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.

Remembrance by Theresa Breslin

I read Remembrance for my journey to Scotland last month because it was the only book by Theresa Breslin, Carnegie medal winning Scottish author, that my library system had. And it was set during World War I, a favorite time period. There were definitely echoes of Downton Abbey in the book.

Seventeen year old John Malcolm Dundas, son of a Scottish shopkeeper, can’t wait to enlist and fight the Huns. His sister Maggie is eager to do her part, too, or at least to do something more exciting than working her father’s store, and she goes to work in a munitions factory. Little brother Alex Dundas is only fourteen, but he longs to get into the fighting before the war ends. Then, there’s the other family in the book, the Armstrong-Barneses, consisting of mother, son Francis, and daughter Charlotte. Charlotte trains to become a nurse so that she can contribute to the war effort, even though her mother does not approve of girls in her “station of life” (the upper class) working in hospitals, particularly not her teenaged daughter. Francis, old enough to be a soldier, tries to avoid the war, reads lots of newspapers, and draws. He’s the sensitive, artistic type, and he’s opposed to the war and the way it’s being fought.

The book follows the histories of these five teens as World War I impacts them, fills their lives, and changes them and their families and their village. It would be a good fictional introduction to World War I for high school age readers and for adults. The details of life in the trenches and in the hospitals are harrowing and gritty, but I would much prefer this book as an accompaniment to the study of World War I over the one that’s often assigned, All Quiet on the Western Front. I found the plot of All Quiet on the Western Front very nearly as confusing as the battles of the war itself must have been. Remembrance with its more straightforward plot leaves out none of the horror of the war, but it tells the story of World War I in a much more approachable and understandable manner.

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

The Family Romanov: Murder Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming.

Were the Romanov family a Christian family, persecuted by the evil Communist revolutionaries and ultimately martyrs to their (Orthodox) faith?

“Alix (Alexandra) . . . spent hours a day on her knees in prayer.” (p.28)

“God’s will must always be accepted without complaint. After all, everything that happened in life was the result of God’s will, so it was pointless to question the meaning of events. ‘God knows what is good for us,’ Nicholas often reminded himself. ‘We must bow down our heads and repeat the sacred words, ‘Thy will be done.”” (p.43)

“Typically Nicholas believed Alexei’s illness was God’s will, and so he accepted it passively. ‘My own fate and that of my family are in the hands of Almighty God.'” (p.55)

“Alexandra believed Rasputin’s healing powers were a gift from God, the answer to all her long hours of prayer.” (p.87)

“Alexandra wanted to do more. So she enrolled in nursing courses, and she took nineteen-year-old Olga and seventeen-year-old Tatiana with her. . . Working in the wards, the students washed, cleaned, and bandaged maimed bodies, mangled faces, blinded eyes.” (p.138)

“‘It is necessary to look more calmly on everything,’ she (Alexandra) said three months after her husband’s abdication. ‘What is to be done? God has sent us trials, evidently he thinks we are prepared for it. It is a sort of examination—to prove we are ready for His grace.'” (p.185)

“Their mornings began and evenings ended with prayers.” “Marie offered to read aloud from the family’s favorite collection of sermons.” (p.228)

Or was Nicholas an evil, violent man and was Alexandra blinded by her near-idolatry for Rasputin and for her icons to which she turned in faith that they would make her son well?

“They (the police) shared Nicholas’s view that ‘the Yids,’ as he derisively called his Jewish subjects, ‘must be kept in their place.'” (p.69)

“Nicholas decided to crack down on all of his subjects. Now, he declared, they would ‘feel the whip.’ Perhaps then they would think twice before rebelling.” (p.79)

“Their work (the pogroms) delighted Nicholas. Once, after reading a particularly gruesome report of hangings and beatings, he turned to an aide. ‘This really tickles me,’ he said. ‘It really does.'” (p.80)

“Alexandra firmly believed Rasputin was God’s messenger, sent to guide them through the war. ‘I fully trust in Our Friend’s wisdom endowed by God to counsel what is right for you and our country,’ she wrote Nicholas.” (p.148-9)

Both, I think, however contradictory that may be. The book is certainly a warning to those of us who are Christians: we may be blinded by our own prejudices and those of our culture into believing things that are contrary to the gospel of Christ and into acting upon those erroneous beliefs. We must always compare our actions and beliefs with the yardstick of Scripture and ask for specific guidance from the Holy Spirit. I believe that if Nicholas and Alexandra had done so in regard to the Jews and to Rasputin, that guidance would have been granted to them.

Ms. Fleming does a good job of presenting a balanced and intriguing picture of the Romanovs, and I recommend the book.

March 18th: St. Alexander of Jerusalem and Second Lieutenant Owen

St. Alexander was a bishop in Jerusalem in the third century, and he is known for having founded a theological library and a school in Jerusalem during his tenure there. When he was an old man, he was arrested and taken to prison in Caesarea where he died, after being physically tortured and almost fed to the wild beasts.

“The glory of his white hairs and great sanctity formed a double crown for him in captivity.” Feast Day Of St. Alexander of Jerusalem, March 18th.

Wilfred Owen, World War One poet, b.March 18,1893, d.November 4, 1918.

2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
by Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Poetry Friday: The 20th Gift of Christmas in France, 1917

Christmas Eve in France by Jessie Fauset
“Jessie Redmon Fauset (April 27, 1882 – April 30, 1961) was an American editor, poet, essayist and novelist.
Fauset was the editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis. She also was the editor and co-author for the African American children’s magazine Brownies’ Book. She studied the teachings and beliefs of W.E.B Dubois and considered him to be her mentor. Fauset was known as one of the most intelligent women novelists of the Harlem Renaissance, earning her the name ‘the midwife’. In her lifetime she wrote four novels as well as poetry and short fiction.” ~Wikipedia, Jessie Redmon Faucet

OH little Christ, why do you sigh
As you look down to-night
On breathless France, on bleeding France,
And all her dreadful plight?
What bows your childish head so low?
What turns your cheek so white?

Oh little Christ, why do you moan,
What is it that you see
In mourning France, in martyred France,
And her great agony?
Does she recall your own dark day,
Your own Gethsemane?

Oh little Christ, why do you weep,
Why flow your tears so sore
For pleading France, for praying France,
A suppliant at God’s door?
“God sweetened not my cup,” you say,
“Shall He for France do more?”

Oh little Christ, what can this mean,
Why must this horror be
For fainting France, for faithful France,
And her sweet chivalry?
“I bled to free all men,” you say
“France bleeds to keep men free.”

Oh little, lovely Christ—you smile!
What guerdon is in store
For gallant France, for glorious France,
And all her valiant corps?
“Behold I live, and France, like me;
Shall live for evermore.”

The Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd. In which we are introduced to nurse Bess Crawford as she becomes a survivor of the sinking of HMHS Britannic in the Kea Channel off the Greek island of Kea on the morning of November 21, 1916. Upon her return to England to convalesce, Bess carries a cryptic message to the family of a soldier who died while under her care. The message begins a chain of events which lead to Bess’s involvement with a man who is possibly an escaped lunatic, but also possibly a wronged man.

An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd. This second book in the series featuring World War I nurse detective Bess Crawford uses good, solid storytelling and slow, careful character development to hold readers’ interest. Upon Bess’s return to England from the trenches of France, she witnesses a tearful parting between a woman, Mrs. Evanson, and a soldier who is not her husband but possibly her lover. When Bess recognizes Mrs. Evanson from her picture that was carried by her pilot husband and when the woman is later murdered, Bess becomes enmeshed in the family’s affairs and in the resolution of the mystery of her death.

In both of these books, the mystery and the characters were intriguing and entertaining. Bess Crawford is an independent young woman, and yet she doesn’t come across as a twenty-first century feminist artificially transplanted into the soil of the World War I-era. Instead, she has a family to whom she listens and she allows herself to be protected to some extent by the men in her life, especially family friend Simon Brandon. (I think Bess and Simon are headed for romance, but at least by the end of the second book in the series, the romance is completely unrealized.) And still Bess does what Bess feels obligated or drawn to do, and she meddles in things that are not really her concern.

In fact, that would be my only complaint about these books. For the purpose of furthering the plot, the authors (a mother-son team using the Charles Todd pseudonym) have Bess ask all sorts of questions and become over-involved in the lives of strangers with very little justification for her visits and intrusions. However, I can overlook the lack of warrant for Bess’s interference in the lives of her patients and their families for the sake of a good story.

Lots of comparisons are made at Amazon and Goodreads between these books and the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. I liked these two, at least, better than I liked the books about Maisie. Maybe I just liked these books set during the Great War better than those set just after.

Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley

Charles Hamilton Sorley was a British soldier in the first part of World War I. He had been a student in Germany before the war and had some admiration for the German spirit and Kultur. He was killed in action at the battle of Loos on October 13, 1915. His father gathered and published Sorley’s collected letters after the war. I read excerpts from that collection in The Penguin Book of First World War Prose.

“Germany must be crushed for her wicked and selfish aspiration to be mistress of the world but the country that, when mistress of the world, failed to set her an example of unworldliness and renunciation should take to herself half the blame of the blood expended in the crushing.”

The country that failed is Britain, of course.

“I have had a conventional education: Oxford would have corked it. But this has freed the spirit, glory be. Give me The Odyssey, and I return the New Testament to store. Physically as well as spiritually, give me the road.”

“I shall march hotly to the firing line, by turns critic, actor, hero, coward, and soldier of fortune: perhaps even for a moment Christian, humble, with ‘Thy will be done’. Then shock, combustion, the emergence of one of these: death or life: and then return to the old rigamarole.”

The Germany Mr. Sorley writes about, confident in her moral and cultural superiority, sounds a lot like the United States in the twenty-first century. The German intent was to export the strength and courage and efficiency of the Germans (Prussians) to the rest of the benighted and deprived world. And if this mission must be done militarily, then so be it. Are we caught up in the same error? Or have we learned from the First and Second World War that cultures and mores, no matter how superior, can only be exported by persuasion and propaganda, never by force?

The Summer of Katya by Trevanian

A couple of weeks ago when we played Book Tag with the theme of Summer Setting, Summer Reading, Debbie at ExUrbanis recommended this novel, saying that is was “part mystery and part love story.” So I borrowed a copy from the library.

And it is part mystery and part love story with a bit of psychological thriller and a ghost thrown in for free. The setting is the summer of 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I in southern France, near Basque country. Our narrator is a middle-aged Basque doctor who is recalling, in 1938 on the eve of yet another war, the days of his youth before he went off to fight in the Great War.

Dr. Montjean is a faithful and trustworthy narrator, but he doesn’t really understand the events and people he chronicles. There are lots of twists and surprises here that I certainly didn’t see coming. And the dialogue and the descriptions were both quite well-written, enough so that I eschewed my usual bad habit of skimming over long narrative passages.

Trevanian, the author, lives in the French Basque mountains, so the setting should be true-to-life. The description of a traditional Basque festival, complete with dancing, drinking, fighting and semi-pagan ritual is worth the reading of all the events leading up to it. Then there’s the Freudian, early twentieth century atmosphere that makes this novel just the right medicine for a good summer read.

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

“The alleys, the houses, the palaces and mosques and the people who live among them are evoked as vividly in [Mahfouz’s] work as the streets of London were conjured up by Dickens.” ~Newsweek

I was struggling through Mr. Mahfouz’s epic novel, the first part of a trilogy set in modern Cairo, Egypt, and in the middle I read the above blurb on the cover. The comparison helped. I still didn’t like the people in the book, especially the men, nor did I ever, ever while reading this novel have any desire to visit Egypt in the twentieth century or even now. However, there is a Dickensian connection—or maybe a nineteenthe century connection since Mr. Mahfouz cites his favorite authors as “Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and above all Proust.” I can see a little of all of those men’s influence in the novel. Notice that Mr. Mahfouz, who “lives in Cairo with his wife and two daughters,” does not name any female authors among his influences. Therein lies a tale.

Of all the books I have ever read, this one is the most likely to turn me into a flaming feminist. The men in the novel, as in Islamic culture?, are self-centered, egotistical, hypocritical tyrants. If I had to choose between living in World War I-era Egypt, where Palace Walk takes place, and Victorian England, the home of those notorious tyrants Mr. Murdstone, Bill Sikes, and Wackford Squeers, I’d take my chances in jolly old England. At least in England I’d be able to leave the house on occasion.

The mother of the family in Palace Walk, Amina, leaves her home three or four times during the course of the novel, a time period of three or four years. She attends the weddings of her daughters, and she dares to go to a religious shrine once while her husband is out of town–with predictably disastrous consequences. Otherwise, Amina and her daughters are not allowed to even look out the window, lest they be seen by a man and become “fallen women.”

So the women in Palace Walk are firmly controlled, tyrannized, and abused by the central character of the novel (surely not the Hero), the father, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. This patriarch has a split personality: he is friendly, amiable, good-humored, and popular with his drinking buddies and paramours, of whom he has many, but at home he is a stern, grim, autocrat who rules his family with invective and fear. Oh, but they all love and respect him. Al-Sayyid Ahmad is a god in his own home, ruling over a collection of cloistered, intimidated women and three sons who are molding themselves in his image–when they are not cowering in his shadow.

The story also deals with the way the outside world impinges on the lives of the al-Sayyid (or al-Jawad?) family. As the novel begins it’s 1917, and the British are ruling Egypt although the occupation force seems to be mostly Australian. As World War I comes to a close, one of the sons, Fahmy, becomes involved in the anti-British independence movement. However, even when dealing with political and religious changes outside the home, the novel never loses its claustrophobic feel, always circling back to the home and the sense of imprisonment that each of the family members feels, even the men. After a while, it made me want to break out, screaming.

I’m glad to have read Palace Walk. I might, in a year or two, want to read the next book in Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire, in which novel I am told some women actually get to go to school! The main problem I had with this first novel is that I could find nothing attractive about the characters or the culture in this story, nothing with which to identify. I wanted the British “oppressors” to win and reform the country and let the women and servants out of their slavery. But none of the women in this novel would have had the spine or or imagination to take advantage of such a liberation, and the British didn’t seem to be headed in that direction anyway.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

As I began reading this story, recently made into a Steven Spielberg movie by the same title, I immediately was reminded of one of my favorite horse stories, Black Beauty. Joey, the War Horse, and Black Beauty actually have a lot in common. Both horses tell their stories in first person from the point of view of an intelligent and winsome horse. Both horses have a succession of owners and riders, both good and bad. Both horses see their friends mistreated and abused, and both are themselves injured by poor handling and by the illnesses to which neglected or overworked horses are susceptible. Both horses form bonds of affection with some of their human owners, and both are rewarded with rest after a series of adventures and misadventures.

Joey, the narrator of War Horse, is a half-thoroughbred bay horse who is trained to do farm work by his beloved first owner Albert, a teenaged farm boy. However, as World War I breaks out, Joey becomes a cavalry horse, and he is taken to France to carry an officer in the British army into battle. As wars sometimes do, the First World War brings Joey into many settings and hazards that he would never otherwise have experienced.

I thought the author got the voice just right in this story, not too intellectual; after all Joey is a horse. And still the voice was that of a clever animal capable of forming loving bonds with his human owners and keepers.

War Horse would be a wonderful introduction to World War I for the middle grade reader, and I can’t wait to see the movie now that I’ve read the book.