Wednesday, August 29, 2012

From the Archives #21: Rowan Farm by Margot Benary-Isbert

Rowan Farm is the sequel to The Ark, which was reviewed here in May, and continues the story of the Lechow family, Pomeranian refugees who have had to resettle in the Hesse area in Germany after the war.  It begins precisely where The Ark left off, in January 1948.  The war has been over for almost three years, but the effects are still being felt everywhere.   Most things continue to be rationed, everyone is still hungry and cold all the time and much of the country still bears the scars of wartime destruction "Ruins rose into the clear winter air like broken teeth...To the left was the cemetery, torn up by bombs; to the right the ruins..." (pg 9)

All the Lechows from the first novel are still around in this second work: Dr. and Mrs. Lechow, Matthias, 17, Andrea, 13, Joey and adopted Ull, both 7, but the story is still centered mainly on Margret, 15.  Margret still loves working as a kennel/stable maid for Mrs. Almut, who also breeds champion Great Danes as well as running a small farm with her son Bernd, who had returned from a prisoner of war camp the previous summer.

The story begins with two important events: first is the arrival of the new school teacher, Christoph Hühnerbein, a 20 year old war veteran with a disabled leg and an amputated arm; and second, Margret's rescue of a badly abused Shetland pony from the slaughterhouse and her nursing it from near death to heath.

Both of them are perfect metaphors for Germany at the end of the war and its endeavors to rebuild itself  after the horror of its Nazi past.

Despite his disability, the new teacher soon has his students well in hand.   When he hears about the Wetz Farm, which had taken a direct hit from a bomb during the war that killed the family and destroyed the house and everything near it,  Hühnerbein comes up with the idea of cleaning it up to see what is reusable, and build what is called "rammed earth housing"with it for returning homeless veterans, most of whom had been in Russian prisoner of war camps.  And much of the work is done with the aid of Margret's little Shetland pony, named Mignon, "after the poor, unhappy little gypsy child in [Goethe's] Wilhelm Meister." (pg 30) The project of supported by everyone except the mayor, who plans to put a stop to it.

Meanwhile, Margret also meets an American Quaker, Mrs. Coleman, who is in Germany to help out with the refugee problem and who has a farm with her husband in Pennsylvania.  Now that the war is over, she and her husband want to start breeding Great Danes again, so she has a genuine interest in the dogs being bred at Rowan Farm.  Naturally, she and Margret hit is off and she offers Margret a position in America.

Life is further complicated when a beautiful young woman from Frankfurt comes to visit her relatives, and both Matthias and Bernd loose their hearts to her, even though it was clear that Bernd had always been attracted to Margret, but too shy to do anything about it.  Margret is hurt by Bernd's behavior and decides to wash her hand of him and men in general.  But will that resolve really last or will it simply give her the push she needs to go to America with Mrs. Coleman?

Once again, Benary-Isbert has taken difficult topics and presented them in the gentlest manner in a story that is told so well geared for her young readers but without being overly graphic.  Unlike in The Ark, she does talk more about the Nazi past, especially with regard to the 15 and 16 year olds who were drafted into the German army towards the end of the war and then found themselves homeless and unable to adjust to life again.  Besides Bernd Almut, Benary-Isbert includes the story of two boys, Karl and Alfred.  These two boys ran away from east Germany, whose Russians occupiers are sending former teen soldiers to work and mostly likely die in Uranian mines.  They are hired at Rowan Farm and become the first two veterans to live in the rammed housing at Wetz Farm, but when they hear the mayor is going to report them to the Russians, they run away.  Alfred gets caught stealing and Karl is found dead by suicide.  Their stories are very compelling and point to a postwar problem not usually addressed in YA literature.

So again, as in The Ark, Benary-Isbert has given the reader the bad and the good together, to remind them that this is life and, like the continuous birth of new animals on the farm, life goes on.  I wrote about The Ark that it is almost an overly sentimental story, yet people are surprised by how much they like it when they are finished.  The same can be said of Rowan Farm.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was borrowed from a friend.

This is book 11 of my Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

*From the Archives used to be called That's the Way it Was Wednesday.

Monday, August 27, 2012

It's Monday! What are you Reading?

There's a new meme on the block, an offshoot of that seasoned meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.  The newbie is called It's Monday! What are you reading? - from Picture Books to YA and it is hosted by Teach Mentor Texts.  The purpose is the same: to recap what you have read and/or reviewed and to plan out your reading and reviews for the upcoming week but with a focus on kidlit.

Well, after two weeks of vacation at the shore, I can't say I managed to read as many books as I would have liked to, but what with great weather and four kids around, it was also a little hard to focus.  And of course, my recently returned from China daughter was home for a few weeks before heading out to San Francisco and naturally, I wanted to spend as much time as possible with her.  

Nevertheless, I did manage to do some reading:

Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion and Betrayal by Mal Peet.  A sophisticated YA novel in part about two men in the Dutch Resistance towards the end of World War II and in part about the granddaughter of one of them in contemporary London.

Rowan Farm by Margot Benary-Isbert.  A sequel to The Ark, this YA novel continues the story of the Lechow family, refugees from Pomerania, in post-war Germany

Black Radishes by Susan Lynn Meyer.  The suspense story about an 11 year old French Jewish boy and his family trying to avoid the Nazis and survive in Vichy France until their American visas arrive.  Great for middle grade readers.

T4 by Ann Clare LaZotte.  A YA novel in free verse, it tells the story of a 13 year old deaf girl living in Germany when the T4 law is passed, the Nazis so called Euthanasia program that let they do whatever they wanted to people with disabilities.   

Little Orphan Annie and her Junior Commandos by Harold Gray.  A retelling of the comic strip the helped mobilize thousands of kids around the country to collect scrap for the war effort.  An interesting piece of history.  

Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen by Donna Gephart.  In this middle grade/young YA novel, a young east coast girl dreams of becoming a kid contestant on Jeopardy, in part to be able to see her divorced father living in California with his new family, her former best friend and her mother.  A nice coming of age story.

I was hoping to be able to read the following:
The Absolutist by John Boyne
Madhattan Mystery by John J. Bonk
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
Becoming Clementine by Jennifer Niven

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sad News - Nina Bawden Dies

I was very sad to see that another kidlit author has passed away.   Nina Bawden, author of Carrie's War, passed away at the age of 87.

Ms. Bawden's obituary in the New York Times can be found here and in The Guardian here

Nina Bawden 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Keep Calm and (fill in the blank)

By now, you are probably pretty familiar all the incarnations of the Keep Calm sign that have become so popular.  Heck, I even use an incarnation of it as my grab button.  But for all it can be seen everywhere now, during World War II, it was no where to be seen.  It just wasn't used, and for a very good reason.

When the war first broke out, the Ministry of Information realized that they would need the support of the British people if they were going to defeat the Germans.  So, they decided on a poster campaign to boost morale and gain support at the cost of £44,000, beginning in September 1939.

According to the Imperial War Museum, 800,000 copies were made of this poster and distributed all over Britain, placed on the sides of buildings and billboard-type structures for all to see, with smaller versions found in places like shops, banks, trains, buses and railway stations.  The problem with this poster was that it was very unpopular with the British people, who felt that the wording "You" and "Us" separated the people from the government and monarchy, and that winning the war was placed solely on the shoulders of the people.  The world resolution didn't go over well either, because the British prided themselves on always being resolute - they are, after all, a "pull-up-your-socks-and-carry-on: kind of people.

 Over 400,000 copies of the above second poster were also distributed in the same places all over Britain.  It was actually more disliked by the people than the first poster.  The British resented the expression Freedom is in Peril because they already felt that their freedom was in peril by their own government due to all the wartime restrictions that were being placed on their daily lives.

That brings us to the third poster, the infamous Keep Calm and Carry On

It is believed that 2.5 million copies of this poster were printed, and apparently some were distributed.  The reason this on was never used had nothing to do with the unpopularity of the first two posters.  Rather, it had everything to do with the idea of a German invasion, something that the government thought was a pretty definite possibility.  This poster was only supposed to be used when that invasion happened and since it never did, it never got used.

Fast forward 60 years to a charming second hand bookshop in Northumberland called Barter Books, where an original copy of Keep Calm and Carry On was found in an old box of books for at an auction.  The owners of Barter Books decided to frame and hand the poster and as customer interest grew, they decided make copies and sell them.  The rest, as they say, is history.

 Listen to the story in their own words, along with very interesting archival footage:

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Used with permission of the good people at Barter Books.

And who knows, maybe that very book you have been wanting forever is right there in their catalogue.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It's the Dog Days of Summer and...

I am on vacation and for once I didn't have any posts scheduled before I left.  My daughter is here until August 22nd, when she moves to San Francisco and, well, we have been having a lovely visit.  And the time has just gone by so quickly since I reviewed Violins of Autumn.

And I would like to thank everyone for taking the time to leave your comments about Violins of Autumn.  I didn't have internet access right away and couldn't respond individually to you all.

So where am I vacationing?  Well, it is a place called Seven Mile Island in New Jersey.  It is a barrier island in the Atlantic Ocean, and is actually 7 1/2  miles long and three to four blocks wide.  Originally occupied by the Lenni Lenape, it was bought by the Leamings family in 1722 and called Leaming's Island, but that name didn't last.  Some of the island's incredible dunes are still left, but they are not nearly as spectacular as they used to be because of beach erosion.  I have been here during hurricanes and witnessed the beach just completely disappear.  But it is still here this year so...

My plan is to sit in the sun and read for the next week and a half.  I have lots of books and hope to be able to post reviews of them while I am here, reading somewhere on this beach:

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Violins of Autumn by Amy McAuley

While it may be hard not to make some comparisons of Amy McAuley's Violins in Autumn with the very excellent Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, I think it is always better to form my opinion about a book on its own merits.

It is 1944 and Adele Blanchard, her friend radio transmitter Denise Langford, and two men have just parachuted into Nazi-occupied France as undercover agents for the Britain's Special Operations Executive, or SOE, to work with the French Resistance sabotaging German operations in preparation for D-Day.

Of course, the landing doesn't go exactly as planned.  One of the men is arrested almost as soon as they hit the ground, but Adele, Denise and the other man, Bishop, find each other and make their way to the agreed upon meeting place with Pierre, a member of the French Resistance.

It's not long before the two girls must make their way to Paris,  With false papers, they impersonate two French girls traveling by bike, securing Denise's radio in a suitcase to one of them.  But along the way, Adele and Denise witness a British plane crash after being hit by enemy fire.  They manage to find and rescue the American pilot, Robbie, before the German's do.

The three continue on to Paris, but along the way, they run into some Germans.  Denise and Robbie manage to get by them, but Adele is stopped and her bike to taken away.  Now she must go on on foot, and she's still a long way from Paris.  Luckily, a car comes by and she gets a lift from a Dr. Devereux all the way to Paris.  Devereux gives her is address should she need it.

But Adele and Robbie never show up at their safe house, and she discovers the it has been compromised and everyone was arrested.  With no place to go, Adele rides the metro day after day, avoiding Germans and possible capture.  Eventually, she ends up at the house of Dr. Devereux, where she has a brief encounter with his Nazi-collaborator wife in the process of leaving her husband.  Adele, Denise and Robbie finally find each other. but they must find a safe way out of France for Robbie as well as perform the tasks they are supposed to do as agents for SOE until the hear the coded message from London: "The long sobs of the violins of autumn" signaling that the allies are beginning their preparations of D-Day.

OK, so this doesn't sound majorly exciting, but take my word for it, Violins in Autumn is a very exciting novel.  It is full of espionage, intrigue, danger, kindness, cruelty, and even love.  In the course of this historical fiction novel, McAuley manages to work in lots of information about how operatives for the SOE are trained, how the Gestapo conducted interrogations and how messages were sent and received by couriers like Adele in the resistance.  And what dangerous jobs these were.

One of the things I like when I read a book like this is discover something I don't know.  I knew coded messages where sent between the allies and their operatives in the field, but I didn't know that the one signaling the start of  D-Day within 24 hours to operatives and resistance workers was from the first stanza of Chanson d'Automne by Paul Verlaine: The long sobs of the violins of autumn/would my heart with a monotonous languor.  

But Violins of Autumn is, above all, a story about the deep friendship that develops between the two young women who must rely on each other at a time when it is hard to know who one can really trust.  This can be especially difficult when each person can hide behind a false identity. To begin with, Adele is really Betty Sweeney, a 17 year old American who had been sent to boarding school in Switzerland when her father remarried, spoke German and French with native fluency and moved in with her English aunt and uncle when the war began.  Like Robbie, she lied about her age.  And if Adele is really Betty, it stands to reason that Denise is someone else, too.

If you enjoyed Code Name Verity, most likely you will enjoy Violins of Autumn and hopefully appreciate them both for their differences, because both are well worth reading.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL

To learn more about the real lives of female SOE couriers and radio transmitters like Adele and Denise, see the chapter on Great Britain in Kathryn Atwood's book Women Heroes of World War II, 25 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance and Rescue (my review here)

For more information on Special Operations Executive operatives can be found here.

Tools of the SOE Trade (Note the radio
in the suitcase)

This is book 10 of my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Shirtful of Frogs by Shalini Boland

1940 - Twins Jimmy and Patrick Sweeney, 6, have the idea of selling the frogs they have caught to the other kids in their East End, London neighborhood, but as the war continues, evacuation to the country with 3 other of their 11 siblings puts end to their frog enterprise.  Unfortunately, when they reach the village they are evacuated to, Jimmy and Patrick are taken by separate families, as are siblings Jeanie, Irene and Bobby.  It is Mrs. Cribbins who takes Jimmy and she doesn't seem very nice right from the start.

2012 -  Nathan Pepper, 12, isn't too happy about moving from London to a small village in the country because of his dad's new job, especially since it doesn't seem to have a skateboard park anywhere.  And it doesn't help that the first night in his new house, Nathan wakes up suddenly, hearing a strange noise.  Creeped out, he nevertheless decides to see what it is.  Going up the stairs to another bedroom, Nathan can hear distinct crying but even stranger, when he opens the door, the bedroom is completely changed - no longer neat, clean and shiny, now it was a dirty, dusty attic with a little boy under a thin blanket sobbing for his mum.

Jimmy's life with the Cribbins family is much worse than expected.  He sleeps in a lonely, dark attic, he does most of the chores in the house, and than he is sent outside, not allowed back in the house til evening.  And he isn't fed much either, so now he was starving.  Nathan brings him some cake, but when Mrs. Cribbins finds somes crumbs in Jimmy's bed, he is accused of stealing their food and is given no breakfast.

Totally baffled, Nathan continues to go upstairs at night to find Jimmy again, but to no avail.

Meantime, in 2012, Nathan starts at his new school and things begin to look up for him as he makes friends and finds fellow skateboarders; and in 1940, Jimmy begins school, too, but only after doing his chores.  And, though the two Cribbins children ride the bus, Jimmy is made to walk the long distance to school. He no sooner arrives and he is picked on by a group of boys resentful of evacuees.  While two hold him down, another boy, Frank, takes an industrial staple gun from behind the school and staples Jimmy's back.  The only good part of that day is that Jimmy discovers that his twin, Patrick, is at the school, too.

That night, Nathan is able to visit Jimmy again in the upstairs bedroom and once more, he brings the starving, now injured little boy some food.

But can Nathan help Jimmy across the years?  In the autumn, he is able to visit Jimmy fairly often, bringing him food and company, but as winter begins, it becomes more difficult.  Nathan's concern for Jimmy is really peaked when he sees a picture of the twins boys in a newspaper article about the village's evacuees.  And later, in another article, he learns that Jimmy has died from malnutrition.  To make matters worse, Nathan's Aunty Miranda comes to stay indefinitely in the upstairs bedroom, and he fears he won't be able to see and help Jimmy before it is too late.  So, Nathan decides that desperate times call for desperate measures and he hatches a really stinky plan to drive his Aunty M out of that room and into another.  But, can a stinky plan succeed?

Shalini Boland based A Shirtful of Frogs on the real experiences of her father-in-law, Paul Boland, who was evacuated with his twin Peter at the age of 5.  And in writing his story, she has brought attention to this important, yet disturbing and sad aspect of evacuation.   Most of us probably think that the people who took in the WWII evacuees from London were such kind, caring, concerned people, sometimes strict but not abusive. But actually that wasn't always the case.  Kids like Paul Boland/Jimmy Sweeney were abused, starved and used as free servants while the people they lived with collected the government money meant for their care, and used it for their own family's benefit.

Boland says she created Nathan to give Jimmy a needed friend in this well-written time-slip story, but of course, that doesn't happen in real life.  A Shirtful of Frogs is, in effect, a wonderful tribute to Boland's father-in-law and all the children who suffered the way Paul/Jimmy did when their parents trustingly sent them off to live with strangers in what they believed would be relative safety.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to me by the author

Click here to enter a Goodreads Giveaway in progress until October 31, 2012 for a signed copy of A Shirtful of Frogs open to US, CA and GB residents.

This trailer for A Shirtful of Frogs is interesting both for the book's promotion and for its use of public domain actual footage:

Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday is a weekly event hosted by Shannon Messenger

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith

More than anything else in the world, Ida Mae Jones, 18, wants to fly, but she can't.  Not because she doesn't know how, oh no, Ida Mae knows how to fly.  Her father had taught her how to fly his crop dusting plande long ago.  She can't fly because she doesn't have a license and even though she did everything correctly during her flying test, the instructor refused to pass her on principle - she was a woman.  But then the US enters World War II and for Ida Mae there will be no more flying even without a license with gas rationing.

But a new flying possibility opens up in 1943, when her younger brother Abel brings home an ad for female pilots in the new WASP (Women's Airforce Service Pilots) program headed up by Jackie Cochran.  Ida Mae gets very excited until she realizes two obstacles to joining the WASP program - she still doesn't have a license and she is black and the program was only open to white women.

Ida Mae was pretty determined, though.  For one thing, she was so fair that she could pass for white, though she had always chosen not to because it meant cutting herself off from friends and family completely.   As for her license, well, Ida Mae was lucky enough to be named after her father, Iden Mahé, so it was a simple matter of changing the name on his license and replacing his photo with one of her own.

And it worked - Ida Mae Jones was accepted into the WASP program in Sweetwater, Texas much to the chagrin of her mother at first.  But Ida Mae travels to Texas and begins her training.  And she discovers that passing is harder work than learning to fly all those big planes needed for war.  She also makes two close friends, Lily and Patsy, who never suspect anything about Ida Mae other than what she presents herself as and with whom she has lots of adventures and lots of fun while becoming a WASP (was irony in that sentence.)  But unfortunately passing also means that people talk freely in her presence and that includes their attitudes towards blacks.  And there is the intimation of a little romance with one of the pilots.

Much of the book focuses on Ida Mae's training and life in the WASP, but Smith gives the reader enough time with her family and friends from home to make us very sympathetic to what they must have felt when Ida Mae chose to turn her back on them in order to fly.  And by the same token, we really are made to understand what her choice cost Ida Mae herself.  And in the end we hare left asking the question if you deny who you truly, are can you be truly happy?  It is for the reader to decide after reading Flygirl.

Passing is not a very common theme in YA literature.  And in her Author's Notes, Smith writes that it is not known how many women in the WASPs may have passed for white in order to fly the way Ida Mae did.  There were certainly black woman like Bessie Coleman who were passionate about flying, but not many would be fair enough to pass and perhaps ever fewer would want to.  My heart went out to Ida Mae, she was such a sweet, likable character, but she clearly didn't realize what she was giving up.  Any my heart went out to her family and her best friend and supporter Jolene and what they lost with Ida Mae's decision.

Smith has written a story that will give the reader plenty of food for thought about what identity really is and can you successfully and satisfyingly alter who your are.  And as far as the WASP is concerned, she has done her job and carefully researched it so that Flygirl is an excellent example of historical fiction.

This book is recommended for readers 12+
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL

A very helpful discussion guide for Flygirl is available here

For information on the WASP Program in WWII, including a biography of Jackie Cochran, please visit the National WASP World War II Museum

This is book 9 of my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry