Thursday, February 24, 2011

Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Sometimes, the smallest of God's creation bring the greatest changes to the world and history. Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1851, was written in small installments to Abolition Magazine, in an effort by the author to cast the harsh realities of slavery into the public eye. Stowe used her writing skills to display the potential in the African American, as well as the horrors of slavery.

Tom and his family live faithful and contended lives as slaves on a plantation in Kentucky. Tom is an older slave who has worked for his master's family since he was a small boy. His master, Mr. Shelby, trusts him completely, even sending him on errands into Cincinnati, with full confidence that the faithful servant will return with a full account of his mission. Mr. Shelby falls into debt, however, and is forced to sell Tom, and another slave, the little boy Harry. Harry is the son of a slave woman, called Eliza, in the Shelby household, who decides to run away when she discovers the fate her son is about to face. She flees, hoping to reach the other side of the Ohio River, and maybe find her runaway husband, another slave from a neighboring plantation. The rest of the book follows the next five years in the lives of the Shelby's, Tom, his family, Eliza and her family, and how they all come to freedom.

Stowe began writing Uncle Tom's Cabin in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law, which decreed that all runaway slaves were the rightful property of their former masters, even when in the free states. All runaway slaves must be returned to their owners. For even if a black man had lived in a community for decades, if a white man claimed that he was a runaway, and had one signature to support his claim, the black man could not come to trial, could not resist, and could not seek for assistance. Uncle Tom's Cabin was written to show the logical fallacies of such a law, as well as to open the eyes of the North to the terrors of southern slavery.

Stowe does not simply approach a political question in this book, however. She explores the different theological arguments for and against slavery, as well as the hypocritical notions of Northerners, who call for freedom for the slaves, but will not lend a helping hand to them as a neighbor and friend. She describes how faith and scripture can give hope and patience to even the worst of circumstances, through Tom's torturous experience under Legree. She describes the amazing power of love and forgiveness through Evangeline, Topsy, Tom, Eliza, and Cassy, St. Clare, and Miss Ophelia. Every form of thinking and lifestyle and opinion are approached and described in this book, whether it be godlessness, patience, despair, triumph, hope, bondage, and freedom.

In this book, Stowe displays a masterful use of language in her retelling of “Life Among the Lowly”. She calls every opinion about slavery, faith, religion, hard work, patience, kindness, godliness, and humility to account through her different characters. Even readers who do not enjoy her flourishing style are sure to find at least one character with whom they can connect and admire. I personally admire Eva. Her full name means “good news”, and she is a quiet and young reminder of the delicacy of life, and the strength of faith in a good heart. While I cannot claim to understand the political and social arguments for and against slavery, I certainly can understand Eva's call to Topsy “to be good”, regardless of the circumstances. This is Stowe's challenge for us, through her little book: to do good, against all odds, for the good of our brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell

Deep in the Pacific Ocean, there is a small island called St. Nicholas Island. This island once held generations of Indians who survived on fish, birds, abalones, and other natural resources. Scott O’dell pulls from a historical figure who was brought off the island after living there alone for almost two decades. In the epilogue, O’Dell tells the reader that most of the story is fictional, based on the few pieces of information that he could gather about the woman of St. Nicholas Island.

Karana is a young girl who is the daughter of the Chief. Some Aleuts come to their island, seeking to hunt the otters surrounding the island. When the Aleuts try to leave, their Russian leader refuses to pay Karana’s people for using the waters around their island, as well as the safety of the bay. There is a battle, and many are killed. A white man’s ship comes to the island soon after, and the tribe decides to leave with them, since their numbers are so few from the recent battle. Karana discovers, however, that her younger brother never boarded the ship, and she jumps over the side, and swims back to the island to be with her brother. Later on, the brother is killed by wild dogs, leaving Karana to fend for herself. Most of the book follows this young Robinson Crusoe as she survives on the island. She survives a tidal wave, an earthquake, foreign strangers to her land, wild dogs, all by her own wits and imagination. The book ends with her leaving the island that she loves on a missionary ship to find her people.

This book fascinated me, as I have always had an interest in Native American history. The narrative reads as if someone unfamiliar with the English language is dictating to the writer. While the style seems a bit broken, it only adds to the realism of the story. While most of the story is from the imagination of the writer, the reader feels like he is walking and struggling with the character, and learns that change is not always bad, and that one must be willing to face the future, whatever it may hold, with purpose and determination.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Two Collars, by Jeri Massi

A young slave girl is a juggler in a traveling entertainment troupe in the kingdom of Folger. Krea has no memory of her parents. Her memories include her current master, and the rest of the troupe (Betty, Dolly, Jolly, and Piper), and some faint emotions to her life in the Caves. No one has loved her, and she is always cold, hungry, and tired. Then, she meets an old woman, who buys her, cares for her, and raises her to be a healer. She later discovers that the old woman, whom she has come to love, is the Queen of Bracken, who has been forced into hiding by her usurping nephew, the King of Folger. Krea chooses to serve her beloved mistress as a courier for the faithful soldiers to the true King. She comes across many adventures, which all test her loyalty to her beloved Mistress, and to the rightful King, and even to her old troupe.

I first read this tale in second grade, and have kept it ever since. I love the growth that young Krea experiences, as she grows to love and treasure her beloved Mistress. She learns of values that run deeper than hunger and survival. This young girl grows into a woman of learning, respect, and honor, who will serve her enemies rather than betray her conscience.

Jeri Massi is a wonderful story teller who sought to relate the adventurous life of a Christian in her stories to young children. She strives to give examples of honor, dedication, loyalty, respect, and love in this book, which are powerful enough to leave an impact, and simple enough to be understood by young readers. Her style is such that is best understood when read aloud for the first time, making this book a perfect bedtime chapter book for the budding reader. The scenes are never so terrifying, even at their saddest, that the child will be left wondering in fear. Instead, the child will be show the clear distinction between right and wrong, without bypassing the difficulty of making the right decision.

All in all, this story brings high adventure to the life of Christianity at a level that a young girl will understand.The child will grow to understand responsibility, kindness, gentleness, self-control, patience, and all the fruits of the spirit through Krea's adventure.

And, luckily, it is the third in a trilogy. More to come on the first and second books.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry

In this children’s novel, a young girl lives the definition of courage during a time when courage saved the lives of thousands. A young girl named Annemarie Johansen lives in Denmark during the time of the Nazi occupation. She lives with her younger sister, Kirsti, and her mother and father. She had an older sister, Lise, but she was killed in a car wreck several years before the story takes place. Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, is Jewish, and Annemarie learns what kind of courage it takes one me have to save a nation and a people.

Lois Lowry shows an amazing sense of artistry, historical accuracy, and perception in this work. The language is easy to follow, with enough sentence variation to keep the mind moving along the sentence line. While she admits in her Afterword that most of the characters are fictional, she provides information about what was fancy, and what was real about the story. For example, the handkerchief secret towards the end of the book that saves all of the runaway Jews was a historical discovery which the Resistance used to thwart Nazi search attempts. The King Christian X truly was as beloved to his people as Lowry describes. And one can easily imagine the thoughts of Annemarie to have run through the minds of countless men, women, and children during those nightmarish years.

The primary characters and plot of the book are similar to most stories of the Holocaust that actually had happy endings. The Johansen family takes in the Jewish daughter of their good friends and neighbors, the Rosens. Mr. and Mrs. Rosen flee to another secure area when they learn of the coming raids, leaving their daughter, Ellen, in the care of their friends. Annemarie then witnesses the cold brutality of the German SS as they come to search for the Rosens. Annemarie even takes a few steps of her own, in her own act to save her best friend. After this first raid, Annemarie’s mother and sister, and Ellen travel to an uncle’s house who lives on the coast of Denmark, within sight of free Sweden. Through the help, cleverness, and diligence of Resistance workers, like Annemarie’s almost-brother in law, Annemarie sees the Rosens and other Jews leave for the safety of a boat to Sweden. Finally, with Annemarie’s quick thinking, and commitment to her friends and family, she allows for the final step of securing safe passage for the Jews, through the aid of the handkerchiefs.

Lois Lowry tells of the horrors of the Holocaust from the eyes of a young child. She faces the questions that all individuals faced at that time, and struggles to answer them, just as any adult would. While the answers to these questions are different throughout history, Lois Lowry shows what the answer should have been. For courage is not being unafraid; it’s doing what you must, despite your fears, in order to save those you love.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Redwall, by Brian Jacques

Redwall by Brian Jacques begins the growing saga of the adventures of different woodland creatures dwelling in Redwall Abbey. While older readers might complain of the repetitive nature of the plots, children of the proper reading level will devour these books, and will carry these stories throughout their lives.

In this first book, Jacques relates the story of a young mouse named Matthias who must work against insurmountable odds to protect Redwall Abbey from the evil rat, Cluny the Scourge. With the help of other mice, hares, badgers, moles, voles, otters, and squirrels, the Abbey dwellers must fight off Cluny’s band of vicious rats, stoats, ferrets, foxes, and vixens who seek to overthrow the prosperous Redwall Abbey. All of this happens under the watchful spirit of Martin the Warrior, the founder and guardian of Redwall Abbey. Fighting to protect family, friends, and home, Matthias must use all his wit, skill, and bravery to drive away the evil rats that have come to destroy his beloved Abbey.

The books in the Redwall series constantly uphold bravery, dedication, perseverance, love, family, loyalty, home, and hard work as the virtues that make life worthwhile. The characters often must solve riddles, and find efficient and effective ways to protect themselves from their enemies. While the villains always treat their crews and victims in horrible and cruel ways, the Redwallers always try to make their enemies leave instead of killing them in cold blood. But the Redwallers are not afraid to kill in order to protect themselves.

I personally began reading these books when I was in 4th grade. Nine years later, I introduced my youngest sister to them, and she is continuing to collect the books as they come out to this day. She and I, and countless other readers, are drawn to the ideas that good will always conquer evil, that sad things happen to good creatures, but that does not ever provide a reason to ever forget the blessings that we receive every day. In fact, the struggles make the blessings all the more sweet, and all the more worth fighting for.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit

In this quiet book about living and dying, a young girl struggles to understand what death can do to a life. Winnie Foster, a ten-year-old girl from a prosperous family, wants only to do something meaningful with her life. Through an accidental kidnapping, as well as a villainous man’s greed for eternity and prosperity, Winnie learns that the threat of mortality is a blessing to life, not a hindrance.

Natalie Babbitt’s quiet style provides a comforting and inspiring view of death to young children. Her constant reference to the “deadening” and “smothering” August heat makes the story so much more believable. In this book, all of the adults seem childish to young Winnie’s eyes, regardless of age or experience. In fact, the only human who acts like an adult is the yellow-coated villain. I believe this is because he seems to have no fear of anyone or anything, while Winnie, her family, and the Tucks all know and work with fear in some shape or form. As a book that deals primarily with fear, death, and separation, Tuck Everlasting does not scare a child. Instead, Babbitt provides a stable, acceptable, and settled foundation upon which children can learn about and cope with those fears.

Personally, I was not as impressed with this book, but I believe that is a matter of taste and life experience. I enjoyed almost every aspect of the book, so it’s difficult to pinpoint where my interest falls short. I believe it is because the book is almost too quiet, too normal, too inconsequential for my taste. But I also believe that this book would provide unspeakable comfort for an elementary or middle school student who had recently experienced a death or a great fear.