Heidi

Rating: 
Author: Johanna Spyri
Genres: Children’s, Middle Grade, Classic
Pub date: 1880 (read Jan. 2019)

Oh Heidi, a girl after my own heart. I bought a new copy of Anne of Green Gables last year after my childhood copy was accidentally donated and decided to pick up copies of both Heidi and the Secret Garden, which had cute matching covers. I never read Heidi as a child, but I was into the mountain setting and was basically hoping for Anne of Green Gables set in Switzerland.

Heidi definitely does not have the same charm as Anne, who is one of my all-time favourite female characters, but I could appreciate her love of the simple life and the fresh mountain air. Heidi is a little orphan girl who, up to the age of 5, lived with her Aunt in the small Swiss town of Dorfli. At the age of 5, her aunt decides she has spent enough resources on Heidi and drags her up the mountainside to instead live with her Grandfather. Her grandfather is seen as a bit of a hermit by the townspeople and is fairly misunderstood, so they all pity Heidi when they see her on the way up the mountain.

However, Heidi immediately settles into life at her Grandfather’s cabin and is totally enamored with the beautiful mountain views, the wildflowers, and her neighbour Peter, the local goat-herder. Likewise, her Grandfather’s life is taken over by Heidi and he starts to find a new joy in life. I thought the whole mountain setting – two misfits finding love with one another – story was brilliant and was totally into this book at the beginning. I can see why it’s a classic, but like I said, Heidi just doesn’t have quite the same charm as my other beloved children’s books and it’s pretty slow moving. I struggled through the story at times and unfortunately, the ending of the book hasn’t really aged all that well.

It is a sweet story with christian undertones and themes. In the middle of the story, Heidi is extremely distraught when she is removed from her grandfathers and forced to live in Frankfurt. She finds the town so dark and dreary and she doesn’t understand the way of life, so she is misunderstood by those around her and yearns more than anything to return to Grandfathers. She learns about God and is taught to put her trust in his plan and is ultimately rewarded by her prayers and faith. While some elements were problematic, I was impressed that this book features both a girl in a wheelchair and a blind person.

I can’t write this review without discussing the ending, so if you’re unfamiliar with this classic and plan to read it, please stop reading here. SPOILERS AHEAD.

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So I didn’t really like the ending of this book. I definitely don’t fault the author for it because this was written in the 1800’s, but in my opinion the ending doesn’t really hold up today. I had two issues with the ending, the first of which is that Peter sucks! Peter is a pretty big introvert, whereas Heidi loves people and making new friends, and he is constantly threatened by Heidi’s other relationships and acts out pretty aggressively in his jealousy (both with the Doctor and Clara). My problem was that Peter’s behaviour was totally wrong, but he never really suffered any consequence from it. He destroys Clara’s chair for heaven’s sake and though he feels bad after, no one ever holds him accountable to his actions. They were just teaching him it’s okay to be an asshole.

My second issue was with Clara suddenly gaining the ability to walk by sheer force of will and the power of fresh mountain air (supposedly). I don’t fault the author because I’m sure people with disabilities had it rough in this era and their disabilities were not as well understood. So gifting her character with the ability to walk again seems like the perfect ending to a childhood story. It just doesn’t really stand up today and I’d hate for little girls in wheelchairs to read this book and be preached the message that if they just pray and want it enough, they might be able to walk again too. Or to feel like they can only achieve happiness by the curing of their disability and that the ultimate dream is to escape your disability. I liked Clara because despite her disability and sickness, she had a great attitude and didn’t actually seem that hampered by her disability. Being in a chair is nothing to feel bad about and is not an impediment on happiness. So I just don’t think this ending holds up in light of the body positivity movement and is a little insulting to the less able-bodied.

3 stars for the sweet story and setting, but beware some of the ideas are a little preachy and out-dated.

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Rose Under Fire

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Elizabeth E. Wein
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: June 2013 (read Dec. 2018)

I liked, but didn’t love, the first book in this series, Code Name Verity. It was a good book, but it felt a little slow moving to me and I struggled to get into it, so I wasn’t super enthused about reading the second one, but I already owned a copy and I knew if I didn’t read it right after the first book, it was unlikely I’d ever get to it.

I’m so glad I did though because I actually liked this book a lot more than the first book (rare, I know). I would actually call this a companion novel to the first book rather than a sequel, so you could definitely read this one as a standalone, but there are spoilers for how the first book ends, so don’t read it first if you still want to read both books. But the plots are quite different, so if you’re more interested in this one, you could skip reading Code Name Verity.

Rose Under Fire tells the story of Rose Justice, an 18 year old American pilot who travels to England in WWII to fly plane for the Air Transport Authority, who ferry planes between different locations for the Royal Air Force (they are not combat pilots). It is nearing the end of the war and Germany has just been pushed out of Paris. Rose has the opportunity to drop off a plane in Paris, but she disappears on her return flight to England and no one knows what happened to her.

In reality, she ran into some German pilots and they forced her to fly and land in Germany. When she is unable to provide them with any meaningful information, they ship her off to Ravensbruck, the notorious woman’s prison near the Polish border. For those who are unfamiliar with Ravensbruck, it was not a death camp like Auschwitz (though many died there and gas chambers were constructed near the end of the war), but a work camp. But it is most famous for the Ravensbruck rabbits, a group a 74 Polish women on whom horrific medical experiments were completed.

I knew about Ravensbruck and the experiments, but I’ll admit it’s a topic I’ve been avoiding reading about because it’s just too horrific to think about. I avoided Lilac Girls when it was published in 2016 because despite sounding like something I would like, I was too afraid to read it. I’ve read a lot of books about the holocaust, but this is definitely one topic I’ve been avoiding because it’s just so disturbing. However, I really liked Wein’s depiction of the rabbits in this book. Rose is a witness to the rabbits rather than being one of them. Some of the rabbits died in the experiments, but many of them survived and were still living in Ravensbruck when Rose arrives. At this point in the story (late 1944), the Germans have ceased their experiments and in the face of the approaching allies are mostly trying to hide the evidence of the crimes they committed. I liked the depiction because Wein doesn’t get into the nitty gritty, horrible details of the experiments, but rather focuses on the spirit, tenacity, and courage of the women who survived.

Rose carries the story, but it is never really about her. Wein obviously took some liberties with the plot, but generally it is based in truth (not with Rose, but about the camp and the rabbits). What I found most inspiring was how vivacious these characters were, despite being the subjects of such atrocities. Instead of being defeated, they were mad and they wanted justice. Despite being forced to live in terrible living conditions while still healing from the experiments, they had a great capacity for love and willingly took Rose into their family when she was assigned to their barracks. They still had hopes and dreams for their futures. They wanted to continue learning so that one day, when they escaped Ravensbruck, they would still have a future ahead of them and could seek justice against the Nazis. They always looked out for one another and actively rebelled against the Nazis, trying to smuggle out pictures and stories of what had happened to them, ensuring the names of the women would be remembered despite the Nazi’s best attempts to hide them.

What was also inspiring was the respect the rest of the camp paid to these women. Before the allies arrived, the Nazi’s tried to mass murder the entire group of rabbits, and the other prisoners of Ravensbruck conspired to hide the rabbits from them. They hid them among other barracks, in hospital wings, and among the dead, sneaking them food and water to sustain them throughout this time. Everyone recognized that these women had been wronged and deserved to survive in order to tell their stories.

This story is also striking because of parallels to what is happening today in parts of the world (yes, it kills me to type this about a holocaust story). Wein talks about how unrelenting the Nazi’s were in their desire to wipe undesirable people from the face of the planet by the fact that in the face of the advancing allies, rather than leave the prisoners, they were determined to kill as many of them as possible to hide their crimes. Prisoners from Auschwitz and other death camps were transported to Ravensbruck as the allies approached. Gas chambers were constructed to aid in killing prisoners, but mostly they were just left to starve.

When Ravensbruck reached its capacity, prisoners from other death camps would be housed in tents and left without food or water until they died. Some of the rabbits would hide in these tents to escape their own executions and Wein talks about how the prisoners would lie at the bottom of the tent flaps to drink the rain as it poured down the sides because that was the only source of water they had. People literally died waiting to be processed. One of the big headlines in the papers while I was reading this was about the 7 year old migrant girl who died at the American border after walking hundreds of miles with her family to seek refuge, only to die of thirst at her destination while waiting for officials to do something. We have gone down this road before and we must do better, we must be better.

June Monthly Challenge

I was too busy in May to do a monthly challenge and I actually really missed it. I love the flexibility of just being able to pick any book you want off the shelf, which I rarely do anymore between my challenges, book club, and netgalley reads, but I felt like my reading was a bit aimless without any reading goals to work towards in May.

I’m super excited about my June reading challenge though and I think I’ve picked out 3 great books for it. Historical fiction was my favourite genre for many years, but I’ve been a little fatigued with it over the last few years because I feel the genre is over-saturated with WW1 and 2 novels and books about slavery. So I got a lot more into fantasy and discovered all these YA fantasy series that have huge online followings, but I am starting to get a bit fatigued with this genre now because while there’s so much out there, once you start reading a lot of it, it tends to get a bit repetitive.

In an effort to branch out a little more again and return to a genre I love, I’ve decided that in June my monthly challenge will be to:

Read 3 Historical Novels

It was really hard to narrow it down to just 3 books, because I do have a huge list of historical novels that I’ve been wanting to get to, so I tried to focus on reading about stories set in different countries and different time periods. The three books I picked are:

1. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
2. I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhorn
3. Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

 

I read Kristin Hannah’s other bestseller, The Nightingale, in 2015 with my book club and we all really liked it. My book club liked it a little more than me because this was when I was really getting fatigued with the WW1 and WW2 books, but I did still like it. The Great Alone is her new book and has been getting fantastic reviews – I bought a copy on sale in February and I’ve been trying to get to it ever since. I don’t like to know too much about my books when I start reading them, but this is set in Alaska in 1974 and examines the aftereffects of a former Prisoner of War during the Vietnam War when he returns to Alaska.

I Was Anastasia is a fairly new release, but I feel like I’ve been waiting to read this one since I first saw a synopsis of it months ago. This is actually my book club selection for June, so I’m happy to be able to combine two of my reading lists this month. This is a WW1 book, but bear with me because this sounds different than any other WW1 book I’ve ever read! It’s about the grand duchess Anastasia and her supposed execution with the rest of the Romanov’s during the Russian Revolution. There’s always been speculation that Anastasia may have survived and in this novel, a young girl shows up in Germany 3 years later claiming to be Anastasia. Was anyone else obsessed with 20th Century Fox’ version of Anastasia growing up? Because I was and I am super excited for some bestselling, historical fiction about her! I’m on a journey to the past with this one folks.

My last pick of the month is a brand new, not-yet-released book that I only heard about recently. I’m not even sure where I first heard about Fruit of the Drunken Tree, I think Goodreads may have featured it in one of the lists of their blog, but it sounds so good. It’s a debut novel by Ingrid Rojas Contreras that was inspired by her own life growing up in the 1990’s in Colombia. It’s a coming-of-age story during a period of great upheaval and violence in Colombia and features a piece of history that I am not knowledgeable about and haven’t seen featured in historical fiction before. A big thanks to Penguin Random House Canada, who happily provided me with an advance copy of this book so that I could include it in my monthly challenge.

The Women in the Castle


Rating: 
⭐⭐
Author: Jessica Shattuck
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: May 2017

 

This was so disappointing. Historical fiction is my favourite genre and I was really expecting to like The Women in the Castle, but it was a letdown. Maybe I should have read the synopsis more closely, but I thought I was getting a historical novel about the July 20 assassination attempt on Hitler from the point of view of the wives/widows of the resistance. This is not what this book was about.

Marianne is hosting a party at the Burg Lingenfels castle on the evening of Kristallnacht. In their outrage about this event, the male aristocrats in attendance decide to form a resistance against Hitler and name Marianne the “commander of wives and children”. She thinks this is somewhat patronizing at first, but later when the plot fails, comes to see it as a term of honour and importance. I still think it’s patronizing.

After the party the story jumps forward 7 years to the end of the war as Marianne attempts to track down any widows of the resistance (the plot having failed and their husbands all having been executed). She saves young Benita, the bride of her childhood friend Connie, from a Russian whorehouse in Berlin and Ania and her 2 sons from a displaced persons camp. They all move into Burg Lingenfels and try to rebuild their lives and escape the ghosts of their pasts.

This is pretty much the extent of what we learn about the July 20 plot – the rest of the novel jumps back and forth between the present and the past (but never focusing on the assassination plot). The format did not work for me at all and neither did the writing style. Evidently a lot of people loved Shattuck’s writing, but I found it very lacklustre and slow. The constant back and forth in time and the changing points of view made the story feel very disjointed. Ania’s past takes up a large chunk in the middle of the novel which felt very awkward in the pacing and the entire last quarter of the novel takes place in the 90’s.

That said, Ania was the only redeeming character in this book for me. I was interested in learning about the July 20 plot, but when I realized I wasn’t getting that I was hoping for a book about Germany’s struggle to return to normalcy after the end of the war and come to terms with the horrific details that came out about Hitler’s death camps. How did Germans move forward after discovering the extent of Hitler’s evil (which was unknown to many until the liberation)? What about former Nazi’s – how did they move forward? We’re they ashamed of their complicity in the halocaust?

I do appreciate that Shattuck offered a few different viewpoints on this dilemma. I did really like Ania and enjoyed her section of the story and how she grappled with the decisions she made during (and after) the war. However, I thought Marianne was insufferable and too uncompromising in her morals and beliefs. I didn’t understand why she was so revered and I didn’t like how her story concluded. Benita was irrelevant to me and I did not enjoy her story at all. I wish we’d had more time to get to know Connie, since he was so important to two of the main characters, yet without knowing more about him, I couldn’t understand what either Marianne or Benita saw in him.

So unfortunately this one isn’t getting a high rating from me because I found neither the writing nor the plot compelling. It had promise, but it didn’t live up to the expectation for me. It seems well loved by a lot of other people though, so maybe still worth the read?