Archives

Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins

Set on an island in the Sunderbans (islands) of West Bengal, Tiger Boy is a story about a disobedient and somewhat lazy boy who nevertheless does the right thing and inspires his father to choose right and justice over the desire to see his family prosper.

I had some hesitations about the plot of the story, showing Neel and his sister deliberately disobeying their parents in order to save a lost tiger cub from poachers, but by the end I was pleased with the way the actions of the characters came together. Everyone grew and learned, except maybe the money-grubbing criminal, Gupta.

One throwaway line in the story has Neel’s headmaster commenting that “It’s so blazing hot for January. I’ll sweat to death, I’m sure. Our climate is changing due to the rest of the world, and we’re the ones who suffer.” I can’t find any hard data, in an admittedly cursory search of the internet, that indicates that the temperatures in Bengal and Bangladesh are getting warmer, and the idea that hot weather is caused by “climate change” produced in Western nations is hotly disputed. However, a Headmaster in the Sunderban islands might very well believe that his perspiration can be blamed on climate change.

Other than that little glitch, I thought the story was a delight. Neel and his sister work together to thwart the evil Gupta, who wants to capture the tiger cub, escaped from a wildlife reserve, and sell him on the black market. Neel, at the beginning of the story, is a boy who would rather play than learn math and who doesn’t understand the great contribution he could make to his family’s economic well-being if he were to work hard to earn a scholarship to a good school. By the end of the story, Neel begins to comprehend that his father’s ambitions for him are good, and Neel’s father also learns that even the scholarship and a good education for his son are not worth the price of losing one’s integrity.

The setting is described so beautifully in this book that I wanted to hop on an airplane and go see the Sunderbans. “Home for him (Neel) was the hiss of his father’s boat as it slipped through the deltas, golpata branches swaying in the monsoon rains, and the evening smell of jasmine flowers near his house mingling with green chilies and fresh ilish fish simmering in mustard-seed oil. Need had climbed all the tall palm trees, waded in the creeks, and foraged for wild guavas in every corner of the mangrove forest.”

In her acknowledgements, Mitali Perkins writes that “many of my writing themes emerge from reflection on the parables of Jesus. This book is based on the story about the talents given to three stewards (Matthew 25:14-30).” Neel certainly does learn to use the gifts that he has been given instead of burying them in a cycle of fear and insecurity. And his father, although tempted to give in to the need to take any opportunity to pull his family out of poverty, steps up to take responsibility for his own gifts and duties as a citizen of the larger community.

Mikis and the Donkey by Bibi Dumon Tak

This 89-page little gem of a story takes place in Corfu, a Greek island in the Mediterranean, and it’s about a boy and his donkey. Well, it’s really his grandfather’s donkey. The boy Mikis, however, is the one who names the donkey Tsaki and the one who cares for Tsaki when he is hurt and the one who insists on building Tsaki a new stable and the one who finds Tsaki a lady-friend.

This one reminded me of Red Sails to Capri by Ann Weil, a 1953 Newbery honor book: Mediterranean island, simple family life and family dynamics, children exploring the island and learning about their heritage and their place in their culture. Mikis and the Donkey also won an award from the ALSC, the Batchelder Award for children’s books originally published in another language and translated into English.

Anyway, it’s a lovely book, and I wish I had a copy for my library. It’s definitely going on my wishlist.

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.

Walking Home by Eric Walters

This middle grade novel, published in Canada and set in Kenya, has wonderful themes about forgiveness and responsibility and family loyalty and trust and the power of imagination. I don’t know how popular stories set in foreign countries are among the target audience, but this one is a great read.

Thirteen year old Muchoki and his younger sister, Jata, can hardly believe what has become of their lives. Only weeks ago, they lived in a bustling Kenyan village, going to school, playing soccer with friends, and helping at their parents’ store. But sudden political violence has killed their father and destroyed their home. Now Muchoki, Jata and their malaria-stricken mother live in a refugee camp. Will Muchoki be able to care for Jata when tragedy strikes the little family yet again?

The book tells a “journey story”. Muchoki and Jata walk across Kenya, through the great city of Nairobi, and to their grandparents’ home in Kambaland. But the book is about much more than cross-country hiking. As they travel, Muchoki in particular, who has seen and experienced terrible things when the family was forced out of their village, learns to trust people again, even people from the tribes that were his enemies and who killed his father and burned the family’s village. This trust, and even the beginning embers of forgiveness, do not come easily. Muchoki is often torn between his responsibility to protect his sister Jata, and his desire, even need, to ask for help and depend on adults around him to assist him in reaching his grandfather’s home. Muchoki is right to be careful and right to trust, and the book does an excellent job of showing how this young man, wise beyond his years, manages to balance the two. The book even hints at Muchoki’s loss of faith in the God who allowed such terrible things to happen to him and to others and his steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation.

In light of the terrible events in Kenya this past week and the other atrocities that keep filling our news feeds, this story is a good one to help children and adults begin their own journey of processing, trusting, caring, and forgiving.

Exploring the World in Books

I am taking a blog break for Lent, but I thought I’d share some of my old posts from years gone by. I’ve been blogging at Semicolon since October, 2003, more than eleven years. This post is copied and edited from February 28, 2005:

Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And hope without an object cannot live.
–Coleridge

I read Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya and thought it gave a beautiful, but very sad, picture of life in India for many people. It’s the story of a poor family, a fourth daughter who, because she has no dowry, cannot marry well but must settle for marriage to a landless tenant farmer who brings her home to a mud hut he built himself. Fortunately for the girl, Rukmani, her husband Nathan is “poor in everything but in love and care for me, his wife, whom he took at the age of twelve.”
Rukmani narrates the story in first person, telling of the birth of her daughter, the long wait during which the couple think they will have no more children, and then the birth of her five sons. The village where the family lives is on the edge of poverty and starvation; a bad year with too much rain or too little rain will push Rukmani’s family over the edge. Change and new economic oportunities come to the village; however, these new ideas and possibilities are full of danger too, for peasants who have nothing in reserve and are unable or unwilling to move with the times.
I wrote about a month ago about some of my favorite fantasy worlds. These fantasy worlds were first encountered on the pages of books. Then, there are historical and sociological worlds that I visit mostly in books, too. Finally, there is the actual world. I’ve never been to India or China or South America, but I have a picture of what life in those lands is (or was) like–again, from books. I think that Nectar in a Sieve, first published in 1954, will become a large part of my picture of India, along with missionary stories, the young man I met a few years ago at Baptist World Alliance Youth Conference, and other sources, such as the women I see at the grocery store here in Clear Lake dressed in saris.
Warning: The book has a bittersweet ending, but it’s realistic without being hopeless and depressing. Excellent.
These are some of my favorite books that have given me vivid pictures of the world. Most of them are fiction.
Around the world in books:
South Africa: Cry, the Beloved Country and Too Late the Phalarope both by Alan Paton
India: Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan, The Christ of the Indian Road by E. Stanley Jones, Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth.
China: Imperial Woman by Pearl S.Buck, The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin, other books by Pearl Buck
Antarctica: Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’Engle,
The Netherlands: The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
England (Yorkshire): All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot and all the many, many books I’ve read that take place in England.
Russia: The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig (And, of course, Tolstoy and Dostoyevski, although they’re more historical)
Israel: Exodus by Leon Uris
Hawaii: Hawaii by James Michener

Can you suggest any books that capture the culture and living conditions of a country in either fiction or biography? I do prefer and learn more from stories.

Happy Birthday, Monsieur Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne, b. 1533.

Advice for bloggers from Montaigne:
Don’t discuss yourself, for you are bound to lose; if you belittle yourself, you are believed; if you praise yourself, you are disbelieved.

When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.

It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but write glosses about each other.

It is good to rub and polish our brain against that of others.

There were never in the world two opinions alike, any more than two hairs or two grains. Their most universal quality is diversity.

He who has not a good memory should never take upon himself the trade of lying.

I speak the truth, not my fill of it, but as much as I dare speak; and I dare to do so a little more as I grow old.

Master Cornhill by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Eloise Jarvis McGraw is the author of three other books that we have either read, or read aloud, in out homeschool in connection with out history studies. Her historical fiction for middle grade readers is challenging, with complex characters and vivi depictions of time and place. The Golden Goblet and Mara, Daughter of the Nile are set in ancient Egypt, and Moccasin Trail is a story of the American West and the trappers and adventurers who opened up the frontier in the early nineteenth century.

Master Cornhill is set in a very specific time and place: London in 1665-1666. The Great Plague in the summer of 1665 drives eleven year old Michael Cornhill from his home with loving foster parents in London to live in the countryside with not-so-loving Puritan friends. When the danger of the plague dies down, Michael takes the opportunity to return to london, alone, even though he knows that his foster parents are probably dead. What he doesn’t realize is that the friends and neighbors that he relies on to take him in and get him started on a path toward a trade or an education are also all gone, victims of the plague. Michael finds himself alone, an orphan with no skills to sell and no money to keep himself fed and clothed.

The story is about how Michael finds friends who help him, how he manages to weather difficult circumstances such as impressment for the Dutch War and the Great Fire of London, and most of all, how he finds direction and a purpose for his life. The atmosphere and buildings and culture of seventeenth century London come alive in this beautifully written story, from the gangs of soldiers impressing all available men into the King’s navy to fight the Dutch to St. Paul’s Cathedral where the business of London is conducted in the nooks and crannies of the great church courtyard to London Bridge lined with houses and shops to the Great Fire itself in September 1666. Ms. McGraw makes history relevant and interesting to readers of the twenty-first century by following an eleven year old boy from 400 years ago as he finds friends and allies in the streets of London. I could imagine my children in Michael’s place, and although it was a dangerous life, Michael survives, by the grace of God and by the innocence and persistence with which he faces his new circumstances.

Ms. McGraw’s books are probably better read aloud to middle grade to junior high students, since she doesn’t pander to the controlled vocabulary or the push for perpetual motion and action in contemporary fiction for children. Motivated readers who enjoy history can read it on their own, there is a lot of period detail and slang that will trip some readers up and enthrall others. Count me in the enthralled group.

I looked on Amazon for a good nonfiction “living book” about the Great Fire of London, but I didn’t really find anything that looked very readable. G.A. Henty has a book about the Great Fire, When London Burned: a Story of Restoration Times and the Great Fire, but I find his books rather hit or miss. Some are good enough, and others are too long, too preachy, and/or too slow, even for me. I recommend Master Cornhill for a good introduction to the time period and to the event.

Then, you could read an excerpt from Pepys’ Diary, where he tells about his experience during the Great Fire.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

Five Things That Made Me Smile on February 11-12, 2015:
1. I got a compliment on one of my grown children, something I knew but was glad to hear that others recognize.

2. I was asked to speak at a local homeschool “expo” in May and give a forty-five minute workshop on “living books” (like Master Cornhill) and reading aloud as the backbone of homeschooling. I’m really excited to have this opportunity to share my love of excellent books with an audience of new and sometimes struggling homeschoolers. My themes so far: “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” and “Build your family culture around books.”

3. I am learning the value and discipline of silence. Enough said.

4. Betsy-Bee will be sixteen years old tomorrow. What a blessing she is!

5. This blog post by Bible study leader Beth Moore: It’s Prayer. That’s the thing.

“It’s time we quit falling asleep in prayer. It’s time we quit practicing a prayer routine that bores us to tears. It’s time our quiet times ceased to be quiet. There are battles to be won. Works to be done. The kinds which only come through prayer, prayer, and more prayer.”

Fierce Convictions by Karen Swallow Prior


Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior.

I was captivated by “extraordinary life” of this woman of God, “best-selling poet, novelist, and playwright, friend of the famous, practical philanthropist, and moral conscience of a nation.” Hannah More may be a forgotten woman nowadays, but she was far from unknown in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England and even throughout Europe and America. She was a protege of the eminent Dr. Samuel Johnson, close friends with the famous actor David Garrick and his wife, a co-laborer with the abolitionist William Wilberforce, and acquainted with almost all of the eminent writers and evangelical gentle women and men of her day. She wrote multiple volumes of letters, essays, tracts, stories, plays, and one best-selling novel. She influenced the abolitionist movement to end the British slave trade, the animal welfare movement, the Sunday School movement, and the efforts of anti-poverty reformers and literacy activists.

In fact, she would be something of a patron saint, if Protestants had such saints, for those interested in the promotion of literacy and reading. She opened Sunday Schools in many poverty-stricken communities and villages where no school of any kind was to be found. These Sunday Schools were not just pretty little Bible story times, but rather full-fledged schools for the poor and illiterate which met on Sundays because that was the only day when poor children and adults did not have to work all day long. She also wrote books and tracts and story papers for the poor and for the burgeoning middle class. Her stories and poems were generally pleas for morality with a neat a little lesson or message embedded therein, a style of writing that’s somewhat out of fashion now but was very much in vogue in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Hannah More was a witty woman with a ready tongue, but tamed somewhat by her allegiance to the Lord Jesus. Here are a few Hannah More quotations that I found delightful:

On the poet Alexander Pope, who is buried, according to his wishes, at St. Mary’s Church in Twickenham instead of at Westminster Abbey: “You will easily believe, madam, that I could not leave Twickenham without paying a visit to the hallowed tomb of my beloved bard. For this purpose I went to the church, and easily found the monument of one who would not be buried in Westminster Abbey. . . . Pope,I suppose, would rather be the first ghost at Twickenham than an inferior one at Westminster Abbey.”

On Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “. . . he is an entertaining and philosophic historian, yet, as Ganganelli said to Count Algarotti, ‘I wish these shining wits, in spite of all their philosophy, would manage matters so that one might hope to meet them in heaven; for one is very sorry to be deprived of such agreeable company to all eternity.’ It requires an infinite degree of credulity to be an infidel.”

On Dr. Samuel Johnson: “In Dr. Johnson some contrarieties very harmoniously meet; if he has too little charity for the opinions of others, and too little patience with their faults, he has the greatest tenderness for their persons. He told me the other day he hated to hear people whine about metaphysical distresses, when there was so much want and hunger in the world.”

On reading and writing: “I read four or five hours every day, and wrote ten hours yesterday.”

On Sir Joshua Reynolds’ painting of Samuel from the Old Testament: “I love this great genius for not being ashamed to take his subjects from the most unfashionable of all books.”

Hannah More is most associated with the literary, artistic, and political community that established itself at a place called Clapham and became known as the Clapham Sect, although they were not a sect and not all of the members actually lived at Clapham. They were a group of evangelical Christians with in the Church of England who worked together to bring about the abolition of the slave trade and the reform of what they called “manners”, what we now would call culture or worldview in action.

The greatest value of this little book, aside from reviving the memory of a forgotten saint, is to give a sort of generalized pattern for Christian community that can begin to change the world, as the often trite phrase is. These people—Wilberforce, his cousin Henry Thornton, preacher John Newton, Hannah More, publisher Zachary Macaulay, abolitionist James Stephen, poet William Cowper, and other perhaps less famous—worked together as a community, each using his or her own special gifts, to promote various causes and reforms that they saw as advancing benevolence and the cause of Christ. They fought against the slave trade by preaching, writing poetry and essays, publishing tracts and pamphlets, promoting the boycott of East Indian slave-produced sugar, producing art and decoration that illustrated the plight of the slaves, making speeches, and introducing legislation to abolish slavery and the slave trade into Parliament again and again and yet again. They took up other causes at the same time, and they endeavored to live out their Christian commitment in relation to one another and to the world at large. They truly “spurred one another on to good works.”

It seems to me that such a group could be an inspiration to those of us today who want to work together to do our own small part in advancing the kingdom of God. The Clapham sect were not a commune. They did not live monastically. They were not exclusive. They worked with others, such as Horace Walpole and Sir William Pitt, who did not share all of their beliefs. And yet they were a force to be reckoned with in merry old Georgian England. If the Inklings are a model of Christian literary community, Hannah More and the Clapham sect are another example to which we can look and from which we can learn. I would love to hear from others who have read the book and who see ways that we in our day and time could use what they did to revitalize our culture and nation.

Ideas anyone?

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

North Korea in Books


North Korea is notoriously the most closed society and country in the world. I couldn’t take a trip there even if I wanted to or had the money to go.However, reading these books about North Korea and North Korean defectors made me want to know more —and inspired me to pray for those who are trapped in Kim Jong Eun’s “socialist paradise.”

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden. The man is Shin Dong-hyuk. His story is just about as intense and harrowing as that of Louis Zamperini of Unbroken fame, but Shin’s story of torture, tyranny, and brainwashing begins from the time of his earliest memories. Shin was born in North Korea’s infamous Camp 14 to parents who were matched and allowed by the authorities to reproduce in a very limited way, to parents whom he never learned to love and from whom he received very little love or encouragement himself. He is the only known prisoner to have successfully escaped from a “total-control zone” prison camp in North Korea alive. Here you can hear a taste of Shin’s story in his own words:

Shin Dong-Hyuk’s story is not over, or even near over, and it remains to be seen what God will do in his life.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick follows the lives of six north Koreans (and their families to some extent) over the course of about fifteen years, from the early 1990’s until 2009. All are former residents of the city of Chongjin, located in the northern part of North Korea near the border with China. All six escaped North Korea to go first to China, then to South Korea. Ms. Demick, a journalist who spent some time living in Seoul and covering both Koreas, interviewed these defectors and worked to understand and enter into their lives to write this book about the famine in North Korea that extended through the last decade of the twenty-first century as it was experienced by average people in that country. The title comes from the children’s theme song of the 1970 North Korean film We Have Nothing to Envy in the World. The irony is inescapable as one reads of children eating grass and tree bark to fill their stomachs and old people dying quietly of starvation. The people of North Korea, for the most part, actually do have nothing to envy because information is so tightly controlled and limited that they don’t even know that the rest of the world does not share the harsh conditions that their succession of dictators, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong Eun, have inflicted upon them.

I plan to read more about North Korea soon, including the following books:

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick.
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim.
The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and The Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom by Blaine Harden (the same author who wrote Escape from Camp 14).

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

Christmas in Holland, 1943

A Dutch family celebrates Christmas/St. Nicholas Day during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands:

St. Nicholas told Pieterbaas to look in the bag and see what was in it. To everyone’s amusement, Pieterbaas pulled out six chocolate bars! They were small bars, but they might have been of gold. Chocolate had been unknown in Holland for the past three years. Now Betsy believed more than ever in St. Nicholas’ magic!

St. Nicholas sat at the table and had supper with the family. Mother had added to the meal a sauce of the mushrooms Joris had picked, so that there would be enough food for everyone.

Betsy exclaimed that she had never before eaten with St. Nicholas. “Are you going to see my Daddy,” she asked.

St. Nicholas was struggling with the soup; he seemed to have difficulty finding his mouth through the beard. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Of course, I don’t forget people.”

“And what will you bring him?” asked Betsy. “Bread pudding?” Bread pudding seemed to be a family joke at the stationmaster’s house.

“No, I’m going to bring him good news of his girls. He’ll like that best,” said St. Nicholas. Koba and Betsy nodded. That seemed reasonable. ~The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum