Review of “The Ghost Factory” by Jenny McCartney

This debut novel begins in Belfast in 1995, at which time armed gangs in Northern Ireland had been fighting for years over the fate of the six counties. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) wanted a united Ireland, and the Loyalist Protestants wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. As the author reports, when the two groups weren’t occupied murdering each other, they vented their frustration by deploying their well-honed violent techniques on their own. 1995, the author writes, was worse generally for “young Catholics who annoyed the IRA and young Prods who irritated the Loyalists.”

The mayhem impacts the life of the narrator, Jacky, after his best friend Titch was severely beaten by Rocky McGee, leader of the local gang of Loyalist paramilitaries. Titch was mentally a bit slow, and had a compulsion to steal sweets from the local stores. Usually Titch’s mom settled up with sympathetic local shop owners behind Titch’s back, so there would be no trouble. But then Titch stole from McGee’s father’s store, and worse yet pushed the father down when confronted. Titch was dragged out of his house by McGee and his boys armed with baseball bats, and ended up in the hospital from the vicious beating he received. Titch was always afraid after that, not even able to feel safe at home, and Jacky was incensed. When Jacky, working his shift as a bartender, heard McGee in the bar bragging about what he did to Titch, Jacky punched him. Needless to say, Jacky was next, ending up in the hospital as well, with scars inside and out that never left him. Warned to leave Belfast, Jacky left for London.

The second part of the book takes place in London, where Jacky also gets a job as barman, and there meets Eve, a girl he falls for. But the scars from the encounters with McGee have changed him. Physically, they made him stand out. As Jacky explains:

“People see your damage and aren’t sure how you got it, whether for being a bully or a victim. Either way, it makes them a little uneasy. Their eyes climb aboard the scars and travel down the tram lines.”

Psychologically, Jacky is also scared, eaten up by the way he had lied and begged for his life when he was frightened by the bullies. He remarked, “I hadn’t yet realised that one of violence’s slyest tricks is to make you feel dirty for having been on the wrong end of it.” [This is an emotion with which women who have been sexually abused often identify as well.]

Jacky begins a relationship with Eve, but the risk of love scares him as much as the gangs, albeit differently. On your own, he mused, you have nothing to lose: “You can hang on to the bare fact of nothing and feel a kind of security. Once you have something, you’re always in bloody freefall.”

He also can’t move forward because his experiences in Belfast continue to obsess him. When he hears of more bad news from home, he decides it is time to put a stop to McGee and his reign of terror.

Discussion: The title refers to Belfast, which, like other cities torn by violence, becomes a factory for tit-for-tat revenge over the ghosts of the dead, consuming its inhabitants. Though Jacky has a chance to start a new life in London, he must first let go of his old life, if he only can. He gets assistance from a couple of dei ex machina at the end, making the story a bit less tragic. But one can’t help but wonder how it would have turned out without those lucky and not-at-all assured developments.

Evaluation: Books set in war-torn places with their tragic repercussions for those inheriting the fight, such as in Northern Ireland or in Israel, can be terribly depressing to read. But the author has a flair for writing, and she tells a good story. I can’t say I “enjoyed” reading this book, but I appreciated it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in Great Britain by 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2020

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Kid Lit Review of “The Youngest Marcher” by Cynthia Levinson

This book for readers 5 and up is based on the real story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, who at age nine was one of 3,000 children arrested and sent to jail in Birmingham, Alabama for marching for civil rights in 1963. Audrey, part of the Children’s March planned by three preachers, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ended up spending seven days in jail.

The march was conceived for several reasons, according to the Zinn Education Project. The civil rights movement was looking for ways to energize the campaign, but many adults were reluctant to participate in the protests because they would lose their jobs. Children marching had less to lose. In addition, a march by children (and the inevitable punitive reaction by law enforcement), would “subpoena the conscience of the nation to the judgment seat of morality” per Dr. King. As Civil Rights Leader Reverend Virgil Wood later averred:

“Dr. King was severely criticized for allowing the children to be involved, but the children insisted themselves. The children were their own self-initiators of their own freedom. They said, ‘This is our future and we want to help shape it.’”

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture offers a synopsis of how the march got underway:

“On May 2, 1963, more than one thousand students skipped classes and gathered at Sixth Street Baptist Church to march to downtown Birmingham, Alabama. As they approached police lines, hundreds were arrested and carried off to jail in paddy wagons and school buses. When hundreds more young people gathered the following day for another march, white commissioner, Bull Connor, directed the local police and fire departments to use force to halt the demonstration. Images of children being blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, being clubbed by police officers, and being attacked by police dogs appeared on television and in newspapers, and triggered outrage throughout the world.”

Both of Audrey’s parents were very active in the civil rights movement in Alabama. She was often exposed to conversations in her home between her parents and leaders of the movement, including Dr. King and other ministers who orchestrated efforts to rescind segregation laws.

The author points out that Audrey knew all about segregation from her own experiences as well. She had to ride in the back of buses, drink out of separate water fountains, and use the freight elevators in stores. She knew that nicer things “were for white folks.”

So when the children’s march was proposed, Audrey begged her momma to let her go, and her momma finally relented. Her daddy gave her a game to take with her to pass the time in jail. She was not only the youngest protester, but the only one from her school, and she didn’t know anybody else; most of the protestors were teenagers.

She may have been scared and lonely, but when Jim Bevel, one of the organizers, lined her up to march, she stood up straight:

“She was going to break a law and go to jail to help make things right. Clutching a protest sign in one hand and her game in the other, Audrey marched out the door. She stomped and sang, ‘Ain’t gonna le-e-t nobody turn me ‘round, turn me ;round, turn me ‘round.”

Sure enough, Audrey was sentenced to one week in juvenile detention, but it was harder than she thought. She was afraid, hungry, and tired.

She was even interrogated by a group of four older white men. By Audrey’s fifth day, the police announced the jails were too full, and they couldn’t arrest anyone else. After seven days, she was released. Her momma and daddy came and got her, and that night, she had her favorite “hot rolls, baptized in butter” for dinner.

The author tells us that two months later, the City of Birmingham wiped segregation laws off the books. Audrey was finally able to sit in the ice cream shop, inter alia, like everyone else. The author concludes:

“Black and white together, like we belong.”

An Author’s Note, time line, and list of sources end the book, along with the recipe for Audrey’s favorite “Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter.”

The art work by illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton captures the emotions of everyone caught up in the civil rights struggle. She depicts fearful situations, but emphasizes the joy of family and friends, the feeling of righteousness from fighting against injustice, and the happiness of reunion after separation.

The author was able to interview Audrey before she died in 2009:

“Audrey told me that she remained an activist afterward. She volunteered to integrate a high school, enrolling as one of the its first black students. ‘It took a while for whites and blacks to work together,’ she said. “But it was what we fought for.’”

Audrey Faye Hendricks

Evaluation: Talk about an inspiring story! Audrey’s courage and initiative shows us how people of all ages can help make a difference in the struggle against injustice. It also reminds us how much can be accomplished by a community working together and demonstrating in large numbers to achieve a goal. I especially appreciated that the author and illustrator did not sugar-coat negative aspects of what happened, even though it was couched in an overall positive light.

Police arrest unidentified child protesters, Birmingham, A.L., 1963. Courtesy Alabama Public Radio.

And as we know, the struggle for civil rights isn’t over yet, and little girls are still playing a role in the fight, as this viral video of Wynta-Amor Rogers shows:

Rating: 4/5

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017

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Review of “The Chalk Circle” by Tara L. Masih, Editor

Periodically Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent decide it is a good thing to be more sensitive to “the Other,” even though they have systematically, throughout their 400-plus year history, insisted everyone not of their same background be classified as “Other.” These efforts at understanding have gone only so far, however, since this group not only continues, through its dominance in the media for example, to represent itself as the “norm,” but endeavors by a variety of means to retain its position at the top of the social and economic hierarchy in society.

While just reading about injustice won’t change anything, it is a start, because you can’t address wrongs if you don’t even know they exist. This award-winning book is an excellent way to walk (metaphorically) in the shoes of people who are forced to negotiate their identities through the lenses of white America.

The editor, Tara L. Masih, started an annual essay contest on the subjects of “culture, race, and a sense of place,” to provide a forum for viewpoints of people of all backgrounds, including those of Anglo-Saxon European descent. As Masih argues in the Foreword: “All voices need to be heard in order to find understanding and be truly intercultural.” (She prefers the word “intercultural” over “multicultural” because, as she writes: “Multi, to me, means many and separate; inter begs to be more inclusive.”)

[You can read more about the annual contest here. The current judge/sponsor of the intercultural essays, Lyzette Wanzer, has a powerful essay in this book.]

Each brief but moving essay in the book is preceded by headnotes to introduce the author. The effect is unexpectedly pleasant; it is a bit like being at a cocktail party, where you meet each person and then hear the story he or she tells you after you exchange facts about your backgrounds.

In the introduction, David Mura, the talented American author, poet, novelist, playwright, inter alia, discusses questions of identity that are explored so thoroughly in the book. He points out “identity cannot be thought of without difference, that is, without considering what I am not.”

A consistent theme in the essays is in fact the determination of what one is not. Notably, as one essayist observes, “No matter how much you value mind over body . . . you can’t escape your body, and others are particularly bound to experience your body before your mind.”

We have seen this recently over and over again, thanks to many videos exchanged over social media, showing white people (denoted as “Kens” or “Karens”) judging someone and even accusing a person of not being “an American” solely on the basis of physical cues.

An infamous Ken and Karen threatening peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters

The whites captured in these smartphone videos want the person who looks different to leave the country, or at least be arrested for some imagined crime. Most significantly, they feel entitled to make those claims. Isabel Wilkerson, in her new book, Caste, has a cogent explanation for this attitude, as part of her explanation of what she considers to be the primary organizing principle of American life:

“A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.”

Wilkerson notes further about the caste system in America:

“It is about power – which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources – which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence – who is accorded these and who is not.”

What The Chalk Circle does is put the focus on how it feels to be a part of this caste system, to be the subject of stigmatization; what it does to one’s psyche, and how one learns to negotiate the constant barrage of ongoing micro-aggressions, as well as exclusion and differential treatment. How can you ever have the confidence to walk through the world without wariness and fear? How can you ever feel at home? What about guilt over privilege? Does feeling guilt matter unless the system is dismantled?

In fact, some of the best essays are about discomfort over privilege, not only over other groups, but even other others within one’s own (and oppressed) group.

(For a striking video addressing that very question, you can hardly do better than this offering from BBC One. In the dystopian political drama “Years and Years,” Muriel spoke to her family about how everyone is to blame for the current state of the world. The video of the speech went viral.)

Muriel castigating her family for complicity in social and economic hegemonic behaviors, via BBC

Most helpfully, the book concludes with a set of discussion questions, as well as a list of which essays correspond to which overarching issues, such as experiencing stereotyping in school or work or play; the concept of “home” when one is from a multicultural background; and exploring family history through letters or photos or food. (Think about the idea of food and what is considered “normal” in this country. As author Sari Botton said in an interview, “. . . . I don’t eat Indian food out, I eat it at my parents house and relatives houses, and we don’t call it Indian food. We just call it food.”)

Evaluation: In this time of tribalism and fear over the shifting demographics of the country (i.e., the move away from a white majority), it is crucial to share our stories with one another; we need to open our eyes, heads, and hearts to the world outside our insular universes. If nothing else, we can discover just how fascinating other lives are, and how talented and entertaining are the people who share their stories.

But more importantly, these excellently curated, well-written, and often poignant essays by all kinds of people from various backgrounds help teach us that we are all human beings; that if you prick us, we all bleed red blood. They are not didactic in nature; rather they simply convey what life is like for different people, especially when you feel (because you are made to feel), like an outsider in your own country. Most are only a few pages in length; you can dip in and out of them at your leisure as you tour other worlds from your reading chair. And perhaps as we come to recognize so much of ourselves in people of all backgrounds, we may be willing to take more active steps to dismantle the systems that make “otherness” a negative, rather than a positive source of new ideas and of paths to renewal, both for ourselves and for society.

Why is it so important? As essayist Shanti Elke Bannwart writes:

“It seems that civilization is a very thin net underneath the tightrope that spans the abyss of our dark passions and cruelties. We had better tread gently, keeping a careful and humble balance so that we don’t slip.”

Although this book was first published in 2012, it seems more needed than ever.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, 2012

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Review of “City of Bones” by Martha Wells

I enjoyed this author’s “Murderbot” series so much that I decided to tackle her backlist, and with this book was not disappointed at all.

City of Bones is a standalone fantasy that takes place more than a thousand years after the time of the “Ancients.” Khat and Sagai are partners working in the city of Charisat who deal in relics from the Ancient Civilization. Both of them would rather have been scholars of ancient artifacts instead of just market traders, but neither would be admitted to the halls of Charisat’s academia: Sagai is a foreigner from another city, and Khat is a “krisman” – a different breed altogether.

The Kris are mostly human, having been genetically engineered by the Ancients to survive in the Waste, the large arid and desolate area that replaced the sea and destroyed the Ancients’s way of life. The impetus for this cataclysmic event is a mystery to current inhabitants of the world, who are trying to piece together the fragments of text and objects they find to determine what happened and perhaps even to replicate aspects of the Ancients’s clearly more advanced civilization.

[The Waste seems a bit like a volcanic area, and the relics traded are quite evocative of those of Pompeii. But Wells’s world-building goes way beyond known references. Nevertheless, readers can clearly envision the landscapes she creates despite their alien nature.]

As the story begins, Khat is hired by a Warder, a mage from the ruling class, to help locate particular relics the mages believe will further their quest to find the key to Ancient magic. Khat is reluctant, but one doesn’t easily refuse the powerful. He guides a group to the Waste to the site of one of the Remnants – mysterious structures that may yield clues.

In the course of the journey, the group is attacked by Waste pirates, and Khat helps the Warder escape. The two become close, and work together to defeat all the forces arrayed to stymie their efforts and destroy them as well.

Evaluation: Wells’s world-building is outstanding, but it is the protagonists who make this author’s works so appealing. As in her later books, Wells has created endearing characters who manage to have integrity and nobility even in the midst of violence and cruelty. I found this book, like the others by her I read, to be both intellectually and emotionally rewarding.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Tor, 1995

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Kid Lit Review of “By and By: Charles Albert Tindley the Father of Gospel Music by Carole Boston Weatherford

This book tells the story in rhyming verse of Charles Albert Tindley, who was a self-educated Methodist minister and “the Father of Gospel Music.”

Tindley was born in Maryland in 1851 to a slave father and a free mother, so he himself was spared from slavery by law. His mother died when he was young, and he was hired out to farms, where he grew to love the words of the Bible that he heard chanted in spirituals by his fellow field workers. Weatherford writes in Tindley’s voice: “I yearned for more – to read the Word.”

Art from the book, “By and By: Charles Albert Tindley, The Father of Gospel Music,” features Tindley as a boy. Partial text from the story page reads, “The church folk were all wearing shoes. My soiled feet hid beneath the pews.” Image courtesy of Simon & Shuster.

The desire to know more about his faith led Tindley to become self-educated, learning to read from scraps of newspapers and walking miles to receive lessons from anyone who would teach him. His quest continued after he moved to Philadelphia, taking night classes while working multiple jobs. Tindley was finally able to pass the test that enabled him to qualify for ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church by virtue of his high-ranking scores.

Art from the new children’s book, “By and By: Charles Albert Tindley, The Father of Gospel Music,” features an empty table but a faithful prayer: “Just remember, in His Word,
How He feeds the little bird—Knock, knock: neighbor brought a meal, Proving miracles are real.” Image courtesy of Simon & Shuster.

In 1902, Tindley became the pastor of East Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, the same church at which he had been a janitor. Under his leadership, the church grew rapidly from the 130 members it had when he arrived, growing over time to a multiracial congregation of 10,000. The congregation had to build a bigger meeting place. [After his death, the church was renamed “Tindley Temple.” The Tindley Temple United Methodist Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.]

In 1901, Tindley had begun composing hymns, popularized when he became a pastor through his booming voice, enthusiasm, and talent. The hymns he wrote include “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There” and “I’ll Overcome Some Day” which inspired the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” Five of his hymns appear in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal. Lyrics from some of his hymns are included in the text as italicized lines, such as his lines from “Stand by Me”:

“When I do the best I can,
And my friends misunderstand,
Thou who knowest all about me,
Stand by me.”

Art from the book, “By and By: Charles Albert Tindley, The Father of Gospel Music”, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Bryan Collier. The story page includes the text, “I still heard spirituals of long ago, Remembered how they moved me so. Hardships woven into hymns I wrote—Every lyric, every note.” Image courtesy of Simon & Shuster.

Multiple award-winning illustrator Bryan Collier tells us in a note that he grew up only thirty miles south of where Tindley was born, and is quite familiar with Tindley; in fact, he relates, every year “Tindley Day” is celebrated in his home town. Collier employs dramatic and vivid two-page mixtures of watercolors and collage. His stunning imagery enhances the text, adding unique touches such as snippets of book pages and sheet music to the background as Tindley continues to learn and grow.

An author’s note and illustrator’s note follow the text as well as a list of popular Tindley hymns, a brief bibliography, and a guide to further resources. One of the books referenced is another book for children, I See the Rhythm of Gospel by Michele Wood that explores the historical, cultural, and spiritual influences that produced gospel music. There is also a link that leads you to a short video produced by the Tindley Temple telling the story of Tindley’s life.

It is worth repeating the remarks of Rev. Robert L. Johnson, of today’s Tindley Temple:

“We lose so much of our history and so much of who we are. And our generations to come need to understand that this belongs to you. I heard a kid sing the other day, ‘By and By.’ He had no idea that ‘By and By’ was a Tindley hymn. When I told the young man, and I brought him in here [to the Tindley Temple], the first thing he said was, ‘Wow. I walk by it every day and I never knew it was here.’ And people who don’t understand the history really can’t respect it. But when you understand it, you respect it and you hold it a little bit closer to your heart.”

Evaluation: Weatherford, author of over forty books, many of which have been award-winners, wields her reliably good talent in emphasizing the struggles, persistence, and courage of historical figures who deserve more attention.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2020

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