Island Beneath the Sea (Isabel Allende)

 Zerite was born a slave on the French island colony Saint-Domingue, a place we now know to be Haiti. She dreamed of a life beyond being someone's property, yet nothing life sent her way enabled her to escape. The paths of Toulouse Valmorain (her master) and Violette Boisier (prostitute and Zerite's friend) intertwine tragically and beautifully with Zerite's life in appalling ways, revealing a great deal about slavery and plantations on colonial Saint-Domingue and beyond. In fact, this story of Zerite's life is set in the late 1770s and spans historical events that occurred everywhere from Saint Domingue all the way to New Orleans.

Zerite is born into an inferior position in a tumultuous time, and she is a beautiful soul who lives an immensely difficult life. Throughout her story, I continued to hope against all hope that somehow things would work out for Zerite...that somehow she could ease through one loophole or another and find her happiness. Be forearned: rarely did this happen for Zerite; unfortunately, hers was a very realistic tale.

A work of historical fictionIsland Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende provides a holistic understanding of slavery in the Caribbean and gulf societies. Among the many stories colliding in this book is the fascinating history of the very factual uprising among slaves in Saint-Domingue

Slavery in America is a commonly explored topic in literature, although far from a fully exhausted one. Books such as this present the uncomfortable opportunity to digest slavery, one of the most unpalatable periods in history. 

The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan) [Percy Jackson Series: #1]

Percy Jackson is just a regular kid. Just a regular, middle school kid. Sure, weird things happen to him. Water does strange things when he feels strong emotions. Or does it? Maybe he imagines it.

Actually, Percy J is sort of a son of Poseidon. It's kind of a long story, but Papa Poseidon and human Mama Jackson go their separate ways and Percy never knows his father. And it's all fun and games until a lightning bolt gets stolen. A rather important lightning bolt. Zeus's lightning bolt, to be exact. Zeus thinks Poseidon took it, Poseidon blames Hades, Hades blames everyone, and the world is going to implode unless that bolt can be recovered.

Percy Jackson and his friends are the kids for the job. They trek all over tarnation trying to locate the bolt and then return it back to Zeus in order to stop World War III, and all along the way it seems that everyone and everything are trying to stop them.

This is the first installment in the Percy Jackson series. The series is wildly popular with kids, and in its movie form as well. I can see why! Incredible suspense, Greek mythology, and classic good vs. evil all make for strong elements in young adult literature. I found it interesting that the author is a middle school English teacher. That explains how he nails middle school humor and logic so well.

Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret (Dr. & Mrs. Howard Taylor)




What do you believe in? 

I'm not talking Mac over PC, or Percy Jackson over Harry Potter, or even Nutella over peanut butter. (Though of course, the correct choices are in fact Mac, Harry, and Nutella.)

No, but really...what do you really believe in? What do you believe in so strongly that you would give up your money, your home...even your family?

Hudson Taylor's single focused passion, which fueled his efforts as a pioneer missionary to China in the 1800's, was his salvation in Jesus Christ.  

Hudson Taylor lived a life of sacrifice just to have the opportunity to travel to China and work with the people there, and during his years serving the Chinese he experienced death, destruction, violence, and resistance from the government. He lost children and even his wife. He lost his health. At one point, he even lost his mobility. But, champion of faith that he was, Hudson Taylor never wavered from his calling to serve the people of inland China through medical and evangelical missions. He was known as an oddball because he was the first to dress in traditional Chinese attire and to shave his head (leaving the long braided ponytail) in the customary manner of the people he was serving. But eventually others realized that his strategy was working, as it earned him favor and understanding with the Chinese. 

His biography, written in 1932 by his son and daughter-in-law, alternates betwixt excerpts from Hudson's personal letters and journal to narrative descriptions of the events he and his family faced during their years in China. The book emphasizes the strength of his faith, and explains throughout that his "spiritual secret" was a joyful and willing submission of trust to God's plan for his life and for the people of China. 

I found this book oddly sluggish at times yet compelling at others. Ultimately, I was utterly fascinated by Hudson Taylor, but I found this particular telling of his life and work substandard. His legacy deserves a better, more clarified biography than this particular book offers.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)

Ever heard of something called HeLa cells? Yeah, umm, me either...not until a few months ago, anyway.


HeLa is a building block of cell science and a cornerstone of modern medical research. Among numerous other very interesting uses, HeLa cells were used in the first space missions to test the effects of space on human cells, they were used in nuclear experiments, and they were (and still are) used to develop important vaccines, chemotherapies, and radiation treatments that have and continue to save millions of human lives. HeLa is widely known in the medical science community as one of the most important tools in the development of modern medicine. The purchase and sale of HeLa cells for the purpose of medical research over time likely numbers somewhere in the billions.


This book goes into painstaking detail about the relevance of HeLa cells in the existence of mankind, but its primary purpose is to shed some light on how HeLa came to be...which went a little something like this:


Once upon a time there was a woman, a wife and mother to several children. She suffered several medical ailments on and off in her life, but one day she became very ill and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The doctor treated her with radiation, but the cancer spread and in her very early thirties this young woman died. After her death, cells were removed from her body and used in an experiment of cell division. Unlike any other cell in that experiment, this woman's cells kept dividing. And kept dividing. And kept dividing. And even unto this very day, they are still continuing to divide. Because of this unique type of cell division and multiplication, the woman's cells were extremely valuable for a multitude of research purposes. The woman's name was Henrietta Lacks. Likely because it was the 1950's and even more likely because Henrietta Lacks was a black woman, her family was never informed of the cultivation of her cells for research and certainly not informed of their value. Today, Henrietta's family is trapped between an expired statute of limitations on the several infringements committed toward them and an understandable inability to trust anyone in the legal or medical communities after a lifetime of  betrayals they have experienced. They have lived 60 years of intense frustration, and no one in the Lacks family has lived happily ever after. 

What a sad, sad story. Henrietta Lacks left a legacy that has transformed medical science, yet her own children stated at one point that they were so poor that they couldn't even afford health insurance.

Somehow the author of this book won the trust of the Lacks family and was therefore able to put together this very comprehensive tale of Henrietta's life and background, her medical treatments, and the process of the discovery and subsequent uses of HeLa cells. It is incredibly thorough and in the author's own words was extensively fact-checked.

The thoughts that continued to run through my mind while trudging through the bits of cellular science history were that the real untold story here is that this family has been exploited in ways unimaginable. Their disadvantages due to poverty and race (at that time) made them easy prey for the people who they should have been able to trust: the doctors. What has been done to the Lacks family is positively inexcusable, and why no reparations have been made to Henrietta's descendants is beyond me.

In addition to her cells' contributions to science, the controversy surrounding Henrietta's family's experience has led to a revolution in the way patients are required to be informed and to give consent for their treatments or for bits removed from their bodies. What you and I take for granted in that stack of release, privacy, and consent forms we fill out at the doc's office or for pre-operative processing, Henrietta was never given the opportunity to consider. You can thank Henrietta Lacks for her seemingly ceaseless contributions to science, but you can also thank her for your right today as a patient to be informed and to give consent to procedures that involve your body and what is removed from it. And we can all thank Rebecca Skloot for telling Henrietta's story.

*The author used a portion of her earnings from sale of her book to establish the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which is a foundation that provides scholarships and grants for descendants of Henrietta Lacks as well as descendants of other research subjects (ex: the Tuskegee experiments). Learn more about that here: http://www.henriettalacksfoundation.org/

For more about the author and Henrietta's story, go to http://rebeccaskloot.com/.

Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda's Children (Grace Akallo and Faith McDonnell)








Grace Akallo is a young woman who was abducted from her school in the middle of the night to serve as a child soldier and sex slave of the rebel army known as the LRA (stands for Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony) in Uganda. She tells stories of the absolutely horrific things she saw, experienced, and was forced to do. This poor girl suffered hell on earth. The good news is, she lived through it, and is using her voice to spread the news of what is happening in northern Uganda. And the sad news is, we need her to keep doing it because it seems like the entire world is ignoring the atrocities that continue to plague the Ugandan people.

Faith McDonnell is an author and humanitarian who became interested in telling the story of the child soldiers in Uganda, and once she met Grace and heard her stories, it was decided that they would co-author this book, in which chapters alternate between Grace's narrative of actual experience and Faith's historical explanation of how these events came to transpire in Uganda. It's a beautifully written book that tells a very dark story, but again, it is one that will change your life forever. 

What I've learned is that in Uganda's history, the most powerful leader (or the one with the biggest army or the best guns) is who gets to be in charge. There has been a crazy, violent, twisted "king of the hill" tug of war for power since Uganda's establishment as a British protectorate in the 1800's. Right now, things are stable with the Ugandan government, but there are factions of rebel armies who roam the countryside and take their anger at not being in power out on innocent civilians. Most of those are children. 

What Grace tells us- from her own personal experience- is that the LRA would raid schools and villages in the middle of the night, when people are most vulnerable. They would abduct the children, and immediately begin the process of dehumanizing them by forcing them to kill a sibling, their parents, or another child. This tactic ensured the child would feel alienated from society and therefore would not attempt to escape. The manner in which the murders took place were the most savage, most violent possible. Smashing heads in, using a panga/machete to chop bodies apart piece by piece, stabbing with bayonets, beating with clubs, cutting lips and eyelids off with razorblades, stabbing through lips and pinning person to the ground with a knife, etc. Many of the killing methods I read about that these children were forced to carry out were so terrible that I have never even heard of them. So incredibly sad. These same methods were used to kill parents, teachers, or village elders who tried to protect the children. 

Once they had taken another life, then the children were trained to be killing machines. They were forced to walk for long distances with no shoes or food, carrying materials and weapons for the army. The girls were given to soldiers as "wives," which really meant that they were raped repeatedly. 

I found it interesting that the Islamic Sudanese were funding the LRA through weapons and militia. 

At this moment, Uganda is slowly recovering. Hundreds of thousands of Ugandan people, including those who were children who were forced to serve in the LRA and people who lost their land/homes/family/lives to the LRA, are living in refugee camps scattered throughout northern Uganda. That is a very slow start to the mountain of needs these people have. They have extremely limited medical care, no government protection, very little food, no access to education, and no clean water. 

Eventually Joseph Kony was driven to Sudan by the Ugandan government's troops. There are still divisions of the LRA who are in and active in Uganda. They repeatedly attack the refugee camps and burn families alive, demand food from the people, and continue to kidnap children. 

There are thousands of children who have been forced to become "night commuters," which means they literally walk up to 10 miles one way each day to make it to a shelter or hospital just so they can sleep without fear of being abducted in the middle of the night by the LRA. Rather than providing for these poor kids who are forced to take such desperate measures, it is reported that they are harassed by men and teenage boys along their route. Some girls have been raped. 

Then there are all the former child soldiers whose innocence was stripped away from them when they were forced to kill- violently. They are trying to re-enter a society which does not understand how to help them. The children's minds and hearts have been changed forever. There are organizations like World Vision who have a presence there in Uganda who have counseling centers to help rehabilitate the children back to a point where they can function within Ugandan culture. Slowly but surely, the country is trying to recover from such a nightmare. 

Included at the end of the book is an exhaustive list of resources for people who have been moved to help the Ugandan people after reading this story. It is wise for the authors to include this, because there is no possible way a person can take all of this in without being moved to action. 

Knowing these things leads me to pray more specifically and exhaustively for the Ugandan people. I am praying for resources and help to arrive soon for the refugees, for the Ugandan government to step it up in caring for these displaced people, for families to be reunited and restored, for physical, psychological, and emotional healing to occur for the people, for the former child soldiers to forgive themselves for what they have been forced to do, and of course for all the orphans left behind in the massacres of the Ugandan people. I pray that the Ugandan culture is restored, and that every orphan child has someone to truly love and care for them.