Monthly Archives: February 2021

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, was not feeling well. She was lying on a pallet on the floor, slick with feverish sweat, and eleven-year-old Hamnet was the only one home. He ran all over the house, then all over the village, looking for his family, finally calling for the village doctor, but he couldn’t find anyone to help. His father, Will, was in London working with his theater troupe, and he only visited them a couple of times a year. Eventually, Hamnet gave up hope and went home to check on Judith. She was no better, so he curled up next to her on the pallet and went to sleep.

Agnes was working with her bees. Her brother had sent word that the hive was swarming, and no one controlled the bees quite like his married sister. Their mother, too, had had a way with the natural world. They say she walked out of the woods one day and charmed their father, gave him children over the years, and then went back to the wilderness. Now, Agnes was a healer. She grew herbs and put together cures for all the people who stopped by their window. She had never expected to live in the town, along with her playwright husband’s family, and then, over the years, their own children, all in one house with a glove-making shop attached. She missed Will. He had been gone for a long time now, but she knew he was happy writing and performing for the London crowds.

The shock and dread that greet the family members as they all return home takes the length of this beautiful novel to tell. O’Farrell alternates between the tragic fate of Hamnet and the story of Will and Agnes Shakespeare’s courtship and marriage, leading up to this crisis and then beyond. Agnes is a mysterious, yet sympathetic, main character. She remains unmoved by social norms, and is motivated only by her love for her family and the guidance of her heart.

The storytelling in this novel is breathtaking. The reader will be lost in the 16th century, living in historic plague years during a very present pandemic. O’Farrell’s anatomy of a romantic relationship is generous and realistic, allowing space for these two very different people to grow into themselves without losing each other. She takes many pages to tell the critical scene, during which I cried so hard that my dog climbed into my lap to comfort me and my husband patted my arm with a worried expression. The writing was just that intense. So, yes, bring your tissues, but also your sense of wonder.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library ebook of this novel. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Black History for Children

Here are two new, exceptional nonfiction works for kids that are great reads anytime, but particularly in February.

Jump at the Sun, by Alicia D. Williams

Zora loved to listen to the grownups telling stories down at the general store. Mama would send her on a ten-minute errand, and after an hour of waiting, she’d have to call the girl back home. After a while, Zora became well-known for her storytelling, or, as her Daddy called it, lying. But Mama approved of her stories, and she always told Zora to “jump at the sun!”

After her Mama died and her preacher father went on the road, he put her in boarding school where Zora spent her time reading everything she could. Soon, though, her father remarried and the money dried up, so Zora Neale Hurston spent a decade or more trying to get an education anywhere she could. She went through Howard University and, finally, Barnard College. She was friends with many of the greatest figures of the Harlem Renaissance, especially her best friend, Langston Hughes. For her last project in college, she travelled the South, collecting African American folklore. When she assembled and published those stories, she truly landed on the sun.

Jacqueline Alcántara illustrates this exuberant children’s biography with paintings that dance and jump across each page. She uses colors that convey the humid heat of the South, the excitement of New York, and the hopeful glow of the sun itself.

Zora Neale Hurston went on to become one of America’s greatest writers, probably best known for her classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The fact that she was able to produce such enduring works is all the more amazing for a black woman in the early twentieth century. Everything was stacked against her, but she remembered what her mother told her: “Jump at the sun!”

Unspeakable, by Carole Boston Weatherford

In 1921, Greenwood was a thriving community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The nearby oil wells had created prosperity for all, and Greenwood had hotels and hospitals, great schools and restaurants. The residents had two newspapers to read and libraries to read more. The citizens of Greenwood were well educated and thriving, but not everyone was happy about that, because Greenwood was a completely black community.

Not that the people had a choice. Segregation forced a line down the center of Tulsa, and all of the black residents had to live on one side of the line. Of course, they sometimes had jobs that took them into the white section of town, and on one unforgettable day, a white teenaged girl accused a seventeen-year-old black shoeshine boy of assault. That one spark ignited the tinder of resentment in the white community and exploded into one of the worst race riots the United States has ever seen.

When I first learned of this chapter of our country’s history in Latasha Morrison’s book, Be the Bridge (reviewed here), last summer, I was stunned that I had never known that an entire section of a city was burned to the ground. The violence lasted for sixteen hours and left 300 people dead and 8,000 homeless. Most people left for good. Weatherford leaves out a part that Morrison relates: This is the first and only time that the federal government dropped bombs on its own citizens.

Shortly after writing the review of Be the Bridge, I read that there would soon be a children’s book about this shameful incident in our history. Carole Weatherford Boston is an award-winning North Carolina author who spends the first half of the book describing the good and peaceful life that the residents of Greenwood enjoyed. The brilliant artist Floyd Cooper fills this picture book with his signature oil paintings, depicting first a prosperous neighborhood, and then a tragic massacre. Cooper grew up in Tulsa, and one night his Grandpa Williams told him and his family about a terrible thing that had happened in his past. Now it is time to share that story.

Although descriptions of race riots and massacres make for uncomfortable conversations with our children, it is essential for them to learn about all of our shared history. Ms. Weatherford limits the description to a child’s level in the easy text of the book, and only gives more detail in smaller font in the back matter.

Highly recommended for parents to read with their school-age children.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard

Somewhere in my study of the Sermon on the Mount last year, which lasted for months and kept on evolving, I came to the conclusion that I had to read Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. If one does a lot of reading in a specific field, eventually the same names will pop up over and over, and you begin to get the uncomfortable feeling that everyone else is in on something you’ve missed.

In the first chapter, Willard launches into research studies demonstrating the decline of the church and religion in general, and although the book was written in 1997, we would only see an increase of “nones” and “dones” if the study were conducted today. After setting up his reasons for the book, however, Willard’s writing becomes much more winsome, and he moves into the main points of his thinking.

First, when Jesus spoke of the kingdom, he spoke in the present tense. “The kingdom is among you,” “the kingdom is within you,” and so on. Willard believes that the church will not make disciples if the kingdom is a pie-in-the-sky heaven that is in the future but does not affect our daily life. We must learn to live in the kingdom now.

Secondly, Willard delves more deeply into kingdom living in several chapters on the Sermon on the Mount. There are so many wise insights here, only one of which is that the Beatitudes are not a list of aspirations. Nor do they espouse Salvation by Situation. “Blessed are those who mourn” does not mean that we should seek to be mourners, and Willard deplores centuries of Christian sanctimony that caused people to avoid happiness and laughter by misunderstanding this verse. His teaching on anger and malice—and the chilling difference between the two– is worth the price of the book by itself.

Thirdly, Jesus told us to go and make disciples, but the church seems merely to want to make converts. Willard spends some time exploring discipleship, and in the last chapter, he lays out a practical curriculum on how to become a disciple of Jesus.

This hefty volume of fine print took me almost three months to read, not least because it is so chock-full of startling insights that one can only read a small amount without pausing to consider this latest bit of wisdom. Although it is complex and theologically rich, the entire book is so hopeful and positive that the reader comes away not only knowing God better, but, more importantly, loving God more.

For those who wish to deepen their spiritual journey, this classic book is highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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