I enjoy historical novels when they teach me something new without boring me to tears. This debut novel is a story about first love, forbidden love, s...moreI enjoy historical novels when they teach me something new without boring me to tears. This debut novel is a story about first love, forbidden love, strained parental relationships, role models, alienation, bigotry, coming of age, courage and how music can be universal. But it is also about the evacuation of Seattle's entire Japanese community into internment camps during the hysteria of WW2 and the enormous conflict of cultures the Chinese had with those same Japanese.
Young Henry is approaching his teens and is being sent to an all white private school by his steadfast Chinese parents who want him to become as Americanized as possible as a first generation American. They also want him to be proud of his Chinese heritage, but to blend in with the country they now live in. They especially want everyone to know that he is not Japanese - the enemy of China and America during this period of 1942 and beyond. So they make him wear a pin at all times that reads "I AM CHINESE."
Henry is ostracized by his classmates who refer to him as a Jap. He is also abandoned by his former Chinese friends since he has been made to transfer schools. Alone and an outsider wherever he goes, he is delighted to make friends with another new student arriving at his school who stands out even more than he does - Keiko, a beautiful girl who is Japanese American.
Henry and Keiko form a strong bond of friendship and flirt with more until she and her family are sent away by the US Govt. to camps for their protection but which really are a way to round up anyone of Japanese descent and stick them in a prison camp until the war is over. Henry is smitten and heartbroken. His parents are furious that he would betray his roots and date the enemy.
Henry has to turn to some other adults in his life for guidance and support and tries to make sense of things and find his way through typical teenage troubles during incredibly atypical times.
This story was very engaging to me because the characters were so easy to care for and take interest in. The writing was easy to read, but the themes within the plot were quite thought provoking. The simplicity of the author's words did not result in a lack of poetic language.
The story is told juxtaposed with Henry's life as an adult and his own strained relationship with his college aged son. The past comes back to the forefront when a renovated hotel discovers belongings left behind by Japanese families forced away to internment camps. This clever plot device added maturity to the tale. Henry as an adult was not nearly as bright eyed and hopeful as Henry the young adult. Filling in the missing pieces to find out why was an interesting journey to take.
I was touched most by the love between the various characters - Henry and Keiko, Henry and his family, Henry and his good friend the Jazz musician Sheldon. Love is an effort - one worth fighting for. And to see people for who they are on the inside - not for what their button states that they are on the outside - is the true moral here.
The city of Seattle shines as a character throughout this book too. As does the world of Jazz. Many things to become exposed to - many things to want to learn more about. This book would make an excellent teaching tool for young adults studying about this time in America's history. I found it to be a good launching pad for seeking out more facts about that period of time too.(less)
This book is terrific. Set in the midst of WW2 Poland, two Jewish children are abandoned by their father and stepmother at the edge of the woods as Na...moreThis book is terrific. Set in the midst of WW2 Poland, two Jewish children are abandoned by their father and stepmother at the edge of the woods as Nazis close in on them, with the parents forging ahead to be the decoys. Told to ditch their Jewish names and go by Hansel and Gretel instead, they make their way through the woods in search of a farm or village to take them in. They stumble across a strange hut in the ancient forest inhabited by an old woman with a gigantic baker's stove inside. She takes them in against her better judgment and being the sweet children that they are, they win her over very quickly.
As you can see, this re-telling of the familiar tale of a witch who cooks up stray children is headed in a different direction. The witch is kind. She protects them from the Nazis installed in the local village. They become part of her eclectic family while slowly the memories of their real lives before the war dwindle away.
There are lots of things to scare you in this book - but it isn't the stuff of fairy tales. It is the stuff of history - of war. A firm reminder that we are not that far distanced from the holocaust and the evil that created it. There are pleasant lessons too - that love can conquer lots of trouble and that children still see things differently, no matter how fast they have to grow up.
For a different view of this period, give this book a try.(less)
That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit the...moreThat's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive - all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment." ~pgs. 11-12, Part One
Truth be told, I dog-eared most every page of the first twenty as passages to consider quoting in my review's introduction. I knew immediately that this book was for me. It is a book about writing, about literature, about books, about their hold on us, about their power to transport, distract, empower, engage, connect. And it did all of this within the uniquely fascinating historical perspective of a quirky, sturdy, close-knit English Channel island post-WW2 Occupation. Most wonderful, it is told entirely in the epistolary method - nothing but notes, letters, telegrams and diary entries to flesh out the characters and advance their plot.
I have not read a book in less than a week since before my toddler was born three years ago! I know that partly it was because the letter style of storytelling made it extremely easy to absorb quickly in starts and spurts. But mostly it was because the story and its characters were so easy to fall in line with. I loved peeking into their lives through this letter box - peering into their private thoughts through their exchanges of notes. When given an opportunity to be a snoop, who can resist?
Guernsey is an island in the English Channel, closer to the shores of France than its homeland, England. During WW2 it was occupied by German Nazis for several years. They were completely cut off from all knowledge of the happenings in the outside world, absent the mood of their occupiers and the bombers flying past them for London. As such, provisions ran out, their world changed, and people resorted to desperate measures. Sometimes that meant shipping your children off to England to avoid unknown dangers at the hands of this army. Sometimes that meant acknowledging that even the enemy can have a heart. Sometimes that meant risking your life to save that of a prisoner. Sometimes that meant collusion with the enemy in exchange for survival. Sometimes that meant engaging with previously unknown members of the island community to keep hope alive. And sometimes it meant inventing a literary society meeting to cover up breaking curfew, leading to the discovery that books can heal.
The voice of this story is a young writer named Juliet Ashton, who has embarked on a book tour throughout England in the immediate post-war years to promote a collection of well-received humorous newspaper articles she penned during the war about the war experience in London. She receives a letter from a Guernsey resident, Dawsey, who somehow became the second-hand owner of a book she sold off from her personal library during an earlier part of her life. This man is desperate to learn more about that book's author, but has no book store available to him on Guernsey post-war. He contacts Juliet via the address in her former book's cover with the hopes that she can connect him with a store in London.
Juliet connects Dawsey with a friend owning a London book store, and then connects with him personally about his life and times during and after the Occupation. This leads her to become obsessed with Guernsey, their war history, and the pluck of the people in the literary society that introduced Dawsey to books during the war. For Juliet the writer, a story is born. For Juliet the person, a new life is born.
While reading this book, you will laugh often. You will learn much. You will swoon secretly. You will want to pack up your bags for a seasick mail boat ride across the Channel. And some tiny little bit will lead you to look up some other fact in another book that will lead you to track down some other author. And if you are lucky enough, the copy of the book that you hold will have the address of someone inside as kindly and entertaining as Juliet to connect you to all the answers you needed to have, and even more important ones that you never knew you needed at all.(less)
"But he was a free and clear man, and the law said so. Augustus never hurt me, never said bad to me. What Harvey done was wrong. But telling you don't...more"But he was a free and clear man, and the law said so. Augustus never hurt me, never said bad to me. What Harvey done was wrong. But telling you don't put me on the nigger side. I'm still on the white man side, John. I'm still standin with the white. God help me if you believe somethin else about me." He shifted in the saddle once more. The moon was just above the horizon now a large, dusty orange point, but Barnum did not raise his head high enough to see it. "It's just that there should be a way for a body to say what is without somebody sayin he standin on the nigger side. A body should be able to stand under some...some kinda light and declare what he knows without retribution. There should be some kinda lantern, John, that we can stand under and say, 'I know what I know and what I know is God's truth,' and then come from under the light and nobody make any big commotion bout what he said. He could say it and just get on about his business, and nobody would say, 'He be stickin up for the nigger, he be stickin up for them Indians.' The lantern of truth wouldn't low them to say that. There should be that kinda light, John. I regret what happened to Augustus."
"Yes, Barnum, I know." The merchant came out of the store and tipped his hat to Skiffington and Skiffington nodded and the merchant went home.
"A man could stand under that light and talk the truth. You could hold the lantern with the light right from where you were standin, John. Hold it so I could stand under it. And when nobody was talkin, was tellin the truth bout what they know, you could keep the lantern in the jail, John. Keep it safe in the jail, John." Barnum closed his eyes, took off his hat, opened his eyes and studied the brim. "But don't keep the lantern too near the bars, John, cause you don't war the criminals touchin it and what not. You should write the president, you should write the delegate, and have em pass a law to have that lantern in every jail in the United States of America. I would back that law. God knows I would. I really would, John."
"I would too, Barnum," Skiffington said. ~pgs. 301-302 (Chapter 9 - States of Decay, A Modest Proposal, Why Georgians Are Smarter.)
Barnum is the poorest white man in the fictional Manchester County of Virginia in 1855. And he wrestles with the truth in a society that punishes him for standing up for it. The Known World is a portrait of that society, reflected through the souls that populated the region. Black, white, indian, mixed - rich, poor, slave - men, women, children. The magnifying glass is held up to each of them, while the reader is allowed to inspect them and their life's history woven in a very detached way by an omnipresent narrator.
My biggest issue with this Pulitzer Prize winning novel is that it jumps around through the histories of these souls so much as to give my tired brain jolt after jolt. In a way, it is not dissimilar to sitting in a porch rocker while your elder doles out the history of their family - with one memory recalling another at an entirely different time, bouncing you back and forth in a non-linear telling. Because of the breadth of characters, details and connections that abound, it was a struggle for me to keep it all straight.
The characters as a result are quite complex and your opinions of them can change from page to page. Barnum, for example, is a slave patroller. He keeps an eye out for the plantation owners' property and hunts it down when it runs off. Not exactly endearing. Yet I felt so very sorry for him during the passage above. He risked his life and his family's welfare to report the truth to his sheriff about a crime that he could not keep from happening to a freed black man. He knew that what happened was wrong. And he tried to discourage it as best he could. But in his known world, blacks were less than human, freed or not. And to fight on their behalf was a death sentence. His internal struggle with this dilemma is evident through his words. He wants things to be different. But is too fearful to fight against the way things are. His dream of a lantern of truth made me feel sorry for him, and his known world. And he's one of the bad guys.
This novel is full of contradictory feelings. There is the rich white plantation owner wielding terrible power to the detriment of slaves across the county. Who loves his black mistress more than anyone. But beats her when she runs away. While at the same time mentoring a former slave on how to be a proper slave owner.
That's right, a former slave owning slaves. How do you feel compassion for a black slave owner? Because the author has a gift of putting you in his characters' souls.
This particular black plantation is the focal setting of this story, which is an examination of how slavery impacted the people of the South. It wasn't pretty. It was highly emotional and reactive. It was cruel. It was tolerated. It was accepted. It was transformative. It was eventually rejected.
A fascinating approach to a shameful point in my country's history that is still to blame for many modern day attitudes, objections and reactions in matters of race and tolerance as a whole.(less)