Category: Historical Fiction/Historical Element

The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring by Jennet Conant

Most of us know Roald Dahl through his weirdly fun children’s stories. Even if you haven’t read those stories, you’ve probably seen some of the movies made from Dahl’s work—James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches, Willy Wonka (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). But Dahl’s entire life was wildly interesting, and his stint as a British spy in the United States during World War II is as engaging a story as anything he wrote for children.

The British Security Coordination had a secret mission to get the United States involved in World War II. The Irregulars, as these British spies in America were known, were named after characters in Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries.

This might seem odd now, but at the time (1939-40), there were many Americans who were isolationists and didn’t believe that the war was a U.S. problem. Unfortunately, there were also some famous anti-Semitic people (the popular aviation hero Charles Lindberg among them) who were Nazi sympathizers. A Canadian spymaster named William Stephenson (nicknamed Intrepid) was tasked with making Americans believe that the war was a danger to them. He and the Irregulars were to create sympathy for the British, and with that sympathy, generate funds for the fight in Europe.

So what to do? Well, it might surprise those of us without connections to power, but a lot of the work was achieved on the ‘cocktail circuit,’ that is, at parties in the homes of the very rich and very powerful. The Irregulars would spread lies through influential people. These men had to be suave enough to be invited to such parties. Dahl was not only very good looking. He was also a war hero—a pilot in the Royal Air Force whose military career ended with a crash—and a great storyteller (a very useful skill at a dinner table full of strangers). He was not the only interesting man on the job. Handsome Ian Fleming, creator of the fictional spy James Bond—007—was among the group. Needless to say, he loved tools that contained secret weapons, such as a pen that ejected gas. Other Irregulars were willing to try out spy tools such as truth serum. (That was an experiment gone wrong—one of the many entertaining parts of the book.)

The Irregulars passed more than gossip. To get then President Roosevelt to push for loans (and the Lend-Lease Act) for the British, the BSC created a map of South America and made U.S. officials believe it was a Nazi product. It showed how Nazi Germany planned to split up South America, including the (then U.S. controlled) Panama Canal. In fact, they’d do just about anything, including sleeping with married women and passing on false information.

Most of what they did worked. Reading about allies who were secretly (well, sort of) working to alter the course of the U.S. policies is surprising fun. A lot of U.S. citizens might have resented this ‘spying’ if they had known about it. J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t too thrilled. But from our current perspective, it’s amusing stuff, and knowing the how and why of the BSC will help you learn about truly important events from World War II.

High school housekeeping: If your history teacher asks you to read nonfiction, particularly about WW II, this is a great choice. It’s a little longer than some choices at nearly 400 pages.  But you’ll see how a well-researched document can be highly entertaining. You’ll learn about the BSC, but you find information on so much more as well. And Dahl and his friend are so much larger than life—not always in a good way—that you’ll find them quite human and fallible while deeply admiring their talents and their place in history. You’ll encounter several famous people, get some interesting background on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and learn other facts of Dahl’s biography—his success in writing, helped along by a very rich American mentor, and his life with actress Patricia Neal. Not bad for a single book.

No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy SEAL

by Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer

The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden

As you read the sub-sub title above, you know why this book has been a bestseller, available even at Costco, where everyone can pick it at deep discount. Who doesn’t want to know what really happened in the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound?


Mark Owen—a pseudonym, meant to protect the mission, although Owen’s real name is very easy to find online—was there. And he gives the reader all the thrilling, frightening details of the night Bin Laden was killed and its aftermath. You can follow the story by studying the accompanying illustrations of the compound showing who was in which building and where one of the helicopters crashed at the outset of the mission. It’s heart-smacking stuff.


But before Owen gets to that story, he details the long history of his life as a Navy SEAL—of becoming a member of SEAL Team Six, of the many missions he participated in, including the rescue of Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, which was captured by Somali pirates in 2009. Most of his service is the grind you’d expect it to be, with details on all the equipment special service members use, on how they store and pack it, on the patterns of their training, and how they develop friendships among their members.


I’d like to say that all of that description is breathtaking stuff because—well, who doesn’t want to have nothing but praise for a hero? But the truth is that I think those many chapters before the Bin Laden raid will have the most appeal to teens thinking about service to the country—whether in special forces or not.


I think it’s OK to tell the truth and say that much of this is pedestrian stuff. I probably should have read it in a few sitting, but I kept walking away from it, starting (and finishing) another book, then coming back. I made the mistake of not looking through the photos of military equipment, such as guns and helicopters, that are in the middle of the book until I read to the middle. I suggest you look at these and read the descriptions before starting the book.


I ended up liking No Easy Day as a whole because the truth is that being a hero isn’t something that happens overnight. The fact that Owen went through years of training, some of it grueling (some of it boring), and also had to be in the right place at the right time before he could participate in the mission are important things to know. If you think you can just walk into military service and do this sort of thing, then you must read this book for a reality check. Lots of preparation for big events (and I’m thinking in any walk of life, not just military) is about being willing to slog through the training and practice.


Owen is grateful for the service of many elite forces—the SEALs and others who work with them, such as EOD specialists. He is donating much of the proceeds from the sale of this book to organizations that help these folks, such as the All in All the Time Foundation. And he gives us ideas of how we can support our troops—ideas that beat the heck out of throwing a yellow ribbon magnet on the back of the car and calling it a day.


Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken is the incredible, nearly mythic, story of Louis Zamperini, an army air forces bomber whose plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean in 1943. Before the war, he had been an Olympic miler, and probably would have been the first man to break the four-minute mile if the war had not intervened.


Louie and his raft mates survived more than a month on the Pacific Ocean—through starvation and dehydration, shark attacks, and even a strafing by a Japanese bomber. One of Zamperini’s raft mates finally succumbed to starvation and the elements. Louie and the other, ‘Phil’ Allen Phillips, viewed land after forty-seven days at sea in the life raft. Unfortunately, they were spotted by a Japanese boat crew and taken prisoner. From the boat, they were sent to Kwajalein—or as it was commonly known, ‘Execution Island.’


On Execution Island, the true hell of their POW experience began. ‘The crash of The Green Hornet had left Louie and Phil in the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water or shelter. But in Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity.”


Both Louie and Phil were moved from one POW prison to another, always without being registered with the Red Cross so that no one would know they were alive. They were consistently mistreated. Having no other information, the army reported to their families that they were dead.


In the 1940s, the Japanese considered it shameful to be a prisoner of war and many Japanese soldiers killed themselves rather than be captured. When they captured Allied soldiers, they often felt that they were fair game for abuse. Because of this, Allied POWs in the Pacific fared far worse than those in Europe.


“The average army or army air forces Pacific POW had lost sixty-one pounds in captivity . . ..  Tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, anemia, eye ailments, and festering wounds were widespread. [In one survey], 77 percent of POWs [were found to have] wet beriberi . . .. Among Canadian POWs, 84 percent had neurologic damage . . .. Men had been crippled and disfigured by unset broken bones, and their teeth had been ruined by beatings and years of chewing grit in their food. Others had gone blind from malnutrition.”


Louie, Phil, and their fellow POWs suffered all these ailments and more because they are starved and tortured. In the Omori POW camp, outside Tokyo, the men fell under the cruel persecution of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (‘The Bird’). The Bird is a true sociopath, brutalizing men one minute, possibly asking for forgiveness the next, and getting sexual pleasure from administering brutal beatings, clubbings and grotesque punishments involving excrement. He particularly hated Louie, singled him out and beat him, sometimes with a belt buckle, every day.


That anyone could have survived such terror appears miraculous.



Some of your teachers ask me to look for biographies or memoirs of inspirational Americans. I bought Unbroken awhile back when it was getting stellar reviews. Then it became a longtime bestseller. I’m so glad I finally had the chance to read it myself. (Sometimes it seems that this is what my summer break is for. J) Not only is it one of the best biographies I’ve read, but it also has the long list of acknowledgements and endnotes that give you an understanding of what serious research looks like.


If you are looking for inspiration, just read the two-page forward of this book. You’ll be hooked.



Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I know this is a long shot, but I’m hoping there’s a student

who will take me up on this.

Summer reading for the truly motivated!

While the focus of Team of Rivals is on Lincoln’s political acumen and on his relationship with his major political rivals turned advisers and friends, there is a lot of interesting discussion of their personal lives. This is a sort of group biography of the men who steered the country through the Civil War, and of the women who influenced them.

Many of the men discussed in Team of Rivals were prominent candidates for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1860. Several of them were better known than Lincoln, particularly William Henry Seward. None of them thought Lincoln would secure the nomination. Yet it was their own rivalries that made Lincoln’s victory possible, as delegates who didn’t want a certain prominent candidate to be nominated would throw their votes to Lincoln.

I admit to knowing little about the Civil war period. This book was a thoroughly enjoyable way to learn about the lives of Abraham Lincoln and the men in his cabinet, of their relationships to family members, and in turn the influence those family members had on the direction of this country. Even more interesting—and instructive—was seeing how Lincoln was able to take all these rivals of his (and of one another) and pull them together in his cabinet—a team whose diverse opinions were crucial to Lincoln as he navigated one of the worst periods in U.S. history.

Once Lincoln had established his cabinet, William Seward, as secretary of state, thought that he would be running the country, with Lincoln as his puppet. But over time, he understood Lincoln’s political genius. The two became great friends. So, too with Edwin Stanton. Stanton had disrespected Lincoln when he was a lawyer working in Springfield, refusing to meet with or even talk to him after engaging him to work on a trial in Cincinnati, and calling him a ‘long-armed ape.’ Yet Lincoln later made Stanton his secretary of war. Stanton became a good friend and is the man who said, on Lincoln’s death, “Now he belongs to the ages.” In addition, the escaped slave, abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass came to respect Lincoln after meeting him to discuss freeing slaves.

Unfortunately, Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, could never put aside his jealousy of the president. Chase seemed to have no loyalties to friends and people who had helped his career (so it wasn’t just Lincoln), but he did stay loyal to anti-slavery platforms. His behavior appears to be wholly motivated from a desire to be the president—even at the expense of Lincoln’s policy and reputation. He always felt that he was more deserving of the presidency than Lincoln, and he let others know it. He was fond of submitting his resignation when he didn’t get what he wanted, but was surprised on the fifth submission that Lincoln accepted it. However, Lincoln later appointed Chase to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. According to Goodwin, Lincoln had a “singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness.” It is this as much as anything else that makes him a great man.

Another man who comes off poorly is General George McClellan, who couldn’t take action in leading Union troops into battle, yet blamed all his faults on others, and particularly on Lincoln’s leadership.

Deeply revealing of the political climate of the time is the role of the women in these men’s lives. I enjoyed Francis Seward’s abolitionist stance and the letters she wrote to her husband and friends about what brought her to the cause (the immorality of slavery, the pathetic situation of slaves that she saw as she traveled). Not all whites sympathetic to slaves held these same views. Many Northerners and Republicans (the party of Lincoln) held that slavery would naturally end as society became more urban and industrialized.

Kate Chase, daughter of Salmon Chase, was the beauty who was at the top of the social pecking order, the girl everyone wanted to admire or court. She was so popular that Mary Lincoln was sometimes jealous of her. And yet her marriage and subsequent life was tragic.

Mary Todd Lincoln sounds better in Team of Rivals than in the few sources I’ve read before. She appears to have suffered terrible migraine headaches, and this affected her responses in social situations. She does hold more grudges than Lincoln, but to be honest, just about anyone in the world does. (His ability to let go of past hurts is nearly superhuman.) Team of Rivals also discusses the over-the-top spending habits Mary is now so famous for. However, Goodwin also catalogs the necessary improvements she made in the White House, which had been left to fall apart. Mary wasn’t very good at controlling her image in the press—she did much good, such as regularly visiting hospitals to care for wounded Union soldiers. Her work went unnoticed while the wives of other Politicians were lauded for the same activities. And, of course, her grief over the loss of her children—eventually three of her four boys—had to be a major factor in her bouts of depression.

While this point may seem just a sidebar in the evaluation of the book, I think it’s valuable. The deep grief suffered by so many of these ‘major players’ on the national scene changed all of them, for better and for worse. Lincoln suffered the deaths of his mother, his much-loved sister, and two of his sons (another died after Lincoln was assassinated). Chase lost several wives and became dependent on his elder daughter to be his social coordinator. The Sewards lost a daughter. Others close to the Lincolns lost their sons and husbands in the war. That the death of young wives and children was so commonplace in the mid-nineteenth century is important to remember. People learned compassion or they learned to be unnecessarily mean.

Since Team of Rivals covers such an important period of the country’s history, it includes insights on many of the significant issues and legislation of the day, particularly legal wrangling over slavery—the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and more. Some of the events are shocking. Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, while railing against the expansion of slavery, verbally attacked senators who supported it. Congressman Preston Brooks later physically attacked Sumner, feeling that he was defending his relative’s honor. The idea that one man could cane another, nearly to death, right on the Senate floor, boggles the mind. Interestingly, this beating rallied the anti-slavery forces in the country.

This is such a great book on every level—the political, social, historical and personal. Not only that, but it includes many of the funny stories Lincoln was always telling—full of folk wisdom and often making his adversaries see the value of his point. The only thing that will keep you from reading it is the length—over 900 pages. While about 150 pages are endnotes and indices, that still leaves 750 pages. Even students who are good readers and enjoy history may not be able to find the time for such reading, especially if they are memorizing thousands of facts for AP tests!

Would you be willing to read this one over the summer? You won’t be disappointed. During the school year, you might make a deal with teachers who require about 200 pages of outside reading per quarter. Ask them if you can use Team of Rivals for biography as well as other nonfiction, and then as a free choice. That will cover at least 600 pages. I think any teacher would love the idea that you’d choose to read this book and enrich your education. By the time you get to Lincoln’s death, you will be so moved by his story that you’ll be hoping it won’t happen, even though you know it’s a historical fact. You can’t ask for more from a work of nonfiction.

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What’s cool about the California Young Reader Medal is that the books are selected by young readers. So, teens select the winner of the young adult category. In order to vote, you have to read all three of the nominated books, of course.  Sometimes adults worry that teens won’t select books that are well written. But the truth is that some of my favorite YA books have been Californian Young Reader Medal winners. In fact, one of my absolute, all-time favorite YA books–Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes was a winner years ago.  So, we shouldn’t worry. Teens make great choices in books!

Of the three nominees for 2014, I’ve read (and reviewed) Divergent. I do love both Jennifer Donnelly, the author of Revolution,  and Wendelin Van Draanen, the author of The Running Dream, so this year’s award will make for some great reading.

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

When a school bus accident leaves sixteen-year-old Jessica an amputee, she returns to school with a prosthetic limb and her track team finds a wonderful way to help rekindle her dream of running again.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

An angry, grieving seventeen-year-old musician facing expulsion from her prestigious Brooklyn private school travels to Paris to complete a school assignment and uncovers a diary written during the French revolution by a young actress attempting to help a tortured, imprisoned little boy–Louis Charles, the lost king of France.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

In a future Chicago, sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior must choose among five predetermined factions to define her identity for the rest of her life, a decision made more difficult when she discovers that she is an anomaly who does not fit into any one group, and that the society she lives in is not perfect after all.

Movie Tie-Ins: The Help by Kathryn Stockett  

As I mentioned earlier, I read because I wanted to try a Jack Reacher novel. If you read my post, you know I didn’t like it very much. As I was thinking the other day about good books for movie tie-ins, I was reminded of The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Since the movie was so popular—and award winning—you might have already seen it. This is a book that makes an easy transition to the screen. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, you’ll enjoy the read. If a teacher asks you to write a compare/contrast of a book made into a movie, The Help is a good choice.

Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny are the protagonists who alternately tell their stories. It’s 1962 and the three women live in Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter has just graduated from college (Ol’ Miss) and comes home to her parents’ farm. Her close friends quit college and got married. They have one or more children. But Skeeter’s a bit frustrated as a ‘new’ adult who is being told what to do by her mother. She wants to be a serious writer, and, as many people come to feel at this age, she is realizing that her values aren’t the same as those of her longtime friends.

Skeeter can see how her friends treat their help—the Black women who take care of their children, clean their houses and cook their meals. (Since the white women in this novel don’t work outside the home, and seem to do absolutely nothing in the home, I wasn’t surprised that they filled their lives with gossip and backstabbing. If life doesn’t have any drama, people are sure to create some!) Aibileen and Minny are the help. Aibileen is great with kids—she’s raised seventeen of them. She is slyly boosting the self-confidence of Mae Mobley, whose mother, Elizabeth (a friend of Skeeter’s), is pretty lousy with kids. Unfortunately, Aibileen’s own son died a few years earlier, and she is grieving. Minnie appears to be the opposite of Aibileen—she tells it like it is and has been fired more than once over her comments. She has five children of her own and a husband who is a drinker and wife abuser. She’s known as the best cook around.

The three women embark on a book project. They recruit other maids to tell their stories—to shed light on what it is like to work in white women’s homes and to care for children who will later treat them as inferiors. All the while, Skeeter is wondering what happened to Constantine, the Black woman who raised her, but disappeared just before Skeeter came home from college.

I’ve seen professional reviews of this book that say it will prick consciences. I don’t agree with that. I think that it’s a book that feels safe because the treatment of the maids is now considered heinous, and readers can be smug when comparing themselves to Hilly, Skeeter’s truly awful (and possibly one-dimensional) friend.

Still, outside of a few details that I couldn’t come to terms with—the issue of toilets on Hilly’s lawn was one (Skeeter wouldn’t have jeopardized those Black men’s very lives with such a stunt, and they would have been too afraid to participate anyway)—The Help is an achievement. We care deeply about the characters, we worry about the setbacks in each of their lives, and we are filled with anxiety over the suspense. In short, we are immersed in Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. We’re stunned by what is considered normal, by the way people treat one another. And glad for changes since then.

     How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg; illustrated by Kevin O’Malley

This wacky book is alternatelty gross and funny. It is always fascinating.

Bragg looks at the terrible suffering involved in the deaths of nineteen famous people in history, starting with King Tut of Egypt (a Pharoah about 3,000 years ago) and ending with Albert Einstein (a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who developed the Theory of Relativity). What amazed me is how often in history the cure for an illness was really the cause of the death. Poor President Garfield was shot in an assassination attempt. The bullet didn’t touch any vitals organs, and he probably would have lived, but the doctors killed him (slowly and painfully over 80 days) by searching for the bullet with dirty fingers (causing infection) and drilling holes to find it. In fact, a number of these famous folks had dirty doctors and unsanitary conditions to thank for their excruciating deaths. Or, as in the case of George Washington, they just kept emptying their bodies of blood until the sick man was too weak to live.

How They Croaked also takes on the weird: it seems that the body of King Henry VIII of England was so toxic that it blew up in its coffin and leaked out. Other bodies suffered the removal of various parts as souveniers for survivors. Edgar Allen Poe might have died of rabies. In each case, Bragg discusses the evidence that points to the real cause of death, which wasn’t understood until recently. It’s amazing how long  it took people to understand the effects of lead poisoning and what caused it. Deaths by lead poisoning, as described in the cases of Galileo and Beethoven, are horrific.

Much is made of the personalities of these famous folks. Charles Dickens seems to have suffered from bipolar disorder and was simply vicious to his family; Charles Darwin was so afraid of interacting with other people that he couldn’t attend his parents’ funerals.

This is a strange book, both creepy and entertaining. What’s great about it is that in a short read, you can learn a lot about  famous people and why they were important, about medical knowledge (or, really, the lack of it) in different eras, and about cultural beliefs surrounding dead. You’ll come away with some truly interesting information.

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow

I have several teacher friends and family members who like to make fun of me for being a looney liberal. To avoid the teasing, I’ thought I’d read Drift but not review it as it is, after all, a book intended for an adult audience. But now that I have read it, I feel it’s a book that will engage teens, particularly those who have an interest in politics, in military careers (or even short-term military stints), or who have a concern with economics, the future of the country, government decisions and oversight, or human rights. So, actually—any teen who is engaged, who wants to make a difference in the world, should read this book.

Before she discusses how the United States has drifted into continual war (I’m not using the word ‘continuous,’ and there is a difference), Maddow quotes James Madison’s “Political Observations,” April 20, 1795:

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended . . .

Next Maddow shows just how drifting to war since Vietnam has realized all of Madison’s fears.

Maddow begins with President Johnson and Vietnam and moves forward chronologically. She hits hard on the Iran-Contra Affair of the Reagan administration as a seismic shift in the way wars are conducted—without the approval of Congress, (and sometimes in secret, illegally). She focuses on the U.S. military actions in Bosnia under the Clinton administration as the time when privateers began to outnumber our armed forces  in military actions all over the globe. She then shows that under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, “America’s spy service [the CIA] . . .[is] a new, out-of-uniform (and 100 percent deniable) branch of the military” engaged in drone warfare.

Post-Iran-Contra, more and more power to start and continue wars has accrued to the president. Part of the blame is to be laid at the feet of average Americans—us. We’ve been engaged in two of the country’s longest wars, simultaneously, and very few people care because only one percent of our population is out there doing the fighting, risking their lives. (If you are interested in what happens to those who are on the front lines and how our country is asking so much more than it ever has before from so few, check out the book by Sebastian Junger.)

I think the most surprising part of Drift was the effect of privatizing noncombat jobs that support the troops. Since private industry is always touted as being more efficient than the government, it seems to make sense that the folks who house and feed the troops, the folks who repair the military equipment, should come from private industry. But Maddow shows that this plan has had horrific effects, the least of which is that it has been more inefficient and very expensive, with consistent and huge cost overruns. In Bosnia, DynCorp employees would commit fraud in billing the government. But they also engaged in sex trafficking—buying underage girls as sex slaves. If they were caught, they would simply be removed back to the States. The human rights violation is incredible. And this sort of thing puts our military personnel in harm’s way, as it causes people in other countries to hate Americans. (Think about it—how would people here feel about folks from another country who came over and then kidnapped and raped girls? What if that was all you knew about the people from that foreign country? Would you be happy that they were here?) That one percent of our countrymen and women who are volunteering for military service deserve better than to be sabotaged by lazy, morally vacuous privateers.

While there are certainly many places in Drift where you can almost hear Maddow’s signature delivery of a zinger, she has done her research and is able to back up what she says. Her endnotes are annotated, and for the true lover of politics, she gives many ideas for follow up.

To my friends who think that Rachel Maddow is an over-the-top foaming liberal, allow me to point out that in the process of doing that research mentioned above, she included several conservative thinkers who back her points. (OK, some backed her points earlier in their careers, like Newt Gingrich, and then changed their minds when the political winds shifted.) In the text, she provides evidence and opinions from both sides of the aisle. This concise work is a job well done.

Many people love dogs, and in the last several years, they’ve realized that they could share that love through books. It’s hard to count the number of books about dogs that have made the bestsellers’ list since Marley and Me was published.

Like a lot of other folks, I’m crazy about dogs (my own dogs in particular), and so I read about them as well take them for walks. But Rin Tin Tin is the first dog book I’ve read that includes a fascinating look at our culture over nearly a hundred years while discussing the life of a dog and his progeny.

A man named Lee Duncan found the original Rin Tin Tin, who was a newborn pup, on a battlefield in France during World War I. The German dog kennel that housed the war dogs had been bombed out, but a female and her litter had–against all odds–survived. Duncan took the dogs back to his American comrades and gave them away, except a male and female pup—Rin Tin Tin and Nanette—whom he named after good-luck dolls.

Somehow, Duncan managed to bring the dogs home to Southern California. Nanette didn’t live long. However, Rinty, as he was affectionate known, was very athletic. He won an agility contest by being able to jump twelve feet in the air. His special talents made Duncan think that Rinty could be in the movies—which were silent at that time, so a dog might act as well as a man, given the right script. Hollywood in the early days was more accessible to ordinary folks with dreams of fame, and Duncan was able to place his dog with Warner Brothers.

What happened then sounds like something from a fantasy script. Rinty was so popular that his movies literally saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy. For the first Academy Awards ever, Rin Tin Tin was voted as best actor—but wasn’t allowed the award as this might have taken from the seriousness of the honor. All of America loved this hero dog.

Rin Tin Tin had generations of offspring who later starred in other movies as well as the popular TV show The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. Learning about the journey of the dog and his brand teaches us fascinating facts about the early years of moviemaking, the early years of television programming, and much more.

I enjoyed so many of the facts in this book. I didn’t know that dogs were used in WW I to increase the survival rate of wounded soldiers. They were trained to ‘sniff out’ the living wounded who, after a battle, would lie among many thousands of dead. The dogs could quickly identify the living and this aided soldiers in providing faster medical care.

In WW II, the United States was caught short without a military dog core (as it had been in WW I), so average citizens donated their pets to be trained and shipped to Europe. Lee Duncan and Rin Tin Tin III traveled promoting Dogs for Defense. The military was actually able to return some of these dogs to families after the war was over.

When television first became affordable and folks started having TVs in their homes, dog shows were popular family fare. This book discusses the differences between The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie (a famous collie with a show of her own), as well as how these differences reflect a changing culture in the U.S., one that moved from hero worship to being centered on children and their activities. It also shows how smart producers were able to cash in on products connected to programming—books and toys—plastic models of the dogs and much more. These marketing schemes have continued to be successful with all forms of media even today. (Did you have a Dora the Explorer lunch box? A shirt with Twilight characters printed on it?)

Finally, Rin Tin Tin highlights the people today who are keeping the dog’s legacy alive. They are passionate about who owns the rights to the Rin Tin Tin brand and have engaged in many lawsuits to claim that right.

Lee Duncan had been an orphan as a child. He never seemed to make deep connections with people, even his wife and daughter. And yet, a dog, this Rin Tin Tin, gave him a purpose in life as well as–though at times, tenuous–financial reward. What the man and the dog made, how they changed the lives of so many Americans, and even of people in other parts of the world, is a stirring story. Even readers who are not wild about dogs will be fascinated by the look at American culture. But for those readers who love dogs—well, you’re going to love this book, too.

  An Egg on Three Sticks by Jackie Fischer

“I’m pretty sure Mom is having a nervous breakdown.

“Which I tried to look it up and it’s not in the dictionary but I think I know what it is. It’s when your mom has to lie down all the time and has raccoon circles around her eyes and when she walks her feet are as heavy as the whole world and her face isn’t her face anymore and when she looks at you she doesn’t see you and when you look into her eyes, you can’t find her.”

What was referred to as Abby’s mom’s ‘nervous breakdown’ in An Egg on Three Sticks is 1970s language for a suicidal depression.

Fischer’s novel is so beautifully written that the reader sees the truth is what Abby’s best friend, Poppy, whispers about the problem, as she overheard it from her own mother: Abby’s mom, Shirley, has a creative muse and she can’t live a stifling life. And without hammering the reader about what a stifling life is—in fact, without even mentioning it, you will see that Shirley might as well have had her source of oxygen cut off. She’s a 1970s stay-at-home mom. Her husband, a typing teacher, won’t change or remodel the house. The exterior paint is deeply faded and flaking. The family uses old stuff beyond the point that it’s worn out. Their clothes are worn out and faded as well. The kids are not allowed to have anything fashionable, anything current—no new music in the house, no popular books. When Abby’s dad gives her mom a Crock Pot as her big Christmas present, you know you’re turning the corner into a dark alley. And, of course, Abby’s dad doesn’t even understand why this is not a great present. His greatest happiness is routine.

To manage a routine and order, there are rules for everything—no TV during dinner ever, no yelling across the house to call someone to the room, no swearing, no rock or pop music, no being late home from school, no piercing the ears, no go-go boots, no mini skirts, no reading popular books like Jaws, no skipping piano practice ever, trash is incinerated every Saturday.

But still.

Lots of people live routine, dull lives with lots of rules. They aren’t suicidal. So how does Abby make sense of it? She can’t, and she rebels as her mom’s world becomes darker and darker. She wants her mom to snap out of it, punish her, take charge. But her mom can’t. And Abby can’t forgive her for it, for being so very ill.

An Egg on Three Sticks truly is a beautiful book although the subject is pretty dark. I might have missed reading it if I hadn’t been asked to participate on a ‘recommended reading’ committee for the California Department of Education. For any student who needs a work of fiction with historical elements that s/he will later research, this one has a lot of fun references to the early 1970s—the music, the hippies, the styles (mini skirts, boots, Levi jackets and more—actually a lot of the same styles are popular now). And some sad references, too—especially to the Vietnam War.

I highly recommend this one to mature high school readers.

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