Soldier Sister, Fly Home

The prologue for Soldier Sister, Fly Home by Nancy Bo Flood starts with a poem

Feathers fly,

Carrying a heartbeat.

Fly home.

Blue horse. Lii’ Dootl’izhii.

and ends with a vow from Tess that she will never shoot a rifle again. I’m fond of prologues like this that tantalize one into a book.

Tess, half-Navaho and half-white, searches for where she fits in the two worlds she travels between. Early in the book, she points out a common mistake of lumping all Native Americans together in one group, “They (schoolmates) never saw me. They never saw Navaho or white – they only saw an Indian.”

Central to the story is her six-year-older sister’s enlistment in the military after she failed to get a scholarship that would help her go to school. Gaby returns home on leave in splotchy army fatigues with her beautiful dark hair that had hung below her waist sheared short. Gaby had sworn never to cut it, but this is an accommodation to that other world.

Gaby’s deployment threatens the sister tie that includes younger Tess teaching her older sister to read at night before she enters junior high using Archie comic books. Now Gaby asks her to bond with her feisty horse Blue while she is away. A summer at sheep camp with Blue and Shima Sani, her grandmother, in traditional Navaho dress (except for her Day-Glo tennis shoes) helps her begin to answer some of the questions about who she is and where she belongs. Tess and I found wisdom in Grandpa’s philosophy, “Yes, we sing when life comes into this world. We sing when life travels out.”

The author lived and taught in the Navaho community for fifteen years and brings a sense of authenticity to this story that includes practices specific to that culture along with issues common to any coming-of-age story. Back matter includes information about the Navaho language, definitions and pronunciations of Navaho words, and a brief tribute to Lori Piestewa, a member of the Hopi tribe and the first Native American military woman to die in combat on foreign soil. Lori’s contribution is mentioned briefly in the beginning of the book.

I read the book which goes on sale August 23 in an ARC furnished by Net Galley. It is a good read for middle grade and up.


Something to Miss

The boys have lived the three and four years of their lives in the same community with a mother who believes in “adventures.” Before they moved from Maryland to Mississippi, their mama took them back for final visits and sent me pictures of places they will miss. The nostalgia may be more hers than theirs since they aren’t old enough yet to understand about “lasts” or that their favorite haunts will be too far away for a quick run any more.

They visited Brookside Gardens that took a couple of hours to circle when they were in strollers and diapers. Now Mama tried to keep up as they looped around in about forty-five minutes. As if the animals knew this was good-bye, fifteen turtles showed up in the turtle pond where the boys usually saw one or two. Another day they went to the nearby creek and enjoyed strolling through the woods and hopping across the stones in the water.

The “things to miss” pictures made me recall a favorite quote from Sarah, Plain and Tall that has often come to my mind when I have left things I will miss to move to a new place. Prospective stepdaughter Anna worries that Sarah will miss the sea and her family too much to leave her home in Maine to become Papa’s bride. She is relieved when she overhears Sarah tell her new friend Maggie, “There is always something to miss, no matter where you are.”

There are things to miss in Maryland, but things to look forward to in Mississippi. In Hattiesburg, there’s a chocolate birthday cake for Ben’s fourth birthday, baked by Grandpa and decorated by Grandma. A tub of toys waits in the grandparents’ back yard, butterflies hatch on the maypop vines, and hummingbirds fight over the feeders. Hattiesburg will have its own exploits. Since Grandma likes adventures, too, I’m hoping the excursion group will have a new member. Maybe, if I promise to bring cookies . . .


Applesauce Weather

I first became acquainted with Helen Frost’s writing while reading books with a friend who was on the Newbery Committee. I loved Diamond Willow and had it on my short list for the award – not that my list counted with anybody. Consequently, I anticipated a good read in Applesauce Weather when I received the ARC from Net Galley.

Ripening apples would usually signal time for Aunt Lucy and Uncle Arthur to be on their way for a visit. As this year’s first apple falls, Faith and Peter question whether Uncle Arthur will come now that Aunt Lucy has died. Of course he does, beginning the story-poem that is told in the voices of Faith, Peter, and Uncle Arthur with “Lucy’s Song” giving introductions for each section as she tells her version of life with Uncle Arthur, a love story that began at ten and lasted into old age.

Humor tempers the emotions of nostalgia and grief as the family remembers Aunt Lucy. Uncle Arthur tells tales with a twinkle in his eye, especially the ones about how he lost his finger. In her song, Lucy says, “Oh, the stories I heard him weave – I never knew quite what to believe.” Neither do Faith and Peter. Every kid needs an uncle like Arthur just as he needs them. The telling and listening bring needed solace to the whole family.  

Amy June Bates’s illustrations fit the mood of the story and personality of the characters and add the perfect finish.

So, how well did Applesauce Weather meet my expectations? When I finished the book, I turned back to the beginning and read it again. It won’t be my last time.


Nature's  Law

I had some second thoughts about the book for the 2016 Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award. In the story line of Sonya’s Chickens, written and illustrated by Phoebe Wahl, Sonya adopts three chicks and cares for them like a mother until they grow into fluffy hens. One night she hears squawking in the henhouse. When she goes to check, she discovers feathers all over the floor, but only two of her three chickens. My first reaction was protective against Phoebe’s very realistic telling small children about what happens when a fox finds a way into the henhouse.

Then I thought about my own experience last summer when I had become enamored of the Gulf Fritillary butterflies hatching on my maypop vines. I found an anole in the act of eating one of my butterflies. As if he knew he had been caught, he took his protective coloration right into the vines. It took me a bit to consider the law of nature that allows for the food chain and know the anole was hungry, too.

Fortunately, Sonya’s father helps her come to the same conclusion and repair her damaged coop so it will be safe for the remaining hens. Her family joins her in honoring and mourning her lost hen while remaining glad that little foxes were fed.

So should we protect children from the nature’s law of the food chain? I think not. I’d rather believe that even very small children can understand Sonya’s mixed feelings (and mine) when we mourn a hen (or butterfly) but are glad that the little foxes and anoles have a good meal. One doesn’t have to live very long to have experiences that bring simultaneous joy and sorrow. Nor does one need a long life to know that “happily ever after” is only a fairy tale.

Besides, I wouldn’t want the small children in my life to miss this lesson in science and life, disguised inside a beautifully written story. 


Big Jim Eastland

Senator James O. Eastland wrote me a letter congratulating me on my high school graduation. It was not mentioned in biographer J. Lee Annis’s book Big Jim Eastland: The Godfather of Mississippi. The letter fit with the picture painted by the author of a complicated politician.  My familiarity of the time and the man made me eager to read the book in a Net Galley ARC from University Press of Mississippi. My letter, one of a multitude sent to graduates Senator Eastland did not know, but hoped to add to his voter base, was typical of his outreach to the common people of Mississippi. I was about as common as they came.

Democratic Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr. appointed James Eastland, a member of Mississippi’s Delta planter class, to the Senate in 1941. He ran and won the seat outright in 1942 and served until his retirement in 1978. For most of his career, he was a staunch segregationist even as he began to realize he was fighting a losing battle. Paradoxically, he was friends with the Kennedys and worked with them on some legislation that both of them thought important and became friends in the latter part of his life with some of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Because of his senior committee positions and his personality, he wielded much influence in the Senate which he often used to improve the lives of those common people back home.

When I read nonfiction, especially biography, I look first for accurate information.  The portrayal of the senator was consistent with my memories. I sensed the depth of scholarly and personal research as I read, verified when my Kindle had 26% of the book left at the beginning of the bibliography.

I also want a good story with a protagonist who grows and changes. The senator had great loyalty to those who had helped him achieve his place in life and to those whom he mentored. He worked on legislation with those with whom he had fundamental differences. He moved a long way from his strict segregation construction even though he never became free of bias. For readers who love well-documented biography couched in a crucial historical time, Big Jim Eastland meets the criteria.