Category Archives: Reading the World

Nasreen’s Secret School

 

Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, by Jeanette Winter, is a very moving picture book about the life of a young girl and her family after the Taliban takes over in Afghanistan. She and her family were living happily in one of the ancient cities of Afghanistan when that change happened.

The Taliban changed every part of life in this country and for this little girl. Girls were immediately banned from attending school, and life became very restricted for all women and girls.  “The art and music and learning are gone. Dark clouds hang over the city.”  And then one day her father was taken away, and after days and weeks of worrying about him, her mother left in search of him. Nasreen stayed at home with her grandmother, but didn’t speak after that.

Her grandmother, who narrates this story, was very worried about her. She wanted her to be able to go to school and learn the things that she and Nasreen’s mother had learned when they were young. She heard about a secret school for girls, and took Nasreen there. The girls had to be extremely careful to arrive at the school at different times so that they were not noticed by the soldiers. The neighborhood boys would distract the soldiers when they saw them getting too close to the green gate of the house where the school was held.

At first Nasreen was silent. She didn’t talk with the other girls or her teacher, and her grandmother continued to be very worried. But slowly, she began to make friends with another girl in the class, she began to enjoying her learning, and she began to talk again.

Although a story written for children, this book was eye-opening to me about what life was/is like for the girls and women of Afghanistan under the tyranny of the Taliban.  Jeanette Winter has written numerous picture books about children in other cultures and I’m reading as many of them as I can find.  You might be interested in reading her “Author’s Note” from the ending of this story of Nasreen.

I chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “Wanderlust,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each country of the world. This was a book based on a true story from Afghanistan.

 

A Long Walk to Water

“The fighting was scattered all around southern Sudan, and now the war had come to where Salva lived.”

A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park, is the true story of ll-year-old Salva Dut, a Sudanese boy who became one of 20,000 “Lost Boys” during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005).

A Long Walk to Water begins as two stories, told in alternating sections, about a girl in Sudan in 2008 and a boy in Sudan in 1985. The girl, Nya, is fetching water from a pond that is two hours walk from her home: she makes two trips to the pond every day. The boy, Salva, becomes one of the “lost boys” of Sudan, refugees who cover the African continent on foot as they search for their families and for a safe place to stay. Enduring every hardship from loneliness to attack by armed rebels to contact with killer lions and crocodiles, Salva is a survivor, and his story goes on to intersect with Nya’s in an astonishing and moving way.

Linda Sue Park is one of my favorite authors from my years of teaching Sixth Grade. My students read her book, The Single Shard, when we studied the Pacific Rim countries, and always liked it. So when I was looking for books to read for my “Wanderlust” self-challenge to read more books from or about different countries and cultures of the world, I knew that many of her books would fit well. This one was so well written, and I was captured by the story of this courageous boy.

It is a sobering yet uplifting story to read. The brutality of war is not softened for young readers, but it is also not graphically portrayed. The focus is on the Salva’s courage and his resilience, his leadership and his hope for the future despite severe deprivation and despair.

During Salva’s long walk across the desert to a refugee camp, he finds his uncle who protects and encourages him.  His uncle’s words became his guiding mantra for the rest of his life.

Most of all, he remembered how Uncle had encouraged him in the desert.  One step at a time … one day at a time…Just today—just this day to get through . . .   Salva told himself this every day. He told the boys in the group, too. And one day at a time, the group made its way to Kenya. More than twelve hundred boys arrived safely. It took them a year and a half.

At the end of the book, there is a short piece written by Salva for the readers of this story:

I overcame all the difficult situations of my past because of the hope and perseverance that I had. I would have not made it without these two things. To young people, I would like to say: Stay calm when things are hard or not going right with you. You will get through it when you persevere instead of quitting. Quitting leads to much less happiness in life than perseverance and hope.     ~Salva

I highly recommend this book, and it is definitely one that could be used in the classroom for helping students understand the complex issue of refugees. There is so much hope in this story, with its messages of courage, perseverance, and resilience. And the life that Salva has built since those days in truly inspiring.

You can learn a lot more about both Salva Dut and Linda Sue Park by watching interviews with them, watching a Ted Talks by Salva, and visiting the web site of the life-saving organization he and some friends started: Water For South Sudan. Here are some links that I found very interesting after reading the book.

Salva Dut and Linda Sue Park

I chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “Wanderlust,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each country of the world. This was a book from Sudan and South Sudan.

Waiting for the Biblioburro

Waiting for the Biblioburro, by Monica Brown, is based on a true story from Colombia about the children who live in remote areas and don’t have access to libraries or even school books.

In this picture book story, a young girl, Ana, longs to have books to read but she lives too far away from a library. But one day she hears the clip-clop of a burro approaching. She looks to see who is coming and sees a man leading a burro, and the burro is loaded down with bags of books!

This is a wonderful little book that can start many important conversations in a classroom, and is a sweet read for any of us who simply love books and libraries!

To learn more about Luis Soriano Bohórquez, the man who started the biblioburro, a real-life mobile library, click here.

I chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “Wanderlust,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each country of the world. This was a book that takes place in Colombia.

A Dog of Flanders

A Dog of Flanders, by Ouida, is a classic and timeless story from Belgium and was a special book to read. The language is so beautiful, and the story so heartfelt and heart-wrenching. I had heard of this book before but never read it. I’m so glad I found it as I was looking for books to read for each country in the world.

When old Jehan Daas had reached his full eighty, his daughter had died in the Ardennes, hard by Stavelot, and had left him in legacy her two-year-old son. The old man could ill contrive to support himself, but he took up the additional burden uncomplainingly, and it soon became welcome and precious to him. Little Nello—which was but a pet diminutive for Nicolas—throve with him, and the old man and the little child lived in the poor little hut contentedly. It was a very humble little mud-hut indeed, but it was clean and white as a sea-shell, and stood in a small plot of garden-ground that yielded beans and herbs and pumpkins.

The story is of an very poor old man, Jehan Daas, and his grandson, Nello.  Into their lives comes a dog they find that had been cruelly treated and then abandoned along the roadside. They nurse the dog back to health, and the dog becomes their loyal companion and family member, each one of them needed in the effort to earn enough money to live. Although poor and often hungry, Nello is happy living with his grandfather and his dog, Patrasche.

Nello loves art and loves the great works of Peter Paul Rubens, the great Flemish painter who lived, worked and is buried in Antwerp. His influence is felt everywhere, and inspires Nello to teach himself art.

And the greatness of the mighty Master still rests upon Antwerp, and wherever we turn in its narrow streets his glory lies therein, so that all mean things are thereby transfigured; and as we pace slowly through the winding ways, and by the edge of the stagnant water, and through the noisome courts, his spirit abides with us, and the heroic beauty of his visions is about us, and the stones that once felt his footsteps and bore his shadow seem to arise and speak of him with living voices. For the city which is the tomb of Rubens still lives to us through him, and him alone.

Nello longs to see the two famous Ruben’s paintings in the Cathedral of Our Lady, in Antwerp, but they are kept behind a curtain and are only available to see if you can pay the fee.

As Nello grows older, and his grandfather grows more feeble, the boy and his dog work hard to make a living. Although life is a struggle, Nello teaches himself art and loves all of nature around him, so he is a happy person.  But life takes a cruel turn for this little family, and Nello and his devoted dog do the best they can to deal with it all.

I did love this little story. The dog is such a wonderful character, and the author lets us know what the dog is thinking and why he does some of the things he does. Nello is a gentle, sweet character, full of good cheer, talent, and hope… He is almost too good for this world.

A statue of Nello and Patrasche in Hoboken, Belgium.

I chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “Wanderlust,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each country of the world. This was a classic from Belgium.

Wanderlust

When I was 17 years old, I spent a year in Argentina as an exchange student, and after that experience I always considered myself a “Citizen of the World,” not just a citizen of my own country. But I’ll admit it:  I’m more of an armchair traveler than a real traveler, although I would love to visit many different far off places!  Books have always encouraged and mostly satisfied my wanderlust, so I will continue to read books from other countries and cultures.

There are many booklists online about books from countries around the world, and many blogging friends have put together challenges to encourage a broader range of reading. I love putting together lists, so I thought I would build this post with a list of the countries of the world so that when I read a book from or about that country, I can log it here. It’s the journey that calls to me, not the finish line.

I will read as many books in translation as possible. There are also many books for young people that provide wonderful stories and information about other cultures/countries, so I look forward to reading some of those, as well.  Since I’m starting in 2019, I will include books I’ve already read this year that qualify for this self-challenge and will provide links to my reviews.

It is important to me, as a “citizen of the world,” that I broaden my reading journey even more during this time of increasing nationalism. I truly believe the motto of the American Field Service (now known as AFS Intercultural Programs):

“Walk Together, Talk Together, 
O ye peoples of the Earth,
For then, and only then,
Shall ye have peace.”

  1. AFGHANISTAN:  Nasreen’s Secret School, by Jeanette Winter
  2. ALBANIA
  3. ALGERIA
  4. ANDORRA
  5. ANGOLA
  6. ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA
  7. ARGENTINA
  8. ARMENIA
  9. AUSTRALIA
  10. AUSTRIA
  11. AZERBAIJAN
  12. THE BAHAMAS
  13. BAHRAIN
  14. BANGLADESH
  15. BARBADOS
  16. BELARUS
  17. BELGIUM:  A Dog of Flanders, by Ouida
  18. BELIZE
  19. BENIN
  20. BHUTAN
  21. BOLIVIA
  22. BOSNIA and HERZEGOVINA
  23. BOTSWANA
  24. BRAZIL
  25. BRUNEI
  26. BULGARIA
  27. BURKINA FASO
  28. BURUNDI
  29. CABO VERDE
  30. CAMBODIA
  31. CAMEROON
  32. CANADA:  The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables, by Catherine Reid
  33. CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
  34. CHAD
  35. CHILE
  36. CHINA
  37. COLOMBIA:  Waiting for the Biblioburro, by Monica Brown
  38. COMOROS
  39. CONGO, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF
  40. CONGO, REPUBLIC OF THE
  41. COSTA RICA
  42. COTE D’IVOIRE
  43. CROATIA
  44. CUBA:  Island Treasures: Growing Up in Cuba, by Alma Flor Ada
  45. CYPRUS
  46. CZECH REPUBLIC
  47. DENMARK
  48. DJIBOUTI
  49. DOMINICA
  50. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
  51. EAST TIMOR (TIMOR-LESTE)
  52. ECUADOR
  53. EGYPT
  54. EL SALVADOR
  55. EQUATORIAL GUINEA
  56. ERITREA
  57. ESTONIA
  58. ESWATINI
  59. ETHIOPIA
  60. FIJI
  61. FINLAND
  62. FRANCE
  63. GABON
  64. THE GAMBIA
  65. GEORGIA
  66. GERMANY
  67. GHANA:  Emmanuel’s Dream, The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, by Laurie Ann Thompson
  68. GREECE
  69. GRENADA
  70. GUATEMALA
  71. GUINEA
  72. GUINEA-BISSAU
  73. GUYANA
  74. HAITI
  75. HONDURUS
  76. HUNGARY
  77. ICELAND
  78. INDIA
  79. INDONESIA
  80. IRAN
  81. IRAQ
  82. IRELAND
  83. ISRAEL
  84. ITALY
  85. JAMAICA
  86. JAPAN:  Sweet Bean Paste, by Durian Sukegawa
  87. JORDAN
  88. KAZAKHSTAN
  89. KENYA
  90. KIRIBATI
  91. KOREA, NORTH
  92. KOREA, SOUTH
  93. KOSOVO
  94. KUWAIT
  95. KYRGYSTAN
  96. LAOS
  97. LATVIA
  98. LEBANON
  99. LESOTHO
  100. LIBERIA
  101. LIBYA
  102. Liechtenstein
  103. Lithuania
  104. Luxembourg
  105. Madagascar
  106. Malawi
  107. Malaysia
  108. Maldives
  109. Mali
  110. Malta
  111. Marshall Islands
  112. Mauritania
  113. Mauritius
  114. Mexico
  115. Micronesia, Federated States of
  116. Moldova
  117. Monaco
  118. Mongolia
  119. Montenegro
  120. Morocco
  121. Mozambique
  122. Myanmar (Burma)
  123. Namibia
  124. Nauru
  125. Nepal
  126. Netherlands
  127. New Zealand
  128. Nicaragua
  129. Niger
  130. Nigeria
  131. North Macedonia
  132. Norway
  133. Oman
  134. Pakistan
  135. Palau
  136. Panama
  137. Papua New Guinea
  138. Paraguay
  139. Peru
  140. Philippines
  141. Poland
  142. Portugal
  143. Qatar
  144. Romania
  145. Russia
  146. Rwanda
  147. Saint Kitts and Nevis
  148. Saint Lucia
  149. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  150. Samoa
  151. San Marino
  152. Sao Tome and Principe
  153. Saudi Arabia
  154. Senegal
  155. SERBIA
  156. SEYCHELLES
  157. SIERRA LEONE
  158. SINGAPORE
  159. SLOVAKIA
  160. SLOVENIA
  161. SOLOMON ISLANDS
  162. SOMALIA
  163. SOUTH AFRICA
  164. SPAIN
  165. SRI LANKA
  166. SUDAN
  167. SUDAN, SOUTH:  A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park
  168. SURINAME
  169. SWEDEN
  170. SWITZERLAND
  171. SYRIA
  172. TAIWAN
  173. TAJIKISTAN
  174. TANZANIA
  175. THAILAND
  176. TOGO
  177. TONGA
  178. TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
  179. TUNISIA
  180. TURKEY
  181. TURKMENISTAN
  182. TUVALU
  183. UGANDA
  184. UKRAINE
  185. UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
  186. UNITED KINGDOM:  Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee  **  The Lost Garden, by Helen Humphreys
  187. UNITED STATES:  The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett  **  The Red Pony, by John Steinbeck
  188. URUGUAY
  189. UZBEKISTAN
  190. VANUATU
  191. VATICAN CITY
  192. VENEZUELA
  193. VIETNAM
  194. YEMEN
  195. ZAMBIA
  196. ZIMBABWE

The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables

This beautiful book called to me from the library shelf just recently. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading it and am sad to have to return it soon. The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables, by Catherine Reid, is the story of the author, L.M. Montgomery, and her beloved fictional character, Anne Shirley. It is an exploration of place, creativity, and the inspiration of the natural world. I love reading books about authors, especially authors of favorite books, and this one was lovely. The place where L.M. Montgomery lived, Prince Edward Island, shaped and inspired the author in her own life and became central to her writing and to the life she created for her character, Anne.

In the journals she kept throughout her life, Maud Montgomery reveals so many similar experiences to those of Anne Shirley that much of the novel appears to be autobiographical.

I didn’t know that much about L.M. Montgomery, so it was very interesting to learn about her life. The photographs of Prince Edward Island were beautiful. That beauty was a driving force in Montgomery’s life and work.

What we do know of Anne is that her goal is to create something beautiful, something memorable, as she says in Anne of Avonlea, “I’d like to add some beauty to life.”

For Maud Montgomery, writing was all those things and more, as necessary as sleeping or eating, providing her the moments when she was most alive and happy. Through writing, she brought together her fertile imagination, her love of beauty, and her reverence for the natural world.

“Oh, as long as we can work we can make life beautiful.”

…photo from blackberryrambles.blogspot.com

It was lovely out this evening. I went up over the hill in the clear pure November air and walked about until twilight had deepened into a moonlit autumn night. I was alone but not lonely. Thought was quick and vivid, imagination active and bright. . . . Then I came in, still tingling with the strange, wild, sweet life of the spirit, and wrote a chapter of my new serial—wrote it easily and pleasureably, with no flagging or halting. Oh, it is good to feel well and vivid and interesting and all alive! ~ from THE SELECTED JOURNALS OF L. M. MONTGOMERY, VOL. 1

Learning more about the life and work of L.M. Montgomery made me want to visit Prince Edward Island and experience that beauty and inspiration firsthand. It also made me want to read and re-read all her works. Somehow I missed reading the Anne of Green Gables books when I was growing up. My Mom and I discussed that at one point and couldn’t figure out how we missed those wonderful books! What a lovely summer project it would be to read/re-read them all, one after the other!

If you love Anne Shirley, this book about Maud and Anne and Prince Edward Island is a must!

 

I chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “Wanderlust,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each country of the world. This was a book from Canada.

Cider With Rosie

Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee, is a memoir that captures beautifully a time and place. Laurie Lee was a poet, and this memoir (the first of a trilogy of memoirs) was poetic and lyrical and beautiful to read. I also had the pleasure of listening to the audiobook of Laurie Lee himself reading this first volume. For me, it was a very moving experience. His old voice was filled with emotion and nostalgia. As he read, I thought of my grandparents and of my father … the stories Laurie Lee told were familiar and in some ways similar to stories my elders told me as I was growing up. My father, too, grew up in a small village in a small valley. He, too, told stories filled with nostalgia, and his descriptions of the valley and the stories of his childhood became part of me. So I loved this little book and look forward to reading the next two memoirs.

Below are two samples of his storytelling, and examples of why I loved this book.

A brief snippet from one chapter that told wonderful stories about two old ladies in the village, their lives and deaths completely intertwined…

“Me dad planted that tree,’ she said absently, pointing out through the old cracked window.
The great beech filled at least half the sky and shook shadows all over the house.
Its roots clutched the slope like a giant hand, holding the hill in place. Its trunk writhed with power, threw off veils of green dust, rose towering into the air, branched into a thousand shaded alleys, became a city for owls and squirrels. I had thought such trees to be as old as the earth, I never dreamed that a man could make them. Yet it was Granny Trill’s dad who had planted this tree, had thrust in the seed with his finger. How old must he have been to leave such a mark? Think of Granny’s age, and add his on top, and you were back at the beginning of the world.”

A description of his mother’s garden…

“Our terraced strip of garden was Mother’s monument, and she worked it headstrong, without plan. She would never control or clear this ground, merely cherish whatever was there; and she was as impartial in her encouragement to all that grew as a spell of sweet sunny weather. She would force nothing, graft nothing, nor set things in rows; she welcomed self-seeders, let each have its head, and was the enemy of very few weeds. Consequently our garden was a sprouting jungle and never an inch was wasted.”

 

 

 

 

I read this book as one of my 50-books-in-5-years for The Classics Club. It was also on my list for my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge. And I chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “Wanderlust“– to read books from each country of the world. This was a classic from United Kingdom.

The Lost Garden

The Lost Garden, by Helen Humphreys, has been sitting on my book shelf for years. I love the cover, have looked at it many times just sitting there waiting for me, but it certainly took me a long time to get to the book. I don’t know why because I’ve liked every book I’ve read by this author! And this one did not disappoint me.

It is a wartime story, a story of sadness, loss, renewal, and the healing power of gardening. It was beautifully written, very poetic, as is every book Helen Humphreys writes.

from the publisher:

This word-perfect, heartbreaking novel is set in early 1941 in Britain when the war seems endless and, perhaps, hopeless. London is on fire from the Blitz, and a young woman gardener named Gwen Davis flees from the burning city for the Devon countryside. She has volunteered for the Land Army, and is to be in charge of a group of young girls who will be trained to plant food crops on an old country estate where the gardens have fallen into ruin. Also on the estate, waiting to be posted, is a regiment of Canadian soldiers. For three months, the young women and men will form attachments, living in a temporary rural escape. No one will be more changed by the stay than Gwen. She will inspire the girls to restore the estate gardens, fall in love with a soldier, find her first deep friendship, and bring a lost garden, created for a great love, back to life. While doing so, she will finally come to know herself and a life worth living.

Shortly after arriving on the estate, Gwen found a secret, long-neglected garden. It became her refuge, a place of solitude, a place where she could process the losses in her life and her hopes and dreams. As she slowly began to restore the garden to its original state, it became clear that it was a garden of love, designed for someone deeply loved.

What I’ve always found interesting in gardens is looking at what people choose to plant there. What they put in. What they leave out. One small choice and then another, and soon there is a mood, an atmosphere, a series of limitations, a world. I would not have chosen the same plants as the anonymous gardener if I were planting a garden of love, but there are some flowers we have in common. Peonies for loss. I too would choose the breaking wave of peonies for loss.

Although this is primarily a story about the healing power of gardens and coming to terms with loss, it is also filled with ruminations on writing, which I found fascinating.

When a writer writes, it’s as if she holds the sides of her chest apart, exposes her beating heart. And even though everything wants to heal, to close over and protect the heart, the writer must keep it bare, exposed. And in doing this, all of life is kept back, all the petty demands of the day-to-day. The heart is a river. The act of writing is the moving water that holds the banks apart, keeps the muscle of words flexing so that the reader can be carried along by this movement. To be given space and the chance to leave one’s earthly world. Is there any greater freedom than this?

This is a very interesting multilayered book which contains so much emotion and growth. I will certainly read it again.

 

 

 

I’m so glad I finally read this book for my 2019 TBR List challenge. I also chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “Wanderlust,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each country of the world. This was a book from United Kingdom.

The Red Pony

The Red Pony, by John Steinbeck, is a novella in four stories about a young boy growing up on a ranch near Salinas, California. The boy, ten-year-old Jody Tiflin, lives with his father, a strict and harsh disciplinarian, and his mother, who is strong and understanding, and one ranch hand, Billy Buck.  All of them work hard to make a living from the ranch.  It is good, honest work, and they are good people, but life is harsh.

Although just a young adolescent, Jody has to grow up quickly. He has to carry his own weight in terms of chores and help on the ranch, and he is constantly learning. In the first story, he is given a beautiful red pony and it is his responsibility to care for her and keep her well and safe. He relies on Billy Buck to guide him and teach him everything he needs to know about his pony. One day, when Jody has to be in school all day, Billy Buck tells him that he can let the horse stay out in the field for the day. Jody questions him about the weather because the pony shouldn’t be outside in the rain. Billy reassures him that it won’t rain. Unfortunately, it does rain and after spending most of the day outside in the elements, the horse gets sick.

Jody must face life’s challenges head on, but he is resilient, imaginative, and still very much a young boy (collecting frogs on his way home from school and putting them in his lunchbox, to the dismay of his mother). When his grandfather comes to visit, his imagination is captured by the stories he tells Jody of leading a wagon train westward.

Jody lay in his bed and thought of the impossible world of Indians and buffaloes, a world that had ceased to be forever. He wished he could have been living in the heroic time, but he knew he was not of heroic timber. No one living now, save possibly Billy Buck, was worthy to do the things that had been done. A race of giants had lived then, fearless men, men of a staunchness unknown in this day. Jody thought of the wide plains and of the wagons moving across like centipedes. He thought of Grandfather on a huge white horse, marshaling the people. Across his mind marched the great phantoms, and they marched off the earth and they were gone.

Although I read this book a long time ago, this re-read was like reading it for the first time. I remembered that it was sad, and that it wasn’t a children’s story. But I hadn’t remembered how beautifully written it was, and that John Steinbeck was an extraordinary storyteller. I must revisit more of his books!

 

I read this book as part of my year-long celebration of turning 70 years old. The movie version of this book was released in 1949, my birth year.

 

 

I also read this book as one of my 50-books-in-5-years for The Classics Club.

Sweet Bean Paste

People’s lives never stay the same colour forever. There are times when the colour of life changes completely.

Sweet Bean Paste, by Durian Sukegawa, is a story of friendship and renewal.  It is set in modern-day Japan, and focuses on some cultural changes that are just happening within the last twenty-five years or so.

from the publisher, Oneworld:

Sentaro has failed. He has a criminal record, drinks too much, and his dream of becoming a writer is just a distant memory. With only the blossoming of the cherry trees to mark the passing of time, he spends his days in a tiny confectionery shop selling dorayaki, a type of pancake filled with sweet bean paste.

But everything is about to change.

Into his life comes Tokue, an elderly woman with disfigured hands and a troubled past. Tokue makes the best sweet bean paste Sentaro has ever tasted. She begins to teach him her craft, but as their friendship flourishes, social pressures become impossible to escape and Tokue’s dark secret is revealed.

Sentaro begins to learn from Tokue how to make the wonderful sweet bean paste, and he learns so much more than that from her! She has a wonderful outlook on life, but is mysterious about her past.

It turns out that Tokue had leprosy as a child. She had been cured more than 40 years ago, but because of the cultural stigma and harsh laws against lepers, she lived all her life in a sanitarium, isolated from the rest of society. In 1996, Japan changed the laws about lepers, and she was given her “freedom” from the confines of the leper community. Sadly, there was no family left and no place for her out in the world, so she and many of the other residents simply stayed at the sanitarium.

In a culture that defines a person’s success as what one can contribute to society, she and the other former lepers were denied that personal identity and meaning. But Tokue was able to find an elemental freedom in her imposed isolation from society, and found deep personal meaning in the language of nature. She taught Sentaro that life is so much more than what society dictates, and that every single thing that lives on earth contributes in their own way.

One thing I can do in Tenshoen is sniff the wind and listen to the murmur of the trees. I pay attention to the language of things in this world that don’t use words. That’s what I call Listening, and I’ve been doing it for sixty years now.

It’s my belief that everything in this world has its own language. We have the ability to open up our ears and minds to anything and everything. That could be someone walking down the street, or it could be the sunshine or the wind.

Anyone is capable of making a positive contribution to the world through simple observation, irrespective of circumstance. This is the idea that Tokue expresses when she writes in her letter, ‘We were born in order to see and listen to the world.’ It’s a powerful notion, with the potential to subtly reshape our view of everything.

from Booklist:

‘Although Tokue’s past is a reflection of a dark chapter of Japanese history, her wisdom, patience, and kindness shape this touching and occasionally wistful novel. Through Tokue’s story, Sukegawa eloquently explores the seeds of biases and challenges us to truly listen to the natural world and the messages it artfully hides.’

This was really a lovely, positive book to read. There is also a movie that was made of the book, and it stayed very true to the story. It is available on DVD as “Sweet Bean,” and was beautifully filmed.


This book was on my list of choices for the Japanese Literature Challenge.