Monday, February 26, 2018

Solving The Puzzle Under The Sea by Robert Burleigh

Marie Tharp was a geologist/mathematician/oceanographic cartographer who made a significant contribution to geology and our knowledge of the oceans. Born in 1920, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Marie spent her childhood accompanying her father who was a soil surveyor for the United States Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Chemistry and Soils. Her father's work meant much travel and changing schools frequently. In fact, Marie moved some thirty times before she was fifteen. But this travel meant that Marie saw many different landscapes and geography. Marie's father told her, "When you find your life's work, make sure it is something you can do, and most important, something you like to do."

Unsure of just what she wanted to do, Marie decided to study literature at Ohio University. Her first choice, St. John's College in Annapolis did not admit women in the late 1930's. She graduated with a degree in English and music in 1943 from Ohio University.


Wartime meant that professions previously filled by men only were now becoming more open to women. One of those professions was geology. Marie had taken a course in geology during her undergraduate years at Ohio. Looking for something more challenging, she accepted an offer to enter the masters petroleum geology program at the University of Michigan.

Marie worked as a petroleum geologist for Standard Oil and Gas in Tulsa, OK but eventually left because the work was unrewarding. She returned to school, obtaining a degree in Mathematics from the University of Tulsa.

Seeking more fulfilling and challenging work, Marie began working at Columbia University in 1948 as a research assistant to Dr. Maurice "Doc" Ewing. Marie worked at what is now called the Lamont Geological Laboratory. Her job was to help his graduate assistants, one of whom was Bruce Charles Heezen. Heezen had begun mapping the ocean floor in 1947.

At this time, priority was given to mapping the sea floor using sonar soundings because the military thought submarine warfare might be the next threat. Unfortunately, at this time, because she was a woman, Marie Tharp was not allowed onto the navy vessels doing the mapping. Instead, she worked in the lab plotting the sonar soundings by hand. Marie's educational background proved to be of considerable value because her work required a knowledge of both geology and mathematics. She organized the sonar data and converted it into maps and profiles of the sea floor. Later on this work would be done by computers but in the 1950's it was done by Marie Tharp.

Tharp and Heezen's map of the ocean floor.
Gradually a profile of the ocean floor began to appear and it was unlike anything anyone had imagined. Instead of a flat expansive ocean floor, Tharp's maps showed ridges and valleys. In fact, the ocean profile of the North Atlantic suggested a rift running essentially through the middle of the ocean between North America and Europe which Marie thought might be similar to the rift valley found in Africa.

In 1915 Alfred Wegener had published his theory that all the continents were once part of a giant landmass which he called Pangaea. He based his idea on the fact that fossils, strata and landmasses were similar between the continents and that the landmasses seemed to fit together. The theory was roundly ridiculed partly because Wegener's mechanism for continental drift was wrong and because scientists did not have enough knowledge at this time about the sea floor or subsurface geology.

Armed with this knew perspective of the ocean floor, Tharp suspected that this ridge was where the continents were moving apart - in other words it seemed to support Wegener's idea of drifting continents - the theory of plate tectonics. Eventually mounting evidence in the form of earthquakes along the rift zone validated Marie Tharp's theory and her maps became one of the supports for plate tectonics.

Marie Tharp went on to have a stellar career at Lamont-Doherty. She and colleague Heezen continued to map the entire ocean floor and produced a comprehensive map in 1977. Eventually her contributions to geology and oceanography were recognized but not until she was much older. Tharp passed away in 2006.

One of Raul Colon's beautiful illustrations.
Solving the Puzzle Under The Sea tells Marie Tharp's story from her perspective, using a first person narrative. Burleigh's text captures Marie's interest in the world around her as a young person, her struggles to be taken seriously as a woman scientist and the sense of discovery and accomplishment as she creates her maps of the ocean and makes an astonishing proposal - one that  forever changes how we view our planet.

Raul Colon's realistic illustrations rendered in watercolors, Prismacolor pencils and lithograph pencils on Arches paper, accompany Marie's narrative. Marie Tharp's story, told in this attractive picture book format serves as a reminder to young girls that a career in science is both attainable and rewarding.

Burleigh includes a detailed biography at the back as well as a list of words and their definitions as well as a bibliography and a section titled "Things To Wonder About and Do" which encourages young readers to explore the world around them.

Solving The Puzzle Under The Sea is well-written, sumptuously illustrated and a must-read for those young readers interested in learning about the women who have gone before in the world of science, and for teachers, librarians and parents wishing to encourage a career in science.

Book Details:

Solving The Puzzle Under The Sea by Robert Burleigh
New York: Simon and Schuster Books For Young Readers     2016

 map credit: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/06/08/images/HeezenTharp_900.jpg

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Shape of the World by K.L. Going

The Shape of the World is a picture book about famed american architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Frank Lloyd Wright was born in 1967 in Richland Center, Wisconsin. His father was a preacher and musician and his mother was a teacher. Wrights parents divorced when he was eighteen and for a time he worked while studying at the University of Wisconsin. But Wright wanted to be an architect so he left Wisconsin and began working in Chicago eventually finding employment with the renowned architectural firm, Adler and Sullivan.

Wright married Catherine Lee Tobin in 1899 and built his own home in Chicago's Oak Park. Soon his spiralling expenses resulted in Wright accepting work designing residential houses which was in violation with his contract with Louis Sullivan from Adler and Sullivan. This led to Wright leaving the firm and opening his own office to design residential homes. Over the next few years, Wright began to develop his own unique style, referred to as the Pairie Style.

In 1909, Wright abandoned his wife and family and left for Europe with his mistress, Mamah Borthwick. During his stay in Europe he wrote several publications that were to have a great influence on his peers. In 1911 he returned to the United States and built a new home, Taliesin near the village of Spring Green, Wisconsin. Wright settled into Taliesin with his mistress and her two children but tragedy struck when they were murdered in a fire deliberately set by an unhappy employee.

Wright's personal life was plagued by further disorder and catastrophe; he married two more times after the death of his mistress and at times he struggled financially. However, professionally he continued to create and design amazing buildings for clients in Tokyo and Los Angeles. His professional career waxed and waned. He went through periods with few commissions and turned to writing and teaching. In 1943, Wright received a commission from Baroness Hilla von Rebay to design a building to house the modern art collection of Solomon Guggenheim. It would take sixteen years to complete. He continued to design, write and teach into his eighties and nineties. Wright died somewhat suddenly on April 9, 1959 after an unexpected illness.

Wright is most famous for changing how architects view buildings in their surrounding landscape. He sought to design buildings that fit in with their surroundings. When he began the practice of architecture, buildings in the United States were often designed like those in the Old World. But Wright wanted to design buildings that fit with the landscape in America and created a long box style with many windows. Wright called his architecture "organic" meaning that it should fit in where it was located. Wright believed in affordable architecture that created a beautiful living space and he believed that everything connected to the building should be integrated, the architecture, the furnishings and artwork. Perhaps the building that most reflects Wright's view of architecture is the Kaufmann Residence (Fallingwater) in Mill Run, PA.

The Shape of the World focuses on the influences in Frank Lloyd Wright's youth that led him to develop his vision of architecture. Frank's mother believed he would one day build beautiful things and so she set before him blocks in many shapes; cubes, cones, cylinders and spheres.  Working on his uncle's farm exposed Frank to the beauty of the natural world. Going portrays how these influences led Wright to develop his style of architecture.

The illustrations by Lauren Stringer were rendered in acrylic, gouache, watercolour and coloured pencil on Arches oil paper. Stringer visited Taliesin where Frank Lloyd Wright spent so much time designing. There she gained an appreciation for the influence of nature on Wright's architecture. To better portray this influence Stringer's illustrations are filled with vibrant colours that bring to life the story of Frank Lloyd Wright. There are deep blues, rich greens and reds, muted greys and soft browns in the illustrations.

There are both an author and illustrator notes at the back along with a key to the illustrations in the book. This is a lovely and well-done introduction to an architect who is probably not that well known by younger readers.

Book Details:

The Shape of the World by K.L. Going
New York: Beach Lane Books    2017


Friday, February 23, 2018

Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork

Set in Cuidad Juarez, the largest city in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, Franncisco X. Stork's new novel, Disappeared weaves a nuanced story that brings together several aspects of life in the city including poverty, drugs, corruption, violence and the abduction of young women. The city is situated on the Rio Grande just south of El Paso, Texas and is known for its high rate of violence due to conflicts between the major drug cartels. Young women have been disappearing for years and little is done to recover them because of massive corruption. The story revolves around two main characters; Sara Zapata and her brother Emiliano and covers exactly a one week period beginning Friday March 24 to Friday, March 31 and is told in alternating points of view.

Sara Zapata

Sara Zapata lives in Juarez with her brother Emiliano and their mother. Their father left for the United States in the hopes of making a better living and promising to return. However, two years after he left, he sent divorce papers to Sara and Emiliano's mother, leaving them to struggle financially. Sara works at the newspaper, El Sol where she is a reporter. In January, Sara wrote a column about the disappearance of her best friend Linda Fuentes. Linda was kidnapped in November after leaving her job at a shoe store on Francisco Villa Avenue. In her column, Sara vowed to continue looking for her friend "forever and ever." To help in the effort to find these missing women, called Desaparecidas, Sara has been writing a weekly column profiling one of the hundreds of missing girls of Juarez.

Now on Friday, March 24, Sara finds herself in her boss Felipe's office along with her editor Juana, where she is told that there are to be no more columns on the Desaparecidas. Instead she is to focus on the positive aspects of the city. Felipe reveals that they have received a threat via email, "If you publish anything of Linda Fuentes we will kill your reporter and her family." When Sara objects, saying the columns ensure the girls are not forgotten, Felipe is insistent. Later Juana tells Sara that this email scares her and that she wants her to follow up on a story about a new mall near Zaragoza.

Sara forwards the email to Ernesto who is one of two IT's working at El Sol, hoping he can determine who sent the email. Ernesto recognizes that the email has been encrypted and sends it to his group of friends who are computer experts, known as Jaqueros.  When she checks in with Ernesto later he tells her that "...the medium is the message...The sender wants us to be aware of his power." Ernesto informs Sara that one of the Jaqueros recognizes the encryption and believes it is connected to the State Police. This concerns Sara greatly because she remembers the lack of sympathy from the police when she accompanied Mrs. Fuentes to report Linda missing and how they do not seem to care about the missing girls.

Despite Ernesto warning her that the further they investigate the greater danger she places herself and her family in, Sara tells him to continue. At 2:45pm when she checks the newspaper hotline, there are no emails. After letting Ernesto know, he calls Sara and states that all the emails have been deleted from Juana's computer. Since Juana doesn't know how to access them this is puzzling. However, Ernesto manages to extract the emails from the cloud and he sends Sara an email containing a photograph of a beautiful young girl with an older man in a nightclub booth. Sara is convinced that this is from Linda because the email has the word "puchi", their code word in the subject line. Sara realizes that this club is where the girls must be being held against their will so she directs Ernesto to see if he can learn the identity of the man while she will check on the girl.

Sara identifies the girl as Erica Renteria while Ernesto and the Jaqueros identify the man in the photograph as Leopoldo Hinojosa, head of the Public Security and Crime Prevention Unit of the State Police. Ernesto advises Sara not to tell anyone including Juana, Felipe or her family. Sara realizes that whomever is threatening her believes she must have something else incriminating but what? That night at a coworker's daughter's quinceanera Sara is warned by both Juana and Elias to give up her investigation of the Desaparecidas.

The following morning Sara discovers that a package was sent to her in the mail, which Luis the staff mailman placed on her chair. He tells her the white package looked like it contained a cell phone. Sara confronts Juana who asks her to tell her everything, but remembering Ernesto's warning Sara doesn't reveal much. Unable to locate the cell phone in Elias's office as Juana suggested, Sara turns her attention to a photograph she has of Erica in front of a Mormon church in Juarez. From the Mormon church website, Sara is able to talk to Alberto Mirabiles who is head of the church. She learns from Mr. Mirabile that Erica's brother was severely beaten and that the cell phone that was sent to her came from Erica who sent it to her family via a commercial laundry service. A note with the cell phone indicated that Erica was being held on a ranch near an airport. Mr. Mirabiles tells Sara that the laundry company was La Vaquita.

With this much information Sara knows that to proceed further and contact FBI Agent Alejandro Durand will mean crossing the line between the safety of not doing anything and the danger of acting on her conscience and doing what is right to help the missing girls.

Emiliano Zapata

Emiliano Zapata struggled after his father abandoned the family. He began shoplifting small items but eventually caught stealing an expensive video camera. Brother Patricio intervened, saving him from jail and took Emiliano on a hiking trip to the Sierra Tarahumara. Afterwards he and Brother Patriciano founded the Jiparis a sort of Boy Scouts group. Now besides attending Colegio Mexico, Emiliano runs his own folk art business where he sells pinatas that his friend Javier makes.

Friday, March 24 is going to be a busy day for Emiliano; he has to pick up the pinatas, then meet Armando Cortazar who wants to talk to him, and later in the evening attend a birthday party for Perla Rubi Esmeralda's mother. Emiliano is in love with Perla, the daughter of a wealthy lawyer but he knows he has almost no chance of ever being her boyfriend due to his social standing.

After picking up the pinatas, Emiliano heads to the Taurus nightclub where he meets Armando and is paid to take Armando's black Mercedes to the repair shop. When he returns, Emiliano is sent to meet Alfredo Reyes who tells him he wants to use his pinatas to ship drugs to the United States. The operation will stay small, only a dozen pinatas which will be stuffed with the "product" then eventually taken to Reyes' stores. This will net Emiliano thirty thousand pesos a week. Emiliano leaves the meeting both stunned and in deep conflict.

That night at Mrs. Esmeralda's birthday party Emiliano talks with Perla's father. He is overwhelmed at the wealth and opulence of the Esmeralda's home. Mr. Esmeralda reveals that he has connections with both Armando Cortazar's father and that Alfredo Reyes is a business associate. He tells Emiliano that when he was young he worked in a factory and saved to go to law school. At first he was a "good, conscientious, clean lawyer" but in order to "take care of his family" and to grow professionally he had to become involved in the dirty part of life in the city. Emiliano leaves the party in deep distress and conflict. In order to become part of Perla Rubi's life, he must become part of the narcotics trade in Juarez, a choice he knows to be evil. The choice before him is to be honest and continue to struggle to make a living or to "dirty" himself and make a good living for his family.

As Sara pieces together the information about Linda's disappearance and acts to help her friend, she knows her life will change forever. But will it be enough to save Erica and Linda? And can she save her family too?

Discussion

Disappeared is yet another finely crafted novel by Francisco X. Stork. The novel was inspired by two events, the first was the thousands of young women who went missing in Cuidad Juarez over the period of a decade, the second was the recent U.S. presidential election in which anger towards illegal Latino refugees was intense. Set in Mexico in a city rife with violence as a result of the drug cartels, the two main characters must confront situations that require them to choose between two courses of action; one that is right and one that is wrong, one that is to act, the other that is to do nothing. The defining moment will affect their lives in ways they cannot foresee.

For Sarah Zapata, this comes when she learns about Erica Renteria's efforts to get the cellphone to her. "There is a line in front of her. One more step on behalf of Linda and her life will change forever. How does she decide between safety and the risk that comes from doing what her heart knows to be right?" Sara can choose to do nothing more but that will mean Linda will never be rescued. If she chooses to act on the information she now has, her life and the life of her family will change forever. Agent Durand attempts to explain this to her. But as Sara considers the consequences of acting or not acting, she remembers "The decision to act against evil is not measured by the impact it has on the evil but by the impact it has on the person who acts." For Sara, "The only thing that matters is that she act in accordance with her conscience." There is little interior conflict for Sara; without her help, without her taking risks, her friend Linda will never be found. Her conscience won't let her choose any other course but to act.

For Emiliano Zapata things are more complicated. He has just met with Alfredo Reyes who makes him a shocking offer to be a part of shipping drugs to the US through Javier's pinatas. This sets up an immediate conflict within Emiliano. Reye's proposal represents the chance to make big money, to pay the bills, to make a more comfortable life for his mother and sister and to be with Perla Rubi but it also goes against everything Emiliano has been taught. Brother Patricio who rescued Emiliano from jail has told him that "Success takes hard, slow persistent work..." without shortcuts. He thinks he will refuse Reyes. However in the overwhelming oppulence of the Esmeralda residence, Emiliano's indecision is symbolically demonstrated when holding his mother's cake - a representation of his family's values of honesty and hard work - he hesitates over where to take it. It represents the decision he must make. "Sooner or later he has to do something, take a step in one direction or another." 

Mr. Esmeralda tells Emiliano, "There's no way to be successful in Mexico without getting dirty. The best one can do is control the degree of dirt..." Esmeralda rationalizes the choices to become part of the dirty side of life in order to obtain wealth and prestige, "All I want to do is tell you that...growing up means, unfortunately, expanding our views of what we consider good and bad. Within that larger view, we do what can for our families, we create jobs, we help the less fortunatel...Getting dirty means doing what we have to do for our families and for those around us, given the realities of where we live, in this mess of a life that is good and bad."

Emiliano recognizes that what bothers him is that Esmeralda has told him the only way to be well off is to be a part of something that he knows inside is wrong. This is in contrast to Brother Patricio's advice. "Its those conditions that you hate. The conditions for having a house like Mr. Esmeralda's, for being allowed to be his daughter's boyfriend." Emiliano accepts Esmeralda's view and decides he will accept Reyes's offer telling himself that this will be helping his family. It is Javier who identifies more consequences of Emiliano's decision. To accept means putting Javier, a boy whom Brother Patricio rescued from truancy and addiction back into contact with drugs. It also means going against his Jipari pledge: "I will abstain from all intoxicants. I will be honest with myself and others. I will use the knowledge and strength the desert gives me for the benefit of others." Javier points out that Emiliano's involvement will break all aspects of the pledge, being honest and while it will benefit some, others will be hurt. Javier, although only fourteen shares some of his wisdom with the older Emiliano; that on the surface these people seem good but deep down are not nice and that the hunger for money is like the hunger an addict feels. "And the other thing I know as an addict is that once you get that hunger inside of you, you can't control it. It's impossible...You say we won't get greedy, that we'll stay small. But money is like heroin. Once you get it, you want more..." 

Just as Brother Patricio took Emiliano into the desert to help him after he was caught stealing, Emiliano once again finds his bearings in the desert. He tells Sara that he wants the life the Esmeralda family has for his family but "It's not possible to live without some kind of lying. It can't be done. If you think it's possible, then your fooling yourself." Sara reminds him "But there are conditions to living in that world, aren't there... It's those conditions that are bothering you. It's like it says in the Bible, 'What use is it to gain the whole world if you lose your soul?' " Sara tells him, "You know that you can never be the person those people want you to be."

After being attacked by two men sent by Hinojosa to rape and murder his sister, Emiliano still wants to be part of their world. At this point he still doesn't understand his motivation. It isn't until Emiliano is dying in the desert from an infected foot that he is able to recognize the motivation for his actions - anger towards his father for abandoning them. He is given a second chance to make the right choice after being saved by Gustaf and Lupe. Gustaf tells him about a man in Sanderson asking about undocumented Mexicans, whom he suspects is Emiliano's father. He offers Emiliano the choices before him, "If you want to call him, you can call him. If you want to stay, you can stay. I could use the help around here. Good old hard, honest work. Or go back to Mexico. It's up to you."  Emiliano decides he will call his father to let him know about Sara but his choice remains, "Good old hard, honest work. Or go back to Mexico."

While there are many other themes in the novel, the themes of anger, forgiveness and being the person God means you to be are deeply interconnected. The anger towards his father is Emiliano's motivation to accept Reyes's offer. In the desert with Brother Patricio, Emiliano learned that "unchanneled anger would destroy him, that anger needed to be converted into courage and determination to overcome the obstacles in life." This is in contrast to what Mr. Esmeralda tells Emiliano about courage, that controlled anger is a type of energy, a gift not to be wasted. But Sara tells Emiliano, "There are better sources of energy. Like love, or wanting to do something with your life. Anger makes you sick. It makes you go after hurtful things, as if hurting yourself is a way to get revenge on the person who hurt you." In the desert, dying, Emiliano comes to understand how his anger towards his father suing for divorce has harmed him. "The anger started then and there, and everyone assumed that in time it would go away, but he made sure it didn't. He kept it alive. That anger turned to wanting more, to be more and better than his father. But he was never better, was he?" Emiliano realizes his father was just trying to be the best person he could be.Of course the best choice for Emiliano's father would have been to remain faithful to his wife, to honor his promise to her and to his son and to have tried to bring them to America. While that did not happen, Emiliano now realizes his father was trying his best.  "The man, his father, a flawed human being like any other, chose to be and do good, as best he could."  

Mami and Sara come to recognize the same struggle in her son when she tells him; "And Emiliano, son, her in Mexico it is too hard for you to be the person God wants you to be." Sara also tells her brother, "I think we are all meant to be the best person we are capable of being. You're right that we need to choose to be that person. But sometimes, circumstances make it hard for us to make the right choice..."

Stork utilizes the image of a spiderweb as a metaphor for the connection between wealth and narcotics in Juarez and Mexico. A spiderweb's function is as a trap for insects. Once ensnared, the insects are doomed. In the same way, Emiliano is facing entrapment in the spiderweb of the drug trade in Juarez in order to better his family's life.  Mr. Esmeralda tells Emiliano that he knows Alfredo Reyes. "This city is like a spiderweb. Every thread is connected directly or indirectly to every other thread. Enrique Cortazar, Alfredo Reyes, myself, we are businessmen."  Esmeralda points out that Colegio Mexico gives out scholarships because of financial aid from businessmen like himself and Cortazar. That he is already part of the web that connects everyone in Juarez to money and drugs. Emiliano learns very quickly how vast the spiderweb really is when he and Sara are tracked through the desert.

Disappeared has been written in an era when there is much anger in the United States over illegal immigrants from Mexico. Stork's novel conveys the real plight of refugees from Mexico; the difficulty in leaving behind one's beloved country with its connections to family, language and culture, and the reality that people often become refugees out of necessity. If given the choice,  most would prefer to live a life of safety and peace in their homeland. In this regard, Disappeared asks young readers to rethink what they hear in the media and to try to understand that Mexican immigrants, legal and illegal are not that much different than Americans.

Stork has crafted an entire cast of complex, realistic characters. Sara Zapata is the true heroine, who never really falters in her choice to do good, but Emiliano is more complex and nuanced. His struggle is more realistic. He has his good qualities such as his devotion to his family and his desire to help others, but also his weaknesses such as his inability to forgive his father. Many of Stork's characters in the novel are similar in this regard as is noted by both Emiliano and Sara. Emiliano thinks, "Or maybe the bad people look more like the good people, he thinks. Armando, Mr. Reyes, Mr. Esmeralda. They don't look like your typical narcos." He finds Lester, the man sent to kill his sister confusing, "It's like seeing evil and some kind of goodness and innocence all rolled into one, inseparable." 

Disappeared is an outstanding novel, well written and timely. This kind of quality writing, characterized by a strong story, well developed characters and rich in thematic elements to explore, is much needed in young adult literature. Definitely another brilliant contribution by Francisco X. Stork.

Book Details:

Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork
New York: Arthur A. Levine Books       2017
326 pp.

Monday, February 19, 2018

I Am Algonquin by Rick Revelle

I Am Algonquin is the first book in a trilogy by Canadian author, Rick Revelle who is a member of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation.

The novel tells the fictional story of Mahingan and his family who are members of the Omamiwinini (Algonquin People) in the fourteenth century before the arrival of the Europeans. Mahingan, born in 1305, is from the Kitcisipiriniwak tribe (People of the Great River) - one of the eight Algonquin tribes of the Ottawa Valley. Mahingan and his family are living through a period of cold winters and cool summers creating hardship for the Algonquins.

The novel opens with Mahingan and a small hunting party that includes his two brothers Kag (Porcupine) and Wagosh (Fox) on a trip north to find game for their starving village. Each of the five family units have sent a hunter north to the Land of the Nippissing. The lack of snow this winter has made the hunting of the monz (moose) and wawashkeshi (deer) difficult. Kag is a fierce warrior while Wagosh who is younger is a good tracker and hunter but untested in battle. The other hunters include Monz and Makwa, both of whom are married to Mahingan's sisters. Also with the hunting party are Kag's twin sons, Agwingos (Chipmunk) and Esiban (Raccoon).

Six days into the hunt they slay a deer caught in the ice and then soon their dogs pick up the scent of a moose. Mahingan's group quickly kills the moose but immediately face another danger - warriors from the Nippissing. They are hunting in Nippissing territory and the moose is meat that would sustain both tribes in this difficult winter. Although Mahingan's party manages to defend themselves, killing and wounding several of the Nippissing, they lose Makwa who is killed by a blow to the head.

Pulling five toboggans laden with moose meat along with a travois pulled by dogs, Mahingan's hunting party begins the long journey home. They must keep watch in case the Nippissing decide to pursue them and they must also bury Makwa. After burying their warrior, Mahingan and his party are set upon by ten mahingans (wolves) but are able to ward them off after killing four of the pack. Mahingan's party eventually reach their village with the much needed food, to be greeted happily but also with the news that two of their village have died.

The village protector is Mahingan's younger brother Mitigomij (Red Oak) who was born with a club foot. As a result, he has become accomplished in all forms of weapons including the spear, war club, knife and sling shot. His constant companion is a black panther Makadwa Waban (Black Dawn) whom he rescued when he was twelve-years-old. A brutal encounter with four warriors of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) when he was sixteen, resulted in death for three and the mauling of the fourth by the black panther. It is an encounter that will have serious future repercussions for the Omamiwinini.

Weeks after they return, Mitigomij spots six canoes making their way up the river. Mahingan learns they are Hochelagans whom he believes have come to scout the location of the various villages of the Omamiwinini. Mahingan, believing an attack in imminent, organizes a plan that involves moving the women, children and young boys to safety, calling in warriors from surrounding family units, and preparing an attack to kill the Hochelagan warriors so they cannot return to their tribe. Asiniwabidi (Stone Elk) returns from scouting to reveal that there are more Hochelagans than originally thought and that they have raided the Otaguttaouernin and have captured Kwingwishi, the young woman Mahingan's brother, Wagosh wants to marry. With forty-eight warriors the Omamiwinini soundly defeat the Hochelagans, freeing the captured Otaguttaourenin and torturing and killing the Hochelagan warriors.

Mahinigan and his tribe are now safe for some time to enjoy the spring and summer. The summer gathering of the various Omamiwinini family units sees Wagosh marry Kwingwishi while Mahingan learns his wife is pregnant. During this time Migadinan-andeg (War Crow), chief of the South Nippissing Band challenges Mahingan's people to a game of lacrosse to settle their dispute over hunting rights. The game sees no winner but  Mahingan offers Migadinan-andeg a wampum belt offering peace and an agreement regarding each other's hunting grounds. After the Nippissing leave, Mahingan receives word from a Wabanaki (Abenaki) warrior that the pijaki (buffalo) will soon be arriving in their territory.This is an unusual event as buffalo are not native to this area. The two tribes work together to kill many buffalo for meat and hides, meaning their tribes will not starve during the winter. On their way home from the Wabanki grounds, Mahingan's party are attacked by a small group of Haudenosaunee, resulting in the death of Makons.

After safely returning to their village, Mahingan's nephews, the twins Agwingos and Esiban undergo the Wysoccan journey. While this is occurring, Migadinan-andeg and his Nippissing warriors return to seal the peace pact and celebrate with a great running race. Shortly after this, Wabananag gives birth to a son, Anoki.

But late in the summer, a forest fire devastates the Omamiwinini lands, forcing Mahingan to relocate their village on the larger island in the river. Unaware of the significant danger posed by the Haudenosaunee warrior Panther Scar whom Mitigomij spared years ago, and believing the other families would gather for the summer meeting, Mahingan along with his brothers, Mitigomij and Kag and a group of warriors travel to the Ouendat to trade. A brutal attack by the Haudenosaunee led by Mishi-pijiw Odjishiziwin - Panther Scar and Corn Dog (Mandamin Animosh) wipes out the remaining warriors left at Mahingan's village. Wabananag manages to hide Anoki in a small cave before she is captured along with the other women and children. Black Panther split up, with Corn Dog intending to raid Algonquin settlements to the north.

When Mahingan returns to his village he finds it burned and many dead and mutilated warriors. Wagosh is found dead in the forest and is buried. Although Mitigomij was attacked by Corn Dog, he survived after being saved by his black panther. He returns to the village where he finds Mahingan preparing to make war.

Determined to avenge the destruction of his people, Mahingan rallies a large force that includes the Nippissing, the Omamiwininini, and the Ouendat, to fight the Haudenosaunee. He also enlists the help of the Innu and Malecite.  After days of pursuit, Mahingan eventually catches up with Panther Scar at the portage and a final battle between the two settles the score in his favour. While Kag is able to free his wife, Kinedigokesi he informs Mahingan that his wife Wabananag is still alive, setting the stage for the next novel.

Discussion

Canadian author Rick Revelle decided to write I Am Algonquin because there were few if any novels about the First Nations people of Canada and he wanted young readers to learn about the culture and beliefs of the people who lived here well before any European set foot on the continent.  Revelle's great-great-great-grandfather moved his family from the Algonquin reserve in Quebec to Bedford Township near Kingston, Ontario, an area that was part of the traditional lands of the Algonquin nation well before the colonization of North America. Revelle's Algonquin ancestry naturally led him to focus on his Algonquin culture. The novel is set in the early fourteenth century and therefore required extensive research by the author as little is known about the Algonquin's prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Revelle's goal for this novel, is that readers will "learn something that you didn't know about the Algonquins and their Allies, and that it will help in a small way to bring attention to the Algonquin language."   I Am Algonquin is overwhelmingly achieves both these goals.

Revelle details almost every aspect of life in an Algonqin family unit including hunting, food preparation and storage, games, birth and death rituals, the roles of men, women and children within the family unit and warcraft. Readers also come to understand the relationships between the various nations in the pre-colonial era. All of this is done in a most effective way by Revelle, who incorporates these details seamlessly into his story along with many words from the Algonquin language. One of the more interesting rituals is that of the Wysoccan journey to manhood where childhood memores are erased by ingesting a herb that induces madness. The drug is administered over a period of days and results in memory loss. The loss of childhood memories allows the young men to be trained in the ways of a warrior.

Two aspects of life during this period stand out. The first is the unrelenting struggle to survive in the harsh wilderness of Ontario by what is essentially a stone-age culture. Mahingan states, "We were constantly struggling to have enough to eat and always battling the elements to stay warm or dry. Add the constant threat of our enemies and it was a life of never-ending vigilance." He believes, "The lives of the Omamiwininini people were always in the hands of Kitchi Manitou. Our lives seemed to be always a battle against starvation, grief, and the constant fear of our enemies."

The second is the constant threat of war and the brutality of these conflicts. Revelle captures all of this in his story. "These battles were always brutal because of the weapons we used -- arrows and lances that tore as they entered the body. Hand-to-hand combat with knives that ripped and cut. War axes that broke bones and caused tremendous head wounds." Surviving a battle wounded meant bleeding to death or dying from infection. A warrior captured alive was tortured and forced to run the gauntlet, and often brutally maimed and murdered. When the chief of the Hochelagans is captured Mahingan describes his fate. "The Hochelagan was a brave man. Not once did he cry out in pain. when he reached the end of the line he was bloodied from cuts and his feet were seared from the coals. We then gave him to the women, who took him and finished the job of torturing him until he died. The women cut out his heart at the end, and it was given to the man who had captured him."  If anything, this novel should dispel the myth that the life of the indigenous peoples in Ontario was one of peace and fraternity. Defending their hunting and territorial rights was essential and the consequences of war were immediate and devastating as Revelle's novel demonstrates through the character of Mahingan. The attack by the Haudenosaunee result in the decimation of Mahingan's warriors and the captivity of their women and children. 

But I Am Algonquin is not just a novel filled with the rich details of life in 14th century Ontario; there is also a strong storyline that continually holds the interest of the reader with frequent conflicts between nations, attacks involving dangerous animals, storms and a forest fire. We follow Mahingan as he returns from an adventure-filled hunting trip that saves his village from starvation to battles with the  Haudenosee and the Hochelagans, a peace settlement with the Nippissing, the birth of his son, a forest fire and a devastating encounter with the Haudenosee that results in a cliff-hanger ending.

Revelle crafts a varied cast of characters for his novel. Mahingan, leader of his family unit is intelligent, wise, and courageous but fatally misjudges the effects of the forest fire and the Haudenosee. Perhaps the most unique character is Mitigomij, Mahingan's brother who despite a club foot, is a warrior of renowned skill. The novel is populated with a large number of supporting characters who help flesh out the story including two fierce women warriors.

Despite all of these very positive attributes, unfortunately the writing in I Am Algonquin is sometimes repetitive, at times awkward and is marred by numerous grammatical errors including the use of wrong words, mixed tenses and switching points of view. This poor editing and proofing, by no means restricted to this book or publisher, I hope has been corrected in the second and more recently published third novel. Canadian literature needs more stories about the First Nations people, especially before the arrival of the Europeans so we can learn about their rich culture and history. These stories need to be told in an engaging way that captures the imagination of young readers but must also be well written and edited. A novel such as I Am Algonquin is the perfect vehicle to inform a new generation of Canadians about our Indigenous Peoples.


Book Details:

I Am Algonquin by Rick Revelle
Toronto: Dundurn Press     2013
275 pp.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Mary Anning's Curiosity by Monica Kulling



Kulling begins her book with the story of Mary Anning surviving a lightning strike when she was a baby. The book focuses on Mary's hunt for fossils in the large cliffs by the sea near Lyme Regis, where she and her family lived.

The ammonites and other curiosities that she, her brother Joe and their father found were sold to tourists to supplement their income.  Mary's father worked as a carpenter but his true love was hunting for fossils. He believed that the Black Ven cliffs held the remains of a giant creature, which the townsfolk called a crocodile.

Mary Anning's father suffered a terrible fall that resulted in a serious back injury and eventually led to his death from tuberculosis. Mary decided to give up school and search for fossils full time, believing that this was the only way she could save her family from the poorhouse.

Their major competition came from Captain Cury whose real name was William Lock. When Joe spotted the eye socket of an enormous creature in the shales of the Black Ven, Mary and Joe become determined that Captain Cury will not steal their find from them.

Discussion

This delightful little storybook, (it's only 115 pages) for younger readers, tells the story of 19th century British fossilist, Mary Anning. The richly detailed cover, portraying the fossils in the ground and Mary Anning with her hammer, invites younger readers in to discover the remarkable story of a young girl whose discoveries helped shaped the budding discipline of paleontology. Melissa Castrillon's fine pencil drawings accentuate the smaller details of the story.

Canadian author, Monica Kulling was inspired to write about Mary Anning after reading Tracy Chevalier's novel,  Remarkable Creatures, a fictional account of Mary Anning written for teens and adults. After reading and researching more about Anning, Kulling decided she was an inspiration for children because she persevered through very difficult circumstances and because she discovered some of the first dinosaur fossils. And of course, the fact that children are naturally curious about dinosaurs, makes this an obvious choice for a childrens book!

Kulling fills her account with fascinating details. For example, the fossils of ammonites, which are extinct but resemble modern day Nautilus molluscs were often found and sold by Mary Anning and other fossil hunters. Kulling relates that many people thought these ammonite fossils were the remains of the snakes that St. Hilda turned to stone in England.

The title, Mary Anning's Curiosity is a double entendre, the word curiosity being a common word used by the English for fossils, and of course also referring to Mary Anning's curosity in the cliffs that contained the usual finds she and her family dug up.

The book contains an extensive Author's Note that supplies extra details for adults and teachers, and there are booklists for both teachers and younger readers as well. A great short read for interested younger readers or teachers in the classroom!

Book Details:

Mary Anning's Curiosity by Monica Kulling
Toronto: Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press 2017
115 pp.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Unearthed is the newest science fiction novel by this best-selling duo. The story is told in alternating narratives by sixteen-year-old Amelia (Mia) Radcliffe and seventeen-year-old Jules Thomas Addison. Both Mia and Jules are on the alien planet called Gaia but for very different reasons; Mia is a scavver hoping to find relics to sell while Jules is there to learn more about the Undying.

With conditions on Earth declining rapidly, the International Alliance (IA) was created with the purpose of building a spacecraft that could travel to  Alpha Centauri to a planet named Centaurus in the nearest solar system. The world pooled together resources and sent three hundred colonists into space. But eight years into their journey, the IA received  a final transmission that was a plea for help. The IA was either unable to or unwilling to act.

Fifty years ago, while some astronomers were searching for further signals from the Centaurus mission they picked up a new signal. Jule's father, Elliott Addison now a renowned mathematician and linguist was eighteen-years-old and a student when he deciphered the messages which came from a civilation called the Undying. He was able to decode the messaga and learned it not only provided the instructions on how to build a portal the planet, Gaia, but also how their technology destroyed them. Their technology has been hidden and only those who are worthy, who pass a test will obtain it. Astronauts and trained scientists were sent to Gaia where they located a large temple complex. A solar cell was found in this temple complex, brought back to Earth where it is currently being used to power what is left of the west coast of the United States.

Elliott Addison continued to work on the code and discovered "a code within a code". At first this second layer of code was thought to be a distortion in the signal and was ignored for decades. However, Addison discovered that it maps out a shape similar to a Fibonacci spiral, reminiscent of a Nautilus shell or the shape of the Milky Way. The code also contains one word which Addison believes means "catastrophe" or "the end of everything". He believed the Undying were sending a warning.

Because of this Dr. Addison begged the IA not to rush into further exploration of Gaia but to move slowly if only for the safety of mankind and of those sent to explore the planet. However, having seen what the Undying technology could accomplish, the IA refused. This led Addison to attempt to warn the world during a television interview. He was arrested and incarcerated.

A few weeks ago while looking at topographic maps of Gaia, Jules Addison discovered a spiral-shaped temple, small and hidden at the end of a canyon. Jules believes thsi temple holds the clue to what the second code really means. Although no one is officially suppposed to be on the planet, Jules was able to arrange a way to get to Gaia. His trip to Gaia was financed by Global Energy Solutions who obtained  a formal International Alliance I.D. that of Francois LaRoux which allowed him to pose as a junior technician on the orbital station around Gaia.

The novel opens with Mia Radcliffe struggling to fend off two other scavvers. Jules stumbles upon this confrontation and manages to overpower the man while Mia deals with the woman. After escaping this situation, Mia wants to continue on her own. Jules learns that Mia is on Gaia to scavenge from the temples, making him angry. However both Jules and Mia need one another; Jules is inexperienced but he convinces Mia varied skills while Mia needs the knowledge of the temples that Jules seems to have.  Each is keeping secrets from the other; Jules that he is the son of Elliot Addison,that he's on Gaia to find out the truth about the Undying  and Mia who is on Gaia to make enough money from her scavenging to free her younger sister Evie from slavery. Mia is determined to travel to the large temple where she hopes to find more artifacts but Jules tells her that this is merely a decoy and that the real treasure is contained within a smaller temple. Mia reluctantly agrees to go with Jules plan.

To reach the smaller temple they must travel part way through a canyon however when they reach the canyon, Jules and Mia are shocked to see a large expedition. To thwart this group, they disable their skimmer bikes and steal one. This allows them to reach the small temple within a day. After resting overnight, they enter the temple and begin to work their way through each room and each puzzle. It is during this time that Mia realizes that Jules is the son of Elliott Addison. After the first day they manage to successfuly navigate to the bottom of a pit but when they awaken the next morning, Jules and Mia are captured by a group sent out by the woman named Mink who hired Mia. The group is led by a woman named Liz and she is determined that Jules and Mia will lead them to the secret to be discovered deep in the temple.

However, as Jules and Mia work their way through the temple, they make both an astonishing discovery and uncover what might be the real reason behind the Undying's messages. A reason that is far more terrifying than anything they could have imagined.

Discussion

In Unearthed, Kaufman and Spooner have crafted an exciting, fast-paced novel with a mystery as the central part of the plot. According to their website the book was originally billed as an Indiana Jones and Lara Croft mashup, which is a fairly accurate description of this novel. An ancient alien race, the Undying has sent a message to Earth with information on how to build a portal to their planet, and offering technology to those who can prove themselves worthy by solving the clues they have left behind. Earth is dying and the alien technology is the last hope to save the planet and mankind. But just who are the Undying and is their technology really the panacea it promises to be?

The authors use dual narrators who are very different; Jules, a clean-cut, naive but brilliant academic and Amelia, a street-wise high-school dropout who scavenges for a living. They begin their relationship with a healthy bout of mistrust that is complicated by a growing mutual attraction. Unexpectedly thrown together,  Jules and Mia embark on an Indiana Jones type of exploration of a temple on the alien planet, having to solve a series of hierglyphic puzzles to avoid being skewered, crushed or thrown into pits. The story is kept moving along with the introduction of a group who take Jules and Mia captive as well as the main characters growing uneasiness have about what's really going on.

While Jules is portrayed as honorable, intelligent and caring, Amelia is resourceful and resilient, a quick thinker whose ability to act is an asset in tight situations. It is Amelia, not the brilliant academic Jules, who comes to the realization that what they've been led to believe doesn't fit the reality of what's happening on Gaia. This leads to a remarkable twist in the story and a cliffhanger ending with the perfect setup for the concluding novel.

Kaufman and Spooner's writing combines a number of strengths which make their novels so appealing. Their storylines are imaginative and engaging, often having some unsolved mystery that retains readers' interest. They are characterized by unexpected twists that make the reader reconsider what is happening in the novel. And they are able to craft complex characters that are unique and often opposites, creating a source of conflict that must be resolved. The only distraction in Unearthed is the almost immediate angst and romanticized infatuation that occurs between Jules and Mia, despite meeting under dangerous circumstances on an alien planet light-years from Earth. For the most part, this romantic aspect of their relationship doesn't overwhelm the storyline, although near the climax of the story, their feelings for one another do come to the fore.

Overall another good novel by this duo, and the sequel to Unearthed will be eagerly awaited by their fans!

Book Details:

Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
New York: Hyperion       2018
328 pp.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Quest For Z by Greg Pizzoli

The Quest for Z tells the story of British cartographer, geographer and explorer Percy Fawcett's life and his quest to find what he called "Z", a lost ancient city that he believed lay deep in the Amazon jungle.

Percival Harrison Fawcett was born in 1867 in Torquay, England. He attended Newton Abbey Proprietary College and eventually attended the Royal Military Academy and was commissioned as a lieutenant of the Royal Artillery in 1886. Percy served in British Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka and it was here that he met Nina Agnes Paterson at a tennis party. Nina was born in Kalutara in 1870 and was educated in Scotland but returned to Ceylon afterwards. As her family disapproved of her relationship with Percy, their marriage was delayed for several years. Eventually they married and had three children, Jack born in 1903, Brian born in 1906 (deceased 1984) and Joan born in 1910 (deceased 2005).

Percy's father, Edward Boyd Fawcett was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Percy was bored with military life and wanted something more engaging as his life's work. So In 1901, he joined the RGS and studied surveying and map making. Percy's interest in South America was initiated by the President of the RGS who considered South America to have considerable economic potential. The RGS was entrusted as a neutral party with overseeing the mapping of the boundary between Brazil and Bolivia and the President offered Percy the job of undertaking this task. He accepted.


Percy's first trip into Boliva in 1906 was eye-opening. The terrain was mountainous, the villages very isolated and the people hostile and suspicious. Europeans had entered the jungle to capture the indigenous people to work as slaves in the rubber trade and so were often not trusted. The jungles were filled with strange and dangerous animals and insects including anaconda and Bushmaster snakes, poisonous spiders and wild boars. Percy worked for the Boundary Commission for three years and then continued exploring South America on his own. During this time he became convinced that a long lost city which he inexplicably named "Z" existed deep within the Amazon jungle. This was based on his knowledge of local legends.Eventually he was drawn back to Europe where he fought in the First World War. He returned to South America in 1920 but his expedition at that time was unsuccessful. Up to 1924, Percy Fawcett made seven expeditions into the wilds of the Amazon.


 By 1925, Percy, who was now fifty-seven years old and whose reputation as an explorer was declining, struggled to secure financial backing for yet another expedition to look for his lost city. Eventually he was able to finance his expedition and on April 20, 1925, Percy set out on what would be his final attempt with his son Jack, and Jack's best friend, Raleigh Rimmell. They left Cuiabla in Mato Grosso for the jungle. Initially things appeared to go well with local runners bringing back regular reports about their progress. However, four months into the expedition, as the they were entering an area known to be inhabited by hostile indigenous tribes, the updates ceased. Months and years passed but Percy Fawcett and his party were never heard from again. To this day his disappearance remains a mystery but it is most likely that Percy, his son and his party were killed by hostile Indians.

The Quest For Z recounts, in an engaging and informative way, many of the details of Percy Fawcett's story for younger readers. Percy Fawcett who lived as the age of exploration was winding down was famous world-wide for his jungle exploration. His accounts were widely read and included many exciting details many of which can be found in this account.

Author-illustrator Greg Pizzoli sets the stage for Percy Fawcett's interest in South America, with its unknown interior and wealth of legends. Using short paragraphs of text paired with Pizzoli's illustrations, young readers follow Percy's life as he develops an interest in exploration and eventually travels to South America. Side bars provide interesting facts about the Royal Geographical Society, the Amazon rainforest, mosquitoes and famous explorers.

The artwork in the book was inspired by the photographs and drawings Pizzoli made on trips to Central America and Southeast Asia. He used a variety of mediums including silkscreen, photographic halftones, Zipatone, photocopiers, newspapers, cut paper and Photoshop.

The book also contains an Author's Note, information about those who continued to hunt for Fawcett and his party, a Glossary and a list of Selected Sources. The Quest for Z by Greg Pizzoli is a really well done picture book about a historical figure the captured the imagination of people all over the world.

Book Details:

The Quest For Z by Greg Pizzoli
New York: Viking, Penguin Young Readers Group    2017
44 pp.



Friday, February 9, 2018

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a fictionalized account of the experiences of Dita Kraus (nee Polachova) who was sent to Auschwitz-Birchenau along with her mother and father in December, 1943.

Dita and her mother were housed in a section of Auschwitz known as Camp BIIb, referred to as the "family camp" which housed families brought in from the Terezin ghetto located in Czechoslovakia. The Nazis used the "family camp" as a propaganda showcase to prove to the outside world that Auschwitz was simply a work camp for the Jews of Poland.

The childrens block was overseen by Fredy Hirsch, a young Jewish sports instructor. He had managed to convince the Nazis to allow him to create a separate hut where the children could play while their parents slaved in the labour camp. The Nazis agreed but refused to allow schooling of the children. However, Hirsch helped create a clandestine school and library. Dita, age fourteen was asked by Hirsch to be the librarian. She  remembers only one book from the library, A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells. However, other people from the camp remembered other books too. The library also contained a "living library" in which people who knew certain books very well would tell the story to the children.

Dita Polachova and her mother were eventually sent to a work camp in Hamburg and then to Bergen-Belsen which was liberated by the British in April, 1945. Dita became ill with typhus and was quarantined. During this time her mother also became ill and died soon after. Dita's father, Hans had perished of starvation at Auschwitz so her mother's death left her an orphan. She returned to Prague and there met her future husband Otto Kraus who had been one of the instructors in the childrens block at Auschwitz. Dita moved to Teplice to stay with her friend, Margit and her father. During this time Otto wrote her every day and she eventually returned to Prague, married him and later emigrated to Israel where she lives today.

Author Antonio Iturbe was looking for information about the library in the childrens block at Auschwitz and surrepitously stumbled across Dita's contact information. This book is the result of both his interviews with Dita Kraus and the research he conducted. Although based on true events with real people, the novel is a work of fiction. Iturbe tells Dita's story using third person present tense narratives of various characters; Dita, Fredy Hirsch, Rudi Rosenberg who is the camp registrar,  Alice Munk who is Rudi's girlfriend, Viktor Pesek an SS guard from Romania and the Jewish girl he likes - Renee, and Ota Keller an instructor in the childrens' block.

Although the novel begins in January of 1944, the backstory of Dita's life is presented very early on as a series of flashbacks. Block 31 is undergoing an inspection by the SS guards, including Dr. Joseph Mengele. Dita is doing her best to go unnoticed as she has two books hidden beneath her smock. Books are forbidden and Dita must not be caught with them, something Dita very much understands. "Books are extremely dangerous; they make people think." To calm herself Dita thinks back on a time before fear overran everything. At age nine, in 1939, Dita's life was a happy one, living in Prague, Czechoslovakia, shopping with her mother and how as a child she had funny names for their neighbours. But all that changed with the arrival of the Nazis, on March 15, 1939.

At this time Dita's family lived in the most modern apartment building in Prague. She remembers her father dressed in neat suits for his job as a lawyer in the social security office. But for the Jews of Prague everything quickly spiraled out of control; immediately they are forced to move from their apartment across the river to one in Smichov. There are ration cards and bans, no school and no using the parks, theatres or shops. A year later saw yet another forced move to the Josefov district, where all the Jews were to now live. So Dita, her parents and her grandparents moved into an rundown apartment. Eventually they were forced to move with all the Jews out of Prague to a small walled town named Terezin which became a Jewish ghetto. It was from there they were deported to what would be the most famous extermination camp.

Dita and her parents arrived in Auschwitz in December 1943. An acquaintance from Terezin, told Dita's mother about the barrack-school. But at fourteen, Dita was too old for the school. However, the director of the school was able to keep a few older teens as assistants. At first the deputy director, Miriam Edelstein would not take Dita but when she learned Dita spoke fluent Czech and German, she had Dita act as a prompter for the play to be performed for the top officers of Auschwitz |II. After the play, Fredy Hirsch, the director of Block 31 offered Dita the job of librarian, a dangerous one because books are banned. Dita accepts. In Hirsch's cubicle, Dita is shown the eight books that comprise the library; an unbound atlas, a Basic Treatise on Geometry, A Short History of the World by H. G. Wells, A Russian Grammar, New Paths to Pyschoanalytic Therapy by Freud, a French novel (which turns out to be The Count of Monte Cristo), and a second Russian novel lacking a cover. While Dita lives in the childrens block, her parents live in separate men's and women's barracks.

Shortly after the barrack inspection, Dita is cornered by Dr. Mengele who tells her he's watching her. Terrified Dita wants to give up her librarian duties but she is concerned Fredy would be disappointed with her. Dita idolizes Fredy whom she remembers seeing at the Hagibor sports field on the outskirts of Prague. He was in charge of the youth activities there. Thinking back on Fredy, Dita decides "She won't quit the library...but she'll have to be alert..." Dita has a seamstress sew two hidden pockets on the inside of her smock so she can hide the books. As the children and teachers use the books more frequently, Dita asks Seppl Lichtenstern, a deputy director, to be given an assistant and for the books to be openly displayed each day on the chimney. Although Lichtenstern is opposed to this, Fredy agrees.

 Dita spends her time taking the books to those who want them and simply trying to survive without attracting the further attention of Dr. Mengele. But although Dita admires Fredy she also is puzzled by him, especially when she overhears his distress at deceiving the Jews in the childrens camp.  Dita wants to tell Fredy about Mengele but to avoid the others in the hut knowing about what happened she hides in a small space behind the woodpile to wait for him to be alone. She falls asleep and when she awakes it is nighttime and she overhears Fredy talking to an SS officer. Fredy is concerned about how he is deceiving the Jewish prisoners. This leaves Dita both confused and angry. As Dita struggles to survive in Auschwitz, she endures the death of her beloved father, watches the "liqudation" of the transport that arrived before hers and the death of the man she greatly admires - Fredy Hirsch. In her quest to discover the truth about Fredy's death, Dita uncovers the real reason behind the childrens block while mustering the courage to go on.

Discussion

Prisoners uniforms on display in Auschwitz.
The Librarian of Auschwitz is a haunting story of life in the infamous extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau run by the Nazis in Poland. It tells the remarkable story of Dita Polachova as she struggles to survive through 1944. As the author states in his Postscript at the back of the novel,  "The bricks used to construct this story are facts, and they are held together in these pages with a mortar of fiction." 

To that end Iturbe weaves together the perspectives of many people with that of Dita's,  capturing the horror, degradation and fear experienced while being a prisoner in the what was perhaps the most efficient of the Nazi extermination camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The Librarian of Auschwitz is not for the faint of heart; there are numerous descriptions of the indignities suffered by the Jewish people at the hands of the SS guards, descriptions of what Jewish women and children experienced when they were gassed, the hideous black skies around Auschwitz filled with the ash of the cremated bodies, information on Dr. Joseph Mengele's gruesome experiments on children and women and many, many more terrible things.

One theme that appears throughout the novel is the role of books and libraries as a form of resistance and provide a sense of normalcy and escape. Dita's early childhood was one surrounded by books. As they leave most of their possessions behind in the move to the walled city of Terezin - transformed to become the Jewish ghetto, Dita's father smuggles in a book, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. This annoys her mother who feels they could have packed more shoes instead. But Dita states, "...That book took me much further than any pair of shoes." For Dita, "The reality in the book became truer and, in a way, more understandable than the one that surrounded her in the walled city." In the Jewish ghetto, Dita learns of a secret library consisting of approximately sixty thousand books, "...from the hundreds of public libraries and private collections belonging to the Jewish community, which the Nazis had closed down and plundered." Dita helps the librarian, Miss Sittigova take a book trolley around the streets of Terezin. The books, although sometimes stolen and used for other purposes offered the Jewish prisoners an opportunity to escape briefly their terrible circumstances. the book trolley is the highlight of the Jewish people's day.

In Auschwitz, neither school nor books are allowed but the Jews under the direction of Fredy Hirsch find a way to circumvent this rule. They establish a clandestine school and a hidden library. Dita views the library and her role as librarian as a form of resistance. "She's a fourteen-year-old girl, and they are the most powerful military weapon of destruction in history, but she's not going to take part silently in the procession again. Not this time. She's going to stand up to them." Even in the face of a threat by Mengele, Dita forges on. Fredy encourages Dita to remain as libarian, "...Of course it's a risk, but we're at war --although there are people here who sometimes forget that. We're soldiers, Edita. Don't believe those who say we're bringing up the rear and then put down their arms. It's war, and each of us has our own front line. This one is ours, and we must fight to the end."

Being the librarian allows Dita to resist in her own small way - something that is very important to her. The Nazis had a penchant for book burning; Ota Keller tells Dita that Freud's "...books were among the first to be burned by Hitler in 1933." Dita also has a copy of The Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek which was also banned and burned by the Nazis. The book helps Dita cope and even makes her smile - something she at first feels shame for but then realizes that it too is a way of resistance. "In a place like Auschwitz, where everything is designed to make you cry, a smile is an act of defiance." 

When the childrens block is to be "vacated" Dita reviews the library books as though they are old friends, mending "their wounds", caressing them. "When they're lined up, the books form a tiny row, a modest display of veterans. But over these past months, they've enabled hundreds of children to walk through the geography of the world, get close to history, and learn math. And also to be drawn into the intricacies of fiction and amplify their lives many times over. Not bad for a handful of old books." It is like leaving behind old friends.

Even at the end of the war, while in the field hospital where her mother Liesel lays dying of typhus, Dita  finds solace in books. She is given two paperback novels by Francis, a British nurse who is carrying for her mother. "While her mother sleeps, she sits down on an empty bed and inhales the smell of paper, fans the pages quickly with her thumb, and smiles at the way it sounds like a deck of cards being shuffled. She opens a page, and the paper rustles. She opens a page, and the paper rustles. She runs her hand up and down the spine again and notices the blobs of glue on the covers. She likes the names of the authors -- English names that sound exotic to her. As she holds the books in her hands, her life begins to fall into place again. Doing this helps her slowly put the pieces of the puzzle back where they belong."

Iturbe incorporates many detailed historical facts into his story, sometimes through the flashbacks of the characters and other times when they fit directly into the storyline. For example while Fredy Hirsch is reminiscing as to how he ended up at Auschwitz this leads him to remember the arrival of 1,260 Jewish children from the Bialystok ghetto in Poland on August, 24, 1943. When the September transport is sent to "quarantine" and eventual extermination, Iturbe notes with precision the historical fact: "During the night of March 8, 1944, 3,792 prisoners from the family camp BIIb were gassed and then incinerated in Crematorium III of Auschwitz-Birkenau."

But The Librarian of Auschwitz is also a portrait of courage and hope, of determination and resistance, of random acts of kindness in a place where hate reigns. Dita never gives up, even at the very last when she goes through one final "selection" by Dr. Mengele, even when her mother dies after gaining her freedom. The death of Dita's mother was the most heart-wrenching moment in the entire novel because it highlights the unfairness that is the hallmark of life. Dita wonders how her mother suffered so much only to die when finally free. "Liesl Adler, who has resisted all the deprivations, tragedies, and miseries of these years, becomes gravelly ill with the arrival of peace. Dita can't believe that after all she has overcome, she isn't going to live in peace. It's not fair."

The canon of Holocaust literature is extensive, but The Librarian of Auschwitz seems to explore the experiences of the Jewish people in a more genuine way. Perhaps this is due to Iturbe's fortuitious meeting with Dita Kraus. In his Postscript, Iturbe writes, "There's a great deal about Auschwitz on the internet, but it only talks about the place."so he decided to visit the extermination camp "to feel the vibration of that accursed place." He writes,"Walking through Auschwitz-Birkenau in solitude means enduring a very cold wind that carries echoes of the voices of those who remained there forever and became part of the mud present-day visitors walk on." The visit gave Iturbe "some sense of what the Holocaust was" but it was his meeting with Dita that provided some depth of understanding about the Holocaust that the author has managed to infuse throughout the novel. Readers will wonder at the profound suffering of the Jewish men, women and children, the incredible indifference of the German people and the fanatical ideology that drove the Nazis to murder millions.


Further information on the following can be found at these links:

Kurt Gerron, a German singer, actor and director and also a Jew who was murdered by the Nazis after being forced to make a propaganda film for them.

Dita Kraus survived three concentration camps; Terezin north of Prague, Auschwitz-Birchenau and Bergen-Belsen.

Picture credit: Auschwitz uniform:  https://beststockphotofree.com/downloads/auschwitz-concentration-camp-uniforms/

Book Details:

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe
New York: Henry Holt and Company    2017
424pp.