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Into the Forest
by Rebecca Frankel
So many books have been written about World War II and, more recently, about the Nazi treatment of Polish Jews. Rebecca Frankel adds Into the Forest to the collection. It is nonfiction that in many parts the reader would wish it to be fiction, that the torture, annihilation, and deprivation should not really have happened. It is the story of the Rabinowitz family, of the many Jews who died, of the love that persisted through two years of living on the move in the cold forests, of digging holes in the ground to hide from Nazis. It is the story of survival, of triumph as the lives of some of the people in the book intersect years and thousands of miles later.
This book was emotionally difficult to read, knowing it is nonfiction, and thus was a slow read for me. The author knew first hand some of the people she wrote about. She spent five years researching and interviewing. There is a huge section of copious notes detailing where her information came from for each chapter.
The Prologue ties the tale together and is worth rereading at the conclusion of the book. There are two chapters that set the stage of what life was like in the little Polish village of Zhetel before the invasion of the Russians, followed by the occupation of the Germans. Then the focus lands on the German-created Jewish Ghetto, the Polish Resistance, and the various “selections” in which laborers and those destined for the mass graves were chosen. The “lucky” escaped to a huge forest, but many died there as hunted animals before the liberation came. The Rabinowitz family had their eyes set on a future in Palestine, but they had many more moves in their future and were caught up in the growing prosperity of the 1950’s. Into the Forest is a challenging book worth reading. It shows Jewish life and customs in the midst of both tribulation and good times. The book thankfully ends on positivity as the author stresses the various types of love woven into the book.
I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
Category: History, Nonfiction, Memoir
Publication: September 7, 2021—St. Martin’s Press
The forest, however, would not be exempt from the war’s brutalities or the bare-knuckled survival required to endure it. Nor would it provide ample shield for the Jews or the partisans—Russian and Jewish alike—who had taken shelter here and set up their outposts in its wilds, no matter how dark or deep. The farther they went and the safer they were, the more determined their killers became to root them out.
In some areas, the advertised reward for information on the partisans or hiding Jews was a single cup of sugar. Which was either a reflection of the paltry value of a Jewish life, or the peasants’ depth of desperation.
But Moscow’s successful onslaught had made the retreating Nazis more dangerous and, however unimaginably, even more murderous. Himmler issued an order to those in the path of the fast-moving Soviet troops: destroy all evidence.
Battle Cry of the Siamese Kitten
by Philipp Schott, DVM
I had a delightful journey through a series of tales, compared by the author to snacks, in Philipp Schott’s latest book Battle Cry of the Siamese Kitten. It is his third book of this type. It includes animal stories, vet stories, and client stories along with memories dredged up from his unusual childhood as a German immigrant. We gain insight into how he thinks and how he relates to others. There is a lot of humor in the book, and Schott doesn’t shy away from laughing at himself. He has a great way with words that lets the reader experience the animal encounters whether they be disgusting and smelly, bloodletting, or laugh out loud funny. The second tale about a two pound “gorgeous fluffy kitten who channels Satan” will ensure that you are fully engaged as this tiny, very loud, little guy “starfished himself across the entrance” to the kennel looking for a “decisive victory.”
Philipp Schott draws on over 30 years of experience with animals. He is the kind of vet you would want for your own pets—caring, hardworking, kind, intelligent, and honest. Unless you live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, you are unlikely to meet him. He lives there with his family and four animals who admittedly receive people food from time to time as treats. Although she did not contribute to this book, his wife is also a veterinarian and probably a very patient person.
I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
Category: Memoir, Nonfiction
Notes: The more I read, the more I liked what I was reading and even went back to read a few tales again for pure pleasure.
Publication: October 11, 2022—ECW Press
Supercat put his ears back flat and stared at me with an intensity that signaled a level of hatred two steps beyond loathing.
I am not easily bored, but this was an exception. Flies fell asleep in that class.
Have you ever noticed this? The happiest dogs are the ones carrying sticks. And if the sight of a happy dog carrying a stick doesn’t gladden your heart, then what are you doing with this book in your hands?
Through Gates of Splendor
by Elizabeth Elliot
Five young men felt God’s call to share the good news of Jesus with an Ecuadoran Indian tribe that had never had positive encounters with outsiders. Their bad experiences date back to the ruthless rubber traders of the 1870’s—“civilized savages against unbaptized savages.” They had Stone Age technology, were feared by other Indians for their unprovoked ambushes, and had a language known only to themselves. The missionaries and their wives had a daunting task. They started by evangelizing more friendly local tribes and establishing bases, many refurbished from areas abandoned by Shell Oil Co. From these bases they did flyovers of the Auca land, first to find where in the jungle the Aucas were living and later to communicate with them by dropping gifts to demonstrate their friendly intentions.
When they felt the time was right, they finalized plans to land and meet with the Aucas in person. The book becomes very intense at that point. After an initial positive meeting, there is literally radio silence instead of the expected call back to the wives. A search and rescue team went in consisting of Ecuadorian military, volunteer missionaries and Indians, and U.S military. It was a dangerous mission.
Although the preparation and action are the basis of the story, the core of the book is faith in God. Elizabeth Elliot, the author of Through Gates of Splendor, was the wife of Jim Elliot, the first missionary of the group to respond to God’s call to contact this people group who had never heard of Him. Jim Elliot was willing to die if need be to share the good news of salvation to the Aucas. He said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” The story of the lives of these young men and their dedication to God is inspiring and many of their notes and thoughts are recorded in this book. In its pages you will see a vivd picture of what God’s call can look like as well as how these missionaries and their wives responded.
Category: History, Christian, Memoir
Notes: The 40th anniversary edition which I read included:
2. Photographs, many taken at great peril by a Life magazine reporter who chose to stay with the search party when he could have returned to the base and safety.
3. Two Epilogues. One was written in 1958 explaining the immediate aftermath of the first contact and one written in 1996 relating the lives of the families as they evolved over the next 40 years.
Publication: Originally 1956
40th anniversary edition in 1996—Living Books (Tyndale)
“If that old engine had quit up there, God alone could have saved me. I might just as well admit it frankly right here; I don’t like to fly over stuff like that and I have to have a pretty good reason to be over it without a good position-check and a good river to identify my position by. But these are people for whom Christ died, and you have to find them before you can take the Gospel to them, so I was happy to have stumbled on them.”
Pete Fleming was one of those who could not be content while the Aucas remained in darkness. In his diary he wrote: “It is a grave and solemn problem; an unreachable people who murder and kill with extreme hatred. It comes to me strongly that God is leading me to do something about it, and a strong idea and impression comes into my mind that I ought to devote the majority of my time to collecting linguistic data on the tribe and making some intensive air surveys to look for Auca houses….I know that this may be the most important decision of my life, but I have a quiet peace about it.
September, 1955, was the month in which Operation Auca really started, the month in which the Lord began to weave five separate threads into a single glowing fabric for His own Glory. Five men with widely differing personalities had come to Ecuador from the eastern United States, the West Coast, and the Midwestern States. Representing three different “faith-missions,” these men and their wives were one in their common belief in the Bible as the literal and supernatural and perfect word from God to man. Christ said “Go ye”; their answer was “Lord, send me.”
by Harriet Fish Backus
If you ever thought of memoirs as a boring genre, I encourage you to sample Harriet Fish Backus’ Tomboy Bride. It is anything but boring. “Tomboy” refers to the Tomboy Mine, located above Telluride, Colorado, and “bride” is the author Harriet who moved there in 1906 immediately after her wedding at the age of twenty with her mining engineer husband George Backus. The first half of the book describes the difficulties and adventures inherent in living in an almost impossible to reach area with only the barest necessities. Harriet was a city girl and had a big learning curve in basic survival skills in the remote, dangerous, high altitude mining camp—everything from baking at over 11,500 feet to how to wade in long skirts in the snow to an outhouse located quite a distance from the home.
The second half of the book relates a series of moves to various mines along with changes in mining fortunes. Not every mine was successful, and the country’s economic twists affected the mines as well. Their adventures took the couple to Britannia Beach, British Columbia; Elk City, Idaho; and Leadville, Colorado. They had several children and lived through World War I and the Great Depression. George’s mechanical ingenuity landed him a job in Oakland, California, which he held for 37 years, but Harriet’s fondest memories are not the ones of ease in the city, but of struggles, love, and friendship in the mountains.
Mining was a difficult and dangerous business. This was true even for college educated mining engineers who suffered from the cold, long hours and perils along with the miners. Mortality rates were high because of the distance to health care. Transportation was slow and uncomfortable along the treacherous snow packed mountain trails. Water and coal had to be carried by hand from dropping off points up slippery, snow-covered slopes to their homes by the residents. The only fruits and vegetables available were canned and brought up monthly on burros. Because of the isolation, residents tended to work as a community. As long as Harriet and George were together, they were happy despite, and sometimes perhaps because of, their shared hardships.
Category: Memoir, History
Notes: 1. I recommend the 50th anniversary edition of Tomboy Bride because it includes many photographs that bring the story to life.
2. There is a timeline at the end of the book.
3. This is a great book for a book club to read as it is ripe with topics for discussion. Tomboy Bride includes thought provoking questions at the end of the book which our book club found quite helpful.
Publication: 2019—West Margin Press
On reaching his destination the rider tied the reins to the pommel of the saddle and turned the horse loose. Regardless of the distance, knowing the trails far better than most riders, the horse quietly and surely returned to the nearest stable, at the Tomboy or in Telluride.
Crash! What sounded like pounds of glass breaking into bits was only an old cigar box filled with nails that had fallen from a shelf. Even the rats laid low that night, at least we did not hear them. My chattering teeth kept time to the rattling of the old stovepipe fastened by wires to the rafters. The denim “carpet” rose and fell like ocean billows and wind crackled the newspaper padding.
…at the end of a month we both felt inwardly the call of the wild. Somehow, after the serenity of our mountains, the city seemed tawdry and confusing.
I’ll Be Seeing You
by Elizabeth Berg
Aging. A theme as old as the passing of time. Elizabeth Berg addresses it in her memoir I’ll Be Seeing You. She describes the challenges of growing old while trying to help her aging parents as they grow even older. It’s tough. We all know that. And it’s different for everyone. Rather than unhelpful generalizations, Berg shares her very personal story—mostly stressful, often frustrating, and sometimes funny.
Berg’s parents, in their late 80’s, are faced with the need to downsize and move to accommodations that are safer and provide opportunities for a continued happy life, but with more constraints. Her father has Alzheimer’s, and her mother is angry and feels suffocated. Berg and her siblings try to help, to make the transition as easy as possible. In the almost year-long transition process she “learned a lot about them, and just as much about myself.”
Berg is an excellent writer. She explores her own aging, her relationship with her parents, and the couple’s love for each other with sensitivity and honesty. Berg turns a tale of aging, decline, and loss into a page turner that explores confronting the inevitable hurdles in life rather than being victimized by them. Although the most visible theme is aging, love permeates the tale with the kind of affection and devotion that lasts a lifetime.
I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Random House for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Publication: October 27, 2020—Random House
A kind of wild optimism that was in all of us that has eroded as it must with the tired realities of life, with the anvil of aging that has fallen on our parents and will fall on us, too, should we live that long.
I am, as is easy to see, full of hope. But I have to remember something I always forget: you can’t tell anyone else how to experience something. People live behind their own eyes. I’m not the one with the broken arm.
Yes, life is a minefield at any age. Sometimes we feel pretty certain that we know what’s coming. But really, we never do. We just walk on. We have to. If we’re smart, we count our blessings between the darker surprises. And hope for a fair balance.
by Mildred Armstrong Kalish
There are a variety of tales and anecdotes about life during the Great Depression, yet many who survived don’t want to talk about it. The experiences of those in the cities were quite different from those living in the country. Regardless of location, however, all but the very wealthy suffered and their lives and perspectives were formed or altered by their experiences.
In Little Heathens, Mildred Armstrong Kalish shares what life was like for herself and her extended family. It is somewhat difficult to distinguish between the normal trials of endless farm work and the efforts needed to reuse and repurpose items because of deprivation of money and resources. “Thrown away” was a foreign concept during this time and thrift was the champion of the day. Kalish shares the many saving and “make-do” tricks that were common during the Depression and some that were uncommon. Many of those have fallen out of use, but are still handy to know and good examples of the resourcefulness of our predecessors.
Kalish lays her memories out forthrightly, not concealing or varnishing the stories. Many are humorous and several are gasp-worth. Children worked alongside adults learning by example and experience. Farm life required the whole family to pitch in. Chores were divided by age and gender, but not strictly. For example, Monday Wash Day was a very physical, all-day task for which preparations began on Sunday night. Children and adults wore the same set of clothes all week, and everyone participated in wash day. The need for everyone to work together is apparent in the book over and over again.
Kalish addresses the many aspects of life at that time as seen through the eyes of a child who was an active participant. She has an incredible memory for detail right down to how to catch, kill, and prepare a snapping turtle for consumption. She also discusses the social aspects of community inside and outside the family unit. Her life was unique in that she lived in town during the winter and on a farm during the growing season because of her family situation. Her life was very different in each place, but the expectations of a good work ethic and attitude never changed.
The author viewed the hardships of her childhood as instrumental in her many achievements later in life. From success as a “hired girl” to working her way through college to her happy marriage and career as a professor, Kalish gives credit to her family, especially her mother: “Mama’s ability to meet challenges head-on and with a positive attitude created in us kids a sense of confidence that there was a way to solve every problem—just find it.” Although her life was hard, it was not unhappy and she prizes the memories of her past. I enjoyed her writing style, learned from the information she shared, and relived some of my past as I have memories of my Depression-era parents handing down wise sayings and thrifty values. Well done, Mildred Armstrong Kalish!
Publication: May 29, 2007—Random House (Bantam)
Mama, Aunt Hazel, Uncle Ernest, Grandma, and Grandpa had a real gift for integrating us children into farm life. Working alongside us, they taught us how to perform the chores and execute the obligations that make a family and a farm work.
An Old Maid (that’s what we called unmarried women in those days) was asked why she didn’t try to find a husband. Her reply was, “I have a dog that growls, a chimney that smokes, a parrot that swears, and a cat that stays out all night. Why do I need a husband?”
After our chores and household duties were done we were given “permission” to read. In other words, our elders positioned reading as a privilege—a much sought-after prize, granted only to those goodhardworkers who earned it. How clever of them.
She kept all of her needles stuck into a red felt pincushion which she had owned since just before God.
A Walk in the Woods
by Bill Bryson
The Appalachian Trail, a little over 2,000 miles of challenging terrain, is a test that hikers of all ages, genders, and experience levels attack in various ways. There are parking lot visitors; they drive in, look around a bit and perhaps picnic, but do not actually hike the trail. Section hikers traverse parts of the trail at various times with a few completing the whole trail over the course of a lifetime. Then there are a few hardy souls who are full thru-hikers; they keep at it from south to north until they complete the trail.
As you might imagine, hiking the Appalachian Trail is an endeavor that requires a lot of planning and the purchase of expensive equipment to get the lightest weight gear possible. Carrying a forty pound backpack all day over rough terrain with formidable ascents and descents is a difficult task indeed. Author Bill Bryson who has written a number of travel books relates in A Walk in the Woods his experiences on the Appalachian Trail with Stephen Katz, a former school chum he had traveled around Europe with twenty-years prior. Much of the book describes the harsh realities of the hike and the delightful relief of their occasional forays into civilization to replenish supplies and sleep in a real bed. Some of the book relates their changing relationship as they confront the trials of the trail together as well as anecdotes about the interesting people they meet along the way.
Bryson’s writing style is comfortable. The descriptions are detailed without being overblown, and there is just enough history of the trail to give the reader an understanding of why it is the way it is. Often humorous, it provides an interesting read taking the reader into a once in a lifetime experience on the Appalachian Trail.
Notes: Some profanity
Publication: December 26, 2006 (first published May 5, 1998)—Anchor Books
But even men far tougher and more attuned to the wilderness than Thoreau were sobered by its strange and palpable menace. Daniel Boone, who not only wrestled bears but tried to date their sisters, described corners of the southern Appalachians as “so wild and horrid that it is impossible to behold them without terror.” When Daniel Boone is uneasy, you know it’s time to watch your step.
I was beginning to appreciate that the central feature of life on the Appalachian Trail is deprivation, that the whole point of the experience is to remove yourself so thoroughly from the conveniences of everyday life that the most ordinary things—processed cheese, a can of pop gorgeously beaded with condensation—fill you with wonder and gratitude.
And all the time, as we crept along on this absurdly narrow, dangerous perch, we were half-blinded by flying snow and jostled by gusts of wind, which roared through the dancing trees and shook us by our packs. This wasn’t a blizzard; it was a tempest.
by Joy Harjo
When the Poet Laureate of the United States writes a memoir, you can expect it to deviate from the standard timeline format, and Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave is anything but formulaic. She divides her book into four parts according to compass directions. As a Creek Indian, directions, nature, art, music, and family provide her orientation to life. Each section begins with poetic prose.
“East is the direction of beginnings.” She begins her tale this way and it is a little difficult to settle into the story as she shares her views from the eyes of a child filled with a mix of fear and adoration.
“North is the direction where the difficult teachers live.” In the second section, Harjo shares the realities of a brutal and abusive childhood in a time and culture that viewed spousal and child abuse and drunkenness as family problems to be either dealt with or endured within the family. After I read the book, I learned later through a webinar that this section was a very difficult one for Harjo to write. In fact, she got stuck for years on this part of her story with the book taking fourteen years to complete. There is redemption in her story, however, as education offers Harjo, as a teenager, a way out of her circumstances.
“West is the direction of endings.” In this section, Harjo describes her young adulthood as she becomes a teenage mother and finds herself trying to live in poverty, at odds with her mother-in-law, and responsible for a stepchild. What happened to her hopes and dreams for a creative life?
“South is the direction of release.” Probably the most poetic and visionary of the sections, “South” continues Harjo’s fight to survive but also interprets her dreams and visions as short stories and poems. She creates an interesting mix of fiction and nonfiction in her writing featuring monsters, eagles, demons, and ancestors.
Harjo describes her panic attacks as monsters. She labels the instincts that help guide her decision making as the “knowing.” She refers to her ancestors, those who have passed, as guardians in her life, and she speaks to them through her poetry. This memoir is a mix of what really occurred, her perceptions of those events, and flights of fantasy taken from her dream world; she melds poetry and prose in mind bending impressions.
Crazy Brave personalizes for me the individual and tribal struggles of Native Americans. Although the abuse tied to alcoholism is difficult to read about, it is an important part of Harjo’s experiences and of understanding the Native culture that helped shape her voice as an author and artist.
Notes: Harjo is currently writing another memoir to continue her story where Crazy Brave left off.
Publication: July 9, 2012—W.W. Norton & Co.
Because music is a language that lives in the spiritual realms, we can hear it, we can notate it and create it, but we cannot hold it in our hands. Music can help raise a people up or call them to gather for war.
Though I was blurred with fear, I could still hear and feel the knowing. The knowing was my rudder, a shimmer of intelligent light, unerring in the midst of this destructive, terrible, and beautiful life. It is a strand of the divine, a pathway for the ancestors and teachers who love us.
It was in the fires of creativity at the Institute of American Indian Arts that my spirit found a place to heal. I thrived with others who carried family and personal stories similar to my own. I belonged. Mine was no longer a solitary journey.