Books Review – Caroline, Rebecca, Kaya

Meet Caroline
Kathleen Ernst
Illustrations Robert Papp
Hardback, 2012

Meet Rebecca
Jacqueline Dembar Greene
Illustrations by Robert Hunt
Paperback, 2009

Meet Kaya
Janet Shaw
Illustrations by Bill Farnsworth
Hardback, 2002

As part of Pleasant Company/American Girl’s decision to retire Molly, Misheal and I went back and read through some of the books – Misheal tackled Molly’s six book series, but I went through and did Molly’s companion books and have now moved on to the other Meet whoever books from the American Girl catalogue.

In Meet Caroline, we’re looking at the first shots of the War of 1812, and a little girl who lives in upstate New York on the shore of a great lake.  When war breaks out, she’s in a boat that her father built with her father and two cousins.  As they go towards Upper Canada, still British owned, they get seized by the British Army, who takes the girls back to their family but hold her father and cousin, Oliver, as prisoners of war.  [Side note – if Oliver is from Upper Canada, he’s a British Citizen.  I don’t know why they took him prisoner…]

In Meet Rebecca, we’re with a Jewish family in the midst of World War I.  Her problems start with not being allowed to say the prayer to light the candles on Saturday, and end with her persecuted Jewish cousins trying to get out of Russia with their lives.

In Meet Kaya, we’re in the midst of a Native American tribe somewhere in the Oregon/Washington/Idaho area (they only show us a map of the tribal lands, they don’t really say where they are) during Salmon Fishing Season.

So now on to my feelings about the books themselves.  First of all, I am a little disappointed (no really) that they broke their format of all the dates ending in 4, but it did open them up to things like the War of 1812, which we learned sadly little about in school.  (The other one, so far, is Cecile and Marie-Grace in New Orleans in 1853.)  But it doesn’t have any bearing on what I thought about these stories, I just wanted to throw it out there.

Some of the early dolls/books were period specific but didn’t really have a lot to deal with/understand.  What I noticed in these three books is that they have gotten a little bit more serious in what they’re talking about.  Caroline is captured by troops, Rebecca is dealing with religious persecution and Kaya gets into a lot of cultural stuff that we may not be that familiar with – family/community obligation, behavior affecting everyone (at one point, something she does causes all of the children of the village to get whipped), etc.

Caroline and Rebecca feel similar, despite being 100 years apart, because they’re dealing with the same sorts of things.  They both have family in really precarious positions – Caroline’s father in a POW camp, Rebecca’s cousins trying to get here from Russia – and they’re both in New York and family centric (although that’s a common theme in all American Girl books).

Interesting, though, was that even though Rebecca’s book starts in 1914, there’s absolutely no discussion about WWI.  For now, I give it the benefit of the doubt, as the assassination of Frans Ferdinand didn’t happen until the end of July, but the way the series starts out, it doesn’t feel like they’re planning to talk about it at all, and that’s my interest in the era.  What I did find curious was that the Russians were persecuting the Jews way back then and that’s not something I’ve *ever* learned in history class.  Public Education Fail for sure.  America seriously needs to stop being so selfish and start teaching about the world.

Kaya’s book, on the other hand, was so totally different.  Her story takes place in 1764, and aside from the Small Pox epidemic being a fleeting comment (her grandmother has the scars and the story to tell), her family doesn’t really have much to do with anything outside her tribe.  What I did like, however, was how close the tribe was.  Even the ones who weren’t blood relation were considered cousins and part of the extended family.  When Kaya’s actions (leaving her little brothers in the care of a blind person so she can go off and race her horse) cause the Whipping Woman to come out and punish all the children of the village, Kaya learns humility and to be a team player.  I have to say, I kind of like the Nimiipuu (nee-MEE-poo aka Nez Perce) culture.  I like how the focus is for the greater good and having a group of people that are family even when they’re not; too often in modern culture, we have families who don’t speak to each other, people who move apart and then let distance cause an emotional separation as well, etc.  Kaya’s motivation was to be a citizen that her tribe was proud of.  If only we had that today.

In all, I love that these books deal with serious topics, but do so in a way that kids (well, girls anyway) can relate to.  In all of these books, we get to see that girls, even if they’re expected to do submit to the female roles of society, can be strong, courageous, and awesome.  Women are more than the cooking and the cleaning, and even if that’s what’s expected of them, they can rise to any occasion, and that is a lesson that I hope every girl gets – you can be amazing, you just have to do it.

I’m going to give these books a 4/5.  I know they’re geared towards 10-year-olds (all the characters turn 10 in their birthday books), but I think they have a broader range than that (easily 7-12, but beyond that), and they’re great as topics of conversation.

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Book Review – Sex Changes by Christine Benvenuto

Sex Changes: A memoir of marriage, gender, and moving on
Christine Benvenuto
Hardback
2012

I’ve been reading more about transgender issues lately in an attempt to understand them better. I know a couple people that fall somewhere to the left of the male/female spectrum. When I found this book, I thought it would be an interesting take on the issue.
The author is a woman of some age (they never really told us, but I’m guessing about 40), who has three kids, Adam, Bibi and Lilly (not their real names), oh, and a husband, Tracy (not his real name), who is a woman trapped in a man’s body. The book picks up pretty much when he declares that to his wife.
Before I go any further with this review, a bit of a side note – I do believe firmly that I should refer to “Tracy” by whichever pronoun Tracy prefers, but since the book referred to Tracy as “he” the whole time, I’m going to as well, just to make the review all streamlined and stuff.
The book is done in three parts. Part one is called, originally, Part One. It deals with the author finding out what’s going on with her husband, and getting to the point where Tracy finally moves out. We find out that they’re Jewish, that they’ve spent much of their marriage living separately because of work and whatever, and that there are three kids. That’s about it.
And I have to say that I have never, ever, ever in my life read a memoir about a more unsympathetic twat in my life. I’m serious. I have no sympathy at any point in this book for this woman because of how she is. Keep in mind, this is how she’s telling her story, how she wants it known and (hopefully) how it really went down. And all I read in the first 120 pages or so was about a woman whose husband came to her with a statement (“I feel like I’m a woman trapped as a man”) and she said “no” and “don’t tell the kids.”
I’m not going to use this review to argue with how she should have handled the situation, one way or another, but before any of my readers get up in arms, remember that there’s a difference between playing along and having compassion, and I at least expected a little compassion. Yeah, I expected the “my marriage is over” part of things, and no, I never expected her to go dress shopping with Tracy (which she totally didn’t) but I did not, at any point prior to having the book in my hands, expect this to be the memoir of a woman who was all “I’m such a victim, feel bad for me!” about everything.
I read through to page 120, and all I could think was that I wanted to bean this chick with a baseball bat a few dozen times. And while I don’t at all agree with the way her husband went about being towards her during the transition, I can’t help but wonder if maybe a gram of compassion from Christine at any point could have softened the entire situation for all involved.
So I started trying to figure out why I hated this woman so much. Yes, a lot of it was her actions. “I couldn’t believe everyone was taking HIS side, but then again, we live in the Valley of the Politically Correct!” A lot of it was the fact that she had gone to the trouble of writing a memoir and had somehow managed to not put a detail about ANYTHING in this book. (No, I’m not asking for her street address, but I want some idea of what’s really going on other than her being Jewish in the Valley of the Politically Correct [her term] somewhere in, I think, New England, which is about as vague as saying you live “over yonder” and pointing while on vacation somewhere.)
Then there’s her style. Her style of speaking and doing and everything. At one point, the author is talking about her 8=year-old daughter. “I was in shock. I knew my little girl to be precociously verbal, but even so her words added shock to shock.” Wait. What? Or, another favorite. “Over the years, Lilly has become more articulate about her feelings. When she was six, she began to pontificate on the subject of having a dad who is a girl.”
It’s like the author was so busy telling us what her feelings should have been that she didn’t feel anything. There’s nothing at all comfortable about this woman. Nevermind the fact that she stripped out so much of anything, whatsoever that would have connected us with her…
We hear about the half-assed friendships she had (“it wasn’t until I lost these people that I realized I had never really been close to them”), how nobody cared about her because it wasn’t politically correct to do so, etc. I don’t know what she’s been doing in therapy all these years, but seriously, all she’s telling us is how much of a fucking victim she was through all of it, sad and alone and stuck with the kids. Nevermind the fact that she starts her damn story out by talking about how, because of work, she was often the only parent with the kids anyway.
Part 2 of the book is almost a totally different book the way its written. She finally gets to the part about how the kids are feeling, but again, we had to hear about her “precociously verbal” children and a load of other shit that just made me want to hit her.
At one point, she listed all the things she had to do in her day, starting with her 4:30 AM getting up to exercise while checking email and read the paper while listening to NPR. In this, she refers to the kids as Ms. 7 and Ms. 4 and Mr. 13 (o_O), talks about taking three kids to three schools in three cities, and even gives us about a third of a page on getting “Ms. 4” to the center of town to get the bus to the school that she’s teaching in that day. Now, I get it that lives get complicated the more people you’re responsible for. But your son is 13, which totally means he can get his own sorry ass up with an alarm clock, and if you’re so damn busy, why are you doing things like driving across town to get your kid to a bus to take her THE SAME PLACE YOU’RE GOING ANYWAY. Also, there’s a potty training incident, which makes me wonder why she doesn’t have a change of clothes and a box of wipes in the car for the kid (really, she had to take the kid home to wash her clothes?). Oh, and seriously, she put listening to the radio on this list, so…
Folks, life lesson. Don’t overcomplicate your life and then complain about it. Seriously. And this list was TWO PAGES LONG and barely covered her getting to work with just a sentence or so gloss over about her work day.
And again, it’s another example of the disconnect we get with this woman. She wrote her kids up as Ms. 7 and Mr 13. Who does that?

I marked page 192 because it’s the first time she really talks about dealing with Tracy on an emotional level and her acceptance/understanding/adjustment to the Trans issue. Up to this point, all she’d managed to do was tell him he couldn’t be a woman and have a few convos with the kids. It took almost 200 pages to get to a point where she talks about transgender issues as anything but a slight to her marriage.

So I’m giving this book a 2 for several reasons.
The first is that if I hadn’t been reviewing it and so hell-bent on getting to the end of this for some reason other than her victim mentality, I would have put it down before the second part. The fact is that if the entire memoir had had the feel of the 2nd part (and sort of the third, even though that’s sort of just summation), I would have like d it a whole lot more.
But the second reason is because of all the things this book is missing. I don’t care that she changed names (a fact that we had to read any time she named anybody – hello, make a note at the front) and that she wanted to protect herself (although the whole small town that she never moved out of knows what’s going on, so…), but you can’t strip everything and expect there to be anything left when you’ve finished. If she would have loosened up a bit and relaxed for a minute, we might have got something out of this that was helpful.
Really, don’t bother. Even if you’re in her situation, going it alone has got to be better than this.

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