The Human Comedy by William Saroyan

The Human Comedy

The Human Comedy

William Saroyan (Adult Fiction)

In a small town in Ithaca, California, during World War II, there lived the Macauley family—Mrs. Macauley and her four children: Marcus, Bess, Homer, and Ulysses.  Marcus is serving in the army, Bess is attending college, Homer is determined to be the fastest telegraph messenger in the West, and young Ulysses, who at four years old, is enamored with everything in his very small world.  The Macauleys are workers, dreamers, and God-fearing folks who are living each day to its fullest while trying to find their own particular place in the world.  For Homer, it’s a time of hurdle races, playing catch, and riding his bike, but with the war and the grim news printed on each incoming telegram, he’s finding it increasingly difficult to put off manhood any longer.

This novel was billed as a coming-of-age story, but it truly is so much more.  With its short chapters—almost vignettes—The Human Comedy gives us a humorous and bittersweet peek into the lives of the citizens of Ithaca.  The elderly telegrapher fearing retirement, the son fighting in a war that he doesn’t understand, the town simpleton with a naïve heart of gold, a young boy with big dreams and ambitions, the teacher trying to impart a sense of civility and kindness into her students.  All of these wonderful characters’ stories are stitched together to form a tightknit community that mourns their fallen, cheers their heroes, comforts their sick, and opens their doors (and hearts) to strangers.

The Human Comedy is considered semi-autobiographical as many of the novel’s characters and situations are based on real-life people and events from Saroyan’s childhood.  Like Homer, Saroyan was a second-generation Armenian immigrant who lost a father quite early in life and worked as a telegraph messenger while a teenager.  Interestingly, The Human Comedy began as a screenplay written by Saroyan, but while Metro Goldwyn Mayer was filming the movie, Saroyan decided to turn his screenplay into what would become his first novel.

One of the novel’s youngest characters, Ulysses, gains great pleasure and satisfaction from the simplest things.  He often runs alongside the train as it travels through his town, waving to its occupants who always ignore our young man.  On one occasion however, a black man sees Ulysses and returns his wave while shouting, “Going home, boy—going back where I belong!”  The Human Comedy is a story of love, loss, decency, humanity, and kindness, but most of all, it is a story about home and the people we are blessed to call family.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

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

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 

 

 

 

A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata (J)

a million shades of gray

A Million Shades of Gray    

Cynthia Kadohata (Juvenile Fiction)

Even at eleven years old, Y’Tin Eban knew what his future would look like:  he would work with his elephant, Lady, until she died; he would travel to Ban Me Thuot then to Thailand and finally to America; and he would open an elephant-training school in Vietnam.  But it’s 1975 and the American soldiers have been gone from Vietnam for two years now.  Y’Tin and his tribe live in Central Highlands in South Vietnam and every day, soldiers from the north are advancing closer and closer to his village.  The Americans called it the Vietnam War.  His father called it the American War.  And now, this war was coming to Y’Tin’s remote part of the country and everything that his future once promised is about to change forever.

It’s never easy to discuss the horror and ugliness of war, especially when that discussion involves a younger audience (this book is targeted for readers ages ten and older).  Cynthia Kadohata is able to portray a country savagely torn apart by Civil War with remarkable honesty and sensitivity.  Because she is dealing with younger readers, she avoids graphic details and opts for subtle clues and visuals that guide readers to the desired conclusion.  For example, she describes a scene where captive male villagers are forced to dig a very long and deep pit on the outskirts of the village.  Older readers know immediately that this is a mass grave and the outlook is bleak for the villagers.  However, the younger reader shares the same learning curve as Y’Tin and both share in the eventual realization of what is actually taking place at the same time.

Several reviewers found this book to be too “anti-American” given the repeated mentions by the villagers of the Americans’ broken promise to return should assistance be needed.  But Kadohata foregoes popularity points by choosing to give us a story based on the villagers’ perspective.  They are a community that is scared, helpless, and feels very much abandoned and alone.  It’s an honest representation of the many thousands who were facing certain annihilation by their own government.  While this book deals mainly with war and its effects, at the heart is a young boy—rapidly thrown into manhood—and his relationship with his elephant, Lady.  The mutual trust they have for one another and the formidable bond they share serve as the singular bright spot in what is often a rather dark and grim story.

The book’s title, A Million Shades of Grey, refers to the colors of the jungle right before sunrise, as well as the color of an elephant’s hide.  In life, we often view things—view choices—as being a matter of “black or white”.  Kadohata reminds us that things aren’t always that simple and that every day we face or own “million shades of gray”.  At one time, Y’Tin said that you don’t love and you don’t make promises during times of war.  But it took his village’s smallest but strongest elephant to show him otherwise…that even during war, it is possible to have both.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.publishersweekly.com 

 

 

A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo (J Historical Fiction)

A Medal for Leroy

A Medal for Leroy   

Michael Morpurgo (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Michael has no father, brothers, or sisters.  Just his mother, Maman, and two aunts:  Auntie Pish and Auntie Snowdrop.  It is 1940s London and right after the war.  Michael’s friends call him “Poodle” because of his frizzy hair and French ancestry.  But Michael doesn’t mind much.  In fact, he likes being different, being special.  Regarding his father, Michael knows only what his mother has told him:  his father’s name was Roy, he was a Spitfire pilot, and he was killed in the war.  But when Michael’s aunt passes away, she leaves behind a clue that will not only shed light on his past, but also finally reveal who he is.

A Medal for Leroy was inspired by the true story of Walter Tull, the first black person to serve as an officer in the British Army.  Like his fictional counterpart in this story (Michael’s grandfather, Leroy), Tull grew up in an orphanage, played soccer, served heroically in battle, and has no known grave.  Both Tull and Leroy deserved a medal for bravery, but were denied because of the color of their skin.  Morpurgo is a master storyteller (author of the spectacular novel War Horse) and provides his characters with a surprising amount of depth given that his book is only 130 pages.  He delicately tackles the ugliness of racial intolerance and inequality while showing young readers the value of having dignity in the face of disgrace and showing love without reservations or conditions.

In a world that still seems divided by so many factors, it is worth looking at the words that Michael’s aunt, who served as a nurse during the First World War, wrote to Michael: “It was while I was with those poor wounded soldiers that I first understood, Michael, that when all’s said and done, it’s what we all want and need most: to love and to be loved.”  Words lovingly passed along to a beloved nephew that would serve us all to remember today and always.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Biography) by Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Ishmael Beah (Adult Biography)

Ishmael Beah is a typical 12-year old boy.  He enjoys rap music, practicing his dance moves, and playing soccer with his friends.  But on one January day in 1993, what he and his brother and friends don’t realize as they head to Mattru Jong for a talent show, as that they will never be returning to their village of Mogbwemo again.

War has come to Sierra Leone.  The adults call it a revolutionary war—a liberation of the people from a corrupt government.  But why do the liberators kill innocent people?  Why do they pillage and burn down the villages?  Ishmael and his friends soon find themselves wandering from village to village searching for food, struggling for survival, and keeping one step ahead of the rebels.  When they are captured by the government army, they are given a choice: join and fight or die.

Beah’s personal account of his years as a child soldier is horrifying and unimaginable.  In his book, he says that it was his father’s words that kept him moving despite his weariness: “If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen.  If there is nothing left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.”

It was hard reading Beah’s story and learning about his vile actions during war, his terrifying nightmares that made him fear sleep, and his addiction to marijuana and cocaine.  Perhaps what is harder still is knowing that the practice of using children as soldiers in war still exists and remains rampant.  But Beah gives us a story not just of tragedy, but of redemption and hope.  When he is rescued by UNICEF and taken to a rehabilitation center, every day counselors and medical staff would say to him, “It’s not your fault.”  After many months, the day finally came when he began to believe it.  By forgiving himself, Ishmael Beah started to forge a new beginning for himself and began to share his incredible story with the world—a story that will hopefully bring awareness and change for the thousands of children still fighting in wars throughout the world.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com