A Well Deserved Exile: Stalin’s Englishman by Andrew Lownie

review by Vince Cuddihy

Stalin’s Englishman, Andrew Lownie’s 2015 biography of Guy Burgess, a key member of the Cambridge 5 spy ring, has received many awards and honours, including the St. Ermin’s Intelligence Book of the Year and the BBC History Book of the Year, among several others. Lownie runs a very successful literary agency. He is also president of the Biographer’s Club.

CaptureLownie had been working on Burgess’s story on and off for 30 years. A key part of this work is that he found some of the Russians who had been Burgess’s handlers while he was aiding the Soviet secret service.

The picture Lownie paints of Burgess is that of a truly magnetic character: depending on which pole one approached him from, he came across as attractive or repulsive. Nobody was indifferent to him; where some people found a handsome, witty and charming lothario, others saw a grubby, slovenly drunk. But even though he was notoriously indiscreet, he was also clever enough to keep from being exposed for what he really was for many years.

Lownie takes us through Burgess’s early life as the son of a naval officer who did not distinguish himself. Guy attended Dartmouth Naval Training College, but was unpopular with his classmates and graduated from Eton. Lownie suggests these early rebukes created the sense of alienation that made Burgess susceptible to the offers to betray his country that the Soviets later presented. During his undergraduate days, Burgess joined the Communist Party and also took up his devotion to homosexual practices that were destined to become an important part of his espionage activities.

Kim Philby was the first of the Cambridge 5 to be recruited in 1934, followed by Donald Maclean and then Burgess. Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross followed later. One of the first things the Soviets asked them to do was to quit their membership in the British Communist Party. Burgess even wrote articles and letters to editors explaining why he thought Communism was a fraud and doomed to failure. At first, the recruits were just asked to find responsible jobs which would allow them to fit in well with the UK establishment. The important thing was to cultivate contacts with ambitious people who would eventually be in a position to have access to important information.

It is ironic that the Soviets did not really trust Burgess and took most of what he told them with a large grain of salt. He had the reputation of being a drunk and a BS artist, so the Soviets were sceptical of stories that Burgess claimed to have heard. Burgess also regaled the Russians with stories of how British counterintelligence had turned German spies into sources of disinformation by feeding lies to them. How could the Russians be sure that the British were not using Burgess the same way? The Soviets also asked Burgess to provide the names of British spies who were active in the USSR the way he provided names of spies who were operating in German controlled territory. He never delivered because after the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and the Soviets became Britain’s allies, the British thought it would be bad form to spy on their new friends and deactivated any spies they had.

Most British sources felt that Burgess had not done much harm because he was rarely in a position to have access to vital information. He certainly supplied the Soviets with large volumes of intel. At one stage he was taking suitcases full of documents out of his colleagues’ files and handing them to his contacts. His reputation as a boozer came in handy as an explanation for the three hour lunch hours that it took for the Soviets to copy the material at the London embassy. But the poor Soviets could not find the nuggets of good intel buried in the mass of paper that Burgess had supplied. When he finally arrived in Moscow, he found shelves full of material that he had smuggled out years earlier, still untranslated and never read by anyone in the upper echelons of the Soviet intelligence network.

Lownie’s Russian sources asserted that Burgess was very important, not because of the information he provided, but because of the people he gave them access to. As a promiscuous homosexual, he had liaisons with many men who rose to key positions in the British government and the private sector. Many of them later wrote him letters in reaction to what was still a criminal act. Burgess hung onto all these letters, actively supported these men in their bids for critical offices and recommended them for promotions, knowing that he had evidence that he could provide to his Soviet handlers that could be used to blackmail these targets.

Burgess spent the last 12 years of his life in the USSR, having fled with Maclean, who knew he was being watched, in 1951. Without the excitement of spying, his time there seems to have been rather boring. The big events for him were visits by friends from England, some of whom were bringing orders from his tailor or shirt maker. In the end, he wound up back in England, buried in the Hampshire village of West Meon, next to his father.  

Stalin’s Englishman is a fascinating story which provides strong insight into why these men acted the way they did and how they got away with it for so long. It would help non-British readers to understand where these spies fitted in if Lownie provided a clearer picture of how the UK government bureaucracy was organized 70 years ago.

Stalin’s Englishman is available at the Lennoxville Library.

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HOMES by Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung

Review by Michele Murray

 

Homes looks like a small, unassuming book. Not so. This is, in fact, a HUGE story, with multiple layers. There is much to move you within its 217 pages.Capture

Homes tells the story of the Al Rabeeah family—an Iraqi family of 10 (two parents, five daughters and three sons)—who, because of persecution in Iraq, move to the city of Homs, in northern Syria and then eventually to Edmonton, Canada, as refugees. The title, Homes, is a clever play on words. ‘Homs’ is pronounced ‘homes’, and at the heart of the book is the question: What is home?

What is ‘home’ to a displaced family that must leave everything behind multiple times? What is home, when you are a teenage boy growing up in the chaos of war? What is home, when you must leave everything familiar, and come to a new land, a new culture, and a new language?

The story of the Al Rabeeah family is told from the perspective of Abu Bakr, the second of the three sons. Bakr, as he is known, tells how his family, because of persecution in Iraq (they were Sunni Muslims in a predominantly Shiite Muslim world) flees to Syria—to settle in Homs—when he is nine, in December of 2010. By March of 2011, when Bakr has turned 10, the people of Syria begin peaceful demonstrations calling for national unity and democracy, and by April of 2011, the Syrian government begins to respond with increasing violence. The steady descent into vicious civil war—first, with what seemed like random, one-off incidents of government snipers shooting at people leaving mosques on Friday afternoons, to focused, deliberate and wider-spread raids of the areas of Homs in which demonstrators lived—is told through the eyes of this young boy.

We hear about the suffering: how Bakr, his parents and siblings, and other regular Muslims, were caught in the middle of the war. We in Canada received reports of what was happening in Syria, and it quickly became difficult for us to understand who was fighting whom. What this book makes clear is that this was not apparent for the people on the ground, either. “When the grenades exploded or machine guns rattled, you never knew if the attack was coming from the government or the anti-government militias that fought to control the streets of Homs” (p. 19). It was utter chaos, and Bakr, and his family, were caught in the middle.

We hear of how Bakr lived through the turmoil of war, and how they became used to it.

“After three years of living in civil war, we had become strangely numb to the random violence that bubbled up around us” (pp. 19-20).  

Bakr talks about how he and his friends would get mops and buckets to rid the streets of pieces of human flesh and bone stuck to the sidewalks; how he buried a man’s jaw, found on the roof of his family’s chicken coop. Not usual activities for a 13-year-old boy, but, activities that, out of necessity, he and his friends became accustomed to doing.

He tells how he learned to fall asleep, to what he calls the “strange lullaby” of the “singing” sniper rifles, the “chorus of machine guns,” and “the soprano screech and baritone tremor of the mortars” (pp. 62-63).

How resilient we humans can be. That’s one of the many ways this book will move you.

But Bakr also tells about how he and his cousins made games out of used bullet shells, how they played soccer in makeshift fields—sometimes having to stop playing and seek shelter when gunshots flew—and how, in Damascus, one of his cousins suggested they make kites out of scraps of rice bags and twigs—a suggestion that embarrassed Bakr, since flying a kite was for younger children, not for 12-year-old boys, and certainly not with the makeshift items used. But, because he and his cousins were bored out of their minds (they were not in school, and so had to find some way to pass the time), he agreed and spent many happy hours flying his kite over the city of Damascus.

The teenage years are difficult enough without the challenges that Bakr faced. You will be moved by the manner in which this young man matures in the four years covered in this book.

In December of 2014, the Al Rabeeahs arrive in Edmonton as refugees. The final chapters of Homes describe the relief—but also the loneliness, the “islands of grief”—that each member of the family experiences as they try to learn English and find their way in Canada. The words of Bakr’s father anchor the family: “Life must always go on, Bakr. Death doesn’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. What matters is living your life with your family, with the people you love. What we face, we face together” (p. 44).

Wherever loved ones are, is home.

It is Winnie Yeung, one of Bakr’s high school ESL teachers—and a first-generation Canadian herself—who connects with Bakr and slowly (since his English is not strong) hears his incredible story. Trust develops between the two, and Winnie begins to write down the story of this family. And so Homes came to be.

Together, Yeung and Al Rabeeah have written this story so that other Canadians can know it. So they can be inspired by it.

You will be.

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“By Chance Alone” by Max Eisen

review by Stephanie McCully

Why is By Chance Alone by Max Eisen, ‘the one book to move you’? Why should we care about a work that tells a story that took place almost 75 years ago? Why is what Max has to say important and relevant to our lives today? Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor, writer and Nobel Peace Prize Winner once said, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.” If that is true then this is why we must read this book and remember what happened.

Max Eisen was born in 1929 in Moldava, Czechoslovakia. He lived with his family on a farm and enjoyed a happy, normal childhood. Max begins his story by telling us about his childhood adventures, family and town. In 1939, the area that Max lived in was annexed by Hungary and his family began to endure the many anti-semitic laws of the Nazi allied government of Hungary. Despite this, Max and his family managed to continue to live their lives relatively unscathed until 1944 when he and his parents, 3 young siblings, uncle, aunt, and his grandparents were abruptly removed from their home and taken by cattle car to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi extermination camp where over 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered between 1942 and 1945.

In the book, Max describes the horror of the 3-day transport locked in a train car with no food or water, unaware of what awaited him and his family. He tells of a chaotic arrival – lights, yelling, a terrible smell, confusion and selection – his grandparents, aunt, mother, two little brothers and infant sister, all sent to one line, he, his father and uncle sent to another.  Max was 15; he writes simply, “There were no goodbyes spoken here.” What Max didn’t realize was that his mother and the others were sent immediately to a gas chamber where they were murdered.

The story continues to detail Max’s survival in Auschwitz I, where, when he arrived in May 1944, he became one of the Jews chosen for slave labour. He, his father, and uncle worked as field labourers until July when Max’s father and uncle also were “selected” and disappeared. In just a few short months Max, at age 15, was left alone, starving and worked nearly to death. He describes his life in the camp and its many horrors. Through a series of events Max eventually found himself working as an assistant in the camp’s hospital under a doctor who was also a Polish political prisoner there. Max explains that the kindness the doctor showed him was a major factor in his survival.

In 1945, with the Red Army approaching Auschwitz from the East and the German Army retreating, Max and other surviving prisoners were submitted to a “death march” – forced to walk without food or proper clothing, driven westward towards German concentration camps until, finally, at one of the camps he was liberated by the Allies.

What is also interesting about Max’s memoir is that he does not just tell of his survival as a Nazi prisoner but also about how difficult it was to reclaim some sort of life and health after liberation. Many people do not know what survivors experienced after their traumatic incarceration during the Holocaust, having suffered the total loss of family, home, health and trust.

This book is written simply, the language is not flowery or elaborate. Max tells his story in a straightforward, chronological way, the writing very contained, and at times the voice lacks emotion. However, this is understandable as to tell such a story must take great fortitude; to relive the loss of what turns out to be his entire immediate family, and the terrible conditions he is forced to live through, is nothing short of heroic. In 1998 Max retired and began to share his story with students in and around Toronto. Because his father implored him “if you survive, you must tell the world what happened here,” he realized that sharing his story, writing it down, was to live up to that promise. Survivors are aging, soon we will lose them. We must listen to their stories, pay attention, while we can. It is his story alone, he cannot tell the stories of the other millions murdered by hate. But we can listen to him and remember the others. As Max says, “We must be alert to the dangers of hatred, speak out against discrimination, and defend the fairness and openness of a free and democratic society with rules of law to sustain it.”by chance

So to come back to my original questions about why we should consider this book as one to move us.  Very recently, 50 people were killed, Muslims, by a shooter in New Zealand who was fuelled by hate, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant beliefs. In October, 11 people, Jews, were shot in a Philadelphia synagogue by an armed man shouting anti-Semitic slurs. In January 2017, a man shot and killed 6 Muslims while they worshipped in a Quebec City Mosque, motivated by hate and racism. The US anti-defamation League logged a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017.  In France, offences against Jews have increased by 74% in recent years. In North America, Europe, and the world, the fact is that hate is on the the rise. If what Elie Wiesel said is true, that “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time”, it is our individual responsibility to ensure that our eyes are open to the message of this book. We must remember the most terrible crime of the Shoah, remember the people who were murdered, hear the stories of the survivors and allow those stories, Max’s story, to change us.

 

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Brother by David Chariandry

review by Wade Lynch

In the first sentence of the acknowledgments section of his book, Brother, David Chariandry writes, “This short book took me a long time to write”. Brother is a substantial read and its brevity is not an indication of its depth. Rather, this carefully crafted novel, detailing ten years in a family’s life, is spare specifically because its characters are so confined by the grief and prejudice and poverty surrounding them that they have lost their ability to move forward. Brother is a story in stasis. There is not a lot to tell, but what there is, is heartbreaking.

Brother is the story of an immigrant family living on the outskirts of 1990’s Toronto amid that city’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. Scarborough (or, as it is otherwise called in the book, Scar-bro or Scarberia or Scarlem or Scarbistan ) is an unlikely Eden sought by West Indian parents; a better place to raise their new-Canadian boys than amid the poverty of their homeland. Their dreams are scuttled when the decaying concrete project apartment home they inhabit becomes fatherless and the two young boys are left to be raised by their mother amid ever-diminishing circumstances.

Michael is the younger of the two brothers and the adult narrator of the story. He is a reluctant survivor, unable to heal as his scab of grief is repeatedly picked away by the people and circumstances that link him, inexorably, to two tragic incidents, ten years apart. He is caretaker to his increasingly failing mother and cannot risk losing the job he despises for fear of further jeopardizing their tenuous social and financial conditions. Francis is the ‘brother’ of the title, a thoughtful teenaged boy, too soon burdened with the mantel of adult responsibility. Aware and resentful of his role as father figure to his younger sibling, he struggles to equip Michael with the skills and sensibilities needed to survive a context that suspects (and too often hates) his gender and colour and social status. Francis is profoundly loyal and instinctively protective of those he loves. His efforts to ensure that Michael learn the unfathomable rules of acceptable male conduct, fostered in a community devoid of any positive examples, are hard to witness; hard to read. The lessons Francis offers his brother in male and macho and black are at odds with the intense, unspoken love he has for Jelly, his best friend and partner in hip-hop ambitions. It is sadly unsurprising that those two elements, same-sex love and the hip-hop music scene, conspire in the genesis of the novel’s great tragedy.

There are elements of Holden Caulfield in Brother; Duddy Kravitz too. We recognize the pain of young men who want to change their circumstances and who don’t possess the skills to do so. Chariandry, through the character of Michael, observes Francis’ keen gift of perception;

From the age of seven, Francis could read. He read books, of course, regularly and well into his teens. But he could also read the many signs and gestures around us. He could read the faces of the neighbourhood youth hanging around outside 7-11 and know when to offer a nod or else a sly joke or else just to keep moving and not just then attempt to meet a bruised pair of eyes. But especially, Francis could read our mother. He recognized her pride, but also the routes and tolls of her labours.

The brothers’ relationship with their mother is strained; an unquestionable love made difficult by her pride and necessary absence.  She is a woman confined by poverty and guilt, determined to be both parents to her boys and, according to Chariandry, “… one of those black mothers, unwilling to either seek or accept help from others…though it meant leaving her two boys alone at home.”

The other significant character in the novel is the city of Scarborough, mythologized beyond its other guise as a suburb one needs to get through in order to get to Toronto. In the same way that Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion forever changes a reader’s impression of the Bloor Street viaduct, Brother will chronicle how an act of racist violence can change “a wasteland on the outskirts of a sprawling city” into the face of ugly humanity where the “stucco of a low-rise looked like the sole of an unwashed child; the rust on the balcony railings and fire exits of an apartment tower looked ugly and contagious, a bubbling rash.”

Brother succeeds on two levels. On one it is a disturbing record of the immigrant experience in urban Canada which, although primarily set in the 1990’s, is painfully reflected in today’s headlines. Bigotry, fear and racial profiling are everyday elements in Brother’s Scarborough, but they could just as easily define the Christchurch and Quebec and Charleston and Toronto of 2019. This novel will long live as an equal among its contemporaries like The Book of Negroes and Indian Horse, fictionalized versions of truths most Canadian don’t want to, but need to know.

On another level, Brother is a staggering example of literary beauty. It is not so much written as it is carved. There is no excess; no extra words. Chariandry crafts his sentences and chapters in precise, economical units that, when they don’t carry the narrative forward, comment on atmosphere. They provide context in exquisite and spare detail.  

Brother does not provide us with a happy ending. It would be misleading, however, to say it doesn’t provide us with hope, though you really have to look for it. There is a lesson, too; a lesson about remembering and learning what Michael tells us on the first page, that “Memory’s got nothing to do with the old and grey and faraway gone. Memory’s the muscle-sting of now.”

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Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, translated by Rhonda Mullins

goodreads captureReview by Claire Grogan

 

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette never knew her grandmother on her mother’s side. Curious to understand why this grandmother, Suzanne, a sometime painter and poet associated with Les Automatistes, a movement of dissident artists that included Paul-Émile Borduas, abandoned her husband and young family, Barbeau-Lavalette hired a private detective to piece together Suzanne’s life.

The result is a fictionalized life story entitled Suzanne that is crafted around a range of verifiable facts: places, people, publications, poems and paintings.

The novel opens using the imaginative viewpoint of the granddaughter/author. In eight brief vignettes, presented as discrete paragraphs on clean pages, we read about the early encounters between Grandmother and Granddaughter. The narrator, imagining the first encounter, has just been born—the grandmother Suzanne briefly enters the hospital room at St Justine’s, looks at her daughter and at the newborn baby before summarily departing

The next vignette describes how our narrator (now 10), recalls looking out of the apartment window “my breath melting the lacy frost on the pane” and spotting an elderly woman who “crosses the street in long strides” and “slides a small book into the mailbox before slipping off”. This elusive figure, who has so clearly abandoned and hurt her daughter (the narrator’s beloved mother) is a figure of fascination to the granddaughter.

We then read about their surprise visit to the mother/grandmother who lives in Ottawa… everything seems cordial enough—albeit perfunctory, but once they have left the grandmother telephones to warn her daughter never to surprise her in such a way again. The heartbreak is palpable and characterizes the entire work in which the daughter’s love for her own mother is projected from that mother to the grandmother but it is hardly ever reciprocated.

The rest of the novel, divided up chronologically, takes us through Suzanne’s life in an attempt to persuade the reader to discover, if not sympathize, with the protagonist’s life choices. Suzanne is a belligerent, audacious young girl, who unlike her sister Claire, chafes at all the constraints placed up or against her. A feisty child who is contrary by nature and then by choice, she makes the reader laugh at her unconventional ways –

When at confession Suzanne admits

“I committed obscene acts, Father.”

But to his question “On yourself or on someone else?”

She replies

“On you Father”

You smile. You like the silence that follows. (50)

 

There follows a catalogue of thinly veiled attempts to get a response, to shock, to startle, to generally just be noticed amongst an ever expanding number of siblings and a family in economic decline. When the father, Achilles, loses his job as a teacher, we learn about the Programme de restauration social (1933), under which he is put to work collecting and burning dandelions. In this way Barbeau-Lavalette informs us about the social and economic programs in Quebec under Duplessis and then his successors.

Suzanne momentarily escapes from this grinding poverty and grimness when she reads about “The Meteor from Montreal. The Canadian Comet”, Quebec sprinter Hilda Strike. From this discovery we note light allusions to this remarkable young woman whom Suzanne imagines literally running away from her life. Hilda Strike becomes the motif for Suzanne’s own life choices- firstly in her move away from her family to participate in a speaking competition in Montreal, and then in her entry into the alternative and unconventional artistic world of the Automatistes. Through the ensuing pages we learn how Suzanne absorbs these free-flowing ideas, embraces her own sexuality and artistic desires. An early marriage to a painter, Marcus, one child and then another, however, slowly shatter the illusion of freedom and see Suzanne abandon her children to travel on alone.

Though she travels to Europe and England, however, she doesn’t really move or develop as an individual. She keeps circling back through the central men in her life, and it is an abortion that finally returns her to Canada.

One presumes Barbeau-Lavalette hopes to atone for Suzanne’s abandoning of her own children, but there follows a sordid retelling of trysts, betrayals, agonized phone calls to her abandoned daughter (now 4, now 6) noticeable for their silence. Barbeau-Lavalette hopes to fill those silences but has the honesty not to contradict her own mother’s recollection of the grandmother’s persistent silence; this falls well short of exonerating or even (for this particular reader) offering any real  motivation or ambition in Suzanne. Responsibilities are too much, she has too little interest, and she moves through people and situations as though through water with little concern for anyone’s wellbeing or feelings. Abandoning her children to a foster home, then her husband to New York, she casually links up with a variety of men who allow her to escape from the realities of life. The novel eventually brings her back to Canada and full circle to the opening vignettes.

While there are some beautiful passages, some poignant observations, the novel, by so cursorily brushing over and through so many places and people, leaves the reader with a sense of Suzanne’s vacuousness rather than of a woman struggling against social conventions of mid 20th century Quebec. She comes across as a lost, drifting individual who laments her choices but is condemned to keep repeating them. There is limited development of her character or thoughts. In fact, the young author granddaughter is the one projecting depth and sensitivity onto a fairly cruel and selfish grandmother –she wants it to be otherwise and if only on the pages of a novel has written it to convince us that it is so.

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Today’s Leaders for Tomorrow 

By Shanna Bernier

I have spent most of my adult life working with children and youth. I am a parent to two young girls. I have heard folks say many times, with the best of intentions, that youth are tomorrow’s leaders. I think the gatekeepers of “leadership” are inadvertently holding kids back. I do not think kids are leaders of the future. I think they can lead us right now.

Last Friday millions of children, youth, and adults skipped school and work to march for climate justice.  If you missed this news story amidst all the tragedy and distressing things going on throughout the world, I forgive you. The news was hard last week. This movement began with Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden.  In August 2018 she began skipping school on Fridays and camping outside the Swedish Parliament demanding that her government and other governments make rapid changes to emissions and other human-caused pollutions in order to combat rapid climate changes that are affecting our planet. “The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions,” Thunberg says. “All we have to do is to wake up and change.” Her story and simple actions inspired kids in more than 112 countries to skip school last Friday and to march in the streets for action.

I believe that children are powerful leaders. They are innovative and emboldened, and they have everything to lose if our world does not get better. Teaching kids that they can make a difference in their communities by standing up for injustice is one of the most powerful actions a parent can take.

If you are a serial reader of Good Reads, and therefore a serial reader of my YA – Kid-lit version, which happens every 5 or 6 weeks, then you know that the purpose of this column is to review books and to recommend specific volumes which are available at our local Lennoxville Library.  That is always part of my objective, but I also take very seriously the hats I wear as a parent, a youth worker and an educator. I use the library and its collection as a jumping off point for many conversations. Books are one of many tools for talking about the hard stuff that kids are facing in the world. I want my children, and the youth I work with to feel that they have an important voice in the world. One of the more tired and frustrating phrases I hear, is that the youth are the future leaders (of the Church, government, education system, etc). Youth have a voice of passion and wisdom in the world today, and waiting to act doesn’t benefit anyone except those who hold power in the status quo.

goodreads captureSo many good books encourage empowerment, activism, strength and leadership. I have written about some of them before. Munch’s Paperbag Princess, Gilman’s Jillian Jiggs and A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara are all treasures.

The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade was written by Grammy-nominated children’s musician Justin Roberts, and is illustrated with vibrant artwork from award-winning illustrator Christian Robinson. It tells the tale of an observant young girl, Sally, who sees unsettling and hurtful things happening in her school and community. She finds the courage to stand up against the pain she is seeing. “I’m tired of seeing this terrible stuff. Stop hurting each other! This is enough!” What follows in the story gives me goosebumps every time I read it. Everyone in the cafeteria stops, and stands in solidarity with her. In a moment reminiscent of the resistant hand raising in The Hunger Games when District 11 pays homage to heroine Katniss, all the little kids and adults in her cafeteria stand and raise their hands. They stand together, but a child leads them. This book is beautiful, with colourful illustrations depicting the diverse tapestry of human beings. I recommend reading this book and talking to kids about what they want to do for the world, not when they are grown up, but now as kids. If one little girl skipping school can make millions of people pay more attention to a global crisis, then I have faith that we should be letting the kids run the show, because so far the grown-ups have not been solving the problems. Go inspire a kid! Take them to the library, read a good book and empower them to change the world even if they are the smallest one in the smallest grade.

 

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Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen King and Owen King

goodreads captureReviewed by Melanie and Gerry Cutting

If Stephen King is the “king” of horror fiction, Gerry Cutting is the king of the Stephen King novel, having read nearly all of them. He kindly agreed to speak with me about his abiding interest in Stephen King, and in particular about 2017’s Sleeping Beauties, a 700 page brick of a book.

“I love King’s novels because he mixes several different genres.  One is horror, using creatures that are part of our mythology, such as vampires and werewolves; another is science fiction and the creation of alternate universes, such as in The Dark Tower series. Another aspect I enjoy, a feature of many of King’s later books, is his use of children as his main characters, leading to immediate empathy and liking for the character.  You read Stephen King because at times you like to go to bed needing to leave the light on: is there something under the bed or in the closet?”

According to Gerry, one of King’s main themes is how everyday life can be influenced—and completely altered—by the introduction of the unexplainable. He skillfully uses the concept of the unkillable (or undead), to introduce the conflict between good and evil, life and death, and the triumph we experience when the unexpected hero or heroine saves us from the unspeakable horrors that lie beyond our comprehension.

This novel is the King boys’ description of the interplay between men and women, gender power and relationships. Set in a small prison town in Appalachia called Dooling (most of King’s novels are set in Maine, where King still lives), the main employer is the Dooling Correctional Facility for Women. We’re quickly introduced to some of the main characters in Chapter 1: inmates Jeanette Sorley and Ree Dempster, Dr. Clinton Norcross, prison psychiatrist, his wife Sheriff Lila Norcross, and their 16 year old son Jared. We get a sense that almost all of the characters have experienced complicated lives that have impacted their ability to relate to others. As we read the novel we realize that Stephen and Owen King have taken on the role of explaining to men why relationships with women are often dominated by power struggles and in particular, violence. The characters’ stories reflect the struggles that women have always encountered related to finding their place in a world where force and domination are a part of the fabric of daily life, sometimes overt, sometimes hidden, but always present.

In the midst of these troubled relationships, the authors introduce the element of the supernatural, the unexplainable, and the terrifying, manifested in the appearance of a woman aged about 30, known to the police as Evie Black. She is found naked at the scene of a horrific crime; it seems she has murdered two drug dealers in their makeshift meth lab.  She is apprehended by the sheriff and taken to Dooling prison to be held in custody.

The story now becomes more complicated, as the complexities of the relationships between the prison guards, inmates and townspeople unfold. The characters are masterfully depicted, as we begin to see how the authors view the everyday relationships that exist in Dooling; this could be a story in and of itself, apart from the appearance of the mysterious Evie Black.  What she brings to the story is classic Stephen King: where does she come from? Why is she here? Why does she seem to have mysterious powers, such as curing herself of serious wounds and knowing what people are thinking? Besides her being a murderer, there are many other factors that cause people to be happy that she is locked in a cell.  What becomes highly problematic and absolutely terrifying is the fact that when women go to sleep they are immediately enveloped in a cocoon-like structure that literally grows out their bodies.  Within a relatively short period of time, women, across the planet, are going to sleep and developing this cocoon, yet they are still alive.

Needless to say, the female inmates are now falling asleep inside cocoons.  Suspicion naturally falls on Evie: is this of her making?  What powers does she have? We go back and forth with characters that work in the prison and live in the town.  Some particularly unsavory characters begin to appear. One family in particular, the Grearies, is used to show us how the propensity for male violence can destroy and manipulate what is the most fundamental of all human relationships, the family. Without exception, the women in the correctional institute are there in whole or in part because of male intolerance and violence.

What happens to the men in Dooling (and in the rest of the world) when eventually all but 2 or 3 women are encased in cocoons? A central question is, “What would men do if women were no longer there?” What the Kings suggest is that the male reflex to become violent would win out; Evie, clearly the cause of “the sleeping beauties”, must be killed or captured. Eventually, the Dooling women end up an alternate universe, finding themselves very happy without the male presence, and Evie offers them the alternative of waking up, or remaining in their alternate, peaceful universe.

 

Whether or not this venture into shared authorship lives up to the reader’s expectation is a matter of opinion. The storytelling is effective, but where we see that this is not a classic King novel is in the ending, which is too pat. We never get an answer as to who Evie is, or what happens to her.  King père et fils seem to have run out of steam at the end, leaving the reader feeling dissatisfied.

I would recommend it as a good read up until the simplistic ending, a commentary on contemporary antifeminist and violent society, where the quick-draw approach is used to solve all problems. Like most of King’s books, it can be read on many different levels.

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