Monday, February 29, 2016

Lizzie and the Lost Baby by Cheryl Blackford

When 10 year-old Lizzie and her 7 year-old brother Peter are put on a train to be evacuated to Yorkshire at the beginning of World War II, neither are very happy about leaving the mum and Nana behind in Hull.  Both would rather risk the German's bombs than leave home.  In York, the children are chosen by Madge and Fred and then are placed in the home of Madge's very depressed sister Elsie, who has lost both her husband and her young baby Alice within a year of each other.

Young Elijah, part of a clan of Travelers, also called Gypsies, has a secret known only to the very mean-spirited Bill.  The Travelers are not very welcomes wherever they go, and the Yorkshire moors are no different.  As they prepare to leave and go the the big fair, Elijah's mother asks him to take baby Rose with him when he goes to check their snares to see if they caught anything.  But half way there, Elijah is confronted by Bill, who demands he leave Rose in order to go catch rabbits with him, or he will tell Elijah's secret.

Out walking, Lizzie and Peter hear Rose crying and not seeing anyone around, take the baby home with them.  Elsie, seeing the baby, believes that it is her Alice returned and immediately comes out of her depression and transforms into a relatively pleasant person.  But word is out that the Travelers are looking for a lost baby.  Elijah's mother, beside herself with worry and grief, wanders around looking for her when she comes upon Elsie pushing a baby carriage.  Elijah immediately realizes that Lissie knows something about the missing Rose, but can he get a gorgio or one of the settled or non-traveling people to help him get the baby back to her rightful mother, given how much the local people dislike the Gypsies?

First of all, this is not really a book about WWII.  The war is the way Lizzie and Peter end up in a place where she is faced with a mortal dilemma among strangers whose behavior is questionable. Lizzie has a much clearer, more defined sense of right and wrong than the adults around her, who have let prejudice blur the lines between the two. Had she been in a place where she knew with the people around her, it most likely would have been a very different story because of their possible influence over her, but distance and unfamiliarity put her on neutral, more objective footing as far as the locals and the Gypsies are concerned and make this a workable story.

Lizzie and the Lost Baby is a quiet story, without a lot of action, but it certainly asks questions about how people act in stressful times.  The dislike and mistrust the locals and Travelers have for each other is an interesting issue given the war that is being fought at the time.  Prejudice is evident on both sides, and you have to wonder it could ever be resolved, though the novel does end on a hopeful note regarding that.

This story reminded me of so many of the girls' novels I read that were written in the early 1940s in England, and in which the tension between locals and Gypsies were part of the main story.
Interestingly enough, the Gypsies (they were never called Travelers) were depicted in a much more sympathetic light than the locals, just as they are here.  Life and learn: because the name Travelers is used in Lizzie and the Lost Baby, I thought that perhaps they are English or Irish, although the use of the words like gorgio and kushti (meaning good, fine) would indicate that they were Romani.  Turns out that the names Gypsy, Traveller and Romani are interchangeable.

All in all, Lizzie and the Lost Baby is a interesting novel for readers who like historical fiction, but don't expect a real home front story.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from a friend.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

American Ace by Marilyn Nelson

For Connor Bianchini, 16, much of his life has always revolved around his family and the family's restaurant, Mama Lucia's Home Cooking.  And he has always known exactly who is - half Irish on his mother's side of the family, half Italian on his father's.  But just before Nonna Lucia passed away, she gave Connor's father Tony a ring, some pilot's wings, and a letter explaining the her Italian husband was not his father.  His father was an American pilot named Ace, with whom she had an great love affair.

After his father gives him the gold ring, Connor begins thinking about the man who loved his grandmother so much.  The ring becomes a reminder for Connor to wonder who he is and it doesn't take long for him to start researching it to try to find his real grandfather's identity.  Engraved on the ring are the words The Forcean 1940 and the initials MS, providing a good place to start.

The rest of the Bianchini rally around Tony, providing family support and acceptance of his new half-brother status, but Tony has been thrown quite a loop.  With the help of a librarian at the local college, a book called The Forcean, which he thought might be related to the ring, was borrowed through inter-library loan.  When the book arrives, it turns out to be a college yearbook from Wilberforce University - one of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU).

Already depressed over losing his mother and the family's matriarch, Tony has a stroke after finding out that his real father was African American.  While he is in the hospital recovering, Connor continues his investigations into his mysterious African American grandfather, and his grandmother great love.

Connor, unlike his half-brother Carlo, immediately embraces his new heritage and decides to write his senior honors paper on the Tuskegee Airmen after discovering that his grandfather had most likely been one, stationed in Italy at one point.

Nonna Lucia left quite a legacy for her family and it is interesting to see how the rest of the family handled it.  How would you have handled news that you are not who you think you are?

I have always loved Marilyn Nelson's stories in verse, but this one just didn't do it for me.  I would have much preferred a novel about the grandfather, and his experiences both before and after his time as a Tuskegee Airman in Italy and his affair with Nonna Lucia, how he might have dealt with issues around race and prejudice.  And while books about biracial families are so needed right now, the Bianchini's just felt too unreal for me, even Connor.

Much of the story revolves around Connor's driving lessons, first with his father and later his mother. Driving is, of course, a nice coming-of-age-entering-adulthood trope.  It is Connor who now becomes the caretaker, caring for his father much of the time after his stroke, helping him heal both physically and emotionally and enabling him to come to terms with his new identity with the information he has learned about Tuskegee Airmen for his honors paper.

The part of the book I really did like was the last sections in which we get to read Connor's paper, complete with photographs of actual Tuskegee Airmen, and the only indication of what Connor and his dad are doing in in the chapter heading and yet, it all worked.

Despite my objections, I still think this is a book that should be read by all.  And do read the Author's Note at the back of the novel, where Nelson explains how she came to write a novel from the perspective of a white teenage boy.  

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

Monday, February 15, 2016

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

It's March 1942 and for 10 year-old Manami Tanaka, walking on the beach near her home on Bainbridge Island, Washington with her grandfather and their dog Yujiin before they walk together to school is always a treat.  Except now, there is war and there are warships carrying soldiers passing by.

At school, Manami is told it is her last day, the last day for all the Japanese students.  Instead of school, Manami, her mother, father and grandfather must register in order to be sent away to an unknown place taking only what they can carry.  Grandfather has made arrangement for Yujiin to be picked up by their minister, since not pets are allowed to go with them.  Unable to leave him behind, Manami hides the little dog inside her coat and no one notices until they are far from home.  A soldier puts Yujiin in a crate and he is left behind.

Traumatized by all that she has just experienced, unable to bear the pain of losing Yujiin and the hurt it has caused her grandfather, Yujiin finds herself unable to speak.  Eventually, the Tanaka's arrive at a half built Manzanar internment camp, where they must share one small room with a women and her many children.  Mr. Tanaka joins the building team responsible for constructing new barracks as more and more Japanese family arrive.  Mrs. Tanaka takes a job working in the kitchens.  Both parents are thankful that their older children, Ron and Keiko, are still away at college, but Manami writes and asks them to come to Manzanar.  The letters get lost, but soon Ron arrives.

Eventually, a school opens and Ron takes a teaching job there, which makes Manami very happy.  She begins to believe that Ron got her letter to him because it was caught by the wind which blows all the time.  Still unable to find her voice, and living with unbearable guilt over what happened to their dog, Manami begins to think she sees Yujiin looking for her around the camp.  Realizing he isn't really there, Manami begins to write letters to Yujiin to come to her in the camp and releases them into the wind.

Anyone who has ever lost a pet tragically will understand Manami's heartbreak - but she is dealing not just her own feelings, but also having to see her grandfather's heartbreak as well.   And this heartbreak is compounded by the sudden loss of everything she ever knew, and removal to a hostile, unfriendly crowded place surrounded by barbed wire and guards with guns, and all because of her Japanese heritage.  I can't even imagine how a 10 year old could cope with all that even with a strong, understanding family like the Tanakas.

Lois Sepahban has drawn realistic, believable characters, who even under these terrible circumstances show a level of courage, dignity, and resiliency that is admirable, and who despite the worst circumstances, manage to thrive, like Mrs. Tanaka's garden.  It's a short novel, told entirely on the first person from Manani's point of view, which accounts for the lack of many things that went on around her but she which has no knowledge of.  In fact, Paper Wishes almost feels like a novella, and yet, the writing is so expressive, so emotional, it almost reads like poetry.

Paper Wishes is Sepahban's debut middle grade novel, though she has a number of nonfiction works to her credit.  It is an excellent work of historical fiction, though it is not a history book about Manzanar, but rather about the traumatizing effects displacement, discrimination and loss have on one young girl and her family.  And it is a novel that will certainly resonate with today's readers.

Be sure to read the Author's Note at the end of the novel.

You find more information about the Japanese people from Bainbridge Island who were deported to internment camps HERE

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

Monday, February 8, 2016

Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante (a Maggie Hope Mystery #5) by Susan Elia MacNeal

It's Christmastime1941 and the United States has been at war for just a few weeks.  Elated that they will finally have an alley in their fight against the Nazi war machine, Winston Churchill and his entourage, including John Sterling and David Greene, has just arrived in Washington DC after a long, harrowing Atlantic Ocean crossing dodging Nazi submarines and rough seas.

Naturally, because Churchill needs hope, he has also brought along Maggie Hope, one of his Special Operations Executives cum typist.  And it doesn't take long for Maggie to get involved in a murder mystery.

Eleanor Roosevelt's temporary secretary Blanche Balfour hasn't shown up for work, didn't even call in, and now, the President's wife is worried about her.  Churchill volunteers Maggie to help Mrs. Roosevelt because "she's an excellent secretary and helpful in all sorts of...situations."  Which is good, since the two women discover Blanche's body in her bathtub with her wrists slashed when they arrive at her apartment.   Quick thinking Maggie anonymously telephones the police, and noticing a notepad, wisely takes it with her.  Back at the White House, Maggie softly rubs the notepad with a pencil, revealing what looks to be a suicide note from Blanche, except that it isn't her handwriting.

The note claims that Mrs. Roosevelt made unwanted advances at Blanche, trying to kiss her, which, of course, the First Lady denies vehemently.  But the suicide note is only a ruse designed to turn people against the Roosevelts and discredit them., thereby jeopardizing their wartime support.  There are those who are also very unhappy with Mrs. Roosevelt's interfering in the upcoming execution of a young black Virginia sharecropper, Wendel Cotton, for killing a white sharecropper.  The First Lady and Wendel's lawyer, Andrea Martin, believe his trial was a sham, consisting of 12 white men who could pay the $1.50 poll tax.

But why would anyone want to besmirch the Roosevelt's using the Wendel Cotton execution as their fodder?  Trust me, it isn't for the obvious reasons.

Mrs. Roosevelt's problem is the central Maggie Hope mystery, but there are other story lines making this a busy novel and these will be, I assume, expanded upon in future books.  There is the increasing/decreasing/increasing sexual tension between Maggie and John Sterling, who despite having adjoining hotel rooms, never seem to be able to get together.  And there is a storyline about Clara Hess, Maggie's mother and Nazi spy, and one about the effort the Germans put into building a rocket (a precursor to the eventual V-bombs the Nazis lobed at England in 1944-45?).  And now that the US is in the war, there is the more intense relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt.

There is also a nice bit about Walt Disney and his wartime propaganda.   No longer able to fly with the RAF, John Sterling has been developing a gremlin story, those pesky little creatures that plague the pilots on the RAF by sabotaging their planes and Disney is very interested in it (The Gremlins was Roald Dahl's first children's book.  Dahl was also an RAF pilot, and later posted in Washington DC.  His story was published in 1943 by Disney).

Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante is every bit as well-written and well-researched as the four other Maggie Hope mysteries, but I have to admit I didn't enjoy reading it as much.  I think it is because there was too much going on and not enough mystery.  On the other hand, I really enjoyed all the interesting people and pop culture bits that MacNeal included, maybe because the story takes place in Washington DC, a place near and dear to my heart and because I know American pop culture so well.  But, I will be glad when Maggie returns to Britain, where they seem to have better mysteries.

Oh, yes, in Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante readers get to finally meet the infamous Aunt Edith and, let me say, she is a trip.

MacNeal has touched on several themes that will definitely resonate with today's readers and, even though it isn't my favorite Maggie Hope, I still highly recommend reading this fifth book in the series.

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

Monday, February 1, 2016

Stones on a Grave by Kathy Kacer

It's June 1964 and Sara Barry, 18, has been living at the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls ever since she was a baby.  But now, after a fire completely destroys the building, it is time for Sara to strike out on her own.  Before she does that, Mrs. Hazelton, the home's matron, decides it is time for Sara to discover who she is.  All she has to give Sara is a certificate from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, a doctor's note written in a foreign language and a small Star of David on a chain.

It seems that Sara's mother, whose name was Karen Frankel,  had been in Auschwitz, had actually survived until the camp was liberated, but then succumbed to TB in a DP or displaced persons camp shortly afterwards.  Sara was born in Germany soon after the war ended, and sent to the home in Canada.  Her Jewish background is a complete surprise to her.

Now, armed with the $138.00 gift from Mrs. Hazelton and her own savings from her waitress job, Sara decides to go to Germany and try to find the doctor who signed the certificate that sent her to Canada.  Perhaps he has some information about her mother and father.

Arriving in Germany, Sara immediately heads to Föhrenwald, site of the former DP camp and easily locates Dr. Gunther Pearlman, the doctor who had certified her healthy to travel, even though she actually had TB as well.  But as soon as the doctor sees the papers she has with her, he turns on her and tells Sara to get out and go back to Canada, he has no information that would help her.  Dr. Pearlman does make a one night reservation at a small inn run by an older lady named Frau Klein, and asks his helper, Peter, a boy around the same age as Sara, to escort her there.

Dr. Pearlman may want Sara to leave the next day, but Sara has other plans and with Peter's help, and Frau Klein's kindness, she decides to stay for the rest of the week.  Luckily, Peter speaks perfect English (as does Dr. Pearlman), so he can translate for her.  Sara quickly discovers that Föhrenwald is still home to many Jewish survivors and their children, including Frau Klein, the doctor and Peter's parents.

But uncovering information about her parents isn't easy in the country that just wants to forget about what had happened there.  Yet, perseverance does pay off and while all the loose ends are neatly tied up by the end of the novel, some of what Sara discovers is difficult for her to accept, and I have to admit, I wasn't expecting the ending to twist the way it did.

I found this is a very interesting example of a post-war historical fiction novel.  By setting it in the 1960s, Kathy Kacer shows the reader a world that wants to forget what happened, others who, like Sara, really don't know about what happened under Hitler's tyranny, even as racial prejudice is still openly practiced.  Mrs. Hazelton didn't keep Sara's Jewish identity secret because she didn't like Jews, but because she wanted to protect her from any lingering anti-Semetism.  And Luke, Sara's loser boyfriend in Canada, proves the point, with his hatred of Jews and blacks, seen in the way he goes after Sara's friend Malou.

Stone on a Grave is an emotional, insightful novel about a young woman trying to discover who she really is.  It was named a 2016 Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Teen Reader category and I am happy to say that I will be interviewing Kathy Kacer as part of the Sydney Taylor Blog Tour  February 11, 2016 on my blog Randomly Reading.  You can find a complete list of winners and the blog tour schedule HERE

Be sure to read the Author's Note for more information about the aftermath of the Holocaust.

In the Benevolent Home, Sara was one of a group of girls Mrs. Hazelton considered to be her "special seven."  Like Sara, each girl is given whatever information Mrs. Hazelton has about who they really are, plus $138.00 she had put aside for them to start them on their way.   Sara's story is part of a seven book YA series called Secrets that follows each girl on their journey towards self-discovery. Each novel is written by a different author, providing a variety of stories and insights.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was purchased for my personal library