An Elephant in the Garden – Michael Morpurgo (YA Historical Fiction)

It’s Tween & Teen Tuesday when we review either a Juvenile (J) or Young Adult (YA) book.

An Elephant in the Garden

An Elephant in the Garden    

Michael Morpurgo (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

Lizzie is eighty-two years old and is idly spending her days in a nursing home.  But today is February 13th and on this particular day, she has a story to tell.  It’s a rather sad story because on this day, in 1945, the bombers flew over Dresden, Germany and set the city on fire.  Lizzie, her brother, and her mother are forced to flee their home.  The Red Army is coming from the east and the allied forces—the Americans and British—are coming from the west.  They would go west, but they would not be going alone.  They would be bringing Marlene, a four-year-old elephant that Lizzie’s mother rescued from the zoo.  It would be this wonderful, gentle companion that would keep their spirits up, open unexpected doors, and ultimately save their lives.

Michael Morpurgo proves once again what a gifted and compassionate storyteller he is.  An Elephant in the Garden is a beautifully told and compelling story that transports the reader into war-torn Germany as thousands of refugees struggle for survival during World War II. His characters leap off the page and we are there to share in their daily quest for food, shelter, and obscurity from the encroaching Russian soldiers.  In his Author’s Note, Morpurgo writes that his story was inspired by an actual female zookeeper who saved one young elephant from certain death.  The zoo’s director had given orders that all animals were to be killed rather than risk their release into the town should the city fall under attack.  If you Google “Belgium, Zoo, Elephant, WWII”, you can see actual photographs and the story which inspired this heartwarming book.

At my library, this book is shelved in the young adult section; however, I think children as young as nine would appreciate and benefit from this story.  Stories about war are often dark and bleak, but the overall message of courage, resilience, friendship, and hope spans across all age groups and garners mutual appeal.

When Lizzie was conveying a moment in her youth, she recalled an instance when she was talking to Marlene, desperate to find some comfort and understanding from her silent friend.  She said, “For an answer she wafted her ears gently at me, and groaned deep inside herself.  It was enough to tell me that she had listened, and understood, and that she did not judge me.  I learned something that day from Marlene, about friendship, and I have never forgotten it.  To be a true friend, you have to be a good listener, and I discovered that day that Marlene was the truest of friends.”  Morpurgo reminds us that true friends not only listen with their ears, but also with their hearts and sometimes the best friends need not offer words in return, but simply just offer themselves.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

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Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut (Adult Fiction)

By all measures, Billy Pilgrim would be considered a lucky fellow.  He’s survived the bombing of Dresden in 1945, a POW camp, and a mountainside plane crash.  He’s married, has children, and enjoys financial security as a successful optometrist.  But, Billy also time jumps, which can prove inconvenient at times.  He’s also been kidnapped by aliens and taken to another planet where he spends his time as a zoo exhibit.  Did I mention that he’s in the sights of a hired assassin?  It’s just another day in the life of Billy Pilgrim.

Slaughterhouse-Five is considered semi-autobiographical as Vonnegut shares many of the same military experiences as his main character.  His novel is an anti-war dark comedy that delivers a bitter social commentary on the pitfalls of free will and the destructive nature of man.  It also flirts with being a bit anti-American since the description of the American POWs—as compared to the other detainees—are far less flattering and the particular slaughterhouse (Slaughterhouse-Five) chosen to hold the Americans was once used to house pigs.  Although Vonnegut was born and raised in Indiana, this novel and its message were undoubtedly influenced by the current events of the late 60s: Woodstock, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Protests, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.  Vonnegut lays it all out there and has no qualms letting us know that he was none too pleased about the current states of affairs at that time.

Vonnegut’s novel was selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time, although I personally found it difficult to enjoy.  Given the time of its publication (1969), I understand the sentiments that Slaughterhouse-Five articulates, but I think less would have been more in this case.  Combining the firebombing of Dresden with time travel and then adding alien abduction on top of it left the story feeling disjointed and haphazard.  Just when the reader is feeling engrossed in a particular storyline, we are catapulted to a different time or planet.  It’s like trying to stand on the deck of a ship during rough seas and not seeing any sign of calm waters on the horizon.  Rather than being able to admire the overall view, you just want the voyage to be over so you can return to solid, stable ground.

Vonnegut also uses a lot of sensory imagery and phrasal repetition to reinforce the feeling of pain, the approach of danger, or the smell of death.  He is particularly partial to the phrase “So it goes” and one individual even took the time to count each occurrence…which turned out to be 106.  These three simple words always followed a mention of death and served as a convenient means of topic transition; however, by the fiftieth time you’ve seen it, it begins to lose its impact and has outlived its intended purpose.  Solid ground never seemed so far out of reach.

With all of the blatant anti-war messaging found throughout the book, I thought nothing stated Vonnegut’s intended message more simply and effectively than a rather benign scene where Billy jumped back in time and was watching a late movie.  It was running in reverse and showed American bombers during WWII.  As Billy watched, planes once pockmarked with bullet holes were suddenly pristine, German fighter planes were busy sucking bombs back into their holds, smoke and fire were lifted from the ravaged city, crewmen and civilians were again healthy and whole, and the dangerous minerals used to make those deadly weapons of war were safely restored back to the ground and no longer a danger.  Unfortunately, we know all too well that this didn’t happen.  So it goes.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

…and now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold (J)

And Now Miguel

…and now Miguel    

Joseph Krumgold (Juvenile Fiction)

“I am Miguel.  For most people it does not make so much difference that I am Miguel.  But for me, often, it is a very great trouble.”

Twelve-year-old Miguel is a Chavez and in the Chavez family there is always one thing—sheep.  To raise sheep is the work of the family.  Wherever you find a Chavez man, you’ll find a flock of sheep.  Miguel lives near Taos, New Mexico and is straddled between two brothers who have it easy: little Pedro is small and has all that he wants and big brother Gabriel is old enough that anything he wants he can get.  But being Miguel is not so easy.  What he wants, what he truly desires, is to go to the Sangre de Cristo mountains where the Chavez men take the sheep to graze each summer.  But year after year, Miguel is left behind.  How can he prove to his father that he is finally ready for this responsibility?  But since he is only Miguel, he knows that this will not be an easy thing to do.

…and now Miguel is based on actual people whom Krumgold spent time with and got to know.  Hearing him tell Miguel’s story and his desire to prove himself worthy to a father he adores and respects is intimate and personal.  The reader deeply connects with Miguel as he attempts to be needed and longs to make a difference.  Miguel’s biggest obstacle is not his will or desire, but simply time.  As his mother once said to him, “To become something different from what you are, it takes more than being strong.  Even a little time is needed as well.”  How often do we find ourselves pursuing opportunities that we know we aren’t ready for?

This story has so many positive messages and relatable situations for young readers (aged ten and above).  Unfortunately, it does lag quite a bit near the end when Miguel and Gabriel discuss the strengths and weaknesses of making a wish, which is actually the two coming into their own spiritual awakening through the recognition of Devine intervention and providence.  This was a weighty and lengthy dialogue between the two that could have been greatly condensed and had the same effect.  Although this is a pivotal moment for the two brothers, the momentum of the story ultimately suffered and was never able to fully recover.

Miguel reminds us that things don’t always go the way we wish or plan for life always seems to get in the way somehow.  Big surprises or unexpected announcements are never delivered or received in the way in which we hope.  Miguel is a deeply devoted boy who, in the end, realizes that his life—his fate—is not in his control.  He must rely on his faith in knowing that everything will work out as it should.  His mother and father understand this, Gabriel understands this…and now Miguel will understand this and will realize that by him just being Miguel has already made a great difference.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

 

Astrid & Veronika by Linda Olsson

Astrid and Veronika

Astrid & Veronika

Linda Olsson (Adult Fiction)

“’And who will you dream of, Veronika?’ Astrid said, without taking her eyes off the water.  ‘With the flowers under your pillow.  Who?’  Veronika didn’t answer.  She sat with her legs pulled up and her arms clasped around them, her chin resting on her knees.  ‘I came here to escape my dreams,’ she said eventually.”

Author Veronika Bergman arrived in Stockholm, Sweden with just a few bags and her personal belongings.  Her rental home was next door to Astrid Mattson, the village witch—at least that’s what the people in town call her.  Astrid is nearly eighty years old and keeps to herself.  She doesn’t like people and has left the village only once in her life.  She likes her secrets and her solitude, but when she meets Veronika, something remarkable happens.  Something quite unexpected.  Astrid begins to care and slowly these two women discover that although loss and heartbreak connect them, friendship would forever bind them.

Astrid & Veronika is Linda Olsson’s first novel and was originally published in New Zealand under the title Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs.  Her writing is fluid and the storytelling is effortless and captivating.  Olsson gives readers Veronika and Astrid—two women tormented by their past, haunted by their memories, and brought together by fate.  These two restless souls form a committed bond that becomes instinctive—each aptly anticipating the other’s needs and providing comfort, support, and understanding.

I truly enjoyed this book, but found that there were too many unanswered questions that kept me from wholly appreciating Olsson’s extraordinary debut work.  In particular, Astrid’s story had one pivotal plot point that left me confused and frankly horrified at the choice she made.  Her backstory lacked sufficient detail that might have allowed me to be more sympathetic to her and the action she took.  Instead, Olsson put the burden on me to draw my own conclusions, which is seldom a sufficient or satisfying solution.

Olsson’s original book title came from a poem by Karin Boye called “Min stackars unge, My poor little child”, which she includes in her book.  It accurately describes our heroines and reads in part,

“My poor child, so afraid of the dark,

who have met ghosts and another kind,

who always among those clad in white

glimpses those with evil faces,

now let me sing you gentle songs,

from fright they free, from force and cramp.”

Astrid and Veronika are two women separated by age and circumstance but connected through the ghosts of their pasts.  Both lost mothers and loves, but through patience and understanding, they formed their own gentle song and found the strength and courage to live and to love again.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (J)

Bud Not Buddy

Bud, Not Buddy    

Christopher Paul Curtis (Juvenile Fiction)

“Here we go again.”  Bud (not Buddy) Caldwell is growing up during the Great Depression in Flint, Michigan.  He is ten-years old, currently on his third foster home, and presently being rightly pummeled by his current foster family’s son.  But Bud is determined that this will be his last foster family, as well as his last night in Flight because woop, zoop, sloop, just 120 miles away in Grand Rapids is his father, the famous jazz musician Herman E. Calloway.  At least he THINKS this is his father.  His mother wasn’t very specific about his father’s identity before she passed away, but he does have a cardboard suitcase full of clues and a heart full of hope.  But before he reaches his destination, Bud will have to confront a vampire, closet monsters, fear, and hunger.  Woop, zoop, sloop!  This is going to be the adventure of a lifetime!

Christopher Paul Curtis delights and engages readers with a charming boy who is not only an aspiring musician, but also the author of Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.  Bud’s many rules give readers practical and humorous pointers on how to navigate life’s unexpected twists and twists.  For example, Rules and Things Number 3: “If You Got to Tell a Life, Make Sure It’s Simple and Easy to Remember.” or Number 83: “If a Adult Tell You Not to Worry, and You Weren’t Worried Before, You Better Hurry Up and Start ‘Cause You’re Already Running Late.”  Although Bud was orphaned at the age of six, his mother would have been proud at the young man he has become: always saying “sir” and “ma’am”, “please” and “thank you”, and lying ONLY when absolutely necessary.  He’s brave, determined, resourceful, and fiercely optimistic during a time when hope and promise are a scarcity.

Throughout the book, Bud is always reminding people that his name is Bud, not Buddy.  His mother named him Bud after a flower bud…a flower-in-waiting.  “Waiting for just the right warmth and care to open up.  It’s a little fist of love waiting to unfold and be seen by the world,” his mother would often say to him.  We’ll never know if the name made the boy or the boy made the name, but one thing we can be sure about is that Bud, not Buddy, has plenty of love to share and enough spirit and pride to make his own warmth and to shine his own light.  Woop, zoop, sloop.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.walmart.com 

 

 

The Distinguished Guest by Sue Miller

The Distinguished Guest

The Distinguished Guest

Sue Miller (Adult Fiction)

“It is probably fair to ask to what extent Lily Maynard is conscious of the effect she makes, but it’s not a question you’ll easily find the answer to.”

Lily Roberts Maynard reached literary fame at age seventy-two with The Integrationist: A Spiritual Memoir.  She’s had moderate success with various fictional short stories that followed, but nothing to the scale of her memoir.  Now Lily, who was once celebrated and sought after, finds herself living in relative seclusion with her architect son, Alan, and his wife as Parkinson’s disease slowly consumes her body and mind.  Finding themselves once again under the same roof, both Lily and Alan confront decisions made in the past while trying to find a way to move forward.

This is the third book by Sue Miller that I’ve read (the other two being The World Below and Lost in the Forest) and I continue to find myself underwhelmed with her work.  The Distinguished Guest is described as a “moving story of a mother and son”, but in reality, Miller gives us a story of a mother and son…and her late husband…and her deceased parents, as well as a son…and his wife…and his two siblings…and his two sons.  Throw in a visiting journalist who has her own messy backstory and you have a novel simply overburdened and overwhelmed with relationships.  This might be the reason I have trouble connecting with Miller’s books.  She inundates her stories with too many character profiles, backstories, and conflicts that spread the reader’s focus entirely too thin and leave little or nothing left to hold onto.  Just as “too many cooks spoil the broth”, Miller gives us far too many relationships that ultimately spoil the story.

I wish I liked this book more since there are several interesting and important issues that Miller encounters head on: race relations, religious faith versus spirituality, social conformity, and infidelity.  But these subjects are not enough to lift The Distinguished Guest from its own emotional saturation and social mire.  Ayn Rand once said, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”  In this case, a few less cooks would have made for a much more pleasing broth.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (J)

The Birchbark House

The Birchbark House    

Louise Erdrich (Juvenile Fiction)

“She was named Omakayas, or Little Frog, because her first step was a hop.”

Omakayas is seven years old and lives on an island in Lake Superior with her family.  They are Native American and belong to the Ojibwa tribe.  It is the summer of 1847 and everyone is busy preparing for fall.  Once their birchbark house is built, there are skins to soften and tan, berries to gather, and the corn patch to tend.  The family works together to ensure their survival from season to season, but all Omakayas is focused on is avoiding her pesky little brother, thinking of ways to be more like her big sister, and watching her father worry about the ever-increasing encroachment of the “chimookoman”, the white people.  Still, life is good for Omakayas and her family until that one winter night when a stranger enters their community and makes Omakayas reevaluate everything that she once thought important.

The Birchbark House is reminiscent of The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, only Erdrich tells her story from the Native American point of view.  We follow Omakayas and her family through one full year and learn how they gather and preserve their food, construct their lodgings, deal with the harshness and dangers of their environment, treat their sick and wounded, and struggle for survival.  Any fan of our spirited prairie heroine, Laura Ingalls, will appreciate this new perspective on the same issues that we all encounter: love, loss, family, friendship, and finding your place in a very big world.

There is an Ojibwa proverb that says, “Sometimes I go about pitying myself and all the while I am being carried across the sky by beautiful clouds.”  There is point in the story where Omakayas is thrown into a very deep and dark place that tests both her strength and faith.  But in time, she realizes all the gifts that life has yet to offer and that is just enough to allow her to rise above her sorrow and look up to the sky—into the clouds—for hope.

*Reviewer’s note: The Birchbark House is the first in a series of five books by Louise Erdrich that follows the life of Omakayas and her Ojibwa community.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com