Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Assignment by Liza M. Wiemer

It's senior year for Logan March and Cade Crawford, students at Riviere HS in upstate New York and they are thrilled to be in the same history class with their favorite teacher, popular Mr. Bartley. But they find themselves shocked and appalled when Mr. Bartley gives them a assignment which they find unacceptable. The assignment is to debate the Nazi's Final Solution by researching the Wannsee Conference held on January 20, 1942 during which the fate of Europe's Jews was decided and then taking a side for or against the decision to exterminate all Jews. And rather than having students choose their own position, they are randomly assigned pro or con. 

While some of the kids in their class immediately begin to embrace their inner Nazi, Logan and Cade are open and clear about their opposition to the assignment, and they flat out refuse to do it. After speaking with Principal McNeil, they receive an email saying that he and Mr. Bartley would like to meet with them.  Before that happens, Cade and Logan head up to Fort Ontario, where the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center is located. a place known for having harbored 982 Jewish refugees from August 1944 to February 1946. There, Logan and Cade work on an alternative assignment based on this rescue to bring with them when they meet with Principal McNeil and Mr. Bartley.

Although Mr. Bartley agrees to offer their assignment as an alternative for students who feel the way Logan and Cade do, the two friends are still not satisfied. After talking to her father, who tells Logan about an organization called Humanity for Peace and Justice, she and Cade must decide if and how far they are willing to take their opposition to the Wannsee Conference assignment into the public realm.

Although the novel is centered on the assignment to debate the fate of Europe's Jewish population as if the students were Nazis sitting around that table in Wannsee, there is a lot going on. Naturally, an assignment like this would bring out the best and the worst in students, as well as those who have no real opinion, and Wiemer hasn't ignored them. The novel is told from different perspectives, including Principal McNeil and Mr. Bartley, and gives readers some needed insight into the thinking of these different characters, though the majority of the novel is told from the point of view of Logan and Cade.  

Neither Logan or Cade are Jewish. I didn't actually find Logan to be a very interesting character except for her passionate stand on the assignment. Her father is a professor, and not terribly available to her, nor are they struggling financially. Cade is much more interesting. His family runs the Lake Ontario Inn and his parents are very dependent on his help to keep things going and it's clear they have money problems. Cade used to be very close to his grandfather before he passed away. He and Cade's grandmother came from Poland before WWII, and before he died, he told Cade about something that happened in Poland that plays strongly into Cade's decision to oppose the assignment. 

The Assignment is based on actual events and students, which I remember reading about when it went public. And I remember that my reaction, as a teacher, as someone who wrote a dissertation on an aspect of the Third Reich, and as a human, was that this was not an assignment to give to any student. Yes, teach them about the Holocaust, including the Wannsee Conference, but don't make them take sides in a debate about genocide. And I felt the same way as I read this novel. 

At one point, Mr. Bartley shows his class the movie Conspiracy . This was an HBO film from 2001 that re-enacted the Wannsee Conference with several well-known and well-liked actors playing the parts of the Nazis. It's a tough film to watch, and I'm not sure I would show it to high school students, certainly not without a trigger warning. 

The Assignment an excellently written book and it will undoubtedly get readers thinking about what they might have done under the same circumstances. And it is definitely a book that will resonate in today's world. While I read, I kept thinking about William Faulkner's line, "The past is never dead. it's not even past." What do you think?

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an eARC received from NetGalley

Author Liza Wiemer published an Opinion piece that you might be interested in reading. You can find it HERE

The New York Times recently (September 11, 2020) published an article about the 982 refugees who lived in Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY. You can read it HERE

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Mask (The League of Secret Heroes) Book 2 by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Patrick Spaziante

I was really excited to read Cape, book 1 of The League of Secret Heroes trilogy, so I was really looking forward to reading book 2. And Mask does not disappoint. Set during WWII, which happens to be the golden age of comic books, the League of Secret Heroes is part comic book, but mostly novel, and consists of Josie O'Mally (Cape), a white Irish American girl from New York City, Akiko Nakano (Mask), a Japanese American girl from San Francisco, and Mae Crumpler (Boots), an African American girl from Chicago. When the three of them meet, they discover that together their individual superpowers can be released. And it's a good thing because all their comic book superheroes like Zenobia and Hauntima are either gone or merely ghosts of their former selves and losing their powers quickly.

After defeating the Hissler in Philadelphia, a Hitler follower who was trying to get coding secrets, the three girls a/k/a the Infinity Trinity have teleported themselves to San Francisco. This used to be Akiko's home until President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 for the roundup of all persons of Japanese ancestry who were then transported to internment camps. This included Akiko's family, who were sent to the Manzanar, where they still are. Except for her brother who is serving in the Japanese American 422nd Infantry Regiment and her mother who is missing.

But our superheroes no sooner arrive in San Francisco, then they receive a coded message and head to San Francisco Bay, were the navy has docked several ships, to try to decipher it. Then, just as Akiko thinks she's spotted her mother walking with a suspected spy in the crowd, a parade of bagpipers go by, and she loses her. The parade is followed by a giant blimp flying overhead, navigated by Side-Splitter, and dropping bomb balloons. Suddenly, there are a lot of clowns, all dressed alike, swarming the waterfront, ready to do Side-Splitter's bidding. And Side-Splitter knows just who the Infinity Trinity is. After a battle between them on the waterfront, the girls finally head to the new League of Secret Heroes headquarters, thinking Mrs. B had been the one to leave the coded not for them.

It turns out that two crack cryptologists, Genevieve Grotjan and Elizabeth Friedman, had left the note, hoping for the Infinity Trinity's help decoding some messages they were sure was a business owner sending secret codes to the enemy. Between Akiko's missing mother, the balloon bombing Side-Splitter and his minions of devoted clowns, and now decoding a spies messages, Josie, Akiko, and Mae have a lot to work on. If only their favorite superheroes were able to help. 

Mask is every bit as exciting as Cape. Hannigan has managed to blend fantasy and reality in such a way that the adventure never stops nor does the suspense. And just as she had in Cape, she's brought in a number of historical figures (Elizabeth and Genevieve and Noor Inayat Khan, and Velvalee Dickinson) and believably blended them into the story - but never loses the comic book feeling that is so much a part of this series.

But at the same time that the Infinity Trinity, Side-Splitter, (and the Hissler from the first book) are perfect comic book characters, there is a lot of history to be found woven throughout the adventure. America's internment camps, the racism directed a Japanese Americans, the magnitude of what they lost when Executive Order 9066 went into effect, the 422nd infantry Regiment are all a part of Akiko's story. The idea for the bomb balloons may sound far fetched but they also stem from reality. How? Read the Author's Note to find out about this and other interesting facts that have been worked into the story. 

This is a second book in a series and there is always the question of whether book 2 will stand alone. I found that whenever the story referred back to the first book, there was enough background information that if you haven't read it, you wouldn't get lost. 

If you are looking for a fun work of historical fiction, Mask (and Cape) are sure to please. 

You can find some probing discussion questions and activities courtesy of the publisher Simon & Schuster HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar

It's 1938 and Papa has been in Cuba for three years, working to save money to bring the rest of his family there from Poland and away from the  increasing Nazi threat to Jews. Normally, it would be the eldest son, Moshe, who would be the first child to join his father, but 11-going-on-12-year-old Esther Abraham, the eldest daughter, makes such a convincing case to Papa, that she is chosen to join him, much to her mother's consternation. 

But, on her own, Esther travels through Poland, Nazi Germany, and Holland, boards a ship to cross the Atlantic, only to learn that the first stop is Mexico, not Cuba and that she will be the only passenger when they leave port. But Esther, being a naturally friendly girl, has made friends with the animals on board, spending time with them until they reach Havana, Cuba and the next delay.

In the end, Papa is there and, before they head to the town where he lives, he has to conduct some business, introducing Esther to Zvi Mandelbaum. It turns out Papa's job in Cuba is as a itinerant peddler, not the shopkeeper his family thought he was, and he gets his wares from Mandelbaum, who immediately gives Esther a pair of sandals so she can take off her hot woolen stockings. 

From the moment Esther began her trip, she decided to write down "every interesting thing that happens" in letters for her younger sister Malka. That way when the rest of the family are finally in Cuba, they can read the letters and it will be as if they had been together the whole time. (pg 2) The result is detailed descriptions of the people Esther meets, the places she goes, and her daily life with Papa.

Esther is friendly, outgoing, and smart, picking up Spanish quickly. And she is also quite enterprising, helping her father sell the items he is given by Mandelbaum. Despite being the only Jews in the town of Matanzas, almost everyone friendly and giving, accepting her and her father. But after Esther sews herself a new dress to wear in the hot Cuban weather, she soon begins a successful trade as a dressmaker to help make money to bring her family to Cuba. 

Their lives in Cuba are basically pleasant and enjoyable, filled with new friends of diverse backgrounds, including Manuela and her Afro Cuban grandmother, and the Changs from China, as well as the local doctor and his wife, Señora Graciela. It is she who gives Esther a sewing machine that helps her begin her dressmaking business. But Cuba are not without its Nazi sympathizers, including the doctor's brother, Señor Eduardo. He wants to start a Nazi party in Cuba with an anti-immigrant agenda to get rid of the Jews there.

As the situation in Europe becomes more perilous for the Jews there, it becomes more and more imperative to get the money to bring the whole Abraham family to Cuba. 

Esther's letters to Malka are quite detailed. And though the story may not be the kind of exciting tale we are accustomed to from this period in history, it is still a wonderful window into a life we don't often read about. Small wonder it reads so authentically. Behar based this novel on her grandmother's experience of traveling to Cuba in 1927 to join her father. Like Esther, her family had lived in Govorvo, Poland. And like Esther, one beloved family member didn't make to Cuba. 

I enjoyed reading Letters from Cuba a lot. Sometimes I just don't want a lot of action and an epistolary novel like this is just the ticket for an evening of reading during COVID-19 time. Esther is a great character - a bold feminist yet respectful of her elders, especially Papa, and her religious traditions. I can't even imagine letting an 11-year-old girl travel from Poland to Cuba, part of the way in Nazi territory, all by herself. She is a character with perseverance, fortitude, and a maturity beyond her age, as well as a pretty good business woman.

Behar includes an extensive and very interesting Note from the Author about her family and how they settled in Cuba, and her research for writing this book. There is also a list of Resources for further reading.

An Educator's Guide is available to download courtesy of the publisher Nancy Paulsen Books HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC gratefully received from Nancy Paulsen Books through NetGalley

Monday, August 24, 2020

Lizard in a Zoot Suit by Marco Finnegan

It's June 3, 1943 and twin Latinx sisters Flaca and Curata have just stumbled upon Dr. James Rogers, a naval geophysicist and a few sailors digging in their Mexican American Los Angeles neighborhood of Chavez Ravine. After almost getting into a fight with the sailors for lewd remarks directed at Curata, the sister return home. Later that night, after their mother falls asleep, the girls take the family pickup truck and head to downtown Los Angeles to hangout and party with friends, all of whom are part of the city's Zoot-suit culture. But when a sailor bumps into Curata, a fight begins. 

Some of the sailors chase Curata into a dead end alley. Scared and with no place to escape, a manhole cover opens and a large lizard-like creature climbs out and scares the sailors away. When Curata faints, the lizard takes her into the underground tunnel he came out of, followed by Flaca. And unknowingly also followed by one of the sailors working for Dr. Rogers, who immediately calls the scientist. 

The lizard doesn't speak, but seems to understand Curata and Flaca and takes them home through the tunnel. It turns out that the creature, whom they call Chulito, has become separated from his family. The next morning, they decide that he should be reunited with them, if they are even still alive. After all, they understand separation and loss, they lost their dad, a soldier, in the war. But the night before, police and servicemen beat and arrested the mainly Mexican American Zoot-suiters in Los Angeles, resulting in the start of the Zoot Suit Riots. 

Deciding to disguise the lizard, they put him in one of Flaca's Zoot suits. But before they even leave their neighborhood, they encounter Dr. Rogers and his sailors looking for Chulito. A fight ensues between the sailors and the Flaca and Curata's other Zoo-suit friends, but the sailors manage to capture the lizard. Desperate to get him back and help him find his family, the sisters get some help from a very unexpected person. But will they find Chulito?

Done in two tone panels of black and yellow, Lizard in a Zoot Suit is an interesting look at a particular time and place in history. At first, it seems like just an excitying historical science fiction story, until you discover that some of it is based on reality. Curata and Flaca are great characters. Curata wears skirts that she's rolled up to make shorter and has a real soft heart for animals, which is why Chulito appeals to her so much. Flaca has a hot temper when it comes to racist remarks, especially when directed at her and her sister, which is how she sometimes gets into fights, and dresses in Zoot-suits when they go out. Both are proud Mexican Americans, proud of their father's service despite losing him, and both are kind, caring teens. 

Right from the start, readers will know that Dr. James Rogers is a smarmy corrupt scientist looking to make a fast buck and a claim to fame on the back of Chulito, and the sailors he gets to help are all white and racists, and all to happy to go after Zoot-suiters with their fists. 

The result is a graphic novel that brings together the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, the legend of an underground reptilian race living in tunnels under Los Angeles, and the treatment of the Latinx community displaced by housing discrimination. 

Written in English, Finnegan throws in lots of Spanish, most of which is easily understandable by context alone. I did look up pachucas, which in this case means Zoot-suiter. 

Pair Lizard in a Zoot Suit with Margarita Engle's verse novel Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots for another perspective of Los Angeles' Zoot Suit culture and riots.

You might also be interested in reading about how author Marco Finnegan can up with the idea for his graphic novel. You can find it HERE

And you might also like to read about the real person looking for the underground reptilians. You can find it HERE 

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby

This is the story of Francesca "Frankie" Mazza, narrated by Pearl, a teenage ghost who feels just a little bit closer to life when she is around Frankie. Frankie is a 14-year-old Italian American living in an Catholic orphanage run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow in Chicago with her younger sister Toni and her older brother Vito. The Mazza children aren't orphans, but were placed in the Guardian Angels Orphanage by their father, a shoemaker, after the death of their mother. And every visiting Sunday, he showa up bearing meatball sandwiches, spaghetti with butter, a apple for each and sometimes a new pair of shoes. Then one Sunday, he visits with news that he and his new wife would be moving to Colorado, and he would be taking Vito with him, but leaving the girls at the orphanage.

Left behind, and missing Vito, Frankie withdraws into herself for a while, at which point Pearl's story begins to unfold. Pearl is convinced she died as a result of the 1918 influenza pandemic that swept the world. And she has acquired a ghostly fox for company as she roams around the orphanage, the shores of Lake Michigan, reads The Hobbit over the shoulder of a library patron, where Pearl meets Marguerite, an African American ghost who can actually knock books off shelves. Like Frankie and Pearl, Marguerite also has a tragic story and also like them, her story slowly unfolds.

Once Frankie begins to join her friends again, she finds herself working in the kitchen, preparing meals for the nuns. And that's where she meets and falls in love with Sam. And the feeling is mutual. But Sam is almost 18-years-old and once war is declared in Europe, it is just a matter of time until, like Vito, he is drafted and sent to fight Hitler.

When the nuns discover what went on between Frankie and Sam, she is harshly punished, and then she and Toni are kicked out of the orphanage. Living with their father, their stepmother, and three of her children just may be a deal breaker for Frankie.

Thirteen Doorways doesn't just take the reader on a journey through the problematic and tragic lives of Frankie, Pearl, and Marguerite, to their individual ends, it also challenges the reader to think about the doorways we are confronted with in life and what might lie behind them. As events in their lives are recalled, as doorways are opened, wolves are revealed. Do we open the door and go through, not knowing what can happen, but taking control of our lives and our experiences or do we deny ourselves agency, staying ensconced in a life not really lived, however abusive and unhappy it may be?

Ruby has written a novel that is populated by a whole host of characters besides Frankie, Pearl, and Marguerite, who all play a part in their stories to greater or lesser but always relevant degrees. In doing so, to my mind, at least, Ruby just may have redefined the old Henry James' notion of the "loose baggy monster' and given it dignity and literary value.

Though not a book about WWII, it does, nevertheless, frame the world that Frankie lives in and the world that Pearl haunts. And in doing so, Ruby gives the reader some real insight about what life was like during those years, especially for poor Americans.

I began reading Thirteen Doorways slowly, much more slowly than I usually read books, savoring every word. But I found Ruby's writing so beautiful, so lyrical, so mesmerizing that it didn't take long before I realized I couldn't put it down. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those who like this kind of tale, I can't recommend it highly enough for so many reasons.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was purchased for my personal library