Wednesday, June 3, 2020

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

A Blue Morpho butterfly in her prime.

In 1960 Julia Alvarez was ten-years-old when her family fled the Dominican Republic for the USA. The SIM military police had uncovered her father's involvement in a plot against General Trujillo's authoritarian regime. That same year in the DR, three of the four Mirabal sisters were murdered. Their deaths were made to look like an accident but everyone knew the truth. Those brave young women, code-named the Butterflies (las Mariposas in Spanish), were the beloved symbols of the resistance. Author Julia Alvarez reimagined their story in her gorgeous historical novel, In the Time of the Butterflies. Although the book was first published 26 year ago, this tale of a narcissistic dictator and the brave young women who dared to defy him feels all the more relevant today.

The story itself was compelling, but what made me fall in love with In the Time of the Butterflies were the well developed characters, the gorgeous writing, and the interesting narrative structure. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of the four sisters, following them from their privileged girlhood to a revolutionary adulthood under the tyranny of Trujillo's reign. Each voice was unique. The eldest sister was the most cautious due to her overbearing husband. The second sister was a dedicated revolutionary, who secretly suffered under the burden of heroic expectations. The third sister was motivated by religious passion and family loyalty. The baby sister disclosed too much in her diaries, admitting her infatuation with the revolutionary men more than the cause, making her delightfully human. Every reader could identify with one of the sisters. It felt so real and relatable, this focus on their family life and the villainy of Trujillo, more than on the polemic of the revolution. However, the trajectory of their tragic lives clearly illustrates the horrors of authoritarianism. 

A Blue Morpho butterfly with shut wings is well camouflaged. The spots look like owl eyes to scare predators.

In the "Postscript," Julia Alvarez explains why she decided to reimagine the personal life of the sisters: "As for the sisters of legend, wrapped in superlatives and ascended into myth, they were also finally inaccessible to me. I realized, too, that such deification was dangerous, the same god-making impulse that had created our tyrant. And ironically, by making them myth, we lost the Mirabals once more, dismissing the challenge of their courage as impossible for us, ordinary men and women."

This might be the treacherous mountain range that the Mirabal sister crossed to reach Puerta Plata.

Read In the Time of the Butterflies to find the courage to fight for change and to remember how to feel hope for a brighter future. The Butterflies will remind you to appreciate family and democracy and to take nothing for granted. I read the book to research my own historical novel about Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, and I feel all the more inspired. To practice my Spanish I'm also reading Alvarez's children's delightful Tía Lola series, which I'd recommend to 8-12 year-olds in either English or Spanish. Alvarez is a master of her craft and one of my favorite authors.

¡Vivan las Mariposas!

The gorgeous Blue Morpho butterfly near the end of her short life.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Dominicana by Angie Cruz & a Visit to the Dominican Republic

Playa Sosúa in the Dominican Republic
Inspired by her Dominican mother, Angie Cruz decided to write a realistic novel about immigration and assimilation. Dominicana is a quiet story of savory dishes, simmering passions, and the twisted bonds of family. Although this 2019 novel was written for adults, it would crossover well to teens.

In 1964 fifteen-year-old Ana Canción is wed to Juan Ruiz, a man more than twice her age. Her desperate family is struggling to make a living in the Dominican Republic. Juan and his charismatic brothers are working in New York but still operate a restaurant business back home. The brothers have an eye on the Canción farmland for expansion. Juan also wants a Dominican wife to start a family in New York City. Their homeland is in turmoil, and this union could bring both families more economic security and the salvation of chain migration.

Dutiful Ana pretends to be eighteen to fly to NYC. She arrives to shocking cold and isolation, unable to speak the language or to deal with city life. Her new husband is abusive and demands that she stay home alone, but Ana schemes to start a business and to learn English while Juan is back in the DR. And then there is Cesar, Juan's younger brother, who reminds her how to laugh again....

Dominicana's gorgeous cover caught my eye at Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick. I'm taking Spanish at Bowdoin College and reading Dominican American authors to research a new book. I started with nonfiction, but you can learn so much more about a culture by listening to its music, tasting its food, and reading its stories. Angie Cruz, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Junot Diaz have taught me slang I won't learn at school and a deeper appreciation of Dominican culture. They are phenomenal writers who create unforgettable characters in tough settings. Cruz's literary style with strong imagery evokes a sensory reaction. You don't just read Dominicana, you experience Ana's struggles as your own and hope for a better future. A deeply personal and realistic story such as this will engender empathy for immigrants and for victims of abuse or prejudice. I'd recommend this book to anyone.

Like Angie Cruz, a true family story inspired me to write historical fiction. During World War II my great grandfather, Arthur Lamport, helped to set up a farming settlement in the Dominican Republic for Jewish refugees. Other nations imposed strict quotas on Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, but the Dominicans opened their country to about 850 Jewish settlers. One small nation of only 1.5 million residents saved near three thousand more lives through visas. Most people, even other Jews, have never heard of Sosúa.

Last month I visited the Dominican Republic to practice Spanish and to see what remains of the Jewish settlement in Sosúa. I found a beautiful beach, their old synagogue, and more to share later.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Stacey Lee is one of my favorite authors because she imagines vibrant characters to recreate the forgotten chapters of American history. Her latest young adult novel, The Downstairs Girl tells the bittersweet story of an elderly Chinese immigrant and his adopted daughter in 1890s Atlanta. Although Old Jin and 17-year-old Jo Kuan are fictional characters, their historical context is true to life in the segregated South.

As the Author's Note explains, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese immigration to the USA until 1943. Immigrant laborers, who had been shipped in from China to replace the freed slaves, were thus permanently separated from their families back home. Work conditions were terrible, and those who ran away to the cities faced further isolation. Where should a person who is neither black nor white sit on a segregated trolley car, and what landlord would rent to them?

Unable to find affordable housing, Old Jin and 17-year-old Jo squat in a secret basement that used to be part of the Underground Railway. By good fortune, the oblivious Caucasian family that lives above them runs a liberal newspaper. Jo educates herself in English by eavesdropping on their conversations. When Jo learns that their newspaper might fold, she starts writing an anonymous agony aunt column to increase circulation. Jo's job as a lady's maid is helpful for etiquette tips, but she can't resist writing about hot topics like racism and women's rights. Her column is as witty as it is controversial. All of Atlanta wants to know who "Miss Sweetie" is, but Jo knows she must hide her identity or risk expulsion from the only home she knows. Although legal residents, Chinese Americans were not citizens.

With a bit of romance, snippets of Chinese culture, and a horse race, this engaging story takes the reader for a fun ride. Jo is a marvelous, kind-hearted but frank character who breathes life into history. This recently published novel has a lovely sense of place and time, enhanced by whimsical imagery:
"The cold seems to have crystallized into a freezing dust. It's as if the winter dragon were salting the earth liberally for its supper. Lucky Yip told me that season dragons can be jealous, producing weather extremes to prevent the next season's dragon from moving in."
I highly recommend The Downstairs Girl to all readers ages twelve and up. Although there are some sexual references in the story, the content is very tame for young adult fiction. The fascinating history and strong writing would crossover well to an adult audience too. This gorgeous book, with its rare cover image of a Chinese American girl in 19th century period dress, would make an excellent gift. I also enjoyed Lee's two other historical novels for teens: Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon. I hope she writes more.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

How to Build a Heart by Maria Padian

In How to Build a Heart by Maria Padian, winning a dream home becomes a nightmare for sixteen-year-old Izzy Crawford when the sponsor needs a poster family for fundraising. This beautifully written YA novel explores the themes of economic inequity, racism, and assimilation.

As a scholarship student at a private school, Izzy has worked hard to fit in with her affluent classmates. Even her friends don't know that she lives in a mobile home, and since her complexion favors her Caucasian father, she can pass for white. Instead of learning Spanish, her mother's native tongue, Izzy takes French and speaks English at home with her little brother. Their father died a war hero, and their Puerto Rican mother has struggled to support them, often uprooting the family to follow jobs.

Thanks to Habitat for Humanity, the Crawfords finally have a chance to grow permanent roots in rural Virginia, but the new house must be paid for with sweat equity. If they are selected, Izzy and her family are required to help build their house, and local fundraising makes it difficult to hide her poverty from her rich friends and neighbors. Also Izzy's friendship with Roz, the troubled girl in the adjacent mobile home, doesn't fit this new life, and Roz's jealousy threatens Izzy's budding romance with a wealthy boy in her new neighborhood. Torn between conflicting loyalties and clashing identities, Izzy makes mistakes as she searches for the right path in life.

In How to Build a Heart, author Maria Padian drew on her own experience of growing up in an ethnically mixed family. Her Irish American father and Latina mother spoke English at home so their children would assimilate into their white suburban community. The Spanish phrases in the book are expressions Maria's mother used at home. If anything, I wish there had been more focus on Izzy's Latina heritage and less on her nearly seamless assimilation. As someone who grew up with dual religions and often struggled to fit in, I could relate to Izzy's story. Reading a book like this one will encourage more teens to have empathy for biracial and low income peers.

How to Build a Heart won't be released until January 2020, but you can preorder now. This young adult novel would be a great choice for readers ages 12-18, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is domestic violence, and a bit of underage drinking, but irresponsible behavior has consequences. Despite the tough issues, the central plot is a sweet, predictable romance, and the story leaves the reader with hope. This quiet book that slowly builds to a dramatic finale has already earned a starred review from Kirkus, and I expect it to win more awards.

Reviewer's Disclosure: At my request, Algonquin Books for Young Readers sent me a galley in exchange for an honest review. The author is a friend of mine.

Photo of Maria Padian provided by the author

More YA novels by Maria Padian:
Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress
Jersey Tomatoes are the Best
Out of Nowhere
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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Eliza and Her Monsters is one of the most original books I've ever read. The multi-talented Francesca Zappia blends graphic panels with prose to tell her story about a young webcomic artist. Eliza Mirk leads a double life: in high school she's a social outcast, but online, she's Lady Constellation, the creator of a popular webcomic. When a charismatic fan of her Monstrous Sea series transfers to Eliza's school, the boundaries start to blur.

Only a handful of online friends know Lady Constellation's true identity, which works well for shy Eliza, who has been bullied at school by former friends. Her invisibility allows her to focus on finishing Monstrous Sea before graduation. Through selling merchandise to fans, Eliza has saved enough money to escape her small town in the Midwest for art college. Even her parents don't realize the level of her success and keep nagging her to be more physically and socially active. Eliza's comfortable anonymity is challenged when a new boy at school shares his adoration for Monstrous Sea and introduces her to other fans in the real world.

This innovative YA novel from 2017 is mostly traditional prose with excerpts from online chats and from Monstrous Sea. Like a visual journal, the narrative also included rough sketches. The twenty or so graphic pages were well integrated into the overall story.

Francesca Zappia did an excellent job of portraying the benefits as well as the risks of an online community. Despite her larger than life story, Eliza's experience felt very true and believable. The online/offline narrative and social anxiety reminded me of Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, another favorite young adult novel of mine. Eliza and her Monsters would be an excellent choice for reluctant readers, for kids who feel alienated at school, and for readers of all ages who enjoy graphic novels. It got starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publisher's Weekly, and was nominated for Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Young Adult Fiction. Why hasn't Monstrous Sea been published as a companion graphic novel? I'm looking forward to reading more books by this talented author.

Eliza and Her Monsters has given me ideas on how I'd like to present my own YA novel about an American girl in Japan trying to break into manga. As an artist and a writer, I have always enjoyed works that dissolve the line between art and literature. I wish there were more hybrid novels.

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@Barrie Summy