…for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

26026063Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk (2016)

Opening line: “The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.”

What a delicious opening line. So much anticipation, so much mystery.

Annabelle is living in rural Pennsylvania amidst the years of WWII, although it’s the earlier war that plays a more significant role in her story. Oldest of three children, Annabelle spends her days quietly wandering the woods and hills by her home, following her boisterous younger brothers to and from school, and occasionally running across Toby, a homeless WWI vet who has taken up residence in an abandoned smokehouse nearby. Though strange and mysterious to most of the townsfolk, Annabelle’s family takes a special interest in Toby, sometimes bringing him food and clothing, and sharing with him the camera Annabelle’s mom won in a photography contest years ago.

Things change in quiet Wolf Hollow, though, when Betty moves to town to live with her grandparents. A few years older than Annabelle, it quickly becomes clear that Betty is a bully. Annabelle is determined not to let Betty get to her, despite her regular threats of violence, but when Annabelle’s youngest brother’s face is cut by a wire deliberately stung across their path, Annabelle feels the need to speak up. Before she gets a chance, though, Annabelle’s best friend Ruth is horribly injured by a thrown rock, and Betty tells everyone she saw Toby throw it.

Annabelle doesn’t believe Betty’s telling the truth, and now she’s adamant to set the record straight before things turn into a witch hunt. But when Betty goes missing, everyone assumes Toby must have something to do with it.

Other reviewers have compared this to To Kill a Mockingbird, and I agree with their assessment. Like Scout, Annabelle is forced to grow up as she struggles with what is right and what is wrong and attempts to prove the innocence of a man who seems unable or unwilling to defend himself. And like Mockingbird and so many other wonderful middle grade and YA stories, I loved the message that age cannot define how much of a difference you can make. As Annabelle put it, “There would always be people who would never hear my one small voice, no matter what I had to say. But… If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?” (p 228).

In addition to the rich language and small moments of magic in the pages, I marveled at the complexity of each of the characters the author presents to us. She shows us that we can never fully know another person’s history — even those whom we dislike — though it never hurts to try.

I loved this one. I hope it becomes a classic. 3 stars.

P.S. That book cover, though, right? Swoon.

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A scandal of creation

Night, by Elie Wiesel (2006, orginally pub. 1958)

A couple days ago, I finally sat down and read Night. We all know of Night, whether or not we have read it. Last year, a friend of mine who was interning in D.C. got to meet Elie Wiesel and received a kiss on the cheek from him and I thought, “Aww, good old Elie Wiesel.” I felt like I knew him, even though I had never read anything he’s written. He’s one of those authors. We all know him, and we all know Night.

Night was one of those books that I always felt I should read, but never got around to it. Perhaps I was sub-consciously putting it off. I mean, who wants to read about suffering so great that death seems preferable? If I read Anne Frank or Devil’s Arithmetic in middle school, do I still need to read this? What will “one more book about the Holocaust” do for me?

But I found a copy of it at my local library’s FriendShop (where books cost between $0.50-$1.50), and thought, “It’s time.”

So one evening last week, I cracked open Night. I am a before-bed reader, always have been, but as I started to read it, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to finish it before going to sleep. It isn’t a restful read. Only 115 pages, broken into short one-or-two-page sections, it’s hard not to read Night in one sitting. I had to stop reading only a little way in, for fear of horrifying dreams I would surely have. I had to finish it the next day, with the sun shining through the windows.

For those of you who don’t know, Night is Elie Wiesel’s memoir chronicling his  time spent in Auschwitz, the famous Polish concentration camp, as fifteen-year-old boy from 1944-45. The story starts in his small village in Transylvania, Sighet, where Wiesel and his family lived. Assured that the rumors they were hearing would not find their way to Sighet, the Wiesels stayed in their home until S.S. officers came to their village and set up Jewish ghettos. Later, those in the ghettos were loaded onto cattle cars and unknowingly taken to Auschwitz. Upon getting off the cattle car, Wiesel and his father were shoved to the left, while his mother and sisters were shoved to the right, marking the last moment Wiesel would see his female relatives. The rest of the story follows Wiesel and his father while they work at Auschwitz III, the labor camp, their march to Gleiwitz (so as to avoid liberation efforts), and their final move to Buchenwald, where Wiesel’s father dies a mere three months before the camp’s liberation. Wiesel does nothing to gloss over what he saw and felt, including the flames of the crematoria, the stench of burning flesh, human waste, and decaying bodies, the life slipping from a child’s eyes as he hangs from the gallows, the pain of a running on a puss-filled foot, the temptation to let his father die…

As I was writing this, I ran across the interview that Oprah conducted with Elie Wiesel in 2006 at Auschwitz on YouTube (split into parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Watching Wiesel talk about his book and his experiences brought me some perspective. Why do we read Night and Diary of a Young Girl ? Why do we watch The Pianist and Schindler’s List? The “scandal on the level of creation” deserves constant recognition, Wiesel reminds us, because it is only then that when we see similar scandals, as we always will, we will “be there to shout, ‘No. We remember.'”

Somehow, I don’t feel right giving Night a rating. Did I absolutely love it? Am I angry that it is over? No, and no. But how can I give it anything but the highest rating? How can I rate a person’s experience?