Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy family’s hard and happy times in the 1950s by Maggie Smith-Bendell

Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy family’s hard and happy times on the road in the 1950s

Maggie Smith-Bendell (Adult Biography)

Many of us were born out on the pea fields. I was born on the pea field at Thurloxton, just up the road towards Bridgwater, so I felt right at home in the peas. Me dad always said that the best pickers were born in the fields, but I knew that was a load of bull to get me to pick faster. He must have thought me daft.

Born the second of eight children, Maggie was a Traveller—where working was a mainstay, where horses were treated better than family, and the seasons determined where you parked your wagon and for how long. It was a life of traditions, culture, and family, but being Romani also meant a way of life met with resistance, discrimination, and abuse. As a child, Maggie flourished in her surroundings. As an adult, she would spend every waking hour fighting to protect and maintain a culture and a people that were under never-ending assault.   

Maggie Smith-Bendell’s biography is a fascinating and rare look into the lives of the Romani Gypsy. Maggie lived within an incredibly tightknit community that valued tradition and thrived on the open road. Their nomadic lifestyle brought plenty of adventure, danger, uncertainty, and joy, but also its share of mistrust and mistreatment from the gorgies (non-Romani people) living in the towns where the Romani came to trade, shop, and sell their goods. Maggie’s words are so mesmerizing and poignant, that we somehow become immersed in her wonderful Gypsy world: smelling the smoke from the family’s campfire; feeling the blackberry brambles tear at our flesh; and weeping as we follow a casket moving slowly to its final resting place. It’s quite an accomplishment given what little formal education she received.

Perhaps the most inspirational part of Maggie’s story was her tireless advocacy work on behalf of the Romani people and her commitment to preserving their culture. Although she could have settled for a quiet, married life raising her children, she chose to dedicate her adult life to fighting for the Romani’s right to own and live upon their own land and to help them acquire homes, an education for their children, and healthcare. Maggie mentions the obstacles, defeats, and setbacks in her work, but she knows that it’s the victories that matter. The chance for another Romani to be able to claim a little piece of this planet as their own. As Maggie put it, “There is no feeling like the peace that comes with having a base to live from, to have a gate of your own to shut at night. The settled community take this security for granted, having known no other way of living. This is right and proper, but for us to share that security is really something else. It’s like catching up with the rest of the world.”

At eighty years of age, Maggie continues to fight for the rights of Gypsies and their way of life. Some have branded her a “land grabber” while she—on her Linkedin page—refers to herself as a “trouble maker”. Regardless of titles, she seems to take it in stride. After all, she knew from quite early on that the world was made up of different kinds of people—those who would accept her people and those who would curse their very existence. Maggie describes an encounter her father had with a police officer and wrote, “Some people did stop to have a word with us, and we enjoyed it when they took the time to speak. Others would pass us by, keeping their eyes on the road or in the hedge, not even glancing at the side of the road where we were stopped. Me dad always said that it took all sorts to make the world. It wouldn’t do for us all to be the same, would it?” Perhaps not all the same, Maggie, but a few more Gypsies might not be so bad.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

Good Night, Mr. Tom (YA Historical Fiction)

Good Night, Mr. Tom

Michelle Magorian (YA Historical Fiction)

Thomas Oakley was well into his sixties when the Billeting Officer knocked on his front door.  To the people in his village of Little Weirwold, Thomas was an isolated, bad tempered, and frosty man, but to the officer, he was the perfect fit for this particular evacuee.  Eight-year-old William Beech had come with specific instructions from his mother: either place him with a religious person or near a church.  Thomas Oakley fit the bill perfectly.  So Thomas, a man withdrawn by choice and grief, and William, a boy withdrawn by abuse and neglect, found themselves together and slowly healing in each other’s company.  But when Thomas loses touch with William after being summoned back to live with his mother, Thomas embarks on a journey to find the young boy who had become like a son to him.

I always hold out hope that books for young adults that have important themes may somehow find a way into the hands of younger readers.  I thought this might be possible with Good Night, Mr. Tom.  Although it carried warnings of child abuse, war, and death, the first part of the book was rather benign and contained mild implications of these subjects: the blacked-out windows, bruises and sores on William’s body, William’s fear of reprisal and constant nightmares, and reports on the wireless or in newspapers.  However, once William is reunited with his mother, the tone of the book shifts dramatically and it becomes terrifyingly obvious why this book is recommended for more mature readers.  The imagery is horrific and quite contrary to the idyllic life William experienced in Weirwold, which makes it all the more shocking and appalling when William has to relive this horror for a second time.     

Magorian, quite deservedly, received the 1982 IRA Children’s Book Award for Good Night, Mr. Tom.  She fearlessly delves into the psychological trauma that follows prolonged mental and physical abuse, as well as the impact it has not only on the abused themselves, but also on those around them offering support, healing, friendship, and love.  She also explores the emotional toll of the war on a small village as young men are called to service while their loved ones patiently await word of their wellbeing.  Thankfully, Magorian gives her readers sufficient mental breaks by balancing tense, emotionally exhaustive scenes with lighthearted moments shared between friends and family.  It’s this back-and-forth that makes for a fast-paced story that doesn’t pull any punches in delivering an impassioned, tragic, and dramatic story.

Good Night, Mr. Tom immerses readers with a story about bonds and their importance and fragility.  For the first time in his life, William has a best friend, Zach, who values his company, admires his differences, and treasures his friendship.  Also, William finally has a parental figure in whom he can trust and depend.  Magorian’s overall lesson in her compelling and powerful story is the healing power that comes with unconditional love.  William’s mother taught him that love came with strings (“Mum had said that if he made himself invisible, people would like him and he wanted that very much.”), but his friends in Weirwold and Mr. Tom showed him the beauty and power of a love given completely and unselfishly.  The Persian lyric poet Hafiz once wrote, “Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth ‘you owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.”  Zach’s kindness and Mr. Tom’s devotion remind us that even in the midst of war and surrounded by the darkest of black shades, love’s light shines bright and can heal even the most damaged and tortured soul.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Adult Historical Fiction)

Juliet Ashton is tired of writing under the name of Izzy Bickerstaff and no longer wants to be considered a light-hearted journalist.  She wants to create something meaningful, but has no idea where to find inspiration…until a letter comes.  It’s a kind note from a Mr. Dawsey Adams of St. Martin’s, Guernsey who found her name and address written on the inside front cover of a book written by his favorite author, Charles Lamb.  He asks if she could kindly send him the name and address of other bookshops in London (for there aren’t any left on Guernsey after the war) so that he may acquire more Lamb books?  Through several letters, Juliet begins to learn more about Guernsey and its famed Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and she has questions.  Questions such as how could a pig begin a literary society and what exactly is a potato peel pie?  Perhaps this is the inspiration that Juliet has been looking for?

I admit I was in Heaven while reading this book—a book about people who love books.  What’s not to like?  It also doesn’t hurt that the writing was witty and sharp, the characters were endearingly flawed and humorously relatable, and the story had an equal mix of quirky, sadness, drama, humor, treachery, suspense, and yes, love.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a touching and bittersweet book about the residents of Guernsey during the German occupation of the Channel Islands during WWII.  Through the stories of the island’s residents, as well as a few of the prison camp survivors, we get a glimpse of the toll that the destruction, separation, and isolation had on the human psyche.  We are also given stories of bravery, selflessness, and heroism, which illustrates the strength of the human spirit even during the darkest of times.

What started out as a ruse to prevent dinner guests from being arrested by German soldiers, the literary society ended up showing its members how much power a book possesses.  Books can motivate, educate, inspire, entertain, and transport us to worlds far beyond our borders and imagination.  For the members of the Guernsey literary society, a book turned a fisherman into a Casanova, saved a man from a life of inebriation, allowed a collector to find his faith, and bridged two very unlikely friendships.

I was a little wary when I discovered that this book consisted entirely of letters.  Would it have the same depth and weight of a typical novel?  O me, of little faith.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a descriptive, warm, engaging, and satisfying read that will make you long for village life and allow you to believe in love again.  And while this book reminds us that life is often tragic and history sometimes reveals the worst in humankind, it also shows us how resilient the human spirit is and how expansive our hearts can be when the need arises.

Just as a particular song might come on the radio when you need it most or the perfect meme pops up on your Facebook feed that strikes a certain chord, I believe a book acts in the same capacity.  It finds us—chooses us—and makes us think, challenge, defend, or dream while allowing us to imagine, escape, explore, or be comforted.  The perfect book always seems to find us at just the right time and it changes us somehow.  And when it does, WE then become the conduit and pass it along to someone in need of a good laugh, cry, or shriek.  Books are indeed powerful.  As Juliet wrote in one of her letters to Dawsey, “Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.  How delightful if that were true.”  Maybe as delightful as a potato peel pie?  I’ll let you decide.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard

Mr Timothy

Mr. Timothy

Louis Bayard (Adult Fiction)

Tiny Tim is tiny no longer.  The iron brace and crutch have long been replaced by an achy knee and slight limp…a mere lilt, really.  It is December 1860 and although Mr. Timothy Cratchit, now a man of twenty-three, lives off the monetary magnanimity of his “Uncle” Ebenezer Scrooge, he dredges the River Thames for treasure-yielding corpses and lives in a brothel where he tutors the Madam in reading.  It’s a satisfactory life, one in which Tim has grown used to until he comes upon one and then two dead girls, each with the letter “G” branded on her upper arm.  When Tim meets Philomela, a ten-year-old street orphan, he realizes that he must do everything he can in order to protect her for she, like the other two girls, bears the same “G” on her arm.

I must admit that it took me a while to connect with (and eventually enjoy) this book.  Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite stories and so it was distressing to see the iconic and beloved character of Tiny Tim reduced to desecrating corpses and spending his days living off charity.  I don’t fault Louis Bayard for building a story off an already-established fictional character.  Many authors have done the same in the past and will continue to do so in the future as long as there is a willing and interested audience; however, Bayard’s choice of using a character as cherished, wholesome, and pure as Tiny Tim and then casting him into London’s dark and dreary underbelly seems almost sacrosanct and readers of this story, who adore Tim, may feel a little duped in the process.  Luckily, patience proves to be a virtue and readers can rest assured that Bayard eventually gives us the loyal, spirited, and resilient lad that we’ve come to know and love.

Billed as a “literary thriller”, Mr. Timothy does not disappoint in delivering danger, intrigue, and fast-paced drama.  The story is a bit slow out of the starting gate and seems to drift as multiple characters are introduced and a number of storylines play out.  At about the midway point, things seem to get their bearing and the action moves at a steady and satisfying pace until the end.  Although Dickens wouldn’t have imagined his young hero delving into police corruption, child trafficking, and prostitution, he would be gratified to know that his Tim is armed with a strong moral center, a kindly heart, and nerves of steel…not to mention a leg that makes for a quite dependable barometer.

In A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim was known for saying, “God bless us, every one!”  This phrase was repeated at the end of the book to signify Scrooge’s change of heart.  Like Scrooge, I experienced my own change of heart and am grateful I decided to give this book a second chance.  At times, this wasn’t an easy thing to do for Bayard really puts poor Tim through the wringer, but I’m glad I stayed with Mr. Timothy and accompanied him to the very end of his adventure.  So in honor of second chances—which are indeed a rare and precious thing—I’ll end by simply saying, “God bless us, everyone one!”

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry (J Historical Fiction)

King of the Wind

King of the Wind    

Marguerite Henry (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

The foal was to be born under a favorable sign—a new moon in a new month—and thus assured strength and speed.  While the horseboy, Agba, was asleep, the foal was born and it appeared that indeed Agba’s master was correct for on the foal’s hind heel was a white spot, an emblem of swiftness.  Unfortunately, the foal also bore the wheat ear and this foretold of evil.  Agba knew this foal was special and he named it Sham, the Arabic word for sun, because its coat was a flaming red-gold.  Although orphaned and shunned by the other spring colts, Sham thrived under Agba’s watchful care until one day, one ill-placed foot and one well-placed hoof would forever change their destinies.

Marguerite Henry gives young readers a story detailing the origin of the Godolphin Arabian, one of three stallions that founded the modern Thoroughbred (Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk being the other two).  Part fact and part fiction, this book follows Sham from Morocco to Paris and then finally to London.  His life passes through the hands of a sultan, king, carter, Quaker, innkeeper, and earl all the while keeping company with a loyal and mute horseboy and a tomcat named Grimalkin.  As King of the Wind is based on historical fact, our story takes place in the early 18th century and Henry stays true to the time period by portraying a harsh but realistic view of how life was for little Agba and Sham.  Younger readers, especially those fond of horses, may be uncomfortable reading of Sham’s harsh and unfair treatment, but Henry chooses realism over sentimentality so readers can glean an accurate understanding of Agba and Sham’s daily struggle for survival.

Early in Sham’s life, Agba makes him a promise: “My name is Agba.  Ba means “father”.  I will be a father to you, Sham, and when I am grown I will ride you before the multitudes.  And they will bow before you, and you will be King of the Wind.  I promise it.”  Henry gives us a beautiful adventure story that brims with friendship, honor, and loyalty and reminds us that any promise worth making is a promise certainly worth keeping.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

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Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (YA Historical Fiction)

Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Alchemy and Meggy Swann   

Karen Cushman (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” – Carl Jung

After the death of her gran, Margaret “Meggy” Swann is carted from Millford Village to London and unceremoniously deposited at the doorstep of her father, Master Ambrose, the local alchemist.  Meggy is none too pleased with her new home: heads mounted on sticks and placed on a bridge, the smell of fish and sewage everywhere, and streets slick and slippery from horse droppings.  Ye toads and vipers!  What kind of place IS this London?  Between a mother who was pleased to see the back of her and a father who assumes she is a beggar upon their first introduction, Meggy has found herself in a rather unenviable position.  She is crippled, penniless, and friendless…unless you count her goose, Louise.  But Meggy is stronger than she thinks and with the help of a cooper, a printer, and a rather smitten player, she’ll not only save a life, but she’ll manage to save a soul as well.

From her first utterance of, “Ye toads and vipers”, I fell in love with Meggy Swann.  She is scrappy, sassy, resourceful, impish, loyal, and brave.  She is disabled (suffering from what we would today recognize as bilateral hip dysplasia), but doesn’t seek sympathy, pity, or charity.  In a time when deformity and illness were viewed as a direct judgment from God, it would have been easy for Meggy to become bitter from the taunts and jeers unmercifully thrown at her by villagers both young and old alike.  While in Millford Village, she was able to stay somewhat isolated and protected within her mother’s alehouse; however, in London her lameness is on full display and it is at this moment when we see Meggy’s pluck and spirit begin to emerge.  No longer will she be the meek victim of unfair slurs and prejudices.  While her father is busy transforming metals in his laboratorium, Meggy is experiencing her own transformation into a strong, proud, and confident young woman who refuses to let her circumstances define or limit her.

This story is set in 1573 London and Cushman successfully transports readers to the Elizabethan Era through her usage of period-appropriate language.  This requires having to adjust to the frequent occurrences of words such as naught (nothing), certes (certainly), mayhap (perhaps), belike (very likely), and sooth (truth), but given the age this book targets (12 years and above), the acclimation should be quick and painless.

There are so many lessons that one could glean from this book, but perhaps the most poignant was one that Meggy learned from a flightless goose: “Even Louise had given the girl something, the knowledge that one did not have to be perfect to be beauteous.”  And that is something worth remembering, be ye toad or viper.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

In honor of Halloween, we’ll be reviewing ghoulishly scary and spooky books throughout the month of October.

The Woman in Black.jpg

The Woman in Black   

Susan Hill (Adult Fiction)

It’s Christmas Eve at Monk’s Piece.  Lawyer Arthur Kipps, his wife and children are gathered around the fire telling ghost stories, as is ancient tradition.  They all take turns until it comes to Arthur.  “Now come, stepfather, your turn.  You must know at least one ghost story, stepfather, everyone knows one…”  Arthur does know a ghost story.  One haunted by a child’s anguished screams, an approaching pony and trap, a moving rocking chair with no occupant, and a mysterious woman in black.  A ghost story made even more horrifying and terrible because this story is true…absolutely true.

I wasn’t familiar with Susan Hill before this book, but about twenty pages in, I was so impressed with the eloquent and nuanced writing style, and so immersed in the story, that I wondered if she was English.  Sure enough, she is.  There is no mistaking a truly adept English or British author.  The turns of phrase, the sentence structure, and the painstaking attention to detail without being overly verbose all add up to an exceptionally well-crafted book.

Hill gives us a satisfying horror story which achieves its goal of raising the hairs on your neck and increasing the beats of your heart.  By introducing noises in the dark, mysterious brushes against your body, and an invisible presence that always seems to be just right behind you, she goes to the very core of our fears and keeps them tucked into the deepest, darkest corners of our soul—very far away from the light.  Hill gives us a gripping and suspenseful story that builds at a steady and progressive pace until the final climax.  With one last blow thrown in at the end, it might be best to read this with a torch (flashlight) nearby…just in case.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

 

 

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (J)

A Little Princess

A Little Princess  

Frances Hodgson Burnett (Juvenile Fiction)

Sara Crewe is seven and always dreaming and thinking odd things.  But ever since arriving in London from India with her father, Captain Ralph Crewe, all she thinks about is “the place”—Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies.  Her father’s affluence instantly propels Sara to star status within the school, but misfortune soon causes her to be penniless and at the mercy of jealous students, spiteful cooks, and a vindictive and cold-hearted headmistress.  Once an heiress and now a pauper, Sara relies on the friendship of a young servant, two foolish schoolgirls, and a rather amicable rat to help her cope with her new station in life.

Burnett delivers a charming and tender Cinderella-like story where our heroine is suddenly ripped from a life of comfort, joy, and love and thrown into a merciless world of coldness, hunger, and cruelty.  Unlike Cinderella, Sara is merely a child and the pain and suffering inflicted upon her is especially difficult to bear.  It also earns her tormentor, Miss Minchin, a dubious place amongst literature’s most despised and detested villains.

With A Little Princess, Burnett gives us a story about humility, grace, courage, hope, generosity, and kindness.  She also gives us a girl who is a beloved daughter, a show pupil, an adopted mother, a storyteller, a benefactor, a scullery maid, and a friend.  But most of all, Sara Crewe is, and always will be in the hearts of readers, a little princess.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.tvtropes.org