School will be out soon, so I wanted to recommend a couple of books for teens and pre-teens: Drawn and The London Eye Mystery. Both take place in England, a favorite destination for me and a lot of travelers.
DRAWN by Marie Lamba
Young Adult Time Travel, 2012
Michelle DeFreccio, an American teenager just moved to England, is a talented and sensitive artist. Her father has started teaching at an upscale English academy, which Michelle now attends. She hopes to start over without the baggage of her past, namely her “psychic” mother and schizophrenic brother and the label De-Freak-O.
But life in England has its own challenges. As an American, she’s not always sure how to navigate the social divide within her school. More troubling are the pictures she finds herself sketching of a young man in Medieval garb, a young man named Christopher who refuses to stay on the page. Before Michelle knows it, she is drawn into the past where her presence changes things, not always for the better. Worse, she’s in love with a man who died long ago and there’s nothing she can do to save him. Or is there? She tries to figure out what happened in the past in order to change things, sometimes with terrible consequences.
I was so impressed by this book. I was utterly “drawn” into it by the great story and wonderful writing. One of the best YA novels I’ve read in recent years. Five stars.
THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY
by Siobahn Dowd
Middle Grade mystery, Random House, 2007
Ted Sparks is budding meterologist who sees the world through the language of the weather. A 12-year-old genius, Ted also suffers with high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome. His brain is wired differently than most people’s which allows him to see connections between things and people that others miss.
This comes in handy when his 13-year-old cousin, Salim, disappears while riding the London Eye. Salim and his mother, Aunt Gloria, come to town to visit with Ted, his parents and his older sister Kat, often referred to by Ted as Katastrophe. Salim and Aunt Gloria are on their way to live in New York, but Salim doesn’t want to go. Is his disappearance from the Eye a crime or the ill-fated prank of a disgruntled teenager?
Ted and Kat work together (somewhat reluctantly at times) to solve the mystery of Salim’s disappearance and are surprised to find that they make a good team. Ted may be the genius, but Kat is pretty smart, too, in a more practical way.
Ted’s narration is a delight. I love his voice and the interesting and strange connections he makes in his brilliant mind. Though he doesn’t have good social skills, he tries to learn appropriate responses, and his quirks become endearing to the reader. Very enjoyable read.
American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
by Colin Woodard
I reviewed this book 4-5 years ago, but in this unusual and contentious 2016 election cycle, I thought it warranted revisiting.
Why is the United States of America such a fractious and divided nation? Woodard claims it is because we are not one nation, one culture, but a federation of ten different regional cultures. (The eleventh nation is the relatively new First Nation in Canada. While he occasional references Canada, the book is primarily about the US.)
The problem goes back to the early European settlements in North America, which were begun by several different countries – Spain, France, Holland and Britain – in widely separated areas and at different times in history. He bases his sociological ideas on the doctrine of “first viable settlement” which posits that the culture of a region takes on the characteristics of the first group to establish a self-perpetuating society, no matter how small the original group had been.
His regional American cultures are, in order of settlement:
El Norte (on both sides of the present American-Mexican border)
New France (Quebec and Southern Louisiana)
Tidewater (Virginia, Maryland and part of Delaware)
Yankeedom (New England plus areas later settled by Yankees)
New Netherland (NYC and northern New Jersey
The Deep South (North Carolina to east Texas)
The Midlands (Pennsylvania and parts of the Midwest)
Greater Appalachia (the “Borderlanders” from the Blue Ridge on westward into Texas)
The Left Coast (Washington, Oregon and Northern California)
The Far West
On his map* Canada is also shown having regional cultures from The Left Coast of BC to the Yankee-influenced Maritimes, though Woodard talks most about Quebec (New France) and First Nation.
There is a lot of information in this book, more than I can explain in a review, but it’s quite readable, and I found it interesting and persuasive. For one thing, his regional culture theory explains why parts of the country are the way they are and why they cause so much amusement and/or consternation in the rest of the country. Most importantly, he goes into what each culture values in terms of the balance of freedom and order, individual rights versus communal needs. And it explains why it is so hard for us to find a compromise position on much of anything. If there is one overriding theme, it is the historical struggle between Yankeedom and the Deep South, both aided by shifting alliances with the other regions, for control of the nation, which culminated in the Civil War but still goes on today.
Some of this was familiar territory, as Woodard builds on earlier works like David Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, which I read and enjoyed years ago. But I learned some new things as well, for instance, the reasons for the (to me) odd combination of Libertarianism and Corporatism found in the Far West. (Basically, the climate and geography of the region were too rugged for individuals to truly succeed on their own. Corporate and government intervention was required to make the land livable.)
As a history nut, I found the book both fascinating and insightful. The one time the nation really came together as one was during World War II, but even there, reasons for supporting the war varied. I think this passage is very telling:
Borderlanders fought for the traditional Scots-Irish reason: to avenge an attack by defeating their enemies on the field of battle. The Tidewater and Deep Southern elite… wished to uphold U.S. “national” honor and to defend their Anglo-Norman brethren across the sea. Pacifist Midlanders backed the war as a struggle against military despotism, while Yankees, New Netherlanders, and Left Coasters emphasized the anti-authoritarian aspect of the struggle. Residents of El Norte and the Far West embraced a war that showered their long-neglected regions with federal largesse.
What a war, something for everyone!
I had wondered if our present culture wars were mostly a generational problem that would go away once the Baby Boomers died off. After all, we are a generation of Happy Warriors. But it appears the problem is of much longer standing. Woodard offers no solution to the problem, for there is no easy answer here, even acknowledging that the breakup of the country is not unthinkable. A greater understanding of our differences could help, especially if we can recognize that those who don’t agree with us are not necessarily idiots or scoundrels, only people with differing values and beliefs. The trick is finding ways to compromise on policy without compromising principles.
In any case, Woodard urges an open and honest political debate, concluding with: “The United States needs its central government to function cleanly, openly, and efficiently because it’s one of the few things binding us together.” Unfortunately, that is not working optimally, as we’ve seen in the argument over whether or not the president should nominate someone to fill Justice Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court. Our federal government is currently as dysfunctional as I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve been around for a while!
Woodard has a new book released yesterday: American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good, which apparently continues the discussion. I’ll probably break down and buy it, despite the $14.99 price tag for the e-book.