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Happy Canada Day!

July 1 is Canada Day. Here are some suggestions, mostly fiction, if you’re ready to celebrate with a good book:

Picture Books:

Bannatyne-Cugnet, Jo. A Prairie Alphabet. Illustrated by Yvette Moore.
Carney, Margaret. At Grandpa’s Sugar Bush. Illustrated by Janet Wilson.
Carrier, Roch. The Hockey Sweater. Illustrated by Sheldon Cohen.
Gay, Marie-Louise. Stella, Queen of the Snow. Illus. Groundwood, 2000.
Ellis, Sarah. Next Stop! Illus. by Ruth Ohi. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2000.
Harrison, Ted. A Northern Alphabet.
Kurelek, William. A Prairie Boy’s Winter.
Kurelek, William. A Prairie Boy’s Summer.
McFarlane, Sheryl. Jessie’s Island. Illustrated by Sheena Lott. Orca Book Publishers, 2005.
Service, Robert. The Cremation of Sam McGee. Illustrated by Ted Harrison.

Children’s Fiction:

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, of course and all its sequels. Essential Canadiana.
Our Canadian Girl and Dear Canada series.
Burnford, Sheila. The Incredible Journey.
Curtis, Christopher Paul. Elijah of Buxton.
Semicolon review here.
Hobbs, Will. Far North.
Mowat, Farley. Lost in the Barrens.
Mowat, Farley. Owls in the Family.
Stanbridge, Joanne. The Leftover Kid. Northern Lights, 1997.

YA and Adult Fiction:

Craven, Margaret. I Heard the Owl Call My Name.
Freedman, Benedict and Nancy. Mrs. Mike.
Mitchell, W.O. Who Has Seen the Wind?
Paulsen, Gary. Hatchet.

Nonfiction:
Evangeline and the Acadians by Robert Tallant.
Canadian history series by Thomas Costain. Although I haven’t read this series of books, Costain is one of my favorite authors of narrative nonfiction. There are six books in the series, and the first is called The White and the Gold.

I haven’t read all of the books on this list, but I plan to, whenever I can manage to find time for a Canada Project. Titles in bold print are available from Meriadoc Homeschool Library.

More Canadian books, mostly for kids by Becky at Farm School.

Celebrating Literary Canada at Chasing Ray in 2008.

Any more Canadian book suggestions?

The Collapse by Mary Elise Sarotte

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Elise Sarotte.

World Magazine just published its annual issue on books, and one of the books chosen as a runner-up for book of the year in the history/biography category was The Collapse. Coincidentally, I had already heard of the book and requested it from the library and had it in my stack of TBR books in the cradle next to my bed. (Since I have passed the years of child-bearing and baby-rocking, my handmade wooden cradle now serves as a books-to-be-read repository as it awaits the advent of grandchildren.)

I can see why The Collapse made World‘s shortlist of best books. It is a stunning account of a moment in history, a moment that changed history. And, as the author points out over and over, it could easily have not happened or have happened very differently. Inexorable violence, intimidation, and renewed repression could have been the operative words to describe the events of October and early November 1989 in Berlin and in greater Germany; instead, Ms. Sarotte uses the adjectives “coincidental” and “unexpected” and “improbable” and even, blessedly, “peaceful”.

In her book, Ms. Sarotte tries to explain how these many, many serendipitous events combined to allow or even produce the opening of the Berlin Wall and eventually the reunification of East and West Germany. The “why” is beyond the scope of the narrative and perhaps beyond the understanding of mere authors and readers. Sarotte does reiterate many times that the collapse of the Wall was not inevitable.

“The Wall’s opening was not a gift from political elites, East German or otherwise, and was in no way predetermined. It resulted from a remarkable constellation of actors and contingent events—and not a little courage on the part of some of the individuals directly involved—that came together in a precise but entirely unplanned sequence. And the larger, successful peaceful revolution surrounding the opening was a truly rare event, one to be considered carefully, not discounted. The history of 1989 shows just how many things have to go right for such a revolution to succeed.”

I am left with some questions of my own, questions that will never be answered this side of eternity, but that are nevertheless interesting to me from a Christian perspective:

The dissident movement in East Germany was birthed and nurtured in the churches of Leipzig and Berlin. Many of the dissidents were not believers, but were nevertheless willing and thankful to use the churches and their “peace prayer” meetings as a shelter and a staging area for demonstrations and peaceful protests against the East German government. Could the peaceful success of the revolution and the reordering of Germany’s culture and government be credited in part (or even in whole) to its genesis as a prayer movement? Perhaps God answered those repeated prayers for peace and justice?

What do historians and politicians mean when they talk about being “on the right side of history”? In the book Soviet leader Chernyaev says of Gorbachev: “He sensed the path of history and helped it to follow its natural path.” Impersonal History nevertheless has a will and a flow? How can this be? (It’s the same way that evolutionists talk about Nature doing this or that. How did Nature become a Force with a will and purpose? And do we humans discern that purpose?)

In a bigger way, could all of those fortuitous events of people being in the right place at the right time or absent from the right place at the right time or able to communicate or unable to communicate, all of those things that had to go right, could they have been orchestrated, not by politicians or revolutionaries, but rather by God himself? Maybe the lesson here is that the “remarkable constellation” was not “entirely unplanned”—just unplanned by man? Man proposes; God disposes.

The Collapse is not a book about God, just as the book of Esther in the Bible hardly mentions God—unless you have eyes to see the hand of God in all of history. I think it much more likely and believable that God is working His purposes out in the course of history than that History itself has an undefined will and an inscrutable purpose.

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.

She Is Mine by Stephanie Fast

“Stephanie Fast is the name she was given in America. She does not know her original name, birth date, or place of birth, other than that she is Korean. Because she is biracial, Stephanie Fast was abandoned, left in a strange place to fend for herself, likely to die of starvation, disease—or worse.

Stephanie has made it her life’s work to try to help rescue every orphan out there—terrified, hungry, hurting, abused. If you believe that how we treat the most vulnerable among us determines our own humanity you will want to read Stephanie’s book—you will want to get to know Stephanie’s story.”

The almost unbelievable and harrowing story of a Korean war orphan, abandoned by her mother and unknown to her American GI father, She is Mine is an amazing testament to the courage and endurance of the author, but even more to the grace of God in her life. Her website says “Stephanie’s story will leave you moved—and changed.” It left me moved, yes, and puzzled. I was puzzled by the mercy of God and by His sovereignty. Why was Stephanie spared the fate of another child she writes about in her memoir, a baby who died abandoned on a trash heap after seven year old Stephanie, or Yoon Myoung as she was known in Korean, had tried to mother her and save her life? Why was Yoon Myoung/Stephanie adopted by an American couple and brought to the U.S. while other Korean orphans languished in orphanages or scavenged on the streets? I don’t know, and author Stephanie Fast provides no answers to those troubling questions. She can only testify to the fact that God saved her, and “in every instance of my life, whether I knew it or not, there was a greater, higher, wiser power propelling willing hearts to rescue me.”

Maybe God is “propelling” us to rescue just one, or to help, and we are not listening?

I recommend the book, but I do warn you that Stephanie’s story is a very difficult one which includes physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, abandonment, and violence. Stephanie eventually is rescued, and her message is that there is hope. However, reading this book can be emotionally draining. Even if you don’t choose to read Stephanie’s story, please take this blog post as a cue to pray for Stephanie Fast and for the millions of orphans and abused children who are struggling for survival and hope even today as you are reading these words.

Stephanie Fast’s website.

Called to Love is a ministry designed to encourage and support adoptive and foster moms by providing an annual retreat.

Chosen International is a faith-based organization whose goal is to encourage teens who have been adopted to embrace God’s plan of adoption for their lives, and grow into spiritually and emotionally healthy adulthood.

Christian Friends of Korea: hope and healing to the people of North Korea in the name of Christ.

New Beginnings International Children’s and Family Services. (adoption agency)

Kazembe Orphanage, an orphanage in northern Zambia run by my friends, the Morrow family.

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.

I Dared to Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheikh and Richard H. Schneider

I Dared to Call Him Father: The Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman’s Encounter with God by Bilquis Sheikh and Richard H. Schneider

I read the 25th anniversary edition of this classic testimony of a well-to-do Muslim Pakistani woman, Bilquis Sheikh, who came to faith in Christ at the age of sixty-five through a series of dreams and visions and through comparison of the Koran to the Christian Bible. Bilquis’ study of the Bible was very confusing to her, but her breakthrough came when a Catholic nun suggested that she talk to God “as if He were your father” and ask Him to show her the truth. She did, and she sensed the presence of God as she prayed.

“‘I am confused, Father,’ I said. ‘I have to get one thing straight right away.’ I reached over to the bedside table where I kept the Bible and the Quran side by side. I picked up both books and lifted them, one in each hand.’Which, Father?’ I said. ‘Which one is Your book?’

Then a remarkable thing happened. Nothing like it had ever occurred in my life in quite this way. For I heard a voice inside my being, a voice that spoke to me as clearly as if I were repeating words in my inner mind. They were fresh, full of kindness, yet at the same time full of authority.

In which book do you meet Me as your Father?

I found myself answering: ‘In the Bible.” That’s all it took. Now there was no question in my mind which one was His book.”

Bilquis went on to leave Pakistan and travel around the world, telling people of how God had spoken directly to her to lead her to Christ. It is an inspiring story and would pair well with Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus which tells about a more intellectual route to faith in Christ for a Muslim seeker. The two converts have in common, besides their Muslim background, their great devotion to family and the deep pain of estrangement from family that their conversion cost them. However, both Mr. Qureshi and Bilquis Sheikh write that Jesus is worth the cost, that following Him and living in His presence is the ultimate treasure.

Diamond Boy by Michael Williams

When fifteen year old Patson Moyo and his family head for the diamond fields of Marange in eastern Zimbabwe, Patson is sure that his family’s fortunes are about to change for the better. Even though Patson’s father plans to teach school in diamond country as he always has, Patson knows that there are diamonds for everyone in Marange. As soon as Patson finds his girazi, that special, costly diamond that everyone is looking for, he and his family will be set for life.

If you just read the article on Wikipedia about the Marange diamond fields, you will know that Patson’s story probably won’t have a happy ending. In fact, although the events in the course of Patson’s adventure are harrowing, violent, and frightening, the story does contain more hope than perhaps the facts warrant.

From Wikipedia and linked sources:
“The government launched police crackdowns against illegal miners and smugglers several times since December 2006. Up to 150 of the estimated 30,000 illegal miners were shot from helicopter gunships.”
(2009) “The Zanu-PF government has mulled plans to forcibly move nearly 5 000 families from Chiadzwa area to facilitate the plundering of diamonds. The families are to be dumped at an Arda farm in Odzi as the President Robert Mugabe-led government intensify looting of the precious minerals.”
“The BBC, the British state broadcaster, claims Zimbabwe’s security forces have a torture camp in the Marange diamond fields; methods include severe beatings, sexual assault and dog mauling according to alleged victims.”
“A 2012 study . . . found that operations at the diamond fields are releasing dangerous chemicals into the Save River.”
“Human Rights Watch says while it has seen an improvement in Marange, it also believes questions remain over who is involved in running these mining companies.” CNN, 2012.

Author Michael Williams, a South African writer and Managing Director of Cape Town Opera, has already written one book set in Zimbabwe, Now Is the Time for Running. Diamond Boy is a sort of companion novel to that earlier book, and some of the characters in Now Is the Time for Running show up in minor roles in Diamond Boy. As I intimated, Diamond Boy is a fascinating but shocking look at life in Zimbabwe, particularly the appalling effect of the possibility of sudden riches in a country filled with poverty and not much economic opportunity.

The ending to the story is unrealistic, but maybe necessary to make up for the unrelenting gloom, greed, and cruelty of the preceding pages. This book is not for younger teens, nor will it be for all readers, even if they have the maturity to handle the subject matter. No, the author doesn’t use graphic language or lurid description, but the events themselves are disturbing enough. Sensitive readers will be haunted, as I am, by the thought that the greed and brutality of man is still making life a living h— for many children and young adults around the world, even if, possibly, improvements have been made in operations at Marange.

Yes, I recommend this book for those who are interested in knowing about one of the horror stories of the twenty-first century, but I suggest you enter with prayer and exit with renewed compassion and more prayer.

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.