Up the Trail from Texas by J. Frank Dobie

Texas Tuesday.

This book, published in 1955, is one of the Landmark History series from Random House. The publisher had a policy of hiring the best writers, award winning authors and experts in history and in particular historical eras and events, to write these books, and it shows. J. Frank Dobie was a journalist and a rancher and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin for many years. He was instrumental in saving the Texas Longhorn from extinction. He wrote over twenty books about the history, folklore, and traditions of Texas. If anyone was qualified to write a Landmark history book about the history of the cattle, cowboys, and trail drives of Texas, it was Mr. Dobie.

And Up the Trail from Texas is certainly a well-written, exciting nonfiction compilation of the stories of various cowmen, trail bosses, and cowboys that Mr. Dobie interviewed personally, along with information about the real life of a trail driving cowboy and the logistics and work of a trail drive from Texas to the northern cattle markets in Kansas or Nebraska or Montana. Read about drouths, blizzards, lightning, and floods, encounters with the Comanche and other Indians, and about the jobs the cowboys were expected to perform. Dobie’s writing especially shine when he is recounting the stories that the cowmen told him, many of them recalling in old age their youthful exploits and adventures on the cattle trail.

I remember when I was a kid of a girl watching Clint Eastwood as drover Rowdy Yates in the early 1960’s TV series, Rawhide. I think the writers of Rawhide must have read Mr. Dobie’s books, especially this one. If I were teaching a unit on the cowboys and trail drives of the 1860’s, I’d read a couple chapters of Up the Trail from Texas to my students each day until we finished the book, and then I’d let them watch a few episodes of Rawhide.

Keep movin’, movin’, movin’,
Though they’re disapprovin’,
Keep them dogies movin’, rawhide.
Don’t try to understand ’em,
Just rope ’em, throw, and brand ’em.
Soon we’ll be livin’ high and wide.
My heart’s calculatin’,
My true love will be waitin’,
Be waitin’ at the end of my ride.
Move ’em on, head ’em up,
Head ’em up, move ’em on,
Move ’em on, head ’em up, rawhide!
Head ’em out, ride ’em in,
Ride ’em in, let ’em out,
Cut ’em out, ride ’em in, rawhide!

At the end of each episode, trail boss Gil Favor would call out, “Head’em up! Move’em out!”

FNFC: Sully and The King’s Speech

We watched two of the movies on my Friday Night Film Club list this past week, one on Thursday night and the other on Friday. And in both cases the person who chose the movie wasn’t there to watch it. Oh, well, the rest of us enjoyed the movies.

Engineer Husband and I went to see The King’s Speech when it first came out in theaters. It meshed well to watch it again this week after I had just finished watching season one of The Crown, about the first several years of the reign of Elizabeth II, George VI’s daughter and heir. In both The Crown and The King’s Speech, David (aka Edward, Duke of Windsor), the abdicating king and George’s older brother, comes across as a despicable and selfish brat. Maybe he really was. I’m not sure how much happiness he gained by giving up the crown for the sake of his love for the twice divorced Wallis Simpson, but then again he probably wouldn’t have been too happy as king either. George VI and Elizabeth II aren’t exactly portrayed as “happy”, but definitely satisfied with their fulfillment of what they each perceive as their duty to the nation. Anyway, I can recommend both The King’s Speech and the Netflix series The Crown. Much food for thought.

Sully, also based on a true story, was a thought-provoking movie, too. It’s a a 2016 drama, directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Todd Komarnicki, based on the autobiography Highest Duty by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow. Sullenberger, aka Sully, is the pilot who landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after a bird strike took out both of the plane’s engines in mid-flight. This heroic landing and the rescue of all 155 passengers and crew on board happened almost exactly eight years ago on January 15, 2009.

Tom Hanks plays Sully, and as usual, he does an excellent job of making us forget about Tom Hanks and think instead about the pilot and his ability to make a split-second decision that will either save or cost the lives of all the people on board the airplane. Inevitably, I wondered whether I could function as well in a crisis as Sully and his co-pilot did, not a crisis in flying a plane, of course, since I don’t know how, but some other life-threatening crisis where I had to make a life-or-death decision. I just don’t know. How can one train for such a thing?

If I were to choose one of these two movies over the other to recommend to you, I’d choose Sully, I suppose. Although The King’s Speech is fascinating in a historical sense and as a story of one man overcoming adversity, the “overcoming” involves some misplaced and over-dramatized Freudian analysis of George’s childhood that probably had very little to do with curing his stuttering. But then again, maybe he did stutter because they made him switch from being left-handed to right-handed or because his nanny disliked and mistreated him. Who knows?

Sully is a more straightforward hero story certainly with an obstacle to overcome, namely the investigation after the emergency landing by National Transportation Safety Board, but all’s well that ends well. And as the characters in the movie point out in 2009, “it’s been a while since New York had news this good. Especially with an airplane in it.” After a year like 2016, it’s good to watch a movie about someone competent but humble, and even heroic coming out of New York.

This Friday’s movie will be Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man with Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, and Anthony Quayle. Watch it with us if you’d like to join in.

Adrift at Sea by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, illustrated by Brian Deines.

This nonfiction picture book opens with a bang: our narrator, Tuan Ho, comes from school to his home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to find preparations being made for a journey. His first reaction is to ask his mother, “Are you leaving me now, too?” A year before Tuan Ho’s father had left Vietnam with his older sister, but then-five year old Tuan and his other three sisters were too young to make the journey as “boat people” refugees from Vietnam. Now, Tuan’s mother tells him that he and two of his sisters will be leaving with “Ma” in the dark of the early morning. It’s a secret; no one must know that they are going. And they must leave Tuan’s four year old sister, Van, behind with family members. “She’s too young to travel.”

The family ride in a truck to the beach. There they are chased and shot at by soldiers as they run to board the boat. On the boat, they face even more hardships: a shortage of food and water, engine trouble, too many passengers, a leaky boat. But the book finally ends with a rescue and a tall glass of milk for the relieved and smiling Tuan Ho.

The illustrations in this book, full color paintings, are absolutely stunning. Canadian illustrator, Brian Deines, has outdone himself in two-page spreads that bring this refugee story to life.

The story itself, a slice of life, begins abruptly without any explanation as to why the family must leave Vietnam. Nor does the main part of the text explain what happens to Tuan Ho and family after they are rescued at sea. However, there are some explanatory pages with both photographs and text at the end of the book that tell readers about the history of the Vietnam War and about the entire history of Tuan Ho’s family and their emigration from Vietnam and eventual reunification in Canada. It’s a good introduction to the subject of the Vietnamese boat people for both older students and middle grade readers. Even primary age children could appreciate Tuan Ho’s story with a little bit of explanation from a parent or teacher about the war and the Communist persecution that they were fleeing.

Another good 2016 entry for my impromptu Refugee and Immigrant Week here at Semicolon.

Skating With the Statue of Liberty by Susan Lynn Meyer

Yesterday I read this 2016 middle grade fiction novel about a twelve year old French Jewish boy named Gustave and his experience of immigrating to the United States during World War II. Because of this book, and yesterday’s review of It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, and some other upcoming reviews, it seems to have turned into Refugee and Immigrant Week here at Semicolon. It was an unplanned emphasis, but one that is quite apropos considering the news and the times we live in.

In Skating With the Statue of Liberty, Gustave and his extended family come to the United States from war-torn France, after having hidden and then escaped from the Nazis. The family faces many challenges. They are not allowed to bring adequate funds with them to start a new life, and so they are forced to smuggle in what little money they have. No one in the family speaks English, except for Gustave who has learned a little bit of English in school. Gustave’s father can only get a low-paying job as a janitor. Gustave doesn’t understand many things about American culture and customs, and even in America, he faces instances of anti-Semitism and racism as he becomes friends with a “Negro” girl, September Rose.

I read in the book cover blurb that this novel is a companion to the author’s debut novel, Black Radishes. Now I want to go back and read that one because Skating With the Statue of Liberty was a great story. It feels historically accurate, and yet the themes and scenes are quite applicable to the issues of racism and anti-Semitism that we see in the news today. Gustave struggles with whether he should think of himself as French or American or something else, perhaps Jewish. He discusses with a rabbi his lack of faith in a God who would allow the horror and persecution of Jews in German-occupied France. September Rose’s family struggles with how to support their country and the war effort and also stand against the injustice and discrimination that they face as black Americans.

I found this book, by a Jewish author and based partly on her father’s stories of his childhood escape from Nazi-occupied France, to be well-written, historically informative, and absorbing. The plot doesn’t sugarcoat the issues of prejudice, anti-immigrant persecution, discrimination, and even racial and anti-Semitic violence, but the ending and the growing friendship between Gustave and September Rose are hopeful and encouraging.

I just think kids (and adults) need books like this one and like It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel to help them begin to make sense of what is happening politically and socially in our nation. It may have been a coincidence that I read these two books almost back to back, but it gave me an idea to showcase the many really good books about refugees and immigrants that I have read and loved. So that’s what I’ll be doing this week.

Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson

The first question you must ask yourself before you decide to read this book: can you accept the premise of the cremated ashes of his deceased father speaking aloud from the funeral urn to a twelve year old boy? Second question: do you like golf? If you answer both of these questions in the affirmative, this book is for you. If you can deal with the talking ashes, but you’re not much of a golf fan, you might still want to go along fro the ride. (I did.)

Ben Hogan Putter (get the pun, “putter”, as in golf?) just lost his dad to cancer. Now Ben has a permanent lump in his throat that he believes is an actual golf ball, and his barbecue-loving, golf-loving daddy is speaking to him from beyond the grave, asking Ben to take his ashes to Augusta, Georgia, home of the most famous golf course in the world. That’s where Ben’s daddy, Bo Putter, wants his ashes to rest: Augusta National Golf Club.

On the journey from his home in Hilltop, Alabama to Augusta, Georgia, Ben Putter acquires a traveling companion, a girl named Noni. The two of them beg, borrow, and steal their way across country to get to Augusta in time for the Masters Tournament. Both children have secrets, and both have daddy issues. The suspense in the story is tied up in whether or not they will be able to get to Augusta in time for the Masters, but also in how the two will resolve their respective relationships with their fathers. It’s a tearjerker, very emotional.

Almost too emotional. Ben Putter works out years of grief, anger, estrangement and misunderstanding over the course of a few days. And Noni has a deep-seated trauma of her own to work though. There are several very sentimental and pathos-filled scenes in which Ben Putter talks to his dad, in which the two children take a stand against the segregationists of the early 1970’s, in which Noni forgives and reconciles with her father, in which Ben says good-bye to the father who never really understood him. Much Sturm-und-Drang. Father issues. Tears and trials.

But it’s not a bad little Mississippi, golfing, and dealing with death story.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Edith Nesbit’s classic story of siblings and magic, The Five Children and It, was first published in 1905. In Five Children on the Western Front, British children’s author Kate Suanders gives us the Bastable children about nine years older and wiser and the Psammead (pronounced Sammy-ad) as irascible as ever, but not quite so magical. Maybe that’s because the world itself was more magical in 1905 than it became in 1914.

World War I has intruded upon the lives of the grown-up or nearly grown-up children, Cyril, Anthea, Jane and Robert, and even The Lamb (Hilary) and the new little Bastable sister, Edie, are living in a wartime Britain rather than the idyllic turn-of-the century British countryside in which the older children first encountered magic. The story covers the wartime years, 1914-1918. The Psammead has returned to see the children through the war—or maybe he’s come back because he can’t really control his magic or grant wishes anymore, and he just needs a place to live. He thinks he’s been “de-magicked and dumped” in the Bastables’ garden by an angry universe. At any rate, Edie, nine years old at the story’s inception, takes a liking to the grumpy and rather sleepy sand fairy, and occasionally even manages to be involved in some magical adventures on his behalf.

I thought this was a fascinating look at “what ever happened to the five children and It”, but I would have to try it out on a real child to know whether this is just a book for nostalgic adults and teens who were Nesbit fans or whether actual children would enjoy it, too. There’s a lot of kissing and war romance and war scenes, shown from a child’s (sometimes eavesdropping) perspective and totally appropriate for children, but the story is really about adults as much as it is children.

It’s also about repentance. The Psammead has a cruel and tyrannical past life, and part of his task during the years of the book’s tale is to repent. Repentance in this particular case means understanding that he’s done something bad and feeling a bit sorry. No reform or payment is required, but the Psammead has trouble with even a minimal amount of humility or apology. So, the children take turns laughing at his unrepentant cruelty and carelessness and trying to convince him that he is not the center of the universe. Again, I was interested in whether or not the old Psammead would ever be able to “go home”, reconciled to the universe, but I don’t know how many children would stay interested.

For fans of Edith Nesbit or Downton Abbey (for the history) or maybe World War I settings.

The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway

The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway. “For readers of Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat comes the inspirational, untold story of impoverished children who transformed themselves into world-class swimmers.”

The author, Julie Checkoway, is a National Endowment for the Arts individual artist grant recipient and a journalist for the New York Times and other respected publications. She chose a really good and inspiring Olympic story, from poverty in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii to Olympic glory in the swimming pool. However, the execution and the storytelling just weren’t up to par.

I read the entire book, and I’m glad I know the story of these swimming champions from Hawaii and their eccentric Japanese-American coach. However, I feel that the same story in the hands of a Laura Hillenbrand or John Krakauer could have been so much better. I never really understood what motivated the non-swimming coach, Soichi Sakamoto, to spend so much time and energy teaching a bunch of kids to swim competitively. Although Sakamoto is the central character in the book, he remains an enigma throughout, with a shadowy and stereotypical Japanese inscrutability. And when Ms. Checkoway moves the focus to other characters, one of the kid swimmers in training or the famous Hawaiian veteran swimmer Duke Kahanamoku or Sakamoto’s wife, that focus is still soft and indistinct. I never felt I knew any of these people or what they lived for.

Another problem with the story is the lack of suspense or dramatic tension. Almost anyone reading would know that the Hawaiian swimmers’ dreams of going to the Olympics in 1940, and Japan’s dreams of hosting the 1940 Olympics, were doomed by World War II. The only suspense that remains for us is to watch and read about how the characters in the book find out that that there will be no Olympics in 1940 nor in 1944. And after the war, the focus changes again to a new generation of swimmers who didn’t have to train in a sugar ditch and who are more “normal” and middle class and therefore less compelling and interesting than the original group of come-from-behind swimmers who somehow managed to learn to swim and win national championships in spite of their poverty-stricken beginnings.

I think Ms. Checkoway tried to to flesh out her characters and make them more knowable and therefore more interesting, but unfortunately, probably because of a dearth of people to interview almost eighty years after the fact, she often speculates or imagines what the thoughts and feelings of her characters might have been. As I just did. I really don’t know why the author couldn’t or didn’t find out more about what her characters were thinking and feeling, but I assume it was a lack of access to interviews of the characters themselves. Ms. Checkoway makes these sort of assumptions throughout the book, and I didn’t always agree with her imaginary attribution of feelings and thoughts to the people she writes about.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown are still the gold standard for Olympic narrative nonfiction. This book, while it has its moments, doesn’t even medal. Do you have nominations for the bronze medal in this genre?

Amos and the Moon by Jan Balet

Jan Balet “was a German/US-American painter, graphic artist and illustrator. Affected by the style naive art he worked particularly as a graphic artist and as an Illustrator of children’s books. Besides this he painted pictures in the style of naive art. Referred to as a “naïve” painter, his works exhibit a dry wit and refreshingly candid, satirical view of life.” ~Wikipedia, Jan Balet.

Amos and the Moon by Jan Balet was first published in 1948. The AMMO Books reprint edition that I received for review is certainly a lovely re-gift to today’s children from the golden age of children’s literature. The story is reminiscent of James Thurber’s Many Moons, which won a Caldecott Medal in 1944. In Thurber’s story, the ailing Princess Lenore wants the moon, and her father, the king, directs various servants and courtiers to get it for her. In Balet’s picture book, Amos sees the moon in his mirror, believes it belongs to him, and goes out to find it himself when it disappears the next day. Various vendors and storekeepers give him gifts–a piece of ice, a horse, a watch, a moon-shaped cookie—- as he searches, but none of his friends can give Amos “his moon”. Finally, Joe Ming, the Chinese laundryman, wisely tells Amos, “No one has the moon always–just once in a while.”

It’s a gentle, old-fashioned kind of story, and the illustrations are delightful. Mr. Balet was first and foremost an artist, and the pictures of the various shops that Amos visits in search of his moon will interest and appeal to anyone, young or old, who is inspired by detailed scenes, exquisitely rendered. The illustrations sort of remind me of Norman Rockwell or Currier and Ives or even the Impressionists like Manet, but Balet has his own style and subject matter. There is a European feel to the story and to the pictures, perhaps because of the many immigrants and ethnic groups that Amos encounters on his quest, even though the story is obviously set in an English-speaking, probably American, city.

AMMO Books has reprinted another of Balet’s picture books, The Five Rollatinis, which is a circus story and a counting book combined. Some of his other books, both those he illustrated that were written by other authors and those he wrote himself, are available on Amazon used. I really appreciate the publishers who find these old, treasured titles and bring them back into print for a new generation.

The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute

I have had this book on my TBR list for a few years, but I haven’t been able to find a copy anywhere, not in my big city library system, not at the local used bookstores. So when I found a copy at the Blooms’ little bookstore, I was delighted. Britisher Nevil Shute (Norway) is most famous for two of his other books, On the Beach, an apocalyptic novel about nuclear holocaust, and A Town Like Alice, a story of post-World War II development in the outback of Australia. However, I’ve enjoyed others of his books, too, including The Pied Piper, The Far Country, and Trustee from the Toolroom.

So, The Chequer Board begins with Mr. John Turner going to see a doctor, a specialist, for help with some troubling physical symptoms that have been interfering with his life and work as a sort of traveling salesman for the company, Cereal Products, Ltd. Mr. Turner’s life is about to take a “turn” for the worse when he receives the news from the doctor that an old war injury is about to take his life. Mr. Turner only has a few months, maybe a year, to live.

Dr. Hughes, who is a sort of framing narrator for the novel, appearing only in the first and last chapters, is not terribly impressed with his patient, John Turner, at first. The good doctor describes Turner as “not very prepossessing. He was about forty years old with a fresh complexion and sandy hair, going a little bald. He had a jaunty air of cheerfulness and bonhomie which did not fit in well with my consulting room; he was the sort of man who would be the life and soul of the party in the saloon bar of a good-class pub, or at the races. He was wearing rather a bright brown suit with a very bright tie, and he carried a bowler hat.” With the added information that this book was published in 1947 and takes place in about that year, can’t you just picture Mr. Turner, in all his florid, Willie Loman-esque splendor?

Mr. Turner reminded me of Willie Loman (Death of a Salesman) in other ways, too. Turner is a little bit crooked, we find out, not above taking advantage of an opportunity to make a good deal on the side or skim a little money off a sale. Otherwise, he says, the taxes would make it impossible for a man to get ahead at all. And he and his wife have settled into a rather typical middle class life, with not much in common, and a lot of low-level wrangling and mis-communication between the two of them. The news of Mr. Turner’s imminent death changes everything.

Turner begins to reminisce about the time he spent in hospital with three other injured servicemen, and he becomes fixated on finding the other three men and helping them, if they need help. As it turns out, Turner is more helped by the search and by what he finds out about his three fellow hospital mates than he is able to help them.

I must have been in just the right mood for this novel. There’s some World War II adventure involved, and themes of racial harmony and overcoming adversity, but it’s really just a gentle, rather philosophical, story about people muddling their way through life. My own life is in sort of a muddle right now, and I appreciated Mr. Turner’s frequent, though cliched reminder that “we’ll all be the same in a hundred years.” In spite of its tendency to promote Buddhism and denigrate Christianity, the novel was still a comfort to me. It’s about normal, average people dealing with the war and its aftermath in interesting and somewhat unpredictable ways.

The characters do make frequent (and jarring to a 21st century reader) use of the n-word in reference to a black American soldier who was one of Turner’s three hospital mates. The word was fairly typical, I think, in 1947 in England and in America, and perhaps didn’t carry quite the same derogatory meaning in British parlance? Anyway, the book treats its black characters and other POC characters (Burmese) with respect and understanding, while showing how many people in the 1940’s did not do the same.

The title of this book by Mr. Shute is fun to think about, too. It could refer to the past events that Mr. Turner explores in the book, chequered with light and dark. Or the theme of white and colored people reaching for racial reconciliation and even community is another meaning that finds an apt image in the light and dark chequerboard. The idea that life is a sort of game in which one makes moves either good or bad, and that in consequence each person might be reincarnated as a higher or lower being than he was before is also alluded to in the title and in the story.

Heidi’s Children by Charles Tritten

The two sequels to Johanna Spyri’s beloved Heidi, Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children, were neither written nor endorsed by Spyri, but were adapted from her other works by her French translator, Charles Tritten, in the 1930s, many years after the Swiss author of Heidi died. Nevertheless, I read them both when I was a girl, wanting more Heidi, and I found them to be satisfyingly Heidi-like in style and substance.

I decided to re-read Heidi’s Children, after purchasing a used copy from a friend. It’s really a beautiful and intriguing story. In Heidi Grows Up, Heidi goes away to boarding school and then returns to Dorfli to teach in the village school. Eventually, she and Peter are married (as everyone who has read Heidi would know and want them to do). Heidi’s Children begins in the springtime with Heidi and Peter expecting their first child.

Several things about the ideas and perspective in this book impressed me.

Heidi’s and Peter’s attitude about marriage, unremarkable in the 1930’s when this book was published, seems charmingly antiquated in these oh-so-enlightened times:

“. . . with Spring would come one of the greatest joys that a young wife can experience. For both Peter and Heidi felt that no marriage was complete until it was blessed with children. Spring held this promise. Even at the wedding the great event had been prepared for and the cradle had stood ready. This was the custom. Often at a Grisons wedding, the cradle was prepared and a child walked with the bride and groom carrying wheat. This was a sign that the marriage would be fruitful, that there would soon be children.”

Who would think that almost a century after the time of this story, people not only would see children as a nuisance and even a curse rather than “one of the greatest joys” and a blessing and a promise, but would also devalue marriage itself to the point that it has become an unnecessary burden or a meaningless “piece of paper” to many?

I also like the way Heidi and Peter live with their extended family and in community. Heidi’s grandfather, the Alm-Uncle, lives with them, and so does Peter’s mother, Brigitta. Jamy, the village school teacher and a school friend of Heidi’s, boards with the family, and Jamy brings her little sister, Marta, to live with the family as well. Other visitors, such as Klara and Herr Sesemann, are in and out, and it’s just a wonderful picture of a loving community, several generations, helping and serving one another.

I also liked the themes of courage overcoming fear, forgiveness and understanding, visual images and stories as vehicles for knowing God and His love. Little Marta is a good replacement child character for little Heidi, and the grown-up Heidi is someone an adult reader feels as if she would like to have for a friend. Altogether, the Heidi series is a delight, even if the authors are two different people. Tritten writes of his justification for writing the sequels in his foreward to Heidi’s Children:

“I knew Madame Spyri as well as one human, even of a different race, could know another. Every book she wrote was a labor of love for the children she knew so well. Each was written in memory of that little ‘lost one’ who used to ask her to tell him what lay beyond ‘forever after.’ I know that she never refused to grant a child’s wish as long as she lived.”