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June 2023

Hattie’s mom has died, leaving Hattie alone with her gruff, grieving father. After Hattie chops off her braids in a fit of rage, Hattie’s Pa buys her some boy clothes, introduces her as Harley, and trains her to help him as a river man. While she misses her Ma, Hattie begins to find some joy in her strange new life as a river rafting”boy.” When she and her Pa take a dangerous journey down river, Hattie begins to realize that there’s more behind her Pa’s silence than she first thought. Hattie is a strong heroine who will appeal to middle grade girls who love Laura Ingalls and are ready for a more challenging character.

Charlie’s mom died of cancer, and his dad has retreated into silence to cope with his grief. Lonely and friendless, and looking for an escape from junior high bullies, Charlie wanders into the woods one day and meets a grizzly bear. But this is no ordinary grizzly bear, as Charlie soon discovers. The grizzly bear, Emory, soon becomes a friend to Charlie. But keeping a grizzly bear as a secret friend is no easy task. Charlie must decide whom to trust with his secret, and how he can protect Emory from the community.

I loved that this book wasn’t just an animal story. Charlie has to deal with all sorts of realistic issues: bullies at school, after school fights, pretty girls, first dances, first kisses, arguing with his dad, missing his mom, and watching his dad enter the dating world. While this is an adult novel, and not juvenile fiction, it reminded me a lot of The Nine Lives of Travis Keating. The subject matter might be a bit much for most middle school students, but high school students as well as adults will enjoy this heart-warming, realistic and slightly fantastical story about a boy and a bear who rescue each other.

Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur

06th February 2012

I loved LaFleur’s debut novel, Love, Aubrey and her second novel, Eight Keys was just as good. Elise has lived with her aunt and uncle ever since her father died when she was 3. She loves her aunt and uncle, and spends much of her time playing with her best friend named Franklin. But now that Elise is turning 12 and entering middle school, her safe, comfortable life seems to be changing. Suddenly, “playing” is no longer the cool thing to do, a 6th grade bully is picking on her, homework is piling up, and Elise begins to take out her frustration on the one friend who loves her as she is, Franklin. One day, Elise discovers a key in the barn with her name on it. Looking for answers, she takes the key and unlocks a door that gives her back the past, while at the same time, helping her to begin moving forward.

This is an excellent book for 5th-7th grade girls. Elise’s story is honest and real. LaFleur deals with the realities of friendship and middle school without exaggeration. And although Elise must find her own answers, she is surrounded by loving adults as well.

A true story about two very different men of faith. One was a Jewish rabbi, Albert Lewis, who grew up in the Jewish faith, and served as rabbi in the same synagogue from the time he became a rabbi, to the day of his death.   The other man, Henry Covington, was neglected as a child, lived a life of crime, yet ultimately sought forgiveness and became a Christian pastor to the homeless.

I’m struggling to find the words to express accurately how I feel about this book.  There are things about it that I love:

  • Albom honestly writes about his own faith, how it developed as a child, how it changed as he became an adult, and how he grew through his relationship with the rabbi and the pastor.  Albom’s feelings at the beginning of the book mirror that of many, no matter what their faith.  He describes it this way:

…by the time I graduated and went out into the world, I was as well versed in my religion [Judaism] as any secular man I knew.  And then?  And then I pretty much walked away from it.  It wasn’t revolt.  It wasn’t some tragic loss of faith.  It was, if I’m being honest, apathy.  A lack of need…I didn’t need to ask God for much, and I figured, as long as I wasn’t hurting anyone, God wasn’t asking much of me either.  We had forged a sort of “you go your way, I’ll go mine” arrangement, at least in my mind.                                                                                                                       pp.12-13

  • Albom writes about 2 men who are worthy of being written about.  Today, so many books are written about people who have done absolutely nothing with their lives except for becoming famous.  Rabbi Lewis and Pastor Henry were and are good men who have helped countless people in their own unique ways.  It’s refreshing to read about real people doing real good, not for fame or glory, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.
  • The book makes you think:  What are you doing with your life?  What is really important?  Where will you go when you die?  What do you think about people of different faiths?  How do you treat them?  Do you have hope in the present?  In the future?

While there are many positive things about Albom’s book, I can’t say that I loved it.  In spite of all the good things that Albom learned from the pastor and the rabbi, and in spite of all the personal growth that Albom shows, he didn’t acknowledge the only thing you really need to know about God.  Pastor Henry shared it with him, but somehow, Albom doesn’t see it.  At one point, Henry is talking about his past life and the sins he committed.  Henry says:

You can’t work your way into heaven.  Anytime you try and justify yourself with works, you disqualify yourself with works.  What I do here, every day, for the rest of my life, is only my way of saying, “Lord, regardless of what eternity holds for me, let me give something back to you.  I know it don’t even no scorecard.  But let me make something of my life before I go…And then, Lord, I’m at your mercy.”

pp. 220-221

Salvation is not earned, and it cannot be obtained through good works.  It is a gift from a merciful God, paid for through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. (Romans 10:9)  I’m going to say something that is not politically correct at all, but it is what I believe, based on the Bible:  Good people do not go to heaven.  People who believe in Jesus as their Savior go to heaven.

The ending of the book was just sad for me, and not because it ended with a funeral.  It was sad because I know that so many people will come away from reading this book more lost than ever.  They will have read a hopeful, inspirational story about two men, they will have learned about living a good life, about talking to God, about treating others with respect, about respecting traditions, and about thinking about someone besides themselves.  As wonderful as all of that seems, our righteous acts are like filthy rags before God.  Only Jesus can save.

New Mercies by Sandra Dallas

17th August 2009

Dallas veers from her typical story setting (Midwest plains) and sets this book in Mississippi.  Nora travels from Colorado to Mississippi to claim an inheritance from an aunt she never knew.  As she settles her aunt’s estate, Nora uncovers some secrets in her family tree, and finds peace in her own life as well.

If I didn’t know how outstanding Dallas’ books could be, I would’ve said this one was pretty good.  But I know her books can be so much better.  The two things I enjoy the most about Dallas’ books are the strong friendships that her female characters develop, and the unique and powerful conversations they enjoy together.  New Mercies didn’t have those strong friendships, and the character development felt kind of flat.  I had to struggle to finish this one.

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