Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Under thine own life's key

Back when Mis Hermanas and I were only allowed to watch pre-1970s movies, we ended up watching a lot of WWII films ... and a lot of those were POW movies. (The Great Escape remains to this day the one film I have seen the most in my life, due to watching it every other weekend one summer in middle school.)

There are very few women in war movies. But when we'd play-act or write (we would have "travelling stories" sessions where we'd each write for 10 minutes, then trade and keep finishing each other's stories), we'd insert ourselves or kick-ass girls into the storyline as if their war experience could be equal to those of men.  Once, I even turned in a story in high school about a female pilot shot down over Germany who escapes from a POW camp; my English teacher hailed it as a good idea for story contest and history research project.

So stories about female pilots shot down over occupied Europe in WWII were already familiar terrain for me.

But I read Code Name Verity on the recommendation of a friend, thinking it would be a Spy Kids kind of storyline... or even one along the lines of the Maggie Hope series.

Instead, Code Name Verity had me sobbing for the last few chapters. It's the story of two best friends, female civilian pilots who ferry planes for airborne servicemen to use. When shot down in occupied France, one is captured and tortured for information, and one is not. The story of their friendship and fates is told captivatingly through diaries and journal entries.

The sequel, Rose Under Fire, was actually heavier in content than its predecessor (I didn't think it could be, but it was). Rose is also the story of a female pilot, shot down over Germany towards the end of the war. She is thrown into the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp and shares a bunker with a (real life) group of Polish prisoners who have been the subject of Nazi medical experiments. It evoked memories of specific passages from both Night and Survival in Auschwitz that, even years later, I can never forget.

Wein's writing style reflects the fact that the books are written for young adults, and the characters are all young women in their late teens who are still navigating their place in a male-dominated world. The characters struggle to find -- and maintain --  their own voices amidst chaos and utter brutality: the respective themes of the books are "I have told the truth" and "Tell the world".

The books are heartbreaking and heart-wrenching, but they speak to the simple heroism of survival and the enduring power of friendship. I'm definitely adding these books to my collection of WWII fiction for young adults.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Hard and heavy tidings

In the wee hours of late summer, both pre- and post-primary election, the long hours of work frequently demand cheesy soap opera-esque dramas to soothe the unending campaign routine.

The Maggie Hope series provided exactly that relief.

The main character is half-British, half-American trying to find her roots in London when war breaks out. She happens to be a brilliant mathematician who speaks German. She happens to be recruited to join the secret service in the war effort. And of course, she discovers that her supposedly long-dead father is actually a brilliant scientist working with Alan Turing on super-secret code stuff, that her also supposedly long-dead mother is in fact a famous German spy, that the man she loves in Book One and supposedly dies in Book Two is alive after all in Book Three (to create an awkward love triangle with Man 2, who consoled her after the "death" of Man 1).  And that she has a nurse half-sister in Berlin who secretly tries to save mentally ill and other Nazi-deemed "undesirable" children.

In between all of these scandalous revelations, Miss Hope (right?) saves London from an Irish insurgent, saves Princess Elizabeth from a Nazi kidnapping plot, and gathers valuable information for the Allies from behind enemy lines in the heart of the Fatherland. Naturally, she goes rogue several times (but her ends always justify the means); and she always has a showdown with male superiors who want to limit her role to more mundane and secretarial duties. There are also inspirational Churchill quotes interspersed, Mrs Miniver-like scenes from around Britain, and gay and Jewish best friends to remind us of what the war is really about.

The books are a fairly quick read, and the plots are almost comic-book unbelievable. But they're still enjoyable!

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Ah, Teneriffe!

Because the WA State primary and then the general elections swooped in almost immediately after the Mt Rainier adventure, I've barely had time to pause and reflect.

Rainier was AMAZING. I had a small anxiety attack at midnight at 12,000' when we started the final trek to the top, and had to turn back. But 12,000' is now the highest height to which I have ever hiked (beating my previous record of 10,000' at base camp the year before).

And I loved every minute on the Mountain.

I discovered I love hanging out on glaciers. I discovered exactly how in-shape I was (despite ongoing body-image issues that women in our society are told to have), what my personal hiking style is, and that there is actually cell phone service at 11,000' on the southeast glacier. Also, that there are bees that high up, despite there being no vegetation.

I'll be back to finish the summit in the next few years!

So then a few months after the Rainier summit attempt, I summited Mount St Helens - though it's now considerably lower in elevation (8,365' to Rainier's 14,410'), the journey to the top was completely different. (No glacial travel, though there is one glacier on the mountain.)

For starters, the trail past the timber line is straight up ash and huge pumice boulders. It's extremely humbling to realize that, once upon a time when I was a baby in Wenatchee cranky because I couldn't go outside to play in the falling ash, the very boulders I was scrambling over were being formed deep within the earth's crust and ejected nine miles into the atmosphere above St Helens before landing on the slopes for future climbers to maneuver around.

The view at the top is similarly humbling: the mile-wide crater, with the growing lava dome in the middle, dozens of vents spewing steam, and the entire north slope of the mountain completely missing (and the forest still pretty scorched and desolate).

The main steam vent was captivating - I took tons of footage of the plumes spiraling upward.

And when we finally got fellow climbers at the top to hush, the most humbling experience of all...

You can hear the mountain rumbling.