The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)

As a reader, I often sail through pieces of literature or nonfiction.   With a goal to read everything (yes, truly), many times I underestimate how deeply a book can affect a person. The Good Earth is one of those rare books that has a deep and lasting hold on my heart. After about a month of reading it, I finally completed it last night, and lay awake thinking of the characters and wondering what happened so some of them and why they experienced one issue or another in the book. This family and this culture is one I will not soon forget.

The Good Earth is set in pre-revolutionary China. The main character is Wang Lung, and we meet him on his wedding day. He is a simple man but capable and very willing of hard work. His own father has ingrained in Wang Lung that nothing is more important than the land. The land that his family owns is one of the few constants in this book. I have thought often of its symbolism and irony.
Thanks to Wang Lung's (and his wife's, whose name is O-Lan) incredible devotion to his land, and to hard work, the land is profitable. They live in peaceful sufficiency, until a great drought comes upon the land. O-Lan works wonders with her creative ability to stretch what little food they have, but eventually it is not enough. Horrible atrocities take place when vast populations of people go hungry. Animals are eaten. Children are sold. Children are eaten. Families are attacked and torn apart. One of the saddest aspects of this culture is shown during the times of famine, which is that there is no respect whatsoever for human life...especially females. It is sad to the point of being absolutely maddening.

Eventually, Wang Lung and his family are once again able to work on their land that is once again fruitful. It is so fruitful, actually, that very quickly he becomes a very rich man. Soon their original earthen shack becomes a palace, and Wang Lung quickly forgets the loyalty, ingenuity, and faithfulness of his hard-working wife. Rather, he begins to criticize her appearance and find reasons to seek satisfaction at tea houses with local harlots. (Just one of the many reasons I can't stand this guy!)

The saga continues with Wang Lung's continued conflicts with his children and with other members of his family. At the conclusion of the book, he is an old man preparing for death but crying out for his sons to refrain from selling the land he has loved so much. It's sad that the land, not his faithful wife nor his talented children, is the only thing he truly loves.

When I read more about Pearl S. Buck (link below), I discovered that she knew so much about Chinese culture during this period of time because she had lived in China for much of her life with her missionary parents. Pearl went on to establish the very first international adoption agency. She has written two other novels about Wang Lung's family, and I definitely plan to consume those soon!

Fever 1793 (Laurie Halse Anderson)

Mattie Cook is a teenager who has to grow up in a real hurry. We first meet Mattie as a girl exasperated by her mother, flirting (1700's style) with a boy, whining because she doesn't want to help out in the family's coffeehouse, and whose biggest concern is how to finagle a piece of candy from her grandfather. By the end of the next few months in her story, she has buried that grandfather, survived the fever herself, seen enough sickness and death to last a hundred lifetimes, and transformed into a young woman who realizes that she has what it takes to run the family coffeehouse.

Thanks to this book, I learned that:
-There was a yellow fever epidemic in 1793 that killed around 5,000 Philadelphians.
 -Yellow fever was (and still is, in some parts of the world) contracted through bites of certain mosquitoes.
-There were conflicting viewpoints on how to treat the fever. Some doctors thought the pestilence must be bled from the victims. Others believed that clean water, fresh air, and liquids were the best treatment.
-The Free African Society of Philadephia was to thank for caring for so many sick people, turning away any attempts at compensation.
-Thousands of children were orphaned as a result of this illness.
-There were so many deaths that men rolled wheelbarrows throughout the city every morning calling for families to throw out their dead.
-Homes where yellow fever had been contracted were marked with a yellow strip of cloth tied to the porch railing, doorpost, etc.
-There was such fear of catching the disease that people fled to various surrounding smaller cities, which were guarded by armed men ready to send away or shoot any sick individuals who attempted to enter. 
These are only a few interesting facts that Fever 1793 teaches about this very dark period in American history. It is a magnificent piece of historical fiction.  

Additional links:
1. Museum of Philadelphia-
2. Eyewitness to History-
3. The Role of African Americans-
4.The author's website, containing Teacher's Guide, Playlist, etc.-

Chains (Laurie Halse Anderson)

I am a huge Laurie Halse Anderson fan. All of her books are piercingly honest, with just the right amount of wit and humor. Her characters and their dialogue are always spot on, and they bring an element of truth that shine the light of awareness on a variety of stories and issues otherwise unknown or ignored.

Laurie Halse Anderson has quite a voice. Not only does she speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves in her book, she also advocates on behalf of librarians dealing with issues of censorship. I had the distinct honor of attending a dinner with Laurie H.A. at the 2009 American Association of School Librarians Conference. Like her characters, she is witty and intelligent, with a heavy dose of honesty. When she speaks, people listen.

The story she tells in Chains is that of a slave girl whose freedom is hanging between two nations at war.

This is not a feel-good, happily-ever-after sort of book. It is raw and ugly and sad. I grew more broken-hearted for Isabel, the main character, with every passing page.
Set in volatile America in the 1770's, this book shows yet another horrific side of the war for independence.

Isabel is a young African American teenager who has had everything taken from her. Born a slave, she has never known freedom. She is an orphan charged with the care of her 5 year old baby sister, who suffers from seizures. Their mistress, who treated them well, taught her to read, and has even left in her will for them to be freed, has passed away. Her nephew, however, did not honor that request and promptly sells them to a cruel couple who are deeply devoted to the Loyalist cause. Isabel learns a great deal about the politics of war in their home. To say that she is treated like garbage would be quite the understatement. I have never despised a villain the way I have Madam Lockton, Isabel's new mistress.

Through it all, Isabel's hope to gain freedom for herself and her sister press her to become involved in the war by serving as a spy. She helps the American side, with their promise that she will be freed. Rather than being freed, however, Isabel is beaten until she can't think, has her teeth broken, is locked in stocks, and then branded on her face with a capital I (for Insolence). The Americans who promised her help turn their back on her. She eventually becomes (unwillingly) involved with the British side of the war, but they too use her and cast her aside.

Everyone seems willing to sacrifice the life, health, and spirit of this poor child. As desperate as the war for independence must have been, it is likely that there were many Isabels who unknowingly (and with great sacrifice) contributed to the success of the Americans. Yet, when our children study the American Revolution, where is the recognition of these individuals? As much as I love my country, I feel shame for the way these people, these Isabels, were treated. I do not know how all those people reconciled their desperate plight for freedom while they bought, sold, abused, and starved other human beings.  I am thankful for the Laurie Halse Andersons in the world who use their voice to speak for victims like Isabel.

*Chains is a National Book Award finalist and 2009 winner of the prestigious Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Visit the author's site for teaching resources and discussion guides:

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

I read this on a tip from a good friend months ago, and I am still trying to figure out what, exactly, I really think about it.

The gist of it is that it's the story of Liesel Meminger, a German orphan in the 1940's who is sent to live with foster parents in a small German town. Her foster family, (the Hubermans), take in a Jewish man and hide him in their basement. The "Germanness" of the plot is significant because the action takes place before and during World War II. I've read lots of Holocaust books, but none quite like this.
For example...
1. It is written from Death's point of view. Death was quite busy during World War II, and I found it odd and abstract to think of it all in this way. The personification of Death makes me uneasy, yet I do feel like it is a very real way to communicate all the loss of life during that time period.
2. Though written in narrative-style, it's not your typical, smooth flowing narrative. The parts and chapters are choppy and skip from one time period to another with no explanation. This is weird because it leaves the reader floundering to re-orient to the plot, yet that feeling also does serve the purpose of enabling the reader to get an idea of just how choppy and unsure and unsecure life was in Germany during that time.
3. Max, who is the Jewish man hiding in Liesel's basement, is interesting because he shows the guilty-feeling side of Jewish people who hid to escape Adolf Hitler's rage. He hurts constantly for the danger he puts them in, and he is tormented by the fact that Liesel and her family could be punished or killed just for hiding him.
4. The Book Thief is named so because Liesel falls so deeply in love with reading and with literature that she steals them. I'm no proponent of petty larceny, but is worth considering the reason for Liesel's thievery. She was a young girl in a hate-filled country in an era that paid little attention to the worth of a woman's brain. I found myself being proud of Liesel, not for what she did, but for having the courage to do it.
5. There is SO much sadness and death and dying and fear and anger in this book. It is hard to chew and even harder to swallow. However, it also has tiny little "ray of sunshine" moments that remind you of the complexity of human nature.
6. It is written about the German point of view of the Holocaust, and it does a good job of showing that not all Germans were Nazis and not all Germans were supporters of the murders of those millions of Jewish citizens.
7. If you like literary devices, this piece will impress you. There is an enormous amount of allusion to future events, which would make it seem like there are no real surprises in the text...yet there are twists and turns at every step.
The Book Thief is one of those rare books that picks and stretches your mind. It's scary and sad and hopeful and unique, and it isn't a book that fits any sort of mold...which is why I like it so much! The complexity makes it a nice choice for a book club or literature study, and would easily lend itself to some deep response writing.
The Book Thief is a 2007 Printz Honor book, a prestigious literary award given to works of excellence in young adult (teen) literature. Rumor has it, there's a movie version due out sometime this year.
I still don't know if I would want to see it.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Speare)

I listened to this one on CD. When I first picked it out, the cover art and title gave me the impression that this might be some flavor of a Salem witch trial story. In actuality, TWoBP was full of surprises.
Set somewhere in the late 1700's, 16 year old Kit Tyler was raised as royalty by her grandfather on the island of Barbados. After his death, she takes a ship to Connecticut to meet her only living family. Kit is in for quite a shock when she and all 7 of her fru fru-filled trunks get to the rigid Puritan settlement, and quickly realizes that life in Connecticut won't be much like life in Barbados.
Though her independent spirit and outspoken nature are appreciated and loved in Barbados, in Connecticut her "strange" ways quickly land her a witch accusation, and her friendship with a Quaker woman in the town (also an outcast) doesn't help much either.
One of this book's many surprises was that intertwined with the ridiculous witch hunt, Kit's adventurous voyage from Barbados, and a plague of fever that struck the colony, was a triple sided love story involving 3 guys, Kit, and her 2 cousins.
There are too many fun little details that would ruin the book if I were to share them, but overall this is a very interesting and "feel-good" kind of book, as everything turns out A-OK in the end.