Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Sound of Freedom by Kathy Kacer

The Sound of Freedom is a fictionalized account of a young girl whose family manages to escape Poland with the help of  world-renowned violinist, Bronislaw Huberman. Huberman was a child prodigy who studied with Joseph Joachim. He began touring Europe when he was only fourteen. When Adolf Hitler came to power, Huberman surmised that the situation for Jews in Europe would only get worse. Although he left Germany for Austria he found the situation not much better. It was apparent the situation for the Jewish people would only worsen. So he began to plan to bring the best Jewish musicians to Palestine to form an orchestra. This novel tells of one family's hope to be part of that historic event. 

Twelve-year-old Anna Hirsch lives in Krakow with her father, Avrum Hirsch who is a gifted clarinetist and her Baba. Anna's father plays in the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra and also lectures at the music academy.

The novel opens with Anna and her best friend Renata stopping at Mrs. Benna's shop on the way home on a Tuesday afternoon while her father gives lessons.While snacking on their donuts they witness a group of boys who have lately been targeting Jewish kids try to bully Mrs Benna. She stands up to them and they leave. However when Anna and Renata are walking home they see the boys vandalizing the window of  Mr. Kaplansky's butcher shop while the police chief Constable Zabek watches without intervening. At home Anna tells her papa and her baba about what happened and she is warned to stay away from the boys. That night they listen world famous violinist Bronislaw Huberman play a violin concerto by Tchaikovsky. However the radio broadcast is interrupted by a speech by Adolf Hitler. In his speech Hitler promises to provide jobs and good schools to all German citizens, to build a strong army to defend the country and to start by "cleansing Germany of all Jews. Country after country will follow."

However Anna's father refuses to talk about Hitler or what's happening in Poland. At school the next day Anna and Renata are confronted by Sabina Zabek who tells them that soon they won't be allowed to attend any school. After school Anna misses Renata who has indicated she has something important to tell Anna, so she visits her father's orchestra rehearsal. She is stunned to see all the Jewish members of the orchestra segregated at the back of the orchestra and not in their respective sections. She is so upset that her clarinet lesson with her father is a disaster.

During the next two weeks, there are more attacks on Jewish businesses, the headlines in the newspapers are decidely anti-Jewish. Anna's friend Stephan Ungar tells her that his father has said they will not be kicked out school, that these are isolated incidents and that this troubled time will pass, but Anna is unconvinced. They meet Renata who finally reveals that her family is fleeing Poland for Denmark in a week's time. Renata states that her parents want to leave before the situation worsens, especially since it is so difficult for Jews to obtain papers to travel to another country and that many countries do not want to take in Jewish immigrants. Anna is desolate, partly because she knows her best friend is right and partly because her own family seems reluctant to acknowledge what is happening all over Poland and Germany.

Anna confides in Baba about Renata's family leaving but her grandmother attempts to calm her by telling her everything will be fine. However Anna tells her about what she saw at orchestra practice, confronting Baba and demanding she tell her the truth. Baba tells Anna about the "ghetto chairs" for the musicians but she believes that they will be safe.

That night Papa tells them about Bronislaw Huberman's trip to Poland to recruit musicians for an orchestra in Palestine. Papa tells Anna and Baba that Huberman is inviting Jewish musicians to audition. When Anna hears this she attempts to convince her father to audition by telling him everything that she has witnessed in the streets. However her father refuses to believe that the situation is dire, stating that their lives are in Poland and they cannot simply leave for something so uncertain. Anna is completely devastated. How can she convince her father that they must leave Poland and that Huberman's auditions may be their only way out?


Discussion

The Sound of Freedom portrays a real life event that occurred just before the onset of World War II through the eyes of a young girl. The Hirsch family is fictional; there was no Avrum Hirsch who was a clarinetist  recruited by Bronislaw Huberman. But Huberman did recruit seventy musicians for his Palestine Orchestra which was formed in 1936.  At a time when getting travel documents was almost impossible for people of Jewish heritage, somehow Huberman managed to obtain enough to bring not only the musicians but their families too. The novel covers the period up to the historic concert given by the Palestine Symphony Orchestra on December 26, 1936, conducted by Maestro Toscanini.

Kacer seamlessly incorporates many historical facts into her novel; the increasingly violent harassment of Jews in Poland, Huberman's method of auditioning musicians, the difficulties he encountered obtaining visas, the theft of his Stradivarius violin, and life in British Mandate Palestine. Kacer mentions some of the challenges Anna and her fellow emigrants experienced in moving to Palestine, including learning Hebrew and dealing with attacks on the area by Arabs. Life in Palestine would most certainly have been vastly different for European Jews who settled there.
Toscanni and Huberman Palestine Symphony Orchestra

When Anna's friend Eric and his family decide to return to Poland, Anna is distraught. Although Palestine is also struggling with conflict, the Jewish people are safer than in Europe and Anna wonders about the fate of Eric. Some musicians and their families did decide to return to Europe. Those who did, would not survive the war. Near the end of the novel, Anna learns that Bronislaw Huberman brought over one thousands Jews to Palestine and as history now knows - saving these gifted musicians and their families -from the death camps of Adolf Hitler. If only more people had acted, how many more could have been saved?

Kacer is a Canadian author whose parents are survivors of the Holocaust; her mother survived by hiding and her father survived the death camps. The novel was written at the suggestion of the publisher, Annick Press.  The Sound of Freedom is the first in what will be a series of four books called the Heroes Quartet. The next installment, a book about the famous French mime artist Marcel Marceau is due out March 2019. In light of the recent poll that suggests many children under the age of fourteen do not know what the word Holocaust refers to, Kacer's novel is all the more timely.

Readers are encouraged to view the documentary, Orchestra of Exiles which examines Huberman's efforts to put together an orchestra in Palestine and preserve some of the Jewish musical heritage which he felt certain would be destroyed by the coming cataclysm.

Information on the Palestine Symphony Orchestra can be found at the Jewish Virtual Library. 

Book Details:

The Sound of Freedom by Kathy Kacer
Toronto: Annick Press Ltd.      2017
249 pp.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

The Night Diary is a fictional account of one family's experience during the partition of India into two countries in 1947. The story is told in the form of diary entries written by the main character, Nisha beginning on her twelfth birthday, addresses to her deceased mother. Nisha receives the diary as birthday gift from Kazi, the family's Muslim servant. "The diary is covered in purple and red silk, decorated with small sequins and bits of mirrored glass sewn in. The paper is rough, thick, and the color of butter..."

He tells Nisha "someone needs to make a record of the things that will happen because the grown-ups will be too busy." Nisha decides to address each entry to her mother Faria who died giving birth to Nisha and her twin brother Amil. For his birthday, Amil receives a beautiful book, a collection of tales from the Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic poem. The book contains beautiful coloured pictures, which Nisha knows Amil will love as he loves to draw but struggles to read.

Nisha and Amil live with their papa who is the head doctor at Mirpur Khas City Hospital, and Dadi their grandmother in a large compound provided by the government. The compound consists of their home which is a large bungalow, cottages where Kazi Syed and their grounds keeper Mahit live, a vegetable garden and a chicken coop. Nisha and her brother both attend segregated government schools for boys and girls.

The first hint of change happens on July 18 when three men come to the house while Papa is at work and speak to Dadi. She orders Nisha and Amil into the kitchen with Kazi. Dadi won't tell them what they wanted but Amil tells his sister that he overheard the men asking Dadi when they would be leaving.

The next day, July 19 Nisha and Amil are followed by two boys as they walk to school. Although this occasionally happens, this time the boys throw rocks at them. Nisha blames Amil who often taunts them and then runs away. But Amil tells her "It's because we're Hindus...There are lots of places all over India where the Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims fight one another all the time now...That's why those men came to the house yesterday. They said the Hindus should leave and they don't want Kazi to live with us."  As tensions escalate, there is a fight between a Muslim and a Hindu boy at school and Amil is chased again after school. Papa decides that neither Nisha nor Amil will go to school. He explains that India will gain its independence from Britain but will be partitioned into two states. Their town of Mirpur Khas won't be in India but will now be a part of a new country called Pakistan. Although Gandhi wants everyone to live in peace, Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League wants a Muslim state while Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress wants to be prime minister of India.

Life at home leaves Nisha bored and missing school which she did well at. Then on August 2, a group of people break down the door of their home, ransacking and breaking furniture and pots while Nisha, Amil and Dadi hide in terror in the pantry. After they leave Kazi comes to get them, his head bleeding profusely from a cut. Shortly after this Papa decides it is time for them to leave Mirpur Khas as it is no longer safe for them to stay. He decides to hold a party and invites family and friends. Their neighbours, uncles, aunties, cousins and Dr. Ahmed and his family attend the party.

After the party, Nisha realizes that she would have her memories of life in Mirpur Khas and new memories of life in the new India. "My childhood would always have a line drawn through it, the before and the after." Nisha, Amil and their father will undertake a journey across India that will change them forever and in ways they cannot anticipate.

Discussion

Veera Hiranandani's The Night Diary is loosely based on the experiences of her father's family during the Partition. Hiranandani's father, grandparents, aunts and uncles had to cross the border from Mirpur Khas to Jodhpur in a journey similar to that undertaken by Nisha and her family.  Although they safely crossed the border, at least one million people died in this mass migration that saw tensions between Muslims and Hindus escalate into violence.

Hiranandani's novel presents a balanced portrayal of the relationship between Muslims and Hindus in pre-partitioned India.  As would be expected, the families of Nisha's Hindu father and Muslim mother had mixed reactions to their marriage years earlier; her father's family was against the marriage, puzzled by his lack of interest in the Hindu girls, while Nisha's mother's sister was so against the marriage that she never spoke to her again. However her mother's brother seemed supportive.

Because of Nisha's mixed background she and her family are open to friendships with both Hindu and Muslim people; her father's best friend is Dr. Ahmed, a Muslim, while Nisha's best friend is Sabeen, a Muslim student. Their cook, Kazi is also Muslim and considered a member of the family.

When Nisha and her family become targets of violence she struggles to understand. Because of their mixed heritage, Nisha and Amil don't know who attacked their home and are left confused. "...And anyway I thought the two sides were supposed to be us and the British. Why are we fighting each other?" Nisha wants to "go somewhere fresh and new where people were happy..." and where "nobody would mind that you were Muslim and Papa was Hindu and Amil and I could hold both sides of our parents in our hearts." In trying to understand why people are fighting each other, Nisha asks, "Is it the brain that makes people love and hate? Or is it the heart?"

Nisha's father tells her that everyone is to blame. "...when you separate people into groups, they start to believe that one group is better than another." But Nisha recognizes "...we all have the same blood, and organs, and bones inside us, no matter what religion we're supposed to be."

The journey to the border is filled with hardships and terrifying experiences that change how Nisha views the world and push her to ask many questions. When they run out of water Nisha thinks about Badal, the water man who brought water to their home daily. "I never thought about how heavy it must have been and how lucky we were to have someone bring it to us every day. A wave of shame rippled through the center of my body..." As their situation grows dire and they are unable to continue, Nisha begins to think about death. "...I've thought about other people dying, but I've never thought about me not actually being here anymore."

Suffering from dehydration and unable to continue their journey, Nisha tells Dadi she loves her, making her realize that although they "never said those words to one another..." they "did thing that meant love." Nisha realise that love that exists in their home in the form of service to one another. "Now I could see it. Dadi washing and mending my clothes. Papa kissing us on our foreheads before bedtime, Amil making a drawing of me. Kazi making my favorite paratha stuffed with fried onions and potatoes. Every day had been filled with things like this. All love, even between Papa and Amil." Facing certain death from lack of water, when Papa returns with the much needed water, his sacrifice and comforting of them convinces Nisha that father loves them. "I knew I would remember this forever, pack it away in my mind."

After Nisha is attacked outside Rashid Uncle's home by a Muslim man who has seen his entire family murdered, she wonders, "Why had his family been killed? Why would anyone do that? Do people who kill start out like me, or are they a different kind of human?" The attack leaves Nisha unable to comprehend the violence. "I know lots of people have died walking and on the trains in both directions. The riots and killings keep happening. I still don't understand. We were all part of the same country last month, all these different people and religions living together. Now we are supposed to separate and hate one another. Does Papa secretly hate Rashid Uncle? Does Rashid Uncle secretly hate us? Where do Amil and I fit in to all of this hate? Can you hate half of a person?" Nisha is referring to the fact that she and Amil are from Muslim and Hindu parents, leading her to wonder how people will view them.

When they finally push their way onto a train to cross the border, Nisha watches as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs fight one another in a bloody, deadly battle. "I looked at the dying men on the ground. For what? I did not know. More revenge? I shook all over. I had never seen anyone kill before. It has changed me. I used to think people were mostly good, but now I wonder if anyone could be a murderer..."

Hiranandani has populated her novel with realistic characters and has done an excellent job recreating the historical setting for the novel, demonstrating she knows her subject well.

The Night Diary doesn't really explore the root of the tensions between Muslims and Hindus in British India but it does show that the partition of the country into two separate republics was a violent event. This event viewed through the eyes of young Nisha shows how senseless the violence was, in what should have been a very proud moment in the history of the country - freedom from alost three hundred years of British rule. Today tensions continue to exist between Muslims and Hindus both within India and Pakistan and also between the two countries who are arch enemies. Neither nation has fared well since the Partition; India continues to have serious social issues including poverty, an inability to eradicate the caste system and serious women's rights issues, while Pakistan struggles with government corruption and encroaching Islamic fundamentalism.

Hiranandani includes a short Author's Note that provides some background information about her family's experiences and about the Partition. Readers may find the following websites helpful:

Stanford University's 19947 Partition of India & Pakistan

The British National Archives also have much information as does the BBC website.

Overall The Night Diary is an excellent, well-written novel for younger readers about an important event in the 20the century.

Book Details:

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
New York: Dial Books For Young Readers    2018
264 pp.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Escape From Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

Escape From Aleppo tells the story of the Syrian War through the eyes of a young girl as she makes her way across the city of Aleppo after getting separated from her family.

Early on the morning of October 9, 2013, Nadia Jandali is awakened by her cousin Razan who tells her they must leave at once. Nadia is filled with fear and attempts to crawl back under her bed where she's been sleeping. She can hear the deep boom of bombs called barmeela in the distance. These are barrel bombs filled with shrapnel which are dropped onto rebel held areas by the Syrian army. Nadia is forced awake, grabs her backpack and a burlap bag to meet the rest of her family.

Nadia's cousin, Malik who is the eldest son of Khala Fatima (Nadia's maternal aunt), believes the helicopters are coming their way and that they need to leave. Nadia's family have formulated a plan that Nadia, her mother and grandmother, and her three aunts and their children will assemble downstairs in the apartment building. The building was built by her grandparents thirty-five years ago and has four apartments, each housing a son and his family. Nadia's mother orders them to go downstairs while she hunts for Nadia's younger brother Yusuf's shoes. Razan's job is to help Nadia leave the building.She's rarely been outside in the past year after she was hit by a barmeela and severely injured. The trauma from that event has made Nadia terrified to leave her home.

At the front door, Khala Fatima, Khala Lina, Khala Shakira, and Nana debate what to do next but Khala Lina is emphatic that they need to go to the dental clinic where they have arranged to meet their husbands and sons at noon. Suddenly Malik comes tearing down the stairs telling them they need to leave immediately because the government military helicopters are heading towards them. At the last minute Nadia's mother, Amani comes downstairs carrying Yusuf and the group exits the back door - all except Nadia. As Nadia is forcing herself out the door and Malik races back to help her, their building is rocked by a barmeela, throwing Nadia down the steps and against an abandoned Jeep. Stunned, Nadia lays there hearing Malik yell for her.

In the confusion of the bombing, Malik believes Nadia is beneath the rubble and dead and her family leaves, not knowing she is uninjured but dazed. As another bomb explodes, Nadia rolls under the jeep and falls unconscious. She awakens later that afternoon, her family gone, determined to travel to Dr. Asbahi's dental clinic. Nadia flees through the city encountering a group of children playing on a playground surrounded by the graves of rebels and government soldiers. In trying to find her way through the ruins of Aleppo, Nadia soon finds herself lost. Unable to find the mosque, a landmark on the way to the dental clinic, hungry and exhausted, she runs into a shop for shelter during a rainstorm. It is late in the evening and she is tired and defeated.

Nadia discovers she has taken shelter in a pharmacy. She soon falls asleep underneath a desk in the office and doesn't awaken until very early the next morning. But Nadia learns she's not alone; an elderly man "in loose woolen pantaloons and a navy vest, a taqiyah (skull cap) covering his cropped white hair...Past him, near the door, stood a sturdy, dun-colored donkey." are also in the pharmacy. Relieved he is not a soldier or worse, Nadia attempts to get out the door of the pharmacy but finds it blocked by the donkey. Terrified but responding to the old man's kindness, Nadia tells him all that has happened to her and asks him if he knows the way to the Asbahi clinic. He tells her he does and that he will take her there after he completes a short errand. However, one thing leads to another and Nadia discovers her journey with the elderly man named Ammo Mazen, is filled with unexpected revelations and leads her to discover the hidden inner strength she needs to reunite with her family.

Discussion
Escape From Aleppo tells of one girl's journey across war-torn Aleppo and Syria to the safety of Turkey where her father and family waits for her. The main story is set in 2013, and takes place over a period of five days. It is told through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Nadia who travels through the city of Aleppo with a mysterious elderly man, Ammo Mazen. During this time the reader is shown the impact of war on Nadia's life, the effect on her family and her community

Senazi makes use of flashbacks to demonstrate how much Nadia's life has changed from before the start of the Syrian war. In 2010 and 2011 life for Nadia and her family is filled with ease and comfort. Her tenth birthday party is a feast of Nadia's favourite food, "kabob karaz - grilled lamb meatballs prepared with cherries and pine nuts.", a "towering chocolate cake...adorned with pink sugar roses", and attended by "Her family and friends from school, along with her parents' friends and neighbors, gathered in her grandparents elegant dining room..." She's the center of attention in a "satin aquamarine dress", with nails painted a matching shade of blue and she has a "stack of presents".  Nadia's life revolves around the finals of Arab Idol, auditioning for television commercials, the wedding preparations for her cousin Razan's marriage and her final exams. Life is full of possibilities.

In contrast is Nadia's life in the present, in 2013. After being injured in a barmeela attack, Nadia has a scar that runs from her knee to her hip and has a piece of shrapnel that remains in her leg. Once told she resembled the Arab Idol semifinalist, Carmen Suleiman, Nadia's appearance after escaping the bombing of her home in Salaheddine two years later is much altered. "Her eyes shifted, catching her reflection in the mirror. A stranger stared back at her: face covered in dust, hollowed cheeks marked with pale white scars. A cut, caked with dry blood, from where her head had hit the Jeep. Her hair, once thick and wavy, had been hacked off because of lice. Spiky and short, it now lay stuffed under an ugly olive-green woolen cap..."

After the bombing, Nadia looks at their family's apartment building which is mostly destroyed. "She peered inside Khala Lina's apartment, cut in half, her embroidered silk curtains still hanging from the window, fluttering like a maroon flag. A leather sofa hung from the ledge, it's matching love seat lying on what remained for Khala Fatima's kitchen below, her stove flat as an atayaf, a sweet cheese-stuffed pancake. Nana's beautiful cream-and-gold china lay scattered across the ground like snowflakes, broken in a million pieces."

The devastation of the war is shown as Nadia's journey through Aleppo to catch up to her family. She travels "past houses where shells had punched great holes and others that had collapsed completely, blocking the surrounding alleys with rubble." She watches an ambulance pull up to "what had been a large apartment complex, now a stack of concrete pancakes with jagged metal rods protruding from all angles. Survivors huddled near the road, coated in dust, consoling the injured while parmedics bandaged a boy's leg. And old man knelt beside teh rubble, weeping, his bent figure shielding something. Nadia got a glimpse of golden bangles and a frail arm." The city is filled with broken down cars, uncollected trash, abandoned stores, salons and mosques, snipers hiding on roofs, and there are "hundreds of checkpoints that had sprung up around the city, each manned by a different group, either affiliated with the Syrian army or one of the hundreds of rebel groups."

Throughout the story, Senzai incorporates various facts about the war. For example, readers learn how the Syrian War was rooted in the uprising in other parts of the Middle East. During Nadia's birthday party, the adults in the family gather to watch the television broadcasts of the self-immolation of a young man, Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bousid, Tunisia. The demonstrations in Tunisia spread to the surrounding countries of Jordan, Algeria and Oman while in Egypt, demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo lead to the removal of dictator Hosni Mubarak. This was followed by unrest in Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco and Libya. These demonstrations come to be known as the Arab Spring. In Syria it begins with the arrest and torture of a group of boys from Deraa who had written anti-government slogans on their school.  Through a flaskback, Nadia remembers the discussions at home between her grandfather and the rest of the family about how the U.S. wanted Assad to resign and how U.N. peacekeepers were sent in to monitor the situation. Later on as Nadia and Ammo Mazen are walking through the streets they encounter a woman who tells them about the sarin gas attack by the Assad government on rebels in Ghouta, near Damascus. An encounter with a group of rebels and an Egyptian-American journalist explains the rebel's view of the involvement of ISIS in the war. "The road you were on is blocked by those foreign bastards who call themselves ISIS. They've been fighting other rebel groups to usurp power...These foreign hypocrites use religion as an excuse to fight some glorified war, seeking power and fame. They are ruthless barbarians, posting videos on the Internet of their atrocities, like blowing up ancient sites or killing civilians for not following their brand of Islam."

Senzai uses the character of Ammo Mazen, to highlight the efforts of the Syrian academics to preserve their historical treasures from destruction in the war. Readers learn that "Most of the museums in the country, and all six of Syria's World Heritage sites, have been affected in one way or another..." Some of those treasures turn out to be rare books brought by Ammo Mazen and include "Kitab al-Tasrif by medieval Arab surgeon Abulcasis, Katib Cheleb's seventeenth-century Islamic atlas, and other rare books of poetry,history, science and mathematics."

Nadia's journey through the ruins of Aleppo to the safety of Turkey mirrors her own personal journey from a fearful traumatized girl to one who acts with courage and decisiveness when needed. Senzai has crafted a realistic protagonist in Nadia Jandali. She's a typical teenager - impulsive, self-absorbed but she is also courageous, intelligent and caring. At the beginning of the story, Nadia has been housebaound for almost a year, filled with fear. Spurred by the loss of her family, Nadia forces herself to try to find her way to the dental clinic in the hopes she will meet up with her family. "She realized that if she kept her eyes down and didn't look around too much, she could keep the fear at bay. Don't think. Just move. Her encounter with Ammo Mazen forces her to trust him despite the fact that he is a complete stranger. His kindness surprises her. "She realized that she had to trust him, at least a little, if she was going to find her family."  Although she does get to the Asbahi clinic, a note from her family telling her where to meet them leaves her feeling abandoned and angry. It also means that she must continue to rely on Ammo Mazen who she suspects is not telling her the full truth of who he is. Nadia is impatient and dismissive of Ammo Mazen's decision to travel by donkey. "Nadia mutinously stared at the smelly donkey, snoring away with Mishmish curled up under her neck. All he has is a bunch of junk, she fumed. Why is that so important?..." Instead she discovers that the old books are rare treasures to be preserved. As Ammo Mazen's healthy begins to deteriorate and he collapses, Nadia wants to abandon him. "I should just ditch them and go find my familiy on my own.It would be easier and faster..." she thinks but she reconsiders. "He had helped her when she needed it the most. And now she would help him. For now, the questions she had didn't matter. she would trust him." And when Ammo Mazen is attacked and his donkey and cart stolen, it is Nadia who comes up with a plan that retrieves them and allows their journey to the border to continue. In the end, Nadia and Basel a little boy they have picked up along the way, leave Ammo Mazen in the care of an elderly woman. Nadia's questions are answered

Escape From Aleppo is a well-written, interesting novel that portrays the realities of war without being too graphic. It is informative, giving younger readers the basic background of the Syrian war which is still ongoing, while putting a face to the conflict through Nadia, Basel, Ammo Mazen and the many other characters.

Book Details:

Escape From Aleppo by Naheed Hasnat Senzai
New York: A Paula Wiesmen Book            2018
324 pp.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Lion's Island by Margarita Engle

Lion's Island is set on the island of Cuba during the late nineteenth century, spanning the years from 1871 to 1878 and focuses on the struggles of the Chinese indentured labourers to obtain their freedom. The story is told (mainly) through the voice of Antonio Chuffat, who came to be known for his work promoting the rights of Chinese Cubans. Most young readers for whom this short novel in verse was written, likely know little of the history of Cuba except that it was the first point of land sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Cuba was claimed for Spain by Columbus and subsequently colonized by the Spanish when in  1511, Deigo Velazqueza de Cuellar settled in there, founding Baracoa. The indigenous Ciboney, Guanahatabey and Taino peoples inhabited the island but as with the coming of the European settlers in other parts of the America's later on, they were decimated by disease and the loss of their ancestral lands.  In 1526, Spain began importing slaves from Africa tow ork on the various farms.

Cuba remained a quiet part of the Spanish empire, at first a jumping off point for further exploration of the continent and also for the posting of military personnel to guard the transport of gold back to Spain. In 1762 the British captured Havana and occupied it for ten months; it was returned to Spain in 1763. This brief occupation opened up the island to international trade.

In the late 1700's, Cuba began to undergo significant changes in the island's economy and society. Cuba's economy began to transform from a mixed economy of ranching and tobacco farming to mainly sugar and coffee plantations. The growth of the sugarcane plantations meant the importing of large numbers of slaves from Africa. Despite the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1802 and the British determination to end the slave trade, Cuba continued to import African slaves. By the 1840's there were well oever four hundred thousand African slaves, a whopping forty-three percent of the island's population, despite the fact that slavery was supposedly abolished on the island in 1820 in an agreement with Great Britain. The plantation owners, seeing the end of the importing of black slaves from Africa, attempted to interest white European workers in coming to Cuba but were unsuccessful.

Instead they turned to China to supply their labor needs. The British has been experimenting with exporting Chinese and East Indian laborers to their various colonies as opposition to the black slave trade began to grow in the late 1700's. The Spanish also utilized Chinese labour in their Phillippines colony. This soon came to be known as the "coolie trade" in which Chinese workers - almost exclusively men - were forced to sign an eight-year labour contract. After completing the indenture they were to be given their freedom. From 1847 to 1874 almost one hundred twenty five thousand Chinese labourers were indentured to Cuba.

The experience of Chinese workers was comparable to that of the African slaves; they were often forcibly recruited in China, packed on the same ships used and captained in the African slave trade, auctioned in the same slave auctions,  housed in the same quarters that had been used or were being used by black slaves and were brutalized in the same manner. This led to many of them fighting in the Ten Years War for independence from Spain.

Using the real historical characters of Antonio Chuffat, his father, Senor Lam and Chin Lan Pin, an official from China sent to investigate the abuses, Engle constructs a story that describes the plight of the Chinese indentured laborers in Cuba in the 1870's. This story is told in seven parts by multiple narrators, using free verse. The story opens in 1871 when Antonio is twelve years old. Antonio's father, has moved from their small village of Jovellanos to La Habana where Antonio attends el Colegio para Desamparados de la Raza de Color - the School for the Unprotected Ones of the Race of Color so he can learn Spanish. Antonio notes the arrival of "los californios" - Chinese who have fled the violence and persecution in Los Angeles.

Outside of school, Antonio carries messages for Senor Tung Kong Lam, who emigrated from Shanghai to San Francisco but left after only a year due to the riots. These messages are to businessmen, soldiers and diplomats. Antonio overhears his father speaking to Senor Lam about the injustices the indentured Chinese laborers experience when they arrive in Cuba to work on the sugar plantations.

The story jumps ahead to the following year, 1872 with Antonio wanting to leave school to fight in the freedom war. However, he obeys his father and stays in school. When Antonio is invited to dinner at Senor Lam's home, he meets a "californio boy" who delivers vegetables to the Lam house. Antonio learns that Wing is from Los Angeles where his family ran a fruit shop in Chinatown. Their produce was considered "green gold".  However, a drought left the cattlemen angry and they turned on the local Chinese, rioting and hanging Wing's older brother Jin along with two dozen men and boys. Wing's family decided to flee California but while travelling the narrow land between North and South America, his mother died from a fever. Antonio is angered by what happened to Wing's family,
"If only I could roar
right out of my human skin
and race all the way
across land and sea, to help Wing
seek vengeance."

In Cuba, although safe from the riots of Los Angeles, their situation is not much better. Wing and his family have traded their adobe home in California for a thatched hut that's flimsy and muddy. His twin sister Fan works in the field all day with Ba, while Wing goes in search of vegetables to buy and resell for a profit. He is hassled by the Spanish soldiers who steal his money.

Antonio tells Wing about his father's plan to help runaway chinos by hiding them within the cuadrillas - paid work gangs who are hired during the harvest season. Each cuadrilla is paid as a unit for working one season only, meaning they are not indentured or slaves and they receive decent meals and lodging. Antonio enlists the help of Fan who is now working as a singer and Wing to secret runaway chinos off the island. Meanwhile the Spanish soldiers continue to intimidate and kill Cubans leading Senor Lam to send letters to the editors of newspapers in China telling about the abuses that the Chinese are experiencing in Cuba.

As Antonio grows into a young man he experiences his first love, begins to help runaway chinos escape Cuba and helps the Chinese royal emmisary, Chin Lan Pin as he travels throughout Cuba with scribes recording the spoken stories of men and women indentured for life. These stories will be considered "official petitions for freedom from the bizarre system of eight-year-contract slavery." But will their words have the power to change the laws and end the indentured labor of the Chinese in Cuba?

Discussion

This short novel uses free verse to tell the story of Antonio Chuffat who is half Chinese and half African. The story begins with Antonio as a messenger boy who carries words for Senor Lam.As he runs through La Habana he notices there are different types of men differentiated by the symbols on their garments; Peking military leaders who wear "sleek golden lions", soldiers have tigers, panthers or leopards on their uniforms, but diplomats have silk robes with "shimmering peacocks." Antonio wonders whether he will be a "roaring lion soldier or a calmly speaking diplomat bird?" He notices that the soldiers always yield to the diplomats - the men who fight with words.

Senor Lam writes letters to the editors of newspapers in China in the hopes that the government there will listen and do something about the plight of indentured chinos in Cuba. But Antonio wonders,
 "Who will speak up for the africanos
by writing letters to editors in Madrid?"
Antonio hopes some day to speak up for the africanos who are enslaved. But when eight young Cuban medical students are executed for vandalizing the tomb of a Spanish soldier, Antonio doubts the power of Senor Lam's words to move the "educated peacock men in Shanghai or Peking". He asks,
"Where is the POWER in words that aren't heard?"

However, Senor Lam's words are successful as Chin Lan Pin, an investigative emissary from China with a shimmering peacock feather embroidered on his robes, arrives to hear the stories of the chino workers. Antonio, now fifteen recognizes the power of the Chinese emissary who has these stories transcribed as "official petitions for freedom". Antonio's duty is to travel from farm to farm inviting each man to participate and tell his story. These words, he believes, will have power.
"Voices grow fangs.
Stories have claws."

Circumventing the Spanish planters by lying to them about their true purpose of the visit, Antonio and his father and the Chinese emissary listen to the stories. Antonio discovers that rather than being a lion soldier he can help in a better more powerful way.
"Stories, letters, translations.
Reports, articles, petitions.
These are the most POWERFUL ways
for me to help 
slaves."

When the powerful words of the indentured Chinese workers results in their freedom years later, Antonio begins working on freeing his mother's people- the africanos- from slavery too.
"Men from Nigeria
Women from the Congo.
Children of the Carabali, Mandinga,
and every other tribe
deserve 
liberty."

Lion's Island is short, to the point, highlighting the abuse of workers in colonial Cuba, and the importance of fighting against injustice not only with weapons, but with words. It's message of tolerance and understanding is an important one for today, while also providing an interesting look into a small part of the history of Cuba.

Lion's Island is the final novel in a series of novels about Cuba by author Margarita Engle whose mother is Cuban and father is American. Engle has been able to visit Cuba in recent years and has based her novels on detailed research that often includes primary sources. Included at the back of the novel is an interesting Historical Note on the history of Cuba and Antonio Chuffat, as well as a list of references and a few suggestions for further reading for younger readers.

Book Details:

Lion Island: Cuba's Warrior of Words by Margarita Engle
New York: Atheneum Books For Young Readers       2016
pp. 163



Friday, April 6, 2018

Across A War-Tossed Sea by L.M. Elliott

Fourteen-year-old Charles Bishop and his ten-year-old brother Wesley are celebrating Labor Day 1943 with their American host family, the Ratcliffs at a pond that feeds Four Mile Creek. Charles and Wesley have been sent overseas to America to escape Hitler's bombing of London. The Radcliff family has taken in Charles and Wesley because their father saved Mr. Ratcliff's life during World War I. Now they are living in Tidewater, Virginia with a family that includes seven-year-old twins Johnny and Jamie, two older boys Bobby and twelve-year-old Ron and their older sister, sixteen-year-old Patsy.

Tidewater, is located near Richmond, Virginia, an area heavily involved in the war effort, with factories at Richmond producing parachutes and other war materials, while east along the James River, the U.S. Navy has a base at Norfolk.  From Norfolk, the U.S. military deploys servicemen out of Hampton Roads to the war in Europe and North Africa.

Even though they are thousands of miles away from the war, Wesley continues to have nightmares about the bombing and the treacherous Atlantic crossing. One such nightmare occurs during their Labor Day outing after Wesley falls asleep because of the oppressive heat. Charles is embarrassed by Wesley's struggles but Patsy tries to comfort him. This leads Wesley to tell her about being attacked in the Atlantic and how their ship was not allowed to stop and save those whose ships had been torpedoed. But Ron ridicules Wesley whom he bullies constantly, which makes Charles angry. Patsy intervenes to prevent a fight. 

In September of 1943, Charles begins high school. He's on the football team as a tight end, while Bobby is the quarterback. As some of his school chums are now nighttime air raid wardens, Charles worries that he will be considered a coward. So when he writes home he tells his parents he wants to return to help the fire brigade in extinguishing the incendiary bombs in London.

Meanwhile Wesley finds himself "skipped ahead" to grade seven, the same grade as Ron. While Charles has a best friend in Bobby, Ron is not interested in being Wesley's friend. Instead Ron resents the presence of the Bishop brothers and bullies Wesley constantly. Ron accuses Wesley of cheating on a test but their teacher, Miss Darling discovers the paper he was holding was a telegram from his parents. Charles tries to encourage Wesley to stand up to Ron, telling him to ignore him and to work at being really good at something that Ron isn't so he will look foolish when he bullies him. Wesley decides on working at the spelling bee but although he makes it to the county championships he loses when he spells a word in the British way.

With the approach of Halloween, Charles and Bobby are busy preparing for the football championships, so when Mr. Radcliff asks the boys to help out with harvesting of pumpkins and the mowing and bringing in the hay, Bobby tries to decline. This leads his father to suggest that because help is hard to find he might have to hire the German POWs. Charles becomes so upset he leaves the dinner table and Mr. and Mrs. Ratcliff instead decide they will hire the sons of a local man, Ed. Wesley is sent to tell Charles so the two of them can visit Ed to ask him, but he's unable to find Charles. Instead he decides to visit Ed's house alone and while there he meets Ed and Alma and their son Freddy. Wesley leaves that evening believing he may have found a friend.

Soon everyone is working hard to bring in the harvest; Mr. Ratcliff and Ed and shredding cornstalks, Ed's sons and two friends are raking the hay into a tractor baler and Bobby, Ron and Charles and the twins are plowing the cornfield and planting winter wheat. When the mules bolt, dragging Charles it is Freddy who saves him. Although Wesley and Charles are grateful, Ron is angry that his brother Bobby is more concerned with Charles.

Charles and Wesley have many good and bad experiences; a haunted house for Halloween, a hunting trip that Wesley almost doesn't make because he shoots off a rifle in the Ratcliff home, Wesley's unexpected meeting of a Chickahominy Indian man and Charles joining Patsy whom he is crushing on, to plane-watch. But it is a series of events in the new year of 1944 that change many things for both the Ratcliffs and the Bishop brothers. Wesley gets into a brawl with Ron and his friends but tells Mr. Radcliff only part of the story to make Ron look good. This changes how Ron is viewed by his family and makes he and Wesley friends. Patsy learns that her beau, Henry Forester is missing in action over Europe. And Charles learns from a letter from a school chum that their school has been bombed. Feeling ashamed that he's not at home to help, Charles decides to attempt to canoe down the river to the Newport News-Hampton Roads docks where he hopes to stowaway on a cargo ship for Britain. This almost costs him his life.

Summer brings with it new challenges especially as the German POWs begin to work on the Ratcliff farm. For Charles and Wesley this means confronting their own prejudices and fears.

Discussion

Across A War-Tossed Sea is the third book in a trilogy that includes Under A War-Torn Sky and A Troubled Peace. This book is set in Virginia and tells the adventures of two English boys sent to the safety of America during World War II.

Although safe from incendiary bombs and the threat of invasion, Charles and Wesley Bishop must cope with homesickness, the trauma of their war experiences in London as well as living in America with its very different culture from that in their home country of England. Charles finds the American practice of talking about feelings annoying, especially when it comes to their war experiences in London. "Did they really think that talking or hugging or those molasses cookies and lemonade they endlessly offered could wash away the memories or houses shattering, friends trapped under rubble, or ships exploding and burning while survivors clung to wreckage in ten-foot-high waves?"

Charles' major struggle centers around the shame he feels at not being back in London to help with the war effort. At fourteen, he believes he can contribute and, to his school mates, it looks like he ran away. "Even though he and Bobby were good mates and he was enjoying high school, Charles was antsy to return to England and do his part. Several of his old school chums had become nighttime air raid wardens. Charles feared some of them called him a coward for evacuating to the U.S."  It is this shame after receiving a letter from England from a school chum, that leads him to run away from the Radcliff farm and attempt to canoe down the river to the sea. "More to the point, it felt to Charles as if he school chum's letter had implied that he was a coward for not being in London when the city desperately needed every able hand - a sense of guilt that had dogged Charles ever since he had walked up the gangplank of the ship evacuating him to America."  Charles' attempt to canoe to the Newport News-Hampton Roads docks almost ends in disaster. He does realize the serious repercussions his actions have for both himself (he develops pneumonia) the Ratcliff family (who use their savings to buy medication to save his life) and works to make amends. Eventually Charles is allowed to come home when his father is seriously injured in a bombing.

Charles tries to take the place of their father for his younger brother Wesley,  imagining how he might help Wesley deal with the bullying while coping with his own problems.  "Since crossing three thousand miles of ocean and settling in on the Ratcliff farm, Charles had had to play dad, mum, and big brother all to Wesley. No one comforted him when he was racked with similar nightmares!"

Meanwhile, Wesley struggles to overcome what is clearly post traumatic stress disorder due to the bombing in London and the attack on the ships during their Atlantic crossing. He experiences nightmares and is triggered by loud noises. The novel opens with Wesley experiencing one of his nightmares, much to Charles' annoyance. When Wesley accompanies Freddy and his family to London to see the launch of a aircraft carrier Freddy's father has been working on, he experiences a flashback of a air raid in London. "Abruptly, the five o'clock siren sounded, signaling the end of the work day for some, the beginning of it for others. Most didn't react to the blaring sound. But Wesley flinched and stiffened. Being around big ships all day had brought back a lot of very bad memories. Now the siren's wail sounded like the alarm he'd heard over and over again back home when the Luftwaffe was coming loaded with hellfire. The truck backfired again...He looked nervously to the sky, waiting for the first whistling scream of a bomb falling through the air. He backed away from Freddy, not seeing him, only the rush of hurrying people...He needed to find the nearest shelter, quick!"  Freddy's father and mother help Wesley calm down. However, with time and living in a safer environment, Wesley finds he has fewer

Wesley also has to deal with bullying by Ron Ratcliff. Although his older brother Charles tries to encourage Wesley to ignore Ron, Wesley decides a different way to deal with him. Recognizing that Ron needs affirmation, Wesley points out the good act Ron did when he is attacked by Ron's friends. Although Ron pushed Wesley first, in the end he saves him from a serious beating and Wesley helps him fight when they turn on him too. Affirmed by both his father and his older brother Bobby, both of whom are shocked at Ron's good behaviour, Ron becomes friendlier and stops picking on Wesley.

Charles and Wesley are unaware of  how different life in America is compared with England. Charles likes that Americans have "an ease with giving out compliments that, generally speaking, Brits didn't." Wesley discovers that in America, Negroes must sit at the back of the bus, segregated from white people and that some white Americans are very prejudiced against blacks. However, when a white bus driver helps Freddy and his family when they are threatened by white teens,  his actions demonstrate not all American's feel this way.

But both Charles and Wesley are forced to confront their own prejudices and hatred - against Germans when the German POWs come to work on the farm.  To Charles and Wesley, all Germans are Nazis but they soon discover that this is a very simplistic view when they meet Gunter, a young German soldier who doesn't believe in the Nazi ideology.

When Gunter expresses relief over the Allied invasion of Europe and the hope that the war will end soon, as so many Germans are dying, his strong emotions shock Wesley. "Were those tears in the Jerry's eyes? Wesley was amazed. He had to blink away the image Gunter painted, knowing well the type of horrifying scene he described. Wesley had never though much before about German families suffering the same kind of terror he and Charles had." Wesley and Gunter connect through their mutual interest in "Indians" and the Wild West and their love of reading.

For Charles, it is not so easy. When he learns that the German POWs who are sympathetic to the Americans are at risk of being murdered by other German POWs, Charles feels little sympathy. He is forced to confront his feelings of hate when Gunter is bitten by a deadly water moccasin and is in danger of dying. His moans bring back memories of a neighbour horribly injured in a German bombing but Charles also remembers how Gunter saved the Ratcliff twins from a crashing plane. Putting aside his feelings, Charles helps Gunter by sending Freddy for help and attempting to suck the poison out of the snake bite (a practice that does NOT work). Gunter, who believes he is dying from the snake bite, tells Charles, "...Kill if you must to serve your country. But revenge is a  poison. Like this snake. Fight to end hatred. Fight to bring peace. Yes?" Charles agrees and learns that he must forgive if he's going to do what Gunter asks. "For the first time in a long while, the Lord's Prayer filled Charles's mind and heart: 'Forgive us our trespasses as we...' -- he paused and emphasized the words to himself --'as we forgive those who trespass against us.' " When Charles does leave for England he knows he going "back into a war-tossed world. But he was ready to face it now, to fight, as Gunter had advised -- not for revenge -- but to stop those who brought war and delighted in it."

The novel ends on a positive, upbeat note, despite the fact that the war is still ongoing. Charles is returning to England but he feels differently about Americans than when he first arrived and is grateful to the Ratcliffs. "He'd learned so much from them -- about friendship, about generosity, about standing up to trouble." Wesley has overcome bullying and he tells Charles he's fine to stay behind; he hasn't had nightmares for some time and he's made two good friends in Freddy and Ron.

Elliott successfully recreates the 1940's war era in rural America through the experiences of two young British lads. This author is skilled at incorporating many details of life into the story; racial segregation that existed at this time, farming practices, the war effort in America, the dangers the merchant marine encountered bringing supplies to England and life in general for Americans at this time. Also incorporated seamlessly into the story are facts about the war, Hitler's soldiers and life in London during the war. For example, while Charles is fuming about the German POWs he notes that some are from Rommel's elite panzer divisions that served in Africa. Elliott uses this opportunity to inform readers how SS troops were branded- a practice implemented so they could be quickly identified. "They were tall, muscular, blond, haughty -- perfect Aryan specimens. They probably had the telltale 'SS' tattoo under their armpits, marking them as true believers, devotees of Hitler's racist beliefs." In this way, readers learn historical facts without really realizing it.E lliott has included an Afterword that provides further detailed information on life in wartime Britain, U-boats, segregation, V-1 rockets and German POWs in America.

Across A War-Tossed Sea suffers somewhat from uneven pacing; young readers may find the first hundred pages of the novel slow going. After the first hundred pages though, there are many exciting adventures and experiences which occur quickly, one after the other, engaging the reader to the very end of the novel.

Overall, Across A War-Tossed Sea is another well-written and appealing story by Elliott that explores the themes of tolerance, forgiveness and redemption.

Book Details:

Across A War-Tossed Sea by L. M. Elliott
New York: Disney-Hyperion Books      2014
247 pp.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Levi Strauss Gets A Bright Idea by Tony Johnston

"Gold!" somebody yelled. Next thing anybody knew,
the whole world rushed to California and
started digging up the place. The trouble was
they rushed so fast, they lost their pants." (that's American for trousers!)

So begins this tongue-in-cheek picture book about how (possibly) blue jeans were created. Subtitled "A Fairly Fantastical Story Of A Pair Of Pants" author Tony Johnston imagines gold miners who take to wearing barrels when their pants wear out. Levi Strauss, newly arrived from New York City discovered that that material used for tents was more durable and after testing the trousers he made, he sold them to the miners. His denim pants were such a success that he sent for his brothers to join him out west.

In fact the real story of how the blue jean pant, now known as "blue jeans" came to be, may never be known. Levi Strauss was born in Buttenheim, Bavaria which in 1829 was a part of Germany, to Hirsch and Rebecca Strauss. Two years after the death of his father from tuberculosis, and with increasing persecution in Germany because of their Jewish faith, Levi along with his mother and two sisters came to America in 1847. Levi's two older brothers, Jonas and Louis had emigrated to America earlier and had established a dry goods business in New York City. When the Gold Rush began in 1849, Levi saw a business opportunity in providing goods to those seeking their fortune and so he travelled out west to San Francisco. There he opened a dry goods store but he also placed ordered for his brothers' business back in New York.

Levi Strauss
In fact it is likely that the true creator of the blue jeans was Jacob Davis, a tailor in Nevada. Davis who had purchased cloth to make pants for his own store, had the idea to strengthen the pants by placing rivets on the pocket and fly seams to make them more durable. But he didn't have the money for a patent, so he wrote Strauss asking him for financial help. The patent was granted in 1873 to both Davis and Strauss. Initially the pants were made from heavy canvas material but later on they came to be made from denim which was dyed blue.  Eventually Strauss had the jeans made in a factory which he built. Sales of the jeans made Levi Strauss very wealthy and they came to be representative of western American culture and fashion. Strauss gave back to the community and his philanthropic efforts were well known; he was the director of several San Francisco companies, donated money to help the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and the Hebrew Board of Relief as well as donating money for twenty-eight scholarships at the University of California Berkeley.


Johnston's humorous tall-tale is accompanied by Stacy Innerst's illustrations which were created with acrylic on on old blue jeans, giving them a very unique look. While this picture book is not an accurate biography but rather a fun read-aloud, it might lead readers, parents and teachers into discovering the history of what has come to be a staple item in most peoples closets today. From acid wash to skinny jeans, blue jeans are probably the most worn and versatile clothing item we all wear.

picture credit:  http://www.nndb.com/people/001/000162512/

Book Details:

Levi Strauss Gets A Bright Idea by Tony Johnston
New York: Harcourt Children's Books              2011