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makoons.jpgThe Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich is often compared to the Little House series, held up as a kind of non-racist version of 19th-century life from a Native American point of view (in this case, an Ojibwe family). There are plenty of obvious parallels–the time period, the focus on slice-of-life family dynamics, the semi-regular threat of starvation/disease/winter–but such a comparison belittles Erdrich’s work, which is so much more fun and nuanced than Little House ever was.

One of the things that always bothered me about Little House (in addition to the racism and Pa’s insistence on dragging the family into ever-more-perilous situations to suit his wanderlust) was its inflexibility. The adults were always right. The kids were only good as long as they stayed quiet and obedient. And can we talk about how annoying Mary was, with her holier-than-thou selflessness? (more…)

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salt to the seaI remember watching “Titanic” for the first time and refusing to get sucked in by Jack, Rose and their brief but ill-fated romance (though I did shed a tear for the brave string quartet, who serenaded the sinking ship with a dignified rendition of “Nearer, my God, to Thee”) because the ending was a foregone conclusion.

So when I read the book jacket for Salt to the Sea, about the actual worst maritime disaster that I had never heard of, I wondered how author Ruta Septys would tell the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff in a way that would escape the feeling of inevitability without actually escaping the inevitable.

Septys kept things lively by dedicating a good part of the story to the dynamics between three of the four POV characters as they journey from somewhere frozen in Prussia to the equally frigid port where the Wilhelm Gustloff and the fourth character await.

For Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse separated from her family–pay attention to who her relatives are–guilt is a hunter.

For Florian, a disillusioned Prussian teenager on a secret high stakes mission, fate is a hunter.

For Emilia, a Polish girl caught between the Germans and the Russians, shame is a hunter.

For Alfred, a sailor on the Wilhelm Gustloff desperate to prove himself to the girl next door and to the Third Reich, fear is a hunter.

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I was lucky enough to catch the musical Allegiance on Broadway last month, in one of its last performances (it closes Feb. 14). Loosely based on George Takei’s childhood memories of his family’s time at a Japanese-American internment camp, it’s a stunning story, and a crash course on a part of American history that’s often skated over (spoilers below).

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The sign outside the theater, referring to this amazing video: http://tinyurl.com/gwqxpwz

As the title suggests, the musical explores allegiance in all its forms. What makes it so wonderful is how every character responds differently to how, or if, they should be loyal to the U.S. government after it’s labeled all Japanese-Americans as enemies and locked them behind barbed-wire fences.

The main character, Sam Kimura, joins the army because he thinks it will restore the public’s trust in Japanese-Americans. Sam’s father can’t understand how his son could fight for a country that’s treated them so badly, and when the government sends out a “loyalty questionnaire” to sniff out traitors, Mr. Kimura answers honestly (no, he isn’t willing to serve in the armed forces, and he can’t swear absolute allegiance to the United States), even though he knows it will land him in a labor camp away from his family.

Meanwhile, Sam’s sister Kei falls in love with a young man at the camp named Frankie, who burns his draft papers and refuses to serve in the army. Kei just wants to keep her family safe, so she finds herself torn between her brother and her boyfriend–who are at odds with each other–and doesn’t find her own brand of allegiance until the end. Hannah, a white nurse at the camp, has a different kind of struggle, as she tries to reconcile her love for Sam with societal expectations.

The boldest statement about allegiance comes from Sam and Kei’s grandfather Ojii-chan (the Japanese word for “grandpa”). In a lovely moment of resistance, he takes the hated questionnaire and folds it into an origami flower, which Kei wears in her hair. (more…)

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Review: The Hired Girl

the hired girlSet anything with class distinctions and fancy households at the turn of the twentieth century and it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Downton Abbey. But that would be a huge disservice to The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, which has the requisite detail and decorum for a period piece, but also substance and heart.

Fourteen year old Joan’s narration begins when she pours her thoughts and feelings into the diary her teacher gifts her after her father forces her to drop out of school and earn her keep on the farm. A harsh and stingy man, he isolates Joan, treats her like a servant, and belittles her at every turn. When he tries to break Joan’s spirit after she stages a one-woman strike to gain a sliver of financial independence, she flees to the city with the meager emergency fund her dead mother left for her.

Through luck, naivete and a bit of deception, Joan lands a position as a serving girl with the Rosenbach’s, a wealthy German Jewish household. Out of kindness, the Rosenbachs hire her without references, with the stipulation that their very old, very picky Orthodox housekeeper has the final say over Joan’s employment. (more…)

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Review: The Scorpion Rules

scorpion rulesErin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules starts with a chilling premise: hundreds of years into the future, after humans nearly destroyed themselves fighting over dwindling resources, an artificial intelligence named Talis decided to take things into its own hands. (As Talis points out, the humans should’ve expected it: “I don’t know how it surprised people–I mean, if they’d been paying the slightest bit of attention they’d have known that AIs have this built-in tendency to take over the world. Did we learn nothing from The Terminator, people? Did we learn nothing from HAL?”)

Talis took control of the high-power weapons that could destroy entire cities. Then it tried to dissuade humans from launching small-scale wars by installing a hostage system: the president/king/queen/ruler of every country must give up their child. The kids are educated in schools called Preceptures, and released at age 18. But while they’re there, if a country declares war on another, the children of both rulers are killed. It’s proven quite effective at keeping wars to a minimum (“The world is at peace,” says the Utterances, a collection of Talis’ collected wisdom. “And really, if the odd princess has a hard day, is that too much to ask?”)

Bow starts the book long after Talis begins his rule. Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy (part of modern-day Canada), is a seventh-generation hostage. She’s not far from her 18th birthday, but her nation is on the brink of war. Greta has accepted her likely death, and vows to meet it with dignity—until a new student, Elián, arrives at the Precepture. Elián’s grandmother leads an army that’s about to declare war on Greta’s country, and unlike the other students, Elián doesn’t accept the rules of the hostage system. His rebellion forces Greta to open her eyes and see things for what they really are.

Up until now, it sounds like a familiar YA dystopia. But Bow twists the tropes into something new, so it never feels like you’re reading a well-trod genre. It ties with Black Dove, White Raven as my favorite YA read of the year. Among the welcome surprises: (more…)

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western frontI used to be skeptical of authors commissioned to continue a beloved series. Surely, the new sequel couldn’t be as good as the original. Then I read Jacqueline Kelly’s Return to the Willows and was thoroughly charmed. So I had high hopes for Kate Saunders’ Five Children on the Western Front, and I’m pleased to say it exceeded all my expectations. Saunders’ reboot has all the humor and heart of E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, but it goes deeper, and feels more grown-up while remaining quintessentially middle-grade. Bonus: it lacks the casual racism of Nesbit’s book.

As the title suggests, Western Front takes place during World War I. The Pemberton kids are all grown up now, with Cyril off to war, Anthea a volunteer nurse, Robert in college but expecting to join the army at any point, and Jane itching to become a doctor. Even the Lamb is 11, too old to spend much time with the Psammead when the sand fairy mysteriously returns. Luckily, Saunders has introduced Edith (Edie), a younger sibling not found in Nesbit’s books, and she soon becomes the Psammead’s best friend.

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listen, slowlyTwelve-year-old Mai Le has no desire to hear why she must give up her summer vacation to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam. As far as she’s concerned, the “quack” detective her grandmother hired to find Mai’s grandfather, who was captured by the Viet Cong and disappeared during the Vietnam War, is leading them on a wild goose chase.

Neither is Mai interested in discovering her roots. A Laguna girl through and through, Mai knows she belongs on the beach with her gal pal, Montana, and the boy she’s secretly crushing on, not slumming it in the stifling heat of the remote village where her grandfather grew up, where she doesn’t speak the language and the notion of personal space and privacy is nonexistent.

So Mai makes it her personal mission to help her grandmother accept the truth. The sooner Ba finds closure, the sooner they can go home. This turns out to be easier said than done.

In Listen, Slowly, author Thanhha Lai takes a refreshing approach to the familiar story about a third culture kid experiencing her ancestral homeland for the first time. Happily, neither the plot nor Mai’s character arc hinge solely upon Cultural Identity and A Newfound Appreciation For One’s Heritage and Land of Origin.

Instead, Mai preoccupies herself with trying to escape her predicament. She also gets into scrapes, has teenage concerns, makes friends, meddles in the villagers’ daily routines (and love lives), and even does an impressive amount of sleuthing with the help of her new friends.

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