Sunday, March 26, 2017

Wayfarer by Alexandra Bracken

Wayfarer is the sequel to Bracken's fantasy novel, Passenger about time traveling families in search of a mysterious and powerful astrolabe.


Wayfarer continues the storyline at the end of the first novel. In Passenger, Etta Spencer who has the unique ability to time travel is sent on a quest to find the last remaining astrolabe, a device capable of creating time passages. She has been forced on this journey by the Grand Master of the travellers, Cyrus Ironwood.

Wayfarer opens with a prologue dated London, 1932. In this time Rose Linden witnesses the gruesome murder of her parents while hidden in a secret cupboard. The story then jumps to 1905 Texas and 1776 Nassau. Etta has been flung briefly to 1905 Texas and awakens in the desert where she is discovered and taken to 1906 San Francisco.Etta awakens to discover herself in a locked bedroom, recovering from her injuries sustained in her fight with the Thorns. She believes that the timeline has changed and she has been orphaned by her time. Her future gone. She has been snatched back "through a series of passages to wherever the last common point was between the old timeline and the new one they had inadvertently created." Etta has no idea how this has come about but believes that the Thorns have used the astrolabe, causing the changes. Desperate to escape she climbs out the window onto scaffolding but when it collapses, she is rescued by Julian Ironwood. She is astonished that Julian is alive because everyone believes he fell to his death on the path leading up to the monastery Taktsand Palphug.
Julian tells Etta that it is October 12, 1906 and they are in San Francisco.  Etta learns that she is with the Thorns and in the home of Henry Hemlock who reveals he is her father. Henry tells her he was with her in the future when she was taken by Cyrus Ironwood but was not involved in Alice's murder and that her mother easily escaped from the Ironwoods. Henry explains that Etta quest has been set up by her mother Rose and is based on delusions. Rose claimed to have been visited by a traveler from the future who told her there would be a war between the families. Rose became obsessed with restoring the timeline. When she obtained the astrolabe, she hid it rather than destroy it because that would cause a change back to the original timeline and close the passages permanently. Henry believes that Rose manipulated Etta so events could play out the way she thought they should.

To show Etta how Cyrus Ironwood as changed the course of time, Henry takes her on a walk through 1906 San Francisco. Etta notices that there is very little devastation in the city and it has not been destroyed by fire after the earthquake. Henry explains that they are in the original timeline. In the timeline that Etta grew up in, San Francisco was destroyed by a fire following the earthquake. This happened because Cyrus Ironwood altered events during the Russo-Japanese war resulting in reforms in Russia and changing that country's history.  This resulted in further changes that affected events even in San Francisco. They are back in the original timeline because Henry's men who stole the astrolabe from Etta have changed the timeline back to the original. The future Etta experienced no longer exists. Henry explains that they have worked to identify "potential linchpin moments in history" and the Russo-Japanese war was one, meaning that the future was altered from 1905 onward. Henry reveals to Etta that his men were followed by Ironwood's men. One was killed and the other is hiding in Russia with the astrolabe. Henry plans to travel to Russia to retrieve the astrolabe and destroy it before Ironwood.

Etta, Henry, Julian and Winnifred travel to 1919 Russia where Etta discovers Henry is good friends with Tsar Nicholas who knows of their ability to time travel. They find Petrograd in an uproar and Henry's man Kadir has not yet been located with the astrolabe. While the others search the massive Winter Palace, Henry, Etta and Winnifred have dinner with the Tsar. Etta learns that Henry has been guiding the Romanov family for generations and that his interference has resulted in Russia not becoming involved in World War I. However Henry tells Etta that the Tsar will still die as it is inevitable in any timeline but his family will survive. The dinner comes to a violent end when a bomb is set off at the table, severely injuring Henry. Etta is rescued by Julian who tells her that Kadir has been found dead and the astrolabe gone. They make their way out of the palace as it is stormed by the revolutionaries. Etta believes Cyrus Ironwood's agents are attempting to return the time line back to his version.

Etta and Julian manage to escape from Russia and find themselves in 1939 New York City which is utterly devastated. They are picked up by a patrol and taken to a field hospital where they encounter Julian's nanny, Octavia Ironwood who is badly injured. She tells Julian that Cyrus Ironwood is time travelling again and that he has come for the gold stored in a vault. There is to be an auction and the gold is required for the buy-in. Julian believes the Belladonna has somehow come into possession of the astrolabe. The bidding will be done by "submitting offers of secrets and favors."Octavia warns them about the Shadows who are murdering travellers and guardians. Etta and Julian need to locate sufficient gold for the buy-in and once at the auction they need to get the astrolabe and destroy it.

Meanwhile Nicholas and Sophia travel to the Three Crowns Tavern to meet up with Rose Linden. Sophia now wears an eye-patch after losing her left eye because of the beating in Palmyra. While Sophia was recovering in Palmyra, Nicholas received a note from Rose indicating that they had to meet on October 13th or not at all. Nicholas is aware that Sophia has not given up on taking the astrolabe, but he needs her to help him navigate the passages. Rose doesn't show but Sophia and Nicholas notice a man with the Linden sigil on his glove in the corner of the tavern. He gives them a folded sheet of parchment with the Linden seal and tells them that Rose had other business to deal with. As Nicholas is questioning the guardian, a diversion is created and the parchment is stolen from their table by a Chinese man. In their attempt to apprehend the man, Sophia fires her pistol setting off a brawl in the tavern. Nicholas and Sophia manage to escape and when they return to their camp by the Thames, they discover the Chinese man stealing from their campsite. Confronting him they discover him to be a woman named Li Min. Li Min refuses to divulge the contents of the note

Nicholas and Sophia travel to 1430 Prague where they encounter a young boy who leads them to a little shop. There they meet up with the Belladonna, an imposing woman who uses dark magic. Sophia tells her they wish to know the date of the last common year so they can locate a friend. The Belladonna agrees to help them in exchange for a favour. Nicholas asks the Belladonna if the Thorns are still in possession of the astrolabe and she replies that according to her last report, yes. However, the Belladonna tricks Sophia and Nicholas. She places a ring on Nicholas's finger and tells him the task she requires is the murder of Cyrus Ironwood before she provides the information they are seeking. This ring will eventually spread a poison through his body killing him unless he completes the Belladonna's task.

Nicholas and Sophia leave the Belladonna and travel through several passages before arriving in 148 B.C. Carthage which is under siege during the Third Punic War. They manage to escape an attack by the Shadows and are aided by Remus Jacaranda who takes them to his house. He tells Nicholas and Sophia that Fitzhugh is making his rounds as a healer. Remus serves them a tea which Nicholas does not drink. Remus knows nothing of the last common year but he does tell them about the history of the astrolabes and their ancestors. When Nicholas realizes that Remus has lied about Fitzhugh, Remus tells him they have sent for the Ironwoods as this is their chance to finally escape their exile in Carthage. Sophia has been poisoned by the hemlock tea, but Nicholas carries her and pursued by Fitzhugh and Miles Ironwood races to the passage. He is helped by the sudden appearance of Li Min and they are transported to 1499 Vatican where they are hunted by the Shadows. The three spend some time hiding in the old tombs beneath the Vatican where Li Min tells them more about her history and the Shadows. She also reveals that Etta Spencer is dead, sending Nicholas into shock but also leading him to confront Cyrus Ironwood in 1776 New York. There Ironwood proposes a new course of action for Nicholas, one that will lead to a life Nicholas Carter could never have dreamed of.


Discussion

Like the first novel,  Wayfarer is a complex story that weaves through many settings and even more characters than its predecessor, Passenger. This characteristic makes it a complicated read and difficult at times to keep track of the little details.  In Wayfarer, Bracken has her characters travel to an overwhelming number of eras and locations: 1919 Petrograd, 1776 New York,  1776 Nassau, 1905 Texas, 1906 San Francisco, 148 B.C. Carthage, 1100 Reynisfjall Mountain,  1932 London, 1939 New York, 1430 Prague, 1499 Vatican City, 1830 Rio de Janeiro, and 1891 Mount Kurama. Not to mention the time passages that are only mentioned in passing. The plot too becomes more complex as more characters are introduced; the Shadows who serve a mysterious Ancient One who seeks the remaining astrolabe, the Belladonna who is known as the Witch of Prague, Li Min who it turns out is Etta's Aunt Winnifred and the Ancient One seeking to gain control of the remaining astrolabe after it is revealed he has absorbed the power of the other missing astrolabes.

The complex plot can be distilled down to a quest by multiple parties, each with their own agenda, for possession of the remaining astrolabe. It's a quest for ultimate power and the control of time itself.  It turns out that this last astrolabe has come into the possession of the Belladonna who holds an auction for it. Everyone shows up and as expected the auction morphs into a deadly fight with completely unexpected results. Unlike Passenger which had a developing romance between Nicholas Carter and Etta Spencer, Wayfarer follows the journeys of two groups; Etta and Julian, and Sophia, Nicholas and Li Min.

Better editing could have distilled this novel down into a cleaner, tighter version of the story. At over 500 pages, the reader has to slog through pages of detail that sometimes overwhelm the storytelling. In the first novel, Passenger, Bracken succeeded in giving her readers the essence of what time travel might be like, but in Wayfarer, these become destinations that Etta, Nicholas and Sophia simply race from one to the next in their quest for the astrolabe. Readers learn some of the backstory to the time traveling families and it's interesting to consider how time travellers might change the outcome of history with what might seem like insignificant interference.

At times, Wayfarer reads like a Tolkien story; there are three four astrolabes with special powers given to each family. Three are lost and only one remains - the master astrolabe which has a unique ability to create timelines. The Shadows are people stolen from their families when they were young , "their humanity ripped from them with bloody training and manipulation." They exist to serve the Ancient One. We are told by Li Min,  "They  are here for one purpose alone:  to serve him. To find what he seeks  above all else." The Shadows wear loosely flowing black robes with hoods that shield their faces and carry a curved blade.  It sounds remarkably like Sauron and the Nazgul or Ringwraiths from Lord of the Rings. As it turns out, the astrolabe if found by the Ancient One will make him immortal (not unlike Sauron).

Readers who enjoy a complex fantasy story will enjoy Wayfarer. Bracken keeps her readers guessing about where the story will go and that alone makes Wayfarer an engaging tale. Bracken ties together all the loose ends and provides a satisfying ending to her story, one that suggests hope and healing for the future. A fitting conclusion to this fantasy duology.

Book Details:

Wayfarer by Alexandra Bracken
New York: Hyperion        2017
532 pp.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance

The novel Red Wolf  tells the story of a young Anishnaabe boy who is forced from his home into a residential school and how this changes his life forever. The story is told by two narrators, the boy, Red Wolf and a wolf named Crooked Ear who lives near the Anishnaabe.

Red Wolf opens in the year 1885, in the Algonquian wilderness of Ontario, Canada. A young wolf pup, Crooked Ear with his father Tall-Legs and his mother Tika and his wolf-siblings encounter Uprights who smell different from the people who live in the forest. The Uprights, who are lumberjacks, kill Crooked Ear's family. He manages to escape into the forest where he spends several months starving as he forages for food. By summer Crooked Ear arrives at the camp of The People who smell like they belong in the forest but who smell different from the lumberjacks.

However, The People are too distracted to notice the howl of the orphaned little wolf pup. Instead they are worried about "the pale-faced people moving up from the south, cutting down the great white pines." With the forests gone, the birds, deer and elk begin to vanish and their way of life too. Despite their discussions around the fireside, their drumming and praying, The People do not know what to do.

Two months after both the wolf pup and the boy had been at Clear Lake, their paths cross. Red Wolf wants to go to the pup but his father, HeWhoWhistles holds him back for fear of the pup's mother. When she does not show and HeWhoWhistles notices the pup is starving they feed him. As the weeks pass, Crooked Ear becomes a healthy juvenile wolf.  Although HeWhoWhistles sends Crooked Ear away so he can learn to be a wolf, the young pup continues to return to The People's campsite, sleeping against the outside wall of Red Wolf's family wiigwam. He wants to be near the young Upright called Red Wolf.

One day a stranger comes to the camp riding a horse. Red Wolf is captivated by the stranger's horse and leads him to graze in the grass. The stranger, who has white skin, speaks Algonquian and tells The People that he is an Indian agent. The Indian agent informs The People that they must leave this land as loggers are moving into the area. The People tell the agent they cannot move as the land belongs to them, they live off the land and the trees must not be cut. But the Indian Agent tells them the land no longer theirs as it has been sold. He produces a piece of paper which is the title to the land and tries to encourage them to move to the reserve where they will be given land and a house. This doesn't satisfy The People because their ancestors are buried on this land. The Indian Agent tells them they will be given food and there will be a school for their children. When the agent is ready to leave, he is angry that Red Wolf has taken his horse and accuses the little boy of trying to steal him.

The Indian Agent's visit results in confusion and disagreement among The People. Some want to migrate further north away from the intruders, some to learn the ways of the newcomers, others to stay and fight for their land. In the end, HeWhoWhistles takes his wife, his son Red Wolf and his parents and moves to the reserve. The wolf, Crooked Ear, follows the Uprights to the reserve.

When HeWhoWhistles and his family arrive at the reserve, they find a mix of shacks, wooden buildings and wiigwams. HeWhoWhistles asks the guide where all the children are and is told they have been sent to the school in Bruce County, a five day journey by foot. HeWhoWhistles learns that his son will be sent to the school to live away from home. This enrages HeWhoWhistles who reminds the agent that Red Wolf is his son. He is told that because he signed the paper, he is part of the Indian Act which he must now obey. This means he must live on the reservation and his son is a ward of the government. StarWoman begs the agent not to take their son but the guide tells her that the government will educate the Indian children and make them Christians. When StarWoman attacks the guide she is almost shot. The Indian guide gives HeWhoWhistles a ten day pass to escort his son to school and tells him he must return to the reservation within that time otherwise he will be jailed.

Red Wolf and his father journey to the school and are followed by the wolf, Crooked Ear, but only as far as the tall grass. Despite Red Wolf's fear, HeWhoWhistles tells him he needs to learn the white man's ways. They are met at the iron gate of the school by a bald man, Mister Hall who forces Red Wolf behind the gates and tells HeWhoWhistles to return at the end of June. Inside the school, Red Wolf is whipped with a leather whip when he speaks his native language, stripped of his clothing which is burned, has his hair washed in kerosene and cut short, and given the name of George Grant and the number 366. So begins Red Wolf's experience in the residential schools of Canada.

While Red Wolf spends his first weeks attempting to survive the harsh treatment at the (fictional) Bruce County Residential School, Crooked Ear waits at the edge of the tall grass for his return. When the big Upright returns alone, Crooked Ear travels quickly to the school but finds his path to the young Upright whose scent he can smell, blocked by barbed wire. Unable to reach Red Wolf, and with the unrelenting call to return to Clear Lake, his birth place, Crooked Ear journeys back to his old pack.

Crooked Ear finds that his brother Seraph is now the alpha male and he must submit. He becomes the wolf with the lowest standing in the pack. When Red Wolf journeys home with his father at the end of the school year, Crooked Ear meets up with them. Whenever Red Wolf accompanies his father into the bush, Crooked Ear would accompany them but he never stayed for long. When HeWhoWhistles takes his son back to the school, Crooked Ear once again refuses to cross the meadow. He returns to the pack at Clear Lake led by Seraph. When spring returns and Red Wolf journeys home with his father he is once again met by Crooked Ear. When Red Wolf runs away from school in his third year, Crooked Ear is there to guide him home. However, Crooked Ear becomes trapped in a snare and it is the young boy who saves his life, rescuing him from the trap. They reach the reserve safely, outwitting the Indian agent, but Crooked Ear is unable to warn Red Wolf in time and he is captured by the soldiers and taken back to the residential school.

Red Wolf's father does not return after his third year he learns the awful truth about what has happened to his family. Crooked Ear shows up at the meadow by the edge of the forest but the boy does not appear. The meadow is now a corn field and the forest, pastures with fences, filled with four-leggeds. Crooked-Ear seeks the boy Upright at the reserve but he is not there either. So he travels further north where he spends years with the Great Northern wolf pack. But he is restless, returning to his birth den at Clear Lake and missing the boy he has formed a bond with. Likewise as time moves on Red Wolf grows up, graduates from school and moves into the world. He too is restless, unable to find work and returns to the reserve. But the adult Red Wolf will one day meet the son of Crooked Ear and find a way to begin again.


Discussion

Red Wolf is the fictional account of a young Anishnaabe boy's experience in one of Canada's residential schools but is based on the personal accounts and memories of those who attended and those who worked in the schools. Dance parallels Red Wolf's narrative with that of the wolf, Crooked Ear, who has a red tinge to his fur. Both Red Wolf and Crooked Ear share similar experiences when they encounter the white man.

The residential schools were Canada's attempt to assimilate the indigenous population which was considered inferior and savage. The arrival of European explorers and settlers to North America, meant that the cultural imperialism that was brought to India, Africa and South America also influenced policy in British North America. The indigenous peoples were scattered throughout Canada on land sought after by settlers. In an attempt to remove them from their land and to "civilize" their culture, a policy of assimilation was pursued. The churches were willing to participate because they were in the business of evangelizing souls and schools which removed the children from their "pagan" and "savage" culture were seen as the means to accomplish this.

This exact view was expressed by Canada's first prime minister as quoted in the Official report of the debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada dated May 9, 1883 :
"When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that the Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men."

Throughout the 1800's, the government of pre-confederation Canada began implementing social policies and laws that supported this action. The first residential school to open in Canada was the Mohawk Institute in Brantford in 1831. The Bagot Commission (1842-1844) determined that the best way to assimilate Canada's "Indians" would be by removing them from their homes and the influence of their parents. Methodist minister, Egerton Ryerson recommended that education of "Indian" children focus on religious and agricultural training. Canada's Indian Act was passed in 1876 and it gave the government almost absolute control over the lives of indigenous peoples. In 1879, the Davin Report recommended the creation of residential schools which was authorized in 1883 by Sir. John A. MacDonald, Canada's first prime minister. In 1884, amendments to the 1876 Indian Act allowed for the creation of residential schools. These schools were to be funded by the Government of Canada AND the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and United churches. All traditional indigenous ceremonies were banned. The story of Red Wolf begins in 1885,  just after these amendments became law.
Students and family members, Father Joseph Hugonnard, Principal, staff and Grey Nuns on a hill overlooking the Fort Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School, Lebret, Saskatchewan, May 1885
In Red Wolf,  Jennifer Dance portrays both the wide-reaching negative effects of the clash of European and indigenous cultures and the implementation of Canada's residential school system. Every character in the novel is affected, but most significantly the indigenous children and their families.  Foreshadowing the coming trouble is the arrival of the white man in the Anishnaabes' lives. Loggers arrive and begin cutting down the great white pines, changing the ecosystem an directly impacting the life of the indigenous people who live off the land. When Red Wolf's people make their summer camp they talk about "reports of a vast dead land where there was no birdsong, no chittering of squirrels and chipmunks, no deer, no elk, nothing!"

The arrival of the Indian agent, whose manner is haughty, brings more disaster. The Anishnaabe are told their land does not belong to them and they must move to the reservation where they will be given land, food and their children educated. The Anishnaabe do not understand this concept of property.  "Why should we move to a new place? Our ancestors have lived and died here since time began...Their bones rest in this soil. We cannot leave their spirits here!"  Despite this HeWhoWhistles decides to enroll his son, Red Wolf into the white man's school so his people will understand the white men and not be further deceived. However, HeWhoWhistles and StarWoman learn their son will be taken far away. HeWhoWhistles feels fear and shame because he is unable to protect his son.

The novel excels at realistically portraying the experiences of young indigenous children in the residential schools through the eyes of  Mishqua Ma'een'gun (Red Wolf). Upon entering the school his sense of identity is attacked and broken down. Red Wolf experiences fear and shame as he is stripped, his clothing, lovingly crafted by his mother burned, his long braids which were to be cut only when someone died are shorn and burned. Like other children entering a residential school, Red Wolf is not allowed to speak his  language and is punished for doing so. This happens when Red Wolf explains his name to Father Thomas in Anishnaabemowin. Each student is assigned a new English name (Red Wolf is given the name George Grant) and a number, by which they were often referred to. Children were not allowed to return home until the summer and their families not allowed to visit during the school year. Letters were often not delivered or destroyed. In the novel, Red Wolf's only friend, Turtle discovers Mother Hall burning the letters sent to the children by their parents. Isolated from the loving care of parents, family and community these children suffered terribly. They forgot their language and their customs.When they returned home during the summer months, the children were often unable to communicate with family and found their own culture now strange.

Perhaps the most insidious damage inflicted by the residential school system was changing how the indigenous children viewed themselves, their families and their culture. Dance shows how almost every aspect of indigenous identity was attacked in the schools. In the novel, Red Wolf and the other children are repeatedly told they are stupid, worthless Indians or filthy savages. After only a year, Red Wolf "...had learned quite thoroughly that he was a filthy Indian and a savage. The knowledge had left him feeling sullied and ashamed." When questioned by his father as to what he has learned at the white man's school, Red Wolf reflects privately, " I learned that I am a savage. That The People are heathens and pagans. That we are all dirty Indians." Unable to express this to his father in his native language and ashamed to tell his parents Red Wolf instead tries to explain to his father about Jesus and Hell. After his first year, Red Wolf along with the other indigenous children has been given an assignment "to turn their parents away from the sinful, savage ways that led to Hell, and guide them instead on the path to Jesus." When Red Wolf is taken to the fields he is told by the farm manager, "The wandering lifestyle you all have, picking berries and hunting, isn't civilized." Dance also portrays many of the other problems that characterized the Indian residential schools; poor nutrition, hard manual labour, cruel teachers and staff  who abused children physically and sexually, and a high rates of illness and death.

The larger effect of the residential schools on the indigenous communities is also demonstrated by what happens to Red Wolf's family over time. When faced with the forced enrollment of their second child, a daughter, HeWhoWhistles fights the Indian agent and kills him. The judicial system, unconcerned with hearing HeWhoWhistles perspective hangs him and StarWoman, now alone, turns to alcohol. This results in her permanently losing custody of her daughter, Lali, Red Wolf's sister. Red Wolf, furious at his father's inability to protect him, begins to abandon his identity as Red Wolf and comes to refer to himself as George.

The ultimate goal of the residential schools, supposedly to assimilate the indigenous population, has the exact opposite effect. Red Wolf graduates from the school but is unable to find work. Instead he is only fit for manual labour and drifts from farm to farm. Red Wolf/George returns to the reservation with the intention of farming the land that is his, except he is unable to get a bank loan to buy the agricultural equipment he needs. He becomes an alcoholic, living on the reserve with others like himself who attended the residential schools but who are now unable to form bonds with spouses and children. Eventually Red Wolf makes the decision to be who he really is - Mishqua Ma'ee'gun - Red Wolf.

Dance attempts to provide a balanced perspective by portraying some of the  white people in the novel as decent.  The neighboring farmer feels pity for the children working in the fields with only shovels and even comes to help them harvest the hay before a storm. Eventually he helps Red Wolf escape from the school, although he does very little else to help Red Wolf and becomes concerned for himself later on. The school nurse, witnessing the lack of compassion for the children and especially for Red Wolf who is the last to leave after Grade One, comforts him, reassuring him that his parents do love him and would come if they could. However, most of the white people are shown to have little understanding or concern for the indigenous families and their children. Father Thomas in particular tries to convince Red Wolf that his parents do not care for him and that being separated from them is "the very reason we take you from your families; to spare you this pain of rejection... Believe me, George, you are better off without them."

Co-narrating the novel is the red wolf Crooked Ear who like Red Wolf, suffers from his contact with the white man whom he calls "Uprights". His family is murdered by the white man and he becomes separated from the pack. His life parallels that of the little "Upright" Red Wolf who is also separated from his family. Just as Red Wolf does not learn the culture of his people, Crooked Ear does not learn the skills necessary to fend for himself in the wild and within a wolf pack until he is older. Both become outsiders, struggling to fit into the world, forever changed by the white man.

There aren't many young adult novels that explore the residential schools and their part in Canadian history. Red Wolf is an excellent starting point for young people and adults alike, to explore the devastating effect of residential schools on Canada's First Nations people. Jennifer Dance can be extremely proud of her attempt to portray the destruction inflicted on generations of indigenous people through the residential schools.

The following resources will be helpful in researching more about Canada's residential schools:

The Canadian Encyclopedia has a wealth of information on residential schools, their history, as well as all aspects of the schools.

Project of Heart is also an excellent resource that focuses on "examining the history and legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada and to seek the truth about that history, leading to the acknowledgement of the extent of loss to former students, their families and communities."

The Inuit Experience of Residential Schools

Residential Schools in Canada Education Guide

The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives has a webpage devoted to residential schools.

The Catholic Church and residential schools.


Book Details:

Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance
Toronto: Dundurn Press,     2014
251 pp.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Way I Used To Be by Amber Smith

"...It's the first day back from winter break. And I'm trying so hard to just go back to my life. The way it used to be. The way I used to be."

The Way I Used To Be is a gritty telling of a young girl's struggles to deal with her rape . The novel follows her over a four year time period, from when the rape occurs in her freshman year to the end of her senior year.

Fourteen-year-old Eden McCrorey is raped one night on the Christmas break by her older brother Caelin's friend, Kevin Armstrong. She is taken by surprise in her bed in the middle of the night and told that if she tells anyone he will harm her family. The next morning Eden finds herself bruised all over, her underwear on the floor and her bed sheets, comforter and nightgown bloodied. When her mother enters, she immediately assumes Eden has been caught unawares by her monthly period. Busy and caught up in her own world Eden's mother doesn't given her the chance to tell her what has happened.

After scrubbing herself clean numerous times in the shower, Eden heads to breakfast where she must face her family AND her rapist, Kevin. Although Eden acts differently no one picks up that something serious is amiss. Instead her mother thinks that Eden is mad at Caelin for not spending enough time with her and she suggests she make new friends. Later on Eden begs Caelin not to return to school but he tells her to stop her school-girl crush on Kevin.  Left alone to deal with what has happened, Eden locks her bedroom door that night and cries herself to sleep.

After Christmas break Eden has difficulty when she returns to school. When she and her friends, Mari and Stephen Reinheiser are bullied in the cafeteria, she runs to the library. Unable to stay there without a pass, the school librarian, Miss Sullivan is sympathetic and suggests to Eden she's going to start up a book club. The first meeting is attended by Eden, Mara, Stephen, a new boy named Cameron who has blue hair and piercings and two other girls. Mara is especially excited because she finds herself attracted to Cameron. On their walk home that night, they pass by Kevin's house and Eden remembers that the Armstrongs moved here because of something that had happened between Mr. Armstrong's brother and Kevin. The following week Eden wants to meet up with Mara at her house to tell her what happened with Kevin but this doesn't happen.

At the beginning of her sophomore year, Edy makes herself over in an attempt to look like she is older and in charge of her life. She ignores her friend Stephen from last year, spends her time smiling and in study hall meets the boy who ran into her in the hall at the end of freshman year. That boy is Joshua Miller, a senior and a star basketball player who repeatedly tracks Edy down, eventually convincing her to go out with him. The morning of the day she's is to meet Josh, Edy arrives at school early only to discover that Kevin Armstrong's younger sister, Amanda and her friends are writing nasty graffitti on the bathroom walls about her. Edy meets Josh after school but refuses to go see a movie or get something to eat. Instead she asks to go to his house and they end up in his bedroom. Edy feels afraid that she might not ever want to have sex after the rape so she decides that she will use Josh to make sure that won't happen. Although she tries to go through with this with Josh it doesn't work out as she freezes up.

The following week Josh smuggles her into his house, night after night. Edy lies to him about her age, telling him she's sixteen and eventually they have sex. However,  Edy is strangely detached, which Josh notices immediately, leading to questions and an argument. Edy has a fight with her parents and ends up at Joshua's home several nights later. During her stay with Josh, he reveals that his father is a drug addict and an alcoholic who is struggling to stay clean. But Edy is unable to tell him anything about herself and lies about her middle name.

Eddy drops band and stops attending the book club she helped found. Josh finally meets Mara but is puzzled as to why Edy seems to be keeping him a secret from people at school, her friends and her family. He soon discovers that Edy has lied about her age when he sees the "Happy 15th Birthday" banner on her locker at school. Furious, Josh tells her that he could be charged with statutory rape. Edy tells him it doesn't matter, Josh tries to impress upon her that this is a criminal charge that could seriously mess up his life. When he questions Edy if she even cares about him, she tells him no and they break up.

On Christmas Eve, Caelin and Kevin arrive home for the break. Left alone in the kitchen, Kevin sexually assaults Eden, touching her inappropriately and leaving her feeling shaken and vulnerable. Early Christmas morning, Caelin comes to Edy's room and asks whether she knows Joshua Miller. Edy tells him she does and Caelin reveals that he was told terrible things about her by the seniors. Eden brushes him off, telling her brother that it might just be her who is using the guys. Caelin asks her to be careful because he's concerned, but Edy's response is cynical, "Wow, well isn't this just a great time to start worrying about me...Thanks a lot, but that really doesn't do me any good now!" Later on during his break, Caelin gets into a fight with Josh at a New Years party, making things worse for Edy at school.

In her junior year, Eden's life continues to spiral downward as she and Mara drink, meet guys and smoke pot and attend more and more parties, during which Edy hooks up with random guys. It's not long before she has a reputation as "that girl" who will have sex with anyone. Each party offers Eden a chance to lose herself, to disconnect but Eden risks losing everything, her friends, her family and her chance to make a life for herself. Until someone steps forward and contacts the police regarding Kevin Armstrong. Will Eden be brave enough to tell her story so she can begin the journey towards self-acceptance and healing?

Discussion

The Way I Used To Be explores the devastating effects of rape on the lives of girls and their families and the cost of staying silent and not telling anyone what happened. Rape is a crime of control. Men who rape do so because they sense the girl or woman they are about to attack is vulnerable in some way - she is intoxicated, she has a bad reputation, she's socially isolated and has no family or friends to protect her or she won't be heard because she's unlikely to tell someone what happened.

In The Way I Used To Be Smith suggests that this is exactly what happens to fourteen year old Eden McCrorey. Eden's family life revolved around older brother Caelin's basketball. Family interactions all involved Caelin's latest exploits in sports. So when he leaves for college the fall Eden enters high school, Eden remembers that they did not know anymore how to be a family."The truth is, none of us knows how to act around one another without Caelin here. It's like we've become strangers all of a sudden. Caelin was the glue. He gave us purpose -- a reason, a way to be together. Because what are we supposed to do with each other if we're not cheering him on at his basketball games anymore?" The family dynamic is such that Eden is the quiet, good one who's nickname is "Minnie" after Minnie Mouse.She lives her life in the background.

This family dynamic and Eden's personality have an immediate impact on what happens to Eden the morning after the rape, when Eden attempts to tell her mother what has happened to her. Her mother isn't perceptive enough to realize that something has happened to her daughter and  she doesn't give Eden the time to speak and doesn't listen to her. "Clearly, it was time for me to get going so she could deal with this mess. And clearly, nobody was going to hear me. Nobody was going to see me - he knew that. He had been around long enough to know how things work here." Because her family doesn't communicate well, her mother doesn't pick up on Eden's strange behaviour over the holidays and doesn't notice "the one thing that's different or wrong or off or dangerous."

On her return to school, Eden is unable to contend with the usual bullying in the cafeteria, because it reminds her of how she was not able to defend herself at home or at school. Eden begs Miss Sullivan to allow her to say in the library. She won't tell her why, "...the truth is that it's humiliating. It's too humiliating to be in lunch anymore, to have to hide and still get food thrown at you anyway, and not be able to do anything about it, and your friends are too afraid to stand up for you, or themselves. Especially when you just got attacked in your own house -- in your own bed -- and you can't even stand up for yourself there, either, the one place you're supposed to be safe."

Eden is so distraught that she is unable to walk past Kevin's house to spend time after school with Mara. Instead she runs home, crying and is nauseous. Her parents mistakenly believe she is sick. But for Eden, she feels changed. "I feel like I've gone off somewhere else, like I've just sort of slipped into this other realm. ..This alternate reality where I'm not quite in my body, not quite in my mind, either -- it's a place where all I do is think about one thing and one thing only. " Eden feels "Like I"m raw and exposed, and it almost hurts to even be brushed up against." When a boy collides with her in the hallway, Eden is shocked that she feels such rage inside, "In this moment, I am nothing but rage."


Eden's friend Mara begins to change, partly because she's struggling to cope with her parents' divorce and partly because she doesn't want to be bullied anymore. She quits band, gets contacts, begins smoking and has Eden cut and colour her hair. Mara tells Eden that she should get contacts and cut her hair too, that she should stop hiding.  When her parents refuse her request for contacts, Eden pushes back. "...I let them push me around just like I let everyone push me around. I let them a make me into a person who doesn't know when to speak the hell up, a person who gives up control over her life, over her body, over everything. I do what they tell me to do, what everyone tells me to do. Why didn't they ever teach me to stand up for myself ?

Eden blames her parents for what happened to her and hates her parents, Caelin and even herself. "Even though they don't know what happened, what he did to me, they helped to create the situation. In a way, they allowed it. They let it happen by allowing him to be here and making me believe that everyone else in the entire world knows what's good for me better than I do....Most of that hate, though, I save for me. No matter what anyone else did or didn't do, it was ultimately me who gave them permission. I'm the one who's lying, The coward too afraid to stop pretending."

This all leads Eden to try to take control of her life, to make her own decisions, especially about her body. However, because she has not dealt with the rape, Eden's choices gradually become more and more destructive. In her sophomore year Eden initially makes some outward changes. She gets contacts, dresses differently, wears makeup and smiles more. She tries to act normal, even though she's not sure exactly what that entails,  in the hopes that people will starting treating her that way. However graffiti in the bathrooms at school proclaims her a "slutty whore".

Eden begins a relationship with a senior, Joshua Miller and lies to him about her age. She becomes sexually involved with Josh initially because she's afraid that she won't ever be able to have sex again. However, after having sex with Josh, Eden finds that it doesn't help her - she's still sad and angry. In an effort to demonstrate that she is the one in control of the relationship, she tells him she doesn't want to be his girlfriend, but soon she is having sex almost every night with him. When this relationship breaks down, Eden sinks deeper into alcohol and promiscuity.


By the time Eden enters her final year she has hooked up with fifteen different guys. She's a month away from turning seventeen and Eden admits "there isn't the slightest trace left of the frizzy-haired, freckle-faced, clarinet-playing, scared-silent little girl. And her big secret is really not such a huge deal anymore."  As Eden becomes more and more disconnected from her parents she begins referring to them by their names, Vanessa and Conner rather than as Mom and Dad. Her destructive behaviour finally alienates Steve and Mara. When she looks through her ninth grade yearbook, Eden see the "ghost of the girl I used to be." Thinking back on the past three years, Eden realizes "...that things went terribly awry, this wasn't the plan. The plan was to get better, to feel better, by any means. But I don't feel better, I feel empty, empty and broken, still." Neither the drinking nor the hooking up can take away the pain of that night. "...I still feel like I'm back there, always back in my heart I'm still that girl."

Although initially Eden wanted to tell her mother and then her best friend Mara what happened to her, when she is confronted by Caelin about her relationship with Joshua, Eden remains silent. "I'm really beginning to like the silence. It's become my ally. Things happen in silence. If you don't let it get to you, it can make you stronger; it can be your shield, impenetrable." But Eden soon discovers the price of silence. When Kevin's ex-girlfriend accuses him of rape Eden realizes that although she's not the girl she used to be, in one way she still is - she is still silent , she's still the mouse who won't speak up. When she does tell, the first person to learn what happened is Josh. Eden realizes that telling what happened does not destroy her world. " The Earth is still intact. I"m still alive. The floor didn't open up and swallow me whole...I don't know what I thought would happen if I told, if I let that one word exist..." Josh, by believing Eden and telling her the police will believe her too, encourages Eden to report her rape. When she tells her brother Caelin, he is devastated and Eden realizes that her rape has affected more than just herself but also her family. "It touches everyone."

Although the novel ends on a hopeful note - Kevin is charged in the rape of his ex-girlfriend and Edy is able to come forward and finally report her rape,Smith's conclusion to the novel felt rushed and incomplete. As is often the case in rape, once an allegation is made, things move quickly. When Kevin's ex-girlfriend reports the rape, Kevin's family is interviewed and his sister Amanda tells police they should talk to Eden. Finally the catalyst for Eden's rebellious behaviour throughout high school is revealed to the other characters in the novel. However, readers deserved and would have benefited from an Epilogue that detailed what happened to Kevin and perhaps had Edy state how she was doing several years out of high school. In this way readers would have been provided with more closure, especially with regard to Edy's life.

The Way I Used To Be is a powerful novel exploring how a brutal rape changes an innocent, trusting young girl  into someone filled with anger and self-loathing at her inability to tell anyone what happened, to defend herself or standup for herself.Her anger leads to isolation, alienation and some very harmful and dangerous behaviours. The price of silence is high for both herself and those around her. The novel is painful to read but Amber Smith's message comes across: silence is not the answer, tell someone. You deserve to be heard.


Book Details:

The Way I Used To Be by Amber Smith
New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books       2016
367 pp.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Threads by Ami Polonsky

Threads is a parallel narrative, telling the stories of twelve-year-old Clara Clay who lives in Evanston, Illinois with her parents and thirteen-year-old Yuming Niantu who is an orphan in China. Their lives intersect in a way neither can ever imagine, tied together by the thread of one action. The novel opens with a copy of Yuming's note hidden in a purse on May 16 while she is working in a factory in Hebei Province, in China.

Clara and her parents are still grieving after the death of Clara's older sister Lola who was adopted from an orphanage in China. Lola who was abandoned in a cardboard box in Molihua Park in Shanghai, was found by a man and taken to an orphanage where her birthday was estimated to be October 1. Unfortunately, Lola developed acute lymphoblastic leukemia and despite chemotherapy, she relapsed and died.

Clara's narrative opens with her being dropped off at Bellman's department store on July 1 with her "used-to-be best friend", Dahlia. Clara has known Dahlia since they were babies. Their families met through an adoption support group because Dahlia and Clara's sister Lola were adopted from China. Clara decides she doesn't want stay with Dahlia and she tells her she's leaving. Since Lola's death on May 15, after her long battle with cancer, Clara feels disconnected from Dahlia. She hides from Dahlia and texts her father asking him to come pick her up. They arrange to meet in twenty minutes but in the meantime Clara hides from Dahlia in a booth that has leather purses on display. While waiting for her father to show up, Clara spots an ugly yellow purse on clearance and wondering why it's on sale looks inside,unzipping various pockets. In an inside pocket Clara discovers a piece of white paper and a photograph. Unbelievably the photograph is of Molihua Park in Shanghai where Clara and her family have visited and also where Lola was found as a baby. The note is written by thirteen-year-old Yuming Niantu who is a prisoner in a pink factory along with twenty-two other children and asks for help.

Clara's father can't imagine twenty-two children trapped in a factory making purses. At Clara's urging he decides to call the Chinese consulate in Chicago where Susan Zhau takes his call and the information about the note and photograph. She is abrupt with Clara's father, Al and requests that he send the note and photograph to the embassy before hanging up on him. Clara is doubtful the consulate will help but she makes sure that her father makes copies of the photograph and the note. Clara remembers visiting Molihua Park when she was ten and Lola was eleven - more than a year before Lola's relapse. Unconvinced that the Chinese consulate will act, Clare wonders if she might be able to help Yuming herself.

The next morning Clara and her mom take the note and photograph to the consulate and meet Susan Zhau who treats them curtly. When Clara arrives home she begins searching for flights to Beijing and at lunch makes the suggestion to her parents that they plan a trip to China. Her parent's shocked looks causes Clara to run out of the house and catch the bus they used to take to the hospital where Lola was treated for her cancer. There, Clara is recognized and comforted by two nurses who cared for Lola. They contact her parents who come to the hospital. After a discussion with Clara her parents decide to take a trip back to China in the hopes it will help her process Lola's death. But for Clara the trip is about trying to find  and saveYuming.

Meanwhile in alternating chapters, Yuming's story is told. It has been six weeks since Yuming placed the note into the pocket of a purse she was sewing. No help has been forthcoming so she knows she will have to find another way to escape the factory. Yuming was living in Yemo Village in Anhui Province with her grandmother Wai Po and grandfather Wai Gong. Her older brother Bolin left to work in the city and eventually her grandmother and then her grandfather passed away. Three months ago in early April, Yuming sat near the fountain in Molihua Park in Shanghai. She had come to the city to look for her older brother Bolin who last worked at a food stand in the park. However her efforts have proved fruitless. While resting on a park bench, Yuming is forcibly taken from the park by an older man and pushed onto a bus with two boys and driven out of the city to the north. The man, Mr. Zhang, tells them they are to work in his factory and he also tells them what to say if they are questioned. They arrive at a pale-pink factory where they are taken to a basement room and taught how to sew. Yuming sits next to a girl, Jing, who often helps her and who has been in the factory for years. In the three months that pass, Yuming does nothing but sew and sleep and often dreams about her life in her village.

On July 2, two new boys arrive - an older boy named Kai and his younger brother Li. Yuming overhears Kai and his brother talking about escaping. That night Li refuses to go sleep with the younger boys, so Yuming volunteers to keep him company in the barracks. In the morning she tells Kai she knows a way to escape and tells him she is coming with him and Li. Later that week the three of them make their escape. Li pretends he is sick and needs to get to the bathroom. Kai and Yuming help him to the bathroom. The bathroom of in the factory is a room without a ceiling and when Jing joins them the four help each other over the high walls and to freedom.

Once out of the factory, Yuming, Jing, Kai and Li race into the forest and continue to run until they reach the safety of a cave. That night they head out of the woods to the nearby village where they break into a store to find something to eat. Jing reveals that she has been at the factory for almost five years, and Yuming learns that Kai and his brother are from a village near Beijing. Kai tells the group that the plan is for them to make money at the tourist sights, in particular the Great Wall of China. With money, Yuming hopes to be able to return to her village.

From this point on the two storylines intersect frequently as Yuming and her friends struggle to survive and steal enough money to make it home, while Clara and her parents travel to Beijing and Shanghai. Clara believes the spirit of Lola is there to guide and encourage her in her quest to find Yuming's factory, while Yuming relies on the spirits of Wai Po and Wai Gong to help her in her quest to return home. 

Discussion

Ami Polonsky has crafted a touching story that captures those tenuous and momentary connections that exist between people, sometimes known but mostly unknown in this life. These connections happen frequently throughout Threads, making it an captivating story.

Yuming places a note inside a purse hoping someone in America will find it and act. In a remarkable coincidence, her note is found by a young American girl with ties to China. But the coincidences do not stop there. When Clara and her family arrive at the Great Wall on July 7, Clara sees a city bus stop with a commotion going on in the back. "Suddenly, four of the windows open and, at the exact same moment, four kids jump out, one from each window. They have identical hair-cuts and are wearing brightly colored T-shirts that are way too big on them." The reader already knows from the previous chapter that Yuming, Jing, Kai and Li are "all wearing oversize, brightly colored T-shirts." Clara is unaware that she is seeing Yuming, and Yuming is unaware that Clara is the person who has seen her email and is actively trying to help her.

As Clara and her parents walk along the Great Wall, they "pass the four kids who escaped from the bus windows. They're jogging down the path, and I hope the bus driver is long gone by now."  As Clara walks along the Great Wall she is remembering when she last visited this famous site with Lola and how they played Rock, Paper, Scissors. Meanwhile Yuming, Jing, Kai and Li are jogging along the Great Wall path, searching for someone. As Yuming is keeping a careful lookout for Mr. Zhang, she notices "...people from many places: the wealthy Chinese families, the South Koreans laughing...the American girl in sun glasses and a baseball cap who seemed lost in thought, playing Scissors, Rock, Cloth discreetly with herself..." Unknown to Clara she has walked right past Yuming and Yuming does not know she has passed the girl who carries her note and picture in her pocket.

A third encounter happens in the city of Sunma during the kite festival. Clara looking for a way to get to the pink factory she has spotted from the gondola, sees "...a Chinese kid run to one of the cabs, say something to the driver, and shove a wad of money into his hand before jumping into the backseat." Unknown to Clara this is Yuming using the last of her money to take the very ill Li to the hospital. But this gives her the idea to use the cab to try to find the pink factory.

The final encounter between Clara and Yuming happens at the Molihua Fountain in Shanghai which is the one thing that ties Clara, Lola and Yuming together. Clara, upon learning that the factory has been located by Chinese officials feels that Yuming will probably be safe. After spreading Lola's ashes in the fountain Clara leaves Yuming's photograph on the fountain ledge securing it with a stone. As she walks through the narrow archway out of the park, Clara steps "...aside to let two girls in matching blue sweatshirts pass by. The way their arms are linked, they remind me of Lola and myself-- how we were, and how we could have been -- and I wonder if they're sisters. I smile at them. They both smile back at me."  Earlier, Yuming describes how she and Jing, waiting for their train to Shanghai, buy a package of food and "two matching blue sweatshirts." Unbeknownst to Clara and Yuming, they have met and even smiled at one another. At the end of the novel Yuming mentions looking at her framed photograph of herself and Wai Po and Wai Gong - the one she sent with her note, which Jing found at the fountain.

Although Clara set out on a journey to China to help and unknown girl, Yuming, it is this quest which helps Clara begin to heal from the loss of her sister Lola. Clara realizes that she undertook the quest of trying to save Yuming because she could not save Lola. When she learns that the Chinese authorities are now investigating the factory she is able to let go of Yuming and accept that she will likely be fine. Returning to the fountain where Lola was found as an abandoned baby, Clara releases Lola's ashes, bringing her closure and acceptance.

"The stone tiers of the fountain shine under a coat of dew. The drops are sparkling like glitter -- like tiny drops of life -- and I step closer to the edge. I stand in the spot where Lola was found almost fourteen years ago, and I think about all the layers of living that are always passing over and under one another like threads in a tapestry."

Although Clara could not directly see these layers and how they pass over and around and under one another, she has come to understand this because of the fountain which is the connection between herself and Yuming. It was where Lola was found and it was where Yuming's picture was taken. And unknown to both girls it is where their lives finally connect for one brief, happy moment.

Threads is a touching novel, well written that focuses on a young girl's struggle to recover from the loss of her dearly loved sister. Polonsky's characters are two brave, resilient girls whose lives briefly touch and are never the same again. Ami Polonsky writes in her Author's Note, "Sometimes I lie in bed at night and think about the fact that my life is, in one way or another, connected to every single other life on the planet. It's as though there are invisible threads that bind us all, and occasionally, when I envision these invisible threads, they feel charged with unseen energy. Every now and then, like in the cases of the man in the factory and the woman in New York, and Clara and Yuming, an invisible thread becomes exposed. The energy creates tangible, visible sparks and, from these sparks, come stories."

Book Details:

Threads by Ami Polonsky
New York: Disney Hyperion     2016
pp. 240

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay

The Orange Grove is an exploration into the ideology of terrorism and its consequences. The novel opens with the bombing of nine year old twins, Amed and Aziz's home in an unnamed country. The bomb which came from the other side of the mountains where their long time enemies live, destroyed their grandparents home. Their father Zahed's parents, Mounir and Shahina were killed when the bomb roared through the side of their house. The bombing happened three days after Aziz had returned home from the city with his father. Zahed had taken his son Aziz who was very sick to the hospital.Aziz stayed for

Amed and Aziz's mother Tamara has a sister, Dalimah who lives in America and who is married to a man from the other side of the mountain. Because the people on the other side of the mountain are their enemies and they have been at war with them, Zahed and Tamara do not trust Dalimah. On the day Zahed and Aziz returned home from the hospital, Tamara received a letter from Dalimah encouraging her to come to America with the twins. Tamara of course has no intention of going to America and she considers her sister's husband to be a liar who has told terrible things about them to the people in America.

Zahed had just finished burying his parents in the orange grove when a jeep with three men arrived. One is Halim whom Amed and Aziz know from the village school and his father Kamal but the other man with a machine gun is unknown. Amed and Aziz are sent to their room while Zahed and Tamara speak with the men. The next day Zahed tells Amed and Aziz that the man with the machine gun is Soulayed. He is from a neighbouring village and is well educated. The boy's father tells them that Soulayed wanted to see the ruins of their grandparent's home. Soulayed also informs Zahed that homes in nearby villages have been destroyed and that these attacks are merely the prelude to invading their country and enslaving their children. Zahed shows the boys the canvas belt Soulayed left behind but offers no explanation as to what it is.

A week after the bombing, Zahed calls Amed and Aziz into the orange grove where he spends "twelve hours a day pruning, watering and checking every tree." Tamara refuses to come. She has acknowledged the hatred that exists among the men of her country and asks that God not take both her sons. Zahed tells his sons that Halim is going to die. He has gone to the south to blow himself up with a belt of explosives. Zahed then relates what Soulayed has told him: that his sons have found a way to reach the other side of the mountain that borders their land in the north and which separates them from their enemies. Soulayed knows this from Halim who was told by Aziz and Amed. When Zahed asks if this is true Amed and Aziz say nothing. Zahed lets his sons know that Soulayed will return to speak with them soon.

Soulayed returns to the orange grove and takes the twins in his jeep to the base of the mountain where he tells them what Halim has told him. The boys were flying their kite near the mountain which they were not allowed to do when the string broke and the kite vanished over the other side. To retrieve the kite they climbed the mountain. Amed tells Soulayed that they had to retrieve the kite otherwise their father would have been angry as the kite was a gift from their grandfather. The boys found "a ghost of a road snaking through the rocks" and followed it to the top where they saw "a strange kind of town" on the other side. Soulayed tells them what they saw was a military installation and that it was God who broke the kite's string and led them to see this. However Amed tells Soulayed that he only told Halim that their kite had flown near the mountain.

Soulayed continues to impress upon the boys that because the area around the mountain and the path are mined, "God broke your kite string and God guided your steps on the mountain." He tells them that others have tried to get to the town but have been blown up. As a result Soulayed has decided that one of the brothers will return to the town in a few days wearing a belt of explosives to destroy the installation.

The boys return home wondering which of them will be chosen by their father to wear the belt and in the meantime they play at blowing themselves up in the orange grove. Zahed tells Tamara that he has decided that it be Amed who will wear the explosives belt. Zahed reasons that since Aziz will die because of his cancer "it will not be a sacrifice if he wore the belt." Tamara is filled with pain and she concocts a plan to thwart Zahed sacrificing their healthy son, Amed. That night she awakens Amed and reveals to him that his father will choose him to wear the canvas belt to avenge his parents' deaths. She tells Amed that Aziz is very ill and will die from his illness. So she asks Amed to persuade Aziz to take his place and wear the belt. Tamara does not want to loose both her sons, one to illness and one to being blown to bits. However, Amed refuses, despite his mother's assertion that Aziz will suffer greatly from his sickness. The next day Zahed takes Amed to the tool shed where he tells him that Soulayed will return in a few days and take him to the foot of the mountain. He will wear the belt. Zahed also tells Amed that he has chosen him because Aziz is very sick. He encourages his son to love the belt and to get used to wearing it.

After Zahed leaves, Aziz enters the shed and Amed admits to his brother that he is scared to die. Aziz offers to go in his place, but at first Amed refuses. When they return to the house, Amed tells his mother he has done as she asks. Tamara's plan, although saving the life of one son, will bring about tragic and unforeseen consequences.

Discussion

The Orange Grove presents the twisted logic that is characteristic of terrorism, radical ideologies and war. Author Larry Tremblay is careful never to identify the religious sect that Zahed and Tamara and their family belong to or to name the country they live in. Instead he uses beliefs that are common to many religions but which are taken to extreme.

Zahed and his wife Tamara and their twin sons, Amed and Aziz live in a country that is at war with a neighbouring country on the other side of the mountain. A bomb from that country destroys Zahed's parent's home, killing them. They are visited soon after by a soldier, Soulayed from another village who manipulates Zahed into sacrificing one of his sons so as to avenge the killing of his parents. To help with this, Soulayed brings fifteen-year-old Halim and his father, Kamal with him to speak with Zahed. Kamal first praises Zahed telling him his father, Mounir must have been "in harmony with God" to be able to grow the orange grove out of the desert. He also notes that Zahed is twice blessed with twin boys. He tells Zahed he was angry at Halim's decision to become a suicide bomber but after having seen the destruction of Zahed's parent's home he now understands Halim's choice. Soulayed tells Zahed, "Revenge is the name of your grief."

To impress his sons, Zahed tells them that Soulayed is "an important man" who "talked to me with his heart" and that "He's a pious man. An educated man." In other words, he is a man to be respected and whose words are important. In order to convince Amed and Aziz of what he is about to ask them, Soulayed tells them that their kite breaking was an act of God. "He broke it so that things would come to pass as they must." Soulayed states "...God broke your kite's string and now it's their own death they're warehousing." He also informs them that their climbing the mountain was miraculous especially since no one else has been able to climb this mountain because it is mined. "A miracle: that's what really happened on that day. God broke your kite string and God guided your steps on the mountain." After informing them that they have been chosen to wear the belt of explosives Soulayed states, "God has chosen you. God has blessed you."

Later on Soulayed comes to the farm bringing money for Zahed and he tells Amed, "You know, Amed, what's going to happen is both sad and happy. You understand, right? But you, you must be only happy. You're going to die a martyr. You are three times blessed." The night before Amed is to leave for the mountain, Zahed invites his neighbours and two employees to his house to celebrate, explaining that Amed will soon be a martyr. "All saw this invitation as an honour being bestowed upon them."

But despite all of his indoctrination, Amed is terrified. But Soulayed admonishes him, "...Think of our enemies! Think of what they did to your grandparents!" He is told not to dishonour his father and to "Think of Paradise!" Tamara is the only one who sees war for what it truly is. She recognizes that for the men of her country, "It's hatred that keeps their bones in place. Without hatred they would collapse and never get up again." In an attempt to save at least one of her sons, she convinces Amed to switch places with Aziz. Aziz will be the bomber because he's going to die from cancer anyways. She recognizes what she's asking Amed to do is horrible. "What's the use of bringing children into the world it it's just to sacrifice them like poor animals being sent to the slaughterhouse?" When the neighbours come to celebrate before Amed leaves, Tamara sees the garland of lights as a "sacrilege, a miserable lie."

Tremblay portrays the realities of war, the lies created to perpetuate the cycle of violence, the devastation wreaked on families and individuals and the dehumanizing of the enemy in a way that is profoundly moving. In the aftermath of the suicide bombing the reader truly experiences the pain and guilt of Amed and the sense of loss from the death of his twin brother and the estrangement of his family.

The novel is divided into three parts, "Amed" which tells the story of his switch with Aziz, "Aziz" which tells the story of Amed's life as a twenty year old and his struggle to come to terms with what happened after Aziz accomplished his mission as a suicide bomber, and "Sony" which relates Mikael's play and how Amed comes to participate in it.

Mikael has written a play about war for his theatre students, among them a man named Aziz (this is Amed who was sent to live with Damilah in America when the truth of his identity became known). In the play a soldier has brutally murdered a young boy's parents. However, the soldier is unable to kill the boy named Sony, because he reminds him of his own young son. So he demands the boy explain why he should spare him. It is Mikael's intention that the child die to demonstrate the cruelty of war.  Aziz has the part of Sony but he tells Mikael he cannot play this character. Aziz tells his story to Mikael, that his name is really Amed, how he switched places with his sick twin brother who was sent to bomb a military installation. After the bombing, Amed begins to live life as Aziz but he discovers he cannot live this lie and he becomes so sick his parents take him to the hospital. Eventually the truth is discovered when Amed reveals it to the family during a party celebrating Aziz's supposed miraculous cure from cancer. He tells Mikael that when Soulayed spoke, Amed looked into Soulayed's mouth and realized he saw nothing but lies. When Amed's true identity was discovered, he was sent to America where he learned the truth - that his brother was sent to a school where he blew up dozens of innocent children and maimed many others. Even though Mikael tries to comfort Amed by telling him that his brother did not understand what was going on, Amed feels this does not change the fact that his beloved twin brother murdered innocent children. Amed tries to explain to Mikael that war wipes away the boundaries between adults and children; children can be brave or they can be cowards, they can do heroic things or they can murder others, even other children. War affects everyone, adults and even children.

Mikael has prided himself on writing a play that he feels explains war. However, Amed/Aziz's narrative makes him realize that he does not understand war. He asks Aziz to use his story to convince the soldier in the play but Aziz cannot do this because it's not fair and not accurate. In the end Aziz returns to the stage, which Mikael describes as "the great gaping stage mouth with its potential for lies and truth." Aziz stands before the soldier and tells him he is seven-year-old Sony, and nine-year-old Aziz and twenty-year-old Amed. He doesn't need to tell the soldier a story to convince him not to kill Sony. The reason for not killing the boy must come from within the soldier.

"No, you don't need to have a reason or even to have right on your side to do what you think you must do. Don't look elsewhere for what is already within you."

Book Details:

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay
Windsor: Biblioasis 2015
pp. 157

Monday, February 20, 2017

Movie: Hidden Figures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the trailers for Hidden Figures:





Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati

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

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

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

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

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

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


Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Details:

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