Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Movie: Ben Hur

Since 1959, the movie Ben Hur, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston as Judah Ben Hur and Stephen Boyd as Messala has been a beloved classic. The Oscar winning film's iconic chariot race scene, the stage for the final, deadly confrontation between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala captured the imaginations of theatre-goers in way unheard of. This summer's release of a new adaptation doesn't quite measure up to the 1959 classic but Ben Hur is still a good effort and better than typical swords and sandals movies.

For those who might not know, Ben Hur is actually based on a novel of the same name by Lew Wallace. In this years adaptation, the movie begins by focusing on the close relationship between a prince of Israel, Judah Ben Hur and his adopted Roman brother, Messala. Messala lives in Jerusalem in the house of Ben-Hur as an equal. The two love to race horses but their kinship can go only so far. Messala is in love with Judah's sister, Tirzah but because he is not a Jew, Judah and Tirzah's mother, Naomi disapproves. This leads Messala to leave Jerusalem to make his fortune in the Roman Army. While he is gone, Judah marries Esther but Tirzah remains unmarried. Messala makes a name for himself in the Roman army fighting in Germania and other Roman territories. Just prior to his return, three zealots are found hiding in the Ben Hur stables by Judah. One of the zealots, Dismas, has been seriously injured. Judah treats the wounded young man, orders the others away and informs Dismas he can stay until he heals but he must not fight against the Romans.

Messala returns to Jerusalem as head of the Roman garrison and reunites with Ben Hur. Instead of brutally killing the Jews opposed to Roman oppression, Messala has tried to be lenient but when a group of Roman soldiers are attacked in the Jewish graveyard, he seeks out Ben Hur and tells him he needs help. Messala wants Judah to provide him the names of the zealots who are involved because Pontius Pilate will be arriving in the city and he does not want trouble. Judah refuses but assures Messala that the Jews have agreed to not cause problems. As Pilate makes his way through the city an attempt is made on his life. That attempt comes from the rooftop of the Ben Hur house and is made by Dismas. Dismas manages to escape in the ensuing confusion, allowed to by Ben Hur who knows he will be crucified if caught. The Roman soldiers capture Judah, Naomi and Tirzah but Esther manages to escape. Messala rails against Judah, whom he accuses of treason, sentencing him to the galleys and ordering Naomi and Tirzah to be crucified. On his way to the galleys, Judah has his second encounter with the teacher, Jesus who brings him water.

Judah survives five years in the galleys, fueled by his hatred. His galley is destroyed (along with all the other Roman ships) in a battle against the Greeks who have been plundering Roman ships in the Aegean Sea. Judah washes up on the shore near the tent camp of Sheik Ilderim who recognizes that he is an escaped galley slave and threatens to take him to the Roman garrison. However Judah saves Ilderim's sick horse, is spared learns of his story. Judah accompanies his entourage to Jerusalem where he meets Esther who is now a follower of the prophet Jesus. She tells him she does not know what has happened to Judah's mother and sister and that he cannot be seen in the city. Judah decides to confront Messala, luring him to the abandoned Ben-Hur home but is almost captured.

Recognizing Judah's desire for vengeance, Sheik Ilderim tells Judah that the best revenge is to be obtained in the coliseum by challenging Messala to a chariot race and humiliating him and Rome by winning. Sheik Ilderim arranges with Pontius Pilate for Judah to race and that if he wins all Roman claims against Ben-Hur will be void. Pontius Pilate agrees and so Judah begins training as a charioteer. Judah eventually learns that his mother and sister are lepers having been spared crucifixion by a Roman soldier further fueling his anger against Messala. This leads to the chariot race in Jerusalem and Judah's victory over Messala. However, Judah realizes winning the race does not give him the peace he longs for and after witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus he seeks out the broken Messala and the two forgive one another. Meanwhile, Naomi and Tirzah are cured of their leprosy after the death of Jesus.

Discussion

Although the story line in this adaptation varies considerably from both the 1959 movie and the novel, Ben-Hur still manages to capture the essence of the story: a Jewish prince is made the scapegoat for a crime he didn't commit by a beloved adopted brother, his family is destroyed and he sets out to seek vengeance only to discover revenge is never the answer. This adaptation misses many important parts of the novel such as the details of what happens to Naomi (Miriam in the novel and the Charlton Heston movie) and Tirzah and their conversion from Judaism to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Also missing are Judah Ben-Hur's rescue of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius, from drowning in the battle. In the novel and the 1959 movie, Arrius adopts Judah and gains him his freedom. In contrast to the 1959 movie, this new adaptation sees Judah Ben-Hur married to Esther (in the novel he married at least five years after the race with Messala) but their romance is a minor point throughout the movie. This new movie differs significantly in that Messala does not die as a result of his injuries, so one of the most famous death scenes in cinema is not recreated. Overall, the 1959 movie more closely follows the story line of Lew Wallace's novel as much of the middle of the story is missing from the 2016 adaptation.


Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur reasonably well, but lacks the passion that Charlton Heston brought to the role. Toby Kebbell as Messala manages to capture Messala's troubled nature and desire to fit into the Roman world. The only actor who seems out of place is Morgan Freeman who has the part of Sheik Ilderim. Freeman's interpretation of the Sheik, wise yet willing to make his fortune off of the Roman games is overshadowed by his trademark sonorous voice. Someone suggested that Freeman might have been better narrating the film and I agree. At times the screen writing is shabby and the dialogue, delivered with a hint of British accent, most definitely modern. The last scene, a recapitulation of the opening scene with Judah and Messala racing on horses is set to a thoroughly modern tune that seems woefully out of place.

The main themes of the novel, betrayal, redemption and forgiveness are not overshadowed by the amazing special effects. The galley battle scene and the chariot race are amazingly well done and the cinematography with it's sometimes unique camera perspective make for fascinating viewing. The crucifixion scene is short but lacks the drama that the 1959 movie was able to convey. Judah Ben-Hur's conversion to Christianity is quick and clean; there's little of the struggle which was so well portrayed by Heston. Judah Ben-Hur has several encounters with Jesus, who preaches a new law, that forgiveness and love of neighbour are paramount.

Although Jesus is a minor character in the story until after the chariot race, his radical call to love is in direct contrast to the Roman way of blood sport and cruelty and to the practice of Judaism at the time of Jesus - both of which encouraged "an eye for an eye'. Judah Ben-Hur learns that his vengeance has not healed him of his hurt and has only crippled his brother, Messala. It doesn't change the fact that his mother and sister are lepers or that his family is in ruin (according to this version). The Jews are becoming like their oppressors, a fact that Pontius Pilate points out to Sheik Ilderim after the race.

It's likely that this film won't do so well probably because audiences are tiring of remakes. We've had remakes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Tarzan, Godzilla, not to mention the tiresome Spiderman, Batman and Superman reboots and many, many others. This is also a movie with definite religious overtones that tend not to resonate so well with modern audiences. In the hopes of making the film more palatable, there is plenty of action and it was filmed in 3D. Despite this, there is little gore and no sex. The filming is done in such a way that suggests what happens rather than showing it. This is particularly true of the sea battle and the chariot race as well as the crucifixions, the confrontation in the Garden of Gethsemane and even the leper colony. Despite its many weakness, Ben Hur is an enjoyable remake, with great action sequences, beautiful cinematography and a good (albeit vastly pared down) story.  For younger viewers, if you haven't seen the 1959 version, please do. It's worth the time (3 and half hours!) and it's a classic.

Here's the second trailer for Ben-Hur 2016 - the beautiful music is Ceasefire by the Christian rock group For King and Country:






Friday, August 19, 2016

How It Feels To Fly by Kathryn Holmes

How It Feels To Fly explores the complex illness of anorexia and its relationship to anxiety, body image and identity. The novel also explores the effect of parental expectations and peer pressure on teens struggling with anxiety issues. The story focuses on one girl who is part of a group of elite athletes and artists as they struggle to work through their issues over a period of two weeks.

Sixteen year old Samantha Wagner, is an aspiring ballet dancer who has been sent to a counselling camp, Perform at Your Peak in North Carolina, for elite teen artists and athletes with anxiety issues. Samantha's mother was a aspiring dancer whose career was ended by a broken ankle.

The camp director, Dr. Debra Lancaster, is helped by two peer counsellors, Andrew, a former football player and college student majoring in pyschology and Yasmin a vocalist and sophomore at Belmont University in Nashville who suffered from stage fright. Both Andrew and Yasmin are graduates of Dr. Lancaster's therapy.

In the past months, Sam has gained fourteen pounds as her body changes. The weight, gain coupled with pressure from ballet teachers and adjudicators and her mother, has resulted in Sam developing an eating disorder and serious anxiety issues. Then came the panic attack that was witnessed by her ballet instructor, Miss Elise. Backstage before her performance in Paquita, Sam put on Lauren's smaller tutu and freaked out. Concerned about her well-being, Miss Elise spoke with Sam's mother and she was sent to this therapy camp.

Sam is supposed to be attending ballet intensive in two weeks but her participation has been delayed so that she can participate in the therapy camp. However because the camp runs a week into the only ballet intensive that she was accepted into, Sam has been put on the wait list with the expectation that there will be no problems obtaining a spot in the a week late.

At Perform at Your Peak, the other campers include Jenna who is a figure skater, Zoe who plays tennis, Katie an elite gymnast, Dominic an outstanding quarterback and Omar who is an actor. Dr. Lancaster tells the campers that there will be a group therapy session every day but that they will also spend time in private counselling sessions with her.

After orientation Andrew tells Sam that the camp will help her "to learn how to take good mental care" of herself no matter what career she's in but Sam takes this to mean that Andrew believes she can't become a professional ballet dancer. At the first group therapy session, Andrew and Yasmin tell their stories; how Yasmin found Perform at Your Peak helped her to overcome stage fright and how Andrew discovered that he was playing football to please his father and in the end decided to quit after his freshman season. Dr. Lancaster asks the group to share a time when they each performed at their absolute best. After each shares a specific performance, Sam talks about her performance as the Dewdrop Fairy in the Nutcracker, this past December. Sam states she was told it was the best she had ever danced and that she felt "light and sparkling" and very pretty. Zoe mocks Sam for feeling this way but Dr. Lancaster tells the group that they will be working to get back that feeling of affirmation and well being that they experienced during these good performances.

As part of the therapy, Sam is partnered with Andrew for an exercise where they must be blindfolded and led around by the other person. Sam has Andrew go first and she leads him over to the gazebo while admiring how attractive he is. She learns that Andrew is a college junior, four years older than herself. But when it's her turn and she stumbles into a hole, Sam has a panic attack, blaming Andrew for risking her future career. Andrew is stunned and confronts Sam questioning her about what happened. Trusting Andrew, she admits to the attack and tells him that she was afraid the stumble would cause an injury and destroy her ballet career. Sam convinces Andrew not to tell Dr. Lancaster about the panic attack but to let her do it.

At lunch it becomes apparent that Sam is unable to eat, at least not in front of others. When she tries to hide, she is caught by Dr. Lancaster who makes up a plate of spaghetti for her. Zoe who calls Sam,  "Ballerina Barbie", and who is bothering everyone, accuses Sam of having an eating disorder. In her next private session Dr. Lancaster questions Sam about her panic attacks, leading Sam to reveal that she had a panic attack while she was with Andrew. She tells Dr. Lancaster that while blindfolded she felt extremely anxious because she couldn't tell if she was being judged by Andrew and that she doesn't like being looked at. She refuses to elaborate much further than that.

Sam begins to get up early both so that the other campers can't see her get dressed and also to spend time with Andrew. In their next group session, Zoe continues to refuse to participate and laughs when Dr. Lancaster assigns the group to create a collage representing a situation that makes each person anxious. Sam's collage has a small figure surrounded by eyes. After discussing the collages, Dr. Lancaster encourages the six teens to reach out to one another telling them, "Your fellow campers can empathize. They can make you feel less alone...They can brainstorm with you. Support you." However, Sam's inner voice tells her that no one can help her. As the days pass, Sam finds herself falling for Andrew, interpreting his touches, the extra time he spends with her and his compliments as a sign that he feels the same. But Sam's crush on Andrew leads to catastrophe for both of them and creates a crisis that changes the course of Sam's life.

Discussion

For the most part, How It Feels To Fly offers a realistic portrayal of what it is like to suffer from an eating disorder and anxiety. Sam's problems surfaced when, as she puts it, her body betrayed her. Sam arrives at Perform at Your Peak viewing her body as an enemy to her dreams of becoming a dancer. She gained fourteen pounds between November and May and this affected her dancing, throwing her balance off and making her pirouettes shaky. The change was so gradual that at first, Sam believed she was just having off days. "Then I noticed soft curves where there used to be straight lines. Roundness and fullness. A hint of an hourglass." She tries to cut calories and exercise more, but the weight gain continued. To hide her imperfect body, she wrapped herself in loose clothing.  However, soon other people noticed, her mother, her teachers and adjudicators and they made remarks. Negative comments began, some direct, some insinuating. "...Tabitha saw me holding a sandwich after ballet class and asked, all fake concern, 'Are you sure you need to eat that?' That's when I stopped eating in front of other dancers..."

Along with the dieting and exercising, Sam's thinking changed and she saw herself in very negative terms. She arrives at the therapy camp with these thoughts overwhelming her.  "Everything about you is wrong. Nothing can make it better. Nothing except --" and "Ugh you're disgusting." She is also in denial about her problems and her need for help. In their first morning group session she thinks to herself "I don't need therapy. I was doing fine on my own." She's trained herself to be good at not talking about her problems, "good at nodding, and changing the subject, and pretending I don't hear things. And smiling, always smiling."  Her inner voice is strong, constant and derogatory. "Even transparent, you're fat. Look at you. You're disgusting..."

However Dr. Lancaster notices Sam's eating issues and Sam experiences a panic attack almost immediately, proof that she is not coping well. Although Sam is reluctant to talk to Dr. Lancaster she does do the assigned exercises: the art therapy and the journaling. All of this is well portrayed in the novel and the interactions between the various characters and their dialogue with one another is realistic and sometimes humorous, creating welcome comic relief.

A key factor in Sam's seemingly fast recovery is her relationship with Andrew, a well meaning peer counselor who inadvertently stirs Sam's infatuation for him by helping Sam see herself differently. He tells her she is beautiful and that she is not fat. Although Andrew's advice is good for Sam, he doesn't recognize her growing attachment. And Sam reads far more into Andrews actions than she should. "As we walk back to the Perform at Your Peak house, Andrew stays beside me. I wish we were holding hands. I wish he had his arm around my waist. Once I start thinking about his hands, his arms, I get this picture in my head of us dancing together. I bet he'd be a great dance partner. Strong, attentive, gentle."

Andrew is unaware of Sam's infatuation and he oversteps his bounds by encouraging Sam to sneak out at night to teach him to how partner her. This only makes things worse. "The next morning, I can't stop thinking about Andrew. His eyes catching the moonlight. His bright smile turned intimate, like it was designed especially for me...Did he feel the sparks I felt? Is he thinking about me the way I'm thinking about him?" But when Sam takes matters into her own hands and tries to kiss him, Andrew realizes too late his mistake. Their improper relationship leads to Andrew getting fired and Sam relapsing.  It is this crisis and the loss of her spot at the ballet intensive that motivates her to try one last time to get into the ballet intensive. This gutsy action ultimately provides Sam with a new opportunity to rethink her place in the world of dance and take the "leap across the gulf" that Dr. Lancaster spoke to her about. It also leads to her finally confronting her mother about how she is hurting Sam.

Perhaps the one misleading aspect of this novel is that it presents an overly optimistic view of the treatment of eating and anxiety disorders. Although Kathryn Holmes in an interview with EpicReads has stated that "Sam does not have a full blown eating disorder" the constant voice in her head telling her body is ugly, the rituals and behaviours around food, and the restriction of food are all evidence of anorexia. Sam also admits later in the book to having made herself vomit months earlier and attempts to do so again but for the intervention of a fellow camper. She also has body dysmorphia as evidenced by her struggle to find body parts that she actually likes.

Teens struggling with eating disorders and the usual accompanying anxiety issues generally do not show the significant improvement over such a short period of therapy as Sam did.Therapy takes time to change negative thinking patterns because they often have their roots in other issues that must be dealt with. The rituals like counting food, eating alone, rearranging food on the plate and eating exactly what someone else eats are all coping strategies to try to hide the illness and stop the pressure being placed on the anorexic to eat. These also do not disappear within a two week time frame. Similarly with anxiety issues, patients must learn coping strategies to help them. These also take time. It also takes time to  build a rapport with a therapist, even meeting daily for a week. Sam seems to do this quickly, perhaps as Dr. Lancaster states because she is removed from the environment that is the cause of her stress and anxiety.

Holmes does a good job of demonstrating how dancers in particular are susceptible to developing body dysmorphia and anorexia. There is not only the change in her body, but the pressure from Sam's mother and the attitude of  teachers and coaches in dance and athletics towards those who don't fit the desired body type. For example, Sam's mother is determined that her daughter will become a professional ballet dancer and have the career she never had. Although she doesn't directly criticize Sam, she implies that eating foods like meatballs and fajitas is not healthy. She tells Sam, "I know I can count on you to make good choices." When her mother admonishes her for eating a fajita, Sam feels guilt for not asking for a salad. Instead of affirming Sam's choice to eat healthy, her mother launches into a lecture about learning to adapt, leaving Sam in tears.And when Sam loses her spot in the ballet intensive, her mother doesn't really take the time to assess how Sam is feeling and what she is thinking. She doesn't even stop to think that perhaps this might be a sign that Sam needs to find another form of dance more suitable to her body type instead of trying to mould Sam's body into that of a classical dancer. She launches into a plan that will focus on Sam training even harder, leading Sam to more extreme actions. Holmes also points out how unforgiving the dance world is towards those whose body type is not considered suitable. For example, Sam remembers when she had to provide her current weight on an audition form and there was a caveat that mentioned overweight or underweight dancers would be on probation. This led Sam to wonder "...how heavy was too heavy? What was the exact right number?"

One of the main strengths of How It Feels To Fly is the realistic characters and their developing relationships with each other. For example, Sam manages to help Katie overcome her fear of the balance beam, providing a source of support for her. And Jenna, whom Sam spends time doing ballet with at the camp, steps up to help Sam when she is in crisis, revealing her own struggles with cutting. The characters feel genuine and their problems real.

Holmes' message in her novel is to make young readers aware they are not alone and that others can be a source of support. Fighting body dismorphia and anxiety does not have to be done alone and is often successful if the person has patient, affirming support. She also highlights the belief that eating disorders are generally the result of a need for control by having Sam come to this realization at the end of the novel. "My epic realization that maybe everything -- my anxiety, my body image issues, all of it -- comes from wanting to feel in control."  Later on, a wiser Sam states
"I'm not good at letting go and moving forward. Not yet. 
I'm still so attached to Before. So anxious about After.
But I'm working on changing. I'm trying to focus on
Now...
Someone in the room might be staring at me. Might be judging me.
That I can't control."

Author Kathryn Holmes majored in Dance and English Literature at Goucher College in Maryland. She's a contemporary dancer who has performed with many New York City based choreographers.

How It Feels To Fly is a really good novel. Although the timeline for Sam's recovery is a bit swift, the process and the things she learns about her illness are well presented and accurate. Those who enjoy realistic fiction and who are interested in exploring one of the most common mental health challenges teens experience will want to read this novel.

Book Details:

How It Feels To Fly by Kathryn Holmes
New York: HarperTeen     2016
359 pp.


Friday, August 12, 2016

Keep Me In Mind by Jaime Reed

Keep Me In Mind opens with Liam McPherson writing about what happened that fateful early morning he and girlfriend Ellia Renee Dawson were out running along the beach. After taking a break, Ellia ran off on the winding bike trail that led towards a cliff. The next thing Liam knows, Ellia is screaming. Just remembering that much is painful. He can't sleep and has been hanging outside of Ellia's house across the street watching for her.

Ellia watches the boy who emerges from his house every day at 5:30am to run. She goes outside to meet him, remembering that she saw him when she woke up in the hospital with tubes everywhere. A week after getting out of the hospital Ellia finally decides to talk to Liam, asking him for help in unlocking her phone. Ellia remembers Liam visiting her in the hospital and her not recognizing him, believing she has just started high school. But when she learns later from a friend that he is telling the truth, Ellia wonders if her parents knew she was dating a white boy.

As a result of her fall, Ellia has retrograde amnesia "which was the inability to recall past events because of severe head trauma." Her parents believe that her remembering her phone password is a good sign, but Ellia's neurologist, Dr. Whittaker has told her that "adapting to everyday life would be an adjustment." On the advice of Whittaker, Ellia is sent to a psychologist to undergo cognitive therapy.

When Ellia's best friend Stacey visits she reveals to Ellia that she wants to be a designer but that her father wants her to follow him and be an engineer. Stacey gives Ellia a reference point, a link to her immediate past that she cannot remember. With well over three hundred friends on Facebook, Ellia can only remember twelve of them. Checking her phone reveals hundreds of pictures with Liam and other friends. Stacey suggests that she contact Liam, but to Ellia this feels odd because Liam seems like a stranger to her.

Liam attends Leon High School along with his uncle Wade McPherson (his grandfather married a much younger woman and had a child.) who lives with Liam's family three weeks out of every month. Distraught at the loss of their relationship, Liam decides to "write the story of me and Ellia, how we met, how we fell in love -- the whole nine. It would be an epic tale of love found and lost..." Liam uses Ellia's best friend, Stacey to learn how she is faring but Stacey presses Liam to visit Ellia and tells him to just be there for her and to "Give her a reason to know who you are or leave her alone."

Liam's father, a former Navy man, is a force to be reckoned with. He insists that Liam do two volunteer placements and questions Liam if he's still involved with Ellia who he has forbidden him to see. Liam attempts to tell his dad that he loves Ellia but that doesn't go over well. Even worse when Ellia shows up on his street and Liam is caught by his father talking to her, she is forced to leave.

Ellia begins cognitive therapy sessions with Dr. Kavanagh at the Serenity Behavior Health Center. On her first visit she meets Cody Spencer who goes to St. Pedro, a private all-boys academy and who has anterograde amnesia. Cody has no short term memory because of a surfing accident that resulted in him going without oxygen for a lengthy period of time. To help him function, Cody records any important information in his phone.

Believing Liam's dad is a racist, Ellia wonders about her past relationship with Liam, but Stacey tells her she's reading too much into what happened. Ellia gradually begins integrating into her friends from school, even though she is not back at school yet. She declines attending the Valentines Day dance and in a rare talk with her mother, learns that her parents were not keen on Liam. Meanwhile, Liam, upset over his father's reaction to Ellia, is confronted by Stacey who wonders why Ellia's memory loss is confined only to the time she has been involved with Liam. She tells Liam that Ellia is taking therapy and she suggests he meet her at Serenity. Liam surprises Ellia outside the health center and upsets her by kissing her. However this meeting sees them begin to communicate and Liam reveals more of what their relationship was like. They agree to meet at the park where Liam will tutor Ellia. As Ellia struggles to heal, regain her memories and return to her routine, she begins to uncover the true nature of her relationship with Liam.

Discussion

Keep Me In Mind is a story told in two voices, that of Ellia Dawson and her boyfriend Liam McPherson. Ellia's narrative feels genuine and down to earth as a teen struggling to remember the last two years of her life and regain her identity. As she learns about her life over the past two years, Ellia embarks on a journey that leads her to re-evaluate just who she was as well as her relationship with Liam. Ellia begins to discover an image of herself that is less than pleasing. From her friends she learns that she was constantly involved in pranks such as sneaking into a frat party and almost getting hazed and breaking into a run down department store to steal a mannequin. Liam confirms what Ellia has discovered from reading various posts, that at a model search in Quintero, she threw a chair at a model who caused her to trip on the runway and that she drove around with a homeless man in the trunk of her car. Dr. Kavanagh tells Ellia that the amnesia causes people not to "recognize parts of themselves." But, Ellia admits to Dr. Kavanagh that she doesn't like the girl she's discovered. Her therapy changes focus, from working on regaining her memories, to discovering why Ellia was acting out.

Ellia already knows that there are serious problems with how she and her parents relate to one another. Earlier in the novel she mentions her father's complete absorption with his work and she and Stacey often talk about how her life is very controlled. Her parents never fully communicate with her; they talk about her but never really include her in the discussion."The Dawsons were doers, fixers, movers, and shakers from a long line of overachievers with the title Dr. or Prof. in front of their names. Words like impossible, fail, and can't were considered cuss words in our household. Any attempt at angst or a pity party quickly led to a rundown of our family tree, stemming back to the British Crown and the sugarcane fields of Barbados." 

At her session with Dr. Kavanagh, Ellia states, "My parents are very performance driven. Dress with decorum. Stand up straight; never slouch. Behave like a lady at all times and never bring shame on your family. On sight, people will judge you, and your life must contradict their stereotypes and preconceived notions. Work harder than everyone else and get good grades. Go to an elite college. Get a well-paying job and marry a successful..." Exploring further, Dr. Kavanagh believes that Ellia's father, used to taking control, tried to manage how she grieved when her beloved dog, Babette died. She believes that Ellia not being allowed to grieve on her own terms,  may have been the trigger for her rebellion, rather than hanging out with Liam and Dr. Kavanagh encourages her to tell her parents how their pressure and control is affecting her.

Ellia also begins to get a sense that her relationship with Liam was not a healthy one;  she was very controlling and Liam allowed her to boss him around. Liam's narrative reflects his obsession with Ellia and his determination to recover her as his girlfriend, even asking her, "Is there any chance of us getting back together/" When Ellia learns of  her controlling behavior from Liam, she tells him "You live your life on your own terms. Don't let anyone -- not even a girl -- keep you on a leash. I don't care how fabulous and awesome she is, no one is worth forgetting who you are."  Revealing this to Dr. Kavanagh, her therapist suggests that their relationship may have been co-dependent, possibly because something is lacking in Liam's life.

Both Liam and Ellia discover their parents are not quite lying to them but committing "a lie by omission". To Ellia this is worse than a lie because "The other person had knowledge, leverage, that they could hold over your head or use to manipulate you." causing fear and anger. For Ellia when her father blames Liam for her accident, she knows that he's not telling her the entire truth because Liam was the one who found her. This causes Ellia to question who is withholding the truth, Liam or her father? When Ellia reads Liam account of their relationship, she confronts her parents, especially her father. Their discussion helps all involved understand what happened to cause Ellia to act out before the accident and leads Ellia to discover something important for Liam. For Liam, he learns from Ellia that his father also lied by omission - he never told Liam the court order preventing him from seeing Ellia has expired. He too confronts his father who accuses Liam of using Ellia to fill the void of his mother who left. Eventually Liam does call his mother on the urging of Wade and he tells her how her leaving the family has affected him.

The underlying theme of the book is the loss of friendship and connection. That loss can come about in many ways but in Keep Me In Mind it is the loss of friendship and love as a result of an unexpected accident - a serious head injury. As Ellia struggles to understand her relationship with Liam, whom she has no memory of, Liam mourns the loss of his relationship with her. Unable to express his loss in words and wanting to tell Ellia, he decides to write the story of their relationship. For most of the novel he experiences "writer's block", that is he is unable to write about the events that led to Ellia's injury and their broken relationship. For Liam, writing the account of his relationship with Ellia is cathartic; it helps him learn about himself and Ellia and it helps him process what has happened the loss of their relationship so that if their relationship is truly over, he can move on. He comes to recognize that he was using Ellia to escape his family problems. His account also helps Ellia because it forces her to see herself as she really was (but doesn't remember) and that she also was using Liam for the same reason.

Ellia herself wonders how Liam must feel and she too experiences as sense of loss. "These were supposed to be the best years of my life, and I couldn't recall most of them. What other experiences had been stolen from me? What other friendships, bonds, and trusts had been stripped away?" She recognizes that Liam is "waiting for the return of Ellia Dawson...My life wasn't the only one that was at a standstill, and it was hard to tell what was worse: forgetting or being forgotten."  She experiences deep conflict over the state of her relationship with Liam, who wants things to continue as they were. Ellia however, does not feel for Liam the way she did before her accident and that causes her to evaluate why this might be.

Eventually both Liam and Ellia come to realize that one cannot live in the past, that we must keep moving forward. Liam decides to let Ellia go, giving her the account he wrote of their relationship. Ellia is encouraged to view her amnesia in a different way: instead of a loss, to consider it an opportunity for a fresh start and a chance to reinvent herself. "Yesterday was gone and there was no point in reaching behind me for something I couldn't even hold. Time moved in one direction: forward. And I needed to keep my eyes straight and do the same."

Keep Me In Mind is an interesting read that focuses on the curves life can throw at us unexpectedly and how we sometimes struggle to cope. Fans of contemporary novels will enjoy how Liam and Ellia eventually work out the unexpected curve they've been dealt to begin anew.

Book Details:

Keep Me In Mind by Jaime Reed
New York: Point and imprint of Scholastic Inc.    2016
329 pp.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

DVD: The Race

"'Cause you know, out there on that track you're free of all this. The moment that gun go off, can't nothing stop me. Not color, not money, not fear, not even hate. There ain't no black and white. There's only fast and slow. For those ten seconds you are completely free."

The Race is a dramatization of Jesse Owen's quest to run in the 1936 Olympics which were held in Nazi Germany. The Olympics were awarded to Germany in 1931 with the intention of supporting the country, but two years later, the country found itself under the control of Hitler and his Nazi party. As the racial policies of the country became known more and more Americans began to question their country's participation in the Berlin Olympics, which would be seen as supporting Hilter, the Nazi party and its policies.

The movie opens in 1933 with Jesse Owens, played by Canadian actor, Stephan James living with his mother, father and sister Laverne in Cleveland, Ohio. He has a passion for running. As a high school athlete Owens tied the record of 9.4 seconds for the 100 yard dash. In the fall of 1933 Jessie prepares to leave for Ohio State University in Columbus.

Before leaving for Ohio State University (OSU) Owens goes to visit his little daughter, Gloria and her mother, Minnie Ruth Solomon who works as a hairdresser.  He promises Ruth he will return to marry her.

In the past three years OSU has had a poor showing at the national college championships. Track coach Larry Snyder, himself once a great runner, is being blamed for the losses and his career looks like it might be finished. He's looking for fresh talent to restart his track team. Snyder has Owens come to his office where he asks him why he came to OSU, a school considered to be very bigoted towards black athletes. Owens tells him that his coach Charlie Riley told him he's a natural runner and that Snyder was the best. Snyder tells him that records don't matter, only gold medals matter. He asks Owens if he wants to run in Berlin in 1936 and Owens indicates that he's concerned that the Germans don't like blacks. But Snyder points out that the same attitudes exist in the United States. He warns Owens that if he wants to run and win he must spend the next 28 months training hard every day.

Meanwhile at a meeting of the U.S. Olympic Committee Convention, Avery Brundage, a former track athlete and Olympian, and now a wealthy businessman head of the American Olympic Committee (AOC) is told that Germany's racist policies towards Jews and Romany Gypsies is a major concern and that a boycott of American athletes is being considered. Officials from the Amateur Athletic Union point out that the Germans are not allowing Jewish athletes to join sports clubs and therefore they are unable to qualify for the Olympics. The Germans also do not want Negroes to compete at the Games. Brundage believes that Germany needs the Olympics and Ambassador Charles Sherrill states that they have assurances from Germany they will not discriminate. However Judge Jeremiah T. Mahoney of AAU states that they cannot trust the Nazis and that he will recommend a boycott. They decide to send Avery Brundage over to Germany to talk to German officials.

Meanwhile at OSU, Owens struggles to find the time to attend practice and work. He writes Ruth and sends her money for their daughter and tells her he has applied for a marriage license. Confronted by Snyder about missing practices, Owens reveals his dilemma and tells Snyder he needs to find a way for him to make money and train.

In 1934 Berlin, Brundage is shown the stadium under construction and is told everything is being recorded by Miss Leni Riefenstahl who was hand-picked by Hitler. Brundage sees for himself the situation in Berlin: Jewish stars on businesses, people being dragged from their homes. Brundage meets Leni and Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda at a lunch. While Leni tries to explain that she wants her film to showcase the Olympic ideals, Brundage doesn't believe her. He tells the Germans that they risk an Olympic games without America unless they come into line and allow Jews and Negroes to participate. He also tells them they have to clean up their press. Goebbels states he will agree if Brundage agrees to support them with the AOC (American Olympic Committee).

Back in Columbus, Snyder gets Owens a job as a page at the Ohio legislature paying him $60 a month and allowing him to train. They work on his start. Jesse continues to face racism and ridicule from the football team which is all white but coach Snyder tells Jesse that this is just a distraction and that he must learn to filter all of this out while he is at the Big Ten meet.

Just before the meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1935, Jesse injures his back trying to high jump with friends. In pain he completes in four events over the span of 45 minutes and sets three world records and ties a fourth. Owens competes in the 100 yard dash, the broad jump, the 200 yard dash and the 225 yard hurdles.

Owens and Snyder head to Los Angeles for the NCAA Track and Field Championships. Held at Edwards Stadium in Berkley, Owens wins four events. During his time in LA he meets a woman at a jazz club and becomes romantically involved with her. During this time Brundage returns to Berlin where the situation appears to meet his expectations. He tells Goebbels taht the Americans will be voting soon on whether to participate. Goebbels attempts to bribe Brundage by offering him to be involved in the building of a new German embassy in Washington designed by Albert Speer. Brundage is drawn into looking at the plans and it appears he accepts Goebbels offer.

Back in the United States, Owens affair with Quincella gets into the papers and Minnie Ruth threatens to sue him for breach of promise. Owens unsuccessfully attempts to call Ruth. At a meet in Nebraska, Owens loses the 100 yard dash to his rival Eulace Peacock. The next morning Owens breaks up with Quincella and when he returns to Ohio he goes to see Ruth in Cleveland. At first Ruth runs him out of Ida's Beauty Salon, but not to be deterred, Jesse waits for her to leave and eventually convinces her to marry him.

On December 23, 1935, the U.S. Olympic Committee meets to vote with Brundage arguing for participation and Mahoney arguing for a boycott. When Brundage wins the vote 58 to 56, Mahoney resigns from the AAU, not wanting to be involved in something he finds morally wrong.Owens and Snyder rejoice at this news. Knowing that he will be competing in a country that believes he is part of a inferior race, Owens sets out to win the gold medal in track and to deny Nazi Germany the propaganda it so desperately wants.

Discussion

The Race is a well done, timely movie about Jesse Owens and his winning four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Most young people today do not know who Owens was (my 19 year old daughter had no clue), so there's considerable value in the making of move like The Race to remind us of those people whose light shone brightly in times of darkness. The focus of the movie is on Owen's life leading up to and including his participation in the 1936 Olympics. The title of the movie has a dual meaning, both of a sports event but also referring to the race of a person - in this case black people.

The overarching theme in The Race is the racial bigotry that existed in America in the 1930's and that bigotry was the same hatred that led to the murder of millions of Jews, Catholics, homosexuals and gypsies by the Nazi's in Germany. Like most blacks in 1930's America Owens faced bigotry and discrimination in every aspect of his life. When traveling to Columbus, Owens and his friend sit at the back of the bus. When he meets Larry Snyder for the first time, Owens keeps his eyes cast down, as most blacks were taught to do. Despite his athletic ability, Owens wasn't offered an athletic scholarship and he couldn't room on the campus of OSU.  After working out at the track, Owens and his friend are made to wait until the whites use the locker room showers, and black athletes are not allowed to play football. At the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Owens is booed when he lines up for the 100 yard dash with the other white competitors. When he travels to Germany to participate in the Olympics, the rest of the team are in first class on the ship, but Owens and his black teammate travel in steerage. Even attending a dinner in his honor, Owens and his wife must use the back entrance. At the end of the movie, it is noted that Owens athletic achievements were never acknowledged by the White House in 1936. Against this backdrop the film shows the hypocrisy of America as it protests against the racial policies of Nazi Germany, threatening to boycott the Berlin Olympics.

The Race presents a mostly sanitized Jesse Owens, focusing on his athletic accomplishments and his relationship with his coach, Larry Snyder played by Jason Sudeikis who gives a surprisingly good performance. Jesse is shown as a young man who believes in his ability to run but not so certain off the track. Owen's family was involved in the development of the script, and as a result The Race is a fairly accurate portrayal on the events that occurred. Canadian actor Stephane James trained at Georgia Tech working to get into shape and to run like Owens. The recreation of the 1936 Olympics and Owen's win in the 100 metre dash are amazingly well done.

Of particular interest in this film is Avery Brundage played by Jeremy Irons who makes Brundage look too old for the age of  he would have been in 1933 to 1936. Yet Irons captures the complicated character of Brundage whose backroom deal with the Nazi regime created a great scandal. Another fascinating character of this era was Leni Reifenstahl, Hitler's filmmaker who is portrayed as a moderate German caught in the middle of the conflict between Brundage and Goebbels.Reifenstahl, brilliantly played by actress Carice van Houten, created many films that propagandized the Nazi regime. She appears aloof, professional at times, but genial towards Owens, and determined to make her film, even when Goebbels orders the cameras not to record yet another potential Owen's medal. Goebbels was well portrayed by Barnaby Metschurat who gave the Nazi Minister of Propaganda a creepy, chilling persona. As for Hitler, director Stephen Hopkins made the decision to keep the German chancellor in the background and the focus on Owens, Snyder and the quest to win gold. Hitler's face is only ever seen from the side and he has no lines in the movie.

For more information on the movement to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics, check out the Holocaust Encyclopedia entry. The entry points out the conflict that developed between Brundage and Mahoney which is portrayed to some degree in The Race. One benefit of America's participation in the 1936 Olympics is that Jesse Owens proved Hitler's idea of one race being superior to all others as the nonsense it was. Owens won the gold medal in the 100 meter dash as well as gold medals in three other events.

You can watch Leni Riefenstahl's documentary, Olympia on Youtube.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Outrun The Moon by Stacey Lee

Outrun the Moon is a fictional account of the 1906 earthquake that destroyed the city of San Francisco. At 5:12 am on April 18, a huge earthquake with its epicenter near San Francisco hit the city. The northern 477 kilometers of the San Andreas fault was ruptured. The city experienced strong shaking for 45 to 60 seconds. However, the worst was to come. The earthquake ignited fires which burned through the city for three days. Hundreds of people were burned alive in the rubble of the buildings.

Outrun The Moon begins several days before the earthquake. Fifteen year old Mercy Wong (Mei-Si) lives at thirty-three Clay Street in Chinatown, San Francisco with her ba (father), Wong Wai Kwok, her mother Lei Ha who is the undisputed best fortune-teller in Chinatown and her eight year old brother Jack. Her ba is Catholic but her mother practices a mixture of Buddhism and Taoism. Mercy's brother has poor lungs and has delayed speech because of the bubonic plague inoculations forced on the Chinese who were blamed for the recent bubonic plague outbreaks in the city.

Mercy's best friend is Tom a member of the Chinese community whose father expects him to be a herbalist. However Tom is interested in flying and has built a hot-air balloon he calls Tom's Floating Island. He wanted to be part of the Army Balloon Corps but when that disbanded, Tom became interested in the new machine developed by the Wright brothers. After a short unexpected balloon ride, Tom gives Mercy a special herb, chuen pooi (also called Fritillaria bulb) used in Chinese medicine for colds and coughs. Mercy is thrilled because this is going to be her family's "ticket to a good life."

Mercy plans to use the herb to bargain her way into a girl's school using her "bossy cheeks" and her business savvy gleaned from Mrs. Lowry's book, The Book For Business-Minded Women. She was given this book by the mortician she used to work for. Taking Jack with her they visit Chocolatier Du Lac where Mercy tells Madame Du Lac that she wishes to speak with her husband who is president of the board that runs St. Clare's School for Girls. Mercy wishes to be admitted to the school and she hopes to bribe Madame Du Lac with a rare herb, chuen pooi which "is also known to fade freckles and lighten the complexion." Tom's father refused to sell the herb to Madame Du Lac. Madame Du Lac agrees to obtain Mercy a meeting with her husband after she is given the bulb, but Mercy tells her she will tell her how to prepare it only after she meets with Monsieur Du Lac.

Mercy arrives at St. Clare's on Monday determined to bargain her way into the school. Her ba runs a laundry business and the work is hard. Mercy does not want her brother Jack with his weak lungs to inherit such a life.  Having graduated from the Oriental Public School, higher education is closed to Mercy because she is Chinese. Mercy hopes to gain admission to St. Clare's in the hopes that when she graduates she will be able to start her own business, supplying Chinese herbal teas to Americans. Her dream is to purchase a house in the wealthy Nob Hill area of San Francisco so Jack and her family can live there.

At St. Clare's Mercy sees Elodie, Monsieur Du Lac's daughter whom she recognizes from the Du Lac's chocolate shop.  Monsieur Du Lac informs Mercy that it is not possible for her to be admitted to the school but Mercy persistently argues that publicly funded schools are required by law to admit Chinese students. Mercy offers to help Monsieur Du Lac sell his chocolates in Chinatown and that she can arrange for him to go before the Benevolent Association which manages all affairs in Chinatown. In return she wants him to allow her to attend St. Clare's on a full scholarship for three years. Monsieur Du Lac refuses and instead offers her to attend for three months in exchange for not only getting the hearing but securing him the right to sell his chocolates in Chinatown. If she does not her attendance at St. Clare's will be revoked.  He tells her she will pretend she is a Chinese heiress.

That night Monsieur Du Lac's car arrives to pick up Mercy and take her to St. Clare's.From the neck down she looks like a St. Clare's girl with her navy dress, black stockings and boots and her felt hat, all courtesy of Monsieur Du Lac. Her ma warns her that it will take time to fit in, Jack gives Mercy his Indian head penny, but Ba is not there as he is working in the laundry. On her way to St. Clare's, William, the Du Lac's chauffeur stops to pick up Elodie Du Lac who informs Mercy that her father has told her she is to pretend that Mercy is a Chinese heiress.

At the school Mercy meets Headmistress Crouch who is amazed at her proficiency in English and who immediately begins checking Mercy's credentials.Crouch informs Mercy that she will be meeting Monsieur Du Lac on Friday. To Mercy's disappointment she discovers she will be studying French, comportment and embroidery rather than commerce or economics. After correcting Mercy's posture and telling her more of the rules she lets her know that she will be rooming with Elodie Du Lac.

At St. Clare's Mercy meets Harriet Wincher, Katie Quinley who is from Red Rock Texas, and twins Ruby and Minnie Mae Beauregard from South Carolina, Francesca Bellini and Father Goodwin. After Mass Mercy attends her comportment class taught by Mr. Waterstone who informs her that he has a special interest in cultures of the Far East. Watersone question Mercy about Chinese customs and asks her to demonstrate a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. Mercy, not having ever performed a traditional ceremony makes a ridiculous ceremony up on the spot.

Mercy and Elodie struggle to get along as roommates. After dinner and Good Friday Mass, Mercy prepares for her meeting with the Benevolent Association, coming up with the idea that the Du Lac's chocolates could be marketed to the Chinese as an funeral offering to the ancestors. Elodie informs Mercy that she will also be attending the meeting, but the Du Lac chauffeur, William informs the two girls that the meeting will have to be rescheduled. Furious, Mercy knows that she must show up at the meeting and manages to convince Elodie to stand in as proxy for her father, as she will someday be involved in his chocolate business.

The meeting before the Chinese Benevolent Association is almost a disaster, as Mercy presents her idea. Her friend Tom Gunn, whose father is a herbal doctor, is against allowing the chocolate to be sold in Chinatown for health reasons. However Tom saves the day and the Benevolent Committee approves the selling of the chocolate in Chinatown. On her way home, Mercy stops to visit her family but her little brother Jack is asleep. Unbeknownst to her, it is the last time Mercy will see her mother and Jack. On the way back Elodie who has clued in to Mercy and Tom's mutual interest, tells Mercy that she will make Tom a consultant on the selling of chocolate to Chinatown, but Mercy tells her this will not be possible.

On Easter Sunday night, Mercy sneaks out of St. Clare's and meets Tom at Laurel Hill Cemetery. Tom tells her that he is leaving Tuesday at dawn for Seattle to work for a man who is building a plane. He tells a shocked Mercy not to wait for him and she, not wishing to dishonour him tells him he deserves to follow his dream. But inside she is crushed at Tom's decision.

The next days see Elodie bully Mercy and attempt to expose her. When Mercy reads the girls fortunes during embroidery class, Elodie informs the teacher, Mrs. Mitchell. The class is interrupted by Crouch who announces that two girls were seen leaving the grounds the previous night. One is discovered to be Katie Quinley who lost her shawl in the garden. Katie refuses to tell who the other girl was, but not wanting Katie to be punished, Mercy admits to being the other girl. She is whipped, sent to confess to Father Goodwin who assigns her penance to weed the herbal garden and made to sleep in the attic. Headmistress Crouch also informs Mercy that she has sent correspondence to China to determine if Mercy is a legitimate Chinese heiress.

The next morning the girls are assigned to do their own laundry because Mercy's uniform was not turned inside out. Mercy uses her knowledge of laundry to quickly get her and her friends, Ruby, Minnie Mae, Katie and Francesca's laundry finished. Elodie is furious when she discovers what has happened and the two girls get into a brawl with Elodie revealing Mercy's true identity. Headmistress Crouch pulls Mercy from classes and assigns her to work in the kitchen until Monsieur Du Lac returns from his trip. As Mercy is pondering her immediate future in the garden, an earthquake strikes, destroying the school and changing Mercy's life forever.

Discussion

Outrun The Moon is an entertaining piece of historical fiction that provides readers with a snapshot of life in early 1900's America. The novel is centered around the devastating earthquake of 1906 which destroyed the city of San Francisco. Lee devotes a considerable amount or the novel to life before the earthquake - the first nineteen chapters which set the stage for the disaster by describing life in 1906 San Francisco. The city at this time was home to approximately 15,000 Chinese. Chinese were prevented from immigrating to America by the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882, renewed in 1892 and made a permanent law in 1902. Many Chinese came to America during the Gold Rush years and were also laborers on the building of the railroad across the continent. However, they were gradually forced out of these jobs and many settled in cities like San Francisco where they worked in restaurants and laundries. The effect of the Chinese Exclusion Act was to prevent the Chinese men who were already in America from bringing over their families. Chinese living in San Francisco in 1906 experienced intense discrimination.

Lee attempts to portray the racial discrimination Chinese experienced in her novel through the main character, Mercy Wong. Mercy, despite being born in America, is only able to attend the Chinese public school and there is no opportunity for her to further her education by attending high school. When Mercy first arrives at St. Clares, she overhears the girls talking about her. Not only do they have little understanding of her culture, but their comments are derogatory.
" 'You suppose she speaks English?' The talk continues.
'The ones here hardly speak any at all. Mother says they're not bright enough.'
Someone snorts. 'The girls in Chinatown hardly need English. They're all soiled.' The speaker lowers her voice, but I catch the word just the same."
Lee also teaches her readers about some of the problems facing the Chinese community in the early 1900's San Francisco. Chinatown was located on prime land in the city, land that wealthy white business owners wanted. The Chinese community recognizes this and refuse to sell or to be driven away. When Mercy meets with the Benevolent Association she feels that the Chinese community should be less protectionist and more open to working with others so that they can gain the same rights as white Americans.

In her Author's Note at the back of the novel, Lee indicates that immediately after the earthquake, people of every race and class worked together to help one another. This is effectively portrayed in the novel as all the girls of St. Clare, led by Mercy Wong, work together, setting up a kitchen to feed the homeless survivors. In this way they bring together many different people in the city. Mercy begins to realize that what Mr. Mortimer, the mortician told her - that death is the great equalizer is true. Mercy notices that "some of the invisible walls are beginning to crack" between different people when a white woman offers a Sonoran woman and her child crackers. As the St. Clare girls struggle amongst the ruins of the city, Mercy experiences more freedom than she ever had before. Elodie, stripped of her friends, her mother dead and her father far away, is on equal footing with Mercy. Oliver Chance, a white man seems to show interest in Mercy as he and a friend help out in the park. When Francesca suggests that he is from a good family, Mercy remembers that as a rule, white people do not associate with Chinese. As she notes, "The trembler moved us in mysterious ways, shifting underlying assumptions about social rank and order. "

Mercy is a strong female character, whose faith in God is severely tested by the disaster. She states that her brother "Jack's birth proved to me that God exists." But with his death, "the sea is empty for me." She struggles with the unfairness of their deaths, that she should be comfortable "when Ma and Jack suffered such unspeakable deaths." No religion offers her comfort. "The ancestors have turned their backs on my family, even after all those offerings we made. And Ba's Christian God - the all caring, all powerful one - He has been the most disappointing of all. Though I am not speaking to Him anymore, I still plead with Him to let me find Ba soon. It's the least You can do."


From the disaster Mercy becomes aware of how fragile life is. "You expect certain things to always be there, like the bakery on the corner, or the boy you grew up with. But when the very ground can eat you alive without warning, what's to say the ocean won't dry up? Or the stars won't suddenly shut off? Nothing is forever." She wonders what has happened to her father and if Tom is even safe.

With Chinatown destroyed, and Jack gone, Mercy has lost her sense of purpose. Jack and her ma no longer need a big house, or an easier life, nor will they feel hunger again. Mercy struggles to accept what has happened and how her life has changed. "The stars wink, teasing me with the notion that this has all been some colossal joke. That I will wake up any second in the living room of our flat on Clay Street with the smell of pomelo in the air. But the universe never jokes. It is always profoundly, unflinchingly serious." To deal with her pain of loss, Mercy reaches out to those in need and organizes the kitchen to help others who have suffered.

It's unfortunate that Lee decided to present such a negative view of a Catholic priest in her novel, choosing to portray Father Goodwin as unfaithful to his vows of celibacy. No doubt there have been Catholic priests through the ages who broke their vows, but was it really necessary to portray a priest in this disparaging manner in a young adult novel? Especially when the main character, Mercy is a young Catholic girl struggling with her faith. It seems as though Lee succumbed to the current 21st century view that sees Catholic priests as abusers and pedophiles.

Overall Outrun the Moon is a well written historical novel. Mercy's voice is sometimes humorous and at other times thoughtful. Her wit provides much comic relief and makes her seem a realistic character who finds within herself the ability to weather adversity. Her indomitable spirit causes Headmistress Crouch to reassess her view of Mercy whom she now considers to be someone who gets things done. Supporting Mercy is a well developed cast of characters, each a bit different -  from the kindly Francesca, the spoiled rich girl Elodie to the crusty Headmistress Crouch. The novel takes its title from a phrase Mercy's mother tells her at the very beginning, that we cannot always control what happens in life, but we can view events with a different perspective. This is in reference to her telling Mercy that she has foreseen her own death. She reminds Mercy that she tells clients that they cannot change their destiny but they can change their perspective. " 'It is like the moon. We can see it differently by climbing a mountain, but we cannot outrun it. As it should be.' "

For more information on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake check out the United States Geological Survey's website. 


Book Details:

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons Ltd.     2016
391 pp.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Movie: Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond is the third Star Trek movie in the series reboot featuring the well chosen cast of Chris Pine as Captain James Tiberious Kirk, Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, Zachary Quinto as Commander Spock, Zoe Saldana as Lieutenant Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekov and Simon Pegg as Engineer Montgomery Scott. This time around the crew is directed by Justin Lin of Fast and Furious 6 fame and the villain facing off against Kirk is Idris Elba who plays Krall.


The movie opens with Captain Kirk on a diplomatic peace mission offers an artifact on behalf of one alien species to another. When the mission fails, Kirk admits in his captain's log that halfway through his five year mission he is tired. Commander Spock is seen placing the artifact, the Abronath, into the ship's archives. The Enterprise arrives at Starbase Yorktown for resupply and shore leave. Kirk speaks with Commodore Paris about his application for Vice Admiral and recommends Commander Spock for the captaincy of the Enterprise. While at Yorktown, a survivor of a ship arrives at the base. The alien, Kalara tells the base that her ship is stranded on a planet called Altamid, just past the nearby nebula and asks the Federation to rescue them. Kirk volunteers the Enterprise for the mission and the crew reassembles and leaves immediately.

However, once through the nebula and approaching the planet, the Enterprise is violently attacked  and quickly overwhelmed by a huge swarm of ships unlike anything they have ever seen before.  The small ships are like spikes which embed themselves into the hull of the Enterprise, releasing the aliens who begin slaughtering the crew. One of those aliens is Krall, who it is revealed is searching for the Abronath.

The ship loses its nacelles and when Scotty reconnects the impulse engines, attempts to limp toward the nebula. However, Krall orders his ships to cut the ship from the engines. As Kirk and the crew battle the aliens Kalara is revealed to have tricked the Federation so as to save her own crew who are also trapped by Krall. In a fight for the Abronath with Krall, Kirk manages to hide the artifact in a shuttle as the saucer section spirals towards the planets surface. The crew of the Enterprise are captured by Krall's men including Lieutenant Uhura and Sulu but Kirk, Chekov and Scotty escape in a pods, while Dr. McCoy and Spock crash land in one of the alien ships.

On the surface of the planet, all of the bridge crew struggle to reunite; Spock is badly injured and is treated by McCoy, Scotty stumbles upon another alien, Jaylah who saves him from Krall's men and Kirk, Chekov and Kalara begin looking for the saucer section of the Enterprise, and Uhura and Sulu try to figure out what Krall is up to.

Jaylah tells Scotty that her ship was taken by Krall and her crew has been taken one by one never to return. She escaped with the help of her father and lives by scavenging on Altamid. She takes Scotty to her "home" which turns out to be the USS Franklin, a Federation ship gone missing over a hundred years ago. Jaylah has rigged a cloaking device that has allowed the ship to be hidden while she tries to repair it. She agrees to help Scotty find his crew mates if he will help her repair the Franklin. At this point Kirk, Chekov and Kalara locate the Enterprise saucer and crawl through the wreckage. Kirk hopes to use the saucer to locate his missing crew, but is attacked by Kalara. Activating the boosters, Kirk cause the saucer to flip, killing Kalara but allowing him and Chekov to narrowly escape.

Meanwhile at the Franklin, one of Jaylah's traps is set off and she and Scotty go to investigate and discover it is Kirk and Chekov. They are released and taken back to the Franklin where Scotty fills them in and Kirk orders Scotty to continue with the repairs. McCoy and Spock, who is still weak from his wound, are located by Krall's men but are saved by Scotty who beams them both aboard the Franklin. Reunited with most of his bridge crew, Kirk decides that they must raid Krall's camp and save the Enterprise crew. Convincing Jaylah to help them, they begin to devise a plan to rescue the crew. What Kirk doesn't yet know is that Krall's plans are much bigger than just capturing the Enterprise.


Discussion

Fans of the Star Trek franchise certainly won't be disappointed with Star Trek Beyond, an intense film with plenty of action, explosions and the usual camaraderie between the crew of the Enterprise. The visual effects were especially stunning in this movie, fortunately overshadowing a mediocre plot. The deadly beauty of the nebula and the detail of the Starbase Yorktown - an artificial home created in space are just some examples of the beautiful special effects in the movie. Especially wonderful are the different camera shots of the starbase, showing it in incredible detail from every angle.  Director Justin Lin is noted for his action sequences and he delivers in Star Trek Beyond. The devastating and fatal attack on the Enterprise was vividly portrayed as Krall's attack ships overwhelmed the starship much in the way bees swarm. The intensity and the horror of the attack in the coldness of space is shown as Krall's ships swirl around the Enterprise, embedding themselves into its hull or slicing through sections to chop the ship apart.


There are lots of references to previous Star Trek movies including one of movie's posters which has a similar layout to that of Star Trek: The Motion Picture released in 1979. The music used to disrupt Krall's drone attack on the Yorktown starbase, Beastie Boy's Sabotage, is also the same song used in the 2009 Star Trek movie when a young James Tiberius Kirk crashes up his father's sports car. There are other throwbacks too - the picture of the 1989 cast of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier which Spock finds among Ambassador Spock's possessions is a tribute to the three deceased members(DeForest Kelly, Leonard Nimoy and James Doohan) of the original TV series and set of movies.

The movie Star Trek Beyond was not without its problems though. One aspect of the story in Star Trek Beyond that was disappointing is the revelation that Krall is actually a human rather than part of a new alien race that Starfleet might have to learn to deal with. Instead he is a rogue pre-Federation captain named Balthazar Edison whose ship, the USS Franklin, crashed on the planet a hundred years ago after being transported there via a worm hole. At that time the planet had already been abandoned by the original aliens who left their technology behind including dormant drones. Using the alien race's technology, Krall gradually morphed into something different, needing to obtain his energy from living beings. But when he is forced to flee on the starbase, he suddenly (and not fully explained) regains his human appearance. Krall is simply another angry villain out to seek vengeance against Starfleet. It would be refreshing to see the next Star Trek movie feature a more diverse alien cast (there were fifty new aliens shown throughout Star Trek Beyond) and an original villain who forces the Federation members to work together to overcome.  Krall's connection as a human and as the captain of the Franklin is unoriginal and led to minor inconsistencies in the storyline. For example, Jaylah has rigged a cloaking device that hides the Franklin from Krall on Altamid, but Krall as former captain of the Franklin would have known where his ship was located and likely would have suspected something was up if it suddenly disappeared.


Science fiction movies often try to portray futuristic concepts in a way that is faithful to the laws of nature. For example The Martian did a good job demonstrating how man might survive on Mars and how the technology to do so might work. However,  Star Trek Beyond sometimes fails in this regard. For example, the portrayal of the nebula, while very beautiful was inaccurate. Nebulae are clouds of gases - hydrogen, helium and ionized gases as well as dust in space. Yet in Star Trek Beyond the nebula near Starbase Yorktown is shown has having huge chunks of rock which collide with one another - definitely not what we have observed about nebulae but definitely creating a suspenseful atmosphere in the film.  In contrast, the portrayal of warp travel aboard the Enterprise was very well done - we see shots of the ship in a sort of bubble as it travels faster than the speed of light and within the ship, the view outside the window is that of blurred stars as one might expect traveling so fast.

In the Star Trek universe it sometimes feels as if the characters have forgotten the technology they have at hand in order to create a more exciting finale. For example, the Starbase Yorktown was located near the nebula which had never been explored. For such a huge base, so far out into deep space, it seems incomprehensible that this would be the situation. It also seems puzzling that there are so few starships at the starbase. When Krall is attempting to poison the starbase and is in the main glass tower, why did neither the crew of the starbase nor the Franklin attempt to beam him out of the tower and into space?

Despite the mediocre plot, Star Trek Beyond is an exciting movie and will definitely appeal to trekkies of all ages. Especially appealing was the new character Jaylah whom I hope appears in any future movies. As a resourceful, strong female character she adds new possibilities to the series, in light of the news that with the unexpected death of Anton Yelchin, the character Chekov will not return. Look forward to a fourth film sometime in the future as most major cast members have been signed.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

DVD: The Little Prince

One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.


The movie The Little Prince is based on the popular novel of the same title by Antoine de Saint-Euxpery who was a famous French poet and aviator. The novel was published in 1943 and tells the story of a pilot stranded in the desert where he meets a young prince who has travelled to Earth from a small asteroid. The book's main themes explore the forgotten innocence of childhood by adults and how we must look beneath the surface to see what is real.

The movie opens with a little girl waiting with her mother just before she's interviewed for entrance to the elite Werth Academy. Determined her daughter will gain admission, she prepares her daughter to answer what she believes will be the crucial question, "Are you Werth Academy material?" However the question the girl is asked is "What will you be when you grow up?" Completely unprepared to answer this question the girl starts to give the answer she prepared rather than answer the unexpected question. She stops, and faced with the realization that she's unable to answer, she faints.

With this failure, her mother devises a new plan. They buy a new house near the Werth Academy. It is a non-descript grey house like every other house around them except for the one next door. It is a ramshackle house with a wooden observation deck in the back.

The girl's mother organizes every minute of every day of every month for the next 53 days calling it her "life plan". However, things don't quite go according to plan. On the first day home alone, after her mother has left for work, the girl's house is badly damaged by their next door neighbour who attempts to start his plane. The plane's propeller flies through the backyard fence and into their house. The elderly neighbour retrieves the propeller as the girl watches in astonishment. The girl calls the police who come to the neighbour's home. The elderly man, an aviator, gives the little girl a huge jar of pennies. When she tells her mother that evening what happened, her mother tells her they will call a contractor in the morning and "forget the old man exists". Later that evening while studying, a paper airplane flies in through the window and lands on her desk. The little girl discovers it is a page of a story sent by the elderly aviator. She tosses it into the waste paper basket. The little girl goes through her morning routine until lunch when she decides she will begin rolling the pennies in the jar. While doing this, she discovers an odd collection of items amongst the pennies: a nail, a green marble, a sea shell,a red paper rose, a little metal airplane and a tiny figure of the little prince.

Recognizing the figure is the same as in the aviator's story, the girl retrieves the story from the bin and begins to read. At this point the movie portrays scenes from the story as the little girl reads, in stop motion animation. The story tells of a pilot who flew everywhere until he crashed in the Sahara Desert. One day a little boy appears asking the pilot to draw him a sheep. The pilot reluctantly agrees but his efforts are not acceptable to the little prince who tells him the sheep are too old, sickly and one is a ram. Tired, the pilot draws a rectangular box with holes and tells him the sheep is inside. The boy needs a sheep because where he comes from is very small.

The movie now switches back to the girl who is so intrigued with this beginning that she decides to go into the aviator's backyard. There she finds a yard crammed with eclectic pieces of machines including a decrepit red plane. The girl tells the aviator she found the story strange and begins asking him questions because the "facts" don't make sense to her. He begins to explain the story to her - for example telling her that the little prince comes from a very small asteroid called B-612 and that the sheep is needed to eat the Baobab sprouts which threaten to overrun the asteroid. While the aviator finds more pages of the story for her to read the little girl discovers a toy red fox which she immediately likes. Once more the movie switches to stop-animation. In this part of the story the Little Prince continues to keep his asteroid clean of the Baobab plants until one day a new seed sprouts. This seed, under the care of the Little Prince grows into a beautiful rose, cherished by the boy. They love each other but the rose begins to torment the Little Prince with her vanity and filled with doubt, the prince flees.

The little girl listens to the story and later watches the beautiful night sky with the aviator. Having lost track of time, the little girl rushes home with more story pages and the red fox. She admits to her mother that she did not finish all her planned schoolwork but that she read alot and made a knew friend. As the girl reads the pages she has brought home, the movie once again switches to stop animation.

As the little girl's friendship with the elderly aviator deepens she comes to see the world in a whole new way. And the message of the aviator's story becomes more and more apparent to her in her own life.


Discussion

The Little Prince is a simply wonderful film that exquisitely showcases the story of The Little Prince written by French author, explorer and aviator  Antoine de Saint-Euxpery. Directed by Mark Osbourne the movie captures the essence of the book, that there is mystery hidden within everyone and everything in the world - that "what is essential is invisible to the eye". This message is first hinted at in the opening pages of the book when the narrator states that as a child, he drew a object that people thought was a hat but really it contained an alligator.  Osbourne and his crew of screen writers wanted a story that could serve as a vehicle for de Saint-Euxpery's Little Prince. They came up with the idea that the aviator never had his story published. He was someone who had trouble connecting with others but who has a message to share. Instead his story remains as separate sheets of paper scattered around his house. But then a little girl shows up in the house next door and the aviator who "Thought I'd never find anyone who wanted to hear my story." suddenly has that someone. Although it is curiosity that drives the little girl to seek out the aviator next door so as to question him, she soon becomes very captivated by his story. Using the little girl, viewers experience the story through her eyes.

Osbourne used two mediums to make The Little Prince. The book is portrayed in the film using stop-motion animation while the larger story of the little girl and her relationship with the aviator who tells her his story of the Little Prince is told using CGI.

The stop-motion animation scenes were made using paper - representing the paper medium of the book. The beautiful illustrations in the Little Prince come alive with the stop motion animation. Many of the scenes are three-dimensional. For example, the heads of the characters were sculpted out of paper clay. The figures were also left with a textured appearance so that they appeared more realistic. Since the book's illustrations were done in water colour, vibrant water colours were used for the figures to capture the emotion and setting of the story. The director felt that the use of stop motion animation with it's imperfections made was reminiscent of childhood in comparison to the more mature and finished look of CGI.

The story of the aviator and the girl was told through the medium of CGI. This medium allowed the little girl's very scheduled adult world to be shown in sharp contrast to the warm, imaginative world of the aviator. The little girl's world is fully of greys and whites with little colour. Her mother wears a grey pant suit, their home is muted greys and their lives are scheduled down to the minute with routines. The girl is a miniature version of her mother. In contrast, the aviator's world is full of rich colours, greens, reds and yellows. This is best demonstrated when the little girl enters the aviator's backyard and is mesmerized by the deep green grass, the red airplane and the colourful parachute. He's filled with wonder about the world around him - a world that the little girl and her mother have never taken the time to notice.

At the start of the movie the little girl is more like an adult than a child. This is demonstrated in the opening scenes when she is interviewed by the Werth Academy. In the adult world she lives in, she is prepared to answer by memory, the question her mother believes is essential to her gaining admission. While in the waiting room, they fail to notice the world around them and in doing so miss the question plastered on the walls, "Que serez-vous quand vous serez adulte?"  This is the question that is asked in the interview and is a foreshadowing of what the fox will tell the Little Prince later - that what is essential is invisible to the eyes. They miss what is essential because they are not looking. Her adult-like character continues when she meets the aviator who sends her the first page of his story. Although she's fascinated by it, the little girl cannot relate to it because the facts don't line up. The child in her is buried so deeply she cannot enjoy the story and becomes bogged down with the incongruity of the "facts" .

In contrast to the little girl is the aviator who is like a little child. With his story and his wonder at the world and he helps her to rediscover the child within her. After reading about the Little Prince's journey's to the various asteroids populated by "odd" adults, the little girl begins to see her mother as an odd adult. This leads the little girl to question whether or not she wants to grow up but the aviator tells her "Growing up is not the problem, forgetting is." That is, forgetting how to look at the world through a child's eyes.

The juxtapositioning of the two stories - the first of the little girl as her friendship with the aviator develops and the Little Prince as he befriends a red fox is beautifully instructive. The Little Prince asked the fox to play with him but the fox tells him he cannot until he tames him - that is until they form a friendship, a bond. Otherwise he is just like any other fox to the Little Prince. The Little Prince finally understands what the fox has been trying to tell him when he finds a garden full of roses. Disappointed by what he believes is a lie his rose told him (that she was the only one in the universe) and that she is only a "common rose", the fox explains that the rose at home on the asteroid is special because of the time he has devoted to her. The roses in the garden are simply other roses with no special connection to him.  When the little girl reads this passage she is concerned that the fox and the little prince will not be together, but the aviator tells her that their connection will remain because the Little Prince will remember their times together just as he now remembers his times with the rose. The little girl worries now that she will lose her special friend, the aviator,whom she now recognizes she needs.

The little girl's deception is exposed to her mother when she and the aviator go for a drive to get pancakes.  Contacted by the police the little girl's mother realizes that her daughter has not been following her life plan but instead spending it with the aviator. Here in these CGI scenes we see how the current adult world often doesn't recognize the specialness of childhood, instead overplanning every single moment. The little girl accuses her mother of not caring but her mother tells her she cares about her and her "life plan" represented by the board. However, the little girl tells her mother the board is not her life plan but "just a wooden box with magnets" and that this is her mother's plan for her life. The mother after reading only a brief part of the aviator's story tells the little girl she must focus on what is essential. She destroys the pages of the story and gives her an (adult) deadline.

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly."

The next time she sees the aviator he hints that someday he will be gone, which greatly upsets the little girl. But he tells her that if she looks with her heart he will always be with her just as the the Little Prince is with his rose. Not understanding and deeply upset, the little girl returns home and focuses on getting into the academy. But when the aviator is taken to hospital the little girl's biggest fear is that she will grow up and forget the aviator. The story of the Little Prince and the girl merge when she flies the aviator's plane to find the little prince. From her adventure she comes to realize the truth of what the aviator told her. Just as the Little Prince who upon returning to his asteroid finds his precious rose dead, can see her in the morning sunrise, the little girl realizes that she will always remember the aviator when she looks at the stars. She will look into her heart and remember him.


This delightful movie will help children and adults alike the beauty of the novel The Little Prince set in a story about a little girl who rediscovers what it means to be a child.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Stones On A Grave by Kathy Kacer

Stones On A Grave is part of a series of seven books authored by various Canadian writers for young teens. The series, known as the Secrets, can be read in any order. An orphanage, known as The Benevolent Home For Necessitous Girls burns to the ground in June of 1964, leaving all its residents homeless. The younger girls are sent to various families, but the seven oldest girls, Dot, Malou, Sara, Tess, Cady, Toni and Betty are each given information about their past and told they must now make their own way in the world. Their stories are the basis for the seven novels in the series.

Stones On A Grave tells Sara's story. It begins the night of the terrible fire at the orphanage in the town of Hope. Sarah and the rest of the girls who live there make it safely out of the fire. Sara manages to grab her tin box holding her savings. Their matron, Mrs. Hazelton and their teacher, Miss Webster also make it out. The girls are taken to the church where they are told by Miss Webster that because the fire has totally destroyed the orphanage, no one will be able to return and that plans are being made to help each of the girls. The girls spend the night sleeping on the pews of the town church.

The next morning Sara, who is the oldest of the girls at eighteen, decides to go to her job at Loretta's, a diner where she's worked for the past few years. Normally Loretta's wouldn't be open on a Sunday but the owner, Mrs. Clifford has opened the restaurant to those who helped with the fire. When she sees Sara, Mrs. Clifford is shocked and tells her she can manage fine if she needs to take some time off. However Sara wants to work as it keeps her from worrying about what the future holds for her.

Sara's boyfriend Luke comes to the diner. Sara met him a few months ago when she went to the garage where he works to put air in her bicycle tires. Luke noticing her that day made Sara feel special. Mrs. Clifford doesn't like Luke however and questions him about whether he was involved in the orphanage fire. She also tells him she heard that he's been harassing Malou, one of the seven older girls at the orphanage. Luke denies this and Sara refuses to believe what Mrs. Clifford has said, but when Malou arrives at the diner, he ridicules her in front of Sara.

After work Sara goes to see Mrs. Hazelton at her cottage near the orphanage. Each of the girls has come to meet privately with her and Sara is anxious, wondering what Mrs. Hazelton will tell her. Mrs. Hazelton hands Sara two envelopes; the first contains a document from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation that lists information about her birth. Sara learns that she was born in Fohrenwald, Germany, that her mother's name is Karen Frankel and that she is Jewish. Mrs. Hazelton tells Sara that Fohrenwald was a camp for Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust. She tells Sara that her mother was imprisoned in a concentration camp which was liberated at the end of the war. Her mother contracted tuberculosis which was passed on the Sara. The second document is a medical certificate clearing Sara for travel to Canada and was signed by Gunther Pearlman, a German doctor. Mrs. Hazelton has no information on Sara's father nor how Sara ended up coming to Canada. However, she wants to help Sara as she starts her new life and gives her an envelope containing money to help her get started.

This new information and her conversation with Mrs. Hazelton make Sara realize that in order to face her future she needs to discover her past. And to do that she needs to travel to Germany. It is a journey that will uncover her past and help her plot her course for the future.

Discussion

Stones on a Grave is a well written, high interest, easy read for those who enjoy historical fiction and mystery. The novel is set in the mid-1960's and explores the aftermath of the Holocaust on Germans and those who survived the war. When Sara arrives in Germany she finds Dr. Pearlman initially helpful until she reveals her identity and tells him about her mother. The doctor becomes angry and refuses any further help. Kacer portrays a country struggling to come to terms with what happened and determined to try to forget. The older characters, for example Dr. Pearlman and Frau Klein, who lived through the war, do not want to talk about what happened and do not wish to remember. However, Peter, who represents a new generation of Jewish Germans becomes determined to help Sara uncover her family history. Frustrated at the lack of help she is receiving from Germans, Sara wonders Peter also attempts to explain to Sara the question many people asked themselves after the war, "How could the German people not know what was going on?"

At times some of the plot twists seem contrived, such as when Hedda Kaufmann decides against the rules to help Sara and also when by amazing coincidence she knew Sara's mother. Readers will probably quickly realize the real identity of Gunther Pearlman and also how Sara's mother became pregnant. One aspect of this novel that is particularly well done is Kacer's treatment of the war crime of rape and how it can affect the family of the victim.  Sara learns from Frau Kauffman at the International Tracing Center that her father was not her mother's husband, Simon Frankel but a Nazi soldier who raped her mother in the concentration camp. When Sara first learns this fact about herself, she is very distraught. She flees the center, her mind racing with questions. "How was it that she had traveled all this way to find out about her family only to discover that her father -- her father -- was a Nazi guard? What did that even mean? Was she part Nazi? And what part had come from him? The anger? The irritation? The blue eyes? It was almost too much to imagine."  Sara believes that this is why her mother gave her up, that looking at her meant remembering the rape. Sara decides to leave Germany immediately, regretting seeking out her past.The next day while waiting for Peter, Sara tells Dr. Pearlman that she discovered the truth about her past and that her mother "...must have thought I was a monster."

When Dr. Pearlman, who is Sara's grandfather, realizes how this tragedy is affecting his granddaughter, he decides to reveal the truth to her. He tells her that in fact, while "We were all afraid to look at you, knowing where and how you were conceived" her mother gazed at her with "pure love." "Those first few days after she was hospitalized, she wouldn't let you go. She held on to you as if together you could give each other strength to heal. Even as she grew weaker and we tried to pry you from her arms she still refused to let you go..."  The realization that her mother truly loved her helps Sara come to terms with the fact that she was born from an act of violence and to begin to accept that she is NOT her father. A moving letter from Frau Kauffman about her mother, makes Sara understand that there is much of her mother in her. Like her mother she is spirited and like her mother she dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Frau Kauffman's entreaty that she take what little she knows about her mother and be inspired pushes Sara past her anger and grief towards acceptance.

"Everything was becoming clearer to her. Yes, she would carry the man who had raped her mother somewhere inside her. Every time she looked into a mirror, stared at her blue eyes, she would be reminded of her roots. But she knew now that she was not him, and never would be. She would live her life trying to prove that."

Kacer does incorporate some interesting historical facts into her story. One example is Bad Arolsen, a town in northern Germany where documents from the war have been stored in a special center. Bad Arolsen is the location of the International Tracing Service which was begun in 1946 after the war to locate missing people and reunite them with their families and to let others know the fate of their loved ones. The Nazis kept detailed records of who was sent where. The names of Jews, what concentration camp they were sent to, how and when they died, or if they survived what displaced persons camp they were sent to was recorded in an effort to reunite survivors. Its vast archives were only made available to the public in 2007.   The English website may be found at International Tracing Service.

The book takes its title Stones on a Grave from the Jewish custom of placing stones on a grave.This ancient tradition is explained by Peter as follows: "Well, flowers disappear quickly. The belief is that stones last forever, just like the memory you hold of the one who has died."

Overall Stones on a Grave is a touching story about a young woman who learns the truth about her past and her struggle to come to terms with it. Part of the Secrets series conceived by Eric Walters, this novel is a good read for younger teens. It's unfortunate the cover design, like many good Canadian novels, is unimaginative at best.

Book Details:

Stones on a Grave by Kathy Kacer
Victoria: Orca Book Publishers      2015
213 pp.