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.

Auschwitz – a story retold

There have been many books written about Auschwitz experiences. Heather Morris’ book, ‘the Tattooist of Auschwitz’ is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov – a Jewish survivor, following her interviews with Lale (Ludwig Skolov). In many ways, the story is very familiar. It is a story which combines resilience, the willpower to survive, and the weaving of relationships which will make a difference.

In other ways, it should be renamed ‘Nine Lives’ – as Lale manages to survive several difficult situations, in which many others met tragic ends, many times. His personal skills enable him to be in a position of privilege, negotiating small benefits for fellow prisoners, aiming to ease the harsh conditions of a raw concentration camp.

It is in his role as tattooist where he first meets Gita – a young woman whose life gives his purpose and hope. This hope, he reflects back to Gita, her friends and other prisoners, providing some relief in their harsh and mundane existence.

Based on a true story, the Tattooist of Auschwitz combines historical events and the power of storytelling to remind us of a dark period of world history, while highlightlighting the power of the human spirit. The relationship of Lale and Gita blossoms in a detention camp, inspite of their forboding circumstances; and Lale’s support of others makes you wonder when and if he will be caught out by the camp commanders. But in the spirit of survival, Lale perseveres while ever he can.

The historical accuracy of the novel has been questioned by some reviewers, but we must be reminded that it is a STORY based on the RECOLLECTIONS of a Holocaust survivor interpreted/RETOLD by another. The author answers critics thus:

“I have written a story of the Holocaust, not the story of the Holocaust. I have written Lale’s story.” In November, she told the New York Times: “The book does not claim to be an academic historical piece of non-fiction, I’ll leave that to the academics and historians.” Author Heather Morris speaks to the Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/dec/07/the-tattooist-of-auschwitz-attacked-as-inauthentic-by-camp-memorial-centre

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a moving depiction of lives impacted by war – the loss, the cruelties, the friendships, the hardships, the loves… The resilience of the human spirit shines in this novel and it the memories of this harsh experience which Heather Morris brings to the page in Lale’s story, as told to her in many heartbreaking interviews.

I was not as emotionally impacted by this story as when reading The Book Thief or even The Boy in Striped Pajamas (which has also been criticised for several historical inaccuracies).

As stated earlier, there are many other stories based on the Holocaust which YA readers might enjoy, such as the Once series by Maurice Gleitzman, Alexander Altman A10567 and The Wrong Boy. Not all are going to be as accurate as you might expect from Corrie Ten Boom’s the Hiding Place or the Diary of Anne Frank, but telling the stories of survivors may give some understanding and hope that such an atrocious event may never happen again.

# Does Historical Fiction need to be 100% accurate? 

# Heather Morris wrote this after years of interviews with an elderly survivor of the Holocaust –  where else might some inaccuracies occurred in the tale?

# There is a YA version of the Tattooist of Auschwitz which may be more acccessible for younger readers.

# Here’s a range of Holocaust fiction found on GoodReads. Read the reviews to choose others you may like to followup, and maybe even add you own comment or rating once you join.

Sagas and history – Iceland

‘Saga Land’ was not what I was expecting – but then, the collaboration between broadcaster, Richard Fidler, and Kari Gislason, a writer and academic born in Iceland starts with multiple but different needs to investigate Icelandic history. So really, you could expect something unexpected.

Kári was born Iceland – the product of an affair, hidden by his father. In the spirit of his mother, he has travelled beyond Iceland to Australia (with her) but also discovered an impulsion to study Icelandic literature at university, rather than the law studies he first engaged in. 

‘Saga Land’ moves between the observations of journalist, Vidler, recollections of Gislason and the Icelandic sagas they wish to share.   

There are many different themes which flow through ‘Saga Land’ – providing an insight to the culture of Iceland. Honour, conflict, violence and family heritage are strong elements of the tales.

“Each character is responding to a situation in which violence seems necessary and ceaseless. And somehow, the saga… prompts us to see the strangeness of the characters’ behaviour in the light of their desires, their complexity as human beings.”

The different perspectives of Kari, a native of Iceland, and Vidler, an Australian journalist, provide an interesting balance. Kari’s investigations, as a returned Icelander, reveal a personal insight as he revisits his childhood home – though being half-Icelandic and in search of is heritage. Vidler provides journalistic structure, while being genuinely interested in Kari’s Icelandic heritage and, personally engaged.

What a great and inspiring learning experience for all (readers included). So it doesn’t really matter what I was first expecting when I picked up this book – it has given me a view of history, family heritage and culture perspectives I would have missed, had I not opened this book.

N.B. Another tale readers might enjoy is by Hannah Kent, Burial Rites – also set in Iceland, investigating the last women to be executed for murder in Iceland (an amazing literary debut for a young Australian author). Previously reviewed.

There is also a podcast you can visit, where Richard Vidler and Kari Gislason discuss the journey to create Saga Land if you want to hear from the authors.

Does Saga Land make you want to investigate your family heritage/culture?

Note – loved this as an audiobook/physical book combination. Especially when read by the co-authors, with authentic pronunciations of Icelandic names. (A bit like ‘reading’ Burial Rites by Hanna Kent)

Slipping back in time – Inheritance

How much does your past impact your present? Being able to timeslip would certainly provide a bit of information about your heritage, wouldn’t it?

In Carol Wilkinson’s latest book, Inheritance, Nic discovers her inheritance includes the ability to ‘time slip’, which first comes about when she is left at her mother’s childhood home. Left in the care of her crotchety old grandfather – since her father travels a lot for work, and her mother died in childbirth, she has lots of time to explore the remote family property.

Family secrets intrigue Nic, and as she explores – the house, the local community and the attitudes of the locals, conflict, confrontation, and secrets arise. Left very much to her own devices, she finds much more than she expected – slipping back to times of old in the rural district.

‘Inheritance’ has the usual ponderings of whether the past can be changed if you act proactively in the past. As she time slips, Nic meets her mother and other native residents of her rural community who add to her understanding of her family’s standing in the local community. But what is the real purpose of her visits to the past?

The conflicts of European and the native peoples of Australia during western settlement play a key part in the history of the Mitchell family, which Nic discovers during her timeslips. She discovers the shocking truth of her ancestors’ participation in a massacre. In the present, she teams up at school with Thor, another teen trying to understand his own ancestral legacy.

This is a well-considered story dealing with our Australian heritage from alternate points of view – settler vs aboriginal, Nic vs her ancestors, Nic vs Thor, grandfather vs granddaughter. It presents some interesting what-ifs and asks us to consider Australia’s brutal settlement history, and how we should begin to make amends.

Would you like to timeslip to find out about your family’s past? What would you change if you could?

For other books by Carol Wilkinson see: http://carolewilkinson.com.au/books/