finds himself increasingly drawn to Julia.

When Julia leaves the ball, Nicholas recognizes the Wilhern's footman as the man who attacked him and stole the diary. At home, Julia's uncle questions her about her relationship with Nicholas and makes certain that she understands that it is Phoebe who will be marrying Nicholas. Julia is forced to tell Phoebe that she is not interested in Nicholas although in her heart she knows this is not true. More and more she is pressured to accept Edgerton's marriage proposal causing Julia great distress. This distress is noticed by Nicholas who one day encourages her to tell him her troubles.This Julia does and Nicholas wonders why it is that her uncle is so keen to have her marry Hugh Edgerton. Nicholas decides to confide in Julia, telling her that her uncle's serious debts place him at risk of losing Wilhern Manor in Warwickshire. He also tells Julia that her uncle is believed to be involved in a plot to assassinate General Wellington and asks for Julia's help. Will Julia be able to discover the truth about her uncle and Edgerton's involvement in the nefarious plot to kill Wellington and at the same time save herself from being forced to marry a man she does not love?


Melanie Dickerson has written another enjoyable romance that involves a touch of adventure for a likeable heroine. Julia Grey is an orphan who has been taken in by her wealthy Uncle Wilhern. Her position is precarious because without a dowry Julia is unlikely to attract a good marriage prospect. Julia is accepting of this and believes that once Phoebe marries she will live with her and her husband. However, this soon seems unlikely because her uncle is determined to force her to marry the unlikeable Hugh Edgerton. Julia does not realize that her uncle, Robert Wilhern is hiding a huge secret - he's financially strapped and is looking to recover his ancestor's estates confiscated during the French Revolution. To accomplish this he has plotted to kill General Wellington who is leading the British in the war against Napoleon. He hopes to help the French towards victory and thus reclaim his property./

Dickerson uses the social conventions common in the early 1800's to create suspense and tension in her novel. For example, a young woman without family or connections had virtually no options other than marriage or becoming a governess. Without a significant income, a woman like Julia could expect few marriage proposals and would often be forced to accept marriage to a man regardless of his character or whether she loved him. Julia's precarious situation as an orphan living in the house of her cruel uncle sets her in exactly that scenario. Her Uncle Wilhern tells her that she has an offer of marriage from Hugh Edgerton, the man who is a drinker and has debts. Julia soon discovers that her uncle will be paying Edgerton money to marry her and that he is determined that she marry Edgerton as quickly as possible. Not only is this a problem for Julia but also for the British government's case against Edgerton and Wilhern whom they believe are involved in an assassination plot against General Wellington. Once married to Edgerton, Julia will be unable to testify in court because British law at this time did not allow for a woman to testify against her husband.

The author also highlights the double standards that existed in 19th century England regarding the behaviour of men and women. When Julia's friend, Sarah Peck is seduced by her employer's son and then abandoned, Julia notes how the upper class considers the matter trivial because of Sarah's class. The fact that Sarah is a lowly governess rather than a gentleman's daughter determines how people react. "Of course, if it had been a gentleman's daughter rather than a governess, it would have been treated in a much more serious manner. There would have been talk of him being made to marry the girl. The papers would have mentioned it discreetly, only giving the first letter of their names. But a governess...no gentlemen would be expected to marry a governess, and the papers wouldn't even deem it worthy of mentioning."

The point is further made when Phoebe's mother receives a letter from Mrs. Brumley about what has happened to Sarah. The Smitherman's whose son William seduced and impregnated Sarah are more concerned with the loss of a governess than what their son has done. The governess, Sarah Peck is assigned all the blame and the worry that Phoebe and Julia might possibly be tainted by virtue of having contact with Sarah.While Sarah is considered "ruined" Julia notes that the man she was involved with shares no similar fate. "The gentleman goes on his way as if nothing ever happened. He is full able to make a suitable match. But the governess's reputation is forever ruined."
Indeed, we later learn that William is sent back to Eton to continue his studies as if nothing untoward has ever happened.

Sarah's predicament only serves to emphasize to Julia just how serious things might become for herself. Worried that she may now be abandoned she acts in a way that she later considers wrong. As Phoebe pursues the man Julia secretly loves and it becomes evident that she will not be able to remain with her cousin, Julia goes against her conscience and her better judgement and flirts with Mr. Dinklage. However once she is refused by his mother, Julia comes to realize the motives behind her actions. "It was because she was afraid. She wanted security, respectability, and safety from poverty."

But unlike Sarah, Julia discovers that following all the rules for a woman as set out by 19th century society do not necessarily offer protection for someone of her class. Julia realizes that "She had tried to be so prudent, to conform to society's every rule for young ladies." and that even so she is still at the mercy of the inequality that exists in society for women and for those of her class. Forced to flee from her uncle and then harassed as a governess by Mr. Atherton, Julia decides to take matters into her own hands and writes a letter to Nicholas telling him how she truly feels, breaking social norms by actually going to his room and leaving the letter there.

Julia easily recognizes that God has been looking out for Sarah - through Julia's actions a place is found for Sarah to move to, she finds work and she ends up marrying Mr. Wilson. "Sweet Sarah Peck. God was taking care of her, giving her something useful to do. What a blessing." When she prepares to leave her position as governess at the Atherton's she tells little Timothy that she will continue to pray for them so "that you will be kind and good adults who care about other people, just the way God cares for you." However, Julia doesn't so readily recognize God's actions in her own life. It isn't until the very end that she comes to understand God has been in charge all along.

At times A Spy's Devotion feels like a cross between Jane Austen and a Harlequin romance. However Dickerson's characters are interesting and while her story line is not original, readers will nevertheless be hooked to read to the predictable happy ending. This is a good solid effort that highlights some past social inequalities that thankfully no longer exist.

Book Details:

A Spy's Devotion by Melanie Dickerson
Grand Haven, MI: Waterfall Press    2016
314 pp.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sing by Vivi Greene

Singer Lily Ross gets dumped by her boyfriend, Jed Munroe in a restaurant. Lily met Jed at a party at her manager's Brooklyn loft only a year ago. She had moved to New York from L.A. after her break-up with Caleb. Before Caleb there was Sebastian. Jed is also a musician and their lives seemed to fit together perfectly. Instead Jed tells her the pressure's getting to him and he takes off, leaving Lily a wreck.

Sammy, Lily's best friend since preschool and Tess a friend Lily made at camp when she was twelve are there to help Lily pick up the pieces. Now besides being her friends, they are Lily's paid assistants. Tess suggests they leave the city and spend the summer at her family's cottage on Penobscot Bay.

At first Lily declines. But when she goes into a coffee shop with her bodyguard, Ray and is mobbed with questions about Jed, Lily decides to take up Tess's offer.At the cottage Lily receives a frantic call from her manager, Terry who's concerned about all the negative publicity from her break-up with Jed. Her fall tour, Forever, which is based on songs about her relationship with Jed is ready to go as is her first song off her new album.

The first few days are wonderful until Lily reads about the breakup in the newspapers and discovers that Jed has talked to reporters. On a trip into town, Lily gets into a fender bender with a local - a handsome man driving a pickup truck. She meets the same guy again the following Saturday when Tess takes Lily and Sammy to meet with a bunch of guys she used to hang out with, to go fishing. That guy is Noel Bradley who takes the group out on his fishing boat where they spend the morning hauling in lobster traps. On the boat Noel and Lily become interested in one another. Meanwhile Lily decides not to respond to the texts from Jed.  A night swim leads her to fall asleep on the beach only to be awoken in the morning by Noel walking his dog, Murphy. They talk and Noel tells Lily that he attended college but returned to town where he lives with his father and his younger sister.

After Noel suggests they "hang out" sometime, Lily arranges a secret meeting at night because she doesn't want Tess or Sammy to realize that she's become involved with yet another guy. Noel takes her for a hike and they swim in a nearby pond. Around a campfire, Lily confesses to not being able to write new songs and Noel tells Lily about his mother whom he says is a painter and who abandoned them. On another secret night out, while hauling lobster traps out of the water, Noel tells Lily he was studying art at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design but that he came home. After this night out Lily writes her first new song about beginning a new day and being hopeful rather than about broken relationships and lost love.

Lily soon has several new songs composed: her first one is titled Anchors. After the July 4th holiday Lily's relationship with Noel begins to intensify. Terry contacts Lily and is relieved to learn that she has composed a number of new songs. Lily suggests they record at Tess's house and Terry reluctantly agrees. Terry wants to know who the "anchor" is but Lily not wanting to reveal that the song is about Noel simply tells him it is about the island. However with all of Lily's crew on the island working on the recordings, Noel feels unsettled and unsure of his place in her life. Can Lily and Noel make it work or will their vastly different lives be too much to overcome? Will Lily be forced to choose between her love for Noel and her love of making music?


Sing is a novel whose plot draws comparison to country singer- turned pop star, Taylor Swift, whose songs are frequently about previous relationships and breakups. Sing's cover even suggests Taylor Swift  with its look-a-like complete with blonde hair and pouty red lips. In this version, the famous pop star is fictional Lily Ross whose career has been made by writing songs about her breakups. She's been with a number of men over the years and her latest love, Jed Munroe also a famous singer, has just dumped her. Hoping to find a bit of peace, Lily decamps to her friend Tess's cottage on an island where she quickly falls in love with the best looking guy in town, Noel Bradley. Noel is a rugged artist with a soft heart, who has returned to his family's home to care for his younger sister and his father after their mother was placed in rehab for doing drugs. Greene brings in the love triangle when Jed visits the town to try to win back Lily setting up a conflict that Lily must deal with. Which life does she choose and will Lily Ross ever find happiness and true love?

Lily Ross is a mostly likeable character but she's predictably self-centered and even somewhat shallow. Her friends take her to task when it's discovered she's been having a secret relationship with Noel Bradley and lying to them. Tess in particular feels betrayed because she considers herself Lily's friend, "the only people who don't kiss your ass and tell you what you want to hear all the time." Tess tells Lily that she's not ready for another relationship.

The reappearance of Jed Munroe in her life leaves Lily intensely conflicted. She struggles with the discovery that part of her still loves Jed. "I love the way he knows what he wants and doesn't apologize for being who he is. I love our life together, how seamless and complementary it can be." With regard to Noel, Lily feels that she is making the same mistake once again. But Maya who runs a yoga class on the island tells Lily that she's waiting for her life to be easier. When Lily tells Jed she won't be getting back together with him, he tells her she'll never be happy. But Lily knows she has at least broken the cycle of her music being all about breakups. She also knows that music must remain a part of her life. "No matter how much I try to make things work with Noel, no matter how much I love being here on this island, could I ever truly be happy without making my music, seeing my fans, singing my songs on tour? I can't just pretend that's not a part of me anymore."

At first the solution seems to be to have Noel accompany her on tour, because Lily doesn't want to feel the pain of loss when she leaves Noel behind on the island. But when Lily reveals Noel's identity during an interview and the paparazzi arrive,and then the truth about his mother is made public, Lily begins to realize just how different their lives are. Lily's mother reminds her of the value of sharing her music with others and that this is something special. Lily and Noel repair their relationship and Lily tells him that her time on the island has not been a waste - that she has discovered that her music allows her to connect with others. "My songs are the way I've always made sense of the world, the mistakes I've made, the people I've met and what they've taught me. I'm not done with any of that. I don't know that I ever will be." Lily comes to realize that life isn't full of "perfect, happy endings" but that people do go on, just as she will without Jed and without Noel.
Perhaps unwittingly Greene has written a novel that portrays the reality of the current dating culture for many women in the 21st century: meet a man, live with him and then break-up with no sign of commitment or marriage, a year or two or more of life wasted and a broken heart.  Although the characters in this story are supposedly famous contemporary musicians, the relationships in their lives and the modern problems they face are very much similar to those of everyday people. Their relationships, although subject to the pressures of fame, parallel the patterns seen within society in general today. Many women go through similar experiences of dating for a few weeks/months, then living together without moving towards any sort of commitment. That this can be harmful to women whose hearts and bodies are made for something much different is effectively demonstrated in Sing. When Jed dumps Lily, she looks at the keys to her apartment which Jed just handed back to her she states, "...and when I think about how many times I've done this, handed over my heart, the keys to my home, to my world, I feel dizzy. Over and over again --it's not enough. I'm not enough. "  Lily believes the reason her relationships crash is because she's the problem but by the end of the novel her friendship with Noel has helped her rediscover who she is and that she can be happy in life.

For fans of contemporary romance and singers like Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, Sing will resonate with them and be an enjoyable, fun read.

Book Details:

Sing by Vivi Greene
New York: HarperTeen   2016
279 pp.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice

Sixteen-year-old Ruth Ann (Roo) McCabe is on her way to pick up her younger sister Mathilda Mae (Tilly) at the river museum. It's four o'clock on a February Saturday afternoon. The Connecticut River is almost frozen over and Roo wants to get a few pictures of the beautiful scene for her portfolio for a scholarship contest. She desperately wants to attend Yale University, where her father studied years earlier. Roo and Tilly's father died last summer from a massive heart attack.Tilly is waiting impatiently and continues to text Roo as does Roo's boyfriend Newton and her best friend, Isabel.

After taking a few photographs, Roo gets in her Volvo and while driving towards the bridge leading into the town of Black Hall, she picks up her phone and sends a text: "mins away." In the three seconds she's looked down at her phone she finds her car has drifted off the road and into the path of a woman walking her dog. Attempting to avoid hitting both, Roo swerves, causing her car to somersault down the bank and lands on its roof in the frozen creek. Hanging upside down in the car, bleeding, Roo passes out.

Tilly is eventually picked up at the museum by Newton who informs her that Roo's been in a car accident. When Tilly sees Roo in the ER she is conscious but nauseous as well as complaining about her head hurting and her neck feeling stiff.  Suddenly Roo has a seizure and suffers what doctors diagnose as a "brain stem stroke affecting the basilar artery system." Roo's doctors tell her family that she is comatose. Roo's eyes are open and protruding, her face covered in bruises and dry spittle and her mouth pulled back, frozen in a silent scream. Doctors say she is "incapable of emotion" and she's on a ventilator to help her breathe. A newspaper story states that Roo who is not named, is "expected to remain in a vegetative state" and that the accident is being investigated to see whether drugs or alcohol were a factor. This upsets Tilly but Isabel tells Roo's mother that she was taking pictures and that they were texting about this. This leads Tilly to wonder if Roo actually pulled over before texting her that afternoon. Could she have been responsible for Roo's accident.

Unknown to Roo's family however, Roo can hear and understand everything but she is unable to respond. "I commanded my limbs to move, but they didn't. How bizarre. I was trapped, mummified." Roo finds she can't speak and she cannot move her limbs. "Then I realized, No, there are no straps. It's me -- I can't move. I can't speak. I can't get anyone to hear me. I must have looked like a lifeless lump, but inside my mind I was wild, alive, in agony, going crazy." Even worse for Roo is "not having my family realize that I was awake and completely conscious, hearing everything. How could they not know?"

Neither her family nor the doctors are aware that Roo is conscious. Dr. Sarah Danforth, a specialist in pediatric neurovascular disease isn't and neither are her nurses. Eventually Roo begins breathing on her own and is taken off the ventilator. Tilly expects that this will mean a big change in her sister but when she arrives at the hospital she finds Roo still unresponsive. Dr. Danforth tells Tilly that Roo still doesn't feel emotion. Tilly struggles with guilt because she believes she is responsible for Roo's accident and she asks her sister if she is guilty of causing her accident. But Newton tells Tilly the accident was partly Roo's fault leading Tilly to become extremely angry at him and getting herself placed on probation at the hospital.   Roo sees all of this but cannot respond.

Being trapped in her body leads Roo to reminisce her how she and Newton first became friends, began dating and planned to attend college together. She wonders what she looks like to him now.; She also remembers how her father died suddenly last summer on a perfect summer day when he came home and went to lie down before dinner and never woke up. As the days wear on, Roo has time to think about the accident and realizes that she was texting before the accident and that she has done this to herself.

Meanwhile at school, Tilly struggles to cope with her sister's situation. This is further complicated by Isabel who takes Tilly to the place where Roo had her accident and reveals that she has found Roo's missing cell phone. Isabel tells Tilly that she felt guilty because she had been texting Roo when she had her accident so she came out to look for Roo's phone. When she found it she took it home, charged it and discovered that it was not her text that caused the accident but Tilly's text. Roo's last text, "5 mins away" was sent to Tilly. Isabel insists that they need to tell someone and Tilly reluctantly agrees to tell her mother. The two girls meet Martha Muirhead who is the woman who was walking her dog Lucan the night of the accident. Martha tells Tilly that she is just like her sister who was concerned for the her dog. Martha asks Tilly to let Roo know Lucan is doing just fine.

Tilly takes Martha's advice and decides to tell Roo that the dog she hit is now doing fine. But she also wants to tell Roo that she was the cause of her accident. As Tilly is talking to Roo and closely watching her sister's face she makes an astonishing discovery. It is one that completely changes the doctors diagnosis and gives tremendous hope to Roo, her family and friends. Life will never be the same, but maybe Roo has a chance to reclaim some of what she lost in the accident with the help of those around her and the bond she shares with her sister Tilly. And at the same time, maybe Roo's tragedy can save others from the danger of texting while driving.


A major message that Luanne Rice conveys in her novel is that texting while driving can lead to unimaginable consequences forever affecting your life and the lives of those around you. In the province of Ontario, distracted driving now outnumbers impaired driving as the leading cause of accidents.Rice pulls no punches in demonstrating just how devastating a few seconds of inattention can be. Roo is an accomplished young woman with a brilliant future ahead of her. She is smart, attractive and accomplished. She has a boyfriend, Newton who adores her. She planned to gain early acceptance at Yale and was in the process of developing her photography portfolio for the Serena Kader Barrois Foundation Photography Contest. This award offers a thousand dollar scholarship which would help her get into Yale.; After her accident readers learn that Roo's photographs are especially captivating, making her injury seem all the more tragic. Dr. Howarth, a specialist in facilitated communication who will help Roo learn to communicate with the world around her, views Roo's photographs and tells her, "Your photos say so much about you Roo. You have a beautiful soul and a brilliant eye. You capture the perfect instant of beauty and action, and somehow you translate that exact moment, and the feeling that goes with it, to the viewer." Yet in mere seconds, Roo loses all this because of texting while driving. The message is not lost; distracted driving kills and ruins lives.

The second issue to be explored in this novel involves an unusual neurological disorder. Although initially it seems that she's just banged up from the accident, Roo has a stroke and passes out. It turns out that although her doctors believe Roo is in a coma and refer to her as being in a vegetative state ( a horrible term to use regarding any human being) she is actually conscious but completely paralyzed and unable to talk.

In Roo's case she cannot blink, but as her sister discovers, Roo is able to move her left eye up and down.
" 'Can you please just,' she began, and I must have been exasperated, because all I could do was look up at the ceiling, a heaven-help-me moment. My eyeball flicked up and down. Tilly stopped mid-sentence, mouth dropping open. And then...
I'm here!
'Oh God,' she said. 'Did you just look up? Did you just move your left eyeball? If you did, and you hear me, do it again.'
I did it again."

This condition of being fully conscious but unable to move or speak is called locked-in syndrome (LIS). In LIS, a person loses the ability to voluntarily move with the exception of vertical eye movement as in Roo's case or blinking. It is extremely rare and is caused by damage in the brain stem as a result of head trauma or a stroke. Generally it is family who makes the discovery that their loved one is aware and capable of understanding everything happening around them. Sometimes neuro-imaging tools such as functional MRI scans are capable of showing that a person may be conscious but locked-in. If a person is medically stable, LIS patients can live for ten to twenty years, although recovery from LIS is rare.

As Rice showcases in The Secret Language of Sisters, those with locked-in syndrome are able to communicate with the world in a few ways. Roo begins with simple yes answers and then onto using a letter board. Also portrayed in the novel is the use of brain-computer interface technology which at this point appears to be an unusual option for someone with LIS. Because she is capable of moving her eye up and down this means that Dr. Howarth can develop an operating system to her Roo communicate. He tells her "...instead of your eye movement telling me which letter you want, your brain waves will speak directly to the laptop, and the words will appear." After Roo has a computer chip implanted in her brain she is able to quickly learn how to communicate. It is this new ability to communicate that really helps Roo because she has many issues to deal with as a result of the accident.

First she must come to terms with the fact that she is partly responsible for the situation she now finds herself in. But she is also angry at her sister. "If I hadn't texted Tilly back, that wouldn't have happened; and if Tilly hadn't barraged me with a thousand impatient texts, I never would have reached for my phone."
She is also upset that what happened to her is in the media and her tragedy is being used in an awareness campaign by her mother and that Isabel has changed her portfolio submission to feature her situation. The pictures of how she now looks horrify Roo. Dr. Howarth puts things into perspective for Roo when he tells her, "As much as it hurts, Roo, this story will help others, keep them from texting behind the wheel. You have to know that. People's lives will be saved because of you." Roo also observes a growing attraction between her sister Tilly and her boyfriend Newton, making her angry, "crazed and jealous." Although Isabel and Newton both deny this possibility, Roo is certain of what she sees.

As Roo struggles to cope with significant changes in both her life and the lives of those around her, Dr. Howarth understands, telling her, "It's very hard to let go of things we love most, to accept that life changes." Roo remembers a line from her favourite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, "We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it." Roo has done this with the father she lost last near and now must do it with Newton.

One of the themes The Secret Language of Sisters focuses on is the special bond sisters have with one another. Roo and Tilly had a special bond before her accident. Roo was the big sister, popular, pretty and smart who always looked out for Tilly. After the accident their roles are reversed as it is now Tilly who must advocate for Roo. Tilly who is wracked with guilt over texting her sister, believes that bond no longer exists. Her guilt over the text is also compounded by her growing attraction to Newton, whom she becomes close to and eventually kisses. Distraught over what has happened between herself and Roo, Tilly goes to see Martha Muirhead. Martha feels they have a connection because they both have sisters and they both feel responsible for what happened to them. She tells Tilly that a person has to use their talents to heal and survive and that it is the same with Roo. For Martha and her sister Althea, their love of singing was their secret language. She tells Tilly their bond may be damaged but it is not broken.

When Martha goes to visit Roo she reveals how similar she and Althea were to her and Tilly. She tells Roo that their relationship can't be broken because they are sisters and they speak the same language - they care about each other. "You get to be a sister only because you have Tilly. Without each other, that goes away. You're still beautiful and talented, but you're not a sister. It's the alchemy of sisters, Roo."

Rice ends her novel in an upbeat way, with Roo focusing on the positive, on what she still has and not on what she has lost. She forgives her sister and Newton, understanding that the relationships between her, Tilly and Newton have changed. Like Martha and Althea situation, Tilly and Newton realize that maybe because they both love Roo, they were hurting and sought solace in each other. Tilly begins to recognize Slater's interest in her and his support of Tilly draws her away from Newton. Meanwhile Newton demonstrates to Roo that he still deeply loves her and he is not planning to abandon her. He tells her, "You are my north star. Will you try to keep going with me?" He recognizes the girl he loves is still there, "Inside, you're the same as ever, so beautiful and smart, making me keep up with you."  and he makes it possible for Roo to continue to use her talent for photography.

The Secret Language of Sisters is a beautiful novel about the connections sisters share, and about how those connections can endure through even the worst of times. It is also a timely warning about the dangers of texting and driving and how life can change in the span of seconds.

The following resources may be helpful:

CAA Distracted Driving Information

The locked-in syndrome: what is it like to be conscious but paralyzed and voiceless?

Book Details:

The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice
New York: Point, an imprint of Scholastic Canada 2016

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Gospel Truth by Caroline Pignat

Phoebe is a slave on Arnold Duncan's Whitehaven Plantation located in Virginia in 1858. When Phoebe was only six years old,  her mother was sold off to another owner and from that time she's never spoken. Now sixteen years old, Phoebe looks after Tessa Duncan, the daughter of the plantation owner, brushing her hair and laying out her clothes.

The story begins with Will, one of the slaves owned by Duncan, being brought back by the overseer Brutus after attempting to escape. Brutus is ordered to "peel and pickle" him, meaning that Will is to be whipped until there is no skin remaining and then salt water poured on the wounds causing extreme pain. Duncan believes that Will, who is a very large man, is a valuable slave and he's determined to "break" him and then breed him. Duncan also owns Will's younger brother Shadrach.

Over the past year Miss Tessa has been tutored by Mr. Cooke to learn to read. Unknown to anyone else, Phoebe has learned to read while fanning Miss Tessa and Cooke as they study. Since it is against the law for a slave to learn to read and write, Phoebe keeps this a secret. She hopes one day to check the master's red book to learn where her mother has been sent.

One day Shad announces to Beatrice who is the cook and to Phoebe that a doctor is coming to the plantation the following week to study Virginian birds. The arrival of Doctor Ross Bergman, an ornithologist from Canada peeks everyone's interest including Phoebe. Arnold Duncan whose great-great-grandfather came from Scotland, is the first Duncan in five generations to have no son to pass on the plantation. His land is almost spent and he needs fresh land to grow tobacco. To buy land, Arnold Duncan hopes to attract Bergman's money.  Duncan is also keenly aware that times are changing with the North turning on the South and the slaves against their masters. The days of a plantation run on the backs of black slaves may be nearing its end.

Phoebe finds Dr. Bergman most interested in her, but even more so when Miss Tessa informs him that Phoebe seems to "have a way with birds". Master Duncan orders Phoebe to accompany Dr. Bergman to the woods to show him where the cedar waxwings nest. Missus Duncan is not happy about this. The next morning Miss Tessa accompanies Dr. Bergman and Phoebe into the woods. Both Shad and Bea worry about Phoebe going into the woods with the white doctor.  Miss Tessa's constant talking means they find no birds. For Tessa the walk and the heat are tiresome and she's not interested in birds but in attracting Dr. Bergman as a potential husband.

At dinner that night, Master Duncan is angry about a suspected abolitionist who has been showing up at the plantations and helping slaves to escape up north. On another outing to find birds, Bergman draws bird nests and is introduced to a more detailed tour of life on the plantation by Miss Tessa, one that sees him witness a black slave being beaten. He keeps his feelings carefully hidden although he does tell Miss Tessa that her use of the Bible as a justification for keeping slaves is not correct.

Dr. Bergman simply bides his time hoping to get Phoebe alone. His chance comes the very next day when Miss Tessa is made to remain at the house for a lesson with Mr. Cooke. Phoebe takes "Dr. Birdman" as she calls him, out into the woods for more birding. Wary of his intentions, she waits until he takes a nap to go to her "hidey-hole" in the tree where she has hidden her journal. Bergman follows her there and watches Phoebe as she sits quietly with an little bird in her hands. When she returns Bergman tells Phoebe he needs her to help him and to keep a secret. He wants her to bring him a slave who has tried to escape to her hollow tree. Phoebe agrees to do this.

Shad, suspicious of Dr. Bergman's intentions, follows Phoebe and the doctor into the woods. Although nothing happens to Phoebe, Shad remains watchful. The next day Master Duncan releases Will from the shed because he needs his tobacco harvested quickly. Phoebe delivers Bergman's message to Will and they meet him at the hollow tree where the doctor tells Will to bring men he trusts to the tree the following night.  The next night Will brings Levi, Joe and Davey to meet Dr. Bergman. Unknown to them Phoebe is hiding within the tree and hears their plans.  Bergman tells the slaves that not all white men are like Master Duncan, that he is there to help them escape and that many hundreds of slaves have escaped to the north and to freedom. Only they can choose to take the risk and Bergman requests that if they choose not to, that they tell no one. He asks them to meet him at Carson's Corner in ten days. Can Will and his friends and Phoebe trust that the white man is telling the truth? Will they have the courage to grasp this chance at freedom? And will Shad discover the truth of slavery before it's too late?


The Gospel of Truth is told in free verse by six narrators: the slaves Phoebe, Shad and Will as well as Master Duncan and his daughter Tessa Duncan and the abolitionist, Dr. Bergman. The novel is set in 1858, only two years before the election of Abraham Lincoln and three years before the start of the American Civil War. In 1858 America, slavery was ubiquitous in the south where plantation owners used black slaves to work crops of hemp, tobacco and cotton. Slavery had been essentially abolished in the northern states by 1804, but with many plantations in the south switching over to growing cotton, the use of slave labour was firmly entrenched. There were millions of black slaves living in the southern United States by 1958. However, the movement to abolish slavery altogether began to grow rapidly after 1830. At this time free blacks and white abolitionists began actively helping slaves to escape to the northern states or into Canada. The route of safe houses and those willing to help became known as the Underground Railroad.  At this time the southern states were beginning to face an economic crisis as the land began to fail. Those living in the southern United States saw the northern state's abolitionist views as an attack on their way of life. When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, seven southern states left the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. This secession eventually led to the beginning of the Civil War and ultimately to the war becoming about the issue of slavery.

The use of verse to tell the story of courageous men and women who risked everything to escape slavery is an effective means of storytelling because it pares the narrative down to its essentials and focuses on the humanity of the slaves. Pignat does touch on many of the realities of institutionalized slavery: the brutal beatings, whippings and torture undertaken to "break" slaves, the selling of mothers away from their children and children from their mothers, the rape of slave girls by their masters and the use of slave women as concubines.  In The Gospel Truth, Phoebe, Will and the other slaves must overcome their conditioning by their white master to accept their fate and their fear of the white man to realize the truth written in their hearts that she belongs to no one and that "owning people is wrong."  The white plantation owners deliberately keep their black slaves ignorant, unable to read or write, meaning they were completely dependent upon their owners. Phoebe secretly learns to read in the hopes that she can learn what happened to her mother.

Pignat also demonstrates that the racist view of the slaves was part of white family life and passed from generation to generation of Americans. For  example, when Miss Tessa is out birding with Dr. Bergman  they witness the brutal beating of a girl whose fallen behind the line. Tessa tells Dr. Bergman,
"We buy, breed, feed, clothe, house, and train them,"
Miss Tess parrot.
"And if need be, we sell them.
But we take good care of our property."

"Your people," he say.

"Oh, Doctor," she roll her eyes,
and say what master always say,
"they're not people...

they're Negroes."

She attempts to explain that her belief is supported by the Bible to which Dr. Bergman suggests that "...some people misinterpret even God's truth."

Readers also see the effect of slavery on families and marriages. The use of slaves as concubines undermined many marriages. Master Duncan's rape of Ruthie, Phoebe's mother and the birth of Phoebe destroy the Duncan's marriage as Missus Duncan refuses her husband afterwards. This results in Arnold Duncan having no male heir for his plantation.

The theme of truth is woven throughout the novel. When Phoebe is taunted by Ella Mae Bea tells Phoebe that the reason Ella Mae hates her is because Phoebe's father is a white man, Master Duncan.  She tells Phoebe that "I've been protecting you for ten years no. But I see I can't protect you from everything...'Specially not the truth." Bea tells Phoebe it's time she knows the truth.

Later on Shadrach finds the bag containing the items Dr. Bergman gave Will for his escape as well as Phoebe's journal in the hollow tree. Shad tells Phoebe that he thinks Will is going to try to escape again but that he has prevented this by taking the bag and he has given her journal to Master Duncan so he can find out "who been leading my brother astray."  This terrifies Phoebe who tells herself that she cannot run from the truth, she can't hide the truth that she knows how to read and write. Shad is horrified when he learns the truth about the journal - that it belongs to Phoebe who knows how to read and write. As Shad struggles to uncover the truth of what is going on, he is forced to choose between Phoebe who wants to run to freedom and Master Duncan who promises to make him overseer. Phoebe finds her voice to tell Shad the truth of why she's running:
"I ain't Master's shame," she say,
eyes puddled up with tears.
"I ain't Tessa's toy,
or even your girl, Shad."
She shrug.
"I's Phoebe. Just Phoebe. I belong to no one."

She tells Shad,
"--owning people is wrong.
shameful wrong, Shad.
And that's the gospel truth."

In the end Phoebe states that
"It takes courage
                to see truths
                that we'd rather not."

There is plenty of symbolism to explore in this novel particularly around the yellow bird that Phoebe finds injured at the beginning of the novel. She takes the bird, which has a broken wing, home and places it in a cage. Phoebe believes that

"sometimes the safest place to be is 
in a cage."

This is a truth for Phoebe. However as time passes, the bird languishes, refusing to eat or sing. Phoebe returns to where she found the yellow bird and watches the same birds who are free, discovering that they eat worms and bugs. When she brings home a worm, the yellow bird responds and finally moves in the cage. Phoebe comes to understand that although the yellow bird's wing has mended its heart is broken. Miss Tessa wonders why the yellow bird won't sing and makes the connection that like Phoebe, it is mute. However she fails to understand why this might be. When Phoebe plans to run and take Will's bag containing the items he will need to escape to him at Carter's Corner, she remembers to free the yellow bird. She recognizes that although the bird is safe in the cage, it is not living the life it was meant to.
"Sure, I keep her alive,
but I's keeping her
from living like a yellow bird should."

Phoebe also understands how being caged has affected the yellow bird.
"Miss Tessa said the bird is tame.
Tame is just another word for broke.
Her wing is long healed.
But numbed by what life she knows behind these bars,
Yellowbird stopped hoping for one beyond them.
Truth is,
that cage is hurting her in ways I can't fix.
I keep her alive,
but she's living half-dead.

So Phoebe does what she has to - "I throw her at the dark and all its dangers."  She sets the yellow bird free and when free, the bird sings "like a yellow bird should."

The yellow bird represents Phoebe who as a slave, is living in a cage called Whitehaven, unable to leave and unable to live her life as she is meant to. Like the yellow bird, she and Will and the others must flee into the "dark and all its dangers" to escape their cage of slavery. And Phoebe herself, once she makes the choice to escape, finds her voice to tell Shad why it is that she must go. On the verge of freedom she speaks, just as the yellow bird once free, begins to sing again.

The Gospel Truth is a wonderfully crafted novel with a remarkable heroine as its focus. Winner of the 2015 Governor General Award, The Gospel Truth represents historical fiction at its best, capturing the era in a realistic manner with believable characters. Caroline Pignat is a Canadian author whose novel Greener Grass won the 2009 Governor General Award. Pignat is an English teacher in Ottawa.

Book Details:

The Gospel Truth by Caroline Pignat
Brighton, Massachusetts: Red Deer Press    2014
327 pp.