Sunday, January 14, 2018

Wordwings by Sydelle Pearl

It’s January 1941 and Rivke Rosenfeld, 12, is living in the small sanctuary of a synagogue within the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto with her younger sisters, Tsipoyre and Sorele. Both their parents and their Bubbie (grandmother) have died of typhus, and now they are cared for by their Zadye, their grandfather. 

Despite the cold, and secretly at night, while everyone is sleeping, Rivke is moved to begin recording what life for the Jews in the Ghetto is like at the hands of the Nazis. It is a risky thing to do, and she knows full well she could be killed on the spot if such a record were ever found. Yet, Rivke is propelled to take this risk after witnessing German soldiers cruelly shaving off Zayde’s beard with a knife, and then attacking other Jews in the street, including the man Rivke calls the Peddler of Wind.  Rivke begins keeping her diary in the margins of a book of Hans Christian Anderson stories given to her by Batya, the children’s librarian in the Ghetto, stories that Rivke loves.

One day, Rivke asks the Peddler of Wind what he carries in the sack he always has with him. He answers wind wishes, and just as she asks if he has any fairytale wind, there is a strong wind begins to blow. Scared, Sorele begins to cry, and Rivke starts telling a story of her own about a young Polish boy who loved to blow the Shofar on RoshHaShanah. By the end of the story, everyone is spellbound, and it is clear the Rivke, a lover of stories, has found her own voice as a storyteller.

The story, one of hope, becomes known among the Jews in the Ghetto as the “The Jewish Geese.”
Batya, who has already recruited Rivke to help with the secret children’s library, introduces her to Dr. Emanuel Ringelbaum. Feeling her story is too important to lose, he has Rivke write it down. Later, it
is made into a book for the library, with illustrations by Gela Seksztajn, an artist who works with and draws picture of the children in the Ghetto. Rivke learns that Dr. Ringelbaum is head of a secret project called the Warsaw Ghetto Archive, intended to be a collection of artifacts about what is happening in the Ghetto, and which will ultimately be buried for safe keeping until the war is over.

Portrait of a girl by Gela Seksztajn found in
the Ringelbaum Archive
Wordwings is one of those books that is going to stay with me for a long time because there is so much in it to to think about. One the one hand, Rivke’s story is a factual accounting of what life was like in the Warsaw Ghetto - the starvation, the disease, the fear, the inhuman treatment of Jews by the Nazis, but it is also about the importance of family, hope in the midst of despair, the secret kitchen at Nowolipki 68 serving food smugglers have brought in, underground resistance to Nazi oppressors, and the power that stories have to help get us through difficult times. Or, as Rivke says, “…if you let your heart listen to the stories, then their magic will bring a light to your eyes and energy to your step. And pretend bread is better than no bread at all.” (pg 110)

And the fact is that within the Ghetto, and as terrible as conditions were, a cultural life did thrive for the people who were forced to live there. That is made clear in Wordwings with the inclusion of Rivke’s storytelling, Batya’s library, and Dr. Ringelbaum’s Archive, both of which really existed.  

One of the things I liked is the way Pearl has so seamlessly combined fiction and reality. Those Rivke, her sisters and Zadye are fictional characters, they continually interact with people like Batya, Gela, Dr. Janusz Korczak who ran the Orphans Home, and Dr. Ringelbaum. When you read the Author’s Note at the end of the book, you will learn more about the persons included included in the novel and their fate.

Wordwings is written completely from Rivke’s point of view in the first person (after all, it is her diary), and her diary runs from 9 January 1941 to 9 May 1941. The ending may feel a bit abrupt, until you remember that the diary ends, not because of anything historical happening, but because Rivke has reached the end of the Hans Christian Anderson book, and it was time to put it into the Archive. 

I highly recommend Wordwings to anyone interested in the Holocaust, WWII, or simply historical fiction. It is a valuable addition to the literature of the Holocaust, and has been named a Notable Book for Older Readers by the 2018 Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
I wish to thank Sydelle Pearl and Guernica Editions for providing me with a review copy of this book.

You can learn more about the Warsaw Ghetto at the Jewish Virtual Library.

You can discover more about Dr. Ringelbaum and the archive by visiting the online Yad Vashem exhibit about it.

Besides Hans Christian Anderson, Yiddish storyteller I. L. Peretz is also mentioned, and you can find out more about him at the Jewish Virtual Library

I was sorry I didn’t pay more attention to the places Rivke mentions in Wordwings, but you may want to do that. If so, here is a useful street map of the Warsaw Ghetto:
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Warsaw, vol. 16, col. 347-348. 
(FYI: the Warsaw Ghetto existed from October 31, 1940 to September 21, 1942, the final day of deportations to Treblinka, and also Yom Kippur). 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Seized by the Sun: The Life and Disappearance of World War II Pilot Gertrude Tompkins by James W. Ure

It would seem that having been born in to a well-to-do New Jersey family, Gertrude Tompkins’ life should have been a happy one, free from care and stress. The third daughter of Vreeland and Laura Tompkins, right from the start, Gertrude stuttered just like her father. Vreeland dragged her to doctors throughout her childhood, trying all kinds of supposed cures for stuttering, and naturally, none worked except to make Gertrude miserable. School was especially difficult for her, and she made up excuses not to go whenever possible, finding solace in books and reading instead. 

After high school, Gertrude attended the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, where, though still feeling like an outsider, she found more acceptance than she had in her earlier school days. After graduating, Gertrude traveled abroad extensively, but returning home found herself feeling closed in and eventually moved into her own place in Greenwich Village, commuting to work in her father’s company in New Jersey everyday. 

During that time, Gertrude met Mike Kolendorski, a pilot in Eagle Squadron 71, and it was most likely Mike who introduced her to flying. After he left to fly for England, she began taking flying lessons, so when the United States entered WWII in 1941, and Gertrude learned that women pilots were needed to replace men now in service, she put in her application to become a part of the newly formed WASPs (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots).

It is speculated that Mike Kolendorski was the love of Gertrude’s life, but even her sister Elizabeth didn’t know for certain that this was true (Kolendorski was killed on a flying mission in 1941). Interviews with Gertrude’s fellow WASPs and friends yielded some information, and it was made very clear that she loved flying. 

At this point, the book not only explores Gertrude’s life in the WASPs, but also gives an in-depth history of how the WASPs began and it troubled existence. Gertrude was apparently a very private person, considering how little is known about her life. 

The book does do a great job of piecing together the life of Gertrude Tompkins. She apparently was a very private person, considering how little is known about her life, even by her sisters. It also does a great job giving a detailed account of the WASP and especially the poor treatment the women received from the men pilots and those in charge. There simply were no benefits for these courageous women who put their lives on the line in service to their country. They were forced to pay for everything they needed, while men were provided for, and they were also used to fly planes dragging a banner that was used for target practice with live ammunition and no health, medical, or death benefits if they are hurt or killed. Still, Gertrude and her fellow WASPs loved flying.

As the war began to turn in favor of the allies, and it looked like the end was coming, Ure speculates the Gertrude must have wondered what she was going to do afterwards. When a marriage proposal came from an old friend, Henry Silver, she reluctantly and unhappily accepted, mainly to please her father. Not long after, Gertrude disappeared shortly before taking off in a plane near Santa Monica Bay, California. Neither she nor her plane were ever found and what happened remains a mystery to this day.

I’ve read a number of fictional accounts of women who were WASPs during the war, (Flygirl, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and Becoming Clementine) and I found that these fictional accounts about life as a female pilot corresponded really well with Ure’s factual information. I also thought he did a great job describing Gertrude’s life, though there was a lot of speculation wherever there were gaps. A number of searches for Gertrude have taken place, but to no avail and Ure theorizes on the possibilities of why nothing was ever found.

Do read Ure’s Afterword to discover how the book was put together. Additional back matter includes a list of Gertrude’s personal effects found in various footlockers and quarters, a Tribute to WASPs Killed in Service, detailed Notes, and an extensive Bibliography. 

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss+

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Christmas Truce of 1914 - a picture book roundup

(This post gets filed under the rubric Better Late Than Never. My Kiddo arrived home at 2:00 AM Christmas morning, we've been catching up, and I forgot to set this up to publish automatically.)

The story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is an interesting one. The very fact that ordinary soldiers fraternized with each other on the battlefield, even for one day, was considered to be an act of treason by both the British and German governments. But when you realize that war is a political act, and soldiers are the powerless who must carry out the commands of their superior officers unquestioningly, the story about Christmas Truce becomes all the more meaningful. In his Author’s Note to Shooting at the Stars, John Hendrix writes that the truce “stands as a lasting example of ordinary men doing the extraordinary…Armed with carols and Christmas trees, individual men threw away their weapons and walked toward the enemy with a desperate hunger for peace.” I think that the hunger for peace is a true today and it was in 1914.

The Best Christmas Present in the World by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman
2004, 2014, Egmont UK, 48 pages, age 7+

Accompanied by Michael Foreman’s beautiful, touching illustrations, in this short story turned picture book, the past and present meet in the form of a letter. It begins in the present day with a purchase of a much desired roll-top desk in need of restoring due to fire damage. The unnamed narrator decides to begin work on it on Christmas Eve to escape overly excited relatives for a while. Pulling out the drawers, he discovers a letter written on December 26, 1914 and addressed to Mrs. Jim Macpherson. In the letter, a soldier describes how British and German soldiers came together on that frosty Christmas morning, sharing food and drink from each other’s Christmas packages, and playing a game of football. For Captain Jim Macpherson, the day was spent getting to know Hans Wolf from Dusseldorf, who spoke perfect English and whose favorite book was Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. At the end of the day, the two parted friends. On Christmas day, our narrator decides to visit the address on the letter, an old house that had had a fire. A neighbor tells him the woman, Mrs. Macpherson, now about 101 years old, had survived and was in a nursing home, where the narrator next goes. Yes, he finds her, she recognizes the letter, but the ending though sad, it so poignant. But, you can read it for yourself. The story was published in the Guardian in 2003 and you can find it here:

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 by written and illustrated John Hendrix
2014, Abrams BFYR, 40 pages, age 7+

After a short introduction about World War I, Hendrix begins his story with a young freckle-face soldier named Charlie writing a letter home to his mother from France, and telling her about the cold, wet, muddy experience of living in trenches with rats vying for their rations of cold beans, all nicely captured in an accompanying illustration. Since Christmas has arrived, hope that the war will end by then has faded, but, he writes, something extraordinary does happen. German soldiers begin singing Silent Night and all along their trench line little lit up Christmas trees appear. In the morning, British and German soldiers meet on the battlefield, shake hands and begin helping each other bury their dead soldiers. Pictures are taken, uniform buttons exchanged, food shared, and football played, and the inevitable question of soldiers was asked: why can’t we just have peace. And the answer comes from Charlie’s superior Major Walter Watts who orders them back to their trenches and to being fighting again. Their splendid day over, Charlie writes his mother that he suspects they will spend the rest of the night shooting at the stars instead of their enemy. Hendrix did the illustrations for this story in an acrylic wash of blues, yellows and greens, reflecting the cold landscape and the warmth of the men meeting momentarily as friends on No Man’s Land.

The Christmas Truce: The Place Where Peace Was Found by Hilary Robinson, illustrated by Martin Impey
2014, Strauss House Productions, 36 pages, age 7+

The moon is shining brightly on Christmas Eve, 1914, when Christmas lights appear atop the German trenches and two German soldiers, Karl and Lars, begin to sing Sille Nacht on one side of No Man’s Land. They are soon answered by Ray and Ben, best friends and British soldiers on the other side, singing Silent Night. Slowly the two armies, enemies the day before, leave the trenches, meet on the battlefield, and shake hands as church bells are heard chiming. Pretty soon, a soccer ball is brought out and a friendly Christmas morning game is played. The soldiers are sure that their example of peace on earth, goodwill towards all will end the war soon, but that was not to be. This is a poignant retelling of the Christmas Truce story, a cumulative tale where the rhyme repeats and builds up using the previous lines as the story moves forward (think This is the House that Jack Built), and each final line reminds us that No Man’s Land, in the midst of war, was a place where peace was found, if only for one day and night. Along with the text, the illustrations, set in a palette of wintery blues, capture this unusual pause in the fighting - the barbed wire, the youthfulness of the soldiers, a debris strewn No Man’s Land. Though the faces of the soldiers are a bit playful, they carry a definite feeling of grace to this most graceful of moments. 

And the Soldiers Sang by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Gary Kelley
2011, 2014 Creative Paperbacks, 32 pages, age 8+

Answering the King’s call for men to enlist once war is declared in 1914, a young unnamed Welshman from Cardiff joins the British army, and chronicles his experiences in a journal his father's give him. He begins with crossing the English Channel in September, riding in a cattle car crammed with soldiers from France to the Western Front in Belgium. Fighting the Germans across no man’s land, the weather gets colder and wetter, the trenches are filled with water and rats, the noise of machine gun fire is deafening, and the young Welshman suffers from with the agony of trench foot. But then, on Christmas Eve, lights on trees are seen across a No Man’s Land, littered with debris and dead soldiers, and suddenly a German soldier begins to sing Stille Nacht and is answered by the young Welshman singing First Noel. And so the Christmas Truce of 1914 begins. Soldiers on both sides meet, help bury the dead, share food and photographs of family, and the young Welshman is convinced that the war will end soon, how could it not after what he just experienced, and what a story to tell his grandchildren, but alas, that is not to be. The British Major orders that soldiers back into the trenches and the war continued. It was Lewis’s hope that readers would see “the helplessness of war, the futility of it’ and that in war, it is always the soldier, on the front lines, who pays the price of fighting. This is an incredible book - emotional, moving, frustrating, and ultimately almost devastating, but a tale that could easily reverberate in today’s world. The illustrations are dark, in a palette of browns and blacks, reflecting the utter grimness of war. This is not a happy Christmas Truce story, but one that will definitely impact readers.

I've already reviewed two excellent books about the Christmas Eve Truce of 1914 which you may be interested in reading about:

Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy is the first truce story I read.  Murphy's excellent nonfiction account gives a history leading up to the start of World War I, what life in the trenches was like and, of course, the Christmas truce.

Christmas Truce by Arron Shepard is the second truce story I read.  This is a fictional account of the Christmas Eve truce told by a soldier in a letter home to his sister.  There been some false beliefs and misconceptions surrounding this night when fighting ceased and goodwill took over.

There are countless articles about the real Christmas Truce of 1914. Here is one I recommend:

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Night Garden by Polly Horvath

It’s early spring 1945. In the small coastal town of Soote, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the kids have been given their summer vacation in the spring while the roof of their school is being fixed. Which is OK by twelve-year-old Franny Whitekraft, who’s very content to hang out at home with her adoptive parents Sina (short for Thomasina), a sculptress, and Old Tom, who loves nothing more than to tend to his many gardens on their 270 acre farm, East Soote Farm. 

So far, the WWII hasn't really impacted their lives except for the soldiers located on their property. That is, until Crying Alice Madden arrives and manages to talk Sina into watching her three children, Winifred, 11. Wilfred, 9, and Zebediah, 6, while she goes to Comox to see what was going on with her husband, Fixing Bob. He's a mechanic in the Canadian Air Force, who is in charge of the Argot, an amazing top secret plane that can stay in the air for hours beyond any other plane. Crying Alice is sure he is up to something he shouldn't do and hopes to stop him from making that mistake, whatever it is. Into this mix comes Gladys Brookman, a young woman interested in bebop and men, and hired as a cook while the Madden children stay at East Soote Farm. 

Soon things settle into a routine. Franny and Winifred begin to hang out together, Old Tom and Wilfred work in the fields planting potatoes together, and Zebediah seems drawn to the cabin of a hermit that is allowed to live in the woods on the farm. But pretty soon, it becomes apparent that Zebediah is writing to his father, and not sharing the letters he receives back from Fixing Bob with his siblings. Winifred is consumed with a desire to find his letters and read them, but when she and Franny finally do find them, she doesn’t know what they say.

Meanwhile, Franny relays the story about the night garden to the Madden kids, the one place that no one is allowed to enter. The night garden grants one wish per person, and the wish cannot be undone, often leading to complications and serious consequences for the wishers. Naturally, when he discovers just what Fixing Bob is up to, Zebediah, who shares his father’s love of planes, wants nothing more than to join him doing the thing he shouldn't be doing. Before anyone can stop him, Zebediah is over the locked fence of the night garden and then just gone. To try and temper things, Winifred, Wilfred, and finally Old Tom do the same thing and as a result, things get really complicated and zany ( though I’m not sure zany is a strong enough word for what follows). 

The Night Garden is actually a fun book to read with all kinds of quirky twists and turns, yet never so complicated or so complex you forget who is who or what has happened. It is narrated in a very straightforward voice by Franny, an aspiring writer who has a pretty good grasp on exposition. And her timing is perfect, revealing information only as it is needed. 

The story actually starts with the story of just how Sina and Old Tom managed to acquire Franny, and the ending circles back to this story in a very interesting way. As you read, you may recognize elements of other stories - orphans, magic gardens, hermits who know things that make you wonder how they know them and Horvath has woven these into her story so they are recognizable, but still original. And despite the realistic setting, this is not really a war story, or, for that matter, even historical fiction despite the time it is set in. There are some anachronisms, but the story is basically fantasy, so maybe, since they aren't biggies, they don’t really count here. Instead, think of this as a rather, a unusual adventure about family,and love with a good dose of magic thrown in. 

The Night Garden is a fun book that should appeal to anyone looking for a bit of whimsy and anyone who is just looking for a good story.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher