Ghosts in the Slave Grounds

Sing, Unburied, Sing

By Jesmyn Ward

National Book Award for Fiction and recent MacArthur Genius Award winner Jesmyn Ward explores family bonds and racial prejudice and oppression in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Racism permeates the patch traversed by Jojo and his sister Kayla, his grandfather Pop and dying mother Mam, and his self-absorbed mother Leonie and his white father Michael, the pair not much older than children, and brings forth his murdered uncle Given, and another thirteen-year-old boy Richie, killed on the prison farm of Parchman (Mississippi State Penitentiary). Both Given and Richie, visible to Jojo, seek but can never find the release of justice, both stark and brutal reminders that post-racial America exists merely as a rhetorical phrase fronting a myth. As grim as this sounds, and as shocking as the family’s odyssey proves, Ward does find hope in the familial bonds of Jojo, Kayla, and Pop.

The story is about two journeys, one in real time and the other through recent history. Leonie solicits her white friend Misty, who has an imprisoned black boyfriend, to retrieve Michael from Parchman with her, where he has finished his term for cooking and selling meth. She thinks it’s a good idea to bring along her children, Kayla, a toddler, and Jojo, thirteen. As readers learn, she isn’t much of a mother, so bad and absent that her children can’t call her mom. She works but her passions are Michael, longing for Michael, and getting high. The burden of caring for the children fall to Pop and Mam, who now lies in bed, wracked by pain as she dies of cancer. Fortunately for Kayla and Jojo, Pop knows how to care for his family. As Jojo and Kayla share a special bond, so do Jojo and Pop. Pop teaches him how to live on the farm, the secrets of the woods and the animals, and of survival. He’s a man who has seen and experienced much pain in his life, including having served a term as a teen in Parchman. Slowly, over time, he tells Jojo the story of Richie, which is the tale of black oppression summed up in the short, brutal life of a thirteen-year-old boy. It’s a story Pop can barely finish, because, as readers will eventually learn, the ending is so horrifying.

Needless to say, the auto trip proves excruciating for the four, partly because Kayla becomes sick during it and nobody but Jojo seems to care or know how to comfort and help the child. When they eventually pick up Michael, the return trip devolves into something even more harrowing. Before getting Micheal, Leonie and Misty stop over at their lawyer’s house, Al. When you are dirt poor, as these people are, you get the Als of the world, representation by a drug addled wasted white man. He sends them off with crystal meth, and wouldn’t you know it, only hours out of prison, a cop pulls them over. Leonie, out love perhaps, desperation for certain, swallows the meth and what results nearly costs the travelers their freedom, and Jojo his life. It’s a scene straight out of a worst nightmare.

As if this wasn’t enough, Leonie possesses the ability envied by her mother, of seeing the dead. Perhaps this is supernatural, but it’s more likely the pain of losing her brother Given to murder. Suffice to say here that against all good advice, star athlete Given thought his white teammates regarded him as he regarded him, as brothers. In the end, his trust and misreading of race killed him as surely as the bullet. Let’s leave it for readers to discover the circumstances on their own. Leonie believes she sees him, voiceless, observing all her bad deeds. Jojo possesses this ability as well. It manifests when they pick up Michael from Parchman and Richie hitches a ride to find his old benefactor, Pop, whom he knows as River. What is little, perpetually a child Ritchie seeking? He’s wants the one person he felt ever acknowledged and cared about him. There’s much sadness here, but none sadder than Ritchie and what he represents.

While many will think, no, this isn’t a book for me, it, in fact, probably is a book for you, and especially for people who will never know about it. Because it is a story that needs telling and feeling on a visceral level, with the right among of openness to receive and acknowledge it. Strongly recommended. w/c

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Chapter 8: TRENTON, NEW JERSEY (Part 3)

3

Richard and I make our enchanted, abbreviated love as often as we can, building a catalog of safe places where we can linger without fear of discovery. Our favorite is the graveyard behind St. Mary’s. We trek to the farthest corner, to the section reserved for the nuns and priests who served the parish over the years. We encamp under a headstone and embrace, clinging to each other and our special summer. We joke the nuns under us, for we always choose a nun’s grave, watch us with envy, regretting the pleasures they sacrificed in exchange for an eternal bliss we’re both not certain of, agreeing it’s better to have it here and now.

Suddenly I am in the backseat of the DeSantis sedan, snuggling as best I can manage with Richard under the surveillance of the rearview mirror, pulling into the entrance of Rider University.

I’ve seen photos, but being on the campus and knowing this will be Richard’s home for four years, and in a year mine too, takes my breath away. Really, for a moment, gazing at the red brick buildings, at the small city of learning, I cannot breathe. Richard senses the hitch in my chest and acknowledges my excitement with a bolstering squeeze. I nod and smile, but my stomach turns, for it strikes me that I’m driving into my worst nightmare: girls slightly older than me, most prettier than me, more stylish than me, and with countenances speaking of seductive intelligence certainly surpassing my own materialize everywhere.  I keep the brown tide sloshing in my gut down; what I don’t need now is an embarrassing display of my insecurity. Richard is staring at me. I detect curiosity in his arched eyebrows.

“Nervous,” I say, and the admission pacifies my stomach.

“Hey, I’m the one who should have the jitters.”

He holds up a shaky hand. I grab it and squeeze.

“Thanks,” he says, “I’m calmer already.”

Mr. DeSantis parks in the lot behind the Student Union. We go in and his parents buy us sodas and we leave with them to explore the campus. It’s a surprisingly large and circumnavigating on foot takes more than an hour. We stop in the library and the size of it overwhelms me. I have never seen so many books under one roof; the library in Creek Falls holds maybe five thousand volumes. We finish at his dormitory. The dormitories, he tells me, are named after successful graduates who have donated to the school. His is Olsen Hall and he is in the A section. We climb three flights of stairs and find his room at the end of the corridor farthest from the communal bathroom.

On the way up I saw lots of girls, and now as we walk down the hall for a closer inspection of his room, I hear girls’ voices. Richard informs me the dormitories are coed, but not to worry. Girls and boys live on different floors. In Olsen A, girls are on the second floor, girls sandwiched between two floors of boys. He acts as if I should be reassured. My stomach troubles me again.

He wants to stroll the campus with me, but I’m too unsettled, too worried, too obsessed with the girls on the second floor. I mention it’s time we help his parents, who are at the car removing Richard’s bags from the trunk. He jokes they’re probably having the time of their lives, happy to be ridding themselves of him. I suggest we take a look at the second floor.

“Good idea,” he says. “Get a look at where you might be living next year.”

The floor is a duplicate of Richard’s. Young women are everywhere. Parents accompany the women. Younger men are with a few of them. But most—pretty and apparently unattached—are the young predators who disturb me. They’re not here as much for a traditional education and a diploma as for a man and a wedding ring, I think. I am terrorized by the idea any one of them could and would steal Richard from me. I might trust Richard, but I also know he is a boy and susceptible to determined women. I’m desperate to concoct a way to bind Richard to me, to transform the beautiful girls into anathema in his sight.

I take Richard’s hand, lead him off the offending floor, up the stairs, and into his room. I check the door for a lock and push in the bottom. I don’t feel entirely secure, but I am on a mission to strengthen my relationship with Richard, to insure it will survive the nine months he will be away from me.

I say coyly, at his bed, sitting on it, patting the mattress. “I’ll miss you, Richard.”

He sits next to me. He kisses me. I begin to unbutton my blouse. He covers my hand with his.

“What are you doing?”

I respond by playing with the button.

“You don’t want to do this,” he says.

I nod that I do.

“I don’t,” he says, removing his hand and standing.

“Why not?”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong. I do. I really do. It’s not easy saying no. But not here and not for your reason.”

“My reason. My reason is I love you.”

He shakes his head and sits. “Stop with the button. Your reason is you don’t trust me. No, no, don’t say anything. Don’t deny it. I can imagine what you’re thinking.” He points at the floor.

“Richard, I’m not—”

“Babe, I’m not blaming you for not trusting me. I mean, not entirely trusting me. But you don’t have to worry, okay. I love you. And I don’t want you doing anything you’ll regret.”

“I won’t—”

“I’m Richard, Babe, the guy you’ve been dating for nearly two years, the guy you’ve shut down half a dozen times. It’s my turn now,” he says.

“You don’t want to?”

“I want to, more than anything. But I won’t. I can read your mind, Babe.”

“Don’t say what you see there, please.”

He opens his arms to me. “Come here.”

I slide close to him and he embraces me and what suffuses me is faith. I can trust Richard in the Olsen A den of lionesses.

As he kisses me, the doorknob rattles.

“Richard?” his mother calls.

Richard shrugs, goes to the door and lets his parents in.

“We didn’t mean to disturb you two.”

“We’re done with our goodbyes,” he says.

Beguiled by Wealth

The Locals

By Jonathan Dee

A very rich man, Philip Hadi, decides to make the small New England town of Howland, situated in southwestern Massachusetts, his family’s permanent home. Though something of a gnomish fellow, he possesses a feature which at once puts the locals off and thoroughly beguiles them. That something is his fabulous wealth and how he uses it to exercise his will over the town. And how he inspires a man, Mark Firth, to dream big and go for it with foreclosure purchases and renovations, in other words, house flipping. The point of the whole thing boils down to pathetic irony, for everything hoped for and promised devolves into the opposite.

The novel opens in New York City immediately after 9/11 with the first-person account of a grifter flummoxed by the general feelings of bonhomie and unity among New Yorkers. This, he grumbles often, is not New York. He cleaned up suing the city when he drunkenly walked in front of city bus. Promptly, he lost his winnings to a bigger grifter, an investment swindler, making him part of a class action suit. Which introduces readers to the central character of Jonathan Dee’s The Locals, Mark Firth, who is a small time contractor in Howland, also robbed by the investment swindler. By the end of the opening pages, Firth returns to Howland, once again raked over the coals of life, the victim of identity theft. Mark, oh Mark, you indeed are a mark, borne out by the balance of the novel.

Life in Howland is none too good. As with the rest of America at the time, fear consumes people. Even the Philip Hadi types, a Tom Wolfe “Master of the Universe,” are taken aback, which accounts for Hadi’s resettlement in Howland. Beyond that, though, Howland is a town in economic trouble. Mark, while better off than most, finds himself among them, with work scarce, his credit destroyed, and his marriage to Karen shaky, partly as a result of the financial swindle. Hadi proves a godsend, providing Mark with plenty of work and money to fortify the millionaire’s house against the fearful shadows of imagination. Rubbing elbows with Hadi plants in Mark’s mind the idea of possibilities. Here’s the thing about realizing financial possibilities: you’re lulled into believing the good times will go on forever. Then something like 2008 happens (the bookend of the novel).

Back to Howland. Taxes are rising and the populace isn’t happy. So when Hadi tells the locals he knows a way to treat them to more services and reduce their taxes, they make him First Selectman (mayor in New England parlance). And he delivers, covering a huge number of expenses out of his own pocket, while cutting their property taxes. Not to put too fine a point on it, they trade the American myth of rugged individualism for a few pieces of silver. Not everybody misses this. Mark’s brother, Gerry, for instance. He works in a real estate firm, which he hates, and from which he is fired. On the q-t under a pseudonym he rabble rouses about independence in a newsletter that not many read, until he becomes a pawn in a small-town political coup, exasperated when Hadi decides it’s safe to return to the city, taking his support of the town with him.

Mark, Karen, and Gerry are but three of a cast of small town characters, all with his or her own sets of problems and axes to grind, including Mark and Karen’s preteen daughter Haley, and their sister Candace, who manages to lose her teaching job, end up as librarian/social worker, and functions, to her unhappiness, as the caretaker of their ailing parents.

There’s more, but this is the gist. You’ll find much truth here. If you are from a small town, you may recognize how well Dee captures its essence. And while this all may sound a bit downbeat, Dee manages to find enough humor to prevent readers feeling too miserable. Many will find the novel a fair assessment of America life, of fears and hopes, in the first years of the 21st century. w/c

Making Choices in Nazi Germany

Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives

Karin Wieland

If Karin Wieland’s dual biography does nothing else, it vividly illustrates that your choices do make a difference.

In the case of Marlene Dietrich, her move to the U.S. and particularly her active support of the Allied war effort enhanced her reputation, even when some of the films she made were not the best.

By contrast, though Riefenstahl proved herself a prodigious filmmaking skill, she achieved her greatest successes by dubious methods and in the service of the greatest evil in a century that witnessed a good deal of murderous events.

Regarding Dietrich, you could admire her talent openly and happily, whereas you might concede Riefenstahl’s talent, but given the subject and the service to which she put it, a qualifier must follow any positive comment. This is not a biography devoid of a viewpoint, being very much black and white in favor of Dietrich.

Worthwhile for those interested in early filmmaking, Nazi Germany, and, of course, the actress and the propagandist. While the book includes an assortment of photos, a wider selection keyed to some of the events covered would be appreciated. Includes footnotes, a brief reading list, and a helpful index. w/c

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Chapter 8: TRENTON, NEW JERSEY (Part 1 and 2)

1

It is a few days after the 4th of July, the middle of summer and already I am lonely. I am missing Richard, though he and I are together every weekend, and often a couple of nights each week. In September, Richard leaves for college in New Jersey, where he will study business. He has professed his love for me and assured me nothing will come between us. He has everything planned, he’s told me. I will follow him down to New Jersey and attend the same university next year. I’ll study to be a teacher, which is what I want; teaching is my choice; taking my degree at the same university as Richard is our mutual idea. We will be together for three years. When he graduates, we will get engaged. When I graduate, we will marry.

I should be very happy, but I am apprehensive.

First is the separation. Since the day I met Richard at the bus stop waiting for Number 13, he and I have never been apart, not for so much as a couple of days. Richard and I have been one, and to not be one, to again be separate people, unsettles me.

I have no worries about myself, of what I will do alone. No boy at Creek Falls High School compares to Richard. During the years we have been a couple, no one but Richard has attracted me. Before Richard, boys never seemed particularly interested in me. After Richard and I began dating, boys noticed me. Once, I would have reveled in the attention; but no longer, not with Richard as my boyfriend.

My second concern is that Richard and I have never been completely intimate, though we have been on the borderline. Closest was the past 4th. We were in my bedroom. My parents were miles away, outside town at my aunt and uncle’s place, a small ten-acre farm, traditional site of our big family barbecue. Richard and I began the day there. I introduced him around, almost like table visits at a wedding reception, except we weren’t carrying a cookie tray, and I was only imagining what my wedding might be like. Richard was tremendous: social, gregarious with my aunts, thoughtful and respectful with my uncles, endearing with my little cousins. He consumed huge quantities of potato salad, more hamburgers and hotdogs than any boy ought to; gulped a six-pack of soda; and managed to play a full nine innings of softball with the family, our traditional men vs. women contest. At six, I feigned illness, an upset stomach. Everybody kidded it was Richard who should have the stomachache, and he took the ribbing with grace and charming humor. He offered to drop me at home and everybody commented on his consideration and manners in allowing my parents to stay and enjoy the evening.

My house was silent, still, and thick with noiseless summer air when we entered. Upstairs was different. The windows were open and through them we heard the night’s breeze rustle the trees, almost symphonic, low and dreamy, like Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s nocturne. The breeze through the window was moist, palpably ripe, in addition to melodic. In my bedroom, I lowered the venetian blinds and drew my curtains before switching on my bedstead lamp. Richard snickered at my bed, and I admit it had crossed my mind that he might. But it was a gentle and loving little chuckle, uttered with a tugging hug. It was me, he declared, me because I was a princess and deserved that accoutrement of royalty—a canopy bed.

Richard proved himself a tender and respectful lover, who settled for kissing and fondling, though he might have gone farther with me. We were on my bed for more than an hour, under the deep blue canopy dotted with pale blue five-point stars, the edges outlined in silver thread. They sparkled in the low lamplight. Richard insisted we keep the lamp lit; part of the pleasure, he said, was seeing, and, of course, he was right; seeing intensified each kiss, each caress. I believed I could never tire of gazing on Richard or listening to him, or the sensuality of his hand stroking and petting me. He imagined us in an enchanted forest, a strange and wonderful reserve for young lovers, where we could read our future written on the silver undersides of star leaves arched over us. Traced on the constellation I saw our life together, long and fulfilled.

Richard is a romantic and I love him dearly for it.

But his wondrous trait is another of my concerns, and really the crux of my vexation. Everybody yearns for romantic love. Angie and I surely do, and I think we are like everybody, or at least we are like most girls, except Rosemary. Angie and I discuss the subject a lot, about how we wish our lives will turn out. And invariably it resolves to life with loving partners who remain romantic until death parts us. Maybe ours is an unrealistic desire, but we indulge in it and believe, for us, it is possible. And with Richard, I am more convinced than ever.

Yet college, Richard away, adrift, and romantic by nature—I fear it portends trouble for me. Richard, I’ve come to believe, is a boy who cannot live without a girl. The moment he sets foot on campus, the touch of his toe on the ground will announce his presence to every girl at the school. It will be as if an electric current of desire radiates through the earth and enters each girl through her feet, is absorbed by her blood, and flows instantly to her heart; she will know he is on campus, available to her, and in need of her.

2

Richard and I are driving around Creek Falls, aimlessly, no destination in mind, just to be together. I’m leaning on him, head is on his shoulder, and I feel his every movement as he steers the car and navigates corners. Richard doesn’t own a car, which is why he gets his rides from Bobby. However, Richard is a charming boy—a young man, I should say, nearly in college. He has exploited his skills to win over my parents, and my father has allowed him to use our car, acceding to Richard’s argument that he would be off to college soon and he and I won’t have much time together, which makes me happy, since I don’t like Richard being beholden to Bobby McFarlane. My parents have come to respect my love for Richard. Angie has chortled over this and eyed me with undisguised envy, for she has never dated a boy her parents have found suitable.

Richard plays the radio loud, and tonight he’s cranked it higher than usual. I reach and lower the volume until we barely hear it above the wind whishing by the open windows.

“I’m a little worried,” I say.

“Don’t worry even a tiny bit,” he says, glancing down at me, running his eyes up and down me, smiling. “We’ll return your father’s car to him good as new. Better than new because I’ll stop by the Robo-Wash on the way home.”

“I mean I’m worried about us, about you going away and what will become of us.”

“You know what will happen. We’ll go to school. We’ll graduate. I’ll land a good job. And we’ll get married when you graduate. We’ve talked about it.”

“I know that’s what we’ve said. But it’s the first year, when you’re … when we won’t be like this.”

“Babe,” he says, the first time I notice he’d developed the habit of referring to me as his baby, or babe, and I love the endearment, “I’ll be too busy studying. You know me, Babe, I’m a worker. Nose to the grindstone and all that.”

He glances at me and sees he hasn’t allayed my concern.

“I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you drive down with my parents and me? You’re going there anyway next year. It’ll give you a chance to scout out the campus.”

“Really, your parents won’t mind?”

“Hell, no, excuse my French. They adore you, Babe. They think you’re the reason I’m going. You know, you kept me on the straight and narrow.”

Let’s Intellectualize a Story to Death

Zero K

By Don DeLillo

The big idea in this novel focusing on cryogenics, life, death, and rebirth is certainly sufficient to draw many readers to at least sample the first few pages. Some will find DeLillo’s prose styling arresting, others will forbear the stultifying language (in a novel partly about language defining life) in pursuit of this cryogenic hook, and many others, probably the majority, will take a pass.

The storyline is pretty simple. You have a super rich father, Ross Lockhart, whose young wife, his second, is dying. Turns out he is the major investor in a cryogenic project, Convergence, preserving people in a special facility located in a desolate area of the Asian continent. Not just a freezing center, it’s an entirely new culture in which participants commit themselves to returning cured and healthy to build a new, better world, one eschewing the many horrors of current civilization and expressing their new ideas and approach in a unique language. While preparation of his wife for freezing takes place, he, though a healthy sixty, contemplates joining her, becoming something of an advance guard of believers who take the leap, leap death, leap into the future. Sounds like a cult, in this case a cult of aesthetes, the idea further reinforced by the appearance of frozen bodies as art. Is Ross merely trying to escape his mortality, or are he and his compadres on to something? Go figure for yourself.

His son Jeffery, mid-thirties guy ambling through life, is a fellow of the here and now (indicated by his detailed descriptions of minutiae) and due to the terrible way Ross treated his first wife, Jeff’s mother, he’s none too fond of his dad. Nor does he appreciate his father’s meddling in hooking him up with super wealthy jobs. Jeff has a girlfriend, Emma, divorced from her husband, who lives in Denver with their son Stak. Stak is something of a wild child, a young teen who wants and seems to run his own life. You get the impression that the Emma-Jeff relationship lacks passion, but then it might just be the overall tone of the novel, a bunch of words and ideas lumped together and devoid of any real passion, like the Convergence dugout in the desert, another sterile place.

Some reviewers called this DeLillo’s best novel, an achievement of sorts. There are many, especially fans of his earlier work, to wit White Noise, who will disagree. Of interest to some, but a trial for most primarily because it intellectualizes mightily and delivers little. w/c

Women Exerting Their Independence

Little Fires Everywhere

By Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere may be one of the best novels you read this year, and certainly the best about women exercising control over their lives while rebelling against societal strictures. It also may be one of the best novels using place as a character, here as a contrast to the untidiness of human life.

Ng takes great care to provide readers with a strong and clear sense of place. The place is Shaker Heights, Ohio, a well-to-do suburb of Cleveland. Shaker Heights as a planned greenbelt town dates back to 1909. It was and is a highly organized community governed by strict rules regarding nearly every aspect of the standardization of neighborhoods and structures. According to her biography, her family moved to Shaker Heights when Celeste was ten, and she graduated from Shaker Heights High School before moving on to Harvard. If there was ever an example of a hometown serving an author well and being incorporated into a novel almost as a character, this is it. Shaker Heights represents an ideal, well ordered, structured, affluent, a manifestation of the American Dream. That real life rarely measures up to the dream and seems to fit into a place like Shaker only with much shoehorning comes through loud and clear, and might be taken as a subtext of the novel.

The time is the late Nineties (implied by characters’ music choices, TV shows, and the like, until Ng explicitly sets the date late in the novel). The novel opens at the end, with the Richardson’s house burned to naked brick and rafters, and with a Richardson daughter missing. The story unfolds in the past, when Mia Warren and her teen daughter Pearl rent an apartment in a two-flat owned by the Richardsons. The contrast between Elena Richardson and Mia Warren is about as stark as it can get. Mrs. Richardson is married to her college love, who is a lawyer; Mia is unmarried. Elena Richardson works for a small Shaker newspaper, an accommodation to establishing a family and living in Shaker Heights; Mia is an artist, employing photography and montage techniques. Elena grew up in Shaker Heights and wanted to live nowhere else; Mia is a nomad, pulling up stakes every few months. Elena has four children, Trip, Lexie, Izzy, and Moody; Mia has only Pearl. Elena and Izzy are in constant conflict, primarily because neither fully understands how much each means to the other; Mia and Pearl live generally harmoniously together.

Mia, while a well regarded artist who sells her creations through a gallery in New York, hardly gets by on her work. To supplement her income, she works variously as a waitress, cleaning woman, and the like. Elena, who prides herself on providing a helping hand to deserving people, and who sees value in Mia’s talent, takes her on to work part-time in her home. Meanwhile, in school, Mia becomes friends with Moody and ends up spending much of her time in the Richardson home. For the first time in her life, she finds a welcoming home in which she feels truly comfortable. That stands in contrast to Izzy, who finds no welcome or comfort in her home, but who does find it with Mia, when she volunteers as Mia’s assistant. Unlike Shaker, you see, the relations of people living in it become messy pretty quickly, especially when unexpected romantic attachments develop among the teens.

Even more, Mia Warren is a woman with a past, which Ng relates in some of the novel’s strongest pages. Suffice to say that her past has a significant bearing another bit of central action in the novel. This involves the adoption by Elena’s close Shaker friends, the McCulloughs. They have tried for years to have children, finally turning to adoption. At it for years, they finally have the chance to adopt a child left at a local firehouse, and they grab it. It’s a Chinese baby they name Mirabelle. Then the baby’s mother, under the guidance of Mia, emerges to reclaim her child. A court battle ensues that raises elemental questions about motherhood. You will find yourself in the position of the judge, torn between both sides.

These then are the barest of the novel’s bones, but none of its humanity, and certainly not a drop of its wonderful nuance and tone. And the tone, here Ng possesses a special talent, indeed, for from the beginning it’s as if an old friend has put an arm around you and softly tells you a story about a town that looks perfect but which is filled with disturbing conflicts, with life altering decisions, with crushing sadness for some, but with new hope for others. Highly recommended. w/c