Sunday, May 28, 2017

Runs With Courage by Joan M. Wolf

Runs With Courage is a novel about a young Lakota girl who is taken from her family on the reservation and sent to a missionary school to be "civilized" with the intent of assimilating her into 19th century white America. Ten-year-old Four Winds lives on a the Great Sioux Reservation with her parents and younger brother Bear.

The following historical backstory will help readers understand the setting of Runs With Courage. The Lakota people migrated from the Great Lakes area to the Great Plains in the 17th century. They had been primarily hunters and gatherers but soon began to hunt buffalo, becoming nomadic and living in teepees. They also acquired horses during this time and the horse changed their culture completely.They came to rely on the buffalo completely and their conflict with other tribes revolved around raiding other tribes for their horses. They developed the practice of "counting coup" which is mentioned in Wolf's novel, where honour was obtained by touching the enemy without causing harm.
Their way of life continued mostly untouched by the arrival of the settlers until the mid-1800's. Until this time the US government considered the west to be of little economic value and the land fit only for "Indians." This changed with the discovery of gold and other minerals on the West coast and as settlers and speculators passed through Lakota territory they came in conflict with the various tribes. The US government built forts throughout the west to protect travelers. One of those forts was Fort Laramie.

The United States Army built Fort Laramie on Lakota lands without their permission. The treaty brought together eight tribes who had been at war and also the United States government in an attempt to resolve the conflicts. The government used a different form of mediation than what the Indian tribes were familiar with and attempted to give each tribe a territory. Territorial claims between the tribes were set out and the United States government agreed not to claim any of this land. The treaty also guaranteed safe passage through this land along the Oregon Trail and allowed for roads and forts to be built.

By North Dakota government.
However, the treaty which protected Lakota territory from settlement, was not honoured by the US government. The Lakota people, many of whom did not even know about the treaty, continued to raid other tribes and attempted to defend their land from settlers. Attacks on settlers were met with force by the US army. A new treaty,  the Fort Laramie Treaty 1868 (Sioux Treaty of 1868),  was negotiated between the US government and the Lakota in which white settlement in the Black Hills, considered sacred by the Lakota, was banned forever. The treaty also granted the Lakota people hunting rights in South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana until the buffalo were gone. The US government believed the one way to remove the Lakota permanently was to destroy the buffalo, on whom the Lakota completely relied.

However when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, (an 1874 expedition led by General George Custer) prospectors began trespassing on land and the government did not uphold its part of the treaty. The Lakota attacked miners and these attacks were met with resistance by the US army. This resulted in the Great Sioux War of 1876-77 in which the Lakota, after winning several battles,  were eventually defeated by a reinforced US Army. Their sacred Black Hills land was annexed by the US government and the Lakota were forced onto reservations, prevented from hunting buffalo and made dependent on government rations.

A part of the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868 stipulated that the Lakota should be "civilized" and that their children should be sent to "mission" schools. Eventually the Great Sioux Reservation was broken up into smaller reservations and the Lakota were forced to sign away millions of acres of land.

Runs With Courage begins in 1880, a few years after the Great Sioux War when the Lakota have been settled onto the reservation and are becoming dependent on government rations. Four Winds and her family had lived in the forest near He Sapa (the Black Hills) before they were forced to move onto the Great Sioux Reservation. The novel opens with ten-year-old Four Winds and her little brother Bear witnessing the arrival of a wagon of two white people, a man and a woman. Four Winds questions her parents and uncle about them that night at dinner. Her uncle reminds her that the whites are people like them but they are not honourable because they do not keep their promises. Almost a month later, Four Winds' uncle tells her that they live in the white man's world and must learn about them. For this reason she will be sent away to live with the white men and attend their school for girls only. Four Winds is deeply upset but she agrees to go when she realizes she has no other option.

Four Winds' mother gives her a small wotawe and Bear gives her a small carved rabbit before she leaves. Four Winds arrives at the All Saints Missionary School late that evening and is taken upstairs to a room where there are other Lakota girls preparing for bed. Four Winds has never seen a bed before and the clothing she is given is strange and scratchy. A girl named Walks Tall tells Four Winds that it will get easier.

The next morning, Four Winds soft deerskin dress which still "held the scent of prairie" and her mother's wotawe and Bear's rabbit carving are taken away and her hair is cut. She is given the name of Sarah and doesn't understand why adults punish children by hitting them. Four Winds learns that she cannot speak Lakota or she will be punished, and she is not allowed to dance for joy because that is behaving like a savage. Four Winds who has been starving on the reservation, eats too much bread at breakfast and feels unwell afterwards. While she is in her room recovering, she discovers a Lakota boy burning her clothing and cries herself to sleep.

Despite all the strangeness Four Winds is determined to be strong and brave. But daily she is confronted with things that make no sense to her and she feels overwhelmed. Can she still be Lakota and survive in the white man's world?


Runs With Courage provides younger readers some idea of what it was like for the children of native Americans and their families during the late 1800's and early 1900's as the push to settle the west occurred. Initially the United States government was not interested in settling the west and deemed the land there as having little economic value. However the discovery of gold and other minerals changed that view and although

As with First Nations people in Canada, Native Americans were forced into missionary schools and later residential schools with the intent of erasing their culture and replacing it with the white man's culture. Wolf has fashioned a Native American character who tries to resist the white man's attempts to change her. Four Winds is both courageous and resilient. Although she doesn't want to leave her extended family she obeys her elders. But her initial experience at All Saints Missionary School and the white culture forced on her prove overwhelming.

At first Four Winds resistance is vocal and filled with anger as she strikes out against the teachers and her fellow students. When she berates them for co-operating with the white teachers, Moon Awake asks her "Since coming to this school, have you been hungry?" Four Winds realizes that she has not been hungry since she came to the school but she feels this was not her family's reason for sending her.

Four Winds initially believes that she has been sent to the white man's school to be a bridge between her people and the white culture. But she is confronted by William the boy who burned her clothing, who tells her that the Great White Father is the name given to the American presidents and that these people are not honourable. Four Winds now believes the white men do not want a bridge to her people. This suspicion is further confirmed when Four Winds is sent to the office to get a pair of scissors and she sees a plaque that states, "Kill the Indian, Save the Man". Understanding what this means leads Four Winds to break the plaque, be whipped by Pastor Huber as punishment, and run away to her tiospaye.

Four Winds makes the decision to return to the school after her mother reveals the truth about her being sent to the school; "They told us we must send you or they would withhold our rations.' I felt numb.My being at the school had never been about bridges. It had been about food and nothing else.  That was how I had helped my tiospaye. I had saved them from starvation." Wolf shows in this scene the shame Four Winds' Uncle and Father have at not being able to provide for their tiospaye as a result of being forced onto the reservation and being unable to hunt their main food source, the buffalo.

It is Four Winds' friendship with the only other character in the novel to resist assimilation into white culture that helps her cope. William, whose real name is Catches Fire came to the school after his entire tiospaye was murdered by white soldiers. His resistance to assimilation into the white culture is more covert.   Everyone believes him to be slow but William is quite intelligent and he uses this mistaken perception as a way to "count coup", "a supreme act of bravery to touch an enemy in battle without killing him." He saves the sacred things that each student brought with them to the school. He moves slowly to hinder the white teachers at the school. In the barn, William has created his own sort of tipi with sleeping skins. Late at night, he dances, an activity that has been forbidden and considered savage.

Watching William dance, Four Winds finds that her "angry spirit has been soothed." She decides to give her fellow students back their sacred things at Christmas in a secret meeting. And ultimately she figures out a way to get herself back to her people - by becoming a teacher to them and being a bridge between the two cultures.

Runs With Courage ends on an upbeat tone with Four Winds who has been renamed "Runs With Courage" by her tiospaye, living happily on the reservation with her family. Although Wolf portrays many of the hurtful ways the white teachers treated indigenous children, their experiences seem tame in comparison to what really happened in most missionary and residential schools. The children are well fed, and although the school is cold in the winter, there is none of the neglect or rampant sickness that was common in these schools. The novel effectively demonstrates how the Lakota parents were manipulated to send their children to the schools and how their children were eager to do what the white teachers wanted. The alternative was starvation. Four Winds comes to fully understand this when she sees the change in little Laughing Deer who arrives at the school. Laughing Deer quickly learns to speak English and say the Christian prayers even though she doesn't understand what she is saying nor the beliefs behind the prayers. Miss Beatrice shows her off to the senators who come to visit the school, "When she was able to speak English, she spoke in complete sentences. I think it is a true testament to the ways we are trying to civilize these people."

Wolf attempts to create a balance in her novel with both good and bad characters; Miss Beatrice is a kind teacher who lets the Lakota children dance and she tries to comfort Four Winds while Pinch Finger (Miss Agnes) is harsh and Pastor Huber believes they are savages and heathens.However, most of the secondary characters are two dimensional.

One of the more interesting chapters in the novel deals with Four Winds' reaction when she sees herself and her classmates in a photograph taken of the school. Four Winds cannot comprehend what she is seeing. "But the girls in the picture were white girls." When Pinch Finger points out Four Winds in the photograph, she is filled with disbelief. "I shook my head. That was not me. I could not have mistaken myself for a white girl." Later on she tells Catches Fire, "I saw a white girl standing with many other white girls. But they were us. It was me! I thought I was a white girl!" Four Winds feels like she is losing her identity and won't be unable to hold on to who she is. But Catches Fire tells her "They cannot have our spirit. It is like the hunting game I showed you. Sometimes you can't see everything." He is telling her that inside she remains a Lakota.

Overall "Runs With Courage" is a simple novel that gives younger readers a basic understanding of issues involved in the residential/missionary schools in relation to the Lakota aboriginals. It also sets the stage for further inquiry into the history that led to the Lakotas being forced onto the Great Sioux Reservation.

For more detailed information on the History and Culture of the Standing Rock Oyate.

Book Details:

Runs With Courage by Joan M. Wolfe
Ann Arbor, Michigan:  Sleeping Bear Press     2016
211 pp.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ask Me How I Got Here by Christine Heppermann

Adrienne (Addie) Solokowski  is a sophomore who attends Immaculate Heart Academy, an all girls Catholic high school in Minneapolis.

Addie and her best friend Claire are part of the school's cross- country team. Addie is a good runner, pushed by Coach and she helps Claire run better. The two girls often like to run early in the morning.

It's April and she is dating Craig, a junior from St. Luke's. Craig is cute but Addie considers him a bit of a jerk so she decides to become involved with his best friend, Nick at a party. Soon they are having sex. Addie is worried about telling Craig but it turns out that Craig has been involved with a girl named Iris.

Eventually Addie brings Nick back to her house . Her parents both like him. Before they go to her room her mother tells her
"If you're brave enough for mad passion
with your sweet innocent mother right downstairs,
go ahead."

Nick teaches bass at his uncle's music store and plays in a band called Side Effects. He wants Addie to write lyrics for his music.

By August, Addie realizes her period is late. Claire notices immediately that Addie doesn't' seem to be "giving one hundred percent" when they go out running. Claire has no idea that Addie is pregnant because Addie doesn't tell anyone. Eventually Addie tells Nick who is "supportive" and drives her to the local Planned Parenthood where the doctor tells Addie her options.

Addie returns home and struggles to tell her parents about her pregnancy.  Addie has to tell them because according to Minnesota law she requires parental consent to have an abortion. When she does tell her parents, her father hugs her and tells her it will work out while her mother goes downstairs and cries.  The next day Nick takes Addie to the clinic where she has her abortion. Addie misses the first cross-country practice of the season as she recovers from the abortion.

In September, Addie returns to school and begins competing with the cross-country team. However, she ends race after race, walking. As she struggles to come to terms with what happened over the summer, Addie is affected more than she realizes.


Ask Me How I Got Here is a novel-in-verse that attempts to explore the weighty issue of abortion from a young Catholic  woman's perspective. The novel is divided into six parts, April, May, June, August, September and October with the bulk of the story being told in the month of October. Unfortunately, Heppermann's use of free verse gives superficial treatment to the controversial issue of abortion and its aftermath. The poems are short, as is the novel. The result is that Hepperman's story is vague about many of the details and therefore disappoints those who would like a more rigorous treatment.

Addie's story is a common one but the free verse poems offer the reader only the bare bones of the story. Addie is a young girl who becomes pregnant and has an abortion at Planned Parenthood. After her abortion she begins acting out, dumping friends, dropping the sport she loves and lying to those who love her. Her poorly understood Catholic faith offers her no comfort. She then meets a former runner, Juliana and begins a lesbian relationship with this woman who herself is struggling. The message from Juliana is that shame from abortion comes from society and not from guilt over killing one's unborn child.

 It is troubling how Addie is abandoned by her very modern "Catholic" parents. Heppermann's portrayal of parents response to unplanned teen pregnancy is spot on, one of many typical parental reactions (some girls are forced to abort, other's thrown out of the house and other girls treated with concern and care as they carry their child to term). There is no discussion of a "baby" and as with Addie visiting the clinic, no mention of what alternatives are offered to her. Addie's parents seem distant in this life-changing event for their daughter. They hug her or disappear to cry and when the deed is done, mom is there with money for birth control pills (which she would likely be offered at Planned Parenthood after her abortion). Addie is taken to the clinic by her boyfriend and when she returns home after the abortion her mother makes a "couch nest" for her and goes off to work. But the effects of the abortion are soon felt. 

Ask Me How I Got Here does portray some of the emotional and psychological effects of abortion on women but instead of questioning WHY, instead it avoids the entire discussion and projects the blame for  Addie's feelings onto her Catholic faith. Almost immediately after her abortion Addie begins acting out. Although she attempts to act "normal" she finds herself constantly thinking about what has happened. Nick takes her to the movies but she notes that the buttered popcorn tastes like burnt sand and when she finally starts to relax, she attempts to placate her conscience by telling herself, "What's done is done, I can't change it now, so why let it ruin my afternoon?" At this point in the novel no one has made Addie feel judged or shamed. In fact her boyfriend Nick has gone out of his way to be kind. What Addie feels appears to come wholly from within herself.

In August cross-country season begins but Addie isn't much interested. Throughout September Addie finds herself walking to the finish line and not caring, even when Nick attempts to motivate her. In October Addie doesn't participate in spirit week, and drops out of cross-country lying to her parents, friends and Nick about attending practices. Addie repeatedly turns a picture of her taken before her abortion face down, causing her mother to wonder what's going on in the house. In a poem titled, "The Trinity, Explained" Addie suggests that everyone comes in pieces. She views herself as a bad person.
"I'm the daughter
who can't stop making bad choices;
the girlfriend
who won't answer her phone;
the ghost
who is anything
but holy,
no matter how hard she tries."

Addie finds it difficult to sleep, and eventually dumps her boyfriend. She becomes remarkably snarky to her friend Claire, attempting to push her away. Claire confronts Addie in the hall to tell her how upset she and Nick are:
" ' Nick cares about you. I do, too.
And we thought we knew
what you cared bout, but apparently
we have no idea.' "

Eventually Addie's parents learn she's been lying to them and a discussion with her parents leads her mother to dismiss Addie's father's concern about her having a physical injury. Her mother's response suggests that she recognizes Addie is struggling emotionally with the events of the summer (i.e. the abortion) but no help is offered by them. They just want her to be happy. However, no one talks about the "elephant in the room", Addie's abortion and what really happened.

Addie's struggles continue. In the poem WWMD (What Would Mary Do?) Addie tells herself Mary would try not to think about it, try not to think at all.  When she goes to meet Juliana their discussion about Addie's guilt over leaving the cross-country team leads Juliana to remark,
"You've got to separate yourself
from the story....
don't automatically assume
 that you're the one who fucked up." 
Addie begins to apply Juliana's advice to her own situation, assuming that her problems are due to other people, not her own actions.

Ask Me How I Got Here offers an unsavory portrayal of the Catholic faith by an author who herself is Catholic. Some poems border on sacrilegious. For example, in the poem titled "Sunday Morning",  Heppermann compares sex to receiving Holy Communion. Another poem, "The Advantages of Being Mary" complains that Mary did not have to worry about Joseph bringing "protection" nor about being condemned for getting pregnant. Almost everything Catholic is shamed and treated in a derogatory manner in this novel.

When making the decision to abort, Addie states that she hopes "that God has enough faith in me to let me make my own choices." However it doesn't appear that she considers what her faith might offer her in making a decision on what to do. She doesn't talk with a priest, she never seems to inform herself on why the church teaches what it does about abortion.  Instead Addie's poems focus on mocking the Catholic church and criticizing those against abortion. 

In the poem, "Going to Confession", Addie's view on the sacrament of Confession is focused on the negative and not as a sacrament of healing and guidance (the church has renamed this sacrament, the Sacrament of Reconciliation).
"Every month at all-school confession,
I rolled them through that narrow door
to show the priest how wicked I'd been."

Addie's views are no surprise considering her mother's heterodox view of Catholic teaching on sexuality. In the poem, "Cafeteria Catholic", Addie's mother tells her about the parish priest not allowing her the "choice" to wear a certain necklace during Mass when she was a kid, implying it was unreasonable (and sinful). This trivial event is compared to Addie's abortion when her mother equates the church's refusal to allow abortion as another unreasonable action. Addie's mother pontificates,
"The Catholic Church is run by men,'
she says as she digs out her wallet
to pay for my birth control pills. 'And men
make mistakes.'"

Not surprisingly, prolife characters are not portrayed in any realistic way. Instead they come across as stupid and boorish. For example,  the one prolife character in the novel, Allison Finley is portrayed as ignorant about basic reproductive science:
"Allison Finley goes off about
how she would never take birth control pills
because they kill egg cells, which is like
having an abortion every month."

Young prolife students are well informed and know that oral contraceptives do not kill "egg cells" - the proper term is ova - but that some oral contraceptives may cause very early abortions, which is what Allison is referring to. This is one of several reasons why the Catholic church does not support taking oral contraceptives. Allison is described in unsavory terms, as someone who can't think for herself.
" 'I'm doing Hope's Journey,'
Allison barks, and then waits,
like she's a trained seal, ..."

Addie mentions later on in a poem titled, "It Takes Me Back" how she met prolife picketers outside the abortion clinic and that murder was spelled with two "d's once again suggesting those who support the prolife side of this issue are ignorant.

After listing off a number of different nun's orders, Addie mentions how one of the nuns from the order that founded Immaculate Heart Academy, the Servants of Our Blessed Mother, made Liz Morley carry heavy textbooks upstairs when she was six months pregnant. Those nasty Catholic nuns!

In the poem "The Church Responds" Addie refuses to accept that the Catholic Church responds to those dealing with the aftermath of abortion with compassion. She cuts off Allison remarks about post-abortive healing and facing what as happened in the abortion. Allison mentions the various rituals women use to help them heal from their abortions such as writing a letter or holding a funeral. Addie does write a letter to her unborn baby in the poem, "Dear You" in which she expresses not her sorrow at the abortion but tells the child she would not force her/him to write a letter like this. Interestingly Addie's writes,
"Whatever you would have looked like,
whoever you might have been,
I have no way of knowing."
Addie doesn't know of course, because her child never had the opportunity to live her/his life.

There's not much to like in this novel for those Catholic teens who believe in their faith's teaching on abortion. The main character, Addie is a poorly catechized Catholic who simply parrots almost every secular/feminist objection against the Catholic church's stance on abortion/contraception while denigrating Mary and Joseph.The objections are superficial and immature and there is almost no critical thinking done by the main character or her parents. The issue of abortion deserves a more honest treatment in young adult literature, something this novel does not offer.

For those interested in learning about the historical perspective of the Catholic Church's teaching on abortion, these articles, Part I and Part II by Donald DeMarco, a professor of philosophy and a Catholic provide a detailed summary.

There are many wonderful orders of nuns who do excellent work teaching and performing works of charity. The evangelization begun by St. Pope John Paul II has begun to bear fruit in the many young women seeking to enter religious communities. These are a far cry from the nuns portrayed in this novel as they are happy, vibrant, caring young women. For example, the Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist specialize in teaching young people and are comprised of young women called to this charism. The Sisters of Life, founded by the late His Eminence John Cardinal O'Connor is a contemplative/active community of nuns that also minister to women facing an unplanned pregnancy.

In response to the large number of women who have experienced abortion and suffer silently, the Catholic church has responded to offer post abortive healing. Project Rachel is one  post-abortive healing service.It is offered by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for those facing pregnancy loss, including the loss of a child through abortion.  Rachel's Vineyard is another service offering women and men a way out of despair, shame and guilt after an abortion. 

Book Details:

Ask Me How I Got Here by Christine Heppermann
New York: HarperCollins Childrens Books       2016
225 pp.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Truth About Peacock Blue by Rosanne Hawke

Aster Suleiman Masih is a Christian living in Pakistan with her father (Abba) who is a tailor and her mother (Ammi) who works in the house of Colonel Rafique and his wife (who are Muslims). She also had a brother Ijaz who suffered from asthma. They have family also living further south in Pakistan - her cousin Barakat and also in Australia; her Uncle Yusef, Aunty Noori and cousin Maryam live in Australia.  The novel opens with Ijaz's funeral. Aster's family from south Pakistan and Australia come to his funeral.

Aster realizes that her view of the world changed drastically when she was twelve years old. One morning, Aster goes out early to get water and encounters two boys attacking Hadassah in a wheat field. Her screams scare the boys off and she helps a bloodied Hadassah walk home to her mother Aunty Feebi. Hadassah was attacked by the landlord's sons. Her family keeps quiet about the attack because as Christians their village might be burned to the ground. Also the law in Pakistan will view Hadassah as the criminal, not the boys who attacked her. Three months later, Hadassah is sent to a village south of Lahore to study women's tailoring. Aster has no understanding at this point as to what has really happened to Hadassah.

The village teacher, Miss Saima, visits Aster's parents and encourages them to send her to high school in the Government Girls High School. Her father agrees and tells Aster that in April she will be sent to high school in place of Ijaz. Aster is welcomed at the school by the principal, Mrs Iqbal who tells her father that "she will be expected to take all the same subjects as the other girls, but she will be free to follow her Christian faith."  She is introduced to her class of Year Eights as Aster Suleiman Masih, which identifies her as a Christian and is seated by a girl named Rabia.

In school Aster is harassed and ridiculed by a Muslim girl named Sabeena. Mrs. Abdul who teaches Isamiyat and Arabic and who wears a burqa, takes an immediate dislike to Aster, slapping her and refusing to listen to her. Aster is afraid to return to school but her cousin Sammy, encourages her to reach out and make friends. At school her maths teacher, Miss Rehmat and the English teacher Miss Saed-Ulla encourage Aster. Rabia advises Aster to say the Kalimah, "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God." because this will make life easier for her. However, Aster refuses because she is a committed Christian.

On Sunday at church, Dr. Amal who was a friend of Izja, comes to visit and give a talk. Aster decides to take over Ijaz's facebook page, removing his picture and personal information and putting up a profile picture of a peacock. She renames the profile Peacock Blue after her favourite colour and bird. Facebook allows Aster to connect with her cousins, Sammy Ibrahim in Pakistan and Maryam Yousef in Australia.

One day after school Aster visits Mrs. Rafique's home with her mother who does their laundry and cooking. Although the Rafiques are Muslims, they have helped Aster's family, paying for Izja's medicine and giving Aster and Izja gifts for Christmas and Eid. Aster wants to tell Mr. Rafique, who was a Colonel in the army about Mrs. Abdul but she feels he won't understand.

At school Rabia confides to Aster that her father converted to Islam by saying the Kalimah. He was offered land and money to convert; now her father has an office job and her brother attends university and Rabia has good marriage prospects. Rabia suggests that Aster help her with math and English and she will tutor her in Arabic and Islamiyat. With Rabia's help, Aster begins to improve in Arabic. Eventually Colonel Rafique learns about Aster's situation and tells her she will now be tutored by him.

Aster along with her family and the entire village prepare for Hadassah's wedding. Hadassah reveals to Aster how much she misses her baby son whom she named Shahbaz after the minister of minorities who was assassinated. Hadassah is married and goes off to live with Danyal Peter in his village near Rawalpindi.

When Aster returns to school to write her exams, a terrible thing happens. Her first exam is Islamiyat. No sooner has Aster handed in her exam then she is arrested by the police and accused of blasphemy by Mrs. Abdul. Not really understanding what is happening to her, Aster is dragged out the gates of the school, which are quickly surrounded by a mob and a dozen police officers. Not knowing what she has done, unable to contact her parents, Aster is taken to the police station, her hands handcuffed behind her back and thrown into a cell. Surely she will be home quickly once this mistake is sorted out. But Aster will soon learn that in Pakistan, it doesn't matter if you are a child or you unintentionally blasphemed. Under Sharia law your life is forfeit if you blaspheme.


The Truth About Peacock Blue is a story about the rigid enforcement of Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws. The story (the fictional) Aster Suleiman parallels that of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who has been on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan for the past seven years. Asia's only crime was drinking water from the same cup as her Muslim neighbours. Petitions calling for the release of Asia whose only crime is that of being a Christian have had little effect. Salman Taseer the governor of Punjab and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti both supported freeing Asia, and both were assassinated. Asia currently lives in a squalid jail while she awaits a hearing before Pakistan's Supreme Court.

Similarly in The Truth About Peacock Blue, fourteen year old Aster is accused of blasphemy on an exam, jailed and ultimately sentenced to death. Her lawyer is subsequently assassinated. Aster's cousin Maryam begins a petition to free Peacock Blue, the name Aster uses on facebook. The novel ends with Aster, now sixteen years old,  in solitary confinement for her own protection awaiting an appeal. The story is told from Aster's point of view interspersed with posts by her cousin Maryam titled Free Peacock Blue.

Rosanne Hawke provides a balanced perspective of Pakistan's blasphemy law as she shows the persecution of Christians and Muslims alike. However, the novel's main theme is the brutal persecution of Christians in predominantly Muslim Pakistan, ironically a country formed out of the partition of India so Muslims could freely practice their own faith.Although their constitution allows for the freedom of religion, in reality, such freedom does not exist in many parts of Pakistan.

Under Pakistan's blasphemy law anyone who defiles the name of Mohammed either by the use of derogatory remarks, spoken or written, directly or indirectly is to be sentenced to death. There have been a marked increase in blasphemy charges since 1986 when the law was amended and as the country has become more radicalized. At least half of the charges have been against Christians who comprised less than three percent of the population. A charge of blasphemy in Pakistan often leads to death threats against the accused, their families, entire villages as well as lawyers and judges. The accused are often immediately jailed, sometimes placed in solitary confinement for their own safety. The blasphemy law in Pakistan is often used to persecute religious minorities or to settle personal disputes as in the case of Asia Bibi.

Hawke ably demonstrates the injustice of both Pakistan's blasphemy law as well as Sharia law through the experiences the female characters.  In jail Aster is never really safe, often beaten, sexually harassed and almost raped. She is thrown into a cell with older women all of whom are victims of Sharia Law.  Hawke uses these scenes to show how precarious life is for women under Sharia law. In cases of rape it is the victim who is punished and not the perpetrator.  Kamilah Muhammad was raped and became pregnant. When the baby began to show she was accused of zina, reported by her own father and thrown in jail. Narjis was married off to a cruel warlord to pay off a debt. Durrah killed her husband because he and his mother abused her. Hafsah, a Muslim woman was also accused of blasphemy when a quilt she was carrying knocked the Holy Qur'an off a shelf and into the fire, causing a corner of the sacred book to be burned. It was her mother-in-law's revenge for Hafsah giving birth to four girls, ignorant of the fact that  her son determines the sex of their babies. Her husband loved her and refused to marry another so her mother-in-law used the blasphemy law to remove her from the house. Muneerah, a Muslim, was secretly married to a boy she loved. When she became pregnant her father had her arrested for zina, her uncle killed her husband and when she gave birth to the baby in jail, he was taken away. Each woman has experienced the brutal effects of Sharia law.

Hawke provides a detailed account of how a blasphemy case works its way through Pakistan's corrupt justice system. Aster's trial takes place before a judge and a panel of "bearded clerics in dark shalwar qameezes" where Sharia Law rules. Therefore, many of the features of Western law which is based on Roman and Christian canon law do not apply. For example, no consideration is given to Aster's age nor the fact that she is a Christian girl who would likely know little about Islam and Muhammad. The Muslim witnesses who appear on Aster's behalf are badgered and discounted. Evidence crucial to the case is destroyed and there are no corroborating witnesses.

But The Truth About Peacock Blue is more than just a story about the evils of Sharia Law. It is a story of Christian persecution and the blossoming of a deeper faith that results. Hawke's portrayal of Aster's growing faith and trust in Khuda (God) during her imprisonment is moving. How many would keep the faith under such circumstances?  When Aster attends the government school she meets Rabia whose father converted to Islam so that his family would be better off. Rabia encourages Aster to say the Kalimah, telling her, "You should convert...It's a Muslim country, everything is easier if you're the same." but Aster refuses. When she questions Rabia about what she believes her friend is undecided but leans towards Islam. Aster states she cannot say the Kalimah just because it is expected. She must be true to what she believes and she realizes that for Rabia her faith is a cultural thing and doesn't mean much to her.

When Aster is first arrested  she struggles at first, "As I lay there thinking, I realized something horrifying: I couldn't feel God. Was my faith only something I believed in my happy life in the village? Then I heard Abba in my head: Khuda is always with us whether we feel He is or not, just believe." In the jail, Aster is told by Muneerah that her blasphemy is unforgivable and that she will never get to heaven. Aster wonders, "It astounded me how we could worship one god and have such a different understanding of him."

 Instead of focusing on Mrs. Abdul, Aster chooses to focus on Yusef (Joseph) who was sold into slavery by his brothers. "He did his best to honour Khuda even under the threat of death and became respected by the prison guards...Yusef had a special talent for interpreting dreams."  Aster begins to have dreams while in prison, most of them are frightening to her. Such as dreaming about Yusef who does not hear her pleas for help.Gradually her dreams change. "I dreamed I was in a boat. At first the waves were gentle. Fish jumped over the waves...Then the waves rose higher until the boat was as high as a mountain and I knew it would crash. I screamed and suddenly someone appeared in the boat with me. He used a pole and the boat didn't capsize as we rode down the wave with white curling foam circling us. I saw his face before the next wave came. He was enjoying the exhilaration of the ride. It was Yesu Masih. I was not alone."

After Aster is condemned as Yesu was, on the feast of little Eid or Easter she is comforted by a special dream. "That night I dreamed I was in a courtyard. A light shone and grew closer and there was Yesu Masih, holding out his hand. He wore a long cream robe and a shawl that was so bright it made the whole land  shine with colour. He looked as strong as if He could overthrow a court or a whole government if he wished it, but it was me He wanted. His dark eyes brimmed with compassion. 
'Beloved Aster.' His voice reverberated in the sky and His love settled around me like a blanket made of peacock feathers."

Aster is supported by her Christian community who pray for her and exhort her to be strong. She is visited often by Dr. Amal who tells her, "There are many people praying for you, Aster, even outside of Pakistan." Aster "prays for strength like hers (Malala) to endure the waiting."  Her father when he finally is able to visit her, tells Aster, "What makes our life different wherever we are, even in a prison, is the presence of Khuda and his love. He is in control whether we feel it or not. Just trust him  and he will help you persevere. Then hope will come." But Aster wonders, "We all knew prayers weren't always answered the way we think they will be. What if Khuda allowed me to stay in here like Job, who had to go through his suffering?"

Hawke uses metaphors throughout her novel. One such is example involves mice. Early in the novel Aster remembers how she cooked rice without noticing that there were mice droppings (mice dirt) in the bag. The mice droppings ruined the rice. This led to her getting her eyes checked and getting glasses. When she meets Zaib, the journalist who wants her to write down her story, Zaib tells her that she is Muslim but that "We have mice in the cupboards. You know about that I suspect." Zaib is comparing extremist Muslims who ruin the beauty of the Muslim faith to the mice who get into the cupboard ruining the good rice. She asks Aster not to "tar every Muslim with this same brush."

My only criticism of this novel is the cover. Aster is supposed to be dark-skinned, yet the model on the front cover is decidedly white and doesn't represent the character in the story. But overall, The Truth About Peacock Blue is well crafted, searing novel about the reality of extremism that seems to overtaking the Muslim faith in many countries.

Book Details:

The Truth About Peacock Blue by Rosanne Hawke
Crows Nest, Australia:  Allen & Unwin                          2015
253 pp.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Untwine: a novel by Edwidge Danticat

Untwine is a young adult novel about a girl who loses her twin sister in an devastating car accident and her struggle to regain her health and her life.

Sixteen-year-old identical twins, Giselle and Isabelle Boyer live in Miami, Florida with their father, David who is a lawyer and their mother, Sylvie who does the make-up for television. Their parents are planning to separate.The Boyer family is on their way to a school concert in which Isabelle will be playing flute. As strains of Igor Stravinsky's Firebird play on the CD player in their father's SUV, suddenly they are suddenly rammed from behind by a red minivan. Her father attempts to avoid the van but a retaining wall on the passenger side of the car prevents him from doing so. Isabelle, who had just taken off her seatbelt, has her head smashed against the window. As her mother screams, Gizelle and Isabelle hold hands, "...the tightest we have ever held hands in our entire lives."

Gizelle is semi-awake in the ambulance and when she is pulled out of the ambulance at the hospital. She overhears a list of serious injuries and then realizes that they are not talking about her but also about Isabelle. Eventually Gizelle briefly wakens in a small white room with a large glass window and determines that she is in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. The first person to arrive is her Aunt Leslie, who is her mother's sister and also Gizelle and Isabelle's godmother. She lives in Orlando where she is a pediatrician.

Standing behind Aunt Leslie is a policewoman who wants to question Gizelle. However, Aunt Leslie tells the policewoman that Gizelle has a very bad concussion and is drifting in and out of consciousness. Aunt Leslie is crying and the policewoman tells her that they believe what happened might not be an accident. Gizelle hears this and wonders what this means.

Although Gizelle cannot respond to those around her, she can clearly remember things that have happened in the past. She thinks about her and Isabella, how her twin is 90 seconds older and still weighs slightly more than her. She also thinks about her best friend Tina Marshall and her classmate, Jean Michel Brun who is her dream crush. Whenever Gizelle regains consciousness she is in a lot of pain. She finds herself in another room, moved from the PICU because she has no serious injuries.

Gizelle continues to awaken periodically and one time is stunned to hear the male nurse call her Isabelle. Gizelle is unable to move her arms or speak. "My whole body can't move. I can't speak, but I can see Aunt Leslie and the glass bricks on the walls."  Even Aunt Leslie believes she is Isabelle. Terribly upset, Aunt Leslie tries to fill Gizelle in on what has happened. Although Gizelle is having difficulty comprehending what her aunt is telling her, she is able to piece together that her parents are in the adult wing of the same hospital and that Isabelle has died from her terrible injuries.

Gizelle's Uncle Patrick arrives at the hospital and shows her photos of her parents on his cell phone so that she can see how they are doing. He also takes pictures of her and shows them to Gizelle. She cannot respond to him but she can see the photos although the cell phone screen bothers her. Gizelle is also visited by a doctor who is leading a group of residents on rounds. She refers to him as the "head duck" and his "ducklings". They continue to believe that she is Isabelle.

Eventually, Gizelle's parents do visit her. She is propped up in the bed, but still cannot really respond, although she can see and hear everything that is going on. Her father has more serious injuries than her mother and is in a wheelchair. It is her mother though who realizes that Gizelle has been mistakenly identified as Isabelle. Shouting to Gizelle's father, Aunt Leslie and Uncle Patrick she insists based on the scar on Gizelle's head and a mole behind her ear.

Another visit by the head neurologist with his students sees him discussing the fact that Gizelle is a twin and that she is young and should be able to shake off this head injury. He encourages her to wake up. Gizelle knows that she needs to wake up but she struggles because waking up means living life without her best friend and twin, Isabelle. It means leaving Isabelle behind.


Untwine is a beautifully crafted novel by award-winning writer, Edwidge Danticat. It explores the themes of identity and grief as a young girl copes with a devastating loss.

The story is told by sixteen-year-old Gizelle Boyer who loses her best friend and twin sister Isabelle in a terrible car accident. Gizelle is suffering from a serious concussion and has difficulty waking up. Partly she doesn't want to awaken. "I want to wake up, but I can't. Because waking up might mean leaving Isabelle behind forever." While she's not fully conscious, Gizelle is able to remember life with Isabelle, something she will no longer have. She will also have to face the reality of her parents separating.Gizelle has  vivid and rich imaginings of her sister Isabelle culminating in her imagining speaking with her sister and saying goodbye. "Isabelle is now standing at my bedside with both her hands, her perfect, unhurt hands, resting on the railing of my hospital bed. She's wearing her orchestra uniform, the white blouse, black pencil skirt, and black bow tie, the same one she was wearing in the car...You've really astonished me here," she says, looking down at me in the bed. 'You've been great. Super great. For the rest of your life you keep stunning me. Just keep stunning me.' " Gizelle tells Isabelle she won't live and that she loves her.

However, the head neurologist, Dr. Aidoo believes that Gizelle can recover and he encourages her to fight to wake up. When Gizelle loses her hearing she makes the decision to try to awaken, starting with trying to move her toes. "I'm tired of my silence. I'm tired of having all these thoughts racing through my head. Even if I can't hear them, I to be able to say something." As she struggles to give her family a sign that she is trying to wake up she thinks, "It's a lot harder to  move forward than to fall back. I have to remind myself that no matter how hard it seems, I just can't keep falling back."

Eventually Gizelle wakes up and begins her recovery from her severe concussion.Gizelle's biggest struggle is dealing with being a survivor. At her sister's funeral, Gizelle is unnerved seeing her sister - her identical twin in a coffin. "But even with all of the makeup, she still looks like me. It's like looking at me."  Gizelle knows what she looks like dead because she has her sister to show her. "I know exactly what I look like dead. I look like Isabelle."  Isabelle's friend states what everyone is thinking - "You look just like her." Although others are upset, Gizelle recognizes the truth of the comment. "A few people gasp, but she is telling the truth. An uncomfortable truth, but the truth nonetheless. No one will ever forget Isabelle as long as I'm walking around with her body and her face. My sister is dead and I am her ghost."

Gizelle must now face life without Isabelle. She always thought of her future connected to that of Isabelle's, that they would share their lives important moments. Gizelle feels that her identity as a twin has changed with Isabelle's death. "But what are you called when your twin dies? I want some name other than twinless twin. I want something simple, lyrical sophisticated sounding. Even though I know it would never fully comfort me. I want something beautiful to now call myself." 

Gizelle's friends, Jean Michel and Tina are trying to learn more about the mysterious Gloria Carlton who caused the accident. When they visit Gizelle to tell her about what they have learned, Gizelle notices that Jean Michel has Frida Kahlo's The Two Fridas as a screensaver. Gizelle is stunned because the painting represents exactly how she feels. "How does he know, I wonder, that this is exactly how I've been feeling? Split in half sometimes, and at other times walking, living, breathing for two. Two hearts are beating in my one chest, but it feels like no heart at all." 

The portrait painted in 1939 by the Mexican artist, is a self portrait, showing two Fridas. One is dressed in the traditional Tehuana costume (blue dress and green skirt) with a whole, beating heart and holding a locket. The other Frida is dressed in a white, lacy Victorian dress and has a bleeding, broken heart, the vein running down into her lap, dripping blood. The two Fridas are holding hands, their hearts connected. The painting is a metaphor of Gizelle in several ways. First it represents Gizelle, the whole Gizelle before the accident and the Gizelle who lost her sister. When Tina presents her with "a framed picture, half the size of a postcard. In the red plastic frame is a shrunken copy of Frida Kahlo's The Two Fridas." at first Gizelle wonders which one she is but then she understands what her friend Tina and Jean Michel are attempting to tell her. "It takes me a while to figure it out, but eventually I do. I think he's trying to tell me what everyone's been telling me in one way or another since Isabelle died, that I won't be the bloodless Frida forever, the one day, my heart will be full of life again." 

The Two Fridas might also represent both twins; Isabelle (in the white dress) broken and bleeding and Gizelle in the Tehuana costume, whole and healthy. Isabelle and Gizelle were holding hands when the accident happened. "We were holding hands the tightest we have ever held hands in our entire lives. We were holding hands just as we had been holding hands on the day we were born...We were born holding hands." When the car crashes into Isabelle's car door, Gizelle remembers "My sister was still holding my hand, but now our hands were wet and sticky, and hot."  

The cover of the novel expresses the theme of twins and the death of one twin through the use of two hearts with veins spreading out from them. In keeping with the theme, one heart has as set of veins which become branches filled with blossoms representing the living Gizelle, the other heart has a set of veins which become dead branches representing Isabelle.

Danticat does an excellent job of developing her main character, Gizelle: the reader feels tremendous empathy for Gizelle as she struggles to accept the loss of her twin sister. If there's a weakness in this novel, it is the lack of development of secondary characters, although Gizelle's Aunt Leslie is particularly well done. It is Aunt Leslie who helps move Gizelle forward in the process of grieving.

Untwine is further unique in the bits of Haitian culture woven through the story, making this novel even more engaging read. Despite Gizelle's parents troubled marriage, we never feel like she is left alone to cope as her extended Haitian family is very supportive and she finds comfort in some of her family's customs. Untwine is truly wonderful novel.

Book Details:

Untwine: a novel by Edwidge Danticat
New York: Scholastic Press   2015
303 pp.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

DVD: Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe is a biopic about a young Ugandan girl, Phiona Mutesi who becomes a Woman Candidate Chess Master after competing in the World Chess Olympiad. The movie traces her life and development as a chess master beginning in 2007 until 2012.

In 2007 nine-year-old Phiona is living in Katwe, the largest of Kampala's slums with her mother Harriet and her brothers, Brian and Richard. Phiona's father has died, although the reason is not given in the film (he died of AIDS when she was three years old, making the family's situation desperate). Phiona's older sister, Night is becoming involved with a guy named Theo who gives her rides on his motorbike. When he shows up at their home in the slum, Harriet chases him away and scolds Night telling her she needs to sell maize to feed her brothers.

Meanwhile Robert Katende tells his friend Kyazze that he has been turned down for an engineering job. Kyazze tells him the officials don't care about his marks but about his family status. He convinces Katende to accept a full time job with the ministry giving hope to slum children. Katende reluctantly accepts, telling Kyazze he will do the job only until he finds an engineering job. 

Phiona and her brother Brian are sent out daily to sell maize in the market, but her older brother frequently disappears. One day Phiona decides to follow him and discovers he goes to a camp run by Sports Outreach Institute, a Christian organization that uses sports to evangelize children. The program is run by Robert Katende. At Sports Outreach he gets served a cup of porridge and is taught how to play chess. Phiona enters the shack but is mocked by the other kids who tell her she smells. Undeterred by the comments about her smell, Phiona showers, cleans herself and arrives the next day to learn how to play chess. Phiona shows an aptitude for chess and  by 2008 begins to win games against the other children in the program. The other children are anxious to play the city children as Katende promised so he approaches the Chairman of the Father Grimes Tournament, which is held at King's College at Budo. Chairman Barumba cites many reasons why the Katwe children cannot compete; they might bring diseases, they do not attend a school, and they cannot pay the 4,000 shillings entrance fee. However, Katende thanks him and is able to make the fee by playing soccer.

Meanwhile, Harriet pulls Brian and Phiona out of the Pioneer club believing they are being taught to gamble. However Katende manages to convince her that chess is not a gambling game but one of reason and intelligence. He also convinces her to allow her children to play in the tournament at King's College, promising to find a way for them to attend school. At the Father Grimes National Schools Chess Championship, the Katwe children do well but it is Phiona who defeats the top-ranked player and is awarded the Budoan gold medal. For Phiona, it is the beginning of a journey that will take her to different countries and open doors to education and opportunities both for herself and her family.

In Queen of Katwe, well known actors Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo were cast as Phiona's mother Nakku Harriet and Robert Katende respectively. Phiona was played by Madina Nalwanga, a newcomer and fellow Ugandan. All give excellent performances.

Director Mira Nair who lives in Kampala for part of the year, shots some of the movie's scenes in Kampala. Nair really captures the precarious situation of Phiona's family as they struggle to survive day to day. It is a most revealing portrait of the very poor in Africa. There is no electricity in the Katwe slum, instead they must burn paraffin. At one point the family arrives home after rushing Phiona's brother to the hospital, to find they have been evicted from the shack they live in. They spend the night wandering Katwe. Eventually they find a home; it has no privacy with a patchy roof and even missing walls. As Phiona wins tournaments her family's situation begins to improve. Chess offers her the opportunity to escape the slum and purchase a new home for her mother.

The pacing of the movie is uneven as it takes time to build Phiona's development as a chess player and to show how winning affects her relationship with her mother. As Phiona becomes known throughout Uganda she refuses to work, wanting to spend her time studying chess strategy. This attitude makes her mother angry and she confronts Katende telling him that he has ruined her children. Phiona learns to read and write and eventually goes to live with the Katende's for a period of time. Her mother, at first reluctant to encourage Phiona eventually realizes that playing chess might be the way out of poverty for her daughter, especially after Night returns home, abandoned and pregnant.

Critics of the film have questioned why a movie was made about Phiona Mutesi, whom some consider to be a mediocre chess player at best. However, given her precarious situation growing up in the slums of Kampala, there's no doubt Phiona's accomplishments should be recognized.There are now many chess clubs throughout Uganda. Chess offers children a chance to develop their reasoning and critical thinking skills, preparing them for the challenges they face in the developing world.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Soldier Boys by Dean Hughes

Dean Hughes' Soldier Boys is the tragic story of two young men who enlist to fight for their countries in World War II. It is a gritty, realistic account of the horror of war told in alternating narratives.

The novel opens a week after Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, unleashing the German blitzkrieg. Ten year old Dieter Hedrick, a member of the Jungfolk, is intimidated into jumping into a icy pond by seventeen-year-old Hans Keller, a Scharfuhrer with the Hitler Youth. Dieter is both afraid of the water and ashamed to be seen naked by the older boys, yet he wants to be complimented by Hans, who is funny and fierce, and whom he idolizes. Dieter is thrilled by Hitler's speeches and the victories achieved by the German army, the Wehrmacht. "Dieter thrilled to the words hoping that the day would come when he could prove himself the way these valiant soldiers were doing." Dieter sees Hitler as standing-up for Germany.  However, Dieter's father is not impressed by Hitler as he fears years of war.  To Dieter his father seems weak and he is ashamed. Although he's reluctant, Dieter jumps into the cold water of the pond, not once but twice. He believes that given the chance, he will go to war and make his family proud.

The story jumps ahead to December, 1941. Fifteen-year-old Spencer Morgan is a Mormon living in just outside Brigham City, Utah with his mother, father, his nineteen-year-old brother Robert and his sister Louise, and his eleven-year old brother, Lloyd. His family runs an orchard, growing peaches, cherries and apricots. Robert is determined to sign up to go fight the Japanese. Meanwhile, Spencer who is crushing on LuAnn Crowther, tries to impress her by stating that when his time comes, he too will sign up.

The narrative jumps ahead two years to November, 1943. Spence who is sixteen, is flunking high school and he's determined to enlist. But his father is not happy, telling Spence that he is not mature enough and that he suspects Spence wants to prove something to LuAnn. Although she and Spence did date a bit, they parted ways and LuAnn has been dating Dennis Stevens and it is rumoured they plan to marry when she graduates high school. In the end, Spence's father signs his papers. Spence promises his dad he will turn to God for support and that he won't take extra chances. When Spence meets LuAnn he tells her he plans to join the paratroopers. Later on his older sister Louise confronts him, stating that he's only joining "to show-up LuAnn" which Spence vehemently denies.

Spence passes the intelligence test and is sent to Georgia for basic training and jump school for the Airborne to become a paratrooper. There he meets Ted Draney from Colorado and the two become fast friends, talking each other out of dropping out of paratrooper school. They spend the next thirteen weeks preparing for their first jump and eventually make it through paratrooper school. After spending time in a camp on Salisbury Plain, west of London, Spence and Ted who are part of the 17th Airborne Infantry Division, are being sent to the Ardennes Forest. Hitler undertook a surprise attack across the Belgian and Luxembourg borders, penetrating deep into the Ardennes Forest. This bulge in the American defense lines has become known as the Battle of the Bulge. The day after Christmas Spence's battalion gets dropped off closer to the front. He's about to get his first taste of war.

In September of 1944, Dieter Hedrick is now fifteen and working with crews of Hitler Youth, digging antitank trenches near the Mosel River in Luxembourg, along the Siegfied Line. With the Allies pushing out of Normandy and across France, this is Germany's attempt to stop them from invading Germany. Dieter is now a Scharfuhrer, having distinguished himself during weapons training camp. He was part of an antiaircraft battery in Augsburg. Dieter soon sees death when one of his crew is killed by aircraft fire, and a deserter is tied up and shot. To reward his efforts, Dieter along with many other young boys is taken to a train car where he meets Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and Hitler himself, who awards the boys the War Service Cross, First Class. Filled with Nazi fervor, Dieter becomes determined to enlist, hounding Lieutenant Feiertag. He gets what he wants and is shipped out to the front, a member "in a company of soldiers in the Forty-seventh Panzer Corps, part of the Fifteenth Army." There he meets Colonel Schaefer who challenges everything Dieter has been told about war, Germany and Hitler and the reason he's fighting.


Soldier Boys is a tragic story that demonstrates how the idealization of war and military propaganda draws young people in, where they are eventually confronted with its horrific reality. The book follows the paths of two young men from two countries at war - Germany and America as they become soldiers. Both boys are under-aged and immature, enlisting for the wrong reasons. One is heavily propagandized and brainwashed and patriotic to a fault, the other naive and hoping to prove his worth on the battlefield.

Dieter enlists out of patriotic emotions that are the result of indoctrination by the Nazis. He believes Germany has the high ground in the war and is simply protecting itself from America, Russia and Poland. When he is ten years old Dieter listens to "Hitler's fine speech to his people" and he believes that Poland had provoked Germany into attacking. Dieter views Hitler as someone "standing up for the Fatherland, making it a great nation again."

However, Dieter's views clash with his father, a veteran of the Great War, who never talks about "the brave German boys". Instead his father spoke about the the trenches, the mud, the food and being one of the lucky ones to survive. Dieter believes his father may have been a coward, given that he shows no evidence of having done anything great. Eventually over the next few years Dieter works tirelessly in the Hitler Youth and gets himself sent to the front in 1944. By this time the tide of war has turned against Germany, morale is low, and the Wehrmacht that Dieter loves is armed with the very old and the very young.

Dieter's "idea of an honorable death had always been glorious and clean." However when he sees another Hitler Youth die a gruesome death, he is forced to confront the reality of death. The truth about the war is revealed though by Schaefer who tells him: "You believe all these lies. You know nothing. We attacked London early on in the beginning. We wiped out Warsaw. We're as much to blame as anyone for all this killing of children and women and little boys." Dieter's response is to not believe Schaefer and to consider him a traitor. Schaefer warns him that the war is already lost, "Germany has already lost the war. The Russians have won in the east...Don't die for that pig Hitler." He tells Dieter to try to save his own life. He also reveals the truth behind the Nazi propaganda about the Jews, that millions are being gassed. Even though Dieter is sickened by this he still refuses to believe Schaefer, telling him he's a coward.

As they face their last battle, Dieter finds himself reconsidering death and heroism. "He knew that a hero shouldn't fear death, but where was the glory in dying for his country and never knowing it --just lying on the battlefield, gray and hard as ice? It was nice to think of a statue in his village, at least a placard with his name on it, but it wouldn't happen, he supposed, and even if it did, what would it mean to him, once he was one of those frozen corpses?"

Spencer's narrative is not as well developed and his reason for enlisting seems superficial. Spence's father hopes he will be a missionary and preach, however Spence isn't interested. Instead, his reasons for enlisting are to prove himself to LuAnn Crowther, the girl who rejected him. Spence believes he is not good looking; he has buckskin-colored hair, freckles and crooked teeth. Spence, like every other boy wanted LuAnn to be his girl, but after dating for a short time they each went their separate ways and she's now dating a wealthy boy named Dennis Stevens. He believes that LuAnn can't really see the kind of man he will be. "He was no coward. LuAnn would know, when the time came, what kind of man he could be." After enrolling Spence believes that LuAnn pities him and he is hopeful he will return as a hero. Spence's father recognizes his reason for wanting to join, yet still signs his papers.

Like Dieter, Spence's view of the military is highly idealized.He sees the respect paratroopers get and so he becomes determined to get into Airborne training. When he's finished his training he wants to go home so LuAnn could see the man he's become but that doesn't happen. Eventually he's sent as an infantryman into The Battle of the Bulge. War is very different from what Spence imagined. "He didn't understand any of this. He had seen war in his head so many times, imagined it, but this was all wrong. It was digging and waiting, with guns miles away blowing people up. How was he supposed to be brave against something so big, too far off, to face and fight?"

In the heat of the battle, with his best friend dead as well as many other soldiers, Spence is sick with the realization of what war really is. "And suddenly he was furious. He hadn't known it would be like this, hadn't understood what he was getting into when he had signed up. Some idiot had sent the company down that hill, sacrificed them for no good reason. Who was running this war? Did they know what they were doing? Did anyone even care that Ted had died for nothing?"

Refusing to accept the norms of war, that you simply let the enemy die, when Spence hears the cries of a young wounded German soldier he knows he has to act. "What would he want someone to do, he asked himself, if his own little brother were the one down there?" In the end his act of heroism is remembered, but he's not there to witness it. Spence's heroic act is not what he thought it would be - the killing in battle of another soldier. Ironically, he loses his life trying to save the life of an enemy soldier. It is an act Spence's father knows the people of Brigham City will not understand.

Hughes captures the essence of war, the horror, the fear and the waste that comes along with it through the eyes of two young boys. Soldier Boys asks us to consider the cost of war to those who become soldiers. It demonstrates how the propaganda of war is used to deceive people into believing war is glamorous and honourable. In the end, there are no winners.

Soldier Boys is a short, quick novel that offers plenty of themes for readers to consider.

Book Details:

Soldier Boys by Dean Hughes
Toronto: Atheneum Books for Young Readers    2015
194 pp.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Silent Songbird by Melanie Dickerson

Silent Songbird is the seventh installment Melanie Dickerson's historical fairy-tale romance series, the Hagenheim series. Seventeen year old Evangeline lives in Berkhamsted Castle in Hertfordshire, England with her maid, Muriel. Evangeline is a ward of King Richard II who is her cousin. Her father was the king's deceased uncle, Lionel of Antwerp. She and Richard have been friends since they were children.

Evangeline decides to flee Berkhamsted Castle to avoid being forced to marry Lord Shiveley who is an older, trusted advisor of King Richard. Her appeal to Richard fails to move the king to change his mind. Determined to escape that night, Evangeline disguises herself as a peasant and flees with Muriel. They fall in with a group leaving the castle after selling wheat and other goods during the day. That group is led by a young nobleman, Westley le Wyse who is returning to his family's estate in Glynval. When he meets Evangeline and Muriel he agrees to allow them to travel with his group when Muriel tells him that Evangeline is mute as a result of an attack by her mistress.

On the journey to Glynval, the group encounters men on horseback, wearing the livery of Lord Shiveley and King Richard. They inform Westley's group that they are looking for two women, one of whom is tall and has red hair. Because the woman they are looking for is not mute like Eva, they tell Shiveley's men they have not seen the women.

When they arrive at Glynval they are taken to Westley's father's castle, which is much smaller than that of Berkhamsted Castle. Mistress Alice assigns Muriel who goes by the name of Mildred, to churn butter while Evangeline is sent to work in the fields, scything wheat. It soon becomes apparent that Evangeline is incapable of doing any menial tasks. Everything she is assigned, she is unable to do and usually ends in disaster. First she almost seriously wounds Reeve Folsham with the scythe. Westley intervenes and has Evangeline sent to the castle where Lady le Wyse assigns her to work under Golda, the head cook. Working with Sabina, Nicola, Berta and Cecily, Eva is unable to shell peas. She finds it difficult to draw water from the well and when sent to put the slop into the pigs' trough, Evangeline inadvertently allows the animals to escape. However, with Westley's help, they return the pigs to their pen.

Westley wants to know more about Eva's injury to her voice. He tells her that his friend, John Underhill's father was killed during the peasant uprising. Westley's father gave his servants a decent wage and lessened their work hours while John's father did not. John is angry as Westley and his father, Lord le Wyse and blames them for his father's death. Eva gets Westley to understand that she can read and write and this leads him to invite her to the castle that night to read the Bible together.

Muriel attempts to convince Evangeline to return to Hertfordshire, telling her it is her duty to marry whomever the king chooses, but she refuses. Evangeline hands have become badly blistered and it is Westley who treats them with a special salve made by his mother. Given the day off, she wanders along the bank of the river and is witness to Westley being attacked by two men. He is struck on the head and falls into the river. Evangeline rescues him and unable to pull him out, begins screaming for help. Sabina, the miller's daughter arrives to help and is astonished that Evangeline can speak. Together they along with several men get Westley back to the manor house. Sabina who intends to marry Westley, threatens to reveal Evangeline's secret if she takes credit for his rescue.

Evangeline realizes she will now have to reveal her secret because she knows Sabina will tell and she also believes Westley is in danger. However revealing her secret may mean Evangeline will be sent back to Berkhamsted castle to marry the nefarious Lord Shiveley. However, Westley's family has a connection to Lord Shiveley that may just end up saving Evangeline.


Silent Songbird stays true to the tropes that are common in historical romance fiction. In this case, a virginal heroine runs away to avoid marriage to a rake only to meet the virtuous, handsome, kind man of her dreams whom she can't marry because he's beneath her station in life. However, the two end up marrying and living happily ever after.

There are essentially two storylines in Silent Songbird centered around the two main characters; Evangeline's forced marriage to Lord Shiveley and Westley's conflict with John Underhill. The novel opens with Evangeline's story. Dickerson uses the threat of Evangeline's imminent marriage to draw her readers into the story. Evangeline devises a scheme of pretending she's mute but this causes her and Muriel problems. Confronted with Westley's generosity and kindness, Evangeline feels enormous guilt over deceiving him about not being able to speak. It's probably unlikely that Evangeline would have be able to avoid a forced marriage in the 14th century. As Muriel repeatedly tells Evangeline in the novel, "Romantic love is very well to dream about to imagine what it might be like to fall in love and marry and live in bliss for the rest of your life...But it is not the way of kings and those with royal blood." Evangeline likely would have been prepared for the eventually of marriage, even to a much older man. No other opportunities would have be available for her as a ward of the king, other than entering a convent. In the story however Westley's parents who are nobility are uncharacteristically determined to help Evangeline even if it means losing everything. "Losing everything is sometimes the price one must pay for doing the right thing. I could not save my cousin, but perhaps...perhaps we can save the king's..." As it turns out they are more than acquainted with Lord Shiveley.

In Westley's narrative, Dickerson provides some of the historical backstory that led to the conflict between Westley and John. Set in England in 1384, the story occurs after the Peasant Revolts of 1381. The black death had ravaged the population in 1340 resulting in a shortage of labour. England was involved in an ongoing conflict with France that would become known at the Hundred Years War. High taxes and the practice of serfdom also contributed to the revolts in which some of the noblemen and royal officials were killed. King Richard met with the rebels and was able to successfully put down the revolt. The roots of the revolt form the basis for the major conflict in the novel between Westley le Wyse and John Underhill.

Silent Songbird
is highly romanticized and idealistic; Westley is handsome, a Bible-reading Christian, concerned with everyone's welfare. His foil is John Underhill, the opposite of Westley in every way. Similarly, Evangeline is a sweet, caring, innocent girl, the opposite of the conniving, mean-spirited Sabina.

Fans of Dickerson will enjoy this novel as it follows the formula of her other books in this series.

Book Details:

Silent Songbird by Melanie Dickerson
Nashville, Tennessee:  Thomas Nelson      2016
282 pp.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lighter Than Air by Matthew Clark Smith

Lighter Than Air is a picture book about Sophie Blanchard, the first woman to fly in a balloon. Ballooning was a popular craze in eighteenth-century France as man began to look to the heavens and sought a way to fly.

Two French brothers, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier had invented a hot-air balloon and run several trials with it. Joseph's idea for the hot air balloon came about while watching the embers rise into the air from a fire. He and his brother built a box with and attached sac constructed out of taffetta and lit a fire in the box. Their first balloon travelled almost two kilometers before crashing.

When the first manned balloon flight took place in November of 1793, Sophie Armant was five years old. Her full name was Marie Madeleine Sophie Armant and she was born in 1778 in Trois-Canons, France. Sophie who was nervous of the noisy carriages used for travel in those days, wished she could fly like the birds. As she grew up, ballooning continued to flourish in France, even becoming incorporated into the fashion of the era and even in furniture.

One of the most famous balloonists was Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who along with John Jeffries an American doctor, were the first to cross the English Channel in 1785 in a balloon. Sophie was fascinated by Blanchard's feats and was determined to become a balloonist. This was a daring ambition as women would not thought capable of doing many things that men did. Sophie married Blanchard, who had earlier abandoned his wife and four children to pursue his ambition of becoming a balloonist. Blanchard believed that having a young woman accompany him might make ballooning more profitable. Soon Sophie made her own solo ascent in 1805. He was correct. After his death in 1809, Sophie carried on becoming a famous balloonist.

Lighter Than Air tells the remarkable story of how Sophie Blanchard became the first woman balloonist and was so famous that Emperor Napoleon made her Chief Minister of Air Ballooning. Author Matthew Clark Smith is a naturalist and writer who makes his home in Mississippi. Smith wanted to tell Sophie's story because he views her as the first in a long and proud line of women who became aeronauts, pilots and astronauts, proving that women can do anything men can do!

Lighter Than Air is illustrated with the lovely ink and watercolour art of Matt Tavares who is an award-winning children's book author-illustrator. His first picture book was Zachary's Ball which was published in 2000. Tavares states in a note at the back of the book that he tried to use the sky to help tell Sophie's story.

Other resources to further your interest:

The Smithsonian website has an article, Sophie Blanchard - The Highflying Frenchwoman Who Revealed the Thrill and Danger of Ballooning.

Nova's website also has a webpage, A Short History of Ballooning which is helpful.

A short animated film The Fantastic Flights of Sophie Blanchard was made in 2012.

Book Details:

Lighter Than Air by Matthew Clark Smith
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press 2017

Monday, April 24, 2017

DVD: Lion

Lion brings to the big screen, the remarkable story of Saroo Brierley who was lost at age five, adopted by an Australian couple and who as an adult eventually located his family in India. This beautiful film, directed by Garth Davis

In 1987, Saroo whose real name was Sheru Munshi Khan, was allowed to accompany his fourteen year old brother Guddu to beg for food. Sheru lived in Ganesh Tali with his mother and his brothers and sisters. Their father had abandoned the family and they were very poor, so the boys often begged for food.

On that fateful day, Guddu and Saroo took the train from Khandwa station to Burhanpur. While Guddu went to look for food, Saroo slept on a bench. When he woke up, Guddu was no where to be found. Thinking he was on the train waiting in the station, Saroo boarded. However, the train was not in service and Saroo ended up travelling over 1500 miles to Calcutta. Lost, confused, and unable to speak the local dialect of Bengali, (Saroo spoke Hindi) he spent weeks on the streets before being taken to the Nava Jeevan orphanage by an older boy. The orphanage was run by Saroj Sood. Eventually, Saroo was adopted by a couple, John and Sue Brierley from Tasmania, Australia.

In Australia, Saroo quickly settled into his new life. He was raised in the Brierley's loving home with another Indian orphan, Manosh. However Saroo never forgot his brother nor his mother. In the movie, which is based on the book, A Long Way Home written by Saroo Brierley, when Saroo is in Melbourne studying hotel management, an Indian dinner with friends forces him to confront his past. He admits he was adopted and explains to his friends, including his girlfriend Lucy, what happened to him as a young child. They suggest that he try this new feature called Google Earth to try to locate his village.

Sunny Pawar as young Saroo
At first Saroo is dismissive of this suggestion but he soon begins his search. His time searching causes him great inner turmoil as he struggles to cope with the knowledge that his mother and his brother may still be searching for him and likely thinking of him each and every day. Using Google Earth and social media, Saroo is able to locate his village but will his family still be there? Saroo travels to India and is reunited with his family after twenty-five long years.

In Lion, a young Saroo is portrayed by Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate is his older brother Guddu and Dev Patel was cast as the adult Saroo Brierley. Nicole Kidman and David Wenham of Faramir fame from Lord of the Rings play Saroo's adoptive parents. Pawar is captivating in his performance, endearing himself to viewers as we watch this small, innocent boy struggle through his fears and loneliness to survive on the streets of Calcutta. To better portray the reality of young Saroo's situation the movie contains many scenes, shot overheard, showing the little boy in the contrasting, sweeping vistas that exist in India, and among crowded streets and dirty slums.The second half of the movie is devoted to a grown-up Saroo's struggle to locate his family in India based only on the vivid memories he retains from his childhood. His search began using the satellite images on Google Earth and over a period of months he finally located what he thought might be his family's village. Saroo could remember only that the nearest railway station began with the letter B and when he found Burhanpur station he begins to recognize features on the satellite images. Davis does a great job of showing us the images Saroo would have viewed and the map he created as he worked his way through eliminating possible villages. These are juxtaposed with images Saroo remembers from his memories of what happened. His reunion with his mother is tender and emotional; Dev Patel and Priyanka Bose who portrays Kamla Munshi, probably capture only the barest essence of what this truly must have felt like.

Saroo with his family in India.
Davis says that he sees his film as having two parts; the first part portrays the outside journey Saroo experiences as he travels across India alone in a the train, then in search of his brother and his family and finally to Australia, the second part of the film portrays the inner journey of Saroo as he struggles to understand his past and find his family. Saroo has stated that he does not see himself as having two identities, but instead as having two families: one in India and one in Australia.

If you haven't seen Lion, go see it. It's a wonderfully realistic portrayal of one man's journey back home that feels honest.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

To Catch A Killer by Sheryl Scarborough

To Catch a Killer is a somewhat predictable murder mystery. Author Sheryl Scarborough is a forensics buff who has incorporated her knowledge into the novel; readers interested in basic forensic science won't be disappointed.

Erin Blake lives in Iron Rain, Oregon with her mother's best friend, Rachel. Erin's mother, Sarah Blake was murdered fourteen years ago. Erin was only a toddler at the time and survived three days alone beside the corpse of her murdered mother. With the identity of her father unknown, Rachel took in Erin.

Once again Erin finds herself at the scene of a murder - this time involving her beloved biology teacher, Miss Laura Peters. Erin found her body lying in a pool of blood when she went to drop off DNA samples for Miss Peters to analyze. She tells the police officer named Baldwin that she saw someone running away from Miss Peters' house and identifies the person as Journey Michaels, a classmate.

Rachel arrives at the police station where her best friend,  Detective Sydney Rankle works. As she's leaving, Journey Michaels is being brought in for questioning. The next morning Rachel questions Erin about why she was at Miss Peters home early in the morning.  Erin doesn't tell Rachel what really happened and why she was leaving a bloodied towel in Miss Peters mailbox. She tells Rachel that she knows so much about forensics from Rachel's brother Victor's books on the subject. "Uncle" Victor works for the FBI. Rachel is not supportive of Erin's interest in forensics as she believes it is a trigger for her based on what happened when she was younger. But Erin, her best friend Spam and her other friend Lysa run a Cheater Check club where they offer forensic services to their fellow students to see if boyfriends/girlfriends are cheating.

It turns out that Erin is quite keen on forensics. She has a secret door in her closet that leads to the attic where her mother's old furniture is stored and where she is also hiding the box containing evidence from her mother's murder.The attic also houses Erin's beginnings of a small lab complete with a microscope. Erin tells her friends that there were three potential male suspects in her mother's case that she considers might be her father. From her mother's evidence she knew their identities and was able to surreptitiously obtain DNA evidence with the intention of determining if any are her father. Miss Peters was going to do the tests.

When Erin returns to school, she attempts to talk with Journey but he seeks her out and is furious, handing her a thin strip of white and blue fabric claiming she dropped it. Erin is shocked because the fabric Journey Michaels hands her is a missing part of her mother's dress. Erin gets a pass home from Mr. Roberts, the principal and unexpectedly finds police confiscating her laptop and other possessions. Sydney tells her that Journey is cleared but that she is a person of interest. Luckily the police do not search the attic. Erin has no idea what the piece of fabric means and she's determined to speak with Journey.

They meet after school and compare what happened that night outside Miss Peters house. Journey reveals that he had brought a toothbrush to Miss Peters because he is trying to clear his father of murder. Erin takes Journey to her house and shows her the box of evidence and her budding crime lab. Erin tells him that the tie he gave her was part of her mother's dress and has been missing for fourteen years. She believes if they can figure out who left the material in the van and why they can solve both her mother and Miss Peter's murders.


To Catch A Killer features four teens who attempt to solve the murder of their biology teacher through the use of forensics. The teens are led by the main character, Erin Blake who was present when her mother was murdered years ago. Erin is a forensics buff like her "Uncle" Vince who works for the FBI. She reads all his books on forensics procedures.

Crime novels create suspense partly by concealing the identity of the perpetrator. But in To Catch A Killer, readers will clue-in early on to the identity of the murderer as this character's behaviour stands out as creepy and just strange. However, Erin doesn't notice because she considers this person a close friend.

The focus of the story is on the forensics used to solve crimes and Scarborough delivers on that count.  Scarborough incorporates many forensic facts into her story by having Erin either practice them or mention them to her friends. There is an eleven-page description of Victor and Erin conducting a DNA extraction at Erin's house. Despite the story being engaging, many of the situations seemed contrived to move the plot along. For example, principals don't usually give out passes (most schools have attendance offices that do this or vice principals - which did not exist in this story) but it was necessary to have Erin go home to discover the police searching her bedroom. Another strange situation involved Rachel's lame attempt to convince Erin that there was no intruder in their house despite the fact that Erin saw the man and had physical evidence (the footprint) of his presence. The fabric from Erin's mother's dress was the clue that linked the person who murdered Sarah Blake to the murder of Miss Peters yet at the reveal near the end, the reader has to wonder why that person was carrying around a piece of fabric for fourteen years (and it still seemed in good condition) and dropped it in Journey's van?

The characters in To Catch A Killer are interesting, especially Spam, but not as developed as they could be. Scarborough does give more detail on the relationship between Erin and Spam and of course, there's a budding romance between Journey and Erin.

Overall, To Catch A Killer is a fun read, with an exciting conclusion. It's not Agatha Christie but for those who love mysteries and lots of forensics, it's a winner. Scarborough ties up most of the loose ends but not all.

Book Details:

To Catch A Killer by Sheryl Scarborough
New York: Tom Doherty  Associates       2017
320 pp.