Thursday, February 14, 2013

Heroes Come in All Sizes

There seems to be a theme developing in my reading this year - every book I've read so far (except The Little Prince) deals with war. They've all been touching, but I think the one I finished this morning - Under a War-Torn Sky by L.M. Elliott - may be the most emotionally-affecting yet.

The protagonist of this story is a young (very young - the age of my students) American pilot, Henry Forester, who is shot down over France while on a bombing mission. Fortunately for Henry, he's landed among people who don't support the Nazis, and thus begins an effort by French Resistance workers to help him escape from France back to England via Spain. The story builds tension as Henry goes from one contact to another, always in fear of being discovered by the Nazi soldiers who seem to be everywhere.

Once again, fiction has taught me something about history I didn't know before. (I'm beginning to wonder - did I learn ANYTHING in school???) Maybe I had heard of the French Resistance, but I knew nothing about them. This story, based on the true story of Elliott's father, gives me a great deal of respect for the danger these people put themselves in to rescue and smuggle stranded American and British pilots through France, as well as their tenacity in harassing the occupying Nazis. There is one section of the book in which Henry has finally been captured by the Gestapo and is being "interrogated." Now, this is a young adult novel, so nothing is too graphic, but the cruelty of Henry's captor is chilling. Imagine people who would willingly make themselves targets for that kind of cruelty in the service of a cause rather than taking the easier path of simply bearing up under the occupation and waiting for it to be gone.

Something I appreciated about this story was that the French Resistance heroes came in a variety of forms. Of course, there were the maquis, the men - well, usually teen boys, since their fathers had been shipped to Germany and forced to work in munitions factories - who did the fighting and blew up the railroad bridges. But I was surprised by how many women were heroes in this story - all kinds of women. There was the young woman who pressed a passionate kiss on Henry to hide his face from Nazi soldiers at the train station. There was beautiful Madame Gaulloise, who flirted and sweet-talked her way past border guards. There was the widowed housewife who hid Henry - and contraband weapons - in her barn. There was Claudette, who had the spirit to be a maquis fighter herself if her sex hadn't prevented it. Besides the women, though, there was even the smallest of heroes - 8-year-old Pierre, who came walking up to claim Henry when he had no idea who his next Resistance contact was supposed to be. As Elliott points out in her author's note, all these characters - even little Pierre - are based on real (although usually nameless) people involved with the Resistance.

One of the things that was most affecting about this book is that the characters disappear out of the storyline just as they disappeared out of Henry's life when he went to his next contact. Yet he doesn't forget them, and neither can we. But there's no neat literary resolution of the tension, like an epilogue, that tells us what happened to Madame Gaulloise or Claudette. And that's reality. I did see that Elliott has written a sequel that has Henry returning to France to look into what happened to the people who helped him. I guess I know what my next Amazon purchase will be!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Silver Lining to the Cyber-Cloud

There's been some angst lately over the newest feature of Facebook (the Graph Search), which some people say is a major invasion of privacy. Regardless of how you feel about the whole issue of data mining, there's no doubt that much of what we do online is being followed, sometimes under the guise of "helping to improve your experience."

One thing that always seemed a little creepy to me are the recommendations from Amazon, based on my search history and purchases. Sometimes the things I search for on Amazon are not necessarily things I personally want to know about but are things I need to look up for classes, and it is kind of creepy to think all that is being blended into a profile of my interests and likes. Really, I am not THAT into books about marketing, haha!

Every now and then, though, Amazon's industrious little spider (is that the right term?) hits the jackpot. Recently the "suggestions" section has included a number of books that I've found interesting--with several of them at a price I can't refuse. One of those is the book I finished this morning, In the Shadow of the Lamp by Susanne Dunlap.

In the Shadow of the Lamp is the story of a young girl in London who joins the contingent of nurses going with Florence Nightingale to the Crimea. Molly is really too young and too attractive to be the kind of woman Miss Nightingale wanted as a nurse, but she promises to follow Miss Nightingale's strict rules and so is kept on. Of course, through no fault of her own, she breaks a few of the rules, putting her nursing career in jeopardy several times. The rule that seems hardest for Molly to keep is the one about having no friendly contact whatsoever with men - the nurses were to be strictly professional at all times (I can understand why, since this was a pioneering period for women as nurses). Molly's friend Emma, who is also young and attractive, likes to flirt, and Molly herself is the object of the romantic attention of a young doctor. Add to the mix Molly's love interest from London who has joined the British Army in hopes of seeing her again. His wish is granted, of course, when he's shipped to the Crimean front.

That sounds like a lot of romance. But the most important relationship in this story is the one between Molly and Miss Nightingale. Although Miss Nightingale is strict and sometimes even harsh, she recognizes Molly's gift for nursing and serves as a mentor to help Molly learn and stretch. (Spoiler Alert!!) Ultimately, Molly goes too far against the rules, leaving Miss Nightingale no option but to dismiss her from the nursing service. But even then, their parting is not as hostile as one might expect.

I enjoyed the book. I knew only the outline of Florence Nightingale's story. I probably read a juvenile biography of her when I was a kid (I went through a phase of reading every biography I could get my hands on). But I didn't know enough about the Crimean War to even be able to date the story; I had to do a quick check on Wikipedia (the date was 1854, by the way, which surprised me - I thought it would be the 1880s or so). So I learned something, which always raises a book's value in my eyes. And it was fun to read in a light-hearted, innocent way, which I definitely needed after my speech class yesterday (Grrrr......still mad at them). And I have to admit, the plot events at the end really caught me off guard.

Actually, the ending was the only thing I would complain about. (More spoilers!!!) I felt the story wrapped up too quickly and that it would have been better to have at least one more chapter. For example, I don't even know what was wrong with Will - had his leg been amputated, or was it simply a temporary lameness? If his injury wasn't pretty serious, why did he get to come home from the battle when other men were patched up and sent back to fight? When did Will get his injury, anyway, in the big scheme of the ending events of the story? Would he really have had time to get to London before Molly? Then there is the whole issue of their feelings about each other. Their last meeting hadn't really gone so well; I think even if he loved Molly, Will would have needed a little time and a little more reassurance to get over what sure seemed like a jilting.

In light of my last post, I was also divided in my reaction to the ending. On the one hand, there is the "feminist" side that thinks Dunlap copped out by having a traditional happy-ever-after ending, in which the girl gets the guy, when there was a great opportunity to have her be an independent woman making her own way in the world. But the other side, the "romantic" side, simply says, "Ah.....how nice." And smiles.

So, I'll forgive that creepy little Amazon spy-der, because it pointed me toward a good story I wouldn't have found on my own. And now I suppose I should go leave a review on Amazon, in hopes of feeding the spy-der so it will know I like historical fiction more than marketing texts, and it can give even better choices in the future!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Another Round in the Gender Wars

One of the pages I follow on Facebook is Pigtail Pals, Ballcap Buddies, partly because Melissa Wardy is good at rooting out information I'm able to use in various communication classes. (Yeah, I'm lazy, too lazy to find these things on my own.) Lately, she's been on a tear about Disney princesses and how media messages aimed at girls emphasize that a woman's greatest ambition should be to grow up to marry the handsome prince. She is a big fan of the movie Brave (which I haven't seen yet) because it shows a girl in an active, heroic role, and she argues we need more of those kinds of role models for girls so they have something to aspire to.

I wouldn't argue with her point. The world of women I see on the screen is much more limited and limiting than the world I live in every day, which is limited and limiting in its own way. However, I still love a "happily ever after" love story, and that makes me feel a bit like I'm in collusion with the "enemy."

Let's take Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days as a case study. Basically, the book is the diary of a lower-class girl (Dashti, a "mucker") who is the handmaid to Lady Saren, a princess (or whatever the equivalent term would be for a princess in medieval Mongolia) whose father has imprisoned her in a tower for refusing to marry the ruler of a neighboring province, Lord Khasar. When young Khan Tegas of a different province (whom the princess has promised to marry in their exchange of letters for the past several years) comes to check on them, Lady Saren orders Dashti to impersonate her and talk to him. Dashti does, and they develop a friendship and connection, despite being on opposite sides of a thick stone wall.

(Rats, I have to use spoilers again....)

Eventually, Dashti finds a way for the two girls to escape the tower and starvation, and she gets them to the safety of Khan Tegas' province. By this time, though, Lady Saren is so tower-addled that Dashti knows she can't take the princess to her betrothed just yet. Meanwhile, Dashti is called in to sing the healing songs when the khan and one of his top generals are wounded, and although it is impossible, given their differing social status, they begin to fall in love (though she doesn't admit that).

While Lady Saren is recovering, the province is threatened by Lord Kashar, who has annihilated at least two other provinces and has come to claim his bride. Dashti saves the day by telling everyone SHE is Lady Saren and going to face Lord Kashar alone. Everyone then thinks she's really Lady Saren, and the khan plans to marry her--until her true identity is discovered. Then she's sentenced to death--until the khan pulls some pretty slick legal maneuvers and saves her life, as well as clearing the way for the two of them to marry. So we have our happily ever after ending.

I liked this story. It has some important digressions from the standard romance story. For one thing, Dashti has a red birthmark on her face and arm, so she's not the typical "beautiful" heroine. For another, she and the  khan clearly fall in love through talking to each other, not through superficial, physical attraction. And probably most importantly, Dashti is the one who saves the whole province by taking down Lord Khasar.

Yet...there are many of the same conventions of the regular fairy tale. Dashti defeats Lord Khasar by using her sexual appeal (I'm not going to say how - at least, I can save one surprise for you!) In the end, it is the khan who rescues Dashti from the death sentence. And the happily-ever-after ending is that Dashti and the khan get married--totally traditional.

I suppose hard-core feminists would trash the book for those conventional elements. They might argue that even though Dashti rescues the province, she does it for the love of the khan and that her ultimate goal, even if she thinks it can never happen, is to be with him. And once again, we have a story for girls that emphasizes the most important and satisfying thing that can happen to a woman is getting the handsome prince.

Why can't we have it both ways? Can't we have heroines who are brave and strong but who also fall in love? Does hoping she'll find a true love to marry automatically disqualify a heroine from being an acceptable role model?

I'd like to think instead that Dashti is the kind of role model we DO want for girls. Unlike the Disney princesses, who are passive and beautiful and only living for the prince, Dashti is developed as a real person (she wanted to smack Lady Saren a few times, but controlled herself), and falling in love is just one part of that. Sometimes she is the one who is doing the saving, sometimes she's the one who needs the help. I don't see that as a bad thing.