In Darkness by Nick Lake

Bibliographic Citation:
Lake, Nick. (2012). In Darkness. New York, NY: Bloomsbury. ISBN 9781599907437

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Image from Amazon.com
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Plot Summary:
Shorty is a fifteen-year-old boy trapped in a hospital that has collapsed after an earthquake devastated the island of Haiti. Surrounded by death, and slowly dying himself, Shorty slips in and out of consciousness. With death on the horizon, he begins to have hallucinations of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a Haitian revolutionary leader from two hundred years ago. Both Shorty and L’Ouverture start to experience life and Haiti from a new perspective.

Critical Analysis:
In Darkness shifts back and forth between consciousness and lucidity, between Shorty’s life and Toussaint L’Ouverture and between the present and the past and it does so effortlessly. The lines are blurred but they are enthralling. Nick Lake does not shy away from some harsh and haunting truths of life in Haiti. Shorty witnesses the murder of his father and kidnapping of his sister and is immersed in Haiti’s drug and gang culture. Despite the wrong path Shorty seems to be going down prior to the earthquake, you want to feel hopeful for him. You want him to escape the hospital and his past, and find his sister. Readers are exposed to some dark subjects such as gangs, violence, murder, drugs, government corruption, and infanticide, but its called In Darkness after all, isn’t it? The title not only hints to Shorty’s physical state in a dark hospital room but to the history and current state of Haiti as a nation as well. This is a gripping and unsympathetic tale told in a complex way with some ruthless characters.

My biggest problem with this book is not so much a problem for me, but perhaps for Young Adult literature. It has been said that “young readers deserve books with happy endings” (Nielson et al. 120) and that there should be a hopeful air to them. In Darkness provides the reader with only a glimmer of hope. While Shorty’s story ends “in light”, L’Ouverture’s does not. This is not an easy book to read. In the author’s note Lake says, “If you were hoping that some of the more unpleasant things you have just read were made up, then I apologize.” On the flipside, part of what makes In Darkness so riveting is that it is so raw and unapologetic. Lake tried his best to stay true to L’Ouverture and to Haiti, which means that the harsher aspects will not be subtle. This book is fiction, but it is close enough to the truth that the reality of it all might haunt you.

 

Additional References:
Nilsen, A., Blasingame, J., Donelson, K., & Nilsen, D. (2012). Literature for today’s young adults. (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River: Pearson.

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Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Bibliography:
Sepetys, Ruta. 2012. Between Shades of Gray. New York, NY: SPEAK. ISBN 014242059X.

Plot Summary:
Lina is a teenage girl living in Lithuania until the soviet officers in the NKVD arrest her and her family. After she and her other family members are separated from her father, she begins to draw what is happening to them to pass word to her father. Eventually, Lina, her mother, and her little brother, Jonas, are taken to work in Siberia and she continues to document the experiences in hopes of reaching her father.

Critical Analysis:
The story begins in June of 1941 in Lithuania and unfolds before the reader telling the story and daily challenges of the characters. While, it has flashbacks blended throughout the text, it is laid out clearly and naturally progresses with the characters experiences as they travel and end up in a work camp.

Lina is the main character in the book, and she is fifteen-years-old. It is suggested that readers of this book should be at least 12-years-old. This age range I think helps the reader connect with Lina because being close to Lina’s age, or having already been 15, readers can relate and identify with her in the story. Lina also has a little brother who she feels the need to protect and care for. Readers may also have younger siblings and imagine themselves in her shoes and what they would do for their younger siblings. I think what first makes Lina very likeable is when she helps protect her brother from ridicule on the train. In the commotion, Jonas wets his pants and eventually asks his mother to change his clothes. A little girl points at him and says, “he peed.” To which Lina quickly and loudly covers it up by saying, “You peed, little girl? Oh, poor thing.”

This text would not be suitable for young readers because it presents some scenes and information that can be hard to swallow, even for a mature reader. It is obvious that the story is deeply rooted in historical facts and the author does not try to sugar coat the past. Have you ever heard the phrase, “It’s like watching a train-wreck!” That describes this story. Between Shades of Gray is painful and at times morbid, but the reader can’t help but continue. It is sort of a dark curiosity. The reader doesn’t want to stop reading even though the story isn’t pleasant. The gravity of the situation is clear and Sepetys communicates this delicate subject so well that the reader’s heart can’t help but heart for Lina and her family.

Between Shades of Gray is an interesting story and one that may be unfamiliar to young readers. As the book goes on, the reader may begin to wonder how he or she didn’t know much or anything about this situation beforehand. It encourages a sense of wonderful and a desire to know more. This is especially true when the people on Lina’s train think that Hitler will save them from this tragedy. The majority of the books readers are probably familiar with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust and the horrendous tragedies he is responsible for, so to hear the Lithuanians regard him as a potential hero, can provoke a lot of questions for the reader.

Ruta Sepetys explains how she got the information in the book and how she chose what to include and what to leave out. This story is personal to Sepetys because like Andrius in the book, her father was the son of a Lithuanian military officer. In the back of the book, Ruta discusses her journey to write this book, the people she meet, and the places she went to provide some authenticity to the tale.

In the back of the book, potential discussion questions are included. One of the questions is about describing what this book is about in a few words beginning with “This book is about…”. I think the best way to explain the theme of this story is using that prompt. This book is about hope and the will to survive.

PERSONAL OPINION:
I read Hiroshima by Laurence Yep and reconsidered my opinion of historical fiction. I’m glad I followed up that book with this one. Between Shades of Gray — not to be confused with any of the Fifty Shades of Gray books — is a remarkable page turner of a story. As a person who does not usually enjoy fiction for my own personal leisure, this book is revolutionary. The historical and factual references were enough to pull me in and give me a sense of realism without making me feel like it was just a reprinted diary. Between Shades of Gray is a must read for young adults and in my opinion, should be on every school’s summer reading list.

Awards and Review Excerpts:
Awards:
A New York Times Notable Book
International Bestseller
Carnegie Medal Nominee

Reviews:
“A harrowing page-turner.” – Publishers Weekly

“A gripping story.” – School Library Journal

“Beautifully written and deeply felt… An important book that deserves the widest possible readership” – Booklist

“Heart-wrenching …an eye opening reimagination of a very real tragedy written with grace and heart” – The Los Angeles Times

Connections:
This story would be a nice addition to an ELA or history class. I think it would be an excellent fit in some sort of unit or display about war crimes or Joseph Stalin. While students receive a lot of information about Adolf Hitler, many may not know much about Joseph Stalin. Younger students may want to read Joseph Stalin by Jeffrey Zuehlke, while older readers may be more interested in Joseph Stalin: Wicked History by Sean McCollum.

Hiroshima by Laurence Yep

Bibliography:
Yep, Laurence. 1995. Hiroshima. New York, NY: Scholastic, Inc. ISBN 0590208322.

Plot Summary:
Hiroshima begins with some historical background information about the atom bomb and then information about the city of Hiroshima itself. Yep then sets the scene for the story and introduces the reader to his characters, two sisters Sachi and Riko. Afterward the reader is walked through the attack, the destruction, the aftermath, and plans for peace. Yep talks about the United States efforts to make amends in Japan by offering medical help to some of the young women survivors in Hiroshima. Afterward, he goes onto talk about memorials and remembering the attack so that it doesn’t happen again.

Critical Analysis:
The majority of the story takes place during World War II, mainly in Japan in the city of Hiroshima in 1945. While reading, the author’s voice seems to transports the reader back to Hiroshima on that August day in 1945.

Hiroshima presents some harsh realities to the reader without sugar coating the story or being overly gruesome for the reader’s age. The story also does not seem to be slanted in any direction as painting the United States or Japan as the “bad guys”. Yep presents the details, obviously rooted in fact, without taking a side and allowing the reader some insight into what actually happened and what it meant for everyone.

Everything flows together so well, that you almost forget you’re reading fiction, but rather just have some rare insight into the life of a Hiroshima survivor. Yep presents a nice blend and balance of fact and fiction with no apparent biases. I particularly enjoyed the book’s afterword and source list where Yep discusses statistical discrepancies and where he got his figures from in the book. The book also shows some related events that took place after the bombing, such as survivors receiving medical help in the United States and some memorials in Japan for those who died.

When reading, it is apparent that the theme in this story is to not let history repeat itself. It encourages the reader to learn from his or her mistakes and from the past in ordr to create a better future. “Rest in peace for the mistake shall not be repeated.”

PERSONAL OPINION:
When I was reading this book my grandmother called me and said, “Does it make us look like the bad guy?” And you know what, it didn’t. I loved the unbiased retelling of such a tragically important event in world history. To be honest, this book opened me up to the genre of historical fiction. Usually, I am a strict nonfiction reader but after reading and enjoying Hiroshima, I had to reconsider. It is my understanding from other reviews and recommendations that this is typical of Laurence Yep’s work. I can’t wait to read some more of his novels.

Review Excerpts:
Laurence Yep is an award-winning author, however no awards were given for this book.

“…Yep’s novella tells the events of the day the first atomic bomb was dropped and its aftermath… His words are powerful and compelling, and the facts he presents make readers realize the horrors of that day and its impact beyond.” – School Library Journal

“Yep’s account of the bombing of Hiroshima and its devastating aftermath is at once chilling and searing, hushed and thundering. Within a factual framework, the author sets the fictional story of a girl named Sachi, allegedly a composite of several young residents of the bombed city… This powerful chronicle ensures that what was done on that awful day will remain in readers’ memories for a very long time.” – Publishers Weekly

“In quiet, simple prose, Yep tells what happens when the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima in 1945…. Fifty years later, the even is still the focus of furious controversy… and this novella will start classroom discussion across the curriculum” – Booklist

Connections:
Art or Humanities: Students could make origami paper cranes for Sadako’s statue at the Hiroshima memorial in Japan.
American History: Students can read this for an enrichment study during a World War II lesson.
ELA: Many ELA classes read The Diary of Anne Frank, for a historical unit students can also read this book.

The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich

Bibliography:
Erdrich, Louise. 2006. The Game of Silence. New York, NY: HarperCollins. ISBN 0064410293.

Plot Summary:
The Game of Silence is the sequel to The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. This is a story of Omakayas, or Little Frog, a nine-year-old girl who lives on an island in Lake Superior. She is a part of the Ojibwe Indians and one day she discovers that some unfamiliar people want her and the other Ojibwe Indians to leave the island. These people are part of the United States government and they want the Omakayas’s people’s land. This creates a whole other set of problems as the Ojibwe Indians are moving near land of another tribe.

Critical Analysis:
The Game of Silence is told in third person as the reader experiences the events of the tale from the outside looking in. Although Omakayas (Little Frog) lives in the mid 1800s, she is easy for readers to identify with because she is just another kid with likes, dislikes, and feelings that are similar to the target audience (Ages 8+). The Ojibwe Indians are a peaceful tribe, but know that moving west off their land will be dangerous for their people. Omakayas realizes that everything she has ever known, her home and her culture are endangered, and the tribe must make some tough decisions. This forms a connection between Little Frog and the reader as he or she may begin to imagine what it would be like if his or her family was to be put in a similar situation. With the dramatic storyline, important events, and tough choices in the book, you begin to feel that the message or overall tone of the story is that, you don’t know what you have until you are faced with losing it. An even more basic but still appropriate theme could be that there’s no place like home.

Through vivid descriptions and simple illustrations, the reader is transported into the story and begins to understand the way of life of the Ojibwe Indians. The illustrations and easy-to-read wording allow the story to be enjoyed by younger readers and perhaps be one of the first chapter books or book series that the reader is exposed to on his/her own.

This book is particularly enjoyable and interesting because it includes some of the Ojibwe Indian language and dialect. The author, Louise Erdrich, goes the extra mile by including a glossary of words for the reader, a note about the Ojibwe language and a map of Little Frog’s people’s island. Erdrich goes on to explain that this language is complex and can be challenging but to the best of her ability, she tried to keep the text true to the language.

PERSONAL OPINION:
Eh… could’ve been better..

Awards and Review Excerpts:
Awards: Scott O’dell Award for Historical Fiction

“Erdrich has creatd a world, fictional but real: absorbing, funny, serious, and convincingly human.” – The New York Times Book Review

“Readers who loved Omakayas and her family in The Birchbark House have ample reason to rejoice in this beautifully constructed sequel.” – Kirkus Review

“Offers a perspective of America’s past rarely found in history books.” – Publishers Weekly

Connections:
The Game of Silence would be a great book to read in a primary or even a 6th grade geography class that is studying Native American tribes and cultures.

Other children’s books by Louise Erdrich:
The Birchbark House. ISBN 0756911869. (The Game of Silence prequel).
Grandmother’s Pigeon. ISBN 0786812044.

Novels by Louise Erdrich:
Love Medicine. ISBN 0061787426.
The Beet Queen. ISBN 0060835273.
The Bingo Palace. ISBN 0061129755.
The Antelope Wife. ISBN 0060930071.
The Painted Drum. ISBN 0060515112.