Book Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of Pi by Yann Martel begins with a boy named Pi, his family, and their zoo in 1970s India. I loved reading about Pi’s family, teachers, and religious explorations. My favorite aspect of this book was the spirituality. As a teen, Pi finds himself practicing multiple religions simultaneously. He also shares with the reader many interesting facts about animal psychology. But Pi’s life is about to change forever when his family relocates their zoo from India to North America, only to be swallowed by the sea.

For seven months, Pi is stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with nothing other than a live Bengal tiger on his lifeboat. What kept me reading were not only the accounts of how Pi and the tiger survived together, but the inner dialogues running through Pi’s head. He is a sympathetic, lovable narrator, and this original survival story of man vs. nature is not easily forgotten.

Book Review: Dear America: Look to the Hills, The Diary of Lozette Moreau, A French Slave Girl (New York Colony, 1763) by Patricia McKissack

51mkd5qcv8l_1__1It is 1763, and Lozette, or “Zettie,” is the African servant to a French family in Province. She was bought to be a companion to Marie-Louise (“Ree”) Boyer. Companion slaves were somewhat elite, as they are well-educated, well-dressed, and taught the same as their masters, to make them fit for the company of the upper-class. When Ree’s father passes away, her cruel and reckless older brother Pierre squanders his inheritance. To pay his debt and keep out of prison, he plans to sell Zettie and betrothed Ree to an old banker. But with the help of some friends, Ree arranges an escape for her and Zettie, and they make their way from Spain to the North American Colonies to find Ree’s other brother, Jacques, who has been held captive by Indians in Delaware while fighting in the war. Thus begins Zettie and Ree’s new life in the New York Colony during the French and Indian War.

It did sometimes feel like the author was trying to write a textbook. A lot of the history and names recounted seem unlikely to be coming from a 13-year-old slave girl. However, one scene I found memorable was toward the end, when Zettie meets Lot, a former African slave, who remembers life in Africa before he was taken and sold. Lot knows the details of his African heritage and he shares his stories and reveals bits of Zettie’s own heritage to her.

Book Review: Dear America: All the Stars in the Sky, The Santa Fe Trail Diary of Florrie Mack Ryder (Santa Fe Trail, 1848) by Megan McDonald

allstarsIn this charming book, Florrie and her family set out from Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico where her step-father, Mr. Ryder, holds a successful trading business. This story is told in the true, authentic voice of a Southern thirteen-year-old girl, making Florrie a delightfully humorous and colorful protagonist. What makes this DA diary stand out among the others that are about pioneers migrating west (such as Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie or West to a Land of Plenty) is that the Ryders were not taking common families’ trails, such as the Oregon Trail, but rather the traders’ and merchants’ route. So instead of reading about Florrie’s relationships and socializing with other families in their wagon train, we get to read more about the grown men with whom they travelled– complete with their talk of business, tall tales, swearing, and tobacco-chewing, and the antics of Florrie and her little brother Jem as they are dwelling among such characters. The heart of the story is the Ryders’ stay at the Colorado trading post Bent’s Fort, where Florrie befriends the Fort’s diverse mix of visitors, including a mountain man, a Spanish boy, a cook, and a Cheyenne girl.

This book was a joy to read and is one I strongly recommend. There are some very sad parts, but it gives our Florrie and her story more depth. What’s more, I was pleased to learn that the topics of Bent’s Fort and the Santa Fe Trail are very near and dear to the author’s heart. McDonald is somewhat of an authority on the subject matter, having lived for a summer at Bent’s Old Fort National Historical Site (and kept a diary herself during this time), as well as closely studied the diary of Susan Magoffin, who was the first woman to have ever travelled the Santa Fe Trail.

Book Review: Dear America: Land of the Buffalo Bones, The Diary of Mary Ann Elizabeth Rodgers, An English Girl in Minnesota (New Yeovil, Minnesota 1873) by Marion Dane Bauer

buffaloIn this unforgettable DA tale, Mary, her family, and others from her English hometown and church, led by her father– their pastor–, are duped into purchasing land and settling on the plains of Minnesota. They are promised rich soil, fertile ground, beautiful weather, and the tools for prosperity and a good life, but instead are met by deadly snowstorms, disease, pestilence, and a severe lack of resources to build their town. Their ordeals were eerie and haunting, particularly one disturbing scene involving the infamous grasshopper plague.

On the personal level, Mary struggles with being her father’s child from his previous marriage. After her mother passed away, he remarried and had more children with his new wife, Mary’s step-mom, who is more or less a bland or cold figure towards Mary in the beginning (but for whom, by the end, Mary develops a genuine, albeit rather subtle, respect and admiration). Also memorable in this book is Mary’s little half-sister, Laura, a cruel and vindictive little child always jealous of her older sister, and who is interestingly based off of the author’s actual grandmother. As well, Mary has a friend in this story who develops a romance with a Native American man. I have also read about some controversy regarding the damage Mary’s father, the preacher, and his poor leadership, did to his people, most of whom gave up everything they had in England to come there to die, or worse. Yet Mary is still faithful to her father and feels sorry for him throughout the book. This is one of the better books in the series and I learned a lot from it.

Book Review: Dear America: Valley of the Moon, the Diary of María Rosalia de Milagros (Sonoma Valley, Alta California 1846) by Sherry Garland

valleymoonRosalia is a servant girl for a wealthy Spanish ranchero family in Alta (upper) California. She and her little brother Domingo are orphans, though it is apparent through the color of their skin that they are of mixed Native American and Hispanic descent. They and their fellow servants are treated surprisingly kindly by the hospitable Medina family whom they serve. However, when Americanos start to arrive in their area under the pretense of surveying the land, suspicion arises that the Americans will try to steal Alta California for their Union from Mexico, who is not doing too great a job of governing them from so far away, which is indeed the setting for this book.

Rosa is a sweet and likable narrator, and I loved reading about all of the Mexican Catholic customs, festivals, and traditions, as well as the colorful and mostly good-hearted Medina family. Detailed descriptions of other Mexican traditions, such as cock fights and bull fights were prevalent in this book, too. Solid historical fiction with a protagonist worth rooting for.

Book Review: Dear America: The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, A Navajo Girl (New Mexico, 1864) by Ann Turner

sorrowThis is a sad story about the forced relocation and concentration of the Navajo people, who were forced to leave their homes and walk hundreds of miles in the snow, many dying on the way. The book is sad from start to finish. I do remember one scene in which a soldier takes a liking to the main character. Like all of the DA books, it is hard to put down. This was a particularly tragic chapter in American history.

Book Review: Dear America: My Heart is on the Ground, The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, A Sioux Girl (Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania 1880) by Ann Rinaldi

heartongroundNannie Little Rose leaves her home and family to become educated and integrated into white society among a diverse student body of other Native American tribes at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. In current culture, this is a controversial depiction of this sad topic.

Throughout this story, Nannie tries to fuse her Sioux upbringing, beliefs, and family’s values with her new experiences at the Carlisle School, including seeking wisdom from her spirit helper, a mouse in the school kitchen, and a fierce rivalry between another girl, Belle Rain Water. Nannie learns lessons of love and forgiveness. It is an engaging read, but may fail to fully express the harm that was done to the Native communities by taking children from their families and “integrating” them in this way.

Book Review: Dear America: Standing in the Light, The Captive Diary of Catharine Carey Logan (Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania 1763) by Mary Pope Osborne

standing“Standing in the Light” is a beautiful story that stands (no pun intended) on its own, even outside of the DA series. In this diary, thirteen-year-old farmgirl Caty is just like any other Quaker girl in her Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania society, until she and her seven-year-old brother Thomas are abducted by Lenape Indians. At first, she detests the “savages” who stole her from her home and altered her entire life as she knew it, and she dreaded the worst for her and her brother– torture or death. But as the Lenape treat them kindly and incorporate them into their families and village, Caty and her brother learn the Lenape’s ways, become part of them, and begin to love them.

(*SPOILER WARNING*) Caty’s affection for the Indians grows to the point where she falls in love with a fellow English-captive-turned-Native, and is subsequently miserable upon her eventual “rescue” and return home to her family. Because of her transformation among and love for the Indians, no one in her society can relate to her, nor even wants to associate with her any longer.

This book ends sadly. Being one of the few white people in her village with compassion for Natives, she is unfortunately destined for a lonely and misunderstood life. Also evident throughout this novel are undertones of religious and spiritual unity, as this devout Quaker girl comes to understand her Christian God as the same being as the Indians’ Great Spirit, only called by a different name. A hauntingly touching and tragic story, and one which I enthusiastically recommend.