Tag Archives: historical

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman
Henry Holt, 2017

Heiligman (Charles and Emma, 2009) artfully lays out her magnificent biography of the Van Gogh brothers “as if you are walking through a museum show of their lives – a collection of paintings, drawings, and sketches.” This series of chronologically arranged vignettes, grouped into thematic “galleries,” is written in the present tense and illuminates the lives of Vincent and his younger brother Theo and their deep and intense relationship.

There are two touchstones which the author returns to several times. One is a conversation the teen brothers had on a walk together in 1872 in which they pledge that “they will be more than brothers, more than friends. They will be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art.” She also uses as a central metaphor the idea of Vincent and Theo “carrying each other’s parcels.”

Drawing deeply on the plethora of letters from, to, and between the brothers (and recording this in detail in the endnotes), she follows them from their early years in rural Netherlands across Belgium, England and France, sometimes together, often apart. Echoing Vincent’s eclectic and evolving style, the author moves fluidly between sketches, impressions, and richly detailed portraits narrating the brothers’ friendships and romances, their mental and physical states, and the development of their work, showing how these are all fused together.

Theo (left) and Vincent

Though Vincent is the more famous one, she argues that without Theo’s support – financial, emotional, and professional – he would not have become the magnificent artist we know. Using black and white reproductions of ink drawings as illustrative “gallery” dividers and an insert of color prints of key paintings, the author connects Vincent’s life with his work and gives the reader an insight into his process and vision.

Ms Heiligman has succeeded in writing an intricate and layered biography that readers will enjoy both as a story of the complicated bond between two brothers and for the understanding that they gain into one of the world’s most renowned painters and his art.

Extensive backmatter also includes a list of people, a thorough timeline, sources, and index.

Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky

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Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky
Scholastic, 2017.

This leaden World War II middle grade novel fails to bring to life an intriguing slice of history. 16 year-old Valya makes her way out of besieged Stalingrad and eventually joins up with the women aviators of the 588th Bomber Regiment – nicknamed the Night Witches by the Nazis. The flat present tense narration, laced with undigested dumps of historical information, generates little emotional connection with the characters. The action hurriedly tracks the Witches through the last four years of the war as the Russians drive the German Army out of their country, and the regiment’s constantly changing location would have been much easier to understand with a map. However, towards the end, there are two episodes – Valya’s crash-landing in enemy territory, and her rescue of her sister Tatyana from a prison camp – which, though somewhat lacking in credibility, are terrific stories that generate real tension. Irritatingly, there are no author’s notes or further sources on the Night Witches, so readers are on their own to sort out fact from fiction and to find out more about these young women fighter pilots or any of the other characters mentioned.

Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff

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Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff
Candlewick, 2017.

Set in the early 20th century, this powerful, spare novel, written by Mal Peet and completed by Meg Rosoff after his death, centers on Beck who, with a long gone African father and dead white mother, finds himself at the mercy of a cruel system. Starved and mistreated at a Liverpudlian orphanage and then, at the age of 15, shipped to Canada where he is physically and sexually abused by the Christian Brotherhood before being given as slave labor to a farmer. Finally Beck takes his fate into his own hands and runs off, simply heading west with no purpose.

For much of the novel, Beck drifts and is a passive, somewhat detached presence. He yearns for something but cannot articulate what he wants until he sees it in others: love, family, home. His monochromatic lack of emotion is set against the rich glow of those who come to love him. Bone and Irma, a black couple involved in bootlegging, take him in and show him what love can look like. Then Grace, an older woman with Siksika mother and white father, finds him in a state of almost primal rebirth after a storm and takes him in. Their mutual desire stirs him deeply and confuses him and this relationship is the focal point of the novel.

Beck’s horrifying treatment by the priests, though limited in detail, and the realistically portrayed racism of the era make this book more suitable for older teen and adult readers.

Mal Peet died before he finished this novel and Meg Rosoff completed it. Afterwords from  Rosoff and Peet’s wife give few clues as to how the book was written, though Rosoff does tip her hat to Peet’s turn of phrase.

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Polaris by Michael Northrop

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Polaris by Michael Northrop
Scholastic, October 2017

Mr Northrop has always been good at fast-paced adventures, and he turns that talent to a new genre – one he calls “historical science fiction.” It’s a well-plotted thrill ride with some excellent surprises that will appeal to middle grade lovers of speculative fiction with a side of horror.

On an 1830’s scientific expedition to Brazil, the captain and a handful of the crew of the Polaris accompany a botanist into a jungle inlet. A week later, only half of them return and there is sinister mystery surrounding what they discovered. A mutiny ensues, leaving just six boys on the ship and they decide to sail back it to the US. It gradually emerges that there is someone or something on board with them and it is not friendly.

The characters are roughly drawn but serviceable for keeping the plot moving along. We see the narrative through the eyes of three of them – Owen, the captain’s nephew, Manny, a Spanish boy with a secret, and Henry the botanist’s assistant. There are tensions between them pivoting on class, science, and nationality.

The novel successfully combines historical sailing adventure and hold your breath creeping around below decks, with a dash of 19th century science sprinkled in. It rattles along and sweeps to a thrilling climax with a Jurassic Park-like question mark at the end. As with Surrounded by Sharks, Mr Northrop knows what to do to keep a reluctant reader engaged and the historical setting is far enough in the background so it doesn’t to get in the way.

Thanks to Scholastic and Netgalley for the digital review copy

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The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick

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plot-to-kill-hitlerThe Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick
Balzer + Bray, 2016

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the youngest son in a large, wealthy, brilliant German family. Born in 1906, he lived through the First World War (in which one of his brothers was killed) and then went into theology, becoming an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime at a time when the Church was, at best, keeping quiet and, at worst, actively supporting Hitler and his decidedly unChristian policies.

Dietrich, along with his one of his brothers and two brothers-in-law plus members of the military all became involved in a failed conspiracy to kill Hitler. Most of them were captured and executed before the end of the war.

After a 1943 prologue in which Bonhoeffer is quietly awaiting the imminent arrival of the Gestapo to arrest him, the subsequent chapters are laid out chronologically, mixing both the events in Germany and Bonhoeffer’s activities and thought processes. This allows the reader to see how he progresses from a brilliant theology student to outspoken opposition, as the Nazis unleash their “Final Solution” and shows his justification for plotting to commit murder.

McCormick does a terrific job of showing how Bonhoeffer’s position was solidified by both his internal threshing through of the issues and by external discussion with members of the Church outside Germany, notably in New York. He had many opportunities to stay out of Germany but his conscience would not let him: “It was not enough to simply “bandage the victim under the wheel” of the government, he said. The church had a duty to jam a stick in the wheel itself.” (Hey – notice any similarities to the present day in the US?).

Throughout the book, the author inserts snippets of a timeline, so the reader can understand the context of what they’re reading, and there are also boxed off inserts which further explain some of the events.

Back matter includes an author’s note explaining how Bonhoeffer’s writings have resonated with oppressed people across the world.

(Note: there is a quotation on the back of the book “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” which is attributed to Bonhoeffer. Unfortunately this appears to be an incorrect attribution.)

A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson

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bandits-taleA Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson
Knopf, 2016.

Taking stylistic and plot arc cues from the picaresque novels of the 18th and 19th century (what? You don’t know what those are? Neither did I until I read the author’s note), this charming tale manages to squeeze in social commentary as well as a heartwarming tale of an early American immigrant.

11 year-old Rocco Zaccaro is brought to America in 1887 by a padrone who has promised to send money back to Rocco’s impoverished family in Southern Italy. But the padrone makes money by sending boys out to be street musicians – then takes the money they earn while keeping them on the border of starvation.

Rocco has got a bit more gumption than many of the boys and, while getting himself into scrapes, many illicit, along the way, ultimately ends up as a boy his father would be proud of.

Though Hopkinson has a great time with Rocco’s romp through the seedy side of late 19th century Manhattan, she also has a serious purpose as well. Through weaving in real life people, she looks at the press exposure of child exploitation by Max Fischel and photographer Jacob Riis, as well as the first inkling of animal rights through “meddlers” Mike and Mary Hallahan. These characters are completely embedded in the story and the author does a great job of not making their roles and issues stand out.

Ideal for any middle schooler who has enjoyed Oliver!

Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz

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projekt-1065Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2016.

Set in World War II Berlin, this exciting, fast-paced adventure story mixes spy story thrills into a well-researched historical setting.

Michael O’Shaunessey is the 13 year-old son of the Irish ambassador to Germany, and the family uses Ireland’s neutral status as a front for spying for the Allies. Michael is at a Hitler Youth school, and under this cover rescues a British airman. Once he has graduated to the SRD (the Hitler Youth equivalent of the Gestapo), he becomes involved in a plot with global stakes.

The reader will be as appalled as Michael by what the Hitler Youth are allowed to get away with and, indeed, what they were used for in the latter days of the war. In the useful Author’s Note, Gratz rightly recommends Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth (Scholastic, 2005) for further reading.

Michael himself is not a particularly original character – he is smart, capable with his fists, and an upright and moral boy. He has a handily photographic memory, but has a flaw too – he is deathly afraid of heights (and you’ll never guess what he has to do to overcome the villain!). Much more interesting is his friend Fritz, something of a metaphor for Hitler and other such bullies, who starts as the weakling butt of the Hitler Youth jokes, but rises quickly to become a feared and fanatical leader.

The writing is straightforward and unadorned, and the action races along to a rousingly cinematic, if not entirely credible, climax, but along the way there is some interesting ambiguity. The book is well pitched for middle grade readers who enjoyed the WWII action of Margi Preus’s fictional Shadow on the Mountain (Abrams, 2012)  and Philip Hoose’s nonfiction The Boys Who Challenged Hitler (FSG, 2015)..

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