The Jersey Brothers by Sally Mott Freeman

It’s raining; it’s pouring here in Houston, Texas. And Hurricane Harvey is headed for Corpus Christi and set to bring Houston a whole heck of a lot of more rain and possible/probable flooding. And my personal and family life is a bit of a mess, too.

However, if ever a book would cause me to pause and count my blessings, The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home is that book. I thought the scenes and descriptions in Unbroken by Laura Hillebrand were harrowing and violent and disturbing, but this book tops that one for sheer cruelty and horror, man’s inhumanity to man. It’s not gratuitous, either. As far as I can tell the scenes and events the author describes really happened and were the central truths of the experience of Barton Cross, an American Navy prisoner of war to the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II. YOu’ve heard of the “Bataan Death March”? Well, that’s described in this book in excruciating detail, even though Ensign Cross didn’t have to participate in that particular piece of history. (Many of his fellow prisoners did.) And the Battle of the Coral Sea and Iwo Jima and Tarawa—all described, again in horrific detail because one or the other of Barton’s two brothers were there. All three brothers were Navy officers, and the older two, Bill (the author’s father) and Benny, spent the war fighting on Navy ships or working in Washington, D.C. and trying all the time to find Barton, their baby brother.

Between the three of them the Jersey Brothers, called that because they were from New Jersey, had a sweeping view of the war in the Pacific, from FDR’s War Room in the White House to Pearl Harbor to the battles across the Pacific to the prisons and camps of Mindanao and Leyte and other Philippine islands. As I read about the experience each of the brothers and of their mother, Helen Cross, at home in New Jersey, I was overwhelmed with gratefulness both for their sacrifice and that of many, many others and for my relatively easy and uneventful life. We may have our problems, but not many of us since World War II have had to suffer or endure anything near what those “greatest generation” men and families did.

I was also convinced again that maybe the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the best solution for an intractable problem—that of ending the war with the least possible loss of life for all concerned. The Japanese were employing suicide bombers (kamikaze) to a much greater extent than I ever remember reading about, and they were not willing to surrender. General MacArthur was intent on invading the Japanese islands, but the predictions of 600,000 American casualties—or more—convinced Truman that the threat of the atomic bomb would save many American and Japanese lives. The army was predicting Japanese casualties during an invasion to run over a million. The Japanese civilians and military were instructed to fight to the death, and many, many were willing to do so. Deaths from both atomic bomb blasts were much, much fewer than any of those estimates and many times fewer than the deaths already sustained by both the Allies and the Japanese in the battles across the Pacific. As horrific as the atomic bombs’ destruction and devastation were, they were not nearly as cruel as the terror and savage brutality that the Japanese visited upon the prisoners of war and the subject peoples that they conquered and ruled over in the Philippines and elsewhere. Take what you’ve read about the Holocaust and the concentration camps in Europe and transfer it to jungles of the Philippines and Southeast Asia, and you will have some idea of the absolute evil that was put to an end by the evil of two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yes, the atomic bombs were vicious and horrible, but maybe it was God’s mercy that allowed it to happen.

I recommend The Jersey Brothers, if you are able to read about the savagery and the suffering that went on during the war in the Pacific. It did make me thankful for the problems I have and the ones that I don’t.

Aim by Joyce Moyer Hostetter

Aim is a prequel to Ms. Hostetter’s two books about Ann Fay Honeycutt, Blue and Comfort. Aim is about Junior Bledsoe, a secondary, but beloved, character in those other two books. (Ann Fay is the minor character in this one.)

The story takes place in 1941-1942. Fourteen year old Junior Bledsoe of Hickory, North Carolina has a troubled life. His father is a drunk. Junior doesn’t like school and can’t really see the point of it. His cantankerous and sometimes cruel granddaddy has moved in and taken over Junior’s bedroom. And World War II is about to involve the United States of America, except according to Granddaddy, “That yellow-bellied president is too chicken to take us to war. He ain’t half the man the Colonel was.” (The Colonel, in Grandaddy’s jargon, refers to Teddy Roosevelt.)

While Junior worries about school and the draft and impending war and that fact that his father seems distant and stern most of the time, Junior’s dad manages to go on a drinking binge and get killed in a accident. Or was it an accident? How can Junior go back to school when he’s not sure what really happened to his Pop? And what are they going to do about Grandaddy who’s becoming more verbally abusive and demanding every day? Should Junior drop out of school and get a job? Or join the army? Or investigate the moonshiners who may have been involved in Pop’s death?

This story is really all about a boy who’s trying to find his way to adulthood without the guidance of a father. However, the wonderful thing is that the community steps in to work together and separately to help Junior find his “aim” in life. Even when Junior Bledsoe makes some really poor choices and gets himself into what could become serious trouble, members of his extended community help his now-single mother guide Junior back to the path of good sense and responsible moral judgement. Junior is a good kid, but he’s looking for a way to deal with his father’s death and a way to earn the respect of his family and his friends. It’s not easy for a fourteen year old boy to lose his father, especially not the way Junior Pop dies. It was inspiring to read about how ordinary, ind neighbors, teachers, and friends help Junior to process his father’s death and to decide which parts of his father’s legacy he wants to continue and which parts he wants to leave in the grave.

Aim is an excellent coming-of-age novel, and I would also recommend Blue, about Ann Fay and her encounter with the dreaded disease of polio about a year after the events in Aim have taken place. I have yet to read Comfort, the sequel to Blue, but it is definitely on my TBR list.

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New York Herald Tribune Spring Book Festival Awards

In 1937 two awards of $250 each were established by the New York Herald-Tribune for the best books for younger children and for older children published between January and June. In 1941 the system of awards was revised. Three awards, of $200.00 each, were given to the best books in the following three classes: young children, middle-age children, and other children. Each year a jury, composed of distinguished experts in the field of juvenile literature, was chosen to make the selections.

1937 Seven Simeons, by Boris Artzybasheff. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Viking.)

The Smuggler’s Sloop, by Robb White III. For older children. Illustrated by Andrew Wyeth. (Little.)

1938 The Hobbit, by J. R. Tolkien. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Houghton.)

The Iron Duke, by John R. Tunis. For older children. Illustrated by Johari Bull. (Harcourt)

1939 The Story of Horace, by Alice M. Coats. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Coward.)

The Hired Man’s Elephant, by Phil Stong. For older children. Illustrated by Doris Lee. (Dodd.)

1940 That Mario, by Lucy Herndon Crockett. For younger children. Illustrated by the author. (Holt)

Cap’n Ezra, Privateer, by James D. Adams. For older children. Illustrated by I. B. Hazelton. (Harcourt.)

1941 In My Mother’s House, by Ann Nolan Clark. For younger children. Illustrated by Velino Herrera. (Viking.)

Pete by Tom Robinson. For middle-age children. Illustrated by Morgan Dennis. (Viking.)

Clara Barton, by Mildren Mastin Pace. For older children. (Scribner.)

1942 Mr. Tootwhistle’s Invention, by Peter Wells. For younger children.
Illustrated by the author. (Winston.)

I Have Just Begun to Fight: The Story of John Paul Jones, by
Commander Edward Ellsberg. For middle-age children. Illustrated
by Gerald Foster. (Dodd.)

None But the Brave, by Rosamond Van der Zee Marshall. For
older children. Illustrated by Gregor Duncan. (Houghton.)

1943 Five Golden Wrens, by Hugh Troy. For younger children. Illus-
trated by the author. (Oxford.)

These Happy Golden Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. For middle-
age children. Illustrated by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle.

Patterns on the Wall, by Elizabeth Yates. For older children.

1944 A Ring and a Riddle, by M. Ilm and E. Segal. For younger children.
Illustrated by Vera Bock. (Lippincott)

They Put Out to Sea, by Roger Duvoisln. For middle-age children.
Illustrated by the author. (Knopf.)

Storm Canvas, by Armstrong Sperry, For older children. Illustrated
by the author. (Winston.)

1945 Little People in a Big Country, by Norma Cohn. For younger children. Illustrated by Tashkent Children’s Art Training Center in Soviet Uzbekistan. (Oxford.)

Gulf Stream by Ruth Brindze. Illustrated by Helene Carter. For middle-age children., (Vanguard.)

Sandy, by Elizabeth Janet Gray. For older children. (Viking.)

1946 Farm Stories. Award divided between Gustaf Tenggren, illustrator, and Kathryn and Byron Jackson, authors. For younger children. (Simon & Schuster.)

The Thirteenth Stone, by Jean Bothwell, illustrated by Margaret Ayer. For middle-age children. (Harcourt)

The Quest of the Golden Condor, by Clayton Knight. Illustrated by the author. For older children. (Knopf.)

Other than The Hobbit and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years, has anyone read or reviewed any of these prize-winning books? I know of the authors Jean Bothwell, Elizabeth Janet Grey, Armstrong Sperry, Roger Duvoisin, Elizabeth Yates, John Tunis, and Ann Nolan Clark, but not these particular books of theirs.

FDR and the American Crisis by Albert Marrin

History professor Albert Marrin has been writing nonfiction narrative history for quite a while: his first book for young adults was Overlord: D Day and the Invasion of Europe, which was published in 1982. He has written more than thirty history narratives for children and young adults, including Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy, a National Book Award finalist.

In his latest book, Marrin returns to the World War II era and to the Great Depression and to the president who shepherded America through both of those crises, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR was a complicated character, and Mr. Marrin presents him—warts, strengths, and all—in the context of the events and attitudes of his time. FDR and The American Crisis is, above all, a comprehensive and balanced vision of Roosevelt, what he did for the United States and what he did to change the country, for better and for worse.

In addition to my appreciation for its even-handedness, I was most impressed with the personal tone of Mr. Marrin’s very detailed, yet broad, narrative. Mr. Marrin is 79 years old. Born in 1936, he actually remembers some of the events of Roosevelt’s presidency and of the second World War. And he’s not afraid to gently insert himself into the narrative with an “I remember” or a “we all wonder if” statement. In addition, Marrin isn’t reluctant to share his own informed opinion when it’s appropriate:

“Critics branded Hoover a ‘do-nothing’ president who let Americans suffer due to his commitment to old-fashioned ideas. It is untrue.”

“The media developed a teenager’s crush on the Red Army.”

“Convinced of his own virtue and wisdom, he (FDR) thought too highly of his personal charm and powers of persuasion. He misjudged the murderous Stalin.”

“Those who praised him (FDR) as a saintly miracle worker are as wrong as those who bitterly cursed him as a monster.”

Bottom line, I learned a lot from reading FDR and the American Crisis—and I learned it in a throughly pleasant and absorbing read. Mr. Marrin once said in an interview, “Kids are very bright. I’m not going to write down. If anything, I’ll have them read up to me.” This book is not dumbed down, nor is it a breezy hagiography of a famous president. Any high school, or even college, student looking for both an in-depth and readable introduction to FDR and his presidency could not do better than to read Mr. Marrin’s book first.

The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr

Historical fiction set in the Ukraine, winter, 1941. Or is it magical realism? The horses featured in the story are very, very intelligent, crafty, and communicative. Then, there’s the question of whether this book is middle grade fiction or young adult. The main character, a Jewish girl named Kalinka, is young, maybe twelve or thirteen? But a lot of what happens in this World War II-setting novel is very, very dark. I don’t exactly know how to classify this book, and that ambiguity in being able to pigeon-hole the book into “YA Holocaust novel” or “middle grade horse book” or “magical horse story” or something else makes it that much more intriguing to me.

Kalinka’s entire family has been annihilated by the Nazis. Max, the wildlife manager at Aksaniya-Nova wildlife preserve, is pretending to cooperate with the Germans so that he can protect the animals he loves, especially the rare and wild Przewalski’s horses. As Kalinka forms a bond with the horses out on the snowy plains where they live, Max forms a plan to save both Kalinka and the horses from the German soldiers who have been ordered to wipe out both the Jews and the ancient breed of Przewalski’s.

The style of writing in this novel comes across as very Russian (Ukrainian?) to me. The writing is rather simple and unadorned, and Max’s philosophy of “live and let live” and “persevere to fight another day” strikes me as typical of a Ukrainian peasant, at least the Ukrainian peasants I’ve read about in Russian novels. Something about the way the book is written, the characters, and the descriptions made me eel as if I were in Ukraine in the winter of 1941, watching the events unfold. Even when the events that unfold are borderline unbelievable (a horse that counts and strategizes?), I wanted to believe. And when the plot turned to harsh, violent, and tragic, I wanted to close my eyes and disbelieve that things like genocide, animal cruelty, bombings, and attempted cannibalism really could happen. But those latter things, the ones I wished weren’t at all possible, were the ones that did happen, and probably still are happening.

I would recommend this book for older teens who can handle the horrors and can yet still suspend disbelief long enough to believe in a semi-happy ending.

Kalinka’s (nick)name comes from an old Russian song by composer and folklorist Ivan Petrovich Larionov:

And here’s a short video about Przewalski’s horses:

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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Rest of the Story: Eric Liddell

The late Paul Harvey had a feature on the radio called “The Rest of the Story” in which he would tell familiar stories of well-known people and events or commonplace tales of ordinary people–and then tell “the rest of the story”, the part that not many people know or the part that gives the true story an ironic twist. I’ve been reading a lot of unusual stories myself lately, and I decided to share a few of them with you here at Semicolon.

Olympic gold medalist Eric Liddell is featured in the movie Chariots of Fire. If you’ve never seen the movie, I highly recommend it. In this video of his medal-winning race, Eric Liddell is in the outside lane:

In the movie and real life, Eric Liddell refused to run in a qualifying heat scheduled on Sunday because he believed in keeping the Sabbath holy. He had to withdraw from the 100 meter race, his best event. Liddell began to train for the 400 meter race instead, and he ran the race in the Olympics and won. Eric Liddell broke the existing Olympic and world records in the 400 meter race with a time of 47.6 seconds. After the Olympics and his graduation from Edinburgh University, Liddell continued to run in track and field events, but he always refused to compete on Sunday, citing his desire to please God above all else.

In 1925, Eric Liddell returned to China where he had been born and where his parents were missionaries. He served as a missionary there until 1941 when he was captured and interned by the Japanese who were invading China during World War II. It was there in the internment camp that “the rest of the story” of Eric Liddell’s allegiance to God’s principles above all else took place.

On the Blue Comet by Rosemary Wells

Another boy’s book in which time travel makes my head hurt. “Time is a river in which we can travel both forward into the future and back into the past.” The urchins watched Back to the Future 2 last night, and it made my head hurt, too. With The Blue Comet I just gave up on trying to understand the river of time and enjoyed the story.

Eleven year old Oscar Ogilvie lives with his dad in a little house in Cairo, Illinois. Mom is dead, but Dad and Oscar are happy with Oscar doing the cooking, Dad working as a salesman for the John Deere Tractor COmpany, and the two of them enjoying the Lionel train layout that they have in the basement. Then, the stock market crashes, and the depression hits, and Oscar’s dad loses is job and has to go to California to look for work, leaving Oscar behind to live with his crabby Aunt Carmen. All of this and a little more happens in chapters 1-4, before the time travel/magic part of the book begins. It’s a little slow, and some kids may give up before they get to the good part.

But they shouldn’t. The Blue Comet is deceptively dull at first, but the pace picks up in chapter 5 with a bank robbery, a jump into that River of Time, and some cameo appearances by famous stars and celebrities of the 1940’s such as “Dutch” Reagan, A. Hitchcock, and even a very young Jack Kennedy. It was fun to try to pick out the celebs, and it was enjoyable just to follow the story of our boy-hero, Oscar, as he worked his way from one side of the country to the other and from one era to the next and then back to the past where he came from.

The illustrations in this book by Bagram Ibatoulline deserve, indeed require, a mention. I wish I could show you an example. The pictures are full-color painting in a sort of Norman Rockwell-style. They’re just beautiful and quite evocative of the time period. I guess the cover illustration will have to do to give you an idea, but the pictures inside the book are even better.

So time travel. Electric trains. Depression-era. A boy and his dad. Oh, and Rudyard Kipling’s “If” and a disappearing math teacher. Bank robbers foiled. Surely, one or more of those will capture your interest in this well-told tale of historical adventure.

The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone

I like reading books that are re-imagined versions of Shakespeare’s plots, and that’s why I checked out The Romeo and Juliet Code. But it’s not that sort of book at all.

Instead, The Romeo and Juliet Code plays into another interest of mine: World War II and spies. Felicity Bathburn Budwig is a very, very British eleven year old girl who ends up in Maine at her estranged grandmother’s house by the sea. The year is 1941, and London, Felicity’s former home, is in the midst of The Blitz. When Felicity’s parents, Danny and Winnie, leave her to live with Danny’s American family–Uncle Gideon, Aunt Miami, and The Gram—Felicity is sure that Danny and Winnie will soon come back to get her and take her home, to England, where she belongs.

Felicity has a stuffed bear named Wink who reminded me of Paddington for some reason. And her American family is odd enough to people the pages of a fantasy novel rather than the straight historical fiction that this story purports to be. Then, there’s also someone named Captain Derek who may or may not live in a secret room upstairs. And there are secret letters, and a code, and an island and a lighthouse, and Aunt Miami who’s obsessed with Romeo and Juliet. All put together it’s the sort of story an imaginative girl could concoct in perilous times, and the point of view feels right. Strange, but right.

The problem would be finding the right readers, those who would enjoy a spy story that’s not very fast-paced or danger-filled, or a quirky family story that turns out to be quite realistic, or a historical fiction novel that has a lot of precious-ness mixed in with the history. If any of that admixture sounds like your cuppa, you might want to check out this Brit-comes-to-America-and-finds-a-home story of a girl nicknamed Flissy. Just know that Romeo and Juliet play a rather small part in the whole gallimaufry.

1941: Events and Inventions

February 12, 1941. General Erwin Rommel arrives in North Africa (Tripoli, Libya) with German troops to reinforce the Italians who have suffered a series of defeats by the British.

April, 1941. Greece and Yugoslavia surrender to the German army invading their countries. British troops stationed in Greece retreat to Crete and North Africa. Yugoslavian Communist Joseph Broz Tito vows to continue fighting Hitler and his Nazis to the end.

May, 1941. The Blitz, heavy German bombing of London and other British cities, comes to an end as Hitler turns his attention to Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.

May 19, 1941. Italian Fascist troops surrender to the British in Ethiopia, and Emperor Haile Selassie has returned to the throne of Ethiopia after having been forced into exile by the Fascists.

June 30, 1941. The Germans invade the Soviet Union, breaking their non-aggression pact with Stalin.

August, 1941. Churchill and FDR meet aboard the American cruiser Augusta and issue a joint declaration later known as the Atlantic Charter. The agreement brings the United States one step closer to war in alliance with Britain.

September, 1941. All Jews in Germany over the age of six are required to wear the Star of David in public as a “mark of shame.”

September, 1941. 21-year old Mohammed Reza Pahlevi is the new Shah of Iran. He promises to be a “completely constitutional monarch.”

November, 1941. The Russian winter slows the German advance into Russia and towards Moscow. The German Blitzkrieg may be frozen in place.

December 7, 1941. A day which will live in infamy. Japanese aircraft attack the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Eight U.S. battleships are sunk or disabled and more than 2400 people are killed. Following the attack the U.S. and Britain both declare war on Japan. Italy and Germany declare war on the U.S., and President Roosevelt returns the favor.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Nominated for 2011 Cybil Awards, Young Adult Fiction category. Nominated by Lisa Schroeder.

Who was the greater monster: Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin? This website says that Hitler was responsible for the death of about 12 million civilians while Stalin killed more than 20 million with his purges, executions, and repressive and ruinous policies. Who knows exactly? But one of the worst places to be would be caught between the two men and their armies and their insane, competitive desire for power. Lithuania in 1941, the setting for this novel, was in exactly that place: caught between the Nazis and the Stalinist Russians and crushed, co-opted, and destroyed by first one evil regime and then the other.

Fifteen year old Lina is preparing to go to art school when the NKVD comes to arrest her, her younger brother, Jonas, and her mother. Lina’s father has already disappeared, assumed to be arrested, and sent to some unknown prison. Or perhaps he’s dead, executed for the same unknown “crime” that causes the deportation of the rest of the family. What follows this beginning is a story as harrowing and cruel as any Jewish Holocaust story that you’ve read. Lina and her family starve, freeze, suffer, are mistreated, experience callous injustice, and barely survive their experience.

Author Ruta Sepetys is the American born daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. She wrote this story to “give a voice to the hundred of thousands of people who lost their lives during Stalin’s cleansing of the Baltic region.” Of course, this story, even though it is written to be representative of what happened to many Lithuanians during World War II, doesn’t tell the whole story. Some Lithuanians collaborated with the Nazis in opposition to the Russians. Some fought against the Soviet occupation. Some Lithuanians with ties to Germany fled to Germany during the first or second Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Some Lithuanians betrayed their neighbors to the NKVD or to the Nazis. Some Lithuanians saved their Jewish neighbors form the Nazis. It was a complicated and horrific time, and the book Between Shades of Gray reflects those complications. It is an excellent look into one family’s experience. Lina’s journey is based on interviews that Ms. Sepetys had with many Lithuanian survivors and their families.

Lithuania gained its independence from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990.