Thursday, October 18, 2012

She Called Him Papa

We often celebrate the accomplishments of single mothers, and so we should. Their roles are difficult. The paths of single dads are also rocky and steep.

FISHERMAN’S DAUGHTER, Patricia Nikolina Clark, Bridgeline Books, 2012

This is not a contemporary story, but it rings with the truth of family bonds that bind generations.

The year is 1922. 11 year old Katia longs for a life much different from the life of her mother who died four years ago. Katia wants to stay in school, to read, to write poetry, to become a teacher. Her papa has decided she should stay home and care for the family which includes five year Annie who, until recently, lived with relatives.

Although the rugged setting for this novel is harsh, it is filled with promise. In the early 1900s hardy immigrants from Yugoslavia (now Croatia) settled in California on the coast north of San Francisco. They came for the same reason so many came during those years, to build a better life for their families. Inspired by her mother’s life in the richly described coastal area now preserved as the Point Reyes National Seashore, the author drew upon details from lives like her own grandfather who pioneered commercial fishing in Tomales Bay, in a string of sandy coves remembered as “Little Yugoslavia.” Armed with firm religious beliefs and fishing skills, these pioneers adapted, survived, raised families, created homes and took root in an isolated area readers will enjoy discovering.

Parents who choose this book for their tweens and young teens will appreciate the relationships and interactions within this brave family. Katia’s siblings, Papa’s brothers, a distant maternal aunt and her scheming husband, and the impact made by the new school teacher keep the plot spinning but it is the interactions that keep the reader wondering how it will all turn out.

Katia’s struggles as she makes a number of major decisions beyond her ability are authentic. The courage with which she handles each set back reflects the “good stock” from which she has come.

Papa is tough, not rigid. Honest. Caring. In one of her poems, Katia relates the many names by which her father is known in this new land:  Immigrant. Fisherman. Widower. Captain. Hero. She concludes that no name is better for capturing her father’s goodness than the one she calls him, “I called him Papa.”

Patricia Nikolina Clark has been writing for children for more than 20 years. In Fisherman’s Daughter she shares evocative photos from her family albums and pays tribute to the love, faith, and determination that kept the families of her ancestors strong.

I could easily have chosen this book by its cover. Picture me on a sidewalk with a littering of gold and crimson leaves. It’s fall in a small town, any small town which still has an inviting little bookstore and a tinkling bell to announce me. “Just looking,” I say to the owner who pokes his head above a glass case filled with treasures. I amble down the rows of bookshelves and lose myself. When I find Fisherman’s Daughter, the cover alone makes me want to bring it home.

Happily, the promise of the cover is kept by the author and her story. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Nation of Immigrants

What does it mean when we hear political ads and campaign speeches calling our country a nation of immigrants?
HOPE AND TEARS, Ellis Island Voices, by Gwenyth Swain, Calkins Creek, 2012

Voices mixed in essays, stories, poetry, prose poems, and plays trace the chronology of Ellis Island, entry to the land of opportunity for so many of our ancestors.  One quarter of all Americans have an ancestral link to Ellis Island which was open from 1892-1954.  Peak years were 1903-04 when it’s thought five-thousand men, women, and children may have passed through each day.

Those who served the immigrants faced interesting challenges. Cooks struggled to feed people from diverse backgrounds. Religion or culture or lack of familiarity with available foods made it difficult to plan menus everyone could or would eat. Imagine seeing a bowl of spaghetti for the first time and thinking it’s a bowl of white worms!

Inspectors didn’t speak the many languages they heard from the throngs of people they had to process.  One inspector suggested a smile can be helpful in any language.
Nurses wanted to kiss babies to comfort them but were told not to, for fear of picking up a contagious disease. (Some did it anyway, when they thought no one was looking.)

The author visited Ellis Island to research and write the stories and to gather historical images and take photographs. You can visit, too at excellent library and history web sites. The bibliography includes books for young readers.

As one would expect from both author Swain and imprint, Calkins Creek, the material is well researched and documented with a reader-friendly index.

Ellis Island is no longer an immigration point, but a museum with a library and an oral history collection. As the book draws to a close, “Lisa”, a National Park Service Employee, wonders as the museum  closes for the day, whether there might be spirits in the shadows. Would anyone want to spend the night there? Probably not.

After you listen to the voices on each page, revisit the faces. They will stay with you a long time. Are they frightened? Are those tears from exhaustion or from mourning what was left behind? What are they thinking? What are they hoping? Here’s food for thought at your next family dinner table.


Hillview School Library