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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Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (J Historical Fiction)

Bronze and Sunflower

Bronze and Sunflower

Cao Wenxuan (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Sunflower was lonely.  Her father was a revered sculptor in the city, but he—like so many others—had been sent to work at the Cadre School and now Sunflower has very little to do all day.  To pass the time, she goes down to the river and looks to the other side at the village called Damaidi.  In Damaidi, there is life, there is activity, and most of all, there are children.  She dreams of what it might be like to go over there and play and explore.  Then one day, Sunflower’s dad tragically drowns in the river and she is accepted into the home of Damaidi’s poorest family.  There she meets Baba, Mama, grandmother Nainai, and Bronze, their mute son.  Suddenly, Sunflower is a daughter, a granddaughter, and a sister and life amongst these poor people was about to make her richer than she could ever imagine.

Translated from Mandarin by Helen Wang, Bronze and Sunflower is a masterpiece in storytelling.  It tells the story of a family and a village caught up in China’s Cultural Revolution during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Wenxuan doesn’t make this period in history the center of his story, but instead chooses to keep it as a backdrop.  He instead focuses on the unique and touching bond between Bronze and Sunflower and the family’s struggle to survive floods, locusts, famine, and dishonor.  It’s a tale replete with villains and heroes, sadness and joy, and despair and hope.  Wenxuan effortlessly weaves a tale showing us that life isn’t fair, that justice is often elusive, and that those in power—for better or worse—wield a mighty influence.  But he also shows us the importance of family, the power of redemption, and the value of integrity.  It’s a story absolutely brimming with moral lessons and human values and should be devoured by readers of all ages.

The only fault I had with this book is its ending.  It’s vague (I re-read it several times to make sure I didn’t miss any subtle clue or hidden meaning) and puts the burden on the reader to determine what happened.  I’m not a fan of this kind of ambiguous ending, but the overall story isn’t dependent upon it and so its vagueness shouldn’t serve as a detraction from an otherwise engaging and captivating tale that was an absolute joy to read and experience.

Without giving away any spoilers, the saddest part of the story—for me—was the eventuality of Bronze and Sunflower growing up…as children tend to do.  The head of the village of Damaidi stated as much when he met with Baba and Mama and said, “Time’s moving on.”  Simple words that remind us how fleeting and fragile time is and that everything should be cherished and savored for nothing is certain or guaranteed.  With the sudden loss of her father, Sunflower understood the unpredictability of life and the value that came with belonging.  Despite her poverty, Sunflower considered herself wealthy beyond measure because she was part of a family and that family loved her very much.  Actor, author, and activist Michael J. Fox once said, “Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.”  In that respect, Sunflower had everything and perhaps that made her the richest person in all of Damaidi.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.abebooks.com

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome    

Edith Wharton (Adult Fiction)

It was a long time since any one had spoken to him as kindly as Mrs. Hale.  Most people were either indifferent to his troubles, or disposed to think it natural that a young fellow of his age should have carried without repining the burden of three crippled lives.  But Mrs. Hale had said, “You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome,” and he felt less alone with his misery.

Ethan Frome’s daily existence is just as cold, bleak, and barren as the winters in his Starkfield, MA hometown.  His farm is in neglect, his mill is in decline, and whatever money he has left goes to the care and treatment of his ever sickly, spiteful, and sour wife, Zeena.  The only bright spot is Mattie Silver, Zeena’s cousin who comes to the farm to act as housekeeper and caregiver.  Though highly moral and virtuous, Ethan can’t deny the forbidden feelings he has for Mattie and can’t help imagining an alternate life where the two of them might be together and happy.

Edith Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize and it’s no surprise why after reading Ethan Frome.  Only an author as skilled as Wharton can make bleakness so beautiful and tragedy so fascinating.  Here’s how she describes Mrs. Ned Hale, the daughter of the village lawyer: “It was not that Mrs. Ned Hale felt, or affected, any social superiority to the people about her; it was only that the accident of a finer sensibility and a little more education had put just enough distance between herself and her neighbors to enable her to judge them with detachment.”  What a delicious way of saying that Mrs. Ned Hale was nothing but an uppity and moralistic snob…although to her credit, she is quite fond of our Mr. Frome and sympathetic to his unfortunate circumstances.

In anyone else’s hands, Ethan Frome would be a very dark, depressing, and dispirited story, which it undoubtedly is.  However, Wharton presents readers with a thoughtful and illustrative commentary on morality, responsibility, and the burdens that come with decency, loyalty, and honor.  I was quite surprised to find that Ethan Frome was made into a movie in 1993 (starring Liam Neeson, Patricia Arquette, and Joan Allen).  My first and only reaction to this discovery was, “Why?”  Once you’ve read Wharton’s 1911 novella, you know that translating her words to film is not going to have the same impact and would only spell doom (and Roger Ebert agreed).  One reviewer of the book likened Ethan Frome to Romeo and Juliet, but if Wharton were to hear this comparison, I would imagine her reply being something like, “Oh, if Ethan and Mattie should only be so lucky.”  Frome’s story is pathetic, cruel, sad, and hopeless and we love him all the more for it.

I put off reading Ethan Frome for a while as I had always imagined it to be a daunting and challenging read, but it was actually quite engaging and immersive, and I never felt overwhelmed by its imagery or subject matter.  It’s truly deserving of the term “classic” and although I didn’t form a connection with this particular work (which is why I rated it a four versus five), it has given me the confidence to seek out other works by Wharton, which I will do without fear of consequence.  If only Ethan Frome was capable of doing the same.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.simonandschuster.ca

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The Lost Mother by Mary McGarry Morris

The Lost Mother

The Lost Mother

Mary McGarry Morris (Adult Fiction)

It’s the Great Depression, and everything that Henry Talcott owns or is most precious to him is contained in a single tent—his knives, saws, and cleavers as well as his two young children, Thomas (12) and Margaret (8).  Henry slaughters animals for a living, but work is scarce and money is getting harder to come by.  His wife, Irene, abandoned the family years earlier and now Henry finds himself having to leave his children alone more often as he travels to find work.  When his wealthy neighbor, Phyllis Farley, begins to lure his children to her home as a means of providing companionship for her wheelchair-bound son, Henry’s firm hold on his family slowly begins to loosen.

The Lost Mother is an aching, somber, and dark novel about a father’s desperate attempt to keep his family together while two young siblings grapple with their own feelings of loyalty, love, and loathing toward one another.  Morris’s book overflows with passion and her multi-dimensional characters evoke myriad emotions from her readers: pity for a single father doing his best under the most hopeless of circumstances; disdain for the crooked shopkeeper who swindles an honest boy; sympathy for a little sister enduring endless verbal and emotional assaults from her brother; contempt for a wealthy neighbor and her disingenuous benevolence; and disgust for a beautiful mother who callously abandons her children for a better life.  Morris is able to successfully rein in all of our feelings while maintaining the story’s momentum by centering every action around a recurring theme of home, family, and togetherness.

In the song “You Always Hurt the One You Love”, there are lyrics that accurately describe several characters in this book:  You always hurt the one you love/ The one you shouldn’t hurt at all/ You always take the sweetest rose/ And crush it till the petals fall.  These characters love so deeply and wholly that they simply cannot recognize the negative impact that their behavior is having on those closest to them.  But despite these flawed characters, Morris gives us a ray of hope through Henry and his children.  Together, the three of them manage to rise above their circumstances and prove that they are much more than society has labeled them.  Henry, Thomas, and Margaret Talcott remind us that worth and security are not something that you hold in a wallet.  Instead, the greatest treasure is sometimes found in a pair of arms that are opened and are waiting for you…just for you.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

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

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote (J)

A Christmas Memory

A Christmas Memory     

Truman Capote (Juvenile Fiction)

There was something special about that late November morning: the air lacked the songs of birds; the courthouse bell sounded cold and clear; and the once-empty hearth boasted a blazing fire.  All of these meant only one thing—it was fruitcake weather!

A Christmas Memory is Truman Capote’s earliest memories of his life in a small rural Alabama town.  Up until the age of ten, he lived there with a family of distant and elderly cousins.  One cousin, in particular, he was especially fond of and considered her to be his best friend.  She called him “Buddy”, after her former best friend who died in the 1880’s, and he referred to her as simply “my friend”.  Capote’s book is filled with his personal heartwarming memories of Christmas—beginning with the inaugural baking of the fruitcakes (which includes a charming visit to one Mr. Haha Jones) and followed by searching for the perfect tree, hanging wreaths on all the front windows, and making gifts for the family.  Capote’s vivid descriptions and eloquent prose allow us to smell the fruitcakes baking in the oven and luxuriate in the warmth emanating from the home’s stone fireplace.

On Christmas Eve night, “my friend” confesses to Buddy her desperate desire to give him a bicycle for Christmas, but her inability to do so for lack of money.  “It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want,” she laments, “but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have.”  During this time of year, we seem to be inundated with an endless barrage of commercials, movies, and television shows that all seek to remind us about the true meaning of Christmas through animated animals, complicated romantic triangles, or splashy musicals.  I’m grateful for Mr. Capote for sharing his personal Christmas memory and for showing us in a loving, compassionate, and quiet way that we should be thankful not for the gifts that lie under our tree, but rather for those who gather around it.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite

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

Ghost on Black Mountain

Ghost on Black Mountain  

Ann Hite (Adult Fiction)

“Mama warned me against marrying Hobbs Pritchard.  She saw my future in her tea leaves: death.”

Nellie Clay was only 17 when she married 25-year old Hobbs Pritchard.  With just a feed sack of clothes, some trinkets, and a childhood full of memories, she leaves the only home she has ever known and moves to Black Mountain with a man she barely knows and the ghosts he has spent a lifetime creating.

Ghost on Black Mountain is a haunting tale of abuse, power, greed, and fervent love.  There is not a soul on Black Mountain that hasn’t been negatively impacted or affected by Hobbs Pritchard, and his toxic anger and avarice blanket the mountain like mist on a crisp autumn morning.  Hite does a credible job in conveying the torment and fear unleashed on a tightly-knit mountain community by a man consumed by evil and jealousy.  The author keeps the story interesting by having different female characters narrate and share their own histories and perspectives.  Near the end of the book, just when you thought you were safely out of the woods, Hite throws in an unexpected twist by introducing an unknown character.  Rather than stall the story’s progression with this sudden interruption, this shift actually adds to the story’s mounting tension and brings us ever closer to an inevitable tipping point.  As this character’s story is slowly unraveled, we become uncomfortably and painfully aware that the ghost on Black Mountain may never truly rest in peace.

Ghost on Black Mountain is Hite’s first novel and she gives readers a truly gripping and all-consuming story of good versus evil and the price one is willing to pay for redemption.  Like the ghosts on Black Mountain, this story and its characters will linger in your mind and lurk in your memory long after the last page is turned.

Rating: 5/5

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

 

 

The King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli (J)

The King of Mulberry Street

The King of Mulberry Street

Donna Jo Napoli (Juvenile Fiction)

“There was a saying that no one starved in farmlands.  My city, Napoli, was surrounded by farmlands, yet we’d been hungry for months.”

Nine-year old Dom was illegitimate, poor, but loved.  His mother called him “mio tesoro – my treasure”, and one day she took her beloved son to the docks and stowed him away on a cargo ship headed to a place where dreams come true—America.  Before sending him away, Dom’s mother gave him one strict instruction: “Your job is to survive.”  Alone, with only a new pair of shoes in his possession, Dom struggles for daily survival in this country with its strange languages and customs, all the while searching for a way to get back home.

This is a work of fiction, but Napoli says that she was inspired by the story of her paternal grandfather who, like Dom, came to New York as a young boy.  Napoli sets her story in Manhattan in 1892 and gives us a main character who is scrappy, kind, generous, and honest.  Moreover, he manages to hold true to his moral values and religious convictions (he is a Jewish Italian) despite his dire circumstances and outside influences.  The reader can only admire and marvel at his resilience and convictions.

When recalling his life back in Napoli, Dom often remembers the proverbs his Nonna often said.  One such proverb was, “You get, you give” and Dom takes this to heart as we see him always giving throughout the book.  Whether he’s returning an act of kindness or helping another in greater need, he shows us that even the smallest act of goodwill often has the greatest impact.  Napoli gives us a beautiful story of trust, loyalty, and friendship.  As Dom begins to carve out a life for himself in America, he reminds us of the importance of being true to oneself and that family isn’t defined by bloodline or name, but by love and devotion.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

The Invisible Wall (Biography) by Harry Bernstein

The Invisible Wall

The Invisible Wall

Harry Bernstein (Adult Biography)

“It was a quiet, little street, hardly noticeable among all the other larger streets, but what distinguished it from all others was the fact that we lived on one side, and they on the other.  We were the Jews and they were the Christians.”

Harry Bernstein describes growing up on a street in the English mill town of Lancashire—one of two sides of the same street separated by an invisible wall, but bonded by poverty.  He writes with fearlessness and bittersweet honesty about his selfless and strong mother who tries to make ends meet with the money left over from his father’s constant gambling and drinking.  The reader is taken on an emotional rollercoaster that goes from tragedy and despair to triumph and delight.  We cringe at his father’s heartlessness and disinterest in his own family, while we hold out hope for his mother who continues to wait for that elusive steamship ticket to America.

At times, Bernstein’s story is painful to read as dream after dream and opportunity after opportunity are unmercifully shattered.  If this was a work of fiction, one could justifiably harbor resentment toward the author for his unusually cruel treatment of his characters.  Knowing that this story is true makes it all the more unforgettable.  This book truly took my breath away and kept me engaged from the very first page to the last.

The Invisible Wall made Harry Bernstein a first-time author at the tender age of 96.  After reading his incredible and compelling story, all I have to say is, “Better late than never, Harry.”

Rating: 5/5