My Favorite Non-Fiction Part 1: The Girl With the White Flag

the girl with the white flagWhen I was a little girl, I lived out in the country by a dairy farm. The closest town was a teeny-tiny place called Pittsford, MI. And in that teeny-tiny town was a teeny-tiny library run by two middle-aged ladies who were usually engrossed in watching the soaps whenever I came in on my great book search. Small though it was, I loved that library. It had a pretty nice collection of books. One shelf was groaning with the weight of the complete works of Sir Walter Scott. What a combination–soap operas and Ivanhoe! Anyway, every summer, the ladies found the wherewithal to put aside their soap operas long enough to run a summer reading program for the kids. That first summer, I read enough books to qualify for a grand prize. Spread out on a table was a large collection of books I was allowed to choose from and take home. Among them was The Girl With the White Flag. Possibly because I was being urged to hurry up and make a decision, I picked it out over the other fictional options available. I don’t think I even read it for a couple of years as it didn’t look that interesting to me. But once I did read it, it’s themes stuck with me and made quite an impact.

Written in Japanese and translated by Dorothy Britton, The Girl With the White Flag is narrated by Tomiko Higa, and relates her childhood fight for survival in Okinawa during the final days of World War II. After losing her mother to natural causes, Tomiko and her brother and two sisters lived with their father on a farm. Charged with providing food for Japanese soldiers, he left on business shortly after American ships assembled off the coast of Okinawa and began a sea and air bombardment of the island and sent 60,000 troops ashore. When their father did not return, the four children hastily gathered the few belongings they could carry with them and headed south, trying to get away from the fierce fighting. Only a few days into their exodus, Tomiko’s nine-year-old brother, Chokuyu, took a stray bullet in the head and died. The girls were forced to bury him right where he lay and continue on. In the panicked crowds of refugees, six-year-old Tomiko got separated from her older sisters and wandered alone. Foraging for food in the knapsacks of dead soldiers, escaping death by narrow threads, and facing horrors that we can barely imagine, little Tomiko not only survived, but faced her situation with a bravery that’s hard for me to comprehend.

One of the many things that touched me about this book was how Tomiko often tried to comfort and help other people even while she ran for her life and searched for her sisters. She writes of one instance, “After walking a long time, I found myself on a wide road where I could see the sea on my left. I had no idea where I was. The road was muddy, and the canvas sports shoes I was wearing kept sticking in the mud. It was hard going as I picked my way, trying to avoid the worst places, and then right in front of me I saw a soldier lying in the road. Poor man, I thought, as I started to walk past him, he must have been killed by one of those bullets. By that time, I had seen so many dead bodies here and there that I had become quite used to the sight and was not frightened. But the soldier I thought was dead suddenly reached out his hand and grabbed hold of my ankle. As I let out a scream, he looked up at me with a grim expression and said, ‘Little girl, how’s the war going?’ I thought for a moment, and then replied, ‘I think Japan is winning.’ Whereupon, the terrible expression on his face gave way to a gentle smile. ‘So we’re winning. Thank you. Banzai!’ he said in a rather hoarse voice, letting go of my ankle. Then his face fell forward into the mud and he did not look up again, nor did he move any more. I did not really know whether we were winning or losing the war. I was simply doing as my father had taught me. ‘Tomiko,’ he had said, ‘it doesn’t matter what you hear or who tells you, you mustn’t ever say that Japan is losing, even if you’re wrong.’ But even if my father had not told me to do so, I don’t think I could have had the heart to let down a dying soldier with bad news. Although I was in a desperate situation myself, I still wanted to comfort him.'” Her life reminds me of Proverbs 20:11, “Even a child is known by his doings, whether his work be pure, and whether it be right.”

It’s a story that reminds me of the kind of courage and kindness of which even the littlest people are capable. Every time I read it, I am inspired and also thankful for the relatively peaceful life I’ve experienced. I pray that if hard times should come to the United States, I would have the courage of Tomiko.

My Favorite Fiction Part 6: Voyage of Plunder by Michele Torrey

“There are few men in this world who can say they have seen their father die twice. God’s truth, I might be the only one.”

voyage of plunderVoyage of Plunder by Michele Torrey is yet another book I discovered on one of my weekly trips to the Portage library. I didn’t do a whole lot of socializing in my late teens. You know how people object to homeschooling because they’re afraid their kids will end up badly socialized and unprepared to assimilate into the culture at large? Well, I’m afraid I may have fed the stereotype. (Not my brother, who also happened to be homeschooled. He didn’t know a stranger.) However, I’m pretty sure it had more to do with personality type than homeschooling. Anyway, the most exciting thing I could think of doing at that time in my life was going to the library. There was such a sense of anticipation as I walked through the doors of the library and lost myself in row after row of books.  What would I find this time?

Back to the topic at hand. It was my habit to subject new books to “the first page” test. That is, I’d pick up a book, read the first page and if it didn’t grab me, I’d put it right back. I’ve found that test to be quite accurate for contemporary fiction. Mind you, this doesn’t work for books written prior to 1900. At any rate, I picked up Voyage of Plunder and read the first page. It captured me from the first several lines, so I added it to my collection. I made short work of that book once I got home and it now sits on my own bookshelf and belongs to that special classification, “My Favorite Fiction.”

Daniel Markham lives with his widower father, a wealthy merchant, in 18th century Boston, Massachusetts.  As a small child, Daniel has foggy memories of men slipping into his home in the evening to talk with his father, share a meal and stay the night. “They slipped in and out like ghosts, shadows dancing from wall to wall. They talked in low whispers with my father. If the weather was warm, I would lie in my bed and listen to the whispers.” One of these men, Josiah Black, was Daniel’s favorite.  As Daniel describes, “Ofttimes he sat me on his lap as I alternately turned my gaze from Josiah to the fire and back to Josiah again, pulling my blanket close. Josiah was tall. His skin was pale, his nose strong and sharp, his hair black and shining as a crow’s feathers. His eyes were like wells of ink, and he smelled of tobacco and rum. It fast became my favorite smell.” Suddenly, these men stop coming to see Daniel’s father and with their disappearance, Mr. Markham becomes worried and anxious. After Mr. Markham marries a delicate young woman (Faith), he determines a warmer climate would be better for her health. But it soon becomes clear that Faith’s health may be the least of his worries. En route to his new Jamaican plantation, Mr. Markham’s ship is attacked by pirates led by none other than Josiah Black. Mr. Markham is killed, his wife sent back to Newport and Daniel kept as hostage. Angry and bitter, Daniel determines to see Josiah hang for what he has done. Strangely, Josiah is patient with Daniel’s outbursts of anger. In spite of Daniel’s rage, Josiah protects and looks after him. It is only after months of living among the pirates that Daniel finally learns why. Once Josiah reveals his identity, Daniel is overcome with indecision. How should he respond to Josiah? How can he live a life of integrity on a pirate ship?

One of the things I liked best about this book was the development of Daniel’s character. After his father is murdered, he is full of rage and hatred towards the me, and specifically Josiah Black, for what they have done. He begins his life on the pirate ship by looking down on these wicked men from a very lofty moral height. In essence, his attitude is, “They killed my father. They are inherently wicked. I have not murdered anyone. I am inherently good. Therefore, I am justified in despising them and wishing God’s wrath upon them.” As the story progresses, and Daniel is more and more tempted to take part in the pirating lifestyle, he finally begins to see that he really is no different than the pirates. Though theological terms like “sin nature” and “total depravity” are never specifically mentioned, we see the reality of those truths work out in Daniel’s life. The thrill of forbidden pleasures—violence, plunder and wealth—begin to work a change in Daniel’s heart even while he tries to hold himself above the rest of the men on the ship. In the end, Daniel is humbled by his own sin nature and forced to view himself as a broken, sinful young man instead, as far from righteousness and perhaps even more so than the pirates on the ship.

I also appreciated the complicated and mysterious character of Josiah Black. Although the story is narrated by Daniel, the story is almost more about Josiah.  There are so many questions that pop up while reading the book. Josiah is a wanted man for crimes of piracy and a sizeable reward is offered to anyone who can capture him. He is a fierce and dangerous man. So, why then is he so kind to Daniel? Why does he put up with Daniel’s threats of vengeance? Why did he turn to piracy in the first place? All these questions and more are answered quite satisfactorily. His final act of self-sacrifice at the very end fosters my admiration and makes me wish he were more than a fictional character.

What I don’t like about the book: Human depravity is laid out as clear as day. But no solution to depravity is offered. That would be my only critique. Daniel ends the story, a broken young man, thoroughly humbled and sorrowful. Josiah Black pays the ultimate price for Daniel’s crimes and Daniel goes on to take care of his father’s widow and perform other good deeds to sort of pay for his sins. But there is no real redemption. Nevertheless, the book is fascinating, the characters compelling and the historical detail is more than educational.

So, get the book, read it and let me know how you enjoyed it!

 

“Josiah looked to where my pistol, still in its sash, was pointed at his belly, my finger, indeed, on the trigger. Suddenly he barked with laughter, released his hold, and offered me a hand, helping me to my feet. ‘Well done, Daniel, my boy!’ Still laughing, looking pleased, he clapped me around the shoulders while I grinned with satisfaction, having bested him at last. Suddenly my grin froze rigidly and I realized what I was doing…Guilt slammed through me like a cannon blast and roughly shrugged out of his grasp…I picked up my daggers from the deck and hardened my voice. ‘Just because I’m learning to fight doesn’t mean I’m a pirate. I still despise you for what you did and will see you hang.’ Then, to my shock, Josiah’s expression grew dark and he thrust his face into mine… ‘No one hangs Josiah Black,’ he whispered between clenched teeth. ‘No one. Not even you, Daniel Markham. And I will kill anyone who tries.’”

My Favorite Fiction Part 5: Soldier Boys by Dean Hughes

9780689860218I came across this book in my late teens on one of my many trips to the library. It looked interesting, so I brought it home. If I remember correctly, I read it all in about one sitting. I loved the book so much I read it to my brother. By the end, we were both in tears.

Soldier Boys is the story of two very different young men. Dieter has grown up in Germany, knowing nothing but Nazi propaganda. Like most boys his age, he adores his Fuhrer and can’t wait to defend his country from foreign aggressors. Spence is a good Mormon boy from Utah. His two main goals in life are to impress LuAnn Crowther, the prettiest girl at school, and to avoid getting in trouble with his parents. But two years after Pearl Harbor and a world still at war, Spence risks his dad’s displeasure by begging him to sign his induction papers. He figures if he turns into a tough-as-nails paratrooper and comes back from the war with a  chest full of medals, then LuAnn and everyone else who thinks of him as plain, old, underdog Spencer Morgan will have to think again.

After months of grueling training in broiling hot Georgia for Spencer, and a lifetime of training and indoctrination in the Hitler Youth for Dieter, Spencer and Dieter’s paths intersect on the cold Western Front during the Battle of the Bulge. The harsh winter and the realities of warfare slowly strip away Dieter’s idealism and Spencer’s hopes.  During a brave charge up the hill Spencer’s company occupies, Dieter is shot and wounded. Left on the hill during the cold night, Dieter realizes his only chance at survival will come through an American he has been taught to hate.

What struck me to the core with this book was the ending message—love your enemies and do good to them that hate you, even if it comes at a great cost to yourself. I enjoyed the way Mr. Hughes developed the characters of both Spencer and Dieter. Spencer originally joins the army with foggy ideas of defending his country from Japs and Germans. But for the most part, he really signs up to prove his manhood to himself and others and to impress a girl. As the story progress, his character is tested and grows until he sees life through wiser eyes. Dieter grows, as well, though more tragically. As the lies of the German propaganda machine are stripped away, his confidence is shaken and the purpose and idol of his life falls and shatters. We see the immense impact that can have on a young life, especially when there is nothing good and true to replace the idol.

You can find Soldier Boys on Amazon used or new. I heartily recommend it for mature readers. Although descriptions of wartime violence are not sinfully graphic, they are realistic.

Bonus: The Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” has a special place in my heart since reading this book. If you read it, you’ll know why.

 

 

My Favorite Fiction Part 4: Stepping Heavenward by Mrs. E. Prentiss

stepping-heavenwardAs I prepared to write this fourth installment of my favorite fiction, I took a well-worn copy of Stepping Heavenward off my shelf and read the words written inside the cover. “Presented to Amanda Barber on the occasion of her fifteenth birthday, April 9, 2000.” Thirteen years later, I am still so glad my sister and her husband decided to give this little volume to me. I don’t recall how many times I’ve read this book, but it has been many more than twice. Written by Elizabeth Prentiss, the same woman who penned the hymn “More Love to Thee, O Christ,” Stepping Heavenward is the diary of young Katy and her spiritual journey. Katy begins her diary at age sixteen and often ruminates about what it means to be a Christian. She struggles with the tension between her natural desires for a smooth life, unwrinkled with troubles, and the Christian life which usually involves trouble and self-denial. She wants all of the Christian’s virtue without experiencing the trouble and suffering and self-discipline that bring about the fruits of the Spirit. She writes, “Somehow I have been behaving quite nicely lately. Everything has gone on exactly to my mind. Mother has not found fault with me once, and Father has praised my drawings and seemed proud of me. He says he shall not tell me what my teachers say of me lest it should make me vain…We are all very happy together when nothing goes wrong.”

Ah, but things do go wrong, don’t they? And Elizabeth Prentiss’ theme throughout this book is that spiritual growth only happens through the suffering that God sends to prune us and make us more fruitful. The second and third verses of her well-loved hymn are enlightening.

Once earthly joy I craved, Sought peace and rest;

 Now Thee alone I seek, Give what is best;

This all my prayer shall be:

 More love, O Christ, to Thee,

More love to Thee, More love to Thee!

Let sorrow do its work, Send grief and pain;

Sweet are Thy messengers, Sweet their refrain,

When they can sing with me:

More love, O Christ, to Thee,

More love to Thee, More love to Thee!

As Katy grows older, marries a doctor and bears children, we see her gradual transformation from silly little school girl who must have nearly perfect circumstances to be happy in life, to mature wife and mother who learns to accept everything that comes to her as a gift from God. After two months of marriage, Katy’s father-in-law and spinster daughter come to live with the newlyweds. Father is gloomy and dour. Martha is grim and efficient. The two stay on with Katy and her husband for the next several years. Their personalities grate on Katy and bring her bad traits and character flaws into the light. Throughout her married life, Katy experiences the joys of love and all of its disappointments.  Years later, Katy says about marriage, “Happiness, in other words love, in married life is not a mere accident. When the union has been formed, as most Christian unions are, by God Himself, it is His intention and His will that is shall prove the unspeakable joy of both husband and wife and become more and more so from year to year. But we are imperfect creatures, wayward and foolish as little children, horribly unreasonable, selfish, and willful. We are not capable of enduring the shock of finding, at every turn, that our idol is made of clay and that it is prone to tumble off its pedestal and lie in the dust till we pick it up and set it in its place again.”

Suffering bouts of ill health and the deaths of loved ones, Katy’s love for God grows. Her last entry includes this paragraph, “It was the personal love of Christ of which my precious mother so often spoke to me, which she often urged me to seek upon my knees. If I had known then, as I know now, what this priceless treasure could be to a sinful human soul, I would have sold all that I had to buy the field wherein it lay hidden. But not till I was  shut up to prayer and to study of God’s word by the loss of earthly joys, sickness destroying the flavor of them all, did I begin to penetrate the mystery that is learned under the cross. And wondrous as it is, how simple is this mystery! To love Christ and to know that I love Him—this is all!”

I think we all know in our heart of hearts, that spiritual growth requires pain. After all, we begin our lives as Christians by nothing less than dying. We never stop dying, really. We die to our desires when God doesn’t  grant them. We die to our hopes when they never come to pass. We loosen our clutches on the outcome of our lives when God shows us for the umpteenth time that the control we think we have is a mirage. With each new death, comes more trust in God, more willingness to undergo trials and pains and disappointments if they will only teach us to love Him more.

Though I’m not married with children, this book has been a huge encouragement to me. I hope it will prove the same to you! It speaks of God’s patience with our sins and our human frailty as He leads all of us one step at a time and hand-picks our trials, tailored to our weaknesses.

 

…I have learned that he only is truly happy

 who has no longer a choice of his own

 and lies passive in God’s hand.

~ Elizabeth Prentiss

My Favorite Fiction Part 3: Lord of the Nutcracker Men

download“My dad was a toy maker, the finest in London. He made miniature castles and marionettes, trams and trains and carriages. He carved a hobbyhorse that Princess Mary rode through the ballroom at Buckingham Palace. But the most wonderful thing that Dad ever made was an army of nutcracker men. He gave them to me on my ninth birthday, thirty soldiers carved from wood, dressed in helmets and tall black boots. They carried rifles tipped with silver bayonets. They had enormous mouths full of grinning teeth that sparkled in the sun. They were so beautiful that every boy who saw them asked for a set for himself. But Dad never made others. ‘They’re one of a kind,’ he said. ‘Those are very special soldiers, those.’”

Some books are like that–special in such an intangible way I don’t really even know how to begin writing about them. Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence is just such a book. I discovered the book in my teens during a trip to the library. It snatched me in from the beginning. Mostly because it contains so many of the things I’m fascinated with—history, childish imagination and bigger-than-life characters.

After Johnny’s father joins the service during World War I, Johnny’s mother sends him to live in Cliffe with his maidenly Aunt Ivy out in the country for safety. Taking his precious nutcracker men with him, Johnny settles in at Aunt Ivy’s, using her garden as a pretend battle field where he can dig trenches, set out his soldiers and mimic the battles that are taking place just over the English Channel. At first, the letters from Dad are bright and cheerful and so are the whittled toy soldiers he sends. But as the war progresses, the letters begin to express the true horrors of war and each new soldier Dad sends takes on more realistic features. One day, after fighting a battle with his soldiers, Johnny is struck with the fear that somehow the results of his battles in the garden effect the war raging in France—a fear that turns to hope. “From breakfast to lunch, from tea until supper, I battled with my soldiers. In rain and cold I crouched there, hoping it was really true that whatever happened in the garden would happen again in France. If there was the slightest chance of that—if there was any hope at all—the war might end by Christmas, and my father might come home.”

There are so many side stories going on in this book, woven together perfectly. There’s the relationship between Johnny and his aunt, Johnny and schoolmaster Mr. Tuttle, Johnny and Murdoch the mysterious wounded soldier who haunts the countryside. Best of all is the letter from Johnny’s dad describing the Christmas Truce of 1914, when both sides put away their guns for an entire day, come out of the trenches, sing carols, play games. As unreal as it sounds, it actually happened, and Mr. Lawrence does beautiful justice to that reality in Lord of the Nutcracker Men.

It doesn’t seem to matter how often I’ve read the book (it’s been several times). It always brings tears to my eyes. The story is warm and compassionate while dealing with the entire gamut of the human experience. Get it and read it. You won’t regret it.

 “The German voices rumbled to us across no-man’s-land, and we cried to hear them, Johnny, we really did. We stood sniffing and wiping our eyes, looking up at the stars because that song was just so beautiful. So sad. And when it finished, some of our lads started singing the same carol, with the English words. And the Germans listened to us for a while. Then they joined right in, enemies singing the same song, as perfectly as a church choir…And then, when we’d finished, one of the Germans called across to us in English. ‘Good night, Tommies,’ he said. And someone shouted back, quite gently: ‘Good night, Fritz.’  And Johnny, we wept like schoolgirls.”

My Favorite Fiction Part 2: A Christmas Carol

Scrooge“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

And so begins the most iconic of all Christmas stories A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I’m a little ashamed to say that my first exposure to this story came about in movie form and not the book. My dad used to watch an old black and white version of this every time we went to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for Christmas, which was usually every year. The movie always came on after bedtime and so there I would lay in the other room while Dad and Grandpa watched A Christmas Carol. I could hear every word, and I shivered and shook at the creepiness of old Jacob Marley coming back from the dead to warn Ebenezer Scrooge…oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Marley's ghost
Marley’s ghost

As said before, the story begins with Marley being dead, as dead as a doornail, in fact. His former business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge , inherited all the old miser’s money and proceeded with business as usual, practically before the coffin was nailed shut and without taking Marley’s name off the sign  at the office. Scrooge is not a pleasant character. As Dickens remarks in the first several pages, “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.” It is at Christmas that this story begins. Scrooge is, as usual, hard at work in his freezing cold office, counting money while his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit, shivers away on his side of the room because Scrooge refuses to add more coal to the fire. After having an argument with his nephew where he refers to Christmas as a humbug, Scrooge departs to eat a solitary supper and from there, to home. A strange incident in which Scrooge sees old Marley’s face in the knocker of the door and is actually visited by a dead Marley, his face tied up with a handkerchief to prevent his mouth from gaping, dragging chains and all behind him, leads to Scrooge’s delightful change of heart. Marley warns Scrooge against his selfish, cold heart, and predicts that he will be visited by three spirits. The Spirit of Christmas Past will remind Scrooge of his better days and his softer heart. The Spirit of Christmas Present will show Scrooge the kind of effect his miserable character is having on those around him, and the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come will show him where his wickedness, if not changed, will lead.

I love Dickens, but I think it’s safe to say that this little story was his crowning glory. It is at once scary, terribly funny and heartwarming. The description is superb, filled with rich imagery that paints detailed pictures in the mind. Consider this little description of the weather on Scrooge’s fateful night: “Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there.”

The story carries so many memories of past Christmases with family for me, that perhaps I’m a little biased in its favor. But then again, I don’t think so. Without further ado, find yourself a copy of this story and delight yourself and your family with it in the days leading up to Christmas!

Scrooge and Tiny Tim
Scrooge and Tiny Tim