Who Is the Stolen Child? [Book Review]

Fleeing America and on a quest of last resort, Brigid returns to the family home in Ireland, to her uncle’s cottage on a fictional St. Brigid’s Island one mile from the Aran Islands off of Ireland’s west coast. She comes seeking a miracle child, and a man — or even a womb — is not necessary if she can find the holy saint’s blessed, or magical, well. To the islanders and perhaps the author, the pagan goddess Brigid blends indistinguishably into the Christian saint.

“The Yank” Brigid has a gift, the same gift her mother had which drove her from the island all those years before: hands that heal. The gift comes with a price, and as she gives health and life to others, time and time again Brigid’s womb compensates by expelling the new life within her until she loses even that organ itself. St. Brigid’s hidden well is her one hope, but the islanders don’t reveal their secrets to outsiders.

Stalwart Emer, although born to the island,  is as much an outsider as Brigid; she is a woman with hands that give hurt, doubt, and despair. As a friendship and love between the two women develops, passion and need and desperation blur, fueled and intensified by their respective secrets. Both Emer and Brigid think Brigid’s hands can heal Emer, but some life-wounds are too immense for either magic or love to cure.

Like Yeats’ poem, which lends itself to the title, the magic of the fairies lives still on the island. Who is the titular Stolen Child? Is it all the children cast from Brigid’s womb? Is it Brigid’s mother, Nuala, who fled the island with Brigid inside her? As a child Emer hoped to be stolen by the faeries but as a mother, she lives in hawkish overprotective terror that her son Niall will be taken.

Author Lisa Carey seamlessly adds to the trove of faerie lore with an organic authority as great as Lady Wilde’s. At the same time as I inwardly accuse her of inventing folklore, I wonder if perhaps she only offers one or another fairy story I haven’t yet encountered.  I bristle because the tale of St. Brigid’s cloak expanding into a land grant for her abbey was transferred from the Curragh to the fictional island; in Carey’s world, there is no Kildare, no Church of the Oaks. Likewise, the Gaelic response to hello which I’ve learned, Dia is Muire duit — literally “God and Mary be with you [too]” — has been reinvented into “Brigid and Mary be with you.” I’m open to the possibility of regional differences and readerly suspension-of-disbelief, but I can’t help wondering: in what else has the author misled the reader? At least on the copyright page she acknowledges this artistic license to which I object. Still, Carey’s writing is so compelling and her weaving of folklore into village life is so adept that generations from now, people may very well point to the legends in this novel as authentic.

This is a powerful, intense, and haunting book.  Emer’s gift of pain and Brigid’s gift of healing are foils, and any accusations of witchcraft could equally apply to a fear of forbidden love. Carey offers the worst kind of horror, the horror of human frailties. Deep inside us, we all carry Emer’s pain. In her darkest hour,

                            “[Emer] stays alone . . . with no ability to break the ugliness

she has begun, and not enough courage to ask someone,

her son, her sister, her lover, to help pull her out from

underneath the terrible weight of herself” (296).

On the island, beside Brigid’s healing well, there is too a cursing stone.

Domestic horror as much as magical realism underpin this historical fiction about the resettling of islanders to the Irish mainland in the 1950’s and 60’s. Carey’s novel reminds us that fairies aren’t cute benign tinkerbells. The darkness of Emer’s childhood only expands as the novel progresses. The reader is briefly lulled by the quaint Celtic island culture, but we should have known better.  In the end, St. Brigid herself offers unexpected hope and redemption.  The Stolen Child is a beautiful, dark, disturbing tour-de-force. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Bonus material: I especially appreciate the “Author’s Picks: Favorite Books by Irish Authors” and web links on the islands Inisbofin and Inishark which the author provides at the end of her book.

 

Craft notes: Author Lisa Carey deftly handles point-of-view and the gradual revelation of backstory. This is an expertly crafted novel, and I look forward to reading more of this author.

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Halloween or Year-Round Monster Trucks [Book Review]

Brilliant concept! (Why didn’t I think of this?) After Halloween, for the rest of the year, monsters drive trucks and utility vehicles. The werewolf drives a back hoe to dig deep holes for bones and squeaky toys; the yeti drives a snow plow; the minotaur cleverly drives a BULL-dozer. The witch appropriately trades her broom in for a street-sweeper. And the mummy drives (can you guess?) the ambulance, of course! Kudos for including an ogre, yeti, and minotaur among the diverse monsters. Humorous illustrations by Misa Saburi. This is a gem of a book. I only wish there had been some literal oversized big-wheel monster trucks. A year-round book for toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary; not only for October.

Keller, Joy and Misa Saburi (illus).  Monster Trucks. New York, NY : Goodwin Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2017

What I’m Reading Now (October 2017)

I’m reading Franz Xaver Von Schonwerth’s “The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales” now.

Jacob Grimm said of Schonwerth, “No one in Germany has gathered tales so thoughtfully and thoroughly and with such finesse.”

Here’s a great quotation from the introduction:

A Tween and Teen Guide to Dystopian Societies

Mimi the Librarian’s Recommended Reading List

In Georgia Briggs’ book Icon, twelve-year old Euphrosyne has been renamed Hillary by the anti-religious government in the new “Era of Tolerance.” Her family has been killed, on Pascha (Easter) night, and she goes to live with her grandparents. Her teachers, psychologist, and even her grandfather want her to forget her past life and embrace the new secular tolerance. Euphrosyne struggles to hold onto her faith and identity in a new America hostile to religion. The one bright spot in her life is Mimi the Public Librarian, who provides thoughtful books which encourage Euphrosyne.  Of course, it’s only a matter of time before these books are censored by the new government . . .

Mimi doesn’t work at the Library anymore, but I offer you her Booklist, supplemented by a few titles of my own:

A Tween and Teen Guide to Dystopian Societies (and surviving our own, too)

Mimi’s picks:

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak.     High school is hard enough without being outcast, too. Freshman Melinda Sordino carries a dark secret. It is only when she learns to speak her truth that she can find true healing.

 

L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle In Time.   Meg Murray’s father has gone missing, and she and her brother Charles Wallace travel across space and time to find him. She battles the monstrous IT and saves her brother and father through the power of love. Chapters 9 and 12 are some of my favorite pages in all of literature.  (I sometimes use Meg’s technique from Chapter 9 to ward off intrusive thoughts.)

 

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia.       This beloved fantasy series is enjoyable on its own merits and is also well known for its Christian allegories. In Euphrosyne and Mimi’s world, it is outlawed. In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing For Children” C. S. Lewis wrote: “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” He provides these brave child-heroes and child-heroines in his classic Narnia tales.

 

Lowry, Lois. The Giver.      In this society,  sameness is celebrated while pain and emotions are regulated out of existence.  Will Jonas be strong and brave enough to change things?

 

 

Lowry, Lois. Number the Stars.     In Nazi-occupied Denmark, 10 year-old Annemarie helps hide her Jewish friend Ellen and learns about the courage required to resist evil.

 

 

Cynthia’s picks:

Butler, Alban. Butler’s Lives of the Saints 4 Volumes; arranged chronologically by saints’ days.    The classic reference book on Eastern and Western pre- and post-schism saints. Offers a saint (often more than one) for every day of the year. I wish Mimi had shown Euphrosyne this book. The life of St. Hilary of Poitier, although not Euphrosyne’s patron or true namesake, might still have encouraged her.  St. Hilary is best known for fighting heresy and enduring exile for the Christian faith. Available in many medium-to-large public libraries.  A close second is the Catholic Encyclopedia, originally available in print, but now available online at http://newadvent.org/cathen/

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Grimm’s Fairy Tales.          I especially want to get my hands on The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm : the Complete First Edition translated & edited by Jack Zipes (2014) but really any edition will do. Stay away from sanitized, Disneyified versions.  C.S. Lewis wrote about the importance of fairy tales in order to teach children hope and justice: “let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World.    In this dystopian future, a character commonly known as “the Savage” argues that beauty, poetry, and belief in God trump safety and mandated happiness.

 

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.              Now available online at http://shakespeare.mit.edu/  All the Savage from Brave New World had to read on his reservation was William Shakespeare, and that’s good enough for me. One of my favorite Shakespeare quotations is from the play The Winter’s Tale: “It is an heretic that makes the fire, / Not she which burns in’t”

 

 

Go forth and read. Books, like Georgia Briggs’ Icon, have the power to inspire and transform. And give us courage to face our post-modern, dystopian lives.

Righteous Among the Nations: The Muslims of Paris

grand mosque paris

Over sixty years later, there is so little documentation. This important story needs to be told, especially in these days of European terrorism, Islamofascism, and Islamophobia.

“Jewish or Muslim,”–and so I’ve been told, also Christian–“the people of North Africa lived as neighbors and shared similar cultures. Through the centuries, they referred to each other as brothers.”

The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During The Holocaust relates the little-known and barely-documented story of how Alegerian diplomat Si Kaddour Benghabrit and his Muslim colleagues sheltered numerous Jews from the Nazis in Vichy Paris. Authors Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix draw heavily on the work of Derri Berkani, an Algerian-French filmmaker whose parents participated in the Kabyle Berber Resistance in France. His film “Une Resistance Oubliee: La  Mosquee” and other articles contribute to this important piece of lost history.

“Once warned, the people in hiding rushed into the secluded women’s section of the prayer room, where even Nazis and Vichy police dared not enter. [Si Benghabrit] delayed the search by demanding that the soldiers and police remove their boots. . . Taking off heavy military boots took time, giving everyone the opportunity to get out of sight.”

This book is beautifully illustrated, but do not be deceived: it is no true picture book. The long blocks of text are too complex both in terms of reading level and subject matter for an elementary-school reader.  Even I, who should know better! was at a lost where to place it until I remembered and chided myself for initially thinking that illustrated books are [only] for young children. This would work best in a multi-disciplinary lesson plan, perhaps for middle school, or for home-schoolers; for a venue with a knowledgeable, compassionate adult close at hand.

Details and statistics of how many rescued are scarce. In one registry from the Grand Mosque, over 400 unexpected children are listed, presumably Jews given a Muslim identity.  Over 1700 extra ration stubs were identified, another indicator of the number of people sheltered.

Glossary and extensive Bibliography.

A book everyone should read in these scary, troubling times of unrest.

Ruelle, Karen Gray and Deborah Durland DeSaix. The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust. N.Y.: Holiday House, 2009.

ruelle girl

Additional Resources:

Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands. [book & DVD] from pbs.org

Among the Righteous on YouTube

The Righteous Among The Nations  — Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

Educators’ Guide from the Publisher

 

Seeing Rightly: In Search of the Little Prince [Book Review]

I finally made time to read In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and I’m glad I did. This picture book biography tells the life of Saint-Exupéry and his never-flagging passion for flying.  It also reveals some of the real-life inspiration for his beloved The Little Prince.

Tonio, as his family called him, delivered mail by plane in Morocco and Northern Africa, and it was on one of those stopovers that he tamed a desert fox.  He loved poetry at a young age and preferred flying to any other job. He called himself “a farmer of the stars.”

The flat, almost one-dimensional watercolor (?) illustrations were not to my personal liking, but delightful photographs of Saint-Exupéry line the front endpapers.

Antoine and his siblings, 1907. Antoine is second from right.

 

Antoine in France, 1921

The best part of the book was this quotation:

 

It’s a short read, intended for children, and the child in everyone will appreciate this book.

 Illustrated by the author.

 

Landmann, Bimba.  In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Books For Young Readers, 2014. Print.

You’re Never Too Old To Run Away and Join the Circus

When I was 28 years old, an older friend remarked that by the time you reach 35, you start to accept that some of your dreams will go unfulfilled; she realized she would likely never become a Carnegie Hall concert pianist.  It’s the primary reason I started taking my writing seriously the year I turned the mystical groundbreaking age of 40. I didn’t want to be on my deathbed moaning “I wish I had written my novel.”

It’s unpleasant to the realize that as we age, our bodies start to fail, and certain activities become more difficult. I’d always said that I wanted to be one of those 60-year-olds who could run a marathon. One day I realized I would actually have to start training, and do more than talk. It’s not impossible. Only harder.

I’m not opposed to the literary device of an older narrator reflecting on his/her youth. Lately I’ve read quite a few novels in which an end-of-life protagonist tells a present-day story while a younger self in alternating chapters reveals the main plot thread, each narrative informing the other. John Boyne uses this technique to great effect in his 2013 The House of Special Purpose. The title takes its name from the final prison and assassination site of Czar Nicholas and his Royal family. Character Georgy was bodyguard to young heir Alexei, but how Georgy spends the final days of the Russian Revolution, and what he does or doesn’t do at the titular prison is the secret the novel unravels.  It’s crafted beautifully, but it’s pure historical fantasy, and readers seeking accuracy should look elsewhere. Despite its fluidity with the truth, it’s a well-written novel about a history-defying love that long remains with the reader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants had a less compelling narrative. Perhaps it’s because the Prologue reveals the “secret” before the story has even begun. A circus veterinarian and an animal-act showgirl fall in love with the remarkably sensitive and apparently stupid elephant. The tension driving this novel is not what happened but how such a drastic circus-tent murder came to be. Interspersed between the main plot relating Jacob’s flunking-out of veterinary college due to grief over his parents’ unexpected deaths and his subsequent hiring by the Benzini Brothers circus is the present-day narrative of ninety-year-old Jacob’s day-to-day existence in a nursing home.

The nursing home chapters are especially poignant, capturing the horror of an everyday existence with only invalids, incontinents, and screamers as neighbors.  (My mother-in-law recently spent three months in a short-term facility while she recovered from a broken ankle, and we can attest that such a facility is excruciating for one who still has their wits.) No wonder old Jacob prefers to dwell on his glamorous circus past.

Timothy Tegge, Tegge Circus Archives. Photo leading Chapter 18

Gruen’s details about life in a traveling circus are well-researched and fascinating, and heading each chapter are actual photographs of historical circuses. The developing romance between young Jacob and Marlena carries the plot along. Yet I was frustrated by the chapters set in the nursing home: angered by the way our society hides and forgets our elders and disturbed by this accurate fictional portrayal.

More: I was perturbed by the basic premise that once one reaches a certain age, all there is left to do is to wait to die. The “main plot,” the circus plot, was thrilling; the nursing home tale was as dull and mundane as the mushy peas served to the residents.

Until the ending: and the true surprise is not the fleshed-out expanse of the pre-indicated murder.

At the age of ninety-one—or is it ninety-three?—Jacob Jankowski runs away and joins the circus, proving it’s never too late to live a life that gives your great-great-grandchildren something to talk about.

 


For more information about the photos in Gruen’s book, see the article at Two Roads Books.