I am finally making good on my promise to my young friend Ashley and reviewing some stories for young teens. While mostly positive, I did review a couple of books that I think have some definite negative attributes to them and give my reasons for disapproving of them. The reader, of course, can then make their own decision whether to read them or not. I also did my best to review without actually giving any of the storyline away so I hope my reviews don't come across as vague.
Otto of the Silver Hand by Howard Pyle
Written in the late 19th century, Pyle describes life in the middle ages. It centers around a robber Baron and his son, Otto. By Pyle's account, life was ruthless and those with the biggest army had their way, for good or for bad and killing for revenge was common and barbaric. Nevertheless, there is light throughout the whole story. It manifests itself in the monastery that raises young Otto until his father comes for him, and in Otto himself. No matter what happens to him he never loses his innocence, his faith in God, or a forgiving attitude towards those who mistreat him. The storyline and the characters are interesting and one feels as though he has gone back and visited medieval times. It ends with another story about to unfold, a love story (hope I'm not giving anything away) which makes one wish there was a sequel.
Kings Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard
King Solomon's Mines was written on a bet that Haggard could write a better adventure story than Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. You have to decide for yourself whether he should have won that bet. I personally am a big fan of Stevenson. Still, I recommend reading KSM because, while filled with quite a bit of detail, the story is suspenseful and exciting, if not horrifying at times. The story takes place in South Africa where an elephant hunter by the name of Quatermain, meets two men, a Sir Henry and a Captain Good. Sir Henry has a brother who, after a bitter argument, left him and England to go in search of Kings Solomon's diamond mines in South Africa. After not hearing from his brother for a long time, Sir Henry asks Quatermain to take him to the mines in the hope that they will find his brother. Quatermain, who happens to have an old map that perhaps may lead to the mines, agrees to take Sir Henry and Captain Good along with a mysterious Zulu named Umbopa, to the legendary mines, if in fact they exist and if it's possible to survive the journey there. Along the way, they have many close encounters with death, trying to survive a desert and a mysterious African tribe that they discover lives high up in the mountains where the map leads them. Having spent a summer in South Africa, Derek and I looked up the places described in the book and we believe that we actually took the same route across desert land into the Drakensburg mountains. We, of course, drove but it is still exciting to think that we actually took the same journey as in the book. For those that like suspense and adventure with some horror added in, this is the book for you.
David Livingstone Chronicles of Faith Series
The Chronicles of Faith series include biographies of men and women who exhibited a life of great faith in God. We also read their biography of Abraham Lincoln which not only was interesting and informative, but revealed a faith in God that you won't get in any public school or secular account of his life. I had heard of Livingston for years but had never read a biography that gave the details of his life. This book chronicles his sojourn into some of the remotest parts of Africa, where he earned the trust and respect of the tribal people there. He did great evangelical work, bringing many to Christ and defeating the fear and power of the tribal witch doctors. He also did a great deal to impede the slave trade at great personal risk. He lost contact with his friends, family and even Church supporters in Europe and for a time was considered dead. Nevertheless, an American, Henry Morton Stanley, goes on an expedition to find the whereabouts of Dr. Livingstone to see if he is alive or dead.
Even though it seems I have practically retold the story, I have left all the detail, adventure and the ending out. These books are written for a younger audience which makes them quick and easy reads. They are still well written and very interesting. You can buy them cheaply at your local Bible book store.
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
I think many boys would enjoy this book or any young person who dreams about living off the land all by themselves with animals for friends. The book is well written with good, colorful detail of the mountainous environment the boy lives in. For myself I have a hard time suspending disbelief. I know a young boy could not accomplish all the things this boy did: hollow out a tree to live in; hunt deer and make clothes out of the skin; become a great cook of nuts and mushrooms, not to mention tame a baby falcon for a friend. On top of all that, I would go crazy with loneliness. Having said all that, I think that is my problem. My son enjoyed this book and I believe most children, who have no trouble suspending disbelief, would as well.
Joan of Arc by Kathleen Kidlinski
This biography is put out by DK publishers. They have many good biographies of famous people. We also have read their biographies of Houdini and Helen Keller. They are easy and quick to read with lots of photographs. I'm glad to finally read about the life of Joan of Arc because she is one of those famous people I've heard about without ever knowing the details of the events that made her famous. Kidlinski writes about this young French martyr in a respectful, sensitive way and ,in our post modern era, that cannot be taken for granted when secular sources write about Christians, I highly recommend these biographies. The scholastic book fairs in school is where we got our copies.
Blood and River: Jamestown 1607 by Elise Carbone, Elephant Run by Roland Smith, The White Giraffe by Lauren St. John
The following three books are, simply put, not my cup of tea. While the writing is filled with vivid detail and the story-lines are interesting, I have some major objections to them. Basically, the authors superimpose modern ideologies on time periods that were during a conservative Christian era. They depict parents getting divorced (Elephant Run) during a time when that was almost unheard of, and Christianity, if it's mentioned at all, is presented as weak and ineffectual.
The first book, "Blood and River", is from a young boy's perspective traveling from England to Jamestown with Captain John Smith. The English are basically caricatured as greedy, self-serving clods and the Indians are presented as superior and noble. What else is new? There is a minister on the ship but he isn't able to put the fear of God in anyone. I also think that writing the story in present tense was a mistake because it almost exclusively limits Carbone's sentences to simple subject-verb construction, which makes for pretty monotonous reading.
Elephant Run is about a young boy, Nick Freestone, who is sent to Burma to be with his father whom he doesn't know (ever read that plot before?) to wait out World War Two. While there, the Japanese invade and capture his dad and his dad's house-hold. Nick barely escapes, thanks to a secret passageway in his father's house. With the help of a Buddhist monk, he is able to rescue his father and others from Japanese POW camps. As is common in many modern stories, Buddhism is presented in a glamorous, alluring and mystical package. Needless to say, the author makes the Buddhist monk out to be the real hero of the story and is depicted as having supernatural powers over animals, especially elephants-or maybe he becomes “at one with them”, I don't know.
In "The White Giraffe", the characters are nihilistic and uncaring about others and the protagonist has “the gift” which is some new agey ability to contact a mysterious white giraffe.
Most disturbing of all is that these books are typical of what is being offered at Scholastic book fairs in our public schools. (Which is where I bought all three.) Nevertheless, I also purchased the following book at the same bookfair:
Iron Thunder by Avi
I want to end on a positive note. This is a well written book that is historically accurate, and faithfully represents the time period, which is the Civil War. Avi uses historical figures such as John Ericsson, the inventor of the first submersible ship called "Iron Thunder" - a kind of precursor to the submarine and he also recounts actual battles of the Civil War. All is seen through the eyes of a young boy, Tom, who gets a job on the Iron Thunder. Avi makes his protagonist an actual person who rode the Iron Thunder and even though he gives him a fictitious background, (all Avi had was the boy's name on a roster of those who served on Iron Thunder) he makes sure that Tom has a historically correct legend. Avi depicts Tom as an Irish immigrant growing up in New York city. He sympathetically portrays the hardships of life new immigrants experienced then: his mother and sickly sister do laundry to eke out a living since his father has already become a casualty of the war. Avi shows them to be Irish Catholics with respect for the religion and resists any temptation to defame its character as is too common in contemporary literature.
Along with being historically faithful and informative, Avi makes a good story filled with suspense. Some rebel spies try to get information about the submersible from Tom. In an effort to escape them, he joins the crew of Iron Thunder which is why he is on the ship in the famous battle with the South's ironclad ship, the Monitor.
All in all, this is one of those books that make you feel as though you are actually experiencing life during the Civil War and Avi makes it an enriching trip.