Erased History and a Warning for Humanity

Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys

Did you realize that Stalin committed genocide to the scale of millions of innocent people while the Second World War was happening? I didn’t. I mean, I knew he was generally considered to be a pretty bad dude, but he helped the Allies win the war so all’s forgiven right?

This is a piece of historical fiction based on the experiences of survivors of the mass deportations that occurred in Russia before, during and long after WWII. It’s the story of a Lina, a fifteen year old girl who is taken from her home one night, along with her mother and brother and deported to Siberia. What follows is a nightmare that lasted a decade for her. The book, which is a good 300 pages, only documents the first two years of her time in prison, although the epilogue confirms that she did survive another 10  more years in the camp before being freed.

It’s a devastating story. The human suffering described is heartbreaking. The human kindness and compassion from the prisoners, strangers and occasionally guards is just as heartbreaking. My library files it in the young adult section, certainly the subject matter is hard and there is some sexual violence in it, but I really think adults should read it as well, particularly if there are young people in your life who are reading it.

Given the current political climate, I think it’s really important for us to remember what happens that the “them versus us” mentality stripes us all of our humanity. When we fail to recognize the basic humanity in other people, we’ve lost sight of what it means to be human. And history will remember that, no matter who tries to suppress it.

Last movie I watched: Karate Kid.

That’s some serious bullying there guys. Serious.

Last TV show I watched:

The Musketeers. It’s just so much fun.

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A brief adventure in adult historical fiction

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Phillipa Gregory

Despite Gregory being a rather prolific writer, and my generally enjoyment of historical fiction, it’s maybe a bit surprising that I haven’t read anything else by Phillipa Gregory, not even the Other Boleyn Girl. But I was in an airport and it was on sale, so there you have it.

I actually really enjoyed it. Many people I talked to said her more recent stuff isn’t as good as the older ones, and who can blame her? She must be running out of Tudor women to give a twist to and write about. But without anything to compare it to, I really liked Three Sisters, Three Queens.

It’s the story of Henry VIII’s older sister Margret, who was married to the King of Scotland as a young teen and acted as regent for her son by him when her husband was killed. The center of the story is the dynamic of Catherine of Aragon, Margret and her younger sister Mary, three Tudor princesses who all marry kings but ultimately lead tragic lives.

What I liked most about the story was Margret’s rather annoying, petty, bratty personality. She saw her whole life as a competition against her sisters. When she is succeeding and they are not, she is smug and filled with false generosity and when they are outdoing her she resents the same behaviour. It sounds like a weird thing to really enjoy about a main character but I really liked the fact that she was filled with personality, even if it was an often dis-likable personality, and not a Mary Sue kind of princess. Also, I was ablw to read her as a very sympathetic character despite this because it seemed to me that someone so young, naive and out of touch with reality should be pitied. She was raised without any real understanding of the world – she was a symbol of Tudor power, but never a person so it’s not surprising that she mishandles every challenge she ever faces. How would she know better?

The most interesting thing about historical fiction of course is never about the history but what interests us know and what that says about who we are. I’m glad I had a bit of a reminder of that.

Last movie I watched:

Valentine’s Day. Not as good as Love Actually.

Last TV episode I watched:

The Musketeers. Such a wonderful, swashbuckling show

The other side of the Second World War

A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielson

This is an amazing older children or young adult book about Berlin after the end of the Second World War. Now, previously my history on that subject is a little dicey. As I recall it went something like “And then the Allies won the war and divided up Berlin with a wall, which was eventually torn down but we’ll cover that later in the semester”. We didn’t.

Gerta’s Papa and brother cross the into West Berlin one night to see if there’s a job for Papa there, away from the censorship and depression of East Berlin. That night, the Soviets  put up a fence, cutting Gerta off from half her family. Slowly over the next few years it turns from a fence to a wall to a manned wall and an overbearing state presence that controls every part of her life. One day she sees her father watching from the other side of the wall and he’s trying to tell her something, a way to bring them all back together. But it will mean becoming an enemy of the state and risking not just her life, but her family and friends as well.

This story is an incredibly moving depiction of a young person dreaming in a world that crushes dreams. Obviously the subject matter is a little complicated and if you’re not reading it with your child or your class you should still be prepared to have a talk with your young person about the historical context and the effects of war more broadly. This is a serious story, with only the lightest touch of humour in it  but a really moving and genuine, particularly focusing on the strength of relationships between people in hard times and that keeps it from being totally depressing. Also, the writing is very on point – if you’re not feeling nervous for the whole last half, I’m not sure you’re a human.

I strongly recommend this book (seriously) and I would recommend it even if it didn’t seem quite timely, given the current political climate. In today’s context, I think it’s even more important as a study in empathy, sympathy and for its unwavering conviction that people who do bad things are not always bad people but desperate ones and that people will defend their families no matter what the risk. This power shouldn’t be underestimated.

Last movie I watched: I have no idea. It might have been Home. It might not have been.

Last TV episode I watched: Smallville. I missed the season finale for this season (8 I think). I have to say, it’s very edge of your seat excitementy.

 

 

Child, first person narrator and still they die? Bold move, bold move

Lincoln and His Boys by Rosemary Wells

It is not often that a children’s book is narrated in first person by a child who dies. Actually, it’s not often that children die in children’s books at all really. But that’s exactly what happened in Lincoln and His Boys. Well done to the author for sticking to a touchy historical subject I suppose. Lincoln had four sons, and only one lived to adulthood.

I googled that.

Lincoln and his boys is basically a hyper patriotic look at Abraham Lincoln through the eyes of his two young sons first Willie, as Lincoln campaigns for the presidency and then Tad after his brother dies, during the Civil War.

I have no idea how exactly I came to possess this book, but I did, so I read it.

I’m not exactly an expert on the American Civil War or its major players. In fact, most of my knowledge probably comes from reading historical fiction – does that count as knowledge? – so I’m hesitant to be overly critical of this book.

What I will say is simplistic. It was an easy story of two boys that contained none of the complexities, personality and consequences of this massive and devastating conflict Because of that, I’d say its kind of a weird book. On the one hand, it isn’t a great introduction to the Civil War because it’s too pure and innocent, but it’s kind of a weird story just to read because you like it. I mean, there’s probably a few kids out there who just like relative historical accuracy  reading for themselves, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.

One thing I really did enjoy was the younger son, who has a cleft palate and his struggle to be understood and taken seriously when he had such a hard time speaking. As usual, having people who are different be highly visible is always a good thing.

I will say that once you’ve picked it up, it does make you curious. History isn’t only great men doing great things, its the everyday business of life and death and love and play and sorrow and the struggle to do what is right, even when that’s not a clear thing and that’s pretty compelling.

Also, he pictures were nice.

Last movie I watched:

Inside Out. Take her to the moon for me. SOB.

Last TV episode I watched:

Game of Thrones. My hand hurts just thinking about it.

 

Silence, talking and love

Deafening by Frances Itani

Full disclaimers: this is an adult book so it’s a little out of the norm for me, but in the name of being well rounded or something, I read it on the recommendation of my mother and it was beautiful.

Grania lost her hearing when she was very young after scarlet fever. Her childhood is happy, if silent, mostly because of the way her live is woven together with her family, particularly Mamo her grandmother and Tress her sister. With her family around her she navigates the hearing world by lip reading, some voice and a homemade version of sign language. But when she is nine years old, she’s sent away to a special school in Belleville, where deaf children learn not just to communicate but also the skills they will need to find good jobs.

Years later Grania meets, falls in love with and marries Jim, a hearing man. Despite the difficulties they face because of Grania’s disability, nothing is as terrible as Jim leaving to fight in the First World War. Oceans apart, both face the terrible cost of war.

To me, this story is about love, grief and the way we talk to the people we love. The love and grief are quite closely linked. Grania is witness to her sister, her mother and her grandmothers’ tragic marriage. Tress’s husband’s terrible maiming in the war pulls them further apart even then his death would have done. Her mother’s marriage to her father has simply turned stale as time as passed them, leaving both feeling lonely and isolated even when they are together. Mamo’s husband died the crossing from Ireland and was buried at sea, Mamo and her eldest daughter forced to continue on with the rest of her children. As each relationship comes upon something that cannot be overcome, Grania and Jim maintain their feelings for each other, despite the trauma Jim has endured, their closeness despite the distance and both overcome their struggles and find their way home.

Through all of this, there is great loss both to the war and the Spanish flu and the characters all flail n the face of the crippling agony of grief, each one seeking relief from their pain, through drinking or withdrawing or turning off or smashing broken plates but still there is some grief that is too big to live through, Mamo says often.

And underpinning all of this is the language of love and pain. Because Grania’s unique situation, her view of communication is totally different then other peoples. She sees talking as more like breathing, more like shapes and in her silent world lips alone make meaning. Her voice is a thing both part of her and not, so when she uses it she always has something worth hearing. Letters, the life line between Canada and the war, are both sacred and corruptible because they are all that Grania has to send to Jim but every time feels like a hope only, never a certainty – the boat could sink, it could get lost, Jim could die before they reached him, it’s all a risk to her. The most beautiful and profound way Jim and Grania communicate is through their own hand signals, through their breathing and be revealing their most intimate thoughts to each other. The writing is incredible beautiful and in a world where we can exchange words constantly but rarely ever communicate the story is very poignant.

It also won a whole bunch of Canadian literary awards, which it completely deserves, at least in my mind. A beautiful story about a terrible time.

Last movie I watched:

Contracted. I thought it was stupid. I mean, it’s a horror movie and it was pretty horrible. But the story was stupid, senseless and from a feminist angle completely awful.

Last TV episode I watched:

Downton Abby. Sybil, oh Sybil.

Royally screwed: Elizabeth I’s fictional diary

The Royal Diaries: Elizabeth I Red Rose of the House of Tudor by Kathryn Lasky

The Royal Diaries is a lengthy series of fictionalize accounts of real princesses written in the form of a diary. I have no idea why I picked this one particularly, although I do enjoy Tudor history, so I’m assuming that had something to do with it. I was not expecting great literature, just a piece of historical fiction written for girls, and in that, I was right. But it was still pretty good.

The story is of Princess Elizabeth, destined to become Queen Elizabeth I, near the end of her father, Henry VIII’S life. She starts writing in her diary because she’s lonely, exiled from court after she offends her father. The story follows her journey back to court, her relationship with her half siblings, Edward and Mary, some of her other friends, her relationship with her Catherine Parr and the other women she has called mother, and her own uncertain future, all the way through to the death of her father.

It wasn’t a masterpiece or anything. It was just a book for kids. A book meant to teach girls history in a sneaky way and to contextualize being a girl in a history that usually forgets them. This are good things, worth reading even if they aren’t staggering works of literature.

Two things that I thought were unusually nice about this book. One was the historical accuracy. This is not a Sexy-Tudor style depiction of the 1500s. Elizabeth regularly documents the way the court reeks from all the people and waste and rotting food in the castles, and they move to different courts regularly to escape the smell. She talks about the common diseases everyone catches and passes on, how rarely the she baths and how much she hates lice and fleas which infest every court. Spend time reading historical fiction and it’s easy to daydream about that time. Read this book and you’re so grateful you’re living now. Like, I can bath any time I want and I will never, ever stop being grateful for that.

I also enjoyed Elizabeth’s struggle to feel loved and accepted. Her father doesn’t have time for her particularly, with his coveted son and Mary, his oldest child – Elizabeth isn’t even the spare, she’s the daughter of the woman he executed for witchcraft.  By far the most intelligent of her siblings, she’s always striving for his love. Her newest mother Catherine Parr is invested in her future too and is the best mother she remembers, but even so, as Queen she’s busy and far away most of the time. Yet, Elizabeth’s loyalty to them both is absolute and all she wants is their love. You know, probably something a child from a broken home could really understand.

I’d recommend these books to kids with good reading skills, although there are some questions that might come up for older kids (Elizabeth mentions getting her period so ten bonus points for that, there’s a scandalous sexual affair that’s hinted at) but I think these are all good things.

Last movie I watched:

Milk. Everyone who gets confused about why Pride is a thing needs to watch that movie.

Last TV episode I watched:

Supernatural. This show used to be awesome. Now it’s just fun. But in a stupid way.

The awesomeness and awfulness of human beings

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Liesel is a young German girl in the early 1940s, and her story is so interesting that it attracts the attention of Death himself. And Death narrators her story to us.

And it’s amazing.

Hopefully everyone’s going to go read it before they see the movie, and with this optimism I will try not to include any major spoilers in this book.

On the way to her foster home, Liesel finds her young brother dead on the train. As she goes forth into her new life, she carries that trauma forward, into one of the most traumatic and terrifying historical events.

This book is amazing, it’s beautifully written and Death, as a character is incredible, so removed and moved by the incredible kindness and cruelty of us. And it did a really beautiful job of the war. Of the beauty of the world and humanity in the midst of crippling, merciless criticism of our own nature.

When we tell World War stories, they are often very much good guy versus bad  guy, them versus us, victim versus villain versus hero and The Book Thief doesn’t do that. It’s told from the point of view of innocent Germans, because those people lived and suffered and died. Some of them supported Hitler. Some of them didn’t. Some of them were afraid to resist because when you have to choose between trying to help someone knowing that it could lead to the imprisonment, torture and death of your family its not evil or even selfish to choose not to try. Some who resisted as best as as they could. This isn’t the story of a Schindler, who saved thousands of lives. It’s the story of a family who tried to save one, and each other. It’s a story of fathers making choices to save their family, choices that kill them. It’s the story of people who cannot recover from what they have witnessed and participated in. The Allies are our good guys, but they are responsible for the deaths of characters we love. The Jews are the victims, barely more than animals, but one of the worst dehumanizing scenes in the book is when the starving Jews fight each other over dried bread. Humanity isn’t one or the other.

The idea that there are innocents anywhere, even among the children who watch their loved ones die, just seems so laughable at the end of the story.

I’m not sure which shelf this book belongs on. It’s not a kids book. It might be a young adult book. I think it’s an important story for people to read. Because the way we talk about war, the way we have always talked about war doesn’t reflect the realities of it.

Death has a theory that words matter, a theme that runs through the book. So maybe, if we change our words and our stories we can change everything.

p.s. That’s an amazingly obnoxiously deep ending. I apologize.

Last movie I watched:

I have absolutely no idea.

Last TV show I watched:

Charmed! With a baby!