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o-GRAPES-OF-WRATH-ARISTS-facebook“She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials . . . She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Dear Readers,

One of the beauties of reading classics again is the heightened ability to empathize in different seasons of life. Reading The Grapes of Wrath with my 15 year-old daughter, is an entirely different experience than reading it as a teenager.  I see it now through the eyes of a grandmother, a mother, a sister and a daughter.  But it is the position of Mrs. Joad that is particularly striking for me as a mother and grandmother.  Steinbeck’s passage above reflects an unconscious notion many mothers feel as they strive to build strength and integrity in their families.

Becoming re-acquainted with Steinbeck’s tale of the great Dust Bowl migration displays the timeless power of literature.  As we immerse in the story of a formerly middle-class family cast off from their one-time prosperous farm, forced to migrate with little more than the clothes on their backs, a few family members in extremities of health, with little money and facing cruel prejudice wherever they go, I’m struck by how capricious our relative ease and comfort can be and how blithely we view it.

I relate particularly to Mrs. Joad, as she struggles to keep her family together, knowing how important that is, yet watching the vicissitudes of fate and chance play their hand cruelly against her best intentions, and my heart aches with her mother heart.  As she buries both parents along the way due to the extremities of travel and little chance of rest and sustenance, I feel I can understand her heartbreak and agony.  So determined is she to keep the family together that when the men make plans to split up, she takes up a jack handle and threatens to wallop Pa if he forces his plan.  The formerly mild-mannered and temperate Ma is forced to such means to do what she believes is right. Tragically, despite her best efforts the family is split up.  Steinbeck describes in vivid detail how the tragedy of the Dust Bowl, corporate and individual greed, and small-minded prejudice brought such devastation to hard-working, happy, God-fearing families all across the plains.

The lessons of The Grapes of Wrath are many.  But the one that is resonating with me currently is how displacement is such an ongoing human tragedy.  It strips dignity, creates prejudice, subjects the innocent to violence, and destroys families. While we have no great forced migrations occurring in America today, around the world they are an ongoing reality.  We have displaced Mexican children swamping our borders, the Syrian refugee crisis is daily in the news, Rwandan refugee camps burst at the seams, and there are continuing crises in Sudan and Somalia.

Watching the heartbreak of Mrs. Joad is an important exercise in learning to have a heart for refugees and for the disenfranchised around the globe. Mrs. Joad stands as an icon of the tragedy that is repeated around the world as families are forced to flee their homes.  Through one of his characters, Steinbeck poses the question, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?”  It is a good question to ask ourselves.  The next time we’re tempted to dismiss the plight of the refugee, whether at our border, or elsewhere on the globe, let’s remember Mrs. Joad, and say a prayer for all those in her place.

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imagesToday, we will visit Korea on our world  tour through literature! A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park can broaden a literature approach to Medieval studies by taking the reader to 12th century Korea as viewed through the life of an orphan boy by the name of Tree-ear.  The orphan motif is an oft repeated literary device that draws the reader into the story through pathos, and the author doesn’t fail in her use here. Tree-ear’s story is set firmly in the world of the highly skilled pottery artisans of Korea who first invented celadon pottery.  Tree-ear learns their delicate but highly painstaking craft under a master potter and then must deliver the master’s works for a royal commission.  The journey takes him through danger from both man and beast and teaches Tree-ear perseverance and loyalty.  Winner of the Newbery Medal in 2002, this book not only teaches what medieval life was like for the poor, but also teaches the value of friendship and compassion.

So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins won the American Library Association Award in002112 1987 and tells a story of Korea, but with a twist. The young protagonist Yoko and her family are part of Japanese occupation forces in Korea (Japan occupied Korea from 1910-1945), and must flee Korea when Japan begins to lose the war.  Their harrowing escape and their attempts to pass themselves off as Koreans makes for a gripping and moving work based on the author’s own experiences.  Though Japan was the aggressor–and often a cruel and tyrannical one–what Yoko’s tale shows is how women and children are victimized by war, and must summon almost superhuman courage and sacrifice to help those they love.

The last award-winning book on Korea is Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul images-1Choi and is the author’s own biography of her childhood growing up in Korea during the same period as the title above.  Sook’s family are involved in resistance movement, and her brothers have been sent to labor camps, while her heroic mother keeps the family factory running and does everything in her power to protect her young female factory workers from the Japanese forces.  When war separates Sook from her mother, she and her little brother must escape by themselves.  Their journey is heroic, touching and miraculous!

This is just another brief installment on our Around the World tour through award-winning children’s literature which I will be covering in my upcoming Back-to-School Literature Soiree!  If interested, go here.

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Lincoln enjoying a chat with Union soldiers.

Lincoln enjoying a chat with Union soldiers.

When my son Solomon was studying architecture in Florence during his college years, his homecoming after a year abroad was a much anticipated event for our family.  My most distinctive memory driving up to San Francisco International Airport that day, was my youngest daughter’s comment, “Mom, I can’t wait to hear Sol’s laugh.  I’ve missed it so much.” It struck me then how much we are defined by our laughter or lack thereof.

In Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln, the director brings out what is a seminal part of Lincoln’s character–his humor.  Previous films have tended to depict the solemn Lincoln bearing the weight of a nation at war upon his shoulders, and while it is true that he did do that, and felt deeply the anguish of that responsibility, it was partly his love of laughter that enabled him to get through that tumultuous time.  What Spielberg does so brilliantly is display the complex and multifaceted character of Lincoln.  It wasn’t as though Lincoln wasn’t grieving with a nation watching the slaughter of tens of thousands of its sons–he was grieving with them because he knew their grief very personally.  Lincoln had buried his beloved Willie (11) during his tenure in office, and had lost his son Edward (4) in 1850. Lincoln bore the nation’s grief and carried their sorrows.

But part of Lincoln’s genius lay in his ability to laugh in times of loss and despair.  Much of Lincoln’s humor was self-deprecating (see an earlier post on this here), and he loved to poke fun at human foibles, contradictions and paradox.  Amidst the strain of countless people vying for a piece of him, Lincoln nearly always found time to spin a yarn, recall a humorous anecdote, or crack a witty joke.  From his cabinet members, to his fellow politicians, his family, and the telegraph boy in the midnight War Office, Lincoln lightened their load just a tad, and thereby bestowed worth and dignity on each individual.

Reinhold Neibuhr–the theologian of the late 19th and early 20th century, said “Humor is a prelude to faith and/ Laughter is the beginning of prayer.”  There is a paradoxical connection between humor and the divine.  Somehow, within our ability to recognize our conflicted natures, find humor in our contradictions, and accept the conundrums of life, there is the mysterious working of grace.  I think Lincoln understood that.

Be sure to see this film.  Take your children to see it. And in 2013 let’s purpose to live with a bit more humor and a lot more grace.  Happy New Year.

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Since the beginning of recorded history, war has defined the story of mankind in profound ways.  Man’s propensity for war reflects not only his fallen nature but also the sublime heights to which he can rise in selfless acts of courage and heroism. No wonder then, that entire periods of history are often characterized by the wars that were fought and by the literature created by those seeking to ascribe meaning to these times of tremendous upheaval.

Andromache weeps over the slain Hector.

One of the earliest epics known to mankind, the Iliad is the poet Homer’s account of the final year of the decade-long Trojan War.  The Iliad is a study in human nature, the capricious nature of the Greek gods, and the immutable quest for immortality through military glory.  From this enduring epic many of our western notions about war derive their essence.  For instance, the Trojan hero, Hector wrestles with whether or not the war he wages against the Greeks is a just war, since it was instigated by his brother Paris’s ill-fated dalliance with Helen, the wife of the Greek hero, Menelaus. In reality, Hector has little choice, as he either fights or watches the destruction of his city. When his beloved wife Andromache begs Hector to leave the battle and return to her and their young son, the scene is one of the most heart wrenching in literature; echoing the sublime tragedy repeated every time a soldier dies defending his homeland.  The profound beauty and enduring relevance of the Iliad rests upon the ways this epic presents the various faces of war through the Greek and Trojan heroes as well as the impact upon their wives, their families, and their societies.

The battles and military engagements of the Old Testament patriarchs also reflect universal themes of war, but with a key difference.  While the heroes of the ancient Greek and Roman works battled for immortality through military glory, the military engagements of the Israelites are purposed by God in his plan to establish a chosen people to reflect his glory and prepare a people for the coming of his Son­–the one who would hail as the Prince of Peace.  God rejected the warrior King David in building the Temple because he had “shed blood abundantly and had made great wars”; the King of Glory comes as the peacemaker­–he comes to a war torn world to bring “peace on earth, good will to men” (1 Chr. 22:8, Luke 2:14).

Wars of the Old World

Wars that are depicted in great works of literature for mature readers (high school) include War and Peace by the Russian author and patriot, Leo Tolstoy.  One of the world’s finest works, this tome treats the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812 and though fictional, presents over 150 historical characters. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo depicts the uprisings of the French Republicans in 1832 as students sought to overthrow the French monarchy.  The splendor of Hugo’s work is that within this beautifully crafted novel is a powerful tale of redemption.  Sentenced to nineteen years in prison for stealing a piece of bread for his sister’s starving child, when finally released, the embittered Jean Valjean is redeemed through the kindness and mercy of a humble parish priest. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens opens in 1775, and in classic Dickensian style throws light upon issues of class, injustice, and redemption against the drama, intrigue and bloodshed of the French Revolution.

Wars of the New World

A Caldecott Honor book of 1950, America’s Ethan Allen by Holbrook and Ward tells the life story of the “Green Mountain Boy” Ethan Allen, who fought in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.  For middle-grade readers, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes depicts a prideful silversmith’s apprentice and his coming-of-age amidst the turbulent days leading to the war for Independence.  For younger readers, America’s Paul Revere by Esther Forbes presents the life of the gifted silversmith and patriot and the pivotal role he played in America’s struggle.  George Washington and Benjamin Franklin by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire present primary readers with the stories of two of America’s most important founders and the service they rendered their young country. Those who have enjoyed the work of David McCullough in his Pulitzer Prize-winner, John Adams, will enjoy Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution by Natalie Bober, as the author explores the amazing role Abigail played as wife, counsel, and encourager to her patriot husband.

The Civil War has been immortalized in far too many works to cover here, but a few noteworthy ones include: Killer Angels by Michael Sharra, another Pulitzer prize-winner.  The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane is the first novel to wrestle with the shame of the soldier who turns coward upon the battlefield, a common occurrence, yet one not previously addressed in literature.  Crane’s depiction of the agonized mental state of the young soldier, was a sea change in literature, and led the way for other novels to follow. Two other Civil War novels for middle and junior high level are Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith and Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt.  Both Newbery award-winning novels present true-to-life depictions of teen protagonists facing the conflicted reality of Northern versus Southern sentiments and the ways in which these affect their families.  In Bull Run by Paul Fleischman, Northerners, Southerners, generals, couriers, dreaming boys, and worried sisters describe the glory, the horror, the thrill, and the disillusionment of the first battle of the Civil War. Undying Glory: The Story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment by Clinton Cox tells the inspiring story of the first black Union regiment under the heroic and noble Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

Wars of the Modern World: The Bloodiest Century

The twentieth-century was mankind’s bloodiest in history.  The scale of human tragedy and horror was ushered in by the rise of communism, socialism and Nazism and compounded by the dawn of atomic weapons, the horrors of Stalin’s Russian gulag, Hitler’s Nazi death camps, and Mao Zedong’s wholesale slaughter of untold millions of Chinese.  While none of these topics are approached with relish, these are tales that must be told and knowing the best works is essential.

Works addressing World War I include: Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front; like The Red Badge of Courage before it, deals with the horror and ignominy of war from the perspective of young German soldiers.  Two other works dealing with this period are: The Yanks are Coming: America in World War I and Stalin: Russia’s Man of Steel by the award-winning Albert Marrin.  Marrin’s willingness to approach these topics specifically for the young adult reader, is commendable in itself; parents who are committed to their children knowing these stories will profit from his works.

Albert Marrin has also written about World War II and both Hitler and Victory in the Pacific are engagingly written and will educate students far better than the best text book. A tender and sweet story to read to the intermediate aged child is The House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert Dejong.  Set in China during the Japanese occupation, young Tien Pao becomes separated from his family behind Japanese lines.  His desperate search for his family and his fortune in being taken in by American soldiers makes for a satisfying and uplifting story. The affect of the American bombing of Hiroshima is told in a moving and provocative work entitled Hiroshima by John Hersey.  Told through the first-person accounts of six survivors of the bombing, Pulitzer prize-winning author Hersey puts a human face upon one of history’s most cataclysmic events. His follow-up on his six survivors 40 years after Hiroshima makes a moving epilogue to this book.

The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom will inspire readers with the Ten Boom’s selfless devotion to helping their hunted Jewish neighbors during the German occupation of Holland. Secreting their neighbors in specially designed hiding places earns the Ten Booms betrayal, arrest, and imprisonment at a notorious Nazi concentration camp.  Despite the horror and deprivation of their experience, Corrie triumphs through forgiveness of her enemies.

The Korean War has been covered by three notable authors whose work I highly recommend.  For high-school level, Richard Kim has written a moving memoir of his childhood in Korea while his country is under Japanese occupation. Lost Names presents a devoted Christian family, the terror and deprivations of daily life under a ruthless regime, and the power of integrity, courage, and honor in Korea’s darkest hour.   So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins is the story of a young Japanese girl who grows up in Korea where her family is stationed as part of the Japanese occupation. After the surrender of Japan, Yoko, her mother and sister must escape through hostile territory. The Year of Impossible Good Byes by Sook Nyul Choi is the true story of a young Korean girl who lives through separation from her family, endless treks through dangerous territory, deprivation and narrow escapes.  Her tenacity, courage and faith are an inspiration.

This brief article can hardly do justice to the multitude of classic and historical works delving into the countless wars that have made up such a significant part of the record of mankind.  Hopefully, the list above will acquaint you with treasures new and old, and enrich and enhance your studies of these important eras of history.

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January 14th is the birthday of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), a gentle soul who blessed the world in countless ways, not only as a scholar and theologian, but also as a remarkable musician, organist, composer, and key organ conservationist during the 20th century. But even all of those talents would not be his greatest contribution to mankind.

The organ of Saint Suplice, where Schweitzer played along with Charles Louis Widor

He was born in Alsace, during the time that this part of France was under German domination.  Raised as a pastor’s son, he grew up in a rich theological and intellectual atmosphere.  His father taught him piano at age five; by age nine, he was replacing the organist in his father’s church.  Intently devoted to the work of Johann Sebastian Bach,  his youthful dream was to study in Paris under the most famous organist of the day–Charles Louis Widor.  At eighteen years of age, with much trepidation, he presented himself to Widor, who immediately recognized the genius of the young Alsatian lad and agreed to tutor him free of charge.  One can only imagine the magnificence of sitting in Saint Suplice Cathedral in Paris, while these two remarkable musicians played with such reverence the inspiring works of Bach.

After completing his theological studies at the Sorbonne, Schweitzer was appointed to serve as curate in Strasbourg and it was here that his life mission changed dramatically.  Always deeply burdened by the poor and suffering, Albert was struck with a deep conviction that the blessings he had received were gifts he must use in the service of others.  He made a sacred vow that he would study until he was 30 and then devote the remainder of his life to serving those most in need. An article in the Paris Missionary Society magazine captured his attention at this time, opening his eyes to the desperate plight of the people of the Congo. Then and there he vowed that he would devote his life to these people and serve them in the name of Jesus.

Forsaking all his previous successes as theologian, philosopher, author, preacher, and musician,  Schweitzer turned his back on all he loved so passionately, and headed back to the academy.  In order to effectively serve the people of the Congo, he must have a medical degree! Six more years of study and Schweitzer was ready to begin his life’s mission.

Schweitzer served the people of the Congo for  more than three decades.  His time in Africa saw him often seeing hundreds of patients a day and in his first nine months there, he ministered to over 2000 patients.  At Lambaréné, Schweitzer was doctor and surgeon in the hospital, pastor of a congregation, administrator of a village, superintendent of buildings and grounds, writer of scholarly works, commentator on contemporary history, musician, and gracious host to countless visitors.  His work there earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, and countless other honors and distinctions.  But what Schweitzer considered his most important legacy was his work on Reverence for Life.

About twenty years-ago,  I was first introduced to the life and work of Schweitzer through Hermann Hagedorn‘s wonderful biography, Prophet in the Wildernesss.  And it was here I first read his amazing perspective on the value and dignity of human life.  It isn’t surprising that against the backdrop of Hitler’s complete disregard for life, that Schweitzer was inspired to reinforce this most basic foundation of the Judeo-Christian ethic and to write so passionately about it.  Here are just a few of his thoughts:

Reverence for Life! And after twenty-five hundred years, scarcely a handful really believing it!  All the more reason to “stand and work in the world as one who aims at deepening men’s inner life and making them think.

In accordance with the responsibility of which I am conscious, I myself have to decide how much of my life, my possessions, my rights, my happiness, my time, and my rest I must devote to others, and how much of them I may keep for myself.

Christianity has need of thought in order to achieve understanding of its own real being.  For centuries  it treasured the great commandment of love and mercy as traditional truth without recognizing it as a reason for opposing slavery, witch-burning, torture, and so many other ancient and medieval atrocities.  It was only when it experienced the influence of the thinking of the Age of Enlightenment that it was stirred into entering the struggle for humanity.”

An old Landmark title, The Story of Albert Schweitzer by Anita Daniels, is a good introduction for children to one of the 20th century’s greatest heroes. Though out-of-print, it is worth searching out on used book sites. Take some time to learn about this hero of faith, this prophet of truth and goodness during a time when the death squads of Nazism held the reigns of power and authority. Schweitzer’s timeless message is as imperative in our day, as it was in his.

Square Albert Schweitzer, rue de l'Hôtel-de-Ville, Paris, France

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