Summer Reading: ‘The Boy at the Top of the Mountain’ and ‘City of Thieves’

Although these books are both set during WWII, they are completely different from one another. They are also both completely wonderful. Read them!

24737113The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

Like everyone else, I read Boy in the Striped Pajamas when it first came out. But then I forgot all about John Boyne until recently when I saw a review of A History of Loneliness over at The Paperback Princess and Stay Where You Are and Then Leave at Your Daughter’s Bookshelf – both very positive. So, when I saw this new one, I jumped at the chance to read it.

This book is about a boy named Pierrot. He lived in France with his parents until his father disappeared and his mother died. He was a sweet, curious boy who had a good friend named Anshel. When Pierrot was sent away after his mother dies, they swore to never forget one another and to write letters. He had a short stop at an orphanage before he was sent for by his Aunt Beatrix.

Beatrix is the Housekeeper at the Berghof. She believes she can keep Pierrot safe, and for his own protection, she tells him that his name is now Pieter and he can no longer talk about or write to his Jewish friend in France. Despite these curious changes in his life, Pierrot is relatively happy on the mountain. But, as time goes on, the master of the house takes a shine to the boy, and begins to ‘mould’ him into a ‘good’ German. Day by day he becomes more Pieter and less Pierrot.

It’s terrifying to see how easy it is to influence a child any way you want; the child believes they are in the right and even feel confused when others don’t see things the same way. In the case of Pierrot, it was interesting to see how his early experiences of being bullied or picked on made him yearn to have the kind of control over people that he was seeing around him. Even though at every point, you are yelling at Pierrot to stop, you can also see why he doesn’t necessarily want to stop. Power is intoxicating.

He had never felt so proud in all his life. He thought of Kurt Kotler again, and realized how wonderful it would be to have such authority; to be able to take what you wanted, when you wanted, from whomever you wanted, instead of always having things taken from you.

I mean, this is a kids’ book, so I didn’t expect things to get as intense as they did. (Really intense.) But, Boyne does not hold back. Things get uncomfortable, and you, as the reader, might try to reason with/yell at the characters, to no avail. But keep reading, because the ending is perfect. You won’t be able to stop, even if you try. You will have to know how poor Pierrot is going to turn out.

I wish I could tell you more about what happens, but that would ruin it for you. I urge you to read it yourself, then come back and talk to me about it! I will be passing this along to my daughter next, in the hope that she will do just that. I’ll leave you with Eva’s impression of Boyne’s skill as a storyteller: “What Boyne has done here, create a story about an incredibly dark period in human history that is suitable for children and adults, is no small feat.

I will definitely be seeking out more of his books from now on.

*Thanks to Random House Canada for sending me a copy of this book for review! of Thieves by David Benioff

I’ve seen this book around on blogger lists a few times, and although I took it out as part of my big stack of library books, I wasn’t sure I would get to it. But I did. And it is the source  of my most recent book hangover. I was sad when it ended (I am still sad), and I was not ready to leave Kolya and Lev behind yet.

So, what is this book about? A 17-year-old boy gets caught looting. The punishment for this is death. A 20-year-old soldier gets caught for desertion. The punishment for this is death. But, neither of them die. Instead, they are partnered up and asked to go on a special errand for the Colonel; to find a dozen eggs by Friday for his daughter’s wedding cake. Doesn’t sound too hard, does it? Except that they are in Leningrad in 1941; there is no food and the people are starving. How are they going to find a dozen eggs in 5 days? How can you not want to immediately run out and get this book?

Things I liked loved:

  • This is a WWII novel that will make you laugh – something that does not come along every day.
  • The setting of war-starved Leningrad (and surrounding area) was new for me.
  • The many literary references and discussions that take place while Lev (the son of a poet) and Kolya (a university literature student) are on their search for eggs.
  • Lev. Hard on the outside, squishy on the inside. Conscious of his large nose and small frame, especially when Kolya recounts for him his many female encounters. Wants to prove himself brave and worthy.

… contrary to popular belief, the experience of terror does not make you braver. Perhaps, though, it is easier to hide your fear when you’re afraid all the time.

So many great Russians endured long stretches in prison. That night I learned I would never be a great Russian.

The loneliest sound in the world is other people making love.

  • Kolya. Apparently fearless. Bordering on arrogant, but so charming that he gets away with it. Obsessed with women, and the number of days since he last had a bowel movement. Hilarious. Ultimately, generous and kind.

“It’s been nine days for me. I’ve been counting. Nine days! When it finally happens, I’ll have a big party and invite the best-looking girls from the university.”… “Invite the Colonel’s daughter.”… “I will, absolutely. My sh*t party will be much better than this wedding she’s planning.”

In spite of all his irritating qualities, I couldn’t help liking a man who despised a fictional character with such passion.

  • Their friendship; it’s beautiful to watch it grow from nothing to everything.
  • Their adventures. And what adventures they had in the space of 5 days (as I guess one would in the middle of a war). Cannibals luring them into their house, trudging through the woods in knee-deep snow warding off starvation and hypothermia, running into a grumpy group of partisans, just barely escaping German soldiers only to end up joining their group of war prisoners, a high-stakes game of chess with a high-ranking German Officer. To name a few.
  • All of this, only to come so close. Gah. I don’t even want to talk about it. Except to say that the ending was just right, even though I’d like to change it. (Will I ever get over it?)
  • Great last line! I wish I had thought of that when I first met my husband.

Happily taking recommendations for similar books (are there any?). Has anyone read any of Benioff‘s other books?

Literary Wives: How To Be A Good Wife by Emma Chapman

literarywives2Literary Wives is an on-line book club that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book! And welcome to our newest member, Kate!


17286775How To Be A Good Wife by Emma Chapman

[Many Spoilers Ahead!]

When my husband saw me reading this book, he told me he was glad I was finally reading something useful. I didn’t even get his joke at first, because never would it cross my mind that someone would write (or read) a non-fiction book called ‘How To Be A Good Wife‘. Ugh. But there is such a book featured in HTBAGW by Emma Chapman.

Goodreads synopsis: Marta and Hector have been married for a long time. Through the good and bad; through raising a son and sending him off to life after university. So long, in fact, that Marta finds it difficult to remember her life before Hector. He has always taken care of her, and she has always done everything she can to be a good wife—as advised by a dog-eared manual given to her by Hector’s aloof mother on their wedding day.

But now, something is changing. Small things seem off. A flash of movement in the corner of her eye, elapsed moments that she can’t recall. Visions of a blonde girl in the darkness that only Marta can see. Perhaps she is starting to remember—or perhaps her mind is playing tricks on her. As Marta’s visions persist and her reality grows more disjointed, it’s unclear if the danger lies in the world around her, or in Marta herself. The girl is growing more real every day, and she wants something.

My thoughts on the book, in general:

1) Aargh! I can’t stand not to know what happens. Am I missing an important piece of information? Or are we left not knowing what really happens?!

2) Why didn’t the doctor or anyone else (besides her son) look more carefully into her story? They all just seemed to assume that she was hallucinating/imagining things. Obviously, I was rooting for Marta, but…

3) All signs seem to point to Marta being mentally ill. Otherwise the story doesn’t make enough sense to me:

  • What are these special pills that will erase someone’s memories of the past? Do they exist? Did the doctor even ask for them, so he could figure out what she might have been taking them for?
  • Why was she in such a hurry to kill herself? She was safe from her husband. And, if her story was true, wouldn’t she want to continue on her path to proving it?
  • If she was in her right mind, why would she think it was a good idea to kill herself on her son’s wedding day?! I think it’s safe to say that she’s ruined the Honeymoon. Not to mention that poor Laura (her ‘companion’ at the institution) will likely be fired from her job.

4) But… if Marta really is ill, why do we never get to find out about her life before Hector? How did she come to show up on his doorstep, so sick that she doesn’t remember anything about her past?

5) And… there’s her son to consider. He was her whole life, so it’s very possible that she would rather just kill herself than cause him distress over the fact that his father is a monster. (How to be a good mother.)

6) Because… to make things even more confusing for us, Hector does seem to be a good father. In the scenes that we’re shown in the book, he is by far the more reasonable of the two parents. Marta’s behaviour appears to be selfish and desperate (because she is desperate not to be left alone with her husband for the rest of her days), and had me cringing as I read.

Even though I enjoyed reading this book, it definitely left me with more questions than answers.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

If we pretend this is a ‘normal’ marriage (i.e. no foul play or hallucinations), Marta and Hector’s marriage still borders on creepy.  When they married, Hector’s mother gifted Marta with a book called ‘How To Be A Good Wife’, which gave out advice such as “Your husband belongs in the outside world. The house is your domain, and your responsibility.“, “Let your husband take care of the correspondence and finances of the household. Make it your job to be pretty and gay.“, “Never question his authority, for he always does what is best for the family, and has your interests at heart.“, and “Let him talk first. Remember that his topics of conversation are more important than yours.

Before Marta, Hector’s mother did everything for him, and she makes it clear that Marta is to continue this job. It also seems as though Hector has been spending his life trying to please his mother and failing. Was his ‘method’ of finding the perfect wife a result of his desire to find/create the perfect daughter-in-law for his mother? (Even if his story of finding Marta sick on his doorstep is true, shouldn’t he have taken her to a hospital rather than into his house?)

Hector is too protective and controlling of Marta. Among other things, he told her never to go beyond the town limits, for her own protection. He tries to ease his controlling ways with the argument that it’s all for her own good, because he loves her so much. In addition to this, she suspects him of having an affair with at least one of his students, and he has now been suspended from work for the possibility of this very thing. However, after years of doing and believing everything he says, and living in her small world, Marta doubts herself and doesn’t know what to do. She feels trapped and alone in a controlling and abusive marriage (and, in her case, with all the bombarding memories from her past, a confusing one).

It’s easy to look at a photograph, and to tell yourself things happened in a certain way, that you were happy. Easy to talk about it until it seems that it really happened that way.

I think of Hector and me in the house, indefinitely, trying to find things to fill the time, and I feel like a hand is closing around my throat.

I’m curious to know what others thought of this book, and whether anyone can clear anything up for me (or maybe we are meant to be confused from beginning to end). But we’ve gone camping again, so I’ll have to be patient. I’ll join in the discussion and respond to your comments when I get back!

**On the first Monday in October we’ll be talking about American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis. Read along, if you like, and join in the discussion!



Summer Reading: ‘Before Green Gables’ and ‘Harbour View’

I hope everyone’s having a lovely summer! I’m still behind on my blogging, but have been reading some good books. Here are two, both on my 20 10 Books of Summer list (hosted by Cathy @ 746Books).

1137151Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson

If you’re as big of an Anne-fan as I am, then you can probably imagine the hesitation I felt going into this book; is it going to live up to Anne-standards, LMMontgomery-expectations? Well, for me, it did. I found it both Anne-like and LMM-worthy.

Before Anne came to Prince Edward Island to live at Green Gables, she lived in an orphanage in Hopetown, Nova Scotia. And before that, she lived with the Hammonds and the Thomas’. Before that, she was born to Walter and Bertha Shirley in their little yellow house in Bolingbroke, NS. We know all this from LMM’s Anne of Green Gables. But Budge Wilson imagines it all out for us; who are all these people who were in Anne’s life, and how does Anne become the girl we have all come to know and love?

I had a lot of fun getting to know Anne’s parents. They are as smart and kind as Anne always imagined/hoped they would be. But, she is only with them for 3 months before being whisked on to the Thomas’, where Mr. Thomas drinks too much and Mrs. Thomas has 4 boys in a row. Anne is expected to help take care of the children as well as help to cook and clean the house. There’s no time for adventures, but her daydreams keep her imagination alive through all the drudgery.

6484916The Hammonds are not as awful as I thought they would be (based on what I know of them from the 1985 CBC movie). But there is still too much work and responsibility for a young girl. Three sets of twins in a row? No wonder Mrs. Hammond walked around in a daze.

So, what saves Anne from becoming a completely miserable child? Her intelligence, and, of course, her imagination. Whenever she gets a chance, she spends time talking to her imaginary friends, Katie Maurice and Violetta; they are a great comfort to her when she’s exploding with emotions. She also comes across some neighbours and teachers who are kind to her. The law in Nova Scotia that all children must go to school saves her from day in and day out housework. School is her favourite place to be. And, she is delighted when the Egg Man teaches her 5 new words every time she comes to collect eggs. Her love for words, the bigger the better, shines through starting at a very young age, before she even knows what they all mean. In fact, her love for everything shines. When the Thomas’ get a cat: “My heart within my chest felt squeezed with ecstasy“. When Mrs. Hammond’s third set of twins is born: “Two baby bundles… and, as she looked at the perfect little faces, knew that she already loved them.” After making her first real friend at the orphanage: “Anne looked out the window and felt tenderness for the pathetic little sticks of trees that had been planted beside the driveway.

3235806One of the only complaints I have about the book is that I want to know what happened to all the characters she had to leave behind. Many of them had hard lives, but Anne managed to find hope and love in small, dark places.

There are some reviewers on Goodreads who would argue that this book isn’t historically accurate or true to the spirit of Anne. It’s interesting to read all their points, but I couldn’t help but feel like some of them were just looking for reasons to criticize the book. I say go into it with an open mind about Anne, rather than a rigid expectation of her, and you will sink into Budge Wilson’s world of “Before Green Gables“, and discover Anne’s limitless longing and capacity for love.

7573237Harbour View by Binnie Brennan

Harbour View is also set in Nova Scotia, albeit about 100 years later than Before Green Gables. It is made up of interconnected stories about some of the residents and staff members of a senior’s home on Halifax Harbour.

This book is based on the idea that everyone has a story, and that even the most seemingly ordinary life can be extraordinary to read about. The staff interact with the clients everyday, but they don’t really know them. The clients have their favourite and least favourite staff members, but what are the stories behind their polite talk, their forced joviality, or their gruff practicalities?

Buddy is turning 109, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be when you’ve outlived all your children.

Buddy knows it is winter, and he enjoys the irony of the sun’s warmth through his window. The harbour might well be filled with warships moored and awaiting designation, ferries zig-zagging between and around them, bringing cars and their drivers from one shore to the other. But he knows this is no longer so; he knows a bridge spans the near-empty harbour, bearing cars from Dartmouth to Halifax. A few containers and tugs will make their way through the harbour, and maybe some sailboats, even at this time of year. Buddy knows it all, but he prefers to remember things otherwise, For this his blindness is a blessing.

Dahlia reminisces about her past as she puts up with the indignities of being old.

Can’t even see her own feet! Her rounded belly and purple-veined legs, encased as they are in elasticized trousers are now her enemies, conspirators in pain and clumsiness. There was a time when they glided her around on the ice until her nose was frostbitten and her toes numb with cold. Dahlia can practically taste the hardboiled eggs, two in each pocket, supplied by her mother on skating days. Up at first light, Dahlia was off with her skates, sailing over the frozen Dartmouth Lakes until dusk. There was nothing better than a golden egg yolk on an empty stomach, washed down with a mitt-full of snow.

Muriel reminds us that everyone is just looking for a bit of kindness.

She marvels at the lemons. There is an orderliness about them that brings with it the surprise of tears, that too-familiar burn beneath the eyelids she wishes she could control. But they are perfection, sunshine orbs grown in Spain and stacked here in the produce section on a rainy day in Halifax. Of course she must cry.

Violet takes in her surroundings as she tries to enjoy any small pleasures she has left in life.

At the next table, old ladies in drab cardigans and gaudy lipstick compare dull notes on children, grandchildren, tonight’s supper of boiled chicken and peas. Violet sighs and reaches for the pepper. Nothing here is beautiful, not even the food.

For a moment she thinks of tomorrow’s bath. She closes her eyes and imagines the warmth, the fragrance of bath oil, the tingling of her scalp as strong fingers massage shampoo into what remains of her hair. Violet’s life has been reduced to so few pleasures; her weekly bath has become a regular high point.

Myrna is grieving her house and the life she had made in it. In the end, what do our lives come down to? But she is a good, kind mother to her son, and maybe kindness and acceptance is all we can hope to pass on.

How Myrna misses her kitchen with the sunlight streaming through the lace curtains. the red-and-white linoleum tiled floor, her apron hanging from a nail by the door and everything in its place. There was always something bubbling on the stove, a cake to be pulled from the oven, flowers to admire in the garden while she stood at the sink, gazing out the window while washing up. She misses the satisfaction of having cleaned and tidied the house, readying for Frank’s return from the high school, where he taught, and in later years, the freedom of moving quietly about the place, stopping in the rooms of her choosing so she might enjoy fond memories.

Estella laments the bulldozing of Africville and what it meant for her family. She feels the blatant dislike of her from many of the residents, telling herself that it is not entirely their fault; they come from a different time. But still…

She knows they assume things about her, these old people who know no better than what their parents told them, nearly a hundred years ago… She lets them assume. There was a time when she hated them for it, but now she hides behind their fears and assumptions. Her job at the nursing home, awful though it can be, provides her with what she needs to help her daughter along.     This she reminds herself during the times when she despairs of assisting on one more bath, of wiping one more elderly, white behind.

What will your story be someday?

The only complaint I have about this book is that I wish it had been longer. Lucky for me, Binnie Brennan has two other books out that I haven’t read yet!

What have you been reading?


The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake

3367956Back in May, our book club read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and we all loved it. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet tells the story of the evacuation and internment camps of the Japanese-Americans during WWII. What I love about this one is that it’s told through the eyes of a Chinese-American boy who befriends a Japanese-American girl. The way he sees things is very different from his father’s perspective, which adds another interesting element to the story. If you decide to read this book, be ready to cry.

“I was born here. I don’t even speak Japanese. Still, all these people, everywhere I go… they hate me.”

As he left the hotel, Henry looked west to where the sun was setting, burnt sienna flooding the horizon. It reminded him that time was short, but that beautiful endings could still be found at the end of cold, dreary days.

He’d do what he always did, find the sweet among the bitter.

952287Two years ago, I read Joy Kogawa’s excellent book, Obasan. (My review.) Based on Kogawa’s own experience, Obasan tells the story of a young Japanese-Canadian girl during the war as she and her family get separated and sent to internment camps in Alberta, never to return home.

If we were knit into a blanket once, it’s become badly moth-eaten with time. We are now no more than a few tangled skeins – the remains of what might once have been a fisherman’s net. The memories that are left seem barely real. Grey shapes in the water. Fish swimming through the gaps in the net. Passing shadows.

25893553The Translation of Love takes these stories of North American internment camps a step further – it takes us to Japan after the war has ended.

12-year-old Aya and her father have returned to Japan from Canada after the war. The Japanese-Canadians were given the choice of dispersing east of the Rockies or repatriating to Japan. Aya’s father did not want to stay in a country that betrayed him the way it did, so he chose repatriation. But coming back to Japan is not easy; the country is devastated and starving, and Aya’s father struggles to find work so that Aya can continue going to school. Aya doesn’t fit in; she looks Japanese, but she is Canadian. She talks ‘funny’, has a hard time understanding everything that is said to her, and she doesn’t know how to act. She is miserable at school and does her best to make herself invisible.

The Translation of Love does not only tell Aya’s story; it alternates between the stories of several characters, all of which are connected in some way, but who all have very different lives and experiences in this new American-occupied post-war Japan.

Reading in my tent. :)

Reading in my tent.🙂

There’s Fumi, the girl who eventually befriends Aya. Her sister has gone to work in the Ginza district and she hasn’t been home in a long time. Fumi is worried about her and wants to find her. She has heard that General Douglas MacArthur is here to help Japanese citizens, so she and Aya write a letter to him asking for his help to find her sister.

[First paragraph] Ever since her sister had gone away, Fumi looked forward to the democracy lunches with a special, ravenous hunger. The American soldiers came to her school once a week with deliveries, and though she never knew what they would bring, it didn’t matter. She wanted it all, whatever it was. Sometimes it was powdered milk and soft white bread as fluffy as cake. Sometimes it was delicious oily meat called Spam. Occasionally it was peanut butter, a sticky brown paste whose unusual flavor – somehow sweet and salty at the same time – was surprisingly addictive. The lunch supplements supplied by the Occupation forces reminded her of the kind of presents her older sister, Sumiko, used to bring in the days when she still came home. Fumi’s hunger was insatiable, and although she couldn’t have put it in so many words, some part of her sensed that her craving was inseparable from her longing for her sister’s return.

Fumi is not the only one writing letters to General MacArthur; hundreds of letters pour in everyday, waiting to be translated by employees of the occupation like Matsumoto (Matt). Matt is Japanese-American, and had never set foot in Japan until after the war was over. His family had been living in an internment camp, his brother one of the first to enlist in the war to prove their loyalty to the United States. Matt’s story gives us an idea of the divide between the Americans and the Japanese, as well as the general feeling of the Japanese people about the results of the war and the American occupation, through their letters.

There are also the Japanese translators who work in the alleys, translating or writing letters mostly for Japanese women who are involved with American soldiers.

… he came to see that the words were not just letters or symbols on the page. Each word was bursting with emotion. There were the emotions felt by the writer and by the reader, but also by him, the translator caught in the middle, reading secrets between lovers or dark truths shared.

Kondo is one of these men, trying to supplement his meager earnings as a school teacher. Through him we learn more about some of the changes taking place in the country and the education system; the push for Democracy.

Whatever was going to happen would happen – a new social studies curriculum, different classroom arrangements, American food for the school lunches. He had to admit that the students seemed to display no resistance at all. Maybe the Americans were right, and even if they weren’t, it didn’t matter because no one here could stop what was happening. Change was moving fast, like a giant tsunami, and Kondo did what everyone else around him did. He ran as fast as he could to keep from being crushed by the wave.

Through Sumiko (Fumi’s sister), we learn what it is to work in the dance halls, where the girls and women are expected to dance with the American soldiers, or more. They are drawn to the money and available food, hoping to provide for themselves or their families, but the jobs are not always what they imagined or hoped for.

Things happened fast on the dance floor or in the dark alleys. You had to develop a sense for danger, had to smell it coming before anything happened, before it exploded into something ugly, before it turned violent and hard. The safest way to react was not to react. To give in, to be passive. To fall limp, to make yourself small, to curl into yourself and not be a threat.

Underlying all these stories is the suffering the Japanese people have endured during the war and continue to contend with in the years following the war. But they also have a sense of hope that things will improve, and that Japan will once more be a great country. Their sense of hope and value of hard work is well illustrated by the Daruma doll that Fumi buys for Aya. It is a papier-maché of a monk’s head without any eyes. You think of something you want, then paint in one of his eyes. After you get what you want, you paint in his other eye. But you have to work for your wish; “He makes you work at making your wish come true”.

Maybe life came down to this. In the end there was only the task of moving forward, one step after another, making your way through the dust and dirt of living. You lived your own share of life, and if you could, perhaps you lived someone else’s share, too.

The Translation of Love is a wonderful addition to other works about the plight of the Japanese-Americans/Canadians during the war. What are others that you can recommend?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn an interview with Shelagh Rogers, Lynne Kutsukake explains the inspiration behind her novel.

Read about Lynne Kutsukake’s own collection of daruma dolls.

In an interview with Paste, Kutsukake talks about her own connection to the internment camps and repatriation to Japan after the war.

“I wanted to write about the occupation period from the perspective of the people who we don’t often think about—from the perspective of Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-Americans, who, for different reasons, found themselves in Japan in this particular time. A time that was extremely turbulent and full of great change, but also a time that was full of immense potential and hope, because no one quite knew which way it was going to take off and how it was going to move. I think most people were just glad the war was over and to have survived. I was trying to get at that hope that people have. You just pick up and try to move forward.”

*Thanks to Random House Canada for providing me with a copy of this book. All the quotations included in this review are from an uncorrected proof.

Summer Days

I was hoping to have another review up before now, but it’s just not happening. Summer is here and the kids are home and time has been short. For the rest of the month we’ll be coming and going. Comments and posts will be sporadic. But I will be reading, and you will eventually hear about it (whether you want to or not).

In the meantime…

we’ll be doing some of this…

... and some of this.

… and some of this.

Happy Summer, everyone!🙂

Found Far and Wide by Kevin Major

BBL_FoundFarandWide_FA-209x323Normally, I prefer female protagonists in my reading. But I’ve recently read two books whose main characters (and most of the supporting characters) have been male. Richard Wagamese’s beautiful writing pulled me into Medicine Walk effortlessly. In Found Far and Wide, it is Sam’s story that had me turning the pages.

In four parts, Found Far and Wide tells the story of Sam Kennedy from Harbour Main, Newfoundland. His mother died when he was young, leaving her husband, Paddy, to bring up Sam and his younger sister. Paddy is a fisherman, and he expects Sam to join him when the time comes. But, Sam has other ideas. He’s restless, and he’s not happy with the credit system the fishermen are working with for their living. He wants more out of life.

A fellow needed to prove himself, on his own, away from his family.

What I liked about this book:

  • The Newfoundland feel, despite the fact that half of the book takes place outside of Newfoundland; WWI and the skyscrapers of New York take Sam away from home for many years.
  • Although a big section of this book is about Sam’s time as a soldier during WWI, this is not a book about the war. This is about Sam’s life and how his experiences and historical events shaped who he was and how his life played out.

Sam agreed, when it came to life and death, luck he’d always had.

  • For the most part, this isn’t a funny book, but there are some moments of humour in the book to lighten things up. Sam’s efforts to seduce Mabel in New York made me laugh; the lengths he would go to just for a chance.

Sam, sweetheart, you got to work for it. You can’t be licking the cone like it’s Sunday afternoon in the park. You can’t expect to be handed the sweetest fruit you’re ever likely to get in your whole life just by being Sam. Show me Sam with class, Show me Sam with more than fancy new Andrew Jacksons sticking out of his wallet.

Unsurprisingly, Sam’s time as a soldier had a big impact on the rest of his life; for all the obvious reasons, but also there was Emma, Johnny’s fiance. Johnny had shared his photo of her with Sam, and in the terror, tedium, and loneliness of war, Sam found himself longing for a woman he had never met. He continues to think about her through his years in New York, and when he finally decides to go home, he mostly has one thing on his mind; the girl from Johnny’s photo.

He wandered several hundred miles by train and coastal boat in anticipation of the moment he set eyes on her.

The end of the book leaves much to the reader’s imagination; which is both frustrating and satisfying. I wanted more, but more probably would have ruined it. Sam’s whole life (up until we leave him) feels aimless. At some point in the book, when I wasn’t expecting it, I became invested in Sam and his future; I wanted him to find what he was looking for… whatever that was.

“… a story of the irresistible historical forces that define our lives and the compelling private power that beckons us home.”

This is my first time reading one of Kevin Major‘s books, but he has quite an extensive backlist to explore, including children’s books and non-fiction.

*Thank you to Breakwater Books for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Gettin’ half killed once’s gotta be better’n bein’ half alive forever.


Medicine Walk tells the story of a boy and his estranged father. 16-year-old Frank is an amazing kid; he knows how to do everything. From the time he was old enough to learn, he was taught how to work on the farm and survive in the woods. But his father wasn’t the one who taught him these things. Frank has been living with ‘the old man’ for as long as he can remember; he is the only father Frank knows. They live alone on the farm, and Frank has grown up to appreciate hard work, nature, and quiet.

Alone. He’d never known lonely. If he put his head to it at all he couldn’t work a definition to the word. It sat in him undefined and unnecessary like algebra; land and moon and water summing up the only equation that lent scope to his world, and he rode through it fleshed out and comfortable with the feel of the land around him like the refrain of an old hymn. It was what he knew. It was what he needed.

As the years of his childhood go by, he comes to learn that the man who drops by from time to time is his ‘real’ father, and he begins to have questions about who he is and where he comes from. The answers to these questions don’t come until he’s 16 and his father, Eldon, has asked him to come and see him for the last time. He wants Frank to take him out into the country to die, and along the way he tells his story to Frank. A story that causes Eldon so much pain that he has chosen to numb it all these years with alcohol rather than tell it. Until now.

It’s all we are in the end. Our stories.

There are three parts to the story Eldon has to tell. The first is his childhood with his mother after his father was killed in WWII. The second is his own experience in the Korean War with his good friend Jimmy. The third is about Frank’s mother. As a raging alcoholic and neglectful parent, Eldon doesn’t have a lot going for him, but hearing the story of his life, we can’t help but feel his pain while simultaneously shaking our heads at what he has lost and the decisions he has made. How can you not feel for someone who goes through life believing he is the cause for the loss of everyone he loved?

Sad’s not a bad thing unless it gets a hold of you and won’t let go.

At times, Frank listens patiently to his father, at other times he rails against his father’s choices. He longs to know his mother and his past. But, it’s his connection with the old man that keeps him steady. Unlike Eldon, Frank has a place, and a person, to call home.

He raised a hand to the idea of his father and mother and a line of people he had never known, then mounted the horse and rode back through the glimmer to the farm where the old man waited, a deck of cards on the scarred and battered table.

It sounds grim, but the writing is so beautiful that it just pulls you along and before you know it the book is done; gut-wrenching but hopeful. One that leaves you feeling very grateful that there are people in the world like the old man.


Richard Wagamese is one of Canada’s foremost Native authors and storytellers. To learn more about his other works and his awards and recognition (which are considerable) visit his website.

Richard Wagamese discusses Medicine Walk in this interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC Radio.

How a library helped Richard Wagamese become a writer. (Interview with Candy Palmater on CBC Radio.)

“… Richard may never have become a writer, were it not for the kindness of a group of librarians in St. Catherines, Ontario, where he stumbled into the public library at the age of 16, seeking shelter and refuge from a life on the streets.”

Medicine Walk is my 2nd review for the 20 10 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy@746Books.