The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Movies and books don’t usually make me cry. Even as I’ve become more emotional and easily moved in my old age, I still rarely cry in response to a fictional narrative. After all, it’s fiction, didn’t really happen.

Well, trigger warning, The Light Between Oceans made me bawl. In my bed at 1:00 in the morning as I read the ending to this beautiful, supremely sad, and emotional story, I cried, silently so that I wouldn’t wake up my sleeping husband. The themes of brokenness and loss and self-sacrifice and again brokenness were so poignant and so very, very sad.

Set just after World War I came to a close, the story is about a veteran of that war, Tom Sherburne, who returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a small, isolated island off the coast of western Australia. While Tom is on “shore leave” form his lighthouse duties, he meets a local girl, Isabel, and the two of them marry and go to live at the lighthouse where they will stay, just the two of them, without company or leave for years at a time. The real story begins when Isabel is down by the shore and hears a baby’s cry.

I have always identified with these quotations from Gone With the Wind:

“Perhaps I want the old days back again and they’ll never come back, and I am haunted by the memory of them and of the world falling about my ears.”

Rhett Butler to Scarlett: “I was never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together again and tell myself that the mended whole was as good as new. What is broken is broken – and I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it and see the broken places as long as I lived.”

Or this horribly frightening and prescient quote from Cry, the Beloved Country:

–I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.
He was grave and silent, and then he said sombrely, I have only one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.

Brokenness.

We do live in a broken world. And sometimes things are so broken that there is no way to pick up the fragments and glue them back together. In The Light Between the Oceans, that kind of brokenness and tragedy comes to one couple, brought on by their own choices, wrong choices, but also very human and understandable choices. I don’t really want to tell anyone too much about this story, except that it is very sad, very real, and very good—-all at the same time. Thank you to whoever recommended it to me.

Thank God that my Jesus makes all things new. We live in a broken world, and sometimes that world is falling down about my ears. And many, many times it is broken through my own fault, my own bad decisions, my own sin. But my God promises, through Christ, to make all things new.

The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson

This Australian classic won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Award for Book of the Year in 1974, and its author, Patricia Wrightson, is the only Australian author to have been awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for lasting contributions to children’s literature. I found a copy of The Nargun and the Stars in the multitude of books that were donated to my library from a local private school’s discard pile, and I read it to see if it would be a good addition to my own library.

It’s a dark and perhaps humanistic, or even pagan, book, but I would say that it’s pagan in the sense of drawing on pre-Christian era mythology, in this case the mythology of the Australian aboriginal peoples. Just as C.S. Lewis drew on both Greek and Norse mythology for his depiction of Narnia and as Tolkien drew from Norse, Saxon, and Celtic myths to create the creatures and world of Middle Earth, Ms. Wrightson used the Australian aboriginal myths and legends to tell a story that speaks into our own time.

The novel begins and ends with the Nargun, a stone and earth creature, full of hunger and anger and “slow, monstrous coldness”. Over centuries, or millennia, the Nargun slowly moved across the Australian landscape and settles into Wongadilla, a place in the mountains of southern Australia.

The actual story takes place in the 1970’s, when the book was written and published. Simon, an orphan, comes to live with his second cousins, brother and sister Charlie and Edie, on a sheep run in Wongadilla. Simon begins to explore the strange place where he has landed, so to speak, and he finds and gets to know odd and mythical creatures in the swamps and forests and caves of Wongadilla. However, it is the Nargun that is a threat to the sheep ranch, to the humans who live there, and even to the Potkoorak of the swamp and the Turongs of the forest. Charlie and Edie and Simon become a family and a team as they work together to understand and to defeat the impersonal but powerful malevolence of the Nargun.

I can see why this book won the acclaim that it did. The writing is quite beautiful and evocative, and I am sure that the atmosphere of this book will become a part of my mental concept of Australia and all things Australian. The Nargun and the Stars won’t be a book for everyone. It might give some children (or adults) nightmares, and some parents could object to the idea that the evil Nargun is only confined by the end of the book and only by means of completely human ingenuity, but not finally defeated or destroyed. However, that ending reminds me of the book of Revelation (which I doubt was the author’s intent) when Satan himself is chained for 1000 years (Revelation 20). Perhaps the Nargun, from Australian aboriginal mythology, is really a demon, or at least that’s way I thought of it as I read.

According to Gunai/Kurnai tribal legends, the Nargun is a fierce half-human half-stone creature that lived in the Den of Nargun, a cave under a rock overhang behind a small waterfall in the Mitchell River National Park, Victoria, Australia. Aboriginal legend describes the Nargun as a beast that was all stone except for its hands, arms and breast. The fierce creature would drag unwary travellers into its den, and any weapon directed against it would be turned back on its owner.

As Shakespeare so aptly said via Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Stories like The Nargun and the Stars serve to remind us in our materialistic and naturalistic philosophical world that we don’t have it all figured out and that there are all sorts of “dragons” and enemies that have yet to be finally defeated and destroyed.

This novel also reminded me of G.K. Chesterton and his observation to the effect that “fairy tales do not tell children the dragons (Nargun) exist. Children already know that dragons (Nargun) exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons (Nargun) can be killed (or at least chained).”

One more impression: there is a definite affinity between The Nargun and the Stars and N.D. Wilson’s The Boys of Blur. If you liked Wilson’s take-off on Beowulf, I’d recommend Ms. Wrightson’s fantasy/horror story of Australian monsters and heroes.

Baker’s Dozen: Books to Read for my Around the World Project

I’m planning a new project for 2016, an expansion of my Africa Project. This one is an around the world project in which I hope to read at least one children’s book from or related to each nation of the world. Some countries are easier than others to find books, available in English and written by a citizen of that country. I may have to settle for folktales retold by American or Births authors from some countries or even for books that are simply set in the target country, preferably written by someone who has at least visited the particular setting in the book.

So, here is the page for my Around the World Reading Project. Do you have any suggestions to add to my project list, especially for those countries for which I have no books listed? The books must be for children, available in English (translation or original) in the United States, and preferably written in and popular in the country of origin.

Here are thirteen of the books I already chose that I am planning to read this year:

Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall. (Australia)

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. (Canada)

Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson. (Finland)

The Horse Without a Head by Paul Berna. (France)

The Adventures of Maya the Bee by Waldemar Bonsels, 1912. (Germany)

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. (India)

The Shadow of Ghadames by Joelle Stolz. (Libya)

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer. (American author) (Mozambique)

The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. (Netherlands)

Platero y yo by Juan Jimenez. (Spain)

The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. (Sweden)

Go Ahead, Secret Seven by Enid Blyton. (England)

Jamela’s Dress by Niki Daly. (South Africa)

I chose these particular books from the list mostly because I have them or have access to them. Have you read any of them? Any recommended or not?

The Ink Bridge by Neil Grant

“You writers always have to be so cryptic.”

So says a character in this Australian YA fiction title, honored by The Children’s Book Council of Australia, but, she said it, full of cryptic. The Ink Bridge tells the story of two young men, one Afghani named Omed and one Australian boy named Hector, Hec for short. Omed’s story comes first in the book. Maimed by the Taliban when they cut out his tongue, Omed is unable to talk, lost inside himself, and a lot of his internal dialogue is obscure and puzzling (cryptic) to say the least. Omed’s story is the tale of a refugee with very little hope, as Omed makes his way from Afghanistan to Australia in the clutches of and dependent on an evil smuggler called The Snake.

Halfway through the book, the point of view switches to Hec, another boy without words. Hec is an elective mute; he chooses not to talk because the tragedy which has occurred to disrupt his life has sucked all the words out of him. As he gets to know Omed, however, whom he calls Silent Boy, Hec finds a reason for words and telling stories. In fact, he finds himself compelled to tell Omed’s story in the hope that somehow telling the story of Omed’s struggles will give voice to the suffering people of Afghanistan and will change in some small way the tragedy that is being played out daily in that country.

A lot of the book fits the cryptic label. Omed and Hec both are very internally focussed for much of the story. Since they can’t or won’t talk, they imagine a lot, and some of their introspection is a stew of secrets and mysteries and regrets and visions and just plain craziness. I can imagine not talking for a year, like Hec, and sometimes I think it would be a relief. But it might make me a little more crazy than I already am.

The Ink Bridge is a book about the power of words, but I think it would take a motivated and discerning young adult reader to stick with the story through the enigmatic passages and the difficult relationships that make up the bulk of the narrative. I would recommend it to those who have an interest in refugees in Australia or in the people of fghanistan.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

We just finished watching the PBS series, Colonial House, where a group of twenty-first century Americans and Britishers go back in time to the year 1628 and attempt to build a colonial settlement in rural Maine. One of the issues with which they had to grapple was their relationship to the Native Americans upon whose land they were building. I thought the issue was handled with way too much “sensitivity” and political correctness in Colonial House with the erstwhile settlers hanging their heads in shame and guilt over what their ancestors had done to the Native Americans and the native representatives obsessing over their lost heritage and the wrongs their ancestors suffered.

Then I read Kate Grenville’s Booker-prize nominated The Secret River. It’s not about Native Americans at all; it’s set in Australia, New South Wales. But it does show the ruthless subjugation of a native people from the point of view of the invaders, and yet I was brought to see the horror of what was done to the aboriginal people in Australia and, by analogy and implication, of what was done to the native peoples of America. The strength of this novel, however, is that the reader can see the tragedy of what happened when the British settled Australia and engaged in genocidal warfare against the native people, tragedy both for the aborigenes and for the English.

The Secret River is the story of William Thornhill who grows up in the late eighteenth century in the slums of London, has the great good fortune to become an apprentice and marry his master’s daughter, loses his livelihood because of medical bills and bad luck, becomes a thief, and is caught and transported with his family to Australia. That’s just the first part of the book, the lead-in to the real central purpose of the story which is to portray the “depredations and outrages” perpetrated upon and by the native aborgines and by and upon the English ex-convicts who took the aborgines’ land and made it their own. There’s plenty of violence in the book, not gratuituous, but rather uncomfortable. William and his wife, Sal, are fully drawn characters with completely believable motivations. They want security, a dependable living, a place for themselves and their family. The aboriginal people are less clearly portrayed, shown as they most likely were seen by the settlers, to be mysterious and unfathomable in their actions and motivations.

Since Ms. Grenville doesn’t choose to rewrite history, the fate of the aborigines in the book is clear from the beginning, and the fate of Thornhill and his wife is true to history, too. Thornhill gets what he wants, but “he could not understand why it did not feel like triumph.” A narrative picture like the one in this novel is worth a thousand pretend colonials feeling the pain of the native Americans for an hour or so on television. If we’re to avoid further genocidal episodes in our own time, we must understand not only what was done to the victims, but also why and how the perpetrators felt they had no choice but to commit genocide. Perhaps, then, such disasters can be avoided or stopped before they start.

The Secret River is a good, thought-provoking read. I don’t know if it will win the Man Booker Prize or not. Since I’ve not read any of the other nominated books on the short list, I can’t compare them. However, The Secret River at least deserves the recognition of having been nominated.

Visit Semicolon’s Amazon Store for more great book recommendations.

Two Books by Nevil Shute

On the Beach by British author Nevil Shute was published in 1957, the same year I was born. It tells the story of the last survivors of a nuclear war that has left enough radioactive fallout to eventually blanket the entire globe and annihilate all humankind. Almost the last inhabitable places are near Melbourne in southern Australia. The book is set in and near Melbourne and begins with T.S. Eliot’s famous words:

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river . . .

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.


On the Beach may be the saddest book I’ve ever read. I’d add it to my list of Best Tear-Jerkers, but it’s not exactly a tear-jerker. It’s just ineffably sad. The world is ending with a whimper, and Shute describes the effect of that sort of hopeless situation on a group of rather ordinary people. I have a few quibbles with the way he describes it all; I think there might be more religion, and more violence at the same time, in such a world, but maybe it would be just as Shute says. I hope I never live in such a time and place to find out. This book was fascinating, in a morbid sort of way, but it’s as close as I want to get to the edge of hopelessness.

Nevil Shute Norway was an aviation engineer who started his own aircraft company and worked on the development of secret weapons for the British during World War II. Before and after the war, he worked as a novelist and wrote a total of twenty-four novels. He’s said to be better at plots than at characterization, but I found his characters in On the Beach and A Town Like Alice, the other of his books I read, to be quite memorable. Commander Dwight Towers of the U.S. Navy is a law-abiding faithful Dobbin of a ship’s captain who nevertheless is attracted to Moira, an Australian party girl. Jean Paget, in A Town Like Alice, is a heroine of uncommon depth and character although it takes a war and the Australian outback to bring out all the resources she finds within herself.

I must say something more about A Town Like Alice, especially since it was my favorite of the two books by Nevil Shute that I read. If the the two books have a common theme it’s that of ordinary people responding to extraordinary circumstances with courage and ingenuity. Much more upbeat than On the Beach, A Town Like Alice is a novel in two parts. The first part is about Jean Paget, one of eighty women captured by the Japanese on the Malay pennisula and then marched from place to place because their captors don’t know what to do with them. (This first part of the novel is based on a true event that happened in Sumatra rather than Malaya.) The second part of the story takes place in Australia as Jean comes to see that she is more than just a survivor; she’s also a builder, able to grow and thrive in the Australian desert.

Engineer Nevil Shute Norway does know how to tell a good story. I recommend both of the books I read. Just don’t choose On the Beach for a day when you’re already depressed about life and the world in general. It’s more appropriate for the times when you’re feeling a little cocky and need a bit of a sobering reality check. A Town Like Alice is useful for inspiration and a good, decent story.

On the Beach and A Town Like Alice have both been made into movies, each one twice in fact. The 1959 version of On the Beach starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astair, and Anthony Perkins. Nevil Shute hated the movie, but it made him famous and probably scared the heck out of a whole bunch of people.

Links:
Nevil Shute Norway Foundation.
Will Duquette at View from the Foothills has reviewed several of Nevil Shute’s novels.

Visit Semicolon’s Amazon Store for more great book recommendations.

Week 5 of World Geography: Australia and New Zealand continued



Music:
Wolferl, the first six years in the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1762—Weil
Mozart, the Wonder Boy–Wheeler
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—Ein Kleine Nachtmusik K.365

Mission Study:
1. Windows on the World: Minangkabau
2. WotW: Sundanese

Poems:
Anne Bradstreet. We’re reading her poems not because she has anything to do with Australia, but because my American Literature at homeschool co-op is studying Bradstreet this week.

Science:
Boats

Nonfiction Read Alouds:
FACES: Australia through Time
KIDS Discover: Australia

Fiction Read Alouds:
Ice Drift–Taylor
And the Word Came With Power–Shetler

Picture Books:
My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch—Base
Koala Lou—Fox
Are We There Yet?–Lester
The Muddle-headed Wombat—Park
Diary of a Wombat—French
Pete the Sheep Sheep–French
Wombat Stew–Vaughan
We’ve already read several of these picture books, and so far my favorite is Diary of a Wombat while Z-baby likes Wombat Stew.

Elementary Readers:
Don’t Pat the Wombat—Honey
Walkabout–Marshall This book may be too hard for elementary age chidren, but I’m going to re-read it and see if I remember it accurately.
Storm Boy—Thiele Colin Thiele, the author of this book, just died last week. His most famous book, Storm BOy, was also made inot a movie. It’s about a boy and a pelican.
Blue Fin—Thiele
The Magic Pudding—Lindsay
The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill–Wall

Movies:
Amadeus (for the older set)
Man from Snowy River

I got some of these ideas from the comments on my last curriculum post. Don’t be shy; if you have suggestions about what books, movies, or other resources we shouldn’t miss before leaving Australia to travel on through the South Pacific, please leave your ideas in the comment section.

Week 4 of World Geography: Australia and New Zealand


Music:
Franz Joseph Haydn—Farewell Symphony 45
Joseph Haydn, the Merry Little Peasant–Wheeler
The Boy Who Loved Music–Lasker. We have an ex-library copy of this picture book about Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, which is why I chose that piece for us to listen to this week..

Mission Study:
1. Window on the World: Fiji
2. WotW: New Zealand
3. WotW: Papua New Guinea
4. WotW: Samoa

Poems:

My Poetry Book
My Poetry Book: At Our House. This book is my favorite poetry book, published back in September, 1956 and nostalgically remembered from my childhood; it includes favorite poems by James Whitcomb Riley, Eugene Field, Nancy Byrd Turner, Laura Elizabeth Richards, Thomas Augustine Daly, Lewis Carroll and other old-fashioned poets. We’re going to read some poems from the chapter entitled, “At Our House” this week, and I might even be able to post some of them here since the poems are even older than the book and may be out of copyright.

Science:
Airplanes and Flight

Nonfiction Read Alouds:
Usborne: Australasia and Oceania
FACES: Australia through Time

Fiction Read Alouds:
Ice Drift–Taylor
And the Word Came With Power: How God Met and Changed a People Forever–Shetler

Picture Books:
Koala Christmas—Bassett
The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo—Kipling (Illus. Michael Taylor)
Take a Trip to Australia–Truby

Elementary Readers:
The Boy Who Spoke Dog—Morgan
Trouble on the Tracks—Napoli
The Pirate Uncle—Mahy
Red Sand, Blue Sky–Applegate
Playing Beattie Bow–Park. I read this time travel book that takes an Australian girl back to Victorian England a long time ago. I’m looking forward to finding it and recommending it to Brown Bear Daughter.
Sandy, the Girl Who Was Rescued–Blackwood

Movies:
Rescuers Down Under
OR Crocodile Dundee

Do my Australian readers have any suggestions about fiction, nonfiction, or movies that would give the urchins a taste of Australia?

To This Great Stage of Fools: Born October 27th

James Cook, b. 1728. Famous English sea captain and explorer, he discovered the Hawaiian Islands and was killed in Hawaii on February 14, 1779. He also was the first European to visit New Zealand while looking for a southern continent that was believed to exist in order to keep the earth in balance. This book sounds interesting: Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific As Told by Selections of His Own Journals, 1768-1779 by James Cook and edited by A. Grenfell Price. Another one for The List.

Theodore Roosevelt, b. 1858. He was the 26th president of the United States and my favorite. He was the first president to ride in an automobile, the first to submerge in a submarine, and the first to fly in an airplane. TR quotes:

“For unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison.”
“There are two things that I want you to make up your minds to: first, that you are going to have a good time as long as you live – I have no use for the sour-faced man – and next, that you are going to do something worthwhile, that you are going to work hard and do the things you set out to do.”
“Don’t hit at all if you can help it; don’t hit a man if you can possibly avoid it; but if you do hit him, put him to sleep.”
“I don’t think any President ever enjoyed himself more than I did. Moreover, I don’t think any ex-President ever enjoyed himself more.”

I think Teddy Roosevelt is so much fun to read about because he did enjoy thoroughly whatever he did. It’s a trait I could afford to emulate more often.

Dylan Thomas, b. 1914. Poem in October was written in celebration of the poet’s own thirtieth birthday.
“It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore . . .”