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“Auggh, such a sissy,” taunted my brother as his hard ball ricocheted off my catcher’s mitt, slammed into the swing seat across the yard, and rolled to a standstill on the ground. “You’ll never learn—No matter how hard I try to teach you!” Tears smarted my brown eyes. I wanted so hard to please him, even though any ball hurled in my direction caused me to hold out my hands, shut my eyes, and pray.

That experience still surfaces, but within different packaging. Instead of hard balls whistling through the air, word-projectiles sting, catch me off guard: They hurt, bad.

One example is the language wrapped around infanticide in our country. Last week legislators in the Vermont House voted 106 to 36 to legalize late-term abortions. H0057 states that women have the right to elective abortions up until birth and strips away rights of unborn babies. “A fetus shall not have independent rights under Vermont law,” so the law blithely states.

So what has happened to words, enervated of substance, homogenized for the unthinking? As long as words conform to the script of the image-makers, they pass for truth.

To return to the Vermont legislators and their heinous bill—I shudder. Every sentence evidences their jaundiced spiritual faculties, their woeful lack of imagination. Visualize their gall in spearheading this nascent effort to influence other state legislatures to do similarly.

Happily, I no longer shut my eyes and pray when nasty word-projectiles sting. They keep me fully awake and I must respond.

 

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Tikkun olam, a centuries-old Hebrew mandate to repair the world through practices of truth and loving kindness, breathes on every page of David R. Gillham’s historical novel, Annelies (January 2019). Such motivates Anne Frank, also called Annelies, and her family living in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and its aftermath. Their moral rectitude is rife with lessons for us.

For six years Gillham researched three versions of Anne’s diary, numerous biographies of her, transcripts of those who knew the Franks, and Holocaust histories. Twice, he visited Amsterdam and walked in her footsteps, even to Westerbork, their first internment camp in the north. Thus equipped, he plunges us into the crassness, the betrayals, the smells, the heartbreak, and the staggering hardships blistering the Netherlands. The chapters burn with unrelenting tension.

Instead of Anne perishing in Bergen Belsen, however, Gillham has her return to family friends on Jekerstraat 65 where she meets her father Pim who also survived the camps. What follow is an admixture of historical fact and the author’s imaginative rendering of this spirited young woman; her adolescence torn asunder, she rages against Pim and his decision to move on with his life, rather deal with the brutality both had experienced. Her fury even entrains the emaciated ghost of her sister Margot who spars with her as she did when living. Only Anne’s diary and notes from her twenty-five months spent in the Annex finally restore her identity as a writer, her way of practicing Tikkun olam into adulthood.

Through Annelies, Gillham also honors the young who perished in the camps, thereby impoverishing generations of their talents.

There’s much to learn here.

 

 

Wrapping story around horrific events disseminates their skeletal outlines into bite-sized pieces for readers’ assimilation and learning.

 

Such an event occurred the night of January 30, 1945, during a freezing snowstorm upon the Baltic Sea. The Soviet submarine S-13 torpedoed the German transport ship, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, nine hours into its passage. On board were 10,000 refugees fleeing from the Russian and Allied offensive. Only one thousand survived.

For three years the author Ruta Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee from World War II, researched this disaster until, in her imagination, Salt to the Sea (2016) was conceived. The story unfolds, piecemeal, through four characters: Joanna, a twenty-one-year old Lithuanian nurse; Florian, a seventeen-year old East Prussian preservationist and restorer of works of art; Emilia fifteen-years old, Polish and eight months pregnant; and Alfred, a seventeen-year old delusional German seaman assigned to the Wilhelm Gustloff.

Like a skilled minimalist painter, Sepetys reveals more by what she leaves out. Her precise words have dropped depth charges upon this reader’s psyche, its rumble evoking a slow burn and profound feelings for the characters.

Salt to the Sea, an historical novel, also leaves me with questions. In seventy years, will anyone be writing of today’s refugees caught within the crosshairs of greedy global politics? Since when has it been all right to minimize the losses of the poor, even their lives?

All of this cries out to God.

 

 

 

Available on Amazon

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