Sunday, May 22, 2016

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

It's 1945, Germany is losing the war it had began in 1939, and now, as the Red Army approaches the East Prussian countryside, thousands of people who can are fleeing to escape the brutality that the Russians have been inflicting on Germans everywhere they go.

Among the refugees trying to reach the seaport city of Gotenhafen, where they hope to board a ship that will evacuate them out of the path of the Russians, are three young people whose paths converge en route.  There is Joana, 21, a Lithuanian nurse who believes she is a murderer; Florian, a Prussian carrying questionable orders from a top Nazi official; and Emilia, 15, a traumatized young Polish girl wearing a pink hat.  Also traveling with them are an elderly shoemaker, one little boy who has just witnessed his grandmother's death, a blind girl named Ingrid and Eva, a large older woman.  A fourth young narrator, Alfred, is a Nazi sailor assigned to the ship MV Wilhelm Gustloff docked in Gotenhafen.

The novel is told in first person alternating points of view by Joana, Florian, Emilia and Alfred.  Each one has a history and a secret that slowly unfolds through their narration.  Florian is a talented artist who was mentored as a restoration artist by a Nazi, Dr. Lange, at a museum in K√∂nigsburg under Prussian Gauleiter Erich Koch supposedly for the purpose of restoring and saving Europe's greatest art treasures.  Now, feeling disillusioned and betrayed by his mentor, he is carrying information about what may have been the Nazi's greatest art plunder, information that the Nazis definitely do not want made public.

Because of her Aryan looks, Joana was repatriated to Germany as a Volksdeutsche (one with German ancestry).  Now, however, even as she works to save lives with her nursing experience, she is racked by guilt regarding a choice she made in 1941, a choice that separated her from her family and their fate in her homeland of Lithuania.

Emilia is the youngest, the most vulnerable and the most traumatized of the four narrators and has already run into the advancing Red Army twice, narrowly escaping with her life.  She no long has a homeland and a family, and to make matters worse, she is traveling without any identification papers, and guarding her secret with her life - literally.

Alfred, a lowly sailor, obsessively writes love letters in his head to a girl back home describing the importance of his work in the German Navy in general and on the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, in particular. Right from the start, Alfred is a smarmy, untrustworthy character, whose shameful secret involves his behavior towards the girl back home.

Salt to the Sea is a character-driven story about a little known maritime tragedy that resulted in the loss of over 9,000 lives, and about 5,000 of them were children.  Each character moves the story forward even as they take the reader back to their past.  I found this to be a compelling novel, even though it lacks a traditional plot.  But I think the structure that Ruta Sepetys uses makes this a more exciting novel, and the way it is structured lets the reader learns everything they need to know straight from the narratives of the four main characters.

The scenes each narrator provides are emotionally harrowing in their detailed descriptions of fleeing refugees and the chaotic aftermath of the torpedoing of a ship.  Just as she did in Between Shades of Grey (my review), Sepetys doesn't spare the reader uncomfortable truths any more than she does her characters when it comes to the horrors of war, but she also reminders us that there are still good, caring people who will never lose their humanity.

Do pay attention to the maps at the beginning and end of the novel to get your bearings of where the refugees traveled from and to.  There is lots of great back matter, including an Author's Note and information about the resources and sources Sepetys used.  This is the kind of information that adds so much the a novel and why characters like the ones drawn here are so realistic and believable.

Although I wasn't too crazy about the very end of the novel, this is still one of the best novels I read this year, and I've a lot of good ones so far.  I particularly loved the way each person introduces themselves to the reader: Joana tells us: Guilt is a hunter; Emilia says: Shame is a hunter; Florian begins: Fate is a hunter; and Alfred: Fear is a hunter.  Right off the bat our curiosity is peaked by knowing these are conflicted characters who feel hunted, the question is why.  And the answers combined with the historical setting make this a truly riveting novel.

A useful Discussion Guide has been made available for download by the publisher, Penguin Books

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an ARC from the publisher

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Anne Frank Case: Simon Wiesenthal's Search for the Truth by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth

I am familiar with Anne Frank and also with Simon Wiesenthal, but I had no idea that Wiesenthal had spent years tracking down the Gestapo officer who arrested Anne and all the other people who had been hiding from the Nazis on the upper floors of her father's business for over 2 years.  It is a fascinating story.

After having survived time in a Polish ghetto, several Nazi concentration camps and a forced march, in part because of his artistic skill was needed by the Gestapo, Simon Wiesenthal felt compelled to hunt down the Nazis responsible for the cruel and deadly treatment of Europe's Jews.  It quickly became his life's work, at which he was quite successful.

Then, one night in 1958, Wiesenthal was asked to come to the Landes Theater in Linz, Austria.  A performance of The Diary of Anne Frank had been interrupted by some local teenager who claimed that Anne Frank had never existed, that her diary was a forgery, just made up to get more restitution money.

Wiesenthal's challenge to these teens - if he could find the Gestapo officer who had arrested Anne and the others in the attic fourteen years ago, would that convince them that she had indeed existed and that her story was true? Little did he know that it would take him five years to find a man who was living a mere10 minute walk from Wiesenthal's office.

The Anne Frank Case is a fascinating look at the life and work of Simon Wiesenthal, and how he tracked down Nazi criminals.  Wiesenthal had a photographic memory, which helped him remember many of the names of Nazi officers involved in the Holocaust, plus excellent investigative skills.  Yet, finding the arresting officer of the Franks was a long and arduous process.  He frequently interviewed people from the Netherlands, including the people who were hiding the Franks, and luckily, one remembered being questioned by someone named Silvernagel.  Having a place to start, Wiesenthal began searching telephone books, looking for variations of that name.  But everywhere he looked led to a dead end. He thought about asking Otto Frank, but decided not to, afraid he would ask Wiesenthal to stop the search.

By the time Wiesenthal found the person he was looking for, there was just not enough evidence to prove Karl Silberbauer was guilty of the arrest despite his admission that he had done it, and so he was never brought to trial,  And ironically, Otto Frank did know his name and the reason he didn't help will just knock your socks off.  I know it did mine.

The hunt for Anne Frank's arresting Gestapo officer is not a something I was aware of before, so I found this to be doubly informative book - an excellent introduction to Simon Wiesenthal's life as well as his investigations.  Altogether, he brought more than 1,100 criminals to justice.  

Bill Farnsworth's full page realistic paintings are done in haunting dark hues, adding to the somberness of the subject.

There is a more detail biography about Wiesenthal in the back matter, complete with photographs, as well as additional resources and a glossary.

The Anne Frank Case is a picture book for older readers that will certainly appeal to anyone interested in the Holocaust and Anne Frank.  It is also an excellent addition to books used for introducing the Holocaust in the classroom or home school setting.

A Teaching Guide is available from the publisher, Holiday House.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Waiting on Wednesday: The Enemy Above by Michael P. Spradlin and Brave Like My Brother by Marc Tyler Nobleman

Waiting on Wednesday is a meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine that highlights
upcoming releases we can't wait to read.

My Waiting on Wednesday pick this week is:

The Enemy Above: A Novel of World War II by Michael P. Spradlin
Scholastic, June 28, 2016, 240 pages, age 9+

From Goodreads:

The Germans are closing in.  And twelve-year-old Anton knows his family can't outrun them.  A web of underground caves seems like the perfect place to hide.  But danger lurks above the surface. Ruthless Major Karl Von Duesen of the Gestapo has made it his mission to round up every Jew in the Ukrainian countryside. Anton knows if his community is discovered, they will be sent off to work camps...or worse.

When a surprise invasion catches them off guard, Anton makes a radical decision.  He won't run any longer.  And he won't hide. He will stop being hunted...and start doing some hunting of his own.



Brave Like My Brother by Marc Tyler Nobleman
Scholastic, June 28, 2016, 112 pages, age 7+

From Goodreads:

When Charlie's brother, Joe, is called up to fight in World War II, he promises to write letters to ten-year-old Charlie as often as he can.  It won't make up for not being there to help Charlie out with the neighborhood bullies, but it's all Joe can do.

Life is tough for a soldier, and Joe tells Charlie all about it, from long hikes in endless rain and mud to the stray dog his company adopts.  But when Joe is sent on a secret mission with the one soldier he can't stand, he will have to face risks that place their mission - and their lives - in grave danger.

Charlie knew his brother was strong, but he will discover that Joe is more of a hero than he lets on.  Will Joe's letters give Charlie the strength to stand up for himself and be brave, too?

I've read other books by Marc Tyler Nobleman and really enjoyed them, so I am looking forward to his new book.  Michael P. Spradlin is a new author for me, but his book sounds very interesting.

What are you looking forward to reading?

Monday, May 9, 2016

Girl in the Blue Coat by Monika Hesse

It's 1943, and Hanneke Bakker, 18, has been working as a black market runner in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam for quite a while now and she is good at what she does.  Finding and delivering her customer's requests in the basket of her old bicycle allows Hanneke to keep herself and her parents safe and provided for in a city where everything is rationed.  And since she looks like "the girl Hitler is dreaming of to put on his Aryan posters," Hanneke prides herself on being able to charm her way out of any impromptu Nazi searches.

As Hanneke makes the rounds, delivers her goods, she wills herself to remain distant from her customers, no matter how hard they try to befriend her.  But, one day, after delivering the usual black-market tea to her recently widowed customer, Mrs. Janssen, Hanneke is asked to find something different.  In fact, Mrs. Janssen has been harboring a 15 year old Jewish girl named Mirjam Roodvelt in her pantry.  Mirjam had shown up at her door, pale and wearing a too small sky blue coat, after the Nazis had found and killed her family and Mrs. Janssen's husband for hiding them in his factory.  But now, Mirjam has gone missing and Mrs. Janssen would like Hanneke to find her, a job she believes the young woman can do, given her black market skills.

At first reluctant to accept Mrs. Janssen's request, little by little Hanneke finds herself drawn into the mystery of Mirjam's disappearance.  Visiting the Jewish Lyceum where Mirjam went to school, Hanneke is spotted by a woman who works there.  The woman turns out to be Judith, a friend of Hanneke's brother Ollie.  Both are part of the Dutch resistance.  And now, so is Hanneke, whether she wants to be or not.

At the same time she is looking for Mirjam, Hanneke is dealing with her own complicated war-time heartaches. Her best friend from childhood, Elsbeth, has fallen in love with and married a member of the Gestapo, putting a wedge in the friendship.  And Hanneke is trying to cope with the guilt she feels over the loss of her boyfriend Bas, killed in 1940 trying to defend Holland against the Nazi invasion.
Now part of the Dutch resistance, Hanneke discovers just how much she doesn't know about what is going on around her.  It turns out that Mrs. Janssen isn't the only one of her black market customers who are hiding Jews from the Nazis, and that their beautiful movie theater has been turned into a deportation center. Thinking that perhaps she can find Mirjam there, she arranges a visit with Judith to meet her cousin Mina, an acquaintance of Mirjam's.

As Hanneke begins to put together the puzzle that is Mirjam's disappearance, she begins to understand more and more what is going on around her, and how much she has missed by focusing only on Bas and Elsbeth, not even seeking closure, but allowing her to keep her eyes closed.

Does Hanneke find the girl in the blue coat?  And can she come to terms with her own guilt and loss? Girl in the Blue Coat is a complicate story, but one that you will most likely find difficult to put down.

To begin with, Hanneke is a nicely flawed character.  Though her intentions may be good, she acts impulsively, and because she hasn't paid attention to what is happening around her, she often unwittingly puts herself and others in peril.  

And to be truthful, the book is a little flawed as well.  For instance, I never quite figured out why Hanneke decides to look for Mirjam, it just sort of happened.  Was it curiosity?  An attempt to assuage her guilt over Bas?  An inner drive to see if she were as good at her job as she thought she was?  As Hanneke uncovers the ways in which so many others try to sabotage the Nazis and save as many Jews as they can, I asked myself whether her initial motivation to find Mirjam really matters and decided it didn't.  What matters is that she accepts the challenge and that is the first step towards her own healing and enlightenment.  

Narrated in the first person by Hanneke, readers will find themselves completely engrossed as they accompany her on her coming-of-age journey towards self-discovery and recovery.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airman by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffery Boston Weatherford

What is it like to be a black man and to want something so badly you are willing to put up with racial discrimination, willing to buck the system and prove those who think you lack the intelligence to fly a plane wrong, so very wrong?  What was it like to become a Tuskegee Airman?

In a series of thirty-three poems, Carole Boston Weatherford answers these questions, writing the history of this distinguished band of brothers, the African American pilots who fought for victory on two fronts, one in Europe against Nazism and one at home against racism.

Using a composite "you" that not only addresses the Tuskegee airmen as a whole, but also and immediately invites the reader into their midst, Weatherford begins her history-in-verse, capturing the big and small personal and shared moments and events that mark this period in America.

Weatherford skillfully orchestrates this complex history, beginning with a young boy's desire to fly to becoming one of 2,000 black pilots in the 1938 newly formed Civilian Pilot Training Program - 2,000 out of a total of 400,00 - sent to Tuskegee Institute. Training is rigorous, cadets knowing that

"The eyes of your country are on you;
the hopes of your people
rest on your shoulder."  (pg 10-11)

She then takes the reader along as the men learn and practice their new skills, even as they must still deal with racism and Jim Crow laws at every turn, knowing

"In this war, the enemy is you.
In 1941 and 1942, eleven black men -
if you count the three boys -
were lynched in the United States."  (pg 19)

Weatherford deftly goes beyond the Tuskegee program to include the ways in which other black Americans did what they could to counter the racism of the home front, acts that give impetus to their own training. There is a poem dedicated to Dorie Miller, the Navy cook who was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroic actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor; another recounts boxer Joe Louis's victories in the ring, his benefit matches to raise money for army and navy relief funds, and his convincing the War Department to admit him and Jackie Robinson to Officer Candidate School

"along with thirteen other men
whom racist policies had barred."  (pg 30)

In another poem, readers learn that singer Lena Horne refused to go on USO tours that barred black servicemen.  And refusing to perform in white-only establishments, too,

"Now Lena pays her own way
to perform for the troops.  When she visits Tuskegee,
she sings, perches on planes, and poses for photos.
How could you not fall for Lena?"  (pg 50)

As the child of a WWII nurse, I personally love that Weatherford even offers up a poem paying homage to the Tuskegee Army Airfield Nurses, finally giving this most unsung group of military nurses some of their due: "it really takes a good nurse to KEEP 'EM FLYING."  (pg 13)

This free verse history is probably one of the best books I have read about the Tuskegee Airmen, simply because there is so much meaning and information to be culled from each poem, yet they are rather sparely written, making each word used important and expressive.  And it all works.

The black and white illustrations were done in collaboration with Weatherford's son, Jeffery Boston Weatherford, an artist in his own right.  For You Can Fly, Jeffery used a technique called scratchboard, which results a much more dramatic illustration than just using, for example, black and white paint/india ink or charcoal on white paper.  Scratchboard results in a textured illustration and these compliment the poems so beautifully, as you can see


I have to admit I am a big fan of Carole Boston Weatherford's free verse histories.  When she came to Bank Street this year, to accept the 2016 Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for nonfiction for her amazing book Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, I'm afraid I may have shamelessly fangirled.  So naturally, I was really looking forward to reading this new history-in-verse and let me say, it does not disappoint and I highly recommend it.

Do not miss the Epilogue or the interesting back matter that includes an Author's Note, an extensive Timeline, and a variety of Resources for Further Reading.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Atheneum BFYR