Month: October 2010

A Writer’s Escapades

Ernest Hemingway: A Writer’s Life
By Catherine Reef
(Clarion Books, New York, 2009, $20.00)

By the time Ernest Hemingway was thirty, he had been an ambulance driver, a war hero, a successful journalist, a bohemian in Paris, a bullfighting expert, and the husband of two women. Over the next thirty-one years, he embraced deep-sea fishing and big-game hunting, married two more women, and participated in the Spanish Civil War. In between these exploits, Hemingway wrote novels, short stories, nonfiction, and even poetry with varying degrees of commercial and critical success. But Hemingway was no jack of all trades, master of none: his minimalist style, widely imitated during his lifetime, still influences fiction writers today. 

In Ernest Hemingway: A Writer’s Life, Catherine Reef explores both Hemingway’s adventures and his writing career. She traces his lifelong preoccupation with death and violence to his boyhood hunting trips with his father. Reef introduces readers to his all-star cast of literary friends: Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford, John Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Readers also encounter the real-life inspirations for some of Hemingway’s most famous characters and stories. To create a balanced portrait of Papa Hemingway, as his friends called him, Reef includes anecdotes that illustrate his spiteful, competitive nature, as well as his bouts of generosity. Papa sometimes parodied his friends’ writing in his own work, and he wasn’t above stealing top reporting assignments from his third wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn. Yet, Hemingway was a loving, if indulgent, father to his three sons, and he adopted numerous stray cats as he aged.

Catherine Reef has crafted an unusually entertaining and unhurried profile of a larger-than-life figure. With thoughtful discussions about writing and ideas, Ernest Hemingway is an excellent introduction to Hemingway’s life and work for both teens and adults interested in literature.

© Dorothy A. Dahm

Manifest Degradation

Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story
By S. D. Nelson
(Abrams, New York, 2010, $19.95)

“It seemed strange that people who put us on reservations also admired us,” observes Black Elk in Black Elk’s Vision. With that terse remark, Black Elk and biographer S.D. Nelson sum up the United States’ ambivalence towards Native Americans. White Americans wear turquoise and silver jewelry, study Native American spirituality, and tour “authentic” villages. Native American names grace our rivers, towns, and cities. Gift shops purvey figurines, plates, and wall hangings depicting handsome Indian warriors and beautiful maidens. Yet, living Native Americans remain largely invisible in American life: many are confined to reservations, while others have been assimilated into mainstream culture.

In Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story, author and illustrator S.D. Nelson follows Black Elk, a member of the Lakota tribe, from his childhood on the Great Plains in the 1860s to his death on a South Dakota reservation in 1950. In between, Black Elk fights in the Battle of Little Bighorn and performs in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He also has mystical experiences in which the powers of nature urge him to “care for the tree of life” and share these revelations with his people. Although Black Elk sees the American government systematically destroy his way of life, his visions give him purpose and the strength to live without bitterness.

S.D. Nelson takes a number of creative risks, making Black Elk’s Vision an unconventional and beautiful biography. The first person narrative invites readers to empathize with Black Elk and his family, while notes and a timeline put the visionary’s life in historical context. Through the juxtaposition of period photographs and Nelson’s expressive illustrations, the book honors both the richness of Black Elk’s visions and exposes the degradation he and other Native Americans suffered.

Although most American students learn about Native American history and culture, few encounter Native American voices in the curriculum. With Black Elk’s Vision, S.D. Nelson introduces young readers to the human casualties of Manifest Destiny. He also shares Black Elk’s teachings of peace and harmony with readers of all ages and backgrounds through his richly illustrated book.

© Dorothy A. Dahm

A Bumpy Ride through History

Driven: A Photobiography of Henry Ford
By Don Mitchell
(National Geographic Society, 2010, $18.95)

“Ford makes the world your playground” proclaims an advertisement from the early twentieth century. Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, didn’t invent the motor vehicle, but he gave the world the Model T, the first mass-produced economy car. In so doing, he made the automobile an essential part of American life. Driven explores the life of auto industrialist, whose fans included Helen Keller and Bonnie and Clyde.

Mitchell’s biography both celebrates Ford’s technological achievements and considers his personal contradictions. He describes Ford’s early efforts to build a lightweight, gas-powered vehicle, emphasizing the young inventor’s persistence. Mitchell follows Ford’s ascent from visionary to entrepreneur to industrialist. Neither lionizing nor demonizing the auto manufacturer, Mitchell lets readers ponder Ford’s contradictory nature. We learn how Ford loved his only son Edsel, but undermined the younger man once he assumed control of Ford Motors. Ford offered assembly line workers good wages and a shorter workday, but allowed his security guards to rough up union organizers during the Great Depression. And although Ford employed African Americans and people with disabilities when few other manufacturers would hire them, he published rapidly anti-Semitic tirades in the newspaper he purchased.

Beautifully illustrated with period photographs and early Ford blueprints, Driven takes young car enthusiasts on a fascinating ride through automobile history. Along the way, they’ll learn something about economics, social history, and human nature.

© Dorothy A. Dahm

Doing Justice to the Justice

Sonia Sotomayor: First Hispanic Supreme Court Justice
By Lisa Tucker McElroy
(Lerner Publications, Minneapolis, 2010, $26.60)

Writing about law for adults is hard; describing the legal process for young readers is even harder. In Sonia Sotomayor, Lisa Tucker Mc Elroy educates readers about the Supreme Court and other legal matters, while painting a human portrait of Sotomayor. The result is a readable, if sometimes vague, biography of the Supreme Court Justice.

Born to Puerto Rican immigrant parents in the South Bronx and later appointed to the highest court in the land, Sonia Sotomayor exemplifies the American dream. McElroy makes sure readers understand just how remarkable Sotomayor’s rise was. We learn how Sotomayor’s hard work got her to Princeton and Yale. We also glimpse her personal warmth: she is friendly with her law clerks, calls her mother every day, and advocates for low-income Latinos. Being successful, McElroy suggests, doesn’t have to mean feeling superior to others or forgetting your roots.

McElroy also explores the legal process, summarizing some of Sotomayor’s most famous cases concisely. However, she occasionally includes facts without contextualizing them for readers. For example, she briefly mentions the “Wise Latina” comment that plagued Sotomayor before and during her confirmation hearings: “This was because she had once said in a speech that a Hispanic woman would make a better judge than a white man.” Although McElroy is generally sympathetic towards her subject, she neither contextualizes the remark nor considers the motives of Sotomayor’s opponents. Explaining such complex questions to children is not easy, but McElroy’s lack of explanation may well bewilder her readers. Omitting any mention of the “Wise Latina” controversy would have been a savvier decision.

With color photos of the significant people, places, and moments in the Supreme Court Justice’s life, Sonia Sotomayor is an appealing introduction to Sotomayor. By emphasizing Sotomayor’s determination and warmth, McElroy challenges kids to imagine a new approach to leadership.

© Dorothy A. Dahm