John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall by Julie Danneberg

This picture book about an episode in naturalist John Muir’s life is visually stunning, and it tells an exciting story, worth the read.

April, 1871. Two evenings ago, I climbed the mountain to the foot of the upper Yosemite Falls . . . My wetting was received in a way that I scarcely care to tell. The adventure nearly cost all. ~John Muir’s journal.

Muir was a passionate naturalist, and his writing, mostly essays for magazines and newspapers, allowed him to earn a living while also pursuing his desire to observe nature and to preserve it. A friend of Teddy Roosevelt, Muir and the president went camping together in 1903, at which time Muir was able to enlist TR in his campaign to preserve America’s wilderness. Partly because of Muir’s influence, Teddy Roosevelt was able to lead the national government to set aside millions of acres of land for national parks, monuments, and wilderness preservation.

The event that is featured in this picture book, Muir’s near-death experience while exploring behind a Yosemite Valley waterfall, took place in 1871. Muir wrote two separate essays about the experience, and the author, Julie Danneberg used both essays to fashion her own version of Muir’s adventure behind the falls.

What you may not know about John Muir (not necessarily from the book, but mostly from Wikipedia):

1. Muir was born in Scotland, the third of eight children.

2. His family were Campbellites (Disciples of Christ), and “by age 11, young Muir had learned to recite ‘by heart and by sore flesh’ all of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament.” (Wikipedia)

3. In early March 1867, an accident changed the course of his life: a tool he was using slipped and struck him in the eye. He was confined to a darkened room for six weeks, worried whether he would ever regain his sight. When he did, “he saw the world—and his purpose—in a new light”. Muir later wrote, “This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.” (Wikipedia)

4. In September 1867, Muir undertook a walk of about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Indiana to Florida, which he recounted in his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf.

5. Ralph Waldo Emerson, on a trip to Yosemite in 1871, met John Muir and offered him a professorship at Harvard, which Muir declined. (Muir had never graduated from college, although he did attend classes at a college in Wisconsin.)

6. Muir was extremely fond of Thoreau and was probably influenced more by him than even Emerson. Muir often referred to himself as a “disciple” of Thoreau.

7. John Muir petitioned Congress to establish Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.

8. California celebrates John Muir Day on April 21st each year.

9. “God never made an ugly landscape. All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.” ~John Muir.

10. “My eyes, at times, would fill with tears in the editing room as we worked on telling Muir’s story. It was a pleasure getting to know him better.”
~Ken Burns, filmmaker for “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

So, for a small introduction to the life and thought of John Muir, with beautiful illustrations by Jamie Hogan, see John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall. He may have wandered into what I would call “nature worship” as he grew older and left his Campbellite (and biblical) foundations, but nevertheless, he did have a fine and passionate appreciation for God’s creation, an appreciation that he was able to communicate to the rest of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to the betterment of our national heritage.

Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge

I am so enjoying my discovery and exploration of Elizabeth Goudge’s novels. In February I read The Dean’s Watch, and I wrote that it might the best book I read this year. I read The Rosemary Tree last summer–and relished the author’s insight into human psychology. I also read Gentian Hill in 2014, and I put it on my list of ten best adult fiction books I read last year. Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library has recommended Valley of Song to me, and many, many readers have recommended Ms. Goudge’s children’s fantasy The Little White Horse. I think Goudge is the sort of author that I’m going to enjoy stretching out and reading in a leisurely manner, two or three of her books per year, spaced out over the course of the year.

That said, Pilgrim’s Inn was lovely, and it made me crave more Goudgian writing. I’m trying to think what actually happens in the story. A family buys an old inn and moves to the country. One character struggles with a “mental breakdown” in the aftermath of World War II. Various characters struggle with their own secret sins and temptations. One married couple falls in love with each other all over again, and another man and woman learn to love each other in spite of the difficulties and impediments to their union. Children act like children and do very childlike things, but the insight into child psychology and children’s thought lives is amazing. Altogether, it’s not at all a plot-driven novel, and I can see how today’s readers, trained by television and movies, would find it slow and somewhat sentimental, perhaps becoming restless and even bored. I had to consciously slow myself down and appreciate the unhurried pace of the story and of life in the English countryside with people who are still trying to build new lives after the hour of the war.

The inn itself is a sort of a magical place, and several encounters and chance meetings in the woods m=nearby produce healing and psychological breakthroughs. The air and atmosphere of the novel is Christian without the spiritual underpinnings becoming intrusive or didactic. The characters grow and learn and make surprising decisions and revelations, just as people do in real life.

I can’t imagine a more enjoyable summer reading book than Pilgrim’s Inn. Slow down and enjoy a sojourn in post-war England with some really intriguing people living in a wonder-filled place. Oh, I forgot that there’s a matriarch in the story who begs to played in a movie version by Maggie Smith. They had better hurry up and make the movie because I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part. Do you ever cast the characters in your favorite books?

“As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself.” ~Elizabeth Goudge

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Saturday Review of Books: May 16, 2015

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” ~William Styron


Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

You can go to this post for over 100 links to book lists for the end of 2014/beginning of 2015. Feel free to add a link to your own list.

If you enjoy the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon, please invite your friends to stop by and check out the review links here each Saturday.

Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey

I guess I wanted just one valuable takeaway nugget of truth or advice or wisdom from Mr. Yancey’s meditation on the dearth of grace in our world and even in our churches, and what I got was a meditation on the lack of good news of grace in our culture and in our churches. Expectations meet sad reality.

“What ever happened to the good news?” “Why does the church stir up such negative feelings?” “How can Christians make a positive, grace-filled difference in a world of desperate need?”

Rod Dreher talks about his Benedict Option. I feel as if I’m living the Benedict Option to some extent, and it’s not enough—because the need is, as Mr. Yancey says, desperate. My children and my eventual grandchildren don’t have centuries to wait to see the culture, the world redeemed and made right by Jesus’ mercy and by grace-filled Christians living simple grace-filled lives in Christ.

Yancey nails the problem: a world without Christians who are filled with Christ’s grace and love is a world without hope. But the world doesn’t necessarily see it that way. He gives examples. Then, he gives some suggestions on how Christians can begin to interact with the world, “a series of observations and suggestions for Christians to consider as we interact with a world that does not always share our views”:

1. “Clashes between Christ and culture are unavoidable.” Well, duh. The question is how to act when those “clashes”, more like crashes, happen. I am to act in love. But what that looks like is difficult and confusing.

2. Christians should choose their battles wisely. Absolutely. I think that cake-baking and flower providing are not where I would draw the line, but then, I’m not in the cake-baking or floral business. When people are being deliberately provocative and hoping to trap you into saying or doing something that can be used as bad publicity or example, the best way to respond is the way Jesus did to the Pharisees. A soft answer turns away wrath. The problem is being prepared when I don’t know when or where the attack might come. One good plan might be to think (and pray?) before I post a snippy (any?) comment on Facebook or other social media.

3. Christians should fight their battles shrewdly. This one goes along with #2. “Wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” We should pray this daily for one another because the only way I’m going to be either wise or harmless is by the grace and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

4. In engaging with culture, Christians should distinguish the immoral from the illegal. Again, duh. We have laws against murder and theft, not against blasphemy and coveting. Why? Because we live in a pluralistic society in which not everyone agrees on a definition of blasphemy or that to is wrong to blaspheme God’s name. Everyone pretty much agrees on a definition of murder and agrees that murder is wrong. However, even that consensus is being endangered with the continued drumbeat for euthanasia and abortion. Where do we draw the line? If the culture says killing children up to the age of one is OK, do we continue to agitate for laws protecting young children, or do we just content ourselves with not killing our own children?

5. The church must use caution in its dealings with the state. More caution every day.

This book provides a beginning point for discussions about “how then shall we live”. But it’s not the definitive answer-book on the subject. I guess for that one would have to go to The Book.

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Twelve Bright Trumpets by Margaret Leighton

Published in 1942, this collection of twelve stories illuminates various events and eras during the time we call the Middle Ages. The first story takes place in Roman Britain about 400 A.D., when the Romans were withdrawing their legions from their colonial possessions in order to defend Rome itself from the barbarians. In the story, a ten year old Celtic boy, Gaius, is awakened in the middle of the night when his village is attacked by Northern pirates, Picts and Scots. He attends a meeting of the Celtic chieftains in which they learn that the Romans who have been their defense are leaving, and they decide to accept help from the friendly Angles and Saxons, many of whom have made their homes in Roman Britain.

The rest of the stories in the book are just as exciting and just as informative as the first:

“A Blackbird Sings” (about 800 A.D.)
The monastery where the peasant boy Remy is going to school receives a visit from the Emperor Charlemagne.

“The People Remembered” (about 870 A.D.)
Just after the Danish invasion of Britain has been stopped by King Alfred, Cedric, a young Saxon, meets the brave king.

“Hail, Normansland!” (about 900 A.D.)
Astrid, in Norway, awaits the return of her father who, with other Vikings, has been attacking the northern coast of France.

“The Conqueror” (about 1075 A.D.)
Edith , a Saxon girl, and Alix, a Norman girl, become friends when they are both attending a convent school in Normandy in the time of William the Conqueror.

“The Great Journey” (1095-1099 A.D.)
Denis, a young squire, accompanies his master on the First Crusade and is rewarded for his part in the taking of Jerusalem. (This one is a bit dated in its perspective, maybe correct but definitely not in tune with contemporary attitudes about the Crusades. The Christian crusaders are described as “as shrewd as they were bold and fearless” and “young, valiant and keen for battle”; the Turks are “unspeakably cruel”, “without mercy”, “infidels”, and “heathens.”)

“Twelve Bright Trumpets” (about 1150 A.D.)
At the death of her mother and father, Rohais is left alone to protect the castle until her brother from the Crusades. (My favorite of the twelve stories and the story from which the book’s title is taken. I thought the ending was clever and memorable.)

“Echo Over Runnymede” (1215 A.D.)
Geoffrey, page to an earl who objects to King John’s tyranny, is present at the signing of the Magna Carta. (Watch Disney’s Robin Hood, which features a greedy King John, after reading this story?)

“Town Air Is Free Air” (13th century A.D.)
Jacques, a young serf, runs away from the feudal manor village to escape the terrible anger of the baron’s game warden. (My second favorite story in the collection. Jacques finds a home, and the story could lead to much discussion of slavery, freedom, human rights and dignity, and similar topics.)

“Marco and the Marble Hand” (14th century A.D.)
Caught by a reawakened enthusiasm for art in Florence, Marco, a peasant boy, finds something to show the artist, Master Antonio.

“A Noble Magic” (about 1450 A.D.)
Karl, a copyist’s apprentice who is tired of copying books by hand, finds at the establishment of Master Gutenberg a noble magic.

“Queen of the Sea” (about 1500 A.D.)
Camilla, at home in Venice while her brother is on a voyage with Vasco da Gama, almost misses the great water festival.

These would be wonderful read aloud stories to accompany a study of the Middle Ages and leading into Early Modern times and the age of exploration. I recommend the book ages seven to twelve, if you can find a copy. (I see that Amazon has used copies, and Rainbow Resource has it in stock.)

Silent Alarm by Jennifer Banash

Silent Alarm is a young adult novel about a school shooting as experienced by the shooter’s sister, also a student at the high school where the shooting takes place. The strength, and the main weakness, of the novel is that it never answers the basic question left in the aftermath of all school shootings: why? In this case, why did Alys Aronson’s older brother, Luke, kill fifteen people and then turn the gun on himself? How could the brother that Alys loved and learned from do such a thing? Of course, I have no answer to the question of why one man’s sin leads to death, for himself and for others, while another’s equal sin leads to repentance, mercy, and life.

What the novel does well is present the predicament of those who are left behind in the families of murderers, in particular. Alys is devoted, conflicted, and victimized. Because Luke is not around for them to hate and to blame, the victims’ families blame Alys and her family. How could they have let Luke do such a horrific thing? How could they not have known?

Alys also blames herself. Maybe she should have known that something was wrong with Luke. Maybe she should have not enjoyed being the favored child, the one who followed the rules. Maybe she should have died, too, when Luke pointed the gun at her, but didn’t shoot.

Silent Alarm is not an enjoyable book. It ends with some small wisp of hope for Alys, but not much more that that.

“And even as I lie there hoping, hoping with everything I am that somehow I have the right to go on, to make a life for myself apart from what Luke has done, I also know that it might just be a fantasy, a moment of wishful thinking. A story I tell myself in moments of quiet contemplation, when the wind outside shifts through the trees in a whisper, rustling the curtains, and lulling me into sleep.

But in spite of everything that’s happened, I would like to believe it.”

Don’t read for answers, and don’t read if you are prone to or connected with depression or depressive violence. But if you’re interested in a different perspective on school shootings and their aftermath, Silent Alarm is a well-written interpretation of a tragic event, sans nasty language and gratuitous violent description. (Of course, the central event itself is quite violent.)

I Dared to Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheikh and Richard H. Schneider

I Dared to Call Him Father: The Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman’s Encounter with God by Bilquis Sheikh and Richard H. Schneider

I read the 25th anniversary edition of this classic testimony of a well-to-do Muslim Pakistani woman, Bilquis Sheikh, who came to faith in Christ at the age of sixty-five through a series of dreams and visions and through comparison of the Koran to the Christian Bible. Bilquis’ study of the Bible was very confusing to her, but her breakthrough came when a Catholic nun suggested that she talk to God “as if He were your father” and ask Him to show her the truth. She did, and she sensed the presence of God as she prayed.

“‘I am confused, Father,’ I said. ‘I have to get one thing straight right away.’ I reached over to the bedside table where I kept the Bible and the Quran side by side. I picked up both books and lifted them, one in each hand.’Which, Father?’ I said. ‘Which one is Your book?’

Then a remarkable thing happened. Nothing like it had ever occurred in my life in quite this way. For I heard a voice inside my being, a voice that spoke to me as clearly as if I were repeating words in my inner mind. They were fresh, full of kindness, yet at the same time full of authority.

In which book do you meet Me as your Father?

I found myself answering: ‘In the Bible.” That’s all it took. Now there was no question in my mind which one was His book.”

Bilquis went on to leave Pakistan and travel around the world, telling people of how God had spoken directly to her to lead her to Christ. It is an inspiring story and would pair well with Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus which tells about a more intellectual route to faith in Christ for a Muslim seeker. The two converts have in common, besides their Muslim background, their great devotion to family and the deep pain of estrangement from family that their conversion cost them. However, both Mr. Qureshi and Bilquis Sheikh write that Jesus is worth the cost, that following Him and living in His presence is the ultimate treasure.

Diamond Boy by Michael Williams

When fifteen year old Patson Moyo and his family head for the diamond fields of Marange in eastern Zimbabwe, Patson is sure that his family’s fortunes are about to change for the better. Even though Patson’s father plans to teach school in diamond country as he always has, Patson knows that there are diamonds for everyone in Marange. As soon as Patson finds his girazi, that special, costly diamond that everyone is looking for, he and his family will be set for life.

If you just read the article on Wikipedia about the Marange diamond fields, you will know that Patson’s story probably won’t have a happy ending. In fact, although the events in the course of Patson’s adventure are harrowing, violent, and frightening, the story does contain more hope than perhaps the facts warrant.

From Wikipedia and linked sources:
“The government launched police crackdowns against illegal miners and smugglers several times since December 2006. Up to 150 of the estimated 30,000 illegal miners were shot from helicopter gunships.”
(2009) “The Zanu-PF government has mulled plans to forcibly move nearly 5 000 families from Chiadzwa area to facilitate the plundering of diamonds. The families are to be dumped at an Arda farm in Odzi as the President Robert Mugabe-led government intensify looting of the precious minerals.”
“The BBC, the British state broadcaster, claims Zimbabwe’s security forces have a torture camp in the Marange diamond fields; methods include severe beatings, sexual assault and dog mauling according to alleged victims.”
“A 2012 study . . . found that operations at the diamond fields are releasing dangerous chemicals into the Save River.”
“Human Rights Watch says while it has seen an improvement in Marange, it also believes questions remain over who is involved in running these mining companies.” CNN, 2012.

Author Michael Williams, a South African writer and Managing Director of Cape Town Opera, has already written one book set in Zimbabwe, Now Is the Time for Running. Diamond Boy is a sort of companion novel to that earlier book, and some of the characters in Now Is the Time for Running show up in minor roles in Diamond Boy. As I intimated, Diamond Boy is a fascinating but shocking look at life in Zimbabwe, particularly the appalling effect of the possibility of sudden riches in a country filled with poverty and not much economic opportunity.

The ending to the story is unrealistic, but maybe necessary to make up for the unrelenting gloom, greed, and cruelty of the preceding pages. This book is not for younger teens, nor will it be for all readers, even if they have the maturity to handle the subject matter. No, the author doesn’t use graphic language or lurid description, but the events themselves are disturbing enough. Sensitive readers will be haunted, as I am, by the thought that the greed and brutality of man is still making life a living h— for many children and young adults around the world, even if, possibly, improvements have been made in operations at Marange.

Yes, I recommend this book for those who are interested in knowing about one of the horror stories of the twenty-first century, but I suggest you enter with prayer and exit with renewed compassion and more prayer.

Butterfly Counting by Jerry Pallotta

Jerry Palotta’s ABC and counting books have been favorites of mine and of my children for quite a while, so when I was offered a review copy of Mr. Palotta’s latest, Butterfly Counting, there was no hesitation on my pat in saying “yes!”.

“This Emperor penguin has never seen a butterfly. Butterflies live in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa–but there are not butterflies in Antarctica. Zero is a number, but it has no value.
Let’s learn what butterflies are called around the world. A butterfly in Italy is called a farfalla.

So, in this butterfly counting book, readers get facts about butterflies, beautiful pictures of different kinds of butterflies by illustrator Shennen Bersani, and about twenty different ways to say “butterfly” in twenty different languages. The book would make a wonderful read aloud book in a butterfly-themed story time. Wouldn’t it be fun to have the children repeat back the words for butterfly in different languages and see if they remember any of them at the end?

I wish I had all of these books in my library, but I do suggest that if you purchase any of them, buy the hardcover edition, or the board book that some of them are available as. I have a few paperback versions of Pallotta’s books, and every one of them is losing pages and coming unglued. I don’t know whether to attribute that to overuse or poor quality glue, but I’m happy that the review copy of Butterfly Counting that I received is “reinforced for library use.”

Jerry Palotta’s Alphabet Books: (*means books that I own)
The Airplane Alphabet Book
The Beetle Alphabet Book
(There are Beatles song titles hidden in the artwork of this book. Fun!)
The Bird Alphabet Book
The Boat Alphabet Book
The Construction Alphabet Book
The Desert Alphabet Book
The Dinosaur Alphabet Boo
The Extinct Alphabet Book
The Flower Alphabet Book
The Freshwater Alphabet Book
The Frog Alphabet Book
The Furry Animal Alphabet Book
The Icky Bug Alphabet Book*
(Mr. Pallotta’s second, best-selling alphabet book)
The Jet Alphabet Book
The Ocean Alphabet Book*
(Mr. Pallotta’s first book)
The Sea Mammal Alphabet Book
The Skull Alphabet Book
(All 43 presidents are hidden in the illustrations for this book.)
The Incredible Crab Alphabet Book
The U.S. Army Alphabet Book
The U.S. Marines Alphabet Book
The U.S. Navy Alphabet Book
The Underwater Alphabet Book
The Vegetable Alphabet Book
The Yucky Alphabet Book*
The Yummy Alphabet Book

Jerry Pallotta’s Counting Books:
I think these are all great for primary math instruction, “living books” for math.
Count to a Million
The Crayon Counting Book
The Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar Fractions Book
The Icky Bug Counting Book
(also a backwards alphabet book)
Icky Bug Numbers
Adding Fractions
Pizza Fractions
Weights and Measures
Ocean Counting: Odd Numbers
(The 50 state capitals are randomly hidden in the pictures in this book.)
Sharks: Big, Bigger, Biggest
Underwater Counting: Even Numbers

More hidden secrets in Mr. Pallotta’s books.
About Jerry Pallotta, who was an insurance salesman before he began his second career as an author f children’s books:

I wrote my first book in 1985 when I was 32 years old. I came up with the idea, wrote it, designed it, researched it, edited it and my cousin illustrated it. I published it myself under the name of Peggotty Beach Books. What fun! It was first printed on July 7, 1986. I’ll never forget that day. The book eventually became the #1 best-selling book at the New England Aquarium. I was afraid that only my mother would like it. Teachers and kids told me they really liked my book.

I really like his books, too.

The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks are back! And the focus in this installment is Batty, who has grown to be a mature and thoughtful fifth grader, but still shy and retiring, and still quite musically talented. Her life’s motto is: Musica anima mea est (Music is my life).

Two more children have been added to the Penderwick clan: Ben, the sisters’ seven year old stepbrother, and Lydia, their two year old sister, born of the marriage between Mr. Penderwick and the next-door neighbor, Iantha. Ben’s passion is rocks. He digs for them, collects them, and studies them. And Lydia’s passions are princesses, crowns, flowers, dance, escaping her crib—-and big brother Ben. “Lydia loved everyone she’d encountered in her short life—never had a Penderwick been so pleased with the human race—but she loved Ben most of all. This was a burden no boy should have to bear.”

The older girls are back too. Rosalind is away at college, but not too far away to come home for visits frequently. Seventeen year old Skye is absorbed in her beloved math, still friends with Jeffrey, but decidedly not his girlfriend, “among all the Penderwicks, . . . least likely to want to discuss grief or any other emotion.” Sixteen year old Jane is still writing stories, trying to speak French, and presiding over the gang of boys who for some reason like to come over to the Penderwick home and devour pretzels and hang out.

Batty becomes unwillingly involved in and affected by the teen and grown-up problems of Skye’s love life, the Penderwick family’s money problems, and some misunderstandings about the family’s history. On the surface, it might seem that having Batty become entangled in such adult issues would be a mistake for a children’s book, but Batty comes at the problems from her own eleven year old perspective, and all is resolved and made right in the end. And the truth is that children are impacted by the problems and concerns of their older family members, so showing Batty dealing with her own issues in response to those of her older siblings and her parents is realistic without being too heavy.

Because the Penderwicks, like the Quimbys, are a happy family, nothing gets so broken that it can’t be mended in this story of misapprehensions, dealing with grief and fear, and clashing personalities. Lydia provides comic relief, a la Ramona the Pest, and Batty grows up just a little. But no one is so grown up that there can’t be a fifth (and final?) Penderwicks book, something I heard is in the works. Long live the Penderwicks!

If you haven’t read the first three Penderwick books, I highly recommend them, and then this fourth one. They keep getting better.

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall. Winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2006.
The Penderwicks on Gardam Street.
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette.