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So Big by Edna Ferber

20th February 2012

Orphaned at age 19 in the late 1800’s, Selina accepts a job as a school teacher in the community of New Holland. Even though New Holland is only a few hours drive by wagon to her former life in Chicago, Selina is not prepared for the shock of living in the tiny, conservative truck-farming community. The grinding work and poverty take a toll on even the hardiest of souls. Determined to continue finding beauty in life and learning, Selina throws herself into her teaching, and later into her family farm. When her son, Dirk, “SoBig” DeJong is born, Selina promises herself that he will not be bound to the farm, and that he will have every opportunity that she herself lost. This is a rich novel, with much to discuss and analyze. I was most struck by how Selina lost every privilege, and yet didn’t lose hope, either for herself or her child. Dirk’s response at being given every opportunity would also be worthy of discussing.

Iris is an orphan, sent to live with her aunt and cousin. From the beginning, Iris struggles to fit in with her new life. Her only comfort comes from her aunt’s goats, for which Iris is responsible. Things go from bad to worse when Iris’ aunt threatens the goats, and Iris determines to take a stand to protect them.

The suspense of this book just about killed me. From the opening pages, you know what will happen to Iris, but not how she gets to that point. For the rest of the book, you are left anticipating the worst. While the plot was engrossing, there were points throughout the book when it became too intense for me and I had to put the book down for awhile. Overall, it was a great story and I was inspired by Iris’ courage and resilience.

I’ve read some great historical fiction recently, ranging from 1840’s Ireland to 1950’s New Jersey.    First up is the Children of the Famine trilogy by Marita Conlon-McKenna.  This juvenile fiction series follows 3 Irish children, orphaned in the Great Famine, as they search for a new home and a place to belong.  It would be interesting to compare with Nory Ryan’s Song.

Moving to the 1870’s and Idaho Territory.  In Jenny of the Tetons, Carrie is orphaned by an Indian attack as her family makes its way to Oregon.  With no where else to go, Carrie makes her home with Beaver Dick, a trapper and his Shoshoni wife, Jenny.  Beaver Dick and Jenny are based on real people, and each chapter begins with an excerpt from Beaver Dick’s journal.

Private Peaceful is the battlefield reflections of a 16 year old private in the British army.  The tension builds with each chapter as a crucial night comes to an end.  An excellent choice for middle school boys.

And finally, we have Newbery Honor winning Penny from Heaven.  11 year old Penny lives with her mother and her mother’s parents.  While her life with her mother’s family is quiet and controlled, it is her dead father’s family that provides noise and excitement.  During one eventful summer, Penny discovers the secrets behind her father’s death, and brings both sides of her family together.

These books are the first two in the Chaos Walking series.  Todd lives in Prentisstown, a town that is full of noisy men, men who can hear each other’s every thought.  But even though each thought is public, secrets are still being kept.  Todd discovers a mysterious girl and suddenly must run for his life, away from everything he thought was true.

Some things I loved about these books: The combination of sci-fi (they take place on another planet) with the dystopic society; the growth that Todd shows from a boy to a man; the hard questions the characters face about the use of violence; the complex, lying “bad guy” (who reminds me of Ben from Lost); the relationship between Todd and his arch-enemy Davy; and the fine lines the characters walk between good and evil.  Even though this is a young adult series, the questions the characters must wrestle with are difficult ones that people of all ages will have to answer.

These aren’t happy books.  They are quite violent and there’s a lot of death.  If you’re looking for a happy read, or a story that wraps up at the end of the book, these aren’t for you.

Book Overload

08th October 2009

The stack of books on my desk, waiting to be reviewed, is insurmountable.  I will never get to them all.  So for the sake of time, I need to do a combo post.  Here are the books I’ve been reading the past few weeks.  Most of them have been fantastic:

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf–Two young girls are missing in the woods.  Told through multiple perspectives, the families work to find their girls, and one of the girls, Callie, works to regain her voice.  I had a hard time putting this one down.

Day After Night by Anita Diamant–A fictional account of the October 1945 rescue of Jewish detainees from the Atlit internment camp in Israel.  A grim reminder that the plight of the Jews didn’t end with the surrender of Germany.

The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam–The autobiographical account of Somaly Mam, who was sold into prostitution in Cambodia as a young girl, was able to escape, and returned to help other girls.  An amazing and heartbreaking story that continues today.

While I’m Falling by Laura Moriarty–A college student and her mom try to figure life out.  I love the way Moriarty writes about mother-daughter relationships.

Blood on the River: James Town 1607 by Elisa Carbone–A fictional account of Samuel Collier, page to Captain John Smith and his journey to Jamestown.  I read this after having visited Jamestown Settlement.  The book brings the familiar story to life.

The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick–I can’t believe I didn’t discover this book earlier!  A love of reading and writing saves a dystopic civilization.  Great book.

Lost and Found by Andrew Clements–Twin brothers take turns going to school, and in the process, discover who they are as individuals.  Not my favorite by Clements, but well done nonetheless.

Shackleton’s Stowaway by Victoria McKernan–One of the most amazing adventure stories I’ve ever read, based on the real journey made by Ernest Shackleton and his crew as they attempted to cross the Antarctic continent in 1914.  Highly recommended.

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