Saturday, January 21, 2017

DVD: Deepwater Horizon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

The Fourteenth Goldfish is a
humorous look at one family's life when a scientific impossibility becomes a reality.

Eleven-year-old Ellie Cruz lives with her mother, a high school drama teacher, in a small, two bedroom house in the Bay Area surrounding San Francisco. One afternoon Ellie's babysitter, Nicole tells her that her mom will be late coming home because she has to pick Ellie's grandfather up from the police station.Ellie can't imagine what her grandfather has gotten into. He's a scientist who's never approved of Ellie's mom's love of theatre, so Ellie knows this will interesting.

When Ellie's mom returns home she is accompanied by a slender, teenage boy with long hair. At first Ellie thinks he might be one of the kids from her mother's theatre crew. As her mother and the boy argue back and forth, Ellie begins to realize that he seems familiar. When she spies the college ring on the boy's finger she realizes the boy is her grandpa.

Her grandfather tells Ellie that he has found a way to reverse aging, through cellular regeneration. He's discovered the fountain of youth. Ellie is filled with disbelief but her mother assures her that the thirteen-year-old boy standing before them is actually her seventy-seven-year-old grandfather, Melvin Herbert Sagarsky.

As Melvin stuffs himself with pizza, he tells Ellie that his vision and hearing has returned and his arthritis is gone. He also says he was picked up by the police for trespassing on private property - the lab where he once worked and whose reputation he helped build.

The next morning Melvin tells Ellie that he needs to get into his lab to recover his jellyfish specimen. He explains to Ellie that he has a species of jellyfish, Turritopsis melvinus in the lab. The T. melvinus is what helped him to "sort out the mechanism for reversing senescence" or the process of aging. Ellie is skeptical but Melvin explains to her that there are plenty of examples in nature of organisms with regenerative abilities. A few months ago, Melvin states that he was contacted by an Australian diver who had found an odd specimen of T. nutricula. When Melvin received the specimen he was certain it was a new species as it was huge and had other differences. So he named it Turritopsis melvinus. He then created a compound which he tested on adult mice who reverted to adolescence. He decided to test it on himself and he too reverted to adolescence. But the jellyfish is still in the lab and Melvin wants it to continue his research.

First though Melvin is sent to school with Ellie. Besides dressing very eccentrically, Melvin loves the large school lunches. As he struggles to fit in at school, Melvin schemes to retrieve his jellyfish from his old lab, in the hopes that he can publish his work and win a coveted Nobel Prize. But as Ellie learns more about the world of science and what it means to be a scientist she begins to wonder at the price some pay for the knowledge they gain and whether every discovery is necessarily good. It is Ellie who forces Melvin to consider the true cost of his discovery.


Jennifer Holm has written an engaging, humorous story for younger readers that explores both the importance of science in our lives but also the ethical dilemmas scientists should consider but sometimes do not,  in the face of new discoveries. Holm's writing draws from her personal experience growing up with a father who was a pediatrician and who regularly kept "petri dishes with blood agar in our refrigerator to grow bacteria cultures."

In The Fourteenth Goldfish, Ellie's grandfather Melvin Sagarsky is determined to sneak into his old lab and obtain his jellyfish, T. melvinus, from which he created a compound that reversed aging and turned him from an old man into an adolescent. Melvin shows up at Ellie's house being the snarky, quirky grandfather she's always known except that he's now in the body of a thirteen year old boy. He's determined to recover T. melvinus, continue his research and win the coveted Nobel Prize.

As Ellie spends time with her grandfather, he explains the positive character traits of scientists and why science is so important - that it has brought about good change in the world.  Her grandfather mentions many famous scientists such as Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer and Galileo and presents to his granddaughter what he believes are characteristics that make scientists superior to other people in society. He tells her that scientists are persistent. "Average people just give up at the obstacles we face every day. Scientists fail again and again and again. Sometimes for our whole lives. But we don't give up, because we want solve the puzzle." According to Melvin, scientists "keep trying because they believe in the possible...That it's possible to cure polio. That it's possible to sequence the human genome. That it's possible to find a way to reverse aging. That science can change the world."

Ellie researches the scientists her grandfather has mentioned so she can write about one of them for a school project. While researching Oppenheimer, Ellie discovers that the scientists working on the first atomic bomb had mixed feelings about their success. Oppenheimer stated  "We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent." Ellie understands a little how they felt because her feelings were the same when her "grandfather walked through the front door looking like a teenager." 

Even though they fail at their first attempt to gain access to the lab, Ellie's grandfather remains undeterred, telling Ellie that "Scientists fail all the have to keep at it. Just like Marie Curie" who eventually won a Nobel prize. Once they do rescue the jellyfish specimen from his old lab, her grandfather begins making plans to set up a lab and continue his work. However, Ellie begins to have reservations about his research. Her research into some of the scientists her grandfather mentioned shows that science can also have a dark side too. "Marie Curie was exposed to a lot of radiation during her experiments. Eventually it poisoned her. Her discovery killed her." When her best friend Brianna tells Ellie that she thinks Melvin is cute, Ellie is stunned that her friend likes her seventy-seven year-old grandfather. 

Melvin teaches Ellie to observe the world around her, to ask questions and to think more deeply about things. This has an unexpected result because Ellie begins to seriously consider the consequences of her grandfather's discovery with the critical observation of a scientist.  "I look around my room with new eyes, and what I observe makes me question everything. The handprints on the wall: as people grow older, will hands get smaller instead of bigger because of T. melvinus?...will people have fewer candles on their cake every year because they're getting younger?"  Ellie already knows the other side of the Marie Curie story, but what about Robert Oppenheimer?  Her internet searches reveal that almost two hundred thousand people died because of the atomic bomb. Was the development of the bomb good?

This leads her to question her grandfather about what his discovery will mean for the world: will they have changed it for the better? When Ellie's grandfather clings to the idea that science is always for the good, she counters, "I believe in science! But what if it isn't a good idea? What if we're not Salk? What if we're Oppenheimer? What if T. melvinus is like the bomb?"

Ellie asks her grandfather, "Is growing up, growing old - life - is it all so terrible?" Ellie goes full circle remembering what her grandfather said to her about scientists believing in "the possible".  She tells her grandfather that she wants that possibility of living her life from the age of twelve until she's old. Ellie's idea is further affirmed when she attends her mother's high school production of Our Town, a Thornton Wilder play about life in small town America. The play's central theme is that the living do not appreciate life while they are living it and take the time to savour it fully. This is expressed by the character of Emily who grows up, marries but dies unexpectedly after having her second child. She returns to the living for one day, her twelfth birthday.
"She has a line about whether anyone understands life when they're living it. I get what she's trying to say: life is precious and we don't realize that at the time. But maybe life's also precious because it doesn't last forever. Like an amusement park ride. The roller coaster is exciting the first time. But would it be as fun if you did it again and again and again?" Ultimately, Melvin Herbert Sagarsky gets it and this understanding is shown in what he tells Ellie and what the choices he makes.

The Fourteenth Goldfish is a thoughtful novel in which author Jennifer Holm asks her young readers to consider the consequences of scientific discoveries and to ask hard questions. Questions like,  "Should we do something just because we can?" and "How will the discovery of...change the world?"  In this novel it is the discovery of reversing aging but it could be anything - the genetic modification of foods or animals.

One of the strengths of The Fourteenth Goldfish is the strong, well developed characters Holm creates. She has captured the snarky, confident, proud nature of an accomplished, elderly scientist in the character of Melvin Sagarsky. He's a brilliant mix of elderly wit and teenage moodiness. Ellie Cruz is a thoughtful, intelligent young girl whose natural curiosity is sparked by her grandfather. Even the secondary characters are interesting; Raj who shows an interest in Melvin's research and Ben, Ellie's mother's boyfriend who desperately wants to marry her.

The Fourteenth Goldfish is a great novel for middle grade readers and is highly recommended. The title refers to the goldfish Ellie was given by her preschool teacher, Starlily to teach her about the cycle of life. After all her classmates goldfish had died, Ellie's fish seemed to live on and on until it died in fifth grade. But it turns out that Ellie's first goldfish actually died years ago and her mother had been replacing each goldfish with another until that fateful thirteenth in grade five. Melvin is the fourteenth goldfish - the one who lives on and on.

It should be noted that Madame Curie won TWO Nobel Prizes, one in Physics in 1903 and the other in Chemistry in 1911. To this day she remains the only person to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in TWO different sciences. Also poliomyelitis cannot be cured but it can be prevented through vaccination.

Book Details:

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm
New York: Random House     2014
195 pp.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

To Stay Alive by Skila Brown

In April of 1846, Franklin Graves decides to relocate his family of nine children to California where the climate is warmer and the land fertile. It would be a decision with serious and life-changing consequences
for all involved.

During the spring, nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves sews herself a new dress for the journey while her family prepares, receiving their two new wagons and selling their cabin and land in Lacon, Illinois. Despite his eagerness to leave, Mary Ann's father, Franklin, delays their departure so their cattle will have grass to eat on the journey. They will take three horses, twenty head of cattle, three wagons and eighteen oxen to pull them on the 1700 mile trek to California. Mary Ann's older sister, Sarah and her husband Jay Fosdick will also travel west.

Eventually the Graves leave Lacon, accompanied by hired hand John Snyder, beginning their five month journey west. The days are monotonous, filled with walking, cooking, rain, mud and the making of a quilt to memorialize their trek. They arrive in St. Joseph in Iowa Territory, one of the last wagons to pass through. They pass through the prairie during the summer, seeing herds of buffalo, gathering their chips to feed the cooking fires. Their first sign of trouble is having over one hundred head of cattle stolen by the Pawnee Indians. When Mary Ann's father and some other men go out to find the cattle they return with only a few head and one dead man, Edward Trimble.

On the fourth of July the group reaches Fort Laramie in the western part of Nebraska Territory. In the fort there are many wagons and lots of information shared. A man named Hastings insists that taking the new southern route will save three weeks, but others insist that the northern route is the proven one. Mary Ann's father decides they will take the route south of Salt Lake and that they will have plenty of time to pass through the Sierra Nevada mountains before fall.

The Graves leave Fort Laramie alone and face days of monotonous walking with no sign they are even heading in the right direction. They arrive at a huge rock, Independence Day, so named because that is when most wagons heading west arrive at this point. It's a subtle reminder to the Graves that they are now weeks behind. At Fort Bridger just east of Great Salt Lake, Jim Bridger tells the Graves that Hastings is waiting ahead to lead them through the new route which has grass and is flat and easy. They buy supplies and two days out meet with another large party, the Donner Party which is awaiting the return of Hastings to lead them onward. The Donner party has sent three men, James Reed, Bill McCutchen and Charles Stanton to get Hastings. However only Reed returns telling them that Hastings cannot turn back as he is obligated to help the first party through. The Donner and Graves party move on and eventually meet up with McCutchen and Stanton who are bedraggled and exhausted. They tell the group that the way forward is impassable for them because it is too rugged for the wagons.

While Bill tells the men that the canyon is too steep, James Reed insists that they can move forward. In the end they decide to take a canyon to the north. This proves to be disastrous as the men must cut the trees and haul boulders in order for the wagons to pass. After eleven days of arduous work, in two days the wagons pass through and they finally leave the Wasatch Mountains. Fall sets in and the days are cool. They find a note,badly weathered, telling them that they must travel fast for two days and two nights through the desert to reach water. It takes the Graves three days before they finally walk out of the desert. They are now running out of food and it is decided that Bill McCutchen and Charles Stanton will ride ahead and bring back supplies. All the belongings the Graves brought with them from Lacon are now abandoned before the group begins travelling along the Humboldt River.

Tragedy again strikes when James Reed murders John Snyder in a fit of anger. They bury Snyder and banish Reed. The group now walks as fast as it can, hoping to spy the mountains that mean their journey is almost over. Soon they do come to the mountains but Donner's want to stop and rest the cattle while Mary Ann's father does not. Charles Stanton, accompanied by two Indians, Luis and Salvador, arrives with mules loaded with food. However, Bill McCutchen is not with them. Charles tells them they are ten days away from their destination of Sutter's Fort and winter is at least a month away. Mr. Donner decides that the group will rest up a few days before continuing onward. In that time a young man accidentally shoots another and Mr. Donner suffers a deep wound to his hand while repairing a wagon wheel. This leads Franklin Graves to decide to leave without the Donners, taking the Breens, the Reeds and Charles Stanton. But a day out, the Graves party encounters a prolonged snow storm. As the days pass, each with more snow,  travel becomes difficult. Mary Ann and her family now face the dreadful possibility that they will be trapped in the mountains and may not live to see California.


To Stay Alive is the heartbreaking account of the "Donner Party" tragedy of 1846-47 in which only forty-five of the eighty-one people trapped in the mountains survived. Although many wagon trains set out for the west that year, a combination of factors worked together to cause the tragedy. Author Skila Brown in her note at the back of the novel states that the combination of an early snow and the lengthy time it took for the party to cross through the Wasatch Mountains, the route suggested by Hastings, contributed to the Graves and the rest of the Donner party being trapped in the mountains in deadly weather.

Brown tells the Donner Party story from the point of view of Mary Ann Graves. Her research into the tragedy revealed Graves to be a fascinating person, an attractive woman with a strong, determined personality - the exact type of storyteller she wanted for the novel. The story is told in verse, some narrative, some free, and some shape poems, one poem per page. These poems are placed into five seasons, beginning with Spring 1846, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring 1847.

To Stay Alive portrays the struggles Mary Ann and the rest of the settlers experience to stay alive in the harsh Sierra Nevada winter. The use of verse allows Brown to omit some of the more gruesome details of what Mary Ann Graves and her family endured as they slowly starved and froze in the snowy, frigid mountains. Yet the poems do convey their desperation and revulsion as they are forced to make the most awful of decisions to stay alive - to eat those who have died. The poem "something" conveys how, as their circumstances deteriorated, cannibalism becomes a possible way to survive. The dead become "it" and "meat".


                we could eat it
                                        oh god
                                 we could
there's flesh there     like with the bear
                                                     the beef
                                                   it's meat
                we could eat it

                            oh god          we could

What Mary Ann might have been thinking as she lived through this is captured in many of the poems that follow.

"We could do that.
We could.
It would keep us alive."

And when it's decided that they will eat human flesh,

"I look around at the faces, see
the agonizing dread because it's clear
this thing
will be done."

Later on in the poem titled "Cold",

"Amanda slices meat,
lays it out to dry,...

We all sit, wait,
shamefully hungry,

except Salvador and Luis
who've moved over, revolted."

Brown foreshadows the coming tragedy and cannibalism in her poetry. For example, the poem, "We Wait" foreshadows the tragedy that awaits the Graves family partly due to Franklin Graves' decision to delay their  journey west.

Even though he's itching to go,
Father says we wait.

Wait deeper into spring,
until the roots

in the ground along the way are closer
to moving, pushing

up, growing tall, sweet,
into food for out cattle.

wait as long as we dare, hoping
winter won't come and cool everything

before we have a chance to arrive,
before our five-month journey has ended.

Brown hints too at the future possibility of cannibalism when Mary Ann and William Eddy are struggling to climb one of the mountains. The two hear a noise in the bush but do not realize it is Charles Stanton who has fallen behind. Eddy is prepared to shoot what he hopes is an animal and therefore something to eat.  At the last minute he sees that it is Charles.

"I see Eddy's face
lower to the side of the gun
as he adjusts his arm and then

through the bushes
comes Charles,
out of breath, he staggers in, slumps down
at the base of a tree.

We watch him pant.
Eddy lowers his eyes before he lowers his gun,
and I let out my breath.


He almost shot Charles,
thinking he was food.

To Stay Alive is a skillfully crafted piece of historical fiction about an event that still garners much interest and controversy to this day. The novel asks the reader to consider "the choices we would make if we were on the brink of death." Readers who do further research will discover that To Stay Alive is a much sanitized telling of what was a very gruesome tragedy that involved murder, cannibalism and outright selfishness. For example the group trying to walk out of the mountains on snowshoes begins to consider their Indian guides as food and begin to dehumanize them, rationalizing killing them for food:  "don't have a soul", "like a lame horse that sometimes needs to be relieved of its suffering...". Mary Ann warns the Luis and Salvador to leave the camp and in terror they flee. But William Eddy hunts them down, kills them and butchers them. In the poem No Indians, the poetry is to the point:

"Eddy takes the lead, veers
us over ground we've covered.
His gun is out as if he's 
hunting game." 

In the poem, "numb" cannibalism is vaguely described but the meaning is clear,
i feel nothing
not my fingers
or my toes
or my thighs
or my neck
or my cheeks
or my tongue

or the warmth

eddy places in my hand

or the taste of it

as it brushes past my lips..."

Overall, To Stay Alive is a very good recounting of a piece of American history (and tragedy). Brown includes a map at the front of her novel, showing the route taken by the Graves from Illinois to California, as well as a list of all involved.  There is also a detailed Author's Note at the conclusion which is worth reading and lists the outcomes for all involved.
For more information on each family in the Donner Party and their fates check out Survivors of Donner Party.

The March 1992 issue of Discover Magazine, March published an article, Living Through the Donner Party which discusses the Donner Party tragedy and why some people perished while others managed to survive the harrowing conditions.

Book Details:

To Stay Alive by Skila Brown
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press 2016
275 pp.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

On the morning of September 11, 2001, sixteen year old Kyle Donohue watches the first Twin Tower collapse from his classroom in Stuyvesant High School. As he is evacuated across the Brooklyn Bridge, Kyle spots what he first thinks is a bird, but soon discovers is a girl wearing a pair of giant white wings that look like part of a costume. She appears ready to jump but Kyle pulls her up and makes her run with him across the bridge. Kyle's father is back in Manhattan, where two planes have been flown into buildings like bombs. He's part of the Joint Terrorist Task Force, the first sent into crisis situations like this. At this point, Kyle has no idea if his father is alive or dead.

Kyle takes the girl to his apartment building where his family lives on the eleventh floor. He tells her that his mom and sister are in Los Angeles and that his uncle lives with them. Kyle is unable to reach his father or his mother by phone.

Kyle takes the girl who is covered from head to toe in white ash to their four bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights. When Kyle gets home he has another message on his phone from his father, filled with sounds of crashing, sirens and chaos. His father asks him to contact his mom but also to get to somewhere safe. Kyle tells the girl to shower and gives her clean clothes and tells her she can rest in his sister Kerri's room. He then attempts to call his mom and Kerri at Chase Knolls Garden Apartments where they have been staying over the summer in Los Angeles. Kerri has been attending acting camp and her departure was delayed by a week when she got a callback for an audition. He is not able to get his call through though. Meanwhile the girl gets cleaned up and Kyle notes that she's quite pretty with all the ash cleaned off. He informs her that he will wash her clothing and that he needs to reach his mom and tell his Uncle Matt about her presence. When he asks her her name, she tells Kyle she doesn't know which only puzzles and upsets Kyle more.

He decides to check up on his Uncle Matt who is in the guest room and finds him asleep in his wheelchair. Kyle's Uncle Matt was a lieutenant in the Emergency Services Unit before his accident. He is kind and very smart. Uncle Matt would defend Kyle from the criticisms of his Uncle Paul and his dad who believe all Donohue men are cops. It was especially bad after Kyle transferred to Stuyvesant. Now Kyle misses the old Uncle Matt. Uncle Matt has been living with them after his serious motorcycle accident. The scenes on the television screen confuse Kyle because they are saying that the North Tower collapsed when he knows he saw the South Tower fall. From the television Kyle learns that both towers have collapsed, that a plane was flown into the Pentagon and that a fourth plane believed to be hijacked, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Military jets have been scrambled and it is unknown how many other attacks might happen.

Eventually Kyle does receive a message from his mother who is not able to work a cell phone properly and keeps hanging up. She does let him know however that their flight has been cancelled and that they are going to try to find a place to stay in Los Angeles. In the guest room his uncle is watching coverage of the disaster in disbelief. Kyle fills him in on what happened to him that morning and on what he knows so far about the attack, and his mom and dad. Later on he also tells his uncle about finding the girl around his age on the bridge and that he has brought her to their apartment. He tells him that based on the amount of ash on her she must have been at the towers when they collapsed. His uncle suggests that Kyle call "Missing Persons" but Kyle tells him it's unlikely he will get through. As the day wears on and Kyle tries to carry on as much as possible, making pizza, taking care of his uncle and trying to reach his mother. What should he do with the girl who doesn't remember her name? Is his father safe? Will his mom and Kerri be able to return home soon? When will it be safe to go outside? Over the next several days Kyle will find himself falling for this mysterious, captivating girl. And he will discover his act of kindness in saving a girl in a moment of despair, gives her a second chance to make things right. In saving her, Kyle saves himself too.


The Memory of Things is a poignant story about how,in the face of the incomprehensible, we struggle to continue on with our lives. The terrorist acts of 9-11 certainly can be described in this manner. How do we comprehend the act of hijacking two fully fueled planes, using them as bombs to bring down two iconic buildings trapping and pulverizing to death thousands of innocent people. Polisner was inspired to write The Memory of Things in the years after 9-11 but waited because she required time to process the depth of the tragedy.

To tell her story, Polisner uses the two main characters of Kyle and a girl whom readers eventually know as Hannah. Kyle's narrative is the principle one, written in prose because his memory is intact. Hannah's narrative is inserted into Kyle's and is in free verse. Initially Hannah's narrative consists of simple broken verse, representing her broken memory;
"Wait to fall
but don't
Am tethered here.
A boy shouts,
eyes full of terror.
He grabs hold of me...

In the day following the terror attack, Hannah makes many references in her narrative that seems random and meaningless. For example,
(Words slip in, echoing and distant:
attitude devant...)

As Hannah spends time at Kyle's family's apartment, her memory begins to return and her narrative is more fluid and coherent.

The tears come so hard I can't catch my breath,
can't stop my body from shaking.
Kyle hugs me, and I fight him off.
I"m so angry and broken, I can't even bear to be hugged,
don't deserve to be hugged.
But then I give in, because I'm
lonely and

Eventually Hannah's story becomes coherent, revealing a heartbreaking story filled with grief and regret but not without hope.

As the tragedy unfolds, two people who would otherwise never have met, come together and briefly find comfort in each other, helping each other to cope and to begin healing. Their budding relationship is temporary though as Kyle suspects. "Besides I have this aching sense that what Hannah and I have is one of those things that happens in a vacuum, that can't be sustained under normal conditions. Under the pressures of school, and life, and parents, and siblings, and distance. It's something quiet and possessive, that will fall apart once it's diluted." Despite that both Kyle and Hannah have each other's contact information - she his email, he her phone number.

A major theme in the novel revolves around memories and how they are an important part of our lives, defining who we are and even the choices we make. This is demonstrated in the novel especially through the characters of Uncle Matt and Hannah Marconi. Kyle's Uncle Matt was badly injured in an accident, breaking his neck, jaw and fracturing his skull. His speech is slurred and he is partially paralyzed. Uncle Matt has been reciting things that appear to be random but Kyle knows he's working on a "practical skill called the method of loci, a memory trick in which certain types of data get stored in storylike sequences." According to Kyle, his uncle "is a genius and a memory expert." Although he's been a cop, the other part of his life has revolved around competing in memory competitions. Before his accident, he was planning to attend the U.S. Memory Championships for the third time with the intention of winning. The fact that Uncle Matt is able to still practice the method of loci demonstrates to Kyle that despite his physical limitations his mind is still very sharp. When Hannah shows an interest in Uncle Matt and talks to him like he's present, she motivates him to practice his memory trick, leading Kyle to recognize that his uncle is healing and to tell his father that Uncle Matt needs to stay with them.

While Uncle Matt still has his memories, the girl Kyle rescues does not. She doesn't remember her name, is suicidal and dazed when he pulls her off the bridge. After a day or so, she tells Kyle "I keep remembering little things. Bits and pieces. Like those things that flash at the end of a movie reel when the film runs out..." She remembers voices, faces, music and dance steps. Her broken memory is reflected in her broken poetry narrative. Eventually Hannah recovers her memory after spending a few days in a safe place. Her memory of her last conversation with her father haunts her. Hannah's father, John Marconi is the lawyer for Harrison Highfront, accused of raping a girl. Eventually Hannah's memory is restored when she sees a magazine article about her father and the case in Kyle's apartment. She tells Kyle that the last conversation she had with her father was an argument. The memory of those last words haunts Hannah.

For Kyle, the presence of Hannah helps him forget the reality of what is happening. When Kyle and Hannah are practicing Uncle Matt's memory trick, Kyle forgets the attacks, about Uncle Matt's accident, about Jenny Lynch's dad and Bangor's uncle dying in the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. "I forget that this day isn't normal, that yesterday wasn't normal, that the whole world as we know it has stopped...But then she sits down and sighs, and like that, I'm slammed with the memory of things. The cold hard truth that she doesn't belong here with me, that this is just temporary..." Kyle notes working on the memory trick to remember ten insignificant things makes them happy because for a moment they forget what they can't or don't want to remember.

It's interesting how Polisner has her characters carrying on with seemingly mundane chores and the regular business of living. People need the familiar in times of stress to help them cope. While waiting to hear from his father and his mother,Kyle does laundry and cooks. His father returns home after several days of working at Ground Zero and Kyle wakes in the morning to him making a batch of pancakes. His father explains "It's been tough, Kyle, I won't lie. Brutal. Which is why I needed to get home. See you guys, do something normal. Sit and eat a few pancakes with you and my brother, here." People find comfort in the routine of daily tasks when times are difficult. They also need something to tether them to reality. Kyle is the tether that Hannah needs while she struggles to remember. "Well, it feels like that, Kyle, back there. Like I"m adrift, in soaking wet clothes that are too heavy with the weight of things I don't even know...It's like I'm here, solid, but I'm not connected to anything. I'm completely untethered. I know that makes no sense," she says. It does, I say, 'I think I get it. but you're wrong. You're tethered to me.' "

The Memory of Things is tender, a delicate story about two people who come together unexpectedly and help each other in a time of great distress - the terrorist attacks of 9-11. It is a story about fear, loss, struggle, love and hope. And a brilliant piece of writing by Gae Polisner.

Book Details:

The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner
New York: St. Martin's Griffin    2016
279 pp. 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Moo by Sharon Creech

Moo is a delightfully sweet story about a young girl and her brother who are recruited to help a lonely elderly woman but find they are on the receiving end of so much more than they ever imagined.

Twelve year old Reena and her seven year old brother Luke like in the big city with all its noise and smells and fun things to do. However when Reena's parents lose their jobs at the newspaper, her mother suggests that they consider moving. Reena suggests they move to Maine. It is a suggestion immediately accepted by her mother because her parents met in Maine.But Reena is not happy.

Their move to Maine is not well received by her families' friends. But they pack up and move to a small harbor town with "gentle mountains" opposite the harbor and around it. There they rent a
"small old house
with a woodstove inside
and an apple tree outside..."

Reena and Luke ride their bikes
"discovering our new town
its people and dogs and old houses
its winding lanes and gnarled trees."
They also see a farm with what Luke calls "Oreo cows", black and white cows which are black at both ends and a white belt in the middle. The girl in farm field tells them they are called Belted Galloways. As it would happen, Reena and Luke would pass the farm, Birchmere Farm every day on their bikes. The cows were a bit frightening to Reena but she noted that every day teenagers came to work on the farm. Reena's brother Luke loved to draw but now his superhero characters have morphed into farmer-like people.

Just before the farm, on the edge of town, on Twitch Street, sits the house of Mrs. Falala, an old lady who by the towns people owned at least a cow and a pig. Reena and her brother often hear the sound of a flute coming through the open attic window. One day Reena's father takes her and her brother to visit Mrs. Falala, but the visit does not go well. A menacing cat and a "fat black hog" greet them. Reena's dad brings Mrs. Falala two books, which turn out not to be what she wants.

Meanwhile, Reena's mother finds a job teaching English at a private school near their town, but her father is still looking for work. Reena and Luke are sent back to Mrs. Falala's with more books. This time they encounter fourteen seagulls on top of the roof and a long black snake "slithering along the gutter". Mrs. Falala hauls them into the house. The books are somewhat better, but Mrs. Falala admonishes Luke sucking his thumb and tries to flick it out of his mouth.  This leads to Luke telling her not to touch him and Reena tell her to leave him alone. Mrs. Falala  yells at them to leave immediately. By the time they reach home, their parents have heard what happened and they tell Reena and Luke that Mrs. Falala claims they were disrespectful to her. This leads Reena and Luke's mom to visit Mrs. Falala by herself. When she returns she tells Reena that Mrs. Falala is very charming and that Reena and Luke can really help Mrs. Falala. They will start tomorrow.

Belted Galloway
Reena and her family visit Mrs. Falala the next day. Reena and her brother are enlisted to clean out her cow barn of dung. After cleaning out so many cow patties, Luke wonders where the cow is. Reena and Luke eventually meet Mrs. Falala's cow who is named Zora. By Reena's admission Zora is "ornery and stubborn" and "was selfish beyond selfish and filthy...". But as Reena and Luke continue to work at Mrs. Falala's barn, both Mrs. Falala and Zora become less intimidating and more like family.


Moo is a delightful novel that tells the story of two young children who are volunteered by their parents to help an elderly, eccentric woman. In doing so they begin to fit into their new life and come to love the strange but kindly Mrs. Falala.

Creech tells her story in free verse that captures the essence of the emotions of Reena and her brother as they navigate this challenging time in their lives. At first Reena is reluctant to move away from the city. Reena states that she is
"full of buses and subways
and traffic and tall buildings
and crowds of people
and city noises
            honking and sirens and
and city smells
            bakeries and car exhaust
            hot dogs and coffee
and city lights so bright..."

She wonders,
"Would I know what to do
and how to be
in Maine?"

However, when Reena and her family arrive in their small harbor town, she almost immediately finds good things about it - the wide sidewalks and  quiet, curving lanes allow her and Luke to ride their bikes everywhere and discover their new town. One of those discoveries is learning about cows, which Reena states she thought were like "a LARGE lamb; soft, furry, gentle, uttering sweet sounds." However she quickly discovers they have large heads, enormous noses and make deep, loud mooing sounds. They also have slobbery mouths. And, quite frankly,  they scare her.

And then Reena meets Zora, Mrs. Falala's cow. At first she's terrified of the cow as Zora's obstinate nature proves to be challenging. She butts both Reena and Luke and refuses to go where they lead her. But Mrs. Falala insists the children care for Zora and that they show her at the fairs. Mrs. Falala tells Reena that Zora is uncooperative because she doesn't know her and that she needs to introduce herself to Zora.

Gradually Reena forms a bond with Zora, learning how to care for her and how to show her. No longer is Reena afraid and instead she comes to believe that the cow is lonely. Although Zora remains temperamental the bond deepens and a sort of trust forms between the animal and Reena. By the end of the story, Reena is describing Zora as "that stubborn, crazy, belligerent, sweet, sweet heifer." She recognizes the good and bad qualities of Zora's nature and even uses the correct term to describe her "cow".

Likewise, Luke develops a bond with Mrs. Falala. Luke loves to draw and while Reena has been caring for Zora, Luke has been teaching Mrs. Falala to draw. Zora and Mrs. Falala help Reena and Luke adjust to their new life in a rural town. They learn new skills and make new friends. And eventually Reena's family is given a very different life through an unexpected tragedy.

As it turns out, Mrs. Falala was likely looking for someone to take over her farm and Reena's family seemed like a possibility. When she passes away, Reena and her family are not only saddened but wonder what will happen to the animals and the farm. Creech provides her readers with a satisfying, heart-warming ending.

Moo is a lovely short novel that would make a great class read-aloud and would interest young readers who enjoy books about animals.

Picture attribution:  By Amanda Slater from Coventry, England - Belted Galloway, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Book Details:

Moo by Sharon Creech
New York: Joanna Cotler Books   2016
278 pp.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Twelve-year-old Martha O'Doyle has been expelled from Blessed Name of Our Holy Mother parish school for not knowing her catechism and for arguing with Sr. Ignatius in catechism class. Her ma takes her with her to her job as head housekeeper at a Fifth Avenue mansion. Perhaps a year working as a maid will make her see the value in attending school.

Martha's mother's employer is Mr. J. Archer Sewell, owner of one of New York's most successful newspapers. Sewell's wife, Rose Pritchard is an invalid who hasn't left her rooms in years. Her father made his fortune from the West Virginia coal mines and then moved to New York where Rose was sent to the best schools and attended the society parties. Before her marriage to Mr. Sewell, Rose had a reputation for causing scandal, working in a sweatshop sewing neckties or running off to Paris.

The Sewell mansion is more than Martha ever imagined, with turrets and spires. Martha's mother gives her a quick tour of the house, showing off the opulent rooms with their gold pianos and sofas of satin. However, Martha notes that the walls are entirely bare "a chessboard of discolored squares and rectangles on the silk wallpaper, nails left behind like you'd see in a chap boardinghouse." When Martha asks her mother where all the pictures are, her mother tells her that Rose keeps them in her rooms as a comfort to her.

Martha is assigned to work in the kitchen under the supervision of Monsieur Leblanc and after a week she quickly learns the work of the kitchen. The other staff include two housemaids, Bridie and Magdalena and the footman, Alphonse. Besides preparing special meals for Mr. Sewell's guests, Martha also must prepare the same meals every day for Mrs. Sewell. So she is not "overstimulated" her meals of toast and tea and porridge with a "fancy sugar stirred into it that Mr. Sewell secured from some specialty grocer..." are loaded onto the dumbwaiter in the kitchen. The meals are sent to her rooms in the turret on the top floor and when she's finished the empty plates are sent back down in the dumbwaiter. After a month of working at the mansion, Martha meets Mr. Sewell who talks to her about politics and tells her she should read a book about becoming rich.

Then one night, Rose escapes out the dumbwaiter and the kitchen is set on fire. Rose's antics are published in the Yodel. Martha suspects that Alphonse is the one who leaked the story. When Martha brings tea to Rose's rooms she is astounded. "In just a small suite of rooms were crammed dozens of paintings, stacked three or four deep, leaning against walls or tables or wardrobes. Others were hung haphazardly, some big, some small, some dangling so they half jutted across a window. The walls pulsated with life -- no, with something larger than life. Gods and goddesses fought and frolicked. Dukes and duchesses followed me with their eyes. Winds swept through landscapes and bowls of glistening fruit dangled out of reach."

Mr. Sewell tells his wife she doesn't need to use the dumbwaiter to leave her room but she can leave by the door. The doctor notes that Mrs. Sewell has been reading Ovid and Dante's Inferno. When Mr. Sewell expresses his desire to sell off the books in the library, Rose tells him he cannot because they belong to her. As they try to determine what led to Rose's strange behaviour the night before, she complains that the porridge is too salty. But Martha made the porridge and remembers that she forgot the sugar that night. She notes that Rose has an angry red rash on her face and neck. When Dr. Westbrook suggests removing the paintings, Rose becomes agitated and is given a sedative. Afterwards, Martha confesses to her mother about forgetting the sugar and her mother moves her from the kitchen to upstairs as a maid.

Martha's dad, who is in vaudeville, unexpectedly shows up at home. Her father tells her that he's been very successful with his act but that he cannot stay and has to catch the next train to Syracuse. The next day Martha begins her week as an upstairs maid, cleaning the first floor. When she goes in to clean the gallery, she discovers four paintings hanging on the walls, neatly in a row, each draped over with a sheet. Martha finds the paintings intriguing but doesn't know much about them. The first painting, titled Proserpine by Rossetti looks to Martha like Eve holding the apple. However, Alphonse informs her the painting is not about Eve and the fruit is definitely NOT an apple. Before they can talk further, the two are discovered by Martha's Ma who sends Alphonse off and tells Martha that the paintings are Miss Rose's pride and her ticket into New York society. Ma explains that although the majority of the paintings are in her rooms, "Miss Rose gets it in her head that certain paintings need to be downstairs. For Mr. Sewell's visitors." After her ma leaves, Martha looks at the other three paintings which include Nature morte by Gustave Courbet, Still even by Willem Kalf and The Pomegranate by Pablo Picasso.

Nature morte by Gustave Courbet

Still Even by Willem Kalf

The Pomegranate - Picasso

The next day Martha talks to Alphonse about the paintings and he tells her that "Nothing on that wall is an accident." In response to her questions, Alphonse tells Martha that "Invinculis faciebat" means "made in prison" and that pomegranates are a fruit. Alphonse encourages Martha to make use of Rose's library, telling her he will leave the door unlocked for her. Unfortunately, this doesn't work out for Martha because she is quickly discovered in the library by her mother who tells her the books are extremely expensive and that Mr. Sewell would rather sell them and invest the money in the stock market. He cannot do this however, because the books, the house and the paintings all belong to Rose.

In her determination to learn more about the paintings on display in the Sewell Mansion gallery, Martha takes a side trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art after running an errand. A docent shows Martha the many paintings which contain pomegranates but this doesn't seem to help her. On her way home, Martha purchases a pomegranate from a fruit stand and has Bridie send it up to Miss Rose as a treat. It is returned with the word "HELP" pricked into it.  Martha feels "...those grand, expensive paintings held the secret to something. Something dark and threatening. And the pomegranate was at the center of it."


The Gallery is an intriguing story about a young girl who quickly recognizes that the unusual paintings in the abandoned gallery in the mansion are a message to the outside world from a young wife who lives on the top floor. Once Martha deciphers the message her mission is to convince her mother about what is really going on in the Sewell mansion and to save Miss Ruth.

In Martha O'Doyle, Marx Fitzgerald has fashioned a smart, determined heroine who refuses to accept Mr. Sewell's version of events in his home. The paintings, the book by the Roman poet Ovid along with the message pressed into the pomegranate are clues to Martha suggesting something is not right in the Sewell household. When her first attempt to learn about the paintings is thwarted, Martha turns to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then to the public library. "I needed to connect the dots somehow. I needed to go somewhere where I could find all the stories I needed without keys or admission fees or fear of Ma walking in. The public library."  In the library Martha learns about Ovid and his book, Metamorphoses. After reading the story about Proserpina, Martha is convinced that Rose Sewell is trapped in her rooms upstairs and that she is trying to escape. She also becomes convinced that her mother knows what is going on in the Sewell house but because of her attachment to the master, she cannot see the truth behind the events.

The mystery is gradually uncovered as Martha comes to understand the complex relationship her mother has with Mr. Sewell and the alterior motive Mr. Sewell might have for wanting to gain control over his young wife's inheritance. The person Martha needs to convince most is her mother, because her ma truly believes that Miss Rose is mentally unstable. When Martha tells Alphonse what she has uncovered he tells her that Mr. Sewell is powerful and able to create any story he wants because he is wealthy and he controls a newspaper. But he also tells her that "Mr. Sewell has convinced your mother that this bizarre scene is in service to her mistress. So let us just say, the lady of the house is not the only one that Mr. Sewell has imprisoned."

Marx Fitzgerald brings her wonderful story to a satisfying conclusion, tying up all the loose ends and having those who deserve to, get their "just desserts".  In her author's note at the back of the novel, Marx Fitzgerald states that The Gallery came about after she found some fascinating stories in old newspapers from the 1920's and '30's. Into these stories, the author has woven in some of the most famous works of art, giving young readers the chance to learn about them. She also has her main character, Martha learn about the classical Greek myth of Proserpina. This makes The Gallery not only engaging but a great chance for young readers to explore other Greek myths on their own.

In her Author's Note, Marx Fitzgerald answers questions the story in The Gallery brings up, providing background information about the historical setting of the novel. The Gallery takes place in late 1928 and early 1929, before the historic Great Crash of October, 1929. It's a good thing Miss Rose was able to save her paintings and books because had Mr. Sewell sold them and invested in the stock market he would have lost everything in that crash.

The author does mention that Italian immigrants like Alphonso Vanzetti would have been able to easily change their name in this era. This is partly true - immigrants did often anglicize their names - Pasquale became Patrick for example. However many Italian immigrants like my grandfather did indeed have passports issued by the Italian government and young men under the age of 18 in Italy were not allowed to emigrate unless they were travelling with their families. All young men were also registered for armed service at birth and were expected to report on their eighteenth birthday. They had to provide proof as to why they could not fulfill this obligation even if they were in Canada or America.

The Gallery is a wonderfully refreshing and enjoyable novel, suitable for all ages. Well written, completely riveting, complete with a likeable heroine.

Artwork attributions:
Dante Rossetti: Proserpine © [W. Graham Robertson] Photographic Rights © Tate (1940), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Gustave Courbet:

Willem Kalf: Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pablo Picasso: The Pomegranate

Book Details:

The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
New York: Dial Books for Young Readers    2016
321 pp.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Girl On A Plane by Miriam Moss

Fifteen year old Anna Milton's father is in the British Army so she's grown up in places all over the world. Her father's been stationed in Bahrain for the past few years. When she was eleven, Anna's
parents decided to send her to boarding school in England and whenever they can afford to, she travels home to be with them on the holidays.

Now in early September, 1970, her entire family is returning to England because her father has been reassigned there. This means they will not be returning to Bahrain. First to leave will be Anna who is returning to her boarding school, followed by her brothers, nine-year-old Sam and eleven-year-old Mark who will fly out a few days later. Her parents will Bahrain at the end of the week. Anna tells her mother, whom she calls Marni, that people at last night's party were talking about the recent plane hijackings and joked that it would be her turn next. But Marni's mother assures her that things
will be fine.

The next day Anna is driven to the airport and boards a white BOAC VC10 aircraft for the flight to England. On the plane, Anna is seated between two boys, an older boy named David and a younger boy named Tim who has a terrapin in a little container. However, minutes after take-off, the plane is hijacked by the PFLP - the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. There is a hijacker in the cockpit of the plane with the pilot, Captain Gregory as well as one in the passenger cabin. The captain asks everyone to remain calm and tells them that the hijackers have ordered him to fly to Beirut to refuel and then onto to Jordan where the plane will land on the Revolutionary Airstrip in the Jordanian desert.

Anna is completely terrified especially when the captain also indicates that there is a third hijacker located in the seats carrying a briefcase filled with explosives. The passengers are asked to turn in their passports to the hijackers. Anna notes that the one hijacker is a giant and the other one is heavily perspiring so the three children nickname the two hijackers "Giant" and "Sweaty". Anna wonders why the hijackers want their passports and David tells her they probably are looking for Israelis. He
informs Anna and Tim that the PFLP hijacked four planes on Sunday; two were taken to the Jordanian desert, one was blown up in Cairo after the passengers and crew were removed but on the fourth plane, an Israeli El Al plane, the hijackers were overpowered by the crew. One hijacker was killed, the other is now in prison in London. It was the Israeli plane the PFLP really wanted.

Anna wonders if her parents know what is happening, that she's been hijacked. And in fact they do learn about it fairly quickly. Meanwhile the stewardesses, Rosemary and Celia hand out drinks to the passengers. While David is able to eat his lunch, Anna is too upset to eat anything, a decision she will come to regret later on. The plane lands in Beirut where it is refueled and two more hijackers arrive, a woman and a man. They then take off and fly to the Revolutionary Airstrip in Jordan. The crew is ordered to shut down the engines, but the captain and the navigator object telling them that there will be no air conditioning and no functioning toilets. And with the plane being in the desert, conditions will soon become unbearable. The hijackers do not relent however and the engines are turned off.

Soon the plane becomes sweltering. Rosemary enlists Anna to help her salvage whatever unopened food remains from the lunches to distribute to the passengers, giving Anna a package of crackers and tiny can of pineapple juice to share with David and Tim. Soon it is announced that anyone with an Arab, Asian or Indian passport is allowed to leave the plane. The remaining passengers are allowed a short time at the door of the plane for fresh air. As night falls, and oppressive heat of the desert turns to bone-chilling cold, the plane is visited by the second-in-command, a striking woman accompanied by two heavily armed guards. She is hostile and threatens the passengers with death. Anna is both shocked and terrified, as the other hijackers have not acted this way towards them. "Are they going to kill us now? Mow us down? Is that what she is saying? Why would she speak like this otherwise? My mind whirls. I feel disbelief and panic. I feel sick."

When the captain tells her they have children on board, the woman flies into a rage, threatening to shoot him. She tells the hostages that "If your prime minister doesn't release our comrade Leila Khaled in London by midday on Saturday, you will ALL DIE. We will blow up the whole plane with you in it....Or maybe... we will kill you all,"

For the next three days, Anna must try to control her overwhelming fear and panic, her sense of hopelessness and try to survive under gruelling conditions in the Jordanian desert, where there is not only the threat of the terrorists but also the threat of being caught in the middle of a civil war in Jordan.


Girl On A Plane is a fictionalized account of the author's own experience in this exact event. Miriam Moss was a young passenger on the BOAC plane that was hijacked that day in 1970. She sat in the plane rigged with explosives for four days as negotiations went on to free the hostages. After she was released, Miriam went on to live her life but like many survivors of traumatic events, never wrote about it. This novel attempts to convey to younger readers what it was like living through a hijacking.

The history of the Middle East, specifically Israel and Palestine is complicated at best. In order to better understand the situation Anna, David and Tim found themselves placed in the novel, some background history will help.

Historical background for the novel:

1947 Partition Map
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has its basis in a historical dispute over land which both the Jewish and Palestinian people lay claim to.  Modern Palestine is defined as the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.  Palestine has been controlled by many different conquerors through the centuries - for example,  in Jesus's time it was the Romans. After World War I though, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire meant that large areas of the Middle East were without state.

The Council of the League of Nations entrusted Great Britain with the administration of the territory of Palestine in July 24th, 1922 Mandate. Great Britain was authorized by the Allied Powers to establish a national home for the Jewish people while taking into account the rights of the nonJewish population of the region. In 1937 the Peel Commission recommended that Palestine be divided into two separate states, one Jewish and one Arab. Neither group found this solution to be acceptable; for the Jews it meant they would have a territory of only 5000 square kilometers out of 26,000 square kilometers. The Arabs rejected the plan because it meant accepting the existence of a Jewish state. The Jews decided to negotiate with the British.

In 1939 the British White Paper proposed that an Arab state be established within ten years in Palestine and that Jewish immigration be restricted. The Arabs turned this down too. When World War II ended and the extend of the Nazi persecution of Europe's Jews became known, it was evident that a safe homeland was required. Unable to broker a deal, the British turned the problem over to the newly created United Nations in 1947. The UN proposed that there be two states, one Arab, one Jewish with the city of Jerusalem administered by the UN as an international state city. While the Jewish population was unhappy with this, especially since Jerusalem was separated from their state, nevertheless they accepted the U.N. Partition Plan. The Arabs once again did not. Even a last ditch attempt to secure a deal was unsuccessful and Arab League Secretary Azzam Pasha set the tone: "Mr. Horowitz, that your plan is rational and logical, but the fate of nations is not decided by rational logic. Nations concede; they fight. You won't get anything by peaceful means or compromise. You can, perhaps, get something, but only by the force of your arms. We shall try to defeat you. I am not sure we'll succeed but we'll try."

Map of Israel 2016
Courtesy CIA World Factbook

The UN went ahead with its plan, the British troops were to withdraw and their Mandate terminated by August 1948, and the Partition Plan implemented in October, 1948. The day before the British Mandate expired, the Jewish state was declared but the Arabs immediately declared war on the State of Israel. This was the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, which the Israelis won and which saw them gain some areas originally to be under Arab control. In 1967, the Six Day War was also won by Israel and saw them gain control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. U.N. Resolution 242 called for the Israeli withdrawal from all seized land in the Six Day War. However the Israelis decided to place Jewish settlements into the Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank, displacing thousands of Palestinians. The Palestinian refugees along with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) fled to Jordan. In September of 1970, King Hussein of Jordan declares war on the PLO, the four airplanes are hijacked and the events in the novel, Girl On A Plane transpire.

Moss's focus in her novel is not so much on the politics of the hijacking but more the personal struggle of Anna to cope during the hijacking. Nevertheless she does weave some of the politics into the story for her young readers without losing the focus on her characters.

For example, the stewardess, Rosemary gives Anna some of the back story to the hijackers. She tells Anna they have been talking to the hijacker they refer to as the Giant who has told them they are all Palestinians who have been living in refugee camps in Jordan for years. Because they feel their cause has been ignored by the world they are doing this to gain attention. They are desperate to return to their homes. Rosemary states that they are all to help by sending the British Prime Minister, Ted Heath, telegrams asking him to release jailed hijacker Leila Khaled.

Anna eventually is able to talk with one of the young hijackers named Jamal. She asks Jamal how he can be a part of the hijacking of innocent people, keeping them like animals on the plane. He tells her that his family had a farm with orange groves. The Israelis wanted the land and that his parents were shot dead as they fled their home. He and his brother hid until dark and then left. He asks Anna, "...where would you be if that had happened to you?"

Later on Jamal speaks with David and Anna.  David confronts Jamal, asking him what happened after his parents were murdered. Jamal attempts to justify his actions by what has happened to him: telling David they first went to live with relatives but that they too had to flee to Jordan. When David shows little sympathy, Jamal reminds him that when this is over he will return to his homeland. Jamal has "no home, family, passport, possessions. No security, no education..." David presses Jamal to explain why he specifically and his family and Anna should pay for this? Jamal tells him they want to bring their plight to the attention of the world. He tells Tim, David and Anna that he and the other Palestinians want to go back to Palestine. "All we want is to go back home to our land. That is all that drives us." Jamal also tells them that the angry woman hijacker hates the English because "They were the ones who gave our land away to the Jews..." David points out to Jamal that while he considers the land to be his, the Jews also have a historical claim to the same land and they had also been forced from the same land.

The conversation between Jamal and Anna, David and Tim serves to present to young readers the complex situation in the Middle East and specifically presents the Palestinian side of things. However,what Jamal tells David is not entirely accurate: while the British did give SOME of the land to the Jews, not all the land claimed by the Arab League was given to them. In fact the Jewish people received only 5000 square kilometers of the total land of Palestine. It was the Arabs who refused to accept any claim by the Jewish people to the land and any right to exist as a nation. Instead, they chose to start a war which eventually has cost thousands of lives, and ultimately the loss of some of their land.

Moss effectively portrays Anna's struggles to cope with the psychological and emotional distress of being held hostage. There is no doubt this event has an significant impact on Anna. Anna gradually begins to identify with the hijackers on some level in what appears to be a mild and developing case of Stockholm Syndrome. Despite the horrible situation Anna has been put into, she notes the humanity of the hijackers.  When Anna along with the other passengers is allowed to access her luggage outside the plane she and the other women are told to pose with the hijackers for a picture. Despite the group's terror when the women are separated from the men for a photo with the hijackers, Anna remarks "They're just men, somebody's brother, somebody's father, someone's uncle. I begin to relax. They're refugees. They're homeless. They're men with a cause. " Anna finds herself feeling some sympathy for the men and empathy for the fact that they are homeless.

Her discussions with Jamal, at first political, become more personal. And later when Anna is safe in Amman, she wishes she could have said good bye to Jamal and the Giant. "I think of Jamal and the Giant back out there with the planes and wonder what they're doing, how they are, whether they're safe. And I feel so sorry not to have said goodbye, not to have ever said how brave I though they were."

Nevertheless, the stress of coping is overwhelming throughout her ordeal. For example, on the last night Ann states that she tries "pretending nothing significant is happening. I push dangerous thoughts to one side, and when I fail, I have to stand up, leave the others, walk away,recover, return,sit back down again." Considering the possibility that she might die the next day Anna's thoughts turn to her family, remembering each member with a particular fondness. The next morning when the captain begins giving instructions to the crew, Anna is ready to be sick. When they learn they are to be freed, Anna is stunned and relieved but these emotions are quickly replaced by "a quiet dread, the dread that someone or something might jeopardize this fragile chance of freedom." Anna also feels fear over leaving the plane as "going outside, away from it, feels incredibly dangerous too."

The struggle to cope continues even after the hostages are released. When she arrives in Amman, the aggressiveness of the reporters and her separation from David and Tim add to Anna's distress. "I lean over and look in the mirror. My face is clean. Really clean. I lean in closer, look into the eyes. Who are you? Who are you now? I don't recognize the girl staring back. She looks different. Her eyes are wild and a bit frightening. I back away. What have I become.?" Anna struggles to trust the belief that she is going home, as she thinks "Somewhere inside my head, the switch that makes sense of everything has been turned OFF, and it feels awful."

Anna, David and Tim manage to board their plane to Cyprus, but others find getting on another plane so soon after the hijacking to be psychologically difficult. Even Anna finds herself wondering if she should save part of her breakfast on the plane, just in case... Adding to Anna's distress is the possibility that she might have to go straight to her boarding school when her name is not on the list of people who have family waiting for them in London.

Even when she arrives in London and is with her parents, Anna still doesn't feel safe. "Yes, I'm safe. I hear the words, but I don't feel safe. Not yet. It's like I have a lot of unsafe to get out of my system first." And when a photographer comes to their hotel room Anna doesn't want to answer questions and feels annoyed at how her parents and the photographer view her experience in such a trivial way. Later when viewing the planes which are exploded by the hijackers, Anna becomes extremely upset, feeling a part of her has been destroyed. Her mother promises her, "You will find yourself again...You will be safe Anna, and calm Anna, again. I promise..."

The beginning and the end of the novel are engaging and interesting, but pacing in the middle of the novel is somewhat slow. We feel the drag of time as Anna and the passengers wait for three days for their fate to be decided. The middle of the novel focuses on Anna's struggles to cope with the deteriorating conditions on the plane. She also learns about the motives behind the hijacking and has personal contact with the hijackers. Girl On A Plane is a good addition though, to the canon of historical fiction because it covers events not written about. With hijackings a relatively rare event today, the PLO terrorism and hijackings of the 1960's and '70's have been largely forgotten.

Interestingly according to a spreadsheet on the Virtual Jewish Library website which lists terrorist attacks on Israel from 1968 to 1973, Palestinian terrorists who hijacked airplanes were almost unanimously freed, making this form of terrorism a successful means to bring attention to their cause. Even in cases where large numbers of innocent people were injured or killed, the perpetrators of these attacks were almost always set free, had sentences commuted or were returned to Palestinian terror groups. It's hard to feel sympathy for the Palestinian cause in light of these facts.

A more detailed summary from both the Arab and Israeli point of view can be found in this detailed document titled "History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" from the PBS website.

Information regarding the Dawons Field hijacking can be found on the VC10 website. And a recent NY Times article, Why Airline Hijackings Became Relatively Rare is also worth reading.

An article about Leila Khaled, the PLF member who was released because of the hijackings.

Book Details:

Girl On A Plane by Miriam Moss
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt       2016
274 pp.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

And Then The Sky Exploded by David A. Poulsen

Thirteen-year-old Christian Larkin is attending the funeral of his beloved great-grandfather, William Deaver. GG Will as he was affectionately known was a kind man who had worked in the area of material physics. However his funeral is met by protesters yelling about Deaver being a killer and a bomb maker. A few days after the funeral, Christian approaches his mother to ask her why there were protesters at GG Will's funeral but she won't tell him and refers him to his dad. But Christian's dad, who is vice-principal at Anna Fernicola Middle School also won't talk to him about what happened.  The only thing Christian has learned, from the local Trimble Times-Herald, is that the protesters were at the funeral to protest Mr. Deaver's involvement in the Manhattan Project.

Both Christian and his sister Carly attend Anna Fernicola Middle School and this is where Christian begins to understand what his great-grandfather was involved in. The class bully, Lorelei Faber accuses Christian of having a great-grandfather who "helped kill millions of people." She mentions the Manhattan Project, in which a group of scientists from all over the world worked on a building an atomic bomb that was eventually dropped on Japan. This leads Christian to do his own research on the Manhattan Project.

He discovers that his great-grandfather was among the famous scientists who worked on the secret Manhattan Project. They were developing an atom bomb using uranium and plutonium. The first atom bomb to be used in war was dropped on the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Christian learns that over two hundred thousand people died either directly or indirectly because of the first bomb. As he tries to comprehend that number of people dying, Christian wonders "if there were any Anne Frank-type stories about Hiroshima" to help him understand the human side of what happened.

Christian's best friend is a deaf boy, Carson Tinsley whom he met in football camp during the summer.The two boys like to eat and talk football. Because of his disability, Carson who is sixteen is in Christian's grade nine class. Carson can drive and so he often takes his father's 2003 Chevy Cavalier to school, picking up Christian along the way.

Christian attends the first meeting of the Weston Comprehensive High School Travel Club. The club's twenty-six members has to decide on a destination for it's trip this year. The students have suggested France, England, Germany and Portugal as possibilities, but Christian suggests that they consider Japan because of its very different culture. The club's advisor, Mr. Pettigrew wants them to consider all of these options including Japan. After the meeting one of the club members and a classmate, Zaina Nawal asks Christian to go see a Japanese movie showing at the Variety Theatre on the weekend. However, Chris who is infatuated with the beautiful Julie LaPointe, who happens to be dating another guy, turns her down. But Carson tells him he needs to forget about Julie and think about the girl who is actually interested in him.

At a second meeting of the Travel Club, Mr. Pettigrew tells the members that he has discovered there is a program through the Japanese embassy which helps with the cost of travel. Due to the 2011 tsunami disaster there has been a decline in tourism to Japan and the government is providing funding for school trips from abroad. So Mr. Pettigrew suggests that he and Chris research more into this option. After the meeting, Chris talks to Zaina and apologizes to her for turning her down, telling her he would in fact like to go to the movie with her. They exchange numbers.

After completing their research on Japan, Mr. Pettigrew tells Chris that they must get approval for the trip from the school administration and the Parents Council for the trip.At the Parents Council meeting, Lorelei's mother who is the vice-chair strongly voices her opposition to the Japan trip. However, Lorelei stands up to her mother and the trip is approved by the Parents Council.

As part of his preparation for the Japan trip Chris goes to the library with his girlfriend Zaina to research the Manhattan project. He tells Zaina that "someone in my family might have been partly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people..." and that he needs to learn more. Christian's best friend, Carson questions him as to why he wants to go to Japan. Christian tells him that partly it's for himself, that he wants to be proud of his great-grandpa. He also tells Carson that "I know it's crazy, but I can't help it.I keep having these thoughts that maybe there's something I can do to...I don't know...make a difference..."

Will Christian find what he's seeking in visiting Japan - a way to come to terms with his grandfather's actions and to understand an important part of world history?


And Then The Sky Exploded is a short piece of historical fiction that explores the ethics of dropping the atom bomb on Japan, unfortunately not in a very in-depth way. Poulsen does this through his main character, young Christian Deaver, whose great-grandfather, the fictional William Deaver,  was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. Unfortunately, no one in his family will openly discuss this with him, leaving him to feel conflicted over the actions of a beloved great-grandfather.

Children's Peace Monument
In order to demonstrate to young readers what that day was like in Hiroshima, seventy years ago, Poulsen presents a separate narrative of a young girl, Yuko which chronicles the experience of a survivor of the atomic bomb explosion. Christian was able to better understand the effects of the Holocaust by reading Anne Frank's diary and wishes to better understand what it was like in Hiroshima.  "Anne Frank. I read that book a couple of years ago and I felt like crap when I'd finished because I knew she'd died...I was actually able to feel something because it was one person.Or a few people. And because of the diary, I knew them -- especially Anne. I wondered if there were any Anne Frank-type stories about Hiroshima." And so through Yuko's narratives the reader learns what it was like that day when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. However, for Christian, he begins to understand when he visits the Atomic Bomb Dome. "And standing there at the Dome, I could see in my mind's eye people sitting at desks, maybe some talking on the telephone, some typing, just starting their day's work. This place -- this made it personal. Like Sadako. Like Anne Frank. Both young girls. Both died in the war."  The two narratives intersect when Christian meets Yuko's grand-daughter and asks if he can meet her Obaasan,  Yuko. Apologizing on behalf of his great-grandfather and explaining to Yuko that his relative tried unsuccessfully to stop the atomic bombing of Japan, brings healing and forgiveness to Christian and peace to Yuko. She tells him, "You have done something for me, Christian-kun. You have heard my words. You have listened with respect to me. And believed me. And cared. That is enough."

Poulsen doesn't delve too deeply into a consideration of the ethics of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. It's easy enough to understand what led to the decision to drop the bombs (America wanted to end the war quickly) and easy to criticize through the lens of time. Zaina points out to Christian that sometimes people had no choice as to what they did during wartime, but Christian counters that the scientists on the Manhattan Project were not prisoners and were not forced to work on the bomb - they did so willingly. But Zaina states, "...maybe it's a case of doing what you have to do to end the war and stop more people from dying." Christian at first considers this argument mainly because he hasn't heard a counter argument to it. Eventually through his friend Carson, Christian learns that some of the scientists working on the Manhattan project did attempt to appeal to President Truman not to use to bomb. One of those scientists was Christian's great-grandfather.

For the most part, And Then The Sky Exploded is a short, high interest novel about the bombing of Hiroshima. This novel would make a good introduction for younger readers of the issues surrounding the use of atomic/nuclear weapons. Catholic readers also might consider exploring the Catholic theological doctrine of just war.

There is the odd stereotypical character such as the class bully, Lorelei Faber who is a "big, overweight, round-faced, nasally voiced rich kid" who "does her hurting with words, not fists." But even Lorelei turns out to have redeeming qualities.Christian has a good mix of supporting characters including Carson who helps him work through his mixture of feelings and Zaina who gets him to think differently about Lorelei. Disappointing is the lack of parental input into Christian's journey to understand his family's connection to the atomic bombing and the backstory. If this had been included it could have made Christian's journey more engaging.

Readers can check out the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum website which provides a wealth of information including a virtual museum, survivor stories and a section on Sadako a young survivor who is mentioned in Poulsen's novel and who died from leukemia and for whom the Children's Peace Monument was erected.

Information on the Children's Peace Monument can be found here.

The Manhattan Project webpage of the U.S History website has a wealth of information as well as links to other useful site.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission website has a page devoted to Canada's Historical Role in Developing Nuclear Weapons.

Book Details:

And Then The Sky Exploded by David A. Poulsen
Toronto: Dundurn Press    2016