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Books in Brief: What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper; Champion, the Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree by Sally M. Walker


What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper; Knopf Books for Young Readers, 272 pages ($19.99) Ages 12 and up.


This powerful debut novel, beautifully illustrated by the author in somber shades of brown, tells the story of a young Holocaust survivor, a gifted singer who finds herself alone in the world at 17, forced to rebuild her life and find her place in the world. The novel opens with Gerta Rausch lying in a freezing bunk with a dying woman at Bergen-Belsen as Allied soldiers arrive on April 15, 1945, to liberate the camp. It then shifts back to 14-year-old Gerta happily preparing for her concert stage debut, unaware that she and her musician-father are Jewish and living on borrowed time under a false name in Nazi Germany. Gerta and her father are sent first to Thieresienstadt and then to Auschwitz, where her father’s viola helps spare Gerta from the ovens.  But she seems to have lost her voice, the lovely mezzosoprano that once had seemed to be her identity, her future.

Stamper is as gifted a writer as she is an artist: As a member of the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz, Gerta watches new arrivals being sorted: “They become two rivers, one flowing right, to the shave-tattoo-uniform, one flowing left, to the chimney, evaporating into the air we breathe, raining into the mud we walk in.”

Stemper paints a vivid picture of the displaced persons camp, the limbo-like existence of survivors who have lost everyone and have no place to go. Here Gerta meets Lev, a devout Jew also both scarred by the camps and left an orphan by the Holocaust. Slowly she learns about Judaism, experiencing for the first time the mikvah or ritual bath, and finds herself uncovering hazy memories from earliest childhood of her mother. In the wake of unspeakable evil and unbearable loss, there is hope: there are weddings, with one bride after another wearing a gown made from a parachute.

The evocative ink wash illustrations add another dimension to this already remarkable book, whether it be a still life of the cozy Wurzberg apartment the family has to flee, with teacups on a table, a candle just extinguished, portraits on the wall or a mysterious dark grove of trees, a concert gown billowing from a hanger.  Stemper offers an illuminating author’s note at the end, about how she came to write the book, including her own personal experience of having to find a new path after a serious car accident left her unable to continue a career as a musician.

Champion: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut by Sally M. Walker, Henry Holt, 97 pages ($17.99).
This fascinating book about the death and comeback of the American Chestnut comes from the award-winning author of other excellent nonfiction for young readers: "Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917," "Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley" and picture book,  "Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh."
The book is amply illustrated with wonderful photographs of these majestic trees including one on the back cover from the archives of Great Smoky Mountain National Park of several women dwarfed by a towering tree. Walker draws a vivid picture of the important role played by these forest giants, which grew up to 100 feet tall and were anywhere from 15 feet to 34 feet around. The nuts were a valuable food source for humans and forest creatures; the trees were prized for their shade, the durable lumber with its high levels of tannin was valued for fences and rail ties. Then blight struck at the start of the 20th century eventually wiping out 4 billion trees. Readers who already have an interest in science will may interested in the exhaustive scientific detective work that has gone into figuring out a way to bring back these trees, taking the reader into the labs where scientists experiment with the blight fungus, including innoculating trees with weak strains of the fungus and crossbreeding American trees with Chinese and Japanese chestnut trees to develop trees with blight-resistant genes and the straight trunk of the American tree. Interesting notes at the end include one on an experiment examining how restoration of the American Chestnut might affect animal life in forests and  "Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree" pointing out that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem memorializes a horse chestnut, not an American chestnut.
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