Monday, April 26, 2021

Stranger on the Home Front: A Story of Indian Immigrants and World War I (I Am American series) by Maya Chhabra

It's Autumn 1916 and the United States has still not entered the war that is raging in Europe. Margaret Singh, 11, and her parents have just arrived from their home in San Francisco to attend the annual Sikh festival Guru Nanak Gurpurab in Stockton., California. But when she overhears her father speaking with the other Sikh men about his contributions to their cause, Margaret has reason to worry. They were talking about the German backers of the Ghadar Party and a ship carrying weapons that had been caught by the British. Was her father involved in this? Since America wasn't in the war yet, it wouldn't be treason to work with Germany, but... And unfortunately, Margaret isn't the only one to hear this conversation. As soon as she noticed him, the other eavesdropper vanished.

When Margaret's father discovers she had listened in on the conversation, he explains that the members of the Ghadar Party are fighting for India's independence, that if they could get Indian soldiers to revolt against the British, India would be free. 

Margaret, whose father is Indian from the Punjab region and whose mother is white, attends the better funded white public school rather than the poorly funded segregated school most kids with dark skin are forced to go to after her mother begged the principal to accept her. Her best friend is Bettina, whose father is from Germany, and who excels in German, and Margaret's nemesis is new girl Agnes Fitzgerald, who just didn't want any dark-skinned students in white school. 

Then, in the Spring of 1917, America enters the war and everything changes. First, Margaret's father is arrested for his participation in the Ghadar Party, but quickly released. When Margaret returns to school, Bettina tells her she must call her Betty from now on. Pretty soon, Betty begins to work hard to prove her patriotism by volunteering for Junior Red Cross. It doesn't take long for their friendship to fall apart as Margaret becomes more aware of the hypocrisy of America's idealistic policies and the reality of its racist policies and immigration laws, and begins to speak her mind about her. 

Margaret also begins to question who she is and where her allegiances are. Margaret is an American citizen because she was born here, but her Indian father can never become an American citizen, and then she learns that her mother lost her American citizenship when she married her father. Knowing this and seeing how quickly Bettina was willing to deny her German roots, it's no wonder that Margaret also wonders where she really belongs and what being an American means to her now.

Although Margaret's story is fiction, it is based on real events in the United States during World War I. Narrated by Margaret in the first person, and using newspaper clippings and her diary entries, readers get a rounded picture of just what like was like for a biracial girl and her family in this country between 1916-1918. As the story moves along, readers can really see how much Margaret grows and becomes more aware of the world around her. 

Her parents are both portrayed as kind and gentle, though her father continues to want independence for India. He was never a member of the Ghadar Party, which is why he was released quickly and not deported, but readers get lots of information about these events through him. The author has included A Note on Vocabulary in the front matter to help readers unfamiliar with Indian culture and the Hindu religion, back matter includes an information Author's Note, a Timeline and photographs from the time. There are black-and-white illustrations throughout. 

Stranger on the Home Front is an great book for readers who like learning about different cultures and historical fiction.

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

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Maurice and His Dictionary: A True Story by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Enzo Lord Mariano

Maurice and His Dictionary: A True Story
written by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Enzo Lord Mariano
Owlkids Books, 2020, 56 pages

It's May 10, 1940 and the Nazis have just invaded Belgium. For 14-year-old Maurice Fajgenbaum and his family - parents Adéle and Max, older siblings Adeline and soccer-loving Henri - that means having to leave Brussels, the only home they had ever known, as quickly as possible, packing only what they could carry and leaving the rest of their possessions for the Nazis to pillage. And simply because they are Jewish.

Page 6

Luckily, father Max has business contacts in Paris and so the family heads there. Since there were warnings about the Nazi invasion, Max had already bought the train tickets his family would need. But after days on the train, the family is dropped off in a small village. Weeks later, father Max is almost rounded up with other refugees, and the family is quickly on the move again. This time, they find themselves in Pau, at the foothills of the Pyrenees in Vichy, France, the unoccupied so called free zone. 

In Pau, life is a little easier for the refugee family and Maurice even begins school again, hoping to fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer one day, comforting himself with his father's conviction that "the law will make us all equal." But once again, the Nazis begin to round up Jews, sending them to camps in Poland and Germany, and the Fajgenbaum family is on the run. 

This time, they make it to port city Lisbon, Portugal, but only long enough to get the papers and passage on a ship that will take them to Jamaica. It is on the ship that they are separated from each other for the first time. Arriving in Jamaica, the Fajgenbaums, along with their fellow passengers, are taken to an internment camp indefinitely. Maurice, still dreaming of becoming a lawyer, finds teachers all over the camp willing to tutor him, including an English teacher who recommends he get permission to go to town to buy a dictionary.  

Safe from the Nazis, Maurice continues to study hard, improving his English with the help of his tutor and his new dictionary, graduating high school and going on to college and law school in Canada.  

Maurice and His Dictionary is a picture book for older readers told in graphic format, an homage based on the true story of the author's father's experience during the Holocaust. While this book may lack some of the hair-raising details of how Jews were treated by the Nazis and even the French, it is definitely a survival story, and the Fajgenbaum family proved to be very resourceful, especially Max, and they were lucky enough to meet enough kind people to help them escape the Nazis and Europe just in time. 

The story is also a homage to Maurice's perseverance. He never wavered in his desire get an education and become a lawyer. And despite all the setbacks Maurice faced, he always followed his father's motto "Solve one problem, then the next, and then the next" which is how he finally finished high school.

The stylized illustrations, in sepia tones giving them a feeling of age, are simple but if you look closely you will discover all kinds of interesting details. The illustrations and the wide white borders around each page provide readers with lots of space to extend the story.

This is such an inspiring story, all the more so because it is a true story. Be sure to read the Author's Note for more information about Maurice, including photographs (there's even one of his dictionary). 

And there is a Teacher's Guide that can be downloaded courtesy of the publisher, Owlkids Books. 

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

Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Consequences of Fear (a Maisie Dobbs Mystery #16) by Jacqueline Winspear

It's October 1941, Britain has been at war with Germany for two years with no end in sight, and Londoners are still being bombed and dealing with the aftermath. For 12-year-old Freddie Hackett, the fastest runner in school, it means running messages to and from agents all over London, to earn a few shillings that his cruel father will spend in the local pub. But when Freddie witnesses a murder one night while running a message, only to deliver the message to the man who had done the killing, he's terrified and needs to tell someone about what he saw. And he knows just who to talk to.

Meanwhile, Maisie Dobbs has been enjoying motherhood ever since adopting Anna, the young evacuee who has been staying with Maisie's father and stepmother in Kent. But Maisie is also realizing that she has fallen in love with Mark Scott, the American agent from the Department of Justice that she worked with for the British Intelligence services under Robbie MacFarlane, senior detective with Scotland Yard's Special Branch. Yet, as much as Maisie might want to spend most of her life in Kent taking care of Anna, she decides to take Freddie Hackett's case pro bono, after finding out that Scotland Yard doesn't believe him and discovering blood at the site of the murder. 

In the midst of her investigation, Maisie accompanies MacFarlane to Scotland where they are to test and evaluate twenty British recruits and a few French volunteers, all wanting to become overseas intelligence agents. But when Maisie meets Major André Chaput, there to observe the French recruits, she is sure that he is the murderer that Freddie Hackett described in such detail, including the deep ridges on either side of his face and the patch of pale skin under his eye. Could it possibly be a coincidence? MacFarlane has been annoyed at Maisie for taking on the Freddie Hackett case to begin with, but when she brings up her thoughts about Major Chaput, he immediately sends her back to London.

Once again, Maisie has a lot on her plate, but now that Anna and Mark have come into her life, you can really feel how torn she is between them and the happiness they bring her and her work, which brings its own satisfaction. Added to all that is Freddie Hackett, a child with a cruel alcoholic father who has had to grow up to fast in order to take care of his mother and younger sister, Grace, who has Down Syndrome. We all know Maisie is a softy when it comes to children and so, not surprisingly, she also manages to find the Hackett family a safe place to live away from Mr. Hackett while things are sorted out. 

I have a feeling this may be a pivotal novel in the life and career of Maisie Dobbs. Throughout the novel, she contemplates the possibility of turning her business over to Billy, her right hand man, marrying Mark Scott and being a full-time mother to Anna. Maybe that's why this novel wasn't as exciting as previous novels. Which is fine, I still enjoyed reading it. But now I really wonder what's in store for Maisie. I have to admit, I was crushed when Alan Bradley ended his Flavia de Luce series, but there are a few more war years left, so hopefully we aren't that close to saying good-bye to Maisie. 

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley

Sunday, April 4, 2021

I am Defiance: A Novel of WWII by Jenni L. Walsh

The story opens in Munich on April 20, 1942. It's Adolf Hitler's birthday and to celebrate, the local chapters of the Jungmädelbund induct all 10-year-old Aryan girls into the Hitler Youth. Brigitte Schmidt and her best friend are12 and they can't wait for Hitler Youth summer camp and the freedom away from family that it brings. But Germany is at war and that evening, Brigitte is told that there will be no summer camp. Not only that, but when older sister Angelika, 18, begins talking about a time when Germany wasn't ruled by Hitler, Brigitte feels that such talk is blasphemous. After all, she's only known life under the Nazis and has been indoctrinated into believing everything Hitler says is truth.

Brigitte has noticed Angelika and Papa with their heads together late in the evening whispering about assassination attempts, bombings, and concentration camps in front of a large map. Papa is worried about Angelika. She had polio a few years back and had to be sent to Switzerland to recover. Now, she has a limp and her left arm is weak, but in a country that demands all its citizens be free of mental illness, deformities, paralysis, epilepsy, blindness, or deafness, Angelika could be sent to an institution or a concentration camp if she is discovered. 

One day when Brigitte picks up the mail, she discovers a leaflet in with other letters. It's all about hitler and fascism, and the bombing of Köln. Then, at the next JM meeting, the girls are asked if their family has received any blasphemous leaflets. When Brigitte's friend Rita admits her family did, the leaders and other girls begin to shun her. And more leaflets begin arriving in the Schmidt's mail. 

As much as Brigitte believed all the Nazi propaganda she was told, her blind faith is beginning to see things in a different light because of the leaflets and her father's concern about Angelika going to do her two months of Reichsarbeitdienst in August. But it is hard for her to let go. and even harder not to say something to her best friend Marianne, also a staunch believer in Nazism and who is hoping to become a group leader in the BDM when she's older. 

In August, Angelika leaves for Ulm to work in a munitions factory. It doesn't take long before her first letter arrives all about her new friend Sophie who is helping her meet her quota. Meanwhile, the British are bombing Germany more and more, and Brigitte is beginning to realize that she is becoming more and more anti-Hitler.  

When Angelika returns to Munich, she's a changed person. Brigitte worries about her and what she's up to with her new friend Sophie. Apparently, so does Papa who makes arrangements for them to escape Germany to an uncle's in Switzerland if worse comes to worse. And it does, Sophie and her friends are arrested for dropping leaflets. Papa is also arrested by the Gestapo leaving Angelika and Brigitte alone. Should they wait to see if Papa will come home or should they try to make it to Switzerland and safety alone?

I am Defiance is an interesting look at life inside Nazi Germany from the perspective of a young girl who, in the beginning, has blind faith in her Führer and what he says and readers slowly get to see that erode as truth seeps into her life. I thought her group leader in the JM, Elizabeth, 15, was true to life - cold, cruel and cunning - just the way the Nazis liked them. I also thought that Papa telling them to play their part as loyal to the Führer and his doctrines was true for many families - Papa bought the Nazi newspaper faithfully and the girls did their part (the Nazis were forced to threaten parents with imprisonment and fines for keeping their children out of the Hitler Youth because so many didn't support the regime). 

One of the things I really look for in historical fiction is a time reference. In I am Defiance, I felt I was reading in a vacuum until the first leaflet appears in the Schmidt's mailbox. That happened in June 1942, and Sophie Scholl's Reichsarbeitsdienst in the munitions factory in Ulm was August-October 1942. Her arrest (and Papa being taken into custody) happened February 18, 1943. Sophie Scholl and the White Rose's activities really helped put this in perspective for me. 

Two other things bothered me about this book. One was the language. I felt it was too modern and too American. When that happens, it pulls me out of the story. The other thing is the games Brigitte and her friend Marianne played. While there was a German version of Monopoly, it was quickly banned by the Nazis for being too capitalist. And although it says they played Sorry!, most likely they would have played Mensch ärgere Dich nicht, similar to Sorry! and very popular in Germany. Most likely, as Ms. Yingling pointed out in her review of I am Defiance, they would have played Nazi propaganda games. 

Aside from these things, I enjoyed the basic story and watching as Brigitte grow and begin to think for herself. Kids should be aware that it is true that not everyone supported what the Nazi's believed but played a part the way the Schmidt's do. And, of course, most of things that bothered me won't really bother young readers who are just looking for a good story about WWII. And they will find one in this book.

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