A few things came into my head tonight that I thought might be interesting to others.
First, I recently read the Book Smugglers’ review of Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein because Code Name Verity was so good and because I have no intention of reading her new book, but at the same time I also wanted to know more about it and readers’ reactions to it. (I don’t read Holocaust fiction. If I read about the Holocaust, my preference is non-fiction because the actual events are so horrific I cannot immerse myself in fiction without thinking about the real people who survived or did not survive what other people did to them. Actually, I generally can’t read fiction about war, US slavery, genocide, ethnic cleansing, famines or rape for the same reasons. I read non-fiction on these topics judiciously and sparingly and only when I have enough spoons.) This is what Thea of the Book Smugglers had to say at the end of her review (bold mine):
Rose Under Fire is one hell of a book. It’s a powerful, emotionally resonant historical novel about remembering and about surviving, and I truly appreciate and value that. That said, it’s also a story about a war that ended nearly 70 years ago. It’s also a story narrated by a beautiful, young, privileged, white girl who literally flies into a terrible situation. Please understand that I am not disparaging or arguing against the value of the rich canon of literature about the Holocaust, or the set of circumstances facing heroine Rose. I am simply saying this: there are so many wars, atrocities, even genocides that have happened in the last 70 years, and that are still happening now. Those truths and those stories are hardly represented today – much less in YA literature. And perhaps this doesn’t belong here in this review, but it’s something I am acutely conscious of, and I vow to do as much as I can to change this. Because I am inspired by Rose’s story and by this book, because I think it’s important to talk, to remember, and to experience that truth through storytelling, I vow to read and review books from other, more contemporary wars, from characters and authors other than that of the white, the privileged, the American and Western European. (I think I’ll start with Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick, or A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah…)
So, there’s that, which I totally agree with.
I’m also reading Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz. I’m up to the section on famines. The author brings up the Irish Potato Famine, the famine of the Great Leap Forward in China, and the famine in Greece during Nazi occupation in WWII. And I’m conflicted. Why those three famines? One very well known to Western readers, one less well known (to me, China) and one slightly obscure (again to me, Greece), and all also 70 years behind us. What about the North Korean famine and the ongoing food aid the country receives to this day? Or Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia? (Like Thea, I feel I have to make the disclaimer. Just apply hers here, too.) The author does not tell us the reason she picked those three famines to discuss.
She goes on to say that mobility, food aid and sustainable use of agricultural land are essential to preventing famines and that “Famines and their accompanying pandemics are problems that we’ve been trying desperately to solve for hundreds of years.” (p 113). And that last part is where I disagree, where I think she dodged her own thesis. Famines are created. They are created by political will, either as the intended objective (as I understand it: North Korea, Stalin’s Great Famine, the Greek famine mentioned in the book) or as the unintended but acceptable (as collateral damage) effect of a different objective (The Great Leap Forward, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, the Irish Potato Famine). Some people may have been trying desperately to solve the problem of famine; others have deliberately pursued famine as a means to an end.
These two reading experiences came together for me and reminded me, once again, that it is SO hard for us to confront the atrocities that are happening right now, in our lifetimes, and it is especially easy when the people suffering Don’t Look Like Us, for a value of “us” that is the dominant one.
How many movies and books have been made in the US about the Holocaust? Compare that to how many books and movies, with the same popular appeal and reach, have been made about US slavery? We in the US live with the after-effects of slavery every day. It is inherent in our gun laws, in who can easily vote, in whose bodies are a battleground, who has access to education and health care, in every aspect of our laws and social institutions. The Holocaust was a terrible thing. Many people continue to live with its after-effects. But it is easier to say it’s over, the Nazis lost, besides, they were German anyway and that’s far away and long ago. If we looked, really looked at the legacy of slavery in this country, we would have to admit it’s not over and it’s not long ago.
I don’t have answers. I have questions. I struggle almost every day with the knowledge that my electronics, clothing and food were produced by slave labor–much of it the labor of children. I struggle with sexism and racism and so many more issues.
Like Thea I want there to be more books about all these things. Even if I personally am not going to read them, because at least they’d be part of our world view, part of the discourse, part of what’s in the public eye.