Esperanza Rising: A Review

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Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan has everything I love in a novel. It has gorgeous imagery and historical interest that hooked me into what happened in the world we live in along with a plot that kept me turning pages.

The vivid descriptions of both the ranch where Esperanza spent her early years and the California farm scenes in the 1920’s pulled me into the characters’ world.

I also learned that the U.S. immigration officials in the 20’s and 30’s often deported US citizens if they tried to strike for better conditions. The growers had power with the government officials. Perhaps because I have seen too much, I was not surprised about this. I was, however, surprised about the numbers of workers who faced deportation. Ryan says in an author’s note that ‘at least 450,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans’ were sent to Mexico (often because they ‘looked’ Mexican) from 1929-1935 in an effort to improve the unemployment problems in the U.S. at the time. The job outlook did not improve.

My only complaint in  the story itself was Esperanza’s young love interest Miguel. He felt a little too perfect. I could wish a few flaws on him to make him feel more human.

While reading the story of Esperanza, I also remembered something about myself as a reader. I need the lyrical language to get myself into a book, and then I will skim that beautiful language mercilessly in order to find out ‘what happens next’ like some sort of super plot junkie. That’s again why I often do better with the audio books if I want to soak up all of what the author has to say, but I do love it when the plot keeps me going enough to move quickly.

To sum it up once more: Esperanza Rising is an eye opener with beautiful language, lovable characters and a plot that pulled me through. If you liked Ryan’s previous books or others such as Moon Over Manifest by Vanderpool, you can pick up a copy of Esperanza Rising, too, and know it will keep your thoughts in its pages after you finish. 

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Short Sabbatical from Spoken Words

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been on break from my teaching job and staying home full time with my sweet three year old. At least I maintain he’s sweet even though sometimes he’s not.

The words I have spoken look something like this:

“Do you have to go potty?”

“Flush the toilet and wash your hands.”

“Do you have to go potty?”

“Sit down to eat your food.”

“Do you have to go potty? You are doing the dance.”

“It hurts Mommy when you do that.” (hit me with a stick, arch back when I’m holding him, step on my foot, etc.)

“Do you have to go potty?”

“No, you may NOT pick the cat up by his skin.”

“It’s time to go potty. You are still doing the dance.”

I found these words draining. Painfully draining. And my inner troll has been rising up to snap at the little guy not unlike the troll under the bridge in the Billy Goat’s Gruff story he loves.

I pestered my husband to grant me a retreat. At first I thought just a morning might do. I took my notebook to the local Starbucks and listened to people talking, taking notes on what they said and journaling my heart out. I went to the park I’d seen but never visited. I walked downtown and saw the gorgeous landscaping at the new city hall that I’d never taken the time to look at before. But two hours wasn’t enough. I needed more time away from “Do you need to go potty?”

So, last weekend I took most of a day and went to our little lake camping spot out by Shelton. I didn’t talk to anyone all day, leaving my phone in the car so I wouldn’t be tempted. I took my time and moved slowly, reminding myself that I was on retreat. The peace felt like I’d entered a sacred space and sunk into a world without spoken words.

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I can see why the monks and nuns take vows of silence. The peace of not talking brings an inner connection like the vibrations settling down on the pond after you finished skipping stones across it. When I did see others at the grocery store on the way out, they smiled at me and I smiled back. This was a change from my usual focus on wrangling little fingers away from the ATM machine buttons and hand holding in the parking lot where I hoped he wouldn’t take anyone out at the knees.

I had thought earlier of going to St. Placid Priory, a place in Lacey where I could have a sister as a spiritual director. But the lake worked better for me. I worked it out with my husband on an hour’s notice and got myself to bliss without the nagging stress of “I don’t know this place or these people.”

Plus I only needed to pay for gas and food.

I figure my inner artist is also about 3 years old, and she loved playing in silence without competition from my son. I can recommend a retreat for anyone who feels the troll under the bridge threatening to take over.

When I got back from my break from words, I was able to sink into the better ones like:

“Let’s go for a walk to feed the horsie.”

“How about we go pick blackberries and eat them from the bowl before they get to the refrigerator?”

“I love you.”

And, even better, I could sink into the words I heard.

“I wuv you, too,” he said when we went back to my retreat and filled it up with sound a few days later.

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A Three Percent Chance of Cancer

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I first read the statistics when my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Heck. I first heard of pancreatic cancer when Dad was diagnosed. In 2011 I read that the average person has a 3 percent chance of developing this form of cancer, and it is almost never caught early enough to successfully treat. Patients have a 5 percent survival rate for 5 years. My dad did not beat those odds and died 4 months after his diagnosis.

Since then, I’ve known five other people to die of this specific disease: a close friend from my church, two high school friends’ parents, a former boyfriend’s mother and an illustrator I met through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I suspect I am noticing the cancer more because my father had the disease, but I can’t help thinking that’s an awful lot of people to make up 3 percent of the population. It makes me wonder if I’m overdoing the odds somehow or if this is what 3 percent looks like as it relates to my one life and the people I know. I’d need to talk to a statistician to figure if I’m ‘above average.’ I think I won’t. I think I’ll just plug away and hope not to see that diagnosis again anytime soon. It’s getting old like that song by Milli Vanilli my one time roommate played over and over in our UW dorm room.

I know what my dad would say about this post. He’d say it’s ‘pretty good’ but what does it mean? What I am trying to say we should do about pancreatic cancer?

I don’t know. Maybe it means I should join the Purple Stride Puget Sound, or maybe I should be working harder to spread the news about a fantastic new test developed by a vibrant young man who also lost someone he loved to pancreatic cancer:

This test, by the way, supposedly also identifies ovarian and lung cancer, two other forms that are knocking out my friends and loved ones.

Maybe this is what I am saying I should do. Or maybe I am saying I don’t know what to do about pancreatic or any other kind of cancer. Maybe (I would say to Dad if he could read this), I am saying that it makes me sad, this mortality business. Maybe.

A Revolutionary Book from a Slave’s Perspective

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Set in 1776, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of the British invasion of New York from the perspective of a young girl who has been enslaved. Isabel struggles to make her way in a household with cruel owners and wants only to find freedom with her younger disabled sister. At times she joins the fight of the early Americans but finds that the rebel cause does not help her own struggle. Quotes from primary sources at the beginning of each chapter bring a sense of immediacy to the fictional account.

Anderson uses vivid language and pulled me into the story from the start with the individual conflicts of each scene tucked into the larger conflict of a city invaded as seen by a girl trapped in an inhumane system.  Although the subject of slavery is bleak, the author found a way to wrap hope into the ending.  I now know the history of the era better, including a plot by the mayor of New York to assassinate George Washington, and appreciate the perspective of a character who would not benefit from the words of the original United States constitution.

Chains held my attention as I waited for long stretches out at our lake place a few weekends ago. The children swam as I sat in a wood-slatted chair with my feet in the water. I hunched over the pages of the book at the gate and let newcomers inside the area. My family thought I was patient, but really I loved the chance to sink into this novel. I am grateful to Anderson for that gift of a get away even as I recoiled from what happened to Isabel. The book deserved its awards: National Book Award Finalist in 2008 and the 2009 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

Here Anderson reads from her work at the National Book Awards:

The Schadenfreude of Samson and the Mudita of Mustardseeds

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Last Sunday Pastor Ann Berney at Puyallup United Methodist Church asked the children what biblical story they liked best. Most of them chose stories like Noah’s Ark or Jonah and the Whale — stories that pull many children in. Sitting in the pew in my favorite spot by the stained glass, I asked myself what my favorite story was as a child and is now as an adult.

I’m still not sure about now. If you can believe it, I think it might be Job because that poor man struggles with his faith so much. I can relate.

But I know without a doubt that my favorite story as a child was not as cute as the Ark or Jonah with animals in pairs or the thrill of being swallowed by a fish.

No. My favorite story was Samson and Delilah. We had a big picture Bible when I was growing up, and I remember the artist’s pictures of Samson with his flowing dark hair, sitting next to the conniving Delilah who then cut his hair and robbed him of his power so his enemies could enslave him. I read that story repeatedly, and I think my mother might have wondered if letting me dwell on those pages was a bad idea. But it held me enthralled.

There was the idea of a man falling under the spell of a woman. There was the magic of long hair that made him strong. And most of all, there was the ending where he grew his hair back without anyone noticing and pushed the temple over to crush everyone.

Recently I was journaling about the German word ‘schadenfreude’ and had an ‘ah-ha’ moment. The Samson ending I once loved had a huge helping of schadenfreude. That expressive term holds two German words tucked together: schaden (damage) and freude (joy). The person feeling schadenfreude feels happy at the failure or damage that happened to another person because, somehow, the sufferer deserves what he or she gets.

The best example in my everyday life involves the car driver who cuts me off or passes me in a hurry then gets pulled over by a cop. I feel schadenfreude if I see this (or imagine it because I’ve never actually seen it happen). I remember learning this word in German class and marveling for the first (but not last) time that another language could have one word for something English needs to explain in a whole story about car driving or temple shoving over.

So Samson felt a moment of schadenfreude before the temple crushed him, too, I suppose. And my young Bible reader self sat fascinated.

I found a new expression recently, though, that is much more of an uplift.

‘Mudita’ is a word in Sanskrit that means joy at others joy or success. I came across it recently while I struggled with jealousy and was thrilled to learn a word that expressed the opposite of schadenfreude. In an article by Anne Cushman, I found that mudita starts with celebrating the joy in my own life and then extending that celebration out to others. It involves realizing that there is enough for all of us and looks something like the quote from the Dalai Lama: “If I am only happy for myself, many fewer chances for happiness. If I am happy when good things happen to other people, billions more chances to be happy!”

In Christianity, Jesus expresses this concept with his instruction to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ And if I look one more time at my favorite Biblical story, it would probably involve the mustard seed or the moving of mountains with less shadenfreude and more mudita. As much as I loved those pictures of Samson with the power hair I envied, I’ve gotten to a point where I need more joy and ‘billions more chances to be happy’ sounds like a good deal to me.