Posts Tagged ‘friendship’

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

by Kate DiCamillo; ill. by K.G. Campbell

Candlewick Press, 2013

233 pages

Finding inspiration in the sublime or the exceptional is fairly easy: the girl who bravely battles the wilderness, cancer, or a super-villain is an obvious candidate to inspire the next generation of women.

The problem is, most girls don’t live that kind of life. So while books about extraordinary people and situations are important, so are books that celebrate the ordinary or even oddball. That’s where most girls are going to find a point of identification and, by extension, of inspiration.

Which brings us to Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, illustrated by K.G. Campbell.

Preteen Flora Belle Buckman is a character many girls can easily identify with. She lives in an ordinary middle-class home in an ordinary middle-class neighborhood. Her clothes, her bedroom, her dad’s car, her street – they all look like anything or anyone you’d encounter in your own home or city.

Flora also faces challenges many girls can easily identify with – the kinds of problems that are a part of many ordinary people’s lives. Her parents are divorced, she and her mom don’t quite connect, and she misses her dad, whom she sees only on weekends. She copes by escaping into her favorite hobby and by detaching herself from her peers and family. She calls herself a “natural-born cynic” and takes “Do not hope; instead, observe” as her motto.

Flora’s life becomes suddenly un-ordinary, however, when Ulysses the squirrel appears. Flora rescues the rodent after he suffers a run-in with neighbor Tootie Tickham’s vacuum cleaner. The accident endows him with superpowers: super strength, the ability to fly, and the ability to compose poetry (though he has to type it, since he does not receive the power of speech).

Being devoted fans of comics, Flora and her dad know that every superhero must have an arch-nemesis – and they quickly figure out that Ulysses’ is none other than Flora’s mother. With the help of Tootie, her great-nephew William Spiver, and Mr. Buckman’s neighbor Dr. Meescham (who tends to speak in wise but enigmatic axioms), father and daughter set out to save Ulysses from his climactic encounter with the enemy.

If all this sounds a bit oddball, it is – deliciously so. Flora & Ulysses is the geek’s version of Judy Blume’s middle-grade problem novels. The characters are all a little wonky, comics and superhero references are everywhere, the kids are incredibly smart, and there’s a touch of magical realism to boot.

Overlaying it all is DiCamillo’s classic wry humor and barely self-conscious lyric phrasing. Campbell’s beautifully-shaded, animation-style pencil illustrations are the perfect accompaniment.

Being a geek myself, I would have loved this book even if there were nothing inspiring about it, but of course it is inspiring, or I wouldn’t be writing about it here.

Flora’s friendship with Ulysses calls out all the best in her. It opens her heart, commands her courage, and pushes her intelligence to its limits. It also leads her to call out the best in others: she gives Tootie a chance to be decisive and brave, her father a chance to reforge their bond, Dr. Meescham a chance to nurture others, and William Spiver the chance to belong. By book’s end, she’s even pulled her own denial-steeped mother back to reality.

This all happens through means that are kooky rather than heroic, but perhaps the quirkiness is what helps make the messages unforgettable. Flora & Ulysses tells girls that changing things for the better – whether in their own lives or the lives of others – is not just for superstars, the popular, or the beautiful. However “outside” they may think themselves, there are people waiting to welcome them in and befriend them. Hope is for everyone. And extraordinary opportunities to become an even better version of themselves are waiting right in their own backyards.

Which all means that, for ordinary girls facing ordinary problems, Flora is a heroine for the books.


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Lord of the Rings

by J.R.R. Tolkien

Allen & Unwin, 1954-55

I don’t just talk about Lord of the Rings, I gush. J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy about the fictional realm of Middle Earth is one of my desert-island books, a work of art that comes closer to my own personal definition of literary perfection than does any other book I’ve read. (See? Gushing. I told you.)

My infatuation with this incredible story has nothing to do with the book’s genre, or even with the specific plot, though I like both quite well. It’s more about the craft: the fully-realized universe, the luxurious descriptions, the way Tolkien somehow holds onto subtlety as he dances around the edges of allegory and archetype.

It’s also about the characters: their backstories, their secrets, their choices, their surprising depths. There’s Gandalf the wizard, whose true identity and role in the drama are half-veiled even to himself, and who continually surprises his companions with his humor, compassion, and power. There’s Aragorn, the secret heir to an ancient line of kings, who is both intimidating and endearing, a peerless warrior and a gifted healer. Or Sam, whose rough appearance and speech hide a deep appreciation for beauty and a profoundly loyal, courageous, and noble heart.

And then there are the women. LoTR is predominantly male, to the point that there are really only two significant female characters in the entire 1,000-plus-page epic. But what characters they are! Of all the Super Secondaries I can imagine profiling, these two lead the pack.

First there’s Eowyn, niece and adopted daughter of King Theoden of Rohan, the nation of Gondor’s chief ally in the fight against the dark wizard Sauron. Strong and valiant, she yearns for battle, but cultural norms keep her trapped at home. So she disguises herself as a man and rides with her countrymen to war, where she plays a key role in the climactic battle against Sauron’s forces.

Critically wounded and disillusioned by violence, she finally returns to wholeness through the wise care of Gondor’s Healer and the gentle Lord Faramir (himself wounded in the war). She decides to become a healer herself and, after marrying Faramir, becomes co-ruler of one of Gondor’s provinces.

On the surface, Eowyn’s inspirational value may seem dubious. After all, she gives up her warrior ambitions, marries her Prince Charming, and settles down to a happy princess life. Except that it’s not quite that simple.

In the LoTR universe, war is not an occupation but a tool, waged only for a time and at greatest need. The ultimate good is lasting peace and active participation in it. So Eowyn’s trajectory matches that of the book’s two great leaders, Gandalf and Aragorn, who both become men of peace after Sauron’s defeat. Her choice to become a healer is a sign of great wisdom; and because of it, she maintains an active and important role in the restoration of Middle Earth.

Galadriel the elf-queen is the other strong female character in Tolkien’s saga. Along with her husband Celeborn, she rules the hidden forest sanctuary of Lothlorien. She is the most powerful and one of the oldest of her people in Middle Earth, and it is her magic that maintains Lothlorien as a refuge from and center of resistance to Sauron’s destruction and power.

Her story is harder to follow than Eowyn’s, especially for those who aren’t familiar with The Silmarillion, a separate book that outlines Middle Earth’s beginnings. But for very astute readers, the clues are there to follow. Galadriel is so powerful that even the demi-gods fear her; they test her loyalty even as they use her as an ally. She is the only character who can read Sauron’s mind and see into the future. And even objects that bear her magic have the ability to repel Sauron’s darkness and ancient evil.

She is, quite simply, one of the most inspiring female characters I’ve ever encountered. Tolkien is abundantly clear that the fight against Sauron would have failed without her – when the story ends, she ranks with the greatest champions of Middle Earth.

Even without Eowyn and Galadriel, Lord of the Rings is inspiring. It has a unique blend of humanity and earthiness coupled with epic themes of good vs. evil, monumental sacrifice, loyalty, and love. And there is simply no one else who can write like Tolkien. His love for his work oozes out of every word.

But these two strong women – their fearlessness, their power, their dedication, and their amazing accomplishments – mean that girls can find inspiration just for them in the pages of one of English literature’s greatest classics.

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A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France

by Caroline Moorehead

Harper, 2011

374 pages

I don’t really remember when I first learned about World War II. Probably very early in childhood, since I grew up with a grandfather who often told stories of his time in “The War.”

I also don’t really remember when I first learned about the Holocaust, but I remember being well aware of it by the time I was in junior high.

That was when I read Anne Frank’s diary, which honestly didn’t have much of an impact on me. But Elie Wiesel’s Night, which I read in high school, affected me deeply. So did a trip to a Holocaust lecture series at a local university. I still remember, with crystal clarity, attending a survivors’ panel where a white-haired man slowly rolled up his shirt sleeve to reveal the number tattooed on the inside of his arm.

Both subjects – the Holocaust and the war as a whole – fascinated me, and I learned quite a bit about them on my own. I realized not long ago, however, that all my investigation had fallen between fairly narrow parameters: I had studied the Holocaust as an event in Jewish history, and World War II as it related to Americans and Britons.

I knew there was a lot more to the story, and I was especially curious about the French Resistance and about non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. So when Caroline Moorehead published A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France, it caught my attention.

The book’s title refers to a train that left Paris for Auschwitz in January 1943. On board were over 200 women arrested by the Gestapo for working with the French Resistance. The women were a diverse group, in terms of profession, age, and the activities that led to their capture.

After a stint in two French prisons – where many of their husbands, lovers, brothers, and fathers were beaten and executed – they were deported to Auschwitz as a symbol of the Nazis’ “indulgence” toward women. Because the women weren’t Jewish, they weren’t marked for immediate extermination; instead, their guards intended to literally work them to death.

And that’s what happened in most cases. The women performed sometimes back-breaking labor under horrific conditions. Sanitation was nonexistent, food and water rations virtually so. Those who didn’t die from sheer exhaustion succumbed to conditions like dysentery, typhus, dehydration, or gangrene. Others were beaten to death for sport or as punishment for defiance.

Of the 230 women originally arrested, only 45 survived.

If this book sounds like a heavy read, it is. It’s one of those books you can’t finish in one sitting. Some days, I did well just to get through a few pages. Moorehead’s account of the women’s suffering, particularly in Auschwitz, is graphic and brutal.

And because Moorehead tells their individual stories, in many cases beginning in childhood, you’re invested in their fates. Like the man I saw at the Holocaust conference, they are much more than the numbers tattooed on their arms. So when you realize that only 45 survive, and learn that many of those 45 lived shattered lives after the war, it’s devastating.

But here’s the thing: that survival rate of 20% was very, very high. Groups brought into Auschwitz typically died at a rate of 90-100%.  The difference between 10% and 20% is what makes this book worth the effort – is what makes it inspiring.

As Moorehead shows in heart-wrenching detail, the French women’s high survival rate was a direct result of their conscious decision to look after one another. Beginning in the French prisons, they chose to protect the oldest and youngest and weakest among them.

When they reached Auschwitz, they continued to help one another. While most inmates ultimately turned to aggressive self-preservation, the Resistance women took a different path. Because illness or weakness attracted beatings (which were usually fatal), and incapacitation meant a trip to the gas chambers, the women went to great lengths to protect their sick or fatigued compatriots. The “healthy” ones shared their meager rations with their sick friends, hid them behind curtains and under bunks, and lied about their whereabouts. Stronger women propped up weaker ones at roll call and secretly completed work assignments for them.

It was often a fruitless endeavor, and sometimes earned death for the protectors. But they continued to do it until the day the survivors went home.

In the face of the ultimate dehumanization and a concerted effort to wipe them out, they stood strong – not just for themselves, but for others. They kept small, flickering flames burning in the midst of one of the deepest darknesses history has ever seen. So when I finished A Train in Winter, I was glad I’d read it. And I think you will be, too.

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