fiction · YA

Book Review: What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book lists are so dangerous for my TBR; one quick scroll sends my TBR shooting up to excessive numbers, but it’s always so, so worth it. It was a list of awesome Jewish fiction that had me adding What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018), and despite the oftentimes intense and difficult content, I’m glad I did. This is a gorgeously illustrated book with so much depth and feeling that I feel like I would discover new things on every page every time I reread it.

Young teenager Gerta’s life in Germany was disrupted by the Nazis. Previously, Gerta hadn’t even realized she was Jewish. Now, having lost everything but having survived, she must rediscover who she is- what Judaism means to her, what she wants to be, how she wants to live, what she wants her future to look like, and with whom she wants to spend it. Flashbacks tell the story of her before-life, of her training as an opera singer and how she came to be in the camps, followed by the nightmare of what life there was like. Brace yourselves; this is no gentle read.

Gerta struggles to define who she is when friendly, comforting Lev expresses interest, but attractive Michah makes her heart race. She’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to sing again. How do you rebuild, how do you relearn to be a person again when everything you ever had and almost everything you were was destroyed? What the Night Sings is a story of devastation followed by the soft, tentative rebirth of hope that will wrench your heart, bring tears to your eyes, and never let you forget it.

(I loved Lev. Loved him so much. Swooooooooooooon.)

What. A. Book. There were moments when I had to stop and breathe through the story because the details were so horrific and painful (to be expected with any book on the Holocaust, of course; I don’t think that any book set during this time period needs a separate content warning). Ms. Stamper’s writing is so fluid and so immediate that the reader is placed directly in the story with Gerta, living each painful moment and feeling the uncertainty of indecision. While Gerta’s story is specific to the time period she lived in, her story- needing to rebuild your life after everything changes- is universal, and this is further illustrated in the author’s note at the end (I won’t spoil this for you, but she’s got a really neat story).

Ms. Stamper’s art style is stark and lovely and fits this story perfectly. My own recent dabbling with art has made me appreciate artists’ skills even more, and I deeply enjoyed the illustrations in this book. I’m looking forward to reading more from her; my library has her other book, and she has a new one coming out in 2022, so this makes me extremely happy.

I cannot recommend What the Night Sings highly enough. If you’re looking for a book that will shove your heart through the ringer, yet still leave you full of hope, this book is it.

Visit Vesper Stamper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen

I’m absolutely trying to be better about reading books from my own shelves, but when I ran across a copy of Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen (Scholastic Inc., 2018), it leapt from the library shelf directly into my bag and there wasn’t anything I could do about it, sorry. I read Ms. Nielsen’s A Night Divided in 2018; it’s a novel about life behind the Berlin wall, something I knew very little about, and I was hooked. I was curious to see if her skill from that book transferred to this one (and my goodness, check out this powerful cover!).

Chaya Lindner is Jewish in Poland during the second World War, and she’s on the run, working with the resistance as a courier. She passes easily for Polish and is able to smuggle food, medicine, and papers into the ghettos where her people are struggling to survive and the death counts mount on a daily basis. It’s difficult and dangerous, made more so by the separation from her parents (who seem to have given up on life) and the likely death of her two siblings, but Chaya refuses to give in.

Being teamed up with Esther, an inexperienced courier who doesn’t pass as well as Chaya does and who fumbles often in ways that place their group in danger, doesn’t bode well for Chaya’s hopes of living through the war, but a terrifying new mission is assigned to the two girls: sneak into the Warsaw Ghetto to determine if there’s enough will to launch an uprising there. The risks are massive and their lives are on the line with every breath, but Chaya’s willing to risk it all for her people. Is Esther?

This is pretty close to edge-of-your-seat reading, so if you’re not ready for that right now, hold off. Chaya finds herself in a dicey situation in nearly every chapter; there’s an occasional moment of downtime, but it’s rare and doesn’t allow the reader many breaks, placing you right there beside her, on the run for your life and for the lives of the Jewish people. It’s cold, relentless hunger, murderous Nazis, and indifferent townspeople at every turn. On occasion, Chaya and Esther do run into someone who wants to help, but even that is fraught with fear: are these strangers really helpful, or are they trying to trick the girls into revealing their identities? No one can be trusted outright, and Ms. Nielsen illustrates the exhaustion inherent in living this way on every single page.

Being set where it is, during this time period, and among people fighting with everything they have just to exist, there’s a lot of death in this book: death by starvation, death by disease, murder, and all of it caused by outright cruelty or indifference. Chaya is sixteen but has been forced to abandon every vestige of childhood in her fight to live; I’d put the audience for this book at mature fifth grade on up due to its setting and themes of violence and suffering, but there’s a lot to learn and understand  for all mature readers.

No matter how much I read about this period of time, I don’t ever feel like I understand it, or that I ever will. I understand the townspeople who felt helpless and felt as though there was nothing they could do- I’m sure it’s a similar feeling to how I feel when I read about some of the atrocities our own government commits against both immigrants and citizens alike; I do what I can in terms of contacting legislators and supporting people who can protest (I don’t trust my bad back), but it’s not enough, it’s never enough when human suffering is on the line. I don’t understand not caring, I don’t understand ambivalence, I don’t understand the hatred some people feel for others simply for existing. I don’t know that it’s possible to fully understand something so terrible, but I’m thankful for Ms. Nielsen and other authors who continue to try to understand and who try to help us understand. We’re obviously in dire need of constant reminders these days.

Visit Jennifer A. Nielsen’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Make Do and Mend: Keeping Family and Home Afloat on War Rations (foreword by Jill Norman)

Growing up, some of my favorite books were set during World War II or its aftermath (particularly Back Home by Michelle Magorian; you’ll hear me mention this all the time because it’s such a wonderful book), and all of those books mentioned rationing, the restriction of certain foods and materials because the majority of those items were going to the soldiers and the war effort. Those on the homefront had to learn to make do with what little they were allowed. Clothing and fabric were also rationed, and Make Do and Mend: Keeping Family and Home Afloat on War Rations (foreword by Jill Norman), a collection of British government-issued leaflets instructing the women at home how to make the best of what they had, shows the extent and the hardship of wartime rationing (British rationing was a lot stricter than what the US experienced, something that Rusty, the main character in Back Home, notes on several occasions).

I thought I knew a decent amount about rationing, what with my past reading (and even my reading this year; here’s my review for Ration Book Cookery by Gill Corbishley, which was super fascinating), but this book definitely expanded my knowledge on the subject and shows how much work it really was. The book starts off talking about how women should reinforce the seats of children’s underwear before the children wear them for the first time, and sock heels and toes should be knitted with a double strand of wool, because these are the areas most prone to wear. Collars can be turned, elbows should be patched and reinforced before they show signs of wear, and the insides of pants at the ankle should be reinforced with a small leather strip to prevent wear from rubbing against shoes. When your underwear wears out, save them; you can still patch together a decent pair of underwear from three or four old, holey pairs. Absolutely NOTHING should go to waste, because that’s basically the same thing as stealing from the soldiers and the war effort. Isn’t that an amazing attitude? The book also contains a lot of diagrams on how to mend clothing, including approximately 43782394284932 diagrams on how to darn sock holes. So. Much. Darning.

There are charts that show how many ration coupons each item of clothing would cost (obviously you’d still have to pay for the item, but ration coupons were only for what you were allowed to buy. Out of coupons? You’re out of luck). There were so many rules for using ration coupons; even secondhand items required coupons (for the most part. There were some exceptions). Pregnant women received 50 extra coupons, but they were encouraged to make do with their regular wardrobe if at all possible. And don’t think you could’ve cheated the system by making your own clothing; yarn and fabric (some of it, at least; again, lots of rules here) required ration coupons. Interestingly, this is when ankle socks came into fashion, because they required less yarn.

It wasn’t just clothing that was rationed, though. Coal was rationed and thus women needed to learn to be thrifty with how they cooked and heated their homes. Hot baths were limited to once per week, with no more than five inches of water (so much for a relaxing soak to take your mind off your wartime troubles). They were encouraged to cut hot meals down to a minimum, only heat one room of the house (“Make your kitchen your living room!” one leaflet suggests), and turn the heat off 30 minutes before leaving a room. And if you were going to use your oven at all, you were supposed to cook multiple things at a time in order to cut down on fuel usage. Rationing required a LOT of big-picture thinking.

There were a few things that weren’t rationed: jock straps (!), ballet shoes, shoelaces, suspenders, sanitary belts and napkins (Are you there, God? It’s me, WWII-era Margaret…), and luckily for me, specialty belts for sacroiliac disease (I have sacroiliac joint dysfunction; it’s painful and not very fun). So if you find yourself traveling back in time to Britain in the early to mid-1940s, go crazy with those items!

This book would be a fantastic resource for writers of WWII-era historical fiction, in order to have specifics on rationing. It gave me a few ideas on how to patch a set of sheets that my cats’ claws poked holes in, so I appreciate that. But moreover, it’s inspiration. The women on the homefront had to work so very hard in order to make ends meet; I can probably do a better job as well.

I’m pretty proud of all the things I *do* do to use my resources wisely, though. Case in point: my daughter’s pants I patched earlier this year (and hoooooo boy, did I ever have to do this with my son’s pants when he was younger. Six weeks in a new pair of pants, tops, and he was through the knees. Drove me NUTS). Holes in the knees turned into adorable heart patches. I have another pair of pants to patch right now, as well as the shoulders of a dress, and the shirt she’s wearing today (a plain red henley) has some unsightly grease stains on it, so I’m going to applique…something…on there to cover them up. The rest of the shirt is perfectly fine, so a little bit of decoration should make it wearable for another year or two.

How do you make do and mend? Are you the kind of person who fixes holes in socks, or do you just grab another pack at the store? How do you think you’d handle WWII-era rationing if it were put in place today?

food history · nonfiction

Ration Book Cookery- Gill Corbishley

I’d first learned of wartime rationing when I was young from books like Back Home by Michelle Magorian and Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn, so the concept wasn’t new to me, but Ration Book Cookery by Gill Corbishley gave me a new perspective on it and opened up a door to some serious questions.

This is a small book (see the pen I included in the photo for comparison). It appears to be part of a set of books on food history. It came to me via interlibrary loan and I’m bummed that my home library doesn’t have the complete set, as I would absolutely read the entire thing- the sociopolitical history of food is something that fascinates me. Even though I took two pages of notes, I blew through this tiny book in less than an hour and it left me wanting more- not due to any shortcomings, but simply because the book itself was so short and the subject matter is so interesting.

So, back during World War II, the troops had to be fed and fed well in order to keep up their strength to fight against the Axis powers. This meant sacrifice for the homefront, and those people played their own part in the war effort, changing their diets, growing victory gardens, and making do with what little their ration coupon books offered. Now, while Americans rationed as well, the rationing was much stricter in Britain. ‘What exactly was rationed?’ you’re wondering. Here’s a list:

  • bacon
  • ham
  • sugar
  • butter
  • meat
  • tea
  • margarine
  • cooking fats
  • cheese
  • jam
  • marmalade
  • treacle
  • syrup
  • eggs
  • milk
  • sweets
  • bread
Even fuel was rationed; people were asked to cook in homemade hayboxes (they could be made out of the box your gas mask came in!). Why cook stewed dried fruit for two or three minutes on the stovetop when you could have the same results cooking it in a haybox for…three and a half hours??? Never mind that. It’s for the war effort, ladies! 
The book does contain recipes as examples of what women (because it was mostly women) cooked; I copied down the recipe for Mock Goose, made out of red lentils, onion, and breadcrumbs, as well as a recipe for Eggless Mayonnaise, made out of a baked potato, mustard, salt, vinegar, and salad oil. There are some other interesting recipes, such as a mock marzipan made from white beans and ground rice, and some more questionable-looking recipes, such as Eggless Pancakes made from flour, a pinch of sugar and salt, and an unspecified amount of milk and water; a cake made with mashed potatoes; and mashed parsnips with banana flavoring as a substitute for actual banana, which was in scarce supply. Hard pass for me on that last one.
I learned a lot from this small book. Rationing started in Britain in January of 1940; it didn’t actually end until June of 1954. That’s a long time to modify one’s diet. It did help improve Britain’s health overall, though; before the war, half of Britain suffered from some sort of malnutrition, but with the aid of all that victory garden produce, the cod liver oil (and later orange juice) distributed with the rations, and the cooking suggestions offered by the government in their ‘Rations aid the war effort!’ campaign, malnutrition became less pronounced in the population. The book also contains many examples of government-created posters designed to buoy enthusiasm and support for rationing; they’re actually kind of cute and add a little flavor of history to the pages.
Ration Book Cookery got me thinking this morning. How would we respond to rationing today? I’m coming at this from an American perspective, and I don’t think that it would go over very well here, to be honest. Having worked retail (and having seen far too many arguments go down on social media), consumers here are deeply entitled to what they think they’re owed merely by stepping into a store. If the stores were suddenly empty of Oreos, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and pork rinds (not to mention most other daily staples), and those same customers were instead told to plant a garden, were only allowed a certain amount of meat per month, and were told to make mayonnaise out of potatoes…These are the same people who will gladly trample their fellow human beings to death the day after Thanksgiving over some sort of gadget that the receiver will most likely lose interest in within several weeks, if not sooner. Asking them to give up their normal way of eating for an indeterminable amount of time for something that doesn’t directly affect them? Heck, we can’t even get people to protect their children from deadly diseases for the greater good, as a friend of mine pointed out. I think there’d be at least a few riots, possibly a lot, depending on which political party made the decision to ration. And it saddens me that this is the conclusion I’ve reached.

(Me? I’d be mostly okay. I’m vegetarian; a large amount of what I eat is vegan, so I’d be cool with the lack of animal products. I’m a pretty creative cook and am well-versed in making do with what I have on hand. I’ve made desserts out of multiple kinds of beans; I know many ways to substitute for eggs in baking; I’m happy to garden, although I’d need some help, because summer is typically a nasty time for my back to flare up. And I’m happy to sacrifice for a cause greater than myself. But the people who insist that it’s not a meal without meat? There’d be a huge learning curve for them, and probably not a small amount of complaining. Bread and sugar would be a tougher one for me, but when duty calls…)

What are your thoughts? Could Americans (or people from your country, if you’re from elsewhere) handle WWII-style rationing today? Could you? And do you think it would be implemented the same way? Obviously there would be medical exemptions for people with dietary health concerns (nothing high carb for diabetics, no rations of peanut-based products for those allergic, etc), but could we trust that the rations would be handed out fairly and not in a biased manner? I feel as though some factions would call for something like a zip code-based rationing system, with more resources going to those in wealthier areas (look at the inequality of the school system in the US), but I hope I’d be proven wrong about that. What do you think?