Posts tagged ‘Based on a True Story’

Building Our House

 

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post. This one (along with some others) never made it into the blog, so forgive me while I play catch-up.

Building Our House.jpgBuilding Our House
Author/Illustrator: Jonathan Bean
ISBN: 9780374380236
Pages: 48 pages
Publisher/Date: Farrar Straus Giroux, c2013

Based on his parent’s experience building their house, Jonathan Bean brings to life the entire construction process. Starting with a blank unbroken field, the family toils and perseveres. Through rain, wind, and snow, they lay the foundation, raise the frame, and add the roof, windows, siding, and insulation, until they can finally move in. Lots of muted colors lend an understated tone, and the illustrations and story combine to bring a warm feeling to your heart. Look for the tiny details (such as a pregnant cat and kids playing with the wheelbarrow) as this family makes a house a home.

The Seventh Most Important Thing

Seventh Most Important Thing.jpgTitle: The Seventh Most Important Thing
Author: Shelley Pearsall
ISBN: 9780553497281
Pages: 278 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2015.

Arthur’s first week back at school was about as successful as his first day or probation had been. Going from juvie to school was like going from one extreme to the other. In juvie, you learned to avoid everyone else. If some convict kid wanted to cut in front of you in the food line or steal your banana pudding at supper, you let him, no questions asked.
When Arthur got back to school in December, everybody avoided him. He felt as if he were inside an invisible box. Nobody bumped into him in the hallway. Nobody spoke to him. When he sat down in the cafeteria for lunch, the other kids picked up their trays and left. The whole school knew what he’d done, of course. Nothing was a secret at Byrd Junior High. You couldn’t fart without somebody knowing. (57)

Arthur T. Owens had his reasons for throwing a brick at the Junk Man’s head, but the judge doesn’t want to hear them. The judge also doesn’t want to listen to the fact that the brick actually hit him in the arm, but he will listen to the Junk Man. That’s how Arthur finds himself working 120 hours of community service for the Junk Man, whose real name is James Hampton. Mr. Hampton gives Arthur a list of seven things to collect, including mirrors, lightbulbs, and cardboard, which Arthur has to dig through trash, quite frequently in the snow, in order to find. But as his hours start adding up, Arthur’s involvement with Hampton also increases, until eventually it’s his investment that is the only thing keeping the project alive.

This story is one of those stories that you don’t think could possibly have happened, and then you realize it’s inspired by actual events. There actually was a James Hampton, an eccentric artist who lived during that time period, although come to think of it the only mentions to a year are in the very first chapters and the lack of technological references mean it could have taken place in any time period. Pearsall’s author’s note separates fact from fiction and includes a couple pictures, although it becomes obvious she’s taken a few liberties with details and timelines. But this is ultimately Arthur’s story, and it makes sense that Arthur’s character was the most developed. He’s not a bad kid, but he’s not seen as a good kid either based almost exclusively on his family history, and so when one thing goes wrong, the whole world turns against him. His judge and parole officer are no nonsense type people, his principal assumes the worst of him and is convinced Arthur’s the instigator in trouble at school even when told otherwise, and even his younger sister keeps calling him a bad person, but he makes allowances for her because she doesn’t understand. Arthur swings from proving them all right to proving them all wrong as he works at making his own reputation, and I feel like those attitudes are fairly accurate to modern day beliefs as well. This novel could provoke discussion on a number of topics.

Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun.jpgTitle: Circling the Sun
Author: Paula McLain
Narrator: Katharine McEwan
ISBN: 9780307989925 (audiobook)
Pages: 366 pages
Discs/CDs: 12.5 hours, 10 CDs
Publisher/Date: Books on Tape, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, c2015. (Penguin Random House, LLC, c2015.)

I closed my eyes and tried to scream, but only released a puff of air. I felt Paddy’s mouth again and knew I had no chance at all. He would eat me here or drag me off to a glade or valley only he knew of, a place from which I’d never return. The last thought I remember having was This is how it feels, then. This is what it means to be eaten by a lion. […]
The doctor gave me laudanum, and then stitched me up with a hooked needle and thick black thread. […]
“He must have been ready to let you go. Or perhaps you weren’t ever meant for him.”
I felt the tug of the needle, a pushing and pulling, as if just that part of my body were caught in a small current. His words were another kind of current. “What am I meant for then?”
“How wonderful that question is, Beru.” He smiled mysteriously. “And as you did not die on this day, you have more time in which to answer it.” (39-41)

Ironically enough, she did spend the rest of her life trying to find her place in the world. A fictionalized account of a real woman I have never heard of, author Paula McLain elaborates on the details of Beryl Markham. Beryl is a modern woman living in the turn of the century, in an English colony in Africa. Her father moves the family to a farm, even though he’s not a farmer. Her mother leaves with her brother Dickie after only two years, and Beryl is left with her father. She thrives in the bush with a native Kipsigis tribe and a particular young boy Kibi who becomes a life-long companion. But as she grows, she realizes that her upbringing was anything but conventional, and she balks at becoming a cultured woman with nothing to do except tend the hearth and home. From horse training to eventually learning how to fly, Beryl charts her own course, looking all the while for a man whom she can trust with her heart and high hopes.

Provided with engaging story-telling, which sounds quite frequently like you are gathered around a campfire in the safari leaning in to hear the speaker’s words, Katharine McEwan’s narration complements McLain’s descriptive prose. It drops to a whisper when she’s sneaking outside as a child after dark, and has a sense of urgency when faced with dangers and decisions. Beryl’s dialogue is higher pitched and more attitudinal when she is younger, separating it from her older experiences and the “looking back” narration that the rest of the book takes. While I have no idea how accurately the foreign words are pronounced or the people are portrayed, having never visited the country much less the continent, her pronunciations are beautiful. Distinctions between the African residents and those from the English areas are clear. With a novel that spans decades and two continents, it’s an impressive accomplishment.

Readers should read the author’s note at the end, which is where McEwan provides insight on the inspiration for her novel. Drawing information from Beryl’s autobiography West with the Night, McEwan elaborates on this unknown aviator’s accomplishments. First soloing in 1931, she was one of the first women to receive a pilot’s license. She pioneered the practice of scouting ahead for animal herds for safari groups. In 1936, she flew across the Atlantic and made headlines in the United States, but garnered barely a mention in the English papers. Earnest Hemingway recognized her writing skills, which was ultimately what resulted in a reprint of the manuscript 50 years later when Beryl was 80 years old. It’s a book that other readers intrigued by this fictional account may want to search out for the original inspiration.

The Marvels

MarvelsTitle: The Marvels
Author/Illustrator: Brian Selznick
ISBN: 9780545448680
Pages: 670 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.
Publication Date: September 15, 2015

”Leo was inspired by the stories of his great-great-grandfather Billy stowing away aboard a ship four generations earlier. So he decided to run away, too.”
Joseph leaned in closer to the speakers. ”Before the sun rose, Leo wrote a note to his parents, making it clear he didn’t belong in the theatre. Then he set off to the docks to board a ship bound for India. While he waited for the ship, though, he saw a strange orange glow in the sky. Some intuition told him something was terribly wrong, and he ran all the way to his family’s theatre. It turned out that earlier that evening, the doddering old Alexander must have knocked over a candle, or dropped a match, because the entire theatre was engulfed in flames . . .” (511-512)

Joseph Jervis has run away from his boarding school and seeks asylum at his uncle’s house, whom he has only met once. His Uncle Albert lives a peculiar and secluded life surrounded by old furnishings, clothes and toys in a house that has never been updated, with sounds coming from the walls. Joseph is not allowed to touch anything while his uncle tries to figure out how to reach Joseph’s unreachable parents and what to do with the wayward teen. But clues as to the secrets and stories the house is whispering about prove too tempting for Joseph, and he delves into the history of the house and his family. Things aren’t adding up though, and Joseph must finally confront his uncle to get the answers he so desperately desires.

First, let’s chat about production quality, not something I typically address on this blog. The cover is glowingly embellished with contrasting gold lines against a navy blue background. The gold tones are continued onto the edges of the pages. While this makes for an impressive and imposing view from the side, it was more difficult to call it a true page-turner as the pages of my freshly arrived copy stuck together throughout. I doubt the next person who checks it out will have that issue, but it was frustrating as a first reader. A coworker did remark that you had a much more difficult time telling when the sections of print and pictures started and stopped, although if you look closely enough or fan the pages slightly there is still a noticeable color difference. Continuing the trend started with his previously published titles, the spine and back cover features the main character’s face, although we don’t see this particular piece of artwork until the last pages of the novel. Selznick as usual has spared not a single detail, down to the inside of the covers, as the front part features stormy seas and the inside of the back cover showcases a stunning sun over the ocean, giving readers a glimpse of the tempest (pun intended which readers will understand once they read the book) to come and the calm that comes by the end. Whether it’s setting or rising is anyone’s guess, but I think it could be interpreted either way. In the author’s note, he addresses the spelling of words as the British version, which I occasionally noticed but some might not, as an effort to keep the story firmly anchored in its British influences and history. I think this position is beautifully unique and admirably authentic considering how frequently those changes are made, such as the alterations made to J.K. Rowling’s works when they were imported.

Now, onto the story. I won’t say I didn’t like it, but it was more thought-provoking instead of awe-inspiring like his two previous works. In Hugo, we had a ground-breaking format, and in Wonderstruck there was a thought-provoking concept. In The Marvels, we have a story inspired by fact but also providing commentary on the nature of inspired-by-fact stories. What is truth and what is fiction, and how do we determine the difference? Is it really so important to separate the two? I loved what could possibly be the motto of the book, “You either see it or you don’t”, as a straight-forward observation that could be applied to not just physical elements of life but also more conceptual aspects. For instance, in terms of the We Need Diverse Books movement, this is another example of it being there (in this case homosexuality), but not being the main focus of the book, subtly riffing off the “You either see it or you don’t” theme. It’s okay if readers caught it, but it’s also okay if they don’t, as it’s never explicitly stated within the story.

As much as I love the illustrations Selznick put together for this work, they felt redundant this go around. With the inclusion of all the pictures to tell the story from the past, everything we previously witness through the preliminary pictures is spelled out in detail later on in the book. I’m interested to hear from other readers if having the pictures interspersed in the narrative instead of initially presented as a cluster would have changed your perception or enjoyment of the story. It’s understandable their inclusion is meant to more thoroughly engross readers into Joseph’s life and discoveries, to literally see what and how he sees and feel just as confused, frustrated, disappointed, and conned when the truth is revealed. But there is already a layer of separation for us the reader since we know this story we’re reading isn’t true, so I feel like the betrayal when it does come in the climax is never going to impact readers as thoroughly as it does Joseph. Instead I’m scratching my head and find myself referencing Rowling again, comparing the whole story to that one line of Dumbledore’s in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when he asks Harry “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real.” (723) I thought the real twist comes not with Uncle Al’s reveal, but with Selznick’s author’s note delineating what aspects of the story are inspired by real life events and people. In this way there’s almost two plot-twists, which might mean readers’ heads are spinning. Fans of Selznick’s previous works will be satisfied with this slightly circuitous story, but the revelations are what is truly memorable about this read.

Blizzard

BlizzardTitle: Blizzard
Author/Illustrator: John Rocco
ISBN: 9781423178651
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Disney Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group, c2014.

On Monday, February 6, 1978, New England experienced one of the biggest snowstorms in its history. It snowed for two days, and by the time it stopped, parts of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut were buried under forty inches of snow. That’s four times the height of this book! The wind was blowing fifty miles an hour and created snowdrifts up to fifteen feet high. Where I grew up in Rhode Island, it took over a week for snowplows to get to our street.
This book is based on my experience as a ten-year-old boy in that blizzard and how I got to the store, over a mile from my house, with tennis rackets tied to my feet.

Beautiful illustrations detail the storm in all it’s glory, white space assuming the role of the heaps and drifts of snow. The intrepid young boy in the story shows his ingenuity when, after being snowbound for a week, he straps tennis rackets to his shoes and makes the journey to the store for necessary supplies. Along the way, he picks up orders from the neighbors. Slices of family life show the ups and downs of being snowbound, from playing in the snow to curling up next to the fire. The passage of time is subtly conveyed in the pictures, which read like a graphic novel, at one point bringing to mind the Family Circus cartoons. Based on a true story, this is the perfect book to snuggle up with during these record-breaking winter storms.

The One and Only Ivan

One and Only IvanTitle: The One and Only Ivan
Author: Katherine Applegate
ISBN: 9780061992254
Pages: 305 pages
Publisher/Date: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2012.

“I just thought of a story,” I say.
“Is it a made-up story or a true one?” Ruby asks.
“True,” I say. “I hope.”
Ruby leans against the bars. Her eyes hold the pale moon in them, the way a still pond holds stars.
“Once upon a time, I say, “there was a baby elephant. She was smart and brave, and she needed to go to a place called a zoo.”
“What’s a zoo?” Ruby asks.
“A zoo, Ruby, is a place where humans make amends. A good zoo is a place where humans care for animals and keep them safe.”
“Did the baby elephant get to the zoo?” Ruby asks softly.
I didn’t answer right away. “Yes,” I say at last.
“How did the get there?” Ruby asks.
“She had a friend,” I say. “A friend who made a promise.” (166-167)

Ivan the gorilla and Stella the elephant were both born in the wild, but they now live next to each other in a mall circus where they serve as the main attractions. The circus is failing, and Ivan and Stella feel changes in the air. Their caretaker Mack has plans to save the failing circus from bankruptcy, and brings in a baby elephant named Ruby to add to the show. While they were resigned to their own fates, Ruby’s arrival forces Ivan and Stella to reexamine their surroundings. This is not the ideal space for a baby elephant to grow up. With old wounds causing Stella’s health to decline, Ivan must come up with a plan on his own to get them out of their cages and into a better life. But will all his hard work be for nothing?

I thought this was an interesting way to present a memorable animal rights story. Rather than suffer from outright abuse, Ivan and Stella, and eventually Ruby too, suffer more from neglect. Readers witness Ivan’s early years when he was a small but pampered primate, and then his size slowly restricted him to his cage. Mack recognizes that Ivan needs stimulation, allowing him a television and crayons, but has no real idea on how to care for the animals. The lack of funds occasionally leads to lack of proper nutrition for the animals, Stella’s health fails frequently without the veterinary support, and there is one instant of elephant abuse that anyone who saw Water for Elephants might know what is coming.

Grown accustomed to his life, Ivan rarely considers his time before captivity because he knows this is his new normal. He’s even taken to calling his cage his “domain”, even when corrected by a stray dog named Bob who hangs around the circus looking for scraps. This mind over matter philosophical look on life is intriguing, and fits his seemingly easy-going nature and artistic outlook, as he draws what he sees and isn’t particularly driven to create outside those limitations. It’s the appearance of Ruby that changes things. This curious, inquisitive, but scared little elephant brings to light the problems with their situation. I seem to recall a quote about this very idea (which of course I can’t find now) that amounted to not wishing your life or hardships on others, and that’s exactly what Ivan and Stella are feeling. They have some internalized drive to protect and shield her from the hardships of the world.

The author note admits the tale is loosely inspired by a true story of a real gorilla named Ivan who was kept at a circus themed mall in Washington. The timing of this story is ironic, since in August the real Ivan passed away, just seven months after this book was published. The full story of Ivan can be found here: http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2018964123_ivan23m.html with many more sites coming up through Google searches. An interesting “look back” is provided by an article in the New York Times from the 1980s when the fight to transfer Ivan to a zoo was in full steam. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/17/us/a-gorilla-sulks-in-a-mall-as-his-future-is-debated.html If that irony wasn’t enough for you, the Atlantic Journal-Constitution did an article about Ivan just one day before his death: http://www.ajc.com/news/lifestyles/gorillas-cruise-into-golden-years-at-zoo-atlanta/nRMLm/

While the story itself is interesting, it lacks immediacy that might have otherwise added to the plot progression. Truthfully, the fight for the real Ivan’s release from confined captivity took much longer than the implied timeline that Applegate portrays in her novel. The primary efforts of getting Ivan and his friends released occurs “off-screen”, and Ivan’s limited viewpoint prevents readers from witnessing it first-hand, although I’m not sure how interesting delayed and drawn-out political wrangling would have been to the intended audience. While this lack of first-hand knowledge of events is frustrating at times, it may have been done intentionally to give readers a sense of how the actions of others (actions that Ivan doesn’t completely understand) have influence on Ivan’s situation. Also unrealistically is the instigation that Ivan in the story provides for his release, which I guess is why so many people see this as fantasy. Yes, we do have communication across species, but it’s I think true fantasy fans would be severely disappointed by this novel, as there is no magic, fantastical creatures, or spells. I think the appeal here is the animal story, especially because it is influenced by actual events. You can’t help but root for Ivan and readers will be satisfied with the conclusion.

An Elephant in the Garden

Title: An Elephant in the Garden
Author: Michael Morpurgo
ISBN: 9780312593698
Pages: 199 pages
Publisher/Date: Feiwel and Friends Book, c2010.

“There was an elephant in the garden, you see. No, honestly there was. And she like potatoes, lots of potatoes.” I think my wry smile must have betrayed me. “You still do not believe me, do you? Well, I cannot say that I blame you. I expect you and all the other nurses think I am just a dotty old bat, a bit loopy, off my rocker, as you say. It is quite true that my bits and pieces do not work so well anymore–which, I suppose, is why I am in here, isn’t it? My legs will not do what I tell them sometimes, and even my heart does not beat like it should. It skips and flutters. It makes up its own rhythm as it goes along, which makes me feel dizzy, and this is not at all convenient for me. But I can tell you for certain and for sure, that my mind is as sound as a bell, sharp as a razor. So when I say there was an elephant in the garden, there really was. There is nothing wrong with my memory, nothing at all.” (14-15)

And with that, the elderly woman named Lizzie begins her story of how, when she was a young girl during World War II, an elephant came to live in her garden. Her mother, an employee of the Dresden Zoo, brought home to care for a baby elephant named Marlene rather than have her killed out of the fear she’d get loose and cause havoc if the city was bombed. Marlene is living in Lizzie’s backyard when Dresden does get bombed, and the family is forced to flee across miles of German landscape with the elephant in tow. But how are they going to find a safe place for themselves, much less a safe place for a very conspicuous and unusual pet?

Michael Morpurgo, probably most well-known for his book War Horse that was recently made into a movie, brings to life this tale that is hailed on the cover as being inspired by a true story. Morpurgo separates fact from fiction very nicely in the author’s note at the very end, clarifying that the story originated from the Belfast Zoo, and you can find articles online about the zoo trying to identify the zookeeper in charge of that initiative. As Morpurgo further clarifies, he took some creative license in setting the story in Dresden, which also “had a zoo there too, and […] exactly the same order had gone out in that zoo, to shoot all the large animals if the bombers came” (198) That seems to have been a common solution, as this website details the same outcome for the animals in Japanese zoos, although some of them were less humanely starved to death as opposed to being shot.

The story is somewhat unique in that the narration is framed by Lizzie, as an old woman, telling the story to a young boy named Karl in the present day. It then flashes back in time, and is told in the present tense but set in the past, with occasional interruptions coming from Karl and his mother. I can’t think of many children’s stories that present an adult’s perspective, much less are narrated from it.

While there is a bombing that takes place and serves as the main instigator of the trek across country, most of the tension and suspense is internalized. It’s the absurdity of caring for an elephant as refugees, when you don’t have enough food for your human family, that really boggles readers minds, and encourages the thoughts of “Are they crazy?” This trepidation and cluelessness continues as they encounter more and more refugees on their journey that really has no ready itinerary.

I think this would also make a great movie, and the descriptions make it easy to visualize Lizzie’s brother feeding the elephant and Lizzie’s initial resentment towards the creature that is stealing so much of her mother’s attention. Bringing to life the multitude of reactions is something else Morpurgo does with realism, as not everyone is happy about the elephant moving in next door. Give this to animal fans, suckers for “based on a true story,” like me, or anyone who likes stories of insurmountable odds.

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