Sunday, September 24, 2017

When Books Went to War by Molly Manning

Source of book: I own this.

My wife was given this book by one of her family members. It looked interesting, so I decided to read it too.

In many ways, World War Two is the defining moment of the 20th Century. It was the last gasp of nationalism as a justification for war in Western Europe - really, the last strong assertion of 19th Century political philosophy, and the final fall of dictatorship in that region. True, it would live on in the nationalistic dictatorships of the USSR for another 50ish years, but Germany and Italy would transition to constitutional democracies thereafter, and Western Europe would enjoy an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity.

I have written before about how similar Nazism and Communism are to each other before. Both embody the idea of a nationalistic utopia attainable by totalitarianism and the rejection of globalist ideals - and ideas. In both cases, it was deemed necessary to purge the nation of “un-German” or “un-Soviet” books. This idea of ideological (and usually racial) “purity” is central to all totalitarian systems, including religious ones.

Thus, in 1933, after the Nazis took over German, mass book burnings took place. It is estimated that over 100 million books were destroyed. That many of the books deemed unacceptable were written by Jews was not coincidental. The parallel with Communism is likewise unmistakeable. Ideological purity demands the revocation of freedom of speech and freedom of thought. I will also mention that the cult group I spent my teens in recommended burning of certain books - and toys - that were deemed too evil to exist. (Such as, to name one author, J.R.R. Tolkien.) The totalitarian instinct is the same however it is expressed. 

 History is important...

When it became apparent that the United States would enter the war, certain visionary individuals realized that the war was not just one fought by weapons and bloodshed. It was, at its core, a war about ideas. As the Council on Books in Wartime - the organization founded to provide reading material to US soldiers - noted in an essay kicking off their effort, the fighting wasn’t just taking place on the field, but in the realm of ideas. They correctly noted that the single most destructive weapon in the war wasn’t a bomb, it was Mein Kampf. That book caused an entire nation - an educated nation no less - to burn the great books. And that book furthermore caused millions of otherwise decent people to turn on their countrymen and viciously exterminate millions.

The types of books the Nazis destroyed are interesting. Goebbels specifically targeted books deemed “progressive,” singling out books about pacifism, socialism, reform, and sexual freedom. Is it any surprise that today’s right, which tolerates - even embraces - open Nazi slogans and symbols wishes to target these same ideas? One of the startling things about reading the Nazi propaganda is just how similar it is to the “traditional values” propaganda today - the bullcrap the Culture Wars people keep peddling. Return to the glory days of the past. Racial and cultural purity. Women belong in their place and need to have more babies so that the “foreigners” don’t out reproduce them. Stop feeding the inferior races and classes. And so on. Nothing has changed - this poison is back with a vengeance right now.

And so it was back then. In the days before the war, there were a surprising number of Americans who were sympathetic to Nazi ideals. (Not least of which was the KKK - which today likewise is in sympathy with neo-Nazism.) White Supremacy was pretty open in society back in the 1930s and 1940s. As Selden Menefee’s book (and later radio dramatization) noted, “large segments of the population are more interested in keeping the Negro in his place than in keeping Hitler and Tojo in their places. The resulting dissention must be very gratifying to Dr. Goebbels.” In another telling segment, a Southern politician tells Menefee that there is no “racial question.” “There is white supremacy, and there always will be white supremacy. We have no patience with fellas in Washington, with their anti-lynching bills, their anti-poll-tax bills, and their anti-discrimination clauses in war contracts.” Again, it has been disturbing to see this basic idea raise its head - and come to power again.

Even some of those who weren’t openly pro-Nazi instead adopted isolationist ideas. The US should just stay out, and look out for its own interests first and last. (Sound familiar?) Men like Wendell Wilkie argued the opposite, that countries need to cooperate with each other in order to achieve lasting peace and mutual prosperity. (In other words, a more globalist view. I am shocked that, after a half century of relative peace, this idea is controversial. Back even a decade ago, conservative politicians at least agreed that mutual trade relations helped support a peaceful world. Make profit, not war, right?)

To counter these poisonous ideas which very nearly destroyed free society 75 years ago, a group of people set out to make sure that the fighting men of the US military had free access to the world of ideas - particularly those which the Nazis deplored. And they succeeded in an amazing way. Furthermore, these idealists hoped to counteract the forces of White Supremacy in our own country. When Books Went to War tells this story.

The story is pretty compelling. There certainly was a demand for books by the soldiers. The war (as with most modern wars) consisted of hours of waiting punctuated by moments of terror and chaos. Those long hours needed to be filled by something other than thinking about dying or killing, and books were the perfect solution. So books needed to be provided.

There were two main phases of the effort. The first was a volunteer collection of books from private individuals. Millions of books were donated and sent to the military units. This was both good and inadequate. The books filled a need for a while, but they worked best at training camps and headquarters - not so well in the field. First, most books at the time were larger hardbacks. They were difficult to carry, heavy, bulky, and didn’t stand up to combat well. Eventually, it became clear that more was needed.

With that in mind, the Council convinced Congress to appropriate funds, and the major publishers to provide books at a very low cost, and the Armed Services Edition series was created. Eventually, millions of copies of over 1300 titles were distributed in light, compact, durable paperbacks to the troops.

Titles were carefully selected to represent a broad range of topics, taste, and genre. Poetry, westerns, classics, non-fiction, bestsellers, and more were all part of the series. Care was taken to find titles that were in demand, and that the soldiers enjoyed.

One interesting and gratifying result of this program was that many soldiers who were not readers before the war became addicted to reading. There wasn’t much else to fill the time, and peer pressure also helped encourage everyone to read. As a result, the men who came back from the front were generally better read and informed than they would have been otherwise, and an entire generation discovered literate reading.

[Side note: unfortunately, this effect failed to take hold in subsequent generations. The Baby Boomers were the first television generation, and even today, they are the generation least likely to have read a book in the last year, to have read a book since college, and so on. Millennials are actually more likely to be readers.]

There were some interesting books among the many titles. Perhaps the most beloved was A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Also popular for nostalgic reasons was Chicken Every Sunday by Rosemary Taylor. I might have to seek that one out. Also notable was The Great Gatsby, which had been languishing in obscurity prior to the ASE program, but became wildly popular after it was “discovered” by the soldiers. I also have a fondness for the very first ASE book: The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N by Leo Rosten (originally under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross), one of my favorite humorous books - and one that humanized immigrants to me in a very real way.

There were some hiccups, however, in book selection. And, as is always the case when it comes to book controversies, the challenges came from the usual suspects: politics and religion.

On the politics side, the Republicans, horrified at the idea that Roosevelt might win a fourth term, snuck a bill through that essentially prohibited books with political ideas from being part of the ASE program. This was part of the greater fight over voting by soldiers - since most of them supported Roosevelt, active efforts were made to suppress their votes or influence their opinions in one direction or another. In what has to be one of the most impressive counteroffensives, libraries, publishers, and the armed forces leadership all pushed back against the bill. As the Council chairman at the time, Archibald Ogden, said, given the restrictions, all they would be able to publish was the Bobbsey Twins and Elsie Dinsmore. (That last one is darkly hilarious in retrospect. The Elsie Dinsmore books were super popular in the most Fundie homeschooling circles, of course. But they are far from free of politics. Rather, they are deeply racist and authoritarian. As in, if they are good Christians, black people will get to be white in heaven level racist. As in obey your abusive father and marry a man twice your age authoritarian.)

Fortunately, this counter effort was successful, resulting in the repeal of the bill. If anything, the Republican effort at suppression of political ideas backfired, particularly after it came to light that a German professor had predicted back in the 1930s that the Americans would ban their own books - the Nazis wouldn’t have to do it.

The other threat came from religion, specifically in the form of moralizers worrying about sexual content in some of the books. Some of these were not particularly high art, such as Forever Amber, a pulp bodice ripper. But the other book that came in for special censure was Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith, which told of an interracial relationship. Both books were at one time banned by the USPS - until Eleanor Roosevelt (rapidly becoming one of my heroes…) insisted the bans be lifted. In addition, the city of Boston banned them. Just in case you wondered where the phrase “banned in Boston” came from. Ogden stood firm on the subject, armed with the knowledge that the servicemen were on his side. He quoted one infantryman’s letter as follows:

“Pay no attention, absolutely no attention, to whatever organization tries to influence your selection of books. If the legion of decency approaches you, please leer at them in your most offensive manner, and tell them to stuff it.”

And the books that were challenged sold - as they generally tend to after an attempt to ban them. Ogden quipped, “It’s beginning to look as if all an author has to do to get into the armed forces library is to be banned in Boston.” Needless to say, this censorship attempt failed rather dramatically.

There was one issue, however, that did cause great consternation and loud complaints on the part of the soldiers. Occasionally, something would go wrong, and a book would turn up missing pages. I feel the pain, believe me. Nothing could be worse than getting partway through a book and not being able to finish it. Such mistakes were corrected, and soldiers which had an issue were given replacements.

The book concludes with some interesting information about the aftermath of the war. One of the key pieces of post-war legislation was the G.I. Bill, which provided free education to (most) veterans. Combined with the new-found love for books that the returning soldiers had and a thirst for knowledge (to the point where younger students complained they were wrecking the grading curve), the G. I. Bill led to a boom in skilled and educated workers in the 1950s - surely one of the contributing factors to the economic boom which ensued.

That said, the author correctly notes that not everyone was included. Because of segregated schools, African Americans did not have much in the way of opportunities to take advantage of the bill. Thus, racial inequality was increased. Likewise, women were not just ineligible, they were actively pushed out of the workforce to make way for the men.

Perhaps the best lesson to draw from this, though, is that investments in education and literacy pay dividends. Again, I am shocked that this is even controversial these days, and that state universities continually have to fight for adequate funding. But perhaps this too is a symptom of what ails the Boomers. Not valuing books much themselves, and benefiting from the prosperity the previous generation created, they haven’t been eager to pare back their own lifestyles to invest in the the Millennials, preferring to whine about how bad the kids all are. But, if they took a good hard look at the past, they might note that making America great requires an educated public, skilled workers, and investment of the public resources to make that happen.

It is mostly coincidence that I happened to finish this book at the beginning of Banned Books Week. But it fits.

The pattern of totalitarian systems of any age has been to suppress knowledge, eliminate dissent, and burn or ban books. In the war of ideas, knowledge is key - and empathy too. The best defense against the onslaught of fake news and hatemongering is real knowledge, real facts, and the ability to empathize with people outside the tribe. Books have always been crucial in this battle of ideas. Unlike clickbait articles or 140 character sound bites, books allow a bigger picture to be seen, people to be fully humanized, and ideas to be fully developed. Infowars and Stormfront are the Mein Kampf of our time, and the ideas haven’t really changed. They have just been re-packaged. One of the things that gives me optimism for the future is that younger people are more likely to be readers.

As this book shows, it isn’t just enough to have freedom to read. We must actually read, or we are missing the point. There is much for all of us to learn, and access to great ideas has never been easier. We owe it to ourselves, to others, and to our children to continue to learn and explore, and cultivate a love of knowledge, wisdom, and learning in our children.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Great Basin National Park

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.

Nevada is one of those states where everyone knows a city or two - and may well have been there - but the vast majority of the state remains unknown and unexplored. For Nevada, Las Vegas is the picture most of us have. Bright lights and golf courses in the middle of a searing desert, slot machines and half-naked chorus girls, Elvis and Liberace. Perhaps a vision of Reno, the scrawny little sister not quite as glam as the big sister. But these are just a very small slice of Nevada. Sure, the population mostly lives in these cities (¾ live in the metro Vegas area), but the great expanses of the state are usually not thought of at all.

This is a shame, as Nevada holds a lot of beauty and open spaces - and isn’t just hot desert either.

The name “Nevada” itself comes from the Spanish and means “snow-covered.” It isn’t really used in isolation, however: it is one half of “sierra nevada” - snow covered mountains. (The highest range in California is indeed the Sierra Nevada.) And the name makes sense. Nevada is the most mountainous state in the lower 48 by several measures. It has more named mountain ranges than any other, more peaks over 10,000 feet, and more than 30 over 11,000 feet.

Most of the state is in the “range and basin” part of the Great Basin Desert. This is a fascinating bit of geology. The Great Basin gets its name from the fact that within it, all rivers drain internally and never reach the ocean. The water all sinks into the ground or evaporates. The Great Basin extends beyond Nevada, of course. The most famous lake within it is the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The portion of California east of the Sierra Nevada - including Death Valley - is also mostly within the Great Basin.

“Range and Basin” is another matter. In the distant past, plate tectonics pushed up the Rocky Mountains. This compressive force raised much of the western North American plate to a fairly high altitude. Later, a shifting earth led to decompressive forces, and a large area spread apart. It didn’t just spread, however, it cracked into a series of blocks. Those blocks then tipped over. Imagine a stack of dominoes on its side in a box a bit too big for it. If they fall over, they will make a series of edges and valleys.

That’s basically what happened to make the Range and Basin formation. The result is pretty interesting to experience in person. Death Valley is the deepest of the valleys formed, but it is just one of dozens. The whole area consists of mountain ranges and valleys running north and south for hundreds of miles. Thus, if you want to go east to west (or vice versa), you go up and down and up and down over and over. But going north or south, you can settle into a fairly flat valley and drive perfectly straight for hours on end with beautiful mountains running on each side.

At the far eastern side of Nevada, about halfway up the state, there is a national park. Did you know that? Not too many do. Great Basin National Park is a fairly recent park - Congress elevated it to National Park status in 1986, during the Reagan administration. (You know, in those halcyon days when Republicans still believed in protecting wilderness rather than just despoiling it for profit…) Before that, it was known as the Lehman Caves National Monument - designated as such by president Warren Harding. (And that’s about the only good thing I have to say about Harding, who probably was the most corrupt president in American history. Although we may be about to set a new record.) The caves are indeed worth protecting, but there is more too.

Great Basin National Park contains Nevada’s highest mountain, Wheeler Peak, at 13,063 feet. Okay, so that is debatable. Boundary Peak is on the California-Nevada border, but it is considered a sub-peak of Montgomery Peak in California. Make of that what you will. Wheeler Peak is notable for being easy to summit - there is a trail all the way to the top, and you do not need rock climbing or mountaineering skills. I didn’t get a chance to hike it this visit, but I do wish to hike it next time. I have yet to summit anything over 13,000 feet, so this one is definitely on my list. 

 Wheeler Peak is the one to the right.

The peak itself is connected to one of the longer mountain ranges, but it stands far above the rest. From the east side (which is where the access is), it appears to rise out of nowhere in a flat valley. 

 Looking west from Baker, NV. Wheeler Peak is in the center background.

On the upper flank of the mountain, at near the 11,000 foot line, is one of two ancient Bristlecone Pine forests. The other is in the White Mountains (also Range and Basin) in eastern California. (I have visited there - I may have to write about it eventually.) The Bristlecone Pine is the oldest living non-clonal organism. Some of the trees here are nearly 5,000 years old. Bristlecones are really amazing to see in person. Because of their slow growth in inhospitable environments, they twist into fantastic and surreal shapes as they grow old. Most of the tree may die, while just a sliver of bark covers one side - and this sliver will continue to grow for thousands of years in some cases. Great Basin NP is a good place to see these trees. However, I prefer the California location both because it is closer to me and because there is a much larger and accessible grove so you can see more trees up close. But by all means go see the ones at Great Basin.
My boys with a Bristlecone about 3200 years old. The left side is still growing. 

This is the iconic tree that graces many postcards. It is dead now, but it has stood like this for over a thousand years. These trees do not decay quickly, and some of the wood here is over ten thousand years old. This is one of my favorite shots of all the ones I got.
Other things to see include a small glacier - we hiked most of the way before impending thunderstorms threatened. The mountain makes its own weather, so summer storms are a common occurrence. The forest is also lovely, with lots of Engelmann Spruce, which we don’t see much in California. 

 Small glacier at the head of the cirque.

 Engelmann Spruce cones.

 Clark's Nutcracker

 Wild turkeys

 One of my favorite pictures. 

 Some really big ears.

 A magical aspen forest

 Meadow, forest, cirque, and Wheeler Peak on the right.

 The best part of the park, however, is probably the cave. The Lehman Caves are located near the “base” of the mountain, at around 6,800 feet elevation. This statement should give an indication of how high the valleys are in Nevada. Anyway, the cave is pretty amazing. I love caves, and have been in quite a few, mostly in California, but also in Arizona, Tennessee, Texas, and Oregon. I think that of all the ones I have seen, Lehman is the best. It is pretty large, but the passages are narrow enough that most of the formations are close enough to see very well. And the formations! It’s not just that they are nice, but that there is such a wide variety. Pretty much anything you see in a cave is there, including rarer formations like “cave shields.” (Google the term, and Lehman Caves will come up…) I have been in caves with more of each formation. For most formations, I can think of specific examples in other caves that are fantastic. But I can’t really think of any other cave with all of them in the same place. 
 Cave formations
Cave Shield
Unfortunately, because we saw this park on our way to see the solar eclipse, we only had one day to explore it. I hiked about six miles in addition to the cave, but it would have been nice to have had time to explore more - and maybe even hike to the peak. The campgrounds seem rather nice, but you can’t reserve them, so it might be risky to drive up and hope. We reserved a site at a local RV park, which was okay as a base camp, but not spectacular as a campsite. When we return, I will probably camp some place on the way up, like Cathedral Gorge State Park, then get up early and try to grab a site on a weekday morning.

Also important for planning purposes: the nearest (and pretty much only) town is Baker, Nevada, which is extremely small. Count on bringing your food, as options are limited.  

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Woman In Black (play) by Stephen Malatratt

Just to be clear, this post is about the 1987 stage play by Stephen Malatratt, not the original 1983 book by Susan Hill, the 1989 television movie with the screenplay by Nigel Kneale, or the 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe. I believe the book is the source for all three, and the films are not based on the play.

The Woman In Black has been playing continuously in London since 1989, making it the second longest running play there - second only to The Mousetrap, which has been running since 1952 (!) By the way, I have seen The Mousetrap in London (back in 1999). Yes it is good. No I won’t reveal the ending.

The stage version of The Woman In Black is interesting in that it is intentionally minimalist. There are only two credited actors - more on that later. The setting is a theater, and while some props are used, most of the props are expected to be imagined by the audience, from the existence of a dog on down. There is no real “set.” Sound effects fill in the gaps. Even the way the parts are played is kind of unusual.

Let me see if I can coherently explain the framing device. Arthur Kipps is a solicitor (one of the British kinds of lawyers, for those not familiar with that system) who is trying to recover from a traumatic experience that happened to him when he was young. He seeks out the assistance of an actor (who remains unnamed) to help him “perform” the story for his friends and family, so they can understand what has happened - and so that Kipps can, he hopes, finally put his trauma to rest. The actor insists that the best way to do this is to have himself (the actor) perform the part of Kipps, while Kipps plays all the other parts in the drama. Yes, this is a bit confusing at first, but it actually works, and makes for an interesting interplay between the two.

Because of this framing device, the actor playing Kipps has to be an actor playing a non-actor acting multiple parts. Which isn’t easy. Kipps also has to develop from a rank amateur who is a terrible actor into someone who convincingly plays a whole range of characters, all while watching the other person play his own character.

At its core, however, The Woman In Black is fairly standard Gothic Horror - it uses all the proper tropes from the foggy and remote location in northeast England to the dead child to the lurid backstory. It isn’t exactly groundbreaking on plot or atmosphere, but done well, it makes for an effective play.  

Here is the basic setup: Kipps is sent by his boss to sort through the papers of a recently deceased client, the reclusive and mysterious Mrs. Alice Drablow. At the funeral, Kipps sees a mysterious woman in black - one that everyone else denies seeing. Later, while at the house out on the marsh, he sees and experiences more supernatural manifestations, which eventually lead him to the truth of the past - and a deadly threat. I won’t reveal more than that.

I saw this play in large part because my second daughter loves scary and suspenseful stuff and really wanted to see this one. I also took my eldest daughter and eldest son, as they were old enough to enjoy a scary thrill. All three loved it.

I have mentioned The Empty Space in many prior posts. It is, shall we say, a gem of our local community, and one of my favorite places to see live drama. Small size, modest budgets, but high artistic values and devoted actors and staff make for consistently excellent and imaginative productions. In this case, the acting was strong, and the staging made for great suspense and atmosphere.

The part of Mr. Kipps the person was played by Paul Sosa, who we previously saw at Cal State Bakersfield’s production of Pippin. In this play, he had a lot to do. The opening scene, where he is (very awkwardly) reading the introduction to his own drama is fantastic. You honestly could believe that Sosa cannot read a line to save his life. Of course, we know better, but he was entirely convincing at the beginning. Later, he has to cover a plethora of parts. This he does hesitantly at first, but gradually grows more and more comfortable with acting. This to me was the most impressive part of the play. To portray the development of skill and enthusiasm like that took superb control and focus throughout. Sosa has professional experience in Los Angeles, but is now teaching English at a local middle school. 

 Daniel Korth in character as Mr. Kipps, and Paul Sosa as Mr. Kipps playing "Keckwick," a local villager.

The other part was played by Daniel Korth, who I do not believe I have seen before. This was his Empty Space debut, and I do not recall seeing him anywhere else locally. Korth was apparently one of the founders of Pop Up Theater LA, so he too is a professional veteran. He also gave a compelling performance. His job required that he sell the horror and suspense despite the lack of spooky music or special effects. His voice, his body, and especially his face had to convey all that. And this while he was playing an actor playing the part of Mr. Kipps. So he switched in and out of character, so to speak. The rehearsals of the “play within the play” often went wrong when the “real” Mr. Kipps forgot lines, or fell out of character, so Korth had to go from portraying the terror of the moment right back into the actor trying to coach the non-actor. My kids commented that it must have been difficult to keep a straight face while doing all that. I agree. This is one reason I love live theater - particularly in a small venue where you can see every detail. There is something visceral about seeing good acting up close. 

 Daniel Korth and Paul Sosa

There is one other part in the play, but it is not credited. There is an actual “Woman In Black” in the play. She appears where her character should, but does not speak until the climactic scene. However, she is not “officially” a part of the play. She is not supposed to actually exist, and the fact that we, the audience have seen her is a portent of disaster for us. In the Empty Space version, they do not even credit the actor as “Vision” as she is credited in the London production. And honestly, between the makeup and the black veil, I am not sure who the actor was. Furthermore, she does not appear in the photo gallery at all, let alone with a tag. Her existence is a mystery, I suppose. Whoever she is, whether she exists or not except in our collective imagination, she played her part well.

The Woman In Black runs this Friday and Saturday, and then it is gone. If you live here in Bakersfield and need an idea for a creepy date, go see it.

Monday, September 18, 2017

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This book wasn’t a Newbery medalist, but it did win an honorable mention back in 2013. I have mentioned before that we are listening (in no particularly organized manner) to various Newbery books that look interesting. I can’t remember exactly why I added this one to the list, but it probably just sounded interesting. 

This book is a historical novel, set in Wisconsin in 1871. Actually, the whole book was inspired by the author reading a history of the Passenger Pigeon, a bird that once numbered in the billions in the North America, but was exterminated by the early 1900s by a combination of hunting and habitat destruction. It was one of the first ecological disasters to come to the attention of Americans, and was one of the forces behind the movement to protect places and species

 Audubon's illustration of the Passenger Pigeon. Audubon's book is referenced in One Came Home.

Anyway, Amy Timberlake read about the pigeons, and the idea for a novel started taking shape. The book centers around one of the last big pigeon migrations and nestings. Pigeons are worked into the narrative from beginning to end, as is the question of the ethics of killing.

The book, though, isn’t primarily a story about birds. It is a mystery and psychological coming of age story. It opens in kind of the middle of the story with the funeral of young Agatha Burkhardt. The story is told by Georgie Burkhardt, the younger sister. She is, to put it mildly, an unreliable narrator, and delightfully lacking in self-awareness.

Georgie is convinced that the body that was found isn’t her sister, and that Agatha is alive. The book in fact opens with that idea:

“So it comes to this, I remember thinking on Wednesday, June 7, 1871. The date sticks in my mind because it was the day of my sister’s first funeral, and I knew it wasn’t her last - which is why I left.”

We don’t find out the rest of the back story until near the end of the book though. Georgie tells of the past through a series of flashbacks, but the actions of other characters are hidden for longer. What is clear early on, however, is that there is a love triangle of sorts. Well, more like a love quadrilateral if you count Georgie, who isn’t eager to have her sister marry and move away.

Billy McCabe, the eldest son of the Sheriff, has proposed to Agatha, and she turned him down. Not too long after, the banker, the richest man in town, Mr. Benjamin Olmstead, comes courting Agatha. He has money, and a fantastic library, and Agatha seems smitten.

Then Georgie sees Agatha kiss Billy, and squeals to Mr. Olmstead, who throws Agatha over. Soon afterward, Agatha runs away from home with some pigeon hunters, and a few weeks later, and badly decayed and scavenged body wearing Agatha’s dress is discovered several dozen miles out of town.

Georgie is both sure that Agatha is alive and worried that if Agatha really is dead, that she is responsible for the death. But she isn’t the only one. Georgie runs away herself, having attempted to rent a horse. Instead, Billy McCabe lends her a mule and insists on accompanying her on her quest to find the truth. And Billy has his own secrets and his own guilt.

By the end of the book, the two will have survived a cougar, had a run-in with counterfeiters, discovered useful information, found out just how good of a shot Georgie is, and spent most of the time fighting.

Georgie isn’t the most pleasant character. She is actually fairly obnoxious, honestly, with a perpetual chip on her shoulder. But she does kind of have reasons. She has unresolved guilt, and grief she can’t really face. And she is all of thirteen and has faced with a lot of adversity and responsibility before she can really handle it.

Billy is a great character. He is by no means a perfect person, but he is pretty steady for nineteen. He also has a lot of patience for Georgie, even when she is frustrating. He also has a kind of laconic way of communicating which seems both realistic and suited to his place in the story.

I’ll stop with that as far as plot goes. There are a number of twists, and that is part of the fun. It is quite a suspenseful book - and definitely on the young adult side of the violence line, at least for modern books. My kids were okay with decayed bodies with faces eaten by wild animals, and screaming cougars, and broken ribs, and thumbs shot off. But your kids might vary.

This book started off kind of dark and weird in some ways. (When MY kids mention that it is dark, you know it really is.) But after the start, the mystery took hold, and the humor started showing through. By the end, we were really engrossed in the story, and really cared about the characters. I thought it was a strong book in a year in which we have listened to a lot of good ones. Anyone who says that children’s fiction is all junk this century, unlike the supposed glory days of the 1950s and 1960s probably needs to visit a library and ask for Newbery books. Sure, there is fluff, as there always has been. But the best of today’s fiction has strong, memorable characters, imaginative settings (who saw pigeons as the basis for a story?), and psychologically astute writing. 

I should also mention Tara Sands, whose voice in the audiobook edition is fantastic. She went beyond the printed words to bring the characters to life. Billy in particular was marvelous, sounding like the character should, and totally different from the others. I also appreciated the Wisconsin dialect and accent. This particular book is one of the best audiobooks I have heard this year, and Sands is the reason why.

If your kids can take the unpleasant stuff, give this a try. Otherwise, teens would likely find this one interesting.

I strongly recommend reading the author’s note at the end, which tells of the pigeon inspiration, gives some of the history, and explains what is fiction and what is fact in the book. She certainly did outstanding research, and writes about pigeons with a genuine affection.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

We have enjoyed a number of Gary Paulsen books over the last several years, starting with the Hatchet series (we have also read The River and Brian’s Winter), then progressing to his humorous works like Masters of Disaster and the Kevin series. One thing that can be said about Paulsen is that he writes well in a variety of genres. Hatchet is a survival series that draws on Paulsen’s extensive woodland experience, while his comedies have their genesis in his childhood. We had not, however, read any of his historical fiction before this book. 

Woods Runner is set during the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, and is from the perspective of Samuel, a 13 year old boy living on the frontier. After British soldiers burn down his home and village, killing most of the inhabitants, but kidnapping his parents, Samuel sets out on a quest to find them. As the one member of his family with tracking and hunting skills, he is well suited to the task, but he is also young and inexperienced with people and cities.

After surviving a hit from a tomahawk, he rescues a young girl who barely escapes being murdered along with her family by Hessians, and is aided by an old peddler who works as a rebel spy.

This is a fairly short book, so I won’t give away more than that.

As always, Paulsen has researched well, and the details are excellent. From the functioning of a flintlock rifle to the makeshift prisons in New York City, Paulsen’s grasp of how things work and where they are located shows. (I care about stuff like this, obviously…)

This is a Young Adult book, so there is some graphic violence in it. Samuel has to locate and bury the bodies of his neighbors, who have been run through with bayonets. The Hessians shoot down Annie’s parents in cold blood as she watches, then runs for her life. Prisoners die of starvation, disease, and injuries. Paulsen describes gangrene and infected bullet wounds. He isn’t unnecessarily graphic, though. He just doesn’t flinch in describing stuff. For my kids, that was fine - they already have a nurse for a mother, so our dinner conversations can be, well, interesting. But yours may vary.

The bottom line is obvious: war is hell, and makes demons of us. There is ample evidence of British and Hessian soldiers targeting civilians for murder and pillage during the war, and the Americans weren’t much better - they just had fewer targets. I think Paulsen also raises the issue of mercenaries in general. Those who fight for hire, rather than for country, tend to be the worst sorts: those who enjoy killing enough to do it for a living, rather than out of a perceived necessity. Thus, they are more likely to be indiscriminate in their murder, easily killing older people, women, and children. To be sure, ordinary soldiers do this too, but not to the same extent or as easily. One of the traumas of Vietnam was the civilian body count. Many decent men never got over what they did in the fog of war. Paulsen is not pro-war, and it shows. But he is also an American, and he is on the side of the Rebels in this war. It is hard to blame him, honestly, particularly since I too am an American, and believe that the Revolution set a precedent for representative government that has swept most of the world. It was the first real loss for monarchy and colonialism, even if it failed to live up to the ideal of all humans created equal. But the cost was great, as Paulsen reminds us, and war is mostly senseless violence and depravity when you get down to it. Particularly striking was just how high casualty counts were in the conflict - between infections and disease, about half of the soldiers on each side died. That’s pretty horrific.

Paulsen also portrays the horror of killing. Just as in Hatchet and its sequels, Brian must kill to live, but never grows to like causing death, Samuel must kill or be killed, but he loathes it, eventually choosing to work as a doctor rather than a soldier.

A detail that was a good bit more fun, though, was the network of spies and messengers. This is truly one of the overlooked reasons that the underdogs won this war. The Brits had far superior firepower, but they lacked the ability to communicate effectively. With difficulty coordinating troops, individual units were vulnerable to surprise attacks. In addition to the adage of “don’t get ahead of your supply lines” we might add “don’t go beyond your communications network.”

As usual, I definitely recommend Paulsen for reliably well written and compelling books.