Thursday, November 24, 2016

Find Me Unafraid, book review

find me unafraid by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner non-fiction 2015 HarperCollins

Kibera slum in Kenya's capital city of Nairobi is a cesspool of poverty, joblessness, crime and frustration. Depending on the report, somewhere between 250,000, or up to two million people live there, with little hope of bettering their life. This book tells how its own people changed that.

We first meet author Kennedy Odede hiding from uniformed men who are searching for him to kill him. During the riots following a corrupt election in 2007, the powers-that-be do not want him organizing people in the slum.

He was born the first child of a fifteen-year-old single mom who had no steady source of income, but was fiercely independent. He grew up without schooling, learning to read by studying scraps of newspaper on the streets of Kibera. He dreamed of going to school, but there was never enough money even for food, let alone pay for school. For years he hung out with a street gang who lived by their wits, until one day a mob beat the gang leader to death.

As he grew older, he found occasional manual labor for a dollar a day, but a foreman might even cheat him out of that. There were always others waiting to take his place. One day he bought a soccer ball for twenty cents and organized a team. From there, he and six friends proceed to start a theater group, a small-loan cooperative savings group, a work day where neighbors pick up the trash from the streets. They call it “Shining Hope for Communities” (SHOFCO). Within a month, forty members were meeting in the open soccer field. Within two years they had built their first office, not much more than a bigger shack among the crowded little shacks of Kibera. By 2007, SHOFCO had attracted thousands of members, mostly women and young people, The World Social Forum, meeting in Nairobi, invites the theater group to perform, and invites Kennedy to speak. People in Kibera start calling him “Mayor.”

The other author, Jessica Posner, is an American college student, spending a semester abroad to supplement her studies in theater and community development. She believes in immersing herself in the local culture, and asks if she can stay with Kennedy's family. “Absolutely not!” is Kennedy's horrified response. No foreigner ever stays in Kibera. A single latrine serves one hundred families. There is no clean water, no safety, only two small rooms of cardboard and leaky sheet metal, closely surrounded by mud and noisy neighbors. When she visits his home, she is privately aghast, but is way too stubborn to back down. She finally divides her time between Kennedy's home and her “home stay” house, a fifteen-minute walk from Kennedy's, just outside the slum boundary. They soon develop a close relationship.

Late afternoons, after daily search for a job, many people come to Kennedy's house to discuss their problems. More and more, he and Jessica see that women have no protection against abusive husbands or neighbors who rape or rob. Police rarely take action without a bribe. There are few ways a woman can earn a living with no education. More violence is not the answer, but what is? In Kennedy's mind the idea of a tuition-free school for girls in the heart of Kibera slum takes root and grows.

But after the election riots in 2007, the urgent matter is to get him out of Kenya before he is murdered. He barely manages to escape into Tanzania, after vigilantes at a checkpoint kill all the occupants of the car ahead of him in line.

Kennedy's SHOFCO movement is widely known by now, and Jessica is able to get him a full scholarship to Wesleyan University and a student's visa despite his lack of formal education. Jessica enters him in multiple grant competitions. “Do you know somebody called Paul Newman?” Kennedy asks her one afternoon. He wants to meet us next week.” One of Newman's favorite sayings is, “There are three rules to business, and luckily we don't know any of them.” Newman wants to use his own personal luck to create luck in the lives of others.” His foundation's check for $50,000 to build a tuition-free-school for girls in the slum is soon followed by other donors.

But foreign benefactors, or visiting students who soon go back home, no matter how well-meaning they are, are not enough to create self-confidence in a people who  have never known hope. It took a young man who grew up among them, and had a dream and a twenty-cent soccer ball.

Read this story in its entirety: Kennedy's and Jessica's romance and eventual marriage, the six-year old kindergartner who organizes a strike, the brilliant student struggling with AIDS and TB, the growth of a small school building into a community center with clean water, a medical clinic, a safe-house for physically or sexually abused women and girls, and small businesses springing up, all in the middle of one of the largest slums in all Africa.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Growing Up Pine Creek: book review

Book Review: GROWING UP PINECREEK by Ryan Wood, Self-published 2004

Pine Creek is a waterway only a few months of the year, chiefly in March as the twelve-foot deep snow pack on the mountain peaks begins melting in earnest. By July, large stretches of it are dry. “Pine Crick”, to pronunce it correctly, identifies the neighborhood in which two families of boys grew in semi-isolation. Not that they were hill-billies in any sense. One of the fathers, Ron Wood, was a high school teacher. The other, Ray Dose, filled a special niche in commerce, manufacturing aluminum-alloy accessories for the horse-dawn buggies still driven by the Amish folks in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The five boys, Ronnie, Ryan, and Rusty Wood, Dave and Gary Dose spanned ten years in age, the Doses being a lttle older than the Woods. I have known some of them personally as adults, and after reading of their adventures in this book, I think survival may be among their greatest achievements. The birthday wagon kit is a case in point. That started out as two axles, four plastic wheels, and mounting brackets to attach them to wood furnished by the kids.

The “scientist/engineer” among them laid out the dimensions of a 3 ft long x 18 inch wide wagon box, while the artist/historian said, “what about building a [pioneer] covered wagon?” Everyone thought this a great idea; they added several hoops and a sheet, doubled the size to six by three feet, with a two man front seat and a handbrake on the side. “We need something to pull it.”

Figuring a rig to connect the farmyard pony might delay things by a couple days, “Let's just use the motorbike.” They hitched that to the wagon with some rope, and all climbed aboard. After several turns around the yard, they headed down the driveway toward the road, gathering speed. The wagon driver yelled “Slow down!” The one on the motorbike yelled back, “Just three more seconds and we'll be doing thirty miles an hour!” followed by a loud grinding sound and a lurch of the wagon as the plastic wheels melted and axles hit the pavement, shooting sparks like a rocket. “Then all was quiet . . . We just kind of picked up our gravel-coated bodies and gathered around what was left of “Project Wagon Death.”

But that didn't stop their experiment. Ryan analyzes six bad decisions made along the way. Then, after Gary comes up with some twelve-inch rubber tires and they gather around and begin “Project Wagon Death II”. (Bad decision # 1.)

Then there was the boat ride down Pine Creek in full flood one March day, in the remains of a rowbout salvaged from the burn pile behind the barn. Never mind that the wooden keel and gunnels had been burned away, leaving what was essentially a big piece of leaky sheet iron with enough holes in it to require constant bailing. It promised a great ride into the town of Pinehurst, six miles downstream. A pair of oars, a paddle to serve as rudder and a couple of bailing cans, and they were ready to go. Their parents did require them to wear life jackets, and would follow them in the chase vehicle.

The first mile was great. Then the East Fork joined the river, increasing the volume and speed. A white-water stretch crashed them into solid rock that crumpled the bow and tumbled the crew forward to weigh down the front end and raise the stern high to somersault over them as they wisely abandoned ship, diving into the icy water. They needed “less than two dozen stitches to close their wounds, and that is really nothing, up Pinecreek.”

I hate cats, Ryan writes, but I like my kid sister Shelly most of the time. Her pet cat, Shasta, had been missing for four days when Ryan heard a faint meowing, but couldn't locate the source. Two days later, he heard it again, coming from overhead. He finally spotted her, eighty feet high in a fir tree close to the barn. No branches in the lower twenty feet. Only one ladder on the property, about fourteen feet. Solution: pass the ladder from garage roof to tree trunk, with brother Rusty's weight to keep it from sliding. Ryan crawls over to lowest branch without looking down; climbs easily, but discovers six-days-worth of cat crap separating him from his goal. He adds his own vomit; manages to grab the reluctant cat, tucks it in his armpit like a football, climbs down, passes the cat to his sister, and races to the shower. But he remembers the smile on his sister's face to this day.
Ryan concludes this thirteen-chapter book with the overal point, “Growing up Pinecreek is not about the creek or a location. In essence, one could grow up Pinecreek anywhere. . . . a way of life, being able to live the way you want to and not caring about what other people think.”

The Wood and Dose kids not only survived, but thrived. In 2016, Ronnie Wood is now a farrier and heavy equipment operator, near Rose Lake. Ryan teaches consumer economics in Post Falls. Rusty is a physiotherapist in Kellogg. Shelly teaches second grade in Asotin, Washington. Dave Dose pioneered Fort Sherman Academy survival school, teaching overseas workers how to survive or evade capture by terrorists. Dave is also the artist who created the statues that decorate Kellogg, Idaho's streets (Fokker tri-plane, St. George and the Dragon, etc.) Dave currently lives in Coeur d'Alene. Gary Dose is the leader and mentor of the Silver Valley teens' mission trip to Peru in 2016. Rugged individualists one might call them. But that's what they grow, up Pinecreek.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Boys in the Boat: book review

Book Review: THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown, Penguin publ 2013

This is a true story from the years of the Great Depression—the 1930s—when many honest men and women had to struggle to survive without a job. At the age of fifteen, Joe Rantz stood in his family's farmyard near Sequim, Washington, and watched his family drive away, leaving him behind.

His father said, while his step-mother waited in the car with her two small sons, “The thing is, Son, Thula [Joe's step-mom] wants you to stay here. I would stay with you, but I can't. The little kids are going to need a father more than you are. You're pretty much all grown up now anyway. You have to learn to be happy on your own.” With that, Dad drove the family away. The scene had taken only five minutes.

As a child, Joe had moved often, when mechanic's jobs led his father from mining camp to lumber mill to hard-scrabble farm in western Washington State. Now, Joe learned to survive for himself. He continued in high school, learned to poach salmon from the Dungeness River while evading the game warden, scavenging the forest for edibles, helping an elderly neighbor. Playing guitar in honky-tonk bands. Working on a WPA crew laying asphalt on a highway. Operating a 75-lb pneumatic drill while suspended over a 200-foot cliff at the Grand Coulee Dam site, because that job paid 75 cents an hour instead of the standard rate of 50 cents.

Several other paths converged upon Joe's life: his older brother, a high school teacher in Seattle, who advised Joe to transfer to a city high school. The rowing crew coach at the University of Washington who came recruiting when Joe happened to be working out in the high school gym. A woodworker who emigrated from Britain to find more scope for his skills in Seattle, and who fell in love with the qualities of Washington's red cedar trees. A sixteen-year-old girl in Sequim who fell in love with her independent, self-confidant classmate, and followed him to college. A German dictator who decreed a huge athletic complex to host the 1936 Olympic Games and show the whole world the absolute superiority of Gemany's Third Reich. And several dozen young men whose aim was victory in the world's oldest athletic sport. Rowing a boat. 
Racing in a two-feet-wide, sixty-two-feet-long cedar wood shell as part of a coordinated team of eight oarsmen and a coxswain is an incredibly demanding physical and mental task. Not only is there no stopping to rest during a four-mile race, a rower's mind must focus entirely inside his boat, paying attention only to the commands of the coxswain, and never deviating from the in-unison rhythm of the team. Eight oar blades must immerse to the same depth, at the same instant, over and over and over. Physical pain, rain, snow or sweltering heat must be ignored. Only when all nine men are “in swing”---perfect coordination—is there any hope of winning. That takes long practice, under the watchful, intelligent eye of an experienced coach who can detect moods, illness, and other distractions.

After three years of training under freshman coach Tom Bolles and varsity coach Al Ulbrickson, Joe Rantz's performance was still spotty. Then master woodworker George Pocock invited Joe to visit his workshop and watch him work on the racing boats while they talked. Gradually Joe began to understand the difference between being totally self-reliant and being part of a team. The University of Washington's team swept all three races at the national competition in the summer of 1936, and moved onward to Adolf Hitler's Germany to represent USA at the 1936 Olympics.

Three chapters near the end of the book detail the team's experiences in Germany, with photographs both by American reporters and by Leni Riefenstahl, whom Hitler had personally commissioned to document the anticipated victories of the Third Reich. A thousand extra words here could not do justice to the stresses and emotional high points of Joe Rantz and his team mates in those weeks in Germany, both on the Olympic sports field and among the German people.

Brown's research and story-telling talents paint a vivid account of the Depression years and build-up to World War Two, through both anecdotes and photographs. A gripping tale.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Seeds in the Wind: book review

Book Review: SEEDS IN THE WIND by Doris Fleming: fiction, 2012)

Lizzie Van Ankum is a seventeen-year-old Canadian farm girl in Didsbury, Alberta, eagerly anticipating entry into nursing school in Calgary. We meet her as she arrives home, summoned back by an urgent letter from the family doctor. Her mother, Sarah, has been diagnosed as having cancer of her liver, and the family is in crisis. Zachariah, the father, is spending most of his time at his wife's bedside, leaving the farm chores to his older two boys, Willie and J.C. The younger children, twelve-year-old Jake, and Rosie, seven, and Anna, five, are at loose ends.

It is Dr. Martin who meets Lizzie at the railroad station, but who says very little during the eight mile ride to the farm through a blizzard. He wants her to see her mother before he tells her the bad news; Sarah has asked him to give her family the plain truth—Advanced stage, untreatable; she is dying.

She can't die—she is the one who holds our family together! is Lizzie's desperate attempt to deny reality. She looks at her father, who has lapsed into his native Dutch language. At her younger siblings: who will take care of them? And the stark truth hits her, If she dies, I'm trapped. I'll never get off this farm, never be a nurse.

Things get worse. Father hardly speaks at all; eats little. Spends most of his time at the bedside of the woman he loves, or staying up late at night in the barn workshop, alone, building a casket. But Sarah has quietly told him, she wants Lizzie to eventually go to nursing school, and meanwhile to be her own nurse, under the guidance of Dr. Martin's visiting nurse, Nadine. And Sarah insists that Lizzie return now to spend a day at nursing school making rounds with the nurses and doctors.

Lizzie visits nursing school, thrilled not only with her contact with the profession of her dreams, but also by a chance meeting with a young man, Daniel Winslow, whose listening ear and encouragement make her hope to see more of him.

Her mother's death comes soon. Neighbors and fellow church members gather in the rain for her funeral, bringing food to the family. Father Zachariah stays outside, his hand holding onto his wife's casket. Oldest son Willie notices, and comes back to gently pry his father's fingers loose and lead him into the house, where the guests have gathered.

As the days go by, Willie and J.C. take over the the dairy chores and the milk route; Lizzie gradually come to manage the house and meals and the younger children, wondering daily how her mother ever managed all of it. Twelve-year old Jake defies his sister, only five years older than he, and spends more and more time at a neighbor's house. Father rarely come out of his bedroom, eating little, saying even less, and angry at God.

It's early summer now. The two younger sisters, Rosie and Anna are learning to help with the chickens' eggs, and keeping the kitchen stove supplied from the woodpile. Zachariah finally begins to emerge from his prolonged depression, hastened by Lizzie's warning that the neighborhood gossip, self-centered Widow Foster, is asking about him and intends to come over and visit. He vows to be too busy if she comes, and starts paying attention now to the cows and the fence lines.

Another neighbor has concerns of a different sort. Rebecca Bannister has recently moved into the farm she inherited from her late husband. Mother of two pre-teen children, she has met none of the Van Ankums except young Jake, who has offered his services as a hired hand. Not accustomed to farm life herself, she has welcomed his offer, but is now concerned about his longer stays overnight in the barn. She meets Lizzie in church one Sunday, and the two of them agree to coffee at each others' homes some time soon. 

Zachariah has an unfortunate first encounter with Rebecca when she drops in expecting to find Lizzie at home. He is enraged to learn, a few days later, that Jake has practically moved into her house, and he stomps over to her farm to confront her. She has realized, in talking to Jake that he bitterly misses his mother, and resents his father's perpetual anger, and it is she who points out that his reaction to his wife's death is separating him from his son's needs. She turns Zachariah's life around, healing his estrangement from his family.

The healing in the Van Ankum family also changes Lizzie's life when her father and siblings recognize what she has given up in taking on her mother's role. A visit in their home from a traveling minister, Brother Lemont, intrigues her when, after he talks with her brother Willie about his hopes to move north to the new communities in Alberta, he turns to her. “There's someone I want you to meet, Lizzie. Someone who may be able to persuade you to come up north to learn your nursing. They'll be in church tomorrow,” he said, “Don't miss it.”

Author Doris Fleming lives in Wallace, Idaho.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Last Bus to Wisdom: book review

Ivan Doig's novels are set in western Montana, this one written last year, just before his death.
Donal Cameron is an eleven-year-old boy being shipped off to a great-aunt he has never met. His guardian grandmother, who works as cook for a large Montana cattle ranch, needs major surgery, and will be unable to care for him in these summer months of 1951.
Donal's story opens with him on a local bus to Great Falls to catch the Greyhound, with Manitowoc, Wisconsin his destination. Besides his ratty suitcase and thirty dollars pinned in his shirt pocket, he has only two things he values—his lucky charm arrowhead, and his autograph book. He whiles away his 1,500-mile journey by inviting fellow passengers to make entries in his book, collecting three soldiers bound for Korea, a waitress looking for a new job, a sheriff and his prisoner, and many others, one of whom tries to steal his suitcase.
Things get worse when he reaches Manitowoc. Aunt Kate is a self-centered old woman who has prepared a cot for Donal in the attic. There are no kids his age in the neighborhood; Aunt Kate's idea of summer entertainment is to dump a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle on a card table. She also co-opts him to her ladies' canasta afternoons. Without his knowledge, she has thrown out Donal's shirt with his thirty dollars still pinned in it, and he is dead broke. She argues loudly and endlessly with her husband, Herman, who spends most of his time in a greenhouse in the backyard to get away from her presence. Herman has an intense interest in cowboys and Indians and welcomes Donny's presence as one who has actually lived in the West and can tell him all about it. Herman, in turn can tell of his former job on a Great Lakes ore boat and the storm that sank the ship and disabled himself.
The last straw, for Kate, is when she catches Donny trying to recover his share of the canasta winnings she had denied him. She has him pack his bag and takes him to the Greyhound bus station. Herman has made himself scarce after another argument with her. As she waves goodbye to Donny, he glumly assesses his prospects. His grandmother is only two weeks post-surgery; someone else will have taken her job at the ranch; his options on his early arrival in Montana will be only the county orphanage or a foster home.
The bus seat next to him is suddenly filled by some man changing seats. “Hallo,” he says. It's Herman.
What are you doing here?”
Keeping you company, hah? Long ride ahead, we watch out for each other.”
Does she know you're here?”
Left her a note saying I am gone back to Germany.” Herman sees this as his own last chance to get out of that house for good. When they change buses in Milwaukee, they will have disappeared. Anywhere, as long as it's in the west.
Guided by Donny, they get off the bus at Crow Indian Agency, Montana, where the 4th of July rodeo and pow-wow of Indian nations is beginning. Herman gets his fill of bucking horses and Indian dances. Their adventures continue at Yellowstone park, where a pick-pocket robs Herman's wallet. To make matters worse, their pictures are among the “Wanteds” now posted at every post office and bus stop. Aunt Kate has reported them missing. They need a place to hide out for the summer until Donny's grandma has recovered enough to make Donny safe from foster homes and Herman, now without any papers, safe from deportation as an alien.
They find that place in a very small Montana town.