Category Archives: Historical

Dead End in Norvelt – Jack Gantos

13541514Dead End in Norvelt – Jack Gantos

Winner of the Newbery Medal 2012, Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2011.

Middle Grade – Readers 10 – 13+

When Jack Gantos was seven, his favourite game was to pretend he was on fire and roll down a hill to put the flames out – and that explains a lot, really. There’s not a lot of time to reflect, in his novels. Usually, you’re on fire and rolling down the hill before you’ve really decided whether or not you’re going to play the game. Things happen at break neck speed, with the odd pause to get yourself back up to the top of the hill, ready to roll for your life again. (This game, by the way, never seems to wear out. I watched a group of 8 year olds playing it the other day. Do you remember the sheer pleasure of seeing how fast you could roll, how many kids you could bump into on the way, and the smell of the grass – especially if it was damp and had just been cut.)

This novel has more than an element of the ‘do you remember’ about it. It is nostalgic for  1962, small town, America. Norvelt has a special history in that it was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt (hence Norvelt) for families who were struggling financially. To be honest, at times it does feel a little self-conscious about ensuring you know when it is set – for example, ‘It was a good thing John Glenn had orbited the earth back in February.’ And, of course, JFK is still alive. But it does well to introduce a version of the early 1960’s small town America to today’s young readers. ‘My uncle who had painted the pony claimed he had seen a UFO come down over that very same hill before the drive-in was built. He was in the newspaper and said he had ‘touched’ the UFO and that it was ‘covered in a strange Martian language that looked like chicken feet.’ My dad called my uncle a nut, but it wasn’t so nutty when the army sent troops and a big truck to take the mysterious UFO away and afterward military police went door-to-door to all the little towns around here, warning people not to talk about ‘the fallen object’ with any strangers as they might be Russian spies.’ Without going into the politics in depth, the reader gets a sense of the cold war, space as the next frontier, and a more censored world, possible in a less technological era.

It is the golden rule of middle grade fiction that, if you haven’t killed off the parents, they must be incredibly unfair, and unwilling to listen to reason. Certainly they will be misguided. Maybe they are even a bit mad.  Probably they are so busy in their own lives that they barely notice the antics of the hero, who has the mindboggling challenge of needing to put the world to rights, without anyone noticing that it wasn’t right in the first place. No one must know anything is wrong, because usually it is the fault of the hero, who had a misguided moment of klutziness, whilst doing something forbidden. Things get worse before they get better, despite the best intentions of our hero, but in the end… well, I’d hate to ruin a good story, so I’ll stop right there.

Jack is not so much a klutz, as a bit day dreamy, ‘because my mind wanders in the morning my feet are always a few steps ahead of me…’ When we first meet him he is on a picnic table in his back yard, with his father’s WW2 Japanese war souvenirs, watching a drive-in war movie, using the Japanese binoculars. Jack also has his father’s sniper rifle, and the movie enemies are for target practice, ‘because Dad said I had to get ready to fight off the Russian Commies who had already sneaked into the country and were planning to launch a surprise attack.’ Jack doesn’t realise that the rifle is loaded and one thing leads to another, which leads to Miss Volker dropping her hearing aid down the toilet, and the town plumber, who is also the local ambulance driver, roaring up to Miss Volker’s house in the ambulance to help.

Mom now has Jack over a barrel, so to speak, since Dad will blow a fuse if he knows Jack has been playing with his war souvenirs, and especially that he broke the rifle safety rules. Jack is mystified as to how the gun came to be loaded, but accepts the error of his ways, and the inevitability of a severe consequence. Mom grounds him until his father returns, with the only exception being that he is allowed to leave the house to help out their eccentric octogenarian neighbour, Miss Volker. It turns out that Miss Volker needs him because, due to her severely arthritic hands, she is unable to write anymore. She has Jack scribe the obituaries of the elderly townspeople, who suddenly seem to be dropping like flies.

Unfortunately for Jack, when Dad comes back he has an agenda of his own that involves Jack mowing down Mom’s cornfield. Dad says Jack must mow it down. Mom says Jack mustn’t. The reader knows Jack can’t win this one, and feels the injustice. Jack mows down the corn and is grounded for the rest of summer, by his mother. Jack’s adventures might well make a great read aloud – if you can stand all the blood and gory bits – Jack’s nose bleeds constantly, his best friend’s father owns a funeral parlour, a Hell’s Angel motorcycle club member is flattened by a truck, and several elderly residents are found dead. Jack’s errands for Miss Volker are often dubious, if not downright dangerous and law breaking. He dresses up as the grim reaper to break into a house where Miss Volker suspects a senior citizen lies dead. She needs him to check, so that she can write the obit. He drives her car round town at break neck speed, and buys 1080 poison from the hardware store to kill the rats in her basement. There is also the mystery of why the town’s elderly are suddenly dying…

I have a couple of boys lined up to read this one over the next couple of weeks – they have already read the blurb and are keen. I’m keen to see what they think. I think it’s a great read, but I’m interested to know if there’s just a bit much history tucked into the book. As any parent knows, there are only so many green things you can hide in something yummy before it is spotted for the vegetable that it is.

Speaking of which, here’s a titbit for the Kiwi’s. Jack is reading about Kennedy during WW2.  Apparently, ‘Kennedy and his torpedo boat crew were on night patrol in the sea around the Solomon Islands when a Japanese destroyer came roaring at full speed out of the mist and sliced their boat clean in half. Eleven men survived the collision but some were burned badly from the fuel fire that took place after the crash. Kennedy had been hurled across the deck and fractured a vertebrae in his back but he could still move.

Kennedy tied one end of a belt onto the most wounded man’s lifejacket and put the other end of the belt in his own mouth and swam the breaststroke for five hours before he got the man to the island. There was no food or fresh water…(lots of things happen and many days pass but…) But just before the men lost all hope, the native islanders tracked them down. They were friendly and wanted to help so Kennedy scratched a rescue note on a coconut and gave it to the islanders, who paddled their war canoe to an Allied base. More days passed, and just when Kennedy and his men thought they all would die, they were rescued by soldiers from New Zealand.’

There is a sequel to this book, ‘From Norvelt to Nowhere’, so if this goes down well, then I may buy it.

Read some other reviews here:

Betsy Bird’s Review

Book Browsers Review

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Boys' Reading, Children 10+, coming of age, Five stars, Historical, humour, Middle Grade Fiction, Prize winners

Far From Home – Na’ima B Robert

Far From HomeFar From Home – Na’ima B Robert (2011)

This book was given to me to read by a student in one of my English classes.

It is a challenging read.  The author initially introduces us to Tariro, daughter of the Baobab.  Tariro tells the stories of her people, and the simple explanations given really help to develop an empathy in the reader.  She explains, in her uncle’s voice

‘Now, Lobengula, son of Mzilikazi, king of the Ndebele, had grown concerned about all these varungu – the Boers, the Portuguese, the British – bothering him, wanting him to let them look for gold and other minerals in his territory. But, because he trusted the British Queen’s representative, he finally agreed to sign a document called the Rudd Concession, giving the mining rights they wanted.’

Cecil John Rhodes was granted a charter by Queen Victoria, allowing him to run the country on behalf of Britain. As Tariro quite rightly asks,

‘Who gave her the authority to decide our fate?’ I asked.  ‘We have never seen her.  We did not accept her as our queen.

The removals of the Karanga people, Tariro’s people, from the land, are violent and merciless.  Tariro and her family suffer terribly, with the loss of many people and the removal to poor land with no rights to cut down trees, or to irrigate.  And the girls sent to fetch water from the river live in constant danger of attack from the white men.  (In Maori, a karanga is a spiritual call to welcome, or summon, the manuhiri – visitors – on to a Marae.  It is a thread between the two women, one tangata whenua and one manuhiri, calling through the passages of time.  This felt really appropriate to me,as this novel is so much about the calls of woman to woman, and identity through time and place).  A good friend of mine who speaks Shona, tells me that Maori and Shona languages have unexpected connection.

Tariro suffers such an attack, and the result is a daughter, Tawona.  Despite her hatred of the man, Ian Watson, Tariro loves her daughter, and brings her up in the Karanga way, as best she can, suffering the deprivations that they do.

However, as time passes, discontent grows, and the African National Congress grows and develops.  The Karanga, and other displaced African people, build an army and start to reclaim their land.  This is also the time of Robert Mugabe.  Tariro becomes involved and fights in the battles as a soldier.  This is an historic time, where the people of Zimbabwe not only reclaim their land but also reclaim their name.

About two thirds of the way through the novel, we are introduced to Katie, the white and legitimate daughter of Ian Watson, and the White African version of events is told.  To be fair, it is difficult for the reader to develop a lot of empathy with Katie and her family.  Our first and loyal affiliation is to the family we know and love already, who were so badly treated by her white ancestors and by her father.  Racism is conveyed very effectively, especially in moments where Katie herself acts in ways that reflect her upbringing, rather than what she learns.  I guess this could be uncomfortable reading for some, but it reflects very much a perspective that was real.  What the author attempts to do is to help us understand why Katie might feel that she has had her heritage ripped away from her.  She is not successful in this.  But I did find myself thinking that it wasn’t Katie’s fault she was born into the family and the place that she was.

This novel demands that the reader asks some really difficult questions of themselves and their lives.  The author bravely attempts to present two sides of a story that she cannot really feel in her heart.  While this is courageous, I think ultimately Katie as a character fails.  She is relatively two-dimensional compared to Tariro or Tawona.  I’m not sure that is entirely fair, but it is a brave attempt to acknowledge the possibility of another perspective to this story.

This is a very well written book that taught me much about the recent history of Zimbabwe.  I will be asking my friend who grew up in Zimbabwe, to read it and tell me his view.

Because of the violent acts that happen within the story, I feel this is probably a Young Adult / Adult novel.  I would rate it a 4/5 stars.

Leave a comment

Filed under Children 12+, Four stars, Historical, Young Adult

Chains – Laurie Halse Anderson

ChainsChains – Laurie Halse Anderson (2009).

National Book Award Nominee for Young People’s Literature (2008), Scott O’Dell Award (2009), Cybils Award for Middle Grade Fiction (2009), An ALA Notable Children’s Book for Older Readers (2009), Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award Nominee (2011) …more

South Carolina Book Award Nominee for Junior Book Award (2011), TAYSHAS High School Reading List (2010)

Laurie Halse Anderson is not a writer I had read before this book.  The book was recommended to me by a young reader in one of my English classes.  Since it was the 4th of July that day, and since I don’t know an awful lot about the Revolutionary War for American Independence, I thought I would give it a go.

‘Chains’ is the story of Isabel (13) and Ruth (5), slaves to Miss Mary Finch, 1776.  Isabel narrates the story, with an intelligent, observant and challenging voice.  At the beginning of the book we are at the funeral of Miss Mary Finch, with the Pastor and Mr Robert Finch, Mary’s nephew.

[Mr Robert] had showed up a few weeks earlier to visit Miss Mary Finch, his aunt and only living relation.  He looked around her tidy farm, listened to her ragged, wet cough, and moved in.  Miss Mary wasn’t even cold on her deathbed when he helped himself to the coins in her strongbox.

The first sense we get of the terrible lack of empowerment for slaves is when Isabel wants to run ahead of the coffin to visit the grave of her mother.  The Pastor has to ask for permission for her to do this, since Isabel does not even have the right to speak to a white man.

‘The child wants to run ahead,’ Pastor explained to him.  ‘She has kin buried there.  Do you give leave for a quick visit?’

Mr Robert’s mouth tightened like a rope pulled taut.

What an image – the rope – symbolic not just of the tethering of slave to the white man, but the implicit image of a man’s right to make a decision about a girl’s life, and, of course, hanging.  In just one line, the author demonstrates vividly the power the white man has and the threat of danger for Isabel, or any slave, in the smallest of actions.

At first, Isabel believes that she and Ruth are now freed.  After all, Miss Mary Finch had freed the girls in her will and the will was with her lawyer.  And again, here are some of the profound truths of slavery.  There are so many people in this book who are in a position to help Isabel, but they either can’t summon the energy, or are too afraid for their own position.  Here, Pastor Weeks, whom we should assume perhaps as a man of the cloth, is a good man, listens to Isabel, and initially tries to reason with Mr Robert.

Pastor Weeks held up his hand. ‘It’s true.  Your aunt had some odd notions.  She taught the child [to read] herself.  I disapproved, of course.  Only leads to trouble.’

I spoke up again. ‘We’re to be freed, sir.  The lawyer, Mr Cornell, he’ll tell you.  Ruth and me, we’re going to get work and a place of our own to sleep.’

Unfortunately for Isabel and Ruth, the lawyer left for Boston before the blockade.

‘The girl is lying, then,’ Mr Robert said. ‘She knows the lawyer is absent and her cause cannot be proved.  The sooner I’m rid of her, the better.’

…Pastor Weeks fumbled with the latch on his Bible.  ‘You and your sister belong to Mr Robert now.  he’ll be a good master to you.’…The minister placed the Bible in his leather satchel and pulled it up over his shoulder.  He studied the ground, his hands, Mr Robert’s horse and the clouds.  He did not look at me.  ‘You’ll be wanting to bring their shoes and blankets,’ he finally said. ‘They’ll fetch a better price that way.’

Essentially Ruth and Isabel are treated as possessions, and not even possessions of value.  They end up being bought by Mister and Missus Lockton, supporters of the King, and are taken to New York.  Mr Lockton is not as cruel and malicious towards the girls as Missus Lockton, but he is apathetic towards the girls’ care.  Missus Lockton addresses her lack of power and the cruel behaviour of her husband towards her in her treatment of the girls.

Several dreadful incidents occur.  Isabel decides that she needs to take action, and becomes a spy for the Patriots.  How dangerous this was cannot be underestimated.  And you really feel the danger in this book, illustrated through the writing:

I had only to open the gate latch and step out.

My hand would not move.

If I opened the gate I would be a criminal. Slaves were not allowed out after sunset without a pass from a master. Anyone who caught me could take me to the jail. If I opened the gate, a judge could order me flogged. If I opened the gate, there was no telling what punishment Madam would demand.

If I opened the gate, I might die of fright.

I leaned my head against the gate.  I could not open the gate, but I had to open the gate.

I learned a lot about the Revolutionary War and the treatment of slaves as I read, although, not being American, it could get confusing at times.  I suspect children reading this might need some background knowledge to help with their comprehension.

The quotes at the beginning of the chapters were interesting, and helped me to contextualise events a little, although I did still have to do a little bit of online research to get my head around some critical dates.

I highly recommend this book, although with some of the violent acts in it, I feel it needs to be read with a parent or teacher if the children are younger, providing opportunity to discuss the context of these actions, or children from about 10+yrs could read it independently.

There is a very good summary of the book, and the violent acts in it as the following link: Parental Book Reviews – Chains

Betsy Bird, of fuse8productions also reviews the book here.

Now, I am off to watch ‘Lincoln’ in the hope that it furthers my American History education somewhat.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Children 10+, Five stars, Historical, Prize winners, Read Aloud