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Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction/Historical Element’ Category

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein  code name verity

This is a must-read for teens. And for adults. It’s no more only a ‘teen book’ than The Book Thief is a ‘teen book.’ Never mind how the publisher describes it. Read it.

Since Code Name Verity deals with espionage, it is hard to give you too much summary—this is one book that will be ruined by that. So—I want you to trust me. There’s everything to love here. Oh—trust the Printz Award Committee as well—it’s a Printz Award Honor book.

The basics: A couple of young women become great friends in World War II. They are British—but don’t call the Scottish girl English of you’re in big trouble. One is a pilot, who normally taxis planes for the male pilots, who use them in battle. The other is a telegraph operator. But both are required to serve both secretly and dangerously as the war effort becomes a struggle and Nazi Germany may well overcome all of Europe. Britain is Europe’s final hope.

In a flight over Nazi-occupied France, the fighter plane that the young women are in crashes. The survivor is held captive by the Nazis and tortured for information.  She is required to write information down, but she includes a narrative of how she and her friend arrived at the moment of the crash.

This book is about true bravery—courage in the face of incredible adversity, and not just of the two main characters, but of all sorts of ordinary British servicemen and citizens as well as ordinary French folk who aid the French Resistance. And even a few double-agent Nazis.

Sometimes we say there is a breathtaking moment in a book or a movie, and we don’t mean it literally. In Code Name Verity, think of literally sucking in your breath at the shock and being unable to let it out.

Code Name Verity deals with individual acts, courage, and moral ambiguity.

High school housekeeping: I recommend this book for all readers. You’ll learn something about WWII in Europe and the roles of both women and men. The afterword by the author, where she tells us about how she did her research, and how she decided which scenes would be credible and which scenes would have to be left out,  is great stuff. You can use this as a fictional springboard to do your own research on many issues from WW II—the Royal Air Force, the French Resistance, women in WW II, fighter pilots, Britain during the war, etc.

A little note on the use of the word ‘fag’ in the novel: As you are American teens, you may wonder at the word ‘fag’ used throughout the book—how people are trading them, giving them as gifts, etc. No worries—in Britain (and I believe this is still true) ‘fag’ is a common term for cigarette. In fact, there’s a history behind that use and the derogatory use of the word for a gay man. You could research it. Very sad.

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no easy day

No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy SEAL

by Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer

The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden

As you read the sub-sub title above, you know why this book has been a bestseller, available even at Costco, where everyone can pick it at deep discount. Who doesn’t want to know what really happened in the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound?

Mark Owen—a pseudonym, meant to protect the mission, although Owen’s real name is very easy to find online—was there. And he gives the reader all the thrilling, frightening details of the night Bin Laden was killed and its aftermath. You can follow the story by studying the accompanying illustrations of the compound showing who was in which building and where one of the helicopters crashed at the outset of the mission. It’s heart-smacking stuff.

But before Owen gets to that story, he details the long history of his life as a Navy SEAL—of becoming a member of SEAL Team Six, of the many missions he participated in, including the rescue of Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, which was captured by Somali pirates in 2009. Most of his service is the grind you’d expect it to be, with details on all the equipment special service members use, on how they store and pack it, on the patterns of their training, and how they develop friendships among their members.

I’d like to say that all of that description is breathtaking stuff because—well, who doesn’t want to have nothing but praise for a hero? But the truth is that I think those many chapters before the Bin Laden raid will have the most appeal to teens thinking about service to the country—whether in special forces or not.

I think it’s OK to tell the truth and say that much of this is pedestrian stuff. I probably should have read it in a few sitting, but I kept walking away from it, starting (and finishing) another book, then coming back. I made the mistake of not looking through the photos of military equipment, such as guns and helicopters, that are in the middle of the book until I read to the middle. I suggest you look at these and read the descriptions before starting the book.

I ended up liking No Easy Day as a whole because the truth is that being a hero isn’t something that happens overnight. The fact that Owen went through years of training, some of it grueling (some of it boring), and also had to be in the right place at the right time before he could participate in the mission are important things to know. If you think you can just walk into military service and do this sort of thing, then you must read this book for a reality check. Lots of preparation for big events (and I’m thinking in any walk of life, not just military) is about being willing to slog through the training and practice.

Owen is grateful for the service of many elite forces—the SEALs and others who work with them, such as EOD specialists. He is donating much of the proceeds from the sale of this book to organizations that help these folks, such as the All in All the Time Foundation. And he gives us ideas of how we can support our troops—ideas that beat the heck out of throwing a yellow ribbon magnet on the back of the car and calling it a day.

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 Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand unbroken

Unbroken is the incredible, nearly mythic, story of Louis Zamperini, an army air forces bomber whose plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean in 1943. Before the war, he had been an Olympic miler, and probably would have been the first man to break the four-minute mile if the war had not intervened.

 

Louie and his raft mates survived more than a month on the Pacific Ocean—through starvation and dehydration, shark attacks, and even a strafing by a Japanese bomber. One of Zamperini’s raft mates finally succumbed to starvation and the elements. Louie and the other, ‘Phil’ Allen Phillips, viewed land after forty-seven days at sea in the life raft. Unfortunately, they were spotted by a Japanese boat crew and taken prisoner. From the boat, they were sent to Kwajalein—or as it was commonly known, ‘Execution Island.’

 

On Execution Island, the true hell of their POW experience began. ‘The crash of The Green Hornet had left Louie and Phil in the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water or shelter. But in Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity.”

 

Both Louie and Phil were moved from one POW prison to another, always without being registered with the Red Cross so that no one would know they were alive. They were consistently mistreated. Having no other information, the army reported to their families that they were dead.

 

In the 1940s, the Japanese considered it shameful to be a prisoner of war and many Japanese soldiers killed themselves rather than be captured. When they captured Allied soldiers, they often felt that they were fair game for abuse. Because of this, Allied POWs in the Pacific fared far worse than those in Europe.

 

“The average army or army air forces Pacific POW had lost sixty-one pounds in captivity . . ..  Tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, anemia, eye ailments, and festering wounds were widespread. [In one survey], 77 percent of POWs [were found to have] wet beriberi . . .. Among Canadian POWs, 84 percent had neurologic damage . . .. Men had been crippled and disfigured by unset broken bones, and their teeth had been ruined by beatings and years of chewing grit in their food. Others had gone blind from malnutrition.”

 

Louie, Phil, and their fellow POWs suffered all these ailments and more because they are starved and tortured. In the Omori POW camp, outside Tokyo, the men fell under the cruel persecution of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (‘The Bird’). The Bird is a true sociopath, brutalizing men one minute, possibly asking for forgiveness the next, and getting sexual pleasure from administering brutal beatings, clubbings and grotesque punishments involving excrement. He particularly hated Louie, singled him out and beat him, sometimes with a belt buckle, every day.

 

That anyone could have survived such terror appears miraculous.

 

 

Some of your teachers ask me to look for biographies or memoirs of inspirational Americans. I bought Unbroken awhile back when it was getting stellar reviews. Then it became a longtime bestseller. I’m so glad I finally had the chance to read it myself. (Sometimes it seems that this is what my summer break is for. 🙂) Not only is it one of the best biographies I’ve read, but it also has the long list of acknowledgements and endnotes that give you an understanding of what serious research looks like.

 

If you are looking for inspiration, just read the two-page forward of this book. You’ll be hooked.

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team of rivals

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I know this is a long shot, but I’m hoping

there’s a student who will take me up on this.

Summer reading for the truly motivated!

 While the focus of Team of Rivals is on Lincoln’s political acumen and on his relationship with his major political rivals turned advisers and friends, there is a lot of interesting discussion of their personal lives. This is a sort of group biography of the men who steered the country through the Civil War, and of the women who influenced them.

Many of the men discussed in Team of Rivals were prominent candidates for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1860. Several of them were better known than Lincoln, particularly William Henry Seward. None of them thought Lincoln would secure the nomination. Yet it was their own rivalries that made Lincoln’s victory possible, as delegates who didn’t want a certain prominent candidate to be nominated would throw their votes to Lincoln.

I admit to knowing little about the Civil war period. This book was a thoroughly enjoyable way to learn about the lives of Abraham Lincoln and the men in his cabinet, of their relationships to family members, and in turn the influence those family members had on the direction of this country. Even more interesting—and instructive—was seeing how Lincoln was able to take all these rivals of his (and of one another) and pull them together in his cabinet—a team whose diverse opinions were crucial to Lincoln as he navigated one of the worst periods in U.S. history.

Once Lincoln had established his cabinet, William Seward, as secretary of state, thought that he would be running the country, with Lincoln as his puppet. But over time, he understood Lincoln’s political genius. The two became great friends. So, too with Edwin Stanton. Stanton had disrespected Lincoln when he was a lawyer working in Springfield, refusing to meet with or even talk to him after engaging him to work on a trial in Cincinnati, and calling him a ‘long-armed ape.’ Yet Lincoln later made Stanton his secretary of war. Stanton became a good friend and is the man who said, on Lincoln’s death, “Now he belongs to the ages.” In addition, the escaped slave, abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass came to respect Lincoln after meeting him to discuss freeing slaves.

Unfortunately, Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, could never put aside his jealousy of the president. Chase seemed to have no loyalties to friends and people who had helped his career (so it wasn’t just Lincoln), but he did stay loyal to anti-slavery platforms. His behavior appears to be wholly motivated from a desire to be the president—even at the expense of Lincoln’s policy and reputation. He always felt that he was more deserving of the presidency than Lincoln, and he let others know it. He was fond of submitting his resignation when he didn’t get what he wanted, but was surprised on the fifth submission that Lincoln accepted it. However, Lincoln later appointed Chase to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. According to Goodwin, Lincoln had a “singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness.” It is this as much as anything else that makes him a great man.

Another man who comes off poorly is General George McClellan, who couldn’t take action in leading Union troops into battle, yet blamed all his faults on others, and particularly on Lincoln’s leadership.

Deeply revealing of the political climate of the time is the role of the women in these men’s lives. I enjoyed Francis Seward’s abolitionist stance and the letters she wrote to her husband and friends about what brought her to the cause (the immorality of slavery, the pathetic situation of slaves that she saw as she traveled). Not all whites sympathetic to slaves held these same views. Many Northerners and Republicans (the party of Lincoln) held that slavery would naturally end as society became more urban and industrialized.

Kate Chase, daughter of Salmon Chase, was the beauty who was at the top of the social pecking order, the girl everyone wanted to admire or court. She was so popular that Mary Lincoln was sometimes jealous of her. And yet her marriage and subsequent life was tragic.

Mary Todd Lincoln sounds better in Team of Rivals than in the few sources I’ve read before. She appears to have suffered terrible migraine headaches, and this affected her responses in social situations. She does hold more grudges than Lincoln, but to be honest, just about anyone in the world does. (His ability to let go of past hurts is nearly superhuman.) Team of Rivals also discusses the over-the-top spending habits Mary is now so famous for. However, Goodwin also catalogs the necessary improvements she made in the White House, which had been left to fall apart. Mary wasn’t very good at controlling her image in the press—she did much good, such as regularly visiting hospitals to care for wounded Union soldiers. Her work went unnoticed while the wives of other Politicians were lauded for the same activities. And, of course, her grief over the loss of her children—eventually three of her four boys—had to be a major factor in her bouts of depression.

While this point may seem just a sidebar in the evaluation of the book, I think it’s valuable. The deep grief suffered by so many of these ‘major players’ on the national scene changed all of them, for better and for worse. Lincoln suffered the deaths of his mother, his much-loved sister, and two of his sons (another died after Lincoln was assassinated). Chase lost several wives and became dependent on his elder daughter to be his social coordinator. The Sewards lost a daughter. Others close to the Lincolns lost their sons and husbands in the war. That the death of young wives and children was so commonplace in the mid-nineteenth century is important to remember. People learned compassion or they learned to be unnecessarily mean.

Since Team of Rivals covers such an important period of the country’s history, it includes insights on many of the significant issues and legislation of the day, particularly legal wrangling over slavery—the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and more. Some of the events are shocking. Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, while railing against the expansion of slavery, verbally attacked senators who supported it. Congressman Preston Brooks later physically attacked Sumner, feeling that he was defending his relative’s honor. The idea that one man could cane another, nearly to death, right on the Senate floor, boggles the mind. Interestingly, this beating rallied the anti-slavery forces in the country.

This is such a great book on every level—the political, social, historical and personal. Not only that, but it includes many of the funny stories Lincoln was always telling—full of folk wisdom and often making his adversaries see the value of his point. The only thing that will keep you from reading it is the length—over 900 pages. While about 150 pages are endnotes and indices, that still leaves 750 pages. Even students who are good readers and enjoy history may not be able to find the time for such reading, especially if they are memorizing thousands of facts for AP tests!

Would you be willing to read this one over the summer? You won’t be disappointed. During the school year, you might make a deal with teachers who require about 200 pages of outside reading per quarter. Ask them if you can use Team of Rivals for biography as well as other nonfiction, and then as a free choice. That will cover at least 600 pages. I think any teacher would love the idea that you’d choose to read this book and enrich your education. By the time you get to Lincoln’s death, you will be so moved by his story that you’ll be hoping it won’t happen, even though you know it’s a historical fact. You can’t ask for more from a work of nonfiction.

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What’s cool about the California Young Reader Medal is that the books are selected by young readers. So, teens select the winner of the young adult category. In order to vote, you have to read all three of the nominated books, of course.  Sometimes adults worry that teens won’t select books that are well written. But the truth is that some of my favorite YA books have been Californian Young Reader Medal winners. In fact, one of my absolute, all-time favorite YA books–Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes was a winner years ago.  So, we shouldn’t worry. Teens make great choices in books!

Of the three nominees for 2014, I’ve read (and reviewed) Divergent. I do love both Jennifer Donnelly, the author of Revolution,  and Wendelin Van Draanen, the author of The Running Dream, so this year’s award will make for some great reading.


The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

When a school bus accident leaves sixteen-year-old Jessica an amputee, she returns to school with a prosthetic limb and her track team finds a wonderful way to help rekindle her dream of running again.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

An angry, grieving seventeen-year-old musician facing expulsion from her prestigious Brooklyn private school travels to Paris to complete a school assignment and uncovers a diary written during the French revolution by a young actress attempting to help a tortured, imprisoned little boy–Louis Charles, the lost king of France.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

In a future Chicago, sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior must choose among five predetermined factions to define her identity for the rest of her life, a decision made more difficult when she discovers that she is an anomaly who does not fit into any one group, and that the society she lives in is not perfect after all.

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Movie Tie-Ins: The Help by Kathryn Stockett     help

As I mentioned earlier, I read Worth Dying For because I wanted to try a Jack Reacher novel. If you read my post, you know I didn’t like it very much. As I was thinking the other day about good books for movie tie-ins, I was reminded of The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Since the movie was so popular—and award winning—you might have already seen it. This is a book that makes an easy transition to the screen. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, you’ll enjoy the read. If a teacher asks you to write a compare/contrast of a book made into a movie, The Help is a good choice.

Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny are the protagonists who alternately tell their stories. It’s 1962 and the three women live in Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter has just graduated from college (Ol’ Miss) and comes home to her parents’ farm. Her close friends quit college and got married. They have one or more children. But Skeeter’s a bit frustrated as a ‘new’ adult who is being told what to do by her mother. She wants to be a serious writer, and, as many people come to feel at this age, she is realizing that her values aren’t the same as those of her longtime friends.

Skeeter can see how her friends treat their help—the Black women who take care of their children, clean their houses and cook their meals. (Since the white women in this novel don’t work outside the home, and seem to do absolutely nothing in the home, I wasn’t surprised that they filled their lives with gossip and backstabbing. If life doesn’t have any drama, people are sure to create some!) Aibileen and Minny are the help. Aibileen is great with kids—she’s raised seventeen of them. She is slyly boosting the self-confidence of Mae Mobley, whose mother, Elizabeth (a friend of Skeeter’s), is pretty lousy with kids. Unfortunately, Aibileen’s own son died a few years earlier, and she is grieving. Minnie appears to be the opposite of Aibileen—she tells it like it is and has been fired more than once over her comments. She has five children of her own and a husband who is a drinker and wife abuser. She’s known as the best cook around.

The three women embark on a book project. They recruit other maids to tell their stories—to shed light on what it is like to work in white women’s homes and to care for children who will later treat them as inferiors. All the while, Skeeter is wondering what happened to Constantine, the Black woman who raised her, but disappeared just before Skeeter came home from college.

I’ve seen professional reviews of this book that say it will prick consciences. I don’t agree with that. I think that it’s a book that feels safe because the treatment of the maids is now considered heinous, and readers can be smug when comparing themselves to Hilly, Skeeter’s truly awful (and possibly one-dimensional) friend.

Still, outside of a few details that I couldn’t come to terms with—the issue of toilets on Hilly’s lawn was one (Skeeter wouldn’t have jeopardized those Black men’s very lives with such a stunt, and they would have been too afraid to participate anyway)—The Help is an achievement. We care deeply about the characters, we worry about the setbacks in each of their lives, and we are filled with anxiety over the suspense. In short, we are immersed in Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. We’re stunned by what is considered normal, by the way people treat one another. And glad for changes since then.

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how they croaked       How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg; illustrated by Kevin O’Malley

This wacky book is alternatelty gross and funny. It is always fascinating.

Bragg looks at the terrible suffering involved in the deaths of nineteen famous people in history, starting with King Tut of Egypt (a Pharoah about 3,000 years ago) and ending with Albert Einstein (a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who developed the Theory of Relativity). What amazed me is how often in history the cure for an illness was really the cause of the death. Poor President Garfield was shot in an assassination attempt. The bullet didn’t touch any vitals organs, and he probably would have lived, but the doctors killed him (slowly and painfully over 80 days) by searching for the bullet with dirty fingers (causing infection) and drilling holes to find it. In fact, a number of these famous folks had dirty doctors and unsanitary conditions to thank for their excruciating deaths. Or, as in the case of George Washington, they just kept emptying their bodies of blood until the sick man was too weak to live.

How They Croaked also takes on the weird: it seems that the body of King Henry VIII of England was so toxic that it blew up in its coffin and leaked out. Other bodies suffered the removal of various parts as souveniers for survivors. Edgar Allen Poe might have died of rabies. In each case, Bragg discusses the evidence that points to the real cause of death, which wasn’t understood until recently. It’s amazing how long  it took people to understand the effects of lead poisoning and what caused it. Deaths by lead poisoning, as described in the cases of Galileo and Beethoven, are horrific.

Much is made of the personalities of these famous folks. Charles Dickens seems to have suffered from bipolar disorder and was simply vicious to his family; Charles Darwin was so afraid of interacting with other people that he couldn’t attend his parents’ funerals.

This is a strange book, both creepy and entertaining. What’s great about it is that in a short read, you can learn a lot about  famous people and why they were important, about medical knowledge (or, really, the lack of it) in different eras, and about cultural beliefs surrounding dead. You’ll come away with some truly interesting information.

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