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Jan/Feb 2007 Reviews & Interviews

History's Many Dramas

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! In Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, author Mirjam Pressler looks at the Second World War from the perspective of a teenager in late twentieth century Germany. Johanna's family owns a prosperous clothing store in her town, and it has been theirs since before the war when her grandfather purchased it from its Jewish owners. She has spent her whole life immersed in life at the store; her parents both work there, they live near it and she has spent countless hours putting in time there. But the store has never been anything other than her family's work; it never stood for anything else. As the story opens though she is suffering an enormous personal crisis and it is all about the store. More importantly, it is about the people who owned it before and just how her family came to own it.

It turns out her grandfather was a member of the Nazi party, something no one has ever talked about. That's the brutal family truth that Johanna has been confronted with and can not ignore. Through a school trip she has met the woman whose parents owned the store and she blames Johanna's grandfather for everything that happened to her family; Johanna can't forget her or what she lost. It's enough to drive any teenager to wonder just who her grandfather truly is and more significantly, what her family's responsibility is to the people he hurt.

The mystery unfolds in flashbacks, after Johanna and the fellow members of senior class involved in the school's history project visit Israel and meet several Jewish women who grew up in their town and were forced to leave. The group is surprised when one of them explains that her family once owned a prosperous store and then names Johanna's family business. The woman's fury at the man who stole her livelihood is palpable and even though later, during a private conversation, she expresses remorse over sharing her anger with the teen, she can't take back the revelations that her family was destitute after they lost the store, or that her grandparents killed themselves after they were unable to leave the country. Johanna can only see that her grandfather was a critical part in the chain of events that saw the near destruction of one small family and now that she knows the other side of the story she is nearly sick to her stomach over the tension of trying to figure out what she should do.

It doesn't help when her elderly grandfather kills himself, probably because of his lingering illness. It also doesn't help that her grandmother had committed suicide decades before and no one talks about that either. Johanna is part of a family that is all about not saying anything and finds herself compelled to say something—to say everything - in order to force the truth out in the open. But nobody else seems to want her do it, especially her father who needs that fiction more than anyone as it is his parents who are gone and his store that is at the center of everything.

Clearly there are some tense father/daughter moments in the cards for the two of them.

Pressler lives near Munich and is a well regarded German author of children's and young adult literature. As translated by Erik Macki, Let Sleeping Dogs Lie addresses a largely overlooked area in World War II and Holocaust literature. In some ways it is easier to write about the people who were there then those who must live with the ramifications of their actions in the present. Johanna's present day confusion follows her own father's lifelong struggle to accept his father's actions. And he was not an evil man—Pressler makes of point showing how very nearly pedestrian and acceptable the grandfather's decision to buy the store was at the time. The villains are hard to find here, as is the solution that Johanna so desperately needs. She blunders along in search of it though, helped along the way by her caustic and often funny boyfriend Daniel. Their relationship is a joy to follow although readers should be aware that there are a few sexual moments in the novel making it suitable for older teens. They will likely be quite intrigued by Johanna's dilemma though and eager to see just what she will do.

Shane Peacock tackles the legendary Sherlock Holmes in his new mystery for middle grade readers, The Eye of the Crow. Written as young Sherlock's first run-in with crime, Crow is a fast-paced story that begins with a murder and arrest and soon sucks both Sherlock and the reader in with its many twists and turns. Sherlock is as bright here as fans of the adult detective would expect, but he is also curious, addicted to the glossy over drawn tabloid newspapers of the day and desperately sad for himself and his family. Peacock goes a long way towards showing what it was like to be the product of a mixed marriage (Jewish and Gentile) in the mid-19th century. Sherlock's parents are lovingly written and his father in particular has the sort of nimble mind that a future detective need in a parent. Unfortunately the events in Crow only serve to pull Sherlock away from his dear family and force him to seek help in unexpected corners as he must solve the murder in order to save not only an innocent man, but also himself.

There is a ton of atmosphere in the novel—the descriptions come fast and furious and serve to elevate the story easily into gothic noir. (There is also a fabulous color map of London inside the dust jacket that is really impressive and quite valuable when reading.) The adult Sherlock was noted for his attention to detail and all of that is evident here as the teen walks the city streets looking for clues and evading the police. I particularly enjoyed how he showed the vast difference in the neighborhoods—between the rich and the poor—giving readers a very good idea of the rigid separation between the social classes.

The surprise here was how much of the story relied on the behavior of crows. Sherlock's father is explained as an ornithologist, someone who would have been an impressive naturalist if racism had not barred him from studies and jobs. He still reads on the subject for pleasure however and Sherlock naturally goes to him with questions about the birds at the murder scene. The exchanges between father and son on this subject are both fascinating and touching—just as his moments with his mother outside the opera reveal much about both the music and their relationship. Nothing is wasted in this book; every passage furthers the narrative or develops the characters. It's a very well plotted mystery with a protagonist who easily meets the demands set forth by his famous adult literary self. Middle grade readers will love this one, as well they should. And I'm sure that it will lead to a very well regarded series.

As the daughter of a proud French Canadian I have long been fascinated by Canadian history. I've learned more than a bit on my own (with much gratitude to the wonderful Canadian author Pierre Berton) but there is an immense amount about the country and its people that is a complete mystery. I was quite thrilled then when Julie Johnston's historical novel Susanna's Quill arrived at my doorstep. Based on the life of nineteenth century writer Susanna Moodie, it imagines everything from her childhood in England to her meeting and marriage with John Dunbar Moodie which resulted in a permanent move to Canada. To refer to her as the northern Laura Ingalls would not be too far out of line although Susanna was an adult when she began her prairie adventure and life was much much tougher than Ingalls typically wrote about. (Moodie's life seemed to have been one long chapter from Farmer Boy.) What raises the book above a typical settler story, though, is that even before she left England, Susanna was an author of note, as were nearly all of her sisters, who had to support themselves after their father died and left the family in financial straits. On top of struggling to work a farm in a very difficult climate, caring for her children (and having many of them), and learning how to be housewife—as opposed to pampered daughter surrounded by servants—Susanna still carved out time to write. The woman was a marvel in more ways than one, and Johnson brings her and her times richly alive in this wonderful novel.

Nearly half the book takes place before the trip to Canada which might seem to make it a doubtful choice for Canadian history, but Johnston uses the Moodies (and Traills, Susanna's sister and her husband who emigrated at the same time) to show what life was like for British emigrants both before and after they left Britain. The difference in how they lived is startling, as are the reasons they had to leave in the first place. Quite simply, when Britain was at peace there was nothing for many of its upper class youth to do. The men could not earn money fighting and as younger siblings, they couldn't own the family estates. In the case of the John Moodie, his name was "good" but his family no longer had holdings—he was thus too genteel to work, but couldn't support himself. It's an interesting social puzzle but certainly true. Susanna's family was stuck as well, having little money to survive on which lowered their prospects for marriage and left the girls with practically no way to support themselves. Writing was a gift for them and brought several of the sisters great acclaim. But they became writers largely because they had to become something; society would have let them starve to death rather than work for a living and years later as Susanna's books about life in Canada gained in popularity her own family was terribly embarrassed by what she wrote. It was about a life that was too hard, too dirty—too real for lack of a better word. England wasn't ready for real yet, and even though Susanna was stuck in the middle of it, her social class wasn't too sure what to make of her, or why on earth she would be so honest. Johnston makes it clear that she really didn't have a choice—Susanna chose to write what she knew, and dirt was a big part of her life.

I found Susanna's story to be very compelling and highly readable. Johnston has brought a ton of atmosphere into her look at the author's life and will likely make modern readers wonder how on earth Canada was ever settled when life was so incredibly difficult. I was delighted with this novel and I'm happy to recommend it. Susanna Moodie is a very compelling historic figure and while Susanna's Quill might be written for young adult audiences, anyone interested in the story of a stalwart young woman who risked all for love and succeeded brilliantly in the end will love this book. Susanna Moodie was the real deal, and Johnston has brought her and her world beautifully to life.

From the opening pages of her dynamic and intensely written book, author Tony Johnston makes it clear that the story imparted in Bone by Bone by Bone is a deeply personal and heartfelt one. "In A River Runs Through It," she writes in a one-page introduction, "Norman Maclean worte that he was ‘haunted by waters.' I am haunted by my father." Coupled with the book's dedication: "For Daddy; Some Wounds Never Heal," it is obvious that Johnston sees this story as a serious and significant one and she treats it with that level of respect. In fact by the end of Bone as the shattered Church family is left to live with the ramifications of all they have said and not said, the reader might be fairly devastated a bit by the experience of reading Johnston's work. This is significant writing about an important subject, and to find it written for teenage readers is a rare and wonderful treat.

Covering four years in the life of David Church, Bone uses an episodic style that shows the development of David and his best friend Malcolm's friendship and their struggle to be simply boys who like to play together in the racially divided south. David's father is virulently racist and likely a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but he is also the town's doctor and a significant member of its society. Rather than make him an easily dismissible monster, Johnston shows Frank Church's close affection for the African American woman who raised him as a child (his former nanny) and also his admiration of sports hero Jackie Robinson. But Frank is a harshly unpredictable creature and his edict that Malcolm (and no other black person) will ever enter his home haunts David. He is determined to make Malcolm worthy of breaking that rule and sets out on several ill-fated schemes to change his father's mind. As seasons and years go by, David learns just how deep the tenets of racism reach in his family (an exchange with his great grandmother is particularly disturbing) and also how frightening it is for Malcolm to continue as his friend. In the end, the rule must be broken to save Malcolm's life but David pays an awesome price as he opens that door and in a second the Church family is destroyed, just as perhaps, it needed to be all along.

As a record of the pre-Civil Rights south, Bone by Bone by Bone is a critical title and anyone seeking to get a glimpse of the daily struggles that world imparted on children will find the book a very worthy read. I appreciated it as a well rounded look at racism—at how someone could be both cruel and kind and also just how complicated life with a family that walks that line could be. This is a peek into the homes of those people in the lynching photographs; the ones who cheered the death of black men for the slightest provocation while alternately exhibiting fondness for their own families. It's a very well written look at a complicated portion of humanity. The use of harsh language (including the infamous "n-word") makes this more suitable for older teens but most certainly a must read for anyone studying mid-twentieth century American history. I look forward to Johnston's next book.

Ann Rinaldi has a few interesting ideas in her pre-Civil War drama The Ever-After Bird which combine to make a unique coming-of-age drama that I really wanted to like. But there are underlying problems with this middle grade drama that have left me bothered long after my reading.

First and foremost the story is about CeCe McGill, all of thirteen years old when her father is shot and killed in a confrontation over runaway slaves. As her mother died when she was born, CeCe soon finds herself taken in by her father's fellow abolitionist and much younger brother, a man she barely knows. Uncle Alex is a doctor but also an ornithologist who is working on a book on the birds of Georgia. He decides to take CeCe down south with him in search of the Ever-After bird (the Scarlet Ibis). His hope is that upon witnessing slavery firsthand, CeCe will come to appreciate the work of abolitionists and contribute to her family's dedication to the cause. There are several complications involved in the trip however and as it turns out, CeCe ends up learning a lot more about her family and herself than either she or Alex could have imagined.

One wrinkle up front is the inclusion of college student Earline who serves as the uncle's assistant and is also a former slave. Earline has to pretend to be owned by Alex during the trip which makes sense, but she struggles a great deal in her interactions with CeCe as her former owner was also a young girl. Earline and CeCe spend a lot of time sniping at each other, even after they find out each other's personal history and see some common experiences. But what really sends the trip into a freefall is Earline's sudden love for a white man who is hired by Alex. Their budding relationship jeopardizes everyone's safety and almost leaves CeCe dead. It makes for some dramatic confrontations but for several reasons it didn't ring true for me. Falling in love in a matter of days is possible (although not probable) but for a black woman who was raped and impregnated by her former master to fall for a white man she barely knows and then decide to flaunt their relationship in the slave-owning south really seemed uncharacteristically stupid, if not outright bizarre. The relationship looked suspiciously like a contrived plot point—a situation Rinaldi had to force to ratchet up the tension. She does succeed on that score but I was very frustrated and angry with Earline, her boyfriend and CeCe. I'm sure middle grade readers will enjoy all the drama, but I don't think it fits in with the rest of the story. (And more importantly I'm struggling with the believability here—I just can not imagine anyone being as foolish and foolhardy as Earline and her lover are.)

One thing I did enjoy was the way CeCe struggles to handle her uncle's kindness and also accept the fact that he must kill the birds he finds along their journey. Ornithologists continued this practice well into the twentieth century which will shock budding environmentalists. Alex explains himself quite well, but CeCe doesn't really buy it, which I liked. She is honestly bothered by creating beauty from violence, a trait that I found quite admirable. It was these passages in the story that impressed me, and showed the book's potential for being something quite good.

But in the end the character of Earline makes The Ever-After Bird a book that I think sends an overall poor message to readers. It is impossible to ignore that Earline is a young black woman saved by a white man (Alex, via the Underground Railroad), who later falls in love with a white man and then is saved by a white girl while not one single black man merits even supporting character status in the story. The author seems to be presenting a book that will make young Caucasian readers feel proud and happy while African American readers are left only with a witless fool to identify with. If Earline was smart enough to get into college and be going south for the purposes of working on an academic project (along with assisting Alex) then she should be smart enough to know the kind of actions that will get her dead. The fact that she is so stubbornly stupid in the choices she makes though forced me to set aside with distaste a book I dearly wanted to enjoy. (I do have to give kudos to the cover designer though, Jennifer Jackman. She has done a wonderful job of combining photographs and Audubon paintings to create something very evocative of the story's message. It's gorgeous and pops right off the shelf. She is one to watch.)

Finally, Sook Nyul Choi's second installment of her autobiographical series on life during and after the Korean War is now out in paper. Echoes of the White Giraffe can easily be read as a standalone story and follows the life of fifteen-year old Sookan, her mother and younger brother as they struggle to keep afloat as war refugees in Pusan. Forced to run for their lives from Seoul, they have lost contact with Sookan's father and three older brothers. In Pusan the children go to school and participate in choir performances at their local church while waiting for the war to end so they can return home. Sookan finds solace in two different places, from the morning greetings called out by "the shouting poet," another refugee who lives on a nearby hillside, and from a boy in the choir, Junho. The two teens enter into a forbidden relationship of sorts—it is tremendously chaste by today's standards but for 1950s Korea raised all sorts of problems for the kids. They are each driven by fear to reach out in ways society would not have permitted prior to the fighting and take chances with notes and meetings that before the war they would never have considered. Other than an uncomfortable confrontation with parents everything ends well for the two, but it pushes Sookan to think of what she wants from life, and how much more she will demand out of it now that she knows it could all fall away.

Echoes of the White Giraffe is one of the few books for young adults I've read about the Korean War and for that alone I'm delighted with it. The war is in the background here though, and by focusing on the status of refugees, something Choi is intimately familiar with, it truly presents an original story. After the armistice is signed and Sookan and her family return to Seoul the story continues with a whole new set of concerns and worries; the search for missing family, a house that needs to be rebuilt, a future that needs to be planned. Sookan finds herself becoming lost in the choices of those she loves and ends up pining for a world she has never seen. In the end it is America that attracts her attention and in that country where the third book, Gathering of Pearls takes place. I'm sure it will be just as honestly and directly written as Giraffes and on the whole the entire trilogy seems to be a first rate way to learn about a place and time that is all too often lost in western literature.

 

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie by Mirjam Pressler
Translated by Erik Macki
Front Street 2007
ISBN 1-932425-84-5
208 pages

Eye of the Crow by Shane Peacock
Tundra 2007
ISBN 978-0-88776-850-7
252 pages

Susanna's Quill by Julie Johnston
Tundra 2007
ISBN 0-88776-806-4
330 pages

Bone by Bone by Bone by Tony Johnston
Roaring Brook 2007
ISBN 1-59643-113-X
184 pages

The Ever-After Bird by Ann Rinaldi
Harcourt 2007
ISBN 015-202620-2
232 pages

Echoes of the White Giraffe by Sook Nyul Choi
Houghton Mifflin 2007
ISBN 0618809171
144 pages

 

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