The House of Dies Drear (Virginia Hamilton)


I don't know about you people, but I think ghost stories are lame. They're creepy, and weird, and give me the heebies jeebies. I really can't back that up with anything substantial or scientific or factual...just not a fan of the weirdness.

I thought Dies Drear was going to be different. I had such hopes that this book would be as much about the history of the Underground Railroad as some of its reviews tout. The first few chapters were promising. I learned that approximately 100,000 slaves fled to Canada for freedom between 1810 and 1850, and that 40,000 of them had passed through Ohio. However, that fact was pretty much it as far as the Underground Railroad goes. The rest of the book was suspenseful at times, but had more to do with the supposed ghosts inhabiting Dies Drear's house (the secret chambers of which he used to hide runaways) than anything else.

Here's my other beef with this book: [whispering] I don't really like Virgnia Hamilton's style. [cue "shocking" music]
I want to. I like her. I like her purpose. She must have been something special because she won numerous awards, including a Coretta Scott King, a Newbery, and an ALA Lifetime Achievement Award. She was one of the best known and most distinguished children's book authors in American history. But I just don't like her style. The dialogue is dry and choppy. The characters are emotional wastelands. The plot, even when multiple stories intertwine, are shallow and lack complexity.

The thing is, I'm supposed to like her style. She's a very important author in our history! What am I missing?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie)


Born "with water on the brain," 14 year old Junior is seizure-prone and poor as dirt. Here he tells the story of life on his Spokane Indian reservation, in all its shocking and gut-wrenching glory. Junior's physical issues and desire for a different life cause him to be something of a target on the "rez," and before long he finds himself enrolled at Reardan, the closest mostly white high school. Violence, cruelty, alcoholism, racism, and tragedy are normal daily occurrences for Junior; though his voice is laden with wit and charm, still the book is peppered with negative stereotypes about the Native American culture.

The oppressive poverty is the worst, and the root of all the other issues. Junior's take:

"It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor."  (pg. 13)

Though it is overrun with stereotypes, the difference for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is that as the narrator, Junior is a funny yet deeply self-reflective Native American. He describes experiences with his culture that cannot be disputed by those of another race. Another consideration is that through use of Junior’s very strong, specific voice, these stereotypes are brought to light to reveal their complex combination of truth and utter ridiculousness.

Because it is so heavy laden with negative stereotypes, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may at first seem a risk to young readers in promoting the very untrue notion that Native Americans are inferior to other ethnicities. Because of the way Alexie tells Junior’s story, the novel does more good than harm in the realm of typecasts. Awareness of the stereotypes and disputing the untruths promotes the integrity of the Native American culture. Young readers without experience in or with the Native American culture will be surprised at what Junior has to say about his life, but one of the most essential qualities of great literature is that it brings awareness to and appreciation of cultures different from our own. 

Blood on the Tracks (Cecelia Holland)

In 1877, the United States was just recovering from the Civil War. The railroad industry was booming, which meant the men who owned the railroads were fantastically rich. And greedy. In a meeting the men decided they weren't as rich as they wanted to be, so they agreed to kick it up a notch by cutting the railroad workers' wages by 10% and increase their workloads. The result was overwhelmingly catastrophic.

The workers began a strike, which snowballed into an all-out war between the remaining local militia and a mob of railroad workers driven crazy by anger. The railroad business owners completely underestimated the mob, and in the span of one night (July 20, 1877), the entire town of Pittsburgh was thrown into complete chaos. Innocent people were shot and killed by stray bullets, buildings were set on fire, and firefighters were held at gunpoint to prevent them from putting the fires out. After the massacre, the number of people who died resulting from wounds inflicted during the chaos is still unknown to this day. That which was documented is completely harrowing. One 4 year old girl was shot in the knee and her leg had to be sawed off. Another Irish immigrant who had only been in the country for a few days was killed without ever even realizing what the fight was even about. Because of the damage inflicted to the cities and to the railroad businesses, the "bosses" learned a lesson that has impacted the way workers have been treated ever since. The workers learned the very same lesson. There is great power, and great responsibility, in mass revolt.

Maybe I just never paid attention in history class, but I must shamefully admit, I didn't even know there was a "Great Railroad Strike of 1877." Did you?

Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen)


When you reach the end of the short time each of us is given on this Earth, what will be your most memorable moments? For Jacob Jankowski, who is in his nineties, his most powerful memories are from the days he worked for the traveling circus. Starting with the very unexpected death of his parents, Jacob's circus story is filled with sadness, violence, poverty, and injustice. In one situation after another, Jacob (and his new friend Rosie) are connected in a supernatural way. They are both alone and in need of a place to belong. Only for Jacob and Rosie, because it's filled with selfless, crazy people who want only to hurt them, the circus will never be the right home for either of them.

Oh, and another thing...Rosie isn't who you think she is. 

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/.