Friday, March 12, 2010

Serpent In Paradise by Dea Birkett

"We all hold a place within our hearts - a perfect place - which is in the shape of an island. It provides refuge and strength; we can always retreat to its perfection. My mistake was to go there. Dreams should be nurtured and elaborated upon; they should never be visited. By going to Pitcairn, I had vanquished the perfect place within myself." - Dea Birkett

When I was in High School, I read the story of the Mutiny On The Bounty. I found it both interesting – and intriguing – to think of the 102 Pitcairn islanders (at that time), descended for the most part from the mutineers and the Polynesian women who went with them, and the lives they had forged on a tiny outcropping of rock in the South Pacific. I imagined it must be an island paradise to have kept them there for so long. I think that Birkett was correct in her assessment that at some point in our lives we all imagine a place where everything is bliss, a place where we imagine our lives will be happy and whole and fulfilled. This dream is tucked away in our hearts, to be pulled out and savored when life proves disappointing.

Serpent In Paradise is the story of Dea Birkett's belief that she would find the island of her dreams in Pitcairn. It wasn't as simple as hopping a plane; there are no airfields on the island. First, there was the matter of receiving permission to go there. It took two years, and even then it was under pretense. The islanders jealously guarded their privacy. After receiving the necessary documents, she then had to arrange for a place to stay while there. Finally, people arrive by water. With papers in hand, she made her way there after a long slow voyage aboard a vessel which was passing near the island. When the islanders came out to barter and sell their limited produce and handicrafts, she finally caught a ride back to its' rocky shore on one of their longboats.

The paradise she expected to find was not there. She found an island which lacked many of the modern amenities she was used to, where the environment was damaged by improper practices, and where the islanders were a very tightly knit community formed by the long existing presence of the Seventh Day Adventists. Her personality and personal habits went against the sensibilities of many of the islanders. She struck me as clueless and insensitive to the feelings of the people around her. Her actions were often inappropriate and created anger toward her. In the end, she felt threatened and made the decision to leave.

I am certain that Serpent In Paradise has done nothing to mend fences between Birkett and the people of Pitcairn. She frequently gives the names of those involved in the awkward and embarassing situations she describes. She was, though, accurate in one thing. She seemed to perceive a dark secret that existed there. A few years later, there were accusations against several of the men on the island concerning their “relationships” with young girls. After several years of trials and legal wrangling, all but one was found guilty.

The book left me sad. It reminds me that no society is without its' problems, regardless of how small it is. It reminds me that when we go somewhere looking for an unspoiled place, we frequently bring about destruction of its' beauty by our demands. On another level, it also reminds me that there are people who are not content to allow us to live with our dreams.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Spiderwick Chronicles

The story begins with a letter to the authors (Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black) from the Grace children – Mallory, Jared, and Simon. They speak of having found a mysterious old book – a field guide that has given them a vision into an even more mysterious world filled with all kinds of creatures – creatures that they had previously thought existed only in fairy tales and fantasies. Some of these are kindly, others mischievous, while others are quite malevolent. The books (there are a total of five in the set) are the story of the adventures and dangers the Grace children face as they learn to navigate amongst them and attempt to save humans from the threat that exists in this unseen world within our world.

The Grace children are interesting and engaging personalities, easy to identify with and likable. Some of the other characters (Aunt Lucinda was a personal favorite!) and creatures they encounter are quite endearing too. The story flows well and the reading is easy; I finished all five of the books in a day. There are a total of 672 pages in the set, but the pages are small and the font is a little larger than most. This, coupled with an abundance of illustrations, makes them go quickly. (My best guesstimate of the number of pages of actual normal print would be about one third that number - 225 pages.)

I am glad I've read the books. I enjoy well-written fantasy. The illustrations are wonderfully done and the storyline shows considerable imagination. It is a bit predictable at times, but it is written for children after all. The Spiderwick Chronicles would be fun to read with or to children. Having said this, I don't believe they are books for all children. If a child has difficulty separating reality and the imaginary, I believe the vivid images they present could be frightening for them. As for me, when I went to bed that night, I just pulled the covers a little higher and made sure that my hands didn't fall over the side of the bed as I slept. :-)

Sven Hassel - The Legion Of The Damned

Danish-born author Sven Hassel is an enigma. Little seems to be known for sure about his origin. He has written a number of books about World War II. He purports to have been a member of the Wehrmacht, once sentenced to prison in Germany for desertion, and ultimately assigned to a Penal Batallion as a member of a tank crew. As such, he is thrown to the front of every battle. In his story The Legion Of The Damned, he tells of his experiences during the war in most graphic detail. Did these things happen in reality? Were they battle stories gleaned from interviews with German soldiers after the war? Purgative or potboiler? I don't know and I don't care.

As I tried to digest the book after finishing it, I found I had many conflicted feelings. Many of these are feelings that have never been resolved since early childhood. I am 60 years old, a child born of a veteran of World War II in the Pacific. My uncles were veterans also, one of the European Theater and other was involved in the island war in the Pacific. Myself, I am a veteran of the Vietnam era.

As a boy, I had a small collection of baseball cards. My heroes were people like Ernie Banks and Al Kaline. My father had a different kind of collection. As a machinist mate aboard a small supply ship in the Navy, he was stationed in the Aleutians in 1944. The Japanese, having invaded the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska in June of 1942, had evacuated them in July of 1943. He never saw war. His collection, though, was a number of photographs he had kept as souvenirs, pictures of the mutilated bodies of Japanese soldiers and the egregious abuse of these dead by American servicemen. There was no effort to hide these photos; they were kept in the same shoe box that held the memories of birthdays and holidays. He seemed to take perverse delight in my reaction to them, yet never understood why I grew up to become a pacifist. I have often wondered about the source of these horrible photographs. Were they things he had found amongst the possessions abandoned by Japanese soldiers on the islands – given to them by their superiors as proof of the animal-like nature of the American enemy? Or were they someone else's sick idea of trading cards – mass produced and passed around to dehumanize the Japanese enemy in the minds of our servicemen? I don't know and am not sure that I care.

Hassel wrote “War is a bad way of experiencing the heights of life; it leaves you disappointed, and when you come back from it you discover that you have not had any sensible purpose and have lost contact with that to which you have returned; you have become restless, as it is called, and your nerve has gone. That is true both for the victors and the vanquished. Perhaps the tragedy is greater for the victor. He has been victorious, but whom has he vanquished and for what has he conquered? He cannot make heads or tails of it. It was so different when he set out, for then he believed in a simple truth; but that proved to be hopelessly involved once it was stripped of the proud words in which it had been presented to him.” In The Legion Of The Damned, Hassel paints a picture of the hideous nature of war and its' effects on the minds, hearts, and souls of those caught up in it, whether military or civilian.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Since the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, there has not been a declared war in which Americans have fought. Yet, we have lost tens of thousands of Americans in more than a dozen different conflicts and operations. How many more have come back wounded and broken? As I sit here trying to review this book, thoughts of those pictures, the “proud words” that have been spoken to convince people of the rightness of war, and the seemingly endless conflicts swirl in my mind. I think of brave men and women who answer their country's call; still I can't help but wonder whether our leaders have been honest with us. It bothers me that veterans returning from war often do not receive the things or care they need to find healing, to rebuild their lives, or to ensure that they will find the care they need, now and in the years to come. It bothers me when shattered minds are dismissed as pre-existing situations. Is it even possible to return from war unchanged in some way? I don't know, but The Legion Of The Damned reminds us of the reasons we all should care.