Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Don't Tell The Enemy by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch's latest novel is based on the real life experiences of Kateryna Sikorska and her daughter Krystia during World War II. In the Author's note at the back of the novel, Forchuk Skrypuch writes that she was approached by Ukrainian-Canadian journalist and film maker Iryna Korpan and given a copy of a her documentary, She Paid the Ultimate Price which tells the story of her mother and grandmother's experiences in the Ukraine during World War II. Korpan encouraged Forchuk Skrypuch to write a book about these experiences. Don't Tell The Enemy is that book.

The novel opens on June 28, 1941 and is set in the fictional town of Viteretz, Ukraine. The town of four thousand souls has about eight hundred Ukrainians, the rest being split between Polish and Jewish. The Soviets who have occupied the town for the past two years, are fleeing eastward ahead of the advancing Nazis. As they leave, the civilians are being shot and the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) are rounding up and shooting educated Ukrainians and stealing whatever they can.

Krystia Fediuk, her younger sister Maria and their Mama are huddled in their home located across the street from the boarded up St. Mary's Ukrainian Catholic Church, listening to explosions and gunfire. In the morning Krystia warily enters their cowshed  to investigate the noises she heard during the night only to discover her cousin Josip hiding in the loft. He is on his way to a refuge in the forest where he hopes his brother Borys has gone. Their father and mother, Krystia's Uncle Roman and Auntie Iryna remain in town.

While taking their cow Krasa out to pasture, Krystia encounters Uncle Roman also walking his cow Lysa to the fields. He tells Krystia to wait for him so they can walk back to town together, but when he doesn't return, Krystia becomes concerned. It is her Jewish friend, Dolik Kitai who finds Uncle Roman shot dead in field by the retreating Soviets.

By the first of July 1941, the Germans arrive in Viteretz, as liberators who appear benevolent, providing soup for the townspeople and allowing the Catholic church to open again. At the same time, the Ukrainians announce their independence as a free country from the state radio in Lviv. Krystia's family along with their neighbours, Mr. Kitai and his wife Dr. Mina, Mr. and Mrs. Segal, and Uncle Ivan cautiously celebrate. But as the days pass, and the Germans settle into the abandoned homes and German refugees begin flooding the town Krystia and her family and friends become uneasy. The initial jubilation at being liberated from the Soviets  quickly turns to unease and then horror as the Nazis gradually reveal their true intentions. The Nazis move quickly from dishing out free soup to creating lists of Jewish citizens, to cold blooded murder.

The Jews are blamed for the murders of Ukrainians in the jail in Velicky Selo despite a German soldier acknowledging that this was the work of the Soviets. Commandant Hermann states, "These Jew are guilty of torturing, mutilating and killing the hundreds of men that we found in the prison at Velicky Selo." One hundred Jewish men are summarily executed and dumped in a mass grave. 

Krystia goes to the Jewish cemetery to see what really happened. There she discovers the awful truth: "The victims marched to the edge of the ditch and then ordered to remove their clothing. They were shot, and fell into the ditch, and dirt was shovelled over them." Krystia is horrified over the victims being forced to strip so their clothing is not damaged and the German civilians calmly sorting through the clothing of the murdered men. Later on two of the Germans Frau Schneider and her daughter Magda are seen wearing clothing from the murdered Jews. "My stomach did a lurch as I stepped in and realized what these two were dressed in. Marga wore the baker's white trousers and shirt. Frau Schneider wore the dogcatcher's grey shirt and brown trousers. Looking at them made me think of vultures, picking at scraps from the dead."

For Krystia, her family and neighbors this is the beginning of the terror living under the control of the Nazis. Homes and food are confiscated, more men murdered, the Jewish citizens identified and then forced into a ghetto. But Krystia and her family are determined to help and resist in any way they can. When a neighbor begs them for help, Krystia and her mother make a decision that has deadly consequences for all involved.

Discussion

Don't Tell The Enemy is another excellent. well-written novel from Canadian award-winning author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch. This novel focuses on the life in one small town in the Ukraine during World War II. Similar events to those portrayed in the novel in the fictional town of Viteretz, occurred throughout the Ukraine, as evidenced by the existence of many mass graves throughout the country.It is believed that there are more than 700 mass graves scattered throughout the Ukraine. Over 1 millions Jewish Ukrainians were murdered by the Nazis during their occupation of the country.

The story is told through the eyes of fourteen year old Krystia who is based on Krystia Sikorska, who was a mere eight years old in 1941 and who survived the war and now lives in Canada. Don't Tell The Enemy is a fictionalized account of some of what Krystia lived through and as Forchuk Skrypuch states in her Author's Note, many of the characters in the novel were real people.

Don't Tell The Enemy captures the brutality and the terror that existed for the Ukrainians, Polish and Jews who lived under Nazi occupation. Forchuk Skrypuch doesn't spare young readers any of the details of life during this time. The novel describes several mass murders, the forcing of Jews into a ghetto with the ultimate goal of murdering everyone, the terrible risks and courage of those in the resistance, and the dignified behaviour of the Jewish people even when they were brutally mistreated.

Also captured is the disconnected behaviour of Nazis who live what seems to be cultured lives while either actively participating in or at least being aware of the atrocities occuring. For example, when Krystia makes milk deliveries to Frau and Herr Lange who live in the Kitais' confiscated home and are expecting a baby, she notes the beautiful cherrywood bassinet in the nursery and wonders "...where it had come from. Were the old owners now in a slave camp or ghetto? Or had they already been killed? Frau Lange seemed cheerful and oblivious...How could they seem so normal, even almost nice, yet live like vultures -- benefiting from the destruction of others."

As the Nazis strip the Jewish people of their rights, their homes and their dignity, Krystia becomes determined to resist in any way possible. She is portrayed as a courageous, intelligent girl determined to do the right thing, even in the face of deadly consequences to herself and what remains of her family. She sees these acts as ones of defiance in the midst of a town now filled with enemies. At considerable risk, Krystia and her mother choose to hide three Jews under the floor of their home. Krystia secrets food and medicine into the Jewish ghetto and helps Mr. Segal forge papers to be used to help Jews escape. The penalty is death for any of these actions.

Although the village of Viteretz is fictional, a map locating the Ukraine in relation to the Soviet Union and Germany in 1941 would be helpful for younger readers.

Don't Tell The Enemy is another well-written, informative novel about little known events during World War II, events that should never be forgotten. This novel, brings those events to light for yet another generation of young people, ensuring that both the good and evil acts of this time will be remembered and the people who died will not be forgotten.

Readers wishing to learn more about the Ukrainian Holocaust are encouraged to check out the following:
 Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies website
The Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine which also has an article on Nazi War Crimes in Ukraine.


I've included a clip from the documentary, She Paid The Ultimate Price by Iryna Korpan about her mother Kateryna Sikorska who was hanged for hiding her Jewish neighbours.



Book Details:

Don't Tell The Enemy by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Toronto: Scholastic Canada Ltd.    2018
184 pp.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Stolen Secrets by L.B. Schulman

Livvy's mother, Gretchen has dragged her across the continental United States from Vermont to a new life in San Francisco. Livvy leaves behind her home with its beautiful backyard in Vermont, her friends that she's known since preschool and Sean, her first boyfriend. Her mother, a recovering alcoholic leaves behind her AA sponsor, Tom.

However it's soon apparent things are not what they seem. A friend texts Livvy to tell her that a help-wanted sign has been posted at her mother's old job, Gourmet City where she supposedly was laid off.  Her mother also seems to know her way around San Francisco quite well and she knows exactly which bus Livvy needs to take to get to her new school. Then on Livvy's first day of school, she watches from their apartment window as her mother. supposedly on her way to a job interview, scraps the resumes Livvy's printed out for her job interview, tossing them into the garbage bin.

Although she attempts to follow her mother, Livvy soon loses her in the streets of San Francisco and is forced to rush to school. On her first day at Grant High, Livvy meets Franklin D. Schiller, who introduces himself in their Algebra 2 class. It turns out Franklin D, as he likes to be called is also in Livvy's International Debate class. Franklin D. decides he likes Livvy and sets out to try to win her over.

After school Livvy decides to check out 2846 Fillmore, the address she found on a sticky note, believing this to be the location of her mother's interview. Livvy discovers the address is not a business but a yellow Victorian house, occupied by an elderly lady. Her mother is there but soon leaves. Puzzled over her mother's prescence at the house, Livvy goes to the front porch and meets the elderly woman.She tells the woman that she saw her mother at the house. This leads the woman to remark that Livvy looks like her father, Lee Newman but not like her mother Gretchen  and introduces herself as Adelle Pfeiffer. She invites Livvy in for tea and tells her that she has hired Gretchen to do odd jobs. Confused by Gretchen's strange answers and random statements, Livvy eventually runs out of the house.

Back in their apartment, Livvy confronts her mother over the lies and tells her she met her grandmother whom she thought was dead. Her mother admits that Adelle is her mother, telling her that she moved to San Francisco because she was afraid she would be cut out of her mother's will if she didn't help care for her. Her mother's lawyer has arranged for Gretchen and Livvy to be paid a stipend and living expenses. Another caregiver, Vicki has been hired to work at night. Gretchen warns her daughter not to get involved with her grandmother who has a cruel streak. However, Livvy wants to get to know Adelle on her own terms.

At school Franklin D. continues to pursue Livvy inviting her to join him at lunch, but she declines giving the false excuse of having a prom planning meeting. Nevertheless Franklin D. remains persistent, even when Livvy provides numerous excuses and when she lies to him after Sean dumps her by text. Finally she relents and begins eating with Franklin D. and his eclectic friends.

Livvy's mother refuses to tell her much about her grandmother or why she stopped visiting her when she was in college. Feeling guilty about staying away, Livvy decides to visit her one day. She notices a mezuzah, an ornamental box to hold a copy of verses from the Torah, on the door frame. This makes Livvy wonder if her grandmother is Jewish? On this visit Adelle speaks a few words of German and mumbles about not being able to escape. When Livvy returns to her apartment, she discovers her mother has begun drinking again. Gretchen tells Livvy that caring for her mother whom she has a poor relationship with has triggered her relapse and she promises to call Tom. However, Livvy doesn't trust her mother and decides she will follow up with Tom on her own.

Livvy's time with her grandmother begins to raise more questions than answers. Her oma talks about journals, being a writer, about roll call and camp, being called Lazy Lillian by a sister she doesn't have. More random statements are made by Adelle including mentioning a place called Belsen, escaping on the last train and warnings to hide the jewelry. Livvy decides to search Belsen on her phone and discovers that Bergen-Belsen, was a women's concentration camp where Anne Frank and her sister Margaret died of typhus. The mystery about her grandmother begins to deepen.

At this time, Livvy's mother goes into crisis, having a serious alcoholic relapse that leads to her arrest and jailing for driving while impaired.  Tom travels to San Francisco and he and Gretchen tell Livvy that her mother will be returning to Vermont to do another session of rehab at Evergreen. Meanwhile Livvy is allowed to stay with her elderly grandmother, offering her the perfect chance to try to solve the mystery of her grandmother's past. With the help of Franklin D. who becomes more than just a friend, Livvy uncovers is a shocking past and a family secret that might explain her mother's serious problems but which also offers the possibility of forgiveness, recovery and redemption.

Discussion

Schulman's Stolen Secrets takes the tragic story of Anne Frank and imagines a fictional account of one woman's life as it intersects with Anne's. While Schulman was careful to craft a story  that "didn't invent a 'new' Anne Frank" her novel does include a fictional account of Anne's experience at Bergen Belsen. The novel, which  explores the issues of Alzheimers and alcoholism, also uses these illnesses as a means of driving the plot. Livvy's grandmother, Adelle Friedman has Alzheimers which allows Schulman to develop the mystery of her past.  Adelle's fragmented memories are mixed up between the truth of her identity and the identity she assumed at the end of the war but Livvy doesn't know this.  By having Adelle suffer from Alzheimers, Schulman sets this character up as an unreliable narrator; her random statements to Livvy seem to suggest one thing, as do Adelle's short one or two page narratives in italics inserted between chapters. These short narratives tell of her time at Bergen-Belsen but they are vague enough to suggest to the reader the very opposite of what really happened. Eventually Livvy uncovers the unsettling truth.

Livvy's mother's alcoholism and her relapse set the stage for Livvy being left on her own and therefore being able, with the help of her new friend Franklin D. to investigate unhindered her grandmother's past. This also allows Livvy's friendship with Franklin D. to blossom.

Bergen-Belsen at the time the camp was liberated.
Stolen Secrets is populated by a quartet of strong, well developed characters, the most appealing of which has to be Franklin D. Shiller. Franklin D. is eccentric, caring, funny. Part of what makes this character so appealing is that he is part of a warm family and has caring, engaged parents - very unusual for young adult fiction. Franklin D. serves to provide some mild comic relief in what would otherwise be a dark novel.

In complete contrast is Livvy's dysfunctional family; her parents are divorced with her father having run off with another woman to Australia (conveniently putting him out of the picture) and her alcoholic mother who has been sober for the past five years until her recent relapse. As is typical of alcoholic families, Livvy is forced to be the parent and care for her mother both physically and emotionally. This sets Livvy up as a sixteen-year-old, mature far beyond her years. Livvy is unusual also in that she loves facts and is gifted with a prodigious memory.

Just as her mother undergoes a journey of recovery in the novel, Livvy too experiences her own journey. With a mother who is very needy, Livvy hopes to establish a different relationship with the grandmother she believed to be dead. She's hoping her oma will be a heroine for her and quickly rushes to fit her into that identity. However, when Livvy discovers the truth about her grandmother's past, she feels angry and betrayed. She refuses to visit her oma's bedside. "Why should Oma have family at her beside, stroking her hand, encouraging her to live? The Holocaust victims hadn't died with such love and care." 

But Livvy doesn't abandon her grandmother as her mother did. Instead of judging her grandmother "for her part in crimes against countless innocent people" Livvy decides to see her "as she had been, a girl around my age, who'd sold her soul to believe in a world of Hitler's creation-- one that promised jobs, solutions to economic problems, and a shiny new nation. A girl who'd ruined many lives, including her own." Livvy decides  "So in the end, I decided to accept Oma solely for who she was to me -- my grandmother. I was her last hope for absolution, the only person who could forgive her when she couldn't even forgive herself."  Livvy sitting by her dyig oma's bedside considers, "I weighed the facts one last time. My grandmother had made some horrific choices. But the reality was, I loved her in spite of it. Lifting her papery hand in mine, I bent down and kissed her cheek."

 Stolen Secrets is a very different novel that tackles many issues and yet works remarkably well. Well written, this novel is highly recommended.

Book Details:

Stolen Secrets by L.B. Schulman
Honesdale, Pennsylvannia: Boyds Mills Press   2017
302 pp.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

Piecing Me Together is a novel about life as a young African-American in modern-day America. Set in Portland, Oregon, the main character is Jade Butler who attends St. Francis High School on the other side of town, away from her friends and family in predominantly poor, black Northside. St. Francis is considered the best private school in Portland, and is predominantly white. Jade hasn't made many close friends at the school which is concerning to her mother.

Jade's family consists of her mother who works as a house keeper for a rich old lady named Louise after she was fired from her job at Emanuel Hospital for theft. Uncle E.J. lives with them and sometimes deejays. Her dad also lives in Portland with his white girlfriend who has a college degree and a good paying job.

The first day of school, Jade meets with Mrs. Parker her guidance counselor who Jade hopes will have information about the volunteer abroad program. Mrs. Parker has provided Jade with several opportunities; an essay writing class in her freshman year and a SAT prep class last year. Now Jade is hopeful because the volunteer abroad program is "not a program offering something I need, but it's about what I can give." Instead Jade learns that she's been selected to participate in a program, Woman to Woman: A Mentorship Program for African American Girls. Each of the twelve girls will be paired with a mentor and will experience trips to various sites across the city. When Jade questions Mrs. Parker, she is told that she was selected based on gender, grade and need through teacher nominations. Although she's upset that Mrs. Parker hasn't given her information on the study abroad program Jade reluctantly agrees to participate when she learns that staying in the two year program and maintaining her grade point average will earn her a scholarship to any Oregon college.

At her first Woman to Woman meeting, Jade's mentor, Maxine, fails to show leaving Jade feeling disappointed. Maxine shows up at Jade's home later in the evening, apologetic and bearing a gift bag of art supplies. Although Maxine is friendly and shows interest in Jade's art, their time together is interrupted by calls from Maxine's boyfriend.  Maxine cancels their next meeting and then offers to take Jade for brunch on her birthday. However, Jade's mother becomes furious at this and refuses to allow Maxine to follow through on her plans. Instead she's invited in and spends some time talking with Jade about her collage art.

Jade makes a new friend - a white girl named Sam whom she rescues from an awkward situation on the public transit to school and who is new to St. Francis. Sam invites Jade to her home where she lives with her grandparents after her mother abandoned her. Th visit is awkward because Sam's grandmother is racist, but her grandfather is welcoming to Jade.

Meanwhile, through the Woman to Woman program, Jade and Maxine attend a "girls night" at mentor Sabrina's home for a night of advice on dating.  They also visit the Portland Art Museum but instead of accompanying Jade through the museum, Maxine spends time talking with her boyfriend in the lobby. This leads Jade to confront her over dinner afterwards, with Maxine promising not to do this again.

But as Jade continues through the mentoring program, she begins to realize that if she wants to achieve her dreams and make something of herself, she needs to find the courage to make her voice heard. Only in this way will she come to be seen not as someone who needs help but as someone who can offer help.


Discussion

Piecing Me Together tackles a wide range of themes that include race, class, privilege and friendship. Watson specifically considers how race and class impact opportunity and who gets what.

The main character is a black teenager, Jade Butler who is determined to make something of her life. She lives in a predominantly black, poor neighborhood in Portland, Oregon and she starts the novel believing that in order for her to succeed, "in order for me to make something of this life, I'd have to leave home, my neighborhood, my friends." To that end her mother has enrolled her in a mostly white high school, St. Francis that offers students many opportunities that are not available at the school in Jade's neighborhood. One of those opportunities is a study abroad program and to improve her chances of being chosen, Jade has been learning Spanish. However, to her dismay, Jade learns she has not been chosen and instead has been selected for a mentoring program which her guidance teacher Mrs. Parker tells her is for "young people with your set of circumstances are, well, at risk for certain things, and we'd like to help you navigate through those circumstances."

As she spends more time in the Woman to Woman program, Jade feels that the purpose of the mentoring program is to "fix" her, something she resents. Jade feels that although Maxine is black, she doesn't really understand her. Jade tells her best friend Lee Lee, "I don't want to be taken all over the city of Portland just so I can see how everyone else lives in bigger and better houses and neighborhoods. I wanted to be in Woman to Woman because I thought I'd actually learn something about being a woman. About how to be a successful woman." Eventually Jade confronts Maxine about her dissatisfaction, "I do like going on all those trips, but sometimes you make me fell like you've come to fix me; only, I don't feel broken. Not until I'm around you...It feels like Woman to Woman takes us to all these places outside of our neighborhood, as if the places in our neighborhood aren't' good enough."

When Jade's new friend Sam, who is white is offered a placement in the study abroad program in Costa Rica, she is devastated and left wondering "...how choices are made about who gets what and how much they get. Wondering who owns the river and the line, and the hook, and the worm." She also tells her friend Sam that people are offered different opportunities because of their skin color or race. "I just want to be normal. I just want a teacher to look at me and think I'm worth a trip to Costa Rica. Not just that I need help but that I can help someone else."

Watson describes several instances of racism throughout the novel. Jade is asked to leave a clothing store, accused of loitering and later because she has a large bag the implication being that she is a shoplifting risk. Yet her friend Sam who is white is allowed to stay as is another woman with a large bag.  A white volunteer hosting a tour for the Oregon Symphony assumes that the black women in Jade's group "were the kind of kids who wouldn't appreciate classical music." At school Jade is ordered to the office, even though a white classmate Hannah was the one who was disrespectful. Sam attempts to tell Jade that Hannah was not sent to the office not because she is white but because her family is wealthy and donates to the school.  Jade and Andrea see a black woman pulled over by a white policeman. Jade also learns of a fictional black girl, Natasha Ramsey who is beaten by police who attended a call at a house party in Vancouver, Washington.

 Despite her initial reservations about the mentor program and the rocky start she and Maxine experience, the program does help Jade find her voice.  Her complaints to Maxine result in a few changes in the program; for example several money management workshops are arranged and the group visits Maxine's sister's art gallery to learn about becoming an entrepeneur. Jade approaches Mr. Flores and tells him how his decision not to recommend her for the study abroad program was unfair and questioning how "is it fair that the girl who tutors half the people chosen for the study abroad trip doesn't get to go?" Near the end of the novel, at the Woman to Woman fundraiser, Jade tells a patron, "...I've learned I don't have to wait to be given an opportunity, but that I can make an opportunity and use my voice to speak up for what I need and want."  This is demonstrated later on by Jade and Lee Lee taking the initiative to host an open mic and art show in honor of Natasha Ramsey who was assaulted by police. 

Although many teens struggle with finding their identity throughout their high school years, Watson highlights how this can be especially difficult for black teens. As a person of color, Jade feels very different from everyone else at St. Francis. "And I realized how different I am from everyone else at St. Francis. Not only because I'm black and almost everyone else is white, but because their mothers are the kind of people who hire housekeepers, and my mother is the kind of person who works as one." Later on in the novel she mentions how she can't really be herself but has to tone down her 'blackness'..."Sometimes I just want to be comfortable in this skin, this body. Want to cock my head back and laugh loud and free, all my teeth showing, and not be told I'm too rowdy, too ghetto. Sometimes I just want to go to school, wearing my hair big like cumulus clouds without getting any special attention, without having to explain why it looks different form the day before...At school I turn on a switch, make sure nothing about me it too black. All day I am on..."

This is in contrast to what she feels within the safety of her family and home where she believes in herself. At home, secure in her family, this seems possible. "...that's when I believe my dark skin isn't a curse, that my lips and hips, hair and nose don't need fixing. That my dream of being an artist and traveling the world isn't foolish." However, outside of her home, Jade feels as though she shatters into pieces. "And this makes me wonder if a black girl's life is only about being stitched together and coming undone, being stitched together and coming undone."

A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y by Mickalene Thomas
This theme of being fragmented appears repeatedly throughout the novel, manifesting itself through Jade's collage art and in the lovely collage art by artist Bryan Collier on the novel's cover. At Powell's bookstore, Jade is introduced to the work of two black collagists, Romare Bearden and Mickalene Thomas whose art reflect "the making of me". Throughout the novel Jade continues to make collages that reflect what she is experiencing. The chapter titled renaciamiento or rebirth describes Jade creating a collage using photos of people like Emmett Till, Trayvon Marton, and Michael Bland, all of whom died at the hands of white brutality and showing them "living", "loving" and "being".

Throughout the novel, Jade is fascinated by the story of Lewis and Clark who are famous for their journey through the western United States, through the continental divide to the Pacific Ocean. The two explorers were accompanied (among others) by the famous Shoshone Indian woman,  Sacagawea and her infant and husband, and a black slave named York. In Piecing Me Together, Jade observes  how history has not acknowledged (until recently) the contributions these two non-white members of the expedition made. Their journey seems to mirror Jade's experiences, how she felt invisible to the teachers at St. Francis who didn't consider nominating her for the study abroad, and how her efforts have gone unrecognized.

Piecing Me Together is a brilliantly crafted novel that may help young readers understand better the black experience in America. Watson tackles so many issues in this novel, issues that deal with race, opportunity, class, identity and body image. This is done in a positive and realistic way through the remarkable character of Jade Butler. A well-crafted character, Jade is comfortable with her larger size and the colour of her skin, but she desperately wishes other people felt the same. She is resourceful, empathetic, intelligent and gifted.

Choosing Portland, Oregon as the setting for this novel seemed unusual, but Watson did grow up in the city. Interestingly, according to a recent article in the Atlantic, Portland has a very racist history towards it's African-American citizens.

art photo credit: http://themcbproject.com/mickalene-thomas/


Book Details:

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
New York: Bloomsbury Children's Books     2017
264 pp.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Auma's Long Run by Eucabeth Odhiambo

Auma Onyango lives in the small Luo village of Koromo in Kenya with her Mama, her younger sister Baby, and her two brothers nine-year-old Musa and eleven-year-old Juma. Also living in their family compound is Bani, her father's mother. Her Baba works in shop in Nairobi, returning to visit them at the end of each month.  She attends KaPeter Primary school where she is beginning Class Seven. Auma loves to run, has big dreams of becoming a doctor one day, but in order to achieve her dream, Auma must get a scholarship to attend high school and eventually university in the city far from her village. She hopes to accomplish that by winning a scholarship for track.

Then one day after school, Auma is surprised to see Baba home from Nairobi, during a weekday in the middle of the month of November. Baba's job in the city has meant Auma and her brothers have been able to attend school regularly. Auma is suspicious of her father's unusual visit in that he has not brought them his usual gifts from the city. Aumua also senses that something was different about him, that his presence is not reassuring. "I couldn't shake the feeling that something dark and unfamiliar had followed him into our home."

With the death of Tabitha's husband, Mika, Auma notes that there have been many deaths in the past two years, supposedly from typhoid and malaria. Her best friend Abeth has lost both her mother and father and now lives with her younger sister Supa and her grandmother. "I still couldn't figure out why only parents seemed to be dying, leaving behind healthy grandparents."  However, Auma wonders why so many adults are suddenly dying from these diseases or if they are sick with something unknown.

It soon becomes apparent that something is seriously wrong with her father. Auma's father does not re return to his job in Nairobi, spends his days sleeping,, and continues to lose weight. When Auma asks her mother when Baba will return to his job, her mother ignores her questions. But Auma is determined. Eventually Auma's mother tells her that she doesn't know what is wrong with Baba and she decides to accompany him to the clinic. When they return, Auma notices her mother looks "like she had seen Death himself."

In January a new term begins at school with Auma now in Class Eight. Meanwhile Baba continues to grow weaker and sicker. Her mother refuses to take him to the medicine man, telling Auma that she will continue to pray to God for his healing. Then one day Auma returns home from school to find that her father is dying. Her mother mourns Baba's death but for Auma it marks the beginning of a challenging and sad period of her life where she must make some difficult decisions about her future.

Discussion

Auma's Long Run tells the story of the devastating effects of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Odhiambo decided to write this story featuring younger characters because the AIDS epidemic in Africa has primarily impacted young children who are often left orphaned by the deaths of one or both parents from the disease.  To date, the AIDS infection in Kenya shows little signs of slowing down. Over the last decade, the country has the highest rate of new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa. Over 1.6 million Kenyans are HIV positive.

Born and raised in Kenya, Odhiambo states that she wrote "the story of the girls and women I grew up around. I wanted to explore some of the issues that thread through the lives of women: a woman's place in society, relationships, marriage, childbearing, motherhood, strength, confidence, and respect. Above all, I wanted to honor the resilience of HIV/AIDS orphans, many of whom overcome their trauma to grow up to be successful adults but have no platform to tell their stories."

One aspect of the AIDS epidemic in Kenya that Odhiambo addresses is the lack of information and the unwillingness of adults to talk about what was happening during the early years of the epidemic, both of which contributed greatly to the rapid spread of the disease. This is shown in the novel by the character Auma, who is an intelligent, observant girl, seeking answers. Auma is puzzled by the deaths of parents, leaving children and grandchildren untouched.  Although Auma is determined to learn what is going on, she finds the adults in her village are secretive. Only by surrepitiously listening in on a conversation between two adult women in the market does Auma learn about a disease called AIDS or Slim and that it kills people by making them very weak and unable to fight off infections.

When her father becomes seriously ill, her mother never talks to Auma about his illness. After overhearing villagers speak about her father's illness Auma suspects her father has AIDS but is unable to confirm this belief. "Over and over again I'd asked myself what could possibly be wrong with Baba. Over and over again I came up with only one answer. And yet I'd kept hoping that I was wrong. That Mama would have some other explanation for me."

 Even at her father's funeral, the adults speculate about what killed Baba, but never really naming what they believe killed him - AIDS. This reluctance to understand and talk about what is happening in the village is upsetting to Auma. "Maybe that was better, not knowing. Or maybe the worst feeling came from only knowing half of something, and never being able to get a complete answer...
And maybe the adults weren't hiding things from me. Maybe they really didn't know."

Fortunately, her teacher Mr. Osogo openly discusses AIDS with Auma's fellow Class Eight students, explaining how HIV virus attacks the body. Not satisfied, Auma asks "the big question", "How do people contract HIV?" While Mr. Osogo informs the class that it can be contacted through sexual relations with an infected person, he also identifies other ways to become infected. Mr. Osogo's description of AIDS confirms Auma's worst fears. Auma questions why the adults in the village have not spread this information. "Why weren't there a hundred Mr. Osogos dragging blackboards into the middle of the market and explaining this to everyone? Why was even the disease's name hidden beneath a layre of you knows and stupid nicknames?"

Odhiambo also highlights some of the myths that Auma encounters in the treatment of AIDS such as using the village medicine man and the idea that having sex with a virgin cures AIDS.

The novel also portrays how difficult life can be in rural Kenya for young girls; they face challenges in being treated equally and in making decisions about their future. For example, many girls do not continue on with their education, often not completing high school. In Auma's Class Seven, there are forty-five students, of which only fifteen are girls. Auma is determined that she will not be one of those girls who quit school because of her period - a common occurence in the developing world. Often this is the result of a lack of sanitary hygiene materials; Abeth shows Auma how she can use an old blanket for this purpose. Specific tasks like collecting water and going to market are considered women's tasks. While out collecting firewood with her brothers, Juma and Musa are confronted by a boy whom they sense wants to harm Auma. As Auma matures into a young woman, she discovers it is unsafe to collect firewood alone, or to fill the family pail at the stream. When Auma begins to menstruate, she decides not to tell her mother because she knows she will tell her grandmother who will then pressure her to marry. "If Dani had her way, I'd quit school now and leave home to get married. Leave my parents and siblings behind. Leave Abeth and all our friends..." Dani's attempt to marry her off, result in Auma having to hide.

Odhiambo captures the devastating effect AIDS has on individuals, families and society in general. What is particularly tragic is Auma's view of marriage as a life-limiting choice, one that leads to a life of hardship and even death. Even more saddening is her view of men, partly due to her father's betrayal that has led to such tremendous suffering for her family and the death of her mother. Because of this Auma forms the determination to never marry as a way to protect herself from AIDS.

Despite the tragic subject matter of Auma's Long Run, Odhiambo has created a resilient character in Auma. Despite the loss of her parents and the deaths in her village, Auma manages to maintain a hopeful attitude, demonstrating fortitude and great strength of character. She decides she will be an adult who looks for constructive solutions. "...I wondered why most of the elders in my life failed to think of constructive solutions to problems. Mama, Dani, Aunt Mary -- they all seemed to jump to the easiest solution or give up...What if they talked openly about AIDS, so that everyone knew how it spread and how to avoid contracting it or passing it on? What if they thought seriously about the consequences for orphans after their parents' burials?...I would not be that kind of adult. I would look for real solutions, even if they didn't come easily."

Well written, Auma's Long Run is a thoughtful, serious treatment of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, written for younger readers that encourages them to ask the difficult questions and to consider the global consequences of this serious illness.

Book Details:

Auma's Long Run by Eucabeth Odhiambo
Minneapolis:  CarolRhoda Books     2017
297 pp.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Whistling In The Dark by Shirley Hughes

Whistling In The Dark is set in a suburb of Liverpool, England during the period from the fall of 1940 to the spring of 1941. It follows a small community of neighbours as they struggle to cope with the nighttime bombing of the docks of Liverpool, the rationing of food and goods and the appearance of a mysterious stranger.

Liverpool was a major port located on the northwest coast of England, where the River Mersey meets the Irish Sea. With its strategic location, docks which were used by the Royal Navy and the many industries, Liverpool was recognized as a key port by Hitler. As a result the city became the second most bombed after London, during the Blitz, suffering many casualities. The first bombing raid occurred in August of 1940, and continued throughout the autumn of 1940.

Joan Armitage lives in a suburb of Liverpool with her mom, her seventeen-year-old sister Audrey, her brother Brian and a younger sister Judy. Joan's father, who was a wireless operator on an oil tanker in the Merchant Navy was lost at sea.  Audrey's beau, Dai Davies is also serving in the Merchant Navy helping bring food and supplies to England. Audrey worries about Dai and each short leave he's granted is time for them to quickly see one another. Many families have lost a father or a brother so they understand the fear.

As Joan is working on her french homework one evening in the sitting room she hears a faint low whistle and then sees "the dark shape of a man looking in at her." Terrified, Joan opens the door to see Brian arriving home on his bike from grammar school. They immediately lock the back door and when Mum arrives home, she and Brian search the garden and surrounding bushes without luck.

At school the next day, Miss Sanderson introduces a new girl, Ania who is Polish. To prevent Angela and her friends from bullying Ania,  Joan's best friend Doreen makes a point of talking to Ania during the mid-morning break. Doreen tells Joan that Ania is an orphan who came to England on the Kindertransport and now lives with the elderly Mrs. Mellor.

Besides school, Joan goes to the teenage hops at the youth club and to the cinema, usually the Queensway Cinema to see American movies. These movies offer her "a glimpse of heaven compared with the chilly reality of the blackout and endless queues for the meager family  meat ration..." She also does youth-service work with Ross Jenks and Derek Williams, collecting salvage for the war effort. One afternoon on their way to look for salvage they decide to stop at the old Royal Hotel which is now used to house evacuee children from the risky areas of Liverpool.  The hotel is run by volunteers from the Women's Voluntary Services (WVS). A few of the children tell Joan and the boys that they believe the hotel is haunted because they hear footsteps at night and strange noises coming from the attic.

When Joan returns hope she finds Captain Ronnie Harper Jones, who is stationed with the Army Catering Corps paying her mother a visit. Although Joan doesn't like Ronnie who she thinks is "on the oily side", she does like the parcels of food he brings for them. Joan's mother insists that she attend the charity dinner dance in aid of the Red Cross at the golf club; Ronnie is taking her mother, which does not make Joan happy. Both Audrey and Brian also don't like Ronnie. Before Ronnie leaves, two army men arrive to question Mrs. Armitage about whether they've seen anyone suspicious lurking around. They inform the family that a Polish refugee with the Pioneer Corps has deserted. Although she remembers the earlier siting of the man around their home, Mrs. Armitage lies to the army men, later telling Joan that she doesn't know the circumstances and if the stranger is the Polish man she wants him to have a chance to get away as incarceration in the Military Prison is terrible.

As the Blitz in Liverpool intensifies, Joan finds the frightening bombing raids to be one of many situations to be overcome. The annoying visits of Captain Harper Jones lead to an upsetting decision by Joan's mother. The discovery by Derek and Ross of a hidden cache of blackmarket foodstuffs result in a serious accident and the uncovering of a local blackmarket ring that brings down a highly respected resident. Added to this is the reappearance of the mysterious stranger whose presence complicates life for Joan and her family.

Discussion

Whistling in the Dark paints a realistic picture of life in Liverpool during the Blitz of 1940-1941. Author Shirley Hughes draws on her own personal experience of having lived through the Liverpool Blitz when she was a teenager.

Narrated by Joan Armitage, the first part of the novel develops the setting, providing young readers with a sense of life during wartime. In many ways life went on during the war; Joan and her friends go to movies at the theatre, attend dances and she continues to take art lessons. Her sister Audrey has a boyfriend in the Merchant Navy and her mother is being courted by a much disliked Captain Harper Jones. But Joan's narrative mentions the many ways life in Liverpool changed during the war: the blackout curtains, the shortage of nylons leading women to paint their legs with gravy browning, children scavenging for metal and other scraps for the war effort, the rationing of coal and food especially meat and sugar. Hughes particularly focuses on the children being hungry; "...they were aching with hunger." and how when visiting each others homes, they refused food because "in this era of food rationing, it wasn't polite to accept food." And of course the bombing raids which overshadow all aspects of life.

One especially memorable scene in the novel in which the terror of the bombing raids is captured occurs when Joan and Doreen go to the cinema to see a Betty Grable movie. In the theatre, they hear "the heart-sinking wail of the air-raid siren outside". Instead of enjoying the film, Joan finds she can't concentrate, "Her ears, like everyone else's were straining to catch the sound of those engines getting nearer: German Focke-Wulf bombers on their way to drop their nightly barrage of high explosives to pound the Liverpool docks." They must remain in the theatre, the power goes out frequently leaving them in total darkness, flakes of plaster occasionally falling from the ceiling as they heard "the distant sickening crunch and thud of explosions over Liverpool..." And afterwards when the all clear has sounded and Joan and Doreen along with others leave the theatre, "...the sky over Liverpool was blazing orange and fiery red."

Using the character of Ania, Hughes also explores the plight of Jewish children sent to England via the Kindertransport. Ania arrives in Liverpool completely alone and is eventually befriended by Joan and her family. Readers also see the attitude that existed towards deserters like Ania's uncle, Likasz Topolski, who has deserted only because he wants to meet his neice.

Within the novel however is a more courageous story - that of the role of the Merchant Navy in bringing in food and supplies to Great Britain at tremendous risk. This risk meant that everyone was careful not to waste and that many necessities were done without. It was a risk Joan and her family knew well as her father had been lost at sea and it was a risk Audrey lived with daily regarding her boyfriend Dai.

Hughes packs a ton of action into the latter half of the novel; Ania's story is developed, the identity of the mysterious stranger revealed, the discovery of a black mark cache and numerous plot twists that make for an exciting and satisfying ending.  Whistling In The Dark covers many aspects of wartime England in an informative and engaging way for younger readers.
 
For further information on Liverpool during the Blitz:

The Imperial War Museums website has substantial information on the Liverpool Blitz.

The Merseyside Maritime Museum website.

Book Details:

Whistling In The Dark by Shirley Hughes
Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press   2015
227 pp.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

DVD: Victoria and Abdul

The movie Victoria and Abdul portrays the unusual friendship which developed between Queen Victoria of England and an Indian Muslim servant, Abdul Karim. This relationship was to cause scandal and intense jealousy among the Victorian British aristocrats and royalty of the time. It was largely forgotten mainly because after Queen Victoria's death, all of the correspondence between Abdul and Victoria over a thirteen year period was destroyed by members of the Royal family.

Almost immediately after the elderly monarch's funeral, Queen Victoria's daughter Beatrice and her daughter-in-law - King Albert's wife - Queen Alexandra walked to Frogmore Cottage - the home of Abdul Karim and his family-  on the grounds of Windsor Castle. They burst into the home and forced Abdul's wife to hand over the letters Queen Victoria had sent him. The house was searched by accompanying guards and any letters, correspondence, notes, and postcards were removed, and thrown into a bonfire on the lawn. Abdul and his wife were summarily deported the next day to India. Albert had finally erased all evidence of Abdul Karim from his family's history. Or so he thought.

The story of their unique friendship might never have come to light if it were not for Indian author and journalist, Shrabani Basu. On a visit to Osborne House on Isle of Wight to see the newly restored Durbar Room, Basu couldn't help noticing the several portraits of Abdul Karim, especially one by Rudolf Swoboda. Although she initially thought he was an Indian servant of the late Queen, Basu noticed that Abdul was portrayed as a nobleman. Her interest piqued, Basu began her research, a task that would take her to three countries over a period of five years. First she discovered the late monarch's thirteen Hindustani journals, written in Urdu, a language the queen had learned to read and write from Abdul. The journals which were kept in the Royal Archives, had never been translated. Basu also located a few surviving pieces of correspondence written by Queen Victoria to Abdul and read the personal diaries of her physician, Sir James Reid as well as the correspondence of the Royal household, the Viceroys of India and many other letters written by the monarch.

Rudolf Swoboda's portrait of Abdul Karim
 To learn more Basu travelled to Agra, India where she located Abdul's abandoned and derelict tombstone and she also discovered the house that Abdul had built on land given to him by Queen Victoria. However the family was no longer living there and the house was occupied by a Hindu family who informed her that Abdul Karim's family had moved to Pakistan after the 1947 Partition of India.

Basu returned to England and in 2010 published her book about Abdul and the Queen, Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant.  Eventually she was contacted by the great nephew of Abdul who told her that the family in Karachi, Pakistan had possession of Abdul's journal. From this journal, Basu was able to piece together the long-forgotten story of Abdul Karim and his thirteen-year friendship with Queen Victoria. It was a story King Edward VII and the royal court attempted to wipe away when his wife Queen Alexandra and Princess Beatrice arrived at the home of Abdul after Queen Victoria's death.

Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears is based on Basu's book. The  movie  begins Abdul's story in Agra in 1887 with Britain having formally ruled India for twenty-nine years at this point. Abdul Karim, who is seen recording the names of criminals, is called to the Government office to see Mr. Tyler. Tyler thanks Abdul for the carpets he chose to be sent to the British Exhibition and states that the Governor General has decided to present the Queen with a "Mohur" as part of the Jubilee. To present this coin, Abdul and another Indian have been chosen to travel to England. While Abdul is excited at this prospect, Mohammed intimates that he was forced to make the journey.

In England Abdul and Mohammed have authentic uniforms tailored for them and after being instructed on how the evening at Windsor Castle will proceed, they are warned not to look directly at the Queen. This is an instruction Abdul disobeys as he is backing away from the queen. The next day as Abdul and Mohammed are readying to leave England and return to India, Mr. Bigge arrives to inform them that they will be remaining in England. Eventually the two are made the Queen's personal footmen.

As Queen Victoria spends time with Abdul she learns about his family, about the beauty of India including the Taj Mahal and the Peacock Throne, but also about the pillaging of these national treasures by the British. Abdul tells her about spices and Indian food including garam masala, Dal rogan josh and chutney made of mango. And Abdul begins to teach the Queen how to speak and write Urdu, the language of the poets.When Queen Victoria reveals her loneliness and sadness and that she no longer sees a purpose for her life, Abdul tells her  life is about service. He quotes a verse from the Koran, telling the Queen, "We are here for the good of others."and reveals himself to be a Muslim.  Abdul tells Queen Victoria that he is a Muslim and that his father was his munshi - his teacher. Inspired by his words, Queen Victoria requests that Abdul become her munshi, to teach her the Koran, Urdu and anything else he can think of.

But Queen Victoria's growing friendship with Abdul, her learning to read and write Urdu, and her bestowing honors and titles on him, lead to resistance, jealousy and plotting within the royal household to get rid of Abdul.

Discussion

Victoria and Abdul is a fascinating film about a little known friendship during the reign of Queen Victoria. The movie stars Judi Dench as Queen Victoria, Ali Fazil who portrays Abdul Karim, Adeel Akhar who is Mohammed Buksh, Michael Gambon as the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury and Tim Pigott-Smith as the Queen's Private Secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby. Eddie Izzard looks remarkably like his character, Bertie, The Prince of Wales and the future King Edward VII. And for Dench, it's not the first time she's portrayed Queen Victoria; she starred in Mrs. Brown, a film about her deep friendship with John Brown, a Scottish servant.

The film is "based on real events - mostly" as a disclaimer states in the opening scenes. Most of what is portrayed in the film, Abdul's unusually intimate friendship with Victoria, her learning Urdu, and the racist and jealous attitudes towards Abdul are accurate.  However, Director Frears does take some liberties. For example, Abdul did not travel to England to present the Queen with a newly minted medal but came to England because Queen Victoria requested two Indian attendants for her Golden Jubilee celebrations. While Queen Victoria is portrayed as a racially tolerant woman, she was British and the British ruled over India with policies that created serious racial and religious tensions on the Indian subcontinent. The Victorian court and Victorian society viewed dark-skinned people as unequals and social policies reflected this belief. The British attitude is subtly portrayed throughout the film; for example when Arthur Bigge sets foot back in England, he remarks, "Civilization!" even though like India there is a class system and beggars on the docks.

Abdul (left) and Mohammed (right)
In the film, Victoria is portrayed as quite ignorant of the culture and beauty of India, despite that fact that one of her titles is Empress of India. This may have been because, as she explains in the film to Abdul, she has never visited India due to fears that she would be assassinated. Abdul tells her about the spices and foods of India, garam masala and chutney made of mango - fruit Victoria is determined to sample.

Abdul tells her the story behind the building of the Taj Mahal in Agra, but he also tells her that the jewels of this historic and important site were stolen by the British. He enthralls the Queen with his descriptions of the Peacock Throne which he claims was smashed by the British as a punishment for the Indian rebellion. In the film Queen Victoria is portrayed as being quite dismayed at the destruction of the Peacock Throne and the vandalism of the Taj Mahal, however, these actions were likely seen as justified by the British and occurred while Victoria was Queen.

Nevertheless, Abdul was able to influence the Queen to learn something of Indian culture, so much so that she even created her own Durbar Room at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. She commissioned John Lockwood Kipling and Sikh artisan Bhai Ram Singh to decorate the room which was filled mostly with gifts from Indian princes.

The Indian view of Queen Victoria and the British is presented in the film through the character of Mohammed Buksh. While Abdul is thrilled to be traveling to England to meet Queen Victoria, Mohammed is not impressed because she is someone who has "oppressed the entire Indian subcontinent". Mohammed often makes humorous but accurate statements about the British throughout, and he is shown as refusing to help Bertie and other members of the royal household when they ask for help in forcing Abdul to return to India. His derision towards Bertie is marked and representative of the growing resentment of the Indian people towards the British.

Overall though Victoria and Abdul is an entertaining film that opens a window into the very end of the Victorian era. Frears was able to film on location in many of the original settings including Osborne House, Balmoral Castel and Glen Affric and the cinematography captures the beauty of these places admirably.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

Turtles All The Way Down is John Green's most recent novel, published six years after his very popular The Fault In Our Stars. In this new novel, sixteen-year-old Aza Holmes attempts to solve the mystery of the missing father of a friend while dealing with her own mental health issues. Although the novel begins with a mystery, Aza's attempts to solve it are gradually hijacked by her increasingly oppressive thought spirals.

The novel opens with Aza eating lunch with her best friend Daisy Ramirez at school when Daisy and classmate Mychal Turner tell her that Davis Pickett's father has disappeared. They are certain Aza knows Davis from attending camp with him a few years ago. In fact, Aza did attend Camp Sphero with Davis after both fifth and sixth grade. It turns out Davis's father  disappeared the day before being arrested on bribery charges. Police arrived at his home early in the morning with a warrant but he wasn't home and hasn't been seen since. As a result there is now a hundred-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to his arrest.

Daisy struggles to attract Aza's interest in solving Pickett's disappearance so they can claim the hundred-thousand-dollar reward. This is because Aza is struggling to cope with her obsessive compulsive thoughts about contracting a Clostridium difficle bacterial infection. Aza is reading the Wikipedia article on human microbiota and worrying about whether her stomach noises are a sign of impending illness.

From Daisy's research they learn that Russell Pickett CEO and founder of Pickett Engineering, wasn't home when Indianapolis Police arrived with a search warrant. Detective Dwight Allen stated that he was last seen by his sons Davis and Noah the previous night and that there are no surveillance cameras on the property. However Aza  who spent some time on the Davis estate when she was younger, remembers that there was a motion capture camera in the woods by the river. Because there is a camera at the front Gate, Daisy believes that Pickett walked through the woods and left via the river so he would not be seen.

Daisy and Aza sneak onto the Davis property from the river using an old canoe that Aza's family has. After wandering through the trees on the grounds, Daisy locates the night-vision camera and Aza connects her phone to the camera. She is able to download a photo from September 9th of "the back of a stocky man wearing a striped night-shirt. Time stamp 1:01:03 a.m." Quickly, Aza and Daisy are picked up by Lyle, a security officer for the estate and they tell him Aza knows Davis but that their canoe took on water and they had to beach it.

Lyle takes the girls to the house and there they meet Davis who is puzzled to see them but realizes that like many others they are after the reward money. He tells them he doesn't know the whereabouts of his father and after treating them to Dr. Pepper's Davis drives them home in his Cadillac Escalade. Daisy and Aza continue to dig up information about the Pickett family, learning that entire Pickett fortune will go to the pet tuatara in the hopes that the fountain of youth can be discovered. They also uncover the reason for Pickett being under investigation: he allegedly bribed "state officials in exchange for contracts to build a better sewer overflow system in Indianapolis." A police report that Daisy manages to obtain tells her and Aza that they know more than the police do at this point.

Davis texts Aza telling her he is reluctant to become friends with anyone because he won't know if they are simply after his money. Aza reveals that they know something about his father and asks if it will make things worse for him if they go to the police. Davis asks her not to go to the police. Daisy who has agreed to go out with Mychal has Aza set up a double date with Davis Pickett. After dinner at Applebee's they go to Davis's mansion. While Mychal and Daisy check out the artwork, Davis shows Aza the movie theatre and then takes her outside to the golf course where they lay in a sand trap and talk. Aza tries to explain her struggles with obsessive compulsive thoughts to Davis but when they begin kissing her compulsive thoughts about germs take over. After pulling herself together they talk about the night vision picture of his father. Davis needs to know whether Aza is there because she genuinely likes him or because she's after the reward. To solve this problem Davis decides to give Aza the one hundred thousand dollar reward in cash.

The next morning Aza tells Daisy about the money which they split equally, depositing it in bank accounts with the help of Davis's lawyer. This leads Daisy to quit her job at Chuck E. Cheese and to buy herself a new laptop and a car. Although Noah sends Aza more information about his father, Daisy and Aza give up their investigation. Daisy has the money and isn't interested while Aza's OCD begins to increasingly take over her life.

As Aza's friendship with Davis begins to develop, her relationship with Daisy begins to fall apart. It isn't until she has a serious accident that Aza is finally forced Aza to confront her illness and work on trying to get better.

Discussion

Green latest novel, Turtles All The Way Down, is a revealing portrayal of mental illness and its debilitating effects, one which the author is intimately familiar with. The story is told by Aza Holmes who is now an adult, reflecting back on this portion of her life. Aza has obsessive compulsive disorder , experiencing compulsive thoughts focused on her contracting serious bacterial infections such as C. difficile. These thoughts force her to stay mostly in her head, meaning she struggles to develop relationships with the people around her. Her thoughts also lead her to have a distorted view of herself: she doubts the reality of her existence, she questions whether she is able to control her own life and she believes that she is merely the sum of her thoughts.

The image of Pettibon's spiral that Green felt
represented a "thought spiral".
Aza describes her thoughts as invasive, so distracting she often gets caught in what she calls a "thought spiral" in which she is mostly inside her head. For example, when Mychal is telling Daisy about his new art project, Aza wants to listen but her thoughts about a possible bacterial infection are overwhelming. As a result, she doesn't notice that her friend has dyed her hair,  she's unable to tell Daisy that she does remember Davis Pickett, that she remembers summer camp and that she likes her idea for Mychal's art project because "the thoughts kept coming, unbidden and unwanted."

Green uses the imagery of spirals, gyres, whirlpools, galaxies and circles to portray Aza's unwanted, intrusive and obsessive thoughts. These images all describe the never-ending, infinity of OCD thoughts and actions. This is perhaps best exemplified when Aza visits Davis's home she notices the colorful spiral by American artist, Raymond Pettibon and experiences the urge to grab it off the wall and run away with it. "It didn't feel like something I was looking at so much as something I was part of." Green states that he used the Pettibon painting in the story because it "felt for the first time like I had seen a direct expression of my experience with obsessive thoughts. I didn't feel like I was looking at a metaphor for my thought spirals; I felt that I was looking at the thing itself." Turtles All The Way Down is not a reflection of Green's own experiences of OCD, but it is his familiarity with illness that allows him to capture it so effectively.

In trying to explain what she experiences to Davis, Aza struggles to convey the idea that "When my thoughts spiraled, I was in the spiral, and of it." Aza explains to Davis that her spiral is different from the "widening gyre" William Butler Yeats mentions in his poem 'The Second Coming.'"But the really scary thing is not turning and turning in the widening gyre' it's turning and turning in the tightening gyre. It's getting sucked into a whirlpool that shrinks and shrinks and shrinks your world until you're just spinning without moving, stuck inside a prison cell that is exactly the size of you, until eventually you realize that you're not actually in a prison cell. You are the prison cell."

Aza's belief that the "real" her, the "way-down-deep" her is trapped in this prison, leading her to wonder if she is real. This struggle to determine if she is real begins to take center stage in her existence and has many facets. She tells her therapist, Dr. Singh that thinks she might be "fiction".  Aza wonders if there is a "way-down-deep me who is an actual, real person" or is she "only a set of circumstances"? She tells Singh, "...I don't control my thoughts, so they're not really mine. I don't decide if I'm sweating or get cancer or C. diff or whatever, so my body isn't really mine. I don't decide any of that -- outside forces do. I'm a story they're telling. I am circumstances." Singh responds by telling Aza that she is giving her thoughts too much power; "Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You do belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don't." 

In trying to explain how she sees herself to Daisy Aza states, "...It's like when I look into myself, there's no actual me -- just a bunch of thoughts and behaviours and circumstances. And a lot of them just don't feel like they're mine. They're not things I want to think or do or whatever. and when I look for the, like, Real Me, I never find it. It's like those nesting dolls,  you know? The ones that are hollow, and then when you open them up, there's a smaller doll inside, and you keep opening hollow dolls until eventually you get to the smallest one, and it's solid all the way through. But with me, I don't think there is one that's solid. They just keep getting smaller." Aza believes she's not able to find the "real" her but doesn't recognize that this is a product of her obsessive thought spirals.

Aza's image of the nesting dolls reminds Daisy of two stories told about the Earth; a scientist who explained how the Earth formed over millions of years but then was told by an elderly lady that the Earth is actually a flat plane resting upon the back of a turtle which sits on another turtle. When questioned what was underneath the turtle she states that it is "Turtles all the way down." This story is a paraphrasing of a story often told to express the problem of "infinite regress" ( a sequence of reasoning that goes on infinitely, that is forever) in cosmology. For Aza the quest to find the real Aza is like "Turtles all the way down" - a form of obsessive thought spirals that as Daisy points out to her friend is not accurate.

Because Aza believes her thoughts control her, she wonders if she's real and in control. "And it's kind of terrifying to me that what I think of as, like, my quote unquote self isn't really under my control?...And if you can't pick what you do or think about, then maybe you aren't really real, you know?..." To convince herself that she's real, Aza continually digs her fingernail into her fingertip, reopening the wound so that it bleeds and must be constantly bandaged. But even this seems in adequate to Aza because she feels doing this "didn't even prove what I wanted it to prove, because what I wanted to know was unknowable, because there was no way to be sure about anything."

Green's characters are delightful yet tragic, eccentric yet normal, multi-dimensional and downright fascinating. Aza has OCD, is intelligent and has a sixteen-year-old Toyota Corolla, with a paint color called Mystic Teal Mica and named Harold by her father. To help the reader understand what Aza experiences, there are page-long descriptions of the thoughts and internal dialogue that Aza has with herself as her thoughts loop infinitely around whether or not her finger wound has become infected or she has C. difficile. She is resilient and courageous, although she doesn't recognize herself as being so.

Daisy is Aza's best friend and is somewhat eccentric herself: she writes fan fiction about Chewbacca's love life with Rey. Daisy wonders how to help her friend, "Like, does it help to be reassuring or is it better to worry with you? Is the anything that makes it better?" But she also finds being Aza's friend draining. "You're so stuck in your head, ...It's like you genuinely can't think about anyone else....It's just frustrating sometimes...But you're slightly tortured, and the way you're tortured is sometimes also painful for, like, everyone around you."  To express what she feels, Daisy has created a character Ayala who is representative of Aza in her fan fiction.

Davis Pickett is the caring boy Aza falls for, a poet, but whose circumstances are tragic; abandoned by his father, the fortune he was due to inherit given to a pet lizard. Davis who seems so sweet is desperate for Aza to get well, something she just can't promise him. The cast is further rounded out by Dr. Karen Singh whose genuine concern towards Aza and her positive attitude portray the benefits of having a good therapist.

Green avoids a saccharine ending, where Aza seizes control of her condition, changes how she views herself and gets well. Through Aza, Green explains that happy endings are not really happy or not really endings. Instead the ending of the novel is realistic and authentic. When Aza has a pessimistic view of how her life will be, Daisy tells her,  she can be the author of her life; "You pick your endings, and your beginnings. You get to pick the frame, you know? Maybe you don't choose what's in the picture, but you decide on the frame." 

Aza breaks off with Davis because she tells him she can't be what he expects and hopes she will be. "I know you're waiting for me to get better...it's incredibly sweet, but, like, this is probably what better looks like for me." Aza knows everyone wants to hear that she's getting better but the reality is something less happy. "Everyone wanted me to feed them that story --darkness to light, weakness to strength, broken to whole. I wanted it, too."

Aza comes to the realization that she will go on, just as Davis will go on after he learns of the death of his father. "I would always be like this, always have this within me. There was no beating it. I would never slay the dragon because the dragon was also me. My self and the disease were knotted together for life." But Green does end the novel on a hopeful note; Aza does go on to have a mostly good life, a family, and perhaps most importantly a deep and true friendship with Daisy.

Turtles All The Way Down is authentic, somewhat intense in that it is a realistic piece of fiction that challenges readers to try to understand mental illness and the challenges involved. There are so many themes to explore in this novel, for example the meaning of friendship, and the literary references Green sprinkles throughout the novel (Sherlock Holmes and The Great Gatsby). Let's hope we don't have to wait another six years for Green's next novel.

Book Details:

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green
New York: Dutton Books    2017
286 pp.