North by Northwest (1959)

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I was not very well-acquainted with the work of Alfred Hitchcock.  Due to his lasting influence on film and pop culture, I had absorbed most of my information about him and his films rather than having seen the films for myself.  For some reason (Psycho and The Birds, probably), I had him pegged as a director of horror movies.  I do not like horror movies, so I did not bother to watch Hitchcock films.

It was not until the opening credits of North by Northwest that I learned that in fact, Hitchcock made a wide variety of films.  Rather than horror, they could better be classified as “suspenseful”.  North by Northwest is an identity-theft caper about an advertising executive (named Thornhill and played by Cary Grant) from New York in the late 1950s.  The executive, approaching middle age with an overbearing mother and two divorces behind him, is mistaken for a government agent by foreign spies and ends up on the run for his life.  Along the way, he meets a fashionable, suave, young woman who alternates from being his saviour to being his liability.  It seems to end all well and good, although his overbearing mother will still be in his life.

Thornhill is a decent everyman hero.  In 1959, that meant being clean-cut, wearing a suit, drinking heavily, smoking, and holding patronizing attitudes about women.  He grows more sympathetic as the plot progresses.  As for the woman, Eve Kendall, she goes from being the epitome of the liberated woman to being a damsel in distress, subservient and taken care of.  It is seen as the natural order of things.  When we are introduced to her, she is travelling alone, sexually-liberated, and fashionably dressed.  She is confident, mysterious, and seductive.  As the story continues, we discover that she is “kept” as a possession, her sexuality is closely guarded, and her clothes are a statement of her objectification.  She is nervous, meek, and whiny.  Everyone is playing with her, even (to a lesser extent) Thornhill.

Initially, I was heavily bothered by the change in Eve’s character arc.  The message seemed clear: women who are liberated need to be brought back into line by a strong, wholesome man.  Even if that man was not very wholesome, as is the case with Thornhill.  However, I came to realise that instead, the liberation that Eve seems to have when she initially appears is only an illusion.  She is nothing but a puppet, which Thornhill clearly realises at the climax of the film.  Only to him is she a person worth saving.  Ultimately, she gains liberty by becoming his love interest – although I’m not too sure what Thornhill’s mother will think of her!

Does this mean that this film is unbearably misogynistic? Absolutely not.  It is a product of its era and of its creators.  In fact, it is an enduring story because identity theft is an all too common threat in the modern era.  We could only wish to have the travel freedom that Thornhill has if our names and faces were to become associated with crime or foreign terrorism!  A modern remake of this film would have to have Thornhill not only try to account for newspapers, but also 24-hour news networks, Twitter, and online articles with his face splashed over them.  He would definitely spend a lot more time hiding and disguising himself.

Like many older films, North by Northwest suffers by being distracting.  It is purportedly a contemporary film but ever so obviously dated to the 1950s.  However, I was intrigued by the caper and it was a good mystery.  The story was suspenseful and the cinematics were thrilling for the era.  It was a treat to watch.

I’m thinking more Hitchcock films should be in order in the future.  Apparently, I was wrong about the horror.

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Gnomeo & Juliet (2011) – If Only Disney Had Been British!

Adaptations are risky business.  For one, audiences already know the basic story and so are not as eager to hear it told again.  For another, those who do want to hear it again do so because they love the original.  They love the plot, the setting, the characters, the themes, or the way in which the story was told – or a combination of said things.  Changing the plot?  Horrors!  Updating or moving the setting?  Scandalous!  Eliminating or altering characters?  The outrage!  Basically, adaptations have only their changes as selling points, so they had better be good ones.

And thus we bring you William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet…in the modern English suburbs – starring garden gnomes!

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Gnomeo and Juliet, directed by Kelly Asbury, is a delightful twist on Shakespeare’s original play.  It contains dozens of subtle and not-so-subtle references to Shakespeare plays so that even if you only paid the bare minimum of attention in high school English class, you will be amused and think yourself quite clever.  (Or else you will groan, because you hate puns…)

Really, a play written over four hundred years ago and studied in high schools for the past sixty or more needs few adaptations.  Moreover, in order to ensure that your adaptation is thoroughly enjoyed, you need something beyond “we’ve modernized it!” or “we’ve retold it like a historical drama!”  Modern writers have retold Romeo and Juliet using robots, zombies, and vampires, to name a few.

But garden gnomes?

In fact, Gnomeo and Juliet take all the comedy of the first half of Shakespeare’s actual play and then it just keeps the laughter going.  The sentient garden gnomes are human-like enough to be sympathetic and relatable, but just inanimate enough for adult audiences to remain emotionally detached from the drama.  Instead, the whole tragedy is seen for what it is – namely silly, petty, and unfortunate.  Luckily, the film keeps its comedic feel without sacrificing the poignancy and the message of the original play.  After all, garden gnomes may die, but they can be put back together.  Like a classic tale, they are permanent and enduring.

Like most modern retellings of Romeo and Juliet, the message of this film is that love is better than hate – particularly unjustified, petty feuds – and that hatred causes much more collateral damage than anyone realises (the humans in this film find that out quite literally in the final moments of the film).  The film reinforces this message for children in their formative years (along with dancing lawn ornaments) and reminds adults just how petty our differences often are.  After all, if even our lawn ornaments hate each other, things have gone too far indeed.

Also, this film has a stellar voice-cast who are well-aware of how much fun this film is supposed to be, and the music is danceable without being corny.  This isn’t a movie that kids are going to be singing ballads from, but it is one they are going to laugh at. So will their parents – but must importantly, so will any adults with enough humility and wonder to watch garden gnomes remind us of how important love is.

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Early Middle Ages Done Well

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Llywelyn, Morgan. (2013). After Rome: A Novel of Celtic Britain. New York : Tom Doherty Associates. 332 pgs.

Set in the fifth century AD in the immediate aftermath of the Romans leaving Britannia, Morgan Llywelyn’s After Rome is as much a post-apocalyptic novel as it is historical fiction.  The reader is faced with barren landscapes, empty cities, and a power vacuum made worse by invading Saxons.  Her main characters, brothers Cadogan and Dinas, are polar opposites who each find their own way to carve out identities for themselves in the new Britain, and each believe that they have their homeland’s best interests at heart.  This is a story of family, faith, and resilience as well as one of adventure and fear.  After Rome explores an often-neglected period in British history and brings it to life.  Recommended for ages 15 and up.

Longer Review:

Much as Mike Mullin’s Sunrise explores life in post-apocalyptic America, Morgan Llywelyn’s After Rome takes a non-fictional post-apocalypse and brings us a tale of two brothers at a time when Britain was at a crossroads.  Due to the way history has played out, it is easy to forget how frightening and hopeless life seemed in Britannia after the Roman legions left in the early 400s.  Once it became clear that they had abandoned this outlying province, other Romans also began to leave, and soon the bustling cities, towns, and forts were ghost towns.  Rome had a complex bureaucracy that soon began to disintegrate.  After four hundred years of Roman rule, Britannia was a thoroughly Romano-Celt hybrid culture, particularly in the south.  This was not a case of oppressed locals throwing off the yoke of their conquerors.  The people of Britannia were reliant on Roman rule, and without it, much of their institutions were meaningless.  Various groups vyed for power, but none of them could unite the island for centuries to come.

Is it any wonder that legends of King Arthur persisted?

This book explores the early days after Rome left, when some were still convinced that the Romans would return, when vestiges of Roman rule remained and the bureaucrats and magistrates attempted to maintain some link to “civilisation”.  Christianity was the last link that kept much of the Britons together in the face of invading Saxons (who were overwhelmingly pagan) and raiding Scots-Irish (who were a mix of both).  Unlike civil rule, the Church did not rely on legitimacy from Rome, as much as some tried to claim at the time and still try to claim to this day.  Llywelyn portrays an overwhelmingly positive image of faith and religion in this book, much to my relief.  As indicated, Christianity is shown to be one of the major factors that held British society together, albeit far from the only one.

With twenty-first century hindsight, we know that Britannia eventually united into a powerful kingdom that became the envy of the world, became an empire than spanned a fifth of the globe, invented the Industrial Revolution, and contributed many writers, performers, and artists to world culture.  Their language – as yet non-existent at the time of this book’s setting – would become the dominant trade language for at least two hundred years (and counting).

But before all of that glory, Britannia was a backwater province that devolved into many warring factions.  Romano-Celts like the protagonists of this novel, Cadogan & Dinas, would have never dreamed that their culture would merge with that of the Saxons and that their descendants would one day rule an empire stretching from the South Seas to the Americas – all unknown territories then.  It would be another six hundred years before the Norman Conquest solidified a kingdom called England, and another six hundred years before “Great Britain” ever came into existence.  Like a baby needing to learn to walk before he or she becomes a president fifty years later, Britannia took a long time to become what it is remembered as today: a plucky little island that became an empire and managed to devolve its empire much more peaceably than did Rome.

Despite all of its glories, when it did become an empire, it was the name of its backwater province that it took: “Rule, Britannia!” – take that, Rome!  And thanks for all of the help in getting us set up.

For without Rome, there would never have been an ideal of “Britannia” to start with.  After Rome brilliantly captures a time when all seemed hopeless, and yet the seeds of a new empire were already being planted.  Nonetheless, if we had no idea of how British history subsequently went, we would have no idea.  This is, first and foremost, a post-apocalyptic tale.

P.S. – I have not spoken much about the actual plot of this novel in my review. Morgan Llywelyn’s writing style is very poetic and her books are as much about the atmosphere as they about plot. However, suffice to say that the story centres on the two brothers, Cadogan and Dinas, and their two very different reactions to the loss of Roman power.

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Reflections on the 100th Anniversary of the First World War

canadawwiThe first week of August is a busy one.  As far as anniversaries go, the two most defining wars of the twentieth century (or really, the two halves of the same defining war) began and ended at the beginning of August: August 4th marked the beginning of the Western Front of the First World War, with Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, and August 6th & 9th mark the end of the Second World War with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This year, 2014, marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War.  Since the end of June, commemorative ceremonies have taken place and we have been reminded – with good reason – through educational efforts of the causes, effects, and events of the war.  From being reminded of just who Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Black Hand were, to being informed of how the landscape of Europe still bears the scars of the trenches, to being fed propaganda about how the First World War forged Canada as a nation, the legacy of the First World War is being brought before new generations.  It is being recalled the way we are informed of current events and conflicts.  The First World War was the conflict that de-mystified war for the common people and drove home the idea that peace was a better alternative.  It was “the war to end all wars” because it changed the landscape of how wars were fought, physically and psychologically, and it set in motion the growing desire for peace that would change the view of the common person toward war in all subsequent conflicts hence.

In 1914, the declaration of war in Canada (which was automatic when Britain declared war) was met with fanfare and impromptu parades through downtowns – even as it was already evening.  Men clamoured to sign up, even if they were too old or young for the requirements.  This was made painfully obvious at Christmas of 1914 when the daughter of King George V, Princess Mary, organized a Christmas gift for every man serving in the armed forces.  Boys were given a box with candies and a pencil made from shell casings.  This was the alternative gift for non-smokers, but it was also automatic for those under 18.  These boys were considered too young for cigarettes (let alone alcohol), but they were old enough to die en masse in muddy trenches.

In 2014, there was little fanfare anywhere.  Yes, there were songs and marches, but they seemed eerily out of place in what was largely a funeral atmosphere.  Hundreds of thousands of men were killed in the First World War, as well as many more civilians.  It also led directly into the Second World War in which millions more were killed, punctuated by the catastrophe of nuclear warfare thirty-one years after a lucky assassin killed a very unfortunate Archduke.  Since then, further declarations of war have not been met with fanfare, but with resignation and even resistance.  In the twenty-first century, supporters of the military have bumper stickers that plead us to “Support Our Troops!”  They are not even asking us for money, but only recognition as we make our way through the grocery store parking lot.  In 1914, soldiers went to war with the nation behind them.  In 2014, they are largely ignored and vilified – except on solemn occasions such as anniversaries.

But we are also much more aware of the hellish conditions of war, both for the military and for civilians.  Whereas they waited for hours for a wire to come through in Canada from London to announce the declaration of war in 1914, we find out by the minute when war is declared across the globe against countries that barely existed a century ago.

It is hard to support war when, with a click of a button, we can view raw footage from a journalist of carnage amidst civilians getting bombed.  It is one thing to support two armies fighting against each other – muddy trenches included.  It is one thing to support soldiers protecting cities from invading marauders and protecting little girls on their way to school.  It is quite another to support soldiers massacring civilians, terrorizing populations, torturing prisoners, or destroying cities.

We remember the dead from the First World War as names on a monument and those from the Second World War as faded memories or photographs.  Seen in that light, which side they fought on doesn’t really matter anymore.  One name is pretty much the same as another.  One spiffy young soldier in a fresh uniform is no different than the other, especially in black and white.  Ultimately, all war dead were someone’s child.  They had mothers and fathers, families, friends, and usually significant others.  Many of them had otherwise bright futures ahead of them.  They all had things they loved to do, be it sports, vehicles, music, poetry, reading, or just spending time with their loved ones.

That continues today – whenever a soldier is killed in current Canadian conflicts (drawing on my personal experience), there are articles about them.  We find out their hometown, their family, their favourite activities, their favourite type of car or music, and generally what type of positive character traits they possessed.  We find out what led them to the military.  What we don’t usually find out is who shot them, where they were from, whether or not they had any children, and what led them to be in a militia or army or walking up to a vehicle with a bomb strapped to their chest.  Perhaps in a hundred years, we will care about this.  I hope so.

In the past century, we have swung the pendulum from “war is good” to “war in evil”.  It is neither.  It is a part of our heritage since the first humans had a dispute over a dead sheep.  Should we celebrate victories?  Yes, within reason.  Should we celebrate those individuals who put their lives on the line?  Absolutely.  Should we want war to happen?  No.  Should we celebrate the killing – nay, slaughter – of civilians? Absolutely not.

There was a song lyric popular in the United States prior to them joining the war in 1917: “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier, I brought him up to be my pride and joy.  Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder to shoot some other mother’s darling boy?”

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Prehistory Done Wrong

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Armstrong, Luanne. (2013). Morven and the Horse Clan. Winnipeg, MB : Great Plains Teen Fiction. 173 pgs.

Set in the steppes of Kazakhstan in 3500 BC, Morven and the Horse Clan is the story of a teenaged outcast who finds her place among her people.  Morven is from a nomadic tribe that is facing starvation.  Instead of eating the wild horses surrounding their camp, Morven attempts to befriend them.  Her efforts are met with mixed success, particularly as her tribe comes into contact with a settled tribe who attempts to steal her horses for less than honourable intentions.  Morven is met with resistance from her own people, especially as she refuses to conform to the normal womanly pattern of raising babies, as well as from outsiders.  Conflict also arises between the various ways of life of tribes that Morven encounters.  While a universal story about identity and acceptance, Luanne Armstrong has concocted an enthralling fantasy story surrounding the early domestication of the horse.  This book will appeal to lovers of horse stories, prehistoric fiction, fantasy, and survival.  Recommended for ages 11 and up.

Longer Review:

If the title of this post is not revealing enough, I repeat that Luanne Armstrong’s Morven and the Horse Clan is a great deal of fantasy and highly questionable in its portrayal of prehistoric peoples.  While the story is excellent and the character of Morven should be someone that young girls can look up to, the setting and language leave something to be desired.

I really wanted to like this story.  Far too often, literature is set in fantasy worlds and it is refreshing to see a story that is set in a) an actual historical setting and b) a historical era that has not been often explored in books for North American audiences.  Learning about 3500 BC is fascinating – unfortunately, what readers would glean from this story is wrong.  This story might be the first that a reader has encountered of prehistoric Central Asia, and were they to take this story to heart, they would be in for a grave shock later in life when it came to learning about history.

By its very nature, prehistory is murky.  It is called “prehistory” because it pre-dates written history, and because we have ascribed a higher place to written history/evidence to any other kind, we believe that we cannot really know what prehistory was like.  Despite archaeological finds, oral history, linguistic study, DNA analysis, and cultural anthropology, the belief that prehistory is a guessing game is prevalent.

That said, there is something to be said for guessing accurately.  Take the common “guess how many jellybeans are in the jar” game: it is impossible to know exactly how many jellybeans there are in a full jar without opening up the jar to count, but one can make an accurate guess.  To presume that there are only fifty beans in a larger jar would not be accurate.  Rather, one can count how many beans are visible, examine the size of the jar, recall how many beans were in a similar jar at a previous time, multiply, and come up with an accurate guess.

Armstrong, however, has presented a guess of fifty beans.  Her prehistoric Kazakhstan is much more like aboriginal North America (reasonable perhaps, considering the author’s frame of reference) than prehistoric Kazakhstan.  In of itself, this is not inaccurate.  However, her prehistoric Kazakhstan also includes the following: a semi-matriarchal society that does not seem to have a concept of fatherhood; no knowledge of settled groups (while Morven might not have this knowledge, her tribe’s shaman and council reasonably should at this time and place)  despite agriculture, pastoralism, and cities being well-entrenched by 3500 BC; and language that is so pathetically simple and childish that it demeans our ancestors and present-day speakers of primarily spoken languages.

The matriarchy and language are the two issues that struck a nerve with me.  I was enraged as I read the novel.

Truth 1: There has never been a matriarchal past.  Motherhood and fatherhood have been well-understood concepts since well before 3500 BC.  Even in cultures where fathers play little to no role in the upbringing of the children, their fatherhood on a biological level is understood.  Furthermore, family structure in much of Eurasia has always been male-dominant.  (A few instances of matrilocal and matrilineal cultures still do not consist of matriarchy.)  Evidence of high-status females does not equal matriarchy: for example, Queen Victoria ruled over a fifth of the globe despite not being qualified to vote due to her being a woman.  There is no reason to think any different of prehistory.

That Armstrong created a semi-matriarchal society is fine, but it is not an accurate guess.  Central Asia in 3500 BC was home to the ancestors of both the Turkic-Mongols (as implied by  Armstrong) and the Indo-Europeans.  These cultures prized fatherhood.  They worshipped powerful male gods who ruled over female goddesses.  They had a proud patriarchs and a fierce warrior tradition – made more fierce by the introduction of horseback-riding.  They had lines of kings.  These peoples made their way out of the steppes and married their way of life with that of the agricultural groups that they came into contact with, dominating in such a manner that their descendants – physical, linguistic, and cultural – are too numerous to count.

Truth 2: Language in 3500 BC was plenty sophisticated.  All that it lacked were words for things that had not been invented yet.  In this book, I felt like I was watching a foreign film with subtitles.  The dialogue was stilted and simplistic.  I can understand simplistic dialogue for instances when characters were conversing with foreigners, but not when they spoke with fellow members of their tribe.  When, only a few hundred years later, writing came into more use, epic poetry was written down.  The invention of writing did not suddenly spawn these epic poems! Figures of speech, such as metaphors, were already in use.  Morven would have peppered her conversations with fillers (such as um and like).  Depending on how her language was structured, she might have used a lot of modifiers in her sentence.  Looking at the vast library of spoken languages currently, there is no reason to suppose that prehistoric languages would have been any less sophisticated or malleable.  Morven may not have had the word for wheel, but she still spoke the way we would.  In other words, she is not supposed to be a character in a foreign film.

Language is difficult to convey, of course.  Armstrong is writing in English, whereas the language Morven would have spoken might be very little like English, despite being one of its ancestors.  However, Morven should speak normally, since the language that she would be using would be as familiar to her as English would be to most of the readers of this book.  Then it would be a useful contrast when she spoke in a stilted fashion, as it would be clear that she was speaking to foreigners.  The language barrier in this book made it difficult for me to relate to the characters – and I was a teenage outcast like Morven!

In sum, this is not the best book to portray an accurate guess of prehistoric Central Asia for young adults.  However, it is a good read and an excellent story.  I do wonder if the author intends to launch a series, as I was indeed intrigued by the setting and characters.  Prehistoric Kazakhstan – even in fantasy – is a pretty interesting place.

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Romantic Comedy and Tragedy – William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Romeo and Juliet”

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The Taming of the Shrew (1591)
Romantic comedies have not changed much in 425 years. Typical 21st-century rom-com films have silly plots, outrageous circumstances, shallow characters, questionable actions done by the main characters, and fun music to knit it all together.
Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is no different. Obviously, its plot is silly – grown men dressing up as schoolteachers to flirt with a pretty girl, all the while the girl’s sister is “tamed” by a drunken lout of a husband. Outrageous circumstances – see previous sentence. This arrangement was by no means typical of the Elizabethan era, but rather was just as weird as, say, a woman writing a column about how to lose a guy in ten days falling in love with a man writing a column about how to win a girl in ten days. All the audience would be anxious to see would be which suitor managed to marry Bianca, and whether or not Petruchio would succeed in getting his way with his new wife. How they did so was just window-dressing.
Furthermore, the characters are shallow enough – either interested in money or lust or power. The questionable actions are primarily those done by Petruchio, at least to modern audiences – his abuse of Katherine would probably not be very funny to an audience member affected by domestic abuse. However, to contemporary audiences, it was funny (and is funny) not because abusing one’s wife was tolerable, but because Katherine used her willfulness to wield power (by terror) over her family. Petruchio was breaking her hold over him, showing her how others saw her and that he was not going to be terrorized by her. The one difference between Shakespeare’s era and ours is that at that time, the “natural order” assumed that a man had power over his wife. He was not supposed to wield power by terror, but by love. By the end of the play, Petruchio and Katherine both have their honour restored and have tamed each other. By willing to submit to her husband’s love, Katherine earned her husband’s real love and respect.
All knitting the whole play together is fun music. Shakespeare often included music, song, and dance in his plays. They were open to interpretation – sometimes he included lyrics, but often the stage direction was something on the order of “play music here”, “now X sings a song”, “X does something funny” [and the perennial favourite from The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”], etc. In other words, Shakespeare left it open for future versions of the play to decide what worked best for the mood of the story. What type of music? Which song? What, exactly, is something funny? What is going to get the audience in the right mood for the next scene? What is going to make them laugh?
Updating Shakespeare is a controversial topic, but updating the style of music is usually well-received. If you want the audience to laugh and sing along, dancing in their seats and leaving the theatre in an upbeat mood (even if they dislike how domestic abuse is portrayed in the play), you had better choose music that is relatable. Shakespeare would have approved.

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Romeo and Juliet (1593)

In order to have not heard of Romeo and Juliet while living in North America, one often has to be under the age of ten. It is a very clichéd story and endlessly referenced in other works, as well as being a staple in high school curriculums. It is referenced so often, in fact, that one can be forgiven for not wanting to see the play staged professionally. However, when done right, Romeo and Juliet can be as intense, moving, tragic, and even comic as any play that one is seeing for the first time. It is a great story and very well-written by Shakespeare. Furthermore, slight tweaks to it by individual troupes can make new angles on the story more apparent.
First of all, this play has a whole different interpretation when one views it as an adult. It is much harder to sympathize with the rash, idealistic Romeo and Juliet. Rather, it is easier to understand the motivations behind the adult characters (the Capulets wanting what was best for their daughter, for example) and easier to see how avoidable the outcome of the play truly is. If only Romeo had ran off with his friends from the party, he would not have had time to talk with Juliet. Even if most of the “what-ifs” depend on Romeo and Juliet revealing their secret marriage, the biggest plot hole is why Friar Lawrence decided to concoct a plan to pass Juliet off for dead when he could have simply spirited her away to Mantua to be with the exiled Romeo.
Yet, the inevitability of the plot is also apparent: if the lovers did not die, and if several other characters did not die, the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets would not have ended. In other words, what was necessary to end the fighting was a lot of people being killed. Sadly, there was no other way. It is easy to look back at events and find what went wrong, or where a crucial decision was made that led directly to an outcome. But mistakes are just that – mistakes. Tragedies are just that – tragedies. We may be able to learn from them, but just as often, all we learn is that we ought to treasure our time alive and with our loved ones.
What happened to the remaining characters in Romeo and Juliet after the play ended? Did they truly mend fences? Did they become friends, or did they remain content to simply no longer be enemies? Did Romeo’s father, now a childless widower, find a new wife? Did Juliet’s mother also kill herself, and did the Nurse find new employment? Or did Juliet’s parents miraculously have another child, seeing as her mother was likely barely thirty years old? There are countless theories and countless storylines that could be drawn out of this tragedy because people have to go on living.
What Romeo and Juliet unfortunately does give us is the false sense that death has to be meaningful. Romeo and Juliet kill themselves in each other’s arms (although they don’t realise the repercussions that it will have) and it results in their families’ reconciling. We would best remember instead Mercutio and Tybalt, who died for absolutely nothing other than being very hot-headed. Later, their deaths added to the magnitude of the tragedy and factored into the decision to end the feud, but at the time, they were simply senseless.
Death is only as meaningful as one makes it. Perhaps the dead of a loved one prompts someone to reach out to others in the community. Perhaps the loss of a friend makes one more aware of one’s surroundings. Perhaps one experiences spiritual growth. Perhaps all three outcomes. But the death itself is meaningless, senseless, and tragic – no matter how much good it does. Also, it may have been avoidable, but it was not, and no amount of blame will erase any pain associated with a tragic loss.

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Post-Apocalypse Done Right

Sunrise (2014)

Mullin, Mike. (2014). Sunrise. Terre Haute, IN : Tanglewood Press. 466 pgs. [3rd in the Ashfall trilogy]

The final installment of Mike Mullin’s Ashfall trilogy is by far the most gruesome and most chronologically-long of the story, but it is also the most optimistic. Sunrise continues the story of Alex, Darla, and their family, friends, and neighbours in the aftermath of a Yellowstone volcanic eruption. Picking up from the previous story, it has been nearly a year since the catastrophe and the town of Warren is at war for its survival with the town of Stockton. Spanning the next three years, Alex grows into a man and despite his youth, he finds himself the leader of a new community that struggles to establish itself and survive amidst famine, yearlong winter, and anarchy. Themes of hope, love, community, and leadership are prevalent. Despite plenty of gore and violence, this book is a testament to the author’s faith in humanity’s goodness. It is written with young adult readers in mind, but this trilogy is fascinating for older audiences as well. Recommended for ages 13 and older.

 

Longer Review:

In a post-apocalyptic story, there is a delicate balance of shock and hope. Some stories keep the hope to a minimum and prefer to dwell on the shock-worthy elements: the disaster, violence, anarchy, devastation, and despair that accompanies any major unsettling event – be it war, earthquake, volcano, or power outage. The story can be as pessimistic or as optimistic as the author wants or believes. However, too much focus on destruction can be off-putting for the reader, while too much focus on hope and rebuilding can lead to accusations of not taking the story seriously enough.

It is a common myth that humans will resort to animalistic violence in the face of disaster. Evidence from the real world is far to the contrary: in natural disasters, neighbours help each other, even to their own detriment in some cases; in war, the usual reason for treating fellow humans inhumanely lies in mistrust and propaganda. As long as we recognise the humanity in our fellow human being, we are far more likely to want to help them, not hurt them.

Luckily, Mike Mullin explores both sides of this myth in Sunrise (as well as in the previous books in the trilogy). The majority of the characters work together for their common survival, even as they argue on the details, or they work to save their own group at the expense of another – albeit generally with the “noble” goal of sacrificing a few for the benefit of the many. Meanwhile, some individuals take power into their own hands and attempt to survive by using fear and oppression. These rogue individuals cause a lot of damage and sorrow, but they turn out to be just that – rogues.

Alex finds himself the leader of what is at first a small group consisting of his family as they build a new, secure, self-sufficient outpost. The town of Warren abandons them at the insistence of their deluded mayor, who dreams of a mythic rescue from the American government. Alex’s own mother prefers the mayor’s fantasy to her son’s reality. I was reminded of how the outlying provinces of the Roman Empire felt as the legions retreated in the face of foreign invaders. Most certainly, they dreamed of a Roman rescue long after such a possibility no longer existed. Mullin has created a realistic scenario wherein the United States has abandoned its Midwestern heartland to its fate (we never find out why, but readers are free to dream up as many disastrous scenarios as they want).

Alex and Darla’s outpost soon grows as more survivors hear of it. They face invasion, scavenge for supplies behind enemy lines, and seek to make contact with other outposts. As well, they face the usual pioneering struggles to feed themselves, secure their homes, and sort out their individual differences. In some ways, this book rushes through long stretches of time in favour of devoting most of the plot to adventures and battles. It could have spent more time on the psychological toll that building the community took on the survivors. However, even as an adult, I certainly grasped the seriousness of the situation and all of the “adventures and battles” are treated with utmost respect. They are violent not for violence’s sake, but because they would be in life.

Some reviews of this novel raise the question of how Alex could be respected as a leader by adults over twice or thrice his age. This issue is raised within the novel itself, both by adults and by Alex himself. However, when a person exhibits the ability to lead, to look after others, to organize, and takes responsibility for consequences, it does not matter how old they are – they have the air of authority about them. These qualities command respect. Furthermore, in a world thrown into chaos, experience has less weight than it otherwise would. Alex is no less familiar with the post-apocalyptic world than the mayor, and unlike the latter, he lacks the hubris and false reassurance of age.

Nonetheless, this story is not about one young man’s rise to power, but about how a community rises from the ashes. The people hold on to their old values – still pledging allegiance to the vanished United States of America – but they adapt them for their current circumstances. They resolve their differences. They become self-sufficient rather than relying on old items from before the eruption. They carry on with their lives – getting married, having children, building windmills, etc.

Sunrise is exactly that – a brilliant story of how one community might survive, transform, and grow after a disaster. Ultimately, it is about facing a new day, much as teenagers find themselves suddenly faced with the life-altering reality of leaving home and finishing high school. Entering the adult world is no volcanic eruption, but it is a shock nonetheless. Our modern culture has kept young people in the “child” category longer than they should be. A typical teenager goes from living in security with parents to living in a strange environment such as a dormitory or an apartment, having to take charge of their own affairs. Yet, it is also a hopeful time: a young person can discover their strengths, learn to fend for themselves, and forge their own identity, facing the new day as an adult.

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