The Paris Library

This is definitely one for book and library lovers – and those who understand the power of reading.

Switching between Paris in the early years of WWII and Montana in the 1980’s, ‘the Paris Library’ (by Janet Skeslien Charles) links the stories of Odile Souchet and Montana teenager, Lily.

Odile is an intense young lady, living in Paris. Her father is keen for her to find a husband, and regularly brings home suitors for Sunday lunch after church. Odile, however, isn’t particularly interested in any of them, and is more concerned with establishing herself in her dream job at the American Library.

When war is declared, the Library staff is determined to maintain their service for the Parisian community, providing books to British and French troops, and constantly work at ways to overcome the obstacles arising from Nazi occupation. Problems arise of course, due to the various backgrounds of library staff, and some reluctantly need to move on and away from their normal ways of functioning as military threats increase.

At times, it seems the library will be closed; something their dedicated subscribers (members such as students, writers, book lovers and soldiers at war) would find so tragic. Thus, the library staff do their best to meet their needs; a band of resistance in perilous times of occupation.

Woven into a tale from the past is the story of Lily, a young teen girl in Montana, as she develops an unlikely friendship with her widowed neighbour. While both are guarded, they begin to warm to one another since they share a love of language and books. Then there are slow reveals of former lives, loves and losses as the tales alternate between 1939 and 1983.

Based on the historical fact of occupied Paris during WWII, ‘the Paris Library’ is written by an author whose interests were piqued when she worked there.  It provides an insight into the actions of brave individuals and the role that the American Library played in trying to normalise life and maintain civility:

With the coming of World War II, the occupation of France by the Nazi regime, and the deepening threats to French Jews, Library director Dorothy Reeder and her staff and volunteers provided heroic service by operating an underground, and potentially dangerous, book-lending service to Jewish members barred from libraries. (Source: the History of the American Library in Paris, https://americanlibraryinparis.org/history/)

The other storyline in Montana will appeal to a young adult audience, as Lily struggles with school, friendships, the loss of her mother and the subsequent change in family relationships in a small country town. How will her growing relationship with her neighbour make a difference?

Both storylines raise questions about love, trust, loyalty and the need to belong. Lovers of historical fiction will enjoy a different insight into the impact of war, both immediate and long-term. Lovers of libraries will enjoy library/literary references, and applaud the tenacity of realistic characters as they continue to provide services in this tragic period in history.

Thus, it is highly recommended for these readers, and a great choice for those wanting something new.

Older reader: A Room Made of Leaves

The challenge of historical fiction – reflecting events of the past, recalling people of the past, and weaving these convincingly into a story. As a favourite genre of many people, it is also one open to critique when it strays too far from the truth perhaps?

In ‘A Room Made of Leaves’, celebrated author Kate Grenville opens up the world of Elizabeth Macarthur. She invites readers to consider a different perspective of life in early colonial Sydney – one not normally addressed by high school history classes – the female perspective.

Historically, John Macarthur is lauded as the pioneer of the wool industry, with his portrait gracing Australian currency over the years. However, his dark side as a scheming, driven personality is what drives this story. In his absence from the colony (fighting Governors and facing a court-martial in England), it seems his wife and sons were the ones driving this pioneering success.

Writing as Elizabeth Macarthur compiling her account of their personal history, Grenville challenges our acceptance of historical records and our assumptions about life for the early settlers. Early on, the reader is warned: ‘do not believe too quickly’, though we quickly become absorbed into this changed view of history.

A clever portrayal of Australian history. One to make you think, question, and consider what history really is. HIStory vs HERstory?

Always… (at last)

It seems it has been a long wait, but finally, we have the last book in Morris Gleitzman’s Once series. ‘Always’ completes the lifelong journey of Felix, the young boy introduced 16 years ago in ‘Once’.

Felix is now in his eighties, living in aged care in Australia. When a young boy is brought to him and left unexpectedly in his care, Felix once again embarks on a journey (with the boy, Wassim) to right wrongs built upon the prejudices and beliefs from history.

Dedicated followers will enjoy many references to characters and phrases used in past books. Some of these voices echo clearly in my mind, having listened to several of the books, particularly with Morris Gleitzman reading them. (Highly recommended audiobooks!)

Endearing, with characters like young Felix, Zelda, and the many strong people determined to fight against the tragedy of the holocaust, this final book in the epic series is gentle in its teaching for young readers. It is also compelling for older readers who are lucky to discover the series when reading alongside young readers – a chance to share and reflect together.

Always stay hopeful. That’s my motto.
You’re probably thinking … what’s he got to be hopeful about? He’s ten years old and look at his life. (Quote from Wassim in ‘Always’, p.3)

You can find a better and deeper review of Always at Kids’ Book Reviews. And there is always the author’s own revelations and musings at Morris Gleiztman/Always.

# Have you read the whole series?

## Did you find any parts of the stories confronting?

### Are there other books of historical fiction you would recommend?

 

Hamnet – behind the scenes

Life and death. Roles and responsibilities. Poverty and plague. Elizabethan England.

Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Hamnet’ provides an alternative insight into the family life and development of a famous playwright. (Guess who?)

Set in England in the late 1500’s – a time cursed by disease and poverty, it introduces a young girl wracked with fever. Her twin brother anxiously seeks help for her, but their father is away in London and their mother is occupied elsewhere. Where is she? Why isn’t she here to help him?

Time then moves back to when their parents first met, and how, against the wishes of parents and step-parents, they became husband and wife.

Because of this, theirs is not an easy marriage from the beginning and neither seems to be able to fulfil all the expectations of family and society.

The mother, Agnes, has gifts inherited from her mother – an unusual intuition, the ability to heal and a quiet way of observing and understanding the people around her. And the father strives for more than the village of Stratford-upon-Avon can offer his abilities, spending much of his time in London – away from Agnes, Susanna, Hamnet and Judith.

“Two extraordinary people.

A love that draws them together.

A loss that tears them apart.”

‘Hamnet’ describes the challenging settings and experiences of many people in these times, when infectious diseases were easily spread and poorly controlled. (How a flea in Alexandria is able to impact many on a sea journey and end up killing a child in England is thoughtfully described. Its final impact on the family is traumatic.) Agnes’ healing herbs are however a comfort, and sometimes a cure, for the village people who come to her for help – even though they do not entirely approve of her way of ‘being’.

Through the visions Agnes experiences, we know that someone in her family will be lost to the plague – but even she is unable to understand who it might be. The struggles of the family are multiplied as the parents each seek to realise their own role in life. And it is particularly heartbreaking as they deal with the death of their child, in different ways. Neither will be hurried in their grief.

Visiting England in the late 1500s through the tragic events of this family and their community is a real and thought-provoking experience. You can smell their home, feel their conflicts, empathise with their struggles, and sense their great sorrow. Life is far from the glossy pictures we might have about a renowned playwright the whole world now honours. Historical fiction at its finest; accessible and engaging, with lots to ponder.

Here, Maggie O’Farrell talks about Hamnet:

# Awarded 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Echo Mountain

As I delved into family history and considered the troubles my ancestors dealt with, I was also reading ‘Echo Mountain’, and then reflected on what many people faced in the years of the Depression when they lost their jobs and livelihoods.

Set in times of economic troubles, Ellie’s family moved to the mountains for a simpler, more manageable life. Life on the land. But life is harsh. And then tragedy strikes.

Though Ellie is the middle child and youngest daughter, she shoulders many of her family’s troubles. While her sister Esther does her fair share of housework (which she seems to like) it is Ellie who has to complete a lot more ‘yardwork’ since the accident.

Fortunately, she is an outdoors kind of girl, a trait once encouraged by her father. That, and her desire to find a cure to bring her father back to health, leads her to tracking down Cate, known in the mountains as a hag or witch, but also a healer.

With Cate’s instruction and guidance, Ellie uses skills well beyond the normal ability of a 12-year-old girl to heal. But it is not just her father she works to heal – a broken family, a broken woman and wild mountain boy become critical parts of her story.

The circumstances which brought about each person’s life-difficulties are carefully woven into this tale from Lauren Wolk, an award-winning American poet and author. (Her previous novel, ‘Wolf Hollow’, won a Newbery Honour in 2017.)

She provides a good insight into life in the Depression years, as the family battles to make ends meet – building, hunting, fishing and bartering goods with other mountain folk. The tasks Ellie is required to do may have some feeling squeamish, while in awe of her determination and intelligence. The skills of others in the story creating intricate wooden carvings and musical instruments are also something to be discovered along the way (I actually wish there were some illustrations of these).

Ellie learns a lot simply by doing things. There’s something for all of us in that. And there’s something for lovers of historical fiction and family stories in ‘Echo Mountain’.

Do you test out your own ideas just by doing what you think should work (like Ellie)?

How far would you go to help a member of your family?

Do you think we should always accept what we are told about different people?

Recommended 10+

The Dictionary of Lost Words

Who decides if a word is important? What should be recorded across time? Sometimes, Esme witnesses a word discarded, sees a word float below the table where the men worked as if it were unimportant – so she begins collecting neglected slips.

As a child of a lexicographer, Esme spends much of her day under this table in the Scriptorium* – the place where her father and a team of men work compiling the first Oxford English dictionary. Even as a young child, she is acutely observant and precociously curious. Her father does his best for her; fostering her inquiring nature. However, in the absence of a mother, she bonds with a young servant from the house of her father’s supervisor, Dr Murray, and learns more from a different world perspective.

Set in a time that the suffragette movement was beginning in England and World War was looming, this debut novel from Pip Williams reflects actual moments of history based around the family responsible for the beginnings of the Oxford Dictionary.

Lexicographers in Dr James Murray’s *Scriptorium. Source: https://public.oed.com/blog/meaning-everything-new-preface/

Esme is never destined to fulfil the typical woman’s role at this time, and her passion for words sets her on an unusual path.

Women’s words. Esme sees many of these neglected, left out and ignored in the collation of the dictionary. But why? And what is the effect of that?

“So often, the words chosen by the men of the Dictionary had been inadequate.

‘Dr Murray’s dictionary leaves things out, Lizzie. Sometimes a word, sometimes a meaning. If it isn’t written down, it doesn’t even get considered.’ (Esme explaining to Lizzie.)”

There are many strong women in Esme’s life, some more fortunate than others, though she learns from each of them. Lizzie, her bondmaid; Ditte, her godmother; Tilda, her actor friend; Mabel, her market word-source.

However, words (women’s words) remain very significant characters in this story. Collecting ‘lost’ words, Esme assembles her own dictionary, based around important life events and experiences. These show the power of language and the need to recognise the importance of all words – not just those used by scholars:

“It is not for you to judge the importance of these words [librarian, Mr Madan], simply allow others to do so.” (Esme urging the acceptance of Women’s Words in the Bodleian Library.)

Get lost in this tale, absorb the strength of those who inhabit it, and thus, enjoy the melding of history and story in ‘the Dictionary of Lost Words’.

Highly recommended for mature readers.

There Was Still Love

This story oozes feelings and emotions; even in the little things. As you read, you can taste the meals Lucek has with his grandmother. They are deliciously described, even though they may be simple fare. You can also sense the atmosphere of their humble accommodation – a small apartment in Prague.

Told from two main perspectives – that of Lucek in Czechoslovakia under Communist rule, and his cousin, Liska living in Melbourne, it flicks between locations and periods of time as the family links are revealed. Relatives through their grandmothers (twins separated at 17), Lucek and Liska share a precious culture, though they too are separated by half a world.

Many of Lucek’s observations are innocent, but perceptive. His fondness of his grandmother, Babi and his great uncle is strong, even when they behave like grumpy old people. Beautiful moments break through in the story, which makes you want to hug Parrett’s characters. You laugh and cry at their playful antics, and feel their sorrow when things go awry.

Similarly, though Liska lives in a free country, her family lives simply. They save from her grandfather’s meagre wage so they can visit their homeland. Though they live in a relatively free country, they are not always treated well, and in 1980 suffer from prejudice and homesickness.

The home visits to Prague are joyful occasions for sisters, Eva and Mana (Babi), while Lucek ponders why he and Babi don’t have the same freedom to make a visit to Melbourne. He is also puzzled why his mother, Alena, continues to travel outside Czechoslovakia with the Prague Black Theatre troupe, leaving him in his grandmother’s care.

In an interview last year, author Favell Parrett revealed her book was inspired by a jar of gherkins! One she found in a Melbourne deli, which was the exact brand of gherkins her grandmother used to buy. The memories it sparked sent her on a journey to delve into her past to honour her immigrant family, and especially grandmothers. (Part of this novel was originally published as a short story – giving the flavour of the story here.)

Parrett encourages anyone with grandparents or older relatives to talk to them. “Because when they’re gone, those stories are just dust. And that’s what makes up a life really – what did you want to be when you were young, when did your heart first break, who was your first love.” From: An ode to the women who carry our world on their shoulders

‘There Was Still Love’ moves between different times as the family story evolves, and between Lucek and Liska as storytellers, so while I have read this story as an audiobook, I am keen to do a re-read with a physical book. (It’s so much easier to follow the changes in a physical book, don’t you think?) Also, I am late to discover the writing of Favell Parrett but ‘Past the Shallows’ will definitely be my next read.

# Can you describe your grandparents’ home? What does it feel like? 

## What is your favourite family memory?

### How often are you able to chat with the older generations of your family or neighbours? 

When the Ground is Hard

Living in Swaziland, Adele’s mother wants a better life for her daughter. Even though her father lives at a distance with his other family, Adele is well-supported and goes to a private school.

However, Adele finds things have changed when she returns to her boarding school after term-break. Her position in the ‘top girl’ group has been taken – by a girl whose father is more wealthy than her own. Worse still, she has been relegated to a room supposedly haunted by a dead student, and one she will share with an impoverished student, below her own social status.

Lottie is a uniquely bold student; either in spite of or because of her poor background. She is at Keziah Christian College as a supported student on a scholarship, and she takes no nonsense from anyone, even challenging teachers at times.

In contrast, Adele likes to keep things on an even keel. That is until her struggle with the top girls becomes heated and she has to choose a new path to get through the school term.

‘When the Ground is Hard’ is told by Malla Nunn, who was born in Swaziland and attended a mixed-race boarding school. The struggles of Adele and Lottie echo her own (and her mother’s) experiences in this #ownvoice story, as they battle to rise above the prejudices of racial segregation.

I wanted to tell a story that honoured the women and girls with whom I grew up – strong, brave, broken, vain, furious – girls who struggled to find their place in a racially segregated world where they, and I, were kept down for no good reason. (From Malla Nunn’s website.)

Adele and Lottie’s friendship is slow-growing but beautifully developed as they reluctantly team together.  Once Adele’s changed status at school opens her eyes to the levels of prejudices and hardships faced by mixed-race girls and women (particularly strong in the 1960s when the novel is set) they begin to bond. Cleverly, this is enhanced as they read Jane Eyre together, and reflect on Jane’s experiences and their own destinies.

A book which touches on many issues. Highly recommended 14+

# Available as ebook.

Revisit: the ‘Once’ series

As the 75-year commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz approached on January 2020, it was a good time to revisit the ‘Once’ series.

Written by 2018-19 Australian Children’s Laureate, Morris Gleitzman, this series has had world-renown for many years.* The first book, ‘Once’, was written in 2005 and presents Felix, a young Jewish boy, who sets off on a quest to find his parents in war-torn Poland.

What follows are several books which introduce the (younger) reader to the trials faced by those who suffered under the Nazi regime in World War II.

In spite of its tragic setting, among the events of World War II, and Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe, ‘Once’ (and the following titles) is also a story of hope and friendships that stood the test of these times.

As Felix tries to make sense of the Nazi’s book-burning (a shock when his parents are booksellers. Why would anyone do that?) and other even more atrocious activities, the realities of his life (first in an orphanage, then further afield) reveal the conditions for many people in Poland at this time.

The life of Janusz Korczak among Jewish  orphans inspired Morris to write this series

Felix’s view of life (as a ten-year-old) at first seems naive, but it enables him to have a somewhat positive perspective, as he hopes to track down his parents. However, as his story continues, different aspects of life under the Nazi regime become apparent – things like the increasingly cruel treatment of Jews AND anyone who might offer them help. As Felix’s understanding grows, there is more to be learned, each step of the way.

Author, Morris Gleitzman explains how his family background (his grandfather was a Polish Jew) lead
him to research and, ultimately, to write the ‘Once’ series:

My grandfather was a Jew from Krakow in Poland. As a young man he left Poland, decades before the Holocaust, and ended up living in England. But many members of his family stayed in Poland and most of them were killed by the Nazis.

So researching and writing Once became a personal journey. It took me to Poland for the first time. To the streets of Kazimierz, the ancient Jewish area of Krakow, and to the Jewish cemetery where I found a memorial with my family name on it… (From Morris Gleitzman website on ‘Once’.)

There are currently 6 books in this series – the final (?) title, ‘Always’, should be released later this year. Are you ready for it? Or are you like me, in need of a re-read of this important series?

* ‘Once’ has been translated into many different languages, and won the 2011 Katholischer Kinder- und Jugendbuchpreis, (the Catholic Children’s and Young People’s Book Award in Germany) among many other awards, national and international.

** Morris’ books have been published in about twenty countries, including the UK, the USA, Germany, Italy, Japan, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia, Russia and China.

*** The publication order for the series is: Once (2005), Then (2009), Now (2010), After (2012), Soon (2015) and Maybe (2017) – though I’m sure I heard/read Morris state they can be read out of order, each book complete within itself…

**** Available as ebooks and audiobooks.

Cloud and Wallfish

Imagine how you would feel if your parents picked you up from school, and whisked you away to a foreign country? No time to say goodbye to friends, unable to pack your favourite things – in fact, having many of your school possessions dumped in a bin, never to be seen again!

On top of this, imagine they expect you to change your name (just as they have), and to ‘remember’ where you went to school as somewhere you have never heard of – and to forget where home is. This is what happens to 11-year-old Noah Keller when his parents take him to the ‘other’ Germany to support his mother’s research studies. They even tell him his birthday isn’t really in March but in November.

‘Cloud and Wallfish’ by Anne Nesbet is an interesting tale which follows Noah/Jonah and his parents at a climactic time in history – as change begins in East and West Germany – nearing the end of the Cold War.

As Noah adjusts to a confusing new home, his mother deals with her studies, and his father ‘writes his novel’ while acting as the house-parent. There are lots of rules to take on board too – it seems that East Germany isn’t very accepting of Americans, who they label as brash and opinionated. Thus, Noah stays quiet and alone for some time, acceding to his parents’ requests to stay ‘under the communists radar’.

In telling Noah’s story, ‘Cloud and Wallfish’ outlines some of the historical changes happening at the time his family are there – based on the author’s personal experiences having lived in East Berlin in 1987, and again in 1989 just before the Wall came down.

Peering over from East Berlin – website details the history of the Berlin Wall – click on image

Noah’s struggles (loneliness and his own ‘Astonishing Stutter’) are buoyed in the story when he meets Cloud-Claudia; though he still also remains eager to go to school. However, that is not an easy thing to do.

Those who love a bit of history, or even just learning about other ways to view the world*, will enjoy ‘Cloud and Wallfish’. Episodes in Noah’s life are followed with some explanations, in ‘Secret File’ pages which provide an historical understanding of events.

It raises a lot of questions about the past, world politics and rules. It will also have you thinking about when it is wise to keep a secret – about yourself or others. And whether there is a time you need to reveal all you know – even if it may impact on others, because that’s what Noah has to consider time and again.

# Do you like historical fiction?

## Do Noah’s experiences and actions ring true for you? (i.e. do you think this is the way an eleven-year-old would really act?)

Recommended 10-14 years

For details about the fall of the Berlin Wall see: Fall of Berlin Wall: How 1989 reshaped the modern world

*considering a ‘worldview’

# Available as an ebook.