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

 

The Night Garden by Polly Horvath (J)

the night garden

The Night Garden

Polly Horvath (Juvenile Fiction)

Despite the war overseas, life was fairly predictable and peaceful in the spring of 1945 for the family at East Sooke Farm.  Twelve-year-old Franny Whitekraft had her writing; her mother, Thomasina (Sina for short), had her sculpting; and her father, Old Tom, had his gardens—his many, many gardens.  There was the English garden, herb garden, Japanese garden, Italian garden, kitchen garden, statuary garden…but perhaps the most mysterious and closely-guarded garden of all was the night garden.  That garden Old Tom kept locked up nice and tight.  So, days floated by with little fanfare until one day, Crying Alice (that’s Mrs. Alice Madden to you and me) showed up on the Whitekraft doorstep and dropped off her three children: Wilfred, Winifred, and Zebediah.  You see, her husband, Fixing Bob (who does maintenance on the Canadian Air Force’s special plane), is going to do something stupid and she simply has to go and talk some sense into him.  Now, if three new houseguests weren’t enough, just throw in a UFO, ghost, psychic, several mysterious letters, mermaids, and a missing plane and you’ve got a recipe for anything BUT a predictable and peaceful spring.

This is the second book by Polly Horvath that I’ve had the pleasure of reading (the first being The Canning Season) and she continues to amaze and please with her witty dialogue and amusing situations.  Horvath not only entertains her young readers, but she manages to educate them as well.  She’s an English teacher’s dream as she dishes out a veritable smorgasbord of delicious words to savor:  presaged, traversed, bereft, contiguous, compeers, and ilk.  Aren’t they scrumptious?  She also delights us with an assortment of quirky characters that we feel inexplicably drawn to—not in spite of their flaws and rough edges, but because of them.

The Night Garden is a non-stop, heart-thumping thrill ride that will excite and enthrall readers of all ages.  It is a story of family and a love that is blind, slightly deaf, and a little bit thick, but love amongst family is often like that.  The Night Garden also provides us with many valuable lessons—from Miss Macy’s advice on being prepared (“Always wear clean underwear.”) to Franny’s philosophy on self-sacrifice (“Well, we were all put on this earth to suffer.”).  But perhaps it is Old Tom himself who best sums up the greatest lesson of all, “Never, ever, ever have houseguests!”  Old Tom is seldom wrong.

Rating: 4/5

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