Archive for September 17th, 2008

“Night” and “Dawn” by Elie Wiesel

Knowing that all freshmen here at COHS read “Night” by Elie Wiesel, and that sophomores have “Dawn” as a possible outside reading choice for history projects, I decided I’d have a go at it. I had read “Night” in the past and found it deeply depressing—no surprise, I’m sure, as a personal account of a Holocaust experience has to make the reader wonder about man’s inhumanity to man. The most difficult part of reading “Night” was, for me, the sense that the evils perpetrated by the Nazis could indeed break the human spirit and make good people behave in a way that they would have previously regarded as something less than human. I still remember the story of a son wrestling his father for a loaf of bread.

Judging by the title, I thought that “Dawn” would be a story of some sort of redemption in the aftermath of the Holocaust. I had no idea what the subject of the book was, and it surprised me—as well as made me think.

The narrator, Elisha, is a survivor of Nazi death camps. He is recruited to go to Palestine as an Israeli freedom fighter—what people would refer to as a terrorist if the freedom fighter were waging war against them. Elisha is chosen because he has no family—they have all died in death camps—and nothing particular to live for. Working to create Israel gives him something to live for—a homeland. But what happens to him as a freedom fighter brings up all the moral questions of his activities. The British control Palestine. Another Jewish freedom fighter is captured by the British and sentenced to die. As retribution for the death, the freedom fighters/terrorists will execute a British soldier at the same time. The soldier is arbitrarily picked off the street and hidden in a basement. Elisha is chosen to be the executioner. This is ironic considering Elisha’s name.

The entire book reflects on the choice Elisha has to make as he communes with his dead family members, his past self and other freedom fighters (one of whom is, again ironically, nicknamed ‘God.’) As short as the novel is, I think some students will pick it as an outside book thinking it will be an easy read. Considering the questions it addresses, nothing could be further from the truth.

September 17, 2008

“Trouble” by Gary D. Schmidt

No matter what a person does to avoid it, trouble can find him. That’s what Henry Smith learns although his father has always said that staying away from Trouble was easy enough.

The Smiths are a much untroubled family as the story opens—wealthy, they live in a New England mansion that has been in the family for over 300 years, situated in a perfect town called Blythbury-by-the-Sea. Henry’s older brother, Franklin, is a superstar high school athlete and rugby player. Life is good.

One night while he is out running, Franklin is struck by a truck and lands in the hospital in a coma. Life for the Smiths changes overnight as they wait to see if Franklin will live or die. When the alleged driver of the vehicle, Chay Chouan, a Cambodian immigrant, comes forward, the town anti-immigrant sentiments run high. But at the pre-trial hearing, Henry finds out things that he had never known about his brother, including that he had often made fun of Chay and beat him while his friends held Chay down. Franklin’s true character appears to be that of an arrogant, privileged jerk.

Chay is not convicted of a crime, but his family disowns him because they are ashamed of him. Confused and angry, Henry decides that he is going to climb the most rugged mountain in the area, Mount Katahdin, partly because Franklin had told him he wouldn’t be able to do it. Henry’s friend Sanborn, comes along, fearing that Henry will be hurt if he goes alone.

Although it’s a coincidence that the two boys are hitchhiking and Chay picks them up—in the very truck that hit Franklin—as the reader, I believed the story because I understood that Chay was stopping for ‘black dog’—a dog that had been his until his father starved and then threw the dog in the ocean. The three boys then hike the mountain together and we learn more about each of their lives. Chay is the product of a rape in a Cambodian re-education camp and he’s also a protector of Henry’s sister.

The trip results in danger, revelation, a new understanding of the characters, and the opportunity for forgiveness. It brings up issues such as immigration, a bad economy and even the repercussions of slavery. This was a great book and A Junior Library Guild pick. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

September 17, 2008

“Out of War: True Stories from the Front Lines of the Children’s Movement for Peace in Columbia” by Sara Cameron

Nine chapters of “Out of War’ each discuss one of the child leaders of the Children’s Movement for Peace in Columbia. For many years, Columbia has been torn apart by political factions, drug lords that wrestle for control over regions, gangs and extreme poverty, both rural and urban. In the mid-1990s, UNICEF (a United Nations children’s organization), the Catholic Church and others helped to create the Children’s Peace Movement. The children who tell their stories not only give us a picture of the peace movement, but of the terrible lives they have survived.

Juan Elias’ father and cousin are assassinated one day in the father’s dental office. Juan had hoped to go to work with his father that day, but was late getting ready. Maritza comes from a violent home and although she tries to make peace, she lives a dual life and is caught up in street gangs. Johemir lived alone for eight months when he was only ten years old because his mother had to take a job in another area just to survive. He and others volunteer in the “Return to Happiness” program help small children who are victims of violence—one seven-year-old boy reported having seen his father murdered, cut up, put in a bag and thrown in a river. Unfortunately, stories like this are quite common.

For me, one of the most interesting things about what the teens said about their experiences was how they had learned that revenge didn’t work. Ultimately, many talk about forgiveness and the need to be the ones to end the violence. This idea can relate to violence in other ways—what students might be experiencing here in Southern California—in cities, schools, and in their homes. I hope COHS student will comment on this. What did you think of the ‘children’s referendum’ in which millions of children ages 7-18 voted for the rights to life and peace as their most important rights? How does this help—or does it?

If you enjoyed the book, the author also wrote ‘Natural Enemies,” which is an eco-novel. If you are interested in more information about the Children’s Movement, check the list of websites and resources at the back of the book.

September 17, 2008


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