Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Hunger Winter












by Rob Currie
2020 / 236 pages

Author Rob Currie drops his readers right into the action in the opening scene, with an anxious neighbor furiously banging on the front door to tell 13-year-old Dirk Ingelse that the Nazis have his older sister. And they'll be coming for him next! It's November 11, 1944, and while the Allies have started liberating the Netherlands, the Ingelse farmstead near Oosterbeek, is still under German control. What makes it even more difficult for Dirk is that he has no one to turn to. His mother had suddenly passed away not too long before, and his father is in hiding, working for the Resistance.  That's left just him and his older sister Els to take care of their six-year-old sister Anna. Now Els has been arrested, and Dirk has to run. But where to? That's when he remembers his Tante Cora less than a half day's walking away.

The book is, in a sense, one big chase with Dirk doing his best to keep his sister safe, finding brief moments of calm, and then having to run again. Dirk shows himself to be a clever boy, and daring even despite his fears, as he finds hidings spots, and escape opportunities, and even figures out how best to fight the Nazis who are after them. As we follow along with Dirk and Anna, we also get occasional peaks into how Els is doing, facing her Gestapo interrogators.

In another way, this is all about Dirk trying to live up to the example his father set for him. He has a good dad who invested in him by spending time with him, so even though Dirk doesn't have his dad around right when he most needs him, the teen is constantly hearing his dad's advice come back to him whenever he needs to make another decision.

CAUTION

There are no cautions to list, but maybe I'll note one disappointment: for a book by a Christian author, and put out by a Christian publisher, I would have expected God to be more than a minor character. Even as the importance of prayer is mentioned with some regularity, God Himself is not. Maybe the author is trying to portray a journey in Dirk's relationship with God, going from nominally Christian at the beginning – he doesn't pray, except at his little sister's insistence – to something at least a little deeper at the end. But God's near-absence is odd, especially considering this is a book about people in life and death circumstances.

CONCLUSION

That said, this is an intriguing, entertaining, and fast-paced story, with the whole book taking place over just three weeks. And while there are some tense moments, it all gets tied up nice and neatly, making this a great book for ages 10 to maybe 14. The Netherlands setting will appeal to the many RP readers who have a Dutch background, and the time period – the "Hunger Winter" of 1944-45, when Allies hadn't yet liberated all the Dutch, and the Germans weren't bothering to feed them – is one that teens may not have read too much about before. So there's a lot of reasons this is a very interesting read.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020
















A graphic narrative of a slave's journey from bondage to freedom
by David F. Walker 
Illustrated by Damon Smyth 
2018 / 173 pages

Frederick Douglass lived his first 20 years as a slave, then spent the next 25 speaking against the evils of slavery. After the American Civil War and the emancipation of American slaves, he spent his last 30 years fighting the bigotry that still lingered. And in his final decade, defying all social expectations of the time, he married a white woman, Helen Pitts.

While a graphic novel biography can't do this complicated figure full justice – the man himself wrote three separate autobiographies in the attempt – the size of this one, and the evident research backing it make for a very good introduction to its subject. As we follow his life, from plantation to town, to escape to the North, we get to meet along with him key figure in the American battle to end slavery. He knew Harriet Tubman, the lady who repeatedly ventured to the South to bring slaves to freedom in the North. John Brown hid at his house after the white abolitionist's unsuccessful attempt to start the Civil War some six years before it eventually began. Douglass was both an opponent and then an ally to Lincoln, due to largely Lincoln's vacillating opposition to slavery. Later he became a friend and then an enemy of women's rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, the change of relationship due this time to a compromise by Douglass when he decided to support black's voting rights even when they no longer came as a package deal with women's voting rights.

This is quite the story, and it is well told.

CAUTIONS

Its important readers understand that some of what's depicted is deduction, and not clearly established fact. But a read of the introduction will help readers tell what's what.

A word of warning is due for at least a couple uses of the "n-word" in the book, though with the topic matter, that is as you might expect.

There is also some partial nudity. None of it sexual, and it could even be described as modestly done: one scene is a black woman being whipped, naked from the waist up, but her front is either away from view, or hid in the shadows. There are also three completely naked slaves shown, but all are hunched over, in a seated, almost fetal position with arms wrapped around their knees so no genitals are shown, though the top of one's buttocks is.

The overarching concern would be the brutality. There is no gratuitous violence - but there is violence.

Finally, while we get to hear Douglass debate with himself about how slavery should be fought, and whether violence was warranted or not, and whether it was right to compromise on the women's vote, we aren't offered any other perspective. So readers will have to apply their own biblical lens to this for themselves.

Altogether that would make this a book for older teens maybe 14 and up.

CONCLUSION

The target audience for this book, teens, aren't always fans of history books, perhaps because they've been exposed to too many of the wrong sort, texts that make it all about dates and names. What a joy it is, then, to discover a page-turning biography like this. The Frederick Douglass we meet here, while not exhaustively explored, is fleshed out, and consequently memorable. We've now met him, and won't forget him.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did

by Randy Newman
2004 / 269 pages

If you have read Greg Koukl's book Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, you will appreciate an earlier book that covers much of the same ground. Randy Newman's Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did deals more explicitly with developing relationships based on sensitive questions - and answers both wise and compassionate to the questions of non-Christians both genuine and obstructive.

Newman starts by justifying the use of questions in evangelism, by appealing both to the example of Jesus Himself and to the guidance of Proverbs. His use of Proverbs is one of the strengths of the book in Part 2.

Part 2 deals with "What Questions Are People Asking?" - questions like
  • why Christians are (seemingly) so intolerant, homophobic, or hypocritical;
  • why to worship a God who allows evil;
  • why the Bible is reliable; and
  • what's so great about marriage.
What makes Newman's discussion of these issues so valuable is that he distinguishes between the responses of the one who genuinely want to understand and the one whom Proverbs calls the fool.

Part 3 is the most penetrating: "Why Aren't Questions and Answers Enough?" Newman deals with roadblocks to our evangelism: our lack of compassion, our anger, or our compulsion to speak when silence is necessary (for instance, when dealing with people's pain - or their foolish arrogance).

Finally, the Epilogue reminds us that our personal relationships with non-Christians is the most significant factors in our witness to them, and a Study Guide pulls it all together.

The major caution I would give involves some of the references Newman makes - at least in my edition - to other authors or groups that are either not orthodox (Brian Maclaren) or as credible as they once were (Exodus Ministries); however, Newman's points don't depend on their support. I have not read the introduction by Lee Strobel (it was not in my edition), but the value of Strobel's support is weakened by his tacit acceptance of theistic evolution. As well, some of Newman's evangelistic questions in Part 3 may or may not be acceptable within a Reformed understanding of evangelism.

On the whole, though, Newman offers much food for thought, and much room for self-examination in an area of our Christian life that I certainly know I need to work more with. If you want to read about how to engage hearts the way Jesus did, you can find Randy Newman's book here, and here in Canada.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel

by George Orwell (and Odyr) 
2019 / 172 pages

For those that don’t know the original, Orwell wrote his allegory in World War II to highlight the dangers of creeping totalitarianism. Instead of a country, his setting is that of a farm, and instead of an oppressive government, things are run by Mr. Jones, who treats Manor Farm’s “citizens” – the pigs, horses, sheep, chickens, and more – like they were animals!

One night, Old Major, a pig respected by all, tells the others of his vision of a better world in which Man is overthrown and all the animals are free to benefit from their own labor. Two legs are the enemy, and all on four legs, or with wings, are treated as equal.

The animals embrace his vision, and when the old pig dies peacefully in his sleep, three younger pigs take it upon themselves to develop and expand on Old Major’s vision. They craft “Animalism” and appoint themselves as leaders of the movement. When the animals rebel against Farmer Jones, they successively drive him off and take over the farm.

The story that follows has clear parallels to that of the 1917 Russian Revolution, that began with noble-sounding aims – freedom from oppression, equality of all – but which quickly evolved into simply another form of totalitarianism. The animals find that, though they are free of the farmer, they aren’t free of having to follow orders. The pigs have them working harder than before, and they are fed no better. Their swine leaders are soon living in the farmer’s house and eating well. But they deserve it, right? After all, they need to be properly provided for, so they can provide direction! It soon becomes evident that while “all animals are equal…some animals are more equal than others.”

CAUTIONS

Because this is a graphic novel, there are a few pages of violent content depicted. But Odyr’s is a thick-line, smudged-pastel style, leaving the gory details mostly a blur. So while these pictures might be a bit much for a child, they are nothing that would disturb a teen.

The only other caution I’ll offer concerns the lesson being learned. Orwell was no Christian, so even as he makes a case against the godless tyranny of totalitarian rulers the world over, he isn’t able to offer a better alternative…so it is fortunate he doesn’t even propose one. However, that means Christian readers will have to do that work for themselves. We can agree with Orwell about the problem: that man has a bent for tyranny and that larger the government the more they can insert themselves into our lives (1 Samuel 8:10-22). But we also know there is a proper, though limited, role for government, specifically to punish evil (Romans 13:1-7).

CONCLUSION

This is a brilliant adaptation of Orwell’s classic work, with a mix of colorful and also stark images that will grab any reader’s attention. Odyr has made Animal Farm accessible to age groups and casual readers that might otherwise never read it.

While I highly recommend this as a gift for teens, it would be a waste to hand it off to your son or daughter and then leave it at that. Unless an adult helps them understand that message behind the story, they aren’t likely to see the real-world application, and will completely miss Orwell’s warning about the dangers of big governments of all sorts.