Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan (YA)

Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising

Pam Muñoz Ryan (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

Esperanza was the pride and joy of her papa.  The daughter of wealthy ranchers, Sixto and Ramona Ortega, she had everything a twelve-year old could possibly want.  But not far beyond the borders of El Rancho de las Rosas, trouble brewed in Aguascaliente, Mexico.  It was 1930 and the revolution in Mexico had happened over ten years ago, but there were still those who resented the wealth and circumstances of the local landowners.  Soon that hate would spill over into Esperanza’s idyllic and pampered world and would ultimately rob her of everything that she knows and holds dear.

Pam Muñoz Ryan gives us a heartwarming and often heartbreaking riches-to-rags story of a young, spoiled, and arrogant girl who learns the value of humility, empathy, generosity, and kindness.  Inspired by her own grandmother, Esperanza Ortega, Ryan shows us the lavishness and bounty of a prosperous Mexican ranch, as well as the poverty, squalor, and hardship endured by migrant workers living in company farm camps.  She also provides insight into the Mexican Repatriation, which included the deportations of thousands of legalized and native United States citizens to Mexico between 1929 and 1935.  Up until that time, it was the largest involuntary migration in the U.S. with numbers reaching almost a half million.  Ryan also describes the struggles of the workers to compete with cheaper labor from states like Oklahoma, as well as their efforts for a better wage and living conditions through unionization.

In addition to giving readers a story overflowing with moral lessons—Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes or Appreciate what you have before you lose it—Ryan also gives us a character who slowly begins to realize that life is more than fancy dresses and porcelain dolls.  Through humiliation, heartache, and despair, Esperanza understands how life is like her father’s beautiful and precious rose garden: “No hay rosa sin espinas.” There is no rose without thorns.  For despite the beauty and splendor that life often provides, there will also be some degree of pain and suffering.  But like her grandmother taught her as she undid Esperanza’s rows of uneven or bunched crochet, “Do not ever be afraid to start over.”  And when Esperanza did, she truly blossomed.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

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A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

Jackie Copleton (Adult Historical Fiction)

On August 9, 1945 a new word entered the Japanese vernacular:  pikadon.  PIKA meaning brilliant light and DON meaning boom.  It aptly described what Amaterasu Takahashi and thousands of others saw and heard in Nagasaki at 11:02 am.  A brilliant light and then a boom.  Ama lost her daughter and grandson on that fateful morning.  They were everything to her.  Pushing past the dead or dying and sifting through the ashes, she knew she would never see Yuko or little Hideo again.  But nearly forty years later, a man—badly scarred and disfigured—knocked on her door bringing good news.  “Please don’t be alarmed,” the stranger said.  “My name is Hideo Wantanabe.  It is good to see you Grandmother.”  He left her a letter to read to get their journey started.  A journey that would take Ama back to a tragic past and a man who would be the common thread to everyone she has ever loved and lost.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is Jackie Copleton’s first novel and it truly is a hauntingly beautiful story.  Using Ama as our narrator, we experience the horror when the second of two atomic bombs hit the city of Nagasaki on August 9th (the first hit Hiroshima three days prior on August 6th).  Through Ama’s eyes, we witness the carnage, fear, destruction, chaos, and terror as survivors desperately searched for loved ones while the injured begged for water or aid.  As our story progresses, we begin to learn more about Ama, her husband, Kenzo, and her daughter.  Through Ama’s memories, as well as a series of entries in Yuko’s diary, we begin to understand the reasons behind Ama’s feelings of guilt and bitterness.  She is a woman living a life of “What ifs” and “If onlys” and is constantly questioning her own maternal motives.  Any parent will be able to relate to Ama and her need to shield her child from harm and heartache, but as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” and Ama quickly realizes that protection often comes with a price.

Copleton gives readers a multi-layered story that is brimming with pain, loss, regret, and love.  But the singular theme that runs throughout the story is hope.  Whether you are extended it, enticed by it, or desperately hold onto it, hope has many faces: a grandmother looking for comfort, a scarred man searching for healing, a young wife waiting for her husband’s return from war, a lover wanting a second chance, or a city emerging from the rubble.  Copleton gives us a poignant and touching story of hope and reminds us that it is when things are at their darkest that hope often comes knocking on our door.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

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Jewel by Bret Lott

Jewel

Jewel

Bret Lott (Adult Fiction)

“I say unto you that the baby you be carrying be yo’ hardship, be yo’ test in this world.  This be my prophesying unto you, Miss Jewel…The Lord smiling down on you this way.”  This is what Jewel Chandler Hilburn was told about her unborn child—her sixth and last.  It was 1943 and she had already been blessed abundantly with a good marriage to a loving man, five beautiful children, and a comfortable life in the woods of Mississippi.  With this child, Jewel just wanted a living, breathing baby with ten fingers and ten toes.  Certainly, that couldn’t be too much to ask?  But life can change in an instant and Jewel soon finds herself with a baby who is both a blessing and a burden and who will forever change the way she views life and love.

Bret Lott delivers a poignant and touching story about a mother’s relationship with her special needs daughter.  Jewel is a woman who has lived a thousand lives and has seen hardship and tenderness, cruelty and kindness, but the heart of this story is the bond she shares with her daughter, Brenda Kay.  Lott brings to the surface the gut-wrenching and life-altering moment when a mother looks upon her precious child—when heart and head finally reach mutual agreement—and says the words, “Something’s wrong”.  We feel the heartbreak as Jewel mourns the future that she has imagined for her daughter that will never be and we see her burdened with the regret of not being there for her other children or her husband.  Life is no longer measured in minutes or months, but in milestones and Jewel is there to celebrate each and every one of Brenda Kay’s.  She even organizes a family picnic when Brenda Kay takes her first step at age five.

Jewel is a celebration of the love between a mother and child.  Bret Lott reminds us of the tremendous gift that our children give us.  As each day brings with it some amount of pain, joy, frustration, heartache, sadness, and love, we are also reminded that it is one day less that we have with them all to ourselves for the job of a parent is to love our children, protect them, guide them, and then let them go so that they can make lives of their own.  It is a bittersweet role that we take on willingly and relinquish reluctantly.  Our legacy is often measured through our children.  They carry on our hopes, our dreams, our stories, and a bit of ourselves.  As Jewel said, “My life would never end, I saw, not even in my own Brenda Kay, because of those eyes turned to me and asking what to do, the only true victory any mother could ever hope for: the looking of a child…to you for what wisdom you could give away before you left for whatever reckoning you had with the God who’d given you that wisdom in the first place.”  Our children are indeed a blessing and a burden, but through their words, actions, and deeds, we too are able to see the Lord smiling down at us.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

The Girl in the Red Coat

The Girl in the Red Coat

Kate Hamer (Adult Fiction)

“We took the train that day.  I wanted it to be special for Carmel and taking a train rather than the usual bus was a treat.”  That is how the day started for newly single mom Beth and her daughter, Carmel.  A day that Beth would look back on as Day 1.  A day brimming with excitement and anticipation, but ending with every parent’s worst nightmare.  On Day 1, Carmel disappeared during an outdoor festival.  You wouldn’t think that an eight-year-old girl wearing a red coat could be so easily overlooked.  Could so easily vanish.  But a heavy mist had settled on the grounds, visibility was deteriorating, and just like that, Day 1 had started.  While Beth begins an exhaustive search for her missing daughter, Carmel starts her own harrowing journey into a religious sect with a man she must trust to survive.  As days turn into weeks and then months, will Beth ever see her little girl in the red coat again?

I have yet to read a modern British author’s work that I didn’t enjoy and Kate Hamer’s The Girl in the Red Coat is surely no exception.   Hamer—born in Plymouth and raised in Pembrokeshire (she’s says she feels Welsh)—gives readers a thrilling story that alternates between the points of view of Beth and Carmel.  As a parent myself, I’m not sure which of the two stories was more disturbing to read:  a mother helpless and tormented by guilt over losing her child or a child being emotionally manipulated and fearful of losing her identity.  Both stories keep the reader breathlessly captivated and drawn into a nightmare scenario that no one should have to bear.  Hamer delves into the subtleties of loss, grief, and shame as Beth seeks personal absolution for Carmel’s disappearance.  We feel her guilt when she completes an errand or leaves the house and only realizes later that she didn’t think of or search for Carmel during that time.  Her stages of grief are excruciating and Hamer boldly lays it out so that we may process and endure it with Beth.  In turn, she allows us equal time to share in Carmel’s isolation, confusion, and fear as she is ripped from everything she knows and loves and is forced to accept a new way life with a stranger whom she feels obligated to trust.  Both Beth and Carmel feel an overwhelming amount of guilt and regret over their actions, yet they desperately cling to the smallest modicum of hope that they will once again be reunited.

The color red is used liberally throughout this book and represents different things.  This story has a strong religious component so for Christians, red symbolizes atonement and sacrifice.  Red is also an intense color representing extreme emotions such as hate, jealousy, and anger which we see through certain members of Carmel’s “surrogate” family.  It’s the color of danger and Carmel’s beautifully unique coat unfortunately turns into a beacon for an unscrupulous stranger.  For Carmel, it serves as an interesting color choice.  She is fiercely drawn to this color whose main purpose is to make the wearer stand out, yet Carmel is desperate to break loose from her overprotective mother and often seeks out dark, far-off spaces to hide.  For someone wanting to disappear, red wouldn’t be an obvious fashion option.  But it would be this same color that would serve as Carmel’s anchor to holding on to her identity.  Red would remind her that she is Carmel Wakeford and that red, above all else, is the color of strength, heart, and love.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin (J)

Ruby on the Outside

Ruby on the Outside

Nora Raleigh Baskin (Juvenile Fiction)

Eleven-year old Ruby Danes is caught between two lives:  inside of prison, where her mother is currently serving a 20- to 25-year sentence, and the outside world.  When Ruby is on the inside, the rules are pretty straightforward:  it’s OK to cry, but don’t be too disruptive; mind what you wear; and don’t bring anything with you.  On the outside, the rules become a little more complicated and the lines of right and wrong seem more blurry and inexact.  When Ruby finds true friendship with the new girl in her condo, will the truth about her mother being a inmate ruin everything?

This book had a lot of potential, but unfortunately is beset with quite a few problems.  First, it is billed as a story about friendship and the secrets we think we must keep close in order to preserve it.  This book actually goes deeper and a little darker by exploring justice, fairness, separation, honesty, and loyalty.

Secondly, this book is most likely going to be inappropriate for the age group for which it is intended.  Most juvenile fiction is written for the 7 to 12 age range, but Baskin delves into child abandonment, murder, armed robbery, incarceration, and drug abuse.  These are fairly weighty issues for readers on the younger end of the scale.

Lastly, the copyediting is pretty unforgivable and hard to overlook.  I am willing to ignore the occasional omitted word or misused punctuation mark, but when you find close to a dozen or more occurrences, then it’s just sloppy and careless work.  On a side note, I understand that several of these issues were resolved in the second edition paperback version, so if you avoid the hardback edition, you will not experience this irritation.

In summary, if you’re looking for a book that deals with young children coping with a parent serving time, this might be a good option, but there are better and more appropriate choices out there that discuss children seeking friendships and looking for peer acceptance.

Rating: 3/5

The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg (YA)

The Year We Were Famous

The Year We Were Famous

Carole Estby Dagg (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

It’s 1896 and the Estby family is just one auction away from losing their family farm.  They must either raise more than $1,000 or lose everything.  Inspired by her daughter Clara’s story of Nellie Bly, the American journalist who traveled around the world in 72 days, family matriarch Helga begins writing letters seeking a financial sponsor who will pay them to walk from Washington to New York.  When a publisher in New York City offers them $10,000 to make the cross-country trek, the game is officially…so to speak…afoot.

Based on the true story of 17-year old Clara Estby’s walk across America, Carole Estby Dagg gives us the ultimate mother-daughter road trip story.  Using newspaper articles and journal entries, Dagg reconstructs the 4,600-mile journey made by her great-grandmother and great-aunt.  Since the story is based on actual events, the author does take several artistic liberties when presenting us with Helga’s and Clara’s adventures.  I really loved this book until I read the Author’s Note at the end, where I learned exactly what embellishments were made.  I was disappointed when fact and fiction were revealed, but understand how these particular fabrications gave Clara a little more depth of character.  However, the incredible journey these two women embarked upon made these particular elaborations unnecessary.  Helga and Clara survived highwaymen, lava fields, floods, heat, snowstorms, near starvation, personal injuries, and dehydration.  Along the way, they also met Indians, political dignitaries, and managed to make a positive impact toward the advancement of women’s suffrage.

Early in the book, Clara mentions that the only thing she has in common with her mother is the gap between their front teeth.  By the end of their multi-million step journey, Clara realizes that despite their differences, the bond between mother and daughter may be pulled, flexed, and twisted, but will never be broken.

Rating: 4/5