Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight

I finally read this justly famous and best-selling dog story, and the first surprise was the title. It’s not “Lassie, come home!”, a plea or a command for Lassie to return to home and hearth, as I always thought it was. Instead, “Lassie Come-Home” is a nickname for the faithful collie who does return home, through many miles and obstacles, from the highlands of Scotland all the way back to the Yorkshire country family in the south of England who were her original masters. Lassie is a “come-home dog” in the Yorkshire vernacular.

Perhaps Lassie Come-Home is the template for many books that came after: The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford, A Dog’s Way Home by Bobbie Pyron, and other stories of faithful dogs and other animals finding their way home after a series of adventures and difficulties. Or maybe the plot mirrors Black Beauty and other earlier books that show faithful animals making their way back home to the owners they love. Lassie’s journey home is certainly an adventurous one.

The author note in the back of my book says:

“Lassie first appeared in a short story published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1938. The story was so popular that Mr. Knight expanded it into a full-length book, which was published in 1940 and instantly became a best-seller. In 1942 the MGM movie based on the book launched the career of Elizabeth Taylor.”

All those survivors of economic depression and war-weary readers and movie-goers most likely needed a hopeful story about overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, the kind of victory through suffering that is depicted in Lassie Come-Home. The story itself is pretty incredible: a dog somehow finds his way home form Scotland to Yorkshire, 400 miles as the crow flies or over 1000 miles with the obstacles such as lakes and rivers that Lassie has to skirt around or find a way over.

Eric Knight was born in England (in the Yorkshire country that her writes about), came to the United States as a teenager, and died in an airplane crash while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II—but not before giving us this classic dog story. It’s well-written, hopeful, and —-spoiler here—the dog doesn’t die!

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.
(Harper-.)

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

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.

Silence Over Dunkerque by John Tunis

Mr. Tunis was known as “the inventor of the modern sports story.” He wrote numerous sports novels featuring young baseball players and young football players, but her did not consider himself a “children’s writer”, even though his publishers insisted on marketing his books to young people. Since there was no separate “young adult” publishing sector at the time that Tunis wrote his books, they were sold to children and teens and adults. The books mostly feature high school and college age, sometimes even older, protagonists.

In fact, Silence Over Dunkerque, is not a sports story and is mostly about Sergeant George Williams, member of the British Expeditionary Force and his escape from occupied France during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Since he has fourteen year old twin sons back home in England, Sergeant Williams is obviously older than the average Tunis protagonist, and though the story also features a fourteen year old French girl, Giselle, and also the twins to some extent, Sergeant Williams is the main character and the anchor for the story.

Silence Over Dunkerque was published in 1962, and it’s not quite as fast-paced as a more contemporary YA novel might be. Sergeant Williams is caught in the maelstrom of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, and he has adventures—escape from the Germans, a failed attempt to evacuate from the beach, encountering Nazi patrols, the capture of a German parachuter—but these adventures are interspersed between times of waiting in long lines on the beach, hiding out in a French farmhouse, hiking across enemy territory, rowing tediously across the Channel.

And there’s a dog. Sergeant Williams befriends an abandoned dog in a small French village on his way to Dunkirk. The dog tenaciously follows Sergeant Williams through all his journey across France and even across the Channel, and Williams comes to appreciate the dog’s loyalty and protective instincts. The dog, the twins, Sergeant Williams’ wife searching for him on the beach at Dover day after day, Sergeant Williams’ companion in his adventures, Three Fingers Brown, all add to the human interest of a story that is essentially a humanization of an episode in World War II history: Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk evacuation.

World War II history buffs and general history buffs (like me) will enjoy the novel and appreciate the ebbs and flows of plot and action and the sturdy prose of a sportswriter turned novelist. Recommended.

If you’re interested in a list of other books and movies about Operation Dynamo, the evacuation at Dunkirk, check out this post about Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose.

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.

11 Favorite Nonfiction Books I Read in 2014

I read over 200 books in 2014. Of those, if I counted right, only twenty-two were nonfiction. So, when I say the “11 best” or 11 favorite”, I’m including half of the nonfiction books I read this past year. The first two on the list were my favorites; the rest are in no particular order.

The Last Lion 2: Winston Spencer Churchill Alone, 1932-40 by William Manchester. I love Winston Churchill. I would have been afraid or at least disinclined to work for him or to eat at his dinner table; he did not suffer fools gladly and did not treat even his employees and friends with great consideration for their comfort. But reading about him is a delight.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi. Good Christian apologetics, good story.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre.

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller.

Blue Marble: How a Photograph Revealed Earth’s Fragile Beauty by Don Nardo. The story of the iconic picture of earth from space taken by the astronauts of Apollo 17.

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel. Skip or skim the boring parts, but most of this one is a fascinating look at the rescue of art treasures from Nazi theft and from Allied ignorance.

Rich in Love: When God Rescues Messy People by Irene Garcia. People and relationships are messy, and Ms. Garcia doesn’t pretend that all of the stories of her many foster children and adopted children turn out well. Some are still struggling with bad choices and bad beginnings. But this was ultimately a hope-filled book about the way God uses imperfect, messed-up people to sow His grace into the world.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. Kind of grisly, but fascinating in its detail about a vision of progress and light alongside a serial killer’s vision of deceit and murder.

Everybody Paints! The Lives and Art of the Wyeth Family by Susan Goldman Rubin. Interesting family, interesting book, written for children but it tells as much as I wanted to know.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. I just finished this one a few days before Christmas. I laughed, I gasped, I read passages out loud to my unappreciative family. In short, I was captivated by reliving the summer of 1927.

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Christmas in Northeast China, 1940

David Michell was born in China, the son of Australian Christian missionaries working with the China Inland Mission. He was at Chefoo School, away from his parents, when the Japanese took the students and staff there captive. He spent part of the war in an internment camp, the same camp where Olympic runner Eric Liddell was held. This Christmas, described in a letter to the students’ parents, was just before the Japanese took over the area in 1941.

From A Boy’s War by David Michell:

“Just before Christmas the well-known story of Scrooge once again delighted youthful eyes and ears and prepared the way for the Spirit of Christmas 1940. On Christmas Eve little messengers went round the compound or to the houses of other friends carrying bulging bags, waste paper [baskets], or even laundry baskets full of gifts, while others with dolls’ prams filled them with gay packages and wheeled them off. Meanwhile a bevy of artists from the Girls’ House transformed our dining room into a Christmas bower, where red and green and silver glowed in the soft lights from the tree.

Just as supper was over a Chinese school visited us and filled the hall with their hearty singing while our children looked on in solemn amazement. . . . That night a package found its way on to the foot of each bed, not quite burning a hole through the covers in the few short hours till Christmas Day in the morning. That morning began at 6:30, and instead of the clanging of a gong, church bells relayed by a gramophone echoed down the passages. Breakfast was followed by family prayers round the table, and again the soft lights on the tree shed their radiance over a scene which you would love to have looked upon. Our hearts bowed in worship as we sang of the One who came, ‘A little Child to earth, long ago’ from the knowledge of whom comes all peace and joy and love.”

Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett

Sonya Hartnett’s Children of the King feeds into some of my fondest fascinations:

British history, especially kings and queens and all that jazz.

World War II stories about child evacuees.

Crumbling castles and the ghosts that inhabit them.

Old English houses full of old stuff.

Mysteries of history.

Homeschooling and storytelling.

Themes of courage and small victories and war and peace.

Cecily and Jeremy and their mother have come to the north of England to live with their Uncle Peregrine while London is under siege from Hitler’s bombers. Since Uncle Peregrine live in a big manor house, they decide that it would be only fair for them to take in an extra child evacuee from London. So May comes to live with them. But when Cecily and May find two mysterious boys hiding in the nearby ruins of Snow Castle, they beg Uncle Peregrine to tell them the history of the castle. And he does, even though “its story is as hard as winter” and “cruel” and “scary” and “long”. “Unfit for childish ears.”

Aye, there’s the rub. Although this novel had me enthralled as an adult with my particular fascinations and interests, and although I think it might very well have engaged my interest as a middle school or high school student, it may also very well be “unfit for childish ears.” The horror and unfairness and violence of war are a major topic for discussion, as it surely was in those times when war was so very near and terrible. The adults in the story are not perfect and neither are the children. All of them make annoying, and sometimes stupid or even dangerous, choices. And the history story part of the novel is meant as a mirror or an analogy for the events that are taking place in England in 1940 as war calls for sacrifices that are unfair and horrific and as even children are caught up in a quest for power and dominion that isn’t their fault or their responsibility.

I really loved this book, but you might want to take Charlotte’s review as well as my reservations under consideration before you read it or recommend it to your favorite young reader. I wish I could discuss the history mystery that forms a part of this book with you, but that would be a spoiler, sort of. Suffice it to say that particular slice of history is one of my fascinations, too.

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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 Extra by Kathryn Lasky

Leni Riefenstahl, in case you’ve never heard of her was Hitler’s pet film maker. She became famous with her 193 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Then, Hitler asked her to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl became the toast of the film world as she went on a publicity tour for her Olympics movie in the United States in 1938. She told a reporter while on tour: “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”

In 1940 Riefenstahl began to make a pet project called Tiefland (Lowland), set in Spain, filmed in Spain and in Germany, and financed by the German government. As extras for the film Riefenstahl used gypsies (Sinti and Roma), unpaid and imported from the concentration camps. The Extra by Kathryn Lasky tells the fictional story of one Sinti girl, Lilo, based on the true history of Anna Blach, a Sinti girl who served as Riefenstahl’s stunt double in the movie. Although Riefenstahl never admitted to mistreating or enslaving the Roma and Sinti extras who worked on Tiefland, it is known that she chose the extras for their “Spanish looks” from the camps and that many, if not all, of them were sent to Auschwitz to die after the filming was complete.

Lasky portrays Riefenstahl in the worst possible light. In The Extra, Leni Riefenstahl is a wolf, self-obsessed, cruel, and opportunistic. Her victims/slaves are the Romani who work and receive somewhat better treatment than they would have received in the camps, but who are subject to the director’s whims and casual acts of callous barbarity. In one scene, that may or may not be true, an extra is killed while the director is filming a scene with a wolf in which she asks the extra to bait the hungry creature with raw meat in order to get a good shot.

I found some of the most interesting material in the book in the author’s note at the end. Although Riefenstah was tried four times for her part in the perpetration of Nazi war crimes, she was never convicted of anything more than being a “follower” or “fellow traveler” of Hitler and the Nazis. She never apologized to the Roma and Sinti for her part in their enslavement and deaths during the filming of Tiefland. She insisted to the end that she was “not political” and that she didn’t know anything about the death camps, although she did grudgingly say in 2002, “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps.” Riefenstahl lived to be 101 years old, and she is lauded to this day for her outstanding skill as a director and filmmaker and for her second career after the war as an excellent still photographer and underwater photographer.

Can you separate the person from his or her work? If Hitler had been a talented artist instead of a second rate one, could we look at his artwork and not see his atrocities? I find it difficult, and yet I read–and enjoy– lots authors who led less than exemplary lives. Somewhere there is a line between bad behavior that doesn’t spoil the art and egregiously bad behavior that spoils everything it touches. I would find it difficult to watch Tiefland, even though the film itself is supposed to be apolitical, with any kind of objectivity or appreciation.

Poetry Friday: Winston Spencer Churchill

Winston Churchill was a fascinating man, and he cultivated many vocations and avocations: soldier, politician, journalist, essayist, biographer, historian, bricklayer, painter, pilot, architect, lecturer, spymaster, head of the navy, member of Parliament, and Prime Minister—just to name a few. However, I’ll bet you never thought of him as a poet.

All students of World War II remember those inspiring and memorable speeches he gave in the House of Commons, on the radio, and in political gatherings. His speeches were carefully formulated, written out and memorized, with stage directions to himself such as “pause here” or “fumble for the correct word.” The orations he gave were typed up (by secretaries) in broken lines to aid his delivery, ‘speech form’ or ‘psalm form’, as William Manchester calls it in his biography of Churchill, titled The Last Lion.

'Churchill, Winston' photo (c) 2010, SDASM Archives - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/So, after Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich, Churchill declaimed:

The whole equilibrium of Europe
has been deranged,
And the terrible words
have, for the time being,
been pronounced
against the Western democracies:

“Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.”

And do not suppose that this is the end.
This is only the beginning of the reckoning.

This is only the first sip–
the first foretaste of a bitter cup
which will be proffered to us year by year–

Unless–
by a supreme recovery of our moral health and martial vigor,
we arise again and take our stand for freedom,
as in the olden time.

Or on October 1, 1939, Churchill spoke the following rather lyrical thoughts on Russia in his first wartime broadcast over the BBC, just after the Russian/German joint invasion of Poland:

'IMG_0510' photo (c) 2014, zaphad1 - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia.
It is a riddle
wrapped in an mystery
inside an enigma.

But perhaps there is a key.
That key is Russian national interest.

It cannot be in accordance
with the interest or safety of Russia
that Germany should plant itself
upon the shores of the Black Sea.

Or that it should overrun the Baltic States
and subjugate the Slavonic peoples
of southeastern Europe.

No, it doesn’t scan or follow a regular meter, but Mr. Churchill’s “poetry” certainly follows the conventions of free verse with its parallelisms and vivid images, and as I read, I can hear in my mind the familiar voice of Winston Churchill with its rolling cadences and barking baritone:

I would say to the House,
as I have said to those who have joined this Government:
“I have nothing to offer but good, toil, tears, and sweat.”

You ask, what is our policy?
I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air,
with all our might and with all the strength God can give us . . .
That is our policy.

You ask, what is our aim?
I can answer in one word: It is victory,
victory at all costs,
victory in spite of all terror,
victory however long and hard the road may be;
for without victory, there is no survival.

'Winston Churchil' photo (c) 2010, Cambodia4kids.org Beth Kanter - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/On June 4, 1940:

We shall not flag or fail.
We shall go on to the end.

We shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.

We shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
We shall never surrender.

Finally, perhaps Churchill’s most famous poem/speech, broadcast on June 18, 1940 after Petain’s surrender of Vichy France to the Nazis:

Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.
Upon it depends our own British life,
and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us on this island
or lose the war.

If we can stand up to him all Europe may be free
and the life of the world may move forward
into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world,
including the United States,
including all we have known and cared for,

Will sink into the abyss of a New Dark Age
made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted,
by the lights of perverted science.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties,
and so bear ourselves
that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth
last for a thousand years,

Men will still say:
“This was their finest hour!”

A poet indeed.

For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

“This book is written as fiction but tells a true story.”

Suzanne David Hall was thirteen years old in 1940 when the Germans invaded France, and she later became a spy for the French resistance. While training to become an opera singer, she relayed messages that helped bring about the Allied invasion of Normandy. The 2003 novel For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is based on interviews with Hall.

The novel is quite exciting, and the tension builds as Suzanne is called on to deliver her messages more and more frequently and as the spy network in which she works becomes smaller and smaller when the Germans capture the spies one by one. Suzanne is a brave girl, and she continues her work even though she knows the Nazis will torture or even kill her if she is found out. The prose in the story is simple and straightforward, and the pacing is mostly good, although the novel does start out a little slowly. The book is halfway through before Suzanne’s spy adventures start.

For Freedom is a good introduction to so many World War II topics: Dunkirk, Vichy France, the French Resistance, German occupation of France, daily life under German occupation, the Allied invasion of Normandy. But it’s not just a nice “salad” accompaniment to the main course of the history of World War II. The story carried me along and made me feel how difficult it must have been to be involved in the Resistance, never knowing from one day to the next whether this day would be the last before you were captured by the Germans.

Isn’t that what courage is? Courage: to keep doing right, to persevere in the face of uncertainty and even valid reasonable fear. If I were doing something that I knew would lead to disaster, if I were certain that I would be caught and killed and unable to complete my mission, it would be foolish and useless to persist. But if it’s only very likely that I might be arrested and if what I was doing was likely to help many people if I could continue, then bravery would be required. Suzanne was a brave young woman, “a hero of France.”