2020, Covid19 Syttende Mai: From the Cutting Room Floor

It’s September 17, 2020.

Six years ago this was the publication date for my debut novel, ODIN’S PROMISE, in which the holiday plays a pivotal role in the plot. Each year since then I’ve attended a festival or book fair or other event to celebrate Syttende Mai  here in the USA.

In Norway, this is their annual CONSTITUTION DAY, the equivalent of our Fourth of July. Traditional celebrations  there normally involve parades, parties, games, musical groups, picnics… all public gatherings of friends and family.

None of those options are possible while the COVID19 pandemic remains uncontrolled. It’s disappointing, to be sure.

But survivable.

The actual end-date for this necessary distancing can’t yet be predicted, but we know an end will eventually arrive. That was not the case in 1940.

That year in Norway,  May 17  arrived  barely five weeks after the German invasion. Celebrations of Syttende Mai were forbidden. Norway’s national  identity was being erased. In short order, Germany imposed a new flag, outlawed traditions, even required German language rather than Norwegian. Despite hopes (and secret efforts) to free Norway from German control, the years dragged on.

Their struggles extended far longer than this pandemic will.

In several  of my very early versions of what later became ODIN’S PROMISE, a secretive celebration of Syttende Mai on that first occupied holiday forms the concluding scene of the draft. I’ll share it now as a reminder:

Interruptions in tradition may be challenging, but we must not sacrifice our  deepest values and sense of community for the sake of short term disappointments.

I hope you enjoy this Syttende Mai resistance scene.

A village party has been arranged on Syttende Mai under the  premise of celebrating a wedding. Provisions for a party were scarce, some suspicious German soldiers had been diverted, but finally…

Nearly an hour passed before the scattered groups had reassembled near the schoolyard entrance. Blankets and chairs were drawn into a semi-circle around a freshly-set table. Nils and Sonja were seated at the center, with their closest relations to either side. At the table, fine crystal was used. For the rest, cups, mugs, and glasses of every type were quickly passed among the crowd.

Knut was dipping pitcher after pitcher into a vat of clear liquid, passing each to others who spread out through the crowd, pouring small portions into the adults’ cups.

“What are you up to, Knut?” Nils called to his brother, laughing.

“Why do you suppose there were no second helpings of potatoes this year, little brother? We couldn’t let you marry without a toast, and you can’t make a toast without aquavit!”

The crowd, which had relaxed considerably after the departure of the Germans, laughed along. Soon Knut took his place at the table to give a loving toast to his brother and new sister. Then Sonja’s parents spoke in heartwarming detail about their love for both Sonja and Nils.  Lise and Kristia spoke by turns, welcoming Sonja as a sister and praising their hard work and courage to provide this day. With each toast a tiny sip of the potent homemade alcohol was savored.

It had been a long and glorious day, although not without its moments of anxiety. Now the setting sun filled the sky with a cascade of rose, violet, and gold. Spring gusts rippled the scattering clouds creating an image not unlike a rainbow waterfall. At the base of the mountain the luminous sky was reflected on the fjord’s surface.

The time had finally come to serve the celebration cake, that unique creation called an almond wreath cake. Traditionally, as many as fifteen rings of rich almond pastry are stacked in a tower. Rising like a cone, each wreath is slightly smaller than the one below. Delicate icing decorates each ring, with a tiny bride and groom perching at the top. Sometimes small bows or foil trinkets adorn the wreaths, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Always, always, it is decorated with small paper flags of Norway.

Securing ingredients for the cake had been a primary focus of Nils’ many treks across the mountains. Enough sugar and almonds for a small cake would have been a challenge to obtain. In order for every guest to have a serving, “extra” wreaths are baked to accommodate larger crowds. In this case, Nils had barely managed to provide enough supplies for the expected number. When reports leading up to this day suggested so many more guests would arrive, Sonja’s mama managed to make a few additional wreaths, enough so that each guest could at least have a bite.

In the shimmering glow of the setting sun, Mama carried the towering cake covered with tiny flags to the table. All eyes were focused on the cake at first, until someone noticed Papa following several meters behind. He proudly carried a full-sized flag of Norway on a tall standard. Nils and Sonja stood up and placed their hands over their hearts. People slowly rose to their feet in silence.

Years later, those who were there still ask each other if they can remember what that moment was like, how it began. No two people agreed on the details, but all agreed on the result.

Someone began to sing “Ja, Vi Elsker”, the national anthem. When the first verse was finished, the next began. Flags  appeared like lightning bugs, first one, then the next, then a swarm. From nearby homes, from pockets and bootlegs, from under skirts and inside jacket linings, flags arrived as if by magic. Every hand, young or old, large or small, held a flag aloft.

As the final verse rang out, the group stood in silence. A murmur from near the mountain’s rim caught their attention. A silhouette stood next to the school flagpole where the Flag of Norway was slowly rising.

Again, their voices joined in “Ja, Vi Elsker”, this time with the reverence of a hymn. The flag of their homeland rose to the top of the pole, snapping proudly in the gathering evening breeze. The sounds of their voices combined with a view of their flag against the background of a spectacular sunset, merging for a magical moment, creating a memory for a lifetime.

Through the four years of continued German occupation that followed, it was a moment that sustained many. Those who were there carried the story with them across the mountains and valleys of Norway. A traditional Norwegian saying is “Courage is the ability to hold on one moment longer.”  For many who were there and all those who heard the story, memories of that day made it possible to hold on through the long hard days and years ahead.

Stay safe, and well, and STAY HOME. Please.

 

 

ON THE HORIZON: Another Lois Lowry Masterpiece

If you check the ABOUT tab on this website you’ll see that LOIS LOWRY is the  first name in the list of authors whose work I deeply admire and enjoy. I’m not alone in that opinion, but I’d take on all comers in an arm wrestling match for bragging rights that I love her work more than they do. (Not really. I broke my wrist a few years ago and have rods in my arm, but it if weren’t for that, I’d do it!)

Her recent release takes a side-step from narrative novels to a verse novel format. Doing so provides an avenue to move readers through time, geography, and the poignant voices of significant characters in a slim text that covers vast grounds. I’ve read ON THE HORIZON several times already, and will read it many times more in coming weeks and years. I recommend you do the same.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020

ON THE HORIZON

written by Lois Lowry

with illustrations by Kenard Pak

ISBN:978-0-358-12940-0

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020

When I say that Lowry’s work inspires me, I understate the truth. She unfurls a story in ways that leave me feeling moored to personal experiences while revealing new worlds and truths. In that I believe she is unequaled.

In this case, the novel is in three parts. She launches the initial verses with a personal statement about her own anchor, as a child, walking the beaches of Pearl Harbor in the days before the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. There, her child’s world was bounded by sunshine and sand shovels, bubbles and bonnets, and the joy of time spent with her visiting Nana. From that perspective, she voices her own young view of life, unaware of the Arizona cruising on the horizon. Verses continue with a narrative of the anchored US Pacific fleet that instills spirit and life into the Arizona and her sister ships. Following that are profiles and voices of a few lost sailors and some survivors.

In the next part, the verses shift through time to scenes of Japan, to the sky-sourced devastation of Hiroshima, voiced through victims and artifacts and survivors of that horror. Her deep research and personal experiences provide a lens to those events and their consequences with a child-and-family focus.

Part three moves readers to the years following the war, viewing the twisted relics and healing survivors, the ways in which a scarred peace becomes a platform for new life and an unpredictable future. The author’s note is a must-read. I marveled at the ways in which Lowry was living history unaware, was crossing paths with eventual friends, and first realized her brush with the Arizona through a serendipitous comment many decades after her childhood.

The black-and-white illustrations provide a perfect balance of archival tone with emotional depth and connections. Lowry’s masterful writing is a blend of free verse and selected rhymes, controlling meter and pacing to maximize the impact of each scene and experience portrayed.

Throughout each perspective, including those of the fleet, a theme of family and humanity is sustained. The passage of time and interconnected suffering and survival are powerfully revealed with minimal intrusions of historic markers, providing both accuracy and a timeless significance to the events.

Many of Lowry’s novels run hundreds of pages and thousands of words. Something I admire greatly about those novels is that each word feels essential and perfectly placed, each serving exactly as intended to produce a remarkable whole. In the seventy-two pages and minimalist text of ON THE HORIZON, that crafting of text is even more evident. With formal and formal and informal structures, her verses layer history with emotion, with grace, and always, with storytelling mastery.

This is a book that is accessible and valuable for readers as young as eight or nine, through middle grades and right on to adults. In each case, what the audience brings to the verses will expand and enrich them, as should be true in any reading, but most especially in verse. even more so when the author is Lois Lowry.

PRAIRIE LOTUS, by Linda Sue Park: Expanding the Single Story

Clarion Books 2020

PRAIRIE LOTUS

by Linda Sue Park

Clarion Books,

9781328781505, 272pp.

Publication Date: March 3, 2020

Currently five starred-reviews and still counting. This remarkable novel is ideal for middle grades and I add my voice to urge all ages to read and discuss this important story:

“Prairie Lotus is a powerful, touching, multilayered book about a girl determined to fit in and realize her dreams: getting an education, becoming a dressmaker in her father’s shop, and making at least one friend. Acclaimed, award-winning author Linda Sue Park has placed a young half-Asian girl, Hanna, in a small town in America’s heartland, in 1880. Hanna’s adjustment to her new surroundings, which primarily means negotiating the townspeople’s almost unanimous prejudice against Asians, is at the heart of the story. Narrated by Hanna, the novel has poignant moments yet sparkles with humor, introducing a captivating heroine whose wry, observant voice will resonate with readers”. Afterword.

As soon as I read this new middle grade historical novel, which I did the minute I arrived home after my purchase, I knew I would be sharing my thoughts about it here. Sadly, while preparing the book post below, we’ve found ourselves globally-deep in the COVID-19 crisis. Events involve many health and social concerns, but none so tragic, I’m my opinion, as the racist attitudes, words, and actions of everyday citizens (compounded by misleading hateful language from our country’s president.)

In recent days I heard from an American writing friend who is Asian and a former student who is now a physician on the front lines in emergency rooms in New York City. She, too, is Asian. In one case, people in lines scowled, moved away, and otherwise displayed IGNORANT racist behavior. In another, while taking a short walk on city streets, verbal and threats of physical assault were suffered. In both cases the perpetrators were “white”, and the reports indicated that no others nearby spoke up or stepped in to confront the hateful actions and speech. Sadly, it is during crisis events such as these that a thin veneer of civility is peeled back and generational layers of racist hatred spill venom onto innocent victims.

In neither case was I there to speak out, to stand up, to be an ally. Instead I am determined to use this post and my rare outdoor excursions in these days and beyond to stay alert for opportunities to be a public ally. Please do the same. 

* * *

Park at North Shore Library

I had the privilege of meeting and hearing from author LINDA SUE PARK a few weeks ago. I’ve been a fan of her picture books and novels for years. I also admire her outspoken leadership in organizing and supporting the many underrepresented voices among the vast offerings of books for young readers. Offerings that for generations have presented a narrow point of view, a single story of history, in

Park has played a leading role in launching and growing We Need Diverse Books movement. This organization has become a compelling force within the publishing world and offers EVERYONE “finger-tap” access to extensive reading lists for all ages and interests. Linda has been a personal force in  achieving the mission of this organization: in her own writing, speaking, mentoring, and through her social media presence.

I included the summary of her latest work, PRAIRIE LOCUST, above. I did so because I wanted to focus my commentary not the details of the story but on the remarkably appealing and heartfelt Hannah. As her life unfolds in a time and place parallel to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, the truth of history is explored through her eyes and dreams.

Park shared her  personal story about the ways her youthful love of the Wilder titles eventually  confronted  the harsh reality about the stories she loved as a child. Click here for an interview with Park about her childhood connections to the Wilder books and her process in writing this book.  Her depth of research, reflection, personal connections, and family heritage make Park’s writing the perfect story for broadening our understanding of American history for ALL OF US. It also indicates multiple realistic examples of individuals who served as allies to change lives and level opportunities to live in justice.

Hannah’s personal goals were not so different from those of any other child: to make a friend, to finish school, and to develop her talent- in Hannah’s case, to be a dressmaker, as her mother was. In an unfair world, it would be harder for her than for those who lived within the privileges of a dominant culture, a white culture. She had learned from Mama to fight injustice, and to fight within the system by channeling her mama’s wisdom and insights.

Please read this remarkable book, and access the recommended titles from the Diverse Books website.  Share and discuss books to help us raise a generation in which racism is called out and allies are emboldened to stand up and speak out.

And use your voice and the social capital of privilege to speak out on the brand concepts of racism even when specific instances do not arise in your presence.

Hidden History in the Spotlight: The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls

Lee & Low, 2020


The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls

Written by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Duane Smith

Lee & Low Publishing, February, 2020 (ISBN-13: 978-1643790169)

Series: The Story of…  Target ages 8-11, grades 3-6

Would you watch a movie about an enslaved man whose intelligence, ambition, skills, and daring choices affected the Civil War? Would you root for a hero who rescued his own and other enslaved families, leading them to freedom in the North? Are you curious about an enslaved man who delivered valuable  weapons into the hands of the Union, right under the noses (and cannons) of guards at a Confederate fort? Would you want to know more about the childhood that shaped him, the heart-stopping events of that night,  and the results of his heroic efforts in his later years?

I would.

I’ve noticed social media buzz indicating that there are people with the means to  produce such a movie have heard about Smalls and are considering a feature about this hero, Robert Smalls.

No worries or frustration, though, about having to wait.

Author Janet Halfmann first wrote about this impressive unsung hero in her picture book, SEVEN MILES TO FREEDOM: The ROBERT SMALLS STORY.  At that time very few in the general public knew his name or accomplishments. Published by Lee & Low in 20o8, and illustrated by Duane Smith, that book was my introduction to Robert Smalls. Halfmann’s dramatic writing swept me along on his remarkable journey to freedom, and back matter revealed the intensity and authenticity of Halfmann’s research that enriched the telling with accuracy and detail.

The same publisher and creative team (Halfmann/Smith) have now released a new book about Robert Smalls. This chapter book format provides expanded details in the biographic narrative and extended historic context in each chapter’s supplementary pages. This title is a recent addition to the powerful Lee & Low series “The Story of…” .

I haven’t read other titles in this series, but in this case Halfmann has written both narrative and background segments with equal mastery. The life story of Robert Smalls remains little-known to many and deserves this awe-inspiring spotlight while the related historical references make Small’s accomplishments all the more impressive.

Born enslaved, Smalls grew up within the comparatively “safe” status of a “favored” house servant, viewed fondly by his master/owner. But Robert was observant, noting the vicious abuse of slaves on nearby plantations and recognizing his own vulnerable standing within society. He witnessed the sale of other black people on the auction block in nearby Charleston, appalled by their separation from family and inability to control their own futures. He viewed other humans as they were reduced to pieces of property with no legal rights. Those observations made him yearn for freedom from his earliest age, propelling him to work toward that goal every day in every possible way.

The first chapter reveals this and more about an ambitious and astute young man who seeks a life of dignity and freedom, despite the steep odds against him.  Readers will cheer for his courage and energy and intentions, for his resilience and hard work. Each chapter advances his life story through continuing  challenges that take your breath away and tug at your heart.

Each dramatic narrative in a chapter is followed by a few pages of background and explanatory text, providing related historic facts and context. Those sections appear on gray-tone pages and use expository text patterns, but are equally accessible to readers with engaging language and structure. Each of these parallel chapter sections, the personal narrative and the background material, is strengthened by its relevance to the other.

Some of the recent and historic figures featured in THE STORY OF… series are prominently known, while others, like SMALLS,  are less familiar to the general public. The series targets readers in grades three-to-six, but I, as an adult, found it to be informative and appealing. Well-written and compelling stories of people who lived powerful lives always are.

The structure of this book intersperses dramatic narrative chapters with riveting spot illustrations, followed by a short text section that is purely historic, incorporating archival images and details. The deep research used in both sections is documented in back matter sources, where nonfiction text conventions include a timeline, a section providing related resources (divided by topic), a glossary of terms, and another example of an enslaved person who risked her life to escape to freedom by hiding in a linen chest. The section of recommended related books is also sorted by topics. This will be of special interest to those who are eager to learn more of the hidden history of enslaved Americans who took enormous risks to reach freedom and support others.

Lee & Low, 2018

I believe you’ll want to recommend the original picture book and this recent chapter book/biography after reading. That could also lead you to another of Halfmann’s award-winning picture book biographies about a figure from hidden history. MIDNIGHT TEACHER: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School will inform and astound you. The brave choices of this enslaved woman and her devotion to literacy in the face of threatening laws and oppressive social conventions deserves your attention all year long, but shines especially brightly during March, Women’s History Month.

When you take a closer look at any of these, and I’m counting on you to check them out, I’d love to read your reactions in the comments.

 

Wisdom Shared: Anne Lamotte’s TED Talk

It’s been quite a while since I posted thoughts here. I hope your new year has been busy pursuing success, happiness, and big plans for the months ahead. I could waste your time by listing the many ways my busy-ness has kept me away from these posts, but I won’t.

I do plan to share some of those in coming weeks, but for now, I want to share a favorite TED TALK link by ANNE LAMOTT. I’ve viewed it in the past, but when it crossed my social media path again today, it fell into place in my heart as if for the first time.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the same might be true for any readers here. If you, like me, are familiar with this writer’s remarkable work, I suggest you take the 10 minutes or so to watch the program anyway.Maybe it is exactly what your heart needs today. If you are not familiar with Anne and her work, PLEASE do watch.

One of the many ways in which having work published has surprised and honored me is when my own words are quoted back to me as having special resonance with the reader. I suspect Anne has had that experience more often than nearly any other writer, because her words often appear third-, fourth-, fiftieth-hand among those of us who find our true selves on words.

In this particular TedTalk, just A FEW of her memorable lines include:

The mystery of grace is that God loves Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin and me exactly as much as He or She loves your new grandchild. Go figure. –Anne Lamott

I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us. –Anne Lamott

While fixing and saving and trying to rescue is futile, radical self-care is quantum, and it radiates out from you into the atmosphere like a little fresh air. It’s a huge gift to the world. — Anne Lamott

Go outside. Look up. Secret of life.  –Anne Lamott

I could go on, and if we were sitting here together I would. But I prefer to send you off to sit with Anne in her own words.
So many amazing words. All of them from and to the heart.

Go now. The link is above, but here it is again.

In case you want to share any of her lines, here’s a link to the full text, too.

And have a wonderful life.