Friday, March 31, 2017

733 (2017 #31). A Soldier's Sketchbook

by John Wilson,
based on the diary and sketches of R. H. Rabjohn

Historian John Wilson hit the jackpot when he was approached by a third grade teacher after a Remembrance Day presentation on World War I at a Canadian school in 2013.  She showed him a wartime diary self-published by her grandfather's uncle that was filled with detailed sketches.  Russell Hughes Rabjohn (1898-1977) served in the war from February 1916, shortly after he turned 18, until finally getting home in March 1919 after the war's end.

Wilson worked with the Rabjohn family and the Canadian War Museum (which holds his original sketchbooks and diaries) to produce A Soldier's Sketchbook:  The Illustrated First World War Diary of R. H. Rabjohn.   This 112-page book includes selected entries and drawings from Rabjohn's diaries and sketchbooks, carefully edited, with additional material to set them in context.  He's also added maps on the end papers, a timeline of the war, an index, and suggestions for further reading.

This book is filled with excellent examples of primary sources for learning about World War I.  It's appropriate for fifth grade (when many United States schools first cover history) on up, and can be enjoyed by adults just as much as (if not more so than) children.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be added to my university library's collection.]

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

732 (2017 #30). The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

The local book club I used to belong to (until their meetings moved to daytime, when I work) read this as their last selection, I suppose because it won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016.  I thought it was historical fiction, but I'd have to classify it as a historical fantasy - and, not being a fan of fantasy, I was somewhat disappointed.

The book starts well, with the introduction of the main character, Cora, her grandmother Ajarry who was captured in Africa, and her mother Mabel, who managed to escape their Georgia plantation.  The horrors of slavery are described realistically.  Cora is a strong woman, though, and she attracts the attention of Caesar, another slave who wants to escape.  It seems he thinks Cora might be a good luck charm, since her mother managed to get away.

But here's where the fantasy comes in.  The Underground Railroad in this book is an actual, subterranean, train with tracks.  From this point on, author Colson Whitehead seems to compress many years of African-American history into the novel.  In an interview with NPR, he said,

...once I made the choice to make a literal underground railroad, you know, it freed me up to play with time a bit more. And so, in general, you know, the technology, culture and speech is from the year 1850. That was my sort of mental cutoff for technology and slang. But it allowed me to bring in things that didn't happen in 1850 - skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And it's all presented sort of matter-of-factly...

In a PBS interview, Whitehead says,

...each state she goes through is a different sort of state of American possibility.  South Carolina is a benevolent paternalistic state, where slaves are given programs for racial uplifting. North Carolina is a white supremacist state....so each stop is a sort of island in the “Gulliver’s Travels”-type sense.

I wish I'd read these interviews and some reviews before starting the novel.  While many parts were clearly unrealistic for the time period, other parts were confusing as to whether they were complete fantasy, or based on reality.  For example, the scenes in Indiana made me wonder if perhaps there was some sort of refuge for escaped slaves there.  This book is crying for a reader's guide within its pages.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This e-book was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

731 (2017 #29). The Boston Girl

by Anita Diamant,
read by Linda Lavin

The Boston Girl provides a picture of life in and around that city, concentrating on the years 1915 to 1931.  Addie Baum is the first-person narrator.  Born in 1900 in the United States to Jewish immigrant parents, she has two older sisters.  She tells her story to her granddaughter in 1985, looking back over the years.  Life in the immigrant tenements, the effects of World War I, and the changes it brought about in the 1920s, especially for women, are all part of the story.

Author Anita Diamant says she was inspired to write the novel by a building she passed by frequently - the real Rockport Lodge, an 1857 farmhouse on the coast that in 1906 became a vacation site for women of modest income.  Addie begins going there in 1915, and attends regularly over the years, meeting a group of girls of all backgrounds - daughters of Italian and Irish immigrants - that become lifelong friends.

I found it fascinating that the librarians and archivists at Harvard University quickly processed the Rockport Lodge papers that had been donated to them so that Diamant could use them in their research.  It's also interesting that the Lodge building, with its sign, still exists today, although it has been a private home since 2007.

The Saturday Evening Girls club in the story is also real.  The two Ediths in the story who started it, Chevalier and Green, appear to be adapted from the real life Edith Guerrier and Edith Brown.  Guerrier was a librarian who went on to a distinguished career.

Actress Linda Lavin certainly sounds like she could be an 85-year-old Bostonian telling her life story, as she narrates this book.  The accent did begin to grate on me after a while, though.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[The audiobook, and an e-book for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and a public library respectively.]

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

730 (2017 #28). The General's Women

by Susan Wittig Albert

The latest historical fiction novel by Susan Wittig AlbertThe General's Women focuses on the triangle of World War II General Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower while overseas, his wife Mamie back home in the States, and Ike's British volunteer driver and aide, Kay Summersby.

The story is told from all three characters' viewpoints.  Mamie comes off the worst of the three, sounding like a rather vapid, jealous belle.  But then, she was a low-key Army wife and First Lady.

Albert's portrayal of Ike and Kay and their romance is far more interesting, and it's obvious she has done a lot of research.  In a "biographical epilogue," she switches to third-person nonfiction, documenting Kay's postwar life, complete with endnotes.  There's also an author's note, highlighting the differences between the novel, the "official" record, and Summersby's two memoirs.  This note also has endnotes, and there is a further reading section.  How the romance was hidden, after the fact, is almost more interesting than reading about the romance itself.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I purchased this book from the author.]

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

729 (2017 #27). The Summer Before the War

by Helen Simonson,
read by Fiona Hardingham

Like Helen Simonson's first book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, her second one also make me laugh and cry and think.  The Summer Before the War starts in the summer of 1914, when 23-year-old, orphaned Beatrice Nash is hired by the school board of the small town of Rye in England to be the Latin teacher.  In the first part of the book, the reader gets to know the independent Beatrice and her champions, Agatha Kent, her London government employee husband John, and their nephews, medical student Hugh Grange and poet Daniel Bookham.

There's also all sorts of interesting characters in the town of Rye, many of them typically snobby towards the impoverished Beatrice.  There is an extremely funny scene when one of them attempts to boot Beatrice out of her job and install her nephew, a Mr. Poot, into it instead.

The title is a bit of a misnomer, as World War I starts about 23% into the book.  The first impact on the town of Rye is the arrival of a number of Belgian refugees - Beatrice takes a beautiful young girl named Celeste into her small apartment, so she can be near her widowed father, taken in by an American writer living across the street.

Later, though, British soldiers are drawn into the war, and both Hugh and Daniel enlist (Hugh as a surgeon) - along with Beatrice's promising Romani (Gypsy) Latin student nicknamed Snout.  Simonson does an outstanding job showing the impact of the war on these participants as well as their friends and loved ones back home in Rye.  She also subtly takes on issues such as women's roles and rights in that era, as well as class distinctions and prejudices.  Simonson lists numerous research sources in her acknowledgements at the end of the book.

Fiona Hardingham is a fabulous narrator for the audiobook, creating convincing voices and accents for different characters.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This e-audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]