The Upstairs Room and other pandemic reading

As the novel coronavirus that attacked Earth in 2019 continues into 2021, we’re still staying home a lot of the time and seeing hardly anyone outside our family, and it’s really getting old!  Yes, I was able to write a cheery article about celebrating holidays with just your household, and I mean every word of it.  But as 2020 drew to a close, my mind kept grumbling, “Ja, ja, happy new year.  Again.”  I soon recognized this as a quote from

The Upstairs Room by Johanna Reiss

This memoir of a Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis in occupied Holland is perfect for introducing elementary school children to the knowledge of what happened to Jews during World War II.  I had read it many times when I was about 10 to 15 years old, but not since, so after getting it from the library I read it to myself before reading it to my 6-year-old Lydia.  Nothing really gruesome happens “on camera” in this book, yet it makes quite clear that the author and her family were lucky to survive by going into hiding, as their extended family and neighbors boarded the trains to “camp” and never returned.  The book explains gas chambers and mass graves in a way that tells you this was shocking and tragic and brutal, without making it too frightening to bear–and all around the bits of news about doom and suffering, there are many scenes that show why life is worthwhile even if you have to stay all day every day in the upstairs room.  And there’s a happy ending!

The author, called Annie as a child, was 6 years old when she began to notice that whenever the radio talked about Hitler, her father would say, “Shhht!”  He was not interested in Annie when there was news of Hitler, even though that news made him worried.  Children whose parents have been glued to the pandemic news and/or political news can relate!

By the time Annie was 10, her family had to go into hiding, leaving her terminally ill mother in the hospital.  They were split up, with only Annie and her 20-year-old sister Sini going first to the Hanninks’ house for a few months, then to the Oostervelds’ on January 1, 1943.  There they stayed in the upstairs room–hiding in a secret compartment whenever soldiers searched the house–for two and a half years.  Annie got to go outside, briefly, only twice.  She rarely even got to go downstairs.  Her whole life was in the upstairs room with her sister–and the Oostervelds.  The best thing about this book is the vivid, loving characterization of Johan, his wife Dientje, and his mother Opoe, an ordinary Dutch farm family who knew they just had to do what was right even though they were terrified of the Nazis.  These three quirky characters wrapped Annie and Sini into their family and did the best they could to keep them safe and keep their spirits up.

I read this to Lydia now as another step in her understanding of why diversity and inclusion are important and why we must stand up to bullies instead of letting them take power in the government.  We talked about when in history this happened relative to our ancestors–all of them were in the United States by that time; if they had stayed in Europe, our Jewish ancestors might have been killed by the Nazis, and then we might not exist!  Two of Lydia’s great-grandfathers served in the American military during the war, and if either of them had died in combat, she might not exist!  We are lucky!  And we are lucky that, as we go on wondering when the longest Lent will finally end, at least we can leave our house much more freely than Annie, at least we can look out the windows without worrying about being seen!  Yet we recognize our own feelings in passages like this:

I could hear a car pass.  The person in it must have been dressed for going out.  In a coat.  With a scarf, maybe.  I put my hand on my throat.  I used to wear a scarf in the winter.  Where was it?  Where?  I clenched my fists.

What if I knew where the scarf was?  What would I do with it?  Tell me.  What?

Darker.  I stared at the stove.  It gave off a red glow, the only point of light in the room.  Once in a while a coal dropped.  Thud.

Little Plum by Rumer Godden

This story of living in parallel with a very different House Next Door was my absolute favorite after I got it in my school book-order in second grade.  I hadn’t read it since I was about 12 and thought I barely remembered it, but as the story unfolded I remembered more and more.

Belinda and her cousin Nona live with Belinda’s parents and older siblings, next door to a house that’s been vacant a long time.  When it gets renovated, the girls eagerly anticipate that the new neighbors might have children to play with–but the girl who moves in, Gem Tiffany-Jones, is a rich snob who keeps to herself.  It’s too bad because, looking from their windows into hers, they can see that she too has a Japanese doll.  Nona and Belinda take very good care of their three Japanese dolls, who maintain a traditional lifestyle and are eager to help their new neighbor, who looks so cold and neglected….  Belinda hatches a plan to make no-contact deliveries to Gem’s doll, Little Plum.  Gem doesn’t welcome this interference.  But when Belinda’s delivery method gets her into a life-threatening situation, everything changes.

Lydia loved this book so much that as soon as I finished reading it to her, she insisted that her father read it to her.

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been reading to myself:

I’m Fine and Neither Are You by Camille Pagan

This 2019 novel jumps right into the life of an overworked mother in pre-pandemic America.  Penny’s full-time job in university fundraising is her family’s primary source of income, yet she’s also on full-time duty managing her two grade-school kids’ schedules and her household, while her husband Sanjay dawdles along occasionally selling some writing or thinking about getting around to applying for jobs.  Penny is already at the end of her rope when her best friend–affluent, successful lifestyle blogger Jenny–fails to pick up her kid from day camp, and then Penny finds Jenny dead of an overdose on a drug she didn’t know Jenny was even taking.  What else didn’t she know about her best friend?

It’s a great setup for an interesting story of working out one’s own life while solving a mystery.  I got really into the characters and situation, and having characters named Penny and Jenny wasn’t as confusing as it might sound because Penny tells the story in first person.

Unfortunately, the book gives a strong impression that the author carefully reread and polished the first part over and over, maybe to motivate herself to go on, and then ran out of time to give that much attention to the plot climax and resolution.  The characters gradually become less real, more like actors speaking lines in a morality play that bashes you over the head with a self-help lesson: All you have to do is be honest, ask for what you need, believe that “you are enough,” understand that marriage is hard work, refrain from criticizing your husband’s ambitions, overcome your childhood traumas by reaching out in love to the people who hurt you, and quit giving advice.  “Close female friendships are built one secret at a time,” so just accept that you’ll never know what was going on with your friend and that marriage is the truly important relationship that both you and your friend neglected when you were too wrapped up in your friendship, so her death really is a gift to awaken you to how much you need to improve yourself.  Penny’s change of attitude is all Sanjay needs to get his act together!  A getaway vacation is all they need to regain their passion for each other!

Yeah, well, I’d like to talk with Penny in 2021 about how this worked out in the long run.  It does help to ask for what I need, sometimes, but after a decade of working hard on that I’m finding that the biggest impediment to my feeling allowed to ask is that most people feel allowed to say no, and when someone tells me that I can’t have what I need even after I’ve forced myself to ask, I feel so discouraged about asking for the next thing!  I’ve also read a lot of “you are enough” advice for women, and while that is a fine and important message, it is really unconvincing when accompanied by long lists of what you need to do and how you need to change in order to get your needs met!  Sometimes it’s other people who need to change.  And while some people really are like Sanjay, who only needed to have requests spelled out clearly in order to hop right into being a responsible adult, more often people who aren’t pulling their weight have a sense of entitlement about putting their own needs before responsibility to others and are bewildered that you can’t simply start thinking that way and let someone else (who?!?) pick up the slack.  I know at least a dozen overwhelmed mothers struggling with fathers who feel very little obligation to support the family, seem not to hear requests for help until they reach the level of panicked screaming, and believe that just because they agreed to do a thing at a time is no reason to expect that it’ll actually happen on schedule.  If you’re in this situation, don’t read this book.  Maybe reading about how I’m not your role model will help you feel less alone.

Whew, this modern realistic fiction hit too close to home!  Time for some sci-fi….

The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier

Although knowing the author is the reason I read this book, that isn’t the reason I’m recommending it–this is a solid novel of a well-structured dystopian adventure experienced by fully-formed interesting characters.  It’s more like horror than my usual reading, but it was not dreadful enough to give me nightmares.  (Chris Panatier was one of my brother’s best friends from late elementary through middle school, so he was around our house a lot.  I knew he had a great imagination!  I didn’t expect him to start writing fiction while also winning justice for talcum-powder victims.  Cool!)

Willa used to be a phlebotomist, back in the early 21st century before a series of nuclear bombs changed everything.  Now Willa is a reaper processing blood bags for Patriot, the only employer in an automated world where most people’s only source of income is selling their blood.  Lots of blood is needed for transfusions for the poor souls trapped in the Gray Zones devastated by the bombs.  Different blood types have different value, based on the proportion of people able to accept transfusions of that type, so “highbloods” earn more money than “lowbloods”, and everyone’s stratified into blood-type ghettos.  Willa is just struggling along, day to day, raising her orphaned grandson.  Then one day her cooler malfunctions, so Willa responsibly summons a drone to transport the day’s collection to headquarters before it can spoil.  In the process, she spots a shocking clue that starts her down the path of learning what’s really happening on Earth and how to save humanity.

The central, basic concept in what’s really happening is exactly what you’d expect, but the details of how it works are very interesting and so well described that it all hangs together and seems quite real.  The overall air of gradually unraveling an evil plot reminded me of “Doctor Who”, one of my favorite shows, and this book also features women and people of color as strong main characters.  The ending didn’t wrap things up quite as completely as I would have liked, but it’s good enough that I was very satisfied with the book.

Read other writers’ book reviews at Show Us Your Books! and Quick Lit.  Visit Hearth & Soul for great tips on many topics.

6 thoughts on “The Upstairs Room and other pandemic reading

  1. Pingback: Reading My Way into 2021 | The Earthling's Handbook

  2. oooh – the Upstairs Room sounds really good – and I’m right there with you on reading hard books with kids (it’s the perfect way to introduce them to topics, with us right there beside them) – somehow I never read it when I was younger.

    Thanks for the review on the Camille Pagan book – it’s been on my list for a while but I hadn’t picked it up to read (I think I might even have a copy on my kindle already)

  3. What a great selection of books, Becca, definitely some great reading list inspiration! Thank you for sharing and for being a part of the Hearth and Soul Link Party Community. Take care and have a great week!

  4. The Upstairs Room sounds like a wonderful book to introduce a horrible subject. I’ve never read it. I do remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank as a pre-adoelscent and it shook me so.

    • Anne Frank was the first personal experience of the Holocaust I read, too, and I was only about 8 when I pulled it off my parents’ shelf and decided to read it without consulting them. I didn’t know how it would end!! I was really shaken, even though I had been told the general outlines of what Hitler did—it’s different when it happens to someone you’ve come to know through reading her own words! I suppose it was a soul-deepening experience, but a gentler introduction to that genre of story seems healthier.

  5. Pingback: What have kids learned in a year of distance learning? | The Earthling's Handbook

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