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The Tune Is in the Tree by Maud Hart Lovelace

In the several boxes of discarded books from a local private school library that a friend rescued on their way to the dumpster, I discovered some real gems—in more ways than one. The Tune Is in the Tree is one of Maud Hart Lovelace’s other novels, not about Betsy Ray and her friends Tacy and Tib. However, in the book Betsy’s Wedding, Betsy says, “I think I’ll write a story about a little girl going to live with the birds.” It’s not too much of a stretch to think that perhaps The Tune Is in the Tree is Betsy’s story, fleshed out by Ms. Lovelace herself, especially since Ms. Lovelace wrote that The Tune Is in the Tree is “just the sort of a story Betsy used to tell to Tacy.”

In this 177-page fantasy, Annie Jo, who lives with her parents Jo and Annie, gets left alone by mistake, and Mr. and Mrs. Robin feel compelled to take her into their nest until her mother and father return home. For that plan to work, Annie Jo must become a lot smaller, and she needs a pair of wings, both of which are provided for by courtesy of Miss Ruby Hummingbird, who happens to be have a little Magic. After Annie Jo shrinks and gets her wings, she learns all about the birds of the meadow and forest, including the Thrush family, Mr. and Mrs Catbird, the Misses Oriole, and the Perfidious Mrs. Cowbird who causes trouble all over by laying her eggs in other birds’ nests.

This jewel is such a lovely and funny story, and the illustrations by Eloise Wilkin are a perfect match to the story. The book was first published in 1950, in the middle of the time period during which Ms. Lovelace was busily writing and having published the Betsy-Tacy books. I like to think of Ms. Lovelace taking a break from the adventures of Betsy and her friends to write this homage to the world of birds. The child who is interested in bird-lore could learn a lot from reading or listening to The Tune Is in the Tree. The birds in the story are fantasy birds who talk and practice their concerts and even bake cookies (the Ovenbird family). However, the birds actually do embody some of the characteristics of real birds. Thrushes do make beautiful music. Ovenbirds do have nests shape like little ovens, hence the name. And the Perfidious Cowbird really does lay its eggs in the nests of other birds.

Then, there’s the poetry, both the poetry of Ms. Lovelace’s luscious prose and the poetry she makes reference to in the course of the story. Emily Dickinson, Robert Lowell, and John Keats are all invoked as the birds keep their libraries in the Brook which “reads aloud all day.”

“And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
~As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Unfortunately, The Tune Is in the Tree is a book not to be found in either trees or brooks. I looked it up on Amazon, and used copies are priced at anywhere between $200 and $800. I don’t plan to sell my newly discovered treasure, but patrons of my library can borrow it and enjoy a wonderful tale.

The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson

This Australian classic won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Award for Book of the Year in 1974, and its author, Patricia Wrightson, is the only Australian author to have been awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for lasting contributions to children’s literature. I found a copy of The Nargun and the Stars in the multitude of books that were donated to my library from a local private school’s discard pile, and I read it to see if it would be a good addition to my own library.

It’s a dark and perhaps humanistic, or even pagan, book, but I would say that it’s pagan in the sense of drawing on pre-Christian era mythology, in this case the mythology of the Australian aboriginal peoples. Just as C.S. Lewis drew on both Greek and Norse mythology for his depiction of Narnia and as Tolkien drew from Norse, Saxon, and Celtic myths to create the creatures and world of Middle Earth, Ms. Wrightson used the Australian aboriginal myths and legends to tell a story that speaks into our own time.

The novel begins and ends with the Nargun, a stone and earth creature, full of hunger and anger and “slow, monstrous coldness”. Over centuries, or millennia, the Nargun slowly moved across the Australian landscape and settles into Wongadilla, a place in the mountains of southern Australia.

The actual story takes place in the 1970’s, when the book was written and published. Simon, an orphan, comes to live with his second cousins, brother and sister Charlie and Edie, on a sheep run in Wongadilla. Simon begins to explore the strange place where he has landed, so to speak, and he finds and gets to know odd and mythical creatures in the swamps and forests and caves of Wongadilla. However, it is the Nargun that is a threat to the sheep ranch, to the humans who live there, and even to the Potkoorak of the swamp and the Turongs of the forest. Charlie and Edie and Simon become a family and a team as they work together to understand and to defeat the impersonal but powerful malevolence of the Nargun.

I can see why this book won the acclaim that it did. The writing is quite beautiful and evocative, and I am sure that the atmosphere of this book will become a part of my mental concept of Australia and all things Australian. The Nargun and the Stars won’t be a book for everyone. It might give some children (or adults) nightmares, and some parents could object to the idea that the evil Nargun is only confined by the end of the book and only by means of completely human ingenuity, but not finally defeated or destroyed. However, that ending reminds me of the book of Revelation (which I doubt was the author’s intent) when Satan himself is chained for 1000 years (Revelation 20). Perhaps the Nargun, from Australian aboriginal mythology, is really a demon, or at least that’s way I thought of it as I read.

According to Gunai/Kurnai tribal legends, the Nargun is a fierce half-human half-stone creature that lived in the Den of Nargun, a cave under a rock overhang behind a small waterfall in the Mitchell River National Park, Victoria, Australia. Aboriginal legend describes the Nargun as a beast that was all stone except for its hands, arms and breast. The fierce creature would drag unwary travellers into its den, and any weapon directed against it would be turned back on its owner.

As Shakespeare so aptly said via Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Stories like The Nargun and the Stars serve to remind us in our materialistic and naturalistic philosophical world that we don’t have it all figured out and that there are all sorts of “dragons” and enemies that have yet to be finally defeated and destroyed.

This novel also reminded me of G.K. Chesterton and his observation to the effect that “fairy tales do not tell children the dragons (Nargun) exist. Children already know that dragons (Nargun) exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons (Nargun) can be killed (or at least chained).”

One more impression: there is a definite affinity between The Nargun and the Stars and N.D. Wilson’s The Boys of Blur. If you liked Wilson’s take-off on Beowulf, I’d recommend Ms. Wrightson’s fantasy/horror story of Australian monsters and heroes.

Venture at Midsummer by Eva-Lis Wuorio

I picked this book out of a bunch of ex-library discards because I had heard of the author somewhere. In fact, I have one of Ms. Wuorio’s books, To Fight in Silence, a fictional World War II story based on interviews with “hundreds of Norwegians who were training in Canada for the war, and dozens of Danish officials who were trying to explain their country’s predicament to the outside world,” on my To-Be-Read list. Someone, somewhere recommended the book to me, and I thought it sounded good.

So, Venture at Midsummer is set after World War II, maybe in the 1960’s; it was published in 1967. Lisa, a Finnish girl, has invited two boarding school friends, Gavin and Jordain, to spend the summer with her family in Finland, near the border with Russia, or the Soviet Union as it was called back then. The young people experience traditional Finnish customs such as a sauna bath and the celebration of Juhannis, Midsummer’s Day, and then they become involved in a dangerous journey across the border into Soviet Russia to help a new friend, Kai, pay a “debt of honor” to his guardian. The four teens kayak into a part of the country that used to be part of Finland, but was given to the Russians after World War II. There they find, of course, much more than they were looking for, and they learn to trust one another and work together as a team.

The setting in the borderlands of eastern Finland is particularly vivid and interesting since I didn’t know much about post-war Finland. I didn’t know that part of Finland was turned over to the Russians after the war or that thousands of Finns, given the option to swear allegiance to the Communist government of Soviet Russia, instead decided to leave their homes and make new lives within the new borders of Finland. In fact, I didn’t know much about Finland at all before reading this book, and now I know a little more.

I’m planning an around the world reading project, and I just realized that this book can be my first one for that project. I found this blog post about author Eva-Lis Wuorio and learned that she was a Finnish Canadian, having emigrated to Canada with her family when she was thirteen years old. I picked up another book by the same author from the same discard pile, Return of the Viking, and I’m looking forward to reading it. According to what I read, it’s a time travel book about some children who meet Norse explorer Leif Erickson.

Christmas in Leipzig, Germany, c. 1735

The Twenty Children of Johann Sebastian Bach by David Arkin.

As a part of a large donation to my library of ex-library books, I found this wonderful book about Bach and his family. The author says that of the twenty children (by two successive wives), seven did not live. So, that leaves thirteen little Bachs to learn to sing and play music and compose music. It must have been a delightful household.

The book mentions Christmas:

“Most wonderful of all were the times when the family gathered together at holidays with their friends. Then the immortal music of all the Bachs would ring out for the earth and heavens to hear. Perhaps they would sing the Christmas Oratorio, or a cantata, or maybe they would just make up music as they went along.”

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was composed in 1734, so that’s why I dated this Christmas post 1735. I think this celebration of music and Bach and his family would be a great read at any time of the year. The illustrations by author David Arkin are lovely and detailed pencil drawings of all the Bachs and their musical activities. David Arkin, by the way, was the father of actor Alan Arkin, and he wrote the lyrics to Black and White, a hit pop song recorded most successfully by Three Dog Night in 1972.

(So after writing this post, I went over to youtube and listened to some Three Dog Night: Black and White, The Road to Shambhala, Old Fashioned Love Song, Never Been to Spain, Joy to the World. Funny how a book about Bach can lead to a 70’s pop binge listen.)

Christmas in Florida, 1950

From the book, The Seminole Indians by Sonia Bleeker:


“Florida, of course, does not have a white Christmas. Usually Christmas Day is bright and warm. Everywhere among the Seminole settlements Christmas trees stand gaily next to the open chickees, their bulbs glittering in the warm sun. Everyone rises early, even though men, women, and children have been up late on Christmas Eve enjoying family reunions and gossip.

Before the holiday, the little sewing machine on the floor of each chickee throughout the settlements and reservations has been going full blast. The mother, or a little girl by her side, cranks the handle of the machine hour after hour, stitching yards and yards of bright-colored strips of cotton cloth. The Seminole have an excellent eye for arranging colors. They combine red and blue with yellow green, orange, deep red, rose, purple, and white. The colors are not thrown together at random. They follow a set pattern, and the Seminole women are extremely clever in designing artistic color combinations. Each strip has a different design; in some, the bright colors make a zigzag pattern. The mother sews and fits these strips into skirts for herself and her daughter and shirts for husband and son. Now gay new clothes are ready for the holidays. By Christmas Eve the sewing machines are all covered and will remain idle until after the New Year. Everyone is dressed in his best clothes.”

Christmas in Crawford Falls, Oregon, 1963

Today’s Christmas vignette is from the verse novel, Crazy by Linda Vigen Phillips, about a teenager named Laura who must cope with her mother’s bipolar disorder in an era when mental illness was a taboo subject. I’m not sure how far we’ve moved toward openness and understanding of mental illness and mentally ill people in the interim, but the book portrays the issues and the possible approaches to healing and resolution quite well.

Before everyone gets here, Mother and Daddy
will have her traditional oyster stew
while I stick to peanut butter and jelly.
Daddy will tell us again
how they had lutefisk and lefse on the farm
in Bemidji when he was a boy.

When everybody arrives we’ll gather in the small
living room, glowing with Christmas lights and candles.
I’ll get down on the floor and play with the kids
crowded around the tree.
Each of them will find a present with their name on it,
little junky toys from Woolworth’s I wrapped myself.
The adults will get louder and merrier
with each round of Christmas cheer,
and I will take pictures
with my Brownie Starfish camera.

I wonder
if nervous breakdowns
money worries
alcoholic tendencies
or stormy relations
will bleed through the negatives.

But for this moment
Christmas Eve is aglow
as it should be.

Christmas in Holland, c.1910

Kit and Kat flattened their noses against all the shop windows, and looked at the toys and cakes.

“I wish St. Nicholas would bring me that,” said Kit, pointing to a very large St. Nicholas cake.

“And I want some of those,” Kat said, pointing to some cakes made in the shapes of birds and fish.

Vrouw Vedder had gone with her basket on an errand. Father Vedder and Kit and Kat walked slowly along, waiting for her. Soon there was a noise up the street. There were shouts, and the clatter of wooden shoes.

“Look! Look!” cried Kit.

There, in the midst of the crowd, was a great white horse; and riding on it was the good St. Nicholas himself! He had a long white beard and red cheeks, and long robes, with a mitre on his head; and he smiled at the children, who crowded around him and followed him in a noisy procession down the street.

Behind St. Nicholas came a cart, filled with packages of all sizes. The children were all shouting at once, “Give me a cake, good St. Nicholas!” or, “Give me a new pair of shoes!” or whatever each one wanted most.

“Where is he going?” asked Kit and Kat.

“He’s carrying presents to houses where there are good girls and boys,” Father Vedder said. “For bad children, there is only a rod in the shoe.”

“I’m glad we’re so good,” said Kit.

“When will he come to our house?” asked Kat.

“Not until to-morrow,” said Father Vedder. “But you must fill your wooden shoes with beans or hay for his good horse, to-night; and then perhaps he will come down the chimney and leave something in them. It’s worth trying.”

The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins

Hidden Gold by Ella Burakowski

I find Holocaust memoirs to be somewhat variable in quality and readability. Maybe the memoirist’s memories are not that detailed or reliable. Sometimes the person who has undertaken the task of writing the stories down is just not a great writer. Sometimes the reader may be the problem: I’m not immune to the chilling effect of a jadedness produced by too many horrific World War II stories, too many atrocities, too much suffering and starvation for a person to read and assimilate.

Hidden Gold is an excellent example of a Holocaust memoir that is sharp, well-written, detailed, and narrative. I was absorbed by the story of young David Gold and his family and their survival in hiding in Poland, written by Mr. Gold’s niece and based on Mr. Gold’s memories of 1942-1944 when he was twelve to fourteen years old. “David Gold’s memories of his formative years during World War II are as vivid and compelling under his niece’s pen as if they happened yesterday.” (from the blurb on the back cover of the book)

The Gold family–David, his two older sisters, and his mother–survived in hiding on a Polish farm because they were rich, because they were smart and initially healthy, and because they were lucky, or perhaps preserved by a miracle form God. Even though the memoir is woven from David Gold’s memories, David’s older sister Shoshanna, who later became the mother of the author, emerges as the heroine of the tale. Shoshanna is the one who negotiates with outsiders on behalf of the entire family because she has blue eyes and speaks Polish without a Yiddish accent. Shoshanna is the one who encourages the family not to commit suicide when it seems that choice is the only one left to them. Unfortunately, Shoshanna Gold Barakowski died at a relatively young age in 1972, while the author was still in her teens, and the other sister, Esther, also died (of cancer) in 1984, long before Ms. Burakowski began to write this book.

I did wonder how much the author embellished or assumed as she told of the thoughts and motivations of her family members, most of whom were not available to vet the text or give their own take on events. Still, most memoirs are a mix of fact and fill in the blank, and I give the author credit for filling in, if she did, in a way that reads as authentic, coherent, and literary. I read and believed, and I was reminded that hatred and prejudice and bravery and human endurance are all a part of our shared human history as well as evident in the present day “holocausts” that continue to be perpetrated on the innocent and the unprotected.

[T]he memoir as unfiltered actuality is a myth. Fickle and unreliable memories must be reconstructed and made coherent; a story’s assembly, style, and characterization will inevitably compromise any strict retelling. Emphatically, this does not mean the work is less autobiographically or historically valid—–only that it is never pure autobiography or history, and has to be understood and embraced thus. Truth isn’t synonymous with historicity, and infidelity to the latter isn’t necessarily betrayal of the former. ~”The Holocaust’s Uneasy Relationship with Literature” by Menachem Kaiser, The Atlantic, December 2010

Unlikely Warrior by Georg Rauch

Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler’s Army by Georg Rauch.

Because Austrian Georg Rauch had a Jewish grandmother, making him one quarter Jewish blood (whatever that means), he was not made an officer in the army of the Third Reich. However, Rauch’s Jewish ancestry didn’t prevent him from being drafted into the German army and sent as a radio operator to the Russian front. Rauch wasn’t a Nazi nor was he in sympathy with Hitler’s political views or his plan for European domination. But that lack of patriotic enthusiasm didn’t keep nineteen year Georg Rauch from being expected to serve the Fuehrer and fight for the cause of Germany.

It must be World War 2 week here at Semicolon; it seems I’ve unintentionally been reading quite a few books set during that cataclysmic war. On Sunday I reviewed FDR and the American Crisis by Albert Marrin. On Monday, I told you about my pastor’s World War 2 novel, We Never Stood Alone, about the inhabitants of the English village of Stokeley and their more personal crises during the first years of the war. Yesterday I wrote about the young adult adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand best-selling and eye-opening biography of Louis Zamperini, Unbroken. And now today we’re headed for the eastern front, in Ukraine and Romania, where the cruelties and atrocities were, according to Mr. Rauch, just as abominable as the things Zamperini had to endure in Japan and in the South Pacific. (Comparisons are odious, but sometimes inevitable.)

By 1943, again from Rauch’s point of view, the average German soldier on the eastern front knew that the Germans were losing the war. Rauch just hoped to survive long enough to be sent home when the Germans finally surrendered. Unfortunately for him, as the war was ending Rauch was captured by the Russians and spent a good year or more in successive Soviet labor camps before he managed to finagle a place on a train back to his homeland of Austria.

As I read this book and Zamperini’s story in Unbroken, I found it difficult to believe that men could survive such horrors and emerge sane or even alive. Many did not survive, and many more did not survive in spirit. I wonder if I have what it would take to survive in such horrendous circumstances, and I really doubt that I do. If I were ever confronted with such a crisis as the Christians of Syria and Iraq are living through now, I would have to depend on the Holy Spirit to sustain me or the Lord would have to take me, because I certainly don’t have it within me to endure such persecution.

I’m rather amazed that anyone does. Unlikely Soldier is a good book about a bad time. I recommend it to adults, young and old, who are interested in an unflinching look at the horrors of war from a unique perspective, that of an unwilling conscript in Hitler’s army.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive, Adapted for Young Adults by Laura Hillenbrand.

I first read Unbroken, the life history of Olympic runner and prisoner of war in Japan, Louis Zamperini, in 2011, about four years ago. I was astounded and moved by this man’s story then, and as I’ve read more about him since then, I continue to be an admirer of and and an advocate for Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken.

So, I read the young adult adaptation of one of my favorite books with both a desire to see it succeed and with some trepidation. It helps that this version of Unbroken was in capable hands, the hands of the original author Laura Hillenbrand herself. And honestly, although I could tell that the book had been shortened and that the text had been somewhat simplified, I couldn’t pinpoint anything that was left out. That makes for an excellent adaptation.

It also means that if you were looking for a book that leaves out all the violence and cruelty and general horror of Louis Zamperini’s stay in various Japanese prisoner of war camps, this book doesn’t do that. The book also doesn’t leave out Louis’s struggle with PTSD and his healing after the war as the movie version did. So, if your young adult, age twelve and above, wants a less intimidating version, i.e. fewer pages and no footnotes at the end, that still tells the whole story, this book will do the job. If your child is not ready for an introduction to the horrors of man’s inhumanity and cruelty, this book definitely won’t be a good choice.

Two of my own children read Unbroken (the adult version) while they were still in high school, and they found it accessible and absorbing. However, if your teen struggles with reading long books or just is in a time crunch, this young adult adaptation is well written and perfectly adequate. It’s not dumbed down, and the writing is still beautiful, detailed, and vivid.

I recommend Unbroken, either version, to just about anyone who’s interested in history or war or survival or World War 2 in particular or inspiring biography or the aftermath of war and the possibility of forgiveness. I’ll be looking for a copy of this young adult version to place in my library for younger teen readers.