Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Blood Lie a realistic tale of bigotry, forgiveness

The Blood Lie
It’s September 22, 1928, and sixteen-year-old Jack Pool is itching to leave his small town in upstate New York. A talented cellist, he has an audition at the Bentley School of Music in three days. Acceptance to the elite boarding school will be his ticket out of Massena. It will also mean leaving behind the girl that he knows he can never have: Jack is Jewish, and Emaline Durham is Christian.
            In the opening pages of “The Blood Lie: A Novel,” by Shirley Reva Vernick (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011), we learn the connection between the two: their mothers had become friends as newlywed brides recently moved to Massena. The mothers’ unlikely friendship—and a such a close relationship between Jewish and Christian women was unlikely in a small town at that time—spawned a friendship between their children as well. But when Emaline’s four-year-old sister Daisy goes missing after playing with Jack’s little sister, Jack finds himself the prime suspect in her disappearance.
It is two days before Yom Kippur, the holiest and most solemn day of the year for the Jews, and someone in town with a definite interest in the case has revived the centuries-old lie that Jews sacrifice Christian children for their rituals—the blood libel.
“The Blood Lie” is based on a true story, which is described in an author’s note at the end. As a sophomore in college, Vernick was given the assignment of identifying a local controversy—past or present—in her hometown, and writing a paper about the outcome. This is her interpretation of the story that she uncovered.
            Vernick’s afterward also makes the point that the blood libel has not died. Stories of the Jewish sacrifice of Christian children persist, with a 2008 campaign in a Russian city claiming that Jews were “stealing small children and draining their blood to make their sacred bread.”
The book is not without its flaws. I found the ending a bit too abrupt. What’s more, after Daisy was found—safe, if a little unsound—there was speculation that the little girl had been molested, prompting some of the townsmen to vow that they would take their revenge on the Jews. I fully expected a dramatic confrontation, but oddly enough, there was none.
            Still, “The Blood Lie” is an engrossing story of forbidden love, terrifying bigotry, and, eventually, forgiveness. The rabbi in particular has some graphic remembrances that would be disturbing to younger readers, but this book is appropriate to middle grade and young adult readers. And honestly? Adults, too. 

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, November 20 edition of The News-Gazette. The review copy was supplied by the publisher. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sasquatch--really? Well, maybe...

I’ve never really thought that Bigfoot, or Sasquatch as it’s sometimes called, is anything more than a myth fueled by a series of clever (or not-so-clever) hoaxes. And so I was more than a little skeptical when I began reading Kelly Milner Halls’ latest book, In Search of Sasquatch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). I knew Halls to be a terrifically talented and prolific writer of nonfiction books for young people (Saving the Baghdad Zoo, Mysteries of the Mummy Kids, and Tales of the Cryptids are some of her better-known books)—but Sasquatch? Really?

Leave it to Halls to make you think just a little differently about your worldview. After reading In Search of Sasquatch, I can’t say that I’m packing to go on a Sasquatch search expedition, but I’m willing to entertain the notion that it may very well exist.

The many people Halls has interviewed for the book include an anthropologist, a linguistic expert, a biologist, and several people who claim to have sighted Sasquatch. While acknowledging that Sasquatch hoaxes abound, she bolsters her argument for the possible existence the mysterious creature by example: for centuries, paleontologists believed that the coelacanth was a long-extinct prehistoric fish—until a living coelacanth was discovered in 1938. Similarly, the giant squid was a thing of Greek legend—until it was discovered in 2004.  

Her text is accompanied by gorgeous illustrations, additional resources, a glossary, and an extensive bibliography and source notes. Kids who are drawn to the weird and wonderful will love this book. So will adults. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Myracle’s New Book “Shines”

When the National Book Foundation called Lauren Myracle to tell her that her book "Shine" (Amulet Books, 2011) was a finalist for the National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category, she was surprised--and thrilled. A short time later, in an unprecedented move, the Foundation added a sixth finalist, Franny Billingsley's "Chime" (Dial Books, 2011). Two days later, Myracle got another call from the Foundation. It seems there had a been a mix-up: the judges had read their list of finalists over the phone, and apparently the Foundation heard "Shine" instead of "Chime." Myracle was asked to remove her book from the list "to preserve the integrity of the award and the judge's work," the author told the New York Times. Myracle was crushed, but agreed to do so. Soon, there was an outpouring of support for Myracle, and Amazon sales of "Shine" skyrocketed. 
            So is "Shine" worthy of being a National Book Award finalist? I haven't read the books on the list yet, so I couldn’t really say. But if they are better than this dark and beautiful novel, then it is a strong field indeed.
            Seventeen year-old Patrick is found near death, strung to the pump of the local gas station where he worked with the nozzle of a gas pump in his mouth and an anti-gay slur scrawled across his chest. The sheriff of his local small North Carolina town is quick to pin the blame on out-of-town gay bashers. But Cat, his childhood friend, suspects that perpetrator is home-grown. Driven by love for her friend and guilt over a past betrayal, she is determined to find Patrick’s would-be-killer, despite the urging of her friends and family to stay out of it. As Cat uncovers the ugly truth about the crime, she confronts her own demons—the demons that caused a rift in her friendship with Patrick and others. Filled with memorable characters, richly atmospheric, "Shine" throws an important light upon anti-gay bigotry and the meth epidemic in rural areas of this country.
Some good has come of the "Shine" debacle. Rather than giving Myracle the $1,000 she would have received as finalist, the National Book Foundation has agreed to donate $5,000 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization that promotes tolerance of gay teens. The foundation is named for a student killed in a notorious anti-gay hate crime in 1998.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, October 30 edition of The News-Gazette.