Kid Lit Review of “Shlemiel Crooks” by Anna Olswanger, A Passover Story

This adorable story, based on a true incident that happened in 1919 to the author’s great-grandparents, is told in the style of Yiddish folktales. The author’s great-grandfather, Reb Elias Olschwanger, had an establishment in St. Louis that sold kosher wine, brandy, and cognac for use on the Jewish Sabbath and on Jewish holidays. He was the only seller of kosher wines, so he and his store were important fixtures in the community.

On February 21, 1919, the St. Louis Jewish Record reported that thieves tied to steal several barrels of brandy and beer. (A photocopy of the article is included at the back of the book.). As Olswanger tells it, “the two crooks – potatoes should sprout in their ears – were stealing crates of Passover wine shipped special that year to Reb Elias on a boat from the Land of Israel.”

In the course of explaining what happened, Olswanger retells the story of Passover – also in a humorous way, “in case you haven’t been reading the book of Exodus in the Bible lately…”

The crooks – “a trolley car should grow in their stomachs” – were about to make off with the wine when they were yelled at by neighbors, and they got scared and ran off:

“How scared? I’ll tell you. They ran away like their pants were on fire and left Reb Elias’s wine sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, not to mention their horse and wagon in the street.”

We learn that Reb Elias was so grateful he placed an ad in the St. Louis Jewish Record to wit:

“Elias Olschwanger wants to thank all his friends on Fourteenth and Carr streets who stopped the no-good crooks from stealing his wine. Don’t worry, he’s still got a fine stock of full and half-bottles of Land of Israel wine and brandies for Passover. Also, now he’s delivering in a horse and wagon, you shouldn’t have to come to him, you’re so busy. Only, in case the shlemiel crooks come back for the horse and wagon, you could order now maybe? E. Olschwanger, Liquor Company, 1028 N. 14th Street.”

Colorful woodblock print illustrations by Paula Goodman Koz feature plenty of historical details.

Some of the details about Passover and references to the Talmud may need explanations for the recommended audience of four and over, but will provide an opportunity for adults to offer children an amusing take on this Bible story.

Evaluation: Readers of all ages, including adults, will appreciate the humor and the message of “divine justice” in this story.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Junebug Books, an imprint of NewSouth, Inc., 2005

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | Leave a comment

Women’s History Month Kid Lit Review of “Sweet Justice: Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott” by Mara Rockliff

This is the second picture book for kids I have read that tells the true story of Georgia Gilmore, whose sales of baked goods helped nourish the famous Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. (The other is called Pies from Nowhere by Dee Romito.) The boycott began on December 1, 1955 after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. (Technically, Parks did not sit in the white section at all; she sat in the front row of the “colored” section and refused to give up her seat to a white when the bus got crowded.)

Georgia already had been avoiding buses for two months before Rosa was arrested on account of the way she had been treated by drivers. Thus Georgia was eager to help with the boycott, and the best way she knew was to take advantage of her skills as a cook. She began selling dinners, including her famous crispy chicken sandwiches, as well as cakes and pies, to generate money to help fund the movement. Then she organized a group of like-minded women to help. The women had to keep their activities a secret though, or they would lose their jobs. Therefore, Georgia recounted, when asked, the women said that the food “came from nowhere.”

Georgia’s employer did find out about her activities, however, after she joined more than 80 people testifying in Martin Luther King’s defense in a trial over the boycott. [City officials obtained injunctions against the boycott in February 1956, and indicted over 80 boycott leaders under a 1921 law prohibiting conspiracies that interfered with lawful business. King was tried and convicted on the charge and ordered to pay $500 or serve 386 days in jail in the case State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr.] Georgia was fired.

Somehow she had to support her six children, whom she was raising on her own. Dr. King advised her to improve the kitchen in her home and start her own business. He even gave her money for pots and pans. Word got around, and even whites came to Georgia’s for the food. Dr. King often came there and brought other civil rights leaders for important meetings. Guests at her home included Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy.

The resistance lasted 381 days and involved an improvised car pool system with 300 cars and dozens of pickup and drop-off locations for African Americans boycotting the buses. Much of the funding came from the Club from Nowhere, which raised so much money it purchased not only gas for the cars to use, but even some station wagons to add to the pool!

On November 13, 1956, U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws requiring segregated seating on public buses, and on Dec. 20, 1956, King called for the end of the boycott. In a wonderful conclusion, the author writes:

“Now, some folks in Montgomery said they had never tasted anything like Georgia’s chicken. Some declared there could be nothing more delicious than her pie. But that night, they tasted justice. And nothing else Georgia cooked up would ever taste so sweet.”

Back matter includes a note on what happened after the boycott, and a long list of sources.

Acrylic illustrations by R. Gregory Christie employ bright colors, serving as a reflection through art of the bold and uplifting events of that heady time when progress was made in civil rights.

Evaluation: This book for readers aged four and up is another welcome addition to materials that bring to light the way ordinary people can find ways to help fight injustice, and can make a big difference in the end.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House Studio, 2022

Georgia Gilmore, via NYTimes

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | 1 Comment

Review of “The Traitor in the Tunnel” by Y.S. Lee

This is the third book in “The Agency” series, a charming blend of mystery and romance set in Victorian England London in the late 1850s.

For the previous six weeks Mary Quinn, now a fully-trained detective with the Agency – a secret spy ring used by the police as well as private clients – has been posted undercover at the palace of Queen Victoria as an upper housemaid. Small ornaments and trinkets were going missing at the palace, and there were no obvious suspects. But after nearly six weeks at the palace, Mary had heard nothing of use about the thefts.

As the story begins, the police come to tell the queen that her 18-year-old son, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, has been involved in a scandal. Albert had been out drinking and carousing with the less than “Honorable” Ralph Beaulieu-Buckworth.

The police stated that Prince Albert and Ralph went to an opium den and an altercation ensued; Ralph was stabbed by a Chinese Lascar named Jin Hai Lang. [A lascar was a sailor or militiaman from the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, the Arab world, British Somaliland, or other land east of the Cape of Good Hope, who was employed on European ships from the 16th century until the middle of the 20th century. You can learn more about Lascars here.]

Mary, overhearing this, was in shock. This was her father’s name, her father who was supposedly lost at sea when she was a small child. Moreover, as she mused in the author’s way of recapping Mary’s background:

“His death was the reason she and her mother had suffered so. The bone-deep cold and perpetual hunger. Her mother’s desperate turn to prostitution, and, not long after, her death. Mary’s own years on the streets, keeping alive as a pickpocket and housebreaker. The inevitable arrest and trial, and the certainty of death – so very close that she’d all but felt the noose about her neck. And then, miraculously her rescue. The women of the Agency had given her life anew. Mary Lang, the only child of a Chinese sailor and an Irish seamstress, was gone forever. She’d been reborn as Mary Quinn, orphan. Educated at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. Trained as an undercover agent. An exciting, hopeful, active life had lain before her. Until this morning.”

Lang will presumably be executed as a traitor, but Mary is determined to find out first, if he is in fact her father, and second, if he is really guilty. With chutzpah and imagination she manages to do all that while at the same time, solving the mystery of the missing items, as well as reuniting with James Easton, the handsome engineer with whom she collaborated in previous books.

Evaluation: The author takes the unusual and courageous step of making the plot realistic rather than romanticized. Mary’s love/hate exploration of her identity (as a hated “half-breed”) is well-done, the history integrated into the story is interesting, and the chemistry between James and Mary is sparkling. The intrigue and tension-building will keep readers turning the pages. I look forward to the next book in the series.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2012

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | Leave a comment

Women’s History Month Kid Lit Review of “Nellie vs. Elizabeth: Two Daredevil Journalists’ Breakneck Race Around the World” by Kate Hannigan

In 1889, two women journalists set out to beat the elapsed time of Jules Verne’s (fictional) 80-day trip around the world. Nellie Bly, age 25, and Elizabeth Bisland, 28, working for the New York World and Cosmopolitan Magazine respectively, left New York in opposite directions to make the trip. Nellie Bly did not actually know another woman was racing her until she learned of it in Hong Kong.

The story recounts highlights from the trips of each woman, comparing and contrasting their experiences. The two women were dazzled by what they saw.

From Asia, Nellie Bly wrote, “If I loved and married, I would say to my mate: ‘Come, I know where Eden is’ . . . and desert the land of my birth for Japan.” In the Arabian desert, Elizabeth Bisland marveled, “I may never see this again, this world, where . . . the light of night and of day have a new meaning; where one is drenched and steeped in color and perfume . . .”

Nellie made it first, after “seventy-two days, six hours, and eleven minutes.” Elizabeth encountered weather problems on the ocean, “and finally drifted into New York’s harbor nearly one week later.” But she cheered for Nellie Bly.

The author contends that the true winner was “Everyone! Because Nellie and Elizabeth made the wide world suddenly feel smaller. And they showed that women – whether outgoing or introverted, rough-edged or refined – could be just as curious, capable, and courageous as any man.”

Elizabeth Bisland on a ship’s deck during her around-the-world race, via New York Public Library Archives

The book includes brief and enthusiastic quotations from periodicals at the time. It ends with an Author’s Note, Illustrator’s Note, photos, and timelines relating to other women investigative journalists.

Illustrations by Rebecca Gibbon reflect the historical research she put into the story.

Evaluation: Readers aged 7 and over will enjoy the breathless pace of the narration as the women race each other to set a record, and to show the world that women can do it all.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Calkins Creek, 2022

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | 3 Comments

Review of “Benjamin Rush” by Harlow Giles Unger

American history tends to emphasize the lives of a select group of Founding Fathers and largely ignore others. Benjamin Rush falls into the latter category, but as Unger documents, this neglect is unjustified.

Benjamin Rush was born on December 24, 1745, near Philadelphia. He completed medical training at the University of Edinburgh, and practiced for a while in London, where he became friends with Benjamin Franklin. When he returned to Philadelphia to work, his ties to Franklin helped him establish relationships with many leading thinkers in the American colonies.

Rush encouraged Thomas Paine to write the pamphlet, “Common Sense,” suggested the title to Paine, contributed ideas for its contents, and helped distribute it. Rush was one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, an act of treason at that time that could have gotten him executed.

Thomas Paine

In 1776 at age 31, Rush married 16-year-old Julia Stockton, with whom he eventually fathered 13 children, although four died shortly after birth. (One of his sons, Richard, born in 1780, later served in the cabinets of James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor.) Since Rush was away a lot on either medical or political duties, much of what we know of his life comes from his voluminous correspondence with Julia.

During the Revolutionary War, Rush clashed with just about everyone in power over the need for better medical supplies and treatment of injured soldiers, but since George Washington couldn’t even get clothes or food for the troops, “luxuries” such as medical care inevitably fell by the wayside.

Rush was a devout Presbyterian, and his religious faith led him to join the abolitionist movement in Philadelphia, and to help raise money for the African Episcopal Church of Philadelphia.

African Episcopal Church of Philadelphia, 1829 via Wikimedia Commons

Unger apprises us that Rush made a great deal of innovations in medicine in the early years of America, including a campaign to treat mental conditions as illnesses rather than crimes (Rush was later dubbed the “father of American psychiatry” by the American Psychiatric Association); a push for geriatric medicine; and encouragement of veterinary medicine, inter alia. He fought for better conditions in prisons, more sanitation in city streets, education for women, and free medical care for the poor. He was appointed to a professorship to the Philadelphia Medical School (which later merged with the University of Pennsylvania Medical School), and wrote the first American chemistry textbook (one of over 85 publications, not including letters and essays).

Rush met John Adams in 1774 and they became close friends, despite the fact that Rush was also close to Jefferson – Adams’s ideological opposite, whom Rush met in 1775. Late in life, Rush convinced Jefferson and Adams to reconcile and to begin to correspond with one another again.

Adams, Rush, and Jefferson

Unger spends a great deal of time in the book on Rush’s devotion to the practice of bloodletting for the treatment of just about anything, but especially yellow fever, which was particularly a problem in the hot Philadelphia summers. Rush drew an association between pools of stagnant water and the disease, but had no idea it was the mosquitoes drawn to the water that caused the malady; rather, he thought it was due to inhaling the bad air from the stagnant water. Nevertheless, by his advocacy for better city sanitation, he inadvertently helped eliminate some mosquito breeding grounds. But his obsessive push for bleeding as well as purging of the bowels through calomel (a mercury compound) garnered him vociferous opponents. This “depletion therapy” was based on his belief that all diseases were caused by friction between the blood and blockage of bile in the intestines. Rush was dogmatic, determined, and convinced he had been chosen by God to save people.

An article for the Lancaster Pennsylvania Medical Heritage Museum by Eli Schneck notes:

“His excessive bloodletting and heroic purges with calomel were so extreme that his patients died before they showed signs of mercury poisoning, leading him to believe that people were dying of the disease instead of prescription cure.”

One persistent critic, William Cobbett, published relentless attacks on Rush and his treatment in his newspaper, “Porcupine’s Gazette.” In 1799, Rush brought a successful libel suit against Cobbett.

He thereby survived (however unjustifiably) the attacks on his credibility and continued to teach depletion theory as standard medical practice. Schneck writes:

“As a gifted lecturer and prolific writer, his theory of medicine spread across the United States and Western Europe. He influenced over 3,000 students at the College of Philadelphia Medical School over the course of his 40 years of teaching. His students and writings are responsible for the infamous heroic age of medicine where patients were bled and purged with a ferocity and horror never seen before in medicine.”

Campus statue of Dickinson College founder Benjamin Rush

Thus, in 1799, when former President George Washington became ill with an acute respiratory illness, his death was hastened by the removal of over eighty ounces of blood (some 40% of the total blood composition) from his body.

Rush died on April 19, 1813, of “typhus,” which in those days was a rather generic term and could have been pneumonia.

Evaluation: Rush’s legacy is interesting and complex. Unger obviously admires Rush a great deal. But as Baylor Medical Professor Robert North opined:

“Benjamin Rush has been hailed as ‘the American Sydenham’ [Thomas Sydenham was an influential English physician in the 1600s], ‘the Pennsylvania Hippocrates,’ the ‘father of modern psychiatry,’ and the founder of American medicine. The American Medical Association erected a statue of him in Washington, DC, the only physician so honored. A medical school is named after him. He was a prolific and facile writer and a very influential teacher. Yet, the only enduring mark he has left on the history of American medicine is his embarrassing, obdurate, messianic insistence, in the face of all factual evidence to the contrary, on the curative powers of heroic depletion therapy. Rush’s thinking was rooted in an unscientific revelation as to the unitary nature of disease, which he never questioned. He viewed nature as a treacherous adversary to be fought on the battleground of his patients’ bodies.”

It is presumably because of his controversial medical career that his many contributions to the early political development of the country have been overlooked. Thanks to Unger, a prolific historian of the founding fathers, this omission may be remedied.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Da Capo Press, an imprint of Hachette Books, 2018

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | Leave a comment