Thursday, January 31, 2013

Blind Spot by Laura Ellen: Book Review

 
Blind Spot
Author: Laura Ellen
Publisher: Harcourt, 2012
Reviewer: Sharon M. Himsl
Age: 15 up, Young Adult fiction
Pages: 332

 
Roz, a junior at Birch, Alaska’s Chance High, is haunted by the memory that something terrible happened at the loft party—where Tricia was last seen. When Tricia’s body turns up six months later, Roz struggles to learn the truth. Roz has macular degeneration, an eye disease that causes a blind spot in her central vision. And except for “quick snapshots,” her memory (too) of that night is foggy. Can she trust what she does remember? Ellen retraces the last forty days, before Tricia’s disappearance, beginning with day one at school.
Sad without Missy, once her best friend, Roz feels lonely and lost. Moreover, she is in Mr. Dellian’s special education (SPED) class, a huge mistake, she is positive. Even with poor vision, she gets good grades. She doesn’t need SPED. But efforts to transfer out fail. Furious, Roz is stuck in SPED and partnered with Tricia, a strange girl who “twirls” a lot and (oddly) calls Mr. Dellian, Rodney. Tricia, a recovering heroin addict, gets Roz to buy her some “weed” through Jonathan, a classroom aide. Roz’s crush on Jonathan clouds her judgment and they then begin to date. Greg, a childhood friend, worries about Roz dating Jonathan (others worry, too), but Roz ignores his concerns and flirtations. Greg likes Missy, not her—right? A party with drinking, sex, and possibly a date rape drug takes place. Tricia disappears. Jonathan, Roz and even Mr. Dellian are suspects. Only Roz’s trust in the knowledge she has, and her newfound friends, including those in SPED, can unravel the truth. Although interesting to read about living with macular degeneration and life in a SPED class, some of the plot details are missing. For one, Missy and Roz’s friendship is never developed. Why they are friends again at the story's end is never quite clear. Readers may also find Ellen’s jump in time confusing in the beginning (I did). Nonetheless, Blind Spot captures the teen voice and angst of life as a girl with macular degeneration.

Copyright 2013 © Sharon M. Himsl

Friday, January 25, 2013

Double Victory by Cheryl Mullenbach: Book Review

 
Double Victory: How African American Women Broke Race and Gender Barriers to Help Win World War II
Author: Cheryl Mullenbach
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Inc., 2013
Reviewer: Sharon M. Himsl
Age: 12 up, Young Adult nonfiction
Pages: 272 

Thousands of men in the U.S. quit their jobs to fight in World War II. Women rallied to the cause to fill these jobs, but in a segregated society rooted in racial discrimination, African American women were denied access. Segregation rules even kept some from volunteering. Mullenbach describes their upward struggle to participate. Ironically, as the nation fought for democracy and freedom overseas, African Americans were denied such freedom at home. In 1942, a black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, started the Double V Campaign—V for victory at war; V for victory at home. Not all blacks embraced this campaign, according to Mullenbach, but it “gave some black people the courage to act.” Hattie Duvall carried a protest sign when denied service at a restaurant. Willa Brown, a pilot, started a black flight school. Protester Thomasina Walker Johnson Norford, a young teacher, would become an influential lobbyist. Ethel Bell, who was refused employment after passing a civil service test, traveled to Washington, DC to complain. Others fought to join the military, but once accepted, faced unfair practices. Nursing was only open to white women at first, but persistence paid off. As nurses, they served stateside and overseas, and although segregated, assigned to black soldiers only, they more than proved their worth. Black female entertainers faced similar hurdles. Black actress Hattie McDaniel was denied housing in a white neighborhood, despite her contribution in boosting military morale. However, black singers Margaret Simms and Josephine Baker (also a spy) were well received all over Europe. As war workers, political activists, volunteers, military personnel, and entertainers, black women “broke race and gender barriers to help win” the war. Double Victory is an excellent resource on African American women’s contribution to World War II and the Civil Rights Movement later (1955-1968). 

Copyright 2013 © Sharon M. Himsl    

Monday, January 21, 2013

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Speech Still Resonates

Martin Luther KingToday is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I was too young to appreciate the significance of this man or his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, but voices from the past still echo the reality of that time.

I am reminded of my own dear father who had had a black maid growing up in Oklahoma. His racial slurs were common occurrences in my home, but no less common in the homes of my friends. I attended a large high school in the Pacific Northwest that was almost an even split: half white, half black. Interracial dating  was an adamant NO, and anyone who dared to cross those boundaries paid the consequences. Rumors flew through the school halls one day when a girl my friends and I knew was suddenly whisked off to a private school. We all knew that she was dating a handsome black football player. I myself was flirting with one in particular.

But to be fair, interracial dating was a no-no on both sides of the racial track. Fights between whites and blacks were common in school parking lots and around town, including a "rumble" in 1966 between our high school and another school. It made the papers, and as Corresponding Secretary of our school's student council, I was assigned  the task of writing a letter to the offending school, explaining our outrage. The task proved impossible. The letter flopped and was quickly rewritten by another student in council. Embarrassed, I was told my letter wasn't strong enough.

Truth be told, the world around me was changing so rapidly, it was all one big blur. President Kennedy's assassination in 1963 three years prior was still big news. He was gunned down just three months after King's famous speech in August 1963. Then there was the Vietnam War protest and the Civil Rights Movement erupting across the nation. As our soldiers fought for freedom in Southeast Asia, blacks in the south were holding sit-ins and carrying signs, protesting segregation and fighting for their own freedom. Violence broke out against them and was shown on national TV. What did it all mean? Everyone appeared to understand the issues but me it seemed. I felt as if I was the only one standing on the corner waiting for the bus to arrive.

But we were all grappling with our own realities then. A neighborhood friend's brother, Allan, died in Vietnam. Wake-up call. In college, I campaigned for Robert Kennedy and gathered with him and others in Portland in May 1968. One month later he was assassinated in California. Wake-up call. It was only months before in April that King, too, had been assassinated. Wake-up call. When I later married, and found myself coping with racial discrimination in Mississippi and Georgia, wrestling with the unfairness of blatant prejudice on the job and housing segregation, reality slapped me in the face once again.  

Rereading King's speech, I can see that his message of freedom and brotherhood is as vital today as it was then. There are discords of disunity in the U.S. that continue to exist, but we have made progress as a nation and a people. King would be proud of just how far we have come. (Today is also President Obama's second inaugural address). But would he not also say there are battles yet to be won--not just in the struggle for racial equality, and urge us to not be afraid to be ourselves, to stand up for our beliefs? Could it be that our dream for a better way or life might just be the solution for someone else, or even the nation . . . or the world? Yes, there are risks to be had, we might say. Assassins claimed the lives of three powerful leaders who spoke their minds and inspired many in the 1960s, and there were others. But dare we take this freedom of speech lightly? I think not.

Today countless school children across the U.S. will recite Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech in his memory, and rightly so!

Copyright 2013 © Sharon Himsl

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Winter of the Stars

It was April, 1996. Vince and I had just spent nine amazing months in Kluang, Malaysia. Soon we would be traveling home again to Moscow, Idaho. As we stood on the balcony of our spacious terrace home gazing at Kluang’s one mountain, not too unlike Moscow Mountain, we found ourselves looking up at the stars. "You know it’s funny. I don’t think I have ever noticed the stars before," I commented.

We had witnessed some of the best sunsets and sunrises imaginable in Southeast Asia. From Thailand to our north, Tioman Island to our east, and Singapore and Indonesia to our south, no skyline would ever compare with the orange glow of those skies. I recalled Singapore, then the largest port in the world, and the endless stream of ships that had lined up on the horizon waiting to dock. There was the beach in Koto Bahru, where Japanese had invaded Malaysia during World War II so many years ago. Tioman Island, our island paradise in the South China Sea, where the movie South Pacific had once been filmed, filled my senses. How could anything or any place ever compare?


Port of Singapore - through the trees
 


Malay girls on east Malaysia beach


Kuantan, Malaysia - South China Sea

Yet, for some odd reason, the stars had never been an attraction. We stared awhile at the alien star-filled sky and felt strangely out of place, and perhaps for the first time, yearned for home. It is the same with any move, I guess . . . when you know you about to leave that place or station in life—you slowly begin to disengage. Yet part of me struggled with our decision to leave. "I wish we could stay another six months," I lamented. "Don’t you?" I already knew his answer. Vince had grown restless and was worried about his university position. It was time to leave.

I stared at the sky again. We were so far from home, and to see our wide open skies in Idaho would be wonderful. Here the tropical sky was heavy with moisture and seemed to hover, not too unlike our experience growing up in Tacoma, Washington when the clouds drifted in from the bay—only there it was colder, and when the sky cleared, the stars were familiar. Here the constellations we had grown to love as children, like the big and little dippers and the nearby North Star, were missing. And where was the man in the moon with his big eyes and sunken nose for heaven’s sake? I had to laugh. 


There were plenty of reasons why we had not noticed the tropical sky in the past nine months. Except for checking the sky for sudden downpours, and there were plenty during the monsoon season, it could be hazardous looking up. Exploring Malaysian cities on foot required a good dose of common sense. Just crossing the street in Kluang or nearby Batu Pahat could be a hair-raising experience. Not only did we need to reprogram our brains to cars driving on the left side of the road, speed limits seemed virtually non-existent. Our son was nearly run over by a motor cyclist. But mostly we took things in stride, always thankful for our temporary home half way around the world.


Malay boys on motorbike
We even learned to navigate the narrow sidewalks bordering the small shops in downtown Kluang,  jumping over the drainage ditches when crossing the street. Of course the worry was that one of us would one day fall in, which eventually happened. One of the expat American ladies in our group fell knee deep into the muck and scraped her leg up a bit, giving us all a scare. We could not begin to imagine the infections and bacterial maladies that lurked in those foul smelling ditches. And so . . . we learned to watch our feet.    
 
Aside from worrying about drainage ditches, I found myself on the lookout for black cobras, rats, monitor lizards or smaller less harmful creatures like cockroaches and geckos, although some spiders I saw looked lethal enough. On the grounds of a nice hotel in East Malaysia, I nearly walked head first into the web of spider the size of my fist. Back in Kluang I stepped on a cockroach barefoot, had one fly into my face, another leap at me from a silverware drawer, and to top it off, I once fished out a drowning gecko from our coffee pot.

Soon the familiar sights and sounds of rural Idaho greeted us again. Home at last, we found that not only had we missed Idaho’s spacious sky, we missed our long evening walks. And so we walked—every night, through the remainder of spring, wearing our layers of clothing wrapped snug around our yet-to-be acclimated bodies, into the pleasant warmth of summer. How we loved the lingering daylight. In Malaysia, the sky would darken around seven o’clock every night without fail and again in the morning about the same time the sky would turn bright again. We continued our walks on into fall, enjoying the changing scenery as the leaves turned vibrant shades of red, and finally the chill of winter came. Winter. It hit us how we had skipped winter the year before. How boring a season-less life must be over time, we thought.

When the sidewalks turned icy and the air temperature dropped, we simply put on more layers, for me that meant an old tried and true neck-warmer pulled up over my nose. The skies were brilliant that year with incredible star constellations, forcing us to pull out an old star book. And in fairness, most winters here have equally glorious skies, but our eyes were especially fine tuned that winter. We could not have picked a better winter to walk, for in January 1997, we were treated to an unexpected cosmic display that God himself must have sent just for us it seemed—Hale-Bopp’s Comet.

From January to spring 1997, this magnificent blue gas tail of light accompanied us on our walks. And towards the end of March, we were treated to yet another surprise—a lunar eclipse. We knew then that we would talk of this winter for years to come, because both occurrences would not grace our skies for some time—at least together. Hale-Bopp’s Comet is not expected to return until around year 4385! Lunar eclipses occur yearly, but the timing of these two events together was incredible. The comet was first observed independently in 1995 by U.S. astronomer Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp (amateur U.S. astronomer). The comet was visible to the naked eye for around 18 months and became known as the Great Comet of 1997. 


Hale-Bopp's Comet over Moscow, Idaho
 
Hale-Bopp’s Comet and the lunar eclipse inspired us that year, spawned conversations of going back to school if my book did not get published and of Vince’s desire to own his own airplane. We analyzed our lives over and over again, of decisions made and not make, of opportunities passed and those acted upon, and of the amazing gift we had never expected—living in Malaysia. We talked fondly of returning to the expatriate lifestyle, maybe somewhere else in Asia, especially when the wind chill dipped to temperatures unbearably low and blew through our coats. Although it was wonderful to be home with family and friends again, we dearly missed our life overseas, for from our perspective, it was the most exotic of gifts and one that rarely happens twice in a lifetime. We were also keenly aware of the timeliness of that gift. Worn out from raising our family, remodeling our home, working and going to school, and trying to make ends meet through it all, Vince and I had desperately needed a retreat. 

We continued to ponder the star-filled sky, walking every night, marveling at the wondrous display overhead, discussing our goals and dreams individually and as a couple. Perhaps returning to school was an option. Perhaps an airplane could be built instead of purchased . . . and on and on. And with each step we slowly felt our energy  revived, and with sharpened vision, a new sense of direction took root. For one, we were quite certain the adventure was far from over. 



Source:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comet_Hale-Bopp
(photo): http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/comet/images970312.html )

©Winter of the Stars, Sharon Himsl (orig, 01-28-02)

Friday, January 4, 2013

Quick-Draw Gunfighters by Jeff Savage: Book review

"True Tales of the Wild West” series
Quick-Draw Gunfighters
Author: Jeff Savage
Publisher: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2012
Reviewer: Sharon M. Himsl 
Age: 12 up, Young Adult nonfiction
Pages: 48


“Gunfighters in the Wild West were a flashy, self-confident breed,” writes Savage. They led a dangerous life and knowing how to handle a gun well was essential, especially knowing when to pull the trigger (the Quick-Draw). They often bragged about their abilities and could be ruthless with a gun. Many learned to handle guns as children or during the Civil War, but grew corrupt over time and became outlaws. They often lived out their lives in gangs, robbing banks, trains, ranches, stagecoaches, and similar. The James Gang, for example, robbed trains and banks for nearly fifteen years before they were stopped. Some gunfighters, however, became lawmen and fought against these outlaws. Townspeople in western frontier towns and settlers in outlying areas were desperate for law and order, and often joined forces with the lawmen. The majority of outlaws lost their lives in shoot-outs or went to prison for their crimes, while many lawmen died fighting them. Savage describes this violent period in U.S. history as spanning from post Civil War to around the turn of the century. Some of the outlaws described are the James Gang (Jesse James), the Doolin Gang, Billy the Kid, and the Wild Bunch (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, and Bat Masterson are among the lawmen also described. Similar to other books in the series, Quick-Draw Gunfighters is a short read, as are the Glossary, Index, and Further Reading list at the end, to appeal to reluctant middle grade readers. Boys in particular will be drawn to the dialogue and live action depictions of actual gunfights. Black and white photos from the period are included, adding authenticity to events and individuals portrayed. Resources are listed for each chapter.

Copyright 2013 © Sharon Himsl

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Postcards from New Year's Past



 (Postcard, 1918. B.B. London series, printed in Germany)
To Mr. and Mrs. Gravseth in Tacoma, WA 
from Mr. and Mrs. Pederson in Bisbee, ND


(Postcard made in USA, 1913)
"To Emma . . . from your loving brother Arent," Hope, WA

(Made in Germany)
To Karl in Bisbee, North Dakota . . . Godt Nyttår . . . from Johan in Norway





 HAPPY NEW YEAR!




Copyright 2013 © Sharon Himsl 
[Postcards from Gravseth family archive]