I am Malala

I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanI Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

I come from a country that was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.

When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. At 15 years old she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, and few expected her to survive.

Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

I Am Malala is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.

My Review

When I started listening to the audio book I think I was expecting a fairly short recap of a girls life leading up to how and why she got shot. I mean, she was just a teenager after all so how much of her life could there be to tell? I chose the book because it was readily available, and while I had heard about Malala I didn’t really know much about her, and she seems like the kind of person I should know about in order to be up on the current issues.

I was surprised when the book started right off with the day of the shooting. I realized this was not going to be the book I was expecting, but I was ok with that because I was only more intrigued by the “why” after hearing about the “how” of the shooting.

It was a pleasant surprise to learn about the history and culture of Pakistan and Islam. I’m not the most well-informed world citizen, but I ain’t totally ignorant either, so this was a great format for me to gain a broader perspective of the intricate and interconnected workings of our modern world. I was fascinated by the history of Malala’s family and how it connected to the broader national and religious history. The descriptions of the Swat Valley left me hoping I could someday visit Pakistan to see it for myself.

I watched “The Viceroy’s House” on Netflix after finishing the book; it is a movie about the time surrounding Pakistan’s birth. While it may not be the most accurate portrayal of history, it did teach me much more than I had known before about that time in history. It also furthered my interest in learning more about Pakistan and Afghanistan so I can better understand current events.

Malala’s teenage voice and perspective were fun and refreshing through a tale of hardship and danger. But she also has a maturity and wisdom beyond her years. It was joyful to hear that a girl who is willing to stand up to gangs and murderers for the right to go to school also was obsessed with Twilight and dreamed of being a vampire.

I respect Malala and her family not only for their work to provide educational opportunities for girls, even at the risk of their own lives, but also because they are good. They are devoted to their God and to each other. They show patience and understanding for differences in people. There is no self-righteousness nor self-deprecation when describing the wonders and problems in their country and religion. Malala’s voice keeps a neutrality even when describing the ways in which the Western world wronged or betrayed her country. There is acceptance of the good, the bad, and the ugly in all of us, but with a hope and striving for the best. More empathy in this world could make all the difference.

Age Recommendation: 16 and older. Malala is a teenager herself and is relatable as such, but the issues in the book and her experiences require some scope of world understanding.

Appropriateness: Some readers may be disturbed by the violent and unjust events in the book, but I didn’t find any of the description offensive.

I gained a lot of perspective of my place in the world and felt a bit humbled by it. This would be a perfect book club choice.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in I Am Malala then you might also enjoy When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, and Without You there is No Us by Suki Kim.

 

Without You There is No Us

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's EliteWithout You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields – except for the 270 students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has accepted a job teaching English.

Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic where letters are read by censors, every conversation is listened to, and a communist regime controls behavior, belief, and fairly successfully even thoughts. To the students, everything in North Korea is the best, the tallest, the most delicious, the envy of all nations. Suki is unnerved by their obedience to the regime and the ease with which they lie. Still, she cannot help but love them – their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished.

Without You, There Is No Us offers a moving and incalculably rare glimpse of life in the world’s most unknowable country, and at the privileged young men she calls “soldiers and slaves.”

My Review

Fascinating is the best the word I can think of to describe this book. I didn’t know much about North Korea before reading/listening, other than the basics such as it’s a communist country with a preoccupation with nuclear weapons, it and South Korea were separated at some point after some war in the past, Japan had invaded Korea at one point, and North Korea was very much closed to the rest of the world. I wouldn’t say that this book is a great textbook for learning the history or political movements of North Korea, but for someone with decent logic and reasoning skills, and a pretty good grasp of world history this was a very engaging way to get a glimpse into the role North Korea has played and currently plays on the international stage.

The book is categorized as a memoir which I would say is accurate, but it felt like a memoir ensconced in truth and important perspective. As a South Korean who immigrated to the United States the author has a very unique context from which to view the events and ideas she experienced in North Korea. Because the book is written from her experience and with her own reflection on that experience it does fit the memoir mold. However, as a reader I trusted her reflections because of her own past and culture. She could see things in a way that others without her kind of love for Korea would not. Which was kind of the point of her efforts. I appreciated not only her interpretation of reactions, ideas, and events based on her personal ties to the country and people, but also her sharing the insight and identity she gained and lost through her experience.

If the book were just Suki Kim’s musings about Korea, war, communism, religion, loyalty, truth, and education then it would be interesting but it may not be as important as it felt to me. Kim is a journalist, one who had followed stories in North Korea before her time as a teacher there. Her perspective from that role gives the book an element of reporting that left me feeling I did understand historical events and international relations better.

I loved how the combination of memoir and journalism gave me interesting facts but also affected me emotionally. There were times as I listened that I was caught up purely intellectually in the picture of North Korea that the author was painting for me. It’s a country so removed from me with so many secrets that it was just mesmerizing to hear what being there, living there would be like. But then I would slowly transport myself and start imagining what it would really feel like to be there. The author would share a scene where the restrictions, regulation, and control were no longer just interesting facts, but the realities of people’s lives, and I would feel such sorrow and hurt for the Korean people and any others living always as prisoners.

My emotions yo-yoed right along with the author’s as she described her love/hate relationship with her job, with her students and coworkers, and with the culture she was proud of, but had also rejected in some senses. In an effort to educate myself more about North Korea I read some newspaper articles after finishing the book. I hated how the articles painted all North Koreans as our enemies. Kim’s writing, on the other hand, reveals the humanity of the people, the ways in which we are all the same, while also clearly broadcasting the naivety and even the threat that the North Korean people’s beliefs and choices hold for anyone they deem their enemy (or that their leaders deem their enemy). However, I didn’t come away feeling endangered or afraid. I felt pity. How can I hate a people who have lived for generations under the brainwashing effect of propaganda and lies? I worry FOR them, just as Suki Kim does, but not ABOUT them; they are not my enemy.

Ironically, Kim is clearly not a Christian or a believer, but I found her approach of love, patience, and correction so Christ-like. She compares the belief and faith in God that her Christian coworkers have to the faith and belief that the North Koreans have in their “great leader” and their communist party. From her experience, I can’t deny the grains of truth in her comparison. But I also empathized with the emotion that one coworker expressed or almost expressed when Kim confronted her about the hypocrisy she saw in the coworker’s religious beliefs. It seemed to me that the coworker at that moment was blessed with a Christ-like love for Kim, despite the confrontation Kim had just initiated.
The coworker emoted mostly with her face, a desire to share some eternal truth that she knew, but that she wasn’t sure Kim was ready for yet. Interestingly, since Kim is the one narrating the experience, I think she must have seen her coworker’s emotion too, otherwise she could not have described it in a way that would allow me as the reader to pick up on it.

I think Kim believed her Christian coworker’s good intentions even if she didn’t completely agree with them. I read a blog post from the author where she talks about the backlash she has received since publishing the book from readers who don’t agree with her actions either. But I feel gratitude for Suki Kim and her good intentions. I think, despite her unbelief, her work and writing will open hearts and minds so that God can work with us all as our world gets smaller through technology and more dangerous if small-mindedness is encouraged. I hope, as the author does, that North Koreans will gain freedom and that the world will be ready to receive and help them when they do. I hope that the good that is ingrained in their culture will be appreciated and magnified, not suppressed or wiped out by our often egotistical and overbearing western culture. This is where history can be our best teacher if we will learn from our mistakes of the past to guide our future.

My husband is a geographer so maps are always an interesting source of information in our lives. He found this data image for me that shows light for areas where navigation data is used and shared. This image shows South and North Korea and China. The darkness of North Korea sums up the country fairly well. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say.

IMG-1700

P.S. Listening to this book was a good choice for me. I loved hearing the reader pronounce the Korean names and words that I would have had no idea on had I been reading.

Age Recommendation: 18 and older. To appreciate the implications of and information in this book requires some understanding of history, culture, and politics that I think generally comes only with adulthood.

Appropriateness: Harsh realities of communism, tyranny, poverty, and prejudice are a constant presence in this book, but I didn’t find any of it to be sensational or gory. It can certainly be depressing at times, but mostly I was fascinated. The author does use the term “lover” to describe an old flame, but there is no description of romantic relationships.

I read this because it was selected for book club and I am looking forward to the discussion that will be possible.  This is a perfect book club read.

Other book recommendations: If Without You There is No Us is of interest to you then I think you would also enjoy So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr,  Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Just Mercy

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

My Review

This is a really difficult book to review for me. It is an important book for our time. It contains hard truths, but truths nonetheless. It was an uncomfortable and terribly sad read, sometimes even traumatic. I learned things about our justice system that are extremely disheartening. I was presented with narratives of mankind at our very worst and our very best. This book pushed me to consider perspectives I never would have considered on my own. I will be thinking about it for a long time, and I can say that I am glad I read it.

However, I didn’t really like it. Part of my dislike is related to the content, not because I disapprove or disagree. The book presents the realities of injustice, discrimination, bias, corruption, the workings of our country’s justice system, and life and death in prison. It’s harsh and disturbing, and while the realities of life are not always pretty, it was hard for me to take more than just a little of the story at a time. Sometimes I could read only a few pages before I just felt sick about what was being described and had to put it down. However, I did keep coming back and eventually finished it. I had to respect such an important topic, and I needed to know that I had read the whole thing so I wouldn’t misunderstand the author’s purpose. I recognize that it’s ok for me to be disturbed and uncomfortable. In fact, that’s a good thing in some instances because it can evoke change. But I still can’t say that I enjoyed the feeling or experience.

The format of the book also played a part in my dislike. It’s really just a collection of cases that the author has worked on throughout his career, but there is one particular death row case that Stevenson stretches through the entire book while to try to tie it all together, to keep a flow going, and also to provide suspense. This main case is interrupted by tellings of other cases and experiences. I found that format confusing and sometimes abrupt. It was harder for me to keep track of a timeline and order of each case when they were all mixed around main story which was only important to me because the author also describes history, changes, and developments in our justice system that either affected one of his cases or that one of his cases catalyzed. It would have been easier for me to keep track of the causes and effects with a more linear time format. It was hard for me to keep the names and details of each case straight.

I was also turned off by some of the writing. I got tired of the detailed descriptions of every courthouse and prison that the author visited. They didn’t really add to the impact of the case he was describing. The details of the crimes or innocence of his clients packed enough punch all on their own. Repeated description of how different buildings were positioned within a town or how the rooms were laid didn’t help me understand any of his points better.

The author had a tendency to “beat a dead horse” with some of his points as well. I felt bogged down reading so many statistics or examples that supported a conclusion Stevenson was drawing for me. After just a few of his given examples I was on board with him; I believed that is was right in what he was wanting to convince readers of. But then I would get several more examples to really pound it in. At one point I made note that the author had gone on for another 1 1/2 pages pounding the same point after I was already sufficiently convinced.

It was impossible to not feel the author’s passion for his work and I greatly respect him for what he does. We all have our own life experiences or our own “broken-ness” as the author calls it, that affect our choices, behaviors, and even views. I am grateful for a look into Stevenson’s experience and views that opened my mind and heart. However, I also found myself pondering the one-sided-ness of the experience that he presents. It would be an interesting exercise to be able to read from a criminal prosector’s perspective, or a law enforcement perspective on trying to bring full justice to victims after having read a criminal defense attorney’s perspective on trying to bring “just mercy” to broken criminals.

I have no experience in law (unless competing in “Mock Trial” in junior high counts), but I would think this book should be required reading for any law student. Would I say it should be required reading for anyone? I don’t think so. But if it sparks your curiosity at all, or if you are one who likes to be stretched in your thinking, to be informed on all sides of multi-faceted issues, then sure give this one a try. You probably won’t regret it. But then again you might. You definitely will never be the same.

Age Recommendation: 18 and older.  The detailed descriptions of prison conditions, crimes, abuse, prejudice, and injustice are not for the faint of heart or unprepared mind.

Appropriateness: There is description of murder, rape, adultery, capital punishment, stealing, drug use, racial discrimination, corruption in law enforcement and the justice system. However, it is not gratuitous.  There is a overarching moral purpose for presenting such distasteful circumstances.

This would be a great choice for book club.  So much discussion material, but make sure all members of the group are willing and able to handle the subject matter.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Just Mercy then you might also like Without You There is No Us by Suki Kim, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, or The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

Everything on a Waffle – for teachers

Everything on a Waffle (Coal Harbour #1)Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary

When Primrose’s parents both disappear at sea in the middle of a vicious storm, she is forced into a new life which includes a new home, new friends, new conflicts and adventures, new insights, and new recipes. It really does take a village in this case to take care of 11-year old Primrose. Some of the townspeople thinkthey know best, like the snobbish and socially awkward school counselor Miss Honeycut. While others truly are just what Primrose needs to keep her hope alive, like her impulsive Uncle Jack, and Kate Bowzer, the owner of the local restaurant where all the food is served on a waffle. But the true joy in this story is how Primrose and her hope is just what the town, and all of us, need to approach the world and all of its challenges with courage, wit, kindness, fun, and love.

Teaching Resources

I read this book for a fourth time recently for book club. I already reviewed this book here and included some book club discussion questions in that review. But reading the book this time I thought about more from an elementary school teaching perspective and thought about how I would use it as a read-aloud or small group book. Here are some questions and activities I came up with for using Everything on a Waffle in the classroom.

Read aloud or small group questions:

These can be found in a worksheet format here.

chapters 1-2

1. How would feel if you were Primrose and both your parents had just disappeared? Does Primrose seem upset?

2. How would you describe Miss Perfidy? Do you think Primrose likes her? How do you know?

3. Do you like Miss Honeycut so far? How does Miss Honeycut feel about Uncle Jack? How do you know? 

4. Why is her mother’s memo pad so important to Primrose? How do you know it is important to her?

5. Do you think Uncle Jack will be a good guardian for Primrose? Why or why not?

6. Why do the girls at school tease Primrose?

7. The townspeople think Primrose’s mother made a reckless and bad decision to go after her husband. What does Miss Bowzer think about it? With whom do you agree?

8. What kinds of things have you had on waffles? Would you want to try any of things from the Girl on the Red Swing’s menu? 

9. What does it mean to be a pacifist?

chapters 3-4

10. Why is Miss Honeycut taking such an interest in Primrose? Have you ever known anyone like Miss Honeycut?

11. What do you think of Uncle Jack’s job as a developer? How do the people of Coal Harbor feel about it? What does it mean to be a developer?

12. Why is Primrose writing down all of these recipes? How do you think she chooses the recipes she wants to write?

13. Do you think Primrose’s parents are dead? Why or Why not?

14. What does Primrose mean when she says, “Sometimes you get tempted to make something wonderful even better but in doing so you lose what was so wonderful to being with.” 

chapters 5-6

15. Do you think Uncle Jack could have had a special reason for getting Primrose a dog? 

16. Do you think there are really ghosts playing hockey? What else could it be?

17. Why did Lena go so crazy over boiled potatoes? What does that have to do with Primrose helping Uncle Jack?

18. Why doesn’t Miss Bowzer like Uncle Jack?

19. Have you ever had an experience like Miss Bowzer’s with the whaling ship? 

chapters 7-8

20. What is happening to Miss Perfidy’s memory? 

21. Why do you think Primrose’s sweaters are so important to her? What do you think happened to them?

22. Chapter 8 is called “I lose a toe.” How do you predict that will happen?

23. What does Primrose mean about Miss Honeycut’s relationship with her sister when she says, “THAT’S the type of thing I’m talking about!”

24. Why does Miss Honeycut tell such long and uninteresting stories over and over?

25. How would you feel if some many people didn’t believe you, like how the townspeople don’t believe Primrose when she says her parents are coming back or that she didn’t try to kill herself?

26. Have you ever felt an unexplainable joy or peace like Primrose at the end of chapter 8?

chapters 9-11

27. Why does Primrose keep talking about a solarium?

28. How do you think Primrose feels about the boys getting another goalie?

29. What does Miss Honeycut think about Primrose’s behavior in the rain and also of her cutting the guinea pig’s hair?

30. Why does Uncle Jack not like The Girl on the Red Swing?

31. Why does Uncle Jack start talking to Miss Honeycut about a new townhome in the restaurant?

32. Why does Uncle Jack tell Primrose about the boys who catch fish and sell them?

33. How do you think Uncle Jack’s idea lands Primrose in a foster home?

chapters 12-14

34. Chapter 12 is called “I lose another digit.” What is a “digit?” Which one do you think Primrose loses? How do you think it happens?

35. What do you think of Evie and Bert? How would you describe them?

36. In this chapter Primrose admits to crying for the first time.  Why does she cry now and not at any other time in the book?

37. Are there “good guys” and “bad guys” in this book? If so, who are the good and who are the bad?

38. How is Uncle Jack a hero? Why are the townspeople angry with him?

39. Why does Miss Bowzer cut the vegetables into small bits “BAM BAM BAM” whenever Primrose mentions Miss Honeycut’s name? 

40. How do Evie and Bert feel about the fire? 

41. How does Miss Perfidy dying in the middle of Primrose’s sentence relate to the rest of the book? 

chapter 15

42. What of your predictions turned out to be correct? 

43. Were the characters happy in the end? Why or why not?

44. Have you ever known something in your heart without knowing why?

45. Which of the recipes in the book would you want to try? 

46. What kind of “important things” happen in the “smallest places?” 

Activities:

1. Have a waffle party. Make the recipe from the book or bring in Eggo waffles and a variety of toppings to try.

2. As a science project try making boiled potatoes or cinnamon rolls and experiment with yeast.

3. Study seals and Orcas. Study about tourism in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.  Make travel brochures.

4. Make a travel brochure as as a book report. Have a section for characters, events, recipes, and the book’s theme.

5. Make a menu for The Girl on the Red Swing. Come up with as many interesting waffle combinations as possible.

6. Research development in your own city or town. Has there been opposition like in Coal Harbor? Come up with a plan that might make both sides of the issue happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frankenstein

FrankensteinFrankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

At once a Gothic thriller, a romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature’s hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. It was an instant bestseller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science fiction genres. It not only tells a disturbing story, but also raises profound questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos.

My Review

I am a Halloween Scrooge. There. I said it. I despise the gruesome, gory, bloody, and scary. I hate haunted houses. The idea of putting out so much effort, walking around for hours in the cold, just to trade candy around the neighborhood never really made sense to me. I do like dressing up, but that’s the only aspect of Halloween that holds any appeal.

Which is probably why I never even considered reading Frankenstein until just a few weeks ago. I consider myself a fan of classic literature. I’ve read my fair share, most of it even by choice and not because of English class assignments. In my wanderings at Barnes and Noble I had noticed Frankenstein in the Classics section plenty of times, but I was not interested enough to even pick it up. I believed the pop culture version of Frankenstein and was just sure this “horror” story would have nothing to offer a detester of Halloween such as myself.

About 2 months ago I joined a book club and one of the members chose Frankenstein as the read for the month of October. Several members talked about how they remembered loving it in their high school English classes, but I was skeptical. Another member told about how Mary Shelley had come up with the story and that piqued my interest. Finding a copy for free on iBooks was a perk. I decided to have an open mind give the book a try.

Boy was it a whole lot different than what I thought it would be. First off I was immediately drawn in by the language. Such beauty and intelligence! There were words I had never heard or seen before and I enjoyed looking them up and expanding my vocabulary. I loved the imagery, depth of meaning, and perfect poetic word choice.

The references to ancient classic literature, history, and geography expanded my knowledge on interests as well. I found myself wishing I knew more about Milton’s Paradise Lost, the alchemists Victor studies, and Prometheus. A deeper understanding of these and the other literary and historical works and figures Shelley references would only heighten my appreciation of her book. I am in awe of her talent and intelligence, and her descriptions of Europe, particularly the lakes and mountains of the Alps had me ready to hop the next plane over the Atlantic.

As far as theme goes, Frankenstein couldn’t be further from a “horror” story. It truly is a study of humanity through tragic heroes and villains; in fact, the main characters fulfill both roles at various times. As a reader who appreciates and connects with characters first and foremost, this book spoke to my soul.

The book illuminates so many philosophical and moral questions: What makes someone or something a monster? How should we deal with the consequences of our actions? When does passion become obsession? When does it become dangerous? How should we balance the security and happiness of one or the few with the security and happiness of the many? What moral limitations should there be on discovery and science? I loved that Shelley poses these questions not through a sermon but only through presentation; which means she doesn’t provide an answer to any of the questions, just the food for thought.

I will admit that there were times when the introspection of all 3 of the narrators got a little long even for me who loves character insight. I was ready for the actual plot and mystery to move a little more quickly, but that didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of this beautiful and tragic piece of true literature.

Age Recommendation: This one with the subject matter and classic prose is definitely better suited for mature readers.  18 and older would be my suggestion though 16 and 17 year olds with practice in the classics would appreciate it as well.

Appropriateness: Frankenstein is full of mental illness, murder, revenge, cruelty, and obsession, but none of that is glorified. These follies of natural man are used to educate and entertain combined with superb voice and skill with words make this completely appropriate for mature readers and an ideal choice for book clubs.  There is so much discussion material (see my review above for question ideas). Just reading other reviews on Goodreads and Amazon I could see the wide range of opinions about the characters and themes. I’m looking forward to discussing with my book club next week.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Frankenstein then I think you would also enjoy Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel both by Daphne Du Maurier, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

 

Safe House

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Safe House

Safe House by Shannon Symonds

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

As a victim’s advocate, Grace James is used to rushing into trouble to save her victims from abuse or assault. And with a handsome officer like Joe Hart at her side, Grace is sure there’s nothing she can’t do. But an ominous storm brewing on the Oregon horizon is about to change everything—and bring with it dangers and revelations Grace and Joe never expected.

Excerpt from the book

Grace drove up the winding road, high among large new homes. They sat along the edge of the lush Oregon forest on the Pacific Coast Range Mountains. She didn’t have to look too hard for the address. An ambulance and two lit up police cars, lights silently rotating, marked the last home at the top of the steep road. Light spilled from every window and the open front door. Ancient pines and a dark old growth forest swayed in the wind behind the house. On the front porch a woman was arguing with a medic, holding a bloody rag to her face…

…Making her way to the house, she walked between patrol cars and crossed the lawn. The ambulance driver had a clipboard and was trying to explain to Emily, the victim, that she needed to sign a waiver stating she was refusing services. Ignoring the ambulance driver and looking at Officer Hart, Emily was speaking and gesturing rapidly, demanding they leave her alone.

The officer she was spitting mad at was young and good-looking. Grace didn’t know how anyone could yell at Hart. His name was absolutely appropriate. Seeing Grace, he half-smiled, showing dimples, looking grateful for the interruption.

Flashing her own half-grin, her color rose. Looking down, she hoped he hadn’t noticed.

PROMO-she cradled her lost dream deep in her heart
My Review

I connected with this book. It reeled me in and kept me there with an intense and fast-moving plot. The emotional intensity was a unique aspect of this book for me. I had never read a book addressing domestic violence and abuse, and I found myself incapable of putting it down because I just couldn’t leave these characters in the unjust and demoralizing circumstances.

In addition to the captivating and entertaining plot, Safe House was an educational experience. Part of what was both enthralling and alarming as I read was knowing that the author has personal experience as an advocate for victims of domestic violence and abuse, so I could count on there being truth to the events and to the actions and reactions of the characters. I came away with better understanding of what victims are faced with and the complexity of their difficulties. I gained greater sympathy for their suffering, and more respect for their strength. The picture presented of victims and abusers led me to wonder who of my family and friends could silently be experiencing such heartache. I appreciated the subtle revelations of the abusers’ pasts that explain a lot of why they act in violence and abuse. It doesn’t justify or minimize the atrociousness of their actions, but it is enlightening to see what influenced them.

I also felt gratitude for those like the character Grace and like the author who sacrifice their time and comfort to help these victims. I was motivated to want to help too, even if it’s just by helping others gain the same understanding that Safe House brought me.

PROMO-they called her a victim but she was a survivor

While the subject matter is serious, difficult, and true to life, I also connected with the uplifting nature of the book. It’s not just about abuse and pain. It’s a story of healing, particularly healing with the help of family, friends, and professionals. Most importantly and most effectively, our Savior and Redeemer is part of the healing process. I thank my Heavenly Father that I don’t experience domestic violence or abuse, but I certainly have my own difficulties at times, and I use the same resources for help and healing. I felt like the author gave me an intimate look at a truly sacred process, one that is part of her reality as an advocate, so I felt I got a close look into her mind and heart as well. What I saw was so good, kind, and courageous. It was a privilege to work with her and get to know her better, particularly as she took the time to answer some interview questions. Check out my interview with her here.

I was also drawn in by the book’s setting. We recently moved to the Seattle area, so a book set in the Pacific Northwest was intriguing. Then we actually got to visit the area where the book takes place while was right in the middle of reading. Shannon Symond’s descriptions of the Seaside, Oregon area painted pictures of majestic and peaceful beauty. When I saw it all with my own eyes my thought was that she nailed the descriptions. See my trip report here to read more details about visiting the setting of Safe House.

I was emotionally and personally invested in the book, but I do have to say that intellectually the ending was not completely satisfying. Throughout the book you see some of the residents in a small coastal town become connected through good, bad, and ugly. They face an ultimate test at the end when mother nature adds her ferocity to their struggles; as a result, they become more closely connected. However, after it was all over I felt like I didn’t get enough insight into how the storm really affected or changed them or their relationships. I would have liked to be given a glimpse of them all a month or two down the road to really see what lasting effect the events and their connections had. The end climax didn’t have much meaning for me other than just excitement without more of an epilogue.

I wanted more time to celebrate with these characters I had come to care about. I felt I had come to know them as victims and also in the thick of the turning point. I wanted to be able to see them down the path of change a bit further.

PROMO-sometimes he answers our prayers with a storm

I especially felt there was a lot missing from Grace’s, the advocate, story. I was curious about her past that was really only hinted at. I expected when I started the book to read more about her than I did. But as I got further into the book I realized that it made sense that Grace’s story took more of a backseat to the other characters. While Grace is such an influential character, her job is to play a supporting role. I think her full story is probably the most interesting of all, but the book isn’t really about her except for her role as an advocate, just as a real domestic violence situation would not be about the advocate, no matter how heroic they are. It’s really about the victim(s) and making them safe. That oh-so-important-but-behind-the-scenes role of an advocate is clear through the character focuses in the book.

I was so happy to find out in my interview with Shannon Symonds that she has plans for another book with these characters!

There were a few small bumps in character development. There were a few times I was distracted from the story as I pondered whether a character’s actions or thoughts made sense based on my feel for them, but it was the excitement, uplifting experience, and learning opportunities of Safe House that shined forth to make it a good read.

Age Recommendation: With the adult subject matter I recommend this book for 17 and older.

Appropriateness: Domestic violence and sexual abuse are the main conflicts in the book so there is depiction of these horrid crimes. However, it’s all described tastefully without too much gore or graphic detail. But it is enough to evoke an emotional response. The message of overcoming such terrors makes the book a positive and happy one.

Book Club Suggestions: Safe House would provide great discussion material for a book club. Discussion topics could include
1. If you were put in a position where you were suddenly on your own to support yourself and family how would you do it? Would you be prepared right now?
2. What stigmas have you heard attributed to victims of domestic violence? Has your opinion changed at all after reading the book?
3. How would you deal with a job as stressful and emotional as Grace’s? What would you do to keep your work from taking over?
4. What support do you turn to in your times of need?
5. What do you think the future holds for these characters?
6. Do you feel any sympathy for the abusers? Why or Why not?

Other book recommendations: If you are interested in Safe House then you might also like Charly by Jack Weyland, Jennie by Susan Evans McCloud, Cash Valley by Ryan K. Nelson, Eruption and Reclamation by Adrienne Quintana, Until We Meet Again by Renee Collins, An Uncommon Blue by R.C. Hancock, So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, My Story by Elizabeth Smart, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and These is My Words by Nancy E. Turner.

First Giveaway!

One of the best parts about having a book review blog is that I get to read new books absolutely free! Well my friends, it’s your lucky day because you too can have the chance to read an inspiring new book for free.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Safe House by Shannon Symonds

Safe House

by Shannon Symonds

Giveaway endsSeptember 7, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

Click the links above to enter the giveaway. If chosen, you will win a free copy of Safe House by Shannon Symonds.

I will be posting my full review on Aug. 28th as part of the Safe House blog tour, but if you want to get excited about the book before then check out my interview with the author, Shannon Symonds, here.

You can also get a sneak peek into the setting and plot of the book here.

PROMO-you are never alone

Author Interview – Shannon Symonds

SYMONDS ShannonCOVER Safe House I have felt so privileged to not only be introduced to the inspiring story and ideas in Safe House, but to also get to know the author, Shannon Symonds a little. She has been open and fun to work with. When I told her I would be visiting near Seaside, Oregon she was excited and kind enough to give me the 411 on all of the best places to go and best things to do .

She also took the time to answer some questions that I had after reading Safe House. Her words just give me more respect and admiration for the work that she does and for the person she is.  I could tell through the book that the events and message were something she truly knew about through experience, which makes the book so much more powerful and informative. The details that I learned through my interview with her help me appreciate her writing all the more. I hope you enjoy getting to know her a little better too. Check out the interview below and then check out Safe House. 

1. Do you plan to write any more books? Could there possibly be more to Grace’s story? (I’d read it!)

Thank you for asking! I would love you to review it.

I planned another story as I was writing this one. It has been taking shape for a while now. I have a working outline and can’t wait to get started! This autumn when the rain starts falling, it will be me, a fire in the fireplace and “Insert surprise name here.”

The next book will be in the same location, same characters with some new friends.

2. It really stood out to me in the book how all of the characters needed family and friends to help and support them.  Even Grace couldn’t do her work as an advocate without the help of her mom, siblings, and children. Do you find that same level of support is necessary for you to fulfill your work? Who has been a source of help for you?

I think this is a wonderful question! Connection is an important part of healing. I have been blessed with the gift of family and I would not be who I am today without my massive, loving extended family.

On one of the hardest days of my life, I chose to take my 5 children and leave my first marriage. I left home in a VW Van with a hundred dollars to my name. I remember pulling over to the side of the road, wondering if we would end up sleeping in the van or if my mother would let me come home. It was one of the toughest phone calls of my life.

Even though my mother was caring for her father and still had children at home, she answered my call and welcomed me home with open arms. I wasn’t there long, but I was grateful. Although I don’t share the reasons I left, I tell everyone I know how thankful I am for the support of my family.

Later, when I remarried we bought a house a block from the beach in our happy place, Seaside, Oregon. It was built in 1896 as a store with an attached residence. The store was large and empty. I offered the space to my parents who built an adorable in-law apartment in it, complete with a loft. Dad was a teacher and they spent summers with us in the house we all lovingly refer to as, “The Old Store.”

Our lives were very much like Grace and Mable’s. My husband did shift work for many years. When I had a crisis call, night or day, if he wasn’t here, they were my backup crew.

My parents have a 50 plus year marriage that reminds me happy endings are not only possible but a worthy goal. Their strength and gusto for life have been an example to me. My mother turns 80 this year. A few weeks ago she was outside painting our house in the summer sun.

One of the major red flags for an abusive relationship is isolation. Abusers go to great lengths to break connections survivors have with family and friends. This process can involve everything from checking all the survivor’s texts to moving them away from their support system.

On the other hand, we all thrive with connection and a sense of safety.. If you have a friend or family member In an abusive relationship, be there for them. Asking for help is often the first step to recovery and the hardest thing a survivor may have to do.

3. The setting is a driving force in the climax of the book and also an important part of the tone. I connected with it not only because I’m a newbie to the Pacific Northwest, but also because your love for the area shines through in the descriptions and detail. Any reader is going to want to see the beauties you describe if they haven’t already. What do you love most about where you live?

What I love most about living in the Pacific Northwest is the rugged beauty at every turn, rain or shine, and all the delicious fresh fish.

I am an outside girl. I have been known to take my laptop and hotspot to the oddest places. I love being able to walk out my front door and in a block hit the sand for a run or walk every day. When life is right, we spend Saturdays outside. Within 30 minutes of the house we can hike, kayak, spend a day on the sand or build a bonfire on the beach.

I found a new love later in life, fishing. Fishing is an excuse to get on a 40-foot boat, with an all-important bathroom, and spend the day on the ocean. We also crab and clam. There is nothing better in my world than catching my favorite food. Vegans… I apologize.


4. The location also is a “trap” for some of the characters and certainly becomes a problem for everyone near the end. Have you ever felt that way about your Oregon coast home? What’s the worst part of living there?

The worst part of living here is also the thing that can trap us here, and make living here wonderful. It is the weather. However, being a Coastie, I love the things that make other people crazy.  

For example, almost annually it rains enough that the only road in and out of the county flood both North and South. Locals learn quickly to read tide tables and gauge their travel during low tide, or when the water on the road is only a few inches deep. However, most of us have a secret love of driving through large puddles and have been known to post embarrassing FaceBook videos of our drive with hysterical laughter in the background.

The Pacific Northwest is supposed to be known for its mild weather, however periodically it snows and when it does, life comes to a halt. People in the Midwest may be driving through blizzards, but if there is a light dusting we call it a snow day and stay home to play. I love that! However, The mountains between the coast and major cities become deadly ice-skating rinks and we are definitely trapped, or stay home if we are wise.

When the wind is blowing sixty miles an hour in the winter, we don’t notice. When the wind is blowing  80 to a 100, it is a gale. But when it tops 100 sustained, our lights go out. Snow and ice also bring power outages. Every year or so we have a wind, ice-storm or snow storm and lose power for a day or five days, depending on the damage. But we are prepared! We have oil lamps, a fireplace, and stacks of books.

5. Have you ever experienced anything that comes close to the disasters at the end of the book?

Yes! Everything in the book, as far as the weather and storm, come from my experience or stories my friends told following the first hurricane north of the 45th parallel in 2007. It hit Seaside head on and cut us off from power, phones, and civilization for days.

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Three powerful storms came together to form one giant swirling hurricane that lasted well over 24-hours. Winds in seaside were clocked at over 129 mph.

I worked in our church women’s organization. Our little church spent days with chain saws cleaning up fallen trees, helping with animals and the elderly in our area. I was the only one with hot water and a working old fashioned telephone. People lined up to use our shower and a neighbor brought her dishes over in a wagon to wash them.

As life threatening as the storm felt, I experienced it as an affirmation of what a wonderful town and church I belonged to. Everyone pulled together, and even though we were without power, we were smiling.

6. You and Grace are similar in your work and in where you live. Do you share other similarities with Grace? Is there a character you relate to most?

Grace is probably a lot like I was at Grace’s age. Grace and I share similar hair issues. I have however, discovered something called a Brazilian Blowout and a hair straightener. Every day I beat my hair into submission and regularly the Oregon rain wets it down and the kinks and curls come back.

Her work is patterned after a job I did for 15 years, and continue to do part time. The major difference is in our area the domestic and sexual assault advocates work out of a small non-profit. There is no fancy office on the river  or nice furniture. There is a lot of shabby sheik thrift store furniture in an office without heat in the winter and without air in the summer. The other difference is Grace gets to focus on one job. In small non-profits, you fix the toilet, lead the support group, clean the shelter, meet with survivors and go home to take a call shift. I am proud to say, we made every dollar count!


7. Your book definitely helped me see aspects of domestic abuse that I had not considered before.  I understand better how it is something that has the potential to affect anyone in any walk of life. It makes me think I may know more people than I think who have to deal with this terror in their lives.  How can I help people in my life who may be victims of domestic or sexual abuse? Are their warning signs we can look for in our own relationships and in helping the people we care about?

1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of some sort of violence in their relationships, so there is a better than good chance you know someone, are related to someone or have had at least one experience with domestic abuse. Shame is just one of the things keeping us from talking to each other, and secrets perpetuate the abuse.

One of the best ways to help survivors is to trust they know their story and what they need better than anyone else. I keep the National Domestic Violence Hotline number (800-799-7233) on my blog. You can call them to ask questions about what you’re seeing, concerns about friends or your own relationships. You can also give their number to a survivor. But be careful. The abuser may be monitoring their texts and calls. I usually write down Mary Kay or something similar and the number on paper.

Some of the signs someone is in an abusive relationship include:
Controlling behavior. Everything from checking texts to controlling how a survivor spends money or who they talk to
Jealousy. Abusers may control who talks to a survivor or make their life miserable if they receive attention. Survivors sometimes change the way they dress or behave to avoid unwanted attention they know will upset the abuser.
Isolation. Abusers may sabotage family relationships, jobs and friendships until the survivor is isolated. They may tell the victim not to hang out with friends because they are bad for them, or they may even push the survivor to move far away.
Verbal/Emotional abuse. Survivors usually tell me the verbal and emotional abuse is worse than the physical. Bruises heal, but they have a hard time forgetting the threats and put downs.

When you begin dating and you wonder if someone may or may not be abusive, there are a few red flags or signs of potential abuse you can look for.
Quick involvement. Pushing you for a commitment and asking you not to talk to friends or family.
Jealousy. This can feel flattering at first, but it is actually a red flag for someone who may become increasingly controlling.
Controlling behavior. For example telling you they need to help you with your budget because you aren’t good with money and then gradually taking over control of your accounts.
Past history of abusing an intimate partner. We have all heard people complain about their exes and sometimes it is warranted, but a criminal history of domestic assault is a red flag.

We often blame someone’s abusive behavior on drugs and alcohol. While it is true, there are drugs which make people aggressive, domestic violence is a pattern of systematic power and control that includes physical abuse. Gas lighting or making someone feel crazy, name calling, and threats.

Survivors often blame themselves. You may not be perfect. You may be in a toxic relationship, but there is no excuse for physical or sexual abuse.

We often equate domestic violence with low-income or addiction. The truth is, if you have money and you are abusing your spouse, you can afford a house in an isolated location or an attorney if  you are arrested.

Walls in low income apartments are paper thin and in my opinion, that leads to more law enforcement involvement. When survivors are professionals, like counselors or lawyers, they are heavily invested in keeping their abuse a secret so it doesn’t impact their career.
PROMO-she thought she had lost it all
8. In your experience what is the major element in healing from abuse?

There are many different ways to heal. Survivors do many things to cope while they are being abused. They may drink for the first time, or they may develop an eating disorder, they may even do healthy low-cost things to cope like gardening. The problems arise when survivors begin using a high-cost method of coping like alcohol during the abuse, and after the abuse is over are still using it to cope with anxiety or stress.

It is normal to have anxiety and need time to heal after trauma. The important thing is to find a healthy coping mechanism like exercise or reading a good book to self-sooth while you work on recovery.

There are a lot of free trauma recovery groups available through domestic violence agencies. If you break your leg, you go to a doctor. If you break your heart, please see a counselor.

Recovery doesn’t require us to spend a lot of time talking and thinking about the experiences we had. Recovery happens when we find hope for our future, remember who we are, develop healthy boundaries, have self-compassion and healthy coping skills for anxiety or stress.

9.You are a woman of faith and the characters in your book also find strength through Jesus Christ and organized religion. How does your faith help you in your work? I’m sure talking religion with clients is a “no-no,” as it is in most fields, but do you find you are able to share your faith in any politically/socially acceptable ways?

When I am with a survivor I try to keep the focus on them. They will tell me if their religion is important to them or a resource that can help support them. Sadly, they will sometimes tell me their religion shuns them for leaving an abusive home. I encourage survivors to use what works for them, to comfort themselves, whatever that looks like. Spiritual healing is a powerful tool for many survivors. I had a great working relationship with our local Father Nick before he moved to another parish. He was a wonderful support for survivors in need if they were Catholic.

Interestingly, for many years I hid my religion from my employer. I would like to say that when I shared my religion, it was met with a positive response, but the truth is always stranger than fiction.

Several years into my job as an advocate I told my boss what church I went to, and her response was, “If I had known, I would never have hired you!” However, that was followed by a conversation in which she shared her respect for me and my lifestyle. She recognized she had some baggage around my religion. This wasn’t the first time an employer told me they wouldn’t have hired me if they knew what religion I belonged to.

Somewhere in that journey, I learned to own who I am, what I believe and to stop apologizing for my culture. But please! Don’t mistake me for perfect. I am a work in process, not an example of the best of my religion.

I chose to write about the culture I know, including my religion. When we write historical fictions about World War II we are often exposed to the Jewish culture, even if the focus of the story is an American Soldier. If I read stories about other cultures, they usually contain pieces of other religions. Stories like Dan Brown’s, “The Da Vinci Code,” or Jennifer Beckstrand’s book, “Sweet as Honey,” placed in the Amish community, expose us to other interesting and beautiful religions and cultures.   

10. With the personal and intense nature of the situations you deal with as an advocate, I know for me it would be so hard to separate myself from the emotions and worry once work was over. Is it difficult to keep your work at work? How do you keep that balance in your life? How do you keep hope and optimism alive when you deal with such tragedy in your work?

This is where my religion supports and sustains me. I have a little phrase I use to remind myself of my role as an advocate.

“I am not the Master Gardener.”

I remind myself that I believe in Heavenly Father and his son Jesus Christ, and their plan for us. I am not the Master Gardener, I simply go into the garden to tend, weed and plant seeds of hope. At the end of the day, I close the garden gate and I trust the Master Gardener  who has many other workers and ways to take care of the garden, and the survivors he loves and cherishes.

I have absolutely no balance in my life. The truth is, I run hard, I play hard, I write late at night and I work way too many hours. But when I sit with the bruised, battered and yes, even those who pass on, I never sit alone. I believe in what many call their higher power, because I have witnessed the miracle of survivorship and I have seen angels rise from the ashes.

PROMO-she was so much more than her scars

Touring with Safe House

Over the weekend I got to visit Indian Beach in Oregon. It was perfect timing for our excursion because I was completely wrapped up in a new book called Safe House  that actually takes place in a fictional town, but one that would be right around Indian Beach if it did exist. I’d never been to the Oregon coast before and it was so fun to read Shannon Symonds inspiring descriptions of the area and imagine them in my mind, then to actually go see them for myself.

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I finished the book after returning from our quick trip, and as I read about the forests and beaches I could picture them well. Events at the end of the book lead to a lot trees being toppled. when you know that the trees are as tall as these below it gives a whole different perspective as to what that would look like and the damage that could be done.

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But there is plenty of description in the book of the Oregon coast beauty as well and I can’t deny after visiting the location myself that the beauty is real and magnificent.

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While we were there we hiked a loop, started and ended at Indian Beach. We had 7 kids ranging in age from 3 to 14 and they all loved it. It took us through enchanted forests and to majestic viewpoints of the ocean and the abandoned lighthouse on the lone rock in the vast sea.  We even heard barking seals at one point while on the trail. IMG_1287

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Our troop of kids

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My 10 year old daughter and my sister-in-law enjoying one of the many awe-inspiring views.

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After the hike we spent many pleasant hours digging in the sand and cooling our feet in the ocean. I loved seeing the surfers. As we walked through the parking lot to the beach there they were, pulling on their wetsuits, just as they were described in the book.  And then when we got to the beach we could see dozens of them out in the water.

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At one point in the book characters meet on the beach for a bonfire.  I had to smile when I saw multiple rock outlined fire pits within only a few steps onto the sand. My only wish is that we had had more time. We will definitely be going back and exploring more of the surrounding area.

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Shannon Symonds book brings to life not only the beauties of the Oregon coast, but also the realities of domestic and sexual violence. Despite the seriousness and despair that such topics certainly hold, Symonds writes with hope and inspiration so the journey through tragedy ends up being a positive one. I can’t wait to share my full review with you as part of the blog tour for Safe House. Look for my full review and an interview with the author on Aug. 28th. I’m excited to do my very first giveaway too! Stay tuned!

P.S. My new dream is to visit the settings for every book that I like. I’m thinking maybe Hogwarts should be next…

And if you are looking for a good treat after a day at the beach the legendary chocolate shake at the Chocolate Cafe in Cannon Beach really was the quality that legends are made of. Took me back to the chocolate at the Chocobar in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Maybe I ought to add to my dream to have chocolate in each book location as well…

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in BrooklynA Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

A poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

My Review

How did I go so many years as a book devourerer and not read this one until now? The forward by Anna Quidlen describes my thoughts and feelings about the book so well. It’s not one that you can easily sum up if asked “what is it about?” As Quidlen puts it, “It is a story about what it means to be human.”

The lives of the Nolans are full of hardship, poverty, hunger, uncertainty. Yet somehow the book is not depressing. I found myself feeling such gratitude for all I have and the things my children and I don’t have to face because we have money for food, clothes, and fun every month. But there was that small part of me that also admired the character of the family, of the children, that the developed because of their struggles. Francie and Neeley express that when thinking about their baby sister who will not have to collect junk to help the family get by. Lucky her they say, but she also won’t have the fun times they had either. And they feel sorry that she will miss out on that.

Certainly social issues are presented in this book, but I loved that they were not the main theme. They were there simply because it presented the scene for how these characters dealt with it. There is no preaching in the book’s pages about how poverty should or shouldn’t be dealt with. There is no cheering for “republicanism” or “democratism” while condemning the other side. It’s just showing that horrible things that are somewhat out of our control don’t have to make life worthless or unhappy for any of us. I loved Johnny Nolan’s simple explanation of what makes America a free country. He marvels at all the fancy carriages in the rich part of Brooklyn and at how anyone can ride in one of them provided they have the money. Francie asks how that’s different from the old countries to which Johnny replies that in the old countries even if you had enough money not everyone could ride in a carriage. Francie wonders wouldn’t it be better if everyone could ride in the carriages for free? And Johnny says that’s socialism “and we don’t want any of that here.”

Whether we struggle with poverty and alcoholism, or with depression, or with greed we can see ourselves in the Nolans and their reactions to the things that happen to them. Best of all, we see how they take control of what they can and work really hard so that things stop happening to them, and they start making things happen. But the Nolans also know that their survival is not only a result of their hard work. They recognize God’s hand in their lives and miracles occur.

This was a story that left me proud of those who came before me and worked so hard to make it possible for me to have the opportunities I have now. And I hope I can create an even richer future for my children. As Katie Nolan observes, the key is not money; it’s education. My children are warm in the winter and well-fed. They have toys to play with and a safe yard to run amok in and I wouldn’t trade that for anything, but I also hope that like Francie they can look at others with compassion and understanding. I hope they can value and appreciate what they have rather than judge those who have more or less. I hope they can recognize the value of hard-work and loyalty especially among family. I hope they will see their positions in life as a result of their own hard work and the support of so many around them. And then I hope they will help to lift and build others up.

The best way I can teach that is by example. Hopefully my children will learn from my good example and also my screw ups just as the Rommelys and Nolans did. I am grateful of the reminder from these characters of how precious life is. How happiness is made up in the small things. How hard work, independence, and selflessness are their own reward. And how it’s also fun to feel rich sometimes by throwing a little money around, but really the richness comes because of the memories created and the character that is built.

Age Recommendation: Experienced readers with a broader life experience will get the most from this book. I recommend for 17 and older.

Appropriateness: The lives of these characters are tough; reading this book means facing alcoholism, poverty, mental illness, social injustice, and bullying to name a few.  But on the flip side you experience triumph, courage, and hope. There is also swearing in the book frequently. It’s not for the faint of heart but for me, it’s totally worth the journey.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like this book or are interested in it you may also enjoy Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery,  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath.